Archives for November 2015

Torah Reflections – November 15-21, 2015

Vayetzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

God Was In This Place 

There is one verse in this week’s Torah portion which encompasses the entirety of the Kabbalistic endeavor: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’” [Gen. 28:16] The Hebrew uses a word here which is rarely translated: the word “yesh”—yesh YHVH bamakom hazeh. “Yesh” is ignored because it is mostly thought of to mean “there is;” which, if kept, makes the English phrasing awkward: “there is the Eternal in this place.” But that’s because most translators aren’t Kabbalists. “Yesh” also means: “something-ness, being, or essence.” In other words, one could translate this verse to mean: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Essence of YHVH is in this place, and I did not know it.’” This one verse describes the unique path that is Judaism in general, but Jewish mysticism in particular. Ours is a path that seeks to awaken to “the Essence of YHVH in this place,”in this world—to realize the Divine Presence filling all of Creation yet transcending all of Creation.

יהוה approximately rendered YHVH in English, are the four letters of God’s unpronounceable name, of the formless, transcendent, unmanifest aspect of the Divine; what the Kabbalists also call “Ayin” or Nothingness. Ayin’s counterpart—though our language betrays us since, in absolute terms, Ayin knows no counterpart— is also called Yesh, when Yesh, in this case, is understood as Something-ness. In Kabblistic principles, this Universe was created Yesh me-Ayin, Something-ness out of Nothingness. However, in our everyday perspective we live under the illusion that this Something-ness is separate from Nothingness. We perceive this world and ourselves within it to exist independently from the Divine. The reason for this is that—as the Kabbalists explain—we, like Jacob, are asleep, unknowing, ignorant. Husks cover our consciousness as well as all physical creation and conceal the Divine from us. In other words, the Nothingness/Ayin appears to be concealed within the Something-ness/Yesh. From this perspective, Yesh is all we know.

Our spiritual practice is, therefore, geared toward seeing the most mundane aspects of creation as holy. The half-joke that in Judaism there is a blessing for everything, highlights this very practice. We will remain asleep as long as we continue to see ourselves and the world outside, as other than Divine. For our sages, the performance of mitzvot in this world serves as a pathway to reveal the Divine Essence in every moment of our existence, in every action we undertake, in every being we interact with. One mitzvah at a time, one spiritually grounded action at a time, we chip away at the husks that seemingly mask the Ayin at the source of it all. Eventually, this process leads to what is referred to in Kabbalah as bitul haYesh: at once the nullification of theYesh/Something-ness of the world, and the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the ego. After both drop away, all that is left is Ayin.

Ultimately both perspectives are united. As the Chassidic Master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains, in our waking up, even the idea of the concealment of the Divine is seen as an illusion. Something-ness and Nothingness are understood as not two, for there isn’t one separate from the other to conceal it. Like Jacob we exclaim: “The Essence of YHVH is in this place!”  Both Yesh and Ayin are one, everything is nothing, everything is God.

Torah Reflections – November 8-14, 2015

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 – 1-7, 2015

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah 

This week’s Torah portion opens with Sarah’s death. After Abraham mourns her, he sets out to accomplish his last fatherly duty before he, too, makes his transition: finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find Isaac a spouse from his clan.

As the servant arrives at the well of the city, he begins to verbalize out loud—talking to God—the mental picture he created about how meeting the right woman for Isaac would unfold, down to the specific behavior she would have to display for him to know she is the one. As he prays for success, he repeats time and again the word chesed (loving-kindness): “Act inchesed with my master Abraham.” [Gen. 24:12]  “Through her I will know that you have acted in chesed with my master.” [Gen. 24:14] And when he is finally certain he’s found the one in Rebekah, he bows down and cries: “Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, Who has not relinquished His chesed from my master.” [Gen. 24:27]

For our mystics, Chesed is the quality (the Sefirah of the Kabbalisitc Tree of Life) associated with Abraham. Throughout his life, they affirm, Abraham embodied Chesed in his actions and his level of faith. But as Abraham’s days now come to an end, there is a fear that, perhaps, this quality was slipping away from him as these verses from his servant seem to indicate. Some commentators suggest that since the Akedah—the near sacrifice of Isaac—God had stopped talking to Abraham. It was even an angel, and not God Himself, that intervened in-extremis to stop Abraham from killing his son. Perhaps in finding Rebekah, the servant is seeking to either compel God to bestow chesed upon Abraham once again, or to be reassured that, despite the episode of the Akedah, God still holds his master in loving-kindness.

But there is another possibility. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is the one to embody this loving-kindness; the one, according to his prayer, that will give him water from the well and will spontaneously offer to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his prediction exactly. God might not restore Abraham to his former status; instead he might be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to His Promise—the continuity of this quality of Chesed. And Isaac was in dire need of bringing chesed into his life. One of the consequences of the Akedah is that Isaac comes out of the ordeal embodying the qualities of restraint (of one’s impulses,) of strict justice, and of righteous power. Isaac, the Kabbalists say, symbolizes the quality of Gevurah (power, strength,) the opposite of chesed. Opposites may or may not attract but they need one another. Isaac finds in Rebekah the energies, the qualities that balance out his own. She not only consoles him after the death of his mother but keeps alive in his life, his father’s energies as well.

What about us? What would be our Sefirah on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? What is our dominant character trait, our personal “center of gravity”? What unique primary quality do we embody? Our Kabbalistic reading of Torah invites us to look for such quality and check for ourselves if it may be so dominant in us that it has become, perhaps, a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth; a disabling force in our relationships. And if that’s the case, our work is to discover and practice enhancing the opposite quality. To find healing and balance in our lives we are not to disown our inner Isaac (nor let it remain single,) but to seek instead to find its counterpart at the well of our Self, and invite-in the inner Rebekah we will meet there.