Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting Past Resentment

A self story...Many mornings at the minyan I attend a certain elderly gentleman shows up. He's not there every day. When he comes he will usually show up for a few days in succession. Each day he attends he expects to be given the opportunity to daven for the amud, to lead the prayers. And when there is a Torah reading, he claims that honor too. I know most of the men at minyan think nothing of this fellow's expectations and give him a hearty 'yasher koach', congratulations after each effort of his. I, on the other hand, find his claim for the limelight arrogant and egocentric. It annoys me, though I never let on.

I know my attitude is not right. It's not that I am wrong about the man. I think he is blind to his own yearning for kavod...But so what? Why should it bother me? Why should I carry resentment. And more importantly, how can I get over it to feel a love for this fellow Jew and member of my minyan the way I need to.

As I reflected on my issue I thought about the readings of the last few weeks in the Torah, the story of Yosef and the brothers. I wondered how was it that Yosef was able to overcome all of his feelings of resentment towards his brothers and be so ready to forgive them. I mean, we know the brothers redeemed themselves in the end. This week's parsha of Vayigash tell us how when put to the test, in a situation not too disimilar to the sale of Yosef, twenty two years earlier, the brothers rally to protect the new favorite Binyamin. But that takes care of the brother's feeling of shame. They showed remorse. But as for Yosef, he suffered terribly because of what they did to him. He spent years in prison, separated from family, alone and abandoned. How did he find the wherewithall to forgive them and let go of his resentments.

I believe the Torah itself gives us a clue. And it is found in last week's reading.
When the brother's came back to Egypt with Binyamin, as Yosef, the ruler had insisted, we are told that Yosef made an elaborate dinner for them. The dinner was in Yosef's private residence. Every effort was made to meet the brother's dietary requirements. Moreover the Torah tells us that Yosef himself gave out the individual portions to the brothers. He fed them, and, Rashi tells us, he did so in a splendid way. Why? What was the purpose of this great feast. And why does the Torah see fit to include it in the narrative as relevant?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement in the 19th century in Europe made the observation that if we find ourselves disliking someone and struggling to overcome the feelings the remedy is to extend kindness to that person.
Through our kindness we foster a sense of responsibility towards the other. And through the sense of being responsible to them we come to care for them.

That's at the core of the story of Yosef and how he was enabled to feel compassion towards his brothers. Indeed Yosef held resentments. How could he not. He was a tzadik but not an angel. The way he got passed the ill feelings was to make a big meal for his brothers and to personally extend himself to them even so much as to dispense to each his individual portion. In providing for his brothers, in feeding them, in honoring them and tending to their needs, even though he did not much like them, Yosef came to care for them. And by dint of his care he felt a sense of responsibility towards them...and from that emerged a sense of connection.

From Yosef I can glean a message I need to take to heart as I think about how to overcome my resentment towards the little man who needs to claim a big role at daily minyan. Truth is I may never like the part of him that runs for the kavod. Yet if I want to come to care for him as a person rather than harbor resentment I need to extend myself to him and do him some favors. Maybe I can give him a ride home or bring him a siddur before davening. It need not be a big thing. I don't yet have to invite him for a Shabbat meal. If I just show some care I will feel a sense of responsibility towards him. And in that I will find the gateway to honest caring for him even with the parts of his personality i dislike.

I suspect I am not the only one who finds him/herself feeling disdain for another, and for many reasons. Some of our reasons can be the result of real harm caused, as in the story of Yosef and his brothers. Some of our reasons, like mine, are more obscure, yet nonetheless block a natural compassion. Each of us can learn the lesson from Yosef and overcome our emotional distance by doing a kindness for that other. It is through kindness that love and care is cultivated. And kindness can grow care even in a wilderness.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Re-thinking the Joseph Story

Getting to know oneself is no easy task. We can think we are self aware only to be deceived. One tool that can help in this work is to reflect on a book we read or a film we saw and to ask ourselves "which character do I most identify with?". Often what we discover will surprise us. Once we have identified the character with whom we most connect we can begin to explore the similarities between us and them and uncover components in our character that were earlier buried in the unconscious and emerge only when our guard is down.

The story of Yosef and his brothers begs for just such a reflection. If I asked with whom in the compelling drama do you most identify I suspect you would answer that you identify most with Yosef, the innocent victim and the later hero of the saga. Or perhaps, if you are in a more advanced stage of life, you might tell me that you identify with Yaacov, the old father, who feels the unending grief for a son lost and a family broken. Few of you I imagine would say that you idenitfy with the brothers. No matter how our commentaries explain their actions or attempt to make them understood, the brother's unconscionable deed of selling their own flesh and blood into slavery just doesn't feel like a response to family strife we can relate to or identify with.

But I invite you to step back a moment. The purpose of the blog "The Torah and the Self" is to learn about ourselves by finding points in common with characters in the Torah, even in the more obscure cases. The premiss we begin with is that we share, at least in some measure, a point in common with all people. And if the Torah is telling us about personalities, no matter how nefarious or extreme, they are meant for us to find in them a personal connection so we can learn from them about ourselves. Over the years, in the pages of the blog, we have found ourselves in the Pharaoh and in Esav, and from the deed of our parents both good and bad.

So let me ask again about our point of identification in the Yosef story. Can we find ourselves in Yosef's brothers, at least in some measure? What do they have to teach us about ourselves?

The Talmud tells us that one of its great sages, Rav, had the habit of visiting the graveyard, there to learn from the dead. One of the things he discovered was that 99% of people die as a result of the evil eye. Of course its not the evil eye that is the immediate cause of death. It would not be found on a death certificate. Nonetheless, whether the cause of death was cancer or heart failure, that which made the person mortal was the evil eye put on them by another.

The evil eye is another term for jealousy that one person feels towards another, a jealousy that prompts resentment, a jealousy that kills. So let's consider again. The brothers were jealous. Their jealousy caused them to hate their brother and resent his success. They sold him into slavery assuming he would die. We struggle to relate to such criminal behavior. Yet, as Rav discovered, its quite common to harbor ill will towards others, to feel resentment over their life's successes. We seem to all carry jealousy, so much so that nearly all people are made mortal by another's jealous feelings. In the end, while we might say we would never do the other harm or even wish him/her harm, that is but on a conscious level, what we are aware of. At a deeper level our jealousy too causes us to want to posess that which belongs to another and finds that which the other does have to be undeserved and more rightfully ours.

To the extent that Rav found truth in the graveyard conversations with the dead, we all cause harm by our jealousy and resentment, in ways not that much less significant than the brothers of Yosef. And while its true we are often blind to our resentments and jealousies, the brothers were equally blind to theirs. They had little conscious idea that their motivation to sell Yosef was rooted in self interest. We, like the brothers, will not recognize our jealousy and envy of others unless we admit that these unflattering character flaws live in us. Only when we stop pretending we are beyond such pettiness can it become possible for us to mitigate the jealous feelings and stop the effects of jealousy and the evil eye.

Now you may say to me "You have got to be kidding. Do you really believe in the evil eye?" Whether I do or don't is not so much relevant here. What is relevant is that resentment of others and their successes is legion. Jealousy does not belong to Yosef's brothers alone. It inheres in all of us. You say where?

Let's look at our lives. Honestly, how hard is it to be truly happy with someone's good news, especially someone we are close to and especially when we are deprived of the same gift. Of course we express happiness, and some of it is felt. But who in the secret of their own heart does not have a corner of resentment thinking "it should have happened to me". Which sibling is truly never jealous of his/her peer over success or nachas? Who has not looked upon the blessings of another and thought "I am more deserving than they". And I dare say every time we argue with another and get locked into an intractable struggle is it really a battle of ideas or rather of egos, with each of us afraid to let the other win.

I want to make clear here a distinction between envy and jealousy. I may envy another person's blessings, say that they have nachas from their children or study much Torah. That does not reflect a character flaw. I simply wish that I too could know similar blessing in my life. In envy I don't question whether the other deserves their gifts or want to take it from them for myself. On the contrary envy will often lead me to improve myself so I may be like the other and know the same gifts in my life. (To be an envious person is not a good thing but envy as a feeling can motivate me to improve and grow).

Jealousy is something else from envy. In jealousy I want what the other has. Still more, I feel I am more deserving of it than them. Envy leads me to admiration. Jealousy leads me to resentment of the other. Rav was on to something profound. It is impossible to be jealous and not have feelings of resentment to the other. And it is impossible to resent someone and not at the same time, at least in part, wish them harm, if not consciously than unconsciously.

No, I suggest we need to look to the brothers of Yosef and be not too quick to discount the points we share with our distinguished ancestors. It's not flattering to claim jealousy as operational in our life but I suspect if we had the courage to explore our behaviors honestly we would would find many many of our responses are rooted in jealousy and resenment. I will leave the work for each of us to do to unpack where that jealousy shows its ugly head. But I guarentee, if we are willing to look at ourselves and our resenments with curiosity rather than recrimination, we will find its expression everywhere.

The hidden gift of the story of Yosef and the brothers is that if these great men, fathers of the Tribes of Israel could have been victims of jealousy, we need not be ashamed to claim it is operational in our lives too. That does not make our jealousy or resentment go away. It does however make it okay to acknowledge.
And in our honest acknowldgement we have already made significant strides to self healing.

I am delighted to inform you that the best of the blogs over the past three years has just been released as a book "The Torah and the Self" by Yisrael Kestenbaum.
It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble and through Amazon amongst online book stores.
Thanks for all your support!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When Heroes Fall

In the life of each of us we face moments where our heroes disappoint. Sometimes its a teacher, mentor, or boss, someone we admired and thought of as better than they turned out to be. Sometimes its our parent, our mother or father, who we adored growing up yet who, we realized as we matured, was flawed, not only in general, but even in the way they raised us. There are few more painful moments in life than those moments when we realize our heroes had clay feet.It becomes still harder to accept when we realize those we thought loved and cared for us in the absolute were comrpomised themselves and indeed so too was the love and care extended to us.

What do we do with our new insights into our former heroes. Therapists have made a career out of treating men and women like us with just that problem. Some ouf us, unable to reconcile our current perception with our former, break off all connection with the hero of yesterday. We bury the relationship and all it contained claiming it was all a sad mistake. Others of us, difficult though it be, try to find a way to salvage what can be saved from the relationship. We work to not let our disappointment and shattered ideal poison what blessing remains possible in the relationship. True, we say, the other may not be who we thought they were, but that does not mean they have no redeeming virtues. We attempt to reset the connection under perhaps a lower callibration.

In many ways the later is the work of adult children. Unlike in our youth where we idealized our parents, as we mature we must find the courage to see our parents for who they really are, with their flaws. Seeing them in their nakedness is not easy.
Yet only then can we ever have a real relationship with them. Are we disappointed? Of course, inevitably. But with time and support we can turn that disappointment into an opportunity, a chance to have an adult to adult relationship with our parent, to know them, so that while they are no longer our hero they become something more precious, our friend.

I share this insight this week, as we read the parsha of Vayeshev, because their is a passage in the reading that speaks pointedly to this theme.
When Yosef finds himself in the house of Potiphar, the butcher of the Pharaoh, he is seduced by the master's wife who begs him to sleep with her. Though tempted, Yosef responds to her saying "Behold my master has complete trust in me, and has placed everything under my control. And there is no servant in the household more important than me, and he has held nothing back from me except you because you are his wife. How then can I think to commit such a great evil and thereby sin to G-d."

Yosef's ability to rise above his temptation earns him the title "Yosef Ha'Tzadik", "Joseph the Righteous". He is praised throughout the literature of our tradition for his self discipline in a most challenging time. Yet what I find surprising is the language of Yoesf's argument to Potiphars wife where he explains why he will not sin with her. He recounts all that her husband has done for him, stating how ungrateful he would be should he commit adultery with Potiphar's wife. Yet in the end Yosef said that if he were to commit the act he would "sin to G-d". Wait a minute. If he owed so much to his master for all he had done, he should have said "I will sin to your husband, my master". Why does Yosef recount all he owes to Potiphar yet claim the sin he would commit would be against G-d.

I suggest the answer here is relevant to our earlier discussion. Yosef was talking to Potiphar's wife. She obviously felt it was okay to sin against her husband in an illicit relationship. Yosef knew that while he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Potiphar, if he would have claimed the sin would have been against him, Potiphar, the wife might have said "You don't know my husband. He is abusive and a tormentor. He has committed horrible atrocities. He deserves to suffer. He has it coming for all he has done to me and others. He may be a hero to you but he is no hero. On the contrary he is a villain. He has had this coming for a long time."

Yosef silenced such a justification by claiming from the outset that the husband did wonderful things for him and while it may be also be true that Potiphar has no rewards coming to him because he is an evil man, yet he, Yosef, cannot wrong him.
Yosef in saying that his sin with would be against G-d, argued that his responsibility is to show gratitude to those who have been good to him, no matter who they are in other aspects of their life or in their personal nature. 'Hakarat hatov', showing appreciation for kindnesses done to us is a personal responsibility devolving on we who receive. We must show gratitude or else we sin to G-d. Our gratitude has not to do with the goodness or general worthiness of our benifactor.

For many of us, thinking about persons who have failed to live up to our expectations causes us to reconsider how we are with them. We withdraw and withold. Any debt of gratitude we may have had gets wiped clean. We simply say they are not deserving any longer of our appreciation.

Yet the story of Yosef tells us just the opposite. Yosef argued that he owed Potiphar. It didn't matter who he was or what he did. Yosef's debt was due for kindnesses received. We too have those we owe, parents, teachers, mentors, friends.
True they may have lost value in our eyes for wrongs committed or flaws in their personalities. We may now realize that they may even have caused us some harm.
Yet we cannot thereby excuse ourselves from our responsibility before G-d to be persons who show gratitude for the good received. Its not about them but about us.

To be a mensch is to be thankful, even when that thanksfullness is not easy to show, even when we feel ambivalent about the person to whom we need be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Win or Not to Fight ?

When I was a boy the Shabbat table was a place for my father to assert himself. From the singing of zemirot to the topic of conversation, he ran the show. When I matured and marked the occassional Shabbat at home with family I noticed that my father's role at the table had changed. While he sat at the head of the table as before, he no longer controlled the table dynamics. He let others, in particular his now older children take the lead. And while he may well have wished for more zemirot or less casual banter, he held his peace. It appeared sometimes as if he was a guest at his own table.

In the parsha of this week, Vayishlach, we seem to witness a similar change in our father Yaacov. At the outset Yaakov is a man to be reckoned with. He wrestles an angel to a draw, holding the angel hostage until he receives from him a blessing.
Earlier, at the close of last week's reading, Yaacov had engaged his father-in-law, Lavan in a heated confrontation. This week we read where Yaakov meets Esav, his intimidating brother, entirely prepared for every eventuality, be it a peaceful rendezvous or war.

And then, rather abruptly, Yaacov begins to fade as a dominant personality. When Dina, his daughter is raped and then held by the prince of Sh'chem the Torah tells us that on hearing the news Yaacov "held his silence" waiting for his sons to deal with the atrocity. Later when he challenges Shimom and Levi for having wiped out the town, telling them that their actions had put him and the family in mortal danger, he lets his two sons have the last word.

And so Yaacov's personal eclipse continues. The Torah tells us that Reuvan did something seriously wrong in regards to his father's marital bed after Rachel died.
Did Yaacov react? According the text we are told "Yisrael (Yaacov's new name) heard", and seemingly did nothing. And next week when we read of the enmity the brother's had for Yosef because of his grandiose dreams the Torah tells "the brothers were envious and Yaakov observed the matter". Yaacov did not try to make peace between the brothers and Yosef. On the contrary he let the process unfold without his intervention. How different the story might have been if Yaacov had tried to bring peace between them.

How do we understand this change in Yaacov? What happened? And I might well ask the same question regarding the change in my father. What made him become to retiring?

I think the key to understanding the change in the character of Yaacov can be gleaned from what the Torah tells us about our father at the point where we noticed he was no longer the same. It happened directly following the confrontation with Esav. Yaacov comes to the city of Sh'chem 'shalem' meaning complete and whole in every way. There he erects an alter to G-d in thanksgiving. He called the alter for "G-d the G-d of Yisrael".

What's interesting here is that Yaacov calls himself "Yisrael". G-d did not give him that name untill later in the story as we read in following chapters. It was only the angel who blessed him who gave Yaacov that name, yet that's sufficient for Yaacov to claim the name as his own. Here he is, Yaacov coming home, and he is no longer the son who stole his brother's blessing, the weak link in the family. He wrestled an angel and received a blessing in an open strugggle rather than by deception as earlier in his life. That represents the final stage of Yaacov's emergence into the light and redemption of self. He feels complete, 'shalem'. He has reached the place in his life where he no longer needs to prove anything. He is whole and sated with who he is. Even before G-d calls him "Yisrael" Yaacov claims the name. It belongs to him by dint of who he has become.

Once Yaacov feels the peace of self, he no longer needs to take the lead in fighting the battles of life. He is now ready to let others assume the limelight. He can watch the process unfold and wait with no need to assert himself and control the dynamics. And so Yaacov "holds his silence", and he lets others have the last word, and he "hears" but does not react, and he "observes" letting the process unfold in the way it needs to. Yaacov, the most passionate of the Avot, the one who showed anger on several occasions when he felt wronged, can now, as he reaches the place of inner quiet and fulfillment, sit tight and assume a place in the background. He no longer has the impulse to react.

I believe my father reached that place in his own life, a place of inner satisfaction, where one knows who s/he is and has nothing more to prove. It is a blessed place. And when one gets there one no longer has the urge to combat the wrongs of the world, though sometimes one must. In that place one has patience and even when responding responds with a deliberateness and thoughtfullness, not in a frenzy.

The truth we are being taught through the unfolding story of our father Yaacov is that not all our passion, even for the good things, is a sign of our inner well-being.
When we are reactive to things, even though the cause be just, it is likely because we are unsettled ourselves and have not yet come to a place of inner peace. Strong emotional responses only arise in the person in a state of inner unrest. True the cause of the emotional reaction maybe something external.I may be reacting to the wrongdoing of my child or my husband's insensitivity or some inexcusable injustice of life. Yet I would not react to the situation the way I do unless I was already in flux within. The strength of my response says more about me than about the circumstances to which I am reacting.

I hope in my life and yours we will come to that place where we no longer need to fight every battle, react to every hurt. I pray we will know the settledness within that will give us the wherewithall to have patience and be thoughtfull even in times of duress. I know that kind of 'shalem' only comes through a life's journey. Most of all it requires that we be truly happy with our self as we are.

Yet in the end, the goal of a blessed life is not to win every battle but rather to reach a place where we do not feel the urgency so strong to make them our fight.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Avoid or Confront ?

Many years ago Paul Simon sang a popular song titled "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". In essence the song's message was that we seem to find many varied ways to bring endings to relationships, all of them meant to avoid having to say a meaningful and honest goodbye.

The Parsha of this week gives evidence to the truth of Simon's insight. In the parsha of Vayetze, near the end, Yaacov decides to return from the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, after twenty years and return to his family and birthplace.
Yaacov is a much changed man over those twenty years. He came poor and leaves wealthy. Moreover he came a bachelor and leaves with four wives and 12 children.
Yaacov has every reason to say goodbye to his father-in-law. His leaving would certainly leave a vacuum. Yaacov and his entourage mattered. Yet Yaacov chooses to flee, not telling Lavan or his wive's family that he was departing.

Its clear Yaacov prefers to avoid the farewells. And why? Well just look at the earlier sections of the same reading of this week.

After fourteen years with Lavan and after Yosef is born the Torah tells us that Yaakov thinks to move-on. This time, unlike later, Yaacov begs leave from his father-in-law explaining that its time to go. In response Lavan pleads with Yaacov to stay, and offers him a chance to make real money. Seeing an opportunity for himself and his family, Yaacov decides to stay another six years.
So why this time when preparing to leave does Yaacov do as the Paul Simon song suggests and "slips out the back Jack".

The Torah itself alludes to the answer. When Yaacov first thought to leave the relationship with Lavan was on cordial, if not warm, terms. Yaacov had little and would leave with little. Saying goodbye was unlikely to cause discomfort. Six years later the Torah tells us that Yaacov was painfully aware of Lavan's resentment toward him. He was embittered that Yaacov was no longer the dependent sheppard but rather a wealthy man of means. Lavan found Yaacov's metamorphosis disturbing. It made him envious. Yaacov knew that saying goodbye now would inevitably bring on recriminations and ill will. In Yaacov's mind it was better to avoid than confront.

We know all too well the preferance to avoid rather than confront. In our own lives over and over we avoid the painful goodbyes preferring instead to find a way to "slip out the back..." And its not only the goodbyes we avoid because we fear confrontation. Often we choose not to say hello to people we fear will be reactive to us. We pretend we don't recognize someone, or cross the street so we don't have to acknowkledge them and deal with the complexities of our connection to them. Moreover so often we hide our feelings from others, even those closest to us. We choose, at times, to lie so as to create the pretense of shalom, when in reality its not real peace we have gained but rather avoidance of an honest expression of self and a chance for healing and conflict resolution.

Unless we risk confrontation with its unpleasantness we stand no chance of resolving our conflicts and finding our way to the peace that may be there for us on the other side.

Yaacov discovered that very lesson in his attempt to avoid confrontation with Lavan.
What happened after Yaacov fled? The Torah tells us that Lavan chased after him. A strong and forceful confrontation ensued, the very thing Yaacov wanted to avoid. Harsh and heated words were exchanged.
Only after each, Yaacov and Lavan, had expressed the fullness of their feelings was a reconcilliation possible, one that indeed occurrs at the reading's end.
At the close of the story Lavan and Yaacov come to an understanding. They sit down to a feast. No, they are not friends. But they are reconciled. Each comes to closure with the other and with a sense of personal integrity. Isn't that what peace is all about?

Not surprisingly when Yaacov has another confrontation looming, this one with his brother Esav who has sworn to take vengence on him, Yaacov does not avoid. Rather than flee, Yaacov send messengers to Esav and sets up the rendezvous even as we will read in next week's portion. Yaacov learned his lesson. Avoidance is understandable but a poor substitute for honest confrontation.

The challenge for we who walk in Yaacov's footsteps is will we too summon up the courage to risk confronting the persons and issues that hang over us. Will we find a way to stop avoiding and speak our truth? To flee offers a momentary relief but no potential for resolution. Only in the honest encounter is there opportunity for healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On the Power of Parental Love

This week in our Torah reading we leave the house of Avraham and enter the house of Yitzchak. We begin the story of a new generation. It is tempting to compare the family lives of each to the other to discern both similarity and contrast. What's clear is that while both generations, that of Avraham and Sara and that of Yitzchak and Rivka are our Fathers and Mothers, and represent a continuum of values and traditions, in terms of personality and domestic lifestyle they vary widely.

One key similarity is that in both households their was a good son and a bad son.
Avraham and Sara have their Yitzchak and Yishmael. Yitzchak and Rivka have their Yaakov and Esav. In the end, each bad son was excluded from the line of tradition. Only the good son remained attached.

But here we come to an important difference. Whereas, even as we mentioned, the bad sons in each home were cast out, the stories were not the same. Esav, the son of the second generation of whom we read this week, remained a bad boy. Not only is he a villain in the story of his parents and sibling, he and his decendants represent the historical antagonists of the Jewish people. Esav, while of the same genetic makeup as Avraham and Yitzchak rejects his roots. Still more, he disdains his roots. His personal life and legacy leave no room for redemption.

With the bad boy in Avraham's household this is not the case. True Yishmael is cast out, and according to the tradition, for unacceptable behaviors. Yet in the end Yishmael does teshuva. He repents. The Torah told us last week that he participated with his younger brother Yitzchak in their father's funeral. The Sages point out that Yishmael even honored Yitzchak above himself at the rites, though he was the elder.
They explain that the "ripe old age" the Torah tells us that Avraham enjoyed was due to he peace he had knowing that his son Yishmael was back in the fold.
Proof that in the end Yishmael was a tzaddik is the fact that one great sage of the Talmud carries his name, Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. In contrast no Jew has ever been named Esav.

We might well wonder why? Why was it the case that Yishmael, though a bad boy for much of his life ultimately returns to the faith and values of his upbringing and Esav remain unrepentant ? What made teshuva possible for Yishmael and not so for Esav?

Let's begin by taking a look at the story of Yishmael, the son who did return. What made that possible?

The answer is plain and compelling. Yishmael all his life, even when he was cast out, always had the love of his father Avraham. Even in the time of his sinning, he was never rejected by his father. We see this from many sources. Let it suffice to point out two. The first, the Medrash, that explains why G-d had to tell Avraham at the time of the 'akaida', the Binding of Yitzchak, "take your son, your only son, the son you love, Yitzchak..." Rashi on that verse bring the explanation of the Sages, that when G-d told Avraham to take his son, Avraham said " I have two sons".
So G-d said to him "your only son", to which Avraham responded "each is only to his mother (Yishmael came from Hagar)". To make Himself more explicit G-d said "the one you love" to which Avraham replied "I love them both". Finally Hashem had to identify the chosen sacrifice by name "Yitzchak".

It is clear from the above Medrash that even after having to expel Yishmael from his home at the demand of Sara, Avraham considered him a son in the truest sense, and that indeed he loved him, even as he loved Yitzchak. Moreover when Avraham and Yitzchak go to the Mount Moriah for the sacrafice, the Torah tells us they were accompanied by two lads. The Sages inform us that one was Eliezer, Avraham's faithful servant. And the second, none other than Yishmael, the one time wayward son, who seemed indeed to forever have been a part of his father's life.

It is this undying love that Avraham had for Yishmael, through all of Yishmael's life, that made it possible for him to return in later years to the values and practices of his youth. When a parent continues to love his/her child, and when they show that love, even when the child strays, s/he makes possible the correction in that child's life, the correction they most hope for.

Ah but you ask, what about Esav. We know Yitzchak loved Esav, even more than he loved Yaakov. The Torah told us so in no uncertain terms and in the reading of this very week. Why didn't Yitzchak's love serve to bring about Esav's return?

I shared this question with my son Moshe, who is a very popular Rebbe in the Yeshiva in Waterbury Connecticut and author of his own beautiful
book on character issues titled "Olam Hamidos". He suggested brilliantly, that there is an important difference between Avraham's love for Yishmael and Yitzchak's love for Esav. Avraham knew who Yishmael was. Sara had told him about his sinfulness. He had no illusions. Yet he loved Yishmael anyways. That kind of parental love, where we know our children with their flaws and continue to love them, is redemptive and offers hope for change.

Yitzchak, on the other hand was deceived by Esav. Esav forever hid his misdeeds from his father. Yes, Yitzchak had love for Esav, great love, but it was not for the Esav as he really was. It was for an imaginary Esav. Esav always felt that if his father ever truly knew him he would reject him, so he lied and pretended. In hiding himself, Esav was precluded from ever knowing the love of his father. In the end, Yitzchak's love was a false love and was therefore renderred impotent and unable to bring about Esav's potential return.

The lessons here for us as both parents and children are oh so cogent and compelling.
First, it behooves us to realize the power of love and, in particular, parental love.
While the impact of Avraham's love for Yishmael, with his issues, did not bear fruit in the immediate, it ultimately proved critical to the redemption of Yishmael's life.
It may take time, but a parent's love, true love, matters and indeed matters absolutely.

Second, we as parents need to do all that we can to make our children feel safe and secure enough with us so that they don't have to hide and pretend. If we are intimidating or our children so fearful of our rejection that they won't let themselves be known we will never know them and hence never be able to love them for who they really are. As parents we need to help our children realize that our love for them is not tied to their behaviors but rather is absolute. We may disaprove strongly of what they do but we affirm unconditionally the goodness of who they are.

Third, as chidren we need to take risks in letting ourselves be known to our parents and trust they will find the ability to love us. The price of hiding apects of ourselves is not worth the benifits the deception my provide.
We need our parent's love. Some times and some parents are not able to give that love. Yet we need still to try them and see to what extent real love of us, love that is based on self revelation is possible. It is not all or nothing. Parents may not be able to get past their own limitations to embrace all of our truth. Yet what we make known and gets affirmed is healing. Moreover loving and being loved is a process. Both parent and child grow in a transactional relationship as each becomes more able to be loving and authentic with the other.

And finally, as Yogi Berra once said "It ain't over til its over." The love between parent and child may not ripen until both have reached siginificant levels of maturity. Our challenge as both parents and children is to be open to the gift moments when they come and to believe we are capable and worthy of love in its purest and most potent form.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Touchdown Dance

In American football, if a player is fortunate enough to score a touchdown for his team he will typically do a spontaneous little dance in celebration often referred to as "The Touchdown Dance". In a wonderful old movie titled "Parenthood", the late Jason Robards, playing an old parent with a wayward son, who while mature in years, continues to get himself into juvenile trouble, makes the observation that the work of parenting is never over. One never can do the 'touchdown dance', celebrating a culminating triumph.

The story of Avraham confirms Jason Robard's observation, not only about parenting, but about life in general. There is no touchdown dance.

This week we read the portion of Chayai Sarah. It begins with the death of our matriarch Sarah, telling us of Avraham's grief and then of his search for a worthy place for her burial. In tradition, its no accident that the Torah tells us of Sarah's death following the story we read last week of the 'akaida', the 'binding of Yitzchak'. Avraham has no opportunity to celebrate the gift G-d gave him of getting his son back, that is, not having to kill him as a sacrifice as he first thought, none at all. As soon as Avraham gets home rather than make a celebration on his and Yitzchak's salvation he learns of his beloved wife Sarah's death. He goes from elation to grief. And then he has to go seek help from strangers to secure a place to bury Sarah. And later still he worries that Yitzchak is getting older and remains unmarried. Avraham proceeds to send his servant a great distance, back to Avraham's birthplace, to hopefully there secure the appropriate wife for his son.

Again and again Avraham passes through crisis, times of worry, only to need G-d's help once more to negotiate the next issue. The crisis/issues never end. And with it neither does Avraham's need for G-d's deliverance. There is no final triumph, no touchdown dance.

I have always found it compelling that in Hallel, the psalms of praise we recite on holidays and days of deliverance in our liturgy, we exalt in G-d's response to our crisis. Near the Hallel's close we chant the verses "This is the day Hashem has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." And just prior we say, "I will give thanks to Hashem because He answered me and did not let my enemies rejoice over me." These verses are typically sung in the synagogue with great enthusiasm and abundant joy.
And why not. The Hallel is recited on days memorable for their glad tidings. In joy we sing and praise G-d.

What's surprising is what follows in the Psalm. Immediately after those triumphal verses we recite in a very different and plaintive mode, "Please G-d save me".
Question is how do we go from the triumph to the desperation in such a seamless flow?
If we are so jubilant in our victory how in the next moment do we experience such a need for salvation?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov noted the continuous flow of ups and downs in Avraham's life. In each case Avraham would experience the 'y'shua', the salvation of the Divine, only to need it again, almost immediately, in a pursuant crisis. He understood the dynamics by first pointing out that each 'y'shua' manifests a nearness of G-d to the person in crisis. In fact the essence of the salvation is not the relief from the threat but rather the presence of G-d in one's life as evidenced in one's relief.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Title of Your Life

Over dinner last week my seventeen year old daughter, Bess, made an interesting observation. She said, "All people have stories but only few have a story." What she meant to say is that while all of us have lives full of incidents and experiences its rare to find persons whose life tells a single tale with a common underlying theme.
Is it true? Do most people not have a single story in which the variety of the stories of their life is contained?

In the parsha this week we begin the story of Avraham. To tell it will take us through much of the next three weeks. The readings share with us many episodes in Avraham's life from the early years and unto his death. How do we experience what we are being given? Is it indeed a story, singular with many chapters or are we being given a multiplicity of vignettes about the same person but otherwise distinct and unrelated?

Even more significantly when we speak of the Jewish people and our story, is it indeed a single story, expressed through many passages? Or is it in reality not one story but many, millions of stories, belonging to the same people but otherwise independent and unrelated?

In posing the later question whose answer is clear, when we speak of Israel's journey we are speaking of the oddessy of a nation where each episode is part of a singular story now transpiring over some four thousand years, we can also answer the earlier question, about our father Avraham. Yes Avraham had many experiences. Yes, Avraham lived large and invested in life so that he had a wide varierty of encounters and challenges. But the stories are not isolated and self contained. They make up a larger whole, the story of Avraham! We who have the gift or hindsight, may see that all the stories have in common the 'testing of Avraham'. His stories contain ten trials, each meant to bring out Avraham's personal excellence as a human being and man of faith. While superficially the stories seem isolated, with perspective we can see they are all aspects of a single tale.

Ok so we know the Jewish People have a single story and so too with Avraham. But what about us? Is my daughter right? Is it so that for most of us our lives are fragmented and while we have many stories their is no singular over-arching story that binds them?

I think not. I believe that not only do our people have a single story and greats like our father Avraham, but each of us has a meta-story made up of the various chapters of our lives. If we reflect on our experience we will see that their is a unifying thread to our lives. The problem is that we tend to be so busy living in the moments of our lives that we can't get the distance to see how our life is like a musical work composed of theme and variation, always coming back to the same core elements of meaning.

When facing old age and the end of life, mental health professionals talk about the importance of doing life review. Life review is a process of looking back on the journey one has had and finding the story within the stories. Life review creates an opportunity to claim one's journey as an integrated whole, with its good and bad, ups and downs, and ultimately to bless ones own life so one can let go and die with peace. In doing life review most people are surprised at how the life they lived and thought was disjoint and disconnected actually can be spoken of and seen as a single tale.

I can tell you for my own experience of having performed hundreds of funerals and having delivered an equal number of eulogies that one can find red threads to even the most fragmented of lives. If one listens to the stories one can find the story that unites them.

Ah but you say what difference does it make whether you have a vision of your life as a single story or not? Let me tell you a beautiful story I heard of the Piezeczna Rebbe.
A man came to the Piezezcna knowing he was going to be transported to a Concentration Camp. He knew he would have little opportunity their to perform mitzvot, to learn, to do hesed. He asked the rebbe what could he do to give his life meaning in the Camps. What mitzva could he perform? The Rebbe told him, "When you are in the Camp go over to every person you can, as many as possible, and ask them to tell you their story."
The Rebbe did not tell the man to ask for their 'stories'. No stories won't do. Telling stories without an underlying them will not help . But telling the story will.Telling the key story that is manifest in the particulars of life enables us, even in the darkest of times, to feel alive.We may lose everything but in having our story we retain ourselves. If we lose our story we have lost it all. Our story is core to who we are. To lose the story is to lose our self.

We, each of us, have a story. In the end, our lives with all its complexity, is a single tale. The work for us is to come to recognize that story. We need to try and put all the particulars of our experience into a single framework so as to reveal its underlying meaning and purpose.

The question we might ask ourselves is "If our life was a book what would the title be?" Knowing that title gives direction to our lives and makes each experience,no matter how difficult, bearable, since it is not a random confrontation with adversity but part of the book of us and integral to who we are.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's It All About ?

Many many years ago, probably before most of the readers of the blog were born, there was a popular movie of the 60's called "Alfie". The movie told the story of an aimless young man who goes about flitting from one woman to another, with little care and no committment.He lives life from one moment to the next, with no purpose nor direction save to follow his pleasures. He is not a bad sort of person. In fact he is very nice. He just seems to see the world as a place to get his needs met and pursue desires as they become available. There was a song by the same name as the movie which was equally popular in its day. The opening lyrics went "What's it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live...and are we meant to take more than we give?"

This week we read the parsha of Noach which predictably tells the story of the deluge and G-d's destruction of His world. After, the world begins again with Noach and his children, a new start with new hope. Why did G-d need to bring His first effort to a close? The Torah is clear that the people and the world they inhabitted became corrupt. The Talmudic sages taught us that people were steeped in idolatry, promiscuity and theivery. The implication is that humanity as a whole was invested in a life of sin. The deluge was then a punishment to a wayward civilization and a condemnation of their lifestyle.

The problem with that approach is how can the generation of the flood be taken to task and punished when they were never given commandmants regarding acceptable behavior?
The Noachide Laws, the seven commandments given to non-Jews to observe, including the prohibition of idolatry, thievery and sexual promiscuity, was given to the descendants of Noach, and not prior generations. How then could Noach's generation, while admittedly guilty of extreme moral lapses be punished without first being commanded and warned of the consequences of the partiucular sins ?

The Torah tells us that G-d informed Noach of the impending devestation. He did so in the following words " ....the end of all flesh has come before me, because the world is full of violence, therefore I will destroy them and all the land". Nowhere does G-d say that the flood was to be a punishment. Rather G-d said "the end of all flesh has come before me". The implication here is that the world reached its own end. Moreover the word used by the Torah over and over in these verses is in Hebrew "hashchata" or corruption. Earlier it said "G-d saw the land and behold is was 'nishchata' corrupt". G-d does not say here the world was evil, though it was. Its condemnations was because it was corrupt. By corrupt we mean to say that its purposes were compromised. It could not become what it was meant to be.

The upshot of all we have been pointing out is that indeed the world of Noach was not destroyed as a punishment for sin. It was not really destroyed. Rather the purpose of life is growth and becoming. When that no longer became possible because of the wayward behaviors of humanity the end of the world was inevitable. The world's corruption brought about its termination. It could not exist devoid of its 'tachlis', purpose. G-d needed to be 'mashchit', meaning perform an act of corruption to rectify the corrupted, inorder to restore the possibility of a world where growth and spiritual becoming is possible.

Every person, according to our sages, is a miniature world. The message here for us is compelling. We, like the world itself, exist inorder to grow and become. Stagnation occurrs in life. We all go through periods where we get stuck. But our overall ambition needs to be centered on growing and becoming. Else we have no claim to exist in this world. Its not enough to be good. We must be forever striving to be better. Its not enough to be without sin. We need to be driven to become holy.
Unless we are working on ourselves and all the time our life has no purpose. Just as Noach's world, when it lost its purpose lost its claim on existence, our life too needs its purpose to continue. And the purpose of our life and indeed the world as a whole is spiritual growth and becoming.

Any person who says "I have reached a place in life where I am satisfied with myself", or who lives with that attitude whether they actually say it or not, no matter how good they are, puts their existance in jeopardy. Its not that they are bad. On the contrary, they may have a great place instore for themselves in the world to come. But if you've stopped growing and becoming you can't claim a ticket to a seat in this world. The ride for you is over.

"What's it all about Alfie, or Yankey or Sruley or Rachel or whomever? It is about becoming and growing. Each day, each experience, each encounter offers us a chance to grow. All we need is to be open and meet the moment mindful of our agenda.
The new year has begun. Lets get to it!

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 17, 2011

Between Men and Women

This Shabbat we begin the Torah anew and with it we tell the story of the first couple and their early days on this planet. Even then men and women had their struggles. We read of the forbidden fruit and that Chava, the first woman, ate and then gave her husband, Adam to eat in defiance of G-d's command. When G-d challenges them to explain their sinful behavior, Adam immediately blames Chava saying "the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me of the fruit and I ate". Even then male-female relationships were complex, oscillating between love and hate, acceptance and disdain. And why not, in creating Chava G-d said "I will make for him an 'ezer knegdo', a helpmate opposite him." Yes men and women help each other. And yes, they are in many ways opposites. It is only in knowing both, that our spouse is indeed our partner, and that s/he is very much unlike us, that their can be any hope for a good union.

Lets explore this fascinating story of the sin of the forbidden fruit a bit further to see just how different male and female can be. When the serpent tries to entice Chava to eat the fruit,Chava tells him that the fruit is forbidden. She says to him, "Even though G-d told us that we may eat the fruit of all the trees of the garden, He forbade us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or even to touch it". The Sages of the Talmud point out that Chava added a restriction G-d never spoke. She added a prohibition to touch the tree. Nowhere do we find G-d forbade touching the tree. That added restriction, the rabbis point out, served to cause her downfall. The serpent seized the moment and pushed her into the tree. She saw that nothing happened as a consequence. She then concluded, if touching engendered no harm why should eating, since both were equally forbidden. The Sages discern from here that " all who add (meaning they embellish a prohibition) only serve in actuality to lesson its impact.

The question that leaps out at us is how is it that Chava added what G-d did not say? And if she did of her own, then how could she be deceived into believing that touching should have the same consequence as eating?

Many a commentary points out that Chava never heard directly from G-d the prohibition of eating from the fruit of the tree. She got her information from Adam.
It may well be that in telling her of G-d's rule he added the injunction, that G-d forbade touch as well. He did not trust his wife not to sin. He thought if he added a safeguard, prohibiting touch, it would serve to protect her from the real sin of eating from the tree.

Men and women often struggle to trust each other. They note the differences between themselves and their partner in temperament, personality, and life priorities. In not trusting its not uncommon for one to take added precaution with the other, to share truths in a less open way, for fear real honesty will cause a problem. Husbands and wives often hold back from each other or embellish to minimize what they fear will be the other's reaction or follow-up behavior.
From the story of Adam and Chava the Sages warned us, "Sometimes adding can turn out to be be subtracting". Though different than us, we need to risk in trusting our partner. There is no other option!

But there is more here than that. One great Bible commentary argues that Chava, in only hearing G-d's command from Adam, misinterpreted what G-d was actually saying.
She thought the ban on eating from the tree was not because of the impact eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would have on them. Oh no, she thought the basis for the mitzvah not to eat of the tree was to protect the tree! Thinking that the prohibition was given to protect the tree, it was perfectly logical for her to infer that touching could be as consequential to the tree as eating the fruit. After-all it was not eating the fruit that mattered. To protect the tree, meant not taking from it. Touching then should have a similar deleterious consequence. And hence when the serpent pushed her into the tree and nothing bad happened to the tree she figured it was all okay.

Adam and Chava heard the same charge. Yet each heard in it something different. Adam heard in it a call to protect himself from eating that which G-d deemed detrimental to him. Chava heard a call to care for others, in this case the tree. Women and men hear things differently, even when the same words are used. Carl Jung wrote of masculine and feminine energy and how different they are. Masculine energy, typically dominant in men, is more linear, rational, valuing form, and practical, more focused on 'truth', and the right. Feminine energy, more often dominant in women is more metaphorical, spiritual, non-linear, relational, about persons rather than objective truth. It prioritizes peace and harmony over doing the right!

In marriages we see these differences between men and women all the time. Often they struggle to understand each other. A woman lives closer to her feelings. Whats true for her might seem factually incorrect to her husband. He might become angry at what he perceives as her failures. Yet the woman's priorities may be totally different and through those priorities she both sees the world and fixes her behaviors. In the context of her life's priorities and values she is not a failure at all and she resents her husbands insensitivities to what she perceives as her response to her call and life's work.

It is not surprising that marriage is a work and to have a successful marriages men and women need to understand that they are substantially different. They need to stop expecting the other to behave and think like themselves. Most importantly they need to cease being disparaging of the other's priorities or condescending. Adam and Chava in the Garden could easily do teshuva and repair their relationship with G-d.
It would take more to heal the tension between the genders and their respective ways of thinking, doing, and prioritizing. Those struggles, long after our banishment from Gan Eden, we continue to carry.

The beginning of the Torah and the beginning of the year impels us to make the work of understanding gender differences and showing respect for attitudes and behaviors other than our own a priority in our lives. If not we, like Adam early in the Garden, will remain alone.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, September 25, 2011

From Resignation to Acceptance

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic “On Death and Dying” wrote of the stages people go through in the process of dying. In the final stage of Kubler-Ross’s model, the dying, if they are successful, move from resignation to acceptance of the impending end of their life. Resignation means that one recognizes that his/her death is inevitable. S/he is no longer fighting the reality or denying it. But nonetheless the death feels like a betrayal, like something that should not be. Often in a state of resignation the dying become depressed and withdrawn. Acceptance is a step further in the process and the final stage, if one is able to achieve it. To accept one’s dying is not to want it, nor is it to welcome death. Rather acceptance is the embracing of the reality as part of the story of one’s life. While undesirable, it can no more be changed than can one’s height or parentage. To accept one’s death is no different than to accept the limitations of one’s life. It is part of who one is. In the stage of acceptance one dies at peace and in touch with both family and community

At the close of this week’s parsha we read that G-d tells Moshe to climb the mountain of Nebo in order that there he may die. We know Moshe did not want to die. He fought for the right to enter the Promised Land. He begged G-d over and over to forgive him his one sin and allow him to cross the Jordan with his people. Over and over G-d said “no” to Moshe, culminating in this, G-d’s last instructions to our beloved teacher. Did Moshe reach the stage of acceptance before he died? Did he come to terms and embrace the reality before him or did he simply resign himself to the inevitable.

The answer is right here before us in the text. What does Moshe do before he dies, indeed on the very last day of his life? He sings the song of Ha’azeenu. Moshe gathers all the people and engages them. One does not sing if one is resigned to death. Nor does one gather the community if one has merely surrendered. Moshe, fought. He fought valiantly. In the end he accepted. And in that acceptance he made his dying something that proved a blessing for all Israel.
Truth is when it comes time to accept our reality and we do, rather than continue to deny it or resist it, we have the possibility of new blessings, one previously unrecognized.

Look at the story of Moshe. In one way he was defeated. G-d did not acquiesce to his petition. According to tradition, Moshe was prepared to enter in any way possible. He was willing to surrender the leadership to Yehoshua and enter as a member of the Community of Israel. He was willing to strike any bargain. In all cases the answer was “no’. Yet when Moshe finally comes to accept, as evidenced in this week’s parsha, he finds that the “no” does not mean exactly “no”. It just means “no” to the way he was asking.

What do I mean? Well take a look at the verses. G-d tells Moshe “Go up to this Mount of Avarim, the Mountain of Nebo that is in the land of Moab…and gaze upon the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel for an inheritance….” And then look at the verse at the end of next week’s reading of Zot Habracha. There, even as Moshe is told he must die in the wilderness, he is also granted a form of entry into the land. Hashem invites him to see the land in its entirety, the hills and the valleys, the rivers and the streams, from one end to the other. While its true Moshe may not enter the land bodily, his eyes are permitted to enter. After granting Moshe the eyes to see the land in all its grandeur G-d says to Moshe, “You have seen it now with your eyes even though enter you shall not.” Through his eyes Moshe becomes one with the land of his yearning. Yet that form of entry was not possible for Moshe to experience until he accepted his death on the other side of the Jordan. Only once he stopped resisting and moved past his resignation could Moshe know the blessing that was there for him to claim.

In our lives too, so many times things happen to us that we struggle to accept. We simply refuse to embrace that which feels unwelcome. And then, when we can no longer deny or combat the reality, we resign ourselves to our fate with a shrug. We feel our circumstances are unwelcome but “what can I do”. The problem with that attitude is that as long as we feel resigned to our fate rather than embracing of it we will not be able to extract the blessing the story has in it for us. We will not reap the gift that even that which we did not want to happen has to give us, often a blessing and a gift that is precious and sweet. We will not even know there is a gift or blessing that we can claim in the situation until we move from resignation to

If there is a more powerful truth to enhance the quality of our life I cannot imagine what it may be. The lesson from Moshe, is that in acceptance we get answers that neither denial, nor bargaining, nor anger, nor resignation, the prior stages of Kubler-Ross’s model, will yield. In acceptance of our fate we not only know the peace and belonging we forgo in our prior stages, we also receive a gift, that while
perhaps not what we wanted, is satisfying in its own way.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a wonderful new year!
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Our Most Costly Fear

To be human is to have fears. Some of us fear the big things like financial collapse and illness for the ones we love. Others of us fear the small, like did I make enough food for Shabbat and will I pass my driving test. Sometimes we have irrational fears, like the fear of heights and of a mouse. The person who is brave enough to scale Mt Everest may have stage fright or be afraid to speak in public. We don't invite our fears. We wish we didn't have them. Often we are ashamed of our fears. But alas, they are as much ours as the color of our eyes.

What fear, do you suppose, has the most consequence for the quality of our lives?
I think you may be surprised when I tell you that for my part, it is a little fear, much overlooked that most compromises the quality of our life. It is the fear of committment.

The fear of commitment is most common, virtually everyone has it to some degree, and it is omnipresent in our lives. Its hard to commit! And yet without commitment everything we do is lacking in depth and intensity. We do so much good in our life. Yet lacking commitment to the work that brings about the good, we are robbed of the gift our good deeds have to offer us.

There are three reasons we most often struggle to make a commitment. The first, and acceptable one, is because we fear we will make a wrong decision and then struggle to extricate ourselves. If we don't commit because we are unsure if what we may be commiting to is worthy of our investment we are being prudent and wise. But the problem with our failure to commit is when it is motivated by the two other fears. The first, if we commit now we are afraid we may miss something important that will come along later. We fear not having our options open. We won't accept today in order not to miss the 'good thing' we may later have available. That fear of commitment is pernicious and compromising. The second invalid reason we fear commitment is related to another fear, our fear of failure. We won't commit because we are afraid that if we do we may fail, and better not to commit than to commit and fail. How much of life's opportunities do we miss because of that fear of commitment/ fear of failure syndrome.

Where do we see that type of fear of commitment in action? The young man or woman who cannot seem to find the right shidduch. No matter who they date it never seems right for them. They may give all kinds of reasons why nothing has worked and lament their circumstances. They may even say its fear of making a mistake, the good kind of fear of commitment, that is holding them back. In most cases, if the truth were revealed, it might be a surprise even to them. What's in the way is not something outside themselves but inside. Their fear is of commitment, the wrong kind. They are not ready to close their options, no matter who the other was. They are afraid, in their minds, to be 'trapped'.

It happens over and over in ordinary life that our fear of commitment prevents us from investing fully, even in the good we do. Someone asks us to do a hesed, maybe to visit a homebound and infirmed elderly man or woman on a weekly basis; Or we are asked to commit to a learning seder with someone or a group; or we are inspired enough to want to take on a new healthy behavior, say regular excercise or to quit smoking. In all the above cases while we typically will be glad to do a 'one time' act, we decline to commit. Our fear of commitment and of the failure causes us to either decline invitations to growth and change or to perform without commitment. Life lived lacking commitments is a shell of a life that's lived out of commitments.
The committed are not enslaved, on the contrary, they are actually liberated. What they do is not an addendum to their life. It is their life. The more committed we are to our life's work the more alive we are. Those who live a life comprised of free moments live on the surface, they wait, and rarely experience the gift of being alive that comes with investment of self.

We stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanna. The parsha we read this week is Neetzavim-Vayelech. At the outset of the portion Moshe tells the Israelites "You are standing this day before the L-rd your G-d.....". He is about to enter them into sacred covenant with the Divine. The Zohar tells us that when the verse says "this day" it is referring to Rosh Hashanna. What's interesting to me is the terminology in the pasuk. Moshe tells them "You are 'standing'..." The term for the word 'standing' he uses is 'neetzavim'. Neetzavim has the same root as the word in Hebrew for monument, 'matzaiva'. Many of those who interpret the Torah text point out that 'neetzavim' like 'matzaiva' infers a rootedness, a standing in such a way as to be firm and planted like a monument. Yet the very next word Moshe uses is 'hayom','today'. Hayom implies temporalness, that which is transitory, only for today. How do we reconcile the use of the contradictory terms that is, standing in perpetuity as if always and yet for today? What does that say to us about Rosh Hashanna?

I believe the answer is very much in line with our discussion. True ,Moshe was telling the Israelites, you can only live day to day. You don't know what the future will bring. You don't know what capacities you will have. You don't even know what you will desire. But nonetheless you must enter this day as if it will be forever. You must give your self fully to it like a monument, 'neetzavim', rooted, committed entirelyand yes unafraid!
You cannot allow the temporality of your existence or the frailty of your will to stop you from saying "yes" when committing to the 'brit'.

This is Rosh Hashanna. All of us stand with our future in doubt. We have no future.
Its all awaiting judgement. How can we commit? How can we say "yes".
It is to that we are being challenged, "Let go of the fear and commit. True you only have today but live today with commitment to tomorrow should it come, else you will not know life at all, even today."

Life without commitment is no life. Better to commit and fail or even to miss something you may have preferred than to live in waiting.

May you and all whom you love be blessed with a new year of health, meaning, and happiness. May it be rich in commitment!

Shabbat Shalom
Shana Tova

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Ashamed Forever"

Elie Weisel in his classic "Night", an autobiographical work describing his experiences in a slave labor camp during the Holocaust, shared a powerful moment that changed his life. He was sent to the Camp as a teen together with his father, a man he loved deeply and admired. He cared for his father in those times of great deprivation and looked out for him. Yet, he found that love and admiration, in those trying times, were not the only feelings he had for his father. Once after a long march, he could not find his father. He found himself feeling surprising and unbidden feelings within.

"Don't let me find him. If only I could get rid of this dead weight so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever."

In the Parsha of this week we encounter passages that predict the very reactions of Weisel in his story. The Torah tell us, in the verses that describe the horrific ordeals that will befall us if we fail to keep the faith and Torah, that we will suffer an extreme hunger,a hunger so severe we will eat our own dead children so as to stay alive.

"The man amongst you that is tender and very delicate will look with hostility towards his brother and towards the wife he loves and towards his remaining that he will give them nothing of the flesh of his dead children ...because he has nothing left him due to the seige and oppression."

And the Torah goes on to say the woman/mother, one whose life had always been priveleged, will now feel the same resentment and hostility towards her husband and family that her husband felt towards her, with each focused on their own survival because of the awful circumstances.

What is the tragedy here? What curse is the Torah revealing to us, that in the severity of our hunger we will eat our dead children? The Torah aleady informed us of that in the earlier verse when it said "And you will eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters..." What is the new curse implied here?

The answer is,here there is a curse more subtle but equally painful. Here the curse is, not only will you need to resort to cannibalism to survive but the hunger and quest for survival will bring out the worst elements of your self. In pursuit of your needs, you will be resentful of the people you most love in the world. Not only will you not feel compassion towards them, you will come to despise them.Your own wife, your own children you will hate. And in that you will find shame, a shame of your self deep and awful, a shame that is a curse as profound as the lack of food and maybe worse. You who were so delicate, so much above petty resentments, a person of culture, will become as an animal with your feelings emerging more out of instinct rather than love.

Elie Weisel knew that curse. He knew the power of that shame of self. He knew that no matter how learned I may be, how cultured and civilized, how gentle and gracious, that underneath the surface lives a bare and ugly self, one who in the face of hardship has no more dignity than an animal. In the context of prolonged deprivation and staring at a threat to our very survival we will not only take what we can, we will hate the others who compete with us, even be they the people we loved most in the world. True we will often rise above the circumstances and be gracious towards the other, yet at a feelings level we know we carry a mean spirit and an envious heart.

The shame we are talking about is an existential shame. Its not a shame because of something we did. Its a shame because of who we are, because, when push come to shove, we are frail beings, not much more generous of spirit than animals. This is the shame we speak in our prayers during selichot and in the service of Yom Kippur. Its the shame we recite before G-d in the words "I am before you as a vessel full of shame and disgrace". Existentially we are compromised. It just takes the severe circumstances to bring it to the surface.

How vital this message is for me and I suspect for you as we stand less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanna. Most of us have puffed up images of ourselves. We demand our 'kavod', that others respect our dignity. We get insluted easily in as much as we perceive ourselves as worthy of courtesy and deference. We look at all we have accomplished and all we continue to do and we say to the other "how could you treat me as you did?". We demand an apology or harbor resentment. Families become divided, husbands and wives carry grudges, brothers and sisters don't speak, all because of felt slights that never get healed.

The Torah text of this week reveals to us that not only will our sinninng cause us hurt. The Torah teaches us something about who we are. Its tells us to forget about how important we consider ourselves, how learned, how sophisticated. Underneath it all we are not much better than an animal. Once compromised all the toppings will vanish and we will become focused exclusively on our own survival and resent any and all who jeapodize that survival. How dare we become huffy when we feel insulted. We are, in our own words "a vessel full of shame and disgrace". How can anyone then insult us?

There is no truth more important for us to know than the truth of our existential smallness. Moments where we face the extreme show us, like they did for Weisel, what frail creatures we are. Those are the moments of shame and hurt. But they also are moments oh so enlightening. In those moments we see ourselves without the ego's delusions. In those moments we become able let go of the slights, perceived insults, and disregard of others, not because they did no wrong, but because we realize we are not so important after all, that we need to not take ourselves so seriously.

How beautiful life would be if only we were aware of our existential shame and took it to heart. I pray we won't need to see our shame in order to feel it !

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dealing with the Devil

Years ago, whilst I still lived in the States I frequently counselled Orthodox young men who were gay. They sought help as they wrestled with the conflict between the urgency of their sexual orientation and the laws of the Torah. Many, like the ones whom I met, had already left the fold of the Observant. They could not bear the strain of the contradiction between their personal life needs and the condemnation of tradition. It was too difficult for them to keep all the mizvot in the context of a hetero-sexual community and secretly yearn for the forbidden same sex intimacy.
Those who came to me were determined to persevere, despite the challenges, living an Orthodox lifestyle while acknowledging there sexual orientation, albeit in secret.What they sought from me was some validation that they remained good even while living a compromised faith.

I never failed to be moved by their stories, and their were many, each unique and compelling. The first thing I told each young man was that he was a hero in my eyes. His challenges were not my challenges.His temptations were not my temptations. His observance of mitzvot was not the same as mine. Everything he did in keeping the Torah was so much more powerful and significant inasmuch as he lived with his struggle, that he overcame his inner conflictedness and continued to maintain tradition. I would tell him that true, the Torah condemns homosexual practices, but the Torah was written for all Jewish men. For most, like me, keeping that mitzva is hardly a great act of devotion. I have no desire for intimate relations with those of the same sex. But he has such desires and they are his only sexual desires. If he is to have romantic love, sex and intimacy in his life it will only be with a man. Rather than focus on the times he surrendered to his desires, I encouraged him to look at the times he fought them, the moments he held back, and the regret he felt that he could not lead life as the typical hetero-sexual. I told him in those moments he evidenced an unparalled expression of love of G-d and Torah. And in those moments, private as they may be, he was a hero of the faith. I encouraged him to look at the positives of his behaviors, that he too could so easily have surrendered the commitment to Torah, as did so many others like him. Yet he did not. I told him his reward was far greater than his culpability for his moments of compromise. I said to him that I was envious of his share in the World-to-Come. And I meant it.

This week in the Parsha of Kee Taytzay, we find the Torah, to my understanding, teaching the same truth. In the opening verses it give us the laws of the 'Y'fat To'ar', the beautiful woman taken captive in war. The Torah permits something most surprising. It allows the Jewish soldier to take a non-Jewish woman,and have relations with her (whilst she is still not Jewish).Only later, if he wishes to marry her, does she need to convert. The Sages of the Talmud understood this law as a special consideration of the soldier's wartime psyche. Knowing in wartime it would not be realistic to forbid the Y'fat To'ar the Torah permitted her to the soldier with certan provisos. Even whilst the Torah allows for the initial intimacy it demands the captive woman be treated respectfully. She must be allowed time to grieve her family of origen before marriage, if the soldier rejects her she must be set free. She may not be sold into slavery etc. The words the Talmud uses to explain this surprising allowance to the soldier is that here "the Torah addressed the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination within the person."

Later Rabbis, after the period of the Talmud, wrestled with the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. They struggled to understand the principle at work here and what can be gleaned from it about Torah values in general. In concert with the concept of this blog "The Torah and the Self", I like to keep things simple. What can I understand from the laws of the Y'fat To'ar that pertain to me and my observance? How is it relevant to my life and self?

The story of my experiences with the gay Orthodox younge men calls out to the relevance of the Torah narative here. When we are in a situation where it is near impossible to expect that we will be able to overcome our temptations the Torah makes room for us. I am not meaning here to condone homosexual practice. The laws of the Y'fat To'ar are the exception rather than the rule. I am simply saying we need to make room for men and women with a homosexual orientation to be included rather than excluded of our community. We need to recognize that their are those for whom the traditonal way will not fit. For them we need to create models that recognize the reality of their situations and, acknowledging that even though homosexuality is not in keeping with the Torah, it is for those of that orientation, a reality that will not disappear. To pretend that we can rule it out and make it disappear is to align ourselves with the 'yetzer hara'. In doing so we make it impossible for men and women with a homosexual orientation to find a place in our communuty. We exclude them and drop-out from all Torah observance is the inevitable outcome.

The newspapers here and abroad have featured the story of Rav Harel, an Israeli rabbi living in the Gush who has started a match making service bringing together Orthodox gay men and women who desparately want a home and children. The idea is the couple agree to marry and together have and raise children.True they will not be romantically attached, and they may have their separate liasons outside their marriage with a same sex partner. But the model will allow them the joys so much a part of tradition, family, home and children. While some have criticized the Rav's plan, it is the very idea the Torah gave us this week and explaind in the Talmud as the Torah addressing the yetzer hara. While wrong, we cant change the homosexual behavior, nor can the homosexual. Lets work with it so that the yetzer hara's victory is limitted, indeed, it might well be argued, no victory at all, since no one chooses their orientation. To me Rav Harel's efforts are inspiring.

But we don't need to go so far as those with a homosexual orientation to find meaning in the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. How many women know that putting on make-up on Shabbat is forbidden yet can't resist putting it on when they go to shule on Shabbat? I mean frume women, observant in every other way. Yet no matter how exacting they are in keeping all the mitzvot, this they cannot do. How many of us go to shule to minyan each morning, often early, often when its not convenient, expressing wonderful devotion to G-d, yet come home down from our efforts because we felt bad that we did not daven with 'kavana' concentration.

We each have our places where we get stuck in our observance and can't seem to overcome. We fail and fail again. And while our inability to overcome does not contain near the obstacles as the person with a gay orientation dealing with his/her homosexuality, it is for us a sin we can't get past. If we follow the 'yetzer hara' in us we will beat ourselves up over our failing. We will forget about all the good we did, in our examples, all the care the woman took to make Shabbat for her fsmily and to keep all the other aspects of Shabbat observance so meticulously, in the case of the prayers, the effort we make to get up early, go to shule , daven with a minyan, answer kedusha, kadish etc,.
Instead we only see where we were compromised. Rather than affirm ourselves, while taking note of our shortcoming, we condemn ourselves. In the process we rob ourselves of the joy of keeping mitzvot. Our all or nothing mentality makes keeping mitzvot depressing. This is the work of the evil inclination. And only feeds our temptation to distance ourselves from the holy.

Look at the story the Torah gives us of the soldier driven by desire to take the beautiful captive woman. Recognizing his passion, the Torah does not say "no". Instead it puts curbs on it. It gives the soldier mitzvot to perform with regards to the woman, mitzvot of kindness and respect. He is mandated to curb his passion and keep it within bounds. In the end, rather than feel badly about his earthiness, the soldier is left with a positive feeling.He did mitzvot even as he succumbed to the desires he could not control.

You and I need to learn that while each of us has our place of failing, and we each need to continue to make efforts to improve, we must not let the little bit of ugliness in our life destroy all the beauty we create. Beating ourselves up over our failures gives victory to the devil. It make us feel unworthy and despondent. Our G-d wants our happiness.
In truth, the sense of unworthiness leads to stuckness. Its the realization of our goodness that makes change possible.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Waiting on Anxiety

The Torah in the first words of this week's parsha tells us "Judges and officers you must make in all your gates which Hashem your G-d gives to you". Rashi points out that the terms 'gates' here refers to the cities Israel will inhabit. Other commentaries interpret the text similarly. But then why does the Torah use the word 'gates' when it might better have used the term "cities". What is the hidden message the Torah is trying to teach.

The holy Shaloh understood the use of the term 'gates' by taking the Torah imperative and personalizing it. He notes the Torah does not say "you must make..." employing the 'you' in the plural form. On the contrary the 'you' in the text is in the singular form as if the Torah is giving the imperative to each individual Jew, that each individual must set up "judges and officers" in his/her gates. He goes on to interpret the verse in a creative way saying that the 'gates' of the text intimate the 'gates' within the individual. Each person has seven gateways to the body, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. These are vulnerable places. We can do much damage to ourselves and to others if we don't guard what comes out of them and what goes in carefully. It is about these gates that the Torah calls on us to protect. We must put in there proximity inner judges and officers lest we misuse them and cause harm.

In the context of this blog in which we personalize the Torah text to reveal things we need to know for our spiritual and emotional well-being, I would like to adapt the idea of the Shaloh to make it personally relevant. I would suggest that the 'gates' of the Torah text not only be thought of as parts of the body, in keeping with the view of the Shaloh. We need to see the 'gates' in the context of our experiences. 'Gates' then would mean places of transitions in our lives, places that mean change, new ends and new beginnings. It is precisely in these times where our world is in transition that we may well regress and make mistakes of judgement we normally would not make. It is in these time that might well do something that will compromise both ourselves and other and later severely regret.

And why would be more vulnerable to make serious errors in times of transition? Why are these 'gates' so important to protect? The answer is that transitions bring with them anxiety. We become afraid of what will happen to us when we have left the past and have not yet a secure future. In transitions we don't yet know what's expected, we don't yet know whether we will succeed or fail, we don't yet know what will be the implications of our going and coming. Most transitions only happen because we either have no choice or feel we have no choice. Otherwise, even to our own dis-ease, we will choose to stay put, rather than leave and risk the change and the anxiety it brings.

It is hard to hold tight in this situation of anxiety. We want to escape it as soon as possible. Ideally we will contain the anxiety and find the ability to wait.Difficult as it is, we will bear the feelings of instability. We will trust G-d and our own abilities to let time bring us to the other side and the new beginnings it affords. But occasionally the anxiety feels too much and along comes a quick rescue.In our healthy and settled mindset we would reject the 'rescue' as inappropriate for us and damaging. But in our hurting state we see the option before us as a potential great relief. We don't have the stomach to wait any longer. We are too ill at ease to wait for peace and settledness to come naturally and bring with it the opportunities we sought when we made the transition in the first place.
So much effort goes down the drain, all because we are too anxious to wait.

Waiting on anxiety is a huge challenge. So many lives are ruined by the inability to wait. Think about it. Men and women after one failed marriage so typically marry early and make the same mistake again. The reason, they could not wait for the anxiety of the transition to pass. They chose to relieve it prematurely and rather than make their life better they wound up back in the same place or worse. Psychologists tell us one should not remarry for at least two years after a divorce or being widowed.

After losing a job its so tempting to take the first job offered us, even when, somewhere inside, we know that job will not make us happy and is not what we are meant to do. The anxiety of living in the state of transition is too much for us and we choose any means possible to escape it rather than wait for the healing to happen.
I am sure you can think of many more cases where we are tempted to cut the short the healthy process of change in our lives. And the price we pay is that we surrender the gifts the process of change was meant to realize and sometimes the new becomes worse even than the old

It is to the difficulties of living in these gateway times in our lives that the Torah at the outset of the parsha demands that we have "judges and officers". The Torah wants for our well-being. It wants us to be able to grow. In order to support our process and help us wait on anxiety the Torah calls on us to have friends who will remind us of our situation and disciplines that will keep us grounded, our 'judges' and 'officers'.

May we find through our faith in Hashem and in our belief in ourselves the courage to wait.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Limits of Love

The Vilna Gaon is reputed to have remarked that the most difficult mitzvah for him to observe was the Torah's call that on the Chag of Sukkot we be "only happy" and for seven days! For me the most difficult mitzvah is found in this weeks parsha of Re'eh. Let me share the passage in the Torah.

"If your brother the son of your mother or your son or your daughter or the wife you love or your friend who is like your own soul entices you in secret saying.
'let us go and serve other gods' which neither you nor your fathers have known of the gods of the peoples around you whether near you or far off from you, even from the one end of the earth or the other. You should not consent to him, nor listen to him, nor should you have compassion on him, nor should you spare him or conceal him. Rather you should kill him, your hand being the first to put him to death and after the hands of all the people.You should stone him to death because he made effort to draw you away from the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

There are several mitzvot that devolve from these verses in the Torah. But in essence they amount to the same call. If someone tries to get us to commit idolatry, even in secret, no matter how close we are to them, no matter how much we love them, even if they are our own children, even if they beg us for mercy, we must turn them in and even participate in the death they receive for their crime, throwing the first stone.

I must admit I cannot imagine turning my child in for the crime of being a 'mayseet', the term in Hebrew for someone who attempts to seduce us into idolatry. Of course its a grievous crime, but for me to bring about the death of my own child! S/he spoke to me in secret. It would be so easy to let it slide especially if s/he begs for mercy and forgiveness. I find the Torah's challenge to me almost impossible to keep.

Yet I think we need to explore the mitzvah for the messages it imparts. First its important to note that the Torah insists that we turn in the 'mayseet' not because of his/her perversion. Rather the Torah demands we turn him/her in because of the harm s/he attempted to cause us. Its because G-d loves and wants our wellbeing even more than we do that He demands the we care for ourselves and get the influences that threaten us out of our lives. One needs to hear in the core challenge of the mitzvah how much our G-d wants for our spiritual health and that we not do anything to jeapordize our rightful place with Him.

Still more I hear the message to me in a very personal way. In telling us that no matter how much we care about the seducer and love him/her we must not show them any mercy even to the point of participating in their death, G-d is teaching us the limits of love. We can love another, indeed we must love another. Yet that love of the other can never be at the expense of the love of ourselves. If loving another compromises our self-love then its not only not noble. It's wrong!
The Sages state it very simply "if one needs to choose, either your life or your friends life, your life takes preference." It is simply not okay to love someone else if that love brings about harm for us.

I can think of any number of real life situations that relate to the above. The woman who is married to the abusive husband who keeps doing violence to her in either words or deeds and then begging her for forgiveness, she stays with him excusing her behavior as love for her husband. In keeping with the values learned from the laws of the 'mayseet', taking back her husband is misplaced love. He is harming her. He does not warrant her love or compassion. Her love for herself must take precedence. Taking him back is not only not a noble self sacrifice, its wrongful and dare I say a sin!

But their are so many cases where we might apply the values the Torah imparts. The older son who comes home and in his callousness violates the spirit of our Shabbat. Yes, we need to love our son, but not at the expense of giving up the Shabbat spirit that is so vital to us. We need to keep him close and show our love. He can come and should come any other day or agree not to publicaly desecrate the Shabbat in our home. We must put love for ourselves and our needs first, the exception being young and dependent children whose needs come before our own.

And what about the parent who wants us to pursue a certain career path,one that would make them happy but would compromise our sense of what we are meant to do and what would make us happy. Its not heroic to fullfil the dreams of our parents at the cost of our happiness and fulfillment. We need to put ourselves first. Not because we want to but because this is what G-d wants us to do.

The situations are endless. The principle is the same. G-d wants us to put the love of ourselves above the love for any other save our love of Him. At times that's not as easy as it seems. Yet that it can be difficult doesn't make it less important. On the contrary it underscores its importance for the quality of the life G-d wants for us.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Learning from Mistakes

What is the key ingredient of success? What characteristic does every successful person share? Interviews with highly successful people have shown that the one quality all had in common was that they were dedicated to learning from their mistakes. It wasn't that they didn't make mistakes. Many had their lives littered with them. Rather is was that they were determined that the mistakes they made would serve as lessons from which they would learn and grow.

In the parsha of Eikev that we read this coming Shabbat it seems the Torah is revealing to us this great truth. In the course of Moshe's words of challenge to the Israelites before his death Moshe tells them that they need be wary lest they come to think that the land they are about to inherit was given to then due to their own merit. Moshe is emphatic in stating that they need to recognize that they the People were essentially undeserving of this great gift and only the wickedness of the Peoples who lived there prior and the promise G-d made to their parents were reasons Hashem gave them the land to inherit.
The warning concludes "And you should know that not due to your own merit does Hashem your G-d give you this good land to inherit because you are a stiff necked nation". Moshes then reviews the recent history of Israel's wilderness journey where they committed one sin after another beginning with the worship of the Golden Calf and ending with the story of the spies.

The lesson Moshe is teaching his nation is easily understood. They need to recognize their flaws and not take accomplishment in inheriting the land as a sign of virtue.
But the question we might well ask is why does Moshe tell the people that the reason they are undeserving is because of their "stiff-neckedness". Surely that flaw pales in comparison to the flaws of a lack of faith in G-d, a lack of gratitude, a national cowardice, all flaws that Moshe seems to remind them of in the stories he recounts to prove to the People their essential unworthiness. Why does Moshe say it is the nation's stubbornness that makes them unworthy to the gift of the land on their own merit?

I believe the answer to our question has very much to do with the opening idea of the blog. Yes, for sure the Israelites made mistakes. They sinned time after time.
But it is not the individual sin, no matter how grave, that makes them unworthy in their own merit to inherit Israel. On the contrary, they likely did t'shuva and repented after each sin. Surely they did after the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe brought down the Second Tablets with the Decalogue on them on Yom Kippur. And after the debacle with the Spies immediately the nation asks for forgiveness and to enter the land. No, its not the sin itself that made inheriting the land of Israel beyond their grasp. It was the fact that the nation refused to learn from its mistakes. They were stubborn. They repented but it did not prevent them from making the same essential mistakes time and time again. They refused to learn their lesson.

It is for this reason Moshe recounts the stories of the nations failures, one upon another. Not to show they are a sinful people but rather to show their stiff- neckedness. One failure did not serve to prevent another. They would not learn from experience. And if to succeed is to learn from our mistakes no failure can be greater than to resist that learning. To refuse to use ones failures to make correction and grow means to be condemned to repeat the failures. A nation doomed to repeat its sinful pattern of behavior is not one worthy of being master of the land of Israel.

The lesson the Torah is teaching us is critical to the quality of our lives. Most of us have the same resistance to learning from our failures that our stiff necked ancestors had. The question is why? We often feel guilty. We even repent with tears and regrets. Why then do we not learn from our mistakes and so often repeat them in one form or another again and again? Why do we resist the learning?

The answer is that to learn from our mistakes we have to do more than acknowledge our sin or self destructive behavior. We need to analyze it, investigate it, explore our motivations. To learn from our mistakes we need to understand why we made them in all their nuances. We need see what in us got hooked into this error and why. To do that work is painful. It means we have to sit in our failure and swim around in it. To do the work of learning our lesson from failures confessing regrets, no matter how sincere, is not enough. We need to learn from our mistakes about what tempts us and to what we are vulnerable. It would be so much easier if we could express our guilt and resolve to not err again and move on. That avoids the shame and embarrassment we feel in having to mull over our wrong and live for awhile mired in the muck.

Yet not unpacking the fullness of the story of our failures including why we made them serves to keep us stuck in a pattern where we are doomed to make ths same mistake or one similar to it again and again. Only a full self and circumstance evaluation affords the chance to learn the precise lesson we need to learn so we don't repeat the mistake and so we indeed can grow from our experience.

Stiff-neckedness is a trait that belongs to most of us in the face of mistakes whether they be in sinful behavior, in personal relationships, or in matters of money. Over and over we err in a similar fashion. Each time we pledge it will be better next time, but to no avail. We simply struggle to tolerate sitting with our failure so we can see the precise causes of it, discern what we need to learn, and how we need to grow.

To inherit the promised land meant for us as persons we need to learn the lesson taught our foreparents in the wilderness. We can make mistakes in life, indeed many mistakes, and still reach the promised land. Only our refusal to learn from our mistakes bars our entry. Only our refusal to explore our errors and discern the precise nature of our vulnerability limits our potential.

Shabbat Shalom