“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
“I find that if your partner shares your values, everything else is negotiable.” Michele Paiva, therapist
What Were We Thinking? Or Not.
The couple sitting in front of me was at an impasse. Married for many years, they had solidified their positions on opposite sides of the “having children question.” Wife, an only child in her late 30’s, wanted something more out of the relationship and was desperate to create a family of her own, while the Husband was just as adamant that he was not willing to become a father. “Umm…” I began gently, “did you ever discuss how you felt about having children when you were dating and then deciding to get married?” They looked at me blankly, as if the thought had never occurred to them.
People – and relationships – grow and change over time; it’s not fair to lock people into certain decisions that no longer fit (e.g., a stay-at-home parent wants to work outside the home or vice versa, or someone wants to change the trajectory of a career, etc.). I am amazed, however, at how many couples seriously date and marry without figuring out whether or not they have similar overall visions for their lives together. They may feel confident in a relationship in which they have surface compatibilities and sufficient chemistry without inquiring whether their deeply held values mesh and align with each other. They often rely on certain commonalities while ignoring glaring differences. And so, swept away by infatuation, or driven by some other unsustainable force or motive, they close their eyes to red flags and blatant warning signs.
It’s a War Out There
Ki Teitzei means, “when you go out to war with your enemies,” and it opens with the rules a man must obey when coming across a “beautiful woman on the battlefield.” As the Jewish people were getting ready to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land, where they would be engaging in battles for years to come, this was a very likely scenario. Despite the idiom, “all’s fair in love and war,” the Torah is clear about inserting rules of fair play into the heat of battle, where emotions override rational thinking.
God understands human nature; after all, He created it. Thus, the specific laws of “the beautiful captive” were an intervention. They served to prevent captured women from being violated as victims of lust and infatuation, while at the same time, affording the man the opportunity to avoid entering into a hasty marriage that would ultimately violate his values. And so, a soldier who comes upon a beautiful woman whom he desired had to follow a whole regimen to cool off and think it through. After 30 days, during which the woman’s true essence would have time to emerge, and the soldier had time to reconnect with his rational brain, if he still desired her, he would have to marry her.
The laws of “the beautiful captive” were not a formula for how to marry the women of the land, however, but to prevent the marriage in the first place. He had to see the woman as not just satisfying his desire for instant gratification in the immediate present but as a total commitment to the future. Could he picture her as the mother of his children? Would he live happily by her side for the rest of his life? Was she compatible with his values and lifestyle, community and family?
While the famous “irreconcilable differences” provides a legal ground for divorce, the truth is all couples have irreconcilable differences! In fact, most marital arguments cannot be resolved, and it’s often a waste of time to try to reconcile disparities that are based on people having their own identities, differences of personality, history, etc. Therefore, it’s not irreconcilable differences that end relationships; but rather, incompatible values.
For deeply held intrinsic values, there can be no compromise. In the case of the childless couple, for example, there can be no meeting in the middle, as there is no such thing as half a child. Even if this couple decided to stay together, their future doesn’t look rosy. When a couple’s irreconcilable differences are tied to fundamental values, dreams, life vision and non-negotiable requirements for happiness, either or both of them will harbor resentment and anger, which breeds unhappiness and despair.
Living in Peace
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we all have values and a life purpose. When we live lives aligned with these values we feel fulfilled; our lives have a sense of meaning. Sometimes, we can truly feel that we have a clear road map of who we are and where we want to go, only to realize at some point that we never created the map to begin with, and the unfolding of our lives was charted for us by our parents, society, or other external factors. Like the quip that says you can spend your life climbing the ladder only to realize it was propped up against the wrong wall, the process of creating a shared life vision is only satisfying when it’s authentic to who you are.
So first, you must understand your core values. Unlike variable or secondary values that can change and grow, primary core values are the ones that endure, the ones that are tied to your belief system, you in your bones, being your best. The laws of the Torah, of course, help us shape those core values to express our godly souls and direct our life mission.
Knowing What’s at Stake
The late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, used to say that unless you know what you are willing to die for, you don’t know what you’re living for. By the same token, if you want a life of meaning, joy, and purpose, you need to know what these things are. In choosing relationships, especially a life partner, common interests will not hold up unless there is also the common ground of mutual meaning, supporting each other’s dreams, and the sense that building a life together is a shared purpose and a loving sacred path.
