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The Unification of the Soul – Shabbat VaYishlach 2021

Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

 

The Unification of the Soul

Torah Portion VaYishlach 2021 (adapted from previous versions)

In the Torah we are taught to love God, “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” “b’khol levav’kha, b’khol nafsh’kha, uvkhol m’odekha”.  This is a totalistic demand, certainly unrealizable. The commandment to love God is the fourth on Maimonides’ list of the 613 commandments. Sometimes when a person says to me that they observe all the 613 commandments of the Torah, I quiz them on this one and a few other totalistic commandments. All admit:  maybe a couple of times in my life, maybe, I loved God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might. But this commandment is rarely achievable.

Perhaps all of us who strive for such unity and purity of heart may have had a few moments ourselves, an utter, deep, unrelenting and focused inner attachment to the Divine. I don’t feel I made those moments happen. I think the best we can do is arrive at the threshold and something beyond our conscious will pulls us across.

Is it the Divine hand? Is something animated in our soul at unique moments, moments in which all the inner divisions, splits and barriers fade away for just a flash, and in that flash, we become one, able to grasp the Unique One? What animates these singular moments? Maybe some mixture of grace and guts and an unfathomable mixture of our will and the will of the Divine.

Most of the time, when I un-busy myself enough to pay attention, the realm of my soul feels like that of our father, Jacob. Jacob, an inner man, a man of the tents, is pushed into a life for which he had no desire for which he was not prepared. (Not like the some of us, who live a life that we did desire, and are unprepared anyway.)

Ancient commentaries tell us that he was a scholar, a perpetual graduate student, if you will, preferring more and more arcane theories, maybe because he loved theory, and maybe because he was avoiding the awful truth of his life. Today, he would have been a post-modernist, perhaps. Imagine a post-modernist, tinkering away on his never quite done doctoral dissertation suddenly drawn into a brawl, dragged into the street by his mother who told him to man-up for God’s sake.

Literally, for God’s sake. His mother, Rebecca, received an oracle from God that the “older would serve the younger.”  She took this to mean that the birthright was meant by God to fall upon tender Jacob, not his older brother by a few seconds, tough guy Esav. I know some people think that everything that happens comes from God. The Bible seems to teach us something else, that things happen (like the birth order in this hapless family) that God actually does not want, and that God asks human beings to fix these things for God. That’s what we are – Fixers for God.

You remember that little gem (mislabeled the “Serenity Prayer”) written by Reinhold Niebuhr?

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

 

Well, this was no time for serenity. This was the courage moment – things had to change, get straightened out, and the time was now. Wisdom had spoken – it was time for action.  Forget about serenity here.

 

The scholarly one dresses up like his tough guy brother and pulls off a brazen con-for-God.  The tough guy breaks down crying when he realizes the con. At that moment, their roles are reversed, and they know each better than they have ever known each other. Each one is changed forever.

In this week’ s Torah portion, VaYishlach, the brothers come face to face after 20 years of ruminating – the scholar turned con man ready for a street fight, the tough guy ready to love and forgive. They end up hugging and kissing, and even if for just one brief, unique moment, a moment created from grace and guts and mysterious will, they become one.

This is what the soul feels like usually, when I am quiet enough to go down there and feel it. Irresolvable conflict, co-incidence of opposites, love and fear, street fights and con men, wisdom and foolishness, courage and timidity, God pushing me to change things that I actually can’t, serenity be damned. Find the will and the courage. God may be depending on it.

Sometimes, if we settle in enough and the stars line up, we can find the flash where the opposites embrace and the heart, soul and might become one. As Kierkegaard would say, in this moment of purity you can will one thing – whether it be love of the Divine, or even more importantly, in my way of thinking, love of the truth that can lead us to God or lead God to you. In that flash, a deep, mellow flow of acceptance, wisdom and love coalesce into a knowledge that transcends anything that the mind can think.

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