Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting Past Resentment

A self story...Many mornings at the minyan I attend a certain elderly gentleman shows up. He's not there every day. When he comes he will usually show up for a few days in succession. Each day he attends he expects to be given the opportunity to daven for the amud, to lead the prayers. And when there is a Torah reading, he claims that honor too. I know most of the men at minyan think nothing of this fellow's expectations and give him a hearty 'yasher koach', congratulations after each effort of his. I, on the other hand, find his claim for the limelight arrogant and egocentric. It annoys me, though I never let on.

I know my attitude is not right. It's not that I am wrong about the man. I think he is blind to his own yearning for kavod...But so what? Why should it bother me? Why should I carry resentment. And more importantly, how can I get over it to feel a love for this fellow Jew and member of my minyan the way I need to.

As I reflected on my issue I thought about the readings of the last few weeks in the Torah, the story of Yosef and the brothers. I wondered how was it that Yosef was able to overcome all of his feelings of resentment towards his brothers and be so ready to forgive them. I mean, we know the brothers redeemed themselves in the end. This week's parsha of Vayigash tell us how when put to the test, in a situation not too disimilar to the sale of Yosef, twenty two years earlier, the brothers rally to protect the new favorite Binyamin. But that takes care of the brother's feeling of shame. They showed remorse. But as for Yosef, he suffered terribly because of what they did to him. He spent years in prison, separated from family, alone and abandoned. How did he find the wherewithall to forgive them and let go of his resentments.

I believe the Torah itself gives us a clue. And it is found in last week's reading.
When the brother's came back to Egypt with Binyamin, as Yosef, the ruler had insisted, we are told that Yosef made an elaborate dinner for them. The dinner was in Yosef's private residence. Every effort was made to meet the brother's dietary requirements. Moreover the Torah tells us that Yosef himself gave out the individual portions to the brothers. He fed them, and, Rashi tells us, he did so in a splendid way. Why? What was the purpose of this great feast. And why does the Torah see fit to include it in the narrative as relevant?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement in the 19th century in Europe made the observation that if we find ourselves disliking someone and struggling to overcome the feelings the remedy is to extend kindness to that person.
Through our kindness we foster a sense of responsibility towards the other. And through the sense of being responsible to them we come to care for them.

That's at the core of the story of Yosef and how he was enabled to feel compassion towards his brothers. Indeed Yosef held resentments. How could he not. He was a tzadik but not an angel. The way he got passed the ill feelings was to make a big meal for his brothers and to personally extend himself to them even so much as to dispense to each his individual portion. In providing for his brothers, in feeding them, in honoring them and tending to their needs, even though he did not much like them, Yosef came to care for them. And by dint of his care he felt a sense of responsibility towards them...and from that emerged a sense of connection.

From Yosef I can glean a message I need to take to heart as I think about how to overcome my resentment towards the little man who needs to claim a big role at daily minyan. Truth is I may never like the part of him that runs for the kavod. Yet if I want to come to care for him as a person rather than harbor resentment I need to extend myself to him and do him some favors. Maybe I can give him a ride home or bring him a siddur before davening. It need not be a big thing. I don't yet have to invite him for a Shabbat meal. If I just show some care I will feel a sense of responsibility towards him. And in that I will find the gateway to honest caring for him even with the parts of his personality i dislike.

I suspect I am not the only one who finds him/herself feeling disdain for another, and for many reasons. Some of our reasons can be the result of real harm caused, as in the story of Yosef and his brothers. Some of our reasons, like mine, are more obscure, yet nonetheless block a natural compassion. Each of us can learn the lesson from Yosef and overcome our emotional distance by doing a kindness for that other. It is through kindness that love and care is cultivated. And kindness can grow care even in a wilderness.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Re-thinking the Joseph Story

Getting to know oneself is no easy task. We can think we are self aware only to be deceived. One tool that can help in this work is to reflect on a book we read or a film we saw and to ask ourselves "which character do I most identify with?". Often what we discover will surprise us. Once we have identified the character with whom we most connect we can begin to explore the similarities between us and them and uncover components in our character that were earlier buried in the unconscious and emerge only when our guard is down.

The story of Yosef and his brothers begs for just such a reflection. If I asked with whom in the compelling drama do you most identify I suspect you would answer that you identify most with Yosef, the innocent victim and the later hero of the saga. Or perhaps, if you are in a more advanced stage of life, you might tell me that you identify with Yaacov, the old father, who feels the unending grief for a son lost and a family broken. Few of you I imagine would say that you idenitfy with the brothers. No matter how our commentaries explain their actions or attempt to make them understood, the brother's unconscionable deed of selling their own flesh and blood into slavery just doesn't feel like a response to family strife we can relate to or identify with.

But I invite you to step back a moment. The purpose of the blog "The Torah and the Self" is to learn about ourselves by finding points in common with characters in the Torah, even in the more obscure cases. The premiss we begin with is that we share, at least in some measure, a point in common with all people. And if the Torah is telling us about personalities, no matter how nefarious or extreme, they are meant for us to find in them a personal connection so we can learn from them about ourselves. Over the years, in the pages of the blog, we have found ourselves in the Pharaoh and in Esav, and from the deed of our parents both good and bad.

So let me ask again about our point of identification in the Yosef story. Can we find ourselves in Yosef's brothers, at least in some measure? What do they have to teach us about ourselves?

The Talmud tells us that one of its great sages, Rav, had the habit of visiting the graveyard, there to learn from the dead. One of the things he discovered was that 99% of people die as a result of the evil eye. Of course its not the evil eye that is the immediate cause of death. It would not be found on a death certificate. Nonetheless, whether the cause of death was cancer or heart failure, that which made the person mortal was the evil eye put on them by another.

The evil eye is another term for jealousy that one person feels towards another, a jealousy that prompts resentment, a jealousy that kills. So let's consider again. The brothers were jealous. Their jealousy caused them to hate their brother and resent his success. They sold him into slavery assuming he would die. We struggle to relate to such criminal behavior. Yet, as Rav discovered, its quite common to harbor ill will towards others, to feel resentment over their life's successes. We seem to all carry jealousy, so much so that nearly all people are made mortal by another's jealous feelings. In the end, while we might say we would never do the other harm or even wish him/her harm, that is but on a conscious level, what we are aware of. At a deeper level our jealousy too causes us to want to posess that which belongs to another and finds that which the other does have to be undeserved and more rightfully ours.

To the extent that Rav found truth in the graveyard conversations with the dead, we all cause harm by our jealousy and resentment, in ways not that much less significant than the brothers of Yosef. And while its true we are often blind to our resentments and jealousies, the brothers were equally blind to theirs. They had little conscious idea that their motivation to sell Yosef was rooted in self interest. We, like the brothers, will not recognize our jealousy and envy of others unless we admit that these unflattering character flaws live in us. Only when we stop pretending we are beyond such pettiness can it become possible for us to mitigate the jealous feelings and stop the effects of jealousy and the evil eye.

Now you may say to me "You have got to be kidding. Do you really believe in the evil eye?" Whether I do or don't is not so much relevant here. What is relevant is that resentment of others and their successes is legion. Jealousy does not belong to Yosef's brothers alone. It inheres in all of us. You say where?

Let's look at our lives. Honestly, how hard is it to be truly happy with someone's good news, especially someone we are close to and especially when we are deprived of the same gift. Of course we express happiness, and some of it is felt. But who in the secret of their own heart does not have a corner of resentment thinking "it should have happened to me". Which sibling is truly never jealous of his/her peer over success or nachas? Who has not looked upon the blessings of another and thought "I am more deserving than they". And I dare say every time we argue with another and get locked into an intractable struggle is it really a battle of ideas or rather of egos, with each of us afraid to let the other win.

I want to make clear here a distinction between envy and jealousy. I may envy another person's blessings, say that they have nachas from their children or study much Torah. That does not reflect a character flaw. I simply wish that I too could know similar blessing in my life. In envy I don't question whether the other deserves their gifts or want to take it from them for myself. On the contrary envy will often lead me to improve myself so I may be like the other and know the same gifts in my life. (To be an envious person is not a good thing but envy as a feeling can motivate me to improve and grow).

Jealousy is something else from envy. In jealousy I want what the other has. Still more, I feel I am more deserving of it than them. Envy leads me to admiration. Jealousy leads me to resentment of the other. Rav was on to something profound. It is impossible to be jealous and not have feelings of resentment to the other. And it is impossible to resent someone and not at the same time, at least in part, wish them harm, if not consciously than unconsciously.

No, I suggest we need to look to the brothers of Yosef and be not too quick to discount the points we share with our distinguished ancestors. It's not flattering to claim jealousy as operational in our life but I suspect if we had the courage to explore our behaviors honestly we would would find many many of our responses are rooted in jealousy and resenment. I will leave the work for each of us to do to unpack where that jealousy shows its ugly head. But I guarentee, if we are willing to look at ourselves and our resenments with curiosity rather than recrimination, we will find its expression everywhere.

