Sunday, March 25, 2018

Where Do We Belong?

The Exodus from Egypt was the birth of what is called the 'עם ה “Nation of G-d.” Before then, the fathers of the Jewish people, their spiritual and genetic predecessors, did not have national status. Avraham Avinu was honored and recognized as a unique and influential individual, who swam against the current. He was called העברי Ha’Ivri, which means the one who was עובר, who crossed over, because while he stood on one side, the world stood on the other. And Jewish converts are called "ben Avraham," son of Avraham. He represented, in a sense, something like counter-culture.

The funny thing about counter-culture is it has a certain power and attraction by virtue of its very marginality, while at the same time its goal is to proliferate its ideology and gain acceptance in established society. Meaning that paradoxically, the very success of a counter-cultural movement entails its downfall. Many music fans feel disappointed when their beloved niche band lands a hit song, despite their desire for the art of their heroes to be appreciated and their disdain for the popular radio-station’s playlist. And many revolutionary movements whose leaders once boasted of equality have ended up seizing dictatorial power once the establishment had been overthrown, lest the movement’s organically strong following meet resistance from new counter-cultural dissidents.

To understand a little better, lets learn about the Torah's description of displaced, or marginal people. The word Ger (גר) literally means a person who has left his birthplace, and it comes from the word לגור, which means to live in a place. There is a particular kind of pain and vulnerability a person feels he does not belong. He feels he cannot depend on what he is used to, or the resources of his established network. There can be a certain humility in this that anyone can appreciate.

When a Jew loves his fellow Jew who is a convert, he fulfills two Mitzvot with one stone – To love your fellow Jew, and to love the Ger. The verses’ reason for the second mitzvah is “because you were Gerim in Egypt.” The early commentators explain that there is a certain quality in a people that empathize with someone who has left his place of origin to join the Jews that is befitting of a Nation of G-d. Everyone admires this quality and it merits a special connection with G-d. The reverse is also true – it is shameful for someone who has גרות in his origin to disrespect a Ger and act as if he were not similar to him. (מום שבך אל תאומר לחברך, ב"מ נח)

The גרות of the Jewish people is more than circumstantial. It is גרות in olam hazeh, in this world (גר אנוכי בארץ, תהילים קי'ט). A true student of Torah wisdom is connected to his spiritual origin, and feels a certain strangeness in being in this world. גרות in Egypt represents being a foreigner to the physicality that Egypt represents. The deeper significance of this is hinted at by the Sefer HaChinuch, who says that the Torah compares the love for a Ger to the love of “המקום” literally, “The Place,” which is one of G-d’s names, as it says “ואהבתה את ה' אלוקך,” And you shall love the Lord your God. It is essential to Jewish identity that we were slaves in a foreign land from inception, and that our roots were nurtured by wandering in the wilderness of the desert looking only to Hashem for sustenance.

The Maharal says that the Jews received the Torah in the desert so that it should not merely be a tool for promoting the well-being of society, rather it should be received as the eternal Good that comes from beyond this world (מהרל ג"ה פ' כ'ג, ת"י פ' כ'ו). But the Torah also had to be given to a "nation" so that Torah would be established in this world and become more than merely a marginal faction or individual ambition. Hence, the Jewish Nation receives the Torah as a nation of Gerim. That's why the Torah portion in which we receive the Torah is named "Yisro," after the first Jewish convert (עיין סדר היום קל'ה). It's a society that is neither settled nor anti-establishment, whose sole purpose is the integration in this world of something which is entirely beyond it. In this way, it is comparable to a counter-culture that does not lose its power by proliferating its ideology. Its strength of otherness remains, even when it becomes mainstream. 

This is why the Jews have been able to survive and retain their identity throughout a long and bitter exile. Any nation that is founded on having an established, comfortable place in the world would have quickly disintegrated and assimilated. We are unique because this world is not really our place. "המקום" is our place and He is our security. Even the Land of Israel is not our comfort - it is a place for us to carry out our special mission. We are constantly under attack and disproportionately examined by the nations of the world because we are not meant to be like everyone else.

But we are not alone. If we embrace our strangeness, the shame of our vulnerability will be our greatest pride, and then we will rest safely in our borders, and our purpose will be universally appreciated.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Just Can't Get Enough

Probably one of the biggest guilty pleasures today is drama binging. Download or record your favorite TV series and watch the whole season, 10 or 20 hours, in one sitting. For a little while, you escape to this alternate reality, your mind flooded with scintillating images, every breath holding on for the next step of the plot - who will win, who will die, who will reveal his super-power or his hidden plan, how will he get out of this one... 

You identify with the hero, his ambitions, his desire to survive, and the evil of the antagonist. You want to know what happens next, but the pleasure of it isn't as much in finding out what happens as being immersed in the world of the story. And the way you experience that immersion is identifying with the struggle of "good" and "evil," however they may be defined by the story.  

There are different kinds of desire. One kind is wanting to getting a satisfaction of some pleasure, like the physical pleasue of icecream, for example. Another kind is a desire to be totally immersed and connected in something. 

I think what pulls you in to drama is what the Torah calls רצון. It could be translated as desire, but it's really much more than that. The Torah uses the word נפש, or soul, (אם יש את נפשכם Genesis 23) to mean רצון. It means a person's ability to connect. The נפש connects a person's body to his soul and links him up to his life source. To desire something with ratzon is like putting your very soul into it - it is a much deeper desire and pleasure that makes you feel life is exciting. Kind of like being in love. Love is more than just having a physical attraction - your whole sense of self is immersed in it and connected. 

The fulfillment of רצון is called "good." The way you feel life is exciting is that there is a bigger picture your plugged into and things fit together and have meaning. That's "good." That's how drama is immersion in a struggle of good and evil. Evil is when things are disconnected and everything is meaningless. 

Of course, we know that once the binge is over, you can't do much to keep it going besides joining a fan-club and reminiscing with other geek-fans. The whole world you were immersed in was a fantasy. If the only way you get this kind of pleasure is through fantasy, you're likely to get bored, and be nostalgic, and possibly even get addicted.

Purim is about the drama of real life. A drama feeds you a series of events in a certain order, and from a certain perspective to draw you into the story and struggle of good and evil. Megillas Esther is a revelation of how a series of mundane events were actually an epic struggle of good vs. evil. Mordechai and Esther were able to follow the story and connect the dots. But the whole point is they were able to bring this bigger world of "Good" vs "Evil" without open miracles that defied nature. Even after the triumph of Mordechai over Haman, the world remained in a state where the Torah reality was hidden. Esther was still married to the non-Jewish, corrupt king Achashverosh, and Achashverosh still maintained his seat of power over the whole world. They brought out the drama and showed there was a battle of a connected, meaningful world view vs. a nihilistic, random world view, even without seeing a clear and total triumph of good vs. evil.  

The miracle of Purim was accepting Torah out of love. In other words, a revelation of "Good" and "Evil" from a Torah perspective in a way that you could be totally immersed in the drama of it within the real, mundane world that we live in that can seem random and disconnected to the untrained eye.  

The message of Purim to carry away is: Look for the drama of "Good" and "Evil" in your life. With Torah, real life is a riveting experience that you can put all your heart and soul into if you're looking through the right lenses. You can be immersed in the drama of real life and the struggle of Good versus Evil, and get a profound level of pleasure from just being alive. You just have to be open to it, search with wisdom, and listen to the inner desire to immerse yourself, body and soul. 


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Heaven On Earth

"Says Rava: A man is obligated to drink (on Purim) until he doesn't know the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai" (Megillah, 7a).

Here we are, celebrating the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, wherein the evil Haman and his supporters are killed as the saintly Mordechai rises to power, and the way we celebrate is... by getting too drunk to recognize the difference between the two? Granted, it's not unusual for people to get drunk at a party, but this is supposed to be the spiritual opportunity that the Ari'zal says is greater the Yom Kippur! (The Ari'zal famously says Yom Kippur is called "Yom HaKippurim" in the Torah because "Keh-Purim" also means "like Purim." In other words, it approximates Purim in its greatness.)

The answer follows my previous post. On the inside, we know the external world we live in doesn't really reflect what we know inside to be true. Enjoyments are temporary and weak, people are given credit they don't deserve, and there is even evil in the world. 

At the same time, we have this need to build and grow, actualize our potential, and tell right from wrong. Some philosophies attribute this to "ego." Not so in Judaism. The same אני, the "I" that senses the strangeness of our existence also demands that its reality be actualized and honored. The same thing that says we live in transition also says we should have a home.

But in order to bring that reality about, we need revelation. The Torah that was revealed at Sinai is called תורה מן השמים, Torah from Heaven. The word שמים, heaven, can also be read as the plural of the word שמ, which means "there," or a destination. שמים is the "place" of destinations or ends. The word for land or earth, ארץ comes from the word רץ which means to run. Having Torah from heaven is how we can have heaven on earth, the way we can live in transition in a way that is simultaneously transient and eternal. Torah is called a "path" because by doing what it says and making it our way of life it becomes our reality. With Torah, running the race is winning the race

Consider, if G-d needed things to get done in the world, He could just do them Himself. If He's giving us a to-do list, it's because there is something special about us doing it. And while we know just from within ourselves is that there has to be something that satisfies this deep yearning we have, and that that's what life is about, whatever satisfies this need is the kind of thing that has to come from beyond us (that's where the ego can get in the way for someone who feels he's the be all end all). 

The Jewish perspective is that we live in transition between this world and the world to come. But the world to come is not just a removed concept or fantasy - it is a world of Truth, where nothing gets in the way of experiencing who you really are. It's where you live totally connected to your "to come," to you end goal, even as you are constantly growing. We are placed in this world in order elevate our natures by choosing good over evil and becoming partners in creation by creating ourselves, but the truth of who we become, or, the truth of our becoming, is something that can't really be contained in this fleeting world. We are here for there to be Torah from heaven on earth. 

The happiness of Purim is accepting Torah out of love. It means embracing that our life in this world is transient, but because it is transient, and because we live amidst externality and potential for evil, we can bring about revelation and we can be a part of something way beyond and totally eternal. So we drink until Haman and Mordechai, good and evil, external falsehood and internal truth, all work together to bring out our happiness and our true selves.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Moment Like This (some people wait a lifetime)

Why did the chicken cross the road? To post it on facebook of course! What other reason could there be for crossing the road? Getting to the other side just isn't as exciting or arousing. And things are always supposed to be exciting and arousing... aren't they?

If you look around, you see what seems like attractive looks, impressive titles accolades. You see a series of idyllic freeze frames, HD, movies that show you specific angles and scenes and music that tell you how to feel and what it means (even if the feeling is uncertainty or the meaning is metaphorical).

Perhaps, amidst all of this, a nervousness shuffles inside, rumbling and foreboding. If it would speak, it would say, "Why should I feel the way they tell me to feel? Why do I feel resistance? Why am I different?" As much as you want to get into it, the perfection of the moment doesn't really land the way you feel it should.

The Gemara (Nedarim, 9) tells of a young shepherd with beautiful eyes and locks of hair who is praised for being a rare case of appropriately becoming a nazarite (a vow to abstain from wine for a limited time and shave your head). He saw his reflection in a well, felt his creative powers aroused, and said to his evil inclination "Evil one! Why do you pride yourself on a world that is not your own?" Whereupon he immediately made a nazarite vow.

Anyone can choose abstinence, but it takes a special person to do it because he really knows he's dealing with a world that is "not his own." We don't live in freeze frames. Every moment is gone as soon as it comes, our feelings and enjoyments come and go, and our bodies age and die. But there is a part of us that feels that our existence really has more permanence to it, and that things should last forever.

The truth is that both sides are true. We live in a transitional world. We are all "crossing the road," so to speak.When we jump up for joy and close our eyes and hope we will just stay up their, suspended above the ground, we are dissapointed. But if we say that this fleeting, ephemeral quality of things is all there is, then the אני, the "I" that is not ephemeral is denied its voice.

Embracing the impermanence of this world is conuter-intuitive to the western mind, but this kind of perspective is actually not depressing. When people are in transition, they focus on essentials and don't get stuck on small things. What is actually depressing is when you run and run and feel you're supposed to be getting somewhere but your not. And what is actually anxiety-provoking is the sense that something from inside that says you're not really settled is haunting you.

But a concientious Jewish person wants to know where the permenence that I so deeply desire can be found - and it has to be more than a far-removed notion of life after death.

G-d willing I will shed some light on how true happiness is born from this search, and about the happiness of Purim in a world of appearances. But in the meantime, Rav Chaim Volloziner's metaphor: The world is a rapid river that will drown you in its current, and the Torah is a solid boulder - would you not hold on for dear life?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hulk Smash!!

After my temper wears off, it feels a little like I'm waking up with a hangover. What did I do? What was I thinking? How am I going to clean this up? Even if I didn't literally turn into a green monster, it wasn't that far off. I got the destructive, overreactive, babbling idiot part down pretty good.

The Gemara in Nedarim (22) says that when a person is angry all kinds of hell overpower him. הסר כעס מלבך והעבר רע מבסרך Remove anger from your heart and remove evil from your flesh (Ecclesiastes 11). And the Gemara says רע (evil) also refers to Hell. A person literally suffers greatly, even physically when he's angry. But that doesn't stop him. Its one of the wonders of being human.

Anger really comes from the sense that one's personal desires or vision for what should be is the ultimate authority. When things don't go your way... Hulk Smash!! But we're not talking about an unusual kind of delusion. In fact, there's a good reason to feel this way. One of the words for soul, נשמה, is called a "portion of G-d above" That means that one's deepest desires and sense of self-worth come from an extremely holy place and demand great respect. The catch is, one only has access to that holy place by recognizing he is placed in the world to make a positive influence, and not to gratify oneself or make oneself worshipped. (Just to be clear, of course, in no way does this mean a person is G-d by virtue of his soul. G-d created souls and is prior to and beyond them)

The Holy Zohar says that when a person gets angry, his connection to his נשמה, his higher source of self, is replaced with something called אל זר, a "foreign god." The full meaning of this is beyond us, but there is something we can take away. False gods are called "foreign" because they are "foreign" to their worshippers. They seem on some level to satisfy a need, but ultimately leave the worshipper empty handed and disconnected, feeling a stranger to his own life. Anger brings this kind of power into the world.

We think that by getting angry we can force our will and claim our position of authority. Many times we fail, and even when we get our way, we don't get love or respect. On the contrary, we look silly, lose respect, and create distance. The Gemara Kedushin (41a) says רגזן לא עלתא בידו אלה רגזנותא "An angry person is left with nothing but his anger." We become strangers to our "worshippers" and to ourselves when we choose anger over relationships.

The opposite of anger is called סבלנות, which literally means the ability to carry a burden (and weakly translates as patience). It's holding onto a personal sense of what-should-be, together with the reality that there is another person here, with their own psychological infrastructure and their own baggage, or a situation that's more involved and complex than you want it to be. As opposed to being a stranger, סבלנות is using your lofty sense of self to be a positive influence and work with a complex world.

One way that Jewish wisdom could suggest integrating סבלנות is to meditate on the phrase I mentioned above, "An angry person is left with nothing but his anger." Consistently, a few minutes a day, say it out loud until it fits naturally on your lips, and reflect on what it means to you, how anger hurts you and how things could be better without it. In addition, when you feel yourself getting angry, recall these words of wisdom and your reflections. Through this process you can become more aware of how anger feels when it starts coming up and what makes you angry, until it becomes less and less common and you become more of a "carrier."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Where's the drama?

As I gazed at the Chanukah candles this year and soon had to look off to the side because my eyes started aching, I couldn't help but feel it was... anti-climactic. If I think about everything that goes into Chanukah, all the doughnuts, and gift cards, and parties, and music - a story of a war of the few against the mighty Assyrian Greek army. And I make two blessings and light the candles and then...
And then nothing. Nothing happens (that I can see). No orchestral crescendo, no particularly interesting lighting, no explosions. What's missing?

The Gemara says that the Maccabees were able to win due to the merit of the Cohen Gadol 200 years earlier, Shimon HaZadik. In an epic meeting between him and Alexander the Great, Alexander demounted his horse and bowed down to Shimon HaZadik, to everyone's surprise, and his army's dismay. The explanation: before every victory in his military campaign, Shimon HaZadik appeared before Alexander in a dream in his holy and pure Yom Kippur attire, to foretell his victory. That means that even while the war of the Maccabees was taking place, the real power of the Jews and the nature of the conflict was hidden, and even the rise of the Greek empire was brought about by something Alexander the Great himself, warrior and student of Aristotle, only saw in a dream but did not really understand.

The Jews who fought the Greeks understood this. That's how they had the courage to fight, knowing very well that their weak figures didn't stand a chance against professional soldiers with the latest technology. They understood that despite what it looked like, there was much more there than what met the eye. They placed in their hearts that they are a people who Hashem took out of Egypt with miracles that defied every aspect of nature, and who received the Torah, and its mission to unite Hashem's vision of the world with their own personal experience. And they knew that inside the Holy Temple the Greeks desecrated, there lies a place called the Holy of Holies, where "Heaven and Earth Kiss," the "Kiss" we live for.

For Greek eyes, the candles are missing the drama, and the Jewish kid on the block is merely the only one without a shiny Christmas tree (but has Adam Sandler's list of Jewish celebrities to make him feel better). But Jewish eyes remember a history of tears of pain and tears of joy and visions of light born from darkness. If we use our minds to direct our hearts, we'll find our eyes can reveal the miracle of what's really there. A subtle glow. Warm, persistent, happy. A power to build and overthrow empires, and more.

Friday, April 14, 2017

We Know How to Party

How do you explain Jewish holidays to non-Jews?.
"What are you celebrating this time?" 
"Well, we were bitterly enslaved for over 200 years and then we got to be not-enslaved" 
"Isn't that what you celebrated last time?" 
"No, last time, we were almost all murdered on the same day, but then we weren't." 
"And what about that booths one? What's that about?" 
"Yeah, that's when we left slavery to wander the dessert for 40 years. Woohoo!"
"What about the party you had 8 days after your baby brother was born, that was just celebrating the new addition, right?"
"Umm, not exactly..." 

We Jews are a strange bunch. We don't celebrate Moshe Rabbeinu's birthday (like christians celebrate Easter), or the day we landed in the land of Israel (like Americans celebrate Thanksgiving).

The Torah's vision of a "chag" is much deeper than a "celebration". The foundation of all the chagim is the exodus from Egypt. That's when we became the nation that would go on to accept the Torah and embrace the mission of fulfilling the world's purpose. For that to happen, we had to experience the worst that slavery to physicality could offer in order to rise above it. What we are "celebrating" is the process we went through that enabled us to have a real connection with the divine in our daily lives, and yeah, that includes both hard times and humility, and miracles and triumph.

Interestingly, the themes of Emunah (faith) and Cheirus (freedom) are both intrinsic to the exodus. As much as we are supposed to tap in to the freedom we achieved, we are equally required to internalize the perspective of seeing how, in the ten plagues, Hashem runs the world on every level. A person who can't approach the world knowing that whatever happens, there is always a purpose and direction, is bound to fall prey to life's traps. He'll turn to temporary gratification and ephemera to get him through the day. Only someone who is "enslaved" to the notion of purpose and connection in every situation is truly free. 

We eat and drink and sing (in short, party!) when we get the chance to do something extra-ordinary. That's the beginning of the journey, and the birth of the Jewish Nation.