Friday, July 12, 2013

Words/Devarim - too much in your head?

Used under Creative Commons license, original photo from

Dedicated to my father who accomplished more with silence than I ever have with words and noise[i]’ or words to that effect, writes one author. As a Jew with many Muslim friends I wonder about the value of words and introspection in general, and particularly at this time of year when Muslim observe Ramadan and Jews observe “the nine days” of mourning relating to the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. Intention and awareness is surely essential, mindless ritual cannot be right. Still, I wonder, can introspection lead me to be “inside my head” rather than engaged with my fellow man and God?

I have been reading the classic book Zen & Motorcycle Maintenance. I was struck by the narrator spending almost the entire book inside his head, thinking about himself as he was prior to a period of mental illness and electric shock treatment. He talks about the way that he was prior to his breakdown and treatment, eccentric, and recklessly idealistic, as if this was a different person who he even gives another name. The narrator’s son who is travelling with him on his motorcycle trip tries to connect with him but the father is preoccupied. It is only at the end of the book that the father’s earlier self asserts itself that he is fully there for his son, there is a lightness and joy and real presence. The story aspect of the book suggests two things to me. One is about the risk of filling my head with ‘too many words’, the other is about completely accepting myself as I am rather than wishing certain aspects of my personality or temperament didn’t exist.

Words and their limits
The name of fifth book of the Torah known in English as Deuteronomy is called Devarim in Hebrew, meaning words. The reading/portion this week[ii] is almost entirely a parting speech by Moses to the people shortly before his death. Moses refers to himself more in the section than in any other up to this point, 36 times. Yet, he is hardly introspective. Moses mentions once that he agreed with a plan to send spies that eventually went bad[iii]. He does not tell us if he feels responsible for his view or justified in it. Commentary suggests that he agreed with the plan because of the overwhelming consensus in favor of the plan by the people[iv], essentially blaming them despite his acquiescence. He also blamed the people for the fact that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. “God also became angry with me because of you[v]”. Perhaps even more telling is that in comparison to the 36 references to his own role in the story, Moses uses words like you or direct references to the people 132 times, and references to “us” 75 times, so we have a ratio of 207-36 that tells us who is the focus in this speech.

This absence of public introspection in this reading can’t be taken as precluding private self-criticism. At least one commentary about Moses’ reaction to the rebellion against him by Korach, when he falls on his face is to examine his own heart whether he is at fault. Surely the point of our nine days of mourning this week and next is not just to remember what happened in the past but also to consider how we can behave more lovingly to merit a restoration of God’s grace and presence, the loss of which is represented by the physical destruction of a temple. The juxtaposition of the reading with the time of morning is intentional[vi] and calls us to reflect on a whole generation in the desert that falls from God’s grace and is excluded from the Promised Land just as our generation has failed to realize the rebuilding of the temple and through improving ourselves may yet merit the coming of the Messiah. More broadly, the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul is  seen as a key tool for self-improvement.    

Self-Improvement and Self-acceptance
In seeking to improve ourselves, I think it is important that the starting point is a measure of self-acceptance. It is noble to try to develop better habits and to be alert or vigilant as my wise colleague Donna Jacobs Sife teacher to the darker thoughts and feelings that is common to almost all people. But we are taught that it is foolish and delusional for most people to think they can eradicate desires for evil, instead most of us need to accept that what God wants of us is to control ourselves rather than complete  eradication of aspects of our nature ()[vii].  I don’t know ,  I think transformation is possible in acceptance……

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students just before he died “I don’t know on which path they will lead me[viii]. This uncertainty about what awaited him in the afterlife is explained as resulting from such a great preoccupation with serving God “every day, every hour and every moment” rather than being aware of what was happening in inner emotional and intellectual world or ranking[ix]. I think this example highlights one extreme end of the spectrum perhaps. I think we can find the right balance between a helpful amount and form of introspection while still being in the world rather than preoccupied with words in our head about ourselves.
Beyond Words
Associate Professor John Bradley tells a lovely story about coming out to the Northern Territory as a PhD student and tells an Aboriginal uncle that he knows everything there is to know about dugongs. The uncle says, “uh huh”, and leaves it at that. Some days later they are up a creek somewhere and John is in the water checking out these animals when a dugong breaks his arm. He returns to the canoe in absolute agony. They are hours away from the nearest doctor. Then the uncle turns to him and says, “now, you know dugong!”  

[i] Abehsera, M. (1992) The Possible Man, Swan House
[ii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:1-3:22
[iii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:23
[iv] Ibn Ezra
[v] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:37, if not for the people’s lack of faith in the case of the spies Moses would not have been required to try to strengthen their faith by the planned miracle of talking to the rock and eventually hitting it instead for which he was punished (Panim Yafos). An alternative interpretation is that Moses says he did not go into the Promised land being buried in the desert instead, so that at the time of the resurrection those who died in the desert will join Moses and in his merit also rise from the dead. This interpretation translates the word בגללכם as for the sake of the people (Rosh). Another interpretation relates the word בגללכם to rolling or cause and effect, if not for the sin of the spies Moses would have already been in the land and build the holy temple that would have never been destroyed, as a result of their sin Moses did not enter and the temples were eventually destroyed (Ohr Hachayim)
[vi] Biur Halacha (528:4) as explained by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – in
[vii] Tanya
[viii] Talmud Berachos 28b.
[ix] The Lubavitcher Rebbe as translated by Eli Touger, retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. Zalman, your blog is always interesting and thought provoking. Now I understand why you chose a dugong for your photo!