Pathways To Wonder, Blessing, and Deeper Connection In Our Relationships

I’ve finished the first draft of my book “Only Us: Torah Wisdom To Discover Meaning and Depth in All Our Relationships.” Below is the introduction. Please don’t hesitate to share any impressions or feedback.

The most profound treasures in my life are my relationships. My connections with family, friends, and community are what make me feel most alive and give my life meaning. In my personal life, and as a pulpit rabbi, I have found that this is also true for others. While our relationships on every level have the potential to lift us up, I’ve also experienced and been a witness to the reality that some of the greatest hurt and suffering also comes through our connections, or lack of them, with the other people in our lives.

 When I began to become truly interested in the Torah at the beginning of my 20’s,  the fundamental sacred scripture of Jewish tradition, I found the most meaningful insights about the nature of relationships and how to navigate them. I also found many seekers who wanted to connect with Torah and Jewish tradition, but struggled to find relevance in the sacred text. This book is for all individuals who want to grow and learn about ourselves, others, and the Sacred, through relationships, and who want to experience Torah as a guide to that growth.

One of the most essential truths about human life and the world we live in is that everything and everyone is in relationship. Everything exists only in relationship to everything else. Ken Wilber, one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time, notes that all of reality is composed of whole/parts or what the author Arthur Koestler refers to as “holons.” We can call every part of reality “holons” because they are both whole in themselves and at the same time, part of something else. He writes:  “a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, and a whole molecule is part of a whole cell, and the whole cell is part of a whole organism, and so on. Each of these entities is neither a whole nor a part, but a whole/part, a holon.”

The observation that all of life is made up of “holons” – that everything is both a whole and a part of something else is another way of affirming the reality of relationship. I do not exist as an island, but am part of a network of connections and relationships – to this planet which I rely on for food and shelter, to other people who constantly influence who I am and the choices I make, to social and economic systems of thought and process that govern the boundaries of how I move in the world, and to the living energy that fuels every cell in my body and all of life that surrounds me.

The Torah is viewed by Jewish sages as more than a book, but instead, a blueprint for the reality we live in moment by moment. An early rabbinic commentary stated that “God looked into the Torah and created the world,” suggesting that in its essence, the Torah is not the words on the page, but instead, a guide for our awareness to a more fundamental reality. Engaging with the Torah as a blueprint for reality acknowledges that there is a deeper pattern, design, and purpose to everything that we experience in our lives. 

The literal Hebrew meaning of the word Torah is “teaching” and I believe that our sages chose to read the text of the Torah, The Five Books of Moses, in ways that affirm the truth of relationship everywhere in creation. While Jewish tradition teaches that all of reality is an expression of the one Divine Presence, the human experience is one of duality. While we may have moments of experiencing the unity and connection in creation, we view the world mostly in dualistic ways – there is “me” and “you” – “us” and “them” “this and that.” 

The Torah begins with addressing this fundamental dualistic reality through the story of creation – Bereshit Bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). All Hebrew letters have numerical values and this opening line begins with the hebrew letter bet, which has a numerical value of two. We don’t primarily view the world as an expression of the One God whose presence unites creation, but instead as being broken up into a multitude of expressions and diversities – two and more. Even though on the first day of creation, God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) – which is an undifferentiated unified expression of creation, the opening verse of creation affirms the creation of two – “God created the heavens and the earth.” Two or more means relationship.

Relationship continues to be the theme  in the book of Genesis with the rest of creation, the beginning of human societies, and the building of the family of Israel. The book of Exodus tells the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the forming of a tribal purpose and mission at Mount Sinai. The book of Leviticus provides the framework for living in relationship with God in ritual form, and the book of Numbers is how to live that relationship through the wilderness journey to the promised land of Canaan. 

The stories in the Torah and the thousands of years of rabbinic commentary, both traditional and mystical,  illuminate the depth of relationships that we are a part of, and  show us how to sanctify those relationships in every aspect of our lives. The very center of the Torah is Parshat Kedoshim, or the “holiness code” containing the core expression from God – “You shall be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The act of sanctification, in Hebrew hakdashah, is about recognizing the Divine Presence in whatever aspect of reality we are aware of at any given moment. When I sanctify a relationship with another person, I acknowledge that not only are we connected, but that our connection has within it the potential for all that is good and beautiful in life. In this moment of sacred acknowledgement, I am more able to not only experience meaning and fulfillment in the relationship, but I can better respond with the love and thoughtfulness that honors the connection. I sanctify my relationship with my wife when we create “date night” – a time for us to consciously witness and enjoy each other in the midst of responsibilities of work and family. I sanctify my relationship with my children, when, in a moment of frustration, I choose to listen and respond from love instead of anger.

While the dualistic frame that we perceive the world through helps ensure our survival by enabling us to make choices in our lives, it also contributes to our suffering. While we can view relationships as our greatest source of meaning and purpose in our lives, they can also be the greatest source of our suffering. To see the world as broken up into multiple differentiated expressions, where I am separate from everything else, can contribute to a sense of isolation and disconnection. People can say and do things that hurt and further that sense of isolation and belief that I am not part of a sacred web of connections. 

In the book of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden can be read to tell the story of this phenomenon of separation, disconnection, and the origin of sin. In the story, Adam and Eve are told that they can eat from every tree in the garden except for one – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  When Adam and Eve ate from this prohibited tree, they were given the awareness of duality. In order to be like God, to choose, their world had to be made of choices, which means duality and multiplicity. With the eating of the fruit from this tree, not only did they see their world as made up of differentiated parts or choices, they also saw themselves as separate from the rest of creation which is illustrated through the narrative of hiding their nakedness from God. This sense of separateness was also expressed through God expelling them from the garden, leaving them to make their way in a world where suffering and toil exists. With choice and the ability to create also comes the ability to suffer. 

If Adam and Eve did not have free will and choice before eating from the tree, what prompted them to go against God’s direction? We know from the story that it was the snake that prompted the eating, but what does the snake symbolize? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, great 20th century teacher of Mussar proposes that before the snake, Adam and Eve experienced only the truth of God. The snake introduced the presence of desire which can shape truth in service of its own fulfillment. The first humans’ eating of the forbidden fruit was not an act of evil, but instead the fulfillment of a desire that was able to rationalize not obeying God’s essential command. 

Many religious traditions read the eating of the forbidden fruit as the prime expression of human sinfulness. The snake is viewed as a force outside of God that tempts the humans to actualize their sinful nature. Much of the rabbinic tradition does not posit a force that is outside of God. There is only God. Even the angel, Satan, which is commonly understood as the presence of evil, is viewed by Jewish tradition as a messenger from God sent to test humanity – to challenge them to be their best selves. In this same light, the snake in the story is part of God’s creation and its awakening of desire in Adam and Eve is a narrative that describes what it means to be human. From this perspective, the eating of the fruit was not a “fall” from grace, but instead an important development in the human capacity for relationship – for making sacred the experience of duality in this world.

In the story of the garden, the Torah does not say what fruit they ate. There are different interpretations. One midrash, or commentary, says that it was a grape. The midrash teaches that it is this explanation that is the foundation for why the rabbis chose the blessing over wine to sanctify moments and experiences. When we make a blessing over the wine to honor Shabbat, a holiday, or a milestone moment, we are doing that with the fruit from the tree that gave birth to duality and separateness. We acknowledge that it was the eating from this tree that gave birth to the experience of relationship. Only when we have a sense of distinction and separation from whatever is in our field of experience, can we notice it’s beauty, it’s Divine nature, and even our connection to it, him, or her. While feeling separate can lead to disconnection and isolation, it doesn’t have to. When we bring an intention forward to notice the connection, the holiness in the relationship, in the distinctions, then we act in ways that honor those connections and strengthen our experience of relationship.

I have found that whenever I learn Torah, I learn about relationships and I engage with the most important questions of my life.  How can I better notice my connection with others? How can I make choices in ways that strengthen my connection with the people that I love? What are my perspectives and habits of relating that get in the way of supporting other people in being their best selves? What do I do that creates distance?  How can I listen to others in ways that create space for them to feel heard and connected in their reality ? How can I communicate better so others are able to receive what is in my mind and heart and feel that our connection is honored?

I have found that there are basic principles or elements in relationships that address these questions. Part I of this book attempts to address these principles through the lens of Torah. It begins with how we nurture our relationship with ourselves. Even though there is only one of us, we are made of multitudes and sometimes different elements of our psyche and personality compete for our attention. We will explore how the mitzvah of Shabbat supports our relationship with ourselves and the Source of All Being.

Another basic principle of relationship is communication, the Jewish tradition considers the primary engine for creation. We’ll examine Jewish teachings on listening and speaking and how we can be more conscious and intentional with these aspects of our lives to strengthen and enhance relationships.

Part II is an overview of how the teachings about relationships show up in the Torah itself, divided by the weekly sidra, or reading. In each of these essays, we will examine a different aspect of our relationship with ourselves, others, and the wide world, with the hope of illuminating pathways forward in some of the greatest challenges we experience with others.

It is my hope and prayer that some of the insights and life experiences presented in this book will not only demonstrate a more fundamental message from the Torah that can guide your ongoing study, but also deepen a pathway to blessing, wonder, and deeper connection in all of your relationships. 

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