Archives for December 2017

Torah Reflections: December 10 – 16, 2017

Mikeitz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Interpreting Dreams, Creating Reality

This Torah portion begins with Pharaoh’s famous dreams. First, seven cows come up from the Nile fat and sturdy, followed by seven cows sickly and gaunt; the latter eat the former. Then, seven ears of grain are solid and healthy, but are swallowed up by seven ears that are thin and scorched. Pharaoh wakes up anxious and summons his court diviners to interpret the dreams’ significance, but they are at a loss to explain what the dreams could mean. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, witnessing the scene, remembers that one of his former jail companions—Joseph—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 for what interpreters foretell. Consequently, a coincidence that we likely would have ignored reminds us tangentially 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 do it connivingly, planting seeds in their minds of a future they 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-wedded 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” before we judge, compare, or assign it meaning. Cultivating such clear awareness of the present may lead us to wake up from our interpreted dreams.

Torah Reflections: December 3 – 9, 2017

Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Embracing Imbalance

Vayeishev, the name and first word of this week’s Torah portion has caused much ink to be spilled. Vayeishev is translated in English to mean: “And he settled,” referring to Jacob finally settling down “in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” [Gen. 37:1] Our sages tell us that Jacob believed God’s blessing to Abraham had now been fulfilled through his life and in his settling down in Canaan: the Promised Land. After all—doing his own math—between his grandfather’s, his father’s and his own “sojourning,” plus his years of slavery and affliction under Laban, Jacob wants to believe that, give or take a couple hundred years, the “metaphor” of God’s foreseeing 400 years of slavery in Egypt was now interpretatively fulfilled. “Now,” writes Avivah G. Zornberg (The Beginning of Desire, p.245) “‘Jacob’s mind was settled’: things seemed to fall into proper perspective, a kind of clarity and coherence invested in the narrative of family history, as he set himself to read it.”

Who can blame Jacob? Even if it requires re-interpreting our own narrative somewhat, aren’t we all yearning for balance, stability, peace of mind; a time when we will finally be able to settle down? Yishuv ha-da’at, the settling of the mind, as the midrash calls it, is praised in our tradition as a state of consciousness attained as one grows wiser. It is opposed to tiruf ha-da’at—literally meaning to be of torn mind—bewildered, confused, lacking awareness. After our sojourning, after years of hard work and our facing many difficulties along the way, we identify with Jacob. “Balance” is our leitmotiv. We seek greater work-life balance, to eat more balanced meals; we go to yoga class to achieve balance in our body. We project onto spirituality the task of making us more balanced beings, to find stillness within chaos.

But that isn’t Reality is it? No true yoga practice has as a goal to help us find perfect balance, but rather to help us live increasingly aware of the fact that balance is but a never-ending counter act to our inherent imbalance. There is no such a thing as standing still, sitting still or even lying still. Finding balance while riding a bicycle is about continuously correcting the imbalance caused by pressing on one pedal or the other. Walking is a perpetual state of imbalance, moment to moment catching ourselves from falling. There is nothing in life, nothing in the Universe that ever is in an absolute static state of balance. Everything is always in flux, always changing. So why, like Jacob, do we pursue this illusion? And if you think the purpose of spirituality is to help you become a more balanced being, think again! The pithiest, yet most powerful one-word spiritual mantra I ever came across is: “Further!” And that is what Rashi himself is saying, commenting on this first verse, and quoting a midrash where God is exclaiming that especially the righteous shouldn’t “seek to dwell in contentment in this world!” — no yishuv ha-da’at for us. Our task, therefore, might not be to find balance, but to embrace the imbalances in our life. Imbalance is that force which impels us forward, helping us grow through course-correction. Resisting or fighting imbalance and change is akin to resisting and fighting Reality itself. Consciously making peace with it is what truly frees us.

But Jacob couldn’t do that. He denied Reality in the name of what Zornberg calls his “cognitive and aesthetic ambition to see history resolved, sojournings over… What ‘leaps upon him’ is the wild animal that tears Joseph apart—tarof toraf Yosef. Instead of yishuv ha-da’at, clarity, composure, coherence, there is tiruf ha-da’at, confusion, bewilderment, loss of consciousness.” (p.247) Life is a wild animal. It is our desire to tame it, to control it—futile as it may be—that is ultimately the cause of our own misery. A better strategy might be for us to allow that wild animal to roam free.

Torah Reflections: Nov. 26 – Dec. 2, 2017

 

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Awakening from Within the Silence

One of the first revelations that meditation gifts us with is an encounter with the unbelievable noise that lies within us, right behind our closed eyes. As if by magic, as soon as our eyes are closed an onslaught of thoughts comes rushing in. As our practice progresses, however, we realize that the thoughts don’t suddenly appear when meditation starts, they are always there, endlessly parading in our consciousness. Our inward meditative gazing simply makes us increasingly aware of their loud, incessant presence. An exercise one can do is to journal one’s meditative experience. To classify the types of thoughts that arise in each meditation to get a sense of the different patterns of one’s conditioned mind. Some find the mind rehearsing and rehashing conversations. I find that my mind likes to plan and organize.

The beginning of this Torah portion reminds me of my meditations. Jacob is going home after his 20-year exile in Haran and is just hours away from a dreaded confrontation with his brother, Esau, who had vowed to kill him. So striking is the resemblance to my meditative experience that I suspect that the first 30 verses of this Torah portion (Gen. 32:4-33) are but the transcript of Jacob’s meditation journal.

Jacob has this big meeting coming up. He sits down to meditate to find peace and quiet, but thoughts invade his consciousness. Jacob’s conditioned mind seems to be that of a planner, a strategist. Instead of slowing down, it begins to organize an entire convoy of people and gifts to be sent wave after wave ahead of the meeting to his brother in order to appease his vengeful wrath. He divides and orders, weighs all possible future scenarios. He even rehearses the dialogues that might take place between the servants he is sending ahead and Esau himself. He counts off the camels and the goats, the rams and the asses to be given away while bargaining with God for success.

Then, verse 22 tells us: “And all this gifting passed from his consciousness.” It is as if something finally cleared in his meditation, as if his thinking finally gave way. His mind could no longer handle the torture of the never-ending loop of thoughts that was burning up within him. A crack through the thickness of the mind allowed him to break free from his attachments to the possessions and the stories that had defined him. In that moment, he was able to even let go of his attachment to those closest to him and to all he still dearly clung to. The Torah uses a powerful image to convey this deep letting-go whereby Jacob sends all that is/who are most precious to him—et asher lo – all that he identified with (Gen.32:24)—across the Jaboc river.

Then comes what is, to me, among the most powerful verses in Torah:

Vayivater Yaacov L’vado – And Jacob surrendered in aloneness (Gen. 32:25).

After having let go of all attachments, it was the deep silence of aloneness, the emptiness at the source of our being, to which Jacob surrendered and awakened. He went “out of his mind,” transcended the calculating, organizing, planning, future-wrestling and past-worrying conditioned mind that keeps us both stuck and identified with its concerns and its objects. In that ultimate surrender, he encountered God “Presence to Presence” (Gen. 32:31) and realized that he was that Oneness of Being.