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

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