“You aren’t getting low enough,” Amanda yelled at me over the music. “Bend your knees more!!”
I was in dance class, and despite it being my third year in intensive training, I was still having problems with completing standard jumps with more grace than an elephant. Turns? I could handle that. Jumping? Forget it.
“You need to get higher, and if you want to get higher, you have to get LOWER!”
It’s a basic concept in dance. Action, reaction. Low, high. Bend, jump. Plié, sauté. You’d think it wasn’t so hard to figure out, but Amanda spent hundreds of hours drilling that order into my mind. The lower you go, the higher you’ll fly.
I never quite thanked Amanda properly for that simple lesson which has, since then, manifested itself in my life time and time again in a countless number of ways.
I’m not the only one who has had to learn that lesson from explicit directions either. The Jewish people as a whole have encountered this back and forth throughout history, starting with the very first one of us: Abraham.
Abram (G-d changed his name to Abraham later on), who spent the large majority of the first 75 years of his life spreading the concept of monotheism that came about from his own intellect and spirituality, finally heard from the One G-d that he had been talking about all those years. And what does G-d say? It’s time to get packing.
|1. And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."||א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:|
And Abram listened. He packed his things and took his family and left everything behind in search of the Promised Land. Who knows how long he wandered looking for an unknown destination… All of his possessions with him, going from place to place. It’s a painful downgrade from the comfort of having somewhere to call home. Trust me, I lived out of my car the summer after my sophomore year of undergrad and slept on friends’ couches for weeks on end until my new place opened up; it wasn’t a good feeling.
So what made this descent into homelessness (for both myself and Abram) easier? The promise from someone we trusted that there was something better waiting for us at the other end. A sort of light at the end of the tunnel. For me, it was a nice room in a house with a good friend. For Abram, it was G-d’s word.
|2. "And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.||ב. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה:|
|3. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you."||ג. וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה:|
Okay, sounds worth it to me! So Abram left on his journey and wandered. Camping here and there, he made sure always to head south, towards Jerusalem. One day, G-d finally let Abram know that he was in the land that would belong to his descendants. Abram built an altar out of thanks, and then when he reached Jerusalem, he built another. But then the problems started.
There was famine. How could there be famine in the Holy Land? If it was me, right about then is when I would be asking G-d, “You made me leave my plush spot on the Euphrates River for THIS?!” Left with no other choice, Abram packed his things once more and continued heading south, this time away from Jerusalem.
|10. And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land.||י. וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ|
It’s interesting to me that the Torah uses the word “descended” when speaking about Abram’s journey to Egypt. Literally, “he went down.” In fact, we always use words with a connotation of downwards when speaking of Egypt in particular, and exile in general. Like the cheesy Passover song, “Go down, Moses.” This was Abram crouching down, getting ready for his leap. Sure enough, the leap came. In the form of cattle, silver and gold, Abram flew out of Egypt a wealthy man. The descent had paid off.
This parshah reminds me of a show I saw years ago at Cirque du Soleil. There was a multi-story building with empty windows as a prop on the stage. Just outside the walls of the building, down below the windows, were trampolines. The acrobats would throw themselves, without a second thought, out of the windows. Down they would fall, picking up so much momentum that they all but disappeared into the trampoline below. And then… BAM! They would pop out of the trampoline and go FLYING upward, reaching higher than they had started, making it to a window above the one they had left in the first place. But they would do it again. And again. Each time, reaching higher.
We see that throughout this parshah. Descent, ascent. Loss, gain. Homeless, then Jerusalem. Egypt, then wealth. It’s a recurring theme, and it doesn’t stop there. Fast forward a bit… through a quarrel with his brother, a major war in the region, a daring rescue of his brother from captivity, and Abram’s massive victory over the kings reigning in the area. The scene is now set for a conversation between Abram and G-d, the latter of which reminds the former that everything really is going to be fine and Abram will receive a nice reward for all of his trouble in the end. To which Abram protests that without a child, what good will a reward be anyway? G-d assures him that he’ll have a child, and (oh, by the way) here’s what a picture of the future is going to look like.
|13. And He said to Abram, "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.||יג. וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה:|
|14. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.||יד. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל:|
Abram is essentially told that these offspring, which he doesn’t even have yet, will have to go through the same continuous loss and gain cycle. They’ll go back down to Egypt, and they’ll suffer, but in the end they’ll come out with wealth. Why didn’t Abram protest? Because he saw what was in store… we would leave Egypt and get the Torah, and if our oppression was a necessary state of being to prepare us for the giving of Ultimate Truth, then so be it.
The reality of the matter is that sometimes we can’t make progress steadily. We can get to points in life where there is no easy hold in sight. If we could just reach a little farther up, there’s a ledge we could rest at, but it’s out of reach. At those times, making progress takes more than just a normal step in the right direction. To really move, sometime we need to ascend in “leaps and bounds.” It takes a loss of control. It means bending low, crouching far beneath our normal stance, and then jumping with all of our might and grabbing on to a hold a few feet beyond our normal reach. Only with that sense of descent can we reach the true heights in life.
I wish I had the confidence and conviction to see every “down” time in my life with clarity as strong as Abram’s was when he saw the vision of our exile. Looking back at hard times in life, I can almost always see the Divine Providence in those moments. I’m very blessed in that I can look at an awful stage, a point of chaos and confusion, a place of pain and solitude, and somehow clearly see the connection to those moments that come afterwards of brilliant clarity and light. I can see that the reason I was fired from one job was to be able to take a more fulfilling position in a company that was more accommodating to my goals and priorities. I can see that the reason I missed my flight was to answer a phone call from a colleague who desperately needed help and encouragement at that very hour. I can see that the reason my computer wouldn’t connect to the internet was so I would go for a walk and meet a friend that I had lost touch with for years. I can see that the reason for every failed relationship or lost friendship was to serve as a catalyst for growth that I would have been too comfortable to reach for without the stimulus of pain.
Unfortunately, it’s only looking backwards. Hindsight is 20/20.
That’s why sometimes it takes someone to get us going, someone to tell us that a descent is only for the purpose of an ascent. G-d told Abram, “Go to yourself.” Figure out who you really are. Leave everything behind: your instinctual reactions, your worldly desires, your preconceived notions. Enter that scary place of insecurity and doubt with the knowledge that something incredible is waiting on the other side.
Just a thought… we’ve been in exile for thousands of years now… Imagine what the future holds.
With the lesson from this week’s parshah, may we all have the ability to realize that G-d is here with us in our times of descent, and that the ascent afterwards will make it all worthwhile.
With hope for the immediate redemption and the final ascent, Rucheli
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