Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Every Day's A Victory!

Sometimes context contains a message as important as content. Such is the case with the opening of the parsha this week of Vayechi. The Sages noted that this portion, unlike all the others in the Torah, opens without a spatial gap of significance from the close of last week's reading of Vayigash. Typically a gap of at least 9 letters will be found in the Torah where a new section commences. They ask " why is the beginning of the reading closed?" They answer "It is to teach us that with the passing of Yaakov the eyes and hearts of the Israelites closed from the servitude that began then".

The answer begs a question of its own. The answer implies that the oppression in Egypt began immediately with the death of Yaakov. We know however in accord with other sources that until all the brothers of Yosef died the Israelites were not oppressed. Only after the death of that whole generation did the Pharaoh initiate the measures of servitude and persecution. How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction.

One way to resolve the inconsistency is to reinterpret the medrash with which we began. When the sages said that "the eyes and hearts of the Israelites closed from the servitude...."They did not mean that the servitude caused their eyes and hearts to close. Rather the "from" used here means they could not see the servitude that was already in motion, though not yet actualized. Yaakov's death caused them to be blinded to the reality of the shifting attitudes of their hosts in Egypt. After Yaakov's passing they became unable to see the impending disaster, something that was open to them to recognize as long as he was alive.

Have you ever wondered, how is it that the Jews of Germany remained blind to the rise of Nazism and stayed put in the face of years of pogrom and prejudice leading up to the full scale murder of the Jews. They all had opportunity to leave prior to 1939 and much reason to flee. The laws against the Jews were promulgated over years and with increasing severity. Yet they denied the obvious and many, indeed most, refused to emigrate.

The answer is that we are all blind to that which we believe is more than we can endure. We have, built into our psyche, filters that hide from us the unbearable. The child who is molested will often have no memory of the experience. The parent who is invested in an agenda for his/her child will often deny the child's reality, refuse to see the child's limitations when it conflicts with that parent's expectations. People who are living an unhealthy lifestyle will often be blinded to the obvious consequences of their behaviors when acknowledging them will mean the need for a change they feel they cannot bear.

In all the above cases the failure to see is not a conscious decision. The person is not deciding to ignore what s/he does not want to see. No, s/he really does not see what to another is obvious.
S/he is protected by an unconscious desire to avoid facing that which s/he feels would be too hard to deal with .

The Jews of Germany really did not see what to anyone else would be a glaring truth. Their perceived need to retain their way of life, home and culture put filters on their perception.
Neither did the Israelites in Egypt recognize that the tides were shifting against them. Long before the oppression began in earnest the signs were there and compelling. Yet with the death of Yaakov they had not the eyes to see. It was simply more than they felt they could tolerate.

So you ask, what did the passing of Yaakov have to do with their eyes and hearts being "closed".
If it was too painful to accept that the people of Egypt were turning on them, so much so that they couldn't take it in, how would Yaakov have helped? How would he make it tolerable

I once asked my father, when he was in his mid-eighties and not long before he died where he saw himself in the trajectory of his life. I asked him "Dad, on a continuum, if we drew a line from the beginning of your life to its end, where are you now?" He said in all earnestness, "a little past the middle". My father struggled with many things in his life. He has a son mentally ill . He had business reversals. He had lingering health problems that caused him much discomfort and for many years. With all he endured when you asked him how he was he would answer "every day's a victory!".

My father was not pollyannish. He did not say "every day is a holiday". He knew life was full of pain. Yet he found the way to embrace his suffering rather than flee it. Indeed for him every day was a victory, his victory over the bruises and wounds that threatened to overwhelm him.
Not surprisingly he, as a 14 year old boy left Germany with his parents and siblings. He learned from his father that it was okay to see, even if that which he sees will mean having to uproot and start over. Through the courage of my father, I am blessed with eyes to see. He taught me, through a living example, that no matter what life may bring I need not be afraid to see. He showed me that in all circumstances we are larger than that which threatens to overwhelm us.
I need not be afraid to see. On the contrary, only in seeing is there the possibility of transcendence.

