Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Truth About Tests

It is an important subject, yet spoken about with half-truths and superficial clichés. A “test”, an ordeal which puts our character to the test, is an unavoidable part of life. They are often turning points, moments in which greatness can be achieved. In a religious context, these tests are important because they are an opportunity to demonstrate genuine faith. Because of this, in many a sermon, tests are spoken about in reverential tones, as if it were a joy to be tested.

Unfortunately, it is dishonest to praise tests. Humans absolutely hate suffering. The Talmud includes a section extolling the rewards due to the righteous man who suffers. Immediately following, it cites three stories of Rabbis who are suffering, and each one, when given the choice, says “I want neither the suffering, nor the reward”. In a rare reversal, the Talmud’s romantic portrayal of the noble, pious man who accepts his suffering is immediately brought down to earth, when noble, pious men refuse to accept suffering. In fact, the very idea of a test means that the ordeal is horrible; if suffering were something people would freely choose, the test wouldn’t be very much of a test after all.

Even more superficial is the way tests are spoken about in contemporary society. Today, we are firm believers in psychobabble, the shallow clichés of afternoon talk shows and the self-help aisle in the bookstore. After any ordeal, one is meant to seek “closure”. Somehow, if they participate in a few miraculous rituals, they will be able to “move on” and forget their pain. Indeed, today only one test matters: whether or not a person is able to “move on” after a trauma.

This view ignores human reality. I find it upsetting when people visit shivas and try to dispense advice to the mourners how they can “get over” things. This type of advice adds insult to injury; not only is the mourner in pain because of his loss, but it’s also his fault that he hasn’t figured out how to “get over it”. And the reason why the mourner can’t “get over it” is that traumas are not mere inconveniences; they are critical life experiences.

This is why there is a custom to treat a Yartziet, the yearly anniversary of death of a relative, as if it were a day of partial mourning. This is an eloquent way of saying that the person is still sorely missed, and that a part of us will always mourn. By refusing closure, we show genuine respect for the experience of love and for those we have lost.

A true test is too painful to romanticize, too difficult to “get over”. Yes, tests are extremely painful. Yet, despite the pain, one can transcend one’s circumstances, and even utilize their pain to achieve remarkable heights.

Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the Hebrew word for test, “nissah” is related to the Hebrew word to raise up, “nasso”. This is because a test is not meant to merely be endured, but rather to raise one up to a higher plane.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic about Abraham Lincoln. The article described Lincoln’s lifelong depression, at times profound enough to give him suicidal impulses. Remarkably, his depression drove him to find a deeper sense of purpose, and to approach life with greater clarity and creativity. His chronic depression drove him to engage life more deeply, and to find a transcendent sense of meaning.

This is a genuine paradigm of how we should engage the tests we will meet in the road of life. There is no true closure after a trauma; the pain remains, no matter what one does. However, even though this is a horrible ordeal, our best choice is to reach for transcendence by suffering meaningfully, and enlisting our pain in the service of higher ideals.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's in JPost

The Thanksgiving piece (below) made it into JPost

Most of the responses on the website (aside from the occasional snide response about Jews in chutz Laaretz giving advice to Israelis) centered around the Sukkot question. I had it in the original, and pulled it due to some comments I got, as well as the fact that it would make the article longer than the optimal 800 words for an op-ed piece. Actually, I'm somewhat ambivalent. Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving, no question. But will it's powerful and ancient religious message obscure any new messages we want to associate with the contemporary State of Israel? On the other hand, Sukkot will have less resistance from the Charedim. So, I'm not sure.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Why Israel Needs a Thanksgiving

As an American living in Canada, I get pretty homesick on Thanksgiving. Yes, Canada has a Thanksgiving too, but it’s a pretty tepid affair, basically an October rerun of Labor Day.

To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pretty simple: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it feels like a national holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving has a unique message that makes it the most popular national holiday in the U.S., even more popular than America’s Independence Day, the fourth of July.

The genius of Thanksgiving is that it bases patriotism on gratitude. Other national holidays around the world are grandiose, flag waving affairs, intended to glorify the country and inspire loyalty in the citizenry. These holidays feature public events, military parades and fireworks displays. Thanksgiving is a far simpler affair: it is always celebrated at home. It is about gratitude for a home, a happy family, a harvest, and at the same time, gratitude for a safe country. This minimalist approach to patriotism resonates with everyone, because countries don’t have to be great to be appreciated; they just have to be a place we can call home. The Rabbis of the Mishnah understood this, and said one must even pray on behalf of inferior governments, because without them “one person would devour the other alive”. Patriotism rooted in simple gratitude will have the widest appeal.

Gratitude is more than a popular argument for patriotism. It is the very foundation of any society. The Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century work, sees gratitude as the foundation of all relationships, including belief in God. This view is adopted by many of the great thinkers of the Mussar movement. Indeed, in a gratitude free world, pessimism reigns. And pessimism is a harsh corrosive, with negativity about life in general infiltrating into, and undermining, all relationships. A marriage, a family or a community devoid of gratitude will certainly fall apart. Of course, this is true of a country as well.

Perhaps the one thing that ideologues of the right and left in Israel agree upon is pessimism. Both believe the country is falling apart; they simply quibble over who is to blame. The left invokes the assassination of the Yitzchak Rabin to demonstrate that the right are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists who hate democracy. The right invokes the disengagement from Gaza to demonstrate that the left are a bunch of appeasing, heartless people who throw their fellow Jews out of their homes. However, if you remove the political particulars, all of these arguments are essentially the same: “The country is falling apart. And you, you (leftist idiot/rightist fanatic/religious dinosaur/soulless secularist) are the traitor who is to blame”.
Ironically, this pessimism is self fulfilling. The greatest danger to Israel is not the right or the left or the religious or the secular, but rather the way all segments of society relate to each other. These nasty divides are the product of sincere, but pessimistic ideologues, who are doing their best to prevent the destruction of Israel. But their pessimism adds a dangerously bitter edge to their rhetoric, transforming political opponents into personal enemies, and democratically elected Prime Ministers into dangerous pursuers of innocent blood.

Yes, as an American expatriate in Canada, I should not be giving sermons to people who have invested their lives in the Jewish homeland (and yes, if you must know, I do feel guilty about not having made aliyah). But any casual observer of the Israeli scene is aware that in political and public discourse, pessimism prevails over gratitude.

This is why Israel needs a Thanksgiving. A day to remember all the blessings we can be grateful for: For freedom and prosperity. For being able to live in the country of our ancestors. For a democracy, which, with all of its flaws, is still a true democracy. (Anyone who’s forgotten what a dictatorship looks like should visit one of Israel’s neighbors). And most importantly, to thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel. One hundred and fifty years ago, the probability of a state of Israel existing was less likely than a Martian invasion. Our ghetto dwelling ancestors, had they been able to see movies of contemporary Israel, would have assumed the Messiah had arrived. An Israeli Thanksgiving would allow to reclaim the sense of wonder previous generations had about the State of Israel.

Perhaps, if we get intoxicated with gratitude, we may begin to appreciate our brothers and sisters. Maybe the supporters of the left will show gratitude for the right’s intense love for this country. And supporters of the right will show gratitude for left’s intense concern for social justice. Maybe the Haredim will appreciate how secular Jews have built a safe and prosperous country; maybe the secularists will appreciate the profound Jewish spirituality the Haredim bring this country. Maybe we’ll learn to appreciate each other.

On Israeli Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish people.

Actually, there is a Thanksgiving on the Jewish calendar: the holiday of Sukkot. We thank God for our harvest, and for watching over us and preserving us through our long history. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if on Sukkot, the entire country could sit down for a meal, in which thanks are given for the blessings of food, shelter, security and family? Wouldn’t it be nice if in the holiday tradition of Ushpizin, one could invite a guest with an opposing ideology?

On Sukkot-Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Addiction and the Road of Life

I usually don’t shill for TV programs. However, I must tell you about a fascinating program: A & E’s Intervention .

Intervention is a controversial program; it is a documentary that follows people with various addictions as they indulge in reckless, self abusive behavior. At the same time, their friends and families organize an intervention to prod them to go to a rehabilitation clinic. For some critics, watching people at their vulnerable worst is an invasion of privacy. While this may be true, it’s also compelling television. It is a rare program which gives the viewer an insight into real life.

What fascinated me the most was how easy it is to identify with the addicts on the show. They were successful stockbrokers, White House interns, talented artists. They’re simply good people who allowed their lives to get untracked.

While I’m no psychologist, I get the sense that people who lose their way, like the addicts on Intervention, get untracked because they have missed one of the three important stages on the road of life.

The first stage is unconditional self love. For most of us, our parents oversee this stage; they fuss and fret and care for us as babies, even though we’re completely vulnerable, selfish and demanding. They teach us that we are loved, and deserving of love, simply because we are alive.

Of course, there are many who have parents who don’t teach this lesson well, or don’t teach it at all (there’s a big difference between the two, by the way). These unloved children must learn about love elsewhere: from mentors, friends, and even from books and movies.

It is easy to forget the importance of this stage. After all, isn’t self-love selfish? There is a lovely Midrash which makes the point that if you must love your neighbor as yourself, that implies that you must actually love yourself as well!

Without self love, we’re lost. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski often asks addicts who come to his office where they put the garbage in their house. “In the garbage can”, they reply. “Well then”, he ask says, “why are putting this garbage into yourself?....you’re not a garbage can, are you?” .

That’s exactly the point: If we don’t respect ourselves, we might as well treat our bodies like garbage cans. You need to respect and love yourself.

The second stage is self discipline. This stage comes a bit later in life, and for the most part our teachers look after this stage. Starting in nursery, you learn basic discipline. You may not bite. You must share. You have to work with the group. You have to respect your teachers.

Discipline is a challenge nowadays. The reason why is because we live in an era of unprecedented comfort. Unfortunately, with this comfort, we’ve become increasingly whiny and self indulgent. We’re outraged if we have to wait too long in line, or if the food in the restaurant is a bit cold.

Our comfortable lives lie in stark contrast with those of the previous generation. I recently did a funeral for someone who had escaped from Dachau, got smuggled into Palestine, fought in the British army against the Nazis, and then fought in Israel’s War of Independence. His eventful life was emblematic of the sacrifices that his generation had to make.

Ironically, our generation’s comfortable lives have made us weaker. Because we are sheltered, we find it difficult to cope with crises. And in a world where people are available to cater to our every wish, the values of personal sacrifice and self discipline are often forgotten. Without self discipline, we open our lives to all sorts of dangerous whims, because we are so unaccustomed to any self denial.

The third stage is meaning. We usually begin this stage in our teens, and it is God who ultimately leads us to find our true purpose.

What is meaning? There’s no need for a philosophy seminar on this. It simply is a life lived beyond the selfish. There is a story about a Chassid of Rav Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. As is the Chassidic custom, the chasid brought him a kvittl, a lengthy list of personal requests that he asked the Rebbe to pray for on his behalf. Surveying the lengthy list, the Rebbe looked at his chasid and sent him away, saying: “you’ve given a great deal of thought to your needs; have you thought at all about why you are needed?”. Remarkably, the chasid was overjoyed with this sharp riposte: his Rebbe had reminded him that he is needed!

Each day we draw up lists, for shopping: more and new food, clothing, electronics, cars, vacations. We know what we need. But on a daily basis, yesterday’s desires simply aren’t enough. So we search for newer and more exciting thrills; eventually, drugs and other self destructive thrills are far from unthinkable.

God reminds us that He put us here for a purpose. To find our way on the road of life, we must find a response to the ultimate question:

Why are we needed?