Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hierarchy or Collaboration?

When the Feminist Movement began to argue that society was structured on the basis of male dominated values they pointed to the hierarchical model of organization as a prime example. They argued that the assumption that things need to run on the basis of a top-down
scheme with the power at the top of the pyramid to be effective is evil. It emerges from a male focus that esteems authority and enjoys accruing power.They claimed hierarchy invites competitiveness and all too often leads to abuse.
The better approach, and the one more in synch with the feminine in their view is an operational model based on collaboration. In a collaborative model no member of the organization is above the other, none assumes the place of authority. Rather each member shares equally in the organizational agenda albeit with separate functions.

The upshot of this thinking was to cause many of us in positions of authority to question our role and practice. We began to wonder if we were perhaps participating in a social structure that was inherently evil. The history of the world seemed to support much of the feminist position. So much of the evil we know both in the macro and micro setting, from the story of nations to the life of families, has its roots in an abuse of power. We came to question if indeed we need a new world order, one that eschews authority and blesses equality.

What does our faith tradition have to say about these issues? Where does Judaism stand on the issue of hierarchy or collaboration?

The issue came up for me as I explored the parsha of this week that of Yitro. Yitro has two distinct sections. In the first part of the reading, from which the portion gets its name, we read where Yitro the father-in-law of Moshe came from Midian to visit him in the wilderness. The Torah story includes the fact that Yitro saw Moshe judging the people all day long as the sole dispenser of justice and teaching. Yitro challenged Moshe to set up a more workable system where there would be judges appointed in a layered system, judges over the 10, the 50s, and over the 100s, and over the 1000s, in ascending competency. The judicial system would allow the more complex cases to go to the higher courts with the final say being Moshe himself. Yitro's approach gains the approval of G-d and indeed is implemented.

The second half of the reading tells the story of the giving of the Decalogue on Sinai as Israel accpepted their role as the Chosen

The question that begs asking is what does the first half of the reading have to do with the second? How are they connected? Yitro? the giving of the law? they seem totally unrelated.

I believe the connection of these two stories is meant to tell us something very important. The initial part of the reading, the story of Yitro, validates hierarchy as the model for cognitive learning. The whole gist of what Yitro suggested to Moshe and that which was later confirmed by G-d is that the giving over of the content of Torah is to be done top-down. The judges of the 10, the 50, the 100, and the 1000, were meant to teach and pass on the tradition assuring its purity and safeguarding its message. There can be no learning in the Torah ideal without authority. We are mandated to revere our teachers and learn from what they do as much as from what they say.
Parents and teachers are akin in Judaism, one gets you into this world the other into the next. Both cannot play down their roles as authorities if proper formation is to occur.

The later half of the reading teaches us something other. There, at Sinai, as Israel experienced the Divine and entered into the Covenant there was no room for authority. Each person needed to have the experience for him/herself.The experience of an rendezvous with G-d was the essence of Sinai. The content of the Decalogue was subordinate to the context of our wedding with our G-d. When it comes to experience we are arbitors for ourselves. Collaboration of equals yes, hierarchy and authority no! Moshe was told by Hashem exactly what to say to the Israelites. He could add nothing nor subtract from G-d's invitation to intimacy. It was not for Moshe to define, frame, or limit the experience of each Jew's encounter. He could not sell the package or make it more enticing. The experience was between Israel and G-d. Moshe was an agent but nothing more. The experience each Israelite had was immediate and personal. At Sinai we were all equal and unique.

The message here in poingant. Yes we need to have authorities and be authorities even if it feel at times uncomfortable. Parents need to have a hierarchical relationship with their children. That is true even if the parent grew up in the 60's and was a flower child disdaining authority. Our teachers cannot be one of us. They need the respect that comes from their elevated place in the social order.
But when it comes to experience we need to get out of the way. We need to let those we feel responsible for have their own encounter with its own meaning and uniqueness for them. We need to trust the other that what they need to experience they will and resist trying to control what others feel through our manipulation and handling. Too often the media not only reports on an event. They make the event. By dint of how they report and what they share they attempt to mold our experience to fit their agenda. We too, at times in wanting to influence others, attempt to shape their experience. We tell them what they should feel instead of letting them have the encounter for themselves. We have no business being an authority when we deal with the experiential. Every person needs to feel autonomous and validated in his/her sense of what transpires. We can't draft the meaning of an event for another. In the world of experience we are all equal and every experience counts. A community consists of a collaboration of people each with his or her sense of experience coming together to share and grow.

Hierarchy or collaboration? It's not either or, but rather both and. It depends on the context. There is no absolute good or bad here.
We need authority to teach us right from wrong. We need collaboration to build living communities based on experience and trust.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

G-d of the Mundane

This week we celebrate Shabbat Shira, the "Sabbath of Song". The Sabbath derives its name from the parsha of the week, that of B'shalach, where we read the "Song of the Sea", the song Israel sang after the miracle of their crossing on dry land and the drowning of the Egyptians. Surely there were few more exultant moments in our People''s history. Not only was a nation saved by Divine miracle from its tormentors, this slave people experienced at the Sea a prophetic revelation, one that moved them to spiritual ecstasy. They reached an unprecedented level of faith, beyond even a trace of denial. The Torah states it simply and unequivocally, "And they believed in G-d and in Moshe His servant".

Yet if we were to consider the Torah reading in its totality this Shabbat, we might name the Sabbath something entirely different. True in its early sections it tells of the crossing of the sea and Israel's inspired song of faith and praise of the Divine. But what follows is one instance of doubt and murmurings after another.
On no less than three occasions in the weeks after the Israelites crossed the sea they questioned G-d's committment to them. Facing a shortage of water and food, they said, "Why did you bring us out from Egypt to cause us and our cattle to die in the wilderness". And later they said "It would have been better to die in Egypt than die here in the desert." The Torah narrative tells us that the people tested G-d wondering "Is G-d really in our midst or not?"

If we were to study the whole of the reading, rather than call this Shabbat "The Sabbath of Song" we might call it "The Sabbath of Murmurings" or perhaps more cyncially "The Sabbath of Schizophrenia". How do we understand the dynamics here?
How do we reconcile the experience of unconditional faith attained by the People at the sea with the relentless doubts they express in the ensuing weeks?

In concert with the theme of the blog, to see the Torah as a mirror to oursleves, we need ask how are we like the Israelites of yore. Where do we display the same charactaristics of faith and then doubt, belief and then skepticsm?

When I look inwards I can see a mirror image here. The behaviors of my ancestors is not that far removed from my own. Typically where do we experience G-d? In the great moments of our lives, in the times we need a major intervention to persevere. Yes, we believe in G-d, yes we even may believe He really loves us. But we experience Him when we are going through a crisis, when much is on the line. G-d is our hero.

In the day to day encounters with living G-d falls into the shadows. We don't easily experience G-d's imminence when we take a bite into an apple or when we cross from one side of the street to the next. In the morning we make blessings each day, thanking our G-d who helps us open our eyes, makes clothes for us to wear, give us the ability to discern, makes it possible for us to move our bodies, etc.
We say the blessings as matters of fact. After all they are true. Yet we rarely feel the gratitude when we say them. We don't typically feel the imminence of G-d with us when we open our eyes in the morning or when we put on our trousers. We don't feel G-d until we need him. In the ordinary, in the mundane, we may know He is there, but He is out of consciousness.

The Israelites in the wilderness knew G-d. They believed in Him. He was, as described in "The Song of the Sea", the "man of war", the hero. The people knew G-d was there to rescue them in times of absolute adversity. What they did not yet know or feel was that G-d was with them when they were hungry or short on water. They did not feel the Divine in the routine moments of life. They wondered was He available then, could they count on Him? As the Torah tells us, they wondered "Is G-d in the midst of us or not?" The word in Hebrew 'b'keerbainu' can be translated as 'midst of us' and also as 'inside us'. The People did not yet believe that G-d lived with them in the fulness of their everyday lives.

Its true, only the experience of G-d as our hero will inspire us to song. The Talmud teaches us that it is not okay to recite the Hallel each day. Our ordinary lives cannot bring us to the spiritual high. Those moments are rare and cherished.
Yet we are called to know that G-d is not only available to us in the image of hero. G-d is accesable in His more subdued form and in every day life. The morning blessings are no song. They are however meant to give voice to the feelings of thanksgiving within and to express relationship to the G-d in the mundane . So much is this true, that, according to some halachic authorities, a blind person is not to recite the blessing each morning of thanksgiving to the G-d who provides site. We are not to express what we can't feel!

To feel G-d with us in the great moments of life is no challenge. We are naturally inspired. It is feeling G-d in the mundane that is the challenge. The G-d we connect to there may not wow us. He doesn't cause us to dance or cry. The G-d we know there evokes in us a quiet gratitude and a sense of comfort in the face of the anxieties of life and living. It's a presence that stills our anger and calms our fears.

While the G-d of the heroic may get all the press, I suspect it is our relationship with the G-d in the mundane that offers us the possibility of spiritual excellence.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Journey towards Surrender

Have you ever watched video footage of scenes of surrender? On the History Channel sometimes you get to see images of famous occasions of capitulation. What always struck me as odd about what I saw was that the ceremony seemed full of pomp and reverence. The room for the event seemed a banquet hall. All the characters were dressed in their finest. It was hard to tell by image alone who was the defeated and who the victor. The context did not match the content.

In the case of the reading of this Shabbat, that of Bo, and the capitulation of Pharaoh to Moshe after the plague of the death of the first born, the scene was unambiguous. The Pharaoh waits on no ceremony. He arises in the middle of the night and calls for Moshe. There are no niceties, no exchanges of toasts and tributes. No pride remains for the Egyptians. They beg Israel to leave and to do so immediately. Not only does Pharaoh acknowledge defeat, he begs for a blessing from his former enemy.

Pharaoh's total surrender after months of obstinacy calls to mind the victorious Union general of the Civil War, Ulyssis S. Grant,whose initial U.S. were said to stand for Unconditional Surrender Grant. Indeed Pharaoh's surrender was total and without condition. For months, all through the plagues the Egyptian King was willing to give in but only on condition. He agreed to let the people go if...if this and if that. Conditional surrender was not acceptable to Moshe. Until and unless Pharaoh would say "I give up" with no qualifiers the plagues would continue.
It took ten, and many lost lives to reach that point. Sadly for the Egyoptian by the time Pharaoh was ready for unconditional surrender he had little left to give up.

Reading about Pharaoh as an archetype of ancient evil is interesting. To see him and his behavior as a mirror to our own , albeit exaggerated, makes him compelling.
How am I like the Pharaoh? Where can I identify with him? How are my life challenges
evidenced in his?

Most of us know we have character flaws and behaviors that compromise our lives.
When we look with honesty at where we have been and where we are going we can see patterns of conduct that have been oh so deleterious. Perhaps we struggle with our anger, or our need to control, or our judgementalism, or our envy of others. Perhaps we struggle to assert ourselves, or to be honest and open. Perhaps we are too self absorbed. We all have issues. That's why we are here in this world, to work on them.
Our issues are not just blots on our person. They have caused us harm.
Each of us knows the personal "plagues" visited on us for our refusal to learn the lessons and change. You and I know that the quality of the relationships we have with those we love has been all too often bruised if not buried by our conduct.
Yet we are resistant to change. We say we are sorry only to quickly revert to form.
We agree in our hearts to change, but we make conditions. Perhaps we demand change in the other as well or we agree to change in certain circumstances. We refuse total surrender. We insist that we be in control.

The lesson of the Pharaoh is that until and unless we come to admit unconditionally our character 'sins' we will remain afflicted. Until we are willing to unconditionally surrender our pride and control we will find at best only short term relief. Until we commit to change without condtions the diseases that malign us will not subside.

All life can be seen as a journey towards surrender. In our youth we are so full of ourselves. We want to conquer our reality. As we mature we sustain loss after loss.
We fall short of our aspirations. We fall short of our expectations. We fall short of who we felt we were meant to become. We fail. In the end not only can we not conquer the world we cannot even conquer our bodies, as it too fails us!

Life is a journey towards surrender. Is that bad? Not at all. Would that we would surrender early and experience life as G-d's gift rather than something to own and control. Would that we would surrender before the "final plague", before their is re no choice and the damage irreparable. Would that we learn our lessons young, that we be willing to let go of our need to be the masters of our story and instead live with our story and let it teach us who we need to be and become without reservations and needless pride.

Surrender is not a bad thing. We need to stop avoiding it. On the contrary, resistance to surrender is the bad thing. The lesson of the Pharaoh is that surrender in time is salvific.
Our task is to not follow in his footstep and be too arrogant to captitulate to the 'plagues' G-d sends into each of our lives to show us the way!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Compromise? Yes and No

The parsha of the week, Va'aira, contains in the main the first seven plagues G-d brought on the Egyptians as a prelude to the Exodus. But it is the introductory section of the reading I found compelling this year. You may recall, at the close of last week's reading Moshe had complained to G-d that since his mission to redeem the Israelites began it had only gotten harder for them. The Pharaoh had made harsher decrees. G-d responds to Moshe at the outset of our parsha and renews the charge to
Moshe to go demand of the Pharaoh that he let the people go.

Then, almost as a non sequitor the Torah begins an account of the lineage of Moshe and Aharon. It tells us the pedigree of the whole tribe of Levy and even of Reuvain and Shimon, Levy's older brothers, all, according to traditon, just so we know who Moshe and Aharon are. Then the Torah tells us something puzzling.

The verses read:

"This is Moshe and Aharon to whom G-d spoke telling them to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt. It is they who spoke to the Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel leave Egypt.They are Moshe and Aharon."

The redundancy in the verse is obvious. Why three times are Moshe and Aharon referenced, twice by name and once by pronoun? What is the Torah attempting to convey?

Rashi in his commentary on the verses brings the Gemara. It explains, the Torah redundancy is meant to emphasize that throughout the process, from their initial call to the exodus, Moshe and Aharon remained unchanged. They were consistant and uncompromised.

Is being uncompromising a virtue? From the reading it would seem so. Yet perhaps we need to think again. In the Book of Proverbs we find, "Who is wise? One who understands the meaninfg of things." The Hebrew word used for "meaning" is 'pesher'.
Interestingly enough 'pesher' in Hebrew is the root for the word 'peshara', which means compromise. In the judicial process, the 'bet din' (Jewish court), is charged wherever possible to make a judgement based on 'peshara', rather than the letter of the law.

How do the words 'pesher', translated as 'meaning' and 'peshara', translated as compromise, relate? I think the answer is that in compromise we forego the victory we may have in the individual battle for the larger agenda of winning the war.
In compromising we see not the isolated instance but its meaning and place within the context of our life and goals. To compromise we must know the meaning of something, what its consequence will be. Once aware of the 'pesher', compromise, or 'peshara' becomes important and at times necessary! How tragic are the stories of those who are uncompromising in matters that in truth are small, yet large in the eyes of the one stating them...and large in the cost the uncompromising incur due to their insistance.
Even, granted they are right, they cause strife in families and communities that
make their make their victory hollow. Their victories are nothing but tragedies.

So if what I write is true, how is it that Moshe and Aharon are praised for being consistant and uncompromising?

The answer is clear and oh so significant. There are two kinds of compromises, the compromise of an idea, and the compromise of self. Yes, absolutely we need to be ready to give up on the battles over ideas, even when we are right, if it serves the larger meaning of our lives. Rav Arush in his books on making a successful marriage instructs husbands to never crticize their wives, never! It is not that the husband is not right. It is not that the criticism is not valid. Husbands should not criticize because the 'truth' they tell their wives will prove to unhinge the peace of the home and family. More good than any particular correction will achieve is the harm potentially done by hurtful critique to a healthy and loving relationship. Understanding something in its context demands compromise.

But compromise of self is another matter entirely. We must never give ourselves away.
We must be forever true to who we are and at all costs. As Janice Joplin said "Don't compromise yourself. You are all you've got!"
We are given the pedigree of Moshe and Aharon to confirm who they are. They are no pretenders on a stage. They knew themselves.
Moshe and Aharon went before the Pharaoh. They had to confront the great powers of the world. Yet they remained who they were as persons. They did not change themselvs to curry favor. And even with G-d, Moshe never waivers in his insistance that he is not right for his mission. Even before G-d Moshes insists on being true to how he sees himself.

The problem most of us have is that we struggle to distinguish between the two types of compromise. All too often we fight over an idea we believe in as if it is our selves that we are defending and to surrender would mean giving our selves away.
We may win the battle but at a tragic cost. And in most cases the victory of our idea turns out to be meaningless in short order.
And at times we give our very selves away inorder to prevail and succeed. We give ourselves a pass saying that we are only acting and that inside we remain true to form. We defend our compromise. Yetis that true? How many a wife has lost her self in her marriage by compromising her integrity of person inorder to save the home. To give who we are away is never okay!

Compromise is both good and bad. It depends on the issue at stake.
Forever we need to be humble and flexable enough to compromise on an idea.
Forever we need to be strong and courageous enough to never compromise who we are no matter the cost.

And forever we need the sagacity and wisdom to discern between the two!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Too Wounded to Heal?

Many years ago a pyscho-therapist, Maxine Glaz, wrote an article in which she suggested that some people may be so badly damaged by early life abuse that even with therapeutic intervention healing is not really possible for them. The most they can hope for is to learn to cope.

That idea occured to me as I read the Parsha of this week,Shmot, and gained a new insight into the episode of The Burning Bush. The Sages all look for explanations as to why G-d first appeared to Moshe in the vision of a burning bush. The Torah tells us:
"And Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yitro his father-in-law the priest of
Midian and he guided the sheep into the desert, and they came to the Mountain of
G-d, at Horev. And an angel of G-d appeared to him in the heart of a flame
in the midst of a bramble bush. And Moshe noticed that the bramble bush was
entirely aflame yet the bush was not being consumed. And Moshe said, "I will
turn to see this wonder, why it is that the bramble bush is not being consumed
by the fire.""

The bramble bush, or 'sneh' in Hebrew, with a flame rising from it has become a symbol for the spiritual in art and culture ever since. Yet what does it really symbolize? Why did G-d take this form to initiate the dialogue that led to the redemption from Egypt? Moreover the Torah tells us that Moshe went to see why the bush was not consumed by the flames. Next the Torah tells us, as Moshe approached, G-d told Moshe to take off his shoes because the soil he was on was holy. He then went on to tell Moshe that He has seen the suffering of the Israelites, that He heard their cries. It's time for the redemption. But Moshe never seems to get his original wonder explained. Why did the sneh not burn?

I know their are many wonderful interpretations to this passage. I would like to share what I see, as the Torah speaks to me in this time in my life. Indeed that is the whole purpose of this blog "The Torah and the Self".

We know Moshe left Egypt a fugitive. The Pharoah had placed a death sentence on him for slaying the Egyptian. Yet worse than having been branded a criminal, Moshe suffered heartache from what he saw of his People. You recall, Moshe saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and saved him by killing that Egyptian. The next day, the Torah tells us, Moshe saw two Hebrews fighting. He intervened telling the one "Wicked man, why are you beating your friend". The Hebrew's response was "Oh so maybe you want to kill me too just like you killed the Egyptian!"

Moshe then and there realized two things. First, that his act of killing the Egyptian was no longer a secret. And, according to our Sages, second, and worse, he came to understand why his brethren were suffering. That they would fight with one another, be so insolent in response to criticism, and perhaps even turn in one of there own people to their oppressors, showed character flaws that made their servitude understandable. When Moshe left Egypt he had all but given up on his People and their future. They were too wounded to heal!

What then did the "Burning Bush" mean? What did is symbolize to Moshe?
The bush was a thorny and misshapen bramble bush. not a flowering growth in alignment. It was knotted and distended. In the world of plants and trees it repersents the compromised and ugly. Yet from this bush a flame was rising. That it might be on fire was no surprise, brush fires are common, and lowly bushes burn first. What surprised Moshe was that it did not perish in the flames. On the contrary, the bush contained the flames. Yet how? How can the lowly bramble, gnarled and malformed, full of thorns, contain the pure and powerful flame a thing of pure spirit and potency?

What Moshe saw he knew was no accident. He was meant to see it. He was meant to see that Israel too, like the thorn bush, so compromised and stunted, can yet contain a flame. They are not too wounded to heal. And why? How?

Hashem answered Moshe's question. As Moshe approached, He said to Moshe, "take your shoes off for the ground you are on is holy ground". It was as if Hashem was telling Moshe "the Bush was not consumed by the powerful flames, despite it's brokeness because it grew in holy soil! Yes it's form is misbegotten. Yes by all accounts the flames should devour it. But because it was nurtured in the holy, despite its form, it can contain the flames and endure."

And then Hashem went on to tell Moshe, "the people's character flaws, that which you experienced that made them too wounded to heal in your eyes, are the result of their affliction. The persecution they suffer turned them into a 'sneh'. Of essence they were born of the holy, their spiritual genes are excellent. Healing, redemption, for them is possible. Like the 'sneh' you see here full of flame and indeed alive, on this very spot the nation of Israel, with its limitations, will come and be aglow with the spiritual flame of G-d, at the time I will give them the Torah."

Too wounded to heal? Not if you contain the spiritual genes of our People and its ancestry. I thought about this as I look around me at the world in which I live.
Jerusalem is the holy city. When Mashiach comes it is here he will come first.
Yet I look at the city and wonder. Is it too late? Did we miss our time? Are we too wounded to heal? Yes Jerusalem is a large city today. the largest in Israel. But it is also the poorest. It seems every third person is begging for money. The elderly and compromised are everywhere. The streets are full of the maimed and broken.
Walking downtown on Ben Yehuda is not like walking 5th Ave. There is no parade of the beautiful people in high fashion and with lilting gaight. No, here downtown one feels the neediness of the society . People here don't dream of basking in the spirit of the Divine. They dream of a relief from pain, food to eat, and the money for their rent. I wonder for whom will Mashiach come? And what will he bring that will be of interest more than a relief from the harshness of life. Is the city too wounded to know the true healing of the spirit perefering instead a hot stove and a good meal?

Is Israel, our country, too wounded to heal? I know the tourist sees the wonder of this great land and its people. But the one who lives here all too often is struck by the smallness of people, not our greatness. Pettiness is the norm. It's oh so rare to hear "thank you" or "I'm sorry". Everyone feels s/he is right and all the time. People shove and push. No one gives way to another. Courtesy seems near extinct. I don't feel good saying this. It hurts. But truth is truth. I have lived other places. And here we are all Jews. Yet aggressiveness is everywhere. Manners and generosity of spirit are near absent. There is no 'win win' model here . Here if I win you lose and if you win I of necessity must lose. And the worst shame is to be thought a 'freyer',, someome who gets taken advantage of. And the politics are a politics of meaness. The ideal gets lost in the personal, even when matters are of national importance. True, in other countries it is much the same. But we are Jews!
All of us Jews! Jews don't behave this way.

Are we too wounded to heal?

When Moshe asked that question G-d answered him in the vision of the "Burning Bush".
When I ask that question I get my answer in the story of Moshe and the message of that very same bush. No! emphatically no! We are not too wounded to heal. Yes we are compromised and malformed, our character needs healing. But the healing is within us.
We contain wondrous genetic material. Who we have become, like for our ancestors, is a product of the hardships we endure. We suffer in Israel through living life forever afraid of what tomorrow will bring. Our anxiety in the face of terror and non-stop threat is crippling. We struggle to find a peaceful night's rest.Who has not lost a loved one or known a loved one lost to friend or family due to war and terror. And our fiscal crisis remains ongoing. We absorbed 10 times our original population in sixty years, most of the immigrants coming from poor countries and with no means of support.In that context our stunted development is understandable. Our ugliness and mediocrity is not who we are. It's who we have become. We can indeed contain the flame of the holy. We can aspire to greatness as individuals and as a people. We can know healing. Mashiach was meant for us!

My 18 year old daughter, who made aliya with me four years ago will in moments of exasperation say, "Dad, what's the point. It's so awful the way people treat each other." I tell her, "That's why you are here. The culture of civility won't change overnight. But it will change. And your influence will help bring that change about."

We are not so different from the generation of our ancestors in Egypt. There is a lot of the 'sneh' in us. Yet like the 'sneh' we are made of good stuff. And like the 'sneh' we can contain and express the pure flame, the holy and good.
Too wounded to heal? I think not! Mashiach where are you?

Shabbat Shalom