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: 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 4 – 10, 2016

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Vision Quest
It is undeniable that some stones in Jerusalem radiate a certain energy. We, as Jews, come to pray at the Western Wall that supported the ancient Holy Temple built on Mount Moriah. We touch the stones of the Wall with our hands, our forehead, our lips, our tears; and one can’t help but feel the vibrations the Wall transmits. In Islam, the golden-domed mosque atop the Temple Mount is called the Dome of the Rock, because in its center is a rocky surface called the Rock of Moriah from which—Muslim legend has it—the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. For Jews, that rock is believed to be where the Holy of Holies once stood in the ancient Temple. One can only imagine the energies radiating from this rock.

The idea that stones radiate energy isn’t new. We read in this week’s Torah portion:

And Jacob departed from Beer Shava and went to Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and he put [them] around his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt… [Gen. 28:10-11]

The dream that Jacob dreamt is that of the ladder upon which angels ascended and descended. But what about this set-up leading to the dream? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) is bothered by the fact that the Torah does not specifically tell us which place is “the place” —repeated three times in this one verse. Though we know that “the place” is one of the many names of God in our tradition, Rashi reminds us that we last read about “the place” when Abraham “saw the place from afar” [Gen. 22:4] on his way to sacrificing Isaac, and therefore concludes that Jacob’s dream—like his father’s near sacrifice—took place atop Mount Moriah.

Having clarified where the scene takes place, Rashi proceeds to explain that Jacob had set the stones around his head in a “U” shape with stones on three sides, leaving one side open from which his body extended. In the middle of the “U”, he placed one larger stone for his head. These were the stones of “the place,” Divine stones. These were the stones of Mount Moriah that radiate divine energies, all placed around and underneath his head. Could this be describing a ritualistic set-up to induce dreams or visions in the practitioner through the energies of the stones? Rashi himself sees the stones as alive, even quarreling with each other. He tells his readers that as Jacob lays down “God immediately made them into one stone” to explain why the Torah uses the singular a few verses later to recall that, after his dream, “Jacob arose… and took the stone that he had place around his head…” [Gen. 28:18] These were no ordinary stones.

Perhaps, therefore, there is more to this passage than meets the eyes. I suspect that it is, indeed, describing a millennia-old Middle-Eastern version of a vision quest. For what is a vision quest about but going on a personal journey alone in the wilderness in order to find oneself and ones’ intended spiritual and life direction; and to attune oneself to the spiritual world as contact is made with Spirit and one’s life-purpose is revealed in a vision or a dream. Both, indeed, happen to Jacob in this passage. God appears to him in his dream to renew with him His promise to Abraham, and he wakes up secured in the future direction of his journey.

Where is “the place” in our own life that supports a deeper connection to the One Being which beats our heart and breathes our breath? Is it the great outdoors for you, or your little meditation corner at home? What are the “stones” that energize you, that support your own dreaming, that help you gain greater clarity along your life-journey? Are they books, meditations, journals? We owe it to ourselves, every so often, to go on such a vision quest—inner or outer—and find what is yearning to be revealed. Perhaps now, as winter sets in, might be a good time.