Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"But It's Not My Fault"

There is a humorous anecdote I read as a boy that reflected disparagingly on liberal Judaism. A woman came to a Reform rabbi with a 'shayla', a halachic question.
She said " Rabbi on my stove I had a pot of milk and a pot of chicken soup cooking next to each other. The pot of milk boiled over and some of the hot milk fell into the chicken soup. What do I do?" The rabbi reflected a moment and then told her, "You must throw out the pot of milk." The woman was astonished. She said, But
Rabbi it was the milk that fell into the soup!". "Yes" the rabbi said "exactly! It was deffinitely the milk's fault."

The reason the story is funny is that we cannot apply moral right and wrong in the adjudication of ritual law. Halacha is not about fault and fairness, at least not in regards to Torah prohibitions. But that is not to say the Torah does not take into account issues of fairness and fault. On the contrary at the outset of this week's parsha we have example of just such a law built on doing the fair!

The Torah provides us with an interesting scenario to reveal a law of inheritance.
If a man is married to two wives, one whom he loves and the other whom he despises, the Torah tells him that he may not give the extra portion of inheritance reserved for the eldest son to the son born to the beloved wife at the expense of the true first born, a child of the wife he hates. He must give the double share to the true 'b'chor', first born, even if he is not the child of the woman he loves.

We may well ask what is the Torah teaching us here? To tell us the first born always gets the extra share no matter the father's personal preference, we don't need the whole story of the two wives! The Torah seems to want to tell us something beyond the particular law of inheritance and impart a value, one we can only glean from the story imparted.

Moreover the Seforno and other commentators raise an interesting question here. They wonder, in light of the Torah law, how is it that Yaakov gave a double portion to Yosef, the son of the beloved wife, Rachel, and took it a way from Re'uvain, the wife of the less loved wife, Leah. His actions seem contrary to the command here given. Even though he lived prior to the giving of the Torah, we are told that Yaakov anticipated its laws and already kept them. Why here did he do otherwise?

The Seforno answers our last question by making an important distinction between the case the Torah gives and the story of Yaakov and the birthright. The Torah indeed forbids taking away the inheritance of the first born under all circumstances.
But the case it gives is one where depriving the first born of his share would not only be a ritual violation of the laws of inheritance but a moral lapse.
The fact that the first born here is the son of the despised wife is not his fault.
To take away his share would not only be a ritual violation but a moral sin. The son should not pay the price of the enmity between his father and mother!

In the case of Yaakov, indeed he took away the double portion from Re'uvain but not because he was the child of the less loved wife, but because of his sin and personal lapses. The Torah already had told us how Re'uvain had inappropriately rearranged his father's conjugal bed after the death of Rachel. That Re'uvain lost the 'b'chora' was his doing and his alone.
While that too is forbidden to us now once the Torah law was given, meaning, we cannot deprive the first born of his rightful inheritance because of a lapse in judgement or some wrongful act. Nonetheless, Yaakov did not violate the moral intent of the Torah, only its ritual law since he did not take something from Re'uvain for which he was not at fault.

Once we recognize that the law of the two wives and the son born of the despised is teaching us a value as well as a ritual law of inheritance, we can take important personal lessons. How often do we dump our anger, frustration, impatience where it does not belong? How many times have we taken hostile feelings we feel for one person and displayed the resentment to someone entirely not at fault?

Parents bring angry feelings generated at the work place home and show impatience and worse to their children. Husbands and wives put on one another displaced resentments and negative feelings that neither has earned but somehow must absorb.
Over and over we get angry at institutions, perhaps a whole Shule to the point of leaving or withdrawing because we are upset at the rabbi or the gabbai. Does the organization deserve our anger and its consequence?

If we look at our lives carefully we will find that so much of the negative feelings we share are directed at the wrong people. Our attitudes confuse the other as much as ourselves. They cannot really understand why?

The Torah this week is teaching us that if we have a problem with our spouse take it up with him/her. Don't make the children pay the price! And that is true with all our feelings of frustration, disappointment and resentment. We need to take our feelings to the people who engendered them in us. We need to direct our emotional responses back to the source that brought them about!

"It's not my fault" may not be a complaint the pot of chicken soup may make to escape being tossed as unkosher. But it is a legitimate complaint when others we love or are responsible to feel unduly put upon by our behaviors.

Taking our feeling back to their source is a good paradigm for living. It is a way of being that would surely engender the blessng and gratitude of others, who so often feel, correctly, that they are not at fault.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"You Could Have Been Nicer!"

Some years ago I saw the film "Mr. Saturday Night". The main character was a Jewish comedian and the film told the story of his life which included a significant rise and fall. This comedian had a brother,Stan, who was not particularly talented. Stan spent all his working life as his older brother's manager, go'fer, and emotional support. Near the movie's close, Stan, who had been quiet all his life in the face of his older brother's tediousness and tantrums, displayed some well earned resentment. Seeing his disgust the older brother said "I didn't take your life Stan. I gave you one!" Stan repied, "Yeah but you could have been nicer."

This Shabbat in the parsha of Shoftim we find many fascinating laws. One that intrigued me this year is the prohibition of 'baal tashchit', which forbids us from destroying things that might otherwise have benifit. In example, if I have a piece of clothing that is wearable but I am no longer interested in it, it is forbidden for me to rip it up. I need to make effort to give it to others who might have use from it. The same is true of trashing food that could otherwise be eaten.

We derive the law of 'baal tashchit' from the Torah's law of conduct in the event of a seige. The Torah teaches that if the nation makes war on a city and lays seige to it, we are forbidden from cutting down trees that bear fruit to use the wood in the service of our military agenda. We may only cut down trees that are not fruit bearing for these purposes. The reason being that the fruit tree serves a larger purpose than to aid us in our current conflict. It would be 'baal tashchit', an act of destruction to cut it down, even though its for a worthwhille purpose, that is to defeat an enemy, if we have an alternative source for the wood.

On reflection, the context in which the Torah provides the law of 'baal taschit' is as compelling as the law itself. Think about it. Here we are speaking of war, a city under seige. A whole world is about to be put to ruin, homes sacked, institutions laid waste, a society demolished. And we have not yet talked about the human life that will be lost through hunger, disease and the sword. In the context of so much destruction, "hashchata', what sense does it make to talk about preserving a fruit tree? What meaning can the saving of a fruit tree have in the face of so much loss?

The answer is that the Torah is teaching us a powerful idea. Yes, we are going to war. Yes, it may be justified and in the national interest. And yes, we will cause huge havoc for a people in the service of our agenda. But how we do something is as important as what we do. And even if we need to destroy we need to do so in such a way as minimize the damage. That which must be demolished indeed must. But that gives us no excuse to be callous regards to even the smallest thing that has use and can be spared.

The value that the Torah is imparting to us is that the way we do something matters as much as what we do and maybe more. So often we judge ourselves and others, the worthiness of our lives, on the basis of what we have done. Have we accomplished? Are we successful? When we measure ourselves it is by the yardstick of achievement. And even in the spiritual realm typically our religiosity is determined by the observances we take on. How 'frume' we are is a product of how much of our hair is covered or what level of supervision we require for the kashrut of our meat. When we feel we need to improve what do we do? Typically we take on a new 'Ƨhumra', an added stringency. We forbid to ourselves something we previously allowed or commit to a new act of observance.

But all that misses the point. The measure of our life needs to be in terms of the quality of what we do not the quantity. Focusing on the "what" rather than the "how" only gets us to entrench the mediocrity rather than move us to excellence! On the contrary, focusing on the what allows us to stay the same with a new behavior! We don't have to do the hard work of change.

The Talmud already taught us long ago that one can do the act of honoring his/her parent, provide them with the finest, and yet do it in a way that belittles the parent and is in effect disrespect!
Alternatively one can provide little for his/her parent and yet do it in such a way as to show them honor so as to earn him/her the highest reward in the world everlasting.

Quality of our deeds matters in many ways more than quantity. Yet most of us spend our lives focused on the form. Like the protagonist in Mr Saturday Night, indeed we do so much...but we could have been nicer! And, in the end, if we could have been nicer we ruin so much of the good we do!

This is the month of Elul. We are called to reflect on our lives.I suggest that its a mistake to simply make a balance sheet and tally up the good versus the bad, mitzvah over aveira. We need to look at the quality of our actions, how we do the things we do.

In the end I can always find excuses for why I did not get something done in the course of my life.
But I will have little means to explain why I was not more loving to my wife, family, friends, community, and G-d in the things I did do!

My fear is not that I will not have done enough. Rather my fear is that someone who matters to me will say of me, "Yeah, but you could have been nicer".

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A World Without Hate

"And you shall love your friend as yourself"(Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva said, "This is the great principle of the Torah".

In truth, though we know loving may be the ideal feeling we should have for the other, first we need to tolerate others, especially those different from ourselves.
Even before the Torah gives us the commandment "Love your friend", there is the imperative, often easier spoken than achieved, "Do not hate your brother in your heart."

We live with all kinds of intolerances, and frequently harbor secret animosities.The smart struggle to tolerate the dimwitted, the competent resent the inept,the physically gifted are embarrassed by the uncoordinated. At work, at home,in the street, we typically treat people who are not as "beautiful' as us as if they had chosen their looks. Schoolchildren pick on their "nerdy" or "fat" classmates and their behavior does not always mature in time. It simply becomes more subtle.

The challenge remains: how do we develop tolerance for those different and, at times, opposite from us, a tolerance that not only permits them to exist but invites them to belong and to share in community?

The Torah this week in the parsha of Re'eh gives us a clue. In commanding the Jew to give charity the verse in the Torah ends "...for there will never cease to be poor in the land." Rashi notes that this comment seems to contradict an earlier promise that as long as Israel observes the Sabbatical year "there will be no poor among you for Hashem will bless you in the land He gives to you."

The Chatam Sofer explains that giving tzedaka requires compassionand empathy. But one must not relate so closely to the fate of the poor that he genuinely fears becoming poor himself. If that happens, he will actually be less generous. Over-identification can make one insecure in his/her owm circumstances and therefore less forthcoming.

The Chatam Sofer then translates G-d's promise and blessing in a unique way. The second verse we quoted is not meant to say there will no longer be poor in reality. The Torah already tells us that there will always be poor. Rather it should be understood, "There shall be no poor within you." Poverty must always exist, but the challenge is to give without fear of poverty for oneself, and therfore be generous.

The Chatam Sofer's insight corresponds to what we know about intolerance. Intolerance is born out of fear. That which I am afraid of for myself I resent in others. The thin person disdains the obese because s/he is afraid of becoming fat him/herself. This over-identification with others causes me to want to distance myself, often through impatience and disdain.

The challenge for all of us is to embrace this notion that "there will be no poor within you." We need to remain secure in our differences from others. If I am smart I will remain smart. If I am competent such is my gift. Others who are not like me will not jeopardize my talents and abilities.

Recognizing this allows me to be interested in people different from me, rather than feel threatened by them. It provides me not only with the tools to fulfill the mitzva "And you shall not hate your brother in your heart". It allows me to fulfill the ideal voiced in Avot to "learn from everyone".

Most important this recognition fosters a community of inclusiveness, where we all fully belong, with and because of our differences.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Road to Comfort

Elie Weisel in his "Souls On Fire" told of meeting for the first time a hasid of Breslov in the Nazi labor camp. He described the hasid as full of hope no matter how awful the circumstances and doing all in his power to provide hope to others. Weisel wrote "One night someone asked him: "What would your Rebbe Nachman say to the thousands of men, women and children who live and die here in one place in one night?
Who could answer their question?" There was silence and then a whispered sigh escaped his painfully twisted mouth:"Who says that we are a question? And what if our death were answer?"

This Shabbat is called "Shabbat Nachamu", "The Sabbath of Consolation". Each year it falls directly after Tisha B'av, our national day or mourning. We read in the haftorah the words of the prophet Yeshayahu "Comfort ye comfort ye my People so says Hashem your G-d." Where is the "comfort"? Nothing has changed. Our national circumstances remain as they were and yet in the promise G-d makes us of future comfort we already feel relief.
It is as if Tisha B'av itself, the time of overwhelming sadness provides the seeds of the healing and redemption.

And indeed it does. Truth be told, while every person endures great loss in life there is no 'nechama' for the indvidual in this world. Our losses are real. We sustain tragedies and disappointments of enormous magnitude. Who has not had a story that included gut wrenching suffering either emotional or physical or both, whether to them or someone they love. Life is hard and so often cruel. We may spend a lifetime trying to make sense out of the unfathomable. More often than not our only real way of coping is to try to forget the 'bad' so as to put it out of our mind. To think on it only causes us unsettledness. Forgetting is not the same as finding comfort. Personal comfort eludes us.

In marking Tisha B'av we choose not to forget the tragedies but on the contrary, we choose to remember them. Indeed we choose to do more than remember them. We choose to re-enter them. How dare we? How dare we re-live the unbearable, re-enter the intolerable. How can we relive that which most everyone else would prefer to forget so that they could live and function?

The answer is that true, if we were processing personal loss, we could not find comfort and remembering the tragic only fosters pain. It is for this reason Holocaust survivors for so long remained silent to their experience. To tell the stories would take them back into the Kingdom of Night. With no comfort available the only alternative to be able to cope is to forget.

On Tisha B'av however we did not grieve as individuals for personal losses, no matter how profound. No, we grieved as a nation and for the losses sustained through time. Yes. there are many personal strories we recall of people and places, but all in the context of our national drama. The indvidual horror no matter how compelling is subsumed within the odyssey of our people. What is unavailable to the singular person is indeed available to us as part of the Jewish People. On Tisha B'av as we become connected in our losses to the tragedies of the millenia and unite with our fellow Jews we become able to remember, indeed relive, and on the other side of that find comfort...We find a comfort in knowing that each saga no matter how sad does not stand alone. Rather it is part of a larger story and as the Breslover Hasid said to his campmate "what if our death is an answer?"

When the prophet offers the words of comfort as found in the haftorah he does not talk to the indvidual. In the name of G-d he says "Comfort ye comfort ye my People".
It is only once we become one with the story and destiny of Israel that comfort becomes possible. Only then can we can experience even the saddest moments as part of a purposeful journey that all of us particpate in rather than isolated moments in time both empty and unfair.

If the Holocaust survivors were silent for so many years I suspect it was because they did not yet feel their story was our story. We were not yet ready to hear the stories. We did not yet know we could. We thought, perhaps better to forget that which cannot be contained and comforted. Only after we as a people embraced the Holocaust as a significant component of our collective history and insisted that each and every indiviudal horror belonged to the nation's conscience did it become possible to remember and indeed relive and find a modicum of consolation.

The road to comfort is a challenging one. We need to resist the temptation to take the easy way out and forget. To reach comfort we must not travel alone. Private comfort is not available to us. To contain the tragic in our lives we must belong.
We must place the tragic, no matter how personal, within the drama of our people.

Is it any wonder then that Ashekenazic Jews comfort the mourner sitting shiva though the loss personal with the words "May G-d comfort you together with the mourners of Zion".

Shabbat Shalom