Resilience in endings… and new beginnings

circleLast in a series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

For a whole year’s Torah cycle of weeks, we’ve been looking to Torah for resilience lessons. We began with Cain as an unlikely resilience teacher.  We learned resilience from Noah in the rain and Abraham never quitting because he loved more than himself.  We learned resilience from Rebecca, the first to really question God.  We learned resilience from supposed enemies who dared to try better, from giving ourselves permission to wrestle like Jacob did, and from right responses and wrong responses to Tamar, Torah’s #metoo.  We learned resilience from Joseph’s search for hope amidst despair, from everyone letting go of pretense, and then passing it forward to generations unseen.

And that was just the Book of Genesis.

A whole year about resilience, and now the year is ending.  And with Parshat Haazinu, also ending are Moses’ life and the core narrative of a wandering people, now actually reaching a new place after 40 years.

Sometimes, stories are meant to end.  Resilience isn’t just a spiritualization of the Energizer Bunny.  Resilience is knowing when to go on and how to go on – and also when to stop and how to stop.  Resilience, in this understanding, cultivates the strength to surrender to stopping.

Think about it.  Moses could have lived forever, or sailed into the sky like an un-dead Elijah.  The people Moses led could have wandered forever, or changed their destination when the going got too hard or when they themselves went astray.

Emphatically, those alternative plots aren’t Torah’s story – or ours.

Moses becomes our ultimate resilience teacher precisely by preparing to die, by singing his swan song,  by transmitting his hopes and learning, and by offering his strengths and legitimacy to a next generation that will need to find its own way under new leadership (Deut. 32).  Moses teaches that resilience isn’t the narcissistic self-directed province of any individual alone.  Rather, resilience resides in the continuity and camaraderie of community and its a legacy, its journey, its ongoing story.

So while this year’s blog cycle is ending, the resilience story never ends – even amidst death.  After a Yom Kippur that rehearses death as the final resilience lesson for living, the Torah cycle will begin again.  In this new cycle, we’ll join Bayit: Your Jewish Home on a year-long journey about building the Jewish future.  What could be more resilient than building the future, and the call to build itself?  That call is Moses’ call, handed to Joshua, lifted over the Jordan River into a new land to lay a new foundation.  And that call is yours.

From all of us at The Jewish Studio, g’mar chatimah tovah – may you and your loved ones be sealed for a year of goodness, for resilience, and for building a vibrant future together.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

When (bad) things happen to (good) people

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

When are you most likely to ask “why” about your life?

Especially when life seems difficult or unfair, we ask “why” because we sense that understanding can help avoid pitfalls of meaninglessness.  A world we (think we) can explain is a world that seems less random and less scary, more ordered and more fair.  And as for the world, so too for (how we imagine) God.

Of course, “why” cuts both ways.  Some “why” questions – “Why would a loving God let this happen?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” – offer no clear answers, and sometimes no answers.  Maybe that’s “why” some lose faith amidst pain and loss.

But “why” ask “why” only in hard times?  Ever notice that it’s most often despair and loss – not blessings and good fortune – that tend to turn us?  What if we turned spiritually not only amidst challenge but also amidst life’s good things?

That’s the call of this week’s Torah portion (Netzavim). “When all these things befall you – the blessingand the curse… – and you take them [both] to heart … and you return to God … then God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love God with all your heart and soul, so that you will live” (Deut. 30:1-6).

The heart most open to love and spirit is not the heart that turns amidst only challenge or blessing, but both.  This kind of turning can be difficult because it asks us to cast away our transactional theology of good/bad: God is more than that, and so are we.  This turning asks us to lay theology itself on the eternal flame of the inexplicable – in a spiritual sense, to surrender (not in despair, but in love) to sometimes not knowing “why.”

This kind of letting go asks much of us – self-awareness without self-obsession, humility without paralysis, trust without control.  It takes time – say, the span of the High Holy Days, lifting our complex layers of mind and heart.  It asks all we’ve got.

The more we let go in this way, the more we shed (“circumcise”) the protective surface of our hearts.  We can reveal a love that doesn’t depend on the happenstance of “blessing” and “curse,” what we call “good” and what we call “bad.”

Our hearts become more resilient to life’s peaks and troughs.  Our love becomes more resilient, and so do we.  And then we truly can “live” – far more than we think possible.

Bad things do happen to good people: life sometimes is poignantly unfair.  Notice how your heart has become thickly protected against life’s bruises, and which protections have become jailors.  This week’s resilience calling is to turn not only when bad things happen to good people, but also when things happen to people – you, and now.

Just ask your tender heart, your resilience teacher this week – with blessings for a shanah tovah um’tukah – a sweet and good new year of turning.

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

Resilience when we would rather not remember

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

It’s just a few weeks until Rosh Hashanah.  The Jewish season of teshuvah (repentance, repair, return) is upon us. And of course, what we repent, repair and return (to) depends exquisitely on what we remember.

Truth be told, there are some things I’d rather not remember. I’d rather not remember who hurt me, or whom I hurt, or every time I said or did what I shouldn’t, or every time I didn’t say or do what I should. I’d rather not remember most of the news these days.

A little escapism (even selective amnesia) is a tried and true anti-hurt mechanism. (How often were you on social media today?) But escapism and amnesia aren’t long-term resilience strategies because ultimately, they don’t work. Consciously or not, we remember more than we may want.  And ultimately, that’s for the good: the Jewish High Holy Day season is transformative only in proportion to what we let ourselves remember and feel.

This week’s Torah portion (Ki Teitzei) is all about memory, though not on the surface. On the surface, it’s all about stuff gone wrong, as if ripped from today’s headlines – war, social plunder, wayward children, mistreatment of women, dishonest business practices, corruption, a fraying social safety net, environmental degradation and more. Only near the end do we read about memory: “Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:22); “always remember what Amalek [Torah’s euphemistic others] did to you” (Deuteronomy 25:17): “do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19).

Are we condemned always to rehash stuff gone wrong? Must we always carry past bondage around like badges of honor? Must we always remember every time we were wronged? Reading these verses, Torah seems to answer yes.

I understand this call to remember a bit differently. The spiritual intention, I like to think, is that we remember precisely not to repeat and not to re-live. The best we can hope of life’s hurts is that they both strengthen us and soften us – strengthen us to carry the memory, and soften us so that we’re more empathetic to others’ hurts and so we don’t lash our hurts on others.  So one measure of our spiritual (and collective social) resilience is the extent to which we harness those lessons for real, without being steeled by them.

