Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hesed Without Judgement

The Talmud tells a fascinating if troubling story of the great Amora, Rav. It was his practice to visit the cemetery there to converse with the dead. He often asked them of what did they die. In nine out of ten cases they answered "we died because of the ayin hara, the evil eye".

One of the renowned commentaries on the Talmud explained that the ayin hara that causes our death does not refer to the evil eye cast on us, but rather the ayin hara with which we look at others. It is our crtical gaze on others, questioning whether they deserve what they have that brings G-d's judgement on us. G-d says, as it were, "if you think others should only get what they deserve and no more, then I will judge you by the same standards". When we are judged exclusively on our merits inevitably we fall short.

This week in the parsha we meet our father Avraham. Avraham was the exemplar of doing hesed, acts of loving-kindness. His whole life was devoted to teaching the way to Hashem by outreach in the form of hospitality and care.

It is interesting to note that though Avraham extended himself to care for others and showed them love he was not naive about the evils of human nature. Avraham was no Pollyanna. He knew people were flawed and flawed severely. Just look at the stories and this becomes clear. Early on we read of his travels to Egypt and later to Gerar. In each case he saw the citizens as likely to kill him so as to claim his beautiful wife Sarah. When his shepards fight with those of his nephew Lot, Avraham does not say "lets work this out". On the contrary he sees the feud likely to escalate unless action is taken. He tells Lot "separate from me". Rather than mediate the confrontation he chooses to end the relationship. And still later after he saves Lot, the king of Sodom offers to let Avraham keep the booty he has won in his war on their behalf. Avraham refuses saying I suspect if I keep it you will go on to say "I enriched Avraham".

No, Avraham knows people can do terrible things. They are not necessarily good at all. He doesn't invest in hesed because he thinks the people are entitled to it. He does hesed because he realizes the way to tikun olam, repairing the world is by engaging in doing kindness to others.
Avraham recognizes that acts of kindness create a force for the good in the world, a force that enhances all of life and moves it to greater shlaimut. Avraham does hesed because hesed is what the world needs. And all humanity is blessed and sustained when a person does kindness to another.

I remember a few decades ago when much was written about the power of random acts of kindness. When I write of random acts of kindness I mean doing something kind for someone you do not know or may never know simply for the blessing it brings to the world. It may mean walking over to the man working hard on the train tracks in mercaz ha'ir and giving him a bottle of lemonade or ice cafe. It may mean putting money in a parking meter that's expiring, or it may mean giving 20 shekel to the woman who asks for a donation and would be grateful for 1.
Random acts of kindness don't ask whether the person is deserving of the gift I am giving. They are powerful precisely because we do not make a judgement. We simply see an opportunity to do a kindness and we do.

That's the hesed of Avraham, the hesed that made him the great benefactor of all, both Jew and non-Jew. When someone asked him for a favor he did not ask himself whether they warranted his effort. He did not do good for others on the basis of their deserts. He did for other because hesed is always good. Hashem built His world on hesed and so Avraham emulated His ways.

Can there be a more important lesson for us to learn. How often does the man collecting ask us for a donation and we start to question whether he deserves or really needs our help. We judge before we give. We judge before we do. That attitude is sadly the kind that brings the kitrug, the judgement down on us from above. As we judge others so we are judged.

Would we not be better if we simply did the act of hesed for no other reason than the person asked for it, without judgement or critique. Then we would be walking in the footsteps of Avraham. Then we would be doing hesed in the way that sustains the world. Then we would be doing the random act of kindness that makes both us and others better.

I take the lesson this week to heart and on a personal level. Bli neder, without taking a vow I pledge to do 5 acts of random hesed a day. It can be a kind word spoken to someone who does not expect it and maybe has not earned it, or it can be letting the person behind me go in front of me in line at the makolet. It need not be money. It simply need be hesed for the sake of hesed. I hope you will join me in such a pledge. The results will make another happy, create a positive energy in the world, and earn us the kindness from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that we bestow on others.

Let us walk in the way of our father Avraham. Let us do hesed without the judgement!
Can their be anything more worthwhile!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Consequences of Success

"Nothing ruins a man quite like success". So goes the adage that gets validated over and over in the course of human drama. From Bill Clinton's absurd fling with Monica Lewinsky to Bernie Madoff's ponzi scam the stories of men and women who achieve prominence and then self-destruct is legion.

And we first encounter such a story in this week's parsha, the portion of Noach. At the outset of the reading Noach is referred to as the ish tzaddik. A person can receive no greater personal validation, and this from the Torah no less. He is the real survivor, chosen to stay on the island of the world not by scheming peers as in the television series but by G-d Himself. All of life is indebted to Noach for its existence. Can there be any greater success than to have literally saved the world?

Yet a short time later in the parsha after leaving the ark Noach is referred to in quite different terms. As he begins to enter the normalcy of life he is called the ish ha'adama, " the man of earth". His first real labors are to plant a vineyard. We are told he goes on to get drunk from its harvest, so drunk that he rolls around naked in his tent and becomes the object of ridicule (and some say much worse) for one of his children and grandson.

How can it be? How can Noach who was so strong and so moral as to stand alone againt a whole world of corruption become so compromised and self-destructive. What happened?

We can ask that very question of so many who seem to have fallen from grace. Are they hypocrites? Were they really never as good as they pretended to be. Does the lapse indicate that the person we thought them to be was never really them?

Its easy to say that. And in some cases it may be that they were never really who they claimed to be.

But the story of Noach says that's not always true. After all the Torah calls Noach a tzaddik and affirms him in glowing terms. Clearly he was not a pretender. Yet tzaddik though he was, he had a mapala, a fall in stature. Great as he was, he compromised himself.

What happens to people when they seem to self-destruct is mysterious and the reasons may be as varied as the people themselves. We can speculate about Noach. We can say that he lost purpose. He had no social evil to fight, all his adversaries were dead. The new world belonged to his children to settle. With no heroic agenda before him what was left to him? Planting a vineyard is a pale substitute for saving the world.

I suspect that many a seemingly great person self-destructs precisely when their battle is won.

They no longer have a mission to motivate them. The history of revolutionaries from those who fought the Czar to Castro shows that once in power idealism gets lost and the new become as corrupt as the social system it was meant to replace.

I believe Bill Clinton is a good person. And Bernie Madoff was not always evil, after all he earned the trust of many people. Call me naive, but even Fidel Castro at one time was concerned with the masses and willing to make heroic personal sacrifices on their behalf. For Bill, Bernie and Fidel their successes compromised, and in the later two cases,
corrupted them. Success has that effect.

And you and I are vulnerable too. Until we accomplish our goals we can be so generous with others striving like we are. We identify with those marginalized and struggling. Yet once we succeed we so often show a kind of arrogance and deal with others in a condescending manner. How many might say of us "He used to be such a nice guy. Now he thinks himself a big shot". In our successes,when no longer driven by a purpose larger than us, we lose our humility. In losing our humility we self destruct. We lose our souls.

So whats the answer. Surely it cannot be to wish for failure.

While the world may not have an answer, we as Jews do. And the answer is learning Torah.
Our sages long taught "barati yetzer hara barati Torah tavlin", G-d says as it were " I have created the evil inclination. And I have created its remedy through the study of Torah".
The study of Torah forever provides us with a purpose. We never complete our learning and we never know enough. Torah study is the antidote to gaava, the arrogance that causes our demise. It is always larger than us. It always presents us with a challenge. What do we call the one learned in Torah... a talmid chacham, a wise student !

If Noach had a Torah to study he would never have been identified as the ish ha'adma. If he had a Torah to study planting a vineyard would not have been his work. Sure he would have finished his task as savior of the world but the daf yomi would have been waiting.

We can have success. Indeed G-d wants us to long as we are learning Torah. To separate from Torah study is to become vulnerable to compromise and corruption. We risk self destruction precisely when we have most achieved. We need Torah to keep us focused and filled with mission.
With Torah our work is never done. Before her we can never think ourselves
greater than others.

Torah is the sam hachayim, the elixir of life. How fortunate we are that we can learn !

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pure Hesed

Do you have a favorite pasuk ? I will admit I do. And its found in this week's parsha. My favorite is " vayas Hashem Elokim l'adom u'lishto katnot or vayalbeshem"...." And Hashem made for Adam and his wife clothes of skin and He dressed them".

The verse is found after Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. Confronted and punished by G-d they stand now fearful and ashamed. G-d in His love for them recognizes their terrible circumstances. Yes they have sinned and sinned badly. Yet they are His children. They are the future parents of humanity.He feels their suffering. He makes for them beautiful clothes. Still more, G-d Himself serves as their valet and put these beautiful clothes on them. Through His love they are restored.

The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Simlai " Great are the acts of loving-kindness such that the Torah begins with loving-kindness and ends with loving-kindness." It begins with loving-kindness when it tells us how Hashem clothes Adam and Eve after the sin. And it ends with loving-kindness when we are told Hashem buries Moshe after he ascends the mountain of Nebo to die.

Beautiful indeed. Yet one could wonder, why does Rabbi Simlai claim the first kindness of the Torah is the one reflected in the verse I referred to as my favorite. Were there not prior kindnesses to the clothing of Adam and Eve. After all creation itself was a hesed. And so was giving Eve to Adam a hesed when he was alone in the Garden without a help-mate.

