Friday, February 2, 2018

Parashat Yitro: Approaching the Cloud

One of the best moments of my week involved crying.

Crying with one of my children as the child cried, too, half lying in my arms. Before that moment, I had been walking around with a vague sense of hurry and worry. At that moment of crying, I was entirely at peace, sad, but entirely at peace. There was nowhere else to be and nothing better to do than this. Above all, I felt connected, connected to my child, connected to myself and that deep point of sadness inside me, connected to all the troubles and sadness in the universe, connected to the God who cares about all that sadness, who, as one of my students reminded me this week, is “the healer of broken hearts” (Ps. 147:3).

Sometimes it requires going into the sadness, not pushing it away, but actually approaching it, to feel this sense of connectedness. When Moshe approaches God on Sinai in our parsha this week, the Torah says that everyone else stood back, but Moshe approached the arafel asher sham Elokim, “the thick dark cloud where God was” (Ex 20:18). That is where God resides. In the arafel. In the clouds. In the moments of darkness and worry and confusion and sadness. Yes, of course, God also resides in joy, but here in our parsha, the pinnacle of revelation is depicted as a thick dark cloud. The moments that we run away from, like the people do here, those are the moments that perhaps offer the deepest of connections and revelations if we could only muster the fortitude, like Moshe, to approach them.

Ki shamah, ki shamah, ki shamah Elokim. The Israeli singer Shuli Rand sings a song about this passage entitled Arafel and his refrain is this – ki shamah, ki shamah, ki shamah Elokim. “Because there, because there, because there is God.” There, in that sadness, in our very brokenness, there, in the places we hide from, it is there that we will find God, feel our connection to Him, to each other and to ourselves. There, in the crying, in the thick cloud of darkness.

The Piasetczner Rebbe talks about moments like this as cracks in the soul. Normally we go about our lives with our soul covered over with a thick impermeable layer. Then there are moments, moments of intense emotion, whether sadness or joy, and at these moments cracks open in this covering. The goal is to use these cracks to fully access our soul and our connection to God, to fully enter those moments as opportunities for spiritual connection, moments when we, too, have the ability to approach the arafel.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Parashat Shmot: No Matter How Low You Sink

The rabbis say that the Israelites in Egypt had sunk to the lowest (49th) level of impurity when God redeemed them. Reading the parsha this year, I see what they mean.

When the Israelites cry out from suffering over their enslavement, their cries go up to God, but the Torah does not say that they were directed that way. They simply cried, but not to God, as if without a protector, as if they no longer feel they have that divine angel that, as Yaakov said at the end of his life, had always saved him from all evil.

When Moshe finds out that his killing of the Egyptian has been discovered, he is very frightened and runs away. He does not turn to God, beseeching Him to protect him as Yaakov did when he was frightened before he faces Esav. Moshe simply runs.

When Moshe names his first child Gershom, he explains, “I was a foreigner in a foreign land.” There is no God in this name. The naming is reminiscent of Yosef’s naming of his children. He, too, had been a stranger in a foreign land, but his names refer to God’s help – “for God has made me forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

It seems that the descendants of Yaakov, Yitzhak and Avraham have not continued their legacy. God is not on the tip of their tongues or in their hearts. They have indeed sunk low. And so it is that when Moshe does discover God, as if anew, through the burning bush, and is asked to bring back word of this God and His plan of redemption to the people, Moshe asks for a name – Who are you? I have no tradition of you nor do these people, apparently.

The people have forgotten God, lost sight of Him in their misery and lost the thread of their tradition of faithfulness to this God. Yes, the people have lost their connection, but not so God. God remains faithful. God remembers and appears and redeems.

The symbol of the burning bush is important in this regard. It is a bush that burns but is not consumed, like God Himself. He does not wear out; His love has not been used up by our ancestors; God’s symbol here is one of a never-ending supply of ardor and passion and connection. Most resources are finite and can be used up. Not so God’s love for us.

Sometimes, I think more often than we like to admit, we do not feel worthy of connecting to God. We are not necessarily on the lowest rung like the people of Israel, but we do sink pretty low. We forget God; we go about our business without paying attention to the divine glory around us; we don’t name the divine in our children; we don’t see their kedushah, their holiness. We are frightened and overwhelmed by difficulties and we cry out but not to God; we are simply hopeless.

If we add to this distance, this forgetting, a certainty that because of our forgetting we therefore no longer have access, no longer deserve to have God’s love, then we are doomed. We need to know that just because we have abandoned God, as did the grandchildren of Yaakov in Egypt, does not mean that God has abandoned us. Like the little light that would not go out on Chanukah, God’s love for us burns eternal without ever consuming its energy source.

Moshe was, in a way, the first real ba’al teshuvah. He knew he was “Jewish” on some level, but does not seem to have a tradition of what this means. He rediscovers the God of his ancestors and in this rediscovery, brings about redemption and the eventual revelation of the whole Torah.

Later, after the miracles of the exodus, when the people of Israel stand at the Sea and cry out to God, this time the Torah tells us that they cried out “to God.” The rabbis add: tafsu umanut avoteihem, “they caught up the art of their ancestors.” To return to such a call is to know that this connection can never be severed, to know that, like Moshe and his generation in Egypt, we will always have access, can always return to the ever-burning Source that is waiting for us to rediscover Him.

Friday, December 15, 2017

For Chanukah: On Just Doing Your Best

You do your best and God will do the rest. That is what my students told me was the message of a story we read last week about candle lighting.

The story goes like this: Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a famous miracle worker, one Friday afternoon notices that his daughter is sad and asks her what is wrong. This itself is a beautiful moment, a moment of compassion and caring and seeing the suffering of another (perhaps explaining why this rabbi had access to miracles). The daughter explains that she mistook the bottle of vinegar for the bottle of oil and lit the Shabbos candles with vinegar. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa responds: What do you care? The One who told the oil burn will also tell the vinegar burn. And so it was. The vinegar burned through the night and the following day and they took light from it for havdalah.

My students explained that what Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is saying here is that if you have done your best to do the right thing and fulfill God’s command, you don’t have to worry. You can set your mind at ease. God will take care of the rest.

I once heard a similar explanation of the Chanukah miracle. On that first day, before the people knew that this little jug of oil would last all 8 days until more could be made, on that first day, what did they think? Surely they were sad at the prospect of the light only lasting a short time, but they did not let this thought deter them. They simply did their best . . . and indeed God took care of the rest.

The same could be said of the military miracle. What hope did those Maccabee fighters really have to win? They just did their best . . . and God took care of the rest.

What about us? What are we sad about? Sometimes life is overwhelming and we feel saddened and anxious at the prospect that we will not be able to succeed in our goals. Sometimes we look at a task and think it is too hard, too impossible, requires too many resources (time especially!), etc . . . And this makes us sad in a deep existential way. The task is beyond us.

Indeed it probably is beyond us. But all we are expected to do is do our best, to make the choices that seem right in our very human minds at the moment, commit ourselves to be of service, and not worry about anything else. The results are not our business. God will decide. We are only tasked to play our part.

I don’t advise switching oil for vinegar this Chanukah, but it is good to keep in mind that such mistakes are human, and if we do them with a full heart of good intention, we need not be sad. All we can do is try our best to do what is right. The rest is up to the One who told the oil to burn.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Parashat Vayishlach: Shifting towards Peace

One kind act can shift the course of history.

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov hears that Esav is approaching with 400 men. Was Esav planning an aggressive attack? The Torah doesn’t tell us but Yaakov certainly thinks so.

The possible destruction of the future Jewish people is headed off by what? By Yaakov’s overflowing generous gifts to Esav.
(Of course there was also the prayer, which surely had an effect, both on Yaakov’s mindset and on the reality, and there was also his simultaneous preparation for war – security comes to those who are prepared. But those topics are for another drasha).

Yaakov shifts the course of history how? By a few she-goats. He takes the initiative here to change the dynamic of his relationship with his brother. Previously Yaakov had created a competitive grabby environment -- a sense of scarcity -- squabbling over birthright and blessing so that his brother was left with nothing left to “take” but Yaakov’s life. But now Yaakov takes a new approach. Instead of grabbiness, he is generous and giving, sending forth gift after gift.

