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

Never be Bored

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.