Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with God telling Avram to leave his birthplace and travel to a land where his descendants will become a great nation. So, Avram and his wife Sarai, accompanied by their nephew Lot, journey to the land of Canaan. Avram builds an altar there, but a famine forces them to flee to Egypt, where Avram and Sarai present themselves as brother and sister, out of fear that Avram would be killed on account of Sarai’s great beauty. Sarai is taken to Pharaoh’s palace, but a plague prevents the Egyptian king from touching her. Pharaoh then understands that Sarai is Avram’s wife, and he reunites her with Avram, giving them gold, silver and cattle.
When they return to the land of Canaan, Lot separates from Avram and settles in the evil city of Sodom, where he falls captive when the mighty armies of King Kedarla’omer and his three allies conquer the five cities of the Sodom Valley. Avram sets out with a small band to rescue his nephew, defeats the four kings, and is blessed by Malkitzedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem).
Avram seals a strange covenant with God involving a vision of fire descending and moving between severed animal pieces, in which the exile and persecution (galut) of Avram’s descendants is foretold, and their eventual return to the Holy Land is affirmed.
Still childless ten years after their arrival in the land of Canaan, Sarai tells Avram to marry her maidservant Hagar. Hagar conceives, but becomes insolent toward her mistress, and then flees when Sarai treats her harshly. An angel convinces her to return, and tells her that her son will also become a great nation. Ishmael is born in Avram’s eighty-sixth year.
Thirteen years later, God changes Avram’s name to Avraham (Abraham, meaning “father of multitudes”), and Sarai’s name to Sarah (“princess”). A child is promised to them whom they should call Yitzhak (Isaac, “will laugh”). Abraham is instructed to circumcise himself and his descendants as a sign of the covenant. Abraham does so for himself and all the males of his household.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
Hashem said to Avram, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 12:1
There is a story that a dead man once appeared to Rabbi Yisakhar. The rabbi had known this man when he was alive; he was prominent in the community, but now his apparition came to the rabbi, begging him for help. He explained that his wife had passed away, and he needed money to arrange a marriage with someone else.
“Don’t you know,” the tzaddik asked him, “that you are no longer among the living, that you are in the World of Confusion?” When the man refused to believe him, he lifted the tails of the dead man’s coat and showed him that he was dressed in a shroud. Later, Rabbi Yisakhar’s son asked, “Well, if that is so, perhaps I too am in the World of Confusion!” His father answered, “Once you know that there is a World of Confusion, you are no longer in it.”
When we examine our present-moment experience, we often find ourselves involved with thoughts and feelings that derive from the past, that are not directly related to what is immediately present. Like the dead man in the story, we tend to live through the issues and concerns of yesterday, “dead” to the living present; this too is a kind of “World of Confusion.” On the personal level, this can keep us oblivious to the brightness of the Living Present; on the cultural and societal level, it can keep us embroiled in prejudice and conflict, infused with false meaning.
Why are we so resistant to the Living Present, so oblivious to the Living Presence?
Ironically, it is because we want to feel alive; we want to feel that something is happening. But, because we are conditioned to live primarily through our minds, through our tasks and responsibilities in time, we forget where true life is. We become insensitive to the bright aliveness and wonder of the moment, and instead seek it in the dramas of time. This is also why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony of life with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to the familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable. The first is fear of the past; the second is fear of the future.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, are both symptoms of living through the conditioned mind. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing new places for the first time, but you can’t fully appreciate them because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as we’re stuck in time, in the “World of Confusion.”
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ ... אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ – “Go for yourself … to the land that I will show you.”
This is the Divine call to Avram: “Don’t be stuck in the past! Don’t be afraid of the future! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come to the land that I am now showing you.” This is not just a story, it’s an instruction: Reality as it is being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that the familiarity comes from your conditioned mind – from memory, from the past.
And that’s a good thing; we don’t want to get rid of our memories, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so too this moment is also completely fresh and new, when we allow our conditioned mind to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha. In this way, we need not be tricked into the World of Confusion; we can awaken into the Living Present.
But what if we become overwhelmed by our thoughts and feelings? How do we stay present when our conditioning can seem so powerful, even traumatic? Again, the main thing is recognizing our conditioning. And to do that, it is helpful to see that there are three main levels:
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ mei’artz’kha – “from your land” – refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a good sign that your mind works, and that it is there when you need it, barukh Hashem. Then, simply recognize – there is my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment: אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.
וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ – from your relatives… These are our relationships; this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. Once, someone who made a mistake at work told me that she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “Get a life!”
We are social beings; we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also good and necessary. But again, we must recognize: “There is my mind, creating all this drama, hiding the brightness of the moment.” Just recognizing it loosens its tyranny, and we can begin our journey (again). Lekh lekha – go for yourself out from the past, and into this bright newness. Or, it can also be translated, go to yourself – meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning, to the boundless and bright field which sees the conditioning.
וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – from your father’s house… This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how we were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that they not the whole you; they too are parts of our conditioning.
Then, after we recognize all our conditioning for what it is, we can choose to shift from involvement with thoughts and feelings, powerful as they may be, into whatever is present now, including whatever feeling residue persists from our conditioning. Again, the conditioned mind will be there when you need it, but by shifting into Presence, all that conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know that it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real, as Rabbi Yisakhar said: “Once you know that there is a World of Confusion, you are no longer in it.”
Practice this, and you will begin to notice: behind the conditioning, beyond the World of Confusion, you are the fire of awareness that perceives the conditioning. Then you can meet ha’aretz asher arekha – the fullness of Reality as it is revealed in this moment, the ever-shifting content of experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant fire of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that is the deepest level of who we are; and through that fire of alertness, represented by the letter ש shin, we are “saved,” from all Worlds of Confusion and can enter (again) the Brightness of Being…
Read past teachings on Lekh L’kha HERE.
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Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with the description of Noah as an ish tzaddik, a righteous and pure person, and God expresses displeasure to Noah with the world which has become consumed by violence and corruption. God tells Noah that a flood is coming, and that he should build an ark to float upon the water, saving Noah and his family, along with members of each animal species. Rain falls for 40 days and nights, and the waters churn for 150 days more before calming and beginning to recede. When the ark settles on Mount Ararat, Noah dispatches a raven, and then a series of doves, “to see if the waters have subsided from the face of the earth.” When the ground dries completely, exactly one year after the onset of the Flood, God tells Noah to exit the ark and begin repopulating the earth.
Noah builds an altar and offers sacrifices. God swears never again to destroy humanity because of their deeds, and sets the rainbow in the sky as a testimony of the new covenant with human beings. God also commands Noah regarding the sacredness of life: murder is explicitly forbidden, and while humans are permitted to eat the meat of animals, they are forbidden to eat flesh or blood taken from a living animal.
Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and becomes drunk. Two of Noah’s sons, Shem and Yaphet, are blessed for covering up their father, while his third son, Ham, is punished for behaving inappropriately in the presence of his drunk and naked father, though his precise offense is not explicitly described.
The descendants of Noah remain a single people, with a single language and culture, for ten generations. Then they try to build a great tower to symbolize their own invincibility; God confuses their language so that “one does not comprehend the tongue of the other,” causing them to abandon their project and disperse across the face of the earth, splitting into seventy nations. The parshah concludes with a chronology of the ten generations from Noah to Abram (who becomes Abraham), and the latter’s journey from his birthplace of Ur Casdim to Haran, on the way to the land of Canaan.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָד֖וֹ עַל־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכׇל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃ לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
Moses held out his hand toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and no one could rise from their place for three days; but for the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings...
- Shemot (Exodus) 10:22, 23
לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו – People could not see one another, and no one could rise from their place… On this verse, the rabbi of Ger said, “When a person refuses to see the other, they soon get to the point of cleaving to their place, unable to move.”
The aim of meditation is to relax the movement of the mind, to see from a place of stillness. This perspective of spacious repose is the opposite of refusing to see the other; Presence is a letting go of any fixed point of view, and simply meeting the moment as it arises. The immobility referred to in this teaching, however, is not stillness of mind, but deadness of heart; it is a crisis of connection. The shutting down of the heart is a natural, self-protective response to violence and trauma, but if it persists, it can be deadly. At such times, the stillness of meditation may not be enough to awaken the heart back to aliveness.
This is reflected in the halakhah concerning the Amidah. As the center of Jewish prayer, the Amidah is a meditative practice which should be intoned quietly, while the body stands attentive and relatively still. Ideally, one should not interrupt the Amidah for almost anything, but rather stay focused for the duration of the prayer. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there is a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אֲפִילּוּ נָחָשׁ כָּרוּךְ עַל עֲקֵבוֹ, לֹא יַפְסִיק. אָמַר רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: לֹא שָׁנוּ אֶלָּא נָחָשׁ אֲבָל עַקְרָב — פּוֹסֵק
Even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not stop one’s prayer. Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this with regard to a snake, but with a scorpion, one stops.
There is a hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors. The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the sacred words of the prayer, and suddenly you get hungry and your mind is filled with thoughts of food. In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the food isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life. This is one of the core principles of hassidic teaching: the elevation of desire – a kind of inner alchemy.
On the other hand, if a scorpion approaches you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer and do something to awaken your aliveness first. But how do we awaken our aliveness, when the traumas of the world cause us to shut down and lose our taste for life?
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the line of Noah; Noah was whole and good (ish tzaddik), embodying trust and simplicity (tamim) in his generation; Noah walked with Elohim… - Bereisheet (Genesis) 6:9
Noah is described as a צַדִּיק tzaddik – the opposite of one whose heart is shut down. To be a tzaddik is to live from your heart in service of the Whole. Further, he is described as תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו tamim hayah b’dorotav. Tamim means simple, direct, whole-hearted, uncomplicated. B’dorotav, “in his generation,” clarifies that he was tamim toward other people, accepting them as they are, not seeding conflict.
תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה tamim hayah – “Trusting and simple he was…” The key to all this is הָיָה hayah, the verb “to be,” which consists of letters from the Divine Name. Everything is part of Being, part of the Divine, so the tzaddik receives the moment from the hands of God; this is the practice of meditation. But the end of the verse offers the key for how to do this, even when our hearts have shut down:
אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ – Noah walked with Elohim… The key is “walking.” When we are overcome with darkness, physical movement is a Divine gift that will reawaken your heart. Walking, swimming, yoga, whatever. The body is the temple of consciousness; if we find ourselves stuck in depression, anxiety or any other negative mind state, stop your sitting meditation and get some exercise, then come back to meditation, to the stillness of tamim hayah – receiving the moment from the hands of God with an awakened heart.
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month, and is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began on Shmini Atzeret. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to the parshah, and it comes as we are experiencing our own destructive “flood” in this time of war. Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion, the symbol of spiritual deadness. The traditional idiom for Heshvan is Mar Heshvan, that is, “bitter” Heshvan, as it is the month with no holiday celebrations.
But in Kabbalah, water is also associated with awakening passion and desire for life, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow. Further, when we reverse the letters of mar, we have ram – “elevated,” or “transcendent.” In this time of much death and destruction, may we find the balance of stillness and movement to awaken our hearts and bodies to this gift of life that transcends the bitterness; may that balance manifest as beauty, harmony and peace in the world, speedily, in our day.
Read past teachings on Noakh HERE.
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בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 1:1
What is the nature of this earth we inhabit?
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
“Vanity of vanities,” said Kohelet, the Preacher, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
Kohelet (Ecclestiases) 1:1
King Solomon sums up his assessment of life in one word: havel. Often translated as “vanity” or “futility,” these translations are incomplete until we combine them with another word: “impermanence.”
עֵ֤ת לֶֽאֱהֹב֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂנֹ֔א עֵ֥ת מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְעֵ֥ת שָׁלֽוֹם׃
A time for love and a time for hate; A time for war and a time for peace…
That which has happened before, will happen again. This world oscillates between extremes; there is no permanent state. “Impermanence” in itself is not always a negative thing; it is just the way it is. But, when it comes to war, we can often be in denial about its reality. We think, perhaps unconsciously, that the devastations of the past will never happen again; and so our illusions are shattered again and again. That is why impermanence is also “vanity” or “futility.”
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation. I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me. Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him sink slowly to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment. He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!” And so goes the history of peoples and nations.
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy; thank God he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse. But still, I know that one day I will be “pushed into the pool,” as will we all.
How do we deal with this state of affairs, in which violence and death are constant possibilities? We can find it difficult to “breath” in the emotional sense, we can feel like we are “drowning” in this world of havel.
The answer is not complicated: the world is only havel to the degree that we are in denial. We must practice opening to and accepting the reality-quality preached by King Solomon, the Buddha, and countless other sages: that all states of being are impermanent. Life is painful, but we need not drown it, if we know how to come up for air.
How do we do that?
Not by pushing away or distracting ourselves from the pain that we fear we might drown in. Unlike physical water, within which we must hold our breath, the key to surviving our emotions is feeling them completely – because it is only through acceptance and surrender to the truth of our experience that we can come to know the Timeless, the Source from which all comes and to which all must return.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ – In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word רֵאשִׁ֖ית reisheet, which means “beginning”, with the word חָכְמָה hokhmah, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness,” by means of a verse that connects the two:
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חׇכְמָ֨ה יִרְאַ֬ת יי –The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence… - Psalm 111:10
When your own awareness (hokhmah) meets this moment as it is, there is a quality of brightness, of newness (reisheet), that heals all wounds; this quality of consciousness can never be extinguished, if we know how to open to it. We’ve all known this quality at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth – the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment. But then the story begins: A time for war and a time for peace…
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם – And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths… No one escapes from the havel, and yet, there is a path out of this confusion:
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ – And Elohim hovered over the face of the waters… Rather than drown in the waters of our pain, we can “hover” simply by being present with our experience in this moment. And in this Presence, there is tremendous power:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר – And God said, “Let there be light!”
As we open to the grief, the devastation, the fullness and truth of this moment, our Presence commands “light” –
וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר – And there was light!
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone,” before we were hit with all the havel. It hasn’t changed – it is still who we are; it cannot be taken away, though we can easily miss it. This basic goodness of life is not about hope, though without it there is no hope. Rather, it is something for us to see directly:
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב – And God saw that the light was good…
This Inner Light is easy to miss because our minds and hearts are often divided between many activities, thoughts, responsibilities, not to mention times of trauma and devastation – it is tragically easy to drown in the havel. That is why meditation is so important. But once we grasp this simple truth that becomes visible in the silence, we can practice applying it in whatever we are doing; we can be present-in-action, and in doing so, be a beacon of light in these moments of chaos…
כֹּ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֧א יָֽדְךָ֛ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת בְּכֹחֲךָ֖ עֲשֵׂ֑ה
Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your strength…
- Kohelet (Ecclestiases) 9:10
King Solomon is not pessimistic; he acknowledges the tragedy of reality, but also provides a solution: Be Present. Or, as Reb Zushia said when asked to reveal his core teaching on what is most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
In these times of tremendous darkness, may we remember to access the Light that can never be extinguished, the Light that we are at the root of it all, the Light of Presence. We begin (again) by feeling deeply what needs to be felt. Let there be Light.
Read past teachings on Beiresheet HERE.
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