Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling’

Focus

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Va'era - Focus

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

“..and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.” (Parasha Va’era; Exodus 7:9)

G!d is speaking to both Moses and Aaron here, giving Aaron instructions on how to proceed in the upcoming “battle of magic” with the Egyptians. Note, the ‘serpent’ is not a snake – nachas – but a kind of large sea creature – tannin – that seem almost mythological in their great size. The midrash says:

We have learnt: One who is praying must not return the greeting even of a king; and even if a snake has entwined itself round his heel, he must not cease.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus IX:3

This seems to be a simple injunction, only peripherally related to the text. Even the midrash changes the word from ‘serpent’ to ‘snake,’ perhaps to make the practical version seem more “realistic.”

I believe there are parallel lessons here. The first, at the p’shat – simple, explicit – level is that prayer requires focused intent – kavannah – in order to allow us to achieve the greatest result. If we can pray with such concentration that even a king’s command, or warriors swirling around us, or a snake biting at our heel cannot distract us, how wonderful that would be!

For the next step, go back to the story for a moment: Here stands Aaron, about to confront Pharaoh, knowing that his staff is going to turn into a huge, monstrous sea serpent. And when he does, a gaggle of Pharaoh’s magicians do the same: Loch Ness monsters writhing around everyone! And through it all, Aaron has the composure not to break his concentration, staying with the moment, until his monster swallows all the others. What prodigious kavannah! How can we ever hope to achieve this?

For me, the answer lies in part in ritual. For example, when I davven (pray) in the morning, I have come to think of my preparations – donning gartle (prayer belt), tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) – as donning a kind of protective armor. Not to guard myself from the world of spirit, but from the material world and its calls upon me. In this way, it has become easier for me to make the transition into the world of prayer filled with more kavannah.

What rituals do you use – with or without objects – to deepen your kavannah and encounter with Spirit?

The sea of Torah

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Vayehci - The sea of Torah

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

"And let them increase like fish in the midst of the earth." (Gen. 48.16)

This passage comes from the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, on his deathbed. In it, he blesses them with “teeming” descendants – too many to count. And yet the metaphor – to teem like fish in the middle of the earth – seems oxymoronic! Listen to how the Sages turn this into a delightful image:

This was the blessing with which our father blessed us. Just as fish live in water, yet when a drop falls from above they catch it thirstily as though they had never tasted water in their lives; so are Israel brought up in the waters of the Torah, yet when they hear a new exposition in the Torah they receive it thirstily as though they had never heard a Torah teaching in their lives.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCVII:3

How sweet that yearning is, in its fulfillment! That moment of a new flash of insight from the Torah – the sod (secret) sparking suddenly, casting a joyful light on our very being.

What is the formula to make such moments happen? We cannot make them happen, but we can make it more likely that they will. How? Engage in study, preferably with a partner, and with the guidance of a teacher if possible. Open yourself to the possibility of these encounters. Keep sweetness in your spirit. And then…

Predictions

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

"And we told him… and it came to pass: as he interpreted to us, so it was." (Gen. 41:13)

As we continue the Joseph saga, Joseph’s powers to interpret dreams are revealed to Pharaoh, ultimately gaining Joseph his freedom.

The Sages wondered – as do so many of us! – what are dreams? Do they tell the future? Can they be interpreted? Should they be interpreted?

And more: what was Joseph’s power with dreams? Was it merely to interpret, as he claimed? Or is there a deeper matter at hand? Listen:

A certain woman went to R. Eliezer and said to him: ‘I saw in a dream how that the loft of the upper story of my house was split open.’ ‘You will conceive a son,’ he told her. She went away and it happened even so. Again she dreamed the same and came and told it to R. Eliezer, who gave her the same interpretation, and it happened even so. She dreamed this a third time and repaired to him but did not find him, so she told his disciples, ‘I saw in a dream that the loft of the upper story of my house was split open.’ ‘You will bury your husband,’ they told her, and this did happen. R. Eliezer, hearing a cry of wailing, asked what was amiss, whereupon they related to him what had occurred. ‘You have killed the man,’ he upbraided them; it is written, And it came to pass: as he interpreted to us, so it was.

R. Johanan said: All dreams are dependent on the interpretation given to them (save a dream about wine).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXXVI:5

What a radical proposition: that our interpretation of a dream makes that interpretation real! Frightening in the way it is told in the midrash above, but – is it really so radical?

At one level, this is a clear and powerful reminder of the power of expectations. When we encounter the unexpected, the murky, the uncertain, our expectations dramatically color what we perceive. Is it an opportunity or a threat? Are people smiling for us or at us? Should we go in to that meeting prepared for conflict or collaboration?

The power of our expectations is so great that they literally change our reality: our pulse races or slows, our muscles tighten or relax, and we send the myriad of signals to those around us about what is “really” happening. And in so doing, our expectations become real.

We can, of course, go at least one level deeper: our words are real – in Hebrew, d’var means both a word and a thing. And our words have real power over others – especially when we are in a position of authority, as were the Hasids above.

Remember, with our words we create and destroy worlds: use them carefully, thoughtfully, kindly, and sweetly.

And in so doing, bring myriads of blessings upon us and all those around us.

The River of Shabbas

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

With this week’s post, you are receiving the benefit of my new collaboration with a dear colleague: Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, PhD, of Brooklyn, NY. M’ Shoshannah is, as you will readily recognize, an accomplished artist with a high neshamah. She is originally from Denmark, and her work receives international acclaim.

It is our intent to coordinate our work so that most weeks you will see her artistic interpretation of the midrash I am presenting.

Naturally, I would encourage you to contact her or visit her online catalog. I am pleased to say that I have a beautiful piece of hers adorning my study, where I reflect on it constantly as I am studying and writing!

Now, onto the midrash…

The Sambatyon River

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com

In this week’s portion, Vayeitze, there is a word that gives our Sages pause. Well, more than one word, of course! But the one that gives rise to this particular midrash is from the verse Genesis 30:24:

"And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘G!d add to me another son.’" (Gen. 30:24)

This is Rachel speaking, and the troubling word is "another:" Joseph is her first born, in what way is he "another?"

The simple answer would be that the offspring of her maid Bilhah and Jacob were "hers," but only in a legal sense. So what do the Sages do? They begin by saying that “another” refers to a different exile from that of other tribes. What, you ask, was there more than one exile for the twelve tribes? Listen:

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were not exiled to the same place as were the other ten tribes. The ten tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are dispersed in all countries.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX:24

Here’s where we enter another world. The Sambatyon is a legendary river, the name being a version of something like "shabbatian," or having to do with Shabbat. It is said to run with tremendous force the whole week, carrying along stones and earth, making it impossible to cross, and then resting on Shabbat.

There are many stories about the Sambatyon; one of my favorites is recounted as The Eternal Light in Howard Schwartz’s collection, "Elijah’s Violin." The constant feature of these stories is that one or more of the tribes of Israel is surrounded by this river and therefore unable to return to the Promised Land (as they won’t travel, of course, on Shabbas). In Schwartz’s story, one intrepid troupe makes it into and out of this special land by means of a tunnel beneath the river, which collapses before it can be used by the lost tribe.

So, beyond being a story bordering on fantasy, what does this river hold for us in spiritual terms?

To me, it holds a conundrum, a paradox regarding observance. On the one hand, the tribe awaits the return to the Promised Land, which will be part of the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon and in our day! And yet, what holds them back, and presumably the End of Days? Their observance of Shabbat! But shouldn’t their observance hasten that time, not defer it?

Ah, here for me is the secret: so long as we are performing a mitzvah for a benefit, we have missed the point of the mitzvah. On Shabbat, they are in Shabbat already – the taste of the World to Come that is given to us every week! In that moment, that time, there is no future destination, only the Eternal Now.

The most we can do is to live our lives fully Jewishly, by whatever definition of "Jewishly" holds for us. Then we and those around us will be blessed with everything we can be, in its proper time and season.

For the sake of one…

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

“I will go down now…” (Gen. 18:21)

This midrash begins as G!d is about to travel down to Sodom and Gomorrah to mete out punishment to those two cities. Midrashim abound on what their crimes were; everything from the bizarre to the macabre is catalogued. For example, if a visitor didn’t fit the inn’s bed exactly, they would be stretched or shortened as needed! And if you struck someone, causing them to bleed, then they had to pay you for the privilege of being bled!

In the case of understanding this week’s midrash, it must be known that giving charity was a crime punishable by death. Listen to what the Sages tell us, and see what they might be teaching:

R. Levi said: [G!d said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah – Gen. 18:20) does not permit Me to keep silent.’

For it once happened that two damsels went down to draw water from a well. Said one to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’

‘We have no more food left and are ready to die,’ replied she. What did she do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged their pitchers, each taking the other’s.

When the Sodomites discovered this, they took and burnt her.

Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that maiden does not permit Me to keep silent.’

Hence it does not say, WHETHER THEY HAVE DONE ACCORDING TO THEIR CRY; but ACCORDING TO HER CRY – the cry of that maiden.


Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XLIX:6

The play on words here is accomplished by changing the word describing the outcry of the citizens of Sodom from rabbah, meaning ‘great’ to ribah, meaning a maiden, managed by changing the (unwritten) vowel from ‘a’ to ‘i.’ What is the purpose of this maneuver? In order to understand this, we must ask (as always), what is the question?

The question is a bit convoluted in itself, but the lesson is sweet. Recall that Abraham negotiated that the cities should be spared if there were only 10 righteous men. If the call of the citizens was so great (rabbah), wouldn’t it seem as though there were at least 10 good men? So why didn’t Abraham win the bargain?

If, however, it was the cry of a single woman, then the destruction of the cities is warranted. Fair enough; but where is the sweetness of the lesson?

For me, it is that the recognition of the solitary voice of a single maiden in distress is enough to rouse the Eternal One, and compel the Divine to action! But, I hear you say, how many voices, male and female, cry out at injustice done to them? If this is true, where is G!d’s hand?

It is, my dear ones, at the end of our arms, yours and mine.

May we be blessed with the ears to hear, the hearts to feel, and the hands to lift up the fallen.

The Empty Sukkah

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.
His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!
Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.
R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.
Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.
“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!
Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.
But Abraham did not come.
He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.
R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.
“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”
R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.

His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, in his early days he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!

Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.

R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.

Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.

“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!

Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.

But Abraham did not come.

He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.

R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.

“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”

R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.

New Year’s Laughter!

Sunday, September 13th, 2009
The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6.
Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!
“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)
Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:
R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).
Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8
What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat?  Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!
Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:
Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.
Literally.
May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!

The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6

Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!

“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)

Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:

R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8

What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat? Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!

Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:

Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.

Literally.

May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!