Born This Way – Parashat Sh’lakh L’kha 2011

I want to take this opportunity to tell my beautiful niece, Dana Isabel, Dorit Chaya, one of my favorite stories.  There once was a hasid who went to great lengths seeking the secret of Moses’ greatness.  After many years of investigating and studying, he went to his rabbi and said, “Rebbe, you know that I have spent many years seeking the secret of Moshe Rabbeinu’s greatness.  Despite my efforts, I have not been successful.  Please, can you teach me – what was Moshe’s secret?”  The Rebbe gazed at his pupil, stroked his long, white beard, and said “My son, it is simple.  Moshe Rabbeinu always carried two pieces of parchment in his pockets.  One said ‘Bishveli nivra ha-olam/ THE WORLD WAS CREATED FOR ME,’ and the other read, ‘Anokhi Afar va-Efer/ I AM DUST AND ASHES.’  When Moshe felt worthless, God would tell him to pull out the parchment that said ‘The world was created for me,’ reminding himself of his infinite value.  When he felt too arrogant, too smugly self-satisfied, God would tell him to pull out the parchment that said ‘I am dust and ashes.’ In this way, Moshe reminded himself that he was not a god, that he was not all-powerful, that he was still fallible.”

At different times in our lives, this Hasidic tradition instructs, we will need to remind ourselves of two teachings that are fundamentally opposite, and yet equally true and crucially important.  All of us have infinite worth and all of us are finite.

I thought about this teaching after Adira and I chose Lady Gaga’s smash, “Born This Way” as our official song of the summer.  This particular distinction means nothing in the world, of course, except that each morning, we put on our song and dance wildly to it together all over our home.  So this summer, we dance to “Born This Way.”

One of the things I appreciate most about Lady Gaga is that, as opposed to other contemporary pop stars, Gaga tries to write music with a positive message.  As told in “Born This Way,” the gospel according to Gaga goes something like this: People destroy themselves because of their own self-doubt. Gaga sermonizes:

“There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are, because God made you perfect, babe.”

In an interview, Gaga clarified that the message of “Born This Way” is to teach “people to worship themselves.”

On some level, I think there is no more important message to send to young people today. There are many powerful forces in our lives that work to convince us that we are small and insignificant.  Young girls are taught that unless they are skinny enough, or unless they dress a certain way, they are worthless.  Boys are taught that there is something wrong with them if they do not meet a certain standard of masculinity, that being gay – or even appearing by some capricious set of social standards to be gay – is criminal.  And, not surprisingly, among youth, there is an epidemic happening right at this very moment of anorexia, bulimia, depression, and suicide.  Kids out there are literally killing themselves because they are being made to feel that who they are is ugly, disgusting, and wrong.

I became acutely aware of the power of self-image this past year while counseling recovering addicts at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish treatment center in Los Angeles.  Client after client would tell me about how they used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of living in their own skin and to help them escape themselves.

Take Eddie, for instance.  Eddie is a recovering addict in his late 30’s who spent most of his life living with foster parents.  Eddie’s biological father ran away when Eddie was just a boy, and Eddie always thought that he was the problem, that his father ran away because he couldn’t stand him.  Eddie has carried this terrible baggage with him his whole life, believing that who he is is ugly, disgusting, and wrong; that anyone with whom he gets close will inevitably leave him once they discover this.  Consequently, Eddie has a pattern of running away or destroying all of his closest relationships; and Eddie used heroin for years because it helped him escape his painful perception of reality.

Eddie’s perception, of course, was not reality.  He was a perfectly likeable person: handsome, affable, sensitive and smart; an incredibly talented musician; and an excellent surfer.  But with his perception of himself serving as his reality, Eddie was robbed of his dignity, his humanity, and his ability to act in the world.  What would Eddie’s life had looked like if he saw himself as he truly was?  People, indeed, destroy themselves because of their own self-doubt.

The Torah, too, warns of the dangers of self-doubt.  In this week’s parashah, Sh’lakh Lekha, we read about a group of twelve scouts that the Israelites send out to survey the land of Canaan.  The scouts return to the people and say:

Sham ra’inu et ha-nefilim – b’nei anak min ha-nefilim – va’nehi b’eineinu ka’hagavim, v’khen hayyinu b’eineihem.

“We saw the giants there – Anakites are the descendents of the giants – And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them as well.” (Numbers 13:33).

Upon seeing the gigantic stature of the land’s inhabitants, the spies, taking their perception of their own stature to be reality, become disheartened: “How could little insignificant us conquer massive, powerful them?”

The result? The spies’ report causes complete and total disaster.  Their feelings of inferiority were contagious: the Israelites assumed that they could not conquer Canaan, and in a panic, they refused to go.  God, in turn, responded by punishing the spies and the people.  No longer would the generation of the exodus be able to enter the Promised Land. Our ancestors, the Torah teaches, destroyed themselves because of their own self-doubt; and you, too, can destroy yourself by seeing yourself negatively.  The rabbis warn us explicitly, ein adam mesim atzmo rasha, one must not regard himself as a bad person (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 25b).  To that end, the Talmud gives us an imperative: Every person should say, Bishveli nivra ha-olam/ The World Was Created for Me” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).  God is invites us – each of us, at every moment – to celebrate each of our unique and infinite values.

Loving who we are, being proud of who we are, is truly an important virtue.  And it, too, can be dangerous.  With too much self-confidence, we begin to believe that we can do no wrong, that we have no room for improvement.  To worship ourselves, as Lady Gaga suggests we do, is to make ourselves into gods.

Now, regarding ourselves and others as “god-like” is important.  After all, this is the very essence of the Torah’s teaching that a human being is made in the Divine Image – so that all people will treat themselves and others with the utmost dignity. But seeing ourselves as gods is to regard ourselves as all-powerful, as incapable of falling and failing, as the exclusive arbiters of right and wrong.

This virtue, put simply, is known as arrogance.  It is the virtue possessed, in the extreme, by the Moammar Kaddafi’s of the world, who are so taken by their own power, so convinced of their own rightness, that they distort any reality so that it fits into their own view of themselves and the world.  And it is why the Talmud teaches kol adam she-yesh bo gasut ha-ruah, amar ha-Kadosh Barukh Hoo ein ani v’hu la-dur ba’olam / When a person shows arrogance, God says He and I cannot dwell together in the world (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 5a).  When a person makes himself a god, there is no room for God.  And when there is no room for God, there is no room for the recognition that we all have but One Parent; there is no room for the awareness that we are all created equally in God’s image; there is no room for the acknowledgement that there is a morality which transcends each of our own ethical compasses.

The antidote to arrogance, then, is precisely the opposite of Lady Gaga’s message.  We are urged to remind ourselves that we are not gods, that we all have One Source, that we are all equally crafted as reflections of the Divine, that none of us has a monopoly on moral knowledge.  We are urged to check our arrogance by reminding ourselves anokhi afar va-efer/ I am dust and ashes.

Lady Gaga’s message of overcoming our devastating self-doubt is critically important.  And it is also important for us to recognize our limits.  Perhaps we should even doubt ourselves, even if just a little.

As we learned in the Hasidic legend, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, is a perfect model of this balanced disposition.  In the Torah, Moses appears almost to have a split personality.  On the one hand, he is described as “anav me’od mi-kol ha-adam asher al p’nei ha-adamah/ very humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).  When God approaches Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery, Moses objects, “mi anokhi ki elekh el par’oh v’khi otzi et b’nei Yisrael mi-mitzrayam/ Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to take the Children of Israel from Egypt?!” (Exodus 3:11).  How much self-doubt Moses has!  How little does he believe in himself!  And yet, Moses also possesses the fortitude, the courage of character, and the confidence to do things like advocating before God on behalf of the Israelites.  In this week’s parashah, when God seeks to annihilate the people for the sin of the spies, Moses stands up to God and demands “Forgive the sin of these people in accordance with your great love” (Numbers 14:19).  How many of us would have the hutzpah to talk back to the Creator of the Universe?  How much strength and integrity would it take for us to turn down God’s offer to wipe out the people and have a great nation made of us as God offered Moses?  And yet, meek, humble, self-doubting Moses exemplifies this kind of self-confidence.  Moses’ greatness, I think, was borne of the fact that he worked to balance both of these virtues.

And this brings me to my beautiful, sweet niece.  Dana Isabel, Dorit Chaya.  My teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, once taught me that the only things a parent needs to teach his or her child is the difference between right and wrong, and that she is loved in everything she does.  This, I think, is the secret to the kind of balance exemplified by Moses.  Knowing that one is loved at all times gives one the freedom and the confidence to be herself, to believe in and celebrate her own greatness.  And knowing the difference between right and wrong keeps that confidence from becoming arrogance.

You, dear one, have everything you need to be as great as Moshe Rabbeinu.  You have incredible parents, a wonderful family, and an embracing community who do and will love you in everything you do, and who will work their hardest to teach you how to live a life of good values – a life committed to compassion and justice.  And it is our blessing today that you take those gifts that your parents and we all are giving you, and go out into the world, repairing its brokenness with your greatness.

Rachel and Ben, you have chosen this child’s name wisely.  In Hebrew, as you know, Dorit Chaya means “a generation lives,” which is fitting, because the traditions, the values, and the love of all her ancestors – and of you – will live on through her, and, in turn, Dana will give life to them in a world very much in need of her light.  I know you two will teach Dana how to live that way, with an enveloping love and a good moral compass, so that she will go out into the world, sowing compassion, righteousness, and justice. You are both patient, attentive, and loving.  And as Dana grows older, she will make great use of those gifts while also benefiting from your intelligence, your humor, your values, and your commitments. It is truly a blessing to see you both as parents. I love you.

And as for us, I want to bless us that we all, like Moses our teacher, celebrate ourselves.  I invite each of us to believe in our unlimited importance and value, ignoring those voices in our lives that tell us that we are grasshoppers.  And I invite us to remember that we are not everything.  “Bishveli nivra ha-olam/ THE WORLD WAS CREATED FOR ME.” “Anokhi Afar va-Efer/ I AM DUST AND ASHES.”  When we feel too much self-doubt, let us recall our infinite value and importance.  And when we feel too proud of ourselves, let us remind ourselves that we are not God.

God bless you.  Shabbat Shalom.

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