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Monday, November 29, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 8

ברוח קדים שברת אניות תרשיש   
With an east wind you have shattered ships of Tarshish.

At first glance this seemed to be another one of those verses that I would have difficulty finding anything interesting to write about.   After all, last week I wrote about the necessity of experiencing pain in our lives and how we can grow spiritual if we face, rather than run away, from it.  For experiencing pain, even intense pain, can eventually bring about a spiritual rebirth.  Linking these ideas with a verse about ships of Tarshish was not something that came naturally.  But those are always the most challenging verses.

What we know about these mysterious ships from various biblical sources, such as the 2nd Chronicles and Isaiah, is that they were used for along voyages.  These boats would travel to Tarshish and bring back gold, jewels and other riches.  It would seem that the verse is pointing to the power of God to shatter even the strongest of ships, regardless of what their seemingly precious cargo might be.  The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra wrote that “the psalmist compares the pain that shall take hold upon them to an east wind in the sea, which breaks the ships; for by Tarshish is meant… the sea in general.”  Biblical scholars cannot agree on the location of Tarshish, except that it is some distance from the land of Israel.  So the idea of “ships of Tarshish” meaning any ship sturdy enough for long distance voyages seems  reasonable.

Throughout the Bible, and the Torah specifically, an east wind represents divine power and often destructive force.  An east wind brought the locusts upon the land of Egypt in the 10 plagues, it split the Sea of Reeds for the Israelites, and also caused the seven healthy stalks of grain to wither and die in Pharoah’s dream, which Joseph later interpreted.

Keeping all this in mind, the verse is a logical, albeit allegorical, extension of the previous verse. For in that verse, we read of the pain that we all experience in our lives.  This pain seemingly comes from nowhere, just like a sudden, strong wind might, and leaves us writhing on the ground.  But, as I wrote above, the pain eventually leads us to rebirth, if we allow.

This allegorical verse can be seen as a mirror image of the prior.  For in this verse we read of a wind from God (again, coming out of nowhere, one might imagine) wreaking destruction on ships that may have seemed to be indestructible. 

Reading this verse as an extension of the last, it would seem to imply that the destruction and subsequent pain actually comes from God.  It is God who smashes the ships that give us protection, brings us to our knees, leaves us writhing in pain and, eventually, gives us the strength to be reborn.

I don’t usually like the images of a destructive or vengeful God.  It doesn’t fit I with my idea of what God is.  However, in this interpretation it is not vengeance, hate or a desire for destruction that is the root of God’s actions.  Rather, it is the desire to smash illusion of invincibility and self-sufficiency, aka the ego (surprise!).  We are not each our own lone ship floating on the ocean, able to travel long journeys on our own with us tucked away safely inside and away from the world.  By tearing apart the protective vessels we built for our “selves” to keep us afloat, we are left floundering in the sea.  We have two choices, we can drown or we can grab on to what is left of our ship and make our way back to shore.  Clearly, the latter is preferable.  But then once we get back to shore, once we survive the devastation, we must then decide if we are going to simply build another ship and go back to our lone journey or if we are going to instead live on land, connected to others and the world around us. 

If you take issue with this anthropomorphic the image of a God that actually causes all this to happen there is another way to look at this verse.  For ultimately,  what destroys our ships and forces us to return to shore, to life,  is the realization that we need each other.  Only through connection, through oneness, can we find wholeness.  And so, on some deep level, it is that realization within us that comes to the surface, begins the process of wreaking havoc on the ego and destroys the ship of isolation it has built around us.

Therefore, we must remember to recognize the East Wind in all of our lives that catches us unaware.  We must recognize it not in order to hide or run from it or to fight against it.  Rather, we must simply pay attention, let go and allow it to do it’s work; we must allow it to destroy that which keeps us separated, thinking that we are strong enough on our own.  Only then can we return to the One, which is found through our connections to others and the world around us.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Parshat Va'yeishev: Casting Our Ego Into the Pit

This week's parashah/portion is Va’yeishev (Genesis/Bereshit 37:1-40:23).  It tells the story of Joseph's growth from adolescence to adulthood.  At the beginning of the parashah, Jacob is living in Canaan with his twelve sons and one daughter. Born when Jacob was elderly, and to his favored wife Rachel, his father dotes upon Joseph. Jacob demonstrates his preference by presenting Joseph with a beautiful coat of many colors. The other brothers are already jealous of Joseph, but this coat, and what it represents, further fuels their jealousy and hatred.

The Torah says that Joseph's brothers hated him so much, that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:4). But Joseph really didn’t help matters.
  For in addition to his coat, Joseph possessed a great ego. He reported to his father whenever his brothers misbehaved. He told his family about his dreams which seemed to suggest that the members of his family would one day bow down to him. Between how he acts and what he shares with them, Joseph only intensifies his brothers' feelings toward him.

One day, Joseph is sent by his father to check on his brothers as they tended the flocks in the field.  On his way to find them, he encounters a stranger who asks him "what do you want?" He says that he seeking his brothers and the stranger tells him where they might be.  As they see Joseph approach, the brothers decide to kill him. Reuben, the oldest, asks the others not to kill him, but instead, to throw Joseph into a pit. When Joseph arrives, his brothers strip him of his coat, throw him in the pit, and dip the coat in blood to present to their father. Jacob assumes from the bloody coat that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. He is inconsolable. Reuben later decides to return to the pit to rescue his younger brother only to find that Joseph has been sold to traveling merchants and taken away.

Joseph is then taken to Egypt and purchased as a slave by Potiphar, the highest-ranking officer of Pharaoh. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his household and, with God's help, he manages it excellently. Potiphar's wife then tries to seduce Joseph, but he refuses. In anger, she lies to her husband and accuses Joseph of attempting to force himself on her. Potiphar then has Joseph thrown in prison.

Even in jail, Joseph seems to be blessed.
 He is put in charge of the other prisoners, including two of Pharaoh's former servants. One night both of these men have dreams, which, again with God's help, Joseph interprets. Joseph's predictions, which are based on these dreams, come true. Pharaoh's former baker is put to death and the cup bearer is returned to his old job. Joseph asks the cup bearer to remember him so that he too can be freed from jail. The cup bearer quickly forgets until much later.

In reading this narrative, I am drawn to the idea (based, I believe on a principle of Freudian dream analysis) that each character in the story can be seen as representing an aspect of each of us.
  In this way, the story of Joseph is our story not only as a people, but also as individuals.

Using this approach, I clearly see Joseph representing the ego in all of its self-centered glory.  Joseph sees himself as the center of the universe, just as the ego within each of us seeks to convince us that we are indeed the center of the world.  And how we are drawn to believing the ego's message!  How often we are tempted to clothe ourselves in the equivalent of a coat of many colors.
  A façade that show others and us our individual glory and status!  How often we are also tempted to show others how much better we are, just as Joseph does through the recounting of his dreams to father and brothers.

Our ego has taught us well how to protect it, for it knows that it's existence is dependent on our belief that it is real.  Just as Jacob protects, coddles and adorns Joseph, so do we shield, nurse and polish our egos.  As Joseph and Jacob dwell in the protected valley of Hebron while the brothers are out working in the open fields of Shekhem, we keep our egos hidden and protected within, so as not to be subject to attack from the forces that seek its ultimate destruction.

When Jacob finally sends Joseph to seek out his brothers, it is a signal that the
status quo is about to shift.  Yet, Jacob does this subtly, simply asking Joseph to seek out the "shalom" of his brothers.  This is strange request, considering that his brothers have known little shalom/peace – especially when it comes to their relationship with Joseph.   However, the journey upon which Joseph is sent is the journey of discovering that peace … which ultimately is also Jacob's peace … and our peace.  Little does he know that this peace can only be achieved through him being cast into the depths of the pit of suffering.

Joseph leaves the protection of his father and begins his journey by walking into the emptiness of the wilderness in search of his brothers.  There he encounters a stranger (viewed by the classic commentators as an angel/messenger of God). The stranger does not ask him "Where are you going?" but rather,” What do you want?"  Joseph responds that he seeks his brothers and asks where they might be tending their flocks.  The stranger tells him that they have left and that he overheard them saying, "Let us go to Dothan."

The Hassidic Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotzk comments that "the angel taught Joseph here, that whenever he finds himself wandering on life's paths, when his soul weeps inside him from despair and doubt, he should remember first to become clear about what he really wants and years for.  Then he will be able to return to his task; his vision and his path now will be the same."

And what is it that Joseph yearns for? As pure ego, he yearns for nothing more than his self-aggrandizement.  As an extension of his father (an egotist in his own right, judging from his younger days!), he is on a journey seeking the Shalom/Peace of his brothers.  He is seeking, as I believe we all are, a reunion with all the disparate parts within that makes us whole (shelaimah) and at peace (shalom).  The brothers, who in a few moments will try to kill their brother, represent those forces within each of us that we often ignore (as Jacob seemed to ignore them), yet which can eventually bring about salvation.  They can represent the more assertive, even aggressive, parts within us that will do anything to achieve their goal.  Yet, as shepherds, they also represent the tenderness, caring and compassion within us.  These brothers, each described later as unique in his own right, represent the disparate forces from within that.
   These various forces and attributes may seem at odds with each other.  But they join to achieve the same goal.  They realize that the only way to achieve peace and wholeness is by sublimating the ego so that we can realize that we are all a part of the One of the Universe.

Therefore, Joseph must be cast down into the pit. The ego must be sublimated in order for the process to begin.  Creating a state of upheaval, pain and uncertainty must negate the status quo.
  The coat given to him by Jacob is torn from him, he is thrown into the pit and then Jacob is put in a state of pain an upheaval when he believes Joseph to be dead.

Our sense security and even complacency must be torn from us, just as Josephs' coat is torn from him. Yet, even after all that occurs, we watch Joseph, the ego, rise again to a position of prominence in the house of Potiphar.  Yet that episode also ends with him being cast once again into prison.  For the ego does not want to give up its life – it's hold over us – without putting up a fight!

The ultimate reunion of brothers with father, the union of all parts of us within the One will not take place until three weeks from now.  In the meantime, we will watch as Joseph, our collective ego, continues to rise and fall as he wanders on the paths of his journey until he – until we –finally discover the answer to the question of the Divine messenger "what are you looking for?"  For, as Reb Menachem Mendl said, we must eventually come to the place where our vision and our path are one. At that moment, we will come to realize that each and every step of the path is acknowledging and feeling deep within that I am not me and you are not you, but we are all one within the Divine flow of the universe that we call God.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Parshat Vayishlakh: Brothers Reunite

This week's parashah is Vayishlakh (Bereshit/Genesis 32:4-36:43).  In last week's parashah Jacob struggled through the night with the stranger/man/angel and, just as the sun was about to rise, he exacted a blessing and also had his name changed from Ya'akov/Jacob, from the Hebrew for "heel,"to Yisrael/Israel (though he will be referred to by both names in the remaining chapters of Genesis), the one who struggled with beings Divine and human.  Though, not before the stranger pulls his hip out of it's socket, leaving Jacob injured and limping. See last week's commentary for a more detailed description.

As Jacob struggled with the stranger, we also know that his twin brother Esau was preparing to meet him later that day.  However, the Torah tells us nothing about what might have been going through his mind as he prepares to meet the brother who took both the blessing and the birthright that had belonged to him as the first born child.

Last week I posted a three part poem The Blessings and Curses of Brothers as a commentary based on the last two parshiot/portions within which the Jacob-Esau narrative unfolded. This week's commentary is the final portion of that poem that begins as the sun is rising on the new day after Jacob's wrestling match.

Shabbat Shalom,


The Blessings and Curses of Brothers


the two brothers face the sunrise
preparing to face each other
      one wrenched from the past
feels excruciating pain
            wrestled into the present
a new man    yet not
the heal grabber also the struggler
hasn't that always been the case
he is both and neither

the two brothers face the sunrise
     sadness overwhelming the other
releasing dreams of a future never to be
saved from the demons
of a past he must surrender
if he is to enter
along with his brother
 the present
   the moment
    the potential
for wholeness    healing
   holiness      reconciliation
with self and other

the sun reaches its zenith
shadows now hidden
within bodies
only light can be seen
 pure  healing  holy

at that moment
        in this moment
brothers meet each other
looking into mirror eyes
  each        other
 father      mother
    fear     hope

     seeing    seizing
the moment      each other
all that is within them
releasing what was
what could have been
what will never be
in this place    this moment
       within them
        all is right
     all is what it is
in the light of the divine
they both see the truth
uncluttered unclouded by
parents  past  hatred  jealousy  dreams

blessing and birthright
no longer matter
what matters is them
what matters is now
the union of two wholes
not halves
     tears flowing
time passes
      time stands still
they cannot let go
yet they must
      release each other
who is no longer other
the time has come
to take up the journey anew
alone together 
into the unknown
each going his own way

each leaves
realizing in that moment
they have finally received
the true blessing and birthright
freedom  gratitude    forgiveness 
    now guiding each life

the journey
has not been
will not be 
should not be

struggle has brought these two
to the place they longed for

   unknown to both of them
where they are now
in the present moment
each carrying with them
the dreams and fears of their parents
the source of their strife
finally banished      healed
so they can become one
true brothers
at last

Monday, November 15, 2010

Psalm for Monday. Psalm 48, verse 7

רעדה אחזתם שם חיל כיולדה
7. Trembling seized them there, an anguish like that of giving birth.

Faced with something unexpected in the last verse, our human instinct is to flee.  But in fleeing the uncertain we also often flee from that which can actually provide us with support: God and community.  Guided by the ego and the need for self-preservation, we run alone away  from some unseen enemy.  

Suddenly, we begin to shake uncontrollably.  We are grasped, not by just shock and surprise, but by fear.  We don't know what to do.  We stop running and fall to the ground writhing in pain like one about to give birth.  That is the powerful image found in this verse.  And the choice of words the psalmist used is quite telling.

רעדה Ra'adah is translated in some places as fear.  But it's root is not the word for fear.  Rather, the word refers to the uncontrollable trembling that can come when fear overtakes us.   אחזתם Ahazatam comes from the word meaning to seize, take hold or take possession.  This trembling in response to  an overwhelming sense of fear isn't simply felt or experienced.  Instead, it is as if an outside force has grabbed us and is taking control of us.  Like some kind of demonic possession, the trembling invades every aspect of our being - body and soul.  And this brings about pain so intensely felt, that it can only be likened to the pains of childbirth.

As an aside, it fascinated me that many of the translations render the final phrase as "like a woman in childbirth."  To translate the verse this way brings in a sexist dimension, as it implies that this trembling in pain is something that is seen as "feminine."  A man would not experience it this way.  At least that's my reading, especially since the word 'woman' is nowhere to be found in the text.

Though obviously, childbirth can only be experienced by a woman, this metaphor transcends any kind of gender or sexual identity or stereotype.  It is something universal.  It is something we all experience at one time or another.  A sense of facing the unknown and feeling such terror that we cannot move.  It's as if something has taken hold of us and we are frozen where we are, trembling with fear.  

But does this experience usually bring about the kind of pain of which the psalmist speaks?  Is it necessary to shift the image from that of surprise, shock and fear to that of the pains of childbirth?  Isn't this a bit hyperbolic?  Maybe not.

For perhaps the psalmist is telling us that we need to go to this place of pain.  If this kind of fear does not cause us pain, then we aren't really allowing ourselves to experience it.  We are still running from it.  

If we acknowledge the reality of what has seized us.  If we stop in our tracks and experience it, we can then truly feel the fear as well as the pain caused by the sense of separation from any sense of oneness and connection with God and the universe.  We are utterly alone.  No one is there with us.  Our ego has done it's job and convinced us that we can do it alone.  But we cannot. No one really can.  And it is this realization that - if we allow ourselves to truly experience it - can metaphorically or actually throw us to the ground writhing in pain.

But it is necessary pain.   It is pain that awakens us to the truth of the moment.  It is pain that makes us realize that we have been tricked by the ego again.  And so we must banish it.  And in banishing the ego and its tricks, it is as if we are not only being born anew, but we are giving birth to a new person.  For ultimately this is not a negative or pessimistic verse.  For it does not speak of the pains of death or devastation, but the pains of childbirth. And those pains ultimately bring new life into the world.

It would be nice if we didn't need to experience fear and pain in order to awaken the essential need for connection to that which links together the entire universe.  But, as my teacher R. Sheila Weinberg teaches "pain is necessary, suffering is optional".   And the pain described above can easily cross the boundary into suffering if we try to ignore it or continue to run away from it.  But if we stop our running and allow ourselves to feel the pain, it will not turn into suffering.  We can then move past it and to a place of joy and rebirth.  A place where we are at one with the Divine and the Universe and where we can bring to life the words of another psalm: "may those who sow in tears reap in joy (Ps. 126:5)."  Let it be so for us all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Parshat Va'yetze: Blessings and Curses of Brothers

Last week's parashah was Toldot (see previous post) in which we read of the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau, the beginning of their rivalry, the birthright and blessing being taken (stolen) from Esau by Jacob and ending with Jacob fleeing for his life.

This week's parashah/portion is Va'yetze (Genesis/Bereshit 28:10-32:3). It includes within it the well-known story of Jacob's dream. After fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob finds a place to rest and while sleeping he has a dream. In this dream he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. On this ladder angels are ascending and descending; God is "standing" on the ladder. God promises Jacob that he will indeed become a great nation and that his descendants will be blessed. Upon awakening Jacob proclaims that had he realized the awesomeness of the place he would not have gone to sleep for "God was in this place and I did not know it." He then names the place Bet El, the house of God.

Next week's parashah is Vayishlakh (Bereshit/Genesis 32:4-36:4) in which Jacob prepares to be reunited with his brother Esau. As Jacob waits for the reunion and ponders whether his brother still wishes to kill him, he encounters a stranger in the darkness besides the river Jabok. They wrestle all night long, with neither of them the clear victor. As the sun begins to rise, the stranger realizes that he is unable to prevail over Jacob, he then wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket and tells him that he must leave for the sun is rising. Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger. The stranger asks Jacob his name. After Jacob responds, the stranger tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but he will instead be known as Israel, for he has struggled with beings divine and human (Yisrael, meaning "one who has struggled with God"). Then Jacob asks the stranger his name, to which he replies, "why do you ask my name?" The stranger then disappears and Jacob walks away, limping, to meet his brother Esau.

This week's commentary is a three-part poem based on the first two parshiot and the struggle of the two to reconcile and somehow become one again.  Next week I will print the fourth and final part of the poem when the brothers meet again.

Shabbat Shalom,


the blessings and curses of brothers


born together
           always apart
yearning for self
          for other
 God’s favor

one against one
two in one
from the start
they were destined
they were doomed

hand over heal
younger over elder
mother's love over father's longing

one comforting mother with
            the compassion she needs
one comforting father with
            the strength for which he longs

blessing is sought
blessing is given
at what cost

father's blindness
     begets mother's deception
son's complicity
blessing and birthright
both gone
one is left
with nothing
but anger
passion for retribution
never to be achieved


the two are one
the same     yet not
    both leave
seeking brides
  seeking partners
    seeking to continue
       the family
       the heritage
       the legacy
the treachery

all the while
god watches and waits
        smiling slyly
    as they act out
the divine drama
the divine comedy
of life

mother's son marries
mother's daughters
father's son marries
daughter of the other son
            the other forgotten one
            the other side
each following his own path
which is truly
the desired one

one works
enslaved to passion
love  lust  desire
for her
      he gets more
than he bargained for

for him   over him
    the chosen one
sisters fight
     long for sons
to please him

will he ever be pleased
will he ever be at peace
as long as the other is out there
searching  seeking  seething
can he rejoice without peace
      without finding
the love of his brother

that would be worth
all his children
if it can ever be

waiting years
he watches
      as wives compete
    concubines at their side
  competition of conception
righteous rivalry

children are born
their father still is not whole
not fully present
      to life
    until he can reunite
with his other half
   bringing unity to the a whole
that has never truly

angels climbing ladders
do nothing    to comfort him
         any more
than wives bearing children
     surrounded by beings
     human and divine
     he is still
never at one

without warning
the day arrives
for which he has longed

he is coming
            the other one
      the other half
will divine union finally occur
or will they tear each other apart
creating further division
no one  can repair

fear grips
not knowing
fear grips
the other

that evening
one wrestles
with the other
      the self
   the divine
through the night
never winning
   never losing
 simply struggling
simply living

the other struggles too
     with demons
within and without
    the hatred of other and self
       of mother and father
the desire for power and reconciliation
  the memory of what was
the dream of what could be
  inert struggle
preventing him from moving ahead
      to meet
the one
    who is both
        other and the same 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Parshat Toldot: Beyond Good and Evil

This week’s parashah/portion is Toldot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It tells the story of the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Rebecca.  We know that the descendents of Jacob, whose name is later changed to Israel, who are to become the Jewish people.  And the Torah teaches that Esau’s children are to become the Moabites, one of Israel’s foes during the years of wandering in the desert.

