Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Faith, Trust, and Kindergarten

Thank you to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer (aka @imabima) for her wonderful #blogElul endeavor. This combines themes of days 5 and 6 – trust and faith - since to me, they are, if not one and the same, integrally and inexorably tied together.

Tomorrow, my oldest child begins Kindergarten, and I’m not sure who’s more nervous. My sweet, sensitive, 95-year-old-Jewish-man-trapped–in-the-body-of-5-year-old son has expressed numerous concerns, ranging from: “What if I don’t make friends?” to “Where will the bathrooms be?”   I tell him not to worry, that it won’t be so different from his cherished preschool in my synagogue (where everyone knows him, where is he most comfortable outside of our home) - but I know it will be completely new and very different.  He will not have the security blanket of teachers and staff who’ve known him since he was born, his small group of friends (none of whom will be in his kindergarten) or having me just down the hall in my office.  And this is where my anxieties kick in: What if he really doesn’t make friends?!  What if he really can’t find the bathroom?!

(My son on his first day of preschool)

I know, I know.  Every yoga class I've taken to every Wendy Mogel book or article I've  taught in a parenting group instructs what I know I need to do: Take a deep breath, and as I exhale, let it all go: trust that he will make friends and find the bathroom, have faith that if he doesn't, he'll figure out solutions for himself and as a result, grow in a way that nurtures his self-confidence and faith.  And if the real and best desire is for my son to grow and mature with self-sufficiency and grace, then as I exhale, I will have to unclench my hand from his and then let him go through that Kindergarten classroom door without me. 

This is, of course, not just about Kindergarten, and I hope it is not an issue limited only to me; it is yet another reminder that the sense of control to which many of us cling so tightly is nothing more than an illusion, perhaps even an idol, a false-god that ultimately only obstructs the real trust and faith we need to cultivate.

There are a lot of words for trust and faith in Hebrew, but the one I like best is emunah.  The root for emunah is AMN and a form of it (he'emin) is used in Torah to describe Avram's faith and trust in God1 - a faith that culminates in a lengthy covenant statement.  Of note is that the context of the covenant describes the promise of a great nation, but also includes the struggles that the people will go through - their significant oppression - and then their ultimate return. 

When we trust and believe, we are not trusting and believing that everything will go according to our preconceived plan or vision; rather, we are trusting and believing that regardless of what happens, we will be able to navigate whatever path we tread; that the bumps and potholes on the road might have the same or even a greater potential for holiness than the smooth paths along our way.

The famous Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted the word amen (derived from the same AMN root) in a most meaningful way. More than "so may it be," Hirsch said: “Amen does not refer to the contents of the pronouncement, but to the person.”  Really amen means "So may I be."2

Tonight, while putting my son to bed, we sang Shema and V'ahavta and then, given the onset of this new occasion, we sang Shehechiyanu. As we finished the word "ha'zeh,"  I closed my eyes and took that deep breath.  I prayed for the trust and faith to embrace this transition in our family and my son's life, and for the insight to walk along this next pathway with presence but trust and faith in my son’s strength as well.  "So may I be," and together we sang "amen."

1 Breishit 15:6
 2 Thanks to Rabbi David Stern in Dallas for first sharing Hirsch’s interpretation of amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spiritual Cardiac Conditions?

(originally written for and published by Rabbis for Human Rights North America)

Do Not Harden Your Heart: A D'Var Torah for Parshat Re'eh

v’al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev
For the sin we have sinned against You through hardness of heart."

On Yom Kippur, the sin of hardening our hearts appears second in the long list of confessional phrases we intone over and over. This sin also shows up in this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, which marks the beginning of Elul—the Hebrew month of reflection preceding the High Holy Days. But unlike the Vidui liturgy, which offers no context or details of this spiritual cardiac condition, Re'eh ties this hardened internal state to our external relationships with those less powerful than ourselves: the poor and needy.

In the sixth aliyah of Re'eh, Devarim 15:7-8, the Torah instructs:

" not harden your heart,
nor shut your hand from your poor brother;
but you shall surely open your hand wide to him,
and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need..."

The structure of the text here is noteworthy, offering two negative and two positive commands, each seemingly related to the other through chiastic form (ABBA). The second negative command not to close our hand to the poor is paralleled by the words that immediately follow, demanding that we open our hand wide. The combination of these oppositional images emphasizes that when we respond to the poor with our hands—in other words, with physical actions—we must give willingly and generously; our hands must be open.

But the first negative command and the final positive command in this structure are not, at first glance, a fitting pair. The negative command not to harden our heart relates to the realms of feeling and emotion, leading us to anticipate that the positive command counterpart would do the same. However, providing someone with what they need—the subject of the positive command—relates to our physical actions, and thus we have an apparent mismatch.
Maimonides' interpretation of the phrase from the final positive command at issue—"sufficient for his need"—helps us makes this apparent mismatch a match. He comments: "If [the poor person] has no clothing, he should be provided clothing; if he has no house furniture, it should be procured for him.... Even if an impoverished person is used to riding while a servant is running in front of him, a riding horse should be procured for him and a servant to run in front."1 The plain reading of Maimonides' remarks is that we are to go to whatever lengths necessary to provide for the particular needs of each poor person. Our physical actions should not be limited to a "one-size-fits-all" solution. But Maimonides' approach goes further still: Maimonides is pushing us to go beyond our often dehumanized view of "the poor" as a broad category and instead to see each individual as a real person with unique and varying needs. In this way, Maimonides enables us to see how the prohibition against hardening one's heart and the positive command to provide everyone with what is sufficient for their needs complement each other: they are a combined call for a humanized awareness, free of desensitization and stereotyping, underlying any action we take to help those in need.

When Shabbat Parshat Re'eh concludes, we will have 40 days until Yom Kippur. Perhaps, if we take up Re'eh's charge to open our hearts and hands to those around us in need, we will both deepen our own teshuvah process of returning to the best of who we can be, and create a more sustainable and equalized existence for those around us as well.

u’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah maavirin et roah hagzerah
but repentance, prayer, and tzedakah temper judgment's severe decree."

1 Mishnah Torah, MatanotAniyim 7:3