Friday, April 8, 2016

Who am I? The Power of Humility (Portion Metzora)

This week’s portion, Metzora, describes one of Torah’s most mysterious phenomena: the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house.  The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened.  Some concluded: “Leprosy of houses never really existed and never will exist.”  Given the logical question that follows from this—“Then why is it in the Torah?”—the sages famously added: “Drash v’kabel s’char—Interpret it and receive reward for the act of interpretation.”

In that spirit, consider one small but significant detail in the relevant passage.  Torah teaches that the owner of the afflicted home should contact the priest who is in charge and tell him, “It seems there is a plague in the house.”  Commenting on the language here, Rashi notes: “Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that there is definitely a plague but should, rather, state: ‘It seems to me to be a plague.’”  To which another commentator, Mizrachi, adds: “A person should not be dogmatic even on something he is sure of, but rather should express certainty as a probability.  As our Rabbis instructed: Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’

Certainty is dangerous, because it can so easily dull our curiosity, stifle our empathy and, ultimately, blind us to truth.  As an old bit of wisdom advises: “If you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”   No one wants to spend much time with a know-it-all who is incapable of learning from others.  Too much certainty quashes intellectual curiosity.  Arrogance is incompatible with intellectual growth and learning. 

In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner elucidates a commentary by the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.  The subject at hand is Moses at the Burning Bush.  When God calls Moses to lead the Israelites, Moses asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” and God cryptically replies, “This shall be for you the sign,” without apparently specifying any signs.

Kushner writes: God does give Moses a sign says the Berditchever.  And it has been right there in plain sight all along; we just didn’t notice it.  From his native humility, Moses cannot imagine he is worthy of such a holy task.  But precisely this fear of inadequacy is the source of his true spiritual authority.  It is not an expression of unworthiness; it is a necessary qualification and precondition for the job of any would-be Jewish leader.  Your fear that you are unworthy makes you worthy.   God, in effect, says to Moses, “Your asking, ‘Who am I?’ is the sign that I’ve sent you.”

As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, may we remember that a healthy dose of humility can free us from the narrow-mindedness of Egyptian bondage, the state of spiritual bondage that comes with absolute certainty.  As freedom beckons, let us, like Moses, ask ourselves, Who am I?—and in so doing, open ourselves to a world of new possibilities and growth.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Solitude (Portion Tazria)

We often fear solitude and loneliness—but sometimes it can turn out to be a blessing.

In this week's Torah portion, Tazria, we learn about the diagnosis and treatment for a disease that afflicts the Israelites through their skin, surfaces and walls: tzara'at—often (mis)translated as “leprosy.”  The Rabbis tend to associate the physical symptoms with an inner, spiritual affliction.  They note that the “patient” with this condition is required to undergo a period of quarantine outside the camp—alone— until all signs of the disease subside.   Many see this temporary banishment as a form of punishment—yet we might choose to view it differently.  Rabbi Yael Shy likens the quarantine to a meditation retreat.  She notes: It is an enforced separation from society so that the person who has erected barriers within oneself is forced to shine the light of awareness on those barriers and the ways they are making her sick. Like meditation retreats, it may not be pleasant or easy, but the process leads to a necessary opening and healing, critical for the person's continued survival and growth.

Many of us are afraid of being alone.   We fear the silence, which may hint at our mortality.  Even when we find ourselves in solitude, we therefore tend to fill our ears and minds with distractions.  We stare at our smart phones, listen to our music and podcasts, watch movies and television shows—all avoid being really present with our deepest, truest selves, even when no other people are around.  Perhaps we might see the Israelite stricken with tzara’at as emblematic of most of us, over-stimulated by material things and therefore in need of a sort of spiritual quarantine “cure.”

Father Henri Nouwen spoke eloquently of this state of affairs—and the rewards for ultimately embracing our solitude and silences.  I’ll end with a favorite passage from an anthology of his wisdom, The Only Necessary Thing:

Solitude is a discipline that helps us go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives.  At first silence might only frighten us.  In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections.  These voices are often noisy and boisterous. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them. . . But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of light.  These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love.  They might, at first, seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them.  However, they are very persistent, and they will grow stronger if we keep listening.