Make A Choice For A Change

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“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.  

 

 

 

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?

Tazria – When Truth Hurts

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Often after arguing about differing opinions, I hear people say, “let’s agree to disagree.” I look forward to a time, so open-minded I’ll hear people say, ‘I’m right and you can be, too.”  

– Paula Heller Garland, author of Living in Consciousness

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.

When There’s Something Greater Than Truth

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, on the other hand, 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 how 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 hurt the person we are talking about, but they 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. But 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 stories is also wrong.

Deep down, the source of all conflict 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 tzazar’as.

THE MIND-BODY 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 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 the 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Right To Repair

imagesOblivious to her surroundings (a crowded boarding area in the Philly airport), the woman seated across from me loudly informed her husband in clear and unmistakable terms, exactly what she expected from him. “Your job is to make me happy.” “Your only job,” she continued, adding a little oomph for emphasis “is to make me happy. It is not my job to make you happy.”

Judging by the blank look on the husband’s non-reactive face and his utter lack of acknowledgement that she was even speaking to him, I gathered this was not a newsflash. By the looks of their worn-out elderly faces, I imagined he had heard this directive hundreds of times, probably for decades.

With the hundreds of commandments given to us in the Torah that seemingly regulate our every move – in order to serve God – one could conclude that God’s essential message to the Jewish could sound like the wife in the airport. “Listen up people. Your job is to make Me happy. Your only job is to make Me happy. It is not My job to make you happy.” One could kinda get that feeling – right? It’s not that much of a stretch. But it would be wrong.

Previously in the story-line, we did the sin of the Golden Calf (not good). But then we were forgiven and we faithfully built the Tabernacle (good), which became the vehicle for the Divine Presence of God to connect with the Jewish people (really good). But now, in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, God is instructing Moses about the sacrificial offerings that the Jewish people will have to bring to atone for their sins – their future sins. The ones they haven’t committed – yet.

Wait a minute. This seems rather dis-affirming, doesn’t it? Imagine getting married and before you even check into your hotel on your honeymoon, you have to sit down for a lecture on conflict resolution, fair fighting and how to appease your spouse?

Things were just getting back on track with God. Couldn’t we, as the Jewish people, just relax and enjoy our honeymoon a little while before being told about how we should atone for our sins – our future sins, that is? Does God really have to rub in the fact that making mistakes is inevitable? Did God really have to ruin the moment of reunification with this “buzz-kill”?

By repairing our relationship with God, we will repair our relationship with everyone and everything around us.

Here comes the simple truth. You – and every other person on the planet – make mistakes, and you will continue to make mistakes until you are either dead, or you lack capacity. Making mistakes is simply wired into the very mechanism of creation.

 So here’s another simple truth. You “make” mistakes; however, you yourself are not the mistake. And that’s what Tzav is all about – where God is laying was out the process of growth, and teaching us about the “right of repair”. Marriage expert, John Gottman, often talks about how a key factor in protecting marriages against divorce is for couples to learn the art of the repair attempt, because it stops negativity from escalating, and it corrects a couple from heading off course.

So too, the laws of the sacrifices gave us a way to process mistakes, to correct and rectify ourselves so that we could repair and restore our connection with God. We needed to know that from the onset, or else we could get lost in self-condemnation, blame and shame. Otherwise we could hyper-focus on our mistakes, and think we are beyond repair, which leads to disconnection. Or we could focus our anger outwards and get caught in a downward negativity spiral.

And that kind of truth, that amazing gift, can’t wait to be told. God was telling us something about fundamental human nature and relationships. We needed to understand that we are not perfect and that we will certainly make mistakes – but the relationship will endure nevertheless! We need to be able to take risks, to be vulnerable and to be authentic; otherwise we can become paralyzed by the constraints of perfectionism, which is a life-crippling syndrome.

In this week’s Torah portion, God also instructs us to keep lit an eternal flame. Providing the means to process and metabolize and move through our errors is the vehicle for growth, and it frees us to maintain our connection with that which is eternal – our connection to G-d and to our own inner flame.

What God is really telling us, is that our job, our only job is to connect with God, and in so doing, we will be connected with our truest, deepest selves. Appreciating the critical difference between making a mistake and being a mistake, and utilizing the “right of repair” will help get you back on track with keeping lit the eternal flame of your soul, and living into your life’s true mission.