Thursday, May 30, 2013

"You Can't Handle the Truth"

One of the most famous lines in a movie was spoken by Jack Nicholson in "Ä Few Good Men". When on the stand and on trial and being pushed to share the truth about a particular controversial incident he said, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

In this week's parsha of Shlach we see evidence that "handling the truth" is quite a challenge.
But lets start by contextualizing the reading. The portion this week tells us the story of the spies Moshe sent to explore the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest.
Of the twelve men sent, all leaders of tribes, only Joshua and Caleb bring back a postive report. The others deliver a disheartening message. They talk of the difficulties that will be encountered in any attempt to conquer the land. The people take in the bad tidings to heart. They become overwhelmed with fear. They reject the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb. They reject the land.
Of all the sins of the generation of the Exodus this was the most grievous. Untill today we live with its consequences. The day of their sin became the day propitious for national tragedy throughout our history.
We know it as Tisha B'Av.

In this blog we look at the Torah as a mirror to ourselves. We try to see what the Torah has to say to each of us personally about who we are. For our purposes we need to look at the Israelites as a reflection of us and to ask how are we like our ancestors of old? What promised land are we rejecting and why?

This year I want to place the mirror before a particular piece of the story, one that is often passed over. It has to do with how we "handle the truth".
The Torah tells us that not only did the People believe the 10 spies rather than believe Joshua and Caleb, they became enraged at the two dissenting spies. After Joshua and Caleb made an impassioned plea to the nation not to rebel against G-d, telling them that G-d was with them, the land was good, the inhabitants vulnerable, and the conquest attainable, the Torah tells us, " And the nation made rumblings to stone them to death".
The Israelites were near ready to put Joshua and Caleb to death! And for what? For offering a different view, one that was in fact the truth!

Why was the nation so determined to rid themselves of the dissenting voices? Why did they feel the urge to kill Joshua and Caleb? Would it not have been enough to just reject their report?

I think the Torah is teaching us something vital about our own yearning for truth. It is teaching us that anytime we take a position or state a belief in such a way that we cannot tolerate dissent we need to suspect that our so called "truth" is really a self-serving belief. It may not be the truth at all! If we are really motivated to discern the truth we will never find alternative positions to our own threatening. On the contrary, we will welcome dissent as a means to be sure that we are in fact right, that
we have considered all possibilities.

That the People of Israel could not tolerate the views of Joshua and Caleb, so much so that they intended to kill them were it not for G-d's intervention, makes it most clear that their rejection of the land was not based on a true desire to know what was the good and the right thing to do, enter or not enter the land. Rejection of the right to dissent and the dissenter is the greatest proof that "we can't handle the truth".

Over and over throughout history we have seen persecution of dissent and dissenters.
The Catholic Church of the Inquisition, the radical Arab nations devotees to Islam, the Communists of the Stalinist era are striking examples. Each was so sure of their truth that they needed to eradicate alternative views and expunge those who held them. Yet the very acts of intolerance they displayed indicates the self-serving nature of the truth they embraced. They could not handle the truth if it was not consistant with their own assumptions, so they needed to make sure they would not be threatened by it.

You and I have our own challenges with "handling the truth". How often have we gotten into an argument over ideas and virtually killed the person, sometimes a friend, to preserve our "truth". How often do we find ourselves reacting to alternative approaches to our own as if they are threats we have to put down. If we truly can handle the truth we will welcome another's perspectives as a chance to perhaps make alterations in our "truth", to be more accurate, and yes sometimes to come to realize we had no "truth" at all.

Our reactions to those who differ from us is the greatest indicator of whether the values, beliefs, and truths we maintain are indeed coming from a desire to know the right and the good.

We need to be able to "handle the truth" no matter where it comes from if we are to know the truth!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Compared to Whom"

"And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In this week's Parsha Aharon and Miriam question behaviors in Moshe's personal life. They suspect Moshe has taken on ascetic practices that are beyond necessary. They wonder whether Moshe had become too extreme in his religiosity or, in our terms, become too frum. In response G-d chastised both of them. He tells them that they are not capabable of passing judgement on their brother, that his level of prophesy is unprecedented. And then the Torah praises Moshe with the ultimate compliment, the one we quoted above. "And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In our tradition to be humble is to own the greatest of character traits. Over and over, from the prophets to the rabbinic sages of the Talmud we are taught that G-d prefers the 'anav', the one who poseses humility. Moreover G-d loathes the arrogant, no matter how talented they may be or how learned. Moshe was excellent in many ways. Yet it's his unparalleled humility that is his charactalogical legacy.

Moshe's humility is evident over and over through the years of his leadership of the People of Israel. In this week's parsha alone we see it evidenced several times. In example, when Yehoshua, Moshe's disciple is upset that Eldad and Maidad are prophesying in the camp, rather than be concerned with competition, Moshe told him, "It should only be that all the nation were prophets, that G-d would dwell His spirit on all of them."

The Gemara teaches us that Moshe's unique level of 'anivut', humility can be gleaned from the very words Moshe used to refer to himself. In the Book of Sh'mot, when the nation came to him complaining about their diet, prior to receiving the 'man', manna, Moshe spoke about himself and Aharon and said to the nation "...we are nothing. Your complaints should be with G-d not us." The Talmud points out that Moshe referred to himself as "nothing" whereas Avraham when he prayed to G-d for the people of Sodom in the book of Breishit referred to himself as "dust and ashes". Avraham was indeed very humble. Yet he still saw himself as, at least, dust and ashes. Moshe was a step beyond in his humility. Moshe saw himself as entirely nothing!

The Talmudic teaching is clever but not easy to understand. It's true Moshe referred to himself as nothing and Avraham spoke of himself as dust and ashes, but what real difference is there between the two? Dust and Ashes are also essentially nothing. They have no intrinsic worth. Why then should Avraham's humility be considered of a slightly lesser distinction?

I heard this week from Rav Zemel of Yerushalayim a beautiful insight into the Talmud's teaching, and one deeply relevant for me and, I suspect, for you. To shed light on our question he told a story of the great 17th Century rabbi and mystic Yonason Eybeschutz. Once Rav Yonasan could not get home from his travels for Yom Kippur. He needed to spend the fast in a small village. He came to shule and during the pre-fast Mincha service, where the confession is recited, he foudn himself praying next to a man who exhibitted an extraordinary level of piety and remorse. This man prayed the mincha amida and the 'al chet' with tears and anguish. He went so far as to repeat the sins in German, his native tongue, as well as Hebrew. His prayers were long and intense. Rav Yonasan was both imnpressed and inspired.

When Rav Yonasan came back to shule after eating the pre-fast feast he was asked where he might like to sit during Yom Kippur prayers. The community wanted to extend to Rav Yonasan the greatest honor. The rav said that he would like to sit next to the Jew where he had prayed the mincha service. The rav hoped this devout Jew's davening would aid him in his own 'kavana'. And so it was. The Jew prayed the evening prayer of Yom Kippur and the morning shacharit davening with the same fervor and intensity. Rav Yonasan was deeply affected.

Then came time for the Torah reading. Members of the congregation were called up for aliyot. The devout Jew who sat next to Rav Yonasan also received an aliya. But to his chagrin, he did not receive one of the more honored aliyot, like shlishi or shishi, the 3rd or 6th.
He was called to the Torah for chamishi, the 5th aliya, one of no special distinction. The Jew was livid. He felt dissed. He complained long and loud to the gabai. He charged "What do you mean giving me chamishi? You insult me!"

Rav Yonasan watched the drama unfold in amazement. At the close of prayers he could not contain himself. He addressed the Jew with whom he had sat Yom Kippur. He asked "I don't understand. You prayed over and over confessing your sins and your limitations. You cried and pleaded that you are ashamed of your life and deeds. How then did you feel that getting the 5th aliya, chamishi, was an insult? You said over and over you were unworthy?

The Jew without missing a beat explained, "Yes, when I speak to G-d I am unworthy and ashamed. I feel totally inadequate. But the aliyot were not between me and G-d. They were about me in comparison to the others in the shule. Compared to them I am much more worthy. I deserve the more distinguished honors much more than them."

To be humble before G-d is nice but it's no measure of true humility, no matter how passionately we express it. The difference between Avraham's humility and Moshe's was not only the difference between "dust and ashes" and "nothing". Avraham referred to himself as "dust and ashes" before G-d. He used that self-reference when he was pleading to G-d to save the Sodomites. Moshe called himself "nothing" when we was talking to a ungrateful people. Even when compared to others Moshe saw himself as nothing. That is true humility. Moshe was indeed the 'anav mekal adam', "the most humble of humans".

The lesson for me, and perhaps for you in what we have discerned is oh so potent. How often is it that in my prayers, before G-d, I both feel and express a sense of personal inadequacy and humility. I may cry. I may plead. I will speak to G-d with great remorse over my life and limitations. We do this daily in our prayers. And yet despite the passionate words in truth I may not be humble at all. I remain judgemental of others. I still see myself as 'better than'. I look down on others as less than me. To that extent I am not humble but indeed arrogant and loathesome to G-d. Unless and until I stop seeing myself in a superior position all my expressions of humility are vacuuous.

The bitter test each of us needs to take to determine our character is not before G-d but before our fellow humans. To be humble relative to G-d is no virtue. The challenge is to feel humble when I compare myself to my neighbor and friend. The challenge is to be able say "they are more deserving of the honor than me"!

The work of humility is humbling. It's no easy virtue. The first step we need to take is to get past the self-deception and discern false humility from its authentic expression!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Wish

When I was a boy of about 11 or 12 I was excited to stay up for the first time the whole night on the holiday of Shavuot. It was not the idea of studying Torah all through the night, the tradition, that excited me. My enthusiasm for learning was not sufficiently strong to overcome my desire for sleep. Rather it was because I heard that precisely at midnight on Shavuot night the skies open up. And if at that magical time one makes a wish the wish will be granted. While I can't remember the wish I can remember how much I looked forward to making it and to seeing it come true.
Now I am a much older man. I no longer hang on to the magical beliefs in wishes. If I stay up Shavuot night it will be to learn Torah, not to make midnight pleas. And yet I wonder if I still could make such a wish this Tuesday night and know it would be granted, one wish, what would I wish for? What is my one wish?

According to the Midrash Mount Sinai was selected to be the setting for the giving of the Torah for an unusual reason. Sinai was not the tallest mountain in the range nor the widest. In fact, based on grandeur there were many other mountains with a more rightful claim to be the place for the revelation and the giving of the Law. The Midrash tells us that each of these notable mountains claimed the right to the honor. Yet G-d chose Mount Sinai precisely because it posessed humility, because it made no claim to host the single greatest event in human history, an event on par with creation itself.
Sinai's humility made it worthy of the Torah. The message being that Torah resides not in the person grandiose and arrogant, but rather in the person humble and modest.

The Midrash of Sinai is both beautiful and poetic. But it raises some serious questions.
If Mount Sinai was indeed smaller and less impressive than the other mountains then she made no claim to be the setting for the giving of the Torah, not because of humility, but because she really had nothing on which to stake a claim. That Sinai did not say "Let me host the revelation" may not be because she was modest, but rather because she really could boast no unique excellence. Why then should she be given credit for humility? Why then should she host Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah?

At one time in my past I gave a weekly class in Ramchal's "Derech Hashem" "The Way of G-d". One week, to my surprise, a Indian swami, with a keen interest in spirituality came to the class. After the class he sent me a note telling me how meaningful he found it.
While the note was nice to receive it was the way he addressed me that grabbed my attention. He addressed the note "To the Great Rabbi K". Curious about the title, I sought him out and asked what he meant by "the Great Rabbi K". Is there another Rabbi K who is not so great? The swami explained to me that we each have two persons inside us, a little me and a great me. Most people live much of their lives giving expression to the little me within. They hardly know the great me exists. Every so often in heroic moments the great me may emerge. Usually however it goes back into hibernation very quickly and our small me reasserts itself.

The small me is the me that gets caught up in the petty and transient. It is the self within that lives entirely for the moment and with a constricted focus. It is vain and shallow. It is entirely self absorbed. In contrast with the small me, within us we have a great me. The great me sees the larger goals and is invested in the transcendent. The great me is expansive and sees others as partners rather than competitors. The great me is inclusive and loving even of those who are different. The great me is always centered and spiritually alive.

The swami told me that when he addressed the note to "the Great Rabbi K" he meant it for the great me, the one he felt he experienced in the class, and the one he hoped I lived out of most of my life. The swami's concepts are not foreign to us. In our kabbalistic tradition we have a similar idea. We speak of 'gadlus d'mochin' and 'katnus d'mochin' by which we mean to distinguish when a person is living out of an expansive sense of consciousness or a constricted sense. When we are living out of our 'gadlus d'mochin' we are forgiving and loving, we are humble and gracious, we are fused with the Holy spirit. When we are living out of 'katnus d'mochin' we are petty and resentful, short sighted and intolerant, we live for the material moment.

We can be very religious people and live virtually all of our lives out of 'katnus d'mochin' or our small me. On the other hand we can be not religious and yet live with a deep sense of the spiritual, a 'gadlus d'mochin', our great me!

Its true Mount Sinai had no reason to boast. It then is hard to call the Mountain humble. And yet because it had no external gifts upon which to lay a claim to fame, of necessity it had to make itself worthy from within. Mount Sinai had to be the Great Mount Sinai. It could not think to assert credibility on the basis of the superficial and the transient. That is why Mount Sinai was chosen. It alone became fully its greater self. It alone is then worthy of the Torah. The Torah does not belong to those who expand and enlarge their Small me but rather to those who live most fully the self they already are in becoming and living their Great me.

You and I have a challenge every day. Which me will we be? Will we react to every passing wind and lose our center? Will we be petty and carry our resentments? Will we forever get compromised by the transient and suoperficial? Will we be our Small me?
Or will we be larger than our situation, see the bigger picture, forgive and forget, accept and embrace? Will we live our lives out of the Great me?

Both the Small me and the Great me are us.In both we are expressing ourselves. In the one me we condemn ouselves to mediocrity. Through the other me we can embrace the heavens. The true measure of success in our lives will be determined not by any external achievement but rather by which me we choose to live our lives.

And so my wish...if the sky opens up for me this Shavuot is that I live out of the Great me, the gadlut d'mochin. And my prayer for the chag is that you too will know that blessing.

Chag Samayach

Thursday, May 2, 2013

When Less is More

Have you wondered about the after-life? Of course we have our tradition about what happens after we die. Our souls live on in spriritual ecstasy awaiting 'techiyat hamaitim', the resurrection of the dead, when they will again inhabit their bodies.The after-life is personal. Individual identity continues after death. When I was young I was fascinated by the concept of the after-life in Eastern traditions. According to their beliefs when the soul dies, if it has fulfilled its destiny in this world, it loses its individual identity and becomes one with the great universal soul in heaven. To die, in the best situation, is to lose one's "I" and instead become part of the "We". I remember thinking "and this is a good thing?" I mean, would I want to no longer be me, lose all sense of a personal identity? Can that be something I would look forward to? And what about the ones I love. I would then not meet them in heaven. Can that be an ideal end to existence?

For most of us, what we treasure most is our "I". The thought of losing that "I" is frightening. When we are in a situation in which we feel swallowed up in a crowd we fight to assert our personal selves. Its nice to be "we" in the moment. But never at the cost of losing our "I".

We are soon to celebrate the chag of Shavuot. The end of next week will usher in the new month of Sivan, the month of the holiday. The Torah tells us that on the first of Sivan the Israelites came to the Desert of Sinai. It references the People's encampment in the singular form. Literally it read "And he camped opposite the mountain". The Sages point out that this encampment was like no other in Israel's wilderness experience. Whereas all other encampments were frought with strife and conflict, here all Israel was as one. They were "as one person with one heart".

Now I wonder the same wonder I had when I learned about the Eastern concept of the after-life. Is this a good thing that all Israel was as one person with one heart. Is this "we'ness" the ideal? What about each person's need to feel their "I"? What about our uniqueness?

Last Shabbat I was in Meron. Saturday night was Lag Ba'Omer. Near 500,000 Jews would come between Saturday night and Sunday eve from all over Israel to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his yahrzeit. At the 'kever' Saturday night a flame was lit. As the fires soared heavenward there commenced a night full of spiritual dancing and inspiration. Because I was there for Shabbat I was able to be close to the setting for the lighting of the fires. I stood together with some 15,000 mostlty Hassidim in their shtreimlich and waited more than two hours in prayer and devotion for the magic moment of the lighting of the flame. The atmosphere was reverential and intense.
Prayers were on everyone's lips. And then the Boyaner Rebbe lit the fire. The music began. And the throng become alive with a flame of their own, one of joy and exultation. Everyone was jumping up and down in their place. The words of the melodies were sung with exuberance and repeated over and over. There was no "I" in that setting. Each person surrendered self to the majesty of the moment. There was only a "we". Yet that 'we' brought life to all who comprised it as they never felt in their singular "I" no matter how compelling the moment.
The "I" was dead in those moments. All there was was the "we". And life was never more beautiful.

It was interesting for me to see that the inspiration led to some circles being formed. Those jumping up and down in inspired response to the moment remained in the stands. They did not feel the need to join the circles. They were at one with those in the circles. "We" were dancing, wherever we were. Yes, there were a few who seemed to need to make a personal statement in their enthusiasm. They felt the need to enter the middle of the circles and dance to express there "I". How awkward they appeared and how pitiable. They could not lose themselves and needed to make this holy time a time of self expression. They did not realize that their need to occupy the center,cost them the most precious gift. They lost the gift of the moment, the gift of the "we".

One of the great mystical disciplines is called 'hisbatlus', self nullification. The work involves learning to minimize oneself until one has a little ego as possible. At one level it seems such a difficult effort, to make oneself small and inconsequential, to surrender one's "I". Yet in Meron at the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai I came to realize that those who practice the discipline of 'hisbatlus' are not in reality giving up anything. Rather they are gaining a powerful spiritual gift. When they 'kill' therir ego they make possible the sense of oneness with Israel our People, and with Hashem and His world. 'Hisbatlus' is a path to joy, a supreme joy. The work of ego nullification is the only way to get there!

When our ancestors came to Sinai they experienced the unique sense of 'hisbatlus'. They lost themselves, but for a net gain!
They became one whole! That oneness made the revelations at Sinai possible. Each Israelite felt an inspiration and ecstasy but only by surrenedering his/her "I".

The lesson here is oh so compelling. The path to joy is not as we imagine by enlarging our ego or enhancing our self. On the contrary, the path to true joy is losing one's need to self expansiveness so as to become part of the universal and the G-dly.
Being nothing is indeed the path to acquiring everything!

How sad that so many waste their lives traveling in the wrong direction in search of the treasure.

The lesson of Sinai, the lesson of Meron, the lesson of all those who know the secret of happiness, is that real joy is attained in unity.
And real unity is attained when we surrender our "I" .

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Smayaich