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 beginning 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 saying more than "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.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Boredom Is Not Real

Probably one of the biggest guilty pleasures today is drama binging. Download or record your favorite TV series and watch the whole season, 10 or 20 hours, in one sitting. For a little while, you escape to this alternate reality, your mind flooded with scintillating images, every breath holding on for the next step of the plot - who will win, who will die, who will reveal his super-power or his hidden plan, how will he get out of this one... 

You identify with the hero, his ambitions, his desire to survive, and the evil of the antagonist. You want to know what happens next, but the pleasure of it isn't as much in finding out what happens as being immersed in the world of the story. And the way you experience that immersion is identifying with the struggle of "good" and "evil," however they may be defined by the story.  

There are different kinds of desire. One kind is wanting to getting a satisfaction of some pleasure, like the physical pleasue of icecream, for example. Another kind is a desire to be totally immersed and connected in something. 

I think what pulls you in to drama is what the Torah calls רצון. It could be translated as desire, but it's really much more than that. The Torah uses the word נפש, or soul, (אם יש את נפשכם Genesis 23) to mean רצון. It means a person's ability to connect. The נפש connects a person's body to his soul and links him up to his life source. To desire something with ratzon is like putting your very soul into it - it is a much deeper desire and pleasure that makes you feel life is exciting. Kind of like being in love. Love is more than just having a physical attraction - your whole sense of self is immersed in it and connected. 

The fulfillment of רצון is called "good." When life is exciting you feel there is a bigger picture your plugged into and things fit together and have meaning. That's "good." That's why drama is immersion in a struggle of good and evil. Evil is when things are disconnected and everything is meaningless. Good is when things come together, and that's what you want.

Of course, we know that once the binge is over, you can't do much to keep it going besides joining a fan-club and reminiscing with other geek-fans. The whole world you were immersed in was a fantasy. If the only way you get this kind of pleasure is through fantasy, you're likely to get bored, and be nostalgic, and possibly even get addicted.

But there is a way to engage your רצון in real life in a way that doesn't crash after. That's what Purim is about: the drama of real life. A drama feeds you a series of events in a certain order, and from a certain perspective to draw you into the story and a struggle of good and evil. Megillas Esther is a revelation of how a series of mundane events were actually an epic struggle of good vs. evil. Mordechai and Esther were able to follow the story and connect the dots. They were able to bring the bigger world of "Good" vs "Evil" without open miracles that defied nature, or a climactic finish you only see in the movies. Even after the triumph of Mordechai over Haman, the world remained in a state where the Torah reality was hidden. Esther was still married to the non-Jewish, corrupt king Achashverosh, and Achashverosh still maintained his seat of power over the whole world. The world was still complex and dark. But they brought out the drama and showed there was a battle of a connected, meaningful world view vs. a nihilistic, random world view, even without seeing a clear and total triumph of good vs. evil.  

From Purim we learn to tap in to the epic struggle of "Good" and "Evil" that's going on in the world when things can seem random or chaotic. The ideals and the driving force that's connecting everything is the Torah, and Purim inspires us to accept the Torah with love because its the only way we can really engage our רצון that is sustainable. 

The message of Purim to carry away is: Train your eyes to see the drama of "Good" and "Evil" in your life. There's no such thing as boredom. With Torah, real life is a riveting experience that you can put all your heart and soul into if you're looking through the right lenses. You can get a profound level of pleasure from just being alive. You just have to be open to it, search with wisdom, and listen to the inner desire to immerse yourself, body and soul. 

      

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Heaven On Earth

"Says Rava: A man is obligated to drink (on Purim) until he doesn't know the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai" (Megillah, 7a).

Here we are, celebrating the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, wherein the evil Haman and his supporters are killed as the saintly Mordechai rises to power, and the way we celebrate is... by getting too drunk to recognize the difference between the two? Granted, it's not unusual for people to get drunk at a party, but this is supposed to be the spiritual opportunity that the Ari'zal says is greater the Yom Kippur! (The Ari'zal famously says Yom Kippur is called "Yom HaKippurim" in the Torah because "Keh-Purim" also means "like Purim." In other words, it approximates Purim in its greatness.)

The answer follows my previous post. On the inside, we know the external world we live in doesn't really reflect what we know inside to be true. Enjoyments are temporary and weak, people are given credit they don't deserve, and there is even evil in the world. 

At the same time, we have this need to build and grow, actualize our potential, and tell right from wrong. Some philosophies attribute this to "ego." Not so in Judaism. The same אני, the "I" that senses the strangeness of our existence also demands that its reality be actualized and honored. The same thing that says we live in transition also says we should have a home.

Inorder to bring that world that is beyond externality here, we need revelation. The Torah that was revealed at Sinai is called תורה מן השמים, Torah from Heaven. The word שמים, heaven, can also be read as the plural of the word שמ, which means "there," or a destination. שמים is the "place" of destinations or ends. The word for land or earth, ארץ comes from the word רץ which means to run. The Jewish soul that doesn't ignore the inner conflict of transience and permanence demands that there be some way of having heaven on earth. That is Torah. The only way we can be in a world that is constantly running and vanishing and still have the permanence of true existence.

But why can't we just skip to the true existance part and forget about this whole existential conflict? Why did G-d make us this way?

This world is a transition to the world to come. But the world to come is not just a removed concept or fantasy - it is a world of Truth where nothing gets in the way of experiencing who you really are. Eternity means it doesn't depend on circumstances or time - everything just is what it is essentially and that's it. It's purely experiencing the destination. But it has to happen through this world. Like it says in Pirkei Avos (4,22), "one moment of returning to reality (teshuvah) and good actions in this world is more beautiful than all of life in the world to come, and one moment of serenity in the world to come is more beautiful than all of life in this world." Only by creating ourselves in this world can we experience the Truth of who we have become, or of our becoming. But those who are attentive can sense that supernal light seeping through special people even here in this world aswell.

The happiness of Purim is accepting Torah out of love. It means appreciating that the Torah gives meaning to a transient world and that we're here to be a part of something way bigger than what we can possibly understand right now. So we drink until Haman and Mordechai, good and evil, external falsehood and internal truth, all blend together until the life that reaches beyond all of it shines through.     

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Perfect Moment (?)

Why did the chicken cross the road? To post it on facebook of course! What other reason could there be for crossing the road? Getting to the other side just isn't as exciting or arousing. And things are always supposed to be exciting and arousing... aren't they?

If you look around, you see attractive looks, impressive titles accolades. You see a series of idyllic freeze frames with just the right smiles and just the right lighting, HD, the music just right in the background. Perfect.

Perhaps, amidst all of this, a nervousness shuffles inside, rumbling and foreboding. If it would speak, it would say, "Why can't I be like that? Why am I different?" As much as you want to get into it, the perfection of the moment you anticipated doesn't really land the way you feel it should.

The Gemara (Nedarim, 9) tells of a young shepherd with beautiful eyes and locks of hair who is praised for being a rare case of appropriately becoming a nazarite (a vow to abstain from wine for a limited time and shave your head). He saw his reflection in a well, felt his creative powers aroused, and said to his evil inclination "Evil one! Why do you pride yourself on a world that is not your own?" Whereupon he immediately made a nazarite vow to distance himself from the falseness.

The lesson of this gemara is not necessarily about abstinance. Even for your average person who doesn't take on extra restrictions, it's important to know the world of appearances is a world that is "not his own." We don't live in freeze frames. Everything we see in this world is gone in the blink of an eye, every moment in time is gone as soon at it has come and we are constantly evolving. But there is a part of us that feels that our existence really has more permanence to it, and that things should last forever. If that's not "my world" than what or where is it? When we look to "kodak moments" for an answer, an eerie kind of feeling says why isn't this working?

We live in a transitional world. We are all "crossing the road," so to speak. Embracing the impermanence of this world is conuter-intuitive to the western mind, but it's actually not depressing with the right approach. And logically, it shouldn't be depressing, to the extent that it's just a fact of life. Jewishly, any fact of life has to have some purpose to it. We don't live in a cruel world or a meaningless world where happiness comes from ignoring reality. That just doesn't make sense.

And  a concientious Jewish person is also uncomfortable with a philosophy of total impermanence and doing away with the self. We want to know where the permenence that we so deeply desire can be found - and it has to be more than a far-removed notion of life after death.

This post is meant to bring up the question of impermanence as something everyone has to deal with. Just accepting that its a question worth adressing is a big step. G-d willing I'll give some insight into the Jewish approach to the answer in the future. But in the meantime, Rav Chaim Volloziner's metaphor: The world is a rapid river that will drown you in its current, and the Torah is a solid boulder - would you not hold on for dear life?




Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hulk Smash!!

After my temper wears off, it feels a little like I'm waking up with a hangover. What did I do? What was I thinking? How am I going to clean this up? Even if I didn't literally turn into a green monster, it wasn't that far off. I got the destructive, overreactive, babbling idiot part down pretty good.

The Gemara in Nedarim (22) says that when a person is angry all kinds of hell overpower him. הסר כעס מלבך והעבר רע מבסרך Remove anger from your heart and remove evil from your flesh (Ecclesiastes 11). And the Gemara says רע (evil) also refers to Hell. A person literally suffers greatly, even physically when he's angry. But that doesn't stop him. Its one of the wonders of being human.

Anger really comes from the sense that one's personal desires or vision for what should be is the ultimate authority. When things don't go your way... Hulk Smash!! But we're not talking about an unusual kind of delusion. In fact, there's a good reason to feel this way. One of the words for soul, נשמה, is called a "portion of G-d above" That means that one's deepest desires and sense of self-worth come from an extremely holy place and demand great respect. The catch is, one only has access to that holy place by recognizing he is placed in the world to make a positive influence, and not to gratify oneself or make oneself worshipped. (Just to be clear, of course, in no way does this mean a person is G-d by virtue of his soul. G-d created souls and is prior to and beyond them)

The Holy Zohar says that when a person gets angry, his connection to his נשמה, his higher source of self, is replaced with something called אל זר, a "foreign god." The full meaning of this is beyond us, but there is something we can take away. False gods are called "foreign" because they are "foreign" to their worshippers. They seem on some level to satisfy a need, but ultimately leave the worshipper empty handed and disconnected, feeling a stranger to his own life. Anger brings this kind of power into the world.

We think that by getting angry we can force our will and claim our position of authority. Many times we fail, and even when we get our way, we don't get love or respect. On the contrary, we look silly, lose respect, and create distance. The Gemara Kedushin (41a) says רגזן לא עלתא בידו אלה רגזנותא "An angry person is left with nothing but his anger." We become strangers to our "worshippers" and to ourselves when we choose anger over relationships.

The opposite of anger is called סבלנות, which literally means the ability to carry a burden (and weakly translates as patience). It's holding onto a personal sense of what-should-be, together with the reality that there is another person here, with their own psychological infrastructure and their own baggage, or a situation that's more involved and complex than you want it to be. As opposed to being a stranger, סבלנות is using your lofty sense of self to be a positive influence and work with a complex world.

One way that Jewish wisdom could suggest integrating סבלנות is to meditate on the phrase I mentioned above, "An angry person is left with nothing but his anger." Consistently, a few minutes a day, say it out loud until it fits naturally on your lips, and reflect on what it means to you, how anger hurts you and how things could be better without it. In addition, when you feel yourself getting angry, recall these words of wisdom and your reflections. Through this process you can become more aware of how anger feels when it starts coming up and what makes you angry, until it becomes less and less common and you become more of a "carrier."