No one in our tradition had a harder life than Yaakov. His losses, his tragedies, the disappointments of his life are compelling. Pursued by Esav, cheated by Lavan, the tragic death of Rachel, the duplicity of his sons in the sale of Yosef, whom he grieves for 22 years, Yaakov's life is an endless litany of suffering. And yet it is precisely Yaakov and the courage he exemplified in the face of his suffering that allowed the Israelites to see even those things that seemed unbearable. They thought, "If' our father Yaakov could contain and do battle with his demons so can we." Only with Yaakov's passing and the loss of this exemplar of victory in the face of suffering did the Israelites become blind, their eyes and hearts unable to take in what they thought to be too difficult. Without Yaakov, without the parent showing the way, the people of Israel became lost to the reality before them. Naively, like their decendents in later generations, they denied the tide of horror and clung to false and dangerous hopes of prosperity in a social setting where they were hated.

What's the message in all this for us? For me the answer is clear. We are the parents of the generations that follow us. All that our children know about facing adversity they learn from us.
It is vital that we not hide our struggles from our children and grandchildren lest they learn from that that our burdens can defeat us and need to be minimized to be endured. When we tell the generations that follow us the fullness of our story, with its suffering, we empower them to believe that they too can cope with whatever comes their way and that they need not wear blinders as they go through life in order to persevere.

We need to show our children as much as tell them that yes, we have our woundedness and yes, even our defeats but we prevail for indeed every day with G-d's help is a victory!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When Bad Things Happen....

There is an old epigram that was used to point out the difference between a Jew and a Goy. When a Goy falls and breaks a leg he is likely to curse and bemoan his unlucky circumstances. When a Jew falls and breaks a leg he is likely to say, "thank G-d, it could have been two!".

In that spirit, and knowing that "gam zu l'tova, this too is for the good", is an attitude we try to cultivate in the face of adversity, I want to explore with you a troubling passage in this week's reading of Vayigash.

We read this week of the reconciliation between Yosef and the brothers and of the family's move to Egypt. The Torah tells us that Yosef, the viceroy of the land, brought his father Yaakov to meet the Pharaoh. At the encounter the Pharoah asks Yaakov his age. In response Yaakov says something surprising. He tells the Pharaoh " The days of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty. Few and and bad have been the days of the years of my life. And they were not as good as the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning".

Many a commentary has sought to explain this encounter. What prompts Pharaoh to ask Yaakov's age? Why does Yaakov need to give the Pharaoh this report on the poor quality of his life ?

Interesting questions with interesting answers. But that's not what I want to focus on. Is it not surprising that Yaakov complains about his life, and to a total stranger. Where is the gam zu l'tova that we referred to earlier as a cardinal virtue of a Jew. Yaakov sounds so ungrateful for his life. Is this the attitude of the one our Sages call the b'chir sheb'avot, the most excellent of the three Patriarchs? If Yaakov had said he had a "hard" life we could understand. But he refers to his life as "bad".

In fact the Medrash tells us that Yaakov's response did not sit well with Hashem. In the words of the Medrash Hashem said, " Did I not save Yaakov from the wrath of his brother Esav? Did I not protect him from the evil designs of Lavan, his father-in-law? Did I not prevent the nations from harming him after his sons wiped out Sh'chem? Do I not deserve gratitude rather than complaint? The Medrash goes on to say that as punishment for Yaakov's remarks to the Pharaoh his life was shortened 33 years. Yaakov died at 147. His father, Yitzchak died at 180. The 33 year discrepancy corresponds to the 33 letters in the verse that begins with the Pharaoh's question of Yaakov concerning his age.

Okay, so we can say, with the Medrash, that Yaakov erred in complaining about his life to the Pharaoh. But I ask you, why does the Torah give us the story? It is not likely giving us the story to help us avoid similar mistake since it never specifically indicates that Yaakov sinned here. It tells us of this exchange and makes no reference to it being sinful. What then are we supposed to learn from Yaakov and his conversation with the Pharaoh.

I think to understand the message here for us we need to take a second look at our attitude to 'bad' things when they occurr to us or others. Yes, we know that "k'shem shemvarchim al hatov kach m'vorchim al hara", "just as we are commanded to make a blessing when good things happen to us we are also to make a blessing when bad things happen". But what's most important to realize is that its not the same blessing. When good happens we say "hatov v'hamaitiv", thanking G-d for His graciousness. When bad happens we say "baruch dayan ha'emet", blessing G-d as the true judge.

We do not pretend that we experience bad as good ! We don't celebrate tragedies as we would a simcha. On the contrary, we mourn and lament our losses. Even when we say "gam zu l'tova" we are not whitewashing something terrible. We are simply saying that "this too is good", meaning, it too has good in it for us, though it feels bad.

I can't over-estimate the importance of this distinction. A person of faith does not deny his/her experience of evil in this world. Maybe we were raised in an abusive home. Perhaps we saw violence against our mother or our sibling or even ourselves. Its is not the Torah way to say "oh it was not so bad", or minimize our pain. If we sustained tragedies in our lives, the deaths of those close to us, serious illness, business reversals, and the like, the Torah does not want us to pretend these events were good. We do not make the blessing hatov v'hamaitiv. On the contrary the blessing we make is baruch dayan ha'emet, acknowledging our suffering and loss.

It is only when we recognize and claim the bad that has happened to us that we can learn the lesson meant for us and derive the good from the experience that felt so bad. If we fail to call the bad by its name we never struggle with it nor will we use it for our becoming.

I believe this is why the Torah shares with us Yaakov's comments to Pharaoh. Yaakov claimed his experience for the truth that it was. He had a bad life. True, Hashem protected him. True also that much good came out of his life's journey. But that does not turn bad into good. It only makes bad a vehicle to access the good intended for us and others. That the Medrash says Yaakov was punished, was only because he failed to include in his remarks thanksgiving to G-d as well as the hurt and loss he suffered.It was not because what he said lacked truth.

The message for me in this is clear. We need to own our experience. Denial is not the same as faith. Bad is bad just as much as good is good. If we own our story with its hurts and tragedies we can come to make good from it. But our story itself will always retain aspects of tragedy. And it will always warrant tears and perhaps even anger amidst the joy and thanksgiving.

Yaakov's mida was emet, truth. Truth demands we be faithful to our experience, claim it without fear. In facing our truth we grapple with our bad and thereby allow the good meant for us in it to emerge.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Healing and Change

With the Parsha of Miketz we bring the story of Joesph and the brothers to its climactic moment. After a series of harrowing events the brothers face the prospect of losing Binyamin to slavery for his having ostensibly stolen the divining cup of the viceroy of Egypt, who, little known to them, is really there lost brother Yosef. The question the story begs us to ask is why? Why did Yosef put his brothers through this horrific ordeal of fear and anguish. Why did he not simply tell them when they first arrived in Egypt and stood before him that he indeed was their missing brother?

And still more why did he wait at all for this chance rendezvous. Why didn't he immediately upon rising to prominence send word to his father that he, Yosef, was alive and well?

Many have offered reasons for Yosef's charade with his brothers. They range from Yosef's sense that he needed to fulfill the dream of his youth where all his brothers bow to him to the theory that he wanted to test whether they indeed had done teshuva. I must say, none of these explanations feel satisfactory to me.

I think that in order to understand Yosef's motives we need to think of the dynamics of a family.
I mean, can you imagine if Yosef had simply sent word up to his father Yaakov in Canaan that he was alive what upheaval it would have created. Yes, he could have found a way to say to his brothers that he forgave them and that all that happened was for the good, as indeed he later does. But would reconciliation really have been possible in that scenario?

Lets put the story in a larger context. Why are we here in this world? According to Ramchal G-d wants to bestow good on us, to give us His ultimate blessings of the world-to-come. We are here in this transitory world for only one reason . And that is to earn the very reward Hashem wants to bestow on us. He would prefer to simply give us our great gift, after all He loves us. Problem is that if he simply gave us the good without us having earned it we could never fully enjoy it. We would feel shame at being given a gift unearned and undeserved. It would be for us what the sages call a naama d'kesufa , a cup of shame. Hashem put us in this world so we will be able to enjoy the gifts He wants to give us in the world eternal through having a sense that we earned them through the struggle and effort of this world.

Human beings don't do well in relationships when they are simply the beneficiaries of the kindness of another. While they may enjoy the free ride for awhile, in the end they come to resent the one-sided dynamics of always being the recipient. Often they come to even hate their benefactor because his/her one sided generosity reminds them of their own limitations. Unless we feel some level of reciprocity and deservedness of what we receive we will experience a sense of shame in constantly receiving, a shame that ultimately turns gratitude into scorn.

I suggest it is this dynamic that motivated Yosef in trying to foster a reconciliation with his brothers. Of course Yosef could have sent word early on that he was safe and prominent in Egypt. He could have told his brothers that all was forgiven. They might even have believed him.
He could have avoided the whole drama and its anxiety climaxing with the near enslavement of Binyamin if only he had revealed himself to his brothers straight away.

But Yosef knew that in order for there to be a real healing in the family the dynamics would have to be more than one sided. It could not just be his generosity, no matter how sincere, that would foster the reconciliation. Yosef knew that for a true coming together the brothers would need to feel they had earned the right to be forgiven. The whole charade and drama was only created so they would have a chance to earn the gift of forgiveness Yosef wanted so desperately to offer. When in next week's reading they stand up for Binyamin and at risk to themselves they indeed show their mettle. Now the rapprochement is truly possible.

Most of us have places of shame in our lives, times we harmed someone we loved. We may have been verbally abusive to a spouse or worse to our child. We may have shown our ugliest side to another Jew treating him/her with disdain or callousness. Truth is, the other, our wife or child, and even our Jewish brother may be ready to forgive us and move on. Yet if we don't have an opportunity to redeem ourselves and show we deserve the forgiveness their generosity will likely not feel healing. A forgiveness unearned and undeserved rarely fosters reconciliation and, to the contrary, often contributes to deeper discord.

Like Yosef's brothers, we need opportunity to show we are no longer the callous and insensitive persons who spoke or acted so wantonly. To make the forgiveness of another work we need to have changed.

Our sages have long taught that a key component to teshuva, beyond the sense of remorse, is azeevat hachet, leaving the sinful behavior behind. In the ideal our change need be so complete that if the situation in which we sinned came before us again we would not fail.While most interpret these criteria as G-d's expectation of us, it may well be that we need to meet these conditions so that we can embrace the forgiveness G-d wants to give us. If we express remorse but remain unchanged we may well see Hashem's compassion towards us as unearned. That feeling would interfere with our capacity to renew our intimacy with our G-d.

The story of Yosef teaches us that real forgiveness is a process and not an instantaneous act. It takes time and effort and needs to be the by-product of both compassion on the one side and genuine change on the other.

Relationships are more than words. They are living dynamics between people. We all make mistakes. We all sometimes hurt the ones we love most. What we need do is show, not tell, we are sorry, and be willing to wait the time it may take for trust to be restored. And, most of all, we need to know that no healing is possible without change, not because the other won't be willing, but because we won't feel worthy.
Like the brothers of Yosef, only when we feel we have earned our return will we be able, once again, to embrace the opportunity for renewal and healing.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Surrender to Prevail

The story of Yosef, which we begin this week in the Parsha of Vayeshev can be much better understood at the macro level than at the micro level. I mean, we know that the family that was to become the People of Israel needed to be in Egypt. That was part of the Divine plan. According to our sages all the drama and intrigue between Yosef and his brothers was the vehicle to make that happen and in the best way possible. But at the micro level, looking at the individuals involved, we still have to wonder why did Yosef need to suffer so much. Why did he have to endure all the pain of his early years.