But this hope goes only so far.

Last week, when a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a 900-page report about sexual abuse and official cover-ups in the Catholic Church, one victim’s response was heart rending.  CNN quoted her as saying, “When I hear the word ‘God,’ I get flashbacks of abuse.”  She remembers, and she re-lives – and she’s hardly alone.  How many women re-live sexual abuse?  How many soldiers relive traumas of war?  How many adults flash back to child abuse?  How many of us experienced religion and spirituality in ways that we wish we didn’t remember but do, driving us to steel ourselves to disappointments we experienced and thus also future possibilities?

Maybe Torah recounts stuff gone wrong in society (and still going wrong in society), before delving into the importance of memory, precisely to remind us that we keep reacting to memories unless and until we do the deep work of healing all that can be healed. Whether it’s our individual hurts and resentments, our societal stuff gone wrong, the journey to healing comes not in amnesia but through the straits of memory.

Resilience, it turns out, is the power to undertake this journey of memory and ultimately remember compassionately without re-living hurtfully.  Some will need professional support over a lifetime; for others healing might begin with just a phone call. This time of year is when we re-commit to the path of memory with the purpose to repair, to heal, to forgive, to do wise justice in the world – and thereby to better the world in every way that hearts and hands can.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

The eye is in the hand of the beholder

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

If art and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, then what about spirituality and especially communal spirituality?  And when we feel disconnected – as everyone sometimes does – then what? This week’s Torah portion (Re’eh) invites us to see that seeing our eye as our primary spiritual connector might be part of our problem. Among the most potent paths of spirituality is not our eyes but our hands.

At least three times each year – at Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – our spiritual ancestors brought to the Temple in Jerusalem their offering gifts, mainly in the form of agricultural goods. That journey to Jerusalem and assembly there was a unique act of making community, coming together as a collective, and suffusing one’s individuality to serve the whole and the holy in their midst.

Of their presence before the Presence, Torah records that each would bring “one’s own gift according to the blessing that YHVH your God bestowed” on that person (Deut. 16:17).  In economic terms it was a “progressive” amount (based on ability to pay), and a radically “democratic” calling (everyone paid something). That itself is a big deal: a healthy community enfolds everyone without exception everyone participates by giving what they can without exception; and those blessed with more offer more willingly. So far, so good.

In spiritual terms, Torah doubles down on this democratic calling with a curious phrase: ולא יראה את פני יהו׳׳ה ריקם (Deut. 16:16). How we translate this key phrase makes a tremendous difference to what we imagine spirituality (and democracy) to mean in communal terms. This phrase’s most common English rendering is, “And none will be seen before God’s face empty-handed” – in ancient parlance, just a repetition that everyone will bring something. But peel back the layers, and other meanings arise.

One profound meaning is this: “And none will see God’s face if they are empty-handed.” Take this in. In Torah’s understanding, nobody is empty-handed – everyone has a gift to bring “according to the blessing that YHVH your God bestowed” – so how can it be that anyone could be empty-handed?

We learn not that the journey to see God requires an admission ticket, but that anyone who feels empty-handed, without a genuine and valuable gift to bring, won’t be able to see and experience the holiness we call God. We learn that our capacity to see and experience holiness in our lives and in our world depends at least partly on what we give and what we feel ourselves capable to give. And by Torah’s own words, this isn’t an economic question but rather a spiritual question. The eye is in the hand of the beholder.

Torah doubles down on this teaching in a second way. Torah’s word for “empty-handed” (ריקם / reikam) really means “vainly” or “emptily,” meaning without effect. There’s no mention of a hand at all. Rather, when we feel ourselves to have no effect, to live vainly or emptily, that’s when we tend not to give. Our hands might as well be empty, and of course we won’t see.

What we most can bring is our fullest selves – and yes, that means our love, our patience, our time, our volunteerism, our charity, our compassion and everything else we can invest in building sacred community. Let these be the works of our hands, according to the blessings in our lives.  The more we see our lives blessed, the more we’ll find ways to give, the fuller our hands will feel, the more we’ll give, and the more holiness we’ll see.

It’s a virtuous cycle, this cycle of virtue. The eye really is in the hand of the beholder. Let your own hands be your resilience teachers this week, and every week.

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

Spirituality When Life Says No

Modern spirituality seems to echo advice of an old standard: “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Who doesn’t groove on light, love and can-do spirit? Each “yes” of affirmation and empowerment tends to feel good: a spirituality of “yes” energizes, validates and comforts. By comparison, negatives like restriction, redirection and disappointment can seem like lesser spirituality or even non-spirituality.

But every life encounters “no.” Every life needs “no.” Limits and redirection can re-inspire us and keep us healthy and safe. Disappointment can deepen awareness and build resilience. Life without “no” isn’t real life. A spirituality that hews mainly to “yes” and recoils from “no” will miss key parts of life. It’ll be calcified and brittle. It won’t be fully real.

How do we incubate real spirituality when life’s answer is “no”?

Moses faced this question. In this week’s Torah portion (Va’etchanan), Moses reached the Land of Promise after 40 years. His life goal before his eyes but already told he wouldn’t enter, Moses pleaded once more. God’s answer was blunt: no. “Enough! Don’t speak to Me of this again!” (Deut. 3:26). God then had Moses climb a hill to see a Land he’d never touch.

How could Moses go on? How can we? What is real spirituality when life’s answer is “no”?

These questions come at a time seemingly full of negatives. U.S. democracy is troubled, even dangerously so. Many feel too overwhelmed to look much less act. The world is less free, less safe, less fair and less just. And with Tisha b’Av now history, world Jewry turns to face Rosh Hashanah – and odds are that you’d rather not think about it.

Me neither. The constant drip (sometimes torrent) of shockingly bad news wears me down. I’d rather luxuriate in spring’s vibrant beauty than summer’s slow wane. I don’t want to notice the occasional yellowing leaf. I don’t want to see “back to school” commercials on TV.

Too bad. To my wish that democracy were healthier, to my craving for endless summer, to my inclination to turn away, life’s answer is “no.” And these negatives are trivial compared to illness and loss that we all must face, some more than others.

Rabbi David Ingber observed that God’s “no” to Moses hid deep meaning. Most traditional commentators describe Moses’ re-telling of God’s “no” as angry: vayit’aber YHVH bi – “God was angry with me” for asking to enter the Land. One, Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255-1340), translated vayit’aber bi to suggest that a new time was being incubated.

Turns out vayit’aber bi can be read as “made me pregnant” – yes, pregnant. Ingber put the pieces together: with this divine “no,” God impregnated Moses – not literally, but with a new spiritual vision that helped lift Moses to new heights. This holy “no” incubated in Moses new capacity, new vision and a healthy way to integrate this most disappointing “no” into his life.

As for Moses, so potentially for us if we allow it. We can’t always know why life’s “no” moments come, some so unfair and painful. But if we can summon the strength to hold just the possibility that each “no” somehow can incubate a capacity, vision or healthy way to move forward, then the “no” might well contain the seed of some future “yes.”

That kind of vision, pregnant with possibility even amidst life’s negative, is what Moses saw in the Land. It’s what God impregnated Moses to incubate, and what Torah now calls us to incubate in our lives. It’s the very seed of resilience itself.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Seeing It All

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

I’ve heard it countless times, especially over the last few weeks: “Depending on where I look around me, I see either beauty or devastation, hope or despair.”

True that: it’s all there, all at the same time, especially nowadays. Some would say that where we choose to look, what we emphasize in our seeing and thinking, is our master key of resilience.

To me, however, resilience is less selective vision than collective vision. Resilience is less about narrowing our focus to what most pleases or eases us, and more about expanding our focus to see it all, hold it all, and live well in it all. This week’s Torah double portion (Matot-Masei) proves the point.

Depending on where I look, I can see either spiritual audacity in keeping vows (Num. 30:3), or ancient society’s sexism in Torah treating male and female vows differently (Num. 30:4-16). I can see ancient Israelite violence and xenophobia (Num. 31:1-17), or attempted spiritualization of war booty (Num. 31:26-30). I can see selfish cowardice in peoples seeking to freeload on others, or wise practicality in treating differently situated peoples differently (Num. 32:1-9). I can see desert journeys delayed by repeated stops or made feasible by repeated stops (Num. 33:1-37). I can see in “refuge cities” either murderousness or wise compassion (Num. 35:9-34).

All of this and more in the same Torah portion. All of this and more in today’s news, today’s society, today’s lives. It’s a lot to see; sometimes, often, increasingly, it feels like too much.

When it’s too much, narrowing focus can be natural, wise, healthy and necessary. Capacity to narrowcast is a tried and true resilience tool. But if we all narrowcast, there’s no chance for seeing the whole, challenging our vision, or building our capacity. Often we’ll choose to see only the world we want to see: consider how you tend to choose your news sources based on what you want to see and hear. It’s a natural and comforting habit, but it’s not a long-term strategy for living well together (political sociologists call it homophily) much less bridging gaps and solving conflicts.

That’s why the highest calling of spiritual resilience isn’t to narrowcast but to broadcast. not to strategically see less but to courageously see more. We need to see it all – what pleases us and what displeases us, what comforts and what chides, what we can help heal and what we think we can’t (yet).

Only then can we cultivate the truest capacity not to shrink and shrivel from what we see. Only then can we truly help and heal. Only then can we truly be resilient – for ourselves, each other and a world that needs the widest possible vision of what the world still can be.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

When resilience is just stubborn: the art of quitting

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Ever feel like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill and soon will reach the top if you just keep going – but the top never comes? Mythical Greek king Sisyphus was condemned to this futility, and philosopher Albert Camus saw in it a metaphor for all human life. Camus wrote in 1942: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy [because] the struggle itself to the heights is enough to fill [the human] heart.”

Oh? Is the uphill climb all there is? When is it more resilient to catch a tailwind than defy gravity? When should we quit to get ahead?

All year, we’ve been blogging about resilience in Jewish spiritual life. We’ve met resilience teachers in Torah characters, personality traits, challenges and blunders. This week’s Torah portion (Balak) teaches that sometimes what we call resilience is just blind stubbornness.

Balak is a king aiming to curse the Israelites traversing his territory. His cleric is Bilam, whom Balak sent to curse them. Bilam pursued his master’s mission with zeal: to Bilam, perseverance probably felt like resilience.

But God wanted to bless Israel, not curse Israel, so God sent an angel to block Bilam’s way. Bilam, however, wouldn’t be deterred: he couldn’t or wouldn’t see what was in front of him. After hilarious plot twists that include Bilam’s donkey seeing the angel, crushing Bilam’s foot underneath and then talking to Bilam as if a talking donkey were ordinary, finally Bilam saw the angel and “saw the light.” From then on, Bilam said and did only as God instructed.

But Balak also wouldn’t be deterred. Even as Bilam blessed Israel, Balak kept trying to get Israel cursed. Balak hauled Bilam from one place to another, as if changing Bilam’s location would change his words. Like Bilam before him, Balak’s perseverance probably felt like resilience: he’d push until he prevailed. In the end, God prevailed: Israel received ever more blessings from Bilam’s own mouth.

Sometimes what we call perseverance and resilience are just our egoic willfulness. Yes, life asks determination and grit, but life also asks discernment. Sometimes we’re on the right train to the wrong station. As The New York Times put it recently, “winners are people who know when to quit“.

Resilience means seeing what’s in front of us and letting what we see change us when change is wise. Resilience means not letting ego keep us from needed redirection. Resilience means not letting the “sunk cost” of past effort keep us from cutting losses.

Had Bilam been paying the right kind of attention, maybe he would’ve seen signs that he was on the wrong path. Maybe he would’ve seen repeated obstacles as holy forces of redirection. Same for Balak: had he really listened to his otherwise loyal cleric, maybe Balak would’ve heard a deeper message.

In most life situations, we’re not Sisyphus: we have the power to choose and the duty to choose wisely. In many life situations, we might experience an impulse of holy re-direction. Real resilience is unafraid to ask if we’re still on the right path, and unafraid to be re-directed for the better – whatever the cost.

Just ask Balak, Bilam and his holy angel of re-direction – this week’s resilience teachers.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Bitching Bites

Bitching is easy. Holy bitching is another matter.

Easy bitching is what our Torah ancestors did after 39 years in the desert – and who could blame them? Having buried beloved leaders Miriam and Aaron, the people called Israel were miserable: 39 years on the move, in the wilderness, eating manna. It is human nature to notice frustrations and start complaining.

Letting off steam and expressing discontent can be healthy and cleansing. Expressing discontent that commits us and others to concrete actions for betterment is how all social reform movements begin. But complaining without end, without gratitude and without action can undermine community and disrupt society – and there’s nothing holy about that.

Our Torah ancestors complained without end and without gratitude. Simply put, they bitched – and not for the first time. The bitching that Numbers chapter 21 describes isn’t the first time that the people bemoan their fate, blaming God and Moses.

But this time, God conjured a way to tame the people’s fury: snakes. The snakes came biting and the people ran to Moses for relief. God told Moses to create a serpent figure and fix it to a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could run to view the snake on a stick and they wouldn’t die.  (If the image sounds familiar, look at the emblem for the American Medical Association.)

The scene sounds crazy, but the symbolism is poignant. The consequence of disruptive behavior was a snake bite, and the remedy was to look at a copper snake. The snake is the animal that deceived Eve and Adam in Eden.  The snake’s sharp tongue prompted dissatisfaction, disobedience and expulsion. So too here: endless ungrateful bitching was poised to deny our ancestors the promised land.

The snake story’s resilience lesson is a bit of spiritual homeopathy: the “cure” lay within the “illness” itself. Bitching was poisonous, and only seeing the poison for what it was could lead to healing.

The next time you feel the impulse to complain, ask if what’s arising is a healthy steam-letting, a constructive criticism, a call to action or just bitching. All are human, but not all are holy – and not all are pathways to resilience.

R’ Evan J. Krame & R’ David Evan Markus

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

The time God got it wrong – Korach

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Watch enough cable or online “news,” and you might sense a U.S. society more polarized than ever before by political party, class, race, ethnicity, geography and religion. Public disagreements speedily become disagreeable, and disputes fuel scorched-earth campaigns to destroy disputants.

What are we to do? What’s a loving God to do? Turns out that our ancient narrative of God has bloody hands, too – which might be trying to teach us something by shocking our conscience. This lesson, it turns out, offers a key to navigating our complex and conflict-riddled world with spiritual and emotional resilience.

In one of Torah’s most poignant and perplexing narratives, from this week’s Torah portion (Korach), an understandable rebellion against Moses becomes deadly. Moses responds with humility and genuine leadership, by falling on his face. By contrast, this narrative’s God responds with alarming pique: “Stand back from this community that I may consume them instantly” (Num. 16:21).

Yes, you read that right. Torah records God to respond with not only a death sentence but also a communal death sentence that would be levied against everyone. No, not against only the rebels: everyone!

Nachmanides confirms this interpretation, and he offers no justification. Rashi, who usually has much to say about everything, seems shocked into silence: for once, Rashi has nothing to say. He’s left speechless.

Thankfully, the story turns out better than it starts: Moses talks God down from the rafters, and God limits divine punishment only against the rebels. Whatever we might make of the rebellion or the response, at least innocents aren’t condemned with the rest.

But what are we to make of God’s conscience-shocking over-generalizing threat against everyone?

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we must admit that we too paint with over-broad brushes against perceived adversaries and people who seems different from us. So affirms social identity theory, but we don’t need highfalutin psychologists to tell us what we already know from experience. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of group discrimination are only the most noxious forms of the very human (and very flawed) trend of lumping people into in-groups and out-groups, then painting out-groups with broad brushes that paint them negatively.

In other words, our brains are wired to generalize criticism of others. Think about all the times you say, feel or think about “them” (or any subset of “them”) as a group. Check the news and watch this facet of social identity theory play out. Once we see it, it seems to be most everywhere.

Resilience lies in naming this dynamic (in psychological terms, thus “inoculating” somewhat against it). Name the dynamic and we become less likely to paint with such broad brushes, with all its flawed us-them thinking that’s often so damaging. If we all could honestly name our own us-them thinking and expose it to genuine light, odds are that much of today’s public vitriol, racism and hatred would wane.

Maybe Torah teaches us this lesson precisely by positioning God as the One to go so far over the top. If an ostensibly omniscient God can look again and repent of painting with too broad a brush, then perhaps we can too. And if we do our parts, we and our world can become more fair, more safe and more resilient for it.

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

Waiting to Exhale

waitingPart of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

“Waiting to Exhale.” No, not the 1995 Whitney Houston movie hit. I mean life’s occasional sense of waiting – waiting with anticipation, waiting with diminishing patience, maybe even Waiting for Godot.

When we must wait, how can we wait with inner healthfulness, even resilience?

We moderns crave our agency – our autonomy, our capacity to act – and with good reason. For hundreds of years since the Enlightenment emphasized the rights and liberties of the individual, Western society has trended toward the ingrained belief that each of us controls our destiny. In Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words, each of us enjoys the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We usually believe that we claim these rights by our own means.

True enough. But sometimes our own means and agency aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes they’re even illusions.

Into all lives come things we can’t control. Often we wait, because what we await is beyond our control. Waiting can challenge us. Rather than name this challenge and work out its difficulties on their terms, sometimes we deflect the challenge into things that don’t serve us.

Suddenly far from living in our own agency, the challenge of waiting controls us. We become quiet victims of impatience, deflection and the inner drive to control precisely what we can’t control.

Cue this week’s Torah portion (Beha’alotecha).

Not once but five times in the same paragraph, Torah recounts that our desert ancestors followed a cloud by day and fire by night atop the Mishkan. They moved when it moved and stopped when it stopped. “Whether the cloud was on the Mishkan for days, a month or a year,” they waited and moved only when it moved (Num. 9:22).

When Torah repeats herself, Torah is focusing attention. By repeating herself five times, Torah emphasizes that our ancestors had no control of when and where they went. Their desert wandering was precisely to teach trust and patience in a transcendent reality beyond themselves.

Among life’s deep truths is that sometimes we control less than we may think. In pivotal moments, some choose rebellion, sublimation or passive fatalism. Torah offers another choice: trust and patience.

What fire do you follow? What fire is worth your trust and patience – however dark the night, however long it takes, wherever it leads?

Find that fire and you’ll find your resilience. You might even find that it’s not about waiting to exhale: it’s about our journey, and what lights our way.

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

What Counts? – A tribute to Israel

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

I just returned from two weeks in Israel, in the days preceding the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. The country felt consumed by this momentous occasion – recounting Israel’s history, counting Israel’s blessings, and counting on the future to bring both immense blessings and wrenching challenges.

Most historians agree that Israel’s resilience – as a people, as a nation and as a modern state – has few equals. Israel’s resilience formula has been a rarefied combination of diversity, daring, desire and duty. Israel has prevailed not in luxury but in necessity, at risk of annihilation. And when Israel has faltered, often it’s because Israel fell out of sync with her core values.

So this week’s Torah portion coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel’s founding (Numbers / Bamidbar) begins with especially poignant words: “Take a census of the whole community of the children of Israel” (Num. 1:2). Count their numbers and recount what they’re about, all of them – no matter who they are or where they are or how they are. Take stock. Really take stock. Leave nobody out.

But Torah, being Torah, hides a message within this message. Torah doesn’t quite say to count them numerically. Instead, Torah uses euphemistic language: in Hebrew, s’u et rosh – literally, “lift the head.” This kind of counting isn’t about marks on a ledger, but about lifting people up.

That’s the meaning we traditionally attribute to Psalm 24:7, which uses these same words: “Lift up your heads, oh gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors – and the King of Glory will come in!” Handel’s Messiah early segments famously begin with exactly those words.

Israel’s resilience lesson to the world is about lifting people up. Lifted up, people are capable of incredible daring, compassion, creativity, industry, courage and beauty. Pushed down or kept down, people are capable of incredible fear, hate, ugliness and destruction. Israel has experienced both. Which ones will win Israel’s future – and the future of the world – is up to all of us.

I want to believe, in the words of Psalm 24:7, that if we truly lift people up, the One we call the God of Glory will come in. May Israel help lead the world in fulfilling that resilience promise for us and all our descendants. Especially this week, let that be what counts most.

 

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

There is no “I” in Team

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Here’s a true confession of a self-described “Resilience Rabbi” spending a year writing about resilience: sometimes I don’t feel very resilient.

Sometimes I feel tired, drained, even hopeless. I suspect we all have those moments when we don’t seem to bounce back from adversity, when the proverbial turkeys get us down. After all, life is dynamic and our inner realities don’t always flow in ways that our left brains would call “rational.” In those poignant moments, it can be hard to fully feel anything else – or anyone else.

It’s through this lens of emotional and inter-personal realism – that how we feel individually can freight, shade or even block our sense of each other – that I read this week’s paresha (Emor). Through that lens, I receive a valuable resilience lesson about how we balance ourselves and others, what’s within us and what’s beyond us.

Emor begins with individual instructions for now-outdated spiritual practices about the sacrificial cult (Lev. 21-22), then describes Shabbat and the spiritual calendar (Lev. 23), then directs all the people to bring “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Lev. 24:2). The individual practices are just that – individual, personal to each of us. Shabbat and the spiritual calendar are collective.

Take that in. There are individual spiritual practices, and there are collective ones. We’re called into both. Individual practices without the collective can become isolated, self-absorbed and even self-righteous. Collective rites without individual experience can become performative and dull, even fake.

Jewish resilience wisdom is precisely in balancing and harmonizing the individual and collective. When individual lives feel dull and diminished, Torah’s wisdom calls us to reach for the collective. When our participation in community feels dull and diminished, Torah’s wisdom calls us to recharge within.

Only when we fire on both thrusters – both individual and collective – can we bring what Torah calls the “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting.” Pure olive oil is especially difficult to make: it requires much effort to pick olives, carry them, press them and refine their oil into pure clarity. By their nature, the many steps of making pure olive oil ask communal teamwork in which every participating individual’s effort is necessary but no participant’s effort is sufficient.

In modern jargon, there’s no “I” in that kind of team. The wisdom of Jewish spiritual life is precisely that it tacks from individual to collective and back again. That’s how we all can shine brightest.

Just ask the pure olive oil, shining bright as our quiet resilience teacher.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Resilience After the Seder

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

This year’s Passover seder is history. Cups were filled and drunk and filled and spilled and drunk and filled again. Matzah was broken, crunched and crumbled. Soup was slurped. Stories were told. Songs were sung. A marinade of elation, pride, afterglow, exhaustion and indigestion remains.

And, Passover isn’t over. Now what?

Passover is the resilience holiday. In countries worldwide, in dozens of languages, seder gatherings recited these ancient words of continuity and memory:

“We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Despite centuries, the resilience of identity and spirit were not totally crushed.)

“God led us out of there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm.” (No earthly power, however formidable and seemingly insurmountable, can match the potency and resilience we call God.)

“Had God not redeemed us from bondage, we and our children and our children’s children still would be enslaved.” (Negative patterns, both individual and societal, also are resilient and suffer the inertia of continuity unless and until we actively change them.)

“We all are to regard ourselves as if God personally liberated us from Egypt.” (We carry this resilient imprint deep within us: it is part of our identity and spiritual lodestar.)

“You will tell your child on [Passover]: I do this because of what God did for me when came forth from Egypt.” (Liberation continues: it reaches forward in time and place, inside and out, toward ever more complete inclusion.)

Passover’s resilience is precisely that this history isn’t just history: it’s now. Our calling, our spiritual opportunity – even our duty in this broken, topsy-turvy world – is to make Passover’s words resiliently real in our day.

Understood this way, the 49-day Omer count now beginning – from Passover (liberation) to Shavuot (revelation) — is about continuing what we just began at the Passover seder. It’s one thing to celebrate history’s liberation: it’s another to make liberation real today and tomorrow.

The Netivot Shalom (1911-2000) taught that Passover’s over-the-top majesty and celebration seek to awaken in us our own embodied feeling of freedom, so that this feeling can impel us to walk the path of continuing liberation under our own power. We’re lifted up to see freedom not as a mirage or a distant vista but as here and now. Only by renewing our own vibrant individual sense of freedom’s aliveness, here and now, can we make it real – and teach it to others by living it in every tight place.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“We are God’s stake in history. We are dawn and dusk, the challenge and the test. How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands.  We have been offered as a pattern of worship and as a pray for scorn, but there is more still in our destiny. We carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the kingdom. The time for the kingdom may be far off, but the task is plain.”

Happy freedom. Happy journey. Happy Passover.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

The Koan of Shrunken Silence

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, recounted that one of his children asked him about waking and sleeping. The child asked, “If we can wake from sleeping, why can’t we also wake from waking?”

In essence, can we wake more? What might it mean for us to wake more?

This kind of question repeats in this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra), the first of the Book of Leviticus, whose first word (vayikra) means “[God] called (Lev. 1:1). This first word ends with an aleph (א), first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is silent. In a Torah scroll, this silent aleph is printed smaller than all others.

How can a silent letter be shrunk smaller? How can silence be more silent? How can we wake from waking?

These questions are koans. Playfully, they challenge our assumptions and focus the mind onto itself. Paradoxical questions really delve into our consciousness.

Our text-savvy ancestors, however, tried to answer these questions literally. Of the shrunken alephRashi and Jacob ben Asher imagined a self-consciously humble Moses trying to diminish focus on himself: why should God speak only to Moses when, at the end of Exodus, “the eyes of all of Israel” could see and follow God’s fire and cloud (Ex. 40:38)? Nachmanides saw in the shrunken aleph a patient Moses passively waiting for God’s call. If I step into this brainy textualism, I might read out the shrunken aleph – rendering vayikra (“called”) as viy’kar (“honor”) – the word that Esther 8:16 evokes along with light, joy and gladness as our spiritual inheritance. If so, then God was honoring Moses and all who step forward (or feel dragged forward) into spiritual service.

These kinds of brain games are fun, but at best they’re only pointers to a deeper point. Koans like these point the rational mind at itself precisely to teach that there is far more than the rational mind. If we can slow the momentum of our rational minds, we might experience that silence can be more silent and waking can be more wakeful. We might sense that reality and consciousness are more textured and nuanced than our left brains alone can think on their own terms.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that not all silences feel the same. Some silence is sweet; some silence is bitter. Some silence is stable and unchanging; some silence is pregnant with power, poised to pop into sound. Some silence is energetic; some silence is tired. Some silence is healing; some silence feels like an affliction. We experience these distinctions, but we can’t think them rationally.

This shift of awareness, from left-brain analytics to right-brain knowing, opens a fount of resilience that the world is far more than we rationally can know. Even the mere theoretical possibility can empower and uplift us. And if we dare to enter the right-brained realm of koan, paradox, more silent silence and more wakeful waking, we might find a whole spiritual landscape just waiting for us to explore.

Just ask the shrunken silent aleph, this week’s resilience teacher.

 

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

The Sapphire Path

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Long before Frank Baum imagined Munchkins and “The Yellow Brick Road,” Jews had a “Sapphire Path” that, according to Torah, Moses and 70 elders saw ascending skyward (Exodus 24:10).  While mystics and rationalists might part ways about these kinds of visions, the hope of an unseen spiritual path is a keystone of resilience.

There’s comfort in knowing the world for what it is. At the same time, if the world is only what we know, then what kind of world is this and what kind of life do we live? The human condition impels us to wonder, seek, hope, reach, dream and create. By definition, we only can wonder, seek, hope, reach, dream and create beyond what we think we know and past the perceived limits of the world as it appears.

Understood this way, the unknown is the only true path to growth, betterment, creativity and the future. There’s no forward and no future without the unknown.

That’s how I understand Torah’s mystical scene from this week’s paresha (Mishpatim). After the Children of Israel famously agreed to receive the Covenant, Moses and 70 elders of Israel ascended. There, “they saw the God of Israel, and under God’s feet was like a pavement of sapphire, like the essence of sky in purity” (Exodus 24:10).

Oh? How could they see God if “none could see God’s face and live” (Exodus 33:20)? To Rashi, they saw God but didn’t die because God didn’t want to mar the joy of giving Torah. To Ibn Ezra, they didn’t see God but rather became prophets. To Ramban, they only thought they saw God but instead saw the holy seat of divine glory. To the Sforno, they didn’t see God or a sapphire path but rather a spiritual essence that both absorbed and transcended all spirituality.

If you’re left feeling like none of this makes rational sense, you’re right and in good company.  It can’t make rational sense. Sometimes life defies words: words are limited, while some experiences evoke the transcendent. Good luck finding the right words to describe seeing an awesome sunset, or witnessing a birth, or having an orgasm, or saying “I do,” or being present at the moment of death. 

When life transcends words, naturally we reach for metaphor and allegory (it was “like” this or that) or we say “Oh God!” (a common refrain even for devout atheists). Words are just pointers: sometimes the point is beyond all words.

That’s Torah’s lesson. The people didn’t see a sapphire path but rather something “like” a sapphire path.  What they saw wasn’t “of” the essence of sky in purity but rather “like” the essence of sky in purity. Torah readily admits that our ancestors had no idea what they were seeing, and neither do we. There were no words. There are no words.  

It was the same for the prophet Ezekiel. In his mystical vision, Ezekiel saw things that were “like” the “appearance” of a “vision” of a “semblance.” He described the same gleaming sapphire, but words were failing him (Ezekiel 1:26).

That’s the Reality – with a capital “R” – that sometimes hides in plain sight. It’s the Reality that takes our breath away, that scrambles our minds, that leaves us tongue tied lacking for words, that we can only sing or paint or dance. Call it a sapphire path, or the Light, or the throne of glory, or the breath of life, or God, or countless other synonyms to describe the undescribable.  

Call it anything or nothing at all.  Reality is beyond all words, ideas and images. The unseen hides in plain sight. We only think we know: all spirituality, all creativity, the entire future, the universe and everything are in the not knowing.

“Like” resilience itself.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Take my advice

Part of a series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

The older I get, the more willing I become to admit that I don’t know it all and can’t do it all.  Life experience teaches all of us what the brilliant Albert Einstein recognized: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Our resilience journey asks us to learn this lesson well enough that we open – truly open – to receiving and accepting advice from others. In turn, we must become inwardly vulnerable, which means holding onto ourselves a little bit less.

This is Moses’ resilience lesson from this week’s Torah portion (Yitro), named for Moses’ father in law.

Yitro was Priest of Midian, where Moses had sought refuge from Pharaoh. After the Exodus, Yitro saw Moses overwhelmed resolving the people’s disputes – all of them, by himself, day after day.  Yitro saw Moses burning out and stepped in to give Moses unsolicited advice to delegate.

So was born western civilization’s first judicial system and first governance system.  And spiritually, so was born the sacred tradition of giving and receiving advice.

It’s telling that this tradition arises from someone unlike Moses.  Yitro wasn’t from Moses’ tribe.  He didn’t share the people’s experience of bondage.  He didn’t experience or witness the liberation.  In all of these formative ways, Yitro was an outsider.

That’s key: sometimes the best advice comes from outside.  When we surround ourselves with people like us and listen only to them, we’re likely to hear only the “groupthink” of that echo chamber.  It took an outsider to reach Moses, shift his momentum and change him.

Of course, Yitro was no stranger.  He was Moses’ father in law and kind protector.  Like Moses growing up in Pharaoh’s court, Yitro was affluent and worldly.  And like Moses from the Burning Bush forward, Yitro was spiritual leader of his people.  Yitro and Moses shared enough common attributes that they could empathize with each other.

That’s key also: natively we might not trust outsiders too unlike us.  As with many things, our task is to seek balance in our circles – people enough like us that we can hear them, but not so like us that we merely echo each other.  That’s exactly what Moses did, and thus was able to hear Yitro’s advice to delegate leadership to others, raise others into leadership and not burn out himself.

When we evolve this kind of balance, we surround ourselves (and help bring to others) the full palate of qualities needed for wisdom, self-reflection, course corrections and collective goodness.  We become practiced in opening ourselves to other perspectives.  Over time, we become ever more able to fulfill the wisdom of the sages: “Who is wise? One who can learn from everyone” (Avot 4:1).  In short, we become resilient.

Just ask Yitro and Moses, this week’s resilience teachers.

R’ Evan J. Krame and R’ David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

See Your Way to Freedom

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Freedom! For many, freedom is the spiritual goal – to be free of suffering, free of burden, even free of the travails of earthly life. For many, freedom is the political goal: think FDR’s Four Freedoms, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Free at last!” refrain of his “I Have a Dream” speech, or a modern political party’s partisan gerrymander to free itself of the other party’s existence.

Freedom, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder – but so too is the key to freedom.

This week’s Torah telling of Judaism’s master story of freedom – the Splitting of the Sea and liberation from Egyptian slavery (Parshat Beshallach) – hints that we truly sing our freedom only when we learn to see everyone as potential liberators.

We rarely live that way. Unconsciously we divide the world into friend and foe, folks with us and folks against us, people with something to teach and people who don’t. Helpful and hurtful, caring and uncaring, good and bad – these categories are mental shortcuts (psychologists call them cognitive heuristics) that are efficient to live by.

That’s the rub. Category thinking is natural, but not infallible and never freeing.

Torah’s liberation story records that after the Sea of Reeds split to open an escape path for our fleeing ancestors, they “had awe for God and believed in God and Moses” (Exodus 14:31). Torah continues, “So Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song [of freedom] to God” (Exodus 15:1).

Look again. The people believed in Moses, so Moses could sing his freedom. Oh? Read this way, Moses is a narcissist – like many spiritual and political leaders who need universal adulation. Such persons can’t ever be free: they’re shackled to their inexhaustible need to be loved, followed, obeyed and even feared.

But Torah names Moses the world’s most humble person (Numbers 12:3), so there must be another lesson here. It’s Torah’s perhaps most potent teaching on resilience.

Moses did indeed look to the people – and what he saw was people full of grace. No, everyone wasn’t perfect: some were whiners, selfish or even sinful. Even so, Moses saw them in a way that saw them into their best selves, and so he sang.

This is tradition’s consistent refrain. Who is wise? One who can learn from everybody (Avot 4:1). Who is worthy? Even potentially the most sinful, for we must see them as full of mitzvot (worthy deeds) like the seeds of a pomegranate (B.T. Eruvin 19a).

Freedom means seeing everyone as their best selves and into their best selves, not in rigid categories good and bad, with us or against us. Only then can we sing in freedom. When we learn to see this way – not with naïveté but with audacious spiritual vision – then by definition we become free.

But what of people who act with malice, like the enslaving Pharaoh? Nachman of Breslov taught that Torah’s words “I (God) hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 10:1) also can mean “I (God) am in Pharaoh’s hardened heart.” Somehow, somewhere, the potential for holiness hides everywhere, even in the hardened heart. Sometimes it may seem super-human to find it, but it’s within us and for us to look for it.

This kind of vision sets us free, and it can’t be taken from us. It’s a fount of resilience, an inner inclination that can free us from constricting thoughts and see everyone into their best selves – and thus help that kind of world become visible to everyone.

Just ask FDR. Just ask Dr. King. Just ask Moses – our resilience teachers.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio and Bayit.

A New Year (As New As We Make It)

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Pop the Champagne!  Cue the confetti!  It’s a new year!  Everything’s new and fresh!

Of course it ain’t so simple – but still we hope.  At new year’s, we offer intentions. We turn the page (though more and more people keep calendars without paper “pages” to “turn”). We make resolutions (even as studies suggest that most of us won’t keep them). We look ahead.

There’s something about the idea of a new year, even if mathematically it’s arbitrary, that gets our attention and invites our focus. Maybe it’s because all the new year’s talk of “new” years, new chances and new pages offers the blessing of discontinuity. Sometimes momentum steers us in wrong directions, and inertia lulls us not to change. Whatever presses a re-set button invites us to purposefully make life all it can be.

The path to resilience is partly about claiming those re-set opportunities and making them real. But resilience also wisely balances continuity with change.

This week’s resilience balancing act comes through the first interactions of Moses with God. Fittingly, this interaction, in this week’s Torah portion (Shemot), turns a page to begin the Book of Exodus.

This new chapter starts by leaping centuries forward from tribal pre-history to Egyptian bondage, but it does so in a peculiar way – by naming pre-history’s ancestors. Torah begins by naming Abraham’s descendants who became tribal leaders, then tribes, then slaves. One thing we learn is that whatever re-set button we imagine pressing, whatever this new chapter brings, we begin as who we’ve been. That’s the “continuity” part of resilience.

Now the “change” part of resilience: history isn’t destiny. Moses, Pharaoh’s once beloved adopted son who lost it all, meets God in a desert encounter at a burning bush. God deploys Moses as freedom’s spokesperson. Moses replies that he’s tongue-tied, incapable of speaking. God won’t take no for an answer. The history of who Moses is and what Moses thinks he can do isn’t his destiny: he will need to change. As for Moses, so for us.

Then the real emblem of “change”: Moses asks for God’s “name.”  The answer Moses hears – ehyeh asher ehyeh, literally “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14) – is the antithesis of any name, label, history or fixity. Moses learns that God is the constancy of evolution, the limitless capacity, the undying hope, the perpetual re-boot, the answer that outshines every question. This expression of God is change itself.

That’s resilience – the capacity to balance continuity and change. We begin as we’ve been, move beyond who we think we are, and open toward infinitely possibility. Every page turn, every year and every breath invites this shift of awareness.

So make this new year new not by pretending away your history but by growing from it and toward the infinite. This turn from 2017 to 2018, even if it’s just a page on a calendar or a swipe of an iPhone, invites us to see afresh the potential for transformation that is the fabric of the universe and the tapestry of Jewish life.

From all of us at The Jewish Studio, may 2018 be the year in which we all fulfill this call of spiritual resilience for ourselves, each other, and a world too often weary and stuck. Happy new year. Now pop the Champagne, celebrate, and let’s go.

 

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Israel’s Six Resilience Rules

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Even an over-anxious cad like the Bible’s Jacob can teach a lesson about resilience.  In this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), he teaches six.

It turns out that anxiety – seemingly a mainstay of modern life – can have spiritual purpose by cuing us to build our capacity to face dissatisfaction, uncertainty and fear.  Anxiety that paralyzes us asks professional support, but other anxiety can catalyze growth and teach life lessons if we pay the right kind of attention.  Here are Jacob’s six resilience lessons:

1.  Rethink how you think.  Jacob’s anxiety was that his brother Esau, whom Jacob duped by swindling his birthright, would exact fatal retribution.  Jacob was wrong – Esau would greet Jacob lovingly and the brothers would weep in each other’s arms (Genesis 33:4) – but Jacob’s anxiety saw only a worst-case scenario.  Our worst fears often aren’t reality: rather, our worst fears depict how our vision and thinking are clouded.  Thus, our fears invite us to look deeply at how we see and how we think, and this capacity is key to resilience (Meir Leibush / Malbim Gen. 32:8).

2.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  As head of a growing tribe, Jacob was both family man and political leader.  Fearing Esau’s war against him, Jacob divided his clan in hopes that half would survive any attack (Genesis 32:8-9).  As the modern State of Israel (named for Jacob – we’ll get to that) taught so often in her early decades, pragmatism is a vital resilience tool.

3.  Let yourself ask for help.  Though a self-reliant man of action, Jacob next asked for help: in his anxiety, he humbly prayed for guidance, support and protection (Genesis 32:10-13).  However self-reliant we are or think we should be, nobody is omnipotent.  Jacob’s resilience lesson is to twin claiming the agency to do all we can with the humility also to reach out (and up) for help.

4.  Lead from generosity.  Threat and scarcity often trigger our instinct to pull back and close up.  Jacob did the opposite: he sent gifts ahead to Esau (Genesis 32:14-19).  While Jacob’s ploy was more tactical than generous – Jacob hoped to blunt what he wrongly thought was Esau’s revenge impulse – it also reflected Jacob’s sense of agency and capacity.  It feels good to give, even and especially when we think we’re under threat.  Try it: you’re more resilient than you know.

5.  Let yourself wrestle.  Jacob famously wrestled a “man” overnight (Genesis 32:25-29), and stories abound about why.  Was it a dream?  Was it an angel?  Was it his fear of Esau?  Did it happen only because he was alone?  Was it to prepare Jacob for his encounter with Esau?  We’ll never know, but we do know that Jacob’s wrestle opened his eyes to see holiness in a new way (Genesis 32:31).  When we reimagine our life wrestles like some use resistance bands to tone muscles, suddenly our life wrestles can be tools to build resilience – and we suffer less for them.

6.  Let yourself change.  Jacob emerged from his overnight wrestle with a new name and a limp.  His wrestling companion renamed Jacob “Israel” for “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:29), and wrenched Jacob’s hip (Genesis 32:26, 32:32)   Jacob was never the same, but that’s less the issue than what we make of these changes.  We can choose how we respond to the inevitability of change: we can clutch what is, or willingly receive new ways (even if our identity changes, even if we limp).  When unpleasantness and suffering seem inevitable, we can compound our suffering by clutching fixity.  (Buddhists call it “the suffering of suffering” and the “suffering of change.”  Like the willow, we become more more resilient when we let ourselves bend and change.

Israelites are named for this pivotal moment in Torah and its resilience lessons.  They’ve stood the test of time against incredibly long odds.  They’ve inspired millennia of wisdom, heroism, vibrancy and beauty.  We owe it all to resilient Jacob.

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Today’s shrill era in which some vocally try to silence others isn’t new. The only difference is that more of us – at long last – are calling it what it is.

It takes resilience to “persist” against the constant drumbeat of silencing and gaslighting, and more resilience to “persist” in calling these behaviors what they are. For some, this struggle can feel exhausting. For others, truth-telling resistance feels empowering and success fuels a virtuous cycle. “Nevertheless she persisted” has become a public campaign to mock the misogyny of silencing.

We’ve come a long way (though not far enough) since ancient days, when (according to a history probably recorded by men for men) a woman’s role was to bear children and tend home and hearth. Biblical women identified with this role: subjectively, some felt that they were their role.

So in this week’s Torah portion (Toldot), when long-barren Rebecca finally conceived, carried twins and experienced a tough pregnancy, she so identified with this role that she famously asked, “Why am I this? … and she went to inquire of God” (Genesis 25:22). Rebecca might have asked, “Why is this happening to me,” but instead her question conflated role and identity.

Can’t we moderns identify? How often do we imagine that we are our careers, family roles, abilities, disabilities, resumes or bank accounts? Granted, pregnancy is unique in putting one’s being in full service of growing another (and how could I, as a cis-gendered male, ever understand it intuitively?). That said, Rebecca’s experience also holds up a metaphorical mirror for every time we fall into the rut of believing that we are any one experience or role, however important.

What made Rebecca different, spiritually speaking, was that she dared to say it aloud. She was the first in Torah to ask God a “why” question and then summon the chutzpah to seek an answer.  In an era so dominated by men, it’s meaningful that Torah accords this special first to a woman.  It’s doubly meaningful that Rebecca would ask this particular “why” question, as if to challenge this conflation. And it’s triply meaningful that God – the Ultimate representation of Power – responded by answering Rebecca directly.

Rebecca stood up and wouldn’t let her supposedly inferior social position limit or silence her.  And her resilience paid off: Rebecca got an answer. Today, everyone who asks “why” does so in Rebecca’s spiritual legacy. Everyone who stands up against silencing and role conflation, and who speaks up and out to Power, does so in Rebecca’s spiritual legacy.

“Nevertheless she persisted.” Resilience pays off. Just ask Rebecca.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.