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Friday, December 31, 2010

Parshat Va'era: Speech, Hearing and Redemption

This week's parashah/portion is Va'era (Exodus/Shemot 6:2 – 9:35).  The Israelites are still enslaved in Egypt and the conversation between God and Moses in Egypt continues.  God continues to instruct Moses on how to bring about the people's redemption.  However, Moses is reticent.  He claims that Pharaoh and the people will not listen to him because he is of "uncircumcised lips."  The implication being, once again, that he is unable to speak clearly or that his speech is not complete or whole.  In short, he believes that he is not up to the task.

His reaction is something to which many of us can relate.  How often in our own lives believed we were unprepared for the task that lies before us.  Yet, one might imagine that, even if Moses felt unworthy or unprepared, he would have trusted God's judgment and God’s ability make the correct choice. However, it appears that this is not the case.

Moses tries to convince God that God has the wrong man.  Because of this, some commentators have proposed that Moses is one of three characters in the narrative that block God's message of redemption.  According to Aviva Zornberg, in her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, the other two “characters who try to block God’s communication are Pharaoh and the Israelites.

Pharaoh and the Israelites are both described in the Torah as "not listening" to God.  Pharaoh has no excuse, except, as he said in last week's parashah, "Who is God that I should listen to God's voice?" (Ex. 5:2).  The Israelite people’s only excuse is that they have "shortness of spirit and hard labor."  And so, being enslaved has made them deaf to God's redemptive call.

Moses, on the other hand, tries to block God's message by claiming to be an unfit messenger.  Moses tried once already to be God's voice. When he did so, Pharaoh laughed in his and, by extension, God's face (see Ex. 5:2).  Why should Pharaoh listen to Moses now?  Beyond that, why should the people listen to him after their labor was increased by Pharaoh following Moses' first request to free them?

However, Zornberg points out, Moses does not base his reluctance to speak on the actions of Pharaoh, but on his inability to make the people listen.  He claims to be of “uncircumcised lips,” so; neither Pharaoh nor the people will listen to him.  The great 19th century Hassidic master, the Sefat Emet, interprets Moses' as saying: "They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips."  This interpretation turns the usual one on its head.  Rather than the orator’s speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is the inability or unwillingness of people to listen that creates his inability to speak!  If Pharaoh and the people are unwilling to listen, then it is as if Moses is unable to speak.  In other words, if a prophet speaks in a desert and there is no one willing to hear, can he really say anything?  Moses's answer to this is obviously an unqualified ‘no!’ 

The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) calls this phenomenon "the exile of the word."  In Zornberg’s words,  "The dynamic of language, of communication, has failed [and] this failure is the profound meaning of exile; it encompasses the inability to hear and the inability to speak…The ears of this generation [of slaves] do not, cannot respond to living language.  For this reason, Moses will not, cannot speak." (Zornberg, p. 84)

Moses is faced in this parashah with the dilemma that faces so many leaders of social change throughout history.  If the people are unwilling or unable to hear the message does one continue to attempt to deliver it?  God answer to this is in the affirmative.  If it were up to Moses, redemption may never have come, or certainly, it would have come at a much later date.  God is clearly the power that makes for redemption in this narrative.  But God is also the power that ultimately gives Moses the power to speak in the face of the deafness of Pharaoh and the people. 

However, God is also the Source of our ability to hear and listen.  Pharaoh's unwillingness to even consider that there could be any power greater than he is what prevents him from being able to hear.  This self-imposed deafness continues until his first born son is dead and the sea has destroyed his army.  However, the Israelites do eventually listen and hear. At least temporarily.

It is said that when we truly communicate with one another, we can see the face (and hear the voice) of God.  God is also the source within us all to truly hear and speak to one another.  God is the power that makes for speech and understanding.  Without the connection to the divine flow that links us one to the other we may speak, but our words have less meaning; we may hear, but our hearing is less attuned.  That is an important message of the parashah and this specific commentary. 

Though this certainly has a mystical ring to it, I also believe that it is in keeping with my understanding as a Reconstructionist (albeit one with strong mystical leanings!) of the role of God in the world.  God is the power that connects us to one another.  God is the power that works through us to create the ability to speak and hear clearly, both metaphorically and literally. If we stop and pay attention to all that is within and around us, the Divine is the source or our ability to connect with the universe.

Pharaoh was unable, or unwilling to understand this (who hardened his heart will need to be discussed at another time).  This ultimately brought about his annihilation.  The Israelites were unable to comprehend this reality until after they were released from the bonds of slavery.  Of course, even then they had difficulties and needed constant reminders of God’s presence.  Moses finally understood this after his encounters with God in this week's parashah and even more so after the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. 

We each have the ability – and responsibility – to bring Divinity into the world through paying attention, speaking carefully and interacting honestly with others.  The choice is ours.  We can ignore this responsibility, as did Pharaoh, or we can eventually understand and accept.  This can happen through using speech and actions as catalysts for change, as in the case of Moses, or via our ability to listen and to follow, as happened with the Israelites. 

As the kabbalists might say, speech and hearing has been exiled too often in our history.  It is up to us to make certain that they remain firmly put and that they continue to be redeemed and to bring about redemption now and in the future.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 12

ישמח הר ציון תגלנה בנות יהודה למען משפטיך
May the mountains of Zion be glad, the daughters of Judah rejoice; because of your judgments.

Going back to earlier verses and commentaries, I interpreted the images as referring to the “heavenly Jerusalem,” which the rabbis and mystics imagined as a counterpart to the “earthly Jerusalem.” In the heavenly Jerusalem, all is as we imagine it should be. There is no fighting, no war, just simply peace (see previous psalm commentaries) .

Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem throughout late Biblical and rabbinic literature. Mt. Zion itself is also synonymous with Mt. Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac and where the Holy Temple would eventually be built. It is the center of the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly one. Within Jewish mythology, it is where the two connect; it is a spiritual umbilical cord.

Referring back to my commentaries on the two previous verses, it is connecting with God’s hesed (overflowing love) and tzedek (righteousness) that causes the mountains of Zion to be glad and the daughters of Judah to rejoice. By acknowledging the oneness of the universe within the Divine,  guided by hesed and tzedek, we are able to be glad and rejoice along with Zion and Judah. However, it is important to look at the particular phrasing of the verse.

First, it is not merely Mt. Zion, which is the center of power, where happiness can be found, but all the mountains of Zion.   It is as if there are underground spiritual conduits that connect the mountains, regardless of whether the mountain is at the center or on the periphery or whether it is the largest or smallest.

In the heavenly realm, all is happiness and peace, because all is connected through hesed and tzedek. This is also the ultimate goal for which we can strive in the earthly realm. However, to reach that goal we must allow ourselves to be guided by the Divine hesed and tzedek that flows through the universe. We must avoid being judgmental or comparing ourselves to others, as I have discussed in previous commentaries. Each of us is a mountain of Zion, wherever and whoever we may be. We all have access to the root of happiness and joy, if we make the necessary actions (or non-actions) to connect us.

The parallel of this is the image of the rejoicing of the “Daughters of Judah.” Some interpret the daughters as referring to the surrounding cities and towns, with Jerusalem their mother. Others take this more literally and focus on the dangers that faced women then (and now). Being saved from these dangers by God would therefore be a cause for rejoicing.

Viewing the verse from the perspective of the heavenly Jerusalem I would combine both of these interpretations and neither of them. For the daughters of Judah (which was where Jerusalem was located) are all of us. We are all rooted in the heavenly mother Jerusalem. In this case, “daughters” is not a gendered term. Rather, it represents all the spiritual offspring of Jerusalem/Judah. However, being represented as daughters and not sons, these offspring are not preparing for war or struggle, but for nurturing, caring and compassion.

Yes, we are all daughters of Judah. However, it is true, both then and now, that there are dangers particular to woman (though not exclusively). There are kinds of violence, not to mention general misogyny, that are aimed at women. And so being a daughter of Jerusalem means not only being caring and compassionate, but also being in a somewhat dangerous and precarious situation. If we are all symbolically “daughters of Judah” then this is the case for all of us, regardless of our sexual or gender identity.

What enables the daughters of Judah to truly rejoice is God’s “judgments.” But these are not the same as what we mean when we speak of human “judgments” or being “judgmental.” For we know that the human proclivity to judge is the source of so much pain, suffering and unhappiness.

In the earthly/human realm judgment is about labeling and valuing certain people or things based on subjective evaluation. However, in the heavenly realm, judgment is objective and just. Divine judgment should be based on tzedek and hesed. Judgment in the heavenly realm is about righting wrongs and making the world a better place. Therefore, in this verse the daughters of Judah are rejoicing because in the heavenly realm, judgmental behavior, prejudice, violence and misogyny do not exist. All are equal. All are loving. All is just.

Therefore, viewing the world through the lenses of tzedek and hesed results in all recognizing the sense of interconnectedness. This is the root of the understanding and that no human being is greater or smaller than another. We are all equal one within God. And this is the root of happiness and rejoicing.

It is our duty to do our best to bring the gladness and joy of the heavenly realm into the earthly realm. We must use tzedek, hesed, and this ultimate egalitarianism represented by this verse to achieve this goal. We must all be the mountains of Zion, conduits between heaven and earth, and do our best through words, thoughts and actions, to bring this prophetic and messianic vision to fruition in our own time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Parshat Shemot: The Journey Into Slavery Begins

This week's parashah is Shemot (Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1). The saga of slavery and redemption that we remember each year at the time of Passover, as well as now during the Torah reading cycle, begins with this parashah.

The narrative opens by reminding us of the names (shemot) of the sons of Jacob/Israel. Then we read that the Israelites multiplied greatly in Egypt. In fact, the Torah tells us that they "swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (1:7)." This increase in population is the reason given by Pharaoh for his decision to enslave the people.

Many commentators have wondered why it was necessary to give any reason for the enslavement. After all, Abraham was told in Bereshit/Genesis 15:13 "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years." If the enslavement was portrayed as part of "God's plan" then Pharaoh needed no reason for his persecution of the Israelites. And yet, the Torah text provides us with precisely that.

In her excellent and compelling book on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture (which I HIGHLY recommend), Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes that the concept of the Israelites 'swarming' over the land is viewed in two different ways. The majority of midrashim (rabbinic exegetical tales) comment that the increase in the Israelite population represents a victory of life over death and serves as a reminder of the eternality of God and God's promise that the people shall be numerous. Jacob and his sons, including Joseph, may be dead, as the opening lines remind us, but the people itself lives and flourishes. This is all due to God's promise and serves as a reminder of the Divine presence. Life and God are eternal and the proliferation of the Israelite people is proof of this.

However, Seforno (16th century, Italy) holds a minority opinion that views this description of Israelite growth as a condemnation. The phrase "and they swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly" is likened by him to the swarming and increase of insects. Actually, the root of the Hebrew verb "to swarm" (sh-r-tz) is also the root of the word for insect. Seforno condemns the Israelites by claiming that the people, which once consisted of individuated and highly evolved persons such as Jacob and Joseph, has now deteriorated to the point where they were simply a mass of "unindividuated 'insect-like' conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surrounds..."(Zornberg, p. 19).

Initially, I rejected this interpretation. It felt a little too much like blaming the victims for their plight. In doing so, it would appear that Seforno is relieving Pharaoh of responsibility for his actions. And yet, if the Torah tells us that this was part of God's plan, why does anyone need to be blamed? Why can't we simply take slavery as a “fact” and move on?

The answer is simple. If we were to do this, we would miss the opportunity to learn anything from this central religious myth of the Jewish people. In her analysis of Seforno, Zornberg points out that his interpretation "has constructed a narrative of failure, guilt, punishment, where the biblical text seemed to give us only the facts of suffering..." However, Zornberg continues, Seforno "invites us to reflect on the ways in which slavery, persecution and alienation ... are generated by human beings...and - in the same vein - on the meaning of redemption, exodus, freedom. In doing this, he stands in a tradition of commentators who read the Exodus narrative psycho-spiritually, from the point of view of the victim who seeks redemption, in the intimate as well as the political sense." (Zornberg, p.21).

Zornberg's analysis changed my feelings about Seforno's original commentary. For, rather than viewing his comments as blaming the victim, I was able to view them as putting the onus for their growth and redemption on the Israelites themselves. In order to say that we play a role in bringing about our own redemption, we must first admit that on a deep level we play a role in our own enslavement. 

Interpreting the name mitzrayim (Egypt) as meitzarim (the narrow/constricted places), being caught in the snares of slavery there represents the ways in which our spirits can become caught in the snares of  self-enslavement. Slavery then comes to represent how we constrict ourselves in narrow places by becoming part of the assimilated masses rather than standing up for who we are and what we believe. I am speaking here not simply of the concept of religious and cultural assimilation, but of the assimilation of the individual into the swarm of humanity. This is what causes us to turn our backs on what it means to be a unique individual created in the image of God, yet also part of the greater community and all of humanity.

Therefore, if, as Seforno posits, we become part of the swarm by simply merging our individual selves with society then it is up to us to bring about our redemption. We achieve this by separating ourselves from the communal swarm and instead becoming individuals dedicated to caring for our world, our people and ourselves in our own unique ways, rather than simply being like 'everyone else.'

This is a message of the story of slavery and redemption that I had never considered in the past. However, I think it speaks to us in a time when assimilation, acculturation and being 'part of the swarm' is a force that is constantly gaining strength. 

This commentary calls on us to strive for the sense of individuality combined with communal responsibility that was at the heart of the civil rights movement, anti-war movements and the various movements for social change and justice today. These efforts stand in opposition to the idea of merging with the masses and swarming that was at the root of so many dark times in American history from the Salem witch hunts to McCarthyism and up until today. And it is a call that I believe it is important for us to heed at this, and every, time in our history.

However, what can prevent us from becoming part of this swarm? How do we maintain our sense of unique godliness and individuality in the face of the numerous forces urging us to join the masses and be like everyone else - which in the end means being like nothing?

The answer would seem to be that we must have a clear sense of self. We need to be sure of who we are. Yet, perhaps that in itself a dangerous misconception. For in the end it is merely a trick of the ego, for the ego wants nothing more than for us to believe that we are who we are and that we will never change. For this keeps us ensnared and reliant upon the ego to tell us who we are. It also separates us from others and from Divine flow in the universe.

This may be the opposite of swarming, but it's effects are just as damaging. For in feeling so secure in our identity, we forget that we are ever-changing beings, and that in certain ways our identity is dependent upon how we connect with the universe. By convincing us that we are independent rather than interdependent, and individual selves rather than part of the greater One, the ego keeps us separated from God and humanity.  For it convinces us that the self - the ego - is a kind of god in itself. All the overemphasis on the power and importance of the self ultimately leads to enslavement, as much as does the mob mentality and lack of individuation of "swarming."

Whether by swarming as part of the mob or separating ourselves with the help of the ego, either extreme leads to enslavement and despair. The only way to prevent us from going to either extreme is by remembering that the ultimate ground of our existence is connection with the Divine flow of the universe.   This sense of connection and oneness leads us to compassion for all of existence.  It also releases those who are enslaved, whether the master is the self or the undifferentiated mass of the "swarm." If we remember this then we will remain on the path towards righteousness, justice and kindness. This path leads to the redemption of our world and enables us to split the seas of oppression and injustice that hold us back so that we may all cross to the other side where freedom awaits.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 11

כשמך אלהים כן תהלתך על־קצוי־ארץ צדק מלאה ימינך׃
Like Your name, God, so is Your praise unto the ends of the earth; Your right hand is full of righteousness.

In my commentary on verse 9 (Monday Dec. 6, 2010) I discussed the difference between two of the primary names of God, according to the great 12th century scholar Maimonides.  According to him, the four-letter name of God (Y-H-V-H) represents God’s unknowable essence, and the name Elohim, represents that which we can intuit or observe of God through human experience.

In this verse, God is referred to as elohim.  Hence, following Maimonides’ distinction, the Psalmist is writing about that aspect of God, which we intuit or observe in the world, even if we do not feel like we have actually “experienced” God’s essence.

Truth be told, this experience of God is much more common than any sense of a truly transformational, mystical experience where we feel the essence of God’s being – at least as much as a human being can. 

What does it mean to say that God’s praise is like God’s name, Elohim?  It would seem that the logical conclusion is that we can only praise God insofar as we can experience or intuit God’s existence.  Our observation of goodness, kindness and compassion in the world is how we experience God.  And so, according to that which we observe, so it is that we praise.

However, what of the suffering and pain in the world?  What about evil?  When good things happen to bad people, can we still praise God?  I asked myself that question this week when I heard of a tragedy that befell a family that has known more than it’s share of tragedy over the past few years.

In hearing the news, my reaction was to become furious that this could happen.  However, at what or who was my anger directed?  I am still not certain of the answer.  However, t was clearly not directed at God, as I do not believe that God causes suffering.  Rather, God is the source of the love, goodness, compassion and kindness that is being shown to this family and to others who suffer.  As I observe and experience this godly behavior in the world, so too do I praise God as the source of this compassion, love and kindness.

Therefore, I do not find it difficult to praise God in times of crisis and tragedy, for I do not associate that tragedy with God.  Perhaps this understanding of God is at the root of the final phrase “your right hand is full of tzedek/righteousness.”  With apologies to those who are left-handed, the phrase right hand represents the strength of God. In anthropomorphic images of God, it is with the right hand that God acts in the world.

In viewing human leaders, we also use phrases such as “right hand man” to designate a primary aid or the place from which a ruler’s strength comes. Unfortunately, too often that strength is about power, control and ego.  This is the opposite of God’s right hand, which is full of tzedek/righteousness.  However, I find it interesting that the Psalmist does not speak of God’s right hand as full of compassion or hesed/unending love, especially since hesed was a prominent concept in the previous verse.

Hesed is essential to improving our world and our lives. For God’s hesed is the source of human love and compassion.  However, the Psalmist is saying here that tzedek/righteousness is where God’s power lies.  Therefore, it is also where our power lies. 

Life is not merely about being kind, gentle and loving; it is about doing the right thing.  Sometimes what is right may seem to be the opposite of love and compassion.  The concept of “tough love” is perhaps the extreme of this idea. Yet, ultimately, all of our actions must be about bringing tzedek into the world, rather than about exercising one’s power or one’s ego.  If we are operating from the place of tzedek and of acting in a godly way, then even that which might seem harsh or strict, is ultimately about compassion and bringing righteousness and wholeness into the world. 

Finally, I would like to focus on the middle phrase of the verse “unto the ends of the earth.”  For the verse can be read in two ways:  1) According to your name, God, your praise is unto the ends of the earth; your right hand is full of righteousness or 2) According to your name, God, is your praise.  Your right hand is full of righteousness to the ends of the earth.

Does the praise of God extend to the ends of the earth or is it God’s righteousness?  For me, it is both, because they are inextricably linked.  The praise we offer God is in response to how we recognize God’s actions and humanity’s godly actions, in our world.  If we recognize that God’s righteousness extends to the ends of the earth, that it is part of the entirety of existence far beyond any one individual, then our praise of God will also reach the ends of the earth.

However, if we believe that God’s righteousness exists only when things go our way or when there is an absence of sorrow, suffering and pain in the world – if our experience of God’s tzedek is finite and egocentric – then our so called “praise of God” will be the same.  Neither will reach beyond us, let alone to the ends of the earth!

Ultimately, how we experience God and how we praise God is connected to how much we realize that God is within all and all is within God, unto the “ends of the earth.”  We may not understand while things are unfolding, but knowing that God’s tzedek and God’s hesed are both there wherever we go – even when there is suffering – then we will be able to praise God throughout the world and in every moment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Parshat Va'yehi: To Be or not To Be (edited)

[In order to post this commentary in time for Shabbat, I feel that I left a few loose ends, as well as some inconsistencies and error. Such as making Jacob only 47 and not 147!  So here is a newly edited version.  This is still a work in process, so I would love any comments, questions or suggestions.  spn]

This week we conclude the reading of the Book of Bereshit/Genesis with Parshat Va’yehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).  The name and first word of the parashah/portion means, “he lived.”  This refers to Jacob, who is on his deathbed. He had been brought down to Egypt to live with his beloved son Joseph, whom he thought dead for over 20 years.  Now, after 17 years in Egypt he is ready, at the age of 147, for his life to end.  He gathers his twelve sons around his bed (daughter Dinah has long since disappeared from the narrative. But that is for another time), as well as Manasseh and Ephraim, Joseph’s sons by his Egyptian wife Osnat.  When he blesses his two grandsons, he crosses his hands, thereby giving the preferred blessing of the elder child to the younger.  And so, this family tradition that blessed Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau and Judah over his elder brothers continues on to the next generation.  Perhaps.

Surprisingly, what I was drawn to in the parashah was simply the word Va’yehi.  Though it  means “he lived,” it is important to note that the formulation for what we would call past tense in Biblical Hebrew is not quite what one might expect.   

The word “yehi” by itself means “he shall live.”  Yet, when you put the va’ in front of it, the meaning changes to “he lived.”  A  v’ or va’ before a word usually serves as the conjunction ‘and’ or ‘but.”  However, when it appears as a prefix to a future tense verb it transforms the verb to the past tense.  But not really.  For in Biblical Hebrew there is no past or future tense.  As my Biblical Hebrew professor drilled into our heads, there are only the perfect and imperfect forms of the verb, along with the participle. 

Not being a linguist, I went online to see if I could clarify this further.  There I found this explanation by Jeff A. Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center: “In the English language the verb tenses are related to time; past, present and future, while the Hebrew verbs are all related to action. The perfect tense is a completed action and in most cases is related to the English past tense (he cut). The imperfect tense is an incomplete action and is closely related to the English present and future tenses (he cuts or he will cut). The participle can be a current action or one who performs the action (a cutting or cutter).” 

This may seem like a case of semantics, but don’t say that to a linguist!  However, I also believe there is a deeper spiritual meaning to this as well. For if ancient Hebrew is concerned with action and not with time, it is as if no past or future exists.  There are only those actions that have been completed or have yet to be performed.  The idea of the participle in Hebrew also intrigues me.  For the way I was taught, it always refers to the current action as it relates to the actor or speaker.  In other words, one does say in Hebrew “I am a writer.”  Rather,  one says “I am [one in the process of] writing.”  Again, action is at the core of the word's meaning.

As I was [in the act of] typing these words, it also occurred to me that there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in ancient or modern Hebrew.  So really one is simply saying “I, writing.”   It is not that one’s identity is that of a writer, artist, or teacher.  Rather, this is simply the activity in which one is involving oneself in the moment.  The action is not the essence of one’s identity, but simply what the person is doing.  Therefore, it is not something to which one can actually become attached.  So, to my surprise, in a biblical grammar lesson, one can find the essence of mindfulness practice! 

In mindfulness, we learn that the present moment is all that exists.  The past is but a memory and the future is a dream, a fantasy.   Biblical Hebrew reinforces this notion.  Neither past nor future is real.  There are only the actions we have completed.  They are perfect, not because they are without blemish or error, as we normally define it, but because they are both complete and completed actions.  And the “future” is imperfect because it consists of imagined actions that have yet to be or yet to be finished.  We have no idea what form it will take, if any.  It is imperfect.

Being perfect or imperfect should not be the focus of our lives.  What we should focus on is simply being in the moment.  However, if there is no Hebrew for the present tense of the verb “to be” how can we actually "be" in the present?   

If there were a true present tense one could say I am a writer. I am a rabbi. I am a teacher. But with predicates, all we can describe is the action in which we are engaged...the thought we are thinking...the feeling we are feeling.  Of course, actions, thoughts and feelings, by their very nature, are impermanent.   So if that is all we have, again,  we cannot become attached.  If only it were so simple! For we humans have a knack for getting ourselves attached to just about anyone or anything, whether or not they are technical "attachable!"

Though this may not be simple, but it is essential to realize that the action in which we are engaging is not one's identity, even if it might be one's job or career.  For example, for years I believed I was meant to be a congregational rabbi.  I believed it so much that it  became a huge part of my identity, and I became quite attached to it.  Looking back, I would clearly have said in those days “I am a congregational rabbi,” “I was someone who studied to become a congregational rabbi,” and “I will be a congregational rabbi.”  Congregational rabbi was my identity, my essence, my goal in life. Or so I believed.

Then, due to unforeseen, difficult, but necessary, changes in my life, I found myself preparing to leave congregational life.  This transition was painful and I tried to hold on to what I believed was my identity, not knowing what I would be without it! But the more I held on, the more I suffered.  However, when I finally let go of the attachment and realized that congregational rabbi was not my identity, but simply what I was doing at that time, I was able to let go. 

Therefore, in the present moment, I let go of the present tense verb "am" and looked at "rabbi-ing" as a participle.  This also affected how I looked at what I called the past and future.  In viewing the arc of my life, looking back I saw myself as  someone studying to be a congregational rabbi.  But I needed to view my rabbinic studies as a  perfect verb.  It was a completed activity. It was no longer something in which I was involved.  Yet, I knew that there were things I learned when I had been engaged in my studies that would help me as I took the next step in my life and moved into the world of the imperfect.  The world of the unknown.  The imperfect world  is all potential, possibility and no reality.  Taking with me what I learned from what had been completed, but leaving behind the attachment to past or to my pseudo-identity, I was able to take my next step.  It was frightening and challenging.  There were a number of missteps along the way.  However, staying in the present as much as I could, and remembering that I was connected to those around me, to God and to the universe made the journey possible.  For I knew that I was not walking into the imperfect alone.

And so, I return to this week’s parashah.  It begins “Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven.”  The 147 years were perfect; their actions had been complete.  Yet, the word ‘yehi’, which is the imperfect, is included within the word ‘va’yehi’, which is the perfect.  Therefore, implied within the reality that Jacob had completed the actions of living for the past 147 is the acknowledgment of the unforeseen future.  In that moment, Joseph and his brothers, representing what was occurring in that moment, stood looking at their father, representing all that was complete. Joseph then brings in his two sons, representing the the realm of unrealized potential and possibility before Jacob, in order to be blessed.

At first, Jacob does not know who they are.  It is as if he cannot see them.  This is not because he is blind, but because they represented the unknown world of potential.  On the psychic-spiritual plane, it is as if they did not exist.  When they are finally brought close, Jacob can sense their present.  In that moment, the perfect, imperfect and participle, what is complete, what is happening and what has not yet occurred, are as brought together.  In that one moment, that which is completed acknowledges the reality that life is continuing in that moment even though its work is done.  But when asked to bless that which is yet to be, he cannot do so for he does not know what is to happen next.  Everyone expects Jacob to give the principle blessing to the elder son, thereby setting the future in motion.  However, Jacob crosses his hands, giving the younger the blessing of the elder, and vice versa.  Joseph reaches out to switch the hands back, so things will continue as he believes they are meant to.  He tries explaining to his father that he is making a mistake, but to no avail.

By not switching his hands back to where they "should be" it is as if Jacob is saying “preconceived notions and expectations of the what will be based on what has been (or even what is now) are also illusions.

"You may think you know what is to take place in the time to come based on what has been and what is happening now, but  this is not true.  The elder may usurp the younger, as has been our family's history.  The younger may regain primacy over the elder, as we are told it "should" be.  All may be well and all may be in chaos.  All may be blessing and all may be curse. Some combination of all these may be true.  We just don’t know. And so I shall do what I shall do knowing that it has no real bearing on what shall be."

The firm way in which Jacob ignores what Joseph wants him to do sends the message that there may be a kind of cosmic connection between what one might call past, present and future, it is not causal.  What will be is not predetermined.  Hence, when one is truly in the moment one has the freedom to say “this is what I am doing in this moment” without getting caught up in the ego's trap of (you didn't think I could write a commentary without using the word 'ego' at least once, did you?)  “this is who I am because of what has come before me,” "this is my identity because of the expectations I have created or which have been created by others," or “this is what I will be in the future because of where I was and where I am.”   

In the end, Jacob’s blessing of the crossed hands was the blessing of freedom from attachment and expectations.  It was the blessing of being in the moment, while not focusing on what has been or what may be.  Unfortunately, the lesson is taught, but not easily learned.  For the other blessings of his sons were all about past and future.  But at least for that one moment Jacob was able to break that cycle.

And so we leave the journey of the patriarchs and matriarchs with the death of Jacob and later Joseph.  Next week we begin the journey into and out of slavery, when a new Pharaoh arises who did not remember Joseph. Hopefully, our ancestors, and we, will learn some important lessons from this difficult journey.  I can’t wait to find out!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parshat Vayigash: The Reunion

As I mentioned in the introduction to the midrash I posted this past Shabbat, I have returned with another installment of the story of Joseph and the ego.

Last Shabbat we read Parshat Vayigash (Bereshit/Genesis 44:18-47:27). This is the dénouement of the saga of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. The narrative begins with Judah offering himself as a replacement for Benjamin, whom Joseph is going to keep as a slave.  This after Joseph had his silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s bag in order to test the brothers.  Judah, who had been intimately involved in throwing Joseph into the pit and selling him into slavery, becomes therefore becomes the hero of this story.

When Judah pleads with Joseph to take him, it is too much for Joseph to bear.  He orders his servants to leave the room and reveals himself to Jacob’s other 11 sons as their long-lost brother Joseph.  Having already broken into tears twice in the previous parashah, he does so once again; this time a cry that can be heard throughout the house of Pharaoh issues from his mouth.  It was as if the pain of what happened to him in Canaan merged with the joy coming from the realization that his brothers had actually changed, and so this cry encompassed the entire spectrum of human emotion.

The bravery of Judah as he offers himself in Benjamin’s place is the highlight of this saga as I see it.  It is a symbol of our ability to change; Joseph’s ultimate reaction symbolizes our capacity for reconciliation.  And yet, in the ancient rabbinic tradition, Judah’s reaction is often portrayed differently.  Ignoring the pshat (surface meaning) of the text, the rabbis imagined Judah standing up to Joseph not with grace and courage, but filled with anger and vengeance.

In her exquisite analysis of the book of Genesis/Bereshit entitled Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Jewish Publication Society, 1995) Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes: in“a whole range of midrashim, Judah’s speech is not simply a plea for mercy: it becomes an angry, reproachful, even menacing attack on Joseph.  The very thought of separating Benjamin from his brothers—Joseph’s judicious sentence, with its prospect of shalom, ‘peace,’ for the other brothers—sends Judah into a paroxysm of rage.”

When Joseph tells his brothers to return to their father in shalom and leave Benjamin with him, Judah, in common parlance, goes ballistic.  He literally wrestles Joseph (still incognito).  In the variations of this theme, the story ends with Joseph revealing to himself not out of love, but in order to stop Judah before he defeats him.  In other words, he reveals himself in order to save face before the Egyptians.  In all of these midrashim the “encounter is marked by anger, royal power, and menace on the side of Judah, and by a strategic retreat on the part of Joseph…[Judah] speaks harshly, challenging the ruler with all of his personal power, attacking him for his past dealings with the brothers…” (Zornberg, pp 319-20).

As Zornberg states, these interpretations don’t exactly sit well with the Torah text.  In her further analysis, she focuses more on the issue of shalom (see above) as the root of Judah’s anger.  She posits that shalom, which means wholeness as well as peace, had been the ideal of Jacob’s family.  The birth of 12 sons was seen as a sign of the wholeness of his house, since 12 is a number of cosmic completion, as with the zodiac.  The loss of Joseph was a “fracture of that symbolic wholeness”.  She also recounts that, when Joseph was attacked by his brothers, he had been on a mission from Jacob to “seek the shalom, the peace, of your brothers and of the sheep [they were tending]”.  While on this mission, he is cast into a pit and eventually sold into slavery.  Believing that his son Joseph was dead, the shalom, both peace and wholeness, of Jacob and his family was irrevocably shattered.

These are other overtones of which neither Joseph nor Judah is aware, but which catch the reader’s eye in with the repetition of the word shalom.  When the brothers return from Canaan with Benjamin, Joseph inquires of the shalom of their father.  The brothers reply “it is well (there is shalom) with your servant, our father.”

And now, Joseph (still unknown to his brothers) has the nerve to tell his brothers that they should leave Jacob and Rachel’s only other son, Benjamin, the beloved son of Jacob’s old age, and return le’shalom, in or to peace.  But Judah knows that there can be no wholeness and no peace, for his father or for the brothers, if Benjamin remains.  And so, he stands up to the second most powerful man in Egypt with power and passion.

This interpretation fascinates me, not only because it turns the entire text on its head, but because it is so blatantly evident that the rabbis created these narratives to further elevate Judah, the namesake of the kingdom of Judea and the Jewish people, over Joseph.  That these were written at a time when the Jewish people did not have any political or military power, it wasn’t enough for Judah to simply show his moral fiber. He needed to be a strong and mighty hero.  He needed to be the “lion” of Judah defeating the “ox” of Joseph.  These being the two animals to which the brothers will be compared by Jacob in his deathbed blessing.

But this interpretation also fascinates me as part of the narrative of the ego which I have been writing these past few weeks.  At first glance, I was unable to see a connection, but something Zornberg wrote put this into perspective.  She reminds the reader that classical midrashim (and other rabbinic texts) portray the young Joseph as someone whose actions actually destroy shalom.  We know from the Torah that he told everyone about his dreams that seemed to represent his brothers and father eventually bowing down to him. But, beyond that, midrashim claim that Joseph would take any opportunity he could to tell of his brothers’ various misdeeds to their father.  It wasn’t enough that he was already the favorite son.  He needed to insure that this would never change by telling tales, perhaps even lies, in order to discredit his brothers in their father’s eyes.

If this isn’t ego, then what is?  For the ego’s objective is to keep itself at the center by convincing us that we are the most important person in the universe.  The whole world revolves around us.  And if there is any chance that this façade may be destroyed, then the ego will do whatever it must in order to maintain its primacy.  It will do it’s best to convince us that others don’t matter.  This parallels how Joseph (in midrash) did all he could to insure that his father would remember that his brothers mattered much less than did he, for they were not worthwhile, honest individuals.

And now we jump ahead to the confrontation between Joseph and Judah as portrayed in midrash.  We know from the Torah that Judah has changed.  He is not the one willing to sell his brother into slavery.  He is now not only strong and sure of himself, but he realizes that there are forces bigger than he, and other people more important than he.  It is his duty to maintain or rebuild wholeness in his family, and in the world, by insuring that another beloved son of Jacob does not disappear.  He is the antithesis of ego.

But Joseph does not see this initially, for he is still ego. All he sees is a further opportunity to torture is brothers and assert his primacy.  The brothers are at a disadvantage at the start.  For they can only see part of the picture, as they do not know it is Joseph standing before them.  However, Joseph, as ego, sees the whole picture and takes full advantage of this.  It’s easy to say that he is just testing his brothers by toying with Benjamin.  Yet, it is never clear until the very moment of his revelation that he ever intended to do anything other than keep Benjamin, his only “full” brother, for himself.  For that is simply what he wanted.

In the Torah narrative, what changes his mind is the compassion exhibited by Judah.  In the midrash, it is the courage, brute strength and anger that forces him to release Benjamin.  Still, he does so not totally of his own volition.

When trying to negate the ego, both of these traits are necessary.  We must have compassion on ourselves.  After all, we are human and we have active egos.  And with compassion, even the ego can ultimately realize that we are all One.  But the compassion must be wedded to strength, because the ego doesn’t give up easily.

And so, if Joseph revealed himself as written in the Torah, it was because his compassion was further awakened by Judah's compassion. If the revelation took place as in the midrash, it is because he realized that he had no choice.  It was a last ditch effort to save face motivated by both fear and a little pride, but in reaction to Judah’s power.

As Judy Chicago wrote in her poem Mergers, the world will be  “Eden once again” when “compassion is wedded to power.”  We are prone to view one as negative and the other as positive.  However, as with everything, these are both labels that we (or the ego) create.  For neither is inherently good or bad. They simply are.  They are both necessary in life, and together they can overcome pride and ego.

When compassionate power (or powerful compassion) brings down the ego, it is like when Joseph stepped down from his place of power and separation in order to embrace his brothers and interconnection.  It is important to note that he is no longer focused just on Benjamin, the favored brother that was most like him (oh, how the ego would love that), but all of the brothers.  And this will lead to the ultimate reunion with Jacob.  This reunion is Joseph’s return to his source, the One.  It is the uniting of all the seemingly disparate parts into a spiritual whole.  This is his return to a place of true shalom, both peace and wholeness.  This is place from where we all come and to which we will all return if we walk the path with both compassion and strength together, one step at a time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 10

דמינו אלהים חסדך בקרב היכלך׃
We have compared (thought of) your overflowing love in the midst of your palace.

This verse is often translated simply as “we have thought of your loving kindness in the midst of your Temple.” However, the root of the phrase translated as “we thought” דמינו has its origins in the word דמה, which also means, “to compare.”  The word חסד (hesed) tends to be translated as “loving kindness” since the Coverdale Bible translation of 1535 used this term to translate the Latin misericordia.  However, I find that this translation almost trivializes the word. 

Loving-kindness is a wonderful thing.  It is something that we all desire to give and receive.  However, hesed is something much more profound.  In terms of human interaction, acts of hesed is one of the three pillars upon which the world stands, according to Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of our Fathers), a compilation of rabbinic ethical aphorisms completed around the year 200 CE.  Without hesed, Torah (learning/study) and avodah (worship) the ancient rabbis believed the world could not exist.

The essence of hesed is that it is performed for no reason other than it improves others lives and the world.  There is no ulterior motive to hesed.  Hence, only the purest form of love towards all motivates the actions.  Of course, as human beings, it is often difficult to exhibit true, complete hesed.  However, it is the primary modus operandi for God.  The kabbalists/mystics envisioned hesed as the overflowing love that emanates from God to humanity not in response to our actions, but simply because loving us is what God does.

In my translation, however, we are not merely thinking or pondering God’s hesed, we are comparing it.  But to what?  Perhaps we are comparing it to our own actions, which pale in comparison.  Perhaps we are stuck in the place where we feel nothing we do is quite good enough.  Everything or everyone else is better, holier, and more complete.  “Comparing mind” is one of the ego’s most popular traps.  For the more we compare ourselves to others, the more likely we are to feel inadequate.  And this sense of inadequacy often leads us to create a façade of excessive pride, which is ego, to cover what we believe to be the truth.  We must stop comparing ourselves and simply accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all.  If we don’t do this, then we cannot escape the ego’s trap.

How can we do this?  Well, it is simple if we remember we are in this moment.  The psalmist writes that we are in the midst of God’s palace.  We are not merely within the palace, but we are deep within its bowels.  We are surrounded by the glory and beauty of the Divine presence.  We are embraced by the flow of energy that we call God.  This is true of us in every moment, if we only open our soul and open our eyes to the reality.  If we remember this, then we can put things in perspective. 

Rather than comparing ourselves to others, when we acknowledge that we are within the palace, that we are part of the Divine, we can connect with true hesed.  We can connect with the Divine flow of love and compassion that connects all of humanity.  In realizing that this is flowing through us, as well as everyone else, we no longer need to make comparisons.  We can accept who we are.  We can accept each other as we are.  Once this occurs, we can then re-translate the verse in the more “conventional way” to read that we are thinking and paying attention to God’s hesed, rather than comparing ourselves to God or to other human beings.  When we do this, we are truly within the palace of the Divine, the walls of which are built moment by moment with human-Divine love, compassion and kindness.  All of which are rooted in ultimate hesed of God.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Joseph and His Brothers: A Complicated Reunion

Dear online Hevre (community):
I am sorry that was not able to write a new commentary in time for this Shabbat, due to a very busy work week.  So I am reposting an original midrashic story that I posted last year.  However, watch this coming week for a new commentary on this parashah/portion, as it is too important to igore (unless I decide to combine it w/ next week's post.  But that remains to be seen).
Shabbat Shalom,

This week's Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18), begins with the words "Vayigash aylav Yehudah...." "And Judah drew near" to Joseph to plead for his brother Benjamin's freedom. Judah volunteered to be taken as a slave in Benjamin's stead, so that his father Jacob would not 'lose' another son.

Judah's pleads with Joseph to keep him instead of his youngest broth Benjamin, who is the only other son of Joseph's mother, Rachel and, therefore, dearest to their father. Moved by Judah's appeal, Joseph decides at that moment to reveal himself to his brothers. Moved to tears, he orders his servants to leave them alone so that he may reveal his true identity. He told them not to feel guilty for having left him in the pit. It was God's plan that Joseph should end up in Egypt, where he could predict the famine, become Pharaoh's administrator, and save his own family from starvation. Joseph told his brothers to return to Jacob and bring the entire clan to Egypt where he will ensure their well being for the remaining years of the famine.

The entire Joseph narrative can be seen as an allegory for the journey of the ego, as represented by Joseph (see prior comentaries).
Ultimately, we must negate the ego in order to allow the soul to shine forth. In this week’s climax Joseph, faced with the reality of all the suffering that ego can bring to the world, realizes that he must unite all the pieces of himself in order to reconnect with the soul. He sends away his Egyptian servants, representative of his ego's "power," and standing there, stripped of all sense of pretense and self-importance, joins in a tearful reunion with all the disparate aspects of himself and the universe. This eventually results in the reuniting with Jacob, his father, his human source of life (along with his long-deceased mother). This reunion represents the oneness that we find when we unite ourselves with our divine source, the oneness of all existence.

This story of reconciliation is a moving one and brings us closer to the end of this chapter in Joseph's life. Yet, as always, there is another chapter yet to be lived. In sharing these thoughts on the reunion as representative of the journey of negating the ego, I would also like to share with you another Midrash I have written as a continuation of the Joseph saga.

Joseph's Choice

Joseph was seated on his throne as he watched his brothers preparing to leave. They had just enjoyed a sumptuous feast together. They enjoyed each others company as if they were old friends; they had no idea that they were dining with their brother, nor that he had been setting a trap for them this entire time.

As they prepared to leave Joseph sprang his trap. "Wait," he cried, "someone has stolen my goblet. The perpetrator shall be discovered and punished appropriately." As all 11 brothers denied any wrongdoing Joseph watched as his men searched their bags. When the goblet was found in the sack belonging to Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, Joseph could hear the jaws of the trap slam shut. "This one shall remain here as punishment for the wrong he has done me. The rest of you may return to your father."

Then something happened that Joseph never expected. Judah, the one who had been so instrumental in what happened to Joseph all those years ago, offered himself in Benjamin's stead.
He pleaded with Joseph to keep him in Egypt rather than see the only other son of Rachel, the child of Jacob's old age, remain captive, and thereby grieving – and possibly killing – their elderly father.

As Joseph stood there looking down on his brothers, he could feel hatred and triumph raging in his heart. Yet, somewhere deep inside he felt another emotion trying to emerge, though he did his best to keep it repressed. For he knew that this emotion was compassion, the source of forgiveness, and he did not want to forgive. Above all else, he wished nothing less than that. To see his brothers suffer as he did was his greatest desire. Only after that might he be willing to entertain any other idea.

As he felt hatred and compassion struggling within him he suddenly remember a dream that he had the night before.
And he realized, yet again, that it was a dream that held the key to his decision and his future.

In this dream, he imagined that he was standing, as he was now, above his brothers as they watched the goblet emerge from Benjamin's sack. In that moment, it appeared all the brothers turned as one towards Benjamin pointing an accusing finger at him. They encircled him like lions surrounding their prey, moving ever closer, tightening the circle, and preventing his escape.

Then, Joseph saw a deep pit in the earth just behind Benjamin. As the other brothers moved closer to Benjamin he continued to step back in fear, unaware of the danger behind him. As Benjamin stood almost at the edge of the pit, Joseph cried out "stop!" This the brothers did. What happened next astonished Joseph even more than it did his brothers. For Joseph descended the steps from his throne and pushed aside the brothers. He then stood in front of Benjamin and looked deeply into his eyes, not saying a word. All held their breath, wondering what he would do. He then reached out his hands and placed them on Benjamin's shoulders, all the while fixing his gaze on those familiar eyes. Their mother’s eyes.
Then, without warning, Joseph shoved Benjamin as hard as he could and listened to his scream as he fell into the pit. The brothers gasped as they witnessed history repeating itself.

The room was silent, but for the low sobs rising from the depths where Benjamin lay. Joseph looked down into the pit, but all he could see through the darkness was Benjamin’s eyes looking up at him through his tears. As he looked deeply into the well, into the eyes of Rachel's only other son, he suddenly heard a wail, a scream, unlike any he had heard before. This cry pierced his heart; it pierced the heavens. It was as if its grief could tear the world in two.

Then Joseph awoke. Yet, he was confused, for the scream still continued. He looked around his bedchamber, but could not find its source. He looked outside, but no one was there. He wanted to follow the sound of the cry, but he could not tell from which direction it came. It was as if the cry came from everywhere and from nowhere. It was as if it came from deep within Joseph, himself.

Then the wail changed to a deep sobbing, which gave way to the voice of a woman crying softly, "Joseph, my Joseph, what have you done to your brother? What have you done to yourself? To me? To us all?" Joseph knew that voice. Even though he had not heard it since he was a youth, it was a voice he could never forget.
The voice of his mother. Joseph remained silent.

Then Rachel’s voice spoke again. "Joseph, you must undo what you have done. You must release your brother from the pit. You must undo what has been done to him and to you." "But how? Why?” Joseph asked. “For all these years, I have never forgotten what my brothers did to me. Not a day has passed when I did not dream of setting things right. Now my opportunity has arrived. How can you deny me this justice, mother?"

"Justice!" replied Rachel, "this is not justice. This is hatred. This is revenge. This will eventually bring about the destruction of our family, our people and all humanity, if it does not cease." Joseph again remained silent, as his mother continued. "Joseph, look down into the pit. Look into the eyes of the only other child ever to emerge from my womb. "But the pit is not here," replied Joseph, "that was merely in my dream." "Look," Rachel commanded. Suddenly Joseph saw that there was indeed a pit in front of him, just as in the dream. Perhaps he had never really awoken? Perhaps he simply went from one dream into another? Or perhaps in that moment there was no separation between the world of dreams and the world of reality?

Joseph looked into the pit and saw his brother's eyes staring at him through the darkness. "Look deeply into those eyes," implored Rachel, "and tell me who you see." Joseph looked deeply for what seemed an eternity, then he spoke, "I see my brother…. I see you, my mother..…I see myself." "Exactly," exclaimed Rachel, "We are all one. And so are we one with your other brothers as well. Benjamin lying there in the pit is your family – a family that has tricked and deceived so many through the years. This is a family where twin brothers vied for parental blessings. A family where sisters strove with one another for a man's love and attention. A family where brothers plotted together to destroy the life of another brother. He is all of these, as are you.

"Continue looking into his eyes, my beloved son, and you will see yourself in him. Then look inside your soul and you will see him, as well as the rest of our family, in you. You must release him from his captivity. If you do not, neither you nor anyone in our family will every be free!"

Joseph suddenly looked up, breaking gaze with his brother, and cried into the air, "But why should I release him? You said it yourself. In our family it has always been brother against brother, sister against sister, parent against child. Perhaps it is seeking retribution that is truly the fulfillment of our destiny!"

"No!" cried Rachel, "I have come to you from my grave to tell you that this is not the way! I am here in Bethlehem alone. I was not buried with my family. I was not gathered to my ancestors, as is our custom. I was left out here alone by the side of the road where I died, as a reminder of what jealousy and struggle brings. I may have received more love from your father than did my sister, but in doing all I could to hold on to that love, I separated myself from her, and ultimately from everything and everyone.

"Yet, I know that Leah and I never truly hated one another, nor do you hate your brothers. We just were too narrow-minded and selfish to see that we were actually part of each other. Perhaps we understood this at the beginning. But as the competition for love and children continued we could each only see our individual suffering and pain. We were blind to the suffering of the other and everyone around us, just as your father had been blind to the suffering of his brother when he stole the blessing and the birthright.
“Do not be blind Joseph! See … not with your eyes, but with your soul. Listen … not with your ears, but with your heart. See the suffering of your brother; for it is your suffering, it is the suffering of all humanity. Hear his sobs, for they are your sobs. They are the sobs of all who desire simply to live in freedom and happiness and are prevented from doing so. Hear him and see him now, for he is the same as you, all those years ago. He is the same as those yet to be born who will also suffer so long as there is hatred in the world. Look … Listen … Feel … my beloved, and you will understand what I mean."

Slowly Joseph walked again to the edge of the pit and looked down at his younger brother. He had been but a mere child when Joseph was sold into slavery. He looked down and saw the eyes that were his and his mothers. As he continued to look, he began to feel the hatred well up within him once again. Then he remembered his mother's plea. He breathed in deeply and looked again, this time with his soul. He saw the pain and the fear in his brother. The longer he stood there, the more he felt the same pain and fear within himself. He wanted to run from it, but he did not. He knew he needed to stay there, still, quiet, and allow himself to feel these emotions, no matter how difficult it might be. Then he began to truly listen, for the first time, to the sounds coming from the well. They were not sounds of hatred, envy or jealousy. They were the sounds of pain and fear. They were the cries of someone who did not know if he would ever see sunlight again. They were the sounds of someone who believed that he would never again know happiness. They were the sounds that Joseph had made all those years ago, as he lay in the pit alone, prepared to die.

As he truly looked and listened, he could feel the pain, fear and longing deep within him. As he continued to pay attention to those feelings, he then sensed them slowly turning into compassion and mercy toward his brother, towards himself, toward his brothers and towards all in the world who are suffering. As the compassion and mercy grew, the pain, fear – and anger – diminished. It did not disappear totally, but it did disappear enough for him to begin to realize that his mother was right. The only way to break the cycle of anger, fear, jealousy and hatred that had plagued his family was to release Benjamin – and himself – from the pit. The only way to do his small part in bringing compassion and peace to humanity and the world was to show compassion towards Benjamin. But this was not enough. For he knew that he needed to show compassion and mercy not just to Benjamin, but also to all of his brothers. 
The past was past. This was a new day, a new moment. Joseph had the opportunity to change the present. Hopefully, the future would follow suit. But that would remain to be seen.

At that moment, Joseph realized that he was still in his throne room, surrounded by his brothers. He saw the youngest, Benjamin, not deep in a pit, but in the clutches of his men, prepared to be taken into slavery. He saw Judah, now with a look of bravery and compassion on his face, prepared to take Benjamin's place so that their father would not again experience a loss like he had when they sold Joseph into slavery. The faces were the same as all those years ago, yet they were completely different. As he looked at them, he felt love and compassion begin to well up inside him. He then had no doubt what he must do.

And so he ordered his guards to release Benjamin and then commanded them to leave him alone with the Canaanite men. He knew that he was about to reveal his true self to his brothers and that they were about to begin the process of which his mother had dreamed. His reunion with them, with himself, and ultimately with his father, was about to begin.

He had no idea how things would turn out. All he knew in that moment was what he must do in order to bring some peace and healing to his family and himself, thereby bringing a little more peace and wholeness to all of God's creation then, now and in the future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 9

           כאשר שמענו כן ראינו בעיר יהוה צבאות בעיר אלהינו אלהים יכוננה עד עולם סלה׃
As we have seen, so have we heard in the city of YHWH of hosts, in the city of our God; God shall establish for eternity. Selah.

When last we visited our psalm, the ‘self’ was in the process of being destroyed. That which we believed to be strong, secure, protecting us, is finally seen for what it is: a façade. We could not see that when we were in the land of the ego, as represented in the previous verse by the mysterious “ships of Tarshish” (see commentary from 11/19/10 on 48:8).  We can only see that when ego is diminished and we are able to connect to the divine energy flowing through all existence.  We can only experience the Truth in the “city of YHWH tzeva’ot, in the city of the God of Hosts.”

The psalmist uses two different names for God.  YHWH is the tetragrammton, or four-letter name of God.   This name was to be pronounced once a year by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.  It is the name of God that, since biblical times, we do not know how to pronounce.  Even if we did, we are forbidden to say it. And so, traditionally, most Jews us the inadequate (and patriarchal) substitute Adonai, or my Lord. 

Though we do not know how the name was pronounced, we do know from the combination of letters that it is a form of the verb “to be.”  The name connotes the essence of God’s existence.  As the medieval philosopher Yehuda ha’Levi wrote in his book Kuzari, YHWH is “God’s personal name.”  It is God’s essence, which can only be experienced by “those who have been brought in contact with angelic beings.”  He contrasts this with אלהים elohim, but which ha’Levi viewed as the abstract belief in the existence of divinity, but which does not refer to God. 

Maimonides (12th century) presents us with a slightly different dichotomy.  For him, elohim represents God’s acts, whereas YHWH is God’s true essence.  Though not identical to what ha’Levi wrote, YHWH again is seen as the true essence of God, which is unknowable.  Elohim represents, instead, something we can intuit or observe even if we have not “experienced” God.  That which is observable and comprehensible and that which is an essence beyond comprehension are both parts of our experience of God. 

In today’s verse, we read, “we have heard and we shall see in the city of…” This is followed by two references to God using the names YHWH tzeva’ot יהוה צבאות, usually translated as “Lord of hosts” and eloheinu אלהינו our God, which is a variation of the name elohim.  And so there seems to be a connection between the idea of seeing that which before was heard and the different cities, or realms, of the Divine. In other words, we have been told about God, but now we are going to see what God’s existence is.  It would seem that seeing is given preference over hearing, but I would read it differently.  It is as if the psalmist is saying that we are going to be able to experience God in all ways, and in the way that is best for each individual.  This is done by experiencing both of these divine identities, as explained above. 

As the ego is being destroyed and the self negated, we are finally able to both hear and see our connection to the God.  We are not dwelling in the realm of the theoretical, philosophical presence of God (elohim), but also the essence of God (YHWH). We are now able to both hear and see on a deep level using our soul and spirit, not simply our ears and eyes. 

In the phrase YHWH tzeva’ot, God of hosts, the tzeva’ot is usually understood as the ‘host of angels.’  And so, as ha’Levi wrote, the way we come to know the essence of God is through contact with angelic beings.

In Jewish tradition, one way to view angels is as messengers representing God’s attributes.  Mercy, truth, love, and even death, each has an angel, not to mention every other quality or act attributed to God.  And so, YHWH tzeva’ot is the essence of God as represented by these divine attributes.  The way we come to truly “see” to experience God’s essence by experiencing the divine attributes, as they are made manifest by human action.  By experiencing love, compassion, mercy, and even death, in the human realm, we come to know the essence of the Divine.  And by experiencing these emotions and participating in these actions ourselves, we allow others to know God as well. 

In the world where ego and self are primary, we may think we know or connect with God, but what we believe to be God is actually the ego in disguise. It is an ersatz God at our beck and call in order to meet our needs and desires.   When the ego starts to disintegrate, we can then begin to experience God in “the city of elohim.”  We begin to understand that there is a Divine Presence in the universe that is greater than the self.  But we are only part way there.  It is only when the ego and self are totally negated that we can finally connect with God’s essence through the divine actions of human beings, including what we formerly viewed as our “self.”

It is then that we are also dwelling in the city of YHWH tzeva’ot.  This city or realm is eternal, for God’s true essence is eternal.  However, our experience of it may not be so.  For we know too well that the self, though seemingly destroyed, still exists.  To borrow a phrase, the self/ego can be neither created nor destroyed.  For better or worse, it is part of us. It is a part of human existence.  We may negate it, but it will try to rebuild and renew itself.  And on some level, it will most likely succeed. At least for a while.

And so, the struggle is ongoing and cyclical.  What enables us to continue is the knowledge deep within that there is something beyond the self.  When we remember that God’s true essence is eternal and that the “city of God” – the realm where we are beyond ego and connected to the One, is waiting for us to enter it once again.  We simply need to do the spiritual work necessary to break down the self and the ego yet again.

Selah.  We are not sure what this word means.  However, we believe it was a musical notation for the Levites, the priestly orchestra and choir.   It represents some kind of a pause.

And so, the journey is not over.  We are simply taking a moment to pause.  We take time to experience the essence of God in this moment.  We don’t know what the next moment will bring.  The ego may quickly spring back into action and we may forget all that we now know and experience.  And so let us acknowledge what we are experiencing now. Selah, let us celebrate this moment.  Selah, let us pause.  Selah, let us then take the next step in our journey.

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