Is Unity Even Possible in This Day and Age? – Parshat Vayehi

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“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” – Gwendolyn Brooks

It’s All in the Family

Shy to begin with, I found it a little embarrassing when I first started going to Orthodox Jewish weddings; right off the bat, people mistook me for being related to the bride or groom.  As soon as I would walk into the room, strangers would approach and genuinely wish me, “Mazel tov!”  “Um, thanks,” I would mumble, “but um, I’m not related to the families.  I’m just a guest.”  If anything, I am underdressed for posh affairs; I own no formal clothes and, nothing in my closet remotely passes for glamorous.  I would have to upgrade my attire if I were a close relative.  So why did this case of mistaken identity persist?   

Some of you may be laughing, as you understand the cause of my “newbie confusion.”  You see, in Orthodox weddings, and celebrations of any kind, everyone wishes everyone else, “Mazel tov,” because the Jewish people are considered to be one big extended family.  In my younger years, I experienced a sense of liberation and even personal power when I coined my definition of “family,” as those who felt pain if I were suffering, and joy if I were happy.  At celebrations, we remind each other – and ourselves – of this reality; your happiness is my happiness, and we share this collectively.

Whether it’s the solemn witnessing of the mystical transformation of two souls seeking to merge as one or the happiness we feel dancing hand in hand in packed circles that form and re-form like a pulsing gyroscope, for a moment, an hour or even a few, the many become as one.  Rabbi Tzvi Freeman explains that there are many ways for the “many to become one” – such as marching to war or for a cause, going crazy at a concert, throwing rocks at a protest, or wildly cheering one’s team to victory.  On these occasions, we are united by something external; We are going somewhere, protesting someone or something, or we lose identity through an extrinsic force.  In contrast, says Freeman, “In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no enemy and nowhere we are going. We are just one. Because we are.”  

Life Cycles

This week was one particularly saturated with funerals, shiva calls, and their polar opposite – a wedding celebration and a bris.  At one of the houses of mourning, I heard a story about two students, who are studying in Israel.  Upon hearing the news of their grandfather’s death, they became distraught and started to cry.  A stranger came up to them and, when he found out what was distressing them, he brought them cups of tea and proceeded to talk to them about birth and death and spent time with them offering words of comfort.  In her book, “Braving the Wilderness,” Brené Brown writes: “We need to hold hands with strangers. We need reminders – collective joy and pain – reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other.”

The term “Klal Yisroel” literally means “all of Israel” and as such it refers to the Jewish people as a whole; however, its deeper meaning is that despite individual and group diversity, we share a communal identity and destiny, where we celebrate and mourn as one.  In Israel, weddings are often open affairs.  Here, we call them wedding crashers, but over there, it’s more like an open tent policy.  At the same time, it’s just as common for “strangers” to show up at funerals and to offer condolences at houses of mourning.  When my daughter spent a gap year studying in Israel, it was not unusual for large groups of girls from her school to go in groups to pay their respects.  “Mom,” my daughter simply said. “you just go.” 

When I was visiting another family in mourning this week, one of the sons acknowledged that while the four siblings had their share of squabbles and issues over the years, at the time of their mother’s death, they were all united as one, gathered around her bedside, escorting her in song and prayers to the next world.  After he spoke, his sister tearfully begged the family to stay as one – to comfort and support each in the weeks and months to come as they had to come to grips with the loss of the matriarch of the family who held them as one. 

When Unity is Not the Real Deal

I have seen and experienced families, communities and the Jewish people rise to the occasion in solidarity, only to fall back into divisive and polarized factions.   How can we hold onto the lofty ideals of unity and connection as operative principles in our daily lives?   Just as peak emotional moments are not sustainable, the solidarity we may feel in times of crisis, disasters, terror attacks, etc., is situational and temporary.  During calamities, we instinctively help our fellow man – without asking who he or she voted for.  Afterwards, we go back to life as usual – the neighbor becomes the stranger, and we retreat into the proverbial “us and them.”  Unity based on fear of hatred of a common enemy is not genuine, and when it’s situational (for good or bad), it is not sustainable.  How, then, does unity endure?

