Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Parashat Shelakh: Humility vs. Insecurity

I’ve been thinking about humility. Last week’s parsha we heard that Moshe was the most humble person in the world. What about the 10 scouts, the meraglim, of this week’s parsha, who go out to see the land and come back with a report about the impossibility of conquest – are they humble? They say that they saw themselves as “grasshoppers” compared to the giants of the land. Doesn’t this make them humble? And they have a clear sense of their own limitations – a sense that there are certain things that they, in spite of their capacity as “heads” of the nation, will not be able to do, like conquer a land of giants. Doesn’t this make them humble?

What is the difference between Moshe’s humility and theirs? I once heard from my sister-in-law, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the idea that real humility is in relation to God, whereas insecurity is in relation to other people. The scouts see themselves as “grasshoppers” in relation to the giants; they feel small because they are comparing themselves to other very large people. We’ve all had this experience; we feel down on ourselves when we begin to compare ourselves to people out in the world doing truly great things. They make us feel as small as grasshoppers.

That’s not humility. That’s insecurity, an insult to our ego, an ego that is very much intact and that we feel compelled to defend. That kind of insecurity causes fear and a retreat from action, as it did in the scouts. We feel too small to accomplish anything.

Being insecure is actually the flip-side of being conceited. Both show an intense concern with the ego. The Zohar says that the scouts didn’t want to enter the land of Israel because they were worried that they would not retain their current status as “heads” of the tribes. They could not move forward because they were imprisoned by their ego needs.

Real humility is freeing and empowering. Confronted with the awesomeness of the universe and its Creator, aware of our own finitude and impermanence, we let go of the self and its protection, and allow ourselves to feel a part of something larger. There is no longer anyone to fear, no longer anyone to make us feel insecure, or anyone to feel greater than; compared to God, even the giants on earth are nothing; we will all one day be dust.

Moshe’s regular and extremely intimate contact with God must have given him just such a perspective; while the scouts were afraid of the giants of the land, Moshe was not afraid of the king of Egypt, also a giant of sorts.

For the (10) scouts, that feeling of “grasshopperness” actually stopped them from accomplishing their mission. They were blinded and imprisoned by the fear and insecurity created by their ego-focused perspective. Moshe, on the other hand, accomplished many things – leading the people out of Egypt and bringing them the Torah. True humility, a God’s eye view of one’s rightful place in the universe, helps a person take positive action in the world, not retreat from it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Parashat Beha'alotekha: Not Looking Back

The mind is a tricky place. The Israelites in their complaint for meat this week claim that in Egypt they ate fish “for free,” as well as cucumbers, melon, leeks, onions and garlic. How is this possible? As Rashi points out, if the Egyptians wouldn’t even give them straw to make their bricks, how were they giving them fish for free?

Whether or not the Israelites in fact did eat these foods in Egypt, they have constructed for themselves a memory of the past which is all golden, leaving out the whips and the harsh labor conditions. Why have they done this? As a way to devalue the present, as a way not to inhabit the present, but to look longingly backward.

This is what we humans do. What we have right now is never just right. We are always looking to some other time that was or will be more brilliant, more tasty, more satisfying. Sometimes, we look backward and sometimes we look forward. Most often, as here, we look both directions at once – we remember how good it was then (even when it wasn’t), complain about now, and in the same breath look to the future for something better – feed us meat tomorrow! The Torah calls this feeling here a ta’avah – a craving; it is a desire for something not attainable in the present, a restlessness with what is right now.

This “now is terrible” feeling is encapsulated by the complainers’ choice of words: eyn kol – “there is nothing.” There is nothing in right now, they say. Now feels empty to us. Or maybe they are commenting on their own state of mind – eyn kol – there is no sense of kol – of “everythingness” or “wholeness.” They have diagnosed their own problem here, an emotional, not a physical one; they have no ability to feel kol, “everything,” full and satisfied with the gifts from above, a sense that life is perfect just as it is at this very moment.

Feeling kol or “full” is an ability we celebrate in our foreparents – concerning all the word kol is used. Did Abraham (or Sarah or Isaac or Jacob) always have “everything?” No, but they had a key spiritual/religious capacity – the capacity to feel that right now is kol. This very moment, this simple drink of water, contains inside it the fullness of the entire universe.

Contentment with the present does not preclude change. Change is part of the nature of things, as is expressed in this parsha by the description of the people’s constant movement in the desert – they would travel and encamp, travel and encamp. Change, movement is a part of the reality of the present, part of what needs to be accepted as itself a kind of kol. The Israelites are discontented precisely with the reality of this change in the world– what did you have to go messing up our perfect situation in Egypt for? We didn’t want this change in the first place. Resistance to change is also a form of not accepting the present reality, of not being able to feel a sense of kol or fullness within the swirling winds around us.

Last week’s parsha included the blessing of the priests, which ends with Vaseym Lekha Shalom. May He grant you peace. What is peace other than this sense of kol, this ability to be in the present and feel its fullness, without looking longingly backward or forward? This moment – with all its transitions and transience – this moment is perfect and complete as it is. May we feel this peace.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Parashat Bamidbar and Shavu'ot: On Deserts and the Torah

Make yourself hefker like a desert, the rabbis say. Hefker means ownerless, like an old rag that you put out on the street for anyone who wants to come and take. Let go of your special attachment to yourself, your ownership of yourself, your feeling that the universe revolves around this ego. Become like the desert, free and empty, ownerless and open to the wind.

It is in this state that we receive the Torah, says the Sefat Emet, in this desert place. This week we read on Shabbat the first parsha of the book of Bamidbar, “In the Desert,” and on Tuesday night, we begin the celebration of Shavu’ot, the receiving of the Torah. First we must enter a desert state of mind, and only then do we receive the Torah.

Moshe, the conduit of the Torah, is the ultimate “desert” personality; his primary trait is anavah, humility. He could receive the whole Torah because there was no ego in the way to obscure it. He could see the truth without interference, without worry over whether he was being properly honored or offended. He understood that the project was larger than him, and so he could contain a very large project.

The Torah is a source of personal completion, hashlamah, says the Sefat Emet. The more you are aware of your “holes,” the more room you have to be filled in by Torah. Moshe was not the smartest man that ever lived, but he carried the most Torah because he was the most humble, the most open to completion.

Humility in relation to Torah is not easy. One can easily get trapped in the pursuit of Torah for the sake of communal honor, for the feeding of the ego.

I once heard from Rabbi Don Seeman a connection between this ego issue and the recital of birkhat haTorah, the blessing over Torah study: The Talmud records God as explaining the destruction of the first Temple because “they did not make the blessing of the Torah first” (Nedarim 81a). What does this mean? They were not framing their Torah study as a form of worship, but rather as a personal intellectual endeavor for their own self-aggrandizement. To say birkhat haTorah is to wake up each morning and say that the Torah to be studied today is lishmah “for its own sake,” and not for “one’s own sake.”

Another way of avoiding the pitfall of ego and honor in the pursuit of Torah --of seeking the desert place -- is to acknowledge one’s dependence on others in this pursuit. The last of the 48 qualifications required for the crown of Torah in Pirkei Avot is “one who says what he has learned in the name of the person who said it.” Torah is a communal project. Avraham did not receive it, nor did Yitzhak or Yaakov. Even Moshe was only a conduit for an entire nation who stood together at Mount Sinai to receive God’s wisdom. No single human can contain it, and the more we acknowledge this, the closer we are to that desert place of wisdom and ownerlessness.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Parashat Behar-Bekhukotai: On Harmful Speech

This week’s double parsha, Behar-Bekhukotai, includes, in its discussion of the Jubillee year, an often overlooked law – the prohibition against ona’at devarim, “hurting another through words.”

Some classic examples of ona’at devarim are: reminding a convert of his former life, telling someone who is experiencing misfortune that it is a result of her own misdeeds, going in to a store and acting like one will buy something when one has no money, and asking someone about a matter that one knows that person has no knowledge of in order to show off the person’s ignorance. Included in this last category is asking a guest to give a dvar Torah when one is not sure the guest is capable of it.

The key to ona’at devarim is an intent to harm. It is certainly permissible to enter a store intending to buy shoes, try some on, and leave without buying, even though this harms the store-owner just as much as going into a store with no intent of buying. Or one can ask advice of someone, thinking that he knows a lot about a certain topic, but then it turns out that he doesn’t. Again, there is no intent to harm. The problem is in the heart; one should not purposely intend to make someone look bad, trick them, embarrass them or harm them in any way.

Since these types of harmful actions are, as Rashi says, masur lalev, “given over to heart,” there is no way to enforce them. That’s why, as Rashi points out, the Torah says immediately after this prohibition, veyareta me’elokekha, “Fear your God” – God is the only one who knows what your intent was, what you were thinking inside your heart.

At root in ona’at devarim is a tendency we all have – a desire to make ourselves look good at the expense of another. Look at how much better I am than you because I know this and you don’t. Don’t think you’re so great because look at where you came from. Or: the reason you’re suffering and I’m not is because you did things this way and I was smart enough not to. The specifics can vary widely, and sometimes it can be done quite subtly, but we recognize the feeling behind it and see it often in ourselves and our children. Why are you telling her about your great vacation trip – is it to make her feel bad that she stayed home, to imply that you are so much better than her?

The counter-balance to this way of thinking is provided by the phrase right after Veyareta Me’Elokekha, “Fear your (singular) God” – Ani Hashem Elokeikhem, “I am the Lord your (plural) God.” The key here is the switch from singular to plural in relation to whose God we are worshipping. God is not just my personal God, but the God of all of us. Like a parent who wants all her children to do well, He wants us all to succeed. And, like a parent, He wants us all to be on the same team, to be rooting for one another’s success. Thinking of it in this way, picturing it from God’s standpoint, it becomes clear that we are all in it together, that harm to another is harm to ourselves and that the success of one is the success of us all.