When Truth Hurts

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.

Tetzaveh: Outside Inside

images

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:

  1. If you could imagine your life as the gift you want to give to God, what would your life look like?
  1. 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?
  1. 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.

 

Beshalach: How to Optimalize Your Optimism

images“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

-Winston Churchill

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.

 

 

Shemot: The Who of Who You Are

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.

Incompatible Realities

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:
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. 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:
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. 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?
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Good Life

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.

 

 

The Power of Story In Our Lives

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:

  1. Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
  1. 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.
  1. 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:

Make A Choice For A Change

index

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”

                                                                                                      – Rick Warren

What goes around comes around. Until you make it stop, that is. Sitting on the steps of a courthouse appeared to be a homeless man. As my husband, who is a lawyer, passed him on his way into the building, the man called out, “Hey Rabbi, give me a blessing.” First, what made this man identify my husband as Jewish – much less a Rabbi? A hat covered his yarmulke. So, besides sporting a beard, what identified my husband as a Jew? And while my husband is a Torah teacher, how did this stranger discern that?

Was this a brilliant entrepreneurial strategy on the part of the homeless man? After all, he certainly got my husband’s attention.   Or was he a messenger from God? Could the message be something to the effect that while my husband looks and acts like a lawyer on the outside, who is he on the inside? The homeless man could have been saying, “When I look at you, I see the truth of who you are.” Turn that around, and the question for my husband was – when he looked at the homeless man, whom did he see?  

After my husband had related this incident to me, he seemed to have second thoughts about the encounter – or at least it was still nagging at the corners of his mind. Yes, he engaged with the man and even gave him a buck, but should he have done anything else? After all, my husband has traversed those courthouse steps thousands of times.   Why was that man there that day, saying those words?

“Don’t worry, honey,” I reassured him, “if this was an opportunity you missed but were meant to have, it will come around again. It may not be that homeless guy or any homeless guy. Lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Just be on the lookout to encounter the Divine when you least expect it.” After all, one of our favorite movies is Family Man, where the event that transforms Nicholas Cage’s life came in the form of an angel sticking up a 7-11.

We have all read those stories where someone doesn’t realize the import of a particular situation, makes a mistake, and is told the whole mission of his life, the entire reason for his incarnation was to do that one very thing – which he didn’t do. But unless that person vaporized on the spot, what would be the point of his continued existence? I hope life is more complicated than that, and that we are always given the opportunity to choose and to grow. While we may fail any given test, surely the Teacher doesn’t stop giving us pop quizzes.

In Mikeitz, the epic narratives center on Joseph’s dreams, his becoming the Viceroy of Egypt and encountering his brothers. But the story-line I like to track is the dialogue between Jacob and Yehuda regarding Jacob’s reluctance to let the brothers return to Egypt with Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. If you recall, Joseph (who has not revealed his identity to his brothers) retains one of the brothers, Shimon, as a captive until the brothers come back with Benjamin.   Hearing this directive, Jacob was not going to let Benjamin go, and was presumably willing to allow Shimon to remain detained in Egypt.   At one point Jacob doesn’t even call Shimon by name and instead, in an impersonal manner, refers to him as “your other brother.”

Thus, it was the same family dynamic all over again. Once again, Jacob was making it very clear who was the favored son. Benjamin was his youngest, the brother of Joseph and the only remaining son of his beloved wife, Rachel. Once again, Jacob was showing a demonstrated preference for Rachel and her children – over Leah and hers, and focusing on the youngest children over the elder ones.

This time, however, Yehuda did not allow jealousy and sibling rivalry to drive a poor choice. Instead, Yehuda took the opportunity to make a radical shift in the family drama, stepping up to take sole and personal responsibility to ensure Benjamin’s safe return, even if he had to stand against the very might of Egypt itself.   Same exam. New grade. Lesson learned. At last. And it changed the course of Jewish history.

We all make mistakes, but the point is not to keep making the same ones. There is an axiom: “What you resist persists.” The lessons are out there and will keep coming around over and over again, until we get the message, own our stuff, see our truth, and make a choice for a change.