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.

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.

Torah Reflections: October 22- 28, 2017

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Heading Home

Lech Lecha marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. We have traveled through the confusion of Creation and the Flood, and now we are about to embark on our spiritual journey as the descendants of our patriarchal fathers and mothers. And right away, this parashah calls us to appreciate the deeper significance of what it means to seek sacred space in our lives. It begins with Abraham receiving a divine call to “go forth”:

The Eternal One said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

What is this place that Abraham is asked to leave? The concept of “birthplace” is symbolic of a place we know well, the place that nourishes us and supports us in our growing, the place where we are loved and cared for. Our “father’s house” might be the archetypal expression of a place where we feel protected, a place from which we draw strength and courage, learn values and direction. This was Sacred Space that Abraham was leaving.

To me this pithy verse captures the essence of personal growth and spiritual evolution. The image is that we are spiritual travelers, evolving from one level in consciousness to the next, while preserving the essential attributes of the levels we are called to leave. Some spiritual teachers call it the evolutionary impulse at the heart of all creation. Like Abraham, we need to let go of Sacred Spaces where we have been because staying there, no matter how comfortable, safe, and predictable they have been, would stifle our growth. Staying there would transform those Sacred Spaces into places of enslavement where we would begin to feel stuck, unhappy, constricted. We need to move beyond the confines of such a place in consciousness and venture into the unknown.

But before we are able to embark on such a trying journey, before we are able to let go of it, we need to create and solidify this Sacred Space for ourselves. We first need to find our “birthplace,” the place where, time and again, we can be reborn, nurtured back to life, where we are able to hold ourselves in love and compassion. We need to know that archetypal “father’s house” of safety, groundedness, and purposefulness. There is no point trying to grow beyond the level we are currently at, until we have found balance and healing at that level.

So I would invite you to hold off on the call to “go forth” until you have reflected upon where you find this nurturing Sacred Space in your life. Where is your “birthplace” of support and nourishment? Where is your “father’s house” of security and rootedness? Amidst the turmoil we witness all around us, overwhelmed by the fast pace of our world, we need to be able to define and recognize our Sacred Space right now. Before we can embark on the next stage of our evolution, we need to know where home is; we need to know to slow down, breathe, and be deeply connected to what really matters.

Torah Reflections: October 15- 21, 2017

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

A World Filled with Violence

Our, then, 10-year-old daughter, Amalya came home one day from the Jewish day-school she attended, with an assignment: to write a short essay about the first verses of Noah, this week’s Torah portion.

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japhet. The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. [Genesis 6:9-11]

She was to respond to this question: “What would a world filled with violence look like? If Noah was righteous in a world filled with violence, what was it like for him to live in that world?” Her essay’s immediate answer was: “We don’t have to imagine what it would be like; we already live in a world filled with violence.” A few lines later she pondered: “I wonder why God created something in us that made us become violent.” By simply asking the question, she happened upon an awareness of the inner dimensionality of this problem: inside all of us are both the potentials for peace and compassion and for violence and destruction. A part of us is like Noah; righteous and blameless, walking in alignment with the Divine within. Another part of us joins with the rest of earth’s inhabitants described in Torah as beings “with wicked thoughts in their heart” [Gen. 5:5]. Judaism is replete with stories about this inner struggle. Just last week we read about Cain and Abel. But there are such stories in most spiritual traditions the world over. One of my favorite is from a Cherokee legend which goes like this:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That which God created in us that can lead us to violence is the illusion of separation; this sense of an estranged self, isolated and afraid, always ready for battle in the barren world of scarcity. This wolf is called Yetzer HaRa, in Hebrew: Evil Inclination. Evil because it is the inclination in us that collapses our consciousness away from knowing the Divine embodiment we are, and attaches it to this illusory separate sense of self. What we are to be mindful of is what we feed this wolf. We feed the Yetzer HaRa when we live unexamined lives, gorging unconsciously at the trough of our senses and the tales our minds tell. We starve the Yetzer HaRa when we live mindfully, are more discerning in giving validity to our thoughts, and remain both aware and equanimous when faced with the pull of our senses and emotions. But that’s not all. Our culture also contributes to its feeding. Boys in our society, for example, are fed ideals of hyper-masculinity which venerates physical strength, aggression and sexual dominance. They are taught to resolve conflict with violence, to not share their feelings and be loners, to never appear weak and transmute their emotions of sadness into anger. They are told to “man up,” to never cry, and to fear being called a girl or any other insult that demeans the feminine and feminine attributes. No wonder we have a gun violence epidemic on our hands, no wonder our girls and women are assaulted, abused, raped in our schools, colleges, work places, homes, streets, every day. We will only starve this wolf when we take the steps necessary to reverse what our culture does to our boys, adopt and actively promote a different set of values.

The other wolf, we call: Yetzer HaTov, the Good Inclination. It draws us nearer to Source, reconnects us to Truth, erases the delusory boundaries that divorce us from Being. We feed the Yetzer HaTov by practicing humility, love, and truthfulness in our everyday life, in our encounters with each other. We feed that wolf when we nourish one another with the gifts of understanding, generosity and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. To feed the Yetzer HaTov in our boys, we need to work with them on valuing empathy, on reclaiming their inner femininity, on accepting and trusting their emotions, on helping them develop true friendships where they can feel safe to express their innermost feelings and learn to resolve their problems in healthy, constructive, and peaceful ways.

Now is the time for us to take a serious look at the ways we contribute to feeding one wolf over another in ourselves. But let’s also take an honest look at the ways we, too, sponsor directly or indirectly by our choices a society that idealizes violence, objectifies women, and glorifies power and dominance. Decide today, and every day, which of the two wolves you want to feed.

Torah Reflections: October 8- 14, 2017

Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Cain & Abel: A Teaching on Generosity

Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? [Gen. 4:2-9]

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But do we ever? Going a little deeper, we find that this story is not as black and white as it seems; that there may be attenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one, God seems to bear some responsibility in the matter. Not only did He disregard Cain’s offering, but He created an explosive antagonistic situation by approving his brother’s. Any book on sibling rivalry would tell you that this is a big “no-no.” The fact that Cain has a temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag for God. Instead, His infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to be blaming Cain for what happened, only added fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God Himself should be sentenced as well as accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving. While Abel understands that nothing he has really belongs to him, but to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself. God couldn’t approve of Cain’s half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your vanity, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right’, if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

Sin, an archery term in Hebrew, means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is all. A sinful act drives us away from our Divine center. Our vanity is a sin because it strengthens our false sense of self, our illusion of separateness. It is this delusion that drives us to possess “stuff/people/power” as an illusory validation of our existing as a separate being. God told Cain that he could dominate/overcome this sinful egocentric avaricious trait not by killing it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by doing right, by bringing full offerings; by practicing acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity. But, Cain didn’t listen and killed Abel or Hevel in Hebrew, when the name Hevel means: “vanity.” Yet, only vanity would want to kill vanity in itself. What Cain created with this act is the exact opposite of what he aimed for: more separation, and greater alienation from Source.

These past High Holy Days, whatever character trait you identified in yourself that no longer serves you—that might even have become an obstacle in your life, your work, the health of your relationships—don’t fight it. Don’t try to kill it in yourself. Instead, our Torah portion is telling us, practice developing the opposite character trait. In the long run the latter will overtake the former, causing it to shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering.