Sunday, January 23, 2022

Portion Mishpatim: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

These are the rules that you shall set before them. . .   (Exodus 21:1)

We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.  (Jack Kornfield)

At first glance, our Torah portion, Mishpatim, is the epitome of anti-climax.  Last week, we marveled at the drama of hearing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  This Shabbat. . . paragraph after paragraph of the fine points of biblical tort law.  We move from transcendent ideals to legal intricacies, from extraordinary spiritual drama to quotidian banality.

And yet, in some ways, the details of Mishpatim speak more truly to what defines the vast preponderance of our lifetimes.  We all experience peak moments when the adrenaline rush sweeps us away.  These can occur in either triumphant or tragic times, but they are almost always intensely spiritual experiences that, as they are happening, feel profoundly life-changing.   Upon surviving a heart attack or having a baby, we swear our lives will never be the same and vow that from that point on, we will do things differently, get our priorities straight, give our focused attention to what really matters most.  Sometimes we stay the course—but more often, after a bit of time passes, we lapse back into our old ways.  We make our resolutions sincerely—yet we struggle when the peak moments recede into memory.  

Jack Kornfield describes this experience beautifully in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry:

Cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.

Enlightenment is only the beginning, is only a step of the journey. You can't cling to that as a new identity or you're in immediate trouble. You have to get back down into the messy business of life, to engage with life for years afterward. Only then can you integrate what you have learned. Only then can you learn perfect trust.

That’s where Mishpatim begins.  It is all about the rest of the journey, what happens in the days, weeks, months, and years after enlightenment: laws on marriage, employment, lost property, and finance.  We go, in short, from the awesome to the ordinary—as indeed, we always must.  Weddings and births are big occasions, but the real work lies in sustaining marriages and raising children, and it is done through thousands of little ordinary choices and small feats of endurance.  God is truly in the details.  We ignore them at our peril.

Conversation Question:  Consider one small but significant area or action in your daily routine where you might consciously be more mindful this week.  Practice that mindfulness. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Beshallach: Stuck at the Edge of the Sea (inspired by Rabbi Yael Shy's commentary)

As this week’s portion Beshallach opens, we stand at the edge of Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army closing in from our rear flank. We’re terrified, with no place to go.  Completely stuck, paralyzed by what Avivah Zornberg calls radical doubt, bitterly bemoaning Moses: Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert?  

This is a classic response to incapacitating fear—our panic leads to anger, blame (sometimes of ourselves, sometimes of others) and a reactionary desire to turn backwards—even when that is not a real option.
We might, then, learn from Moses’s response, as he radically reframes the situation: Don’t be afraid!  Stand firm, for with patience you will witness God’s liberation. The manner in which you now see the Egyptians will shift; you will not experience them this way for eternity.  The Eternal will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.

In this fraught moment, Moses reminds the people that life is dynamic. In doing so, he offers a new perspective—a widening of vision and scope that is the direct antidote to their distress. As Zornberg writes, fear is born of a way of seeing; a changed way of seeing will change their feeling and thinking. 

So, too, in our own most anxious times.  Our challenge is to find ways to still our minds and bodies, to resist panic and despair. We must learn to trust that the distorted and fearful views that grip us in our seasons of pain and struggle are, in fact, fleeting. We have to stay in the not-knowing longer than is comfortable in order to allow our path to emerge.

Conversation Questions
At what point in the journey out of narrowness and into freedom do you currently you find yourself?  How can you shift your perspective in ways that will enable you to navigate that journey successfully?

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Shemot: The Obstacles Reveal the Desire

Moses said to the Holy One: “O God, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and heavy of tongue.”  Then God said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Holy One? -Exodus 4:10-11

When God calls Moses to leadership, he responds with a torrent of self-doubt, focusing on the part of himself which makes him feel most ashamed: his tongue. Again and again, Moses insists that he is not up to the task of addressing Pharaoh because of a speech defect that would expose his weakness.

To which God effectively responds: “Who do you think determined the way that you talk?” In other words, God has created the challenge, which Moses will have to wrestle with as an ultimate source of holiness.  

Rabbi Yael Shy asks:  What if this was true for the obstacles in our own life? What if the things we perceive as standing in the way of our success and our callings – like Moshe and his speech difficulties – were actually the clues and the signs that indicate what we are meant to do in this world?  If we pause and “turn our head,” as Moshe did, and look at these obstacles in a different way, a new possibility begins to emerge. 

“The desire does not reveal the obstacle,” psychologist Adam Phillips writes, “the obstacle reveals the desire.” In other words, you don’t discover your obstacles on the way to achieving your desire, you discover you desire by coming face-to-face with the obstacles. You can touch the deepest longings, the most powerful yearnings of your heart, and you can understand what you were put on this earth to do, by examining what it is that’s getting in your way.

Moses’s challenge lies with his speech.  He insists that his brother Aaron serve as his spokesperson before Pharaoh.  Yet forty years later, when the people finally arrive at the brink of the Promised Land, Moses delivers an extraordinarily eloquent oration that will come to constitute the book of Deuteronomy.  His “obstacle” ultimately helps transform him into the greatest teacher and prophet the Jewish people have ever known.  His life’s journey is a model for us all. 

Conversation Questions:  Consider some of the significant obstacles that you have encountered on your life’s path. What might they teach about your hopes, fears, and longings—and, perhaps, your essential role in helping to bring healing to the world?  How might this “lens” change the way that you see those obstacles?

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Vayechi: Facing the Future--Fear and Hope

Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.  Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen (sh'ma) to Israel your father. . .  When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.                                       -Genesis 49:1-2; 33

Toward the end of this week’s portion, Vayechi, which concludes the book of Genesis, Jacob addresses his sons from his deathbed.  It’s a fraught scene: as the patriarch contemplates dying in Egyptian exile, he fears that his descendants will abandon the covenant that began with Abraham and Sarah.  They are, after all, now solidly ensconced in foreign land with very different customs and beliefs.  Like any parent, Jacob frets over what the future might bring to his family after he has departed this world.

Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah re-imagines that scene as the origin of our people’s central declaration of faith, the Sh’ma. As the Rabbis read the story, Jacob says to his sons: “I worry that when I die, you and your offspring will turn to foreign gods and practices.”  In one voice, they respond: Sh’ma Yisrael—in this case, meaning “Listen, Jacob (who is also known as Israel)—Adonai is our God, and Adonai alone.  With great relief, Jacob uses his final breath to respond: “Baruch Shem k’vodo l’olam va-ed—Thank God, now and forever!”

As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes, this legend transforms the Sh’ma into a living drama, as the latest generation of Jews promise their forebears that they will carry on the tradition bequeathed to them. Jacob dies in peace—and even now we, the Jewish people, continue to affirm the covenant, wrestling with the Holy One as he did.

Conversation Questions: 

What are your fears for the next generation?  What might bring you reassurance?  What do we owe the generations who preceded us?  What do we ask of the generations following us?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Vayigash: Growing from our Failures

Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy [Benjamin] to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.”  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers, for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.         -Judah pleading before Joseph in Genesis 44

From the start, our Torah is overwhelmingly a chronicle of failure.  Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden.  Cain kills Abel.  God destroys the world in the flood.  Generation after generation of patriarchs and matriarchs favor one child over another, spawning family dysfunction.  And the Israelites wander the wilderness for forty years, locked in a cycle of failure and complaint.  Even Moses fails, lashing out at the rebellious Israelites and thereby losing the right to enter the Promised Land.  

So much failure!  Why, then, do we, return to these stories year after year? I believe the timeless appeal of the Torah’s tales lies in our ancestors’ dogged persistence in the face of their failures, their willingness to learn from their mistakes and to fail in new and better ways.  

For all of us, personal growth depends upon our ability to understand our mistakes as opportunities for growth.  While no one goes out in search of failure, it inevitably finds us.  As Winston Churchill famously noted: Success is not final and failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.  If we face our shortcomings honestly and directly, we can use them to become better people.  Thus the Talmud teaches that one who sins and truly repents stands in a higher place than a totally righteous person. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin.   This represents a remarkable transformation—the same brother who earlier sealed the deal to sell Joseph into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring renewal.  What has changed?  In the intervening years, Judah has suffered and failed repeatedly, and in a moment of reckoning with his daughter-in-law Tamara, finally admits: “She—not I—is in the right.” As Cantor Kay Greenwald notes: “We are yehudim, the spiritual descendants of Judah.  Each of us has the power to learn and grow from our mistakes and our life experiences.  Each of us has the power to forgive and to be forgiven.”

In other words, we Jews are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Miketz: Remembering Ourselves, Reaching Out to Others

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Joseph is second in command over all of Egypt.  As such, he is extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, with access to nearly unlimited resources.  So why doesn’t he take the opportunity to reach out to his aged father Jacob, to let him know he is alive?  The commentator Nachmanides notes that dwelling in Hebron, Jacob is only a six days journey away.  Surely Joseph could at least have written him a reassuring letter!

Rabbi Yael Shy offers a psychologically-astute response to this question that speaks to the challenges of our own time.  She writes: 

Joseph's behavior is directly in line with most trauma victims, who repress large swaths of memory in order to numb the raw, un-integrated, and overwhelming traumatic experiences from their past. Joseph is doing his best to dissociate, consciously and unconsciously, in order to move forward with his life. He is building a new life, complete with new job, wife and children. His trauma, however, is still locked within him, untouched and unprocessed.

For Joseph to heal, for him to be able to forgive his brothers, he must first remember who he is. By the time Joseph's brothers appear before him in Egypt, Joseph has reconciled himself with himself. He has opened the door of his heart to the totality of his painful past, placing his trauma in a much larger framework. He tells his brothers: “I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not be pained, and do not let upset be in your eyes that you sold me here! For it was to save life that God sent me on before you...So-now, it was not you that sent me here, but God.” Joseph sees his journey - every shameful and painful part of it, as part of his path and God's unfolding.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vayeshev: A Time to Speak and a Time to be Silent

When we first meet Joseph, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach, he is a gifted and arrogant seventeen-year-old.  We see his brilliance in his capacity to envision the future by interpreting his dreams.  His egotism is evident in the way he speaks to his older brothers.

We read: “Once Joseph had a dream, which he told to his brothers. . . He said to them, ‘Hear this dream that I have dreamed.  There we were, binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright.  Then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.’” 

It doesn’t take a trained analyst to grasp the intention here; the text continues: “His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us?  Do you mean to rule over all of us?’  And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Joseph’s dream isn’t wrong; it is, indeed, predictive of events that will unfold over the following chapters, in which he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and his brothers unwittingly find themselves begging him for food.  The problem isn’t the vision—it’s Joseph’s youthful insufferable insistence on sharing it.  As the Italian commentator Sforno notes, “Not only did he tell them his dream in passing; instead, he insisted on their hearing it, which could not fail to intensify their animosity.”

In other words, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

The challenge, of course, is to recognize which is the proper course in any given moment.  Eventually, Joseph will learn to be more circumspect when needed, and his brothers will also grow in their ability to speak with respect.  That is the work of a lifetime.

Conversation Question:

Reflect on times when you mistakenly chose to speak rather than to listen.  What role did your ego play in your insistence on sharing what you might have better kept to yourself?  How do you better distinguish between times for speech and silence?