Vayera (Genesis 18-22:24)

dsc00889When you imagine the wilderness, what do you see? 

What do you feel?

I have been learning and singing a song from the show Next to Normal called “I Miss the Mountains.”  The wife, Diana, has bi-polar disorder, has been medicated for years, and in that song is longing for the feelings she used to have as she experienced the highs and lows, including the feeling of  “wandering through the wilderness.”

It was interesting to have her words in my mind as I revisited this week’s Torah portion where Hagar gets cast with her son from Abraham’s home into the wilderness.  Genesis 21:14 “She went and she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.”

What is this “wilderness?”  Why does Diana long for it, while in Hagar’s story, it seems like such a lonely and undesirable place?  A friend recently posted a quote on Facebook, “At least pain is real. I mean you look around you see nothing is real, but at least the pain is real” (from the movie Pump Up the Volume.)  Ah, this what I think Diana means when she sings, “I miss the mountains, I miss the pain.” Diana misses what felt real to her.  She tells us so when she sings, “Everything is balanced here, and on an even keel. Everything is perfect, nothing’s real.”

Certainly, what Hagar experiences in the wilderness is real pain as well. With no water left, she places her child at a distance from herself unable to watch the child die from thirst. While the text tells us that God responds to the cries of the boy, God does so by opening her eyes.

Every year, I am drawn to this phrase, “opened her eyes” (Genesis 21:18) and what it suggests.  If her eyes only needed to be opened, then maybe there was something to be seen that she just wasn’t seeing?  The text doesn’t say that God placed a well in front of her, the text says that “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.” This phrase always suggests to me that there are always more possibilities available if we could only open our eyes and see them.

Maybe I am drawn to this phrase because I know those moments of living in the real, the real pain, the real uncertainty, the real loneliness of being in the desert.  Maybe I am drawn to this phrase because I love the suggestion that what seemed like a certain reality at one moment, can be shifted by changing one’s vantage point.  With our eyes opened, we may see something in our situation, in our wilderness that we hadn’t seen before.

Maybe this shift in perspective can only happen if we are living in what feels real, and when we are in the wilderness, accepting the pain and the uncertainty.  Maybe it is when we try so hard to change our reality, that we miss opportunities for seeing it with new eyes and discovering new possibilities.

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Lech L’cha

When have you embarked on a experience that led you not only towards a destination or goal but to a  discovery about yourself as well?

In this week’s Torah portion we read the iconic words that God says to Abram (not yet Abraham) Lech L’cha – go forth (Genesis 12:1). Simple words that can speak to us on many levels at once.

One of the wise teen students I teach commented in Torah study a few weeks ago that while the Torah doesn’t change from year to year, reading to reading, we do.  As I sit down to study this week’s Torah portion, I find myself once again drawn to the idea of a going forth, journeying, but in a new way.  A few days ago, I finished performing in a musical where I acted, sang and danced with love and joy onstage. Each time I inhabit a character and devote love to her relationships and her life, I come to feel connected to her. Each time I say good bye to her, her nightly journey and to the relationships she cared about, I experience the sense of loss of those loves and relationships in some way as my own.

The rehearsal and performing period itself was a journey, but more than that it is a process of discovering what I can do, what parts of me find expression when given the lens of a new character.

Rabbinic commentaries teach us that the preposition added at the end of the command,  the “lecha” to yourself, that follows the verb “Lech,” go”  is there to add a figurative dimension to the journey. This isn’t only a journey of moving from one place to another, but a metaphorical and metaphysical journey as well. Abram’s journey is moving from a world that interacts with God in one way to a world that conceives of God and interacts with God in a whole different way. Even more so, it is a journey into himself, a journey of self discovery. Lech L’cha is the start of a journey that is as much an inward journey as it journeys outwards.

At this moment, while I look backwards to something that has passed, there is a sense of growth and of movement forward. Reflecting upon what lingers in the aftermath of the show, the new friends, the new accomplishments, I sense an expansion of myself.  Elements of who I am showed up and grew through the filter of the character, and those parts of myself are now more open and available for me to see and access. I not only journeyed through the process of putting together a show, but I went into myself, and discovered new depths for feeling joy, love and compassion.

What journey geographical, metaphorical, metaphysical have you had recently that gave you an opportunity to learn more about yourself, to discover you frontiers and to challenge yourself to expand just a little?

D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:21)

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” says, Moses in Exodus (3:11).

When do we like Moses say to ourselves, “Who am I to…?” When do we anticipate how we think others will respond to us and let that influence our behaviors? How much human potential are we withholding because we doubt ourselves and our qualifications?

This week’s Torah reading opens with, “V’elu ha d’varim asher diber Moshe….” These are the words that Moses spoke…” The plural noun d’varim, words, things that have been spoken and the verb, diber, spoke, are related to each other sharing the same root although the ‘v’ sounds changes to a ‘b’ sound for grammatical reasons.

As the journey through the wilderness nears its end, Moses has thoughts, reflections and advice to share with the Israelites. In some ways it is like the long version of a parent sharing parting words with children as they head out for an evening.   It’s an elaboration of the phrase, “Be good, and behave.”

How ironic to have a the book D’varim (Deuteronomy) in the Hebrew, named for the many words Moses speaks in these chapters when it was Moses who forty years earlier said, “lo ish d’varim ani,” “I have never been a man of words…” (Exodus 4:10). Moses has grown from being a man of a few words to being an accomplished leader sermonizing his people before he sends them forward into the world without him.

Reading Moses in D’varim, one might wonder: why did Moses initially hesitate to be the leader of the people? Why did he question his value or qualifications?

I wonder if it was because he thought being a leader meant something different that the leader he would be.

Perhaps growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he thought a leader needed to be someone who stood with confidence, spoke loudly and with authority. He didn’t anticipate when he would turn to God and invoke maternal imagery as a metaphor for his leadership, the burden of carrying the Israelites (Numbers 11:12-13) “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant’….”

Moses couldn’t foresee how much time he’d spend saving the Israelites from God’s wrath by appealing to God’s compassionate side. Nor could he have imagined a leader who could calm God’s anger.  He couldn’t imagine a powerful leadership that different from the power of the Pharaoh.

Maybe when God chose a shepherd who cared for each of his flock, a man who demonstrated caring and nurturing, God also taught us that an open heart is more powerful that any of the other characteristics that we tend to associate with leaders.

Maybe, when we hear Moses speak after 40 years of wandering, maybe we are also invited to find inspiration in the story of someone who didn’t think he could, but did.

 

 

 

Matot- Masei

In this week’s Torah portion, (Numbers 30:2-36:13), the Israelites go to war.  Moses sends them to war with the Midianites to take revenge for that group’s seductive ways, leading Israelites astray from their way of being, and leading them to an immoral way of living.

Why a war? I kept asking myself as I read this Torah portion.  Why killing people?  In fact it is a massacre!  Moses commands them to kill all the men and all the women who had relationships with men.

Why such violence?  What role does this story play at the end of the book of Numbers, at the end of the journey through the wilderness just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and reach a place that will become home?

Maybe this new generation of Israelites who didn’t know Egypt have a capacity that the older generation didn’t.  Maybe this war has a symbolic meaning.

Earlier in the book of Numbers we don’t see the Israelites struggle at all.  We see them ready to give up. “Why did you take us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?” is the consistent refrain.  They fearfully resign themselves to their perceived dismal fate and can’t even envision a struggle of any kind.  They have no will for struggle.  They are spiritually empty.

The change that we see later in the book of Numbers is that the people are ready to step forward for what they believe. Two weeks ago, (Numbers 25:1-8) Pinchas took a stand against the Israelites who were defaming God’s name in the way that they cavorted with the Midianite women.  Last week the daughters of Tzelophchad came forward to ask that a law be adjusted to allow them to inherit their father’s land.

The Biblical narrative, filled with verbs, tells us what people or groups did, but rarely how they felt or how they perceived their world.  For example, back in Genesis, the evening before Jacob will reunite with Esau, he struggles with a stranger.  Many commentaries interpret this confrontation as an externalization of Jacob’s internal struggle with himself.

Is it possible that wars and confrontations with other nations aren’t only a historical narrative, but like Jacob’s struggle is a  metaphor for the Israelite nation’s internal life? Maybe fighting the Midianites is a way of externalizing the spiritual conflict of being seduced by other ways of living that are not part of one’s true self.

The Midianite way of life has been presented as counter to God’s commandments.  Maybe this last war that precedes crossing the Jordan into the promised land, crossing the threshold into a new beginning, a new way of being, represents the Israelites redeeming themselves from all the times they doubted God’s capacity to assist them and their own strength. Maybe an Israelite people ready to fight in order to follow God’s way is the act that tells us:  It’s time. They are ready.

Perhaps, just as the chapters that follow will delineate physical boundaries for the tribes and the nation, the people are ready to delineate their spiritual boundaries what it means to be God’s people.

So, I wonder what this means for us:  Where in our own lives are we feeling like the Israelites who came from Egypt, spiritually empty, weary and not able to see a better future ahead of us?  Where are we like the Israelites at the end of the book of Numbers, ready to define our sense of self, what we believe, and to expand spiritually?

Balak

I was driving early morning with my daughter in the car, on the way to the bus that would take her to camp.  Traffic slowed as we approached a highway intersection.  Intermittently the driver behind me would beep her horn and shake her head with exasperation.  I wondered where she thought I could go. I did leave a nice space between me and the next car, but wasn’t going any slower than the rest of the traffic.  Did she think that if I filled that space, we’d all move faster? As she continued to shake her head and beep her horn, she reminded me of Balaam.  In this week’s Torah portion, Balaam gets frustrated when his donkey goes off the path and then won’t move.  He strikes the donkey.  He beats the donkey; the donkey won’t move.  No matter how hard this woman beeped her horn, traffic didn’t speed up.

When are the times in life that we are beating a donkey that won’t move? When are we frustrated trying to make something happen and no matter what we do to influence events, it still doesn’t happen?

Balak the King of Moab has sent Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam at first refuses explaining that he can only say the words that God gives him to say, but after Balak persists, Balaam agrees to go. Though God in one verse tells Balaam to go, in the next verse God is angry that Balaam is going and sends an angel to block the donkey’s path.  Balaam can’t see it, but the donkey isn’t moving because there is an angel of God in its way.

I started to wonder, what if we were to imagine that it was an angel blocking us from making something happen? How might that alter our perspective?  What if it was symbol if goodness, or divinity that stood between us and what we expect to happen, how might that change our perspective on moving forward?  What if all we had to do was we open our eyes, as God will do to Balaam, and we could see ahead, and see some sort of good where before we only saw frustration. How many of life’s challenges and disappointments might we face differently if we could also imagine good or divinity where we otherwise only saw obstruction?

God opens the donkey’s mouth, and the donkey tells Balaam that he can’t move because there is an angel in the way.  Only then does God uncover Balaam’s eyes, so that Balaam can see the angel.  I wonder if our animals, or our vehicles could talk, what might they tell us that we can’t notice for ourselves?

When are we so certain of ourselves and our expectations, that we too can only see the obstacle and not the possibilities? When are we only seeing what’s wrong with a situation, and not imagining the good that might be hidden in the situation as well?  When in our lives could we benefit from opening our eyes and trying to see the good that might be part of what is thwarting our immediate goals?

So often we think that we need to do step 1, step 2 and step 3, in order to go from where we are towards our goal.  When one of the steps breaks down, we get frustrated. We are in traffic, and can’t drive through the other cars to reach our destination.  But what if we need only to uncover our eyes, and see that there are more possibilities, more ways of imagining the problem and its solution?

Chukat

A song has been in my head all week.  Actually one refrain from the song has been playing in a loop.  “Say something, talk to him, Say something, anything” it’s from a song in the musical Fun Home. I had the privilege to see this musical when I was in NYC just over a week ago.  A daughter wanting to communicate with her father about something important sings these lyrics.  The forty-something year old Alison has been revisiting memories of her father to try to explain why the beginning of her life as a lesbian coincided with her gay father’s suicide.  In this poignant scene, older Alison is remembering riding with her father in the car trying to reach him.  We see them sitting together.  He saying some things about himself, but not directly responding to her.  She is trying to find the words to connect with him.

The scene touches upon something that seems common to me in our human experience the moments when words seem to fail us, or where the disconnect between people seems to require more than language itself can provide.

I brought this experience with me into reading the section of this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses and Aaron to talk to a stone and tell it to deliver water.   Compared with all the speaking for God that Moses has been doing for almost 40 years, compared to all the things Moses had heard from God or the Israelites for the same amount of time, this seems like a seemingly simple task.  Just say, “Rock, please bring us water.”

 Why when faced with what might be the simplest task of his 40-year career as a prophet and leader, does Moses seem to fail?

Moses says instead, “Listen up you rebels shall we get water for you from this rock?“ and then hits the rock with his rod.   Instead of a simple, easygoing approach, Moses sounds angry and forceful.

God says to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not have emunah, trust and faith, in me…you will not bring this congregation into the land that I give them.”  All the rabbinic commentators interpret this statement as the delivery of a punishment to Moses for the hitting of the rock instead of talking to it.  One can’t help but wonder why after all these years of leadership, after everything that Moses has done, does this one infraction merit such punishment.

 When do we lose trust that our words, that speech, that just saying what we want, or need can make an impact? 

 When do we bring emotion and a forcefulness into our communication that obscures our main message? 

I wonder if it might be God’s intention to remind us that sometimes simple words are all we need.  Perhaps this story is to tell us that even when you feel that you are speaking to a rock, a stone, something that seems inanimate and impossible to change, even when something appears to be so concrete, that trust and faith in yourself and your message may still be a better tool that physical strength or verbal aggression.

Sometimes the additional force and fluster diminish the power of speaking simply from the core of our being.   Sometimes aggressive language turns the listeners against the speaker instead of honestly conveying the intended meaning.

In a world with a lot of words, and lots of bluster, with emotion coloring our communications be them public, political, private or familial, we can learn from Moses’ mistake. We can remember that having emunah, trust and faith in others, means being able to speak directly from one heart to another.

Maybe instead of energetically trying to make the rocks in front of us listen, we can connect from within, and know that we will be heard.

Maybe the way to bridge the disconnect that Alison feels with her father is to “Say something” simple and heartfelt.

Kedoshim

Quick: if I ask you to think of something holy, what comes to mind?

I am going to guess that you thought of something religious, something that is deeply embedded with meaning by those who are believers in the tradition, the Holy grail, the Torah, a church, Mecca, maybe the Pope.

Did you think about that time when you gave tzedakah (charity)? Did you think of that time when you judged someone fairly, paid someone on time, or when you showed respect for an older person or welcomed a stranger?

This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, weaves together religions rites and social behavior as it lays before us a path towards holiness. According to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, self-transcendence is when the sense of self melts away, and we feel uplifted, elevated. Could this be what the Torah means to be holy, to find transcendence, to surpass the self and feel connected beyond one’s own personal boundaries?

Where or when do you experience transcendence? In nature? Listening to music? In Art? In love? I often experience transcendence in deep connections with other people: in the moments of pride and joy that I experience with my children and my family, in moments of witnessing, receiving or giving empathy, compassion, and generosity, when sharing stories with a good friend. I experience it whenever I can let go of my self-consciousness to move or be moved by others.

In the Torah, the secular, and the sacred actions that might invite transcendence or move us in that direction have not yet been separated into those different spheres of life. By intermingling many different types of human experience under the heading of becoming a holy people, the Torah also opens the possibilities for all kinds of ways that we may experience holiness and transcendence.

The Hebrew Kedoshim, a plural word, implies a community of holy people. The plurality of the word also suggests that we all have the capacity to be holy. Recently, I have been reflecting on the way we live, so separate in our individual homes, with our own orbits, and how we live not connected to many other people at all. We see people as we go about our daily business, but when do we really connect? We are so busy working, and doing activities, when do we take time to invest in building connections with each other? How often do we say to each other that we should get together, but then don’t find the time. And, subsequently, when we could use a friend, support or help from each other, we don’t know how to ask, or how to engage in providing support.

In this Torah portion, religious rites and ethical behavior are both necessary for becoming a holy people. If we open the term holy to mean those moments of spiritual uplift, of self-transcendence, then how do we pursue a life that gives us those opportunities?

Perhaps, it can be useful for us once in a while to collapse our definitions of secular and religious, to move forward not with the linguistic labels for categorizing experience or defining our feelings and actions, but with an openness to experience without language naming it and interpreting it for us.

Perhaps as we read the moral code embedded in this chapter, we can view it as a compass for directing us towards moments of self-transcendence, of something holy.   Maybe if we do so, we can find each other and build a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.