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 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 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: January 8 – 14, 2017

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Conditioned Happiness

Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this—models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.

This week’s Torah portion opens: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]

In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come? He reminds us that we encountered the number “seventeen” just a few chapters earlier, when we first met his favorite son Joseph, and he was seventeen. From there, Rabbi Ben Asher draws a parallel between the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life and the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, before the latter is sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. The answer comes to him through the Gematria of the word “Vayechi – lived,” which adds up to thirty four. And this, he concludes, “teaches that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for thirty four [of them], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold and seventeen years in Egypt [during which he and Joseph were together again].”

Unwittingly perhaps, R. Ben Asher helps us uncover a darker side of Jacob. Jacob’s myopia—his choice to link the “good years” exclusively with this one son—so severely limits his vision, that he, de facto, cuts himself off from experiencing the fullness of the rest of his life. He fails to relate to the unique blessings of each of his wives, of each of his children. He fails to take responsibility for the disfunction in his family that will continue to manifest itself for centuries in the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. Then again, the Torah does not paint portraits of perfect heroes, but helps us see our own flaws reflected in theirs. Who among us can claim that they do not suffer, at times, from the same myopia as Jacob? Who hasn’t failed to recognize the unique blessings of people who walked in and then out of our lives? How often do we make our happiness contingent on a single issue or a single person, and drive ourselves and others around us miserable because of it? And so perhaps we can learn to become more aware of the ways we surrender our intrinsic power to be happy to something outside of ourselves: the objects of our unending desires, or the opinion of others. Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that happiness might be a state of being, not a hope of becoming; an opening now to the blessings right in front of us, not a postponing of that realization conditioned on a different yesterday or a better tomorrow. Because Jacob’s happiness was conditional to a fault, he was miserable for a hundred and thirteen years of his life. And that’s a mighty long time to waste!

Torah Reflections: December 11 – 17, 2016

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Honoring Our Fears

In the previous Torah portion we read about Jacob’s vision of the ladder that came to him in a dream. At the end of that vision God appears to him to say: “And here I am, with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil.” (Gen 28:15) Toward the end of that portion spanning over 20 years of Jacob’s life, God appears to him again and orders him back home, saying: “Return to the land of your ancestors, to your birthplace, and I will be with you.” (Gen 31:2) In both cases one can’t help but notice that God insists on telling Jacob that He will stand as his protector; that He will be with him, on his side. Why is God so insistent on this point? This week’s Torah portion might shed some light:

Jacob now sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, in the country-side of Edom… When the angels came back to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and he, too—accompanied by four hundred men—is marching to meet you.” Jacob was terrified. [Gen. 32:4–8]

God insisted on this point because He knew that Jacob needed to be reassured, to know that He would stand as his shield when the time came to meet his brother Esau. But even with both Divine affirmations, Jacob is still terrified. Wouldn’t a person of faith be able to face the upcoming confrontation with equanimity and composure? Wouldn’t an enlightened person have transcended his/her fear? Isn’t Jacob displaying a lack of faith, denying God’s power, disregarding God’s promise through his irrational behavior?

Perhaps this is what this Torah portion is aiming to tell us about fear. Fear operates at such a primal level of our psyche that, as long as we are in a body, we are bound to experience it. Fear isn’t, at its core, negative. It is a means to our survival, a reflex of self-preservation. It is irrational because it is pre-rational. If the car in front of you stops abruptly, now is not the time to reason away your next move. Fear takes over and reacts in a split second, before any thought has time to make itself known. As in Jacob’s case, enlightenment will probably not bring about the blissful, serene, equanimous life you might hope for. Awakening is probably not a general anesthetic that dulls one’s life into an everlastingly undisturbed peaceful silence. I suspect that the opposite might be true. Being awake one sees more, feels more, is more. In letting go of the stories of the mind and being radically present to each moment one can’t help it but be more alive to all the feelings, the sensations, the emotions that are part of one’s experience without collapsing into any of them. And so when fear arose within Jacob, he remained fully present to it, fully connected to its rising energies, without letting his ego step in. He simply was the fear he felt, aware of the conditioning at the source of his experience.

From that place, I read a comment by Rashi (11th century French rabbi) who writes: “Jacob was terrified and distressed. Terrified lest he be killed; distressed were he to kill others.” On one hand, Jacob lets the energies of his conditioned pre-rational fear flow fully through his being; and, on the other hand, from a more enlightened place, he mourns the eventuality of having to kill in self-defense. I find this commentary most powerful. Rashi acknowledges the conditioned nature of our existence and, at the same time, the human potential for transcendence in care and compassion. May we, too, learn to live like Jacob, by honoring the limitations of our human condition yet striving to remember the One Life manifesting in all lives, the One Being expressing through all beings.

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.