Rosh Hashannah : Differentiation Torah and Taking the Conscious into the Unconscious
When blowing the shofar, there must be a pause between the Tekiah and the Shevarim sounds. The Shofar blower must take a new breath between these two sounds. The Tekiah represents joy, and the Shevarim represents pain, and there must be a havdalla/separation between them.
In the Torah of reciprocity, through which we try to create an ethical shidduch with the people in our lives, we must first mess things up. Going around and saying to people, Machol li/forgive me is a disturbing process. I don’t know anyone who does this who isn’t in some way set off by it. If I say to you, “will you forgive me?” you probably begin to feel uneasy, because this sort of question can open up a whole can of worms. These conversations eventually come around to whatever feedback we may have for each other. This is where we were in the last chapter, with the Judge and the Lover.
In all of our Torah metaphors, we are always trying to mix the joy and the pain. But the question arises, why risk the pain? Maybe it’s just better to bury it, and forget about it. So in not allowing us to do this, Elul really puts us on edge, particularly in the area of disinterring the stuff that’s buried in the unconscious.
This is all part of the experience of blowing the Shofar, but the idea behind it is that, just as sleep can be an exercise of consciously becoming unconscious, so Elul is an instance of the conscious going into the unconscious.
Some of the lessons I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Shloime Twerski, are very, very distinctive. I learned from him that if you can be guided to break your heart in the pattern of the Shofar, to do it in what could be called a controlled experiment, it is much easier than having to hit a rock bottom in your general life. When we hit a brick wall in our lives, we can learn from it or not learn from it, but there is so much wheel spinning involved, that the deliberate broken heart brought about by this pattern of asking forgiveness is a preferable alternative, just as begging for my life because I didn’t eat breakfast before davening is much easier than it would be if God forbid I had a terrible life-threatening illness or some other circumstance that would get me to actually beg for my life. Instead, I can engineer this situation every morning, and do it in a relatively painless way.
These processes are what help us move towards that critical thing called ‘objectivity’, or unbiased judgment.
If you don’t have good judgment you’re not going to have a good relationship with anyone, in any area of your life.
Last week we saw that the Gemara in Sanhedrin quotes a verse from Parshat Netzavim (Deuteronomy 29:18) to illustrate five cases of bad shidduchim.
“When he hears the words of this oath he blesses himself in his heart, whispering ‘peace will be with me. I will go in the chains of my heart, in order to add the watered to the thirsty.’”
Rashi explains that the overflowing water here is “a metaphor for shogeg – unintentional sin – because a person who has had too much to drink and becomes intoxicated may sin without being aware of what he is doing. ‘Thirsty’ is a metaphor for mayzid – intentional sin, because a thirsty person is rational, and seeks means of satisfying his craving. Thus, the sense of the verse is that only under normal circumstances does God treat unintentional sinners leniently. When a person falls prey to the delusion that he is free to do as he pleases, saying ‘peace will be with me’, God holds him responsible even for his unintentional sins – the water – since they are the result of indifference to the gravity of the transgression. Punishment for those sins is then added to the punishment for his intentional thirsty sins.”
This is a really interesting chiddush, because Elul is about shogeg – unintentional sin. Elul is the antidote to those alcoholics, who, in their denial, insist that they are not alcoholics.
The world is the place of forgetting, sleep and alcoholism, in the sense that if we don’t strive for consciousness, it’s as if we’re all drunk, and so, if we don’t do Elul, we become liable for our unintentional sins, because we have created around ourselves a culture of addiction and denial and self-deception.
The powerfully evocative image of drunkenness here refers back to the story of Noach, and the idea of how perfectionism and alcoholism feed each other.
Perfectionism, by putting too much pressure on the system, creates the escapism (in Noach’s case alcoholism), because rationalization is an escapist mode. In the classic alcoholic scenario, the alcoholic rationalizes and also gets the people around him to enable him by buying into the rationalization.
The Midrash describes Noach’s perfectionism by saying that he fed the animals on the ark day and night, without even feeding himself, and that he wanted an utterly monastic environment, prohibiting sex altogether.
This had two consequences. One was that he made his sons furious, because perfectionism makes others furious. The other was that he felt so pressured, that when the time came for him to disembark and build a perfect world, he got drunk instead.
Not only does perfectionism not lead to the goal, it leads to the total reverse. Because of his perfectionism, Noach ends up drunk and sodomized.
This is why we break all of our commitments on Erev Rosh Hashannah, because the fresh start is part of the forgiveness, part of the relenting process. If we don’t do this, things build up so much that we can’t take it, and we run away.
The key word in the verse quoted above is shalom, which as well as ‘peace’ means ‘complete’. The truth is, I am not complete. I can’t make a complete commitment. All kinds of things could happen due to my own imperfection, or the vagaries of the world. This is why I say bli neder/without a vow. I can only say, “I’ll call you at 5:30 tomorrow, bli neder”.
We need to take off some of the pressure, because as my teacher Rabbi Twerski used to say, “dams break”.
This is a very paradoxical system. Paradox is always part of the dialectic, and I have to create a dialectic tension between commitment and no-commitment. I have to have the opposite of commitment as well as commitment, otherwise, due to the inherent perfectionism in Gevurah, I will get into tremendous trouble. This applies especially to the Gevurah of religion, because the Gevurah of religion states that God is perfect, and I must try to emulate God, so I try harder and harder to be perfect. This is where all of our brokenness comes from.
The beginning of fixing is always in trying to break up people’s patterns of behavior. For instance, in the week before Rosh Hashannah, getting up early to say the Selichot prayers gets me all discombobulated. It’s brilliant. The Torah is coming along and saying, look, we can get a lot farther into your personality just by shaking up one of your habits, one of your schedules, than we can by talking philosophy for five hours. This is the nature of man.
This is part of the whole obligation structure. I first have to get you into that obligatory behavior, for no other reason than that it is a Mitzvah.
The Torah is telling us that the Selichot are a conscious breaking of the heart.
The whole project of davening is in combining the tekiah, which is simcha/joy with the shevarim, which is the broken heart. We separate them with a breath, because separating in integrity leads to synthesis. Synthesis is not the same as fusion. We’re not fusing them together. They need their own integrity of breath. They need the Havdalla.
All of this is about teaching people how to get from Gevurah to Hessed. We do want to make you a kinder person. We want to make you a warmer person, a nicer person, a better person. But how do we do it? We have to start off with Gevurah/obligation/behavior/authority/commandments. Then we can get all the warm fuzzies, but we’ll get them in a way that will work, because they will be based on integrity, not on bias.
The key is in this conscious breaking of the heart. Rabbi Twerski taught that we are living in a time of such depression, and people already feel so threatened, that to consciously break one’s own heart, to consciously break down in front of someone and say, ‘forgive me if I hurt you and please give my any feedback that you have’ – this takes a lot of confidence, and in times of depression it becomes almost impossible. It is a very risky thing to do, because people can open themselves up when they are not really ready to hear the feedback, and so they get the broken heart, and it destroys them.
Asking for forgiveness is a way of consciously breaking the relationship. While we are asking, ‘What’s wrong here?’, in the back of our mind there is always doubt and fear that we are just asking for trouble.
Is this really a process that I can trust?
To do the forgiveness thing well, I think you have to kind of get out of yourself. You certainly have to get out of your resentments, because this is all about relenting.
The sequel to the Gemara we studied in the last few chapters (Sanhedrin 76b) is a very interesting passage about honoring your wife more than your own body. The Gemara says: “An objection was raised: He who loves his wife as himself and honors her more than himself, and leads his children in the right path, and marries them just before they attain puberty – of him Scripture sayeth (Job 5:24); And you shall know that your tabernacle shall be in peace and you shall visit your habitation, and shall not sin. – If just before puberty, it is different.”
The key word here is “peace”, referring to shalom bayit – domestic peace, which I am going to call ‘creating helpful opposition’. How do you make that work? This ‘helpful opposition’ is very delicate; it takes a lot of understanding. The further along you they it, the more two people can hurt each other. We know this from studying the Talmudic sages, who were capable of harming each other greatly with nothing more than a look or a word. They teach us that reciprocity is very delicate. You have to really work on it, for it you don’t, even people who know how to do it and know what is going on can be very hurtful.
Basically, if I say to you, “Forgive me, do the dance with me”, I am saying I want to work on reciprocity. We have to give each other honest feedback. We have to give each other a lot of trust and positive things to make it work. It is very delicate, and we have to respect it, for if we don’t, we could really hurt each other, and the biggest way we could hurt each other is not intentionally, but inadvertently.
On the Gemara quoted above, Rashi asks, how do you honor your wife more than your own body? One way given in the Talmud is to buy her a piece of jewellery before Yom Kippur.
I have never bought a piece of jewellery for myself in my entire life. In my book, jewellery is overpriced junk. But my wife likes jewellery, so we went shopping together and I bought her a bracelet that we both liked. This was the first time in my whole marriage that I have done this, and it had an unbelievable effect. The Esh Kodesh’s definition of responsibility as being happy and making others happy echoed through my mind. But I had to get out of my own rigidity and my values before I was able to do it.
The opening verses of Parshat Netzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-10) express this effect of ‘helpful opposition’ very powerfully:
“Today you are all standing before God your Lord – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your infants, your women, and the proselytes in the camp – even your wood-cutters and water drawers.”
In these verses, we find what I call ‘differentiation Torah’. Moshe is giving a tremendous instruction in reciprocity, as explained by the Ishbitzer in Mei Hashiloach. In order to up the ethical level of humanity, we have to have this helpful opposition. You have to look at the people who are totally different from you, and see what you have to offer each other. You have to take the end of the line and connect it to the beginning of a line. This is what forms the machol, the circle. In doing this we build a common language between the front of the line and the back of the line, turning the linear line into a circle, which, Torah tells us, is the only way we can fight Amalek. Essentially, they don’t speak a common language, so to build the common language Moshe lines up five machers and five shleppers.
The first of the machers are the leaders, and he stands them opposite the first of the shleppers – the infants, who don’t know anything. The leaders – rosheichem - are heady people who naturally build an ivory tower in which they become self-deceptive and insular in their own world. In order to puncture insularity, we have to have a real dialogue between the people who are at opposite ends of the line. By standing them opposite each other, Moshe sets up a real reciprocity between the haves and the have-nots. The infants have a lot to teach the professors, and vice versa.
Next are the heads of the tribes, who are set opposite the women. This would be like the mayor – who is responsible for the city - talking to the mother – who is responsible for the family.
Then the elders, the oldest Jews, talk to the proselytes, the newest Jews. This is vital, because if these two remained within their insular groups, they would each be missing something vital. The elders would be missing the longing to become a Jew, because they see themselves as the oldest, the most seasoned, while the coverts see themselves as the newest, and they need to get the feeling of rootedness from the elders.
The law enforcers talk to the angry criminals (“your wood-cutters”) and finally, “every Israelite man talks to the “water drawers”, who are people dominated by desire.
This is a very interesting and compelling structure, and one in which I really believe, although it happens rarely.
For this dialogue to happen, we need to have the form for the dialogue, and the fact that Moshe is able to make this form in the last hour of his life is incredible in itself.
It can be done, even just by bringing people together and asking the question. I once took a group of convicts up to a university, and asked them and the college students to address and compare the ways in which they were both institutionalized. As the college students reflected on institutionalized eduction they wondered whether they were in fact maybe even more controlled than the convicts.
This is what has to be done to beat Amalek.
And in an individual life, how do you create dialogue with those people who are different from you, who seem to be talking a different language?
The first thing to consider is, what do we have to offer each other?
In my wilderness groups, I let everyone walk at their own pace to start with, and what happens is the strong people gravitate to the front of the line and they run away from the people at the end of the line. In the high mountains, this can actually kill people.
What I do in these situations is first, let it happen. Then I tell them stories about how people have died from just this simple division of the line. Then I ask the same question I am asking now: How do we create a common language between the people at the front of the line who think we’re moving too slowly, and the people at the end of the line who think it’s way too fast, and feel terrible, and negative, and are complaining all the time?
The shleppers and the machers. It’s always the same story. So I try to create a dialogue between the two. I say, look, the parameters of the situation are that you have to move as one, together, like a car going up a hill. If you stop that car in the middle, then it will lose a lot more fuel, and be very inefficient. The same applies to climbing a mountain. You have to keep the group moving at one pace, which is somewhere between the fast pace of the strongest and the slow pace of the weakest.
Then I leave it up to them to figure out. Usually, the strongest person moves to the back, because if he goes to the front, he will go too fast, and the weakest person moves to the front. This way, the strongest person can also encourage the mentally weaker people at the back, who are complaining and not feeling good. Then the group can start to move at a single, harmonious pace. But first the people need to experience both the dissonance and the harmony.
What we are trying to do with Torah is show people how to do the work to create these ethical relationships, where you have this helpful opposition and you create a common language. That is all you are ever doing with any other human being.
The whole idea of the Torah, is in how to bring people together in environments of trust that will last, whether it is a marriage or a class or any covenantal relationship. So the Torah starts with the notion that for this to happen, you have to sign an agreement with people, and it has to be a formal agreement, on paper. The parameters have to be clear, otherwise there can be no reciprocity, no common language, no ethical relationship.