Archive for gener de 2018

We argue to grow

Each relationship is unique therefore it is difficult to create bullet points lists or ready to use solutions that will take us at full speed towards the expected destination. Moreover, do these lists really work?

I am somehow biased against them. Instead I like to think about what means relationship, what we expect from a relationship, how to be in relationship, etc and I like to invite others to reflect in those topics too. Although what I will propose you below is in fact a list, I see it as lessons that I have learn through conversations and personal reflection, perhaps too simple. In a month we will be immerse in Valentine’s day, Therefore here I offer you an invitation to think more deeply about how to deal with differences in a relationship.

Differences of opinion are a fact of life. They will emerge in any relationship and unfortunately they can turn sour. Every couple argues, no matter how much they love each other. In fact, in my occasions love is almost never a problem, but other things like pride, ego, mental confusion, and unregulated, overflowed emotion come into play and become a problem,.

So before you start, please remember that almost every argument stops with oneself. The rest, usually flow almost automatically when we correct is our own attitude and behavior which is the only thing we can control, as we know.

You only fight with enemies and your partner is never the enemy. Do not fight to prove you right or with the intention to win an argument. Your partner is your friend, your colleague, the other key member of the team. Without your partner, you alone cannot win in the long term. There is nothing wrong about having a difference of opinion. Sometimes disagreement is healthy and necessary, but always keep in mind that your partner does mean bad, nor tries to defeat or hurt you. Therefore when having a disagreement with your partner be affectionate and compassionate. The person standing in front of you loves you, and you love that person him. No matter how angry you are, remember this. Do you want to be right? Or do you want a relationship?

The important thing is the wellbeing of the relationship, not the individual well being of the partners. This follows from the previous. Be aware of your emotions. If you are very angry it must be because you ego may be hurting and want to settle accounts. If your partner has said something that hurts you, try to understand it as a mistake, an exaggeration, or a miscommunication. If you try to heal your ego, you will surely seek to be right at the expense of the relationship. On the other hand if you try to seek your partner’s well-being, you will probably skip something your partner should change or reflect on. Instead try to imagine a space where both of you coexist and that it is more important that each of you individually. It needs to be improved, tendered and grow for its own sake. The both of you will feel better sharing it. Remember that the ultimate goal is that both of you feel good in that space not just one.

Mutual acceptance, respect and responsibility. Following the Albert Ellis’ proposal on Rational Emotive Behavior, always open with an unconditional acceptance of the other, and not when feel treated as you think you deserve; then respect the other as an individual, as a person, and the right to express an opinion, even if you think that it is totally wrong. Finally, take responsibility only for yourself and your actions. Do not try to change your partner or how your partner acts, nor blame your partner for how you feel or how you are reacting. Everything you say, do and feel is ultimately your responsibility. If you want to modify your partner’s behavior, first change yours. If you want the other to respect you, first respect your partner, and if you want the other to accept you, first accept your partner.

No shouting, please. So you have a strong character. Back in your parents house learnt that screaming was ok or that there is nothing wrong with it. It may make feel you strong. Avoid it at all costs. As I wrote above, that person you have in front loves you. By shouting you are hurting that person. If you feel that angry, take a break, pause, breath and take control back of your body and your emotions. Sometimes having a break is what’s needed in order to g\have a more calm and clear conversation. Shouting accomplishes nothing and helps nobody.

Learn to listen. Constantly interrupting the other will prevent you from hearing what your partner has to say. First listen, without interjecting your opinions. Then reflect on what you have heard objectively, without judging it. Finally respond to it without getting a debate. Ask for clarification questions, but stop reading mind and assuming that you what your partner is thinking. You cannot know what your partner means until it es explained or your have asked questions. You are wrong if you try to interpret it without having enough information.

Avoid piling up. Expressions like “It’s like last week!” or “You always do the same!”, show you live in the past, not in the present. Past disagreements are water under the bridge. What matters it is the here and the now and finding a solution.

Even before the first disagreement set rules that work for you and your partner. There is pre-established format. What really matters is that they work for you both. Some people like to argue on the same day, others prefer to let some time pass and let feelings cool down. What is the best approach? The one that respects both. If one likes to talk at this moment, and the other prefers to wait, find rational time limit: one day maybe. However, I insist, there are no specific solutions that anyone can give you. Make adjustments and respect them, no matter how difficult.

Behave as adults. Do not go to sleep fighting, or do not go to sleep to another bed, much less to another house…While having a disagreement please do not use threats like “if you continue like this, we are done!” or “I’m going away!”. It is unproductive and childish. Adults argue as adults. This is we adapt, listen, understand, mature, and we are rational. Children argue like children: they are offended at the least provocation; they are capricious, and when they do not get exactly and precisely what they want, then they take their marbles to play somewhere else. We expect that behavior from a child but not from an adult.

And lastly… be humble, Very humble. Imagine a coat or a bag. From the outside it is black skin and the inside lining is red. Now, imagine that you have lived your whole life inside the bag. That the red lining is the only thing you have known. And your partner, outside. Neither of you have seen the reality of the other and instead, for each one of you this is your obvious reality, the only one you have known. For one is red, for the other, black… and both are right. Suddenly one says to the other “the bag is black”. What can the one who lives inside answer? Only something simple: that is not true. It is red. Without humility, and without confidence, the discussion would end in disaster. Without the willingness to accept that “perhaps I am wrong and my partner is seeing something that I’m not… I’m going to trust him”, there’s no way you both can find a solution. Remember: the other is not the enemy, the other does not want to hurt you. If you insist that the bag is black, and not red, it must be for something.

This has been a long condensation of many thoughts and I will stop here. Just one last thought. If you only love when things are rosy, when things are good it can hardly be called “love”. Rather when we disagree we disagree with love. It is through discussing that we learn to understand each other. Difficult conversation can help us to build a better relationship.

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Shabbat Beshalach links two stories, one told in the Torah, one in the Haftarah from the Book of Judges. The first is the redemption at the sea, as our ancestors fled from Egypt and the waters parted; the second is a decisive victory over enemies in the land to which we had come, enabling us to live in quiet for 40 years. These parashiot are linked by women, Miriam and Devorah, described as prophets (Miriam the first person in the Torah to be described that way), who lead their people in time of struggle to victory and triumph.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, for both triumphant victories are celebrated with song. We all know the Torah’s “Song of the Sea”, sung by the children of Israel as they experienced their miraculous deliverance from slavery and reached freedom on the opposite banks of the sea. At that moment of supreme joy and celebration, the Israelites burst into song, giving voice to their delight. This song is recited every day in the traditional morning service; a phrase of it is found in the prayer of redemption immediately after the Shema, known to nearly all Jews: “Mi Kamocha B’elim Adonai” – who is like You among gods that are worshipped?

As many have considered, song is at the core of human creativity, a crucial aspect of our learning, worship and faith community, for song opens our hearts. We sing for joy, but we also sing in lament; song captures our innermost feelings and yearnings. This Shabbat is also the Shabbat before Tu Bishvat, one of four new years described in the Talmud. Tu Bishvat is the new year for trees and it is the time in our calendar where we pause to celebrate and consider our environment and our impact upon it. We reflect on the beauty of nature and the precious planet, which has been entrusted to our care. Celebrating our environment this Shabbat is actually linked to this Shabbat Shirah, this Shabbat of Song.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and Rav Kook both suggest that every plant, tree, flower and shrub has its own song, even blades of grass sing their own unique melody. The voices of the plants then join together in a beautiful harmony and the song they sing together, circles the world, resting gently upon us all. At Tu Bishvat, we take the time to listen for the song, to hear the harmony flowing through nature and to connect ourselves to that aspect of the world.

This Shabbat Shira, we must query whether the song of the universe is as harmonious as before. With the devastation humans are wreaking upon our world, so, this Shabbat Shira, Shabbat of song, may we all hear the song of the universe, celebrating the beauty and wonder around us, and may we all add our own notes to create an even more wonderful and lasting harmony.

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This week’s Parasha, Bo, is the third of the Book of Exodus, bringing us to the climactic encounter between God and Pharaoh. There is a pause in the narrative of the plagues for the first Passover Celebration to take place. In this short diversion, we learn a few things about Passover.

First, the name, as God passes over the houses of the Israelites and only kills the first born of the Egyptians.

Second, these sequences of stories, beginning two weeks ago and continuing on for another two weeks, form the basis of the story of Passover, which we recite at the Seder. One question could be, why doesn’t this narrative fall during the celebration of Passover? The rabbis were usually very careful about which readings fall when, making sure that certain passages reflect the time of year. It would seem not to be the case here. Also, why not simply include a short recitation of the story at the Seder? We’ve read it now and gone into a lot of detail of the signs and wonders that God brings; staffs turning into snakes, ten plagues, splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai. To quote the song, dayanu!, wouldn’t it have been enough?

As the rabbis are fond of teaching about the Torah, no word is superfluous – each has a meaning. So, what is the meaning here? I believe it goes beyond the simple surface reading (p’shat) of God convincing the Israelites and Egyptians of God’s awesome power. By infusing this story with multiple miracles, they become ingrained in the narrative. The story simply does not flow or even exist without the miracles. As they become a part of the story, it could be easy to either downgrade their importance or worse, become numb to them. By reciting the story every year, we are reminded of the power and astounding awe of God, and the miracles God brought.

In our lives, we are surrounded by miracles each and every day. Passover reminds us that they exist, but we need something a little closer to home so we can live them. Shabbat is just such an opportunity. By forcing ourselves to take a pause out of our days, we live the experience of the miracle of creation each and every week. By pausing and simply being on Shabbat, we see the world for what it really is, not what we are trying to make it. We cannot become numb to the miracle when we have no choice but to appreciate it. Shabbat then becomes so much more than a reminder (as Passover is), but a living testament to the marvel of the world around us.

I pray this Shabbat that we all take the time to simply be and appreciate the miracle of life all around us.

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A while ago I was discussing with friends if it is possible to help a person who does not want to be helped. In short, no you cannot. The answer may shock you. Maybe you may think I am exaggerating, but reality cannot be changed – regardless if we would like it to be otherwise. Helping someone who does not want to receive our help is impossible. Even worse not only is it impossible, but it also could constitute a form of aggression.

“Oh nice! Not only can’t I help my friend but now you are telling me this can be seen as aggression?!” Yes, indeed. Have you ever heard the saying “The path to hell is paved with good intentions”? Surely we have found ourselves that one day we wake up in a bad mood, for no reason. We arrive at the office, or at the gym, and a well-meaning friend approaches us saying “you know? I think you should…” and the rest of his advice gets lost amongst an internal scream for silence. “Oh, leave me alone!” Unsolicited advice makes people feel uncomfortable, it is unseemly, and almost always is perceived in our unconscious as aggression. The same thing happens with help.

For sure, our desire to help someone comes from a true expression of affection and concern for that person. I feel the need to insist on the fact that while originally our intention could be good, however, when we try hard to give advice to someone who has not requested it, it is perceived as an imposition. Plainly imposing own our desires on the other not only does not help. What is more it shows a lack of empathy.

As Sandy Hotchkiss wrote in her book “Why is it always about you?”, an excellent book about the narcissistic personality, she proposes that our ability to empathize, to accurately understand how another person feels, and to feel compassion for them in response, requires us to temporarily get out of ourselves in order to tune into someone else. We must turn off the noise of our own concerns and open ourselves to what the other person is expressing .

The key concept in that is exactly that “turn off the noise of our worries…” Let’s take a moment to think about it. Most of the time when we try too hard to help someone who has not asked us for it, it relates to our own internal anxieties (for example, I worry about my sister’s health, I do not want anything bad happening to her; My husband should pay more attention to his health) and not so much with what the other person is sharing and or expressing.

Sometimes, those we love will need and ask for our help or support, no question. The key point for us is to remain attentive to the opportunity and open to get the message when it is sent to us. If we are available, willing and open, but above all, if we can temporarily put aside our needs and anxieties, and truly pay attention to the mood, words and actions of the other, it is much more likely that we will be perceived as possible help providers. If so, let us trust that the other will have the ability to ask us for advice or help when they deem appropriate. Therefore it is fundamental we trust others in their capacity to receive and ask for help.

When we learn to trust and let go, we may become less apprehensive and anxious. It is  then when we can truly constitute a real possibility of support. However, as long as we insist on imposing our opinion, no matter how positive the impulse that guides us, it does not stop being  seen as an attack against the will and individuality of others. Many times it is better to keep quiet, smile, and show support with a warm and sincere patting on the back, than to try to have the best answer or solution

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This week’s parashah contains the first seven of the ten plagues inflicted upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. We read that when Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go free, so that they may serve God, Pharaoh isn’t interested in allowing the Hebrew slaves to go free.

When Aaron cast his staff onto the ground, and it turned into a serpent, Pharaoh’s magicians did the same with their staffs, but then Aaron’s staff swallowed theirs. Pharaoh expresses that he is not impressed, and so the stakes grow higher – the plagues commence.

As the plagues increased in their intensity, we are told that even Pharaoh’s magicians were impressed, and supposedly, they were getting more and more worried about where this was leading. Yet, each time Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh to let God’s people go, there is a great unwillingness on Pharaoh’s behalf to cooperate, and it is only after there is a great deal of suffering and either Pharaoh or those closest to him are impacted, that he relents, and tells Moses and Aaron that he will God’s people go. Of course, time after time, Pharaoh reneges on his commitment, and so the next plague commences.

When we look at the sequence of events and the impacts of what occurs, it isn’t Pharaoh who is suffering (at least not initially), and he displays no concern for his own people. He is not at risk of being “voted out” and losing control of power, so he isn’t concerned with their fate. If they aren’t there to help build gigantic palaces and monuments for him, he’ll get the next generation of people to ensure he is honoured in a manner suitable to his ego.

If you’re wondering why this sounds familiar, just look at any of the dictatorships that exist in our world. Even though in the vast majority of the cases, those leaders were voted into power, they have, through time, built a system of set of rules, whereby it is almost impossible to be deposed. When their people are suffering, it’s not something they take ownership of, or responsibility for. They often acknowledge the issues and the suffering, but it’s not something they are rushing to resolve, and they usually blame someone else for what’s happening. Only when the people, or a group within those people, want to invoke change AND they have enough resources, that there will be a change.

It’s the same with Pharaoh. No matter how badly his people are suffering, he has no reason to give in to Moses’ demands to let God’s people go. When he, or those close to him, are affected, the game changes, and he wants to cooperate. When each of the plagues ease up, it’s back to being hard-hearted and rejecting the requests.

Sadly, throughout the series of plagues, the Egyptians (and no doubt many of the Hebrew slaves) suffer a great deal. Would Pharaoh have acted differently if he knew that his position of power lay at the hands of those who elected him? If there was enough of an appetite for change and the people had the resources, would they have stopped Pharaoh acting only in his own interests? Would our story be different if the Egyptians’ story was different?

With all of that in mind, we have a responsibility to make sure we carry on telling the story, just as we do every year at the Pesach Seder. While it is primarily about about our story, our redemption from slavery, it is also about acknowledging that other people suffer needlessly too, and we should not forget about their plight and their role in our story.

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Living… to die

Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die”.  Irvin Yalom, Staring at the sun.

This is something that happens often: Death is a constant guest in people’s lives and specially being a rabbi. Death is a guest -I must say- that we don’t welcome and, despite everything, it cannot be avoided. Death is part of our lives and life could not be without death. Many times the death of someone close to us brings to memory past loses, disappointments and inevitable bitterness and it can sink us into the recurrent thought about the uselessness of death and especially the surrounding rituals and what some people perceive as a senseless prolongation of pain.

Over the years I have developed a different take. Yes, losing someone really hurts, and it hurts a lot. It could not be otherwise. But what would be of us without those rituals? What would become of us without the ability to interpret and re-interpret the reality that surrounds us? At the end, that is the reason for each ritual, each of the small variations that we make voluntarily, or involuntarily, to our routines and our actions, trying with all our strength to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. What makes us human is our ability to be aware of ourselves and then to make decisions based on that awareness, those thoughts, those discussions.

Denying those essential moments of reflection, even if it hurts, not only does not improve things on the contrary it makes things worse. Moreover, why do we always have to be in this childish effort to escape the pain? Because we perceive it as unnecessary, but is it really?

The ultimate fear of the human being is fear of death; the fear of losing the only thing that theoretically belongs to us: our being. Somehow we have being taught death is the greatest of human misfortunes and that the act of dying is the last and agonizing struggle against extinction. At the same time, the incomprehensibility of death and its irreversible effects have intimidated and terrorized men and women since the dawn of consciousness.

Just knowing that everything is over and that it must end to move on to something else, alters us. We always plea for more time, one more chance, another minute, but for what? That’s the least important thing because we always need more. It does not really matter if this has been a good day; if today I have been happy; if today I had a good time. What matters is that it will end and we don’t want it to happen.

And after it, what’s next? Does anyone know? No, and better so. Let’s keep the mystery. Sometimes knowing too much spoils the surprise. The point is that our unhealthy tendency to locate ourselves in the future, in general, does more harm than good. That, and our big fat ego resists with the teeth and nails to let go and flow, to accept the reality we own nothing and that in order to be we do not need to own anything. Everything that is in our hands, including life, is a loan. Why should it be otherwise?

Loss is the great force for change. Death gives meaning to life. Awareness that nothing will last forever will force us out of our comfort zone and move us forward to grow, to mature and to face new challenges, making us stronger, more courageous and smarter.

Death is an awkward companion. Some losses still hurt and they will never go away. We celebrate their life and how our relationships with them made us who we are today. Over time I have stopped seeing death and life as contraries but as part of the same continuum, face and tail of the same coin, mutually dependent and mutually givers of meaning.

In my opinion chaos is not a reality but the outcome of our resistance. Some people see those rituals around death as unnecessary. I see them as a chance to gain meaning, a wake up call. We say goodbye to those who leave and we allow ourselves to star over. We are transition, we are encouragement, we are life. In truth, chaos does not exist. Deep down, I think we have nothing to fear…

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We began reading the second of the five books of Moses this week. It is called the Book of Exodus in English and in Hebrew, Shemot. Shemot literally means “names” and it is called shemot because the book begins with a list of names of the sons of Jacob who went to live in Egypt.

The Torah reading goes on to relate the evolution of the Children of Israel’s experience in Egypt. How they were enslaved, then at one stage how male babies were not allowed to survive, yet, when Moses was born he was kept alive by being placed in a basket that floated down the river, Miriam his sister, keeping an eye on the basket all the while.

Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and adopted him. Moses grew up in the Pharaoh’s home till he realized his identity and, to cut a long story short, he fled to the desert where he had a revelatory experience at THE BURNING BUSH.

Moses saw a bush that was on fire but was not damaged or consumed by the fire. He approached the bush and heard God call him – “Moses, Moses”, he answered “Here I am”, hineini.

Let’s pause at this point and consider what the sages have said about this dialogue. Being called twice by name by God and then answering hineini “Here I am” occurs a few times in the Torah, *(e.g. in the Garden of Eden with Adam). Some commentaries state that the reason for being called twice is because there is one call to the person standing there physically and another call to the person’s awareness. It is a call to be present and focused… to be mindful.

In a way, this week we are asked to step up to a new level of commitment and presence in our lives. Often we become automatic and our lives become mechanical but this hineini practice is an invitation to be more present and mindful.

Once Moses has answered hineini “I am here”, God instructs him to take off his shoes before he approaches the burning bush, God says, “Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil.”

In Hebrew, the word for shoe is na’al, which is also connected to the word for a “lock”; the word for feet is regel, which is connected to the word for “habits”. Here, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, comments that what God was saying to Moses (and to each of us), is that in order to approach the burning bush, Moses needed to release himself from habits that were restricting him and locking him out of knowing what his destiny was.

One of the key benefits of being mindful is that we become aware of those habits that do not serve us well. By releasing ourselves from destructive habits (metaphorically taking off our restrictive shoes) we can open ourselves to new modes of behavior and higher levels of inspiration. Once Moses has said hineini and is full present he can receive the message from God that leads him to bring the Children of Israel to freedom.

May each of us raise the level of presence in our lives and may we find ways to release ourselves from habits that don’t serve us well. It starts by saying, hineini, “I am here”.

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