Thursday, August 29, 2013

All Good Things Come to an End

Do you remember when the Beatles broke up? Perhaps you are too young to recall. Or maybe it didn't matter to you. But I am sure you can recall wonderful joys in life that you thought by every right should go on forever, but came to end. For me there are many such sad realities. They began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn when I was seven. I could not imagine in my wildest dreams the end of such a glorious relationship between a team and its fans. And since then, to my chagrin, I have experienced the end of good things over and over. Each time not without a great sense of loss and sadness.

Rosh Hashana is nearly at hand. Selichos for we who are Ashkenazim will begin late Saturday night. Lets pause for a moment and think about the word 'shana', year in Hebrew. The noun 'shana' that is used to connote year has its roots in two verbs that seem to have contradictory meanings. At one level 'shana' means to change. 'L'shanot', a verb of the same three letter root as the noun 'shana', means to alter. And surely that is part of what is implied in a 'year'. It is a time standing alone, with its own opportunity, and its own character. Each year has its own uniqueness. It is in some ways like no other. On an another level 'shana' as a verb also means to repeat, to do again. The 5th book of the Torah is called "Mishne Torah". 'Mishne ' has as its root the same three letters of 'shana', and here it means to repeat, to repeat the essence of the first 4 books of the Torah in this the concluding 5th book.
And truly a year is in some ways a repeat of the past and a bridge to the future. Each year has a number in a sequence. It is part of a continuum.

The paradox of 'shana' is that it is both a period that stand alone in time, something new and unprecedented and as well it is a time frame that belongs to a sequence and repeats what was and propels it into the future.

As we come to Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, and prepare for the Holy Days, we might find it helpful to keep both these meanings in mind and personalize them for the 'shana' we anticipate. Each of us has a life filled with investements of our time and resources. We have projects we work on and a daily routine.
We have loyalties and commitments. The question we need ask ourselves as the new year is about to commence is what in our lives needs to contimue and what needs to change. Just because I did something well in the year or years gone bye does not assure it needs to continue. Perhaps it's time in our life is past.
And 'shana' requires newness and change. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn for some 60 years. They were a fabric of life. As sure as the dafodils of spring were the sounds of baseball at Ebbets Field. The Beatles made hit record after hit record. Little doubt they could have gone on forever. But every thing, even good things have a life span. They cannot endure eternally in this world of change. The trick is to know when to make the change, when a good thing has lived its full life, and it's time to move on. Resisting change is tempting. Its scarey to end and begin anew. Yet that is exactly what one of the messages of embracing the New Year calls for.

True, it is equally important to renew our resolve to repeat that which warrants repeating. That too is part of what it means to embrace the New Year. We need to be faithful to those things that needs to continue. We need to reinvest in them with passion and not let them fall into habitual behavior. We need each year to commit again to the values, beliefs, and practices that are central to our lives as Jews and good people. They must not lapse or become stale.

And at times it is hard to know what should be changed and what we should sign on for for another year. Many of us are all too eager to change, and perhaps too quick to let go of the past. Others of us are overly fearful of the new and hold on to things long after their time of meaning in our lives has past.
No wonder we need this time of reflection and intropsection at the end of the old year and the at the start of the new. Our decisions about what we retain and what we change are hugely consequential.

This year I have decided that I need to focus on 'shana' as change. And I need to give up something that I have invested in these past 5 years, the blog, "The Torah and the Self". Its not that I don't think writing each week has had meaning for me, and I hope for you. It has indeed. It's just that the time has come to put this blog to bed.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn but didn't stop playing baseball. The Beatles made music long after the group disbanded, only now as individuals and not as a group.
I am sure I too will use my creative energies to give voice to thoughts and feelings. The format will change. I remain who I am and the struggle to grow and become continues. I am sure I will need to find expression to that struggle and share it with you in ways that make us community.

I am thankful to all of you who have read the "Torah and the Self" over the years. I appreciate your comments and knowing that you too struggle to grow and become.
Chazak Chazak V'neetchazaik....Let us be strong, indeed very strong, and strengthen each other!

With blessings for you for a New Year of renewed commitment to what was and a year where we will find the courage to change those things whose time has past,

Shana Tova

Shabbat Shalom

Yisrael ben Yosef

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Giving Ourselves a Pass

A story. Once there was a young woman who was very ill. The physicians treating her told her that she needed to eat pork to have any chance to survive. The young woman was a devout Jew and the thought of eating pig was abhorent to her. She resisted her doctor's advice and continued to deteriorate. At last, with no alternative, and advised by her rabbi that she must do whatver it takes to save her life, the young woman relented. But even here she set conditions. She insisted that if she must eat the forbidden pork at least the pig should be ritually slaughtered, 'sh'cheeta' performed. Everyone was puzzled, including the rabbi, afterall sh'cheeta is only relevant for kosher animals.
Of what benifit would it be for the non-kosher pig. Nonetheless in order to appease the patient they agreed to 'shecht' the pig. But the story did not end. For you see, the woman further demanded that the lungs of the now ritually slaughtered pig be checked to make sure it was not a 'traifa' and forbidden. Again the request made little sense. Traifa or not would only be relevant for a kosher animal and here they were dealing with a pig. Wanting to please the young woman the lungs were checked. And what do you know their was a 'shaila' a question about whether the lungs had a blemish that would render the pig a traifa.

The pig's lungs were summarily brought to the rabbi. He examined them carefully. When asked to render his halachic ruling the rabbi said," There is no problem with the lungs.
They do not make the animal a traifa. But please understand it is impossible under any circumstances to use the word "kosher" regarding a pig".

This Shabbat in the parsha of Kee Taytzay we open with the story of the non-Jewish woman taken captive in war. The Torah seems to do exactly what the rabbi in our story would not. It tells us that even though the heathen woman is forbidden to a Jew and not kosher for marriage, the Jewish warrior may take her and make her his wife. In essence the Torah is making this heathen woman kosher!

Rashi explains that the Torah gave license here to the otherwise forbidden as a concession to the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination. The Torah knew that the soldier in battle may not be able to overcome his desire for a woman he sees. A soldier is often vulnerable and full of passion. Rather than insist the soldier do the right, which is beyond his control, the Torah gives him license to abide his uncontrollable lust, albeit with certain provisions that the Torah outlines.

The Talmud makes use of the law of the "Yefat To'ar", the concession to the 'yetzer hara' in times of war, to teach a principle. They say "Better to eat meat of a calf that is near death (and therefore unhealthy) that is ritually slaughtered than the meat of an unhealthy animal that died before being ritually slaughtered. In other words, even if the meat you eat is not good for you, if you are going to eat it anyway, do it in the best way possible.

The truth is that the story of the Yefat To'ar, the woman taken in times of war, is very similar to the story of the pork in our opening story. In the story of the rabbi and the pig's lungs, no matter how kosher the lungs are, and no matter that the woman in question is permitted to eat it,the meat is still pork. The permissablity to eat the meat will not make it kosher. The person in that case is mandated because of illnes to eat the non kosher animal. But that cannot make it kosher. Similarly the Yefat Toar is permitted to the Jewish soldier in a time where he is unable to control his lust. But that does not make her 'kosher'. She remains a heathen woman.

We see something very important in all the above. G-d in His infinite wisdom sometimes gives us a pass! It is as if G-d says "Look this is really not okay to do. But because of your situation, because you really do not have the inner strength to resist, I won't hold you liable if you do it!"

Now I know many a person can give him/herself a pass on lot's of life issues saying "I can't control myself". And in many cases, indeed most cases, that's not true. S/he could control him/herself if there was enough commitment. But I do believe that many of us have a challenge that is indeed beyond our ability to control. We have a challenge no less compelling than the soldier in war and his lust for the 'pretty woman'.
You may know the challenge of which I speak in your own life, a challenge you have tried so much and for so long to overcome and yet one to which you continue to succumb.

An example that comes to mind that effects many is their homosexuality, both men and women. Many a man and woman have beaten themselves up mercilessly for their inability to control their desire for a same sex relationship. They try over and over to control their yearnings. Yet ultimately they are unsuccessful. For many the failure to be able to abide the law causes them to leave Torah Observant Judaism altogether. They feel they have no place in the Traditional community.

I believe the story of the Yefat To'ar speaks directly to these men and women. The Torah is telling them that while we cannot say homosexual liasons are kosher, we can say that you can still be kosher even if you have them. The gay man or woman is not like the heterosexual or bisexual man or woman who wants to experiment. For those who have choices and choose a homosexual relationship the Torah is clear in it's condemnation. But for those whose only desire is for those of their own sex and cannot know love without it being in a homosexual context G-d may well give them a pass. It is not in their control to be other than gay. And to live a life without love is unbearable.

In the laws of the Yefat To'ar the Torah is teaching that not everything is simply a matter of willpower. Some things are beyond our ability to control, no matter how hard we try. Indeed it has been pointed out by many that the soldier who cannot control his lust in the story of the Yefat To'ar is a tzaddik, one without sin. It is only those without sin who go out to fight in optional wars, like the one the Torah is referring to here. Yet it is precisely this tzaddik who cannot resist the 'pretty woman' though she is heathen. The tzaddik here is given a pass.

And why does G-d give the tzaddik a pass? Because G-d knows that to condemn someone for what they cannot control will only cause them to feel inadequate of faith. It will alienate them. The person, overhwelmed with his/her sense of failure, will feel no choice but to walk away. Better to give him/her the pass so s/he can accept him/herself, even if it is to partake of the unkosher.

Each day we move closer to Rosh Hashanna and the period of judgement. Many of will look back with self-judgement on life issues that no matter how hard we tried we seemed unable to vanquish. I think the parsha of this week speaks to us. It says to you and me, if we truly have tried and truly cannot seem to prevail, then maybe our issue is one like the Yefat Toar and is indeed beyond our ability to control.

Instead of beating ourselves up one more time this holy season, maybe we need to do what G-d does in situations where the individual has no control. Maybe we need to give ourselves a pass.

Giving ourselves us a pass does not make what we do kosher. It does however make us kosher. And it frees us to be truly the tzaddikim we are meant to be!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Saying "Yes"

For years now I cherish the opportunity to visit the Kotel regularly. I never fail to be inspired by the holiness of the setting. Yet each visit, other than on Friday night, produces in me a sense of anxiety. The Kotel has its regulars. I do not refer to the faithful who study and pray there every day. I refer to the men and women who faithfully sit on the stairs leading down to the Kotel square and those who patrol the prayer courtyard seeking a hand-out. I see the same faces, hear the same pleas, each time I go.
They are as much a part of the tapestry as are the pigeons that inhabit the holy walls.
It is these regulars that cause me anxiety. What is my obligation to them? Are they really poor and in need? Or are they just taking advantage of an opportunity to make an income without much effort? I once heard that a veteran of Kotel collecting passed away and was found to have a small fortune stashed away. I hate to not give. But the last thing I want to do is support a fraud, especially when Israel is full of the truly needy. Yes or no to the requests. Either way I doubt if I did right.

The Torah in this week's parsha of Re'eh offers me some guidance. The reading contains several passages outlining my obligation to the poor and needy. Specifially the Torah tells us with reference to underpriveleged "And you shall surely open your hand to him and sustain him so that he has all that which he is lacking."
Rashi on the verse, in accord with the teachings of the Talmud, explains that we must even provide a horse for him to ride and a servant to attend to him if that is what the needy one is lacking.

We might wonder how can that be? To feed the poor, clothe them, provide them shelter we understand. Those are basic human needs. We must provide from our largesse to care for our brother's and sister's needs. But why a horse for him or her to ride or a valet?
Those are wants not needs.

The answer is we began with the wrong premis. We assumed that the call to help is dependent on their being a true need. Not so. Our obligation to our fellow Jew is not simply to see to his/her needs. It's much more. Our obligation is to meet our brother or sister's requests. Hesed, the call to loving kindness, demands of us to do what our brother or sister asks of us, independent of whether they need it or deserve it.
It does not matter if they can do it for themselves. It does not matter if they have earned it. It does not matter their level of need. If a brother or sister asks something of us its our sacred responsiblity to try to fulfill the request.

When we understand that our charge to help another emanates from the other's request
we stop making judgements. True many of those collecting money at the Kotel and elsewhere may not be needy or deserving. Maybe they would be better off getting a job.
Maybe they mismanage their money or worse, their life. That's not my business however.
They asked me. They put out a request. It's their desire. And unless I can be sure that fulfilling that desire will be harmful to them it's my mitzva to respond and say "yes".

We need to change our perspective. The mitzva of doing 'hesed', acts of lovingkindness begins with the person, not the circumstances! Whatever brings another happiness is our mitzva to do. We need no evaluation, no assessment. No judgements need to be made.
Sometimes someone may say to us "Can you do me a favor?" Öur answer is too often "what?"
That's the wrong answer. That implies we will hear favor and decide if we think it's justified and warrants our initative. The right answer when someone asks us if we can do them a favor is "yes". Then we can go on to hear the details.

The Torah this week is teaching us to not be afraid to say "Yes" to another. We need to say "Yes". At the Kotel, on the street, in our homes, both with those we know and the stranger their is only one answer, "Yes".

In saying "ÿes" we give the other a gift as great as the favor we hopefully will do. In saying "ÿes" we affrim him/her. By saying "ÿes" unconditionally to the other's desire we say s/he matters to us. In saying "ÿes" we say to the person "even though you are asking for a favor, and may feel diminished in needing us, we value you."

When it comes to helping another there is only one answer "yes". All the rest is commentary.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"What Do I Fear"

"Its a funny thing Markos, but people mostly have it backwards. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they are afraid of. What they don't want."

I read those lines recently in novel by Khalid Husseini entitled "And the Mountains Echoed". The insight is put out by an old woman reflecting on the lives she has known, both hers and others. It felt so powerfully true to me. Most of us live our lives motivated not by some inner sense of call. Rather we are motivated by a dread, the dread of something that we need to flee and at all costs.

The consequence of living a life based on avoidance and dread is that we never quite feel that our lives are our own. We live detached from what is our true yearning and call. We live in a kind of exile from ourselves. We are strangers in our own story, yet never quite knowing why.

We enter this Shabbat into a period on our national calender of comfort. For seven straight weeks the portion from the Prophets we
will read in the haftorah will speak a message of consolation. Each is from Yishayahu. We begin this week with a Shabbat with a special name, "Shabbat Nachamu" "The Sabbath of Comfort". The opening words of the haftorah are "Comfort ye, Comfort ye my People, so will say your G-d".

What is comfort? What does it look and feel like for us as persons and for all of us as a people. It seems clear to me that the essence of comfort is the sense of being at one with oneself, of being home. There is a clear corrolation between comfort and 'shalom' peace. Comfort is the experience of coming to peace, to wholeness and integration. It is when the inside of me and the outside of me are aligned, when I am no longer in exile from myself. Comfort is when I am at peace, no longer afraid, and my life is not motivated by runnning from but rather by moving towards.

You ask me what do I mean when I say that for so many of us our lives are driven from dread? Think about your core fear. Maybe its fear of being criticized, or fear of failure. Maybe you dread conflict or rejection. Maybe you fear being stuck and alone. Each of us would do well to know his/her core fear. Once we discern it I think on reflection we will discover how much of our lives seems a response to that fear. And indeed how different our lives might have looked if we were not afraid and could have chosen what really was meant for us.

I believe the core fear that motivates many many of us is the fear of facing ourselves and being found wanting.We propel ourselves to achieve, succeed, acquire, just so we can feel we are okay. We dread pausing even for a moment lest we have to face ourselves, and experience ourselves, not for what we do but for who we are. We are constantly in motion, rarely at rest. We can accomplish the most incredible feats. Yet we struggle to look at ourselves in the mirror. I mean really look. Our life is about running from ourselves.
We can say "I love you" to our children and spouses. maybe to friends and G-d.
Who can really look at his/her own reflection and say "I love you".

Self love is so difficult for us. Self loathing is more common. You would not think it by our pursuit of self gratification.
Yet the very pursuit is telling. If we are not pleasuring our selves, providing external stimulation, we are pained. No pleasure is pain.
The natural joy of being with ourselves is so rare to find. Indeed we flee from being alone with ourselves. For many its unbearable.

The fear of facing one's self in his/her nakedness also plays out in the story of our people. So much of the Jewish story is a story of self loathing. We are a people who struggle to embrace ourselves and love our diverse components. Our fear of our 'flaws', our Jewish brothers and sisters who we disagree with causes us to run from them to the extremes. We make every effort to cut them off so as not to have to see the face of our national self.

"Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people..." Many have asked why is the call to comfort repeated, why twice? May I suggest that the message we are being given here is that comfort will not come down as manna from heaven. Comfort is a human process, one rooted in self acceptance and self love. Through the words of the Prophet, Hashem is telling His people to extend comfort to each other, to embrace each other's story, angst and aspirations.Each member of the faith needs to say "Comfort ye" to his/her counterpart for comfort to be reaified. We need to lose the sense of shame, both shame of self and shame of others, so we can stop running and be who we are meant to be, as persons and people.

It's time. It's time we paused and got off the treadmill of life. It's time to let go of the fear. It's time to find a way to love ourselves, our personal self and our larger national self so we can finally be one within and without, so we can come home from the 'galut' the exile, and know the comfort and peace that awaits.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 12, 2013

From Victim to Author

My son Moshe, a well respected rebbe in the Yeshiva of Waterbury, posed the following question on the phone with me last week. Why does the national day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, a day of such huge consequence and one filled with ritual have no name? We call it Tisha B'Av which means the 9th day of the month of Av, which it is. But that's not a name. That's a date! All the other major occasions on our calendar have names that describe the theme of the day. Sukkot, Pesach, Yom Kippur, Purim etc., are all names, not dates.
Why is Tisha B'Av the exception? Why not call it Yom Hachurban, The Day of the Destruction or Yom Puraniyut, The Day of Our Punishment?
Surely an occasion of such significance, albeit sad, deserves a name.

This Shabbat we open the 5th and final book of the Torah that of Devarim. The book is different from the others. It records not the words of Hashem but the words of Moshe, words that he spoke to the Children of Israel shortly before his death. In the opening reading of this week, a portion by the same name as the book, Devarim, Moshe begins a review of the journey that got the People to the place they are now, on the threshhold of entering the Promised Land. Moshe goes over episodes of consequence to help frame there situation. First he tells how Moshe found he could not manage the people with their quarrelsome nature, and how he needed to appoint judges to share the burden, a section that harkens way back to the portion of Yitro in Exodus. Then Moshe goes on to tell of the sin of the spies and the nation's rejection of the Land that lead to the wandering of the past 38 years.

In each case Moshe tells a story that we know from the earlier portions of the Torah when the events happened. What is surprising however is that the version Moshe tells of the story includes information and perspective that is entirely new. Let me raise several examples.
First, when Moshe speaks of his struggle to lead the people alone and the appointment of a system of judges, Moshe says that he told the People "I can no longer carry you". If this is the same story recorded in Yitro in the Book of Shmot, Moshe there never makes any such complaint to the people! It is Yitro who challenges Moshe, not Moshe himself complaining, and certainly not to the people!
And then Moshe goes on here to say that in response I asked you "take for yourselves people of merit, those wise, insightful, and knowledgeable from your tribes and I will put them as your heads." Nowhere in the earlier story did the People have a share in choosing the Judges! And then Moshe continues, " And you answered me saying "we agree with all that you said for us do"". In Exodus the People are not consulted nor is it recorded that they give approval to Moshe's new set-up.

And when we turn to the next story, that of the spies and the People's rejection of the land, again we are given detail entirely new.
First the sending of the spies seems, according to Moshe's remarks here, to be at the behest of the People. Moshe tells them, that they asked of the spies to be sent and he, Moshe, thought it a good idea. Second we are not given the report of the spies at all in this account in Devarim other than that they said the "land is good". The rejection is laid squarely on the People with no mention of the ten men who told them they would not succeed in conquering Canaan. And still more, Moshe tells them that the consquence of their sin was that he too would not be able to enter the Promised Land. In the Book of Bamidbar there is no indication that Moshe was precluded from entering the Land because of the sin of the spies. On the contrary the Torah tells us that it was the personal sin of the "waters of quarrel" that doomed Moshe and Aharon.

How do we reconcile all these variations and discrepencies?

In order to understand Moshe's rendition of the stories we need to understand the purpose of his remarks. What was Moshe trying to accomplish in his address? It surely is not to simply review and old story.

The answer is that Moshe knew that if the People were to become who they needed to become in the land of settlement than they needed to learn from their history and grow from their mistakes. In order to do that they would have to see themselves as the authors of their experiences, not victims of circumstance. Over and over Moshe insists in his rendition of the earlier episodes that the People were full partners in the unfolding developments. They picked the Judges. They approved the judicial plan. They sent the spies. They rejected the Land. They were responsible for even Moshe not being able to enter. Moshe won't let them make excuses or place the blame on others.
He insists on framing the story in such a way as to make their authorship of the events inescapable.

Only when the People will own their story and see it as a product of their own choices and willfullness, both in the good and bad, can they use their national experience to make corrections, learn and change!

This is so true in all of our lives. If we look at the story of our lives as the product of forces outside ourselves, circumstances beyond our control, we may curse or bless our fate, but we will not change or grow. Our lives and experience needs to be our teacher.
In order to be our teacher we need to see ourseves as the authors of our lives and experience, not its victim.
Our life is just that, Ours! It is the most important source of any wisdom we may posess.

The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi wrote "Where there is ruin there is hope for treasure."

I might add to that wisdom, the hope is born when we see the ruin as our own!

And so we return to the question of my son Moshe with which we began. Why does Tisha B'Av not have a name. I suggest because it is the day of national ruin. In its mourning, tears and sadness, lies a treasure, indeed the treasure of redemption. But that treasure can only be found when each of us name's the day for him/herself. We must be the authors of the tragedy, make it personal. If we mark Tisha B'Av and keep all the rituals out of deference to the past we will indeed keep the law. But we will not come to make the corrections in ourselves necessary to bring about the 'ge'ula'.

For redemption to happen each of us must make Tisha B'Av personal. We must name the day. We must see ourselves as authors of our national tragedy.

May indeed the 9th of Av turn this year from a day of mourning to a day of joy. May we finally know the blessings and happiness G-d wills for us!

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 28, 2013

In Tribute to Met Fans

Are you a sports fan? Do you have a favorite team? Recently two of my grandsons visited me in Eretz Yisrael. They are 8 and 6 years old respectively.I asked them those questions. And to both questions they answered in the affirmative. Prouldy they declared they are fans of the New York Yankees. On hearing these tidings I was of two minds. On the one hand I, having grown up a fan of the then Brooklyn Dodgers, hate the Yankees. The news of their favorite brought me no joy. But on the other hand I was also happy for them. They at least would not know the pain of identifying their whole lives with a losing underdog. They would identify with a winner. I have often thought how much different my life would have been, and perhaps more "successful", if I had been a Yankee fan, like most of my friends, and not a Brooklyn Dodger and then Met fan, perpetual losers.

In relearning the parsha of this Shabbat, that of Pinchas, I am beginning to think maybe being a Met fan (and at the same time a Jet fan, oy!) may have had its purpose in my life. What fan would Pinchas have been? I think he too would have chosen the Mets.
And why?

Well think about it. How was it that this man Pinchas was able to do what no one else could, rise up and slay a prince in Israel before the entire camp for his egregious sin? How did Pinchas find it within him to do what even Moshe could not and thereby save the nation from utter devestartion?

The answer is that Pinchas was always an outsider,not one of the establishment. Unlike the other decendents of Aharon he did not serve as kohen in the sanctuary. Though a child of Elazar, the kohen gadol, high priest, and most worthy of character, he was never slated to serve in that capacity. Pinchas was of a distinguished blood line and of personal stature yet he remained on the margins.
It is precisely Pinchas, because he did not belong, because he was estranged, that he could do the unthinkable and the vigilante act that wound up saving the nation.

People are of one of two personality types. Some want to belong, become part of the establishment and support it. They spend their lives identifying with the norms and working to maintain what is in the best way possible. They will more typically identify with the favorite and the winner. Others, the minority, want to challenge the establishment. They see themselves as outsiders with the mission to call to conscience the norms of the group. They are often called "rebels". They are the Met fans, and if they were to prevail they would have to identify with another team.

The sages of the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was none other than Eliyahu the prophet. Eliyahu was a prophet who was known for his feistiness. He railed against the prevailing mediocrity of his time. He was an outsider. He had to flee the wrath of the king into the wilderness. Even when successful he never belonged.

Truth is many of us feel our call in life is to challenge what exists rather than support it and make it better. And when the rebel prevails, when s/he is victorious s/he never ia as happy as when s/he is in opposition and on the outside.

Look at the story of so many political leaders who when fighting for their cause had a magical quality about them. They were full of idealism, like Pinchas and Eliyahu. And yet in their success in becoming the establishment they lost the mystique. They seemed sapped of energy. They knew how to challenge but not how to rule. They were meant for the margins, not to belong or become mainstream.
While some might argue with me, look at all the leaders of the Likud as examples. Begin and Sharon, idealists in the extreme when servinng as opposition, to many they were true zealots, yet they became mediocre and mainstream in success. They lost their compass.

Each one of us has a purpose consistant with out personality. For some of us our 'tachlis' is to work with the system, to belong and grow from within. That is a holy work. Kings and High Priests are of our ilk. We identify with the Yankees of the world. For some of us our tachlis is to live on the outside and challenge what is. We have the blood of the prophets that runs through our veins. We will never be popular. We are the Met fans of the world. We are not meant to win. But we are every bit as necessary even in our striving and our angst.

It may be true that "winning is everything" but for all of us to "win" some of us need to be the losers who challenge and goad on the rest to their excellence.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"The Good Death"

There is a humorous story told of a man who is dying at home. His daughter is sitting by his bedside offering care and comfort. She says to her father, "Daddy,I love you. Is there anything I can do for you? Her father whispers,"My daughter, you know how much I always loved your mothers ruggelah. I can smell them now baking in the kitchen Please go and bring me one." The daughter leaves and a few minutes later comes back to her father empty handed. She sits again next to the dying man and with a shrug says, "I am sorry Daddy. Mommy says they are for after!".

This week we find in the Torah too a story about dying, the death of Aharon, brother to Moshe and Kohen Gadol, High Priest. Only in our story the relevant word is "before" not "after". In the death story of Aharon, he, Moshe and Aharon's son Elazar ascend Hor haHor, the mountain on which Aharon is to die. At G-d's command, Moshe is told to remove the priestly clothes from Aharon just prior to his death and place them on Elazar. Then sorrounded by the two persons closest to him, Aharon lays down and dies. It is a beautiful death scene, and indeed a beautiful death. So much so that the Sages tell us that Moshe wished his death experience could be similar. And in concert with his request G-d told Moshe when his time came to die, later in the Torah, "...and you shall die as did Aharon your brother".

The story of Aharon's death also give rise to important Jewish laws concerning the dying. According to halacha,the dying are never to be left alone. The assumption is that it is a great comfort for the dying to spend their final moments around family and community.
The importance of a "good death" has given rise to the hospice movement, a movement that emphasizes the importance of being able to die at home sorrounded by one's loved ones.

Yet the matter may not be as simple as it first appears. Some years ago studies were done on the time patients tended to die in hospitals.
It was found that people seemed to die when no one was around. Even if they were attended by family they typically died at the times when attending family left. The family could be at the bedside 23 hours a day and the patient would die on the 24th hour, when they were left alone. Moreover it is often reported that Native Americans had quite a different idea about the "good death" than we find in hospice theory or halacha.When a Native American felt it was his time to die, he would go out from the camp into the woods, lay under a tree, and wait for his demise, alone!

And we might wonder about what seems an inconsistancy in the Torah itself. We mentioned above, that according to Tradition, Hashem promised Moshe the same death experience as Aharon. Yet in the story the Torah gives us no two experiences could be more different. Aharon died the "good death" sorrounded by those he loved and who loved him. Moshe died entirely alone. No one went with Moshe when he expired. He left the camp and simply walked away, very much like the Native American tradition. How could the Torah tell us the deaths were similar?

True we might argue that when Hashem told Moshe that his death would be like Aharon what He was referring to was the dying instant, that Moshe would know death as a "kiss" with the least possible pain. But that seems inadequate if Moshe really aspired to the "good death" experience Aharon had. If Moshe did not want to be alone when he died, true his moment of death may have been as easy as possible, but still he had no one with him, no companionship in his dying. That would be painful in and of itself!

I think what we are seeing from the Torah narrative is a great truth about dying and our responsibility to care for the dying. Yes, Aharon had the 'good death" in the classic sense. He had his loved ones by his side. But that death was good because that was the way Aharon lived. Aharon was a man of the people. He lived in community. He was invested in the personal lives of others. He was a peacemaker between husbands and wives. For him to die alone would be painful. He cherished his family, his friends and his community and invested in them. The "good death" for Aharon was exactly as the Torah describes it.

Moshe was different. He lived apart. He was separated even from his wife. He taught the People. He was their leader. But he was not of the community. His communion was with G-d. He had no friends, save perhaps Aharon his brother. And by the time Moshe died Aharon was already dead. For Moshe the "good death" , the death of Aharon, meant precisely to die alone, because that is how he lived.
Truth is there is no one model for the "good death". For some it means being enveloped in the web of family life. For others it means being left to solitude. I suspect our preference will be reflective of what we prefered when we were alive and well. Did we more prefer to be with others or more prefer our own space. The "good death" should be consistent with what we would have seen as the "good life".
And those of us who care for the dying as family and friends should make sure we understand what the "good death" will look like for the dying before we decide how to attend to them!

But I need to share one other very important point about the "good death". Even for those who lived amongst family and friends and want to die as they lived, its important that those who attend the dying know their role. When I quoted the study above that showed that patients in hospitals tended to die alone, when family was no in the room, it was not because those patients did not want family around them when they died. I am sure many of them would have preferred to have a "good death" with a son or daughter holding their hand as they died. The reason they 'chose' to die when no one was present was more often because the family made them feel it was not okay to die!
The dying person, in so many cases, even when they want loved ones with them, need those loved ones to give them permission to die, rather than encourage them to fight and live on when its clear their time has come.

Even when the "good death" that one wishes for includes being in the midst of loved ones. those loved ones need to know that their role is to facilitate death in the best way possible, not deny it or pretend it isn't happening!

The Torah gives us two stories of the "good death", this week of Aharon and at the end of the summer the story of Moshe. They were different deaths but they were both "good". We who live and love have our own obligation to make possible, as much as we can, the "good death" for the ones we love. To do that we need to know which story is most fitting. And if indeed it is the story of Aharon that fits, then to remember we are living with our loved one a story of death, and not to pretend or deny so that the one dying cannot feel it okay to play their part in the story and meet their end!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 6, 2013

When Day Becomes Night

Are you familiar with the psychological concept of Projection? In psycho-analytic theory often when we have within a feeling, a characteristic,or an attitude that we find unacceptable, rather than deal with it, we get rid of it by unconsciously projecting the feeling, charactaristic or attitude onto someone else. Projection causes us to actually see the feeling, charachtaristic or attitude in the other. And what's worse it causes us to totally deny it in ourselves.

In this week's parsha of Korach we have an extra-ordinary example of the deceptive power of projection. Korach, as you recall, lead a mutiny against Moshe. He charged that Moshe and Aharon usurped their authority by seizing power that did not rightfully belong to them.
Korach accused Moshe of egotism and self aggrandizement. Yet how can this be? The sages of the Talmud point out that Korach was a very smart man, and learned. If he wanted to find fault with Moshe maybe he could have said that he angered easily, or he was impatient, that he was too spiritual, too distant from the ordinary Israelite. While they would not have been true they could have some basis. But to say Moshe was arrogant? that he was egotistical? Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Torah told us in the portions prior that in the history of humankind none was as humble as Moshe. Humility was Moshe's singular excellence. How could Korach argue otherwise?
Little doubt Korach believed himself correct in his mutiny. How could someone wise and learned make such a huge error. It is as if he said day was night.

The answer is that indeed their was egoism at work here, and much arrogance. But it did not belong to Moshe, not at all. On the contrary, it belonged to Korach himself. Korach posessed a huge dose of self importance. But that was not the problem. Problem was not that Korach was arrogant. The problem was that Korach could not tolerate the grandiosity of his own ego. He could not tolerate his arrogance.
He had therefore to expel it, to project it onto Moshe. Korach then indeed saw Moshe as a man bent on self aggrandizement. He saw Moshe not for who Moshe was but as the product of his, Korach's, projection.

How could Korach have known that what he was seeing in Moshe was nothing more than projection, a reflection of himself?
You and I project onto others faults that don't belong to them more often than we know. We say to a friend, "Don't you see how petty or selfish or arrogant, or mean-spirited or whatever someone is". And often our friend doesn't experience the person we are talking about as having the negative traits we find so intolerable in them. We have to work hard to convince our friend that the other is so seriously flawed. Could it be that our view of that other is indeed based on projection and our labelling of them is entirely unfair?
How would we know if what I see in the other is them or a reflection of me? How can I be sure that I am not as blind to reality as Korach?

But lets move one step deeper. In the aftermath of Korach's death and those of his 250 followers the People complained against Moshe saying "You have brought about the death of the people of G-d". This a puzzling turn of events. Moshe seemed only to respond to the mutiny. He was a victim. Yet the nation complained as if he was responsible for G-d killing Korach's horde.
Some of the commentators point out that the People had a gripe here. True Korach's rebellion had to be quelled. But the test of the 250 who brought their firepans with incense was devised by Moshe at least as it appears in the text. Those 250 did not necessarily want to undo the leadership of Moshe and Aharon as was Korach's intent. In tradition they were first born who wanted to also serve in the Temple.
It was Moshe who reacted to them very strongly and brought about their immediate demise.
Indeed Moshe was in some way responsible for the death of the nation of Hashem as charged.

And we might ask why? Throughout the wilderness journey Moshe showed incredible tolerance for the nation's foilbles. Over and over he prayed that the sinners be spared if at all possible. Why here does Moshe act with what seems like harshness and call for the death of the 250 men.

Here too we might well make use of psycho-analytic theory to help us understand Moshe's dynamics. There is a follow-up concept to Projection and it's called Projective Identification. The theory argues that when someone projects onto another certain character traits and behaviors that don't naturally belong to them, the projection itself has an influence on the recepient and s/he will often start to act in concert with the projection. What that means here is that while Korach's challenge to Moshe was entirely baseless and purely a matter of his projection, once Moshe is seen by Korach in that way unconsciously Moshe is more likely to exhibit behavior consistent with the projection. In accord with the theory Moshe here might well have acted out of character and called for justice when he might normally have been more self-effacing, because of Korach's projection.

What does that mean for you and me?

Have you ever heard people who say they only want to be around positive people, that they avoid those with negative energy?
It makes much sense. Positive people emit projections that invite me to be my best. They see the good in me, the possible, the hope.
In projecting the positive in me and in others they bring out the good even if its not actually there. If I want to become the person of their projections, though I don't yet have it inside, it becomes that much more possible. On the other hand those who project negativity will project the same bad vibes on me. I am likely to pick them up and to act accordingly, though I am totally unconscious as to where my moods or attitudes are coming from. The negative projections are internalized and I manifest the behaviors, attitudes and emotions consistent with it. In life when I am around those who project negative feelings towards me or towards society in general I need to be very careful that I don't catch it and identify with the projections.

Moreover how often does it happen that I am the one with the negative projections, projections that influence the behaviors of others, and lead them to act in ways very much inconsistent with their true character. I then may say "see I told you s/he was this way", when in fact their behavior is the unconscious result and influence of my projection and not them at all.

Truth be told we know so little about who we really are and why. So much of ourselves is submerged beneath the surface in the unconscious.
We cannot know ourselves simply by introspection. To know our unconscious we need first to have the desire to open the gateway to the concealed and then to have others, friends, therapists, mentors, teachers, who help us see that to which we are blind.

Without serious work on self-awareness what appears day to us may be in fact be night and vice versa. The consequence of our ignorance can be as ruinous to our life purpose as was for Korach.

It is a simple truth. One cannot realize his/her mission in life without knowing him/herself,

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"You Can't Handle the Truth"

One of the most famous lines in a movie was spoken by Jack Nicholson in "Ä Few Good Men". When on the stand and on trial and being pushed to share the truth about a particular controversial incident he said, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

In this week's parsha of Shlach we see evidence that "handling the truth" is quite a challenge.
But lets start by contextualizing the reading. The portion this week tells us the story of the spies Moshe sent to explore the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest.
Of the twelve men sent, all leaders of tribes, only Joshua and Caleb bring back a postive report. The others deliver a disheartening message. They talk of the difficulties that will be encountered in any attempt to conquer the land. The people take in the bad tidings to heart. They become overwhelmed with fear. They reject the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb. They reject the land.
Of all the sins of the generation of the Exodus this was the most grievous. Untill today we live with its consequences. The day of their sin became the day propitious for national tragedy throughout our history.
We know it as Tisha B'Av.

In this blog we look at the Torah as a mirror to ourselves. We try to see what the Torah has to say to each of us personally about who we are. For our purposes we need to look at the Israelites as a reflection of us and to ask how are we like our ancestors of old? What promised land are we rejecting and why?

This year I want to place the mirror before a particular piece of the story, one that is often passed over. It has to do with how we "handle the truth".
The Torah tells us that not only did the People believe the 10 spies rather than believe Joshua and Caleb, they became enraged at the two dissenting spies. After Joshua and Caleb made an impassioned plea to the nation not to rebel against G-d, telling them that G-d was with them, the land was good, the inhabitants vulnerable, and the conquest attainable, the Torah tells us, " And the nation made rumblings to stone them to death".
The Israelites were near ready to put Joshua and Caleb to death! And for what? For offering a different view, one that was in fact the truth!

Why was the nation so determined to rid themselves of the dissenting voices? Why did they feel the urge to kill Joshua and Caleb? Would it not have been enough to just reject their report?

I think the Torah is teaching us something vital about our own yearning for truth. It is teaching us that anytime we take a position or state a belief in such a way that we cannot tolerate dissent we need to suspect that our so called "truth" is really a self-serving belief. It may not be the truth at all! If we are really motivated to discern the truth we will never find alternative positions to our own threatening. On the contrary, we will welcome dissent as a means to be sure that we are in fact right, that
we have considered all possibilities.

That the People of Israel could not tolerate the views of Joshua and Caleb, so much so that they intended to kill them were it not for G-d's intervention, makes it most clear that their rejection of the land was not based on a true desire to know what was the good and the right thing to do, enter or not enter the land. Rejection of the right to dissent and the dissenter is the greatest proof that "we can't handle the truth".

Over and over throughout history we have seen persecution of dissent and dissenters.
The Catholic Church of the Inquisition, the radical Arab nations devotees to Islam, the Communists of the Stalinist era are striking examples. Each was so sure of their truth that they needed to eradicate alternative views and expunge those who held them. Yet the very acts of intolerance they displayed indicates the self-serving nature of the truth they embraced. They could not handle the truth if it was not consistant with their own assumptions, so they needed to make sure they would not be threatened by it.

You and I have our own challenges with "handling the truth". How often have we gotten into an argument over ideas and virtually killed the person, sometimes a friend, to preserve our "truth". How often do we find ourselves reacting to alternative approaches to our own as if they are threats we have to put down. If we truly can handle the truth we will welcome another's perspectives as a chance to perhaps make alterations in our "truth", to be more accurate, and yes sometimes to come to realize we had no "truth" at all.

Our reactions to those who differ from us is the greatest indicator of whether the values, beliefs, and truths we maintain are indeed coming from a desire to know the right and the good.

We need to be able to "handle the truth" no matter where it comes from if we are to know the truth!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Compared to Whom"

"And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In this week's Parsha Aharon and Miriam question behaviors in Moshe's personal life. They suspect Moshe has taken on ascetic practices that are beyond necessary. They wonder whether Moshe had become too extreme in his religiosity or, in our terms, become too frum. In response G-d chastised both of them. He tells them that they are not capabable of passing judgement on their brother, that his level of prophesy is unprecedented. And then the Torah praises Moshe with the ultimate compliment, the one we quoted above. "And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In our tradition to be humble is to own the greatest of character traits. Over and over, from the prophets to the rabbinic sages of the Talmud we are taught that G-d prefers the 'anav', the one who poseses humility. Moreover G-d loathes the arrogant, no matter how talented they may be or how learned. Moshe was excellent in many ways. Yet it's his unparalleled humility that is his charactalogical legacy.

Moshe's humility is evident over and over through the years of his leadership of the People of Israel. In this week's parsha alone we see it evidenced several times. In example, when Yehoshua, Moshe's disciple is upset that Eldad and Maidad are prophesying in the camp, rather than be concerned with competition, Moshe told him, "It should only be that all the nation were prophets, that G-d would dwell His spirit on all of them."

The Gemara teaches us that Moshe's unique level of 'anivut', humility can be gleaned from the very words Moshe used to refer to himself. In the Book of Sh'mot, when the nation came to him complaining about their diet, prior to receiving the 'man', manna, Moshe spoke about himself and Aharon and said to the nation "...we are nothing. Your complaints should be with G-d not us." The Talmud points out that Moshe referred to himself as "nothing" whereas Avraham when he prayed to G-d for the people of Sodom in the book of Breishit referred to himself as "dust and ashes". Avraham was indeed very humble. Yet he still saw himself as, at least, dust and ashes. Moshe was a step beyond in his humility. Moshe saw himself as entirely nothing!

The Talmudic teaching is clever but not easy to understand. It's true Moshe referred to himself as nothing and Avraham spoke of himself as dust and ashes, but what real difference is there between the two? Dust and Ashes are also essentially nothing. They have no intrinsic worth. Why then should Avraham's humility be considered of a slightly lesser distinction?

I heard this week from Rav Zemel of Yerushalayim a beautiful insight into the Talmud's teaching, and one deeply relevant for me and, I suspect, for you. To shed light on our question he told a story of the great 17th Century rabbi and mystic Yonason Eybeschutz. Once Rav Yonasan could not get home from his travels for Yom Kippur. He needed to spend the fast in a small village. He came to shule and during the pre-fast Mincha service, where the confession is recited, he foudn himself praying next to a man who exhibitted an extraordinary level of piety and remorse. This man prayed the mincha amida and the 'al chet' with tears and anguish. He went so far as to repeat the sins in German, his native tongue, as well as Hebrew. His prayers were long and intense. Rav Yonasan was both imnpressed and inspired.

When Rav Yonasan came back to shule after eating the pre-fast feast he was asked where he might like to sit during Yom Kippur prayers. The community wanted to extend to Rav Yonasan the greatest honor. The rav said that he would like to sit next to the Jew where he had prayed the mincha service. The rav hoped this devout Jew's davening would aid him in his own 'kavana'. And so it was. The Jew prayed the evening prayer of Yom Kippur and the morning shacharit davening with the same fervor and intensity. Rav Yonasan was deeply affected.

Then came time for the Torah reading. Members of the congregation were called up for aliyot. The devout Jew who sat next to Rav Yonasan also received an aliya. But to his chagrin, he did not receive one of the more honored aliyot, like shlishi or shishi, the 3rd or 6th.
He was called to the Torah for chamishi, the 5th aliya, one of no special distinction. The Jew was livid. He felt dissed. He complained long and loud to the gabai. He charged "What do you mean giving me chamishi? You insult me!"

Rav Yonasan watched the drama unfold in amazement. At the close of prayers he could not contain himself. He addressed the Jew with whom he had sat Yom Kippur. He asked "I don't understand. You prayed over and over confessing your sins and your limitations. You cried and pleaded that you are ashamed of your life and deeds. How then did you feel that getting the 5th aliya, chamishi, was an insult? You said over and over you were unworthy?

The Jew without missing a beat explained, "Yes, when I speak to G-d I am unworthy and ashamed. I feel totally inadequate. But the aliyot were not between me and G-d. They were about me in comparison to the others in the shule. Compared to them I am much more worthy. I deserve the more distinguished honors much more than them."

To be humble before G-d is nice but it's no measure of true humility, no matter how passionately we express it. The difference between Avraham's humility and Moshe's was not only the difference between "dust and ashes" and "nothing". Avraham referred to himself as "dust and ashes" before G-d. He used that self-reference when he was pleading to G-d to save the Sodomites. Moshe called himself "nothing" when we was talking to a ungrateful people. Even when compared to others Moshe saw himself as nothing. That is true humility. Moshe was indeed the 'anav mekal adam', "the most humble of humans".

The lesson for me, and perhaps for you in what we have discerned is oh so potent. How often is it that in my prayers, before G-d, I both feel and express a sense of personal inadequacy and humility. I may cry. I may plead. I will speak to G-d with great remorse over my life and limitations. We do this daily in our prayers. And yet despite the passionate words in truth I may not be humble at all. I remain judgemental of others. I still see myself as 'better than'. I look down on others as less than me. To that extent I am not humble but indeed arrogant and loathesome to G-d. Unless and until I stop seeing myself in a superior position all my expressions of humility are vacuuous.

The bitter test each of us needs to take to determine our character is not before G-d but before our fellow humans. To be humble relative to G-d is no virtue. The challenge is to feel humble when I compare myself to my neighbor and friend. The challenge is to be able say "they are more deserving of the honor than me"!

The work of humility is humbling. It's no easy virtue. The first step we need to take is to get past the self-deception and discern false humility from its authentic expression!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Wish

When I was a boy of about 11 or 12 I was excited to stay up for the first time the whole night on the holiday of Shavuot. It was not the idea of studying Torah all through the night, the tradition, that excited me. My enthusiasm for learning was not sufficiently strong to overcome my desire for sleep. Rather it was because I heard that precisely at midnight on Shavuot night the skies open up. And if at that magical time one makes a wish the wish will be granted. While I can't remember the wish I can remember how much I looked forward to making it and to seeing it come true.
Now I am a much older man. I no longer hang on to the magical beliefs in wishes. If I stay up Shavuot night it will be to learn Torah, not to make midnight pleas. And yet I wonder if I still could make such a wish this Tuesday night and know it would be granted, one wish, what would I wish for? What is my one wish?

According to the Midrash Mount Sinai was selected to be the setting for the giving of the Torah for an unusual reason. Sinai was not the tallest mountain in the range nor the widest. In fact, based on grandeur there were many other mountains with a more rightful claim to be the place for the revelation and the giving of the Law. The Midrash tells us that each of these notable mountains claimed the right to the honor. Yet G-d chose Mount Sinai precisely because it posessed humility, because it made no claim to host the single greatest event in human history, an event on par with creation itself.
Sinai's humility made it worthy of the Torah. The message being that Torah resides not in the person grandiose and arrogant, but rather in the person humble and modest.

The Midrash of Sinai is both beautiful and poetic. But it raises some serious questions.
If Mount Sinai was indeed smaller and less impressive than the other mountains then she made no claim to be the setting for the giving of the Torah, not because of humility, but because she really had nothing on which to stake a claim. That Sinai did not say "Let me host the revelation" may not be because she was modest, but rather because she really could boast no unique excellence. Why then should she be given credit for humility? Why then should she host Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah?

At one time in my past I gave a weekly class in Ramchal's "Derech Hashem" "The Way of G-d". One week, to my surprise, a Indian swami, with a keen interest in spirituality came to the class. After the class he sent me a note telling me how meaningful he found it.
While the note was nice to receive it was the way he addressed me that grabbed my attention. He addressed the note "To the Great Rabbi K". Curious about the title, I sought him out and asked what he meant by "the Great Rabbi K". Is there another Rabbi K who is not so great? The swami explained to me that we each have two persons inside us, a little me and a great me. Most people live much of their lives giving expression to the little me within. They hardly know the great me exists. Every so often in heroic moments the great me may emerge. Usually however it goes back into hibernation very quickly and our small me reasserts itself.

The small me is the me that gets caught up in the petty and transient. It is the self within that lives entirely for the moment and with a constricted focus. It is vain and shallow. It is entirely self absorbed. In contrast with the small me, within us we have a great me. The great me sees the larger goals and is invested in the transcendent. The great me is expansive and sees others as partners rather than competitors. The great me is inclusive and loving even of those who are different. The great me is always centered and spiritually alive.

The swami told me that when he addressed the note to "the Great Rabbi K" he meant it for the great me, the one he felt he experienced in the class, and the one he hoped I lived out of most of my life. The swami's concepts are not foreign to us. In our kabbalistic tradition we have a similar idea. We speak of 'gadlus d'mochin' and 'katnus d'mochin' by which we mean to distinguish when a person is living out of an expansive sense of consciousness or a constricted sense. When we are living out of our 'gadlus d'mochin' we are forgiving and loving, we are humble and gracious, we are fused with the Holy spirit. When we are living out of 'katnus d'mochin' we are petty and resentful, short sighted and intolerant, we live for the material moment.

We can be very religious people and live virtually all of our lives out of 'katnus d'mochin' or our small me. On the other hand we can be not religious and yet live with a deep sense of the spiritual, a 'gadlus d'mochin', our great me!

Its true Mount Sinai had no reason to boast. It then is hard to call the Mountain humble. And yet because it had no external gifts upon which to lay a claim to fame, of necessity it had to make itself worthy from within. Mount Sinai had to be the Great Mount Sinai. It could not think to assert credibility on the basis of the superficial and the transient. That is why Mount Sinai was chosen. It alone became fully its greater self. It alone is then worthy of the Torah. The Torah does not belong to those who expand and enlarge their Small me but rather to those who live most fully the self they already are in becoming and living their Great me.

You and I have a challenge every day. Which me will we be? Will we react to every passing wind and lose our center? Will we be petty and carry our resentments? Will we forever get compromised by the transient and suoperficial? Will we be our Small me?
Or will we be larger than our situation, see the bigger picture, forgive and forget, accept and embrace? Will we live our lives out of the Great me?

Both the Small me and the Great me are us.In both we are expressing ourselves. In the one me we condemn ouselves to mediocrity. Through the other me we can embrace the heavens. The true measure of success in our lives will be determined not by any external achievement but rather by which me we choose to live our lives.

And so my wish...if the sky opens up for me this Shavuot is that I live out of the Great me, the gadlut d'mochin. And my prayer for the chag is that you too will know that blessing.

Chag Samayach

Thursday, May 2, 2013

When Less is More

Have you wondered about the after-life? Of course we have our tradition about what happens after we die. Our souls live on in spriritual ecstasy awaiting 'techiyat hamaitim', the resurrection of the dead, when they will again inhabit their bodies.The after-life is personal. Individual identity continues after death. When I was young I was fascinated by the concept of the after-life in Eastern traditions. According to their beliefs when the soul dies, if it has fulfilled its destiny in this world, it loses its individual identity and becomes one with the great universal soul in heaven. To die, in the best situation, is to lose one's "I" and instead become part of the "We". I remember thinking "and this is a good thing?" I mean, would I want to no longer be me, lose all sense of a personal identity? Can that be something I would look forward to? And what about the ones I love. I would then not meet them in heaven. Can that be an ideal end to existence?

For most of us, what we treasure most is our "I". The thought of losing that "I" is frightening. When we are in a situation in which we feel swallowed up in a crowd we fight to assert our personal selves. Its nice to be "we" in the moment. But never at the cost of losing our "I".

We are soon to celebrate the chag of Shavuot. The end of next week will usher in the new month of Sivan, the month of the holiday. The Torah tells us that on the first of Sivan the Israelites came to the Desert of Sinai. It references the People's encampment in the singular form. Literally it read "And he camped opposite the mountain". The Sages point out that this encampment was like no other in Israel's wilderness experience. Whereas all other encampments were frought with strife and conflict, here all Israel was as one. They were "as one person with one heart".

Now I wonder the same wonder I had when I learned about the Eastern concept of the after-life. Is this a good thing that all Israel was as one person with one heart. Is this "we'ness" the ideal? What about each person's need to feel their "I"? What about our uniqueness?

Last Shabbat I was in Meron. Saturday night was Lag Ba'Omer. Near 500,000 Jews would come between Saturday night and Sunday eve from all over Israel to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his yahrzeit. At the 'kever' Saturday night a flame was lit. As the fires soared heavenward there commenced a night full of spiritual dancing and inspiration. Because I was there for Shabbat I was able to be close to the setting for the lighting of the fires. I stood together with some 15,000 mostlty Hassidim in their shtreimlich and waited more than two hours in prayer and devotion for the magic moment of the lighting of the flame. The atmosphere was reverential and intense.
Prayers were on everyone's lips. And then the Boyaner Rebbe lit the fire. The music began. And the throng become alive with a flame of their own, one of joy and exultation. Everyone was jumping up and down in their place. The words of the melodies were sung with exuberance and repeated over and over. There was no "I" in that setting. Each person surrendered self to the majesty of the moment. There was only a "we". Yet that 'we' brought life to all who comprised it as they never felt in their singular "I" no matter how compelling the moment.
The "I" was dead in those moments. All there was was the "we". And life was never more beautiful.

It was interesting for me to see that the inspiration led to some circles being formed. Those jumping up and down in inspired response to the moment remained in the stands. They did not feel the need to join the circles. They were at one with those in the circles. "We" were dancing, wherever we were. Yes, there were a few who seemed to need to make a personal statement in their enthusiasm. They felt the need to enter the middle of the circles and dance to express there "I". How awkward they appeared and how pitiable. They could not lose themselves and needed to make this holy time a time of self expression. They did not realize that their need to occupy the center,cost them the most precious gift. They lost the gift of the moment, the gift of the "we".

One of the great mystical disciplines is called 'hisbatlus', self nullification. The work involves learning to minimize oneself until one has a little ego as possible. At one level it seems such a difficult effort, to make oneself small and inconsequential, to surrender one's "I". Yet in Meron at the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai I came to realize that those who practice the discipline of 'hisbatlus' are not in reality giving up anything. Rather they are gaining a powerful spiritual gift. When they 'kill' therir ego they make possible the sense of oneness with Israel our People, and with Hashem and His world. 'Hisbatlus' is a path to joy, a supreme joy. The work of ego nullification is the only way to get there!

When our ancestors came to Sinai they experienced the unique sense of 'hisbatlus'. They lost themselves, but for a net gain!
They became one whole! That oneness made the revelations at Sinai possible. Each Israelite felt an inspiration and ecstasy but only by surrenedering his/her "I".

The lesson here is oh so compelling. The path to joy is not as we imagine by enlarging our ego or enhancing our self. On the contrary, the path to true joy is losing one's need to self expansiveness so as to become part of the universal and the G-dly.
Being nothing is indeed the path to acquiring everything!

How sad that so many waste their lives traveling in the wrong direction in search of the treasure.

The lesson of Sinai, the lesson of Meron, the lesson of all those who know the secret of happiness, is that real joy is attained in unity.
And real unity is attained when we surrender our "I" .

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Smayaich

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Love: Theme and Variation

According to tradition there are 613 commandments in the Torah. They pertain to everything from the way we plant our fields to our style of dress and from the way we make war to the rites of divorce. No sphere of life seems outside the perview of a Torah mandate. The Torah provides a total life discipline. What's surprising is that not only does the Torah govern behaviors. It also sets expectations for our feelings.On the holidays we are commanded to be happy. In our relationship with G-d we are called upon to feel fear. And in three different relationships the Torah calls on us to love. One is found in the Book of Devarim and is part of the Sh'ma. "And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul and all your might." The second two are in the readings of this week in the parsha of Kedoshim. The first reads, "...and you shall love your neighbor as your self." And the second "If a stranger shall live in your land don't antagonize him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be no different than a citizen for you and you shall love him like yourself, because you too were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am Hashem your G-d."

Love of G-d. Love of our neighbor. Love of the stranger. Three commandments to love. Each a call to the same emotion. Yet each challenging us in a very different way. Let's explore the call to love in its variety in both its expectations and limitations.

The first love is the love we are meant to have for G-d. Note the verse which challenges us to this love only tells us the extent of the love. It does not tell us the way it is to be expressed. We are called upon to love Hashem with all of who we are and posess. Nothing is to be held back. But how we express that love must be on G-d's terms, not ours! Indeed the Torah gives us the means whereby to express that love. It provides us with the mitzvot. It would be inappropriate to express my total love for G-d by causing myself harm even if I am doing so to show my love. I am not free to decide for myself what my love for G-d will look like. G-d is not like us. We can adore Him but never know Him, except what He chooses to show us in His Torah. To presume that He will find whatever we choose to do a loving gesture is to make an assumption that is not loving at all. We can each have an authentic feeling of love in our own way. But acts of love are always dependent on the will and desire of the one we love. A loving act is defined by the one being loved not by the lover!

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself". We are each charged with the responsibility to love our fellow Jew. Here the Torah does not tell us we must love another with all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might. The Torah does not expect or even desire that we give ourselves away to another the way we are mandated to give ourselves away with a total love for Hashem. On the contrary the Torah puts limits on the love. We are to love another not more than ourselves. If we give ourselves away to someone else, or make them the center of our life, we have misunderstood our call. Moerover if we do not sufficiently love ourselves for who we are, instead prefering to love and idolize someone else, who we see as more worthy, we have compromised the love and corrupted the mitzvah.

And finally we come to the love of the stranger. Surely the hardest love is to love someone who is different from us. Typically, inorder to love someone, we look to find points in common. The stranger lives on the margins. S/he does not belong. What we will often think to do to foster a love for them is to invite them into our world, make them guests in our home or synagogue. We reach out to the stranger inorder to include them in our world, indeed to make them no stranger at all. That approach would be in keeping with our earlier commandment to love our neighbor like ourselves. But that is not exactly what the Torah asks of us here. While the verse that calls on us to love a fellow Jew and the one that impels us to love a stranger have the same key phraseology, the latter has an additional caveat.
It concludes "...for you were strangers in the land of Egypt..." From my understanding the Torah is not just telling us why we should love the stranger. After all no one in many a millenia can recall being a stranger in Egypt. No, the Torah is instead telling us how to love the stranger. We are not meant to love him/her the way we love our neighbor, by inviting them into our life and care, by including them in our world. No, the love for the stranger is different. To love them we are called upon to enter their world. We are asked by Hashem to remember what is means to be marginalized and share the struggle with them.

Truth is we cannot make a stranger not a stranger by sharing a meal with them in our home. The poor, the sick, the convert, do not become no longer marginalized by a single act of inclusiveness no matter how spectacular the gesture. A stranger remains a stranger. To love the stranger is not to take their mind off that reality or pretend it is not so. On the contrary, the work of loving the stranger is to find a way to enter their world, to again be a stranger ourselves. How you ask? Well when we visit the sick and they are afraid of the consquences of their illness we too need to find the fear in our own lives and join them. Its no good in most cases to project strength and simply say "be unafraid like me". When we are talking to someone who is unemployed we would do well to share our own journey of life instability so as to join them on the margins, rather than project security and let them taste our success. Tellng another who is struggling of our triumphs may include them for a brief moment in our story, but the work of loving the stranger begs of us that we enter their story, that they be less alone, less estranged!

At one level it might be said love is always love. Yet the Torah commands we love in three different mitzvot. Each mitzva presents us with its own unique challenge. In the love of Hashem we need forever be careful lest we set the form the love takes instead of leaving it to G-d. In the love of another we need be oh so careful to set the limits on the love lest we give ourselves away in the guise of love and compromise it. In the love of the stranger we need to realize that we need to first become a stranger ourselves inorder to love another the way the other needs to be loved to mitigate their sense of aloneness.

Yes, love is a feeling. But it is also a work. To learn to love well is the challenge of a lifetime.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Finding Flaw

I finally did it. I finally made a doctors appointment. About three years ago a pimple of sorts sprung up on my inner forearm. I have known for years that I have the potential for skin cancer. I have many moles on my body. I was told that I should see a dermatologist every couple of years to monitor for any new growth. And that was fifteen years ago. In the past fifteen years I went once to a specialist, once! When this growth developed three years ago I knew it required examination. Yet I did nothing. Only now, when a couple of weeks ago it changed form, did I feel I could no longer delay. Smart? hardly! If my car needed attention would I delay and risk further damage? If my investments were tanking in the stock market would I sit by and watch them sink? If my home was beset with termites would I wait to call the exterminator? Of course not! So then how is it when it comes to the wellbeing of my person, with the stakes even higher, that I can be so cavalier and endlessly put off paying them mind?

This week we read two portions in the Torah, Tazriya and Metzorah. The bulk of the content concerns the laws of a spiritual form of leprosy. It tells us that if a person finds a mark on his body, clothing or home, a discoloration and/or lump, s/he needs to have it seen by the kohen, priest, to determine if s/he, or his/her clothes or his/her home is 'tamay' , ritually impure. If the tzaraat. leprosy, is on his/her body s/he will need to dwelll outside the camp until it heals. If it is in his/her home or clothing, in the worst case, the clothes or home may become unusable. The laws are only relevant in Temple times. And they concern for the most part the kohen who must make the examination. The Torah provides him with the guidelines to determibe puriry or impurity. The laws have no applicability today. The passages are long and full of detail. Its hard to extract a moral from them. Yes, this too is Torah. But that alone does not make the passages interesting or engaging. It's a struggle to find meaning in them.

This year I found a mirror to my irrational behavior in the story of the one beset with tzaraat. The Torah in the early section of the first portion tells us that if a person finds a lump, a growth that appears leporous on his body then "he shall be brought to Aharon the priest or to one of his sons who are priests". Note the Torah uses the term "v'huva", "and he shall be brought". The implication is that the person who has the unusual growth is not like to seek the assessment of the priest of his own volition.
S/he will need to be brought in for examination. Yet in the second of the two readings when we are told of the tzaraat that might be found in the home, the Torah implies the one whose home is infested will come on his own. The verse reads "And he who has the plague will come to the kohen and say 'I see what appears to be a plague in my home'". Here, with regards the plague of the home, their is no expectation that s/he will have to be brought. On the contrary the verse tells us that not only will s/he likely come on his/her own, s/he will make a speech to the kohen announcing his/her circumstances.

Why? Why does the Torah imply that in the case of a plague of the person s/he will likely avoid examination and yet when it comes to the very same plague but this time found in his/her property the person will come in on his/her own and announce his/her situation?

It is here that I see the mirror to myself, and I might add, to many others who may well be like me. The Torah in these passages is telling us that when we are dealing with a flaw in ourselves we tend to dismisss the urgency of our circumstances. Typically when we have an issue, medically or otherwise, we play it down, ignoring it, hoping it will go away. Only when we cannot put it off any longer do we pay it attention. I was a chaplain for many years. I visited oh so many persons who delayed having their breasts or prostate examined, even when their were clear signs that something was wrong. They simply refused to see the obvious. And in some cases their delay of treatment, ultimately and tragically, cost them their lives. Yet these very same people who found it so difficult to acknowledge a malfunction or growth in their body would be so attentive to a problem with their washing machine, their car, or any of their assets, including their children. If something was amiss in another part of their life they tended to it immediately. Yet when it affected their body they seemed deaf and dumb to the reality.

I wonder why? Why do we deny our physical issues even to our own harm? Why will the one with leprosy of the body avoid the assesment s/he needs yet take initiative to redress the leprosy of his/her home? Why do I fix my car before I fix myself?

I suspect that the answer has to do with shame! Our physical malfunction causes us shame. We are loathe to talk about it. We prefer to delay or even deny rather that have it explored and examined. It's not a rational shame. Shame never is rational. But that does not make the feeling of shame less real. We feel no shame when our car breaks down, or our house has termites. Yet when we sense our colon is not working as it should we feel shame! We are ashamed of our compromised bodies. And that shame, at times, keeps us from pursuing treatment that may make the difference between life and death.

So this coming week I will go to the doctor. I hope my foolish shame will not have significant consequences. But even if this time I escape unscathed, neither you nor I can afford to indulge the feeling of shame when it comes to our wellbeing. We need to get over it! We need to be as dilligent with our person as we are with our assets, even more dilligent!

I hope next year when we read these portions again we will find in them a mirror to the persons we used to be. But they will no longer mirror the persons we are!

This entry represents the 200th edition of "The Torah and the Self".
I am grateful to Hashem for giving me the opportuntity to write and share.
I am grateful to you for reading and thinking with me!
We have travelled together!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Anger Redux

Is anger bad? Is it bad for a person to get angry? For much of my life I believed anger was a bad emotion and that really good people don't get angry. During those years I fought my angry impulses whenever they arose. I was determined to vanquish anger. I wanted to be a man of peace, forever calm and loving. I knew well the traditional teachings of the Jewish ethicists, the baale musar, who decried anger as a most evil trait. I reminded myself of the Talmud's admonition that "anyone who angers it is as if s/he worshiped idols". I tried meditation. I tried reading spiritual texts. I gave myself little lectures on the subject. And in the end, as you can imagine, I had little success. Yes for a period of time I might keep my temper from flaring but eventually I would succumb. Try as I might I failed again and again to rid myself of my feelings of anger. All I succeeded to do was become angry at myself for getting angry.

Yet as I matured I began to wonder if the problem was in me or in my assumption about anger.I began to re-examine anger and whether it truly was an evil trait. In this week's parsha, that of Shmini, Moshe gets angry at the two surviving sons of his brother Aharon for not eating the sin offering as the laws required. And it's not the only time Moshe gets angry in the Torah. In my count we are told of at least six time when Moshe got angry, and he is the exemplar of spiritual excellence. Moreover our tradition ritualizes anger and validates it. When a near relative dies we are mandated not only to cry but to vent anger. The tearing of the clothing, a requirement by halacha, is to express our anger at our loss. If anger was bad why give it expression?

What's more I began to learn about the psychic issues around anger and emotional health. Anger is an emotion. To deny our feelings is not a good thing at all. When one feels angry and cannot acknowledge the feeling, deeming it unacceptable, one tends to internalize the anger. It can lead to depression and/or be somatized in physical ailments and diseases. Years ago Harriet Goldher Learner wrote a classic on anger and women titled "The Dance of Anger". She is strong is arguing that women do themselves and their relationships great harm when they deny the feeling of anger within. And we might well wonder are those who don't allow their anger for whatever reason, safety or piety, really not angry? Have they conquered their anger or just forced it undergound? The peaceful man or woman may be someone who has simply repressed his/her feelings. We pay a price for repressed feelings!

So what now? How do I reconcile the negative attitudes about anger found in the tradition with the contrary evidence also found there. And how do I remain whole and healthy if I cut off an important feeling and stifle an emotional expression?

I suspect part of our issue with anger is our difficulty in examining it closely. When we are in it it is consuming and hardly a matter for analysis. When we don't feel it we are loathe to come near. Anger is rarely pretty.

Let's you and I examine anger together. It's a big emotion. It is weighty and complex. We can't do it all. But I think we can take some first steps. And in examining anger alone, without any further action taken, already we make strides in becoming it's master rather than its slave.

When Moshe in this week's parsha got angry what we notice is how controlled the anger was. Yes he had the feeling. Yes he expressed the feeling. But he was careful to give it voice in a productive mannner. He expressed the anger, the anger did not express him!
Look at the story. Moshe was in fact angry with Aharon. He was angry that Aharon did not conduct the rituals as Moshe thought proper.
Yet he voiced the anger at Aharon's sons, Elazar and Itamar. Why? so as not to embarass his older brother! The anger was not the problem so long as he vented it properly. And when Moshe confronted Elazar and Itamar he does not belittle them. He does not get petty.
He rebuked them for what he perceived was a serious failing. And indeed when Aharon explained to Moshe why he and his sons did what they did Moshe acknowledged that he was wrong, and they were right. The Torah does not say Moshe apologized. He was not wrong in being angry. There is nothing wrong in being angry if we channel it correctly. Anger is a feeling. It can be neither good not bad of itself. It's only the expression of it that can be at times wrongful. Moshe had nothing for which to apologize.

When we say to someone after a fit of anger "I am sorry for being angry" we are not sorry for the right reason. There is nothing wrong with being angry initself. Its the way we behaved when angry that may well warrant the apology.

Let's move a step deeper into the pool of anger. When someone we love is angry often our first question is "who are you angry at?".
It is as if anger without a a target of the anger is unacceptable. If we have no one we can be angry at we have no right to be angry.
But that is a patently false assumption. When the bereaved family tear the garments in expression of anger after the death of a loved one who are they angry at? G-d? Can't be. It would not be acceptable and immediately prior they make a blessing accepting G-d's judgement as just. No the mourners have no target of their anger. "Who are you angry at" is the wrong question. The critical question to ask is "what's making you angry?". Anger always has a cause. It need not have a target! All too often we dump our anger on someone as if they caused it. That may well be why anger is deemed so much a negative emotion. And indeed when we are angry, if we are to use the emotion well, we need to look at its source. Finding a scapegoat is counter-productive. It shows a character flaw in us rather than reflect of anger's evil.

Even as I can learn to better contain my anger, without denying it. I can grow as a mature and balanced person so that what makes me angry is truly worthy of the emotion. When I was young every time my football team lost I got angry, and that was quite often! Now I may be disappointed but not angry. As we grow spiritually what angers us becomes less about selfish designs that got thwarted and more about others we love and care for and their wellbeing. It's true Moshe got angry many times in the Torah. Yet he was only punished for one episode of anger. Each time Moshe got angry it was prompted by concerns for others. In this week's parsha Moshe got angry when he thought Aharon and his surviving sons had not followed the required rituals of the sacrifices. You recall this all happened in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's eldests, who died that day after a violation of ritual in the Temple. Moshe feared a further tragedy. He got angry because he loved Aharon and because he loved his nephews. He got angry as a parent might get angry if their young child crossed the street without looking both way so as to be safe. The parent's anger is stimulated by love.

Vanquishing anger is neither a useful nor desirable goal. We need to have a relationship with anger. It's not helpful to make it an enemy.
How we get angry matters. We need learn to express the feeling when it arises in a constructive way, to neither dump it on people who don't deserve it nor beat people up with it even when they have triggered our wrath. And what makes us angry matters. We need to spiritually mature so that we are more loving and understanding of others and of life as a whole. In growing spirtitualy we become more tolerant and less reactive when we don't get what we want. The bigger person gets angry just like the little person. The difference is what makes them angry ...and how they express it!

So we made a beginning. We made a start at taking the veil off the dreaded demon we call "anger". Talking about it is the first step in becoming it's master. The work lies before us. Our agenda is not to not get angry, but rather to get angry well!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lessons of a Boy Soldier

I will tell you a story. It happened just a few weeks ago. One of my daughter's friends is a new chayal, soldier, serving in the elite paratroopers unit of the Israeli army. One day he and a few of his buddies walked into the kitchen on the base and noticed a woman sitting by a table with her 8 year old son. Surprised, they asked her what she was doing in the kitchen. Clearly neither she nor her son belonged in that space. She pointed to her son and told them, "My son has not long to live. His only request was that he get to be a chayal in the tzanchanim. paratroopers before he dies. We are here to fulfill his dream".

There is much to reflect on in that story. The idea of The Make a Wish Foundation is to do similar things for children dying in the United States. If chidren in America who tragically are dying are given a wish, they will wish to go to Disney World or sit on the sidelines with their favorite football team or spend a day with a celebrity. And why not, these are the typical dreams of the young. Here in Israel too, like in America, this boy wished to be with his heroes. Only difference is that the heroes of this Israeli boy are not the glamorous and the accomplished, the idols of the sports world and the media. No, his heroes are boys, perhaps just 10 years older than him, most who just graduated high school, who serve in the Israeli army and protect his country from harm.

I suspect the troops who encountered that dying boy will never feel the same way again about their military service. If ever they saw their service as routine and their work as common, no more. More than the gift the unit gave the dying boy did the boy give these soldiers. Through him they realized just what a privelege it is to serve as a soldier in the army of Israel.

We are approaching the holiday of Pesach. If your home is in any way like mine its a 'balagan' at this time. Cleaning, cooking, shopping, the home is full of frenzy. It's good to pause, if just for a moment and take perspective. What's it all about? Why Pesach? Yes, I know we were slaves in Egypt and we were made free. But that's a long time ago. So much has happened since, much of it pretty horrific.
My mother is 86 and alone for Pesach. She will not have a seder. It's not that no one offered to invite her or even make a seder for her in her home. But she says its too difficult to sit through a seder at her age. And besides, in her words, "I had enough seders in my life". If that's true for my mother at 86 how much more true is it for the Jewish People. How many seders do we have to sit through? We get it! We know the story. We know; we appreciate; isn't it enough already?

I think the story we told above provides us with a much needed perspective. Yes, we know the story. Yes, we know we were liberated from a slavery that seemed interminable. But knowing something, knowing a truth, does not in and of itself lead us to appreciate it. The soldiers in the Israeli army, in the story above, knew they were serving their country. They needed no one to remind them. And they knew their work was important. But it took the presence of this terminally ill child to bring them to a full appreciation of the unique privelege that is theirs, after some 2000 years, to serve in an army defending the Jewish State.

Each year as we come to Pesach and relive the story of the Exodus in word and symbol we re-enter the national experience and bring it to life. Our freedom, the gift of our ability to become who we need to become and to realize our potential as a a nation and as persons is no longer just a fact for which we express token gratitude. In celebrating each year the time of our liberation we affirm that freedom is not an expectation. It is not something to be taken for granted. No, freedom our freedom was a gift from G-d that might well not have been at all. We are priveleged to be free. And no matter how long ago it was, nor what has transpired in between, we are fortunate and priveleged to be free men and women able to serve G-d and live our lives with choice and opportunity.

I am sure that the paratroopers of whom we wrote earlier did not grumble the next morning after meeting the boy and his mother in the kitchen when they were woken at 6:00am for morning duty. Nor did they complain about the 20 kilometer hike they took the day after. At least for a few days these soldiers were so full of gratitude for the gift of being able to serve that they got past the petty complaints that might otherwise weigh them down. That is what Pesach is about for us. In re-entering the story we already know so well we
put our lives in perspective. All of a sudden all the disappointments and frustrations that bring us down seem less significant. We no longer dwell on what might have been in our lives that wasn't or what should not have been that was. Instead we take stock of the miracle of our freedom. We experience full appreciation for the basic rights that we have that were in no way certain. We feel the full measure of gratitude for G-d's gift , without which we would have remained slaves, never becoming a nation, compromised forever!

So Pesach is nearly here. We will soon complete all the preparations. Our homes will be made kosher for the chag. The rituals, and there are many, will be observed. We will wish each other a "chag smayach" a "joyous holiday". But let's not forget the opportunity before us. Let's use the holiday as intended, to re-experience our slavery and our liberation. If we can feel the fullness of our suffering in the long years of our enslavement in Egypt and sense the thrill of the liberation, if we can truly taste the bitter and the sweet and take nothing for granted, then this Yom Tov we can make joyous much more than the week of Pesach. We can actually put into perspective all the days of our lives with their attendant encumbrances. Through a proper experience of Pesach we can know happiness!

We live a miracle each day. We were slaves! We are free! How can we not be happy!

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Smayach