Day Fifteen: Unlock Your Prison of Shoulds

(This post is a Dvar Torah for the week.)

Wow. I really don’t like Jacob. Is it me, or is he kind of a total pig?

In this week’s parsha portion, Jacob forces out another blessing from an unwilling blesser – this time out of an angel. Not only this, but he does this on the way to beg his brother, Esau, for forgiveness – for having stolen a blessing. Seriously. To me, this begs the question – has he really learned? Has he really changed? It seems no coincidence that, on his way to seek forgiveness from Esau, he does the exact same thing for which he is asking forgiveness. I don’t see a lot of behavioral modification going on here.

Later in this charming story, Dinah – Jacob’s daughter – is raped by Shechem, a prince of the land where they’re staying, who then demands her for his wife. Shechem’s father, Hamor, works out a deal with Jacob (now named Israel, or one-who-has-wrestled-with-the-divine-and-come-out-alive) that they’ll trade daughters between the two families, thereby intermarrying on the regular, and becoming one big rapey clan. Jacob insists that the only way he’ll go through with this is if all the men of Shechem’s land are circumsized. Shechem agrees (although one feels that, perhaps he submitted his ‘yes’ without consulting the penises of his consituency) and they plan to move forward. However, Jacob’s sons Simeon & Levi decide to take revenge for the rape of Dinah, and slaughter Shechem, Hamor, and their kinsmen. So there.

This is just all kinds of ickybad. People are making decisions on the behalf of others; they’re doing what they think “should” happen, ignoring agreements; following rules and regulations instead of logic. I feel like Jacob is the example of not acting with his mind or morals, and instead following laws blindly. You raped my daughter? No prob! Just slash your penis and we’re cool, ’cause that’s like, a big rule in my God covenant. Hey broseph – oh, you want me to say sorry after shaming you and stealing everything you ever cared about? No prob! Take all my stuff – oh, wait, is that a blessing? Ooh, me wants, be right back, dammnit angel, give… me… that… (oh God, my hip!)… blessing… ya! haha, got it! – so what were we saying? Oh yeah, apology. I’m super sorry for fighting you and stealing your everything. Just take all my stuff. I have too much of it anyway.

What can I learn from this litigious jerk, I asked myself?

Well, one of my favorite Hebrew words (of the three I know) is Kavanah, meaning “intention.” It’s really the “why” of what you’re doing. The question that illustrates the meaning of this word to me the best is Kavanah  – is it better to follow all the laws without kavanah (by rote), or to live with kavanah and not follow the traditions? I think most of us would say the latter – and, while I do think there is power and import in followng traditions for their own sake, I think I would agree that intention is a more meaningful guide to action than law, routine, or habit. I would also posit that Jacob has had the kavanah portion of his brain excised – his actions seem devoid of true intention, simply means to an end. Makes me really dislike him.

While I at first struggled to find a lesson from Jacob to takeaway into the weekend, remarkably, this story/idea actually connects precisely to what I was writing about yesterday – following your own moral compass instead of the street signs planted by those who came before you. Allowing yourself to wander the wayward path of what, in your gut, feels right, instead of constantly deferring to what looks right, or what you were told is right. Using intention, instead of law, as the guiding principle.

So, this all sounds great, in the way that hearing a Neo song playing from a parked car can make you feel like a sassy independent lady as you strut down the street. Full of bluster, short on serious. The words, even as I typed them, fell flat.

I just took a walk to clear my mind, and figure out why writing that left me cold. I suppose the reason is, I immediately ask – ok, so how? How do I actually do those things? What does that actually mean in terms of concrete actions, instead of merignue-like mantras?

As I was walking, I thought “So, I want to feel good about going my own way. But how do I know it’s the ‘right’ way? How do I know I’m following my morals, and not just what is convenient, fun, or appealing? How do I feel confident in the choices I make, if I’m giving myself the opportunity to construct a life based on choices?”

The answer, I believe, is a little self-reflexive cognitive behavioral therapy. Asking yourself, before you act –

Why am I doing this?

Is it coming from the best part of me, or the worst part of me?

Is it something I want to do, or feel I should do?

Is it something that matters to me, or that I believe matters to others?

Do my words match my actions? Do my words & actions match my beliefs?

As much as I spent yesterday’s post talking about feeling good about following your heart, it’s going to take me awhile to buy into that as a lifestyle choice. I don’t know if I always believe my heart, or even agree with it. But I do think that asking those five questions can help us live lives that are intentional, aligned with our moral beliefs, and inevitably lead us to act our way into being the people we aspire to be.

So unlock your prison of shoulds, but hold yourself to the standard of acting from the best in you, and make the effort to be honest with yourself about the motivation for choosing one thing over the other.

Which is better than some (*cough cough hypocrite-rape-condoning-angel-beating-Jacob cough*) can say.

Have a peaceful and lovely weekend – see you on Monday!


2 thoughts on “Day Fifteen: Unlock Your Prison of Shoulds

  1. I just became familiar with your blog via the link through phillylovenotes and I’m really enjoying it. Regarding the Rape of Dinah, I highly recommend the book “The Red Tent”, which imagines her story from her perspective.


  2. 1) Your Dvar Torah posts always makes me want to convert to Judaism.
    2) The phrase “ the penises of his constituency” earns you 1,000,000 points in life. I will one day use this phrase as a public official.

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