Make A Choice For A Change

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“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”

                                                                                                      – Rick Warren

What goes around comes around. Until you make it stop, that is. Sitting on the steps of a courthouse appeared to be a homeless man. As my husband, who is a lawyer, passed him on his way into the building, the man called out, “Hey Rabbi, give me a blessing.” First, what made this man identify my husband as Jewish – much less a Rabbi? A hat covered his yarmulke. So, besides sporting a beard, what identified my husband as a Jew? And while my husband is a Torah teacher, how did this stranger discern that?

Was this a brilliant entrepreneurial strategy on the part of the homeless man? After all, he certainly got my husband’s attention.   Or was he a messenger from God? Could the message be something to the effect that while my husband looks and acts like a lawyer on the outside, who is he on the inside? The homeless man could have been saying, “When I look at you, I see the truth of who you are.” Turn that around, and the question for my husband was – when he looked at the homeless man, whom did he see?  

After my husband had related this incident to me, he seemed to have second thoughts about the encounter – or at least it was still nagging at the corners of his mind. Yes, he engaged with the man and even gave him a buck, but should he have done anything else? After all, my husband has traversed those courthouse steps thousands of times.   Why was that man there that day, saying those words?

“Don’t worry, honey,” I reassured him, “if this was an opportunity you missed but were meant to have, it will come around again. It may not be that homeless guy or any homeless guy. Lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Just be on the lookout to encounter the Divine when you least expect it.” After all, one of our favorite movies is Family Man, where the event that transforms Nicholas Cage’s life came in the form of an angel sticking up a 7-11.

We have all read those stories where someone doesn’t realize the import of a particular situation, makes a mistake, and is told the whole mission of his life, the entire reason for his incarnation was to do that one very thing – which he didn’t do. But unless that person vaporized on the spot, what would be the point of his continued existence? I hope life is more complicated than that, and that we are always given the opportunity to choose and to grow. While we may fail any given test, surely the Teacher doesn’t stop giving us pop quizzes.

In Mikeitz, the epic narratives center on Joseph’s dreams, his becoming the Viceroy of Egypt and encountering his brothers. But the story-line I like to track is the dialogue between Jacob and Yehuda regarding Jacob’s reluctance to let the brothers return to Egypt with Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. If you recall, Joseph (who has not revealed his identity to his brothers) retains one of the brothers, Shimon, as a captive until the brothers come back with Benjamin.   Hearing this directive, Jacob was not going to let Benjamin go, and was presumably willing to allow Shimon to remain detained in Egypt.   At one point Jacob doesn’t even call Shimon by name and instead, in an impersonal manner, refers to him as “your other brother.”

Thus, it was the same family dynamic all over again. Once again, Jacob was making it very clear who was the favored son. Benjamin was his youngest, the brother of Joseph and the only remaining son of his beloved wife, Rachel. Once again, Jacob was showing a demonstrated preference for Rachel and her children – over Leah and hers, and focusing on the youngest children over the elder ones.

This time, however, Yehuda did not allow jealousy and sibling rivalry to drive a poor choice. Instead, Yehuda took the opportunity to make a radical shift in the family drama, stepping up to take sole and personal responsibility to ensure Benjamin’s safe return, even if he had to stand against the very might of Egypt itself.   Same exam. New grade. Lesson learned. At last. And it changed the course of Jewish history.

We all make mistakes, but the point is not to keep making the same ones. There is an axiom: “What you resist persists.” The lessons are out there and will keep coming around over and over again, until we get the message, own our stuff, see our truth, and make a choice for a change.  

 

 

 

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No Bad Angels – How to Creatively Engage with Stress

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The heart must face its tests. Only then can we discover who we really are and what extraordinary things we are capable of achieving.

– James O’Dea

No one gets through life without being tested, repeatedly. So when we come face to face with the terrors that can keep us up at night, how do we achieve grace under fire? “Vayishlach” contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. At long last, brother Esau is ready to exact revenge for the “stolen” birthright and has come with a small army to confront Jacob. In advance of that confrontation, Esau sent his “angel” to do battle with Jacob to weaken him before their encounter.

Jacob was no stranger to this dynamic, however. Clashing with Esau in the womb, Jacob’s earliest encounter with conflict began in utero. Born in the midst of a power struggle, Jacob lived a life that can be characterized as one challenging battle after another – more or less – what we would call “the human condition.” But is that such a bad thing?

The Dis-empowered Reaction to Stress

Some people engage stress by reacting in these polar opposites: they becoming super aggressive or even violent, or they abruptly disconnect. Others, however, take the middle road of passivity, where they try to avoid any form of conflict. Even at a cost to their well-being, vested interests or personal integrity, people who are frightened of conflict will cling to being “non-confrontational” to avoid difficult individuals or situations.

