Friday, June 12, 2015

The Power of Surprise (Portion Korach)

All that is beautiful, true, always comes as a surprise.  So retain the capacity to be surprised.  Once you lose that capacity you are dead.  If things can surprise you, you are still alive.  And the more you are surprised by things, the more alive you are.
                                    -Osho, Above All, Don’t Wobble

As we grow older, it is easy to become jaded—to lose our capacity for surprise.  Like the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes, we may be tempted to declare that nothing is new under the sun.  We come to view all that is currently happening through the fixed lens of past experience.  When this happens, we lose our capacity to embrace change and novelty and thereby calcify our souls and our selves.

Torah seeks to jar us out of such cynicism and complacency.  Part of God’s calling is to keep us on our toes, attentive and open to surprise.  Consider this week’s Torah portion, Korach.   It tells the tragic story of the most heinous of several mutinies launched against Moses and his leadership.  The leader of the rebels, Korach, is ultimately swallowed up by the earth, along with his followers.  In both the biblical story and the many centuries of commentary that follow, Korach remains a symbol of greed and bloodthirsty lust for power.

Yet, lest we get too attached to a simplistic worldview in which Korach and his company represent pure and everlasting evil, when we get to the book of Psalms, we find that twelve of the 150 psalms (42-49, 85, 87, and 88) are attributed to b’nai Korach, the children of Korach.  What a remarkable surprise: just a few generations after the father of all rebellions is severely punished directly by God, along with his entire family, we find that his descendants are creating magnificent songs of praise to God that merit inclusion in the Psalter!

This is an important reminder for us to resist our negative preconceptions based on past experience.  If we seek to experience beauty—in music and art and poetry and, really, any aspect of life—we must be prepared to be surprised at its often deeply unexpected origins.    Life is far stranger than we often give it credit for being—thank God!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Narrow Bridge (Portion Shelach L'chah)

The whole world is a very narrow bridge—and the main thing is not to. . .

I love this analogy from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which captures the risk and reward of living mindfully.  I think I’ve always identified with this teaching because I have a strong fear of heights.  My biggest challenge when I trekked in Nepal six years ago was crossing the numerous high—and very narrow—swaying suspension bridges that the trail took to make its way across deep Himalayan canyons.  Anticipating this difficulty after reading the maps and guidebooks, I spent hours prepping for the trip.  I met with a therapist who taught me the visualization and guided meditation techniques that enabled me to overcome my trepidation.  It was not easy but I made it.

But even after all of my preparation, with many miles—and narrow bridges—behind me, it was not easy.  I never really got past my fear.  I just powered through it.

This is why I’ve left off the end of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching, which is usually phrased “and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”  These words have never made sense to me.  We all have fear—that’s the human condition.  The main thing is not to be fearless, but, rather, to refuse to give our fear the last word.  And it turns out, Rabbi Nachman (not surprisingly) knew this very well, as scholars have found alternative versions of this quote with the word l’hitpached replacing the more common l’fached—meaning, “and the main thing is not to be paralyzed by one’s fear.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach L’chah, Moses sends out twelve scouts to reconnoiter the Promised Land.  All of them see a place of abundance, but they do not agree on their assessment of the inhabitants of the land—and the prospects for success if the Israelites decide to invade.  Ten of the twelve urge a hasty retreat.  They spread fear among their people, insisting: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  The people that we saw in it are men of great size. . . .We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  Only two scouts—Joshua and Caleb—keep the faith and urge, “Let us by all means go up and gain possession of the land.”  Unfortunately, the masses of Israelites follow the pessimistic and fearful majority.  They complain bitterly, railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to go forward into Canaan.  As a consequence of their rebellion, God decrees that this entire generation must die out before the Israelites can finally enter the Promised Land.  Forty years of wandering ensue.

What was the difference between Joshua and Caleb and the rest of the scouts (and the Israelites who followed them)?  I suspect Joshua and Caleb were also afraid.  But they overcame their fear and urged others to do the same.  Yes, the world is a very narrow bridge, and there is no shame in fear.  But if we wish to cross over to new things—to grow as people—then the main thing is to remember that we can move forward despite our fear.