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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Joseph's Path to Reconciliation and Redemption

With the new year approaching, I thought that this was a good time to re-post my midrashic story for this week's parashah/portion. I am posting this early, as I may not have internet access on Friday. I hope you enjoy it and find it meaningful.

Early Shabbat Shalom and a Happy (secular) New Year to you all!


This week's Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18), begins "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 place, so that his father Jacob would not 'lose' the only other son of his beloved Rachel (believing still that Joseph was dead).

Judah pleads with Joseph to keep him in Egypt, instead of Benjamin. Moved by Judah's appeal, Joseph, moved to tears, decides at the moment Judah offers himself to reveal his true identity to his brothers. He then orders his servants to leave them alone and he tells his brothers that he is indeed Joseph . He then tells them not to feel guilty for having left him in the pit. He is certain that it was God's plan that he 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 my past commentaries). 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.

Shabbat Shalom,


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 other, 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. 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 he had the night before. And once again, 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. Yet, what happened next astonished Joseph even more than it did his brothers.

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 him screaming 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. Joseph turned around saw to his surprise 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 entire family; he represents a family that has tricked and deceived so many through the years. 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, within 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 and the suffering of all humanity. Hear his sobs, for they are your sobs. They are also 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 son, and you will understand what I mean."

Slowly Joseph walked again to the edge of the pit and looked down again. Benjamin had been but a mere child when Joseph was sold into slavery. As Joseph continued to look at him, 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 Joseph 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 who are suffering. As compassion and mercy grew, the pain, fear, and anger diminished 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 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.

Suddenly, 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 soldiers, 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 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 these 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, and hopefully in the future.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Parshat Miketz (and Hanukkah): Joseph and the Journey of the Ego

In this week's parashah/portion, Miketz (Genesis/Bereshit 41:1 - 44:17), the saga of Joseph and his brothers continues. We read in the narrative of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dreams, being made vizier of Egypt and then of his brothers coming to seek food during the famine. We also read of Joseph hiding his true identity from his brothers and "torturing" them – and indirectly his father Jacob – by sending them back to Canaan to bring back his youngest brother Benjamin while keeping Simeon captive. Then, when the brothers return with Benjamin, much against Jacob's wishes, Joseph has his silver goblet hidden in Benjamin's sack and accuses him of stealing, sentencing him to remain as Joseph's slave.

One can view the entire Joseph saga as an allegory for  the journey of the ego.
When Joseph is filled with pride and hubris, he is the personification of the ego. It is the job of the ego to obfuscate one's view of reality and replace the sense of union with the One of the Universe with the sense that the individual is the only ONE that matters. Joseph's time spent in the pit and in jail represents the repression or negation of the ego. It is in these places of lowliness that Joseph sees his connection to others and the universe. The is the disappearance of the ego and the emergence of the the soul, which is not really a `self' at all, but a recognition of the Godliness that is within all of us.

Once Joseph is released from the jail and interprets Pharaoh's
  dreams he is again elevated. This reminds each of us that even when the ego seems to have been obliterated, it is still there waiting in the wings to take center stage. Yes, in his position as vizier Joseph helps the land of Egypt and is seen part of God's plan, but in this allegory this stage represents the reemergence of the ego.

His brothers, the forces within and around that challenge us on each
  step on our journey, bring about Joseph's sense of superiority, as well as hatred and revenge, which are all rooted firmly in the ego. The virtues compassion, mercy and love, rooted in the soul, are nowhere to be found. Joseph, the ego, plays games with the world and the people around him, seeking to find satisfaction in revenge and in retaining the
place of prominence.

The other forces working within and upon him, his brothers, seek
  compassion and reunion with the source. But, though at first he does provide for their physical sustenance through food, no spiritual sustenance is to be found. For the ego cannot sustain anything but itself. It needs to use all of its energy to keep the façade in tact and to protect it from the soul which is always there awaiting the opportunity to emerge in all its ersatz glory.

As we end this week's parashah, the ego is in control and
subjugating all the forces around it. There is no chance of a reunion of the soul with its source, for the ego has separated all the parts from the whole and sent Benjamin, the youngest, representing innocence and joy, into exile. Benjamin, the only other child of Joseph's father and mother, is the conduit by which the soul can find reunion with the source is sent
to jail. He is cast into the pit.

If our story were to end here, the allegory would certainly not leave
  one feeling very optimistic. However, we know that the story does not end here. But, for now, we are where we are. Such is the way of life; in any moment we know that the ego or the soul can be the dominant force in our lives. However, no situation is ever permanent. And so we must wait and see what the next step of the journey holds in store for us.

As we begin Shabbat with the light of four Hanukkah candles, let us
  remember that there are four more that remain. And each night the light gets brighter until the hanukkiah (menorah) is complete ablaze with light. 

Each night when we light the candles let us look at where our balance of ego and soul is. Let us acknowledge the reality of where it is ...where we are ... and continue on our journey towards making the soul and not the ego the center of our

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, verse 12

אַשְׁרֵ֤י הַגֶּ֣בֶר אֲשֶׁר־תְּיַסְּרֶ֣נּוּ יָּ֑הּ וּֽמִתֹּורָתְךָ֥ תְלַמְּדֶֽנּוּ
Happy is the one who is chastened by God, and those whom You teach from Your Torah.

In my commentary on Psalm 94:10 (two weeks ago), I discussed the issue of “chastisement.” In that Psalm, God was referred to as the One who chastises the nations. In my commentary I wrote that chastisement was simply punishment for its own sake, whereas rebuke (also used in that verse) had the greater purpose of educating as well.

In this verse, it seems strange at first that those who are chastised should be happy. However, it also seems that the psalmist is also in some way connecting chastisement with learning. That is what leads to happiness. But, it's not just any teaching, but God's teaching, or Torah.

