“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
“Before you begin scrambling up the ladder of success, make sure that it is leaning against the right building.”
The Torah abounds with tales of sibling rivalry that run the gamut from latent hatred to outright murder, and so in Vayeitze, we have a refreshing break as we read the account of sisterly love exhibited between Rachel and Leah. We all know of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice in favor of her older sister, Leah, when she switched identities under the marriage canopy (and the marital bed) to save Leah from the humiliation of having to marry Jacob’s immoral and depraved older brother, Esau.
Less known is the story where Leah, pregnant with her 7th child, prayed to give birth to a girl and not bear Jacob another son. Leah knew that there were to be Twelve Tribes. When she realized that she was pregnant, Jacob already had ten sons (six from Leah and two from each of the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah). Concerned that if she gave birth to another boy, who would be Jacob’s 11th son, at the very best, Rachel could have only one son to complete the destined twelve. To spare Rachel the humiliation of being considered “less than a handmaiden,” Leah prayed for her sister. One account is that God switched the gender of her child from male to female, which resulted in Leah giving birth to Dina. There is a similar account that Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dina at the time, and so God switched them in utero – reminiscent of Rachel’s action many years before.
How did these two sisters muster the strength to forbear their deepest desires? In deceiving Jacob, Rachel could have no assurance that she would ever marry the love of her life. At best, she had would have to share her husband. And in trying to avert an imbalance and emotional devastation to Rachel, Leah essentially gave up the chance to be the mother of another one of the tribes, as well as trying to curry any additional favor with Jacob. In exercising such powerful restraint for the sake of the other, both sisters teach us the lessons of altruism.
The Kindness of Strangers
Every day, it seems, the news bears tales of horror, acts of violence and evil unleashed by man upon his fellow. It is often the case, however, that there are heroes that emerge in these stories, and not just people trying to save loved ones, but bystanders who risk life and limb to help total strangers. Why?
To the “survival of the fittest” mentality, altruism has to be an embarrassment. That is why science tries to explain it away as a vestige of a survival tactic when we lived in small groups and tribes of closely related people. Or, the pundits say, altruism is ego-based and self-serving; in that we do kind acts in the hopes of reciprocity, to elicit the admiration of others, or getting brownie points for heaven.
Pure Altruism – It’s an Empathy Kind of Thing
In his article, “Why Do People Do Good Things? The Puzzle of Altruism,” Dr. Steven Taylor pondered his motivation for carefully removing a spider he saw in his bathtub when he could have easily flushed it down the drain. Obviously, there was no social or self-serving benefit to saving a hapless arachnid, and so he discusses the origin of what he terms, “pure altruism:”
I think this simple act was motivated by empathy. I empathized with the spider as another living being, who was entitled to stay alive just as I was. And I believe that empathy is the root of all pure altruism. Sometimes empathy is described as a cognitive ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, but I think it’s actually much more than that. In my view, the capacity for empathy shows that, in essence, all human beings – and in fact all living beings—are interconnected.
When we feel this larger sense of connection and interrelatedness (even with things that seem tiny and insignificant), we respond to the suffering of others with altruistic acts, because they are no longer the “other.” Says Taylor, “We can sense their suffering because, in a sense, we are them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being —just as we would our own.”
And so the more inclusive of “other” we are in our network of connection, the more extensive is our sense of empathy, which impacts how we behave, from scary spiders and scary people to our loved ones and people just like us. In other words, in the world of action, pure altruism is “other-focused,” but it originates from the inner sense of kinship, and a desire to ease pain.
Gratitude Is Also “Other-Focused”
Says my friend, Megan McDonough, “Gratitude is always a function of being in a relationship with something else. There’s you, and then there’s the person, place, or thing that you are grateful for. That’s why it’s known as ‘other-praising.’ Giving thanks draws you out of yourself and into an appreciative connection.”
