Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Easy Button - Reflections on Parashat Nasso 5775

America is, by and large, a shortcut culture. Want to make a fast fortune? Find a shortcut for something people hate to do. TV remotes. Wash & wear clothes. Plastic food. Online shopping. EZPass. Tan in a Can. Diet Pills. If there's a shortcut, you can be assured that we'll find it.

This week's Torah portion talks about the dangers of spiritual shortcuts. In it we read the segment about the Nazir (a term for which there is no adequate English translation.) 

Who is a Nazir? Any person who, with great public fanfare, swears off wine (alcohol) and by extension ANY product made of, or containing grapes; who must let their hair grow long and shaggy; and who cannot become exposed to death (tumat hamet) - even for their closest relatives, like mom and dad. (To gain a deeper understanding of tumat hamet, click HERE.)

Is the Nazir to be praised for his self-denial or is he to be condemned? On the one hand, the Torah describes the Nazir as 'kadosh,' holy. On the other hand, he must bring a sin offering upon the successful completion of the vow.

There are venerable rabbinic voices down through ages on both sides of that question. I stand firmly with those who condemn the Nazir.

Consider the following: why would anyone in their right minds undertake such a disruptive, restrictive oath? What kind of mindset would volunteer for the life of a religious ascetic? 

An out-of-control person, that's who. Like a raging alcoholic, who desperately hopes that the power of the oath will buttress his weakening resolve.

Or perhaps someone who needs to call attention to themselves; one who derives self-esteem in holding themselves to a higher standard than their peers. This individual constantly gauges their religious performance against others - and consistently finds everyone else lacking. This type of Nazir finds bargain-basement self-esteem - not through hard work and honest achievement, but through building himself up by tearing others down.

And by the way: who (besides our Nazir) is the one other person on the planet who cannot be exposed to tumat hamet, even for a spouse, parent, sibling or child? Answer: the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel.

On a certain level, the Nazir is trying to be as holy as High Priest himself. 

It takes a lifetime for a person to prepare for the awesome responsibilities of the office of High Priest; but our Nazir, by mumbling a few words, catapults himself from zero-to-holy in 4.3 seconds. Neat trick.

The Nazir is trying to take a spiritual shortcut, and the Torah suggests that there are no shortcuts in the ethereal realm. That's why the Nazir brings the sin offering, and that's why the burning of the hair.

A sin offering (chatat) is brought for the commission of an inadvertent sin: the person meant no harm, but accidentally violated a serious Torah prohibition. Thus the Nazir brings a sin offering because his intent for self-improvement was laudable, but the execution was flawed.

And in one of the most curious aspects of the ending ritual of Nazir, his/her hair is shaved off their head and thrown into the fire. Why? This luxurious mane of hair, this very public sign of the Nazir vow, is symbolic of the entire Nazir experience. And in the end, it goes up in smoke. The acrid smell of the burning hair says: your spiritual shortcut accomplished nothing, your self-abnegation was all for nought, you're back where you started, you still have to deal with your issues.

Because no vow, no pill, no Easy Button, can fix the things that are wrong in your life.

We don't have the Nazir vow in our day. But sadly, we still see the all-too-human Nazir impulse: not just in the addictive personality, but in mean-spirited, petty people who derive their self-esteem by denigrating others - with an acerbic tongue, or an arrogant attitude, or competitors in the frumkeit (holier-than-thou) olympics.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth and development. Spiritual growth is hard work. It requires humility and introspection; a sober evaluation of one's strengths and weaknesses; a receptiveness to the still, small voice inside us all; a willingness to see steady change over time; consistency; and patience with oneself. It requires Torah study and deepening our performance of mitzvot. It requires constant vigilance against complacency, intellectual stagnation and arrogance. It's the work of a lifetime - you can't bang it out in a weekend or two, or sub it out, or find easy answers on the internet. It's the ultimate do-it-yourself project and it comes with no instruction booklet. 

But the results of applied effort will, over time, yield inner peace, wisdom, and improved relationships. And if everybody on the planet focused on fixing themselves, imagine the kind of world we would inhabit! That is the Torah's eschatological vision; and isn't that the place where we're all trying to get to?

So instead trying to impress everyone with ostentatious demonstrations of piety, do something truly Jewish: fix yourself from the inside out, and by extension, repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trivial Pursuit - Reflections on Shavuot 5775

I like coffee. It is one of the few bad habits I have left (he says with tongue firmly lodged in cheek).  So you won’t be surprised to learn that every week I teach a parsha class at a local coffee house. It’s a lot of fun actually; a bunch of us drink tea or coffee and talk about the weekly Torah portion and its relevance to everyday life and current events.

Talking Torah. At Starbucks. How convenient. [smile]

Anyway, one of the people that attends these classes is a real live farmer. With an actual farm. And barnyard animals. The real McCoy. This fact never ceases to fascinate me, because let’s face it: as a group, Jews are pretty…urban.

My farmer friend was telling me about how incredibly busy he is this time of year – getting all the seeds in the ground at just the right time, animals being born, etc. And as he was sharing all of this, I had a blinding flash of insight on a curiosity of the Jewish calendar that we will experience this weekend.

I refer to Shavuot, aka Pentecost, aka the Feast of Weeks, aka the Feast of the First Fruits. It is the day we received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai. And it is the second of the three annual pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach and Sukkot) when the entire Jewish People would ascend to Jerusalem and Gcd’s Holy Mountain to commune with the A-lmighty in the Holy Temple. (And will do so again very soon, probably in our lifetimes.)

But there is a difference: Passover is a seven day holiday; Sukkot is eight. On these pilgrimages, the entire Jewish People hung out and celebrated in Jerusalem for over a week.

However Shavuot, equal to the others in import and gravity, is only a one day event. A quick in-and-out to Jerusalem, as it were. Why should that be the case? Why isn’t Shavuot a week long affair like all the other pilgrimage festivals?

Here's the insight: we were once a nation of farmers, and Shavuot falls smack in the middle of the busiest time of the agricultural year. It is as if Gcd is saying to the Jewish People, “We need to meet because I have something extremely important to give you. But I also appreciate how busy you are, so we’ll make it quick.”

Think about that: Gcd is being considerate of us. (Isn't supposed to be the other way around?) Like a doting parent, Gcd cares about what is important to us, takes note of ostensibly trivial and random details in our lives. 

In Hebrew it's called Hashgachah Pratit, Gcd's involvement and concern with the trivialities of our individual lives, guiding us towards our own highest good. 

That Shavuot is a one day holiday is a testament to hashgachah pratit. The Torah is sensitive to our needs, and the mitzvot were designed for our ultimate good. And all year long, Gcd's Knowing Hand guides our affairs in ways that always ultimately accrue to our benefit, even if we can’t understand it in the moment. 

And so often, that guidance comes through the "random event."

How many times do we do things that we think are good but turn out bad? Or we experience bad things from which good things ironically emerge? 

Or sometimes people do things to us that really hurt at the time, but turn out to have been fortuitous in hindsight. Like getting fired from a job. 

Or the opposite: you win the lottery (sounds good) and it destroys your life (just read the studies on the effect of the lottery in peoples’ lives.)

Or we experience a chance meeting with someone on a plane or a hotel lobby that proves to be...providential. Or the things we thought were really important in the moment fade in relevance, while some seemingly unimportant and random fact of your life turns out to be huge?

On Shavuot, the Torah was given to the Jews on the most unassuming, unimportant and seemingly random of mountains, Mount Sinai. The most important event in human history occurred in a place no one would have thought to look, in a no-man's land.

People who grab the headlines and constantly call attention to themselves are less likely to be the conduits of Gcd's will. But keep your eye on the quiet ones, the humble ones, the people no one pays much attention to; for it is through them that Gcd manifests His Will in the world.

Lastly, I suggest that this is another reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. 

Ruth, the destitute outsider, is introduced to the Jewish People through a series of bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. The verse states that she "happened" to "randomly" choose Boaz's estate from which to glean barley. Thus it is through Ruth (this most unlikely of women) and under the most unlikely of circumstances that David (the most unlikely of Jesse's seven sons) becomes the Savior of Israel and the paragon of Jewish Leadership and Nobility for all generations. 

Gcd's Will is often done in places where we least expect it, in ways in which we least expect it. That is Hashgachah Pratit. That is the message of Ruth, and that is the message of the Torah to which we recommit this Shavuot. 

Your prayers will be answered, and everything will work out OK in the end...just probably not quite the way you expect it to.  "The stone the builders rejected as inferior will become my cornerstone." (Psalms 118:22)

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Same'ach.