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.

 

 

Where Are You Is a Very Good Question

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

– Michael Hyatt

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

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

Killer Communication

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

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

The Existential Inquiry

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

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

Response – Ability

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

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

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

The True Nature of Sin

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

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

The Easy Life – Versus the Meaningful Life

 “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

-Bruce Lee

In one of the most famous mass performance reviews in written history, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses doing a recap and overview of the Jewish people since they left Egypt, and the review was hardly favorable. In re-telling one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke against God when they said: “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.

This is tantamount to claiming that the whole thing was a setup from the start, in that God freed us from Egypt, only to deliver us into the hands of a much worse enemy and certain death. We have the luxurious vantage point of having read “The Book” (OK, and we saw the movie too), so we know the story has a happy ending. But, in defense of the masses, which had been manipulated into a state of terror by the spies, can we empathize with their pain when they “claimed” God hated them? What was really going on?

The Longing Underneath the Complaint

When our children come home from school, smarting from a bad grade or being disciplined, for example, and they cry out with unwavering certainty, “My teacher hates me!” are they making a statement of objective fact  – or are they really expressing an unspoken fear of not being loved by the teacher? What is the unexpressed longing underneath their complaints?  

While it’s very challenging to remain centered, conscious and non-reactive when someone is bitterly complaining, look under the hood of a complaint – especially an irrational one – and you will likely find someone who is insecure, wondering if he or she is loved. Just to be clear, I don’t regard terrorism and anti-Semitism as “bad behavior masquerading as a cry for love.” I can’t go there. On the other hand, disciplining myself to ignore how a message is delivered so as not to lose sight of the underlying expression of a legitimate need, is a choice I make in my relationships.  

If God Only Loved Us…

When seen in that favorable and compassionate light, then, you could consider the irrational complaints and accusations the Jewish people made against God, as evidence of very insecure people questioning their relationship with God. In their minds, in their logic, it made sense that if God really loved them, he could have kicked the Egyptians out of Egypt and let the Jews live free and safe in the fertile Nile delta. If God really loved the Jewish people, why were they the ones wandering in the desert?   Why were they attacked and beset by people trying to destroy them? And why did they have to face years of battle to establish their homeland? At Mt. Sinai, God called us His beloved. Really? Is this what love looks like?

When my husband was a little boy, he lived in the DP (Displaced Person’s) Camps in Germany after the war. “The bad Germans lost the war,” he was told. And yet it was these “bad” Germans who walked around freely, seemingly doing as they pleased, while he could only peer in bewilderment at them from behind barbed wire, confined to the grounds of a concentration camp that was hastily upgraded to house the Jews that had nowhere else to go. The little boy was confused. Is this what winning looks like?

And when we read the news today, with worldwide terror a commonplace event, and anti-Semitism rising up with a terrifying velocity, isn’t it possible to wonder whether God really loves us as well? Like – what’s the deal? So are life’s challenges proof of God’s hate or evidence of His love?

A Mother’s Blessing

Every Friday night I lovingly lay my hands on my daughter’s head and I ask that God should bless her like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Isn’t that beautiful? But if you think about it, how exactly were our foremothers “blessed”? They had lives of unbelievable challenges, hardships and adversities that seemed much more like curses than blessings, as well as having to endure dysfunctional family dynamics that would compete with any sensational tabloids we see today. Why would I want any of that for my daughter? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to find a better role model? I racked my brain to come up with a female figure of merit and distinction in any arena that would exemplify an “easy” life and I couldn’t. And not in the fictional world either.

But then I found her – a beloved and famous young woman who has not just the perfect easy life, but the perfect body, long flowing hair, flawless skin, adoring faithful boyfriend, great clothes, loyal and subordinate friends, cute pink car – complete with its own carrying case. In case you didn’t figure it out, it’s Barbie. Suddenly the catchy pop lyrics sound in my head: “I’m a Barbie girl. In a Barbie world. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.” Now how does that sound as a utopia? And yet, that is what the Jews were complaining about. In essence, if God loved them, then they should have been able to live like Barbie and Ken – but in Egypt.

