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?