Friday, November 30, 2012

The Wholeness of Being Broken: My Brief Thoughts on Vayishlach

Avraham may have been the first Jew, but Yaakov is the first person to merit the name Yisrael.  This week offers one of of my very favorite Torah portions: Vayishlach.  It is the concluding parasha to the Yaakov and Esav narrative that began three weeks ago, when the twin brothers were conceived and born.  Primed in the womb for strife and conflict, emerging into the world  hand gripped tightly around his brother's heel, he is given the name Yaakov  (a direct link to the Hebrew word for heel: akev.)  Yaakov  - a soul defined by circumstance and experience, lives out much of his young life reacting to the reality that someone or something else has defined for him.  And after questionable birthright sales and maternally manipulated identity theft, Yaakov spends the next part of his life on the run, but not without an odd night vision of ladders and messengers and heights and depths.  Here, he walks away blessed, but nevertheless, bargaining, struggling, loving and learning, about living and choosing and doing on his own terms.  And only after this can he heal wounds ruptured two decades before, but not before an eerie night's encounter with another. When Yaakov, the one who entered the world hand gripped to foot now holds on so tightly, despite injury,  to his adversary/counterpart/self,  he earns a blessing, a new name: Yisrael.  No longer defined by his circumstance, transformed, this man becomes Yisrael - one who wrestles with the Divine.  Ultimately, Yaakov claims his own destiny on his own terms, without the manipulation of anyone else; it is when Yaakov becomes Yisrael that he truly becomes our forefather. With this new name and new purpose, one brother sees the other; with this new name and new purpose,  the brothers embrace and forgive; with this new name and new purpose, the man who was Yaakov becomes Yisrael, and only then is called shaleim - whole.
Wholeness comes with brokenness.  Holiness comes not in the victory, but in the wrestling, the struggling, the steps along the way.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Conflict in Gaza and Israel in 140 Characters or Less? or TheLessons We Can Learn from Berurya and Rabbi Meir

Last night on Twitter, Huffington Post's Religion section asked what people thought about the following post by a @HuffPostReligion follower: "At the heart of all this hate in the Arab-Israeli conflict is religion".  I responded, "Thinking the "heart" of this terribly complicated situation can be explained in 140 chrctrs or less = insult 2 all sides." 
They invited me to offer a larger comment.  Here it is:

I know 2 things for sure.  
1.  Not one of us knows the real, 100% truth of why this horrible violence has broken out between Israel and Gaza.  
2. Offering single word or sentence explanations that assert or place unilateral blame or causality is not only a waste of energy and time, but ultimately only fuels the vitriolic and vengeful fires burning  in the hearts and minds of so many, ultimately moving everyone away from any peace.    

There is absolutely no way to explain a single, simple cause for  this deep, immensely complicated and painful conflict and web of conflicts  in 140 characters or less on Twitter.  Or Facebook.  Or in a You Tube video.  Or a colorful graph or catchy graphic equating rockets raining in Israel to what that would be like in New York City.  Or posting up pictures of victims of violence and war as a means of somehow justifying one side or the other.   

I believe firmly in the right of Israel, like any sovereign nation, to defend itself against violence towards its people.  My heart aches for Israel and Israelis hunkered down in bomb shelters, not knowing when a rocket may be fired or where it may land.  And yet, my heart also aches for Palestinian people hunkered down in their own homes.  A child killed by a rocket or missile's blast in Gaza is no different than a child killed by a rocket or missile's blast in Israel.  The wails of their fathers and mothers reach the same octave heights and depths, and the composition of their tears is identical.  And I'll tell you something: the conversation about who started it will provide no solace to the families of the victims on either side.   The fantasy that long-term solace might be found in blood-revenge only proves a long-standing myth when your loved-one remains dead.  

A couple months back, I re-read a passage in the Talmud from Brachot 10a that has stayed with me over the years.   It details a disagreement between Beruryah and her husband Rav Meir, where Berurya sways his opinion and behavior on a matter of prayer.  I always understood its significance as one of the Talmud giving legitimacy to the opinion and rights of a female voice.  But rereading it at the end of the summer, I decided it is so much more significant than that!

Here is text translated into English in bold with included commentary from the Koren translation unbolded:

There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish.  Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die.  Rabbi Meir's wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse as it is written: "Let sins cease from the land? (Psalm 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? Is it written, "sinners"? "Sins" is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves. Moreover, go to the end of the verse: "and the wicked will be no more." If, as you suggest transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more i.e. that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, if they repent, then the wicked will be no more as they will have repented. Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented.

So Berurya teaches her husband a lesson about mercy over vengeance, life over death.  This is significant not because Berurya is a woman, but because of Berurya's back story.  Berurya herself is a survivor of terrible trauma and terror.  Her father, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion was martyred, along with her entire family over time, and tragically both of her children died in her lifetime as well.  If there were ever a person to justifiably side with vengeance, it would be Berurya.  But instead she invokes mercy, rachamim (as it says in the text), for her voice.  And by intoning the voice of mercy, she changed the action and prayer of her husband, and in doing so, effected peace.  

The voice of rachamim, as difficult and complicated and even painful as it can be, needs to be the loudest sound we intone and hear these very violent days.  Let it drown out the screaming sirens of hate and lies that loom large on the currents of the internet and airwaves.  Neither you nor I will not stop this conflict, but, like Berurya did for her husband, we may change the mind and behavior of  another person from vengeance toward mercy, and who knows what difference that may make for someone else. 

So whatever side, whatever faith:  pray for mercy, pray for peace.  Act in mercy, act in peace.  Speak in mercy and speak in peace. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spirituality of Concession and Acceptance Speeches and the Quality of Chesed

I'll admit it: I cried last night when they announced the winner of the Presidential election, and not just tears of joy.   I felt, well, bad for the other candidate, his staff, his voters - all the people who had put their heart and soul into his campaign, only to come away defeated.  I wasn't upset about the fact they lost in terms of the country's future; I was sad because I put myself in their shoes, and imagined how I would feel if I were them. And that made me feel - sad.  Because all potential presidents, political parties, and even PACs have one thing in common: they are all made up of living, breathing, feeling people.

And then I started thinking about what both candidates had been thinking and feeling over the course of the evening.  I've never been behind the scenes in a presidential campaign, but I imagine that the Tuesday evening of Voting Day, between say 7pm and 11pm, proves a challenging time.  What do they do while they wait? Do they put on sweat pants?  Do they meditate on the number 270 or play games with maps of red and blue puzzle pieces that they move in and out in different hypothetical sequences?

I imagine part of their time is spent reviewing and prepping speeches, two in particular, one of which they'll have to deliver just a few hours later.  I wonder what that feels like for each of them, reading aloud statements which force them to imagine life moving forward as both winner and loser when the reality remains undetermined. And, because they never seem to do it in real-time when actually delivering one of those speeches, I wonder if that is when they cry?  Cries of victory and loss, exhaustion and exhilaration, all wrapped up in one, because for that moment, they each live in both the world of winner and loser, and they each get a taste of their contender's future reality and their own, all at once.

In many ways, if that speech rehearsing actually occurs, it might be the most deeply spiritual part of the campaign for the candidates.  The 18th Century master Chasidic teacher Simcha Bunem of Przysucha's famously taught:

"Each person should designate two pockets.  In one should be the verse from Genesis 18:27, "I am dust and ashes." And in the other, the passage from Sanhedrin 37, "For my sake was the world created."  According to need, the person should draw out the message from either pocket."

And the 19th Century Chasidic teacher Yechiel of Alexander expanded on that saying:

"When the Evil Impulse wants to show a person how great he or she is, or of the greatness of his or her acts of achievements..., in order to bring him or her into the power of arrogance and self-centeredness, the person should draw out the scrap that reads, 'I am dust and ashes."  When the Evil Impulse wants to snare a person in the net of sadness and depression and show his or her failures, the person would draw strength from the scrap that reads, "For my sake was the world created."

What more direct translation of this could there be than the possession and rehearsal of both an acceptance and concession speech?

I wonder if the defeated candidate will hold on to the boost he likely felt when he practiced his acceptance speech?   And if the presidential-elect will hold on to the self-diminution he likely experienced while practicing his concession words?  And just how long does that “emotional after-burn” stay with them, their respective parties, staff members, and with us? 

Like me, many of my friends were delighted at last night's election results, however not all of them were.  Last night, a high-schooler at my congregation who I know and respect posted on Facebook how devastated he felt and how worried he was about the country and his own future moving forward.  I am saddened for him and those who feel as he does. We don't see eye to eye politically, but we share our country and its leadership together.  What matters to him matters to me because he is someone about whom I care.  But if the two pocket teaching calls us to humility internally, then how do we reach across the proverbial line in action?

In Netivot Shalom, 20th Century commentator Rabbi Sholom Noach Berzovsky raises up the importance of the quality of chesed, which means something like: kindness, loving-kindness, or mercy.  In it, he posits that each day a person does not engage in chesed , the day is rendered null and void, as if the day never happened. Put more simply, lack of chesed stops progress or even moves us backwards.  If we are to move forward in the life of our country toward restoration and improvement for us all, it cannot begin with put downs and actions that discredit and debase the perceived opposition.  Instead, it must start for us with acting on the attributes of kindness and mercy,  putting ourselves in the place of the other, broadening our view through adding theirs to our own, and starting the bridge-building conversations that have been put on hold for the past year.  If we do reach out in chesed, we will, as Berzovsky teaches, build our world again, anew, together.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Have You Donated Yet?

I hear the subways are up and running, albeit on modified schedules, in the New York metro area today - an amazing feat in contrast to the images of them completely submerged in Sandy's turbulent waters just four days ago.  Life goes on, as the saying goes.

But I contrast that with the 65 year old woman from Staten Island whose house literally dissolved to pieces as it was washed away along a reedy-landscape.  As she balances on a path made of 2x4's and pulls through the tangled web of reed-grass and the soaked and now rotting remnants of her pre-Sandy life, I wonder how life will go on for her.

I have nothing wise to contribute to this conversation that hasn't already been said. No insights that offer comfort to those in need.

And while prayers and poems and prose may provide comfort to those of us with access to heat, with our lives and memories still on our home's walls, tucked away safely in closets and drawers, I can't imagine they provide much of anything for those whose lives are literally strewn across landscapes, buried and dissolving in the mucky, toxic ruins of water and mud and ash.

What I know is that each of us who can provide  hands to help must do so.  Each of us who can give money to support the recovery of lives, of homes, of communities, must do so.

Below are a few recommendations.  If you can't decide which to donate to, I would suggest you do as my family did, and contribute to each.  If you would like more recommendations, please message me and I can provide a fuller list.

The American Red Cross
The URJ Disaster Relief Fund
The Jewish Federations of North America Relief Fund
American Jewish World Service (who supports relief work in Haiti - hit first by Sandy - still recovering from the devastating earthquake more than 2 years ago)