Thursday, June 30, 2016

Parashat Shelakh: We Can't Do It Alone

How did the two “good” spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, manage to escape the fate of the other 10? We are all constantly confronted with choices, places where we have to decide whether we are going to go along with the “10,” with the dominant culture, with our peers, with whatever the prevailing wisdom is. And our children are constantly confronted by these choices, too. How do we stand strong on those occasions where the right thing is not to follow the crowd and how do we help our children stand strong? Yehoshua and Kalev each has a strategy to teach.

Yehoshua carries God with him wherever he goes. The Torah says that Moshe, prior to sending him off on the mission, changed his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua. Rashi explains that Moshe was praying on his behalf Yah yoshiakha me’atzat meraglim. “May God save you (playing on Yehoshua’s name) from the counsel of the spies.” It isn’t that Yehoshua was a much stronger or wiser person than the others. What saved him was that he had Moshe’s divine blessing with him. He carried in his name, wherever he went, a reminder of God’s help. He didn’t do it alone. We often feel that the challenges we face in life are beyond us, but if we admit this and ask God to stay with us and help us through it, we can do more than we thought we could. Yehoshua came through because he was never alone.

We should note that here it is Moshe who prays on behalf of Yehoshua, his younger assistant. The goal is not just to feel that God assists us but to learn to spread that blessing around us, to pray that others, too, feel God’s aid and protection.

Kalev does not receive this assistance from Moshe -- sometimes in life it doesn't just come to us -- but he goes about getting it for himself, also from an older generation. When the Torah uses the singular vayavo to describe the spies’ entrance to Hevron, Rashi explains that Kalev came alone to this city of ancestors and laid himself across the graves of the patriarchs and prayed for assistance in not succumbing to the dominant spies’ plans. Once again, Kalev knew that he could not fight the battle alone. He was perhaps no stronger or wiser than the others, but there was one difference – he knew when to ask for help, he knew that this was a moment of difficulty for him and prayed for assistance.

Assistance from ancestors is not something we talk much about, but I think that many of us feel it daily, feel how we carry our deceased parents and grandparents around inside our hearts and can rely on them for wisdom, counsel, and most of all, strength to persevere. We also have our communal ancestors to rely on. Perhaps this is why we start the Amidah with them – Elokei Avraham, . . . -- because we know we need help to pray, to open our mouths and hearts, and we turn to their strength and their example to guide us as we begin. When we walk through life, too, we can at any moment tap into their strength. We can feel their blood running through our veins and know once again that we are not alone.

May God and our ancestors help each of us be strong in the face of our particular pressures.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Parashat Beha'aolotekha: Two Thoughts

Two points strike me about the parsha this year:

1) God cares about hurt feelings. This week’s parsha begins with instructions to Aharon on lighting the menorah. Rashi says that the reason these instructions are juxtaposed to the description of the tribal chieftains’ gifts to the Tabernacle in last week’s parsha is that Aharon was feeling bad about those gifts. Aharon saw how all the tribes except his, the tribe of Levi, had brought gifts and he felt insecure about his place – why hadn’t he brought gifts, too, like all the other chieftains? God saw his hurt and came to comfort him and tell him – look at what a special gift you have – you are the one who will light the menorah each day! You have a special place with Me and My Tabernacle.

God cares about our very human vulnerabilities and insecurities, those small feelings of hurt which come up all the time for all of us. God cares, and, since we are God’s agents on this earth, we need to care, too, to pay attention to the one who might feel left out or insecure in a particular situation and make sure they know that they are wanted and that they play a special part in the group effort of bringing God’s presence down to earth.

2) To be a true leader is to spread the wealth. Eldad and Medad are found prophesying in an unauthorized way within the camp and Yehoshua wishes to have them imprisoned. Moshe’s reaction is: If only the whole nation were prophets! Moshe truly desires for others to receive God’s spirit. He does not need to hold the Torah or hold God to himself but wants everyone to have a part. This may be part of what it means when it says, a few pesukim later, that he is the most humble person on this earth. To be humble is to recognize that we do not own truth; we do not own greatness or Torah or wisdom, that they are gifts to be shared by all. To be humble is not to be threatened, but to rejoice at others’ success in these endeavors because we are all part of the same team, God’s team.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Parashat Naso and Hitlamdut: Learning from Everyone

Hitlamdut -- taking a stance of continual openness to learning from everyone and everything around you. This is a mussar concept I have been thinking about based on the Tikkun Middot Program curriculum of Rabbi David Jaffe and the work of 20th century mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe.

According to Rabbi Wolbe, hitlamdut is the starting point for all personal change. One must be open to learning, open to changing, think of oneself not as a finished product but primarily as a continual learner, open to what texts, people and life experiences have to teach you. This means that we admit that we are not perfect and do not yet know it all and never will but are forever being taught by life.

One example that is given in the Torah of this stance is from this week’s parsha. Rashi explains that the reason that the nazir – the Nazirite who takes special vows of ascetic sanctity – comes after the sotah – the woman who is accused of adultery – in our parsha is that the Nazirite learns from the experience of the sotah. He looks at her and thinks how he can avoid falling into such a trap and vows to stay away from anything, like wine, which might lead him in that direction.

This is a form of negative learning and we have plenty of opportunities to do it, to look around us and say – hey, I don’t want to end up like that person, not out of a stance of arrogance but out of a stance of humility – the knowledge that we are all essentially the same and therefore I, too, am capable of falling into that trap and need to learn how not to.

In Pirke Avot, which we just completed, Ben Zoma also famously tells us that if you want to be wise, the way to do so is to learn from every person. He does not say to learn from every wise person, but from every person. Every person in this world has something to teach us if we can see it and are open to it. I think often what stops us from learning from others is judgment on the one hand and a kind of insecurity on the other. We either think we are better than them or we think we are worse. Either way, we close ourselves from learning, either because we think they have nothing to teach us or because we feel threatened by their goodness. We see the beautiful way they live and we feel small in comparison and shut ourselves off from learning or growing. To take a stance of hitlamdut is to understand that we are all in the same boat, all struggling with similar issues so that we can help each other learn to live.

When I looked back on my encounters with others in the past few days, I found I could learn something from many people (including children) – it was as if they were all sent to be role models for me in different areas of life which I find difficult. The generosity of one and the calm and sense of sanctity of another and the simple practice of davening before anything else in the morning of another and strangely, in another friend, the ability to ask for favors in a way that includes others and makes them feel intimate. If I can take a stance of hitlamdut, then I begin to see each person as an angel sent to enlighten me in some way.