The Nature of Suffering and of Blessing

A reflection a little longer than usual this week – one which I hope will bear fruit.  In parashat Toldot we read the familiar saga of the unfolding of the family of Isaac and Rebekah.  This saga of generations reports a great deal of family distresses and distressors—sibling rivalry, helicopter parents, uncommunicative spouses, lack of trust, deception, and parental favoritism, to name just a few.

While there are many lessons contained in these details, there is one that for me arises above all others this week:

Suffering is the subjective experience of our own condition.

Suffering can be the experience of physical, emotional or mental pain.  To be clear, it is not that these words of Torah tell us of the suffering of the characters in this portion.  As we read about these familiar figures, it is through our interpretation of their actions and reactions that at least I conclude that they are suffering.  They seem quite unhappy with what befalls them; they manipulate their life experiences and behave in ways that we can interpret as being responses to being in pain.

In fact, the Torah text repeatedly and directly tells us the opposite: that they were blessed.

  • Rebekah receives the blessing of children, for she had been barren (Genesis 25:21—“Isaac pleaded with the Eternal on behalf of his wife [Rebekah] for she was childless, and the Eternal acceded to his plea, so his wife Rebekah became pregnant.”). However, she complains to God of the struggle within her womb (25:22) and again moans to Isaac about hating her life (27:46).
  • Isaac receives God’s blessing twice – in his fields and as part of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 26:12, 24 – “In that area Isaac sowed seed, and in that year he received a hundredfold, for the Eternal blessed him.” and, “That very night the Eternal appeared to him, saying, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you, I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of My servant Abraham.’”).  However, both he and Rebekah are inexplicably bitter about Esau taking a Hittite wife (Genesis 26:35) – the same Hittites that treated Abraham with great respect and deference in his purchase of a family burial site at Machpelah.
  • Esau receives a parental blessing from Isaac, even though it wasn’t the one he desired. (Genesis 27:39 – “’Bless me, me too, father’, Esau cried out and wept. His father Isaac then responded and said, ‘Lo, among the fat places of the earth shall your dwelling be, and with heaven’s dew from above.’”).  Of course, he willingly gave up much of what would have been his for short-term gain and satisfaction when he traded his birthright to satisfy hunger.
  • Jacob, we know, receives the first-born birthright from Esau, and the first-born blessing from Isaac (Genesis 25:33 – “Jacob said, ‘Confirm it to me by oath here and now.’ So he swore it to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.” Genesis 27:27“As he came near and kissed him, Isaac smelled the scent of his clothes and blessed him.” Genesis 28:1 – “Isaac then summoned Jacob and blessed him and gave him this instruction: ‘Do not take a wife from among the daughters of Canaan.’”).  Jacob lacks compassion and caring, usually a hallmark of someone who is quite unhappy.  His only words and actions in this portion are lies; people cannot be generous or benevolent to others when they are empty themselves.

How are we supposed to understand the actions and experiences of our ancestors? How are they not taking note of the blessings in their lives?  We suffer when we don’t understand our circumstances, when we question what is happening to us, and when life feels like it is out of our control.  Suffering marks the loss of central purpose and is a hallmark of inner conflict.  The understanding and expectation of each of these four characters is that life – God – has promised them something; it hasn’t happened yet or hasn’t unfolded in the way and time they expected; our ancestors therefore jump in to manage and direct what they believe God has ignored.

This week, I am suffering – in physical pain, to be sure, and with the losses I perceive and anticipate because of it.  Are there blessings in my life as well? Absolutely. They are just harder to see through the pain.  Please don’t mistake me: this isn’t about transforming pain and suffering into joy; suffering will never become a blessing.  But when I can mindfully stop and take note: here I am, present in this moment – the pain will eventually pass, as everything does.  Of what can I let go, so that my expectations do not lead me down a path of spiritual suffering (is there any other kind, really?)  The question for me isn’t ‘why’ but ‘what am to do with this’?

When we are in pain or distress, we can hold that pain in bitterness or in compassion, in isolation or in community.  We can be open to helping hands, or refuse to believe that we deserve any support.  Life is filled with happiness and pain; neither is left out. Suffering is neither inevitable; pain and loss are not the result of personal failing. It becomes a shifting of perspective.

A few other thoughts….

Re suffering and meaning: In 1982, Dr. Eric J. Cassel wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Suffering can be defined as the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of the person.”  Isn’t that what is happening for each of our biblical characters here?  And he continues: “Transcendence is probably the most powerful way in which one is restored to wholeness…..the sufferer is not isolated by pain but is brought closer to a transpersonal source of meaning, and to the human community that shares those meanings.”

Re suffering and understanding: the poet Rilke wrote: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves….Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now. And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

May Rilke’s words ring true; I pray to see through this present pain, to live in and beyond it, living the blessings in my life that are just as real and true.  May you, too, live it all.


Develop an Attitude of Gratitude

[For parashat Chayei Sarah]

This parashah is a time of life transitions, filled with great emotion.  Life and death, grief and mourning, love and marriage, faith and healing. I share with you some of the messages that I took from it in this year’s reading:


Ride out the storms. (Genesis 23:1): “This was the life of Sarah, 100 years and 20 years and 7 years; the years of the life of Sarah.” Rashi notes that Sarah’s 127 years were written this way to indicate that she had different times and qualities in her life: innocent as a 7-year old, with the strength and idealism of a 20-year old and always possessing the wisdom of a 100-year-old.  Life has its calms and its storms; each segment has its time and place, and will come and go.  Live each stage to your greatest potential; keep the valuable qualities of each stage to bring with you to serve you in your next stage.

Death is part of life. (Genesis 23:2): “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” Our legacy in life is far more than an accumulation of the facts of our lives, but is rather about what we do in this life.  The English author, Samuel Johnson, writes, “It matters not how a person dies, but how they live.  The act of dying is not of importance, for it lasts so short a time.”   Our lives are measured at the time of our death; our death is measured by the way we live our years.

Know you are blessed.  (Genesis 24:1): “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and Adonai had blessed Abraham in everything.”   Is this to say that when we have everything we are blessed? Calling something a ‘blessing’ is to name it as a spiritual value or goal; we feel ‘blessed’ by things we really value. The vision of an ideal life is one that encompasses emotional, material, and spiritual goals. Abraham is blessed in everything here because not because he has what he has, but because he is aware of it and values it.  Pirkei Avot 4.1 teaches: ‘Who is rich? One who is content with their lot.’ Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

Awe moves us to prayer.  (Genesis 24:12): “And he [Eliezer] prayed: ‘Adonai, God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and do a kindness for my master Abraham.” Sent on a most important journey, Eliezer carries a great weight on his shoulders – to find a suitable match for Isaac, one which will impact the future of Abraham’s offspring and the future of the Jewish people as promised by God.  As he prepares for this task, these words stumble forth from his lips.  What elicits words and feelings of deep prayer and petition?  Awe.  Being aware of the world that is larger than us, deeper than our understanding, is what enables prayer to bubble up.  We are able to reach inward and upward, making room for holiness, for God’s presence to be with us.  We live in an awesome world – great, mighty, overwhelming, beautiful, and in need of our honoring that with the way we live our lives.  Cultivate awe.

The power of love can bring great comfort.  (Genesis 24:67): “And Isaac brought her [Rebekah] into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her.   Thus did Isaac take comfort after the death of his mother.”  Sometimes in loneliness or grief, it is not words that bring healing, but a loving presence that will enable us to move forward, back into life.  In times of darkness, keep your heart open to those who love you; let their presence be your light and your comfort in your darkest moments.

Say Hineini and Mean It

Having gotten a good deal of positive feedback from my post last week on life lessons from the weekly Torah parasha, I thought I might try a run looking to see in the portion what looks back at me! A very nice exercise for myself, and I hope a valuable gift for those reading.  Shabbat shalom!

Little lessons from Parashat Vayeira:

Enjoy the shade of a good tree. (Genesis 18:1): “The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he [Abraham] was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day.”   As he was recovering from his circumcision, Abraham enjoyed the beauty of nature, looking beyond his own condition.  It brought him peace and healing, and ultimately changed his life. 

Welcome strangers into your life. (Genesis 18: “Looking up, he saw three men standing opposite him. Seeing them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowing down to the ground, he said ‘My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by.” – Look up, get out of your own way, and open yourself to new people. You never know how they may change the way that your life unfolds.

Be honest with yourself; God knows your heart. (Genesis 18: 12, 15): “So Sarah laughed inwardly, thinking: ‘Now that I am withered, will I have pleasure, with my lord so old!’….Sarah then denied it, for she was afraid, and said ‘I did not laugh’, but God said, ‘Ah, but you did laugh!’”  You can run but you can’t hide.  When you can live honestly with yourself, you will see life much more clearly.

Watch your words.  (Genesis 18:13): “But the Eternal One said to Abraham, ‘Why is Sarah laughing so, thinking: Am I really going to bear a child, when I have grown so old?’” God changed Sarah’s words so as to prevent Abraham from feeling ashamed.  Honesty has integrity only when it preserves dignity.

Life is a series of tests.  (Genesis 22:1) “After these things, God tested Abraham, saying to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’”  Life isn’t pass/fail; rather your performance on each test that comes your way determines what you will face next. Just give your best and most honest effort each time.

Don’t just say ‘Hineini’ – ‘I am here’.  (Genesis 22:7): “Isaac then said to Abraham his father, ‘Father!’ He answered, ‘I am here, my son.’”  Be here, now. Have you ever thought about the paradox of a roll call?  It is an instance at which time we take the moment to ask others, and ourselves, if we are present.   Yet, the answer that is often typically given or received to indicate our presence – merely ‘Here’ – ironically indicates our complete absence.  Be present; say it like you mean it.

10 Life Lessons from Lech L’cha

In reading this wonderful section of Torah that inspires us to confront our faith, I generated 10 life lessons that I take from these verses:

  1. In life, leaving is often required. (Gen. 12:1): “The Eternal One said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.’”  Leaving behind old notions, ones that no longer serve us allow us to enter into new possibilities to become our best selves. Clarity of awareness is critical; pay attention to the impetus to move, even when risk may be involved.
  2. Be a blessing.  (Gen. 12:2): “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing.”  Let your actions open the channels of blessing into this world, infusing each of your actions with a spark of purity and divinity.
  3. Be gracious. (Gen. 12:7): “The Eternal now appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am giving this land to your descendants.’ Abram then built an altar there to the Eternal who had appeared to him.”  They may seem excessive, but if they are given with an open heart, these unusual gifts may be of immense spiritual value.
  4. Tell the truth. (Gen. 12:19): “Why did you say that she was your sister, so that I took her as a wife for myself? Look, now that it turns out that she is your wife; take her and be gone.” Abram needed refuge from the famine; but the consequent anger and long-term distrust from Pharaoh had implications for his ability to fulfill his destiny. What may seem like a good short-term solution will come back to bite you in the end. 
  5. Proceed step by step, stage by stage. (Gen. 13:3): “Abram proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Beth El.”  While you need to know where you are going, you also need to pay attention to where you are right now. Each step presents options, a fork in the road; proceed mindfully.
  6. Do what you can to maintain good family ties.  (Gen. 13:8): “Then Abram said to Lot, ‘There should be no quarrel between you and me, and your herdsmen and mine, for we are close kin.’” There are many things that can get in the way of good living, and sometimes we do not see eye to eye with family; even so, find common ground – there is always a solution for peace.
  7. Dare to look up. (Gen. 13:14): “And the Eternal One said to Abram, after Lot had parted from him, ‘Raise your eyes and look out form where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west.’”  We are bound up in our thoughts. Wherever our thoughts are, there we are.  Look with soul-filled attention at each experience and person within your visual field; do not let your thoughts distract you, fleeing to other places.
  8. Let go of fears.  (Gen. 15:1-6): “After these things, the word of YHWH came to Abram in a vision. God said, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.’”  We know that change brings fear of further change. But it is through faith and trust that you will find the greatest rewards in life.
  9. Make a name for yourself.  (Gen. 17:5): “No longer are you to be called Abram; your name is to be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a multitude of nations.” What do you want to evoke in others when they say or hear your name?  Your name speaks of your identity.  Once you have discerned your own task, attend to it. Act each day to bring those hopes to fruition.
  10. Be ready for the unexpected. (Gen. 17:19): “But God said, ‘Nonetheless, your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, whom you shall call Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him and his descendants after him as an everlasting covenant.’” Unbelievable just means that you don’t believe it yet.

So Many Beginnings

[Parashat Noach 2013]

How many times can something restart? Our year begins anew with Rosh Hashanah; 10 days later, on Kol Nidrei, we ask God to forgive promises yet made, promises we will make in the coming year that will go unfulfilled.  Our Torah cycle then begins anew less than 2 weeks later on Simchat Torah….and now in only the second week of our Torah cycle our world is destroyed and recreated, here in parashat Noach.  This rhythm each year leaves me feeling like I do when I am on a boat (that is, wishing that I could enjoy the scenery and the peacefulness and at the same time holding on for dear life).  It is a bit of a roller coaster.

From the very beginning of Torah and of our history, we see that humankind is imperfect – from the moment in the Garden of Eden, we humans are pulled at by yetzeir hatov (our inclination to good) and yetzei hara (our inclination to evil).  Now, after the flood, in Genesis 8:21, God promises to humankind: “Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward (bold is my commentary); never again will I destroy all living beings, as I have just done.”  And God continues in Genesis 9:12-15 – “And God said, ‘Here is the sign I am giving you of the covenant between Me and you, and every living being with you, down to the last generation: I have placed My bow in the cloud – it will be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. And when I cause clouds to form over the earth, and the bow appears in the cloud, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and all living beings, all flesh, and never again shall the waters become a flood, to destroy all flesh.’”

It is as if from the moment of creation, God is still discovering the qualities of humankind, assessing and reassessing our potential.  We know, too, that in the Book of Exodus, God will establish and reestablish a covenant specifically with the Israelites.  Despite repeated disappointments, God remains faithful and hopeful in us, adjusting expectations and offering humankind new tools and guidance.  While faith recognizes that God will persevere with us, this two-sided covenant requires us to actively remain in relationship with the Divine. Second chances abound in our tradition, but they don’t come without both parties stepping forward.

If God can give second chances, should not we as well? Let us ask ourselves this week: To what or whom do I owe a second chance in my life?  What can seem like the very worst possible situation and outcome may lead to the possibility for something new, something different, something wonderful.  That, too, will be fraught with its challenges.  So, I can only live with attention and mindful to each moment.   Each day is a new beginning.