Thursday, August 29, 2013

All Good Things Come to an End

Do you remember when the Beatles broke up? Perhaps you are too young to recall. Or maybe it didn't matter to you. But I am sure you can recall wonderful joys in life that you thought by every right should go on forever, but came to end. For me there are many such sad realities. They began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn when I was seven. I could not imagine in my wildest dreams the end of such a glorious relationship between a team and its fans. And since then, to my chagrin, I have experienced the end of good things over and over. Each time not without a great sense of loss and sadness.

Rosh Hashana is nearly at hand. Selichos for we who are Ashkenazim will begin late Saturday night. Lets pause for a moment and think about the word 'shana', year in Hebrew. The noun 'shana' that is used to connote year has its roots in two verbs that seem to have contradictory meanings. At one level 'shana' means to change. 'L'shanot', a verb of the same three letter root as the noun 'shana', means to alter. And surely that is part of what is implied in a 'year'. It is a time standing alone, with its own opportunity, and its own character. Each year has its own uniqueness. It is in some ways like no other. On an another level 'shana' as a verb also means to repeat, to do again. The 5th book of the Torah is called "Mishne Torah". 'Mishne ' has as its root the same three letters of 'shana', and here it means to repeat, to repeat the essence of the first 4 books of the Torah in this the concluding 5th book.
And truly a year is in some ways a repeat of the past and a bridge to the future. Each year has a number in a sequence. It is part of a continuum.

The paradox of 'shana' is that it is both a period that stand alone in time, something new and unprecedented and as well it is a time frame that belongs to a sequence and repeats what was and propels it into the future.

As we come to Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, and prepare for the Holy Days, we might find it helpful to keep both these meanings in mind and personalize them for the 'shana' we anticipate. Each of us has a life filled with investements of our time and resources. We have projects we work on and a daily routine.
We have loyalties and commitments. The question we need ask ourselves as the new year is about to commence is what in our lives needs to contimue and what needs to change. Just because I did something well in the year or years gone bye does not assure it needs to continue. Perhaps it's time in our life is past.
And 'shana' requires newness and change. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn for some 60 years. They were a fabric of life. As sure as the dafodils of spring were the sounds of baseball at Ebbets Field. The Beatles made hit record after hit record. Little doubt they could have gone on forever. But every thing, even good things have a life span. They cannot endure eternally in this world of change. The trick is to know when to make the change, when a good thing has lived its full life, and it's time to move on. Resisting change is tempting. Its scarey to end and begin anew. Yet that is exactly what one of the messages of embracing the New Year calls for.

True, it is equally important to renew our resolve to repeat that which warrants repeating. That too is part of what it means to embrace the New Year. We need to be faithful to those things that needs to continue. We need to reinvest in them with passion and not let them fall into habitual behavior. We need each year to commit again to the values, beliefs, and practices that are central to our lives as Jews and good people. They must not lapse or become stale.

And at times it is hard to know what should be changed and what we should sign on for for another year. Many of us are all too eager to change, and perhaps too quick to let go of the past. Others of us are overly fearful of the new and hold on to things long after their time of meaning in our lives has past.
No wonder we need this time of reflection and intropsection at the end of the old year and the at the start of the new. Our decisions about what we retain and what we change are hugely consequential.

This year I have decided that I need to focus on 'shana' as change. And I need to give up something that I have invested in these past 5 years, the blog, "The Torah and the Self". Its not that I don't think writing each week has had meaning for me, and I hope for you. It has indeed. It's just that the time has come to put this blog to bed.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn but didn't stop playing baseball. The Beatles made music long after the group disbanded, only now as individuals and not as a group.
I am sure I too will use my creative energies to give voice to thoughts and feelings. The format will change. I remain who I am and the struggle to grow and become continues. I am sure I will need to find expression to that struggle and share it with you in ways that make us community.

I am thankful to all of you who have read the "Torah and the Self" over the years. I appreciate your comments and knowing that you too struggle to grow and become.
Chazak Chazak V'neetchazaik....Let us be strong, indeed very strong, and strengthen each other!

