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)

 

Sunday
Nov022014

Parents Take a Step, Children Take the Next

G-d's command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 "Lech lecha - Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you" is one of the most powerful and significant verses in Jewish history, setting in motion a journey of peoplehood, ethics, and worship still in force today.

Yet the verses just before it explicitly tell us that Abraham's father Terach had set out already, to go to the land of Canaan (the mystery land is even named!). So we have to ask, why is G-d telling Abraham to "leave your father's home and go to a land i will show you" when his father was already on the way (presumably with son Abraham
in tow)?

This question could bear a number of answers. But I want to suggest that if we read it symbolically, then it can be taken as a statement of parents and children. Many, if not all of us, have traits and talents we inherited from our parents, but are able to take one step further.
Our parents travel a certain distance with their own skills, and then we get to travel the next part of the way and maybe even reach a destination they could never have achieved. Without them, however,  maybe we couldn't get there at all.

And our children will take this inherited spiritual material one step further too. So we should appreciate what our parents have done with what they were given, and that they have travelled the part of the journey that they could. Moreover, without them we wouldn't be who we are and where we are. Everyone does their part.

So Terach might not have known, or been aware, of why he needed to get up and go to Canaan. He might have thought he was going for trade reasons. But in reality, a deeper intention was carrying him along, part of the Divine plan. He was taking Abraham part of the way (to Haran, to be precise), so that Abraham could continue from that springboard. Abraham would eventually have to separate from him, per "Go from your father's house...", but, hopefully (and despite the deep ideological gap between the two), with deep gratitude for everything he had received.


Wednesday
Oct012014

Teshuvah, Time Travel and Alternative Universes

Rambam (Maimonides) in Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 2 says something a little odd:

Who has reached complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation of sin, and is able to commit the sin again, but nevertheless abstains due to Teshuvah alone, not due to fear or failure of strength.
For example, a man engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless he abstained and did not transgress - this is a person who has done complete Teshuvah

Can we ever be in the exact same situation again? The day cannot be exactly the same, the country cannot be exactly the same, the person we are interacting with is not the same* and our physical condition cannot be exactly the same. We ourselves are not the same person - we have had new experiences, we have new skin cells. It is never identical.

A few sentences further on, Rambam enumerates amongst the paths of repentance that the penitent "change his name, as if to say 'I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.'" This again seems to require an extreme - for the person to be entirely different, while everything else remains exactly the same. Neither option seems very likely. We rarely become entirely different; things rarely (actually, never!) remain exactly the same.

True - except in one, science-fictiony type scenario: alternative or parallel universes. In a parallel universe scenario, one travels down a different timeline where everything can remain exactly the same except for one thing. This is the archetypal "Sliding Doors" moment.

Teshuvah is a weird and illogical notion. Apparently we can go backwards, and wipe the slate clean of deeds concretely done. That should be impossible. It becomes much more logical if we view it as a form of time travel. If we make ourselves into a different person, then that new me gets to travel down a different time trajectory, where everything remains exactly the same (and, really, this is the only logical scenario in which everything remains 100 percent identical!), except me. I am a different person, and therefore I will act differently this time. Viewed this way, what we are asking when we do teshuvah and pray about it, is for G-d, who is beyond Time, to send us down a different timeline, one where that deed never actually occurred...

* * *

As a thought-provoking post-script, however, we can wonder how the change in action will affect the new timeline.There might be changes further down. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Teshuvah is a wonderful tool to erase damage to ourselves; yet, the things we do out of sin are also a part of us in a way. Can we become an entirely different person, a "good" person, without excising our vitality and what makes us human? Some Modern Western thought might suggest "no", ranging from the Clockwork Orange where Alex's treatment changes him from a violent but empowered human, to a helpless wreck who no longer enjoys classical music; to Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode "Tapestry", where Captain Picard goes back in time to prevent himself from engaging in a brawl and being stabbed in the heart, only to find himself in a new timeline where he is no longer the Captain because he is not a "risk-taker"!

