Don’t know about you but I’m a tremendous vow maker. I’m eloquent, sincere, and incredibly committed. At least in the moment of swearing my oaths: No more chocolate. Walk 60 minutes each day. Spend less; save more. No more any X until I achieve some Y. And those are the easy vows. The ones that can be measured in food, time, or money.
I have a lifetime of commitments to paths spiritual, emotional, and physical. Each one has lofty goals. They’ve changed over time, but have lots in common. Each path is marked by successes, failures, and missed opportunities great and small. Because I’m at least as good, if not a better, vow breaker.
Sometimes it takes only an instant; the chocolate’s barely a sweet memory before remembering I’m never eating it again, or at least not until next Sunday. Sometimes there’s a deliberative process. One friend calls it “giving yourself permission.” Though that doesn’t do justice to the pre-permission dialogue between my inner higher self and her evil twin. Their conversation always includes new vows to do better in the future.
You get the picture: striving for improvement; backsliding; new optimism, goal setting, and vows; more steps backward; the occasional leap forward; all followed by more of same. Nothing about it’s linear. Achievements rarely easy. All successes proudly owned. All lapses cause for recrimination. Weaving down the road of self-betterment, fueled by good intentions.
This week’s reading offers the story of a very big vow, a covenant (in Hebrew a b’rit) between Abraham and HaShem, sealed with a deep and irrevocable commitment: a literal circumcision of the foreskin. Modern Judaism talks about this more metaphorically: the circumcision of the heart. Peeling away the layers with which we shield ourselves.
We’ve each grown these protective coverings through personal history; we reinforce them regularly to avoid more hurts. Some use food, or alcohol, or emotional aloofness, or even super busyness. We’re a creative lot when it comes to avoiding pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or a spiritual mirror that’s too bright. But there may be unintended consequences that insulate us from being able to be fully present, or to grow into the selves we want to become.
Abraham used to be Abram. His name changes after his b’rit, when the letter hey (H in Hebrew) is added. Hey is associated with the word hineini, I am here, which we’ll encounter again in key Torah moments. Hineini is about committing to being fully present and conscious. About showing up and walking your talk.
Some questions for your week: Which commitments do you keep and which are malleable? To whom and about what? Which triggers make you go unconscious, or otherwise undercut the goals you’ve agreed to with your higher self? What’s one thing you could do this week to reinforce your kavannah, your intention? (Note: You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to try a little harder than last week.)
Trust Helen’s Heisenberg principle of self-evaluation: if you examine your life more consciously, you’ll inevitably make it better. And the really good news is this: the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
[Click here to read a more Torah-centric interpretation.]