Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

During the eclipse this past week, the YINW chat group was buzzing about what beracha to make on the event.  I guess not everyone heard Rav Jeff's derasha from weeks ago.  At the same time, there was talk about when the next eclipse would be taking place: Scott Taub whatsapped - "next total solar eclipse in 2 years... in Argentina!" Alexander Libkind whatsapped - "In upstate NY in 7 years"  Edy Blady's response - “shul road trip!”

For my part, it was a bit disappointing for me to have to report that we don’t make a beracha on an eclipse. But I told people that they can say the same words from Tehillim that I recite whenever I see the sun or any other part of nature doing something amazing, the words,"'מה רבו מעשיך ה" "Oh God how great are your wonders."   And, yes, when I talk about saying this whenever you see the sun do something, amazing, I am NOT talking about seven years from now upstate…  I know it might not seem as amazing as a solar eclipse, but I believe one commandment from our parshah can help us perceive that which is amazing in the sun every day.

תמים תהיה עם ה' אלקיך... you shall be tamim with Hashem your God.What does it mean to be tamim?   The word tamim, tam, often has a negative association for us.  We think of the tam, one of the 4 sons at the seder, who is simple-minded in contrast to the chacham, who is sophisticated and bright. But does תמים תהיה really mean to be simple or to be naïve?  Are we commanded to be unsophisticated with God? Because that might have worked in a simple world.  But we live in a complex world.  In 2017, can we make temimut work?

Rav Adin Shteinzaltz offers an alternative understanding of temimut by examining the larger context in the Torah in which the command to be tamim appears.  Moshe tells the people that if they want to understand reality they must resist the temptation to be like the other nations, who "listen to astrologers and diviners," "אֶל מְעֹנְנִים וְאֶל קֹסְמִים יִשְׁמָעוּ"

What is it about seeking out astrologers and diviners that are the opposite of temimut?  The astrology/diviner believes that the world presents us an incomplete picture of reality; instead, it uses fear and indirection, making assumptions to interpret reality in order to arrive at a specific end.

To blend together specifics to create stories that explain and interpret details of the past and give direction for the future. This approach will resort to all types of distortions and coercions to try to bend reality to fit with the individua's notions of what they want.  In this context, God says that rather we aim for something very different.   We are commanded to be "tamim with Hashem."

If the opposite of "tamim" is seeing all data through the lens of a pre-determined narrative and sometimes corrupting information, then being tamim does NOT mean being simple...It means being open to the reality that presents itself to us and learning to see nuance and adjust our assumptions based on the nuance before us.   It means embracing a complex reality.The naïve person encounters something, takes it at face value, and leaves it there.  In contrast, the tamim encounters that same thing, or person, or event. But does so with an openness to what it is he or she encounters, not judging the individual or moment based on preconceived notions.

Being tamim does not mean that you can't question and assess what you’re presented...but if you are tamim, you are open to the reality, whatever it is that stands before you.  Contrary to the idealization of the "tamim" as someone naïve, the openness model of temimut actually leads to a more sophisticated and complex understanding of the world rather than a more simplistic one.

Because when our preconceived notions are challenged by a reality, we remain open to the facts that stand before us; we are willing to see the competing realities that all present themselves before us in the complex world in which we live; we live with the contradictions and complexities in people and in the world around us; we accept and lean into the tension they represent; and we stay with that tension.

Someone who demands consistency in their world and will go as far as to try to bend reality to meet that need for consistency cannot be tamim.  Only the open individual can be.  The nations surrounding Israel sought out ways of circumventing the realities they are presented.   They sought out wizards and sorcerers.

We are commanded to be tamim with God.  We look at the realities presented to us directly and honestly.  And we aim to confront them, whether they fit neatly with what expect to see or want to see, or whether they do not.  The zen master Shunryu Suzuki described a similar attitude to that of temimut in what he termed "beginner’s mind." Beginner's mind means approaching every moment of life with the openness and the curiosity of the beginner. "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;" says Suzuki.  "In the expert’s mind, there are few." Beginner's mind is what Chazal have in mind when they instruct us, "בכל יום יהיו בעיניך כחדשים", approach Torah observance each day as something new.

Beginner's mind allows us to experience even the most typical experience - like the sunrise or the sunset - as something new.    Because just as we experienced the solar eclipse of 2017 only once in our lifetime, we will experience this evening’s sunset and tomorrow morning’s sunrise only once in our lifetime.

The moment we approach the world with temimut in the sense of beginner's mind, new options and opportunities arise.  And it is when the new options and possibilities are clear before us that something else becomes possible:  That something else is... teshuvah, repentance.   

Because a different model stands before us.   A recognition that things COULD truly be different from the way they have been in the past.   The great galitzian Chasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz, who was known to have a wicked sense of humor, once asked why the "tav" of "tamim" in "you shall be pure with Hashem your God" is larger than the other letters.    He answered that the extra-large tav teaches us that no-one should consider him or herself too important or their personality too big for temimut.   The tav of "tamim" is large enough to accommodate anyone's reality.  We just need to be large enough to be open to the reality before us.

There definitely are people out there who feel that they are too important or that they have experienced too much suffering and disappointment in life to be tamim.  For the person who has never been kicked from behind or let down by the person they needed most it is easy to relate to people according to the expressions on their faces.

But when a person has experienced dishonesty or disloyalty or deep disappointment, temimut is harder.  The Torah has no easy solutions for this challenge.  But it does give us a good place to start.   "Tamim tehiyah IM HASHEM ELOKECHA."  Be pure WITH Hashem your God.   HKBH emet vechotamo emet.   God is truth, and his signet is truth...  and even when we struggle to be wholehearted with the world around us because we consider ourselves too important, or because we've been let down too often, or because our leaders have disappointed us, don't turn to cynicism...  Start, says the Torah, by being wholehearted with God.

If there is a time for us to be tamim with God, it's during Elul.  The temimut-as-openness model has the advantage over other models toward temimut in that it doesn't require a personality shift.   All it requires is a slight shift in perspective.   That shift can take place at any moment.  The first moment available to us to make that shift is the present one.

Wed, November 22 2017 4 Kislev 5778