Torah Reflections: May 21 – 27, 2017

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Too Big to Fail

“Too big to fail.” It seems this pithy phrase has become the new mantra of American life since 2008. Time and again our news media brandishes the fear of financial disaster if this company goes under, or that country doesn’t shape up. Failure is not an option we are told. And to avoid failure at all costs we, the people, jump in to strengthen those already “too big to fail.” We infuse more capital into them in order to not only keep them “big” but to help them grow unsustainably ever more. But if they were “too big to fail” then, what will they be tomorrow?

Our sages believe that whatever is happening on the outside is but a reflection of what is taking place on the inside; that our outer world reflects our inner world. Just as we, as a nation, are paralyzed from the fear of failure, we—as individuals—are just as petrified. This fear of failure is deeply ingrained in American society. Growing up in France I learned early on that the worst faux pas was to be perceived as an idiot. Back in Israel to be known as someone easily taken advantage of, a “freier,” would mean immediate social-ostracizing as well. In the U.S. you find yourself excluded from social circles if you are a “loser.” No failing allowed. The ego, which has internalized this message since early childhood, carries this fear of failure with it all the time. To protect itself from being a “loser,” it goes on to surround itself with “more,” or “better,” or “more powerful” stuff, to prove to itself and to other egos that it is not a failure. Perhaps, in a society where narcissism is rampant, we have built up our egos so much that they, too, have become too big to fail. We keep feeding them with addictions of all sorts, for we need to “bail out” our fragile egos over and over again with any kind of “feel good” potion. Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote an entire book demonstrating that we are addicted to control. How else are we going to protect ourselves from failure? Strengthening our ego is our only option, and that is not sustainable either.

True spirituality offers us a different pathway if we are courageous enough to take it on. It is the pathway alluded to in the name of this week’s Torah portion: B’midbar—In the desert. In the desert there is nothing. There is nothing to hide behind, nothing to own, nothing to lose, and nothing to pretend to be. In the desert we remember the smallness of our being; we break through the illusions and the mirages to realize our powerlessness and our lack of control. In the desert we are naked; stripped bare of our stories, our ideas, our views, our knowledge, our reasons, our justifications. In the desert there is no success and no failure, no winner and no loser. In the desert there is no fear.

In the desert there is silence. It is not a mistake that the word midbar—desert—in Hebrew, shares the same root as the word medaber, meaning: that which speaks. Only in the midbar, in the silence, are we able to hear that which speaks. Only after letting go of the clutter, shedding the inessential, surrendering the noise of the ever-racing egoic mind, are we able to hear the still small voice within the heart that has never stopped whispering “V’ahavta! – Love!” So take the road less traveled; the one that leads us forward to the yet uncovered midbar of the soul—the road of deepening meditation, the road of contemplation, the place where you find the silence in your life. Embark on a journey toward a simpler, more loving, more giving and forgiving, more compassionate way of life. Journey to the midbar, to that space where the ego is gently allowed to fail so that the heart can heal and open to true freedom.

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