Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meaning in Loss

I have a riddle for you. There is only one yahrzeit mentioned in the Torah. Only once does the Torah provide us with the date of someone’s death. In fact, there is only one time the Torah gives us a date relative to any event in someone’s life. Who is this person and what is the date?

The answer is found in the reading of Massai and the person is Aharon. The Torah tells us, in the middle of the listing of the encampments of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness that when they got to Hor Hahor, Aharon went up to the mountain there to die. It goes on to say that his death occurred on the first day of the fifth month (Av) in the 40th year from the Exodus. We might well wonder why? Why is Aharon’s death significant enough that we are given its exact date. Why only him, not Moshe or Avraham, Yaakov or Noach? And why does the Torah interrupt the names of the encampments to tell us this event that occurred when they reached Hor Hahor. Until this point the list was given with no mention of events that occurred in the places the Israelites camped. We were told a list of names, without reference to their historical relevance. When we are told about the encampment at Sinai there is no mention of the giving of the Torah. Nor is their mention of the story of the spies when we are told of the encampment at Kadesh. Why is the episode of Aharon’s death recorded here with the place of the encampment. It is not given to us to tell us the story . We already know the story of his death from the parsha of Chukat we read a few weeks ago. Why then interrupt the series of names with the telling, albeit briefly of Aharon’s death ?

I must say that the questions posed caused me considerable challenge. I could not make any sense of the Torah’s message when I thought of why Aharon might be special so as to have his yahrzeit marked. I then thought not about Aharon but about the people, the Israelites and their experience in the wilderness and with loss. And I thought about the message we may be being given here in the context of my own life and the losses I have sustained.

Truth is I have found that people can be divided into two groups; those that have gone through a significant loss, like the death of a parent, and those who have not. Persons who have sustained the loss of a loved one or of something profound that can never be retrieved have a sobriety about life that is absent in the one who has not yet lost. They never again have the full smile, the innocent belief in life’s fairness, the care-free way that at times the one who has not yet sustained loss can experience. For those who have lost, life is no longer a game. They evidence a seriousness, a certain heaviness absent in the one who has been spared. It’s not a bad thing . It’s simply different. The one’s who have lost see the world and life very much out of a different lense. Some might call it maturity.

And I thought that in that truth, in the realization that loss changes us in some profound way, we may find the secret to unravel the mystery of why the Torah this one time tells us a date, the date of Aharon’s yahrzeit. After all, what we are being given in the text is the sequence of Israel’s travels, encampment after encampment. We are told of forty two places of camp over the forty years in the wilderness. The Torah may be interrupting the list with the record of Aharon’s passing to mark a distinction. True many more significant events happened in various places, like the giving of the Torah. Yet those events represent what happened to the Israelites. The death of Aharon is not a story of what happened to the People . Nor, in this context, is it a story about Aharon. Rather it is a story about the transformation of the nation from a people who have not known national loss to a nation which has. Israel is not the same nation after Aharon died that it was prior. Yes, there were many many personal losses in the wilderness. A whole generation died. But here we are talking of something different. Here we are talking of the nation’s loss. Miriam died earlier, but she had not the prominence in every-day life Aharon had. Aharon was the kohain gadol, the high priest. His death was to the nation as the death of a parent is to an individual. While Moshe died later, the people had already known the loss of a spiritual parent in Aharon. In Aharon’s death the nation gained a new sobriety and sense of life’s temporality. They were changed and forever.

It is for this reason, I suggest, the Torah tells us of Aharon’s death, and only of Aharon’s death in the list of encampments. The nation’s character was altered through the experience of his passing. The People that arrived at Hor Hahor were not the same People that left. It is because Israel was different before and after and because we are speaking in some profound way of a new national reality, that the Torah must record the passing of Aharon even as it lists the travels themselves. Who is travelling changed at Hor Hahor.

What of the date? Why does the Torah in this case provide the yahrzeit ? Here we come to another important and related idea. When we mark the anniversary of the passing of a parent whose occasion is it, ours or theirs ? Typically we assume that the yahrzeit marks a day of significance for the departed, the culmination of their life. I suggest that the yahrzeit marks a day of equal or perhaps even greater significancance for us, we who survive. The yahrzeit marks a day that changed our lives. We are not the same after our parent passes. We mature. We become more conscious of life’s fragility. We know the finiteness of existence in a way we never knew before. And while the transformation for us happens most dramatically on the passing of the first parent, each loss deepens our insights and makes us more wise and aware.

