Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Lag B'Omer: Loving the Individual

Over Shavuot, we ate one of our meals at the home of a family I'll call the Alters. We're very close to the Alters, and we've spent tons of time with them, but over this past holiday something I've been noticing a lot sort of crystallized for me, and reminded me of something I'd heard on Lag B'Omer.[fn1]
[FN1:] The 33rd day of the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot. (Link, link, and link.)
I realize that Lag B'Omer was back on May 9th this year, which makes this less than entirely timely, but bear with me.

I'll do the shtickle Torah first. I'm going to simplify it for context. We are taught that in the days of the Bar Kochba revolution (around 6 C.E.) 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died of plague in the first 32 days of the count between Pesach and Shavuot. There are different understandings of precisely what brought this on, but they all run to the general idea of a lack of sufficient respect between the students. Now, you have to realize who these people were. They were not just some bunch of guys, these were students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Torah scholars ever. So it's to be assumed that these people were not running around actually being rude to each other or snubbing each other. One way to understand the "lack of respect" among them was that they saw each other as fungible units. Each a great Torah scholar but none of them unique and particularly necessary to the project. This perception would even extend to themselves, seeing themselves as no great shakes. Once they started treating each other from that standpoint, they broke the unity that is one of the aspects of Jews that Hashem loves the most.

That's an important little jump, so I'm going to reiterate it. Once they started to see each other as fungible, and essentially all the same -- once they stopped seeing each other as unique -- they failed to maintain the unity that is so precious to Hashem. It's a little counter-intuitive, since you'd think it was the other way around, you'd think that seeing everyone as some sort of fungible unit would increase the sense of unity.

But that's the lesson. You can only be really unified if you recognize and appreciate the unique talents and skills (and weaknesses) of every individual in the group.

The plague stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. After the plague took all his students, Rabbi Akiva taught five more students, who became some of the most powerful and erudite Torah scholars the world has ever seen. One of these men was R'Shimon Bar Yochai, who, years later, was forced (with his son) to live in a cave and emerged from that cave on this 33rd day of the Omer with the Zohar. [fn2] (That he also died on this day is related, but too much to go into here.) Under a method of figuring that I don't want to explain here, the 33rd day is the day that reflects "Hod Sh'be-Hod," or Recognition squared. It's connected to the idea of thanks (Todah) and praise (Hoda'a) and turkey (Hodu). Actually, I'm kidding about the turkey, though it's not inappropriate that it's served on Thanksgiving. Point being that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was "fixing up" or making up for the mistake of the R'Akiva's original 24,000 students, because one of the essential teachings of Rabbi Shimon touches on the essential uniqueness of every individual Jew, the special and irreplaceable role they have in the overall plan.
[FN2:] Which is only in the most tangential way connected to that snake-oil Kabbala Center garbage.
The lesson being that when we fail to recognize -- in ourselves and in each other -- the essential uniqueness of ourselves, we can't be really unified. If I think of you as just like me, then (a) it doesn't mean anything that I care for you, and more importantly (b) once I realize that you're not just like me, and I will eventually have to recognize that, I'm going to stop loving you. Rather the way to connect to someone is to recognize the greatness inside of them, the special role they have in Hashem's big plan.

Think of all the army movies you've seen. There's always that big guy who carries the machine gun, and the smaller guy who carries the radio. What would happen if you gave the big guy the radio? Well, he'd be wasting his potential and not serving the army as best he could. (Assume, of course, that his size precludes him from being a radio and communications super-genius. I'm talking movies! Of course real life is more complicated.) What would happen if you gave the radio guy the machine gun? The radio guy couldn't hump that gun into the bush and back.

But have each soldier recognized for his individual skills and strengths, and you've got a fighting force to be reckoned with. (Or do a search for "fist" on this page.)

This was all brought home to me with some clarity at the Alters. (Remember the Alters? It's a post about the Alters.)

The Alters have a fair passel of children, keyn yirbu (may they continue to increase!), and each of them is really a special kid, but I want to focus on the three oldest boys, Binyomin, Sholom, and Yehuda. B, S, and Y were born third, fourth, and fifth respectively. The three of them are each great, but each very different. And something I've always really liked about the Alters is the way they accommodate each child's interests and needs, always making an effort to make sure that each one has the chance to shine in their own way during any larger-group interaction. The one that's really into the intellectual complexities of Torah learning gets to "schlug it up" (fight it out) on whatever topic of Torah is floating around at that meal. The one that's more musical and personable gets to ply his charms, and usually sing or play for the guests. (No instruments on Shabbos and Yom Tov, but other times.) The one that's got a tremendous EQ, but (for exactly that reason) can be bullied if you're not careful, will get spoken to more softly than the others, and drawn out some.

There's a concept in the Torah about educating children "b'darcho," which translates as "in their path.", and the Alters have it down pretty well. I don't know to what extent this is done consciously, but in any event it's a tremendous thing they're giving their children.

Usually, the boys are just regular boys. Some of the time they're involved in what's going on, some of the time they're in their own little brother-world, some of the time they disappear from the table on half-hour "getting more soda from the basement" trips. No biggie.

But this past Shavuot there was a sort of serendipitous conspiracy of events and moods, and the boys stayed at the table the whole time, and I got to watch them interact with the guests (of which there were many) and each other. What I saw was that they themselves had picked up this idea from their parents. They treated each other with the same respect for the individual strengths and weaknesses in their interlocutor, and they treated the guests, even the strangers, with a respect that was so non-obsequious and unforced that it could only be sincere.

It was beautiful, and inspiring. It is a gift I hope I can give Rachel, and in fact that I hope I can give myself.

It kind of surprised me a little, too, because I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about Rachel in terms of potential. And I realize that this sort of "Hod" that I'm talking about requires, yes, a recognition of potential, but also a recognition of accomplishment.

I read a book a long time ago that summed this up nicely. Called The Sterile Cukoo, I remember one bit from the book, and (oddly?) only that one bit.

The two protagonists are in a graveyard. And one, noting an occupant thereof who died young, comments at the waste of so much human potential that it represents. The other (I think the male) is a little bit upset, disagreeing, saying that it's not the waste of potential but of accomplishment that's saddening about the place. He asks something along the lines of, "Do you think that [name on gravestone]'s mother cared that he could have been the next Einstein, or cured some terrible disease? Or does she miss him because of who he had already become?"

I think it's a critical lesson, and while I hadn't forgotten it, per se, I needed the reminder. I need to look at Rachel for the wonderful sweet excellent funny amazing little girl she already is, instead of thinking about the wonderful sweet excellent funny amazing righteous kindhearted woman she can become. Only by focusing on the former, I think, can I successfully help her become the latter.


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At Jul 7, 2004 10:50:00 AM, Anonymous said...

[importing from old comment system]

Dianne (http://teamdandy.blogspot.com) @ 06/01/2004 22:25:

Wow, what a great post!
I feel that it is a gift to be able to see the unique "greatness" in each person and you're right - it does bind us together in ways that we wouldn't be bound if we were the same. And the idea of passing the gift of seeing greatness in others to our children is golden. Thanks for the reminder! (in my case, the pre-minder)


steve () @ 06/03/2004 05:16:

Just to clarify what you asked Lazar Beam. The Rambam clearly is only referring to male homosdexuality. That isn't to say that lesbianism is ok, however, what Lazar said is erroneous and inaccurate. Hes a very nice man and helps a lot of people . He just never learnt that saying very crummer stiklach torah is also very, very wrong. He has a tendency to do that.

May I suggest you try hirhurim,blogspot.com and his links. They are big talmidei chochamim there.


FrumDad (http://frumdad.blogspot.com/) @ 06/04/2004 11:04:

Dianne: Thanks.

Steve: Thanks for the pointer. That Hirhurim site is *very* cool. I'm still looking at it, which is doing wonders for my work productivity.

On a related note, though, I'm trying to keep this blog a little more on the (frum) family-friendly side, so while the homosexuality/lesbianism discussionover at Lazer's is interesting, and at the end of the day, y'know, "this too is Torah..." but still, I'll probably aviod talking about those issues in this blog.



AND! Oh yeah am I going to have to switch to a different commenting system. 400 characters? I don't even get warmed up with 400 characters. That's "hello" in my house!



frog (http://betweenthelakes.blogspot.com) @ 06/17/2004 14:41:

Bloggers comments are good, but no emoticons. :(


frog (http://betweenthelakes.blogspot.com) @ 06/17/2004 14:41:

That should be "Blogger's." Geez.

FrumDad (http://frumdad.blogspot.com/) @ 06/22/2004 13:58:

I gotta check these more often. A visit from the illustrious frog! Frog of the room in hell meme! Frog who (whom) I've been reading for, like, ever (okay, since about February, when I started thinking about blogging again.) Frog whose blogroll is my secondary blogroll, since I keep...

...promising to fix my own blogroll. For pointing me to finslippy alone, frog should get props, let alone her [frog's] own blog! This is not sarcastic. I'm really excited.


And yeah, I think on the revamp I'm just going to use the blogger comments. I like the idea of a separate pop-up aesthetically, but there's an elegance to having the permalink page carry the comments on the bottom. Besides, it's easy for a mid-level coding dabbler like me.



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