Monday, September 8, 2014

Self-Imposed Restlessness for the Weary: Fear of Stillness in Elul

I walked into my regular Thursday morning yoga class recently, and saw something funny.  If you’ve never been to a yoga class before, the general idea is, since it is a contemplative practice, you arrive a little before the class, set up your mat, and begin to center yourself so that once the teacher officially begins, you are ready.  Well, I arrived at class about 5 minutes early, and as I walked into the door of the studio, I noticed that many of my classmates had arrived in advance, were sitting or laying on their mats already, but instead of assuming one of many yoga postures and focusing on their breathing, they were all staring intently at screens on their cell phones – some even in child’s pose with the cell phone under the gaze of their eyes.   Have you noticed that people don’t seem to know how to do just be anymore? 

This summer, the results of a new study on human behavior and introspection came out detailing just how much so. In explaining the reasoning for the study, its lead author Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia remarked, “We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy.  No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”[i] In 11 experiments covering more than 700 people across an expansive age-range, the majority of participants reported that they found it “unpleasant” to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6-15 minutes.   Nearly a third of people admitted they cheated during the experiment by checking their phones or listening to music.
Which caused Wilson along with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert to ask a different question: “If people found it so unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, what lengths might they go to in order to escape themselves?”[ii]

To answer this question, they started by exposing volunteers to positive and negative stimuli, including mildly painful electric shocks. They asked the people how much they would pay to avoid the shock experience if they had $5 to spend. Forty-two people responded they would pay.   Then, the researchers told the participants to sit in a room and think to themselves for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.
“I have to tell you, with my other co-authors, there was a lot of debate: ‘Why are we going to do this? No one is going to shock themselves,’” Wilson said.[iii] To their surprise, of the 42 people who said they would in fact pay to avoid the shock, two-thirds of those men chose to shock themselves, and a quarter of the women did. One person pressed the button 190 times.[iv]

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this idea that we humans would rather administer electric shocks on ourselves than be alone with our thoughts, for even just a few minutes.  It’s as if we’ve become addicted to the condition of busy-ness: so desperate to find something to fill up all the moments in our day with noise, distraction, buzz just to carry us to the next moment, fearing what condition might set in if we actually did nothing for a moment or two.  Many posit that ultimately, this is about the fact that when left alone, we humans tend to focus on the negative.  From The New York Times’ coverage of the study: “We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers.  What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out – difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money troubles, health concerns and so on.  And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads.  Hello rumination.” Put simply, it just doesn’t feel good to have to introspect. 

But interestingly enough, I don’t think this is a new phenomenon.  Sure, today distraction is literally at our finger tips, but I’d contend that the preference of mindlessness over mindfulness has been going on for a lot longer than the invent of the cell phone or even the industrial revolution, and certainly, many of the most foundational Jewish teachings and tenets make this clear.   But to understand this, it is important to understand that, more often than not, when a practice or rule is introduced into a culture, it is because the opposite behavior or reality has set in.  So take Shabbat. A day set aside every week, where consumption and “business” are forbidden, where quietness and gratitude are stressed.  Why mandate these behaviors?  Because otherwise they wouldn’t be practiced.  It was true for our ancestors and remains true for us today.  Without setting a limitation, the world of keeping busy, of producing, of consuming rolls right along, sweeping our ancestors and us up in its wake.

More directly, let’s think about the time in which we find ourselves in right now.  Tonight marks the second Shabbat in the month Elul, the 30 day period set aside for us to search our lives, our thoughts and our actions, to acknowledge both the enlightened parts of ourselves, but also the darker parts of our souls, all with the hope that such introspection might positively impact our own process of teshuvah – the call for repentance and returning that is the essential demand of the High Holy Days – now less than three weeks away.  And let me tell you, to do this process the right way, it takes a lot longer than 6-15 minutes alone with ourselves.   

The process of self-evaluation is designed to be an internal one, and it has never been easy.  But the trick is, when it’s actually practiced, we find we can actually change our thoughts, our actions, ourselves.  And it even goes beyond each individual in impact.  Other studies show that not giving ourselves time to reflect impairs our ability to empathize with others.  According to one expert: “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind.  Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”[v] So taking time to cultivate a true sense of self-awareness actually has the potential to transform our relationships with and how we understand the other humans with which we share this world.  

Here’s the challenge for each of us: let’s take some time to be alone with ourselves.  Optimally, each day between now and the High Holy Days would be great, but if that seems like too much, what about just on Shabbat?  And if you need a little facilitation, I’d recommend the practice of cheshbon hanefesh – literally an inventory taking of our souls – in which we reflect on our successes and failures over the past year in light of our relationships and experiences.  Here is a sample that you can use:  

Is it possible that we will find the process challenging? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes.  I don’t think it will be less desirable than self-administered electric shocks, but you never know.  What I do know is that if we take up the challenge, we may just discover something about ourselves we never realized or knew before, and that may just assure that our life as well as the other lives our life touches will be better as a result. 

[i] Murphy, Kate. “No Time to Think,” The New York Times.  July 27, 2014
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Johnson, Carolyn. “People Prefer Electric Shocks to time alone With Thoughts.” Boston Globe. July 3, 2014
[iv] Wilson, Timothy.  “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” Science. Vol 345. July 2014.
[v] Dimaggio, Dr.  Giancarlo.  As referenced in “No Time to Think” – see above

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Pushing Forward to Get Back Home

In his incredible book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” Rabbi Alan Lew writes of how each of our lives “is a strange dance of pushing forward to get back home.”  Pushing forward to get back home. And he writes of the power of this particular quarter of the year in which we find ourselves right now (no, not the summer, but the period of months that begin just before Tisha b’Av and continue through the High Holy Days) to impact our path on that journey, all through the process of teshuvah – that turning and returning to the best of who we can yet be.  For most, I think, teshuvah-talk doesn’t really start until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the truth is, Jewish tradition begins the teshuvah conversation much earlier – seven weeks earlier to be precise, marking the start of a period of time that many, myself included, believe is of real consequence.

On Tisha b’Av, we lament the calamities of our people throughout history, but we also lament the calamities of our own lives.  The Temple is always a metaphor for the soul’s wholeness, and when we mourn the Temple’s destruction, we mourn too the brokenness of our own souls, of our relationships with each other, of the brokenness and destruction in our world.  Something that this year in particular wasn’t hard to do.  According to Lew, “Tisha b’Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives – from God, from ourselves and from others... Teshuvah is the gesture by which we seek to heal this alienation and find connection, reconciliation, and anchoring in our lives.” 

And so this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b’Av represents our first step out from the exile and despair of Tisha b’Av.  It is called Shabbat Nachamu- "Shabbat of Comfort," referring to the opening verses in the Haftara we recite tomorrow morning, where the prophet Isaiah eases the people’s anguish after the destruction:  Nachamu nachamu ami – take comfort, take comfort my people.  So whereas Tisha b’Av immerses our souls in a place of darkness, this Shabbat of nechama, of comfort, comes to teach that although desolation and alienation feel so all-consuming, we must not give up hope, we cannot shut your eyes from seeing our self and our world from the way they might yet be.  

But how do we do that?  How do we move from immersive despondence to eyes and heart open to the promise of a better tomorrow?
This week’s Torah portion, which is always read on Shabbat Nachamu offers a powerful insight right as it opens, as Moses recounts what is perhaps one of, if not the most heart wrenching part of his own story.  Speaking to the generation that will cross over into the Promised Land, Moses shares this with them: I pleaded with God, I begged God with all my soul “O God, You let me see the works of your greatness and your mighty hand. You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Please, let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.”

But God says, no.  Moses continues: “But God would not grant me my wish and said, “Rav lach!” Enough!  Never speak to me of this again.”
Moses - the only one to see God face to face - so longs just to touch, to step onto the land, to which he’s dedicated his life to lead the Jewish people that he literally begs God to take back the Divine punishment that forbids him to get there.  “God, you can do anything, he says, I’ve seen you perform miracles.  Please, do this one thing for me, your most loyal servant.”
And still, God says no, rav lach, you already have so much Moses.  This is enough.   Moses, who has had it all, is left with one thing he can’t have. He is left longing for something else. 

So many of us understand this story as one of failure or God’s abandonment, but I think we read it on Shabbat Nachamu because it is in fact just the opposite, as it gives us back our sense of life.  We don’t ever get there – to the finish line.  It’s why every year at Passover, we always say “Next year in Jerusalem.” We never get there.  None of us do.  And the truth is, every arrival that seems like a finish line, really only turns out to be another starting point.  But there is a beauty and a gift of longing deeply for something.  It gives us something to strive for, something to move towards, in particular in times when it would otherwise seem like we couldn’t go on.  Robert Browning must have known this deep Torah truth when he famously wrote: “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

So this day, this Shabbat of comfort, amidst a still shattered world, we are called to rise up from amidst the ashes, and ask ourselves what is it that we long for? What is it that we ache for? What triggers in us a sense of yearning that is strong enough to drive us forward out of yesterday and into tomorrow?  And then, can we hold on to that longing, that yearning to really feel it sink it and move us? 

So as we move forward for the next seven weeks leading us up to Rosh Hashanah, the renewal of our world and our souls, we need to awaken this longing in our souls. We can ask ourselves: in what way are we trading in our deepest desires for something less than – in what way have we placated our souls with nourishment that doesn’t truly sate us?  And how can we raise up our awareness of our longings so that it might become a vehicle turning us toward teshuvah, pushing us forward to get back home? 
It’s not about destination.  It is always about the journey.  It is the longing that pulls us toward wholeness.  It is the longing that will bring us back home.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Climate of Our Hearts

From the Washington Post earlier this week:  “On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere.  …Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.”

There but for the grace of God, right?

There is so much that is out of our control, all the time.  And take that on any level: from the small stuff that seems big when it is happenings – like getting stuck in traffic jams when we have someplace to be to the big stuff that is actually immensely significant – like life-altering events that we’ve done nothing to invite.  For a species that thinks itself so powerful, perhaps we’ve missed something along the way.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.  As some of you know, I am a participant in a 2 year fellowship of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.  In addition to intensive study year round, the fellowship includes four 5 day retreats, one from which I just returned late last night.  The retreats are silent, meaning that the only sounds participants intone for the majority of the time are words and melodies of prayer during worship time.  We spend significant time in contemplative meditation, Torah study, and embodied practice.  Most of my time during this last retreat was spent contemplating this issue:  in this world where so much doesn’t make sense, where so much seems beyond our will, what is within our grasp to hold on to? What are the atmospheric conditions of our lives that we can actually control?

The Chasidic masters of Jewish tradition answer that question: The only thing that any one person can actually control is the climate of their own heart.  Is my heart warm and open today? Or is it cold and closed?  That is it.  And that, they say, is truly a matter we can direct.  The condition of our heart is the seat of our dominion.  And who and what we let into our hearts is ultimately the only measurable that matters.   
I confess I am with you this Shabbat with an aching heart.  The pain of our world, both near and far, is something that I feel most deeply.  And with each divide, each blinded us versus them, each skewed news report stewing in its own sanctimoniousness, each hateful remark, each tunnel and bullet and bomb, the walls of self-justification amass higher and higher, obscuring the light from entering our hearts.  And I swear to you I can feel the cosmos cracking.