“The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Like so many things in life, the email over promised and under delivered. Snagging my attention with the subject line by Ticketmaster, “Your Personalized Event Line Up,” I assumed that this was a select and targeted list of local events I would find interesting and therefore, might want to attend. I am out of the loop when it comes to the entertainment options in my city, and so I opened the email with a bit of excitement to see what curated fun looks like.
Putting aside for the moment the fear I should have of the Big Eye in the Sky that records and logs for eternity each preference, purchase and Google search I ever made, I was willing to sacrifice my privacy for the sake of the convenience of algorithms that know me better perhaps than any human being. With a very wide and eclectic range of interests, I was curious: “Oh holy data gatherer who sees all, when you look at me, what do you see?”
As I started to scroll down the suggested list of entertainers, I was puzzled: never heard of ‘em, never heard of em, never heard of em. “Peppa Pig’s Surprise,” which I assume is a show for children, or for butchers, or maybe a twisted animal revenge theme, is playing on a Friday night (Shabbat) in a theater about two and a half hours from my home. Three strikes. I continued to scroll down the email to see ads for boxing, football, and other attractions you couldn’t pay me to see; obviously, this list was not tailored to my tastes whatsoever. Offended by its false promise, I deleted the email and unsubscribed from the site, frustrated that my inbox seems to fill up with impersonal mass marketing emails faster than I can delete them.
The Need to Feel Special
After the flash of self-righteous indignation passed, I felt a little bit pathetic. Ugh. Wounded Child strikes again, looking to be acknowledged as a unique individual rather than a commodity – even by an innocuous online marketing service. Says clinical psychologist Edward A. Dreyfus: “The need to feel special is common to human beings. We want to know that we matter to others; we want to be seen. We strive to achieve some special status in the eyes of others; how we are viewed by others matters to us.”
To See and Be Seen
In Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, after our basic needs for shelter and safety are met, human beings have psychological needs, such as belonging and love, which are satisfied by intimate relationships and friends. Intimacy, best understood as the oft-quoted phrase, “Into Me See,” can only exist when others truly see us. To be truly seen, however, depends on the courage to be vulnerable. The willingness to disclose our inner selves, in the face of fear of rejection, is nothing short of an audacious act of bravery. This takes real love, genuine connection, and sincere empathy. Unless you sincerely know someone, how can you truly see this person? And without seeing, how can you say you love him or her?
What Do We Se
“Re’eh” means “see,” where Moses is telling the Jewish people: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” While we may think the difference between a blessing and a curse is obvious, it is not. First, we don’t have objective eyes that see reality clearly, in that we constantly filter out sensations and billions of bits of information per second. Our attention is discriminating, and therefore, we can fail to see what is in front of our face. Take the Selective Attention Test and see for yourself. Second, we have biases that shape those bits of information into personal meaning. We all watch the news. We all see the same videos. But each of us processes the information according to our values and standards. And with a predisposed bias, we see what we are looking for – 100% of the time.
Looking with Godly Eyes
In the words of author Brad Meltzer, “There’s nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else.” So it’s not a coincidence that the biblical term for sexual intimacy is “to know.” True knowledge, however, requires the commitment of time and investing in the relationship. But unless we look at the people we love with the right lens, our vision is faulty. We maximize the bad and minimize the good, sometimes to the point of no longer seeing the positive – even when it is in front of our face. Whether you see a challenging situation as the blessing of growth-waiting-to-happen, or a bitter disappointment depends on you. Therefore, God exhorts us to see reality – not with our eyes – but to train ourselves to see reality with Godly eyes. For when we fail to see and appreciate our blessings, then we are truly cursed.
Being that women made up roughly half of my law school class (and this was in the 1980’s – back in the last century), and that one third of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices are women, I don’t think much about gender equality in the law. Historically, however, while there were exceptions, most law schools did not admit women until the early 1900’s. When I discovered that fact, my thoughts were, “Wow, it was only about 60 years before I went to law school that we couldn’t get in.” Notice the personal pronoun. Even though I didn’t experience this personally, I emotionally perceived this as a shared “we” experience.
Similarly, I live in a neighborhood, which I jokingly refer to as an “upscale shtetl,” yet I know that that several decades ago when my great aunt was looking to buy a house in this area, Jews in general (we) were not allowed to live here. Again, since I identify with this group, I feel the right to take on their experiences as my own.
In Va’eschanan, Moses recounts the experience of Mount Sinai, by reminding the Jewish people:
You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain…Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you were hearing the sound of words…He told you of His covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments….”
This speech by Moses, however, occurred shortly before the Jewish people were to cross over to conquer the land of Israel. This was the second generation; they weren’t at Mt. Sinai! Hearing these words, however, the Jewish people were to understand that the Jew of the past is the Jew of the present and that the “me” becomes “we.” Later on in the Torah, Moses tells the Jewish people that the Covenant is binding on everyone who was standing there that day – as well as anyone who was not there – thus binding the Jew of the future.
So as I read these words, which are over 3000 years old, the “I” becomes “them,” for Jewish mystical tradition teaches that even though our bodies were not physically present at Mount Sinai, our souls were. I don’t know about you, but this shared spiritual memory is a “feel-good” moment. However, this ends satisfaction abruptly when Moses goes on to forecast a dark future:
When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him….Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you.
Having seen countless movies where the leader makes a passionate and rousing speech to boost morale, Moses’ chilling prophesy on the eve of battle had to be a real downer. One has to wonder why the Jewish people didn’t opt to stay in the desert and not bother. After all, what’s the point in displaying enthusiastic valor for a battle that is ultimately for naught? And while I was also not there to commit the acts of idolatry that got us booted out of the Land, as a Jew in Diaspora, I am living the consequences of their actions. Just as I enjoy the spiritual benefit of having heard the word of God at Mt. Sinai, surely I bear some of the burden of those who did not head those words generations later. Not such a feel-good moment for collective experience. But then Moses consoles us with a vision of future redemption:
From there you will seek Hashem, your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you. He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.
After all, as Moses emphatically reminded the Jewish people, not since the beginning of time itself was there anything like what the Jewish people experienced, such as the miraculous Exodus for example; nor has there ever been a people who have directly heard the word of God. And why would God do these things? Because Moses also tells us that God loves us. There is an endgame here. A loving God set these things into motion – not to end in futility and for nothing – but for us to go through a necessary process of disconnection for the sake of connection, a stronger bond forged in the fire of experience and growth.
If we can hold these multiple realities as our own experiences, we can apply a great lesson to our relationship with God, and with our loved ones. Every intimate relationship starts out with great fanfare, connection, and hope for a loving, happy and bright future. And every close bond has moments of broken faith, bewilderment and despair, where one feels exiled from the sacred space of relationship. That’s the moment of choice. Do we accept the chasm in the relationship as the new norm, and adopt a relationship reality that hardens over time into an endurance test? Do we accept defeat, play the victim and walk away?
Or do we search our hearts and souls to find a way to turn towards the relationship and restore connection? While not every relationship is capable of being sustained, many do not reach their full potential because one or both people do not know how to how to renew their faith in each other.
It’s Not a Question of Love
After we experience a fight with a loved one, and we calm down, we know that somewhere deep down, we “love” this person, and sometimes we will even bravely admit it: “You know, I do love you.” So why isn’t that enough to end the conflict and restore connection? We take for granted being loved by our loved ones; what we aren’t so sure about is whether they like us. Do they love, appreciate and admire us? And in the case of God, we all know people who even in the face of extreme personal tragedy maintain their certainty that God loves them. But does God like them?
In our personal relationships, we have work on the deep friendship that is critical to intimacy and trust, which lays the foundation to stay afloat even in the waters of conflict. Without a sense of mutual respect, regard and gratitude, love alone does not carry the day. Says Zach Britle in his post, The Phrase That Helps couples Heal After a Fight:
Maybe you’ve heard that love covers a multitude of sins? Maybe that’s the problem. The ‘multitude of sins’ is what erodes the integrity of a relationship. You see, it’s not necessarily the gigantic betrayals that destroy a relationship but rather the little, day-after-day ones that chip away at trust.
Because of my personal baggage, I had a hard time believing that God loved me. I finally overcame that hurdle when I accepted the idea of a loving and beneficent Deity. But then what? Love is universal; we are even commanded to love our neighbor. But we’re not commanded to like him – because liking someone can be more complicated and challenging than love. My relationship with God became personal when I realized that God likes me as well.
As the Master Plan plays out over the millennia, and as we live out the dynamics of our relationships, we will experience innumerable instances of disconnection and reunification as part of the process itself. The best thing you can do for your relationships is to communicate and show the people you love all the ways you like them as well, thus laying down a foundation of positive regard and good will. When I notice all of the ways that God shows up in my daily life with moments of personal spot-on cosmic synchronicity – “God winks” – as they were, the foundation of an abiding trust and everlasting friendship carries me through the rocky bits. And that will do for now.
 Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:11-12.
 Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:25-27.
 Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29-31.
You’re on a cruise ship – a sinking cruise ship – when you see you chance to leap to the safety of a rescue boat, and you take it. From the security of the raft, you look back sadly as the ship rises vertically in the water before it’s pulled down beneath the surface. All of a sudden, you remember that with you on this vacation, were your three best friends, and with a sense of guilt and shame, you feel awful that in your moment of panic you totally forgot about them, and you pray that they are safe. You are no hero; but you aren’t a criminal either, in that you are not responsible for their lives.
OK – now imagine the same scene. Only this time, as you look back at the sinking vessel, you suddenly remember that you brought your spouse and two children on this cruise. This time, can you justify forgetting your family because of panic? In his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Manis Friedman uses this example to explain why we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins that we committed from a “confused heart.” As Rabbi Friedman explains, when it comes to forgetting our relationship with God, we cannot offer the defense of “panic” or “confusion,” because, like the family on board the cruise ship, some relationships are too deep for panic. And yet we do it all the time.
The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses giving an overview of the events since the Jewish people left Egypt. In the retelling of 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 slander against God. “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.” Really? As if the whole thing – the Ten Plagues, taking us out of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, defeating enemies in battle in the desert, the manna, etc. – was just a cosmic setup by a vicious deity, to be slaughtered by a different enemy.
The Mindset of Anger and Anxiety
In an excellent article, titled, “How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread our Partner,” Dr. Lemmie unpacks the anatomy of the mindset of anger and anxiety. When we feel threatened, our limbic system is activated. We secrete stress hormones and direct blood to our core (to minimize blood loss) as well as oxygen and sugar to our limbs (for fighting). Neural activity increases in our brains, generating threat emotions and, as a survival mechanism, we look for additional signs of danger. The adage, “better safe than sorry” causes us, however, to interpret neutral behavior or ambiguous threats as definite ones. Our thinking becomes narrow – we think in terms as “always” and “never,” because our brains are too reptilian, too primitive at that point for nuanced thinking such as, “sometimes,” or recalling instances when the opposite is true. We also overlay the past onto the present. When we have been previously hurt, we assume we are being hurt in the same way in the present – even though the person and the circumstances are completely different. To compound things further, as our rational brain function diminishes, we circle own wagons and come to the quick and easy conclusions that we are certainly in the right, and it is our spouse, partner, friend, family member, or God, who is our foe and who hates us.
Whipped into a state of fear by the spies, the Jewish people were flooded with threat emotions. Ironically, the ensuing cognitive distortion caused them to make the fatal error, sealing their death warrant in the desert. But was it fair to punish the Jewish people for their panic? Are we expected to put our blind trust in God and our relationships? Is that safe? Is that reasonable? Is it even possible? Or should some relationships be too deep for panic?
Unconditional Good Will
David Fohrman describes faith as a steadfast quality, an unflinching willingness to trust even as we confront our deepest fears. Moses wasn’t angry with the Jewish people for having been afraid, but for choosing to forget all of the instances when God was there for them. Says Rabbi Fohrman, “In Moshe’s worldview faith doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy.” Drawing from the Maharal, (the medieval Jewish commentator) Rabbi Fohrman explains the three prongs of a rational basis for faith in God: “If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you.”
It is at the moment of fear and panic where the challenge of faith of faith occurs. It’s a huge act of will to resist the temptation to slide into the primitive reptilian state of flight or fight, and instead to remain fully cognitively human, to acknowledge the fear and yet choose to trust the relationship. Says Rabbi Forhman:
Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing. When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?
That is the basis of real intimacy, the place of deep connection, growth, and transformation. Conversely, the cost of the anger/anxiety mindset is not just the loss or prevention of intimacy, but that it hardens us, eroding and ultimately destroying our relationship potential.
Do not turn a blind eye, but a knowing eye to God and to the people in your life who have earned your trust. Learn the warning signals of being triggered. Take note when you hear yourself thinking or speaking about your loved one in a negative, harsh and critical light. Don’t take your own interpretations of events so darn seriously and stop mentally rehearsing your grievances. Be curious and empathetic to the feelings of others. Consciously recall positive instances and attributes and for goodness sake, get your gratitude going and give your loved ones the gift of unconditional good will and positive regard.
Don’t Kill Connection
While threats to survival may at times be real, when we allow paper tigers to destroy our relationships, then we are allowing a sense of panic and confusion to destroy that, which should be too deep for panic. Misapplied, our striving for safety generates the greatest harm of all: the loss of love, intimacy, and connection – just the very things that make life worth living in the first place.
 Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27
“Choose to be kind instead of being right and you’ll be right every time.”
– Richard Carlson
If you have ever seen the movie, The Matrix, there is a scene where a member of the human resistance movement is selling out all of his friends to the enemy. Sitting in an elegant restaurant, he is openly aware that his so-called dining experience is a digital illusion for his brain, while in reality, his body is hooked up to a machine. Nevertheless, as he lifts a forkful of mouth-watering digital steak, he opts for a lifetime of virtual reality.
One of the perks of being human is that we get to make stuff up. Hard-wired with creative potential and endowed with free will, we make up stories and then proceed to live in the version of reality that we created. Sometimes we are aware that we are delusional, denying reality and justifying our actions. Other times, we are unconscious and unaware of our drives, and our habituated and reactive behaviors.
And so God placed into the very structure of our existence, pauses, or reset buttons, where we consider the impact of our choices, and reconnect basic reality. Shabbos is a reset button, a respite from the exhaustion of creating, where we can ponder our created reality on a deeper level by virtue of our conscious connection with Godly reality.
Every seven years, the land gets to enjoy Shabbos, known as “shemittah,” where the land is not worked and any produce that grows is free for the taking. And then after every seven cycles of shemittah, there is a massive economic and agricultural reset where all indentured servants are set free, debts are forgiven, and all land reverts to its original owners.
For 49 years, we groove along on our created wealth, our acquisitions, our use of slave labor, etc. We dig our roots and think there is permanence in the resulting society and economy. And then in the Torah portion, Behar, God upsets the apple cart and pushes the reset button.
Now, for example, the man who had sold himself into slavery because he could not pay his debts not only is set free, but he is restored to his land. Is this an economic model any MBA would study? In a free market society, these laws make no sense. They are not just counter-intuitive they are irrational and, in fact, delusional. But that depends on whose version of reality you are buying into.
When Behar is read as a double Torah portion in conjunction with “Bechukotai,” we can view difficult passages that portend historical tragedies for the Jewish people, known as “the curses,” in a different light. If we choose to disregard God’s reality, and therefore, prefer the delusions of one’s making, then we are turning away from our very source, and living instead, on our own in “la-la land.” The problem with “la-la land” is that it can turn very brutal very quickly, thereby unleashing devastating consequences.
On the other hand, however, if we focus on “the blessings,” we can see that God is asking something from us that is very loving. The word “Bechukotai” is derived from the word “chakikah,” which means “engraving.” God is asking us to engrave the words of Torah into our hearts so that Torah becomes authentically and intimately interwoven with the very fabric of our being, and thus becomes the reality in which we live. In God’s reality, then, the so-called irrational becomes natural. We want to give instead of get. We become focused on the needs of others instead of being self-centered. We strive for holiness, and we make space for other.
Being Right or Being Happy
The curse of the dissolution of marriages and other relationships comes about when one or both people become so entrenched in their versions of reality that they cannot make room for the thoughts, opinions or feelings of the other. That means you can’t be so entrenched in your point of view and your particular version of reality that you become the unilateral arbiter of Truth. When you make yourself right, you are by default making the other person wrong. While I am not saying that there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong,” this dialectic is not good for relationships, for any time you win at your partner’s expense, your relationship is the loser.
Hit the Reset Button
When you are in emotional gridlock, hit the pause or reset button and realize that there is another reality, a Godly reality, to tap into that will work for your relationship. In an article entitled, “Think You’re Always Right? It’s Probably Ruining Your Relationship,” Dr. Roger Landry offers a few tips on how to avoid this relationship trap, and one of them is to prioritize kindness and compassion over feeling “right:”
This is so much more important than converting the world to your very limited view. We all face challenges. We all suffer loss and pain. All of our opinions are informed by circumstance. Unless you’ve lived someone else’s life, you can never fully understand why s/he believes what s/he does. Listening to the reasoning behind someone else’s feelings can be a revealing. It deepens your connection with that person and broadens your interpretation of the world around you.
In Behar, God reveals a society based on kindness that cyclically recreates itself so as not to get entrenched in disregard of the needs and rights of the disenfranchised poor. But one must be willing to adhere to rules and laws that may make no sense or are hard to do.
When we internalize God’s Truth, however, and live from a heart-centered and Torah-based reality, we reap all of the blessings that flow from love and connection. That is the real victory. Now that’s being right and being happy.
“By repairing our relationship with God, we will repair our relationship with everyone and everything around us.” –Author Unknown
The Joyless Relationship
Oblivious to her surroundings at a crowded boarding area in the Philadelphia 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 her husband face and his utter lack of acknowledgement that she was even speaking to him, I gathered this was not a newsflash. And by the looks of their worn-out elderly faces, I imagined he had heard this directive hundreds of times.
The Guilt-Ridden Relationship
With the hundreds of commandments given to us in the Torah that seemingly regulate our every move albeit to serve God, one could conclude that God’s overriding message to the Jewish people 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 dead wrong.
Previously in the story-line, we committed 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 the 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 – as in the ones they haven’t even yet committed!
What’s with the Eternal Rub-in?
Wait a minute. This seems rather dis-affirming, doesn’t it? After the Golden Calf, we were just getting back on track with God. Did God have to rub in the fact that making mistakes is inevitable, thus ruining the moment of reunification with this “buzz-kill” from on high? Imagine getting married and before you even check into the hotel on your honeymoon, you have to sit down for a lecture on conflict resolution, fair fighting and how to appease your spouse.
Some Simple Truths
Each and every one of us make mistakes, and we will continue to make mistakes until we are either dead, or we lack capacity. Along with free will, making mistakes is simply wired into the very mechanism of creation. Perhaps if Adam had understood that fact, he would not have stayed hidden behind a bush and he could have come clean. It is crucial to understand that while we in fact “make” mistakes; we are not the mistake itself. Confusion on that point keeps us stuck in shame. Hence, when confronted with a mistake we lash out and blame others, and therefore we fail to learn from our errors and we cannot grow.
That’s not what God wants for us. We need to understand that we can atone for mistakes and we can change our thoughts and behaviors. Thus, Tzav, God lays out the way to deal with mistakes as part of the process of growth and restoring connection, otherwise known as the “right of repair.”
For example, 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. In all relationships – and especially the one we have with ourselves – we need a way back in.
The Joyful Relationship
The laws of the sacrifices gave us a way to process and rectify mistakes, to repair and restore our connection with God. And we needed to know that was possible from the very outset, or else we could get lost in self-condemnation, blame and shame. Hyper-focusing on our mistakes, and thinking we are beyond repair, leads to disconnection and an outward expression of anger that traps us in a downward negativity spiral.
Furthermore, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, “korban” is related to “karov” which means “to draw close.” It is specifically after we have messed up and feel so far away that we are given an opportunity to come back to the One who loves us and forgives us. The separation we can feel at times is not that God is far away from us, but that we have removed ourselves from God. The sacrificial offering is the “right of repair” that draws us close once again. The mechanism is already in place.
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 surely 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.
The Eternal Relationship
In Tzav, God also instructs us to ensure that an eternal flame is lit. 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 God and our inner flame.
What God is telling us, through all these commandments, is that our job – our only job – is to connect with God, and in so doing, we will be connected with our truest, deepest eternal selves. Appreciating the critical difference between making a mistake and being a mistake and utilizing the “right of repair” will help get us back on track with keeping lit the eternal flame of our soul, and living our life’s true mission.
Internalize & Actualize:
- If you weren’t scared of failure and making mistakes, what risks would you take right now in your life?
- What do you fear will happen if you make mistakes, especially in your relationships? What are you most scared you will lose? When thinking more about it, is this based in any kind of reality? If so, is the relationship really solid to begin with?
- List a few mistakes that you have made that you felt there was no way of repairing. Now rethink them and recognize that making mistakes is human and unavoidable. Write yourself a message acknowledging that while you made a mistake, you are not a mistake, and forgive yourself. How does telling yourself that you are not your mistake make you feel?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, was addressing a room packed with students. “Why is it,” he asked, “that there are only thirty-one verses in the Torah to describe the entirety of the act of creation by God, and yet, when it comes to describing the building of the Tabernacle, it goes on and on for hundreds of verses.”
For the last three Torah portions, we have been reading the “blueprints” for building the Tabernacle, and now, in the Torah portion, Pekudei, the building process itself is described. Is this necessary? Honestly – it seems redundant and somewhat boring.
Rabbi Sacks explained that it is nothing for God, an Infinite Being, to create a home for man, but it’s quite another thing for man to create a home for God – especially when this holy building project followed on the heels of the sin of the Golden Calf. And the sin of the Golden Calf is especially egregious and puzzling, since it followed on the heels of the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.
During revelation, the Jewish People were enveloped in a mass ecstatic experience, proclaiming their faithful devotion with these famous words: “N’aseh v’ Nishma,” meaning, “we will do and we will hear.” So deep was their love for God at that moment, that they had no preconditions for accepting Torah. Imagine your beloved asking you to do something for him or her – do you need to know the exact details before consenting?
But the experience was transitory. The Jewish People quickly rose to the occasion, and then, having risen so high, they had nowhere to go but down. It is one thing to be swept up in an ecstatic moment, but it is quite another to maintain it for the long haul.
Any relationship can be sparked by infatuation and it’s easy to get caught up in a moment of intense feelings. But for a relationship to endure, one has to relish and savor it, day after day, week after week, etc. In tasking us with the building of the Tabernacle – where we did ordinary tasks repeatedly for a prolonged period of time – God was teaching us a lesson about the real nature of love.
More so, in discussing the Tabernacle, there is an unusual statement made. We read of this in the Torah portion, Shemot, where it says: “Asu Li Mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham,” (Exodus 25:8) meaning, “Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them.” The obvious question is that this statement appears to be grammatically incorrect. “Sanctuary” is in the singular, and yet “them” is in the plural. On a deeper reading, however, it is the essential point and purpose of why the Tabernacle is to be built in the first place. The commentaries explain that the Tabernacle must be built within each and every one of us. We must create a home that is welcome, open and loving for our Creator. We must make a home for Godliness in our individual lives. For when one feels at home, and in this case when the One feels at home, that is the greatest expression of love.
Another allusion to this is the fact that the Torah begins with the letter Beit, which can also be read as the word “bayit” meaning “house.” This shows us that the reason we were created was to create a home, a dwelling place for God in this world, and a place where others can feel at home as well. To do so requires constant work and focus, and to make a house a home we need it inviting and welcoming for others. We want a home filled with love and light.
Real love doesn’t extinguish after one intense fiery moment, but it burns with an eternal flame. When you love, the seemingly mundane and repetitive moments are anything but, and they add up to a lifetime of deep and meaningful connection. The cup of coffee lovingly put on my desk every morning, my smile across the table to my husband that catches his eye and speaks wordlessly, the small daily constant gestures of thoughtfulness and devotion – these comprise the blueprints of intimacy. It is the very nature of such repetition that lays the foundation of how we build loving lasting relationships, and a fit home for God, indeed. After all, as the saying goes, if you want an important guest to stay at your house, you better provide a comfy chair.
Repetition reminds us of what is important, essential and the underlying reason and purpose for what it is that we are doing in our lives and with our lives. It is how we invest in a relationship so it doesn’t sputter out when infatuation fades or crumble when the work of relationship begins. Rather, it is the path through which our relationship with God – and with others – can become more real, deeper, more intimate, and over time, evolve into its true relationship potential.
Internalize & Actualize:
- Think about the mundane moments in your life. What do you possibly take for granted that when reflecting more closely show you how loved you are? List at least five things that you receive or give in this category. Consider making a mental shift from doing things in a habitual, repetitive and mundane way to investing in your relationship. Can you bring a new awareness or mental presence to rote activities? What changes?
- Is your house a home? Is it a place you feel you and others are totally comfortable? Is it a dwelling place for God? If so, what makes it that way? If not, what can you do to create such an environment?
- What new loving behaviors can you do consistently to invest in and grow your relationships?
“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.
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.