Saturday, April 18, 2009

Listen to the Voice of silence

In the Torah reading this week, the unthinkable happens. There’s a moment that no parent should ever have to see: to witness the death of one’s own children. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon HaKohen, Aaron the High Priest, bring esh zarah, strange fire, before God. As a result of their actions, fire comes out of the sacred shrine, and the two young men are killed before their father, and before all 600,000 Israelites. It’s a stunning moment. And in the shock and horror, Moses speaks God’s words: birkrovai ekadesh, through those near to me, I, God make myself holy. And in response to Moses words, in response to the shocking death of his children, the Torah uses only two words to describe Aaron’s reaction: vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent. Most of could only imagine how we would respond at such a sight: searing horror, grief, agony, screaming out in indescribable anguish. But in the case of Aharon, all it says is vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent, still. Perhaps, on some level, we can imagine ourselves relating to Aharon in his reaction: having no words, being unable to move, to breathe, to think at such a moment of shock. And yet, any of us who have known loss and anguish know that there is not just wordless shock, there is also the unbearable pain, the anguish, and in this case, anger. Where’s Aaron’s anger at God for taking his children’s life? Where is his very human pain in the midst of such a tragedy? Why doesn’t the Torah show us his humanity at such a moment, as a comfort to us all, as we all deal with crisis and tragedy and pain in our lives?
Of course, our tradition understands Aaron to be no ordinary man. He is a great man, a man who is beloved of the people even more than Moses. As the high priest, he lives in a lofty place of insight and wisdom above and beyond most any of us. And so, our tradition calls us to see a lesson in wisdom in Aaron’s silence and stillness in the face of his tragedy. There was once a teaching given in the name of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk: When the Torah says ‘vayidom Aharon,’ and Aaron was silent, it’s a reference of praise to Aharon. It’s a reference to the high madrega, or spiritual level, he attained in his life in his ability to ‘hold his peace’ even in the face of a tragedy of that magnitude. But the teaching goes on: Reb Shlom says that King David, however, generations later, surpassed Aharon in his madrega, in his spiritual level. How do we know this? Because it says in one of David’s psalms, “lema’an yizamercha kavod,” in order that my soul sing praises to You, God, ‘V’lo Yidom’ andI will NOT be silent!
Let’s take a second to understand this teaching: Reb Shlomo acknowledges that it’s very impressive that Aharon can be still and silent in his loss. It’s a mark of his greatness. But David was greater still because he didn’t need to be silent: he could sing God’s praises even without the stillness that Aharon showed. It’s a fascinating teaching: maybe it’s a critique of the tradition that sees Aaron as great in his self restraint. Perhaps it’s saying that it’s better, it’s healthier NOT to be so measured and reserved, but to let it all hang out! Maybe that’s what this teaching means, but I suspect that it actually is coming to teach us something even deeper. I think it’s coming to teach us something about that very amazing Hebrew word, Vayidom, the word for Silence, that Aharon showed us. The root of the Hebrew Vayidom is the Hebrew Domem. It means, ‘silence,’ but it’s a very powerful kind of silence. It is the deepest experience of silence. It doesn’t mean just the absence of noise or sound. It’s a word that refers to Ultimate Stillness. Picture a completely placid lake, that reflects back the sky like perfectly polished glass. Picture a lake so still that not a single tiny ripple disturbs its surface. The Hebrew Domem calls upon this image: not a ripple of sound could possibly disturb this kind of perfect stillness, and few, if any of us, have ever experienced this kind of total stillness.
The subject of deep silence is one that often makes people, particularly in our day and age, rather uncomfortable. Silence can be disconcerting. Many of us associate silence with awkward pauses in conversation. Many of us run from silence, because in total silence, we’re left with only our own thoughts and worries and insecurities nagging at us. For others among us, silence is the experience of sheer terror. Silence, particularly deep stillness, reminds some of us of death, of hopelessness and passivity, of the absence of life and possibility. But there’s another aspect of stillness and silence that few of us have taken the time to consider: that when we welcome moments of stillness and silence into our experience fearlessly, it can be incredible, restorative, the very opposite of insecurity and fear, the very opposite of death’s finality.
The first book of Kings tells us the story of the prophet Elijah who, during a time of despondency journeyed to Mt. Sinai, the very place where God thundered the Ten Commandments to all of Israel generations before, because Elijah wanted to hear the voice of God speaking to him personally. And the story describes how all these amazing forces of nature revealed themselves to Elijah: first, a great wind blasted the face of the mountain, shattering even the rocks on the Cliffside. But, says the story, Lo BaRuach Adonai: God was not in the wind. Then, a great earthquake made the whole mountain tremble, but…vlo b’ra’ash Adonai…God was not in the earthquake. Next a terrible fire swept everything into flames, but…you guessed it…lo b’esh Adonai: God was not in the fire. And then finally, after all the fire and earth-shattering noise, Elijah heard a Kol Demamah Dakah, a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19: 11-12) And in that still, small Voice, was God’s Presence. Let’s think about the Hebrew for ‘still small Voice:’ Kol Demamah Dakah—the same word Demamah/Domem: meaning absolute Silence and stillness, the same stillness that Aharon showed at the death of his sons.
So we must ask ourselves: was Aharon simply in stunned speechlessness? Was he showing stoic self-restraint? Or was he in a place of listening to that still small voice in the silence?...
There’s a Hasidic story about Yom Kippur in Berdichev, centuries ago. All the Jews were gathered in one synagogue, waiting for their rebbe, Levi Yitzhak to finish praying. But on this year, something strange was happening. The rebbe, stopped his prayers, began muttering to himself and pacing back and forth on the bimah, visibly disturbed and distracted. After a long time of this, everyone began to become concerned: "He is asking a lot of us. We are fasting! How long will he keep us?" Still, they waited quietly for him to settle this divine matter.
Then he stopped and faced them. At last,they thought, he’s going to pray! They straightened up to listen. But Levi Yitzhak surprised them all and spoke: "At this moment," he said, "I cannot continue. Today, this prayer must be sung by one who is so committed to it...that he is willing to die while he prays." Everyone there was stunned by his announcement, not sure what to do.
After a while, he spoke again. "One of you must sing this prayer. In this holy moment, it must be sung by one who is willing to die in the act." They looked around at each other. Most of them had ideas about who it should be. But no one spoke. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, "There must be someone who is willing to sing this prayer now, knowing it may be your last words in this lifetime."
They heard a bench scraping. Slowly, someone was standing up. Strangely, the sound was not coming from the side of the synagogue where the machers, the important people sat. Even so, they were relieved to hear the sound of someone rising. Turning to see, they saw an old man, rising slowly from the bench against the rear wall of the synagogue. They were aghast. Him? Once, this man had a gorgeous voice. Long ago, in fact, he had been Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's Hazzen, or cantor. But he was so unsparing of his voice in the service of God over the years that he had begun to lose it. By the time he more croaked than sang, he was asked to stop his attempts at music, and he was forced into retirement. For years now, no one had given him a thought.
But this day, he toddled slowly toward the bima. When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw him, he smiled and stood aside. At last, the old man reached the bima, turned around to face the congregants, and opened his mouth. What came out was more growl than song. Instinctively, people covered their ears. Yet the old man went on, cawing like a tormented crow.
This man was to represent them to heaven? People in the prestigious seats began to exchange glances. Yet now they were distracted by other sounds - from their beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. He was bent over in an intense state of: what was it? Pain? Grief? Suffering?
As the old man went on with the prayer, his rough voice cracked completely, and for a moment no sound came out at all, except his labored breathing. His voice cracked again and again. The silences became longer than the periods of "singing." By now, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was writhing on the floor. He trembled. His legs began to twitch. The congregants were stunned. The old man's singing was painful, but no one seemed to be in as much agony as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak! Was he in danger? Should they intervene? At last, three respectable villagers approached the bima and knelt down beside Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. One of them touched Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's cheek. "Holy rabbi, are you all right?"
After a time, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak opened his eyes. "It is just as well that you roused me. If you had not, I would have died." Now he slowly stood up. "But I dearly wish that you never had. You see, in the silences in that man's song, I heard the music of God."
Once again, he faced the congregation. As he prayed, everyone’s voices joined his, in equal fervor. And that’s the end of the story…
It is in the silences between the notes, between the gasps of pain and anguish, between the noise we hear and the endless thoughts of our tormented minds, there, in those silent gaps, we can find the very music of God! This was the Demamah, the silence, that Aharon showed us in his moment of tragedy.
And it is also perhaps true that Kind David was even at a higher level than even Aharon—as was Elijah, as was Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev—when they could hear that Kol Demamah Dakah, that still silent Voice even as the noises of the world: the wind, the earthquake, the fire, the craoking voice of a dear old man—replaced the silence with so much noise. They could find the stillness even in the midst of all that.
In our day and age, we live in a world of so much noise and distraction. There is the constant droning of our televisions and computers and ipods and cell phones. There is the constant noise of a restless and frightened world: the noise in our own minds and hearts as we constantly worry about the future, about our children’s futures. There is the noise of oppression and injustice that demands our attention and action, to be sure. And there is the noise of so much tragedy and violence in this world, the anguished cries of so many parents who still must witness the death of their children. And there is the noise of our history of tragedy that calls us to remember, like the rememberance of the Shoah that we will comemoriate at the Garden of the Righteous ceremony here next week. All of these noises are important. They demand our time and love. But when do we listen for the Kol Demamah Dakah, the still Voice of Silence itself, singing to us it’s heavenly Divine Voice? Without that Still Silence, the noise of this world can overwhelm us with grief and stress. That Kol Demamah Dakah lives within our very hearts. It’s there, in the silent spaces between our words, between the very thoughts we think in our heart of hearts. When we, like Aharon and David, like Elijah and Rebbe Yitzhak learn to listen to the stillness within, in that we find the context, the meaning, the strength and even the joy to be able to face the fierce noise of life itself. That Silent stillness is always there for us, just beneath the surface, waiting for us to listen. Let’s listen for it, and may it give us the strength to face this world, and to transform this world from noise to music, and from tragedy to joy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Do we welcome suffering?

During our seder last week, we came to the section where we take ten drops of wine from our cups, reducing our joy because of the suffering of the Egyptians from the plagues. A young woman at our seder table raised a very poignant idea, one that plagues us all during the course of life: she said, it’s fine that we should feel compassion for the Egyptians. But how can we believe in a God who can bring about that kind of suffering at all? I responded with a very traditional, albeit difficult response: that the Haggadah makes it very clear that God is responsible not just for the good things, but for the whole experience, the bad with the good. The same God who brought about our freedom and redemption, is also the same God who brought about the plagues on the Egyptians. Just as, in Judaism, we bless God for the good, so too in life, when death and loss happen, we say a blessing: Dayan Ha’Emet, that God is the True Judge. And this young woman, like so many of us, had real problems with this answer. So, she asked, if I’m with someone who is dying of cancer, I can tell them that God sent them this cancer? What kind of a God is that who sends cancer to good and innocent people?
This question is, of course, the great Problem of Evil. A problem that defies our ability as rational beings to adequately answer. How indeed, can we celebrate a God of goodness and justice when that same God gives us cancer, and all other manner of ways that good and innocent people die? The rabbis in the Talmud struggle with this very question over and over. There’s a famous text in Masechet Brachot that shows us just how radically the rabbis wrestled with this question: how can God allow anyone to suffer?
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yohanan, who was not only a great scholar, but was also a great healer. He goes into visit one of his students, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who was stricken with a deathly illness and was confined to bed. Now we know from the outset, that Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was a good man. In fact, he was great and learned and pious man. He certainly didn’t deserve in any sense to suffer from such a terrible illness. And yet, there he was, suffering, dying. So the story immediately begins with us angry at God: how could God make such a good man suffer? And, upon visiting Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, R. Yohanan asked a perplexing question: he asks, ‘Are your sufferings welcome to you?’ What a bizarre question! We can all think back to times in our lives when we have suffered, and we all know that none of it was in any way welcome to us! And yet, R. Yohanan begins with this question. Why?!
The answer is that there was a belief floating around in those days that if good and pious people suffer, it’s because God was testing them. People were so hard pressed to explain why bad things happened to good people, that they decided that if you can’t think of a reason to be punished by God, then you should be happy to suffer, because it meant that God thought so highly of you, God was sending the suffering so that you could prove to yourself and others how pious you were. So when Rabbi Yohanan asks the question, ‘Are your sufferings welcome to you?’ He’s really asking, do you believe that, on some level, you SHOULD be suffering?
When we see his question in this context, we see that it’s really a very sophisticated question! How many of us believe that on some level, we should be suffering? How many of us have a cycnical belief about life, that suffering is inevitable. How many of us, when a moment of loss and suffering comes, simply don’t question it at all, we simply suffer in misery, because we don’t believe that it can be any other way? Indeed, whenever any of us suffer, we can ask ourselves the question, Is OUR suffering welcome to us? Are we just accepting our suffering, or are we WILLING to find a way out of our suffering?
And so Rabbi Hiyya responds very bravely, very wisely to his master from his sickbed. He say’s ‘No, my sufferings are not welcome to me. Neither they nor their reward.’ He bravely, and very radically says, I’m not willing to accept this situation I’m in for how it appears to me. I’m not willing to suffer even in this moment of illness on a sickbed. I’m not willing to believe in a God who would send me this kind of suffering just for the reward of being a pious person. No, said R. Hiyya, I’m not willing to accept a belief in a God who sends cancer and any other illness or tragedy expressly for the purpose of my suffering! If I might extend R. Hiyya’s defiant expression at this moment, he is, in essence saying, cancer, illness, tragedy, and death are all facts of life. They are things that happen. But I’m not willing to believe that these things exist in the world in order to bring about suffering for me, or for anyone else. No, this suffering is not welcome to me!
Then R. Yohanan responds very simply. He says to R. Hiyya, ‘Give me your hand.’ R. Hiyya gives him his hand, and in that moment, he is healed. What just happened in that moment? The healing wasn’t in R. Yohanan’s words. It was in the silence that followed his words. It was in the silent gesture of one human hand taking another. In that silent, knowing moment of touch, of love itself, R. Yohanan joined with R.Hiyya in his defiance of suffering. In a sense, that moment of joining hands was a kind of spiritual awakening for R. Hiyya: right there, on his sickbed, in the midst of illness, there was a moment of the purest of most loving joining of hands between master and pupil. Right in that moment, there was the outstretched hand of one suffering meeting the strong, reassuring hand of another. In that moment of joining hands, there was NO SUFFERING. There was still sickness, the sickbed, there might have even been pain, but in that moment of joining, there was no suffering. R. Hiyya healed in spirit in that moment because he realized the Truth, that even though there is sickness, tragedy, loss in this world, there is the presence of an outstretched hand in ALL MOMENTS, a hand that can give us the strength not to suffer at all even with the limitations of life.
Like it says in Psalm 145, “Poteach et Yadecha, umasbiah lechol chay ratzon,” You, God, open your hand, and you satisfy the will of every living thing.” That beautiful line of the Ashrei tells us that every living thing in this world has, as its deepest yearning, the wish not to suffer, to be free. And the psalm affirms a very deep and magnificent Truth: that in every moment, God’s hand is OPEN to us to show us that we don’t have to suffer in this world; we don’thave to ‘welcome’ suffering as inevitable, even with the loss. In that story in the Talmud, R. Yohanan is a conduit for this Truth. His open hand extending to his suffering student IS the hand of God reaching out to him, providing relief from that suffering even in the midst of illness, suffering, even death.
Our story in the Talmud ends on an ironic note. Some time later, it says, R. Yohanan, the healer himself, fell ill, and was on the sickbed. His colleague R. Hanina went into visit him. And they had the same exchange: R. Hanina said to R. Yohanan, are your sufferings welcome to you? Neither they nor their reward, said R. Yohanan. Give me your hand, said R. Hanina. R. Yohanan gave him his hand, and he was healed. The Talmud then asks the obvious question: Hey, wait a minute! Didn’t R. Yohanan heal his student just that same way? Doesn’t he already know the wisdom about how we heal when we can transcend suffering? Let the healer heal himself! The Talmud protests. But then, the Talmud provides the answer to this problem by saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”
R. Yohanan is not a god. He is only human. Life is hard. Suffering, illness, tragedy and loss are so very hard. It’s one thing to understand deep spiritual truths. It’s one thing to teach them, to believe in them, to help others with them. But each of us who have lost a loved one know that we can never, ever be prepared for the enormity of such a loss. No matter how brilliant or insightful or wise we are, tragedy and loss can overpower us. And yet, the beauty of this story is that even though the most wise teachers can fall prey to suffering over loss and tragedy, this doesn’t mean that the spiritual Truths are invalid. All the great ideas and teachings and philosophies are one thing. But all of these pale in comparison to the power of a moment of chesed, a moment of an outrstretched hand reaching out in love and taking the hand of one who is suffering over tragedy and loss. In every moment, so long as there is Chesed, kindness, the hand of another reaching out, there is always the possibility to defy suffering. There is always the possibility to find peace and strength and freedom from the prison of suffering right in the middle of loss itself.
And in this insight, we have the deepest answer to that young woman’s question at my seder: What kind of a God is it who sends cancer to good and innocent people? The problem is the question itself. If we focus on the question phrased this way, then we are ‘welcoming suffering’ into our lives. We are not questioning the belief that God “sends” cancer, which is suffering. What if we re-phrase the question as, “Does cancer prove that God and human beings are not good and innocent?” Where does that question take us? Phrased this way, we defy the suffering that cancer and tragedy pose to us. Can we absolutely know, indeed, that cancer proves that goodness and innocence are obliterated because there is cancer? In fact, we know that this is NOT true: there is always the possibility of an outstretched arm, there is always Chesed, there is always the possibility to be in the midst of cancer and to know the purest kind of love, of compassion, of joy, of freedom from suffering even as cancer ends our lives and the lives of those whom we love.
Death and loss are the way of this world. But as long as we continue to believe that Death is the end of happiness, the end of joy, the end of freedom, then we are ‘welcoming suffering.’ Look deeper into the Truth, and you will see that the death of your beloved in no way ends their love, their joy, their freedom. All of that is right here with you, even at this moment. Cancer, tragedy, even death itself is just the end of a story. It is not the end of the Truth, which is always kind, because it is always filled with the possibility of healing, of caring, of redemption.
Let’s remember this. Even as our pain and suffering well up as we long for our loved ones who have passed on to be physically with us, let us remember that neither this suffering, nor its reward is welcome to us. Instead, let us open our hearts and reach out for the love and joy and peace of our loved ones that is the Truth of their Presence that is always with us, despite the reality of their loss. May we come to know the Truth that they are indeed always reaching out to us. Let us take their hand, and let us be healed.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pesach: It's all about "Me"

In the Haggadah we read how, in each and every generation, we must see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt. This is a central message of Pesach, perhaps the fundamental experience of the whole seder. It’s not enough just to imagine what it was like for the Israelites as slaves leaving Egypt. On a gut level, we are to feel as though it happened to us: we literally taste the bitterness of slavery through the Maror, the bitter herb. We feel the wonder and terror of the plagues. We sing out in joy as we witness our Redemption. The Hebrew word "Haggadah" means "The Telling." It is through the stories that we tell that we build our understanding of the world, of who we are, of the nature of Truth. The very identities that each of us hold as "ourselves" are really a collection of personal stories that we believe about ourselves. Through the experience of Pesach, we add to our personal narrative, the story of the redemption of our people. We hold in our deepest heart of hearts the Truth that the miracle of Redemption from suffering is possible for each and every one of us, because it happened to us—to "me"—in Egypt all those years ago.
This Pesach, may the story of our own lives be deepened by the story of our "personal" Redemption from Egypt. May we find personal meaning , richness and joy knowing that we were 'there,' that we tasted not only the bitterness, but the sweetness of real Freedom. May our shared personal story of liberation give us the inner strength to face any challenges that life may present to us, and to bring about justice and Redemption in this world, because we know that we have lived the miracle.
A Zissen Pesach, a Sweet Pesach to all!