And there is another curious dynamic here. The sages of the Talmud wondered where did these skins Hashem used to clothe them come from. There was no death in the Garden, neither animal nor human. Rabbi Elazar gives an unusual answer. He says the skins were from the snake, the very same snake that tempted them into sin. The snake shed his skin and from it Hashem made their clothes.

We already learned this was an incredible act of hesed. What kindness would it be to wear the clothes from the skins of the snake that was the source of their demise?

In order to better understand what real hesed is we would do well to understand human need.
Many of us are familiar with the quote "You can't love someone else unless you love your self".
It makes sense. Real love comes from a sense of fullness. It does not come from a void. (We have already discussed some on this in the blog "Mature and Immature Love".) If I do not love myself inevitably my love for you will be tainted. Loving you will, at a deeper level, be part of my struggle to find love for myself rather than be about you. If I do not love myself I have no (pure) love to give another.

But while that's a familiar idea, even if sophisticated, there is another part to the quote not as well known. " I cannot love myself unless someone else loves me". And why is that true. Well think about it. I know I have many shortcomings. There is much about myself that I do not like.
With all my flaws how can I love myself. On the contrary it may be more reasonable to hate myself for all I lack. Indeed people who do not experience the love of another often have very ambivalent feelings towards themselves.

When someone else loves me, with my flaws, knowing that I am compromised, they show me that I am lovable. Their love for me helps me to love myself. Of course that only works to the extent the other knows me. If I hide my shortcoming from them, if s/he loves me because they think I am better than I am and don't know my flaws, their love for me has no real power to cause me to love myself. Sure they provide a nice feeling, but deep inside I think they only love me because they think I am better than I am. If they really knew me they would reject me.

It is only when we risk letting ourselves be known, and yes rejected, that the love we receive can bring us to feel the elusive gift of genuine self-love. And it is only when we have been vulnerable and received that love in return that we can come to bestow true love on another.

Hashem did many kindnesses for Adam and Chava prior to the sin. But in each case the hesed, while a gift, provided for a physical need or comfort, but did not touch the core of their being.
It was only after the sin, when Adam and Chava were painfully aware of their inadequacies and struggled to love themselves that the gift of Hakadosh Baruch Hu became an ultimate manifestation of hesed, one that actually was experienced as an expression of love. Here in the midst of their shame and fear Hashem cared for them not only to make beautiful clothes for them but to dress them, Himself. He said thereby "I love you", in deeds so powerful, not because He did not know their flaw but with their flaw.

That's the message Rabbi Elazar wanted to impart when he said Hashem made the clothes from the skins of the very snake that brought about their sin. When Hashem gave them clothes from that snake its as if He said " I am not loving you because I am pretending you did not sin, that you are better than you are. No, I know you, I know your sin. The clothes I am making say loud and clear you indeed have failed. And yet I love you, with your failings!"

Truth be told the story of Hashem's hesed with Moshe was similar. Moshe was informed he had to die. He was not to enter the Holy Land. Little doubt he too felt the weight of his inadequacy when he left the camp alone to climb Mt Nebo there to await his death. Did he feel the shame of that failure? Did he ache for what might have been? It could not have been easy. Yet precisely here, in his time of feeling inadequate, Hashem shows Moshe a special love. It is when Moshe feels least good about himself Hashem says "I will bury you...not leave it to others...for indeed I love you".

In loving Adam and Chava, they could come to love themselves, with their limitations, even after their terrible sin. And indeed they could go on, as we read in the next verses to bear children and become the parents to humanity. They could love their children because indeed they had been loved and loved themselves.

The lessons we can glean from the story are personal to each of us. For some of us, is it not time we risked letting ourselves be known so we might yet know real love from another...and in turn come to love ourselves. For others of us, is it not time we loved the ones who matter to us in the image of the love of The Holy One Blessed Be He, love them not by trying to pretend they are better than they are or by trying to delete their shortcomings, but by accepting them as they are?

Real hesed is not about giving money or doing a favor, though that too is very important. Real hesed is making someone who feels inadequate and lacking feel loved. The particular gift is but a manifestation of that love. And its that love which provides the deepest healing and yeshua.

May all the days of our lives be full of hesed in its most beautiful expression. Indeed as the Psalmist says "Olam Hesed Yebane" "The world is founded on loving-kindness."

I would greatly appreciate if you would include in your tefilot a prayer for Odena bat Laya who will have serious surgery on her spine next week. Thank you for your hesed to me, Odena and her family.

Shabbat Shalom