Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Parashat Hukat: On Seeing the Well

“We don’t have water. We don’t have food. We don’t have. We want. We need. Give us.” Complaints. Whining. A feeling of insufficiency, of worry about the present and about the future, of not being sure where the next drink or meal will come from. This is the mood of the Israelites during their desert stay. They remind me of very young children, infants or toddlers, who, when hungry or thirsty, cry because they have not yet learned that their needs will be taken care of, are not yet secure in their sense that the world provides.

The response to such complaints is two-fold. First, the absent necessities must be provided. Second, there needs to be some response to the sense of insecurity, the outlook of absence. There is a difference between someone who, though hungry after a long day’s travel, looks forward to the meal that awaits him at home, and someone who, equally hungry but also destitute and penniless, is not sure there will be any food at home for him to eat. The two may be equally hungry but their perspectives on their future create entirely different sets of emotions regarding their present predicament.

Moshe’s failed task in this parsha was to turn the Israelites’ hunger from the one type to the other, to provide them not just with water, but also with a sense of security about their future water provisions. The Sefat Emet points out that God wanted Moshe to speak to the rock le’eyneyhem, “before their eyes,” to open their eyes, he suggests, to the abundant water that already exists for them in this world, hidden beneath the exterior of a seemingly dry rock. Hagar, too, was blind to the existence of such water, and sat crying in the desert until God “opened her eyes” and allowed her “to see” the well that apparently had already existed. This teaches us, says the Sefat Emet, that we are all like blind people until God opens our eyes for us. Moshe’s mistake was in not opening the people’s eyes to the infinite bounty that God has provided in the world, in not providing them with a perspective of fullness and calm. Yes, he gave them water, but it was a one-time miraculous extraction of water dependent on his own hitting of the rock. God wanted him to show the people that the water is always there for them.

In God’s explanation of Moshe’s wrong-doing he uses the word he’emantem, from emunah, or belief. “You did not believe” or, better “you did not make others believe” in Me. The people needed a sense of emunah, of trust and faith in the future, a sense of security that Moshe was not able to teach them. We often think of emunah as something that only the very pious possess, but the truth is no one can live without some amount of it. Without it, we would be a constant bundle of nerves, worrying that tomorrow there would no longer be air to breathe, that the earth would stop giving forth produce and the water sources dry up. We have to live with some amount of faith that our needs will be provided. It gives us a sense of calm, a feeling of fullness even in the face of occasional insufficiencies.

The Israelites are in a state of major transition in this parsha. Two of their three leaders die in the parsha, and the third’s term-end is foretold. After 38 years of wondering in the desert, they are also now for the first time beginning to fight the various peoples who surround the land of Israel, the Edomites, the Canaanites, and the Emorites. They are leaving the sheltered world of desert miracles and approaching a land-based reality. One-time miracles like Moshe’s hitting of the rock to provide water are no longer what the people need. Such miracles simply increase a sense of dependency and anxiety about the future. The people need to learn to see and rely not on miracles that defy nature, but on the natural miracles of the everyday, the rain and the sun, the rivers and the plants.

This transition is epitomized by the two songs that mark the beginning and end of the people’s time in the desert. The first is quite famous – the song that Moshe and the people sing at the parting of the Red Sea. The other appears in this week’s parsha and begins with the same phrase, az yashir. Here, however, the song is sung not in praise of an awesome one-time water miracle, but in praise of the daily provision of water by a simple well. “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well – sing to it – the well which the chieftains dug” (21:17). At this stage what the people need – both physically and emotionally -- is a well, a continual source of water, a sense of security and sufficiency, of deep flowing reserves that will not dry up. From here on they will indeed no longer voice complaints, no longer exist in this insecure state, but instead begin to see clearly what Hagar saw – that there are wells even in the desert, that we need not fret over our future, because God has provided a world rich with all that we need. Such a perspective is not a fact, but a kind of faith, a way of looking at the world with confidence, security and a sense of wholeness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Parashat Korah: On Jealousy

Jealousy is one of three things that “remove one from this world,” according to Pirke Avot. In this week’s parsha we see an example of some jealous individuals who were indeed removed from this world. Korah, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 other followers, jealous of the high positions of Moshe and Aharon, incited rebellion and were punished by being “removed from this world”-- some were swallowed up by the earth and some consumed by fire.

That is the simplest meaning of the Pirke Avot teaching, but perhaps there is another. Perhaps it is not so much an external punishment that removes the jealous from this world, but simply a natural consequence of their actions. Jealousy is a very lonely emotion. It pushes others away, makes their happiness and success less important than one’s own. I am jealous of that person’s success. I wish they were not so successful because it makes me feel bad about myself. I am only thinking of me, removing myself from any sense of connection to these others and their success, thereby “removing myself from this world.”

I could think otherwise: Look at how successful that person is. She is my friend/my sibling/ my fellow Jew/my fellow human being, and therefore her success is good for me. We live together, are part of the same community, so that her success rebounds naturally onto me. I take pride in her achievements. I am not removed from this world, but intimately tied to all those in it, consider myself a part of their happiness and success.

This other attitude is one we quite naturally adopt toward our children and our students, as the rabbis note in another famous phrase: bikhol adam mitkane hutz mibno vetalmido. A person is jealous of every person with the exception of his child and his student. Why? Because with respect to children and students, it is easy to take ownership of their success, to understand and see clearly that our own success is intimately connected to their success. With respect to our children and students, we do not “remove ourselves from this world,” but on the contrary consider ourselves intimate partners with those around us.

The key is to adopt the same sense of pride and owndership and solidarity with respect to others as we do with respect to children and students. That was part of Moshe’s greatness. A few parshiyyot ago, Moshe is confronted by the possibility of rival prophets, Eldad and Medad, prophesying not under his auspices. Moshe does not look upon them as rivals. His assistant Yehoshua suggests that he imprison these prophets, but Moshe says: Hamikane ata li? Are you jealous on my account? If only all of Israel would have God’s spirit rest upon them! He does not look at these prophets as threats to his own position or his own ego, but as students or children, whose spirit should be nurtured and encouraged. He does not remove himself from connection to them through jealousy, but on the contrary, understands that they are fundamentally on the same team, working toward the same goal, the goal not of individual ego enhancement, but of bringing God’s presence to dwell among the people of Israel.

Jealousy removes one from this world. When Datan and Aviram were about to be swallowed up by the earth, Moshe told the people around to separate and move away from the tents of these two, to make it clear, in other words, that these two had separated themselves from the rest of the nation, had, through jealousy, literally removed themselves from association with others. It is, on the contrary, by cultivating feelings of connection with those around us like those of a parent or teacher that we ultimately master the lonely jealousy monster and learn to be truly joyful at the success of others, to understand ourselves to be a part of all human successes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Parashat Shelach: On Fear and Bravery

My 4-year-old son was brave this past shabbat. He wanted to join his father in the men’s section of a synagogue in Ashkelon, a city we were visiting for the first time. Through the glass door he could see rows and rows of men, but his father was on the side, obscured from view. Little Asher opened the door, walked a few steps, and returned, saying he was too scared to proceed. A few minutes later, he tried again, and again returned. “This is your chance to be brave,” I said. “You’re scared. That’s fine. But you can do it. You just have to be brave.” That’s it. He went in and did not come out, determined to be brave.

What struck me about this little incident is that it would not have worked to tell him that the reality of the situation was nothing to be frightened of -- I’ve tried that unsuccessfully at other times -- that the men would all surely help him and certainly not hurt him. Fear is in the eye of the beholder. For a 4-year-old, going into that sea of men three times his size in an unknown space was not unlike the experience of the Israelite scouts, approaching an unknown land filled with people of gigantic proportions. Both, from their vantage point, felt there was good reason to be scared.

As the Esh Kodesh, the Hasidic rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto writes, Calev – one of the two lone good scouts to come back with a positive report of the land -- understood the futility of arguing about the reality of the situation with the other scouts. They said that the cities were well-fortified and that the people were of gargantuan size. He did not say: “No. The people are tiny. The cities have no walls.”

What does Calev say instead? Alo Na’aleh veyarashnu otah ki yakhol nukhal lah. We will surely go up and inherit it because we will be able to accomplish this. He does not deny the reality they describe or attempt to convince them that their fears are not justified. The problem is not the reality – as the Esh Kodesh notes from personal experience, sometimes the reality is in fact insurmountable – no, the problem is not the reality, but their attitude, the way they have allowed fear to triumph. And so Calev does not argue with them, but instead encourages them to move forward in spite of their fear, to swallow hard and step through that door into an unknown world of giants.

Note that in the Hebrew two of the phrases Calev uses contain doubled verb forms: Aloh Na’aleh and Yakhol nukhal. It is as if Calev is trying to gently encourage them to keep trying, to work on themselves again and again to be brave. That is the only way to conquer fear, to ineffectuate its power through sheer persistence, through experience piled upon experience. The next time little Asher approaches a scary men’s section, he will be that much less frightened.

No, Calev doesn’t try to argue with the other scouts or the people about the reality of the situation. The point here is not reality, but attitude. Lo nukhal la’aolot – “We will not be able to go up,” the other scouts say. Fear destroys the possibility of action, of “going up” to a higher space, makes us all feel like 4-year-olds, small and vulnerable, or, as the scouts themselves put it, like tiny “grasshoppers.” In the face of such fear there is no argument other than faith and courage, there is no response other than positive thinking. “We can do it. We can.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shavu'ot: Our Torah

Why do we read the book of Ruth on Shavu’ot? In order to teach us that people’s good actions are also considered Torah, says the Sefat Emet. The book of Ruth describes the hesed, loving-kindness, shown by Ruth toward her elderly mother-in-law, and then in turn, the hesed shown by Boaz to Ruth. These acts of human loving-kindness become Torah, says the Sefat Emet, and we read about them on Shavu’ot—the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of God’s Torah on Mount Sinai -- to show that human deeds in the world are also part of Torah, that humans are also involved in the continuing unfolding and creation of God’s Torah in the world.

Our partnership with God in the Torah project is well-depicted by a midrash which says that on Mount Sinai, the luhot (tablets) were jointly held by Moshe and God, each holding an equal 2 tephahim measure on opposite sides. When my children jointly make a birthday gift for someone, they carry it over together to give it to the person, being careful to each hold an equal part of the gift to show that it is an entirely joint project. The Torah is our joint project with God.

On Shavu’ot we usually speak about God’s giving of the Torah. The Sefat Emet points out that Shavu’ot actually works in two directions. We humans, in our prayers, call it “the time of the giving of the Torah,” to commemorate God’s gift to us. But God, for His part in the Torah, calls the holiday, Yom HaBikkurim, “the day of the giving of first fruits,” to commemorate our gifts to Him. The relationship is reciprocal; we both give and receive.

Such a reciprocal approach to Torah means that we carry a tremendous responsibility with respect to the Torah, that we cannot merely sit back and receive, but must take seriously our commitment to preserve and participate and create Torah. Concerning Boaz’s kind gifts to Ruth, the midrash says, “If Boaz had known that God was going to write about him, ‘And he handed her roasted grain,’ he would have given her stuffed veal.” Boaz didn’t realize he was creating Torah, that his deeds would be recorded for posterity as a part of the Torah. If he had understood this, if he had understood the gravity of even the minutest of his actions, he would have acted with even greater generosity and joy; he would have taken his hesed to its extreme. Such is the implication of the Sefat Emet’s approach to Torah, a sense of responsibility and gravity concerning our actions in the world, a sense of the grandness of our task as partners in God’s Torah.