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Torah Reflections

Miketz: Karma and the Spiritual Path

In this week’s reading (Miketz) the tale of Joseph and his brothers resumes. As you may recall, in last week’s Torah portion, Joseph set out to see his brothers who were pasturing their herds away from the family encampment. Things went downhill pretty quickly, and his brothers sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt, and eventually landed in jail there.

Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s troubling dreams and the failure of his own advisors to interpret them. On the basis of his prior successes in dream interpretation with his fellow inmates, Joseph is recalled from prison and brought before Pharaoh. His success in unraveling the symbolism lands him in a position of power, second only to Pharaoh himself. Seven years later, he is in charge of the stores of grain that he had accumulated in anticipation of the famine he had predicted.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s family in Canaan is starving and Jacob sends his sons to acquire provisions in Egypt. The brothers come before Joseph with their request. Although Joseph recognizes them, they do know him.

Joseph masterminds some shenanigans that put the brothers even more fully at his mercy. And that’s where we read the following:

And each man said to his brother, “Indeed, we are guilty with regard to our brother. We saw distress of his soul when pleaded with us, but we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)

The brothers are expressing a belief in karma, although they wouldn’t have used that term. They are acknowledging that what goes around, comes around.

Miketz’s troubled minds

This verse makes a specific connection between past actions and future events, acknowledging that what goes around comes around. But payback is not the only relevant aspect of karma. There is also the mental and emotional suffering that we bring upon ourselves. Jacob makes it clear to his sons that their actions have broken his heart, and it pains them. Later, they express their grief by tearing their garments, and acknowledge their guilt:

And Judah said, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak, and what [can we do] to justify ourselves? God has revealed your servants’ sin…(44:16)

Miketz is describing the emotional consequences of our unskillful actions, the kinds of things that create knots in our stomach and keep us awake at night. They drive us (quite literally) to distraction as we try to avoid acknowledging–let alone feeling– these emotions.

Walking the path

You can probably imagine what happens when on a silent meditation retreat, a setting with very little in the way of distractions and specific instructions to pay attention to your mind. We can longer hide from ourselves, and it can be very, very uncomfortable.

It’s for this reason that traditional spiritual paths begin with training in moral conduct. It is nearly impossible to deepen one’s level of awakening–via any path–if the mind stream is full of guilt, fear and shame. So we begin by acknowledging and accepting responsibility. We repair what can be repaired, seek forgiveness where it can be found and express genuine and transformative remorse for it all.

Simultaneously, we train in practices that help us to see more clearly, open our hearts and grow in compassion. And that helps us to keep the heart-mind stream free of new troubles.

Good karma

When I first took on a serious spiritual practice, I spent a lot of time cleaning up my karma. There was a lot of work to do, more than you might expect and more than I feel comfortable talking about here. Simply acknowledging this was terribly painful, and the process of cleaning up the messes I’d created was uncomfortable, to say the least. But I the result was a sense of relief and freedom.

When I turned to meditation, more subtle levels of negative karma made themselves known and I learned how to work with those as well. A big part of that was learning to forgive myself and to accept that I am human. As I gained the ability to observe my heart-mind stream in real time, I found myself able to act more skillfully more often. And I learned to clean up my messes as soon as I made them.

Now, for the most part, when I sit down to meditate, my mind is free of these kinds of obstacles. Yes, there are thoughts and feelings–sometimes lots of them. But I rarely experience guilt or shame or the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. In their absence, I’ve found a spacious, bright freedom that is always present and unsullied. Believe me, it’s worth it.

If you are serious about your practice–whatever form it takes–this kind of work is essential. Because good karma has its consequences, too.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed with the strength to acknowledge the consequences of your actions. May you find the healing and freedom that comes with the repair and release of the results of all unskillful deeds. And may you find the freedom that holds it all.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.


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