With blessings for you for a New Year of renewed commitment to what was and a year where we will find the courage to change those things whose time has past,

Shana Tova

Shabbat Shalom

Yisrael ben Yosef

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Giving Ourselves a Pass

A story. Once there was a young woman who was very ill. The physicians treating her told her that she needed to eat pork to have any chance to survive. The young woman was a devout Jew and the thought of eating pig was abhorent to her. She resisted her doctor's advice and continued to deteriorate. At last, with no alternative, and advised by her rabbi that she must do whatver it takes to save her life, the young woman relented. But even here she set conditions. She insisted that if she must eat the forbidden pork at least the pig should be ritually slaughtered, 'sh'cheeta' performed. Everyone was puzzled, including the rabbi, afterall sh'cheeta is only relevant for kosher animals.
Of what benifit would it be for the non-kosher pig. Nonetheless in order to appease the patient they agreed to 'shecht' the pig. But the story did not end. For you see, the woman further demanded that the lungs of the now ritually slaughtered pig be checked to make sure it was not a 'traifa' and forbidden. Again the request made little sense. Traifa or not would only be relevant for a kosher animal and here they were dealing with a pig. Wanting to please the young woman the lungs were checked. And what do you know their was a 'shaila' a question about whether the lungs had a blemish that would render the pig a traifa.

The pig's lungs were summarily brought to the rabbi. He examined them carefully. When asked to render his halachic ruling the rabbi said," There is no problem with the lungs.
They do not make the animal a traifa. But please understand it is impossible under any circumstances to use the word "kosher" regarding a pig".

This Shabbat in the parsha of Kee Taytzay we open with the story of the non-Jewish woman taken captive in war. The Torah seems to do exactly what the rabbi in our story would not. It tells us that even though the heathen woman is forbidden to a Jew and not kosher for marriage, the Jewish warrior may take her and make her his wife. In essence the Torah is making this heathen woman kosher!

Rashi explains that the Torah gave license here to the otherwise forbidden as a concession to the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination. The Torah knew that the soldier in battle may not be able to overcome his desire for a woman he sees. A soldier is often vulnerable and full of passion. Rather than insist the soldier do the right, which is beyond his control, the Torah gives him license to abide his uncontrollable lust, albeit with certain provisions that the Torah outlines.

The Talmud makes use of the law of the "Yefat To'ar", the concession to the 'yetzer hara' in times of war, to teach a principle. They say "Better to eat meat of a calf that is near death (and therefore unhealthy) that is ritually slaughtered than the meat of an unhealthy animal that died before being ritually slaughtered. In other words, even if the meat you eat is not good for you, if you are going to eat it anyway, do it in the best way possible.

The truth is that the story of the Yefat To'ar, the woman taken in times of war, is very similar to the story of the pork in our opening story. In the story of the rabbi and the pig's lungs, no matter how kosher the lungs are, and no matter that the woman in question is permitted to eat it,the meat is still pork. The permissablity to eat the meat will not make it kosher. The person in that case is mandated because of illnes to eat the non kosher animal. But that cannot make it kosher. Similarly the Yefat Toar is permitted to the Jewish soldier in a time where he is unable to control his lust. But that does not make her 'kosher'. She remains a heathen woman.

We see something very important in all the above. G-d in His infinite wisdom sometimes gives us a pass! It is as if G-d says "Look this is really not okay to do. But because of your situation, because you really do not have the inner strength to resist, I won't hold you liable if you do it!"

Now I know many a person can give him/herself a pass on lot's of life issues saying "I can't control myself". And in many cases, indeed most cases, that's not true. S/he could control him/herself if there was enough commitment. But I do believe that many of us have a challenge that is indeed beyond our ability to control. We have a challenge no less compelling than the soldier in war and his lust for the 'pretty woman'.
You may know the challenge of which I speak in your own life, a challenge you have tried so much and for so long to overcome and yet one to which you continue to succumb.

