May 29, 2024

“What Else Could This Be?” Excerpt from The Place Of All Possibility

By Adina Allen

The following is an excerpt from Adina Allen’s new book, The Place of All Possibility.
Preorder here.


How do we responsively relate to the world, to each other, to ourselves, if everything is in a process of constant change?

The rabbis of the Mishnah offer one answer. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of ethical teachings and maxims, we find the following teaching, given in the name of Ben Bag Bag, a learned scholar of the first generation of rabbinic sages (around 20–40 CE): “Hafokh bah vahafokh bah, dekhula vah.” “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”1 As a pathway to the place of all possibility, hafokh bah calls us to acknowledge, seek out, and engage the multiple truths contained within any one verse, story, image, person, experience, or idea.

Everything is in it

Taken in context, “turn it and turn it” is an instruction for how to approach Torah. Yet, the wisdom of these words reaches far beyond the beit midrash. “Turn it and turn it” can provide us with a framework for how to live as agents of creativity and transformation in a complex and ever-changing world. We might ask: What in our own lives is laden with meaning, complicated, and at times confusing? What do we turn away from, rather than towards? What have we cut ourselves off from, out of frustration or discomfort, rather than seeking to understand the source of these reactions? What in our lives is worthy of more attention, rather than avoidance?

“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the harsh, the merciful, and more. Within Torah there are no simple characters—not even the most revered heroes like Avraham and Moses are paragons of virtue at all times. There are stories that depict deception, betrayal, conquest, and destruction; others that highlight love, friendship, bravery, and beauty.

The way Torah opens within us when we engage it is compared to the way a rose’s petals open outward as it blooms.2 Torah is not only the ambrosial scent of the rose, its velvety petals, alluring colors, and elegant shape—it is also its sturdy stem and sharp thorns. Yet, just because something is prickly doesn’t mean we should necessarily keep our distance. Like the harsh stories in Torah with the potential to wound, the thorns on a rose serve to protect the plant, causing us to approach it with care and consideration. For the rose, thorns cause species that come to feed on the plant, like caterpillars, to move much slower in their consumption process.

In fact, research has shown that “the spines [on a plant stem] not only slowed the caterpillars but also interfered with their footing and forced them into more acrobatic maneuvers.”3 Caterpillars actually coevolved with rose bushes; the thorns on the plant forced the caterpillar to develop increased dexterity and flexibility. Torah study offers us a similar opportunity. The more we stay in relationship with both the prickles and the promise of these ancient words, the more capable and coordinated we become, and the more our minds, hearts, and souls are able to navigate difficulty to discover wisdom.

This is a practice that we can return to over time, engaging Torah again and again—turning and turning it—throughout our lives. Like the caterpillar and the rose bush, our relationship with Torah can be a coevolution that depends on us maintaining an ongoing relationship. The practice of sorting through the stories of Torah cultivates within us the capacity and the discipline to sift through and thoughtfully engage the many stories that make us who we are—those we’ve created, those we’ve received, and those we unearth over the course of a lifetime. The more we stay in relationship to Torah, the more agile we become at finding the layers of sweetness and generativity contained therein, and the more adept we become at creatively navigating the many layers of our lives.

Turn in it

The phrase hafokh bah can mean “turn it,” as we have discussed, but it can also be translated as “turn in it.” While this is only a slight grammatical variation, it opens up a more intimate, experiential understanding of this idea. When we turn something, we remain stationary, holding the thing that we’re turning at arm’s length. To turn in something is to enter into the thing itself—to allow ourselves to be moved and affected by it in a visceral way. Think of a closely held idea, something you strongly believe in and hold dear. To turn it is to surface different perspectives of this idea, including those you don’t believe in. To turn in the idea is to actually try on these perspectives, and through your imagination, allow yourself to inhabit these stances. Rather than intellectually considering this idea from afar, to turn in it is to notice what this idea arouses in you — what emotions come up, what new insights arise, how your feelings towards the idea (or those who hold this belief) shift and change. To turn in it is to allow ourselves to become porous to a particular perspective and all it evokes, even if only temporarily.

These two interpretations—“turn it” and “turn in it”—become tangible when explored through the creative process. Imagine a drawing on the table in front of you that you have been working on. Following the invitation of hafokh bah, you might turn the page in a different direction, changing its orientation to you. What was right side up is now upside down. What looked, perhaps, like the outline of a human face now appears like a landscape. Both images are there, both possibilities exist, and more. By turning the page, you have generated more possibilities for what your creation could be. Not only that, you have loosened up your assumptions, making your mind more supple and open.

To turn in the drawing is to imagine that whatever has appeared on the page is a world in and of itself that has its own logic, and to inhabit that world, even if for a brief time. Rather than generating endless possibilities of what the lines on the page could be, we commit ourselves to one vision and spend our energy bringing it more fully into being. For example, a circle that looks like an open mouth: we might be compelled to add teeth, tongue, and lips, even if we have no idea who or what this creature is or where the image might go from here. We immerse ourselves in the process, letting ourselves notice and be moved to action by the clues that show up in the image itself, regardless of how they may or may not make sense to our rational mind.

By allowing new angles and interpretations to emerge, the process of turning it can help us better appreciate the permutational breadth of a given story, idea, or image. On the other hand, the practice of turning in it allows us to more fully inhabit a story, idea, or image’s particular depths. The two can complement one another, deepening our emotional, intellectual, and somatic understanding of whatever is before us. Each approach is useful towards different ends and is generative in different ways.

Like a prayer

There is another aspect of turning something over and over that is akin to prayer. One of the first instances of prayer in the Torah is found in Genesis. Isaac and Rebecca are struggling to conceive a child, and Isaac turns to God, asking for God to open Rebecca’s womb. The word that is used for Isaac’s beseeching of God is “vaye’ater.” This word comes from the root ayintavresh, whose primary constellation of meanings is to pray or supplicate, but which the sages connect to a less common meaning, a “pitchfork.”4 A passage in the Talmud teaches:

“Rabbi Yitzchak said: Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to a pitchfork [eter], as in the verse: ‘And God let Himself be entreated [vaye’ater]’? This indicates that just as this pitchfork turns over grain from one place to another, so the prayer of the righteous turns over the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be, from the attribute of anger to the attribute of mercy.”5

In agriculture, pitchforks are used to prepare the ground for planting by loosening, lifting, and turning over the soil. The top layers of dirt, once hardened and dried out, are mixed around and aerated; new life is breathed into the soil. Bugs scamper about, worms wriggle through. The ground soil is now ready for sowing. We might imagine Isaac’s prayer similarly, like a pitchfork, stirring up energy within himself, and within God, opening up the space for something generative to occur.

Just as prayer stirs energy, and a pitchfork mixes soil, when we turn and turn our vantage point on something, we bring up rich layers that were not readily visible, loosening what has become hard-packed so that life can blossom anew. In turning our understanding of something over again and again, we give ourselves a chance to move from a place of judgment, fear, or pain, to one of mercy, compassion, and flexibility. Instead of taking impulsive action towards a goal conceived in the heat of the moment, we aerate our reality to let things soften and relax so that other feelings and thoughts have an opportunity to come to the surface. To turn it and turn it in this way creates the conditions, time, and space needed for movement and transformation.

Upside down and right side up

When pondering the teaching of hafokh bah, one might ask, is its meaning to turn it once, so that it’s inverted, and then turn it again, so it goes back to how it was before? Or is its meaning to turn it and turn it—and keep turning it, ad infinitum?6 While the latter interpretation is the traditional understanding, the former is also powerful in its own way. That is, to take an idea or belief and turn it entirely upside down, for the sake of play or exploration. Even if afterwards you end up returning to your original perspective, you can often reveal new dimensions of whatever it is you are turning around, and of yourself in relation to it.

“In order to break limiting patterns, it is often necessary to take a distinctly different posture, or stance, such as turning ourselves upside down to get another view of a restrictive pattern or stuck place in consciousness that is being experienced” writes Angeles Arrien in The Tarot Handbook.7 To invert reality is not only holy; it is healthy. We can experience the physical benefits of this in our bodies. If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you know the power of inversions. To invert is to bring the head below the heart. Our thinking mind comes closer to the earth and our feeling heart is raised up towards the sky. These poses are some of the most challenging for yoga practitioners to master, but they are said to have many physiological benefits: increased blood circulation, lymphatic drainage, and spinal strengthening, to name a few.8 Physical inversions offer an embodied metaphor of the wisdom of reversals: in them, our typical way of existing, and our point of view, is literally turned upside down as our body is realigned and re-enlivened.

What else could this be?

The principle of hafokh bah ultimately leads us back to the polyvocality and multiplicity of the Torah. As we’ve discussed in previous chapters, traditional rabbinic commentary is dense with multiple perspectives; diverse and even contradictory viewpoints are not only present, but often deeply valued. In fact, the ability to see other sides of an issue was considered so essential in ancient times that, in order to serve on the Sanhedrin (the Jewish High Court), one had to prove their adeptness in this regard. The Talmud relates, “Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: We place on the Sanhedrin only one who knows how to purify a sheretz [an impure creepy crawly thing] using Torah.”9 That is, no one may be seated as a member of the court until they show that they can prove the purity of an animal Torah has specifically designated as impure through the logic and laws laid out in the Torah itself. To be seen as able to adjudicate the community’s most important legal issues, a person must demonstrate their capacity to take a seemingly black-and-white issue (such as the kosher status of an animal) and show the entire color spectrum within it.

How many different angles can we understand something from? Can we find the joy as well as the somberness, the depth and the levity in the Torah and in our life? Through continuously asking, “What else could this be?”—of ourselves, of others, of our creations, and of the complex and challenging situations we encounter in our personal and communal life—we cultivate an appreciation for multiplicity, and the ability to hold multiple truths and perspectives at once. Can we allow ourselves to bring the unfettered freedom of the creative process to Torah and to our own identities the way we might allow ourselves to play with paint on the canvas, or words in a poem? To try this here, or try that there? Hafokh bah invites us to continually be in a state of curiosity and to ask the sacred, sometimes scary, more-often- than-not soul-rejuvenating question: What else could this (or I) be?


Rabbi Adina Allen is a spiritual leader, writer, and educator who grew up in an art studio where she learned firsthand the power of creativity for connecting to self and to the Sacred. She is cofounder and creative director of Jewish Studio Project (JSP), an organization that is seeding a future in which every person is connected to their creativity as a force for healing, liberation and social transformation. Based on the work of her mother, renowned art therapist Pat B. Allen, Adina developed the Jewish Studio Process, a methodology for unlocking creativity, which she has brought to thousands of organizational and community leaders, educators, artists, and clergy across the country. A national media contributor, popular speaker, and workshop leader, Adina has published in scholarly as well as mainstream publications, and more of her writing can be found on her website at www.adina-allen.com. She and her family live in Berkeley, California. 


Footnotes

1 Pirkei Avot 5:22.

2  See Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995), 139.

3  Christie Wilcox, “The Thorny Truth About Spine Evolution,” Quanta Magazine, June 14, 2017.

4 Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 14a.

5 Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 64a.

6 I’m grateful to Lex Rolfberg for his comment on this during his 2022 interview with me on Judaism Unbound’s “Torah of Creativity” episode.

7 Angeles Arrien, The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols, 2nd ed. (Sonoma, CA: Arcus Publishing Company 1994), 69.

8 “Yoga Inversion: A Guide to What It Is, and How You Can Benefit,” Healthline, February 17, 2021.

9 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a.