Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Slow Down You Must Too Fast"

There is as an old Zen teaching, "Life is so short. We must move slowly."

Of course to say something is a Zen teaching is to say it is paradoxical. And of this teaching it is no less true. I would think if life is short we must move more quickly, mindful of all the things we need to accomplish in a short period of time. Yet the opposite is true.
Our Torah this week in the parsha of Vayechi, the final parsha in the Book of Breishit, the first book of the Torah, frames for us the problem with "going too fast".

Yaakov before his death addressed each of his children. He set before them their strengths and weaknesses. To Reuvain the eldest Yaakov said:

"Reuvain you are my first born, my might and the beginning of my strength. You have excellence of dignity and power. Yet you are unstable as water. You shall not have the excellence because you went up to your father's bed and thereby defiled my marital relations."

Reuvain was entitled to special portions in as much as he was the first born. Moreover Reuvain had with in him the personal gifts and excellences that made him worthy of greatness above his siblings. The problem with Reuvain was that like "water", he was unstable. He moved too fast. He saw a situation that needed to be addressed and he rushed in to resolve it. His intentions show his unique sensitivity and capacity to lead. Yet his performance, hurried and impulsive, made his eforts futile.

Look at the stories of Reuvain. He is the one son of Leah who feels her hurt. He brought his mother a gift of the mandrakes to comfort her over the rejection she felt from her husband. Yet rather than serve to make Leah less focused on Yaakov's love the mandrakes became his mother's bargaining chip to gain another night with Yaakov. Later Reuvain is the one who saved Yosef from death by telling the brothers to throw him in the pit rather than kill him. Reuvain's intentions were excellent. He hoped to return to the pit and rescue Yosef. But there was no opportunity. Yosef was taken from the pit and sold. Again good intentions left unrealized.

And when the brothers returned from their first sojourn to Egypt to buy food and Shimon was held captive until Binyamin is brought, Reuvain tried to prevail on Yaakov to send Binyamin with him. His efforts were well motivated but poorly timed and poorly stated. Only later when Yehuda spoke did he successfully convince Yaakov to send their youngest brother. Reuvain took the lead, but again here his leadershp was compromised by his anxiety to get it done.

And finally their is the incident Yaakov made reference to in his critique of Reuvain, the story of his intervention into Yaakov's sleeping arrangements with his respective wives. Here too, Reuvain, in tradition, was well intentioned. He felt his mother's insult when Yaakov chose the tent of Bilha, Rachel's former maid, over his mother's following Rachel's death. There was no faulting Reuvain's sensitivity. He was unique in this regard from the rest of his siblings. It was his impulsive response that was at issue.

Reuvain's problem was he "moved too fast". He had not the discipline to wait for the right time and setting so as to get the results that mattered. Many of us know that truth in our own lives. We feel deeply and often correctly the hurt of another or their need. We want to make a difference. We respond immediately and impulsively.
And yet despite our passion we fail to make a difference. Our feelings, though noble, and necessary to our motivation, got in the way of our ability to wait for the right time and setting to actually be effective in engendering change.

It's important to distinguish between "z'reezut", freely translated as "alacrity" and speed. Yes, in our tradition "z'reezut" is a virtue. To be "zariz" in the service of G-d and in doing mitzvot is important. But to be zariz is not about the speed with which one does something but rather with the level of intensity and fullness of self we invest in being where we are. We are called to serve G-d and do mitzvot being fully present and mindful. There is no room for laziness. But that does not mean we need to move quickly. On the contrary when we move too quickly we are often less able to be fully present in the moment. We miss being where we are because we are focused on where we have to get to.

I found myself understanding the lesson of Reuvain this week and identifying with him. For several days I had lower back pain. Besides the hurt, it made walking difficult. I am by inclination a fast walker. I struggle to be patient and go slow.
The more I tried to push myself to get to my destination this week, the more I hurt.
Only in going slow would the pain subside.

My life experience of this week and the Torah message I see in the parsha teach me to stop running. With reference to my tendency towards haste my daughter would sometimes say "I only know Daddy from the back!"
In pushing to reach the ends I often miss the vistas I am meant to see on the way. Still more, in moving too fast I may make impossible accomplishments that would be possible only with time and patience.

The lesson here for me and perhaps for you is best captured in the verse from an old Simon and Garfunkel song, "slow down you move too fast..."

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Rest of the Story: A Channuka Blog

Many years ago there was a wonderful radio personality named Paul Harvey. For decades he had a syndicated 5 minute commentary in which he shared a news item, often one odd and unusual, but at first blush straightforward. Then, after a brief commercial break, he would go on to tell what he called "the rest of the story".
The "rest of the story" turned out not to be so much an elaboration on the headline, but rather to supply additional data that tended to turn the earlier headline on its head. The genius of "The rest of the story" was that it put what you thought you knew into a whole new light and made you realize you hardly knew it at all.

We are in the midst of the celebration of Channuka. It is a wonderful holiday filled with good times and hope. In lighting the chanukiya or menorah each night we recall the miracle of the Temple menora, where oil enough for but one day burned for eight, until new pure oil was available for kindling. In the prayers we recall a different miracle. We celebrate the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Syrio-greeks who sought to hellinize us by force. The victory was miraculous in that the few defeated the many, the weak subdued the strong, the pure overcame the wicked. While the miracle of the oil provides us with the mitzva of the holiday the victory of Judah Maccabee and his followers is the one that captures the imagination. And surely without the military triumph, unlikely as it was, we would not have been able to enter the Bait Hamikdash, rid it of the idols, and purify it. Without the miraculous victories in battle no menora would have been lit!

Yes, our miraculous triumph over our oppressors is central to the celebration of this festival of light. Now its time to share what Paul Harvey called "the rest of the story". Victory! what victory? Judah and his brothers engineered with the help of G-d a great triumph at the time of Channuka in 165 bce. But how long did it last? Shortly after the liberation of the Temple war again ensued. Judah was unsuccessful in ridding Jerusalem of the heathen influence. He himself was killed some 3 years after the Channuka victory in a losing battle. It took another 20 years for the Maccabbees to actually defeat the Syrio-greek army once and for all. By then all but one of the five brothers was dead or killed.

While the Channuka events were a great moment in time, they were hardly a culmination. A battle was won, not a war! Why all the partying? Why the widespread joy? Why the holiday? This is not a story of a happily ever after. This is no final chapter!

Here lies the great truth of Channuka, a truth often missed by those who don't bother to study the story in its fullness. Channuka teaches us that to live in this world is to live in the moment. There are no final victories. There are no lasting triumphs.Life is full of ups and downs. The success of today may have no bearing on tomorrow. We cannot hold on to the moment in a world that is constantly in flux.
If we wait to celebrate until we achieve the final triumph we will need to wait for Mashiach. All we have in life is gift moments, times that we can neither fix nor grasp. Yes, the immediate impact of Channuka was short-lived but that does not make it less worthy to celebrate.

Soon it will be superbowl season. Every football team and fan dreams of winning the title for themselves. It seems at first glance an ultimate win, a reason for enduring joy. But is it? Six months later training camp begins anew. And soon after begins a new season on the playing field. Last year's champion has no edge nor status. What seemed a lasting victory hardly endured six months. Yet the celebrations of the moment are wild and euphoric. That todays events will be irrelevant tomorrow does not make them less of an occasion today for the winners and their fans.

My father had many ups and downs in his life yet when asked how he was he would say "every day is a victory". Just having one more day, today, and being alive and able to make a difference, to love and be loved, is a reason to celebrate. True, tomorrow everything could change and often it does, but that does not make today's reality any less worthy of joy.

This lesson of Channuka is evident even in the miracle of the menora. The Maccabbees found only one flask of pure oil. It was enough to light the menora for one day.
They knew it would take eight until they could get new pure oil. They did not know a miracle would happen and the oil would continue to burn. In that situation it would have been undertsandable to say "Lets wait to light the menora until we have enough oil so it will not go out. After all it will be disappointing to light one day and then have the light extinguished while we await a new supply of oil".
The Jews of the day did not say that. Instead they said "Lets light now! We have the opportunity. Tomorrow will take care of itself!"

The message of Channuka is that in this world there are no final victories. We need to seize the gift moments and enter them fully, unafraid of what tomorrow will bring.
Indeed every day is a victory!

And as Paul Harvey would say "that my friends is the rest of the story".

Channuka Samayach
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Playing Favorites

I will confess to something I do not think I ever really admitted, even to myself.
When I was a boy I was a good child. I always tried to please my parents, in particular, my father. My younger brother was much more rebellious than I and much more inclined to follow his own heart, rather than the rules. I always thought that my father loved my rebellious brother more than me. I was the "good son" yet he got the love. It did not seem quite fair.

My father is gone from this world. I loved him dearly. Though we talked about many things through the years I never got to talk about these feelings and his attitude with him. This week in the parsha of Vayeshev, through some insight into our father Yaakov I have come to understand my father better, and perhaps to understand better the father I am as well.

At the outset of the reading, one that begins the epic story of Yosef and the brothers, we are told "...and Yisrael loved Yosef from all his children because he was the child of his elder years, and he gave him a coat of many colors."
The Torah goes on to tell us that Yaakov's actions brought on the brother's hate towards Yosef, so much so that they could not even speak together without quarrel.

We all know the drama that unfolds. The brothers nearly murder Yosef. Instead they sell him to Egypt. After some initial success, Yosef finds himself languishing in prison, only to be released to interpret the dream of the Pharoah.
The sages of the Talmud warn us never to favor one child over another. They make reference to Yaakov and point out that because he favored Yosef over his brothers, a seemingly small offence, a whole nation wound up being exiled and enslaved in Egypt.

The question arises, how is it that Yaakov could so blatantly favor one of his children over another. We are talking of our patriarch.In tradition Yaakov is the examplar of righteousness. How could he make such a foolish mistake as to show favoritism? Even bad parents today know not to play favorites. Moreover Yaakov saw the chaos in his family of origen when each parent prefered a different child.
And more specifically what does it mean that Yaakov loved Yosef from his children because "he was the child of his old age" ? What role did the time of Yosef's birth play in his special status. I would have thought Yaakov preferred Yosef because he was the child of his beloved and dead wife Rachel or maybe because of Yosef's unique character.

If I may be so bold, I think Yaakov did not favor Yosef. Yaakov would not have made such a basic mistake in parenting. Moreover if he did favor Yosef it would not have been for the timing of when he was born in Yaakov's life.
No, the Torah means to tell us something different. Yaakov did not love Yosef more than his brothers, nor did he favor him. What Yaakov did is love Yosef differently than his brothers and in truth he loved him better.

We who are parents know that we grow into the role. We do not become a 'father' or 'mother' with our first child. Oh yes, of course we do! But I mean we do not really become the role of parent in the best sense until we have had years raising children. Over time we become wise to the holy work of child-rearing and of loving.
With our first children we play the role of parent but it is not yet us. Typically we don't trust ourselves and we don't trust our children. We tend to be more strict, more going by the rule. Like someone first learning to cook, we need recipes to follow. We don't yet trust our instincts or our children's intrinsic goodness.
We hold on tight afraid a miscue will cause harm to the children we are responsible to raise.

As we mature in our role we feel more confident in ourselves and in the resillience of our children. We are more relaxed with our charge and more trusting of both them and the process. To older chidren who look at the way we parent their younger siblings it may appear that we are favoring them. We are often not as demanding,we are more able to give without fear that we are 'spoiling' the child. We may seem to love the younger in the group with a less conditional love. And that may foster some resentment. To be truthful, as I look back, my father did not really show my brother more love than he showed me. He just didn't make the love he gave him conditional on his being good!.

My sense is that the brothers of Yosef experienced that dynamic as well. They saw their father was more liberal with Yosef. While they tended the sheep he tended his hair! Yosef was a dreamer not a worker. He got the same love his brothers got but without having to earn it. The Talmud taught us that 'the ├žoat of many colors'was actually of very little real value. Yaakov gave it as a gift to Yosef without him having to have earned it. It was the gift for free, something they had not experienced with their father that engendered their resentment. Sometimes children harbor similar resentment, if unspoken, when their parents are generous with their grandchildren in a way they never were with them.

Its not that the grandparents love the grandchildren more. Its rather that the parents, now grandparents, have matured and grown in their role. They are no longer afraid to let go in acts of generosity with their progeny.

We now can understand why the Torah's explanation for Yaakov's greater love was because Yosef was a son of his old age. Yaakov's love was not more for Yosef than the brothers, but it was a greater love. It was greater in quality because indeed Yaakov was older and wiser. He knew how to love his children in a way he did not when Yosef's brothers were of similar age.The jealousy of the brothers is understandable. But Yaakov is not at fault. Every good parent becomes more able to love as they mature.
Its not about favorites. It is about becoming a better parent.

I understand my father now in a different way. He did not love me less than my brother.
He loved me differently because he had become a different father through experience and maturity. Perhaps my insight will help you too as you think on the years of your youth and your relationship with your parents. Perhaps it will help you as parent to ease the spoken or unspoken jealousies of your children over the love you gave to their younger siblings or to your grandchildren.

Sometimes all it takes to lighten our load is a new perspective.

Shabbat Shalom