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