Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From Prayer to Objective

At the close of the 'amida', the silent 18 blessing prayer we recite thrice daily we pray "....and let me be silent in the face of those who curse me." What is this stoicism in the face of harangue? It is rooted in a key value cherished by tradition.
No personal virtue is deemed more ennobling than the ability to be silent whilst being humiliated. To not respond to verbal abuse is the greatest of character traits.
And why? Because in the end defense of ourselves comes at the expense of conflict with the one who berates us. Even though we may be right and the shaming unjust, to protest will surely engender argument, indeed personal argument that can easily degenerate into verbal warfare. To control one's impulse to react, even to one's own harm, inorder to preserve the peace is therefore the much preferred response and the one for which one receives great heavenly reward.

In the parsha of Korach for the third time in two weeks Moshe "falls on his face". Last week Moshe reacted thusly when the People, in response to the report of the spies, said "lets turn around and head back to Egypt." Moshe then 'fell on his face', according to Ramban's commentary as an expression of plea, that they not take such potentially disastrous action. In the second occasion this week, Moshe 'falls on his face' in prayer to G-d, as we do symbolically in our daily prayer of 'tachanun', when he sought forgiveness for the Peoples transgression.

The meaning of the first time this week Moshe 'falls on his face' is a little more ambiguous. The Torah tells us at the beginning of the reading that Korach and his cohorts challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon saying that all the People are holy and "why have you elevated yourselves to the position of leadership?" The Torah then says "And Moshe heard and he fell on his face."
The Talmud asks "What did Moshe hear?" It said in the verse earlier Korach came before Moshe and spoke the words of challenge? Of course then Moshe heard! The Talmud answers that Moshe heard more than these words spoken before him in which his claim to lead was challenged. Moshe heard that Korach and his band had accused him of adultery and suspected him even of being with their own wives. They not only questioned whether Moshe had taken a role to which he was not entitled they besmirched his character.They accused him of the most severe moral lapses.

In response Moshe does not argue his innocence. He does not react to this humiliation with an indignation to which he was surely entitled. He does not level counter-argument and attack. No, Moshe falls on his face in exasperation and remains silent!
Only after does he set-up the test to prove who indeed is G-d's designee to lead, a test which brings about the death of Korach and his mutineers. Through it all Moshe never gets into a personal verbal joust with Korach. He does not enter into the fray to defend his honour. Moshe is only interested to preserve the will of the Divine.
He does indeed ask G-d to prove the veracity of his character and mission. But Moshe does not engage in a personal argument with Korach. Moshe defends the truth of his calling, not own honor, and even then not by getting into a fight.

In Israel this week the State's Comptroller issued a much anticipated report on the tragic Carmel Fires that caused the death of 45 innocent people now two years ago. His report is brutally direct and lays the blame for the tragedy at the doorstep of the Minister of the Interior for failing to be prepared for such a conflaguration and the Finance Minister for not allocating moneys necessary for fire prevention and control. In each case, barely moments after the report was issued came the claims of innocence by the ministers. The ministers could not even wait to consider the possibility they did some wrong before they denied vociferously any culpability.
While self defence is a natural response, it is not the preferred and not the one we pray to manifest. Even if the Ministers felt the report untrue, how different is their reaction from that of Moshe, the minister of all ministers, who remained silent even when attacked personally rather than engage in rancor.

But let's leave the public arena and look at the lessons you and I can take from the story and the values we espouse, even if we don't always display. How often does it happen that the people closest to us, a family member, brother or sister, husband or wife, verbally humiliate us, or if not humiliate at least cause us to feel insulted?
What is our typical reaction? We express indignation. We justify ourselves. We point out that the flaw is not in fact in us but in the other. The result is that the argument persists and often escalates with consequences at times long lasting. And why? All because we found it impossible to do as we pray to do, to be silent when being put-down!

There is a beautiful story that is told of a couple who were married for twenty years and remained childless. They came to their Rebbe whom they both revered and sought his blessing and prayers. The Rebbe told them, "I cannot help you. It is not in my power. But if you find someone who is able to be silent in the face of humiliation s/he has the power to grant life, because to him/her is given life extended." Sometime later they were at a wedding where a man was publically disgraced and he held his silence. They approached him and told him their story and the Rebbe's advice. Though surprised, the man who had been disgraced gave his bracha to the couple. Within a year they were blessed with a child.

The gifts promised us if we find the wherewithall to be self contained and not respond to verbal attacks against us even if they are unfounded and libelous are wondrous. But the great reward is that through our silence we preserve the shalom with the ones we care about, in community and in our homes. And perhaps still greater is the effect such a self discipline has on making us oh so much more beautiful as persons.

Being silent to humiliation needs to become more than a prayer. We would do well to make it our personal objective. Easy? of couse not..but G-d has given us the time. It is for us to put in the effort!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Israel: Process or Event?

Many years ago, after living in an apartment for some time, my family and I moved into a new home, one with a back and front yard. I remember walking out to the deck on the first night in our new environs and gazing out into the garden with pride.
I looked at a tall and imposing tree that might well have been a 100 years old and I said "I own you now." And then I thought, wait, how arrogant of me. I don't own that tree. It was here long before me and it will be here long after me. If anything the tree owns me! The most I can really say is that now, as I took ownership of the home, the tree and I are in relationship.

This Shabbat we read in the parsha of Shlach the story of the spies Moshe sent to explore the land of Israel in anticipation of the conquest. The tragedy of the expedition is well known. The spies, though princes and men of distinction, return and tell the nation that the land is good but too difficult to conquer. The people become disheartened and are prepared to return to Egypt. Their failing seals their fate. Their rejection of the land engenders a punishment that will cause them to wander an additional 38 years in the wilderness where all that generation will perish.

Many have sought to explain how it could be that these spies, men of character, could have brought back such a negative report. They were previously righteous. What happened to their faith? How could they have failed so completely?

This week I returned from a week-long back-packing tiyul on Shvil Ha'Golan, a path that leads from the Kinneret to the Hermon, a journey of some 100 kilometer. I hiked with my friend Avi, an experienced outdoorsman, up mountains and down valleys. We met wild boar and cayotee, gazelles and 100's of free ranging cows. We slept on ground shared with every kind of insect imaginable and some unimaginable. We became one with a land filled with miles and miles of cherry orchards and even more miles of wild bramble. Most important, we tread the holy soil our G-d gave us seeing vistas too glorious to describe in words. And each step, no matter the heat, no matter the incline, no matter the hindrance, we thought, how blessed we are that this land is ours!

In the context of my journey I came to understand the horrific mistake of the spies in a new way.

In life we come across many challenges that no matter how hard we try we just cannot manage. They are just too difficult or complex. No matter our determination or will power we simply have not the capacity to conquer. Yet what we may discover, if we persist, is that even if the challenge is too large or imposing for us to meet taking it as a whole, if we break the task before us into little pieces and work one step at a time, over-time, often much much time, we can indeed succeed and master the formerly unassailable.

Taking possession of a land is just such an overwhelming and impossible task, surely in one swallow and surely if the land is the Land of Israel. The spies saw the taking of Israel as an event, a country to be conquered and subdued with an invading army. They noted the peoples who currently were inhabiting the land. Still more, they noted the ruggedness and unbending nature of Israel itself. They had no model for taking posession of a land. There was no example for them of how this might happen. True, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov lived in Cannan. But they never settled or took posession of the land. They lived essentially as transients, loving the land but not making it theirs. The spies only concept for inhabiting Canaan was through a once and for all act of conquest. Yet they realized that was not possible. No act, no singular event, no matter how dramatic of forceful could subdue this land. This was a challenge too formidable to be subdued no matter how great the effort or how intense the will.

What the spies did not know was that Israel was not meant to be taken as an event, but rather by dint of process. They were right. No nation could make Israel hers simply by force of will or power. Israel cannot be owned as if in one swallow. History has shown over and over from the Crusaders to the Moslems that one cannot posess this land by conquest. Israel can only be claimed by means of settlement and over time, much time. It is for this reason that the Talmud teaches us that the first entry into the land under Joshua, despite the fact that it included all of the nation, did not sanctify the land forever. Once we went into exile, after the destruction of the first Temple, the holiness left the land. On the other hand, the entry under Ezra, though it included only a small portion of the Jewish nation, most of whom remained in Babylon, brought about a sanctification of the land that is everlasting, even after the exile and the destruction of the second Temple.
Joshua sanctified through conquest. Israel cannot be inherited by dint of conquest, even if that conquest included miracles. Ezra sanctified throught settlement, and over time. He fought no wars. He took posession through a process. That is the only way to make this land our land!

Having walked the land I have a new appreciation for the challenge of this great country. I know in a way I had not prior that like the tree in my backyard of years ago, neither I nor you can ever own this land. It is larger than any of us and than any multitude of us. The most we can do is become one with the land, inherit her, make her ours even as we belong to her.
Like a marriage in which we can never own our spouse, we can not own Israel. Yet like in a marriage, we can yet enter into the deepest of relationships with our land and forge an inseparable bond.

Israel the land is for us to love. Love is always a process and not an event!
The process continues and is ongoing. It is often uneven and frustrating. But one thing is certain. The spies were right. Israel cannot be had by a one time event or heroic act. Israel can only be inheritted through settlement and over time.
Blessed are we who share in the awesomeness of this process!

Shabbat Shalom