Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Measure of Holiness

My father, of blessed memory, was born in Leipzig. He and his large family emigrated to the United States just prior to the outbreak of World War Two. He would often tell me how he could not comprehend the anti-semitism that sprouted in Germany. He would say "Our neighbors were the finest people. And so gracious to us. How could they have turned into haters. How could they who were friends become people of whom we needed to be afraid?"

Indeed, how did Hitler and the Nazi machine turn the whole populace of Germany into anti-semites and collaborators with the evil regime?
Germany was the most civilized of countries. Its people were cultured and, up until the rise of Nazism, tolerant.

If one studies the process the answer is clear. It happened in stages. First the Nazis used propaganda to turn the Jews into 'others', to dehumanize us, to make us radically different in the eyes of the average German. Once we were seen as no longer like them, it was easy for the German to hate us and even collaborate in our demise.

The nature of human beings is that in order to cultivate hate we make the 'other' a "stranger". We focus on how they are less than us, on how their manners and ways are different. Have you ever noticed how when we who are Caucasian hear of a tragedy in Europe, say a flood or plane crash, we will feel a sense of sadness and solidarity with the mourning survivors. Yet a tragedy of much greater proportion can occur in Africa amongst Blacks and it causes little emotional impact. Just look at the Western societies limited reaction to the horrific situation in Darfur. Even when we do react it tends to be a response to the crisis, like an earthquake, rather than to the people and their story.

All hate and detachment begins with a focus on difference. All love commences with a recognition of how we are one and the same.

The Torah in this weeks parsha makes clear that being G-d's Holy People does not give us license to separate from others and their plight. Yes, last week we read of our receiving the Torah and of our uniqueness in destiny and purpose. But that inspiration must not serve to cause us intolerance and hate of those not like us.

We begin the reading with of this week with the Jew who sells himself into slavery. We are not permitted to mistreat him. On the contrary he has rights and privilges. He is not to be seen as 'other'. Even the non-Jewish slave is talked about. He too has rights protected by the Torah. Should the owner abuse him their are consequences. The Torah goes on to talk about our responsibility not to cause hurt, emotional or otherwise to the convert. Indeed we are charged to love the 'ger'. The Talmud teaches that more than 40 times in the Torah there is reference to our need to care for the welfare of the convert.

And if that was not enough the Torah tells us this week "Do not cook the goat in it mother's milk." From this we derive all the laws of separation of milk from meat. Many of the commentaries understood the law as teaching us sensitivity even to animals. They too have feelings. While we are permitted to eat meat it would be insensitive to cook the meat we killed for our pleasure in the milk its mother produced to give it life. And their are other laws that seem to promote the same sensitivity to animals. The law that requires us to cover the blood from fowl or non-domesticated animals we kill to eat may well have been designed to engender in us a sense of shame that in order for us to have our needs met we took a life, even of an animal. Moreover we are forbidden from eating the 'chailev', the best fats from domesticated animals we prepare to eat. Perhaps this is meant to teach us a similar lesson. Yes you are permitted to eat meat, but you must never become so callous as to think of the animal as a plant, totally for your use, and lose sympathy for it as a live being.

In all this the Torah is teaching that the measure of our holiness is our capacity to care for that which is different from us and to treat the 'other' with respect and consideration. To be holy is to find G-d in everything and everyone.

Our holiness may separate us and make us unique in character and soul. But that same holiness, to the extent we live and feel it will give us reason to find a common love and identity with all G-d's creation.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Telling Our Story

I have often asked those whose life journey included discovering and embracing Judaism what was the key influence that brought them to the Faith.I write here in particular of those we call "Baalai Teshuva". More often than not what they answer is that it was no inspired sermon or text that influenced them, nothing they read in a book or found in promotional material. What triggered their new interest in Jewish observance was connection to a person and that person's story of faith.

I was struck by how much that parallels something we find in the parsha of this week. Early in the reading of Yitro we are told "And Yitro, the priest of Midian and the father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that Hashem did for Moshe and for Israel His people that He liberated them from Egypt" Clearly then Yitro knew of the exploits of Israel and that prompted his decision to come greet Moshe in the wilderness.

Yet shortly after the Torah tells us that when Yitro came Moshe went out to greet him and brought him into his tent. He then shared with Yitro all that happened to the Israelites and how G-d saved them. The Torah tells us that on hearing Moshe's account "And Yitro greatly rejoiced on all the good G-d did for Israel that he saved them from the Egyptians". He then went on to bless G-d the redeemer concluding "And now I now that Hashem is greater than any other god..."

Clearly Yitro was inspired by the story Moshe told him of G-d's intervention on their behalf. He became overwhelmed with joy. He was moved to bless G-d. Yet he knew the story before he came to visit Moshe. We were already informed of that at the beginning of the reading. So what new information did Yitro get that produced such a visceral response? Why such a strong reaction to information he already had?

You may have your own ideas here. And I welcome you to share them in a comment. But for me the message is clear. Before Yitro heard the story, but as a news report. It was factual yes, and compelling. It motivated Yitro to come and check it out. But the inspiration did not come until Yitro experienced the story first hand from those who lived it. Only when Moshe told him the story did it become alive and touch his soul.

We often see that in our own lives. We may know the story of the holocaust, read many books about it, even see the films. Yet nothing will move us like the first hand account of someone who is a survivor. Their story, even if its but a piece of the total picture, touches our soul and makes an impression that lives with us.People inspire people. That's the sum truth. Information, knowledge, truth, we may get from many sources. But inspiration comes ones soul to another.

That is why the Baal teshuva is more typically affected by a special person in their life than by inspired writing or powerful argument. And even those of us not technically Baalai teshuva will often look back on our lives and find who we are is the product of the relationships we had with 'beautiful' people, people we admired and wanted to be like, be it parents, teachers, mentors and friends.

What does that mean for us proscriptively? I suggest that one lesson we might take from the story of Yitro and from the realities of our own lives is that we need to let ourselves be known to our children and grandchildren. Its not enough that we teach them right from wrong and provide them with a Jewish education. We need to let them experience us as persons, with our story and with our challenges. We need to have real relationships with our children and real conversations. They need to feel they know us!

People often quote the cliche for parents "Its not what you say but what you do that matters." I would add, "Its not only what you do but who you are in relationship to your children that matters".
Yitro was inspired not by the story of the Exodus, but by the impact he saw it had on Moshe and Israel. Our children and grandchildren need to see the impact of what matters to us has on our life. To make that happen we need to share with them our story and self.

This blog marks the one hundredth written for The Torah and the Self. I hope some of you have found meaning in the weekly reflections. It has been a joy to write. I thank Hashem for the opportunity to reflect on the truth of his Torah and its impact of our personhood.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Gift of Failure

Have you ever thought to put your child to a test that you knew they could not pass? Most of us think that a test is only meaningful if we can pass it. Perhaps thats part of the reason people often say "G-d doesn't give us more than we can handle".
The idea being that a test challenges us to bring out our best and grow. But if we were sure to fail what would be the point.

And yet I think in this week's Parsha we see otherwise. The Torah tells us this week of the final stages of our deliverance from Egypt when our ancestors saw their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the parting of the sea.
We call the Shabbat, Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song in commemoration of the beautiful and profound song of praise to G-d sung by the Israelites on their miraculous salvation.

But lets step back a minute. The Parsha of B'shalach opens telling us that G-d took the Israelites by a longer route to the Promised Land. And why? because He was afraid if the people were to immediately have to deal with the conquest of Canaan they might become fearful and in the face of a great battle, because of that fear, decide it better to return to Egypt.

Obviously from the opening verses we can deduce that G-d did not put much trust in the courage and faith of this fledgling nation to withstand tests of character.

With that in mind we might well wonder why G-d tests the people in this weeks reading and on at least two occasions. In both instances the people ran out of water. They complained, in one case bitterly, to G-d over their circumstances. Now we may well ask why did they find themselves without water? G-d could have provided water before the situation reached a point of crisis. Why did they need to go through all the anxiety?
It seems that G-d had them confront their drought as a test, to see how they would respond in crisis. Would they come to Moshe with respect and appreciation, beseeching G-d's mercy or would they lament and complain with a sense of entitlement, which in fact they did?

Yet if the purpose of putting the people in a position of crisis was in order to test them we might wonder why. Why test them? G-d already knew they lacked character and faith, that's why he took them the long way round to Eretz Yisrael. He knew they would not behave with appropriate respect and appreciation. So why give them a test they were certain to fail?

I think maybe we need to reexamine the premise with which we opened the blog. Is it really true that a test we are certain to fail makes no sense to give? I think not!

Remember the Israelites had just crossed the sea. They had experienced a great spiritual high, so much so that it led them to song, a song worthy of the Torah, a song worthy of being recited each day in prayers, a song we stand for in Shule as it is read, a song for which, generations later, we still give this Shabbat its name. The People might well have believed that after such an inspired moment they had achieved their spiritual call. They might well have thought "we made it". We are G-d's people and we are complete in our work to perfect our faith.

Sadly, as much as the People may have thought that true, it was very much the opposite. The People were raw and immature of faith. As it turned out they needed to journey 40 years in the desert and experience all kinds of travail to finally become the Nation G-d could bring into the Land.

How could Hashem show the people that they had much work to do, and what the work was about? The answer is what we see. G-d gave them a test he knew they would fail. And why? because though He knew they would fail, they didn't. They were sure of themselves. The test and the failures showed them how much was left for them to do to grow sufficiently to be worthy of being the Chosen People.

Truth is that sometimes we need to have tests, even those we are going to fail. They teach us that often we are not near as good as we think we are. When we fail tests they show us what we need to work on, sometimes to our great surprise. Its amazing how often just when we believe we have gotten past a certain character flaw or growing edge a situation comes up which tests us and we find ourselves acting in ways that show us not quite there at all. We believed we had outgrown the issue. The test showed us we still need to work on ourselves.

Failing the life tests we think we should have past is a great gift. It helps us get over the self-deception that we have made it. It shows us that even where we feel good about ourselves we often still have much work to do!

Shabbat Shalom


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Who Am I? Part Two

If you follow this blog then you know my focus is to respond to the primal question of "Who am I?". For me that is the central question we need to address. All our life gets lived out, one way or another, based on our response.

In this week's parsha of 'Bo' we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Surely, here, if anywhere, we would expect to find clues to help us discover our core sense of self. And indeed I do think we can find here some meaningful content to help us with our process.

Prior to leaving Egypt the Israelites were given a number of mitzvot to perform. They were also given some information about their destiny. In fact, the questions that we read at the seder of two of the four sons is found here, given to the Israelites even before they began their national journey. That the Israelites would have both wicked sons and simple sons is reflected in the reading.

The Torah tells us "And it will be when your children say to you "what is the meaning of all this effort?" And you should say to them "it is a sacrifice of the Passover to Hashem who passed over the homes of the Israelites when he smote the Egyptians..." And the Torah goes on to say that when the People heard this they bowed deeply.

The Sages tell us that the Israelites bowed out of gratitude. They experienced the message G-d gave them as a gift. They heard in it that they would have children,that there would be future generations.
They chose not to focus on the fact that the children promised here would be wicked and would reject the 'effort' that they were putting into the preparation for the Pasech.

Yet is that not somewhat surprising? I mean if someone told us that they saw our future and that in it we were destined to have children or grandchildren but that those children and grandchildren would be delinquent and sinful, would we consider the vision a gift?
How do we understand the reaction of our ancestors? They did more than smile and say thanks at this news. They actually bowed deeply in gratitude. Yet we would expect ambivalent feelings at best?

This week we marked Rosh Chodesh. The day prior to Rosh Chodesh we call in tradition Yom Kippur Katan, the mini Yom Kippur. Some holy Jews fast on Yom Kippur Kattan. The end of the month, like the end of the year, or any end, calls to us to Teshuva and self-reflection.
I attended mincha, the afternoon service on Yom Kippur Kattan at the Mir Yeshiva where I learn. Some 2000 others davened with me.
The Mincha of Yom Kippur Kattan is very reminiscent of Neila on the real Yom Kippur. It lasted better than an hour and was full of prayers of confession and remorse. Part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur Kattan calls for reciting a 'vidui', a confession, in this case one written by Rabbainu Nissim, perhaps 700 years ago.

The confession was powerful and humbling. But what struck me most in reciting it was that in the content each person unequivocally refers to himself as a 'rasha', a wicked person. I mean really, here I was with 2000 men who learn Torah all day, whose life is devoted to serving G-d and to doing the right, who sacrifice all the material gifts the world can offer to pursue the sacred, and they call themselves "wicked"? And Rabbainu Nissim himself, who wrote the confession, did he believe himself a rasha. He was of the greatest of sages. Did all the Jews through the centuries who fasted on Yom Kippur Kattan and prayed with feeling and fervor and expressed this vidui consider themselves 'reshaeem'?

Maybe what our parents in Egypt heard, that they would have children who met the classification of the 'rasha', the evil son, is not so bad if in 'rasha' we include children like Rabbainu Nissim and the 2000 men who prayed with me that afternoon!

Who am I? According to the liturgy I am a 'rasha', a wicked person. I said so and before G-d,together with all my fellow Jews seeking to do teshuva at that powerful mincha service.

Of course the meaning of calling myself a wicked person has not to do with any tabulation of merits and demerits. If being good or bad was simply a matter of adding up ones deeds and seeing which side had more, Rabbainu Nissim and, I am certain, virtually all the 2000 men I davened with would come out on the side of the good, 'tzaddik' not 'rasha'. But that's not the measure we need to use. Rabbainu Nissim knew that we are called to excellence in our devotion to Hashem. Anything less than excellence is evil.In our context, if one commits a single act of murder s/he is guilty and evil, no matter how much good s/he did in his/her life. In committing even one sin before G-d, our creator and king, we commit a crime of unimaginable consequence. No matter how much good we do, without teshuva, we become a 'rasha'.

By that measure we are all indeed 'reshaeem'. And if we are, how dare we judge others or reject them? Our parents in Egypt heard the message, they would have children who were wicked. But so what? They knew themselves. They knew they were wicked. We all are!
They didn't flinch at the news or recoil. They rejoiced. They bowed in gratitude. They knew that the 'rasha' is in each of us. And the very rejection, implicit in the question of the 'rasha', each of us has posed in one form or another at some time. That's no reason to dim the glad tidings that there would be future generations.

Who Am I? This week I learned I am a 'rasha'. Indeed I am one of the wicked children referred to as part of the tidings my ancestors received in Egypt. It's not that I became aware of some evil within that I did not know about. It's just that the measure by which I gauge myself has changed. I learned I am a 'rasha', but a 'rasha' in very good company.
That doesn't excuse me. But it does make improvement both more necessary and possible.

Shabbat Shalom