When It Is

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, Jacob dies.  Surrounding him at his deathbed, are his sons – all of them, whom as we know, had some serious baggage.  Jacob had received a prophetic vision in which he was how the future would unfold, including the “end of days.” When Jacob wanted to relay revelation to his sons, however, the vision was no longer accessible to him.  Somewhat frightened, Jacob asked his sons whether there was any negativity within them, which was blocking the signal, so to speak, to which the sons replied in unison, “Shema Yisroel, Hashem, Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad – Hear O’Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  And Jacob answered, “Boruch Shem kavod malchuso, l’olam voed – Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” This is the exact moment where the Torah teaches us the Shema, the “Jewish mantra,” which we recite daily and, if we able, right before we die.   

God is One, the ultimate Unity.  Created in God’s image, our mission in life is to emulate our Creator, and it’s the struggle of a lifetime to unify ourselves – in the service of God.  Just as Jacob gave each of his sons distinct and individual blessings, we are unique and we are to serve God in our singular capacities.  That’s a tall order, but it’s not enough.  The next time we read the words of the Shema in the Torah is when Moses teaches them to the second generation shortly before his death and their crossing over into the Land of Israel.  As the Jewish people were about to leave the cocoon of the desert and spread out over the land, Moses was exhorting them to remember that God is One and therefore, they must also strive to be as one – within themselves and within the nation, Klal Yisroel, as a whole. Like the slogan Three Musketeers, the nature of the Jewish people is covenantal: All for one and one for all.  United we stand, divided we fall.” This requires a deep awareness of the unity and connection that at times requires self-sacrifice, displacing one’s ego, and the openhearted generosity of unconditional love.   Brené Brown brings this idea home with these words: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”

When I was at the bris this week, a friend of mine introduced her adult son to me, a newbie unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish customs.  For fun, I greeted him with a hearty, “Mazel tov!”  Unlike the way I used to respond, he did not correct me, perhaps as he knew that I did not think he related to the family celebrating this birth.  But I could read in his “deer in the headlight” eyes and the thought bubble above his head that was probably something like: “Seriously?  What is it with this lady?”  “It’s OK, kid,” I beamed back telepathically, “You’ll find out soon enoughWelcome to the family.” 

References:

Why Jews Dance in Circles 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

How to Walk the Different Paths of Forgiveness – Parshat Vayigash

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“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”  – Chris Jami

A good friend solicited me for a donation to a Jewish educational institution that teaches kids with learning differences.  My standard response would be to write a check.  Instead, I snapped at her that I needed to “get over my anger” as I regaled her with the story of an old grievance I had against the director, for what I thought were her limiting beliefs that did not promote, but thwarted the potentials of children.  Looking back, I know that many well-meaning educators and parents want children to “be happy,” and rather than encouraging striving and developing resilience, they think that keeping children within the zone of “no possibility of failure” will ensure that happiness.  But that’s another schmooze for another time.    

Why Am I Still Angry?

According to my VIA (Values in Action) Assessment of the 24 Character Strengths, “Forgiveness” is in my bottom twenty.  I am upfront about it, though and I try to warn people: “I’m letting you know that I’ve been scientifically identified as someone who holds onto a grudge, so think hard before you say that snarky thing I know you’re thinking, or do something to piss me off, because I’m not going to forgive you for a very long time – if ever – and this won’t be good for our relationship.”  That’s fair – right?  It’s amusing that people think I’m kidding about this– I’m not.      

But then I bump up against an “inconvenient truth,” where the weekly Torah portion is addressing me personally, and the message is: “Stop it, already.”  In Vayigash, when Joseph unmasked himself as Viceroy of Egypt and revealed his identity to his brothers, he acknowledged the elephant in the room, recounting their intention to do him harm when they sold him into slavery.  Incredibly, Joseph bore them no ill will; instead, he acknowledged that they were players in God’s plan, which was to set the very story into motion whereby Joseph would be in a position – not to exact vengeance – but to “do good” to them.  This would have been an opportune time for the brothers to fall at Joseph’s feet sobbing heart-felt apologies and unite in a newfound experience of brotherly love.  But that never happened. As I struggle to raise the attribute of “forgiveness” up a few notches in my psychological profile, it pays for me to examine how Joseph responded as he did in this epic encounter.

Forgiveness Demands No Apology

While I am certainly not advocating that apologies are unnecessary (you can verify that with my husband), we don’t always get the emotional satisfaction of someone admitting their wrongdoing or at least expressing regret over causing us pain.  Sometimes the offender is dead, or estranged from us, or refuses to acknowledge their part of a conflict; other times the person may be clueless, not even knowing we are carrying a grudge. When we realize that forgiveness is not about the other person, but an act that brings healing to ourselves, then we don’t tie our emotional wellbeing to their apologetic confessions or admissions. 

You Don’t Have to Agree on the Story

One of the reasons we get hung up on apologies is that we want the other person to validate our reality, and soothe our need to be “right” while they were “wrong.”  How well does that go?  We craft our stories are based on our interpretations of the facts – our reading of the motives and intentions of other people, and how identify ourselves in the situation.  Sometimes a conversation can get to the bottom of things and clear the air, but just as often there is no consensus on the story.  Even if there were agreement on the objective “facts,” the “wrong-doer” can always rationalize and justify their behavior and perpetuate the conflict.  Joseph never “gets into it” with his brothers.  Sometimes, the best thing for an intimate relationship is to just to let things. 

To Forgive is Not to Forget – or Trust Again

Other times, however, we drop the story precisely because we aren’t interested in restoring intimacy, or because there never was a real connection to begin with.  Forgiveness is not synonymous with a heart-to-heart connection.  Forgiveness is in our control; a decision we make about our behavior.  Trust, on the other hand, is about theirs.  Some people are too damaged or toxic to allow back into our inner circle.   When we realize that forgiveness does not require us to engage in dysfunction, we can wish them well – from afar.    

The Bigger Plan        

When I was first becoming observant, I asked someone about the paradox between “everything being decreed by God who runs the world,” and punishment for behavior that seems predestined.  I never forgot the answer: “If someone punches you in the nose, then yes, it was decreed that you suffer that injury.  However, the person who punched you exercised his free will to cause you harm and needs to be held accountable.” In a cosmic matrix of unimaginable magnitude, the people who use their free will to bestow good are the people that God wants to reward, and conversely, those who inflict harm have it coming.  This worldview acknowledges that nothing happens by accident, and the stories of our lives unfold as they do for a reason.  As Oprah Winfrey said, “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’”

But when it comes to the behavior of others, however, they are also acting out their karma of reward and punishment.  Thus, the story is bigger than us; it’s bigger than everybody.

Who’s In Charge of Payback?   

Joseph never retaliated against his brothers.  On the other hand, he did put them through a test to see if they would give up another brother to save themselves. One of the biggest relationship mistakes we can make is to punish people over and over for the same “punch on the nose.”  When Joseph realized his brothers had evolved, it would have been counterproductive to exact vengeance for an old wound.  Or perhaps Joseph realized that they had already suffered the consequences of their behavior.  Sometimes the powerful approach is to be the observer and not the avenger and let the universe be in charge.

Choosing Love

The highest and hardest level of forgiveness is to respond with love.  When we don’t hold onto anger and resentment, we can act from a new reality entirely.  Joseph treated his brothers kindly, assuring them that he would provide for them.  This response is not being a martyr, a denial of history, or the abnegation of the self, but a conscious choice about who Joseph wanted to be and how he wanted to show up in that situation.  It’s the ultimate control.  The English writer, Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.”  Joseph proves him wrong – it is very much within the human experience and it is perhaps one of our highest aspirations. 

 

 

 

 

How to Be the Author of Your Life – Parshat Mikeitz

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“Our stories are the source of our suffering and the springboard to our liberation.”                                                                  – David Drake

 

Victim or Hero?

With the human psyche so wired for connection, it’s understandable that some inmates on death row will forego lengthy appeals and choose death over remaining indefinitely in solitary confinement.   About the only thing prisoners can do in interminable isolation is to go mad, and the damage is usually permanent.   Put them back in any social interaction, and they are just bat-crazy.

And then there are those movies – we’ve all seen them – where the world needs to be saved through a top-secret mission, and only one man is fit for the job, but he happens to have been railroaded in a cover-up, and shipped off to a prison that doesn’t exist, a captive in solitary confinement. In goes the secret government official, winding through a series of massive steel doors, to a dark subterranean hidey-hole, and with weapon drawn, warily faces the opening door. Inside, a shadowy figure emerges, hair and beard wildly feral and long, but sporting a six-pack that would make any gym rat jealous. Grinning with a sense of irony, he knows the balance of power has just shifted, and that he will have the upper hand in navigating whatever conversation is about to take place.

I love those movies! In a way, these plots resemble the story of Joseph. After twelve years in an Egyptian dungeon, the balance of power abruptly swung in Joseph’s favor as he was appointed Viceroy of Egypt on the spot. While the entire Joseph story is captivating, I am fascinated by pivotal moments where a story line can go either way. What is it, I wonder, that makes one person emerge from a painful prison experience bitter and hardened, or wild-eyed and incoherent, while another uses the moment to self-actualize and, by the way, masterfully save the entire ancient world?

There’s a Bigger Picture Here

Maybe it has to do with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and why they are here. In the dreams of his youth, Joseph fully understood that he was destined to be major player in a Divine plan. And so no matter what he experienced, he never lost sight of a vision that he trusted would unfold. That attitude requires taking the long–game view of life. And so Joseph knew when to be proactive and “make it happen,” and when to be surrendered and “let it happen.” To do this, however, one needs a high degree of self-regulation, a coming back to center, which allows our best selves to naturally show up and make optimal choices that create a positive outcome.   Even in prison.

Freedom Defined

We find a modern-day Joseph in the story of the famous refusenik, Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet labor camp, for the crime of wanting to immigrate to Israel.   After serving nine years, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released; and after immigrating to Israel, he founded a political party and became a member of the Israeli parliament. Sharansky recounts how he used to tell anti-Soviet jokes to his interrogators, where they had to exercise tremendous restraint to contain their laughter. “And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?’”

Sharansky defines freedom as the moment when he claimed his autonomy, when he realized that only he could humiliate himself, and only he could be ashamed of his actions. “If I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of God in which we are created — I am a free person.”

When we allow other people to define us and write our stories, we imprison ourselves. When we are on autopilot, we lose track of our vision, the who of who we are and why we are here.   On the other hand, when we trust that the narrative arc of our lives is part of the unfolding of a divine destiny, then we can bear suffering as part of the hero’s journey – even if there is no “happy ending.”

As Sharansky said, even if were to have died in that prison, he knows he would have died a free man.   Tormentors and oppressors are bit actors performing a role in the cosmic play of our lives. It is we, however, who can define our character and write our lines. And if we can navigate terminal illnesses, personal tragedy and heartbreak, and yet remain unbroken, and maintain our faith, then we are free.

How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything.

We don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a context, the context of relationship. Look at your life close to home. In every relationship we have, there are pivotal moments, where it can go either way.   Whether it is a family member, spouse, child, co-worker, neighbor, etc., whenever we get triggered, or whenever that hot button is making our blood start to boil, that is the exact instant, the pivotal moment when the story line we create in our head will drive one of two outcomes. Ask yourself: “How do I want this to go?” We can act with compassion or criticism, curiosity or control, unconditional love or judgment.  Instead of resisting life, let life be your teacher. You may be in prison – but that doesn’t mean you have to be anyone’s prisoner.

 

 

 

 

 

How Taking a Break Can Prevent a Breakup

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“Silence is never more golden than when a quarrel is brewing.” 

Clifford Adams

 

Great Expectations

Me. At my worst. Kinda looks like this. I was driving from Philly to Kripalu, a holistic retreat center in the Berkshires, where I was taking a week-long training to teach a specific positive psychology course. Typically, it’s a 4-½ hour ride, most of it through beautiful scenery. Having made this trip several times before, I was looking forward to tearing up the road in my Mini Cooper Roadster, blasting music without concern for anyone else’s eardrums or musical taste, while taking in the beauty of the dazzling New England fall foliage.

Expectations Unmet

I didn’t know it at the time, but a hurricane was unleashing hell all along the northeastern corridor. I could not listen to music because to add sound on top of the noise of the rain hitting my windshield like machine gun fire would have made the din unbearable. I could not see the fall scenery because I couldn’t see any trees. The cold rain hitting the warm air created a fog so thick I could barely even see the road, and I drove by following the taillights of the car in front of me. To make matters worse, each gust of wind and wave of water created from the passing trucks and SUV’s shook and rattled my little toy car.

I couldn’t help but think about two members of my family who had died in tragic vehicular accidents. There is a saying that things that are wired together fire together, and I started to panic. OMG, I thought, I’m going to die. On my way to a course – in happiness! This is not funny!!

Trip to Crazy Town

After a grueling six-hour drive, all the while pumping stress and fear hormones, my hands aching from gripping the steering wheel and my neck muscles clenched in knots, I couldn’t emotionally transition to the reality of being OK. Even though I arrived at my destination safely, my brain didn’t catch up with this fact and was still processing reality as if I were still in danger mode. And so nothing seemed right, people seemed weird and annoying, and I was seriously questioning why I had even come. Until my sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) could calm down, my cognition was distorted, even conjuring paranoid and absurd dangers. Was it OK for my room to be so near ground level in case some unhinged maniac who may have been rebuffed by a yoga instructor had finally snapped and wanted revenge? I was in crazy town.

Who Was That Lizard?

By the morning, the rain had stopped. I opened the window to breathe in the pristine mountain air and saw awe-inspiring natural beauty. I was fine. No, I was more than fine. No longer hijacked by stress, my rational brain was back online. I was calm, happy, and appreciative to be there. I felt a kindred connection to everyone I saw, a sense of belonging, and I was open and eager to participate in the training.

A Tale of Two Brothers

In Vayishlach, we read of the famous account of Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night, before encountering his brother, Esau. The one saving grace about Esau was his supposed devotion to his father, Isaac. Yet, when he learned of the deception surrounding the blessings, he openly yearned for his father’s death, so that he would be free to kill his brother. In short, Esau was in crazy town, and no one can function well or process reality benevolently from that place.

Whatever the nature of a conflict, it is not the objective facts that drive it, but our thoughts that create the story around it. When we get emotionally triggered, when our hot buttons are pushed, when we feel threatened, unsafe and get hooked by drama – bam – we become flooded, and our thinking process emanates from our primitive reptilian brain.

In that state, even loved ones can become “the enemy,” as we objectify and demonize them. We interpret their behavior in the most negative light, imputing the worst motives at every turn. We magnify threats, turning barbs into ballistic missiles, or we misperceive innocent remarks as attempts to cut us to the quick. Our inner lizard fears becoming someone’s lunch; and so as a protective measure, it becomes a destructive fire-breathing dragon.

Most of us don’t recognize this process for what it is. We believe the stories we spin, and then we perpetuate it. We live from that reality, and we attempt to rope in others to our way of seeing things – sometimes to the point of creating loyalty tests.   This wreaks havoc, sometimes permanently on our relationships, and to our psyche.

Getting Out of Crazy Town – Time Out

So first, you need to recognize the signs of being emotionally flooded. We have telltale signs in our bodies (shallow breathing, muscular tension, and pain) our emotions (anger, fear, feeling unsafe, overwhelmed) and our thoughts (blame projected outward, negativity bias, magnifying faults, linking prior events and other people to the present). It is crucial to know when you – or someone else is in this state – because there is no one rationally at home. Therefore, a constructive conversation cannot happen. There needs to be some space and distance to allow things to normalize, for the hot buttons to cool down and goodwill to return.

It is critical to use this period of cooling down with the intention to allow things to heal. If we use time apart to ruminate, obsesses self-righteously about the perceived faults of others, vent to others, and escalate the tension, it will only cause further polarization.   Instead, use the time to turn things around to the positive by cultivating gratitude for the person, consider the validity of other viewpoints, acknowledge your part in creating the conflict, be receptive to any bids for reconnection, and don’t hold onto who you think should make the first move

While Jacob and Esau reconciled, it took twenty years for it to occur, and it was only temporary. Allow yourself enough time to calm down – but don’t wait unnecessarily long to get your relationships back on track. It may be too late.