The First Thanksgiving – and It Wasn’t the Pilgrims
Leah was the first person in recorded history to say, “thank you” and she named her forth son, Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.” Since names convey spiritual essence, the Jewish people (Yehudim) should realize that gratitude comprises their core component of being. Furthermore, the very existence and makeup of the Twelve Tribes came about through the altruism of two sisters, each motivated by empathy and wanting to ease the suffering of the other.
Stairway to Heaven
In Vayeitze, we also read the story of Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to heaven. Let us build our ladders: one side, “Gratitude” and on the other “Empathy.” Let the rungs between them be the steps of compassion, connection, and kindness. Let us lean our ladders against the right wall, climb the ladder of spiritual success, and bring heaven down to earth for a global transformation. May you and every living creature and all things on this planet be at ease, may there be an end to suffering and may there be only peace.
“If we can see past preconceived limitations then the possibilities are endless.”
Math (if they even call it that anymore in school) was always my worst subject. Yet, when I am trying to make sense of a situation, understand someone’s behavior, or best predict an outcome, I will use that expression – do the math. Whether this is true or not, to me, mathematics represents reality as it is – without distorted perception, wishful thinking, or resistance to what merely is. Sometimes we get confused when other people give us mixed messages. In that case, I suggest turning off the volume (the voice in our head) or the words coming out of their mouths and look at the behavior only, to get the much-needed clarity. Just do the math.
The very week that my book, A Year of Sacred Moments came out, my husband met with the owner of a small publishing house to discuss a Jewish journey book he had written – and he told this man about my book. My husband and I have been practicing law together for 25 years so I was excited to think of us both becoming writers in the Jewish world together as well. Not only did this publisher give my husband a reality check about the viability of his book concept, but he also conjectured about mine. In his opinion, there is no appreciable market for my kind of book, where people prefer books that are theme oriented – not structured according to the weekly Bible chapter, and he predicted sales well under 500 copies. He wasn’t trying to be mean – not at all! Being thirty years in the book business, he was just “doing the math,” and he didn’t want me to have unrealistic expectations and feel like a failure if I didn’t hit some fantasy number in my head.
And who was I to argue or have an opinion to the contrary? I can’t even count how many intakes I have had with prospective divorce clients who would say something like – “My buddy said that since my wife cheated on me, I don’t have to give her anything” to which I would reply, “which law school did you say your friend attended?” I’m sorry, but not everyone has a right to an opinion. And so I couldn’t just shake off what this publisher had to say and with impudent bravado, substitute my version of market reality for his.
Nevertheless, there is another way of looking at this whole thing. I have had clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars, thousands, even, fighting over worthless items. And I’m not talking sentimental value; I’m talking used dishtowels. My struggle as an attorney was to move my clients from the “story of divorce” into the “business of divorce” as many of them get stuck in what I termed, “emotional math.”
Maybe one of the lessons of Lech Lecha is to learn a new type of math, “spiritual math.” I have to wonder, then, is the measure of the success of a Torah-based book the number of copies sold, or is it the contribution and impact it may make? And how about my experience and growth as the writer? And what effect does that have on my family and friends? We think of capital in terms of money only, but what if we expanded it to encompass social capital, relationship capital, and spiritual capital? Isn’t that what counting our blessings is all about?
A New Math
Lech Lecha is the command by God to Abraham to go from his “country,” his “place of birth” and “his father’s house.” These places are not just geographical, but also psychological: they represent the influences and biases of our society, cultures and the times our nature, our inherited genes, our dispositions, and our family of origin. While the debate has raged for decades over which primarily controls – nurture or nature – either side of this argument buys into control being exerted by an external force or circumstance outside of your control – thus a limitation.
In the city of Ur Kasdim, Abraham and Sarah were extremely wealthy and influential, successful by anyone’s math. In one of my favorite movies, The Family Man, as the angel was about to take away all of the material trappings from the billionaire Wall Street trader to teach him the meaning of life, the angel said, “You’re workin’ on a new deal now, baby.” Abraham and Sarah left their material comforts to go to a land that God showed them – and it didn’t flow with milk and honey. It was desolate. There was severe famine, and they had to set out for Egypt. Lech Lecha, however, set into motion the chain of events that changed not just the lives of Abraham and Sarah, but the entire course of human history.
The journey of actualization is to break free of limitations. But we are not alone. What Abraham and Sarah taught us that each of us has a direct and intimate relationship with our Creator. Alone, we are limited. Connected to God, and to each other, we are transcendent. To follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah doesn’t mean that have to leave behind the places and people that we love, or give up our comforts or way of life. It does expect, however, that we should be willing to re-evaluate our assumptions, our priorities. When it comes to our society, culture and times, can we break free of the blame and finger-pointing and be ethical, kind and responsible citizens and members of our communities?
Are we willing to re-narrate our childhood or other victim stories with compassion for family members or others who have hurt us? As we look to our inner circle, what do we consider to be our precious commodities and what do we devalue? What do we give freely and what do we hoard? Are we squandering thousands of life hours for no return? Are we wisely investing our social, relationship and spiritual capital?
Lech Lecha is about charting the spiritual trajectory of our lives. For God’s sake, do the math.
“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.” Dave Willis
With one question, my powerful, competent and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. Often, when I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.” “I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I would respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I would think to myself, and if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful – like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical – man’s proclivity to avoid blame. The defense mechanism goes back to Adam, of course; husbands are practically hard-wired for it.
And Then This Happened…
I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. My husband, a well-known family lawyer, however, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.
And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know – you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.
And Then This Happened Next…..
I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled, “Sacred Marriage” and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia. When one regards marriage as sacred, however, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.
The Next-Step Marriage
In his book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity, to being love-driven, to a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable and secure while at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?
Um, Read Your Bible
This model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an “ezer kenegdo” for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, “ezer kenegdo” was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an “ezer kenegdo” is a “helper in opposition,” a wife who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my true role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High, to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.” Allow me to explain.
In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have that rare and special someone who can say “no” – albeit with kindness, intellect and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.[i]
What Adam Didn’t Understand
Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.
Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends, spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”[ii]
A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles; to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves. I call that a win-win. It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.
[i] There is a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a), where Rabbi Yochanan mourned the death of Resh Lakish, his brother-in-law/study partner who had consistently argued against his every opinion. When he was paired with a brilliant scholar who supported his every decision, however, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, crying bitterly that he didn’t need Rabbi Elazar to tell him he was right; he needed Resh Lakish to tell him he was wrong. “Bar Lakisha – when I would believe a thing would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would answer him with 24 answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law.”
What do you think is the cruelest punishment that society can inflict? The obvious answer is the death penalty, because we think that there is nothing worse than death. The correct answer is, however, solitary confinement.
Why? Research has shown that the clinical effects of isolation are tantamount to extreme physical torture. And thus, contrary to the stereotype of all death row inmates filing endless appeals to prolong their lives in jail, a significant number of inmates on death row elect to forgo appeals and choose execution over prolonged solitary confinement.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we read about “tzara’as”, which is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. In fact, tzara’as are blemishes that can appear on one’s clothing, the walls of a person’s home and, ultimately, the body of a person who engages in “lashon hara,” which is normally understood as derogatory speech, usually about another person.
Developing tzara’as is a gradual process, and when unmitigated, it leads to a procedure in which the High Priest proclaims the gossip-monger to be “unclean,” expelling that person from the community to live alone until cured.
Unlike the secular laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip-monger that “out.” As a matter of fact, there is a presumption that the person is convinced that his or her gossip is true! If the person was spreading false gossip – slander – then it’s an entirely different sin, because we should not misuse the power of speech to lie. After all, truth is a Divine attribute, and we want to emulate divinity.
So can we be punished for our negative speech – when what we say is true? And why is the punishment one of expulsion and isolation? After all, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
According to the Torah, however, not only do our words actually hurt the person we are talking about, but they also hurt the person who is speaking lashon hara as well as the person or people listening to it. It’s the perfect trifecta of bad. Is that fair?
We often think that our perceptions and opinions about a situation or person are the truth, which makes us feel justified and right. We create stories in our head and then we live in the stories we create, not even knowing the difference between story and “fact.” We decide the “truth” and anyone who doesn’t buy into our version of reality is also wrong.
Deep down, the source of all conflict really lies in the ego’s incessant need to be right, and the lengths we go to defend that need. It is this form of the ego that disintegrates relationships, undermines the fabric of society and disconnects us from the oneness and unity we should feel with our fellow and even with the natural world – hence, even our inanimate objects are affected with the blemishes of tzara’as.
THE MIND-BODY-SOUL CONNECTION
Today, the focus of wellness is on the mind-body connection. The Torah teaches us the mind-body-soul connection. Gossip is only possible when we are ruled by the unhealthy part of our ego, which is rigidly self-absorbed and sees itself as wholly separate from the other person, and therefore unaffected by any pain that is caused.
Such a person is already disconnected from others, from the community, from God, and even from him or herself. Therefore, the punishment of expulsion is to help the person understand this, by getting the person to feel that pain and then return to the state of connection.
Being expelled, cast out, etc. are so painful for a psyche that fears disconnection that they are powerful forms of control. We are wired for connection. Our need for love and belonging is one of our highest needs. But when we are driven by our unhealthy ego, we can override our wiring.
In the wilderness, where we lived in a high state of holiness, a mind-body-soul connection betrayed or conveyed our true inner state. The outer was an accurate reflection of the inner. What you said behind someone’s back became written on your own body. We simply couldn’t fake our way out – or back in.
When the person truly felt the pain of disconnection and then corrected him or herself – mind, body and soul – so that the body was visibly healed from its blemishes – then, and only then was that person ready for the process of re-entry into community.
The Torah is not trying to break us with an elaborate game of “Time Out;” rather, the Torah is teaching us how to stay in the game. It’s not just that the person recovers to his or her former state, but that the person should grow to attain a new level of awareness – post-traumatic-growth syndrome!
A society that allows unhealthy egos to run rampant, causing divisiveness and fragmentation, is unhealthy. A holy society, on the other hand, recognizes the deeper understanding that in diminishing others, we also diminish ourselves.
True peace is based on wholeness and connection. When we check our unhealthy egos at the door, therefore, the gates of harmony open wide.
You must be the person you have never had the courage to be. Gradually, you will discover that you are that person, but until you can see this clearly, you must pretend and invent.
– Paul Coelho
Who doesn’t have childhood memories of being forced to wear items of clothing that we hated? I still have a visceral memory of an unlined gray wool dress that my mother loved go dress me in, that scratched me with every move of a muscle and felt like sackcloth against my skin. A child’s only defense is to grow out of such clothes as quickly as possible or find a way to make sure the garment gets ruined, regardless of the consequences. Then, as we got older, we would fight with our parents over the clothes that we loved to wear – but that they hated.
As soon our parents stopped telling us what we could or couldn’t wear, society pressured us to “dress for success,” although we weren’t always sure whose idea of success or image we were even dressing for. Part of this cultural view is the oft-stated idiom: “Clothes make the man.” But we bristled at the idea of a shallow society unable to see us for our true selves, and we didn’t want to buy into creating an external reality based on the perceptions of others.
“Tetzaveh,” deals almost exclusively with the elaborate clothing and the intricate and ornate vestments that Aaron, the High Priest, wore when he entered the Tabernacle to perform the Temple Service. Without this regal and distinctive garb, Aaron could not perform his service. I can just hear Aaron’s mother yelling, “Aaron, put your priestly robes on already. And don’t argue with me. Let’s go – God is waiting!”
Is this nothing more than “clothes make the High Priest”? Some commentators state that the vestments were for the Jewish people to recognize the unique and spiritual stature of the High Priest. That view suggests that our teenage angst was justified, and it’s all about other peoples’ perceptions and external reality. But that would be a very superficial interpretation. What if outer garments affect us on an internal level, which in turn can create a new external reality? So which is it – external or internal reality?
To Walk a Mile in Someone’s Sandals
The Torah describes the vestments as being for the “splendor and glory” of Aaron. You may think that these two words mean the same thing, but they don’t. “Glory” refers to our God-given qualities, our inherent strengths, and gifts. “Splendor,” on the other hand, refers to what we do with them. There is a saying that our life is a gift to God, but that what we do with our lives is our gift back to God.
In order to make that remotely meaningful, however, we have to understand the exalted essence of a human being. That’s a challenge at any time, but put yourself in Aaron’s shoes – or sandals – for a moment. One day, he’s a slave in Egypt; the next, he’s the High Priest serving on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. That’s a colossal shift. How could he possibly have felt worthy and up to the task?
Fake It ‘Til You Reveal It
We usually think that attitude drives behavior. That makes sense. After all, we see how our actions flow from our beliefs and thoughts. The Torah tells us, however, that the reverse is just as true, if not more so, and Positive Psychology research, such as Daryl Bem’s “Self-Perception Theory,” explains that behavior does, in fact, more effectively drive attitude. This can be consciously manipulated for good, by engaging in specific practices to shape the belief about one’s self that will then reinforces the positive behavior. We often hear the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.” Judaism tells us to “fake it ‘til you become it,” and deeper still is: “fake it ‘til you reveal what is already there.”
For Aaron to assume his role and serve the Jewish people, he needed to see himself as being worthy, to understand his inherent royal nature. The holy vestments were external vehicles to get to that inner truth. (Interestingly, nothing could serve as a barrier – not even so much as a bandage – between Aaron’s body and his vestments. This prohibition is meant to teach us that the physical (and emotional) impediments we place between holiness and ourselves, and between God and us, are foreign objects that don’t belong there.)
Tapping into Glory
We are all glorious in that we all have God-given qualities, unique strengths, and talents. But unless we know that they are there, we can’t tap into them. Unless we know who we are, we can’t comprehend our mission and begin to actualize our potential. May we all use the lesson of “Tetzaveh” to clothe ourselves in new behaviors and new ways of being. And when we remove barriers and impediments to Godly connection, we open the way to a new internal reality sourced in our “glorious” essence, thus revealing a new external reality where we can create the “splendorous” life that we are meant to live.
Internalize & Actualize:
- If you could imagine your life as the gift you want to give to God, what would your life look like?
- Are feelings of unworthiness, or the fear that you’re not “up to the task,” holding you back in your life, whether in your career, relationship, or personal growth? List a few examples where you feel this way?
- How can you use the situations above and take a “fake it ‘til you reveal it” approach? List five practical ways you can start “acting” in the way you want to become your new truth.
“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
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.
Authenticity is the act of openly and courageously seeing what needs to be seen, saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done, and becoming that which you are intent on being.
– Scott Edmund Miller
Like most children, I was taught that lying is bad. People can be cruel and merciless, however, while patting themselves on the back for their so-called “honesty.” Hence the term – “the brutal truth.” Honestly, sometimes “honesty” can be a tad overrated. On the other hand, lying, especially to ourselves, ensures that we never unlock potential – the potential of our relationships, the situations we find ourselves in, and especially ourselves.
The Search For Authenticity
These days, many of us search for honesty in the form of “authenticity.” We want to be true to ourselves, and also let people into our private world, and allow them to see us for who we are. For those of us who have worn their personae well, perhaps for decades, the thought of dropping the mask and authentically connecting can be scary, yet exhilarating with the promise of a new paradigm. Embracing the vulnerability of connection is treading new water for many.
But just who are we anyway? Who is the who of who we are? And is honesty or authenticity always the best policy? Speaking personally, some aspects of my character are far from polished and in fact, are not so nice. Whether it’s my sarcastic, judgmental, or impatient self, I am pretty good sometimes– at being a little awful. For better or worse, these qualities show up as part of my “authentic self.” So, do I lift the curtain to reveal the “whole enchilada” me? Is authenticity nothing more than a challenge to “take me as I am”?
The Three Prongs of Authenticity
Authenticity is not a be-all and end-all concept; rather it is three pronged (authenticity, integrity, and servant/leadership) that comprise a state of “wholeness.” Thus, “wholeness” is not a disconnected and self-centered state of being. It is a unifying force based on connection and interconnection. So while we can manifest and lead from any aspect of ourselves, even the negative ones – and still be within the parameters of “authenticity” – “wholeness” asks us not to do that. Authenticity tells us to look within. But wholeness asks us to consider the bigger picture and the external impact we are choosing to make. Authenticity acknowledges multiple authentic and sometimes incompatible realities. Wholeness asks us to choose which of those realities we want to make operational in any given moment.
In “Shemot,” Moses famously encounters the “Burning Bush:”
The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (3:2-3)
Some commentators focus on the fact that it was a lowly thorn bush, thus emphasizing the attribute of “humility,” marveling that God would appear in something so inconsequential. Others interpret the “blazing fire that does not consume,” to mean that even when our enemies try to destroy, obliterate and burn us, the Jewish people will never be totally consumed by the fire of hatred.
These views focus on one aspect or the other of the Burning Bush. What I find most fascinating, however, is the paradox of it, the exquisite harmony of totally incompatible realities – a burning bush – that is not being consumed. Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” And thus, we are all “burning bushes.” We all contain within us the paradox of multiple and incompatible realities that form one holistic whole. Said Parker Palmer, “In certain circumstances, truth is not found by splitting the world into either-or but by embracing it as both – and.”
If you are only a bush or only fire, then you are acting from only one perspective, and you are missing the wholeness of being a “burning bush.” Some situations call for quiet humility and some for blazing fire. It is all one authentic you, but the point is to know when to be what, and how you can act from your highest self. It is the prong of integrity.
The Power Of Servant/Leadership
Moses wanted to serve God and, at the same time, he was also terrified that he was not up to the task. He had two authentic selves going on, two choices to make. Moses embraced his fear, acknowledged its authentic truth and then acted from the self that wanted to serve God. That is when he stepped into his ultimate power as servant/leader.
And so authenticity is not about being an open book. Nor is it an excuse for causing pain and suffering to others. “Authenticity,” says author Scott Edmund Miller, “is the act of openly and courageously seeing what needs to be seen, saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done, and becoming that which you are intent on being.”
So be authentic. By all means, be who you are in your full paradoxical and multitudinous self. But remember, that in the who of who you are, there is always a choice. In your quest for authenticity be guided by integrity and be inspired by servant/leadership. Be mindful. Be kind. And be whole.
Internalize and Actualize:
1.Write down five descriptions of yourself that you know to be authentically true. Do you feel these descriptions are positive or negative? Underneath that list, write down five descriptions that others would have for you, based on how you ensure you appear and come across. Then write down which of the five you know to be true about yourself are others aware of. And of the five that others see, which are actually true representations of yourself.
Five authentically true descriptions: positive or negative?
Five descriptions others have of you:
- List the people that you feel you can be completely yourself with and who know the five authentic descriptions of yourself (don’t worry if this is only 1-2 people…or no one for that matter). If there is someone that you can be 100% yourself with, do they also find the descriptions you find negative as negative? If not, how do they see that quality as something positive or with positive potential?
People you are authentic with:
How they see your “negative” and authentic qualities:
- Ideally you will reach a point where you no longer hide what you consider authentic about yourself and what others think about you will likewise be authentic. Write down a few ways that you can start to integrate the two. For example, if others see you as strong and a “powerwoman” but you see yourself as insecure and sensitive, how can the two work together to benefit you? Are there times where showing your vulnerability would help others see that you are not perfect and respect your strength even more? Write down how you think it would make you feel to be more honest and authentic with others and not need to put on a front.
Ways to integrate what you know and what others think:
How will this make you feel (and after you have tried, how does this make you feel?
Everything changes when you see challenges as blessings.
In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical equivalent. So each word has a number associated with it by adding up the value of the letters. This process reveals incredible insights, where words that don’t otherwise seem related, nevertheless are, because of their numerical equivalents. The word “Vayechi” means “and he lived.” This term refers to the last 17 years of Jacob’s life, which he spent living in Egypt reunited with his beloved son, Joseph.
When the Torah introduces us to Joseph, the first thing we learn about him is that he was 17 years old at the time he was sold into slavery. The numerical equivalent of the word “Vayechi” is “34,” which is 17 x 2. The Hebrew word for “good” is “tov,” and that has the numerical equivalent of “17.” Even if you are not a math geek, don’t switch off your brain – stay with me here.
From this we can easily infer that these two 17-year periods of Jacob’s life were considered “good,” and that those years, which he spent with Joseph, were in fact the “years of his life” when he felt most joyful and alive. Jacob died at age 147, however, so what was the quality of the rest of his life in between?
Complaining is a Killer
While Jacob had a lot of challenges, he didn’t corner the market on suffering. Yet, upon being presented to the Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asked Jacob why he looked so “old,” Jacob complained about his life. Each word of complaint (thirty-three in all) supposedly shortened his lifespan by a year! Perhaps Jacob was being punished for expressing “lack” instead of “abundance” in the face of being reunited with the son he long thought was dead. After all, when someone knocks you to the ground – but you find a huge diamond in the dirt – do you still complain about the shove?
In contrast, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who were, understandably, terrified to be in his presence, Joseph comforted them by saying that whatever their intention, it was God’s plan that the events unfolded exactly as they did – for this purpose, for this reason, for this moment. Therefore Joseph harbored no ill will; after all, when you don’t see yourself as a victim, it’s impossible to hold a grudge.
Seeing the Good
Says Viktor Frankl, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” While Jacob “came back to life” when he was reunited with Joseph, there is no sense that Jacob experienced that “aha” moment, that sense of coherence obtained in a moment of meaning that transforms suffering, and so, Jacob’s anguish all those prior years remained the same – meaningless suffering.
So how can we tap into being like Joseph? How can we open our eyes and see more “tov,” more “good” in our own lives, regardless of our challenges and the minor and major shoves in our lives? How can we shift the meaningless to the meaningful?
When you experience a state of coherence, where the stories of your life make sense, it creates lots of “ahas” over the events of your past. Whereas before you had mere stories that this and that happened, suddenly you start to see connections within the stories and between stories. You begin to see stories in a new light, and therefore, the stories become new stories.
You even wonder – how had I missed such meaning? How had I failed to connect the dots? How had I not seen the evolution, the blessings, the transformations – that could only have happened the way that they did, each thread weaving inexorably into the next? A new sense of divine benevolence and providence surfaces where before there had only been story – victim story, problem story, trauma story, etc. Eventually, we can learn to be the authors of our own life.
Coherence is a choice. We always see what we are looking for – always, and so the more “tov” you look for, the more you will see. Like those fun picture books we had as children, where we traced outlines following the numbers, and were delighted when a picture suddenly revealed itself, coherence is becoming aware how the dots connect to reveal an image we understand.
As Tal Ben Shahar, international lecturer on Positive Psychology, likes to quip: “Appreciate the good – and the good appreciates.” May we see all of the “17’s” around us – in whatever guise they may appear – and like the righteous Joseph, no matter what our challenges and hardships, may we nevertheless see the whole of our lives as “tov/good.”
You don’t just have a story – you’re a story in the making and you never know what the next chapter’s going to be. That’s what makes it exciting.
– Dan Millman
It’s said that human beings can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but only about 30 seconds without finding meaning in something. Creating stories is what we naturally do. Stories are not the problem. After all, we are hard-wired for story. It’s how we make sense of everyone and everything.
But we live in the stories we create. And so the challenge, therefore, is to create stories that work for us instead of against us, and to write the stories of our lives in ways that are empowering, strengths-based and growth-oriented, instead of victim-based, dis-empowering and shame-based.
Coming into a State of Coherence
The first stories we tell about ourselves form what is referred to as “the narrative arc of our lives.” Aaron Antonovsky, one of the pioneers of medical sociology, was able to correlate the connection between having a strong sense of narrative coherence and greater happiness, health, resilience and motivation to take positive action. Thus, coherence is not just a “nicety;” in fact, our very well-being depends on it. Says Antonovsky, three elements contribute to a strong sense of coherence:
- Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
- Manageability. I can cope with what has happened (or is happening) in my life. It’s not easy, but I can summon the internal and external resources I need to manage my life.
- Meaningfulness. I have grown or learned (or have the potential to) as a result of my experiences. The challenges I face are worth addressing.
“Vayigash” is a perfect example of what is possible when one is in a state of “coherence.” The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax with one of the most dramatic moments in Biblical narrative. In reaction to Joseph’s feigned refusal to release Benjamin, Yehuda begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s stead, pleading that the loss of another son – this son – would kill his father, Jacob.
Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph bursts out revealing his true identity, stating, “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph!” The brothers are in shock and terrified. Before them stands the complete refutation of their actions, against which they are utterly defenseless. As the Viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could have them imprisoned or worse, but miraculously, he bears the brothers no ill will. Not only is Joseph not punitive, but he even comforts his brothers, stripping them of any power or hold they thought they ever had over his fate.
The Bigger Picture
For underneath the surface drama of the story, and the intentions and motives of the brothers, lies an Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, who was orchestrating events to fulfill a Divine Plan. This belief in the bigger picture and deeper meaning of otherwise meaningless and tragic events gave Joseph a sense of purpose, helping him to manage and cope with his ordeals and remain spiritually, emotionally and mentally intact. How else could he emerge from twelve years in an Egyptian prison with all of his wits about him, so as to be promoted to Viceroy to Egypt on the spot!
Whether it was at that very moment, or later, when he finally saw his brothers, his story “made sense,” became “comprehensible” and Joseph was able to narrate it in a way that was empowering. Rather than be a victim, and consumed with hatred and bitterness, Joseph was filled with strength and grace.
Telling a New Story
In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains how a plot is what happens, whereas the real story is how the protagonist changes. Understandably, the plot hooks us, but the purpose of the story is much deeper than the mere telling of events. Looking below the storyline of “what happened” to get at “what the story was about,” affords us a new perspective. When we look at the painful stories of our past and see how we nevertheless coped and managed, and how we were able to transmute suffering into growth, then the stories of our lives can take on new meanings, meanings that can even make some overall sense. This awareness of coherence then gives us the strength and resilience to deal with the struggles and challenges of our present.
And that fills us with well-being, optimism, and possibility. Our challenge is to stop telling stories that keep us stuck in blame. Like Joseph, we can compose the narratives of our past in ways that are empowering, and in so doing, we can use our past to inspire our present and to inform a better future. When we can look back at the events of our past and embrace them as for being the perfect training ground for who are today, then, we can begin to be the authors of our own lives.
Internalize & Actualize:
1.We all have stories we create that we think of as objective truth. Think of a time when someone wronged you, and you felt betrayed. Now, retell that story to yourself but exonerate that person. Say or write it in a way where the person was not trying to hurt you and was unaware that he/she was doing so. Make this person innocent in your new version. Then respond to the following: how does this new story make you feel? How do you now feel about this person?
Retelling of story
How do you feel? How do you feel towards that person?
2. Write down three situations where you feel you successfully overcame a difficulty. What qualities came out of you in those situations that helped you be successful (i.e. patience, empathy, self-awareness, etc.)?
Three successful situations:
List your qualities in those situations:
3. Write down a challenge you are facing right now. Think about the qualities you just listed and you know you are capable of tapping into. Which of these will help you through your current challenge? How can you implement it/them to work through what you are dealing with?
Current challenge/ quality from above that can help you and how: