Thursday, April 29, 2010

Standing Up for G-d

Let me tell you a story, something that happened a few weeks ago and ask you what you think. There is a busy professional office here in Yerushalayim where all the employees are dati, many Haredi. Every few weeks a man comes in to bring supplies for the office. He is chiloni. The office keeps hot water and coffee for its guests and workers. One day he came in and the secretary offered him some coffee. Knowing he was not observant, and being haredi herself she said to him, "Yosef let me make a cup of coffee for you...But only if you agree to make a brachah!" Yosef declined saying he did not feel authentic doing that. She then took back her offer and never made him the coffee.

I tell you this story as a backdrop for a question that troubled me in this weeks parsah of Emor.
At the end of the reading, the Torah tells us one of the few stories in the book of Vayikra, the story of the blasphemer. There the Torah tells us that the People of Israel did not know what to do with the man who committed such a heinous offence to G-d. They incarcerated him and waited for instructions from Hashem.

Hashem then gave them the laws that apply to one who blasphemes in detail, including that he gets the death penalty by stoning. Indeed the whole community is mandated to participate in the stoning, "veragmu oto kal haeida".

Along with the laws of the blasphemer, of immediate import to the waiting Israelites, G-d told them other laws. He again told them that killing another person incurs the death sentence. Further, He told them, if one causes damages to a person or to his/her animal he is liable for the costs. Rashi points out that though these laws were already stated earlier in the Torah, they are repeated here because they are here more inclusive, adding more categories of liability.

The question we may rightly ask is why are we given the laws of murder and damages here and now? The people were waiting to know how to dispense justice to the blasphemer. Yes, they got the answer to their dilemma. But why all the other laws now? Why was it important they be repeated and at that time?

I posed this question to a friend I go to shiur with most days. Moshe Tzvi said, "Let me look at some meforshim, commentaries". I said, "No, first tell me what you might say. Then look at meforshim". So he did. And he had a very meaningful explanation, at least to me. Moshe Tzvi said that perhaps Hashem gave these laws here, while the People waited to expedite the sentence of the blasphemer, because it was important that even in carrying out the law, requiring them to stone the offender, the People must not lose sensitivity to the humanity of others.
Yes, they needed to kill the blasphemer. They needed to defend the honor of Hashem. And they all needed to participate in the horrific act of stoning a human being. But even in doing that, they need be careful to not let the kanaut, the zealotry for the honor of G-d cause them to over-ride the care and respect for people and their property.

In fact the Baal Haturim gives a similar response. He saw the law of stoning the blasphemer and protecting the well being of Israelite as related. He quotes the Gemara that teaches anyone who strikes a Jew on the cheek is as if he blasphemed Hashem Himself.

So what does it all mean. Essentially what we are being taught here is that one cannot use their devotion to Hashem as an excuse to in any way compromise one's relationship to His children. Being devout in the mitzvot bein adam lamakom, between man and G-d, does not give license to take liberties in the mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man. It matters as much to Hashem if we kill or damage another as if we offend Him.

Its hard to overstate the importance of that idea. So often we who are medakdek, meticulous in observing halacha take license with lashon hara, speaking badly of another, especially one less observant. Or we may feel that its all right to harshly criticize someone, even publicly, who is not keeping the Torah in the way its supposed to be kept. We put-down others who we deem less committed than we are. And sometimes we ridicule those who are more observant than us or differently observant. All these things and more we justify because of the intensity of our observance.

Yet the Torah in this weeks parsha is clear. Stone the blasphemer. That's the law. But don't use that as an excuse to take lightly the care and concern for every Jew, especially those who don't live in accord with the standards the Torah sets. Except in the extra-ordinary situation (like the blasphemer), one needs to always care and protect our fellow Jew and his/her well being. That's why the practical laws of the blasphemer and the general laws of damages are given together. Indeed the laws of care and protection are even expanded upon here and made more inclusive than the first time they were given in the Torah.

So what about our secretary in the story with which we opened. Was she right to decline to give her fellow Jew coffee unless he made a bracha? The question may be a halachic one. And one may have his/her opinion. But one thing is clear. If she really felt that holding up the honor of Hashem meant she needed to decline and not do a hesed for Yosef, she at least needed to feel bad about it, and not triumphant! It is not enough to stand up for G-d without feeling the yearning to care for His children, even if in a certain situation the one puts us in conflict with the other.

No amount of spiritual devotion should ever compromise our compassion. On the contrary, genuine spirituality will make us more loving even to the least deserving. And in that real spirituality may be measured!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Road to the Holy

Just prior to Pesach I had the zechut to spend some quality time with Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski. My 16 year old daughter knows how much I esteem him and hold him for a tzadik. She said to me "When you meet the Rabbi ask him what does it take to become a Tzadik?". I did as she requested. Rabbi Twerski looked at me with his large warm knowing eyes and said "Tell your daughter, if I was a tzadik I would be more than glad to share with her what it takes. But alas I am not, so unfortunately I can't help her".

If the way to becoming a tzadik is not simple, the Torah itself gives us directions this week on how to reach another lofty status, that of becoming a kadosh, one who is holy. And the directions are quite surprising.

I would well imagine that to become someone deemed kadosh I need to take on myself stringencies beyond the ordinary. Perhaps I need to wake up early and say tikun chazot. Perhaps I need to fast every Monday and Thursday. Or maybe to become a kadosh I need to go to the mikva each morning before tefilot. In my imagination kedusha is acquired through taking on a new way of life, new practices, a new levush, outer appearance, perhaps grow long payot, wear a larger kipa, or dress as a hasid.

Yet the Torah this week teaches something different. At the outset of the parsha, the Torah tells us "....speak to all the congregation of Israel and say to them kedoshim you shall be, for I Hashem your G-d am Holy". So our response might well, be as my daughter asked Rabbi Twerski, "Ok so how do we become "kadosh"?

The Torah indeed gives more than a challenge. It follows up the challenge immediately with directives. The text continues, in the very next pasuk, " A man needs to fear his mother and father, and observe My Sabbaths, I am Hashem."

From there the Torah goes on to list mitzvah after mitzvah, most of them mizvot lo taaseh, commandments telling us what we should not do. In the language of our sages, commandments that require of us to control our impulses and to "sit tight and do nothing".

The message here is clear. If we want to be kadosh, our focus needs to be on controlling what we do rather than on taking on new practices. "Fear your mother and father" is a command to not show them disrespect, not sit in their seat, nor speak before them. The mitzvah to "honor ones father and mother" another mitzvah entirely calls for doing things on their behalf. The mitzvah to "observe My Shabbatot", the second mitzvah in that first verse after the call for us of to be kedoshim, requires us to desist from work on the Sabbath. It is different from the mitzvah to "remember the Shabbat" which implies creating a special environment for the holy day.

Kedusha is not something we add on to ourselves. Its not acquired. If it was we would be right to imagine the work of attaining it consists of finding new and special devotions. Rather Kedusha already inheres in us. That is why the Torah gave the law of "Kedoshim tehyu" to "all of the congregation of Israel" and not to only a special few. To be kadosh, to fulfill the mitzvah, all we need do is get rid of the impediments, the interference in our lives. All we need do is desist from behaviors deemed against G-d's will, don't work on the Shabbat, don't be disrespectful to your parents, etc . In sitting tight and controlling our impulses to do things against Hashem's will, we create the inner space for the kedusha already inhering within each of us to be manifest.

I believe it was Rebbe Nacham who was once asked "Where does G-d dwell?" He answered,"Wherever man lets Him in."

That is the core dynamic of kedusha. Kedusha belongs to G-d, not us. We can make ourselves a tzadik. We cannot make ourselves a kadosh, no matter how many spiritual practices we take on. All we can do is control our behaviours and leave room for the kedusha already available to become alive in us. That's not a work that invites glory nor does it satisfy the ego. Its not the kind of work that sustains grandiosity. The work of becoming kadosh is a private work. Since it essentially involves not doing, no one is likely to know about it.
Yet no avoda in our lives is likely to be more significant.

Becoming a kadosh is a work that devolves on all of us. Forget about learning Kabbalah as the way. That's a luxury reserved for the few. Forget about taking on new devotions. They may be nice but there are prerequisites. The message of the parsha is that to attain kedusha we need to guard our tongue, our eyes, our ears, our desires. If one is not yet the master of his impulses, if s/he has not yet the ability to sit and do nothing, all the rest of the added-on practices of devotion will mean nothing.

The Torah's call to kedusha is sobering and yet inviting. At one level it demands of us to do the inner work of controlling our behaviors in the service to Hashem, a work that will win no accolades nor recognition. At another level the promise is that kedusha is accessable to each of us without exception, it is waiting for the space we make in ourselves for it to become manifest.

Shabbat Shalom


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Shadow Side

Every excellence has a shadow side. Every good quality we cultivate has, lurking in the background, a quality that is undesirable to which we are vulnerable. Think about it and you will see. Take for example happiness. Its great to be happy, an admirable state. Yet when one is happy one is vulnerable to being insensitive, particularly to others. In one's happiness s/he may struggle to see the hurt or anguish of a friend, riding over it in the enthusiasm of the moment. And even if the friend insists on making us aware of their struggle we may often minimize it and say "it will be okay". Or take passion, its good to be passionate about something, to care deeply.
And yet passion has a shadow side. In our enthusiasm we may miss the person in favor of the cause, or be blinded to the facts in favor of the ideal. Our passion may cause us tunnel vision.

Every virtue has a shadow side. To be unaware of the shadow is to be susceptible to its influence.

So I ask you, whats the shadow side of spirituality? When one is caught up in ruchniyut to what is s/he vulnerable?

The Gemara tells us a story that I think is revealing. The story is of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, according to tradition the source for the Zohar. Rebbe Shimon, was forced to flee from the Romans. He hid in a cave, there studying the secrets of the Torah. After six years he emerged from the cave full of the fire of the spirit. The Gemara tells us that when he looked around at the world from which he had been absent for so long he saw a man working his field. Rebbe Shimon gazed on him with such power that he burned him alive and turned him into a heap of bones. With that, Rebbe Shimon realized he was not ready for this world of mediocrity. He returned to the cave for an additional six years.

The shadow side of spirituality is intolerance! Have you ever noticed that when you daven a good davening, filled with kavana if someone makes noise or accidentally bumps you when you are standing in shemone esrai, your instinctual response is to become angry!

I bought for my grandchildren little story books of gedolim, great Rabbis, in English. One told of the incredible savlanut of a particular rebbe, how he never got angry. The people decided to test the Rebbe's patience so they sent a man to him to bother him for snuff several times during the davening. No matter how many times he came to ask, the Rebbe never got impatient or angry.
My son, asked me "whats the big deal about the Rebbe not getting angry. I know many people who have that kind of tolerance of others...and they are not Rebbes". What my son didn't realize is that the greatness of the Rebbe was evidenced not only by his behavior but by his circumstances. Where was he when he was bothered? In the middle of davening. Yes, many people might have a capacity for tolerance of being disturbed. But this was davening, the essence of spirituality. Here the Rebbe was most vulnerable to being intolerant and hard on another. Yet precisely here he remained calm and accepting.

You say to me, interesting, but why are you sharing this with us this week? I share it with you now because I think with the truths we have talked about we can unpack much of the deeper meaning in the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, whose story is told in this week's Parsha.

Clearly Nadav and Avihu were tzadikim. The Torah tells us they were killed at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan for bringing an eish zara, a strange fire into the sanctuary. The Mahrsha says that the fire they brought was in fact appropriate. What they did was the right thing. Their sin was that they failed to consult with Moshe and Aaron before doing it. They brought the fire on there own. They died because, as the Gemara tells us, they ruled a halachic issue while in the presence of their teachers (Moshe and Aaron) an act of disrespect.

The Torah Temima is bothered by the Mahrsha's explanation. He asks, "if the fire was warranted why does the Torah refer to it as an eish zara?"

I believe the answer is embedded in what we have been discussing. Nadav and Avihu were filled with the spirituality of the moment. The immediate verses prior tell us that the people saw the presence of the Divine revealed in the sanctuary. In the height of that infusion with inspiration Nadav and Avihu saw something not right. An incense fire needed to be brought that Moshe and Aaron seemed oblivious to. They could not wait. In another place the Talmud says, Nadav and Avihu sinned saying "when will these two old men die (Moshe and Aaron) so we can assume the leadership". Little doubt that attitude would follow from their perception that Moshe and Aaron made a mistake in failing to bring the fire for the ketoret.

Nadav and Avihu in their heightened spiritual state became vulnerable to the shadow side of this excellence, that of becoming intolerant. They became intolerant of Moshe and Aaron. They saw themselves as more worthy to lead. They found it unacceptable to wait and ask their opinion about bringing the fire for the incense. They brought the fire on their own.

And why was the fire strange if it was in fact appropriate? The answer is because even that which is appropriate when done at a time or in a way not deemed proper becomes strange.
The shadow side, the intolerance, contaminated the spirit and made even that which was in fact the right thing to do come out lacking and deficient.

Can there be a more vital lesson for us to learn than this? So often as we become fused with the spirit and full of G-dliness we also find ourselves intolerant and critical of others we perceive as lacking. Yet that very intolerance, that shadow, in the end compromises our spirituality even as it did Nadav and Avihu. We are more like them than we may realize. And just as vulnerable!

Shabbat Shalom