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Be Strong.

A tale is told of two very cranky men, Schlemeil and Schlemazel who left Egypt during the great Exodus. They became very weary what with all that marching, and at one point noticed that their shoes were being muddied, as they slogged along. “Ugh”, complained Schlemeil, “my sandals will be ruined with much more of this, can’t we rest already!” and “are we there YET?” They never noticed the sea was parting beyond their heads. They continued to look downward as the trumpets blared and the mountain smoked. “How rocky this road is, and all that noise blaring!” whined Schlemazl. “Are we THERE yet?” The never noticed the revelation at Sinai! “Oh, my aching feet!” they both declared. Time passed and there was lots more marching. Eventually, exasperated they both shouted “ARE WE THERE YET!?” and never noticed the sight of the promised land.  Where we look determines our experience, not where we go. Miracles could be happening around us, but if we don’t look up every once in awhile, they don’t happen for us!
I’ve just been watching this eye opening series called “Brain Games” on National Geographic.
The limitations of our brain makes us blind to MOST of the things going on around us. We focus, quite efficiently on what we think’s important for our survival, They call it “inattentional blindess”. So what do we focus on? Problems! As Rachel Barenblat wrote this week: when’s the last time you were sleepless thinking about something awesome? What if our worst blindness was ourself: that we couldn’t see the goodness, the powerful potential within to do great things? It’s an easy trap to fall into: when I was a student, the really good grades made no emotional impact, but I’ll always remember that first grade math test I failed (arithmetic eluded me, I was too scared of my first grade teacher).

This week’s Torah portion is a favorite of mine, Shelach L’chah was my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion and it contains the stories of the twelve scouts. Each scout representing a tribe of Israelites, leaders all, took the same trip and were in the same places, but saw different realities. For ten of them the land of milk and honey was scary, full of man-eating danger. The natives of the land were so enormous that we were, in our own eyes, as tiny grasshoppers, and so we must seem in their eyes. These tiny grasshoppers, chagavim, are edible, by the way. To see yourself as a grasshopper is to lack the self love and respect of a creature who is forged in the divine image. Newly liberated slaves failed to hold on to faith in themselves and in God in a scary, new world of independence.  In the classroom, one of the best predictors of a child’s failure is a self fulfilling prophecy of I don’t have what it takes, I’m not college material. So powerful, it may be an insurmountable barrier blocking success. All tries to help become diffracted through this lens. Our brain is hard wired to focus on those pieces of our life that threaten our survival – they become the all we see. Perhaps it’s why elections are won by fear mongering. But there’s a better way to live: “We pray to live, not by our fears, but by our hopes” expressed in this line of the Modim (prayer for thanks) in the reform prayer book.

But where do we find the strength to live by our hopes, and, recognizing our fears, put them in a place that does not paralyze? Family? Possibly, but having a family to care for can make us even more fearful, for good reason. The Israelites response to the spies reports is to cry out: Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt!’  Maybe for strength we can lean on some sweet spot of inspiration,  for perspective, and to help us raise our eyes out of the mud of fear.   For much of the history of the Jewish people this strength that lifts our eyes has been Torah. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, is traditionally chanted upon completing a book of Torah. But I like it here for these verses too, and so I sang Dan Nichols’ interpretation  to my son after blessing him for his Bar Mitzvah. It means: “Be Strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another” Here are some of the lyrics:

We have come from near and far, to raise our voice in song;

The more we join in the refrain, the more we feel strong: chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

There is a power in this place and time, to shape the rest of our lives

As we return each year we fine a truth we can’t deny.

Be strong, let us strengthen one another! Be strong let us celebrate our lives!… chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!

As we sing we link ourselves, to those who came before,

and we’re one with those who’ve yet to come, our strength it will endure. Be strong!….


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