Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Post-Tisha b'Av: On Faith and Waiting

“Every place that it says eyn (there is none), it turns out that havah lah (there is one).” Thus says the fourth century Rabbi Levi about the word eyn in Scripture. Things simply cannot remain in the state of eyn, of nothingness, permanently, but must always make their inexorable way toward a positive existence.

These words are cited in the midrash Eichah Rabbah as a form of comfort upon reading the book of Lamentations (Eichah) on the fast of Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Levi offers these examples:

Of both Sarah and Hannah the Torah says eyn, that they had no children. But eventually they do have children, Isaac and Samuel respectively. Their state of eyn, their barrenness, was only temporary.

So, too, with regard to the barrenness of the city of Jerusalem. The book of Eichah says of Jerusalem eyn lah menahem, “She has none to comfort her.” Yet two days after we read of this eyn on Tisha b’Av, we read the first of the seven comforting shabbat haftarahs, “Comfort, oh, comfort My people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1), and a few weeks later, we read, “I, I am He who comforts you!” (Isaiah 51:12).

This statement of Rabbi Levi’s is a strong assertion of optimism, of a sense that things must always turn positive, that all the holes, the negatives, the eyn’s in the world, are only temporary. If we wait long enough, they will turn positive. Why? Because there can be no permanent eyn in the face of a belief in the ultimate havah lah, the existence of God.

It is all a matter of time. If things are awry right now, wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow they will surely be better. The midrash (Pesikta deRav Kahana) points out that this week’s haftarah proclaims its message of comfort in the future tense, “Comfort oh, comfort your people, will say your God,” yomar elokeichem. It is as if the key to all future calamities has already been given in this statement, this statement of a permanently hopeful future. One should always feel that tomorrow God will offer comfort.

If God will bring better things tomorrow, what are we meant to do today? Just sit and wait? Partly, yes. The tradition has a strong emphasis on waiting. When we recite and sing the song of faith, “Ani Ma’amin,” what do we say? “Ani Ma’amin, I believe in full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he should tarry, in spite of all that, I shall wait for him, for each day that he should come” (#12 of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith).

Waiting does not sit right with our modern sensibilities. Today we control a lot of elements in our lives and we prize that control. If Sarah and Abraham had lived today, they would not have waited for God to end Sarah’s barrenness. They would have been busy with various infertility treatments. And perhaps rightfully so. We are not meant to sit back and wait when there is something we can do. We are meant to be partners with God in changing this world, in helping ourselves and others.

But honestly, how does all this control, all this activity, make us feel? Anxious. We feel we have so much control that we need to scurry around, turning every rock, doing everything we can possibly do to ensure, to force the right outcome.

Isn’t there a place in all that scurrying for a little bit of waiting, for the acknowledgment that some problems are not solved by our actions, but by God and time doing their work?

Mind you, we are not talking about just any kind of waiting, but about a waiting of hope, of faith, of the Ani Ma’amin kind. Because waiting can be quite painful if not done with some faith. There is the waiting of one who is sure of a negative outcome, a prisoner on death-row, for instance. That is a waiting of despair. And then there is the waiting of one who is unsure of the outcome. That, too, is a difficult kind of waiting. If you really want to be pregnant and aren’t and think you might never be, or if you really want to be married and aren’t and think you might never be, then every passing day of waiting is filled with anxiety and foreboding.

No, the kind of waiting our tradition speaks of is a waiting which infuses the present with hope and light and inner peace. Waiting for Messiah is not really about the future; it’s about how such an anticipated future effects the present, effects how we live right now. My father reports that part of what sustained him and his family through their trials in Siberian labor camps during the Shoah was the Yiddish mantra, Men muz huben bituchen, “One must have faith” -- faith that God will bring a better tomorrow. It is this faith which gave his family energy to face each difficult day, not to despair, but to keep the will to live.

Rabbi Levi’s statement about eyn is more than a statement about the passage of time, about the change over time from negative to positive. It is also a statement about how to live within the moment of eyn. How to infuse those very moments of eyn with hope, even with a sense of havah lah.

It is remarkable that the Jewish people have survived all these thousands of years through endless persecutions and calamities. In the turn from Tisha b’Av to the period of comfort which follows we see a glimpse of the spiritual fortitude which has sustained us. We see a glimpse of the remarkable ability, through faithful waiting, to turn an eyn into a havah lah, a cry of mourning into a song of joy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Parashat Devarim and the Book of Eichah: Two Sides of Loneliness

Social contact is essential for human beings’ survival. Children grow up abnormally when sufficient human contact is not provided, and, a recent New Yorker article reports, prisoners subjected to solitary confinement suffer extreme psychological distress, often with long term psychiatric repercussions. Isolation is one of the worst forms of torture.

It is no wonder, then, that the book of Lamentations (Eichah) – read on the upcoming Fast of Av, to commemorate the destruction of the temples and other Jewish calamities -- begins with a terrible cry of loneliness. Eikhah yashvah badad – “Alas, lonely sits the city!” The city is like a widow, says Jeremiah, lonely and longing for its happy past. Of all the terrible events that befell the Jewish people, its isolation is the first one mentioned, the emblem of tragedy and despair.

Tradition understands the temples’ destructions and the loneliness they engendered to be the just deserts of a cruel society, a society which, according to the Talmud, was known for its sin’at hinam, its baseless hatred.

One famous story tells of a man who made a party and instructed his servant to issue invitations to all his friends, including one man named Kamtza. Now in that same town there was also a man named bar Kamtza, who was the enemy of the party-giver. The servant mistakenly invited the wrong Kamtza, and bar Kamtza, the enemy, appeared at the party. The party-giver angrily demanded that he leave the party, but bar Kamtza, embarrassed, asked if he could stay and pay for his own food and drink. The party-giver cruelly refused, and bar Kamtza even offered to pay for all the food and drink at the party. But the party-giver insisted, and bar Kamtza was forcibly removed. Ultimately bar Kamtza became angry at all the sages at the party who did nothing to help him, and he went and informed against them to the Roman authorities, eventually leading to the destruction of the Temple (Talmud Gitin 55b).

And so it was the infliction of emotional pain and isolation on individuals within the community that ultimately led to the breakdown of the society as a whole, that led to the cry of loneliness and despair of the city itself. God heard the cry of the mistreated, and He made us all feel it. Eikhah yashvah badad. How we have all come to feel the loneliness bar Kamtza felt!

BUT there is an alternative. And the tradition offers it to us at the very same moment as it presents this painful glimpse into a cruel society. The alternative is presented through another Eikhah cry of loneliness. It is the cry of Moshe in this week’s parsha, parashat Devarim, a parsha which is always read on the shabbat before Tisha b’Av.

Moshe’s Eikhah cry is not the cry of despair we saw in Lamentations, but a cry for help, a call to solve the problem of aloneness. Eikhah esa levadi, “How can I carry this burden alone” (Dt 1:12), he asks. How can I handle the burdens of judging this large people on my own? He feels overwhelmed and isolated by the responsibility. But here there is a solution – other people can help him. Moshe solves his problem by getting others involved, by not going it alone. That is the key to loneliness. Other people must be willing and able to help. In Moshe’s case, a whole network of judges was arranged to share his burdens, to be his co-administrators, his helpmates.

At the dawn of society, in the Garden of Eden, Adam, too, experienced loneliness, and God recognized it as such. Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado. It is not good for man to be alone. What did God do? He understood that there is only one solution for such, the most basic of human problems. He made for Adam another person, a woman, to be with. Why? As an ezer kenegdo, as someone who could help him. That is exactly what the people at the party did not do for bar Kamtza. They did not help him in his isolation. And that is exactly what the city of Jerusalem did not have. Again and again, Jeremiah tells us eyn lah menahem, “She has none to comfort her.” Ahhh. That would have been the solution. Someone to be with, to help her and to comfort her.

The two and a half tribes at the end of this week’s parsha understand this solution. They act as help-mates to their fellow tribes. These two and a half tribes have already received their land holdings, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, in land that was already conquered by the Israelites. Nonetheless, these two and a half tribes agree to stand at the head of the army that will conquer the land on the other side of the Jordan, land that will be given to the other tribes. Here is an act of supreme social solidarity. These tribes do not abandon their brothers to fight on their own, but stand with them, as help-mates, as partners. There is no loneliness here.

We are all fundamentally alone. The question is how we approach that problem. Do we say to others: “You are an island. You can handle it all on your own.” Or do we serve, each of us, as help-mates for each other, creating a society where there need be no one truly alone? Our communal commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the experience of fasting and mourning together as a community, gives us a taste of just such social solidarity even as we commemorate its absence in other generations.

The rabbis understand that it is in our power to bring about either our own despair or own uplifting. They make the connection between the two cries of Eikhah, that of Moshe and that of Jeremiah in Lamentations, and they say: “If you are worthy, you will call out the call of Moshe’s Eikhah, and if you are not worthy, you will call out the call of Jeremiah’s Eikhah.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel says:
"All my days I grew up among scholars, but I have not found anything as good for a person as silence."
(Mishnah Avot 1:17)

In keeping with this dictum, there will be no blog post this week or next week. I will be on vacation. Stay tuned for a new blog post the following week (the week of parashat Devarim).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parashat Hukat: In God We Trust

This Shabbat is July 4th. One of the most remarkable things about the country born on that day is the way in which the mantle of leadership is passed peacefully from one president to the next. George Washington set this example when he wisely refused to run for a third term of office. He made it clear that there would be no kings in America, that the country would not be dependent on any one individual’s charismatic leadership but would endure on the foundations of its values and faith.

In this week’s parsha, we meet up with the Israelites in the fortieth year of their desert wanderings, at the end of their first leaders’ terms of office. How will the people survive the death of their leaders? Can the institution of benei yisrael as a people of God exist without Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, their leaders?

It all starts with the death of the prophetess Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Her death, told in a mere half-verse (20:1), is followed immediately by the statement: “And there was no water for the community.” The midrash connects the two events, saying that a well had accompanied the people while Miriam was alive, but dried up at her death. The lack of water leads the people to complain to Moshe. Moshe, after consulting with God, brings forth water from a rock for the people, but God is angry at the way Moshe and Aharon handled the situation and tells them they will not be allowed to lead the people into the land of Israel. The end of their leadership is in sight. Aharon dies at the end of the chapter.

The exact nature of Moshe’s sin has been the source of great discussion over the centuries. I will follow the lead of Nachmanides, Jacob Milgrom, and my father, all of whom have slightly different versions of the same idea. The idea is that Moshe, as God says in His accusation, did not “sanctify” God “in the eyes of the Israelite people” (20:12). Moshe did not make it clear that the water was from God. He and Aharon said, “ Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” They did not say: “God will bring forth water for you from this rock.”

Moshe didn’t just miss an opportunity to sanctify God. He missed what it was the people actually needed in this situation. Miriam had just died, and the people were looking around and feeling frightened. One leader gone, and already the situation had deteriorated -- there was no water to drink. What would it be like when eventually all of their leaders died? This was a new generation, born in the desert into the strong arms of the leaders who had taken this desert generation’s parents out of Egypt. The parents had gradually died over the course of the 40 years in the desert, and now the leaders were dying too. What was going to happen to this new generation? Who would provide for them now? Would there, could there, be water without Miriam?

Moshe didn’t help the situation with his response. He said: Yes, there is water without Miriam. There is water from me and from Aharon. We can bring you water. See? If I lift up my arm with this stick and hit the rock very forcefully not just once, but twice, you’ll see the water we can produce.

Oh, but the people needed more than that. They needed to know that water and all other life-sustaining goods come from God, that even if Miriam, Moshe and Aharon all die, God will not die, and it is God who provides. They needed to know that life would continue, that their fledgling nation could survive the death of its first leaders. Moshe, of course, knew all this himself, but he ddin't say so, and that was his failure, a failure of pedagogy.

Moshe hit the rock, but the people needed to know that their survival was not dependent on the physical arm of a mortal man. God had actually commanded Moshe not to hit the rock, but to speak to it. Maybe part of the problem here was that the action was not well-suited to the people’s emotional needs. Hitting is a physical, mortal act; speech is eternal; it is our connection to the divine. Speech was what the people needed, to assure them that their survival was not dependent on a mortal like Moshe, but rather linked to God, to the One Who Spoke and the World Was Created.

The people do survive the death of Moshe. Even though Moshe does not make it clear that the water is from God, the people understand. Even in their complaint, they have already begun to think of themselves as a kehal hashem, “a congregation of the Lord” (20:3). They understand that their future may not be with Moshe, but it will always be with God. For the first time, in one of the stories that follow this one, the people cry out straight to God, without Moshe’s intercession: “Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ The Lord heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites” (21:2-3). Wow! No Moshe, no Aharon, no Miriam. Just the people and God. This is the first inkling that the people are secure enough in their relationship to God to withstand the loss of its leaders.

As the Psalm verse reads, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save. His breath departs; he returns to the dust; on that day his plans come to nothing” (Ps 146:4).

The United States did not collapse when George Washington left office; the institutions built by the country’s founders were not dependent on any one individual. We Jews are testimony to the fact that the people of Israel also survived the loss of its first great leader, Moshe. For us, it is a function of having put our trust, not in mere mortals, but in the eternal God and His enduring Torah.