Thursday, August 29, 2013

All Good Things Come to an End

Do you remember when the Beatles broke up? Perhaps you are too young to recall. Or maybe it didn't matter to you. But I am sure you can recall wonderful joys in life that you thought by every right should go on forever, but came to end. For me there are many such sad realities. They began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn when I was seven. I could not imagine in my wildest dreams the end of such a glorious relationship between a team and its fans. And since then, to my chagrin, I have experienced the end of good things over and over. Each time not without a great sense of loss and sadness.

Rosh Hashana is nearly at hand. Selichos for we who are Ashkenazim will begin late Saturday night. Lets pause for a moment and think about the word 'shana', year in Hebrew. The noun 'shana' that is used to connote year has its roots in two verbs that seem to have contradictory meanings. At one level 'shana' means to change. 'L'shanot', a verb of the same three letter root as the noun 'shana', means to alter. And surely that is part of what is implied in a 'year'. It is a time standing alone, with its own opportunity, and its own character. Each year has its own uniqueness. It is in some ways like no other. On an another level 'shana' as a verb also means to repeat, to do again. The 5th book of the Torah is called "Mishne Torah". 'Mishne ' has as its root the same three letters of 'shana', and here it means to repeat, to repeat the essence of the first 4 books of the Torah in this the concluding 5th book.
And truly a year is in some ways a repeat of the past and a bridge to the future. Each year has a number in a sequence. It is part of a continuum.

The paradox of 'shana' is that it is both a period that stand alone in time, something new and unprecedented and as well it is a time frame that belongs to a sequence and repeats what was and propels it into the future.

As we come to Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, and prepare for the Holy Days, we might find it helpful to keep both these meanings in mind and personalize them for the 'shana' we anticipate. Each of us has a life filled with investements of our time and resources. We have projects we work on and a daily routine.
We have loyalties and commitments. The question we need ask ourselves as the new year is about to commence is what in our lives needs to contimue and what needs to change. Just because I did something well in the year or years gone bye does not assure it needs to continue. Perhaps it's time in our life is past.
And 'shana' requires newness and change. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn for some 60 years. They were a fabric of life. As sure as the dafodils of spring were the sounds of baseball at Ebbets Field. The Beatles made hit record after hit record. Little doubt they could have gone on forever. But every thing, even good things have a life span. They cannot endure eternally in this world of change. The trick is to know when to make the change, when a good thing has lived its full life, and it's time to move on. Resisting change is tempting. Its scarey to end and begin anew. Yet that is exactly what one of the messages of embracing the New Year calls for.

True, it is equally important to renew our resolve to repeat that which warrants repeating. That too is part of what it means to embrace the New Year. We need to be faithful to those things that needs to continue. We need to reinvest in them with passion and not let them fall into habitual behavior. We need each year to commit again to the values, beliefs, and practices that are central to our lives as Jews and good people. They must not lapse or become stale.

And at times it is hard to know what should be changed and what we should sign on for for another year. Many of us are all too eager to change, and perhaps too quick to let go of the past. Others of us are overly fearful of the new and hold on to things long after their time of meaning in our lives has past.
No wonder we need this time of reflection and intropsection at the end of the old year and the at the start of the new. Our decisions about what we retain and what we change are hugely consequential.

This year I have decided that I need to focus on 'shana' as change. And I need to give up something that I have invested in these past 5 years, the blog, "The Torah and the Self". Its not that I don't think writing each week has had meaning for me, and I hope for you. It has indeed. It's just that the time has come to put this blog to bed.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn but didn't stop playing baseball. The Beatles made music long after the group disbanded, only now as individuals and not as a group.
I am sure I too will use my creative energies to give voice to thoughts and feelings. The format will change. I remain who I am and the struggle to grow and become continues. I am sure I will need to find expression to that struggle and share it with you in ways that make us community.

I am thankful to all of you who have read the "Torah and the Self" over the years. I appreciate your comments and knowing that you too struggle to grow and become.
Chazak Chazak V'neetchazaik....Let us be strong, indeed very strong, and strengthen each other!

With blessings for you for a New Year of renewed commitment to what was and a year where we will find the courage to change those things whose time has past,

Shana Tova

Shabbat Shalom

Yisrael ben Yosef

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Giving Ourselves a Pass

A story. Once there was a young woman who was very ill. The physicians treating her told her that she needed to eat pork to have any chance to survive. The young woman was a devout Jew and the thought of eating pig was abhorent to her. She resisted her doctor's advice and continued to deteriorate. At last, with no alternative, and advised by her rabbi that she must do whatver it takes to save her life, the young woman relented. But even here she set conditions. She insisted that if she must eat the forbidden pork at least the pig should be ritually slaughtered, 'sh'cheeta' performed. Everyone was puzzled, including the rabbi, afterall sh'cheeta is only relevant for kosher animals.
Of what benifit would it be for the non-kosher pig. Nonetheless in order to appease the patient they agreed to 'shecht' the pig. But the story did not end. For you see, the woman further demanded that the lungs of the now ritually slaughtered pig be checked to make sure it was not a 'traifa' and forbidden. Again the request made little sense. Traifa or not would only be relevant for a kosher animal and here they were dealing with a pig. Wanting to please the young woman the lungs were checked. And what do you know their was a 'shaila' a question about whether the lungs had a blemish that would render the pig a traifa.

The pig's lungs were summarily brought to the rabbi. He examined them carefully. When asked to render his halachic ruling the rabbi said," There is no problem with the lungs.
They do not make the animal a traifa. But please understand it is impossible under any circumstances to use the word "kosher" regarding a pig".

This Shabbat in the parsha of Kee Taytzay we open with the story of the non-Jewish woman taken captive in war. The Torah seems to do exactly what the rabbi in our story would not. It tells us that even though the heathen woman is forbidden to a Jew and not kosher for marriage, the Jewish warrior may take her and make her his wife. In essence the Torah is making this heathen woman kosher!

Rashi explains that the Torah gave license here to the otherwise forbidden as a concession to the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination. The Torah knew that the soldier in battle may not be able to overcome his desire for a woman he sees. A soldier is often vulnerable and full of passion. Rather than insist the soldier do the right, which is beyond his control, the Torah gives him license to abide his uncontrollable lust, albeit with certain provisions that the Torah outlines.

The Talmud makes use of the law of the "Yefat To'ar", the concession to the 'yetzer hara' in times of war, to teach a principle. They say "Better to eat meat of a calf that is near death (and therefore unhealthy) that is ritually slaughtered than the meat of an unhealthy animal that died before being ritually slaughtered. In other words, even if the meat you eat is not good for you, if you are going to eat it anyway, do it in the best way possible.

The truth is that the story of the Yefat To'ar, the woman taken in times of war, is very similar to the story of the pork in our opening story. In the story of the rabbi and the pig's lungs, no matter how kosher the lungs are, and no matter that the woman in question is permitted to eat it,the meat is still pork. The permissablity to eat the meat will not make it kosher. The person in that case is mandated because of illnes to eat the non kosher animal. But that cannot make it kosher. Similarly the Yefat Toar is permitted to the Jewish soldier in a time where he is unable to control his lust. But that does not make her 'kosher'. She remains a heathen woman.

We see something very important in all the above. G-d in His infinite wisdom sometimes gives us a pass! It is as if G-d says "Look this is really not okay to do. But because of your situation, because you really do not have the inner strength to resist, I won't hold you liable if you do it!"

Now I know many a person can give him/herself a pass on lot's of life issues saying "I can't control myself". And in many cases, indeed most cases, that's not true. S/he could control him/herself if there was enough commitment. But I do believe that many of us have a challenge that is indeed beyond our ability to control. We have a challenge no less compelling than the soldier in war and his lust for the 'pretty woman'.
You may know the challenge of which I speak in your own life, a challenge you have tried so much and for so long to overcome and yet one to which you continue to succumb.

An example that comes to mind that effects many is their homosexuality, both men and women. Many a man and woman have beaten themselves up mercilessly for their inability to control their desire for a same sex relationship. They try over and over to control their yearnings. Yet ultimately they are unsuccessful. For many the failure to be able to abide the law causes them to leave Torah Observant Judaism altogether. They feel they have no place in the Traditional community.

I believe the story of the Yefat To'ar speaks directly to these men and women. The Torah is telling them that while we cannot say homosexual liasons are kosher, we can say that you can still be kosher even if you have them. The gay man or woman is not like the heterosexual or bisexual man or woman who wants to experiment. For those who have choices and choose a homosexual relationship the Torah is clear in it's condemnation. But for those whose only desire is for those of their own sex and cannot know love without it being in a homosexual context G-d may well give them a pass. It is not in their control to be other than gay. And to live a life without love is unbearable.

In the laws of the Yefat To'ar the Torah is teaching that not everything is simply a matter of willpower. Some things are beyond our ability to control, no matter how hard we try. Indeed it has been pointed out by many that the soldier who cannot control his lust in the story of the Yefat To'ar is a tzaddik, one without sin. It is only those without sin who go out to fight in optional wars, like the one the Torah is referring to here. Yet it is precisely this tzaddik who cannot resist the 'pretty woman' though she is heathen. The tzaddik here is given a pass.

And why does G-d give the tzaddik a pass? Because G-d knows that to condemn someone for what they cannot control will only cause them to feel inadequate of faith. It will alienate them. The person, overhwelmed with his/her sense of failure, will feel no choice but to walk away. Better to give him/her the pass so s/he can accept him/herself, even if it is to partake of the unkosher.

Each day we move closer to Rosh Hashanna and the period of judgement. Many of will look back with self-judgement on life issues that no matter how hard we tried we seemed unable to vanquish. I think the parsha of this week speaks to us. It says to you and me, if we truly have tried and truly cannot seem to prevail, then maybe our issue is one like the Yefat Toar and is indeed beyond our ability to control.

Instead of beating ourselves up one more time this holy season, maybe we need to do what G-d does in situations where the individual has no control. Maybe we need to give ourselves a pass.

Giving ourselves us a pass does not make what we do kosher. It does however make us kosher. And it frees us to be truly the tzaddikim we are meant to be!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Saying "Yes"

For years now I cherish the opportunity to visit the Kotel regularly. I never fail to be inspired by the holiness of the setting. Yet each visit, other than on Friday night, produces in me a sense of anxiety. The Kotel has its regulars. I do not refer to the faithful who study and pray there every day. I refer to the men and women who faithfully sit on the stairs leading down to the Kotel square and those who patrol the prayer courtyard seeking a hand-out. I see the same faces, hear the same pleas, each time I go.
They are as much a part of the tapestry as are the pigeons that inhabit the holy walls.
It is these regulars that cause me anxiety. What is my obligation to them? Are they really poor and in need? Or are they just taking advantage of an opportunity to make an income without much effort? I once heard that a veteran of Kotel collecting passed away and was found to have a small fortune stashed away. I hate to not give. But the last thing I want to do is support a fraud, especially when Israel is full of the truly needy. Yes or no to the requests. Either way I doubt if I did right.

The Torah in this week's parsha of Re'eh offers me some guidance. The reading contains several passages outlining my obligation to the poor and needy. Specifially the Torah tells us with reference to underpriveleged "And you shall surely open your hand to him and sustain him so that he has all that which he is lacking."
Rashi on the verse, in accord with the teachings of the Talmud, explains that we must even provide a horse for him to ride and a servant to attend to him if that is what the needy one is lacking.

We might wonder how can that be? To feed the poor, clothe them, provide them shelter we understand. Those are basic human needs. We must provide from our largesse to care for our brother's and sister's needs. But why a horse for him or her to ride or a valet?
Those are wants not needs.

The answer is we began with the wrong premis. We assumed that the call to help is dependent on their being a true need. Not so. Our obligation to our fellow Jew is not simply to see to his/her needs. It's much more. Our obligation is to meet our brother or sister's requests. Hesed, the call to loving kindness, demands of us to do what our brother or sister asks of us, independent of whether they need it or deserve it.
It does not matter if they can do it for themselves. It does not matter if they have earned it. It does not matter their level of need. If a brother or sister asks something of us its our sacred responsiblity to try to fulfill the request.

When we understand that our charge to help another emanates from the other's request
we stop making judgements. True many of those collecting money at the Kotel and elsewhere may not be needy or deserving. Maybe they would be better off getting a job.
Maybe they mismanage their money or worse, their life. That's not my business however.
They asked me. They put out a request. It's their desire. And unless I can be sure that fulfilling that desire will be harmful to them it's my mitzva to respond and say "yes".

We need to change our perspective. The mitzva of doing 'hesed', acts of lovingkindness begins with the person, not the circumstances! Whatever brings another happiness is our mitzva to do. We need no evaluation, no assessment. No judgements need to be made.
Sometimes someone may say to us "Can you do me a favor?" Öur answer is too often "what?"
That's the wrong answer. That implies we will hear favor and decide if we think it's justified and warrants our initative. The right answer when someone asks us if we can do them a favor is "yes". Then we can go on to hear the details.

The Torah this week is teaching us to not be afraid to say "Yes" to another. We need to say "Yes". At the Kotel, on the street, in our homes, both with those we know and the stranger their is only one answer, "Yes".

In saying "ÿes" we give the other a gift as great as the favor we hopefully will do. In saying "ÿes" we affrim him/her. By saying "ÿes" unconditionally to the other's desire we say s/he matters to us. In saying "ÿes" we say to the person "even though you are asking for a favor, and may feel diminished in needing us, we value you."

When it comes to helping another there is only one answer "yes". All the rest is commentary.

Shabbat Shalom