Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I'll Get Smaller"

When Audi Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War, was asked what prompted him to take on so many acts of bravery in the face of death, he is reputed to have answered, "I was young. I never imagined I could die."
No wonder then that those targeted to be drafted or recruited for the army are the young, between 18 and 26. Its not that they are wiser at that age than those older. Its simply that they may be more willing to express courage in battle, since they feel a sense of invincibility.

Its interesting to contrast the make-up of a nation's fighting force with the make-up of the spiritual army of the People of Israel, in this context, the Levites. This week, in the Parsha of Bamidbar, we are told that the Leveyim, Levites, were to replace the First-born as the designees of G-d to work in the Temple and assist the Kohanim, the Priests in the service. The Torah tells us that their were three Levitic families. Each was assigned a different task. What they had in common was that, unlike the army dedicated to a nation's physical struggles, where soldiers were recruited at the age of twenty, the Levites served from the age of thirty and then only til they reached the age of fifty.

Rashi, in his commentary on the requirement that the Levites be thirty, as first told to us with reference to the recruits from the family of Kehat, explains that
the Levitic family of Kehat had to carry the holy components of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them in the wilderness, on their shoulders. They had to be strong. Strength maximizes for a person once they reach thirty.

While far be it from me to challenge Rashi's rationale, I do find it difficult as a total explanation as to why the Levites could not serve until they were thirty. What about the other two Levitic families. They used wagons to transport the items for which they were responsible. Why were they unable to serve until reaching thirty? And moreover the requirement to be thirty did not only apply in the wilderness and with the Mishkan. It was the rule in the permanent Temple , the one erected once the Israelites settled in the Land. Then the Levites had no longer the responsibilty to carry. Why was the limitation that under thirty was excluded from service still in force.

And still further, the Rama in the Shulcah Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, tells us that a chazan for the High Holidays should not be less than thirty years of age. The commentaries there explain, since our prayers are in place of the Temple service and the Levites, who represent us, could not do the worship if under thirty, so too a Cantor representing the community in prayer should be at least that age. Problem is, if the only reason the Levites were ruled out if less than thirty is because of a lack of physical strength, what has that got to do with a Cantor leading a community in prayer?

In keeping with the context of this blog, that is, looking at the Torah through the window of our self, I want to share a story that helps me understand the Torah's age requirement. I once heard Rabbi Eliezer Kaminetzky, the now retired Rav in Highland Park, NJ, tell of his interview weekend for the post of rabbi of his synagogue.
Then a young man, he noticed that while everyone seemed impressed with him, there was one old-timer who appeared to have his doubts. Rabbi Kaminetzky approached him at the close of Shabbat and told him, "I see you have some reservations about me for your Rav. Perhaps it is because you feel I am too young and a bit too sure of myself." He went on,"While I respect your concerns, let me tell you this. My father owned a Jewish book store in which he sold all types of ritual objects. Once a man came in to the store and was looking at the array of havdalah candles. He came over to my father and said ' I really like this one. But its a bit bigger than I wanted'. To which my father replied,'Don't worry. It will get smaller'." The Rabbi went on to tell the old man,"Me too, you don't need to worry about my smugness. You can give me the position.For sure I will get smaller."

Life has a way of humbling us. We start out so confident of our talents so sure of our beliefs, brimming with self assuredness. The older we get, the less sure we become, the less confident, the more introspective. Life knocks us off our pedestal.The challenges and yes, the failures teach us how little we know, how little we really are.

It is for this reason the Levites may well have been told they cannot serve in the Temple before the age of thirty. Until thirty most of us are still too large to have the humility necessary to stand before G-d. We have not yet had the failures and disappointments sufficient to show us who we really are. Like the High Holidays chazan, we need to get smaller before we are worthy to enter the sacred spaces representing the community. We need to know that we do not know. We need to have the self-doubts that make truth possible for us. We need to have the inner uncertainty that leaves room for the spiritual to find presence within us.

Often times I will have a conversation with the young. Now, myself a man mature of years, I stand in wonder before the cockyness and self assuredness I experience in them. They have no doubt about the correctness of their positions. They carry little doubt about their calling. At times I feel like the old-timer in Rabbi Kaminetzky's story in dealing with them. And then I remember, this is the way its supposed to be. They are young. I too was once like them. With time, like with me, life will teach them. They will become smaller.

And for you and me who, like the havdala candle, have burned down some in traversing through life, its good to know that our journey has made us smaller. The problem for most of us is not that we are not big enough for the tasks we most need to do, but rather we are not small enough!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Live Relationship or Dead Marriage ?

Have you ever wondered, what makes marriages go cold? Men and women typically start off so much in love, so much excited by one another. Yet all too often, in a few years, they are virtually strangers living as one. Couples who at the outset were full of conversation, sit across the table from each other with nothing to say except as it concerns the children they share or matters of the home, like bills that need paying or repairs that must be made. No one shares matters of the heart.
What happened?

I think that a verse in this week's parsha of B'chukotai may give us some insights.
The Torah at the outset tells us of the reward and punishments that will devolve upon the People of Israel for adherence to or disobedience of the mitzvot. After a long list of wonderful blessings that G-d tells us that He will bestow on us, including victories over our enemies, bounty of the field, peace and security, etc, the verse reads, "And I will place my sanctuary in your midst and I will not detest you." It continues "And I will be for you for a G-d and you shall be My people etc."
Now what's surprising here is that in the midst of a wonderful litany of gifts all of a sudden we read, "and I will not detest you".
Why should G-d detest us? We are keeping the Torah? We are doing His will? And what kind of blessing is not being detested? Being detested would indeed be a terrible, curse but that doesn't make its opposite a blessing. Why should we expect to be detested?

I think the answer here tells us something profound about relationships and intimacy.
When we marry someone we are attracted to the wonderful qualities they posess. We also may love many of their ways, the way they smile, the way they express themselves, the way they dress. We find them beautiful both inside and out, both the spiritual and the physical.
As we get to know someone we discover parts of them we do not like. Sometimes we are turned off by what we perceive as a character flaw. Most often we find ourselve not liking personal mannerisms, maybe they laugh too loud, or maybe they are a bit sloppy, or maybe they are forgetful etc.

Most of the mannerisms of our partner that we discover we don't like we knew when we married them. They are not really surprises. What we didn't know is how much those behaviors would bother us. When we were dating or even in the early stages of marriage we over-looked the pieces of our partners behavior that displeased us. Only after we married and lived in an intense intimacy of husband and wife did we find that the very things that we found cute, or at least non-offensive, now become hard to take.

Why is that? The answer is that intimacy places a focused lense on every aspect of our significant other. It magnifies both the good and the bad, the desired and that which we don't like. As we grow together, over time we find that increasingly we have difficulty tolerating certain dynamics of our spouse, dynamics that we thought would not bother us, at least not to this extent. So what happens? In some instances the mannerisms of our spouse become to us so abhorent that we say we cannot live with them any longer. We then go on to get a divorce with all the heartache that entails.

More commonly, in order to mitigate the effect of the behaviors of our spouse that we don't like, we reverse the process. We become less intimate, less connected. Bit by bit we detach. Once we are emotionally detached the behaviors of our spouse are no longer under the microscope. We no longer react to them with a heightened sensor. But at the same time in our detachment we lose that which gave life to the marriage, the intimacy between us and our husband or wife. The cost of preserving the marriage is the death of the relationship. It's a pretty steep price to pay.

This is what the Torah is telling us in the 'bracha' that "I will place my sanctuary in your midst and I will not detest you." Israel, G-d's beloved, may keep the Torah and perform the mitzvot, but they will inevitably have their flaws. No one is without unattractive aspects of their personality. Thats why Hashem gave us the Torah in the first place, to help us with our defects. G-d is telling us that even though He will live in our midst and we will have a profound intimacy, yet He will not be negatively affected by our character lackings. Yes, we will have shortcomings but they will not compromise the intensity of G-d's relationship with us. Unlike the husband and wife in our vignette, Hashem will maintain the closeness and not be turned off. Our intimacy with the Divine will remain fresh and alive.

Would that it were so easy for us to make a similar pledge to our life's partner.
If only we could tell our husband or wife that no matter what we find we don't like in them, we will never experience their behavior intolerable and never grow distant to preserve the marriage.

No, for us to make such a pledge it would require more from us than a good will. We would have to confront our own attitudes as much as those of our spouse. We would have to talk about things we don't like about them and listen to what they have to say about us. We would have to reflect together on the mannerisms and nuances that seem so small at the outset and yet, like a cancer, grow and ultimately rob a marriage of its life energy.

People always say communication is the key to a good relationship. But the question is communication about what. The Torah this week teaches us that what we need talk about is the hard stuff, the stuff that gets in the way between us and our spouse.
The very things we are afraid to talk about is the stuff we need to discuss to preserve our marriage. And that kind of talk, while scary, is a matter of life and death for the relationship.

Do we want intimacy? Of course, both with Hashem and with the one we love. Hashem is perfect. There is no flaw in Him to distance us. And He promised to remain intimate with us even with our shotcomings. To maintain intimacy with our love, will require us to recognize that its natural to find aspects of the one we are married to intolerable. Our choice is whether to grow distant in silence so as to preserve the marriage or risk openning up so as to assure the relationship has life.

I, for one, would prefer a live relationship to a dead marriage and I am willing to do the work, uneven and scarey as it may be. What about you? Its never too late!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 12, 2011

"You Only Hurt the One You Love"

Do you remember growing up when we commonly used the refrain "sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never harm me". Of course it wasn't true. Too often most of us felt the woundedness caused by harsh and critical words. And they left marks more deleterious and longer lasting than any physical blow we might have sufferred.

The Torah this week in the parsha of B'har makes clear that abuse through words is unacceptable and a sin. The Torah teaches "'v'lo tonu ish et amito'" " and do not wrong one another". The Sages in the Talmud point out that here the text is referring to verbal advantage/abuse. It cannot be addressing financial wrong, as in cheating or deception, since the Torah, in an earlier verse, already taught us that we may not take financial advantage of a fellow Jew by deceiving or cheating him/her. This commandment then is teaching us that we must watch how we speak to another, that we not cause him/her emotional hurt by putting him/her down, by teasing, or by knowingly giving him/her bad advice.

The Torah edict makes perfect sense. We know that we can be hurt and hurt another worse with words than with money. What is surprising is what the Talmud goes on to say about the parameters of the prohibition. The Talmud wants to understand the word 'amito',literally, "his peer" as it is used in the verse above where we are forbidden to cause hurt. 'Amito' is an uncommon term to use when referring to another. Typically the text will use the word 'ish' meaning,
a person, or 'acheve', meaning, his brother, as occurrs often in the reading of B'har. What does 'amito' mean here?
They go on to say that the word 'amito' is an abridgement of several longer words. It stands for "'am she'itcha b'torah umitzvot'", "persons who are similar to you in that they keep the Torah and the commandments".

Yet can that be? Can it be that we are only forbidden from verbally abusing Jews who are Observant, Jews who are faithful to the law? Can it really be that we are permitted to be cruel to a non-religious Jew or a non-Jew, to put him/her down, to be verbally abusive? That hardly makes sense. The Torah is clear, we are forbidden to cause physical harm to all Jews. And stealing is unacceptable even from a non-Jew. We are commanded to be sensitive to the pain of animals. How can we be granted license to cause emotional pain to others, even be they other than us in Torah adherence?

The question that troubles me is one that troubled Rabbi Baruch Epstein and he sought to makes sense of it in his commentary "Torah Temimah". In the end, his response seems unsatisfying even to him. In keeping with the concept of this blog, that is, personalizing the Torah text to see what it has to say to us in the context of our lives, I shared this vexing problem with my wife. And she, out of the context of her life, came up with an explanation for the Talmudic understanding of 'amito' that felt true and compelling.

Lindy said that perhaps the Rabbis were not using "'amito'", "persons who are akin to us in keeping the Torah and mitzvot" to limit the prohibition of verbal abuse and cruelty and to give license to hurt those outside of ourselves. What they were doing was simply noting a fact. The persons most likely to get hurt by our words are the people we are closest to, those in our family and our community. What they meant to say was that cruel words for the most part don't really cause hurt to strangers. For them it is true the adage "sticks and stones...but names can never harm me".We have little power in their lives. What we say or feel matters little to them. But thats not true for those we are closest to. For them, as the refrain in the song goes, "You only hurt the one you love". Indeed the ones we love can be more severely hurt by our words than by our actions. Yet the oddity here is that the ones we are closest to we are typically least careful not to hurt with our words. We take license with our spouses, our children, our friends in ways we would never do with a stranger. We assume they won't take offence or worse, if offended, they won't complain.

It is to us the Torah is speaking. "Don't hurt with words he who is 'amito', the one you are so comfortable with you fail to respect." Yes, its true,its never right to be cruel in speech and with anyone. But the ones you have to worry about are the ones more similar to you, Observant like yourself, in your community, part of your family. It is them who we can most hurt. It is in addressing them that we need be most attentive to what we say and how we say it.

"You only hurt the one you love". Its a good thing to remember! Its a much more useful refrain then "sticks and stones may break my bones....".
Our task is to never minimize our capacity to hurt the ones we love with our words, so that we never cause them to suffer!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 5, 2011

When is a Holiday Not a Holiday?

A friend recently wrote me from the US. He reflected on the just concluded holiday of Pesach. He noted that many of his friends in the community where he lives, were quite eager for Passover to end. They had had enough of the matzah and enough of the Yom Tov meals and enough of the long days spent in shule. They were ready to get back to life as normal. He, my friend, wondered why men who were observant of the mitzvot, commandments, and invested in them would be looking forward to moving on.
He remembered when he was a boy and living in Brooklyn amongst hassidim, how when the Passover holiday drew near its close the men shared in a communal 'oneg yom tov', a joyous holiday gathering at the shteible. They sang together and danced, trying to draw every last gift the holiday had to offer. They were sad to see the sun set on the chag.

He wondered what changed. Why do so many of his friends today feel so different from the way the men he looked up to as a boy felt as Yom Tov ebbed.

After reflection, my friend concluded that many of the modern Observant Jews of today keep mitzvot out of a sense of obligation. They hold on to the tradition but see it as a sacrifice, albeit a worthwhile one. They are committed to Torah, but out of duty.
The Hassidim he knew growing up kept the mitzvot out of love more than duty. They cherished the opportunity to fulfill G-d's commandments. For them no holiday was ever long enough, no call to observance too difficult.

I would like to embelish the insight of my friend. And I do so from the vantage point of the Torah reading of this week, the parsha of Emor. In Emor we are given the most detailed call to the observance of the holidays of our year. Not only is each holiday enumerated, but the mitzvot associated with the holiday are detailed and defined.

As the holiday section opens we read "These are the festivals of Hashem, holy convocations, that you are to proclaim at their appointed times." The verse, while well known is mystifying. In the beginning it refers to the festivals as G-d's. If that be true, then why do we need call them anything. They are G-d's holidays, they don't belong to us.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the enigmatic verse by changing the way we read the word "otam" meaning "them" and to read it instead as "atem" meaning "you". The verse then would be interpreted "...which you alone will call at their appointed times". They explain that even though the holidays were indeed Divinely ordained, they do not come to life except through the calendar as decided by the Beth Din, the Jewish court. It decides on the length of the lunar month and when to add a month for a leap year. The Sages point out that even if the court erred in its decision, in example, it made a leap year, adding a month, when it was uncalled for, the decision is effecacious. The chag, G-d's chag, will occurr based on our calendar dates be they right or wrong in reality. While the holidays are G-d's, they are given to us to actualize.

I compared the attitude of my friends friends in the galut with what I experienced as Pesach concluded here in Eretz Yisrael. Here there was a genuine sadness when the Passover holiday was slipping away. At the synagogue I attended we sang and danced before saying goodbye. And this was not a shule of hassidim. Why? Why is here different?

The answer I believe is that here in Israel the holiday is not G-d's holiday alone. It feels like it belongs to us. The chag is part of the fabric of our life. Even secular Jews mark Passover as a time of vacation, trips and outings. There is no mail, no bus service during the days of chag. We look forward a whole winter to this season of family and community gathering. There is no Sunday here. There is no Presidents Day weekend. This is it! Pesach is not an addendum to our life, something extra. Pesach and all the Jewish events are integral to our life and calendar.
When holidays are "atem", belonging to us, meaning they are intrinsic to our lifestyle their can only be sadness when they depart. Indeed the hassidim of my friends youth lived Jewish life, even in the galut, like we live it today in Eretz Yisrael. For them there was no Sunday, no 4th of July, and Succot was an eight day h Thanksgiving, minus the turkey. No wonder they were loathe to see the holidays leave.

And the same could be said for Yom Hashoa, The Day of Holocaust Remembrance. In America in order to feel connected to this important day of identification with our brothers and sisters who perished at the hands of the murderous Nazis, we have to go to a special service of remembrance. Otherwise the day will feel just like any other. Here in Israel, no service is necessary. Sirens go off all over country for two minutes at exactly the same time. Everyone stops what they are doing. Even those in cars on the highway, pull-over. Everyone stands, wherever they are in a common time of silence and sadness. The same will be true this coming week with the day of remembrance for the soldiers who fell in defence of our country, and later in the joyous celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence day. Here these event are part of the tapestry of our lives. They are not obligations. They are consistent with who we are , expressions of our national self.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that the day a person brings a sacrifice to the Temple is for him/her a holiday, a personal holiday. And because its a holiday for him/her s/he is forbidden from work. Note the sequence of events. Its not the prohibition from work that makes it a holiday. On the contrary, because it's for him/her a holiday that no work should be done.

There lies the key. If the holiday or feeling of a special occasion precedes the call to the observances sorrounding it the event will forever feel fresh and desired.
If the observances are the base for the holidays existence in our life it will likely,at some point, lose its flavor.

The truth is really simple here. Jewish life is meant to be lived in a Jewish state.
Nowhere is that truth more compelling that on a Yom Tov, Jewish Festival, or a day of reigious and national meaning.

Shabbat Shalom