Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Parashat Emor: Rabbi Yochanan and the Power of Presence

This week everything seems to point to Presence.

In my Talmud Bet Midrash we read a story (Brachot 5b): Rabbi Yochanan visits the ailing Rabbi Hiyya and manages to “lift him up” by asking him about his suffering and then asking him for his hand. Rabbi Yochanan is present for Rabbi Hiyya, is with him in his suffering, and this has the effect of “lifting him up.” In class, we role-played this scene and when, after I described my misery, my partner said to me the simple words: “I am here with you. Give me your hand,” I felt an immediate lifting of trouble from my heart.

The opposite of joy is not sadness but alienation, my brother-in-law said to me this week. How true. Sadness often comes as part of a relationship – the heart aches over someone who is missing or gone – and so, in that sadness, there is still some sense of the comfort of connection. Alienation, isolation has no bittersweetness to it. When one suffers alone, without the “presence” of another, there is truly no joy.

Presence is the answer, then. We can’t prevent suffering or sadness or tragedy. But we can be present with each other during those moments, and, like Rabbi Yochanan, simply sit and hold each other’s hands.

The story of Rabbi Yochanan appears in the Talmud right after a discussion about yesurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” meaning sufferings that can be viewed as a sign of God’s love in some way. Our first thought was that the story goes against the grain of the previous discussion, that R. Yochanan’s act, in simply sitting and holding hands, was meant as a foil for the theology of “sufferings of love”; when it comes down to real life suffering, you can’t explain it theologically and it is often offensive to do so.

Our second thought, though, was that actually R. Yochanan was enacting a theology, a version of “sufferings of love,” perhaps “sufferings with love” -- he was the human conduit for God’s love and Presence in the suffering of another. People often say in reaction to tragedy: But where is God in all this? Where is God? God is present in that human holding of hands.

But not only in the human holding of hands. Rabbi Yochanan’s act could also be understood as a parable for the type of comfort that God’s Presence itself can provide. Someone in our Talmud group once described one of the lowest points she had experienced in her life and how, suddenly, alone and sad, she had felt a Presence surrounding her, enveloping her with a sense of love. Cultivating an awareness of that Presence is part of the goal of a Torah life.

This notion of Presence is particularly relevant to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) that we are in the midst of reading. The point of all those rules of holiness -- of the Tabernacle and the priests who preside in it -- the point of it all is very simply to create a space that can contain God’s Presence in the world, to bring that Presence into the word and cultivate an awareness of it. This is the central book of the Torah and this is the Torah’s central message – to participate in bringing the Presence of God to earth, whether through sacrifice, or as in last week’s portion, through “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” or, as R. Yochanan did, by holding the hands of those who suffer around us.

May we learn to be the Presence and may we learn to feel the Presence, both in joy and in suffering.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: On Holding Back

Among the many mitzvot of purity, holiness, and loving-kindness in this week’s double parsha, one stands out in my mind as paradigmatic of the whole – the mitzvah of pe’ah, of the “corner” – the command to leave the corners of one’s fields unharvested for the needy to collect.

This is a mitzvah of giving, of generosity; one is essentially giving over a certain portion of one’s earnings to the poor. But the mitzvah is not done in the form of giving – I have a basket of produce and I bring it over to you – but in the form of holding oneself back . Generosity appears in the form of self-restraint, retreat from what is officially “mine.” I give to others by refraining from consuming the whole field, by holding myself back from taking over the entirety.

That is also, according to Kabbalistic notions, how God created the world, the ultimate act of generosity. It was only through a process of divine self-withdrawal and contraction known as tzimtzum that there could be enough of a vacuum to allow for the creation of the world.

We are like God, created in His image, containing within us that spark of divinity which is infinite, a microcosm of the entirety of creation. If we let ourselves, we could take over the whole field, the whole world. And so the act of generosity is first and foremost an act of self-contraction, of holding oneself back, of making room in the field for others.

The ultimate image of generosity is of an open hand, God’s open hand. An open hand is empty space. Being generous is about creating open spaces for others to enter into.

I think about this as I go through my day, and watch how my words interrupt the speech of others. Sometimes if I hang back and wait a moment, I have the privilege of watching another person blossom. To give, to be generous, is not just to hold forth, but also to hold back, to make room.

Perhaps that is why this positive morality – the concept of hesed, loving-kindness, of giving generously to another – is framed in the Torah by negative morality, by all the negative commandments about what not to do – forbidden foods and forbidden relations. They share a common underlying habit of mind and practice – self-restraint, the ability to hold oneself back from consuming the entire field, the ability to take make room in the world for others, as God did for us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: On Extracting the Negative from the Whole

The rabbis read the word Metzora -- the name of the second of this week’s two parshiyyot, which literally means “one who has leprosy” – as a play on the phrase, Motzi Shem Ra, “one who gossips,” or literally, “one who puts out a bad name.” This is the classic notion that skin disease is linked to a tendency to gossip or speak ill of others.

The problem here, says the Sefat Emet, is that people are being Motzi Ra, “pulling out the negative,” from the mix. In every single thing and every single creature, including all humans, there is both ra and tov, bad and good, says the Sefat Emet. That is the way God created the world and us and, when He looked at it and said it was tov me’od, “very good,” that, according to the midrash, meant both the good and bad together. When they are all together, then the bad can be subservient, can be used as a tool for the good. The only problem with evil, ra, is when you pull it out – motzi ra – from the whole.

We need not erase or deny the negative in ourselves or in others. We just need to make it a part of the whole. In the Shma, we say that one should love God bekhol levavekha, “with all your heart.” The rabbis interpret the double letter bet in “heart” as an indication that the Torah means “with both your hearts,” with both your negative and positive capacities. The idea is to use all parts of yourself in the service of God and the Torah.

“Pulling out the bad” is an apt description of gossip. It’s not that these things we say aren’t true; it’s just that they’re not the whole measure of a person. By taking out the negative for special focus and examination, we haven’t let it be part of the whole. That person is disorganized and loud-mouthed. Yes, but he’s also enthusiastic and good-natured. People are a package deal. If you took out the salt from the food, the salt on its own wouldn’t taste good, but as part of the whole, it fits and enhances the general flavor.

When you take the negative out from the whole in describing another person, you do more than damage that person. You damage yourself in the process. The salt doesn’t taste good on its own; when we gossip, we feel badly ourselves. We are participating in the process of extracting the bad from the whole and that is not a pleasant process. The negative wears off on us and we feel negative about ourselves and the world as well. That is the logic of the connection between speaking ill of others and finding yourself afflicted with a skin disease. You have outed the negative in another and in so doing you have caused your own negative parts also to be externalized in the form of a public skin malady. As the saying goes, when you point one finger at someone else, you are pointing three fingers back at yourself. The goal is to bring the negative back into the whole, to make it serve the purposes of the good, so that if you want to “pull out” anything, you can pull out the good that is in all creatures.