Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha B'Av:The Call to Romance

I was walking home from an afternoon mincha the other day and a sign on a post outside the beit kenesset caught my eye. It was a detailed invite to spend Rosh Hashanna in Uman, including the price of airfare and the itinerary.

Now I know its become quite the thing to spend special occasions at the kever of Rebbe Nachman. But still it struck me as ironic. We don't live here in chutz laaretz ( the diaspora). We live in the holiest place in the world. We live in Eretz Yisrael. And if that was not enough those reading the post live in Yerushalayim and in a neighborhood filled with Torah. Why would anyone want to leave Israel and the kedusha that abounds here to spend a Yom Tov in Uman, no matter how special the grave of Rebbe Nachman. It just doesn't make sense.

And yet the reason is in some ways obvious, if not to a relative new comer to Eretz Yisrael like me than to those of you who have been here for some time . For many, once you have lived here long enough Eretz Yisrael sadly loses its capacity to inspire. Yes, its home, and yes, its loved, but in being home it becomes familiar, and in being familiar only on rare occasions will Eretz Yisrael generate a feeling of spiritual excitation. To be inspired many feel the need to go to Uman to the grave of Rebbe Nachman or to New York and to the grave of the Lubavatcher Rebbe. Eretz Yisrael just won't do it for them anymore.

Yet as I write this on erev Tisha B'Av I think, how sad. Never mind those who live in the diaspora who never had enough of a love of Eretz Yisrael to motivate them to come here, but even those of us who love Eretz Yisrael, and in many cases made great sacrifice to settle here, have often lost the in-love feeling with the land. Like so much in life Eretz Yisrael too has been taken for granted.

One of the troubling components of the Tisha B'Av service is the content of the sole prayer we add to the amida on this day. The prayer is called nachaim and it is recited by the congregation but once a year on Tisha B'Av. The prayer asks Hashem to bring us comfort, to restore us, for we grieve greatly the destruction of Jerusalem.

Whats troubling about the prayer is that in asking G-d to bring us the long awaited comfort we describe the state of Yerushalayim in a way that once was true but is no longer. In the prayer Jerusalem is described as baron and empty, void of inhabitants, a virtual ruin. When the Ramban came to Jersusalem in the 13th century thats exactly what he found. He could not find a minyan with whom to daven. But its hardly true today. Jerusalem is thriving. Construction is everywhere. The city is bursting with Torah and tefila. How can we say the nachaim as it is written when it seems so patently false.

Many have argued that the prayer needs revision. I spoke to HaGaon Rav Yehosua Cohen about it and he said certainly if the rabbis would be writing the prayer today they would write it differently. But we have no one to rewrite it.

And yet even if the prayer is inaccurate when relating to the modern circumstances nachaim has an implicit message that is profound and vital. Tisha B'Av is not about the tragic losses of Jewish History, not the Holocaust, not the Crusades, not the pogroms. Of course we need to mourn and remember. But not Tisha B'Av. This day is about the churban, the destruction of Jerusalem and our yearning to return. That all that is talked about in nachaim. That its sole focus. And that is as it should be.

We need to recall that the first Tisha B'Av was the result of the People of Israel rejecting the land of Israel in the wilderness. It has always been about Israel the people's relationship with Israel the land. Any focus outside of that no matter how noble only serves to minimize the urgency of cultivating the chibat haaretz, the love of the land so necessary to the ultimate redemption.

I heard Rav Benny Lau make this point succinctly and powerfully last Shabbat. If you make the tears of Tisha B'Av about those who perished al kidush Hashem, those of our brothers and sisters who died sanctifying the name of G-d, then you pass-over the challenge Tisha B'Av is meant to have for each of us about our relationship to Eretz Yisrael. If your mourning is for the tragedies of the exile then you don't have to question yourself as to why you are sitting on a low bench in an air-conditioned synagogue in Los Angeles or New York as you read Eicha. There is no incongruity.

But if you understand that Tisha B'Av is about our relationship to Israel, if you read nachaim and feel its exclusive focus on our yearning for the return and rebuilding of the land then never mind the incongruity between the description of Yerushalayim in the prayer and its current condition, the real incongruity is how you can express the prayer while remaining in the galut with no intention to return...or say the prayer and feel the need to go to Uman for Rosh Hashanna for inspiration.

In a few hours the fast will be upon us. Let us mourn on this day that for which the fast was established, the destruction of Jerusalem, the tearing down of our holy Temple, the exile of our people from our land. Let us rekindle in our hearts the love of the land, the yearning for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the desire for the final redemption.

As Rebbe Yehuda Ha'Levi wrote so many years ago the impediment to the coming of the Mashiach is Israel's failure to love the land sufficiently. Years have passed. Israel is resettled. The same issue nonetheless remains.

This Tisha B'Av let us renew our love affair with our land. And may that romance bring about the ultimate nechama.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Need for a Personal Churban

Rebbe Yochanan understood from a text in the Neve'em ( Prophets) that if Israel had studied Torah, even with their sins, the Temple would not have been destroyed. The Gemara questions Rebbe Yochanan by asking "that will work for the first Temple, but in the second Temple they did study Torah." Rebbe Yochanan responded by saying that the sin that brought down the first Temple was idolatry, that sin the study of Torah can mitigate. The second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, unwarranted hatred between Jews. That sin is more severe and even the study of Torah could not prevent the destruction.(Talmud,Kalah Rabati)

At first glance Rebbe Yochanan's remark is startling. Can the sin of sinat chinam really be a worse sin than avoda zara (the worship of idols). The worship of idols is one of the three most grievous offences. The perpetrator incurs the death sentence. Surely its not proper to hold hatred towards another. We need to dispel inappropriate enmity. But how can that sin be worse than the worship of idols.

If one studies the texts surrounding the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash one begins to resolve the mystery. The stories told in the Talmud of the times prior to the churban (destruction) reveal a society that while functioning at a high level was corrupt and self-righteous. The story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, for example, tells of how the high society,one that prided itself on its sophistication and yes piety, could be cruel and humiliating to the individual. Rabbis, sages, communal leaders sat idle and allowed the public shaming of another.

The Talmud in Gittin tells us that the same rabbis who witnessed and remained silent to a Jew's public disgrace were so scrupulous in keeping the law that for far fetched reasoning they would not offer a sacrifice with a blemish sent by the Romans even while knowing to not do so would risk war and devastation.

The Jerusalem Talmud goes further in telling how when a visitor came from the village to Yerushalayim to worship at the Temple those in positions of power would create devious plots to take his land from him. They would pretend to befriend him and get him to surrender his lands. When that didn't work they would draw up false documents saying he sold his land to them. He would go home and find himself without a home. And then say I wish I would have broken my leg and never have come up to the holy Temple.

Its not that the sin of baseless hatred is as great an offence as the worship of idols. Idol worship for an individual is a cardinal crime . It is rather that the sin of sinat chinam when it prevails in society is more deleterious to the survival of that society as one healthy and good. Avoda zara is terrible but it can be remedied. As Rebbe Yochanan said the study of Torah can offset its dire consequences. But unwarranted hatred, the mistreatment of a fellow Jew is a disease that effects the very fabric of the society. No topical cure, no medicine, no amputation can get rid of it.
Unless the whole society is brought down and remade there is no hope for rehabilitation.

What Rebbe Yochanan was saying was not that the sin of baseless hatred is worse than idol worship. But it is more pernicious and more consequential. If a society, one that otherwise is high functioning and even learned is plagued by sinat chinam there is not alternative but to tear it down and start over. Sometimes even sins not that large on the scale of punishable offences can be so insidious as to warrant tearing down the house. There is no other way to get rid of the rot.

I believe there is a message here for you and me. And its important. We do the best we can, but each of us has sins. For some sins its enough we do teshuva. We remain who we are and seek to correct our wrongful behavior. Typically those sins are sins bein adam la Makom, between man and G-d.
But some sins. while not as severe an offence in themselves are in fact more pernicious. They cause a rot inside us. Most often they are sins bein adam l'chaveiro, between a person and his/her neighbor. They often have to do with bad midot, character flaws like arrogance, intolerance, judgementalism and others. Where they exist in us they are part of who we are. We do all the mitzvot, we daven , we learn, we live our religious life with them. We look frum. we eat frum , we live frum, and feel no lack.

And yet those are the kinds of sins most corruptible. We cannot get rid of them unless we remodel who we are, and yes bring ourselves down. When we have entrenched within us bad character traits they are a disease, a rot, that cannot be mitigated by learning, davening or mitzvot. To save the purity of our souls we need a churban of self. And then to make ourselves over.

I know these are strong words. But I also know they are a compelling truth. No one will tell you you are spiritually diseased. After all you participate in the community with everyone else. The disease, like that at the time of bayit sheni was hidden from those who lived through it. But in your soul you know it. And you know you cannot make it disappear, at least not without facing the truth and tearing your self down in order to rebuild anew.

The churban while a great tragedy was also a great good. It paved the way for the times of mashiach. That's why the end of Tisha B'av, a day of great and intense grief has a dimension of joy. I invite you to think with me about a personal churban that we might invite as a means to pave the way for our own yeshua. I suspect that for near all of us at some time or other in our lives we will need a churban to be spared from the consequences of a spiritual disease within.
What that churban will look like is different for each individual. But be sure in all cases it means life cannot go on as it was, neither on the inside nor on the outside. Our churban, like that of our people is sad but not bad. Each is the necessary harbinger of hope.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meaningful Madness

There is a meaningful Hassidic story that is told of one of the great Rebbes. He called his shamas into his study and proceeded to mark both their foreheads with a black streak. The rebbe explained to the surprised shamas, "There will come a time when madness will prevail in the world. We and everyone else will lose our minds. No one will be spared. When that time comes you and I will look upon each other, see the black mark on our forehead, and know that we are mad."

We are in the midst of the period known as bein hametzorim, between the afflictions. Its the three weeks time between the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of Tisha B'av, when we are all in a state of national mourning over the destruction of our Beit Hamikdash, Holy Temple and the galut, the exile of the Jewish people from our land.

The signs of the mourning are everywhere. Restaurants are advertising fish menus for the 9 days when we don't eat meat. Barbers are taking vacation since no one will take a haircut. No weddings means no invites to celebrations and no chatan v'kallah, bride and groom.
But most of all you can see it on the faces of so many men in the community as beards are sprouting up and the typical neatness gets covered with a dark stubble.

Many have asked to what end are all these mourning practices. The Temple is long gone, the exile near two thousand years old. Moreover we are back in Israel. We have our land and with it our independence as a Jewish state. What are we grieving? What is our loss?

While there may be many ways to answer those questions I believe the truest answer is the one implicit in the Hassidic story above. We, like the rebbe predicted, live in a world where all are mad. In what way you that we are overwhelmed with the insanity of the galut.

We are not the same persons nor the same people we were before the Exile. Once we were fused with a Jewish spirit that was uniquely ours, the product a people living with its G-d on its land.
Once we had a King and a Priest and Prophets walked the land. The laws that governed us were the laws of the Torah. We were totally free to be our truest selves. The people, the land and the faith were all in alignment.

With the exile we lost more than a home. We lost our selves in the deepest sense. Rashi explains a verse in the second paragraph of the shma by saying that our self is so compromised in the galut that we only keep the commandments now in order to prepare us for when we return. We are half-selves, diminished by the persecutions and the compromises necessary to survive in a world alien to our values...and over so many centuries. We are unrecognizable to the self who lived in the land influenced by the Divine and free to express the faith without fear or external influence.

Relative to who we were and in a deep sense continue to be, we are indeed mad. And the greater tragedy still is that we are unaware of most who are mad are unaware. We do not realize how much we are a shell of our truer selves, how much the galut has compromised us.
We think "well I keep the mitzvot or I learn Torah, or I daven with kavana." We don't realize that the we keeping the mizvot, learning, or davening is simply an inferior we.

In our madness we need a sign, like the black mark of the Hassidic story above, a sign to remind us we are indeed mad. That's what the mourning signs are all about. The unshaven faces remind us, the closed barber shops reminds us, the signs in the restaurants remind us....we are compromised...we are children of the galut..we are in our own ways mad.

Knowing we are mad does not change us. The knowledge does not make us sane. But it does make us more available to healing when it indeed comes. It helps us place our reality in its truest context. And it prevents us from settling for a fools gold.

So when you walk the street during this period and look upon your neighbor's face remember you are a child of the galut, even if you were born here in Israel. And pray for me and for you and for our people that we may be able to remove the black mark and be restored to sanity.
May Hashem bring our redemption now!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

To be a Zealot!

What does it mean to be a zealot? When is it kosher to be a kanai in the service of our G-d and faith?
My reading of this weeks parsha and the story of Pinchas gives me a surprising answer.

Lets begin at the beginning. You recall from last week's reading that Pinchas slew Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon for his public fornication with Cazbi a princess of Midian. In response, we are told this week, G-d gives him the brit shalom, the covenant of peace.
Listen to the words of the text...."Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron Hakohen restored my anger from the children of Israel when he was jealous for me in their midst and I did not destroy the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore I give him the brit shalom."
The fact that the Hashem uses the word lachayn, 'therefore', implies that the brit shalom was a reward in kind, mida keneged mida, measure for measure. What Pinchas received as a gift from G-d was a direct consequence of his action.
And yet thats surprising. Pinchas's act was one of courage, a devotion to truth, perhaps a manifestation of a great love of G-d. If he was to receive a reward from G-d that followed from his actions we would expect a brit emet, a covenant of truth, or a brit gevura, a covenant of strength, or a brit ahava, a covenant of love....Why a brit shalom? You could call Pinchas's actions many things but "peaceful" doesn't seem one of them.

And yet I believe that on deeper reflection we can see Pinchas's zealotry was commended by Hashem precisely because it was an act at its core for the sake of shalom.
What did the opening verse say about why G-d found Pinchas's actions laudatory. Not because he acted to defend the honor of G-d. That was a consequence not the reason. The reason is because Pinchas removed Hashem's anger from the people. He restored shalom between the people of Israel and their Father in Heaven, The way he did it was through an act of zealotry in the name of G-d. But the reward was for the result. And the result was the restoration of Israel's relationship with G-d.

Zealotry is only commendable when it is meant to foster shalom. Our sages tell us that Pinchas was the same person as Elijah the prophet, also a zealot. Yet at times Eliyahu's kanaut was found wanting by G-d. It did not earn the approval of the earlier zealotry of Pinchas. Why?

The answer is that G-d does not require defenders. He requires peace-makers. When Eliyahu expressed kanaut yes it was motivated by a fierce love of G-d and of truth. But that alone won't justify an zealous act. For zealotry to be in the service of Hashem its purpose needs to be to foster peace between Israel and G-d or at times peace within the community of Israel itself.
Then and only then can an act of zealotry be found commendable.

I cannot think of a more important lesson for us to learn. How often do we feel anguished when someone does something wrong. We want to chastise them, correct them, set them straight.
Often we can barely control ourselves from expressing disdain for their behavior. And we will justify our feelings and actions as motivated by a love of G-d and a devotion to the good.
We may shun them or talk about them as evil and believe we are acting to defend G-d and G-d's truths.

Yet that kind of zealotry and intolerance has no place in the scheme of Torah values. We are not entitled to take Hashem's vengeance. The story of Pinchas teaches us that zealous acts are only warranted when the goal is to foster shalom, to bring about a renewal of relationship between the Jew and his/her Father in Heaven. Then and only then can I treat another in a non-loving way. And even then one needs to be motivated by the yearning for peace.

There is a wonderful story of the Chafetz Chayim I saw in detail in an interesting book The Secret of the Jews: Letters to Nietzsche by David Ben Moshe. I will just share here the essence of the story. A young yeshiva student in Radin went off the righteous path, so much so that he no longer kept Shabbat. The hanhala of the yeshiva was determined to kick him out. Still they thought as a last resort to bring him to see the Chafetz Chayim.

When he enterred the Chafetz Chayim, then a man of 80 walked over to the young man, took his hand in his, and said over and over one word, Shabbos, Shabbos. He then wept real tears, hot tears that dripped onto both of them.

The yeshiva bochur was changed forever.He returned to the yeshiva and to a Torah lifestyle. Peace between him and his Father in Heaven was restored.
That's the model of kanaut we need to aspire to, one that is motivated not by emet, gevura or even ahavat Hashem. But rather one motivated by shalom!

May we learn the real lesson of Pinchas and earn for ourselves a brit shalom by pursuing peace.
For the sake of peace and only peace even kanaut is praiseworthy.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Facing Our Truth

The Talmud tells a compelling story of the grandson of perhaps the most famous of tanaim Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai. His name was Rebbe Yossi, the son of Rebbe Elazar, the same Rebbe Elazar who was with his father Rebbe Shimon in the cave hiding from the Romans as they together penetrated the mystical secrets of the Torah.

Rebbe Yossi, though the grandson of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and son of a great Tana as well did not start out in life in the path of his illustrious parentage. The Gemara tells us that Rebbe (Rabbi Judah the Prince) who was a friend and colleague of Rebbe Elazar, went to check on the welfare of Rebbe Elazar's son after his passing. He found Yossi immersed in a hedonistic lifestyle. The enthusiasm he displayed was not for learning Torah but for pursuing harlots. He had gone off the derekh hayashar, the path of righteousness.

Rebbe met Yossi and rather than chastise him or try to get him to change...the first thing he did was ordain him as rabbi. He then bestowed honor upon him by sitting him at the head. Having done that, having made a special place for him in the community as one of stature, he gave him over to another great Rebbe to begin to teach him Torah.

The Talmud tells us that in the beginning every day Rebbe Yossi wanted to return to his former lifestyle. Each time he was reminded of the honor he possessed, the esteemed clothes he wore, and the title by which he was called..And he swore to remain in the world of Torah.

Finally the Gemara records one day years later Rebbe was giving a shiur and he heard a familiar voice in the beit medrash. He said "thats the voice of Rebbe Elazar ben Rebbe Shimon I hear". His students told him that indeed it was his son Rebbe Yossi's voice he was hearing. And with that nachas Rebbe quoted the verse in Proverbs, "Pree tzadik eitz chayim....the fruit of the righteous is like a livng tree."

This week we read a parsha that also tells a story. The story of Bilam who was brought by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites but instead of cursing them found himself blessing them. It has always fascinated me that we call the words Bilam expresses blessings. Yes the words speak laudatory of Israel...but they are not blessings in the sense of expressing the desire for good to happen to them. I mean, birkat kohanim is truly a blessing. It has the words yevarechecha, "may Hashem bless you" as its opening words. Each sentence the kohein speaks is for some good to occur.
But mah tovu ohelacha yaakov, "how goodly are your tents o'Jacob..." is descriptive of the grandeur of Israel. It does not appear to be a blessing. Yet we refer to Bilam's words as blessings.

We might ask the same question of Yaakov's final words to his children. We call his comments to each of his sons Yaacov's death-bed blessings. Yet they do not for the most part express a wish for the individual welfare of each of the children, certainly not in the way the blessing Yaakov got from his father Yitzchak did. What they seem to be is statements to each son about his character, his strengths and weaknesses. Why do we refer to them as blessings.

I believe the answer is that in both cases, Yaacov's address to his sons and Bilam's comments about the nature of Israel, they really were blessings. For there is no greater blessing one can give another than provide him/her insight into who s/he really is. We cannot know ourselves fully. No amount of introspection can guarantee that I have seen my true image. Our negeyut, self interest, inevitably blocks us from seeing with total clarity. Sometimes no matter how we try we will be as blind to our truth even as the judge, who accepts a bribe, and says I can still judge fairly, does not realize his prejudice.

We need others to help us know who we are, help us realize what we are capable of, help us discern what we need surrender as not for us and what we need embrace as our destiny. Others, those who love us without an agenda can reveal to us truths otherwise inaccessible to us. Their vision is necessary for us to live life consistent with our tachlit, our G-d give purpose. Without their vision we risk losing our selfs in a life-script that was never meant for us no matter how much we self-reflect.

Bilam told Israel "you are beautiful". He saw the goodness we often cannot see in ourselves. His vision of us reminds us of the excellence within even when we feel compromised. Yaakov told each of his sons of his weaknesses and strengths. No illusion, no deception, this is who you are. Accept it and fulfill your destiny.

Rebbe saw the son of Rebbe Elazar, in our opening story, and realized who he was. He saw the Rebbe Yossi inhering within the Yossi chasing prostitutes. While Yossi was blind to his call Rebe saw. He did not wait. He affirmed him, ordained him, honored him, and then waited for the
truth to emerge. And indeed it did.

We need others in our life who can see us and who can tell us what they see. We need those who love us without an agenda and without fear and who are willing to share their perspectives with us. It is not enough for a person to say "I am introspective, I know myself". S/he doesn't, at least not if s/he doesn't ask for help from others. We need to find the courage to ask for the truth that those who love us have to share. Otherwise we live with an inevitable blind that may well lead us to live a life never meant for us.

Someone close to you has a truth for you to hear....a truth about you ...a truth that will help you live with greater happiness and fulfillment....Don't be afraid....Ask for it!

Shabbat Shalom