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.


Long and Winding Road: TorahCycle Devarim

DevarimThere’s an old axiom that says you can’t know where you’re gong until you know where you’ve been. Looking at your past usually involves both lesson harvesting and revisionism. Hard to do one without the other, because the now you will have a different perspective on past choices than then you who made them.

The need for immediate gratification diminishes in the long view. But choices made in moments of acute need or desire may’ve been valuable shortcuts to learning that might have taken far longer if you’d always taken the road of reason.

Devarim literally means “words” and/or “things.” It introduces the last book of Torah, that includes a summary of everything that’s happened since the Jews left Egypt, “the narrow place. “

Most of us have many such leavings. We’re often in the process of creating and re-creating ourselves. Hopefully each iteration is an improvement. As we change, our vocabulary about ourselves (the words) changes as our situations and perspectives change.

In the very beginning of Genesis we’re told the world was spoken into being. That words have complete generative power. So this is a great time to do a re-cap. A spiritual resume-writing week. A time to look at the big events that made you who you are, and the littler private moments, that forged your soul and perspective. Most especially at the words you use to describe those moments and yourself on your journey. They’ve become your own creation stories. But when’s the last time you unpacked them and truly listened to them?

In Hebrew the letter vav (like a V) is a connector. It ties thing-words like this and that, or place-words like here and there, or time-words like now and when. Vav is the essence of this exercise. Looking at the self you were when you began search for higher consciousness and at the self you are now.

In physics’ Heisenberg principle we cannot see the same thing in the same moment as both observer and the object of scrutiny. Like the old adage You can’t step into the same river twice. But you can look upstream, to reflect on your journey, and to motivate yourself: to find the energy and perspective to go the last leg of the way. If you need a visual, watch a recent movie called The Way, about a walking pilgrimage.

It’s the time when the hummingbirds come for the bright blooming flowers. They seem always in motion, seeking the next burst of bright sweetness. So like us: busy, busy, busy. Doing, doing, doing. Seeking, seeking, seeking, But sometimes there’s blessed moments when hummingbirds hover. They seem to pause in flight, taking in the sweetness, before they dart off searching for more.

That’s what now’s the time to do. In the heat of summer, to pause. To reflect on how you got to here and now. Take moments to feel all your words, both your memories and your dreams. Taste the nectar of knowing that you’ve travelled well and long on your road, survived the bumps, and you’ve earned the right to simply be, and to taste life’s sweetness.