What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Being that women made up roughly half of my law school class (and this was in the 1980’s – back in the last century), and that one third of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices are women, I don’t think much about gender equality in the law.   Historically, however, while there were exceptions, most law schools did not admit women until the early 1900’s. When I discovered that fact, my thoughts were, “Wow, it was only about 60 years before I went to law school that we couldn’t get in.” Notice the personal pronoun. Even though I didn’t experience this personally, I emotionally perceived this as a shared “we” experience.

Similarly, I live in a neighborhood, which I jokingly refer to as an “upscale shtetl,” yet I know that that several decades ago when my great aunt was looking to buy a house in this area, Jews in general (we) were not allowed to live here. Again, since I identify with this group, I feel the right to take on their experiences as my own.

In Va’eschanan, Moses recounts the experience of Mount Sinai, by reminding the Jewish people:

You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain…Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you were hearing the sound of words…He told you of His covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments….”[1]

This speech by Moses, however, occurred shortly before the Jewish people were to cross over to conquer the land of Israel. This was the second generation; they weren’t at Mt. Sinai!   Hearing these words, however, the Jewish people were to understand that the Jew of the past is the Jew of the present and that the “me” becomes “we.” Later on in the Torah, Moses tells the Jewish people that the Covenant is binding on everyone who was standing there that day – as well as anyone who was not there – thus binding the Jew of the future.

So as I read these words, which are over 3000 years old, the “I” becomes “them,” for Jewish mystical tradition teaches that even though our bodies were not physically present at Mount Sinai, our souls were.   I don’t know about you, but this shared spiritual memory is a “feel-good” moment. However, this ends satisfaction abruptly when Moses goes on to forecast a dark future:

When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him….Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you.[2]  

Having seen countless movies where the leader makes a passionate and rousing speech to boost morale, Moses’ chilling prophesy on the eve of battle had to be a real downer. One has to wonder why the Jewish people didn’t opt to stay in the desert and not bother. After all, what’s the point in displaying enthusiastic valor for a battle that is ultimately for naught? And while I was also not there to commit the acts of idolatry that got us booted out of the Land, as a Jew in Diaspora, I am living the consequences of their actions. Just as I enjoy the spiritual benefit of having heard the word of God at Mt. Sinai, surely I bear some of the burden of those who did not head those words generations later. Not such a feel-good moment for collective experience. But then Moses consoles us with a vision of future redemption:

From there you will seek Hashem, your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you. He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.[3]

After all, as Moses emphatically reminded the Jewish people, not since the beginning of time itself was there anything like what the Jewish people experienced, such as the miraculous Exodus for example; nor has there ever been a people who have directly heard the word of God. And why would God do these things? Because Moses also tells us that God loves us. There is an endgame here. A loving God set these things into motion – not to end in futility and for nothing – but for us to go through a necessary process of disconnection for the sake of connection, a stronger bond forged in the fire of experience and growth.

If we can hold these multiple realities as our own experiences, we can apply a great lesson to our relationship with God, and with our loved ones.   Every intimate relationship starts out with great fanfare, connection, and hope for a loving, happy and bright future. And every close bond has moments of broken faith, bewilderment and despair, where one feels exiled from the sacred space of relationship. That’s the moment of choice. Do we accept the chasm in the relationship as the new norm, and adopt a relationship reality that hardens over time into an endurance test? Do we accept defeat, play the victim and walk away?

Or do we search our hearts and souls to find a way to turn towards the relationship and restore connection? While not every relationship is capable of being sustained, many do not reach their full potential because one or both people do not know how to how to renew their faith in each other.

It’s Not a Question of Love

After we experience a fight with a loved one, and we calm down, we know that somewhere deep down, we “love” this person, and sometimes we will even bravely admit it: “You know, I do love you.”   So why isn’t that enough to end the conflict and restore connection?   We take for granted being loved by our loved ones; what we aren’t so sure about is whether they like us.  Do they love, appreciate and admire us? And in the case of God, we all know people who even in the face of extreme personal tragedy maintain their certainty that God loves them. But does God like them?  

In our personal relationships, we have work on the deep friendship that is critical to intimacy and trust, which lays the foundation to stay afloat even in the waters of conflict. Without a sense of mutual respect, regard and gratitude, love alone does not carry the day. Says Zach Britle in his post, The Phrase That Helps couples Heal After a Fight:

Maybe you’ve heard that love covers a multitude of sins? Maybe that’s the problem. The ‘multitude of sins’ is what erodes the integrity of a relationship. You see, it’s not necessarily the gigantic betrayals that destroy a relationship but rather the little, day-after-day ones that chip away at trust.

Because of my personal baggage, I had a hard time believing that God loved me. I finally overcame that hurdle when I accepted the idea of a loving and beneficent Deity. But then what? Love is universal; we are even commanded to love our neighbor. But we’re not commanded to like him – because liking someone can be more complicated and challenging than love. My relationship with God became personal when I realized that God likes me as well.

As the Master Plan plays out over the millennia, and as we live out the dynamics of our relationships, we will experience innumerable instances of disconnection and reunification as part of the process itself.   The best thing you can do for your relationships is to communicate and show the people you love all the ways you like them as well, thus laying down a foundation of positive regard and good will. When I notice all of the ways that God shows up in my daily life with moments of personal spot-on cosmic synchronicity – “God winks” – as they were, the foundation of an abiding trust and everlasting friendship carries me through the rocky bits.  And that will do for now.

   

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:11-12.

[2] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:25-27.

[3] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29-31.

Having Faith in Faith

itrustYou’re on a cruise ship – a sinking cruise ship – when you see you chance to leap to the safety of a rescue boat, and you take it.   From the security of the raft, you look back sadly as the ship rises vertically in the water before it’s pulled down beneath the surface. All of a sudden, you remember that with you on this vacation, were your three best friends, and with a sense of guilt and shame, you feel awful that in your moment of panic you totally forgot about them, and you pray that they are safe.   You are no hero; but you aren’t a criminal either, in that you are not responsible for their lives.

OK – now imagine the same scene. Only this time, as you look back at the sinking vessel, you suddenly remember that you brought your spouse and two children on this cruise. This time, can you justify forgetting your family because of panic? In his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Manis Friedman uses this example to explain why we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins that we committed from a “confused heart.” As Rabbi Friedman explains, when it comes to forgetting our relationship with God, we cannot offer the defense of “panic” or “confusion,” because, like the family on board the cruise ship, some relationships are too deep for panic. And yet we do it all the time.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses giving an overview of the events since the Jewish people left Egypt. In the retelling of one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke slander against God. “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.[1] Really? As if the whole thing – the Ten Plagues, taking us out of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, defeating enemies in battle in the desert, the manna, etc. – was just a cosmic setup by a vicious deity, to be slaughtered by a different enemy.

The Mindset of Anger and Anxiety

In an excellent article, titled, “How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread our Partner,”[2] Dr. Lemmie unpacks the anatomy of the mindset of anger and anxiety. When we feel threatened, our limbic system is activated. We secrete stress hormones and direct blood to our core (to minimize blood loss) as well as oxygen and sugar to our limbs (for fighting).   Neural activity increases in our brains, generating threat emotions and, as a survival mechanism, we look for additional signs of danger. The adage, “better safe than sorry” causes us, however, to interpret neutral behavior or ambiguous threats as definite ones. Our thinking becomes narrow – we think in terms as “always” and “never,” because our brains are too reptilian, too primitive at that point for nuanced thinking such as, “sometimes,” or recalling instances when the opposite is true. We also overlay the past onto the present. When we have been previously hurt, we assume we are being hurt in the same way in the present – even though the person and the circumstances are completely different. To compound things further, as our rational brain function diminishes, we circle own wagons and come to the quick and easy conclusions that we are certainly in the right, and it is our spouse, partner, friend, family member, or God, who is our foe and who hates us.

Whipped into a state of fear by the spies, the Jewish people were flooded with threat emotions. Ironically, the ensuing cognitive distortion caused them to make the fatal error, sealing their death warrant in the desert. But was it fair to punish the Jewish people for their panic? Are we expected to put our blind trust in God and our relationships? Is that safe? Is that reasonable? Is it even possible? Or should some relationships be too deep for panic?

Unconditional Good Will

David Fohrman describes faith as a steadfast quality, an unflinching willingness to trust even as we confront our deepest fears. Moses wasn’t angry with the Jewish people for having been afraid, but for choosing to forget all of the instances when God was there for them. Says Rabbi Fohrman, “In Moshe’s worldview faith doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy.”[3] Drawing from the Maharal, (the medieval Jewish commentator) Rabbi Fohrman explains the three prongs of a rational basis for faith in God: “If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you.”

It is at the moment of fear and panic where the challenge of faith of faith occurs. It’s a huge act of will to resist the temptation to slide into the primitive reptilian state of flight or fight, and instead to remain fully cognitively human, to acknowledge the fear and yet choose to trust the relationship. Says Rabbi Forhman:

Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing. When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?

That is the basis of real intimacy, the place of deep connection, growth, and transformation. Conversely, the cost of the anger/anxiety mindset is not just the loss or prevention of intimacy, but that it hardens us, eroding and ultimately destroying our relationship potential.  

Do not turn a blind eye, but a knowing eye to God and to the people in your life who have earned your trust. Learn the warning signals of being triggered. Take note when you hear yourself thinking or speaking about your loved one in a negative, harsh and critical light. Don’t take your own interpretations of events so darn seriously and stop mentally rehearsing your grievances. Be curious and empathetic to the feelings of others. Consciously recall positive instances and attributes and for goodness sake, get your gratitude going and give your loved ones the gift of unconditional good will and positive regard.

Don’t Kill Connection

While threats to survival may at times be real, when we allow paper tigers to destroy our relationships, then we are allowing a sense of panic and confusion to destroy that, which should be too deep for panic. Misapplied, our striving for safety generates the greatest harm of all: the loss of love, intimacy, and connection – just the very things that make life worth living in the first place.

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-first-we-first/201203/how-threat-emotions-cause-us-misread-our-partner-4

[3] https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/devarim-what-does-it-mean-to-have-faith

Mystery and Uncertainty – The Power of Wow

images

“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

― Richard Feynman

At certain times, such as when negotiating a divorce settlement or custody agreement, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutiae in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, as their lives and families are unraveling, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the legal document that comprehensively anticipates every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.    

I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.  And so I must warn you – if you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing), then you are probably not going to like this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which is the term for those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.

In Chukat, we read about the laws of the Red Heifer, the quintessential mind bender in that the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination.   Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that the adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.  

The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may decide that God doesn’t exist or lacks power or compassion. And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).

Lets Talk About Love

In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness. But too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating TED talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationships, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery.

If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil – that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).

As said by Charles Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Capitalizing on that fact, the family purity laws of Jewish marriage are based on cycles of the known and the mysterious, the permitted and the longed for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a case for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.  

The acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered. Therefore, the chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.

Mark Batterson, author of, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars,” sums it up nicely: “Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance. Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery. Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny. Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy. Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.” In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty. Wow!

 

What Does Changing Your Mind Say About You?

imagesWell, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure.  Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear.  Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.   

The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia. 

The Fight against Smallness

Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i]  Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality.  Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal.  They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.”  Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it.  The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.       

Soldier versus Scout

In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.”  Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy.  The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand.  Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information.  Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role.  Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.  As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what.  Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.

Scout’s Honor

Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.”  Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.   

The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack.  Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism.  Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you.  And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational.  We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them.  Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.   

There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset.  It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.  On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow.  Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.   

 

[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.

 

 

Lighten Up!

“Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.”

                                                                                    – William Blake

imagesOn any given day, the news reports a story of someone being indicted for some white-collar crime. I wait for the name of the alleged perpetrator. Not Jewish? I breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever Jews, and especially religious Jews, make the news for dishonest, criminal or other bad behavior, I cringe and feel sullied in the core of my Jewish collective soul.

Maybe it stems from this week’s Torah portion, “Emor,” where God charges the Jewish people with the task of sanctifying His Name here on earth. One way of doing that is to act in a way that causes people to revere God, which is called a “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s Name). By standing for and becoming living embodiments of holiness, we become God’s emissaries, as it were. Sadly, however, the reverse is also true, and when we act in unsavory and hypocritical ways, so as to garner contempt, it is called a “Chillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s Name).

Standing Up for God – Really?

Sounds like a very tall order – “sanctifying God’s Name.” Furthermore, we are told: “God’s honor is at stake.” How is it even possible that we mere mortals can have any effect on an infinite and perfect Being? The Jewish people – and the world – had just witnessed the destruction of the most powerful civilization on Earth, along with the toppling (literally) of its many gods. The God that redeemed the Jewish people brought the plagues, turned nature on its head, split the sea, etc.   This unimaginable reality was a new paradigm for our understanding of the almighty power of God who directly intervenes in history. Did God really need the Jewish people to be His PR agent?

Furthermore, this command comes at a time when the Jewish people were barely out of Egypt. Had I been there, I could imagine my reaction: Seriously? I am supposed to be Your emissary to make You look good? I’ve been a slave all my life. And as you know, God, I have post-traumatic-stress disorder, my self-esteem is in the pits, and my inner child is wounded to the core. No offense, God, but Your expectations of me are completely unrealistic. God does not ask the impossible, however. In trusting me with His honor, does God know something about me that I don’t know, or am afraid to know?

Stepping into Greatness

In a very familiar quote by Marianne Williamson, she says the following:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  

What Lights You Up?

So how do we light up? And how do we teach our children to shine? This Torah portion begins thus: “God said to Moses: Say to the Kohanim (the priests), the sons of Aaron, and tell them….” This phrase is repeated over and over, followed by copious instructions for the priests, who were responsible to properly instruct their own children. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that the repetition was for emphasis and thus Moses was “warning” the priests of the importance of this task.

The Hebrew word “to warn” is “l’hazeer” and it is related to the word, “zohar,” which means “light.” Predating by thousands of years a contemporary idea one would find in any spiritual parenting book, the Torah is teaching that the purpose of educating our children is to “light them up from within.”[i] It is no coincidence that we use the term “to enlighten” to impart knowledge. True enlightenment is not about acquiring knowledge, however, but about gaining wisdom. Being enlightened is not an external process; rather, it’s the revealing of our inner essence and wisdom, our divine truth.

And so Moses was “warning” the Priests that the process of educating children is not just the external downloading of information but the internal cultivation of their character to reveal their inner greatness, because the essence of parenting is to build a child, and in so doing, to fill the child with light.

Similarly, the essence of the Jewish people is to build this world.   All Jews – not just the “Kohanim” – are charged with being the Priests of this world and being a light unto the nations.   When we understand who we are at our core, and when our external behavior is congruent with this inner reality, then we could never act in any way other than to sanctify God’s Name.   And then, being lit up from within, we would shine with holiness, where living in such a way as to honor God’s Name, would be effortless and natural.

Internalize and Actualize:

  1. Can you think of a time in your life where under the guise of using your freedom, you were really just escaping responsibility and having a free-for-all? In hindsight, was it healthy for you? What lessons did you learn and did you find that you ended up creating more boundaries from this sense of freedom?
  2. What in your life could use some holiness? Think through your thought, speech, action and relationships and write down five things you can implement in those areas to uplift them and yourself.
  3. In what ways do you feel enslaved and what are you a slave to in your life? How can you break free from this and how will your life look when you are no longer under its control?

[i] (Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Emor, 5750)

When Truth Hurts

What do you think is the cruelest punishment that society can inflict?  The obvious answer is the death penalty, because we think that there is nothing worse than death.  The correct answer is, however, solitary confinement.

Why? Research has shown that the clinical effects of isolation are tantamount to extreme physical torture. And thus, contrary to the stereotype of all death row inmates filing endless appeals to prolong their lives in jail, a significant number of inmates on death row elect to forgo appeals and choose execution over prolonged solitary confinement.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we read about “tzara’as”, which is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. In fact, tzara’as are blemishes that can appear on one’s clothing, the walls of a person’s home and, ultimately, the body of a person who engages in “lashon hara,” which is normally understood as derogatory speech, usually about another person.

Developing tzara’as is a gradual process, and when unmitigated, it leads to a procedure in which the High Priest proclaims the gossip-monger to be “unclean,” expelling that person from the community to live alone until cured.

Unlike the secular laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip-monger that “out.” As a matter of fact, there is a presumption that the person is convinced that his or her gossip is true! If the person was spreading false gossip – slander – then it’s an entirely different sin, because we should not misuse the power of speech to lie. After all, truth is a Divine attribute, and we want to emulate divinity.

So can we be punished for our negative speech – when what we say is true? And why is the punishment one of expulsion and isolation?  After all, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

According to the Torah, however, not only do our words actually hurt the person we are talking about, but they also hurt the person who is speaking lashon hara as well as the person or people listening to it. It’s the perfect trifecta of bad. Is that fair?

We often think that our perceptions and opinions about a situation or person are the truth, which makes us feel justified and right. We create stories in our head and then we live in the stories we create, not even knowing the difference between story and “fact.”  We decide the “truth” and anyone who doesn’t buy into our version of reality is also wrong.

Deep down, the source of all conflict really lies in the ego’s incessant need to be right, and the lengths we go to defend that need. It is this form of the ego that disintegrates relationships, undermines the fabric of society and disconnects us from the oneness and unity we should feel with our fellow and even with the natural world – hence, even our inanimate objects are affected with the blemishes of tzara’as.  

 

THE MIND-BODY-SOUL CONNECTION

 

Today, the focus of wellness is on the mind-body connection. The Torah teaches us the mind-body-soul connection. Gossip is only possible when we are ruled by the unhealthy part of our ego, which is rigidly self-absorbed and sees itself as wholly separate from the other person, and therefore unaffected by any pain that is caused.

 

Such a person is already disconnected from others, from the community, from God, and even from him or herself. Therefore, the punishment of expulsion is to help the person understand this, by getting the person to feel that pain and then return to the state of connection.

 

Being expelled, cast out, etc. are so painful for a psyche that fears disconnection that they are powerful forms of control. We are wired for connection. Our need for love and belonging is one of our highest needs. But when we are driven by our unhealthy ego, we can override our wiring.

 

In the wilderness, where we lived in a high state of holiness, a mind-body-soul connection betrayed or conveyed our true inner state. The outer was an accurate reflection of the inner. What you said behind someone’s back became written on your own body. We simply couldn’t fake our way out – or back in.

 

When the person truly felt the pain of disconnection and then corrected him or herself – mind, body and soul – so that the body was visibly healed from its blemishes – then, and only then was that person ready for the process of re-entry into community.

 

The Torah is not trying to break us with an elaborate game of “Time Out;” rather, the Torah is teaching us how to stay in the game. It’s not just that the person recovers to his or her former state, but that the person should grow to attain a new level of awareness – post-traumatic-growth syndrome!

 

A society that allows unhealthy egos to run rampant, causing divisiveness and fragmentation, is unhealthy. A holy society, on the other hand, recognizes the deeper understanding that in diminishing others, we also diminish ourselves.

 

True peace is based on wholeness and connection.  When we check our unhealthy egos at the door, therefore, the gates of harmony open wide.

Judaism – It’s NOT to Die For

When something seems to go wrong,
it’s invariably part of a larger right.

~ Jed McKenna ~

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

As I write this, a dearly cherished friend lies in an ICU with a massive brain bleed; his allotted time on this earth is down to the count of hours.   In my view, the world is a lot better off with my friend in it, and so his shocking premature death hits very hard.  For the umpteenth time, it seems, I am engaging in that age–old theological enterprise, “theodicy,” which, according to scholar James A, Diamond, refers to “the justification of a benevolent God by reconciling His goodness with what appears as injustice and undeserved suffering in the world.”  I know I’m dating myself, but that Monty Python portrayal of God as a giant foot that comes down from heaven to squash the puny humans below resonates with a lot of people.

Thus, in Shemini, we have one of those Monty Python moments, a Biblical buzz kill, if you will. For several weeks, we have been reading – and re-reading – the intricate details of the building of the Mishkan, which was the portable Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Ten Commandments.  Spiritually, the Mishkan represented a portal and a tangible connection between man and God.  At long last, in an elaborate ritual conducted by Aaron and his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, the Mishkan was dedicated with fire-blazing pomp and ceremony.  In a sort of private “after-party,” the two young men snuck into the Holy of Holies of the Mishkan bringing with them an incense offering, which the Torah described as a “strange fire which God had not commanded.”  As before, a fire descended from heaven, but instead of consuming the offering, it consumed Nadav and Avihu instead, killing them on the spot.

Playing the Blame Game

One explanation was that they were drunk.  Lawyers refer to this as discrediting the victim.  After all, one does not enter God’s inner chamber in an inebriated state and expect to survive the encounter.   Another explanation is that they chose to worship God in an unauthorized manner, making up their own version of divine service. What chutzpah!

Even so, a God that metes out the death penalty for spiritual hi-jinks is rather harsh.  Such a view portrays God not just as unloving, but also as the ultimate petty bureaucrat in heaven, elevating form over substance to a ridiculous extreme.  Before accepting the Torah, we were wooed with the language of love.  Talk about “the morning after!”  Did the Jewish people need to be taught such a lesson?  The answer is “yes,” but not what you may think.

In an article entitled, The Pursuit of the Spiritual Life, Rabbi Shneur cites the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as portraying Nadav and Avihu not as arrogant, undisciplined drunks but, in fact, as two highly spiritually aware and engaged individuals.  Accordingly, their deaths arose not as a punishment from God for misbehavior, but rather, a natural consequence of their deep spiritual yearning.  According to the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shneur explains, there are two primary drives in the human experience: the drive to be grounded and also the drive, to the point of extreme yearning even, for spiritual experience.  Nadav and Avihu’s deep longing to experience God was fulfilled, to the point where their physical bodies were extinguished, as if their holiness was subsumed within God.

Thus, Moses consoled Aaron with these words: “This is what God meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I will sanctify Myself, and be glorified before all the people.’  And Aaron was silent.” (10:3)

Given the fact that Moses considered the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to be a sanctification of God- and not a desecration to God – I don’t understand why there is a need to create the narrative of a human crime and divine punishment.  Perhaps a deeper lesson is that we can have a benevolent, loving God and also see that Nadav and Ahivu were righteous and spiritually striving individuals.  Sometimes, you can have a “right” and a “right.”

Ironically, however, it can still be a “wrong,” in that Nadav and Avihu are not role models for us to emulate.  God doesn’t want us to die for the sake of Torah; rather we should live for the sake of Torah – fully in this world – albeit grounded and balanced between our physical and spiritual drives.  Thus, our soul-driven urges are expressed in this world via those physical acts, which infuse this earthly realm with holiness. The macro becomes the micro and vice versa.

Active Acceptance

Aaron’s “silence” at the news of the death of his sons was neither passive submission nor denial.  Rather, it was a state of being “broken-open,” and making a moral choice of possibility in the face of the impossible. While his illness is a hard pill to swallow, my friend did not waste his precious remaining time with bitterness and complaints and he did not disconnect from that which had given his whole life a sense of meaning and purpose.

Beyond Blame

Recognizing that it is a very hard lesson, nevertheless, when we can make an internal space that holds within it both suffering and a loving God, we may find therein a deeper connection to our Creator, a greater appreciation for blessings, and the motivation to recommit our lives to that which truly counts with more fervor and dedication.