Friday, February 21, 2014

Self- Worth, Essence vs Concrete Results, Ki Tisa

This is not my daughter. Photo by Christina Rutz.
Used under Creative Commons License Attribution Generic 2.0
I’m reflecting on my trip to Adelaide, on my flight home on Thursday afternoon. There are some times, I make a speech or have a meeting and I walk out feeling like “I hit the ball out of the park”, people were engaged and the objective was achieved. I don’t feel like that right now. Thoughts appear in my mind about whether I could have done this, said that. I have been thinking about the relative importance of concrete realities vs. the essence.  This tension has challenged my people for thousands of years, from the time we wandered in the desert.

On Sunday this week, I felt certain that essence is all important. I wrote:

I am learning that it doesn’t really matter that very much if “I am good”, “professional”, “organised”, “got it right” or wrong.  Yes, I am highly committed to being good and ethical. Yes, it is very important to me and for those I serve that I do competent, organised work. My point is that for me, these achievements and roles have often been essential to my identity and value. Any failure was very personal. No more, with God’s help.  I am none of these things. My value stems from my essence as a human being, as one of God’s children. My 11 month old baby daughter cradled in my left arm as I type, does not need to earn love, it’s her birthright. It is mine. It is the right of every human, regardless of ethnicity, faith or merit.

A few days later, I still think what I wrote about essence is correct. However, it is too optimistic to think I can quickly and consistently change the way I think and feel.  It is tricky because there needs to be a combination of valuing essence with a commitment to concrete good deeds and results that advance justice, truth, acceptance of all people and compassion. 

An example of this tension: something the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last week really touched me. He told of his experience as a young man, employed as an opposition political staffer he heard the historic “Redfern Speech” by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Despite it being his job to disagree with ‘the other side’, listening to that speech was a “watershed” moment for him. He accepted that “our failures toward Australia’s first people were a stain on our soul”.  ...“If that hardness of heart was ever really to melt, I thought that change had to include me, because you can't expect of others what you won't demand of yourself”. When I discussed the speech with an Aboriginal elder, he replied that many Aboriginal people were very unhappy with Abbott's government because of funding cuts to their community programs that were working. His actions will matter more than his spirit.

For my ancestors freshly liberated by an invisible God, staying connected to this abstraction was difficult. When Moses disappears on the top of a mountain for forty days they become anxious. “This man Moses who took us out of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him” (1) the people explain as they demand something else, tangible to worship. The abstract God does not soothe their anxiety. A Golden Calf that they can see and touch is what they think they need to replace Moses (2).

As Moses comes down the mountain and sees the Golden Calf and the dances he becomes very angry (3).   Moses is disheartened by a realisation that the people are focused on the concrete object instead of appreciating the spirit. Moses is imagined as crying out; “do you think I am some kind of holiness, and in my absence you resorted to making a calf? God forbid, I am just a man like any of you. The Torah does not depend on me. If I had not come, the Torah would still have been the same”. Because he understands their mistake he realised that if he brings the people the tablets and destroys the calf, the tablets will simply replace the calf as the object of worship. It is clear to Moses that he has no choice (4), so he throws the tablets (with the ten commandments) out of his hands and breaks them at the foot of the mountain (5) to make the point that the object is not holy in and of itself but only as a means for people to connect with God and the Torah. Indeed as the physical tablets shatter, the verses engraved on them are freed and fly up to heaven (6).

As the plane continues to fly me home I feel at peace with myself and my day. Yes, there was an important meeting that did not seem to go as well as I had wanted it to. Perhaps it will not get the desired result in the end, I don’t know.  Whether it does work or not, matters a great deal, because there are people who can benefit from a “good result”. Regardless, my personal value stems from my essence, not the concrete results I get.

1.    Exodus 32:1
2.    Ramban commentary
3.    Exodus 32:19
4.    Meshech Chochma
5.    Exodus 32:19
6.    Pirkey Drabbi Elazar 45, Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Ekev 11, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 130 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Beaten Beacons? Addiction/Recovery struggle & Tetzaveh

Image by ShadowHachia, Creative Commons License
Attribution-Non Commercial- No Derivs 3.0 Unported
(CC BY NC ND 3.0)

The plight of the addict has been thrust into the limelight with the tragic death this week of a father of three. For two decades he was one of millions of recovering addicts who score glorious daily victories over the angel of death’s hideous helpers, alcohol and other pain numbing agents. Alas, he could not sustain whatever it was that enabled him to beat death. He succumbed at the age of 46, only two years older than me. I am referring to the actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but I am thinking about so many mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who continue to battle addictions. I salute you all. I am in awe of your determination, perseverance, faith,  humility and even humour. 

Adversity can bring out the best in us, of course. This week’s Torah reading discusses the process of preparing olive oil (1), which can serve as metaphor for this idea (2). The olives would be beaten to extract the oil which was used to light the Menorah (lamp) in the temple.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the individual stories. They are awe inspiring. A mother with the toughest exterior who has been hurt in ways some of us can barely imagine who keeps working the twelve steps of AA, who chooses to surrender to God unconditionally, and continues to seek ways of improving her character, for her children’s sake as well as her own. She sees the hand of God in her recovery. It gives new meaning to the psalmist’s praise of God as “the one who heals the broken hearted” (3). 

I dare not romanticise the world of addiction. The families of addicts and the addicts themselves might live lives of violence, betrayal, neglect, lies, shame etc. under the shadow of untimely death. According to the sages, there were two grades of oil. First, oil was produced by ‘merely’ beating the olives, this grade of oil was considered fitting to be used to give light. The second grade, that was not “good enough” for the lamp, was produced by grinding the olives (4), symbolising for me, intensified pain, “going through the grinder”. It seems that when confronted by certain degrees of darkness and adversity, some souls might no longer be so likely to produce glorious “light in the temple”. Perhaps the crushed spirit is too broken for that. For the human “ground olives”, I cry out to God (5) “till when?!” How much must people endure?! Please end the suffering!! Instead grant us your grace and kindness.  

Yet, even the lower grade oil produced by grinding the olives, was used in the divine service as part of the offerings. Some people, who have been to hell and back, might not get the opportunity to "illuminate the holy temple” of society. Yet, they make valuable contributions in their own more discreet way, no bright lights, just breaking the cycle of suffering for themselves, their children and others whose lives they touch with love and compassion.

These heroes might not be up in lights, but don’t call them quiet! Their raging battles are much better symbolised by noise. This is also hinted at in our Torah portion. The high priest was required to have bells sewn into the hem of his robe, so that he would be heard when he walked in the sanctuary. Failure to wear the robe was considered a capital offence (6). The bells symbolise people who can be seen as estranged from God. Their surge back toward God is a noisy desperate fight to walk away from the lies of self-sufficiency and complete independence, to return home to God and to connecting with other people. It can be compared to a person drowning, facing the horror of imminent death, splashing, wildly waving limbs in a desperate attempt to stay alive. It is these people who must be represented and given a voice by the holiest man in the holiest house (7).

For so many of us seeking to connect with each other and with something/someone greater than ourselves, grappling with the beatings and/or grindings of life, I wish for God’s grace. After all He is the one who “gives snow like wool, throws His ice like breadcrumbs, before His cold who can stand?! but then sends His word and melts them, takes back His wind and they flow like water” (8). With apologies to my American friends, as an Australian returning back to our glorious sunshine, I found the snow in the Northeast of the US these last two weeks, awesome. Wishing for warmth, love and joy for all members of the human family, while also remembering those who lost their lives in their struggles, may their souls find peace and relief at last.  

1.    Exodus 27:20
2.    Shemot Rabba 36:1, Talmud Menachot 53b
3.    Psalm 147:3
4.    Rashi
5.    As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi MM Schneerson, has taught and encouraged people to do in numerous talks over the years
6.    Exodus 28:33-35
7.    Schneerson, Rabbi MM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos vol. 16, p. 338
8.    Psalm 147:16-18