Monday, June 24, 2013

If Prophet Micha and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) Would Meet

If Prophet Micha and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) Would Meet This past Shabbat we read from the prophet Micha in our Haftarah for Parshat Balak. In Micha 5.6 – 6.8, the prophet tells us that we will arise successfully over every adversary that ever tries to push us down, clearly the message of what Balak tried to do to Israel through his emissary, Balaam. On the surface of this story Balak sends Balaam to curse the Jewish nation and of course instead we get these beautiful uplifting words of Mah Tovu (BaMidbar 24.5) that we all say as we enter our Batei Kneset/synagogues: “How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”. It’s a nice story and it warms the heard of every five year old and their great-grand parents. BUT, claims, Gladwell, not so fast! Let’s look carefully at this story. Maybe Balaam was a prophet with a conscious or one who was scared by the solidarity and sense of purpose he observed, perhaps not so familiar to him from his own people and experience. The people of Israel WERE in fact dwelling and working and cooperating together. To be sure, they must have been of different personalities and characteristics, but they were invested in each other. Just as the group of people that Gladwell opens his book Outliers with, namely the Rosetans of Pennsylvania, originally from Roseto Valfortore in the Alpennine foothills of Foggia, Italy. This group of people intrigued ethnographers and Gladwell himself as they were generally and significantly healthier and more successful in living their lives than other people and other communities. This group was relatively small and obscure but did not suffer from the diseases that plagued other people and generally were doing well. So what was the secret to their success? Their genetic markers were studied with no hints yielded. Their diet was examined—don’t ask, -- lard was used plentifully. So clearly, that did not explain anything. Location? From foothills to obscure location in Pennsylvania – nothing compelling here! So after much study and observation the secret was found. And here is the secret in Gladwell’s words: As the ethnographers, Bruhn and Wolf were studying this people they walked around town. “They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people.” I suspect Balaam might have said, if he had seen this, “How goodly are your tents oh Rosetans, your dwelling places , people of Roseto.” In other words, these people were not living under the magic earned spell of peace, they were creating it day by day, action by action. THIS was what earned them their health and happiness. Now, let us return to the prophet Micha for a moment. This Haftarah begins with what many people find problematic, the notion that Israel will prevail over all enemies and peoples that confront her. This will occur with G-d’s help and presence. Some people find this ethnocentric and question Israel’s part in such an unearned legacy. BUT WAIT!!!! IT IS EVERY BIT EARNED! Let’s skip to the end of this Haftarah, after we read how Israel will indeed preserve itself and succeed in the fact of enemies and challenges to its existence. In Micha 6.8, we read as follows: “O man, what is good and what does HaShem seek from you: only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your G-d.” Rosetans, YOU WIN YOUR PEACE!!!! You are doing these things. Rosetans, I would like to introduce you to the B’Nai Yisrael. They (or we) too visit each other, care for each other, meet in synagogue, chat with each other on the streets, have more civic organizations than people sometimes, and just generally care genuinely about each other. Well, anyway, that must be what Balaam saw!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Being Wholely Present and Being Holy

Being Wholely Present and Being Holy Nechama Leibowitz joins the rest of the world of study of Tanach and asks the obvious question about what it was precisely that the Meraglim did wrong. Many posit that it was their fear of the land, the giants that they perceived were there, or that G-d would not protect them from what was to befall them. Nechama suggests another reading that has great relevance to our lives. She teaches that “they feared freedom as a whole, independence, responsibility for their deeds, for ordering their life in all its aspects which would henceforth be conducted not at the behest of some oppressor or tyrant but by themselves alone..” They would have to take the initiative to do what was required of them individually, collectively and in terms of fulfilling the word of G-d. In other words, to earn the status of KEDUSHA – Holiness – they had to be WHOLELY there with their entire being and all of their own choices and risks and acceptance of consequences. Let us consider the reflection of national hysteria after the report of the Meraglim as indicated in BaMidbar, Perek 14, Passukim 1 – 4: The entire congregation got up (singular) and raised their voices (plural) and they all cried that night. All of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aaron and said to them: If only we had died in Egypt or in this wilderness.” Why has G-d brought us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken; isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt? And THEY all said, each man to his brother, “Let’s make a new head and return to Egypt.” Leibowitz cites the last verse of this section, 14:4, as pivotal in showing the mentality of oppressed people who see no other way to be present but to be oppressed, not allowing them to WHOLLY express themselves, their ideas and their dreams. They would rather give up the sense of self and submit themselves, individually and collectively to the regimen and strange discipline oppressed lives bring. We know that there is a mentality of people who have been freed from oppression who have to LEARN how to live as free people. To be sure there are rights and there are also responsibilities as well. The question is to what degree can we understand and accept the interdependence of each on the other? We in the Jewish community have watched many gilgulim of attempts at finding a way for us to be HOLY by being WHOLE. There are spiritual paths, dovening communities, shiyurim, doing deeds and Mitzvot that connect us to each other and so much else. The importance of connectedness to each other and something greater than ourselves can never be understated. It is a known fact that as people age, for example, their health and well being is definitely connected to the degree of this connectedness that allows them to be WHOLLY present. When people suffer from depression, as they pull away from others they hide in themselves and virtually disappear. Nechama teaches that we need to carefully look at how this very book begins with the census and all of the details to insure that the HOLY nation was WHOLLY present. She asks why the specific details, why the names, if the reason was, as generally accepted, for military service? Clearly, Nechama teaches that the reason for the articulation of these details goes well beyond this perfunctory purpose. She speaks at length about the greater reason, the notion that EVERYONE COUNTS and the Nation can not be HOLY/Kadosh, if every member is not WHOLLY PRESENT. Only then, says Nechama, will G-d bless the nation and its members and ALL that it is. She explains that Nahmanides understood this, stating that the detailed counting was MUCH more than a logistical census and was connected to the important part every member of the nation plays in being WHOLELY there so we can be truly HOLY. We may learn … a valuable lesson [here] regarding the maintaining of the judicious balance between trust in God and self - help, avoiding the twin dangers of relying overmuch on God in the sense of: "the heavens will be merciful", and human vainglory in the sense of: "my power and the might of mine hand have gotten me this wealth". On account of this Nahmanides does not rest content with the strategic rational motivation of this census but adds a further reason and explains as well why this numbering had to be individual. So, taking this lesson to heart, I want to speak briefly about a wonderful community of which our family is now part in which everyone is WHOLLY present. That community is ESHEL, a community of Orthodox GLBTQ members and, most recently for their parents and by extension their families as well. Our daughter, Rachie, Ken and I went to the first Parents’ Conference run by Eshel a few weeks ago and we felt the HOLIness of the place due to the complete and WHOLE presence of all that were there. As you all know by now, I am not shy about talking about who we are and about the members of our family individually and collectively. I refuse to hide or to allow any of our children to be OPPRESSED into feeling they must hide. We are proud of ALL of our children, and that weekend, I could not have been more thrilled with the amazing young woman Rachie has already shown herself to be. Rachie has SO MUCH to teach all of us in our collective community and is willing to make us more HOLY by her WHOLE presence. I know that many parents at this retreat are struggling with this and there is a lot of feeling of hiding, shame and so much else around this issue. Remember that estimates show that approximately 10% of a given community is GLBTQ. We now KNOW that this is applicable to the Orthodox Jewish community as well as any other faction of our or other communities. How can we call ourselves an AM KADOSH if we are excluding ANY percentage of our community? As time goes on, the learning curve continues to gather more and more of us. As this happens, I hope that the numbers of those who want to be part of the amazing community that ESHEL already is becoming will be able to stand up and say I am WHOLLY here and I also pray that our larger Jewish community will continue to increase in HOLINESS/Kedusha as we are all WHOLELY PRESENT, freely moving about, doing Mitzvot and being who we are without any oppression or fear of being part of the WHOLE of Am Kadosh! Then we will be using the lesson we have of EARNED FREEDOM that the B’nai Israel may not have understood in their times. Let us learn from their mistake of not using freedom and independent thinking responsibly. Shabbat Shalom.