Friday, June 15, 2012

When We See Ourselves As Grasshoppers

In this week's parasha, Shelach-Lecha (Num. 13:1-15:41), a leadership team of 12 spies, each one a chieftain of the 12 tribes of Israel, is summoned by Moses into the Promised Land to determine the quality of the land, its soil, its produce, its cities and towns, and its inhabitants.

The spies agree:  The land flows with milk and honey.  The fruit is rich and plump and abundant.  The towns, however, are fortified and the people are armed and dangerous.  There are even giants living there!

Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, insist that the Israelites have the "right stuff" to overcome the obstacles and inherit the land.

The other ten, however, fixate on their negative appraisal, which leads to the Israelites spreading the bad report so that the people panic and insist that going back to Egypt would be better than trying to enter the Promised Land.

It's a disastrous moment in the Jewish Story, one that leads God to punish the people with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness until the entire faithless generation dies out and only Joshua, Caleb, and the young will enter the Promised Land.

Look at Numbers 13:33, in which the ten disheartened spies say, in part, "We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have appeared to them [our enemies]."

What a terrible appraisal!  And how human, to conclude from their own negative self-image that everyone else saw them as weak and powerless too.  But we do this all the time, don't we?  Extrapolate from our own views of ourselves how we think others see us?  Low self-esteem can be so destructive in relationships, adolescent development, and in our abilities to rise to our fullest potential.

I am eager to hear your comments about what it means to see ourselves as grasshoppers.  How does it hurt us, and how can we overcome this tendency?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Monday, June 11, 2012

In All Humility - Shabbat Beha'alotkha 5772

Dear Friends,

On Friday night, Rabbi Jan and Cantor Alane "Lanie" Katzew were honored as this year's recipients of the highest honor that WRT bestows upon congregants, the Brotherhood Award.  The following remarks are the D'var Torah delivered by Rabbi Katzew upon the acceptance, on behalf of himself and Cantor Katzew, in absentia.  Lanie was at another congregation, fulfilling a special commitment to honor a rabbinical colleague upon his retirement.  

In All Humility - Anavah
By Rabbi Jan Katzew

Delivered June 8, 2012                          
Westchester Reform Temple   
Shabbat Beha’alotkha 5772

Humility, anavah in Hebrew, is an under-rated, misunderstood trait in our culture, but it is the pre-eminent virtue in Jewish thought, singled out as the trait that made Moses Moses.  In the words of a contemporary student and teacher of Jewish ethical traditions, “being humble does not mean being a nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be”.  Humility involves a balancing act in between selflessness and selfishness, figuring out just how much space to take up in the room, in a conversation and in a relationship.  Humility is a lifelong pursuit, a process that demands constant mindfulness, self-awareness and empathy. 

Think about the most humble person you know – not a platonic ideal, but a real person, someone in your life who embodies and ‘ensouls’ humility. What makes him or her humble in your mind? Is he shy? Is she self-effacing? A follower? If any of these associations ring true you may be surprised to learn that the greatest leader in Jewish memory, Moses, is described in this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotkha, as anav m’ode, very humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth. That is the only character trait attributed to Moses in the Torah and he is the only individual in the entire Bible described as humble. This extraordinary combination led Jewish philosophers to venerate humility above all other virtues. In Duties of the Heart, an 11th Century book by Bahya Ibn Pekuda, not a household name perhaps, but arguably the finest example of Jewish ethics, wrote “all virtues and duties are dependent on humility."

Our Sages try to teach about humility  through a story that I hope will ring true here and now. Anyone who sits in a particular place to pray in the synagogue, the God of Abraham stands in his or her aid, and when he or she dies, people say about him or her “this was a humble person”.  Where is the humility in sitting in the same place every time you pray in the synagogue? The answer is that by fixing yourself to one spot you free up all the other space for others to use. A humble person knows her place and takes up only his rightful space, no more and no less.

Humility and self-esteem are intimately related. Moses was not obsequious. He stood up to Pharaoh. He even stood up to God. But apparently, his hutzpah did not nullify his humility.  Hutzpah and humility may seem to be antithetical, but they are not really opposites. They can co-exist in each of us, just like they did in Moses, albeit on a different scale. Rav Kook, former chief rabbi in Palestine, wrote, “When humility is genuine it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.” To know how to navigate between conceit and self-effacement is the art of humility. 

In the Talmud, the difference between Hillel and Shammai came down to humility. In a debate between these two schools of Jewish thought, a voice from heaven cried out: Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Hayyim, these and those are words of the living God, that is both Hillel and Shammai were inspired. However, Jewish practice is determined according to Hillel.  Why? Because when the school of Hillel was teaching about Jewish life, they first cited Shammai’s opinion and then shared their own. They gave honor to their counterparts and yet managed to carry the day with their own arguments.  

In the Rabbinic mind, even God modeled humility in human creation. In the Biblical account of Creation, everything was created by divine fiat. God said, “Let there be light. And there was light.” Except for the creation of a person about which God said, “Let us make a being in our image, in our likeness.” Us? To whom was God speaking? As you may imagine, Biblical interpreters have had a field day, or more accurately, a couple of field millennia trying to answer that question.  Was God conferring with Godself? Or the angels? Or the beings God had already created?  However, one thing was clear. When it came time to create a partner in Creation, God sought a second opinion. Humility involves communication, cooperation and collaboration.  We act humbly when we listen to others.
Apparently, the Men’s club internalized this nuanced understanding of humility because they sent two representatives, Mark Lewis and Scott Silberfein, to our home to share with Lanie and me the humbling news that we were to receive the 2012 Brotherhood award. How could we claim that we did not merit such an honor when they came together and told us that they had consulted with others and that we had been chosen? So Lanie and I looked at each other and said, in all humility, “thank you."

Thank you for making Westchester Reform Temple our spiritual home for a decade. Thank you for relating to us not as Rabbi and Cantor Katzew, but as Lanie and Jan. I cannot overemphasize the difference between being a position and being a person. As we prepare for our transition to Cincinnati, where I will be privileged to serve on the faculty and administration of Hebrew Union College, Lanie and I will miss this kehillah kedoshah, this sacred community. We will miss the brilliant, insightful and inspiring sermons. We will miss the beautiful sounds that transform music into prayer. We will miss the breadth and depth of learning and programming. We will miss the wealth of talent and power of synagogue leaders and volunteer partners. We will miss the architectural grandeur and environmental aesthetic of this magnificent sacred space. We will miss the rich, close and often unpredictable nature of Shabbat morning Torah study. But, most of all, we will miss people, people who have opened their homes and their hearts to us. We will miss being here in this sacred space ready to meet God and each other. It can be a humbling experience to be members at Westchester Reform Temple, where excellence is expected. I am grateful to be standing here on this bima on behalf of Lanie and myself to accept your gracious honor as recipients of the 2012 WRT Brotherhood award. I am even more grateful, however, now to leave this bima and take my rightful place, hopefully not too prominent and not too modest, but rather my appropriately humble place, in this wonderful congregation alongside you – our haverim – our fellow members, our friends.

Shabbat Shalom!

“A small deed done in humility is a thousand times more acceptable to God than a great deal done in pride”  - (Orchot HaTzaddikim)