Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parashat Shemot: The Calm within the Fire

The other day I told a friend about my frustration with myself at a certain persistent harmful habit of mind, a habit I was trying desperately to fight against. She said: Don’t fight it. That’s the problem. Just accept it.

I am confused over this issue. Should we strive to change (the world, ourselves, . . . ) or should we accept things as they are? My husband put up a sign on our fridge this week that says: Eyn adam met vehatzi ta’avato beyado. “No person dies having fulfilled even half of his desires.” This was certainly true of my father. He was a struggler to the very end. In fact, two weeks before he died, we had a lengthy conversation about techniques to improve a certain persistent harmful habit of mind of his. He died mid-work.

In Kaddish, we ask that God’s name be praised be’alma divra kere’utei, “in the world which He created as He saw fit.” Part of being a mourner, part of being a human being, is accepting the world as it is, recognizing that we are not in charge and that the world, and we, are exactly as God wanted us to be.

This is the feeling of Shabbat, and we carry it through the week with us, but still – we have work to do in the world on those other 6 days. So which is it – are we striving for change or learning to accept things as they are (itself a change of attitude)?

The burning bush of this week’s parsha seems a perfect reflection of the need to bring both of these modes into one space. The burning fire represents the drive in all of us to fix and struggle and change. We are strugglers, strivers, by our very nature, and this fire is a beautiful powerful thing. But we have to take care that it doesn’t consume us, that it burns brightly without destroying the essence, the presence, the stillness that lies underneath, perfect and untouched, whole and at peace in spite of the raging flames.

To walk through the world ablaze but unconsumed, passionate and striving but somehow also whole and calm, to know that we are neither free to desist from the work nor obligated to finish it, that is the balance we seek, that is what it means to understand one’s place in a world which God created as He saw fit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gifts from our Parents: Some Thoughts on Parashat Vayehi

The two parshiyyot in the book of Breishit whose topic is death are both called by names that indicate life: Hayei Sarah, in which Sarah, Avraham and Ishmael die, and this week’s parsha, Vayehi, in which Yaakov dies. At the very moment that we acknowledge that these ancestors died, we also proclaim something about their lives, something eternal that still lives. Their death somehow also points to hayim, life.

This sense of “life” after “death” is particularly true of Yaakov, of whom Rashi, quoting the Talmud, says, Yaakov avinu lo met. “Our father Yaakov never died.” This assertion is based on the lack of the word vayamot, “And he died,” in the brief description of his death: “He drew his feet into the bed, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (49:33).

What can it mean to say that Yaakov did not die? This parsha also includes the blessings that Yaakov gave his children on his death bed. The first of these, which he gives to Yosef’s children, has become a classic bed-time prayer, Hamalakh HaGoel Oti, “May the Angel who saved me from all trouble bless these lads and may they carry with them my name and the name of my ancestors, Avraham and Yitzhak, . . .” Yaakov continues to live because he has bequeathed to his children a legacy. He has passed on to them the legacy of divine protection and connection which he received from his parents and grandparents.

Yaakov made himself into a link in a chain, a chain that extends backwards to Avraham and forwards to his grandchildren and to their children and grandchildren, all the way down to us. Yaakov still lives in us. We, too, are links in the chain, and as such, we both draw life from Yaakov, and breathe life back into him. We are a part of one another, moving beyond death into a divine space of eternity.

But what if we struggle with this legacy? Can we truly be links if we struggle with God and with Torah, are often doubtful and uncertain, and engaged in battle? But that is precisely the nature of our legacy. It is Yaakov who lives on in us, the Yaakov who struggled on the ground, fighting with the angel, the Yaakov who made mistakes and suffered so greatly, and yet somehow felt that there was an Angel looking out for him. To struggle is be alive, and to struggle with tradition is to keep it alive. Yaakov lives on in us precisely in our struggles.

Vayehi Yaakov. As the Torah tells of his death, it tells also of Yaakov’s hayim, of his continuing life, of the gifts that he bequeathed to his children that lived on in them and helped them, too, be links in a never-ending chain. As I drive home from minyan after saying kaddish one morning, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of gratitude to my father for the gift of Torah. I look over at the Humash sitting next to me in the car and see, emblazoned on its front, the words, Torat Hayim, “Torah of Life.” Where there is Torah, there never really is death.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Parashat Vayigash: Reflections on Miracles

Where are the miracles in life?

I look into the light of the candles each night and wonder at the miracle of light itself, how it somehow seems to exist both in this physical world as well as in some other more ephemeral world. It is here to behold, yet it speaks to us of something also here, but not so easy for us to behold. Light seems to span the distance between heaven and earth, between this world and the next, between the living and the dead, the body and the spirit.

The Sefat Emet says there are two types of light, the divine sort that shines and gives light without consuming, and the human sort that burns and consumes and eventually runs out. The Hanukah light, he says, is powerful because it is a mix of the two. There was the small jug of oil that started the light --a human light that shone by consuming -- but out of that light also grew a divine light that didn’t require oil, that somehow shone without burning and lasted and lasted and lasted.

This is the miracle of Hanukah. As I glance around at my family, I feel that they, too, are part of this miracle. They, too, are a sort of light. I can feel them and hold them and see them, but they also exist in my heart, in some miraculous place of eternal presence that is not limited to physical presence. I carry in this place both those that are with us and those that are not; they live inside me like the little light that would not go out.

The parsha speaks of family reunions, of the coming together of the family of Yaakov, as Yosef is tearfully reunited first with his brothers and then with his father. Surely this is the biggest miracle of all, the ability to come together in love and forgiveness, to hold on to one another despite past grievances and irritations. Surely this attachment, this love, this connection between human beings is a kind of miracle, an eternal divine light that burns between us.