Thursday, March 12, 2020

Where Are We Headed These Days? (Purim)

Many people think life is simple and easy as a religious Jew. You've got all the rules set up for you black on white, and if you'd like to know G-d's plan, or why bad things are happening... Your Rabbi will conveniently throw down some Torah wisdom for you to naively accept on faith.

Nothing challenges this point of view more than the Purim story. At first glance it sounds like every other Jewish story: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat! But when you really line up the facts the complexity of the Megillah is almost unbearable. For example, while Esther and Mordechai go down in history as the righteous who brought about the redemption of the Jewish people, they themselves lived tragic lives. Esther was orphaned as a child, married to Mordechai according to one opinion, and then forced to marry a merciless cutthroat politician who was not Jewish, Achashverosh, and bear a child from him who would also never consider himself Jewish, while Mordechai watched and assisted her. And Mordechai was scorned by other leading Rabbis of his generation for his involvement in politics after the events of the Purim story. And the national experience likewise carried tragic elements. For one, those elders who had been alive to see the First Temple in its splendor cried upon seeing the Second because of its notable lack of Heavenly Presence and miraculous intervention. The Jews were very far from complete redemption and would only continue to drift further for over a thousand years, to this day.

This complexity is part and parcel of the miracle and message of Purim: The individual's utter joy and connection to the Jewish People's destiny and to Hashem even amongst the darkest of times. The Megillah begins with the words, ויהי בימי אחשורוש, and it was in the days of Achashverosh. The Midrash says the words ויהי בימי connotes anguish. The Maharal explains (אור חדש פ א) "and it was in the days..." is the experience of time passing without past or future. It is painful because it means constant change without certainty or direction. It is in this setting that the story takes place, from start to finish. Purim was established as a holiday for all generations because it reveals a masterful hidden design of events within darkness and confusion. Through the Megillah, the Jewish People received a supernatural strength to experience complete confidence and happiness on the inside amidst apparent lack of hope and direction on the outside.
שניתן לחוות את זה שהזמן עצמו הוי זימון והכנה לקראת תכלית בלי הוספה של דעת ליעד מסוים כמו אצל שאר מועדים

The life of a Jew is sublime, but not simple in practice. Although we believe there is always a direction and an answer, to see it and understand it is something else altogether. However, what we can and must do is look around at the chaos and darkness and courageously say "I don't know," while we rejoice like a disoriented drunkard on the inside as we witness the secret workings of Destiny, to which our role is absolutely essential.


Friday, November 23, 2018

אהבת חסד Loving Kindness

Rav Eliyahu Dessler elucidates something counter-intuitive in the nature of human relationships. Normally we think love happens when you find common ground with someone and identify with them. Only after that you love them and automatically give to them. But it's actually just the opposite. Love which is stable happens through giving - meaning, when you give to someone, you identify with them because of the investment you made in them, and then you love them in a stable way. This concept, says Rav Dessler, is expressed in the word אהבה which can be broken down in Aramaic to א - meaning "I", and הב, meaning "give". 

But we learn from the Chafetz Chaim that חסד, or giving, is about more than being an investor. He points out that the Torah's requirement of חסד is different than other Mitzvos. While we don't find it saying anywhere that you have to love tefillin or love matzah, when it comes to חסד the prophet Michah says Hashem requests אהבת חסד, to love giving.

Truly expanding your self-love to include someone else takes more than "investing." That would still be selfishness, essentially, and it may not produce the effect Rav Dessler wants. Part and parcel of genuine giving is אהבת חסד, loving חסד and being happy about the fact that love works this way.

The human need to identify and connect with others, which must be fulfilled by becoming other focused and giving, reveals that giving and goodness are built into the foundations of the world - עולם חסד יבנה. It shows that the world Hashem created is fundamentally good. That's why a real giver doesn't just love the feeling of expansiveness he gets from seeing all the people he has contributed to, rather he loves to see anyone give to anyone because it reveals this beautiful secret about the world.

It's built into every aspect of life, psychologically, economically, etc. that it is not good for Man to be alone לא טוב היות האדם לבדו. But once Man rises above living only for himself, it not only gets rid of the לא טוב, the "not good" of being alone and having unfulfilled needs. It becomes "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" "וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאוד"

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 an inalienable right, and our misfortune is that we can't get it without having to pursue it. As Will Smith's character  reflects in the 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 misfortune exposes the randomness of humanity - pursuing happiness makes us competitive, constantly having to strive for more. It's like we're chasing a carrot on a stick, and the evolutionary advantage of it makes it natural even if noone knows what's so great about this carrot and why we're always chasing after 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 reminiscing on 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 central 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 goal. 

That is what Sukkos is. It's not our right to just have happiness, it's our job and privilege to pursue completion and recognize how our heart finds happiness in that. 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 avoid being lazy and stagnant in order to jump on opportunities for completion as soon as they arise. And in that mode, you can realize happiness is not a carrot on a stick. Happiness is 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?"