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

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