Friday, August 30, 2013

New Year’s repentance, reality, “addictive” behaviours and change – Nitzavim Vayelech

In less than a week I will join my fellow Jews in prayer facing God’s judgement on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The prayer, Unesaneh Tokef (“Let us acknowledge the potency of the holiness of this day”) that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song “who by fire”, will be solemnly read and sung. Its phrases inviting us to reflect on our fate, either tranquillity or distress, life or a harsh death but disaster can be prevented if we repent. Yet, repentance becomes harder over time.  Like the infamous New Year’s resolutions, it involves me making a commitment to myself that I will behave differently next year. Can I trust myself to change when the context in which I make choices about my behaviour remain the same? 

In our Torah reading just prior to this holy day, Moses in tell the Israelites, “You are standing together today, all of you… to enter into a covenant ”. Perhaps one way to improve our prospects for doing right is by drawing strength from a community or fellowship. This is one of the key ingredients in the success of twelves steps programs .

On the other hand, identifying with a faith community can be used to perpetuate poor choices. We have the sinner who “will bless himself in his heart, telling himself, I will have peace as I follow my heart's desires (concluding cryptically with the words) to add the “Rava”  רוהwatered to the thirsty” . One commentary explains that he convinces himself that his sins won’t matter because the majority of people will behave uprightly and so as a member of the community he will still be able to enjoy the benefits of others good works . This is compared to a field that is not watered (the wicked) next to a regularly watered field (eg. the righteous), the unwatered/thirsty field’s crops would benefit from the watered field . 

Judaism teaches that our hearts follow our actions. The rituals are activities that influence our attitudes. In this model, although it is hard to change our attitude, we can change our practices and this in turn influences our attitudes. Following this theory, if I go to the fridge when I feel stressed, I am reinforcing a dependency on food for mood management. If I abstain from snacking on “comfort food” I am reinforcing my capacity for self-control.

One problematic commentary by Nahmanides (1194-1270) emphasises behaviour. It translates the word “Rava” as “sated” and relates it to the situation of the spirit that does not desire “things that are bad for it”. It relates the word “thirsty” to the desire for beautiful women. It suggests that if a man is submerged in promiscuity with women, his desire will increase greatly until he will want things he did not originally desire such as homosexuality and bestiality .  An obvious problem with this commentary is that his 13th century view of homosexuality does not conform to the reality reported by homosexuals about their own experience. A second problem is his equation of bestiality and homosexuality which I find offensive. I have dealt with attitudes toward homosexuals within Torah in an earlier post In this post I explore the “desire” aspect of this commentary.

I am concerned about the way this commentary deals with desire, particularly the way the commentary is adapted by a modern scholar, Nechoma Leibowitz in she which uses the word “addicted” to describe the sinner. I am concerned that the reader might miss the recognition of the way the person begins to lose control. I am afraid of some getting an impression that we are dealing with person who is simply evil and happily indulging him or herself. There is little scope for considering the profound pain suffered by addicts, including those addicted to sex, the internet or work that leads them to “self-medicate”.  It is critical to avoid judgement because we can never truly stand in another person’s shoes or “place ”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who I am named after, manages to articulate a powerful message of understanding for people’s circumstances. He suggest that when tempted to judge others we should consider that it is “his physical environment that causes him to sin, since his livelihood requires him to go about the market-place all day…(or) he is of those who sit at the street-corners. Thus his eyes see all sorts of temptation; and “‘what the eyes see, the heart desires….” R. Shneur Zalman also asks us to avoid judgement based on other factors including individual temperaments . The caveat on this is Judaism holds a very strong belief in free choice and ultimate personal responsibility. How much choice there is in the lived experience of the addict is a difficult question I don’t feel qualified to answer.   

For me part of the frustration is founded in unrealistic expectations about how much I can change my habits. I think I need a balance between hope and realistic caution about the prospects for success. Our reading combines these two messages. It tells us that “indeed, this matter is very close (achievable) to you, in your mouth, and your heart to do it ”.   Yet, we have Moses and God both clearly pessimistic about the people changing their habits. God predicts that when Moses dies the people will stray  and Moses expects that the rebelliousness he saw while he was still alive will continue and perhaps get worse after he dies , because “I know that you will be become corrupted ”. The reading offers a lot of punishment, which I guess I can apply in my own life by considering the consequences of various choices and recognise that if I want certain things to happen in my life, family and work there are choices that makes those outcomes either more or less likely. 

As is customary, we respond to the weighty day of judgement with good wishes ahead of this awesome day.  So, to all members of the human family, including my Jewish sisters and brothers, may the next year be a good and sweet one. May we all once again back ourselves and affirm that we will give it our best shot and try, yet again, to be better next year. Let us not imprison our future by our past. Equally, let us be gentle to ourselves and each other by accepting the very compassionate words about ourselves at the conclusion of the frightful “Unesaneh Tokef” prayer, we humans are as a species need “to use our very soul just to earn some bread, we are compared to withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream”.


 Deuteronomy 29:9- 11
  The connection between twelve steps and our Torah reading is made in this article:
  Deuteronomy 29:18
  Ibn Ezra
  Not sure about the science here, but this is the teaching
  Sefer Hachinuch
  Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4
  Tanya 30, translation text taken from Lessons in Tanya
  Deuteronomy 30:14
  Deuteronomy 31:16
  Deuteronomy 31:27
  Deuteronomy 31:29

1 comment:

  1. Zalman, your comments here accord well with my own understanding of sin as a Christian. Sin is not only a thing we do, it's a condition we have. It binds us. Breaking free, though it certainly requires self discipline, is not simply a matter of personal will power.