Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ticket to Heaven

I will tell you a secret. Each morning at 4:15am I take my dog, Frankie, for a walk.
The purpose of the walk is simple. I leave the house shortly after and don't get home til near 8:00am. The walk is so Frankie can relieve himself and so we don't have to deal with accidents in the house. Most mornings Frankie leaves major business on our walks. And it's for me to bag it and dispose of it. But now here comes the secret.
You can be sure, no one is on the streets at 4:15am. I know that if I choose to simply walk away from Frankies droppings no one will be the wiser. I wrestle with myself, do the right thing and bag it...or walk away? While no one has any idea of my early morning battle with my conscience and even a victory goes unnoticed, when I indeed pick it up and do the right thing, I give myself a pat on the back.

This week I found support for my resolve to overcome the temptation and do the right thing from a section in the Parsha of Tzav. Most of the reading deals with instructions to the Kohanim, the Priests,on how to bring the ritual offerings in the Temple. Each offerring is reviewed with it's attendant requirements. Surely for the Kohain it must have been exhilirating to officiate in the Temple and be the one to serve as medium between Israel and G-d, to enter holy places where no one else could go, to wear distinguishing fine clothes, and to conduct rituals filled with meaning and symbolism. But that's not where the Torah commences its directives to the priest. The Torah's first imperative to him is far less imperious.

The Torah begins by commanding the Kohain to each morning clean the alter from the ashes, the residue of the sacrifices of the night before, a ritual known as "T'rumat Hadeshen". A handful of the ashes he is to place by the side of the 'mizbaiyach', the alter. The rest he is to carry outside the camp and dispose of it in a clean place.

There are no janitors in the Temple, no maintanence men. The clean-up work belongs to the priests themselves. And moreover it's holy work. The Torah tells us that when the Kohain takes the ashes outside of the camp to dispose of them he must first change his clothes from the ones he wore when he served inside the Temple earlier.
The Talmud makes clear however that the change of clothes does not mean he should put on his jeans and tee. Actually he is required to continue to wear his priestly clothes when doing the 'garbage detail'. The Talmud tells us that in mentioning the change of clothes the Torah only wanted the Kohain to switch from his better quality priestly clothes to ones not quite so good, all in order that the good clothes not get dirty. But absolutely, even in taking out the Temple's excess, the kohain remains in holy uniform. This is holy work.

In reflecting on the lessons from this week's parsha the Jerusalem Talmud remarks "These laws are meant to teach us that there is no room for personal grandiosity in the palace of the king". And so the Kohain, the most esteemed member of the Jewish community, is expected to take out the residue from the Temple. It is part of his sacred work, even as much as is the offerring of the daily incense.

Shabbat Ha'gadol, the Sabbath which precedes Pesach, in most years falls when we read this week's parsha of Tzav. I think there is a meaningful connection between the content of the parsha and the context of our lives. We are all pre-occupied with readying for Passover. A big piece of making ready is the cleaning of the home and the removal of the chametz, the leavened products. At one level cleaning seems to be an instrumental good. The cleaning is only so that the house be free of forbidden products on Pesach. The chametz-free house is the goal. Cleaning is the way to get there. Those who go away for Pesach can avoid the need to clean altogether.
In that light it's no wonder the work can often feel tedious and uninspiring.

But the Torah this week gives us another perspective. The cleaning of the Temple and it's alter was a mitzvah, a holy rite, reserved for the kohain in full dress. Cleaning of the Temple and the disposing of the ashes of the 'mizbayach' was not an instrumental good. It was a sacred task, a privelege to perform. In the personal life of a Jew and his/her family the home is like the Temple. When the woman and/or man busy themselves getting rid of things that don't belong to the holiday, when they free their environs of the forbidden, they are doing a holy task in its own right. Like the Kohain in the Bait Hamikdash, in removing the 'garbage', that which does not belong, the woman/man is investing her/himself in an act of sanctification.
Those who go away miss this mitzvah! Indeed they are exempt. But they lose the privelege!

The cleaning of the home and the removal of chametz is a much a holy work as is the eating of matzah on seder night.
The act of house-cleaning when it involves readiness for Pesach belongs to everyone, as much to the most noble and learned as to the ordinary. As the Jerusalem Talmud said "there is no room for personal grandiosity in the palace of the king".

Let me go back to where we began, to me and Frankie and our early morning walk and conscience call. I have often thought that when I get to heaven and they say to me "Nu what have you done in your life worth anything that you should claim a place in life everlasting?". I will at least be able to claim all those early mornings, when no one knew the difference, that I was sensitive to the kedusha, the holiness of Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael and I picked up Frankie's residue rather than leave it on the street. If nothing else, let my love of the Holy Land and respect for it be enough.

Enjoy your Sabbath rest oh you weary ones. Know you are doing holy work in making ready for Pesach. You are the priests of your home. The end of next week you will enjoy the clearly sacred. You will place all the ritual items for Pesach on your table, your personal mizbayach. But it is the work of this week, the work of the ready-making of the home, that is every bit as sacred.
And who knows if it is not the work of the cleaning and disposing, the work least glorified and the one so many seek to avoid, that will be the mitzvah that gets you your ticket to heaven.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Gift of Moral Lapses

What is the most difficult time in the life of a parent? What challenge causes the most angst? What do we dread?
For me, and I suspect for many of you, the hardest part of being a parent is when we need to admit to a child that we did wrong.
And I do not mean to aplogize when we said or did something harsh to our child. To say "I am sorry" is not comfortable, but it's not unduly stressful. I mean when we have done something morally wrong, when we have compromised the values we preach.
What parent has not cheated at something or other, lied in a way that was harmful, deceived to save money, or been inappropriate with words or actions. What parent has not sometime or other in their life done the clearly wrongful. And even if at the time the child may be too young to protest, we know sooner or later, they will grow up, perhaps go to therapy, one way or another come to ask us the hard questions about who we are and what we did.

This week we begin the Book of Vayikra with the parsha by the same name. In the context of the reading we are told of a special sacrifice that needs to be brought by the King if he committed an unintentional sin. The Torah begins that section with the words "Ahser nasi yecheta..." "When the King will sin.." The Sages point out the unusual term of "asher" to begin the portion rather that the more typical word "eem" meaning "if" the King will sin. They go on to say that "asher" is used to imply a double message since the word "ashrai" can also mean "fortunate". To quote the Talmud, " Fortunate is the generation whose King feels impelled to bring a sin offerring for his unintentional much more so will he feel regret over the sins he does willfully".

Indeed it is the rare ruler who expresses regret over wrongdoing. It is very hard for the one in authority to admit a mistake how much more so to publically repent over having done the morally sinful. Yet we might wonder, why is it that a generation whose ruler did the wrong and admits to it is so blessed. Would it not be preferable had the ruler not done wrong in the first place? Would it not be better to have a king who did not have a moral or spiritual lapse?

The Talmud is teaching us something most profound here.In truth a generation whose ruler sins is blessed in a way that a generation whose ruler has never failed is not.
And why? Because when one has the 'perfect' authority in his/her life one can often revel in being connected to the authority figure and never feel the need to grow or make something of themselves. How many a person will tell you how great their "yichus" is, that s/he comes from this great personage or that, and use that to claim their excellence while being totally mediocre in themselves. How many a person will go on and on talking about how wonderful their mother or father was in a way that you know their children could not talk about them. And why not? Because they had not the motivation to become. It was enough for them to be the child of greatness. They felt no need to become great in themselves.

When the leader sins, when the King has a lapse, or for that matter when the parent commits a moral blunder s/he throws the burden to excell back on the shoulders of his/her charge. We can no longer get our sense of worthiness by identification.
We need to become worthy in our own right. There is no gift greater than that, and it only comes about when the authority has failed.

They tell a story of the Kozhinitzer Magid, that a childless couple came to him asking that he intercede on their behalf so G-d may grant them a son. He heard their tearful yearning and said, "The numerical value of son in Hebrew is 52. Give me 52 kopeks and I will pray for you". The couple were astonished. They argued, "We are poor. How can we afford such a price." The Rebbe remained adamant. No matter their protests he would not budge. Finally exasparated the man got up and told his wife, "For that much money we don't need the Rebbe. We will go home and pray ourselves!." And with that they left. The Rebbe then smiled a knowing smile and said to himself "So be it."

The story is compelling. Only once the couple gave up on the authority could they come to pray in the way they needed to for the results they wanted. To the extent that they gave total reverance to the Rebbe, they could not fully reach their own potential.
Only once they detached from him would they find the excellence available within themselves.

All of us who mature come to a time when we are forced to confront our parent's limitations. When young we saw them as demi-gods. They were idealized. Some of us gave up the idealization early, other held on until reality smacked us in the face and we had no choice but to see our parent's failings. The death of a demi-god is sad. But it is not really bad. On the contrary, it is only once the idealized parent is put to bed that our true self has a chance to emerge.

It is for this reason that the rabbis of the Talmud called the generation whose King publically admitted and repented his sinfullness "fortunate". True for the leader him/herself it might be better had s/he committed no misdeed. But the people who discover that their King is liable to err are blessed. Thereby they are compelled to strive for excellence for themselves and not rely on the identification with the all perfect sovereign.

You and I as parents are pained when we have to face our delinquincies in front of our children and grandchildren. We feel we have failed them as well as ourselves.
We will make every effort to minimize or deny our wrong-doing. We fear the cost of acknowledging the truth on our relationship with them. But the reality is that only when our children and grandchildren give up the idealization of us can they move out of our shadows and fully become who they are meant to be. Our sins may shame us but they free the ones we are responsible to.

We may paraphrase the words of our Sages and say "Fortunate are the children whose parents acknowledge their sinfullness and repent".
Who knows if it is not a gift more precious that 'yichus'. Pedigree speaks to the past. Being open to admit our moral lapses makes possible the future for the one's we love.

Shabbat Shalom

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Shame to Grace

In Israel for many months we lived with the trial and eventual conviction of the former president, Moshe Katzav, for rape and other crimes. It was painful to watch the drama unfold as Katzav insisted on his innocense even as the evidence seemed to mount against him. And still now several months since he began his prison sentence he continues to make headlines as he refuses to accept his status as a prisoner and comply with prison rules. His plight engenders anger in some, pity and/or compassion in others. But for all the story is a sad one. Few have been so high only to fall so low.

One question remains. Is the story also tragic? By tragic I mean,is Moshe Katzav's life and story now beyond the possibility of redemption? Surely the former president has been disgraced. The one time leader of the Land is now a convicted felon and of the most perverse crimes. He has gone from "bait hanasi" to "bait hakeleh". His failure is both personal and professional and it is of gigantic proportion.
Is there any hope for this man? Is there any possibility the quality of his life and person could yet be saved?

This is Israel we are talking about. Israel is not a forgiving country. Politicians here cannot do as they sometimes do elsewhere, say they made a mistake, apologize and gain forgiveness. Here if you have made a mistake, especially if you live in the public eye, you are branded. Politicians don't acknowledge wrong here and take their chances. They deny! Denial to them is the only option. Olmert denies, Katzav denies,
prominent rabbis deny. It's hard to think of anyone accused of wrongdoing who admitted wrong. Denial is to them the only recourse. To admit is to face the end, not only in politics but in social living.

So is that it? Katzav is doomed? There is no hope for healing in his life?

Let's see what the Torah has to tell us. This Shabbat we read in the Torah the portions of Vayakehl-Pekudai. With the readings we close out the second book of the Torah,the Book of Sh'mot. The readings complete the story of the building of the Mishkan, the House of G-d built by the Israelites in the wilderness. The story of our ancestors erecting a place for the Divine in their midst can be experienced from many different angles. Look at this angle with me.

It is truly amazing that this People who not too long before the Mishkan was ordered committed a most humiliating sin, the worship of the Golden Calf, now several months later, are about to dedicate this edifece of supreme holiness, a tabernacle to G-d in their midst. How can it be? How can this People go from being so hopeless that G-d told Moshe "let Me destroy them and make a new nation from you" to being worthy enough to host G-d in an unprecedented intimacy. The disgrace of Israel, the nation, is no less than the personal disgrace of Katzav. One would wonder, how could this People ever find redemption? How could their sense of self be redeemed after so horrific and compromising a betrayal.

I believe that if one is alive there is always a possibility of redemption. No matter how awful one's personal disgrace it is not hopeless...even in Israel.
But the road towards that salvation of self is not an easy one. It demands a significant price. Let me explain.

In the Psalms, in a chapter we recite on festive occasions during the Hallel, King David proclaims in joy, "The stone the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone of the structure." According to the tradition David was referring to himself here. He was a person without the pedigree to be king. He was scorned and rejected as unworthy to his role. Yet ultimately he rose to prominance. And how?
The answer is that one who is compromised indeed has no hope so long as s/he remains a stone, isolated and unique. If one has been disgraced one cannot assume the title and prestige of the "rock", as the prince and special one and hope to find a place.
Once we have been humiliated we can indeed never return to where we were. We can no longer be the star of the show. The star is lost to us and it is lost forever.

But that does not mean we have no way to be restored. We can indeed be rehabilitated and yet have a meaningful place in the social fabric. But our place will no longer be as the hero or savior, leader or star. Now our place will be as part of the community, a piece within the wall, indeed a cornerstone, a connecting link, serving others. We can have a wonderful place in society even after our disgrace, but we no longer can stand alone. We need to accept that we are generals no more. We too are now infantry and together we can have the healing that alone was not possible for us.

That is the story Torah teaches us of the Israelites. After the worship of the Golden Calf the Torah tells us that they had to remove the "crowns" that were on their heads. They were no longer the princes and princesses they had been. The first-born had to surrender their status as priests to the Levites, who had not sinned. Israel could redeem itself but only if we accepted our ordinariness and gained our esteem by being part of a whole. Yes, we were able to build a Mishkan, but how? We did it through annonymous donations, and donations of the half-shekels where the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the whole community gave the same amount and as one.

Their is no personal disgrace that is beyond our abilty to recover from. But recovery has a price. If you want it you need to get past the obstinacy of trying to hold on to what you had and instead remake yourself in a different image, an image far more modest, one in which you are a part of the group rather than as it's stand-alone leader. Katzav need not stonewall. He need not protest his innocence or else die. He can admit guilt and yet have a life. But it will not be the same life. He will need to embrace a new identity and a more modest sense of self. And when/if he can he will find their is both a place and a need for part of the wall that is Israel the nation.

The great truth King David told us in Psalms is that if we in fact remake ourselves from the singular stone to the piece of the wall to our amazement we will not only find acceptance, we will find joy, true and unexpected joy. That which we dread will in fact make us happy in a way we could never have imagined. It was of this metamorphosis that David wrote in the following verse "This is the day Hashem has made let us be glad and rejoice in it".

I know of what I write. I have made this journey. I know it to be true. No one's life is beyond redemption, no matter how great their lapse. What is necessary is to surrender the crown and set oneself within the community as a whole. It is in the context of community that one then may make his/her contributions in accord with his/her gifts. And the miracle is the resultant sense of belonging and a self that knows again a place of rest and acceptance.

May our day soon come when we can say "This is the day Hashem has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it." It is in our hands!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Key

There are many components of my character I would like to change. Problem is that change is such a daunting enterprise and there are so many areas in which I need to improve. It would be great if I could find a key, one place I could work on and improve that would remedy everything else.
And alas I found it. If there is a key to charactological change, if there is one enhancement that can affect many many parts of our personality it is the ability to accept that which happens to us as for the best. In the terms of tradition, it is to say no matter what befalls us, "Gam zu l'tova", "This too is for the good".

Think about it. My tendency to get moody or angry or despondent when things don't go my way, will simply disappear if I truly accept that all that happens to me, even if not to my liking, is in fact for the good. I will not longer be resentful or even jealous of others, since what I have is what is meant for me, and what not was never meant to be mine. I will not carry grudges. After all nothing anyone did to me, even if their behavior was in itself wrong, was not coming to me. Why should I then hold on to bad feelings towards them.
The way I see it, change the way I respond to the circumstances of my life and I can become over-all a much better person.

Yet "this too is for the good" does not seem to always be the value endorsed by tradition.
Tonight is Purim (for me In Jerusalem tomorrow night). One clear theme of Purim and of the Shabbat which precedes it is to hate the Amalekites and to commit ourselves
their total annihilation. Yet we might wonder, if we are called upon to experience even the wrong that occurrs in the light of "gam zu l'tova" then why hate Amalek? Why is Haman so villified? What he did, his intentions, were for the good. After all, "this too is for the good".

I think we need to spend a bit more time reflecting on our "key" to a better psyche.
I mean, even though we are encouraged to see all that happens to us as for the good, that does not mean we should whitewash evil! When a husband abuses his wife its absurd to believe she is meant to smile at her husband and say "gam zu l'tova".It is not conceivable that we should love the perpetrator of acts of evil because we put a positive spin on the outcome.

The truth is that even if we bless the things in our life that were not what we wanted we still need to call the act itself "evil". For us it may be a good, but the act itself could certainly be evil, especially if the wrong-doer intended us harm. "Gam zu l'tova" does not mean we should minimize the evil done in the world whether to us or to others. We need to call out evil and brand as evil those who do evil and intend harm to others. Haman was evil, even if what he intended brought about great good for the Jewish People. His intended harm turned out very much for the good as it brought about a national renewal for the Jewish People and a rebirth of our spirit. Haman's plot is the perfect example of "gam zu l'tova. It engendered a renaissance unprecedented in our history. But that does not make Haman's designs less perverse or him less wicked. We are clear on Purim to distinguish between the thanksgiving for the wondrous results of the season and the expressions of hate towards the character who initiated the process with designs for our destruction.

And the same is true for Amalek. Their attack of our ancestors in the wilderness shortly after leaving Egypt, an attack without any provocation and motivated purely by hate, was an ultimate expression of evil. It warranted our eternal hatred.
Yet the impact of their attack was to foster a solidarity of the fledgeling nation, even as Haman's plot would do all those centuries later. It was after the Israelites defeated Amalek in a fierce battle at Refeedim that we read the nation travelled from Refeedim and came to Mount Sinai. The Talmud interprets the text to teach that this was the one time in the entire wilderness journey that the People were "as one person with one heart". That was the prerequisite for the giving of the Torah which was to occurr a few days later. And all this was made possible by the battle with Amalek at Refeedem where the evil intended for us fostered in response a national unity. Again here, while it's clear "gam zu l'tova" it does not make any less nefarious the Amalekite attack.

In truth we need to find ways to embrace the circumstances of our lives. We need to find ways to accept both the big disappointments and the little as being what was meant for us...that it really could not have been otherwise. When my plane gets delayed or when my stock takes a tumble I need to find a way to believe it for the good. And even when someone else causes me harm, a harm I do not feel I deserve, my life will be enhanced if I can get past being resentful and find the means to bless the evil act as a good. But at the same time we need to be vigilant to name evil intent for what it is and to condemn it. We cannot minimize the harm of another and excuse them saying "it turned out or will turn out for the good". An abusive husband, to the extent he is unrepentent, is evil. He should be despised. A parent who harms his/her child with no remorse is to be condemned without qualification.
Gam zu l'tova, while true, does not bleach the evil out of an act with evil intent.

So I am determined. I am determined to change my character and improve by blessing the bad things that happen to me as being ultimately for the good, even if it is not clear to me exactly how in the moment. Looking back on my life, looking back on the history of our People only serves to confirm that so much of that which happened, even if not desired, was indeed for the good. I can believe in the small and large of today that it too, should not upset me even if it does not go my way.
But nice guy though I hope to be, I will not be silent in the face of wrong-doing.
I will call out evil as evil and combat it where I can.

Purim is not only my chag. It is my teacher. And this year its lesson will hopefully make for a happier and better me.

Chag Samayach
Shabbat Shalom