Sunday, May 23, 2010

Getting Real

Most of us associate being a complainer with being spoiled. The two seem very much to go hand in hand. If I am spoiled I typically expect to have things my way. When that does not happen my response will most often be to complain. And the contrary also seems true. If I am a person who has little expectations, who appreciates whatever I get, I will likely remain grateful even when things are hard and I do not have it my way.

Knowing that,it becomes difficult to understand the behaviors of our ancestors in the wilderness. The Torah, this week,in the parsha of B'haalotcha, begins a series of stories in which the Israelites complained over their circumstances. The Torah says, "And the Nation were as complainers, and it was evil in the eyes of Hashem...".
One complaint follows another. The final one in this weeks reading was a complaint over the lack of meat. In the end G-d brought them meat in what looked like a heavenly gift,but what was in fact a food that caused their death. The People stuffed themselves with the meat, the object of their desire, for some 30 days until over-fed of it, it killed them.

We might well wonder how did this nation who only recently escaped the cruelty of Egypt and a life of deprivation become so spoiled. The Torah tells us they complained, "...We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the melons, the leeks,the onions and the garlic. But now our soul is dried up, there is nothing for us but the manna". Can you imagine a people freed from the grasp of death and despair, a nation whose prospects were essentially hopeless complaining like spoiled children when they don't get what they want? Talk about revisionist history, the Israelites made Egypt into Gan Eden!

How did a people raised with enduring hardship become so spoiled?

And let me ask another question, which while at first may not seem related,may well turn out germane. When Hashem tells Moshe to advise the people that He will provide meat for them, Moshe is astonished. Moshe said, "The nation is composed of 600,000 men on foot and You say you will feed them meat for a whole month! If flocks and herds will be slaughtered for them will that be enough? If all the fish in the sea are brought to them will that be enough?"

What is Moshe asking here. On first blush he seems to be doubting G-d's capacity to feed the people. Yet how is that possible. Moshe knew the power of the Divine better than anyone. He was the instrument of Hashem to perform miracle after miracle,many far greater than producing food to feed a nation. How do we explain a passage that on simple explanation reflects a lack of faith on Moshe's part?

The rabbis of the Talmud were bothered by the same question. One, Rabban Gamliel explained that Moshe, of course, knew that G-d could feed the people. What he wondered about is to what end would that serve? Moshe saw the People's complaint as rooted in something much more basic than the content of their diet. He said to Hashem "They are only looking for an excuse to complain...If you give them thick meat they will say they want lean.If you give lean they will say they want thick..." Rabban Gamliel explained that Moshe knew that the complaint of the people was never really about food.

And the verses actually support Moshe's insight. The Torah at the outset of the reading states "And the Nation was "k'mitoninim", "as complainers...." Why does the Torah say "as". It should simply say they were complainers! The answer is very much as Moshe realized. Sure they complained,and the complaints were specific. Yet he knew in reality it was all a ruse,even if they were not themselves conscious of it. The complaints reflected a deeper malaise.

So then what was the real issue here. If the People were not really spoiled what was triggering their resentment?

The answer is self-evident. Our sages long ago taught "Avda b'hefkaira neecha lai", "A servant will always prefer to be morally free". It was not the diet of the Israelites that engendered their complaint. Former slaves don't complain when they don't get roast beef each night for dinner. But they do complain when they are now encumbered with all kinds of moral imperatives, things they did not have to worry about when they were servants of others. They don't want laws telling them what they can and cannot do,who they can and cannot marry. They resist the morality imposed on them.

Indeed the problem with the Israelite's complaint with their circumstances was that it was false, prompted by a hidden agenda. It was not their desire for meat and fish that both G-d and Moshe found "evil" as the psukim indicate. But rather their underlying desire to free themselves of the Yoke of Heaven.

Whats the lesson for us here? How are we like our parents of the wilderness generation?

I believe the lesson is real and telling. We too so often complain,or excuse ourselves citing a specific issue, while in truth hiding both from others and ourselves a deeper and more sinister problem.

Let me give some examples. The man or woman who goes out on an endless series of dates, in each case giving reason why their potential shidduch was unacceptable. Could it be that if they were honest with themselves they would realize that the problem isn't with the other but with themselves, that they really don't want to marry or commit? Are they not like the Israelites,complaining about the meat and the fish when its really about their own desire to be free of commitment?

Or let us think about ourselves as parents. We excuse our anger at our children. Perhaps, when we are furious at their behavior, we say to them cruel and hurtful things. Yet we argue,"I can't help myself. They make me so mad." Here too, I wonder if the problem is with the situation or with us. If we truly gave ourselves over to the work of parenting, if we made being a good parent our commitment and total resolve, would we not change the way we react? Here too isn't the real issue not with the "meat and the fish" but with our level of commitment!

And finally I ask you to think with me about our avodat Hashem. So often we make excuses for our behaviors. Perhaps we speak lashon hara or we don't say bircat hamazon properly or any one of a hundred things. In each case we make an excuse saying the circumstances were difficult for us to negotiate. Yet are we not hiding from ourselves the real issue.Its not about the individual avairot. For them we can make excuses. Rather the real issue is that like our ancestors in the wilderness, we have not yet committed ourselves to become avdai Hashem, servants of our Father in Heaven. Yes,we observe. We keep the mitzvot. And yet we remain in our own mind free agents,unwilling to fully surrender ourselves and our lives to Him.

The story of the parsha of this week challenges us to stop fooling ourselves and to get real. Remember our fathers and mothers in the wilderness perished with their excuses. The very things they said they needed to have to satisfy them wound up killing them when they got it. To avoid their fate we need to unmask the hidden agendas and face our core truths. Its the only way to move beyond excuses and to really make change!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 20, 2010

So Whats In A Name?

Have you ever noticed, when the great Torah personalities sign their names to a document they never use their title "rav". They simply sign their first and last names. That's in-keeping with a matter of halacha. One is not supposed to use his/her title when referring to him/herself. To do otherwise reflects pretentiousness. We are not to refer to ourselves using any approbation or title.

In this week's parsha of Naso we have a long section detailing the gifts of the princes of the tribes of Israel on the occasion of the dedication of the Mishkan. Each brought on a different day. Yet each brought exactly the same gift. The Medrash points out that the Princes earlier had lacked a certain humility. When the initial call went out to the people to bring the raw materials for the building of the Mishkan the Princes felt slighted. They thought their donations should be separate, a category of their own, in accord with their stature. When that did not happen they said, "We will wait til the people bring their gifts. And what remains lacking we will supply".
They misjudged the generosity of their own people. Not only did the people not bring too little, on the contrary, they brought too much.The Torah told us that Moshe sounded the trumpets in the camp to announce to the People to stop bringing gifts.

Seeing their mistake, we read this week, that the Princes spontaneously brought the animals for transporting the components of the Mishkan, during the periods of travel. And still later they brought the individual gifts we referred to earlier, with a different Prince bringing each day.
Yet the Torah saw the Princes as culpable for their earlier arrogance, and in the text the Hebrew spelling of Princes, Neseyim, is missing the letter yud.

We might wonder from where did the Neseyim learn that their attitude was wrong-headed. Sure, they realized that they misjudged the generosity of the people. After-all, in the end their was nothing left for them to bring. But I mean, from where did they learn that their attitude was inappropriate? That its wrong to wait for a special invite or stand on title?

I think the Torah text itself may reveal the answer to us. When the pasuk tells us of the initial gift of the Neseyim, the animals used to transport, it provides the following "And the Princes of Israel, the heads of their respective families, those Princes, heads of the Tribes, the ones who stood over the counting came near and brought their offering...."

I understand why the Torah makes reference to the Princes in terms of their stature as family and community leaders. But why do we need to be told now that these are the same men "who stood over the counting". What relevance does their role in the count of the Israelites,of which we have been reading, have to do with the gifts they brought to the sanctuary. What relationship does their role in the count have in their decision to make a spontaneous offering at this time.

I believe the Torah is telling us something profound here. The Neseyim learned the wrong-mindedness of their attitude from their experience in supervising the count of the nation. How was the count conducted? We know that we are forbidden from taking a direct count of heads. Rashi and other commentaries tell us the count was taken via the half shekels contributed by the people. Counting the half shekels revealed the number of the Israelites.

Why are we forbidden from direct counting? Many have suggested reasons for this halachic restriction. Years ago I heard a most beautiful reason that is most compelling. One great Rav said "the reason we cannot count Jews with a direct census is because each Jews is absolutely unique. We can no more sum the total of Jews then sum the total of apples and oranges. Half shekels can be counted. Each and very Jew stands alone,unique and existentially individual."

Perhaps it is this message the Princes came to understand when they over-saw the count of the nation. They came to realize that its not title that gives a person stature. On the contrary, the person gives meaning and stature to their title. Each and every Jew is absolutely unique and brings a unique gift to the world. Even the ordinary Jew can't be counted with his fellow because of his uniqueness. The uniqueness of the Neseyim, no matter how important they are, can be no greater.

The Princes, in standing over the count, came to realize that waiting for an invite based on title misses the point. Yes, they are the Princes, but any honor due them in that role emerges out of who they are, not what title they carry. They are not great because they are Princes but rather they are Princes because they are great. And in coming to know that they also came to know that whatever gift they would have brought would have had its unique meaning because they brought it, not because it was a gift of the Princes perse. In the end we are all unique. And everyones contribution is equally unprecedented.

The lesson here is so important. So often we feel small relative to others who have larger titles in the work-place or community than do we. We tend to measure ourselves based on position, responsibility, or status. Often we exaggerate what we do just to feel more worthy.
Or worse, like the Princes we expect to be treated a certain way because we have title and/or position and become indignant when we don't get the honor we feel we have coming to us.

The Torah teaches us that each Jew is absolutely unique. Title does not make us important. Who we are gives credibility to any title we may have. And its who we are that warrants recognition.

No, we may not call ourselves by our title. Our job is to be authentically who we already are and who we are meant to become. If we are ourselves the honor will be genuine and personal. If we are not, any title bestowed on us from without, be it Rabbi or Doctor, Judge or Member of the Kenesset, ultimately has no meaning other than as a description of our occupation.
Our task is to be our unique selves. Nothing says that more clearly that the simplicity of our given name.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spirituality in the Wilderness

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. The first parsha has the same name by which we call the book "Bamidbar", "In the Wilderness". Of course, that's not the name that it's called in tradition. Our Sages called it "Chomesh Hapikudim", "The Book of Numbers" in light of the fact that the book features numerous countings of both the Israelites and the Levites. That we call it Bamidbar is related to the opening words of both the book and parsha, "And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the midbar of Sinai..."

The Netziv in his classic work on the Torah, Hamek Davar poses the question, "Why does the Torah need to tell us that G-d's command came to Moshe in the midbar. We know at that time the People of Israel were camped in the wilderness. It seems superfluous to mention it now." Moreover, we might ask why is the location of G-d's command to Moshe relevant at all?

The Netziv answers that the place where Israel found themselves, in the wilderness, made the command to count the people (the mitzva given to Moshe at that time) relevant. The wilderness would present them with great challenges, even as we see when the story of this Book of the Torah unfolds. There would be danger and travail. In order to meet the challenge of the wilderness journey the people needed to take stock of their forces, number their recruits, even as an army numbers its soldiers in anticipation of battle. In this way the people would travel prepared. Their King, Hashem would lead them. And they would be vigilant and forever on-guard, prepared to meet the challenges that would come.

In keeping with the way we are thinking about Torah text in this blog, personalizing stories to see what we can learn from them for ourselves, I want to refocus the brilliant insight of the Netziv and expand on it.

My reading of the Torah teaches me something about my own journey, in times where I find myself in a spiritual wilderness. How often in our lives do we find ourselves in a place barren of inspiration, a place where few around us seem focused on things that matter, a time or context where all we encounter invites us to indulge in olam hazeh, the empty but alluring glitter of this world of falseness.

In those times and places we are indeed threatened. We struggle to avoid being swept up in the tide of vanity and materialism. We often feel alone. Our prayers become shallow. Our observance seems more a commitment to the past than a response to something alive and immediate within. How do we survive the midbars of our lives?

It is not only to the People of Israel that the Torah is speaking, but to you and me. And not only to the challenge of the wilderness of yester-year, but to the wilderness journey that confronts us in our lives and in every generation.

When we sense the challenge and threat of living in the context of a spiritual void the Torah tell us three very important things. First, recognize and acknowledge where you are. Don't try to pretend that the spiritual wasteland you are in is really a Gan Eden waiting to be discovered. We need to be open and honest with our circumstances. We need to be able to look around us and say, "The time and context are threatening. This is indeed a spiritual wilderness and I am in the midst of it. Whether it be my neighborhood or my work-place, my circle of friends or yes, even my shule, I am here and now in a place that compromises my avodat Hashem."

I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to claim with integrity where one is. The Torah makes clear Israel was in the midbar. All precautions start with the honest and open claiming of one's reality.

Second, in caring for ourselves we need to make an internal inventory. Its no accident that the Torah calls on Moshe to make a count of the people when in the Midbar. We too, in our own
midbar need to take stock of ourselves. We need to know where we are strong and where we are vulnerable. We need to know the things that tempt us and the things we will easily overcome. Rather than attempt to turn the wasteland we find ourselves in into a spiritual paradise we need to marshal our resources and prepare to defend our personal kedusha.

Finally the Torah tells us this week, as Israel confront its wilderness journey in ernest, that the People are to march in a very precise manner, with each tribe rallying around its flag and the camp as a whole having a sort of inter-tribal symmetry. Here too we find our personal call. When in our own spiritual wilderness we need to find an inner balance between all the components of ourselves. More than taking stock of our strengths and weaknesses, we need to now put those strengths and weaknesses in balance and find our center. There are times in our lives when we can and should take risks in order to grow. To do that we need to come off the center and move, at times, out to the edge. Push one aspect of our self or character so we can grow and excel. But now is not that time. When in the midbar we need to be centered. To best meet the challenges without we need to be in harmony within. There is no room for experimentation or pushing the envelope now. When threatened by a wasteland of spirituality we need to be within ouselves and at all times.

Indeed the Torah's message to me is compelling. In order to meet the threat of the spiritual midbar, I need to always know where I am. To be safe when passing through a midbar, I need to know who I am. And to best protect myself in those midbar times of life, I need to live in internal balance, responding to that which confronts me out of my center.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Becoming a Maskil

A few weeks ago, one of the finest dentists in Yerushalayim, a man who, despite his busy practice, learns many hours a day , asked me if I was interested in doing a hesed. He went on to tell me that he has a patient, an elderly man, near 90, who, because of age related physical challenges has little opportunity to get out from his home. Yet the man loves to learn and would so desire to have someone come to his home and learn with him once or twice a week. My friend, the dentist, asked me if I might be interested.

To be candid, I hesitated at first. I have a pretty full learning schedule. And this hesed was not a one-timer. It required a commitment, and hopefully for the man, for a long time. I told him I would think on it and let him know. On reflection, I realized what could be a greater mitzvah than this, and I agreed to learn with Zevulun.

Our first meeting was this week. I met a man much compromised physically. He has breathing difficulties and much trouble walking. Zevulun told me he is nearly always in pain. He sat slumped in his chair mindlessly reading a paper. Though married, he has a Phillipina ozeret always with him. Bright and a professional, it seems it has not been easy for Zevulun to make a life for himself when so compromised. He receives so much from others. Yet, at this stage of life, he has little opportunity to give. Where does one find meaning and dignity when so much has been taken away?

Zevulun never went to Yeshiva. Yet he knows how to learn. We decided to learn Gemara Sanhedrin. Its the mesechta we are learning in the Daf Hayomi. As we began to learn I witnessed what appeared to be a techiyat hameitim, a resurrection of the dead. Zevulun became animated and empowered. I thought I would lead, but no, he chose to read the Gemara and later the Rashi. He asked me to get the Kehati he has on one of his book shelves to amplify the meaning of the mishna. And then he got up himself to find his set of mishnayot with the Bartenura. When we ended our learning he said to me, "So what level of leaning am I on? Would you say I was intermediate". I told him, "Zevulun you learn wonderfully" and I meant it. He said, "Good, I will tell my wife".

As I was leaving he got his check book out and asked me how much he owed me. I said, "Owed me? It was a pleasure to learn with you. This is not about money!" And I meant that too! We set up our appointment for the next week.

I cannot begin to describe the zechut I felt I had in learning with Zevulun. I did not teach him! It was not a job! For that hour we were each other's chavruta. In those moments he felt empowered. His life had worth. He forgot his pain. He had a place in the world as a contributor, not just as a recipient of the kindnesses of others. He does not need in his life one more person doing him a favor. He needed to feel like he was vital and sharing again in the world of learning he loved.

I thought to myself where do we find this idea of hesed in the Torah. Its not the traditional sense of tzedaka. I did not give alms to the poor. Yet who is more poor than the one who has lost his dignity, who has no place in the world, who feels impoverished of meaning and purpose.

I believe the answer may be found in the Parsha of this week, that of B'har. There the Torah tells us "Key yamuch achecha umata yado emach, vehechezakata bo, ger v'toshav v'chai acheycha emach" "If your brother becomes impoverished, and his means falter before you, you shall strengthen him, whether he be convert or resident, so he can live with you."
Rashi and all the commentaries point out that the challenge we are given here is to support a person in need even prior to their financial collapse, to help them so that they don't fall into abject poverty. Give the one in crisis a loan, or a job. Help them while they still have dignity and don't yet have to rely on charity.

We know the Rambam considers the highest level of tzedaka to assist one so s/he can help him/herself and not become dependent on others. Its not always about giving money. On the contrary, the best way of caring is helping without causing the other to feel indebted to us or shamed in the process.

Its this pasuk, the verse which call us on to maintain the dignity of another wherever possible, and to give more than money, indeed to strengthen the other with whatever means available to us, that seems to speak to the mitzvah of my learning with Zevulun. Yes, its true Zevulun was not struggling with financial losses. Yet his losses were deeper and in many ways more severe. He lost his mobility. He lost his seat at the minyan in shule. He lost his daily shiurim. He lost the simple gift of being free of pain. He lost the opportunity to give to others on a regular basis. He lost his sense of being someone.

In the Psalms David writes "Ashrai maskil el dal, b'yom raah y'malteihu Hashem" . The sages understood the verse to mean, "fortunate is the person who is maskil with the depleted". Maskil means to understand deeply. The sages say, David is referring to one who sees the unique situation afflicting the other in need and responds out of his/her keen sensitivity. About that person the verse goes on to say, "in a time of evil Hashem will spare him", because he indeed cared with wisdom and sensitivity to the plight of others.

David is challenging us to do more than take a shekel out of our pocket for the beggar. He invites us to do more than see a person's losses and needs in terms of money. The maskil does not wait until he is asked for help and the crisis is full blown.
No, the maskil sees the other and responds to them as persons. S/he acts with sensitivity to their kavod, dignity. S/he feels for them and their circumstances. S/he intervenes with the aim to restore the other to their place in life and society.

It is this person, this maskil, who has a special blessing from Hashem and who indeed will be saved should there come a day of evil.

I think to myself, how many Zevulun's are our there for me to help if I become a maskil. How many people do you know who have losses that are the ravages of life and the aging process.
How many people could we reach out to and restore their dignity, give their life new purpose, just by making them a chavruta or a friend.

Everything I know suggests the need is great. True, these needy are not like the beggars. They don't ask for help. Yet why not be a maskil. Why not see the hurt and suffering of the elderly and homebound. And indeed why not respond!

The reward we are promised is greater than any check Zevulun could have written me. And the satisfaction of doing the the mitzvah and seeing its impact is priceless!

Shabbat Shalom