What You Say: TorahCycle D’varim

Dvarim 2014There’s a Chinese proverb that says the symbol for crisis also is the symbol for opportunity. In the midst of the current Middle East violence, I’ve been thinking about how we use language and how that influences how we perceive and act.

We’re at the very beginning of the last book of Torah. This week’s reading, D’varim is a Hebrew word that means both words and things. In the beginning the world is spoken into being. This whole universe we inhabit and share with one another begins with speech: energy and intention taking physical form. At each step, creation is given a cosmic seal of approval, And it was good.

Things were simpler without people to get greedy or angry, to start sparring with their kin and other tribes. Though even within the first family story there’s strife and murder: Cain killing Abel, a battle between brothers that continues with Isaac/Ishmael, and Jacob/Esau.

As Torah progresses, the stories become less personal, but peace is always shattered and blood spilled. Those people/they/them are defined as other. As fair game for our tribal rage. As acceptable collateral damage in modern parlance.

What would happen if instead of saying enemy people said neighbor? If instead of The man who killed my brother, we said The man whose son I killed?

I confess to the sadness/fatalism about Middle East politics that Israeli novelist David Grossman bemoaned in a recent speech: a loss of hope, especially ironic given that Israel’s national song is Hatikvah (Hope). For the record, I believe in Israel’s right of self-defense, but also in its responsibility for different, better, socio-politics.

As long as the people of the region identify as warring tribes rather than neighbors caught in a complicated situation, we’re all doomed to cycles of violence and retribution.

It is a sad, sad waste, given what we humans are capable of in our best and most creative times. But like Jacob wrestling an angel who could represent his most crippling aspects of self, we seem to be trapped in an endless struggle of killing and revenge. Time heals some wounds but seems to deepen others. There’s such a long legacy of anger and pain; forgiveness and healing feel far away.

Writers try to wrap their arms around it: In The Jewish Lover, Topol uses a contemporary murder mystery to dramatize the 1,000-year ambivalence between Russians and Jews, from the tenth-century Jewish Khazar kingdom in southern Russian until now. The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan, is about a house built in 1930’s Palestine by an Arab patriarch, taken in 1948 by Israelis, and settled by immigrants from Holocaust Europe. It’s a microcosm of regional conflict that recounts good and evil on both sides, with all the tangled roots and acidic fruit.

I believe in the power of words, be they fiction, essay, or self-talk. My writing focuses on personal growth because it feels like a necessary precursor to larger shifts. Also, because it’s what we can wrap our heads around.

So the only thing I know for sure is that while people are using words of war they are unlikely to create peace. If we can change our words maybe we can change the world.


Who’s To Judge?: TorahCycle Shoftim

shoftimThis week¹s reading discusses judges and the law, seen, like people, as open to interpretation and evolution. Both strict and loose constructionists, those old Jews: literal about some things, yet completely comfortable with the idea that every situation is unique. That we need to consider our actions and their consequences as we go along.

The reading also identifies men exempted from battle: if you’ve just built a home, planted a vineyard, or gotten married. And my favorite, if you’re “afraid and soft-hearted.” It¹s a lovely acknowledgement that some of us are, and some of us are not, suited for certain things.

Most of us spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others. There’s often a profound relationship between the things we judge flawed in others and the things that piss us off about ourselves. It’s called projection, and if you’re not raising your hand guilty-as-charged you’re either enlightened or in denial.

We spend time fretting, usually about why we are or aren’t everything from kinder or more generous to tougher and more assertive. The list of desired qualities changes, of course, as we evolve and our lives take different forms.  But most of us judge ourselves about our inadequate and inconsistent progress too often and too harshly.

Until something happens. Until we find some grace. Because all that judging actually had some purpose, other than annoying ourselves and those who love and listen to us.

At some point in your life you choose to be or not to be certain things. You say I am or I am not. A parent. A poet. A painter. A philanderer. A priest. The infinite list of beings and doings.

Maybe we just get lucky. Maybe we learn something. Or maybe we finally exhaust ourselves. Like a toddler up past nap time, we get so cranky that we finally conk out. Give in. Say I surrender. This is who I am and this is who I am not.

In self-acceptance, you can embrace your true self, your form in this lifetime. Not in the ego exalting ways of movie stardom or CEO capitalism. But in the loving and less self-judgmental knowing that is the basis of acceptance and self-love.

This acceptance includes becoming more of a soft-hearted person. A wonderful side benefit: as you become more compassionate towards yourself, you also become more compassionate towards others. It’s win-win for all of us. Less angst, less struggle, and maybe someday even less war.

If only we could shorten that nasty middle phase of harping on our failings. The best I can say is that all that judging, all that refinement of your inner laws, helps you learn and understand your values. That in Situation A it’s okay to act or be such and such. But not in Situation B. I accept that there are lines I will not cross. I know them; I forgive myself for when I have and will be kinder to myself in the future.

Not because I am soft-headed, but because as my heart softens I choose peace.

Exercise:  Which parts of yourself are you still judging and fighting?