There is a Hassidic story of the saintly brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz. They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as good. 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 our 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 suffering in all my life.” At first, the two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they realized- Zusha had a very different relationship with his “suffering”.
The human nervous system is a Heaven/Hell engine. Which one will your engine produce? The whole purpose of the spiritual path is to produce Heaven, for Heaven to be born within. To do this requires not just conscious choice, but also commitment. The moment you make this commitment, you are on the Path.
You need commitment because there is a common pitfall. If you wish to have Heaven and not Hell, you may think that you can somehow avoid the Hell, avoid the suffering. But, like physical birth, there is pain in birthing Heaven. A person must be willing to endure this pain, to get to the other side- to walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Without commitment, you are likely to give up at this point. But if you persevere, the pain of suffering begins to look entirely different. As in the birth of a child, it is 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 his two sons to him, that he may bless them before he dies. Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menashe at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Efraim 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. He then blesses the boys with the words- “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe.’” Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boy children on Shabbat with these words.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What is so special about Efraim and Menashe that they should become the paradigm for blessing boys?
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 Efraim because “The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually describe 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 that is created by this type of thought. The ordinary worries of the mind, the “troubles”, are “forgotten”. This 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. But, as the verse says, “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 divide us internally and block us from our own life energy and from life as it is happening in this moment. They block the blossoming of Heaven on Earth.
When you begin to open to this inner suffering, 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. This means becoming deeply open to whatever arises in your field of awareness as your consciousness comes to dwell within your body, in your heart, in the present.
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.
Jacob gives his blessing on the threshold of the Book of Exodus, where his descendents descend into the suffering of slavery, only to be saved and brought into freedom with the Divine Presence. May we all receive this instruction and with it the faith and commitment to walk through the fires of whatever “hell” emerges in service of the Divine Presence that wants to be born through each of us. Amein, Good Shabbos!