Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Discover Happiness in the Sukkah

People think the pursuit of happiness justifies everything. As long as you're not obviously hurting someone else, liberal ideals say go right ahead, as long as it makes you happy. It's also an inalienable right and it would have been better if we could just get it without having to pursue it. Like Will Smith asks in the initial moments of sadness in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, 'how did the founding fathers know to call it the "pursuit" of happiness, and not just happiness?' Perhaps this unfortunate reality exposes random evolutionary roots, since pursuing happiness makes us competitive, constantly having to strive for more, and that outweighs the tendency to cause psychological dysfunction when we push too hard. But regardless of its origins, our perspective of happiness is that it is a right, but for some reason (or no reason) some people become successful and "make it," while others only pursue it.

From this point of view, the festival of Sukkos is utterly unintelligible. It's all about being happy - it includes a special mitzvah to constantly be happy for 7 days and it is called the "time of our happiness." But instead of rewarding ourselves with a luxury vacation or celebrating the good times when we were settled in our land or something like that, we build frail huts and live in them for 7 days and remember wondering in the desert. All of the eating and drinking and family time is not the Torah Mitzvah of the holiday, only living in a sukkah and shaking a "Lulav". It even says the festival of Sukkos lands at the beginning of winter as opposed to spring just to clarify that we're not doing it to enjoy the weather (even though originally the Jews actually started living in Sukkos in spring, when they left Egypt).

Happiness, which is called "Simcha" שמחה in the Holy Tongue, is the experience of something called שלימות, or completion. You can have a limited kind of Simcha in any completion of a goal, but real inner Simcha is in the completion of your purpose for living. You have to know the purpose of being Jewish is very big. Because there is no end to a Jew's potential your completion is by definition outside of yourself. You cannot reach it. But what you can do is much greater. You can be a dreamer. You can set yourself up to be in a state of going beyond your nature and reaching for your purpose. And if you do that, the process becomes just as special as the end goals. 

That is what Sukkos is. It's not our right to pursue happiness, it's our job and privilege to pursue completion and recognize how our heart finds happiness. Wandering the desert for 40 years was no piece of cake, even with miraculous protection. We could never get comfortable, ready to move at a moments notice to be with the divine presence. Encampments spanned everywhere from years to just days. The Mitzvos of Sukkos in all their halachic detail imprint on the subconscious of the Jewish soul the need to be vulnerable and flexible in order to jump on opportunities for completion as soon as they arise. And in that mode, you can realize happiness is not something you chase after - those are just ephemera. Happiness is just there in your heart when you notice the crazy stuff you do for a higher purpose.    

("מהר"ל ע"ז דף ג; ספר החינוך; ר' ירוחם ,שיבבי דעת "עליון שמתה מעונך)

  

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Back to Eden: Days of Judgment

The 10 days of repentance can be the most intense time of the Jewish year. From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur we stand before our Creator in judgment which determines our fate for the coming year. Life and death hang in the balance.
For the unlearned onlooker, it may seem like this is not a ritual of spiritual growth, but of backward thinking and extreme self-punishment. What kind of god is this that cruelly demands his people to lower themselves and beg for their lives? 
Let us understand.

In Jewish thought, strictness and judgment, what's called מדת הדין always follows loving-kindness or מדת החסד. The world at its point of inception is pure חסד. Hashem had no reason whatsoever to create the world, other than to have an "other" to give to. And all of life flows outward from that source. In the deeper holy books it is called the "River that goes out from Eden (as in the garden of Eden)". But in order to protect this heavenly flow of life and goodness, Hashem created דין in the world so that we should not be embarrassed by receiving free gifts and so that the light should not be tarnished. (ועיין דעת תורה בראשית פז' שכל הדינים בתורה הם ככלי זיין ששומרים לחסד)  

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, is called "Rosh" which means "head" because just like the rest of the body follows the head, the rest of the year follows this initial power of thought. Every year is a microcosm of creation, and its inception parallels the initial thoughts and deliberation with which Hashem created the world: Pure עיין מביט, קמה) חסד). Like we say in Davening זה היום תחילת מעשך זכרון ליום ראשון This day is the beginning of your actions, a remembrance of the first day. 

On Rosh Hashanah we read the Torah portion about Sarah Imeinu miraculously giving birth in old age after having become barren. The Shaarei Orah ('שער ט) says that we see in this portion a hint to the concept of Eden as a source of renewal in Sarah's words, "היתה לי עדנה" meaning that my menstrual cycle returned to me. Notice that she uses the word "עדנה," like Eden. Connecting to the source of life from its inception means no boundaries can limit the power of renewal.

Since דין has to be there to protect the חסד, the closer you get to the boundless חסד at its source, the stronger the דין has to be. In Jewish life, wherever you see intense judgment, you know there is a special opportunity for closeness. For example, when the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Gemara says the Babylonians found the two angelic figures that usually rested on the arc, which would normally either face toward or away from each other depending upon the Jewish nation's relationship status with Hashem. Amazingly, they found them embracing!

In halacha, those appointed to inflict punishment are required to be physically weak and exceedingly wise. Physically weak to reduce the intensity of the punishment, and exceedingly wise because they must understand that the punishment is only a secondary means of expressing the love and concern for the person being punished, and those intentions should be palpable in the punishment as well! (רמבם פ' ט"ו, סנ", ועיין פחד יצחק ראש השנה קונת' החסד מאמר ג' פ' ב-ג). 

These days are about going back to the love and kindness behind judgement. That's why this time of judegment is extended for 10 days and the easiest time for forgiveness. More than us begging Hashem, Hashem is begging us to wake up and allow Him to give to us.     



Friday, August 10, 2018

Choosing Life

I took a class in college called "social constructionism," that ironically ended up being one of my best experiences there. The theme of the class was that the way we relate to what is normal, real, or essential, is determined by social framing and custom. I say "ironically" because the take-away for most of the students was that everything is subjective and relative, and people can't be held responsible by any particular standard.

We watched some of the videos probably everyone with a liberal-arts education has seen - the Stanford Prison Experiment, hidden camera footage of unsuspecting subjects facing socially unsusual situations like people facing the wrong way in the elevator, and other similar footage. We spoke about things like Einstein's theory of relativity (without much scientific understanding of its content), nature and scientific classification, gender and gender roles.

It struck a chord. Subjectivity and social convention really play a central role in the way we relate to everything in our lives. But instead of sherking responsablitiy and casting doubt, I felt that if so much is relative then I'd better be careful about choosing the framework things are relative to. I felt relativism was the beginning of free-will, not the end. For example, if my perception of a prison gaurd will automatically influence me to behave in a certain way in that role, I have to decide carefully what that role means to me. If advertising can get me to think something is cool, I have to decide how I will relate to advertising. But how will I know I'm choosing the way things should be and not just falling into another predetermined kind of fallacy?

Years later, I discovered how the Torah reveals the depth of this question. Rabbenu Yona, a contemporary of Maimonides, wrote in his famous exposition on repentance, The Gates of Teshuva, that free will is among the higher qualities people can reach in spiritual growth. A puzzling statement, considering that free-will is a basic axiom of all Jewish thought. How can there be reward and punishment for average people if free-will is a special higher quality?

The answer is free-will itself is also relative. You can be an average person that mostly follows what is socially constructed, except for a small area that is left ambiguous for you to determine for yourself, or you can be a social constructionist and challenge the frames your society has set up. And  to rise above 'norms' and be an adjent of your own life you have to be more conencted to something which is higher than where you are at.

The way the Torah describes free will is much more than choosing between good and evil. It says "See, I have placed before you life and good, death and evil... Choose life." (Devarim 30, 15-16). Normally we think of "life" as something that just happens to us, not something we choose, and its defined by a period of time between birth and death that we don't control. But as usual, the Torah boldy teaches something we would not fully grasp otherwise.

The Maharal says "life" really means something fresh that constantly renews itself. The term Mayim Chaim, or "living waters" always means a water source which constantly renews itself because it's directly connected to its source. Our life comes from the Source of Life, and its by definition fresh and never just there because it was there before.

