Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fear and Joy

"Trust in G-d and do the good". So says the verse in Tehilim. We might ask, what's the connection between the two? Why do we need to trust in Hashem in order to do the good?

Truth is that if we knew how vulnerable we are, how precarious our existence, we might never find the motivation to do anything of consequence. Its not surprising that braveness typically belongs to the young. Its the young who feel invincible. Its the young who feel no real harm can befall them. They are the ones who are typically ready to be the heroes. The older we get the more we are cognizant of our mortality and the more we are afraid.

Most of us live our lives as if we are never going to die. How else can we explain the fact that we smoke, eat the unhealthy, grow fat, without hardly a protest. And if that's true of the way we engage matters that affect us physically, how much more so the matters that affect our soul. We sin as if we will never have to face a judgement.

Intellectually, of course we know that we will die. We know that we are frail creatures only a moment away from cancer, G-d forbid, or a stroke or sudden debacle. We know that while we are not Job, his story could just as well be ours. But we also know that being fully conscious of the fear of our vulnerability and at all times will paralyze us. We know the fear of our mortality can be overwhelming. In an act of self-preservation we put it out of our minds. It is putting the awareness of our vulnerability out of our minds that makes living possible. It gives us the ability to invest in life, to marry, to raise children, to strive to make a difference.

And yet at the same time that escaping the reality of our mortality makes living possible it also compromises that life. In our unconscious state we can commit self and other destructive acts. We can cause ourselves the greatest of harm, commit the most serious of sins, all because we live as if we will not die.

And so we are left with a conundrum. To submerge the awareness of our frailty seems necessary in order to invest in the act of living. Yet to fail to be at all times conscious that we indeed can die or be rendered useless and at any moment, leaves us open to sin caused by the illusion of our invincibility. How indeed to live?

It is the Yom Tov of Sukkot that provides us with the answer to this powerful life paradox. At one level Sukkot is the holiday of joy. It stands premier of all the festivals in that we are mandated to be "only happy". The simchat bait hashoaiva, the joyous celebration of the water drawing in the Temple of old continues to be lived out symbolically during all the days of the chag. Its the harvest time. Yet Sukkot, this holiday of confidence and joy, asks us to leave our homes and go for seven days to live in the sukkah, the frail hut like structure that leaves us vulnerable to the elements. On the very holiday that invites us to celebrate the bounty of life and all its promise we are also mandated to fully engage the truth of how precarious our existence. We are called to face the fact that no resources in the world make us any more safe than we are in the sukkah.

The sukkah for seven days is our home. We are called to live there in the fullest manner possible. We eat, sleep, and converse in the sukkah. We are called to bring out into the sukkah our nicest dishes and finest foods. This is not a camping experience. This is where we live. And we are meant to live in this temporary residence as if it was permanent.

Ah, there it is. The mitzva of sukkah calls on us to live in a temporary residence as if it is permanent. The very challenge of our lives, to live in a temporary residence as if it were permanent.

We do not make believe the sukkah is a palace. When it rains we leave. It's a sukkah after all. And when we are compromised inside it we don't artificially make it stronger. We face the reality and adapt. And yet knowing full well it is indeed a sukkah we nonetheless invest in it. We live in it with permanence. And we do that not because the sukkah is not a sukkah but because we have trust in Hashem that He will do what He needs to even as we do what we need to.
"B'tach b'Hashem v'asai tov" "trust in Hashem and do the good".

Sukkot teaches us to neither deny the reality that life is incredibly fragile nor to flee from fear of investing in it because of that fragility. Sukkot teaches us that we can honestly confront the truth of existence and yet be happy. And the key is trust in Hashem. The trust doesn't mean that I know I will not face circumstances beyond my control. The trust allows me to surrender control and know I am safe no matter what occurs to me.

Anne Frank in her diary wrote "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and G-d. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that G-d wishes to see people happy".

In going out to the Sukkah we walk into our fears rather than flee from them. We say "yes" to all life's uncertainties...and with that we say "Yes" to life and living. All because as young Anne Frank, herself to be murdered by the Nazis, knew, "G-d wishes to see people happy".

Vsmachat b'chagecha, May we know the fullness of joy this wonderful holiday...not because we have escaped our realities but because we have entered them and with trust in and surrender to Hashem vanquished their power over us.

Chag Sameyach
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Holy Paradox

They say of the Apte Rebbe, also known as the Ohev Yisrael, that he disdained the idea of fasting. He felt that the medium through which we should serve G-d is joy. And fasting interferes with our ability to be joyous. He is reported to have said "If I could, I would do away with all the fasts in Israel save for two, Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur.... Tisha B'Av because who wants to eat and Yom Kippur because who needs to eat".

Yom Kippur is nearly here. It is the one day a year where we feel indeed who needs to eat. We are as angels. It does not intimidate us to say the baruch shem, the praise reserved exclusively for the angels out loud. We belong in their company. We wear the kittel, the white clothes of purity. Some even stand all day, as if we like the malachim, have no need to sit.

And yet is it not ironic that the very same we who identify ourselves with the angels spend the very same time, the whole day of Yom Kippur beating our fists against our chests, listing sin after sin, and declaring in the most sobering terms "haray ani lefanecha kichli malay busha uchleema" "behold I am before You (G-d) as a vessel full of shame and disgrace".

We who dress in the clothes of the pure in those very clothes confess the sins of the worst kind. We who have no need to eat repeat over and over how we have been seduced by every desire. We who say the praise reserved for the angels in one breath in another speak of our unworthiness to claim our right to exist at all.

How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? Are we hopeless sinners or angels? And if one is true how can the other be true and at the same time?

I think to understand Yom Kippur and its core message we need to distinguish between two similar sounding terms, shame and guilt. At first blush the terms seem almost synonymous.
We often use them interchangeably. Yet in reality they are very different. Someone wise once said "Guilt says "I have done bad" . Shame says "I am bad."

When a person feels guilty its a response to his/her actions. S/he feels s/he did something wrong. When a person feels shame s/he feels the problem is not with what s/he did but with who s/he is. For the guilty person there is always hope. S/he can amend his/her behavior, say "I am sorry" and get over it. To the person who feels what s/he did is a reflection of who s/he is there is no hope. If I did bad I can do better. If I am bad no matter what I do who I am remains the same. The problem is not my actions. If I feel shame the problem is me.

Pursuing this a bit further we might ask how does one know if one is essentially a good person who did bad or really a bad person? How do we know if shame or guilt is the appropriate feeling?

The answer is that to the extent one feels badly over what s/he did is the very measure of the level of goodness within him/her. I mean think about it. The person who is truly bad when s/he does something wrong has no sense of guilt or shame. S/he simply goes about his/her evil ways.
Bad people are measured by their lack of a sense of having done wrong. They have no conscience, no remorse, no hesitation to repeat the very same evil again.

Good people always feel remorse. They grieve over things they have done that have hurt others. They lament their selfishness and callous behaviors. They want to change even when that change does not occur. In that remorse is the sign of their intrinsic goodness. Their sense of having done wrong proves that they are indeed good people who did wrong. That they feel the wrongfulness of their actions proves that guilt is an appropriate feeling...but they have no need to feel shame...They are at their core good not bad!

And the deeper that one feels the regret, the more sensitive one is to the subtleties of his/her wrong-doing the more it reveals of the core goodness in that person. The better the person the more s/he is pained by the evil s/he has done.

That is the essence of Yom Kippur. On no other day are we as cognizant of our sins, both to G-d and to man. On no other day are we as full of regret over past actions and their consequences. On Yom Kippur even sins we often minimized during the year we acknowledge and tearfully confess. In those sincere and heartfelt confessions we reveal our essential goodness. The very sadness over our behaviors past paradoxically reveals the essence of the purity of our souls. In the intensity and depth of our remorse we gain a great gift. Even as we say unconditionally we did wrong, we affirm thereby that we are beautiful, good and yes within us inheres the purity of the angels.

Yom Kippur reveals to us who we really are. Our tears prove to us our goodness. Unless we believe that we are good no change is possible. Knowing we consist of the purity of the angels even if compromised by our actions opens the door to teshuva.

May this Yom Kippur bring us the gift of reconciliation with Our Father in Heaven and with all our brothers and sisters. Reconciliation is born in the integrity of our sorrow over our past misdeeds. The deeper the sense of our sorrow the more the hope for renewal.Their can be no real teshuva without a deep charata. For in that sorrow we affirm that we are indeed worthy and good. And out of that goodness we find the resolve to change.

G'mar chatima tova
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Personal Nisayon: Lessons from the Akeida

They tell a story of a hasid of Rebbe Shneur Zalaman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, who learned in the beit medrash all his life. He worked only enough to support the basic needs of his family. The rest of his day was devoted to Torah study. When he reached his seventieth birthday the hasid came to the Rebbe for a bracha. He expected the Rebbe to praise him for his life of dedication to learning Torah. The Rebbe said to him "A bracha I can give you...but praise for your learning is not in order. Would you praise a cow for giving milk?".

Rosh Hashanna is nearly here. While the tefilot of Day of Judgement, the Yom Hadin, speak to us loud and clear of the theme of Divine providence and G-d's rule over His world, the story we associate with the holiday carries a different message. Its the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeida. The Akeida is in essence about humans, not about G-d. It tells how Avraham, in accord with Hashem's command of him was willing to offer his precious son Yitzchak as a sacrifice.

The test of Avraham according to our Sages was not simply a challenge to surrender his son, difficult as that would have been. It was more. Avraham's very excellence was in hesed, serving G-d through love and kindness. He was the one who invited strangers into his home to feed and offer hospitality. He was the one who prayed for the cities of Sodom and Amora that they be spared if possible. He was the one who pained over the sending away of his son Yishmael, the reading of the first day of Rosh Hashanna.

That same Avraham whose whole life radiated hesed, was called by Hashem to curtail his loving feelings and obey the will of the Divine by killing his son in submission of his will to that of G-d's.

Why do we read this story in synagogue on Rosh Hashanna. There are many reasons. But I would suggest that one might be to teach us about the nisyanot, tests in our own lives. We each have them. Often we do not recognize them. We live our lives doing what comes natural to us.
If we keep commandments more than likely its because we find shmerat hamitzvot consistant with the life we want for ourselves. If we do hesed, say in giving tzedaka or inviting guests its because we enjoy it. It feels true to who we want to be. If we invest in raising our children and serving the community it all fits with our sense of self.

These are all good things, excellent in fact. But they do not earn us praise. Doing most of what we do in life deserves no more praise than for the "cow giving milk". Like the hasid in the story above, we are doing what comes natural to us. His learning was a wonderful thing. But it was not his life's nisayon.

The tests that we have in life are the ones that challenge us to do something that is not in our nature. We may be called to confront when we are typically retiring. We may be called to lead when we feel ourselves followers. We may be called to say "no" when "yes" feels natural to us.
We may be called risk when we have always played it safe.

Its those moments, the ones that challenge our modus operandi that give us the opportunity to rise to greatness. If we say "I can't", "I won't" "Its for someone else, not me." We failed our test.
And we have missed our chance for personal becoming.

The reading of the Akaida on Rosh Hashanna is not about Avraham. Its about us. Its about realizing that we too have our nisyonot. And while they may not be as dramatic as the Binding of Isaac, they are just as important in our yearning for shlaimut, completeness in the service to Hashem.

As the shofar sounds we would do well to remember the Akaida. Not only to ask Hashem to show us mercy in the merit of our Patriarch's self sacrifice. But to pledge our own commitment to do what is outside our nature in fulfilling our purpose in this life.

Your tests are before you if only you pay them heed. Yes, they are for you, not for someone else more fitting. You can do it. I know its not natural for you. That's the point. If its before you its meant for you. You have the hero's journey, not the cows !

Be a child of Avraham. Reach beyond your comfort to create a life worthy of praise! That's the message I hear this Yom Hadin, and will do my best to take to heart.

L'shana tova tikateivu v'teichateimu. May the year ahead be full of meaning, growth and joy for you and all those you love.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The End

The end, no two words engender more anxiety and dread than those. Whether its the end of a relationship or the end of a good book, we all hate endings. No one likes to say "goodbye". It hurts. And most of us will go to great lengths to avoid having to experience it.
We pretend the sick are not actually dying so we won't have deal with the grief and fear of goodbyes. We often, at times unconsciously, create a fight when we know we need to end a relationship just so it won't be so hard to walk away. We say "see you soon" even when we know it will not be soon and often never, just so we don't have to deal with the finality of endings.
All the burial practices of the modern Western society seem to be focused on making the dead not really dead. They are made to look alive and sleeping. They are not buried but left at the cemetery. Just so we do not have to confront the end .

Paul Simon caught the idea in the unlikely pop song of so many years "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". Not surprisingly none of the 50 included a meaningful sharing of goodbyes.

In that context its so fascinating to read Moshe's long goodbye to the People of Israel. He confronts his own death...and then, once accepting of his reality, gets on with the business of saying goodbye to his nation. All of Devarim, this fifth book of the Torah, we will soon conclude, is Moshe's farewell. It culminates when he tells them this week in the parsha of Vayelech, that his time is up, " ...I am one hundred and twenty years old today and I no longer can go and come...".

And Moshe is not the only one who said goodbye. Yaakov blessed his children on his deathbed, no pretense here that death was not imminent. David gave instructions to his son Shlomo as he lay dying.
Our tradition insists that we confront our ends...And not only the end of our life but all our meaningful ends. We end a marriage with a get. The husband must write in it you are free to marry any man. No illusions here about what the divorce means. And he must give his wife the get and she receive it (though it can be done via messenger).
We end the Shabbat with havdala, acknowledging the sadness of leaving the Shabbat's peace and joy for the week of toil and heartache. We end the amida, the silent prayer of presence with the Divine taking three steps back...as if to say a reluctant yet formal goodbye. We end a meal with the birkat hamazon. Non-Jews pray before they eat. We say our main prayers after, when we are painfully aware that the food is gone, the meal over, and we need to find the faith to believe there will be food again to sustain us. And when we confront a death we rent our clothes and makes a bracha. We participate in the kevura. We sit shiva, not to escape our loss but to engage it, to remember and grieve.

Judaism teaches us not to flee from goodbyes but to embrace them. They are ritualized. Often we make a blessing acknowledging the time of loss as sacred even if not happy. The question we might ask ourselves is why? Why put so much emphasis on facing closure. Why not do as we would prefer to do and just gloss over the loss, make believe it did not happen or that it isn't quite real?

Our faith's insistence that we confront our ends is one of its geniuses. Our G-d understood that there is an absolute correlation between goodbye and hello. If we are not able to say goodbye, then we will have as great a problem in saying hello. Life is temporal. The world is a world of flux. Things are always changing. As the expression goes "nothing lasts forever". If we are unable or unwilling to say goodbye we will, willy nilly, hold back on our commitment to the hellos in our life, because we know every hello must at some point lead to goodbye.

Many people are afraid of intimacy. They struggle to allow themselves to be known by others, even those closest to them. They struggle to fully love or fully commit to another. They remain outsiders in some important places in their lives. Truth be told, what these people fear is not the nearness. Actually, though they often do not recognize it, they fear the loss should the nearness come to an end. They are afraid of goodbye. And in order to not have to worry about experiencing goodbye they avoid the deep hello. To the extent you are intimidated by loss you will not commit. To the extent you need to avoid goodbyes you will be unwilling to say a meaningful hello.

It is for this reason that Judaism insists that we find the courage to say goodbye and, still more, ritualizes the goodbyes so we can find a way to cope with them. Our faith wants us to be able to face the end so we can begin with a fullness of commitment and a totality of self. It asks of us to not hold back, to love Hashem and each other without limitation. It demands of us that we live intensely, bchal levavcha uvchal nafshecha uvchal m'odecha "with all your heart and all your soul and all your might" as we are commanded to serve Hashem. Since all life is really service to Hashem thats how we are commanded to live. And we could not do that unless we overcame our fears of closure.

We are soon to end the year. Selichos begins motzai Shabbat (for Ashkenazim). In not much longer we will also conclude the Torah. Lots of endings. The End is hard to read, harder to say and still harder to experience. Yet we are called to confront it, to live our endings as much as we live the rest of our lives.

As we approach the Yom Hadin I would like to suggest an important piece of work for us is to look at our lives and determine those things that we need make closure on, whether they be relationships, activities, dreams, or ambitions. We need to say a formal goodbye to them, rather than let them just hang on for fear of confronting our personal reality that they are no longer relevant for us.

Saying the "goodbye " to that which belongs to our past is not a bad thing. On the contrary it is a good thing. It makes all the good that is awaiting us possible to be experienced. It may feel sad and we may need to grieve. But it is indeed yereeda ltzorech aliya, " a going down for the sake of going up".

May we find the courage that Moshe had to say "Goodbye" to those things we need to, close that which must and bring them to an end.
To embrace the gifts our G-d wants for us we need to be unburdened. Goodbye, closure, is the work of honest unburdening.
Is it any wonder shalom is both goodbye and hello. There cannot be one without the other!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mature and Immature Love

Two uncles of mine, my father o.b.m.'s, brothers, Ben and Ray, once found themselves together in a shule for morning minyan. After davening Ben said to Ray, "remember how when we were boys growing up we used to see those old men, bent and broken, krechtz there way to shule each day, and after davening drink a l'chayim with a shtickle herring and kichel?". Ray replied, "yes". And Ben said "well now they are us!".

For many years Judaism was a religion of the old. When young, people were busy making money, raising their children, pushing life to the limits to get from it all they could. They had no time for davening and learning. If you came to a typical synagogue in America morning minyan, where it existed at all, was dependent on the old and infirm. The continuation of the tradition required the marginalized.

I can remember my own years in a Jewish Day School. The A-list boys, those popular, athletic, and good looking rarely were the ones who took spiritual matters seriously. They were too preoccupied chasing girls and enjoying the gifts of youth to be interested in prayer and Torah study. The boys who were b and c list, the ones who often felt left out and marginalized, they were the ones for whom davening and learning had an appeal.

Experience seemed to confirm what Marx wrote long ago, "Religion is the opiate of the masses". The masses, those who lack and are wanting, turn to faith. The strong and healthy don't need it!

I thought about that as I read the parsha this week of Ke tavo and the long tochacha, section of admonition, warning the People of Israel of the severe consequences that will befall them should they fail to follow the Torah. At one point in the midst of the tochacha we get a startling statement. We are told that all the terrible calamities that will befall us are "tachat asher lo avadta et Hashem Elokecha b'simcha uvtuv lavov marov kol, because you did not serve G-d with joy and a goodness of heart inasmuch as you had so much plenty".

At first glance, and even at second, that's astonishing. Punished for failing to observe the Torah I can understand, that's part of Israel's deal with G-d. But punished because we observed but didn't do it with sufficient joy or a good enough heart, that seems a bit much. Whats going on here?

There is an old saying "Immature love says, I need you therefore I love you. Mature love says, I love you therefore I need you". Great truth is embedded in that pithy statement. Immature love is a love that comes out of need, a love born out of our feeling that we are missing something we require in our lives. It is the love typical of young people who marry and feel they lack in some part of themselves. They marry someone, a chatan or kalla, who can add to them what they feel they are missing. That's one reason people tend to marry their opposites. Whether they recognize it or not, they feel a fundamental need for each other out of a sense of personal inadequacy and from that need the love grows.

Mature love is a love that emerges when a person feels complete and accepts him/herself for who s/he is. Often its the love of older people who marry. They do not marry because they need to find in the other what they have not in themselves. They have already grown sufficiently in their lives to have become rounded and whole and/or they have come to accept their limitations such that they no longer search for it in another. . Typically they more marry someone similar to themselves. And they marry because they want someone to love. The need emerges out of the desire to have someone to love.

That kind of love more imitates the love of Hashem for us. G-d doesn't have a need for us that engenders His feeling of love. On the contrary G-d in His completeness only lacks someone to love. Its His love for us that engender His need for us.

It is the desire of our G-d that we love Him with a mature love, one born not out of our lacking but our of our fullness. He wants our love for Him to precede our need and be its generator. Over and over G-d gives us opportunity to love Him in that way. He gives us, the Jewish People, periods of prosperity and peace, where the brachot from heaven rain down on us. We have times when all our needs are met. And He says to us,"Please now love Me in this time of plenty when you don't need me".

But over and over we have failed to love the mature love. Instead the A-list young go play and pursue the pleasures of youth, and religion remains the purview of the old and marginalized, those whose needs propels them to love. Whether in ancient Israel or modern America again and again the same story is repeated. If there is no need there is no love. In prosperity we forget G-d and pursue our own agendas. When we are old, sick and full of worries we turn to G-d.

That's why the tochacha happens. Its the only means we, a people forever immature, have to stimulate our return to our G-d. In our anguish and national despair we are full of needs. We become a nation of the marginalized. And being marginalized our needs lead us to our love and return to Hashem.

But that's not what Hashem wants for us or from us. He does not want to have us come to Him out of need. He wants our mature love, a love that precedes the need and feeds it.

That's the deepest meaning of the pasuk we quoted earlier. The cause of all the afflictions is our failure to worship G-d in joy and prosperity, meaning, out of our fullness. The Torah used the term tachat, literally meaning instead. When we have a setting full of blessing and ideal to foster the mature love we turn away from our G-d. In response, sadly our G-d needs to foster the immature love instead, one born in misery, to bring us back to Him.

The cycle has played itself out over and again in the course of Jewish history. We move from the failed opportunity given us in times of prosperity to the yearning born out of persecution and then back again with nothing changed. We remain stuck in the immature mode of loving our G-d.

But wait! Something has changed. The shule of today is full of young people, not only the old and infirm. The yeshivot are attracting the a-list boys. And the most popular girls are choosing a life of devotion and modesty. Daf yomi is being studied everywhere. Its the in thing to attend a shiur. So many are learning, from the successful professional to the corporate executive. The movement to teshuva is relentless. And all this is happening at a time where Jews are free of major persecution, live, if they choose to, in their own land, and have unprecedented wealth. Nothing is denied us of the material world yet we choose to embrace our faith.

Can it be? Are we finally moving towards the goal of the mature love Hakadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy One Blessed Be He always wanted from us? Are we finally fulfilling our destiny?

The signs seems hopeful, the promise great. There is wonderful reason to believe the lover's tale of Israel and her G-d is indeed moving towards its climax. As we near the conclusion of the seven weeks of nechama, consolation after Tisha B'Av, the true nechama may be at hand.

We are oh so ready. While our need for Hashem may indeed emerge out of our love for Him it is no less compelling. We need our G-d ! May He reveal Himself to us, His people swiftly and in our days. Amen v'amen.

Shabbat Shalom