D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
I spent a lifetime in hell and it only took me twelve steps to get to heaven.
The 12-Steps were originally developed as an aid to overcoming an addiction to alcohol. The program’s success however, influenced the formation of additional groups supporting those in recovery from other addictive disorders. The language of the steps emphasizes the presence of God – often explained as the God of our understanding or a Higher Power. These diverse perceptions of God allow for a wide range of interpretations and religious beliefs.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, arrives “ba-makom.” Often translated as place, makom is also another name for God. But before we have a chance to wonder about the relevance of this name, the text informs us that it is night. Resting his head on a stone Jacob goes to sleep. In this peaceful makom he dreams of angels going up and down a ladder extending from the earth all the way up to heaven. In the dream God informs Jacob that he and his descendants will be given the ground on which he is lying. God then promises to always protect and to always be with Jacob. When he wakes up Jacob proclaims אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָֽעְתִּי, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it.”
Rabbi Avraham Zalmans notes how a person’s qualities resemble a ladder. Just as a ladder needs steps and a high place on which to lean, so too people require the help of steps and a high makom, a God of our understanding on which to lean. The steps function as a barrier to prevent one from sin. In addition, the vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder demonstrates that the path towards God is not a straight line. Descending – or falling -- is normal.
As perhaps the Torah’s first “12-Stepper,” Jacob makes a decision to turn his will over to the God of his understanding. Jacob the grifter declares his yearning for a high place against which to lean. After a lifetime living in a hell of his own making, it only took Jacob 12 steps to get to heaven.
All in good time, all in God time
Being patient is sometimes challenging. It can be inconvenient to have to wait for something we really want. All that waiting can also leave us with too much time to think, causing us to be anxious and worried. But as the old Chinese proverb goes, one moment of patience can ward off disaster while one moment of impatience can ruin a while life.
In this week’s Torah portion Vayera, Abraham and Sarah are visited by three angels who announce that Sarah will soon give birth to a son. When Sarah hears this news she laughs—in part because it would seem her age would prevent her from having a child, and in part perhaps because she has lost faith and patience in God’s continual promise of an heir. Since our first encounter with Abraham in last week’s portion when God tells him he will become a great nation there has been a presumption that Abraham and Sarah will soon become parents. As we move into this week’s portion that promise has yet to materialize despite God’s various pronouncements.
The birth of an heir is further delayed as the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as Abraham and Sarah’s troubling encounter with King Avimelech, unfold. It is only after these incidents that וַֽיהוָֹה פָּקַד אֶת־שָׂרָה, God takes note of Sarah at which time she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac.
Life often unfolds in ways we don’t expect and we tend to make plans while God laughs. In Vayera, it is an anxious Sarah who laughs-- anxious for God’s promise to transpire but often lacking the patience. Despite her lack of faith and patience the promise does eventually transpire– all in good time, all in God time.
Comparison is the shortest route to insanity.
According to social comparison theory, people judge themselves by comparing their abilities and opinions with others around them. In other words, we establish our personal self-worth based on how we stack up against others. While it’s normal to wonder how we measure up to other people, and while comparing ourselves to others is part of human nature and can provide one with inspiration, these comparisons can also set off feelings of inadequacy and failure.
In this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha we are introduced to Abraham and Sarah whose travels at God’s urging take them from Haran to Canaan. After God asserts on several occasions how Canaan will be given to Abraham and his offspring, Abraham questions God’s declaration. What’s the point asks Abraham, of bestowing on me this land when I have no offspring? God assures Abraham he will have an heir but Sarah in the meantime hatches a plan of her own. If I can’t give Abraham a child she ponders, perhaps my maidservant Hagar can do just that by becoming Abraham’s concubine.
The plan works but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Not having thought through the implications of her plan Sarah is not, to say the least, overjoyed at Hagar’s pregnancy. Feeling insecure and jealous, וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי וַתִּבְרַח מִפָּנֶֽיהָ, Sarah lashes out against Hagar and Hagar runs away.
In comparing herself to Hagar, Sarah finds herself lacking which leads her to act unreasonably towards Hagar. Comparison after all, is the shortest route to insanity.
12-Step Torah -- Parashat Noach
It’s not the experience of today that drives people mad—it’s the remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday and the dread of what tomorrow may bring.
Sometimes when we behave badly, especially when it negatively impacts other people, it’s difficult to let go of the guilt and self-loathing. It’s also difficult to move forward when we judge ourselves so harshly and do not take steps towards making amends. We can’t change the past but we can transform the present and make a positive impact on the future. As the renowned self-help guru Wayne Dyer once said: …. you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.
In this week’s Torah portion Noach, having witnessed the rampant evil and corruption in the world, God regrets creating man. God then determines that except for a select few --Noah, his family and two of each animal-- the world and everything in it should be destroyed.
While the text is clear that נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו , that Noah was considered to be the most righteous of his generation (Gen. 6:9), commentators have puzzled over what exactly this means. Would Noah not have been considered righteous had he lived at a different time? In addition, can someone who was silently obedient to God despite knowing the devastation that was to come, be considered righteous?
Upon emerging from the ark and witnessing this devastation, Noah plants a vineyard וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָֽהֳלֹֽה, and he drank of the wine and became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent (Gen. 9:21). Did the devastation he witnessed cause Noah to experience remorse for not standing up to God when he had the chance? Did that remorse lead Noah to get drunk and escape contemplating what the future might look like in such a shattered world? Whatever the real answer, Noah is remembered not just as the most righteous of his generation, but the first person in the Torah to get drunk.
It’s not the experience of today that drives people mad—-It’s the remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday and the dread of what tomorrow may bring.
The road to resentment is paved with expectation.
When we expect something from another person it’s an all or nothing proposition. When our expectations are dashed we can begin to feel resentful, hurt, or even angry. But, if we instead hope or want someone to do what we ask, our response is likely to be less extreme when what we hoped for or asked for doesn’t happen.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, God creates man and woman on the sixth day. That man and woman, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying God when they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are then introduced to their two sons, Cain, a farmer and Abel, a shepherd. The first thing we learn about Cain and Abel is that while each brings an offering to God, God only notices Abel’s offering. Feeling snubbed וַיִּחַר לְקַיִן מְאֹד וַֽיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָֽיו, Cain became angry and his face fell (Gen. 4:5). If God doesn’t notice Cain’s offering, God does notice his anger and disappointment and tries to counsel Cain. But Cain’s anger prevails and in a fit of jealous rage he murders his brother Abel.
Some commentators have observed that Cain and Abel made an offering as a way to show gratitude to God. But in showing gratitude did Cain expect something in return from God? Did he expect God to notice him in the same way he noticed his brother? The road to resentment --and in this case murder, is paved with expectation.