Finding our own path within Judaism

I know many people who struggle because they feel they have to study and partake of areas in learning that they are not getting satisfaction from.  I myself go through this at times as well.  As such, it is good to find vignettes among the great Rabbis indicating the need for finding one’s own path.  Recently, on the dixieyid blog,  the author shared a piece from Rav Kook on the subject of why people go “off the derech.”  The main idea behind Rav Kook’s words is that streamlining all people is dangerous because we are individuals who have different intellectual desires.  I think it is important to focus on his thoughts as means to understand that each of us can find our place in study and thought. 

Some have gone off the derech of Yiddishkeit because in their learning and in their path to spiritual perfection, they betrayed their own personal, unique nature. Some are more fit for Agada, and halacha (modern pilpul/lomdus) is not in their nature as a *primary* way of learning. Because such people [have not been taught to] value and recognize their unique talents in Agada, they immerse themselves in Halacha as is customary [in yeshivos today].

But such a person feels an inner opposition to what he is learning because that which he is investing himself in is not in accordance with his essential nature. If, however, he would find the area where his talent and interests lie, and he would fulfill that by making that area of Torah which fits with the nature of his soul his primary area of learning, he would immediately recognize that the inner opposition he used to feel was not due to any deficiency in the holy and essential Halacha area of Torah learning.

Rather, he would know that his soul simply required a different area of learning as his primary study. Such a person would remain faithful in a beautiful way to the holiness of Torah. He would become great and strong in the area of Torah which speaks to him. In addition, he will assist those whose primary learning is in Halacha to also taste the sweetness of Agada.

But when a person does not [or is not given the option to] recognize the true reason for his inner opposition to what he is learning, and he attempts to overpower his own nature [because he is taught that there is only *one* correct way to learn Torah], then the moment some options for a non-Torah way to live are opened up for him, he will break out and then hate and become any enemy of Torah and emunah. He will go from one sin to another, and we know what such people have wrought. They attempt to create that which they envision as the ideal way of the world and they attempt to blind “the eye of the world.”

There is a great variety of areas of Torah learning which are fitting to the great variety of individual souls’ natures. Some people are even drawn to specific areas of secular wisdom. Even such people should go according to their inner nature and they must set aside specific times for learning Torah. If they do this, they will succeed at both because “Torah together with the way of the world is beautiful.” And the gemara at the end of Yuma discusses how to establish the right balance of primary and secondary for such people. In general, this whole subject is dependent on the character and nature of each individual person’s soul. (Emphasis and explanatory parentheticals added.)

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Musings for Elul

I came across R. David Goldwasser’s book Elul  at shul and decided to read it during Shabbat.  I came across two stories in his work which I want to share.  These are good thoughts for pondering as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah.

1.  “In our bais medrash, I noticed that there was one young married man who never missed a minyan, no matter how difficult it was for him.  He would always be among the עשרה ראשונים – the first ten.  One day there was a tremendous snowstorm.  Only three people had made it to the early minyan on time.  He was one of the three. 

Finally, I asked him, ‘How is it that you never miss one day and are so medakdek – careful – in coming to minyan, especially on a day like this?’

He answered me that as a teenager he was a little bit weak in shemiras hamitzvos.  His father was a very pious man.  The father used to come in every morning to wake him up to go to minyan, knowing full well that it was a tremendous nisoyon – challenge – for his son to get up and daven with the tzibbur.  Instead of rebuking the son, the father in gently waking him would always say: My son, it is time to get up for minyan.  But if you are going to remain in bed, sleep well.  And then he would proceed to make sure that I was covered properly with the blanket. 

The young man continued to tell me that on the day his father was niftar, he promised the Ribbono Shel Olam that he would always be medakdek in tefillah b’tzibbur.

דברים בנחת תהא נשמעים (p. 67 – 68)”  

 2.  “The Simchas Higayon explains that the way of the world is that when a person rents a house to his friend, he writes a lease in which he stipulates that one month before the lease expires the renter must inform him whether he wishes to renew the lease for another year.  In some places it is customary to pay up any outstanding rent of the previous year, as well as advance payment for the first month of the new lease.

However, there are people who, since they are so busy, forget this stipulation in the lease and they don’t notify the landlord until the last week of the year.  That last Shabbos, when the person is sitting at his Shabbos table relaxing in comfort, he remembers that it is almost the end of this year’s lease, and he still hasn’t told the landlord that he wants to stay.  He is afraid that maybe the landlord may have already rented his place to someone else.  He is troubled and distressed. ‘Where will I go?’

Therefore, on Motzoei Yom Menucha he runs with all of his strength to the landlord.  Maybe – just maybe – he can still obtain a lease for the coming year. 

We can well apply this story to ourselves.  Every year the Ribbono Shel Olam gives us a lease.  But one month before the year is up, Chodesh Elul, we need to come and ask that Hashem should ‘renew our lease.’  In fact, there are those that begin Selichos from the start of Elul.   However, because we are busy, we forget the stipulation.  We have forgotten to appear before the landlord to state our request.  On the holy Shabbos, when we relax in comfort we remember: we still didn’t tell the ba’al habayis (landlord) our request for another year of brocho – blessing.  What do we do?  On Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night) we run to plead with and supplicate the Master of the World to ‘renew our lease’ for the coming year.”

My Worst Enemy’s Shiva

I found this today and felt it was quite important to share as a whole.  People have enough trouble paying a shiva visit in general.  How much more so when we think we need to visit someone we are in conflict with.  I am somewhat concerned by the Q and A here.  While I agree with the author’s response and strategies for visiting and how to visit, I would have started with a simpler question;  why do you feel the need to visit in the first place?  Is it out a sense of reconciliation, or a sense that the fighting was a mistake to begin with?  Or do you merely feel the need to fulfill the commandment of comforting the bereaved?  Nevertheless, consider the answer Hammerman offers for it does provide us a real sense of the appropriate timing and means of visiting while limiting the potential for fighting. 

Q. The mother of my worst enemy just died and I’m not sure whether to visit during Shiva. In truth, I sincerely see this as a chance to reconcile (we haven’t spoken in about five years but have a lot of friends in common). My only concern is that he would misinterpret the reason for the visit and kick me out of the house. I really don’t want to cause him any discomfort. What should I do?

A. Do you think this would be the first time that two people at a shiva had unresolved issues?  It happens all the time, usually involving people from the deceased’s family who are barely on speaking terms. I’ve seen amazing moments of reconciliation happen during the period of grieving. When someone says “over my dead body,” sometimes that’s precisely the most likely location for enemies to reunite, as happened to  Isaac and Ishmael when they buried Abraham.

So go.

But I add this disclaimer: If you poisoned his Akita or stole his birthright, I might hold off until the time is right. Jacob’s journey back to Esau was paved with gifts and trepidation. It took decades before each party was ready. In any event, if you do go to the Shiva, I’d avoid visiting during peak periods, when the mourner might feel you are simply making an appearance for show. If the guy shows signs of being uncomfortable with your presence, or worse, begins to make a scene, I’d make a hasty exit and not take it personally.  The rabbis explained that the second Temple was destroyed because of the resentment of a person humiliated in public by his worst enemy. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s also OK to wait until after shiva, when you might call and meet for coffee in a quite spot. Or maybe the best strategy would be to write a heartfelt letter.

I believe that all conflicts have an expiration date. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce just a few years ago. If you could reconcile with your worst enemy and become a true pursuer of peace, echoing the words of Psalm 34:15, you will make the world a better place. And an enormous weight will be taken off your shoulders.

The Good Short Life With A.L.S.

The Good Short Life With A.L.S. – NYTimes.com.

This piece is the kind of first hand account of dying that causes me to pause and reflect on the conflict we all face between wanting to keep living and yet not wanting to become a burden to others.  The author seems to say that he would rather allow nature to takes its course than to begin the various artificial means of prolonging life. 

As a Jewish chaplain who has tremendous problems with the idea of euthanasia/assisted suicide, I am challenged with a story like this.  If he were Jewish, would he be forced to have a tracheotomy because of the idea that every second matters?  Or would we accept that he does have a choice if that choice is coming from a desire to avoid further suffering?  I certainly empathize with the author, but am left with one additional question:  In the discussion of assisted suicide, one of the pieces often overlooked is post-death grief.  While the author is not saying he will avail himself of such a way out, it is still important to wonder about how the survivors will process the death when no means are taken to extend his life.  To me, I tend to believe that assisted suicide often leaves families scarred in ways that we tend to ignore in the face of the ill person’s suffering.  If we are intertwined, then both elements should be taken into account when decisions are made. 

I HAVE wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas. And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.

“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.

“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”

I loved him for that.

I love them all. I am acutely lucky in my family and friends, and in my daughter, my work and my life. But I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., more kindly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the great Yankee hitter and first baseman who was told he had it in 1939, accepted the verdict with such famous grace, and died less than two years later. He was almost 38.

I sometimes call it Lou, in his honor, and because the familiar feels less threatening. But it is not a kind disease. The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die. From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies, trying to get out. It starts in the hands and feet and works its way up and in, or it begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out. The second way is called bulbar, and that’s the way it is with me. We don’t live as long, because it affects our ability to breathe early on, and it just gets worse.

At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner. I even get some “Hey, there, Big Boy,” looks, which I like. I think of it as my cosmetic phase. But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.

There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months’ difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in 5 or 8 or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.

No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou.

I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.

I began to slur and mumble in May 2010. When the neurologist gave me the diagnosis that November, he shook my hand with a cracked smile and released me to the chill, empty gray parking lot below.

It was twilight. He had confirmed what I had suspected through six months of tests by other specialists looking for other explanations. But suspicion and certainty are two different things. Standing there, it suddenly hit me that I was going to die. “I’m not prepared for this,” I thought. “I don’t know whether to stand here, get in the car, sit in it, or drive. To where? Why?” The pall lasted about five minutes, and then I remembered that I did have a plan. I had a dinner scheduled in Washington that night with an old friend, a scholar and author who was feeling depressed. We’d been talking about him a lot. Fair enough. Tonight, I’d up the ante. We’d talk about Lou.

The next morning, I realized I did have a way of life. For 22 years, I have been going to therapists and 12-step meetings. They helped me deal with being alcoholic and gay. They taught me how to be sober and sane. They taught me that I could be myself, but that life wasn’t just about me. They taught me how to be a father. And perhaps most important, they taught me that I can do anything, one day at a time.

Including this.

I am, in fact, prepared. This is not as hard for me as it is for others. Not nearly as hard as it is for Whitney, my 30-year-old daughter, and for my family and friends. I know. I have experience.

I was close to my old cousin, Florence, who was terminally ill. She wanted to die, not wait. I was legally responsible for two aunts, Bessie and Carolyn, and for Mother, all of whom would have died of natural causes years earlier if not for medical technology, well-meaning systems and loving, caring hands.

I spent hundreds of days at Mother’s side, holding her hand, trying to tell her funny stories. She was being bathed and diapered and dressed and fed, and for the last several years, she looked at me, her only son, as she might have at a passing cloud.

I don’t want that experience for Whitney — nor for anyone who loves me. Lingering would be a colossal waste of love and money.

If I choose to have the tracheotomy that I will need in the next several months to avoid choking and perhaps dying of aspiration pneumonia, the respirator and the staff and support system necessary to maintain me will easily cost half a million dollars a year. Whose half a million, I don’t know.

I’d rather die. I respect the wishes of people who want to live as long as they can. But I would like the same respect for those of us who decide — rationally — not to. I’ve done my homework. I have a plan. If I get pneumonia, I’ll let it snuff me out. If not, there are those other ways. I just have to act while my hands still work: the gun, narcotics, sharp blades, a plastic bag, a fast car, over-the-counter drugs, oleander tea (the polite Southern way), carbon monoxide, even helium. That would give me a really funny voice at the end.

I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.

Knowing that comforts me. I don’t worry about fatty foods anymore. I don’t worry about having enough money to grow old. I’m not going to grow old.

I’m having a wonderful time.

I have a bright, beautiful, talented daughter who lives close by, the gift of my life. I don’t know if she approves. But she understands. Leaving her is the one thing I hate. But all I can do is to give her a daddy who was vital to the end, and knew when to leave. What else is there? I spend a lot of time writing letters and notes, and taping conversations about this time, which I think of as the Good Short Life (and Loving Exit), for WYPR-FM, the main NPR station in Baltimore. I want to take the sting out of it, to make it easier to talk about death. I am terribly behind in my notes, but people are incredibly patient and nice. And inviting. I have invitations galore.

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

It’s time to be gone.

Dudley Clendinen is a former national correspondent and editorial writer for The Times, and author of “A Place Called Canterbury.”

Judith Johnson: Honoring Your Personal Pace

Sometimes, when you are looking for inspiration, it finds you.  In my email this morning was a link to the post linked below, about finding the right balance in life.  Feeling at a crossroads, it was good timing. 

Life appears easier when we are in the groove of our own pace and so very stressful when we are out of it. Being out of sync may not be the biggest problem in our life, but the discomfort it generates can often be avoided by checking in and taking corrective action when we get out of our groove.

Finally, when you notice that you are in your groove, going with the flow of life and enjoying your journey, pay attention to how you created that and do more and more of that. Turn on your cruise control and enjoy the ride.

via Judith Johnson: Honoring Your Personal Pace.

Did you have a calling?

When I was doing my CPE training, one of the most fascinating questions posed was, when did you get called.  In many religious traditions, clergy often are those who claim to have a had a calling from G-d.  This tends to be some form of event or conversation that triggers one to change one’s life and devote it to spreading the religion of which they are a part of.  When I would try to explain that in the Orthodox Jewish world, the idea of calling is not something prevelant, the non-Jewish clergy would struggle to fully grasp that concept.  Yet, I also go on to explain how I sense that my career in hospice chaplaincy was like a calling in the sense that all other avenues I thought of trying were turned off from me. 

I recently found a quote which to me sums up my response to the question:

When Christian ministers aske me at what age or on what occasion I received my calling as a rabbi, I often find myself hesitating over how to respond.  If I answer that it began when I entered yeshivah at age five to study Bible and Talmud, they might believe that I am likening myself to Jeremiah, who received his prophetic calling as a child.  If I tell them that I have never received a calling but was ordained after my teachers concluded that I was intellectually capable of rendering competent decisions regarding what is prohibited and permitted by Jewish law, they might be shocked at meeting a modern version of a Pharisee.  They could perhaps find confirmation for the allegation that legalism had replaced the living guidance of God.  How could I, they might wonder preach the word of the Torah without first experiencing God’s direct active guidance in my life?  How dare I assume responsiblity to mediate the living word of the God of Israel without being assured that I was called upon by God to undertake this sacred mission?  Yet, as a traditional halakhic Jew, I know that a rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intelligent understanding of the Jewish tradition and a commitment to the Jewish people.  A direct call from God is not required to legitmize activity as a rabbi in Israel.  (David Hartman, A Living Covenant p. 5)

 

You Don’t Have to Believe in Heaven to Find Life after Death

When people first think about what will happen after one dies, it is usually in relationship to the afterlife.  Is there an afterlife and what does it look like?  While this is a deeply spiritual question that much ink has been spilled over, when it comes to this search among those who are dying, it is often times more about an immediate fear.  Before a person dies, they often worry about the legacy left behind and missing the major life events in the family.  In order to combat this particular fear, professionals will suggest some form of written or graphic form of leaving a legacy.  As you can see below, I have included a recent posting about leaving behind some keepsake for the survivors. 

Legacy can refer to the totality of a person’s life, or to the impact or influence of our lives in the world. For those near the end of life — and for their loved ones — legacy building offers powerful comfort at the end of life. It provides a way to ensure a continuing presence in this world and to leave something meaningful behind.

Psychologist Erik Erikson hypothesized that a late stage of personal development is generativity: the need to create a positive legacy that lives on after death — to leave a part of the self to future generations to help guide their lives.

Legacy building provides a way to address fundamental spiritual questions: “How have I made a difference in the world?” “What is the value of my life?” “What is my place and purpose in the universe?

Typically, life after death implies going to heaven. A 2005 ABC News poll indicated that most Christians in the United States envision continued existence in a heavenly, other-worldly place after death.

However, the practice of legacy-building expands the way we think about afterlife.

For those whose spiritual worldview may not envision or emphasize a supernatural afterlife, legacy building can diminish existential anxiety about death. Legacy building provides “this-worldly” possibilities of eternal life through the indelible impact that we make on those around us. It provides hope of continuing existence through everlasting bonds or ongoing influence in the world.

In recent years, the practice of writing an ethical will has become a popular and useful tool to assure continued presence and influence after death. Ethical wills are documents prepared before death that contain reflections, blessings, instructions, personal histories, or values to be passed on to others.

Also, “living eulogies” can provide great comfort to those facing the end of life. Messages, emails and videos can be sent to people who are seriously ill. Friends and family members can share stories and reminisce about meaningful times. These testimonies of enduring connections and contributions are powerful affirmations of life and legacy.

Counselors dealing with end of life issues increasingly rely on therapies that involve legacy building. In reminiscence therapy, the counselor encourages a patient to recall and share memories and past experiences.

Dignity therapy involves life-affirmation and legacy-building. It is more directive and structured than reminiscence, as a “generativity document” is produced after sessions of recalling and discussing life experiences.

Life review therapy is deeper and more evaluative. Patients reflect on the meaning of their lives, and come to terms with difficult aspects of their past. Typically, this process involves reframing the past in order to more gracefully confront death and more effectively cope with the end of life.

Life after death is often conceived as mysterious and other-worldly, but it is not necessarily so. We create an enduring legacy through day-to-day existence — in who we are, in what we do, and in the totality of our lives. You don’t have to believe in heaven to find life after death.

(cross posted here)