I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.

Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Bo

December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century.

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.  Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior.  Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly.  These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.

Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions.  As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.”[1] God does not act in the sense of causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.”[2] In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.

In those cases, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.  As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”[3]

“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous.  All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.”[4]  The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.


[1] Maimonides, Chapter 8 of the “Eight Chapters,” in Ethical Writings of Maimonides, p. 90.

[2] Maimondes, The Book of Knowledge, 6:1 p. 124.

[3] Ibid, 6:3, p. 124.

[4] Ibid., 6:3, p. 125.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Shemot — Names

December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Exodus 4:28   Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.

“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt.  We will go to Pharaoh – ”

“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.

“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”

Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?

Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”

And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”

Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced.  When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.

Vayechi

December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Theology defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

For many of us, our theology changes as we grow older. In Joseph’s case, his understanding of God changes and his theology improves.

In this week’s portion, for example, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

“His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They are truly afraid. But Joseph is not offended. He tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph? After experiencing a tragedy like Joseph’s, we do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild.

We also do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. And we do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook. Rather, what we need is a theology that allows us to forgive and rebuild. The best response to a tragedy is to create a world where such kinds of evil are unknown.

Then we might be able to say: what was intended as evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Miketz

November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, in fact, he is second only to Pharaoh.

If he wanted to, he could have them imprisoned — or killed. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. Do they miss him? Do they ever think of him? Do they ever wish that they had acted better?

After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, sobbing. This process of testing proves to be difficult for him, and emotionally wearing on him. Reconciliation is what he really wants.

As part of his weepy speech, Joseph also says something rather problematic, from a theological perspective. It’s not obviously bad, and, frankly, it’s a pretty common theology. He tells them: ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.’ 

This kind of theology can wound you. What happens if it does not seem like God has a plan for you? What happens if you face a tragedy that makes you re-think all those carefully constructed ideas? 

That is to say: it very well could be true that God has sent each of us to do a specific set of things. It could be that we are here for a specific reason. It is in fact quite comforting to think that God has plans for us.

The difficulty, however, is when that kind of theology breaks down: what happens when life itself is breathtakingly cruel? What happens when we find we just cannot make sense of it? How, then, do we put ourselves back together in the wake of an unimaginable loss, a great catastrophes, or an overwhelming defeat?

That is to say: the rationalizations might fail us. The narrative might become impossible.

Then what?

Then, ideally, we might come to realize that even in its most extreme situations, even at the worst times, even when the world does not work the way we think it should, our life — the individual life of each and every one of us — matters. Even then.

 

 

“Please heal her”

May 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, on account of his marriage to a Cushite woman. It is not clear why there is a problem with her, other than the fact that she is a Cushite. In the Bible, ‘Cush’ is name for Ethiopia, so some modern commentators have assumed it was her skin color.

Personally, I think that is a projection backwards. Frankly, I think it had more to do with her foreignness. In the Song of Songs, for example, it says ‘I am black and comely’ – which would indicate that a range of color was fully appreciated for its beauty. The biblical world was not as fixated on skin color as we are; instead, the overriding concern was with the various tribal cultures: what foods, what languages, and what gods? The foreignness of the Cushite woman is likely the source of their objection.

So, we learn, his two older siblings speak out against Moses, and wonder at his life-choices and gossip about his high position. Are we not as good as him? Do we not also speak to God – and is it not true that God hears us?

As an aside, I would note that it does not seem that Moses was a particularly authoritarian leader, for he faces this kind of challenge to his authority on multiple occasions. And, as we read, the text here emphasizes that he was the most modest among all of those on earth. Folks are always assuming that they could easily step into his shoes.

But, for speaking against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, so to speak, to appear before God: that is, God quite literally summons them and tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special. God speaks to Moses face-to-face. And no one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.

As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.

When Aaron sees her, he assumes that it is a punishment for her sin. The timing would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.

But notice that Moses does not construct the same story. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill, but rather focuses on the desired outcome: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

So was her illness a punishment? You might want say to me, if it is not a punishment, then why does God say in the very next line, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days? Let her remain quarantined for seven days outside the came, and then she can return home.”

At first glance, it would be quite reasonable to assume that the disease is a punishment, based on this statement. That is, in fact, how this text is usually understood by commentators. But that is the story that we have created in response to the text. It should be noted that in the text, God never makes that connection directly.

What, then, does the text say? First, let’s look at the spitting metaphor. I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face.

Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?

In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior.

God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.

I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.

What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.

Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.

Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.

Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.

And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’

Anyone who has ever been to Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.

What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate. Resting is important. God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat? Taking a nap on Shabbat is in fact my favorite mitzvah.

Another pearl of wisdom is the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.

And there is another gem: we should note that some of our physical distress has emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

In other words, the story we tell in the wake of a tragedy will define how well we respond to that tragedy. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: give yourself time to heal.

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