Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our Spiritual Ladder

There is a well known story that is told of a Rabbi who in a moment of inspiration gets down before the aron hakodesh, the holy ark, and cries out "oy ich bin a gornit", "woe is me, I am a nothing". In the story the chazen sees the rabbi's passion and follows suit. He too gets down next to the rabbi and cries out "oy ich bin a gornit". Not to be outdone, the shames sees the rabbi and the chazen and he gets down next to them and also cries "oy ich bin a gornit".

On seeing the shames next to them, the chazzen turns to the rabbi and says "Look whose calling himself a gornit?".

That story is often used to illustrate how inspired moments may be nothing more than disguised ego. But according to Rav Wolbe in his sefer Alay Shor there is a bigger issue here than the pseudo humility of the rabbi and cantor. What's wrong in the story is the idea that the way to nearness to Hashem and spiritual excellence is in self abnegation.

Rav Wolbe points out that in earlier times musar often expressed itself in tough talk..debunking peoples inflated image of themselves...making them aware of there chesronot, their limitations, so they could make the corrections necessary to serve G-d with a greater degree of shlaimut.

He writes that our times are different. Weak as we are, we cannot climb the ladder to spiritual excellence by beginning with a focus on our flaws.

On the contrary, the Sages of the Talmud taught that a person should always say "when will my deeds reach the excellence of the deeds of my Fathers...Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov." The first rung on the ladder to spiritual excellence is affirming the greatness that inheres within us in potential. We need to believe that we have the capacity for the greatness of the righteous of the generations lying inside.

What keeps us stuck in our mediocrity is not that we have an inflated view of ourselves, that is only our facade. What keeps us stuck is that we don't think enough of ourselves. If we really knew how great we could be in the service of our G-d we would never find where we are now acceptable. We would strive to become that greater self inhering within us .

Ramchal writes that the way to achieve spiritual excellence begins with spending an hour each day thinking about why we were created, what our purpose is, and where we are relative to our calling and destiny. It is believing that we are necessary in the Divine plan and that fulfilling our role is vital to the ultimate redemption that will lead us to self-improvement and growth in the derekh Hashem.

In the shirat ha'b'air, the song of the well, found in this weeks parsha, we find the beautiful and much interpreted verse, "mimidbar matana, umematana nachleail, umenachleail bamot, ..." . The Rabbis understood the obscure verse to be referring to the way to nearness to Hashem. First one receives the Divine inspiration in his/her wilderness, midbar, as a gift,matana, undeserved, a hitorerut d'leaila, an inspiration emanating from on high. Then it becomes the portion of the Divine, nachleail, in which s/he participates in. Until finally s/he ascends the bamot, the high places as his/her own residence.

The starting point of the great spiritual ascent is believing that even in one's wilderness one can receive the gift of call and inspiration if one allows oneself to be available to it.

The great tragedy for most of us is that we are blind to our own giftedness in matters of the spirit. We simply sell ourselves way too short. We are satisfied with much less than that of which we are capable.

You and I can bring Mashiach. We have enormous powers for the good. We can remake ourselves. We can remake our families, our world. True its a process. But the results are guaranteed.

Lets take that first step on our personal sulam, ladder toward self-actualization. Its not about saying "oy ich bin a gornit" no matter how sincere. It is about saying "matay yageyu maasay l'masai avotay" "when will my deeds be as excellent as those of the patriarchs and matriarchs"...
because their excellence inheres in us too.

Lets bring Mashiach now!
Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Super-hero to Villain

"Every super-hero either dies doing his job or lives long enough to become (in the eyes of the people) the villain himself" (Batman;the Movie).

The Jewish people have never had a super-hero greater than Moshe. He was the leader who redeemed us from our bondage and led us through the great wilderness to the promised land.
More still, he won G-d's forgiveness for us over and over when we faced destruction for our sins.
Yet he too lived long enough to become a villain in the eyes of the people.

The Parsha of Korach is startling. Here a band of men challenge Moshe's right to lead. As absurd as that is, jealousy can cause men to do the absurd. The ego often over-powers reason.
But how do we explain that the people of Israel witnessed Korach's mutiny and remained passive. No one came to Moshe's defence. And what's worse, after a miracle that saw Korach and all his entourage destroyed rather than acknowledge Moshe's authority, the people come to Moshe and complain "atem hameetem et am Hashem"..."You have caused the deaths of the people of G-d".

Is it any wonder that Hashem wanted to destroy the whole nation for the rebellion of Korach. Not because they participated but because they remained silent. They stood-by and watched as Moshe who had saved them over and over was left to his fate. And ironically even here, G-d would have destroyed them had not Moshe, the very same Moshe they chose not to defend , pleaded for G-d to spare them.

How is it that the people could be so silent when their leader was at risk? Where is the gratitude?
Was their no sense of loyalty?

The answer I believe is that our relationship with authority is always conflicted. On the one hand we are grateful for all they do for us. We need them. We often cannot make it without them. They are our symbolic parents, helping us to cross-over through passages we could not otherwise navigate.

Yet we also resent them, not so much for who they are but because they remind us of our our limitations. The very fact that they help us means we need their help. That we need their help reminds us of our own vulnerability.

The young child may not resent his/her parent. But as s/he strives towards independence everything the parent does for the child engenders mixed feelings, whether acknowledged or not. On the one hand the maturing child is grateful for that received. On the other s/he is resentful that s/he remains as yet dependent on another.

Parents often do not understand that dynamic. They are surprised when a child seems ungrateful. They often will not let the child express ambivalent feelings. Yet those feelings are both normal and appropriate. According to our Sages we even feel them toward our G-d. That is why we were placed on this earth... so we could earn the reward Hashem wants to give us rather than receive it as a cup of shame and be resentful.

Dependency breeds resentment. And no matter how good someone is to us...if we keep being the recipient of his/her kindness we will have a love/hate relationship with him/her.

That explains, though it does not excuse, the people's response to the threat to Moshe. Sure they loved Moshe. He did so much for them. They needed him. And yet that very need fostered an ambivalence. That they felt ambivalent was normal and to be expected. But they were adults, not adolescents..True, they had mixed feelings Yet they needed to rise above the feelings and act on Moshe's behalf. That they stood by and let the one who had saved them over and over feel alone and abandoned is unacceptable behavior. How much more so when they accused him of having been the source of the problem rather than its victim.

Its hard not to see the later challenge against Moshe as a poor attempt to cover-up their own sense of shame for their failure to support their leader by heaping blame on the victim. And parents too can often feel that sense of unfairness when not only is a child ungrateful but actually blames the parents for their problems...problems the parent is only trying to redress.

When we deny our feelings because of shame or fear we only tend to compound the problem and make things worse.

The story before us this week should not be foreign to us. All of us have felt similar feelings to those of the Jewish people in our own journey towards maturation. Most of us have also experienced the loneliness of Moshe, at least in part, in relationship to our children, if we are good parents and allow our children to be real.

We are complex creatures and our feelings are multi-layered and often conflictual.To be mature is to have the courage to recognize our feelings and those of others in all their complexity and contain them so we can choose how we react. Being mature is never about pretending not to feel.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Knowing What to Say

A prominent psycho-therapist once revealed his secret for knowing exactly what to say in a counselling session. He said "whenever I feel I should make a certain intervention...I say exactly the opposite".

This week we have again a story of lashon hara, speaking badly of another. Last week Miriam engaged Aaron and together they spoke evil of their brother Moshe. This week the meraglim, the spies Moshe sent to explore the land of Canaan prior to the conquest, speak evil of the land.
Rashi asks, "why are the two stories juxtaposed in the text next to each other?". He answers, "because the wicked spies should have learned the consequences of lashon hara from Miriam and they did not".

We might wonder about Rashi's answer. Surely lashon hara was common. Many committed this sin. And with the laws of the leper in place in the Torah we could assume everyone knew the consequences. What exactly should the meraglim have learned from the story of Miriam that they did not already know.

I surmise the answer is that of course the spies knew the laws and consequences of lashon hara.
What they were not in touch with is how subtle the inclination to speak evil can be. Little doubt the spies brought back the negative report on the land thinking they were saving the people they loved from destruction and tragedy. They believed what they said about the land was not only not evil talk but a mitzva to be shared . Through their efforts no one would die in a battle sure to be lost. Through their efforts the people would not settle a land that would ultimately consume them. No doubt they justified their actions as heroic.

What they did not realize is the negiyut, the personal stake they had in the people continuing to live in the midbar. After all in the wilderness these leaders would retain their role...surely a role to be compromised in the new settlement.They were not cognizant of how their own interests influenced their behaviors and caused them to see that which was clearly lashon hara as speech both kosher and laudatory.

It is this that the story of Miriam should have taught them. They should have learned from her that even the greatest of the righteous can be seduced into saying something that is sinful of another.
No one loved anyone more that Miriam loved Moshe. If that was not enough, she protected him and saved his life as a baby. She had every right to believe she was entitled to say something about his conduct, and certainly to Moshe's brother who loved him so and shared with him the burden of leadership.

Yet Miriam erred. The spies erred. And I dare say all of us can err in what we say of another. We are surely no better than they and in truth far less as people. If their justifications were hollow and untrue how can we feel so confident and often self-righteous when we speak evil of another.

I often hear people say "well its really not lashon hara because I really love him/her". Or its really o'kay to say some-thItalicing bad about another because "I am protecting someone else from harm". Miriam said the first and the spies said the latter. Both were huge errors. Miriam's love did not make it kosher to say bad of Moshe, even to a brother who also loved him. And as to the spies, no matter what they saw, the land was Israel's destiny, not her demise.

I, like you, am forever tempted to speak loshon hara. And my guess is that any, and I mean any, justification to say bad of another is suspect. No matter the justification I make, I need to seriously question whether it is self serving in some way and I am simply deceiving myself.
On a personal level, I want to say that I have been severely hurt by people who said loshon hara believing they were doing someone a great favor. Like the the story of the meraglim, their rationale I am sure seemed to them impeccable. But sadly it was wrong. Just because I am sure I am right does not make it right. Such is the story of evil speech everywhere.

Perhaps the test we should apply before we say something bad of another is the one the psycho-therapist gave himself. What is my impulse to say? What do I feel I want to say? If I feel some pleasure or satisfaction in saying something bad of another, even if I have justification, I better hold off. Likely my speech is sin.

Only if it hurts me to say bad of another...only if I feel I have no choice but to say that which I do not want to...and even then limit my words to the necessary...can I perhaps believe my justifications to speak badly of another.

The spies are condemned because they did not learn from Miriam...We have two parshiyot back to back, read each year, to teach us so we not be condemned as well. The sins are grave, the consequences lasting.

As King Solomon in his wisdom wrote "life and death are in the hand of the tongue." Not only the life and death of whom we speak, but our own. We can not be too cautious!

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, June 1, 2009

In Search of Personal Nechama

To live is to lose...and the longer we live the more substantial and irreplaceable our losses.

When I was a child I visited my grandparents in their large home on President Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On my way home I realized I had left behind a favorite puppet of mine, one named after a children's cartoon character of the period, Flubadub. Years later, long after my grandparents had passed away, I visited Crown Heights for Shabbat and davened in the famed Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. I came to realize, to my amazement that the Yeshiva Beit Medrash was housed in the very same building that formerly was my grandparent's home... And what do you think immediately occurred to me?...Of course, to look for Flubadub!

Since Flubadub I have had many losses...more significant and gut wrenching. My father passed away three years wife two years ago...a dog I loved a year ago...and those are only the obvious losses of many many painful and sad. While the difference in the loss between the childhood puppet and those I loved can be talked about in terms of meaning and import. Its not that difference I want to reflect on here for a moment...Rather I want to think on how I dealt with the loss...Flubadub, the puppet of only instrumental value, I never really gave up on...Years later I found myself looking for him, as if he really could be found...As the losses in my life mounted my sense that losses could yet be found disappeared. I began to give up on ever having the loss restored, on ever finding a replacement, on ever finding a true nechama, consolation.

Nechama seemed something that belonged to the next world, not to this one. Yi'ush despair seemed the more realistic response in the here and now. It was get over it and move on...accept the losses as a consequence of living.

This week I happened on a Gemara in Pesachim that caused me to rethink my approach to loss. The Talmud teaches that there are seven things that are intentionally kept hidden from a person. Some are obvious, like the day s/he will die and the day Mashiach will come. We can surmise the reasons in both cases. Others are less obvious. And one gave me a new sense of hope. The Gemara teaches that one of the things kept hidden from a person is the day s/he will find his/her nechama (Rashi learns that the Gemara is referring to a personal nechama not the national nechama ).

Wow, so my nechama may actually be just around the corner and I do not realize it. It is coming if not yet. And if I do not see it now that does not mean it will not arrive. But if I do not look for it than when it comes I may miss it. Could there be any gift more precious to the despairing.

Before Yom Tov I went to a barber in my new neighborhood. I noticed that he was wearing a white shirt and black Shabbat pants as he cut hair. I asked him about it. I said "do you always dress this way for work? I have never been to a barber who dressed as for Shabbat while cutting hair". He explained, "We never know when Mashiach may come. And when he does I want to be dressed so I can go to greet him right away".

How wonderful that hashkafa. Not only does my barber not despair despite the long and painful galut. He anticipates the redemption, and each day. Now the question is can we apply that perspective to our personal life as well, and never stop believing that the nechama is yet to come, never stop looking for the Flubadub in our lives that has been lost.

You say, very nice but what has this got to do with the Parsha. Well, actually this thought was stimulated by this week's Torah reading. We are told towards the middle of the text, at the beginning of a sequence of stories of murmurings, that the people of Israel complained against Hashem.
But it does not say in the text what exactly was the nature of their complaint. Rashi explains that the people complained that G-d had them travel three hard days and that they were becoming weary from the harshness of G-d's travel requirements.

Hashem in response got angry at them. He said that here I have them travel out of love for them, to bring them more quickly to the Holy Land. And they interpret my intentions as a desire to cause them harm.

So often in life we complain that we are weary, that we have endured so many losses, that we cannot but despair from the harshness of our life's journey. It is all too natural to feel that way. Life is indeed hard.

And yet Hashem wills us to know that all that we go through is for our benefit and the nechama will come to us in time.But like the barber we must be prepared for it.And like the child in me we must never stop looking for it. And unlike the wicked of the Generation of the Wilderness we must know that our personal journey, no matter how challenging, always moves us to the promised land.

I pray that you and I will see the comfort promised us...that our day of personal nechama will soon come.

Shabbat Shalom