Friday, November 8, 2013

Jacob and the Fast Hand of Karma

by Greg Marzullo

This week's Torah portion contains so many iconic moments of Judaism and the people' story, yet there are endless subtleties that connect beautifully with yogic thought.

Perhaps what intrigues me most is not just what happens during this particular segment, but what came immediately before it - what led Jacob to these moments. The young man has just deceived his blind father Isaac, taking his elder brother Esau's blessings, and running away at his mother Rebekah's insistence.

Shortly thereafter, Jacob has his famous dream of angels descending up and down a grand staircase connecting the transcendent realms with our more earthly one, and Adonai blesses him with His protection, land and countless descendants.

Jacob then ends up going to his cousin Laban's place, falling in love with Rachel and after working for seven years, he gets, as a reward, the elder daughter Leah. Eventually, Jacob is united with his intended, but he works another seven years for her hand.

When Jacob confronts Laban about the "mixup," Laban replies, "It is not done so in our place, to put the younger before the elder."

In yoga, we would call this the fast hand of karma. Jacob basically gets called out for the similar deception he wrought on his older brother and father. Karma is almost mathematical in its efficiency, and everyone, regardless of their station, is affected by it. Even the gods of India are at the mercy of this balancing system, whereby every action, good or bad, puts a stamp on a person's record. That stamp gets cashed in for currency of some kind - in simplistic terms, good begets good and bad begets bad. 

However, that's not just a simple record of rewards and punishments. In fact, we create our own karma with every action, word and even thought (since thought patterns eventually manifest as actions). A person can be blessed beyond measure and still have to pay out a karmic debt to balance his or her rap sheet. (We've all pondered, "Why do bad things happen to good people?") Then there's the opposite when we see cruel people gaining wealth and fame, as if those things were rewards at all.

In this Torah portion, God blesses Jacob, despite the trickery he played on his father, and yet, Jacob doesn't get off Scott-free. He still has to pay up when the time comes, tricked by Laban in a case of mistaken identity, just as he tricked his own father. 

What does this mean? God rewards those who act dishonestly? No. It means that humans are complex, and our relationship with God is equally complex. God doesn't pull us up short and strip us of everything when we commit one transgression. The blessings of Adonai are always upon us, no matter how far we go into misdeeds, but that also doesn't mean that we don't get what we pay for.

If you plunk down money at the racetrack on the horse that's a legendary loser, why should we be surprised when you lose your shirts after the race comes to its predictable end? That doesn't mean God smote us and caused our downfall. We caused our own downfall by betting on the wrong horse.

Karma is not a punishment. It's a payment system. Now the real question becomes, when do you stop going to the racetrack altogether? When do we finally get away from the back-and-forth of "midah k'neged midah" (measure for measure)? 

Only when we realize, as Job does later, that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Then, we can be released from our karmic patterns and lean deep into the embrace of the divine. 

*Rabbi Scott's note: Karma, as a spiritual belief, has a Jewish countpart: we call it midah k'neged midah - measure for measure. One can see midah k'neged midah playing itself out all over the bible, especially in the stories of the forefathers and foremothers, and in the story of the Exodus. Our Rabbis talk about it all the time in Torah commentary.

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