However, in reading this verse it is also important to note which name for God that is used. The Psalmist here does not use the full tetragramaton (4 letter name of God), but only the first two letters, יָּ֑הּ , which simply reads as “Yah”. There are those who teach that this name of God represents the breath, both of God and humanity. God is not only the source of breath, but God is breath itself. And so that which chastises and teaches us is simply the breath. This is an essential teaching of mindfulness. For in mindfulness practice we return over and over again to the breath. When our mind wanders, we return to the breath. When we obsess on our thoughts, we return to the breath. And in doing so, we are returning to God. In the process, we learn about ourselves, God and the essence of existence.

However, unlike in the verse, there is no punishment involved. As a matter of fact, the essence of being mindful is being non-judmental and non-punishing. So how do we reconcile that with verse 12? The answer is simple. We change the translation. After all, translation is itself a form of commentary and every word has a myriad of meanings. Just because I understood the same verb as meaning chastised in verse 10, does not mean that it needs to mean that here. For the root of the verb can also mean “to discipline.” Therefore, I will change my translation to “Happy is the one who is disciplined by Yah, and those who are taught from God's teaching!”

For it is the discipline, as in instruction, of returning to the breath, and to God, that is the teaching. It is God, the breath of life, who teaches us with each breath, if we pay attention. This is the discipline that we must learn. In some moments we get it and in other moments we don't. But that's fine, for there are an infinite number of moments for us to find the discipline. With each breath we do our best to find God in the breath of that moment. From each breath and from this Divine discipline we continually learn how to pay attention to life in the moment, and how to be compassionate, caring and loving human beings. That is the ultimate teaching and the ultimate discipline that will bring about happiness and contentment in each moment.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Parshat Va'yeishev: Living in the Shalshelet

This week we begin reading the story of Joseph with Parshat Va'yeishev (Bereshit/Genesis 37:1- 40:23). In this parashah we read of Joseph's contentious relationship with his brothers, his receiving of an “ornamental tunic” (read: Technicolor Dreamcoat) as a sign of his father's favoritism and of his dreams which seem to symbolize that his family members would some day bow down to him.

Then Joseph is thrown into a pit by his brothers and eventually they sell him to a traveling nomadic caravan rather than kill him. The brothers convince Jacob that Joseph must have been killed. Once the caravan arrives in Egypt, Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar. While in Potiphar's house, his (nameless) wife attempts to seduce Joseph numerous times, but to no avail. We read of her first attempt, “After a time, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, 'Lie with me. But he refused (Genesis 39:8).” In her final attempt, she grabs hold of Joseph's garment and again exclaims “Lie with me!” Joseph breaks free and runs away, leaving his garment in the hands of Potiphar's wife. She accuses him of attacking her and he is thrown in jail.

I would like to focus specifically on the phrase “but he refused.” In Hebrew this phrase is one word, vay'ma'ein. But there is something unique about this word. For in the Torah text there are cantillation marks that were added in order to tell the Torah reader how each word or phrase should be chanted in synagogue. The mark above vay'ma'ein is called a shalshelet and it only appears four times in the entire Torah. Therefore, it is always interpreted as having special meaning. The shalshelet is a wavering note that is held for a long period of time. For this reason, the traditional interpretation is that it reflects ambivalence on the part of Joseph. Rather than being the virtuous man immediately refusing her advances, he does indeed consider her demand before refusing. But, there is more to it.

In his commentary on the parashah ( my friend Joseph Shapiro likens the confrontation between Joseph and Potiphar's wife to his own experience being married to a woman and eventually finding the courage to come out to her as being gay. We know that Rashi (12th century France) wrote that “although Joseph was indeed seventeen,[he is called a na'ar/youth because] he ‘behaved like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heels’ (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).” I am not suggesting that the rabbis of old believed that Joseph was gay or transgender. However, a number of contemporary commentators and scholars have remarked on how Joseph was seen as defying what we consider to be traditional gender stereotypes, which both feminized Joseph and showed him to be different than everyone else. And so for many LGBTQ folks struggling with identity, the Joseph narrative is one that rings true.

In Shapiro's commentary, he focuses on Joseph refusing to submit to Potiphar's wife numerous times. Joseph finally flees the scene, leaving his garment in her hand, rather than succumb to her demands to "lie with me." She cannot accept this humiliation and so she blames Joseph for making the advances.

Shapiro compares this to his own process of finally deciding to leave his own “house” rather than continuing the charade that he had been living all those years. He recounts the pain of "laying next to my heterosexual spouse in bed, having finally accepted my homosexuality, and listening to my spouse say, “Lie with me,” and wanting to – needing to – refuse." A very different context than with Potiphar's wife, but a need to react similarly to the biblical Joseph.

In discussing this with him, the thought occurred to me that both this Joseph and Joseph in the Torah were actually living their lives in the shalshelet. They were living, whether for hours, days, weeks or years, in that wavering, uncertain place. Unsure whether to follow ones heart or do what was expected. For Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, as a slave he could have been expected to do his mistresses bidding. Yet he states that he feels loyalty to his master and could not betray him by sleeping with his wife. On the other hand, tradition also portrays him as wavering between giving in to his urges or doing what was right in God's eyes.

For the other Joseph, and for so many men in his situation (myself included, at one time) the struggle is between playing the role that he had chosen in order to meet society's expectations or making the choice that would reveal his true self as something other than what society and family imagined. But in a way it is also about whether or not to do what was right in God's eyes. Traditional Judaism may teach that homosexuality is forbidden. And yet, being true to oneself is also being true to God. And so he, I and so many others eventually made the choice to be true to God and ourselves by 'coming out', whether or not it met societal or familial expectations.

Yet, this is not something that is limited to issues of sexual orientation or identity. For at various times in our life we all live in the shalshelet, that long, drawn out, wavering place where all seems uncertain. The place where we hear voices telling us what to do, while other voices within and without are telling us to do something else. But one cannot live in the shalshelet forever. Eventually we all need to make choices. And so, we need to find a place of stillness where we can listen to the melodies of the shalshelet and eventually discern what our true melody is and what we should do.

I couldn't help but think of a recent even that also exemplifies this process. The hassidic reggae superstar Matisyahu has made his career around the image of being a talented musician performing in traditionally secular venues while wearing traditional Hassidic garb, a long beard and payos (long side curls). This was who he was. Or so the world thought.

Then this past week he shaved his beard and hair, removed the equivalent of his ornamental tunic and announced to the world that the facade of Matisyahu no longer existed. He was now once again Matthew Miller, his given name. There was no more hassidic reggae singer.

I would not say that Matisyahu was a fraud, for I don't believe he was. For years that was his identity, both inside and out. But it met a need and served a purpose for him (see the many articles online for a detailed explanation). Yet, he is clearly a different person now and so the outer garb was no longer true to who he is now.

Like Joseph, he was living in the shalshelet, that liminal space, and was finally able to hear the melody that was true for him. He then shed his clothes and embarked on the path to expressing that true melody.

We must remember that neither Matisyahu, nor any of us, is a static being. We are always changing and evolving. Sometimes we rid ourselves of old garments because they never truly represented who we are, such as with my friend Joseph and me. Others remove the old garments because they are no longer the same person they once were, like Matisyahu.

Dwelling for a time in the shalshelet allows us the time and opportunity to assess where we are spiritually. Whether through prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practice, we can hopefully discern the truth in the given moment. Then we can take the necessary steps to reveal to others what has been revealed to us. Only then are we truly expressing our divine selves and not just what others or our ego want us to express.

May we all take the time to dwell in the uncertainty of the shalshelet so that we can emerge more serene and more connected to that which makes us aware of our connection to the divine and what God desires of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Psalm for Wednesday. Psalm 94, verse 11

יְֽהוָ֗ה יֹ֭דֵעַ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ות אָדָ֑ם כִּי־הֵ֥מָּה הָֽבֶל׃
God knows the thoughts of human beings, for they are breath.

I must begin by admitting how glad I was to first read the verse for this week, especially since I waited until the last minute to write my commentary! 

It's not that this is such a simple or transparent verse, since I don't believe that any verse in the psalms is either of those. However, it was a verse that spoke to me the second I read it. For it is a verse that in some ways expresses my idea of mindfulness.

It may be true that the essence of mindfulness is the concept of “moment to moment non-judgmental awareness”, as Jon Kabat-Zinn once said. However, from a religious/Jewish point of view, this is just the starting point. For to me, it is about the moment to moment awareness of God's presence, however one chooses to define that. 

To say that God knows the thoughts of human beings means simply that God is a part of everything and everyone, and we are a part of God. Therefore, God is aware of each thought. Or perhaps one could say that God is that within us which enable us to become aware of each thought as it arises.

But God, and we, also know that thoughts are fleeting, as is everything in life. They are as breath. They are worthless in and of themselves. They are simply what our mind produces every moment of our lives in response to what is happening. But it is God's presence that gives meaning to existence and enables us to find that meaning in each moment beyond the thoughts that our mind and our ego create.

Simple? Transparent? It may seem so, at first blush. But in fact, this realization is more profound than any of us can imagine.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Parshat Va'yishlakh. The Rape of Dinah, the Death of Compassion

This week's parashah/portion is Va'yishlakh (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:4 – 36:43). The parashah begins with Jacob wrestling through the night with the stranger/divine being/angel (take your pick) and his reunion with his brother Esau. It then continues with one of the most disturbing narratives in the Torah, the rape of Jacob's only daughter Dinah.

In this narrative (Gen. Ch. 34) Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, “goes out to see the women of the land.” Then, Shekhem, the son of Hivite, chief of the country in which they were dwelling (also called Shekhem) “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” We then read that he is in love with “the maiden” Dinah and he demands that his father get her for him as a wife.

Hamor negotiates with Jacob for Dinah. Jacob has already heard of Dinah's rape, but says nothing. His sons, who had been working in the fields, are incensed by the fact that Shekhem had “committed an outrage against Israel by lying with” Dinah. Not aware of this, Hamor asks Jacob and his sons not only to allow Shekhem to marry Dinah, but for the sons of Shekhem to intermarry with the daughters of Jacob's people, settle in the land and acquire holdings in the area. 

Finally a deal is struck whereby Shekhem may marry Dinah, and the women of Israel may marry the men of Shekhem, but only if the men are first circumcised. Hamor agrees and brings the news back to Shekhem and his people.

Three days after the mass circumcision of the men of Shekhem, Jacob's sons Shimon and Levi attack the men who are still recuperating. They kill Hamor and Shekhem and rescue Dinah. Then the other brothers sack and plunder the town. The men are killed and the women, children and property are taken as booty. Thus ends the saga. Never again do we read anything about Dinah.

Many feminists have written commentaries on this disturbing text. I also wrote my first midrashic story approximately 17 years ago in the form of a letter from Dinah to her brothers upon hearing of the death of their father Jacob (perhaps I shall post this here for Parshat Va'yehi, which is when it would fit in the narrative). Though feel free to message me if you'd like to read it). However, I wanted to attempt to tackle this story from a mindfulness perspective. But what on earth could this story teach about mindfulness?

In re-reading the story, what first caught my eye was the description of Shekhem as simply seeing Dinah, taking her and “lying with her.” Yet, immediately following the rape, the text says that Shekhem's “soul cleaved” to that of Dinah. He suddenly loved her.

Rape, which is always an act of violence and power in real life, is described in this story as an act of passion and desire, which then miraculously turns into love. This is, of course, problematic. It can easily be seen as a romanticizing of a violent act (which, unfortunately, is not unusual). However, for my purpose, I want to focus on the issue of desire and passion. In mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge and become aware of our desires and passions, but not to act based upon them. For our passions and desires are rooted in the ego and are about nothing more than self-satisfaction.

Here, the desire is clearly for sexual satisfaction. But somehow it morphs into is portrayrd as love. And yet, it is not. For Shekhem does not speak tenderly to Dinah and she never speaks to him at all. Nor does he say to his father “I love her. Please talk to her father and see if he will consent to our marriage.” Rather, he simply says “Get me this [nameless]girl as a wife!” This is clearly still about passion and desire, about wanting something and wanting it now! It is still about ego.

And the brothers reaction is not much better. They act quickly and rashly. They act out of anger and a sense of betrayal. They are driven by their emotions and by their collective ego. Shekhem has defiled their sister, and therefore their entire family has been defiled. Let's not take the time to think this through and seek some kind of retribution in a thoughtful (read: mindful) way. Instead, we will simply follow our passions and desires!

The impulsive decisions of the men in the story brings about only pain, suffering and destruction. On the other hand, Jacob seems to say and do nothing. His inability to act allows the tragedy to progress. We know that Jacob has a history of acting from a place of ego and desire, as when he tricked his father and stole his brother's birthright. We know that he can do extraordinary things when his passions dictate so, such as working a total of 14 years so that ultimately he could marry Rachel, the sister he desired,. But here, it is as if he is stuck. We don't know what he is thinking. But we know that he does not act.

These are the men in this narrative. They are either guided by passion, desire and ego or they are unable to act. What about the women?

We know nothing of Dinah's reaction to the rape. We never hear from her after the story. As a matter of fact this parashah brings about the disappearance of all the remaining women in Genesis. For right after this narrative ends, we read that Rebecca's nurse Deborah dies and is buried (35:8). This is unique, in that it tells of the death of someone who is never mentioned elsewhere in the Torah. And a woman, no less! It also marks the death of the women of the eldest generation of the family.

We read that the place where Deborah was buried was name Allon-bakut. Translated as the “tree of weepings”, a midrash states that actually, two women died and two women were buried in that place: Deborah and Rebecca. For the death of Rebecca is nowhere mentioned in the Torah. Nor is the death of Leah, Dinah's mother. However, we do read at the end of the book that Jacob had buried her in the Cave of Machpelah, where his ancestors were buried. So I am going to assume that she is no longer living when these actions occur. After all, if she were, I would find it hard to believe that the text mentions nothing of her reaction to her only daughter's rape!

Finally, in Chapter 35, verses 16-20, we read of the Rachel's death, which occurs immediately after giving birth to Benjamin. And so, as far as we know, there are no women remaining in the “immediate family.” I couldn't help but think that. Somehow, the passionate, ego-driven, impulsive behavior of the men in the story (or the inaction, Jacob's case) set in motion the loss of women from a narrative which, until this point had quite a few strong female characters.

The final woman to die is Rachel, and she dies after her son exits her womb. In Hebrew the word for womb, rehem, is also the root of the word for compassion, rahamim. It is as if the violence of the men culminates with what is a violent and deadly birth process for Rachel. And this has left the story, and the family, without any source of compassion. Perhaps Rachel knows that, with her death, so too will compassion and mercy die. Perhaps that is why she actually names her son Ben-oni, the son of my affliction. This affliction is not only her pain and suffering. Rather, she is able to see beyond herself to the true affliction, the recognition that mercy and compassion shall die with her. She could see this happening when the sons of Jacob acted as they did. And she knows that with her death, this family/community of impulsive men who simply take what they want when they want it, will have nothing to bring balance to their lives.

In Jewish thought, din (justice, judgment, strictness and boundaries) must be balanced by rahamim (compassion and openness). But in this narrative, the din sought and enacted by the brothers totally overwhelmed any rahamim which may have existed. And the denouement of the story occurs when Jacob actually changes the name of the son Rachel bore from Ben-oni, son of my suffering, to Ben-yamin (Benjamin) son of the right (hand) or son of strength. With this, the remembrance of Rachel's suffering, whih was the last vestige of hope that compassion would survive, disappears. And in its place we are instead reminded of the centrality of strength and power.

It is through connecting with the suffering of others that we find compassion within ourselves. Perhaps if the brothers had not acted impulsively, non-mindfully, they would have been able to sense the suffering of their sister. And perhaps they would have sought her return without the use of violence and show of power. Perhaps if Shekhem had stopped for a moment and recognized Dinah's vulnerability and then her suffering, he might not have raped her or at least not completed the act.

Perhaps if Jacob had been aware of all of the suffering going on around him instead of, as I imagine, being caught up in the stories his own ego was telling him, he might have acted in order to both rescue his daughter and prevent any further violence.

And so, at least for today, I read this story as a cautionary tale, but not in the usual sense. Rather, it is a cautionary tale that reminds us of the need for compassion and awareness in every moment. Compassion not only for ourselves, but for all. It is a cautionary tale which teaches of the need to stop, pay attention and be in the moment before we follow the lead of the ego and act on our impulses, passions and desires. And ultimately, it is a story which reminds us that without compassion, we are left with a world that is guided solely by the desire for strength, power, domination and ego. Alas, we know that all too well.

But as we continue next week with the Joseph narrative, we will begin the long process of healing and reconciliation to be achieved at the end of the book of Genesis. Perhaps not ironically, this is ultimately brought about by the same Benyamin (Ben-oni) born in this week's parashah and due in great part to the actions of Yehudah (Judah) who is the namesake of the Jewish people. And so the journey continues, as does our ability to learn from it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Psalm for Wednesday. Psalm 94, verse 10

הֲיֹסֵ֣ר גֹּ֭ויִם הֲלֹ֣א יֹוכִ֑יחַ הַֽמְלַמֵּ֖ד אָדָ֣ם דָּֽעַת׃
Shall the one who chastises the nations not rebuke; Shall the one who teaches humanity not know?

There seems to be a difference of opinion as to the correct translation of the second part of the verse. Some translate it as I have above. Others translates the verse as, “Shall the one who chastises the nations not rebuke? The one who teaches humanity knowledge!”.

The first translation follows the same pattern as verse 9 (see last week's commentary): “Shall the one who implanted the ear? The one who formed the eye not see?” And so that seems to me the more likely. However, nothing says I can't use a little of each translation when writing my commentary!

In this verse, God is portrayed as the one who chastises the nations. This is certainly a powerful image of punishment. However, the other verb in the first half of the verse has a different connotation. Rebuke can also be translated as “reprimand” or “admonish”. To me, rebuke has tellins someone exactly what they did wrong and that they'd better not do it again. Rebuke, though harsh, implies some kind of corrective intention. Chastise, on the other hand, is about punishment and discipline, plain and simple.

So one could read the first half as saying, “yes, God will discipline or punish us when we do something wrong, but in the end it's really about teaching us how we have erred, so we don't make the same mistake again.”

The idea of teaching then leads us right into the second half of the verse, which is all about God teaching humanity. Continuing from my translation above, one can read the second part of the verse as , “after all, the one who teaches humanity has the knowledge.” The one who is the source of all knowledge knows how to use it. You just have to trust. For if you don't trust and you don't have faith, where are you spiritually? But here is where the two variant translation become important. “Shall the one who teaches humanity not know?” seems to me a response to someone who doubts. It is in itself a kind of rebuke: 'how could you think that the source of knowledge doesn't know what's right or best for you?!!'

The other translation, which reads simply “...the one who teaches humanity knowledge” is more of a statement of “fact” modifying the first half of the verse. It is as if the psalmist is calmly say, “of course the one who teaches humanity knows what's right/good.”

For many of us, both punishment and rebuke are difficult. They are difficult to give and they are difficult to receive. This also applies to ourselves. We have a difficult time accepting our own faults sometimes. Then again, at other times perhaps we take our faults too seriously. But this verse can serve as a reminder. When we chastise others or ourselves, do it for the sake of change. Do it so we hopefully won't make the same bad choice again. Chastisement for chastisement's sake is simply about degrading ourselves and others. And that's not what God is about. That's not what the Divine within is urging us to do.

But ultimately this all comes down to knowledge. In our lives, we can vacillate between belief in a God who knows what is best and is trying to help us act differently the next time, and a God that just wants to punish us. That is an image of a God who doesn't know what is best, who doesn't care what happens to us. That image of God only wants to punishment.

As we look at ourselves in each moment, let us always choose to use chastisement or criticism of self or others as an opportunity to impart knowledge of God's will, however we choose to define that. Let it not be about denigrating others or ourselves. Nor, let it be about doing the ego's bidding and simply denigrating others in order to lift up our own sense of self.

As with all things, this is ultimately about acting from a place of compassion and love. Always doing what we can to make the world better. Always doing what we can in each moment to remember that we are connected to one another, we all depend upon one and other, and we are all united within the love and compassion that is Divine.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Parshat Va'yetze: Jacob Begins to Find Himself

In this week’s parashah, Va’yetze (Genesis/Bereshit 28:10 - 32:3) the saga of Jacob/Yaakov continues. After fleeing from the anger of his brother, Esau, he finally arrives in the land of Haran, his ancestral homeland. Almost immediately upon arriving, he meets his cousin Rachel at the well. There he is immediately so smitten by her that he, the one often portrayed as weak, sedentary and studious – is miraculously able to role a heavy stone away from the well with a single push!

When taken to meet his maternal uncle Lavan he is embraced warmly. When Lavan agrees to allow Yaakov to work for him, he asks what his salary should be. Yaakov responds that he would like nothing more than to work for Lavan seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan agrees.

Of course, most of us are aware of what ensues: Yaakov works for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Lavan, reminded that in his part of the world the younger is not to be married before the firstborn, substitutes Rachel’s sister Leah behind the wedding veil. Yaakov marries Leah. Yaakov then agrees to work another seven years if he is allowed to marry Rachel. Lavan agrees. Yaakov is now married to Leah and Rachel. The two sisters, along with their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, are to be the mothers of Yaakov's 13 children.

Two particular aspects of the story struck me when reading the text this time. The first is that, when Rachel is described in the text at the moment when Yaakov first sees her, she is described as the “daughter or Lavan, his mother’s brother.” Yaakov then introduces himself to Rachel as Rivkah /Rebecca’s son.”

It is seems clear to me that, even after everything that Yaakov has gone through, he still sees himself as his mother’s son. It almost does not matter that he is now the favored one possessing blessing, birthright and power derived (and stolen) from his father. His primary identity is still that of his mother’s son. Yet, when he sees Rachel something within him stirs. He finds within him a strength that previously unknown to him. This strength, which comes seemingly from nowhere, enables him to move the rock from the mouth of the well.

Perhaps this strength was from God? Perhaps it was from love or passion arising within him that he had never known before? Perhaps it was strength that comes from feeling the connection to the source of maternal compassion, nurturing – and strength – that Rachel represented to him? Wherever the strength came from, at that moment we see Yaakov, Rivkah’s son, in a new light.

The other point on which I would like to focus is his eventual marriage to Leah and Rachel. In many translations, one reads that Leah is switched for Rachel because the younger was not to be married prior to the elder. However, as Richard Elliot Friedman points out in his commentary, the text reads that the younger is not to be married prior to the firstborn. Therefore, Yaakov. who is now the de facto firstborn “…suffers because of the birthright of his beloved’s sister” (Friedman, p. 99). In order to bring balance back to the family after stealing Esau’s birthright, he must in turn allow Leah to receive the birthright that was due her.

This brings me back to Yaakov’s sense of himself as “Rivkah’s son.” For on some deep level he knows that he has arrived at this particular place, literally and figuratively, precisely because he is Rivkah’s son. He would not have needed to flee were he not Rivkah’s son. He would not have come to the house of Lavan were he not Rivkah’s son. For it was Rivkah who masterminded all that happened which eventually brought him to this place. Or was it?

It is true that Rivkah convinced Yaakov to masquerade as Esau in order to receive the first born's blessing from Yitzhak. However, it was Yaakov, earlier in the narrative, who thought to offer a bowl of lentil stew to Esau in exchange for his birthright. Yaakov is not merely some innocent pawn in this game of family deception. He is an active player, even if he is playing on a team with his mother. He is more than just Rivkah’s (or Yitzhak’s) son. He is a person unto himself. Perhaps it is this inner sense of his identity, and not the connection to his mother, that causes strength and passion to arise in him so that he can roll the stone away from the well? However, it is encountering the challenges provided by his uncle (his mother’s brother, no less) in terms of matrimony that begins the process of Yaakov truly becoming his own person. The trickster is tricked himself, enabling him to eventually grow.

In reading this parashah, I could help but think of how so many of us are ensnared by the identities created for us by our parents. It is only by going through the trials and difficulties of life on our own that we are able to separate ourselves from the origins of our past to the degree that we can then begin to understand and become the person who we truly are in the present moment. Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from the trials of Yaakov?

In the opening passages of this parashah –before arriving in Haran – Yaakov has his famous dream of angels climbing up and down the ladder to heaven, with God standing above him. Upon awakening his response is “Surely, God was in this place and I, I did not know!” In contemporary parlance, Yaakov was clueless to God presence. It took a dream consisting of a coterie of busy angels and God standing over his head to make him aware of God’s presence, which was there all along. Perhaps an awakening came from that dream that allowed him to also sense something of the Divine within him when he saw Rachel. This enabled him to become aware of a strength within him that he did not know he had before, even though it too was always present. Still, he needed to go through the trials with his uncle and his two brides before he was truly able to embark on the road to becoming the patriarch and namesake of the people of Israel.

Only after bringing balance back into his life and his family through all that happens in this week’s I – and beyond – with all of its complexities and even distastefulness, is he finally ready to state with certainty that God is in this place, wherever that may be. For he finally realizes that God is within him. In this way, his exclamation can be understood as “God was within me, and I did not know!”

My wish is that each of us may do the necessary work – no matter how difficult it might often be – so that each of us can be aware of God’s presence in every place, for God’s presence is always a part of us, as we are a part of God. Only then can we truly bring balance into our lives, the lives of our family and loved ones, and into our world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, verse 9

הֲנֹ֣טַֽע אֹ֖זֶן הֲלֹ֣א יִשְׁמָ֑ע אִֽם־ יֹ֥צֵֽר עַ֝֗יִן הֲלֹ֣א יַבִּֽיט .9
Does the One who has implanted the ear not hear? Does the one who formed the eye not see?

In my commentary on this verse I continue the them from my previous commentaries (sorry it has been so long since my last one. See my posting from May 31, 2011 for verse 8 and a recap of the first 7 verses). I read this psalm as the struggle between humanity and the ego. The ego is what tries to separate us from the Divine in the universe. The ego is the enemy of Oneness.

What struck me immediately in this verse is the use of the singular nouns eye and ear, as well as the use of the two different verbs to describe their creation. God implants (literally, “plants” the ear and forms the eye. Then the psalmist asks the rhetorical question: “doesn't the one who created the eye and ear hear and see what's going on (even when we try to hide it)?” This is a theme first broached when God asks Adam where he is (after eating the fruit) and then asks Cain where his brother Abel is. If God is an omnipotent and omniscient creator, then of course God knows the answer to these questions before they are even asked.
So clearly God wants both to hear how Adam and Cain respond and to see how these two first humans use the faculties God has given them.

But, in this psalm it's a little different. God is not playing ersatz hide and seek with us. Rather, the psalmist is making it abundantly clear that, as we try to avoid the pull of the ego, God is always within us. God sees and hears all that is happening. And, by extension, God gives us the strength to subdue or negate the ego.

But God does not do this by any supernatural means. God does this by simply being a part of us. And we allow God to do this by acknowledging the divinity within and around us. God has implanted deep in us the the ability not only to hear, but to understand, the Truth of existence. God has formed the eye, which seems to be a simple, perfect orb from the outside, yet we know connects through the nerves to the brain and our innermost self, thereby enabling us to see beneath the surface. God is our ability not only to hear and understand, but to discern the difference between fantasy and reality. Between ego's lies and the Divine/human truth.

But why only one eye and one ear? I see this as a reminder that, though God is within and gives us the ability to see and hear in a deeper way, we are also partners with God. God is one ear and one eye only. If we rely solely on God to “deliver” us, without acting in partnership, then we will only understand a portion of what we hear. And we will see the world around us without any depth and with muted color. However, if we act as partners with God, not from the place of the ego, but from our neshamah/soul, that Divine spark within us, then we can see with both eyes and we can hear with both ears. Only then can we understand and experience the depth and breadth of existence. Only then can we see and hear the ego for what it really is. And only then can we begin to do the holy work necessary to bring Oneness into the universe and into our lives.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mindful Torah: Toldot: On Being a Jewish Man

I hope those of you in the USA are enjoying their Thanksgiving holiday.  As this is a holiday weekend, I am publishing a previously published post from two years ago.  However, it is also in keeping with much of what I have been thinkin about recently, especially having led a men's Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) in Boston two weeks ago.  I hope you find it meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom.

Mindful Torah: Toldot: On Being a Jewish Man: This week’s parashah /portion is Toledot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It begins with the phrase “these are the generations of Isaac, so...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parshat Hayei Sarah: The Redemption of Isaac

This week's parashah is Hayei Sarah (Bereshit/Genesis 23:1 - 25:18 ), which begins by informing the reader that Sarah was 127 years old when she died. It then continues with the story of Abraham buying the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in which to bury her and to then serve as the family burial site. He then commands his chief household servant to return to his homeland of Haran in order to find a wife for Isaac from among his kin. The servant returns with Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham's nephew Bethuel. Isaac then marries her and they begin their life together. The parashah ends with Abraham's death and Isaac and Ishmael burying him together alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah.

This is the parashah which marks the transition from the first patriarch/matriarch couple to the birth of Jacob, who is to be born in next week's parashah, whose sons are to be the patriarchs of the future 12 Tribes of Israel. Without the birth of Isaac, God's promise of a people as numerous as “the starts in the heavens” could never have been fulfilled. So too, without Isaac's marriage to Rebekah, the lineage could not have continued with the birth of Jacob. However, it has always frustrated me how Isaac's personality is never fleshed out as much as that of his father or sons (especially Jacob). We know by reading that narrative what happens TO Isaac, but we know precious little of what actions he takes on his own.

