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

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