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.

Torah Reflections: May 28 – June 3, 2017

Nasso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The True Purpose of Blessing

In our Torah reading this week we happen upon one of the central blessings of our tradition; the Priestly Blessing.

And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying; Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying; Thus you shall bless the children of Israel, say to them: YeVarech’cha YHVH V’Yish’mrecha – The Eternal One blesses and keeps you always. YaEr YHVH Panav Elecha, ViChuneka – The Eternal One shines His face upon you, and is gracious to you. Yissa YHVH Panav Elecha, V’Yassem Lecha Shalom. – The Eternal One lifts up His face toward you, and brings you peace.

V’Samu et sh’mi ahl b’nai Yisrael V’Ani Avarechem. – And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them. [Num. 6:22-27]

The concept of blessing is a real challenge to 21st century modernists. It feels uncomfortable to revert back to these ancient practices because, oftentimes, they appear to conjure up the goodwill of a God “out there;” a notion that has become foreign to many of us. It might be especially true in this case, as the opening verses leading up to the blessing seem to place the Temple priests as intermediaries between God and the people; a concept that tends to add to our discomfort to begin with.

What were the priests attempting to do in performing this blessing? The concluding verse might give us the answer. First, by placing the name of God upon that which is being blessed, the Priest is to recognize that the object of the blessing is a manifestation of God. Second, the Priest’s task is to help the “children of Israel” themselves awaken to the name of the One within them, so that they may directly receive God’s blessing; know that God is the One who “will bless them.” In doing so, the biblical author gives us the key to unlock the true purpose of blessing. We are the Priest. The practice of blessing is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Presence in every thing and every one we encounter; as much as it is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Being that we are.

The first aspect is directed toward the “outside.” Here, the practice of blessing helps us pause and contemplate for a brief instant what is present in our experience of the moment. The blessing we utter pushes us to remember that this moment, this object, this person is sacred; an expression of the One. The question this practice triggers within us is: What is the true nature of that which I am blessing? It acts as a reminder that all of reality is God God-ing, including these words you are reading and the screen on which they appear. Everything is God.

The second aspect is directed within. Each time we bless causes our perspective to shift away from self, to help us see that which we are blessing as-if through the eyes of God. We practice being “one with God” even though we have yet to realize its Truth. The question this practice triggers within us is: Who is blessing? Here we move from a dualistic ego-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Katnut: small mind,) to a God-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Gadlut: big mind.) Seeing the world through God’s eyes we expand beyond the constricted identity of our separate sense of self to an ever more inclusive “I,” until all sense of self dissolves and our “I” merges with the One “I.” From this place in consciousness there is no self saying the Priestly Blessing; in fact, it isn’t a blessing anymore but an affirmation that naturally flows through us.

Therein lies the spiritual potency of the path of blessing. It is a direct path to awakening as it opens us up to the Divine Being within and without all at once. All that is required is that we, from time to time, take a break from the rush of our ego-driven lives to consciously engage with the moment at hand, and to bless it. That in this sacred moment we might truly say: “Amen!”

Torah Reflections: May 21 – 27, 2017

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Too Big to Fail

“Too big to fail.” It seems this pithy phrase has become the new mantra of American life since 2008. Time and again our news media brandishes the fear of financial disaster if this company goes under, or that country doesn’t shape up. Failure is not an option we are told. And to avoid failure at all costs we, the people, jump in to strengthen those already “too big to fail.” We infuse more capital into them in order to not only keep them “big” but to help them grow unsustainably ever more. But if they were “too big to fail” then, what will they be tomorrow?

Our sages believe that whatever is happening on the outside is but a reflection of what is taking place on the inside; that our outer world reflects our inner world. Just as we, as a nation, are paralyzed from the fear of failure, we—as individuals—are just as petrified. This fear of failure is deeply ingrained in American society. Growing up in France I learned early on that the worst faux pas was to be perceived as an idiot. Back in Israel to be known as someone easily taken advantage of, a “freier,” would mean immediate social-ostracizing as well. In the U.S. you find yourself excluded from social circles if you are a “loser.” No failing allowed. The ego, which has internalized this message since early childhood, carries this fear of failure with it all the time. To protect itself from being a “loser,” it goes on to surround itself with “more,” or “better,” or “more powerful” stuff, to prove to itself and to other egos that it is not a failure. Perhaps, in a society where narcissism is rampant, we have built up our egos so much that they, too, have become too big to fail. We keep feeding them with addictions of all sorts, for we need to “bail out” our fragile egos over and over again with any kind of “feel good” potion. Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote an entire book demonstrating that we are addicted to control. How else are we going to protect ourselves from failure? Strengthening our ego is our only option, and that is not sustainable either.

True spirituality offers us a different pathway if we are courageous enough to take it on. It is the pathway alluded to in the name of this week’s Torah portion: B’midbar—In the desert. In the desert there is nothing. There is nothing to hide behind, nothing to own, nothing to lose, and nothing to pretend to be. In the desert we remember the smallness of our being; we break through the illusions and the mirages to realize our powerlessness and our lack of control. In the desert we are naked; stripped bare of our stories, our ideas, our views, our knowledge, our reasons, our justifications. In the desert there is no success and no failure, no winner and no loser. In the desert there is no fear.

In the desert there is silence. It is not a mistake that the word midbar—desert—in Hebrew, shares the same root as the word medaber, meaning: that which speaks. Only in the midbar, in the silence, are we able to hear that which speaks. Only after letting go of the clutter, shedding the inessential, surrendering the noise of the ever-racing egoic mind, are we able to hear the still small voice within the heart that has never stopped whispering “V’ahavta! – Love!” So take the road less traveled; the one that leads us forward to the yet uncovered midbar of the soul—the road of deepening meditation, the road of contemplation, the place where you find the silence in your life. Embark on a journey toward a simpler, more loving, more giving and forgiving, more compassionate way of life. Journey to the midbar, to that space where the ego is gently allowed to fail so that the heart can heal and open to true freedom.

Torah Reflections: May 14 – 20, 2017

B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

The last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, B’chukotai, begins with: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Lev. 26:3] and continues with defining for us all the rewards God will bestow upon us for doing so. It then goes on to say: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” [Lev. 26:14-16] and proceeds to graphically detail all the punishments that would result from such behavior.

That God deals in rewards and punishments, however, is an idea that no longer works for the overwhelming majority of modern western thinkers. This anachronistic idea has brought many to abandon religion altogether. The thought that righteous behavior yields success, prosperity and peace, and sinful behavior brings disease, poverty and fear—though it might have influenced the people of antiquity—is no longer useful; for it is simply not true. But the solution is not so much that religion needs to be done away with along with this ancient notion of God; rather we might be able to save both by awakening to a new idea of God—to “evolve” God to meet our modern minds. Why? Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.

“Evolving” God to a new understanding is exactly what our sages did several hundred years ago. Already at the time of the Renaissance sixteenth century mystics like Rabbi Moses Cordovero or Rabbi Isaac Luria of the kabbalistic school of Safed in northern Israel, presented a revolutionary nondual theology. With it, the idea of God as exclusively “out there,” external to, or other than, the manifest Universe was replaced by a vision of God which—while still recognizing its transcendent aspect—added the notion that God is not only fully present in the manifest Universe, but that He is that Universe through and through. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of Modernity, the founding figure of Chassidism; Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760) and his many successors in the Chassidic movement, made this nondual, panentheistic theology the central pillar of their belief system, defining God through “negative theology” which claimed that there is no one that God is not, no where that God is not, no when that God is not, nothing that God is not.

With an idea of God better fitting to our twenty first century sensitivities, rooted in Kabbalah and early Chassidism, we come back to the biblical text with a different set of eyes. Wearing our nondual reading glasses we recognize that, in this story, God is the bestower of reward and the rewarded, the punisher and the punished all at once. We come to realize that one of the deeper teaching available in our text is that, inherent in Creation, is the existence of light and darkness, pleasure and pain; and that both are expressions of the Divine One. This dualistic experience is simply par for the course of our lives. The more we resist it, the more we seek to exclusively experience the light, want only happiness and rewards, the more we set ourselves up for suffering. The true reward of the spiritual path—of taking up the covenant—however, lies in the acceptance that our lives are a series of “acts of God” some fortunate, others tragic, that we neither cause nor have control over. As we let go of our need for our human experience to be different than what it is (or what it was), and are able to embrace both the light and the shadow of life with equanimity, we come closer to experiencing our true Divine nature, the nondual Essence of Being that we are.

Torah Reflections: May 7 – 13, 2017

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God

The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood: “No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20] What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free?

The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read: “And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy—such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24] As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to realize self-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity—which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality—stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the belief, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest.

But how do we, spiritual wrestlers of the 21st century—having long left behind the sacrificial cult—enter in relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalm offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart.” [Psalm 51:18-19] The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but awakening instead on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and human fallibility is embraced. Suddenly we are asked to acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection we hold ourselves, our loved ones and our world to. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our life, we are not. Though we would like to mold our life, our world, and our loved ones in our image/vision, to create a world that would be an expression of our will, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God; and live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken, rather it is the klippot— the husks of illusion—that encircle it that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered; for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.

Bet Alef members ask Chase Bank not to fund oil pipeline

On Friday, May 5, I was among nearly two dozen people who went to the Chase branch on Capitol Hill to pray and express our concern over the bank’s lead role in funding the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Elizabeth Burton of Bet Alef also took part, as did Seattle First Baptist members Harriet Platts and Imogene Williams. We are all part of Interfaith Climate Action – First Hill, a collaboration between Bet Alef and Seattle First Baptist. The pray-in was organized by the multi-congregational Faith Action Climate Team (FACT).

In keeping with the varied faith traditions of the participants (Jewish, Baptist, Quaker, Buddhist, Unitarian, Presbyterian and others), we created a sacred space inside and outside the bank lobby, where we prayed, meditated and sang. We strove to honor “that of God,” as the Quakers would put it, in the bank employees and police officers. From a Jewish perspective, we were practicing tikkun olam, repair of a world that our carbon-based economy has placed at imminent risk. We sent a clear message: that if Chase and other big banks fund the KXL Pipeline, climate chaos will accelerate.

Four of us were arrested, by order of a police lieutenant who later told us, “I really admire what you did.” He couldn’t bring himself to arrest Imogene, a great-grandmother in her 80s – much to her consternation. But for one morning, Imogene had put her body between the financial system and environmental devastation. Three days later, other activists disrupted operations at 13 Chase branches in Seattle.

Direct action is only one tool that Interfaith Climate Action – First Hill members have used on behalf of a climate that will sustain future generations. We have organized educational events, signed petitions, planted trees at Tu B’Shevat, and lobbied our elected representatives. We invite you to our next meeting on Sunday, May 21, at 7 p.m. in the Bet Alef Living Room.