Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making Memory

This week we mark Shabbat Zachor. Beyond the sequential Torah portion we read weekly, we read from a second scroll of the mitzvah to eradicate, not only the people but even the zaicher, memory, of Amalek from the earth.

Truth be told, there is no greater human tragedy than to be erased from memory. When we speak of the ultimate villains of history. like Hitler, we mention their name and then immediately add yemach shmo, may his name be forever blotted out.Italic
Surprisingly the Torah tell us that if someone dies without children they run the risk of having their name blotted out. It is for that reason the Torah requires the mitzvah of Yibum, the levirate marriage. The brother of the deceased is to marry his childless widow so a child will be born " shem acheve hamet, vlo yemacha shemo byisrael" " the name of his deceased brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel".

We might wonder about the connection between the man or woman who dies childless and the nefarious villains of history. About both it seems the term yemacha shmo, blotted name, is used. Yet the person who dies without having had children may well be a great tzaddik, someone who has done great good and for many. How is it that we refer to their circumstances as alike. Can it be possible that the good person who dies childless really incurred the horrific curse of yemach shmo that we reserve for the worst perpetrators of evil?

Unconditionally the answer is "No!". One who dies without leaving children indeed sadly has his/her name blotted out. To mitigate the tragedy the Torah gave us the mitzvah of Yibum.
However it is not the same at all as the curse we hurl on history's villains. Of them we dont just say "yemach shmo". What we say is "yemach shmo v'zechro". For those who create great evil we do more than talk about the blotting out of a name. Like for the Amalekites, we call for the blotting out of their names and memory. Good people may not be able to continue to keep their name alive in this world without having had children, but they can do much to preserve their zecher, memory.

Worse than being remembered for bad, is not being remembered at all. Think about it. How many a notorious criminal was pleased to know that they would never be forgotten. It did not matter to them that their acts would leave them on the bad guys list. It was only important that they left a mark and would be remembered. They were not satisfied doing the little evil, that might go unnoticed or have a limited lifespan of memory. They wanted to do the big evil, one that would go down in history.

When Hashem calls for Amalek, the nation who personified evil, to receive the ultimate penalty for there unpardonable sin, He calls for their memory to be blotted out. We are to remove any indication that Amalek ever existed. In the end of days, when this mitzvah is fulfilled as it supposed to be, Amalek will, as it were, disappear, in name, in deed,and in memory. It will be as if they never were.

I will share with you something deeply personal. Some 2 1/2 years ago my wife passed away of metastatic cancer. She was only 54. She left an only child, a 13 year old daughter. Before she died she confided to me something. She told me she was entirely accepting of her untimely death, that she in fact had bargained for it. You see, Pamela was a cancer survivor and for many many years. Ten years earlier a spot had shown up on her lung, a recurrence of the cancer that had been in remission for many years and of the same cancer that eventually took her life.
At that time she pleaded with G-d not to take her. She said to G-d "Please don't take me now. My daughter is so young. Please just give me ten years. Just enough time so Bess will remember me. That's all I ask." Pamela then told me, the ten years just concluded. Her prayers were answered.
It was time to accept.

Sometimes when I tell that story people assume that Pamela would have wanted the ten years so she could help her daughter grow. I can see on their face that they are a bit surprised she bargained for the time for what might be seen as selfish motives. She wanted her only child to remember her.

What the puzzled person does not understand is how basic the desire is within each of us to leave a zecher, a remembrance. The greatest curse is to die as if you never lived. The victory over Amalek will never be complete until there is no memory of them left in the world. For the dying their is no comfort like in knowing they will be remembered.

In marking Shabbat Zachor perhaps it would be useful to not only focus on the evil we need to remember to eradicate from memory. We would do well to remember as well the zecher that will be our nechama someday when life is ebbing away. Leaving a meaningful zecher is not about one great gift or heroic act. Leaving a zecher is the work of a lifetime and as much evidenced in the little acts of kindness and often to those closest to us.

After a hundred and twenty years, when our time comes, may it be said of us "zichrono levracha", that indeed our memory is a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When to Help Is to Hurt

At the Shabbat table, when the host slices the challah, he is not to distribute the pieces to the guests one at a time, placing a piece in the hand of each guest. Rather he is to place the sliced challah on a common plate and let each guest take a piece for him/herself.
According to the Shulchan Aruch only a mourner may be given a slice in his/her hand directly(perhaps this is only true during the week when the laws of aveilut prevail).

The reason the host may not put bread in the hands of his guests is because it is demeaning to them. It is one thing to offer another of your hospitality. It is another to make him/her feel dependent. When the bread is offered and the guest takes, s/he is asserting his/her independence. S/he is choosing to take. When bread is put in the hands of the guest s/he is made to feel infantilized, fed by another. Even when giving one may not do so in such a manner as to lord over the recipient. Only for the the aveil, who, in his/her time of loss, is dependent on the care of the community, are we permitted and indeed encouraged to feed even by hand.

The sensitivity of halacha to the dynamics of human relationships is extraordinary. The host may intend only to benefit his/her guest. The guest may only feel gratitude for the food s/he is served. Yet if the way of giving creates an imbalance that makes the one superior and the other dependent, it is unacceptable.

Perhaps this helps explain a troubling pasuk in this week's parsha of Teruma. In charging Moshe with the work of collecting gifts for the construction of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness, the Torah says, "From every man who makes a voluntary offering you shall take my teruma."
The verse seems conflicted. If the person makes a "voluntary offering" then why will Moshe "take" it. If its voluntary it will be "given" not "taken". We would expect the pasuk to read "From every man who makes a voluntary offering you shall receive...." rather that take.

In accord with the halacha we just discussed above we may understand here the Torah's intent.
Yes, each person may want to give to build the Mishkan. He may feel a generosity of spirit. And his gift is indeed desired and needed. Yet it is unbecoming for him to give. To give, whether to G-d or another, directly is to set-up the donor in a position of superiority relative to the recipient. It creates a unacceptable imbalance and the potential for the donor to believe himself G-d-like in sustaining those dependent on him.

That is entirely unacceptable. The most the benefactor to the Mishkan was permitted was to open his heart and make his gift available. Then it was for Moshe to take the gift, even as we take the challah from the plate of our host. We do not give to another in such a way as to make the other feel small. If its at all possible, we give in such a way so as to allow him/her to retain his/her dignity. Even in helping there are ways that sustain and ways that diminish.

A wise friend, who I often call my Resh Lakish, shared with me an interesting application of this concept. Like many of us , on the streets of Yerushalayim, the friend often gets asked for donations by people giving away small booklets or other items. Typically the friend will give a donation and decline to take the item distributed. Yet, on reflection, the friend remarked, it would be better to take the booklet offered. Not because the friend wanted it. But rather because it let the other retain his/her dignity. In accepting the booklet the tzedaka becomes more like a sale, as it were, even if only in form, and the recipient feels less compromised.

To learn how to give is an art, not only with the poor who we don't know, but even with our friends in their time of need. We need to think how we can help without making the other feel diminished or beholden to us. We need to think how we might give without engendering the sense of helplessness that makes a person feel small. The Rambam already outlined his 7 levels of giving Tzedakah, with sensitivity to the needy. We need to apply the same ideas to other spheres of our lives where help is needed but should be given so as to minimize the hurt of the one receiving in the process.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Between Pain and Suffering

What's the difference between pain and suffering? Two words that seem very similar. Yet they actually convey things much different from each other. Pain is a neurological phenomena. It is measurable, predictable and can be treated with pills, ointments or sometimes medical procedures. Suffering is the meaning we give to our pain. It is unique to an individual and his/her circumstances. Inasmuch as it relates to the individual no physiological intervention will remedy it. Only addressing the person has possibility to bring relief.

OK, there you have the key idea. Let's unpack it. Two people can have quantifiably the same amout of physiological pain, go through the same experience, and yet it will engender totally different feelings. One may be having a baby, something long hoped for and desired. The experience of labor produces considerable pain. But since the mother-to-be is fulfilling a long standing work of meaning she finds it entirely bearable. The other is tragically giving birth to a stillborn.
She has the same labor. Yet it feels not the same at all. She is grieving. Unlike the first woman, her labor will produce no joy. Neurologically they may be experiencing something similar. In reality one is suffering far more than the other.

The pain of healing does not feel the same as the pain of woundedness. The pain caused in realizing something of purpose does not feel the same as the pain caused by something we feel as meaningless. To a person whose world seems bleak a hang nail can be more intolerable than knee surgery to the person whose life is full. In truth what most often measures our discomfort is suffering, not pain. The interpretation we put on our experience causes us to feel it differently.
Sometimes it matters more that we treat the person, help them to re-interpret their experience, so as to bring relief rather than treat the symptom, no matter how severe.

The Parsha of Mishpatim is the gateway to realize this important truth. Near the reading's close we are told that Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy Elders all saw the G-d of Israel. The pasuk there says "....and under His feet was the like of a sapphire brick, similar to the heaven in clarity."

What is this sapphire brick that they saw? Rashi interprets the verse to say that G-d kept a brick near him to forever remember the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Even when G-d could not save us he felt our woundedness. When at last the Israelites were redeemed that very brick became aglow with the clarity of the heavens. And G-d continues to cherish it.

There is much to think about in both the verse and in Rashi's commentary. But let me just focus on one small point. Okay, so Hashem felt with us the slavery in Egypt. Thats why he kept the brick under His feet. But why was it sapphire? sapphire is such a noble material. It should have been straw and mortar the materials of which the real bricks were made.

The answer is oh so compelling. Yes, for us, we experienced the suffering of the Egyptian slavery all the more because we were building structures to satisfy human egos. We gave our lives to edify the foolish desires of the Pharaoh. The work would have been enough to crush us. It was made all the worse because we saw it as meaningless.

On Sinai Hashem revealed the brick beneath His feet, the symbol of the very brick of Egypt, the bricks of our torment.
And low and behold it was not straw and mortar but sapphire. Why? Because even though we saw ourselves as enslaved to no purpose, in fact we were all the while being molded by that very experience of slavery, through those very bricks, into the people we would yet become.
We were forged in Egypt through our suffering. It was not really meaningless at all. Through our struggle we grew the inner character to become G-d's people. We never realized it. The bricks we toiled with were not the bricks of mortar and straw that served the evil Pharaoh. They were indeed the bricks of sapphire that transformed a nation.

The message we may well take from here is that all our suffering has meaning. We need to simply be open to what it offers us. Perhaps the message of our suffering is not clear to us now. But it has meaning nonetheless. Suffering is never without purpose. In knowing that, we have the capacity to transform bricks from straw and mortar to sapphire and to limit the overwhelming nature of our suffering, if not our pain.

Our suffering is not the junk of our life. It is as vital to our becoming as the stuff we deem pleasurable and maybe more so. We often cannot change our circumstances. We can always change our attitude towards our circumstances. And in realizing that even that which feels bad has meaning and purpose, we can find the wherewithal to endure.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Have you ever wondered what it takes to successfully offer criticism? Have you ever thought "What might make it easier for me to accept criticism? " Truth is we all need to hear correction.
None of us is so complete that we can rely on our own mind-set to know where we need to improve. They say of the Vilna Gaon, he insisted on hearing tochacha from the Dubne Magid.
And yes, its our responsibility to offer critique, not only to stop another from sinning, the mitzva of hochaich tocheyach, but so as to help a person and ease their situation. Yet how do we do it so we don't engender antagonism.

The Torah this week in the Parsha of Yitro tells us that even Moshe needed critique. Yitro, his father-in-law, saw Moshe judging the people from morning until evening without the benifit of support. He said to him " Its not good this thing that you are doing. Both you and the people will wear down...." Yitro advised Moshe to set-up a judicial system in which Moshe would delegate responsibility.

What we can we learn about criticism from the story in the parsha? What might it have to teach us to help us both receive and give necessary advice?

Let's explore the story a bit more in detail. The story begins with Yitro travelling from Midian to visit Moshe in the wilderness. He brings Moshe's wife, Yitro's daughter, Tzipora, with him, as well as Moshe's two sons. We are told that Moshe spent time with Yitro telling him of all the wonders Hashem had done for His people. Yitro, we are told, reacts with a great expression of joy. The Torah says " vayichad Yitro", meaning that Yitro's joy was visible and manifest. Yitro expressed his delight blessing the G-d who saved the Israelites. He goes so far and to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving from which Aaron and the elders too partook.

It is only after all this, on the next day, that Yitro observes the people waiting all day for the judgement of Moshe and he offers his critique. The lesson for me here seems clear and compelling. If one is going to offer advice, correction, and/or criticism to another it need be done in the context of a relationship. We cannot simply stand off to the side and throw advice to another and expect that it will be received, no matter how good the advice may be. If you are going to influence someone else so that they truly listen to what you have to share and do not become defensive you first need to join them, to establish a sense of community. When we are one with another anything we share can be heard. And similarly we can hear the challenge of another. When we are perceived as other, nothing critical we say will be accepted. And similarly when we perceive advice and challenge as coming from an other it will be very difficult for us to hear.

So typically when we know we have criticism to offer we step back, or worse step up,becoming as it were like a parent/teacher to the other. We distance ourselves emotionally even from people we are otherwise close to when we have challenge to offer. The effect of our position causes the other to perceive us as distant or worse condescending. The upshot is that what we say is likely to engender resistance and maybe even anger.

The story of Yitro teaches us that in anticipation of offering challenge and critique we need to do counter to our instinct and move closer to the other. S/he needs to perceive us as friend and equal, as someone who shares with him/her in a community of caring. Once intimacy and a sense of oneness are present anything can be heard. Without that connection critique is for the most part futile and unhelpful.

Those of our brothers and sisters in chutz l'aretz are often miffed that we in Israel do not take kindly to their criticism of the politics here. They wonder why we become resistant. From their perspective, they too love Israel and want her best. They support Israel in money and time. Why is their advice so poorly received?

The answer is embedded in the story of this week. Yitro did not stay in Midian and offer advice to Moshe. Nor did he simply come and make suggestions. First he joined the community. He became one with the people. He felt there pain and joy. He ate with them. Only after did he dare make suggestions, no matter how good.

Its hard to imagine a more significant issue for most of us than giving and receiving criticism.
To live effectively we need to do both well. The parsha teaches us that being successful at it has not to do with the words we use or are used to us, nor with how good the advice. The real issue is where we are in connection to the other. Are we equals? Do we share community? Are we perceived as joined in a common agenda?

The work for us is to move near and to advise from within. Its not enough to want the best for the other. We need to make that person feel they are not an other at all, but simply an-other part of us!

Shabbat Shalom