Torah Blog

 

A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)

 

Wednesday
Nov232016

Fruit for fruit

Genesis 4:3

And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

Why motivated Cain to bring an offering of the fruit of his land to God?

Many answers could be given, but in the dozens of Bibliodramas I have done with this story, one intriguing suggestion pops up quite frequently: Cain had heard all about the wonderful Garden of Eden in which his parents started their lives, standing in stark contrast with the laborious, demanding life they were now living. He wished to get back to that Garden; he wished to get back into God's graces. 

So he reasoned: God became upset when my mother took a fruit. I will give back fruit. 

This has logic. Yet he is not successful - God ends up accepting Abel's offering and rejecting that of Cain. Again, many explanations for this may be offered. But perhaps one message emerging from this is that you cannot fix things simply by reversing them. If you have hurt someone with offensive words, you cannot simply say to them the opposite or "I didn't mean it" or "I was joking". Rather, a process of apology and genuine conciliation, and a true process of repentance, must take place.

This was Cain's mistake. He ought to have tried to rectify the root cause of his parents' sin inside himself. Instead, he thought a technical action would do the trick.

Abel, on the other hand, brought the choicest of his flock. In this he was putting God above his own desires; and this, perhaps, was a (partway?) rectification of Eve's sin in priveleging her desires above God. Hence, his was accepted.

 

Thursday
Nov102016

Make Shabbat Your Partner

Shabbat. I could barely live without it. In today’s insanely connected world, I need one precious day to peel my eyes away from screens and place them instead onto people, books, the sky! To reboot my fried brain. People all over the Western world are realizing the need for unplugging. They’re doing “analog weekends”, refreshing themselves before the week begins anew.

But Shabbat is hard for some populations – including people who are single, or lonely inside a bad relationship. For them, unplugging, disconnecting, can mean feeling very alone. I offer an idea that I hope is more than pleasant words or a flimsy bandage for a painful wound. And it is this: to make Shabbat our partner.

The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 8:11) says,

Now why did God bless [Shabbat]? R. Berekhia and R. Dostai said: Because it has no partner. The first day of the week has the second, the third has the fourth, the fifth has the sixth, but Shabbat has no partner… R. Simeon b. Yohai taught: Shabbat said before the Holy Blessed One, “All have a partner, while I have no partner!” God said to her, “The Community of Israel is your partner!

Knesset Yisrael, the collective of Israel, is the marriage partner of Shabbat. “V’yanuchu bo kol Yisrael” – the national soul rests on Shabbat. The beauty of Kabbalat Shabbat reaches its heights as communities sing Lecha Dodi in unison, greeting the beloved bride. We get ready for Shabbat, writes the Rebbe of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, as we get ready for marriage. We speak about it, buy and prepare food in honor of it, spend time beforehand reviewing our deeds and cleansing ourselves in preparation. We do our best to make the day exciting and special – by learning Torah, sanctifying it, putting on lovely clothes, having festive meals.

When we let Shabbat in as a real presence, spend time with her and greet her return with joy, then she can fill up our empty places, she can hold us in her embrace. She is there faithfully, week in, week out, through all the fluctuations of season, mood,  life. We might have a flesh-and-blood partner, or we might not - but by our very birthright, Shabbat IS our partner. Eternally so, G-d's gift to us all.

To me, Shabbat has a real presence, she is there with me, palpably.
Friday
Feb052016

Authenticity is not "Take Me as I Am." 

A well-known Midrash (Sifri Devarim 343:) recounts how God took the Torah around to all the nations to offer it to them.

Each one asked "What it is written in it?" and when they were told,  'You shall not murder.' 'You shall not commit adultery.' 'You shall not steal.', Esau, Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael respectively all replied  'Master of the Universe, it is in our nature [to do those things], therefore, we cannot accept Your Torah.'

And thus with all the nations of the earth, until finally God came to Israel and asked them: 'Will you accept the Torah?' They said, 'We will do and we will obey.' (Exodus 24:7).


I'd like to read this Midrash through the frame of two important keywords: Authenticity and Lack.

In the conversations with the nations, each nation felt that the Torah's commands would compromise their authenticity. It is in our very nature to do those things, so we cannot agree to it - we would simply not be us without that.

That was how they viewed it. But actually, the opportunity God was presenting to them was to hold up a mirror to their faces and show them that, in fact, these traits and actions they were clinging to were not their true authentic nature, and that on the contrary, these sins and indulgences masked a חסרון - a lack, shortcoming or flaw, that they did not wish to face.

Rather than confronting their shortcomings, the nations preferred to proclaim, "Look that's just me, take or leave it." So they could not even take the first step on the path to change and growth.

Authenticity does not mean just being who you are now. It means working to sense who is the greater you, and moving towards that with everything that you are. It is not standing still; on the contrary, it IS growth.

Our lacks and flaws, the Hasidic masters tell us, are the gateway to our service of God. If we can't handle seeing them, we can't even start.

Israel, that stubborn, downtrodden, complaining people, did one thing right: they said, we are willing to take a look at our shadow side, and grow from there.

Anyone who is willing to step into the service of God through their lacks, can receive the Torah. Anyone who isn't, can't.


* With thanks to Naama Menussi, in whose shiur this insight arose (February 2016 ).

Friday
Jan222016

The leap out of comfort: two women in contrast

In the book of Samuel we are told about King David's behaviour when bringing up the ark to Jerusalem, and his wife's reaction to what she perceived as his undignified prancing:

15. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the shofar. 16. And as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal, Saul’s daughter, looked through a window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart...

19. And he distributed among all the people, among the whole multitude of Israel, as well to the women as men, to every one a cake of bread, and a good piece of meat, and a flagon of wine. So all the people departed every one to his house. 20. Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, How glorious was the king of Israel today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the maidservants of his servants, as one of the low fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!

21. And David said to Michal, It was before the Lord, who chose me before your father, and before all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore will I play before the Lord. 22. And I will make myself more contemptible than this, and will be abased in my sight; and of the maidservants which you have spoken of, of them shall I be held in honor.

23. And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe speaks of "avodat ha-dilug", a way to serve God through skipping and leaping.

Here, King David physically skips and leaps before the ark, and pushes way beyond the comfort zone and norms expected of royalty by Michal. She shoots verbal barbs of sarcasm at him; but this type of conversation - sarcasm, criticism, inflexible conformism - is an infertile avenue, a dried-up way of being, as the book immediately informs us, juxtaposing this fact with her behaviour: "She had no child to the day of her death."

Contrast with Hannah, the barren wife of Elkana in Samuel I:I, who after years of fruitless pilgrimage to Shiloh, of weeping and upset, stands focused in prayer and makes a leap out of all norms and comfort, to make a bold offer: that should a son be granted to her, she would give him to God's service. Her womb is opened and she has Samuel, one of Israel's greatest prophets, followed by five other children.

When we don't cling to narrow, lifeless norms but instead allow ourselves to make uninhibited leaps - physical, emotional, spiritual - everything flows differently. New life can enter.

I feel sadness and compassion for Michael, and hope that at some point she did learn to let go and open up to joy, even if it was too late for her to have children.


* With thanks to Naama Menussi, in whose shiur this insight arose (January 2016 ).

Sunday
Nov152015

Pottage 

Genesis 25:

29. And Jacob cooked pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was famished. 30. And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I beg you, with that very red [adom] pottage; for I am famished; therefore was his name called Edom. 31. And Jacob said, Sell me this day your birthright. 32. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point of death; and what profit shall this birthright do to me? 33. And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Jacob. 34. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink,  and rose up, and went his way; thus Esau despised his birthright.

What stands at the heart of this scene is a moment where a man feeds his famished brother. This is an act of giving; and Esau clearly trusts Jacob, as one does not eat food from the hand of someone one does not trust. Jacob does not withhold the pottage and say, "This is mine. You can die for all I care." They are connected, and, as twins, their destinies are intertwined.

The Hasidic masters suggest a symbolism for Jacob and Esau as the "godly soul" and the "animal soul" inside us. One approach to the animal soul - bodily needs - is to try to stamp it out altogether through fasts and other ascetic actions.  But I have discovered that when I try to ignore or deprive the lower soul, it doesn't work out well.[1] The body has its own reactions to being ignored, and will manifest an illness or other symptoms until it is heard.

So the path to spiritual growth is rather one that has to take our "lower" needs into account, to listen to them and engage with them in their own language so that they are "happy" and "satisfied."

In the Torah narrative, Esau, the lower soul, is starving and at death's door. In a case like this, it is up to Jacob, the higher soul, to stop and feed him, for his nourishment lies in Jacob's hands. They are brothers, twins. Jacob cannot simply withhold the pottage. Thus, the higher soul cannot withhold from the body its rest, quiet time, food, social life, and the other things it needs.

However, Jacob also does not have to act and react only on Esau's terms. If Jacob knows that the birthright will be much better used by him, as a more evolved being, he can offer Esau what he needs (food) in exchange for what will nourish him himself (birthright blessings). That is both fair and wise, and good for both ultimately, because it is not good for the lower soul to receive too many material blessings, as it will only make it coarser and more material.

Thus, Jacob speaks in Esau's language to offer him what he needs, but does not give in to life on Esau's terms, rather doing what he needs to do to work on his own, more elevated plane. The higher soul must not simply surrender to the lower soul's demands; it must use its wisdom to offer an exchange, such that while the self is getting its immediate needs fed, the soul is free to pursue its higher agenda. Balancing these two souls is the key to healthy spiritual and physical functioning.

 

[1] Rabbi Aryeh Nivin's coaching approach similarly holds that the "lower soul" cannot simply be ignored, and must be worked with skillfully.