The stage is set for the rivalry between two nations/brothers in this week’s parashah: “And the Eternal said to her (Rebecca), ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger’ (Bereshit/Genesis 25:23).”

When Rebecca gives birth to her sons, we read: “And the first one emerged ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair, and they named him Esau. And afterwards, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Esau's heel, and he named him Yaakov/Jacob (derived from the Hebrew word for heel) (Bereshit 25: 25-26).”

It is clear from the text that there is going to be sibling rivalry and that Jacob is to be the preferred son. However, as they grow, it is not so simple.  For Esau, who is described as a hunter and man of the fields, is favored by Isaac while Jacob, for reasons not clearly stated in the Torah, is favored by Rebecca.  The parashah ends with a ravenous Esau, returning from a day of hunting, agreeing to trade his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentils.”

Throughout the Torah, even though Jacob continues to be favored because of who he is to become, Esau does not appear to be a bad person in any way.  He is different than his brother Jacob, surely. And in the story above, he certainly made a rash, unwise decision, but he is kind to and beloved by his father, our patriarch, Isaac.

Nevertheless, in the rabbinic tradition Esau comes to represent, and indeed to become himself, the ultimate enemy of Jacob/Israel and his descendents.  I will just cite a few examples from the commentary of Rashi (France, 11th cent.), perhaps the most well known of the rabbinic commentators.

When the text states that Esau is born “reddish” or “ruddy,” due to his red hair, Rashi simply cites an older midrash: “that is a sign that he will be a person who sheds blood (Gen. Rabbah 63:8).”

When he is described as a hunter Rashi comments: “[He knew how] to trap and to deceive his father with his mouth …(Tanhuma, Toldot 8).”

Finally, when Esau appeals to Jacob for food after returning from a day in the fields, and Jacob offers to feed him in exchange for his birthright, Esau cries out: “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright? (Gen. 25:32). Rashi creates a lengthy dialogue between the brothers in which Jacob tells Esau that the birthright means he will be required to do service to God.  The service involves numerous prohibitions and Esau and his descendents would be liable for the death penalty if they were not carried out properly.  Esau then replies, “[if] I am going to die because of it…why should I want it?”  He then hands over his birthright to Esau.

In reviewing these comments, we see an Esau who is murderous, deceitful and scorns his birthright.  Yet, I we know that it is Jacob who will eventually deceive his own father in order to receive the blessing that is rightfully Esau’s, in addition to the birthright!  And even in the midrash above, Jacob is seen as deceiving in order to get what he wants.

The not-so-subtle demonization of Esau continues through the generation as others comment on the narrative. But why?  If Esau is beloved by Isaac, just as Jacob is beloved by Rachel, why can’t the rabbis portray him in a better light, just as he is in the Torah?

Rashi’s commentary above, which represents their struggle in the womb as the representing the struggle between two nations, sheds light on this. For Rashi says “they will not be equal in greatness: when one rises, the other will fall…” The rabbis relate this to historical events when Israel was powerful and when Israel was defeated.  Eventually, this dichotomy reaches its peak when the rabbis begin to equate Esau with Rome, the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people and of Jewish power.

We could simply continue to look at this story as a microcosm of the eventual struggles of the People of Israel with their various enemies ending with the decimation of Judah and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.  This is what the rabbis did. However, there is another struggle that can be read into this text. 

We must remember that Jacob and Esau are twins. They are two children who are linked and dependent on one another in the womb, but who must then seek to separate and differentiate themselves once in the world.  Living in the world of dichotomies, (see my commentary from October 7, 2010) the rabbis divide the two brothers into representing well and evil. They do the same with our souls.  For tradition teaches that we have a yetzer ha’ra/inclination to evil and a yetzer tov/inclination to good.  These two forces, like Jacob and Esau in the womb, are constantly struggling with each other.  Yet, it is clear that they also need each other.  For our inclination to good is spurred on by the desire to overcome the inclination to do evil.  Both are necessary, both are very real and both must be kept in check.  For, as with the commentary above, when one falls the other will rise.

So often, we bring suffering into our lives by rejecting the yetzer ha’ra as something about which we should be ashamed and wish to banish.  And yet, it not called our “evil self” or simply “evil” within us.  It is an inclination.  It is the direction in which our mind goes when we feel attacked, afraid, insecure, hurt or when we feel that we are lacking something.  All of these emotions can lead us to direct our heart, our souls, toward doing that which we label as evil.  But that’s when our inclination to good, our yetzer tov, springs into action.

