Sunday, November 16, 2014

Trusting the Universe (Portion Toldot)

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.  As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.”  Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of God’s prophecy to her, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born.  This dynamic divides the family and comes to a head many years later, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing intended for Esau.  The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his hairy older brother.  Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy even before the boys were born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception?  Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of faith?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues this line: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God?  . . The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  We strive mightily to determine our fate, to shape every detail in the course of our lives.  So often, our first impulse is to assert control (or the illusion thereof) over our circumstances.  But sometimes, it is better to trust God and the Universe. 

I’ll leave you with a poem by Jane Hirshfield, which may help in this endeavor:

When Your Life Looks Back

When your life looks back—
as it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.

Your life will carry you as it did always,
with ten fingers and both palms,
with horizontal ribs and upright spine,
with its filling and emptying heart,
that wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?

Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.

“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
no unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.

And did you have a choice in this? You did—

Sleeping and walking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
the buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—

A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.

Mortal, your life will say,
as if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To Give is to Receive (Portion Chayei Sarah)

Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look what happens with
a love like that—
it lights the whole sky.
From the moment we meet the second of our matriarchs, Rebecca, she embodies the trait of chesed—unconditional lovingkindness.  On his mission to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant Eliezer first encounters her at the communal well, where she goes out of her way to provide water for him and his camels.  Aviva Zornberg notes: "As she runs back and forth at the well, eagerly providing for the needs of the servant and the camels, she resembles Abraham welcoming his angel-guests - impatient, energetic, overflowing with love (chesed)."
We live in a world in desperate need of chesed.  So much of our culture is based on a philosophy of scarcity.  The Scottish scholar Thomas Carlyle famously described economics as the “dismal science” because it is grounded in the bleak notion that there will never be enough for everyone.  This premise permeates our current politics and leads us to hoard our resources rather than sharing them.  It plays out, negatively, in everything from environmental policy to immigration to the social safety net (or lack thereof).  Our selfishness is destroying us.
Actually, when it comes to the things that matter most—love, wisdom, justice—this philosophy of scarcity is dead wrong.  The contrary principle, that ought to guide us, is that of chesed: the more you give, the more you get.  As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his wonderful guide to the Jewish mystical tradition, Honey from the Rock, the fundamental challenge we face in growing into adulthood is this: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I have a stake in their love.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.

In a world governed by scarcity, we are all, essentially, pitted in endless war against one another.  But in a universe founded on chesed, acts of love, like the sun, light up the entire sky. 

As you go through the week, try to learn from our mother, Rebecca.  When you feel the prevailing cultural notion of scarcity (and its constant cohort, fear) pulling at you, resist the temptation and respond with chesed.  When you are tempted to take, try giving instead.  Like Rebecca, you may just find that in slaking the metaphorical thirst of others, you slake your own as well.  

For another poem on the subject, here's Mary Oliver's The Sunflowers:

The Sunflowers
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young -
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don't be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Full Blessing (Portion Vayera)

God is with you in everything that you do.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, Abraham receives this somewhat unusual blessing from an adversary, Avimelech, the king of Gerar.  What does it even mean for God to be with a person in everything that s/he does?

The Hasidic commentator Mei Ha-Shiloach suggests that the real challenge is to find the divine in unpleasant circumstances.  It is relatively easy to see God’s work in our moments of joy, success, and celebration; it is much harder when we are suffering.  And yet sometimes the good and the bad are inextricably mixed, and God is present in all of it.  

In his book, Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that in the grace after meals, we ask God to bless us just as God blessed our forefathers, with a brachah sh’leimah,  a “full and complete blessing”—similar to what Avimelech offers Abraham.  Yet as we read their stories in the Torah, we see that our patriarchs often struggled with enormous challenges: infertility, war, bitter family quarrels.  What sort of blessings are these things?  Kushner concludes: I can only understand the phrase “a full and complete blessing” to mean the experience of life in its fullness, tasting everything that life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the bee stings, love and loss, joy and despair, hope and rejection.  The blessing of completeness means a full life, not an easy life, a hard road, not a smooth one, a life that strikes the black keys and the white keys on the keyboard so that every available emotional tone is sounded.

This week, consider: where might you find blessing in an unexpected place?  How can you better experience God as being with you in all that you do, the good, the bad, and everything in between?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Chutzpah Toward the Heavens (Portion Lech L'chah)

In our tradition, arguing with God is not just acceptable; sometimes—especially when justice is on the line—it is essential.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).  The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, inviting a critical comparison between these two biblical patriarchs.  While Noah and Abraham are both depicted as righteous, the Rabbis’ closer reading of the text argues for Abraham’s moral superiority.  They point out that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I discussed here last week), God’s words for Abraham are unqualified.  Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai).  Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in Noah and Abraham’s actions in times of crisis.  When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark.  He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity.  By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

We Jews are the children of Abraham, not Noah.  It is not enough for us to walk with God; God sometimes asks us to take the lead. Our calling is to live with chutzpah, to challenge authority—even God’s authority—in the face of injustice.   For all too often, accepting the status quo means acquiescing to bigotry.  As Elie Wiesel reminds us, “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”  To be a Jew is to break the silence that breeds persecution and fear—even when that silence seems to start with God.