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Parshas Tazria (5774)

“Oneg"s and Anagrams

An anagram is a type of word play, the result of rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters exactly once; e.g., orchestra = carthorse, A decimal point = I'm a dot in place. Of course, all anagrams in the English (or any other man-made) language are totally arbitrary, as they were never intended to be anagrams, but are mere random occurrences.

When they do occur, though, anagrams can be quite humorous and even insightful. For example, I once heard a wise rabbi say that in a marriage, the difference between united and untied (an anagram) is where you put the “I”.

Here are some of my favorite funny word and phrase anagrams:

Dormitory = dirty room; astronomer = moon starer; desperation = a rope ends it; the morse code = here come dots; slot machines = cash lost in me; election results = lies - let's recount; snooze alarms = alas! no more z 's; William Shakespeare = am I a weakish speller; Adolf Hitler = heil fat lord; United States of America = Dine out, taste a Mac, fries; President Barack Hussein Obama = He's boss in a bankrupted America.

Truth be told, when it comes to the Hebrew language – the one that, according to tradition, G-d made up – there are no random occurrences at all. In fact, the Kabballah (Jewish Mysticism) teaches that different Hebrew words that contain the same letters, but in a different order, are intrinsically related to each other. Rabbi Yehonasan Eyebeschutz zt”l, in his famous work Yaaros Devash, explains that Lashon HaKodesh (lit. the “Holy Tongue” or Biblical Hebrew) reflects a basic aspect of life: Just as the situation of an individual or society can change from good to bad, so too the meanings of the Hebrew letters and words can change from positive to negative ones (through changes in the letter sequence).

One classic example of this can be found in this week’s double Torah portion (see Leviticus 13:1-46) where the Torah discusses the laws of a person whose skin is afflicted with a nega - a Hebrew word meaning “plague” or “disease”. The same letters, in different order, spell oneg, which means “pleasure” or “delight” – the very opposite of nega.

The Chiddushei HaRim, in classic Chassidic fashion, explains that the only difference between the words oneg and nega is the placement of the Hebrew letter ayin (which literally means “eye” - how one views the world). Whether a person will experience oneg and pleasure in life or only nega and “plagues” all depends on his perspective – where he chooses to place his ayin - does he want to see all the good that there is or just focus on what he sees that’s bad.

We are taught that the specific day on which a person can best achieve the state of oneg and pleasure is on Shabbos. As it says in Isaiah 58:13, “… if you proclaim the Sabbath an oneg …” Yet, sadly, for many Jews today, the notion of observing the Shabbos in the traditional way (and refraining from all the creative activities that the Torah forbids) is not an oneg but a nega – a plague to avoid at all costs. But that’s only because their ayin is in the wrong place.

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, in his book The Maggid Speaks (Mesorah Publications 1987), brings a fantastic parable from the famed Maggid of Dubno, which illustrates this idea perfectly:

A dealer in precious stones once went out of town on business. He had with him a valise filled with his wares – diamonds, rubies, emeralds – to show to potential buyers. When he came to his hotel, he was assigned a room on the fourth floor. The hotel clerk summoned a porter and asked that he carry the businessman’s valise up to his room. When the businessman came to his fourth floor room, he found the porter there waiting for him, huffing and puffing from exhaustion. “That was one heavy suitcase!” the porter complained. “I’m collapsing! What do you have in there, rocks?” “If you are tired,” said the diamond dealer, “you must have taken the wrong valise. Mine is filled with diamonds and precious stones which are lightweight; they wouldn’t tire anyone out. You probably took someone else’s valise, and that is why you are so tired.”

If we see Shabbos observance as a nega, G-d forbid, instead of the absolute oneg that it was intended to be; if we perceive the entirety of the Torah and its multitude of laws and rituals as a “plague” from which to escape, as opposed to the immensely pleasurable enterprise that it is meant to be … that can only mean that our ayin is in the wrong place, and that we must have picked up someone else’s suitcase.

At this time of year when we are in the middle of counting the Omer – a mitzvah that commemorates the 49-day-period from when our ancestors left Egypt until they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, in which they eagerly counted each day in anticipation of receiving G-d’s Torah [to learn more about the Omer, see:] - it behooves us to reexamine our own attitudes towards the Torah and Judaism in general.

Do we eagerly anticipate upcoming Jewish holidays? Are our kids excited about Shabbos or Chanukah or Purim or Hebrew School? Or are these really only tired, boring chores and activities that we and our kids “put up with” but rarely enjoy?

If we want to have any assurance that our kids and grandkids will remain Jewish, we need to remember this one very powerful anagram – and make sure that whatever we and they do Jewishly feels like oneg and not nega.

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