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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.

Anuncis

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

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.

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…

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”.

Within a couple of days we will celebrate the end of the civil year. Saturday we will read the last chapters of Genesis’s book. It is normal, then, that we count down. Throughout the book of Genesis we can see how a great drama is coming to an end. The fire that feeds the drama is the rivalry between brothers. Starting with Cain and Abel, a couple of siblings whose relationship ends with murder. Ismael is expelled into the desert after the birth of Isaac. Jacob must flee from home because Esau wants to take revenge after deceiving Isaac, his father, and having won the blessing. The sons of Jacob sold to one of the brothers, Joseph, to a caravan of merchants as slave.

Behind this rivalry, we find jealousy. God preferred Abel. Isaac is Abraham’s favorite son, and not Ishmael. Although Esau was the favorite of Isaac, the mother preferred Jacob and is the one who helps him deceive the father. Joseph is without a doubt Jacob’s favorite son.

Throughout the narrative of Genesis the tension ends with reconciliation. Isaac and Ismael will meet again when they have to bury their father, although the text does not specify what they were called. More recently we have seen how Jacob met his Esau brother some weeks ago. Last week we saw how Josep re-defined the relationship with his family by giving them room at Goshen, forgiving all the evil they did. This week we see how in the time of the father’s death, Jacob, Joseph repeats his promise of not taking revenge on his brothers.

What can we learn from all this? The classics said that erring is human, but forgiving is divine. Joseph’s relationship with his brothers is, by far, the best exponent of a conflicting relationship and the healing power of words. The son, Joseph, overcomes his father, Jacob, in making the reconciliation of the family possible and makes allowing the narrative to continue. But, how could the story in Exodus be meaningless, without peace between the brothers? Forgiveness is the key that opens the door of the future.

The dominant tone in Genesis is hope, which is different from optimism, although we tend to confuse both concepts. While optimism is the belief that the future will be better, hope is the belief that our actions can have a positive effect in the future. Optimism is passive. Hope is active. Unlike optimism / pessimism, qualities with which we are born, hope is something that we should embrace and leads us to action. Genesis is therefore an invitation to embrace hope not through dogmas or ideas, but through stories and actions.

One thing as complicated as the creation of the world only occupies a couple of chapters in the book of Genesis. The rest of the book talks about the history of our ancestors and their relationships. Our task is to make these stories our own through the study, digesting them and finding ways in which to engage with the endless history of the Jewish people and the Torah.

Everything is worth it, because we are who we are, because of what we have lived, we are who we are; because of what some people left in us, but we are absolutely who we are thanks to what we have lost, thanks to what is no longer with us

It is so easy to realize when one does not want it: just look at the other one fixedly in the eyes. is it enough with seeing it move in the world? Is it enough to ask? or ask myself? If so, how do you explain so much disappointment? Why are people disappointed so often if, in reality, it is so simple to realize how much we care? or do not care about those we care about? How can we be surprised by the discovery of the truth of heartbreak? How could we think of ourselves when, in fact, we were not? There is something here to learn: no one is more vulnerable to believing something false than the one who wants the lie to be true.

And it is a lie that we have to carry everything we have wanted and valued; and it is a lie that we must go ahead with everything from before, with everything that is no longer there. We lose. We lose not only through death but through abandonment, of change, through moving forward. Our losses also include our conscious or unconscious renunciations: the loss of romantic dreams, the cancellation of our unrealizable hopes, the loss of the illusions of freedom, power, security and, why not, the loss of our youth.

It is impossible to accept with a smile all the things that, unfortunately, are true and unavoidable. We need to accept the truth that we do not want to assume once and for all. That our mother is going to leave us, and we are going to leave her, that the love of our parents will never be exclusively for us, that what hurts us can not always be remedied with kisses, that we are essentially here alone. That we will have to accept love mixed with hate, with good and bad. That in spite of being as expected to be a girl will not be able to marry her father, that some of our choices are limited by our anatomy, that there are defects and conflicts in all human relationships. That no matter how smart we are, sometimes we have to lose.

Many times life is related to letting go of what once saved us, letting go of the things to which we cling intensely, believing that having them is what will keep us from falling.

Imagine you are going through a jungle. You find a river and you must follow your path. The river is very deep, you can not cross it by foot, there is not a bridge or a boat or a boat or a ford. Then, for days and days, for weeks or months, you dedicate yourself to building a boat, a boat that allows you to cross the river. And you do it. And you are happy with you on the other side of the river because you built your boat that allowed you to continue. And you think: “maybe there is another river”, “maybe I can avoid the job of continuing to build other boats”, “I must take the boat with me”. And then, I try to move through the jungle carrying it, but it is so difficult, it is so complicated … I stumble with each branch, I carry ahead each liana … It is impossible, but I persist. I do not want to leave this boat after all, It has been so useful for me. And yet, this, that one day saved me, this boat that one day represented the possibility of continuing, today is my biggest impediment. Being an adult will mean accepting that I am able to do it once again. It will mean leaving behind that which today does not serve me, that which once served me but which today has no meaning in this way. And bet, that if there is a new river, I will be wiser today to build a new boat.

There is no loss that does not imply a gain, personal growth, because what follows, after having cried every loss, after having elaborated the mourning of each absence, after having encouraged us to let go, is the encounter with oneself enriched with what I do not have today but it passed through me and also because of the experience I had in the process.

You will tell me, it is horrible to think that the death of a loved one means a gain for me. I understand. I could leave out of this conversation the loss of a loved one, I could put it in the box of exceptions, but I do not think it is. In any case, the death of a loved one is an inevitable fact in our lives, and the growth that becomes of it, too. We are not trained to think that we should not suffer. We have been educated by our loving parents to convince us that suffering is something harmful, that suffering can destroy us, that pain can annihilate us. But pain is as healthy in our lives as sadness is. The pain is as constructive as any warning that something has gone awry. It is important not to transform pain into suffering. Pain is the passage through an unwanted place; the suffering is to build a tent and stay to live in that undesirable place. Grief is the passport that takes us out of suffering and allows the pain to pass.

But it is impossible to stop wanting and it is also impossible to possess infinitely and forever everything we want. We are not omnipotent, none of us can and will never have everything you want. Is there a solution?

I think it exists. And I think it’s at hand for anyone. The possibility is to learn to enter and leave the desire, is to develop the ability to desire without staying stuck to that desire, without grabbing him as a climber clings to the rope that he believes will save his life. Learning is, above all, learning to let go: letting go of tools that I no longer need, letting go of people I have already lost, letting go of situations that change, releasing links that change, letting go of life stages that have been left behind, letting go of the moments that have been finished… And each of them has been a loss that has to be devoured, have been stages of my life that have passed, and it is my responsibility to enrich myself by dismissing them.

Great teacher,” said the disciple, “I have come from far away to learn from you, for years I have studied with all the enlightened and gurus of the country and all have left much wisdom in me. Now I believe that you are the only one who can complete my Search, teacher, what I need to know.”

Baduin the wise man, always calm, told him that he would be happy to show him everything he knew, but before they started they would drink tea. The student, grateful, sat next to the teacher. Baduin brought a teapot and two cups of tea, already full. He reached one of them to the student and took the other. Before the disciple will start drinking, Baduin began pouring more tea into the student’s full cup.
The liquid soon spilled onto the plate, and from the plate to the carpet. “Teacher, teacher, please stop pouring tea on my cup!” Said the student. Baduin seemed not to hear him. Then, he looked into his eyes and said: “Until you are able to empty your cup, neither I nor anyone else can put more knowledge in it.”

You have to empty yourself to be able to fill up. A cup, says Krishnamurti, only serves when it is empty. It does not serve a full cup: there is nothing that can be added to it.

This is your Life. You’ll have to get rid of the contents of your full cups if you want to fill it again. Your life is enriched every time you fill a cup, but it is also enriched every time you empty it, because every time you empty your cup you are opening the possibility of filling it with new content. And one of the cups that I find most difficult to empty, and that surely costs you the most to empty, is the image we have of the world, because we want to keep the world as we saw it, because we do not want to accept that the world change, we do not want to accept that the world is not as I want it to be and that this implies a duel. If I dare to release the contents of a dream cup, perhaps, I may find myself on the best route to discover the truth.

Of course it is hard to let go of what I do not have, of course it is hard to break free and start thinking about what’s next. Of course, it is the worst challenge of being a healthy adult, and yet there is no other way. This is courage, this is the strength of maturity, knowing that I can face what happens to me, that I can even face the idea that I will never, ever, ever be. Maybe I can, on the way to understand the transitory of all my links, also accept some of the things that are harder to accept; that I am not infinite, that there is a time for my passage through this place and through this space. And, above all, what should I do today, the things that I am leaving aside.

I think that what hurts us the most when a loved one dies is what we did not tell him, it is what we do not approach him, it is what he did not tell us. It is those pending things that hurt us with the death of those dear ones. Well it would be to begin to realize that this is the time, maybe tomorrow you’re not, maybe tomorrow I will not be. Today is the day to call you and tell you what I feel.

The death of a loved one, whatever the link, is the most painful experience a person can experience. All life, as a whole, it hurts. Our body hurts, our identity and thoughts hurt us, society hurts us and our relationship with it hurts the pain of family and friends. Our heart and soul hurts, the past hurts, the present hurts, and, especially, the future hurts.