Thursday, July 26, 2012

To Learn vs To Admire

Last week the Jewish community both here in Israel and around the world lost a Torah giant. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the revered Halachic authority and inspirational spiritual leader to a generation of Torah observant Jews passed away.
In Jerusalem, his funeral,though only hours from his death and virtually in the middle of the night, brought together some 300,000 mourners. The tributes for this Gaon came from every segment of society, from secular politicians to Hassidic rebbes. While not everyone always agreed with Rav Elyashiv, he was universally respected and admired.

During these days since his passing everyone seems keen to tell stories of Rav Elyashiv's personal greatness. He was oh so humble and self-effacing. He died at 102all the while self sufficient. He preferred to live his life in a small one bedroom apartment and sleep next to the refrigerator than to move into a more comfortable flat that his devotees and family wanted to rent for him. For more than half a century he woke each morning at 2:00AM after a brief night's sleep to begin his daily Torah study. He was tireless in his committment to meet with and offer advice to those seeking his counsel and blessing.His love for Torah knew no bounds.

But all that being said something troubles me about the legacy of this great rav.
Yes I heard the accounts of Rav Elyashiv's extraordinary service to G-d, Torah and Israel. Yes, I believe he posessed wonderful character traits of humility, kindness, and devotion. The problem I have is that no one has shared anything that Rav Elyashev struggled with, I means a personal struggle.
You and I battle our yetzer hara constantly. From dawn to dusk and beyond we are fighting our inclinations to do the wrong. Whether it be making it to minyan in the morning or davening with kavana or controlling ourselves from speaking lashon hara, and any number of other pitfalls we are constantly struggling to avoid sin.
Did Rav Elyashev have those struggles? Are there stories that someone can tell me about them?

Admire Rav Elyashiv? of course! But can I learn from him? I can only learn to over-come my own issues from others who battle similarly. From their struggle, their successes and failures I learn. Only someone like me can be an example for me.
Their success shows me what I may yet accomplish. Still more, how they succeeded can become a model for me. But if someone has not had my struggle how can they inspire me.It might well be that if they were in my shoes they would do no better than me.
Only from someone who has walked the same road and made it to the other side can I really take hope.

This week we begin the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, with a portion by the same name. The Book of Devarim is a narrative. Much of it, contains Moshe's retelling of the story of the wilderness journey for a new generation about to enter the Promised Land. This week's reading is an example of that. Moshe recalls for the People how they got themselves to this point. He reminds them of what happened some 38 yrs earlier as their parents were on the threshold of entering Israel. He recounts the story of the report of the spies and the aftermath as the nation in fear and panic rejected the land, thereby bringing about their doom in the desert.

The question we might ask is why does Moshe need to review all the neagative components of the legacy of the generation past. He is talking to the children of that generation. Do they need to be reminded of their parent's flaws. Every person we eulogize has shortcomings. We don't typically mention them at a funeral. We only focus on the positives. Why does Moshe insist on bringing up the mistakes of the past?

The answer is that the Torah long preceeded George Santayana in recognizing that "those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them." Moshe wanted Israel,the new generation, to know their history very well and to confront the mistakes of their parents,difficult though that may be.
Moreover Moshe wanted those who were about to enter the Land to know that their opportunity to take posession of Canaan was a direct result of lessons learned.
Moshe reminded them of the cowardice of their ancestors and its consequences.He then told them that precisely because of the mistakes past and its cost you rose above your fears.You conquered Sihon and Og, two powerful monarchs, every bit as intimidating as the kings of Canaan. You learned from the past that fear only brings despair and aimlessness. You learned that in life there is no alternative to courage.
And so now you are at the doorstep to a new future.

The Book of Devarim teaches over and over that we can grow only by learning from the experiences of others who had struggles similar to ours. Angels can inspire us but they cannot be our teachers. Our teachers need to be mortal like us, flawed like us, those who struggle like us. It is from them and their wherewithall to triumph despite the challenges that we draw inspiration make progress.

Once when I was a boy my father caught me in a lie. It was a pretty serious lie.
He was upset with me. When he repremanded me he said "Yisrael you must never ever lie again. I never lied. My father never lied. And his father never lied."
He then took out a Chumash and made me swear on it that I would never lie again.
Many parents correct their children in a similar fashion. While perhaps not so dramatic, they tell their child that they never would do the wrong their child did.
They say, as it were, "how could you!". And insist the child take the excellence of the parent as the model to get it right.

The problem with that approach is that it is not the way we learn. When others teach us and give us hope to improve it is from their struggle not their excellence.
It would be better for a parent to say, "You know I used to have a similar problem. I was not always so well behaved. And once I did this and this...But I realized...and I managed over time to change..." The more real the parent can make his/her account the more power it has to influence the young.
That's the message Devarim really is teaching us. Only by dint of powerful examples of failure and success can we learn and believe we can change.

The truth is just as Rav Elyashiv had a greatness, each of us has a greatness inside...a greatness that is uniquely ours.
Each of us is called upon in life to realize our unique greatness.
Maybe it is to be a great father or mother, or a great friend or whatever the call of our life. And it is not easy for sure. Mediocrity is oh so tempting.
To achieve our greatness we need to learn from the challenges of others, like Rav Elyashev, what they battled to attain their greatness, as much as we need to know their results.

Tell me of your accomplishments and you earn my admiration. Tell me of your struggle and you become my teacher!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Embracing the Journey

Natan Sharansky wrote in his book "Fear No Evil", a memoir on his years in isolation in Soviet prison, that one thing kept him sane and hopeful through all his ordeal. Sharansky was able to create a community in his mind with idealists alive and dead throughout time who were committed enough to a cause that they persevered the worst human indignities. Though not physically connected to any of them he was now one with them and together they would persevere, a community of the spirit.

I recalled that powerful image this week as I reviewed the current parshiyot of Matot-Maasei. In part of the reading G-d commanded the Israelites to go to war with Midian in retaliation for their having seduced the Israel into idolatry. From each tribe one thousand men were chosen to go into battle. And with them God told Moshe to send Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest.

Rashi brings the medrash that gives several possible reasons why Pinchas was made to accompany the soldiers into war. You recall Pinchas was the hero of the last two weeks readings where we read how he saved the Israelites and stood up for the honor of the Divine when he slew Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon and Cozbi, a princess of Midian for their brazen act of public immorality and idolatry. One of the reasons Rashi brings gave me pause. He said that Pinchas was sent into the fray because he had unfinished business with Midian. Pinchas,in tradition, was a decendent of Yosef from his mother's side. Yosef, as you will recall, when condemned by his brothers, was taken out of the pit and sold to Egypt by none other than a Midianite caravan. Now at last Pinchas would have opportunity to pay back the Midianites for that crime and so he was sent specifially to join the troops and to fight with the army of Israel.

This reason for Pinchas' place in the army seems fanciful at best. First the story with Yosef occurred some 250 years earlier, thats a long memory even for a zealot like Pinchas. Second why should a crime committed by a group of sojourners, a caravan, condemn a nation to punishment? The Midianites who sold Yosef were a random group of merchants. How is a whole people responsible for their actions? And still further, the Midianites who sold Yosef did not intend something personal. It was business as usual for them, buy and sell. Why now should Pinchas go to take revenge and make it personal, something it never was? And finally, Pinchas was only remotely connected to Yosef through ancestory on his mother' side. If anyone would take up Yosef's honor we would think it would be someone from the tribes of Menashe and Ephraim who are directly descendent and carry Yosef's name. Why Pinchas?

On reflection I think the medrash Rashi quotes is telling us something very intriguing, deeply insightful. Lets you and I think about this character Pinchas.
Pinchas had to cope with challenging circumstances. He was born into a family of priests but he was not one. And why? because when Aharon was annointed a kohain he and his four sons were annointed with him. One of them was Elazar, Pinchas's father.
Thereafter all the children of these kohanim would automatically be considered priests with the attendent rights, duties and privileges. Pinchas however was born prior to his father, Elazar's, annointing. He therefore was not made a kohain by birth, nor through the ritual that gave status to his elders. He was therefore left out. It was not until the episode we read about in the preceeding weeks that Pinchas, in reward for his zeal in the name of G-d, gets a special gift from G-d that engenders him a kohain..

So we might imagine that life was not easy for Pinchas growing up. His younger siblings, born after him, had title and responsibility he did not get. They served in the Temple. He could not. They might all sit around the table and eat the teruma, priestly gifts. He had to abstain. A non-kohain may not eat of these gifts.
He might well have wondered,"Is this really fair. Why wasn't I annointed with my father and uncles since I was already born? Why am I excluded?"
He would have been likely to have felt left out. On the one hand he was not really an ordinary Israelite since he was from the family of Aharon but he was not a priest yet either!
He would do well to have felt marginalized indeed with no natural community.

So with all that experience of marginalization and rejection did anything good come out? You bet! I would argue that it was this dynamic of Pinchas's life that made possible all his heroics. When all the establishment was paralyzed by the outrageous behavior of Zimri and Cozbi only Pinchas could find the inner resources to react. And why? because Pinchas never was part of the establishment, not as a leader nor as a follower. He had to chart his own course. And because he did not confrom to the pattern and felt an outsider he could break the mold and do something out of the box. Only Pinchas, one not a prisoner to conformity could take matters into his own hands and kill the prince and princess, thereby saving the nation.

And in the story of the war with Midian we find a similar dynamic. It is Pinchas who is called upon to redeem the violation done to Yosef all those years prior. More than anyone he knew what it meant to be an outsider like Yosef. He understood the pain Yosef carried through his life. He and only he could have community with Yosef and likely did when he, Pinchas, felt so isolated all those years. He had the same community with Yosef that Sharansky had with those with whom he identified, a community of the mind and spirit.
Yosef's story was not 250 years old to Pinchas. It was current and alive. Yosef was a mentor and support to Pinchas and very much a contemporary. We could imagine Yosef gave Pinchas hope when he felt so much on the margins and alone.
Pinchas was then eager and worthy to redeem his ancestors suffering at the hands of the Midianites. They shared a story in common.

Truth be told each of us has our own story of pain and disappointment. We all have had our journey with its attendent suffering. While I am not prepared to call suffering good. I think the story of Pinchas makes a compelling case to say that suffering is at the very least purposeful. If Pinchas had not had his journey with its challenge he would not have been able to become the hero he needed to be.
You and I have moments in life that we are called to, moments where, while others may be present, we alone have the capacity or sensitivity to respond.

For each of us, our journey provides us with a wisdom, a capacity, a passion that is unique to us. While we may have at times secretly cursed our fate, it has prepared us for our calling even as Pinchas's life prepared him for his.

We would do better to embrace our journey with its suffering and see how is has shaped us, helped make us who we are today.
If we are still alive there must yet be a mission for us to perform, one that only we are meant for and able to do!
And it is the very grist of our life, the stuff we would often rather forget, that makes our unique calling possible!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some Tough Talk

In Israel the whole country is abuzz with the issue of whether to draft Hareidim into the military or national service. The law which exempted the Hareidi Yeshiva students, who now number some 60,000, was found unconstitutional and will expire the end of this month. The majority of the citizenry of Israel has long felt it unfair that an exemption be given unconditionally to all who study Torah. They argue that the burden for the national defence must be shared equally. To that end, 20,000 young people gathered in the streets of Tel Aviv last Saturday night to call for an end to a privelege that makes those who serve, especially those who do reserve duty, feel like 'suckers' or what they call in modern Hebrew "freiyers" for making significant personal sacrifice while others get off free.

