Friday, June 29, 2012

Slow burn or quick release / Chukkat

We live at a time when psychologists and therapists often tell us, as U.S. Representative Maxine Waters has said, “I have a right to my anger, and I don’t want anybody telling me I shouldn’t be, that it’s not nice to be, and that something’s wrong with me because I get angry.” (I Dream a World) In contrast, Moses Maimonides wrote, “Anger is a very bad character trait, and so it is proper for a person to distance himself from it in the extreme, and train himself not to get angry, even regarding something where it is fitting to get angry over that thing.”

All of us get angry. The question is: What do we do with our anger? Do we hold it close and nurture it? Or do we examine what is beneath it, and then let it go?

In parshat Chukkat we encounter Moses’ anger. Maybe Moses thinks he knows the drill? Take your staff (symbol of your authority), assemble the people; strike the rock; water will gush forth. That’s how it went the first time (Exodus 17:5-6). But when Moses repeats that sequence of events now in the wilderness of Tzin, the result is disastrous. Moses is condemned by God to die in the Wilderness and never set foot in the Land of Israel. What went wrong the second time?

This time, God instructs Moses: You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water… (Numbers 20:8). God tells Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it. But Moses is angry. The taste of Korach’s rebellion is still bitter on his tongue. The people are complaining yet again that they would have been better off had they stayed in Egypt. Standing before the assembled nation,

…[Moses] said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (Numbers 20:10-11)

Several things have gone awry here: First, Moses addresses the entire nation as “rebels.” That wasn’t in the script, but clearly he’s angry. Second and third, he says, “Shall we get water for you…” and strikes the rock not once, but twice. It sure seems that Moses is co-opting or claiming God’s power as his own, rather than publicly affirming God. And, in fact, Torah continues:

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)

What’s the real problem here? Is it Moses’ anger, or his failure to acknowledge God publicly? Pythagoras (582 BC - 507 BC) warned long ago: In anger we should refrain from both speech and action. Moses missed the boat on both counts.

I think it’s both. This is not the first (nor the last time) Moses is angry. When the Israelites build the golden calf (Exodus 32:19) and when Korach and his minions foment a rebellion (Numbers 16:15), Moses is angry. But in those instances, Moses is reacting to intentional evil behavior. Here the people are tired, thirsty, and scared. They need compassion and reassurance, not Moses’ hot wrath.

However “entitled” we are to our anger -- and I certainly believe it is healthy and wise to recognize and acknowledge it -- anger can be toxic and dangerous. It is a self-centered emotion. Moses appears more concerned with his ego needs than the people’s physical and emotional needs. Anger is aimed at self-protection and self-promotion. Moses’ claim that he and Aaron possess the power to bring water from the rock amply demonstrates this aspect of anger. Anger often reflects a sense of superiority coupled with entitlement. The Babylonian Talmud tells us: R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: Every man in whom is haughtiness of spirit is as though he worships idols. (B.Sotah 4b) In this case, Moses is dangerously close to idolatry. When he says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” he suggests to the people that he has the same power as God.

In a fascinating Talmudic discussion the Sages ponder anger, which is highly dangerous, especially when it’s God who is angry. They envision God praying and wonder: What sort of prayer would God pray?

R. Zutra b. Tobi in the name of Rav [tells us that God’s prayer is]: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”  (B.Berakhot 7a)

God has a self-acknowledged anger management problem and seeks self-control. This is magnificent on so many levels. God is engaged in self-reflection and introspection. God seeks self-improvement. But wait, it gets better. God seeks help!

It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel-Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes.

As the discussion progresses, we learn that God’s daily moment of anger comes early each morning:

At the time when the sun rises and all the kings of the East and West put their crowns upon their heads and bow down to the sun, the Holy One, blessed be God, becomes angry.

The pagan kings pray to the sun. But God learns to cope with this. How? God seeks the help of a human being, the High Priest R. Ishmael b. Elisha. God needs R. Ishmael’s blessing that comes in the form of a prayer R. Ishmael composes for God to recite.

How would this prayer look if we were to say it? Perhaps like this: “May it be Your will to strengthen my resolve to treat others with compassion rather than anger, so that I deal with the people I encounter today and everyday with compassion and patience, rather than anger and impatience.” Not a bad way to start the day, and a pretty good prayer to recite after you have overslept, burned the toast, spilled the orange juice, missed the bus because you couldn’t find your keys, and arrived at work to realize you left something important on the kitchen counter -- and it’s only 8 am. Also a pretty good prayer to say after someone has slighted you, ignored you, blindsided you, or in some other way inflamed your anger.

We all experience anger, and few of us can cultivate the stoic resolve Maimonides counsels, but we have a choice concerning what to do with our anger and how long to hold onto it.

In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom writes, “Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.” Buddha put it far more succinctly: Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned. There’s one to hang on the refrigerator.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The art of argument / Korach

I would love to see the movie version of Korach’s rebellion. The graphics gurus would do a great job depicting the earth opening up to swallow the rebels; it would be impressive on the big screen.

Korach, a second tier priest, gathers two lieutenants, Datan and Aviram, and some 250 followers to challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, saying, You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?(Numbers 16:3). On the surface, their statement is correct: the entire community is holy, as God instructs Moses to tell all the Israelites: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be hold, for I, the Lord your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:1). But this is only on the surface. Their real intent is a power grab.

The question Korach and his followers raise is legitimate. It is worth discussing and debating. But it is not their true agenda. When the debate is unrelated to the genuine agenda, this is not an appropriate machloket (argument). The Rabbis point this out:

A machloket le-shaym shamayim (controversy for the sake of heaven) will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Korach and his followers are driven by blind ambition. They seek personal gain and power. They have only their egotistical and selfish interests in mind.

Debate is an art. But argument is something different: it’s emotionally fraught and more than one’s intellectual acumen is at stake. Debate and argument have something important in common, however. There are rules for both. In the context of marriage and family, there is a moral way to argue; it is defined by the rules of  “fair fighting.” (There are many formulations of the rules; here are three: 1, 2, 3, 4.) When one party wins and the other loses outright, the fight has not been fair. When the topic of argument is unrelated, or only tangentially related, to one party’s genuine agenda, there can be no machloket le’shaym shamayim.

We all run into at least one Korach in our lives. The Korachs of the world leave a trail of misery, frustration, and wounded feelings. For them, all life is a zero-sum game: they must win and others must lose. We live happier and healthier lives if we learn to recognize the Korachs and avoid them.

We are driving full-throttle through a political season. The airwaves and media are filled with argument. Are we hearing machloket le-shaym shamayim (controversy for the sake of heaven -- that is, for a worthy purpose, toward the end of benefitting people), or are we hearing the echoes of Korach, disputants engaged in ad hominem attacks rather than substantive discussion of issues? Korach doesn’t argue issues; he attacks Moses’ character. Do the candidates whose faces and words dominate screens and print media address issues in any serious, thoughtful way, or do they merely run attack ads? Are they Moses or Korach?

Pirke Avot illuminates a basic truth about human nature that applies on both the personal and societal levels: there is a world of difference between legitimate argument about issues in a search for truth, or solutions, or policy, and illegitimate argument focused only on assaulting the character of another in order to gain power.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, June 10, 2012

God made me do it! / Shelach Lecha

Once -- Emo Philips says -- I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!" Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
Emo Philips is a comedian. And like all great jokes, there is a kernel of uncomfortable truth: the reality of our world is that people have committed enormous violence in the name of religion, entangling religion with their political and economic agendas, or their hate and resentment. Sadly it would not be challenging to create a Jewish or Muslim version of this joke.

There’s an exceedingly disturbing passage toward the end of parashat Shelach Lecha that seems to exhort religious violence:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So, the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death -- as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36)

Where to begin with this one?! It is absolutely horrifying to imagine that there is a God who would decree that a man be stoned to death for gathering sticks on shabbat. It is more horrifying to think there are people who believe there is a God who would command this. And it is even more horrifying that people today -- in the 21st century -- could take the words of an ancient text, however sacred, and use them to condone violent and murderous behavior. Yet it happens time and time again.

The words of Scripture -- our Tana”kh, the Christian New Testament, the Qur’an -- have been used to justify bigotry, cruelty, and unspeakable violence. Combined with claims to absolute truth, demand for blind obedience, the conviction that the ends justify any means, and the overarching claim to be doing “God’s will,” words of Scripture can be highly toxic.

John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, writes in The Sins of Scripture (2005) that the Bible has been used to support the divine right of kings; justify the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust; condemn Galileo and Charles Darwin; support slavery in America and elsewhere; and argue in favor of segregation and apartheid. Today it is a weapon in the arsenal of pastors and politicians who seek to deny the civil rights of homosexuals, reverse the progress and reproductive freedom of women, justify ransacking the environment, and interfere with the science curriculum in public schools by demanding that “Intelligent Design” be taught alongside evolution.

Not surprisingly there has been a spate of anti-religion books in recent years: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hutchins, and The End of Faith by Sam Harris jump immediately to mind. These books argue that religious ideas and texts are dangerous and responsible for untold suffering and incalculable deaths. (They conveniently fail to mention that Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s killing fields brought death to millions -- and these were secular movements.) It is easy to criticize Dawkins, Hutchins and Harris. They read scriptural texts “literally” and presume everyone reads them in that manner; they provide no empirical data to support their arguments; and they make no distinction between liberal and conservative theologies, or account for interpretation of texts. With one broad brush, they condemn all religion as dangerous to the individual and to society. Dawkins, Hutchins, and Harris lack the sophistication to distinguish between religious ideas and the political institutions they spawn which too often, bent on power and control, use Scripture as a bludgeon to attack those who disagree.

Sacred text, whether we see it as coming from God, inspired by God, or sanctified by generations must -- like every text -- be interpreted. There is no avoiding that. How it is interpreted, and how it is used, is the moral responsibility of those who do the interpreting. The passage concerning the man who gathered wood on shabbat is a case in point. Do we now institute the Shabbos Police to ferret out even the least infraction of what has been interpreted to be halakhah (Jewish law is yet another level of interpretation)? Or do we reach for the highest values of our tradition and view the text through that lens?

Let me try the latter for you. The account of the wood-gatherer  -- clearly an anecdote -- precedes the paragraph about tzitzit (fringes), which is also the third paragraph of Shema, recited thrice daily. The purpose of tzitzit, Torah tells us, is to serve as a reminder of one’s religious obligations. It’s a helpful “string around the finger” in an age without calendar books and smart phones. The very premise of the tzitzit is that it is difficult to remember one’s obligations, so here’s a device to help. In this context, the story of the wood-gatherer, rather than encouraging the institution of Shabbos Police, assures the one who wears tzitzit that they will help prevent serious violations.

Examining the anecdote closely, we see that when the people bring the wood-gatherer before Moses, he does not know what to do. Moses cannot make the decision himself. He consults God, and it is only by God’s specific decree -- about this case, and this case alone -- that the wood-gatherer is stoned. There is no generalized mandate to stone other shabbat violators. To the contrary! That Moses needs to consult God, that God needs to make a decision in this case, and that no general law is promulgated all tell us that this is not an event to be replicated. We cannot consult God directly. God does not speak directly to any human being. There is no license to stone someone for what the Rabbis came to decide -- through their interpretations -- were violations of shabbat. The message we can learn is that such behavior is forbidden: We are not Moses, and God does not speak directly to us about such cases.

Religion is not the reason for bigotry, violence, and murder. It is, tragically, often the excuse for it. Any religious idea or text can be hijacked and misused to spew hatred and foment violence. That’s not the responsibility of the text or the religion. It’s the responsibility of the people who choose to interpret the texts as they do and behave as they choose. Other choices are available.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
 The Wood Gatherer, Vincent van Gogh (1884) sketch and study

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The opposite of loneliness / B'haalotcha

In an essay distributed at Yale University's 2012 commencement exercises, graduating senior Marina Keegan writes, We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” Struggling for the right term, she says, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community.” She’s right. I would suggest that the opposite of loneliness is connection -- deep and abiding connection.

Torah teaches us how to live so as to forge deep and abiding connections with family, community, and society. The term “loneliness” from “alone” suggests that the opposite is a sense of oneness, a merging. Merging too far, too much, is dangerous. Think of parents who live vicariously through their children, and co-dependent couples who have lost sight of the boundary between self and other.

What healthy soul doesn’t want to see him or herself as distinctive and unique? We treasure our individuality. John Stuart Mills correctly noted that despotism crushes human individuality. He warned: “But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.” (On Liberty, chapter 3)

Henry Ford noted:

All Fords are exactly alike, but no two men are just alike. Every new life is a new thing under the sun; there has never been anything just like it before, never will be again. A young man ought to get that idea about himself; he should look for the single spark of individuality that makes him different from other folks, and develop that for all he is worth. Society and schools may try to iron it out of him; their tendency is to put it all in the same mold, but I say don't let that spark be lost; it is your only real claim to importance.

Parshat B’haalotcha describes the maintenance of the menorah in the Tabernacle -- a symbol of individuality wrapped in a great unity.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses so was the lampstand made. (Numbers 8:1-4)

The seven-branched candelabrum in the Mishkan is the oldest, and most authentic Jewish symbol. It is described in detail in Exodus 25:31-40. Three curved branches extend on either side of the straight central shaft, each ending in a cup to hold oil and a wick. All seven receptacles are the same height.
It has been symbolically identified with the Creation and the burning bush. Historically, the menorah served as the symbol of the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, the first High Priest, who reclaimed the Temple in the days of King Antiochus Epiphanes IV; the festival of Chanukah is the yearly celebration of their victory. Josephus reports that when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Titus bore the menorah to Rome. To this day, its depiction can be seen on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra. The Seal of the State of Israel prominently features the seven-branched menorah. From the victory of the Hasmoneans, to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, to the establishment of the State of Israel, the menorah has accompanied the Jewish people throughout its historical travels. The menorah bespeaks Jewish distinctiveness.

Our Sages, too, laud individuality and distinctiveness. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, explaining why only one human being was created initially, tells us:

… when a human being strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme Ruler of rulers, the Holy One, blessed be God, fashioned every person in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles another.

In the minds of the Kabbalists, however, the menorah imparts a different truth: our individuality, as important and necessary as it is, is superseded by an even greater truth: the unity of everything.

As early as the 15th century, the Kabbalists envisioned and graphically represented Psalm 67 as a menorah, its seven verses the seven branches of the candelabrum.
 Presented in this way, Psalm 67 is much like a mandala, a geometric pattern that serves as a metaphysical “map” of the cosmos. It is a tool to help us see what is beyond our visual range, understand what is beyond our normal cognitive ability, and envision what we can envision only when our minds are open and our souls are spiritually focused. The mandala takes us beyond ourselves -- beyond our distinctiveness and individuality -- to see what our egos cloud from view.

In depicting Psalm 67 as a menorah, the Kabbalists identified each verse with a sefirah  (an emanation from God, an attribute of divinity), corresponding to the content of the verses, as follows:

Psalm 67

For the leader; a psalm with instrumental music, a song.
1 (Chesed/loving kindness)                  May God be gracious to us and bless us;
                                                                  may He show us favor. Selah.
2 (Gevurah/might)                                 So that Your way become known on earth,
                                                                  Your deliverance among all nations.
3 (Tiferet/harmony)                              Peoples will praise you, O God;
                                                                  all peoples will praise You.
4 (Netzach/victory, endurance)            Nations will exult and shout for joy,
                                                                  for You rule the peoples with equity,
                                                                  You guide the nations of the earth. Selah.
5 (Hod/splendor)                                   The peoples will praise You, O God;
                                                                  all peoples will praise You.
6 (Yesod/foundation)                            May the earth yield its produce;
                                                                  may God, our God, bless us.
7 (Malkhut/sovereignty)                       May God bless us, and be revered
                                                                  to the ends of the earth.

What I say next may get a bit technical, but hang in there with me. In the Hebrew, the seven verses (in word length) form a chiasm: 7-6-6-11-6-6-7.  Verse 4 is both the central and longest verse, suggesting that its message is the one all others point to. The sefirah associated with verse 4 is Netzach, which means “victory” (or endurance, fortitude, and patience); these are the attributes needed for personal spiritual growth. The victory it exalts is that of the self over obstacles that keep us tethered to trivialities, vanities, and materialism -- all concerns of the ego that wants to see itself as distinct. Presenting Psalm 67 as a menorah suggests that many aspects of divinity radiate from the central core of Netzach: the oneness of God gives rise to multiplicity. This is as it ought to be: we cannot function and live our lives without a sense of individuality and distinctiveness.

From a Kabbalist perspective, however, there is a higher level of awareness, a greater overarching truth to be claimed. The menorah, Torah tells us, was made of one piece of hammered gold -- it was in itself a unity. So, too, when we see beyond our individuality, we are able to comprehend the unity of all -- us, the flora and fauna of this planet, mountains, forests, glaciers, and deserts that support life, the planets in our solar system, the cosmos altogether, all of it. There is unity in multiplicity.

For those who are neither mystics nor Kabbalists, and who are deeply grounded in science and rationalism, the message is pretty much the same, perhaps expressed with a different vocabulary: There is a unity to the universe, and a deep web of interconnection between our lives and everything in the cosmos, described by the laws of physics, and observable every day.

Most of us have no trouble identifying our distinctiveness, our uniqueness. But can we grasp unity? The view from unity -- when we can glimpse it -- provides a wholly different perspective on the issues in our lives, communities, and society, from how we treat those we come into contact with on a daily basis, to how we organize ourselves and run our institutions, to how we interact with the environment. It’s all there. When we truly comprehend that, wonderful things will happen. Perhaps the menorah can help point the way.

(Note: Marina Keegan wrote that she found meaningful connection at Yale. Tragically, she died in a car accident five days after her graduation. Zichrona livracha - may her memory be a blessing.)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman