Friday, December 23, 2016

For Chanukah: A Little Bit of Light Goes a Long Way

Sometimes it feels like there is more evil in the world than good. At this time of year, there is certainly more dark than light. And some days the problems and the tasks – our own and the world’s – seem like they are more immense and numerous than our energy to deal with them.

Chanukah teaches that a little light can go a long way to dispel a world of darkness. Rabim beyad me’atim. The many [were given over] into the hand of the few. Maybe it’s true that there are more hours of darkness than light this time of year and maybe it’s true that there were more Greeks than Jews. But the few – the good, the light – nonetheless win.

Sometimes all it does take is a little bit of oil, a little bit of light, and the immense sense of darkness inside is gone. A small gesture of kindness, one tiny moment of connection with someone, a glimpse of a child’s joyful play – these little things can change our perspective so completely that the very same life which a moment ago felt impossible, now somehow seems manageable; bathed in light, our hope is reborn.

Maybe that is what it means to have faith, to believe that in spite of the odds, the many will be defeated and the light will always return. To have faith is to take steps to dispel the darkness even when it seems like all is lost, that there really isn’t enough oil to make it through all those days, to take those little steps anyway in the faith that one small jug of oil can dispel a whole world of darkness.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parashat Vayishlah: Our Enemies are our Angels

God takes different forms on this earth. When Avraham interacts with God’s messengers in the world, they are visitors, wandering strangers who are in need of hospitality. The face of God in the world for Avraham is the face of hospitality, of hesed, of people in need of help.

For Yaakov, on the other hand, God’s face is the face of his enemy, his brother Esav, with whom he has struggled all his life. Yaakov struggles with an angel on the night before he meets Esav, and the next day, when he meets Esav, Yaakov says: “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10). Avraham sees God in the face of his guests, while Yaakov sees God in the face of those he struggles and fights with.

We have different opportunities for seeing God every day. Is God in the face of the person on the street corner looking for some help? Can we also see God in our competitors, in those with whom we have trouble, who irritate us, those with whom we struggle and have conflict? Yaakov could not have finished growing up without this confrontation with Esav. Those we fight with help us in some way; they, too – no, they, especially – are angels sent from God to help refine us, to teach us where we are wrong, where we have work to do. Our enemies are our angels.

We have a tendency to think that God resides only in the pretty places in life, in the flowers and the trees and in the moments of peace and love. But Yaakov, the scrappy third in line, is a struggler, and for him, God appears also in the struggles and the fights, also in the face of the brother who swore to kill him.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Parashat Vayetze: On Restlessness and Yaakov's Dream

We are restless. Whatever we are doing is not enough. Where we are is not good enough. We think we should also be somewhere else, doing something more.

I think that Yaakov’s ladder dream is an answer to this restlessness. He, too, had a restless spirit, a need to grab and try to be where he was not even invited to be, and now he is running, fleeing from an angry brother.

The dream has these angels moving up and down the ladder. They aren’t getting anywhere. They are just going up and down in place. They are like our breath, in and out, in and out, no matter where we are.

The root yatzav, which means “stand” in a very solid, stable way is used here a few times. The ladder is mutzav and God is nitzav and then later, Yaakov builds a matzevah (statue) Even as he starts on his journey, he is learning something about standing and staying put.

What he learns is that “Behold God is in this place and I was not aware of it.” What he learns is that God is right here. You don’t have to run around all the time, running after your brother or running after the next professional or personal opportunity. God is right here, where you are. In fact, the only way to reach God is to stop for a moment and be present here. All that running is just running away.

And if you do stop and stand as still as a matzevah, a statue, and notice the angels of breath that connect you to heaven at each moment, in and out, in and out, the miracle of being alive, if you do stop, then what you realize is not just that God is in this place, but that actually everything -- all of time and all of space – are also in this place. Right here and right now contains inside it all of the world.

There is a beautiful midrash that God folded up all of the land of Israel underneath Yaakov’s still, sleeping body. The whole land is literally right here. We don’t need to go anywhere; just stop and notice and be present; the whole world is contained in any place that we are truly present . All of space is contained – vertically, the angels go up and down, and horizontally, God promises Yaakov the east, the west, the south and the north.

In such a moment of presence is also contained all of time. To be present in the present strangely also means to become part of an eternal time that includes the past and the future as well. Yaakov stopped in this place and felt God’s presence and so entered into God’s time, across time. God says to him – I am the God of your ancestors – the past – and your descendants will be numerous and inherit this land – the future. Standing still in the present means entering a time that is beyond time and connects you to all of space and to all of history.

Yaakov is understood to be the original inheritor of Shabbat and I think it is related to this dream, to this sense of perfect stillness that contains all. On Shabbat we inhabit a time and a place that are somehow beyond time and place, because we are connected to “The Place,” hamokom, God.

We get glimpses of this feeling – of a stillness that opens up into everything, where we can feel all of time and space collapsing and uniting and it is perfectly clear to us that it is all intimately interwoven into oneness. We probably do still need to run around most of the time. I assume the restlessness, too, has some purpose in goading us to action. But it is nonetheless helpful to remind ourselves as we set out on our journeys, like Yaakov, that if we are really present right here and right now, the whole world is here and we need run nowhere else to seek it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Parashat Toldot: What Would You Do To Get a Blessing?

Sometimes I think that the Torah, in these early stories, presents us not with an ideal to follow, but more of a mirror to see more clearly our daily insanity.

I think that is the case with the fight over the blessings in this week’s parsha. The phrase that comes to mind here is the modern Israeli phrase, ad kedei kakh? “To that extent?” Really? Is being the first born so important that we would fight in the womb over it, holding on to the ankle of our brother? Is it so important that we would dress or dress our child up in his sibling’s clothing in an elaborate scheme to fool the father? Really?

To what end all this manipulating? What is it that they -- and we -- are out there fighting for all the time anyway? What is it we are climbing over each other to get? A blessing? Is that how one receives blessings? By fighting tooth and nail and furry skin over it? What are we in this rat race in the first place for? And is it getting us there? Or is it rather, as Yaakov suspects, bringing a curse down on us instead of a blessing, all this heel-chasing?

These parshiyyot do present a few glimpses of real blessing, and they do not come as a result of these schemes but from quiet moments of peace with God.

One occurs when Yitzhak, after being involved in his own contentious fights over the ownership of a well [itself a symbol of blessing], finally sees that “God has made things expansive for us,” naming this new well Rehovot, “Expansiveness.” This feeling of expansiveness -- that there is plenty of water for all to share – is the opposite mode of the heel-chasing fight over the blessing in the rest of the parsha. And it leads to a real sense of blessing and peace – following this event, God appears to Yitzhak and blesses him that He, God will be with him and always bless him, and then Avimelekh appears again to make a treaty and they all break a meal bshalom, in peace.

True blessing does not come from the fight.

For Yaakov, true blessing comes to him in the beginning of next week’s parsha. Running away from home with nothing but the clothes on his back, he lies down with a rock for a pillow and finally does get a real blessing, not from his father, but from God Himself, who stands over him with His ladder of angels and promises him to be with him and protect him on his way.

We chase blessing constantly through all kinds of manipulations. We worry that we will not get what we need unless we hold on tight to the ankle in front of us and sometimes we even betray our own true identity in search of this ostensible external blessing. This parsha makes me wonder whether such seeking is helpful or whether perhaps true blessing comes from those moments of internal peace, when we are calm enough and expansive enough to feel God's presence and simply know that we are always blessed.