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

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