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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Right Lesson

In the haftorah of the second week of the period known as 'Bain Ham'tzarim', Between the Afflictions, the mourning period between the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the fast of Tisha B'av, we read from the early chapters of the prophet Yirmeyahu. There, in the name of G-d, the prophet rails against the wrong-doings of Israel, wrong-doings that threaten to bring about the destruction of Judea. Yirmeyahu does not spare the leadership of the Jewish people. On the contrary, he condemns the establishment in no uncertain terms. We read "The Kohanim do not say where is Hashem, and those who sustain the Torah do not know me, and the leaders rebel against me, and the prophets prophesy to the Baal and go after that which will be to no avail."

Priests, Torah sages, leaders, prophets, they all are found wanting, and in the worst terms. On this the Shabbat that falls on the eve of Tisha B'av, Shabbat Chazon, the words of the prophet feel haunting and true.

It has been a terribly difficult time for our people in the last few weeks and days, and in particular for the religious community. First we were shocked and deeply saddened by the murder of Leiby Kletzky and in a most gruesome manner. And the murderer was not an outsider, but one of our own, a Jew and indeed a religious Jew.
Then the end of last week Rav Elazar Abu'hatzaira, a tzaddik and mystic, spiritual mentor to so many, was stabbed to death. There too the perpetrator of the unconscionable act was a frum Jew.
And if that were not enough, this week the newspapers in Israel are reporting the story of a Breslover Hasid, who was married to 7 women and over the past 15 year is accused of the worst kind of abuse and sexual wrong-doing. If the crimes in each case were not awful enough, we are left with the newspaper images of those who committed them. All the would-be criminals wearing kipot, some in full hassidic garb.

The tragedies are fresh. The tears are still wet. We are still reeling from the events. Its too soon to draw the lessons we need to learn from these horrific episodes or to now know how we need to use them to make social improvements.
But if the true lesson is still elusive I know wrong lessons when I hear them. I am told soon after Leiby Kletzky's murder there were rabbanim in the States who already put out the blame and a collective call to teshuva. Problem is they went in the wrong direction. They said the murder of Leiby Kletzky is meant to show us the harmful consequences of the internet and of the media in general. They put forth the call to clean-up the negative influences that invade our home and family.

Problem with that approach is that the murderer of Leiby Kletzky was in no way influenced by the media. It was not a sexually based crime. And how would that lesson fit the other crimes experienced by the Jewish community.
Too often leaders take the easy way out and speak of t'shuva for sins unrelated to the horrors we have experienced. Some may call for us to stop speaking 'lashon hara' or to be more careful in Shabbat observance.I can see it coming even if not yet. Those kinds of lessons while wonderful in themselves have nothing to do with what we experienced. I think it is to leaders who take the wrong lesson and are afraid to see the hard challenges put before us by our painful conditions that Yirmeyahu, the Prophet is criticizing so sharply.

What do the murder of Leiby Kletzky, the murder of Rav Elazar Abu-hatzaira and the horrific acts of family abuse have in common?

The answer is that in each case the one who committed the terrible sins lived within the community and yet was disconnected from it. Think about it. I am in no way excusing the murderer of Leiby Kletzky, but he was clearly mentally ill, troubled, alone. He took Leiby to his house because he was so lonely, not because he was a child molester. If he had had friends and community I really doubt whether this could or would have happened. Likely he went to shule each Shabbat and yet no one knew him, no one knew his angst. The man who killed the great rav was troubled over an impending divorce. Who knew his heart? Who did he confide in? What friends did he have? From every indication he was alone and his upset and anger unknown. I am in no way excusing him. Yet as a community we need to ask did we provide the care that would make sharing burdens possible or did we each mind our own business. And the Breslover Hasid who abused 7 wives and many more children over 15 years, how can it be that no one knew the story of his domestic circumstances. Where were the friends? Where the community? for him? for his wives? for his children? Its unimagineable that such could go on and no one should know. And in truth, one way or another, that the abuse went unrecognized or unmentioned is a strong condemnation of our community.

We know from the Torah that if a corpse is found murdered in the fields and we do not know the murderer the closest community to where the murder happened must seek atonement. The Torah describes a whole ritual in which the elders of the nearby city need to confess and gain forgiveness for their lapse in allowing someone to be murdered in their midst. The question we need to ask ourselves is what do we have to seek atonement for in the aftermath of these tragedies. For what do we have to atone.
And when I say we I mean as much the rabbanim as the ordinary Jew, as much the Rosh Yeshiva as the am ha'aretz. Saying we need to teshuva for some unrelated sin is taking the easy way out.

I think the answer here is clear and compelling. In the wake of all the horrors we have witnessed we need to claim some culpability. The ones who committed the crimes lived amongst us yet we never reached out to them in such a way that they might have felt cared for and the crimes might have been avoided. Or in the case of the abused women we never took enough interest to learn what was going on in this awful domestic environment and over fifteen years. We don't need abstract lessons here. The challenge for us as community and individuals lays right before our eyes.

Tradition tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of social sins. We did not care sufficiently for one another. One would have to be blind not see the striking parallel to the conditions we live in today as evidenced in the debacle of the incidents we discussed. Sad as each story is in itself still more each story reflects the weakness of our communities and our failure to provide real care for the marginalized. We need to be less concerned with excluding the suspected unsafe and more concerned with including the ones left adrift. Our tendency to seek homogenaity in our environment in order to feel safe has the exact opposite result.
By failing to extend ourselves to those who are different and alone for whatever reason we not only harm them. We compromise the very safety we yearn for.

So as we come to Tisha B'av now nineteen hundred and forty one years after the destruction of the Temple and the onset of the exile what lesson should we take?
May I humbly suggest that we use the tragedies we are currently experiencing to motivate us to extend ourselves to the compromised and alone. I mean each of us looking around us to notice at least one person who seems isolated, without friends, different, alienated. And that we make it our business to talk to him/her, befriend him/her, ask about his/her circumstances, make his/her life and needs whether they be emotional or physical matter to us. What greater response could there be to both our historic loss and the current tragedies. Real caring makes all the difference in the world.

May this year be the one in which we the find comfort that is our destiny. May there be no more strangers in our midst!

Shabbat Shalom