As we touched on in parashat Ki Teitzei, another way to think about our collective Oneness is through water. We know that water is fundamental to all life; our bodies are mostly water, and the brain and heart, in particular, are composed of 73% water. That means we have 73% in common with every person in the world. Which gives new meaning to the saying, “the grass is greener where you water it”. On top of that, people mirror each other’s inner belief systems, so if we aren’t “watering” ourselves and those around us in connectedness and positivity, then individually and collectively we can’t grow.
Continually giving yourself and others life-force is essential to being in a blissful and connected state. It takes work, because on the other end of it is being unhappy, which is a vicious cycle and can lead to worry, anxiety, anger, depression. Anger is toxic to your body and soul, often triggering one’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which floods the body with stress hormones, health issues and digestive problems. The cure for all this is easier said than done, but it begins with a healthy perspective, with trust and faith that all is for the good and that everything will work out. This is part of the grass being greener where you water it.
In life there will always be two ways to look at everything coming your way, as a blessing or as a curse. The Torah last week and this week articulates this to a great degree. Showing time and again that it is ultimately up to us if we focus and manifest good and blessings, or if we bring about the opposite. So if our heads are filled with something negative, we need to remove the negativity, and replace it with the positive.
All of these historic and Biblical stories are for our own learning and internalizing, each one with layers of lessons. The Torah says, “When Yosef was in an empty pit, it was without water.” We can ask, Why does it say that it had no water if it already stated the fact that it was empty? The explanation is that the pit was empty of water, but it was full of snakes and scorpions. As we know, water represents truth and Torah, as we say, “ein mayim ela Torah,” which means, “the only water is that of Torah”. In this story we could look at the pit as a symbol of our own minds. We can focus our attention on Torah, with the blessings that are covered in these parshiot, the positive things and love (“life and good’). The parashah spells out that the other side of that is our minds being filled with negativity, as it’s written, “death and evil,” which from the story with Yosef is represented by the snakes and scorpions, which are the negative psychological aspects. With the snake, poison is in the head, and it bites you at the beginning of any process. But the scorpion has its sting at its end. This represents the two blocks so many of us face: those of us who can’t seem to get anything started (generally because of our own fears and anxieties), and those of us that can get them started, but can’t seem to ever finish them for much the same reasons.
There is no such thing as an empty pit. There could be things missing, but there will always be something there. And it is the same with our minds: there will always be thoughts, we need to control and direct what those thoughts are. The lesson is that if we don’t fill it with something positive, it will fill itself with negative thoughts. And so we must remove ourselves from the negative by separating ourselves from it and focusing on manifesting the positive.
After my mom passed away, I started a project in her memory called, Don’t Block Your Blessings. The objective is to inspire others to focus on the good, get out of their own ways, and make themselves vessels for overflowing blessings. I continuously ask people from all over the world to share their perspectives on navigating the ups and downs of life, and to share what I have dubbed, “Cheat Codes to Happiness.” I want us to inspire each other with the wisdom we’ve picked up in our journeys, how we’ve learned to feel blessed and give blessings.
One of my favorite people and families in Los Angeles is Meirah Perry and her husband, Yonatan and their kids. They both participated and sent me videos, and Meirah’s wisdom ties into this idea of spinning the negative into the positive. She shared:
I like to spin any negative thoughts into a positive. I picture my thoughts like this: when something negative enters my mind, I picture it like the New York Stock Exchange that goes by. As I envision them, I let them go by. Sometimes they resurface right away, but I could replace them through conscious effort, into a lighter way of thinking about that situation, or with a different thought entirely. We are in complete control, and that’s an incredible gift from Hashem. When I’m cold, I’m happy; hot, i’m happy; my leg hurts, i’m happy; crying, i’m happy, because I’m alive to have the experience of whatever that thing is, to feel something– a touch, the rain, to smell, to see, to walk, to breathe, to wake up is such a happy thankful thing.1
There’s a famous story about the great Sage Rabbi Akiva, how he transformed himself from a lowly shepherd into one of the most important and influential Sages of all time. The story starts when Rachel offered to marry the uneducated Akiva if he would devote his life to the study of Torah. This was an unfathomable act, as Rachel was the only daughter of Kalba Savua, who was held in great esteem as a prominent family in Jerusalem. Akiva felt that what Rachel asked of him was impossible; he was already forty years old. But one day, he observed water dripping onto a stone and noticed that the steady trickling had made an impression in the stone. He then realized, “If drops of water can make an imprint on a stone, then even he can learn Torah.”
Rabbi Akiva went from seeing himself as hopeless, full of doubt, to illuminating Torah for all time. In the Talmud, he compares Jews and Torah to fish swimming through water: “remove the Jews from Torah, and they will surely die, just as fish will die out of water.”2 In the time when the Romans forbade Torah study, Rabbi Akiva risked his life in order to continue to learn Torah. When a fellow Jew asked why he would put himself in such danger, Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable: A hungry fox, standing on the riverbank, called out to the fish, “Fish, why do you subject yourself to such a dangerous existence? Don’t you know that a little further down there are fishermen just waiting to catch you? Join me on the river-bank and you will be safe.” The fish replied, “What you say about the fisherman might be true. But if I am not immersed in the water, then surely I will die. My only chance to live is if I am in the water, despite its peril.” Rabbi Akiva looked at the fellow Jew named Pappus ben Judah and stated simply, “Just as fish cannot live without water, we cannot live without Torah.” As it’s written in the Zohar, “If someone separates himself from the Torah, it is as if he separates from life itself.”3
Many of us have heard the often repeated phrase, “Ein mayim ela Torah” which translates as “there is no water but Torah”. It is here that we learn that water in Scripture is always a symbol and metaphor for Torah. As it’s written in Isaiah: ” Everyone… thirsts for water”4, and the Talmud explains this as spiritual thirst: “all who seek it should drink of Torah’s refreshing teachings.”5 Just as water refreshes, nourishes, and sustains the body, Torah refreshes, nourishes and sustains the soul. And just as every society is dependent upon water, and positions itself whenever possible next to water of some kind, Torah is at the foundation of our society.
As it says in this week’s parashah:
רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֮ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֔יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְותָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֑יו וְחָיִ֣יתָ וְרָבִ֔יתָ וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ
See! Today I have set before you [a free choice] between life and good [on one side], and death and evil [on the other]. I have commanded you today to love God your Lord, to walk in His paths, and to keep His commandments, decrees and laws. You will then survive and flourish, and God your Lord will bless you in the land that you are about to occupy.6
Rashi explains the verse simply that “the one is dependent upon the other: if you do good, behold, there is life for you, and if you do evil, behold, there is death for you.” The Sifte Chakhamim elaborates on “If you act with goodness, then you have life” and breaks down that Rashi is answering the question some have raised that the verse should have mentioned each thing and its opposite (i.e. life and death, and good and bad) as it does a few verses later.7 And further, when in the verse it says “See, I have placed before you, etc.”, one would think it implies that man’s acts of goodness are in Hashem’s hand, but this is not so, because as Chazal (The Sages) say, “Everything is in the hand of Heaven except for fear of Heaven.”8 Therefore Rashi explains, “One hinges on the other — If you act in His ways, etc., meaning that if on your account you do good, Hashem will give you life, but if on your own you do bad, Hashem will give you death. Because it is in your hands to choose the good or the bad, and you choose from whichever you want. The verse teaches the consequences and weight of the free will that has been bestowed upon us. As the Peter Parker principle goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Ramban expounds on the free will that this verse illustrates when Hashem comes to exhort them yet again to teach that there are two courses in their hands, and it is in their power to walk in whichever they desire, and there is no power below or above that will withhold them or stop them. And as we see in the verse, He calls heaven and earth to bear witness against them a second time. Whereas the first time He said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish,”9 now He says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death,”10 which are the blessing and the curse, and that “I have counselled you that you should choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”11
As the Talmud teaches, “a person is led down the path that he chooses to follow.”12 Here we are instructed to choose wisely, but it’s important to do it mindfully and for the right reasons. As the Kli Yakar teaches about “if it is life that you seek, look towards the good, and to do that which is good in the eyes of Hashem”: one asks, why “good” is not mentioned first, for it is through the good actions that one merits life, and the answer is that it comes to warn us not to do that which is good in Hashem’s eyes only in order to live. But rather to live in order to do that which is good. A person should not seek life for material gain, but only in order to spend his life serving his Creator.
Sitra Achra translates as the “other side”. It’s a concept in Kabbalah that everything has a balance– good and God have opposing energies from the sitra achra that pull us from that which is good. This balance sustains free will and makes our choices, when earnest, that much greater. The verse in our parashah about good and evil comes to teach us what happens if we follow the mitzvot, living in alignment with what is mutar (permissible), and not, God forbid, living in the space of what is assur (forbidden). The etymology of the two Hebrew words illustrate this perfectly. Good and life is tied to mutar, which literally means “released,” “free,” while evil is tied to death and to assur, which means “chained,” “bound.” Because that which is forbidden is chained, bound and held captive in the power of the sitra achra, preventing it from ever ascending into holiness. The one element that could elevate the dark fallen sparks into Light is teshuvah done from the heart with love, which was covered in the last parshiot through the sacrifices and now prayer from the heart. The Hebrew word teshuvah stems from the root תשב, literally meaning ‘return’. We have to realize that every moment we are existing in a space where we can return, we can literally turn it all around and choose a different path. When this is done with sincerity and a fervor born of love, truth and passion, there is nothing more life-changing.
As one of my favorite Israeli singers, Eviatar Banai sings, “הייתי צריך את הכאב כדי לרגע להתקרב,” which translates as “I needed the hurt/darkness in order to draw closer (to the light).”13 We all need the difficulties to learn from, to grow from, to become complete people. It’s how we act in adversity that defines us, something we all have to continue to work on. We could fear the waves in the ocean, that they might carry us away and into the unknown. But if we choose not to fight against them, if we choose to ride them, we will be naturally brought to life-sustaining water. And when we are brought to this stillness, we feel surrounded by the life-giving force of the water. The same can be said of our lives– we fight against the currents, not realizing that we could “let go and let God,” and when we do, allowing ourselves to find stillness with Hashem and Torah, then our faith is full, our lives are full, and our love shines as light for others.
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Notes & Sources
- Meirah Perry, Don’t Block Your Blessings video
- Talmud Berachot 61b
- Zohar I, 92a
- Isaiah 55:1
- Talmud Bava Kama 82a
- Deuteronomy 30:15, 16
- Deuteronomy 30:19
- Megilla 25a
- Deuteronomy 4:26
- Deuteronomy 30:19
- Makkot 10b
- Oryata – אורייתא by Eviatar Banai