Saturday, November 23, 2013

Joseph or Judah: which way should we face? / Parshat Miketz

The recent Pew Research Study on American Jews has once again evoked fear, despair, and hand wringing in many quarters of the liberal Jewish community. Here are some of the highlights—both attitudinal and behavioral—taken directly from the Pew website:

·      The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.
·      The number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.
·      Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.
·      Two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

The alarm bells paraphrase the immortal words uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West: “We’re shrinking! We’re shrinking!” Will liberal Judaism disappear through assimilation? Is this the end of us?

Miketz means “at the end,” referring to the end of Joseph’s two-year hitch in Pharaoh’s one-star dungeon. The notion of “the end”—be it the ominous specter the Pew Report holds forth to some, or the conclusion of Joseph’s time in prison—evokes another question about ends: What end do we have in mind when we choose how we will live our Jewish lives— in our own heads and hearts, in our homes, and out in the community?

Pondering Joseph’s scheming efforts to test his brothers, who have come down to Egypt in search of food during a famine in Eretz Yisrael: What end does Joseph have in mind? His brother Judah’s straightforward behavior and response provide a sharp contrast. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his commentary on Parshat Miketz in Shemot HaRe’iyah, compares the brothers. Judah responds to present and pressing reality because for him, it’s all about survival; the Jewish people must live apart from other nations in order to preserve their heritage. Joseph, in contrast, focuses on a future messianic goal when, nations will walk by Your light (Isaiah 60:3). Joseph therefore concerns himself with the greater world and the spiritual elevation of all people, not only Israel.

Let’s explore this a bit more. Consider Judah, the pragmatist and isolationist: He is focused on his family and the internal discord caused by a bratty younger brother, Joseph, who sows seeds of jealousy. When his brothers propose killing Joseph, Judah convinces them to sell him to a traveling caravan of merchants and bring home his blood-soaked cloak to convince their father Jacob that Joseph is gone, once and for all (Genesis chapter 37). Judah seeks equilibrium in the family, but he does not seek goodness or righteousness, either for his family or anyone beyond the clan. His dealings with Tamar (chapter 38) are honest and forthright, but again his focus is to resolve conflict within the clan. In Parshat Miketz, confronted by Joseph’s scheme, Judah’s focus is on holding the family together. He convinces Jacob that Benjamin must be permitted to travel to Egypt to satisfy the needs of the Egyptian Prime Minister, or the family will starve (43:8-9). Once Joseph reveals himself, Judah’s focus turns to placating Joseph.

When Judah and his brothers reentered the house of Joseph, who was still there they threw themselves on the ground before him. Joseph said to them, “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me practices divination?” Judah replied, “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:14-16)

Joseph sees the world, and his place in it, differently. He lives among the Egyptians. He dedicates his life energies to seeing that they survive the famine. He settles his family in Goshen where they can live together but are not wholly isolated from the Egyptians. The Rabbis noted that Psalm 81:6 spells Joseph’s names with an additional hey: יהוסף rather than יוסף. The Sages of the Talmud (Sotah 36b) tell us that the angel Gabriel added a hey to Joseph’s name, a letter from God’s name, and midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 12:9) explains that the additional hey enables Joseph to understand each nation’s language and appreciate their spiritual potential.

In short: Judah is able to see only what is. Joseph is able to see potential. Judah focuses inward on preservation. Joseph focuses outward on possibility.

The seeming choice of where to invest our energy and effort is for many a perennial dilemma. If we do not attend to the present and effectively pass down our traditions to the next generation, how many next generations will there be? That is the fear buttressed by the results of the Pew Study. Yet if we live isolated, insular lives, how can we fulfill our purpose and have a positive impact on the world beyond our own communal borders? What difference does it make that Israel exists, if we exist only for ourselves?

Perhaps Hillel put it best, and note that he uttered these words more than 2,000 years ago long before the Pew Study was issued:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when? (BT Pirke Avot 1:14)

The tension between self-preservation motivated insularity and assimilation-risking openness is with us in every generation. It always has been. The trick—and truly it is a magical dance—is to maintain a balance between the two. If we do not preserve our traditions and identity, we cannot pass our heritage and values to our children, let alone contribute to the world. If we have no positive impact on the world outside our own communal borders, then we exist selfishly for ourselves alone. There is no magic formula, no magic wand, and there are no guarantees. But one thing is certain: We need to keep the ends—both Joseph’s and Judah’s—in mind. If we raise our children in an environment of joyous and meaningful Judaism, we can accomplish both ends. No guarantees, of course, but what in life is certain save death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin noted. But take heart: a joyous, meaningful Jewish life will appealingly convey tradition to future generations, and facilitate our sharing the wisdom of our tradition with the world. And there’s a bonus: it will be religiously and spiritually satisfying to us. So it’s a win-win-win. Please keep Hillel’s wisdom in mind: If not now, when?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 18, 2013

So many questions! / Parshat Vayeshev

Question: What did you have for breakfast this morning? Did you choose what you had? If someone else determined the menu, did you decide which items on your plate you would eat, and how much of each you would consume? Are you free to make that choice?

This week’s parashah, Vayeshev, raises the thorny question of free will. The descendants of Abraham—Jacob and his family—are living in the Land. Their families, flocks and herds are thriving. All is well, or at least going well enough, until Joseph’s brothers, overcome with jealousy, in an act of sinat chinam (senseless hatred), sell him to a traveling band of merchants, who take Joseph down into Egypt. We know what will happen there, and not just because we’ve read the book so many times, but because Torah already told us. Even before Abraham and God contract the covenant of circumcision, God promises Abraham, who is still Abram at this point, progeny too numerous to count and the Land of Israel. But then God announces:

Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. (Genesis 15:13-14)

Slavery in Egypt was in the cards before Abram became Abraham, before the covenant of circumcision, before Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were born.

Torah is clearly telling us that God has a hand in sending Israel down into slavery as much as bringing them up out of bondage. Joseph confirms this when, after revealing his identity to his brothers and seeing the raw fear of revenge in their eyes, he assures them:

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4)

God’s hand is not subtle in the accounts of Genesis. The three men who visit Abraham in his tent to announce God’s intention for Sarah to bear a son are termed anashim (“people” - Genesis 17:2), but the story opens, Adonai appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre… (Genesis 18:1). The night before meeting his brother Esau, Jacob wrestles with an ish (“man” - singular of anashim). Jacob names the site of the wrestling match Peniel because “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:31). In Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph encounters an ish (“man”), who appears out of nowhere. Like the three who visited Abraham and the one who wrestled Jacob, this man has no name. Commentaries too numerous to count presume him to be an angel sent to direct Joseph to his brothers, so that the rest of the drama—his brothers’ scheme to sell him and tell their father Joseph was dead, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, his subsequent descent into the dungeon, and his eventual rise to the office of prime minister of Egypt—would play out according to “God’s plan.”

Hashgachah is the notion that God exerts providential control over the events of our lives. It runs throughout Genesis and, indeed, throughout Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. It’s not that the Torah’s writers were disciples of B.F. Skinner, the MIT psychologist famous for Radical Behaviorism. Skinner was a hard determinist; he believed we do not have genuine free will, but only the illusion of free will. In contrast to Torah, Skinner was a devout atheist who believed our “decisions” and behavior are entirely the product of operant conditioning. Torah however, subscribes to what we might call “limited free will”—God pulls big strings and manipulates major events, but people choose their own paths in life within those parameters, and our physical and situational constraints. Most especially, people have moral free will.

Neurobiologists, psychologists, and philosophers have long been locked in fierce debate about free will: does it exist or is it an illusion? The debate rages within each field, and each field has its own questions and modes of exploration. Neurologists want to know if decisions are made at the level of the conscious mind, or prior to that, the result of chemical interactions and synaptic firings that our minds do not control. Psychologists debate causality and determinism, which are not the same. Philosophers jump into the fray debating metaphysical libertarianism and hard determinism. But in the end “free will” and “determinism” are not precisely defined terms, lending even greater complexity to the conversation. All agree that minimally, we humans believe ourselves to have free choice, and whether or not that is an illusion we would do well to recognize the factors that influence our decision-making.

Neurobiologists, psychologists, and philosophers, even those not enthusiastic about the claim for free will, certainly live as though they have it. Or is it that they appear to live as if they had it? Or can’t I help but see it that way? Without free will, we have enormous problems claiming that people bear moral responsibility for their actions. We also run the risk of a crisis of meaning: If I am not in control of my own life, what meaning can it have for me?

Pirke Avot tells us that R. Akiba cryptically taught: “All is foreseen but free will is given.” (Pirke Avot 3:19) How can both of these ideas operate in the same universe?

I want to suggest a way out of this conundrum from the perspective of Process Relational Theology.

From the intellectual and theological vantage point of Process Relational Theology the world is in God, and God is in everything in the world. As the Rabbis express it through midrash: Ha-kadosh barukh hu m’komo shel olam, v’ein olamo m’komo / God is the dwelling place of the world, but the world is not God’s dwelling place (Bereishit Rabbah 68:9, commenting on Psalm 90:1).  God permeates and saturates every part of the natural universe. God is as near and as intimate as our breath, our cells, the genes that animate us, the divine spark in each of us. God includes the sum total of all of our experiences, and the experiences of the entire universe. At the same time, God is also beyond the universe, but from this theological perspective, God is not a being with will and agency, as our ancestors’ imagined God to be. God encompasses the entire universe, experiences all that we experience. God is continuously changing and becoming because the universe is always in flux, always changing—and because we are changing continuously.

How does this understanding of God and the universe help us understand R. Akiba’s claim that, “All is foreseen but free will is given”? God, who encompasses the entire universe, also encompasses every possibility for the future. This does not abridge my ability to make a free decision. We all recognize that physical realities and emotional/social commitments limit our choices—but they do not eclipse them. “All is foreseen” in the sense that the universe includes all possibilities, and “free will is given” in the sense that we do have options and we do make deliberate choices.

Our biblical ancestors, looking backward, saw a pattern in the events they experienced; they “connected the dots” with a narrative line that featured hashgachah (divine providence) and included a forward-looking trajectory because they found comfort in the idea that there is a powerful God who is in control and who oversees the universe. The man whom Joseph encountered that day is an expression of this. Joseph’s assurance to his brothers that all that had unfolded was God’s pre-ordained plan is also an expression of this. Yet with all that, we shouldn’t lose sight of all the decisions Joseph made freely that propelled him from the dungeon to the throne room. Joseph’s story warns us of a danger hiding behind hashgachah (divine providence)—it’s easy to divest of responsibility and say everything is God’s will. Joseph doesn’t do that and nor should we.

So…what will you choose to have for breakfast tomorrow?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 11, 2013

Family reunion / Vayishlach

Do you think Jacob and Esau had t-shirts printed up to commemorate their family reunion? If they had, what would they say? Would Jacob’s t-shirt say, “Youngest rule; firstborn drool”? Would Esau’s t-shirt say, “Dad liked me best”? Would the Rabbis have made one for Jacob that said, ““I’m the good one”?

The twin brothers’ struggles throughout life center on the very material aspects of Jacob’s inheritance: who will get the extra portion due the firstborn? Who will thereby carry the mantle of the family and the covenant of God? Deceit and guile have been the hallmarks of their relationship; Jacob’s deceit and guile, that is. It is interesting, therefore, that the venue for the reunion is not a country club, lodge, or even a tent, but in the land of Seir in the country of Edom, out in the open, a place we might associate with vulnerability but more importantly honesty. You cannot hide much out in the open.

Jacob leaves Eretz Yisrael with nothing, but he does not return from Haran empty-handed. Jacob did quite well in Haran; he amassed great wealth. Torah has already told us how he played in futures and schemed to breed Laban’s flocks and herds. 

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, and instructed them as follows: “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now. I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’” (Genesis 32:4-6)

The entrepreneurial spirit seems to be a family trait. Esau, too, is a wealth man:

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “we came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (32:7)

Four hundred retainers? Esau has not only wealth but also great power. He has his own army. Not surprisingly, Esau views Jacob’s attempt to propitiate him with 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses (32:16-16) as a nice gesture, but assures Jacob, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours." (32:9) Only after Jacob pressures Esau to accept his gift does Esau relent. Which brother seems to be the one more attached to material wealth?

From Torah’s account, it is difficult to argue that Esau is all about material wealth and Jacob is all about the spirit, but that is precisely what the Rabbis attempt to do. They go to great lengths to paint Esau a crude and boorish man who seeks immediate gratification and is wholly unsuited to carry the covenant forward. In the rabbinic imagination Esau is the symbol, the stand-in for Rome and is said to have all the worst characteristics of the corrupt, pagan empire and its notorious emperors.

The Torah, without benefit of rabbinic commentaries, does not describe Esau in such unflattering terms. He is attentive to his father’s needs, a loyal son who labors to bring food home to the family, who lives simply (a man of the earth), and who is willing to reunite with the brother who tried to cheat him out of everything, and who does not hold a grudge or desire revenge. He is a self-made man. It’s difficult to ignore all this, yet the Rabbis succeed to a large degree. They go so far as to tell us that the twins’ personalities, priorities, and proclivities were determined even prior to birth. While yet in the womb, before even tasting life in this world, Jacob looked forward to olam ha-ba (the world-to-come) and Esau sought nothing more than the material pleasures of life in this world. Seder Eliyahu Zuta tells us,

When Jacob and Esau were in their mother’s womb, Jacob said to Esau, “Esau, my brother our father has two of us, even as there are two worlds before us—this world and the world-to-come. In this world there is eating, drinking, and the give-and-take of business. But with regard to all such activities, the world-to-come is quite different. If it be your wish, you take this world, and I will take the world-to-come.” Thus it came about that Esau took this world as his portion, and Jacob took the world-to-come as his.

It seems important to note here that Jacob presents this world and the world-to-come as an either/or decision and stakes his definitive claim on olam ha-ba, as if only one of them could prize the world-to-come, and seems to talk Esau into accepting this world alone. It is also important to note that Esau never responds. Jacob frames the choice, decides who gets which portion, and locks Esau into a decision he does not really make. Ever the manipulator. This is not, of course, how the Rabbis intend us to read this midrash. They expect us to understand that Jacob is the righteous brother, the tzaddik, from conception. Esau from the get-go is, well, Esau as we have been schooled to think of him: rough, pagan, unsophisticated, undeserving.

As types, this is a useful dichotomy. It helps us broaden our view and reconsider our own priorities. When are we being Jacob? When are we being Esau?

But this dichotomy also becomes embroiled in the Rabbis’ own contradictions that appear to paper over the text of Torah with hypocrisy, and surprisingly this, too, teaches us something precious and valuable. Midrash Eliyahu Zuta continues:

Now when Jacob came back from Laban’s house and Esau saw that Jacob had wives, children, menservants and maidservants, livestock, and silver and gold, he said to him, “Jacob, my brother, did you not say to me that you would take the world-to-come as your portion and that I would take this world as mine? How, then, did you come to all this wealth—wives, children, money, menservants, and maidservants? Why do you, like me, make use of this world?” Jacob replied, “What few possessions I have are what the Holy One has given me for my use in this world as the need arises.” In that instant, weighing the matter in his mind, Esau said to himself: If the Holy One has given him so much of this world, even though it is not his portion, how much more and more will God give him of the world-to-come, which is his portion!” (Seder Eliyahu Zuta 19)

How easy it is for us to maintain a narrative about someone—their moral caliber, their motivations, their actions, their behavior—and then explain even contradictory evidence to fit the narrative. In the imagination of the Rabbis, Jacob chose olam ha-ba over this material world. He protests he has but “few possessions,” which it is God’s will that he own, and which are for “my use in this world as the need arises.” But Jacob is hardly living at subsistence levels. We have seen him conniving to breed Laban’s animals in order to amass great wealth, and in this week’s parashah, we see him using that wealth to manipulate his brother’s feelings toward him. Remember the impressive roster of animals Jacob sends on ahead to conciliate Esau?

The Rabbis’ insistence that Jacob is spiritually pure and righteous, and their inability to see that their own words contradict the text is more than midrash. Our brains are constructed to notice and lock onto patterns. In fact, brain scientists tell us that our brains are pattern recognition machines. This capacity is largely what has helped the human species progress as it is has. But there is also a down side to this marvelous and unconscious skill. As neuroscientists who study brain plasticity say, “What fires together wires together.” When we observe certain behaviors or events and associate them with our feelings about someone, future behaviors and events tend to confirm and reinforce those feelings. For the Rabbis, Jacob can be seen only as spiritually pure and righteous, just as Esau can be seen only as crude, materialistic, and lacking in spiritual sensitivity. Accordingly, Jacob’s great wealth not only failed to prove that he, like Esau, had a stake in the material world, but even “proved” to the Rabbis the opposite: Jacob only accepted what God ordained he should have. He didn’t really want it, but what could he do?

If we maintain a narrative fixed in our minds we run two risks: First, narratives usually come with value judgments and presumptions. With a fixed narrative wired securely in our minds, we have a strong tendency to see everything a person says or does through the lens of that narrative. The “good” can do no wrong; the “bad” can do no right. And that leads to the second risk: In the case of someone who has exhibited consistent behavior over a long period, we fail to see when the pattern (the behavior) changes. Inadvertently, the Rabbis warn us of these dangers.

I suppose there is a third danger. We all have narratives about ourselves that include who and what we are, what we are capable of, what our limitations are, and more. How often do we make a decision because “that’s the only option for me”—at least, according to the narrative?

We apply such narratives to ourselves, to others in our lives, and to groups and nations around the world. “You know what they’re like…” “The only thing they care about is…” If someone asked us, “Are you prejudiced?” we would reject the very suggestion, yet carrying such narratives (as we all do) is the basis of prejudice: pre-judging.

But good news! Our brains create the ideas that constitute our minds, and our brains are plastic: they can change. Here Dr. Normal Doidge, the author of The Mind that Changes Itself explains neuroplasticity and its the dramatic implications, and here you can hear Dr. Michael Merzenich’s TED Talk on re-wiring the brain and the implications of that. Applied neuroplasticity? Dr. Richard Davidson describes research on neuroplasticity and meditation here. And this barely scratches the surface. (You might wish to begin with this highly simplified illustration of neurpasticity.)

Our Sages were quite correct: we can do teshuvah, we can reshape our minds, and we can change in very significant ways. Perhaps Jacob’s t-shirt should read, “I’m a work in progress and I’m working on me.” Come to think of it, we could all wear that t-shirt.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Roll away the stone and take a plunge into the well / Parshat Vayeitzei

When was the last time you growled at one of your devices because a webpage was slow to load? Cell phones and texting give us immediate access to people and a corresponding expectation that even if we leave a voice mail or a text message we should receive a response soon. We now have same-day delivery and movies-on-demand. Technology has fostered lateral growth—we have a wider grasp of the material world and far more data at our fingertips—but depth growth cannot be accelerated; it continues to take time and effort.

That message comes through in this week’s parashah, Vayeitzei. How appropriate that it features a well whose precious, live-giving resource lies deep below the surface and is difficult to access. That which is precious and critically necessary for life needs to be carefully protected and preserved. That is why wells in the ancient Near East were often covered with enormous stones. 

On the day following Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ramp from earth to heaven, Torah provides some “comic relief.” Jacob comes upon a well covered with a stone; Torah makes a point of telling us it is large. We could have surmised as much. Shepherds from Haran have gathered around the well. They tend their three flocks and await the arrival of other shepherds because it will take many hands heaving and pushing in concert to slide the stone aside to water their flocks and herds. But no wait is necessary. Rachel arrives with her father’s flock and the shepherds identify her to Jacob as the daughter of Laban. Cue the romantic music; Jacob is instantaneously smitten. Now cue the hero theme music, because in true super-hero fashion,

Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. (Genesis 29:10-12)

Jacob rolls the stone away, starts crying, and tells her he is her cousin. (That’s a lot to assimilate on the first date.)

Kabbalists see all of Torah as a mystical allegory pointing to deep truths lying beneath the surface of what is apparent to us—what we would call the physical world as it is. We are inclined to call it “reality.” Not so, they tell us. There is a deeper reality to which Torah provides the keys. You just need to know how to read Torah to unlock its secrets. The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger) tells us,

This reality—the well in the field—is found in every thing and in every one of Israel. Every thing contains a life-giving point that sustains it. Even that which appears to be as neglected as a field has such a hidden point within it. The human mind is always able to know this intuitively. This is the three flocks of sheep, which stand for wisdom, understanding, and awareness. With wisdom and intellect a person understands this inwardness: within all things dwells “the power of the Creator, within the creation.”

Those of us schooled in Western, rational, scientific thinking might be inclined to think that this is all a lot of irrational, mystical nonsense. That which is real, science proclaims, can be observed and measured, right? While it is true that scientific research is based largely on observation and measurement of the empirical world, experimentation and reproducible results, not to mention having predictive power, much science has proceeded from ideas concerning that which is neither observable nor measurable at the time the ideas are promulgated, and today involves notions concerning phenomena that are inherently unobservable and immeasurable. In 1930, the great physicist Werner Heisenberg found this untenable. He said, “It seems necessary to demand that no concept enter a theory which has not been experimentally verified at least to the same degree of accuracy as the experiments to be explained by the theory.”[1] But his mentor, Neils Bohr could and did conceive a reality not readily apparent through observation and measurement: “The procedure of measurement has an essential influence on the conditions on which the very definition of the physical quantities in question rests.”[2] In time, Heisenberg came to appreciate that Bohrs had it right, and dropped his positivistic, anti-metaphysical approach to Quantum Mechanics. Erwin Schrodinger also found Bohr’s ideas, about the superposition of two states, difficult to digest. His thought experiment, which famously came to be called Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox, sought to debunk the ideas first proffered by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen concerning measurement and superposition of states. There is a point in time when the cat exists in an indeterminate state: neither dead nor alive (or, if you prefer, both dead and alive). What became clearer and clearer to physicists is that there is far more to the universe than they can observe and measure, because when they do they alter the very reality they seek to observe and measure. Physicists are engaged in metaphysics, and by “metaphysics” I do not mean anything involving the supernatural, but rather the traditional meaning of the term: the explanation of the fundamental nature of being and the world, including cosmology and teleology.  For science, we must always remain open to the notion that our understanding of the world—our apparent reality—is incomplete and future generations may refine, revise, or even build new models of the universe.

In their own way, Kabbalists and mystics have known this for a long time, though the metaphysical reality of which they speak is spiritual and emotional and goes to the very core of how we conceive the universe and experience our lives in it. And because it is metaphysics from the realm of religion, it has implications for how we live our lives. The S’fat Emet continues:

But “the stone was large on the mouth of the well.” When corporeality spreads forth, there is hiding; intellect is not always joined to deed. The answer to this lies in “were gathered there”—all one’s desires and every part of the body and its limbs have to be gathered together as one places oneself in God’s hands before each deed. Then “they would roll the stone.”

…The fact that in Jacob’s case Scripture says va-yageil (Genesis 29:10—Torah has no vowel points; this word can be read either as “he rolled” or “he revealed”) means that he found it from within himself… Therefore, “he revealed it” from within himself.

The notion that a spark of the divine resides in each of us—indeed in everything—is a foundational Kabbalist notion. S’fat Emet reminds us that most of us have not come to know our true selves nor reached our full potential. We rely overmuch on tools of measurement that observe only the surface, not what is beneath. Hence, When corporeality spreads forth, there is hiding; intellect is not always joined to deed.” When we understand the deeper truths of reality, we can unite every aspect of ourselves into one unified being in service of God—and our deeds will reflect the deeper truths we have learned rather than the shallow notions with which we began.

S’fat Emet is also saying more than this. He is saying that like Quantum physics, the metaphysical reality beneath our corporeal, physical experience is accessible, but first we must roll away the stone which is very “large”—and that takes great effort. We live in a world of immediate gratification and quick fixes. In the environment of expectations that engenders, S’fat Emet’s teaching comes as a sobering reminder: that which is truly worthwhile takes enormous effort. And effort requires time. Moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth and insight are not “on the surface” and simple to master. It takes enormous strength and effort to see the inner truth of what we are and of what we are capable. As S’fat Emet put it: “Within all things dwells ‘the power of the Creator, within the creation.’”

Lower your bucket into the well… slowly. The sparkling clear water you pull up has always been there, waiting for you to slow down and lower your bucket to pull it out.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, 1930.
[2] “Quantum Mechanics and Physical Reality,” Nature, 136; pp. 1025-1026.