Last Friday afternoon I went to pick up some kosher wine at Trader Joe’s. (Less than $5 for a cabernet and not too bad!) I pulled into the narrow entrance of the indoor parking lot and saw a woman getting into her car, so I paused to let her pull out so that I could take her spot.
Just then, a niggun (melody) came to me. I thought it would be great to sing in the service I was leading that night, so I pulled out my iPhone to record it and send out to the other service leaders.
Just then, I heard an angry voice yelling at me-
“What the hell are you doing?? Look at you sitting there on your phone- backing up traffic!!”
An older man was tensely yelling and walking toward me. I thought he might burst a blood vessel! I ignored him at first, but he kept walking right up to my car.
I rolled down the window a little and explained, “I’m waiting for this car to pull out so I can pull in.”
“What about that spot??” he yelled and gestured.
There was another open spot behind me, but I couldn’t pull in since there were now several cars blocking the way. Due to the angle of the turn, it wasn’t visible when I had first pulled in.
“Oh okay, I didn’t see that,” I said.
“Aaagghh!” he gestured angrily and stormed away.
Now, as far as I know, pausing and holding up traffic for a few moments in order to allow someone to pull out of their parking spot is kosher. But to this guy, I was clearly in the wrong, and he was letting me have it.
I assume it’s because he thought I was talking on the cell phone while driving, which really triggered him. As happens to folks so often, his mind judged something external (me) and then lost all self-awareness and composure. He became a jerk because he was convinced that I was a jerk.
At such moments of being triggered, people are often swept away by emotion. All the positive middot- wisdom, sensitivity, awareness, compassion and so on- are out the window.
How often do you experience such moments?
Is it possible to take another path? Can triggered emotion actually be put to good use?
Back in 1998, during a radically transformative time of my life, I had such an experience:
I was driving, when a car violently cut me off at an intersection. I gasped, adrenalin pumping. I felt the heat of anger swelling within me, and the urge to retaliate and curse the guy behind the wheel.
Then, the thought occurred to me that this moment of being triggered was the moment to be present.
I brought my awareness deep into the feeling of the anger. It burned within me, and it was extremely painful. Next, I felt it move upward through my body and out the top of my head. It was like a huge cloud of darkness left me.
As the last of it left my body, everything looked totally different. The road glistened with moisture from a recent rain and the sound of a bird’s caw filled the sky. I began to see that driver in a completely different way. He wasn’t against me- he was actually setting me free! It left me feeling raw, simple, innocent and at peace.
The truth is, the human nervous system is a heaven/hell engine.
Of course we want the heaven and not the hell. But, if you really want heaven to be born within you, the key is to not resist the hell. Like physical birth, there is pain in birthing heaven. If you’re willing to open to this pain, it can serve its function- to set you free. As in the birth of a child, it’s ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring him his two grandsons, so that he can bless them before he dies.
Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menasheh at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Ephraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom.
However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. Then he says:
“By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.’”
Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boys on Friday nights with these words. Girls are blessed with the names of the matriarchs.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What’s so special about Ephraim and Menasheh that boys should be blessed with their names, rather than the names of the patriarchs?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says,
“The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”.
He names the second son Ephraim because-
“The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually map out the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner heaven:
First, there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering created by that.
In other words, the “troubles”, are “forgotten.” This is Menasheh.
“Forgetting troubles” opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking. After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner heaven. This is Ephraim.
But, as Joseph said, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them.
But those inner barriers take energy. They block us from feeling our own aliveness and from the life of this moment. They impede the blossoming of heaven on earth.
But open to the blocked pain, and the blockages begin melting away.
When you do, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula-
“Y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe-
“May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe!”
In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
There’s a Hassidic story of the brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz.
They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (Berakhot 9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as for good things.
They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him-
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for suffering?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him.
Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced anything bad!”
The two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they began to realize what Zusha was saying: He didn’t see his suffering as “bad”. Zusha's suffering had transformed him into the ecstatic saint he was.
On this Shabbat Vay’khi, The Shabbat of Life, let’s open to life as it is in its fullness, with its joy and suffering.
And when life brings you suffering, let it be a pointed reminder to once again become present, to allow the pain to break open your heart and reveal the light within. Rather than judge, snap or plot, let that light come through you in a word of kindness or act of service. And if the response you are called to give is harsh, let it be strong and clear- but without anger and malice.