How to Illuminate a Dark World
As we experience a very tentative lull following a period of severe Middle Eastern bloodshed, and we hold our breaths hoping the worst is over, this week’s Torah portion, Emor, sends us an imperative message that teaches us how to forcefully deal with adversity while becoming greater and more dignified people in the process.
Coming away from the Passover Massacres and the lives they shattered, we count the days of the Omer, which emphasize emotional refinement and personal growth as we count down to Sinai.
How do we balance these two poles: Intense hatred and wanton violence on one hand; strong conviction in our higher values and hope in the future on the other. How can we maintain a vision of a better life when we have to battle so much death and pain, and go to war with those that are causing all this suffering?
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words:
“Speak…and you shall tell them.”
Our sages associate this commandment with the obligation of education. The redundancy (“speak” and “tell them”) informs us:
“To caution the adults concerning the children.” (Talmud Yevamot 114a. Cited in Rashi’s opening commentary to this week’s portion)
The Hebrew word used here for ‘caution’ – ‘lihazhir’ – shares the same root as the word ‘zohar,’ meaning “radiance.” This teaches us a fundamental lesson in education: We must not just caution our children and students but we must radiate for them. ‘Speak’ to your children and warn them of all life’s dangers, but do so in a way that ‘you shall tell them’ and radiate the beauties of life.
Discipline is a most necessary component in the education. An unshaped and impressionable child needs direction and guidance to grow into a healthy and virtuous adult. Discipline helps avoid the pitfalls and traps of our own selfishness. Yet, how often do we witness – and how many of us have been hurt if not damaged – by discipline devoid of love…
Especially in the religious world, how many of us have been affected by dogmatic, fear driven discipline?! I personally have witnessed the devastating psychological effects of many people growing up (can we call it ‘up’?) in homes and schools that indoctrinated children with the wrath of G-d, with fear and guilt – with everything that has been coined today as ‘religious neurosis.’
The primary causes for fear based education vs. love based education include:
1) Laziness. It’s simply easier to just yell at your child and create strong rules, than to patiently and warmly cultivate the child’s personal responsibility.
2) Adult insecurity. We project our own fears and insecurities (perhaps absorbed from our own parents) onto our children. When we internally feel unconfident we will instinctively treat our children in kind, and make them feel afraid and insecure. When we suffer from low self-esteem we will more often than not gravitate toward fear driven approaches rather than love driven ones. It is hard to love another if you do not love yourself. Because of our own inner guilt and inadequacy, we feel that the only way to prevent problems is through driving the fear of punishment into our own hearts and the hearts of our children (as we may have witnessed our parents doing). We presume ourselves and those around us ‘guilty until proven innocent.’
How sad it is that parents and educators have such power over our children; the power to distort and obscure the inherent beauty within each of us. And how sad it is that society contributes so much to this attitude – society shaped by philosophies and schools of thought that narcissism is the inherent state of a human being, and that ‘evil’ is as powerful as good if not more powerful. Concepts like ‘original sin’ and sexuality as a ‘necessary evil’ have helped foster our feelings of shame and guilt about ourselves. Add into the equation the prevalent belief that humans are just billion-year-old evolved bacteria, and it should be no wonder that we feel ourselves as lowly, worthless creatures. Our present education system, both in its attitudes and in its teachings, feeds the powerful illusion that we are in essence insignificant ‘insects’ overshadowed by a vast world, where ‘survival of the fittest’ is the dominant rule.
It is therefore no surprise that the ‘natural’ approach in education is not love based by fear driven. We are afraid of ourselves and of those around us, so we need to create and reinforce protective ‘gates’ around ourselves to guard against the enemies within.
Emor tells us – it actually commands us – to educate our children with radiance and love. Discipline and caution are necessary, but they are part of and rooted in the same word as ‘radiate;’ discipline is but a dimension in radiance – gevurah within chesed.
See yourself as a gardener, the Torah is telling us. Within the earth lie flower seeds. Each person carries within him/herself divine beauty and light, by virtue of the fact that we have all been created in the Divine Image. No, we are not insects or animals; each of us is an indispensable flower in a grand, cosmic garden. As a gardener, the role of parent and educator is to clean the earth, rip out the weeds – create a nurturing environment so that the ‘flowers’ within your child can emerge intact, unencumbered.
Discipline is cleaning out the weeds in your life, in your home and in your behavior, so that your child can flourish. Even when discipline is required in education, always, but always ensure that the child feels that it is coming from a loving place.
* * *
Lag B’Omer is coming next week. This mystical day is the yahrzeit of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was known for his mastery of Torah in both the revealed (exoteric) and hidden (esoteric) dimensions – the body and soul of Torah. Rabbi Shimon was the author of the holy Zohar, the classical ‘Bible’ of Jewish mysticism. Indeed, Lag B’Omer is called the “Mattan Torah” of the inner Torah.
The legal body of Torah must be balanced with its spiritual interior. If not it risks becoming a doctrine that regulates life, but lacks the spirit within.
I recall meeting a woman who shared with me her reasons for escaping her ultra-religious home because she felt spiritually asphyxiated. “The anger and guilt of my parent,” she told me, “simply destroyed my spirit. There was no talk of soul or love, no talk of hope and faith, only rules, rules and more rules. If you do this, you will be punished this way, and if you don’t do this, you’ll be punished another way.” “It seemed,” she concluded, “as if G-d has nothing better to do that to penalize transgressors.”
After hearing and acknowledging her anguish, followed by a long emotional talk, I told her that I do not judge her in any way. On the contrary, she did the healthiest thing by getting away from her abusive environment. But, I added, “if you really want to understand what happened in your life and not short change yourself, I suggest that you study some Chasiddus (the inner dimension of Torah). It will show you that Judaism is a comprehensive and deeply spiritual way of life, that teaches us how to fuse body and soul, matter and spirit, in one glorious dance.”
Zohar – ‘lihazhir’ – radiates light. All forms of discipline are but subsets of this illumination.
* * *
As it is in the microcosm so is it in the macrocosm – in today’s global conflicts.
When people are attacked they naturally respond. But often this response will be driven by the force of the attack with the goal of protecting yourself and your loved ones. We have an ample demonstration of this both in America’s response to September 11th and Israel’s response to the terrorism against its citizens.
The question is this: Are you fighting a defensive war only to protect yourself, or are you fighting an offensive war for something you believe in? In other words, are you fighting against or for something?
Emor teaches us that if your battle is only against, you will always remain locked in a cycle of violence. Your fear and caution must be coupled with light and illumination – a deeper embrace of what you truly believe in. And that core belief becomes the foundation that allows you to fight against your enemy, while maintaining sight of your ultimate goal: To radiate light in your own home, community and in the entire world.
We are faced today with this unprecedented opportunity: To see the war we are fighting as a catalyst to fight the true war against today’s widespread distortions of all sorts. Distortions of the facts, distortions of religion, and distortions of what it means to be a human being.
We are all Divine flowers and have nothing to fear. Yes, we must be extremely cautious today and do whatever it takes to defend our lives and freedoms. We must go to war to unequivocally eliminate all forces that threaten innocent lives with terrorism and other violence. But our calling – and our physical war – is fueled by our embrace for truth, freedom and G-dliness.
But do not allow your life to be driven by caution and fear. Allow it to be driven by radiance and beauty.