Thursday, November 19, 2015

Parashat Vayetze: The Ladder

I want to think a little about this dream that Yaakov has upon leaving home, as he embarks on his new life in Haran. He sees a ladder reaching upward to the sky, with angels going up and down on it and God standing above it.

I’m sure it means many things. Today, what it means to me is: Yankel, in this life of yours, you’re going to go up and you’re going to go down. You’ll have some good times and you’ll have some difficult times. Sometimes you’ll do the right thing and feel that you are climbing to the top of the world and sometimes you’ll be confused and anxious and feel that you are climbing only downward. Life is like that. But through it all, what will you have? God standing above the ladder, watching, looking out for you.

And so God explains, after introducing Himself: Hineh Anokhi Imakh. Behold I am with you. That is the bottom line here, Yaakov – you are not alone on this journey of ups and downs. You are not alone. Remember to tap into that when you need it.

Life is so complicated. In the narrative that follows, it sometimes seems to me that Yaakov and his family are not doing the right thing – his wives compete with each other for his love and eventually his children, too, will compete for his love to the point that they will harm each other. And in the story of Yaakov and Lavan’s sheep, it is far from clear that Yaakov acted in an above the board manner.

Nonetheless, God is with Yaakov. Through it all, Yaakov and his family do remember that one point – almost every name of a child is based on this intimate knowledge of the presence of God in their lives and how God sees each person’s pain.

Through all the ups and downs on the ladder of life, God stands above, present to it all, faithful and steadfast. The angels moving up and down between the human and the divine realms are like the breath that comes in and out of us at each moment. In and out. Up and down. The breath of life that connects us to our source above. In and out, in and out, a continual reminder of steadfastness, of our ability, like God, to ride through the waves, solid and firm in the knowledge of our divine accompaniment.

We desperately need that sense of steadfast connection. Sometimes we look for it in the wrong places, in the refrigerator or in our email – send/receive, like the angels going up and down – we want, we need to tap in to that feeling of connectedness; we need a “plug-in.” The ladder is a symbol of this plug-in, and like Yaakov, we would be surprised to learn, that akhen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh ve’anokhi lo yadati. Behold God is in this place, in this moment, in this emotional space, and I, I did not know it. Behold there is always such a ladder, with messages flowing in both directions, always there is such connection available to us.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Parashat Toldot: Only One Blessing?

The story of Yitzhak’s giving of blessings to his two sons is a story of blessing gone awry. When God blesses Avraham, the blessing is one which spreads outward positively to those around him --- I will bless you and you will be a blessing. I will make your name great and those who bless you will be blessed. Venevrechu bikha kol mishpahot ha’adamah. And all the families of the earth will become blessed through you. This is a blessing for Avraham and his descendants, yes, but by its nature it overflows to those around him. He is becoming a funnel for blessing to spread through the world.

Yitzhak’s blessings to his sons, by contrast, are of the zero-sum variety. If one person gets something, then necessarily the other does not have it. One brother will rule the other. From Yaakov’s blessing: “Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brothers.” From Esav’s: “You shall serve your brother. But when he starts to fall, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” When one is up, the other is down. There is only room for one winner. That’s why the two sons are fighting, grabbily, over the blessing.

What kind of a blessing is this that only one person can have? The words of Esav ring in our ears – Habrachah ahat likha avi? Have you but one blessing, my father?

Sometimes that is how it seems in life, that there is only one first prize and if someone else gets it, then by necessity I do not. Such a view pits us against each other in a tight narrow competitive race. Is that the nature of our divine blessing?

The competition between the brothers is interrupted in our parsha by another story, this one about wells. Here, too there is competition for scarce resources – the servants of Yitzhak fight with the servants of Grar over who owns each newly found well. Each side says, like the two sons of Yitzhak: It belongs to me, not you. Lanu hamayim. Ours is the water. The fights are so intense that the wells become named for such strife, with names like “Contention” and “Harrassment.”

Now, in the story of the brothers in our parsha, the competition ends in hatred – Esav understandably wants to kill Yaakov for stealing his blessing.

But the story of the wells ends differently. After a number of fights over wells, finally Yitzhak moves to a new place, digs a new well, and there is no fight over it. He calls this well Rehovot, from the root rahav, wide or expansive, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Space. A sense of the breadth of the world and all its infinite resources and possibilities. That is the answer to the competitive spirit. The knowledge that God’s blessings are never ahat, singular, but always rahav, wide and expansive, with room for many to grow and prosper.

Yitzhak had two sons, each with his own talents. Is there only one blessing to be fought over between these two or are there many types of blessings in the world, as infinite and wide as is God Himself and His bounty? How do we access this feeling of divine bounty and avoid the grabbiness and narrowness of feeling that we are all fighting to win the same single prize? Can we remember that the true divine blessing, like the one granted from God to Avraham is, like light, to be spread and increased at no cost, and that it is often only our own human distortion of this blessing that makes it feel like there is a single blessing to be divided among two sons? The well of "expansiveness" gives us a glimpse of an alternative, almost utopian way of viewing things, a glimpse of what is possible beyond the narrowness of yours and mine.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Praying for Help

To ask for help. That is the most basic element of prayer. To say – I am not capable of doing this alone. Help me to accomplish what I am meant to accomplish. Help me to serve You.

The first person in the Torah to pray such a prayer is not Avraham or Noah but Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. We hear his words repeated several times and maybe it is to make clear the importance of such prayer. “O Lord, the God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Avraham.” Help me to do what I came here to do – find an appropriate wife for Yitzhak.

Every day we say of God, in the blessing of the Amidah, that He is a melekh ozer, “a king who helps.” That is how we open our hearts and minds to prayer – with this most basic acknowledgment of our need for help from above.

We are, each of us, servants, like Avraham’s servant, who were sent out on some mission. We may not know the mission or its purpose, but we can feel that we are here to accomplish some divine purpose. And so our own prayers are similar – O God, please help me to succeed in my task. Or as the hazan (prayer leader) says in the beginning of Musaf on the High Holidays, heyeh na matzliah darki – Please help make my way, my path, successful.

There are days and there are days. On some days, we go about our lives busy and confident, without any sense of needing help. On these days, we pray in order to be humbled, to remind ourselves that nothing we accomplish we do alone. On other days, we feel overwhelmed and depressed over the impossibility of the tasks before us. On such days, we pray for encouragement and support, we pray to remind ourselves that we are indeed not alone, and we ask desperately for the help we need from above, feeling solace in the very act of asking.

May our way be paved and may we know how to ask for help in paving it.