Archives for November 2014

Torah Reflections – November 16 – 22, 2014

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Inward Bound                    

There is a popular ice-breaker I often use to start a workshop or a meeting. I ask the people present, as they introduce themselves to the group, to add before their name an adjective that reflects who they are in the moment; like “Happy Henry” for example. If Isaac, the central character of this week’s Torah portion, was part of this group, I suspect he would say: “Silent Isaac.” It is striking to see how much of his life is about silence.

His childhood, itself, is a deafening silence. Isaac is the child of his parents’ old age, impacted by the overprotecting presence of his mother and his near sacrifice at the hand of his own father, Abraham. As the child of these two formidable figures, a rather imposing shadow is cast upon him. Perhaps, as a consequence, Isaac turns out to be more of a reserved quiet character. He doesn’t even have a say in choosing his own wife. The core of his life — spanning one pithy 35-verse chapter — virtually duplicates Abraham’s. Even when God talks to him, it is always in the name of God’s relationship with his father. Case in point: Gen. 26:24, God addresses Isaac saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you! I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of my servant Abraham.” Next verse, Isaac is already old and nearly blind. Here, he is tricked by his wife, Rebeccah — who merely carries out the plans God had revealed to her and not to him — into giving his blessing to his second-born son, Jacob, instead of Esau, the first-born and rightful heir. After that the rest of his life is a mere silent footnote to Jacob’s story.

But is Isaac really the anti-hero that the Torah seems to portray? It is natural to think so because, in a narrative, we get attached to those characters and those stories that contribute actively to move the plot forward, and pay less attention to the ones who, less active, are in fact the glue holding it all together. Isaac is that character. He is less active and more meditative. I posit that meditation is, actually, what defines him in the second half of his life. At the threshold of this new stage, just before meeting Rebeccah for the first time, last week’s Torah portion read:

Now Isaac went out to meditate in the field around the turning of sunset. [Gen. 24:63]

There and then, something was “turning” in his life; Isaac the self-reflective meditator was being born. And that this transformative moment took place “in the field” is not random. Isaac is the quiet force through whom deep roots are planted in the land that was promised to Abraham. It is not a mistake that Torah describes him as a well-digger and a seed-sower. Isaac is the bridge, the effaced stabilizing power. He draws his strength from being a survivor, from being able, time after time, to accept what is, to accept what was: the power of an accomplished meditator. Isaac becomes a man of peace who fully embraces and carries forward the faith of his father. He is the quintessential second generation persona, whose role is to ground and transmit the teachings of the previous generation to the next one.

Isaac might represent this time in our journey when we feel the need to move into a more self-reflective, inward gazing space. This might be a time when we are seeking more silence and seclusion. There is a depth of being to be found in silence. In its presence we are able to better ground ourselves and put together the parts of our lives which might have come unglued. In that silence we are able to meet the quiet force within, giving roots to our life experience, and sowing new seeds for a future awakening to a higher, more inclusive, level of consciousness.

Torah Reflections – November 9-15, 2014

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
I originally posted these Reflections on Chayei Sarah last year. They are, today, more relevant to me than ever before, and seem to capture perfectly where I currently find myself on this amazing spiritual journey that accompanies my recovering process.  — Rabbi Olivier.

Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread                            

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah, says a midrash.  This midrash comes to fill-in the blank space between the end of last week’s Torah portion and the beginning of this week’s. It describes Sarah being told that Abraham had taken her son Isaac, and had slaughtered him; offering him up on an altar as a sacrifice: “Sarah began to cry and moan the sounds of three wails that are the three blasts of the shofar. And her soul burst forth from her and she died.” Thus begins our weekly reading: with Sarah’s sudden death.
I found an arresting footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) on this first verse; a statement attributed to commentator Avivah Zornberg. Sarah’s death, according to the note, “is a reflection of her inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” Zornberg’s statement is one of existential nature par excellence. It points to this fragile place within us that seems to require that there be meaning, predictability and safety in our life. Sarah, faced with such dreadful fate, is robbed of all three all at once, and finds herself unable to sustain such a loss. The emotional pain is so unbearable that “her soul burst out forth from her.”

We all know this place within. All our lives are about making meaning out of our circumstances. We are the greatest commentators of the Torah that is our life, ascribing meaning to the most mundane of events.  We yearn for meaningful relationships, seek meaningful work, want meaningful experiences. Yet we want it all to be as predictable as possible — afraid as we are of what we cannot foresee. And we want it all to unfailingly fall within the framework of our expectations. We want to be fully in control of the predictably unfolding meaningful life we expect to live. We, for sure, never want to feel that “life hangs by… a fragile thread.” Our greatest fear is to find ourselves in Sarah’s shoes, overwhelmed by tragedy, faced with the emptiness of a meaningless life. But isn’t this very fear what is preventing us from truly being alive in the first place?

What if we lived tomorrow holding in consciousness that, indeed, “life hangs by… a fragile thread;” alive in this moment, and perhaps dead the next? How precious each instant would become! How miraculous each breath! Perhaps our greatest delusion is our belief that life ought to be predictable, safe and meaningful. But meaning is constructed based on an anticipation of the future and the reconstruction of the past. We plan for tomorrow’s meaningful events so that we can document them thoroughly in order to create meaningful memories. Meaning is never of the “now.” Now is happening now, raw and immediate, alive and dead in an instant; a fragile exhilarating thread pulsating between what isn’t yet and what no longer is. Now is all we have. Now resides in a place inherently empty of meaning, explanation, justification, right or wrong, better or worse. Now is the place where we can be fully alive, blissful beyond our wildest thoughts.

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah. It is there not to cause us to wallow in the frightful suffering of an “unreliable world,” but to remind us to break free from the fear that strangles our ability to be fully alive now.

Torah Reflections – November 2 – 8, 2014

Vayeira

Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Beyond Our Need For Justice                         

In his life storyline, Abraham has not always risen to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story his worthy of praise: his standing up to God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham remained standing before the Eternal…then came forward and said: “Will You in anger sweep away the innocent with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?[Gen. 18:22-25]

What a powerful question to ask! Our entire Western Civilization is, indeed, founded on the answer to this question. We need to know that God acts justly. If we are going to project onto a God “out there” infinite omnipotent power, we want reassurance that He will use it for good and not do so indiscriminately or whimsically. Though God never responds to Abraham in our story, we have assumed since biblical times that God’s answer couldn’t have been anything other than a thundering “Yes He must! Absolutely. Unquestionably.”

And since we have continued to witness injustice in our world, since we have continued to see the innocent suffer in every generation, we have resolved to either blame it on the victim’s own necessary wickedness (even when the victim is us,) or to externalize this punishing aspect of God and place it onto God’s made-up alter ego: Satan or the devil. So that when bad things happen to me or to others, it is either my fault, theirs, or the devil’s fault. But it is certainly never God’s fault. And if we know ourselves or the others to be good and innocent, then the suffering we bear or witness around us is simply held as being beyond our limited comprehension; that, obviously, God has a greater (just) purpose which will eventually be revealed in a distant future. Because God acts justly, always!

It is our concept of a God exclusively “out there,” transcendent and otherworldly, that pushes us to become intellectual contortionists in order to fit our narrow idea of what the Divine is into the box of our own limitations and egotistical needs. But when we no longer limit God to otherworldly status, when we follow the Jewish mystics, and open ourselves up to also seeing the Shechinah (the indwelling Presence of God) awakening in/through/as all of Creation, and recognize the inner spark of the Divine within us and within every sentient being, then we can free God from the claustrophobic walls of His exclusionary box. Then we can say with the Chasidic Masters that there is no one, no when, no where, nothing that God is not. God awakens as light and shadow, good and evil, justice and injustice. No wonder God does not answer Abraham’s question; he might not have been able to handle “Yes and no” as an answer. But can we? Can we stop needing our world to be always just?

Can we live our lives being accepting of injustice? Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffers and the wicked thrives? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we then let go of our anger, our resentments, and our need to punish the other? Can we take responsibility for our wrongs and hold others accountable for theirs, while acknowledging that in all of us — as expressions of the One — is the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we yet still — as channels of the deepest love — take a stand for justice, imprison the murderer, be a voice for the voiceless and act passionately toward healing our world, but without ever being attached to any particular outcome? Can we act justly “lish’ma — for its own sake,” without expectations, without preferred end result, just because? When we do, then we will no longer need God or our world to conform to our egos’ needs and wants. And then, perhaps, will we be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.