Thursday, May 31, 2012

Myself as Witness

This week I found myself in an unusual role. Most typically I play a lead part in family life. I tend to be outspoken and, leo that I am, leadership comes natural.
Over the last few days I have watched others star while I have been the appreciative audience. First, my eighteen year old daughter, Bess, travelled to the United States on her own for Shavuot for something purely personal. She set her own agenda and made it work. I watched and listened as Bess became adult before my eyes. She engaged everyone from airport security to strangers who hosted her for Yom Tov meals as a peer, exhibiting personal power and competence. All I could say was "Bravo!"

And then the other woman in my life, my wife Lindy, made her debut on stage appearing in the Encore production of "My Fair Lady" here in Jerusalem. I, together with her family were part of the large audience who heard and saw her sing and dance in the ensemble. For Lindy it was a dream come true. From her youth she had wanted to perform. She had the talent but not the opportunity. And now finally she had her chance. While not the star of the show by any means, she was our star. And most importantly she did something purely for herself, the fulfillment of a life's ambition. Here too, I was not the lead, nor even the support. The role I played was witness.

Is witness to another's milestone an important work? I mean, all it takes is showing up. The answer is, you bet!

Have you ever thrown a party and no one came? or even if people came, have you known the fear that maybe no one would? Most of us have lived at different times with the fear that our lives are irrelevant to others, that what happens to us doesn't really matter to anyone else. I will admit to you that sometimes I have fretted over whether anyone would come to my funeral. Friends have admitted in confidence that it hurts them when people they expected did not show up to the wedding or bar mitzvah they made. The invitee thought their attendance would make little difference. They thought what does it matter one person or two more or less. But my friends who hosted the event felt slighted that their simcha was not worth the effort for this person to attend. True the invitee was only to be a witness to the occasion of another. But being witness makes the event real in the eyes of the particpants. It adds immeasurabley to the event's significance.

The Torah teaches us this value this week. In the parsha of Naso, we find the "birkhat kohanim", the Priestly Blessings. In the third blessing the kohaneem say "May Hashem lift His face unto you and bless you with peace." What does it mean for G-d to "lift his face"? The Ibn Ezra understands the idea of G-d lifting His face, "This is the opposite of G-d avoiding seeing you (one of the curses for disobedience). Here G-d will be with you wherever you go."

There is no greater blessing than to know one is noticed and in every passage of one's life. So much of what causes suffering is the sense that my troubles go unnoticed, no one cares. A simcha is made whole by the presence of others who validate it's meaning. When the priests bless us that Hashem always be with us they are not asking that He help us or alter our fate for the better. They are simply praying that G-d be witness to the events of our lives and in every detail.
We are being blessed that we experience our lives being lived before the ultimate witness, G-d Himself. In and of itself that does not change our circumstances and yet being witnessed and by our G-d makes all the difference to the quality of our experience.

We are called to emulate the ways of G-d. We too need to take to heart the importance of being witness. We need to be mindful when we have opportunity to attend the simcha or sadness of another and to realize we are not just guests. We have a role to play. True, it's not our show. And we won't even get billing on the program. But the audience too is part of that which makes a performance real.
Without us the show of life would never be the same for those in the central roles.

The good news is that to witness does not take a lot of work. We don't have to do much more than show up. The bad news is that for the very same reason, there is little excuse we can make for failing to show up for another's life milestones.

Being witness is a holy work. To you who take it on I say, "Bravo!".

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Problems and Change

I begin with a story, a true story. A rebbe in an out-of town Yeshiva was having great difficulty with one of the boys in his shiur. In class the boy was disruptive and unruly. He seemed entirely unable to focus. At wits end, the rebbe called the parents and let them know that either they put their son on some ADD meds or he will have to be thrown out of the school. As one would imagine, the parents were quite distraught with the developments. They expressed to the rebbe the fear that other boys in the class would learn that their son was needing to take the medications and would tease him, thereby making matters worse. The rebbe had an idea. Each morning at 10:00AM he sent one of the boys to the teacher's lounge to bring him a coffee.
He suggested that from now on he would send their son on this mission and at that time he could take the pill he needed and no one would be the wiser. And so it was.

A month later the parents called the rebbe to see how their son was doing. To their delight, the rebbe told them that their son had made great improvement. He was much more focused in his studies and attentive. For his part, the son also affirmed that things were much better. The only difference in the respective stories was that whereas the rebbe saw the change in the classroom as a reflection of the change in the son, the son experienced the change in classroom dynamics as an outgrowth of change in the rebbe. You see, the boy confided in his parents that each morning at 10:00 when he went to get the rebbe's coffee, rather than take his pill, the son put the pill in the rebbe's drink. It was the rebbe, unknowingly, who was taking the meds, not the son.

To the rebbe's credit, on learning this shocking development, rather than become defensive and angry, he was open to the the self revelation implicit in what had transpired. He owned the truth that the lesson here was his to learn.

This week, on the eve of Shavuot we read the parsha of Bamidbar, the first reading of the fourth book of the Torah. Once again, as we read in the book of Sh'mot, a census is taken, this time in anticipation of the conquest of the land of Israel.
All the males above twenty and able to fight are counted. Then the People are ordered to camp and march in accord with the tribal flags and in a very prescribed procession. Most of the commentaries understand the istructions G-d gave Moshe here as ways and means to prepare the nation for battle and conquest.

Yet they are toubled. Why the need for all this? Israel was going to conquer the land by dint of the spirit of the Divine. The land was promised them. That they rejected it and needed to wait another near 40 years to enter and then to engage in battle after battle was a later development. At this stage of the nation's story Canaan would be theirs in fulfillment of G-d's commitment, no matter their military prowess. Why then is there the need for all this readiness and anticpation? What matters it how many soldiers there are or how they march?

May I suggest that the story of our ancestors in the wilderness parallels the story of the rebbe with which we began. Let's understand that story a bit deeper. While it was true that when the rebbe took the medication the classroom changed, that does not mean the issues prior were caused by the rebbe. On the contrary, the issues of an unruly learning environment were the result of a misbehaving student. All the story shows is that to fix a problem we somtimes don't need to go and attend to the thing that is acting up. We can make adjustments to something else in the system and that will cause everything to work as it needs to. This model is called systems analysis. A change anywhere in the system can effect the whole and often bring about a remedy.

When G-d instructed Moshe how to prepare Israel for the impending invasion of the land He was, as it were, telling them "I will make miracles for you. I will bring your enemies to the point of surrender. But you need to make yourselves ready. You need to prepare yourselves. In adjusting your selves you make possible the miracle of the victories over your adversaries. You won't need to fight or to defeat them physically. A 'tikun' in you will be enough to bring about the end desired.
A change in you will change the system. Becoming ready to prevail will be enough to prevail.

So often we see things we feel need to be changed. Like the rebbe in our story, at times we find intolerable behaviors in people close to us, a spouse, a child, family,or friend. We feel a great urgency to rectify the situation. We want the other to change to make it right. Yet the story of the rebbe and of the parsha affirms that we don't always need to go to the source of the problem to fix it. On the contrary, sometimes confronting the 'cause' of our distress in the hopes that they will improve only makes them more resistant.

By taking a systemic approach to the problem we come to realize that every player in the drama can impact the outcome, not just the one acting out. We don't need to give the 'meds' to the identified patient. We can take it ourselves and thereby create the change we need to see occurr. We are no different than the rebbe. The problem may not be caused by us but we can still be the one's to fix it.

We all deal with problems and all the time. Being mature in life is getting to the stage where we are less interested in whose wrong or right and instead focused on who can best resolve the issue. In most cases, the answer is Us!
All we need to figure out is how!

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Samayach

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What I Know About You

Do you remember Leo Buscaglia? He was a psychologist and self help guru in the eighties who preached love and self-acceptance. He was famous for encouraging people to hug each other. While his time in the limelight has long since past, he did say some memorable things. One I remember and believe to be true is his secret of happiness. He said that the key to being happy is remembering that no matter one's circumstances, how old one is or how marginalized, one can always make a difference! We need to remember that we can always make a difference!

I was reminded of Buscaglia's insight when I reviewed the parsha of this week, that of B'chukotai. The parsha contains two very different themes. The first is G-d's detailed revelation to us of the consequences of mitzvah observance. The Torah, we are told, is not optional. We are mandated to keep her and uphold her requirements.
Observe the commandmants and we are promised in the reading great bounty and blessing. Fail to observe, stray from the law, and we will suffer horrific consequences including the most severe penalty,exile from our land.

And then the Torah moves to a totally other theme as it closes out the book of Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. The Torah gives us the laws of 'arichin', 'valuations', in which it details how much money we need give to the Temple if we pledge our value to the holy. The Torah discusses a person's 'worth' in this context as dependent on gender and age. The range is from 50 shekel for a man in his prime to 3 shekel for a female child under five.

The question that begs asking is what is the meaning of the flow of themes here?
What is the connection between the laws of valuation with which we end the reading and the promises and admonishments of the verses prior?

I suspect here Leo might say is a Torah text that supports his truth. Let me explain.

What is central to the story of the punishment and reward is that both the good and the bad that befall us have little to do with our personal behavior. There is no clear correlation between our individual fate in this world and our relative goodness. The righteous man or woman may have terrible calamaties and the wicked man or woman may know a life of ease and success. Tradition has long taught that the consquences of our deeds will, in most instances, not be felt until the next world, 'olam haba'.

The great blessing of Torah adherence promised in the reading here is for a nation that is true to its faith. And similarly the tragedies instore for us are meant for if/when we fail as a people to live up to our charge. G-d is talking to Israel, the nation. Yes, as individuals we have acountability to live a devout life, but here when we speak of the blessings and the curses we are speaking of the fate of a people. What happens to us as persons is part of Israel's story. And even if we are personally without fault our dye is cast with the people to whom we belong, both for the good and for the bad.

If a person feels s/he cannot impact his/her circumstances and the circumstances of others s/he feels powerless. S/he belongs. S/he is part of the group. But the price paid is a heavy one. S/he must endure the fate of the group and s/he cannot change the outcome. As Buscaglia surmised, every person needs to feel s/he can make a difference, at least some difference, at least effect some consequent. Even if we are receiving the blessings promised, if we, as inviduals, can in no way effect what happens we feel powerless and compromised. The blessings lose their taste.

It is for this reason the Torah gives us the laws of valuations following the 'tochacha', the detailed account of reward and punishment. As powerless as we are as individuals to change the fate of the nation, and as much as our fate is tied to our people, we still can make a difference. We are yet incredably powerful as persons to effect the holiness and the sanctity of the world around us. With our words alone we can sanctify objects to the Temple so much so that if anyone used them for personal purposes after we made them holy the consequence for them is severe. Moreover each of us, no matter our life station, has value vis a vis the sacred. To pledge my value to the Temple or the value of someone else is to make a commitment. We may not be able to change the fate of a nation but each of us has worth and can make an impact.

Each of us needs to feel we make a difference. Those who study the aged have long found that a very high percentage of them live with depression. It's not that they lack anything in their life. They are not grieving losses or made unhappy by pain.
They are simply showing the consequences of living while feeling one no longer makes a difference. Depression is a natural outcome.

And young people, our children, who often evidence anger and rebellion, despite having it all, what do they lack? Anger is often the flip side of depression and a result of a lingering sadness. May I suggest that here too the young are expressing the feeling of powerlessness over the sense of not being able to make a difference.
Yes, they have it all. But just as the parsha taught, even when we receive blessings, if we feel we do not make a difference we feel compromised.
Do our children make a difference to us? How? Do they know they make a difference?
We need to give our children more opportunity to feel we need them! And we need to let ourselves as parents experience the vulnerability of needing!

Sometimes you are given something complete, perhaps a theory or a even a Torah thought. It is seamless and all the components fit together. You can find no flaws in the presentation. But yet you have this feeling that something just isn't right. Truth is you could break your head trying to find the part that doesn't fit and you will not succeed.
The question you need to ask yourself about the material is "What's missing?"
"What's missing" is a question that will undo many an otherwise perfect presentation.

We live in a world of great prosperity. We, as Jews, have unparelleled wealth and security. Yet we live with depression and its children, addiction, self destructive behavior, divorce etc. Instead of looking for whats wrong with what we have, we might do better to ask "What's missing?"

May I suggest, as Leo might have, and as I believe the Torah does this Shabbat, what's missing is the sense that we make a difference. And we do! No, more, we make an absolute and unique difference!

I don't know you. I don't know anything about one thing. I know,
You make a difference!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

To Shun or Reach Out?

What should be our attitude towards our fellow Jews who committed crimes? Here in Israel Chagai Amir, the brother of Yigal Amir, the man who assisinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was released from prison after serving 16 years for aiding his brother in his nefarious deed. Some in Israel protested his release. They pledged to continue to harass him. He remains unrepentent for his part as an accomplice in this most vile crime. He owns up to no wrongdoing. Amir does not seem to deserve much sympathy.

But what about others who have done wrong? What about those who confess and regret their crime? What should be our attitude towards them?
Once I lived in a small Jewish community in the States where a member of the community committed a crime, a moral lapse. Some in the community were outraged. They called for him to be shunned and branded an outcast, virtually expelled. If we were living in an earlier period they would have found 'cherem', excommunication, an appropriate response.

Is that the attitude the community is meant to have to its offenders? Many don't think so. They visit Jewish men and women in prisons, often incarcerated for the most severe crimes. They offer these offenders emotional and physical support. They want the Jewish convict to feel connected to the Jewish community even in his/her time of disgrace. While the person imprisoned is guilty of a crime s/he remains their brother and/or sister. They feel an obligation to them as to any other Jew in need.

Which attitude is correct? When a person has violated not only the laws of the state but also the laws of conscience, should we let the judicial system take care of them and leave them to suffer the consequences of their wrongdoing? Or do we continue to see them as members of our community, a membership that no crime (if they are repentent) should cause them to forfeit. And if they remain members we are mandated to reach out to them to ease their plight.

In the parsha of B'har we have a strong indicator of the way our tradition looks upon the sinner and the attitude towards him/her it expects from us.
The Torah tell us that if an Israelite, because of his dire circumstances, sells himself to a non-Jew as a slave it is incumbent upon the Jewish community and its members to pay for his redemption. The Talmud in Kidushin tells us that it's not accident that brought the Jew to such an awful predicament that he needed to sell himself to a Goy as a slave. The Talmud, based on the the sequence of verses, understands that the Jewish persons woeful predicament is a direct result of a sin and his refusal to learn his lesson. While I think it would be burdensome and beyond the scope of our present discussion to review the details of the Talmud's take on the story in its particulars, it suffices to say that, according to the Sages, the
Jew enslaved now to the non-Jew is receiving a punishment. He is paying the price for misdeeds. Yet the Talmud makes clear, even though his fate is decreed in response to his inappropriate behaviors, nonetheless we are obligated to make every effort and pay every expense to redeem him.

Yes, the Jewish slave is getting his just deserts. But that is between him and G-d. For our part, we are mandated to secure his release and re-entry into our community.
Shunned? Excommunicated? hardly! We are charged with the obligation to rescue!

This week I happened on a Gemara that taught something similar. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest is mandated to pray for a person who killed another through negligence that he not be found guilty of accidental killing in court and sentenced to exile. If the killer gets sentenced to exile, the Kohen Gadol is, in some important ways, accountable for his failure to intervene successfully through prayer and avert the outcome.

The concept is puzzling. We are talking about a person who did indeed kill, albeit by accident. The court found him guilty of a negligence that he was very much guilty of.Why then should the High Priest be praying that he not get the sentence of exile? He deserves it! It's the Torah law. A person who kill accidentally needs to go into exile to a City of Refuge. Why is the Kohen Gadol liable for not praying with enough fervor for his acquital? Why should he pray for this killer at all? Why should he be acquitted?

Again here we are being taught a vital lesson. The court has it's job to do. It governs by law. Law is impartial and rational, without emotion. But our work is to love. We love as people, as family, as community. Ours is not to say "Let the law take care of the offender and so be it." Our task is to care and reach-out. Ours is to pray that the criminal do as little time as necessary, so long as s/he has learned his/her lesson. Our charge is to show compassion, to mitigate the harshness of the judgement the court may well need to ejudicate. Our calling is to care and to include the sinner and to make certain that s/he feels s/he still belongs!.

Solidarity with the wrong-doer in their time of pennance is a holy work. It demands the best in our character. It's difficult to get past the 'judge' in ourselves and embrace the one who did wrong as a peer. Yet that is our mandate. We are called upon to love the sinner who expresses remorse and to do all in our power to ease his/her circumstances.

Shun or reach out? To shun comes natural. That the biggest proof that it's not the work we are called to. To reach out requires an effort, sometimes huge. To reach out is to extend the borders of our care and to enhance our capacity to include. Reaching out is not so much about the other and their failings but about ourselves and our ability to experience fellowship even with those who have done the wrong. Reaching out is following in the ways of G-d, of whom it is said "Kee lo yedach meemenu needach", "Even the most rejected are never rejected by the Divine".

Shabbat Shalom

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You can also order directly from me via email.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's Unfair!

I go to daven each morning at a shule in my neighborhood that not infrequently struggles for a minyan.Often, even when we have a minyan, we are without a kohen, priest, to recite the Prietly Blessings. Last week a fellow off the street enterred the shule. He was dishevelled and unshaven (and not due to observance of the mourning period of Sefira). His speech was slurred and limitted. He had no tefilin or talis with him. He had the appearance of someone severely compromised of both circumstances and self. Yet this Jew was keen to be part of the minyan. He was given talis and tefilin, which he managed, with some challenge, to put on. Soon after the service got going he went person to person with his hand out, silently pleading for a donation. It was clear to all of us that this man was living on the margins of society and coping with many issues including mental illness.

