Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Greatest Mitzvah of Helping Others and Buying Great Art

This will be a short post because what I really want for you to do is to go to this web site and see the most amazing art:

Here is the story. Five and a half weeks ago, I broke my shoulder. For the past three weeks -- once we returned from Israel, I have been going for physical rehabilitation. Displayed in the halls of the hospital where I go for rehab is one of the most amazing and HEARTWARMING art exhibits I have ever seen. I love to frequent art shows and really like good art.

What is so unique about this art show is that all of the wonderful and creative artists are disabled -- from Traumatic Brain Injury to blindness, amputees and paralyzed artists, chronic pain sufferers and multiple sclerosis, and so many more. THIS IS THEIR THERAPY and as a result, their creativity and love of life as they know and wish it comes forth. The colors are vibrant, the textures amazing (particularly from one of the blind artists) and these artists are nothing less than inspirational not to mentioned talented.

Maimonides teaches that the highest form of TZEDAKAH is to enable another to work. Here we have a great opportunity. The art pieces are not exorbitantly expensive and yet are as beautiful and rich and begging for your interpretation as those produced by the professional artists I see in my art show outings.

The show closes June 24th so you have the week to go to the site and look at this wonderful art. It will give you instructions on how to make purchases if you wish to. You can click on pieces in which you are interested to see a larger representation of it. I am not one to buy art on line but I will tell you, these pieces are amazing. There is also a phone number to call for further information.

So if you are looking for art and want to do a wonderful Mitzvah at the same time, go for it!

Happy art collecting!

Monday, June 16, 2014

PARSHAT SHELACH LECHA 2014 (adapted from my D’var Torah to our monthly Kabbalat Shabbat group)

Subtitle: The Best Therapy Ever and Reclaimed Hopes and Expectations

Lately I have been able to engage in the best therapy ever – hanging out with adorable 3 ½ year old girl twins and a 10 week old baby girl. Its so much fun and actually quite relaxing, albeit it, sometimes in a rather frenetic way. I really try to be completely attentive to the world according to Adel Raya, Neli Shimona and Neima Hadar. While I am playing with them often with my daughter Yoella present, we (Yoella and I) occasionally engage in fantastical conversations about what they will grow up like, what their personalities are going to evolve into and such. These conversations about these healthy and happy young children at the beginning of their life journey are always hopeful and optimistic and filled with unfettered joy.

I imagine that might be some of what G-d was feeling at this moment in the beginning of the Torah narrative when proclaiming in Bereshit 1.26 LET US MAKE MAN IN OUR IMAGE AND JUST LIKE US... (YAY TEAM!)!

Commentaries abound about the word NA’ASEH – “let us make.” To whom was G-d speaking? So, in addition to the angels, man, all other parts of Creation, the plants, etc., MAYBE G-D WAS JUST ANNOUNCING THIS AMAZING BIRTH TO ALL AND EVERYTHING --- kind of like we do when a healthy new life is bestowed upon us!

There is always excitement and optimism and truly a sense of the continuity of the universe when we greet new life. Sadly, too often that excitement turns to disappointment and distress. In our own life, we call that the TERRIBLE TWOS, ADOLESCENCE, MIDLIFE CRISES, AILING ELDERLY PARENTS and such – the points that will invariably come during our life times when our hopes and optimism are challenged and even dashed to bits. Parents watch the disappointments of their children with great pain and children clearly do not often follow paths preferred by their parents. If we do not learn to cope and move on, taking the pleasant memories and the lessons learned with us as we continue our lives and work hard to reframe and reformulate our expectations while adjusting our hopes, these moments can truly do us in.

Perhaps we see a bit of this a few chapters later in the beginning of our narrative with The Flood, or THE BIG MISUNDERSTANDING AND COMING TO TERMS --BETWEEN G-D AND MAN. Note that we read in Chapter 6 that G-d had destroyed the entire world and all that was on it because of profound corruption and discord and perverse behaviors that had RUINED EVERYTHING!

The horrible and misguided actions of the human being that G-d had so lovingly and hopefully created had corrupted and perverted all, so much so, that utter destruction and the hope of a do-over was the only possible solution, according to G-d. It must be pointed out that G-d actually regrets making the human being and then regrets G-d’s reaction to how much the human being disappointed G-d. Again, you can be sure our commentators have much to say about this.

We read as follows a bit later on in Parshat Noach:

"And G-d said, This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life" (Bereshit 9, 12-15).

At this point, I believe that something so significant and pivotal happens. G-d comes to terms with the reality of the human being G-d has created with free choice and agency and readjusts expectations regarding them. In fact, G-D CREATES A SIGN TO remind both G-d as well as us of this contractual agreement, if you will. I want to suggest that we are continually doing precisely this in our own lives with our children and those in our relational orbit – that is reminding ourselves to balance our hopes and expectations with the reality of our lives and those in it.

Now we come to Parshat Shelach Lecha. Look at the words that this Parsha which deals with the scouts that are sent to check out the land of Israel begins with:

SEND FOR YOURSELF (YOUR BENEFIT) LEADERS (TO SCOUT THE LAND) We recognize this formulation well from elsewhere in the Tanach. The notion is that you will do this for your own sake because it serves your purpose. While on the face of things, this grammatical formulation does not seem problematic, it is actually quite so. The problem is that our commentaries want to figure out WHO IS TO BLAME for the fiasco that this hopeful mission turns into and the perceived abject failure as indicated by the chaos that results from the negative reports of the majority of the scouts. After all, these were LEADERS that were carefully chosen – Eagle Scouts in their own right if you will (having a son that just became one!) – and they were to SCOUT out the land and bring a report that would be helpful and encouraging to the people waiting at the precipice of this important moment. As we know, this is not exactly what happened. Quite the opposite!

In fact, it is interesting to note that this is the first narrative in the book of Devarim, as Moshe speaks to the B’nai Yisrael before his death, performing his last task as the leader of the nation. I often like to ask my students WHY they think this story of all others is the FIRST in this review lesson. What is the salient lesson here? After all, there are many other texts that could be chosen for their didactic value due to the many missteps taken by the Children of Israel and their leaders.

Nechama Leibowitz explains something critical regarding this experience. She teaches that the scouts and the people use their free agency and that when this happens, the giver of that agency, namely G-d, with so many hopes and aspirations cannot control its use. Her point here is clear. G-d can no more CONTROL the steps and decisions and words of the people created – even the leaders of the B’nai Yisrael – than we can control the steps and decisions and words of our children. THIS IS THE NATURE OF BECHIRAH CHOFSHIT – the ability to choose freely that most clearly identifies what is specific about the human element in all of us.

So G-d will continue to be disappointed in the people. The B’nai Yisrael are clearly disappointed in G-d as indicated by the complaining about the food choices or lack thereof in last week’s Parsha, or Miriam and Aaron’s creation of family discord in their speaking about Moshe, the upcoming rebellion of Korach, not to forget to mention the Egel HaAZahav, and so on. The book of BaMidbar is called IN THE DESERT in Hebrew – because that is where we physically were. In English it is called NUMBERS after the census that was lovingly and repeatedly taken in the journeys of the B’nai Yisrael to help keep track of all. Perhaps it is important for us to think for a moment that we were IN A PSYCHOLOGICAL AND EMOTIONAL DESERT and DISAPPOINTED EACH OTHER AND G-D MANY NUMBERS OF TIMES. This does not make the text any less valuable or meaningful. Quite the contrary – it makes it more real and applicable to us.

We are taught that G-d DID NOT destroy the entirety of the people again, though admittedly we do still question why so many incidents of destruction and devastation still occur. G-d REGRETTED expecting too much from the human beings here. Ramban teaches that the work of the SCOUTS was that of a normative RECONNAISANCE mission and should not be taken as intentional wrongdoing on their part. They were just being honest and using the agency that G-d had given them to give the report of what they experienced. Similarly many of our contemporary theologians propose that we MUST ACCOUNT for the choice factor in the human being and the consequences of those choices instead of constantly “blaming G-d” for anything that goes awry. When all is said and done, each person has agency to determine what and how they will choose in going through life. Maybe this is a powerful message of this narrative. Things may not, and WILL NOT transpire as expected … and we have to reframe and reclaim and then move on.

I think that herein lie important lessons and precedents regarding how we develop and nurture our relationships with each other. G-d cannot control what G-d creates when G-d creates the human being, notwithstanding the initial joy and expectations G-d may have felt. The one who was responsible for the scouts being sent, and herein lies so many disagreements regarding the commentators, could not control their reports. The scouts giving the reports could not control the reactions of the people. And in the end, we cannot control each other. The best we can do is to remember the reason that we are doing what we are doing and the part we play in the larger picture. Yes, the scouts were in fact sent for the benefit of the people – and part of that benefit was clearly the reality of readjusted expectations as life wears on and bears down on us.

I think that today we are clearly aware of this aspect of our human reality and this is why so many of us do yoga, meditation, visualization and use other strategies to try to get back to peaceful being and expectations. While life happens all around us and there are giants who will overwhelm us, making us feel as mere grasshoppers, as in the experience of the scouts, let us remember the good fruits and the promise of the land and future given us by G-d, also observed by the scouts. Let us all accept the challenges and reboots that life throws at us, making us stronger and more resolved. I myself try to think of such things when I watch these three little girls with whom I get to play – as Adel discovers the world in which we live and Neli and Neima laugh hysterically as they create their own little wonderful world inside of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who will you choose for your teacher?

We are taught in our Jewish sources to “make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a trusted friend.” As the school year winds down and so many of us are either working in educational pursuits or have children, siblings and others in our lives who are living in the educational world one way or another, let us consider this concept on Erev Shavuot, the celebration of our receiving the teachings of our Torah, and hopefully by association, providing us with an opportunity to consider who we choose as our teachers of Torah and life itself.

To do so, I will reference Eruvin 13a – 13b in the Talmud. Now many of you know the text “These and those are the words of the Living G-d, and the Halacha goes according to Hillel.” What is more important and powerful than this statement sometimes minimized to almost pithy uses is the text in which it is embedded.

The first teacher I want to reference is Rabbi Meir, thought of with great esteem and honor. What is so interesting to me is that we should remember that a most important teacher of his was Elisha ben Abuyah (referred to as “acher” and summarily dismissed in our texts often for his apostasy). We are taught that often the teachings of Elisha ben Abuyah are handed over to us through his brilliant student. So first of all, let us all pause for a moment and give thought to those teachers who have been forgotten and/or discredited for whatever reasons, legitimate or otherwise. Nonetheless, we still carry on their worthy teachings and thus a good and positive part of their legacy.

Now, back to Rabbi Meir. His brilliance is clearly stated in this text. We are informed that he studied as well under Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. One problematic issue is that this teacher spoke of his own brilliance, so we are told (granted in material that is considered story narrative or Aggadic). Further, we are told that Rabbi Meir originally went to learn from Rabbi Akiva but could not understand nuanced meanings of his teachings due to Rabbi Akiva’s superior gift of and capacity for logic. Therefore, Rabbi Meir went to learn the laws and practices from Rabbi Yishmael and then returned to Rabbi Akiva. So from this we learn that we have had many different types of teachers and they have all been important – both the ones who have taught us the content and those who have guided us in the application of that content. We should remember these as well as important influences and guides in our lives.

Now we will turn to the teaching styles of Hillel and Shammai. The text on 13b is the one from which the quote in the beginning is cited. But let’s look at the longer text. There is a discussion about forms of impurity and the minutia that is so important in insuring that the various associated dictates are observed. As in many cases, the students of Hillel and Shammai disagreed. At this point we are told that for three years this debate went on and each said “The Halacha follows us.” A Heavenly voice comes and says, “These and those are the words of the Living G-d and the Halacha goes according to Hillel.”

So the obvious question is if both are legitimate views, so to speak, why does the Halacha favor one over the other. Here is the reason given: Because the students of Hillel were more lenient and easy on others, and they would study both their point of view and that of the students of Shammai, and not only that, but they would cite the teachings of Bet Shammai before their own.

Here we find a most important quality in teaching – willingness to listen, consider and give credence to the opinion and stance of the other. We often speak of “going to learn” in the Jewish tradition when we are the facilitators and teachers. Why do we do this? For the simple reason that the best gift I can give a learner is my own acumen as a learner. How do I model that – by listening to and learning from others.

So for those of us sitting up all night tonight for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Night of Learning) and for all of us involved in any type of learning, let us consider what qualities we want in our teachers and for those of us who are teachers, let us take an important lesson from Hillel. Chag Shavuot Sameach to all!