Thursday, August 31, 2006

Drash Ki Tetze 5766 The Seducers Among Us

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
This week, we have a whole bunch of rules. A lot of them have to do with mixing war, sex and marriage. It includes mixing other things such as wool and linen, donkeys and cows, growing plums on a peach tree and cross-dressing. It discusses rebellious children, wearing tallit, not charging interest, avoiding prostitution, and keeping your vows to the Lord. It discusses theft, and what to do for the poor. Yet it begins with a rather interesting passage:

10. When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God has delivered them into your hands, and you have taken them captive, 11. And see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her, that you would have her as your wife; 12. Then you shall bring her home to your house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; 13. And she shall take off the garment of her captivity, and shall remain in your house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that you shall go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her at all for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, because you have humbled her.

Essentially, it is about female captive and how they are to be treated. Yet, instead of taking a hard line, it compromises instead. Instead of banning sexual contact with captive prisoners, Moses mandates a thirty day waiting period, supposedly for mourning of her parents, yet it is not clear that they have both died, and if set free, she could return to them. She must have one of the sexiest parts of Middle Eastern female forms removed: her hair. By thirty days, it certainly has not grown to a length that would be considered sexy yet.

One issue I noted reading this is that it is Moses who says this. We never get a "and HASHEM said to Moses the following:” type of Mitzvot. Only Moses says this one, though we assume he got it from God on Sinai. Yet, it’s interesting that in the biblical story this issue is a hot topic among the people. In Joshua 3:17 we read

17. And the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all of Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the people (Goi) had passed over the Jordan.

Who were these non Jews who crossed over the Jordan? We need to back to the book of Numbers to get one answer. Time wise this probably happed only a few days or weeks from the time Of Moses’ speeches recording in Deuteronomy. In Numbers 25 we read:

1 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, 2 who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. 3 Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel.

Later we read in Numbers 31

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. 15 Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! 16 Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. 17 Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; 18 but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.

The virgins who survive the slaughter are the first application of this mitzvah in Deuteronomy. Since we know the people mourned 30 days for Moses (Deut. 34:8) it is possible to marry these women, but yet, they might be the ones described as Goy, gentiles in Joshua.

Those captive tell us something, but it is the women slaughtered at the command of Moses who interest me more in terms of this rule. Moses was bewildered and angry that the soldiers spared the exact people that were to blame for the whole Baal-Peor mess: the women who seduced them. The men, with the exception of Balaam and Balak, never raised a finger against the Israelites. So the question arises what made them spare the lives of the offenders and kill the innocent?

The answer is Seduction. The Rabbis note an interesting thing about the Peor incident. The word vayitzamed, attached is used to describe the Israelite men in Numbers 25:3, but could also be translated as addicted, or harnessed. Even when told to destroy their habit completely they couldn’t, because of their addiction, of being in the thrall of these women.

The rabbis go further and describe this seduction. To summarize a rather long passage, the women start by selling wares in markets, then after selling a new garment, ask for the man to enter and have a little to eat, all the while acting sexy and talking of common ancestry. After the meal, the text continues:
Once the Israelite solicited her she would say to him: ‘I will not listen to you until you slaughter this animal to Peor and bow down to the idol.’ He would object: ‘I will not bow down to idols!’ She would answer him: ' You will only appear as though you were uncovering yourself! ‘And so he would be led astray after her and do as he was bidden. [Numbers R. XX: 23]

What the Midianite women were saying is that they only have to look like they are going to the bathroom, to satisfy their requirement. This sounded reasonable enough for the men to comply. And every time they did comply, they did bow down to the Idol, until they bowed down to the Peor of their own volition, because they could think of no other way.

This summer, I have been very interested in the concepts of seduction, so this story from the midrash resonates much of what I learned over the summer. I talked about pick up artists back in July, but that was part of a larger story. For a couple of months, there has been a question on my mind. How do people seduce not just one person, but whole groups, and not just for sex but for mindless obedience? How often does this happen? How do we stop such things from happening? Much of the summer was a meditation on the question, and much of the fall will be as well, as part of a final exam on the spread of the early Hasidic movement and other movements in 18th century Poland. One book I read on the subject which opened up my eyes far more than I expected was Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. Cialdini a social psychologist and professor at Arizona State University realized he was very gullible and decide to find out if it was just him or was the deck stack against him. He found that there were six “weapons of influence” that could be used to make people do things they might otherwise not do on their own. His goal in writing the book was to document all of these six, how compliance professional use them, and give a way of resisting them. But tellingly, it is rarely called a psychology book, but a business and marketing book; the textbook version is in its fourth edition.

I’ve read the Midrash of the Midianite women seducing the Israelite men many times. After reading Influence I’ve realized this is an example of many of these weapons. Even more so I’ve begun to see where Cialdini is right, that these weapons are all around us bombarding us constantly. It is not the pickup artist we need to watch, it’s trying to apply compliance control in many ways, from our taste in soft drinks to charity fundraising. One simple example of compliance in synagogues is whether we sit or stand at different parts of the service. Depending on the minhag, synagogues vary. People decide this by one of two of the weapons: through compliance with authority when the rabbi says “please rise” or “you may be seated.” Those little waves of the hands they do indicate the same. Yet when the rabbi forgets, we also rely on social context, what everyone else is doing -- on groupthink. It is interesting to watch events like bar mitzvahs and wedding when the local community is less people than the people attending the event, and there is not a majority social context either. There is total confusion when to sit or stand if the rabbi doesn’t say anything. Whether we sit or stand is so harmless by itself however, we don’t notice other things happening as well. Some of the regulars of the congregation, who consistently do things one way, invariably get upset about everyone not doing it right. A series of harmless events build on the consistency of other events can convince us to do things that may not be so harmless, or at least not reasonable. Lubabvitch Habad uses the weapon of consistency to bring secular Jews back into observance. First offering to shake a lulav or giving away Shabbat of Hanukkah candles, Lubabvitch Habad builds on this to tefillin, tzitzit and other observances, eventually bringing otherwise secular people entirely into Orthodoxy. Yet this same weapon has backfired on the movement in one case, in the respect of a teacher. Some, but definitely not all of Habad, slowly but so consistently built up there respect for their last Rebbe, it led them to believe he was the messiah. Because of the weapon of consistency, this splinter group since the Rebbe’s death, needs to claim Christian themes of the idea of a resurrected messiah, much to the criticism of other Jews.

With all this, there were two common threads in Cialdini’s book. The first was that people think they are making a rational decision when subjected to one of the six weapons, even when they are not. Secondly, the best defense is time to think about the transaction and strip it of its attractive trappings. This is what the Deuteronomy passage this week is referring to. Seduction and influence are powerful weapons, so powerful Balaam used them more powerfully than even his magical abilities. But looking at the rabbinic text of that seduction, consistency was used to bring the Israelites into submission and addiction, yet it was made through what seemed like quick rational decisions. The women were quickly upping the “buying temperature” Once they got one sacrifice out of the men it was all over and they were hooked. Only when there was time to reflect could the men see the whole story -- and resist.

In modern society, most of us will not be in the situation of attacking an enemy and trying not to rape their women. But the idea of seduction is true in so many ways, we move so fast we are more susceptible to falling for an irrational idea, believing it was totally rational. Be it Department Stores, Politicians, or the news media, everywhere we turn someone is trying to obtain our compliance to their agenda. This passage tells us there is only one solution: strip it of its attractiveness and take some time before you make a decision.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Shofetim 5766 Hillel and Harleys Revisited

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

In this week’s parsha, we read: (Deut. 16:20-22)

20. Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. 21. You shall not an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make. 22. Neither shall you set you up any image; which the Lord your God hates.

I've always thought in the modern world, we have little concept of the idolatry of the biblical era. Monotheism, in one form or another has triumphed over Idolatry. More often than not, idolatry has been re-interpreted into meaning the other forms of monotheism. I've really never been exposed to idolatry before, to understand it. That was until three years ago, when I was exposed to a modern analogy of idolatry, and wrote one of my absolute favorite Shlomo’s drashes. These animal skinned pagans pay homage to Chrome and Steel Idols, with fire and noise and constant display of their idol. The priests of the idol, the “Dealer,” promises them male power, patriotism and freedom. And oddly enough they call themselves a very un-kosher name: hogs.

It started on I-94 three years ago as I crossed the Illinois-Wisconsin border on my way to Milwaukee on business. I noticed that there were a lot of signs saying "Riders Welcome Here". When I got to the north of Kenosha Wisconsin, driving by Ike's Harley-Davidson dealership, I saw about hundred and fifty shining chrome bikes parked along the frontage road, and a sign saying "Dealership Event." Not more than a mile and a half down the road I came to another sign, a BMW ad of all things, saying "We'd say Happy 100th Harley Davidson but you wouldn’t hear us." It was then I started realizing what lay ahead in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the home of Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company. And as I had forgot when I scheduled this trip, every Labor Day, owners of these motorcycles get together and party. But what I didn't know was that this was the 100 anniversary. In short, the entire Milwaukee metropolitan area would soon be completely overrun with an estimated 300,000 people on one kind of motorcycle.

Now as far as I'm concerned motorcycles are motorcycles. In short, a traffic hazard. All too often I see some Japanese-imported motorcycle weaving trough 20-mph traffic at 70 mph. All too often I hear out my window late on a Saturday evening whole groups of such bikes speeding past my Window on Lake Shore Drive. But Harley's are different, as I found out time and time again during this trip. First of all, you would be hard pressed, particularly in a place like Milwaukee, to find a Harley speeding. It has nothing to do with traffic laws and a lot to do with exhibitionism. Harley owners LOVE to show off their bikes. So instead of racing at speeds no one can see the wonderful chrome customization their owner (or is it servant?) has lovingly placed on it, they invariably are going slower than normal traffic so everyone can worship their beautiful Idol. I don't think the truck drivers like this much watching the way they tried vainly to pass the bikes headed north. Vainly, because often whole communities bike together. All three lanes of traffic have 50 Mph moving bikes in a 65 zone. If they pull off they literally stop traffic to get back on.

And that attention to their bike is constant. In the Hampton Inn I stayed at that night, there were complimentary rags to polish the bike. I thought of an incident in the Midrash about Hillel the Elder:
This applies to Hillel the Elder who once, when he concluded his studies with his disciples, walked along with them. His disciples asked him: ' Master, whither are you bound? ' He answered them: ' To perform a religious duty.’ ' What,’ they asked, ' is this religious duty?’ He said to them: ‘To wash in the bath-house.’ Said they: ' Is this a religious duty? ' ' Yes, ' he replied; ' if the statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, and who thereby obtains his maintenance through them--nay more, he is exalted in the company of the great of the kingdom--how much more I, who have been created in the Image and Likeness; as it is written, For in the image of God made He man’ (Gen. IX, 6)? [Leviticus Raba XXXIV:3]

In Milwaukee, definitely the idol was getting really good care.

The Harley Davidson Company in order to sell bikes has created an image, a lifestyle, in a sense a Promised Land. The ideal is that with a Harley you are part of a community who believes in wildness and freedom others cannot have. You believe in a form of essentially male power that relieves the trivialities of the world. (Ever see a man riding behind a woman?) All you have to do is buy a motorcycle, ride it and constantly customize it and care for it. One's job at keeping the bike in a perfect condition is the judgment of your status in the community.

In ancient times that must have been what people felt about Idols. Take care of the Idols and you would be happy and part of a community. Do what was necessary for their care even if it meant doing some very questionable things. I now understand the prophets must have had their hands full when criticizing the state of Idolatry in Judah and Israel. But as I drove home from that trip, I thought of something else. Do we as Jews have Idols? Do we believe that care or adornment of an inanimate object is a form of worship?

Three years ago, I came up with one very institutionalized one: the Torah scrolls. There is a sense of respect that must come with the Law of Moses. But is that respect or idolatry when people pay to adorn Torah with silver crowns or velvet coverings without knowing the laws within? Wondering where the line is drawn between admiration and respect and Idolatry, I came to the conclusion Harley riders were the one who give us the answer while they were clogging up the road. Motorcycles are made to be ridden: It isn't a real bike unless it is ridden. So too with Torah, Torah isn't real unless we engage ourselves in the study of text, and struggle with both the easy and the hard parts, to find our own personal blueprint, to find where we do tzedek righteous acts for ourselves and tzedek for others. Otherwise it's just a decorated Idol.

Yet, reading this portion three years later, there is a lot of things which bother me, particularly a lot of talk of the death penalty for idolatry. A while back, someone asked me a very interesting question: If we treat our body like an idol, does that mean we are practicing idolatry? This summer such questions continually challenged me. Reading the old Harley piece, I thought about that, about what Hillel and Harley riders can tell us about our body. I usually quote the passage above, but had never read the rest of that midrash, where there is another interpretation:

Another exposition: ’The merciful man doeth good to his own soul’ applies to Hillel the Elder. Once when he had concluded his studies with his disciples he walked along with them. His disciples said to him: ' Master, whither are you bound? ' He replied: ' To bestow kindness upon a guest in the house.’ They asked: ' Have you a guest every day? ‘He replied: ‘Is not the poor soul a guest in the body? Today it is here and tomorrow it is here no longer?’

A friend of mine, who owns a Honda touring bike, and I were talking about my Harley Drash recently. I mentioned one of the other things that is true of Harley riders I’ve noticed is that they are also the first to stop whenever anybody else breaks down. He mentioned something I hadn’t thought of - riders always carry their tools, so they always have equipment available to help. The tools are there primarily to maintain their own bikes, but their own Tzedek makes them help out others.

Hillel’s point here is that our nefesh, our soul, is the guest in our guf, our body, which is far from permanent. Yet a better way to think about it is that our Nefesh is a rider on that bike called a Guf, going down the road of life. We must maintain our body for that guest, for that rider. While we are commanded in this portion to not turn away from the sentence which they shall declare to you, to the right hand, nor to the left. (Deut 17:11) the road is far from straight and narrow. Our steering, brakes and tires better work really well for the road ahead, in order not to be off-roading in the wilderness. Having tools like good nutrition, exercise, sleep and hygiene, keeps our body in the best condition to handle what life throws at us. Yet such tools allows us to offer help to others as well, to help them tune their own bodies to maximum and to help those who have broken down in the side of the road.

Keeping our bodies in shape is not idolatry. It is maintaining the house of the guest, the divine sparks which is our nefesh. Keeping our bodies looking good through good dress isn’t either. The nefesh deserves the best house as possible, as Proverbs writes: Prepare your work outside, and make it fit for yourself in the field; and afterwards build your house. (Prov. 24:27) Nobody buys a rusty broken down bike to ride as rusty and broken down -- the only ones that do will be obsessed in making it into a beautiful one. So too with our soul, why would the soul want a house and yard that looks ramshackle from the outside?

While it is possible we can run into the hazard of vanity here, a good self-image and a good body image is a matter of inner strength, not idolatry. Unlike vanity, This is something we can then share with others who a re broken down on the side of the road, to get them back on the road. We are told in this portion Tzedek, Tzedek you shall pursue” (Deut 16:20) Tzedek might mean righteousness, or it might mean justice. But why say it twice? In my mind, one Tzedek is for ourselves and one for others. Another explanation might be one for our nefesh and one for our guf. Rabbi Ashi give one other reason why there are two. Sometimes consensus is necessary: both parties must work together to make progress. (B. Sanh 32b) Our bodies and souls, our riders and bikes need each other in order to do good in the world.

I think in this, Hillel and Harley riders would agree.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Reeh 5766 - too tired to think of a title

Parshat Re’eh 5766 Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

This week we read:

1. These are the statutes and judgments, which you shall take care to do, in the land, which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live upon the earth.2. You shall completely destroy all the places, where the nations which you shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree; 3. And you shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and you shall cut down the carved images of their gods, and destroy their names out of that place. [Deuteronomy12:1-3]

If there is a weekly portion which tends to gave me pause to think about the way I live my life, it tends to be this one. For some reason, this week in late summer gives me pause to take stock, and it isn’t even Elul yet. For the last few drashes it was the kosher dietary laws which are also summarized in this section, which gave me some pause. Two years ago, I wrote an odd piece about kosher which upset some. It was a meditation of absurdity of how we all observe kosher, as I was very oddly picking the bacon out of my clam chowder, observing one rule, while breaking two.

This year, since I don’t eat shellfish anymore, that is no longer an issue. But it is the passage above which gives me pause to think. This has been a very busy summer for me, indeed it was too busy. For the last six weeks, I’ve been up a 4:30 in the mooring and don’t hit the pillow till 11:00 that night. A large client load, one week long grad school seminar, one month long on-line self-improvement course, giving three lectures at professional societies, and teaching several days of 8-hour straight classes have left me exhausted. Two weeks ago, I realized how much. While changing clothes to go out to a concert I apparently passed out from exhaustion. All I know was it was 5:30 when I walked in the apartment and 8:30 and stormy out side when I woke up. While the concert would be cancelled any way, it was a bit of a wake up call, so to speak how far things had gotten.

Like any person in this situation, I’m cutting back, of course. But it made me think of an Idol that Moses never mentions in his speech, one I have been far too much at its altar: Microsoft Outlook. Even as I write this I get distracted into checking my schedules and editing contact information. Its information is on my PDA and my call phone which through the miracle of Bluetooth and USB connections is all synchronized so that I may carry around my portable battery powered idols. Yet, in the idolatry of the Canaanites and other people of the near East the Idol was like a house for the god who would then inhabit it, much like the phone, laptop, and PDA hardware is a house for the data contained within it. We don not worship the PDA, but the data inside, the schedules.

It amazes me how much I do take my schedule as some form of worship, feeding these gods and sitting at their altar chugging their holy drink, coffee, while trying to fit in two more things into that schedule for the week, and taking away two more hours of sleep to do so. Our portion begins with stating there is a blessing and a curse. Being organized is a blessing, yet being a slave to the schedule and the task list is a curse. Yet much of it is just to help me make a living. Without it, I would be too poor to afford the laptop, cell phone or internet connection, let alone the food I’m too busy to eat or the bed I spend too few hours in.

It also brings up, however, the one thing that is not scheduled enough on there. We read:
4. You shall not do so to the Lord your God. 5. But to the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, to his habitation shall you seek, and there you shall come; [Deuteronomy12:4-5]

Prior to the destruction of the temple, we are to gather at the place of the Holy Ark, the Mishkan or temple, and worship there. As the biblical record shows, even holy people did not follow that literally, Elijah and Gideon used altars elsewhere to worship. Today we gather together in our synagogues, and we also use time as a major gathering point, which even the text points at. What is missing on that schedule is of course the word “synagogue” or more precisely, “Erev Shabbat Services.” I have missed services all summer, and there been many reasons.

One is a change of, of all things, schedule. At my current synagogue, they changed the time of services for the summer to 6:30. The idea was to give families time to eat after services as families. Of course that excludes singles in its thinking. If I went to services at 6:30, then I would not be able to eat until 7:30, yet by that time on a summer Friday night most places to have an enjoyable meal are busy, meaning an hour wait for a table. Eating at home would be even worse, besides the hour and a half to get food on the table, I have to eat alone. There is nothing heart crushing as eating alone on Shabbat, particularly as you know the reason is that a whole lot of other people are happily eating with family.

But that busy schedule had meant, particularly on Fridays, I’ve had to cut out lunch. I’m left with a very hard decision, to try to make services, and do my best to get through massive Friday traffic to get to services, hopefully in time for the Amidah if I’m lucky then eat late. In this option, I’m forced to fast all of Friday, and then eat after services. It would mean McDonald’s filet of fish sandwiches for my Erev Shabbat dinner way too often this summer. Not exactly enjoying the welcoming of the Sabbath bride, to say the least. My other option, the one which I have chosen, is not to go to services, to find somewhere I can go to dinner, and try for one of the few hours in my life I get to actually enjoy the world, have a nice dinner after all that running around, but even that, due to that heavy schedule is late, and I only enjoy it slightly more than the other option.

I’m too tired to write any more this week. I shouldn’t have written anything, but this too is one of those task things, and none of the old pieces fit anymore. Shabbat is supposed to be for rejuvenation, but this summer it has been so stressful it has contributed to my exhaustion instead.

Hope yours is a good one.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Parshat Eikev 5766 The missing element

Parshat Eikev 5766 Deuteronomy 7:12- 11:25
This week Moses continues his lecture. He goes through several admonishments, and recalls the embarrassing episode of the golden calf. Yet in reading this I noticed a contradiction which interested me. We read towards the beginning of the portion:

17. If you shall say in your heart, ‘These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?’ 18. You shall not be afraid of them; but shall well remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh, and to all Egypt; 19. The great trials which your eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the stretched out arm, whereby the Lord your God brought you out; so shall the Lord your God do to all the people of whom you are afraid. [Deuteronomy 7:16-19]

The problem is this contradicts what we read in the book of Numbers earlier this summer:

22. Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, then have tempted me now these ten times, and have not listened to my voice; 23. Surely they shall not see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of them who provoked me see it; [Numbers 14:22-23]

The reason for wandering in the wilderness for forty years was to kill off that generation. So if Numbers is true, then no one did really witness any of the miracles is standing in front of Moses in Transjordan. All those people are dead. So who is Moses talking to who saw these miracles? One of two exceptions is explicitly mentioned in the next verse in Numbers.

24. But my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and has followed me fully, him will I bring into the land where he went; and his seed shall possess it.

Caleb is the exception. As we read further on in Numbers, so is Joshua, who of course is leading the people into the land. But in Numbers 14:24 only Caleb is mentioned. Interestingly given the context of what our passage in Deuteronomy states about being afraid of conquering the land, is Caleb’s response to the people after the spies return.

30. And Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.’ 31. But the men who went up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ [Numbers 13:30-31]

One of the interesting things about parts of Deuteronomy is the grammar indicates that this is said not to the group as a whole but to an individual. This passage has a second person singular for both the verbs and pronominal suffixes. This is Moses addressing one person, which happens throughout Deuteronomy. Another of course familiar one we read last week, the V’ahavta. Conventionally we believe that in these cases Moses is addressing the entire congregation but in a more personal way, as part of his rhetoric. However, in the beginning of Eikev, I’d like to think differently. One interesting thing is Moses switches the address in the center of the portion from the plural to the singular in the first line of the portion:

12. Therefore it shall come to pass, if you(plural) give heed to these judgments, and (you plural) keep, and (all of you) do them, then the Lord your God shall keep with you( singular) the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your(singular) fathers;

All of this leads me to believe that Moses, in mid speech singles out Caleb from the congregation for some reason and rebukes him. The question now becomes why. Once again we need to remember what Caleb’s report was at the time of the Spies in Numbers 13:30 “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” Something is missing here, which is very different than what he says jointly with Joshua, in Numbers 14:8-9

8. If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it to us; a land which flows with milk and honey. 9. Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is departed from them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.

Here it may be that Joshua added the missing part, which Caleb did not. Of course that part is God. In Deuteronomy 8:17-18, we read:

17. And when you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth. 18. then you shall remember the Lord your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

Moses singles out and rebukes Caleb for stating things in terms of human power and ability only. There is always a God component to everything. One cannot say “I did it” in any type of success, but only “I did it with the help of God” One can of course take this to the literal simplistic view that if we do all the mitzvot, then we get the rewards.

Yet there is a more complex idea that appeals to me. The early Hasidic masters believed that in everything in the world there was a little bit of God in it, a divine spark. I agree, that there is that divine spark, and that it brings an element which cannot be found in the human controlled world. I don’t believe in a rational God, because rationality sets limits on God, and God is infinite and trancendent. God is inherently irrational, yet humans in order to organize and achieve success, use a model of the world we call rationality. The idea of doing good work and getting a reward for that deed is a rational one. Random opportunities popping up at various unpredictable times, like thunderstorms on a summer day, are not rational. The phone call from someone you haven’t heard from in years, comes from a source far from rational. In a recent personal case for example, I did get a very a large client. I had done work for this client before, and my reputation definitely helped me here. On the other hand, I had no control over the client buying a property that was in such bad shape it needed my help. It was God who made the conditions right that I would be trekking there often.

With my current obsession with self improvement, It’s an important lesson. We do not just self improve; we improve ourselves with the help of God. Leaving out the spiritual element leaves out many opportunities for growth we would otherwise not have. When we believe in God, the opportunities appear before us. When we do not, they evaporate like water in a drought.

Eikev also mentions something that is one way to remember God: saying thank you by blessing. For the first and, as far as I can find, only time in Torah, we are told to bless God for what we have been given, in particular the basic need of food:

10. When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you. [Deuteronomy 8:10]

Ultimately all success comes down to the need to feed ourselves. Yet it is vital in remembering in every interaction God actions are there, in the background. To bless, is to acknowledge that God is in the process, and keep God in the process. This is not just Caleb who is to do this, however. Moses changes the wonders from the deliverance from Egypt in the earlier passage, to one that are found in the everyday world of the Israelites at the time he is talking to them: dangerous serpents, scorpions, and their current food source, manna. Yet he keeps it in the singular, to again address every person individually.

As much as some of us try, we do not do anything alone, we always need help. And we always get it in the form of some kind of God-stuff, divine sparks if you will. When looking at this week’s portion I do not see the pashat answer of doing good and getting good or doing bad and getting nothing. I see that God is everywhere and in everything. When we see God in all things, then we can take advantage of the God stuff, God’s blessings, in our lives. The best way to see the God stuff is to thank God for being there, which we do with blessing God. We then will see more God stuff and begin an escalating cycle of holiness.

So remember to bless today.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Parshat Vethanan 5766 - Six Words

Parshat V’ethanan 5766 Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
In this week's portion, Moses finishes his first speech, reminiscing what it was like at Sinai, and mentioning several times that he will not be going into the land because of the people's guilt. Moses also repeats a theme several times of observing the commandments of God and things will be good. If the people do not, then things will be bad. But he also tells them that even when things are bad, things can become good again, by going back to the mitzvot. Moses repeats the Ten Commandments, and then some words which we are all familiar with: (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Hear Oh, Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is one! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul-life and all your might. These words which I command you today will be on your heart. You will teach them and speak of them when you dwell in your house, when going on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You will bind them for a sign on your hand, and they will be bindings between your eyes. You will write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Shema is one of the most fundamental passages in Judaism. So much so the the rabbis discuss how to interrupt it:

In the breaks (between sections of the Shema), one may give greeting out of respect and return greeting; in the middle [of a section] one may give greeting out of fear and return it. So R. Meir. Rabbi Judah says: in the middle one may give greeting out of fear and return it out of respect, in the breaks one may give greeting out of respect and return greeting to anyone. [M. Brachot 2:1]

One comment about this is found in the Gemara to this Mishnah
Our Rabbis taught: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Up to this point concentration is required. So says R. Meir. Raba said: The halakah is as stated by R. Meir. [M.Brachot 13b]

Essentially the Rabbis discuss if there are times you can interrupt the recitation of the different passages of the Shema prayer service. Everyone agrees that between paragraphs, you can interrupt your recitation and say Shalom to someone, say a teacher, out of respect, and return such a Hello. But in between paragraphs, Rabbi Meir believes only out of fear for your life are you allowed to interrupt your prayer. Rabbi Judah believes that out of fear you are allowed to interrupt your prayer, and if a teacher or other person of respect, were to greet you in the middle of the Shema, then you interrupt yourself and return the greeting. Later in Gemara, the rabbis actually say other prayers like a partial Hallel, do not have this restriction of concentration, you can interrupt yourself wherever [13b].

The halakah underlines the intense concentration involving this section of liturgy. As we can tell from the comments of R. Meir, the absolutely key element is what we name the whole section of prayer, Shema, “Hear oh Israel.” This is where concentration is the most intense, including the covering of our eyes so we can not look at anything that might distract us. Yet why are these six words so intensely said?

One answer has been brewing in my mind for the last two months. As I noted in other drashes, I’m trying to get over my shyness in person to person contact by a variety of methods. Those with shyness or approach anxiety have scripts in our heads which tell us not to approach. For example, When I see someone or a small group of people I want to talk to (who I’ll call X) several voices or scripts immediately go off in my head. I might hear:

“What if X rejects me? I’ll fell embarrassed and hurt!”
“X is only going to say something that will hurt me”
“What would X see in me anyway?”
“What do I say to X to start a conversation?”
“It impolite or rude to start a conversation with X”
“I’ll be an interruption!”

In hearing these voices, I listen to them and heed them, because I believe them to be true. Yet, I only believe them to be true because there is no evidence to the contrary. Had there been other scripts in my head saying something else I might listen to them as well. However, I have no problem with standing in front of 200 people and giving a presentation. Somewhere back there in my mind there is probably a similar script for public speaking that says “If I make a mistake while speaking, people will laugh at me” yet there is another stronger script that says “If anything goes wrong, I’ll make sure everyone has a big laugh about it.” It is that second script which continually gets me accolades as an “entertaining speaker.” That second script is so ingrained; I don’t even think before I react, I just turn a problem or mistake into a joke.

Thinking about the difference in my public and private speaking skills, I see this difference clearly. But how did I beat my anxiety over public speaking? Going back to when I was learning public speaking almost twenty years ago, I think that answer is twofold. One was of course just doing public speaking. Thinking back to some of those first experiences, I do remember how scared I was. I was literally shaking in my boots. At the time I was teaching computer skills, and my students were even more scared of the computer than I was of them. I found out that if you showed any weakness or nervousness they would exploit it and try to hurt you just so they would feel better about their own lack of skills. My first few training sessions were pure hell.

But not long after that, I got my first new car, complete with a cassette deck. It was that cassette deck which was the other part of the answer. I bought for myself an album of self-esteem materials. The cassettes were stories the presenter ripped off inspiration stories from any other source he could find. He strung them together as a motivational presentation for five and a half cassettes. But that last side of the sixth cassette was really what I would listen to over and over again. It consisted of the presenter merely saying a number of statements, such as.

I am good and I am lovable
I am confident and I am competent
People like me.
What I do makes a difference

This was my first exposure to affirmations. I listened to that half hour affirmation tape for hours as I would travel the long distances to clients back then. In retrospect I do believe that my nervousness dissipated because of listening and repeating the affirmations on those tapes out loud over and over again. With both practice and a better sense of confidence, I was eventually able to become a rather good trainer and public speaker. The affirmations took all of the negative scripts and gave them something to compete with. By saying the same thing over and over again, I eventually believed it. Indeed I believed it so much, it overpowered the fear mongering scripts.

About two months ago, I thought of this while trying to find ways to get me to break my cycle of approach anxiety. So for the last two months, I’ve been using affirmations again. Keeping up with technology I’ve recorded them as mp3 files on my iPod, listening to them in my car or when I walk somewhere, repeating the scripts that I should remember when I want to talk to someone I have not been introduced to. I go to sleep to them and wake up to them, two times where the brain absorbs such stuff well.

Affirmations have requirement to be a good affirmation. One requirement is an affirmation must be short, in order to remember them better. Another is that they must be completely in the affirmative. Negation words like not and never are ignored by the subconscious. The ears may hear “I will never eat a piece of chocolate cake for a snack” but the subconcious hears “I will eat a piece of chocolate cake for a snack”, re-enforcing the behavior we are trying to get rid of. For a dieting affirmation, a better one would be I will eat a carrot or an apple when I need a snack, giving the positive behavior that one is to do.

Some have said that the Shema is a mantra, which gets you into a meditative mood. I don’t believe this, because the repetition of mantra must be a lot more frequent and rhythmic than we do saying the Shema twice a day. Yet the six-word Shema is a short positive remark, said at the two times when our brain is the most receptive to such information, “when you lie down and when you rise up.” We are to think about it “while you go on the road,” when the mind enters a trance like state from travel. And we are to give ourselves physical symbols of those words, “as frontlets (i.e. tefillin) between your eyes and on the door posts of your house and your gates.” Such symbols are triggers to subconsciously recall the words of the Shema. Through every door we pass, we instantly remember the Shema. When I pass a mezuzah and see the Hebrew letter Shin, even though I know better, I always think of the word Shema, not Shaddai that it really represents.

The Shema is the ultimate Jewish affirmation, set up for us to remember and integrate not only into our own lives but into the lives of our descendants. We remember we are a spiritual nation, and that the message is for all of us, we remember God, and that God is ONE. Over and over again we repeat those words. Even those who can’t tell an aleph from an ayin can say it in both Hebrew and English. Others, Like Maimonides have tried other affirmations, such as his 13 principles but none have taken so hard and deep in every Jew than the Shema. The reason for the intensity surrounding those six words it they are such an important affirmation to integrate and thus be jewishly connected to God.

This portion is always read just after the spiritually darkest day of the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av. Even though there are many other passages in this and the Haftorah that lead us to comfort, it is this six words affirmation of God that is the most comforting.

Now go stick that on your iPod.