Even though I believe this represents a truth of human existence, I have really fallen into the rabbis’ dichotomous trap by using these labels.  After all, what is good?  What is evil?  Rather than calling the inclination “evil,” I would rather look at it as the inclination to isolate and withdraw. It is the inclination that cuts us off from others and seeks to convince us that we are the only thing that matters, so we can do what we want to others.  It is what the ego directs us to do. 

In contrast, what we refer to as “Good” is what draws us towards others, towards a sense of connection, towards compassion and towards unity the Divine within all.

In two more weeks we will read of Jacob wrestling with a stranger (usually viewed as an angel) through the night and having his name changed to Israel, meaning “one who has struggled with the Divine.”  One way to look at this is as representing the struggle that we all have between these inclinations that we judgmentally label as good and evil.  It is only when we stop living in this dichotomy and realize that what we all have within an inclination life.  And that this inclination manifests itself in numerous ways, which can also lead us towards struggle and conflict within ourselves and with others. 

Esau and Jacob struggled within their mother’s womb to see who would emerge first, who would be the favored, the victor.  Yet, regardless of who emerged first, when they entered the world neither was inherently good or bad, as Rashi and the rabbis teach. Rather, each was a tabula rasa. Each was a soul, a living being, with infinite potential, as are we all.  

How their family and the world around them treated them, plus how they viewed and judged themselves, eventually created their labels.  And centuries later, the rabbis continued to label them and to use them as an example of the human desire to dichotomize, to see the world as black and white, and to turn them into archetypes that reflect this skewed view through which they (we?) see the world.

So, as we continue to read the story of Jacob and Esau, let us simply look at it with equanimity.  As we continue to write and read the story of our lives and our world, let us do the same.  Labeling, splitting, dichotomizing does no one any good.  It may be an inclination within all of us, but THAT is the inclination that we must acknowledge and then move beyond. 

This part of the narrative ends with the line “…and Esau scorned his birthright (Gen. 25:34).”  Perhaps that is what we all must do.  We must all scorn and abandon the desire to judge and dichotomize the world.  It is clearly something that has been passed down to us through the generations.  Esau exchanged his birthright for physical nourishment, which could certainly seem an impulsive and rash move.   Let us, instead, thoughtfully and carefully work to exchange our “birthright” of judging and splitting the world, which brings about suffering and isolation, for the spiritual nourishment that comes from realizing that the truth is much more complex and nuanced, but that it will lead us instead to joy and unity.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Psalm Commentaries Have Returned: Psalm 48

As some of you may remember, back in the spring I began commenting on the seven psalms that have traditionally been designated as "psalm for the day."  Back then, I was writing on one verse per day.  I made it through quite a few verses, but then the daily writing, coupled with many major changes in my life, got to be a little too much.  And so I dropped the project with the hope that I would continue at some point.  And so that point has arrived.

However, given the constraints on my time I have decided to take one psalm at a time and to try my best to write a commentary on the next verse on the day dedicated to that psalm.  I begin today with Psalm 48, the Psalm for Monday.  I had left off at verse 6 (verse 5 in most Christian translations) back in the spring.  So I am going to comment on verse 6 today and then next Monday, God willing, I will continue with verse 7.  The approach I have taken is to look at each verse on its own, as much as possible.  Certainly the verses, and my commentary, build on what has come before.  However, since mindfulness is about living in the present moment and not in the future (or the past) I try my best not to worry about what the next verse will be and whether or not my commentary will fit with it.  That adds a little excitement to the process for me, as I discuss in this week's commentary.

In addition, since I have not been writing these in many months, I will first reprint my commentaries on verses 1-5 and then continue with verse 6.  As always, commentaries and responses are always welcome!


Psalm 48 – The Psalm for Monday

1. A Song; a Psalm of the sons of Korah

Normally, if a psalm begins "A Psalm of ...." I would simply add vs. 2 and comment on both.  However, the phrase "a psalm of the sons of Korah" struck me.  Thirteen of the 150 psalms are attributed to b'nei Korah .  Korah was the cousin of Moses, from the tribe of Levi, who led a brief rebellion against Moses and was swallowed up by the earth as a consequence.  How is it that his descendants became not only sacred musicians, as were all the Levites, but sacred composers as well?

As Rabbi Perry Netter points out in his commentary on the Torah portion named Korah, "The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms...Korah is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope."

The sons who wrote the psalm lived generations after their namesake.  The fact that they were still very much a part of the priestly Levite tribe reminds us that the sins of the parents are not visited upon the children (or at least not for long) in the Biblical tradition.  Yet, how many of us carry the "sins" of our parents within us – and beyond - because we are unwilling to let go.  Each of our parents has acted in ways that have angered us.  Perhaps more frequently than we would have liked.  And those of us who are parents have angered or hurt our own children more times than we would like to admit.  We have made mistakes, sometimes serious ones.  I know I have.
And yet, as mindfulness teaches, we must live in the present moment and not in the past. 

Yes, we must seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed.  But it also our obligation to accept the amends made by parents or other who have hurt us when offered sincerely.  And if those who have hurt us do not acknowledge that they have done wrong, or do not seek to apologize, then we owe it to let go of the anger that will simply continue to gnaw at us, or even to  simply forgive them for being human.

Korah believed he was at least as holy, if not holier, than his cousin Moses and so he deserved the mantle of leadership as much as his cousin.  His hubris and ego brought violence and destruction to himself and the community.  The sons of Korah believed that they were holy because we all are holy, we are all a part of the divine.  And so they provided song, joy and comfort to the community and to themselves. Hence they are, as Rabbi Netter wrote, a "symbol of hope."  Not the hope for a future of which we can know nothing in this moment.  But hope simply as a recognition that life continues and things change from moment to moment.  Hope and belief that divinity can be found in each person and in each moment. If not now, then perhaps in the next. Hope that comes from letting go of past hurts and living in the presence.  Hope that makes us want to sing!

2. Great is the Eternal, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, God's holy mountain.

Here the psalmist is praising God in the city of "our God, God's holy mountain."  The city referred to here is Jerusalem.  The mountain then, is Mount Zion/Mount Moriah. 

However, I would like to view this psalm as referring not to the physical Jerusalem, over which wars have been fought for generations up until this very day.  Rather, I see it as referring to the "heavenly Jerusalem."  According to an ancient tradition, expounded upon in the Kabbalah/ mystical tradition, there is a heavenly Jerusalem that is linked to the earthly Jerusalem.  This heavenly Jerusalem is seen as the dwelling place of the Shekhinah, or indwelling Divine presence.  The Shekhinah is also viewed in Kabbalah as the feminine aspect of God as well the emanation of God with which human beings have the most direct and intimate contact.

As opposed to the earthly Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem is devoid of politics.  It is not a geographical location.  It is simply the place where the Shekhinah dwells.  In that place it is easy to praise God's greatness, because it is a place beyond the turmoil and confusion of the physical world.  In that realm, God is truly "our God".  Not the God of the Jews, but the God of all humanity.  

Looking at it through this lens, the psalm says that wherever one is at any given moment, if we are truly present and seeking connection with the Divine, then we connect ourselves on spiritual level with the Jerusalem above.  Our actual geographical location is of no matter. We can attach ourselves to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where God is every one's God wherever we are physically.  When we do this we are transported to a spiritual realm of eternal peace where there are no politics and no divisions between human beings.  When we are able to connect with God that way, then we can truly sing the praise of God and be aware of the greatness of the Divine.  We can feel the greatness that flows through and connects all of us and the entire universe.  Then our task is to take this spiritual experience and bring it back with us into the everyday physical world.

3. Beautiful in elevation is the joy of all the earth; Mount Zion, on the sides of the  north, is the city of the great Sovereign.

As I wrote above: "wherever one is at any given moment, if we are truly present and seeking connection with the Divine, then we connect ourselves on spiritual level with the Jerusalem above."  This verse simply states that it is the elevation of the higher Jerusalem that is the source of its beauty.  And so, the elevation of the heavenly Jerusalem would be its spiritual elevation.

That the heavenly Jerusalem knows of no distinctions between racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender or other identities is, in part, what makes it beautiful and what makes it holy.

In our physical world these distinctions that we create are what cause separations between human beings, and between human beings and the Divine.   I am not saying that we should ignore distinctions in our world.  On the contrary, we must acknowledge and celebrate our various differences.  But we must be careful not to allow them to serve as reasons to separate from others and from the Divine. Too often, that is what happens in the earthly Jerusalem and throughout our world.

In Biblical times Jerusalem was  referred to as  ir shalem  עיר שלם ,  city of wholeness, or ir shalom עיר שלום,  city of peace .  The Jerusalem above is the joy of all the worlds (not just this world) because it's essence is wholeness.  It is this completeness, the unity of all, that is the source of its peace and its holiness.

Mount Zion, is viewed in ancient Jewish tradition as the center of the earth; it is the mythological point where creation began.  That is why it is at the heart of the earthly Jerusalem.  But this is also the point where the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem connect.  It is as if there is a spiritual umbilical cord attached to Mt. Zion that links the two worlds to each other.  Indeed, there are places where Mt. Zion is referred to as the "navel of the world," a phrase and concept that appears in many ancient cultures.  

In psalm 48 Mount Zion is also described as being "in the north." This is its physical location in the land.  However, the Hebrew word for north tzafon/צפון is from the same root as the word for hidden tzafun/צפון.  Actually, as you can see, without vowels (which is how the Torah is written) the two words look identical.  This connection between the two words should remind us that the place that connects us with our heavenly source, with the oneness and unity of the Divine, is indeed often hidden.  Yet, it does exist within each of us. It is within the soul, the piece of God within us. When we pay attention and listen to the voice of our soul, we will find that place of connection hidden within. In each moment when this occurs, we are then able to enter the 'city of the Divine' in a spiritual sense.

Our goal in each moment is to be mindful and pay attention to our own spiritual self so that we can find the hidden place within.  That hidden place will enable us to enter that realm where there are no separations or divisions, where there is only unity.  Then the challenge is to bring that sense of oneness and unity back to the world in which we all live and to make it a reality here as well.

4. God is known in her palaces as a stronghold.

This verse speaks of the palaces of Jerusalem.  The Hebrew word used here is armon ארמון, which can also be translated as a citadel or fortified tower.  But whatever this structure is, the psalmist makes clear that its strength comes not from the bricks or stones from which it is made, but from God's presence within. 

In the heavenly Jerusalem, since there are no actual physical structures, this makes perfect sense.  But what about in the physical world in which we live?  Within this world the palace or citadel can refer to the universe itself.  Human beings, animals and all of the created world, are the bricks from which this majestic structure is made.   We are part of a structure, a unity, which is glorious as a palace and strong as a citadel.  But what gives this structure its glory and  strength?  It is the reality that we are part of the Oneness of the universe.  In that way, God, or the Divine flow in the universe, is indeed our stronghold.

But should we separate ourselves from the One, then we lose that strength that comes from the Divine.  We are like a stone that has dislodged itself from the walls of palace.  When this happens we are most vulnerable to the ego's manipulations and snares. 

That is when we are most likely to falter and become lost.  But if we remember the hidden Presence within each of us, then we will once again find that the Divine is our stronghold and we are once again part of the glorious structure that fills the Universe with beauty and holiness.

5.  For here the kings/rulers assembled; they passed together.

When we remember to connect to the Oneness of the universe, we become as 'rulers,’ for we find power and majesty within.  However, we are not rulers of others, but simply rulers of ourselves.  However, this is not totally true, for this only occurs if we realize that the ultimate source of our strength is indeed a Higher Power and not the self or the ego.  Beyond this, we must also remember that we are inextricably linked to everyone and everything else through that which we call the Divine.  Hence the final phrase "they passed together."  

When we 'pass together' through the world, with recognition of our interconnectedness, then we are truly fulfilling the concept of being created in the image of the Divine.  Hence, just as God is described as a ruler or sovereign throughout the Torah and elsewhere in Jewish tradition, so do we find a ruler's sense of power and majesty within each of us.

אחר דבר /Another possible interpretation...using a common rabbinic hermeneutical technique, if we add one letter to the word for kings/rulers מלכים we then have the word for messengers/angels מלאכים. The letter we add is simply the aleph.  This first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is silent.  As a rabbinic legend teaches, the aleph can also be viewed as the no-sound sound that begins our ongoing conversation with the Divine.  When we remember that finding the power within is about making ourselves part of this ongoing conversation, then we are not only rulers, but we become angels, messengers of the Divine to the world.

6.  As soon as they saw it they were astonished ; they were in panic, they fled.

In reading this verse it is unclear exactly what “it” was that the rulers saw.  But whatever it was, it certainly elicited an extreme reaction.   Not only were they astonished תמהו , but they were also panicked נבהלו.  And so they fled.

My initial reading of this verse was that fear was the impetus for their actions. And yet, none of the traditional biblical words for fear are to be found in the verse.  So whatever it was took them by surprise.  It shocked them. They were so unprepared that the only reaction was to flee.

Writing this commentary line by line, trying not to look ahead at the upcoming verse, provides me with many opportunities to be creative in my interpretation.  Of course, the challenge is to somehow make things fit together when I arrive at the following verse.  Yet, it is precisely that uncertainty that excites and challenges me.  Even though I know that this psalm has quite a few more verses in it, each individual verse comes upon me by surprise (or at lest I try to allow that to happen).   

There are times when I am confronted with the verse and I wonder what I am going to write.  I am totally taken by surprise with what the verse says.  In these cases, it might be easier to simply drop the project altogether.  It is not out of fear that I do this.  Rather it is out of my own sense of surprise and astonishment, when I read a verse that I feel takes the psalm, and my commentary, in a totally new and unexpected direction.  Perhaps that is the lesson behind this particular verse.

It is true that each of us has the ability to be a ruler/messenger/angel by uniting with the Divine within and around us.  We do this by  connecting with each other and our world.  So what happens when we are walking through life in this angelic state and suddenly we are confronted by something totally unexpected? Something we feel totally unable to handle? 

We may or may not feel fear.  However, we will certainly experience a shock to our system that can cause us to sever our connection with the world and with the Divine.  The ego then senses this shock and disorientation.  It then seizes the opportunity to convince each of us that how to face the challenge,  how to escape and save myself is all that really matters. Who cares about anyone else?   

If we all the voice of the ego to guide us, we flee from the unity of God and our fellow human beings in order to save ourselves (or so we think).  We are no longer messengers or rulers.  Rather, we are confused, frightened, egocentric creatures thinking only of ourselves.  In short, we are human - for better or for worse.

But look again at the verse.  What happens first?  We are astonished.  We are taken aback. We are surprised.  And the surprise of the unexpected then signals the ego that the chance it has been waiting for is now arrived.  And so the ego, the ultimate master of self-protection and self-deception, begins to fan the flames of panic within.  We don’t know what to do.  We metaphorically let go of the hands of our fellow human beings, abandon God and run for the hills.  If we would only take a moment to stop, breathe, look within and around, we might realize that, though the shock was real, there is no reason to flee.  Rather, the shock should make us draw closer to the unity with the Divine

However, as I just wrote, we are human. And our reaction is human.  It is imperfect.  Perhaps that is why Psalm 8 tells us that we were created to be “a little less than angels.”  If we were truly angels, we would stand firm and hold fast in the face of the unexpected and unknown.  We would stay connected.  But we are human, and when our world is shaken, we react as humans.  But remember, this is only in the moment.  This is only one verse out of 15.  We have the ability to change our course, change our reaction, with the next verse...the next step we take.  Will we?  That remains to be seen.

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