Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reflections On Loving

What does it mean to be able to love another? Surely most of us would say that to the person of character what the other looks like should not really matter. I mean, if we really are persons of depth and substance then we would focus on the inner qualities of the person we are meeting not how pretty his/her face, how much he/she weighs, or even perhaps his/her age...right?

I once had a friend who when single was asked with whom he might like to be fixed-up. He said that to him it did not matter what the potential date looked like, only her character was important.
Wow I thought. If only I could be that way...not focused on the shallowness of the outer form but only the inner beauty. After-all don't we sing every Friday night the words of King Solomon from Mishle "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, the woman who is G-d fearing is the one to be praised."

Yet I like many of you both single and even married remain attracted on the basis of appearance. The Talmud is full of laws designed to make sure that the wife does not become ugly to her husband. And I suspect that its a deep and prevailing secret between many a husband and wife that the loss of the spark for physical intimacy between them has its roots in one, the other, or both losing the physical features they had at the time they were married.

This Shabbat we are challenged to the mitzva to love a fellow Jew. The verse of v'ahavta l'raiacha kamocha, "love thy neighbour as thyself". Its interesting that the mitzva to love another, while according to Rabbi Akiva a central mitzva of the Torah, does not even commence the verse it is found in. Rather the posuk begins " and you shall take no revenge neither in deeds nor in words (meaning we can't even say to another that I will not be like you but rather be kind and generous to you) from any of your people..." and then continues with the challenge to love your neighbour as yourself.

The message is clear. We are not mandated to some abstract love of humanity nor even to simply love the stranger, though that too is found in the Torah. We are called upon to love those we know and who have been mean to us, the person who refused do us the kindness we asked for, the person who scorned us, the one we have every right to want to take revenge on. Its him/her we are called up to, not only not take the revenge we are entitled to, but to engage with love!

We are called upon by the Torah to love even those we might by right hate. I mean loving someone who is nice to us is easy. For that there is no special reward anymore than for loving our children. To love someone who, if not for the Torah command, we would reject or even despise that is our mandate and challenge. And that is the great principle of the Torah according to Rabbi Akiva.

The Talmud provides a fascinating and, at first blush, surprising application of the requirement to love our neighbor as our-self. The Talmud teaches " a person may not have intercourse with his wife during the daytime hours....lest he see her physical form and find something not to his liking and she become ugly to him."

I must admit on thinking about that teaching I was floored. First, I thought, this isn't a strange woman he is having intercourse with, its his wife! How can her physical form whether she has gained weight or grown wrinkles effect his love for her. He lives with her, they share a home, children, a world built together. Can a man be so shallow as to feel repulsed by his wife just because he body type changed?

And still more, I would have thought the mitzva to love a friend would have led to a different conclusion. Rather than forbid intercourse during the daytime because of a husbands potential rejection, it should have mandated the husband to love his wife no matter what she look like.
Instead of challenging him (as his wife might do!), the Torah excuses his clearly shallow feelings and seeks to accommodate them.

As troubling as the Talmudic teaching is it seems to be revealing an important truth. My friend in the earlier part of the write-up was unusual. Most people are attracted on the basis of appearance. And even if its a shallow measure, it remains a truth that cannot be expected to be changed. Just as a person enjoys certain foods and not others, likes certain colors more than others, etc what attracts us is part of who we are. I can be called upon to treat with love every person, even one who has harmed me. But I cannot be expected to feel attraction or desire for someone no matter how deserving! Desire cannot be governed by law or even, for that matter, logic!

I know these thought may arouse some sentiments in you. They can feel personal. How many of us have felt it was unfair that we were rejected both in our marriages and in relationships on the basis of superficial values. We have a legitimate argument. But one that only proves life is unfair.
What we sing in Eishet Chayil about beauty being vain etc is absolutely true. But as the Rabbis would say we still need to turn out the lights!

Mazal Tov on the Medina's 61st!!!! Chag Samayach and Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Learning from Mistakes!

I grew up near the boardwalk in the Rockaways of New York. Summer brought many Jews from the city out our way to enjoy the cooler temps. Some of them were observant, most were not.
One Shabbat afternoon my friend Irv and I took a walk to the boardwalk. It was always an exciting place to be...filled with small store fronts selling knishes and 'kosher' hot dogs...and of course the arcades filled with games of every kind. And while it was Shabbat it was a neat place to just walk around and enjoy the energy.

But this one Shabbat was memorable for me. As we walked an older man stopped us. He engaged us with a Yiddish accent. No doubt he noticed our yarmulkes and dress. He asked "boys are you shomer shabbos?" We said "yes".
He replied with only these words, and though I was then a boy of 9 years old I never forgot them, he said, "when you grow up you won't be!".

In this weeks Parsha we have the laws of the metzora. The metzora is mandated to live outside the camp of Israel. He is made to dress as a person in cherem, excommunication. He needs to grow his hair out. His clothes are to be torn. And the Torah tells us that he is to call out to anyone who may come his way "tamay! tamay!" meaning "impure! impure!

The sages explain the need for the leper to call out is to warn people not to come in contact with him and thereby become ritually unclean.

While all the laws of the ritual leper are inscrutable this law fascinates me. I mean is it not enough that the metzora has to endure all the shame associated with his disease. In the tradition he gets the leprosy as a punishment for lashon hara, speaking evil, even if true, of another person. He is cast out, dishonored, shamed. And lets not fool ourselves he may be the one with the disease but the speaking of loshon hara is a sin virtually everyone is guilty of. He is the one suffering for it! He must endure so much humiliation. And its not enough!
He must call out " I am impure! I am impure!

And yet I suspect in the lepers commitment to make sure that others do not become impure even as he is suffering, he earns his kaparah, atonement. In the fact that he wants others to be not like him he shows character and love for the very people his evil talk may have harmed.
Unlike the Jew in the story of my youth who so unsettled me, not because he was not observant, but because he seemed to need that we too would not keep the Shabbat, the metzora wants that others not suffer as he has, not become unclean as he has.

I will tell you another story, one I witnessed years later when I was a young rabbi in a small Southern town. Marty was a recent baal teshuva. He would walk a long ways to shule on Shabbat. Mr. Sugarman was an old Jew who lived too far from the shule to walk. He was from the old country. Like the man in the first story he too had a Yiddish accent.

One Shabbat Marty was walking to shule and he noticed Mr Sugarman pass him in his car as he was driving to shule. When Marty finally got to shule he said to Mr Sugarman " I saw you this morning". Mr Sugarman replied, " I saw you too". Marty said, "so why didn't you stop". And Mr Sugarman answered " I was afraid you would take a ride!".

How different the two stories. In both cases the men involved we not keeping the Shabbos. In both cases they knew the difference. In the first case however the man needed to feel that I too would be like him to mollify his guilt on desecrating the Shabbos. In the second Mr Sugarman felt "if I can't be as I should at least let me make sure I don't mislead others".

Thats the message of the metzora. And its not an easy one to embrace. Most of us think too frum is just more than us; too liberal just less than us. We all have our chesronot, shortcomings.
Where do we act like the metzora acknowledge our flaw and warn others 'not to be like us'? When do we do like Mr Sugarman and say "true enough I am not as I should be...please don't follow me!"

It takes courage to call out "I am impure!" " I am impure!". It takes a large measure of humility.
Yet I for one admire the Mr Sugarmans of the world much more than those who act as if they are without flaw and have no warning to give. One can learn as much from a persons mistakes as from there successes, if only they will admit to them!

How many a parent might well teach their child so much more if they would share where they failed as well as where they succeeded, what they have struggled with as well as what they have overcome. How many a teacher would model more by sharing not only how 'good' they are, but how human!

We are all flawed. The metzora is each of us. The lessons universal. Why pretend!

Its great to back in Eretz Yisrael....Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Passing Over: Whats in a Name?

The chag is almost here. The furious last minute preparations are consuming. I will sadly be leaving Eretz Yisrael to be with my widowed mother for Yom Tov. Its not easy to leave the holy land. Our sages say that one should always part from a friend with words of Torah. So with that in mind I share some holiday reflections with the hope it will provide a bracha for both you and me.

We call this wonderful holiday of our nation's birth Pesach....The sacrifice that all Israel brings and partakes of on seder night is called by the same name. Simply understood we are calling the chag and the sacrifice a name meant to reflect on the the angel of death passing over the houses of the Israelites when he smote the first born Egyptians. Why? Why with so many acts of meaning associated with the geula, the redemption, do we choose to focus on that event to name the holiday? Why is the passing over so significant. Its true that without the passing over our first born too might have died, but that does not in itself seem to have to do with the act of geula .

Some time ago I came across a teaching of Rebe Nachman on this subject that continues to be meaningful to me today. As I recall he said that the title of the chag as Pesach was meant for us to learn that the key ingredient to our being bnei chorin, children of freedom is to be able to pass over. If we are going to be able to choose to become who we can ultimately become...to realize our potential and be free in fact as much as in theory then we will need to be able to pass over.
Pass over all the feelings of our limitations based on the failures of the past. Pass over our sense of inadequacy that keeps us stuck saying our dye has been cast.Pass over the feelings of resentment for all the unjustified hurts inflicted on us by others so that we can be free of the enslavement of enmity.

All becoming is about passing over. And the truth is we had to pass over in order to leave Egypt. After all our tradition teaches us that we were deeply immersed in a life of impurity. When we came to the sea the angels said "the Egyptians and the Israelite are both idol worshippers...why save the Israelites"...For us to be feel the gift of freedom at the time of the geula we had to pass over our own sense of unworthiness in order to embrace the moment and accept the Divine invitation to freedom.

The Rabbis taught that most of the Jews in Egypt died there, refusing the invitation to be liberated. I can understand why. They simply could not accept what they felt they did not deserve. They could not pass over the feelings that they were in that moment unworthy. And yet in order to become who we were meant to be that is exactly what we needed to do....then....and still now!!!

What do you have to pass over? What do I have to pass over? The obstacle to our reaching our tachlit is not that we are unaware of our flaws...most of us know those only too well...Rather the issue for us is that we are too much aware! We are enslaved by the failures of yesterday. It is those we need to pass over in order to experience the geula as persons and community.

And I do not mean passing over only the lapses that belong to us. If we are to be totally free to become who Hashem wants us to become we need to pass over the hurts others have inflicted on us and on the ones we love. Only when we have let them go can we free ourselves of the enslavement of hatred and resentment.

Yes Pesach is a wonderful name for this chag of our freedom. And the name defines the work before us in order to know the gift of geula in its truest sense. This year when we sit at the seder, as much as we share with each other the experience of herut in our lives by telling stories, let us tell as well that which we are prepared to pass over so that we can realize the tachlit Hashem intends for us!

Chag Kasher V'samayach....L'hitraot!