Va’eira: Why Making Redemption a Daily Habit is Good for You

imagesOne sure way to make people avoid you is if you continue to live in the past and refuse to move on from a painful experience. Catching a cheating spouse will certainly garner sympathy, for example, but if it’s been years and the infidelity is still an on-going complaint, your circle of friends may whittle down to like-minded whiners. Even the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1) urges us to move on. “To everything, there is a seasoncan be seen as a Biblical exhortation to “go with the flow.”  

Many Jews, however, recite daily the “Six Remembrances,” one of which is to “remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:3).   For starters, I already have enough on my plate in the morning. Besides, we do this anyway at great length during the Passover Seder – so why ruminate about it daily?

In Va’eira, God tells Moses the four ways that He will redeem the Jewish people. So redemption is not a one-step process. Exiting the narrow spiritual confines of Egypt paves the way to go towards the expansiveness of connection and service to God.   Leaving negativity is not an end unto itself but a precursor to embracing positivity.

Nor is redemption a once and done event but rather an inquiry and reflection into the false mental constructs that enslave us for our entire lives. If you are having trouble making the positive changes you want for yourself and your relationships, it may pay to look at each component of the 4-step redemptive process as described in Va’eira:

  • I shall take you out from under the burdens.”

Commit to Stopping.

This refers to God stopping the hard labor. While the Ten Plagues occurred over a period of time, before the Jews leaving Egypt, the physical burden of slavery came to an end.

Select a negative behavior you want to shift that is challenging but doable. State your goal in the positive. For example, instead of saying you want to stop yelling at your kids, you would say that you want to show more patience and love. And you have to genuinely full-out commit to stopping the unwanted behavior and not repeating it. (Of course you won’t be 100% perfect, but you can’t merely be paying lip service to this and expect it to be effective.)

If you find yourself, however, unable to stop repeating old patterns, honestly check whether you have placed a high enough value on the change you want to see. How important it is and what would be possible for you and your relationships if the troublesome issue were handled? What could you “be” “do” or “have” in your life if you made this change? How would you feel? Take the time to imagine this as being real for you.

  • “I shall rescue you.

Avoid temptation and come up with an if/then strategy.

This refers to God taking us out of the very land of Egypt.

If you can avoid the place or circumstances that tempt you, you should. Weight Watchers has a great saying to help people avoid buying groceries that contain forbidden food items – “Don’t bring your enemies home with you.” But seriously, the key to adopting any new behavior is having a strategy for dealing with what inevitably gets in the way. Take time to think about the obstacles that trip you up – both externally and internally? Think about the ways you give yourself permission not to honor your goals, and how you justify yourself. And then make a plan, such as – if that thing happens to you to derail you, then what will you do or say to yourself overcome it?

  • I shall redeem you.”

Look under the hood.

This refers to the deeper levels of our mental schema. It’s one thing to take a Jew out of Egypt but quite another to take Egypt out of the Jew. The Jewish people had to be rebuilt from the ground up, to unlearn the internal constructs of slavery, “upgrade their operating system” and to understand what it means to be truly holy.

“Fake it till you make it” is a methodology whereby if you keep doing something externally, eventually it will become a valid internal reality. I’ve never had much luck with that. If you are having real difficulty in realizing your goals, you may need to get to the root of the hidden beliefs and the fears that are blocking you. Unless you tune into the whispers of your inner voices, you can get very frustrated and not even know why. So having trouble with making a positive change doesn’t mean you are a loser or incapable of change, but that you need to figure it out, and I stand for the proposition that it’s all figureouttable.

  • I shall take you to Me for a people.”

Step into your higher purpose.

If you saw the movie The Matrix, when the humans finally won the war against the machines, they all broke out into a frenzied delirium of physical gratification. And then what was supposed to happen?   Freedom is not the same as a free-for-all. God’s purpose in taking us out of Egypt was to give us the Torah and create a new relationship between man and God.

On my desk sits a framed quote by Thoreau: “Be not simply good; be good for something.” As you incorporate a new positive change in your life, it’s not a stand-alone idea. If your goal was to be more loving in a relationship, then see how many different ways you can make a person feel cherished by you. Look for the means to broaden and share your process and purpose. Allow it to evolve into higher and higher goals. Create a vision. Live with purpose. Make a difference.

Shemot: The Who of Who You Are

Authenticity is the act of openly and courageously seeing what needs to be seen, saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done, and becoming that which you are intent on being.                    

Scott Edmund Miller

Like most children, I was taught that lying is bad. People can be cruel and merciless, however, while patting themselves on the back for their so-called “honesty.” Hence the term – “the brutal truth.” Honestly, sometimes “honesty” can be a tad overrated. On the other hand, lying, especially to ourselves, ensures that we never unlock potential – the potential of our relationships, the situations we find ourselves in, and especially ourselves.  

The Search For Authenticity

These days, many of us search for honesty in the form of “authenticity.” We want to be true to ourselves, and also let people into our private world, and allow them to see us for who we are. For those of us who have worn their personae well, perhaps for decades, the thought of dropping the mask and authentically connecting can be scary, yet exhilarating with the promise of a new paradigm. Embracing the vulnerability of connection is treading new water for many.                    

But just who are we anyway? Who is the who of who we are? And is honesty or authenticity always the best policy? Speaking personally, some aspects of my character are far from polished and in fact, are not so nice. Whether it’s my sarcastic, judgmental, or impatient self, I am pretty good sometimes– at being a little awful. For better or worse, these qualities show up as part of my “authentic self.” So, do I lift the curtain to reveal the “whole enchilada” me?  Is authenticity nothing more than a challenge to “take me as I am”?          

The Three Prongs of Authenticity

 Authenticity is not a be-all and end-all concept; rather it is three pronged (authenticity, integrity, and servant/leadership) that comprise a state of “wholeness.” Thus, “wholeness” is not a disconnected and self-centered state of being. It is a unifying force based on connection and interconnection. So while we can manifest and lead from any aspect of ourselves, even the negative ones – and still be within the parameters of “authenticity” – “wholeness” asks us not to do that.  Authenticity tells us to look within. But wholeness asks us to consider the bigger picture and the external impact we are choosing to make. Authenticity acknowledges multiple authentic and sometimes incompatible realities. Wholeness asks us to choose which of those realities we want to make operational in any given moment.       

In “Shemot,” Moses famously encounters the “Burning Bush:”

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.  So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (3:2-3)

Some commentators focus on the fact that it was a lowly thorn bush, thus emphasizing the attribute of “humility,” marveling that God would appear in something so inconsequential. Others interpret the “blazing fire that does not consume,” to mean that even when our enemies try to destroy, obliterate and burn us, the Jewish people will never be totally consumed by the fire of hatred.

Incompatible Realities

These views focus on one aspect or the other of the Burning Bush.  What I find most fascinating, however, is the paradox of it, the exquisite harmony of totally incompatible realities – a burning bush – that is not being consumed.  Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” And thus, we are all “burning bushes.” We all contain within us the paradox of multiple and incompatible realities that form one holistic whole. Said Parker Palmer, “In certain circumstances, truth is not found by splitting the world into either-or but by embracing it as both – and.”                                            

If you are only a bush or only fire, then you are acting from only one perspective, and you are missing the wholeness of being a “burning bush.” Some situations call for quiet humility and some for blazing fire. It is all one authentic you, but the point is to know when to be what, and how you can act from your highest self. It is the prong of integrity.

The Power Of Servant/Leadership

 Moses wanted to serve God and, at the same time, he was also terrified that he was not up to the task. He had two authentic selves going on, two choices to make. Moses embraced his fear, acknowledged its authentic truth and then acted from the self that wanted to serve God. That is when he stepped into his ultimate power as servant/leader.    

And so authenticity is not about being an open book.  Nor is it an excuse for causing pain and suffering to others. “Authenticity,” says author Scott Edmund Miller, “is the act of openly and courageously seeing what needs to be seen, saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done, and becoming that which you are intent on being.”                

 So be authentic. By all means, be who you are in your full paradoxical and multitudinous self. But remember, that in the who of who you are, there is always a choice. In your quest for authenticity be guided by integrity and be inspired by servant/leadership. Be mindful. Be kind. And be whole.

Internalize and Actualize:

1.Write down five descriptions of yourself that you know to be authentically true. Do you feel these descriptions are positive or negative? Underneath that list, write down five descriptions that others would have for you, based on how you ensure you appear and come across. Then write down which of the five you know to be true about yourself are others aware of. And of the five that others see, which are actually true representations of yourself.

Five authentically true descriptions: positive or negative?
Five descriptions others have of you:

  1. List the people that you feel you can be completely yourself with and who know the five authentic descriptions of yourself (don’t worry if this is only 1-2 people…or no one for that matter). If there is someone that you can be 100% yourself with, do they also find the descriptions you find negative as negative? If not, how do they see that quality as something positive or with positive potential?

People you are authentic with:
How they see your “negative” and authentic qualities:

  1. Ideally you will reach a point where you no longer hide what you consider authentic about yourself and what others think about you will likewise be authentic. Write down a few ways that you can start to integrate the two. For example, if others see you as strong and a “powerwoman” but you see yourself as insecure and sensitive, how can the two work together to benefit you? Are there times where showing your vulnerability would help others see that you are not perfect and respect your strength even more? Write down how you think it would make you feel to be more honest and authentic with others and not need to put on a front.

Ways to integrate what you know and what others think:
How will this make you feel (and after you have tried, how does this make you feel?

The Good Life

Everything changes when you see challenges as blessings.

In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical equivalent. So each word has a number associated with it by adding up the value of the letters. This process reveals incredible insights, where words that don’t otherwise seem related, nevertheless are, because of their numerical equivalents. The word “Vayechi” means “and he lived.” This term refers to the last 17 years of Jacob’s life, which he spent living in Egypt reunited with his beloved son, Joseph.

When the Torah introduces us to Joseph, the first thing we learn about him is that he was 17 years old at the time he was sold into slavery. The numerical equivalent of the word “Vayechi” is “34,” which is 17 x 2. The Hebrew word for “good” is “tov,” and that has the numerical equivalent of “17.” Even if you are not a math geek, don’t switch off your brain – stay with me here.

From this we can easily infer that these two 17-year periods of Jacob’s life were considered “good,” and that those years, which he spent with Joseph, were in fact the “years of his life” when he felt most joyful and alive. Jacob died at age 147, however, so what was the quality of the rest of his life in between?

Complaining is a Killer

While Jacob had a lot of challenges, he didn’t corner the market on suffering. Yet, upon being presented to the Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asked Jacob why he looked so “old,” Jacob complained about his life. Each word of complaint (thirty-three in all) supposedly shortened his lifespan by a year! Perhaps Jacob was being punished for expressing “lack” instead of “abundance” in the face of being reunited with the son he long thought was dead. After all, when someone knocks you to the ground – but you find a huge diamond in the dirt – do you still complain about the shove?

In contrast, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who were, understandably, terrified to be in his presence, Joseph comforted them by saying that whatever their intention, it was God’s plan that the events unfolded exactly as they did – for this purpose, for this reason, for this moment. Therefore Joseph harbored no ill will; after all, when you don’t see yourself as a victim, it’s impossible to hold a grudge.

Seeing the Good

Says Viktor Frankl, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” While Jacob “came back to life” when he was reunited with Joseph, there is no sense that Jacob experienced that “aha” moment, that sense of coherence obtained in a moment of meaning that transforms suffering, and so, Jacob’s anguish all those prior years remained the same – meaningless suffering.

So how can we tap into being like Joseph? How can we open our eyes and see more “tov,” more “good” in our own lives, regardless of our challenges and the minor and major shoves in our lives? How can we shift the meaningless to the meaningful?

When you experience a state of coherence, where the stories of your life make sense, it creates lots of “ahas” over the events of your past. Whereas before you had mere stories that this and that happened, suddenly you start to see connections within the stories and between stories. You begin to see stories in a new light, and therefore, the stories become new stories.

You even wonder – how had I missed such meaning? How had I failed to connect the dots? How had I not seen the evolution, the blessings, the transformations – that could only have happened the way that they did, each thread weaving inexorably into the next? A new sense of divine benevolence and providence surfaces where before there had only been story – victim story, problem story, trauma story, etc. Eventually, we can learn to be the authors of our own life.

Coherence is a choice. We always see what we are looking for – always, and so the more “tov” you look for, the more you will see. Like those fun picture books we had as children, where we traced outlines following the numbers, and were delighted when a picture suddenly revealed itself, coherence is becoming aware how the dots connect to reveal an image we understand.

As Tal Ben Shahar, international lecturer on Positive Psychology, likes to quip: “Appreciate the good – and the good appreciates.” May we see all of the “17’s” around us – in whatever guise they may appear – and like the righteous Joseph, no matter what our challenges and hardships, may we nevertheless see the whole of our lives as “tov/good.



The Power of Story In Our Lives

You don’t just have a story – you’re a story in the making and you never know what the next chapter’s going to be. That’s what makes it exciting.

                                                                                                           – Dan Millman

It’s said that human beings can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but only about 30 seconds without finding meaning in something. Creating stories is what we naturally do. Stories are not the problem. After all, we are hard-wired for story. It’s how we make sense of everyone and everything.

But we live in the stories we create. And so the challenge, therefore, is to create stories that work for us instead of against us, and to write the stories of our lives in ways that are empowering, strengths-based and growth-oriented, instead of victim-based, dis-empowering and shame-based.

Coming into a State of Coherence

The first stories we tell about ourselves form what is referred to as “the narrative arc of our lives.” Aaron Antonovsky, one of the pioneers of medical sociology, was able to correlate the connection between having a strong sense of narrative coherence and greater happiness, health, resilience and motivation to take positive action. Thus, coherence is not just a “nicety;” in fact, our very well-being depends on it. Says Antonovsky, three elements contribute to a strong sense of coherence:

  1. Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
  1. Manageability. I can cope with what has happened (or is happening) in my life. It’s not easy, but I can summon the internal and external resources I need to manage my life.
  1. Meaningfulness. I have grown or learned (or have the potential to) as a result of my experiences. The challenges I face are worth addressing.

Vayigash” is a perfect example of what is possible when one is in a state of “coherence.” The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax with one of the most dramatic moments in Biblical narrative. In reaction to Joseph’s feigned refusal to release Benjamin, Yehuda begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s stead, pleading that the loss of another son – this son – would kill his father, Jacob.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph bursts out revealing his true identity, stating, “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph!” The brothers are in shock and terrified. Before them stands the complete refutation of their actions, against which they are utterly defenseless. As the Viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could have them imprisoned or worse, but miraculously, he bears the brothers no ill will. Not only is Joseph not punitive, but he even comforts his brothers, stripping them of any power or hold they thought they ever had over his fate.

The Bigger Picture

For underneath the surface drama of the story, and the intentions and motives of the brothers, lies an Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, who was orchestrating events to fulfill a Divine Plan. This belief in the bigger picture and deeper meaning of otherwise meaningless and tragic events gave Joseph a sense of purpose, helping him to manage and cope with his ordeals and remain spiritually, emotionally and mentally intact. How else could he emerge from twelve years in an Egyptian prison with all of his wits about him, so as to be promoted to Viceroy to Egypt on the spot!

Whether it was at that very moment, or later, when he finally saw his brothers, his story “made sense,” became “comprehensible” and Joseph was able to narrate it in a way that was empowering. Rather than be a victim, and consumed with hatred and bitterness, Joseph was filled with strength and grace.

Telling a New Story

In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains how a plot is what happens, whereas the real story is how the protagonist changes. Understandably, the plot hooks us, but the purpose of the story is much deeper than the mere telling of events. Looking below the storyline of “what happened” to get at “what the story was about,” affords us a new perspective. When we look at the painful stories of our past and see how we nevertheless coped and managed, and how we were able to transmute suffering into growth, then the stories of our lives can take on new meanings, meanings that can even make some overall sense.   This awareness of coherence then gives us the strength and resilience to deal with the struggles and challenges of our present.

And that fills us with well-being, optimism, and possibility. Our challenge is to stop telling stories that keep us stuck in blame.   Like Joseph, we can compose the narratives of our past in ways that are empowering, and in so doing, we can use our past to inspire our present and to inform a better future. When we can look back at the events of our past and embrace them as for being the perfect training ground for who are today, then, we can begin to be the authors of our own lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

1.We all have stories we create that we think of as objective truth. Think of a time when someone wronged you, and you felt betrayed. Now, retell that story to yourself but exonerate that person. Say or write it in a way where the person was not trying to hurt you and was unaware that he/she was doing so. Make this person innocent in your new version. Then respond to the following: how does this new story make you feel? How do you now feel about this person?

Retelling of story

How do you feel? How do you feel towards that person?

2. Write down three situations where you feel you successfully overcame a difficulty. What qualities came out of you in those situations that helped you be successful (i.e. patience, empathy, self-awareness, etc.)?

Three successful situations:

List your qualities in those situations:

3. Write down a challenge you are facing right now. Think about the qualities you just listed and you know you are capable of tapping into. Which of these will help you through your current challenge? How can you implement it/them to work through what you are dealing with?

Current challenge/ quality from above that can help you and how: