Lighten Up!

“Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.”

                                                                                    – William Blake

imagesOn any given day, the news reports a story of someone being indicted for some white-collar crime. I wait for the name of the alleged perpetrator. Not Jewish? I breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever Jews, and especially religious Jews, make the news for dishonest, criminal or other bad behavior, I cringe and feel sullied in the core of my Jewish collective soul.

Maybe it stems from this week’s Torah portion, “Emor,” where God charges the Jewish people with the task of sanctifying His Name here on earth. One way of doing that is to act in a way that causes people to revere God, which is called a “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s Name). By standing for and becoming living embodiments of holiness, we become God’s emissaries, as it were. Sadly, however, the reverse is also true, and when we act in unsavory and hypocritical ways, so as to garner contempt, it is called a “Chillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s Name).

Standing Up for God – Really?

Sounds like a very tall order – “sanctifying God’s Name.” Furthermore, we are told: “God’s honor is at stake.” How is it even possible that we mere mortals can have any effect on an infinite and perfect Being? The Jewish people – and the world – had just witnessed the destruction of the most powerful civilization on Earth, along with the toppling (literally) of its many gods. The God that redeemed the Jewish people brought the plagues, turned nature on its head, split the sea, etc.   This unimaginable reality was a new paradigm for our understanding of the almighty power of God who directly intervenes in history. Did God really need the Jewish people to be His PR agent?

Furthermore, this command comes at a time when the Jewish people were barely out of Egypt. Had I been there, I could imagine my reaction: Seriously? I am supposed to be Your emissary to make You look good? I’ve been a slave all my life. And as you know, God, I have post-traumatic-stress disorder, my self-esteem is in the pits, and my inner child is wounded to the core. No offense, God, but Your expectations of me are completely unrealistic. God does not ask the impossible, however. In trusting me with His honor, does God know something about me that I don’t know, or am afraid to know?

Stepping into Greatness

In a very familiar quote by Marianne Williamson, she says the following:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  

What Lights You Up?

So how do we light up? And how do we teach our children to shine? This Torah portion begins thus: “God said to Moses: Say to the Kohanim (the priests), the sons of Aaron, and tell them….” This phrase is repeated over and over, followed by copious instructions for the priests, who were responsible to properly instruct their own children. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that the repetition was for emphasis and thus Moses was “warning” the priests of the importance of this task.

The Hebrew word “to warn” is “l’hazeer” and it is related to the word, “zohar,” which means “light.” Predating by thousands of years a contemporary idea one would find in any spiritual parenting book, the Torah is teaching that the purpose of educating our children is to “light them up from within.”[i] It is no coincidence that we use the term “to enlighten” to impart knowledge. True enlightenment is not about acquiring knowledge, however, but about gaining wisdom. Being enlightened is not an external process; rather, it’s the revealing of our inner essence and wisdom, our divine truth.

And so Moses was “warning” the Priests that the process of educating children is not just the external downloading of information but the internal cultivation of their character to reveal their inner greatness, because the essence of parenting is to build a child, and in so doing, to fill the child with light.

Similarly, the essence of the Jewish people is to build this world.   All Jews – not just the “Kohanim” – are charged with being the Priests of this world and being a light unto the nations.   When we understand who we are at our core, and when our external behavior is congruent with this inner reality, then we could never act in any way other than to sanctify God’s Name.   And then, being lit up from within, we would shine with holiness, where living in such a way as to honor God’s Name, would be effortless and natural.

Internalize and Actualize:

  1. Can you think of a time in your life where under the guise of using your freedom, you were really just escaping responsibility and having a free-for-all? In hindsight, was it healthy for you? What lessons did you learn and did you find that you ended up creating more boundaries from this sense of freedom?
  2. What in your life could use some holiness? Think through your thought, speech, action and relationships and write down five things you can implement in those areas to uplift them and yourself.
  3. In what ways do you feel enslaved and what are you a slave to in your life? How can you break free from this and how will your life look when you are no longer under its control?

[i] (Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Emor, 5750)

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?