Thursday, September 27, 2012

"To do is to be "

"Whew..we just breathed a sigh of relief as the shofar sounded to end Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe and already we are busy preparing for Sukkot with its many rituals and requirements. As I was breaking my fast I could hear the rat tat tat in the neighborhood as families began work on the Sukka. Indeed tradition mandates that immediately after the fast of Yom Kippur, that same night, we at least commence the work of Sukka building.

Why? Why is the holiday of Sukkot placed in such close proximity to Yom Kippur?
We already know that the reason for the holiday is, as the Torah tells us, to give thanks for the Divine protection in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt when we lived a very vulnerable existence.By right the holiday should then be in the spring, at or near the time of the Exodus. The Rabbis explained that the reason the chag is in the fall is so no one should say we are simply building our sukkot for the spring and summer season, to enjoy the outdoors. We build and live in the Sukka to show trust in the Divine, even as our ancestors displayed. To highlight that point we build the sukka when the world is moving back inside in the fall where the temps are dropping, rather than spring and summer.

O'kay so now we understand why Sukkot is in the fall. But why does it need to come but 5 days after Yom Kippur. We barely have a chance to breathe. The challenge to build a sukka, purchase a lulav and etrog and make all the preparations for the holiday is typically frantic. Would it have been so bad if we had a couple of weeks to get ready?

I think the answer to our question teaches us something incredably important... the lesson is about life not just about the holidays.

Let me ask you...lets suppose you know you have a problem...say you over-eat or you get angry easily. What's the best way to correct the problem? Some might say," We need to go at our problems directly. We need to be fully aware of how serious our issue is, with no rationalizations or excuses. We need to face the consequences of our lapse. And then we need to make a resolution, with all our heart and mind, that we will not succumb to the inappropriate behavior anymore". Surely this model for changing behavior is the protoype for teshuva. We need regret the sin, confess the sin and then leave the sin behind.

But does it work? Each year we come to Yom Kippur and we feel the same remorse over the same sins, done in another year. We confess with feeling our wrongdoing. And we make a fervent resolution to get it right. Yet so little changes.
Sometimes one wonders is there a better way to get at this?

The truth is, yes there is. Systems theorists have long ago realized that where the problem shows up is not necessarily the source of the problem. Lets take a family. A particular child may be acting out, perhaps s/he is a problem at school or rebellious at home.The natural assumption is that s/he, that child has a problem. We take him or her to a therapist or find some way to change his/her behavior focusing on him/her.

Family systems therapists want us to look differently at the situation. For them we all live within systems and we are part of systems. It is a mistake to see something in isolation when in truth it's a part of a whole. When something is not working, that is the identified problem, but not necessarly it source. The source may well be a weakness in the system. The place the problem shows up is just the weakest point in the system where the malfunctioning becomes evident. The problem is with the system, not the piece that is not working well. In the case we gave of a child acting out, a family systems approach would not look to find a problem in the child, thereby making him the scapegoat. Rather we need look at the family, the system as as a whole, and ask ourselves "what's not working here? what relationship is out of sorts?" In diagnosing the family as a whole we come to see the child as expressing the systemic weakness. And rather that fixing him/her, we strengthen the family, we improve the functioning of the system, and with that the problem will disappear in the identified patient.

I believe the Torah, in providing us with the holiday of Sukkot, immediately after Yom Kippur is teaching us the truth that systems theorists came to understand 3000 years later. On Yom Kippur we became painfully aware of our sins. They are our spiritual acting-out behaviors. To admit the problem and confess is great and necessary. But that in itself will not lead to change. And why? because when we act-out in sin the sinful behavior is reflective of a systemic spiritual weakness in us. The sin is a symptom not a cause. Going at the sin and trying to fix it as an isolated phenomena is like going after the identified patient when the problem is with the system. It is usually not effective. And even if you fix the identified patient if you don't correct the system the acting-out will just show up somewhere else.

If we want to make it so we can overcome our sins we need to go at it in a different way. We need to see the sinning as a sign of a systemic spiritual weakness. Instead of focusing on the sin we need to concentrate on our over-all spiritual wellbeing and functioning. That is precisely why Sukkot follows Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe in such close succession.

Yom Kippur we became fully aware of the places we are acting-out against G-d and man. We can no longer hide from our lapses. Now on Sukkot we perform two central mitzvot. We dwell in the Sukka an we wave the lulav and etrog, the four kinds.
Both mitzvot have one thing in common. Their agenda is the whole person.
To dwell in the Sukka we need to bring all of us into the mitzva. The lulav and etrog,in tradition,symbolizes the heart and spine, the mouth and eyes.The four kinds represent four key organs of the body that we wave before G-d to symbolize our devotion and commitment to Him.

And more, Sukkot is both the holiday of joy and of community.

Yes, we have sinned. Yes we want to do better. But to do better is to be better. And to be better is to become more aligned with the holy than we have been in the past.
That's the message of Sukkot.
You want to stop sinning?..fill your world with meaning and purpose, add depth and feeling to your service of the Divine. Do that and the sins, the identified spiritual problems,will disapear.

Sukkot is the remedy for the issues we identified on Yom Kippur.
The good news is that this means for self correction engenders joy rather than self recrimination.

Chag Samayach

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Song and Destiny

Have you ever wondered, why is it that Rosh Hashana precedes Yom Kippur? It would make so much more sense if Yom Kippuer came first. After all Rosh Hashana is the day of judgement. We and everyone we know receive their fate for the year on this day.
Yom Kippur is the day for saying sorry and gaining atonement. It would make sense that we seek forgiveness and set our life in order prior to the judgement.
Yom Kippur and our self correction should come, by all logic, before we have to face trial!

You may have your own way to understand the sequence of experiences. I, for today, want to answer the question through an insight into the Torah portion of this week, that of Valelech.

The parsha, though most known for being the shortest reading of the Torah, is provocative and compelling. The drama of Moshe's life is at its climax. For weeks and weeks we read Moshe's admonishments. He warned the nation he loved and lead with such incredible devotion and patience of the danger before them. He urged and pleaded with them that they continue to adhere to the mitzvotHe implored them to love and fear the G-d who had been so good to them. Here, in Vayelech, Moshe is told by G-d that his time is up. He must ascend the Mountain of Nebo and die as did Aharon his brother before him.

God told Moshe two things in this final communion. First he told Moshe, as they say in Yiddish, "vet gornish helfen", "it won't do any good". In the Torah's words, "And Hashem said to Moshe "You will lie with your fathers and this nation will rise up and stray after the gods of the peoples of the land....and they will forsake me and violate the covenant I made with them."" It's hardly the news Moshe would have wanted to hear.

Then G-d, presents Moshe with the final responisbility of his life. Moshe is commanded an unusual mitzvah. " And now write down this song and teach it to The Chidren of Israel..." What song is Hashem referring to? Rashis tells us it is the song of Haazeenu, found in the reading of next week.

And why? Why write the song? Why teach the song? The Torah is explicit. G-d says that I know this nation will sin. They will be thrown out of the land because of their sins. And in the foreign land, under all that adversity, they will wonder why is all this happening to them. G-d told Moshe that when that day comes the answer will be elusive. G-d says " I will hide my face on that day because of all the evil that you have done..."

And yet even in the time when so much is hidden and so much is lost, the Nation will have this song. "And this song will be for you a witness for it will not be forgotten from the children." G-d told Moshe that this song that you will write will be part of the national legacy. It will remain long after the faithfullness is gone. The song, known and repeated, will remind us of our destiny. When all else is forgotten we will still recall the song. And by means of the song we will find our call and identity anew and be restored to our true selves and to our lost land.

I can remember sitting with the elderly in nursing homes, men and women who could not even tell you their names. Yet they could sing the Shabbat melodies of their youth. Songs we remember. Even when all else is lost the melody lives on. That is why in days gone bye all learning, including the Mishna, was passed over in song, that it be remembered.

And so we return to our question about the placement of the High Holidays. Why is Rosh Hashana, the day of judgement observed before Yom Kippur, the day we seek atonment? Why indeed?

The answer the parsha is teaching us is that in the place where most of us live our lives we don't even know who we are. How can we know the address to where we need return. Our mediocrity, fueled by the galut, is so pervasive we don't realize we are compromised. We have lost our identity. We have forgotten our destiny. What sense can be made out of teshuva, repentence and return if we do not have a sense of what we are meant for and what we are missing.

And then comes the shofar of Rosh Hashana, the sound, the song, that which is non-linear, the melody that breaks through the haze of mediocrity. We hear the melody of Sinai even when the words and the experience is all but forgotten. We feel the sacrifice of all those who went before us from Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akaida, when the ram was slaughtered, symbolized by the shofar, to those who perished in the Shoa and in the defence of the Jewish State. Their sacrifice is no longer history but alive and compelling. In the notes of the Shofar and in its visual image we connect to the buried within. We hear inner calling to commitment, excellence and sacrifice..

It is only after Rosh Hashana, after we were stirred through the song to awarenesses forgotten and after we reclaimed in the shofar's image and sound our private role and national agenda that we can come to Yom Kippur mindful of our journey home. We may pause on the road. No matter how tempting, we must never stop. We must not accept anything less than the fulfillment of the prophetic vision for us as the end of the road.

Our fathers and mothers past, our G-d and Creator, our very selves now awake to the call, will not let us rest until we have reclaimed the spiritual greatness that belongs to each of us and to our People.

Yes, now we remember. Quick, lets reach for the excellence that is our calling.
Now, before we again slip back into the haze that is the banalilty of life. Now let us become the chidren in whom our G-d delights!

G'mar Chateema Tova

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Where Do I Live? "

They tell a story of an airplane pilot who radioed in to the tower the following message, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is we are making excellent time. The bad news is we are hopelessly lost."

This Shabbat we mark the last Shabbat of the year. We are on the threshhold of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement. This is a season of introspection. The shofar sounds we hear during this month of Elul each morning after prayers and on Rosh Hashana days are the sounds of alarm. "Wake up you who are asleep from your slumber..."
The presumption is that all of us have in some ways fallen asleep.
Like the pilot in our vignette, we live our lives hurriedly dashing from one exigency to another, seemingly making excellent time. And yet, like him, we are hopelessly lost of direction and purpose. Our lives are full of form but oh so empty of substance.

This week we read the parsha of Neetzavim. It is a fitting reading for the close of the year. A significant section of this noticeably small parsha deals with the call to 'teshuva', repentance and return. Seven times in the course of the reading the word or variation of the word, "shav", "return" is found. According to the Ramban we are given this week the mitzvah of teshuva, one of the final 613 commandments of the Torah.

The Rambam disagrees. He does not count teshuva as a separate mitzvah within the 613.
Though the Torah makes return after sin an obligation and repeats it time and time again in the reading of the week, the Rambam maintains it is not a stand-alone obligation. Only the 'viduy', the requirement to confess after sinning, does the Rambam list as a mitzvah and that he derives from the section of the sacrifices in the book of Vayikra.

And why does the Ramabam not see a unique mitzvah in repentance? It cannot be because it is not mandated. The Torah calls us to repentance over and over in the course of the portion we read this week. Teshuva is a cornerstone of Judaism.
In the words of the Talmud "...every day of our life we are meant to be invested in the work of teshuva."

The answer that has been suggested is that while for the Rambam teshuva is every bit as central to Jewish practice as it is for the Ramban, and while the Rambam gives credence to Teshuva with a whole separate section in his magnum opus, "The Mishne Torah", on the subject of Teshuva, Teshuva cannot be seen as a free standing commandment. Look at the words in the Torah this week. When it describes the spiritual return The Torah says:

" And it will be after all these things will befall you the blessings and the curses that I have placed on you. And you will take to heart your situation in your dispersion amongst the non'Jewish nations where Hashem your G-d has exiled you. And you will return unto Hashem and you will harken to His voice and to all you have been commanded this day, you and your children with all your heart and soul"

Note when the Torah speaks of Teshuva it does not contextualize it as regrets over specific failings, say, failing to keep the Sabbath, maintain the dietary laws, or give sufficient charity. No, the Torah speaks of repentance as "return unto G-d".
Any individual sin we may commit, no matter how blatant, requires return because it is a manifestation of our distance from Hashem, not because of the individual transgression. The work of our life is to cultivate an intimacy with G-d, one based on both love and reverance. When we sin, it is not the violations itself that warrants regret and requires redress, but that in transgressing we display and lapse in our relationship with the Divine.

It is for this reason that the Rambam does not enumerate Teshuva as one of the 613 mitzvot. Important? Absolutely! and indeed absolutely important! But for the Rambam the call to repentance and return is already embedded in the mitzva to love and fear G-d. The challenge to love and fear Hashem makes repentance necessary and ongoing, a part of our life. Saying sorry and making personal improvement is as core to our intimacy with G-d as it is core to cultivating a loving intimacy with our spouse.Both require constant expression of remorse and re-adjustment to restore an intimacy compromised and help it grow.

Like the pilot in the vignette with which we began, we tend to live our spiritual lives trying to make good time. We collect mitzvot as the pilot made his miles. When we fail, we tend to see our failure as committing a specific sin. When we regroup we see the correction as simply fixing the broken element. Teshuva then becomes a matter of making new resolutions, taking on different behaviors. Then all is right and we can go speeding along through life.

Problem with that model is "return" was never about getting up to speed. It was never about a specific right or wrong. The rights and wrongs are only relevant inasmuch as they symbolize a lack in love or fear of G-d.It is the lack of fear and/or love that needs constant attention in our life. Teshuva is not about repairing the part but about restoring the direction and the intimacy with the Divine.

In thinking about Rosh Hashana and these approaching holy days I found this model helpful. We are here in this world for only one reason. We are here to earn the rights to claim citizenship in the next world, the world that counts. To be a citizen there we have to love that world, the world of the spirit, the world of G-d.
No matter how many acts of doing this or that we bring with us, unless we have become the kind of persons that belong in that world, that love the spirit, that invest in the holy, we will struggle to become citizens there.

The individual mitzva or avaira, only has meaning inasmuch as it is expression of our desire for G-d or the lack of same. A "good" life is one where we place emphasis on matters of the spirit and our yearning for attachment to G-d. Collect mitzvot for any other reason and you are like the pilot, lots of miles, with no direction of purpose! You have a full house of nothing!

A _"sinful" life is where our focus is on the material, on posessing here and now , on physical pleasure and success. No matter how many mitzvot we keep if that is our agenda we thereby show disdain for the world of G-d, the world of the spirit.

The question we need to ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah is "where do I live?"
True we all reside in this the temporal world of the material and finite. But where do I live? Where is my home?

Teshuva is not so much about being sorry for this or that but rather about having lost my way home!
The work is the work of "return".
We need return to the world from which we came and to which we will someday return, this time as citizens.

May the year ahead be one of growth and meaning for you and all those you love.
May you and yours be inscribed and sealed in the book of life and blessing.
L'shana tova teekataivu v'taichataimu!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Commitment or Choice ?

When I was a boy my friends and I would gather each Shabbat afternoon at one or another's house for an Oneg Shabbat. The formal time together, under the supervision of an oneg leader, usually lasted an hour. It was a prelude to the real 'oneg' for us, the main event, when we got to read the latest comic books and engage in boy banter. We were a bright group and often we engaged in rather serious reflection. One topic that intrigued us was the nature of our identity. We pondered, "Are we really Jews by choice? Do we have a right to feel good about keeping Shabbat and the other mitzvot?" We wondered, "If we had been born Christian instead of Jewish would we be just as faithful to that tradition? Is our Judaism simply a product of our upbringing?"

In this week's parsha of Kee Tavo, we find Moshe again calling Israel to be mindful of its national agenda. The People are told that when they enter the land they need to take on the covenant anew at Mt Grezeem and Mt Aival in a compelling ceremony.
The blessings and punishments, the consequences of observance and waywardness respectively, are laid out before them in stark detail.The narrative is full of challenge. We can never say we were not forwarned.

One word comes up no fewer than 8 times in Moshe's powerful address. And the word is "hayom" "today". Over and over Moshes contextualizes his message by making it immediate. "Today you are commanded by Hashem your G-d to keep the statutes..."
"Today you made Hashem your G-d..." "And it will be if you will listen to the will of Hashem your G-d to keep all the commandments that He commands you today..." "And Hashem has not given you a knowing heart and seeing eyes and ears that hear until this day..."

And this portion is not unique. If one studies the Book of Devarim, this final address of Moshe before his death, repeatedly Moshe frames his imperative with the immediacy of "hayom".

Why? Why is Hayom so significant? Is it not enough if the command was given yesterday? or that the awareness in question had its roots in a tradition?

Let me go back to where I began the blog this week, to the question we ten year old boys posed to ourselves. Let me ask you, as an adult, why are you a Jew? Why do you keep the Torah, pray daily, maintain the Shabbat, eat kosher food? If you were born of another faith would you be just as likely today to be a loyal adherent to that religious expression? Is your lifestyle simply a matter of carrying on the tradition, a commitment to the past?

Explore with me a moment. We who are committed to a Torah lifestyle want our children to do likewise. We send them to Jewish schools and to Jewish camps. We seek out an environment that will foster their continuity in the path of our faith. We try to minimize the risk that they will marry out of the faith or assimilate.
I ask you, if I had a pill you could put in your child's cereal that once taken would guarentee that s/he would be a good Jew and stay faithful to Torah, would you give it to him/her? Would you protect your investment? Do you think G-d would want you to give him/her the pill? How about taking it yourself?

On reflection I think most of us would say that tempting as it might be we would not administer the pill to our kid not take it ourselves. And why? Because observance only has meaning in the context of choice! If I make no choice there is no merit to the good I do. If I make no choice I show no love of G-d nor deference to His will.
If I make no choice I do the right thing but without meaning.

So now that we have agreed that commitment without choice is empty, we may wonder how much choice do we need to make our religious expression meaningful. If we reduce the possibility that we could stray, say by taking away the options , as the Hareidim do in their isolated communities, have we done well or compromised the integrity of observance? What nachas does G-d have from those who do not waver from His law if they really don't feel they could stray if they wanted to, either because the consequences are too severe or the possibilities are removed.

I don't have good answers to these questions? But I know they beg consideration!
The Torah this week and over and over in the readings of Devarim calls on Israel to see their mandate as immediate, "hayom". Moshe rarely invokes tradition to augment his message. The names of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov and the loyalty to the past as a reason to be faithful is not found. Moreover the call of Devarim is a call to choice. On several occasions Moshe tells the People the good and the bad is present before them. He challenges them to choose, "uvacharta bachayeem".

It is clear from the Torah that a spiritual life only has meaning if it is fresh and alive and renewed each day. To keep the faith as a ode to the past defeats the whole purpose of observance. It neither brings pleasure to our G-d not enobles us.

As we get ready for Rosh Hashanna its not enough that we pat ourselves on the back for our "kosher" way of life. We need to be choosing anew each day. Over and over we need to be saying "yes" to the faith we were born into. Is that risky? What if one day we say "no"? The answer is, of course it is a risk. If there is no risk than one way or another, we swallowed the pill.

The danger we confront in our life is not that we will not be faithful. Rather it is that our faith has gone stale. It has lost its livining edge.
Choice keeps things alive. If you are married simply out of a commitment to the past your marriage is dead. We need to be choosing our spouse, to be parents, to be caring people, over and over. I don't mean that if we wake one day in a bad mood and would rather be single that we leave home and family. But I do mean to say that if the price of a secure marriage is that we surrender our choice to be in it instead living off the agreement of the past, then the price is too high!

We need to trust ourselves and the ones we love. We need to believe that given the right circumstances and encouragement we will make the right choices.
Even as ten year olds we knew that to give up choice it to make a mockery out of our life and loves.
There is only one commitment we need to make...that we will give ourselves the best chance to make the right choice.

It is choice that is the elixir of life!

Shabbat Shalom