Mishpatim: Wholly Love

How you do anything is how you do everything.

– Anonymous

The Perfect Moment

Sometimes everything aligns to come together in one perfect moment. My daughter had asked me to make her a cup of tea to take to school. I looked in the cabinet. Her favorite brand was right there. Check. Her favorite organic sweetener was right there. Check. I opened another door to search for a disposable travel cup. Right in front were the cups, with the exact corresponding number of lids, and the exact number of cardboard sleeves that slide over the cup to make it easy to hold. Check. I made the tea, looped the string over to the right, snapped the lid into place aligning the opening just right, and looking at this cup of tea; I felt that everything was in order and utterly perfect.

The Perfect Moment – Ruined

A moment later, my daughter was gagging and spitting out her breakfast. I had also made hers eggs, and I mindlessly grabbed an unwashed spatula out of the dishwasher, forgetting that I had used it the previous night to scoop salmon out of a pan. Ok, so even though the perfect moment only lasted a moment, it didn’t make it any less perfect. Moments have magic in them, and the mundane is anything but. When we live only for the high points, the grand gesture, and the peak experience, we miss out on where life happens.     

And so it is with the Torah portion, “Mishapatim,” which is sandwiched in between two peak experiences. In the previous Torah portion, “Yitro,” we received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. In the following Torah portion, “Terumah,” we will read about the building of the holy Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and the indwelling of God’s presence.

In between these spiritual high points lies “Mishpatim,” which means “Laws,” where we read the seemingly mundane laws of damages and compensation for various types of injuries and losses.

Holistic Holiness – It’s All One

Commentators explain that “these laws” – which are pretty hard to get excited about – nevertheless are part and parcel of the Ten Commandments, no less worthy, no less holy, no less Divine. In fact, the Torah, which is Divine, cannot be compartmentalized at all, because it is not the nature of divinity or holiness to be stratified, to be “less than,” or “more than,” “a little” or “a lot.”  

Because our minds are linear and compartmentalized, however, we need to learn all of the separate parts of Torah, to come to understand its wholeness. Unlike the way we view things, Torah doesn’t differentiate between any and all areas of life, or between the so-called “worldly realm” and the sacred realm,” because these realms are inexorably intertwined and connected. Our days and lives are not divided between “God’s time” and “our time,” “God’s domain” and “our personal space.” It is one holistic connection, regardless of our inability to perceive it as so.

In Mishpatim, God tells us what “holy” looks like – act responsibly with people and their possessions. If you hurt someone, make it right. Be exceedingly careful and honest in this world… because our character shows up in how we handle all of the day-to-day things, no matter how small. And while there are many times when we feel especially elevated and close to God, such as the High Holy Days, or the Sabbath or a peak life experience, it is also through the day-to-day seemingly ordinary and routine behaviors that we are just as connected. In his famous poem, William Blake writes:     

To see a world in a grain of sand.  And a heaven in a wild flower.

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand.  And eternity in an hour.

Infinite holiness lies in doing the right thing or the kind thing, even when unnoticed or appreciated.   In the loving comfort of a cup of tea is an eternal heaven. The wholeness that we all seek can be found in a moment of holiness. These moments are magic. You just have to notice them.  

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. How would you finish these sentence stems?

If I commit to dealing with people fairly and benevolently…

If I bring more awareness and presence to my life today…

If pay more attention to how I deal with people today…  

If I bring 5 percent more integrity into my life…

If I remain loyal to the values I believe are right…

If I am more truthful in my dealings with people today…

If I bring a higher level of self-esteem to my dealings with people today…

  1. Pick the one above that most resonates with you and is most urgent that you change/shift in your life. Now write down five practical ways you can start making the “if” to a “when.”

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  1. We all do numerous kind and positive things for others during that day that often go unnoticed, both to ourselves and perhaps to others. Recognize the power that each small action has. Write down ten things you can recall from the past week that you did out of goodness for others in your life, including strangers (e.g. let the person with one thing go ahead of you in line, held the door open, etc.). You will be surprised how many acts of kindness you do. Give yourself the credit you deserve for bringing such holiness into the mundane!

Ten actions out of goodness:

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Yitro: To See Yourself Through The Eyes of Heaven

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Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. Life would undergo a change of appearance because we ourselves had undergone a change of attitude.

– Katherine Mansfield

…If we could see ourselves as others see us… The card was propped on the bureau of the motel where my husband and I stayed on our 2-day drive from Pennsylvania to Florida. On the theory that we can’t see in our blind spots, the card went on to solicit feedback from the perspective of the guests in order to improve their experience. Pretty impressive for eighty-nine bucks including breakfast. 

Being able to see yourself as others see you, however, is the first step in being able to hear what it is they are in fact telling you. For example, despite having been married for twenty years, my husband still looks at me like a lovesick puppy. If only I could see myself through the eyes of my husband for 5 minutes, I often wish. “You don’t get it,” he says, “you have no idea how unbelievably amazing and beautiful you are.”

Of course I don’t get it! For the decades that preceded meeting my husband, I saw myself through the eyes of others, eyes which were not kind, not benevolent, and no matter what, were inexplicably and unshakably attached to a negative vision as far as I was concerned. So when it comes to my self-image, the adult me struggles with the disapproving mental picture instilled in me as a child.   So how can I hear – and accept as true – loving messages that belie a dis-affirming cognitive distortion masquerading as truth?  Honestly, sometimes we would be better off if we refused to see ourselves as other see us.

Wholehearted Living

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines wholehearted people as those who live from a place of worthiness of love, belonging and connection, because – and this is key – despite their acknowledged imperfections and vulnerabilities, they nevertheless believe themselves to be worthy of love, belonging and connection. For those of us for whom this is a struggle, however, I suggest that we learn to look at ourselves not through critical eyes that only see or magnify imperfection, but through the gaze of a loving Creator, through the very Eyes of Heaven.

But First…..

After centuries of slavery and hard labor, the Jewish people had to confront a new horror – a depraved self-proclaimed deity who delighted in drowning their infants. At that point, the Jewish people were all but broken. When we were finally redeemed from Egypt, it was not because we deserved or necessarily merited it, which could make our newly gained freedom seem a little precarious and conditional. And having just witnessed the mind-bendingly awesome Ten Plagues and Splitting of the Sea, how could little mortal man even contemplate anything but entering into a new Master/slave relationship? In the words of the Who: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

System Upgrade

After all, what was their paradigm for personally serving a loving God? For a shattered people to believe that God wanted an intimate and healthy relationship with them meant the Jewish people had to see themselves as worthy of belonging and connection. And that is why God had to change our negative mental construct.

And now, if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world. You shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation. (Yitro 19:5-6)

With these words, God showed us a vision through the Eyes of Heaven – an intimate connection with the Divine, the actualization of our innermost potential, as well as the role we could play on the stage of mankind – a veritable epic shift of the world order. But that would depend on how we could see ourselves, and whether we could shift our self-image from detested slave to beloved treasure, and from servitude and bondage to a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation. The Jewish people could choose to see themselves as Pharaoh saw them, or they could buy into the vision that God was presenting and embrace a new paradigm of wholehearted living.

In life, there are many sets of eyes that will see you, judge you and attempt to foist their narrative onto you.   It is said that people don’t see us the way that we are; rather, they see us the way that they are. The next time that someone (or even you) tries to make you feel small and unworthy, reject their self-serving perceptions and see yourself as God sees you – a beloved and holy treasure. Throughout the Torah God reminds us over and over:
“Be holy for I am holy.” See it. Hear it. Believe it. Live it.

 

 

Beshalach: How to Optimalize Your Optimism

images“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

-Winston Churchill

A man gets into his car and decides – in the name of “optimism” – that he won’t buckle up.   Is he an optimist or is he foolish?   After delivering a lecture on optimism to a large tech company, Shawn Achor, one of the gurus of Positive Psychology was being driven to the airport by the CEO.   Ignoring the persistent and annoying dinging of the alarm for not using his seat belt, the CEO smiled at Shawn and explained that he was just being “optimistic.”   “Optimism is good for a lot of things,” thought Shawn, “but it will not prevent this CEO from getting into a car accident, nor will it prevent him flying through the windshield.”   This is not optimism; rather, it’s a form of insanity, otherwise known as “irrational optimism.”

In “Beshalach,” after the Jewish people left Egypt, Pharaoh sent his army of charioteers after the Jews, and they were cornered with Egypt at their back, the vast desert on both sides, and the sea in front of them. Short of a new miracle, the Jewish people were facing imminent slaughter.

The Splitting of the Sea

According to Midrashic commentary, one faction wanted to surrender and go back to Egypt. Some were ready to commit suicide. Others were willing to fight the Egyptians, while another group started to pray. Moses cried out to God, and God replied (in essence) – “Stop praying and journey forth – Do Something!” It was at that point that the great Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the sea, and when the water reached his nostrils, the sea began to part. Was he an optimist or insane? Irrational or grounded?

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology explains that there are two ways of looking at life – as an optimist or as a pessimist – and he gives an example. A young couple has their first baby.   The father looks at her in her crib, and he calls out her name. Although the baby is awake, she doesn’t respond. Dad picks up a toy with a bell and shakes it. No response. Dad’s heart starts to beat rapidly, and he summons his wife. The mother was also unable to get the baby’s attention with loud sounds. “My God, she’s deaf,” concludes the father.

Mom consults a baby book for advice, reading how there is no reason for alarm since it takes time for the startle and sound reflex to kick in. Mom is reassured. Nevertheless, she leaves a voice message with the pediatrician’s office to schedule an appointment, and she goes about her weekend as usual.   Dad, on the other hand, remains a worried mess, ruminating that he has a “bad feeling about this.”

On Monday, the pediatrician administers a neurological exam and finds the baby perfectly healthy. Father does not believe the test results and still remains depressed and worried. A week later, when the baby startled at the noise of a backfiring car, the father began to recover his spirits and was able to enjoy his baby once again.

These are the two basic outlooks on life. The pessimist “awfulizes” events, views harmful situations as long-lasting, if not permanent, allows the upset to permeate all areas of life and takes it personally. The optimist, on the other hand, doesn’t anticipate defeat, but when it happens, sees defeat as a challenge to be surmounted, limits it to this pertinent situation, and sees the cause as something external.

Okay, now it’s a little chutzpadich, but I think there is another explanatory style, which I am calling “Jewish Optimism”, and since I’m coining the phrase, I get to define it. “Jewish Optimism” takes the best aspects of optimism, such as looking at events in their most favorable light and rising to the challenge with an “I-can” or an “it-can-be-done” attitude.

But when it comes to causality, “Jewish Optimism” would not regard events as external and impersonal.   Just the opposite. In “Jewish Optimism,” everything is “about me” – for my spiritual growth, that is.   And this brings in the quality of faith – faith that the universe is not out to “get me,” but to “teach me.”

Getting back to the scene at the banks of the Sea of Reeds, in facing Pharaoh’s army, the same God that liberated the Jewish people through His open and divine intervention was now telling them to go, to “do something,” And so Nachshon, the Jewish optimist, walked calmly into the sea, and in so doing, he also paved the way for the Jewish expression of faith.

And this sets Judaism apart from any religion that is based on passive faith as because Judaism calls for belief-driven behavior, and the expression of faith through deliberate action. Judaism teaches that the garments of the soul are for us to actualize our potential. The trick is knowing when the focus needs to be our thought, when it is about speech and when it must manifest through action.

So the next time you face a challenge, decide first whether grounded optimism is appropriate, and if so, try adding a little faith.   Know that whatever test you are undergoing is the test you were meant to have, that you can pass it and that you will emerge emotionally stronger, intellectually wiser, and spiritually higher.   Become a Jewish Optimist, and there is no telling how many seas you will be able to part in your life.

 

 

Bo: It’s a Balancing Act

If any human being is to reach full maturity both the masculine and the feminine sides of the personality must be brought up into consciousness.

– Mary Esther Harding

indexAs usual, I was hanging out on the balcony. When I’m in Florida, the first thing I like to do when I go to someone’s home, especially one to which I haven’t been before, is to check out what slice of a living landscape they have. We were four couples enjoying a Saturday night together, and as I was eyeing the night-lights reflecting columns of shimmering silver in the water, the men had migrated to the balcony.

The host, a house blend of the warm hospitality of Avraham Aveinu and the easy elegance of a Russian aristocrat, offered up fine cigars all around, unhesitatingly including me as one of the gang. Looking at the big fat cigar, I quipped, “Thanks, but I only smoke lady cigars.” Instantly, he proffered a slim shorter version, and having met my bluff, what could I do? The next thing I knew, I was expertly puffing away, channeling the spirit and loving memories of my cigar-smoking grandfather.

Then our host offered up a bottle of almost 200-year-old Calvados. Seriously, how could I not? I did pick out the smaller cut-glass snifter, however, and daintily asked for just a little bit, thank you. And then I hung out with the guys because I found the conversation (something about Joseph and Egypt) so darn interesting. Wow, Hanna, I was thinking, you’re really getting in touch with your masculine side tonight. Before you judge me, however, I was simply fulfilling one of Judaism’s deepest mandates, which comes from the Torah portion, “Bo.

In addition to having to shepherd 3 million men women and children out from enemy territory, God gave Moses a very strange commandment: to create a “calendar” – and not just any calendar – but a strange and unique calendar that is based on both the lunar months and the solar year. Early civilizations were based on a lunar calendar. After all, when marking the passing of time, what’s easier than looking up in the sky? With the advent of agriculture, however, lunar-based calendars were inadequate for informing farmers when to plant their crops, and so the solar calendar, which is seasonal, became dominant.

These two systems (lunar and solar) are not in sync, however, and thus, it requires complicated adjustments to reconcile the two over a perpetual 19-year cycle. What was so significant about this calendar that it had to be commanded at such a precarious moment?

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzraim,” from the word “meitzar” – which means “narrow” and “constricted.” In leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were going from a place of narrowness to expansion, from a bounded country to an endless open desert, from slavery to freedom.   And that entails a major shift in thinking which is necessary to cultivate both individual and relationship potential.

Jewish mysticism teaches us that the differences between the sun and the moon are not just physical, but spiritual. This polarity is not merely about being a man or a woman; rather, these energies and qualities are present in everyone.

The characteristics of masculine energy are “top-down,” and proactive. When masculine energy interacts with the world, the predominant energy is to decisively and quickly impose external solutions onto others or situations. When my husband was admitted to the ER with a gastric bleed, for example, he needed masculine-energy medical intervention to save his life. Had the doctor not immediately located the site of the bleed, started transfusions and sent my husband off for surgery, my husband would have died on the spot.

The characteristics of feminine energy, on the other hand, are “bottom-up” and receptive. When feminine energy interacts with the world, it sees potential, and by cultivating, building, and revealing innate qualities, it engenders transformation. And so, after the medical crisis and other complications had passed, my husband was totally debilitated and it was almost a year before he regained his former vigor and health.   During that time, he benefited from feminine-energy medical support, utilizing a holistic approach to restoring his body from the inside out, bringing his body into balance and letting the Natural Healer take over.

So, both masculine and feminine energies are equally dynamic and vital, and we need access to both ways of being. To be a free and fully functioning person, however, we need to know when to be what. Not only do get into trouble when we employ the wrong energy for the task but furthermore, our relationships suffer when we are out of balance.  

For example, in its unbridled extreme, masculine energy is tyrannical. Pharaoh exemplifies the unhealthy aspects of masculine energy in that he saw reality as an either/or, black and white proposition. He reduced reality to one dimension – “my way or the highway.” That kind of thinking will defend distorted and warped viewpoints to the death. No wonder it’s a relationship killer.

Similarly, feminine energy in its unhealthy extreme creates submissiveness to the extent where such a person cannot act or think on his or her own and thus doesn’t even have a point of view. It’s not slavery per se, but the willingness to remain a slave out of choice is to reject the idea of self-efficacy. As we know from Biblical commentary, most of the Jews wanted to stay in Egypt and did not make it out. And disconnection from one’s identity and personal power is anathema to a vibrant bond, both in our relationships with each other and with God.

Thus, this is not a call for androgyny, unisex blandness, or the homogenizing of identity and dissolving differences. Rather, true freedom comes from the ability to bring the cosmic forces of masculine solar and feminine lunar energy into balance and harmony on an individual level and ultimately a global one. Being tasked with being a light unto the nations calls for a balancing act that awakens us to the full power of our being, realizes the richness of relationship potential, and creates the joining of heaven and earth.