Learning to Accept Reality

One of the most heartbreaking things that humans do to themselves and others is to refuse to accept the reality we are given and cannot change.

In Parashat Vayeitzei, we see this dynamic played out so clearly between sisters Rachel and Leah. Older sister Leah is the first wife of Yaakov/Jacob, but less loved.

You may recall that Yaakov/Jacob was hoping to marry Rachel, but Leah was the surprise substitute at the last moment. (Women apparently wore very heavy veils in those days and note there was no electric lighting back then in the marriage chamber.)

As a result, Leah found herself in an apparently loveless marriage and even worse, was forced to witness the profound love her husband had for her own younger sister on a daily basis.

How do we know this was the reality?

Just read the Torah as it tells us this through narration and direct quotes from Leah herself: 

Poor Leah! She basically calls her first child- "I am suffering!" and hopes by giving Yaakov/Jacob a first-born son, he'll love her for that. Alas, that didn't work. 

So then Leah figures, if at first you don't succeed.... She gives birth to another son, and in essence calls him "G!D heard I am hated." And again hopes that Yaakov will stop resenting her. Alas, that didn't work either. 

Third time's a charm, right?!? Unfortunately, for Leah the answer is negative. She gives birth to her third son and calls him "Now my husband will feel connected to me!" Alas, we know the result- that didn't work either. 

Three healthy sons. And a mother who cannot see that beauty, because she's too preoccupied fighting the reality she's been given.

What’s the reality? The reality is that Leah was married to a man who did not want her as a wife and did not love her as he loved her sister. In an era of no-divorce, she is stuck with this reality but cannot seem to see a way to change her perspective.

How many of us ignore the gifts we've been given and focus on what we wish we had gotten instead? It's so human... and so Leah.

Yet, this isn’t the end of the story. We humans have the remarkable ability for flexible thinking… if we decide to move on. And that’s exactly what happens to Leah.

How do we know Leah is able to accept and move on? She gives birth to a fourth son, Yehudah/Judah, and actually names him "This time I will praise G!D."

WOW! What a change!

She realizes she can't make Yaakov love her (or love her as much as he loves Rachel). You can't make people have feelings they don't have. Some things you can change; and some you can't. Up until now, it's as if the children she bore were only tools to get Yaakov's love.

After the birth of Yehudah, we see that she is finally able to see her child as a complete blessing and gift on its own-- without any relationship to anyone else except the one between her and the Divine.

There are (at least) two lessons for us. The first is:

  • Where we can change reality, we try. Where we can't (often in connection to a particular person, for example), we accept and deal with the reality by changing our perspective (the one thing we can, of course, control).

Another important point is that:

  • Yehudah is the namesake of the entire Jewish people (known in Hebrew as "Yehudim/Jews"). So when Leah says "This time I will praise G!D," it means that Jews/the Jewish people are directly connected to Praising G!D and Accepting Reality.

In the Mussar tradition within Judaism, this middah/characteristic of accepting reality and yet continuing to praise G!D is known as Bitachon/Trust. For me, this is the hardest middah of all those I've studied.

Intellectually I know I can't control everything, but our modern life, our conquest of time and space, our cultural messages- all of them promote the idea that the only thing stopping you from achieving what you want is yourself.

So many of our cultural messages (in the Western world) is that your life is all in your hands. That's The Secret in a nutshell. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.

Except that sometimes... everything is not in our control. And when we have to confront that reality, those messages make us feel like failures or losers or not positive enough or not persistent enough and so forth...

Like Leah, we can beat ourselves up, cry out in bitterness to the world, keep trying year after year to change reality.

Or like Leah, we can come to terms with the reality we're given and look for ways to find meaning and blessing in what we have been given and by so doing, become actually happier.

Indeed, Leah teaches us that we can change reality... just not the way we might have expected.

The contemporary “Serenity Prayer” (often used in 12-Step recovery) is so famous because it teaches this message so well:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Shabbat Shalom

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