But Hashem empowered us to choose: Follow physical instincts and social influences, or choose life, base life on a chosen reality and not a circumstantial, passive one. With free-will you align your personal perspective with a Torah framework and G-d's vision for the world so to speak. And because Torah goes beyond any local paradigms, there's no pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and there are levels upon levels, as infinite as anything.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Trust your Wife

Every Friday night, at the start of the Shabbos meal, Jews have the custom to sing the song אשת חיל, or "Woman of Valor," an excerpt from Proverbs written by King Solomon praising the Jewish Woman. The custom may be in part to praise the woman of the house for preparing the Shabbos table, but we still sing it even if there were no women involved. What are we singing about if it is not the woman of the house?

The answer is the Torah is also called an אשה, a woman or a wife. The Gemara in Kudishin (30a) learns that the use of this word for "wife" in a verse in Kohelet (also by King Solomon)  refers either to the obligation to teach one's son Torah, or to help him get married. (ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבתה, קהלת ט,ט).

In a certain respect, Torah is a wife. Just like a wife brings out a man's full expression in the physical world by bearing children, Torah also is essential in bringing a person out into the world.

Following this line of thought, the Vilna Gaon explains the verse in בטח בה לב בעלה" ;אשת חיל" (Her husband's heart trusts in her). He says it refers to trusting in the Torah that it will straighten a person's "מידות" (Middos) or character traits. Middos are much more than habits, or even temperament, they are the way a person expresses himself in this world, and they are essential in bringing out his hidden potential. Even Hashem has Middos. We can't conceive of what Hashem is in his essence - that is entirely beyond us. All we have is how he chooses to reveal himself to us through certain modes of expression. Similarly with people, although our essence is not entirely beyond understanding, the only way we know each other is through the way we express our selves in the world, and that depends on Middos.

But character traits are very complex and deep. Even a person who is conscientious and hardworking will find it beyond his reach to truly understand the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of his character and perfect them to allow a genuine and full expression of himself. Who knows if I am only going this way because of my biases, or maybe I'm missing something? Says the Vilna Gaon, that's what King Solomon's praise of the Torah is about. If a person is dedicated to learning and living by the Torah, he does not have to completely understand himself to know he is moving in the right direction. He can rest assured that his efforts will not go in vain because the Torah encompasses the whole spectrum of Middos in the original perfection and order with which Hashem created the world. So long as he is vigilant, the process will take him where he needs to go in actualizing his potential and bringing himself out. The man who makes the Torah as his "wife" experiences that security in his heart.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

I Want You To Like Me!

My Parents told me what it used to be like before there were cell phones. To meet up with a friend, you had to set up a time and place in advance, and then you would go and hope the other person would show up. And once you were there, you were there. You couldn't text up your other friends to meet somewhere else, or show your friend a viral video, or check your email. You just had to look the other person in the face and talk. The same thing with job interviews, dates, break-ups. I can just imagine how nice that must of been, or how boring, our worry about whether I would have been able to do that.

Our way is much more convenient and flexible, and we share more information, even personal information, than ever before. But I wonder if communication is about more than facts and signals.

The Rambam delineates several laws of speech in the laws of perspective (hilchot de'ot) section of the Mishnah Torah. There is one law that forbids lying - transmitting facts through speech that don't correspond to reality. This is called שקר (sheker) or falsehood. There is another law that forbids speaking in a way that the heart is not aligned with the mouth. This second law is said to be more severe than the first. Even fetuses, says the gemara, that have not come into the world and are not affected by the distortions of falsehood, curse such a person. This second kind of false speech is called חניפה (Chanifah), or flattery. Why should flattery be more stringent than regular lying if it can even be objectively true? What is this strange way of expressing the stringency of חניפה, and what does it teach us?

A fetus has a unique relationship with speech. It says that while he is in the womb, he learns the whole Torah, and with his pure wisdom can see to all ends of the earth. But before he is born, an angel hits him on the mouth and he forgets the whole Torah. It's explained that this hit on the mouth gives him the power of speech, and it is the very power of speech that causes him to forget.

This is no bed-time story - it's higher wisdom clothed in earthly terms. It means a person comes into the world having an inner connection to a higher truth that he cannot express until he "remembers" - learning Torah is called remembering because you find the words for that which was always close to the soul. In a nutshell, a fetus is born into the world to "bring out" his inner potential by learning to express and act on his ideals and partner in the creation of a world that reflects the Torah that precedes the world.

So back the the Rambam. There is one kind of speech that is about sharing information, and for that there is the prohibition of שקר. But there is a second kind of speech that is essential for a person sent out into an external and confused world to reconnect upstairs and make it real here. For that kind of speech there is the prohibition of חניפה, a way of speaking that only pretends to connect from the inside but is really just playing nice. This kind of transgression may seem less severe - after all, it can be objectively true. But the Torah teaches that it damages the platform that supports the reason for a fetus to leave his pristine pre-world, all-spiritual existence. It makes this world lonely because people don't expect to hear the speaker when they hear his speech. It makes a world where people can be together externally and share all of there personal information, but can't really connect because the medium does not support it.

We are accustomed to praising the benefits of individuality and freedom, and the sensitivities of political correctness. To tell someone else he is wrong is mean and colonial. But where does that leave us? The opposite of חניפה is called תוכחה (Tochachah) or rebuke. It means more than just suggesting to reconsider or change. It is a special power we have to reveal to someone else something in our internal world that obligates him to change. Shlomo Hamelech in Proverbs calls the Torah itself תוכחה. In order to be connected it must be understood that what one person thinks is right and wrong carries weight for others. Isn't it a core part of hope for humanity that we can do more than just tolerate each other and get along? The Jewish hope, at least, is that we live in a world that is united spiritually, that my inner sense of what is right and wrong, and how the world should be, really means something to you and has consequences and vice-versa. A world where our speech is more than an exchange of information and more than white noise and flattery; where speech is a medium for genuine expression.

It might be risky and uncomfortable, but have to learn to be real and handle the rough and tough with each other face to face, learn to relate to the speaker behind the speech. I'm not saying we should be insensitive and say what ever we feel like, or assume that we know what's right and no one else does - on the contrary. I'm just saying, I wonder if when people say we live in a post-truth world, they've given up hope. And when we pour all that personal information out there, are we connecting or saying "I want you to like me?"

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Is Marriage Private?

It may seem a little funny for hundreds of people to gather in celebration of one couple's marriage. After all, the decision to marry is arrived at through a very private, internal process that can only be appreciated by the man and woman themselves. And the experience of married life is also extremely personal. Why does Jewish tradition celebrate marriage communally? Does it emphasize communal life at the expense of privacy, and the delicacy of personal experience?

The Torah actually stands out, as a drama, for the importance and power it gives to private experience. Whereas in Greek drama the climax takes place in the presence of a chorus, Torah's heroic moments take place hidden from the public eye, when Avraham Avinu tells his servants to stay behind as he climbs up Mount Horiah to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, or when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies alone on Yom Kippur. These moments when we're alone with Hashem can be the most defining.

But while the quality of the experience of marriage may be defined by what goes on in private, it cannot be initiated without witnesses. In fact, marriage, specifically, requires witnesses for the event to carry any halachic significance, as opposed to other kinds of agreements where witnesses only serve to prevent lying. No matter how committed they are, and how extensive and poetic their vows, a couple is not married unless there were two kosher witnesses involved.

The concept of private connection in Judaism is encompassed by the term קדושה "Kedushah". Weakly translated as holiness, it means a special, private and all-absorbing kind of connection. Kedushah always includes two aspects, like two sides of a coin. The first is a complete and total separation and removal from everything, and the second is a unique and specific connection formed by virtue of that separation. It's a theme that appears throughout all of Judaism, most apparently in the relationships of man and woman, and Israel and G-d. For example, Marriage is made up of two parts, the first is called "Kiddushin," which is a commitment of fidelity, today customarily an exchange of a ring, and the second is called "Nissuin," which is the first official private co-inhabitance of the married couple.

A Jewish home is compared to the "Mishkan," the holy temple. The Mishkan was a microcosm. Every part and every vessel paralleled different parts of the world, from the stars to the earth. The Mishkan is the place where Hashem's presence is most palpable. The Jewish way to establish a relationship is to make it more than an important part of our life - it has to be a whole world unto itself.

Kedushah is the true way to be totally connected and present in the world of the relationship created solely for that purpose. It is because marriage is founded on Kedushah that there is nothing shameful about it and it's not an excuse to close the doors so no one will intrude. Even though it is essentially a private world, Kedushah is also the secret of all Jewish life and continuity. The Jewish people as a whole live and thrive on Kedushah, and each individual soul thrives on its connection to the eternal collective.

L'Chaim! 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Where Do We Belong?

The Exodus from Egypt was the birth of what is called the 'עם ה “Nation of G-d.” Before then, the fathers of the Jewish people, their spiritual and genetic predecessors, did not have national status. Avraham Avinu was honored and recognized as a unique and influential individual, who swam against the current. He was called העברי Ha’Ivri, which means the one who was עובר, who crossed over, because while he stood on one side, the world stood on the other. And Jewish converts are called "ben Avraham," son of Avraham. He represented, in a sense, something like counter-culture.

The funny thing about counter-culture is it has a certain power and attraction by virtue of its very marginality, while at the same time its goal is to proliferate its ideology and gain acceptance in established society. Meaning that paradoxically, the very success of a counter-cultural movement entails its downfall. Many music fans feel disappointed when their beloved niche band lands a hit song, despite their desire for the art of their heroes to be appreciated and their disdain for the popular radio-station’s playlist. And many revolutionary movements whose leaders once boasted of equality have ended up seizing dictatorial power once the establishment had been overthrown, lest the movement’s organically strong following meet resistance from new counter-cultural dissidents.

To understand a little better, lets learn about the Torah's description of displaced, or marginal people. The word Ger (גר) literally means a person who has left his birthplace, and it comes from the word לגור, which means to live in a place. There is a particular kind of pain and vulnerability a person feels he does not belong. He feels he cannot depend on what he is used to, or the resources of his established network. There can be a certain humility in this that anyone can appreciate.


When a Jew loves his fellow Jew who is a convert, he fulfills two Mitzvot with one stone – To love your fellow Jew, and to love the Ger. The verses’ reason for the second mitzvah is “because you were Gerim in Egypt.” The early commentators explain that there is a certain quality in a people that empathize with someone who has left his place of origin to join the Jews that is befitting of a Nation of G-d. Everyone admires this quality and it merits a special connection with G-d. The reverse is also true – it is shameful for someone who has גרות in his origin to disrespect a Ger and act as if he were not similar to him. (מום שבך אל תאומר לחברך, ב"מ נח)


The גרות of the Jewish people is more than circumstantial. It is גרות in olam hazeh, in this world (גר אנוכי בארץ, תהילים קי'ט). A true student of Torah wisdom is connected to his spiritual origin, and feels a certain strangeness in being in this world. גרות in Egypt represents being a foreigner to the physicality that Egypt represents. The deeper significance of this is hinted at by the Sefer HaChinuch, who says that the Torah compares the love for a Ger to the love of “המקום” literally, “The Place,” which is one of G-d’s names, as it says “ואהבתה את ה' אלוקך,” And you shall love the Lord your God. It is essential to Jewish identity that we were slaves in a foreign land from inception, and that our roots were nurtured by wandering in the wilderness of the desert looking only to Hashem for sustenance.

The Maharal says that the Jews received the Torah in the desert so that it should not merely be a tool for promoting the well-being of society, rather it should be received as the eternal Good that comes from beyond this world (מהרל ג"ה פ' כ'ג, ת"י פ' כ'ו). But the Torah also had to be given to a "nation" so that Torah would be established in this world and become more than merely a marginal faction or individual ambition. Hence, the Jewish Nation receives the Torah as a nation of Gerim. That's why the Torah portion in which we receive the Torah is named "Yisro," after the first Jewish convert (עיין סדר היום קל'ה). It's a society that is neither settled nor anti-establishment, whose sole purpose is the integration in this world of something which is entirely beyond it. In this way, it is comparable to a counter-culture that does not lose its power by proliferating its ideology. Its strength of otherness remains, even when it becomes mainstream. 

This is why the Jews have been able to survive and retain their identity throughout a long and bitter exile. Any nation that is founded on having an established, comfortable place in the world would have quickly disintegrated and assimilated. We are unique because this world is not really our place. "המקום" is our place and He is our security. Even the Land of Israel is not our comfort - it is a place for us to carry out our special mission. We are constantly under attack and disproportionately examined by the nations of the world because we are not meant to be like everyone else.

But we are not alone. If we embrace our strangeness, the shame of our vulnerability will be our greatest pride, and then we will rest safely in our borders, and our purpose will be universally appreciated.