And the result? The result is in kind. When you are grabby, others are grabby back. When you are generous, others are generous back. Esav is surprisingly magnanimous: “I have enough, my brother,” he says (note the term of affection or at least connection!), “let what you have remain yours.” If you have removed yourself from the race, I, too, remove myself and become your brother once again, with no aim of violence.

Sometimes that is all it takes – one kind act. One kind act that sets off a wave of other kind acts. We have all experienced this. Someone lets you in on the road and you are inspired to do the same for others. Someone greets you with a smile and it changes how you treat others for the rest of the day.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to (or literally, “drags” with it) another mitzvah. Normally we think this phrase refers to one person – I do one mitzvah and in doing so, that mitzvah leads me to do the next one. This too is true – I have set myself up on a good path. But here, in this week’s parsha, we can also see that this expression works externally, describing how mitzvot can grow from one person to another. Yaakov’s kind deed leads to Esav’s kind deed. We influence each other.

Yaakov knows from experience that you get back whatever you give out to this world. Not always from the same person, but it comes back to you eventually. He tricked his father concerning the younger and the older child and so he, too, was tricked by Lavan concerning the younger and the older child – tricked into marrying the wrong sister. So Yaakov understands – be careful how you act; it will come back at you.

In sending out gifts to Esav, he “reimagines” and restarts his relationship with his brother on new footing. What he is sending out into the world is no longer competition and tricks but generosity and gifts, freely given gifts with no expectation of a return. What he gets in return is also a gift – peace and forgiveness and the biggest freely given gift of all, life itself.

We often feel stuck in a certain mood or dynamic. Sometimes all it takes is the energy – considerable energy – to do something different, to do one small kind act. This one act has power beyond itself, sending ripples of kindness through the world, shifting things so that all those destructive forces of the “400 men” coming at us in this world turn loving and generous themselves. Maybe one kind act can save us all.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Parashat Vayetze: The Power of Awareness

אכן יש ה' במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי
Behold, God is in this place and I, I did not know.

Behold God is here, right now, and I am not aware of it. God is in the moment of traffic in the car and God is in the meal I share with my husband and children and God is in the moment of nervousness before I begin a class and in the moments of learning I share with my students and in the moment of sadness as I watch my child cry. And God is here with me now as I write these words. In each moment, in every moment God is present.

The question for us, as for our father Yaakov, is: Do we see Him, do we feel Him, do we remember to be awake to His presence? Yaakov slept and then “awoke” to this realization. We go through life alternately asleep and awake to the knowing of this truth. It is one of those things we once knew well– a déjà vu, perhaps a piece of the Torah we learned and forgot before we were born – it is something we know and forget, know and forget continuously.

When we know it, though, how powerful we are! We feel how strongly our life blood pulses with the divine -- we are capable of anything; we can open closed doors. Yaakov declares after awakening that this here is the “gate to heaven.” Shaar Hashamayim. As the Psalmist says, Pithu li shaarei tzedek. Open for me the gates of righteousness. Yaakov has done so. To feel God’s presence is to feel that this gate to heaven is open; it is to feel the flow.

In the next scene Yaakov manages to remove the heavy rock atop the well, a rock that normally takes a village to remove. The angels of God that went up and down the ladder in his dream symbolize the energy of this divine life force, this awareness and connection to God. Yaakov is capable of the impossible because he keeps himself constantly connected to this energy source. No wonder he has 12 children while his ancestors struggle for 2! Life flows through him.

Yes, when we know God is with us, our outlook is different. We are confident and capable because we are connected to the divine energy flow, connected and centered. Someone who works in a prison once told me that when she prays each morning it is for her as if she has plugged herself into an electric outlet -- she is recharged and energized, fortified with faith and a sense of the divine for whatever lies ahead. Yaakov begins his journey – which won’t be an easy one – with just such a charge.

Behold, God is in this place, and I, I did not know. How often we do not know, do we not see. May we remember to ask in every situation – where is God in this place? Can I feel His presence? Because surely God is in this place, too, here, right now, among us.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

On Sarah and Equanimity (Hishtavut)

We all have good days and bad days; some days we are confident and generous and upbeat and other days we are irritable and insecure and unkind. We are inconsistent; our moods shift with the winds and the situations around us.

Not so Sarah, at least according to the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet explains the famous Rashi on the first pasuk of our parsha about the years of Sarah’s life. The pasuk strangely says they were “100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of Sarah’s life.” Rashi explains the redundancy of the word “years” after each number as a sign that Sarah was the same when she was 100 as 20 and the same at 20 as at 7. On the words “the years of Sarah’s life,” Rashi says, kulan shavin letovah. “They were all equivalent in goodness. “

Sarah was consistent in her goodness. She didn’t have bad days and good days, bad years and good years. The Sefat Emet calls this the quality of hishtavut, “equanimity,” from the same root, shaveh, equal, as the word shavin in the above Rashi. They were all “equal” in goodness, says the Sefat Emet, means that whatever happened to her – whether hunger or barrenness or abduction by a king, and many difficult things did happen to her – whatever happened, she was the same, solid as a rock, steady and consistent in her goodness, imperturbable and unshakable.

This image of Sarah stands in contrast to the image of Avraham as a walker and mover – lekh lekha¬ was not a one time command but a continual injunction to keep moving and growing over the years, as he does both physically and spiritually throughout these parshiyyot. Perhaps Sarah was the stable rock amidst all this change? When the angels ask Avraham where his wife is, he pointedly says Hineh ba’ohel, “Behold in the tent,“ as if to emphasize this contrast; Avraham is running around bringing people in, giving instructions, getting cattle, . . . but Sarah stays put in the tent, a staked rooted place in a life of mobility.

We often celebrate the qualities of growth in Avraham. This Shabbat I invite us to celebrate the qualities of equanimity and stability in Sarah, to learn to be more like a rock or a mountain, to simply watch the weather change, to stand still and steadfast through the difficult moments of life – both moments of external difficulty and moments of internal difficulty when we are overcome by negative feelings – to simply stand fast and bear them all with equanimity and inner peace.

Peace and equanimity come to those with faith. There is the faith of running and changing and believing that you have a role to play, and there is the faith that helps you accept what is happening around you and within you with equanimity -- stable and unchanging, knowing you are not the primary agent of change and that things will happen as they should in their own time.
Up and down, young and old, good and bad. Through it all Sarah stood, unmoving, consistent in her years – kulan shavin letovah. In her memory, may we be blessed with this quality.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur: Let's Talk About Failure

Yom Kippur is an opportunity to talk about failure. This week wasn’t a disaster, but it was one of those weeks where nothing went exactly right and most of the time it was my fault in some way, as a parent and a teacher and a human being. And so I ended up with this gnawing sense of imperfection and a deep awareness of my own limitations.

This is a good way to enter Yom Kippur and I feel comforted by the day’s looming presence. On Yom Kippur I will remind myself, in the company of others and always speaking in the plural, that ashamnu – we have all sinned. I am not alone in my imperfections.

Not alone. In fact, we come together through our imperfections. It is in those messy places that we feel most human and vulnerable and in need of one another and it is in those times of imperfection that we can most fully relate to the problems others are suffering. In my failure, I connect. I feel the pain of failure of a thousand others.

I am also comforted on Yom Kippur by God’s steadfast forgiveness. Here. too, my awareness of my limitations actually opens up the avenue to connection. I need You, I say. I can’t do this alone. I am well aware of my flawed humanity and require Your presence and Your assistance to live this life. Anu amekha ve’atah elokenu. We are Your nation and You are our God. We are Your children and You are our parent. On Yom Kippur we achieve a level of intimacy and connection with God which we can only reach for the rest of the year. Why? Because we are sinners, we are failures, and we know it.

Part of what happens with failure is that, in breaking down the ego, it leaves us open to connect to something larger than ourselves, both others around us and God. The lesson of failure is to let go of the self, to let go of the need for constant perfection and our ideal image of who we want to be, to let go of all that, to simply do our best and feel how God and other humans fill in the gap. Perfection is a barrier to intimacy and to teamwork; awareness of our imperfections opens us up to both.
This week I am celebrating my failures. May God forgive us all our shortcomings.