Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Parashat Vayishlach: On Fear and Prayer

Sometimes we are so gripped by a negative emotion – fear, depression, or anxiety -- that it overwhelms our ability to see flexibly and to imagine a positive outcome. This emotion becomes the lens through which we view the world, and we get stuck -- It is hard to get out of this state.

I wonder how Yaakov did it. In the beginning of this week’s parsha, we hear that he is overwhelmed by fear. Vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo . “Yaakov was greatly frightened and anxious” (32:6). He has just been told that his brother Esav is approaching him with 400 men. This is all the information he has. It is natural for him to view this information through the prism of a powerful fear – a childhood fear he has carried with him for 20 years after running away from this same brother who wanted to kill him.

At first it is this fear alone that guides Yaakov’s views and actions – he prepares to be attacked, splitting his camp into two parts so that “If Esav comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape” (32:9).

But this is not the only action Yaakov takes to prepare for Esav’s arrival. Perhaps if it had been, he would indeed have been attacked; sometimes we create our own destinies through fear; the world fulfills our worst expectations precisely because of this emotion and the way we have shaped our actions accordingly.

But Yaakov rises above this fear-tinged view of things. He sends out gifts to his brother –elaborate gifts of many many animals, which the Torah spends two full verses listing – in the hope, as he says, that “perhaps he will show me favor.” Yaakov was able – in the midst of an overwhelming fear – to imagine a positive outcome.

And by imagining it, he made it so. What was Esav’s intent in coming with 400 men? We will never know, but surely Yaakov’s ability to imagine that things could end amicably is what helped tipped the balance in favor of peace.

Whence Yaakov’s strength? Whence his positive energy? Prayer. Rashi famously points to 3 things that Yaakov does to prepare for Esav’s arrival – war, prayer and presents. Perhaps there is a reason for this order. Yaakov begins, gripped by fear, by assuming the worst and preparing for war. But then, after turning to God in prayer, he emerges with the faith to imagine a positive end, and the strength to make it happen.

This is what prayer does for us. It transforms us. Whether or not it has an effect on God is impossible to know, but it can have an incredible effect on us. Lehitpallel – “to pray” in Hebrew is a reflexive verb; prayer is a way of speaking to ourselves as much as to God. It helps us reshape our perspective on the world, to get out of the prism (and prison) of our fear and despair, and believe in the possibility of a positive force in the world.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Parashat Vayetze: Glimpses of Fullness

Holding one of my children and stroking her hair, listening to her breathing, I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me. We are both awake and very still. I feel full, fuller than I thought possible. There is nothing more I could want in this world than this child. Thank you, God, for this gift.

Amidst all the scheming and rivalry of this week’s parsha (and the last one) – between Yaakov and Esav, Yaakov and Lavan and Rachel and Leah—amidst all this noise is a moment of stillness and fullness, the birth of Yehudah, Leah’s fourth son.

Leah explains her first three sons’ names in terms of her restless striving for her husband’s love – “Now my husband will love me;” “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” and “This time my husband will become attached to me.” The birth of the child occasions here not a sense of fullness but a reminder of her essential emptiness, of a very basic absence in her life.

Something happens, though, with the birth of Yehudah, her fourth son. His name means “Thank you, God.” “This time,” she says, “I will thank [odeh] the Lord.”

The rivalry between the sisters is by no means over. Leah speaks angrily to Rachel in the next “mandrakes” scene: “Is it not enough that you took my husband that now you have to take my sons’ mandrakes as well?”

The strife continues. But here in the middle of the parsha, we get a glimpse at a possible solution – a sense of fullness so large that it overwhelms all competition. Strife is born out of a sense of internal poverty, of scarce resources. But gratitude grows out of fullness, the emotional equivalent of the cornucopia or the waves of the sea. There can be no fight here; there is plenty.

The Torah offers us a similar glimpse of breadth in the midst of last week’s similarly strife-ridden parsha. On either side are the stories of Yaakov’s wrestling of birthright and blessing from his brother Esav, but in the middle, in the story of Yitzhak and his wells, for one split second, we feel a sense of stillness, of contentment and fullness. Here, too, there is strife – the first 2 wells are called “contention” and “harassment” because of the fights over their possession, but the third is called Rehovot, or “Large Spaces,” for “God has at last broadened our space so that we may increase in the land.” A broadening or opening up of space – the sense that there is more than enough to go around -- this is the antidote to strife; this is gratitude.

Yitzhak says that God has at last broadened the space, but it is really our job to feel, to take note of its breadth, of the fullness of our blessings. Nachmanides suggests that those three named wells of Yitzhak represent the first, second and third temples. The first two are destroyed through strife and contention, but the last – the image of our hoped-for future – will be one of fullness. Indeed, the rabbis say that the in the future all sacrifices will be annulled except for the thanksgiving offering. There is something utopian about gratitude; it is an emotion that draws its energy from the fullness and perfection of a future world. Our ability to catch glimpses of it in this world, as did Yitzhak in last week’s parsha, and Leah in this week’s – to stand still enough to feel that fullness – is what brings that utopian future into our daily lives.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Parashat Haye Sarah: Seeing God in Each Other

Where is God today? In the beginning of last week’s parsha, the Torah says that God appeared to Avraham. Why doesn’t God appear to us?

Maybe He does and we don’t notice. Look again at the beginning of last week’s parsha – It says that God appears to Avraham and immediately afterward Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees three “men” and runs to bring them into his house. Avraham feels God’s presence through his interactions with fellow humans. The narrative switches back and forth between Avraham’s interactions with those “men” and his interactions with God, as if to indicate that they are of a piece; it is through Avraham’s acts of hesed (loving-kindness) toward these people – bringing them in, feeding them and attending to them – that God’s Presence in the world becomes manifest.

We learn the same thing from Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. He is concerned before going that the task – to bring back a wife for Isaac -- will be hard, but Avraham assures him that God will send “His angel” to help. Where is this angel? Avraham’s servant makes a deal with God when he gets to the well outside of the town, to the effect that God will make it clear which young woman to choose. Where do we see God’s hand, where do we see this “angel” in the story that ensues? In Rivka’s acts of hesed, in the water she so kindly and unstintingly offers the servant and his camels. Here are the signs of God’s Presence in the world, these acts of gracious caring, these expressions of a sense of higher purpose, of a belief that we are not just individual selves looking out for our own good. What could be more divine than that?

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there have been so many acts of caring and giving that it is suddenly difficult not to see God’s Presence in the world. The Sefat Emet says that Avraham was a channel through which hesed from above was able to be pulled into this world below. All around us are such angels, such channels of divine hesed. We are lost and someone helps us find our way. Someone reaches out, says the thing we need to hear just at the right moment. All around us are angels. The challenge is not just to try to be such channels of good for others, but to recognize, in the people around us, the presence of God.