Awakening: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, Lech Lecha & Responsibility

Avram the righteous & Avraham the blameless?

Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Lech Lecha, we pray our Intention/Kavannah for our practice of learning Torah, Mussar and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We are engaging in an act of self-care, a radical one, where we commit to learn and practice together for at least 30 minutes once a week to strengthen our middot and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem.

We use the first Kavannah/Intention listed below for today’s learning and practice:

An encounter with the Torah text through the lens of Mussar Mindfulness requires that we practice mindfulness of how we are triggered by the text, what arises in us from the text, what we are clinging to, expectations, desires, etc.

I am also dealing with the P’shat of the text (not Midrashim/Aggadot/Legends of the Torah). I would venture to say that many of our Midrashim are from authors who could or would not accept the text and the experience with the text as it was. They had to imagine it differently in order to live with the Torah, its demands, and what God expected of them/us and how God seemed to have behaved in the text.

DEFINITION of RESPONSIBILITY:

Responsibility: Awareness of consequences of one’s actions and a commitment to bearing the burden of the other, and therefore, not causing harm to others. A lack of responsibility: not seeing the consequences of their behavior.

Our practice is that we start with Kavod/Honor toward Avram, our ancestor and father to many nations, including our own Jewish nation. We honor and respect that even though the Torah text does not share with us WHY Avram was selected to be the father of many nations and to inherit the land of Canaan as an eternal heritage to our people, Avram was a man of emulation and many balanced, healthy middot: such as courage, strength, alacrity, and sometimes humility, faith, fear/awe known as Yirah, and trust. To meet our ancestor, Avram, where he is in the text, we also encounter a man, an uncle, a husband, and a citizen who was not balanced in the middah of responsibility sometimes, particularly to those family members closest to him. There are many stories within our one parasha/portion, Lech Lecha, however, for today’s lesson, we will focus on the famine that occurs in Canaan and surrounding lands (the external unpleasant stimulus), and how that leads to Avram and family traveling to Egypt and its aftermath.

It is in the unexpected aftermath of traveling to Egypt, who was not suffering from famine because of its river Nile, in order to survive the famine in Canaan that Avram faces what we call in Mussar a Bechira Point. Avram receives excessive wealth from Paro in Egypt. He is sent out of Egypt with so much wealth in the form of gold, silver, sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves, and camels (verse: 12:16 and 13:2) that he is faced with the challenge of new acquisition and wealth management. And like so many ancestors after Avram, like the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe later in the Torah, Avram will choose land and wealth over dwelling with family in harmony. The Bechira Point for Avram is either: A) (responsibility) remain on the land Lot, his orphaned nephew, and manage to find a way to dwell together and remain close in proximity and heart; or B) (greed; lack of responsibility) separate from Lot so that neither one of them has to actually face conflict and find a solution together.

We will begin to notice over time in our Torah that Avram/Avraham is a man who will have too much Humility/Anavah in the form of not taking up enough space responsibly with his closest family members. It will manifest as avoidance of conflict: first with Sarai/Paro; then with Lot; then with Sarai again; then with Hagar/Sarai; then with Yishmael/Hagar/Sarai; then with Yitzhak. With God’s help, we will address these other cases in the future.

We remind ourselves that balanced responsibility as a middah in Mussar is one of attempting to foresee the consequences of one’s behavior, and two, to bear the burden of the other. Avram did not foresee the consequences of allowing Lot, his orphaned nephew, to venture off on his own in an unknown land without family (where he will eventually be kidnapped in an act of war), and he do not bear the burden of holding Lot close and figuring out a solution to their shared conflict of the land unable to bear their excessive wealth. What happens instead is that Lot separates from Avram because Avram commands that Lot separate from him (because Avram is the Patriarch, Lot could not question or negotiate Avram’s “request”): see verses/pasukim: https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.13.6?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en and https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.13.9?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.

כי היה רכושם רב. ודבר זה גרם מריבה. כי היה רכושם רב “for their possessions were so vast.” The point the Torah is making is, contrary to what could be expected, that poverty leads to strife about sharing the little one owns, in this instance, it is excessive wealth that led to strife.

Chizkuni: https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.13.8?lang=bi&aliyot=0&p2=Chizkuni%2C_Genesis.13.6.2&lang2=bi&w2=all&lang3=en

Two useful Mussar practices at this point in our learning are: 1) the mitzvah of giving Avram the benefit of the doubt with compassion; and 2) a contemplation, where we put our feet in Avram’s shoes and attempt to understand that he perhaps lacked the skills to negotiate the conflict with Lot and his herdsmen. We honor that we are reacting, perhaps, to Avram’s separation from Lot and prioritizing wealth and land over remaining physically close to family. I want to remind the reader that Avram returns from Egypt to Canaan, which just survived a famine and most likely was in deep poverty with many who had perished, with a massive amount of wealth that actually takes up a large amount of land space of other people’s land. Avram would eventually run into possible conflict with his neighbors given his land use. Perhaps two conflicts at once was too much to bear: 1) with Lot’s herdsmen; and 2) negotiating land-use with non-tribal-family members (the natives to the land). It may have proven easier to command that Lot travel to other land. It may have been responsible to the other people on the land with whom Avram was sharing the land. Responsibility is situational and complicated. We practice to witness and recognize what we can in our text, to investigate all angles if possible, and to respond with nurturing compassion to as many as we can.

We also honor that so many of our Midrashim (legends passed down to us from our ancestors that respond to the stories in the Torah) also had this conflict with Avram’s behavior. So often when they felt that an ancestor’s behavior was inappropriate, their practice was to demonize the other party; for example, in our case, they found an excuse/reason for Avram’s behavior: some claim that Lot started to deviate from Avram’s path and practices and that Lot had moved his herd onto other people’s “private” land (which had caused conflict for Avram as the Patriarch).

Today, with our Mussar Mindfulness practice of integrating the wisdom of Mussar from Judaism and Mindfulness from the Dharma of Insight/Theravada/Vipassana Buddhism, we do not need to vilify Lot to find an excuse for Avram’s behavior. We can hold both: that Avram was both righteous AND lacked balanced responsibility toward Lot. We can practice AND. We can practice insight and awareness into Avram’s situation and try to see things from his perspective, all the while honoring Lot that it must have been challenging to say the least to leave your adopted father, Avram, and migrate new lands and peoples, only to be caught in a war among kings and kidnapped later.

We practice and ask ourselves:

  • Can we bear the burden of Avram?
  • Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
  • What can Avram and the Torah teach us?
  • And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors, like Avram, so that we can use this wisdom in our own moments of conflict with family members?

Podcast Audio Below:

Awakening Behar: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 33rd Sitting Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar

The Institute for Holiness’ weekly Awakening series on Torah Mussar Mindfulness. We encounter the weekly Torah portion from the lens of Mussar Mindfulness and practice guided mindfulness meditation together. Taking refuge in the Dharma and Torah, in God, and in community together. Q&A at the end; 51 minutes. All welcome.
  1. Awakening Behar: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 33rd Sitting
  2. Awakening Emor: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 32nd Sitting
  3. Awakening Kedoshim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 31st Sitting
  4. Awakening Acharei Mot: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 30th Sitting
  5. Awakening Pesach: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 29th Sitting
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