Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paying the Price

What does it mean to be an adult? In what way is the grown-up different from the child? How do we recognize emotional maturity?

We may have many answers to those questions but surely any will include the idea that to be grown-up, to attain maturity means to recognize that all our actions have consequences. In the life of the child mistakes are made and forgiven with a simple "I am sorry".
S/he realizes that at times s/he has done the wrong. But nothing is so consequential that it is beyond redemption with an apology and, perhaps, a parental punishment. What s/he does not realize is that his/her actions have enduring consequences. S/he,as a child, does not yet know that one's actions can never be undone no matter how many apologies. We pay for what we take in life. Nothing is really free !

Truth be told, many of us, as would be adults, have yet to fully accept the same lesson. We go through life often realizing we are making mistakes, but we are unwilling to pay the price for them.Like children, we assume we can just say we are sorry or that we try our best and that will be enough. If you doubt the truth of what I say, just ask the smoker who is surprised to get lung cancer as if s/he didn't think s/he would ever pay the price for his/her choices. Or ask the person who does not exercise and over-eats and too early in life has a heart attack. Or the parent who fails to discipline his/her child when they are young and then finds him/herself with an unruly teen. Its not that the choices we make guarantee the consequences but they make them both predictable and likely.

The Torah this week in the parsha of Eikev makes clear that our choices have consequences. From the portion's beginning where Moshe tells the Israelites that if they keep the Torah and do the commandments they will be blessed with prosperity and peace to the end of the reading and the second paragraph of 'shma', the theme of action and consequence is repeated over and over. Indeed this is the recurring theme of the entire book of Devarim.

But we might ask, if G-d loves us why isn't it enough that He reward us for our commitment to Torah. Why does He need to punish us if we fail to observe? The Rabbis taught "The Holy One Blessed be He wanted to merit Israel therefore He gave us Torah and Mitzvot." We can understand that we are given the many many mitzvot so we can earn reward. But why punish us if we fail. True there are many opportunities to earn blessings, but one might wonder if its worth it with all the waiting reproof when we fail and, with all the commandments, there is so much opportunity for failure!

I was thinking about this when I went to visit an elderly and infirm man whom I learn with each week. You may recall him from an earlier blog. Well, I had called his wife earlier in the week and advised that I needed to reschedule our learning time. She said the new time was perfect for him and they would be delighted to see me.
When I got to the apartment I discovered, to my surprise, that he was not home. He had an eye doctors appointment and they had forgotten about our learning appointment. She apologized to me several times for the error and repeated over and over how meaningful the learning time was for her husband!

Now why did the wife of my weekly chavruta need to repeat over and over that the learning time her husband and I shared was so important to him and her? She could have just explained the mistake, as she did, and moved on?

The answer is that she knew what we all know. We don't forget things that have consequences for us. When my chavruta, even at 91 years, has a physicians appointment, he writes it down in his little book. He will neither forget it nor miss it. But our learning does not have that kind of 'chashivut', importance to him. It does not get noted in the book. And do you know why? Because it does not have immediate consequence in his mind. I do not get paid to learn with him. Our learning is a gift! When anything is a gift, with no apparent cost, no matter how precious, in the end it goes unappreciated and typically it gets neglected.

Please don't misunderstand.I am not meaning to be critical of my chavruta. On the contrary, my chavruta taught me something about me, and you, a lesson perhaps more valuable than the hour we would have spent learning. He helped me understand why it is that Hashem had to not only attach reward to keeping the mitzvot, but also attach punishment for failing to keep. If mitzvot only engendered reward with no negative consequence they would go under-valued and neglected. We simply would prioritize our lives so that other things, things that have negative consequences, would dominate our routine. We would miss our purpose in life!

I suspect that its for this reason the father makes the blessing of 'baruch she'ptarani', blessed is He who freed me from the consequences of the punishment for my son's 'avairot', sins, at his son's Bar Mitzvah. The blessing seems most peculiar for a happy time and one filled with hope for the future. Yet, in accord with what we have come to see, the blessing makes sense. To become a Jewish adult is to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions, to be what is called in tradition a "bar onshin", someone who will be punished for his/her failures. No acceptance of mitzvot can be real and meaningful without knowing that it does not come free! The bar mitzvah, the boy, now man, son of commandments must accept that reality lest all the promise be lost in neglect.

The father makes the blessing so the son can hear! He makes the blessing so his son can fully comprehend that from now on he, the boy, is liable for his own deeds. If all Bar Mitzvah meant was reward and blessing then mitzvot would become cheap and observance a nicety, rather than a commitment. In this backdrop, is it any wonder that for so much of the Jewish world bar,bat Mitzvah makes so little impact on a boy's or girl's life. No matter how big the splash of how lavish the gifts if the young adult does not accept consequences for being a Jew the rite of bar/bat mitzvah will be empty of impact.

Whether in our own lives or in the lives of the children we are raising we must come to terms with the reality that our actions have enduring consequences. Its not enough to just claim the blessing in doing the right. We must acknowledge and accept that failure is more than sad, warranting an apology. Failure is tragic!

Whether in saying the hurtful word to another or failing to keep Shabbat as we need to, we must know that its not enough to mean well.
Meaning well does not help if you drive under the influence and harm someone. Meaning well does not undo the wrongful spiritual act either, whether to another or to Hashem. Knowing that, for sure does not make life easier. But it does make it more likely that we will toe the line and indeed live a life that will be called blessed rather than tragic!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on Hate and Redemption

We have just passed the period of mourning on our national calendar. Tisha B'Av 5770 is a memory. We enter the weeks of 'nechama', consolation. Yet we remain as a people mired in the 'galut' and painfully incomplete. The yearning for Mashiach is as compelling as ever.

In the search for comfort, this week I want to look back with you at what got us here. How have we gotten stuck for so long in this state of brokenness? What can we do to finally bring it to an end?

The Talmud teaches us that the sins of our People committed during the time prior to the destruction of the second Temple were more severe than the sins committed at the time of the destruction of the first. We know this because the first exile lasted but 70 years, while we remain 2000 years later waiting for the culmination of the current exile.

How surprising that is, when we we know the first Temple was destroyed because the Nation violated the three cardinal sins, idolatry, murder, and sexual lasciviousness. The Jews of the second Temple, in the period prior to its destruction, kept the Torah and even were learned. Their sin, the cause of the destruction was, according to the Talmud, that of 'sinat chinam' unwarranted hatred one Jew for another. Could the sin of 'sinat chinam' be more pernicious than the sins of totally forsaking the principles of the Faith?

The mystery goes further. The Talmud also teaches that the power of Torah learning is so great that it can save a person/nation from the awful consequences due them because of commission of the three cardinal sins. Torah protects! If the Jews of the first Temple had studied Torah, even with their terrible 'aveirot', they would have been spared destruction. Yet, the Talmud notes, that as great as the power of Torah to protect is, it cannot protect nation or person from the consequences of the sin of 'sinat chinam'.

Why is this sin of hatred undeserved so consequential as to be irredeemable? What makes it beyond pardon?

I think if we reflect on the sin of hating another we may find clues to the answer. Lets explore hatred. The Talmud calls the 'avaira', "'sinat chinam'",literally that means "hatred for no reason". We might ask, is there such a thing? Does anyone hate for no reason. I mean lets think about the worst kind of hate, say
racism. Every racist has a reason for his/her hate. Hitler, in his own mind, evil as it was, thought he was doing the world a favor in getting rid of the Jews. He perceived us as a blight on humanity.
Those who hate always have reasons.

When the Talmud gives us the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and how the host of a major event who thought he invited one, his friend, and to his chagrin found that mistakenly he had invited the other, his enemy, refused to allow this enemy any saving dignity, and caused his humiliation by throwing him out, did that host have no reason to hate one of the Kamtzas? I bet you if you gave the host half an hour he would fill you with reasons why the Kamtza he hated was slime and totally undeserving of compassion.
He would tell you why he was right to expel him from the party, maybe even a mitzva.

Ask anyone why they hate someone and they always have a reason. In their own minds the hatred is justified. No, more than justified, typically they will tell you the hatred is indeed a mitzvah. Moreover they will tell you that you too should hate the other.

So then why does the Talmud refer to this sinful hatred as 'sinat chinam' "hatred for nothing". Its not a hatred with no reason? All hatred has a 'reason'. And how can we distinguish this 'sinat chinam', the hate which brought about our destruction and continues to cause us to languish in the galut from hatred that may truly be warranted?

I would like to suggest that the 'chinam', the "for nothing" that the Talmud uses to characterize this hate has not to do with the motivation for the hatred. All hatred has a basis and for that matter a cause, if not a reason. When the Talmud refers to the sinful hate as 'baseless' it means that the base for the hatred is rooted in the hater not in the hated. 'Sinat chinam' is when we hate another not for who they are, but rather because of who we are!

Yes, Hitler would tell you he had a reason to hate the Jews. He would name all our vile characteristics. It was not a hatred with no base. Problem was that the base for his hatred of the Jews lay inside his psyche, not in us. That's the problem with all prejudice. Sure we may give it reasons. But the essential source of our prejudice is rooted inside us, not in the other. No matter how hard we may try to project the reasons for our hate on the other, at the deepest level the hate starts with us, our issues our baggage, our fears.

The reason 'sinat chinam' is so irredeemable, beyond even the worst sins in our Tradition is because we think our hatred is not only not a sin, but, in fact, a good and noble thing. We idealize our hatreds. No matter how bad the sin of idolatry and murder etc are, no one makes them into Torah values! To sin in them is horrific. But the perpetrator knows he has gone against his/her Faith. Bring him/her back to the fold and s/he will do teshuva.

Hatred is not like that. We hate while we eat our b'datz meat. We hate while we learn hours each day. We hate while go make extraordinary sacrifices to raise our children frum and committed.
We hate and never feel guilty about it. We hate and believe our hatred a mitzvah !

We fool ourselves to believe the hatred is deserved and based on the wickedness of the other. We never see that core source of the emotion emanates within us. Perhaps the other is not perfect either. But the hate for them is not earned by them but rather the product of our projections, rooted in our fears and anxieties!

The sad part of the story is that now 2000 years after the Temple's destruction we are no closer to remedying the causes that brought it about. Learn more Torah? That won't help. They were learned then!
Daven more? observe more? None of that will help. We pale before the generation of the Destruction in our Jewish observance.

Its 'sinat chinam' we need to remedy. That's the only way to bring about the 'g'eula', redemption. Yet we remain self-righteous in our prejudices, believing them not only warranted but in-fact mitzvot to maintain!
When we will ever learn?

Are we at least on the road to the true 'nechama', consolation? I fear we have taken every road but the one that leads to the promise of our destiny!

Lets you and I ask ourselves, where does 'sinat chinam' reside in us? Who do we hate where the basis for the hatred is not in them but in our fears, anxieties, and at times self-loathing. Be honest with yourself! If we are, I will guarantee that 90% of the hatred we carry is 'sinat chinam". Oh sure the other isn't perfect! But 'hate', that comes from us!

The first step in the teshuva process is recognizing the sin! That's the one we miss entirely here. And that's the one redemption calls for. Simply recognizing that the hate we carry for another is a sin, and that it is rooted in our flawed character will speed the arrival of Mashiach and make real 'nechama' possible.
Oh when will we ever learn!

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Our Standard Deviation

In recent years there has been much debate around Global Warming. No one disputes the fact that in recent decades the average temperature on our planet has increased. No one disputes the fact that if the trend continues warming temps can have devestating consequences on the eco system and on life in general. What is at issue is whether the increased temperatures we are seeing reflect a new reality perhaps caused by the infamous Greenhouse Effect or whether what we are seeing is simply within what statisticians call the Standard Deviation. By Standard Deviation we mean that in the course of any length of time, say perhaps 250 years, we may see fluctuations in temps for a period, either up or down. Those deviations from the average are normal and not reflective of any change in pattern. To us it may look like a significant move, but thats because we are looking at the temps within too limitted a time frame. If we had a larger perspective we might see that the rise or fall is normal within the larger cycle of years and not reflective of a real deviation from the mean. And so the debate rages.

Why do I share this here? I do so because standard deviation, in contrast to real change, is as much an issue in our personal lives as it is operational in global conditions.

This week we begin the 5th book of the Torah, the one we call Devarim. Unlike the other books, Devarim is not the word of G-d transmitted through Moshe but the words of Moshe spoken to the People of Israel in the month before his death and mandated by Hashem to be written as Torah. While the Book has many components, essentially it is a book of Musar, admonishment and challenge. Moshe reviews the journey of the people through the wilderness with the goal of making the people conscious of their vulnerabilities and strengths.

The great Hassidic Rebbes would talk of Devarim as this indespensable guide to living. One Rebbe made it his practice to read each day from it as his source for Musar. What's the magic in the text? Why is it so profound and important?

The answer I believe is that in speaking the message of Devarim to the nation Moshe gave us the greatest of gifts. After all who were those enterring the Promised Land? A whole new generation. They were the children of those who left Egypt. The story of their parents was not theirs. They did not refuse the Land of Israel. They did not worship the Golden Calf. They did not partake of rebellion and murmur. Why should they be reminded of these stories?
Why does Moshe review the past with them as if it belongs to them?

The answer is because indeed it does belong to them! True, they did not commit the sins mentioned. But its part of their legacy, indeed our legacy! If we contextualize the sins in the framework of standard deviation Moshe might say, "Yes you did not sin. Your parents did. But you are just as capable of sin as they are. Its just that in the pattern of life, in the cycle of events, your temptation was not theirs, your circumstances not theirs. But if their situation arose for you, you might fail just as miserably.
You have not outgrown the issues that they succumbed to. You simply are living in a different part of the cycle of the nation's story."

To see this in perspective we might talk of the pattern of relationship between husband and wife. Sometimes the husband (simply used as an example here) may get angry at his wife. He will shout or be mean verbally. Shortly thereafter he will be full of remorse and apologize to his wife with a deep sincerity. He says "I am so very sorry. I won't behave that way again. I am changed."
But has he, really? His 'change' lasts all of three weeks.Then something triggers his rage and again he has an explosion. And again, shortly therafter, he does the apology routine with heartfelt sincerity.

What happened here with the husband (and wife, who is part of the story). Did he change and regress? Did he actually become different and then lapse? The answer is "not at all". While it looked like teshuva,his outburst and apology is part of the pattern, part of the standard deviation. Its the story of his life (and hers). Sometimes the 'change' may last for a few weeks longer or even last a few months longer, but in reality its no change at all. Its simply part of the pattern.

I dare say if most of us had a real perspective on our lives we would sadly see that so much of what we consider growth and change is nothing but playing out a life pattern within our standard deviation. Rav Eliyahu Dessler in his classic Michtav Mai'Eliyahu talks about real change. Real change moves us up to a higher plateau so that we are no longer vulnerable to the same 'nisyanot'.
When we really have grown that which once could tempt us no longer has influence over us. Indeed we have a whole new subset of issues to confront, but they are not the ones we had prior, or at least not in the same way as prior.

Only when the husband in our story above stops entirely from acting out his tantrum on his wife would say he has changed. Though now, at his new level, he might be tempted to be less giving to his wife in moments that formerly made him wrathful. He remains challenged. But at a higher level. Indeed he has changed.

Thats the gift Moshe gives Clal Yisrael in the Book of Devarim. He offers them the perspective that helps them see where they have changed and where their behaviors still fall within the standard deviation and they remain vulnerable. True, they did not commit the sins of the Golden Calf and the 'Meraglim'. But inasmuch as Moshe knew them and saw their patterns he knew the sins belonged to them as much as to their parents.

If an issue like Global Warming about which we have data and some distance engenders such heated debate and remains obscure as to whether we are seeing real change or a recurring pattern, how much more so is real change obscure to the individual who seeks to gain perspective on his/her life. Who of us can be certain if they have really grown or simply are living out the pattern of their life with its ups and downs over and over.

Alone, without the help of another who knows our life and story and who we confide in, its near impossible to have a true perspective. Sadly, without help, all our lives we may go around the same bush, never having made progress despite our intentions. We, like the husband in our story, have much drama, but no change.

Its not enough to be mindful of our individual behaviors. We cannot make improvement unless we know our patterns as well in all their subtlety and complexity.

Moshe gave a gift to our ancestors. He provided them the pespective to see themselves with clarity. We need a husband, a wife, a Rebbe, a friend, another. We need someone who we can tell our stories to and who can speak to us with the straightforwardness of Moshe. We need to ask for our truth.

Shabbat Shalom