A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Within You Without You

There are two tensions in the practice of Mussar that are important for us to talk about.

First is the tension between the physical and spiritual dimensions of change. We can change our behavior but not go the next step of transforming ourselves internally. For example, a person might be trying to become more generous (in relationships, with money, etc). Through mussar practice, one could be trained in a kind of Pavlovian way, to perform the right actions. So, you make it a habit to give money, you make it a habit to make sure that people you are in relationship with are taken care of. Yet, internally, your spirit is in rebellion against this and constantly resenting your giving, dubious about the needs of others versus your own needs. This is not the goal of mussar. We are striving to change internally as well - though this may begin with reluctant acts in the physical world. Ultimately, mussar practice is pointing to a higher consciousness, toward a unity underlying all physical existence, so that the practitioner becomes more aware of this deeper reality and more willing, therefore, with the ethical dictates that flow from it.

The second tension is between an awareness of one's flaws and a sense of magnificent spiritual potential within each individual. Mussar practice begins with a very deep sense of self-awareness. The self-aware person will see the many shortcomings, missed opportunities, wasted time, selfish and cruel acts, misguided strivings, etc, etc, that is at the heart of so much of our time here. This self-awareness can lead to a sense of shame and a very low and dejected spirit. If this low state persists, it will become impossible to ascend to the next level - we can't lift ourselves up if we are always focused on our shameful character. The Aish Kodesh (I'm on a big Aish Kodesh trip right now and you will continue to hear much about him in the coming weeks) writes about the impossibility of drawing down Torah from heaven when we are in such a debased state. It becomes impossible to access and draw out the divine potential that is within us if we are blinded to it.

The answer is of course not to try to lower of our self-awareness - ultimately our ability to transcend our current state hinges on our capacity to see a brilliant light within ourselves. The challenge is to see ourselves as complex beings who have a deep core of holiness but who are guided away from that and are led to be out of touch with that. Rav Simchah Bunam famously taught that we should have in one pocket a note that says "I am but dust and ashes" and in the other pocket a note that says "For my sake the world was created." The trick is to know when to reach for each one.

Finally, the lyrics to George Harrison's "Within You Without You" are either terribly insightful, or just ludicrous. But the title fits here, and it's a great song:

We were talking-about the space between us all
And the people-who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth-then it's far too late-when they pass away.
We were talking-about the love we all could share-when we find it
To try our best to hold it there-with our love
With our love-we could save the world-if they only knew.
Try to realize it's all within yourself
No-one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you.
We were talking-about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul-
They don't know-they can't see-are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself-then you may find, peace of mind,
Is waiting there-
And the time will come when you see
we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lashon Ha-Ra no.3: Last Words on Lashon HaRa

1) Please share your thoughts on the relationship between Lashon HaRa and idolatry in the comments section below.

2) I want to relate a story about the Chofetz Chayim (see previous post). It is suspiciously similar to a story about Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk that ends quite differently.

He was travelling on a train to another town, inconspicuous in simple garb. On the train he encountered a Jew and they be began to talk. After some time, the Chofetz Chayim asked him where he was going and he answered that he had heard that Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chayim, would be teaching in such and such a town, and he was going to hear this luminary among this generation, this incredibly pious and brilliant scholar.

"I know him," the Chofetz Chayim responds. "He's not so great." Outraged, the Jew slapped him. "How dare you speak in this way about such a Torah scholar!" They parted ways.

Later the man goes to see the Chofetz Chayim teach and, of course, recognizes him. Horrified, he approaches the Chofetz Chayim and apologizes profusely.

"Please, don't worry," says the Chofetz Chayim. "You taught me a great lesson. I knew, of course, that it is a great sin to speak lashon ha-ra about another person. But I did not know that it was also a great sin to speak lashon ha-ra against yourself."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lashon Ha-Ra no.2: The Word on Bad Speech

For those who want to pursue learning on Lashon HaRa, the main source would be Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chayim, after the title of his book about Lashon Ha-Ra.

Monday, November 15, 2010

613 Habits - Lashon Ha Ra #1

This is the first of what will be several entries connected to my class, "The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People: Get Over Your Self." I am teaching about the spiritual discipline of mussar. The class will draw on several primary sources from the tradition, but principally is based on Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous) and Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright). We will also use Rabbi Ira Stone's "A Responsible Life."

In this month's reading, "Sha'ar Lashon Ha-ra," which is translated by Rabbi Silverstein as "The Gate of Slander," there is a puzzling observation in the second (English) paragraph. The text reads,

Certainly, one who is given to slander removes from himself the yoke of Heaven, for he sins without pleasure and is worse than a thief or an adulterer, who pursue pleasure (Shochar Tov 120:3).
First of all, the "yoke of Heaven," (ol shamayim). This phrase denotes the acceptance of the obligation to live in accordance with the Divine will. The image seems to be one of a painful burden and when we read it we might say, "What am I, an ox? What a drag (pun intended)." If you allow the image to play out you might see it as more meaningful and beautiful. One of the reasons an animal carries a yoke is to pull a plow behind it. The plow digs into the earth to make possible the planting of seeds that will ultimately grow into something beneficial. We uphold the Torah because our goal is to turn the fallow fields of earthly life into something that is abundant with life and sustenance.

What about this idea that this is a more serious sin because we don't derive pleasure from it? I don't actually accept the premise. One of the reasons that lashon ha-ra is so easy to do is that it brings immense pleasure to the one who speaks it. Part of the pleasure is taking the person down a notch or too, perhaps satisfying some deep insecurity we have. That we satisfy this insecurity by our worst impulses (dragging someone down) rather than with our best (elevating ourselves) is one of the signals of the harm of lashon ha-ra: we damage ourselves in the process (as the Talmud says in Arachin 15b, "Lashon ha ra kills three people: The one who speaks it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is spoken").

There is another pleasure in lashon ha-ra, and our desire for it actually stems from holiness: lashon hara creates solidarity between the speaker and the listener. There is a kind of warmth, the comfort of a bond between one person confiding something that is mutually morally repugnant to another person. This desire for connection and sympathy with others is essential to human holiness, but of course this particular expression of that desire is evil.

The Aish Kodesh writes that every thought, desire and deed that we have can be revealed to have at its core a dimension of holiness. Even within an act as ugly as lashon ha ra is the potential for holiness to be revealed. Lashon Ha-ra is an ugly garment covering, as it were, a light of holiness. While the teshuvah (repentance) that we must do begins by refraining from lashon ha-ra and making a good faith effort to undo damage that we have caused, it should also include an examination of the desire for holiness, warped as it may have been, that might have been at its core.