Thursday, October 25, 2012

"He was My Father"

Some time ago I went to a funeral here in Jerusalem. At the graveside, immediately after the burial, a grandson of the deceased gave a eulogy. He spoke with sincerity and feeling about his grandfather. He obviously had admired him very much. What struck me though was the theme of his remarks. Over and over, he insisted that his grandfather should have had a title, "Superman". In fact he refered to his grandfather as "superman" through the course of his eulogy. All his words focused on the super-human charateristics of his grandfather, a man he obviously had great affinity for, but, equally obvioulsy, did not know!

The Torah this weeks in the parsha of Lech lecha begins the story of Avraham, indeed our story, the story of the Jewish People. Almost from the outset the Torah wants to to disabuse us of the notion that our father, Avraham, was superman. Children, when young, idealize their parents. They see them as perfect, all smart, all knowing, all good. For many, in their youth, the image of G-d is in some way a mirror of the face of their parent. Tradition tells us that at Sinai when G-d spoke to the People of Israel, each heard G-d's voice as the voice of their own father.

Problem with the child's idealization of their parent is that it leaves little room for seeing the parent for who they really are so that we might be in relationship with them rather tham simply adore them. Until and unless we humanize our parent, and see the Clark Kent behind the Superman, we will be able to attach ourselves to their excellence but we will have no model for our own journey and struggle. We, who are flawed and know ourselves to be no supermen or women will have no model for becoming, with our mediocrity.

I have always found it compelling, if sad, that so many great great Tzadikim had children who abandoned the faith and assimilated, some even converting to Christianity. The list of great ones, men who influenced generations of Jews, who failed to inspire their own children is stagerring. The man perhaps most associated with saintliness and piety in the past century, the Chafetz Chaim, had children who rejected observance and a Torah way of life. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Baal Ha'tanya, had a son who embraced Christianity.

I have heard some explain this troubling phenomena by comparing it to the old quip, "the shoemaker's children have no shoes". Inasmuch as the Tzadik is so busy caring for the needs of others he neglects to invest in the ones closest to him, his own children. I don't find that explanation satisfying. And I don't think it is true.
That would mean these great people had only themselves to blame for the failure of their children to maintain the faith.

No, I believe the reason too often the great Tzadik has not the success with his children that the simple devout Jew may have is precisely because he is a tzadik!
The chidren of someone so righteous may never get to take their parent off the pedestal. The parent, the tzadik, remains idealized by his children all his life. He is forever superman to his children. When we are young seeing our parents as superman is comforting and assuring. It makes us feel safe. When we get older, if our parents remains superman, it leaves little room for us. We feel so inadequate in comparison. We feel we have no place at the table with them in our flawedness.
Our only option becomes to leave and find a place where we can belong, compromised as we are.

As I began, and then got carried away, the Torah from the outset this week tells us that our father Avraham was not perfect. Early in the reading we are informed that Avraham, faced with a famine, went down to Egypt, rather than remain in Canaan, the land G-d told him to travel to. Moreover in Egypt Avraham asked Sarah to lie for him and to say she was his sister. He was afraid that if the Egyptians thought Sarah was his wife they would kill him to take her for themselves. The Ramban points out that Avraham committed a great sin here, in fact two sins. First he should have had enough faith in G-d not to leave Canaan, that G-d would care for him during the famine.
And second, he should not have put Sarah to the lie, a lie that brought about her near rape at the hands of the Pharaoh.

In telling us of Avraham's mistake in judgement the Torah is giving us a gift. Over and over in the readings we discover Avraham's greatness, his courage, faithfullness to G-d, and love for humanity. Avraham is a true giant of a human being. But he is no saint! no superman! We can aspire to be like him. We can learn from him. We can even learn from his mistakes, few though they be. In telling us of Avraham's sin we are given a place at his table. After all we too, while hardly approaching his stature, also know what it means to make mistakes, to sin.

The story with which I began of the grandson's eulogy at the graveside of his grandfather is a story of a grandchild, not a son or daughter. Many of us idealize our grandparents. But that is because we hardly really knew them for who they were as persons. If we ask our mother or father about the grandparent we idealize we often get a more realistic picture. The person the son and daughter knew in their parent is not a superman or woman but a person with both strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. And that is a good thing, indeed a necessary thing. Only when we humanize our parents can we have a relationship with them, can we claim a place at their table.

I want to close with a quote from a movie of some years ago "Road to Perdition". It is the story from the 1930's of a man who is forced, because of life circumstances and the love of his son, to live in the world of gangsters and commit some violent crimes. The son, now an adult and long after his father's death, reflects, in the movie, on his father and their relationship.

"When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them... he was my father."

The most important thing to we need to know about Avraham was that he was our father.
The most important thing we each need to know about our parents is that they are our fathers and mothers. We need to know we had parents who loved us and who lived lives full of meaning. Sometimes they did the right at other times the wrong. We don't need to make them into saints or supermen in order to claim them or to love them or to feel worthy ourselves . Indeed we need not!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Birds of Noach

This week we read in the Torah the parsha of Noach. The reading tells the story of the Deluge, the destruction of the world a mere ten generations after its creation. Further it tells the story of Noach and of the new world he founded after the Flood. It is a compelling story, one that captures the imagination.

On reading the story this year I found myself struck by a seeming small anomaly.
Noach is in the ark for about a year, a long time. He is challenged to make a life there with his family and to care for all the variety of animals he brought with him on the Ark. Its reasonable to assume that Noach had a many meaningful events occur for him and his family during that trying year, many vignettes we could learn from.
Truth is that for most of us the most meaningful moments of our lives often happen at times when we are in transition. Yet the Torah shares no Ark story. It gives us not a single experience from the journey. The only story we are given is a peculiar one. We are told that after the rains stopped and the Ark rested Noach sent out the birds, first a raven and then a dove, the later three times, to see if the waters dried and it was safe to disembark.

The Torah goes into great detail to describe Noach's testing of his environment.
It tells us how the process took near a month to complete and involved sending the raven and then the doves again and again, to finally determine it was time to emerge from the Ark.

Why I asked? Why does the Torah give us this singular story of Noach's odyssey?
What meaning does it have for us, for our life journeys? Why is it important?

I mentioned last week that I was away backpacking in the North of Israel for a few days. Something happened on that trip that helped me understand what the Torah is teaching us in the Noach's bird story or at least what I am meant to learn from it this year.
My friend and I were climbing from the Banias to the Nimrod Fortress, in the middle of a hot day with a burning sun. The Nimrod Fortress is on a high rise above the Banias, which is in the valley. I am no youngster, and the climb, especially with a 30lb weight on my back was exhausting. It took me some two hours. My friend is much younger than me, and more fit. When I struggled to get moving he would exhort me with words of encouragement. He would say, "Look up, see, Nimrod is so much closer now!"

I pushed myself and pushed myself, to get to the top. Then Avi, who was always a bit ahead of me called to me, " We are here!" Of course, he was. I was not yet!
But I was within 20 yards of the top. And suddenly it was like I could go no further.
I saw the end. It was right in front of me. Yet I found it near impossible to move.
I had to almost crawl the last few yards. Yet it made no sense. I had sufficient energy to push myself when I was at a distance from the goal and now when the goal is in reach I am immobile! How does that make any sense?

And yet on reflection I know the experience I had at Nimrod is one that has occurred many times in my life and not just for me. So often I work to achieve something, a project a task, one that takes effort and time, and just before completion, after working so hard, I lose the motivation. It never gets done.

It is a known fact that men and women who are nearly finished there probation for a crime committed, are more likely to reoffend. The hardest thing to do is not to begin, but rather to finish. When we get closest to our goal is when we are most vulnerable to relapse, failure, and surrender.

This is what the story of the birds of Noach is teaching me. Noach surmounted every obstacle put in his path. He overcame the scorn of a generation of sinners as he built his ship. He handled who knows what kind of adversity on the year-long journey at sea and with his cargo. Yet Noach's greatest challenge was to complete the journey even so near to its end. He had to have patience. He had to send the birds out four times and over the period of a month, week after week and not get frustrated. He needed to persevere and wait for the right time to take off the ark cover and disembark. No job Noach ever did was more difficult.

It is this story the Torah wants us to take to heart. It is this story we need to learn from. Beginning projects is hard.
Staying with them when the goal seems far away is challenging.
But what we most need our resolve for is to finish.
To finish what we began, particularly when the goal is in reach, requires the greatest of inner strength.

Chazak V'ematz! Be of strength! Find the resolve to finish!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Original Sin: Lessons in Love

I am off backpacking in the North of Israel immediately after Chag. I therefore wrote this week's blog early. Hope you enjoy.

What makes love grow? Does love grow from the gratitude we feel for the kindness done to us by another? Or does love grow from the kindness we do for another?
Of course the truth is that both receiving from an other and giving to an other engenders love. The question is which produces the more potent love giving or receiving?

The answer would appear to be that giving to an other produces the more potent love.
All we need do is look to parents and children to find the paradigm. Parents give. Children receive. The love of parents for children is far stronger than the love of children for parents. Giving trumps receiving as a means to foster love.

This week we begin the Torah anew with the parsha of Breishit. Look with me at the story of what is often called "original sin" found in the reading. Lets see what lessons we can learn about love and relationship.

Adam and Chava were forbidden by G-d to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. G-d said to them "From all the trees of the garden you may eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil do not eat for on the day you eat of it you will die." This is the only commandment the first humans were given. Tradition tells us that had Adam and Chava not sinned the world would have already fulfilled its purpose and humankind for generations would know bliss eternal.

Yet the question we might ask is what kind of mitzva is this for Adam and Chava. They were told not to eat the forbidden fruit because it would kill them. Even if they had not eaten how does their observance of G-d's command warrant reward? It was as if G-d told them don't eat poison mushrooms because it will make you sick. Would not eating the mushrooms be an expression of devotion to G-d? Not eating the forbidden fruit, like not taking poison, is simply avoidng self harm. How can we see it as a mitzva worthy enough to fulfill the whole purpose of creation if observed?

Let me ask you something else. What was the essential failing of Adam and Chava.
Were they lacking in fear of G-d or love of G-d? A deficiency of which, love or fear, brought about the sin?

Okay so now that we have posed some things to reflect on lets go back into the story.
You know it well. The snake tries to seduce Chava into eating the forbidden fruit.
Chava said to the snake "we cannot eat of the fruit because if we do G-d already told us we will surely die." The snake does not give up. He tells Chava "No you will not die". And then explains that on the contrary if you eat the fruit "You will be like G-d knowing good and evil."

What was the snake telling Chava in arguing with her over the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit? Was he calling G-d a liar? Impossible!
No, the snake was telling Chava the truth. He was telling her that when G-d said you would die if you ate the fruit He did not mean to say your life would end entirely. Not at all. On the contrary, the snake explained that what G-d was telling Chava was that the "death" G-d spoke of as a consequence of eating the fruit was a death of the 'old' you. In its place a 'new' you will emerge, one with more spiritual capacity and stature, one who can discern between the good and the evil.

If we understand the story in this way then we can also answer the questions we posed above. Adam and Chava did not lack in fear of G-d. They feared, at least in the basic level of fear, the fear of the consequence of sin. So long as Chava thought she would actually die from eating the forbidden fruit she refused to eat it.
It was only after the snake explained to her that there were no bad consequences to eating that Chava and, in turn, Adam ate. With nothing now to fear, since the snake told them that no real death would occur to them, they had only one reason not to eat the forbidden fruit. And that was because they loved G-d and He asked them not to eat. To desist from eating from the fruit just because G-d asked them not to, with no penalty to worry about, was too much a challenge. The temptation overcame their love for G-d. They sinned.

If Adam and Chava had not eaten, now knowing from the snake that they would not die if they violated G-d's instructions but instead be reborn, it would have been a significant act indeed. So much so that it would have redeemed all creation.
Their failure was to doom all of us to a journey of redemption that's still not complete.

Adam and Chava did not lack fear of Hashem. They were afraid indeed. What they lacked was sufficient love of Hashem, that is, to do His command even when they knew that if they disobeyed nothing bad would happen to them.

You and I may not be so much better. Think about it. If G-d gave us a free pass, saying that even if we did an 'avaira' we would not get punished, would we still overcome our desire for that non-kosher cheeseburger when hungry or resist the temptation to text or call on Shabbat when we were lonely? Yes, we love G-d. We want to please Him. But is that love alone, without fear of consequence, enough to keep us from succumbing to temptation?

Adam and Chava loved G-d for all that G-d gave to them. He provided them with everything. But their love was weak, in part no doubt, because they had no experience giving back to Hashem. We began this blog pointing out that giving fosters a potent love, much more potent than the love engendered from receiving. In doing mitzvot we, as it were, give to G-d. We fulfill His will. Doing mitzvot engenders in us a feeling of love for G-d. We serve Him. Adam and Chava had no experience of 'giving' to G-d to grow their love. Their one opportunity they muffed. Without the experience of giving love cannot flourish. It remains weak and vulnerable.

You and I need to do for Hashem (to serve Him) so as to foster our love. Moreover we need to do for each other inorder to really love one another. Love may be a feeling but it cannot grow in a vacuum. If we do not practice love by surrendering ourselves through acts of giving to the ones we claim to love and abiding their will, be it spouse, chidren, parents, family, friends, or Hashem Himself, love remains a sentiment, pretty to look at but with no substance.

Its not enough to read the story of the Original Sin. We are not given Breishit as a lesson in history. We need to ask, what does the story have to teach us about ourselves? How are we like Adam and Chava? Would we do better in the Garden? Would we do better today?

I suggest that the lesson for us is clear. Unless we grow our love for G-d and others through loving acts, doing their will, not our own, we too will never love the way we are meant to, we too will fall prey to temptation.

Devotion, service, giving, these are the nutrients that makes love grow.
There are no substitutes.

Shabbat Shalom