Friday, August 28, 2009

Heroism vs Resolve

In a town where I used to live each year the local newspaper awarded a Person of the Year Award . Nominees were sought from the community and a blue ribbon panel would select the winner. Typically awardees were people who performed an act of outstanding valour. Perhaps s/he saved a person from the attack of a mugger at great personal risk. Or perhaps s/he made a great financial sacrifice on behalf of a stranger in dire circumstances.

I thought if that newspaper existed in the larger Jewish community perhaps this year it would extend the Person of the Year Award to the Lubavitcher Hassid who decided to donate his kidney to a Satmar Hassid who was dying and in need of a new kidney. If it was not enough that the man surrendered a vital organ as an act of great beneficence, he did it for the benefit of one who is a member of a hassidic sect in a long-standing feud with his own...indeed an inspiring act.

But the question is does performing inspiring acts make one a Person of the Year ?

In this weeks Parsha, that of Ke teizeih we are given more than 10% of the mitzvot of the Torah.
The reading is full of commandments both positive ones, meaning acts we are charged to do, and negative ones, things we are told we must not do. Nearly every verse contains another mitzvah.
If there is one common feature to the commandments it is that none call for extra-ordinary sacrifice and devotion. They do not call for heroism.
On the contrary the reading is contextualized by the fact that it acknowledges human frailty. The portion's beginning validates the soldier's lust in wartime and gives rise to the laws of the Yefat To'ar, woman taken captive who is permitted him within certain guidelines. The laws of divorce are found in the reading. Unlike the Catholics, the Torah allows that humans may be incompatible and cannot be required to live together where hatred persists. And the soldier who recently married is told to go home from battle, rather than asked to be heroic and die a new groom.

No, rather than heroism, the mitzvot call for commitment. Build a parapet around your roof so no one will be injured on your account. Pay your workers on time. Make sure to put tzizit on your four cornered clothes. Don't take advantage of another's misfortune by lending him money at interest. Don't hate the Egyptian or Edomite even though you might have reason. Don't return a slave to his non-Jewish owners.

The sequence of mitzvot for the most part will not change the world, even if you keep them. They are not a call to courage or sacrifice. But they will change you! They require a quiet resoluteness that when evidenced turns the rough and callous human into a mensch, good to G-d and good to people. And in the end that is what our time in this world is about. We are here to transform ourselves from the selfish and shallow to the loving and profound.

Most of the ten tests of Avraham our father were not calls for the heroic. They were tests of his resolve. They challenged his commitment to his calling, his character and faith. In the end with all that Avraham did little in his world actually changed. The bad guys remained bad guys. Idol worship prevailed. While his children followed his example, he did not lead a great revolution of faith. What did change was that Avram became Avraham. And that was change enough. The rest would follow in time.

Truth is many a not good person does a heroic deed. The individual awarded by the newspaper the Person of the Year Award may have saved someones life, but that in-itself does not make him/her a good person. The act of courage did indeed make a significant difference and should be commended. But Person of the Year ? I think not.
That award belongs to someone who is loving to the stranger and is kind and gentle with his/her spouse, to someone who give 10% of his/her income to tzedaka, and will run to do a favor even when his/her life is busy. Person of the Year belongs to someone who learns every day and is committed to growth, who looks at others with a generous eye without envy or resentment. Person of the Year belongs to someone who is honest even when it hurts to be, humble, and accepting of others different than him/herself. Person of the Year belongs to someone who keeps the mitzvot even when no one is watching, who is scrupulous with the little things that distinguish devotion, one who harbors no grudge and forgives insult.

Yes, without doubt, the Lubavitcher Hassid whose heroics we mentioned earlier is to be praised for his great gift. It was a beautiful and inspiring act of hesed. But as great an act of hesed as it was, in the end it remains a singular act. Person of the Year does not belong to the hero. We are not called upon to be heroes. Rather it belongs to the one resolute, who lives his/her life with a relentless faithfulness to a love of Hashem and a love of Klal Yisrael.

The Parsha this weeks sets the parameters by which we can measure our work and our lives. Yes, we are all challenged to the excellence of the Person of the Year. But we earn it in every exchange of words with another, in every day's service to Hashem. Rather than look for the great heroic gesture, lets seize the moment for the gift it offers for our becoming. The ordinary moments are the gateways to eternity!

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Giving Tree....Not!

Many years ago there was a very popular children's book called "The Giving Tree". The book told the story of a tree, given a female identity, who gave her all to make life better for one growing person. In the early stages of the person's life the tree provided shelter and shade. Later she offered her branches to serve as posts for a swing and hammock. And still later she made the ultimate sacrifice, making her very trunk available so it could be used to realize the person's dream to own a boat. All the while the tree did not complain. Rather she cherished her opportunity to give...even, in the end, to her own demise.

To a generation focused on 'me' the book provided an important challenge. It promoted the value of selfless giving and encouraged generosity. It was hoped that children who grew up with the story might be motivated to embrace the call to make their lives about giving rather than taking.

It is in that context that I want to explore with you a passage in this week's Parsha. In the portion of Shoftim we are given a series of laws that apply to a time when the nation of Israel goes to war. There the Torah says that prior to battle the kohen is to address the soldiers. He is to tell them, amongst other things, that in three cases a person should go home from the battlefield. If he either built a house and has yet not dedicated it ( some say to mean lived in it for at least a year) or planted a vineyard and not yet consecrated it ( most interpret to mean brought the fruit of its 4th year, the first year they can be eaten, to Yerushalayim in gratitude to Hashem) or betrothed a woman and not yet married her, in each case he is sent home.

And the Torah gives the reason in each case...lest he die in battle and someone else get to live in the house, consecrate the vineyard or marry the woman.

At first read the Torah passage is surprising. We would expect if he was to be discharged in the cases above it would be so he would not die without having known the pleasure from these important personal investments. That however is not the Torah's rationale. Rather he is sent home lest he die in battle and someone else live in his home, harvest his vineyard or marry his intended. What is the meaning of this concern with an other.

Rashi understood the Torah to be concerned with the agmat nefesh, the suffering that the soldier would experience were he to be killed. His suffering would not so much focus on his disappointment in not enjoying what he felt meant for him but rather be focused on that angst that someone else would partake of what was rightfully his.

While Rashi's explanation is compelling it is not without some difficulty. The Talmud Yerushalmi understands that the exemption for one who builds a home only applies to one who built in Israel where there is a mitzva to settle and dedicate a house. If one built and did not dedicate a home in the exile he is not sent home. And the Rambam rules that way l'halacha. Yet if the exemption was based on the angst the soldier would feel that his home was going to be lived in by another what difference would it make where the house was...whether in Israel or outside the land...the angst is the same?

I would like to suggest another direction here, a direction which puts the Torah in contrast to the Giving Tree story with which we began.

The battle scene the Torah is talking about is a milchemet reshut, a voluntary war, where Israel sees some strategic advantage to fighting its enemy. We are not speaking of a war of self-defence or a war against Amalek which are milchemet mitzva, wars we are commanded to fight.
In each of the later two situations there are no exemptions for the home owner, vineyard farmer and betrothed. They too must fight with their brothers.

Surely even in the war of reshut there is a call nonetheless to be part of the community of Israel and fight for her agenda. While the cause for which we are fighting in the strictest sense may not be a mitzva, to join our brothers and support the cause is a mitzva and every one's responsibility. That's what it means to be a people. That's what it means to be mishtatef b'tzrat hatzibur to join the community in her time of need. In a time of war or communal crisis the individual and his needs become subordinate to the need of the klal.

Yet even here, even where the national agenda eclipses the personal agenda there are exceptions. There are situations where we need to claim our call to fulfill ourselves .
If in the three cases mentioned the persons were to die in battle and not fulfill their work, if someone else were to complete an agenda that was meant for them, it would be a tragedy, even if the reason for the tragedy was because they had decided to give their lives to support their people. Yes the people's agenda take precedence but not if the implications were to mean these people's personal life's calling were to get nixed should they die in battle.

The Giving Tree has it wrong. Yes we are meant to give to others. Yes we need to be willing to make sacrifices for family and community. But we also need to know we have our own work to do in life.We have our own agenda, our own house to build, field to consecrate, person to marry. No one can do that for us, nor should they. At times we need to subordinate our agenda to the agenda of others, but we must have an agenda, and in the end we must realize it. We cannot excuse ourselves for failing to fulfill our personal hitchayvut, responsibility to ourselves, by saying we gave to the cause of others. The Sages say that when the kohen tells those who have the home to dedicate, vineyard to consecrate or woman to marry to go home, they indeed must!
In their words "to decline to leave is to deserve to be killed".

I believe the message is clear for all of us. Give we must! Sacrifice we must! But we must be just as vigilant in our commitment to become who we need to become and to do what we are called upon to do! It is okay at times to suspend our personal agenda. It is not okay to forsake it!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Road to Change

How do we change? Rav Yisrael Salanter said that it is more difficult for us to change a single mida, personality trait than it is to learn through all of shas ( the 63 tractates of the Talmud). Yet change is our mandate. The Sages taught that all the mitzvot were given just so as to shape our character. The work of our life is to achieve greater personal shleimut, wholeness of ourselves as persons. Whats the process? How is change realized?

In this weeks portion, that of Eikev, we find the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. There we are commanded to wear tefilin with the verse " and you shall bind them for a sign on your arms and for a totafot between your eyes". Now at first blush the verse is puzzling. The tefilin of the arm surely symbolize our actions, that which we do with our hands and our arms. The tefilin of the head, reflected in the totafot symbolize our thought and reflections.

If I was to ask someone which of the tefilin should be recorded first most would say the tefilin of the head, the totafot. We would normally assume thought precedes action. After we are commanded to wear the tefilin of the head, symbolic of our thoughts it would make sense to speak of the tefilin of the arm relating to our actions. We think and then we do!
Yet the verse reads the other way. The tefilin of the arm is commanded before the tefilin of the head. And even more we put on the tefilin of the arm prior to the tefilin of the head. Why? Whats the message here?

Each of us might find a meaningful interpretation as to why the Torah seems to first speak of action and then thought. I want to share this perspective with you...and it has much to do with our original question, how we bring about change.

Let me share this Hassidic story. A hasid came to his rebbe and asked for help. He said "Rebbe I have sinned for so long and now I want to do teshuva. Help me! I don't know what to do". The rebbe responded, "And when you sinned did you know what to do? You just did it! So now just do teshuva".

In the world of therapy they talk about paralysis by analysis. That is, people who spend so much time thinking of what they need to change and how they need to change and if they really can change that the reflections consume them and they never get past the reflection to actually bring about change.

While its true that the decision that we need to change is vital to our process, change only actually occurs when we get out of our heads and into our actions. Change requires a dynamic. And dynamics belong to the world of action.

That's what the rebbe told his hasid. When you sinned you did not think and plan. You simply did. The road to return and change requires a similar call to action. That's what the Torah is teaching us in calling for the binding of the tefilin on the arm prior to the call to place the tefilin on the head. Yes we need thought and reflection. But the work of our life is the work of change. We need to grow and become. And for that dynamic their is a primacy of the will, a call for action over thought.

The message here is vital for me and I suspect for you as well. All of us have things we need to change, improvements we need to make, challenges we need to get past. Talking about them is nice but at times unhelpful. Saying how important they are is nice but at times unhelpful. Going over and over the reasons why we are the way we are and the obstacles in our path can do more harm than good. All the above can easily lead to paralysis by analysis. We talk about it instead of doing it.

To change we need to stop thinking and do. When you consider the changes you have made in your life I think you will discover they occurred when you suspended thinking and let the actions lead. Its when you let go of your head and followed your drive that change occurred. Like the hasid in our story, you knew you had to and so you just did it!

If one wants to know how to change s/he is missing the point. To ask for guidance is to assume change is an avoda of the head. It is not. There is no recipe, no prescription,no mapped out course. Change is a product of the will. Its a dynamic. And to make it happen we require an avoda of the arm.

May we have the courage to let go of the mind in order to become and grow through our actions!

Shabbat Shalom