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This Shabbat, we read Toldot, the portion of the Torah which continues the story of Isaac. When we think of the patriarchs, Isaac is the one who is often cast into the shadows. His father Abraham was the man of faith, the pioneer who made covenants with God. And then his son, Jacob, the dreamer, the man who forged a new life in a foreign land, who deceived and was in turn deceived, who grows, changes, matures and is the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. In the middle is Isaac; he did not fight wars, he did not acquire new land. He lives a quiet life, he exists, surrounded by his family: only one wife, no concubines, no handmaidens having children, just him and Rebecca and their two sons and for Isaac, that was enough. And when he was challenged by foreign rulers over his wells what did he do? He walked away, he found a new place to dig his wells and he finds a place to live in peace.

And all we want is what Isaac found: to live in peace, to be surrounded by love, to be content and happy. We greet one another: “Shalom Aleichem.” We are taught that the whole world exists only to establish peace. “The Torah’s ways are pleasantness and all its paths are peace”; teaching us that we should always interpret the Torah to achieve peace, its reading must further that goal. And it is not a passive act, “seek peace and pursue it” cries the Torah, “don’t wait for peace to descend from the heavens, go out and make it happen.”

But despite our longing, despite our striving, we still live in a world without peace. This Shabbat we commemorate Remembrance Day, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the war which was to usher in a peaceful world. We honor all those who fought for our freedom, who faced battles in order that our world could be blanketed with the beauty of peace. We remember those who gave their lives, those who suffered and struggled with the scars and wounds of battle, and all those brave souls who stepped forward to defend the values and principles we hold dear. And when the war ended, there was great hope for this world, an age of peace.

But that was not to be. Conflicts raged and then, a mere 20 years after the Great War, Kristallnacht, the night of Broken Glass which would herald the beginning of the horrors of the Holocaust. This Shabbat we commemorate that night, November 9, the fear and suffering, and we remember all those who were murdered during the Shoah. We also acknowledge all who stood up against the tyranny of that age, the brave souls who fought, hid, sheltered, spoke out and those who tried to create a world of peace. And this war too came to an end. We cried, we mourned and grieved and we prayed that a lasting peace would now descend upon us and our world.

But it was not to be. Since that day, there have been conflicts and battles throughout the world, and the courageous members of our communities volunteer and join our armed forces on land, sea and air, they stand up and help to make the vision and dream of a world of peace a reality. We acknowledge them and their struggle and we remember the words of the Torah, “seek peace and pursue it.” We all must join together, we, our service men and women, every one of us, and work for a world of peace, stand together and make the future we long to see for ourselves and our children, when all can be like Isaac, living lives surrounded by love and peace.

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This week’s portion begins, sadly with the death of Sarah. The Torah does not give us much detail as to the reasons for Sarah’s death but we know that her death occurs a chapter or so after the akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac. The Midrash [Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah narrative] makes a connection between these two events. It interprets Sarah’s death to have been the result of the trauma and pain she felt upon the news of the akedah. Sarah, according to the midrash, thinking her son had actually been sacrificed, died of a broken heart.

How can this be? Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people who together with Abraham were the first to believe in God. Sarah, who miraculously gave birth to Isaac died of a broken heart as a result of a trick that God played on them both to test their loyalty. Is this her reward for a lifetime of fidelity to God?

Ethical Monotheism, a core principle of our tradition is grounded in the belief that God is one and that God is good. We serve God by observing the mitzvoth [commandments]and are rewarded for our service, but is that how the world really works?

Last week’s egregious act of antisemitic hatred and murder in Pittsburgh powerfully highlights the problem of theodicy in our world. If God is good and just, how is it that innocent people suffer? Many Rabbis throughout history have attempted to deal with this. Perhaps all attempts are doomed to failure but Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in a powerful teaching from his Liqqutei Moharan, invokes Lurianic Kabbalisitc teaching to try and grapple with the problem of evil in a world where God is good.

According to this teaching the Ein Sof [the aspect of God in Kabbalah that is totally unknowable and beyond human comprehension] wished to be known as Rahum ve Chanun, graceful and merciful. It was not sufficient for the Ein Sof to remain in a state of primordial oneness and perfection, the Ein Sof needed to be in relationship with conscious beings who would be able to embody and project its divine light. In order to allow for this possibility, it was necessary for the Ein Sof to withdraw from a certain space to allow creation to emerge, but in so doing a vacant space, (hallal panuee) emerged where the illuminating light of the Ein Sof was diminished. Since all life unfolded from this vacant space where the divine light does not shine in all its splendor, we experience existence in binaries – good evil, light-dark, body-mind. While not an illusion, this is but a fragment of reality. That is why all that exists within the vacant space (hallal panuee) is seemingly subject to the laws of duality. Rabbi Nachman warns us not to lose ourselves in this partial reality. Additionally, he does not want us to dwell on the question of why evil exists in a world where God is good or why bad things happen to good people. That suffering exists in the world is inevitable, it is a condition of life in the hallal panuee where God’s radiance is necessarily diminished to allow for creation.

No attempt to understand the “mind of God’’ will ever be sufficient to address the terror of suffering or the random murder of innocents like those who sadly perished last week in Pittsburgh.

Rabbi Nachman advises us to be true ivri’m [Hebrews] and ‘pass over,’ transcend the brokenness of our world with acts of loving-kindness and ma’asim tovim [good deeds]. This is the true answer. By increasing the good in the world we bring the good God into our world and allow that God to dwell here among us.

A powerful response to evil, like the Pittsburgh shooting, lies with the work of organizations like WIZO. WIZO [ Women’s International Zionist Organization] is one of the largest welfare organizations in Israel. Its volunteers work towards providing for the welfare of infants, women, men and the elderly who are in need of assistance both financial and emotional. As we recall last week’s horrific tragedy we must continue to work towards establishing a world where justice and compassion triumph over hatred, intolerance and racism.

In this week’s parashah, following the flood, and learning that the waters had been progressively diminishing and the tops of the mountains became visible, we read; “Then he (Noah) sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him” (Gen 8:8-9).

The hope was that the dove would not return to the ark, that it had found a place to settle on the dry land, signalling that it was safe for all of the inhabitants of the ark to start preparing to disembark onto dry land.

Rashi explains that Noah wasn’t merely sending the dove on an errand, but rather he was sending it away or letting it go, to be free to go where it wanted to. If the dove found a place it could be free, it would not have returned.

But as we know, the dove did come back to the ark. What we also learn is that Noah wasn’t angry with the dove, nor did he express to the dove his dissatisfaction at not being able to return to dry land. He did not take the approach that we often do when we find ourselves in similar situations, he did not shoot the messenger. He did not, in any way, take out his frustrations on the dove. Instead, when Noah saw the dove on its way back to the ark, he simply put forth his hand and took it, and brought it to him to the ark.

Throughout history there has been a vast amount of blameless and innocent messengers that have delivered news that was either tragic or sad, and on many occasions it has been contrary to what the recipient was expecting to hear. Most often, the recipient of the news has reacted with words and/ or actions that are less than exemplary, especially since these reactions have come from leaders and high profile members of society. The messenger is not responsible for the news, they are merely delivering it to the recipient.

Noah, however, showed impeccable behavior and leadership. He did not rebuke or blame the dove, nor did he cast doubt over the dove’s ability to do its job. Moreover, he put out his hand and welcomed the dove back to the ark.

The result was that when Noah sent the dove out again just seven days later, the dove didn’t feel as though it had to be frightened to return the ark if it couldn’t bring back good news. It took on the same task just one week later and then again one week after that with the same amount of enthusiasm it did the last time it went on the mission. The result – “The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.” (Gen 8:11-12).

We all have examples of when someone delivered bad news to us. The likelihood is that some time in the future it will happen again. If we think about how we reacted to such news in the past, and then review our actions and reactions, perhaps we could be more restrained in our response to the messenger. We might even try to appreciate that while it’s bad news they’re delivering, they are simply the messenger. Not only could it make them not feel as bad for having to deliver the news, but it also puts the recipient in a more welcoming light, to be considered as a person who is more receiving and caring, thereby turning a potentially nasty and trepidatious experience into one where we work with each other to obtain the best outcome for the present and the future.

At this point in the calendar, it almost seems like a let down, to come to services and nothing special will be occurring. To aid in the post holiday blues, we are treated this week to the beginning of our story, Bereshit, the first portion of the first book of the Torah.

Probably the most famous part of this week portion is the actual story of creation. Many of us recall the words at the end of each day creation, v’yar Elohim ki Tov, that the work that God had accomplished was good. In fact, for every act, that phrase is repeated. However, there are two notable exceptions. The first, is at the conclusion of creation, God says, it was very good. The second example occurs when God observes that Man is alone, and God reacts saying, “lo tov heiot adam levado” it is not good for man to be alone.

The response then if for God to create an “ezer k’negdo” typically translated as a fitting helper. Looking closely at the actual words, the translation seems to indicate two opposing ideas: ezer meaning helper, k’negdo has a connotation of being against, opposite or counter to something. How is it then that these two ideas together connote the ideal partner?

Relationships wherein one party acts only on one side of balance are not healthy relationships. Think of a relationship in which one person always acts in a helpful manner, is always complicit, and dutifully fulfills the other partner’s requests. Is this a healthy relationship? It is almost as if the relationship lacks free will on the part of the helpful participant. It runs the risk of ploughing ahead on paths that will not lead to good places. One person becomes more in control of the other; the partners are not equal. This is not a healthy relationship.

Likewise, think of a relationship in which one person always challenges the other partner, is always playing devil’s advocate and disagreeing, who always has a better idea. Is this a healthy relationship? This type of relationship is destined to fights and hurt feelings. It is destined to stagnation, since agreement is impossible. This too, is not a healthy relationship.

In a healthy relationship, one partner is able to recognize when to be helpful and when to challenge. Is able to be the cheerleader and assistant at times and is able to push the other onto a better path at other times. The one side creates a sense of support while the other side pushes the partner to be better. This balance over time allows for honesty and integrity in the relationship without dooming one partner to submission or the relationship to argument. In this relationship, when one partner takes the side of acting counter, both parties know that it is from a place of love and care, and not from anger or a need for control. In this relationship, when the helpful side is chosen, both parties know too that this is from a place of love and care and not submissiveness.

Let us strive, in this new year, to be that healthy, balanced partner, and in that way, create the healthy relationships that will sustain us.

This week we celebrate the festival of Sukkot which is, according to our tradition, z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. One would imagine a festival of joy to find us gathering together in lavish settings enjoying the fruits of our labor, perhaps a time of excess and ostentatious celebration. Instead, we go outside to temporary dwellings, simple huts with roofs which allow the rain to fall inside, exposed to the elements. We separate ourselves from the permanence of our lives and confront the fragility of our existence. From that place, we can begin to understand how fleeting our wealth and possessions are, how it can all be taken from us in an instant. That we build walls and structures which give an illusion of security but in the end they are just that, illusions. When we sit in our sukkot we are forced to consider what is really important, what truly makes us happy and that is not necessarily our possessions, our wealth but rather the nurturing of our spirit, community, finding meaning in our lives. We read the book of Kohelet, Eccelesiastes, whose author has, by his own admission, acquired riches and wealth beyond imagining but found it does not bring him happiness. Dwelling in our sukkot reminds us the true source of our joy, not in material possessions but in finding and counting our blessings. The joy of the festival comes not from lavish excess but rather the recognition that we don’t need those things to be happy, that we can find joy in other places. We turn towards one another. Sukkot is the time we are called to invite guests into our sukkot, to share the time with others, to reach out and see that our blessings can come from connection and inclusion from being part of a spiritual community of searchers, rather than from the acquisition of possessions and wealth.

And we are reminded that each of us is important and significant. When we shake the lulav we bring together the four elements, each representing a different kind of person, we hold them as one, reminding us of the diversity of our communities, our connection with one another and the significance of each element. We all bring our differences and our uniqueness and each of us is important and has a role to play, a place and a home in our community.

But the joy of Sukkot is not all austere deprivation. Interestingly, the rules of sukkot also remind us to celebrate. Even though our sukkot are impermanent and open to the elements, we are to make them places of beauty and comfort. If the weather is bad, we are called to go inside. A passage from the Talmud says “if the weather is bad enough to spoil your soup, a person who stays in the sukkah is an ignoramus.” Sukkot is not a time of suffering, it is a time for relaxations, friends and family. The author of Kohelet reminds us that our days are fleeting, we have a limited time on earth so we should “eat drink and be merry” enjoy the fruits of our labor, enjoy the blessings we are privileged to possess.

So Sukkot is a festival which brings us joy by helping us to recognize what is truly important, bringing together community, enjoying our blessings and sharing it with others. May Sukkot be a season of joy for us all.

[T]he process of… changing feels good. …The change process we have discovered is natural to the body, and it feels that way in the body… The experience of something emerging from there feels like a relief and a coming alive.                                                                                                                              E. Gendlin, Focusing

Different illnesses are the result of how our body reacts to daily discomfort. There was a time when my whole body is screaming in pain, all my joints, muscles, tendons, viscera… everything hurts like crazy! There is not a single area that does not scream; The “fibromyalgia” has reached such a level that even when I got up I have to stand on the wall because my knees do not support me due to much pain and weakness… Thanks to a personal process of growth I have been able to change beliefs and to drop a negative environment. Those days now are part of the past; just a mere memory.

It has always always been easy for me to feel in my body what happens in my mind, both the good and the bad. The bad expresses itself in the form of spasms, headaches, lumbago, digestive problems, etc…; and the good in a greater breathing capacity, expansion, relaxation, and well-being … (D. Saphiro, 2002).

Body, mind and emotions: an ecosystem

Today’s research unanimously accepts the close relationship between body, mind and emotions. The messages of our emotional world are embedded in the body, we somatize what we feel (Jung 1935, W. Reich 1949, Baker 1967, Lowen 1974). In fact, numerous articles existing relationship between stressful situations and their relationship with negative psychological states, and their consequent influence on the immunological and proprioceptive response (Dr. Levine 1997, 2010).

The word psycho-somatic refers to the fact that the psyche -this is, the mind- affects the soma, the body; that is to say, the mental tension influences the state of the bodily tissues, the muscles, the organs, the skin, of the face tissue, generating pain, inflammation, injuries, diseases, etc.

Saying that the source of an illness is psychosomatic illnesses does NOT mean the pain our bodies experience is not real. Life experiences have the potential to generate such tensions that, over time, they end up causing physical pain or organic lesions: stomach ulcers, acidity, headaches, lumbago, intestinal alterations, skin alterations, fibromyalgia … (Tobón, Vinaccia and Sandín 2004, Dra.Maiteikova 2011).

All those illness must be properly diagnosed and treated, but it is also very important to have a psychological intervention, so the stress that is at the root, does not continue to affect or harm the body.

How does this happen? Why does tension go to the body?

During early childhood, way before we can express with words what’s going on, we use our bodies to express pain, anger, anguish as well as surprise, joy, fear. Parents read those emotions and they can translate them into words. Somatization is our first form of communication with our environment.

At that early stage of our lives we could not elaborate on our emotions. Instead they were transferred to our bodies in the form of crying, altered breathing and heart rate, restlessness, etc. When we learn to master language, it helps us to set limits to the anguish and it helps us to build our psyche –mind- enriching our basic emotional repertoire.

How can we stop somatizing?

Being flexible in the face of changes and unforeseen events implies a certain level of creativity, adaptation and acceptance. Being aware that we cannot control everything allows us to overcome and face with greater strength and integrity the setbacks of life without experiencing that internal struggle that ends in physical pain and discomfort.

Whatever we cannot handle will manifest through the body. Therefore it is necessary to put into words all those emotions that we are feeling and all those experiences that we are living.

Listening to our body is fundamental in order to understand how the situations we live affect us, what we feel and how to re-frame ourselves in front of them.

In the ’60s, psychoanalyst and Dr. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, Eugene Gendlin, a student of prof. Carl Rogers, researched what made a therapy successful and found those patients who obtained significant changes in therapy were those who could reflect through words what they felt psychically.

Dr. Gendlin called that internal feeling “a felt sense” this is, the unclear, pre-verbal sense of “something” —the inner knowledge or awareness that has not been consciously thought or verbalized — as that “something” is experienced in the body. By paying attention to it allows us to clarify what happens to us in face of a fact, event or possibility.

This technique, called Focusing, is effective to reduce stress, taking decisions, or even as a way to achieve healthy behavioral changes, feeling what you are able to assume at all times, which will allow us a greater degree of commitment to us same.

More to read

SAPHIRO, DEB. Your Body Speaks Your Mind: Decoding the Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual Messages That Underlie Illness. Sounds True Publishers, 2006.

GENDLING, EUGENE. Focusing. Bantam Books; 2nd (revised) edition

MATVEIKOVA, IRINA. Digestive Intelligence: A Holistic View of Your Second Brain. Findhorn Press , 2014.

The viruses are real. The bacteria are real. They are real problems, but somatization is a real problem. According to the dictionary somatization is the expression of psychological conflicts through somatic symptoms. In plain English, you take things too much to heart. Today’s word is “somatization”.

I vomit and, at the same time, I cannot eat because my stomach is closed. I do not sleep well, and if I sleep, I have nightmares. I have anxiety at stratospheric levels, especially in the mornings, so that getting out of bed is a true effort because I have not being sleeping enough for weeks, I am weakened because I do not eat or vomit what I eat. I am overwhelmed by my responsibilities and I need to react and the only answer that I can get from my body is shacking.

When I get out of bed, because eventually I can get up, I am irascible, and I do my best to withhold. Clearly I am not the most joyful person. On the other hand, people around me congratulates me giving me positive reinforcement because I am loosing weight, but it worries and anguishes me and I keep quiet so as not seem irascible. Also I am having hives on my skin.

I have an impossible work schedule, an emotionally intense environment, I am self-demanding and quite afraid, in general. I am one of those whose respond to fear is to keep carrying on. Instead of protecting myself, I get into trouble trying to overcome fear. When I see written down I realize it sounds silly but in my head makes a lot of sense.

When I explain all this to friends, they tell me that I am somatizing my problems. It sounds like they are telling me that these things happening to my body are not real rather something else. The viruses are real. The bacteria are real, but what I have is psychosomatic. Then the conversation with my friends moves into a different topic.

I take it too much to heart, come on! If what I am experiencing would be just a flu, nobody would dare to me “Gee! You are being too dramatic!” or “You take that virus too seriously!”. Rather what I am experiencing is relational, job related issues. No bug is causing it. I am responsible for my own illness.

If there is a will there is a way” way of thinking hurts a lot because sometimes you don’t want it and you cannot prevent it. Sometimes you have the will for something but it is impossible to find the way, or there is little you can do, or circumstances will prevent it to happen. Sometimes your head is the one who wants it but your guts tell you something different.

Some people who work on this area tell you to connect to those things and memories that make you feel good. Well, that’s what I did. I have connected so intensely that now my feelings are transformed into red hives all over my face, making them very, into insomnia and into headaches.

It’s okay, I’m not complaining. At least, when something goes wrong, I cannot look the other way because it is written on my very own face every morning when I look in the mirror.

If we could just only stop for one second playing down the importance of somatization and stop blaming ourselves for feeling, then I am sure part of the anxiety would disappear and maybe in its place would enter some fresh air.