In last week's parashah we read of his circumcision and of the ordeal when he was bound and almost sacrificed by his father. In the future, we shall read of how he is tricked by Jacob into giving him the paternal blessing that should have been Esau's. And in this week's parashah we read of how his father, with his servant's help, finds a suitable wife for him. But what about Isaac? What does he do? What is he thinking? What is he feeling? Alas, we shall never know.

In previous commentaries, I have written about both Jacob and his son Joseph as representing the ego. I have particularly focused on Joseph's journey as the journey of the ego, which eventually we need to negate in order to realize that it, and the self, are but illusions. In truth, there is only the One, of which we are a part. But what is Isaac? In some ways he could be seen as representing the desired negation of the ego. After all, he seems to have no sense of self. No ego. No needs or desires, at least up until this point. So what is he? What does he represent to us? I have a thought, but I want to explore the parashah a little more before revealing my answer.

In reading the parashah again, a few facts caught my attention:
  1. Isaac and Abraham never speak to each other after the Akeidah (Binding) in last week's parashah. As far as we can tell, they never saw each other again. Abraham returns from Mt. Moriah and the Akeidah.
  2. Sara’s death is mentioned, but we know nothing of Isaac's emotions, even though we know that Abraham and the people around him are described as mourning and bemoaning her death. However, this is hinted at by the fact that when Isaac takes Rebekah into his tent to be his wife, she “comforts him after the death of his mother.”
  3. The chief servant is instructed to bring back someone from Abraham's family, because Abraham did not want Isaac marrying from among the other nations. Abraham also makes it clear that Isaac is to stay where he is (wherever that may be) and may not return to Haran with the servant, saying that God has made him a promise to provide a suitable wife for Isaac and will send an angel ahead of the servant to insure this.
  4. Finally, in spite of the fact that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac and exiled Ishmael, the two sons return to bury their father together.

So what has any of this to do with my thoughts about Isaac's role and what he might represent to all of us? To begin with, I must return to the opening lines of the parashah, where we read of Sarah’s death. According to various rabbinic commentaries and legends, Sarah died as a direct result of the Akeidah (Binding) of Isaac. In the Torah, Sarah is not made aware of what Abraham is doing. However, in the rabbinic texts, she does discover why Abraham has taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah. In some versions, she dies because she believes Abraham has killed Isaac. In others, she dies when she is overcome with joy at discovering that Abraham did not carry out the deed. However, what struck me was a commentary by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, a contemporary scholar who writes, “even after learning that Isaac has survive [her death represents] an inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.”

Sarah simply could not bear to live in a world that was filled with uncertainty and danger. It was just too much for her. If that is the case, how much more so would this be true for the one who was almost sacrificed by his father! But Isaac was not 127. He was not ready to die. And yet, a part of him did die that day on Mt. Moriah. Israeli poet Haim Guri wrote that the legacy of the Akeidah is that Jews are born with a “knife in their heart.” But for Isaac, it went deeper than that. The knife pierced his heart, his soul, his very being. He could not face father nor mother. He could not return to where he lived or to the person he was. And so he left, though we know not his destination. Due to the violence brought upon him, it was as if his very being was negated. His body existed, but little else. One could view this as the negation of the ego, which is what we supposedly strive for, but at what cost?

Still, even though Isaac leaves his family and his home, they somehow know where he is. After all, Abraham sends his servant to bring a wife home for him. So he must know where that home is. The father and son may no longer speak, but there is still some connection, even if tenuous at best. And Isaac must be complicit in the arrangement as well. After all, he accepts the bride his father provides with open arms. He takes him into his tent (a midrash says it was Sarah's tent in which she welcomed all visitors), consummates the marriage and finally finds comfort after the death of his mother.

What fascinated me when reading the parashah this time is that the chief servant of Abraham remains nameless. Tradition states that he was Eliezer, who is mentioned prior earlier in Genesis. But we do not know that for sure, even though he is the instrument of Abraham's plan. Actually, he is really the instrument of God's plan. It is God who promised Abraham a bride for Isaac and sends an angel to Abraham's native land with the servant. In this case, Eliezer – God is my help – would indeed be a fitting name for the servant. It is as if Eliezer himself is an angel. He is God's helper in bringing a bride from Abraham’s' land and from his kin, thereby insuring that Abraham and Isaac, though estranged, will forever be connected through Rebekah.

Rebekah then leaves her family and her home willingly, perhaps because she realizes her role in God's plan. For she is not merely a bride for Isaac, but the one who brings Isaac comfort after his mother's death. In this reading, she also brings him comfort after being spiritually (and almost physically) killed by his father. It is through Rebekah that Isaac is able to live again, even though he will always be wounded. It is through Rebekah that he finds a purpose in life, to continue the lineage as God has promised. Even though, as we know, things don't exactly go as he might have hoped in the future.

Finally, at the end of the parashah we are presented with a scene that in many ways is the final reconciliation or redemption in the narrative: Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together. After all he had done to them, they could have simply refused to honor him in this way. And yet, they realized that in order to move on, they needed to bury the past, but also honor it. They also needed to acknowledge that, for better or worse, they are in part who they are, and who they shall become, because of their father.

After the Akeidah and the death of his mother, Isaac could not bear to live in the world of uncertainty and danger, and so he allowed his soul to die. In Rebekah, who represents kindness, gentleness and generosity, he finds someone to care for him as Sarah did. He also finds someone to repair the broken relationship with his father, at least symbolically. Thus, in Sara’s tent, now Rebekah's, according to legend, he begins to heal. But it is only when he meets his long lost brother, looks him in the eye and together buries their father, that he is released from the past and able to reclaim his 'soul identity', the essence of his being, which he had lost. This soul identity, is found in the meaning of his name. He was named Yitzhak, in Hebrew, meaning “he shall laugh.” This was in response to the laughter of Sarah after hearing that she was to give birth at the age of 90, which was a miracle. But the true miracle, at least in this parashah, is that he is finally, or once again, able to embrace that name. That is the answer to the question I posed at the start of this commentary.