The Hareidi, or what is often called in America the 'black hat' community, is more than a little alarmed. The exemption for Bnai Torah from the military is as old as the Jewish State itself. They make the point (over and over) that the learning of Yeshiva boys is as much a part of the national defence as is the contribution of front line troops. Quoting traditional sources they argue that Torah protects us and any compromise of Torah learning endangers. Moreover, of course, they want to sit and learn and not be compelled to leave the bait medrash for any reason.

The battle lines are drawn. The drama is being acted out daily in the Knesset as efforts go on to draft a law that will set the norm for the future. Parties on both sides of the issue threaten to quit the coalition if their position is compromised.
Spokespersons from both the Hareidi Torah camp and from the more modern Israeli world have not been shy about expressing their sentiments, and all seem to have taken hard-line positions. No one seems ready to compromise.

It is in the context of this furor that I want to explore the parsha of this week, that of Pinchas, to see if it has anything to teach us.

You recall the portion begins with the aftermath of last week's compelling drama.
Many of the Israelites were seduced into idolatry by the daughters of Moab. G-d told Moshe to order that the elders kill all those who commit this grave sin, to hang them publically. At the same time, in response to G-d's wrath, a plague breaks out, with devestating consequences. It seems (according to the Ramban's understanding of the texts) that even before the Judges could put to death the sinners, a prince from the tribe of Shimon and a princess of Midian coupled in the presence of Moshe and the elders, thereby flaunting a defiance of the edict and the law.
Moshe became paralyzed by the outrage. The judges were now hesitant to carry out their mandate to kill and hang the sinners. It seemed all was in suspension. Yet the sins went on as did the plague.

It was into this void that Pinchas entered. He took matters into his own hands. In an act of zealotry he slew Zimri and Cozbi the prince and princess and restored the nation to its senses. In the opening of this week's parsha Pinchas is granted a special covenant of shalom from G-d Himself and an everlasting priesthood for his great act of zeal for the honor of the Divine.

What interested me as I explored this story this year was the reason G-d gives for bestowing the special gifts on Pinchas. G-d names not only the fact that Pinchas stood up for His honor. He also gives reason that because of Pinchas "...I did not entirely destroy the Children of Israel in my zealotry ." In other words, Pinchas's act of zealotry killing Zimri and Kozbi saved the nation from G-d's zealotry which would have resulted in their almost certain annihilation.

The question we might ask is why? Why did all Israel warrant destruction for the sins here of idolatry and lasciviousness? Those who committed the sins should be punished. But why the whole nation? What wrong did the nation do as a whole?

The answer is clear. If the People of Israel had been sufficiently invested in and committed to the honor of G-d the few could not been seduced into behaviors so repugnant. The would-be sinner needed to have a host environmnt that would tolerate their moral lapse. If Israel had been staunch in its revulsion to idolatry and intolerant of promiscuity with the heathen women no segment of the community would have dared to sin. That such evil happened in their midst condemns the nation as a whole even as it condemns the sinners. Both need repentence and a moral correction.

And why am I struck by this insight this year and this week? My sense is that it is deeply relevant to the current issues that so engage us. The Hareidi community is angry that its contribution to the Jewish State goes unrecognized. That so many want to draft Yeshiva students, in their eyes, reflects a lack of appreciation in the society as a whole for the value of Torah study, not only for the learner, but for the community. They say the problem is not with them but with the lack of true traditional Torah perspective in the largely secular nation.

But does that attitude of blaming the wayward one and exonerating the self really play? Lets get real. If the black hat Yeshiva world in Israel is thought of as apart and not sufficiently participating in the wellbeing of the whole, the army service issue is but an example and not the cause. The Hareidi Yeshiva world may say they are learning Torah as a gift to the defence of the nation, but what they do shows otherwise. This is no Yissachar-Zevulun model. No one experiences a sense of partnership. The bnai yeshiva learn for themselves. If they cared for the Israel as a whole, if they were learning to do their part in the national defence then why no effort to reach out to the larger community? Why no 'mishebairach' in the black hat yeshiva for the soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces? This is a case of 'show, don't tell!". If you want the nation to support your learning as in the best interest of the State of Israel show that your learning is indeed about caring for the Jewish People as a whole and the survival of the Jewish State. You can't make a peace for yourself and then expect others to appreciate that what you are doing is for them.

Surely the Nation of Israel exonerated itself in the sins of the worship of Baal P'or. They said "we did nothing wrong". But the truth was otherwise. If not for Pinchas all would have been lost. Wrongful behavior would not endure in a society that made it unacceptable. Here too, if the general society in Israel perceives learning as irrelevant to their wellbeing and safety it is no accident. That so many minimize the blessing of Torah learning to our social health means that they don't experience blessings eminating from the walls of the black hat yeshiva. On the contrary they feel ignored by that yeshiva world and labelled 'traife'.
While so many spend years in the army as an expression of national service, no one experiences the learners in these yeshivas sitting in the beis medrash as a service to the nation! Of course they then object to the free ride!

The reaction of hareidi leaders to the threat of yeshiva young men being drafted is misguided. Rather than become defensive and attack back they would do well to look at themselves and say "what are we doing wrong that leaves us so vulnerable".
If they did a true self-examination I think the answers would be as clear as the remedy. Show your selves true and caring partners and the draft issue will go away!
Continue to demonstrate a lack of identification with the society in which you live and resentment is inevitable. Show, don't tell, that you are truly doing your part for the safety of the nation and noone will object to your learning.

Sometimes all it takes for problems to be solved is a change of perspective.
Obstinacy and self-righteousness are the prescription for destruction. The story of Pinchas is the best example. If not for his heroism Israel would have been entirely destroyed in its self-righteousness and resistance to see the problem as theirs as much as the sinners themselves.
The Torah world of hareidim needs to turn inwards rather than blame and posture.
It needs to ask how can we make the Torah learning we do part of the national armor of Israel? How can we who learn show that we too are carrying the national interest at heart?

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Making it Fit"

There is a compelling story told of a small town where the Jews were excited about a new Torah scroll that had just been completed. The elders decided to invite the women of the town to use their creative talents in designing and producing a 'mentele', cover for the Torah. The elders then would select the most beautiful and it would adorn the sefer Torah. One of the townswomen was over-joyed when her cover was selected. Indeed it was a beauty amongst beauties. The whole town attended a gathering in the synagogue to see the new cover grace its host Sefer Torah. The woman whose cover was chosen could not have been more proud. The moment came. The Torah was laid out. The colourful and beautifully designed cover was placed to fit. Suddenly, to everyones surprise, there was a problem. The cover did not fit. It was two inches two short.
No matter how they tried to stretch the mentele it simply would not cover the Torah adequately. Alas the woman was faced with the prospect that her creation would not be used after all. Exasparated, and with no real alternative, the woman asked the elders, "Perhaps if we can't stretch the cover we can cut the Torah and make it a couple of inches shorter. Then for sure it will fit!"

This Shabbat we read the parsha of Balak. It tells the enigmatic story of the prophet amongst the non-Jews, Bilaam and his efforts to curse the People of Israel, at the behest of Balak, the King of Moab. Bilaam's goal was to bring about Israel's demise by means of the supernatural powers of a curse. However each time he made effort to invoke a curse on Israel, G-d intervened to protect His people and mades a blessing come out of his mouth instead.

In tradition Bilaam represents the epitome of evil. His hatred of Israel did not stem from anything personal. It was without cause or reason. And even when he failed in his efforts to bring on a curse, he gave advice to Moab to entice the Israelites into idolatry through promiscuity with their heathen women. Bilaam is wickedness personified.

As a reader of this blog you know that we make effort to personalize the Torah, to see what it has to say to each of us in the context of our individual lives. To that end we don't simply label Bilaam, or any other character, and dismiss them as other. Rather we ask the question "How am I like Bilaam?" "What does he have to teach me about myself?". We already have asked these question about Pharaoh and Esav, two other very unsavory characters. True Bilaam was wicked, but if the Torah tells me about him it is so I can learn something I need to know for my own becoming.

On reflection I did find aspects of myself in Bilaam. At the beginning of the reading when Balak sends dignitaries to entice Bilaam into his service Bilaam tells them that he needs to get G-d's approval before he can accept.
The Torah tells us that G-d appeared to Bilaam in a dream that night and told him "No way!".
The next morning, though Bilaam tells the messengers of Balak that G-d won't let him go, he leaves the door open. He asks them to wait another night. Perhaps G-d will change His mind. And even at the end when reluctantly G-d lets Bilaam go, it is without supporting the venture. Bilaam commits not only to the trip but to the mission, a mission G-d never approved!

Why? Why does Bilaam, a great prophet in his own right, flaunt the will of G-d and make it serve his own needs? The answer is obvious. Bilaam had an agenda. The invitation of Balak was a great personal coup. To commit to the mission would not only bring on wealth, but great esteem and stature. He simply needed to make G-d fit his scheme rather than conform to the scheme of the Divine.

Does this sound in any way familiar to you? It does to me! How much of our religious life is lived in accord with our agenda and not G-d's agenda for us? We may be observant. We may be careful about our practice of the faith. But all that has, in our times, meant so little personal sacrifice. Its not so hard to keep the Shabbat, or even to go to daily prayers. Kosher? come on! there are kosher products everywhere, and restaurants to boot. What exactly have we ever given up to keep the faith. Where have we said "G-d's will be done! Not mine!" and at what real cost.
Are we not like the woman who wants to make the Torah fit her beautiful cover. Like Bilaam, we do not even recognize when we are making G-d's will conform to our own and ignoring the call before us to change direction or surrender a cherished plan.

Truth be told, we live in a time where being a good Jew requires very little personal sacrifice. I remember hearing about an elderly man who year after year insisted on decorating the family succah with scraps of coloured paper. His children and grandchildren wondered why he reused the same paper scraps each year. He explained, "These are not just torn pieces of scrap. Each one of these sheet that I use to decorate the succah is a pink slip, one I received when I was fired from my job because I refused to work on the Sabbath. These slips are my decoration. They are the symbol of my love for G-d and my commitment at all costs to His Torah."

How many pink slips are in our drawers? And what kind of faith is it that we keep where we cannot name instances where we reversed direction or gave up something precious inorder to do Hashem's will?

I believe if we are open to see we will recognize where we were called to sacrifice and like Bilaam we avoided. We simply made G-d's agenda conform to our own. If you think I am wrong, let me just point out one example. If we really made G-d's agenda our own, at personal sacrifice, we would all be in Israel now. And we would not be building multi-million dollar synagogues, institutions and yeshivot in the gola!
To rationalize is to do what Bilaam did, especially since it makes our lives easier!
But I am convinced if we look at our lives we will find many many personal tests that invited the sacrifice of our own agenda in favor of G-d's.

And what is the cost of living a faith in which we do not make sacrifice?
Well, we know love grows through sacrifice. The more I give of myself to sustain and help another the more I come to love them. May I humbly suggest that in our times where we make so little relative sacrifice in the service of G-d we never grow the love of G-d that is available to us. Our faith, to be sure, is dutiful but it lacks passion!
And I dare say it lacks joy!
Joy and passion are the rewards of sacrifice!

Perhaps we need to re-examine our life and see to where G-d is calling us.
If we are indeed ready to turn over our will to His we may find many messages we have not as yet been open to receive.

Shabbat Shalom