Saturday, February 15, 2014

Character Counts: Cookie Thievery and Idolatry

(The following is my sermon from Shabbat Ki Tissa)

The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox*
A woman was waiting
At the airport one night,
With several long hours
Before her flight.
She hunted for a book
In the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies
And found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book,
But happened to see,
That the man beside her,
As bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two
From the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore
To avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies,
And watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie theif”
Diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated
As the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice,
I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took,
He took one too.
When only one was left,
She wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face
And a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie
And broke it in half.

He offered her half,
And he ate the other.
She snatched it from him,
And thought: “Oh brother!
This guy has some nerve,
And he’s also quite rude,
Why, he didn’t even show
Any gratitude!”

She had never known
When she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief
When her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings
And headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at
The “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane
And sank in her seat.
Then sought her book,
Which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage,
She gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies
In front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,”
She moaned with despair.
“Then the others were his
And he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize,
She realized with grief,
That she was the rude one,
The ingrate.  The thief!

Does this story resonate?   Maybe we haven’t been a cookie thief, but perhaps we laid on the car horn those extra three seconds just to make the point of how wrong that other driver was for cutting us off, only to realize that they had the green arrow and we actually had the red light?  Or maybe it happened when, in a ridiculous disagreement with a boss, or an employee, or a student or a teacher, or a child, or parent or a sibling or partner, we just knew we were right and the other was wrong, so we chose to belittle our counterpart because of how ridiculous their perspective or opinion was, only to come to see that they, in fact, were right all along?  
And the sad truth is that, just like in the Cookie Thief, often by the time we realize how wrong we were, it’s too late.  The cookies have already been eaten, the other driver has driven off, and the person we belittled has walked away.
And so I wonder: what is this tendency that drives us to perceive of ourselves as right and others wrong, to see ourselves as blameless victims and the others as purposeful offenders?
Well, let’s take a look at this week’s Torah portion, to see if it can offer us any insight.
The portion details arguably our ancestors’ worst moment in the Torah – the sin of the Golden Calf.  You know the story: after not seeing Moses for a long time (he’s been up on Mt Sinai with God getting the remainder of the commandments), the people determine that they need a visible connection to the Divine and call upon Aaron to build them a golden sculpture of a calf. Aaron obliges and in a frenzy, our ancestors bow down and worship what they’ve created.  It’s the #1 no-no in the book – idolatry, but they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong until the moment they see Moses come down the mountain with the stone tablets in his hands. And by the time they realize just how wrong they are, it’s already too late. 
What’s of note in the story, however, is not what the people do, but rather, what drives God to respond.  You see, while our ancestors are busy worshiping their idol, God becomes enraged and plans to wipe the people out.  But here’s the interesting part - what offense does God cite to justify the punishment?  Idolatry, right?  Wrong.  The text reads: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.  Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them so I will destroy them.”  The Israelites may have committed the crime of idolatry, but for what does God want to punish them?  Not their sinful act, but for a quality of their character, or in this case, the lack thereof - their stiff-neckedness – their obstinate nature.    
One of the late 19th century Mussar rabbis (Mussar being the ancient Jewish practice of character cultivation) Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel writes about this seemingly strange response from God.  “From here we see that a defect in character is even worse than a defect in action – more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry.”1 According to Finkel, character flaws are more serious than sinful acts, because they alter who we are at the deepest level, as the divine image in us is damaged in the process.2 The eating of the cookies, the long blow on the horn, even the cruelties to other people – those are just the surface results of a much deeper problem.  It’s why the Cookie Thief story’s ending resonates so deeply.  When we get so caught up in our pride, our own perceived infallibility, our own insecurities, our own stubbornness, we actually become that which we are so quick to condemn. I imagine you’ve heard that the characteristics and behaviors we find most repelling in others are actually insights into those qualities we dislike in ourselves.   It’s why even Maimonides teaches that we don’t just repent for our deeds – we must repent for our negative character traits as well.  The trick is, fixing faulty character traits proves a lot harder than apologizing for our bad actions.3
Mussar tradition defines stubbornness as an inability to alter one’s opinion.  But even stubbornness in and of itself is not a root problem.  As it happens, stubbornness is actually a symptom of an even greater character flaw – a lack of humility.
From a Jewish lens, humility is a tricky concept that doesn’t just mean being modest.  Rather, humility is the quality that stands between conceit and self-debasement.  As Mussar teacher Rabbi Alan Morinis puts it: “Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather, a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life.  Arrogance [or stubbornness] has an insatiable appetite for space.  It claims. It occupies.  It sprawls.  It suffocates others…The opposite extreme is self-debasement.  Shrinking from occupying any space whatsoever, it retracts meekly inside itself….[but] whether we see ourselves as nothing or as everything, we are still pre-occupied with the self, and both of these traits are, therefore, forms of narcissism. In Jewish terms, they are two variations on the theme of idolatry.”4  Idolatry isn’t just something we demonstrate externally with sculpted forms and images.  The idols can actually be inside of us –hubris or meekness in some ways – idols more dangerous than the golden calf.  Morinis again: “Without humility, either you will be so puffed up with arrogance that you won’t even see what really needs some work, or you will be so deflated and lacking in self-esteem that you will despair of being able to make the changes that are lit up so glaringly in your self-critical mind.”5 Complicated stuff.
But all is not lost.  We don’t have to throw up and hands and declare: Once a cookie thief, always a cookie thief.  Rabbi Shai Held points out that just as bad character can yield bad action and then that bad action can feed back into our bad character in a vicious cycle, the opposite is true as well: “Good character is manifest in good behavior, and good behavior in turn helps instill good character.  If you want to train yourself to be more compassionate, for example, start by doing compassionate things.  Compassionate character yields compassionate behavior, which in turn deepens compassionate character, and so on in a virtuous cycle.”6 
I love this idea of a virtuous cycle.  It’s the cultivation of virtuous cycles that leads to teshuvah around the otherwise vicious cycle of character flaw.  Morinis challenges us to do the following: “…ask yourself this: Do you leave enough space in your life for others, or are you jamming up your world with yourself? Or is there space you ought rightfully to occupy that you need to stretch to do? Your answers are the measure of your humility.”7  And if you have work to do on this, start with an action.  Identify an area where you have space to relinquish or to take up, and try to cultivate something different.  If you tend to dominate conversations, take a step back and consciously try to listen.  If you tend to stay silent, challenge yourself to speak up and contribute.  And then do it again.  And again.  These little acts add up over time in a virtuous cycle to change not only the way we are perceived, but more importantly, the way we are. 
Shabbat Shalom

* Many thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for sharing "The Cookie Thief" with me and my IJS cohort.
1 R. Natan Zvi Finkel, Or HaTzafun, “Kashyut Oref”,p. 187 – as translated by Rabbi Shai Held in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 2014
2 R. Shai Held explores this idea extensively in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 5774
3 Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3)
4 Morinis, Every Day Holiness. P. 50.
5 Morinis. 46
6 R. Shai Held, Dvar Torah Ki Tissa
7 Morinis. p. 54.