The hidden gift of the story of Yosef and the brothers is that if these great men, fathers of the Tribes of Israel could have been victims of jealousy, we need not be ashamed to claim it is operational in our lives too. That does not make our jealousy or resentment go away. It does however make it okay to acknowledge.
And in our honest acknowldgement we have already made significant strides to self healing.

I am delighted to inform you that the best of the blogs over the past three years has just been released as a book "The Torah and the Self" by Yisrael Kestenbaum.
It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble and through Amazon amongst online book stores.
Thanks for all your support!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When Heroes Fall

In the life of each of us we face moments where our heroes disappoint. Sometimes its a teacher, mentor, or boss, someone we admired and thought of as better than they turned out to be. Sometimes its our parent, our mother or father, who we adored growing up yet who, we realized as we matured, was flawed, not only in general, but even in the way they raised us. There are few more painful moments in life than those moments when we realize our heroes had clay feet.It becomes still harder to accept when we realize those we thought loved and cared for us in the absolute were comrpomised themselves and indeed so too was the love and care extended to us.

What do we do with our new insights into our former heroes. Therapists have made a career out of treating men and women like us with just that problem. Some ouf us, unable to reconcile our current perception with our former, break off all connection with the hero of yesterday. We bury the relationship and all it contained claiming it was all a sad mistake. Others of us, difficult though it be, try to find a way to salvage what can be saved from the relationship. We work to not let our disappointment and shattered ideal poison what blessing remains possible in the relationship. True, we say, the other may not be who we thought they were, but that does not mean they have no redeeming virtues. We attempt to reset the connection under perhaps a lower callibration.

In many ways the later is the work of adult children. Unlike in our youth where we idealized our parents, as we mature we must find the courage to see our parents for who they really are, with their flaws. Seeing them in their nakedness is not easy.
Yet only then can we ever have a real relationship with them. Are we disappointed? Of course, inevitably. But with time and support we can turn that disappointment into an opportunity, a chance to have an adult to adult relationship with our parent, to know them, so that while they are no longer our hero they become something more precious, our friend.

I share this insight this week, as we read the parsha of Vayeshev, because their is a passage in the reading that speaks pointedly to this theme.
When Yosef finds himself in the house of Potiphar, the butcher of the Pharaoh, he is seduced by the master's wife who begs him to sleep with her. Though tempted, Yosef responds to her saying "Behold my master has complete trust in me, and has placed everything under my control. And there is no servant in the household more important than me, and he has held nothing back from me except you because you are his wife. How then can I think to commit such a great evil and thereby sin to G-d."

Yosef's ability to rise above his temptation earns him the title "Yosef Ha'Tzadik", "Joseph the Righteous". He is praised throughout the literature of our tradition for his self discipline in a most challenging time. Yet what I find surprising is the language of Yoesf's argument to Potiphars wife where he explains why he will not sin with her. He recounts all that her husband has done for him, stating how ungrateful he would be should he commit adultery with Potiphar's wife. Yet in the end Yosef said that if he were to commit the act he would "sin to G-d". Wait a minute. If he owed so much to his master for all he had done, he should have said "I will sin to your husband, my master". Why does Yosef recount all he owes to Potiphar yet claim the sin he would commit would be against G-d.

I suggest the answer here is relevant to our earlier discussion. Yosef was talking to Potiphar's wife. She obviously felt it was okay to sin against her husband in an illicit relationship. Yosef knew that while he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Potiphar, if he would have claimed the sin would have been against him, Potiphar, the wife might have said "You don't know my husband. He is abusive and a tormentor. He has committed horrible atrocities. He deserves to suffer. He has it coming for all he has done to me and others. He may be a hero to you but he is no hero. On the contrary he is a villain. He has had this coming for a long time."

Yosef silenced such a justification by claiming from the outset that the husband did wonderful things for him and while it may be also be true that Potiphar has no rewards coming to him because he is an evil man, yet he, Yosef, cannot wrong him.
Yosef in saying that his sin with would be against G-d, argued that his responsibility is to show gratitude to those who have been good to him, no matter who they are in other aspects of their life or in their personal nature. 'Hakarat hatov', showing appreciation for kindnesses done to us is a personal responsibility devolving on we who receive. We must show gratitude or else we sin to G-d. Our gratitude has not to do with the goodness or general worthiness of our benifactor.

For many of us, thinking about persons who have failed to live up to our expectations causes us to reconsider how we are with them. We withdraw and withold. Any debt of gratitude we may have had gets wiped clean. We simply say they are not deserving any longer of our appreciation.

Yet the story of Yosef tells us just the opposite. Yosef argued that he owed Potiphar. It didn't matter who he was or what he did. Yosef's debt was due for kindnesses received. We too have those we owe, parents, teachers, mentors, friends.
True they may have lost value in our eyes for wrongs committed or flaws in their personalities. We may now realize that they may even have caused us some harm.
Yet we cannot thereby excuse ourselves from our responsibility before G-d to be persons who show gratitude for the good received. Its not about them but about us.

To be a mensch is to be thankful, even when that thanksfullness is not easy to show, even when we feel ambivalent about the person to whom we need be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Win or Not to Fight ?

When I was a boy the Shabbat table was a place for my father to assert himself. From the singing of zemirot to the topic of conversation, he ran the show. When I matured and marked the occassional Shabbat at home with family I noticed that my father's role at the table had changed. While he sat at the head of the table as before, he no longer controlled the table dynamics. He let others, in particular his now older children take the lead. And while he may well have wished for more zemirot or less casual banter, he held his peace. It appeared sometimes as if he was a guest at his own table.

In the parsha of this week, Vayishlach, we seem to witness a similar change in our father Yaacov. At the outset Yaakov is a man to be reckoned with. He wrestles an angel to a draw, holding the angel hostage until he receives from him a blessing.
Earlier, at the close of last week's reading, Yaacov had engaged his father-in-law, Lavan in a heated confrontation. This week we read where Yaakov meets Esav, his intimidating brother, entirely prepared for every eventuality, be it a peaceful rendezvous or war.

And then, rather abruptly, Yaacov begins to fade as a dominant personality. When Dina, his daughter is raped and then held by the prince of Sh'chem the Torah tells us that on hearing the news Yaacov "held his silence" waiting for his sons to deal with the atrocity. Later when he challenges Shimom and Levi for having wiped out the town, telling them that their actions had put him and the family in mortal danger, he lets his two sons have the last word.

And so Yaacov's personal eclipse continues. The Torah tells us that Reuvan did something seriously wrong in regards to his father's marital bed after Rachel died.
Did Yaacov react? According the text we are told "Yisrael (Yaacov's new name) heard", and seemingly did nothing. And next week when we read of the enmity the brother's had for Yosef because of his grandiose dreams the Torah tells "the brothers were envious and Yaakov observed the matter". Yaacov did not try to make peace between the brothers and Yosef. On the contrary he let the process unfold without his intervention. How different the story might have been if Yaacov had tried to bring peace between them.

How do we understand this change in Yaacov? What happened? And I might well ask the same question regarding the change in my father. What made him become to retiring?

I think the key to understanding the change in the character of Yaacov can be gleaned from what the Torah tells us about our father at the point where we noticed he was no longer the same. It happened directly following the confrontation with Esav. Yaacov comes to the city of Sh'chem 'shalem' meaning complete and whole in every way. There he erects an alter to G-d in thanksgiving. He called the alter for "G-d the G-d of Yisrael".

What's interesting here is that Yaacov calls himself "Yisrael". G-d did not give him that name untill later in the story as we read in following chapters. It was only the angel who blessed him who gave Yaacov that name, yet that's sufficient for Yaacov to claim the name as his own. Here he is, Yaacov coming home, and he is no longer the son who stole his brother's blessing, the weak link in the family. He wrestled an angel and received a blessing in an open strugggle rather than by deception as earlier in his life. That represents the final stage of Yaacov's emergence into the light and redemption of self. He feels complete, 'shalem'. He has reached the place in his life where he no longer needs to prove anything. He is whole and sated with who he is. Even before G-d calls him "Yisrael" Yaacov claims the name. It belongs to him by dint of who he has become.

Once Yaacov feels the peace of self, he no longer needs to take the lead in fighting the battles of life. He is now ready to let others assume the limelight. He can watch the process unfold and wait with no need to assert himself and control the dynamics. And so Yaacov "holds his silence", and he lets others have the last word, and he "hears" but does not react, and he "observes" letting the process unfold in the way it needs to. Yaacov, the most passionate of the Avot, the one who showed anger on several occasions when he felt wronged, can now, as he reaches the place of inner quiet and fulfillment, sit tight and assume a place in the background. He no longer has the impulse to react.

I believe my father reached that place in his own life, a place of inner satisfaction, where one knows who s/he is and has nothing more to prove. It is a blessed place. And when one gets there one no longer has the urge to combat the wrongs of the world, though sometimes one must. In that place one has patience and even when responding responds with a deliberateness and thoughtfullness, not in a frenzy.

The truth we are being taught through the unfolding story of our father Yaacov is that not all our passion, even for the good things, is a sign of our inner well-being.
When we are reactive to things, even though the cause be just, it is likely because we are unsettled ourselves and have not yet come to a place of inner peace. Strong emotional responses only arise in the person in a state of inner unrest. True the cause of the emotional reaction maybe something external.I may be reacting to the wrongdoing of my child or my husband's insensitivity or some inexcusable injustice of life. Yet I would not react to the situation the way I do unless I was already in flux within. The strength of my response says more about me than about the circumstances to which I am reacting.

I hope in my life and yours we will come to that place where we no longer need to fight every battle, react to every hurt. I pray we will know the settledness within that will give us the wherewithall to have patience and be thoughtfull even in times of duress. I know that kind of 'shalem' only comes through a life's journey. Most of all it requires that we be truly happy with our self as we are.

Yet in the end, the goal of a blessed life is not to win every battle but rather to reach a place where we do not feel the urgency so strong to make them our fight.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Avoid or Confront ?

Many years ago Paul Simon sang a popular song titled "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". In essence the song's message was that we seem to find many varied ways to bring endings to relationships, all of them meant to avoid having to say a meaningful and honest goodbye.

The Parsha of this week gives evidence to the truth of Simon's insight. In the parsha of Vayetze, near the end, Yaacov decides to return from the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, after twenty years and return to his family and birthplace.
Yaacov is a much changed man over those twenty years. He came poor and leaves wealthy. Moreover he came a bachelor and leaves with four wives and 12 children.
Yaacov has every reason to say goodbye to his father-in-law. His leaving would certainly leave a vacuum. Yaacov and his entourage mattered. Yet Yaacov chooses to flee, not telling Lavan or his wive's family that he was departing.

Its clear Yaacov prefers to avoid the farewells. And why? Well just look at the earlier sections of the same reading of this week.

After fourteen years with Lavan and after Yosef is born the Torah tells us that Yaakov thinks to move-on. This time, unlike later, Yaacov begs leave from his father-in-law explaining that its time to go. In response Lavan pleads with Yaacov to stay, and offers him a chance to make real money. Seeing an opportunity for himself and his family, Yaacov decides to stay another six years.
So why this time when preparing to leave does Yaacov do as the Paul Simon song suggests and "slips out the back Jack".

The Torah itself alludes to the answer. When Yaacov first thought to leave the relationship with Lavan was on cordial, if not warm, terms. Yaacov had little and would leave with little. Saying goodbye was unlikely to cause discomfort. Six years later the Torah tells us that Yaacov was painfully aware of Lavan's resentment toward him. He was embittered that Yaacov was no longer the dependent sheppard but rather a wealthy man of means. Lavan found Yaacov's metamorphosis disturbing. It made him envious. Yaacov knew that saying goodbye now would inevitably bring on recriminations and ill will. In Yaacov's mind it was better to avoid than confront.

We know all too well the preferance to avoid rather than confront. In our own lives over and over we avoid the painful goodbyes preferring instead to find a way to "slip out the back..." And its not only the goodbyes we avoid because we fear confrontation. Often we choose not to say hello to people we fear will be reactive to us. We pretend we don't recognize someone, or cross the street so we don't have to acknowkledge them and deal with the complexities of our connection to them. Moreover so often we hide our feelings from others, even those closest to us. We choose, at times, to lie so as to create the pretense of shalom, when in reality its not real peace we have gained but rather avoidance of an honest expression of self and a chance for healing and conflict resolution.

Unless we risk confrontation with its unpleasantness we stand no chance of resolving our conflicts and finding our way to the peace that may be there for us on the other side.

Yaacov discovered that very lesson in his attempt to avoid confrontation with Lavan.
What happened after Yaacov fled? The Torah tells us that Lavan chased after him. A strong and forceful confrontation ensued, the very thing Yaacov wanted to avoid. Harsh and heated words were exchanged.
Only after each, Yaacov and Lavan, had expressed the fullness of their feelings was a reconcilliation possible, one that indeed occurrs at the reading's end.
At the close of the story Lavan and Yaacov come to an understanding. They sit down to a feast. No, they are not friends. But they are reconciled. Each comes to closure with the other and with a sense of personal integrity. Isn't that what peace is all about?

Not surprisingly when Yaacov has another confrontation looming, this one with his brother Esav who has sworn to take vengence on him, Yaacov does not avoid. Rather than flee, Yaacov send messengers to Esav and sets up the rendezvous even as we will read in next week's portion. Yaacov learned his lesson. Avoidance is understandable but a poor substitute for honest confrontation.

The challenge for we who walk in Yaacov's footsteps is will we too summon up the courage to risk confronting the persons and issues that hang over us. Will we find a way to stop avoiding and speak our truth? To flee offers a momentary relief but no potential for resolution. Only in the honest encounter is there opportunity for healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom