Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Contrast vs Conflict

"...And he will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the hearts of the children will reconcile with their fathers". So says the Prophet Malachi in the haftorah we read on the Shabbat prior to Pesach, Shabbat Hagadol. Who is he speaking about? Who will bring about this wonderful sense of family renewal?
In the end of days, prior to the arrival of the Mashiach, Malachi tell us, it is none other than Eliyahu the Prophet who will bring about the healing and restoration of shalom bayit, peace in the home and within the family.

That Eliyahu, as we know, is the messenger meant to herald the arrival of Mashiach I understand. After all he has lived, according to tradition, throughout our long and horrific national struggle. He knows our pain. He has witnessed it. It is for him to be the voice proclaiming the redemption. But what has Eliyahu to do with family reconciliation? After all he was the prophet who is most known for zealotry in the name of G-d. According to the Book of Kings, he is the prophet who championed the cause of true faith at a time when there were none to listen and virtually a whole nation worshipped Baal. Reconciliation is about compromise. Eliyahu disdained compromise. Reconciliation puts the focus on the persons, it augers a willingness to negotiate the ideal. Eliyahu was driven by the ideal. He had little use for negotiation.

And besides, we might well wonder, what gifts does Eliyahu have to bring about the family healing.

If we are going to understand the role of Eliyahu as the restorer of harmony between the generations I think we will have to look back to an earlier identity of the Prophet. According to tradition Eliyahu, at one time, had a different name. He was none other than Pinchas for whom we title this week's parsha and whose story is told therein. What do we know about Pinchas?

We know, of course, that Pinchas was the zealot who saved the People of Israel from an even greater catastrophe when he slew the Prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, and the Princess of Midian, Kozbi as they publicly engaged in indecent acts. But what about Pinchas in the context of his family?

Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon, the first Kohen. And the son of Elazar, who took over as High Priest after Aharon died. Yet Pinchas was clearly unlike his ancestry. Aharon pursued peace even at the expense of compromise. We are told that he would reconcile enemies estranged by lying to each party about the desire of the other to plead for forgiveness, thereby bringing them together. He was the one who went so far as to collaborate with the People invested in the worship of the Golden Calf when he thought he might thereby minimize the damage. Aharon was one who always saw the 'ends' and would at times justify the 'means' to achieve them.

Pinchas was the opposite. First, he never really was a Kohen. He did not get status as a Priest until after the incident with Zimri and Kozbi. His father was a Kohen. His grandfather was a Kohen, indeed the first.But initially, he,Pinchas, was not. Elazar, his father, in tradition, married a convert. That alone would have rendered him unacceptable as a Kohen were it not for the special blessing of the Divine in this weeks reading.

But even more importantly, Pinchas's personality was different than those who preceded him. He would never compromise the 'means' no matter how noble the 'ends'. He was a 'kanai', a zealot. He was militant and fierce in pursuit of the ideal. When the Israelites go to war against Midian, (next week's parsha), its Pinchas who is commanded to lead them into battle. Elazar, his father, and Kohen Gadol, stays back in the camp, waiting to greet the returnees from war and instruct them. Its Pinchas who goes to fight.

Pinchas was oh so different than his fathers. So much so that we might have wondered if he was ever meant to be part of the priesthood they represented. Yet Hashem names him in the beginning of the parsha of this week "Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Priest...." Different yes! But still very much a part of the family and its calling!

Many years ago, when I was in my mid 30s, I had a personal crisis. I felt what seemed to be so many conflicting emotions inside. I could not reconcile the many forces that seemed to be vying for preeminence within. All I wanted was to find one simple truth that was mine to guide me. Instead I found complexity within and much ambivalence.

I was living in the States then and I decided to take a trip to Eretz Yisrael for a week in the hopes of finding an answer to my internal 'conflictedness'. I spent the week walking the streets of Yerushalayim waiting and hoping. And sure enough, unbidden, an answer came. And what it was took me by surprise.

I noticed as I walked how everything in Yerushalayim, and particularly in the Old City, is filled with complexity. The streets cover homes and communities destroyed thousands of years ago. They are cherished for their antiquity. Yet today new homes, raising families of the future sit on those ruins as if oblivious to the fact that they once belonged to the past. Stones that were laid by men and women with an agenda and a purpose then, now serve as playground for children playing soccer with no more purpose than to have fun with peers. The Old City contains the most fiercely committed religious groups, the four quarters of Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jew, all in such close proximity. They live, not as one, on the contrary they are divided at the core, yet they live side by side.

I kept experiencing the dynamic of seeing things, which seemed so starkly different, co-existing in virtually the same space. And I came to realize that contrast is not the same as conflict. Things can be radically different from each other and yet be contained within the whole. I came to understand that I can have many strong and varying components within me and not need to reconcile them. On the contrary,the message of Yerushalayim is that the contrast gives the city its beauty. The work for me is, not to try to homogenize myself, but rather to learn to contain and celebrate the variety within and be at peace with it.

That to me is the story of Pinchas and his family. Pinchas was indeed unlike his father and grandfather, but that did not make him any less worthy to be the heir to the Priesthood and their family name.He evidenced that contrast does not indicate conflict. We can be different from each other, even in the most polar ways, and yet be part of the same community or family.

Its this Pinchas who is Eliyahu.Itsthis message that he will bring in the times of Mashiach to heal the wounds between parents and children. By dint of personal example, Eliyahu will teach parents and children that their differences do not reflect conflict. Rather they reflect the diversity of contrast, that which beautifies a people and a family.

In accepting that those, even if not like us, are part of us, we open the door for Mashiach. We engender the true Shalom, wholeness, balance, alignment, peace!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"What Me Worry?"

The Talmud tells us of the great Amora Rav that he often frequented the cemetary there to commune with the dead. He would ask them of what did they die. In 99 out of a hundred cases the dead told him that they died as a result of the 'ayin hara', the evil eye. Only one in a hundred died due to the natural course of events (Bava Metziya 108b).

We know the 'ayin hara' is put on us by others, often those envious of us. In virtually all cases, neither the one causing the 'ayin hara' nor the one affected by it is aware of the dynamics.Those envious of us most often don't mean us harm. They are not wishing for bad to befall us. The 'ayin hara' is simply the result of their feeling of envy. And we who suffer from it have no idea that the source of our distress is the 'ayin hara'of another. The 'ayin hara' effect operates in the shadow of our lives. Red strings aside, essentially the 'ayin hara' is something we can neither control nor prevent.

And yet Rav informed us that 99% of people's death is because of it!

This week we read in the Torah the parsha of Balak. It tells the story of the non-Jewish prophet Bilam, and his attempt to curse the Israelites in the service of Balak the king of Moab. Each time Bilam attempted to utter curses, G-d protected us and turned the words of Bilam into blessings. The Israelites never knew they were at risk. The whole drama happens in the shadows. Yet clearly we, the Israelites were vulnerable. Were it not for the Divine protection, unknown to us, we might have sustained harm.

On a basic level the Torah tells us the story because it reveals to us how much we are loved and protected by Our Father in Heaven. Like our ancestors in the wilderness, we too are often protected from harm unknown to us by Hashem's care and intervention. So much of G-d's gifts to us go unrecognized because they, like the danger of Bilam and our rescue, live in the shadows.

Yet the lessons here are not only about our relationship to our G-d. I think there are intrapersonal lessons here as well.

Many of you, like me, may have read MAD Magazine as adolescents. You then will recall the main character, a nerdy looking kid named Alfred E. Newman. His signature line was "What me worry?". Now whats funny is that if anyone had to worry it was Alfred E Newman. He was not a strapping, good looking. robust 6ft2 jock. He was freckeled faced and awkward looking. He was very much the wimp. If a 'jock' said "what me worry" we would understand, but Alfred E Newman?

Yet with all we have been discussing Alfred E Newman's lack of worries makes total sense. Worrying ruins our lives. Its causes us to live in the future at the expense of enjoying our present. We are anxious over things that have not yet happened and may never. The worry diminishes our capacity to make choices helpful to us. It causes us lack of sleep, prevents us from experiencing the gift of the moment. The fear of what may be takes up our time and energies. It depletes us and robs us of our capacity to maxamize the here and now opportunities.

Typically we may try to mitigate our fears. We try to contain the things that may harm us in the future.In a limitted way we do that successfully when we take out life insurance.But many people spend their whole lives trying to protect themselves from the future, living life as if they were paying insurance to protect against loss. Forever cautious, forever ruled by fear, they think that if they live a regimented life they can prevent the harm from coming.
They live live protectively.

Rav already taught us that's a fools game. Ninety nine out of a hundred people die from 'ayin hara' One can't protect oneself from 'ayin hara'. The story of the parsha tells us similarly that those things that really threaten us live in the shadows, like Bilam's curses. We all have our Bilams. They are the dangers that threaten us far more than that which we know about and worry over consciously.

No, the response to worry can not be a life devoted to mitigating threats. The only true response is to recognize that we are all no better protected than Alfred E Newman. We have no immunity to the dangers that are ever-present and menacing. No insurance can safeguard us. Once we accept that, once we truly realize at a deep level that our vulenrability is as inevitable as life itself, we have no choice but to live with our uncertainties and to let go of the worry to no useful end.

The dangers for us are always present and mostly unknown. I dare say that what we thought when we were young would be the threats in our lives turned out not to be the ones we, in fact, had to confront. We had no way to anticpate what to worry over. And that remains as much true today.

We cannot make ourselves into supermen and superwomen,beyond the dangers, especially those that lurk in the shadows. We all are very much like Alfred E Newman.In the face of that which can harm us we are all wimpy adolescents. Our life work is not about self protection. Rather it is about trusting in Hashem and in the face of the ever-present dangers saying "What me worry!"

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Respecting Our Limits

There is an old saying, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." That could be applied to an episode in this week's parsha of Chukat. The Torah again tells us of the complaints of the People of Israel. Miriam died and they found themselves without water. Rather than simply ask Moshe's intervention, they again resorted to whining. "And the People fought with Moshe saying to him 'We would have been better off dying as our brothers died before Hashem. And why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness for us and our animals to die. And why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place..."

Sounds familiar right! But their is one critical difference between this complaint and the others we have read in the weeks prior. While the tone and content feels the same, the people are different. This complaint was not issued by the generation of the wilderness, those who left Egypt. No, that generation already died in the wilderness. Now we are at the end of the 40 year journey and its the children Moshe is dealing with, the ones destined to enter the Promised Land. This story occurs, as the Torah tells us, after Miriam died. The complainers were a new generation. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for Moshe to hear and see the children acting no better than their parents. Indeed he must have wondered whether this People would ever mature and become worthy of their destiny.

Its at this point, here in the story of the People's revolt over the water, that the Torah informs us that Moshe and Aharon sinned. The Torah conceals from us exactly what they did that was considered sinful. We know from the verses that they failed to sanctify G-d in front of the people. But what that failure consisted of is not clear. Rashi explains they hit the rock rather than speak to it in order to draw forth the waters. The Rambam explains its was Moshe's anger at the people that was unwarranted. Their is much to explore among the commentaries here. One thing is certain, the sin was consequential. Moshe and Aharon were condemned to die in the wilderness, and not enter Israel, because of it. We read of Aharon's death already in this Parsha of this week.

The question I want to explore with you however is not the nature of the sin committed but rather how it is that Moshe and Aharon came to commit it. I mean, Moshe and Aharon weathered the People and their testings of G-d over and over. Ten times G-d says they tested Him in the 'midbar'. Each time Moshe and Aharon found a way to lead with excellence, never getting compromised by the rabble and their agenda. They remained above the storm.

Why here? Why now? Why are Moshe and Aharon vulnerable? Now when the journey is near done and they are at the gateway to Eretz Yisrael, how is it that they experience a lapse of leadership?

I believe if we but read the story with a focus on what the text is trying to teach me the answer is clear and compelling. What does the story of the 'mai mereeva' begin with? If you recall the lead-in tells us of the death of Miriam. The Sages already explained that the well in the wilderness that sustained the people for 40 years was in the merit of Miriam. When she died,immediately, the waters dried up. The mutiny followed.

Moshe and Aharon were grieving. They had lost their sister. And not just any sister. Miriam in many ways was like a mother to Moshe. It was she who watched over him in the Nile. In the wilderness, from all we can surmise, Moshe's only friends were his brother and sister. When Miriam dies Moshe and Aharon are vulnerable. Do they get to sit shiva? Do they get to be comforted? Do they have the leeway to take time off from their responsibilities and mourn?

Its certainly not clear they did. And the People's harsh complaints over the water occur immediately after Miriam's passing. That's when the well dried up. Even the best of us, even Moshe our great teacher, is vulnerable to mistake/sin when in a compromised state of being. Even Moshe and Aharon can err when they are off center. And nothing puts one off his/her center like sustaining a loss, especially the loss of a loved one.

Our wise tradition mandates that we take care of ourselves. We need to know that we are compromised in the aftermath of a loss. It does not matter whether the loss is the passing of someone we loved or the grueling process of a divorce. Loss is loss. And in the context of loss even when we feel ourselves able and capable of decision making, we really are not. We are not fully ourselves. And frequently it takes years to be restored to the person we were prior to the major loss.
Many a professional in human dynamics has advised those coping with loss not to make major decisions in the first year or two after a significant loss.

The lesson the Torah is teaching us here is both relevant and personal. We need to know that no matter how strong our resolve or how firm our faith, we are impacted by life circumstances. We need to be sensitive to our limits and neither render important decisions/advice for others nor make decisions for ourselves in times of

The story of the parsha tells us the consequence for Moshe of his sin at a time of personal vulnerability, a weak moment for which he paid a huge price. I dare say the price we may pay, G-d forbid, for making a decision at a time when we are not fully ourselves can have equally long lasting deleterious consequences.
It's vitally important we take care of ourselves and respect our emotional limits.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Authority Issues

In the last perek of Sanhedrin the Gemara tells us some very surprising stories. Many stories concern the most wicked kings in our people's history. In fact the Talmud tells us that both Menashe and Achav, were greatly knowledgable in Torah. Yet they were devoted to pagan worship. Still more surprising is to find that both these and other kings were not motivated to idolatry because they did not believe in G-d, nor even because of the desire for 'avoda zara', a desire the Talmud tells us was strong in those times. No, these kings pursued idolatry because they wanted to rebel against the G-d they believed in. They knew Hashem and wanted to offend Him.

In modern psychology we might say these kings had authority issues. They simply could not bear to be accept the authority of another, even to their own harm.

This weeks parsha that of Korach tells us a similar story. No, I am not referring to the revolt of Korach himself. We might argue, his challenge to the leadership of Moshe was not motivated by authority issues but rather by his own desire to be the 'leader'. His ego led him.

I am referring to a later development in the Korach story. The Torah tells us after the revolt and the miraculous death of Korach and his band of 250 men,a calamity with greater consquence occurred. "On the next day, the people complained against Moshe and Aharon saying 'You caused the death of the people of Hashem'". That inappropriate complaint brought Hashem's wrath that manifest itself in a plague that killed near 15,000 people and, were it not for Moshe's intervention, likely far more.

The Ramban understood the people's complaint against Moshe in a rather intriguing way. The People, he argued, accepted that Aharon was the true kohain, designated to serve in the Mishkan. They had no sympathy with the revolt of Korach. They had seen at the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan how the fire came down from heaven to consume the offerings Aharon had brought.

But the people did have sympathy for the 250 men with Korach. Those 250 were not arguing for the right to be priests. They were, in tradition, first born,as the Torah tells us, all men of distinction. They wanted only to be restored to their place with the Levites, assisting in the Sanctuary, a role formerly reserved for the first born. The people who complained to Moshe argued that he unfairly brought about their death. The 250 were consumed with fire when they brought the 'ketoret'. The people argued that was a set-up. The 250 never saw themselves as worthy to be 'kohanim'. Why were they challenged to confront Aharon with bringing the incense? Of course, the people argued, that would be against G-d's will. And not surprisingly it brought about their death. But it was Moshe who designed that 'test'. And he unfairly set them up to fail and die.

The Ramban's explanation seems to present a compelling argument. We might well wonder what was then was wrong with the People's complaint. Moshe seems vulnerable here.

On reflection we can see that the People's complaint, while seemingly having a point, was not motivated by compassion for the killed nor even by a search for truth. If that had been the motivation the People would have come to Moshe and Aharon and asked their Rebbe and Teacher to help them understand why he did what he did. They did not. Instead they criticized Moshe. And their criticism was most personal, "You killed the people of G-d".

Even if the issue they raised warranted a response, the way they brought it clearly indicated they had an 'authority issue' with Moshe that trancended the current incident. They challenged Moshe's right to lead. Sadly, they too, like the kings discussed in the Gemara we brought earlier, paid a heavy price for their struggle to accept authority.

What about you and me in relationship to authority. Most of us as teenagers had our moments of rebellion against authority, usually our parents. Does it remain an issue for us.

I would not be so quick to say we have out-grown it as an operating concern. Look at how we will often jump to lambast an authority figuire said to have done something wrong. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, as soon as we suspect someone in a position of authority relative to us, has done something we deem wrong we not only challenge what they did. We challenge their motivations, and even their goodness or right to lead.

We pay a price for our issues with authority. Perhaps not as severe a price as our ancestors, but our resistance to authority causes us to often throw out the baby with the bath water. We miss the message we need to hear because we dismiss the messenger.Too often we kill off the 'good' leader prematurely, and worse still, embrace a 'bad' leader in his/her stead. Those indeed are tragedies, even if hidden.

We need to look at the stories of the past not as history but as life lessons, relavent as much to us today and to those who acted in the dramas of yesteryear.
Authority issues and their stories must be our teachers.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lessons In Helping !

This weeks parsha tells us the story of the Meraglim, the spies Moshe sent to explore the land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest. Whats clear is that the spies themselves were all men of stature. The Torah specifically states "kulam anashim..." and each a head of Tribe. We can assume that in their minds they thought they were being of help to their respective tribe in warning them of the peril of trying to conquer and inhabit the land. They were leaders trying to help. In the end, they caused inter-generational harm including the death in the wilderness of all those adults who left Egypt, and leaving us with a legacy of suffering that spans the centuries. Even the destruction of the two Temples has its roots in the so called "help" of the advice of the spies.

If this is not what it means for a 'leader' to help, what is? What does real 'help' look like when anyone offers it? And how can we tell when our effort to help is good and when it is not?

I want to share with you a powerful lesson that came to me out of the learning of the daf yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud. We are now finishing the tractate of Sanhedrin. Next week Jews around the world will make a siyum on completing the mesechta. In the last chapter, the Gemara talks about those who have no share in The World to Come, including some wicked Kings of Israel and Judah. At one point, after recounting the gross evil of Amon and Achaz, two Kings of Judah, it wonders why they are not included in the list of those who have no share in The World to Come. The Gemara answers that they each had sons who were righteous, Yoshiyahu and Chizkiyahu respectively. And "bra mezake abba", "the son can win merit for his father."

The commentaries point out that it is for this reason a son says Kaddish for his father. And they bring a supportive story about the power of the son's Kaddish to save the father from an incredible incident with the great Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Akiva was once walking in the desert, reviewing his learnings. He came across a man running at the speed of a horse while carrying a large bundle of firewood. The man explained to Rabbi Akiva that he was dead and that he had violated every sin in the Torah. For his punishment each day he had to cut the wood from which an angel would make the fire to roast him in. He said that he over-heard however in heaven that if this unfortunate man would have a son who would say kaddish and daven and the congregation would answer amen, yehay shmai rabba, and borchu, he would be spared.

Rabbi Akiva asked the man where he was from and he went out to seek his son. Rabbi Akiva found the boy uncircumcised and totally ignorant. He had the brit performed on the boy and set out to teach him Torah. But try as he might the boy was resistant to learning. He just didn't seem to grasp. The Talmud continues, Rabbi Akiva proceeded to fast 40 fasts for the boy to be able to learn. At last, from Heaven they accepted his prayers and Rabbi Akiva procceded to teach the boy Torah, birkat hamazon and what he needed to daven.

Finally the boy stood before the congregation and led them to say amen ,barchu and yehai shmai rabba. The father was immediately freed of his severe punishments. He appeard to Rabbi Akiva in a dream and told him "Your soul should be at peace in Gan Eden because you saved my soul from Gehinom".

The story can be appreciated at many levels.Hallachacily, it impels the son to make every effort to say Kaddish during the year of mourning for his father or mother.
But for our purposes whats extra-ordinary is what it says about Rabbi Akiva and what it means to help. Rabbi Akiva was the greatest Rabbi of his generation and perhaps the greatest of all Rabbis. One Medrash tells us that even Moshe was humbled when he saw the greatness of Rabbi Akiva in Torah. We are told he had 24,000 students. His influence spans the generations.

Yet that same Rabbi Akiva reached out to save a man who was clearly a 'rasha' from his gehinom. He made huge effort, including fasting 40 days, to teach his son so he might save his father from eternal suffering. Its almost unbelievable that the great Rabbi Akiva would extend himself so much for a single Jew and one whose life of sin was anti-thetical to the life of devotion and righteousness to which Rabbi Akiva was so devoted and to which, in the end, he gave his life.

The only way we may discern if our helping another is in fact good is to ask are we making a personal sacrafice in doing it. Rabbi Akiva knew his motivation to help was holy. He knew it because to help this man meant he would have to make huge effort and leave the comfort of his own world of the righteous and seek out a boy who was not even circumcised and help a dead man who Rabbi Akiva would likely have had nothing to do with in life.

Only when you leave your comfort zone and do what is both hard and unnatural for you can you believe your help for another is genuine. Rabbi Akiva did that in a way that is inspiring. The 'meraglim', the spies in the wilderness story thought they were helping. But their help only served to perpetuate their role as leaders of the people in the wilderness. If their help would have been accepted they would have kept their jobs as tribal princes. It cost them nothing to speak bad of the Land.
That alone makes the impulse to help questionable. In their case and in ours, when our help feels too comfortable, it may well be because it is not really help at all!
It is simply us, getting our personal need met on the back of someone else.

Shabbat Shalom