Friday, August 21, 2015

Have we really left Egypt?

“Had G-d not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and grandchildren would have been enslaved to Pharaoh.” - Haggadah

Every year on Pesach we read this passage, and yearly, as if by clockwork, we question it. Can I really be told to believe that after two thousand years, we would still be enslaved? The Maharal of Prague explains the passage, and in turn, brings new light onto the entire seder experience. He explained that the Exodus didn’t just take the Jew out of slavery, it gave the Jew the ability to get the slavery out of him. Throughout the entire travel through the desert, despite countless miracles, many Jews still wanted to return to Egypt. Slavery had, in a manner of speaking, become a part of their identity. The true Exodus didn’t occur when they left the Egyptian border, rather it was state of mind that each person had to reach independently.   

I believe that the time has come to ask ourselves the same question, but with a modern twist. As I walk through the streets of Yerushalayim, as I speak to colleagues and friends, I wonder if we are plagued with the same illness. As a collective we have escaped the horrors of Eastern European anti-Semitism, but we took a bit of the shtetl with us on the way out. The relentless barrage of pogroms, ghettos, segregation, and hate has embedded within the Jewish psyche a tendency to isolate ourselves. It became a battle of existence: us or them. Many are quick to quote the famous passage, “Ve’Esav sonah es Yaakov - And Esau hated Jacob” to prove biblically that anti-Semitism is more than just a part of being a Jew, it is an intrinsic part of the Jew.

Besides for the historical inaccuracies, (for a detailed analysis of how anti-Semitism wasn’t always a prevalent issue I would recommend reading “Jews, God, and History” by Max Dimont), we confine ourselves everytime we cry out “anti-Semite”. We do not allow for candid discussion, we hinder intersocietal cooperation, and in turn, suppress any form of real growth.

Does Anti-Semitism still exist throughout the world today and is it the cause of much criticism to Israel? The answer is an overwhelming, undeniable yes. However, does that mean anytime anyone criticizes Israel we are allowed to slowly retreat back to our corner of self-righteous absolution? More often that not, consciously or not, many of us are saying yes. 

“The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.” Perhaps many of us are pulled to use the anti-Semitism card because we feel the Jews have enough criticism. Perhaps, like an overprotective mother, we are unable to see fault in our kids. Blinded by the instinctive nature to protect our own, we disregard any of our own wrongdoings. However, history tells us it is precisely our propensity to criticize ourselves that has made us into the nation we are today. Time after time, whether the adversity came internally or from outward sources, we have always questioned our own status quo.
The entire Oral Torah being documented, most rabbinic commandments, one can even say the existence of the State of Israel, is all due to Jewish innovativeness and progression. True love isn’t ignoring any flaws, it’s accepting them and growing from them, because we know we are capable of more.

We have to acknowledge our wrongdoings and strive to rectify them. We have become a country that has an overwhelming bias against others; whether it be Arabic, Ethiopian, or the like. We are a country that created a parasite of extremism that lead to a baby being burned to death in Duma (or if not that exact case, many similar attempts and acts of arson).

 I stand here condemning these acts, not as a self-hating Jew, but as a proud Jew. As a strong supporter and believer of Israel, I do not and will not allow our previous experiences to be used as an excuse to justify our actions. It is because I will not let history dictate my future, let others define me, that I call out these atrocities and shout ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ in the same breath.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Who am I?"

Preface: This is the article that I submitted for the "My Life Chassidus Applies Essay" plus further detail that I felt elaborated more on a practical level but did not have time to add before the deadline.

That does mean that this is pretty long.

I hope you enjoy.

"Who am I?"

             Living in the 21st century, when there no longer exists any form of social barriers, we are bombarded with an overwhelming, seemingly endless, wave of lifestyles of all types. Affected by the environment and our social surroundings, we have to deal with the constant issue of, "How do I identify myself, what is the real me?" Besides for having to address this issue stemming from the outside world, it seems that this problem is likewise forced upon us by Torah and Chassidus. Stuck between where Chassidus tells us where we should be and where we are actually holding, we are left empty handed with a sense of confusion and misdirection.

            In order to address how Chassidus teaches us how we should truly value ourselves, we must first address the dichotomy that Chassidus establishes. Chassidus teaches that the only thing that truly exists is G-d. He is not only the creator of the world, but the life force that permeates every being and everything. As such, our service of G-d should mirror this reality. Every facet of our lives should be permeated with G-dliness, whether as a direct act of service or as a conduit to further our connection. Anything that we do that is done simply for our own benefit is considered a concealment of G-dliness.

            We are left with an ultimatum. Overwhelmed by the demands and expectations that Chassidus places upon us, we can choose to identify ourselves by the reality in front of our eyes. It's not that we no longer believe what the Torah says, but it is taken more as a whimsical dream than a practical aspiration. As much as we would like to be better, we accept that reality we are currently dealing with. This decision often leads to becoming overly comfortable with one's current situation and inhibits any real growth. The other option is to remain steadfast and cling onto our convictions. We choose to define ourselves by how we want to be. We shun the bile being spewed from the baseless and corrupt world and isolate ourselves within the walls of Torah and Holiness. This decision often leads to neglect of one's personal and physical needs, and one loses touch with those around him.

            So any person who learns Chassidus has to ask himself, "Where do I find myself?" According to Carl Young and the Humanistic school of Psychology, how we categorize ourselves affects how we in turn act. We tend to behave more like the category we identify ourselves to be. So, defining where we find ourselves, doesn't only help how we view ourselves, but also leads to what type of decisions we make.

            The Rebbe Rashab, in one of his most famous Hemseichim (series) Samech Vov, discusses the creation of the world and life. In the Ma'amar, he introduces a paradox. On the one hand, only G-d himself has to power to create ex-nihilo. Yet, to 'create' is an act of leaving oneself and entering the world of the other. Once, however, the light leaves, it is no longer together with G-d, and therefore can no longer create. The Rebbe Rashab therefore introduces a new concept: Raso Ve'Shuv. In essence, the ray of G-dliness that is creating the world has a bilateral existence. It is at the same time bound together with G-d, and simultaneously far away so it can create the world. This is accomplished only by the ray's boundless dedication and nullification to G-d. Wanting nothing more than to cleave to G-d, it relinquishes any form of personal will to that of G-ds. However, what G-d truly wants if for the ray to leave his closeness and create the world. The ray is therefore in a constant state of both elevation and depression. It is only because he was given over his will for that of G-ds, does he have the ability to create life.

            When it comes down to the ultimatum of how we should look at ourselves, we are truly limited to choosing only one option. This is only true however, if we confine ourselves to our own limitations. In essence, what G-d wants from us is a life of contradictions. To bring G-dliness into the G-dless and the empty. To live in the physical world, and nevertheless use it out in the service of G-d.  The only way this is possible is if we allow G-d to truly permeate our lives. We must no longer serve G-d because of the benefits that we gain out of it, but rather we should dedicate ourselves to whatever G-d desires. We can never forget the current state where we are holding, nor can we forget where we must reach. And though, truthfully, this is quite a task, can there really be a price too high for life?

------(Until here is what I submitted, below is what I believe should of been the follow through.)------

            In the humanistic school of Psychology, there exists the "Maslow's hierarchy of needs". Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on. One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs, the peak being self-actualization. At the bottom, right above physiological needs (eat, sleep etc.) there exists a level called safety. This entails safety of family, health, resources, but also security of morality. We, by our very nature, are drawn towards securing and establishing our view on the world and how we should relate to it. We create boxes and guidelines, and the world, in its entirety, has to fit within these parameters.  Besides for the obvious and apparent issues that it causes, including stereotyping and prejudice, there are other more subtle issues. Included in that is complacency. We not only define the world, we define ourselves. What we are and are not capable of, where we do and do not belong.

There is a fine line between questioning one's actions, and being in a constant state of growth. Complacency does not mean that one never has doubt in anything that they do, nor does it mean that they never work on themselves. That is denial. Complacency is rather a state of being, a broader scope of self-evaluation. Where does one naturally turn to? When something does not go according to plan is the de facto move to look inwards, to try and see where they could of been better? Or, is the initial reaction to look outwards, whether it is placing the blame on other people, or the circumstances that occurred?

            What Chassidus teaches is that me must have both. As Maslow explained, security of morals is at the base of human needs. One must accept that his ego must have some foundation as a basic need. However, one must also be in the constant state of growth. The paradox, and it's solution relies on G-d. G-d demands the paradox, but also supplies the possibility. If the security of our ego is not incumbent on ourselves, but rather on G-d, we are no longer limited by definitions.

            If we are able to set aside our personal perspective of the world, and accept that the true perspective is that of G-ds, regardless of whether we know how G-d truly sees the world, we are no longer bound by this need of security. The security only exists because our ego must have a base on which it can always rely. If, however, the base upon which it relies is G-d, the ego needs no safety net. This is not saying to ignore one's ego, that would be unhealthy and impractical, rather to provide the ego with an alternate foundation.

            Practically speaking, what does that me to you (me)? It means self-esteem, self-worth, happiness, etc. is not a contradiction to living a Chassidish life. It means that no matter how much you 'leave yourself', you must always come back. It means that no matter how established your life is, you must always 'leave yourself'. It means that the you of today is not content with the you of yesterday, and the you of yesterday is not aware of the you of today. It means we have to pray to G-d and ask Him, "how am I supposed to look at myself today!"

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Rebbe and I

Recalling my years of yeshiva, there existed this constant sense of frustration. They would always farbreng about the Rebbe, and how lucky we are to be chassidim. Recalling  Hakafos by the Rebbe, dollars, kos shel brocha, or even their own yechidusim. On the one hand, it kindled this drive to want to connect to the Rebbe, this wish that I would have met him and make him a part of my life. On the other hand, there was always an underlying sense of disconnect. Everytime I would hear the word, ______ years ago, I would cringe. Their passion for the Rebbe that they were sharing with me was based off what they experienced back in the bochur days. I, being only 1 by Gimmel Tammuz, could never have such experiences. Their speak of Rebbe and their call for connection was not a language that I was a native of. So when it comes to the idea of Hiskashus, all the more so the day of Hiskashrus, Yud Shivat, I ask myself: what is my Hiskashrus?

The literal translation of Hiskarshus is "connection." The simple definition of connection is influence. If one person's life has been affected, has been influenced by another, there exists a connection between them. The more that one person's life has been affected by the other, the stronger the connecttion Even though this is not something quantifiable, there is a myriad of degrees, and always room for improvement.

When Chassidus tackles the issue of a "connection" with G-d it sets a couple things as primary pillars. A connection can only truly exist if we make G-d a part of OUR lives. If our relationship is only due to what G-d has done to our forefathers in Egypt, or we view G-d purely as this abstract ineffable being, then there is no hope that we can make G-d part of our lives. In turn, the more of your life that you allow G-dliness to enter, the stronger the connection.

It's been twenty years. The generation of bochurim today never saw the Rebbe. As best, the Rebbe is real through a dollar, a picture, a Tanya, a video, a building. For many, the Rebbe is real as a concept. I am not saying that we should expect, (or even believe possible), that the Rebbe can be as real to us as he was to the previous generation. That being said, however much the Rebbe can be a part of our lives, the main point is that a connection only exists if the Rebbe is pertinent in OUR lives.

Mashpiim, Shluchim, and the like may have the best intentions. Aware that this generation is the first ever to not personally experience a corporeal Rebbe, they try their best to give over what the Rebbe was/is. But they can only give us what the Rebbe was to THEM. They do not, and can not, relate to how we perceive reality. If we just become parrots, repeating all the "chassidishe slang" that we were given, we have lost the whole point. Our Rebbe can not become the Rebbe of our forefathers.

The time for revolution has come.

Rabbeinu HaKodesh looked around his generation and realized that if everything just stayed status quo, the Torah would be forgotten. Even though it said that "One should write down the Oral Torah", he had the foresight to realize that it was either not writing the Oral Torah or no Torah at all. We now can see how pivotal that decision was.

The Ba'al ShemTov looked around his generation and saw that people were in state of faintness (physically and spiritually). If everything stayed status quo, Judaism would of died in Russia. Even though it was accepted that the esoteric part of Torah should be kept privatized, past down from scholar to scholar, unfit for the layman, the Ba'al ShemTov disseminated it to all Jews everywhere. We can now see how crucial that decision was.

Judaism survived due to innovativness and creativity. It exists today because great people had the courage to accept that a change must happen.
I implore you, look around and see the state our generation is in. True, such talk is stepping on thin ice. Stepping away from the status quo could have dangerous consequences.
But if we allow everything to remain status quo, what do we end up with in a couple of years?

I can offer no simple solution. I offer no solution at all. I simply belief it is time for a revolution. The time for the generation to be candid about the issues that we live with. The time that the Rebbe for us is no longer a record player of Reb Yoel or Shlomo Zarchi. The time for us to have a real discussion about what to do. The time for change.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Truth Vs. Acceptance

Truth. Pure, unfiltered, uncensored truth. That is the language that religion speaks.
In the world of opinions and relativity there is a lot of space, and need, for acceptance. However, once we enter the world of absoluteness, acceptance sounds not only extra, but essentially impossible. Two opposing truths is an oxymoron. If I hold Truth, another intrinsically can not.

Therefore, by the very nature of religion, insulation and intolerance are expected. A lack in either shows a weakening in your convictions. We must, therefore, not only allow parochialism, but praise it.

Within Judaism, on every issue there are always two 'whys' then can be asked, and generally, must be asked. Firstly, 'why' on a practical sense. Based off the natural course of events, what caused this to be the way it is? Secondly, 'why' on a metaphysical sense. Why did G-d cause the natural course of events to turn out the way they did?

As such, looking at the myriad of varying opinions and customs within Judaism itself, we must ask these two 'whys':

In regards to the first why, there are many opinions and historians who strive and in many ways do resolve how modern day halacha turned out the way it did. However, how do we answer the second 'why'? Why did G-d create a situation where there are more opinions than Jews?

In order to answer that, we have to redefine the word "Truth." What "Truth" truly stands for is consistency and all-encompassment. Judaism is saying, that each person must find his own Truth, but that doesn't negate the truth of another. Your "Truth" has to be unwavering. But that is your Truth. Judaism not only allowed but decisively created opposing opinions with Torah itself, in order to tell a person that each one has it place, and not at the expense of the other. Therefore, on the contrary, if you do not respect anothers views and his personal service of G-d, you are going against Torah. This does not allow for anyone to create his own service as he pleases. Rather, we have to look at Judaism and Torah as an instrument. You are bound by the strings, but you have to write your own song.