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.

Yom Kippur: On Judgment: God's and Ours

If we want God to be compassionate to us, not to judge us too harshly but to slide over our transgressions, we need to act that way to those around us.

We usually think of the opposite dynamic – that we learn from God how to be compassionate. And of course, this is also true. We repeat over and over the 13 attributes of divine mercy on Yom Kippur, reminding ourselves of God’s essentially forgiving nature partly in order to remind ourselves that God is a model for us – God is forgiving; therefore we should be forgiving.

At the same time, we can also think of it in the reverse – not that we learn from God, but that, as it were, God learns from us, or rather, that we bring into the world particular divine traits through our actions; we draw down God’s mercy by acting merciful ourselves. We create, through our attitudes toward each other, the kind of divine presence we want to exist in this world. Do we want to live in the presence of a harsh judgmental God or a forgiving, compassionate God?

We make that choice by the way we treat others. It is so easy to judge. I was walking down the street the other day and a dog on someone’s lawn started barking at me. The owner was outside and tried to calm the dog down but did not apologize to me for the fright. This is a “pet” peeve of mine – that dog owners worry more about their dogs than the people that they affect. But as I walked away with this judgment in mind, I thought – if it were me, would I want God to judge me in this harsh way, simply for not apologizing for my dog? It was likely that the owner’s attempt to calm his dog was in fact an act of kindness toward me and he simply was too intent on this act to be able to apologize. Read in this way, I felt suddenly gracious, appreciative and sympathetic toward the owner. This, after all, is how I want God to treat me, for I know that there are so many occasions on which I should have apologized or given thanks and did not do so.

We talk about God moving from the chair of judgment to the chair of mercy. We need to help that happen by ourselves making similar choices – do we want to “sit in judgment” or decide to make a choice, to make a change, and move into the chair of mercy?

We have a thousand opportunities a day to make these choices. Sometimes it is a question of being dan lekaf zekhut, giving people the benefit of the doubt – we don’t have full information and should not be hoshed bekesherim, wrongly suspicious of the innocent. We don’t know so we should assume the best. Other times, we know or we think we know that something was amiss in the way someone else acted. Here, too, if we ask ourselves – how would I want to be treated by God in this situation, we will be able to find the motivation to move out of the chair of judgment and be a partner with God in drawing down the attribute of Mercy into this world.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts: A Collection

This year I have taken some old and new ideas about Rosh Hashanah and compiled them into a short booklet that can be printed for the holiday.

Here is the link to this collection:

Feedback is always welcome, on both form and content.

Ketivah vehatimah tovah. A good new year to all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and Parashat Ki Tetze

Underneath all the stuff, there is love.

In Houston, large swaths of the population have lost almost all of their worldly goods. It is hard to even imagine such a scenario – no clothes, no toiletries, no home, no bed, no computer, no lifetime of accumulated and beloved possessions.

Alongside images of these intense losses, we have watched acts of hesed, acts of love and kindness and bravery, often done by volunteers helping and rescuing total strangers. In our consumerist society, it feels as if the loss of all that stuff has somehow unearthed a renewed sense of connection and kinship.

Last Shabbat, in my Pirke Avot group we studied a line that my father used to repeat often – marbeh nekhasim, marbeh de’agah, the more possessions, the more worry. The more possessions, the more mental energy one needs to expend to protect them.

The Jewish tradition is not anti-material goods, but there is a sense that they sometimes interfere with seeing what really matters. One can easily become obsessed and anxious about material things to the point where the brain is no longer free.

In my Sefat Emet group this week, we read a beautiful piece about freedom. Spinning off on a passage in the parsha about tzaraat and remembering what Miriam suffered when we left Egypt, the Sefat Emet asserts that this notion of “remembering Egypt” means “remembering freedom” and that mitzvot in general are intended as good advice for how to be and remain free.

The examples he gives are material – we leave a corner of the field for the poor and give ma’aser and tzedaka all in order to learn not to become too attached to our wealth. This freedom must pervade everything we own, says the Sefat Emet, and so we put a mezuzah on the doors to our homes and tzitzit on our clothing, all to remind ourselves not to become too attached to these material things, and to instill a sense of freedom from the material.

The devastation in Houston is monumental and we cry with our fellows at their deep losses. Someone in my class said: you can either learn this freedom the hard way or the easy way. Let’s hope we are spared further lessons the hard way and remember in the rebuilding that, olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built on acts of loving kindness.