Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Naso
Every day we have to confront the struggle between the value of what we do and the value of what we believe. I am a big believer in the idea that paying attention matters, and so reading provides us an opportunity to see how people live this duality of belief and behavior. Doing so should help us figure out the rules of our own struggle. This is the purpose of Torah: to help us play out this "struggle" using the paradigms, successes and failures depicted in the book's stories as our guides. By extension, we share scholarly and personal commentaries on any given piece of text in a way to help in this conversation. The sages help us keep the conversation relevant in our own days, and not just in a biblical / antiquity based context. Sometimes, though, I find that the commentaries do more to muddy the waters than help us clarify even our own relationship with the text and tradition. Sometimes, you don't realize you are stuck in the mud until you are chest deep and frustrated.
So, I was reading a series of commentaries on this week's Torah portion. I appreciate that a seemingly benign phrase can have spiritual value. As the mundane text unpacked yielding spiritual epiphanies, I relished in a tradition that every day affirms the truth that one does find "magic" in the text, but what we do with the text. I was excited to dive in and learn of the spiritual truths being handed to me. To at least three different commentaries, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the direction I perceived the sage was taking readers, until … the other shoe dropped. I hate when that happens; I feel almost duped and betrayed, as I had to do a "spiritual 180" to travel back to the place. I should have known better, but obviously missed it in my growing enthusiasm. I found that I had trouble separating myself from being upset each time it happened this week with the Torah portion.
In the commentaries with which I struggled, each focused on the first words of the Torah portion, "Lift up the head." In context, we are speaking about the census, and "Lift the heads" means, count each one. This text is always tied to the week after Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) when we symbolically claim that Moses received the Torah at Sinai. These same words begin the text of the week prior to Shavuot. I first had to acknowledge that the idea of "lifting heads" is used Biblically in so many different contexts (decapitation, hanging, consolation, celebration, epiphany, etc.). Usually, it literally speaks to some context of enlightenment or new awareness. So, as the sages argued that each head counts, they also argued that lifting each head helped people see the errors in their ways. REALLY? WE "BEGIN" WITH RUBBING EACH OTHER'S NOSE IN TRANSGRESSION? This is where I started shaking my head. Why does religion spend so much time focusing on our "sinful ways?" In the Christian confessional one has to acknowledge his own sinfulness "BEFROE" God's grace can be felt (even while it is always being shared). On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of renewal, we "CANNOT" get to the renewal part … or even the blessing part until after we have spent a day trashing our behaviors, condemning ourselves for all of our unethical thoughts and actions, and berated ourselves for a myriad of transgressions listed in a book … some of which we cannot even define, never mind plead guilty for transgressing? Every religion has their confessionals, and each one begins with guilt. Yet, every psychological study I have read demands that in a conversation involving some need to repair a behavioral breach, one must start with redemption and not condemnation. If one is to fix one's behavior, one has to know why he/she matters, first. All such conversations should begin with a statement of the "transgressor's" value and capability first. Otherwise, it becomes that much harder for one to hear and internalize the problem without creating even greater conflict. I have often wondered about religion's predilection with the negative and with guilt. Guilt is a horrible motivator.
So, I was disturbed that the imagery of lifting one's head devolved into the idea that one must first acknowledge his transgression before being able to focus on God. One must have a mind cleansing mantra before reaching the benefits of enlightening and healing meditation. In the same sense, I believe that one must first be able to see the beauty of divinity's involvement in this world in order to comprehend the value of healing the breaches that interrupt the sanctity of the relationships we too often take for granted. This is the difference between, "Johnny, you better tell Susie you're sorry," and "Johnny, your friendship with Susie is precious, you are good for each other, how can we heal what has come between you?" As to the many religious forms of confession, I ask people, "What did you accomplish?" The most often heard response was, "I said I was sorry." If the conversation ended there, we would hope to be okay, but it does not. "Are you sorry?" "Well, yeah, but (insert name) never apologized back, so I am still upset," or "I read all the words of the prayer, and I am not sure what I apologized for," or "I was told that I had to be sorry." The story began well, but the commentary makes us shake our heads.
I wish there was a way for us to have the vision to see how any given situation would play out "in futuro." Were it that we could tangibly walk through a situation to see how it would play out given this choice of handling it versus an alternative method of doing so. Were it that we could evaluate the value of our decisions first, and then act in accordance with our best outcome. Here is one place where religion may be counterproductive, even while faith is the finest of healing agents. Marching through a proscribed ritual of atonement may make us more religious, but given the process of the ritual, it may not help. One has to believe in faith that the atonement matters and that the people with whom we seek atonement matter … and that we matter to them for the process to matter. In the moment of any failure, no one is focusing on the value of the relationship first. Why do our heads need to be lifted? We need to see each other first. We need to remember why we are blessed with each other first. Too many of us … me included, do it the way religion teaches us to do it, and yet there is more pain shared in this world than we can fathom. Perhaps it is time to let faith govern. I have faith that we really do matter to each other. With that blessing firmly ensconced in my head, now I have a lot of work to do.
Rabbi Marc A. Kline