Friday, June 28, 2013

In Tribute to Met Fans

Are you a sports fan? Do you have a favorite team? Recently two of my grandsons visited me in Eretz Yisrael. They are 8 and 6 years old respectively.I asked them those questions. And to both questions they answered in the affirmative. Prouldy they declared they are fans of the New York Yankees. On hearing these tidings I was of two minds. On the one hand I, having grown up a fan of the then Brooklyn Dodgers, hate the Yankees. The news of their favorite brought me no joy. But on the other hand I was also happy for them. They at least would not know the pain of identifying their whole lives with a losing underdog. They would identify with a winner. I have often thought how much different my life would have been, and perhaps more "successful", if I had been a Yankee fan, like most of my friends, and not a Brooklyn Dodger and then Met fan, perpetual losers.

In relearning the parsha of this Shabbat, that of Pinchas, I am beginning to think maybe being a Met fan (and at the same time a Jet fan, oy!) may have had its purpose in my life. What fan would Pinchas have been? I think he too would have chosen the Mets.
And why?

Well think about it. How was it that this man Pinchas was able to do what no one else could, rise up and slay a prince in Israel before the entire camp for his egregious sin? How did Pinchas find it within him to do what even Moshe could not and thereby save the nation from utter devestartion?

The answer is that Pinchas was always an outsider,not one of the establishment. Unlike the other decendents of Aharon he did not serve as kohen in the sanctuary. Though a child of Elazar, the kohen gadol, high priest, and most worthy of character, he was never slated to serve in that capacity. Pinchas was of a distinguished blood line and of personal stature yet he remained on the margins.
It is precisely Pinchas, because he did not belong, because he was estranged, that he could do the unthinkable and the vigilante act that wound up saving the nation.

People are of one of two personality types. Some want to belong, become part of the establishment and support it. They spend their lives identifying with the norms and working to maintain what is in the best way possible. They will more typically identify with the favorite and the winner. Others, the minority, want to challenge the establishment. They see themselves as outsiders with the mission to call to conscience the norms of the group. They are often called "rebels". They are the Met fans, and if they were to prevail they would have to identify with another team.

The sages of the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was none other than Eliyahu the prophet. Eliyahu was a prophet who was known for his feistiness. He railed against the prevailing mediocrity of his time. He was an outsider. He had to flee the wrath of the king into the wilderness. Even when successful he never belonged.

Truth is many of us feel our call in life is to challenge what exists rather than support it and make it better. And when the rebel prevails, when s/he is victorious s/he never ia as happy as when s/he is in opposition and on the outside.

Look at the story of so many political leaders who when fighting for their cause had a magical quality about them. They were full of idealism, like Pinchas and Eliyahu. And yet in their success in becoming the establishment they lost the mystique. They seemed sapped of energy. They knew how to challenge but not how to rule. They were meant for the margins, not to belong or become mainstream.
While some might argue with me, look at all the leaders of the Likud as examples. Begin and Sharon, idealists in the extreme when servinng as opposition, to many they were true zealots, yet they became mediocre and mainstream in success. They lost their compass.

Each one of us has a purpose consistant with out personality. For some of us our 'tachlis' is to work with the system, to belong and grow from within. That is a holy work. Kings and High Priests are of our ilk. We identify with the Yankees of the world. For some of us our tachlis is to live on the outside and challenge what is. We have the blood of the prophets that runs through our veins. We will never be popular. We are the Met fans of the world. We are not meant to win. But we are every bit as necessary even in our striving and our angst.

It may be true that "winning is everything" but for all of us to "win" some of us need to be the losers who challenge and goad on the rest to their excellence.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"The Good Death"

There is a humorous story told of a man who is dying at home. His daughter is sitting by his bedside offering care and comfort. She says to her father, "Daddy,I love you. Is there anything I can do for you? Her father whispers,"My daughter, you know how much I always loved your mothers ruggelah. I can smell them now baking in the kitchen Please go and bring me one." The daughter leaves and a few minutes later comes back to her father empty handed. She sits again next to the dying man and with a shrug says, "I am sorry Daddy. Mommy says they are for after!".

This week we find in the Torah too a story about dying, the death of Aharon, brother to Moshe and Kohen Gadol, High Priest. Only in our story the relevant word is "before" not "after". In the death story of Aharon, he, Moshe and Aharon's son Elazar ascend Hor haHor, the mountain on which Aharon is to die. At G-d's command, Moshe is told to remove the priestly clothes from Aharon just prior to his death and place them on Elazar. Then sorrounded by the two persons closest to him, Aharon lays down and dies. It is a beautiful death scene, and indeed a beautiful death. So much so that the Sages tell us that Moshe wished his death experience could be similar. And in concert with his request G-d told Moshe when his time came to die, later in the Torah, "...and you shall die as did Aharon your brother".

The story of Aharon's death also give rise to important Jewish laws concerning the dying. According to halacha,the dying are never to be left alone. The assumption is that it is a great comfort for the dying to spend their final moments around family and community.
The importance of a "good death" has given rise to the hospice movement, a movement that emphasizes the importance of being able to die at home sorrounded by one's loved ones.

Yet the matter may not be as simple as it first appears. Some years ago studies were done on the time patients tended to die in hospitals.
It was found that people seemed to die when no one was around. Even if they were attended by family they typically died at the times when attending family left. The family could be at the bedside 23 hours a day and the patient would die on the 24th hour, when they were left alone. Moreover it is often reported that Native Americans had quite a different idea about the "good death" than we find in hospice theory or halacha.When a Native American felt it was his time to die, he would go out from the camp into the woods, lay under a tree, and wait for his demise, alone!

And we might wonder about what seems an inconsistancy in the Torah itself. We mentioned above, that according to Tradition, Hashem promised Moshe the same death experience as Aharon. Yet in the story the Torah gives us no two experiences could be more different. Aharon died the "good death" sorrounded by those he loved and who loved him. Moshe died entirely alone. No one went with Moshe when he expired. He left the camp and simply walked away, very much like the Native American tradition. How could the Torah tell us the deaths were similar?

True we might argue that when Hashem told Moshe that his death would be like Aharon what He was referring to was the dying instant, that Moshe would know death as a "kiss" with the least possible pain. But that seems inadequate if Moshe really aspired to the "good death" experience Aharon had. If Moshe did not want to be alone when he died, true his moment of death may have been as easy as possible, but still he had no one with him, no companionship in his dying. That would be painful in and of itself!

I think what we are seeing from the Torah narrative is a great truth about dying and our responsibility to care for the dying. Yes, Aharon had the 'good death" in the classic sense. He had his loved ones by his side. But that death was good because that was the way Aharon lived. Aharon was a man of the people. He lived in community. He was invested in the personal lives of others. He was a peacemaker between husbands and wives. For him to die alone would be painful. He cherished his family, his friends and his community and invested in them. The "good death" for Aharon was exactly as the Torah describes it.

Moshe was different. He lived apart. He was separated even from his wife. He taught the People. He was their leader. But he was not of the community. His communion was with G-d. He had no friends, save perhaps Aharon his brother. And by the time Moshe died Aharon was already dead. For Moshe the "good death" , the death of Aharon, meant precisely to die alone, because that is how he lived.
Truth is there is no one model for the "good death". For some it means being enveloped in the web of family life. For others it means being left to solitude. I suspect our preference will be reflective of what we prefered when we were alive and well. Did we more prefer to be with others or more prefer our own space. The "good death" should be consistent with what we would have seen as the "good life".
And those of us who care for the dying as family and friends should make sure we understand what the "good death" will look like for the dying before we decide how to attend to them!

But I need to share one other very important point about the "good death". Even for those who lived amongst family and friends and want to die as they lived, its important that those who attend the dying know their role. When I quoted the study above that showed that patients in hospitals tended to die alone, when family was no in the room, it was not because those patients did not want family around them when they died. I am sure many of them would have preferred to have a "good death" with a son or daughter holding their hand as they died. The reason they 'chose' to die when no one was present was more often because the family made them feel it was not okay to die!
The dying person, in so many cases, even when they want loved ones with them, need those loved ones to give them permission to die, rather than encourage them to fight and live on when its clear their time has come.

Even when the "good death" that one wishes for includes being in the midst of loved ones. those loved ones need to know that their role is to facilitate death in the best way possible, not deny it or pretend it isn't happening!

The Torah gives us two stories of the "good death", this week of Aharon and at the end of the summer the story of Moshe. They were different deaths but they were both "good". We who live and love have our own obligation to make possible, as much as we can, the "good death" for the ones we love. To do that we need to know which story is most fitting. And if indeed it is the story of Aharon that fits, then to remember we are living with our loved one a story of death, and not to pretend or deny so that the one dying cannot feel it okay to play their part in the story and meet their end!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 6, 2013

When Day Becomes Night

Are you familiar with the psychological concept of Projection? In psycho-analytic theory often when we have within a feeling, a characteristic,or an attitude that we find unacceptable, rather than deal with it, we get rid of it by unconsciously projecting the feeling, charactaristic or attitude onto someone else. Projection causes us to actually see the feeling, charachtaristic or attitude in the other. And what's worse it causes us to totally deny it in ourselves.

In this week's parsha of Korach we have an extra-ordinary example of the deceptive power of projection. Korach, as you recall, lead a mutiny against Moshe. He charged that Moshe and Aharon usurped their authority by seizing power that did not rightfully belong to them.
Korach accused Moshe of egotism and self aggrandizement. Yet how can this be? The sages of the Talmud point out that Korach was a very smart man, and learned. If he wanted to find fault with Moshe maybe he could have said that he angered easily, or he was impatient, that he was too spiritual, too distant from the ordinary Israelite. While they would not have been true they could have some basis. But to say Moshe was arrogant? that he was egotistical? Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Torah told us in the portions prior that in the history of humankind none was as humble as Moshe. Humility was Moshe's singular excellence. How could Korach argue otherwise?
Little doubt Korach believed himself correct in his mutiny. How could someone wise and learned make such a huge error. It is as if he said day was night.

The answer is that indeed their was egoism at work here, and much arrogance. But it did not belong to Moshe, not at all. On the contrary, it belonged to Korach himself. Korach posessed a huge dose of self importance. But that was not the problem. Problem was not that Korach was arrogant. The problem was that Korach could not tolerate the grandiosity of his own ego. He could not tolerate his arrogance.
He had therefore to expel it, to project it onto Moshe. Korach then indeed saw Moshe as a man bent on self aggrandizement. He saw Moshe not for who Moshe was but as the product of his, Korach's, projection.

How could Korach have known that what he was seeing in Moshe was nothing more than projection, a reflection of himself?
You and I project onto others faults that don't belong to them more often than we know. We say to a friend, "Don't you see how petty or selfish or arrogant, or mean-spirited or whatever someone is". And often our friend doesn't experience the person we are talking about as having the negative traits we find so intolerable in them. We have to work hard to convince our friend that the other is so seriously flawed. Could it be that our view of that other is indeed based on projection and our labelling of them is entirely unfair?
How would we know if what I see in the other is them or a reflection of me? How can I be sure that I am not as blind to reality as Korach?

But lets move one step deeper. In the aftermath of Korach's death and those of his 250 followers the People complained against Moshe saying "You have brought about the death of the people of G-d". This a puzzling turn of events. Moshe seemed only to respond to the mutiny. He was a victim. Yet the nation complained as if he was responsible for G-d killing Korach's horde.
Some of the commentators point out that the People had a gripe here. True Korach's rebellion had to be quelled. But the test of the 250 who brought their firepans with incense was devised by Moshe at least as it appears in the text. Those 250 did not necessarily want to undo the leadership of Moshe and Aharon as was Korach's intent. In tradition they were first born who wanted to also serve in the Temple.
It was Moshe who reacted to them very strongly and brought about their immediate demise.
Indeed Moshe was in some way responsible for the death of the nation of Hashem as charged.

And we might ask why? Throughout the wilderness journey Moshe showed incredible tolerance for the nation's foilbles. Over and over he prayed that the sinners be spared if at all possible. Why here does Moshe act with what seems like harshness and call for the death of the 250 men.

Here too we might well make use of psycho-analytic theory to help us understand Moshe's dynamics. There is a follow-up concept to Projection and it's called Projective Identification. The theory argues that when someone projects onto another certain character traits and behaviors that don't naturally belong to them, the projection itself has an influence on the recepient and s/he will often start to act in concert with the projection. What that means here is that while Korach's challenge to Moshe was entirely baseless and purely a matter of his projection, once Moshe is seen by Korach in that way unconsciously Moshe is more likely to exhibit behavior consistent with the projection. In accord with the theory Moshe here might well have acted out of character and called for justice when he might normally have been more self-effacing, because of Korach's projection.

What does that mean for you and me?

Have you ever heard people who say they only want to be around positive people, that they avoid those with negative energy?
It makes much sense. Positive people emit projections that invite me to be my best. They see the good in me, the possible, the hope.
In projecting the positive in me and in others they bring out the good even if its not actually there. If I want to become the person of their projections, though I don't yet have it inside, it becomes that much more possible. On the other hand those who project negativity will project the same bad vibes on me. I am likely to pick them up and to act accordingly, though I am totally unconscious as to where my moods or attitudes are coming from. The negative projections are internalized and I manifest the behaviors, attitudes and emotions consistent with it. In life when I am around those who project negative feelings towards me or towards society in general I need to be very careful that I don't catch it and identify with the projections.

Moreover how often does it happen that I am the one with the negative projections, projections that influence the behaviors of others, and lead them to act in ways very much inconsistent with their true character. I then may say "see I told you s/he was this way", when in fact their behavior is the unconscious result and influence of my projection and not them at all.

Truth be told we know so little about who we really are and why. So much of ourselves is submerged beneath the surface in the unconscious.
We cannot know ourselves simply by introspection. To know our unconscious we need first to have the desire to open the gateway to the concealed and then to have others, friends, therapists, mentors, teachers, who help us see that to which we are blind.

Without serious work on self-awareness what appears day to us may be in fact be night and vice versa. The consequence of our ignorance can be as ruinous to our life purpose as was for Korach.

It is a simple truth. One cannot realize his/her mission in life without knowing him/herself,

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom