Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning Life's Lessons

My father, zichrono l'vracha, would often share a story, this time of the year, of the boy whose father told him the story of Joseph, as the parsha of Vayeshev arrived. An emotional child, he was moved to tears. Infact the boy cried not only the first year but even the second year when his father reviewed the drama. The third year, as his father told the story to him again, the boy remained unmoved. His father, noticing the change, asked "why no tears this year?"

The boy said " I felt sorry for Joseph two years ago....and even last year it was sad to think of how terrible it was to be betrayed by your brothers...But if he didnt learn not to trust them by the third year then he has no one to blame but himself".

The story of Joseph and the brothers remains new and fresh to us each year. First we hear it as children and identify with the rejected Joseph. As we get older we may hear the story and identify with siblings in conflict who despite all they have in common can't seem to get along.
As we age we may identify with Yaakov and the anguish of a parent who has lost a child either by dint of a tragic death of through emotional/spiritual separation. The story speaks to us wherever we are in our lives and has something to say...that is...if the child in my father's story continue to experience it as current...

Today as I write this blog we mark Yud Tet Kislev (the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev) a special day for many hassidim but in particular for Chabad Hassidim who celebrate the Alter Rebbe's liberation from Russian jail. In the Rebbe's most famous work, Tanya, he provided an epistemology, a philosophy of how we come to know things, in accord with our tradition. The Rebbe pointed out the original step in coming to know is chachma. The word chachma comes from contracting two Hebrew words koach mah, loosely translated as 'what is its potency'. The way the Rebbe understood it, coming to know is a process. It starts with a flash intuition, the koach mah or chachma in which all the insight is contained as an undifferentiated whole...and only after being received moves from there to bina...a more processed and analyzed understanding of what one comes to know.

The critical context necessary to experience the first stage of the koach mah is the soil of humility. It is humility that makes it possible to receive the flash insight. Inorder to be even be able to come to chochma one first needs to get one's self out of the way. It is no coincidence that Moshe was both the anav who said of himself v'anachnu ma, what are we, and the great Rebbe of Klal Yisrael.

How is it that Yehuda was able to be a different brother to Benjamin than he was to Joseph?
What was the process of his teshuva?. The change in Yehuda begins with "and Judah went down from his brothers..." as the parsha this week tells us. The term vayered, can simply mean 'to travel'. But our sages understood it to mean that Yehuda indeed 'went down'... that he was demoted in their eyes from his leadership position as a consequence of his advice to them to sell Joseph....The story of Tamar further humbled Judah as he is compelled to acknowledge both his wrongful judgement of her and his own shame.

It was Judah's stature that prevented him from seeing Joseph for who he was. And in contast, it was in the humbling of Judah that it became possible for him to perceive the chochma necessary to recognize the truth. Humility makes all change possible. Arrogance keeps us both blind and stuck.

With all the goings on in the financial world, with one scam after another being revealed and billions of dollar being lost...its clear the underlying cause is not greed but arrogance....It is the arrogance of fund managers and CEOs which prevents them from facing their failures. It is arrogance that causes those in positions of authority to cover-up their errors rather than admit them. And the price of that arrogance is the piling up of losses upon losses and engaging in ever more menacing intrigues to hide mistakes.

Sometimes we all need a little humbling...Its the yerida l'tzorech aliya, the downfall that actually is necessary for our rehabilitation and ultimate ascent. I live in Jerusalem on Klein St..klein means small....Many of us would do well to spend some time on that street....I know it is the right home for me.

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