Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Secret

I have a secret to reveal. And its a secret I am sure you know even before my telling you. Yet its a secret we hide mostly from ourselves. The secret is a simple truth, "that which we most need is often that which we are most afraid of!"

What do I mean? Well think about it in its most obvious context. The alcoholic most fears being without access to his beloved addiction.
He imagines being without that which he has become dependent on will surely kill him. Yet truth is just the opposite. The very alcohol he assumes he needs, is that which endangers him. And the very abstinence he imagines will kill him, is his salvation.

The truth so plain in the life of the addict is true for most of us and often. We fear taking the very steps in our lives that, if we were to find the courage to take, would free us and enrich us. Another example, many are loathe to get rid of stuff they no longer have use for. They just can't throw things out. They fear taking the step of tossing things away as they would an operation. Yet if/when they actually found the inner courage to clear their clutter they find themselves free in away they never felt before.
Not only did getting rid of the 'junk' not cause them harm, it actually was the liberation they needed.

And the same is true, though more subtle, of those who fear intimacy, and hesitate to marry. They say they want to commit, its just they have not yet met the right one. Yet in their hearts they know they dread commitment and even were the perfect match to come along they would struggle to say "yes". In fact, for those who fear intimacy its almost a relief when they discover the person they date is not really right for them. It relieves them of having to make a decision they are too overwhelmed by to make.

Yet if and when they finally find the gumption to indeed say "yes" they find themselves free as they never were before. Wonderful new possibilities arise out of the gift of true intimacy, the very intimacy they feared. They discover to their amazement a happiness they never thought possible.

So you say, what does this have to do with Sukkot, the holiday at which we stand. Well I find something interesting here that relates to our secret. Sukkot is the holiday of 'simcha', joy, so much so that we refer to the holiday in our prayers as the 'zman simchatainu'. We can understand the joy as being connected to the season of harvest.During Sukkot, in the land of Israel, our forefathers and mothers celebrated the bounty of the in-gathering.

But one thing is troubling.When people have prosperity they typically like to show it off. The person with the most money usually has the fanciest car, the largest home, the most expensive clothes. It seems a big part of enjoying our prosperity is showing it to others. Yet Sukkot, the season which marks our bounty and largess gives us little opportunity to flaunt our riches. On the contrary, even the family with the largest home, leaves that home to sit in the same basic Sukkah as the poor person who lives on the other side of town.
The sukkah is our home for a whole week. Not only do we eat there, we sleep and live our life there. On Sukkot their is little opportunity to tell who is rich and who is poor. Class distinctions dissolve.

Many of us imagine that without our status symbols we would amount to nothing. Without that which distinguishes us from others we would be 'ordinary' and in that easily invisible. Our whole lives we fear being invisible and so we work and toil to be distinguished and to have status. We want a title to be called by, be it Doctor, Rabbi, or even Mrs. We seek wealth and position so as to be somebody. Our fear is that without the accoutrements we would be nobody and for all intense and purposes disappear.

Yet Sukkot teaches us the secret we have been discussing. That which we most need is often than we most fear. When we let go of our status symbols, the home being a primary one, not only do we not disappear and feel a prevailing gloom. On the contrary, we know a sublime happiness. In our ordinariness, the very thing we fear, we discover a source of joy. In being like every one else we are freed of the driveness to be special, and we find a profound joy that is oh so liberating, being part of the whole.

Truth be told, those who have developed a sense of humility haven't really made a sacrifice at all. It just appears they have to us who live in the world which says "you are nobody unless you have status, positions, wealth, and power". To them, humility is a gift, not a sacrifice. They are happier in humility than we are with all our distinctions. And we would be too if we dared get past the fear, drop the focus on being special and accept ourselves as one of community.

Sukkot tells us the secret of happiness is giving up the need to be unique. The bounty, the harvest, having G-d's wonderful material blessings is a necessary condition.After all, its hard to be happy on an empty stomach. But unless, with our wealth, we can live in the Sukka, and be part of the community of Jews everywhere and of all stations, we are prisoners of the very bounty that is G-d's blessing, and robbed of the real happiness available to us.

"That which we most need is often that which we are most afraid of."
All of us need to be happy. Most of us fear the very thing that will serve to get us there,that is, letting go of our prized status, position, wealth and influence.

In the very ordinariness we fear is our liberation and joy!

Chag Samayach
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sorry for What?

I remember as a yeshiva bachur the frenetic energy of the High Holy Day period.Long prayers,frequent musar shmoozen,the commonly taken taanit dibur (fast from speech)all gave the Yeshiva an other-wordly feeling.Everyone carried a seriousness about them. The spirit of teshuva (repentance) was palpable.

And then came the eve of Yom Kippur. The yearning for atonement approached its zenith.Prior to Kol Nidre boys might go bench to bench, row after row, seat after seat, beseeching forgiveness from anyone they may have offended during the year. Often they asked forgiveness from other boys whose names they didn't know, and to whom they likely never said a word. It didn't matter. Everyone knew the adage that for sins between one person and another, even Yom Kippur cannot atone without gaining forgiveness from the offended other."Forgive me", "Be mochail me", over and over the request was made, and forgiveness granted....But for what?

I once saw in a sefer where a certain Rav, when asked by others for forgiveness on the eve of Yom Kippur in the manner we just described, declined. He said to the one asking forgiveness, "Tell me how did you offend me? If I don't know what you did how can I, in good faith, say I forgive you.If what you may have done truly hurt me I may need time to accept your apology."

We might ask even more, how can one be sorry if s/he does not know what s/he did wrong?

Yom Kippur is filled with prayers of remorse. We make confessions over and over, indeed 10 times during the holy day.The confessions consists essentially of two types, the first a shorter form, with a listing of general failings according to the alef bet we often refer to as the 'Ashamnu', from the first word of the recitation. The second is a longer listing of particular sins, also according to the alef bet but with much greater detail of wrong-doing and that we call 'Al Chet'.

Question we might ask is why two forms? Why do we need both Ashamnu and Al Chet? If you asked most people which of the two they found most meaningful and relevant to the task of saying "I am sorry" to G-d, I think they would answer, Al Chet. The sins we confess in Al Chet are quite specific ranging from talking 'lashon hara' to using profanity and from disrespecting parents to sexual immorality. In the last section of the Al Chet we confess sins based on the severity of the punishment for the violation, including sins for which we incur the death sentence like violation of the Shabbat.
The saying of the Al Chet in all its specificity evokes in us a feeling of remorse. Frequently we are overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and wrong-doing.

So why do we need the Ashamnu.In the Ashamnu confession we talk about our sinfulness in more general terms. We say "We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed,... we have provoked, we have turned away, we have been perverse etc." Lacking in detail, the confession rarely elicits the emotional response in us of the Al Chet.

Yet interestingly if we asked which is the more important of the two confessions, it seems clear the Ashamnu takes precedence. The Al Chet is only recited on Yom Kippur. The Ashamnu is confessed each day at selichot during the High Holy Day period and 3 times each day at that.Moreover the Ashamnu is recited as an everyday confession all year long according to those davening nusach sefard, indeed twice a day. And even on Yom Kippur, by the time we reach the climactic confession of Ne'ela, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, only the Ashamnu confession is recited, not the Al Chet.

Are we missing something here? What makes the Ashamnu more important? What insight are we lacking to make the confession of the Ashamnu more compelling?

I think the insight we lack is the awareness that in the confession of the Al Chet, for all its specificity, we are giving voice to the symptoms of our spiritual malaise, but not its source!
True, we are detailing our wrong-full behaviors, and they need to be expressed. But speaking lashon hara or showing disrespect for a parent etc are individual sins that reflect a core spiritual shortcoming. Why are we callous about what we say? about what we eat? about what we do? Why do our behaviors show a disregard for our spouse, our neighbor, the poor etc? Why are we lax in our observance?

For the answer we need to go past the individual sinful acts and look at who we are, our charactalogical flaws. What are they?
The Ashamnu lists them all. "We betray, we spurn, we are ungrateful, we feel entitled, etc." Just look at the words of the Ashamnu in this light and I think you will see that each speaks to our weakness of spirit and our lacking in love and fear of our G-d.

I think the reason we can more easily relate to the Al Chet is because its less threatening to us. Yes, we sinned, yes, we did wrong, but we remain good. In confessing the Al Chet we can cry for deeds done wrong without having to question the integrity of our character. The confession of Ashamnu demands that we acknowledge our flawed self. Sinners that we are, we nonetheless like ourselves. We are prepared to confess and maybe even change our behaviors. But we don't want to change ourselves!

Yet the reality is that only in the sincere recognition that the sins of the Al Chet did not happen in a vacuum. They are no accident. They emerge from a diseased soul. And truth be told, no change of behavior will really be possible until we claim our soul's flaws and change who we are. Al Chet only has meaning as a sequel to the Ashamnu. Only in confessing with heart the weaknesses in our character and our lacking in spiritual shlaimut (wholeness) can we really atone and do the teshuva to which we are called.

We need to be sorry not only for what we did but for who we are! We need to confront our limitations of character, both in relationship to G-d and in relationship to the community of people who make up our world.

This year I ask you to look with me at the Ashamnu again. Open your self to the honesty it invites.See if it does not speak to you both in terms of who you are and in terms of who you want to be.

As Ramchal wrote in his classic "Mesilat Yesharim", our purpose in this world is to achieve 'shlaimut' so we can enjoy the great pleasure of nearness to G-d in the World to Come. Mitzvot are the means to the 'shlaimut'. In the confession of the Ashamnu,rather than focus on the particular sin, we claim our regret for our lack of 'shlaimut' and by implication we share our yearning to reach new levels of shlaimut in our future.

G'mar Chatima Tova! May this year bring us to new and higher levels of personal sh'laimut!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"It Was a Very Good Year"

"Rebbe Eliezer taught,'Repent one day before you die'." His students asked him "But how can we know when we will die?". He responded "Indeed treat every day as it might be your last. That way your whole life will be focused on right living and repentance".

Rebbe Eliezer's teaching, while making much sense to me, is not the way everyone sees things. I remember when I was a teenager the late Frank Sinatra released a song called "It Was a Very Good Year". The lyrics were of a man reminiscing on his life beginning from when he was 17. The entire focus of the man's life, through all the different passages was pursuit of pleasure.
Now I could understand that looking back at his younger years and his youthful indulgences he might claim "it was a very good year". But I remember, even as a teen, I was shocked that when Sinatra, in the song, is already an old man, reflecting on his later years, as his life is ebbing away,there too, rather than repent or refocus, he remains equally committed to the pursuit of pleasure, just of a more refined type. There too, near his end, he proudly claims the pleasures he pursued and pronounces them "a very good year".

Knowing he has but little time left, he feels no impulse to to 'tshuva', repent, and devote his remaining time to worthy endeavours. Living his 'last days' does not impel him to the mandate of Rebbe Eliezer quoted above. Instead he remain committed to his agenda, drawing from life every last pleasure it has to offer.To the end, he affirms and blesses his self-indulgent focus.

And thats not the only time I found myself surprised that life's end did not lead to change. For many years I worked as a hospital chaplain. I visited the frail and dying and spent hours upon hours at their bedside. Rare indeed was the case where a person, knowing his/her end was near used their last days and months to make ammends, repent, express remorse, make the kind of changes that Rebbe Eliezer envisioned for those who know time is short.

I came to realize that there are two kinds of people in the world. If told they had but a month to live, the first kind would go out and live it up, pursue all the pleasures available to them, take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life before it was gone. Knowing they were dying would not motivate them to repent. On the contrary it would inspire them to intensify their pleasure seeking agenda.The second kind of person would use their last month to make a difference. They would seek to improve themselves though intensive prayer and sudy. Or they might invest their last days trying to improve the life of others through acts of hesed and voluntarism.

It is to this last group and only to the last group, that Rebbe Eliezer's teaching has relevance. Sadly, I suspect, this group represents the minority.

We stand now only a few days before Rosh Hashanna. It is almost always the case that the last Shabbat of the year we read the parsha of Nitzavim. Prominent in Nitzavim is Moshe's challenge to the People of Israel to the mitzvah of Teshuva, Repentance.
The end of the year, the time of judgement, and the mitzvah of Teshuva, for some of us, the contiguity of the mitzvah and season is propitious.Knowing we are coming to an end, knowing we face a judgement, knowing that our future is at stake, moves us to introspection and return. This is the season of return.

Question is, into which group do we fall? Are we of the Frank Sinatra variety, who, while we may not live a life as hedonistic as his, nonetheless share with him the attitude that when faced with our end, we refuse to change and instead insist til the last, that all of our life and behaviors reflect "a very good year".
Are we, like so many I visited, determined to remain true to the way we have always been, unwilling to adapt, change, or alter our values, and practices.

Or are we students of Rebbe Eliezer. Will we seize the moment and remake ourselves. Will we have the courage and the smarts to change for the better and move ourselves along the road to real 'shlaimut', wholeness, a shlaimut that inevitably requires change and acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

Two kinds of people... Which are we? How we respond to knowing an 'end' is at hand makes all the difference in determining whether we are essentially persons of the spirit or of the earth.
We can bless the past and cleave to it saying "it was a very good year" or we can say "the year past may have had many good things about it, but it cannot be my model for the future. I need to change!"

As another one of those immortal crooners sang "Its now or never".
Lets make it now!

Ktiva V'chatima Tova!
May you and all those you love and all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a life of blessing, meaning and growth.

Shabbat Shalom