Thursday, November 21, 2013

Parashat Vayeshev: Seeking Brotherhood

Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh. “It is my brothers that I am seeking,” says Yosef to the mysterious “man” who helps him along his way when he is sent out by his father to check on his brothers. This statement seems a deep truth about the Yosef story as a whole. The seeking of brotherhood drives the entire narrative.

The word ah, brother, and its various forms, ehav and ahinua and aheikha, appear 20 times in chapter 37. Something has shifted in the Torah’s narrative. Whereas in every previous generation, one son was in and one son was out, now for the first time, all will be chosen, and they need to learn to live together, as brothers. There can no longer be the amicable divorce of Yaakov and Esav. The book of Breishit ends with the reunion of all the children of Yaakov.

This is a difficult task, to learn to be brothers, to live together and love each other in spite of the uneven way life (and fathers) treat each of us, in spite of the resulting jealousies and the difficulties of various arrogant or violent personalities. Somehow, they and we, must come together.

Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh. I seek my brothers. I seek the peace that we pray for so many times in our services, the kind of peace that comes from a place beyond jealousy, beyond counting who gets one cookie and who gets 2, the kind of peace and love that sometimes, as here, unfortunately only comes after much harm and heartbreak and forgiveness. We are not there yet, either in the Torah’s narrative, or in our lives, but it is something to seek. Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kaddish Musings #2

Kaddish is not said alone. Not only are you in a congregation, with others responding to your words of heavenly praise, but, more often than not, other mourners are saying kaddish with you.

Sometimes that makes it hard. One says it at this speed, and another at that speed, and you are trying to listen and keep up and match your words with theirs, and the whole thing is an exercise in frustration. The chairs scrape against the floor, making it impossible to hear the other mourners’ kaddish, and you feel alone, out of sync.

Those are the difficult moments. But there are other times, times when a state of grace falls on us all. We say Yehe shlama raba, “May there be great peace,” and there is peace. We are miraculously in step with one another. There is a rhythm and a meaning to the words, and they rise up, on many wings instead of one.

That is kedushah, holiness. Devarim shebekedushah, “things of holiness,” like the Kaddish and the kedushah, can only be said in a minyan for this reason – kedushah is a state achieved together. We read about how the angels do it in the first brachah before the Shma – they call out to one another, facing each other, calling zeh el zeh, “this one to that one.” They sanctify God through their communal activity, through their ability to come together in His praise and do it as a team.

We are not angels, and not automatons. We are blessed with individual differences, but we also can come together, can work as a team, and when we do, we bring the holiness of God down to earth. And that is kaddish.

Parashat Vayishlach: Yaakov's Prayer

Katonti Mikol HaHasadim Umekol Haemet Asher Asita et Avdekha. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant.” This is the beginning of Yaakov’s prayer before he meets Esav this week. Katonti. I am katan, small. I have been given so much, and I am so small. All this abundance is not my own doing, but a gift from above.

How does this acknowledgment help Yaakov to face the difficult situation before him, meeting up with a brother who has in the past desired to kill him and who now approaches with “400 men”?

Gratitude – a deep awareness of the gifts one has been granted – helps one face many situations. With gratitude comes a sense of dependence on someone other than oneself, and also a sense of trust. All this I have been given; I trust that all will continue to work out well for me. Katonti, Yaakov says. I am small. I didn’t do it myself, and I won’t be able to face the next situation myself. I simply trust.

Gratitude also promotes a feeling of generosity. I have so much, I am so overflowing, that I will pass it on, let it overflow into the world and to others. And so it is that Yaakov, immediately following this prayer, sends out gifts to Esav. Yes, they are appeasement gifts, but they also represent his new attitude toward his possessions and toward others. Whereas in the past, he wouldn’t even give his hungry brother a bowl of soup without getting something in return, now he freely offers multiple gifts. Feeling his own smallness and great good fortune, his gifts overflow from him toward his brother.

Perhaps Esav felt this shift in his brother and responded in kind. We don’t know what his intentions originally were with those 400 men. Perhaps he was at first still bent on anger, but was softened by Yaakov’s display of generosity, and the change it implied, that Yaakov was no longer a wretched heel grabber, but had enough of a sense of blessedness to give blessings to others. Gratitude leads to generosity which leads to forgiveness and peace.

There is always something to complain about. Yaakov could have begun his prayer with complaint – he suffered so at the hands of Lavan, being tricked out of a wife and his wages and then being chased down by him, and now facing a brother who wants to kill him. He could have seen himself as deserving of better treatment. He could have said to God – I’m a pretty good guy – I’m big, not small – why do you do all this to me? But instead what he felt was gratitude for the gifts he had been given and a sense of humility. Katonti. And out of this feeling of smallness and an acute awareness of God’s grace and kindness, he gathers the strength to face his brother.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Parashat Vayetze: God in the Hard Spots

“Behold God is in this place, and I was not aware.” These were Yaakov’s words after his ladder dream encounter with God. It is a statement of spiritual awakening, of a new sense of divine presence around him. Where is “this place”, hamakom hazeh, and how can we, too, get to it?

The classical interpreters read “this place” as referring to Mount Moriah, on which Isaac was bound, and which will be the future site of the Temple. But I wonder whether we can’t read “this place” as referring to a spiritual/emotional place, the particular head-space that Yaakov was in that night.

And what “place” was that? A lonely, fearful, anxious place. Yaakov was running away from a brother who wanted to kill him, alone and friendless, moving out of the security of his parental home onto an unknown path. Vayetze – He had left his home, but he had not yet arrived in a new home, a new life. He was in a moment of transition, and moments of transition are frought with hardship. Like the hard rocks that Yaakov placed beneath his head that night to sleep on, Yaakov’s head was in a hard place.

What Yaakov learned and what we learn from this experience is that “Behold, God is in this place” – God exists, is accessible, precisely in such hard spots. Rocky times are, as Yaakov says, a Sha’ar HaShamayim, a gate to heaven.

The Piaseczner Rebbe says that every moment of sadness, of anxiety or worry, even the slightest sigh – these are cracks in the soul, openings that allow us access to the deep water within ourselves that connects us up above. Normally these holes are closed over, but when we are in a state of emotional turmoil, there is an opening, a sha’ar, a gate to heaven.

We don’t normally think this way. As Yaakov says, “Behold God is in this place, and I was not aware.” We are not aware that God is there. When we suffer, we try to escape, to cover over our feelings with work or food or other distractions. But the Piasezcner Rebbe says they are an opportunity, an opportunity to become closer to God. Step away from life for a moment and talk to God about what is bothering you. These are moments of great access. They are, as Yaakov experienced, a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven.