Torah Reflections: March 12 – 18, 2017

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Living Our Lives “All in!”

I have been fascinated, this year, by Moses’ spiritual evolution one Torah portion at a time. Since the beginning, I noticed, Moses has been ambivalent toward the Israelites; remaining somewhat distant, aloof. Perhaps, wrestling with a dual Egyptian-Israelite sense of identity, Moses was unsure about his own path. I suspect that Moses’ ambivalence was felt by the Israelites as well. This week’s portion brings us the episode of the Golden Calf. Once Moses disappears up Mount Sinai, their lack of trust in his commitment to them drives them to erect a Golden Calf to replace him: “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” [Exod.32:1] It’s possible to read the story of the Golden Calf as being all about Moses.

Atop the mountain God has just given Moses the tablets that He had carved, when He tells him about the golden calf worshiping happening down below. God is about to destroy the Israelites but Moses manages to obtain a stay of execution as he makes his way down the mountain with the tablets. There, shocked by the boisterous worship he witnesses, Moses is confronted with a decision. He sees that his ambivalence, his indecisiveness with regards to his own identity, has now caused the Israelites to commit the ultimate sin—that of idolatry—and has placed them on the brink of Divine destruction. With the anger one feels when one’s resistance to doing the right thing has been exposed, Moses smashes the tablets. The Midrash, the homiletic rabbinic commentary on Torah—the stories rabbis tell writing between the verses of the text—expresses Moses’ profound realization (Torah verses italicized):

“He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them” [Exod. 32:19]. “Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God: ‘They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,’ as Scripture tells us: ‘Now if You will forgive their sin… then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of Your book that You have written’” [Exod. 32:32]

In his process of spiritual maturing, Moses still needed to work through this major shadow in him, a place where some residual ego was still hiding. Moses’ life was to be one of service. But true service can be neither coerced nor half-hearted. Moses had to go “all in,” heart, mind and soul. Service, as such, is a powerful spiritual practice because by freely giving of ourselves we cultivate selflessness. As we serve the people in our life, in our community, those in need, and those we love, we transcend our self-absorbed concerns and complaints. When we allow others to serve us, we are able to cultivate true humility and to let go of our misplaced pride. Both, however, need to be genuine and wholehearted. This is what Moses needed to learn. Perhaps this is true not only for the practice of service, but for how we live our lives altogether. What have we “set in stone” in our life that prevents us from living fully, wholeheartedly, passionately? What fears are still holding us back? Perhaps the time has come for us to smash those stone tablets and commit to life; perhaps, like Moses, the time has come to fully live the hand we are dealt.

Torah Reflections: March 5 – 11, 2017

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Ornate garments are designed by the artists among the people for the ceremony, sewn together and decorated with gold, precious stones and colorful fabrics. In all, the celebration lasts for a week, throughout which sacrifices are made and a special altar is built at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in the Presence of the Eternal.

For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be God for them, and they may know that I am the Eternal One their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst. I am the Eternal One their God. [Exod. 29:42-46]

“I am the Eternal One…” These simple words are the first words of the Ten Commandments. They are repeated here and dozens of other places in Torah. We read these words over and over again throughout the biblical text, but can we truly hear them? Can we truly know that these are not words pronounced by a deity outside of ourselves, rather, they are the words that we are to speak, that we are to awaken to; the Truth that we are to know? “I am the Eternal One” that manifests as all the me’s and all the you’s, all the I am’s ever uttered, even though we all have confused our “I am” with the narrow thoughts of our conditioned separate sense of self.

Yet Spirit is calling out to us from the Tent of Meeting, promising to greet us, longing to be remembered. This Tent is a space in consciousness, beyond the trappings of that false self, where our Divine Self awakens, yearning to be known. It is reaching out from within us, telling us that if we simply return to the inner space, simply come to dwell in the inner Tent: “I will meet with you… I will speak with you…” All we have to do is take the first steps toward the Tent of Meeting, for the Divine Itself is the energy that will draw us back, that will liberate us. God is the inner power that moves us to transcend, to free ourselves from the shackles of our mistaken identity. It is the force that brings us “out of the land of Egypt,” out of the confining narrow space of ego-bound consciousness, so that It could “dwell in [our] midst,” dwell within us, as the True Being that we come to realize is our being, our “I am.”

But how are we to take these first steps? The image of this week’s Torah portion is that of an ordination. We are to know ourselves to be priests and priestesses. We are to consecrate ourselves to the sole desire to remember the One we are. And we are to engage in spiritual practices that support letting go of all our attachments, worldviews, partial truths and certainties; symbolized in our text by the image of the sacrifices. The way inward is, indeed, a process of shedding. One after the other we surrender the multiple layers of our mistaken identity that have obscured the Divine Light within. One after the other we let go of our false beliefs and opinions as if we were to surrender one piece of clothing after another from the many layers accumulated over the years that both suffocate us and weigh us down. Ultimately, underneath it all, we will find our spirit dressed in the most beautiful priestly garments adorned with gold and precious stones, with “blue, purple, and crimson yarn, and… fine twisted linen.” [Exod. 28:15]

Torah Reflections: February 26 – March 4, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Temples Within Temples Within Temples

We find, in this week’s Parashah the Divine injunction that adorns Bet Alef’s new ark: “V’asu Li Mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham – Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Following this verse and for the rest of the Torah portion, the Eternal communicates to Moses the detailed plans of how to build and assemble such a Sanctuary — also called a Tabernacle (Mish’kan in Hebrew) — in the wilderness. The Mish’kan was to be placed at the center of the traveling twelve tribes, a reflection of what the newly freed Israelites held sacred, of what defined their way of worship, and what united them as a nation.

We too, as a nation, have created temples that are a reflection of what we worship. As a society, we have built at great expense our temples of sports in so many big arenas and gigantic stadiums. We have our temple of money in Wall Street, our temples of political power in the White House and Congress. The temple of our military power is the Pentagon, and Corporate America’s temples are all the skyscrapers that make up the skyline of our cities. And let’s not forget our shopping malls.

What about our own lives? What are our temples and how do they reflect what it is we worship? Our TV sets, our American Idols and those who walk the red carpets? Our technology? Abundant are the means of distraction that keep our ego busy with preferences, opinions and fears. But these temples, rather than uplifting us, tend to close us in. Rather than connecting us, they divide and alienate us from one another and from our Self. Where are the temples reflecting our basic goodness, the holiness we embody, the compassionate heart within or the love we yearn to express through our lives? The issue might be that our focus is outwardly rather than inwardly directed. We have built so many temples out there in our lives that we are no longer able to recognize the Temple that is our life.

A Midrash relates that the Torah is like a king’s daughter who was about to be wedded to a far away prince. Her father said that he could not keep her from marrying, nor could he live without her. So he asked her to make a small room for him in her new home, so that wherever she might go, he could come and dwell with her. For the rabbis of the Midrash, the Torah and Israel were one; and wherever she went in her Diaspora, whatever foreign nation she was to espouse, she was to make her home, her community, her life, a Tabernacle. Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel explains that Israel’s steadfast sanctification of Shabbat was her way to make room in her life for her King, replacing the burned-down Temple in space by building a Mish’kan in time.

Taking it one step further, the Torah injunction — read slightly differently — calls us to remember the Sacred Space within ourselves where the Presence of the One already dwells: “They will make Me a Holy Place, I will dwell within them.” Holy space, Sanctuary, is to be awakened to, realized, as our inherent nature; what we are. We are to recognize that each of us is the indwelling Presence of God, that every fiber of our being is God’s Temple. Not only my being but all sentient beings, all of nature, the entire universe, Temples within Temples within Temples, all the way up and all the way down.

Torah Reflections: February 19 – 25, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

This is the question Moses asks himself that next morning. After Sinai, he knows he needs to give people something concrete, something tangible to do; something that will help them integrate into their lives the transcendent experience they just lived through. His answer is this week’s Torah portion. Moses begins to transpose the Sinaitic encounter into a spiritual code for living that represents the individual and social embodiment of this profound experience of Oneness. He reveals the spiritual practices and new ways of being that are the expression of this newfound awareness. In so doing he teaches us that—as far as Judaism is concerned—what matters most is, in fact, the laundry. How we bring our Sinai moments back down into our world and lead lives infused by them is, essentially, the Jewish path’s main concern. Why? Because our sages knew that, inherent to our human make-up, we can’t help but forget. We have a spiritual peak experience, a bright moment of clarity yielding deepening insights, and then life takes over. We’re back at work soon after, and within a few weeks we forget all that was glimpsed. Ongoing practices, keeping conscious company, are pathways to remember, pathways to guide us back to the place we just left and is now at risk of fading into the fog of memory.

But these practices, however wonderful, are just empty containers without fierce kavanah—fierce intentionality—without an ardent inner yearning to remember. Our Torah portion addresses that as well. Once Moses is done enumerating the laws and practices we are to follow, God steps in and tells us: “Here, I am placing an angel within you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have made ready.” [Exod. 23:20] There is a force within us, an evolutionary impulse that is always aching to remember the One we are. The Midrash tells us that this angel is the same angel that protected and guided Jacob on his journey, perhaps even wrestled with him—for angels in our tradition are the fierce kind; not the sweet cherubs of Hallmark cards fame. “Take-you-care in his presence and hearken to his voice… for My Name is within him” continues the Torah. [Exod. 23:21] This angel within us guides us to “the place” where God is waiting, when “the place” in Hebrew is “HaMakom,” and is, itself, a name of God. Our inner angel is guiding us on a journey up our own inner Sinai to reach “the place” of remembering, the place that is always already here: HaMakom, our Divine Self. Hearken to His voice.

Torah Reflections: February 12 – 18, 2017

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).” [Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing the Essence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.

Torah Reflections: January 29 – February 4, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

God Acts in Wondrous Ways

Our Torah portion opens, this week, with the last four plagues to befall Egypt. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart… so that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount… how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’.” [Exod. 10:1-2] The Hebrew doesn’t actually speak of plagues but of signs, wonders, miracles or signals. These signs are out-of-the-ordinary events in nature that are meant to trigger a reaction of awe in the hearts of the Israelites. Awe was what God intended for us to feel in the great display of God’s might; for us to know the Divine Presence in our world in unmistakable ways.

For those of us living in Western Washington one of the most “out-of-the-ordinary” awe-filled event in nature at this time of the year is snow. When some in Seattle might experience snowfall as a plague, many see it as a wondrous occasion. Because it is so rare, snow has a great power in our region: it quiets things down. Snow slows everything down to a quasi standstill. Snow does on the outside what meditation does on the inside. When it snows in Seattle, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We retreat inward, we Shabbat. We cozy up on the couch with a hot beverage, we grab a good book, dust off a few board games. Suddenly we have time for a few minutes of meditation. We hit the reset button. We reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives. We look out the window in awe of the beauty of our natural world; we look at the people in our lives in awe of the love we share. Snow does for us what Moses was trying to do with Pharaoh: open his heart.

Though our text says that God is the One Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, I suspect that, mythologically, Pharaoh stands as the symbol for the hardening of our heart. Pharaoh is the energy in us that closes us down, that causes us to fear, and consequently reject, exclude, deny, or repress; the energy that might see snow as a plague. The root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew are the three letters peh, resh, and ayin. Peh means mouth or voice. Resh and ayin put together make the word Ra, which means “bad,” or “negative.” Pharaoh can be said to represent the Peh Ra, the “negative voice” within us. On the opposite side of it, we have Moses. Moses is the voice of love in us that is urging us to let go, to release, to relax. Moses is the inner power that is able to peel off the layers of what the kabbalists call the klippot, the shells around our heart. He does so with wonder, with amazement, with awe-inspiring snowstorms that drive us inward.

For our mystics, the process of spiritual awakening is an ongoing process of peeling off the layers of ego that have obstructed the Light Being that we are. It is an ongoing process of letting go of our concepts and rigid certainties, of the strictness of our worldview, of the relative truth we mistake to be absolute. Ultimately it is about letting go of our separate sense of self, of our ego-bound identity, and to open ourselves to the Greater I AM that we are, the ego-less Being-ness that we are. In other words, it is a journey of self-transformation from Pharaoh to Moses. In Gematria, the letters of the word, Pharaoh, add up to 355; Moses to 345. One subtracts 10 from the former to attain the latter: 10 layers of shells around the heart to be peeled off through 10 Divine signs, 10 experiences of breathtaking awe, 10 concentric circles of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to be transcended, from the outermost gross physical circle of self-identity, to the innermost circle of Pure Is-ness. Let’s not wait until the next snowstorm to begin practicing awe, for awe is to be found in every day, in every moment, in every breath.

Torah Reflections: January 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).’” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohim revealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God telling Moses “I am YHVH, “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of Elohim. YHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appears in/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature—immanent and transcendent at once—now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the higher transcending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH and Elohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune with YHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.

Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwaivering love.

Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwavering love.

Torah Reflections: January 8 – 14, 2017

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Conditioned Happiness

Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this—models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.

This week’s Torah portion opens: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]

In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come? He reminds us that we encountered the number “seventeen” just a few chapters earlier, when we first met his favorite son Joseph, and he was seventeen. From there, Rabbi Ben Asher draws a parallel between the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life and the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, before the latter is sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. The answer comes to him through the Gematria of the word “Vayechi – lived,” which adds up to thirty four. And this, he concludes, “teaches that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for thirty four [of them], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold and seventeen years in Egypt [during which he and Joseph were together again].”

Unwittingly perhaps, R. Ben Asher helps us uncover a darker side of Jacob. Jacob’s myopia—his choice to link the “good years” exclusively with this one son—so severely limits his vision, that he, de facto, cuts himself off from experiencing the fullness of the rest of his life. He fails to relate to the unique blessings of each of his wives, of each of his children. He fails to take responsibility for the disfunction in his family that will continue to manifest itself for centuries in the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. Then again, the Torah does not paint portraits of perfect heroes, but helps us see our own flaws reflected in theirs. Who among us can claim that they do not suffer, at times, from the same myopia as Jacob? Who hasn’t failed to recognize the unique blessings of people who walked in and then out of our lives? How often do we make our happiness contingent on a single issue or a single person, and drive ourselves and others around us miserable because of it? And so perhaps we can learn to become more aware of the ways we surrender our intrinsic power to be happy to something outside of ourselves: the objects of our unending desires, or the opinion of others. Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that happiness might be a state of being, not a hope of becoming; an opening now to the blessings right in front of us, not a postponing of that realization conditioned on a different yesterday or a better tomorrow. Because Jacob’s happiness was conditional to a fault, he was miserable for a hundred and thirteen years of his life. And that’s a mighty long time to waste!