What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Being that women made up roughly half of my law school class (and this was in the 1980’s – back in the last century), and that one third of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices are women, I don’t think much about gender equality in the law.   Historically, however, while there were exceptions, most law schools did not admit women until the early 1900’s. When I discovered that fact, my thoughts were, “Wow, it was only about 60 years before I went to law school that we couldn’t get in.” Notice the personal pronoun. Even though I didn’t experience this personally, I emotionally perceived this as a shared “we” experience.

Similarly, I live in a neighborhood, which I jokingly refer to as an “upscale shtetl,” yet I know that that several decades ago when my great aunt was looking to buy a house in this area, Jews in general (we) were not allowed to live here. Again, since I identify with this group, I feel the right to take on their experiences as my own.

In Va’eschanan, Moses recounts the experience of Mount Sinai, by reminding the Jewish people:

You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain…Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you were hearing the sound of words…He told you of His covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments….”[1]

This speech by Moses, however, occurred shortly before the Jewish people were to cross over to conquer the land of Israel. This was the second generation; they weren’t at Mt. Sinai!   Hearing these words, however, the Jewish people were to understand that the Jew of the past is the Jew of the present and that the “me” becomes “we.” Later on in the Torah, Moses tells the Jewish people that the Covenant is binding on everyone who was standing there that day – as well as anyone who was not there – thus binding the Jew of the future.

So as I read these words, which are over 3000 years old, the “I” becomes “them,” for Jewish mystical tradition teaches that even though our bodies were not physically present at Mount Sinai, our souls were.   I don’t know about you, but this shared spiritual memory is a “feel-good” moment. However, this ends satisfaction abruptly when Moses goes on to forecast a dark future:

When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him….Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you.[2]  

Having seen countless movies where the leader makes a passionate and rousing speech to boost morale, Moses’ chilling prophesy on the eve of battle had to be a real downer. One has to wonder why the Jewish people didn’t opt to stay in the desert and not bother. After all, what’s the point in displaying enthusiastic valor for a battle that is ultimately for naught? And while I was also not there to commit the acts of idolatry that got us booted out of the Land, as a Jew in Diaspora, I am living the consequences of their actions. Just as I enjoy the spiritual benefit of having heard the word of God at Mt. Sinai, surely I bear some of the burden of those who did not head those words generations later. Not such a feel-good moment for collective experience. But then Moses consoles us with a vision of future redemption:

From there you will seek Hashem, your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you. He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.[3]

After all, as Moses emphatically reminded the Jewish people, not since the beginning of time itself was there anything like what the Jewish people experienced, such as the miraculous Exodus for example; nor has there ever been a people who have directly heard the word of God. And why would God do these things? Because Moses also tells us that God loves us. There is an endgame here. A loving God set these things into motion – not to end in futility and for nothing – but for us to go through a necessary process of disconnection for the sake of connection, a stronger bond forged in the fire of experience and growth.

If we can hold these multiple realities as our own experiences, we can apply a great lesson to our relationship with God, and with our loved ones.   Every intimate relationship starts out with great fanfare, connection, and hope for a loving, happy and bright future. And every close bond has moments of broken faith, bewilderment and despair, where one feels exiled from the sacred space of relationship. That’s the moment of choice. Do we accept the chasm in the relationship as the new norm, and adopt a relationship reality that hardens over time into an endurance test? Do we accept defeat, play the victim and walk away?

Or do we search our hearts and souls to find a way to turn towards the relationship and restore connection? While not every relationship is capable of being sustained, many do not reach their full potential because one or both people do not know how to how to renew their faith in each other.

It’s Not a Question of Love

After we experience a fight with a loved one, and we calm down, we know that somewhere deep down, we “love” this person, and sometimes we will even bravely admit it: “You know, I do love you.”   So why isn’t that enough to end the conflict and restore connection?   We take for granted being loved by our loved ones; what we aren’t so sure about is whether they like us.  Do they love, appreciate and admire us? And in the case of God, we all know people who even in the face of extreme personal tragedy maintain their certainty that God loves them. But does God like them?  

In our personal relationships, we have work on the deep friendship that is critical to intimacy and trust, which lays the foundation to stay afloat even in the waters of conflict. Without a sense of mutual respect, regard and gratitude, love alone does not carry the day. Says Zach Britle in his post, The Phrase That Helps couples Heal After a Fight:

Maybe you’ve heard that love covers a multitude of sins? Maybe that’s the problem. The ‘multitude of sins’ is what erodes the integrity of a relationship. You see, it’s not necessarily the gigantic betrayals that destroy a relationship but rather the little, day-after-day ones that chip away at trust.

Because of my personal baggage, I had a hard time believing that God loved me. I finally overcame that hurdle when I accepted the idea of a loving and beneficent Deity. But then what? Love is universal; we are even commanded to love our neighbor. But we’re not commanded to like him – because liking someone can be more complicated and challenging than love. My relationship with God became personal when I realized that God likes me as well.

As the Master Plan plays out over the millennia, and as we live out the dynamics of our relationships, we will experience innumerable instances of disconnection and reunification as part of the process itself.   The best thing you can do for your relationships is to communicate and show the people you love all the ways you like them as well, thus laying down a foundation of positive regard and good will. When I notice all of the ways that God shows up in my daily life with moments of personal spot-on cosmic synchronicity – “God winks” – as they were, the foundation of an abiding trust and everlasting friendship carries me through the rocky bits.  And that will do for now.

   

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:11-12.

[2] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:25-27.

[3] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29-31.

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Having Faith in Faith

itrustYou’re on a cruise ship – a sinking cruise ship – when you see you chance to leap to the safety of a rescue boat, and you take it.   From the security of the raft, you look back sadly as the ship rises vertically in the water before it’s pulled down beneath the surface. All of a sudden, you remember that with you on this vacation, were your three best friends, and with a sense of guilt and shame, you feel awful that in your moment of panic you totally forgot about them, and you pray that they are safe.   You are no hero; but you aren’t a criminal either, in that you are not responsible for their lives.

OK – now imagine the same scene. Only this time, as you look back at the sinking vessel, you suddenly remember that you brought your spouse and two children on this cruise. This time, can you justify forgetting your family because of panic? In his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Manis Friedman uses this example to explain why we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins that we committed from a “confused heart.” As Rabbi Friedman explains, when it comes to forgetting our relationship with God, we cannot offer the defense of “panic” or “confusion,” because, like the family on board the cruise ship, some relationships are too deep for panic. And yet we do it all the time.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses giving an overview of the events since the Jewish people left Egypt. In the retelling of one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke slander against God. “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.[1] Really? As if the whole thing – the Ten Plagues, taking us out of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, defeating enemies in battle in the desert, the manna, etc. – was just a cosmic setup by a vicious deity, to be slaughtered by a different enemy.

The Mindset of Anger and Anxiety

In an excellent article, titled, “How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread our Partner,”[2] Dr. Lemmie unpacks the anatomy of the mindset of anger and anxiety. When we feel threatened, our limbic system is activated. We secrete stress hormones and direct blood to our core (to minimize blood loss) as well as oxygen and sugar to our limbs (for fighting).   Neural activity increases in our brains, generating threat emotions and, as a survival mechanism, we look for additional signs of danger. The adage, “better safe than sorry” causes us, however, to interpret neutral behavior or ambiguous threats as definite ones. Our thinking becomes narrow – we think in terms as “always” and “never,” because our brains are too reptilian, too primitive at that point for nuanced thinking such as, “sometimes,” or recalling instances when the opposite is true. We also overlay the past onto the present. When we have been previously hurt, we assume we are being hurt in the same way in the present – even though the person and the circumstances are completely different. To compound things further, as our rational brain function diminishes, we circle own wagons and come to the quick and easy conclusions that we are certainly in the right, and it is our spouse, partner, friend, family member, or God, who is our foe and who hates us.

Whipped into a state of fear by the spies, the Jewish people were flooded with threat emotions. Ironically, the ensuing cognitive distortion caused them to make the fatal error, sealing their death warrant in the desert. But was it fair to punish the Jewish people for their panic? Are we expected to put our blind trust in God and our relationships? Is that safe? Is that reasonable? Is it even possible? Or should some relationships be too deep for panic?

Unconditional Good Will

David Fohrman describes faith as a steadfast quality, an unflinching willingness to trust even as we confront our deepest fears. Moses wasn’t angry with the Jewish people for having been afraid, but for choosing to forget all of the instances when God was there for them. Says Rabbi Fohrman, “In Moshe’s worldview faith doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy.”[3] Drawing from the Maharal, (the medieval Jewish commentator) Rabbi Fohrman explains the three prongs of a rational basis for faith in God: “If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you.”

It is at the moment of fear and panic where the challenge of faith of faith occurs. It’s a huge act of will to resist the temptation to slide into the primitive reptilian state of flight or fight, and instead to remain fully cognitively human, to acknowledge the fear and yet choose to trust the relationship. Says Rabbi Forhman:

Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing. When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?

That is the basis of real intimacy, the place of deep connection, growth, and transformation. Conversely, the cost of the anger/anxiety mindset is not just the loss or prevention of intimacy, but that it hardens us, eroding and ultimately destroying our relationship potential.  

Do not turn a blind eye, but a knowing eye to God and to the people in your life who have earned your trust. Learn the warning signals of being triggered. Take note when you hear yourself thinking or speaking about your loved one in a negative, harsh and critical light. Don’t take your own interpretations of events so darn seriously and stop mentally rehearsing your grievances. Be curious and empathetic to the feelings of others. Consciously recall positive instances and attributes and for goodness sake, get your gratitude going and give your loved ones the gift of unconditional good will and positive regard.

Don’t Kill Connection

While threats to survival may at times be real, when we allow paper tigers to destroy our relationships, then we are allowing a sense of panic and confusion to destroy that, which should be too deep for panic. Misapplied, our striving for safety generates the greatest harm of all: the loss of love, intimacy, and connection – just the very things that make life worth living in the first place.

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-first-we-first/201203/how-threat-emotions-cause-us-misread-our-partner-4

[3] https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/devarim-what-does-it-mean-to-have-faith

Mystery and Uncertainty – The Power of Wow

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“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

― Richard Feynman

At certain times, such as when negotiating a divorce settlement or custody agreement, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutiae in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, as their lives and families are unraveling, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the legal document that comprehensively anticipates every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.    

I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.  And so I must warn you – if you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing), then you are probably not going to like this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which is the term for those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.

In Chukat, we read about the laws of the Red Heifer, the quintessential mind bender in that the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination.   Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that the adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.  

The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may decide that God doesn’t exist or lacks power or compassion. And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).

Lets Talk About Love

In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness. But too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating TED talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationships, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery.

If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil – that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).

As said by Charles Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Capitalizing on that fact, the family purity laws of Jewish marriage are based on cycles of the known and the mysterious, the permitted and the longed for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a case for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.  

The acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered. Therefore, the chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.

Mark Batterson, author of, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars,” sums it up nicely: “Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance. Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery. Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny. Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy. Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.” In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty. Wow!

 

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?