This week's portion: speaking from our soft places
A beauty of an encounter

A tiny taste of Me'am Lo'ez

This morning in my hevruta group we read a text by Me'am Lo'ez -- a.k.a. Rabbi Yaacov Culi, a 17th- and 18th-century Sephardic rabbi (whose major work, written in Ladino, gives him the name we know him by) -- on Bereshit. Specifically, we looked at commentary on the lines about the creation of humankind. (I'm delighted to discover that his text is available for free online -- here's part one.)

We had a terrific conversation about this text, which ranged from the inevitability of mis-reading (given how easy it is to misunderstand an email message, how much easier is it to misunderstand dense and multivalent texts like Torah?) to the writings of Douglas Adams on humanity's insignificance in the universe, to the nature of humans and angels and our relative places in the grand scheme of things.

Here's a tidbit that particularly caught my eye:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai once said, "If I was alive at the time when man was made, I would have asked God to give him two mouths, one to study Torah, and the other for mundane speech." Later, he took this back, saying, "If this were true, things would be worse. As it is, even with only one mouth, man is constantly engaged in idle chatter and malicious gossip. With two mouths, he would do so all the more."

There is another advantage in having only one mouth. With it, one sometimes studies Torah, and sometimes he speaks. A person might use his mouth to spread malicious gossip, to swear falsely and to eat forbidden foods. But then, with the same mouth, he asks God to forgive him, to keep his tongue from evil and his lips from malice.

Why is it relevant that we each use the same mouth for good purposes, and for ill? (Like the saying goes, "You kiss your mother with that mouth?!") Because if we had two mouths, we would be encouraged to compartmentalize in a way that's ultimately unhealthy. We could imagine ourselves as fully dual: the "good mouth" gets used for prayer and Torah study and right speech, while the "bad mouth" gets used for slander and hateful words and eating things that are bad for us. But that's not how we're made.

And because that's not how we're made, we can't pretend to be bipartite. The Rachel who tries diligently to pray in the mornings, to approach the world with wonder, to ingest food (both spiritual and physical) that's healthful and inevitably the same Rachel who says the wrong thing, misses opportunities for blessing, and consumes negativity like candy. But the very qualities in me which make me vulnerable to error are the same qualities that allow me to make teshuvah, to orient myself toward my Source.

This text also offers a midrash about how God collaborated with the heavens, the earth, and the waters in creating humanity. Each of these three contributed elements to the human body, and God contributed the soul. As a result, therefore, "When a person truly repents, all the angels, stars and planets therefore ask God to have mercy on him. They all have a portion in man, and they love him when he is good." The whole cosmos rejoices when we live up to our potential and become our highest selves, because the whole cosmos has a part in who we are.

Our job, I think, is to embrace and integrate our whole selves. I'm the same person whether I'm living out of my highest self, or my lowest. God created me with only one mouth -- but it's up to me whether I use that mouth in a way that damages the fabric of the universe, or a way that causes the very heavens to rejoice.

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