Monday, May 3, 2021

Portion Behar-Bechukotai: Emet/Truth



Self-deception is the root of much ill.

This week’s double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, completes the book of Leviticus.  Much of it is devoted to the sabbatical and jubilee years, which provide the land—and those who work it—with a prolonged rest period and serve as a reminder that, in the end, the earth belongs to God, rather than us.  It is in this context that we find a verse admonishing against shady real estate deals: “Do not deceive one another but revere your God, for I, the Eternal, am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

But the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha shifts the focus of this verse with a brilliantly incisive bit of commentary.  He taught: “Do not deceive anyone—not even yourself.”

Rabbi Bunem points to a profound psychological truth here, for of all the multifarious forms of deception in which we engage, none are so harmful as the ways we deliberately mislead ourselves.  

Why do we do this?  Often, to avoid pain.  It can be terribly difficult to face the truth about poor choices that we have made and in which we have become invested and enmeshed.  Even worse, we deceive ourselves in order to rationalize our doing things that, deep down, we recognize are wrong.  I have always believed that almost all of our moral shortcomings are failures of willpower rather than knowledge.  We know when we are transgressing.  Yet we engage in self-deception to justify our misdeeds.  We make excuses and conjure up mitigating circumstances—and, more damaging yet, eventually can come to believe our rationalizations.  Our Rabbis called this unfortunate propensity for self-deception the yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Inclination.  It is a huge barrier to transformative insight and personal growth.

If we wish to become better, wiser, more compassionate people, we must begin by being brutally honest with ourselves.  This sort of clear-eyed appraisal is arduous, indeed—but it is the only way forward.

“Do not deceive anyone.”  Even—or especially—yourself.

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Truth—in Hebrew, emet—is our midah/character trait for this week.  The word begins with the letter alef, and ends with taf—the first and last letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  For our Rabbis, this teaches that the world begins and ends with truth.  In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis reminds us that we are all capable of seeing past deception, citing the words of Mussar teacher Eliyahu Dressler: 

Even after the desire of one’s own heart have persuaded one to accept the false way as true, they still know in their heart of heart that the truth path is “truer” than the other one. . . . Every human being us has the faculty of determining in their own heart where the real truth lies.

 Mussar Practice for this Week (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)

Set an intention to notice every time your instinct is to distort the truth in some way.  When you notice that instinct arising, take a moment to ask yourself if there is an element of hidden truth that is yearning to be noticed.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Portion Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: M'chilah/Forgiveness



This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, marks the halfway point of the Torah cycle, and it stands at the center of the text both geographically and metaphorically.  The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains many of the best-known moral imperatives from our tradition.  It commands us to strive for holiness, keep Shabbat, care for the poor, and honor the stranger in our midst.  It is also the source of the famous teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’rayechah camochah).


The words immediately preceding that “Golden Rule” are less widely recognized but of equal importance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  This implies that in order to love our neighbor, we must be willing to forgive their wrongdoings and not dwell on past hurts.  Of course, this is much easier said than done.  We tend to remember every time people hurt or slight us, much more vividly than we recall their acts of lovingkindness on our behalf.  This propensity to dwell on old injuries and injustices can easily lead to an obsession with victimhood that destroys our ability to move forward in our lives.

Recognizing this difficulty, Maimonides notes: “The desire for revenge is a very bad trait and we must do our best to relinquish it.  One way is to realize that many things that prompt our wrath are vanity and emptiness and are not worth seeking revenge for.”  To which the late, great contemporary teacher Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.  Why would anybody allow that?”

It is no accident that we read Kedoshim, with its injunction against grudge-bearing and vengeance, in this season of spring.  The omnipresent rebirth in the natural world reminds us that we, too, can start anew in our personal relationships.  And the journey from Pesach to Shavuot encourages us to leave behind the narrow places of heart and spirit that are our Egypts, our Mitzrayim.  Our path to Mount Sinai—and true freedom—starts with getting those destructive, rent-free tenants out of our heads.

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Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week’s midah/character trait is forgiveness, or m’chilah.  

It is customary to offer forgiveness every night before going to sleep.  The traditional bedtime prayers include this passage:

Source of the Universe:
I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me
And whoever has done me any wrong,
Whether it was deliberately or by accident,
Whether it was done by word or by deed
May no one be punished on my account

For the rest of this week, make this prayer part of your nightly routine.  Use it as an opportunity to make an examination of your conscience for the day.  You might do this following the practice of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who taught: 

Check your relationships and make an act of forgiveness.
 
Recalling whatever frustration and hurt was experienced during the day, at the hands of others, visualize them written on slips of paper.  Rip these up one by one, fully forgiving those who hurt you as you say the words of the prayer.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Portion Tazria-Metzora: Lovingkindness/Chesed

Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we give.  

This is why Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) is considered the greatest of our traditional commentators.  Many of the sages who followed him strongly disagree with the explanations he offers to resolve difficult Torah passages—yet all recognize his genius in knowing the perfect questions to pose about them.

So what is the proper question to consider with this week’s double portion from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora?  The text focuses on tzora’at, a leprosy-like skin affliction.  Most of the Rabbis ask: “Why?”  They struggle to explain the etiology of this mysterious affliction.  The subtext of their inquiry is: “What causes people come down with tzora’at?”  Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others.  Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”   

But I believe that for all of their wisdom, in this case, the classic commentaries ask the wrong question.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for bad behavior.” Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.

In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?”  They are, instead: What do we do now?  How can I help?  Which is the path of compassion?  Where are the possibilities of healing and love?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness.  We do well to heed his words:

When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions?  When the answers call us to compassionate action.

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Our character trait to develop this week is lovingkindness, which is defined in Hebrew as chesed.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai teaches that this trait is the very heart of Torah.  He notes: “Torah begins with an act of lovingkindness and ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says: God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them.  It ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says, God buried Moses in the valley. . . .”

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Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Make a visit, a phone call, or send a card every day this week, as an act of lovingkindness


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Portion Shemini: Mindfulness/Muda'ut


Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth.
  (Leviticus 11:44-5)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is devoted in large part to the laws of kashrut.  The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is, essentially, a long list of permitted and forbidden foods.  For mammals and sea creatures, the criteria are clear: we can eat only animals with cloven hoofs that chew their cud, and fish that possess both fins and scales.  Reptiles and amphibians are prohibited, as are all insects except locusts.  Birds are handled on an individual basis, without any specific criteria, though birds of prey are generally prohibited.  Chicken is in; hawks, eagles, and owls are out.  

Interestingly, the Torah gives no rationale for any of this.  But long after the fact, countless sages and scholars have offered explanations for our tradition’s dietary laws.  These conjectures include health/hygiene, spiritual discipline, the preservation of Jewish identity, and a reminder that all of life is holy and eating the flesh of any once-living creature is a form of moral compromise.

I find varying degrees of merit in all of these conjectures but for me, the most compelling reason to keep kosher to some degree or another is that it can be a powerful practice of mindfulness.  When we pay full attention to what we eat—including where it came from and how it was produced—we transform a universal animalistic necessity into a sacred act.  

Mindful eating practices include traditional kosher laws, ethical considerations around the treatment of animals and human food service workers, and production and consumption choices that minimize our carbon footprint and counter catastrophic climate change.  By eating with intention and awareness—as Torah urges us to do—we increase the holiness in our lives and help to heal our broken world.

In the end, of course, we all make our own choices, and we should be careful not to be harshly judgmental of others. It is essential to recognize that on our collective Jewish journey, one’s chosen path is often not the same as one’s neighbors’.  But the choices that we make should be informed and well-considered. As Rabbi Kushner concludes; “I don’t know if God cares about what I eat, but I know that I feel closer to God when I care about what I eat.”

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The Hebrew term from mindfulness—muda’ut—is a contemporary word based upon the ancient biblical term for knowingla-da’at.  To know something truly and deeply is to play close attention over a significant period of time.  To gulf down a hamburger from a fast food restaurant is the antithesis of such knowing; mindfulness in eating asks us to consider the sources of our food and to savor its flavor. 

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Mussar Practice for this Week  

Pay real attention to what you eat.  Add a level of kosher and/or ethical awareness to your normal food consumption.  Offer a blessing or acknowledgment before or after eating.

Slow down and savor every bite.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Portion Tzav: Generosity/Nedivut



How do we live a life of gratitude?

This week’s Torah reading, Tzav, raises this question in an indirect but important manner.  The portion continues last week’s lengthy and detailed description of the sacrifices offered up by our Israelite ancestors.  Our focus this Shabbat is on a class of offerings known as shlamim—offerings of well-being.  In this list, the todah—the sacrifice of gratitude—stands out in one significant way.  Whereas other sacrifices of well-being may be eaten until the third day, "the flesh of [the] thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until the morning" (Leviticus 7:15). Whatever is left over until the following morning must be destroyed.

What does the Torah have against leftovers?   Drawing on the commentator Isaac Abravanel, Rabbi Shai Held suggests that by requiring celebrants to finish the thanksgiving offering in one sitting, our portion encourages them to share the meal with friends and family.  He writes: 

The nature of gratitude is such that it is inherently outward-looking. When we are moved to the depths of our being by having been given something, we seek to become givers ourselves. A grateful heart overflows. The simple requirement that there not be any leftovers from the thanksgiving offering thus teaches us a fundamental theological and spiritual lesson. We are not meant to rest content with being recipients of God's gifts but are asked to becoming givers ourselves. God's gifts are meant to flow through us and not merely to us.

In other words, gratitude and hoarding are completely incompatible.  As one of my favorite prayers in our Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah adds: Teach us, O God, to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with others.

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The Hebrew term from gratitude—hakarat ha-tov—translates as “recognizing the good.”  We experience myriad small acts of kindness every day, but we quickly tend to take them for granted.  We forget that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “just to be is a blessing.”  The trait of gratitude calls us to pay close attention to the gifts in our life, even—or especially—when we also experience difficulties.      

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Shabbat before Pesach.  It’s fitting that we read about the gratitude offering, as Pesach asks that we open our homes and our hearts to others. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”  Indeed.  To be grateful is to share.

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Mussar Practice for this Week  (from Every Day, Holy Day)

This week, make a special effort to thank every person who does even the slightest thing that is helpful or beneficial to you.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Portion Vayikra: Humility/Anavah



Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”

        -R. Simcha Bunam


I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears.   The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical.  Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.”  And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues.  Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.

This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called.  It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people.  But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll.  The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it were a sort of afterthought.

The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.”  Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion.  If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else).  If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter.  We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.  

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The Mussar understanding of the trait of humility—anavah—echoes Simcha Bunam’s insight that when it comes to ego, either too much or too little is problematic.  As we noted when we covered this midah earlier, in the context of the story of Noah, it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake.  Being humble does not entail self-debasement; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem.  As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper equilibrium between arrogance and self-loathing.  Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my space.”  If we wish to harken to the call of the Holy One and embrace the sacred mission it demands of us, we must find that balance between dust and divinity.    

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Mussar Practice for this Week  (from Every Day, Holy Day)

This week, carry Rabbi Simcha Bunam’s two notes in your pocket: I am dust and ashes and the world was created for my sake.  As he suggests, take them out according to the need of the moment—and reflect carefully on which you choose each time, and why.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Portion Vayakhel-Pekude: Strength/Gevurah



According to all that the ETERNAL had commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did all the work.  Then Moses looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the ETERNAL had commanded, just so they had done it. And Moses blessed them.


Countless commentators, both ancient and contemporary, have noted the literary links between the completion of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary-tent, described in the second part of this week’s double portion, Pekude, and the creation narrative in Genesis.  The mishkan is a microcosm, a world in miniature—a modest human echo of God’s grand design.

There is, however, a significant difference between the model and the thing itself.  With the mishkan, everything falls perfectly into place, exactly according to plan.  Later, even in the worst of times, when the Israelites rebel and fall and fail, this space remains a beautiful, safe, and secure shelter for the Divine Presence.   Would that this were true for the wider world!  As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “In reality - and according to the Torah itself - the world as we find it falls far short of God's hopes and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe. . .”

So what do we make of the mishkan in a world so often gone awry?  Perhaps it is meant as a powerful and essential reminder of the way things were meant to be—and might yet become if we can learn to work together to create justice, compassion, and peace. As Professor Jon Levenson notes, the world is supposed to be just like the mishkan: "A place in which God’s holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive." 

It is hard work to repair what is broken in the world—and in ourselves as well.  Sometimes we need to take time to renew our vision of what we are working toward.  We seek havens—sanctuaries—that remind us what we are laboring to achieve and why it matters.  Our experience of God and sacredness in brief moments and small spaces can restore our dedication to the larger effort when our faith and courage might otherwise falter.

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We turn—or return—to our chosen sanctuaries in space and time when we need to renew our spiritual batteries.  They help us replenish our midah of strength, known in Hebrew as gevurah. Time and again, psychological studies have demonstrated that we grow best when we focus on developing our strengths rather than repairing our weaknesses.  As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz recognized a century ago, “Woe to those who are not aware of their defects, and who do not know what they must correct.  But much worse off are those who do not know their strengths, and who are therefore unaware of the tools they must work with to advance themselves spiritually.”
This week, consider: What are your strengths? When and where do you find sanctuaries in space and time that replenish those strengths when they are drawn down?  And how do you best employ those strengths to help bring the world as it is closer to the vision of what it might yet become?

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Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Identify people and situations where your unique strengths will bring others both help and an added measure of wholeness.