Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Offering Hope

Everyone needs hope. We cannot survive without it. At times our hope may be simple,just getting home and seeing our family after a hard day at work. At other times, more stressful and depleting, our hope may be more esoteric. We hope soon all our suffering will come to an end or perhaps that their will be a better future for us, if not in this world then in the next, or if we can't escape our suffering at least their will be a brighter future for our children. But no matter where or when, human beings have a need for hope and one way or another,be it fanciful or real we will find it.

I was made conscious of the struggle for hope when I looked over the early verses of this weeks Parsha of Va'eira. You may recall the Parsha opens with Hashem rebuking Moshe for his challenge to the way things were going. At the end of last week's reading Moshe complained to G-d that since being sent to redeem the Israelites things had only gotten worse for them. Hashem tells Moshe at the outset of Va'eira that he needs to have the faith of the Patriarchs who never questioned Hashem's ways even when they seemed inscrutable.

At the end of Hashem's rebuke He once again sent Moshe on his mission and demanded that he tell the Israelites that indeed they will be redeemed. No, more, much more, Moshe is commanded to tell them not only will they be redeemed, they will become G-d's special people, they will have a special providence, and that they will be brought into the land of Israel, the land of their ancestors to inherit it for themselves.

After charging Moshe with the responsibility to to share this glorious passage of promise with the children of Israel the Torah continues "And Moshe spoke so to the Children of Israel but they did not listen to Moshe due to their exhaustion and the hard work imposed on them".

I found it fascinating that here Moshe has a wondrous message of hope and redemption for the Israelites, a nation so burdened and oppressed, a message full of promise and inspiration. Yet they could not hang their hope on it. They were too beaten to listen. Didn't they need hope? If everyone needs hope, surely the oppressed need it. I know our ancestors were suffering and fatigued but you would think that would have made them more attune to the glorious message of the Divine promise.

The answer to the question teaches us much about hope both for ourselves and when offering it to others. Remember the Isaac Leib Peretz story Bantsche Shveig (Banstche the Silent). Briefly, it tells the tale of a simple minded Jew in the shtetle who was abused constantly for his limited intelligence, poverty, and for being a social misfit. For all the abuse heaped on him Bantsche remained silent, never uttering a harsh word in return nor uttering a complaint. When Bantsche died he was treated in heaven far differently than on earth. If here he was social reject totally maligned, in heaven he was seen as the purest and holiest of men, mostly because of his compelling self-control remaining silent to his tormentors and in the face of a life of abuse and adversity.

Peretz writes that in the Heavenly Court Bantsche was found deserving of great reward. After-all he was a true Tzaddik. Even Satan could not deny his saintliness. When the time came, the Heavenly Judges asked Bantsche what he might want for his prize in the World Eternal. Any request would be granted since it was indeed earned. Bantsche thought for a moment, Peretz writes, and then answered "Maybe I could have a hot roll and butter each day for breakfast". And with that Satan roared a great laugh for indeed he had won!

In many ways the story of Bantsche Shveig is a story about hope. Bantsche could have had anything. He was worthy of the best heaven could offer. But Bantsche's life had been so rough and so impoverished that he could not even hope for a true piece of heavenly bliss. In light of his life's struggle the most he could aspire to was the warm roll and butter. Hope for Bantsche was limited by his circumstances and its effect on his psyche.

The same was true for the Israelites in Egypt. Moshe brought to them the wondrous message from G-d, a message that included becoming a G-d's chosen nation, and inheriting a new land of their own. Beautiful words, but words that spoke to more than the People could hear. The People in their time of persecution and abject slavery could only hope for an end to their suffering. They could not even imagine the larger vision offered them. It was beyond their horizon.
It is no wonder that the next time Hashem sends Moshe back to the People to again deliver the message of hope, a few verses later, he is commanded to simply redeem the people from Egypt, no more and no less. That they could hear!

Often we see people who are struggling. Life is hard for them. Perhaps they are dealing with a terminal illness, or a terminal marriage.Perhaps they are feeling overwhelmed with financial burdens or a lack of success in their endeavours. We want to offer hope. We know they need hope. The message we take from the Parsha of this week is that any hope we might offer can only be received and held on to if it is within the mindset of the sufferer.

To offer someone who is dealing with paralysis after a stroke the hope that they might yet run a marathon and go on to cite some athlete who did so, may be beyond the ability of the paralyzed one to hang on to. It might well be better to keep the hope closer to where the person is now. Perhaps a hope the other could hear would be the hope that they will yet walk again and cite some neighbor we know of similar age and circumstances who made such progress. Pancreatic cancer is fatal. No one has been cured of it. Offerring hope to one sufferring a fatal cancer might better be found in the hope of making the most of the time left, than a hope based on miraculous recovery (though some patients may prefer to pin their hope on a miracle as unrealistic as that is).

The key is, while hope is vital for everyone, the hope we offer the other needs to be consistant with where they are and with what they find possible in light of the circumstances they are living. Yes, offerring another hope is a gift, but the angels, no matter how they may have wished, could not offer Bantsche a hope more than he could imagine, and even Hashem's promise so glorious fell on deaf ears to our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt and had not the mindset to hear.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 23, 2010


When I was growing up I heard many a Rosh Yeshiva reflect wistfully on Jewish life in Europe and how it was so much more spiritually authentic than life in America. Some of those Roshai Yeshiva came from Europe, others just knew it from their own teachers.I accepted their perspective as true. We are living in an inferior spiritual world. What once was is lost and irretrievable.

But as I grew I came to wonder. Was it true? Was Jewish life in Europe pre-Holocaust spiritually superior to Jewish life in modern America. Were those the 'good old days' spiritually speaking, never to return?

I am not sure how many of you have read the Yiddish writer Chaim Grad and his classic novels like "The Aguna" or others like him.
They wrote of life in the shtetles and cities of Eastern Europe they knew both well and personally. These were not the anti-religious Yiddish writers who had an axe to grind. Nor were they writers who over-romanticized the life of the Jew of the period. They wrote what of what they experienced in both the good and bad.
What is clear from reading Chaim Grad and others is that, contrary to what I heard in Yeshiva, my ancestors in Eastern Europe were no paragons of virtue. True there were many holy men and women of distinction. But society as a whole could be as corrupt and mean spirited as anything we see in our days and worse. Cruelty was commonplace. Many a Jew, both religious and otherwise acted in ways that are inexcusable. And even religious leaders, rabbis and others were not so uncommonly morally corrupt. Over-all, the impression one gets on reading first hand accounts is that Eastern European Jewry and its social systems was no better than what we have today and in many ways far worse.

And truth be told the idealization of Eastern European Jewry, in contrast to the facts is not a one time phenomena. In the context of tradition, we always seem to glorify earlier generations. The sages of the Talmud said of themselves that they are pale imitations in comparison to the sages of the period prior. The Vilna Gaon said that we have no capacity to even imagine the excellence of our ancestors of the time of the Second Temple and to hold ourselves in comparison.

Yet the facts often point otherwise. The Jews of Bayit Sheni were the Jews of Kamtza and bar Kamtza and guilty of huge and grievous sins against each other. The zealots of the Second Temple period were often ruthless; the priests often corrupt. After-all we are talking of the generation that warranted the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash and galut for their sins!

How do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory perspectives. On the one hand within tradition we venerate earlier generations. On the other, we know factually that the past was no better and at times worse than the current climate in which we live?

The answer I think can be found in the Parsha of this week, that of Shmot. It is clear, no matter how we may want to glorify the generations of the past that our ancestors in Egypt were lacking. Just look at the stories we are given. An Egyptian task-master is beating a Jew and none but Moshe comes to his aid. One Jew is beating another and again that seems commonplace. When Moshe attempts to intervene he in turn is threatened. And later, in response to Moshe's message of redemption, he suffers scorn from his own people. From the glimpses we have of the society its not surprising the Sages tell us that Israel was very nearly too far gone to be redeemed.

Yet the Parsha also tells us of heroes. It speaks of the mid-wives Shifra and Puah who at great self-sacrifice refused to obey the Pharoah and kill the Jewish babies on birth.It tells of us Batya, the daughter of the Pharoah and of her effort to save baby Moshe. In tradition she became a convert to our faith, giving up her prestige and position in Egypt. It tells us of Moshe and his heroism in defence of his people. In fact, the very Jewish society that we read of as mediocre at best, produced heroes that can never be duplicated. No one, no matter how spiritually excellent, will ever be like Moshe.

And in this lies the great truth. Yes there is something to be said of an excellence of earlier generations that we can not aspire to attain. Not however in the society as a whole. On the contrary, the societies past, whether in Second Temple times or Eastern Europe had flaws as profound as our own. But what cannot be duplicated is the excellence in individual people, rabbis, leaders, men and women of unique stature, the holiness they attained, their character and spirituality is beyond our capacity and even, at times, our ability to imagine

So what can we take from all this.For one thing, I don't believe their is any benefit in putting down the social context in which we live. Over-all we are progressing as a people, not regressing! We get better with each generation and we need to affirm that. We are moving closer to Mashiach, not further away. More Jews study Torah today than at any time in Jewish history. Yes, many Jews are not religious, but where have we ever seen so much religious practice in an environment where not coerced to be frume! After all in earlier generations Jews had no choice but to comply with the religious rules of the kehilla. And where have we ever seen in the past such a profound movement of t'shuva, return to the faith. Its glorious!

No, there is no point in putting ourselves down. We need to affirm our People's growth and spiritual progress...and build on it.
Yet we do need to be mindful that we lack the individual excellence that existed in the Greats of yesteryear. Today we have no Rambam, Vilna Gaon or even Chafaitz Chayim. We affirm that so as to keep us personally humble and reverential to the teachings of the past, teachings and guidance we need so much in-order to continue our journey to the redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Channuka Then and Now !

Tonight will be Channuka.With darkness, we will gather as family and light the menorah (or here in Israel more commonly called, 'chanukiya'). Brachot will be made, songs sung, not to forget the tasty treats. We will usher in the 8 days of celebration.

There is a beautiful composition recited after lighting the candle called "hanairot halallu". The passage reminds us of why we light the candles, "to mark the miracles and wonders... done for our Fathers in those days at this time". It goes on to tell us "... these candles are holy. And we have no right to make use of them (not for light nor for warmth etc)... They are only for us to gaze
on, so that we may thereby give praise to Your Great Name for all Your miracles and wonders and salvation".

The odd thing about Channuka is that it is of the most spiritual of Jewish holidays. The Rabbis taught that Channuka is different from Purim. Purim marks a time where our physical survival was threatened. We celebrate G-d's redemption with food and drink and indulgences of our body. Channuka was not a time where the physical existences of our people was at risk. It was the Jewish spirit that was persecuted and as much by the Hellinistic Jews as by the Greco-syrio rulers. The spirit of Hellinism was sweeping the world. Jews who believed in the values of Torah were out of step. The edicts that caused us anguish in the period of Channuka were not those of Haman, focused on our destruction. The edicts were those focused on compromising our observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and the study of Torah. The heroes of Channuka were martyrs for the faith like Channa and her 7 sons, all of whom perished rather than submit to the Greco-Syrian authority .
Indeed Channuka was the first time in Jewish history where martyrdom for the faith, something we would sadly see as commonplace in the times of the Crusades, was invoked and called for, a new kind of Jewish heroism.

It is for that reason,since Channuka as essentially a triumph of the Jewish spirit, that there are no mitzvot associated with Channuka that focus on the physical. It may be nice to eat sufganiyot and latkes, but no mitzvah! The one mitzvah is to light the menorah. And even there we are not meant to make use of the light as mentioned above, but rather just to gaze on it and give thanks.

Whats odd about all this is that Channuka has become the most materialistic of Jewish holidays, especially in the States. Its a holiday where no one feels guilty, even the least affiliated Jew, because there is so little to observe. Light candles? give gifts? eat latkes? Why not? One can live a totally assimilated life and embrace that!

I remember many years ago when living in a small Jewish community in moderately sized Southern city, that the newspapers, as was their custom, did a feature on a Jewish family at the season of the holiday, in this case Channuka. They showed pictures of the family readying for lighting candles and interviewed the mother. The mother, trying to be informational, told the reporter of how Channuka marked a miracle that happened to the oil in the Temple and that therefore we have a custom to eat foods made with oil. She then went on to give a recipe for Channuka of a food cooked in oil. Latkes? no! Sufganiyot? no! Crab cakes!! She actually gave a Channuka recipe for crab cakes!

It is sad when one thinks about it, that this holiday that speaks to the heroes, both men and women, who gave their lives for observance and Torah, so that Judaism should persevere,those who said "we are different from you and we refuse to surrender our uniqueness," would be celebrated by their children as the holiday of assimilation. What so much of the Jewish world is essentially saying in the current secular theme of Channuka is "We are just like everyone else. We eat the same. Live the same lifestyle. Being a Jew is just a matter of culture and history, but with little real consequence. We want to be like you!"

So when we come to make our blessings tonight and light our candles
what are we celebrating? What should we see when we gaze on the lights?

What we celebrates is the survival of our faith! What we see in the candles is that pure light, with G-d's help, triumphs. Despite the woman and her Channuka crab cake recipe and many like her, who sadly have gotten lost along the way, Torah Judaism thrives and prospers. Despite all the efforts throughout Jewish history to compromise our commitment to our faith, we remain strong and determined. I go to Mir Yeshiva every day to learn. Would you believe five and a half thousand young men and some older, like me, do the same. And that's just one Yeshiva amongst thousands around the world! That's what one sees in the candle! The power of the pure to triumph, even if few, even if weak. Would that the martyrs of Channuka and all our history could see the vibrancy of Torah today...all resultant from their devotion.

Indeed there is much to celebrate and for which to thank Hashem.

Chag Urim Samaiach
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Going Home

Many years ago Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel "You Can't Go Home Again".
In it he told the story of a man, himself a novelist who becomes an instant success for his first book. However that very book is seen by the people of his hometown as describing them in unflattering ways. He becomes a hero in society. Yet, because of the anger he causes in the town of his roots, he can't go home again!

"You can't go home again" has become much more famous as an individual maxim than as a novel. Its core concept expresses the idea that once one grows up and grows out of the limited family environs, s/he can never really go back home, at least not as the person/child they once were.

This week, in the parsha of Vayishlach, we read of Yaakov, our father, finally coming home. In truth it seems a much delayed homecoming, and one Yaakov did not seem very keen on. You recall, several weeks ago we read how Yaakov was sent away by his mother Rivka, after he stole the blessings from Esav, his brother. Rivka and Yitzchak envisioned Yaakov being away as short time, just long enough to marry and for his brother's anger to abate.

In the end Yaakov stays away all of 36 years. Twenty of them he spends in the home of his father-in-law, Lavan. By the time he returns his mother already died. He had opportunity to return home after being with Lavan 14 years. Instead he chose to stay-on and make money growing his flock. Even when he finally decided to return to Canaan, it only came after he no longer felt welcome in the house of Lavan. He expressed to his wives the need to leave, not so as to return to his parents, they are not mentioned. Rather he claimed the need to redeem the pledge he made to G-d at Bet El,before he began his long and difficult journey.

Still more, after his encounter with Esav, of which we read this week, we would expect Yaakov to finally go home. But no, he moved his family to Succot, there setting up a home for a year and a half.
And even after that, Yaakov moves to Sh'chem where the terrible story of the rape of his daughter Deena takes place, and in consequence the whole town is massacred. Who knows how long he might have stayed there if he were not compelled to leave because of the circumstances.

Only after Rachel died did Yaakov finally come home. Why? Why does Yaakov seem to resist going home? Why does he disappoint both parents desire to see him, and keep away so long? How can we explain this? And if he truly avoided home for so long, how is it that he finally does indeed go home again?

We call this blog The Torah and the Self. Its intent is to make the Torah personal so as to grow from what the stories and laws have to teach us about ourselves. None of us can be sure why Yaakov stayed away so long, why he avoided going home. But knowing ourselves, and knowing his story we can speculate. It would not be surprising if in Yaakov's time away and in his maturation he got in touch with some conflicted feelings towards one or both of his parents. After-all, his father Yitzchak preferred his older brother Esav to him, as the Torah told us. Yaakov was the Tzaddik yet his father loved more his older sibling who was not. That hurts!

As for Rivka, Yaakov might well have wondered about the way she loved him. Why did she send him in to lie before his father in the deception of the blessings, rather than confront his father herself. Why did he have to carry the burden of the wrath of Esav, when it was his mother's agenda he was following? Questions that while when young and living at home one might put aside, as one matures and moves away, cause one a sense of conflictedness towards a parent and perhaps even some anger.

Many of us who were 'perfect' children, as we grew became conscious of issues we had about our upbringing. Often we brought them to therapy. If we were fortunate we got to raise the issues with our parents, express our feelings and achieve a special reconciliation, one only possible adult to adult. That's hard work. Many a child, now adult, resists going home if their feelings never get worked through.

Yaakov had reason to avoid going home.It was uncomfortable for him at best. He had feelings about his childhood and upbringing. How could he not? So how is it that he finally goes home? What makes the homecoming possible?

I believe the Torah tells us exactly what made Yaakov able to go home. He needed to! When does Yaakov go home, after the debacle with Deena, when he cannot protect his only daughter from harm and fails as a father. When does Yaakov go home, after he is ashamed of Shimon and Levi his older sons for there act of mass murder, and for making the family vulnerable to attack.When does Yaakov go home, after his beloved Rachel dies on the road, in giving birth to his child! and, in tradition, as a consequence of an oath he swore to Lavan! Indeed he goes home after he has failed as a husband too!

Yaakov goes home because he needs to. Yes, he felt conflicted towards his mother and father. But he needed the love and affirmation only a parent could bring. The angel he wrestled with, in the beginning of this week's reading, wounded him a wound time and attention could heal. These wounds were different. They affected his core sense of self and person and required much more to heal. These wounds needed the warmth of home and nurturing. Yes, Yaakov the adult,the one accomplished and mature, needed the love and caring available to children in their time of vulnerability. That kind of caring can only be gained at home and from one's family of origin.

Seen in this light the story of Yaakov's homecoming is both profound and personal. In it we can very much find pieces of ourselves and of those we know. Can we go home again? We can when we need to! Who was it that said "necessity is the mother of invention!".

Yaakov's story is indeed our own...

Shabbat Shalom

PS I want to thank my wonderful wife Lindy for her thoughts on this that much inspired me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who Am I?

When we first meet someone and attempt to get to know them one of the first questions we ask is "What do you do?". In asking the question we reveal an assumption; who we are can be gleaned from what we do!

But is that really true? I want to explore with you this week's parsha and in particular the lives of our matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, to test our assumption.

On Rosh Chodesh, after our early morning daf yomi, the Rav left the shule.Before he left he asked me if he should bring my regards to "Mama Rachel". You see, he was leaving to recite early morning prayers at Kever Rachel in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of Yerushalayim. His question led me to wonder. What is it about Rachel, our mother, that makes her the mother-ideal in the eyes of our people and throughout the generations? After-all she only gave birth to two of the twelve tribes. Moreover nearly none of the Jews who survive today can be said to be her descendants. For most of us, and here I mean most as in likely some 90%, Leah is our mother. Rachel is our aunt.Moreover Rachel died young, in childbirth. She was only a mother to one of her children, Yosef, and was not there for much of his life either. How does she become the mother in death when she spent so few years being the mother in life!

If we were to name the ultimate 'mother' of our people it would be likely to choose Leah. She is our true mother. She gave birth and raised most of the people of Israel and most of the Jews alive today. Yet in the long-run, while Leah was the mother, based on her life and deeds, she is better noted for being Yaakov's wife than for being the mother. She is buried with Yaakov in Hebron. Rachel, the wife Yaakov loved is buried in a grave of her own in Bethlehem.
When we name the couples buried in the M'aarat Hamachpaila we name Yaakov and Leah.

Yet the oddity here is that Yaakov never seemed to really love Leah. She bore his children but never became the 'wife' to him that Rachel was. Yet after her death, in the context of history,she seems recognized in tradition, not as the mother, but as the wife!
How can that be?

The answer to the riddle teaches us something profound. It surely is true that Rachel in her lifetime was much more the 'wife' than the 'mother'. But what we do does not so much define who we are as what we yearn for. The story of Rachel's short and tragic life is the story of the yearning for children. Yaakov's love mattered less to her than being a mother, so much so that she told him "Give me children else I will die!". When Reuvan, Leah's eldest, brings home the wondrous flowers from the field for his mother, as we are told in this week's reading, Rachel is willing to give up a night of intimacy with Yaakov to know the gift of as child's love, even vicariously. Rachel dies in childbirth. No woman more yearned for children. She is the mother-ideal, and not just for the two children she bore. She is our mother. Her life was all about the yearning to be a mother, even if so little of it was actually spent raising children.

On the other hand, yes, Leah was the mother in the story of her life. Her work was very much the raising of children. But the Torah is clear, what Leah yearned for was the love of her husband. She wanted more than anything to be the 'wife' to Yaakov.She named each of her children for the impact she hoped that child would bring to win her the love of Yaakov. She gave up her son Reuvain's gift of the wondrous flowers for the night of intimacy with the husband who loved her less. Leah's life was raising children. Yet her yearning was to finally be the wife! It is as the wife of Yaakov she is remembered, buried by his side for all eternity, not as the mother, for this was her yearning. We are what we yearn for, not what we do!

When I say "yearn", it is not the same thing as wish! A yearning is something deep within us. It becomes our source of hope and joy. A yearning gives us reason for living, it motivates our existence.
Let me give an example. A young woman had a severe accident as a child and is left without the use of her legs. She cannot walk, never mind dance. Yet she yearns to dance. She watches ballet with an uncommon intentionality. She follows every motion. She identifies with the ballerina, feeling herself move with the dancer's turn and jumps. In her mind, she is one with the ballerina. She dances each dance she watches. She loves ballet. She loves to dance. It gives her life meaning. Who is this paralyzed young woman. Her yearning defines her! Though she cannot move her legs, she is a dancer!

Do you and I have yearnings? Do we have deep seated hopes and dreams that give our life its energy. For the one most spiritual the yearnings that define him/her is the intimacy with G-d. For others the yearning may be for something far less noble, money, prestige, position etc.

Who we are is revealed by what we yearn for not by what we do!
Re-adjusting our yearnings,though difficult, may be the most important work we can invest in!

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 5, 2010

Truth or Consequence

There is no more confounding story in the Torah than that of Yaakov and Esav. In this week's parsha of Toldot we read how our father, Yaakov, at his mother's behest, steals the blessing his father Yitzchak intended to bestow on Esav. Yaakov clearly engaged in act of deception. Yet nowhere does the Torah indicate that it was a sin. On the contrary,Yaakov was the one deserving of the blessing, the son with moral values and the one faithful to the tradition of Avraham. Moreover he was obedient to his mother. In this case we might well argue, the ends justified the means.

We all know times in our lives where we might well argue that the ends justify the means. Lets say we are applying for a job, one we need desperately to provide food for our family and a roof to live under.Yet we also know that unless we lie on the application about something in our past or some personal detail, like our age, we will never get the post. In a case like this we might well argue that our lie is not only justified but mandated by our circumstances. We might say the wrong in this case is in fact a right and ought to be done!

Yet if we follow the story of Yaakov, the deception he engaged in came back to haunt him and confound his life. In the parsha of the week coming, that of Vayetze, Yaakov is deceived by his father-in-law, Lavan, and his intended bride, Rachel, as he wedded her sister Leah in error. And in the following weeks in the parsha of Vayeshev, Yaakov's sons deceive him regarding the sale of Yosef, bringing him Yosef's coat dipped in blood and leading him to believe Yosef was killed by a wild animal. The impact of both deceptions was huge on Yak's life. That they follow the story of the stolen blessings seems meant for us to conclude that the former led to the latter and as a consequence.

If Yaakov's act of stealing the blessings intended to Esav was justified and correct then we might wonder why does he seem to pay such a heavy price in his life with the deceptions played on him?

In coming to terms with this difficult question I want to share with you a story in the Talmud. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (87a) tells of Rav Tuvis who had the excellence of never telling a lie. He shared that once he travelled to a town called Kushta (which in Aramaic means truth). There no one told a falsehood. There also no one died prematurely. Rav Tuvis settled in the town and married a woman from the community.They were blessed to have two sons. One day, he related, a neighbor woman knocked on the door while his wife was washing her hair. In order to protect his wife's privacy he told the neighbor that his wife was not home. Shortly thereafter both sons died. The people of the town came to Rav Tuvis and asked how could this have happened, after all no one died prematurely in their town. He told them the story of his lie. They in turn asked him to leave the town lest he bring tragedy on all of them.

What's amazing about the story is that while Rav Tuvis indeed told a lie, it was a lie justified in halacha and appropriate to protect the modesty of his wife. He did no wrong. Nonetheless his untruth had huge repercussions for him and his family. Why?

The Maharal, in explicating the story makes clear that even when a lie is told for good reason and is the correct thing to say, it does not go without consequence. It leaves its mark. The lie was spoken, that it was the right thing to say does not make it less a lie. And for every act we do, even one that is warranted, if it contains a deception it has an effect.

Yaakov and Rav Tuvis both had good cause to engage in the deception. It was the right thing to do. Yet because it was a lie in fact, while they received no punishment for their act, it nevertheless had impact on their lives. All our actions, even when the ends justify the means, have consequence, even if no punishment.

This week marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz, one of the Torah giants of a generation ago. During World War One he was compelled to flee Poland where he had his Yeshiva for Russia. After the war he wanted to return to Poland. The guards at the border would only let Polish citizens return. They asked him if he was a citizen. Reb Baruch Ber would not tell a lie even where it was warranted to escape the upheaval in Bolshevik Russia. He told them "I am not a citizen but many of my students are citizens of Poland". The border guards were so impressed with Reb Baruch Ber's honesty that they let him pass.

Clearly Reb Baruch Ber had justification to deceive the border guards. If he had lied it could not have been called a sin. Yet he insisted on telling the truth. He knew that an untruth even justified in speaking leaves both an impression and a consequence.

What does all this mean for you and me? We are not the Tzaddik of Reb Baruch Ber, and we need at times to lie. Indeed at times halacha may want us to lie to protect another or to avoid hurting another. Yet we need to be conscious that all our actions have consequences. And if even those times where we do the right leave an impression, if not a punishment, how much more so the wrong we do and the unjustified leaves a mark in the world and on ourselves and family.

Everything we do has consequence. We need to be aware and intentional!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Stranger

The Medrash taught "Great is 'hesed' (acts of loving kindness)that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed." The Medrash goes on to point out that the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden,where after their calamitous sin G-d Himself clothes them. At the Torah's end we read of G-d's hesed in seeing to the burial of Moshe.

If the Torah is replete with a message of hesed much of the call to hesed is found in the early portions of the Torah we are currently reading . And that call is not given to us directly in the form of commandments but rather we learn from stories, stories of G-d's kindness, stories of G-d's loving ways, stories that teach us behaviors we are meant to emulate in our challenge to follow in G-d's ways.

And so from this week's reading of Vayeira we are called to the hesed of visiting the sick even as Hashem visited our father Avraham after his brit mila. And from the reading of next week, where we read of Hashem's blessing to Yitzchak after his mother, Sarah's death, we learn to comfort the mourner etc.

What is interesting however is that one of the most important mitzvot of hesed we don't learn from Hashem's ways at all, but rather we learn from the acts of human-kindness, in fact the kindness of Avraham and his actions in this week's parsha.
What mitzva is that? The mitzvah of'hachnasat orchim, inviting guests into one's home, hospitality.

The mitzva of hospitality, 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the outset of this week's reading where Avraham rushed from his tent to meet the angels, he believed were travellers, walking down the road. It mattered not to Avraham that he has no idea who they were. He invited them into his home, washed them, fed them and served their needs as a valet. More, Avraham sets-out a lavish feast for them as if they were royalty honoring him with their presence. His hospitality knows no bounds. It models for us our call to the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'.

But the question we might ask is why of all the calls to hesed is this hesed of hospitality learned from a human example and not one Divine? The call to 'hachnasat orchim' unlike 'bikur cholim','malbish arumim' and 'nichum availim' emerges not from 'Imitatio Dei' but from the inspiring example of our Patriarch.
Why? Why is their no Divine example here?

Many of us know the story of the birth of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the only child to his parents and born in their old age. Tradition has it that it was the 'zechut', merit of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' that gained Reb Eliezer, the father of the Besht, this unusual gift from Heaven. Indeed the story goes that Satan challenged Heaven's intent to reward Reb Eliezer for the 'hachnasat orchim' he and his wife performed in such an exemplary way. And so Reb Eliezer and his wife were put to a test. The prophet Eliyahu came to them on Shabbat dressed in weekday clothes and appearing to have desecrated the Shabbat in his behavior. He even said "Gut Shabbos" to Reb Eliezer so there could be no excuse that he was confused or unaware of the holy day. Reb Eliezer might have good reason to resist inviting this 'sinner' into his home especially on the Shabbat itself. Yet Reb Eliezer and his wife extended themselves to this seeming Shabbat violator. They hosted him, providing him with wonderful meals and lodging. They never mentioned his wayward behavior. In fact, when it was time to part, Reb Eliezer and his wife invited the Jew to please return to them again and soon so they might host him once more.

The story of Reb Eliezer and that of our father Avraham have one important thing in common. They teach us that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is essentially intended to host the stranger, s/he who is other than us. Its no great deal to invite our family, our neighbor, a community member or a 'landsman', a friend into our home. What we are challenged to do in this mitzva of hesed is to invite someone whose ways and behaviors are different than our own. Avraham invited those he thought non-believers, men whose purpose and values were totally alien to his own. Reb Eliezer invited the 'sinner' and on Shabbat. We, in their image, are called to reach out to the ones living on the margins, those whose ways may not conform to ours at all. Yet we extend our lives and our homes to them.

Think about it. We may argue that its a sin to invite such persons into our homes, our sacred and protected space. We may well argue that allowing the one estranged into our personal sanctuary will pollute the place we most treasure and safeguard from the 'bad' influences that exist in the world without.

Yet from the story of Reb Eliezer and from the model behavior of Avraham we learn that 'hachnasat orchim' calls us to invite into the place most private to us and protected s/he who is in need of hospitality. It calls on us to risk exposing ourselves to those foreign, even those holding beliefs and values antithetical to our own, into the core of our existence.

It is for this reason that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the behaviors of a human, Avraham, rather than through imitation of the ways of G-d. Its true G-d extends himself and makes a home for the the one in need and estranged. But we cannot learn the extent of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' from Hashem because no one is a 'stranger' to Hashem. Even the greatest of sinners is still His child. We all are to Him 'bnai bayit', members of the home. For the mitzvot of ' bikur cholim' and 'nichum availim' it matters not whether the person is family or stranger to the essence of the mitzva. In all cases the hesed essentially remains the same. But 'hachnasat orchim' has meaning to the extent that we reach-out to the person different from us and welcome him/her into our home. For that we can only learn from another human dealing with an 'other' not from Hashem for whom all are part of His family.

Few mitzvot earn for a person the blessing in this world that does the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'. But we must not fool ourselves. The essence of the mitzva calls for us to invite into our home and life the one who is not us, the one different and other, no small challenge for sure!

The opportunities for fulfilling the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' are many. And we can do so in ways that require less effort than preparing and serving a meal or giving lodging. Simply saying "Shabbat Shalom" can be a form of hachnasat orchim, or perhaps engaging another in the language they know when its a language in which we are not fluent. The main ingredient of this hesed is found not in the 'what' we do, but to whom! "Shabbat Shalom" to the stranger, trying to communicate with the one different from us in culture and background, that is what matters!

Do you want to have a part of this great mitzva? Do you want to be called a 'machnis orach'? Look around you, find the stranger, and extend yourself! How much more beautiful our world would be if we indeed took this hesed in its truest form to heart.

Shabbat Shalom !

Friday, October 15, 2010

Following Our Destiny

Some years ago Paul Cohelo wrote an interesting book titled "The Alchemist". In it he told a fable of a boy, a poor shepard, who had a vision that a great treasure lay waiting for him in a very distant land, far far from his home. The story is of the boys journey towards the realization of his dream, a journey that is replete with obstacles, distractions, and dangers, a journey of many years and even more encumbrances.

The end of last week's Parsha of Noach and the outset of the portion of this week of Lech Lecha gave mind to that compelling story. You may recall, at the end of last week's reading we first meet our father Avraham. We are told that he was born into the family of Terach, his father, in the land of Ur Casdim. Further we are told that Terach uprooted the family from Ur Casdim with the intention of migrating to Canaan. On the way he stopped in Charan and wound-up settling there. Eventually he died there, never making it to Canaan.

In the beginning of Lech Lecha, Hashem commands Avraham (then Avram) to travel to a land that he will be shown. Avram is promised that if he travels as G-d commands, even though he does not yet know the destination, he will be rewarded with great blessings, blessing that would never be possible for him if he remained in Charan.

In keeping with G-d's command Avraham takes his family and migrates. Where does he go? We would expect the verses to tell us that G-d, somewhere along the line, informed Avraham of where he is to go. But no, nowhere does it say that Avraham received instructions as to his destination. Rather the 'pasuk' tells us "And Avram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his nephew, and all their property and the souls he made in Charan and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan." Only once he was there do we find Hashem appeared to him and told Avram that indeed this is the land that was destined to belong to his descendants.

The question is how did Avraham know where to go? How did he decide on his direction, his course? On the basis of what did he journey to Canaan?

I believe the answer is that even though Avram did not know what Hashem had in store for him as a final destination, he knew that if he was meant to travel it had to be to Cannan. Cannan was after-all the place his father was meant to make home. Life's issues got in the way and he settled in Charan. Yet Cannan was always the family's destiny.If Avram was going to travel at all, if he was to realize the blessings Hashem intended for him, he knew he had to get to Cannan. From there he might have to go to other places Hashem had in mind. But once given the command to travel it was obvious that Cannan was the direction. In the end,as it turned out, Canaan was not only the immediate destination but the ultimate destiny and home G-d had intended for Avram,for his family, and indeed for us.

What's the message here? My sense is that we are being shown an important truth for all of our lives. Each of us at one time or another has had a sense of a journey we were meant to make, a destiny or as we say in the holy language, a 'tachlis', a calling that was ours, our personal journey we were meant to make, one we may have long forgotten.What happened to our call. It may have gotten buried in the exigencies of life or neglected in favor of other more accessible goals. The price we may have had to pay to realize the call may have made our destiny feel unattainable. Or we simply may have given up in frustration and chosen another path.

In the end, not pursuing our personal call has had its consequences. It compromises our spirit and robs us of our 'joi de vivre'. Most importantly the blessings that were meant for us can never be gained. Our life lacks the gifts intended for us.

The story of Avraham's journey tells us that it need not be too late. Though Terach died and missed his call, Avram could yet realize it, and he was already 75! We need to go back and remember. What remains unfinished for us? What calling did we know way back when that we can yet reclaim. True it may have to take a slightly different shape, and it may not be the full measure possible for us in an earlier time in our life, but yet the call may well be redeemable, if only we give it the attention and priority it deserves.

What "lech lecha" is there for us in fulfilling a destiny yet unrealized? What blessing remains for us to claim?
Things to think about this Shabbat, things to excite the memory and imagination.
We are never too old to pursue our journey!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Thanks is No Thanks

"Thank you". I am not sure there are any two words more often spoken in our society than those. We say thanks to everyone, from the waiter who brings our food in the restaurant to the person who cuts our hair. We thank when someone does us a favor and we thank when we pay for what we receive. We say thanks to strangers, people we don't actually know, and we say thanks to members of our own family for kindnesses both great and small.

The importance of "thank you" should not be minimized. Our Sages long taught that our relationship to G-d is founded on 'hakarat hatov', gratitude for the good we receive from Him.To the extent we lack gratitude is to the very extent our devotion to Hashem is compromised. Ramchal in his classic Mesilat Yesharim makes clear that the key to being faithful to G-d is feeling appreciation for all the blessings He bestows on us.

Yet I think it is important to realize that being thankful is much more than saying "Thank you". We can say "Thank you" a thousand times a day and remain essentially ungrateful. When the Sages called us to "hakarat hatov", they were focusing on our internalization of the indebtedness we owe for the goodness we receive. In short, gratitude is seen, not so much by what we say, but by what we do!

Let me give an illustration. The other night an old friend from the States called and said she was in Yerushalayim and wanted to visit, in a few hours! She realized she had not given any notice and since it was my daughter she most wanted to see, she said "I will take her out for Pizza". Wanting to be a good host I said "Why go out? Come and we will make supper here".

It was nice of me to offer. But the task of making the supper fell on my wife, who had just gotten home from working all day when I go the call. To Lindy's credit, in the spirit of our Matriarch Sarah, she was happy to prepare the meal, and on the spot! She was a great host and the food was delicious.

Now after Lindy's effort, of course, I said "Thank you". In fact I repeated several times that night how much I appreciated what Lindy did, and for someone who was not her friend, nor the friend of her daughter, but mine and the friend of my daughter!.

Yet, and here's the rub, the next day there was a confusion about the time of a meeting we were supposed to attend together and Lindy came home late . I was upset and angry.I blamed her. I expressed annoyance with her.
Where had all the thankfullness of the day before gone? I mean, if I was truly grateful for her great kindness of the day prior how could I become so upset now. Sure I said "thank you". But unless I feel thankful, and not only in the moment but in the context of our life together, the thanks is empty.

In the Parsha of Noach, which we read this week, one of Noach's sons, Ham, and his grandson, Canaan, see Noach in a vulnerable moment. They comrpomise him in his time of shame. And in the end, for their lack of respect for their father, they are cursed by him.
We might imagine that Ham, and all the family , had expressed thankfulness to Noach and many times. After all, because of him they were spared when the whole world was destroyed in the flood. Yet when it came time to show thanks, in Noach's moment of weakness, they ridiculed him or worse. The thanks they may have spoken was empty, no matter how sincerely expressed, if it did not translate into grateful behavior.

It is not enough that we say "thank you" or even feel "thank you" in the moment. Our relationship to G-d and to our spouses and community is based on our feeling a continuing sense of indebtedness, one that effects our behaviors towards the other even when we don't quite feel the "love". Gratitude needs to be more than a sentiment. It needs to be an operating dynamic in our lives, and in relationship.

In this case as in so many others in our lives, the call to us when we say "thank you" is "show, don't tell!". We need to show the gratefulness to make it matter. Talking the words without the concommitant behaviors is vacuuous.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Secret

I have a secret to reveal. And its a secret I am sure you know even before my telling you. Yet its a secret we hide mostly from ourselves. The secret is a simple truth, "that which we most need is often that which we are most afraid of!"

What do I mean? Well think about it in its most obvious context. The alcoholic most fears being without access to his beloved addiction.
He imagines being without that which he has become dependent on will surely kill him. Yet truth is just the opposite. The very alcohol he assumes he needs, is that which endangers him. And the very abstinence he imagines will kill him, is his salvation.

The truth so plain in the life of the addict is true for most of us and often. We fear taking the very steps in our lives that, if we were to find the courage to take, would free us and enrich us. Another example, many are loathe to get rid of stuff they no longer have use for. They just can't throw things out. They fear taking the step of tossing things away as they would an operation. Yet if/when they actually found the inner courage to clear their clutter they find themselves free in away they never felt before.
Not only did getting rid of the 'junk' not cause them harm, it actually was the liberation they needed.

And the same is true, though more subtle, of those who fear intimacy, and hesitate to marry. They say they want to commit, its just they have not yet met the right one. Yet in their hearts they know they dread commitment and even were the perfect match to come along they would struggle to say "yes". In fact, for those who fear intimacy its almost a relief when they discover the person they date is not really right for them. It relieves them of having to make a decision they are too overwhelmed by to make.

Yet if and when they finally find the gumption to indeed say "yes" they find themselves free as they never were before. Wonderful new possibilities arise out of the gift of true intimacy, the very intimacy they feared. They discover to their amazement a happiness they never thought possible.

So you say, what does this have to do with Sukkot, the holiday at which we stand. Well I find something interesting here that relates to our secret. Sukkot is the holiday of 'simcha', joy, so much so that we refer to the holiday in our prayers as the 'zman simchatainu'. We can understand the joy as being connected to the season of harvest.During Sukkot, in the land of Israel, our forefathers and mothers celebrated the bounty of the in-gathering.

But one thing is troubling.When people have prosperity they typically like to show it off. The person with the most money usually has the fanciest car, the largest home, the most expensive clothes. It seems a big part of enjoying our prosperity is showing it to others. Yet Sukkot, the season which marks our bounty and largess gives us little opportunity to flaunt our riches. On the contrary, even the family with the largest home, leaves that home to sit in the same basic Sukkah as the poor person who lives on the other side of town.
The sukkah is our home for a whole week. Not only do we eat there, we sleep and live our life there. On Sukkot their is little opportunity to tell who is rich and who is poor. Class distinctions dissolve.

Many of us imagine that without our status symbols we would amount to nothing. Without that which distinguishes us from others we would be 'ordinary' and in that easily invisible. Our whole lives we fear being invisible and so we work and toil to be distinguished and to have status. We want a title to be called by, be it Doctor, Rabbi, or even Mrs. We seek wealth and position so as to be somebody. Our fear is that without the accoutrements we would be nobody and for all intense and purposes disappear.

Yet Sukkot teaches us the secret we have been discussing. That which we most need is often than we most fear. When we let go of our status symbols, the home being a primary one, not only do we not disappear and feel a prevailing gloom. On the contrary, we know a sublime happiness. In our ordinariness, the very thing we fear, we discover a source of joy. In being like every one else we are freed of the driveness to be special, and we find a profound joy that is oh so liberating, being part of the whole.

Truth be told, those who have developed a sense of humility haven't really made a sacrifice at all. It just appears they have to us who live in the world which says "you are nobody unless you have status, positions, wealth, and power". To them, humility is a gift, not a sacrifice. They are happier in humility than we are with all our distinctions. And we would be too if we dared get past the fear, drop the focus on being special and accept ourselves as one of community.

Sukkot tells us the secret of happiness is giving up the need to be unique. The bounty, the harvest, having G-d's wonderful material blessings is a necessary condition.After all, its hard to be happy on an empty stomach. But unless, with our wealth, we can live in the Sukka, and be part of the community of Jews everywhere and of all stations, we are prisoners of the very bounty that is G-d's blessing, and robbed of the real happiness available to us.

"That which we most need is often that which we are most afraid of."
All of us need to be happy. Most of us fear the very thing that will serve to get us there,that is, letting go of our prized status, position, wealth and influence.

In the very ordinariness we fear is our liberation and joy!

Chag Samayach
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sorry for What?

I remember as a yeshiva bachur the frenetic energy of the High Holy Day period.Long prayers,frequent musar shmoozen,the commonly taken taanit dibur (fast from speech)all gave the Yeshiva an other-wordly feeling.Everyone carried a seriousness about them. The spirit of teshuva (repentance) was palpable.

And then came the eve of Yom Kippur. The yearning for atonement approached its zenith.Prior to Kol Nidre boys might go bench to bench, row after row, seat after seat, beseeching forgiveness from anyone they may have offended during the year. Often they asked forgiveness from other boys whose names they didn't know, and to whom they likely never said a word. It didn't matter. Everyone knew the adage that for sins between one person and another, even Yom Kippur cannot atone without gaining forgiveness from the offended other."Forgive me", "Be mochail me", over and over the request was made, and forgiveness granted....But for what?

I once saw in a sefer where a certain Rav, when asked by others for forgiveness on the eve of Yom Kippur in the manner we just described, declined. He said to the one asking forgiveness, "Tell me how did you offend me? If I don't know what you did how can I, in good faith, say I forgive you.If what you may have done truly hurt me I may need time to accept your apology."

We might ask even more, how can one be sorry if s/he does not know what s/he did wrong?

Yom Kippur is filled with prayers of remorse. We make confessions over and over, indeed 10 times during the holy day.The confessions consists essentially of two types, the first a shorter form, with a listing of general failings according to the alef bet we often refer to as the 'Ashamnu', from the first word of the recitation. The second is a longer listing of particular sins, also according to the alef bet but with much greater detail of wrong-doing and that we call 'Al Chet'.

Question we might ask is why two forms? Why do we need both Ashamnu and Al Chet? If you asked most people which of the two they found most meaningful and relevant to the task of saying "I am sorry" to G-d, I think they would answer, Al Chet. The sins we confess in Al Chet are quite specific ranging from talking 'lashon hara' to using profanity and from disrespecting parents to sexual immorality. In the last section of the Al Chet we confess sins based on the severity of the punishment for the violation, including sins for which we incur the death sentence like violation of the Shabbat.
The saying of the Al Chet in all its specificity evokes in us a feeling of remorse. Frequently we are overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and wrong-doing.

So why do we need the Ashamnu.In the Ashamnu confession we talk about our sinfulness in more general terms. We say "We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed,... we have provoked, we have turned away, we have been perverse etc." Lacking in detail, the confession rarely elicits the emotional response in us of the Al Chet.

Yet interestingly if we asked which is the more important of the two confessions, it seems clear the Ashamnu takes precedence. The Al Chet is only recited on Yom Kippur. The Ashamnu is confessed each day at selichot during the High Holy Day period and 3 times each day at that.Moreover the Ashamnu is recited as an everyday confession all year long according to those davening nusach sefard, indeed twice a day. And even on Yom Kippur, by the time we reach the climactic confession of Ne'ela, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, only the Ashamnu confession is recited, not the Al Chet.

Are we missing something here? What makes the Ashamnu more important? What insight are we lacking to make the confession of the Ashamnu more compelling?

I think the insight we lack is the awareness that in the confession of the Al Chet, for all its specificity, we are giving voice to the symptoms of our spiritual malaise, but not its source!
True, we are detailing our wrong-full behaviors, and they need to be expressed. But speaking lashon hara or showing disrespect for a parent etc are individual sins that reflect a core spiritual shortcoming. Why are we callous about what we say? about what we eat? about what we do? Why do our behaviors show a disregard for our spouse, our neighbor, the poor etc? Why are we lax in our observance?

For the answer we need to go past the individual sinful acts and look at who we are, our charactalogical flaws. What are they?
The Ashamnu lists them all. "We betray, we spurn, we are ungrateful, we feel entitled, etc." Just look at the words of the Ashamnu in this light and I think you will see that each speaks to our weakness of spirit and our lacking in love and fear of our G-d.

I think the reason we can more easily relate to the Al Chet is because its less threatening to us. Yes, we sinned, yes, we did wrong, but we remain good. In confessing the Al Chet we can cry for deeds done wrong without having to question the integrity of our character. The confession of Ashamnu demands that we acknowledge our flawed self. Sinners that we are, we nonetheless like ourselves. We are prepared to confess and maybe even change our behaviors. But we don't want to change ourselves!

Yet the reality is that only in the sincere recognition that the sins of the Al Chet did not happen in a vacuum. They are no accident. They emerge from a diseased soul. And truth be told, no change of behavior will really be possible until we claim our soul's flaws and change who we are. Al Chet only has meaning as a sequel to the Ashamnu. Only in confessing with heart the weaknesses in our character and our lacking in spiritual shlaimut (wholeness) can we really atone and do the teshuva to which we are called.

We need to be sorry not only for what we did but for who we are! We need to confront our limitations of character, both in relationship to G-d and in relationship to the community of people who make up our world.

This year I ask you to look with me at the Ashamnu again. Open your self to the honesty it invites.See if it does not speak to you both in terms of who you are and in terms of who you want to be.

As Ramchal wrote in his classic "Mesilat Yesharim", our purpose in this world is to achieve 'shlaimut' so we can enjoy the great pleasure of nearness to G-d in the World to Come. Mitzvot are the means to the 'shlaimut'. In the confession of the Ashamnu,rather than focus on the particular sin, we claim our regret for our lack of 'shlaimut' and by implication we share our yearning to reach new levels of shlaimut in our future.

G'mar Chatima Tova! May this year bring us to new and higher levels of personal sh'laimut!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"It Was a Very Good Year"

"Rebbe Eliezer taught,'Repent one day before you die'." His students asked him "But how can we know when we will die?". He responded "Indeed treat every day as it might be your last. That way your whole life will be focused on right living and repentance".

Rebbe Eliezer's teaching, while making much sense to me, is not the way everyone sees things. I remember when I was a teenager the late Frank Sinatra released a song called "It Was a Very Good Year". The lyrics were of a man reminiscing on his life beginning from when he was 17. The entire focus of the man's life, through all the different passages was pursuit of pleasure.
Now I could understand that looking back at his younger years and his youthful indulgences he might claim "it was a very good year". But I remember, even as a teen, I was shocked that when Sinatra, in the song, is already an old man, reflecting on his later years, as his life is ebbing away,there too, rather than repent or refocus, he remains equally committed to the pursuit of pleasure, just of a more refined type. There too, near his end, he proudly claims the pleasures he pursued and pronounces them "a very good year".

Knowing he has but little time left, he feels no impulse to to 'tshuva', repent, and devote his remaining time to worthy endeavours. Living his 'last days' does not impel him to the mandate of Rebbe Eliezer quoted above. Instead he remain committed to his agenda, drawing from life every last pleasure it has to offer.To the end, he affirms and blesses his self-indulgent focus.

And thats not the only time I found myself surprised that life's end did not lead to change. For many years I worked as a hospital chaplain. I visited the frail and dying and spent hours upon hours at their bedside. Rare indeed was the case where a person, knowing his/her end was near used their last days and months to make ammends, repent, express remorse, make the kind of changes that Rebbe Eliezer envisioned for those who know time is short.

I came to realize that there are two kinds of people in the world. If told they had but a month to live, the first kind would go out and live it up, pursue all the pleasures available to them, take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life before it was gone. Knowing they were dying would not motivate them to repent. On the contrary it would inspire them to intensify their pleasure seeking agenda.The second kind of person would use their last month to make a difference. They would seek to improve themselves though intensive prayer and sudy. Or they might invest their last days trying to improve the life of others through acts of hesed and voluntarism.

It is to this last group and only to the last group, that Rebbe Eliezer's teaching has relevance. Sadly, I suspect, this group represents the minority.

We stand now only a few days before Rosh Hashanna. It is almost always the case that the last Shabbat of the year we read the parsha of Nitzavim. Prominent in Nitzavim is Moshe's challenge to the People of Israel to the mitzvah of Teshuva, Repentance.
The end of the year, the time of judgement, and the mitzvah of Teshuva, for some of us, the contiguity of the mitzvah and season is propitious.Knowing we are coming to an end, knowing we face a judgement, knowing that our future is at stake, moves us to introspection and return. This is the season of return.

Question is, into which group do we fall? Are we of the Frank Sinatra variety, who, while we may not live a life as hedonistic as his, nonetheless share with him the attitude that when faced with our end, we refuse to change and instead insist til the last, that all of our life and behaviors reflect "a very good year".
Are we, like so many I visited, determined to remain true to the way we have always been, unwilling to adapt, change, or alter our values, and practices.

Or are we students of Rebbe Eliezer. Will we seize the moment and remake ourselves. Will we have the courage and the smarts to change for the better and move ourselves along the road to real 'shlaimut', wholeness, a shlaimut that inevitably requires change and acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

Two kinds of people... Which are we? How we respond to knowing an 'end' is at hand makes all the difference in determining whether we are essentially persons of the spirit or of the earth.
We can bless the past and cleave to it saying "it was a very good year" or we can say "the year past may have had many good things about it, but it cannot be my model for the future. I need to change!"

As another one of those immortal crooners sang "Its now or never".
Lets make it now!

Ktiva V'chatima Tova!
May you and all those you love and all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a life of blessing, meaning and growth.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happiness in Marriage

"If a man should marry a new wife he is exempt from serving in the army and from all manner of compulsory service. For one year he is free to engage solely in domestic matters and to make his new bride happy" (Devarim 24:5).
So we read in the Parsha of Ke Taitzay, the portion of this week.
But here's the rub, how indeed does one make one's wife, or for that matter husband, happy?

Husbands and wives will tell you that they have been trying to make each other happy for years without real success. Divorce rates continue to soar. Unhappy marriages are the norm. Yet so many a man and woman will tell you that all they wanted was to make their spouse happy. In the end, the failures outnumber the stories of success. What goes wrong?

Their is a well known passage in the Talmud that implies even G-d struggles to find the key to a happy home. In the Gemara Sota a difficult pasuk in the Psalms is interpreted to teach that making successful shiduchin is as difficult for Hakadosh Baruch Hu as was parting the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus.

Question is, while we can understand the message here underlying the complexity of making successful matches, the connection between parting the sea and forging a marital union seems strange. In the one case, G-d needs to make a miraculous separation, dividing the waters so the Israelites could cross. In the other, G-d needs to bring already separate entities together, in making a marriage. How are they related? One is dividing, the other uniting.

Through coming to understand this passage in the Talmud we may discover some great truths about marriage and intimacy. I suggest that the Rabbis of the Gemara already knew that finding love was no great feat. Falling in-love is easy and natural. It happens to nearly everyone sometime or other.And for many of us it happens over and over.

But that love, the love based on the sense of identity with another is the easy part of real love. We discover someone we feel much in common with and our hearts sing.The hard part of a loving relationship is the the part in which we recognize how our partner is not like us, how we and they are different. That part of relationship is grounded in respect. It's focus is on the appreciation of another with their differences from us. Unlike the loving part based on similarity, here we celebrate them for who they are in their 'otherness' from us.

Scott Peck in his classic self-help book "The Road Less Travelled" precedes the section on love with a section on respect. He argues that no real love can happen without the foundation of respect. Respect is always based on the recognition that my partner is different from me with unique interests, tastes, likes and dislikes and opinions. Only when we accept and validate the other for who they are, and not try to change them to be like us, can intimacy blossom. Intimacy is always the dance between nearness and distance, between love and respect, between seeing the other as a reflection of us and seeing them as unique and individual.

In truth most marriages fail and most relationships lose their joy, not because their was not enough nearness and love. Rather what kills relationship is the lack of respect and the appreciation of the other for their distinctness from us. Too often we spend a lifetime in relationship either trying to change our partner to be like us or lamenting how hopeless they are because they refuse to accept our way of thinking and doing.

In this backdrop the Talmudic passage cited above makes sense. Forging a successful union is very much like parting the sea. In parting the sea G-d divided the sea which was essentially one body of water into two distinct parts, and kept them that way. They remained all the Yam Suf, yet they were two individual components and unique. On reflection, that is quite a task. A marriage union requires the same effort to be successful and joyous. The man and woman need to indeed be one. Yet at the same time they need to be divisible and distinct with each having their own uniqueness celebrated and affirmed by the other. Intimacy is the miracle of a oneness consisting of two affirming and loving each other in their respective differences as well as similarities.

And so we return to where we began. How do we make our partner happy? Staying home from war and burdensome obligations gives us the means but not the method.

If we take what our Sages taught seriously than we will know that happiness in marriage is not lacking because we don't sufficiently love or feel enough in common with our spouse. That's not the problem. The problem in our relationships is that we do not sufficiently celebrate our spouses uniqueness from us. We don't respect him/her enough. And worse still, we try to change him/her to be the way we think s/he should be.

I am fortunate enough to be a new chatan, and not for the first time. Last Friday I married. It devolves on me the mitzvah to make my wife happy. Its our first year. But in truth the mitzvah applies to every married man and every married woman. Our work is to make our partner happy.

I know and hope you know that the happiness we aspire to will not be gained by bringing some new gift to your husband or wife.Rather it will be gained in showing them respect for who they are and encouraging them to be most truly themselves. Their is no greater gift one can give another than saying and showing "You are different from me. And with those differences I love you as you are!"

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living as an Innocent

I recently read a news item where it was reported that the noted basketball super-star Lebron James paid a rabbi, reputed to have mystical abilities, a 6 figure fee so he would advise him on business decisions. According to the article, the rabbi, who heralds from Israel, and speaks no English, sat-in on investment proposals made to James and counselled him on where to place his money.

Making use of religious personalities,symbols,and amulets as a means to discern the future and influence the course of our lives is not new. But is it kosher? Just because we make use of items within the tradition rather than say tarot cards and rabbis instead of fortune tellers, does that in itself make it okay?

The Talmud teaches that one is not permitted to use 'psukim', verses in the Torah,repeated over and over, as a kind of religious device to, by dint of the 'magic' in the verses, bring about healing and prosperity.

This week the Torah is explicit in forbidding us from making use of soothsayers and fortune tellers to predict our future. But the Torah goes one step further. It tells us "Tamim t'hiyeh eem Hashem Elokecha", freely translated that means "You shall be innocent with the L-rd your G-d". The Haamek Davar explains the Torah's call to be 'tamim' by saying that even where we feel the need to know, we should remain innocent and trusting. And G-d will do as He sees fit for us.

The implication of the Hamek Davar's understanding of the verse is that its not enough that we do not make use of secular powers to know and direct the future. Even utilizing sources within the faith towards that end compromises our challenge to be 'tamim' and trusting in G-d and His direction.

So many who embrace the outer clothes of religion do so with the idea that religion will serve as some kind of magical potion to ward off evil and protect.They use prayer, study, rabbis, as if they are simply charms to guarantee against unwanted things. Sometimes they even become passionate in observance and most meticulous. Yet their practice feels almost primitive in its expectation that somehow if one does this or that one can be certain of his/her future.In their minds, Judaism provides the ingredients, which if rightly combined, can control the course of events.

Now its true that the Torah itself encourages us to pray for our needs. But prayer is not meant to manipulate the heavenly forces but rather to put ourselves in a new place with G-d, so that his mercy will devolve on us. Prayer is never meant to force the hand of G-d. And so too when we seek the counsel and prayers of great Rabbis. We do not expect them to be witch-doctors, with the powers of demi-gods. We simply ask for their prayers to be added to our own in beseeching G-d's, in whose hand our future rests, help.

Neither of the above practices compromises Hashem's call to us to be 'tamim'. We remain innocent and trusting in Hashem's will and decision. We simply are doing what He told us to do, appealing to Him so that he may give us the 'good' He intends for us.

Lebron James's Rabbi seems a far stretch from the 'tamim' of which we speak. The rabbi is not giving a 'bracha' to this Black basketball super-star. He is using his mystical powers to tell him what he otherwise would not know. And not about his moral conduct, but about investments that will make him money.It seems to me, he is using religion as a magical tool rather than as away to enhance one's spiritual self and draw near to Hashem. It is using religion against itself and its purpose.

It is not easy to be a 'tamim'. It is not easy to surrender ones natural instinct to want to both know and predict the future. The Torah tells us that in the ideal we will be given a 'Navi', a prophet so Hashem can tell us what we need to know. But for the rest, for all those personal matters of consequence not on the national agenda, we need to find the courage and faith to let go and let G-d be G-d.

Religion practiced as a means to manipulate the forces out of our control that they be good to us is a tainted religion.In the ideal, the goal of the religion we practice should be to give us the strength to live with all the unpredictability of life as an innocent, as a 'tamim', and be happy with our G-d.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Are the Religious Happy?

Gene Simmons, a lead vocalist with the rock band Kiss, and one who in both lifestyle and music gave expression to the joys of hedonism, was born in Israel. He emigrated to the United States while still a boy. Nearly all of his mother's family perished in the Holocaust. Once when interviewed, he acknowledged that growing up he had considerable contact with the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Yet he rejected religious life entirely in favor of the totally secular which he came to represent with his gaudy costumes and shameless antics. When asked why, he responded by noting that for all the certainty and fervor in the Orthodox Jewish world there was a noticeable lack of joy! How could he believe in Torah values and be part of a Torah community absent of joy!

Is he right? Do the religious experience less joy than the secular?
Do those who follow worldly pleasures, like they use to say about blonds, indeed have more fun?

Some years ago I attended a Siyum Hashas, a celebration of the completion of learning through the entire Talmud, together with near 20,000 men who completed the 7 year cycle of Daf Yomi study.
It was held in the largest indoor venue in New York, the fabled Madison Square Garden. It was an awesome spectacle. All these men, and many more who could not attend or could not get tickets, studied a page of Talmud a day. They were not rabbis or scholars. They were accountants and plumbers, diamond merchants and teachers. In short they were every-day people. Yet they were devoted to studying Torah, so much so that they gave at least an hour a day to learn Talmud and the daily page. Here they were in the home of the New York Knicks, and concert venue for the Grateful Dead, and they filled it, not to cheer or smoke pot,but to celebrate the gift of Torah study.

The evening was punctuated by addresses from the leading Roshai Yeshiva in America, scholars all and most revered. Yet as I sat and listened to address after address it was not the profundity of the remarks that struck me. Rather I was struck by how little spontaneous joy seemed evident in each speech. Encouragement? Yes! Challenge? Yes! Admonishment not to forget the learning? Yes! There was lots of those themes in the addresses. But where was the joy? I thought the Roshai Yeshiva should be dancing with glee. What a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d. Committed Jews filled the Garden, the bastion of the secular! A cycle of learning was completed by more Jews than ever before in Jewish history. Why were there so few smiles on the faces of the spiritual leaders? Why did the ambiance feel more serious than happy!

I repeat my earlier question. Are those who take the Torah lifestyle seriously less happy than those who reject it? Does observance compromise our joy?

Its worth noting that in this weeks parsha, that of Re'eh, whilst we are charged in no uncertain terms to a total commitment to keeping the commandments and embracing the life of Torah, we are also mandated to be joyous. No less than 7 times in this week's portion we are charged with the call to be happy.

But lets be honest here. All the expectations that we keep the mitzvot, and they are many and intricate, and that we dare not sin gives us reason to be serious and hesitant to rejoice. If we take the Torah and our G-d given obligations to heart we are more likely to forever be concerned if we are getting it right! We are likely to be more anxious than happy, more sober than exuberant. With all the details of proper observance from the complexities of the laws of Shabbat and making the right bracha to having true 'kavana' when we daven we are forever likely to be self-doubting. Self-doubt rarely leads to joy.

And the confessions we make in our own prayers seem to mitigate against us feeling happy. If one davens nusach Sefarad, twice a day one recites the 'ashamnu' list of sins. And even if one does not, over and over we recite that we are essentially unworthy of the kindnesses we receive from G-d. All that we get and all that we ask for we do acknowledging we are undeserving.If one believes that even the blessings in his/her life come to him/her undeservedly, its hard to be happy. Grateful, yes! But happy, no! In the end, no one can be truly happy with gifts that come to him/her if s/he feels s/he is not really deserving of them.

And yet the Torah commands us to be happy. How can that be?

There is a brilliant and pithy model that someone once used to describe levels of spiritual maturity. They divided the process into 4 components. When one has a totally undeveloped spiritual sense they live life for their own sake. When they get early spiritual yearnings, in the second stage, they pursue G-d centered ends but for their own sake and benefit, meaning because of the rewards G-d promises for keeping and/or the punishment for neglect. At the third level, one pursues a G-d-centered agenda, that means the focus of one's life is on the spiritual, and for G-d's sake. At this level, one's desire to do mitzvot is so as to bring nachas to G-d. And mitzvot are indeed the center of one's life's work. I would think this is the highest level. But there is one stage yet beyond.
And that is to pursue one's own life's agenda, not G-ds, but not out of selfish motives. On the contrary, if you were choosing you would pursue the spiritual agenda entirely. Rather you choose what is good for you, even though you prefer to focus on G-d, because Hashem wants you to, that is Hashem wants your pleasure and joy!
The highest level is choosing to do what is for you but for G-d's sake!

It is in this context that even the most religious person can know,and indeed must know,total simcha. Rebbe Nachamn taught "mitzvah gedola l'hyot b'simcha", "its a great mitzvah to be happy always". What did he mean its a "mitzvah"? Mitzvah is a commandment! Rebbe Nachman should simply challenge us to be happy.
The answer is that Rebbe Nachman knew that for the truly spiritual person its so hard to be happy. S/he knows how lacking s/he is and how undeserving. If one simply is seeking to serve G-d for G-d's sake one is more likely to be serious than joyous, and self-doubt will reign. But simcha is a mitzvah. G-d wants us to be happy! We need to be happy not for our sake but to do G-d's will for us.
That kind of happiness can happen even for the one most skeptical of his/her worth, because that happiness is not about them but about Hashem's desire for them.

Gene Simmons was right. Religious people, those who take their obligation to Hashem most seriously tend not to be as naturally happy as their counterparts who are secular. How can we be truly happy when we feel ourselves so lacking.

But we are called upon to be happy. Its a mitzvah oft repeated in the Torah. It takes a level of great spiritual maturity to forgo our own self critique and be happy because Hashem wants it for us.
Yet that is our mandate. To be candid,I think even great Roshai Yeshiva miss this call. They remind us of our limitations. They talk to us at stage 2 and 3 of our spiritual continuum. But they do not challenge us to attain stage 4 nor do most in themselves reflect the joy it should auger. Too bad!

You and I will have to get it on our own....To be spiritual and full of joy is not only not inconsistent. They go hand in hand. To the extent we lack the joy is to the extent we have not yet matured sufficiently in our spiritual process.
True we have no right to be happy. All we are given is a gift undeserved. But G-d wants us to be happy...And even if I feel unworthy I need be happy because He wants me to know joy!
"Mitzvah gedola lhyot b'simcha tamid!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paying the Price

What does it mean to be an adult? In what way is the grown-up different from the child? How do we recognize emotional maturity?

We may have many answers to those questions but surely any will include the idea that to be grown-up, to attain maturity means to recognize that all our actions have consequences. In the life of the child mistakes are made and forgiven with a simple "I am sorry".
S/he realizes that at times s/he has done the wrong. But nothing is so consequential that it is beyond redemption with an apology and, perhaps, a parental punishment. What s/he does not realize is that his/her actions have enduring consequences. S/he,as a child, does not yet know that one's actions can never be undone no matter how many apologies. We pay for what we take in life. Nothing is really free !

Truth be told, many of us, as would be adults, have yet to fully accept the same lesson. We go through life often realizing we are making mistakes, but we are unwilling to pay the price for them.Like children, we assume we can just say we are sorry or that we try our best and that will be enough. If you doubt the truth of what I say, just ask the smoker who is surprised to get lung cancer as if s/he didn't think s/he would ever pay the price for his/her choices. Or ask the person who does not exercise and over-eats and too early in life has a heart attack. Or the parent who fails to discipline his/her child when they are young and then finds him/herself with an unruly teen. Its not that the choices we make guarantee the consequences but they make them both predictable and likely.

The Torah this week in the parsha of Eikev makes clear that our choices have consequences. From the portion's beginning where Moshe tells the Israelites that if they keep the Torah and do the commandments they will be blessed with prosperity and peace to the end of the reading and the second paragraph of 'shma', the theme of action and consequence is repeated over and over. Indeed this is the recurring theme of the entire book of Devarim.

But we might ask, if G-d loves us why isn't it enough that He reward us for our commitment to Torah. Why does He need to punish us if we fail to observe? The Rabbis taught "The Holy One Blessed be He wanted to merit Israel therefore He gave us Torah and Mitzvot." We can understand that we are given the many many mitzvot so we can earn reward. But why punish us if we fail. True there are many opportunities to earn blessings, but one might wonder if its worth it with all the waiting reproof when we fail and, with all the commandments, there is so much opportunity for failure!

I was thinking about this when I went to visit an elderly and infirm man whom I learn with each week. You may recall him from an earlier blog. Well, I had called his wife earlier in the week and advised that I needed to reschedule our learning time. She said the new time was perfect for him and they would be delighted to see me.
When I got to the apartment I discovered, to my surprise, that he was not home. He had an eye doctors appointment and they had forgotten about our learning appointment. She apologized to me several times for the error and repeated over and over how meaningful the learning time was for her husband!

Now why did the wife of my weekly chavruta need to repeat over and over that the learning time her husband and I shared was so important to him and her? She could have just explained the mistake, as she did, and moved on?

The answer is that she knew what we all know. We don't forget things that have consequences for us. When my chavruta, even at 91 years, has a physicians appointment, he writes it down in his little book. He will neither forget it nor miss it. But our learning does not have that kind of 'chashivut', importance to him. It does not get noted in the book. And do you know why? Because it does not have immediate consequence in his mind. I do not get paid to learn with him. Our learning is a gift! When anything is a gift, with no apparent cost, no matter how precious, in the end it goes unappreciated and typically it gets neglected.

Please don't misunderstand.I am not meaning to be critical of my chavruta. On the contrary, my chavruta taught me something about me, and you, a lesson perhaps more valuable than the hour we would have spent learning. He helped me understand why it is that Hashem had to not only attach reward to keeping the mitzvot, but also attach punishment for failing to keep. If mitzvot only engendered reward with no negative consequence they would go under-valued and neglected. We simply would prioritize our lives so that other things, things that have negative consequences, would dominate our routine. We would miss our purpose in life!

I suspect that its for this reason the father makes the blessing of 'baruch she'ptarani', blessed is He who freed me from the consequences of the punishment for my son's 'avairot', sins, at his son's Bar Mitzvah. The blessing seems most peculiar for a happy time and one filled with hope for the future. Yet, in accord with what we have come to see, the blessing makes sense. To become a Jewish adult is to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions, to be what is called in tradition a "bar onshin", someone who will be punished for his/her failures. No acceptance of mitzvot can be real and meaningful without knowing that it does not come free! The bar mitzvah, the boy, now man, son of commandments must accept that reality lest all the promise be lost in neglect.

The father makes the blessing so the son can hear! He makes the blessing so his son can fully comprehend that from now on he, the boy, is liable for his own deeds. If all Bar Mitzvah meant was reward and blessing then mitzvot would become cheap and observance a nicety, rather than a commitment. In this backdrop, is it any wonder that for so much of the Jewish world bar,bat Mitzvah makes so little impact on a boy's or girl's life. No matter how big the splash of how lavish the gifts if the young adult does not accept consequences for being a Jew the rite of bar/bat mitzvah will be empty of impact.

Whether in our own lives or in the lives of the children we are raising we must come to terms with the reality that our actions have enduring consequences. Its not enough to just claim the blessing in doing the right. We must acknowledge and accept that failure is more than sad, warranting an apology. Failure is tragic!

Whether in saying the hurtful word to another or failing to keep Shabbat as we need to, we must know that its not enough to mean well.
Meaning well does not help if you drive under the influence and harm someone. Meaning well does not undo the wrongful spiritual act either, whether to another or to Hashem. Knowing that, for sure does not make life easier. But it does make it more likely that we will toe the line and indeed live a life that will be called blessed rather than tragic!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on Hate and Redemption

We have just passed the period of mourning on our national calendar. Tisha B'Av 5770 is a memory. We enter the weeks of 'nechama', consolation. Yet we remain as a people mired in the 'galut' and painfully incomplete. The yearning for Mashiach is as compelling as ever.

In the search for comfort, this week I want to look back with you at what got us here. How have we gotten stuck for so long in this state of brokenness? What can we do to finally bring it to an end?

The Talmud teaches us that the sins of our People committed during the time prior to the destruction of the second Temple were more severe than the sins committed at the time of the destruction of the first. We know this because the first exile lasted but 70 years, while we remain 2000 years later waiting for the culmination of the current exile.

How surprising that is, when we we know the first Temple was destroyed because the Nation violated the three cardinal sins, idolatry, murder, and sexual lasciviousness. The Jews of the second Temple, in the period prior to its destruction, kept the Torah and even were learned. Their sin, the cause of the destruction was, according to the Talmud, that of 'sinat chinam' unwarranted hatred one Jew for another. Could the sin of 'sinat chinam' be more pernicious than the sins of totally forsaking the principles of the Faith?

The mystery goes further. The Talmud also teaches that the power of Torah learning is so great that it can save a person/nation from the awful consequences due them because of commission of the three cardinal sins. Torah protects! If the Jews of the first Temple had studied Torah, even with their terrible 'aveirot', they would have been spared destruction. Yet, the Talmud notes, that as great as the power of Torah to protect is, it cannot protect nation or person from the consequences of the sin of 'sinat chinam'.

Why is this sin of hatred undeserved so consequential as to be irredeemable? What makes it beyond pardon?

I think if we reflect on the sin of hating another we may find clues to the answer. Lets explore hatred. The Talmud calls the 'avaira', "'sinat chinam'",literally that means "hatred for no reason". We might ask, is there such a thing? Does anyone hate for no reason. I mean lets think about the worst kind of hate, say
racism. Every racist has a reason for his/her hate. Hitler, in his own mind, evil as it was, thought he was doing the world a favor in getting rid of the Jews. He perceived us as a blight on humanity.
Those who hate always have reasons.

When the Talmud gives us the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and how the host of a major event who thought he invited one, his friend, and to his chagrin found that mistakenly he had invited the other, his enemy, refused to allow this enemy any saving dignity, and caused his humiliation by throwing him out, did that host have no reason to hate one of the Kamtzas? I bet you if you gave the host half an hour he would fill you with reasons why the Kamtza he hated was slime and totally undeserving of compassion.
He would tell you why he was right to expel him from the party, maybe even a mitzva.

Ask anyone why they hate someone and they always have a reason. In their own minds the hatred is justified. No, more than justified, typically they will tell you the hatred is indeed a mitzvah. Moreover they will tell you that you too should hate the other.

So then why does the Talmud refer to this sinful hatred as 'sinat chinam' "hatred for nothing". Its not a hatred with no reason? All hatred has a 'reason'. And how can we distinguish this 'sinat chinam', the hate which brought about our destruction and continues to cause us to languish in the galut from hatred that may truly be warranted?

I would like to suggest that the 'chinam', the "for nothing" that the Talmud uses to characterize this hate has not to do with the motivation for the hatred. All hatred has a basis and for that matter a cause, if not a reason. When the Talmud refers to the sinful hate as 'baseless' it means that the base for the hatred is rooted in the hater not in the hated. 'Sinat chinam' is when we hate another not for who they are, but rather because of who we are!

Yes, Hitler would tell you he had a reason to hate the Jews. He would name all our vile characteristics. It was not a hatred with no base. Problem was that the base for his hatred of the Jews lay inside his psyche, not in us. That's the problem with all prejudice. Sure we may give it reasons. But the essential source of our prejudice is rooted inside us, not in the other. No matter how hard we may try to project the reasons for our hate on the other, at the deepest level the hate starts with us, our issues our baggage, our fears.

The reason 'sinat chinam' is so irredeemable, beyond even the worst sins in our Tradition is because we think our hatred is not only not a sin, but, in fact, a good and noble thing. We idealize our hatreds. No matter how bad the sin of idolatry and murder etc are, no one makes them into Torah values! To sin in them is horrific. But the perpetrator knows he has gone against his/her Faith. Bring him/her back to the fold and s/he will do teshuva.

Hatred is not like that. We hate while we eat our b'datz meat. We hate while we learn hours each day. We hate while go make extraordinary sacrifices to raise our children frum and committed.
We hate and never feel guilty about it. We hate and believe our hatred a mitzvah !

We fool ourselves to believe the hatred is deserved and based on the wickedness of the other. We never see that core source of the emotion emanates within us. Perhaps the other is not perfect either. But the hate for them is not earned by them but rather the product of our projections, rooted in our fears and anxieties!

The sad part of the story is that now 2000 years after the Temple's destruction we are no closer to remedying the causes that brought it about. Learn more Torah? That won't help. They were learned then!
Daven more? observe more? None of that will help. We pale before the generation of the Destruction in our Jewish observance.

Its 'sinat chinam' we need to remedy. That's the only way to bring about the 'g'eula', redemption. Yet we remain self-righteous in our prejudices, believing them not only warranted but in-fact mitzvot to maintain!
When we will ever learn?

Are we at least on the road to the true 'nechama', consolation? I fear we have taken every road but the one that leads to the promise of our destiny!

Lets you and I ask ourselves, where does 'sinat chinam' reside in us? Who do we hate where the basis for the hatred is not in them but in our fears, anxieties, and at times self-loathing. Be honest with yourself! If we are, I will guarantee that 90% of the hatred we carry is 'sinat chinam". Oh sure the other isn't perfect! But 'hate', that comes from us!

The first step in the teshuva process is recognizing the sin! That's the one we miss entirely here. And that's the one redemption calls for. Simply recognizing that the hate we carry for another is a sin, and that it is rooted in our flawed character will speed the arrival of Mashiach and make real 'nechama' possible.
Oh when will we ever learn!

Shabbat Shalom