Thursday, October 29, 2015

Parashat Vayera: To Pray for Another

“One who prays for another when one is also in need of the very same thing – he is answered first.” (Rashi on Breishit 21:1) So if you are looking for a job and you have a friend in the same predicament – you should pray for that other person to find one.

This principle emerges out of this week’s parsha: After King Avimelech mistakenly takes the “sister” Sarah, Avraham prays for him and his household to be healed and they all start having children. Ah – but a child is what Avraham himself is in need of! And he prayed for others to have children?! Indeed, immediately after this incident the Torah says that Sarah, too, had a child. It is as if Avraham’s prayer for Avimelech’s household somehow opened up the gates of blessing for his own. By desiring blessing for another, we bring blessing upon ourselves.

We often think of the nature of blessing as being limited and finite so that if another person gets the job or the honor it means that we won’t. This sets up a feeling of tightness and stress, of competitiveness and envy. We don’t desire another’s good fortune because in some deep way we feel it would take away from our own, especially in areas where we are very much in need ourselves. It is as if we are thirsty for water and so we don’t desire that water be given to another person – we feel that there is a draught and if another person drinks the water, there won’t be enough for us.

Avraham shows us that that’s not how blessing works. By desiring good for another, we actually turn the key that opens up the floodgates of blessing and lets it all rain down upon everyone – ourselves first of all. It is as if, by opening our hearts to desire good for another, we create a space of openness, a funnel through which divine blessing can flow into the world. And once blessing comes, there is no limit. It is not tight and limited, but open and never-ending.

Can we step into that mind-frame? When we pray, can we think of someone who we know is in the same state we are in, desiring and yearning and needing some of the same things we need, and can we truly pray for that person – really desire their good fortune without holding back? Whatever else happens, we will have elevated ourselves in the process, removed ourselves from the narrow window-frame of our own personal concerns and entered an expansive world of shared blessings.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Parashat Lekh Lekha: On Patience

Patience. It’s an undervalued trait in this society. Here I am on my third try at a blog post topic and I have lost patience, lost patience and faith not just in my capacity to write this one blog, but also in any future calling for Torah work.

How quickly we lose faith. How quickly we become impatient – impatient to know that all will work out okay, impatient to have clarity and direction and knowledge and expertise, impatient to arrive.

Not so Avraham our father. My own father used to say about Avraham (it was a running joke in our family because of the way he used to say it) – “400 years! What a long range perspective!” 400 years refers to God’s promise to Avraham that, though his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land, they would eventually return and inherit the land. Avraham had the capacity, the patience, to see to the end of a 400 year span, to wait that long for redemption.

And he waited, oh how he waited for children. Many promises and false starts, to the point where he must have wondered if it was really ever going to happen. That’s what happens to us when things take a long time to come – we don’t say – ok, it’s just taking time, but it will happen eventually. We look at the situation and say – it will never happen. How short-sighted we are. We want what we want and we want it yesterday.

That’s why, when God shows him the stars and promises him endless children for the third time (chapter 15), the Torah says that Avraham believed and God considered this belief to be a great merit. Not easy this patience. It only comes from being a person of true faith and trust.

Can we trust this way? Can we relax into the present, rest knowing that transformation does happen, even if in its own slow time? Can we lean into the journey and not expect immediate results, but yes – just be patient to see what comes?

I am reminded of another of my father’s favorite sayings, this from a different era of my growing up life – from my 20’s when I was endlessly dating and never finding the right person. Here the expression is in some ways the opposite – yeshuat Hashem keheref ayin, God’s salvation is like the blink of an eye. Meaning – change can happen suddenly and problems can be solved in a single moment by one simple change. Like meeting the right person to marry. One day you’re alone and the next you’re not. Or for Avraham and Sarah – one minute they had no children; the next they had one.

Impatience runs deep among us. It is a kind of idol worship – indeed it is understood to be the cause of the original idol worship, the Golden Calf, as they were too impatient for Moshe’s return. We are always wanting to see the end. We want to know that Moshe will come back, we want to know that all will be well, that there will eventually be a child, that we will eventually finish writing this dissertation or this book. This week I will try to learn a little from Avraham – to have faith that, whether in the blink of an eye or in a slow gradual way, the right transformations will come, and that to be impatient is to lose the opportunity to feel the Presence in the present as it is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Parashat Noah: In Memory of Loving Parents

Not everything depends on how you act. The world was violent and evil and God destroyed it with a flood, but after the flood God makes a brit (covenant) with all of creation that He will never again bring such a flood over the earth. This brit does not depend on people being good. God now knows that people have an inherent capacity for great evil. He knows they will continue to be evil. He makes His promise despite this knowledge, out of sheer kindness and mercy.

This is the first brit of the Torah and I think it is definitive – it is a one-sided promise by God to be kind. Later britot (covenants) perhaps involve a bit more of a give and take, but always I think there is that essential ingredient of undeserved divine kindness or grace. When God makes a brit with Avraham, He promises him that his children will be like the sky and the earth and that they will inherit this piece of earth and also tells of their future of both suffering and redemption. God does not make this overflow of divine blessing dependent on any actions on Avraham’s part. Yes, he chose Avraham because of his fine character – his faithfulness and divine-like kindness and pursuit of justice-- and God fully expects Avraham to teach his children these values, but the brit is not dependent on anything. As with the post-flood brit, this one is a freely given promise of kindness and blessing.

Of course the 10 commandments, the central brit of the Torah, most assuredly does involve a certain reciprocity. God says He will be our God and we will be His people if we listen and obey His laws and then He spells out what those laws are. But what is interesting here is that the people put God and this new “action-dependent” brit to the test almost immediately with the sin of the Golden Calf. And it turns out that God will be our God and we will be His people even if we mess up, even if we don’t always obey His laws. This brit, too, does not really depend on our actions, but is essentially a promise by God to stick with us. In a way, the law, the Torah, is not so much the terms of the covenant, as it is the gift itself, freely given by God to enhance our lives, much like the gifts of children and land given to Avraham in an earlier brit.

It all goes back to the nature of that first post-flood brit. There, too, it was after an initial pursuit of justice, a cycle of human evil and divine punishment, that God lets us see that alongside this justice the world is also run through freely flowing love and mercy, through the bestowal of gifts which we do not deserve and do not need to earn.

I am not trying to take away from our pursuit of goodness in this life. I think most of us are already engaged in that pursuit. But I think it helps once in a while to remember that love is free, that we don’t have to earn God’s kindness or love, that in fact we have an obligation to feel and appreciate the free nature of the gifts we are continually given.

This week is the yahrtzeit of my father, Moshe Shmuel be Shimon Tuvia HaLevi, z”l. And only a few days ago, my cousins lost their father, my dear uncle in Israel, my sister-in-law lost her father, and a community friend in Atlanta lost his father.

That’s what you lose when you lose a parent – free love. There are not a lot of people in this world who will love you no matter what. Yes, your parents have expectations for you (like God for Avraham and his descendants) and you often feel you come up short. But in the end of the day, the bottom line is – you are loved for free, not in exchange for anything in particular, but simply out of sheer grace, an overflow of the divine heart into the heart of the parent. May the memory of this type of love from our parents help us continue to feel it from them and from God, and cultivate it in our own hearts for our children and those around us. Not everything in life needs to be earned. May their memories be for a blessing.