Therefore, the challenge is to become that new person who did not sin, yet nonetheless retain the beating core of who we are, not surrendering what makes us interesting in this world, our unique strong self.
This is not an easy challenge! good luck

* The fact that the woman in this situation of illicit relations is deemed to be the same is an offense against the women's humanity, for how could she be the identical person as last time? In general she appears here as a passive object in the scene, which is a shame... if the man really has done teshuvah, will this not affect the woman too - we can imagine an entire scenario playing itself out, if we read this bibliodramatically.   

 

Thursday
Apr032014

Of Marriage and Sea

In a well known midrashic tale, a matron once asked Rabbi Yose son of Halafta, “How many days did it take God to create the world?” He replied, “Six”… She said, “So what has God been doing from that time till now?” He replied, “Sitting and making matches..." (Midrash Bereshit Raba 68/4).

The woman, says "That's all? I can do that!" and matches up 1000 menservants with 1000 maidservants. The matches are not successful, and they return with bruised eyes and broken legs.  

Immediately she sent for Rabbi Jose son of Halafta and said to him, “There is no God like yours, your Torah is truth, pleasant and superior. You spoke well.” He said to her, “Didn’t I tell you so? It may seem easy to you, but it’s as hard for God as the parting of the Red Sea."

At countless sheva brachots*, people discuss this odd statement. After all, there are many humans who have made successful matches, but very few who have parted a sea!

Moreoever - why compare the bringing together of two separate individuals with the splitting of the sea? These are two opposite energies, splitting and joining.

I think the question is a strong one, and though I will suggest some answers, it is worth continuing to think about.

One possible answer, is that getting married to someone inevitably means parting from something, and sometimes from many things: the past, our childhood, our fantasies, our complete independence... This process of parting, letting go, and maybe even mourning in some cases, is an important one. Once such parting has been done, the sea becomes whole again, and we become whole again, entering the new chapter and letting go of our previous single lives.

Another answer is indicated in the words (Exodus 14:27): The sea returned to its strength

Here, the midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 5:5) makes a word play on "to its strength" (לאיתנו) and mixes the letters around to change it "to its stipulation" (לתנאו). To the stipulation made when it was created - that when the Israelites would arrive, it would split.

Fine - but in the verse, the sea has returned to being sea again, unsplit. So why would the midrash describe this as "returning to its stipulation". It is rather returning to being water?

Perhaps because it is after changing in this way  that it truly fulfils the stipulation. It is a changed being, though it appears to be the same.

R' Shlomo Carlebach explains that we can take a lesson from this - that we should all be ready to change, for love, to step out of our rigid natures. And that is when we truly become who we were meant to be. See more here.

Returning now to the theme of matchmaking - in order for two people to come together, they have to change their natures, of being single and individual. They literally have to split open to make space for another person to walk through their center. This was the stipulation they were created with - that when this special person comes along, they will miraculously change and open. However, it is only when they return to being whole again in this new condition that the stipulation is ultimately fulfilled.

So when the matron tried to set up her menservants and maidservants, the problem was that none of them wished to split or change for their partner. Instead they wished to split their partner's lips and eyes! These violent images, coming in the context of love, indicate that love and marriage is not just flowers and roses, it is as earth-shaking and self-shattering as birth - and can be as fruitful. Whether we smile or cry from the growing pains depends on how we frame it.

And this is why it is difficult for G-d... asking humans to go through this for the sake of love. Compared to that, parting a sea is child's play.

 

(I thank Rute Yair Nussbaum for sharing her ideas, on which some of the above paragraph is based).

*For the seven days after a traditional Jewish wedding, it is customary to hold a meal in honour of the bride and groom, at which seven blessings (sheva brachot) are recited.

Thursday
Dec122013

The Jonah Epiphany

While doing a Bibliodrama recently on the book of Jonah, I came to a tremendously important realisation that helped me in my attitudes towards myself, and can also help us have compassion on others:

G-d came to Jonah and said, "Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent." Had Jonah been a good little prophet, he would have said "Ok", gone to Nineveh, said "Repent...", they would have repented - and that would have been the end of the story. Very boring story, and no book of Jonah. It was only because he was a bad prophet, running away from his mission, going down...then down... then down some more... that we even have the marvelous story of Chapter 1  of Jonah, with the amazing sailors and the process that Jonah himself goes through, continuing in Chapter 2.

Those sailors came to know G-d because of Jonah. It is only due to Jonah's "malfunctioning" that they all experienced the crisis of the weird storm and rose to its existential challenge. Jonah himself gets to, in the eye of the storm, stand up and declare "I am a Hebrew", which may represent a very important moment in his life - a moment he would not have had, had he been a good boy.

The lesson is that even when we seem to ourselves to be dysfunctional, to be running away, we are still on a meaningful journey and still impacting the people around us, possibly even in a tremendous way, as Jonah did for those sailors, and as the book of Jonah does for us. We are writing chapters of the book of our life, even if we ourselves do not notice any plot and character development in particular.

G-d will send us opportunities from within that escaping place, to be and to do, and we get to choose there too, just as we always get to choose.

For me, quite frequently feeling like I am running away from who I am "meant" to be, this really helps. Perhaps there are some other people out there who feel similarly.

P.s. Jonah (in Hebrew "Yonah") means dove, and my friend Chaviva Speter also notes similar lessons we can learn from the dove in the flood. The first time that Noah sends the dove, it fails to land. The second time, it does not fly far, returning with an olive branch. Only the third time does it fly free and not return. Just as Jonah failed initially in his mission, so did the dove, and so do we. It's part of life and we must keep trying.

Wednesday
Nov062013

Bread, Oil and Life Coaching - the Expansion of Abundance

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 180) instructs:

Do not remove the tablecloth and bread from the table until you have said Grace After Meals. Those who leave no bread on the table will never see a sign of blessing.

The Mishnah Berurah here notes that blessing cannot rest upon something that is empty, and that we learn this from the story of Elisha and the jar of oil. This is found in Kings II:4:

1. And there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets to Elisha, saying, Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord; and the creditor has come to take to him my two sons to be slaves.

2. And Elisha said to her, What shall I do for you? tell me, what have you in the house? And she said, Your maidservant had not any thing in the house, save a jar of oil.

Elisha tells her to gather many empty utensils, and pour out from her jug into these. She does so, and a miracle occurs, and the jugs keep filling up in abundance, until all the utensils are finished.

Elisha did not create something out of nothing, but rather expanded what was already there. This is a fantastic lesson for us and is consonant with the principles of life coaching. One major difference between life coaching and therapy is that instead of delving deeply into what's wrong and trying to fix it, life coaching looks to what is already there, the strengths and the positive that exist, and begins immediately to increase it incrementally, through action, through positive thinking and affirmations.

Though a prophet - whose job it generally is to aid people to do inner processes of repentance - Elisha here did not to go into why the woman was starving or the spiritual reasons behind it. He stepped in, said "What do you have in the house?" and proceeded from there. Similarly, we don't always have to go into deep therapy to fix what's broken in us; we can make positive change and that in and of itself can heal us and make us whole and full...

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says in his well-known Torah "Azamra" (Likutei Moharan 282), we look to gather the good points, from amongst all the negative. And when we gather those good points, true good is created and expanded, and together all the points make up a melody.

P.s. In parshat Toldot, when Isaac wishes to bless Esau, he asks him to bring him tasty food first, so that he can bless him from within the experience of savouring delicious food. I think this fits with the idea developed above, that in order to create expansive blessing, Isaac wished to get himself into a state where he was already fully inside the positive experience, of what there already was, and proceed from there to expand outwards to what hadn't yet manifested.
This principle is something some New Age philosophies emphasize (e.g. Abraham-Hicks) and I think there is great wisdom to it, to start with what there is, from where our souls can bless and thank G-d naturally.

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