On this day, while we had a minyan, we were sure their was no kohen in the house. All of a sudden,to the amazement of everyone, when the person leading the prayers got to the place in the repetition of the amida for the Priestly Blessings, this man started taking off his shoes and preparing himself to ascend the duchan to recite the blessings. Silently he claimed his right as a priest to perform the ritual. And so it was. He mounted the elevated space in the front of the synagogue. In response we the assembled stood and bowed our heads ready to receive his blessings. Word by word the one leading the services led this man through the traditional liturgy. On this day in this context, this marginalized, impoverished, and mentally ill man was not only our peer in counting for the minyan. He was our benifactor. He blessed us!

This week we read the parsha of Emor (outside of Israel you read Acharai-Kedoshim). The beginning of the reading lays out disciplines unique to the priests inasmuch as they have an added layer of kedusha, personal holiness,due their mandate to serve in the Temple. The laws of the kohanim also details conditions that invalidate a priest for service. The Torah provides a list of physical blemishes all of which preclude a kohain from performing rituals. And as if this list were not enough the Talmud goes on to add additional blemishes, some of them appearing slight indeed.

The Torah is clear. In order for a priest to serve in the Temple and perform the rituals he needs to be without physcial deformity of any kind. Like the sacrifices themselves that need to be without blemish, the kohen who offers them needs to be without any unusual physical markings.

We are a faith that emphasizes the essence rather than the form. Our tradition has never glorified the externals. We judge an individual on the basis of his/her goodness rather than beauty. As King Shlomo wrote in Proverbs and as we recite in the Eishet Chayil song each Friday night at the Shabbat table, "Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. It is the G-d fearing woman who is to be praised". How is it then that we disqualify a kohen for service simply because of a physical deformity.
The kohen may be a scholar, a tzadik, pure of heart and soul and yet be illegitimate?
How can that be?

The vignette I shared about the kohen in the synagogue seems reflective of the values we are taught to embrace. The laws of the Temple seem brutally unfair.

Tradition offers a variety of explanations to understand the disqualification of the kohen on the basis of being physically compromised. The one that I find most easy to digest argues that the Divine blessing cannot be channelled except through a vessel that is without deformity. The kohen is a vessel to channel the Divine blessings from heaven to earth. Any compromise in the vessel compromises the flow of the blessing G-d intends for us through the worship in the Temple and the service of the priests.

Is it unfair? Is it unfair that a kohen should be ruled out, no matter how good he is as a person simply because he was born with a defect? If I was a kohen would I find it unfair that I was declared invalid for a role I thought meant for me and one my brotherss enjoy?

The answer I think is "Yes!!!". It is unfair indeed. But life is unfair! One of the great and sad realizations we need to come to as we mature is that life is indeed unfair and often unfair. The family we were born into, our appearance, our health, our success or lack of it, relative to others is all unfair! There is no correlation between the relative goodness of a person and the circumstances of their life...and when there appears to be correlation it is more often the exception rather than the rule.

No question more troubled people of faith, from Job to the Sages of the Talmud than "Why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa?".
The disqualified kohen, born with a physical defect, through no fault of his own, can join the rest of us in struggling with life's unfairness. Blemishes make a kohen invaild for service. That's the way it is. It's sad for this person,but it's not bad.

One of the great works of our life is to get over resentments for things that happenned to us that were and are unfair. It is not that we have no right to feel sad about the unfairness we experience. Often we do get the raw end of the stick.
But we need to know that sad is not the same as bad. It's true, what happens to us feels unfair, and as Job proved, no amount of rationalizations offerred can turn unfair into fair. Yet what happens to us is meant for us and is our story. Our task is to live this unfair life, rather than protest it!

I have not seen that kohen who blessed us again since that morning a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps he will return when he finds himself desparate for a few shekels or for a bit of regard. Yes, it was great that he had a moment to rise above the unfairness of his life and assume the priestly mantle. But life for him is far more unfair than for the kohen who, due to a slight blemish, is renderred unfit for service in the Temple while otherwise being fully functional.

What is wonderous is that this Jew, the kohen of my neighborhood, so compromised of life and circumstances, does not let the unfairness of his life prevent him from blessing others!
He refuses to let life's unfairness rob him of his opportunity to be true to his purpose.

I look forward to soon again know the gift of answering "Amen" to his prayers and to again bow my head to receive his blessing!

Shabbat Shalom