Who is Isaac? What does he represent? He is the part within each of us that is damaged or traumatized by life. It is the piece of us that does not want to accept the uncertainty and fragility of life. It is that within that would rather disconnect than take the risks inherent in relationships. And he is that within us that knows, deep down, that if we stay present in the moment, where we are, we can eventually find healing and redemption. The servant is commanded not to take Isaac to the place from which his father came, because he needed to stay right where he was. He needed to experience the reality of who and where he was in that moment, so he could acknowledge all the loses of his life, and come to terms with the fact that life is filled with uncertainty, and sometimes even danger and violence. But, staying present where he was also enabled him to finally be willing to accept the compassion, mercy and beauty that also exists, and which can redeem us all, as it is represented by his joining together with Rebekah Only then was he able to accept that very uncertainty of life that had killed his spirit and take the next step on his journey of life. Our lives may still hang by a “fragile thread”, as Aviva Zornberg wrote, but Isaac's story reminds us that the thread need not break. And if it does, there is someone there to catch us and to help us reweave the thread one step at at time.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Parshat Lekh L'kha: It's the Journey That Counts

This week's parashah/portion is Lekh L'kha (Genesis/Bereshit 12:1-17:27). It begins with the call from God to Abram (later Abraham), “Go forth from your land, and from your birth place and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” It seems that every year when I comment on this parashah, I never get beyond this particular verse. Yet each year I find new meaning in it. Such is the way of Torah.

I have focused in the past on the phrase “lekh l'kha – go forth.” Because of it's unusual construction the phrase can mean, and is interpreted by many as, “go (in)to yourself.” The central idea of these commentatories is that Abram is commanded by God to take a journey inward to find his “authentic self, to learn who he was meant to be” (Mei ha'Shiloah).

Others comment on the fact that God commands Abram not simply to leave his home, but to leave his land, his birth place and his father's home. Each place that he is commanded to leave is both more intimate and more difficult to leave behind.

In this commentary I would like to focus on a comment by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, from her book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. Zornberg writes, “for the first time [in the Torah], a journey is undertaken not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of [the Tower of] Babel) but as a response to divine imperative.” For the first time God is not casting someone out or using exile as punishment. Instead, God is commanding an individual (and his wife) to leave for a higher purpose. What is that purpose? To go to an unknown land that God will show him.

Abram is commanded by God to leave all that is familiar to him and travel to a place that is totally unknown. But this journey must be taken step by step. He must first leave his general surroundings, then the places more familiar to him, and finally, the place with which he is most intimate. The home in which he was raised. And yet he is actually only leaving one place. But the process of detaching from that place takes place one step at at a time.

So it is for us when we embark on a spiritual journey into the unknown. Following, the commentary of Mei ha'Shiloah, if this is an internal journey towards our “authentic self”, then it doesn't happen all at once. The journey involves detaching from our various attachments, those things that we believe are most central to our lives. It means letting go not of preconceived notions, but the notions and beliefs about who we are, of which we (or actually our ego) have carefully conceived and constructed over time. These seem to be the parts of us in which we are most invested and find most difficult to discard. For the building of these constructs has been so slow and incremental, that we haven't even noticed them being built. In fact, it seems as if these pieces of our identity have always been there. They have become like our parent's house, the place in which we have always dwelled, or the ideas that have always dwelled in us. We believe that we simply can't exist without them.

For Abram, the most difficult place to leave is his father's house. For us it is those pieces of our identity that seems so central to who we are. And yet, just as God commands Abram to leave that place of safety and comfort, so too are we commanded to detach from those pieces with which we are so comfortable, which we belief keep us safe, but which ultimately impede our spiritual growth.

But what does it mean in this case to be commanded by God? Of course, it means something different to each of us. And for many of us, it is language with which we may be uncomfortable. For me, it means that there is a Divine force that is the source of all, and with which we are all connected, that naturally propels us towards that which is best not only for us, but for all. If we listen to the voice deep within, we can hear it's call to take the journey. It is what we are meant to do. It is why we are here.

Yet, when we first hear that voice, it may seem like it is asking us to give up everything. Indeed, it may seem like it is desiring a kind of exile from that with which we are most familiar. Yet, viewing this through the lens of Zornberg's commentary above, it is actually a call not so much to leave, as to take a journey. Others in our life might tell us to leave as punishment (like Cain and Adam). And our ego may want us to take a journey that is all about self-aggrandizement and power (like the Tower of Babel). But God, that power that is the source all, simply wants us to take a journey to a new place. It is the journey that is important, not the destination. For, as I have written so many times before, each step of the the journey is in itself a destination.

Yet, it is written in the Torah that there is an ultimate destination, though it is shrouded in mystery. Abram and Sarai are to travel to the place that God will show them. But a rabbinic midrash (legend/commentary) reads the lines as “the land wherein I [God] will appear to you.” So the journey we are taking is simply to the place where God becomes manifest in our lives. For them and for us, it is the place where we come to experience our connection to and compassion for all of creation. That place is deep within, but when we get there it calls on us to move outwards and act in compassionate ways in that world of which we are a part, and which is a part of us.

In this way, I disagree slightly with the wording of the Mei ha'Shiloah's commentary. We are not exactly journeying to find our “authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” For the idea of self is a construct created by the ego to convince us that our individual “self” is all that matters and that we are not really connected to the universe. The self created by the ego tells us that we can use others and the world around us to fulfill our needs and desires. But taking this journey, we instead reach a place where we actually become authentically “no self”; a place where we can truly feel our connection to the Divine flow of the Universe. And when we reach that place, we are then truly the people we are meant to be and in the place where our hearts are meant to dwell. We are in the place in which the Divine has been revealed to us. We may only be there for a moment before the demands of the world or the machinations of our ego bring us back to focus on self. But our own Abrahamic journey is not a one time thing. It is a journey which we try our best to make all of our years, each day of our lives and in each moment that we live and breathe.

Shabbat Shalom,


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