Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gratitude in Tough Times (Portion Vayetze)

In many ways, these are not easy times for gratitude.   The world is rife with violence, injustice, and suffering.  We have, in all likelihood, passed the point of no return on catastrophic climate change, terror and hard-heartedness have gripped much of the Middle East, and here in our own community, hunger and homelessness are on the rise.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches, how do we give thanks? 

We might learn from our matriarch, Leah, who one Talmudic sage describes as the first person in the history of the world to express gratitude to God.  How can this be?  Generations before Leah, many others, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca offered thanks to the Holy One.  But Leah’s gratitude is unique—because it is so hard-won.

All of her life, she is unloved by her husband, Jacob, who devotes himself to her prettier younger sister, Rachel.  For years, Leah laments this reality, naming her first three sons in a manner that expresses her pain and disappointment.  But when her fourth child is born, she calls him Judah, meaning, “This time, I will give thanks to God.” 

What has happened here?  How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing?  Rabbi Shai Held notes in his commentary: “Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does.  It is crucial to emphasize that Leah's gratitude does not magically set everything aright and banish every other feeling she has.  Her disappointment is real, and deep. But she is also grateful, for despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.”
In other words, disappointment and gratitude are not exclusive.  In this life, we can’t always get what we want; indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the contrary, we sometimes don’t even get what we need.  Disappointment is inevitable.  But that need not crowd out the possibility of gratitude, nonetheless.  As Rabbi Held concludes, “Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience.  Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness. 
In this spirit, I’ll end with WS Merwin’s poem, “Thanks”—and wish us all a good Thanksgiving holiday.

with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions  

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you 

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you 

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster  
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is

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.