Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Hatred to Love

Have you ever found yourself feeling a distinct dislike for someone, not because of anything s/he did to you, but simply for who s/he is? Are their people in your life that you simply can't stand? Most of us have such feelings towards others, and for most the feelings bring on a sense of guilt. I mean these feelings seem to eptiomize 'sinat chinam', hatred for no cause, a sin that was so severe as to cause the destruction of the Temple and bring about our People's exile of near 2,000 years. Yet try as we might to use the force of our will to get over our disdain for others, we seem helpless in the face of feelings of enmity beyond our control.

This week lets explore our negative feelings towards others. Perhaps if we hold them up to scrutiny, shameful as they are to us, we can move from being prisoners of our unbidden feelings to masters of them, and find a way to overcome.

I charge us to this task now because our parsha is that of Kedoshim, a reading that over and over again calls on us to care for and extend ourselves to others. In the reading we find mitzvot of hesed, kindness, ranging from the law prohibiting us from taking revenge to the law which forbids us to hate, and from the injunction against slandererous talk to the commandment to leave portions of the field for the poor.The theme of the reading is summed up in one pithy yet compelling phrase "'v'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha'", "and you shall love your neighbor as your self."

Aye but there's the rub! I can understand my responsibility vis a vis others when the challenge involves a call to either act or desist from acting. But how can I be charged with the responsibility to love? Love is a feeling. Feelings resist mental commands. And you and I both know their are many people we would be grateful not to disdain, nevermind love!

And we are not the only ones who are troubled by the call to 'love'. The Rambam felt it impossible for a person to love others as much as s/he loves himself. Tosfot too found the imperative difficult to comprehend and so wrote that the law had a limitted context where it could be applied. Commentator after commentator took the passage and reframed it so that its charge could be made relevant.

Yet as I refelect on the passage and on the challenge I find so difficult, to feel loving towards those for whom I have an almost instinctual dislike, I have come to interpret the verse somewhat differently than the standard. The challenge of loving my neighbor as "myself" is not about the depth or intensity of the love. On that score the Rambam is right. I cannot love everyone to the degree I love myeslf. Rather here the Torah is teaching me a method to loving others. And to understand the Torah's call I first must understand what gets in the way of my love for others.

Let's reflect. Who are those we find we struggle to tolerate. Maybe we can't stand the boastful person, or the narcissist.Perhaps its someone who is lazy or who is ungrateful that causes our disdain. Perhaps its someone who is pushy or slovenly in dress. In all cases we have to wonder why is it that they are unacceptable to us. What does it matter to us how they dress, how they behave, that they are conceited or fail to say thank you. We may say, "They have issues or behaviors I simply find unacceptable". O'kay, but why hate them. They are not hurting you, or anyone else, certainly not directly. You dont approve of the behavior but why despise the person.Typically we hate those who threaten us, those of whom we are afraid. S/he is no threat! They engender no fear. Why hate him/her. Why is it so hard to simply let the other be and love them, or at least not hate them, with their shortcomings.

Most who study the human psyche say that the reason we hate others even when their behaviors have no real relevance to us is because we can't separate their behaviors from our own. And its our own behavior, now seen in them, that we find intolerable.
When we witness in the other person a way of conduct, that at some level we know we too share, a behavior in ourselves we find unacceptable yet present inside us, albiet repressed, we feel threatened. In the other we see reflected a behavior we have fought to repress in ourselves. Seeing the behavior feel threatening, almost as if it would be contagious and our carefully contained no-no would rear its head, a no-no we have striven mightally to push down.

Ah you say, "that sounds ridiculous, I hate in the other things I have totally overcome in myself." Yes you have overcome them. But they are not gone. They are only pushed into a deeper level of consciousness. They remain present but in hiding as it were. When we see another manifesting traits that once were ours, now hidden, we feel afraid and react to the fear by generating the reaction always generated by fear, hatred! We come to hate or at least disdain the other.

So what's the antidote? How can I get past the fear and the concomittant hatred?

It is to this that the Torah taught us, "Love your neighbor as your self". The key necessary to loving another is loving your self. If you love your self, all of who you are, with the parts of you that are not so wonderful, parts you are glad to have put in eclipse, then you will be able to love the other, any other, no matter his/her behaviors and not feel threatened by them. The work of loving another commences with loving who I am. The more fully I can love myself and yes, indeed master my darker side but not repress even the bad parts of me as unacceptable, the more I will be able to extend myself to loving others.

It is only when I can meet my shadow side, without fear, knowing it's there, accepting it's there, and trust myself to make the right choices that I love myself, and thereby, in loving myself, make loving the other possible.

So when we find ourselves feeling disdain or even hatred for another person we need to ask ourselves what is it about them we feel threatened by. When we know what it is we dislike so strongly in the other, we need to then ask ourselves "where is that feeling, attitude, or behavior in me". If I can't find it (as will likely be the case) we need to ask "where has it gone?" and then yes, invite the feeling up from the cellar of our psyche, so we can acknowledge it without fear.Only then, when we acknowledge our own character flaws without fear, will we be free to get past the prison of intolerance and hatred towards others.

Tough work indeed. But we were given a lifetime to get it done!

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We Are Necessary!

"I am special and unique." No belief is more important to the quality of our lives than the belief in our specialness and uniqueness. To the extent that we believe that we bring an uncommon gift to the world we are able to withstand even the harshest of storms. To the extent we see ourselves as commonplace and ordinary we are vulnerable, and life's challenges can easily drive us to despair.

No person was more unique in the life of our people than the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest. At any time there was only one, and none other. As we read in the parsha of this week of Acharai Mot, only he could enter the Holy of Holies of the sacred Temple. Only he could perform the rites associated with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Only he could secure atonement for Israel's sins through properly performing the rituals required of him on that day. He had title. He had privelege. He had licence. Indeed the Kohain Gadol held an unparaleled place in Israeli society.

Yet if our sense of being special and unique is vital to our well-being it's surprising that while the Torah confers the above priveleges on the Kohain Gadol it does not do so in a very affirming way. On the contrary, the Torah begins the section in which Aharon is told of his unique entitlement by telling him "...You may not enter the Holy at any time, within the 'parochet', (the curtain separating the Holy from the rest of the Temple) and unto the 'kaporet'(the special cover) that is on the Ark, lest you die....". Only then, after telling Aharon that all year long he is forbidden from enterring the most sacred sites, with a potential punishment of death, is Aharon told that on Yom Kippur he may enter. And even their the Torah does not grant Aharon personal privelege. It simply instructs him to perform rituals, some of which will require of him to enter the place no one else is granted permission to enter. G-d does not confer the license on Aharon as due him because of his lofty personal status. It merely provides him with the means to do his job, hardly an affirmation of him as a 'great' person!

What is the Torah teaching us about the belief in our specialness and uniqueness, a belief we already claimed as necessary to sustain us when we find life difficult.

The answer is that yes, it's true, we need always to believe their is no one else exactly like us and that we bring a unique gift to the world. We are indeed special.
But that specialness is not about who we are, but rather about what we are meant to do. We each have a unique 'tafkid', task to perform, a task no one else can do, or at least no one else can do exactly as we can. Like Aharon, we too have an 'avoda', a holy rite to perform, if not on Yom Kippur then at some time equally significant not only to our personal journey, but to the completion of the destiny of our People.
The fulfillment of Israel's destiny requires us and our special contribution even as it requires the yearly service of the Kohain Gadol for its atonement. We matter, we matter absolutely. When life is hard and the challenges of our life feel overwhelming its so important that we remember that we are necessary, that we are special and unique, that we must persevere, if not for our own sake then for the sake of our People who depend on us. No one can do our job. No one can fill our place. We alone, with our unique personal make-up, are the only ones who can redeem the destiny of our People by taking on the task meant for us.

But that specialness and uniqueness, while forever giving our life meaning, must not serve to make us feel better than others or separate us from our peers. Our individual talents, gifts, and blessings, help define our personal role within our community. It would be wrong in the worst way to see those talents, gifts, and blessings as reasons to look down on others or separate us from the community and its memebers. That is why Aharon's priveleges were announced to him in a way that mitigated his sense of personal entitlement. First he was told that all year long he could no more enter the holy than any other Jew. And even the once a year he could enter, indeed because of his uniqueness and special status, should not be seen by him or the High Priests after him as making him/them somehow better than the rest of Israel. Their privelege only reflected the work of their lives, even as our privelege, be it smarts or beauty, wealth or position, is not about us qua us, but rather about our work and life's purpose.

If you think about it, many extremely talented people, and some of the most beautiful, and wealthiest suffer from depression, take drugs, compromise their lives and even commit suicide. Hollywood stories like those are the stuff of everyday news.
We often wonder how can people so blessed and so gifted feel so bad about themselves and their lives, be so self-destructive.

The secret here is that while our gifts and talents make us feel unique, they don't necessarily make us feel good. Our talents and our gifts for the most part are not earned. They are given to us. The athlete had to be born with the ability to be a basketball star, else no amount of practice would make him a professional. And the actress had to be born beautiful. Plastic surgery would not have been enough, and even then her beauty would be owed to others. The surgeon had to have the requisite IQ to succeed in his/her studies. Without the G-d given intelligence s/he would not know the career success. If one thinks about it, the gifts of ones life, and his/her talents are no reason to gloat. Only a small part is earned. If our neighbor had the same make-up as us their is no real reason to believe s/he would not do equally as well.
Indeed we often feel we fail the talents and gifts we were blessed with. It is not then surprising that we have all the tragic stories of the downfall of the rich and famous.

No, our specialness and uniqueness needs to give our life meaning not entitlement. The gifts bestowed on us provide us with a never ending source of personal purpose. They do not grant us privelege and status. After all, they are not earned.
Yet in having a unique call and challenge to our life we can forever claim a place at the table. We never have to feel we are a burden. We have a right to exist. We are necessary! There is no greater blessing than to know we are necessary!
Today, every day, no matter our circumstances, we are necessary to our People and to our world!

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Kasher V'samayach

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Work of Change

One of the great suprises of life, for most of us anyways, is how little we actually change in the course of years. I mean yes, we grow. We mature and we age. But all that means is that we became who we already were in potential. We simply added years and life experience to the existing base person. Change is something altogether different. In change we become someone we were not prior. We actually alter our base personality. Change is a kind of remaking of the self in new ways. Its revolutionary.

So why do I say most of us change so little. Well, think about it. The same issues, the same weaknesses, the same character flaws most of us had in our youth remain with us. They may have become more subtle or more pernicious, more hidden from others or more pronounced, but they remain our issues. Whether it be anger or lust, stinginess or impatience, laziness or insensitivity, whatever our issues have been, it seems to matter little how much the externals of our life change or how much we age, the issues of our life live on.

Why? What keeps us stuck? Why is change, real change, so hard to realize?

I think we may have a clue from the portion in the Torah of this week, that of Metzora. In this weeks parsha we continue to discuss the laws of the person struck with spiritual leprosy, even as we began last week. Our sages taught that the word 'metzora', used for the leper, is derived from two Hebrew words, 'motzi ra', one who brings out evil. They teach that this 'metzora' is not your typical leper, the one we encounter in the anals of human history. These lepers are different. They are experiencing their maladiction as a punishment for being a 'metzora' 'bringing out evil', that is, for speaking what we refer to as "lashon hara", evil talk about another. It is for talking bad about another, even though what one says is true, that one is struck with this spiritual leprosy and all its consequences.

Question we might ask is why is leprosy the appropriate punishment for 'lashon hara'?
What's the correlation between speaking badly about another, though true, that engenders this particular affliction. There are many possibilities of punishment. Why leprosy?

If we reflect, we might ask why does someone talk badly about another person? Why is speaking 'lashon hara' so commonplace and so difficult to resist? I think the answer is that most of us are pained in the awareness, even if not always conscious, of our own ongoing limitations. We know we are flawed. What's more, we know it is so difficult to change. In that context, when we find and speak evil of another we thereby excuse ourselves, at least to ourselves. We say, as-it-were, I am not soo intolerable, look at him! In speaking evil of another, indeed even in our desire to listen to evil spoken of another, we excuse ourselves for our shortcomings. We give ourselves a pass on our own failure to change. Change is hard, very hard. We find solace with our own mediocrity by revelling in the evil-doing of others.

The Rabbis taught us that the one who speaks evil of another murders three people; the one spoken of, whose reputation is ruined, the one who speaks and the one who listens to the evil talk. We can understand that the one spoken evil of is as if s/he was murdered. But why the speaker and the listener. That they sinned is a given, but why as if they were murdered?

The answer is that when one speaks badly of another or even listens to that kind of talk, one is putting a bandaid over their own issues so as not to feel them. Rather than face their need to change they are making themselves okay with being as they are, with their shortcomings. To live a life and not change is to have missed the point of life itself! It is indeed as if to have murdered ones own soul!

The damage we do in speakng or listening to evil about another, or even in revelling in it when we see it in newspapers or on television is very much to ourselve. We put a salve on our sense of inadequacy rather than change. Resisting 'lashon hara' forces us to face our truths and the hard work of becoming who we are not yet. It challenges us to look at ourslves, not relative to another, but for who we are and who we are charged to become.

The metzora, the lepor, the one who speaks evil of others, is forced through his leprosy to see that the flaw is in him! He cannot blame others or judge himself on a relative scale. In accepting that I am the one with problem and I am the one who needs healing, the lepor shifts his focus, and thereby change, real change, becomes possible. Leprosy is not so much a punsishment for the metzora, but a remedy. It is the way for him to stop excusing his shortcomings by talking evil of others and instead right himself.

Today we don't have the rites of the leper. There is no one to say to us, "Hey, stop focusing on the wrongfulness of others when you should be worrying about yourself".
We need to remind ourselves that life would be tragic if we lived without change.
In the end, it matters not what others have done, whether it be good or bad. We are responsible for ourselves. We need to do the hard work of change!

Shabbat Shalom