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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Of Guilt and Grace

In many ways it is much easier to be a Christian than to be a Jew. It's not only the practical side of the matter, that our faith places so many more expectations upon us to observe a discipline and a lifestyle. Even in theology Judaism seems a much harder faith to live with. For Christians there is a seminal concept virtually absent in Judaism. They believe in Grace. What is Grace? Well as best as I can understand it, Grace is the idea that even though we may be flawed in some fundemental ways and mired in sin G-d gives us a pass...a free ticket as it were. Through Divine Grace, they believe, in the eyes of G-d we are o'kay with our defeciencies and failings. For us as Jews there are no free passes. When we do wrong we are held accountable. We are always said to choose and held liable for our choices.

In truth so much of the allure Christianity holds for Jews who sadly and tragically leave our faith and embrace theirs is the relief they seek from the guilt that haunts them. I have seen over and over the young Jewish person, who is indeed soulful yet feels him/herself lacking, be enticed by Christianity for its invitation to Grace and liberation from guilt. The appeal of Christianity is not to our brothers and sisters who have no interest in G-d. On the contrary, those attracted are very much seeking a spiritual connection. Their problem with Judaism is that they feel it never lets them feel good enough about themselves. With all the expectations of Jewish life and tradition they feel doomed to Divine rejection. Recently I had a conversation with someone I regularly study with. He is a businessman. He is successful. He could choose to pursue any lifestyle he desired. Yet he keeps Shabbat. He davens each day. He commits to a set time for learning daily. He gives considerable tzedaka. In short, despite the opportunity to sin, he is faithful to the a Torah way of life. Yet my friend expresses concern over whether he is "good enough" and entitled to the "world-to-come". He is not sure if G-d will find him worthy. How can that lacking, so evident in the hearts of so many of us, not cause us a sense of sadness and angst even when we adhere to our faith and tradition?

When I open the book of Vayikra and read the seemingly endless portions that speak of sin and atonement I am reminded of the heaviness of our faith. Sin and sacrifice, atonement and punsihment, Judaism never seems to let up with admonishment. Do we ever get a break?
Is it any wonder that "Jewish guilt" is entrenched in our psyche?

So having painted the dark side of this canvas of our faith what is the bright side? How do we understand the lack of Grace in our tradition? Do we need to endlessly beat ourselves up?

On reflection I think there is indeed another side to the story. Do you remember many years ago there was a self-help, psychology book written titled "I'm Okay, You're Okay". It was very popular in its day. The author pointed out that all our patterns of communication reflect a sense of where we see ourselves vis a vis the other. Sometimes we speak to others out of a perspective that we are okay and they are not. Parents often speak that way to their children, but even adults to adults often take that superior position.
Then at time we communicate from the vantage point that "I am not okay but you are okay". Children often see themselves in that position relative to their parents. Yet even as adults we can feel ourselves as children and not okay relative to others who we give power to. In marriages women often feel that imbalance relative to their husbands. There are also times when we are in relationship with another where we feel neither of us is okay. All the above scenarios in the view of the author are mentally unhealthy. To be healthy and happy we need to live out of a framework where "I am okay and you are okay".

But what if we are not okay? What if we have sinned and are compromised as persons? In this model we need to be free of that which makes us not okay. Sin is a stain that makes us not okay and no being ok compromises our wellbeing.

Indeed for a Christian sin is not okay. If one sins, for Catholics, one goes to a private confession. Sin cannot be made public. Moreover one cannot take communion until one has confessed and been absolved of sin. One is essentially rendered unacceptable through sin, cast out from the community of faith. If one's sins are pervasive one needs Grace. Without Grace the person is doomed and forever without a place in the community of the G-dly. Indeed with that perspective, where sin cannot be mentioned and to sin is to be unacceptable of course Grace is vital and necessary. We need to be Okay and can never be Okay with the stain of sin.

Our faith is oh so different. True the Torah goes into great detail describing atonement and the consequences of sin. But sin for us is no shame. We bring sin offerings as a public event. The 'chahat', animal offerring for sin is brought to the Temple and publically sacrificed. Thousands bring the offering each day. It is not an exception to the norm. It is the norm. The Torah normalizes it in procedure and process. Everyone sins! Confession? sure we confess. But it's not private. On Yom Kippur we all confess our sins, and we do it in unison and in voice. And even as those bearing sin we are not cast out. We need no Grace to belong to the community of faith.
We enter the Temple as sinners. We are never cast out!

If there is a model that fits the Jewish concept of being okay it is "I am not Okay, You're not Okay, but that's Okay!"
Judaism does not whitewash sin or give us a free pass. It does need to pretend we have not sinned with a cheap grace.
Judaism indeed holds us accountable. We are liable for our misdeeds. But even with them we are acceptable. Not because we have no sin, but because sin is part of our being human. Our work is to strive to get better. But we will always have sin. Even the best of us!
Judiasm teaches us that while I need strive to excellence I am ok being flawed. In fact if I was not flawed there would be no purpose to my place in the world. In my flawedness all the good I do becomes that much more impressive and meaningful. Only because I am flawed does my life have meaning for both others and self.

G-d does not need to pretend we are better than we are to love us. G-d loves us and welcomes us into an intimacy with Him with our limitations. We do not need to be perfect to be acceptable to Him.
Our real challenge is to imitate G-d's ways and love and accept ourselves as we are.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Taking Notice

Do you know the color of the eyes of the person you work with every day? Can you tell me what color dress your wife wore yesterday or what shoes your husband wore? Truth is most of us will have no idea. To many of things things that stare us in the face, literally, we pay no mind.
And, we will argue, perhaps correctly, that we do right. We point out, the things we take no notice of are of little consequence. But the question is, if we do not take notice how do we know that which we miss is of little consequence?

This Shabbat we conclude the four special Sabbaths that surround Purim and precede Pesach with Parshat Ha'chodesh. The reading of the Torah speaks of the first mitzvah given to the People Of Israel in anticipation of the Exodus, that of sanctifying the month on the basis of the sighting of the new moon. What is the meaning of this mitzvah in the life of the nation? Why is it given priority, so much so as to precede the liberation from Egypt and the giving of the Torah? And what significance does this mitzvah have to us that we read it yearly on a special Sabbath, particularly in our times where we have no 'beit din' to sanctify the months on the basis of the new moon?

If we are to see the Torah as a mirror revealing to us what we need to know inorder to become whole as persons and as a people I think the truth we are being shown is that all becoming begins with taking notice! What is the mitzvah of the sanctifying of the month if not a call to take notice. We cannot have holidays, we cannot perform the rituals associated with the holidays, we can not have a national/religious life without taking notice, notice of the small sliver of the moon as it emerges from obscurity into rebirth each month. All Jewish living starts with taking notice of the change in the sky. Its not a big change, and its one we might otherwise not recognize, anymore than we notice the color of our friend's eyes. Yet it is important that we be aware, that we live life with eyes wide open, that we see what needs to be seen, so that we can become who we need to become. The mitzvah which is prerequisite for all others and upon which all national growth and becoming depends is the mitzvah to take notice. If we as a people are blind to the messages our times and circumstances reveal we will forever remain compromised and stuck in our mediocrity.

If taking notice is vital to us as a people, how much more so is it essential for us as persons. Rav Wolbe in his sefer Aleh Shor, challenges us to learn at least three lessons each day from experience, from encounters we have in the world and with people. He emphasizes that living is meant to teach us. We receive regular invitations to insight, if only we will take notice.
How many people go through life singing loud never realizing they are off-key. And if we think of the above metaphorically, how many live lives off key, hurting others with there words and deeds seemingly oblivious. They never take notice of the impact they make on others. When confronted, sometimes after many years of hurtful behaviors, they will say "No one ever told me." In fact they were told many times, if not explicitly then by the reactions of others. It's not that they were not 'told'. It's simply that they refused to take notice of all the signs before their eyes!

To be alive is to use the world and our brothers and sister as our teachers. They reveal to us truths about ourselves we cannot get anywhere else. But usually the lessons will not be given to us directly. We need to be observant and watch the impact we make as we navigate life.

Moreover taking notice of others and how they react to life with its challenges and opportunities will teach us much about our own possibilities both for the good and bad. Not only does the Torah mirror each of us as individuals. Each person we encounter is a mirror as well. True we are not all the same. But we are all made of the same ingredients. And if someone else behaves in a way unlike us, either for the good or the bad, it begs to be noticed. In noticing we can consider the differences between us, explore the reasons, learn and grow. Turning a blind eye to difference is almost as bad as rejecting those who are different. In each case we shun the message difference has to teach us. We need to take notice of how others are not the same as us and learn from them so as to improve our selves.

The Torah teaches us all this when it prioritizes the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month on the basis of the sighting of the first glimpse of the new moon. The imperative is clear. Everything begins with taking notice.

Is it any wonder then that Pesach, our first holiday, and celebration of our nation's birth, in it's major observance, challenges us to take notice even of the crumb of chametz. All change, all growth, all becoming begins with taking notice. Our first spiritual call is to open our eyes!

Shabbat Shalom