Friday, November 10, 2006

November Fireworks


Dedicated to the memory of Morris (Moshe) Sisgold, who learned how to live a harmonious life.

Question 1: What’s the difference between compassion and kindness?

After you’ve thought about that, please indulge me to share a recent awe.

On our street, something truly amazing began last week. Tree after tree are shedding their green clothing and showing their true colors.

I return from the sunrise meditation session when the sun is still low in the sky. As I drive down our street, that warm, happy light has lately been directly behind me, creating the impression that these autumn trees in front of me are bursting fireworks of red, orange and yellow. The visual experience is unexpectedly thrilling – I’m like a child watching a fourth-of-July display. It’s even better, because these fireworks don’t dissipate after five seconds. It’s a super-slow-motion event.

Even better, after the show is over, we don’t have to go to bed! Instead, the experience continues on the tactile, olfactory and audio levels. We rake and jump in piles of leaves. We smell that faint and not yet unpleasant aroma of decay. We tread on dried leaves with an ever-so-pleasing crunch (it sells breakfast cereal and it sells a weekend walk). And there is the moral pleasure of composting the leaves to use for next year's garden. Wow! The only thing that can beat that is raking your elderly neighbor's leaves, unasked.

And the sun sets so early...!

Which means that Friday night begins early, and we can now plan for a long, drawn-out dinner with more courses and more story-telling.

Question 2: Which trait is more important, kindness or discipline?

(If there are kids at your table, ask them: What’s more important – following rules or helping others?)

In Jewish thought, it’s a little bit like asking what’s the more important part of a car, the engine or the chassis.

In this analogy, the rules are the chassis and the kindness is the engine. The rules give necessary structure and the kindness gives you power.

There is a story in the Talmud of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter. Her father had been told by an astrologer that she would die on her wedding day. Although we’re not supposed to pay attention to astrologers, he couldn’t forget such a terrible forecast.

On her wedding day, at the banquet, she absent-mindedly removed a hair-pin and stretched to stick it into the wall behind her. In so doing, she accidentally killed a viper about to strike.

When her father saw what had happened he asked her to recount every detail of her activities for the past few hours. It turns out that when she had entered the wedding hall she had noticed a homeless person sleeping in a doorway. While everyone else was eating, she had taken her plate of food and brought it outside to this man. Immediately afterwards she killed the snake.

Moral of the story: Kindness can save you from premature death.

November can be a cold month, and a month of anxiety. I know a lot of people are relieved and some even elated at the changes in government. But when a country is so divided, election week is depressing for about half of us. It's like watching a fireworks display when you're depressed. It becomes heart-wrenching rather than uplifting. I wonder if anyone who is uplifted with Tuesday’s shakeup ever paused to sympathize with those who lost. That kind of compassion is necessary if we desire to walk a path of unity.

Compassion leads you to say nice things from the heart. Kindness means doing something about it.

- - -

So kindness seems more important than discipline...? Actually, the discipline is built into the story. It limits the kindness.

For instance, we are not supposed to cause needless suffering even to an animal. But if you see a scorpion – step on it! Those who are kind to the cruel often wind up being cruel to the kind. Kindness has limits.

This philosophy helps explain one issue that seems to perplex many modern Jews who have cultivated kindness par excellence:

How do we justify initiating a little boy at eight days with an act of painful surgery? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to let him grow up uncut so that he can decide on his own as an adult whether or not to give up his mila (foreskin)?

There are numerous Jewish reasons and benefits for circumcision (by the way, none of them are medical; however, here is a newly discovered medical benefit).

From a Jewish perspective, one of the benefits of circumcision (although not the primary reason) is that it starts a boy’s life in the framework of rules: “No, life is not about mere self-expression and self-gratification.” Well-adjusted adults had the right balance as children of Children who have rules and structure on the one hand and kindness on the other. Too much of one or the other fuels the therapy industry. Sometimes a husband and wife can balance each other in this area, but ultimately each one of us should develop our own internal balance that is independent of other people. That balancing is called tikkun nefesh - fixing the soul, and is the ultimate purpose of all Jewish practice, without exception.

Shabbat Shalom.

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