Torah Reflections: September 10- 16, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Embracing Our Unpreparedness

My heart is beating a little bit faster than usual today. No, I didn’t have one cup of coffee too many. But it just so happens that the combined Torah portions for this week are Nitzavim and Vayelech; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvah portion”—read during the High Holy Days—where we are called to return, to turn inward. This means that the High Holy Days are just around the corner, and with that, come both excitement and trepidation; excitement, because this is the time of the year when we get to embark on the most meaningful journey inward; when space is provided for us to dig deeper and face our own shadow, all the while being surrounded by the supportive energies of a community of fellow travelers. Yet trepidations arise, because this is also the time of the year when the title of one of my favorite books (by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l) flashes before me its neon-red letters blinking in my panicked awareness: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. My feeling exactly!

But what if this is exactly what it is all about? What if our being “Completely Unprepared” is exactly what is required of us to fully enter into the “Real”-ness of the High Holy Days? Let’s face it, no matter how much time we spend getting ourselves ready to meet these holy days, when Rosh Hashanah eve comes around, we still feel totally unrehearsed. What if, therefore, showing up as we are, with all our messes and contradictions, unpolished and raw, was all that is asked of us? Perhaps fully embracing our unpreparedness, letting go of the well-adjusted façade we present the world the rest of the year, and inviting all aspects of our self to meet these days, is the first spiritual teaching that the Holy Days offer. This seems to be, indeed, what the first two verses of Nitzavim—in my interpretative translation—are calling us to do:

You are standing here, this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God—your leader-self, your wise-self, your controlling-self… your inner child… your alienated part of self, your destructive self, the part of self connected to Source… (Deut. 29:9-10)

Embracing the messiness of life, letting go of the pretense that keeps us separate, that prevents us from truly knowing not only each other’s heart but our own heart as well, is the prerequisite to our embarking again on this journey of healing which begins with this new year, on Rosh Hashanah. So come exactly as you are! Come utterly unprepared! But come! Bring all aspects of your being to meet that moment! Then you will be able to say, when God calls to you: “Hineni—here I am.”

Torah Reflections: September 3- 9, 2017

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open

This week’s Torah portion begins:

When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving your as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place that the Eternal your God chooses to have His name dwell… You shall then recite [a prayer] before the Eternal your God… You shall leave [the basket] before the Eternal your God and bow low in the Presence of the Eternal your God. [Deut.26:1-10]

With only days separating us from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Torah is laying out for us a threefold path to meet the moment in its fullness: bring a basket of your fruit, pray and bow. Though in our time we no longer come to moments of solemn convocation such as the High Holy Days with baskets of fruit from our land, today’s equivalent might be engaging in these awe-inspiring holidays by bringing to them the honest assessment of our personal work this past year, the true fruits of our personal harvest.

But what about prayer? For many of us, the experience of prayer—especially during the High Holy Days—consists of reading pages and pages of prescribed formulas that only come to life for us because of the familiarity of the melodies that accompany them. And so our challenge, this year again, is to enter into prayer on these High Holy Days with a different intention, a different goal; that of letting our heart crack open. The Kaballah describes our hearts as being sheathed by klippot, husks or shells. Our mystics teach that through the practice of mitzvot (mindful living,) meditation, and focused prayer; one is able to incrementally open one’s heart and uncover the Divine sparks hidden within.

It is our task to come to these upcoming High Holy Days with such kavanah, with such purpose; to bypass our ego’s natural resistance to doing the inner work at hand, and enter into prayer with both humility and receptivity, and “bow low in the Presence of the Eternal.” True prayer is that which is allowed to flow from the heart, not from the mind. Merely repeating words from a prayer book won’t do. We are to enter into prayer the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav did; engaging God in raw, unadulterated straight talk—the way one would with a best friend—honestly, sincerely, and genuinely. Through the deep surrender and profound letting go that accompany such an experience, we can breach the shells around our heart and discover, through the fissures, the light of Being, the light of Love and Compassion bursting forth from within.

I offer that we come to the High Holy Days with the basket of our life-review in hand and, on our lips, just one humble prayer: “Ein Banu Maasim” – “Holy One, we have too few good deeds.” I suspect that with our bowing, in that space of profound humility, we will find the tightening around our heart begin to release, and our words, steeped in the light of Love, will be carried along to reach the soul-level. There, liberated from the stranglehold of the ego on our life, we will be able to open ourselves to the possibility of deep transformation.

Torah Reflections: August 27- September 2, 2017

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

On Being Commanded

This week’s Torah portion is the last in Deuteronomy to present us with a collection of laws. With this kind of portion, we find ourselves struggling with some aspects of the text and truly moved by others. Among the more disquieting injunctions are the laws about stoning to death one’s “wayward and defiant son” [Deut. 21:18], or the disturbing “punishment” for a rapist who is not only mandated to marry his victim but also prohibited from ever divorcing her. Other laws are more inspiring. Torah commands us to pay employees’ wages on time, to defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, to engage in ethical business practices, and to sustain the destitute by donating one’s surplus.

Being “commanded,” however, is a challenge to us. We have been raised to be fiercely independent. We question authority and seek to carve our own path in life, to live out our own truth. There is real self-empowerment in living this way. There is also a real danger to make ourselves overly self-centered and narcissistic. Consider, therefore, that there may be value in being commanded. Consider how to be commanded, to be given a choiceless choice, might help us tame our ego. We are commanded, for example, to give tzedakah/charity every week before Shabbat, because, our rabbis say, meeting the poor’s needs cannot be dependent on whether or not we feel generous on any given week. The fact that we know ourselves to be commanded bypasses the resistance of our ego and obligates us to behave in holistic ways. This is what Halacha—the complete body of Jewish law evolving from the Jewish Bible and the Talmud—is about. Through the Halacha, Judaism has mapped out every moment and aspect of a Jewish life and, the more orthodox among us, follow these commandments strictly.

I studied Halacha for a while with an orthodox rabbi. To him, there was true beauty in following a spiritual path that one believes is divinely inspired, true humility in embracing a “God-given” way of life as prescribed by a still-evolving three-thousand-year-old tradition. In my studies, I have discovered that without rejecting the historical relevance of the commandments which challenge our modern consciousness, the rabbinic exegetes of the Halacha have re-interpreted some and stopped following others. My friend shared with me that living in this prescribed way supports one’s awareness of God’s ever-Presence. This kind of God-consciousness opens one’s heart beyond one’s ego, and causes one to act in humble ways. And true humility, our rabbis teach, manifests itself when the ego’s endless needs are silenced in the face of Divine commandment.

Now I am not a halachic Jew, meaning that I do not strictly follow the laws of Halacha, but I can see the value of this kind of teaching. Without adopting orthodoxy, we can still embrace a strong ethic of living for our days that infuses the way we eat, care for our body, our environment, and the other beings in our lives. We can, step by step, create a consistent discipline in our spiritual practice; slowly building a meditation practice for example, or observing Shabbat by “unplugging” for 24 hours, or simply committing to saying “I love you” more often. The prophet Micah calls upon us to “walk humbly with God.” Halacha, in Hebrew, means “to walk.” To walk humbly with God is to move beyond the ego by following a disciplined spiritual practice that permeates all aspects of our lives, steeped in the intimate knowledge of God’s Presence moment to moment. May we, in this upcoming Jewish new year, be inspired to heed Micah’s call and take the first steps of our “walk,” our Halacha.

Torah Reflections: August 20- 26, 2017

Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.

But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’s Torah portion—which inaugurates the month of Elul each year —give us instructions in regard to this inner process:

You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. [Deut. 16:19-20]

Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial, the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.

And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedek in Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.

Torah Reflections: August 13- 19, 2017

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Waking Up From Our Collective Amnesia

See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, that I enjoin upon you today; and the curse if you do not listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way that I enjoin upon you today… [Deut. 11:26-28]

In light of the ongoing wars, unspeakable violence, racism and hatred that seem to be defining the first decades of the 21st century, these opening verses from our weekly Torah portion appear to us as a dire prophetic warning. We look out at our world and wonder how far we have already “turned aside” from the way of Spirit, and if there is a path to trace back, to reorient ourselves.

In truth, what we are seeing out there in the world isn’t new—though it is unfolding on a greater scale and with more sophisticated weaponry than ever before—but it is happening because we, as a human race, suffer from collective amnesia. And what we have forgotten—and keep forgetting—is that not only are we not separate from one another, but that every being (and every thing) is but an expression of the One. “You are children of the Holy One” [Deut. 14:1] the Torah reminds us this week.

Why do we forget? Because the Unity of Being is hidden from the eyes of the ego. The ego looks out and all it sees is separation, differences and polarities. It looks at the infinite spectrum of colors in the rainbow of Creation and forgets that each one of them is but an expression, a refraction of the one Divine White Light. But how can we awaken to the White Light when all our senses register the variegated colors of the rainbow?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a Chasidic master of 19th Century Poland, offers an answer through one of the most powerful commentaries on these first two verses of this week’s Torah portion:

“In everything there is a living point from the Life of Life. But that inwardness lies hidden in this world. [One] has to arouse and reveal this inwardness that lies within all things by means of the mitzvot… Through the mitzvot we bring all our deeds near to [the One]…”

The rebbe’s answer is that only through our spiritual practices do we stand a chance to remember, to wake up from our amnesia. We bring ourselves to remember time and time again by keeping conscious company (Torah,) through a disciplined daily spiritual practice (Avodah,) and by acting mindfully and compassionately in our world (Gemilut Chasadim.) This way, we increase our capacity to see the One within every one and every thing more and more often and for longer periods of time.

But the rebbe goes one step further:

“Each person has to give light to the inner point, which is as though in prison until we have the strength to light up its darkness. This point is itself ‘the blessing, that you listen…..’ When you attach yourself to the point within each thing, you will come to see that it is the blessing. Then, indeed, “see”—by negating yourself before the point.”

Realizing the Oneness of Being alight in every one and every thing leads one—if one has “the strength” and fierce determination to do so—to “give light” to one’s own “inner point,” and “see” oneself, as well, as an expression of that Divine Light. In the process, however, the existence of the separate sense of self—root of our forgetfulness—is negated and dissolves in the blessing of awakening to the One “inner point” of Light that is our Source.

May we all follow the Rebbe’s invitation to wake up from our collective amnesia before it is too late.

Torah Reflections: July 16- 22, 2017

Mattot-Masei

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

First, Break All Your Vows

Yom Kippur is fast approaching. Rabbis don’t need to look at the calendar to figure this out. We know. This is Mattot-Masei, the weekly Torah portion that is ten weeks away from Yom Kippur, and whose opening verses allude to the “Kol Nidrei,” as they are about the annulment of vows.

Torah, we are reminded as we read these first challenging verses, is an ancient text edited some 2500 years ago from texts even more ancient. It is born out of a deeply patriarchal clan-based and male-dominated hierarchical society whose worldview and relationship with the Divine are unavoidably reflected in its narrative. This week’s portion brings up, for example, the power a father had to annul any vow his daughter would make while still part of his household. Once married, however, this power reverted to her husband with respects to both the vows she made while still single or since she became his wife. The rabbis of the Talmud remind us that a Jewish marriage was in their days—and in some circles today as well—a two-step process that took place at two different times. First was Kiddushin (betrothal) whereby one committed oneself to an exclusive relationship with their beloved; followed weeks or months later by Nissuin (marriage proper) where the two were to “become one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] The rabbis explain that it was only during the period of betrothal that, retroactively, the husband had the power to annul the vows his wife made while single. After Nissuin, he no longer could. During the time of betrothal the husband-to-be had to act in conjunction with the father of the bride to annul the vows she had made while single. The husband didn’t have this retroactive power in and of himself.

We could read this passage at the literal level, and immediately denounce this archaic system that enslaved women to the will of their fathers and husbands. Or, because our teachers have taught us that there always are four levels of interpretation to every text, we could attempt, instead, to read it at the mystical level. Since the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalists have used the images/stages of betrothal, marriage, and cosmic intercourse to express Jewish spirituality. For them, this is not talking about societal law, but about spiritual awakening. All of Israel is to be married to God and spiritually progress through these stages. The highest spiritual stage is that of Nissuin. This stage is a place of total oneness with Source, the realization that God and Creation are not-two, that Spirit manifests as all forms, where one “become[s] one flesh” with God in a cosmic spiritual intercourse. When one has mastered this spiritual stage, then the fruits of one’s marriage with God are the acts of compassion, love and care (i.e. Mitzvot) that one naturally births into one’s life; together with the dissolving of one’s ego-identification, of the illusion of a separate self.

But first is the Kiddushin (betrothal) period; the stage when the spiritual seeker commits exclusively to one spiritual practice and gives it total devotion. There the betrothed awakens to the realization that one has no power in and of oneself; that one is but a channel to the flow of Divine energy and that one’s life is to be aligned with—in conjunction (i.e. joined together) with—“the Father,” with Source. At this stage, one must unite with that Higher Power, allowing it to flow into one’s life. “And, acting together with Him,” Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, “one can reach heights that one alone could not aspire to. One can arrive at the power of ‘annulment’, namely, nullifying oneself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide God’s Presence from humanity. And one’s power is ‘retroactive’, that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space.”

By moving beyond the literal and opening to the deeply spiritual, the mystics are reading in this text an invitation addressed to us to embark on a spiritual journey. To choose a practice and commit to it. To let go of our illusion of control and let our Higher Self guide our way forward. We are to begin by annulling the vows of certainty, the “truths,” concepts, ideas, worldviews that bind us to only see life with the mental blinders we have created. As the Rebbe puts it: “Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so one… releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of God.” And this is the liberating power of our Kol Nidrei.

Torah Reflections: July 9- 15, 2017

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Rabbi Moses

There is a beautiful passage in this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses to ascend a mountain and, from its peak, to gaze at the Promised Land before him. After that, God says to him, you “shall be gathered to your kin.” [Num. 27:13] Moses’ response is most poignant. Instead of arguing his case with God, or collapsing at the announcement of his imminent death, or having any other expected reaction, Moses replies in calm acceptance and asks God to choose his successor as the leader of the Israelites. He asks for someone who, like him, would “go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in.” [Num. 27:17] He does not ask for his sons to take over. He is not interested in creating a dynasty. Rather he asks God to provide his people with the best and most devoted leader. Not specifically a leader with the highest spiritual qualities either, but one who would selflessly love and dedicate his life to the community.

Why? Because Moses had a unique relationship with his people. He never saw the Israelite community as a pack of anonymous faces. In the verses that preceded this interaction between God and Moses, a census was taken of the new generation of Israelites now that the generation who had left Egypt had died. And even though only the men over 20 years of age and fit for battle were counted, the sense one gets from reading all these names is that Moses knew them all personally. You can’t be on a camping trip with people for forty years without getting to know them intimately. If he was anything like a rabbi, Moses probably participated in many celebrations over these four decades; births and weddings, holidays and Shabbats. He was also probably there in difficult times of illness, tragedies, complicated pregnancies, marriage difficulties, losses and deaths. He knew countless stories, and saw the essence of each individual behind every face.

One can sense this intimacy between Moses and the Israelites in the way he addresses God in his request for a new leader. He calls God; “Elohei Haruchot l’chol basar – Source of the souls of all flesh.” [Num.27:16] He says ruchot – souls in the plural, and not ruah – soul, in the singular. That is because Moses saw the uniqueness of each individual; he saw how the Divine Essence manifests uniquely through each human form. He understood that even though we are all expression of the One Soul; that One Soul manifests in a plurality of ways, a plurality of unique souls. He knew intimately each individual soul; he knew each unique way that God manifested through his people. He saw God reflected through each being. And for him, the very name of God became the expression of that realization.

In many ways, spirituality is a practice which, ultimately, leads us know the Divine Light not only in ourselves but reflected in each individual. One of the ways we close our heart to others is when we lump people together under alienating labels. We do that based on the clothe they wear, the car they drive, if they are watching Fox News or MSNBC. Worse, we do that to entire nations and races. We fail to recognize the uniqueness of each individual soul, the plurality of thoughts and viewpoints, behaviors and convictions that make up human beings. We forget that God is infinite, that God manifests in infinite ways. Moses didn’t. He not only acknowledged but celebrated the uniqueness of each being; and in doing so, taught us to open our hearts and minds to the abundant fullness of the Divine Presence around us, within us, and within each other.

Torah Reflections: July 2- 8, 2017

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Happiness Beyond Thought

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

This is the power of a curse—or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator—to name but a few—and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and—most importantly—remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.

Torah Reflections: June 11- 17, 2017

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Why The Spies Were Wrong

This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!’” [Num. 13:30]

I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders—wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses—be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.

The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones—indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy—leaving no time for Spirit—and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.

But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.

Torah Reflections: June 4 – 10, 2017

B’haalot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

The Many Branches of Our Inner Menorah

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” Aaron did so… This is the workmanship of the Menorah; hammered out of gold, from its base to its flower it is hammered out; according to the vision that the Eternal had shown Moses, so was the Menorah made. [Num. 8:1-4]

The beginning of this week’s Torah reading brings us to the final preparations for the use of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The seven-branched Menorah which stood at the entrance of the traveling structure is, to this day, one of the most universally recognized symbols of Judaism. At inception, it was meant to recall the scene of the burning bush, a spiritual image of the ever-present Light of God. In early centuries, it was associated with Aaron and the priestly caste of his descendants. Later on, the Menorah became a symbol of victory when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple from Greek pagan worship by re-kindling it. Then, a symbol of Jewish defeat when it was carried off to Rome in 70 C.E. by Titus and his victorious armies. Today, the Menorah is the seal of the State of Israel and a giant replica stands at the entrance to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem.

In between Rome and Jerusalem nearly 2000 years later, the symbol of the Menorah continued to ignite the imagination of many of our sages; but none more powerfully than that of the Jewish mystics. With its three branches left and right and its central pillar, its twenty-two gold-hammered flowers, parallels were drawn between the Menorah and the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), one of the greatest kabbalists that ever lived, taught — well ahead of his time — that the six branches on both sides of the Menorah represented the lights of the multiple scientific and academic disciplines available to mankind, while the center stalk stood for the light of Torah, the light of spiritual endeavor. He insisted that secular and spiritual pursuits were not rivals, but rather not only complemented each other — as they each address a unique set of human concerns and questions — but also shed light on one another.

Just as this is true when it comes to our different modalities of learning, Rabbi Luria’s teaching brings home the notion that we, ourselves, are a seven-branched Menorah; composite beings made of multiple intelligences. To name but a few of our many inner branches: all of us possess beyond our spiritual intelligence, a certain degree of moral, emotional, relational, creative, aesthetic, and kinesthetic intelligences. What is important to realize is that, for each individual, different branches reach different heights. Our spiritual development might have led us to some of the highest peak experiences, but our sitting in a cave to meditate for so many years left us poorly equipped when it comes to our relational and emotional intelligences. I could excel as a CEO of a fortune 500 company when it comes to relational and creative intelligences, but perform devastatingly poorly when it comes to moral intelligence and end up in jail.

A spiritual path for the 21st century is a path that includes all of the branches of our inner Menorah. It is a path that integrates as many aspects of the human make-up in an evolutionary spiral of growth. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to take into account the multifaceted nature of our being when it comes to creating curriculums for learning and pathways for personal development. We need not reach the highest levels of development for each branch of intelligence, yet none should be left to atrophy. Only by caring for the whole Menorah can we become more complete and integrated beings. These are, after all, the multi branches of our inner burning bush, the ways through which the Light of God shines in the world as us.