Monday, June 27, 2011

Managing Anger (Portion Chukat)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, continues a theme that runs through the entire book of Numbers: discontent and rebellion. Once again, weary of their desert wanderings, the people complain and quarrel with their leaders. They repeat their whiny wilderness refrain: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt into this wretched place?” This time—pushed past even his generous limits of patience—Moses explodes in anger. After God asks him to verbally command a rock to miraculously produce water for the thirsty mob, Moses instead strikes the rock with his rod, two times, and proclaims, “Listen rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [Numbers 20:19] This outburst of rage carries a steep cost, as God then punishes Moses severely, announcing that he will die before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.

The harshness of this sentence, which seems disproportionate for a single temper tantrum [and even that only after years of ingratitude and abuse at the hands of those he is asked to lead], prompts a great deal of commentary. Most commentators suggest that Moses’ sin lies in striking the rock not one but two times. In other words, it is natural and reasonable to get angry; the problem is Moses’ failure to control his temper after expressing his initial surge of anger with the first strike.

In his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points to three paths toward anger management: humility, compassion, and charity. Humility reminds us that rage is often motivated by narcissism: we tend to get angry when we do not get our way. Compassion can generate empathy for those who provoke us and, in the process, diminish our ire toward them. As Rabbi Telushkin notes, “Pity and rage do not go together. You cannot be angry at someone for whom you feel sorry.” Finally, as the late medieval Jewish ethical treatise Reishit Chochmah suggests, “If you are trying to achieve greater control over your anger, you should decide on a sum of money that you will give to charity if you lose your temper unfairly.”

There are, of course, countless other techniques for angry management, from meditation and “time outs” to physical exercise and stress relief. Our challenge is to identify those that work best for us and to use them consistently. It all begins with self-awareness, with knowing our emotional state and then learning to manage it. While it is no sin to feel and express anger, uncontrolled wrath is a terribly destructive state. This week, try to be extra aware of when you feel anger, and diligent in managing it.

Note: I will not be doing this e-Torah column during the month of July. But of course the Torah does not stop during this time. I encourage you to continue reading and learning. For starters, check out “Ten Minutes of Torah” from the Union for Reform Judaism at

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Like a Rolling Stone (Idaho Statesman Column June 2011)

Last month marked the seventieth birthday of my favorite contemporary Jewish poet, prophet, and iconoclast—Bob Dylan. In honor of that occasion, Rolling Stone published a lengthy piece ranking Dylan’s seventy greatest songs. It is no surprise that “Like a Rolling Stone” tops the list; many music-lovers consider it the most powerful rock song ever recorded.

On the surface, “Like a Rolling Stone” is an acerbic put-down, delivered (with the classic Dylan sneer) to a high society hipster ex-girlfriend, an unsympathetic rock critic, and/or the legions of embittered folk fans who booed when Dylan “went electric.” However, on a deeper level, the song addresses a central theme drawn from Jewish tradition: the wilderness experience.

During these summer months, Jews around the world read from the book of Numbers, which is known in Hebrew as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” The text recounts how, for forty years, we wandered, without a map, cut off from our Egyptian past, yearning for the distant and elusive Promised Land. That journey—physical and spiritual—shaped us as a people and, in significant ways, still defines us today. And no one captures its emotional resonance better than Bob Dylan, when he asks: “How does it feel. . . to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”

Talmud asks: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and then answers, with a psychological and spiritual lesson, gleaned from the wilderness experience: Those who wish to learn Torah should emulate the terrain where it was given, by making themselves open and ownerless. To which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner adds: “In the wilderness, your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chasten, and exalts. You see the world as if for the first time.” Perhaps this kind of openness is the prerequisite for all real learning and personal growth. If we wish to move forward, it is important to break free of our hardened assumptions and let the world act upon us in new ways.

In the Hasidic tradition, this path of wilderness as a way of life is called bittul yesh—the dissolution of the ego. The premise is simple: in order to experience the sacred, we must get our selves, our egos, out of the way so that there can be room for God. As Dov Baer of Mezrich said: “The work of the pious is greater than the creation of the heavens and the earth. For while the creation of the heavens and the earth was making something from Nothing, the pious transform something back into Nothing.”

