Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Parashat Nitzavim/Vayelekh and Rosh HaShanah: On Return

A baby in her mother’s womb is taught the whole Torah, according to the Talmud. Then, when she is about to touch the air of the world, an angel strikes her mouth and she forgets it (Niddah 30b).

She forgets, but not entirely. They say that babies develop a taste for the foods that their mothers ate while they were in utero. If a baby has tasted Torah in utero, maybe he retains some special sense, some special feeling and yearning for Torah so that when he learns Torah later in life, the experience has a kind of déjà vu quality. It feels not so much like something new, but like a return to an old familiar place.

Return. Teshuva. This is the Hebrew word describing the process of change referred to in English as “repentance.” But as the Hebrew term implies, the process does not merely look to the past as a place of wrongdoing – a place from which to repent of one’s sins and move forward to a bright new future; the past also becomes a place to return to, an old home.

Teshuva is the process of finding inside oneself that pre-birth place of Torah. It is not the discovery of something new. It is the uncovering of something very old residing inside oneself, a divine spark, the point of contact between oneself and the oldest Being on earth.

Sometimes we have chance sightings of this eternal side of ourselves – whether through a Torah insight, a song or a walk in the woods. How do we know we have hit truth when we read/hear/see/feel it? Because it feels achingly familiar. The best ideas, the ones that feel most true to us, are the ones that somehow express something we already knew but never articulated. In that moment of insight, what we feel is not exactly a sense of novelty or discovery, but a sense of familiarity, of return, of the uncovering of some deep old forgotten truth.

And so if you’re looking to connect to Torah, you don’t have to go far, says this week’s parsha. The Torah is “not in the heavens” nor “over the sea,” but rather karov eleikha hadavar me’od, “the thing is very close to you . . . in your mouth and in your heart.” Look inside yourself. Return to home. It is like the man who goes searching all over the world for treasure only to find that it is buried in his own backyard. We are restless searchers, constantly climbing and reaching, looking for the miracle cure everywhere but inside ourselves, where it is and always has been.

It’s not easy to find that inner point to return to. As the midrash says of Hagar – who didn’t see the well in the desert until God showed it to her -- “We are all blind until God opens our eyes.” That is the function of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. The blasts that broke down the walls of Jericho thousands of years ago are now called to break down our own exterior barriers – fear and insecurity, stress and anxiety -- to break down those barriers and uncover that point of peace and divine connection that is buried inside us, a faint in utero memory.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parashat Ki Tavo: On Joy and Arrival

Ki tavo, “When you arrive” in the land. What happens when you finally arrive at your longed-for destination, when you are full and fulfilled, when you have conquered and settled the land, and reaped the first harvest of your labors? What happens when you prosper and succeed? The parsha begins and ends with this sense of arrival, ki tavo at its beginning, and vatavo’u el hamakom hazeh, “When you have arrived at this place” (29:6) at its end. What happens when we arrive? How are we to deal with success?

The answer: Be joyful. The parsha begins with three ceremonies, all of which have explicit or implicit commands to be sameach, “joyful.” When you bring your bikurim, your first fruits, to the priest, the Torah says, Vesamahta, “And you shall enjoy all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you” (26:11). When you tithe your produce, the Torah tells us you may not eat it when you are in mourning, implying that joy is the necessary companion to tithing. Also, when the tither proclaims: “I have done just as You commanded me” what he means to say, according to the midrash, is: samachti vesimachti bo, “I have enjoyed and caused others joy through it [the tithed produce]” (Sifre Dvarim 303). Finally, in the ceremony marking Israel’s arrival in the land, the Torah tells us to “rejoice before the Lord your God,” vesamachta lifnei Hashem Elokekha (27:7). “When you arrive,” when you reap your harvest, one of your primary obligations to God is to enjoy yourself, to take joy in your prosperity.

That isn’t hard, you say. It is easy to be joyful when you are prosperous and successful. Ah, but the Torah is not so sure. The second half of the parsha deals with the tochachah, the “rebuke,” a detailed description of the horrific calamities that will befall the people should they disobey God’s covenant. And what is the cause of such calamities? “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything” (28:47). People are capable of having everything and still not being joyful and glad.

Why? First, there is the question of whether one feels that he has in fact “arrived,” that he is satisfied and prosperous, that he has an abundant harvest. No one has a perfect life. There are problems and difficulties, illnesses and set-backs. Sometimes we lose sight of our essential blessedness amidst all the focus on these problems. We keep thinking tomorrow is the day we will arrive when in fact, we are already there, already full of blessing and abundance.

Second, we are too busy to be joyful. All of life’s little “blessings” take an immense amount of work. The more blessings – both at home and at work – the more stress, the less emotional space there is to be joyful.

Third, we feel too guilty to be joyful. We look at Jewish history, perhaps at our immediate ancestors’ suffering, and also, at the current suffering of others in the world, and we have survivor’s guilt. We feel we have no right to our blessings, our security, our comforts and our prosperity; we are not joyful, but quietly nervous and uncomfortable with our abundance.

And so the Torah teaches us that ki tavo, “when you arrive,” simchah, “joy,” is an obligation. Not a nice, pleasant option, but an obligation, a command. To receive gifts and not enjoy them is a slap in the face of the giver. Enjoy your blessings and share them with others. As the tither declares, I have experienced joy and caused others joy. Samachti vesimachti bo.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Parashat Ki Tetze:Helping Yourself and Others

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox falling under a burden, “you must raise it with him” -- Hakem Takim Imo. Help him to raise it. Share in the burden.

Hakem Takim Imo. You will raise yourself along with him, says the Sefat Emet, playing on the doubled hakem verb and the word imo, “with him.” When you help someone else up, you also help yourself up. The more you share in your friend’s burden, the more you repair yourself and give yourself a boost. The Torah teaches us how to act kindly towards others not just for the sake of those others, but also for our own sake.

What would it do to you “to see” your friend’s burden and turn away? What kind of a hardening of heart would that simple act cause? How would it affect your sense of connectedness to others? The world would suddenly become a disjointed, uncaring lonely place, whereas if you can see and understand his burden and help him with it, then not only is he not alone, but neither are you.

If you forgot a piece of wheat in the field, and you took the trouble to go back for it even though you knew a poor person would otherwise collect it, you would feel tight-fisted and exacting. To leave behind a little for others is not just generous to others. It creates in you a sense of abundance, a sense that the world is a place that provides for its creatures. Your own open hand reminds you of God’s open hand and makes you feel well-cared for. Generosity is a form of well-being.

If you muzzle your ox while he is threshing and do not allow him to eat a little grain as he works, what kind of a work environment are you creating for yourself and those around you? Is the world that tight on time and revenue? Placing a muzzle on an ox also places one on you as well, making you feel constrained and anxious. The freedom of the unmuzzled animal also leads to a sense of freedom and peace in its owner. The world is ours to consume and enjoy as we toil our days away. We do not need to spend our days tethered and constricted.

But the sole purpose of the Torah’s edicts is not self-improvement, writes Rav Bigman, a prominent rabbi in Israel. The aim is not to constantly point back toward oneself, to accrue internal spiritual benefits, but rather to learn to properly “see” the other, to move out of oneself toward a true understand of our inter-connectedness. The aim, in other words, is to learn to raise up that burden imo, “with him,” to learn not to act for his sake alone, nor for one’s own sake alone, but for the sake of imo, of a sense of connection and togetherness.