Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Time to Grieve

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven....a time to weep...." (Kohelet 3:1,4). In this weeks parsha of Chukat we are told of two times that warranted weeping. Yet, from what we can discern, only on one of those occassions did our ancestors in fact weep. Why?

Aharon dies in this weeks reading. In the aftermath of his death we read, "And when all the congregation saw that Aharon was dead, they wept for Aharon thirty days, even all the house of Israel." Yet earlier in the very same reading we are told Miriam died. On her death all we are told is that she was buried in the place of her death. There is no mention of mourning or of grief. What follows Miriam's death is the story of the drying up of the nation's water supply and their complaints to Moshe and Aharon. That leads to the sin of Moshe and Aharon at the "waters of quarrel" which caused them to have to die in the wilderness and not enter the Promised Land.

Why did the Israelites not cry and mourn Miriam? She too, like Aharon and Moshe was a communal leader. In fact, the miraculous well that gave the nation water all the years in the wilderness was in her honor. Our sages taught that the lack of water that followed Miriam's death was due to the fact that in her absence the well dried up. She was the one who led the women in song by the sea. It is for her, we read several weeks ago, that the nation waited before travelling when she was stricken with 'tzaraas' and left outside the camp. Why then no tears? Why no national mourning?

There is one commentary that says the reason the water supply dried up after Miriam's death was as a punishment for the People's failure to grieve her. He explained that G-d said to the Israelites, "Measure for measure. You failed to tear for Miriam. The well then will not tear and produce moisture for you."

What the commentary struggles to answer is why did the People not cry for Miriam. Why did they cry for Aharon and not her? While he offers an answer it does not seem satisfying.

I would like to suggest a different approach, one that emerges out of my years of providing care for those who go through loss. We know in our tradition its a mitzvah to cry for our dead. We are mandated to sit shiva and mourn. Its also a mitzvah for the community to support the mourners in their time of loss. We are called upon to see to their needs, that they have food and attention. We are charged to make sure that that their world is safe enough for them to let go, that they need not fear to be vulnerable enough to cry and lament their loss. I suggest that the people did not cry at Miriam's passing because immediately on her death they were thrust into a crisis. They had no water. It is not possible to grieve when one is in the midst of a battle for one's life, when one's world feels unsafe, when one is overwhelmed with fears. When Aharon died the nation also lost a great gift. Tradition tells us the Clouds of Glory ceased to hover over the camp. That too was a loss,but a loss not near as immediately felt as the absence of water felt on the passing of Miriam.
For Aharon the nation could feel safe enough to grieve. Not so for Miriam.

My understanding of the story is in concert with the Rambam's understanding of Moshe's sin at the well. He explained that Moshe's sin was in becoming angry with the People and inappropriately saying to them "Listen you rebels....." Rambam noted that we do not find that G-d had expressed anger at the People for their complaint. Moshe had no reason to chastise them. Yet we might understand Moshe's anger in the context of the story. Here his beloved sister died and he and Aharon are the only ones mourning. The People not only do not grieve, they come disturb his grief period with boisterous complaints. Its fascinating that the word Moshe used when he put down the nation is "rebel" in Hebrew "morim". The four letters of the word, mem resh yud mem are the same as the letters of his sister's name Miriam. Indeed from the Torah text itself the word rebel could be read Miriam. It seems clear that Moshe was troubled by the failure of his People to pay proper respect to his sister on her passing and why not?

Yet G-d did not hold the nation at fault here. He understood, as Kohelet taught us, "there is a time to grieve..." When we are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety we cannot be expected to cry. It does not mean the loss was not significant nor that our sadness is not real. It simply means now is not the time!

This is a most important concept to take to heart when we consider our own reactions to loss and the reactions of others. My daughter lost her mother to cancer when she was thirteen. Her tears were few. I struggled to understand her limitted reaction. I knew she loved her mother. Many young people don't grieve as we expect, whether it be a death or the break-up of the family through divorce. We often are surprised by their lack of emotionality. Yet we need know that the lack of tears and anger does not mean a lack of feeling or care. What is means is that their world feels too unsafe for them to allow themselves to be vulenrable. Often they fear their feelings if expressed will overwhelm them. They sense a need to wait for the time when they feel they can let go. It maybe months, it maybe years, or maybe never.(Of course these dynamics are not something the young person is conscious of. One cannot simply ask the young adult or child what they are feeling and why and expect a response).

And we too, as adults, are not different. The woman who after years of abuse breaks away from the offending husband, taking her children with her, will not likely feel the anger or sadness the dissolution of the family warrants. Its not that she does not have the feelings inside, nor is it that they don't need expression. But now she is fighting the battle of her life. She is seeking to secure a new future, provide for the family's needs. Its not a safe moment to take time-out and mourn for what was and is no longer. She will need to do it at another juncture in her life when the world feels safe and life has come to a place of repose.

We need to learn from the story of Miriam's passing to be gentler with ourselves and others in the aftermath of loss. We need to know that each of us has our own time to grieve, and our own time to hold-back tears. The lack of tears does not mean a lack of care. It simply means the time for us is not yet!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Do I Really Want?

Have you ever found yourself humming a song and you don't know why? Maybe its a popular tune from long ago or some jingle from a television commercial you thought you hardly noticed. You wonder, why is this melody playing for me today? Why does this song I have not thought of in many a year come up in my head right now?
There is a folk wisdom that says that what you find yourself humming spontaneously will reveal what matters to you now in this moment of your life. Through the song's title, its lyrics, its message, your unconscious is revealing the current drama of your life and what you really want.

That folk wisdom,while intriguing, has been debunked by many and found to be untrue.
But the question it prompts remains. How do we know what we really want? How do we know our heart? There was an article this week in the Maariv about a young chatan, groom, from a charaidi background, who left his kallah, bride right after the chuppah and all the wedding guests. He fled and was not found for a month. A 'get' quickly followed. But what prompted the chatan to marry and then so quickly opt out? Did he not know his own heart?

And while the above example may be extreme how many of us have felt ambivalent about what we want in terms of career, family, level of Observance, community. Who has not felt certain of what they want only to feel very much unsure shortly after? We make choices and then choose again. Some of us remain so paralyzed by our ambivalence that we don't choose at all. How indeed do we know what is our true desire? Would that we could so easily look at the song of the day and find a solution.

From this week's parsha of Korach perhaps we can get some insight. You recall Korach, a man of stature, from the same tribe as Moshe, the tribe of Levi, stirred up a mutiny against Moshe. He questioned whether Moshe and Aharon had not taken too much of the responsibility for communal leadership unto themselves. His motivation was jealousy and self-agrandizement. He couched his challenge as a call to equality.
He said "For the whole nation, all of it is holy.And why have you raised yourselves above the congregation of Hashem".

The results of the mutiny of Korach are legendary. After a test by means of the firepans of incense in which only the firepan of Aharon was chosen, the earth opened up and swallowed Korach and all his mutineers died with him.

What is interesting to note is that Moshe called for the test of the true by means of the firepans of incense not on the day of the mutiny but rather the next morning.
Moshe said "Tomorrow morning G-d will reveal who is truly his and who is holy that He wants him near, and who He has chosen to be near to Him."

The commentaries wonder why the delay? Why does Moshe wait a day to bring the mutiny to closure? Why did he not immediately call for the test and validation of his leadership?

The answers are many, including several in the Medrash. In keeping with the concept of the blog, that is, understanding the Torah through the window of our self, I think Moshe was telling Korach and his followers something profound. Moshe was telling them, "Look I know you think you are motivated by holy desires and that you believe you are really only interested in the welfare of the People. Wait then. Wait til the morning, til the next day, after the heat of the moment of challenge has past. Tell me then, when you are calm and serene and all the passion has cooled, in the morning when you wake, do you still want this revolt? Are you still committed to it? Is it your ego compelling you in which case you will find less enthusiasm for your agenda come next day, or is it really a matter of conscience that you cannot desist from, something you truly feel called to, no matter the consequences."

Many years ago I had a teacher who was taken by my ability to get very excited about a particular issue, express strong feelings, only later to quickly forget about it and move on to something else. He said to me, "Israel, you are a mile wide and an inch deep." Indeed not all passion reflects depth. We can feel something very strongly and with emotion and yet it will not leave a trace a few minutes later.
To feel deeply, for something to really matter to us and at the core of our being, it needs to leave a residue. It needs to effect us in some significant way and for more than the passing moment.

If I want to know what really matters to me, what I really want, the lesson Moshe is teaching me is that I need to wait. If what I want continues to hold importance in the light of the new day, when I am calm and serene, then I know what I want is core to my real self. If the passion and yearning passes, now matter how strong it seemed in the individual moment, it is driven by forces external and maybe even impure. No matter how many times the passion may return, if it does not hold force in the 'morning' of my life when all is calm and quiet, it does not warrant a place of importance and in many cases it should command no place at all.

So many questions lie before us. So many decisions. What do we do about our marriage or our work? In what do we invest our self? Where do we put our energies? To answer those questions and so many more, we need to know what we really want, what matters to us. And to know that we will have to get past the emotional moments, the moments of passion and look towards the morning, the moments of serenity, when our heart speaks to us and we have the capacity to listen.

Then, in the morning, we will know our truth. Then, in the calm,when the passions have quieted, we will know what we need do.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Where Am I ?"

A short time before my father died I asked him where he saw himself in the context of his life. I said, "Dad, if you drew a line and the starting point of the line represented your birth and the line's end symbolized your passing, where are you now?" My father's response was somewhat startling. He said "Now, I see myself as a little past the middle."

My father's sense of self in the context of his life's journey at the age of 84 contrasts markedly with the wisdom we find expressed by one of our great sages who taught us to view every day as if its our last,no matter how old we may be, so that we will always be in a state of 'teshuva', repentance.

"Location, location, location!" In the world of real estate, all that matters is location. The emphasis on location can be equally compelling in our spiritual journey. Nowhere does that become more clear than in the parsha this week of Shlach Lecha. Our ancestors were in the wilderness, on the threshold of the Promised Land. Moshe sent the spies, all men of distinction, to explore the land and bring back a report in anticipation of the invasion. Ten of the twelve men brng back a disheartening report. They speak of the difficulty of the conquest and of the harshness of the country. In response, the People lose heart. They cry and lament their situation. They despair of enterring Israel. And with that the fate of the Generation of the Wilderness is sealed. They are condemned by G-d to wander and ultimately die in the wilderness, never to enter the Promised Land they rejected in their cowardice.

The core error made by the spies and the people who believed them was that the wilderness offerred an alternative home, and a safe one at that. True, they were a nation in transition, but they had so many comforts. They had the manna to eat and waters to drink. They were protected by G-d's pillar of fire by night and Cloud of Glory by day. They had Moshe and Aharon to lead them and the Mishkan as a house of worship. Why risk enterring the Land of Israel? Why compromise a good thing for something that seemed risky at best?

Israel's mistake was a mistake in location. They did not realize where they were. They thought they were in a spiritual haven in the wilderness. They thought "what we have is plenty good." They did not understand that as good as the 'midbar' seemed it was never meant to be their dwelling place. Israel the people need Israel the land. Just as their could be no nation without the Torah, their could be no nation without its homeland of Israel.

The Torah, in the first part of the book of Bamidbar focused on forming the People's identity. All the emphasis on the counting, according to family and tribe, the travels by position and flag, the order of society including the Levites and their tasks, were meant to help the Israelite define in clear and certain terms "who am I?"
"Who am I?" is a question of deep and abiding importance for a nation and its constituents. One needs to have an unequivical sense of one's own identity to fulfill ones purpose in the world.

But "who am I?" is only one of two compelling questions vital to our People's health and wholeness. The other, equally significant, is "where am I?". Unless a nation and its members know where they are in the context of their life and history they will be equally compromised in fulfilling their call. Israel knew who they were. But the sin of the spies indicates they did not know where they were!

In the sections of the Torah that follow the story of the sin of the spies and its horrific consequences we have several laws given to us. All involve knowing our location. The first two deal with the laws of donating wine and oil for libations for individuals who bring a sacrifice, and the taking of challa from the dough to give to the kohain. Both laws only apply once the people are in Israel. In the wilderness, where this generation was to die, the laws were irrelevant. Knowing where one is is central to the mitzvah's observance.

After those laws we are told of the requirement to bring special sin offerings if we violated a Torah law unintenionally. In each of those cases, the sin typically occurs when a person does not know where s/he is. S/he is missing some vital information on their situation that causes the unintentional sin. And then we have a story of the man who violated the Shabbat in the wilderness and who, in the end, was stoned to death for his sin. Here too, the man did not recognize his location, in this case, his location in time. He failed to accept that he was living in the Sabbath.

And finally the reading ends with the portion of Tzizit, which we say twice a day in the sh'ma. Tzizit are not like tefilin. Tefilin are holy, they contain the name of G-d on parchments. We wear them on our head and opposite our hearts. They are meant to remind us who we are. Tzizit are not holy. Our Sages taught the blue dye, the 'techailet' of the tzizit is meant to remind us of the blue of the sea, and the sea of the sky, and the sky of our call to fulfill G-d's laws. Tzizit are meant to remind us as to where we are, our fragility in life and our calling. They answer the question "where am I?"

Where am I? is a question we need to constantly be asking ourselves throughout our life. We need to ask it in terms of our physical space and in terms of our space in time.

In terms of our physical space how tragic that those who live outside Israel build a home and life without even feeling the absence of Eretz Yisrael. The comparison to the Generation of the Wilderness and their willingness to forgo settling the land with its challenges for the spiritual and physical comforts of foreign soil is too compelling to dismiss.

And even those of us who live here in the Holy Land, do we realize its kedusha. I see litter everywhere. Garbage on the street. Yes, people desecrating Yerushalayim with schmutz. How can that be? How can we live here and be so mindless. We too fail to comprehend where we are!

And just as important we need to ask "where am I?" in the context of our lives.My father's optimism about life as he neared death is inspiring, but it won't serve us well if we delay doing what we need to do in our lives because we feel we have time.
Life moves on, years pass. We have work to get done, growth to accomplish. We cannot postpone the changes we need to make, our improvements forever. The time for most of us is here and now. For most of us the excuses of youth are past. We need to know our location and respond with the urgency it warrants.

"Where am I?" is a question each of us has to ask ourselves and grapple with on a regular basis. To live well and meaningfully we need to know our location, both in space and time. Its the way to the Promised Land, both for us as individuals and for us as a People.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's Unfair !

Last week my wife and I were all set to see Aida, the Verdi opera that is being produced at Massada. It is a huge spectacle that has drawn attendees from around the world. Knowing the opera would end very late and that it would be a long ride home, we decided to take advantage of special bus transportation from Jerusalem organized for the event. The tickets were expensive. The anticipation high. We talked about how special this would be for weeks. This was to be an experience!
We got to the designated pick-up spot 45 minute early. We were eager and excited.
And we waited..and waited..and waited. We saw no others who looked like they were going to the opera, and no trace of the bus. Finally, exasparated, we tried calling others who might know. No one could be reached. And then, then we took a second look at the tickets, and we realized. We had made a mistake, a terrible mistake, a two hour mistake. We misread the times. The bus left two hours before the time we anticipated!

Missing events is a theme this week.It is one we find in the parsha of B'haalotcha. There the Torah tells us of the Passover that was celebrated the second year after the Exodus, the only one marked by our ancestors in the wilderness. The Torah tells us that their were those who had a problem with the Passover. They were ritually impure and prohibitted from bringing the Paschal lamb. They came to Moshe and complained, "why should we be held back from bringing the sacrafice of Hashem in its proper time together with the People of Israel."

Moshe brought their complaint to G-d and indeed we received the laws of Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, a month after the first. Pesach Sheni was designated specifically for those who, for good reason, could not bring the Passover at the
time of the initial holiday. They are given a make-up date, to bring the offering and celebrate a dimension of the chag.

The Talmud in tractate Succah tell us that those who came and complained about being left-out of the Passover experience were,in fact, ritually impure because they were caring for a 'met mitzvah' a dead person who had no one to bury him/her. Their ritual impurity was not a matter of choice but rather an obligation, as the Torah insists we defile ourselves to care for the dead who have no one to bury them.
Moreover the Talmud tells us that they had completed the purification process prior to the time of the Passover. They were simply waiting for nightfall to be able to enter the sacred space and partake of the holy.

Question we might ask is, from where does the Gemara know those who were insistant that they not be excluded were defiled through a 'met mitzvah'? How do they see it in the verses? The Talmud derives from the language of the 'pasuk' that those who wanted to partake of the ritual already had completed their purification. But what's the source for the idea that they were involved in doing another mitzvah?

I think to understand the intent of the Gemara we need to take a second look at the story of the Pesach Sheni. At first glance it appears that the complainants got what they wanted. They wanted to be included in the Passover rites, despite their ritual impurity and they we given the opportunity, albeit a month later. But on keener reflection the truth is the complainants did not in fact get what they wanted. In the verse we quoted above we read that those ritually impure wanted to mark the Pesach "...together with the People of Israel". They did not want to be excluded. They felt it unfair that they miss this time to join with their brothers and sister in partaking of the special rites. When Hashem gives them the make-up date its some solace but only partial. They remain unable to bring and eat the Paschal lamb with the nation marking its first anniversary of the Exodus. They remain excluded in the celebration of the People. Pesach Sheni indeed gives the ritually impure a chance to fulfill the mitzvah of the 'korban pesach', the paschal lamb, but now its a private celebration, without the joy of solidarity with all Israel.

Whats the message here for you and me? What was Hashem telling our forebearers in the wilderness and, by extension, us? For me the message here is that all life, even religious life, has rules. When rules are in place even though they may feel unfair, they nonetheless are operable and the consquences are in force. The laws of ritual purity and impurity are Torah principles that effect our relationship to the holy.Yes, it may be true that to be excluded from a national celebration because of such rules seems unfair, is unfair. Yet thats the way it is!

The Talmud in Succah was stressing this crucial point. They told us that those who came wanting to be included in the Passover rite with their brothers and sisters might well have become impure because they were doing G-d's will in caring for a 'met mitzvah' and might even have virtually completed their purification process. Still, while they were given a chance later to bring the offering, they remain on the sidelines as the rest of Israel brought the Passover on the 15th of Nisan. Was it unfair, as they argued? Very much so! But life, and yes, even Torah law in particular situations can be unfair. Our task is to accept the reality, bitter as it may sometimes feel, as the will of the Divine. Sometimes loving G-d, loving the life He has given us, and loving His Torah, when it feels unfair, is the greatest expression of devotion.

A hasid once came to his rebbe and in tears shared what he felt was a terrible problem. He said," Rebbe help me! Whenever I daven to Hashem I have unbidden thoughts that enter my mind. No matter how much I try I can't seem to keep my 'kavana', my intentions, focused on the holy." The Rebbe told him in response, "Who said G-d wants your intentions. Maybe G-d wants your struggle!"

Life is unfair. We missed Aida and our tickets were wasted (though it could well be argued we had only ourselves to blame). Those ritually impure, no matter how noble the reason for their being in that state, cannot celebrate the Passover meal with their People. Over and over, day after day, we experience the unfairness of life, and yes, even in matters of faith and Torah law.

The challenge for us is not to waste useless energy cursing our fate or invested in anger over our circumstances. Rather we are called upon to see the unfair that befalls us as part of the Divine plan and to use it as an opportunity to love G-d even when our experience feels unjust. Who knows if that is not the very reason that which feels unfair befalls us.

Unfair, yes. Now let's love our G-d in the unfairness!

Chag Samayach
Shabbat Shalom