Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Complaint with G-d

Is it okay to be angry at G-d ? Is it okay to complain to Him? We all know we are invited to pray for our needs. But what about when we feel we have been treated unfairly. Is it acceptable to voice to G-d our bitterness,our sense of having been wronged?

I do not believe the answer to those questions is simple. Yet they are important questions to process. And this week's Torah portion sheds light on the topic.

The Torah at the outset of Chapter 16 tells us that the Israelites complained to Moshe and Aharon. They said "Would not it have been better for us to die in Hashem's care in the land of Egypt where we had pots full of meat and plenty of bread to eat. Did you need to take us out here to the wilderness to cause all of us to die of famine".

Hashem responds immediately to the Israelite's complaint. He promises the mann in the morning and the slav in the evening as miraculous food sources for the people. When Moshe and Aharon tell the people their complaints have been heard they include the following "v'nachnu ma kee taleenu alainu, and what are we that you voice your complaint at us".

The Talmud derives from here insight into the incredible humility of Moshe. They saw themselves as ma, which essentially means as nothing. The Rabbis point out, even more humble than David who in Psalms referred to himself as a worm and not a person, and still more humble than Avraham who referred to himself as dust, Moshe refers to himself and Aharon as absolutely nothing.

Moshe and Aharon could not understand how the people could have complained to them for having taken them out in the wilderness to starve. Not because the people were not in fact starving and not because they never would do something so heinous. Rather they could not imagine how anyone could think they were the authors of the Exodus. The humility of Moshe and Aharon was so great that they never saw themselves as the people did. They never saw themselves as the facilitators of the liberation. They were just doing what was asked of them by G-d. How could they be held accountable....vnachnu ma.

True humility is where one does not even think s/he is worthy of being the object of praise, much less its recipient. Anivut is more than when one feel the honor s/he receives is not deserved. Its when a person cannot understand why one would even want to praise and honor him/her. Anivut is where the person feels s/he has done nothing praiseworthy! A high madreiga indeed!

But that first v'nachnu ma is not what I want to focus on with you. Rather its the second v'nachnu ma. Yes believe it or not Moshe makes essentially the same statement a second time, and only one pasuk later. There Moshe speaks alone, rather than with Aharon. He says
"Hashem will give you meat in the evening to eat and bread in the morning to sate you for Hashem has heard your complaints on Him, Vnachnu ma (what are we), your complaints are not with us, but with Hashem."

We might well wonder why does Moshe repeat the same message over, telling the People their complaints do not belonging to him and Aharon? What is the second pasuk giving us that the first did not?

I believe the answer is germane to the question with which we began our reflection. In the first verse Moshe is simply telling the people he is not the liberator. Their complaints to him make no sense to him at all. That is for us a lesson about humility.
In the second pasuk Moshe is saying something else. He is saying to the People "You have every right to complain. That's not the problem here. In fact G-d heard your complaints and is taking care of them. But you need to know that its not Okay to displace your issues with G-d by directing them towards other safer targets, like Aharon and me. You need to raise them directly to Hashem".

In the second verse the v'nachnu ma was not meant as a statement of personal humility but as a challenge to the People to have the courage to bring their complaint to its source. Moshe, as it were, says to Israelites, if you honestly feel your complaint has merit then bring it to G-d and He will receive you. Do not be afraid to claim what feels true to you before G-d. Do not let intimidation cause you to displace your hurt and worry and either keep silent or put it where it does not belong.

So often people find themselves in desperate circumstances. Life may have been very unfair to them. Perhaps one has pains that won't go away or faces a financial crisis with no source of help. Is it alright to complain to G-d. When ravaged by cancer does one have the right to angrally ask G-d "why?". When overwhelmed with loss does one need to remain stoic before G-d?
In the Psalms David says "My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me". Sounds like a complaint to me. When the Israelites have no food Moshe tells them complain indeed, but bring it to G-d. That's what it means to be in relationship with Him.

It does no good for a person to live with suffering in silence. If we are to have a true relationship with Hashem we need to give voice to our heart, even when that heart is aching and feels cheated. My sense of Tehilm teaches me that only when I bring all of me to Hashem can I feel His saving closeness and only then can the love of G-d be realized in it fullness.

It takes courage to express all of myself to G-d. Yet that is what G-d wants of me. Would any loving parent want less from their child?

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Freedom of the Inside

The drama of the Exodus has been portrayed in film and art. It captures the imagination. From Cecille B. Demille to Steven Spielberg the story has captivated not only the faithful, but even the secular. Everyone knows the story. Right ?

Well maybe not quite. This week's parsha tells us the events in detail. Prior to the exodus from Egypt the Israelites held a meal in their homes, the first seder we might say. They ate the paschal lamb and placed the blood of the lamb on the doorpost and the lintel. We are told G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites that night as He slew the first born of the Egyptians. The Torah says, " The blood shall be for you a sign on the houses that you are in. And I will see the blood....and passover...and not let the destroyer enter your homes to cause strife".

Ok, that much we knew already. But where did the Israelites place the blood? On the outside of the doorpost or the inside? Most, if asked, would say on the outside, after all it was meant for a sign. Yet Rashi, quotes the Michilta that says "for you a sign and not for others" and that the blood was in fact placed on the inside of the door frame.

The question is why? Why would the blood be placed on the inside of the home? Rabbeinu
Bachya says that the purpose of the blood on the door was to show the absolute faith the Israelites had in Hashem, so much so that they slew the lamb, a god of the Egyptians and publicly displayed its blood on their doors. That reasoning would only make sense if the blood was placed on the outside.

But we might yet ask a more central question. What is the meaning of the meal of the Exodus celebrated while the Israelites still were in Mitzrayim and not yet liberated? Would it not have made more sense to celebrate a meal of freedom after they left and were in reality free?

In answer to both questions I am reminded of a time I conducted a seder for Jews who were hospitalized at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center in New York City. The patients who came were in wheelchairs. All had been recent victims of a stroke. For most their life was changed forever. As I saw the parade of wheelchairs coming down the hospital corridor I thought to myself, what does it mean for these men and women to mark a meal of freedom when they can't even use the bathroom without help? How can the seder have relevance to those incarcerated in their wheelchairs? Can these men and women really taste the freedom in the matza and wine when they are held captive in their own bodies?

And yet they did ! To my amazement despite the paralysis of their bodies they experienced Pesach and indeed the thanksgiving of liberation. Perhaps even more so! They knew their circumstances all too well. They also knew that the freedom they owned was not about external movement. It was about the ability to transcend the circumstances and affirm the power to choose and to be. Perhaps deprived of the trappings of freedom, they identified with the essence of what it means to be free. They celebrated the gift of the spirit that can never be enslaved, the spirit that made choices, even in these trying times for them to be Jews and to identify with their people and their story.

I believe that's the core message the Torah is teaching us in saying "for you a sign and not for others" as the blood was pasted to the inner door frame. It was for us to realize even as we celebrated seder in the bowels of Egypt that we are free so long as our spirits are free. No external forces outside our door, no matter how pervasive or how powerful can ever take that away from us. Freedom can be had even in Egypt, even in the Warsaw Ghetto, even in a Concentration Camp, even in Rusk Rehabilitation Center. We are free so long as we choose our destiny, so long as we affirm who we are. Being free is not a statement about our external situation, that may often be outside our control. Freedom is about our state of mind and spirit.
That freedom is G-d given and can never be taken from us. It is that freedom we celebrate Pesach, and yes, precisely while still in Egypt.

The message here for me and perhaps you, is clear. Sometimes we feel our life is so constricted.
We may feel enslaved by forces that limit us and the choices we may make. At times that which binds us may be physical, at times emotional. In either case the compelling forces often deplete our spirit and rob us of the feeling that we are free.

It is in those times that we need to remember Pesach Mitzrayim, and the blood on the inside of the door. Real freedom is not something we are given but something we choose. Natan Schransky was free in the Soviet gulag. We can be free wherever we are, if we so choose.
That won't change our external situation. But it will allow us meaning and purpose, the key ingredients to a quality life.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doing vs Becoming

The story in this week's reading raised issues for many of our great medieval Jewish philosophers. They wondered how could G-d have hardened the heart of the Pharaoh in Egypt and then held him accountable for not listening to G-d's word to free the Israelites. What happened to the promise of human free will ? And if we do not have free will how can we be liable?

While I don't presume to even be worthy to touch the feet of the great sages who offerred important insights in interpreting these troubling passages, I want to share the truth that emerges for me this year in reflecting on the question, an answer that has in it a personal challenge for me on my journey to learn and become.

Its true Pharaoh's heart was made hard by G-d. But all that did was to prevent him from succumbing to G-d's demand to free the people. Pharaoh was not punished for failing to obey G-d and set the people free. Yes, the plagues came one after another when he did not liberate the Israelites but that is not why he and the Egyptians deserved punishment. Pharaoh was punished for enslaving the Israelites, persecuting them, and killing their male children. He committed cruelties that parallel the worst anti-Semites of our modern era. Pharaoh was the proto-type for Hitler.

Pharoah never got it, no matter how many times he is visited by Moshe, nor how many plagues he is compelled to suffer, and not because his heart is hardened. Pharoah never got that what he did to the Israelites was evil. He never, even at the end, showed charata, remorse for his atrocities. Even when he said to Moshe "Hashem is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked", its more about accepting that he needs to obey G-d who is more powerful than him. His crime, to him, is his failure to let the people go. Even there he does not confess that his cruel enslavement and persecution were sinful. He is ready to re-enslave the people after they come back from there holiday in the wilderness that G-d demands he grant.

Pharaoh never changes. Not because his heart is hardened but because he is committed to evil.
Yes, in the end he adapts. After the death of the first borns he does what it takes to survive. But he never regrets his repression of a people. He never comes to acknowledge his sin much less become more kind and compassionate as a person and ruler.

While the Pharaoh as a personality is larger than life, on reflection, he has much to teach us. How often do we adapt our behaviors because it serves our needs but fail to actually change. Examples abound. We often say we are sorry to someone for something we did that offends them. Yet, like children, we do not regret our actions nor think them wrong. We merely regret the consequences they caused in the reaction of the other. We may say thank you for something done for us. We know its called for. And yet we remain ungrateful. Our thanks is merely an external adaptation and does not reflect our true sense of gratitude.

And the same is true in our religious life and the performance of mitzvot. We may daven each morning. Its the right thing to do. And yet the davening is an adaptive behavior. We simply do what is deemed appropriate. We rarely feel impelled to daven because we yearn to be in intimate conversation with the Divine. So many of our mitzvot, I suspect, we do because we know we are mandated to, rather than because we want to. We keep mitzvot "like the servant who does for his master in order to receive a reward". Sure we do the good thing. And that's important. But like the Pharaoh we do it because we feel obliged.

The work of our life is to become as "servants who serve our master regardless of the reward". Our goal is serve Hashem because we love doing for Him. We need to reach a place where we daven because we want an intimacy with Him, to feel the closeness. We need to attain a level of inner becoming where we learn because it gives us joy to study His words. All we do for others, our spouses, our children, our fellow Jew, we need to do because we want to, because it brings us pleasure to care and love in word and in deed.

The work of our life is to cultivate a taava, a desire to do the good in the same way we have a taava to do bad. I heard a wonderful story of Rav Aharon Kotler, the founder of the great Yeshiva in Lakewood and arguably the gadol hador of his generation. A man once came to visit him and told him how he was sure he had a great share in olam haba, the world to come because he supported 5 sons-in-law learning Torah. Rav Aharon said to him "Olam haba I am sure you have. But we who sit here and do the learning itself we have olam hazeh, this world!".

I do not mean to imply that if we do good things because of external expectations its bad. On the contrary, we need to do the good. But the goal in doing the good needs to be to become the good!
Our work toward shlaimut requires that we use our good actions to influence our psyche and move us to intrinsic goodness.

We are not yet whole, no matter how frume we are or how much we are medakdek b'mitzvot until we find our olam hazeh in learning, davening, and doing mitzvot.
We need to do more than do. The work of our life is to become !

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Our Burning Bush

"Let me go and see..." " Rebbe Yochanan said that Moshe took three steps. Resh Lakish said that Moshe did not take any steps (towards the burning bush). He merely turned his neck ( to look). In response Hashem said "You made effort to see, I swear I will reveal myself to you".

With those words the Medrash Tanchuma explains the emphasis the Torah text gives to Moshe's decision to explore the mystery of the Burning Bush in the wilderness. By implication we may understand that had Moshe not decided to investigate, the revelation at the Bush might never have occurred and the story of the redemption might well have taken a different course.

Yet we might well wonder, what is so significant about Moshe making effort to explore this miraculous and super-natural phenomena? He saw a bush being engulfed in flame yet not being consumed. It was a wonder? Why would he not have gone to check it out? For what is he being given credit here?

Reflecting on this I came to realize that checking out the mystery of the bush was not the automatic that it first appears. I mean Moshe was 80 years old. He had gone through many trials already in his life. Separated from his family and people as an infant, raised as a prince, then hunted as a criminal and forced to flee to a strange land, Moshe had known upheaval. He had seen enough change. It would not be surprising if he had wanted to enjoy his years with his wife and family without further transitions.

When Moshe saw the surprising phenomena of the bush that burned without being consumed he must have thought, "there is something spiritual here, something that may likely have implications for me, and may even radically alter the trajectory of my life. Maybe I should just walk away, pretend I don't see. Why risk getting involved in something that will mean personal upheaval".

Have you never thought that way? How many of us have been in situations where we have an opportunity to be effected in ways that will change us and so we decline to participate or if we participate we leave our truest self on the sidelines so we won't feel too deeply.

So we listen to the rav's drasha but with a critical eye and a distant heart, afraid that if we let ourselves get caught-up with the message we will have to make changes in our lives or selves.
Or we have a chance to experience something that we know all too well will be wonderful and yet we decline for fear that if we accept, the experience may affect us and we will then want to alter our lives or routine. The amazing thing about our fear is that even though we know that we will only make the alterations if we indeed want to, yet we fear coming to that want. We simply don't want to even want to change!

This week I took on a new minhag, of course bli neder. It started simply enough. I had no hot water in my apartment and needed a shower. I am a very early riser. I thought "let me take advantage of this opportunity and go to the mikva and shower there. I am already going to the mikva each erev Shabbat. Why not use this moment to explore the possibility of going to the mikva on a daily basis". Ah but then I said to myself, "wait what happens if you go this one morning, get the mitzva and the shower and really like the feeling. Do you really want to change? Is that who you are? You don't look like a person who goes to the mikva at 4:00AM each morning. You are no tzaddik!"

Perhaps Moshe had some of those same feelings when he considered approaching the burning bush. He did not know the consequences. Yet he knew well that his decision would likely mean change. He said "Yes" to the encounter and for the courage of his decision we were redeemed and he became our redeemer. I needed to say "yes" to going to the mikva and trust that if I feel its right for me to do daily than I will ,with G-d's help, absorb the change, and who knows, maybe even become worthy of it.

The message for me and perhaps you is to seize the inspired moments in our lives and not be afraid for what consequences may follow. When Moshe risked, the Medrash tells us, Hashem responded. Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe. When we risk to enter the moments of hitorerut, we too are promised the blessing of siyata dishmaya, help from above. The sages tell us that G-d promises "Open for me an opening even the size of the eye of a needle and I will open for you a passageway large enough for wagons of oxen to pass through".

We each have our burning bushes and on many occasions. As exciting as those times and places are we tend to fear them and often only look from afar. Let's resolve to trust ourselves and trust the moment to effect us. Our burning bush may not save a people, but it may well make all the difference in whether we become who we need to become to fulfill our destiny in this world.

Shabbat Shalom