Thursday, March 31, 2011

Born Again

If you were offered the opportunity to live forever would you take it? If given the chance to never die, to live on in perpetual good health and vitality would you say "yes"? Of course the reality is we will never be given that chance. And yet how we would respond to such a proposal says much about us, about who we are.

The Parsha of this week, Tazreea, opens with the laws of ritual purity and impurity as they apply to the woman who gives birth. She, while obviously blessed with a baby is nonetheless rendered impure in the act of childbirth and must both wait a period of days and bring a sacrifice before she is permitted to enter the Temple.

Question we may well ask is what is the nature of this 'tumah', ritual impurity? Typically 'tumah' is associated with death. The corpse is the ultimate 'tumah'. Dead animals are 'tamay'. Even the menstruating woman is 'tamay',while to a lesser degree, because her period represents the death of the opportunity for child with the passing of the ovum. But why the woman who gives birth? Why is she 'tamay'? She has born life, new life. She should represent the ultimate in 'tahara', ritual purity.

In 'tumat hayoledet', the impurity of the woman in childbirth, the Torah is teaching us something most vital. Life is not born in a vacuum. Life is always preceded by death. For something to be born, that which was prior needs to come to an end. True, the birthing mother has the great gift of a new baby. Life has come into the world. But that could not happen without the death inside herself of the being that was growing within. For nine months she was alive in a different way. One was two, two hearts, two minds. Now even as her baby has a life of its own, she, the mother, has a loss. She is now but one again, as she was prior to pregnancy.
The 'tumah' is within her, for the death of the second self that lived within.

Over and over we can see this truth revealed in the reality of our finite world. The umbilical cord is the source of life for the fetus. To have the cord severed when the fetus is within the mother means death for the unborn. Yet once the child is born we need to cut the cord, an act that causes separation and a momentary death. Yet it is necessary for the new baby to have life. Even a seed that becomes the starting point for a tree, needs to corrupt and decay in the soil to release it potential to root and bring forth new life.

Death and life, while opposites, are continuous with each other. One cannot have the life without their being a death.This is the message we read this week in the Torah in anticipation of Pesach in the portion we call "Parshat Hachodesh". The Torah reading challenges Israel, the new nation to its first mitzvah, one that is quite surprising. The first mitzvah given to our People is "hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim", "this month is to be for you the first of the cycle of months". The sages understood the mitzvah as that which calls on us to sanctify the months, the core time frame for our calendar, on the basis of the monthly renewal of the moon. When the new moon is born, after it has totally disappeared the night prior from the sky, sanctify the time and declare the month holy.

What's the message in this and why is this mitzvah so vital as a precursor to the redemption?

The Sfat Emet explained the concept here in a way consistent with what we have been sharing. Sanctifying the new moon is meant to teach us that our holiness as a people or for that matter as persons is not about simply adding on to what we already are. Holiness is about renewal, about being reborn, what in hassidut is referred to as 'hischadshut'. The moon has to entirely disappear, to die , as it were, and then be reborn, in order for kedusha to be possible. Like the moon we as a People and each Jew individually is challenged to die many times, so that we, s/he can be reborn and claim the kedusha meant for us. All real growth requires both a death and a rebirth. We cannot simply remain as we were and expect to add. To become we need radical change.

Perhaps you in your life, I know for certain me in mine,I had to go though the renewal of the moon to reach the place meant for me.I had to die and be reborn. There was no other way. Only by ending one life could another begin. To hold on to the remnants of a outlived past only delays the inevitable and necessary. In hassidut the teaching is that only through a 'hitbatlut', a self nullification, can we come to a 'hitchadshut', a true renewal.

And so to return from whence we began, if we were offered life unending would we choose to take the 'gift'? If life is about growth and becoming then I think not. If we lived forever we would not change, we would not die. A life without death means no 'hitchadshut', no renewal, no real growth. That would be too high a price to pay, even for a life unending.

Our tradition challenges us to do more than observe mitzvot and learn Torah. It asks more of us than to do kindness and be a good person. G-d asks us to remake ourselves in new and improved forms, to die and be reborn over and over in our lives. Sometime the death and rebirth is small, and sometimes we need a whole make-over. The key is to find the courage to die to ourselves so that we can know the gift waiting for us on the other side.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Setting Precedence

Sometimes, especially in Israel, when we least expect it, we have experiences that move us to the depth of our soul. That happened to me last Shabbat at mincha services in my neighborhood shule. There I and about 150 men got to honor Rav Ben-Yishai, the father of the Fogel family brutally murdered in Itamar. The shiva was over just Shabbat morning. Rav Ben-Yishai came to shule and received an aliya.
During shiva the mourner is not allowed to receive an aliya. This represented his first opportunity since the tragic murder of his children and grandchildren.

When his name was called he proceeded to the shulchan to receive his aliya. The whole community of men rose as one, spontaneously, to pay him homage. And they remained standing until his honor was complete. The silence in the synagogue was deafening. Each man was transfixed in heartfelt solidarity with Rav Ben-Yishai and his family.

Most of those present, indeed most in Israel, knew of Rav Ben-Yishai's eloquent eulogy at the funeral of his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.Many had travelled North for the service. Others read his remarks in the papers or heard it on radio. Rav Ben-Yishai, in the face of this unspeakable tragedy, evidenced great courage. He insisted on praising his G-d and recommitting himself to his faith and his People, the core values of his murdered family.
He, like so many men and women before him, accepted G-d's will even at a time of so great a loss.

Indeed this is essentially our mandate as Jews. We are all of us called upon, in times most dark and painful, to accept the will of the Divine. Mourners in their moment of greatest pain recite a bracha validating the decision of our G-d as just and rightful. At the graveside the grief stricken assembled recite "Zadok Hadin", a prayer in which we proclaim all G-d's deeds as good. While the circumstances of Rav Ben-Yishai's family were more horrific and the tragedy more difficult to accept, he was essentially following the precedent of the heroic men and women of our people who submit their will to the will of their G-d no matter the circumstances.

In this context it becomes difficult to comprehend this week's parsha of Sh'mini, in particular,the story of the tragic deaths of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu died during the celebration of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the house of G-d built by the Israelites in the wilderness. The Torah tells us their sin was "bringing into the sanctuary and strange fire". The consequence, they died a sudden death. As we might expect, Aharon, their father, was devastated. Yet after Moshe, his brother, offers him brief words of comfort, we are told "Aharon kept silent". In the face of an overwhelming personal tragedy Aharon accepted G-d's will and contained any anger or negative emotion he might have had.
He continued to perform the rituals of the day as he was required.

Tradition teaches that Aharon was greatly praised for his self-control and devotion in the face of his great loss. He received unique blessings from G-d for his faithfulness. His action is lauded as heroic. Yet we might wonder why? What did Aharon do so much more than that which every Jew is required when confronting a personal tragedy. Moreover while Aharon silently accepted G-d's will, men and women throughout our history made blessings and publicly proclaimed G-d's righteousness, a seemingly harder thing to do. If we place Rav Ben-Yishai's response to his huge tragedy next to Aharon's response it would seem Rav Ben-Yishai's was the more noteworthy. On what basis does Aharaon earn all the acclaim for his silence?

And a similar question can be asked about Avraham and the story of the binding of Yitzchak. Anyone familiar with our liturgy knows that over and over we beseech G-d that He have compassion on us in merit of Avraham's great commitment,being willing to sacrifice Yitzchak. Why is Avraham's act so significant. Our history is sadly replete with men and women who not only gave their lives 'al kiddush Hashem',sanctifying G-d name, but surrendered their children to death rather than see them forced to embrace a foreign faith.

The answer to both questions I think is the same. And it leads us to a great truth. Let me couch the answer with this vignette. In my life I have had many non-Jewish friends. Sometimes they ask me about Jewish practices. When I tell them about fasting on Yom Kippur they are astounded. "You mean you fast 25 hours and you don't die?" they ask. They continue "You must be drinking during the fast". They cannot imagine the self-control that even the most minimally observant Jew undertakes. And the same feeling they express with regards to abstaining from eating in non-kosher restaurants. How do you do it? they ask. "How do you pass up opportunities to eat when you are hungry?"

What they do not understand is that we are inculcated into a certain way of life with certain behaviors from the time we are young. What's near impossible for them to imagine,is for the Observant Jew second nature. What we have learned to practice is so much easier than it would be for someone not oriented into that way of life.

Its true what Aharon did in remaining silent to the tragic death of his two eldest sons would not stand out in light of the heroic embracing of the will of the Divine expressed by parents through the generations. Nor even would Avraham's sacrifice of Yitzchak be so unique an expression of devotion in the context of the history of Jewish martyrdom. But Aharon and Avraham were the first. No one prior had ever demonstrated the faithfulness they displayed. True we have done equally great things. But we had their precedent. They set the example and from them we embraced a set of expectations that made accepting G-d judgement and even martyrdom, if not easy, at least doable. Aharon and Avraham had no models. They had to do the unprecedented. We who are schooled from the time of our youth in their stories and the stories of other heroes through our history have not nearly the same challenge.

And whats in this for you and me? Well it seems to me that any strengths we have in terms of personal character traits or in terms of religious practice was made more plausible because we had family members or teachers who set an example and paved the way for our excellence. We did not have to invent our good behavior or conduct, our courage or uncommon devotion.We did not have to be original in caring or compassion, in patience and acceptance. We had orientation, or, at least, we had role models.

It is for us to create the precedence for our children and community.
When we find the wherewith all to be happy in the face of adversity or to maintain faith when things seem bad, when we show kindness even to people different from us or extend ourselves even when its uncomfortable, we make it that much easier for others to do similarly. Our behavior sets the mode. Those who matter to us need only to follow, a much easier path, and one now much more likely to be chosen with us having taken the lead.

We all have virtues learned and integrated because of those who came before us. What have we given those who will follow?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, March 18, 2011

Breaking Form

I spent last Shabbat with the new family my step-daughter married into. It was Shabbat Chatan, the first Sabbath after the wedding, and we were together in a hotel in Netanya. The chatan and his family are Sefardim, originally from Tunis. The whole of the Shabbat experience, from davening to food was couched in a tradition I did not know. The experience in synagogue, in particular, felt very alien. For me it might almost have been another religion.
Yet on reflection, after the weekend, I realized that the differences between my Ashkenaz service and that of the Sefardim is not very much in the content of the prayers. The prayer are for the most part similar. What is different is the way the prayers are recited. Sefardim do alot of communal chanting, whereas Askenazim tend to say prayers to themselves. The melodies of Sefardim are middle-eastern, in the minor key. Ashkenazim use melodies of the West, in the major mode.

So while the experience in prayer felt so foreign it was not, in fact, that much other than what I have known. The differences were of the form, not the substance. Yet, it seems, form alone can make a difference so vital that it can feel totally other.

I was thinking how this thought rings true for that which we see in the parsha of this week, that of Tzav. Here in the Torah portion there is emphasis on the clothes worn by the 'kohen', priest and the 'kohen gadol', high priest. When the instructions are given for consecrating the priests they are told they are to be wearing their special clothes during the special sprinkling. Indeed even the clothes are to be made holy. The clothes are so important that a kohen who serves in the Temple without being fully clothed in the priestly garments has a severe penalty and his service is invalid. Without his clothes he is called a 'zar', a non-kohen.

We see from all of the above that what we wear has profound significance. Indeed all of the trappings of our life are relevant for defining us. As tradition taught "'chitzoniyot m'orair p'neemiyot'", "the outside influences the inside of a person". Whether it be the way people daven or the clothes the kohen wears, or for that matter the way we dress or the style of our lives, style has substance! The form of our lives shapes the substance of who we are! In essence, we become how we live, how we look, how we act!

Its no wonder the davening of the Sefaradim felt so different despite a similarity of content. The form of the prayers is like the clothes for the words. Clothes, form, matter, and makes things different of essence!

And yet here we are on the eve of Purim. Already the streets have been full of children in costume. Even adults often dress in disguise on Purim. And the custom seems to have a basis in halacha. There are rabbinic opinions that allow men to dress as women on Purim, something forbidden all year long by Torah injunction. Yet we might wonder why. Did we not just talk about the importance of the externals, that they influence and shape who we are. How is it on Purim we are not only permitted, we are encouraged to dress in ways not true to ourselves and often as characters whose behavior we would never want to emulate?

I believe the answer is that on Purim we mark a holiday that goes counter the norm. The Jews of Persia lived in an environment where all the externals said a renewal of Judaism was impossible. They were in exile, the first exile, the Temple destroyed. They lived amongst a hedonistic people with a hedonistic king, as the Megilla describes. Everything around them mitigated against a revival of the Jewish spirit. Yet despite it all the Jews of the diaspora, facing extermination, experience a total renewal of faith. The Sages describe the events of Purim as a second acceptance of Torah, the first being at Sinai. Only they point out, this acceptance, the one that happened at the time of Purim was greater. Here the Jews accepted the Torah from love of G-d. At Sinai, yes, they accepted, but they were, as tradition teaches,in fact coerced.

Purim is the holiday of Jewish renewal that takes place when the context in which our People lived said it would be impossible. Purim is the one time where the 'pneemiyut' broke through the 'chitzoniyut', where who we were at our core broke through the constraints of the form in which we were living.

Every day can't be Purim. But on Purim, in dressing in costume, we say that true though it normally is that the clothes make the man or woman, on this day we are more than the clothes we wear. We can dress as whomever, yet we will remain ourselves. No externals will compromise the integrity of our true being.

The message of both the Parsha and of Purim is that while we need to be careful to create an environment for ourselves that is in synch with our purpose and nature, after all the clothes of our lives indeed matter, yet if we find ourselves ensnared by a context foreign and antithetical to who we are we can still overcome and rise above it.
Purim teaches us that the though the form shapes us it does not condemn us. No matter the circumstances we find ourselves in we can yet find spiritual renewal and rebirth.

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Purim Samaiach

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Knowing Our Place

When I was a boy I davened in a synagogue each Shabbat with some 300 grown men. While all the regulars wore similar taleisim, white with black stripes, their was one noticeable difference amongst a select few of the men. Nearly everyone, including my father, recited the prayers with their talis on their shoulders. A few however, davened with their talis over their head. It was clear to me that these men were different from the rest. They were the learned of the community, talmidai chachamim, even if not officially in the rabbinate. I said to myself "when I grow up I want to be one of the special ones, the talmidai chachamim. I too want to be worthy of davening with my talis over my head."

The years have past. I no longer am that boy of eight. I am a man mature and beginning to age. I look around me in the shule wherever I daven and I see in many cases more than half the men daven with the talis over their head. What's changed? Have so many become learned? I don't think that's the change. I see men who don't fully observe Shabbat, yet they daven with the talis over their head. I see boys not yet married, with only a minimum of Jewish education davening with a talis over their head. It seems wearing the talis over the head has become the right of everyone. It symbolizes nothing more than that the person doing it wants to show he is serious in prayer. I wonder what the boy of eight can observe in today's synagogue, that might inspire him to want to excel and become worthy.

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. Much of the early parshiyot deal with the laws of sacrifices in the Mishkan.
As we enter the subject the Torah reads "'Adam',(a man) who decides he wishes to bring a sacrifice to Hashem...." Its worth noting that the Torah refers to the one who wants to bring the sacrifice not in the common term for man, 'ish', nor in the gender neutral term the Torah uses through most of the parsha 'nefesh', a soul. Here at the outset the Torah when the text refers to a man it uses the term 'adam', a term of distinction, typically reserved for a person of character.

A number of our sages have commented on this. In particular they point out the oddity that here we are talking of bringing a sacrifice, most commonly in response to seeking forgiveness for committing a sin, and yet we use the noble term 'adam' to refer to the one bringing it. They wonder about the incongruity. In a situation in which one sinned it would seem 'ish' or 'nefesh' would be more appropriate.

Yet it seems to me not a problem at all. The context in which the Torah is using the term 'adam' to refer to man is with regards to the 'korban olah', the sacrifice that was a voluntary offering, totally consumed on the alter. That sacrifice is not typically brought for a sin. It is the ultimate gift offering in which no part is reserved for the person who brought it.

But if that's the context in which the Torah chooses the term 'adam' to refer to man, we might ask, what is the Torah trying then to teach us calling the one who brings it 'adam'?

In light of the self-story I wrote about to open this blog, I think we might understand the Torah to be telling us something profoundly relevant. I suggest the Torah is telling us that if you are going to bring the 'olah', the offering entirely voluntary and a total gift to G-d, you had better be an 'adam'. Only a person of spiritual character has business making a public display of bringing an 'olah' to the Temple. Bringing an offering was very much a public event. The person mired in mediocrity should not assume a public posture of spiritual excellence, as exemplified in bringing an 'olah', no matter how much he wants for the religious experience. An 'olah' belongs to an 'adam'.The Torah is teaching first become an 'adam', a man of character, then you can bring the 'olah'. To do otherwise, no matter how sincere in the moment, smacks of pomposity, and is inappropriate.

The Torah teaches us that while we may all want the most intense religious experience, we need to know our place. Everyone, as the Torah refers to in the term 'nefesh', needs to bring a sin offering. Only an 'adam' should consider himself worthy to publicly bring the 'olah'.

We live in a time where even persons who are on the level of 'nefesh' (like me) want to express their public Judaism as if they are an 'adam'. They want to 'max out' on the Jewish experience. They argue, why not experience the intensity of form that was once reserved for those who achieved a spiritual excellence. It is to them that the Torah is speaking in telling us that you have to earn the right to express yourself as devout in public. Otherwise public expressions of religiosity, that go beyond the halachic mandate, are bordering on pomposity and actually are antithetical to the humility true faith requires.

Talis over the head and other public displays of religiosity, formerly reserved for those devout, should remain in their domain.
We who are mediocre in our Jewish lifestyle have no business pretending, especially in the public arena. That is not to say we should not aspire to reach the level of the one's for whom taking on practices of devotion is rightful. On the contrary, they should motivate us to be worthy of joining their ranks and engaging ourselves in the practices reserved for the 'adam'.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Closed Out

This week we come to the end of the second book of the Torah with the reading of the Parsha of Pekudai. The reading also marks the culmination of the story of the building of the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary to house the spirit of the Divine, the Israelites built in the wilderness. There is one verse in the reading that struck me as most compelling. After we read of how Moshe, in accord with G-d's command, erected the Mishkan and placed all the objects he fashioned, in accord with the commands of G-d discussed in the earlier week's readings, we are told something startling. The verse reads "And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the 'Anan' (Cloud of the Divine) rested upon it and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan".

How could that be? How could it be that Moshe, who toiled with such devotion to build the Mishkan and adhered to the will of G-d so precisely, could be closed out from entry on the day the Mishkan was first erected. This is the Moshe who had privileges to enter the Holy of Holies, where even the High Priest could not go but once a year, any time he desired. This is the Moshe who visited G-d on Mt Sinai and dwelt with the angels. Yet he was locked out on the day the Mishkan was first born.

Moreover everything Moshe made was within, there to welcome the presence of G-d into His home on earth, from the alters to the menorah, from the golden vessels to the sink, yet Moshe who created them was outside and could not enter.

And its not the only time Moshe was left outside while that which he forged was privileged to enter. Do we not find the story replayed when Moshe at the end of his life is, to his great dismay, unable to enter the land of Israel, the Promised Land, while the People he made into a nation are charged to cross-over the Jordan and inherit the land. How can it be that the People he molded could go where he could not?

I thought about this as this week my daughter, Bat Sheva, became an 'olah', a full fledged citizen of Israel. I grew up a strong Zionist, the child of strong Zionists. My father was president of Poal Hamizrachi of New York in the late 40's just as the State was coming into existence. He travelled to Israel in 1947 and tried to set-up a family business here that unfortunately did not take root.
While forever dreaming of making aliya, life circumstances prevented the realization of his dream. I too, all my life dreamed of living in Israel, fulfilling the great mitzvah of Yishuv Ha'aretz, settling the land. Now, for me too, because of circumstances, becoming an 'oleh' is not feasible. Yet where neither my father nor I could go, and where we remain closed out, she who we fashioned, our daughter and granddaughter, is privileged to enter.

And herein lies the great truth.
Sometimes the ones who pave the way never make it to the Promised Land. Yet their energy and guidance give what they bring to life the power to enter.

And truth be told its not the only case in my life where this rings true. I spent many years learning in yeshiva. Yet as much as I loved learning, I did not have the temperament to sit in the bais medrash (study hall) and devote my life to Talmud study. My restlessness caused me to have to leave the world of Torah and invest in other worthy Jewish activities. But I always felt that, willy nilly, I was closed out, even if due to my own temperament, from a life I would have relished. Yet, thanks to G-d, while my journey took me away from intense Torah study, I have two grown sons, who have rooted themselves in the bais medrash, one a rebbe in a prominent yeshiva and the other in an excellent kollel. They have entered and made a home in a place I could not settle. Yet here too, I sense that the love of Torah that inhered in me was passed on and it made their life in that world possible.

I suspect that each of us can find places where we know the experience of Moshe, places where, while we were closed out, our children or our students, or someone we loved or influenced, was privileged to enter. We may have mourned that we did not merit to enter that place that was so important to us. Yet, on reflection, we can, like Moshe, derive joy in knowing that that which is within, that which is basking in the special gift of that environ, is there, at least in part, because of our influence and investment.
And in that we can derive both nachas and a sense of fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom