Friday, June 12, 2015

The Power of Surprise (Portion Korach)

All that is beautiful, true, always comes as a surprise.  So retain the capacity to be surprised.  Once you lose that capacity you are dead.  If things can surprise you, you are still alive.  And the more you are surprised by things, the more alive you are.
                                    -Osho, Above All, Don’t Wobble

As we grow older, it is easy to become jaded—to lose our capacity for surprise.  Like the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes, we may be tempted to declare that nothing is new under the sun.  We come to view all that is currently happening through the fixed lens of past experience.  When this happens, we lose our capacity to embrace change and novelty and thereby calcify our souls and our selves.

Torah seeks to jar us out of such cynicism and complacency.  Part of God’s calling is to keep us on our toes, attentive and open to surprise.  Consider this week’s Torah portion, Korach.   It tells the tragic story of the most heinous of several mutinies launched against Moses and his leadership.  The leader of the rebels, Korach, is ultimately swallowed up by the earth, along with his followers.  In both the biblical story and the many centuries of commentary that follow, Korach remains a symbol of greed and bloodthirsty lust for power.

Yet, lest we get too attached to a simplistic worldview in which Korach and his company represent pure and everlasting evil, when we get to the book of Psalms, we find that twelve of the 150 psalms (42-49, 85, 87, and 88) are attributed to b’nai Korach, the children of Korach.  What a remarkable surprise: just a few generations after the father of all rebellions is severely punished directly by God, along with his entire family, we find that his descendants are creating magnificent songs of praise to God that merit inclusion in the Psalter!

This is an important reminder for us to resist our negative preconceptions based on past experience.  If we seek to experience beauty—in music and art and poetry and, really, any aspect of life—we must be prepared to be surprised at its often deeply unexpected origins.    Life is far stranger than we often give it credit for being—thank God!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Narrow Bridge (Portion Shelach L'chah)

The whole world is a very narrow bridge—and the main thing is not to. . .

I love this analogy from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which captures the risk and reward of living mindfully.  I think I’ve always identified with this teaching because I have a strong fear of heights.  My biggest challenge when I trekked in Nepal six years ago was crossing the numerous high—and very narrow—swaying suspension bridges that the trail took to make its way across deep Himalayan canyons.  Anticipating this difficulty after reading the maps and guidebooks, I spent hours prepping for the trip.  I met with a therapist who taught me the visualization and guided meditation techniques that enabled me to overcome my trepidation.  It was not easy but I made it.

But even after all of my preparation, with many miles—and narrow bridges—behind me, it was not easy.  I never really got past my fear.  I just powered through it.

This is why I’ve left off the end of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching, which is usually phrased “and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”  These words have never made sense to me.  We all have fear—that’s the human condition.  The main thing is not to be fearless, but, rather, to refuse to give our fear the last word.  And it turns out, Rabbi Nachman (not surprisingly) knew this very well, as scholars have found alternative versions of this quote with the word l’hitpached replacing the more common l’fached—meaning, “and the main thing is not to be paralyzed by one’s fear.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach L’chah, Moses sends out twelve scouts to reconnoiter the Promised Land.  All of them see a place of abundance, but they do not agree on their assessment of the inhabitants of the land—and the prospects for success if the Israelites decide to invade.  Ten of the twelve urge a hasty retreat.  They spread fear among their people, insisting: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  The people that we saw in it are men of great size. . . .We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  Only two scouts—Joshua and Caleb—keep the faith and urge, “Let us by all means go up and gain possession of the land.”  Unfortunately, the masses of Israelites follow the pessimistic and fearful majority.  They complain bitterly, railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to go forward into Canaan.  As a consequence of their rebellion, God decrees that this entire generation must die out before the Israelites can finally enter the Promised Land.  Forty years of wandering ensue.

What was the difference between Joshua and Caleb and the rest of the scouts (and the Israelites who followed them)?  I suspect Joshua and Caleb were also afraid.  But they overcame their fear and urged others to do the same.  Yes, the world is a very narrow bridge, and there is no shame in fear.  But if we wish to cross over to new things—to grow as people—then the main thing is to remember that we can move forward despite our fear.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Complaining--It's Not About the Meat (Portion Beha'alotechah)

Sometimes it is helpful—even essential—to complain.

More commonly, our complaints are not really about what they purport to be, but are, instead, symptoms of a poor attitude in need of adjustment.

Ecclesiastes famously teaches that there is a time and season for everything.  So it goes with complaining.  If no one complained about unjust, inequitable, and intolerable situations, nothing would change for the better.  We need whistle-blowers and activists—justified complainers—to speak out against the unacceptable status quo.  Thus, early in the Torah’s exodus narrative, the Israelites complain about a real lack of food and water, and God responds respectfully, providing them with what they need.

However, most of the time our complaining is merely the outward expression of our own inner negativity.   In such cases, our whining is not ameliorated when we get what we supposedly want, for we will always find a new excuse to keep up the kvetching.  There is no limit to the potential objects of discontent for fundamentally dissatisfied people.

Such is the nature of the complaining in this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha.  The Israelites carp at Moses: “Who will feed us meat?”  Yet, as Rashi notes in his commentary, they actually have plenty of meat to eat.  Torah tells us that when we left Egypt, “A great multitude went up with them, and also flocks and cattle.”  Forty years later, as we prepare to enter the land of Israel, Torah again points out, “The children of Reuben had much cattle.”  In other words, the Israelites had no shortage of steak.  As God and Moses both recognize, their craving and complaining is not really about the meat.  It is, instead, a reflection of the Israelites’ own failure of faith and imagination.

This week, every time you are tempted to complain about something, consider your motivation.  Are you questioning the status quo in order to change it for the better?  Or are you just giving voice to your own, deeper discontent?  If you can honestly affirm the former, then speak (and act) up!  If not, then reflect on ways to shift your attitude.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tyranny of "Mine" (portion Behar)

It starts so early.  The first word of many a child is “Mine!”  Thus begins a life of striving after ownership.  Much of American culture is built around this propensity to crave and accumulate, with multi-billion dollar industries manipulating us to want stuff we don’t need.
Of course, as Ecclesiastes recognized long ago, this is a kind of vanity, a striving after wind.  Indeed, it is far worse than empty gesture, for the impulse behind “mine!” is at the heart of much of our human unhappiness.  No matter how much we acquire, the urge for more is never satisfied.
Given this crushing human propensity to possess stuff (and sometimes people, too), our weekly portion, Behar, offers what I believe to be the most radical teaching in the entire Torah.  Consider its words:
‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Eternal Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop,  but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. 
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. . .   It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, [e]and each of you shall return to his family. 
 ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. 
This is extraordinary.  Every seven years we give the land a compete rest and every fifty years we redistribute it so that no one is left poor and landless.  This guards against the grossly unjust distribution of wealth that increasingly undermines both America’s and Israel’s economy.  It also reminds us that the assertion of “Mine!” is ultimately idolatrous, for in the end, all of Creation belongs only to the Creator.
Imagine if an America politician were to propose such a policy!  This is not a platform upon which one is likely to get elected, in either of our major political parties.  Yet here it is in our Torah, as a core part of its vision of a just society and a critical antidote to our consistent craving for more power and possessions.  It may not become economic policy any time soon, but it remains essential for us as a way out of the trap of materialism into which we sometimes stumble.
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Why?  Because what is wild is, by definition, that which cannot be owned.  This is why Torah was given in the wilderness, a wild place, open to all, possessed by none.  As we move toward Shavuot and our celebration of receiving Torah, consider: how can I open myself to more wildness and escape the clutch of my impulse to insist upon mine?

For more on the sabbatical and jubilee years, and their potential to transform our contemporary culture, see the work of Hazon, starting at:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Power of Memory (8th Day of Pesach)

Listen up, can you hear the song of our history
The poetry the mystery the symphony is filling me
To the point of overflowing intensity
Incredibly the remedy for entropy is memory

Ten days ago, Jewish teacher and hip-hop artist Eden Pearlstein—aka Eprhyme—shared these words with us in his extraordinary rap rendition of the week’s haftarah portion.  Throughout this Pesach holiday, I have continued to reflect on his teaching, especially his observation in the last line:  “the remedy for entropy is memory.”

Entropy is, sadly, a fact of life.  Things—and lives and relationships—fall apart.  It takes a lot of love and labor and energy to sustain goodness and blessing in our world.  Death and loss are inevitable parts of even the best-lived lives.

But memories of liberation and celebration, of times and people and places that we cherish can help to carry us through our dark, dry seasons.  When we find ourselves in narrow places, we can recall previous passages out of these “Egypts” and renew our hope that we will move, again, toward promised lands.  And when we despair of our ability to make a difference in healing the brokenness that so often shatters both our personal lives and the wider culture, we can remember the kind, righteous, and inspiring friends and loved ones who did bring that kind of healing, and take sustenance in their examples.

This coming Shabbat is also the eighth and final day of Pesach—and thus one of four days that our tradition designates (along with Yom Kippur and the last days of Sukkot and Shavuot)  for a special Yizkor service, in which we honor our beloved ones who have died. This week, as you celebrate Passover, make an effort to remember your special times, places, and people—and in so doing, affirm that the remedy for entropy really is memory.