Life’s Bigger Purpose

God had – and has – other plans for us. He wants us to have a real, meaningful and fulfilling life. God wants our lives to shimmer with transcendence and holiness, endowed with purpose and service. God wants us to have a life where we overcome adversity, where we choose and grow. As Rilke said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”

You can’t move up the ladder by being a plastic doll or yearning for a life of ease. And so, while our forefathers and mothers didn’t have easy lives, they had profoundly meaningful and spiritual lives, lives that charted our very course and destiny, and whose qualities are embedded in our spiritual DNA. When we don’t confuse the good life with an easy life, then we can embrace challenges as a means of self-discovery. And when we don’t expect our lives to be simple, then we can tap into our significance. In giving us the Torah, you could say that God was the first life coach ever – exhorting us to live our lives by design and not by default. That sure looks like love to me.

And therefore, while the complaint of the Jews in the desert against God was perhaps understandable, in the end, it was ultimately unjustifiable – because the longing underneath the complaint equated easy street with God’s love, and adversity and challenge with God’s “hatred”. So even if its origin was fear, such thinking was distorted and immature. And when others were looped into the negativity, these complaints were rightfully deserving of Moses’ derision.  

Whenever you may face individual and national challenges, do not fall prey to insecurity that doubts God’s love and connection. Remind yourself of times in your life where you have endured suffering that led to blessings or growth, and ponder the ineffable survival and spirit of the Jewish people over the millennia. Life is not a “set up.” The Kotzker Rebbe is famous for saying that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. But don’t worry – that’s how the light gets in.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think of a time that you acted out or behaved in a certain, which really was a defense mechanism for how you were truly feeling. Write down the adjectives to describe your behavior, and then alongside it, write down the adjectives that represented what was really going on in your head and heart.
  1. With the above in mind, think about a situation where someone else behaved towards you or responded with the negative behavior that was similar to yours. Knowing that your behavior did not represent how you were actually feeling, rewrite that situation and how you feel towards that person when you believe that their true feelings were hurt, fear, insecurity (etc.), rather than rudeness, anger or blame (etc.).

 

  1. When in your life did someone push you well out of your comfort zone, and as much as you may have resented it at the time, you eventually came to recognize strengths in yourself you would not have discovered without that challenge? How can you apply this lesson to situations you are now facing where you would rather take the “easy” path than the one less traveled?

 

Practicing Unilateral Virtue in the Face of Evil

If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

– Gordon A. Eadie

Blaming the Jews

My husband was shaking his head as he was scrolling down the text on his cellphone. “Who do you think Greece blames for the collapse of its economy?” “I dunno…” I replied offhandedly, “must be the Jews.” I thought I was being sarcastic. My husband then read out loud the vilest invectives spewed by political and “religious” Greek leaders, laying the blame not just for Greece’s financial woes, but pretty much all of the problems of the world – since time immemorial – at our Jewish feet. “Who do you think is getting the blame for the shooting of police officers in Dallas,” I shot back. Israel, of course. In twisted minds, dots connect in bizarre and irrational ways.

These days, the news, in general, seems pretty bad; the news related to Jews, however, is once again reaching unimaginable lows. For example, a new adventure is being advertised, entitled, “Auschwitz Tag,” which allows “fun-seeking” participants to play tag – while frolicking in the nude – at Auschwitz. Seriously? Playing tag in the buff at a concentration camp – as a summer outing? What kind of mind conceives of this? What kinds of people attend? And what kind of world allows this?

The previous Torah portion, “Balak,” is named after one of the most paranoid and mentally disordered anti-Semites recorded in the Torah. This week’s Torah portion, “Pinchas,” is named after the Jewish hero who foiled Balak’s attempt to destroy the Jews in the dessert. Pinchas was not originally included in the priestly class, but as a result of his zealous courage, he was elevated into the priesthood and bestowed with an eternal covenant of peace, kinda like the Nobel Peace prize, but much better.

Is it a “coincidence”, that Pinchas follows Balak? I never noticed this before, and now I am wondering whether these two Torah portions are best understood as being a pair and that somehow “evil” and “peace” are package deals. Like “growth” through “adversity,” Balak’s plot to destroy the Jewish people gave Pinchas the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and in so doing, Pinchas changed the fate of the Jewish people as well as his own destiny.

 Practicing Unilateral Virtue

When the news brings us daily reports of implacable hatred and inhuman brutality, how do we react with a response that is nevertheless rooted in humanity? And is there a way not just to retain our humanity in the face of an evil that wants to seduce us away from it, but can we use that very evil to bring out our personal best?

Says Rick Hanson, a psychologist famous for using neuroplasticity to create positivity in people’s lives, “One of the hardest things to do is to remain reasonable, responsible, and ethical ourselves when others don’t.” In a challenging situation, how do you want to be? Can you live by your personal code even when it’s hard? What is your own code? What is your integrity system? What kind of honorable person are you moved to be from the inside out?

Personal Power

When we blame someone or something else for our perceived problems, then we are out-sourcing the solution as well. For example, if it were Balak’s fault that the Jews in the desert were suffering, then only Balak could change the situation. This belief creates the dis-empowerment of the victim mentality. Pinchas, on the other hand, didn’t waste any time on the “blame game.” Instead, he took action where he could and focused on remedying the negative behavior he was witnessing in the Jewish people.  

What is perhaps even more amazing is that he went against his nature to do what he did. It would be easy to think, “Well, I am no Pinchas. I’m not bold like that, daring and courageous.” But neither was he! The text explains that he took after his grandfather, Aaron, whose temperament was compassionate and peace loving.

And yet Pinchas killed, acting in complete opposition to his nature. And in so doing, he did what needed to be done. As explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “he transcended his inborn instincts to bring peace between God and Israel.” Pinchas fought an external enemy by correcting an internal fault in the Jewish people.

The very purpose of negativity is for us to change it. We change “it,” however, when we change ourselves. Just like the slogan, “Think globally – act locally”, when you work on yourself you are affecting the world. If you stop feeding negativity anywhere, it will starve everywhere. 

For example, when Jacob was preparing for his famous encounter with his brother, Esau, whom Jacob feared could still want to kill him, Jacob prepared in three ways: he brought gifts, he prayed and he equipped himself for war. And so dealing with evil is never a “one solution fits all” kind of approach.

While politics and military operations may be necessary, at the same time, we must also regard the spiritual realm as every bit as real and powerful – if not more so. Realistically, isn’t that the realm that most of us can access anyway? The daily dose of bad news can depress you, enervate you, or leave you trembling with fear waiting for horror to strike.  That is, however, precisely when we need to bring our A-Game. 

May we use these times when we are surrounded by the evil of modern-day Balaks to rise to the occasion and actualize our potential of unilateral virtue, integrity and courage. We can all be winners of the peace prize, and thereby, we may change not only our own fate, but also the destiny of the whole world.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think about a situation in your life where you began with a “Balak” situation and ended with a “Pinchas” one (something that started negative and ended positive). Looking back, do you think you appreciated the outcome even more because of the hard start?
  1. When have you gone against your nature and done what was needed in the moment, when you probably would not have if you had the time to really think about it. What did you learn from the situation? Have you tapped into this part of yourself more often because you now know it is within you? 
  1. We all deal with situations we are convinced are the fault of another. What is something that you blame someone (or something) else for? What will change if you can take responsibility for it? Even if you can’t control what is happening or has happened, you can control how you respond and react to it. Write down three things you can do differently in this situation.