Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Balance, Balance, you shall pursue...

So the question we begin this discussion with is: How do we work towards the maintenance of a healthy balance in our lives without compromising any of the conflicting pulls that we feel?

Clearly, this is a reframing of the teaching, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof / Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” found in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Chapter 16, verse 20. In a world where too many lines are continually drawn in the sand, how do we live in the “grey zone” of balancing different aspects of life and different perspectives? We know the old joke that goes like this. A Rabbi walks into his congregation and one congregant comes up to him with a complaint about another member of the community. The Rabbi listens thoughtfully and then replies, after hearing his side of the story, “You are right.” After some time passes, the second party to the conflict approaches the spiritual leader and explains his side and perspective. The Rabbi replies to his telling, “You know, you are right.” After this, the wife of the Rabbi comes up to her husband and inquires, “You know dear, I heard the whole thing. How can they both be right?” Of course, the Rabbi responds “You are right as well.”

How can this be? How can the scientists and their truths, the philosophers and their truths, the mathematicians and their truths, and the religious people and their truths co-exist in our world and all be right; not to mention the fact that there are many different branches and belief systems contained within each of these domains? There was a book that was written recently by Brad Hirschfeld that is called You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right. While the statement makes perfect sense to me, it never ceases to amaze me that many people DO believe ABSOLUTELY that there can not be more than one position that is RIGHT in terms of this issue or that issue. In fact, if you are right, than I am wrong, and this cannot be an option, goes this reasoning.

As a student of Jewish texts, I treasure and value the Tarbut HaMachloket, the culture of disagreement that characterizes the pages of the Gemara as well as the interfacing of so many commentators when explaining the text of Torah. We live in a world in which we are constantly balancing different, even opposite positions and perceptions. The very structure of the pages of our classical Jewish texts attests to this notion that there are many different ways to look at a given situation and resolve and/or consider it. My challenge to my students and all those I learn with is to try to see each perspective within its own context and to understand not only “what is said” but what motivates and influences a given statement or position. This would run counter-current to the notion of “purist thinking” that we see so often in our world today. How much extremism are we witnessing in our present context in politics, religion, art forms, and other venues in which My way is the Right way!?!

Again, balance is a no-brainer for me. Judaism teaches and proclaims it all over the place. Let’s consider the following well known and often-used statement from Pirke Avot, a text often studied by many and specifically focused upon between the Hagim of Pesach and Shavuot.

In Chapter One, Mishneh Bet, we read as follows:

ב שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶֽסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר: עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים.

Shimon the Righteous was amongst the members of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands – on Torah, on Prayer, and on Proper Deeds of Piety.

What is Shimon the Righteous teaching us here? He is speaking about the need for balance. Rav Soloveitchik teaches that it is precisely within the balance of conflicting pulls that one actualizes one self in this world. We are to learn, pray and do actual deeds – the combination of which forms the balanced diet of our living. There are even texts that focus on the need to do Maasim Tovim/ proper actions, and that the importance of doing so is more worthy of merit than studying; the understanding being that such deeds are the tangible product of such studious efforts. I often think about the fact that we do not have monks, nuns and priest who take on a variety of exclusionary vows (chastity, poverty, silence, and complete obedience) as an option within the Jewish community. Even the laws of the nazir, the closest thing that we have to a Jewish monk, involve limitations of their vows and acknowledgement that they are committing a misdeed by not partaking in elements of our world that are here for the purposes of our use. Our most honored and venerated Rabbis and their families are our neighbors, shop in the same stores as we do, sit together with us at the Shabbat table, and so on. What does this teach us? What is the ideal way to live as a Jew?

Today, many of us are aware of the increasing idealization and stretch of the Kollel culture, in which many young men study in our Yeshivot for many years and do not spend time in or move towards a profession. We learn that Torah and physical sustenance must be balanced. To be sure, there are many teachings precisely about this balance in Pirke Avot, amongst other sources. In Kiddushin 29a, the Talmud teaches that every father is enjoined to teach their children Torah, a profession and to swim, that is to be able to survive and thrive physically.

Clearly, there is a conflict here. There is a recognized tension that if one is actively engaged in several pursuits simultaneously, it is impossible to give everything one has and is over to one of the pursuits, as may be the desired goal in the case of Torah study. We often hear (and I myself say) that “X is giving 100% to their work or their family or the maintenance of their health.” The reality, of course, is that if we have a total of 100% to give and there are multiple demands on our time and energy, we cannot give 100% to any one pursuit without ignoring another. Isn’t this precisely the challenge that identifies the so-called “superwoman” of our contemporary world? So, we must find that magical balance that enables our involvement with a variety of things simultaneously. This is the real lane in which life occurs for us – one that includes children, work, daily chores of living, study, and yes, even and most needed, recreation and rest.

In a recent study addressing osteoporosis and its impact on the physical health of our population (especially the elderly and what can be done in earlier years to lessen its impact), an unusual group of those effected was found, namely young men in their twenties. This collection of young males were Kollel and Yeshivah students who were learning full time and not getting physical exercise or otherwise taking care of themselves. I know such young men who understood the need for this balance, immersed themselves in the world of the Yeshiva and then lost their perception of this need – this balance, if you will. Parents, community and every person bearing down on the larger community to provide funds to support them further validate this choice. Let us remember that all of our earlier teachers had professions in addition to their studies – be they doctors like Rambam or Ramban, a vintner like Rashi, a court poet as was Ibn Ezra, a shepherd as Rabbi Akiva or no less than Moshe Rabbeinu and so on. In Pirke Avot, we learn that Torah study and professional support must go hand in hand with each other. “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. (3:21)”

Several summers, my family has vacationed at Onset, Massachusetts which is found at the beginning of Cape Cod. This tiny community has a correspondingly small shul that was founded by Rav Soloveitchik, who insisted that those young men who were learning with him needed a recreational outlet. There is an important lesson here and a legacy left for all of us about balance. Physical activity and pursuing a livelihood do not only not take away from learning Torah, rather they facilitate and support the proper intent for doing so.

Chazal (our venerated teachers) explain to us that Torah with the proper balance is the “elixir of life,” but as we learn in Shabbat 88b, if one does not learn Torah in the correct way, it can be otherwise, even as poison. What is the point of such a strong teaching? One of the things that I think is so powerful about Judaism and all of its foundational elements is the importance of our intentionality in doing what we do. Kavanah is such a critical part of the mix when we engage in every facet of our Jewish lives. We must pray with the proper intention, do various deeds for the right reason, and learn for the correct reasons. We are taught that if we are not aware of these intentions, something about the result is less than desired. Some would surely disagree with this and say that “it is all in the deed” and I respectfully acknowledge and accept that, though I choose to disagree. In “my community” of thoughtful, open and accepting, observant Halachic oriented living, this intention is, in fact, a most critical element. I learn to better understand G-d, myself, our lives and the way in which I am to interact with others. To that end, the learning is the preparation for the laboratory experience that is, living in our world and applying the teachings of Torah and Jewish precepts to my daily actions, deeds and interactions.

So, my question at this point is: How do I maintain this sense of balance when I am so challenged from all directions to “give it up and do things 100% correctly?”

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