Archives for December 2015

Torah Reflections – December 13 – 19, 2015

Vayigash

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Four Jewish Noble Truths  

This week’s Torah portion marks the critical moment when Jacob and his clan descend into Egypt, setting up the stage for what will unfold next: enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation. Jacob’s sons travel back to Canaan following their encounter with Joseph in Pharaoh’s court. Immediately they reveal to their father that, indeed, Joseph is alive and now viceroy of Egypt. He has invited all of them to flee from the famine of Canaan and resettle in Goshen, the most fertile land of Egypt. And though Jacob’s first impulse—moved as he is by learning about Joseph being alive—is to cry out, “I must go and see him before I die!” [Gen. 45:28], he finds himself assailed by doubts of a journey so fraught with perils for his people.

In order to seek guidance, Jacob travels south to Beersheva—a place where God had once appeared to his father Isaac. We can only imagine the wrestling taking place within Jacob between his desire to see Joseph again and his knowledge of what awaits his people in Egypt. God had expressly forbidden Isaac to ever go down to Egypt [Gen.26:2], and Abraham was given a vision of what would befall his progeny there [Gen. 15:13]. Surely Jacob knew. And this knowledge challenged his deepest yearning to be reunited with Joseph. Trying to ride out the famine in Canaan may have seemed to him a more ethical decision than to condemn his descendants to “be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” [Gen. 15:13] But in a night vision, God appears to Jacob in Beersheva, reassures him, promises him that He “will make [him] a great nation there,” [Gen. 46:3] and convinces him to leave for Egypt after all.

The philosophical implications of Jacob’s decision have caused the rabbis to debate it over many generations. Did the path leading to our becoming a great people have to go through Egypt? In other words, was the suffering, the enslavement, necessary in order for us to carve out our unique national identity? Most rabbis seem to think so. In “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” an argument, echoed by many commentators, is made that: “in Goshen there would be isolation and segregation, both of which would provide a fertile soil for the development of particular national characteristics… If oppression, too, would be part of the experience, this would be the price the people-to-be would have to pay…” [pp. 297-298]

But what about personal identity? If the biblical tale is taken to be more than just the founding myth of our people, and understood, instead, on a deeper level to relate to a universal human story, does this four-fold pattern—enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation—apply to us as individuals as well? Many spiritual traditions the world over answer in the affirmative. Take Buddhism for example. This four-part unfolding of the biblical myth corresponds to the Four Noble Truths to which the Buddha awakened, though the Buddhist version puts suffering first. First Noble Truth: There is suffering. This is a fact of life at this level of being. Second: The cause of suffering is our craving for pleasant experiences and our aversion to unpleasant experiences; or, in other (Jewish) words, our enslavement to the deep conditioning of our ego; to the Egypt of our constricted deluded sense of self. The Third Noble Truth is freedom from suffering; corresponding to the Hebrew story of Redemption. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eight-Fold Path of awakening; what Torah calls Revelation, and which includes the mindfulness path of Mitzvot, spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, personal ethical discipline etc… The stories may be different; the modalities of teaching may take different shapes, but our spiritual Truths are analogous.

Jacob can’t help but go down to Egypt. And we become enslaved. That is the Jewish “First (Noble) Truth.” Consider that each of us is enslaved to the cravings and aversions of this conditioned false self we have identified with. And in this Egypt of ours, there is suffering. But God promised Abraham “…in the end they shall go free with great riches,” [Gen. 15:14] and Jacob “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will most surely bring you back up as well.” [Gen: 46:4] And so, heeding the Divine promise in Torah, I join the Buddha in prayer: “May all beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Torah Reflections – December 6 – 12, 2015

Mikeitz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Joseph: Interpreter of Dreams, Creator of Reality  

Our Torah portion begins with Pharaoh’s famous dreams. The first one: seven cows coming up from the Nile fat and sturdy, followed by seven cows sickly and gaunt. The latter eat the former. The second dream: seven ears of grain solid and healthy, followed by seven ears thin and scorched. And, again, the latter swallow up the former. Pharaoh wakes up anxious, and calls upon his court diviners to interpret the dreams’ significance. But their meaning eludes them. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, witnessing the scene, remembers Joseph — one of his former jail companions — who had a knack for dream interpretation. He immediately tells Pharaoh that a “Hebrew lad” had interpreted his and another cellmate’s dream successfully. But it is his specific choice of words that piqued my interest, when he says to Pharaoh: “And as he [Joseph] interpreted for us, so it came to be.” [Gen. 41:13]

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, notes:

          The Sages made a remarkable claim regarding dreams and their interpretation: ‘Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation’ [Talmud, Berachot 55b]. The interpreter has a key function in the realization of a dream; his analysis can determine how the dream will come to pass… Does the interpreter really have the power to determine the meaning of a dream and alter the future accordingly? [Gold From The Land of Israel, p.83]
Do dream interpreters and others who claim to have prescient gifts really tell the future; or do their interpretations plant seeds in our minds for a possible future that consciously or unconsciously we find ourselves moved to manifest? The suggestive power of words and stories can be so compelling (especially when we’re told what we want to hear,) that we begin to look to what interpreters foretell. Consequently, a coincidence that we would likely have ignored, tangentially reminds us of a piece of the prediction we heard, and what would normally recede in the foggy background of the non-essential moments of everyday life, now takes center stage in the unfolding of our personal story.

But if this is the case, what does it say about Joseph? Was Joseph, in his youth, the clueless teenager he has often been painted to be? Did he really provoke his siblings’ jealousy and parents’ ire by naively sharing the dreams he had about them bowing down to him? Or did he connivingly do it; planting seeds in their minds of a future they unconsciously couldn’t help but manifest? What about Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams? Did Joseph purposefully choose the interpretation he shared to create a de-facto reality in the minds of the Egyptians which ineluctably prompted Pharaoh to “hire” him for the job Joseph had just manifested for himself? Was this his premeditated ticket out of jail? If so, it may be that Joseph knew more about the human condition than we have given him credit for.

Perhaps this is a caution to us about our eagerness to believe the many manipulators who mold our perceptions to steer us their way. Perhaps the warning goes deeper yet, because what we call “reality” is, likewise, just our own interpretation of the events and data we register moment to moment. All we know is the interpretation, the story we tell ourselves about what happened or about what is; not reality itself. We live in the interpreted dream of our reality. Have you ever compared stories about an event you shared with someone? I ask soon-to-be-wed couples to separately tell me the most important story of their life together: their meeting story. They often are astonished hearing the other recount a tale they don’t even recognize. We play and replay the account of what we think happened until we convince ourselves that our interpretation is the truth. We are the Joseph of our own lives: “As he interpreted… so it came to be.” Joseph’s story cautions us to always question the inner interpreter narrating our experience. It impels us to practice – as best we can – being with “what is;” prior to judging, prior to comparing, or assigning it meaning. Cultivating such clear awareness of the present, might eventually lead us to wake up from this interpreted dream of ours.

Torah Reflections – Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2015

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:20

The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Joseph 

Meet Joseph. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, to whom he gave the famous coat of many colors. Though we meet him at seventeen as our Torah portion opens, Joseph is described as a lad, a youth. Why? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) tells us: “He would do things associated with youth; he would fix his hair, he would groom his eyes, so that he should look attractive.” In other words Joseph was an extremely self-centered teenager who had yet to grow beyond the narcissistic stage of his evolution. Joseph sought to outshine his eleven siblings not only by creating this peacockish self-image, but also by putting them down in front of his father every opportunity he had. Early in the portion we read that “Joseph would bring malicious reports about them to his father.” (Gen. 37:2) Even the way he shares his prophetic dreams—seeing his brothers, father and mother bowing down to him—betrays his desire to feel superior, his need to humiliate others in order to elevate himself. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Joseph was that his brothers sold him into slavery.

Many years later, when Joseph shows up—a changed man—in Pharaoh’s court, he is thirty years old. In the thirteen years between the time his brothers sell him into slavery and the day Pharaoh makes him his second-in-command over Egypt, Joseph’s journey is one of personal transformation from “eved” (Gen. 39:17) to “shaliach” (Gen. 45:5-8) The word “eved” refers to the Hebrew for “slave.” As such, Joseph is forced to learn to serve others; and in doing so for over two decades, his ego dissolves. “Shaliach” refers to the Hebrew for “emissary,” which, in this case, is about placing oneself in the service of the Divine, making oneself an instrument or a channel through which the One manifests. Twice in this episode of his story we read that “God was with Joseph.” In Midrash Rabbi Huna explains why the text had to specify that “God was with Joseph,” since we would expect that to be the case in the first place. He says that “He [Joseph] whispered [God’s name] whenever he came in and whenever he came out.”  Of course God was with him, God had always been with him; but it was now Joseph—having surrendered his ego—who was with God. Now, no longer exclusively preoccupied with interpreting his own self-aggrandizing prophetic dreams, Joseph is able to recognize others’ prophetic dreams, and use his gift to serve as their interpreter. In the awakening of this realization, he is no longer a slave; he becomes a Divine emissary.

These two aspects of Joseph’s transformation—learning to serve others, and making oneself a humble channel for the Divine energies of Love, Compassion and Peace—are the two main components of the Jewish spiritual path. On one hand, as individuals and as a community, we are to serve and support each other, to lend our energies to healing the ills of our society and our world, to pursue justice and work toward creating a communal life that embodies the highest values our tradition upholds. On the other hand we are to ceaselessly engage in inner personal work in order to become more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive and more peaceful beings; to recognize God’s Presence in every place and every one, and to know the One we are.