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.

 

 

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Where Are You Is a Very Good Question

where-are-youQuestions are powerful tools. They can ignite hope and lead to new insights. They can also destroy hope and keep us stuck in bad assumptions.”

– Michael Hyatt

In the face of questionable or annoying behavior, we often make the mistake of asking “why?” For the most part, asking someone “why” questions, such as, “Why are you so disorganized? Why did you leave your wet towel on the floor? Why did you forget to take your lunch to school? Why did you leave on all the lights? Why did you blah blah blah…” are bad questions. How so?

“Why” questions are often less of a genuine inquiry into the truth of the matter and more of a veiled accusation and criticism. When your spouse comes into the kitchen in the middle of the night craving that last bit of beef with broccoli, for example, and finds the empty Chinese food container surreptitiously buried in the trash, there are no really “good” answers to the interrogation that is sure to follow.

Killer Communication

Relationship expert, John Gottman, famously uses the phrase “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to refer to the four communication styles that kill relationships and Horseman #3 is “Defensiveness.” When we feel unjustly accused of something, we defend ourselves by denying, fishing for excuses, blaming, and turning the tables on the accuser to make it his or her fault.

Sometimes, however, because of past experiences, we can get triggered, and “hear” an innocent or good question as being a verbal attack – when it wasn’t. We’re all familiar with the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding from God.
God never asked Adam “why” he ate of the forbidden fruit, however. God simply asked, “Where are you?”

The Existential Inquiry

Obviously, this wasn’t a literal question, with God playing Hide & Go Seek, peering at the bushes saying, “Come out, come out wherever you are.” But neither was it a verbal attack. It was an existential inquiry. In asking, “Where are you?” God was probing the internal mechanism whereby Adam made it OK to disobey God. No matter how destructive the behavior, there is always an inner voice that convinces us that it’s OK, justifiable, or even a moral imperative. No one, I dare say, eats chocolate frosted donuts or is unfaithful to a partner by accident; the mind can distort any reality and excuse any behavior.

In asking Adam, “Where are you?” God wanted Adam to contemplate the grave consequences of his behavior, because if Adam was hiding from God, and thus, disconnected from his very Creator, where, then, could he possibly be?

Response – Ability

The antidote for defensiveness is simple – own your stuff. Take responsibility for your part, however big or small, in creating the issue. God was hoping that the first man would “man up,” learn from his mistake and reconnect with God.

Adam’s disobedience, however, had created in him such a deep sense of shame, that he processed God’s inquiry as a “why” question, as a verbal attack, and thus Adam engaged in typical defensive behaviors. Adam blamed his wife for giving him the fruit of which he ate, he upped the ante by blaming God for giving him a wife to begin with, and even worse, Adam failed to show remorse.

The Sages point out that in the text, the verb “ate” is in the future tense. Incredibly, Adam was in effect admitting that even if he had the chance for a do-over, he would commit the same sin again, that for all time, Adam will always eat that apple, because he is not capable of or interested in changing. He’s just that guy. Having rejected God’s overture and bid to repair the relationship is it any wonder that at that point, God responded, “You’re outta here!”

The True Nature of Sin

The Hebrew word for “sin” is “chet.” It means, “to miss the mark,” and so we are to understand that it is the very nature of transgressions to take us off course. As anyone who uses GPS knows, we often miss a turn, but the first thing that happens when the system re-routes is to pinpoint our locations. Fundamentally, however, we also have to have a destination. “Where are you?” exists in a context. And so, implicit in the spoken question is the unspoken assumption of a location: “Where are you going?” In Judaism, it’s both the journey and the destination.

As we go through the trials and tribulations of life, as well as its joys and delights, we can imagine that embedded in each situation is God’s question: “Where are you now… and now… and here… and here… with this ordeal and that triumph?” Are you in relationship with God? Are you connected? Are you likely to hit the mark? And if not, then how can you course correct? Are you willing to ask for Divine direction? Are you willing to recalibrate your assumptions? Can you take responsibility for your actions and respond appropriately? Let’s not ever be “that guy,” unable to come out from behind the bush, bitter at life and who doesn’t know where he’s going?

The Jewish Paradox of Standing Tall and Being Small

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself;

it is thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

The Desert

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic commentary on this is that the best state in which to receive Torah, is when we make ourselves into a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos and enter into a state of total humility. 

This makes a lot of sense. After all, the desert is an appropriate place for encounters with the Divine (think Burning Bush) as well as the setting for many spiritual journeys. In the desert, there are no material distractions, no cultural noise, and no exits from its stark reality.  

The opening line of the Torah portion is: “And God spoke to Moses in the desert.” The word “midbar” (desert) anddibur” (speech) share the same root, and so the relationship between the desert and speech – Divine speech – is beautifully correlated. For starters, speech represents freedom.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, is considered fundamental and integral to a free society.   Slaves, on the other hand, have no voice. They are silenced. Their opinion is irrelevant, as they are not seen as people, but as property.

On Passover, which is the holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery into freedom, we read from the “Hagadda.” The word Hagadda derives from “lehagid” which means, “to tell,” and so integral to that transition is the telling of a story, that we re-tell every year. In her TED talk on vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Bown defines courage as the ability to tell the story of who you are – with your whole heart.

But speech only works when one is able and willing to both talk and listen. And to listen, and truly hear what the other is trying to say, requires patience, focus and humility. Therefore, the desert is the ideal location for the Jewish people to be open to this Divine speech for there is no distraction.

We don’t have to be physically in a desert to consciously strip away the layers of egocentricity that distort our clarity. By shutting out the noise that distracts us, we can transform ourselves into an appropriate desert of open receptivity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated: “Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” While this is the theme oft-repeated in this Torah portion, in my opinion, it’s only half of the picture. Focus on that idea alone (as great as it is) and we’re missing out on a really great paradox.           

The Jewish Paradox

The first line ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, teaches us to understand this to mean the following: that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. We are not counted by ability, wealth or status, but by identity – signaling that we are unique, precious and beloved. No two people are alike, no one can contribute to the world in the same way, and so, we are singularly purposeful.

On the one hand, we are elevated, each soul, a precious and unique possession, and yet on the other, we should be lowly, like a barren desert, indistinguishable and insignificant as shifting sand. So which is right? The Jewish answer is, of course, that both are right. It’s a Jewish paradox.

In fascinating research done at the Stanford Business School, Jim Collins was able to provide answers as to why some companies are visionary and successful and others are not.  It seems to depend on the companies’ ability to chose between contradictory concepts, and the ability to embrace both sides of the coin, adopting a strategy known as the “genius of the and” and rejecting thinking characterized as “the tyranny of the or.”  Being limited by either/or thinking isn’t good for corporations and it certainly isn’t good for people either.

When it comes to receiving the Torah, we must humble ourselves, create the space to take it in and learn, at times, to focus on our collective identity rather than our individual identity. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.” But when it comes to living the Torah, we must stand tall and be counted and know who we are. We are created and yearn to reach our highest possibilities. Being a light unto nations and repairing the world is simply not a job for wimps. 

The paradox is that we must always be simultaneously embracing both sides of the coin if we are to understand either side of the coin, and that is a lesson, not just in preparation for Shavuot, but for any time of the year.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things that take up the majority of your time on a daily basis. Now, write down five things you would do and focus on if you had the time. This week, cut out ten minutes of each day to focus on one of those five. By the end of the week you will have spent more than an hour on something you find meaningful that you had previously not made time for.
  1. Think about someone or a situation that silences you–where you feel you had no say or that no one would listen to your opinion. How does that make you feel? Now write down what you want to say to that person or in that situation. Can you think of some practical ways you can begin to get that message across and reclaim your voice?
  1. We all struggle with our ego at times. And more often than not, it leads to avoidable problems. Where in your life could you use more humility? What do you think would change if you could lessen your ego?