It’s Never Too Late (Parashat Lech Lecha)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

It’s Never Too Late to Change

It may be surprising to some, but the vast majority of coaching clients I’ve worked with are in their sixties or seventies. Sometimes their life has taken an unexpected and dramatic turn. They come to me more or less in free-fall through economic or health related struggles. In other situations, they are facing down a more existential crisis–a realization that their life has stalled, and that they want to be doing something else, something more.

These folks and others like them share something in common with the central figure in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham. Now, reflecting back at what we know about the world’s major religions, Abraham’s importance cannot be understated. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism alike all trace their lineage to this figure.

Yet, Abraham doesn’t make his appearance in the Torah until he is 75 years old!

If ever there was an example of the axiom “it’s never too late to start!” this is it. Abraham embodies that truth. His covenant with G-d, one of–if not the–central themes to the remainder of the Torah, isn’t even formulated until he is 99.

But sure, this is the stuff of legend, right? In scripture, people live well past several centuries, women (including Abraham’s wife, Sarah) give birth very late in life, snakes talk, people get turned into pillars of salt, and all sorts of extraordinary things happen. How’s that supposed to help a modern day American already living beyond his life expectancy?

Fair enough.

This week’s Torah portion doesn’t just say “it’s never too late” and leave it at that though. No, the passage actually opens by describing some rough terrain ahead. Abraham is commanded to go from his land, his birthplace, and from his father’s house, to somewhere he has not even been shown yet.

Let’s sit with the weight of that challenge for a moment. Abraham is being called to a life that is beyond everything familiar to him in the seven and a half decades prior to our story–and there is no guarantee of a future for him if he answers that call.

Like lifelong workers replaced by automation, outsourcing, or new technical skills difficult to acquire, Abraham is being called into a future where the skills he has mastered may no longer be relevant. Like those of us whose hearts long for adventure, Abraham is being called to a place where he will be the stranger. Like those of us realizing the diets and lifestyle choices we were raised on will not support a healthy life for us, Abraham is being called to step out from the patterns and traditions that previously guided him.

And all along the way there are conflicts, plagues, deception, and drama. “It’s never too late to change your life” might as well mean “it’s never too late to willfully pursue stressful and potentially life-threatening situations.”

Despite both those apparent and unanticipated obstacles though, Abraham goes forward. Perhaps that foolhardiness informs why some Kabbalists and Chassids consider the intellect the father of man; Abraham literally goes forth from his intellect.

For Abraham, this decision has little to do with recklessness or even having a clear destination in mind. Recall, at the start of the passage, G-d has not even revealed where Abraham is to go, only that he is to go. In Abraham’s heart, this is a choice that he must make–consequences, potential death, hardship, and failure be damned! He must leave the familiar behind and answer the call within him.

In coaching, we understand that this is the crucial component to anyone’s attempts at changing the course of their lives. There has to be that internal necessity for change. Otherwise, why bother? Isn’t the familiar much more comfortable? 

Whether our journeys are incited by messages from G-d, pink slips from our employer, or test results ordered by a doctor, it’s up to us as individuals to choose whether and how we will answer their call.

Perhaps then there is another “go forth from” Abraham is challenged by in this passage–himself. Where are we in life? Are we happy there? Are we content? What needs to change? And, most importantly, how far are we willing to go to change it?

If Abraham’s journey is any indicator of what we might expect, the path ahead is dangerous. Yet there’s something rewarding at a soul level when we say yes, when we refuse to accept complacency, and when we choose to go forth anyway.

That kind of journey, that kind of reward, that kind of positive consequence–it’s never too late for us to pursue.

Lessons on Surviving the Deluge (Parashat Noach)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

I can still remember the rain that fell right at the start of the pandemic lockdowns. I’d made the decision long before then to cut out cable and internet news from my life, so the shellshocked look in the eyes of the venue owners I visited that day felt out of place. In my mind, I was just pushing my classes out by two weeks. It was a simple enough correction to make on the flyers themselves. After that, everything would be back to normal.

Already though, clients and colleagues alike were frantically scrambling for new forms of work. People (myself included) were suddenly remembering our passions for photography, for writing, and for anything else that could be made at home and sold online. Maybe this would be an exciting opportunity to reconnect with a truer part of ourselves, I mused.

The gravity of what was happening didn’t really hit me until a coaching client, a schoolteacher, asked me pointblank if she should take another job while the schools were shutdown. Normally, questions like that aren’t in my job description. I help people explore hows and whys. I don’t deal in shoulds. But in that moment, the only question I could think of–what happens if the school system takes longer than two weeks to get back up and running?–led us both to a glimpse of the reality that was coming, and the only answers we should be considering while we still had time to adapt.

Sheltering in the Ark

In this week’s Torah portion, Noah is instructed by G-d to build an ark which will shelter his family and pairs of every animal species from a devastating flood that will destroy everyone else. Flood myths like this story, or, more accurately, myths about chosen heroes surviving the deluge, can be found around the world. In India for instance, Matsya (an incarnation of Vishnu) warns Manu about an impending flood, and commands him to gather the grains and sages of the world in an ark for safety. Mesopotamian cultures likewise produced flood myths in which heroes like Atra-Hasis and Utnapishtim are warned by divine forces and tasked with preserving life from divine punishment in the form of a catastrophic flood.

While anthropologists and other scientists continue to debate the possibility of a literal flood informing all of these stories, we can take from the Torah here some fascinating insight into the nature of human resilience, essentially how to go about surviving the deluge.

The operative word to our survival, teva (the ark), is one that rabbis and Kabbalists have been exploring for centuries now. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, for instance, expanded the dual meaning of teva as both an “ark” and a “word.” In his commentary, Kedushat Levi, the rabbi explains that the dimensions given for the ark, represented by the Hebrew letters lamed (30), shin (300), and nun (50), spell out the root of the Hebrew word lashon (tongue, or language). The height alludes to G-d’s position in creation, the width to the mutual love between G-d and creation, and the length to the journey of awareness that clarifies these relationships.

The same dimensions of the ark can be located by multiplying the values of the letters in the secret name of G-d. Hey (ה) by Vav (ו), or, 5 x 6 = 30, the height of the ark. Hey (ה) by Yud (י), or, 10 x 5 = 50, the width of the ark. And Yud, Hey, and Vav (י-ה-ו), or, 10 x 5 x 6 = 300, the length of the ark. (This particular teaching may originate with Ha’ARI Hakadosh, R. Isaac Luria, but has since become relatively diffused among many different rabbis).

R. Yitzchak Meir likewise is said to have proclaimed that “The ark of Noah is the words and letters of Torah!” In essence, we take refuge in the Torah. Surviving the deluge is a matter of entering into alignment with this testament to the perfection of G-d, who in turn is all around us, embracing and sanctifying all that we go through. In his text, Yalkut Reuveni, Rabbi Reuben ben Hoshke of Prague connects Noah entering the ark to the message of Proverbs 18:10: “The name of G-d is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” The sum of all these teachings then may help to clarify why the story of the Tower of Babel is also included in the Torah portion concerning Noah. The very dimensions of the ark carry the name of G-d, while man constructs the Tower of Babel to make a name for himself.

One last word I want to pull from teva here is “nature,” both in the sense of creation as a whole, but also in the sense of our essence as individuals within it. Nature is a testament to G-d. Here I am reminded of the quote attributed to Meister Eckhart, “Every creature is a word of G-d.” And it is in our nature to both succeed and fail at living in harmony with that truth. On a metaphysical level we are at times both Noah, weathering the nature of this world from within the ark, and at other times, we are the people who slip beneath the waves and drown or attempt to reach the heavens by our own name alone.

Though the outside world may take the story of Noah at face value as a historical reality to be proven or disproven, the metaphysical layer to the text challenges us to recall the power of language both in the act of creation and also in our resilience through its obstacles.

Surviving the Deluge

Nothing could have prepared me for all that I lost during the pandemic shutdown. And I know that I am not alone in that sense. So many of us were caught off-guard, and frustratingly found ourselves on the wrong side of often arbitrary regulations and processes that very plainly benefitted certain managerial industries and the kind of large corporations with enough savings and infrastructure to afford an unending shutdown of in-person contact.

Truth be told, I still at times feel anger about that. Resentment. And of course fear. It’s the fear that comes from being powerless in the face of destruction. Something I share with many of the folks I have been coaching since then is a recognition that we have spent more than a year now caught in a system which will very easily pull you under.

When it does, and when you look around and realize that you have very little power over determining when or how you will be able to return to work in order to support yourself, we, like Noah, find ourselves tasked with surviving the deluge. There’s this proverb I’ve heard attributed to numerous sources, essentially it teaches that a suicidal man will still fight to keep himself from drowning. What it means is that our impulse to live is incredibly strong, even in the darkest of times. If you take away a man’s means to support himself and his family, he may hurt deeply and for a very long time. But what you don’t crush is his soul. Because in that time that he is surviving the deluge, he is finding that the only power he–and he alone–has control over is his own mindset, his own attitude, and the choices he will make each day.

This is the very power of the soul.

The story of Noah is not about surviving the deluge in a birds nest of gopher wood sealed with pitch. Neither is it about the rage of G-d or mass destruction. It’s not about floods, or even historical documentation of a catastrophic event. It’s about how to survive the harsh, unforgiving, and truly unfair conditions of life we will all go through at some point or another. It’s about surviving the feeling of your whole world washing away, and having no one else to blame but an invisible force you must be too lowly to even comprehend.

This portion of the Torah gives us a blueprint for survival spelled out in the curious metaphysics of Hebrew words and their mystical associations. Take refuge in Torah. Shelter yourself in the ark of G-d’s name. Whether you believe in G-d or not, put some higher power above yourself, because if you depend solely on your own greatness, eventually you’ll crumble beneath the weight of your own insignificance.

Surviving the deluge is a matter of language and words. Yes, G-d provides the direction and the structure, but we must choose to enter the ark. When all else is lost, mind the words you speak first to yourself. From the language of your mindset, your internal world is formed. The words we speak to ourselves can shelter and protect our soul where no other influence can reach. That language we build around our life can either be a great vessel that stays above the water, or a wobbling tower that leaves us scatter-brained and stranded beyond comprehension.

Parashat Bereshit (In the Beginning)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

In the beginning is G-d.

Every story in the Bible and nearly ever facet of our lives follow from this fact. It’s through creation that anything and everything that matters in our lives comes into a form that even can matter to us. It’s through creation that we are even around to find meaning and to assign importance to anything else.

In the beginning though, is G-d.

And here in this week’s Torah portion, G-d separates light from darkness. Everything else we study, experience, explore, and investigate will be done essentially in the light, or at least after this separation occurs, but there’s a little kernel of G-d’s nature hidden here too.

In the darkness is G-d.

In some ways, this truth connects the beginning of Torah to its conclusion. There, Joshua is called to replace Moses, yet all around this change in leadership are dire warnings about the fate of the Israelites when they enter the Promised Land. For all of the build-up to the honoring of this covenant between G-d and the Israelites, there’s a real cliffhanger of a conclusion to the Torah. Doom and agony following failure seem to be their fate, as a moral darkness is foretold by both Moses and G-d.

Yet here in the beginning, all that G-d will create begins in the darkness.

So often when we are struggling or when we have truly hit rock bottom in our lives, we feel incredibly alone. When tragedy strikes us, when we search our souls for where we have sinned and cannot fathom that anything we have done could have possibly caused the circumstances we are experiencing, we feel so very powerless. When everything before us seems insurmountable, and when life becomes so dark that we cannot even dream a future out of it, we feel the depth of hopelessness.

Nevertheless, this week’s Torah portion invites us to be present in these feelings as vital components to the story of creation still unfolding in our own lives. G-d’s example is laid out plainly for us. In times of hopelessness, we must seek to separate the light from the dark. We must seek out those things that renew our spirit and that fill our hearts with an eager hope. We must find the tasks which are achievable, carefully guard each and every choice we can make, and walk forward knowing that challenges, obstacles, injustices, and failures are the geography of this world, no matter our intentions or best laid plans.

Perhaps most importantly, this week’s scripture teaches us that when all of that still feels too impossible and when the darkness is everywhere and in everything, we are not alone. G-d is with us. G-d will create entire new books to our life story that render the darkness merely a footnote, so easy to overlook.

This moment may feel like the end and like a terrible fall from some former glory. Consider another perspective, however. Everything that has already happened to you (and even by your own hand) could instead be described simply as “in the beginning.” What you make of tomorrow remains your choice to make.

Parashat Haazinu (Listen In)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, we listen in to receive this song from Moses which recounts the story of the Israelites to this point. Moses recounts how G-d made a covenant with them as a people, but also how they have been (and will continue to be) unfaithful, causing G-d to hide His face from them.

In the end, Moses ascends to the top of a mountain facing the Promised Land, and dies having not set foot within it.

Haazinu is about the identity at the core of Jewishness. The song speaks of our religious covenant with G-d, but it also reveals the nature of human experience in creation. One way to look at the entire relationship described here is through the lens of sin and punishment. The Israelites (including Moses) fail to live up to the standard of their covenant with G-d. As a result, G-d is at times hidden from them. G-d may also punish them by sending other people to destroy them, enslave or send them into exile. 

However, another way to look at this passage is that this relationship between people and the covenant is one rooted in the struggles and limits of physical creation.

“Listen in you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.”

(Deuteronomy 32: 1-2 NIV)

Moses’ song begins not with the story of our people, but with an appeal to heaven and earth, and a poetic metaphor engaging Torah as natural nourishment like rain or dew on tender plants. G-d is further described throughout the passage as a Rock, essentially the foundation upon which all this grows.

What is being shared here is the reality of physical creation. 

Listen In

We are each going to fail at something. Not even Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, is exempt from this limitation. This is the nature of our story, a piece of our core identity being communicated here. It is in our nature to fail to live up to the perfect divine order of G-d. That’s what makes us people. That’s what makes us creation. That is how we are designed, how we are intended to learn, and how we are given the opportunity to grow.

Feeling shame about it is optional.

The leaders we are given to study under, Moses for instance, were flawed just as we are, but they are defined by their persistence in the face of that reality, and by their commitment to G-d despite countless opportunities to give up. Depending on our background, the passage may seem set up to describe Moses’ death as a punishment by G-d. I think a healthier way to look at this passage is to understand death and Moses’ preclusion from the Promised Land as consequences of the nature of physical creation. 

We could drive ourselves crazy debating death and punishment as a matter of worthiness, but when we understand it as a matter of reality, and the consequences of a complex calculus of different actions, we are freed again to focus on our own actions, our own choices in the face of this reality. 

G-d is at times seemingly very present in our lives. We are plugged in. We feel the presence. We feel the blessing and the favor. Everything seems to go our way, and we are hopefully grateful for that alignment. Other times, our relationship with G-d is seemingly strained and detached. It is as if G-d hides His face from us (or we are hiding ours from Him in shame). 

Both are foundational to this experience we call life. There will be highs and there will be lows. There are times we must try hard to achieve greatness, and other times we enjoy the rewards of our effort. Like Moses, we may even be blessed enough to die devoting our lives to the very mission G-d has given us. 

To some, this passage seems an invitation to just shrug. Why bother? Sin your heart out. You are doomed to fail anyway, and if this is the nature of reality, why fight it? 

For the spiritually strong and courageous it is instead an invitation to doubly commit ourselves to the path and covenant we have chosen. Surely we are each as flawed as Moses. Failure before G-d and death are certain. But what shall we make of our lives then if that is the case? What stories shall we sing to our own descendants and by what deeds shall they remember us?

Listen in. The rain rises back to the sky, even though it will fall again.

Parashat Vayelech (Then He Went Out)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses declares that he is 120 years old and that G-d has told him that he will not pass over the Jordan River to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua is appointed their new leader, and Moses tells them that G-d will deliver the land to them, and that they must not be afraid of the people living there.

Moses implores the Israelites to keep their covenant with G-d, but he also knows that they will be unfaithful and forsake their commandments to follow foreign gods instead. Moses finishes preparing the Torah as a book to be kept safe by the Levites. And while the latter half of the passage reflects Moses’ bitterness at the impending rejection of G-d’s law by the Israelites, there are two notes of hope we ought to hear.

The first is G-d’s promise that the special relationship held with the Israelites will not be forgotten by their descendents (emphasis added):

“‘When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.'”

Deuteronomy 31:20-22 (NIV)

Our second note of hope comes in the repeated instruction to “be strong and courageous,” which appears three separate times in the reading. The first time (v.6), Moses speaks it to all of Israel. Then he went out and spoke it a second time (v.7) to Joshua specifically but in the presence of all of Israel. The third and final time (v.23), G-d speaks it directly to Joshua. We need to get that message, right? That’s why it’s repeated so many times. G-d is with us, will never leave us, and will never forsake us. We–specifically, us here in the present day–are the descendants who will not forget G-d’s covenant with our ancestors. So be strong and courageous, because there is nothing we ought to fear or allow us to feel discouraged.

Photo by Rik Buiting on Unsplash

Then He Went Out

The other side of that truth that we ought not be afraid though is the reality of our fear and discouraged spirit. Generally speaking, our spiritual leaders and, well, G-d, don’t need to repeat something multiple times if we’re already doing it. Like our repeated failures to live up to the commandments prescribed by G-d, there are times where we are not strong and courageous, where we are afraid both of others and of G-d forsaking us. Perhaps it is really our guilt at being unfaithful to G-d that we are feeling here? When we are living in that covenant, we have nothing to fear. When we know that we’re not upholding our end of it, we know that G-d is free to shrug just the same.

Another way to look at this is to consider what it’s like to make a big change in our lives. That’s what the Israelites were doing, right? They were finally, after wandering the wilderness for forty years, crossing over into the Promised Land. More than that journey alone, they were losing their leader, Moses, and Joshua was being charged to take his place. If you’ve ever worked in a company going through a change in leadership, think about how that played out for a moment. People likely had their doubts, their criticisms, their resistance to changing the way they’d grown accustomed to doing things.

The Israelites were no different, and both G-d and Moses seem thoroughly convinced that they’ll be unable to commit to new patterns of behavior to match their new homeland. This passage starts with “then he went out,” but the message seems hardly convinced the Israelites are ready or will last long once they too go out. Not exactly a vote of confidence in Joshua’s new leadership.

In part we are the Israelites here. We’re being led, directed, and brought into a covenant. We’re also a bit of Moses too. The life we’re living right now is one we’ve led ourselves to. It’s under our leadership, for better and worse, that we’ve developed the kind of deep grooves we’re now challenging ourselves to jump for something new.

Lastly, we’re also Joshua in this story (and not just those of us who share his name). Life on the other side of a terrified and discouraged spirit takes new leadership, new habits, perseverance, and the kind of fortitude built by the strengths we’ve gained previously. It’s Moses who goes out in the beginning of this passage. But it’s Joshua who must pick up the story next.

Like all of us on the precipice of something great and new, I am certain he felt his moments of fear and doubt. How many times did he remind himself, “be strong and courageous”?

No matter. Because then he went out….