In other words, we experience the Holy One by stripping away ourselves.

Or, as Reb Dylan taught in his own inimitable fashion: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fighting Fair (Portion Korach)

Disagreement is an inevitable part of all significant relationships. Even the closest partners and most harmonious organizations include their share of disputes. Indeed, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out in her book on Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, extraordinary leadership entails seeking out cohorts with conflicting opinions, personalities, and ideologies. Healthy debate is essential to personal growth.

So what distinguishes this sort of productive dialogue from destructive quarreling? The Talmud offers an important insight on this matter. In its compendium of ethical wisdom, Pirkei Avot, it teaches: “Every controversy that is in the Name of Heaven shall in the end lead to a permanent result, but every controversy that is not in the Name of Heaven shall not lead to a permanent result. What is a controversy that was in the Name of Heaven? The one between Hillel and Shammai. And what is a controversy that is not in the Name of Heaven? The one involving Korach and all his company.

In order to understand this Talmudic wisdom, one must be familiar with this week’s Torah portion, Korach, which describes the paradigm for destructive disputes. In it, Korach leads a bitter rebellion against his cousin, Moses. The opening words of story are both elliptical and illuminating: “Va-yikach Korach—Korach took. . .” because the Torah does not go on to tell us anything in particular that Korach took! Many of the commentators point out that this is precisely the point: Korach takes everything, and gives nothing. He is, in short, motivated by the narcissistic pursuit of power. He claims to be a defender of the community, but in reality, his arguments with Moses are only about pressing his own advantage.

This stands in stark contrast with the debates between the two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples. They embody our tradition of “sacred argument” in which questioning, challenging, and testing one another move us forward. Their disagreements are conducted with a sense of mutual respect and admiration—and therefore, “each are the words of the living God.”

We cannot avoid disputes but we can learn to “fight fair.” Our challenge is to stay focused on the issue at hand, rather than personally attacking those with whom we disagree, avoiding character assassination and old grudges, and guarding against self-righteousness. When we disagree within these parameters, we follow Jewish heroes Hillel and Shammai, whose teachings—and relationship—have endured for centuries, rather than the lamentable Korach and his band.

This week, consider: How do I conduct my disagreements, especially with those who are closest to me? How can we be more like Hillel and Shammai and less like Korach?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Killing the Ego (Portion B'ha-alotechah)

From the time of his birth, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, until his death at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is the Torah’s pre-eminent character. His relationship with both God and the people of Israel, throughout his forty years of leadership, is unparalleled. Thus he is known as Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses, our Teacher. Torah tells us that his prophetic wisdom and vision will never be equaled.

What was the source of Moses’ greatness? Of all his many virtues, this week’s portion, B’ha-alotecha, suggests that the most important is his humility. Thus the text teaches: “Moses was the most humble man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3)

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner comments on the connection between Moses’ extraordinary humility and his spiritual mastery. In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner notes: “The goal of spiritual life is to get your ego out of the way—outwit the sucker; dissolve it; shoot it; kill it. Silence the incessant planning, organizing, running, manipulating, possessing, and processing that are the ineluctable redoubts of the ego. Not because these activities are bad or wrong or even narcissistic. . . but because they preclude an awareness of the Divine. To paraphrase the Talmud, God says, ‘There ain’t enough room in this here world for your ego and Me. You pick.’”

In other words, humility is at the heart of Moses’ greatness because it is a pre-requisite for all true wisdom. When we become too full of ourselves, we shut ourselves off from God and knowledge and deep reciprocal relationships [which may, in the end, all be synonymous]. Only when we learn to let go of our need to be in-the-know, judgmental, and “right” can we grow as people and as Jews.

Two hundred years ago, the English poet John Keats expressed this same notion in his theory of “negative capability”, which he described as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats points to Shakespeare and Coleridge as masters of this art, but we, as Jews, might look back farther, to Moses, as our guide.

This week consider: how can you better live with—and listen to—those around you with this sort of true humility? How might we diminish our egos and thereby make more room for God and our loved ones?