I do not want to speak with you tonight about right and wrong.  About justification.  About what is fair or not.  About any of the things that speak to those parts of us that stimulate our egos.  If there is a time and place for those things, it is certainly not in this moment.  I don’t want to speak with you about Israel or Hamas, about politics and media, about Europe and anti-Semitism, about a shot down airplane carrying the world’s best hope for a cure for AIDS now lost along with hundreds of other souls, about families that have no home or food, children alone on a border in Texas or shot down in Chicago’s streets. About people who sit with us together tonight here in this sanctuary who feel more alone than we could ever know.   I want to talk about how our hearts respond when we encounter any of these and more.

This Shabbat puts us smack dab in the middle of the three week time period called Bein Ha Meitzarim that carries our people from day we memorialize the walls of Jerusalem being breached to Tisha B-Av - the day we remember the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.   Of note is that, although there is certainly historical detail about the events leading up to the Temple’s destruction and our people’s subsequent exile, our tradition frames our memory of the events differently.  When explaining why the Temple was destroyed, instead of citing reasons like the enemy army’s strength, the Talmud instead teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called Sinat Chinam – translated most often as baseless hatred, but if taken literally, it is the condition of hating graciousness – the denial of benevolence, the abnegation of mercy, the rejection of compassion.  What, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the place where we felt most connected to the Divine?  The condition of closed-heartedness.

What leads to the destructions of our deepest connections to ourselves, each other, our world, to the Divine? In our day as well, the condition of closed heartedness.

We cannot control the disasters that loom in the universe or the wars that rage on battlefields and in other’s souls.  The only question for us is what is the climate of our heart?  Is it heat or ice? Vulnerable or locked up tight?

I wonder what it would be like if we could go through our days entirely open-hearted?  I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion?  I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other’s hearts with our own hearts?  And if we did so, what sort of Seat of Holiness, what sort of Mikdash we might build together again?  Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gun Violence and Seeing the Promised Land

About three weeks ago just after the shooting near UC Santa Barbara, the satirical newspaper “The Onion” ran a little article that, sadly, proved not so satirical.  It read: “In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. ….At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.””[i] 

We are living in, what I believe to be, a particularly dark moment in our country’s history.

A different sort of dark moment is marked for our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion Shelach.  The parashah records our ancestors’ actual arrival at the border of the Promised Land only 2 years into their wandering. Moses directs twelve tribal leaders to scout and assess the land, its inhabitants and cities. When they return, they report on the land’s goodness, but 10 of the 12 also warn that the obstacles in front of them are simply too overwhelming, in particular detailing the giant-sized residents.  Overtaken with insecurity, they assume that they must have looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of the land’s giant inhabitants.   This sends the entire Israelite population into a fear-fueled panic. Despite the desperate pleas of the undeterred Joshua and Caleb, the people beg to return to Egypt. Enraged, God seals the fate of their entire faithless generation: none of them, save for Joshua and Caleb, will ever see the Promised Land again.

We can deduce from the story that the 10 scouts did something wrong in their reporting, but the Torah never actually specifies what exactly their failure was.  Most commentators assume the scouts’ sin was their exaggeration of the challenge in front of them – their warped sense of their enemies’ size, which caused them to fall victim to their own insecurities and fears.  This ultimately led not just to their own demise but to that of their entire generation.  

This explanation resonates I think.  We can see obstacles that stir insecurity and fear inside us; and if we allow these concerns to run unchecked, they can certainly drive us to betray our values and ourselves.  We see this in our lives and world today all the time – how often does insecurity derail relationships, does anxiety stop people from moving forward in their lives, does fear paralyze and blind us to what is still possible. 

It’s certainly playing out when it comes to our response to gun violence.  My 5 and 7 year olds have regularly rehearsed lock-down drills, so they can be prepared should, in the words of my son, “a bad person come into the school with a gun and shoot, because it happens a lot mommy.” Just this week, our nation added another school shooting to its growing roster, and this week, two different corporations launched products for schools to help protect the students and staff in the case that a shooter entered their school.  1) a bullet proof blanket with backpack like straps that a person puts over themselves while cowering on the ground or in a closet during a lock down.  2) a metal device that can slip over a classroom door making it nearly impossible to breach, thereby preventing a shooter from entering a classroom.  And although on the one hand, I am glad to see the development of protective devices that might lower shooting fatalities, on the other hand, I can’t articulate appropriately the growing frustration and anger and terror I feel about this situation.   It’s hard not to see anything but the growing reality that gun-violence is now just part of a normative list of other life-threatening risks we all face, like car accidents and disease.  

But let’s not give up so quickly, and instead return to the Torah portion for a moment, because not everyone sees the problem the same way.  18th-century Chasidic master the Baal Shem Tov understands the real sin of the scouts as their skewed perception not of the land’s inhabitants, but of the land itself. In the portion, when the scouts arrive in the land, the Torah offers a substantial description of its bounty.  In particular, the text details that a single cluster of grapes proved so abundant that “it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of [the scouts].”  Really big grapes! But when the scouts report back to the people on what they saw, they describe the fruit of the land in simple, brief terms, focusing instead in hyperbolic terms on the intimidating nature of the people already living there, whereas the Torah text itself offers only a brief, nondescript verse on them.

According to the BeShT, seeing the fruit of the land should have cued the scouts to recognize that the hard work would have a worthwhile payoff. This explains why the Torah’s description of the land emphasizes the quality of the terrain and the beautiful crops: the Torah had the end game in mind. If the scouts had understood this, they would have focused on the promise of what was ahead, just as Joshua and Caleb implored them to do, but instead, they saw the task as too daunting and ultimately not worth either the risk or the reward.

Sadly, we too are so easily daunted by the magnitude of major systemic challenges that we quickly throw up our hands: the obstacles that stand in front of us are giants in our midst. Who are we, so small and insignificant, to even attempt to conquer them? It would be great to see an end to gun violence in our country, or even our city, but the real challenges far outweigh the potential rewards. Like the scouts, we list the obstacles one after another – race, class, the right, the left, the NRA, the 2nd amendment, mental health systems, prisons, police, gang violence, bullying, gun stores, and on and on and on, and we forget the promise of the end game – a safer, more peaceful country and world. 

In the portion, Joshua and Caleb’s gaze stayed fixed on the promise of the future while still acknowledging the challenges ahead.  There are many Joshuas and Calebs in the fight against gun violence.   Here are two.  Take Dr. Gary Slutkin, the infectious disease doctor who determined that patterns of gun violence follow the exact same patterns as infectious diseases.  And so, in the early 2000’s, applied the same method of addressing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases like malaria to gun violence. The results were drastic reductions of violence in each of the communities where the system was applied and this continues to prove effective today.  If you haven’t seen the film the Interrupters, inspired by his work, I would commend it to you.  Or take Rabbi Joel Mosbacher and the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, which is engaging communities and congregations around the country in advocating that local mayors, gun retailers, firearms manufacturers and large buyers like the military sign a “covenant” of gun overhaul measures. Among its 30 points, the covenant calls for voluntary limits on selling certain types of weapons and large-capacity magazines, sale of guns only through federally licensed dealers and mandatory safety classes for buyers.   Neither is a perfect solution.  But it doesn’t take perfection or a grand leap.  It just takes one step forward toward the vision of something better.   When it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our country, we’ve forgotten to hope and dream for what might be possible again, resigning ourselves to the fact that the best we can hope for is status quo, and in doing so, we’ve set ourselves right back in Egypt.  The Baal Shem Tov’s insight into Parashat Shlach reminds us that if we don’t keep our eye on the prize, our destination right in front of our mind’s eye, we’ll never get anywhere.   Ultimately, the true lesson of this week’s Torah portion beckons powerfully in our day too.  Let it sustain us as we continue our efforts to cultivate peace and freedom throughout our land.
Shabbat Shalom



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Known: Vashti's Story

(I wrote this poem on the occasion of my synagogue sisterhood's Vashti's Banquet.  It references a number of biblical and midrashic sources, as well as commentaries, including modern, on Vashti and her story.)

 I am known
you know
from the pen of men.
Ink's indelibility
forever staining my name,
co-opted for the sake
of an agenda that was not my own.

I am known
you know
according to the Scroll
named after that other
more known
who replaced my throne
next to the king
whose desires I would not entertain.

I am known
you know
for my inaction,
condemned for my not doing.
Denied a voice, a verse,
a claim to my own fate,
to carve out
my own words.

My own story –
intoned by the voice of others -
no full due is credited me.
I am simplified,
made insignificant.

It is the will of the eunuch,
the ultimate powerless,
so threatened by me,
who writes and seals
my censored story's supposed end.

Not even my husband,
most powerful in the land,
schemed to punish me,
to banish me
from his kingdom.
Only remembering me
to know his need for another,
in his bed.

I am known
you know
this day
in circles of sisters
who praise my refusal,
who elevate me,
coronate me
a new queen:
of self-determination,
an exemplar of justice pursuit,
and yet a victim
of my own untimely circumstances.
Still story known by names
I never claimed for myself.
Still victim,
Still used,
with others twisting,
diminishing my story and me
to simple straightforward
for their own purposes,
not mine.

My story, my name
not mentioned even 10 times,
in Esther’s scroll,
has echoed and beckoned for generations.
My story, my name
has been recorded
recounted, re-written,
for ages.

Midrashic ink flowing with the colors
of boiling blood and cool deep sea.
Did you know,
I am known
by the Babylonian rabbis
as a goat-tailed, scaly-skinned whore?
The symbol of their exile’s source,
So detesting of my rule,
my power, my story-
they imagined me a monster.[i]

Though not all
despised me so.
Did you know,
I am known 
by the rabbis of Israel
as a source for their pity?
They told of how their Mighty God
Watched over me, took me in,
saved me time and time again
from life’s cruelties and crushing force.

So listen as I tell you
that there is more to my story
beyond the twists and turns 
of one chapter of a scroll.
Not inactive or reactive,
but determined and willful.
Not pure evil or good
but dimensioned and full.
Not so easily fit or forced into
a simple, bowed up box.

So might you entertain my desire,
this new night of feting,
to tell you my story more full
than you could possibly know
so that you might
know me better?

You see I was the daughter
of a great Chaldean king,
whose own fate was sealed at a feast
when I was but a girl.
A chandelier cut from its chains
landing upon my father's brains
in front of my very eyes.
Chaos erupting in the drunken room
I found my way to the newly crowned king,
who pitied me, took me in,
married me to his own son,
the prince who would one day be king,

Entertain the fact that
I myself did entertain
my fellow unknowns
at a fete of women,
a grand banquet,
in the palace of non-other than the king himself.
And know that this celebration
was no proper ladies affair.
Said to rival the licentiousness of my own husband's desires
my fete was set in the innermost rooms of the castle,
just under the nose of the king and his men,
So brazen and emboldened was I.[iii]

But before you bedeck me
in ribbons and jewels,
call me "equality's champion,"
know too that in my chamber
I took great pleasure in demanding
my own maidservants, Jews as they were,
 serve me on their seventh day.
And I preferred them without their clothes,
only their trays and washbasins in hand.

Do not seem so surprised,
measure for measure[iv],
I never asked
to be your role model or revulsion,
Neither Beauty nor Mystique,
neither least or most desired queen.

Know this:
They will tell of my execution,
they will write of
the eunuch’s perverted desire
to have my head presented
and served
on a platter
at the seat of the king.
Some will speak of the king
strangling me himself
In his drunken rage,
Fires so burning inside.[v]
But they do not know,
No one does,
Where I abide.

The throne upon which I now sit
I whittled and carved myself
from craggy crystals, thorny roses,
And knotted roots from brush that grew
out of the Chaldean sands of my Babylonia.
For I sit enthroned
in the echoing halls
of the banished,
of the monster-ed,
of the simplified,
of the misunderstood.
Our stories left unfinished,
our fates un-written,
our red-ribbon hauntings,
our legends, our standings
not fully known
to any soul.

So dine and revel
this night
in my own banquet’s tribute,
but do me the honor
of judging me
for yourself.

Not by the story
you knew or
you wanted,
but by the fuller tale
that you now know.

I am known.

[i] TB Megilah 12b
[ii] Ester Rabbah 3:5 and Midrash Panim Acherim B:1
[iii] TB Megilah 12a-b
[iv] ibid, Rashi
[v] Esther Rabbah 4:9, 12, Leviticus Rabbah 12:1

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Character Counts: Cookie Thievery and Idolatry

(The following is my sermon from Shabbat Ki Tissa)

The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox*
A woman was waiting
At the airport one night,
With several long hours
Before her flight.
She hunted for a book
In the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies
And found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book,
But happened to see,
That the man beside her,
As bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two
From the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore
To avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies,
And watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie theif”
Diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated
As the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice,
I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took,
He took one too.
When only one was left,
She wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face
And a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie
And broke it in half.

He offered her half,
And he ate the other.
She snatched it from him,
And thought: “Oh brother!
This guy has some nerve,
And he’s also quite rude,
Why, he didn’t even show
Any gratitude!”

She had never known
When she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief
When her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings
And headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at
The “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane
And sank in her seat.
Then sought her book,
Which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage,
She gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies
In front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,”
She moaned with despair.
“Then the others were his
And he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize,
She realized with grief,
That she was the rude one,
The ingrate.  The thief!

Does this story resonate?   Maybe we haven’t been a cookie thief, but perhaps we laid on the car horn those extra three seconds just to make the point of how wrong that other driver was for cutting us off, only to realize that they had the green arrow and we actually had the red light?  Or maybe it happened when, in a ridiculous disagreement with a boss, or an employee, or a student or a teacher, or a child, or parent or a sibling or partner, we just knew we were right and the other was wrong, so we chose to belittle our counterpart because of how ridiculous their perspective or opinion was, only to come to see that they, in fact, were right all along?  
And the sad truth is that, just like in the Cookie Thief, often by the time we realize how wrong we were, it’s too late.  The cookies have already been eaten, the other driver has driven off, and the person we belittled has walked away.
And so I wonder: what is this tendency that drives us to perceive of ourselves as right and others wrong, to see ourselves as blameless victims and the others as purposeful offenders?
Well, let’s take a look at this week’s Torah portion, to see if it can offer us any insight.
The portion details arguably our ancestors’ worst moment in the Torah – the sin of the Golden Calf.  You know the story: after not seeing Moses for a long time (he’s been up on Mt Sinai with God getting the remainder of the commandments), the people determine that they need a visible connection to the Divine and call upon Aaron to build them a golden sculpture of a calf. Aaron obliges and in a frenzy, our ancestors bow down and worship what they’ve created.  It’s the #1 no-no in the book – idolatry, but they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong until the moment they see Moses come down the mountain with the stone tablets in his hands. And by the time they realize just how wrong they are, it’s already too late. 
What’s of note in the story, however, is not what the people do, but rather, what drives God to respond.  You see, while our ancestors are busy worshiping their idol, God becomes enraged and plans to wipe the people out.  But here’s the interesting part - what offense does God cite to justify the punishment?  Idolatry, right?  Wrong.  The text reads: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.  Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them so I will destroy them.”  The Israelites may have committed the crime of idolatry, but for what does God want to punish them?  Not their sinful act, but for a quality of their character, or in this case, the lack thereof - their stiff-neckedness – their obstinate nature.    
One of the late 19th century Mussar rabbis (Mussar being the ancient Jewish practice of character cultivation) Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel writes about this seemingly strange response from God.  “From here we see that a defect in character is even worse than a defect in action – more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry.”1 According to Finkel, character flaws are more serious than sinful acts, because they alter who we are at the deepest level, as the divine image in us is damaged in the process.2 The eating of the cookies, the long blow on the horn, even the cruelties to other people – those are just the surface results of a much deeper problem.  It’s why the Cookie Thief story’s ending resonates so deeply.  When we get so caught up in our pride, our own perceived infallibility, our own insecurities, our own stubbornness, we actually become that which we are so quick to condemn. I imagine you’ve heard that the characteristics and behaviors we find most repelling in others are actually insights into those qualities we dislike in ourselves.   It’s why even Maimonides teaches that we don’t just repent for our deeds – we must repent for our negative character traits as well.  The trick is, fixing faulty character traits proves a lot harder than apologizing for our bad actions.3
Mussar tradition defines stubbornness as an inability to alter one’s opinion.  But even stubbornness in and of itself is not a root problem.  As it happens, stubbornness is actually a symptom of an even greater character flaw – a lack of humility.
From a Jewish lens, humility is a tricky concept that doesn’t just mean being modest.  Rather, humility is the quality that stands between conceit and self-debasement.  As Mussar teacher Rabbi Alan Morinis puts it: “Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather, a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life.  Arrogance [or stubbornness] has an insatiable appetite for space.  It claims. It occupies.  It sprawls.  It suffocates others…The opposite extreme is self-debasement.  Shrinking from occupying any space whatsoever, it retracts meekly inside itself….[but] whether we see ourselves as nothing or as everything, we are still pre-occupied with the self, and both of these traits are, therefore, forms of narcissism. In Jewish terms, they are two variations on the theme of idolatry.”4  Idolatry isn’t just something we demonstrate externally with sculpted forms and images.  The idols can actually be inside of us –hubris or meekness in some ways – idols more dangerous than the golden calf.  Morinis again: “Without humility, either you will be so puffed up with arrogance that you won’t even see what really needs some work, or you will be so deflated and lacking in self-esteem that you will despair of being able to make the changes that are lit up so glaringly in your self-critical mind.”5 Complicated stuff.
But all is not lost.  We don’t have to throw up and hands and declare: Once a cookie thief, always a cookie thief.  Rabbi Shai Held points out that just as bad character can yield bad action and then that bad action can feed back into our bad character in a vicious cycle, the opposite is true as well: “Good character is manifest in good behavior, and good behavior in turn helps instill good character.  If you want to train yourself to be more compassionate, for example, start by doing compassionate things.  Compassionate character yields compassionate behavior, which in turn deepens compassionate character, and so on in a virtuous cycle.”6 
I love this idea of a virtuous cycle.  It’s the cultivation of virtuous cycles that leads to teshuvah around the otherwise vicious cycle of character flaw.  Morinis challenges us to do the following: “…ask yourself this: Do you leave enough space in your life for others, or are you jamming up your world with yourself? Or is there space you ought rightfully to occupy that you need to stretch to do? Your answers are the measure of your humility.”7  And if you have work to do on this, start with an action.  Identify an area where you have space to relinquish or to take up, and try to cultivate something different.  If you tend to dominate conversations, take a step back and consciously try to listen.  If you tend to stay silent, challenge yourself to speak up and contribute.  And then do it again.  And again.  These little acts add up over time in a virtuous cycle to change not only the way we are perceived, but more importantly, the way we are. 
Shabbat Shalom

* Many thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for sharing "The Cookie Thief" with me and my IJS cohort.
1 R. Natan Zvi Finkel, Or HaTzafun, “Kashyut Oref”,p. 187 – as translated by Rabbi Shai Held in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 2014
2 R. Shai Held explores this idea extensively in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 5774
3 Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3)
4 Morinis, Every Day Holiness. P. 50.
5 Morinis. 46
6 R. Shai Held, Dvar Torah Ki Tissa
7 Morinis. p. 54.