An example that comes to mind that effects many is their homosexuality, both men and women. Many a man and woman have beaten themselves up mercilessly for their inability to control their desire for a same sex relationship. They try over and over to control their yearnings. Yet ultimately they are unsuccessful. For many the failure to be able to abide the law causes them to leave Torah Observant Judaism altogether. They feel they have no place in the Traditional community.

I believe the story of the Yefat To'ar speaks directly to these men and women. The Torah is telling them that while we cannot say homosexual liasons are kosher, we can say that you can still be kosher even if you have them. The gay man or woman is not like the heterosexual or bisexual man or woman who wants to experiment. For those who have choices and choose a homosexual relationship the Torah is clear in it's condemnation. But for those whose only desire is for those of their own sex and cannot know love without it being in a homosexual context G-d may well give them a pass. It is not in their control to be other than gay. And to live a life without love is unbearable.

In the laws of the Yefat To'ar the Torah is teaching that not everything is simply a matter of willpower. Some things are beyond our ability to control, no matter how hard we try. Indeed it has been pointed out by many that the soldier who cannot control his lust in the story of the Yefat To'ar is a tzaddik, one without sin. It is only those without sin who go out to fight in optional wars, like the one the Torah is referring to here. Yet it is precisely this tzaddik who cannot resist the 'pretty woman' though she is heathen. The tzaddik here is given a pass.

And why does G-d give the tzaddik a pass? Because G-d knows that to condemn someone for what they cannot control will only cause them to feel inadequate of faith. It will alienate them. The person, overhwelmed with his/her sense of failure, will feel no choice but to walk away. Better to give him/her the pass so s/he can accept him/herself, even if it is to partake of the unkosher.

Each day we move closer to Rosh Hashanna and the period of judgement. Many of will look back with self-judgement on life issues that no matter how hard we tried we seemed unable to vanquish. I think the parsha of this week speaks to us. It says to you and me, if we truly have tried and truly cannot seem to prevail, then maybe our issue is one like the Yefat Toar and is indeed beyond our ability to control.

Instead of beating ourselves up one more time this holy season, maybe we need to do what G-d does in situations where the individual has no control. Maybe we need to give ourselves a pass.

Giving ourselves us a pass does not make what we do kosher. It does however make us kosher. And it frees us to be truly the tzaddikim we are meant to be!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Saying "Yes"

For years now I cherish the opportunity to visit the Kotel regularly. I never fail to be inspired by the holiness of the setting. Yet each visit, other than on Friday night, produces in me a sense of anxiety. The Kotel has its regulars. I do not refer to the faithful who study and pray there every day. I refer to the men and women who faithfully sit on the stairs leading down to the Kotel square and those who patrol the prayer courtyard seeking a hand-out. I see the same faces, hear the same pleas, each time I go.
They are as much a part of the tapestry as are the pigeons that inhabit the holy walls.
It is these regulars that cause me anxiety. What is my obligation to them? Are they really poor and in need? Or are they just taking advantage of an opportunity to make an income without much effort? I once heard that a veteran of Kotel collecting passed away and was found to have a small fortune stashed away. I hate to not give. But the last thing I want to do is support a fraud, especially when Israel is full of the truly needy. Yes or no to the requests. Either way I doubt if I did right.

The Torah in this week's parsha of Re'eh offers me some guidance. The reading contains several passages outlining my obligation to the poor and needy. Specifially the Torah tells us with reference to underpriveleged "And you shall surely open your hand to him and sustain him so that he has all that which he is lacking."
Rashi on the verse, in accord with the teachings of the Talmud, explains that we must even provide a horse for him to ride and a servant to attend to him if that is what the needy one is lacking.

We might wonder how can that be? To feed the poor, clothe them, provide them shelter we understand. Those are basic human needs. We must provide from our largesse to care for our brother's and sister's needs. But why a horse for him or her to ride or a valet?
Those are wants not needs.

