The Talmud states that when God wanted to make a name for Himself in His world, the story of Purim was His answer (Megillah, 10b). Question: how can the Book of Esther be the place God makes a name for Himself – it’s the one book in the Torah in which God’s name never appears?
Rabbi Akiva Tatz points out another question. Purim is a celebration of miracles. The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, actually forms part of the word for test: nisayon; it would seem they’re inextricably linked. Asks Rabbi Tatz: if a test requires a miracle, that’s not a fair test. If passing a test assumes a miracle, in what way is it a real test?
I’d like to take a moment to suggest an answer to these questions and then speak briefly about our beloved bar mitzvah, Yehuda, and our blessings to him on this special occasion.
One way of understanding a test is simply the experience of being stuck: the Jews facing recapture at the Sea of Reeds or destruction in ancient Persia. Of course individuals undergo tests, too. Someone with a highly critical boss, really annoying siblings, or discouraging personal failings.
A test is being in a painful place with no apparent exit.
This is where miracles come in, but not in the way we’d expect. The test looks like puzzle pieces that can’t fit, so that a miracle involves somehow changing the pieces. Really, the test is not in the pieces; it’s in our way of seeing the pieces. The opportunity of a test is when a person senses he needs new eyes.
The Talmud says that a person never does destructive things unless “visited by a spirit of insanity.” It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. When we see that our way of seeing is not working, we have the opportunity to humbly ask God for new eyes.
And then God can answer us. Suddenly, the boss looks more well meaning, just a bit insecure. The siblings don’t seem as annoying. A person softens toward his own failings and sees progress.
How did it happen? Did he switch on a switch?
New understanding showed up in the heart of the person being tested. Divine wisdom humbled him, broadened his outlook. God showed up in the heart, mind, and actions of the one being tested.
This is the connection between a nisayon (test) and a nes (miracle): getting stuck comes when we crowd God out of our perspective; the miraculous solution is letting Him back in.
And this is how God makes a name for Himself without His name even being mentioned. He shows up in the heart, mind, and actions of His people. Through tests, He reminds us of the inadequacy of our personal worldview and invites us to be vehicles through which His loving wisdom can come into the world. It’s not God announcing Himself from the mountain top, but the one tested can see: I didn’t raise myself up; I know where this miracle comes from.
Yehuda, here’s where I speak a little about you. I know you don’t necessarily like this; consider it one of your divine tests.
Mommy and I have watched as you worked towards this day. There were many difficulties in undertaking all the ambitious preparations. You spent many, many hours doing things you’ve never done before, all the while dealing with siblings, school and a demanding father. There were many frustrating moments. You persisted many times. And today you are a different person. You do things that were beyond you even six months ago. How did that happen? Hashem has helped you. With your trust and persistence, you let Him.
Our blessing to you is that you continue persisting. Continue to let Hashem make you a vehicle for His goodness - through your good heart, words and actions. Continue to see your tests as a way for God to show up – through you – to make a name for Himself in this world.
I don't think I've ever followed college football, but I tuned into this week's national championship game between Alabama and Georgia. It was a thriller won on the last play by a freshman quarterback whose post-game interview was even more moving than his on field heroics. Here’s how it unfolded.
Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa committed a dunce move (commentators' words) one play before throwing the winning touchdown.
Behind three points in overtime of a game for all the marbles, Alabama was well within field goal range for a tie with still time to go for a touchdown and the win. But after snapping the ball and not finding an open receiver, Tua failed to toss the ball away and got sacked for a huge loss. With one play left, his team was now possibly out of field goal range for even a tie. Then, the very next play, he nailed an extraordinary touchdown throw to end the game and win the national championship.
It was an electric sports moment. And it piqued my curiosity.
I regularly commit dunce moves and then feel drawn in by the blame, guilt, and recriminations that seem to follow. “I should have; he should have; when will I learn?” To me, it often feels like dunce moves carry a busy, unhelpful mind in their wake. There was no way Tua made that throw in that moment on that stage while stewing in dunce thinking. How did he bounce back and move on?
His on field interview shed light on his obvious resilience.
Q: “What were you saying before you took the field [on that last possession]?”
A: “I mean, I didn’t say anything. It was just going back in, just take it a play at a time.”
Resilience involves living in this moment – not processing the past or worrying about the future. The obvious question is: how does one do that?
Q: “Now that you’re a national champion, describe what it means to you in this moment.”
A: “At this moment, it means the world. But at the same time, all glory goes to God. I can’t describe what He’s done for me and my family. Who would have ever thought I’d be here now?”
In other words, “It looks like I ran well, viewed the field well, selected the target well, and threw well, but that’s a mistake. I have no power to do any of that. I try, He does what He wants with me in the moment, and we won.”
Now listen to the flip side of what Tua is saying: “I try, He does what He wants with me in the moment, and sometimes we lose. I don’t take it personally when I win; I don’t take it personally when I lose. I just show up and try, one play at a time.” He blows it and isn’t crushed; then nails it and isn’t arrogant.
You want resilience? Don’t ascribe your performance or experience of life to you, your power, your past, or anything other than what God is making available to you in this moment. Wins and losses, all glory goes to God.
In recent teaching experiences, I've had several participants challenge my emphasis on seeing the inside out nature of our experience. "Aren't you overlooking valuable information in the world out there?"
Here's a brief summary of the question followed by my response.
"You emphasize how essential it is to know that God is the source of everything, even our internal experience. Still, we live in a world where things happen, things we're meant to observe and respond to. If my child is having chronic anxiety or I'm receiving consistent negative reviews at work, is it enough to focus on the truth that my experience moment to moment is coming from God? What about asking myself what God wants me to learn and do in the face of these challenges? They're also from God."
These are excellent questions. And an opportunity to clarify the message I hope to share with others.
Of course we live in a world that requires us to be attentive and responsive. The challenge is seeing that the "world" we live in is in fact simply the world that God shows us moment to moment through the gift of new thought. Through understanding that truth I will have new perspective, wisdom, and choice to learn and do in the world.
Here's an analogy you've likely heard before, with a slight twist.
Imagine you're responsible to teach someone how to sail across the ocean. You're out on the boat explaining the basics. You notice your student is agitated.
"You seem distressed. Everything ok?" you ask.
"What do you mean, 'distressed'? I have a long trip and I need to master sailing in case I reach the edge of the earth unexpectedly."
"Oh," you respond. "You needn't worry about falling off the edge. The world is round."
"Look, I hired you to teach me how to sail, not to share your theories about the earth. Can we get to the skills I need to know?"
You could continue to help him learn and do the craft of sailing. But it will be learning filtered through tremendous misunderstanding and the extreme distress it spawns.
Similarly, tuning in to my child's struggles or my own poor work performances without appreciating God-in-the-moment is building on a false premise. I will source my child's anxiety in circumstances - her chemistry, her classroom, her upbringing - and then undertake to manage and change them.
It's not that there aren't skills to know and do regarding chemical imbalances, classroom environment, parenting etc. It's just that they don't have power, they cannot be the source of any experience. There is only one Source - moment to moment to moment. That Source makes known to us - often despite our misunderstanding - how to learn from and respond to the life we find ourselves in. Acknowledging and attuning ourselves to that truth only raises our game and our ability to do.
As King Solomon said, "The beginning of all wisdom is understanding the Source" (Mishlei, 9:10).
Every day I’m reminded – from watching myself, listening to clients, refereeing my kids – just how much we desire control. Here are some samples.
At times it seems threatening to me that my wife feel stressed and anxious. I employ various efforts to get her away from there – carrots, sticks, logic.
A man recovering from surgery and chemo feels anxiety about his exhaustion and lack of concentration. He pushes and shoves himself to “get it together already.”
My son finds his sister’s practicing her class songs annoying. He complains, insults, and sometimes resorts to force to regain quiet.
The goal of control is based on a certain logic: that circumstances have the power to cause our experience. Said another way: we seem to feel what we feel because some thing or event is pressing on us: my wife’s mood, the chemo patient’s lack of performance, my son’s distaste for his sister’s singing. Inside that logic, it just looks like a good idea to try to manage myself and the world around me, to worry about what might be, to leverage internal and external pressures to make things go the way I need.
It’s a flawed logic, and an exhausting, fool’s errand.
The actual source of our experience is what God is making known to us – right now. Sometimes He constricts our vision – much the way He placed us in Egypt. Sometimes He releases our bonds. When we understand that, we don’t objectify (aka worship) the circumstances of our life as source. Hence, it looks less compelling to control them. We don’t camp out in constriction. We’re open to God’s loving guidance.
Perhaps this is what God is showing Avraham when he tells him to “go…to the place I will show you” (Gen. 12:1) without telling him where.
Live and go where I’m showing you, G-d tells him. You might have thoughts or concerns beyond that. You might be interested in Step 100. Right now you’re on Step 1, or 5, or 17. Exerting yourself to anticipate or manage Step 100 leaves precious little consciousness to take advantage of what I’m showing you here.
This is not advice to not think about Step 100. It’s just an understanding that when your mind worries about Step 100 (because we are human, after all), it’s not really telling you much about Step 100. It’s telling you about the constricted view in the step you presently occupy. Let it be; not knowing more than God shows us, and the discomfort we associate with it, is very much part of our journey.
We are all on a journey to the place He will show us. He’s an expert guide.
As Rabbi Zev Reichman writes in Path to the Tree of Life, on the first Rosh Hashana of creation, the Creator blew the breath of life into Adam and Chava. On our Rosh Hashana we give it back by blowing shofar. “Thank You, God, for my neshama (soul/breath); here it is, right back at You!”
Electricians might refer to this as closing a circuit, so to speak. Whereas in an open circuit a power source connects to a light but doesn’t double back, a closed circuit returns to the source. The difference: closed circuit = uninterrupted flow of power, light bulbs going on, connection.
God, the power source, is always reaching us, animating us, powering our cells and consciousness with Divine thought; there is no other power source.
Question: If God the power source is always reaching us, what accounts for our feelings of confusion, stress, anger, etc?
Answer: God the power source.
As the sole supplier of all reality, including the energy that animates our consciousness, He's the source of our psychological experience - warm fuzzy and cold confused. The question is do we close the circuit of the flow or not.
When we hang our experience on things and circumstances of this world – as opposed to the One Source - we fail to close the circuit. When we attribute our experience back to the One Source, we close it.
This is to say that feeling warm and happy and clear minded is not inherently a sign of connection (i.e. good) nor that feeling lost demonstrates disconnect (i.e. bad). God can send us happy, peaceful thoughts and we think they come from our salary raise or vacation. That’s an open, non-flowing circuit. It feels nice in the moment but a) it’s a misunderstanding of reality and b) we won’t know where to look when it runs out.
Alternatively, God can send us distress and we acknowledge it as from Him. That’s a powerful, closed circuit. King David said, “From the narrow places I call to You.” It was obvious to David to call to God in his distress. Where else were the narrow places coming from but Him?
In short, real connection is not evidenced by feeling the way you want to feel. It’s about living in reality. It’s about sourcing your experience in its true source; being a truth seeker rather than a feeling seeker.
God will flow what He’ll flow; some of it will feel this way, some will feel that way. You will do your best with the understanding you have to make choices, be proactive, live your life. Sometimes you will remember this; sometimes you will forget. God rigged the system to support remembering. As you remember, your innate preference for connection will guide you and the body of work called your life will get richer, softer, deeper.
This is the essence of my second takeaway in the What Drives Change? Series: I don’t know how to manufacture – on command – divine understanding showing up in my words and actions. On the other hand, I see that the divine doesn’t have a problem finding me. And it's a great Yom Kippur segue.
On Yom Kippur we return (tshuva). The Source is on our side. Double back to the Source.
My first takeaway about what drives change from watching my friend (see Part I to this blog HERE) is about how change does NOT happen – and that’s getting someone to change.
It’s what we call an outside in approach: marshalling sufficient logic, eloquence, or pressure through circumstances or words that schlep the changee to a new place. The alternative would be the inside out approach.
There’s a space within us that already resides in clarity, certainty, and confidence – an inner knowing. Real and healthy change happens through a person touching that. That inner knowing is what gives us the calm to be open to something new and the security to act on it.
When not touching that knowing place, we’re a jumble of thoughts without a center. Our mind is a restless, whirring computer seeking security through analysis of options and data that by design cannot reassure us.
In the presence of our own inner knowing, we settle down. We feel we have a home base, a sense of security. Options and choices come into focus and we can move forward.
This understanding became clearer to me after failing umpteen times to change my big kids’ angry reactions to a younger sibling.
I tried annoyed logic.
“He’s eight; you’re teenagers. Do you really need to respond to everything he says?”
I tried guilt.
“Do you realize how difficult this is for Mommy?”
I tried sarcastic disappointment.
“I’m sorry you feel so threatened by his words.”
Our conversations led to more frustration and annoyance.
Then I saw it: my efforts weren’t helping.
It’s not that I didn’t know that or that my wife hadn’t offered that assessment (gently) to me. Colored by my insecure perception that I needed my kids to behave certain ways to feel okay, I just couldn’t refrain from trying to change them. While they battled the unjust circumstance of their sibling, I battled the unjust circumstance of their upset. Somehow, though, I shifted.
I understood that they just didn’t know how to let go and my pressure wouldn’t help. It’s like when you’re trying to loosen a jar lid and then notice you’re twisting the wrong direction. It doesn’t feel like a struggle to stop. You just see the illogic of it and let go.
Once I did let go, I was curious: if force isn’t helping, what could? The next day I asked one of them if I could speak to him: how does he see this conflict?
I felt gentle, nonjudgmental, truly curious. I listened. Where it occurred to me, I asked if I could share a thought, and I listened to see if he was actually interested. This process has born fruits. I have more respect for their struggles; they feel less defensive. They’re softening.
Looking back, I see the first step was in seeing the futility of getting them to change. Once I was divested of that campaign, it wasn’t long before new ideas showed up. This is not to say I don’t revisit the “kids as circumstances needing to be changed” outlook. And then I resume pushing and shoving them. But then I recover and seek out rapport again. More and more, my goal with my kids is seeking out gentle conversations: “How’s it going? How can I be of help?”
It’s a very natural thing for a parent to want to give and a child to receive – if the agenda is about helping and not changing.
The good news is we can’t really change people; we might as well look to help.
Takeaway 2 about what drives change: I don’t know how to manufacture – on command – divine understanding showing up in my words and actions. On the other hand, I see that the divine doesn’t have a problem finding me. That’s true for all of us. More on that later.
“Hey,” my friend called me recently, “I owe you a thanks for the solar panels I installed. They’re great.”
Years ago I had seen an ad, did some homework, and opted to install panels. After the fact, I learned that I could earn money through referrals. I told a bunch of people, including this friend, but my efforts yielded not one bite.
“What took so long?” I asked.
Apparently, a year after I had made my pitch he saw an ad, got a quote, and then forwarded it to me for input. “Better than the deal I got,” I wrote back. “Grab it.”
“That’s when I decided,” he said. “I actually wanted you to get the referral, but when I saw you recommended a different company, it just clicked.”
It wasn’t such a heroic act on my part (what was I going to do, lie?). It wasn’t a particularly new idea – people respond to selflessness more than self-interest. Still, it touched me to see his shift. We had discussed the merits of solar a number of times and he could not move; then in one interaction he opened.
I thought about this event a bit. We’re all looking to make shifts in life or (or help others do the same). Healthier eating. Less anxiety. More devotion. Less anger. What allowed my friend’s shift?
Here are three of my takeaways.
a) Eloquence, logic, pushing doesn’t necessarily drive change. Being in the presence of something divine does. In this case, I was a vehicle for that presence. My friend felt truth, generosity, clarity in my actions and it got his attention.
b) I don’t know how to manufacture – on command – the divine showing up in my words and actions. On the other hand, I see that the divine doesn’t have a problem finding its way to my words and actions. That’s true for all of us.
c) We owe it to ourselves and others to invest in learning how to be a channel for the divine.
In honor of the beautiful season of change we find ourselves in, I will be sharing more about each of the three takeaways over the next few weeks. Look for them in your inbox.
Wishing you blessings for a Good, Sweet New Year.
Passover’s opportunity is freedom. Sukkos’ is joy. The 9th of Av’s is fragmentation and disconnect. What does that mean and why is that an opportunity?
Fragmentation is the very human tendency of feeling separate, alone, other. As human beings prone to moods and insecure thought, we fall into a sense of disconnect - from the warmth of our loved ones, from the love of our Creator, from the wisdom that resides inside our own soul. In a fragmented, disconnected state, conflict and alienation feel so normal. Hence the root of the Hebrew word for dispute - “machlokes” – is “chelek,” or fragment.
Our Sages teach that while it’s always possible to get lost in a fragmented worldview, it’s in this time of year that we are most susceptible to the test. Hence the spies’ 9th of Av report about Israel that induced national hysteria and disconnect from our very own home. Hence the destruction – twice – on this day of our Temple, the connection between heaven and earth and source of wholeness in the world. Hence the trigger event on this day in 1914 - the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand - responsible for decades of world war and conflagration. (As an aside, rates of violent crime always peak in summer.)
Yet our Sages also point out that the messiah will be born on this day. The 9th of Av is called a "moed" in Hebrew, a holiday or literally a meeting in time with God. There’s tremendous opportunity on this day of fragmentation. I’d like to highlight this opportunity with a story.
After Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt’s moving introduction to the principles of Innate Health, he immediately attempted to share his experience with his wife, Chana. She wasn’t interested. Life was good and she didn’t need “principles,” much less those of folks whose wellbeing seemed to come primarily from having no kids at home and a house on a lake.
Over time, Chana’s experience grew more complicated. Life got busier, some of her kids became challenging teens, and she found herself feeling overwhelmed and agitated.
Her sense of upset reached a climax one day when she walked to her husband’s office and proceeded to tell him hateful things. The moment she said them, she knew she didn’t mean them. Returning home, she described feeling like a little girl lost in an ocean, unable to do life. The sense of disconnect - from her husband, from God, from her own wisdom - was profound. From her fragmented state, she had no idea how to fix any of it.
And then she described her husband walking in two minutes later. He reassured her, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to work this out."
She was shocked. Where was his outrage? Where was his return fire? Not only wasn’t he furious, he was moved by her pain. The feeling of her smallness coupled with the hope of his expansiveness moved her. He met her disconnect not with more disconnect, but with compassion and understanding. "I'm hurting with you." It stopped her in her tracks. She saw hope, the possibility of connection.
This is the 9th of Av. We look around, we see our dysfunction. We often blame - our fellow, our God, ourselves - and just get more dysfunction.
Or we can sense the message of the day: it's our own small thinking that leaves us so lost.
And then we learn that God is not blaming us, He's crying with us. "My soul will weep in secrecy for your [lost] pride," God says (Jeremiah 13: 17). The Maharal explains that God's "secret place" is nothing other than the soul of a Jew, the "piece of God" so to speak that resides in each of us. Our pain on this day is literally God's own. Like the wife confronted by her husband's compassion, she finds hope, not more recrimination. The 9th of Av, while a day of mourning, is truly a "moed" - a meeting place in time with God - in which He wishes to connect with us over the pain of our own fragmented state. In that connection, hope is born.
May we merit this 9th of Av to understand the healing power of our disconnected state. May we tire of our own unhelpful thinking and yearn for the gift of His healing, expansive outlook.
The marriage had reached a breaking point. He had no idea how to make her happy without being consumed by her needs. Fearing his leaving, she sought to control and hold on more firmly. In quieter moments, he knew she wanted to do good; she saw he was deeply devoted. The noise of personal upset only grew louder.
Mt. Sinai has something to teach us about reclaiming quiet wisdom from amidst the noise.
God tells Moshe to create boundaries around the mountain and to warn the people not to ascend during the revelation – not once, not twice, but three separate times. Why is this so important?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that essential to receiving the gift of God’s thinking is knowing that it’s different than mine. Without that distinction, we could literally saunter through a revelation experience and not notice it.
How does this work?
God is providing us with an unceasing flow of thought. Much the way our heart pumps independent of our control and awareness, our mind flows with the gift of thought moment to moment to moment. Much like our heart pumps both oxygenated, nutritious blood as well as toxic, waste-filled blood, our minds flow with both quiet, expansive thought as well as personal, self-centered thought. It’s not a problem for the body to have both types of blood – unless they get mixed. So, too, it’s not a problem to have both types of thought.
Back to our couple.
The husband began to learn how he experienced his wife from different modes of thought – independent of his or her actions. The strong resentment, judgment, and despair he felt had more to do with how God designed people than his wife’s actions. He could even see how his reactions to her varied even when her actions hadn’t. Like all humans, his mind flowed at times with unsettled thinking.
And the upset feelings, when he had them, didn’t contradict the tenderness he recalled, his appreciation for her struggles and desire to find a way forward. Those nicer feelings were real, worthy of respect, a blessing from God. He began to see the role of personal thinking in contrast to the gift of quiet wisdom. His ability to distinguish between the two allowed him to become less troubled by the harsh feelings and more grateful for the nicer ones.
This is the message of the barrier. Stay off the mountain, God tells the people, lest you lose sight of the fact that there’s a difference between your thought and Mine. In the midst of your non-stop busy life you can receive the gift of My wisdom.
In truth, Mt. Sinai tells us that the gift of revelation is ongoing. As we gain respect for the distinction between personal and divine thought, we will find ourselves less reactive to, more humbled by our own upset, and less complacent, more blessed by the gift of quiet wisdom.