If you asked such people whether conflict avoidance works as an effective strategy, however, the honest ones would admit that it does not. Whether they become entirely passive or passive-aggressive, these folks are simply trading one form of suffering for another.

Similarly, have you ever noticed that the very people who complain so bitterly about wanting to be “free from suffering” seem so unbelievably attached to it? They insist that stress is an external and arbitrary imposition that keeps them from being happy – which is just so unfair! Offer them a solution, a new mindset, or a coping strategy, however, and they are not so quick to get on board. Oddly, we seem addicted to the very thing we say we don’t want.

Never Letting a Crisis Go to Waste

In “Vayishlach,” Jacob gives us a role model that takes the engagement with conflict to a new level of empowerment and transformation. In his earlier conflict with Esau, Jacob was not straight with his brother. (While it was pre-destined that Jacob would receive the first-born blessing, there is still much discussion amongst the Torah commentators criticizing how he went about getting it.) When it came obtaining the blessings for the first-born, Jacob did an end-run around his brother, which caused Jacob to have to flee for his life. Twenty years later, Jacob came towards his brother. In taking his family away from the household of his father-in-law, Jacob could have circumvented him again and avoided him entirely. This time, however, Jacob sent messengers to let Esau know he was coming. And in so doing, he set the stage for the encounter, because at last, he was playing it straight.

It wasn’t merely that Jacob didn’t avoid the conflict. Rather, he didn’t waste his time and energy resenting it, complaining or making it wrong. Instead, Jacob prepared himself to engage. While the text is translated as “prepared,” the term literally means, “repaired.” When Jacob centered himself with truth and integrity, he repaired himself. And so when this version of Jacob wrestled with Esau’s angel, he authentically engaged it “full-out,” and yet at the same time, he was humble. At the end of the nightlong struggle, when Jacob prevailed, he did something that seems to make no sense. Jacob asked the angel to reveal its name and to give him a blessing. Imagine getting mugged, and then asking the mugger for a blessing. How strange is that?

So what can we learn from this odd request? Consider this – if we confront a stressor with a direct encounter – face it, engage it and wrestle with it – then we can learn from it and even make it our teacher. It is then that it can become a source of blessing. Relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, re-frames conflict as growth waiting to happen. And as Viktor Frankl, said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

And so, stress will either open you up or shut you down. Those are the only two possibilities. If you choose to open up, you may stay engaged with the discomfort, but by wrestling with its meaning, you will see that there are lessons to be learned and that the pain can help free you to become a bigger, better and wiser human being. Like Jacob, you too can emerge from the darkness into the dawn of a new persona. Is that not a blessing?

An Attitude of Gratitude

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When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted

or take them with gratitude.

       – Gilbert K. Chesterson

So here’s a Trivial Pursuit question for you – which is anything but trivial: Who was the first person – in recorded history – to ever say “Thank You” to God? OK, I’ll give you a hint – the answer is in the Torah portion, “Vayeitzei.” And the correct answer (which hardly anyone gets right, by the way) is…our Matriarch Leah. Leah was the first person, in recorded history, to express gratitude to God, and she did so when she gave birth to her fourth son, naming him Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.”

Now this raises a pretty big question. Why didn’t Leah say “thank you” when her first child was born? Or her second and third for that matter? How was it that she waited until her fourth to officially thank God for this baby? At a quick glance, we are taught that Leah understood that her husband, Jacob, was destined to have 12 sons. Jacob had four wives, and so Leah did the math. When she gave birth to her third son, it seemed that she had been given “her share” which would have been the case if the 12 sons were divided equally among the wives. But this fourth child was a genuine surprise. He was unexpected. Therefore, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for this extra share over and above what she had perceived to be her lot.

But does this then mean that Leah was not grateful for her first three children as they were expected as part of her lot? Not at all! Leah faced a lot of challenges and was filled with insecurities within her marriage and her role in her family. Yet, she was simultaneously self-aware and communicated her needs to God, and with each child, she felt blessed that this baby was the fulfillment of her prayers.

When she birthed her fourth son, however, she recognized that she had been purely gifted. It was not just that she had prayed, and her prayers had been answered; but that God had provided her with the greatest blessing that she hadn’t even requested! This is the child that then received the name “Yehuda” for pure, unadulterated thanks. More so it is the reminder to us that we never fully understand (or sometimes we never understand at all) our situations and circumstances. But when we are grateful for what we have, then we find the meaning and purpose in who we are and what we are capable of.

This is why the Jewish people have been called by many names, but in the end, we are always “Yehudim,” “Jews” related to the name “Yehuda.” Judaism (Yuda-ism) therefore, can be understood as the means by which we can most fully express what we are at our core – beings who are grateful to God and who show that appreciation.

Ingratitude 101

Unfortunately, it seems that society has become more and more self-consumed, and one of the first things to go is the attitude of gratitude. This approach is a breeding ground for unhappiness. One of the ways we generate unhappiness is taking goodness for granted and focusing on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. When we take goodness for granted and feel that we are entitled to the good in our life, why should we be grateful? After all, it’s “what’s coming to me.” If we feel that we “deserve it,” then it’s not a “gift.” Therefore, we can’t see it as a blessing. Conversely, if we are not getting what we believe to be our “fair share,” then we will be pretty unhappy. And we certainly can’t feel a sense of thanks when we are coming from a mindset of “lack.”

The Pain of Comparisons

In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff describes a woman who emerged from her annual work review floating on air. Her boss said he was so pleased with her performance that she was getting a 10% pay raise. She immediately called her boyfriend to share the good news and, being elated for her, he promised her a champagne celebration when she came home.

As she was leaving work, however, she happened to overhear a coworker talking on her cell phone to a friend. “Can you believe it?” she said, “My boss was so impressed with me that he gave me a 15% pay raise – 5% more than the automatic 10% that everyone else got!”

When she heard that news, the 10% increase was no longer a cause for elation for her; rather, it only created resentment, discontent, and shame that she was not worthy of more. Since the 10% pay raise was what she was entitled to – and no more – she could no longer see it as a source of blessing and be grateful. Thus, a sense of entitlement kills gratitude. It helps to remember that many people are far less fortunate than you are – and are quite happy with what they have. I saw a sign on a dorm wall that said: “What if you woke up today only with the things that you thanked God for yesterday?”

When we understand that everything is a gift, we escape the trap of an entitlement mentality. And when we develop an “Attitude of Gratitude” then we can see and appreciate all of our many blessings. In the words of Melody Beattie:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

Heroic Humility – An Uncommon Common Virtue

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Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.

– Anais Nin

An American humorist once quipped, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”   Beginning with psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920’s, however, and promulgated by personality tests today, the theory is that there are two kinds of people: you’re either an “introvert” or an “extrovert.”

Introversion and Extroversion in the Torah

This concept is nothing new, however, as these personality categories are the very archetypes of our forefathers, Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, the prototypical extrovert, is associated with the characteristic of “chesed,” which means “kindness.” As the father of outreach, Abraham’s kindness, which manifested as an outward expression of love and benevolence to humanity, was directed externally.   On the other side of the scale is his son Isaac, the prototypical introvert, to whom is attributed the trait of “gevurah,” meaning “strength,” expressed as being inner-directed, reserved, and self-disciplined, even to a fault.

As any child of a super charismatic parent knows, growing up in the shadows is hard. Part of that is due to our worship of the extrovert. As Susan Cain, author of the book, “Quiet: The Power of an Introvert in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” notes: “A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious. Introversion is viewed somewhere between disappointment and pathology.”

Accordingly, following in super parent’s larger-than-life footsteps is almost impossible.   How many times does an innovative and groundbreaking venture fail, because the next generation is unable to keep the vision alive? And yet, it is Isaac, ostensibly the first “nerd” in recorded history, who in fact held it all together, and who was responsible for transmitting and promulgating Judaism to the next generation.

The Legacy of Isaac

In the few stories we know about Isaac, he was never the driver of the story.   The only narrative where Isaac was the main active protagonist was in connection with Abraham. After Abraham had died, the Philistines stopped up the wells Abraham had dug. Here, we read the story of Isaac digging up those old wells, and when the Philistines filled them in again, Isaac re-dug them yet again, until he ultimately prevailed. Like that’s a big deal? Actually, yes it is.

Toldos,” which means “generations,” starts out with the words: “ These are the generations of Isaac.” And yet, the very next sentence is not about Isaac’s children, but about Isaac’s father, Abraham. Typically, toldos refers to progeny; sometimes, however, it means one’s legacy.   In this case, the Torah directs us to look backward to understand the import of Isaac’s lasting legacy.

When to Cultivate and When to Integrate

Rabbi David Foreman, a popular commentator on Torah topics writes:

Isaac is about picking up the torch, about consolidating Abraham’s legacy, about re-digging the wells to keep his father’s vision alive one more generation. If he can do that, the vision is real, it has roots; it will survive. Sometimes your job in life is to innovate, sometimes your job in life is to consolidate. Consolidating isn’t as flashy as innovating; it takes great humility to focus your life on striking roots for a great idea that has been innovated by someone else. But that humility is heroic, and that perhaps was the legacy of Isaac.

In a society immersed in individualism, focused on the self, and permeated with idealizing the extrovert, we would do well at times to emulate Isaac’s humility and value the quiet hero. When we dig wells, we turn inward to reveal that which is hidden. When we tap into our deepest meaning, our inner strengths, and significant values, we can create the type of legacy that we would want to survive us.