Avraham: balanced toward the stranger; unbalanced toward family
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Vayera (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.18.2?lang=bi&aliyot=0), we pray our Intention/Kavannah for our practice of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We engage in an act of self-care, a radical one, where we commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
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 ancestors 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.
I want to honor as we move into Vayera how difficult this parasha/portion can be for many of us; when you really go into it and read it as the text of your ancestor sharing with you, what the Almighty wants you to learn, we recognize and honor how unpleasant and painful this encounter with the text, with the Torah, can be. So, if you have this experience: recognize it; allow it and then over time and practice together, we will investigate it and move to either some form of non-identification or actual more healthy probably at this point would be to move to nurture ourselves.
Putting your hand on your heart: as with the previous Torah portions, there can be challenging stories of our ancestors, and we face our own clinging to wishing that their behavior was different. Struggling with that, even struggling with God’s behavior in the text, all that it comes with us…it’s not as if it goes away, so we honor that we carry this history with us that we attempt to be aware of it and to honor it. And honor here means acceptance and perhaps an embracing: an allowing a full range of embodied experience.
So, we move into Vayera: there are many stories in here that we could focus on, but I’m going to encounter Avraham Avinu fully, our beloved father of many nations and the father of the Jewish people. He obviously displays at times real balance in the middah of Enthusiasm and let us remind ourselves what that actually means in Mussar. In order to be balanced in Zeirizut/Enthusiasm is to not only have the kind of get-up-and-go like energy to start a project, whatever it might be, or to do the mitzvah/commandment but ALSO to have the follow-through to finish the project or mitzvah to completion. A mitzvah is not fulfilled unless we complete it, no matter how good our intentions are. And this is difficult for many of us: we can have the passion to start something, but not the follow-through to the actual completion.
Our beloved ancestor, Avraham, did not have this issue. He had the get-up-and-go and the follow-through, so much so that it turned into imbalanced when involving his family members. And the fine-tuned delicate dance of Mussar practice is the astute awareness that our Alacrity can become unbalanced when it is not balanced with proper Humility and Responsibility. Let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s encounter our ancestor Avraham when he has balanced Enthusiasm, Humility, and Responsibility: he honors and welcomes the three men/angels who come to visit him at the height of the sun and heat of the day (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.18.2?lang=bi&aliyot=0).
Rashi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashi), the master classic rabbinic commentator from France, died 1105, shares with us that Avraham was just circumcised (given that he just did circumcise himself at the end of last week’s Torah portion), he was healing from this painful surgery, and despite this pain that could have potentially isolated him, he arose and rushed to welcome these strangers to tarry and enjoy a feast that his household would labor over quickly to provide.
Rashi: וירא אליו AND THE LORD APPEARED UNTO HIM to visit the sick man. R. Hama the son of Hanina said: it was the third day after his circumcision and the Holy One, blessed be He, came and enquired after the state of his health (Bava Metzia 86b)
We want to recognize and honor where we witness where Avraham can be a role model for us in his middot of Enthusiasm, Humility, and Responsibility, particularly to the stranger: that he bears the burden of them on a hot day in the desert, even after surgery.
And it is here in Vayera the juxtaposition manifests again and we witness the imbalance: he is hyper-alert of bearing the burden of the other when that other is a stranger; but not so when that other is under his own tent, a member of his household or extended family. And this imbalance is so common: how many of us know someone, perhaps even ourselves, who finds it much easier to do acts of loving-kindness, for example, to the stranger than to their spouse or ex-spouse or partner, or to their children or their parents or siblings?!
You may recall that we witnessed this internal conflict, this Bechira Point, last week when Avram chose his new wealth management (cattle and land use) over remaining physically close to his orphaned nephew, Lot (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.13.8?ven=The_Rashi_chumash_by_Rabbi_Shraga_Silverstein&lang=en&with=all&lang2=en). We are witnessing an internal conflict in Avraham, perhaps low self-esteem called too much Humility/Anavah in Mussar, in that he does not negotiate a conflict of needs with family as well as he can, for example, stand up to the Almighty. He argued for the safety and saving of a whole village, Sodom, on account of 10 righteous people (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.18.23?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en), yet he does not extend this taking up of the proper amount of space and protest against his wife, Sarah, when she commands him to banish his first-born son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.21.10?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en).
And allow yourself right now to feel this discomfort, this unpleasantness, if it is there for you. Extend this awareness and acceptance to when God commands Avraham to sacrifice his other son, Yitzhak. One son, he permitted the banishment of through too much Humility, through passivity and submission, and now he will arise first thing in the morning to fulfill the command to murder, called Divine-sanctioned sacrificial offering, of his second son, a sign of unbalanced Yirah (fear/awe of God).
And this is what I was referring to at the beginning of our lesson that this may be arguably the most trying and unpleasant story and history received from our tradition. We cling and want Avraham to protest over this mandate. Scream! If you want to save a whole village steeped in sin over 10 righteous people, then why don’t you scream to save an innocent child, your son?! Even say in the soft, still voice: No, this is wrong; I will not sacrifice my son. But no. Nothing. Silence.
Like Noach before building the ark, both men with their unbalanced Zeirizut and Yirah (Fear/Awe of God), will turn in silence, will begin to engage in the mitzvah, of what is commanded of them, with no space between the match and fuse, with no pause-breathe-stop-consider. And this time, the silence has repercussions on individuals and their familial relationships.
We sit with the solace that perhaps the repercussions are less violent and global this parasha than earlier with Noach when all that breathed and was flesh was killed and taken by God. Perhaps we are witness to a cosmic move toward greater Humility and Responsibility.
So, we as the descendants of these stories and history have to live with that silence and God is teaching us to very carefully notice, to be mindful of, of the consequences of behavior, one that is only reflected in the silence: when Ishmael is banished by his father, Avraham, they will never speak again. When Yitzhak is almost sacrificed, Avraham heads back down that mountain alone and in ways he cannot even imagine yet. God, Yitzhak, and Sarah never speak to Avraham again. There is a breach. Indeed, Sarah may be the one who was sacrificed in the end (https://www.sefaria.org/Midrash_Tanchuma%2C_Vayera.23.5?lang=en).
In our practice to bear the burden of our ancestors, to learn from them and the text, we need to recognize that in that silence is where our practice needs to be: to recognize and to allow when we yearn for the received tradition to be different, for our ancestors’ behavior to have been better. This aversion, this clinging to something other than what is reflects more about us in the here and now than it does about the Torah or our ancestors.
If we desire to live in alignment with our Torah values, to be righteous and blameless like Noach and Avraham had been called at one point in their lives, then our practice and work are to take up our proper amount of space with balanced responsibility and enthusiasm in relationship with both the stranger and our family members.
Our practice is to not perpetuate this intergenerational trauma where when we say that, “I’ve hurried and not delayed to keep your commandments, God,” as we read in Tehillim/Psalm (https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.119.60?lang=en), that we do so while still being aware of the other, honoring the other’s needs, and being responsible to them. And in no way should we be hurrying and not delaying to keep God’s commandments while we potentially cause harm and suffering to others.
Our practice is to apply a version of the Serenity Prayer to our encounter and reaction to the text: to know what we can change and act on it with balanced enthusiasm, responsibility and humility; to acknowledge and accept what we cannot change; to gain the wisdom over time to know the difference; and to apply this gained wisdom so that we do not react with aversion, denial, greed or delusion toward the text or tradition. With practice, we move to a spaciousness to be able to really honor what we can learn from our ancestors’ behavior and from the text. We can apply the lessons in our own life.
We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this. We rely on your donations called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism, so please do give what you can to support these teachings. On behalf of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar, I thank you for your donations.
We also accept sponsorships for our weekly teaching and sitting that are in honor of someone or in memory of someone, may their memory be for a blessing. Sponsorships are $50 to sponsor one day of teaching and we include your honoree or deceased in the announcements and teaching so that we may lift up their souls and merit our practice together to make this a better world.
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Bear the burden of everything that we carry and learn and of others to extend compassion and less judgment to enter these beautiful lessons. You have been sitting in practicing with me long enough now in our fourth week, as we moved from Bereishit to Vayera, that you are ready to take on two foundational Mussar practices:
- 1) bring awareness to your kavanah/intention in the morning, to bring God’s good to others, to allow and encourage the embodied felt sense of balanced enthusiasm to run through the body;
- while on the same day, 2) write for 5 minutes in what is called a Cheshbon Hanefesh (Accounting of the Soul) journal or diary, usually before bed but need not be, bringing awareness and insight into your Words, Thoughts and Deeds as related how you behave toward Yourself, Others (strangers and family members) and God.
This is practiced with compassion, curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and nurturing yourself as you grow into more of a witness to yourself. God gave us as a gift the ability to witness ourselves in our behavior.
So, I leave you with this closing: Dr. James DiNicolantonio posted on his Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/p/CVc4nrig_ka/) the 8 most influential factors of our life:
We will be looking at our self-talk, our self-worth, and our habits as they relate to our family and to others, as you will witness over time in your Cheshbon Hanefesh journal. Thank you again for your practice: honor God, honor the Torah and Dharma, honor your ancestors, honor yourself and your practice, honor your community.
Shalom Shalom Shalom
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors 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 Avraham and Sarah, so that we can use this wisdom in our own moments of conflict with family members?
Podcast Audio Below:
Awakening Nitzavim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 52nd Sitting – Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar
We accept sponsorships for our weekly teaching and sitting that are in honor of someone or in memory of someone, may their memory be for a blessing. Sponsorships are $50 to sponsor one day of teaching and we include your honoree or deceased in the announcements and teaching so that we may lift up their souls and merit our practice together to make this a better world.
We also rely on your donations to offer these teachings and sitting. This donation is called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism. Please donate at PayPal @kehilatmussar or follow the link: https://www.paypal.me/kehilatmussar
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