Monday, November 30, 2020

Portion Vayishlach: Courage/Ometz Lev

In our tradition, to pray is to examine our deeds and intentions.  The Hebrew word for praying—l’hitpalel—is a reflexive form of the verb “to judge.”  For the Jewish people, prayer involves intense conversation with both the Divine and our innermost selves—which are sometimes one and the same.

Jacob rises to that challenge in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  Encamped alone on the far bank of the Jabbok river, he grapples all night with a mysterious being.  As morning breaks, this adversary blesses Jacob with a new name, Israel—One Who Wrestles with the Divine.  But who is Jacob’s enigmatic opponent?  Most of our commentaries suggest that it was the guardian angel of his estranged brother Esau.  But the twelfth-century sage Rashbam suggests that the angel is an embodiment of Jacob’s own inner nature, sent by God.  Rashbam teaches:  The Holy One answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his [or her] own opponent.

For Rashbam, this sacred encounter recognizes the essential nature of prayer as painstaking self-examination.  At its best, religious expression pushes us to grow.  Our Sages suggest that we use the words of the siddur as shovels to dig deep into our own souls and transform ourselves.  For us, as for Jacob, serious prayer demands that we see ourselves as we really are—and as we hope yet to become. This requires significant courage.

In the 2008 documentary Examined Life, writer and philosopher Cornel West muses upon the spiritual audacity inherent in this sort of self-reflective life: 

It takes tremendous discipline, it takes tremendous courage to think for yourself, to examine yourself. The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage. William Butler Yeats used to say that it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being I think in the end. Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope.


This week’s midah/character trait is courage—in the Hebrew, ometz lev, meaning “strength of heart.”  Time and again in Torah, God girds us with the words chazak v’amatz—be strong and of steadfast courage. This does not mean living free of fear; instead, it guides us to move forward through the fear.  Clear-eyed self-examination is almost always scary, but if our hearts are strong, we can muster the courage to look inward and grow outward.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

On an index card—or on your phone or other portable electronic device—write down Alan Morinis’s beautiful mantra for gratitude: Forward and upward, strong heart.

Ask some hard questions of yourself, that might lead you to do better work at home and in the world. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Portion Vayetze: Gratitude/Hakarat ha-Tov

For many of us, gratitude will be complicated this Thanksgiving.  The failure of our state officials to take significant action in the face of a catastrophic pandemic breaks the heart.  Sickness, and the fear of it, cast a pall over the usual seasonal joys.  Our holiday tables, often surrounded by beloved family and friends, will be filled with empty chairs.  It is dark and lonely out there.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches in this challenging year, how might we give thanks?  

Fortunately, this week’s portion, Vayetze, offers a powerful lesson for Thanksgiving and beyond.  We do well to look to the example of 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 all 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.”  (That beautiful name is the root of the word “Jew.”  We are called to be a people who are grateful.)

What has happened here?  How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing?  In his brilliant book, The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held notes: 

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 it should not blot out the possibility of gratitude.  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? 


This week’s midah/character trait is gratitude—in the Hebrew, hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”  Gratitude lies at the heart of so many of our regular Jewish practices, especially saying blessings.  Our tradition offers blessings—brachot—for so many activities, from eating (with different blessings depending upon the source of the food), performing mitzvot/commandments, and witnessing natural wonders and phenomenon, like mountains, rivers, rainbows and shooting stars.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously noted, “Just to be is a blessing.”  And the Chasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reminded us that gratitude roots out arrogance and resentment, proclaiming: Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.  Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

On an index card—or on your phone or other portable electronic device—write down Alan Morinis’s beautiful mantra for gratitude: Awake to the good and give thanks.

During this Thanksgiving week, repeat and meditate upon that phrases regularly.

Try to find something good in every situation, and acknowledge it as good. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Portion Toldot: Savlanut/Patience

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 what she knows from this God-given prophecy, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born.  It’s a painfully dysfunctional dynamic, which divides the family throughout the twins’ childhood. It finally comes to a head as they reach adulthood, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing he intends 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 much shaggier 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 before the boys were even 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 patience?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues accordingly: “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 act 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 seize our fate, to shape every detail of the course of our lives on our own timetable. My first inclination is almost always to try to assert control over my circumstances.  But as I grow older, I continue to learn that sometimes I can only gain what I desire by learning to let it go—to muster the patience to let God’s intentions blossom in their own time.  


This week’s midah/character trait is patience.  In Hebrew, it is savlanut, which contains the root sabal, meaning “a porter.”  What is the relationship between patience and porters?  Mussar teacher Shlomo Wolbe (as cited in Alan Morinis’s book Every Day, Holy Day) offers this insightful connection: The patient person is exactly like someone who is carrying a heavy package.  Even though it weighs upon him, he continues to go on his way, and doesn’t take a break from carrying it. The same is true in all the relationships that are between people: we see and hear many things that aren’t according to our will, and still we continue to be friends.

It’s hard to wait, especially under trying circumstances, which are all-too-common these days.  But as 2020 draws toward its end, we are going to need to muster all the patience we can get.  Healing our divided nation and restoring hope in the face of this pandemic will not be either quick or easy work.  But the weight will be lighter if we bear it patiently—together.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Mussar Torah Commentary)

This week, set an intention to notice the moments during the day when you feel challenged to exhibit patience. Pay attention to the quality of your feelings (irritation, anger, anxiety, boredom, or something else) at these moments.  At the end of each day, record your observations.  What learning emerges about the nature of your relationship with the midah of patience?  In what way does the mere act of noticing these moments and then reflecting upon them affect your capacity to practice savlanut?  

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Portion Chaye Sarah: Equanimity/M'nuchat Ha-Nefesh

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s effort to procure her burial place. Through this ironic juxtaposition of life and death, Torah invites us to ponder the makings of a good life.  

The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”  Rashi notes the awkward, long-winded phrasing here, and comments that it constitutes a subtle appraisal of Sarah’s life.  Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years?”  Rashi answers: “The wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”

But how can this be?  Can anyone really experience all their years as equally good?  On the surface, this seems patently false for Sarah. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then many years later finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him.  Sarah’s life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi.  

The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger recognizes this difficulty with Rashi’s commentary.  He teaches: “There must be differences, variations, and changes during a person’s lifetime.  There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age.  But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days. . . Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time.  Thus, ‘They were all equally good.’”

As the renowned rebbe of Ger notes, each of us encounters triumph, tragedy, and everything in between.  Our challenge is to find meaning in all of these experiences—good and bad, sacred and mundane, thrilling and tedious, pleasurable and painful.  Some years and days and hours are surely better than others.  But as learning opportunities, all are, in a sense, “equally good.”  To live consciously and conscientiously is to get the most out of every moment.  

In the Mussar tradition, this involves the midah/character trait of equanimity—in Hebrew, m’nuchat ha-nefesh, or calmness of the soul.  As Alan Morinis describes it in his book Everyday Holiness

Equanimity does not spell the end of our struggles, but rather is an inner quality we can cultivate to equip ourselves to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life.  The Mussar teachers want us to be a calm soul who is like a surfer who rides the waves on an even keel, regardless of what is happening within and around him.  Even as the waves are rising and falling, the calm soul rides the crest, staying upright, balanced, and moving in the direction the rider chooses.  It isn’t a kind of numbness.  You still register the ups and downs of the feelings but you stay awake to the experience from an undisturbed place.

Our challenge is to be like our mother Sarah, finding meaning and purpose in every moment, riding the waves with grace.


Mussar Practice for this Week:

Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “Rise above the good and the bad.”   When your emotions are triggered, recall that ultimate outcomes can’t be predicted or (very much) controlled, and return your mind and heart to an even keel.  Like Sarah, find meaning in every moment.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Portion Vayera: Chesed/Lovingkindness

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

Like most Americans, I am heading into this week with a great deal of trepidation.  In over forty years as a voter, I have never seen an election that provoked such division and vituperation.  No matter what happens on Tuesday night (and, perhaps, well beyond), the fear of violence is very real; indeed, it has already started, as a caravan of Trump supporters tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road.

Any hopes of healing this fractured nation will require what our tradition calls hachnasat-orchim—audacious hospitality that welcomes strangers and breaks down the barriers that divide us.  

For a model of this, consider our Torah portion for this week, Vayera.

First a review.  In last week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah, like countless immigrants over the ensuing centuries, left their familiar home (in their case, Mesopotamia) for a distant Promised Land.  Over the course of their journey, they met with numerous hardships along the way: unfriendly neighbors, war and strife, famine and hunger.

Abraham and Sarah’s struggles could have hardened their hearts.  But in the beginning of our parsha, we learn that, quite to the contrary, their suffering deepens their compassion.

Abraham is sitting outside the family tent in the heat of a sweltering desert day when he spies three strangers in the distance.  He runs out to greet them, bows respectfully, and declares: “Do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” Then he and Sarah jointly prepare a lavish feast for their guests, waiting on them with extraordinary generosity.  Later, these strangers turn out to be angels.  But Abraham and Sarah do not recognize this at the time; as far as they know, they are simply extending their hospitality to fellow refugees in need of lovingkindness.  Having been homeless sojourners themselves, their hearts—and their deeds—go out to those who now share that plight.


The soul trait/midah that undergirds the mitzvah of radical hospital is chesed—enduring lovingkindness.  It is not so much about attitudes as actions that provide for others, or what Alan Morinis calls “generous sustaining benevolence.”  Abraham and Sarah embody chesed—a virtue that we dearly need in this challenging moment.  The way to start is with small acts that make a difference, even—or especially—when you are not feeling particularly loving.  As Morinis notes in his book Every Day, Holy Day: “Our most valuable deeds of lovingkindness take place when we overcome an inner resistance and do the benevolent thing anyway.  It has long been understood that the heart follows the deed—do good for people, and in time your own heart is transformed into a vessel of unalloyed kindness.  The other benefits and so do we!”

Mussar Practice for this Week:

Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “My world on selfless caring stands.”   Then seek out opportunities to extend active support and audacious hospitality to others, in any way that might be helpful.  How, in this fateful week, can you be more like Abraham and Sarah?