Wednesday, December 17, 2008


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

December 17, 2008

‘Are you sitting down’?

Actually, I was – sitting at my desk looking out the window at the morning rain finally feeding a parched Jerusalem, with a cup of tea in my left hand and the phone in the other. N., across the Atlantic, was the bearer of bad news, the kind one sits down for. Madoff’s scheme trickled down to our immediate reality –a few of Storahtelling’s important funders badly hit and will be unable to support us this year. Also, a major foundation with a significant investment in our programs slated for later this year – simply erased off the map. The implications are severe. I remained sitting for a long time after the phone call ended, cheeks wet like rain, throat parched like earth. Just sitting.

There are different kinds of ‘sitting’. There is the casual sit down at a café, with a newspaper or a book, or a rigid 9-5 at your computer or sewing machine or at the wheel. There is meditation, often done sitting down – (in Hebrew one doesn’t say ‘did you mediate today? But rather – ‘have you sat today?’) There’s the sitting down for Shiva – mourning for a loved one – a required ritualized act of sitting low for a week. There are seating charts for dinner parties, and the toilet seat that often follows, there’s finding your assigned seat in the theater or choosing one in the movies, there’s the nervous sitting at job interviews (‘please take your seat’), or hospital waiting rooms. Then there’s the race for a seat of an elected official, or the jumping out of one’s seat to cheer a sports event. We do a lot of sitting as means to a greater end. And yet, sometimes it is the act itself that matters, just pausing to bend the knees, and find as comfortable a place as possible to let the butt rest and the feet rest and all the rest, rest: ‘are you sitting down??’

Jacob sits down this week, and the Torah portion ‘VaYeshev’ is named for this much awaited rest;. ‘Jacob sat in the land of his father's dwelling, in the land of Canaan’ (Genesis 36:1). Jacob hopes to settle down – physically and emotionally - recovering from the recent ‘Dina Disaster’, and more recently – the death of his beloved wife Rachel. He is hoping to find a peaceful place among his neighbors, to prosper, to take a deep breath. But the peace is temporary… The commentaries sigh ‘he wanted to sit quietly and then came the saga of Joseph....’

But not yet.

At this point in the story, this weekly re-run, he is just ‘sitting’. Yes, his has been a difficult life, full of challenges and hardships, but now he is home, and to ‘sit’ in Hebrew also means to ‘dwell’. He is re-grounding himself in reality. Sitting down, Jacob shows us, has to do with re-charging one’s batteries, with tapping into a greater resource of inspiration and hope – especially at times of heartbreak and crisis and fear. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word ‘Yeshiva’ comes from the same root of “Shev’ – sitting down. The Jewish art of study is done at yeshivas – the places where we sit down to connect to our roots and stretch our minds and hearts like branches, further out into the world. Sitting matters. It is also no coincidence that the word ‘Shabbat’ comes from the same root as ‘sit’ or ‘stop’ – Shabbat is the wise weekly invitation to breath deep, sit down, ground one’s self as the storms rage. “Are you sitting down?”

Jacob’s been hit hard, and more is to come, but at this point in the story, he, the protagonist, doesn’t know it yet – and neither do we, the ‘readers’. Yes, terrible news will shatter his life, but years later, great consolation will mend his heart and family. For now, he, and we, are just quietly sitting, taking it in, sitting with it, looking outside the window at the rain quenching the thirst of this parched land.

21F: My seat on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York City, as I write this blog entry, on my way to a series of important meetings and vital decisions to be made. I cherish this quiet in between time zones, no emails, no phones. Outside my window the pitch black of somewhere and nowhere at all and in the horizon the pale strip of light – dawn over North America. I sit there, seatbelt and on - I try not to worry about everything, be here and now - breathe deeply, and simply sit down, gathering hope and strength for the rising of the dawn and for what comes next.

PS. In his commentary on Jacob’s dwelling in Canaan, Rashi, the French Torah Commentator quotes an odd parable, eerily appropriate of current events: ‘A merchant of flax enters the market with a caravan of camels, all laden with flax. ‘Where will all this flax be stored’? a local metal-smith asked. ‘Just one spark from your furnace and there will be no flax left…’ answered another merchant. Is this parable painfully obvious enough for right now? One man’s action has caused millions of damaged lives worldwide. Conversely – one person’s love can help heal this painful crisis – and that person can be you. Can you help me help Storathelling enter Chanukah with our lights turned on? Each and every gift matters a lot at this time and is much appreciated. You can do it online and make a huge difference – even just as a vote of confidence. GIFT TO STORAHTELLING

Thank you.


  1. Healing words from a healing source for a most difficult and dark time for many of us.

    Thanks for reminding us that we can seek solace as well as advice from our sources - to sit. Not to sit back, but to sit with something for just a moment, before acting.


  2. I am watching this unfolding, shameful crisis and cannot help but think of yet one more "sitting' - the involuntary one. We have "sitting in prison" in our language and societal experience. We know the kind of sitting that is a result of someone forcibly pushing our shoulders down. Or - when someone "pulls a carpet from under our feet". What does it take to be able to stand again after such an experience? Can we do it on our own, just by the virtue of our inner strength and determination? Even if we possess these qualities, we will not be able to fully realize them unless there is another human being standing next to us, reaching out to us, coaxing us to try again, and again, and again. May we all see this crisis as another opportunity to dscover our limitless potential for acting in a G-dly mmanner within this world. Ewa

  3. I sit reading your words with a heavy heart. I sit with anger and outrage. I sit watching the news, and I'm no longer so disconnected from it. Most importantly, I sit with deep gratitude for the bright light that Storahtelling has brought to me personally and to the Jewish world. In this seaon of miracles and metaphors of light, I believe that we will keep the light of storahtelling burning.
    Much love,

  4. Another victim in this carnage. This is a tough year for all, and this only made it much harder, particularly for an organization like Storahtelling. I believe in giving back, and Amichai's weekly email is a gift I get each time. Thank you for your wisdom and perspective. My little contribution won't make a difference in amount, but I hope it makes you see how valuable you and the organization is. Don't let the light go out.

  5. Snowflakes are falling faster than I can follow with my eyes: it's impossible to avoid thinking of the markets, the banks, and now the foundations and charities (!) doing the same. Storahtelling will not be among them. My family is proud to be Jewish--in a way we couldn't be before Storahtelling. Amichai, I will give much more this Chanukah than I have before, hoping it makes a dent. Keep sending the blog and lighting the fire.

  6. I just returned Thursday from 8 incredible days in Israel. This trip was meant for pure pleasure; sightseeing, resting, eating, drinking cafe hafooch, shopping, and visiting family and friends. I wasn't planning on visiting the kotel this trip; I was on vacation! But the 2nd night in Jerusalem I was drawn to the wall on a dark and cool, clear night. I arrived with my husband at midnight; he went his way, I went mine. The women's section was so much more available at this hour than in previous trips. I did something I never do; I sat down in a chair at the wall. Just a white, plastic, outdoor chair that you'd have in your garden or porch. Usually juggling and pushing my way into position to touch my fingertips to the stone, this time I had the chance to sit and reflect, relax and think and pray. I grabbed a book of tehillim and read, anything, skimming through the pages. I sat and thought about all the burdens and fears in my life that drew me and urged me to the wall at this hour. I sat and wept my heart out for what seemed like an eternity thinking that surely in this place my prayers would be heard.
    I stood, kissed the wall, and backed my way out.
    I read your words this week and as usual they resonated with me. Sit down, take the time to reflect, the work and life's realities will all be waiting for me when I stand up again.
    Thanks Amichai for always inspiring ....