Shemini: Religious Selfishness

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Post-Passover Thoughts

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before G-d an alien fire, which He had not instructed them. Fire cam forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d.

This week’s Torah portion, Leviticus 10:1-2

During Passover one central theme kept emerging in both serious and casual conversations: How to handle religious confrontation between parent and child, between husband and wife, between neighbors and friends.

In truth this carries over to any conflict, religious or not, friend or stranger, even to national and global battles.

What is one to do, for instance, when your family member, your child, your parent or your spouse, is not living up to your religious standards?

How are we to accept others who we feel are not following G-d’s law without compromising the integrity of our own beliefs?

This topic consumed the larger part of one of my talks in La Jolla during the last days of Passover. Allow me to share some of the ideas we discussed.

An anguished mother once approached me completely at loss what to do with her rebellious teenage son. She believed he was using drugs and partaking in other activities that she and her husband did not approve of. Things were getting worse. She and her husband were constantly fighting with their son, as they were trying to enforce rules and curfews. Tensions escalated to the point that their son was impacting negatively on his siblings, and the entire mood in the house was filling with yelling and screaming.

The mother was at wit’s end. She couldn’t allow things to continue as they were. Her son would simply not follow any rules. On the other hand, how could she throw her own child into the street?!

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to tell the mother. Things seemed completely stuck. How do you begin to repair a relationship that has eroded to a point where parents cannot speak with their son except in argument?

But as we were speaking an instinct came to me. I suggested to the mother that she should hire a babysitter and take her son out that night to dinner at a good restaurant. “By no means,” I cautioned her, “should you address your conflicts, even after dessert. Your son will be expecting for you to pounce. Allow the evening to be only a pleasant one.”

The objective, I explained to her, was to introduce a new, and surprising dimension to their relationship. With all the building pressure it was critical to bring in some fresh air and shake things up for the better. Mother and son had no longer anything in common. “What you need to do,” I told her, “is to speak to your son for the first time as one does to a child growing into an adult. Share with him your life and aspirations, what you were like when you were seventeen years old and the struggles you faced. Create a dialogue with him.”

Needless to say, mother was resistant to the idea. She had no idea what to tell her son. She had never had a real conversation with him. Her only relationship with him was of a grown-up mother a young child. But he was no longer a child; he was growing into an adult. “Your son needs his mother, and you need your son. He also needs a friend,” I told her. “If you don’t open a dialogue now with your son, things will get worse to the point that you may never be able to reconcile in the future. You will grow further and further apart.”

The mother finally agreed. The evening went very well. Mother and child had a cordial conversation for the first time. The son was taken aback and quite surprised to be spoken to as an adult.

The boy is still struggling; parents and son have yet to be at peace with each other, but now there is a relationship. There is some mutual respect and acceptance – a foundation has been established than can be built upon. The parents recognize the need for their son to independently discover his path. The son acknowledges the need to respect his parents’ guidelines at home at least.

You see, what truly happened was this: Their relationship finally turned human. Instead of hiding behind religious issues, control issues and the like, mother and son allowed themselves to be people, vulnerable and natural.

What emerged was a fascinating insight on the other’s part. Some time later, she told me, in tears, that she had paid heavy prices to become religious. Her parents disowned her. After the initial “honeymoon” with her new religious environment, she realized that people are people everywhere and that she wasn’t necessarily accepted as an equal. But it was all worth it, because her children would have it easy – provided with a powerful belief system on a platter without the difficulties she had to face.

Now that her son was rejecting all that she fought for, it broke her to pieces. She just could not accept it, and was insisting on imposing her beliefs on her son. But once she allowed herself to open up and have normal conversation with her son, about her struggles, about her choices, she came to realize that her expectations, her disappointments were her feelings, not her son’s. Just as she had the right to make her choices back then, her son had the right to make his choices. As hard as it was for her to accept, her son had to find himself just as she had to find herself despite what her parents felt, despite the obvious pain her parents felt when she rejected their value system.

Religion can never invalidate a human being and his/her dignified journey in life. As absolute as religious law may be, it cannot become another extension of the human ego and need for control. Belief in G-d has to lift a person to a Divine level, rather than bring G-d down to our human frailties.

Which brings me to a second story.

A groom once came to see me. Initially he was happily engaged. Both he and his bride were on a similar journey toward their Jewish heritage. Though they both had grown up in secular homes, they wanted to begin their marriage by building a home following tradition, a kosher and Shabbat observant home, and one built on the principles of family purity.

But then “crisis struck,” as he put it. The groom was frantic. His bride suddenly was questioning some of the commitments they had agreed upon. “Who knows where she’ll go next,” the groom worried. “I don’t want to get married and then find out that my wife doesn’t want to build a Jewish home.”

He was ready to give her an ultimatum. “Either you stick to our commitments, or the engagement is over.” He desperately wanted my advice.

Since he invited me in, I reciprocated his candidness. “Tell me,” I asked him, “why do you want your future wife to run a kosher home; why do you want her to be religious?” “What do you mean why?” he incredulously replied, “The reason is obvious, because that’s what G-d wants of her.”

“So,” I continued, “do you think that she feels that you and G-d are on one side, both of you wanting her to be frum (religious in the vernacular), and she stands on the other side?!”

“Of course she doesn’t feel that way,” he said. “If she felt that kosher was what G-d wanted, she would definitely comply.” “So what does she feel?” I asked him. He wasn’t sure. “Let me tell you what she may be feeling,” I explained. “She may feel that the religious stuff is not about G-d but about you. Just as you would want her to wear a blue dress when she may not want to, she feels that you are imposing your will on hers. She may even be testing you (consciously or unconsciously) to see if you love her for who she is or do you love the fact that she is Jewish and will give you Jewish children in a Jewish home.

“The first thing you need to do is show her that you love her. That you respect her journey and her choices. That you are not imposing on her your will, your ego, your control – even if dressed in religious garb.

“The way you do this is by following the first halacha (law) in marriage: ‘Honor your wife more than yourself.’ Also remember that G-d Himself says ‘Erase My sacred name in order to preserve shalom bayit (domestic tranquility).’

“When your bride will see and feel that your commitment is driven by bittul, selflessness, humility and modesty, I would submit that she will want what G-d wants. Because you – and your personality – will have gotten out of the way.”

“But what should I do when she doesn’t follow the laws,” the groom asked. “Discuss it with her, respect her pace, her journey, and it will work itself out,” I told him.

To his credit, the groom followed my suggestion. Suffice it to say that today they are happily married with several beautiful children and she is more religious than him…

Religion is not like other choices we make in life. It is not about joining an elite “country club” which separates “us from them.” It is a Divine system given to the entire human race to live up to its greatest potential.

Nachmanides explains that in religious life there is a possibility of a “naval b’reshut haTorah,” a sordid person [who behaves so] with “permission” of the Torah (Leviticus 19:1). This means someone who follows the letter of the law but in a disgusting way. We therefore have the specific commandment “sanctify yourselves for I, your G-d, am holy.” We need to limit and refine even that which is permissible according to the Torah. Strict adherence to the laws is not sufficient; it needs to be saturated with sanctity, with the feeling that these laws are Divine, and that we are submitting to G-d’s higher will as we perform them, not just to our own preference, habit or mechanical behavior.

Isaiah put it bluntly:

“Inasmuch as this people has drawn close, with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from Me. The fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands.” (29:13)

Nadav and Avihu in this week’s Torah portion (and continuing in the portion two weeks from now) enter the Holy Temple and offered an “alien fire before G-d.” They were then consumed by fire and died. The question is asked: What exactly transpired here? Did they commit a sin? And if not, what were they consumed? On the contrary: Moses tells Aaron that his sons, Nadav and Avihu, are even greater than Moses and Aaron. For it is they who fulfilled G-d’s words:

“I will be sanctified by those close to Me, and I will thus be glorified.”

Commentaries explain that Nadav and Avihu entered the Temple in great ecstasy. They were so drawn to feed off the Divine energy that they entered in great love and yearning to the point that their souls expired in tremendous ecstasy.

However this is not the ultimate purpose of life. As great as was their Divine love, it ended up being “selfish.” The ultimate Divine experience is to ground the ecstasy, to bring it back and integrate it in the material life of body and soul. What is required is both “rotzo” and “shuv,” yearning and returning, tension and resolution.

The greatest religious experience is when we have the power to go beyond even our religious aspirations as they manifest in our own human “structures” and “frameworks.” The objective is to turn the human into the Divine, not the other way around.

It’s one thing to recognize that we must get beyond our narcissistic ego and reject its selfish behavior. It’s even greater – and harder – to transcend our “religious ego” and get beyond even the human “definitions” of good behavior, to go from good to better, from good to G-d.

Faith must always refine us as human beings. The greater the faith the greater the refinement. Sometimes we must step back from our own religious “shapes” to ensure that we are become G-dlier and not that faith is becoming another tool of our selfishness. As in the story of the Rebbe who rebuked his son for not hearing the cry of a child while being immersed deep in study.

The first question we must always ask ourselves is this: Is my position driven solely by my perspective and way of looking at things, or is it what is right and true? Is it what I want or is it what G-d wants?

The only true test to determine the answer is by seeing whether you are ready to “get out of the way” and forego your own convictions for the benefit of another person.

This may be the greatest argument for G-d as opposed to self-rule. If we determine what is right or wrong based on nothing more than our own wisdom and discretion, then the most we can hope for is some limited form of co-existence, and one that will always remain tenuous. But if we defer to G-d, that instead of asking what I want, we ask what G-d wants, there is the true possibility that we can discover a higher truth, which both transcends and allows for our diversity.

Of course this requires that the search for G-d not be yet another manifestation or extension of our own egos. Hence, the cardinal sin of idolatry. Does a secure G-d, a true G-d, really mind if we want to be foolish and worship false gods? Idolatry however is essentially self-worship: “I don’t want G-d on G-d’s terms, I want a god on my terms. A god I can relate to.” Instead of embracing ourselves as created in the Divine Image, we want to create a god in our own image. This distortion in effect blocks every hope of ever finding a higher truth, a higher reality than our one of our own making.

Our great challenge is, in the words of the Ethics:

“Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.”

Religion is not a business and not a membership organization. It is not yet another card-carrying institution. Too often religion has become another human device. As long as religion remains human it is subject to all human distortions. Just as there are other addictions, there can be religious addiction. True religion is a Divine institution.

As serious as we take our commitments, we must take G-d and His cause more serious.

So there are religious people and G-dly people. Some take themselves seriously but don’t take the cause seriously. Others don’t take themselves that seriously but they take the cause seriously.

Think about it.

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