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

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