HERE

Torah From A Mussar Perspective Mishpatim 5781

      • During this pandemic time, I have found myself frequently moving between periods of normal energy and periods of considerable fatigue. I note that the latter is not unexpected, given all that has occurred in our world and in my own life this past year. Yet, I yearn to emerge from this tiredness back to how I was pre-pandemic, knowing, ultimately that I, like all of us, have been forever changed by this experience. I am cognizant of the reality that to skillfully approach the coming months and years will require a new way of understanding ourselves in the world. The desire is ever-present to move forward as if we have not lived through unconscionable loss, upheaval, polarization and strife. To do so, however, is not to allow ourselves to confront in our own experiences the traumas we have endured this year, hoping that by merely moving forward, all will be made right. This is a deeply human and understandable experience, one with which our ancient ancestors would have surely resonated. How do we move between worlds, between modes of being? How did our ancestors move from the degradation of slavery, through the redemption that came at the splitting of the Yam-Suf, to receiving revelation on Har Sinai? How is a formerly enslaved people supposed to integrate all of these experiences such that their and our enduring covenant with The Divine will lead to us leading lives of holiness?

         

        Our parsha this week, Mishpatim is largely concerned with providing us the beginnings of an answer. We are given laws governing interpersonal disputes, property conflicts and so much more. It is one thing to stand as a collective at Sinai to receive the Torah in all of its richness. That, indeed, is another-worldly experience. It is another to come down the mountain, as it were, and begin to integrate that experience into the messy, complex, challenging reality of what it means to be human.

         

        In Exodus/Shmot 23:1-2, we learn:

        “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty.” (JPS Translation).

        We are to act truthfully and righteously in all of our interactions, being sure neither to perpetuate false and malicious rumors nor to side with those who act wrongly in service of their own power and prestige. We might understand the Torah’s command in a number of ways. Many of us are experiencing heightened tension with those in our pods, given that we have spent many months with just them. In a time, such as ours, when our bandwidth for disagreement and conflict is short, and when our external culture rewards polarization and strife in service of the ego and personal power, it is tempting to opt for falsehood and rumor over truth and messiness. Too many of us lack skillful means for managing emotional upheaval and personal conflict. I imagine that our ancestors who, for so long, lived lives lacking in personal agency, found themselves learning as they went how to establish what we would today call boundaries with others as a means of managing interpersonal conflict as they established themselves as a nation. Our rabbis teach that the Torah is eternally relevant, speaking to each generation in its own way. So, too, does the Torah speak in the language of human beings. Our Mussar practice encourages us to do daily cheshbon hanefesh, soul accounting, as a vehicle for encountering our own soul curriculum and areas for growth.

         

        My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe of the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, which is a space for Jewish social changemakers to engage with Mussar practice as a means of building a deeply rooted spiritual practice to sustain them in their work, teaches often about the middah of savlanut, frequently but imperfectly translated as patience. In our Western cultural context, so consumed by the need for instant gratification, savlanut can feel unattainable. In a society so beset by systems of inequity and structural oppression, savlanut can ring hollow at best and feel deeply alienating at worst. Yet, Rabbi Jaffe reminds me that Savlanut is, at its core, the capacity for us to respond with equanimity to conditions that arise which might elicit strong responses such as anger and frustration. Neither of these emotions are negative inherently—indeed, anger can be quite productive—and when accessed and utilized skillfully, can lead to much-needed change. When we find ourselves in conflict with another, be it interpersonally or politically, we can utilize a teaching from the Tomar Devorah, a classic Mussar text written in the Land of Israel in the 16th century. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, its author, notes that the Divine is not separate from us but indeed endures the insults, the trials and tribulations that we do. Nothing is hidden from G-d’s watch. There is not a single moment, Rabbi Cordovero teaches, in which a human being is not sustained by the flow of Divine abundance. When a human being uses this Divine sustaining power to commit a wrongdoing, G-d suffers along with the one who was wronged. Therefore, G-d yearns for human beings, as the Prophet Micah teaches, to do teshuvah. The middah of savlanut, then, allows us to remain hopeful that true teshuvah is possible. We must always keep our goodness flowing to the other, even and especially when we are not sure that the other will do teshuvah.

        I readily admit that it can be hard to wrap our hearts around this in a time in which so much wrongdoing is occurring with impunity. Indeed, our Mussar teachers emphasize that free will is bestowed to every human being by the Divine and that we are responsible for our choices and actions. When we find ourselves experiencing conflict with another, we might adopt a kabbalah that derives from this source, a mantra of sorts.

         

        Take your seat. Focus on your meditation anchor, be that the breath, sound, or something else. Call to mind the one with whom you are experiencing conflict. Repeat softly to yourself, “I keep my goodness flowing to you”. Keep repeating this phrase for five minutes or for however long you have. Notice what arises for you, physical sensations, emotions, feelings in the body.

         

        I recommend anchoring your practice in a single interpersonal conflict at first. You might later expand this to send goodness out to those outside of your circle, to the world, etc. This practice is one I have found to be quite centering.

        Our Torah reminds us to always act with truthfulness and equanimity. Let us extend that outward, so that as we change our own souls, we might impact those of others in our midst.

         

        For focus:

         

        What is one conflict that I am experiencing presently? When I call that conflict to mind, how does it land with me?

        How does the idea of being sustained by the Divine at all times resonate with me?






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rabbi.lauren.tuchman@gmail.com
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