And Now Assume the Cat Position….Re’ey 5776
He arches his back into the air just like an electrocuted cat and I follow suit. Then he starts bending back slowly keeping his front hands planted squarely in front of him while the rest of his body travels in the opposite direction. Me? I try to do the same, but generally my body only goes in one direction at a time, and it’s soon feeling like its being stretched over a medieval torture rack. Sinews, ligaments, tendons, and the kitchen sink are all crying out to me to stop this “stretching technique” but just like the electrocuted cat, I’m not really thinking much right now, I’m just arching.
I don’t know why they call this physical “therapy.” Therapy is best done while lying on a comfortable couch blaming all your problems on other people, to someone who is paying more attention to the clock than to your reflective drivel. But physical therapy is different, it’s not over until you are hurting. I miss the benign “How did that make you feel,” which is replaced by an almost menacing, “You felt that, didn’t you?” And if your answer is anything less than a whimper, they keep on stretching you out.
Soon I find myself on my back, one leg is extended upward but it’s slowly being bent back into itself in the strong capable hands of my therapist. The pain is extreme, with only a few moments of reprieve when I switch from contracting to relaxing, but that too is followed by a few more inches of “progress”. When I begin tasting shoe, I tap out. I think I’m limber enough. I can’t say for sure because I can’t get up, but the world does feel distinctly limber from my perch on the therapy table…
I go to my therapist for conflict resolution with my sciatic nerve. Like a teenage child, it seems to find no greater pleasure than giving me sharp crippling pain. I can do no right from my sciatic’s perspective. Sitting is painful, standing is painful, and driving is off limits entirely. Therapy is my only opportunity to get back at Scatty. The negative consequence is that the rest of the body seems to get beat up along with him.
But I did come away with a gem from my physical therapist, one of the nicest people I know (he has to be in order to get away with giving people such intense pain) and a super talent in his field. As we were twisting and manipulating various limbs on the floor he said; “When you can be comfortable while still in an uncomfortable position, you know you are in good shape.” The highest success is not in simply finding comfort, but rather in finding it in the most uncomfortable of positions. Because to get to that level, we had to have stretched every one of our muscles to its limit. Being in good shape is only possible when we are working on ourselves strenuously, pushing ourselves through uncomfortable realities to get to where we want to go.
In a biography of Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach OBM, (1899-2001, Lithuania – Israel), there is a description of the terrible deprivation Rav Shach endured in order to stay in the famed Slabodka yeshiva as a young teenager. Owning only one set of clothing, barely eating anything, and unable to afford lodging other than the benches in the back of the yeshiva, Rav Shach thrived. Until his death, he looked back at those years with great fondness, at the full immersion he had in his Talmudic study and spiritual pursuit, both of which were entirely unhampered by any material concerns or distractions. He may have been stretched to the max, he may have been in a very uncomfortable position, but he found his comfort zone and flourished.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, (1707-1746, Italy- Acco) in his seminal mussar masterpiece, the Mesilas Yesharim, states that the desire and tendency to find comfort zones in our lives is actually the biggest detractor from alacrity, which is the enthusiasm and drive we need in order to tap into our potential. He recommends that a person live by the maxim “For man was created for toil” (Job 5:7) and says that when we look at life through that prism, we can embrace the work we need to do to get to where we have to go. When we are used to stretching and pulling, every further inch is not agony, but anticipated growth.
It is interesting to note the strange blessing Yaakov gave his son Yissachar just before he dies, the only blessing in which the word “good” is found. “Yissachar is a strong boned donkey, it rests between the boundaries. He saw tranquility that it was good and the land that it was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to bear and he became an indentured laborer.” (Genesis 49:14,15). The only one of Yaakov’s children that is blessed with tranquility and goodness is the one who understand that in order to get that goodness he needs to bend his shoulder to bear the load, he needs to stretch himself till he’s uncomfortable.
If any of us were to look back at what we consider to be the best time in our lives, I doubt it would be a time we just lounged around playing video games and reading good fiction. No, it would certainly be a time we were stretching ourselves to the max and achieving in tandem with our stretching. It would be the times we found a way to be comfortable despite being in an uncomfortable position.
So let’s get out there and once more assume the position of the cat, it may not be comfortable, but it is electrifying!
A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships. – Helen Keller
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Torah portion, Re’ey, and the two that follow it, Shoftim and Ki Saitzeh, are chock full of mitzvos. Right before Moshe passed away he gave many inspiring speeches to the Jewish people. But he also gave a detailed repetition of some of the mitzvos necessary for building a nation in a new homeland, as the Jews were about to do just that.
One of those commandments is introduced in the following verses:
You are children of the Lord, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deut. 14:1-2)
In ancient times, when a loved one died, friends and relatives would cut gash themselves and shave portions of their head to show their anguish. Here, G-d commands us not to follow those practices (Thank G-d!). The thing that seems strange is the juxtaposition of this mitzvah to the verses that precede and follow it. Why specifically here does G-d remind us that we are children of the Lord? Why does He tell us that we are a treasured people at this particular point?
Death and dying are very difficult subjects, and often misunderstood. The question of theodicy, or “why do bad things happed to good people,” is one of the most philosophically challenging questions in existence. Even the greatest prophet ever, Moshe, couldn’t fully answer it. Yet, as part of our faith, we believe that everything is orchestrated by G-d, and no matter how difficult, challenging or sad something is, it is actually part of G-d’s beneficence.
People who feel that the death of a human being is a random, uncalculated event, and think that the deceased is utterly gone feel an anguish that is indescribable. There is nothing that can console someone who sees a loved one pass away forever, and thinks he just had a bad stroke of luck or a was a victim of statistics. This intense pain can end up expressing itself in self destructive behaviors such as self mutilation.
The Torah tells us that we cannot do that. We need to understand that we are G-d’s children. He is intensely involved in our lives, and everything that happens to us is for the best, even if we can’t see it down here. One of the ways we can reframe the death of a loved one, is by focusing on the fact that the deceased is now in a better place, an eternal resting place. The mourners can also think about how they can grow from the experience, and work to keep the deceased’s legacy burning bright. But the overall perspective on death in Judaism is that is part of a plan by a beneficent Father who treasures every one of us.
Knowing that there is a Master Plan in which we are the treasured focal point, and that everything that happens to us is caused by our Loving Father in heaven is a comfort in its own right, we don’t need to resort to self mutilation. Instead of destroying ourselves, we try to better ourselves, and build the beautiful legacy of the beloved deceased.
This week’s parsha, Parshas Re’ey, begins with the declaration that ultimately, we are faced with a choice between blessing and curse, between good and evil, between following G-d’s commandments or ignoring them. G-d then tells us about the ceremony that would take place soon after the Jews entered the land of Israel . They would travel to an area that had two mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival . The tribes would be divided between the two mountains with the tribe of Levi, holding the ark, in the valley. They would enunciate certain blessings, followed by inverse curses, facing the mountains and the Jews would answer Amen to each one. (We will see this in more detail in a later Parsha.) This was supposed to be a formative experience for the Jewish nation as they entered the land of their destiny.
The Torah then reminds the Jews that when they enter the land they should destroy all idols, altars, and trees that were served as idols, so as not to leave any temptation around. (This would be similar to telling an alcoholic to remove all alcohol from the house if he wants to stay clean. Having bottles of gin hanging around the house in various places is simply not conducive to an alcohol free lifestyle.) The Torah also goes into detail describing the laws of bamos, mini altars that Jews were allowed to have at times when the Tabernacle was in a transient state. One could only bring certain types of offerings upon them (optional donation, not mandatory sacrifices), and once the First Temple was built, bamos were forbidden forever.
The Torah also talks about the laws of eating non-sacrificial meat. Rashi points out two very interesting things we can learn from this portion. The Torah begins the discussion “When Ad-noy, your G-d, expands your border as He promised you, and you say, “I would like to eat meat” because you have an appetite to eat meat; to the full extent of your appetite eat meat. When the place is distant from you that Ad-noy, your G-d, chooses to set His presence there, you may slaughter some of your cattle or your flocks that Ad-noy gave you, as I have commanded you; and you will eat in your cities with all your appetite.” (Deut. 12:20-21) The first thing Rashi mentions is that the Torah is teaching us the proper way to live. We should not expect to eat a lot of meat until after G-d expands our borders (i.e. makes us more wealthy). This is a prime lesson in living within your means.
The second thing he shows us is that in the second verse, the Torah tells us to slaughter animals “as I have commanded you.” The only problem is that no where in the entire Torah does G-d tell us how to slaughter. This is one of the indicators that the Torah was given in two parts, the Written Law which contains the mitzvot’s basic info, dialogues with G-d and our leaders, and events that happened to the Jews, and the Oral Law which gives details to many of the mitzvoth that were only outlined in the Torah. This is just one of many indicators that a Jew can’t say “I will only do what I see written in the Pentateuch,” as it is clear that it is impossible to do so successfully. How would someone like that slaughter animals? It is not until we study the Oral Law that we find the laws of slaughtering. (Originally, the Oral Law was meant to be transmitted only orally, as to preserve the Torah as a living experience not a simple subset of facts you could leave to collect dust on your shelves. However, when the Jews started to forget that which was transmitted, R’ Yehuda the Prince decided that he must commit those teachings to writing lest they be lost forever.)
The Torah continues with the prohibition against adding or subtracting from any of the mitzvot i.e. wearing 3 tzitzit fringes instead of four, or keeping two days of Shabbos. The Torah then warns us about a false prophet. This prophet may perform miracles and do wondrous things, but if he dares to advocate idolatry or attempts to permanently delete any of the mitzvot, then we know he is a false prophet and he is given the death penalty. This same penalty is given to an individual who tries to seduce other people to serve idols. The Rabbis tell us that one who influences someone to become evil is in a sense worse than one who killed someone. A person who kills someone takes away the ephemeral world, Olam Hazeh, whereas one who sways someone to evil robs him of the infinite world, Olam Haba. This is why we treat someone who tries to seduce others to serve foreign gods with such severity.
The Torah continues talking about the severity of idolatry, by discussing a city in which the majority or all of the inhabitants have turned to idolatry. The law regarding such a city is that all the guilty parties (people who served idols) are put to death, while all the property of the city must be burned and left as a heap, never to be rebuilt.
The Torah continues with the laws of which animals are kosher (ones that have split hooves and chew their cud), and which ones aren’t (ones that don’t), which fish are kosher (ones that have fins and scales), and which birds are kosher (all except 24 enumerated species. Since we are no longer certain what all of those species are, we only eat birds which know are OK through tradition).
The Torah then commands to take a second tithing on our crops (the first one goes to the Levite – that’s me!) and, depending on the year of the Sabbatical cycle, either give it to the poor or bring it to Jerusalem and eat it there. If you can’t bring it to Jerusalem you can redeem them by transferring its sanctity onto coins of the same value, and bring those coins to Jerusalem where you use them to purchase food. Next, the Torah mentions its loan forgiveness program, i.e. every Sabbatical (Shemita) year, all debts that have no collateral or liens are forgiven. The Torah continues by commanding us to loan money to the poor and destitute if we have the means to do so (an incredible mitzvah as it gives people a method to get back on their feet without having to be reduced to begging door to door). And the Torah tells us not to worry that the debt will get wiped away by the Shemita/ Sabbatical year, as G-d will take care of those who take care of his most vulnerable children, the poor and the destitute.
The Torah continues with a discussion of the Jewish bondsman, see my email from Parshat Mishpatim for more details (I am quite confident that all of you have been saving each and every email you got from me, so it should be no problem to pull up the one on Mishpatim.) The Torah concludes with a recap of the three festivals, Pesach, Shavout and Succot, and the commandment on the Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to spend the festivals in the holiest city on this great green earth with which the Lord has blessed us!
Quote of the Week: A person without a plan for the day is lost before it starts. – Lewis Bendele
Random Fact of the Week: A Boy Scout must earn 21 badges before he is eligible to become an Eagle Scout.
Funny Line of the Week: I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded the dough!
Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham