Thursday, March 25, 2010

"I Can't !"

"I can't". How many times have we said those two powerful words? How many times have we heard others say them to us. So much of our life we excuse ourselves from taking on responsibility with "I can't". Yet in our heart of hearts, I suspect, in many of those cases, we know we indeed can if we only but really want to!.

In a few days we will sit down to the seder. We will recite the Hagadah. If you recall, while essentially in keeping with the theme of Pesach, the story we will tell is of the slavery in Egypt and of the Exodus, we begin by remembering a far earlier experience, that of our ancestors being idolaters and Abraham choosing to reject their beliefs in favor of a commitment to Hashem.

The Michtav MaiEliyahu wonders about prefacing the story of Pesach with the earlier story of our father Avraham. He asks why do we need to begin with Avraham's rejection of idolatry. What's in Avraham's decision that needs to be remembered seder night?

He answers with a compelling insight. He notes that at times you and I are faced with a challenge. We know we need to make a certain decision, to change a behavior, or to take on a new direction in our lives. Yet we also know that all the forces lined up against us making that decision, change, or commitment make it feel near impossible to realize. In one regard we have the freedom to choose. Yet in another way we feel so constricted, so much limit ted by our circumstances. We want to choose, yet we feel we can't.

Its to this situation that we open the seder story to the experience of our father Avraham. No one was more pressed to conform to values in which he did not believe than Avraham. The whole world of his day held onto idolatry and with it a corresponding culture. More even than resisting the threat of the fiery furnace of Nimrod, Avraham resisted the daily pressures to surrender his belief in the one G-d with its concomitant values and join in the societal norms of the people with whom he lived. It would have been totally understandable had Avraham decided "I can't" and while holding on to his belief in the one G-d in private, accepted the inevitable in embracing the beliefs of the world of which he was a part in public.

Yet Avraham said "I can" and more "I will". He rose above the tide that threatened to engulf him. He persevered and with that not only remained true to his beliefs, he founded a people and changed a world.

Rav Dessler in his Michtav MaiEliyahu argues that we open the seder reading of Avraham because in his story we find our challenge, the challenge of what it really means to be a ben chorin, a person free. To be free we need to be able, like Avraham, to say "I can" even when it feels overwhelming to do so. Like Avraham we need to know that freedom is not about the ability to choose but about making choices. And real freedom is exercised precisely when all the forces around us make that decision difficult.

In truth, whats more amazing about Avraham's story, even beyond his choice, is that he remained a loving and accepting person. Most persons when they have to fight against the stream tend to become hard edged, tough, unbending as persons, zealots just so they can ride over all the pressures aligned against them and their choice. Avraham remained person devoted to hesed. He invited guests different than himself. He argued to save Sedom, those living a life antithetical to his values. He engaged his world and sought to change it rather than conquer it.

When you and I sit down to our seder to celebrate our G-d given gift of freedom we are reminded of Avraham's story. We are reminded that though all too often we say "No, we can't" in fact "Yes, we can!". And not only can we, but we don't have to become an achzor, a hard edged, constricted person in order to do so. We can say 'I can" and remain loving, tolerant and accepting.

And so as we prepare for our seder lets think about our "I can't"s. Let's consider which of them we might change to "I can" and without surrendering our compassion and resolve to love. More than a symbol of freedom, in changing "I can't" to "I can" we become free.

Lets make this Yom Tov indeed a z'man chairuteinu, the season of our freedom, for us as persons as well as for our people!

Shabbat Shalom

Chag Samayach

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Being Called

This week we begin the third book of the Torah and read the parsha of Vayikra. It doesn't take us long to encounter something provocative. Already in the first word "vayikra", "And He called", we find a small aleph. Why? Moreover it's rather odd that the Torah should begin a book with "And He called". We would expect the verse to read "And Hashem called to Moshe", why the pronoun He, rather than Hashem's name? Only after it reads "And He called to Moshe" do we find reference to Hashem, as the pasuk concludes "...and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying".

Rashi on this verse brings a fascinating Gemara that tells us of the uniqueness of Hashem's call. The Gemara explains the words "to him" in the first verse to mean that the voice emanated from Hashem but only Moshe was able to hear it. The rest of Israel did not hear anything. It was exclusively "to him".

Rebbe Nachman understood all the above to be telling us something, not just about Moshe, but about ourselves and our relationship to Hashem. He taught that G-d tries to convey messages to each of us and at all times. G-d, however, does not speak to us directly, but through the medium of his creations. Everything we encounter from the flowers in the field to the butcher behind the meat counter, has some message for us from G-d.

Its not a loud message. It does not beg to be heard. No, on the contrary, its a small voice, and often obfuscated by other sounds and easily missed. Rebbe Nachman said, that's the meaning of the small aleph in the word vayikra, to teach us that in order to be called we have to pay attention, because the voice by which we are called is a soft and quiet one. Like Moshe, we too are called, but also like Moshe, the calling is with a small aleph, and unless we are attentive we will miss it.

And further Rebbe Nachman said, the message Hashem sends out to us is a personal one. Like the Talmud says about the call to Moshe, our message too can only be heard by us. No one else will perceive it. And likely many will doubt its authenticity, though we for whom it was sent, and who heard it with our own ears and eyes, know it to be true.

The work Rebbe Nachman would tell us is to cultivate the ability to listen. If we devote ourselves to the work of listening and we are really prepared to hear then, like Moshe, we too will be called. It won't be the direct voice of Hashem. We are not prophets. But it will be the He of vayikra. And once we hear it we will know it to be Hashem speaking to us as the verse concludes "....and Hashem spoke to him...".

I found this insight powerful. So much of our avoda to Hashem we think of in terms of doing.
We run from one mitzvah to another. We are busy talking, thinking, acting in the service of Hashem. What we rarely do is listen. We don't listen to each other. We don't listen to the universe that speaks to each of us the unique personal message of Hashem.
When we have a problem we pray, we give tzedaka, we ask advice. We rarely just wait with attentive ears to hear the meaning and message in our struggle, a message only available to us, and only if we will listen for it with an open heart.

The parsha is teaching us that a prerequisite to kedusha, the sanctification, that is the theme of the book of Vayikra is to learn to listen to the small but clear voice of Hashem that calls to us.
Its not enough to know by study. Its not enough to teach and preach. Its not enough to do mitzvot with meticulous attention. If I want to be holy I need to listen. I need to hear G-d's call to me. I need to hear the unique message I am meant to hear and ultimately abide.

If I haven't yet heard G-d's voice to me it does not mean there is no message. No, it means I have not been sufficiently attentive or worse I have unknowingly blocked myself from hearing what I do not want to hear. Because indeed G-d uses his creations to deliver His messages to us and at all times.

So as they say in the vernacular, lets you and I, listen up!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gifting G-d

This week, in the parsha of Vayakhel and Pekudai, we come to the close of the second book of the Torah and as well conclude the discussion of the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary of G-d in the wilderness. In the mostly technical reading, we read of a wonderful problem faced by Moshe and the Mishkan's artisans. The Torah says, " And the wise men who were doing all the sacred work came to Moshe, each from his respective assignment. And they said to Moshe, "The people are bringing to us more than we require for the work that G-d assigned for us to do"". We are told that in response Moshe made a announcement in the Camp that no one should any longer bring raw materials to the Mishkan, that indeed they had enough.

If the Israelites of the wilderness had their issues, stinginess was not one of them. Our ancestors were clearly generous. When it came to building the Golden Calf, to Aharon's disappointment, they immediately gave of their gold and silver. With the Mishkan, lehavdil, they exceeded the needs with their voluntary gifts of fine fabrics, gold, silver, other metals and jewels.

But I think its important to distinguish between the giving in the instance of the Golden Calf from the giving in the building of the Mishkan. When the Israelite's gave for the Golden Calf they were essentially giving for themselves. They were afraid and perceived themselves alone. They wanted security. The generosity they expressed for the idolatrous Calf was a response to their anxiety. It never was about giving but rather about getting.

The generosity the Israelites expressed in the building of the Mishkan was pure. They were giving for G-d, so He might have a home in their midst. They didnt have a personal stake in this.
Their needs were already being met. They were provided food and sustenance daily. The Shekhina provided shelter. The Torah tells us that the forty years in the wilderness even their clothes never wore out. There were no plaques in the Mishkan for which a person might get kavod for his/her donation. No one was poor. No one was deprived. When our parents gave to the building of the Mishkan, it was not about winning favor with G-d. They had no ulterior motive. They had all they needed. Their gift was indeed a gift. The quality of the gift made it suitable for kedusha, holiness, worthy for being formed into the House of G-d.

How rare it is for a gift to be so pure. Our sages have long ago taught us that the only pure kindness we do in this world is with the dead. Caring for the dead, washing the body, engaging in the burial, paying tribute, is called a chesed shel emet, a kindness of truth. It is the only kindness we do where we have no thought at all of being paid back in kind. The dead can't repay us. Every other kindness, even where a purity of heart prevails, is in some way tainted. Its impossible to give to another without some measure, albeit small, of self interest.

Have you ever thought of giving a gift to G-d? You are astounded by my question? You say to me, "What are you talking about?. I daven every day and learn several times a week. I keep Shabbat and make sure my children grow up committed to the faith. Every day of my life I am giving to G-d".

Ok, you make a point. But when we do what we do, in accord with what G-d wants of us, do we perceive ourselves as giving Him a gift. Are we not just making sure we stay on G-d's good side.
We are, after all, not the Generation of the Wilderness, we have many many needs and life for us is always uncertain. Sure we do what G-d asks of us, but is it for ourselves or for Him. Do we perceive G-d as needing something from us even as in the wilderness our ancestors were called upon by G-d to give Him a gift in order to build the Mishkan.

You shake your head and wonder what I am getting at. Well let me tell you what happened to me this week. Each shmoneh esray, silent prayer that I say, if my kavana is okay, at the close, I make a specific petition that Hashem should help me find the right shidduch. I include other single people I know longing for the right zivug in my prayer as well, and by name. One morning it occurred to me, Hashem too, the very Hashem I pray too for our shidduch, is pained for being separated from His beloved. Galut, the Exile, causes the Shekhina to suffer. Its not only for me/us that we want the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt. G-d wants it, even more urgently than us.
I thought how is it that I pray for my shidduch and for those I know and don't daven for Hashem to know the joy He so much wants with His children. Why don't I pray for Hashem's sake. How is it that all my prayers, even those that are focused on spiritual matters fail to be cognizant of Hashem and, if its possible to say, His longing!

I realized then that with all the mitzvot we do, I suspect few of us focus on giving to Hashem, on feeling His pain. Rather we focus on receiving from him, on getting our needs met, both physical and spiritual. We dont feel G-d suffering. We feel our own, even in matters of the spirit. Even when we pray for the end of the Exile and the building of the Bait Hamikdash, for our teshuva, its all about us, all very self absorbing. Who has shed tears for G-d?

In the midbar Hashem needed the gifts of Klal Yisrael. They were able to give with a purity of heart. From those gifts the holiest place on earth was built, the Mishkan. G-d had a home with His children. We can't build the Beit Hamikdash today. We can't donate the gold and material. What we can do is tell Hashem how much we want to. We can tell Him how much we want to build a home for Him. How much it hurts us that His Shekhina is in exile, that He is broken and not complete. No, more than tell Him. We can show Him. We can shed a tear for G-d.

The greatest gift we have to give Hashem is our heart. I don't mean our heart as in doing His mitzvot. I mean our heart as in feeling with Him His longing for the ultimate redemption.
May we both soon be united with our shidduch!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Measuring Stick

Few episodes in the wilderness story of the People of Israel are as inscrutable as the story of the Golden Calf. Here the nation only just received the Torah at Sinai. They were daily recipients of the manna, special bread from heaven. They had witnessed miracle after miracle in there behalf. Yet when Moshe ascends the mountain to bring down the luchot habrit, the Tablets of the Covenant, and is, in their estimation, tardy in his return, they immediately revert to the idolatry of their past and indulge in the worship of a graven image.

Many of our greatest Torah commentaries have sought to explain this startling and calamitous turn of events. But for us and the purpose of this blog, which asks us to think about what the Torah story says to us about ourselves, the question is more personal. How are we like the generation of the midbar? In what ways do we have a similar propensity to slip badly in times of crisis and return to habits and behaviors in our past, habits and behaviors we long thought we had over-come.
I mean, it does no good to learn the Parsha and its story simply as a part of the history of our people. We need to ask ourselves, where am I in the story? How might I be vulnerable like my ancestors and what can I learn from them?

The first point that seems relevant to understanding the human side to the tragedy of the Egel Hazahav, The Golden Calf, is to realize that the sin happened in a crisis environment. The People found themselves alone in the wilderness without a leader. They could not go back and did not know how to go forward. All the coping mechanisms they had known, few indeed since they were a slave nation, were absent. In moments of crisis regression is natural.

In the recovery community, whether dealing with recovering alcoholics or gamblers, what we know is crisis makes people vulnerable to relapse. Its hard not to rely on the old, even though it be harmful, to get you by, when you have little experience trusting the new. In relationships, even those who fought so hard to separate from a bad spouse will often be tempted to return to him/her if they find themselves in a crisis and frightened.
Over and over again in moments of fear people return to harmful situations, thinking, " bad as it was then at least in that environment I survived." In crisis one often is only thinking about what it takes to survive.

Crisis often reduces us to childlike ways of thinking. We feel powerless to fend for ourselves. We so desperately want to hang on to something. We may make all kinds of deals with G-d if He saves us from our plight. We may give magical qualities to some Tzadik or to some tikun believing that he/it will save us. We need answers; we need deliverance. We struggle to find our mature spiritual self, the one that can find balance in a storm and say "no matter what happens Hashem is with me". "Gam kee alylech b'gay tzalmavet lo irara, kee ata imadi. " Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me".
In crisis its not that there is no G-d for us. Its that there is no me. I lose myself.

In recent memory there was no time of national crisis like the years of the Holocaust. The crisis brought out both the best and worst in people. And it was not really possible to predict who would rise above their circumstances and demonstrate greatness of character, be generous, self sacrificing and heroic in caring for their suffering brethren. And who would succumb to the fear, become predatory, do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant taking from others suffering alongside them. Its no wonder our Sages taught "al taamin b'atzmecha ad yom motcha", "Don't be sure of your self until the day you die".

No, the fall of the People of Israel at the time of the worship of the Golden Calf should not surprise us. They had not yet developed the coping skills to respond to crisis. And we can find a bit of our ancestors in each of us. Its rare for the best in us to come out in crisis. More likely we will look for safety and survival, perhaps not in a Golden Calf, chas vshalom, but in familiar ports often neither good for us nor manifestations of authentic faith.

Yet crisis is the nisayon, the testing by which we may truly measure ourselves. While we don't seek out the crisis that tests us, we need to know that only in those times can we really see who we have grown to become and how much more we yet have to do. Crisis is in many ways the instrument of discernment. For most of us, crisis is humbling, it inevitably shows us we are far from being as complete as we once thought ourselves to be !

Shabbat Shalom