The Road We Must Travel – Parshat Va’eira

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Our mistakes and regrets are not barriers to becoming who we can be; they are a necessary ingredient.”  – David Schnarch

Thanks, But I’d Rather Own My Stuff

In the middle of writing this blog, I was solicited to purchase an expensive business development course, which promised to create a quantum leap in my coaching practice. When I admitted disappointment with certain aspects of coaching, the voice on the phone was quick to point out, “It’s not your fault.” No doubt, “the voice” was trained to say this, to establish a sympathetic connection, hoping I would be sobbing in grateful relief as I reached for my credit card. Instead, I bristled at the very idea. Buddy, I thought, of course, it’s my fault! Whose fault should it be? Should I blame my clients? My childhood? The universe? Because if it’s not my fault, then how in the world can I ever fix it? When we outsource the blame for a problem, then we are outsourcing the solution as well. And when we give up agency, the ability to make choices and see the causal relationship between our actions and outcomes, we undermine one of the highest faculties of being a human being.

The Jewish Journey – Leaving Home

The first directive God gave Abraham was an eviction notice: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham’s journey was not merely physical but spiritual, where he had to transcend his external and internal influences and limitations, to awaken to a higher level of spirituality. In going from Haran, he left a place of constriction, but also everything that was known and familiar to him, to brave the unknown to journey to the Promised Land, where he would fulfill his destiny and relationship with God in a whole new way.

God also tells Abraham that in the future, the Jewish people will be oppressed as slaves for hundreds of years in an alien land, but that ultimately we would leave that land with great wealth. Ironically, Abraham’s first footstep of freedom set in motion events that would eventually cause the Jewish nation to become enslaved.

Coming Home

In Va’eira, we begin the process the most celebrated eviction in history, the Exodus from Egypt. Just like Abraham’s journey occurred in stages, God tells Moses that He will redeem the Jewish people in four steps: “I shall take you out from under the burdens. I shall rescue you. I shall redeem you. I shall take you to Me for a people.” The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim” means “narrowness” and “constriction.” Thus, the formula for growth is the willingness to leave a mindset or place of limitation to which you are attached. So here, on a national level, the Jewish people had to leave the place of bondage, which was all they knew, to brave the unknown in their journey towards the Promised Land, where they would awaken to their collective spiritual mission of establishing a loving relationship with God connected through Torah.  

What We can’t Control – God’s Business

When God took us out of Egypt, the Jewish people were at the penultimate depth of spirituality. Any further descent and redemption would have been untenable. If the endgame here was for us to become “God’s people,” then God intervened at the last possible moment before that kind of connection would no longer be feasible. The matter was urgent, and God wasn’t waiting for the Jewish people to work on themselves. If that was “The Plan” all along, however, both in becoming slaves and then being freed on God’s cosmic timetable, then we were passive entities on both ends of the stick. Where does that leave the Jewish people regarding personal responsibility and agency?

What We Can Control – Our Business

Many Jews have the daily custom of reciting the “Six Remembrances,” one of which is to remember for the rest of our days, the day that we left Egypt. And tradition tells us that in the future, the Final Redemption will be similar to the story of the Exodus. In the meantime, however, don’t count on God to airlift you out of your mess. In our daily morning blessings, we specifically thank God for not having created us a slave. And so every day is an invitation to look at our lives right now. If I am attached to my bad habits, if I refuse to admit that my behavior is problematic, and I defend my unexamined stories, then my relationships are going to suffer. Since my wellbeing depends primarily on the quality of my relationships, then my life as a whole is compromised. God didn’t create me this way; I enslaved myself.   But that’s OK; if I created my mess, then I can fix it.  

Relationships – People Growing Machines

In the beginning, God said that it was not good for man to be alone; thus we are created to exist in relationship. As a matter of fact, without connection, we don’t even exist, as all existence is contingent on there being a second something. Only God is a unity; we live in the space of relationship that exists between us and everything and everyone else. And so it’s more than just the quality of your life that depends on the quality of your relationships – you are the quality of your relationships.    

The Journey of the Heart

The willingness to break free of what enslaves us and to brave the wilderness of new possibility is to undertake the most magnificent journey of them all – the journey of the heart. Redemption is a process – a difficult and challenging one. Most of us are more comfortable with the devil that we know, and so even if we are suffering, we are surprisingly resistant to change. The challenges and tests we face in our relationships are nothing more than a reflection of who we are. When we stop defending positions, we can start to open our hearts, and by owing our stuff, we can let it go. Before we can leave Egypt, we have to be willing to go. But it’s so worth it. The Promised Land is love. You can go home.

 

What Does Changing Your Mind Say About You?

imagesWell, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure.  Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear.  Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.   

The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia. 

The Fight against Smallness

Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i]  Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality.  Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal.  They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.”  Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it.  The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.       

Soldier versus Scout

In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.”  Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy.  The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand.  Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information.  Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role.  Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.  As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what.  Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.

Scout’s Honor

Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.”  Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.   

The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack.  Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism.  Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you.  And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational.  We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them.  Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.   

There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset.  It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.  On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow.  Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.   

 

[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.