Sunday, September 25, 2011

From Resignation to Acceptance

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic “On Death and Dying” wrote of the stages people go through in the process of dying. In the final stage of Kubler-Ross’s model, the dying, if they are successful, move from resignation to acceptance of the impending end of their life. Resignation means that one recognizes that his/her death is inevitable. S/he is no longer fighting the reality or denying it. But nonetheless the death feels like a betrayal, like something that should not be. Often in a state of resignation the dying become depressed and withdrawn. Acceptance is a step further in the process and the final stage, if one is able to achieve it. To accept one’s dying is not to want it, nor is it to welcome death. Rather acceptance is the embracing of the reality as part of the story of one’s life. While undesirable, it can no more be changed than can one’s height or parentage. To accept one’s death is no different than to accept the limitations of one’s life. It is part of who one is. In the stage of acceptance one dies at peace and in touch with both family and community

At the close of this week’s parsha we read that G-d tells Moshe to climb the mountain of Nebo in order that there he may die. We know Moshe did not want to die. He fought for the right to enter the Promised Land. He begged G-d over and over to forgive him his one sin and allow him to cross the Jordan with his people. Over and over G-d said “no” to Moshe, culminating in this, G-d’s last instructions to our beloved teacher. Did Moshe reach the stage of acceptance before he died? Did he come to terms and embrace the reality before him or did he simply resign himself to the inevitable.

The answer is right here before us in the text. What does Moshe do before he dies, indeed on the very last day of his life? He sings the song of Ha’azeenu. Moshe gathers all the people and engages them. One does not sing if one is resigned to death. Nor does one gather the community if one has merely surrendered. Moshe, fought. He fought valiantly. In the end he accepted. And in that acceptance he made his dying something that proved a blessing for all Israel.
Truth is when it comes time to accept our reality and we do, rather than continue to deny it or resist it, we have the possibility of new blessings, one previously unrecognized.

Look at the story of Moshe. In one way he was defeated. G-d did not acquiesce to his petition. According to tradition, Moshe was prepared to enter in any way possible. He was willing to surrender the leadership to Yehoshua and enter as a member of the Community of Israel. He was willing to strike any bargain. In all cases the answer was “no’. Yet when Moshe finally comes to accept, as evidenced in this week’s parsha, he finds that the “no” does not mean exactly “no”. It just means “no” to the way he was asking.

What do I mean? Well take a look at the verses. G-d tells Moshe “Go up to this Mount of Avarim, the Mountain of Nebo that is in the land of Moab…and gaze upon the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel for an inheritance….” And then look at the verse at the end of next week’s reading of Zot Habracha. There, even as Moshe is told he must die in the wilderness, he is also granted a form of entry into the land. Hashem invites him to see the land in its entirety, the hills and the valleys, the rivers and the streams, from one end to the other. While its true Moshe may not enter the land bodily, his eyes are permitted to enter. After granting Moshe the eyes to see the land in all its grandeur G-d says to Moshe, “You have seen it now with your eyes even though enter you shall not.” Through his eyes Moshe becomes one with the land of his yearning. Yet that form of entry was not possible for Moshe to experience until he accepted his death on the other side of the Jordan. Only once he stopped resisting and moved past his resignation could Moshe know the blessing that was there for him to claim.

In our lives too, so many times things happen to us that we struggle to accept. We simply refuse to embrace that which feels unwelcome. And then, when we can no longer deny or combat the reality, we resign ourselves to our fate with a shrug. We feel our circumstances are unwelcome but “what can I do”. The problem with that attitude is that as long as we feel resigned to our fate rather than embracing of it we will not be able to extract the blessing the story has in it for us. We will not reap the gift that even that which we did not want to happen has to give us, often a blessing and a gift that is precious and sweet. We will not even know there is a gift or blessing that we can claim in the situation until we move from resignation to

If there is a more powerful truth to enhance the quality of our life I cannot imagine what it may be. The lesson from Moshe, is that in acceptance we get answers that neither denial, nor bargaining, nor anger, nor resignation, the prior stages of Kubler-Ross’s model, will yield. In acceptance of our fate we not only know the peace and belonging we forgo in our prior stages, we also receive a gift, that while
perhaps not what we wanted, is satisfying in its own way.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a wonderful new year!
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Our Most Costly Fear

To be human is to have fears. Some of us fear the big things like financial collapse and illness for the ones we love. Others of us fear the small, like did I make enough food for Shabbat and will I pass my driving test. Sometimes we have irrational fears, like the fear of heights and of a mouse. The person who is brave enough to scale Mt Everest may have stage fright or be afraid to speak in public. We don't invite our fears. We wish we didn't have them. Often we are ashamed of our fears. But alas, they are as much ours as the color of our eyes.

What fear, do you suppose, has the most consequence for the quality of our lives?
I think you may be surprised when I tell you that for my part, it is a little fear, much overlooked that most compromises the quality of our life. It is the fear of committment.

The fear of commitment is most common, virtually everyone has it to some degree, and it is omnipresent in our lives. Its hard to commit! And yet without commitment everything we do is lacking in depth and intensity. We do so much good in our life. Yet lacking commitment to the work that brings about the good, we are robbed of the gift our good deeds have to offer us.

There are three reasons we most often struggle to make a commitment. The first, and acceptable one, is because we fear we will make a wrong decision and then struggle to extricate ourselves. If we don't commit because we are unsure if what we may be commiting to is worthy of our investment we are being prudent and wise. But the problem with our failure to commit is when it is motivated by the two other fears. The first, if we commit now we are afraid we may miss something important that will come along later. We fear not having our options open. We won't accept today in order not to miss the 'good thing' we may later have available. That fear of commitment is pernicious and compromising. The second invalid reason we fear commitment is related to another fear, our fear of failure. We won't commit because we are afraid that if we do we may fail, and better not to commit than to commit and fail. How much of life's opportunities do we miss because of that fear of commitment/ fear of failure syndrome.

Where do we see that type of fear of commitment in action? The young man or woman who cannot seem to find the right shidduch. No matter who they date it never seems right for them. They may give all kinds of reasons why nothing has worked and lament their circumstances. They may even say its fear of making a mistake, the good kind of fear of commitment, that is holding them back. In most cases, if the truth were revealed, it might be a surprise even to them. What's in the way is not something outside themselves but inside. Their fear is of commitment, the wrong kind. They are not ready to close their options, no matter who the other was. They are afraid, in their minds, to be 'trapped'.

It happens over and over in ordinary life that our fear of commitment prevents us from investing fully, even in the good we do. Someone asks us to do a hesed, maybe to visit a homebound and infirmed elderly man or woman on a weekly basis; Or we are asked to commit to a learning seder with someone or a group; or we are inspired enough to want to take on a new healthy behavior, say regular excercise or to quit smoking. In all the above cases while we typically will be glad to do a 'one time' act, we decline to commit. Our fear of commitment and of the failure causes us to either decline invitations to growth and change or to perform without commitment. Life lived lacking commitments is a shell of a life that's lived out of commitments.
The committed are not enslaved, on the contrary, they are actually liberated. What they do is not an addendum to their life. It is their life. The more committed we are to our life's work the more alive we are. Those who live a life comprised of free moments live on the surface, they wait, and rarely experience the gift of being alive that comes with investment of self.

We stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanna. The parsha we read this week is Neetzavim-Vayelech. At the outset of the portion Moshe tells the Israelites "You are standing this day before the L-rd your G-d.....". He is about to enter them into sacred covenant with the Divine. The Zohar tells us that when the verse says "this day" it is referring to Rosh Hashanna. What's interesting to me is the terminology in the pasuk. Moshe tells them "You are 'standing'..." The term for the word 'standing' he uses is 'neetzavim'. Neetzavim has the same root as the word in Hebrew for monument, 'matzaiva'. Many of those who interpret the Torah text point out that 'neetzavim' like 'matzaiva' infers a rootedness, a standing in such a way as to be firm and planted like a monument. Yet the very next word Moshe uses is 'hayom','today'. Hayom implies temporalness, that which is transitory, only for today. How do we reconcile the use of the contradictory terms that is, standing in perpetuity as if always and yet for today? What does that say to us about Rosh Hashanna?

I believe the answer is very much in line with our discussion. True ,Moshe was telling the Israelites, you can only live day to day. You don't know what the future will bring. You don't know what capacities you will have. You don't even know what you will desire. But nonetheless you must enter this day as if it will be forever. You must give your self fully to it like a monument, 'neetzavim', rooted, committed entirelyand yes unafraid!
You cannot allow the temporality of your existence or the frailty of your will to stop you from saying "yes" when committing to the 'brit'.

This is Rosh Hashanna. All of us stand with our future in doubt. We have no future.
Its all awaiting judgement. How can we commit? How can we say "yes".
It is to that we are being challenged, "Let go of the fear and commit. True you only have today but live today with commitment to tomorrow should it come, else you will not know life at all, even today."

Life without commitment is no life. Better to commit and fail or even to miss something you may have preferred than to live in waiting.

May you and all whom you love be blessed with a new year of health, meaning, and happiness. May it be rich in commitment!

Shabbat Shalom
Shana Tova

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Ashamed Forever"

Elie Weisel in his classic "Night", an autobiographical work describing his experiences in a slave labor camp during the Holocaust, shared a powerful moment that changed his life. He was sent to the Camp as a teen together with his father, a man he loved deeply and admired. He cared for his father in those times of great deprivation and looked out for him. Yet, he found that love and admiration, in those trying times, were not the only feelings he had for his father. Once after a long march, he could not find his father. He found himself feeling surprising and unbidden feelings within.

"Don't let me find him. If only I could get rid of this dead weight so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever."

In the Parsha of this week we encounter passages that predict the very reactions of Weisel in his story. The Torah tell us, in the verses that describe the horrific ordeals that will befall us if we fail to keep the faith and Torah, that we will suffer an extreme hunger,a hunger so severe we will eat our own dead children so as to stay alive.

"The man amongst you that is tender and very delicate will look with hostility towards his brother and towards the wife he loves and towards his remaining that he will give them nothing of the flesh of his dead children ...because he has nothing left him due to the seige and oppression."

And the Torah goes on to say the woman/mother, one whose life had always been priveleged, will now feel the same resentment and hostility towards her husband and family that her husband felt towards her, with each focused on their own survival because of the awful circumstances.

What is the tragedy here? What curse is the Torah revealing to us, that in the severity of our hunger we will eat our dead children? The Torah aleady informed us of that in the earlier verse when it said "And you will eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters..." What is the new curse implied here?

The answer is,here there is a curse more subtle but equally painful. Here the curse is, not only will you need to resort to cannibalism to survive but the hunger and quest for survival will bring out the worst elements of your self. In pursuit of your needs, you will be resentful of the people you most love in the world. Not only will you not feel compassion towards them, you will come to despise them.Your own wife, your own children you will hate. And in that you will find shame, a shame of your self deep and awful, a shame that is a curse as profound as the lack of food and maybe worse. You who were so delicate, so much above petty resentments, a person of culture, will become as an animal with your feelings emerging more out of instinct rather than love.

Elie Weisel knew that curse. He knew the power of that shame of self. He knew that no matter how learned I may be, how cultured and civilized, how gentle and gracious, that underneath the surface lives a bare and ugly self, one who in the face of hardship has no more dignity than an animal. In the context of prolonged deprivation and staring at a threat to our very survival we will not only take what we can, we will hate the others who compete with us, even be they the people we loved most in the world. True we will often rise above the circumstances and be gracious towards the other, yet at a feelings level we know we carry a mean spirit and an envious heart.

The shame we are talking about is an existential shame. Its not a shame because of something we did. Its a shame because of who we are, because, when push come to shove, we are frail beings, not much more generous of spirit than animals. This is the shame we speak in our prayers during selichot and in the service of Yom Kippur. Its the shame we recite before G-d in the words "I am before you as a vessel full of shame and disgrace". Existentially we are compromised. It just takes the severe circumstances to bring it to the surface.

How vital this message is for me and I suspect for you as we stand less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanna. Most of us have puffed up images of ourselves. We demand our 'kavod', that others respect our dignity. We get insluted easily in as much as we perceive ourselves as worthy of courtesy and deference. We look at all we have accomplished and all we continue to do and we say to the other "how could you treat me as you did?". We demand an apology or harbor resentment. Families become divided, husbands and wives carry grudges, brothers and sisters don't speak, all because of felt slights that never get healed.

The Torah text of this week reveals to us that not only will our sinninng cause us hurt. The Torah teaches us something about who we are. Its tells us to forget about how important we consider ourselves, how learned, how sophisticated. Underneath it all we are not much better than an animal. Once compromised all the toppings will vanish and we will become focused exclusively on our own survival and resent any and all who jeapodize that survival. How dare we become huffy when we feel insulted. We are, in our own words "a vessel full of shame and disgrace". How can anyone then insult us?

There is no truth more important for us to know than the truth of our existential smallness. Moments where we face the extreme show us, like they did for Weisel, what frail creatures we are. Those are the moments of shame and hurt. But they also are moments oh so enlightening. In those moments we see ourselves without the ego's delusions. In those moments we become able let go of the slights, perceived insults, and disregard of others, not because they did no wrong, but because we realize we are not so important after all, that we need to not take ourselves so seriously.

How beautiful life would be if only we were aware of our existential shame and took it to heart. I pray we won't need to see our shame in order to feel it !

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dealing with the Devil

Years ago, whilst I still lived in the States I frequently counselled Orthodox young men who were gay. They sought help as they wrestled with the conflict between the urgency of their sexual orientation and the laws of the Torah. Many, like the ones whom I met, had already left the fold of the Observant. They could not bear the strain of the contradiction between their personal life needs and the condemnation of tradition. It was too difficult for them to keep all the mizvot in the context of a hetero-sexual community and secretly yearn for the forbidden same sex intimacy.
Those who came to me were determined to persevere, despite the challenges, living an Orthodox lifestyle while acknowledging there sexual orientation, albeit in secret.What they sought from me was some validation that they remained good even while living a compromised faith.

I never failed to be moved by their stories, and their were many, each unique and compelling. The first thing I told each young man was that he was a hero in my eyes. His challenges were not my challenges.His temptations were not my temptations. His observance of mitzvot was not the same as mine. Everything he did in keeping the Torah was so much more powerful and significant inasmuch as he lived with his struggle, that he overcame his inner conflictedness and continued to maintain tradition. I would tell him that true, the Torah condemns homosexual practices, but the Torah was written for all Jewish men. For most, like me, keeping that mitzva is hardly a great act of devotion. I have no desire for intimate relations with those of the same sex. But he has such desires and they are his only sexual desires. If he is to have romantic love, sex and intimacy in his life it will only be with a man. Rather than focus on the times he surrendered to his desires, I encouraged him to look at the times he fought them, the moments he held back, and the regret he felt that he could not lead life as the typical hetero-sexual. I told him in those moments he evidenced an unparalled expression of love of G-d and Torah. And in those moments, private as they may be, he was a hero of the faith. I encouraged him to look at the positives of his behaviors, that he too could so easily have surrendered the commitment to Torah, as did so many others like him. Yet he did not. I told him his reward was far greater than his culpability for his moments of compromise. I said to him that I was envious of his share in the World-to-Come. And I meant it.

This week in the Parsha of Kee Taytzay, we find the Torah, to my understanding, teaching the same truth. In the opening verses it give us the laws of the 'Y'fat To'ar', the beautiful woman taken captive in war. The Torah permits something most surprising. It allows the Jewish soldier to take a non-Jewish woman,and have relations with her (whilst she is still not Jewish).Only later, if he wishes to marry her, does she need to convert. The Sages of the Talmud understood this law as a special consideration of the soldier's wartime psyche. Knowing in wartime it would not be realistic to forbid the Y'fat To'ar the Torah permitted her to the soldier with certan provisos. Even whilst the Torah allows for the initial intimacy it demands the captive woman be treated respectfully. She must be allowed time to grieve her family of origen before marriage, if the soldier rejects her she must be set free. She may not be sold into slavery etc. The words the Talmud uses to explain this surprising allowance to the soldier is that here "the Torah addressed the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination within the person."

Later Rabbis, after the period of the Talmud, wrestled with the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. They struggled to understand the principle at work here and what can be gleaned from it about Torah values in general. In concert with the concept of this blog "The Torah and the Self", I like to keep things simple. What can I understand from the laws of the Y'fat To'ar that pertain to me and my observance? How is it relevant to my life and self?

The story of my experiences with the gay Orthodox younge men calls out to the relevance of the Torah narative here. When we are in a situation where it is near impossible to expect that we will be able to overcome our temptations the Torah makes room for us. I am not meaning here to condone homosexual practice. The laws of the Y'fat To'ar are the exception rather than the rule. I am simply saying we need to make room for men and women with a homosexual orientation to be included rather than excluded of our community. We need to recognize that their are those for whom the traditonal way will not fit. For them we need to create models that recognize the reality of their situations and, acknowledging that even though homosexuality is not in keeping with the Torah, it is for those of that orientation, a reality that will not disappear. To pretend that we can rule it out and make it disappear is to align ourselves with the 'yetzer hara'. In doing so we make it impossible for men and women with a homosexual orientation to find a place in our communuty. We exclude them and drop-out from all Torah observance is the inevitable outcome.

The newspapers here and abroad have featured the story of Rav Harel, an Israeli rabbi living in the Gush who has started a match making service bringing together Orthodox gay men and women who desparately want a home and children. The idea is the couple agree to marry and together have and raise children.True they will not be romantically attached, and they may have their separate liasons outside their marriage with a same sex partner. But the model will allow them the joys so much a part of tradition, family, home and children. While some have criticized the Rav's plan, it is the very idea the Torah gave us this week and explaind in the Talmud as the Torah addressing the yetzer hara. While wrong, we cant change the homosexual behavior, nor can the homosexual. Lets work with it so that the yetzer hara's victory is limitted, indeed, it might well be argued, no victory at all, since no one chooses their orientation. To me Rav Harel's efforts are inspiring.

But we don't need to go so far as those with a homosexual orientation to find meaning in the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. How many women know that putting on make-up on Shabbat is forbidden yet can't resist putting it on when they go to shule on Shabbat? I mean frume women, observant in every other way. Yet no matter how exacting they are in keeping all the mitzvot, this they cannot do. How many of us go to shule to minyan each morning, often early, often when its not convenient, expressing wonderful devotion to G-d, yet come home down from our efforts because we felt bad that we did not daven with 'kavana' concentration.

We each have our places where we get stuck in our observance and can't seem to overcome. We fail and fail again. And while our inability to overcome does not contain near the obstacles as the person with a gay orientation dealing with his/her homosexuality, it is for us a sin we can't get past. If we follow the 'yetzer hara' in us we will beat ourselves up over our failing. We will forget about all the good we did, in our examples, all the care the woman took to make Shabbat for her fsmily and to keep all the other aspects of Shabbat observance so meticulously, in the case of the prayers, the effort we make to get up early, go to shule , daven with a minyan, answer kedusha, kadish etc,.
Instead we only see where we were compromised. Rather than affirm ourselves, while taking note of our shortcoming, we condemn ourselves. In the process we rob ourselves of the joy of keeping mitzvot. Our all or nothing mentality makes keeping mitzvot depressing. This is the work of the evil inclination. And only feeds our temptation to distance ourselves from the holy.

Look at the story the Torah gives us of the soldier driven by desire to take the beautiful captive woman. Recognizing his passion, the Torah does not say "no". Instead it puts curbs on it. It gives the soldier mitzvot to perform with regards to the woman, mitzvot of kindness and respect. He is mandated to curb his passion and keep it within bounds. In the end, rather than feel badly about his earthiness, the soldier is left with a positive feeling.He did mitzvot even as he succumbed to the desires he could not control.

You and I need to learn that while each of us has our place of failing, and we each need to continue to make efforts to improve, we must not let the little bit of ugliness in our life destroy all the beauty we create. Beating ourselves up over our failures gives victory to the devil. It make us feel unworthy and despondent. Our G-d wants our happiness.
In truth, the sense of unworthiness leads to stuckness. Its the realization of our goodness that makes change possible.

Shabbat Shalom