Archives for November 2017

Torah Reflections: November 19 – 25, 2017

Vayeitzei

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 the Yesh/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 12 – 18, 2017

Toledot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Breaking Free From The Great Teachers

At the opening of Toledot we find Isaac pleading with God, in the presence of his barren wife, Rebecca, that she might—after twenty years of waiting—finally bear a child. God hears Isaac’s plea and Rebecca becomes pregnant. The next verse warrants our attention, not so much for what it says, but for what generations of rabbis have come to make it mean. It has become quasi-impossible for us to read these words just as they are, without the overlay of rabbinic interpretation (read: “Rashi”). Not surprisingly, the translations we find today are skewed to reflect this accepted interpretation.

In Rashi’s view the pregnancy doesn’t go well. Rebecca is carrying twins and experiences much pain because they—Esau and Jacob—are wrestling in her womb. The idol worshiper Esau is wrestling his Torah-loving brother Jacob in utero over who will be the firstborn son and is to inherit Abraham’s blessing. Based on Rashi, translators have read the verse: “Vayit’rotz’tzu habanim bikir’bah, vatomer: Im ken, lamah zeh anochi” to mean: “The children crushed within her, and she said: ‘If this is so, why do I exist?’” (Gen. 25:22). Nachmanides, a century after Rashi, goes so far as to read Rebecca’s question as: “What good is life if I have to suffer like this?”

I take issue with Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations for several reasons. First, they deliberately make Esau into a bad guy and Jacob into a good one, when—as the story unfolds—we find, arguably, that the opposite is true. Second, because it introduces a two-sided conflict between the sons when, in fact, only Jacob will plot against, deceive, and betray his brother (and father). Esau—once past his feelings of anger and revenge for what Jacob did to him—is the one to seek peace and reconciliation between them in the end. Third, it paints Rebecca as weak and meek when her character is anything but. Other dissenting rabbis argue that multiple pregnancies are often difficult but not to the point of causing the mother-to-be to fall into such dire despair. (Mizrachi; Siftei Chachamim)

So what would a translation freed from Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations allow us to see? One possibility would be to read the verse to mean: “And the sons were squeezed within her, and she said, ‘If so, why is this [happening through] me?’” (Gen. 25:22). The first part of the verse simply states that Rebecca is pregnant with twin boys and that they shared a tight space together. It could be interpreted to mean that, in the womb, they were close to each other. Rebecca’s question doesn’t portray her as being in pain or suicidal. And even if she did experience pain through her pregnancy, as mothers often do, contrary to Rashi’s or Nachmanides’ assumptions Rebecca doesn’t necessarily hold as a primary expectation that life should be exclusively good or free of suffering. The opposite is true. She says: “If so…,” meaning if this is what is. Rebecca simply accepts what is. She doesn’t resist her experience or label it as good or bad. Then she asks: “Why is this?” Why two children and not just one? What is God’s plan? How is this going to impact the fulfillment of God’s Promise? Suddenly she knows herself to take center stage in a play of cosmic proportion. We can infer this because of the last word of her question translated as “me.” The word here is “Anochi—I am.” Anochi is the “I Am” that God speaks in the First Commandment. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) homiletically interprets anochi as the “I, who is wearing the crown.” This is the Divine “I Am” within Rebecca: her Higher Self. This is the “I Am” she is connecting to in this moment of realization; the “I Am” through which the Divine story unfolds; through us, through her.

As Rebecca asks, I too wonder: “Why is this?” Why is it that we let ourselves be convinced that one interpretation is the interpretation? How many “truths” have we swallowed whole and never challenged? How many great teachers have paradoxically narrowed our understanding, made us more rigid and stuck in a particular interpretation? To this, Rashi himself would say: “Dar’sheini!—Expound me!”

Torah Reflections: November 5 – 11, 2017

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah

This week’s Torah portion opens with Abraham setting out to find a wife for his son Isaac. To do so, he sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find him a spouse from his clan. Knowing that eligible young women gather at the well in the evening to draw water for their families, Abraham’s servant waits with his camels by the well of Nachor and begins talking to God, describing his mental scenario 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 in chesed 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 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 these verses from his servant seem to indicate that as Abraham’s days were coming to an end, the quality of chesed may have been slipping away. 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.

I would suggest that there is another interpretation of the story. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is to embody this loving-kindness by giving him water from the well and spontaneously offering to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his requirements exactly. God may not restore Abraham to his former status; instead God may be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to The Promise—the continuity of this quality of chesed. And Isaac is in dire need of chesed in 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 on the Tree of Life. 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 that dominating quality and ask ourselves if it is so powerful that it is in fact a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth and disabling 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 embrace the inner Rebekah we will meet.

Torah Reflections: October 29- November 4, 2017

Vayeira

Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Beyond Our Need For Justice

In his life storyline, Abraham did not always rise to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story is 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 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 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 the exclusionary box that we have created. 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 always to be just?

Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffer and the wicked thrive? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we 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 all of us—as expressions of the One—contain both the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we act as channels of the deepest love—taking a stand for justice, choosing prison rather than death for murderers, raising our voices for the voiceless, and acting passionately to heal our world— without 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, we will be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.