I suggest that it is for this reason the date of Aharon’s yahrzeit is made known to us. If it were a personal loss, or the loss that occurred in the context of a family the date would not be made known to us in the Torah. The Torah does not give us data in the life of individuals no matter how great. But Aharon’s yahrzeit was a date of national consequence. We, the People of Israel, were changed forever through the event. Aharon was to the nation what a parent is to the family. He was a spiritual mentor and protector. He was a healer. If Moshe was the teacher of the nation Aharon was its care-giver. His death marked an important occasion in Israel’s story. It signified the nations struggle with mortality, even as does the death of an individual does for a family. It is in the context of its meaning for the nation that Aharon’s yahrzeit becomes worthy of being known. No other yahrzeit or day in the life of an individual was as consequential to the formation of the People.

So what’s the message for us. We each sustain losses in our lives, losses that can never be retrieved. Sometimes it’s the death of someone near and dear to us. Or it may be the death of a marriage, or the permanent loss of certain capacities through the aging process or disease. These losses mark points of demarcation in our lives. We become different on the other side of the loss. We have the dynamics of survivors. It is important that we honor those date and times, not only for the person or potency lost, but for the power the loss has to shape and form us, we who grieve, and to help us mature. Loss typically engenders tears and grief. Yet in the aftermath of those tears and the grieving process we become more real and more beautiful. We become more authentic. Is it any wonder then that a yahrzeit gives us occasion to share a l’chayim and a tasty delight with the minyan after davening. We would not be who we are without it!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mixed Messages

Many years ago the famed British anthropologist Gregory Bateson proposed that schizophrenia was caused by children living in a home where they received from their parents 'double bind' messages. By 'double bind' messages he meant that the content of the message conflicted with the context. In example, the mother of the child who grows up to become schizophrenic may tell him/her often that she loves him/her. The problem is that she says the words while displaying an angry or impatient face, a face that speaks anything but love. Bateson felt that the ever present conflict between what the child heard, content, and what the child saw, context, created double bind messages that were crazy making and ultimately contributed greatly to the mental illness that would show-up in later life.
And while Bateson's theory of schizophrenia has been debunked, the concept that double bind messages or what we commonly call 'mixed messages' can have a deliterious effect remains true and compelling.

I was remembering that when I read the early parts of this week's parsha of Matot.
There Moshe tell the heads of the Tribes the laws of vows. He speaks powerfully of the importance of the spoken word and its power to bind someone except in certain and specific exceptional cases. The Torah tell us that Moshe opened his instructions to them with "These are the words that Hashem commanded." Our Sages taught that Moshe was unique amongst the prophets in his clarity of prophesy. Only he could use the words "these" or in Hebrew 'zeh'. All other prophets could only say "So spoke Hashem", in Hebrew 'ko', a less exact term. They could not say "These words spoke Hashem" with certainty. Their vision was inexact and required interpretation. Not so Moshe, whose prophesy was precise and direct.

Question we might ask is why does the Torah tell us of the unique nature of Moshe's vision, in contrast to all other prophets, here. Why does the Torah reveal this truth about Moshe's experience at this time and with these laws of vows. It was always true to Moshe's prophesy. Why here are we told of it with the Torah telling us that Moshe used the word 'ze', "these", and not 'ko' "so".

I believe the answer may be very much in keeping with the ideas with which we began.
Moshe was instructing the Israelites about the importance of being true to one's words. It was the laws of vows they were being given. One cannot give laws which speak to the importance of the word using "'ko'" or "so spoke Hashem". Here, where the very content is about being true to what one pledges with words, Moshe needed to be able to say "'ze'" or "these are the precise words G-d told me to command you".
One cannot give a message that says words matter in such a form that implies words can be used inexactly. Doing so would be to deliver a double bind message, the content and context would be in conflict. Rather than be effective, delivering messages in that way produces confusion and ambiguity.

I can remember once going to hear a talk by the famed cancer doctor Bernie Siegel. He argued that one must be honest with how one feels and not deny one's experience even when one is trying to be strong. He said "If someone, say a friend you meet on the street asks you "how are you"? If you are not feeling great don't lie. Don't say "fine" when its not. Its never good to deny your experience to your own body and self. If you know the other person does not want to hear a true account of your circumstances just say "6 out of 10". Thats enough to own your truth and yet allow your friend to say "I hope it gets better for you" and move on." Siegel, similar to Bateson, argues that one needs to keep the content of ones messages consistent with the context of one's experience. To do otherwise is harmful.

I would like to suggest that the message we need to take to heart here, both from the Torah text of this week and from the wisdom of the world, is that we need to be consistent even when it comes to reconciling our personal experience and our faith.
So often when we are asked how we are doing we say "Baruch Hashem", or "Thank G-d". We reply that way no matter how we in fact feel, whether sick or healthy, suffering or at ease. Its as if baruch Hashem covers all cases. And why not. Don't we believe all G-d does is for our good. In that case we can and must bless G-d no matter what our circumstances and indeed its all good.

Yet in doing so we miss an important point. When we are asked "how we are doing?" we are not being asked for some objective assessment. Of course to the person of faith all is good. The question we are being asked is a personal one. "How are 'we' doing?"
How are we coping with the 'good' we are receiving, which in some cases can feel pretty awful. To answer honestly and in consistancy with our experience we need to say more than "baruch Hashem". We need to say "Baruch Hashem good" or Baruch Hashem not so good". We need to claim our experience. Our content needs to match our context. We need to own our personal truth as much as we need to affirm the truth that all that Hashem does is for the good. Unless we do both we will never allow for a real reconciliation of the internal struggle between what we believe and what we feel. Unless we are willing to claim the totality of our experience real acceptance of our fate, in more than cliches, will never be possible.

It is important for our own wellbeing, as much as for others, that we minimize the inconsistancies in our life between the content and the context, between what we say and what we show, between our words and our feelings. I do not believe that lying about our truth, even when attempting to be faithful, is in our best interest or is in keeping with the will of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Life as Lottery

Have you ever had the experience of just having bought something new, and then passing another store selling the same thing and going in to ask the shopkeeper his/her price? for something you already bought! Why? Why do we do that? We have no intentions of returning the item we just purchased. We are not about to buy another.
Yet we go in to compare the price we paid with what the same item is selling for somewhere else. And why? What compels us to make the comparison?

This week in the parsha of Pinchas we are told of the 'chalukat haaretz', the dividing of the land of Israel, soon to be inherited by the People, into portions, portions for the Tribes and smaller portions for each family within the tribe.
The Torah tells us that the division and allotment of portions was not done by a selection process in which each tribe and family participated and made their preference known. Nor was the allotment done by Israel's leadership through logical consideration of each tribe and family, their needs and numbers. No the allotment and assignation of portions in the land was done by a lottery. "Al pee ha'goral taichaleik et ha'aretz, bain rav lim'at". After the Torah tells us that the allocation will be in accord with the numbers within each family and tribe it goes on, not once but twice, to insist that the lottery will be the means of assignation.

Question is why? Why is the Torah so insistent that the land cannot be aportionned except through lottery. One other time the Torah requires a lottery and that for the assignation of the two goats of Yom Kippur, one to be a sacrifice and the other the scapegoat, to be sent to the wilderness, their to be thrown down into the gulley carrying with it the sins of the Nation of Israel. Those goats needed to be identical in appearance, in stature, in value. Each could equally lay claim to be the sacrifice whose blood was brought into the Holy of Holies. Yet only one got such an honor. The other was relegated to be shunned, ignominiously killed, with the sins of the People. It was only by dint of lottery that the assignation was made.
Is there a correlation between the two circumstances in the Torah where lottery becomes the decision making process. Can we make a comparison between the lottery of the aportionnment of the land and the lottery of the assignation of the goats of Yom Kippur?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav understood the 'gorol', the lottery of Moshe in the division of the land in a way quite compelling. He explained that the land simply could not be divided by preference or a human decisor on the basis of logic, no matter how well reasoned. The land, he argued, was not given to the tribes and families at the end of the wilderness journey. The land was already theirs. It belonged to them intrinsically and from the time they left Egypt. Each tribe and each family within that tribe had a piece of land that was as much theirs as was their name and story. The land and the family it belonged to were one, inseparable, indivisable. It is for this reason the land could never be sold in perpetutity and returned to its original owner at the Jubilee year. It was one with its owner, part of his self. That being true, the land could not be divided on the basis of preference or human logic. To do that one would have to assume the land had no owner and now we were deciding who gets what. The land however already belonged to its owners. It was only that we did not know who indeed was the rightful partner to this piece of the land of Israel. What was needed was not a decision but a revelation. What was needed was the awareness of who was the owner of each section of property. Revelation can only be gleaned by means of lottery. The lottery did not decide.The lottery was Divinely inspired. The lottery revealed who belonged to what?

If I understand Rebbe Nachman right, then the lottery of the goats of Yom Kippur is very different from the lottery of the 'chlaukat ha'aretz'. Though both use the same process for decision making they do so for polar opposite reasons. The lottery to decide the fate of the goats of Yom Kippur is used because there simply was no other way to decide. They were identical goats. One had no more merit to be chosen for his role than his peer. Reason could not help us. Sometimes, when we have no other means by which to make a decision, when reasoning will not help us, we use a lottery, or in our times we may flip a coin. Not so the lottery of the assignation of the portions for the land of Israel. There the lottery was necessary because we needed something beyond reason. Reason could help us but it would not do. Through reason we can discern what we should do, what is logical. Reason cannot reveal what the reality is. Only lottery, Divinely inspired, can show us what is existentially true.
Only a holy lottery can show us the real.

So now that we have the two models of 'gorol' I want to ask you, which one feels most true to the story of your life? When you think of all the things that have happened to you, the important decisions you have made, like who you married and your choice for career and business decisions, do you feel that it really could have been otherwise? Is the way your life turned out essentially similar to the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats, it could have gone either way? Or do you see your life as predestined? I mean the important things in your life story, like who you were going to marry, whether you would be rich or poor, healthy or sickly, the kind of work you would do and whether you would have success, were they random or like the lottery of the land already written in Heaven only to be revealed in the flesh through the years of your life?

From the wisdom of our tradition it seems clear. The story of our life is more similar to the lottery of the Land than the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats. Our Sages already told us long ago, "All is decided in Heaven except for fear of Heaven". They taught us that before a person is born all the details of his/her life are decided, whether s/he will be rich or poor, weak or strong, sickly or healthy etc. Our life is a unpacking of what was already decided. Yes, we have freedom of choice and whether we will be good or bad remains in our hands. But the rest belongs to fate and destiny.

I share this understanding because it seems to me the core of having a happy life is not about having been given a 'happy' portion in heaven or even about good decision making here on earth. Rather happiness comes when we accept that the story we are living is the story we are meant for and that it could not be otherwise. We find happiness when we believe our life is a revelation, and like the lottery of the Land something that had to be and is as much a part of us as is our name and our existential reality. What happens to us in our life is no more an accident than who we are as persons. To say "me" is to say my story as much as it is to say my form.

I suspect that this idea is very much behind the teaching in Ethics of the Fathers, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion". When we feel our life is our portion even as the land was the portion for each tribe and family, something that was theirs inherently and not a matter of choice, no matter how well argued, then we no longer compare our story to others, we no longer see our lives in relative terms. Our life then can not be otherwise. Comparisons make no sense. We are living the one and only destiny that belongs to us.

And so we return to where we began, our visit to shops selling items just like the one we just bought to see if we could have gotten it cheaper or on the positive side ,to see if we got a bargain. We asked what's the point in this? What motivates us?
The answer is that we see our decision making as the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats.
We are not sure we made the right choice. It felt arbitrary or perhaps we suspect we did not reason as well as we should have when we decided to buy. Sadly, too often we do the same thing with the man or woman we decide to marry. After the fact we start making comparisons. It's not whether we are happy. It's whether we got maximum value in our spouse. Whether we could have done better. Comparative shopping may save some money, but as a way of life it kills the joy. We never know the peace that comes with accepting our story as the destiny meant for us. We never really inherit the land that is ours and know the feeling of belonging and ownership.

No matter where we are in our life, no matter where we have been, no matter our story it is part and parcel of who we are. It could not have been otherwise. That is not to say we can not do better. We must always strive to be better persons within our story and more faithful to Hashem and our peers. We remain challenged to be good and grow. But what happens to us, and even what we decide, outside of the arena of morals and right and wrong, is our destiny and meant for us.

Our life is our lottery. Its the portion in the land of the living meant for us even as the lottery of the land of Israel was for meant for our ancestors.
To be happy is to enjoy what is ours!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eyes to See

The Talmud, when it reviews the writers of the works of the Holy Scriptures tells us that Moshe wrote three books, the five books of the Torah, of course, the Book of Job, and the book of Bilaam. Rashi there explains the need for the Gemara to tell us that Moshe wrote the book of Bilaam. Surely its part of the Torah, of course Moshe wrote it. He explains that since the story of Bilaam, that which is the parsha of this week, Balak, is not in its essence a story of the Children of Israel, nor does it include laws relevant for us, we might think Moshe would have no business or reason to write it. The Talmud therefore tells us that indeed while Bilaam's story is one that happens in the background, and one that Moshe did not participate in, nonetheless he is the one who wrote it.

The presence in the Torah of this weeks Parsha is puzzling and for the very reasons Rashi felt the Talmud needed to tell us it was written by Moshe.It seems so uncharacteristic of the text.Its not really our story. But I want to raise with you a follow-up question and not about the context of the story but about the content.How is it that Bilaam when he goes to curse the Nation of Israel is unable to find a flaw. How is it that each time he aspires to rain down a curse he is overwhelmed with the People's goodness.
This is the Israelites we are talking about, a nation whose sins fill the book of Bamidbar, the current book we are reading, and much of the Torah in its entirety.
These are the people who, shortly after Bilaam gives up on his efforts,at the end of the reading, engage in lascivious behavior with Moabite women, in concert with idolatry, in a calamity that brought about the death of 25,000.

How is it that Bilaam can only find the good in this People? What does he see that we are missing? The story in the context of the Book of Bamidbar seems incongruous.

I think to comprehend what is going on here we need to make a critical distinction.
There are two words in the English language that seem synonomous but in fact are not. The words are 'guilt' and 'shame'. On the surface to say "I feel guilty" after doing something wrong seems the same as saying "I feel ashamed of doing something wrong". Maybe shame is a stronger word, but its essentially appears just a stronger expression of the same feeling. But in fact guilt and shame are different in kind not in degree. When I feel guilty I feel I have done something bad. When I feel shame I feel I am bad. The difference between the two sentiments is enormous.
In feeling guilt I acknowledge wrong-doing but retain my inner sense that I am a good person. That makes change possible. I am good and can correct my behavior.
When I feel shame I feel I am inadequate. The problem is not with what I have done but with who I am. I feel flawed of my essence. In the feeling of shame we are stuck . We could change behavior, especially if we believe we are made of good.
We cannot change our essence. In shame we are left to despair and resignation.

The difference between people who make ammends for wrongful behavior and who improve in life and those who do not may not be so much about their respective wills or motivations. The difference may boil down to how they view themselves, as either guilty or shame-full. People who feel themselves good will feel guilty and improve.
People who feel themselves bad will see their plight as hopeless and while feeling shame it will not move them to change or improve, on the contrary, it will cause them to stagnate.

In this backdrop we can perhaps understand the story of Bilaam. True the Israelites were guilty of serious sins. The Torah recounts story after story, both before the episode of Bilaam and after, of our waywardness. Bilaam knew that. Perhaps thats why he felt a curse could be placed on us. What he saw, to his chagrin, was that what we did as a people, our sinfulness, no matter how grave, did not reflect who we were. It had no bearing on our essence.
Israel, the people, were without blemish. Israel, the people, were good through and through. The transgressions reflected poor judgement, not poor character.

The Torah, in its wisdom, needs to give us this story. With all we read of our shortcomings in the recent readings, and week after week, we are liable to believe we are unredeemable, that we are damaged goods and despair of improvement. There is a danger we would see the problem is not with what we did but with who we are. Guilt would become shame and we would be doomed to mediocrity. It is for this reason the Torah gives us the perspective of Bilaam. His eyes on us tell us that what we did is no reflection of who we are. Bilaam provides us with the ultimate blessing. Through him we are given the gift of belief in ourselves despite our litany of wrongs. In that change becomes possible. We can grow and improve...and we do!

The lesson Bilaam provides us with is as vital to our lives as to those of our ancestors. We each need to believe in our intrinsic goodness to have any chance to grow and become. Guilt, yes, shame, never!. Neither for us nor for our children. Nor should we let anyone else place shameful messages on us or our children. There is no room for shaming messages...not even from those who say they love us. Shame kills our possibilities. It keeps men and women stuck in bad marriages. It keeps people from advancing in their careers. It keeps us from realizing our potential in relationship to Hashem. Shame is a poison that keeps us from our sh'laimut waiting to be realized.

We are good! Would that we would see ourselves as Bilaam saw us. We don't need to feel more guilty. We need to feel less shame!

Shabbat Shalom