Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Asking for What You Want

I can remember feeling a hidden disappointment when my children would forget my birthday.
They apologized, of course. And it was understandable that they would forget. Their lives were busy and they were not at home with me. And truth is I have the least right to complain. I forget birthdays all the time. But it did bother me. And rather than be resentful I decided to do something different. A few weeks before my birthday I told my children that my birthday was coming up and I would really like it if they sent me a card.

Now you may say how can that be satisfying to you? If they don't remember and only send the card when you ask for it what possible joy can you have in it?

Well look at this weeks Parsha...Hashem asks "v'yikchu lee truma" "take for me a gift offering".
In raising the materials for the building of the mishkan Hashem does not leave it to the people to choose to give...He asks for their gifts...and in specific terms...He names each of the materials He wants given, from gold and silver to the dyed cloth. True the gifts were given with a generosity of spirit. But it is clear, they were given in response to a request from Hashem. Is that any different from me asking for my birthday card.

In fact, to be candid, I found the cards I got in response to my request very satisfying. In some ways they were more satisfying than cards I had gotten in the past when they were simply the result of the self motivation of the sender. Our sages would have understood that. They taught "gadol metzuve v'oseh..." Greater is the act of one who is commanded to do Hashem's will than the act of someone who seeks to please Hashem through his/her spontaneous gesture.
And the reason is clear if not immediately obvious. When we do the will of the Divine, that itself is the greatest gift we give Him. We subjugate our own will to do His. When we give a gift of our own desire we are indeed loving Hashem, but what we are doing is in alignment with our will ,not turning our will over to Him.

Both in the idea of the mishkan and in the construction to the very last detail, it was important that we be responding to the request/command of Hashem. The house of the Shekhina, to be worthy of its mission, needed more than generous hearts. It needed a people ready to turn over its will to the will of the Divine. We were called to build G-d's house...not the people's house with G-d's name attached to it.

That for me is the meaning of the perplexing verse "v'asu lee mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham"..."and you shall build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them". It should say and I will dwell in it...after all we are talking about the sanctuary...what does it mean in them....I believe the answer is that if we truly build the sanctuary for Hashem, as the beginning of the verse asks, and we turn over our will to His in all its construction, then indeed He will be dwelling in us. For we have become aligned with Hashem and there is a continuity between the mishkan and we the people of Israel.

So you see when I asked my children to send me a birthday card and they did, it pleased me very much. More than the value of the card or any material gift, the gift they gave me was that they chose to do what I asked of them. They aligned there will to mine...Their is no greater gift anyone can give another...nor in truth any greater expression of love.

So maybe we can learn something here...Asking for what we want is not a bad thing...And rather than secretly pout or lament that we didn't get what we hoped for..if we ask we can experience the love of others who really would abide our requests and give us the most precious gift of aligning their will with ours..if only for a moment.

And would that we do the same for the ones we love. Invite them to tell us their desires so we can offer them a gift far beyond the dollars any offering may cost. We can surrender our will to the will of the ones we love, if only for a moment. Do their bidding and in the process they will know a love deep and satisfying.

Shabbat shalom!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Inspired vs the Committed!

I often listen to Israeli radio and in particular Kol Chai...I noticed this week, even later in the week, the parsha talk was more focused on last week's reading of Yitro rather than on this weeks reading of Mishpatim. It seems hard to let go of the readings of the past few weeks. And why should I be surprised. Last week we read the inspiring story of the revelation at Sinai, the wedding between Israel and Hashem in the wilderness. This week we read in detail of civil laws and laws of tort, hardly that which engenders excitement.

Yet each day I go to a daf hayomi at 5:00AM along with other men and we study now Bava Kama dealing with those very laws of torts found in the parsha of Mishpatim. And we are but a few of the tens of thousands around the world who each day, without fail and often at great personal expense, sit and study the seemingly endless and ,what feels, at times, tedious pages of detailed discussion of the 'ox', the 'pit', and the 'fire'. The world of learning is in fact built on the study of the relatively unexciting. In the Yeshivot and kollelim they do not typically spend much time on medrash and story instead focusing on the laws and their application.

The dichotomy here begs reflection. What is the core of our religious experience...Is it the peak encounters reflected in the story of the giving of the Torah or perhaps the crossing of the Yam Suf? Is our Judaism founded on the weekly d'var Tora on the portion, an inspiring thought with a wonderful moral teaching and perhaps an added Hassidic story for color?

Or is the Jewish experience rooted in the daily grind of learning daf after daf?... not the peak experiences that make us say wow..but the centered steady resolve and commitment to a discipline that provide its gift only in increments and only over time?

What is the core Yitro or Mishpatim.... Is our religious experience supposed to be founded on inspiration or commitment?

While it would be easy and true to say that both are vital my sense is that commitment trumps inspiration. It has often been pointed out that their was a marked difference between the reactions of the Jews of Spain and the Jews of Germany and France to their respective persecutions in the middle ages. The Jews of Spain often did not find it within themselves to die al kiddush hasmem. Rather they chose to publicly embrace Christianity while keeping their faith in private.

In contrast the Jews of Germany and France in the face of the Crusades, on the whole, made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith without any hesitation, at times even killing their own children rather than allowing them to be taken and converted.

Many have suggested that the reason the Jews of Germany and France were more able to make the ultimate sacrifice in accord with our tradition's imperative was because their expression of Judaism had always been based more on discipline than on inspiration. Spain was the land of Jewish song and poetry.It had its great Jewish philosophers and artisans. Germany was the land of text study and devotion. Spanish Jewry lived its experience with more spontaneity and emotional expression. It flowed with the creativity of inspiration. German Jews lived their Jewish experience in the midst of poverty and social isolation. Their focus was more on survival than on creativity.

If the German Jewry of the period was more boring than there brothers and sisters in Spain it was also more committed. And that commitment was what was necessary to face the ultimate challenge each society confronted in its time.

The Holy Temple was built on Mt Moriah not Mt Sinai. Mt Sinai represents inspiration, a peak experience of intimacy with the Divine. Har Hamoria represents sacrifice and commitment, the place Avraham took Yitzchak for an offering to Hashem. Its the latter that is deemed more significant and hence Har Hamoria, not Har Sinai is the site of the Beit Hamikdash.

Mishpatim or Yitro, it seems that Mishpatim is the necessary and Yitro the complimentary. The essence of the Jew is to be an ovaid Hashem, a servant of the Divine...and that service is rooted in the day to day observance of mitzvot and the study of Torah.

There is no room here for the One Minute the author some years ago wrote of the One Minute Mother, One Minute Manager, etc...No matter how profound and how authentic my inspired moment it cannot replace the dedicated, if plodding, service of a lifetime...
So here is to you my fellow daf learners.. Even if it does not make for good is Mishpatim and Bava Kama that sustain us....Now if only I had a dvar Torah for this Shabbat....

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, February 9, 2009

"So how am I doing?": On Taking and Giving Criticism

Years ago New York City's fabled mayor Ed Koch was known to greet his constituents with the words "so how am I doing?". Mindful of the bluntness of New Yorkers he invited the very critique most of us dread. Yet he knew that criticism was vital to his being effective in his job. And unless he invited it even New Yorkers might be hesitant to share.

At some level all of us know we need to hear criticism. Yet we so flinch from it that others regularly would rather flatter us, even if being untruthful, rather than share with us how they really feel. I remember listening to someone in his mid-forties who accepted to serve as shaliach tzibur on Shabbat. He was horribly off key yet he sung out as if he were a chazan.
I wondered to myself how is it that this man accepts the honor to daven and still more, sings out as if he believes his voice is a gift when in fact its awful on the ears? The answer is that every person, even one with no voice, thinks they sing on key. No one ever told this fellow how he really sounds. No doubt they feared telling him an obvious truth. If only one time he would have asked someone "how do I sing?" in such a way that would have truly invited an honest response this emperor would not be parading the streets with no clothes, or in our case,no voice.

Yitro does Moshe a huge favor in this week's Parsha, he criticizes him. When he saw Moshe taking the judgement of all the people upon himself he says to him "lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh"..."its not good this thing you are doing"...How many people have ever said to us "lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh"...How many people have we made to feel comfortable enough to say that to tell us the truth we needed to hear?

My guess is that the story I told of the man with the awful voice who led the congregation in prayer could be said of each of us in some context or other. We all have blind-spots. Even Moshe had his blind-spot. There is no shame in that. What is a shame is if we have so insulated ourselves from criticism that we make it impossible for others to help us peel away our blind-spots. Rather than ask others "how am I doing", we present to others in such a way as to say "am I not doing great?" and then what can they say?

What made it possible for Yitro to give Moshe the sweetest if most shunned gift, true and honest feed-back. I think we get the answer from the portion's beginning. The Torah tells us that Yitro came to Moshe in the wilderness with Moshe's wife and children that he had abandoned. Clearly this is a situation that many leaders might see as embarrassing. Its Moshe's personal life, part of his past. Now he is a public figure in the ultimate sense . It seems unfair to highlight what he has done and been as a father and husband...after all he has led a nation out of bondage!

Yet Moshe does not avoid Yitro or his family. He himself goes out to the wilderness to greet him/them. He personally welcomes them into the community and into his tent. He does not seek to escape his responsibility, he faces it whatever its consequences.

No wonder Yitro felt he could offer Moshe the critique Moshe needed to hear. He knew his son-in-law was a man who would welcome the gift of a missing perspective. He knew Moshe not only did not flee the truth , he wanted it!

The lessons here for me are quite obvious. I need to invite criticism if I expect others to provide it. If I do not invite it the price I may pay is a life full of self-deception. And there is no fool like the one self-deceived.

So I ask candor..."how am I doing"?
Shabbat Shalom

Monday, February 2, 2009

Preventative Medicine

Many years ago before the advent of managed care physicians actually invested in their patients and in return had their patient's complete trust. People so relied on the opinion of their doctors that commonly it was said 'The doctor is playing G-d'......It is interesting to note that in this weeks parsha of B'shalach we find the reverse.... G-d describes His relationship to klal yisrael as being their 'doctor'. In the posuk Hashem says that if you listen to me and keep all the mizvot then "I will put none of the diseases that I have put on the Egyptians upon you for I am Hashem your doctor (alt. who heals you)".

Rashi points out that the verse refers to G-d as being 'your doctor', yet their will be no disease to cure. He goes on to explain that even more than a doctor who cures is a doctor who can tell you how to prevent diseases and keep you healthy. Hashem gives us the way to preventative medicine. And the prescription calls for being aligned with His will and keeping His mitzvot.

The Sages taught that there are 248 positive commandments in the Torah...corresponding to the 248 limbs in the body. The mishna in Oholot goes on to elaborate the 248 limbs...Some later mystics connected the individual mitzvah to the corresponding limb that is nourished through its observance. In fact when a person became ill the Rebbe or mekubal might recommend a specific spiritual practice so as to nurture the specific wounded/diseased part of the body that is aligned with it.

The upshot of all of this is that spiritual practice is core to physical health and the body is directly affected by the well-being or lack of well-being of the soul. Sometimes we are unaware of the health that a lifestyle of alignment with the will of Hashem and of mitzvah observance can afford us. We see many who observe and do not seem to be immune from disease and many who transgress and live a hedonistic lifestyle and seem healthy.

What we do not realize is that the health promised us by Hashem our doctor only comes from a total immersion into the lifestyle of alignment with His will. Preventative medicine requires more than swallowing a singular vitamin or doing a specific exercise...It requires living a healthy lifestyle emotionally, spiritually and physically. Preventative health requires us to live in a climate without pollutants, a workplace without undue stress, a social life with people who care for us and are similarly invested in health.

The promise Hashem our doctor makes to us is no different. If we want to be well we need create a wholistic life in accord with His will...Yes, that means living in Eretz Yisrael....Yes, that means residing in an environment fused with kedusha...Yes, that means working on our midot...It means living a life totally invested in matters of the spirit.
In that context all of who we are will be nourished by the Divine...and we will know the promise of well-being...

Does that mean we will never get sick?...Is there a guarantee?...I believe the answer is that if we live as Hashem wills us then we may get sick but we will never be 'diseased'...We may become ill but we won't suffer...We will die, we must, but without the attending fear. Who we are will always be more than our malady.
True the secular person can practice habits for good physical health. And s/he may live a long healthy life. But s/he is not immune to the ravages of disease or death. S/he has only delayed them. And when they do come s/he will be subject to their ravaging effects the same way as everyone else.

The promise Hashem makes us is that if we become totally aligned with His will and way then we will not know the impact of disease, its attending consequences...We will always feel whole and well within ourselves. We will not suffer! We may get sick but disease and illness will never have reign over us!!!! Can their be a gift much greater than that??

I write that which I have not experienced. And yet it is something I feel closer to knowing inside myself to be true. Galut, in all its forms, makes possible disease of the body as well as the spirit.Geulat hanefesh puts one in a place where disease has no shlita over him/her.

May we all know the health and well-being Hashem wants for us.
Shabbat Shalom!