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

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