Monday, November 28, 2011

The value of pain / Vayishlach

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. (Genesis 33:1)
A happy family reunion of brothers after two decades’ separation? Hard to tell. Jacob certainly isn’t taking any chances:
…He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (Genesis 33:1-3)
Jacob is an endlessly fascinating character. As a youth, he lacks empathy, and because he lacks empathy (he cannot understanding the feelings of others) he also lacks compassion (the capacity to act on that knowledge). He has no difficulty tricking and cheating his brother, and deceiving his father. He is focused on his gain; he does not feel their pain.

Where does empathy come from? The Dalai Lama, in conversation with Daniel Goleman said, “One way you can develop empathy is to start with small sentient beings like ants and insects. Really attend to them and recognize that they wish to find happiness, experience pleasure, and be free of pain… Other human beings and yourself will all follow.” The Dalai Lama goes on to explain that those who dismiss the pain of an animal go on to dismiss the pain of human beings. “With the attitude, ‘I don’t feel it,’ you dismiss that pain. You would never feel the empathy until it actually hits your own skin.”

Those who don't have the benefit of childhood experiences that nurture empathy have to learn it the hard way. If they arrive at adulthood, as Jacob did, not comprehending or caring what other people feel, the only way understand the pain they have caused is when they themselves experience it. Jacob is this sort of person. When Laban deceives Jacob, substituting Leah for Rachel on his wedding night, Jacob finally comprehends. And it is only when he understands the pain he has caused -- because he’s feeling it himself -- that he can return to Eretz Yisrael for a healing reunion with Esau.

Jacob has truly changed. His wrestling match with the angel is evidence of his new and emerging conscience. From name change to name change: First, Jacob name is change to Israel, signifying his transformation from a selfish, scheming, unfeeling person into one capable of empathy and responsibility -- a transformation that takes two decades to accomplish. Jacob uses his pain and newfound empathy to brave a meeting with Esau. later, when his sons Shimon and Levi take revenge on the men of Shechem for violating their sister, Dinah, Jacob's first reaction is pragmatic: You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land... I and my house will be destroyed (Genesis 24:30). But immediately after, God instructs him to return to Bethel and Jacob recognizes the moral dimension of what has transpired. In Bethel he builds an altar; God is now a part of his life and conscience. Soon after, his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. With her last dying breath, Rachel names her son Ben-oni (son of my suffering) but Jacob changes his name to Benjamin (son of the right hand). It appears that Jacob, now capable of empathy, even amidst what must have been devastating pain at losing Rachel, is considering Benjamin's feelings. Jacob does not want Benjamin to carry through life a name that makes him emblematic of his mother's death.

Life dishes out a lot of pain: unfulfilled dreams, humiliation, loss of loved ones and friends, excruciatingly painful and life-threatening medical concerns, lost relationships, abuse, and much more. No one gets through unscathed and unscarred. There’s no hermetically sealed emotional bubble we can hang out in to avoid it.

Among the Rabbis’ appellations for God is HaRachaman -- the Compassionate One -- because God experiences everything we experience. Our pain is God’s pain. God’s empathy is complete and total but that doesn’t mean we should strive to be 100% empathetic. No person could, or should; the consequences would be devastating. In Sue Monk Kidd’s marvelous book, The Secret Life of Bees, May Boatwright is totally empathetic; she absorbs everyone’s pain as her own. When she cannot hold it all, she commits suicide. Moving from fiction to the real world, were a surgeon, rabbi, psychologist, teacher, or social worker to experience everyone’s pain, they would not be able to do their jobs. We are not God, nor should we follow the example of May Boatwright. We need to find the right balance.

I want to add that Jewish tradition is filled with practices that guide us in this direction of cultivating appropriate empathy and compassion. If we see our rituals and traditions as God’s gift to us to learn and grow, rather than merely a means to exhibit piety and “serve God,” they will be conduits of holiness. The story is told of a learned rabbi who came to visit a small community. His host, a man of modest means, was thrilled and honored that the great rabbi would stay in his home. He instructed his wife to clean the house, prepare an elaborate Shabbat dinner, and set the table with the finest tablecloth and dishes they had. [Okay, so this is an old story.] When the rabbi and the man returned home after Kabbalat Shabbat, the house was spotless, the scent of food cooking was intoxicating, and the table gleamed. They man noticed, however, that his wife had neglected to cover the challah. Embarrassed, he berated his wife. The rabbi stopped him and said, “My friend, do you know why we cover the challah when making Kiddush over the wine? The challah receives only a short blessing, but the wine gets much more. We use the wine to sanctify Shabbat itself and recite a much longer blessing. We cover the challah so it won’t hear the greater blessing we recite over the wine, lest its feelings be hurt, and only uncover it after we complete Kiddush. If we are so careful about the feelings of inanimate objects -- two loaves of bread -- how much the more so should we be scrupulously careful about the feelings of a human being?” Our rituals can become our guides and teachers to greater empathy and compassion. When we succeed, we will truly serve God and become, ourselves, conduits of holiness.

That brings me back to considering the pain we all carry around inside. Would that we could drop it off somewhere -- in a dumpster would be good -- and never retrieve it! For the most part, after processing pain, it’s good to set it aside. Don't stew in it, and don't be a prisoner to it. But on occasion we can redeem our pain by calling it up and putting it to good use -- to help others. Try putting your pain to good use - it may well be healing for you.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 21, 2011

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match / Vayeitzei

Mae West famously said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.”

I met a young woman -- a physician -- on a flight to Huntsville earlier this year. She comes from India. Her parents arranged her marriage, as they did the marriages of her two brothers, also physicians living in America. I asked her about arranged marriages. She shrugged and said they are as good as any other kind. She correctly pointed out that all marriages are hard work, and many love matches don’t survive the vicissitudes of life. The relationship need only be good enough to weather the storms. I suppose she would applaud Charlotte’s words to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.''

I can barely imagine being in an arranged marriage. Torah records many arranged marriages; marriages were arranged for social, economic, religious, and cultural reasons. Yet Torah speaks of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, and Jacob’s passion for Rachel. Song of Songs certainly knows of romantic love. Conversely, marriages today have business elements to them; think of prenuptial agreements. And there are still many arranged marriages today: in India, Pakistan, some Middle Eastern countries, rural Japan, and even in some parts of America. Yet I think: how could someone else choose a partner for me that involves a lifetime emotional, social, and financial partnership; intimacy; and raising children together; not to mention coping with and supporting one another through illness, trauma, tragedy, and anything else thrown in to spice things up? Whether I choose my spouse, or someone else does, marriage is still hard work and love conquers all only in Hollywood -- that is, on the screen, not in the street. (Rita Rudner said, “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk.”)
Arranged or not, finding a partner is a challenge. Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68) tells the humorous and sage story of a Roman matron who challenges Rabbi Yose b. Chalafta by asking what his God has been doing since creating the world. R. Yose responds, “Making matches.” “Why anyone can do that!” the Roman matron replies haughtily.” Rabbi Yose replies, “It may seem easy to you, but for God, making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” That night, to prove her point, the Roman matron lines up her household servants - 1000 men and 1000 women - pairs them up, and marries them off. You won’t be surprised to learn that they return to her the following morning, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and each saying, “This one you designated for me I do not want.” Her arbitrary choices, which did not take into account the people involved, are a disaster. Talmud concurs, attributing to Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan these words: “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a).”

Many people in love matches say that their beloved is their “beshert,” a charming Yiddish word that means “destiny,” suggesting ironically, as the story from Bereishit Rabbah claims, God chooses our “soul mate” for us. And indeed, in the Talmud, Rav Yehudah explains how it works: at the time a child is conceived, a bat kol (heavenly voice) announces who is going to marry whom. God, the cosmic shadchan (matchmaker), is at work making matches ‘round the clock.

It’s charming. It’s romantic. It’s idyllic. And it’s nonsense. My husband and I met when we were 19 years old. We married at 22. It seemed so easy - we were young and in love, with shared plans and dreams. Who’s to say that 20, 30, 40 years down the line, when we are very different people than we were at 19, that we are still compatible and satisfying to one another? It doesn’t always happen that way, and that’s why divorce is a necessary escape valve. There is nothing dishonorable about divorce, and in many cases it is the most honorable thing to do.

But maybe that’s not what the Rabbis meant when they told the story of Rabbi Yose’s encounter with the Roman matron, and quoted Rabbah b. Bar Chanah as saying, “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea.” Perhaps they mean to tell us that a good marriage is a miracle, however long it lasts. What are the chances that two people can navigate the rocks and shoals for decades without running aground?

As surely as there are moment of celebration, joy, and ecstasy, there are challenges and stumbling blocks in every relationship. Marriage is hard work, very hard work. There’s no one formula for success, and success is never guaranteed, but the prophet Hosea, speaking of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, provides guidance:
And I will espouse you forever.
I will espouse you in righteousness and justice,
and with kindness and compassion.
And I will espouse you with faithfulness. (Hosea 2:21-22)
Hosea speaks of four components of long-lasting love: Equitable justice, Loving kindness, Compassion, and Faithfulness.

Equitable justice (tzedek u’mishpat) suggests to me that a committed couple puts the needs of the other on equal par with his or her own, and often makes the needs of the other the priority. Rather than making sure “I get what I need from the relationship,” each one makes sure he or she gives what is needed. Equitable righteousness requires us to proactively dispense love and attention, rather than sit around waiting to receive it.

Loving kindness (chesed) is most often the little things: small considerations, kind words, small favors, patience. It’s so easy for us to take for granted the one with whom we’ve been living for a long time. The glow of early romance fades; the chores and pressures of life weigh us down. Yet it’s remarkable how much power a small kindness has, and every day abounds with opportunities for chesed.

Compassion (rachamim) requires us to see the world through the eyes of the other. Genuine compassion requires not mere sympathy, but active empathy. When we understand another’s pain, fears, joys, ambition, and desires, we enter into their hearts, and they into ours.

Faithfulness (emunah) means committing to the relationship by placing it above all others, so that it gets the lion’s share of our energy and effort. In other words, marriage is a 24/7 project, especially in the bad times, and despite the ups and downs that are normal for all relationships.

Hosea’s advice - even when taken and applied - does not guarantee that a marriage will last forever. (Nothing guarantees that except force and coercion, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.) Love is something we work hard to create and maintain, through equitable justice, kindness, compassion, and faithfulness. Love is the most precious and meaningful thing in the world.

Jacob has a love match and an arranged match. I wonder if he thinks Rachel is his beshert. It sure seems that in the mind of Laban, Leah is Jacob’s beshert! I suspect that the reality is that neither is his beshert, but both became his beshert because he works hard to make them so. And maybe the message is that a marriage that works - for however long it works - is a miracle.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Does the end justify the means? / Toldot

In the days before the telephone, the only way to communicate long distance was by telegram. Telegrams were very expensive, so people conveyed their messages in the fewest words possible. Once a stockbroker in New York got a good tip on a company. He sent a cable to his favorite client, away doing business in London. The client in London knew the company was a dog, so he sent a cable to New York saying, “Don’t. Sell.” The stockbroker received the cable and read it aloud: “Hmmm… don’t sell. Okay, I’ll buy him 10,000 shares.”

God speaks directly to Rebekah. I can’t think of another woman in the Torah to whom God speaks directly. Rebekah is in agony because the twins in her womb are already in active competition with one another -- and in very tight quarters.
And Adonai said to her:
Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)
There is an ambiguity in the last phrase that I will try to render in English the best I can. There are two ways to read the phrase v’rav ya’a’vod tza’ir: “The elder shall serve the younger” or “the elder, the younger shall serve.” It is not crystal clear whom God intends to inherit the Covenant.

Rebekah, who is headstrong and decisive, confidently decides that Jacob is the right brother for the patriarchal position that will open up when Isaac dies. Accordingly she favors Jacob, supports him, and ultimately schemes with him to insure he gets what she believes God wants for him.
Rebekah is willing to flout social convention and act immorally to see her vision through. She purposefully deceives her nearly blind and possibly enfeebled husband, Isaac. She instructs Jacob to lie to his father in order to secure for Jacob, Esau’s rightful blessing and inheritance.

This inspires the question: Does the end justify the means?

The phrase “the end justifies the means” originated with Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli promulgated this principle as a pragmatic philosophy, the purpose being to stabilize and improve governments. He did not mean to suggest that the principle applies to the interactions and relationships of people who are motivated by personal gain, greed, or even self-improvement. Immanuel Kant held nearly the opposite opinion as Machiavelli: moral absolutism. The ends never justify the means. An act is evil or good on its own merits, regardless of outcome.

What does Jewish tradition say about this perpetual conundrum?

In the case of pikuach nefesh (the obligation to save a life) the door is open to cheating, stealing, and lying if that is what is required to save a person’s life. If your life is threatened, all the doors and windows are flung open. You are obligated to kill the one who threatens you in order to save your own life: ya-avor v'al yei-ha-reg (“transgress and do not be killed”). The end justifies the means.

But the house is hermetically sealed shut if the means to the end is murder, idolatry, or sexual immorality. The principle in such cases is yei-ha-reg v’al ya’avor (“be killed and do not transgress”). Or maybe not? In the days of Deborah the Judge, Yael seduces the enemy general Sisera and kills him. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) masechet Horayot 10b, we find an interesting comment amidst a discussion of the role of intentionality in performing mitzvot (commandments) and in Torah study. R. Nachman b. Yitzhak expounds: gadol avirah lishma mi'mitzvah shelo lishma -- “Greater is a transgression committed for a good intention than a commandment performed without intent.” Certainly a hyperbolic statement, but he backs up his claim by citing Judges 5:24 -- Most blessed of women be Yael, wife of Hever the Kenite, most blessed of women of tents. The expression “women of tents” is peculiar and the Rabbis explain it to mean the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. This means they are praising Yael’s actions -- seducing Sisera and then decapitating him as he slept it off -- above any of the matriarchs. That’s a resounding affirmation. Yael killed Sisera to stop a war and save many lives. Machiavelli would have approved. Kant would not.

On an even larger scale is the ethical debate concerning the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 in order to bring World War II to a rapid conclusion. The calculation that led President Truman to give the signal to drop “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, and then “Fat Man” over Nagasaki, was that if the war in the Pacific Theater were to drag on, and Operation Downfall to invade Japan launched, between 250,000 and one million American soldiers would die. The Joint Chiefs of Staff the previous April had set the estimates at 380,000 dead and 1.6 million injured. The Japanese deaths that would result are in addition to these numbers. And added to these, it was estimated that each month that the war stretched on, 250,000 Asians (largely Chinese, and most of them non-combatants) would die. Winston Churchill said, “I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt a position that rather than throw this bomb we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives…” Do these estimated casualties justify dropping “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” over Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Rebekah’s decision is nowhere on the scale of the Atomic Bomb, but it does involve a future nation, perhaps meeting Machiavelli’s criterion. Yet terrible things continue to result from her decision: Jacob flees to Haran and Rebekah never saw him again. It appears Ishmael leaves, as well. The family is rent asunder: a very high price to pay.

Torah does not weigh in on the morality of Rebekah’s actions. None of the matriarchs or patriarchs is completely righteous and beyond reproach. They, like all of us, face some painfully difficult choices. But choose we must, because ethically, doing nothing is a choice.

How do you make such decisions in your own life? When do you believe the end justify the means? Something to ponder this shabbat.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Separation and Return / Chayei Sarah

Heidi and Rick Solomon’s son, Daniel, spent his first 7-1/2 years of life warehoused in a Romanian orphanage. It was a horror. Daniel spent his days in a crib, except when he ate or used the bathroom. He didn’t know any of the caregivers well enough to learn their names. Six months after bringing Daniel home, Daniel became a horror: throwing hurricane tantrums for hours, punching holes in the walls, physically attacking his mother. Heidi and Rick called the police frequently. Their marriage was at risk. Daniel was homicidal. Two psychiatrists told them the situation was hopeless: Daniel had severe attachment disorder.

Psychologists tell us that attachment and separation are hugely important issues in the life of every child, with ramifications well into adulthood. Social and emotional attachment to a parent or primary caregiver from the earliest age is critically necessary to healthy development. Being separated from the caregiver is a trauma and can be terribly damaging, adversely affecting the social, emotional and cognitive development of a child.

The experts further tell us that when families experience trauma, and separation ensues, they must grieve. Studies abound on children who have experienced violence (either at home, or as refugees), children who were adopted when they were old enough to feel the separation, and children who have lost their parents or were taken from their homes. But it is not only children who suffer from separation when trauma strikes; adult do, as well.

This week’s parashah describes such a family: Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.

In the opening two verses, Torah recounts Sarah’s death:
Sarah’s lifetime -- the span of Sarah’s life -- came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba -- now Hebron -- in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:1-2)
Since these verses (Genesis 23:1-2) follow directly on the tail of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), our Sages reasoned that Sarah died of grief when she learned what had happened at Mount Moriah (Tanhuma, Vayera #23 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:7 #1). Imagine her shock and horror; imagine the trauma.

Abraham approaches the Hittites and after a protracted negotiation, purchases Ma’arat ha-Machpelah (the Cave of Machpelah) near Mamre.
And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre -- how Hebron -- in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:19)
(The structure over the Cave of Machpelah today)
Between the mourning, the negotiation, and the burial, some time must have elapsed. Where was Isaac all this time? Didn’t he mourn his mother? Didn’t he attend the burial? No mention is made of him.

And here’s another question: Where was Abraham when Sarah died? She was in Kiryat Arba, but he was in Beer Sheba, where he had gone upon return from Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Commentators attempt to explain their separation in various ways. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (58:5) concocts this explanation:
And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah (Genesis 23:2). Whence did he come? R. Levi said: He came from the funeral of Terah [his father] to that of Sarah. R. Yose said to him: But Terah’s funeral preceded Sarah’s by two years. In fact, he came from Mount Moriah [implying that Sarah died of grief when she heard what had transpired there].
Still on the subject of Abraham’s mysterious whereabouts at the time of Sarah’s death, Rashi tells us that his stay in Beersheba was only temporary; but Genesis 22:19 is clear: Abraham settled in Beersheba. Rabbi Judah haChassid (1150-1217, author of Sefer haChasidim, the Book of the Pious) tells us that Abraham did not return to Kiryat Arba because he thought Sarah would consider him insane for what he had done, and not believe that God could possibly have commanded it. Other commentaries tell us that Abraham did live in Kiryat Arba, and yet others that Sarah came to Beersheba.

Everyone is dancing around what the text makes clear: After the Akedah, Abraham and Sarah live apart. The trauma of the Akedah -- for all three -- leads them to separate, and they suffer for it, because the separation adds trauma to the trauma. Abraham no longer lives with Sarah, Isaac does not attend his mother’s burial. And they all grieve. Attachment, Separation, Grief.

Families are torn apart for many reasons and often the damage is irreparable. Pain, fear, resentment, and bitterness can run very deep in the souls of those severely traumatized. The parashah affirms at its end, however, that healing is possible, even in very difficult situations.

Parshat Chayei Sarah famously begins by recounting the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. How different they are! Here is the account of Abraham’s death:
This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Genesis 25:7-9)
The contrast is striking: Isaac was absent from his beloved mother’s funeral. Not only was he present to bury his father Abraham, but he did so together with Ishmael. It’s remarkable that the two half-brothers could come together over anything, and were not permanently alienated after Ishmael and Hagar were banished to insure that Isaac alone would inherit the patrimony (Genesis 21:9-21). The brothers have come together, if only for the brief time necessary to bury their patriarch.

There’s no sugarcoated, sappy happily-ever-after here. No promises. But Torah does hold out hope. So far as we know, Isaac and Ishmael go their separate ways and do not speak to one another again, but they came together at that crucial moment.

We might well wonder: what happened during that short interlude they were together. What did they say to one another? Did they reconcile, at least enough to shed bitterness and resentment? Did they find closure so that they could eventually find peace? I would like to think so, because the message I hear is that healing and reconciliation are sometimes possible when we think them utterly impossible.

Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to Daniel Solomon. His mother Heidi took out eight weeks to provide Daniel a taste of the infanthood he never had. She maintained constant contact with him -- both physical and eye contact -- as if he were a baby. She made Daniel entirely dependent on her, and taught him that his needs would be met without him asking. At the age of 13, for a year his parents cradled Daniel for 20 minutes each night like a baby, talked with him, and fed him ice cream. Eventually Daniel opened up and began to talk about his experiences at the orphanage. All in all, it was a long, arduous, indescribably painful road, but Daniel eventually learned love and empathy. Daniel, who had been escorted out of his family’s synagogue by police officers any number of times, was confirmed there as a teenager, and what is more, he was awarded the prestigious Brickner Award.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

You can hear Heidi, Rick, and Daniel Solomon’s story, as well as Daniel’s speech at Confirmation, on This American Life.