Monday, October 7, 2019

G-d Rewards Failure (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5780)

My mood is more into the heavier type of derashah these days, like the one I posted here on how a suffering Jew does teshuvah, or like the derashah I posted for Rosh HaShanah. But optimism is important too, so here goes with an upbeat idea...

Adam and Chavah
It was a beautiful garden. Lush foliage, animals,[1] perhaps some colourful birds, a literal paradise designed for two human beings, Adam and Chavah, the original צלם אלקים created by Gd and commissioned to implement Gd’s vision on Earth. But there was, as they say, a serpent in the garden, a snake in the grass, and he identified a defect in the human design. Although granted explicit permission to eat of any tree save one, Chavah succumbed to the serpent’s invitation to eat from that single forbidden fruit, and Adam soon followed suit.

What defect did the serpent discover? It was not merely a weakness for attractive fruit, כי טוב העץ למאכל וכי תאוה הוא לעינים. The serpent lured Chavah by promising that if she and Adam would eat from the fruit, והייתם כאלקים, they would be gods, like Hashem. This greed was the weakness. But what did Chavah and Adam know about Hashem at this point? What was the magnet for their greed? Rashi explains that they knew Hashem to be a Creator of Worlds, and this was what Chavah and Adam wanted: to be יוצרי עולמות, Creators of Worlds, the capacity to create life.

And then we arrive at a perplexing part of the story. Hashem punished Adam and Chavah – but rather than take something away due to their greed, Hashem only adjusted the challenges to acting on their greed. I would have expected Hashem to punish Chavah and Adam by inhibiting any capacity to create – but Hashem explicitly licensed to Chavah and Adam the privilege of bringing life into this world. Hashem told Chavah: You will bring life from your body! HaShem told Adam: You will bring life from the ground! Painfully, to be sure. Frustratingly, of course. But Hashem allowed them the ability to create worlds; why?

The Eigel
For an even stronger example of perplexing punishment, look at what happened millennia later, in the events which would lead up to the first Yom Kippur.

Moshe proclaimed the Aseret haDibrot (Ten Commandments) to the Jews, and then disappeared up Mount Sinai. Day after day, his followers waited at the base of the mountain, still wearing their finery, still anticipating the return of the miracle-working leader who had brought them out of Egypt, split the sea and delivered to them the Torah. One week went by, then two, then three. Finally, after nearly six weeks, their long-eroded patience gave way and they created a Golden Calf as an intermediary via which to communicate with Hashem.[2]

Hashem told Moshe, “Descend, for your nation has become corrupt.” Moshe took in the scene, smashed the tablets of the Torah and punished the perpetrators - but what should have happened next? The nation overstepped in seeking to communicate with Hashem, so should not Hashem have cut off communication?

But again, just the opposite - according to Rashi, Hashem commanded that we create a Mishkan to facilitate our access to Hashem, and Hashem even inaugurated it in a grand and beautiful and joyous celebration, with special sacrifices and gifts! And when Shlomo haMelech built the Beit haMikdash, the eventual successor of that allegedly bedieved Mishkan, the celebratory dedication overrode Yom Kippur that year; as the gemara explains, the Jews ate and drank![3]

Even per Ramban,[4] who contended we were always meant to have a Mishkan and Beit haMikdash and these were not a response to the Eigel, the יום השמיני, the final day of the dedication of the Mishkan, may have been added just to make up for the Eigel – and this day was such a grand celebration that a midrash identifies it as יום שמחת לבו, the day of Hashem’s great joy![5] How could the Eigel’s terrible sin, with its death toll in the thousands, lead to יום שמחת לבו?

Level 1: Learning from Failure
On a simple level, we could suggest that Hashem provides new opportunities for Adam and Chavah, and the Jews of the Wilderness Generation, because now they are ready to learn. As psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. Just gifts given to us to learn from.[6]” Or as a famous athlete[7] once said, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed."

Level 2: Turning Failure Into Success
On a deeper level, though, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook identified a second reason for Hashem to respond to our transgressions with new opportunities: because recognizing our aveirot can stimulate us to perform mitzvot.

Rav Kook was troubled by a classic gemara, in which the sage Reish Lakish declared, גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, teshuvah is so great that it converts even intentional sin into merit.[8] How could an intentional aveirah possibly become a source of merit?

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that aveirot cause our sensitive neshamot (souls) to feel unsettled and anxious, recognizing that we have left the proper path. This anxiety triggers what he called העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, our inherent longing and desire to achieve perfection.[9] And so the aveirah becomes not an instant of degradation but a long-term building block, a catalyst for greatness, turning our intentional sin into an opportunity for merit.

This phenomenon of ירידה לצורך עלייה, destruction which fuels growth, appears not only in Torah, but also in nature. This is how muscles grow. When we exercise, we inflict “micro-tears”, small rips in the muscle fibers. Soreness after a workout is a function of those tears. Those tears are what enable muscles to grow; in repairing the tear, we experience hypertrophy, the fibers grow. The tears are our building blocks.

Level 3: Responding to Our Motivations
But let’s look closer, and we’ll see a third level, a deeper genius the Torah is revealing in its comprehension of sin and redemption, failure and possibility.

Chavah and Adam wished to be Creators; that’s a potentially positive motivation. But they wanted to do it quickly and cheaply, just eat a fruit and you become like Hashem. So Hashem taught them that they could indeed create life, but it would involve time and labour and pain. Hashem identified the creative desire that had been corrupted by their greed, and transformed their aveirah into a building block.

The Eigel was born from a desire to communicate with Hashem, but it was corrupted. So Hashem granted us an opportunity for successful communication with the Divine, a building block for greater success – a success which went on for many centuries of service.

In other words – transgression is often born from a potentially good desire, poorly implemented. Hashem is willing to provide additional opportunities to make good on those positive desires.

Hashem has three reasons, then, to reward our failure with opportunity.
·         First, because we learn from failure.
·         Second, because capitalizing on our feelings of guilt and discomfort can lead us to success and growth, and justify the mistakes, the micro-tears, we endured in order to get there.
·         And third, because our failures often stem from useful drives.
And so Hashem responds to Adam and Chavah by giving them greater opportunities to create, and to the Jews of the Golden Calf with greater opportunities for access to Gd.

Of course, having new opportunities also means we can fail in a greater way. Adam and Chavah’s power of creation generated Kayin, who killed his brother. And look at the many times we desecrated our Mishkan and Beit haMikdash, leading to its destruction! And yet – Hashem gives us those chances.

The Goal of Viduy
We are going to recite viduy (admission of sin) ten times today.[10] On one level, viduy involves declaring to Gd that we are a hot mess, filled with failure. We analyze the chain of events that brought us to this point, with an emphasis on the bad: The vulnerabilities which made us susceptible to destabilization. The actions of our transgressions. And the damage we created, for ourselves and for others, with those transgressions. We declare sin and regret, and we ask for forgiveness.

But viduy is also an appeal for opportunity.[11] We declare ולא שוה לנו! (it wasn’t worth it!), that we feel anxiety and upset as a consequence of our sins, testifying to our innate yearning to achieve perfection. We recognize that our sin involved desires to do something which could be good, which could generate greatness if only we could address our vulnerabilities and interrupt the destructive chain. We appeal for help שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. We ask Gd to reward our failures, with the opportunity for success.

To give but one example: A chevra man, who enjoys his role as a social leader, is vulnerable to the excitement that comes with holding, and selectively sharing, potentially scandalous information. He learns of someone’s personal mistake – and that event leads him to share the information with other people in the community, violating innumerable halachot against lashon hara, rechilut, lifnei iver, and much more.

Before he ever gets to Yom Kippur, our chevra man must find a way to make amends for all of the people he has hurt – the subject of the scandal, that person’s family, the audience who heard the news, their own audiences for their re-tellings, etc. And then on Yom Kippur, as part of Viduy, our chevra man needs to acknowledge to Hashem and express regret for what he has done, and describe how he is going to avoid a repeat performance in the future. But he should also recognize the potential good – his desire to connect, unite, organize and rally people together. His horrible feelings from his wrongdoing. These can be strengths!

And this recognition can lead Hashem to send more opportunities the way of our chevra man – information which could lead him to corrrect, unite, organize and rally people for chesed, for tzedakah, for Torah study, for prayer. Our chevra man can follow the model of Adam and Chavah as positive creators, the Wilderness Generation building a Mishkan, Shlomo haMelech dedicating a Beit haMikdash!

Many people here will be saying Yizkor shortly, remembering relatives who have passed away. Yizkor testifies that our opportunities never end. Even for those who have gone on to עולם האמת (the world of truth), their families, the people they impacted through their lives and deeds, remember them, commemorate them with tefillah and tzedakah and mitzvot, and appeal to Hashem to remember them as well. The gemara states, אין ציבור מתה; whatever mistakes a previous generation made, the community lives on and has the opportunity to correct them.

Yes, failure is depressing – and admitting it ten times in one day is a lot, enough to drag anyone down. But when we recognize that our failure can point the way to our success, that viduy is actually a request for the opportunity to achieve, we will be inspired to follow Shlomo HaMelech’s counsel, כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם – The tzaddik falls seven times, but each time he gets up.[12] Or as Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith re-worded it: "Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall down." And that success will be well worth celebrating.

May our anxiety over our sins move us to identify both our mistakes and our strengths, and use those strengths to return to Hashem – and may Hashem return to us.

[1] Based on the לעבדה ולשמרה mandate
[2] See Kuzari 1:92-97, and Ibn Ezra to Shemot
[3] Moed Katan 9a
[4] Ramban to Vayikra 9:3
[5] And see Haameik Davar to Vayikra 9:1 on what יום שמחת לבו adds to יום חתונתו
[7] Michael Jordan
[8] Yoma 86b
[9] Orot haTeshuvah 5:6
[10] See Tur Orach Chaim 620, Maharil and others for explanations of why 10.
[11] Ditto viduy maaser; see Devarim 26:12-15
[12] Mishlei 24:16

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Teshuvah and the Suffering Jew (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5780)

From the Cutting Room Floor:

I wrote the following draft derashah for Yom Kippur, but the Rebbetzin, whose derashah sensibilities are as close to unerring as a human being gets, pointed out numerous flaws, so I'm going in a different direction. I still feel the message holds some value, though, so I'm posting it here. Feedback always welcome.

The Book of Yonah conveys distinct messages to different audiences.
·         To some, it’s an entertaining fish story!
·         To others, it’s a philosophical polemic on mercy and forgiveness.
·         To another audience, it’s a political attack on the barbaric Assyrian Empire.
·         And to still others, it’s a mystical parable about the journey of the soul, represented by Yonah himself.
But I’d like to read it on another level – as a story of unexpected, if partial, redemption, offering a powerful lesson for our relationship with Hashem, on Yom Kippur and all year round.

Chapter 1: Fight and Flight
In Chapter 1, almost from the opening sentence, our protagonist, Yonah, an experienced prophet,[1] dramatically demonstrates that he is at odds with the Gd he serves. Gd orders him to travel east to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and convey a simple message: In forty days, Nineveh will be overturned. Yonah refuses to go – but whatever drives his refusal is so disturbing, so painful that he cannot express it at this point. Yonah silently descends to the water and hires a boat heading west, the opposite direction.

At first, it seems that Yonah will retire, or change professions; as midrashim and mefarshim explain, Yonah expects to evade his prophetic responsibilities by leaving Israel, the land of prophecy.[2] Perhaps he’ll become an itinerant sailor, maybe a merchant.

But then the boat leaves port and a ferocious wind erupts out of nowhere, and Yonah’s reaction is not to help the sailors weather the storm, and not to position himself to escape, but instead to calmly descend to the bottom of the boat - in fact, to go to sleep. Yonah seems unsurprised by Gd’s gambit; it’s almost as if he was expecting this Divine response, and indeed he goes along with it, prepared to die. The sailors temporarily thwart the strategy when they wake him and demand that he pray to his Gd – but the former prophet refuses to daven, and instead insists, successfully, that the sailors throw him overboard, to his presumed death.[3]

Chapters 2-3: A mysterious turnaround
Then, in Chapter 2, Yonah changes his mind about Gd, or so it appears. In a case of “Man bites dog”, a fish reels in Yonah, saving his life. And instead of looking for more creative ways to die, Yonah returns to Gd. Not even reluctantly – he composes a beautiful, if waterlogged, poem about his newfound appreciation for his Creator!

This is followed by Chapter 3, in which Hashem sends Yonah to Nineveh, and he carries out the mission, and the people of Nineveh repent. We’re looking good!

Chapter 4: Yonah is still angry
But in Chapter 4 we learn that Yonah hasn’t really made his peace with Gd. True, he carries out the mission, but he is still suffering, and now he finally opens up with his feelings. Yonah chastises Gd for His mercy on Nineveh; it’s an existential complaint against the ways of the Gd he serves, the sort of complaint that we have difficulty appreciating ourselves, but would make perfect sense for someone who lives in the rarefied spiritual air of prophecy and spirituality. The mission Gd gave Yonah is offensive to him, even painful for him; he cannot stomach the idea of forgiveness for Nineveh!

Yes, Yonah is done running away, finished trying to end his life, but he is clearly not reconciled with his Creator, and even at the end of the book he still seems to be suffering.

The problem
So here is our problem: What happened in Chapter 2, to cause Yonah to return to Gd? Especially, if he is still angry in Chapter 4!

More than Yonah
I’m asking these questions about Yonah, but really - a prophet who’s been gone for more than 2600 years, and the nuances of a small book of Tanach, are not my point this Yom Kippur. I’m asking these questions because they are relevant for many of us.

Yonah ran away from Gd, and even life, when he was suffering. Many of us are suffering. Physical Health. Emotional Health. Relationships. Finances. The News. Existential fear. That suffering must make Yom Kippur very difficult; how can we practice teshuvah, a return to Hashem, when we don’t feel like returning? If we can understand what brought Yonah back, even though he clearly didn’t feel like returning, perhaps we will understand how we can come back as well.

The Key: The Second Perek
I think the answer is actually clear in Chapter 2 – the chapter of Yonah that people largely ignore, because it’s poetry rather than a story about an angry prophet, a man-eating fish and a kikayon plant, whatever that is.[4] A few sentences give us three insights into what Yonah was thinking, and why he came back despite his suffering.

Yonah sings:
3I called to Gd in my trouble, and He answered me. From the belly of the depths I cried out, and You heard my voice.
4And You cast me into the depths, the heart of the seas, and the river surrounded me; all of Your breakers and waves passed over me.
5And I said, ‘I have been exiled from before Your eyes.’ Still! I would look toward Your holy sanctuary.

Our first insight comes from the way Yonah characterizes his near-death experience. He says, “You cast me into the depths” “Your breakers and waves passed over me” “I said I have been exiled.” In fact, the Hebrew word Yonah used for “exiled” was נגרשתי – the same term used when Gd ejects Adam and Chavah from Gan Eden ויגרש את האדם, the same word that Kayin uses to describe how Gd will make him wander, הן גרשת אותי היום.

In other words: Yonah thought that Gd was his tormentor. Of course, on a practical level, Yonah knows he was the one who decided to head west, and he was the one who ordered the sailors to throw him into those breakers and waves! But to Yonah, Gd’s decision to send Yonah on this painful mission was the equivalent of ordering Yonah away, driving him off, forcing him to flee and nearly die. It’s Gd’s fault.

Second insight: In his poem, Yonah recounts, שועתי, קראתי – “I called to Gd,” “From the belly of the depths I cried out.” “Still I would look toward Your holy sanctuary.” We didn’t see Yonah cry out or daven in Chapter 1, but in Chapter 2 Yonah discloses that even as he insisted on being thrown overboard, he cried out to Gd to save his life! Yonah didn’t want to die; he wanted to live.

Last insight: After he is saved, Yonah declares, jubilantly, ויענני, שמעת קולי! Gd answered me! You heard my voice!  You aren’t pushing me away! In fact – You saved my life! In other words – Yonah now sees what Gd has done for him, and is moved to recognize that Gd is there for him.

This is why Yonah returns in Chapter 2 – he never wanted to leave. He felt that Gd was pushing him away with the offensive mission, and when he called out to Gd and Gd threw him a line, he realized that Gd did not want him to die, Gd was not pushing him away. Looking at what Gd had given him saved Yonah’s life, and made his teshuvah possible.

Important clarification: Pain is not canceled by Divine favours
But let’s be clear: Even after returning in Chapter 2, Yonah is still angry – sure, he does his job in Chapter 3, but hear his wrath in Chapter 4. Recognizing what Gd has done for him doesn’t eliminate or balance out his pain. But seeing what he has received demonstrates to Yonah that at least, Gd isn’t pushing him away.

Yom Kippur
I think there’s a lot we can learn from this layer of the Book of Yonah – from his original feeling that Gd is forcing him away, and his realization that Gd wants him close.

In the course of Yom Kippur, we will apologize to Gd many, many times. The Tur[5] notes that we say 10 viduyim (confessios) because the Kohen Gadol proclaimed the Name of Gd ten times on Yom Kippur. But reciting 10 viduyim can be hard, when we feel that Gd is pushing us away, by permitting us to suffer in ways we believe we don’t deserve. We may well experience Yonah’s resentment and sense of exile, נגרשתי מנגד עיניך. Do You really expect me to apologize? How am I supposed to arouse in my broken heart a feeling of yearning and longing for a Gd who has abandoned me? How can You expect me to strike my chest and apologize for missing a minyan once, for failing to give tzedakah once?

But perhaps, even in our pain, we can search our lives and identify a moment in which Gd supported us, visibly or less visibly. Then, perhaps, we will appreciate that there is a relationship, that even with all of the suffering, Gd does not want to chase us off. It’s not all better – Yonah still rages! – but there is a path forward and a means to return.

סדר העבודה
On Rosh HaShanah I spoke about a new Israeli song, בין קודש לחול.[6] I’d like to conclude this derashah with a thought from another new Israeli song, סדר העבודה by Yishai Ribbo.[7] It’s a wonderful song, using the text of the machzor as it describes the kohen gadol counting aloud the motions with which he applies the blood of a korban for atonement: אחת, אחת ואחת, אחת ושתים – One, One plus one, one plus two, one plus three – and the kohen proclaims the Name of Gd, and the nation falls on their faces.

Ribbo first presents the words of the Kohen Gadol in the kodesh kodashim (Holy of Holies).
·         But Ribbo has the kohen count out apparently infinite transgressions. He sings, “If one could remember all of the defects and deficiencies, all of the rebellions and all of the guilt, certainly, he would count – One, one plus one, one plus two, one plus three, one plus four, one plus five, and immediately he would despair, for he could not bear the bitterness of the sins, the wasted opportunities, the loss.”
·         The assembled Jews kneel and fall on their faces. Falling on their faces is an expression of despair and shame at our sins, an expression of agonized distance, a feeling that we must be exiled.

But then, after our repentance, the kohen gadol again counts, but this is a different counting:
·         Now the kohen counts out infinite Divine acts of kindness. He sings, “If one could remember the acts of generosity, the favours, all of the mercy and all of the salvation, certainly, he would count – One, one plus one, one plus two, one of the thousand, thousands of thousands and the manifold myriads of miracles and wonders You have performed for us, day and night.”
·         And the assembled Jews kneel and fall on their faces. But now, falling on their faces is an expression of gratitude for our relationship, which has survived the sins and the distance, and remains available for our return.

Ribbo’s point is not quite mine, but it shares a common thread: No matter where we have been:
·         No matter the suffering we have endured, like Yonah in Chapter 1 –  
·         And what we will endure in the future as Yonah will in Chapter 4 –
·         If we can live like Yonah in Chapter 2, recognizing what Hashem has done for us, we will end the feeling of tragic distance, and the path will be clear for our return.
May we succeed in returning to Gd, and may Gd return to us.

[1] Melachim II 14:25
[2] Mechilta d’R’ Yishmael Bo 1, as well as Ibn Ezra 1:1 and Radak 1:3.
[3] See the Mechilta ibid.
[4] See Ibn Ezra vs Radak in Yonah 4. I’m a fan of Ibn Ezra’s approach.
[5] Tur Orach Chaim 620; and see the Maharil and others