The answer is we began with the wrong premis. We assumed that the call to help is dependent on their being a true need. Not so. Our obligation to our fellow Jew is not simply to see to his/her needs. It's much more. Our obligation is to meet our brother or sister's requests. Hesed, the call to loving kindness, demands of us to do what our brother or sister asks of us, independent of whether they need it or deserve it.
It does not matter if they can do it for themselves. It does not matter if they have earned it. It does not matter their level of need. If a brother or sister asks something of us its our sacred responsiblity to try to fulfill the request.

When we understand that our charge to help another emanates from the other's request
we stop making judgements. True many of those collecting money at the Kotel and elsewhere may not be needy or deserving. Maybe they would be better off getting a job.
Maybe they mismanage their money or worse, their life. That's not my business however.
They asked me. They put out a request. It's their desire. And unless I can be sure that fulfilling that desire will be harmful to them it's my mitzva to respond and say "yes".

We need to change our perspective. The mitzva of doing 'hesed', acts of lovingkindness begins with the person, not the circumstances! Whatever brings another happiness is our mitzva to do. We need no evaluation, no assessment. No judgements need to be made.
Sometimes someone may say to us "Can you do me a favor?" Öur answer is too often "what?"
That's the wrong answer. That implies we will hear favor and decide if we think it's justified and warrants our initative. The right answer when someone asks us if we can do them a favor is "yes". Then we can go on to hear the details.

The Torah this week is teaching us to not be afraid to say "Yes" to another. We need to say "Yes". At the Kotel, on the street, in our homes, both with those we know and the stranger their is only one answer, "Yes".

In saying "ÿes" we give the other a gift as great as the favor we hopefully will do. In saying "ÿes" we affrim him/her. By saying "ÿes" unconditionally to the other's desire we say s/he matters to us. In saying "ÿes" we say to the person "even though you are asking for a favor, and may feel diminished in needing us, we value you."

When it comes to helping another there is only one answer "yes". All the rest is commentary.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"What Do I Fear"

"Its a funny thing Markos, but people mostly have it backwards. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they are afraid of. What they don't want."

I read those lines recently in novel by Khalid Husseini entitled "And the Mountains Echoed". The insight is put out by an old woman reflecting on the lives she has known, both hers and others. It felt so powerfully true to me. Most of us live our lives motivated not by some inner sense of call. Rather we are motivated by a dread, the dread of something that we need to flee and at all costs.

The consequence of living a life based on avoidance and dread is that we never quite feel that our lives are our own. We live detached from what is our true yearning and call. We live in a kind of exile from ourselves. We are strangers in our own story, yet never quite knowing why.

We enter this Shabbat into a period on our national calender of comfort. For seven straight weeks the portion from the Prophets we
will read in the haftorah will speak a message of consolation. Each is from Yishayahu. We begin this week with a Shabbat with a special name, "Shabbat Nachamu" "The Sabbath of Comfort". The opening words of the haftorah are "Comfort ye, Comfort ye my People, so will say your G-d".

What is comfort? What does it look and feel like for us as persons and for all of us as a people. It seems clear to me that the essence of comfort is the sense of being at one with oneself, of being home. There is a clear corrolation between comfort and 'shalom' peace. Comfort is the experience of coming to peace, to wholeness and integration. It is when the inside of me and the outside of me are aligned, when I am no longer in exile from myself. Comfort is when I am at peace, no longer afraid, and my life is not motivated by runnning from but rather by moving towards.

You ask me what do I mean when I say that for so many of us our lives are driven from dread? Think about your core fear. Maybe its fear of being criticized, or fear of failure. Maybe you dread conflict or rejection. Maybe you fear being stuck and alone. Each of us would do well to know his/her core fear. Once we discern it I think on reflection we will discover how much of our lives seems a response to that fear. And indeed how different our lives might have looked if we were not afraid and could have chosen what really was meant for us.

I believe the core fear that motivates many many of us is the fear of facing ourselves and being found wanting.We propel ourselves to achieve, succeed, acquire, just so we can feel we are okay. We dread pausing even for a moment lest we have to face ourselves, and experience ourselves, not for what we do but for who we are. We are constantly in motion, rarely at rest. We can accomplish the most incredible feats. Yet we struggle to look at ourselves in the mirror. I mean really look. Our life is about running from ourselves.
We can say "I love you" to our children and spouses. maybe to friends and G-d.
Who can really look at his/her own reflection and say "I love you".

Self love is so difficult for us. Self loathing is more common. You would not think it by our pursuit of self gratification.
Yet the very pursuit is telling. If we are not pleasuring our selves, providing external stimulation, we are pained. No pleasure is pain.
The natural joy of being with ourselves is so rare to find. Indeed we flee from being alone with ourselves. For many its unbearable.

The fear of facing one's self in his/her nakedness also plays out in the story of our people. So much of the Jewish story is a story of self loathing. We are a people who struggle to embrace ourselves and love our diverse components. Our fear of our 'flaws', our Jewish brothers and sisters who we disagree with causes us to run from them to the extremes. We make every effort to cut them off so as not to have to see the face of our national self.

"Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people..." Many have asked why is the call to comfort repeated, why twice? May I suggest that the message we are being given here is that comfort will not come down as manna from heaven. Comfort is a human process, one rooted in self acceptance and self love. Through the words of the Prophet, Hashem is telling His people to extend comfort to each other, to embrace each other's story, angst and aspirations.Each member of the faith needs to say "Comfort ye" to his/her counterpart for comfort to be reaified. We need to lose the sense of shame, both shame of self and shame of others, so we can stop running and be who we are meant to be, as persons and people.

It's time. It's time we paused and got off the treadmill of life. It's time to let go of the fear. It's time to find a way to love ourselves, our personal self and our larger national self so we can finally be one within and without, so we can come home from the 'galut' the exile, and know the comfort and peace that awaits.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 12, 2013

From Victim to Author

My son Moshe, a well respected rebbe in the Yeshiva of Waterbury, posed the following question on the phone with me last week. Why does the national day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, a day of such huge consequence and one filled with ritual have no name? We call it Tisha B'Av which means the 9th day of the month of Av, which it is. But that's not a name. That's a date! All the other major occasions on our calendar have names that describe the theme of the day. Sukkot, Pesach, Yom Kippur, Purim etc., are all names, not dates.
Why is Tisha B'Av the exception? Why not call it Yom Hachurban, The Day of the Destruction or Yom Puraniyut, The Day of Our Punishment?
Surely an occasion of such significance, albeit sad, deserves a name.

This Shabbat we open the 5th and final book of the Torah that of Devarim. The book is different from the others. It records not the words of Hashem but the words of Moshe, words that he spoke to the Children of Israel shortly before his death. In the opening reading of this week, a portion by the same name as the book, Devarim, Moshe begins a review of the journey that got the People to the place they are now, on the threshhold of entering the Promised Land. Moshe goes over episodes of consequence to help frame there situation. First he tells how Moshe found he could not manage the people with their quarrelsome nature, and how he needed to appoint judges to share the burden, a section that harkens way back to the portion of Yitro in Exodus. Then Moshe goes on to tell of the sin of the spies and the nation's rejection of the Land that lead to the wandering of the past 38 years.

In each case Moshe tells a story that we know from the earlier portions of the Torah when the events happened. What is surprising however is that the version Moshe tells of the story includes information and perspective that is entirely new. Let me raise several examples.
First, when Moshe speaks of his struggle to lead the people alone and the appointment of a system of judges, Moshe says that he told the People "I can no longer carry you". If this is the same story recorded in Yitro in the Book of Shmot, Moshe there never makes any such complaint to the people! It is Yitro who challenges Moshe, not Moshe himself complaining, and certainly not to the people!
And then Moshe goes on here to say that in response I asked you "take for yourselves people of merit, those wise, insightful, and knowledgeable from your tribes and I will put them as your heads." Nowhere in the earlier story did the People have a share in choosing the Judges! And then Moshe continues, " And you answered me saying "we agree with all that you said for us do"". In Exodus the People are not consulted nor is it recorded that they give approval to Moshe's new set-up.

And when we turn to the next story, that of the spies and the People's rejection of the land, again we are given detail entirely new.
First the sending of the spies seems, according to Moshe's remarks here, to be at the behest of the People. Moshe tells them, that they asked of the spies to be sent and he, Moshe, thought it a good idea. Second we are not given the report of the spies at all in this account in Devarim other than that they said the "land is good". The rejection is laid squarely on the People with no mention of the ten men who told them they would not succeed in conquering Canaan. And still more, Moshe tells them that the consquence of their sin was that he too would not be able to enter the Promised Land. In the Book of Bamidbar there is no indication that Moshe was precluded from entering the Land because of the sin of the spies. On the contrary the Torah tells us that it was the personal sin of the "waters of quarrel" that doomed Moshe and Aharon.

How do we reconcile all these variations and discrepencies?

In order to understand Moshe's rendition of the stories we need to understand the purpose of his remarks. What was Moshe trying to accomplish in his address? It surely is not to simply review and old story.

The answer is that Moshe knew that if the People were to become who they needed to become in the land of settlement than they needed to learn from their history and grow from their mistakes. In order to do that they would have to see themselves as the authors of their experiences, not victims of circumstance. Over and over Moshe insists in his rendition of the earlier episodes that the People were full partners in the unfolding developments. They picked the Judges. They approved the judicial plan. They sent the spies. They rejected the Land. They were responsible for even Moshe not being able to enter. Moshe won't let them make excuses or place the blame on others.
He insists on framing the story in such a way as to make their authorship of the events inescapable.

Only when the People will own their story and see it as a product of their own choices and willfullness, both in the good and bad, can they use their national experience to make corrections, learn and change!

This is so true in all of our lives. If we look at the story of our lives as the product of forces outside ourselves, circumstances beyond our control, we may curse or bless our fate, but we will not change or grow. Our lives and experience needs to be our teacher.
In order to be our teacher we need to see ourseves as the authors of our lives and experience, not its victim.
Our life is just that, Ours! It is the most important source of any wisdom we may posess.

The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi wrote "Where there is ruin there is hope for treasure."

I might add to that wisdom, the hope is born when we see the ruin as our own!

And so we return to the question of my son Moshe with which we began. Why does Tisha B'Av not have a name. I suggest because it is the day of national ruin. In its mourning, tears and sadness, lies a treasure, indeed the treasure of redemption. But that treasure can only be found when each of us name's the day for him/herself. We must be the authors of the tragedy, make it personal. If we mark Tisha B'Av and keep all the rituals out of deference to the past we will indeed keep the law. But we will not come to make the corrections in ourselves necessary to bring about the 'ge'ula'.

For redemption to happen each of us must make Tisha B'Av personal. We must name the day. We must see ourselves as authors of our national tragedy.

May indeed the 9th of Av turn this year from a day of mourning to a day of joy. May we finally know the blessings and happiness G-d wills for us!

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 28, 2013

In Tribute to Met Fans

Are you a sports fan? Do you have a favorite team? Recently two of my grandsons visited me in Eretz Yisrael. They are 8 and 6 years old respectively.I asked them those questions. And to both questions they answered in the affirmative. Prouldy they declared they are fans of the New York Yankees. On hearing these tidings I was of two minds. On the one hand I, having grown up a fan of the then Brooklyn Dodgers, hate the Yankees. The news of their favorite brought me no joy. But on the other hand I was also happy for them. They at least would not know the pain of identifying their whole lives with a losing underdog. They would identify with a winner. I have often thought how much different my life would have been, and perhaps more "successful", if I had been a Yankee fan, like most of my friends, and not a Brooklyn Dodger and then Met fan, perpetual losers.

In relearning the parsha of this Shabbat, that of Pinchas, I am beginning to think maybe being a Met fan (and at the same time a Jet fan, oy!) may have had its purpose in my life. What fan would Pinchas have been? I think he too would have chosen the Mets.
And why?

Well think about it. How was it that this man Pinchas was able to do what no one else could, rise up and slay a prince in Israel before the entire camp for his egregious sin? How did Pinchas find it within him to do what even Moshe could not and thereby save the nation from utter devestartion?

The answer is that Pinchas was always an outsider,not one of the establishment. Unlike the other decendents of Aharon he did not serve as kohen in the sanctuary. Though a child of Elazar, the kohen gadol, high priest, and most worthy of character, he was never slated to serve in that capacity. Pinchas was of a distinguished blood line and of personal stature yet he remained on the margins.
It is precisely Pinchas, because he did not belong, because he was estranged, that he could do the unthinkable and the vigilante act that wound up saving the nation.

People are of one of two personality types. Some want to belong, become part of the establishment and support it. They spend their lives identifying with the norms and working to maintain what is in the best way possible. They will more typically identify with the favorite and the winner. Others, the minority, want to challenge the establishment. They see themselves as outsiders with the mission to call to conscience the norms of the group. They are often called "rebels". They are the Met fans, and if they were to prevail they would have to identify with another team.

The sages of the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was none other than Eliyahu the prophet. Eliyahu was a prophet who was known for his feistiness. He railed against the prevailing mediocrity of his time. He was an outsider. He had to flee the wrath of the king into the wilderness. Even when successful he never belonged.

Truth is many of us feel our call in life is to challenge what exists rather than support it and make it better. And when the rebel prevails, when s/he is victorious s/he never ia as happy as when s/he is in opposition and on the outside.

Look at the story of so many political leaders who when fighting for their cause had a magical quality about them. They were full of idealism, like Pinchas and Eliyahu. And yet in their success in becoming the establishment they lost the mystique. They seemed sapped of energy. They knew how to challenge but not how to rule. They were meant for the margins, not to belong or become mainstream.
While some might argue with me, look at all the leaders of the Likud as examples. Begin and Sharon, idealists in the extreme when servinng as opposition, to many they were true zealots, yet they became mediocre and mainstream in success. They lost their compass.

Each one of us has a purpose consistant with out personality. For some of us our 'tachlis' is to work with the system, to belong and grow from within. That is a holy work. Kings and High Priests are of our ilk. We identify with the Yankees of the world. For some of us our tachlis is to live on the outside and challenge what is. We have the blood of the prophets that runs through our veins. We will never be popular. We are the Met fans of the world. We are not meant to win. But we are every bit as necessary even in our striving and our angst.

It may be true that "winning is everything" but for all of us to "win" some of us need to be the losers who challenge and goad on the rest to their excellence.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"The Good Death"

There is a humorous story told of a man who is dying at home. His daughter is sitting by his bedside offering care and comfort. She says to her father, "Daddy,I love you. Is there anything I can do for you? Her father whispers,"My daughter, you know how much I always loved your mothers ruggelah. I can smell them now baking in the kitchen Please go and bring me one." The daughter leaves and a few minutes later comes back to her father empty handed. She sits again next to the dying man and with a shrug says, "I am sorry Daddy. Mommy says they are for after!".

This week we find in the Torah too a story about dying, the death of Aharon, brother to Moshe and Kohen Gadol, High Priest. Only in our story the relevant word is "before" not "after". In the death story of Aharon, he, Moshe and Aharon's son Elazar ascend Hor haHor, the mountain on which Aharon is to die. At G-d's command, Moshe is told to remove the priestly clothes from Aharon just prior to his death and place them on Elazar. Then sorrounded by the two persons closest to him, Aharon lays down and dies. It is a beautiful death scene, and indeed a beautiful death. So much so that the Sages tell us that Moshe wished his death experience could be similar. And in concert with his request G-d told Moshe when his time came to die, later in the Torah, "...and you shall die as did Aharon your brother".

The story of Aharon's death also give rise to important Jewish laws concerning the dying. According to halacha,the dying are never to be left alone. The assumption is that it is a great comfort for the dying to spend their final moments around family and community.
The importance of a "good death" has given rise to the hospice movement, a movement that emphasizes the importance of being able to die at home sorrounded by one's loved ones.

Yet the matter may not be as simple as it first appears. Some years ago studies were done on the time patients tended to die in hospitals.
It was found that people seemed to die when no one was around. Even if they were attended by family they typically died at the times when attending family left. The family could be at the bedside 23 hours a day and the patient would die on the 24th hour, when they were left alone. Moreover it is often reported that Native Americans had quite a different idea about the "good death" than we find in hospice theory or halacha.When a Native American felt it was his time to die, he would go out from the camp into the woods, lay under a tree, and wait for his demise, alone!

And we might wonder about what seems an inconsistancy in the Torah itself. We mentioned above, that according to Tradition, Hashem promised Moshe the same death experience as Aharon. Yet in the story the Torah gives us no two experiences could be more different. Aharon died the "good death" sorrounded by those he loved and who loved him. Moshe died entirely alone. No one went with Moshe when he expired. He left the camp and simply walked away, very much like the Native American tradition. How could the Torah tell us the deaths were similar?

True we might argue that when Hashem told Moshe that his death would be like Aharon what He was referring to was the dying instant, that Moshe would know death as a "kiss" with the least possible pain. But that seems inadequate if Moshe really aspired to the "good death" experience Aharon had. If Moshe did not want to be alone when he died, true his moment of death may have been as easy as possible, but still he had no one with him, no companionship in his dying. That would be painful in and of itself!

I think what we are seeing from the Torah narrative is a great truth about dying and our responsibility to care for the dying. Yes, Aharon had the 'good death" in the classic sense. He had his loved ones by his side. But that death was good because that was the way Aharon lived. Aharon was a man of the people. He lived in community. He was invested in the personal lives of others. He was a peacemaker between husbands and wives. For him to die alone would be painful. He cherished his family, his friends and his community and invested in them. The "good death" for Aharon was exactly as the Torah describes it.

Moshe was different. He lived apart. He was separated even from his wife. He taught the People. He was their leader. But he was not of the community. His communion was with G-d. He had no friends, save perhaps Aharon his brother. And by the time Moshe died Aharon was already dead. For Moshe the "good death" , the death of Aharon, meant precisely to die alone, because that is how he lived.
Truth is there is no one model for the "good death". For some it means being enveloped in the web of family life. For others it means being left to solitude. I suspect our preference will be reflective of what we prefered when we were alive and well. Did we more prefer to be with others or more prefer our own space. The "good death" should be consistent with what we would have seen as the "good life".
And those of us who care for the dying as family and friends should make sure we understand what the "good death" will look like for the dying before we decide how to attend to them!

But I need to share one other very important point about the "good death". Even for those who lived amongst family and friends and want to die as they lived, its important that those who attend the dying know their role. When I quoted the study above that showed that patients in hospitals tended to die alone, when family was no in the room, it was not because those patients did not want family around them when they died. I am sure many of them would have preferred to have a "good death" with a son or daughter holding their hand as they died. The reason they 'chose' to die when no one was present was more often because the family made them feel it was not okay to die!
The dying person, in so many cases, even when they want loved ones with them, need those loved ones to give them permission to die, rather than encourage them to fight and live on when its clear their time has come.

Even when the "good death" that one wishes for includes being in the midst of loved ones. those loved ones need to know that their role is to facilitate death in the best way possible, not deny it or pretend it isn't happening!

The Torah gives us two stories of the "good death", this week of Aharon and at the end of the summer the story of Moshe. They were different deaths but they were both "good". We who live and love have our own obligation to make possible, as much as we can, the "good death" for the ones we love. To do that we need to know which story is most fitting. And if indeed it is the story of Aharon that fits, then to remember we are living with our loved one a story of death, and not to pretend or deny so that the one dying cannot feel it okay to play their part in the story and meet their end!

Shabbat Shalom