Its hard to imagine a more tragic series of circumstances than that which happened to Yosef.
His mother died when he was 7. True he had another brother from his mother, but that brother, Binyamin, was much younger. He craved the attention and acceptance of his older brothers and yet his way of trying to get it only served to antagonize them. He was painfully alone. He endured the horrific experience of being almost killed by his brothers and, in the end, instead, sold into oblivion as a slave to a caravan of merchants . In Egypt he finds unlikely success only to be brought down again and imprisoned on charges of rape when he was entirely innocent. He languished in jail. Even when he got the unique opportunity of access to the Pharaoh and a pardon with his kindness to the butler, the butler promptly forgot him. He was left with no hope and no prospects.

Why? Why did Yosef have to endure so much suffering?

I believe the answer is one that is vital to me and maybe to you. Yosef was a gifted young man. He was beautiful of appearance and talented. He had the graces of his mother Rachel. And whats more he knew it. While clearly a good boy and the favorite of his father, he also was full of himself. The Sages tell us he liked to comb his hair to enhance his already good looks. As the Torah tells us, he talked badly of his brothers to their father. And he not only dreamed the dreams of personal grandeur in which the whole family bowed to him, he needed to tell those n dreams to his father and brothers.

Yosef had all the ingredients of greatness. He was clearly the most gifted of Yaakov's children. The problem was that he knew it. He had a large ego. And that ego served to foil all the good that was possible for him to achieve. The whole experience of Yosef's life was meant to humble him. He needed to be made smaller. Only after he realized his limitations would it be possible for him to turn his talents and gifts over to G-d and become who he was meant to be.

Gifted people don't surrender their self-reliance easily. If one looks at the story in this way s/he can see that each time after being knocked down, rather than surrender to Hashem, Yosef relied on his talents to prevail. Even after all he suffered, when he is in jail, and interprets the dreams of the baker and the butler of the Pharaoh, he asked the butler to remember him to the Pharaoh. The Sages taught that even here Yosef did not sufficiently rely in Hashem to liberate him. His request of the butler cost him an additional two years in prison.

Only the total despair of the prison with no chance of parole leads Yosef to surrender to Hashem.
Completely without hope, after time and time again coming close but not succeeding to lift his life out of its hell,Yosef finally gives up and turns himself over to the ratzon, the will of G-d.

Why do I say this story speaks so loudly to me and maybe to you? Think about it. Its so easy to live one's life doing mitzvot and learning Torah and yet never surrender to Hashem. We may keep everything and maybe even we are machmir in our observance , but yet we never give up ourselves and our personal self-focused agenda. On the surface we look so good and committed but on the inside we are still living our life on our terms rather than pursuing the ratzon Hashem.

And why? Why do we not turn ourselves over? Why do we resist? In simple terms because we are afraid. To turn our lives over means to trust Hashem, to trust that whatever He wants from us will be the good. Bitachon, trust, is a very rare commodity indeed. In its truest form it usually comes only when ein breira, we have no other alternative.

I am reminded of the story of a mountain climber who fell from a cliff and was dangling over the precipice. He was barely able to hold on to the ledge and avoid a fall into oblivion. He turned his eyes heavenward and said "If there is a G-d up there please save me. I promise I will always be faithful to you. I will devote my life to doing kindness and improving the situation of others".
To his surprise he heard a voice responding to his plea. " I heard you my son and I will save you. Let go of your hands hanging on to the ledge and I will catch you and bring you to safety".
To that the mountain climber responded "Is there anyone else up there?".

It is one thing to believe in G-d. It is another to trust in Him and to surrender our life to His will. Even Yosef who is referred to as hatzadik, the righteous one, over his ability to resist the seduction of the wife of Potiphar, struggled with bitachon. It is not an easy madreiga, level to come to.

We read in Pirke Avot, "Make your will as His will so that He will make His will as your will".
Indeed if we truly make our will His we will know a bliss and a serenity currently impossible for us to experience. If our will is His than His will becomes ours, there is no conflict, and we are doing what we want to do . There can be no greater sense of peace.

Channuka is the holiday of bitachon. The Maccabees had no reason to believe they would prevail. They were fewer in number and less in strength than their adversaries. It was G-d's will they were doing, not their own. They trusted and miraculously triumphed. It is this we celebrate. We too are each called in our own way to surrender in order to prevail.
It would be so much better if we did not have to be, like Yosef, totally defeated before we turned our will over to Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Samayach!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Preparing for Defeat

Those who study human behavior have found an interesting phenomenon they call the Abstinence Violation Effect. They observed that many times when a person takes on a certain commitment, say to abstain from eating sweets or to abstain from drinking alcohol, if that person succumbs to temptation and violates his/her commitment by eating or drinking even a little bit, s/he is likely to then follow-up by binging on that from which s/he was trying to abstain and relapsing entirely to his/her former behavior or sometimes even worse.

I suspect many of us know the AVE phenomenon first hand. Perhaps we went on a diet or attempted to begin a regimen of exercises. We might have been successful for a period of time and thought to ourselves "Yes, I have this licked". Then we get invited to a wedding and a sumptuous feast of calories is before us and we compromise our resolve or we go on vacation and lose our exercise routine for a week. There is a great likelihood that the guilt we feel over our 'slip' will cause us to lapse into a total free-fall and not only will the diet or exercise plan fall by the way-side but we will indulge our appetites more vigorously than before feeling that we are hopeless.

I guess you are wondering why am I telling you this. Well Rebbe Nachman understood this human response long before the behaviorists of today wrote about it and he found its source in this week's parsha.

At the reading's outset Yaakov is about to meet his brother Esav, the very same brother who swore many years earlier to kill Yaakov over the blessings he stole. We are told that Yaakov was very much afraid. In preparation for the encounter he divided his camp in two. The Torah tells us that Yaakov thought "If Esav will come to one camp and slays it then the other camp will at least be a remnant".

Now we know Yaakov did more than prepare for a defeat. The Torah tells us that he prayed a powerful prayer and that he gifted Esav to appease him. Yet Yaakov, still and all, did not assume all would go well. If it did not, he wanted to at least minimize the damage done so it would not be a total loss.

Rebbe Nachman saw in our father Yaakov's behavior something relevant for us each time we confront our own challenges, in particular with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Rebbe Nachman taught that we should not be so confident in ourselves that we will always prevail over our temptations to do wrong. At times we may be vulnerable and succumb. Yet what is most important is that if defeated we not lose hope and make the loss a total loss. We need to minimize the implications of the defeat so that while we lose a battle we do not lose the war.

Worse still then committing an aviera is letting the sin cause us to lose faith in ourselves and our ability to be good so that we give in to the wrongful behavior. A single moment of weakness must not cause us to surrender. We should not give away more than we have to even when we are compromised.

For some years when I lived in the States I offered support to Orthodox young men whose sexual orientation was homosexual. These young men valiantly tried to live within a Torah framework and suppress their sexual desires that ran counter to halacha. It was often so difficult for them. They had no kosher outlet for there sexual desires. Often they felt guilty over a compromise, so much so that they struggled to find hope and to maintain resolve not only with sexual discipline but even with the entire call to shmirat ha'mitzvot.

Rebbe Nacham would have said to them, "Yes, you did wrong. But don't be m'yaeish, lose hope.
Your struggle is a holy one. And the failure in one part of your life or in one moment should not be seen as devaluing all the effort you make to do what Hashem wants for you. Learn from our father Yaakov. Prepare for defeat by making sure you not lose more than necessary".

How vital that lesson is for all of us. We all have our spiritual point of vulnerability. We all have midot that need correction behaviors that are unacceptable. Many times we give up on changing them because we have tried and failed. Rebbe Nachman would challenge us to not lose faith and give up the effort to change. To surrender would be the greatest tragedy.

We need instead to do like Yaakov and do battle knowing at times we may well lose. And yet make sure, even when we lose, the loss is not total and we continue our effort to improve.

Our sins are not the enemy. Its our attitude towards our sins that represents the real danger. We dare not lose hope. We dare not surrender.

Shabbat Shalom