Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Parashat Vayetze: On the Accompaniment of Angels

This week’s parsha is framed by angels. At its start, as Yaakov leaves home, running away from his angry brother, he lies down and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. The story then unfolds about his adventures away from home, in Haran -- his years of work for Lavan, his marriages and the birth of his many children. And then, at the end of this saga, on his way back home, Yaakov again encounters angels of God.

Angels at the beginning and angels at the end. Angels to my right and angels to my left. These are angels of accompaniment. They surround and accompany the story just as they surround and accompany Yaakov on his lonely, perilous journey.

But what good do they do him? What good does it do Yaakov to have had this vision of God and His angels at the start and end of his journey? God promises him protection in that initial dream, but other than one single instance at the end of the story when God warns Lavan not to harm Yaakov, we don’t see that Yaakov receives much benefit from the accompaniment of these angels.

Yaakov goes through an extremely difficult phase of his life here, symbolized by the repeated use of the rock in his story. He leaves home, apparently with no possessions -- why else would he use a rock as a pillow – and must work to earn his keep and his wives from Lavan instead of paying for them with gifts as his grandfather’s servant did years before with Rivkah. Work and hardship. Those are the operative words in Yaakov’s narrative. There always seems to be a rock blocking his way, as he is tricked by Lavan over wives and salary, toiling for 20 long years away from home.

So, I ask again, what good did those accompanying angels do him if they didn’t save him from such hardship?

Apparently, the purpose of accompanying angels, of a sense of divine accompaniment, is not to relieve hardship. Life is hard and angels don’t change that. What accompanying angels do is give one the strength to persevere in the face of such hardship. Right after Yaakov’s initial encounter with the angels in his dream, the Torah says, Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelech. “Yaakov lifted his legs and went.” Rashi, citing the midrash, explains, “Once he heard the good news that he was promised protection his heart lifted his legs and it became easy to walk.”

His heart lifted his legs. Those angels couldn’t change the fact that Yaakov had a difficult journey to walk. But they could help his heart lift his legs to the task, could give him the faith and confidence and security to proceed undaunted. They could “frame” his hardship, help him see it through the lens of faith, as part of a story that ultimately has a good end. And this knowledge, this belief that all will ultimately work out for the better, this knowledge helped Yaakov persevere through it all. It gave him the energy, the excitement and the optimism to lift a huge rock off a well, again and again.

If we, too, have angels accompanying us – and sometimes I think that we do -- they won’t protect us from life’s hardships any more than they protected Yaakov. What they will do is lend us the confidence and security to carry on with those heavy rocks, help our hearts lift our legs to the journey with a spring in our step.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Parashat Chaye Sarah and Thanksgiving: On Being Blesed with "Everything"

Thanksgiving offers us an opportunity to find a sense of thankfulness inside ourselves. Avraham is a good model. In this week’s parsha we read:

Hashem berakh et Avraham bakol.

“God blessed Avraham with kol, everything.” (24:2). Everything? All? How can anybody have everything? And moreover, what exactly did God add to Avraham in this week’s parsha that he didn’t have before? He already had a great deal of material wealth last week and he already had two sons. If anything, Avraham sustains a loss in the beginning of this week’s parsha with the death of his wife Sarah. What does it mean to say that God blessed Avraham with kol?

God blessed Avraham with the feeling of kol -- a kind of fullness and a kind of stillness that made him feel completely satisfied, as if he did have “everything.”

Avraham attained this sense of kol at the end of his life, after experiencing the near loss of his son and the loss of his wife. There is some deep connection between loss and fullness here, between a sense of the fragility of life and an appreciation for its very richness.

This is a parsha surrounded by death; at its start Sarah dies and at its end Avraham and Yishmael die. In the middle is life and continuity, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. This is the way we live, our lives surrounded by the shadow of death, by the knowledge of the limited nature of our time here. The trick is to use this knowledge, as Avraham did, to somehow help us feel the blessing of kol, to help us appreciate the richness of the moments of this life we do have. If life went on forever, nothing would have any meaning. It is the potential loss which makes each moment so exquisite and full and thick.

It is for this reason that our children elicit in us such deep emotions; we are aware that their childhood will pass, and so, at odd moments when we are with them, we feel a fullness of heart that borders on nostalgia for the present, a sense of how very rich and complete our lives are, a sense that at this particular moment, we do have kol, everything one could possibly ever want. It is the knowledge that this moment will pass that makes it so intense and full.

Such moments of feeling kol are not easy to come by, though. Avraham was blessed with them from above, and indeed, they are by their nature of a divine source. We are all headed eventually to the place where Sarah, Avraham and Yishmael go in this parsha. We are fleeting; we are a kind of nothingness. Feeling that sense of kol is a way of tapping into the divine, the eternal. It is God who is All. Nachmanides quotes a kabbalistic source that compares this kol to a tree created by God which nourishes and provides everything in the world to all. When we feel a sense of kol, we are touching -- we are a part of -- this tree.

In the grace after meals, we first call God, hazan et hakol, “the nourisher of all (kol)” and then we ask Him to bless us as He blessed our three patriarchs, all of whom were blessed with kol: bakol, mikol, kol. We, too, ask for such a blessing – not the blessing of actually having everything, but the blessing of feeling that we do, of feeling the richness and fullness and deep blessedness of our short lives. To ask God for such a blessing while we are thanking Him for the blessing of food is, in a sense, enacting our own request, teaching ourselves, through small acts like the grace after meals, to feel how very rich and full our lives already are, to be aware of the fact that God already has blessed us with kol.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parashat Vayera: On Divine Revelation

This week’s parsha begins with a divine appearance to Avraham: Vayera elav Hashem. “The Lord appeared to him.” We normally think – that kind of revelation happened only in biblical times; it is closed to us.

But the Torah is eternal; maybe there is something to learn here about our own experience of the divine.

Immediately after the proclamation that “The Lord appeared” to Avraham, the Torah tells us that Avraham lifted his eyes and saw 3 “men” in the distance. The relationship between these two events – the divine appearance and the visitation of the three men/angels -- has been debated for generations. Were they two separate events or one? Was Avraham’s vision of the three people – guests to invite into his home – actually the content of his vision of God or merely coinciding occurrences?

The two stories are woven together in a strange and complicated way. Even at the end of the narrative, as Avraham walks his visitors out on their way, God is at the same time informing him of his plans for Sodom. The narrative switches back and forth between the three visitors and God in a seamless way, giving one the mixed up feeling of a dream, with one character blending into another. The implication is that for Avraham, the two entities, whether or not they were identical, were certainly interrelated in some profound way.

Avraham saw God by seeing (and helping) other people. His vision of God did not take place in solitude, but as part of his interactions with others. At the same moment that he made himself open to receiving visitors into his home, he also opened himself to receiving God’s presence. The experience of helping others and also of being able to receive from others – as he received the strangers’ good message here—made him feel the divine presence on this earth.

My therapist once pointed to a particular person in my life and said – She was an angel sent to help you understand something new about yourself and the world. People sometimes are angels. Can we sit in our open tents ready to greet them and to hear their divine messages? Can we see that our interactions with others -- our ability to give to the other, to hear the other, to receive from the other -- these are all ways of seeing and experiencing God?

It’s like the joke about the flood. A man sat in his house during a flood and waited patiently for God to deliver him. A boat came by and the people in it called – Come on up. But the man refused, insisting that God would save him. The water rose and he went up to the second floor of the house. Again a boat came and again he refused. Third floor and the same thing happened, until finally he drowned. He went to heaven and said to God angrily, Why didn’t you save me? God said: What do you think all those boats were?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure it’s impossible to see God anymore.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Our Own Journey

People often wonder: Why did God choose Avraham? Unlike Noah, we don’t hear that he is a great tzaddik, “a righteous person,” before God speaks to him. So why did God choose him?

God didn’t choose Avraham. Avraham chose God, is the Sefat Emet’s answer. Notice that God does not call Avraham by name in that first call: lekh lekha. “Go forth,” He says simply. (Later, when their relationship develops – in the story of the binding of Isaac – God will call him by name, but here the call is more universal.) This lekh lekha call of God’s is present at all times and to all people, says the Sefat Emet. It is just a question of whether you choose to hear it and respond. Avraham was the first one who did.

This call is still relevant, in fact, essential. The Torah has been around for thousands of years now. We have a strong tradition we pass down from parent to child. And yet there is something that cannot be passed down. Each person, as an individual, needs to choose to heed the call. We should feel that we are each, like Avraham, discoverers of God.

Avraham was asked to leave his homeland, his birthplace and his parental home. We who are brought up in the tradition have no need to do this in order to find God. Or do we? Every person must make an Avraham-like journey. Tradition can be passed on, but faith in God, a religious feeling, cannot. It must be discovered anew inside each person.

And it can only be discovered by leaving something behind, says the Sefat Emet, by leaving behind the entrapments of our normal, everyday life. There is something about routine that makes one unthinking and unseeing. We need to somehow shed the impediments of the norm in order to allow ourselves to become a bri’ah hadashah, “a new being.”

This was Avraham’s strength, his ability to take a journey, to grow and change. He is not like Noah, a ready-made tzaddik, but he becomes greater than Noah over time, because of his ability to transform. By the the end of this week’s parsha, he is truly “a new being;” he has transformed his body – through the brit milah – and his name – from Avram to Avraham.

Avraham’s journey is a long one. He does not simply arrive in the land and it is over. The parsha details his many stops along the way. And the midrash names 10 different trials he had to overcome over the course of his lifetime. This command of lekh lekha, of walking or going forth, was an ever-present command of continued transformation, of never staying in the same spiritual spot.

Are we such travelers? Do we have the strength to shed the bonds that hold us in place, that keep us in the past? Do we hear and heed the call to go forth, to keep changing, ever becoming new beings, ever learning to see the world and God afresh, like our first ancestor? As the Sefat Emet says, the call is there. It’s just a matter of learning to hear it.