Sunday, February 26, 2012

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke - Reflections on World Peace

[Thanks to R' Shlomo Riskin from whom I learned many of the key concepts presented here.]

World Peace. It is so desperately desired by so many. Why, then, is it so elusive? This week's parshah sheds some light - quite literally - on this question.
We learn this week of the construction of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, with all its detailed instructions and specifications. From the description, it must have been compellingly beautiful to behold. "And they will make for me a Mikdash - a sanctified space - that I may dwell among them."
There are two features of the Mishkan that represent Torah: one, of course, is the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved; and the other was the Menorah, the candelabra. Why was there a need for two such symbols? The answers lie in the unique construction details of these spectacular vessels.
How exactly does the Menorah represent Torah? Because it says in Mishlei (Proverbs) that "ner mitzvah v'torah or," a single mitzvah is like a candle, and Torah - the sum of all the individual mitzvahs - is like a brilliant light. The light of the menorah symbolizes the brilliant light of Torah.
But it’s even deeper than that.  If you stand back and look at the Menorah, you'll see it actually looks like a tree. In fact, the Torah describes it as having branches, leaves and flowers.
So when we think of a tree and Torah, what's the first verse that pops into your head? "It is a Tree of Life for those who grab on to it, for those who rely on it will be gladdened." Etz Chaim Hee, again from Mishlei. And when we think of an Etz Chaim, what other Etz Chaim comes to mind? Maybe...the Tree of Life which stands in the center of the Garden of Eden. So the symbolism of the Menorah is meant to suggest to us the pristine harmony of Eden; a piece of art which is itself in perfect balance and symmetry, reflective of the ideal of a world in perfect balance and symmetry; a world where all of its elements work naturally together in the vivifying light of all that is good and holy. In other words – world peace.
This hearkening back to Eden, though, is a universal longing, not just reserved for the Children of Israel. This yearning belongs to all peoples of the world. And this, in fact, is exactly what the Menorah represents: with its seven lights, representing the Seven Laws of the Torah which are incumbent upon all of mankind, projecting its brilliant light outward into the world, the menorah symbolizes the universal Torah that belongs to every person – Christian, Moslem, Buddhist - who seeks closeness with Gcd.
The Ark of the Covenant was hidden away, protected in the bosom of the Holy of Holies, like a priceless treasure. And in that way, it is emblematic of the unique Abrahamitic Covenant between the A-lmighty and the Jewish people, who are described as “Am Segulah”, a Treasured People. The Ark – the introspective, particularistic Torah of Am Yisrael; the Menorah – the expansive, universalistic Torah of the Seven Laws.
To say it in a different way: the sub-structure for world peace was built right into the fabric of Jewish life, of Jewish thought, into the very structure of G-d’s House, right from the outset.
Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the Midrash that speaks of Moshe's inability to conceptualize the construction of the menorah, until the A-lmighty, as it were, drew him a picture. How, Moshe puzzled, do we achieve the world peace and harmony symbolized by the Menorah? It seems so distant and hard to conceive.  Here, Hashem says, I'll show you.
The nation of Israel is described as “A Kingdom of Priests and a Nation Set Apart.”  In order to fulfill our divine mission to minister, to guide, and to teach the nations about ethical monotheism, we must adhere to the 613 – the Torah of the Ark of the Covenant.
What about the rest of the world? Maybe, like Lou Jacobi quipped, when you’re in love, the whole world is Jewish?”  In fact, Gcd didn’t make the whole world Jewish; the A-lmighty, in his infinite wisdom, created the seventy nations of the world for a reason. Each nation, and each individual member of every nation, has a unique contribution to make to the betterment of the world. Not to become Jewish, but to be true to themselves. Hashem doesn’t desire rigid uniformity from us. In the wonderful diversity of cultures and views, He designed the world to better express ourselves and utilize our unique talents and special insights.  But first, we must acknowledge Gcd as the source of those gifts. Its one teeny tiny thing, but a crucial thing: we have to recognize Gcd’s guidance in human affairs.
It is very important to note that the Menorah was not made of seven billion pieces of gold, all skillfully welded together to form a composite. It was formed from one massive piece of gold, which was then sculpted and shaped into its many individual features.  So it is with humankind; every person, and every nation, has a unique voice, a unique gift, a unique spark of the divine to contribute.  But how do we embark on the task of world peace with a cacophony of seven billion disparate ideas?  We can’t start from a place of individuation.
Like the menorah, every feature, every differentiation, must be fashioned from the same ingot of gold. No welds; its all of a piece. That ingot is the Seven Laws.  From the unity of Gcd’s law flows the diversity of textured harmonic expression. World peace begins the day the nations come to recognize that there is no morality which excludes the A-lmighty. When all people recognize the inherent justice and beauty of the Seven Laws, commanded to us by a Gcd who is totally good, and who desires only good for His creatures; only then can the unique contribution of each individual find its proper expression, and only then will the seeds of world peace begin to sprout. Gcd wants us all – Jew and Gentile - to work together, each in his own capacity and in fulfillment his own divine calling, to help prepare the world for the Kingdom of Heaven (as we say in the Aleinu prayer). That is the message is of the Menorah.
So the first necessary step to perfecting the world is to work on ourselves. It’s relatively easy to hold up a placard at a protest or sit-in; its much harder to become a more educated person, a more refined and sensitive moral agent. That is the mysterious secret ingredient that eludes the well meaning seekers of world peace. For there can be no peace without acknowledging that the basis for human morality and civility can only be found in Gcd, and in the light of His Menorah, and in the light of His Torah. "And they will make for me a Mikdash that I may dwell among them.” Hashem desires to dwell among us – if we will only let him in.
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Feelin' Groovy - Parashat Yitro Drash 5772

Does anyone remember Steve Martin’s stand up shtick “What I Believe” from the early ‘80’s? It was very funny.  (Look it up on YouTube.) Anyway, in this comedy routine, he raises his hand high and solemnly avers that he believes in “eight - of the Ten Commandments.”
Everybody says they believe in the Ten Commandments, right? If you polled most people they would say that keeping the Ten Commandments is the basis for being a good person. OK, fine. Now ask them to actually LIST the ten…in any order…no rush… [deer in the headlights time]
Let's focus on one of the ones that I think Steve had trouble with, the Tenth Commandment. The pasuk says: Do not covet the house of your friend; do not covet the wife of your friend, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his mule, and anything that belongs to your friend.” [Exodus 20:14] 
“Do Not Covet.”  Think about that for a minute. Jealousy or desire is a feeling. How can the A-lmighty legislate our feelings? I get “Keep the Shabbat.” I get “Don’t Murder.” But how can Hashem say to us, “Don’t desire the Bugatti Veyron, the most expensive car in the world, or that hunky guy, or that cute girl, or that magnificent home.”  Isn’t that instant of desire more like an instinct, the green-eyed monster that resides in us all; isn’t something primal that just happens, something over which we have no control?
The Ibn Ezra has an interesting insight into this conundrum. He explains it with a parable: an "average joe" finds a particular supermodel or actress stunningly beautiful. [OK so I’m paraphrasing a wee bitsicule…] Pretty as she may be, he doesn’t really desire her, because he knows deep down that she is unattainable. The Ibn Ezra goes on: and don’t confuse him with someone with irrational desires, like a meshuga who desires to sprout wings and fly like a bird. It’s more akin to a man not desiring his mother, because no matter how beautiful she may be, he is conditioned from childhood that such a liaison is impossible.
Thank you, Rabbi Ibn Ezra. Please take a seat. In this, we have the kernel of an answer to the question.  The Torah here is teaching us something quite remarkable. The Torah is saying to us, “do not be a slave to your desires. Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.” That bears repeating:
Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.
Show me a person who acts on their feelings, and I will show you a person who’s life is total chaos. We all know such people – the drama mamas (and drama daddies.) Their life is a personal private soap opera. We feel bummed out, so we overeat (pass the Haagen Dasz – no, no, the BIG one). We feel stressed out, so we drink to excess. We yearn for approval, so we yield to peer pressure. (You got a tattoo where?) We feel impassioned, so we step out on our spouses. We feel needy, so we steal. We feel rage, so we raise a hand to a spouse or a child, or we vandalize and even murder. We live in an age of no hang-ups, where self-expression is the quintessence of modern art; where every feeling is natural and healthy and is not to be denied.
That the very opposite is true is one of the greatest contributions of Torah to Western thought. Over 3000 years later, Dr. William James, the father of modern psychology, would say “We become what we think about.”  In other words, our thoughts become actions, and our actions control our feelings. [Like, sure, it was his idea…]
Pirkei Avot echoes this theme when it teaches us: “Who is strong? One who conquers their passions.” [Avot 4:1] R’ Yosef Soleveitchick, arguably one of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century, Jewish or otherwise, wrote that only when we exercise our most human faculty of reason can we be truly free, for those who act upon emotion, instinct and passion emulate the behavior of animals, who, lacking freedom of choice, can never be free.
We choose our actions, and our actions program our emotions. Let that sink in for a moment. True freedom is making a conscious choice to act. That is why our sages tell us, ‘put on tefillin every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Daven every day, even if you’re not in the mood.’ That is the essence of “mitzvah,”  to do it anyway. Our sages understood that the action performed without proper intent, over time, will reprogram us to feel the mitzvah and we will grow to perform it properly.
The way we observe the Tenth Commandment is to behave in ways that thwart feelings of jealousy or inappropriate desire. So if you’re feeling depressed, plant a garden. If you’re stressed, meditate. If you’re feeling passionate, sing opera. If you’re feeling needful, volunteer at a hospital or at soup kitchen. Feeling rage? Write a poem. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Whatever you do, if your change your behavior, your feelings will take care of themselves.
What a wonderful, empowering, liberating message! Lo Tachmod is a personal Declaration of Independence. The A-lmighty is telling us: you are no longer slaves to another man; do not fall into the trap of becoming a slave to yourself. True freedom is only to be found in service to Me, and the reward for My service, the performance of Mitzvot,  is a profound soul-peace; loving relationships; a sane, ordered life; health; and length of days to enjoy it all.
Ken tehiye lanu – so may it be for us all!
Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What Now? - Parashat B'Shalach 5772 Drash

[Please review Exodus 16:2 – 17:7]

No sooner are Bnei Yisrael safe from the pursuit of the Egyptian Army, than the complaints begin against Moshe and Aharon. How did we jump so fast from the Song of Joy to the Song of Oy! The transition is quite startling, isn’t it?
Further: these early grumblings vaguely remind us of events we see unfold later in Sefer Bamidbar when the Bnei Yisrael complain that they are sick and tired of the mahn, and demand meat (P’ Bha’alotcha) and when they complain for lack of water after Miriam’s death (P’ Chukat.) Are these complaints qualitatively the same? How do these early events relate to the later ones? And is there a lesson for us in all of this? (Duh, of course there is. Read on.)
To answer these questions, put yourself in the sandals of a Hebrew slave. OK Hebrew slave, you’re a little tired and cranky because you’ve been up all night crossing an ocean – without the benefit of a boat!  As you stand on the far shore of the sea, it’s hard to believe the supernatural storm that raged here last night. The sky is sunny, the water so placid; it’s so flat you could skip rocks. Did it even happen? Did I imagine it?
And then you see it: an Egyptian chariot wheel washed up on the shore, the Pharaoh’s golden crest on the hub glinting in the sun, little waves gently lapping its edge. And it all comes back to you, in every vivid detail. The sounds, the smells.  Oh, it happened, all right.
OK, now what? We’re out. We’re free (I think). What’s the next move?
This is where we pick up the thread of our Parashah. Now what? Refer back to Exodus 12:39 – “…for they had made no provisions for themselves.”
Back in Egypt, everyone was so focused on this monumental, miraculous event, the actual leaving and the whirlwind of miracles that enveloped their leaving that no one – not even Moshe – gave a moment’s thought to the day after.
I remember when we first came home with our newborn twin girls from the hospital, our firstborn. We had spent so much time and invested so much energy in the preparing for the birth! And the great event was behind us now. Here we were, at home.  It was exciting and humbling at the same time. No doctors, nurses, midwives, labor coaches, birth instructors. Just the two of us and these soft, sweet, vulnerable, needy little puff balls. We’re on our own. OK… Now what?
Bnei Yisrael was a newborn nation. Now what? What do we eat and drink? Where are we going to live? When do we travel? These and a million other questions that are generally lumped together and called “Logistics.”  What Moshe needed was a Quartermaster General.
And so this infant nation, incubated in the womb of slavery; this nation, unique in that it was a nation midwived from the belly of another nation, cries out for food and water. This is not an unreasonable request. When a baby’s tummy is empty, she cries, as the Bnei Yisrael does here.
Unlike the complaints we see later in Sefer Bamidbar, the complaints we read of here were born of a legitimate concern over the question of ‘what now.’ And Moshe tells the infant people, “Hashem, our Father, has heard your complaint – and it is legitimate.”
One way to understand the second half of Sefer Shmot and entirety of Sefer Vayikra  is as an answer to the great question of the post-Exodus “what now?” How will we organize ourselves? What will our future society look like? It was scary and exhilirating all at the same time. We were venturing into uncharted territory here. And so in our parashah, the basic provisions of food and water for the people are made. In subsequent parshiot, we will observe the framework of the holy and exalted Jewish Society begin to take on additional form and substance.
Ok, great. If all this is true, why does Moshe backhand the Bnei Yisrael? Ah, Grasshopper, now we come to the point: it was not for what they asked, but for how they asked it. And this is a great lesson we can take from our Parashah. What we say is important, but how we say what we say can be just as important.
When people think of the mitzvah of Shmirat HaLoshon, of guarding our speech, we generally think of avoiding gossip mongering and slander. And that’s proper, as far as it goes. But even when we have something meaningful to say, we must consider the ”how.”  We must consider the effects of our words on others, on the “what now” after our words have sunk in and had their effect.
We all have a natural desire to have our voice heard, and to receive the approval of others for an idea well articulated. We speak cogently and concisely (hopefully!) to make our views known, and to persuade others of their validity. Occasionally, we might even aspire to eloquence.
The Torah, however, calls upon us to do more. Think about your audience – of one or of one thousand. To whom are you speaking? Will your words be received in the spirit which they are intended, or will they be misconstrued? be resented? Or Ch”V will you inadvertently embarrass the other person? Pirkei Avot 2:15 – “Let your friend’s honor be as dear to as your own.”  You can be on base, yet totally off track.
In Masechet Shabbat, 33b, the story is related of Shimon Bar Yochai. He was condemned to death by the Romans, and hid for 13 years in a cave. When he emerged, he saw the Jews of his day involved in mundane pursuits – farming, animal husbandry and the like. This enraged Bar Yochai, who had spent years doing nothing but studying Torah. He fulminated, "How can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of the next world?" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice said, "Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are not fit for the company of other human beings." Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his perspective, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the people of his generation, and become a great teacher of Torah.
What was so bad about Bar Yochai’s point? Nothing, really. His fault was in the way he expressed himself. The Torah implores us to weigh our words carefully, even the good ones. Don’t speak in haste, or in anger, or in righteous indignation. Take a deep breath. Pause. Ask yourself: how will my words affect others? And maybe – just maybe – I should just be quiet…
Make your words smile. That way, when you do talk, people will be drawn to your message. It is the truly thoughtful person, the Gcdly person, who develops the sensitivity to speak to each person in their own language; to use the gift of speech to elevate, and never to debase; and who weighs the impact of his words, well meant though they may be, on the heart of the listener.
Sadly, we live in an age of shockingly shrill and divisive rhetoric. May it be Hashem’s will that we all think more, talk a little less, and utilize the gift of speech in the cause of goodwill and civil discourse between friends.
Shabbat Shalom.