Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stiffnecked? Get a massage!

20 Av 5773 / July 26-27, 2013

In this week’s portion, Ekev, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites before they depart to conquer the Promised Land without him.

While he has a strong history of chastising the nation, he is particularly harsh with the Israelites this week, telling them that they are entering the Promised Land not because of their virtue – but rather, because of the wickedness of the Land’s current inhabitants, and in fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Moses even goes so far as to resort to name-calling, referring to the nation (as he has done before) as a “stiffnecked people.”  For good measure, he throws in the following biting critique: “As long as I have known you, you have been defiant towards God.”

Effectively, Moses is saying that if it were up to him, the current Israelite generation wouldn’t be inheriting the Promised Land at all, as they are undeserving.  Needless to say, not the most inspirational message before attempting to conquer the Land… (and perhaps indicative of why Moses perhaps was no longer the best choice to lead the Israelites).

It could be that some would be inspired to show Moses that his cynicism was misplaced, and his harsh words undeserved.  It’s possible that this was Moses’s goal – to make himself the villain, so that the Israelites would be distracted from the powerful enemies they were about to face in battle.  By suggesting the Israelites had something to prove and did not deserve the Land, perhaps they’d fight harder in order to prove Moses wrong.

However, my inclination is that most of us would respond negatively to such speech.  Hateful words and aggressive name-calling don’t often imbue confidence or a desire to please.  Rather, what if Moses had framed his speech such that he was empowering the Israelites, as the inheritors of a unique and special covenant their ancestors made with the Divine, to achieve the dream they had been striving towards their entire lives, and to fulfill their ultimate destiny (with God’s continued care and assistance)?  I know that with such framing, I’d be a bit more willing to put my life on the line… 

How we speak to one another and how we frame issues has a significant impact on how others respond to us (and vice versa).

This Shabbat, reflect on how you frame conversations.  When you want / need something done and ask another for assistance, or are trying to motivate another to act, how are you framing your desires?  Are you contextually empowering the other to assist you (or themselves) meaningfully? Does your tone suggest appreciation and a sense of valuing the other? Are you saying “thank you” often enough?

By aspiring to better frame the conversations we engage in, we can both better motivate and express gratitude to one another, in our collective efforts to fulfill our own destinies.

Friday, July 19, 2013

I too know what it is like to be thirsty

13 Av 5773 / July 19-20, 2013

In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, we find Moses continuing his speech to the Israelites.  Most notably, Moses, while preaching, proclaims to the Israelites that he pleaded with God to be permitted to enter the Promised Land, but that “God was wrathful with me on your account.” 

As you’ll recall, the reason Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land was due to striking a rock rather than speaking to it (as God had instructed) in order to bring forth water for the nation.  If we look into the cause and effect reality of the situation, the Israelites complained that they were thirsty, and as a result of that complaint, Moses ultimately ended up striking the rock.  Thus, he attributes blame to the nation.

I can’t help but feel that to blame the Israelites for his own failure to specifically obey God’s command shines a light on Moses’s inability to be introspective, and an unwillingness to take responsibility for his own actions.  Perhaps it was actually this failure to admit his own wrongdoing and ask forgiveness for it that ultimately prevented him from being permitted to enter the Promised Land?

We have all come across individuals unwilling to apologize for their mistakes, and so too, we have all heard apologies we know to be insincere.  My guess is that each of us has had moments where we’re unwilling to apologize, thinking that we’re the one due an apology, and that we’ve also apologized to others without real intention or admission of guilt – the “I’m sorry if you were offended by my actions” apology.

We’re taught in our tradition that we’re meant to mimic God in myriad ways.  For example, we’re meant to be holy in our actions because God is holy. (Lev. 20:26)  In this week’s portion, Moses reminds the Israelites that “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God.” (Deut. 4:24)

Just as being impassioned is a Divine attribute, so too do we as human beings often find ourselves impassioned beyond the point of reason.  Just as God is described as a consuming fire, when we’re angry, upset, or feel that we’re due an apology, we have the tendency to let the issue consume us, with the smoke from our internal fire blinding us from the ability to reflect introspectively on how our own actions may have contributed to the situation at hand.

This Shabbat, take the opportunity to reflect on situations involving blame in your life.  Who do you wish would apologize to you, for what action(s), and why?  Who might you owe an apology to, for what action(s), and why?  Strive to see the issue from the point of view of the other, to do the internal work necessary to cool down, and to mend wounds whenever and wherever possible.  Maybe then, we’ll be permitted to enter our own Promised Land.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Generation Me?

6 Av 5773 / July 12-13, 2013

This week’s portion, Devarim, kicks off the last of the Five Books of Moses.

Most of the book is Moses’s final speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, in which he recaps their travels, battles and the various miracles they witnessed. 

One of the most interesting parts of this portion is Moses’s use of language.  In particular, he frames his storytelling as: “I did this, and then you (collectively) did that.”  What’s strange about his choice of language is that the men he’s addressing were not alive for a good chunk of his historical accounting, and if any of them were, they were under age 20 at the time any of the reported events took place.  And yet, he chooses to address the collective as having been present, and as having been responsible for the victories and defeats the nation faced along the way. 

I imagine that while the new Israelite generation might have appreciated being lumped in with their parents when their parents did things right, I also have to imagine that they struggled when they were chastised and lumped in with their parents when it came to their parents’ shortcomings.

Can any of us honestly say that we’d be comfortable being held accountable for the faults of our parents?

Why would Moses lump the current generation in with the past one?

Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised, given the other instances we’ve found of such grouping in the Torah.  For example, we should remember that God (as portrayed in the Torah) isn’t always happy and smiling, and is willing to hold children accountable for the sins of their parents:

You shall not bow down to them [idols] or serve them; for I am a jealous God, punishing the children of those that hate me unto the third and fourth generation.” [paraphrase of Exodus 20:4].

So too, we’re reminded that the Exodus from Egypt did not happen just to/for our ancestors:

And you shall tell your son on that day: It is because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.”
[paraphrase of Exodus 13:8] (sound familiar from Passover?)

We’re meant to view ourselves as having gone out of Egypt and experiencing what our ancestors did, and so too, we’re potentially held accountable for the actions of those who came before us.  What gives?

What are the benefits of a collective, cross-generational identity?

Do you think the way we currently act in our lives and communities would be different if we envisioned ourselves as part of a collective -- spanning generations -- rather than as individuals?

Much has been written about us being part of “Generation Me.”  Perhaps for those who came before us, who experienced struggles different (and arguably greater) than our own due to being Jewish, the collective identity piece was a bit stronger…

This week, reflect on your identity and how you view your relationship to others.

Meditate on “kol Yisrael arevim ze la’zeh” – “all Jews are responsible for one another.”  Does this concept resonate with you?  Why or why not?

Commit to living a life that your children, and theirs after them, will be inspired by; leaving a legacy they are anxious to inherit, and a narrative they willingly and joyously adopt as their own.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

East Side Boyz

28 Tammuz 5773 / July 5-6, 2013

In this week’s double portion, we come across one of the more impressive conflict resolution scenarios in the Torah.  Before entering the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad share with Moses that they’d prefer to take the land east of the Jordan river, as it was fertile and would comfortably hold their substantial flocks.  Moses doesn’t particularly like this idea, as the plan all along had been for all of the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land, and then to draw lots to see where each tribe would settle within it.  So, Moses loses his cool, scolds the Reubenites and Gadites: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?”  He also compares them to the scouts 40 years prior who returned with negative reports of the Promised Land (due to fear), poisoning the will of the Israelites.  On the eve of battle, Moses could hardly allow for the Israelites to be made nervous…

However, instead of calamity, in response to Moses’s concerns, the Reubenites and Gadites proposed what in the end turned out to be a workable solution from Moses’s perspective: They’d quickly build pens for their flocks and cities for their children, and then every single soldier from the two tribes would accompany the Israelites into the Promised Land, and would not return until after the entire land had been conquered.  A fair compromise, no?

The ancient rabbis were not as kind in their assessment.  They viewed the Reubenites and Gadites as being motivated by money (they pay particular attention to the fact that the two tribes put their flocks before their children, when stating “let us build pens for our flocks and cities for our children.”).  Coupled with their lack of desire to settle in the Promised Land, the ancient rabbis saw the Reubenites and Gadites as worshipping wealth rather than God.

Too often, when facing potential conflicts, we get all worked up (as Moses did) and entrench ourselves in positions, rather than striving to identify underlying issues, and how best to address them.  Moses likely would have framed his position as: “you must enter the Promised Land.”  But his underlying issue was having the full Israelite force fight together in order to have the best chance of conquering the Promised Land, per God’s instructions.  By identifying his underlying issue, rather than by being distracted by his position, the Reubenites and Gadites were able to offer a solution that was deemed acceptable by Moses.

This Shabbat, reflect on the conflicts that exist in your life.  Think about the positions taken by both sides, and instead of dwelling on them, strive to identify the underlying issues.  Work towards resolution.  Report back.