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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,


Steven


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