Torah Reflections – March 27 – April 2, 2016

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Joy And The Possibility of Forgiveness  

The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini – On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:

           Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]

One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifest teshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership.

Thus we are told, joy overwhelmed those witness to the final moments of the dedication ceremony when God appeared and, in a display of fire, accepted the sacrifices that Aaron had made on their behalf. They knew then that they had been forgiven, and that no matter how far from God they would stray, no matter how apparently lost from the Source (remember the Golden Calf?), there would always remain the promise of return, the potential for atonement, for mending and healing. Moreover, they also knew that what they had created was not only the possibility of forgiveness for themselves but for all future generations.

This possibility of teshuvah is part of our inheritance. Now, like then, we are the ones called upon to create the container in our lives in which teshuvah can take place. And since we no longer offer up animals and priests are no longer among us, we are also the ones to perform the necessary personal “sacrifices” toward forgiveness, and atonement. This is a liberating practice. As we learn to forgive, heal and mend; as we perform acts of charity and lovingkindness as part of this process of teshuvah, we free ourselves from the layers of anger, resentment, guilt and fear that have walled-off our hearts and weighed us down. We draw nearer to the Source within, closer to the Divine. Teshuvah becomes a pathway to experiencing joy; a practice toward living a joyful life.

And like our ancestors before us, we might even find ourselves singing joyfully in the experience of the Divine Presence burning up—in Its all-consuming fire—those hardened shells around our hearts; remembering in that moment the One we share, the One we are, the One we have always been.

Torah Reflections – March 20 – 26, 2016

Tsav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

The Light of Our Heart  

In my approach to Torah, I see the text as myth, not reality. I presuppose that, as such, the stories it conveys speak of universal archetypes relating to the human spiritual journey, and seek to unpack the deeper meaning of the text often as if I was interpreting a dream or a vision.
           The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept aflame…. The Kohen shall… remove the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them next to the altar. He shall then… carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.  The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning… [Lev. 6:2-5]
What if the burnt offering represented, here, the waking hours of our day? Was relating to how we “burn up” our time and energy? If lived mindfully, every day of our lives can become an offering of the best we have to give. Each day lived to the fullest is a day we didn’t hold back and shared the choicest aspect of our self regardless of our circumstances; a day we stepped into the “fire” of life fully and with great gusto. Though not a rabbi himself, G.B. Shaw could very well have been reflecting on these verses when he said: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches us that “every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary.” That is to say, that every aspect of the described outer Tabernacle in Torah represents an aspect of our inner being. For the rebbe, the human “heart is the Altar.” [Torah Studies; Tzav] Our offering, therefore, has to be “burned upon the” heart. The teaching here is that our giving, our actions in the world — in order to be a pure expression of our True Self — necessarily have to come from the heart space. This kind of actions cannot be reasoned, premeditated or calculated. They spontaneously arise of their own when we are radically present to the moment as it unfolds.

Furthermore, the Torah seems to be saying that as we practice acting from the radically present heart, the shadow of our subconscious and the limitations of our deeply rooted conditioning begin to dissolve. What is being “burned upon the altar,” is “all night:” all the dark aspects of our self. And this continues “until morning;” until the dawn of the Light of Being that eventually outshines our inner darkness. There is a caveat, however, to this process. We “shall… remove the ashes… and… carry [them] outside the camp to a pure place.” We have to let go of the ashes of our past at the end of each day; to enter into a process of releasing both the good and the bad of what was, whatever keeps us entangled to that past. We are not to deny it; what happened happened. But as we break free from its hold on us, we carry our past “outside the camp to a pure place,” so that it no longer clouds our way, blocking our own evolution. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger writes: “The commandment here to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the waste in our lives we are uplifted each day, and then we are given new light.” [S’fat Emet Commentary; Tzav]

This “new light” is the opportunity we have to “kindle [new] wood… every morning.” Every morning a fresh start with a heart clear of the ashes of yesterday, ready to live every moment in the radical fullness of the present. May the light of our heart shine in the most beautiful ways.

Torah Reflections – March 13 – 19, 2016

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love  

The last few Torah portions of the Book of Exodus were, as we have seen, focused on the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; a Sacred Space amidst the traveling Israelite tribes where God came to dwell. We related to this seemingly outward structure as a mythical Temple that acted as a mirror to the Temple awakening within each of us, reminding us of the inner Sacred Space we are within which the Divine Presence not only dwells but through which it expresses. But lost in our separate sense of self, lost in the delusion of our ego’s drama, we seldom know ourselves to embody such awareness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us guidelines as to what we are to do in order to come closer and closer to awakening to such awareness and ultimately fully inhabiting our inner Temple. Put simply, we are to follow practices that help us draw near to the One we are; that, time and time again, pushes us to reconnect to Source and ground ourselves in Truth. To walk this path of coming closer to the One, in the consciousness that was prevalent in biblical times, one had to bring offerings to the Temple or make animal sacrifices. The Hebrew word that is poorly translated as “sacrifice” has very little to do with what the English word conveys: victimhood, abnegation, destruction, loss and suffering. This word, korban, means “to draw near,” which was the essential purpose for the ritual. And if our post-modern egos are quick to judge our ancestors as barbaric because of the way they slaughtered animals for ritualistic purposes, we need only to remind ourselves that, in our generation, our practices of meat slaughtering are arguably not only much worse than they were then, but lacking any spiritual grounding. In biblical times, offering one’s animal was a true hardship, a real personal sacrifice, as animals held great value for families and not everyone was wealthy enough to be able to afford it. The idea of korban was to surrender what was most precious to us as a means to heal the brokenness in our world, to forgive and be forgiven, to restore balance and purity in our lives, and find peace within and without.

At a deeper level, this ritual of surrendering what we are most attached to is a profoundly humbling spiritual practice supporting our breaking free from the bondage of ego. Just take the verse that introduces the whole litany of different korbanot in our portion for example: “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai.” [Lev. 1:2] It is usually translated as: “When any of you presents a korban to the Eternal,” and refers mostly to the physical offering of animals. But, in truth, it is more accurately read as: “If anyone presents a korban from within you to the Eternal.” Here, we begin to grasp the inner dimension of the practice; that something from within needs to be “released” as we aim to draw nearer to Source. What is being called to be surrendered; burnt up as a burnt offering? Not an animal on the outside, but what our teachers call our very own “animal nature:” the bundle of our thoughts, desires, emotional and physical attachments, our pathological need for control and our paralyzing fears; in other words, our false self. This drawing near is about stepping into the transformative fire of Divine Love so that our conditioned separate sense of self can be completely consumed. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite teachers, wrote along these lines that in the process of authentic transformation: “The self is not made content; the self is made toast.”

This Divine Love, our rabbis call “the fire of heaven.” It reduces our “animal nature,” our false self, to dust and ashes. It is the fire within the Cloud of Glory that fills our inner Tabernacle, now empty of self, where that which imagined it was separate and alone realizes in the blaze of a moment that it had always been One and Eternal.

Torah Reflections – February 28 – March 5, 2016

Vayak’hel

Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

Our Spiritual Attitude Toward Work  

This week’s portion in our Torah reading nears the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. The construction of the Tabernacle begins in earnest, only preceded by Moses gathering the entire community of Israel to tell them that even during the construction of this Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle), “for six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal.” [Exod.35:2]

In his commentary, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—notices the passive form used in the first half of our verse: “work may be done.” He explains that just as the Torah uses the passive form, so should we relate to our weekday work in this way: “It means that during the six days of [our] work, [we] should be occupied, but not preoccupied by the secular.” Just like the work that took place in the biblical wilderness, our secular work is but a container for the Divine Presence to be expressed, “a channel for [God’s] blessing” as the Rebbe so powerfully describes. This passive attitude, this practicing non-attachment toward our weekday work prevents us from haughtily taking credit for the authorship of creation. Furthermore, since Torah commands to perform necessary work, it curtails our egotistic tendencies to go beyond the necessary in an attempt to make ourselves special or important.

Certainly, in a society like ours where innovation, entrepreneurship, pushing the limits, pursuing fame, and individualism, are part of the dominant worldview, the words of the Rebbe appear, if not outdated, at least at odds with the prevalent culture. But that religion or spirituality appears to be running countercurrent to the societal norm isn’t to be frowned upon; in fact, it is a badge of honor. What can we learn from the Rebbe about this idea of “work” that would allow us to relate to our own weekday work at a deeper level?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the Hebrew itself. In Hebrew the only day of the week with a name is Shabbat. The other days of the week from Sunday to Friday are called “Day One,” “Day Two,” “Day Three” etc… In their full expression the days are actually: “Day One toward Shabbat,” “Day Two toward Shabbat,” etc… Every day we are working toward getting ready for Shabbat, preparing ourselves for our weekly spiritual retreat, for our encounter with God. Readying ourselves for Shabbat consciousness is the central aim of our weekday work. The Rebbe’s attitudinal prescription is to prevent us from mistakenly paying too much attention to our secular activities, from being caught in them and assigning them an importance they do not deserve. Not that we shouldn’t tend to our world and do the work that is necessary; but our true focal point, our attention is to remain inner directed, divinely focused. And so in our doing this weekday work we should lack inner involvement, we should remain unattached. The work is to be carried out “LiSh’ma – for its own sake.” Not for pleasure sake, not for fame sake, not for any kind of reward or thank you. We do what is necessary to be done just because.”

And the Rebbe to conclude: “Only when [one] sees [one’s] work for what it is, a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of God, will [one’s] work take the passive form and the focus of [one’s] thoughts be on God alone.” (Likkutei Sichot Vol. I).

Torah Reflections – February 21 – 27, 2016

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

What if Moses Never Came Back?  

         When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him. [Exod. 32:1]

This “god” Aaron is going to help build, is the infamous golden calf.  It had been forty days and forty nights since Moses had disappeared atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites had become restless, unable to tolerate weeks upon weeks of inaction. Moses must have died, they presumed. All these trials and tribulations were for naught. And so they resolved to resurrect an Egyptian god—that the golden calf represented—to find reassurance in the familiar. The episode of the Golden Calf is, therefore, seen by many rabbis as a spiritual backslide brought about by a lack of trust in the unfolding of a process.

Haven’t we all been there too? In our relationships; we cherish that peak experience moment (just like Sinai), but become impatient and disillusioned when it doesn’t happen again in subsequent encounters. Not Moses but “the magic” must have died. In our work too; we had this fabulous report, this successful event, this highly praised project we completed. Surely a promotion is coming next, success will be knocking at the door. But then weeks go by and, we surmise, all has been forgotten, our hard work was for naught. It is the same with spirituality. We have a peak experience following a specific practice. Immediately we commit ourselves to this teacher or that technique, ready to do whatever it takes to follow this newfound path. But when nothing happens for weeks and months our commitment fades, our trust in the practice or the teacher wanes and pretty soon we are back at square one.

Why is that? Where is this human universal pattern coming from? Two main answers come to mind: craving and distrust. One of the greatest pitfalls on the spiritual path, and in many other areas of our lives (especially our relationships,) is our all-too-human craving for the multiplication of blissful moments. There is inherently nothing wrong with living through such moments, through peak experiences. They are the energy-source that has the potential to fuel our growth, to dislodge us from our ego-bound identity. But they become pathological when we become stuck in grasping at them. Craving is a function of the ego. It is the ego that wants. That which is already everything, lacks nothing and, therefore, wants nothing. Our ego, wanting to see the blissful moment reproduced, steps in to control our experience and, in doing so, blocks any possibility of it happening again. Paradoxically, it is our craving for these experiences that prevents us from re-living them.

Our lack of trust—often a consequence of our pathological cravings—is another hurdle to overcome on our spiritual journey, on our life-journey. Though we might not readily see it, every encounter, every moment of practice has an impact on our evolution. Relationships deepen mostly when, after the fireworks, people are present to and engaged with one another in their commitment to walk together as one, day in and day out. A spiritual teacher once said: “Enlightenment is, most often, an act of grace, an accident. A serious day-to-day meditation practice—though it might not bring one to blissful states each time—makes one ‘accident-prone.’” Trust in the process. Trust that things are moving in the depth of our being even when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. This is the key to spiritual growth; the key to growth at any level. The Israelites’ experience at the foot of Mount Sinai speaks of the challenge of trust in the face of the invisible; be it God or Moses—or who or what—ever. It calls us to steadfast commitment to the deeper Truth we know within our heart, the Truth we recognize at the soul level.

Torah Reflections – February 14 – 20, 2016

Tetzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

The Olive Oil Paradigm  

       You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to kindle an eternal light. Aaron and his sons shall set it up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be an eternal decree for the Israelites throughout their generations.
[Exod. 27:20-21]
Thus we learn why in every synagogue, to this day, the Jewish people continues to kindle a flame, a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light over the ark that houses the Torah. Our people has followed this biblical injunction for 3000 years, beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem and the kindling of the seven-branched Menorah; which is, initially, what these verses referred to. Though our rabbis would say that this commandment was given to the Israelites at Sinai in anticipation of the Temple being built later — since the Israelites had no way of acquiring olives in the desert, let alone the necessary equipment for extracting oil — many scholars agree that this passage was written, instead, at a time when the Temple was already standing and retroactively inserted into the narrative.

But why oil from olives? A commentary found in the Etz Hayim Torah explains that olive oil was easier to refine so as to be perfectly “’clear,’ or… free of dregs,” compared to other sources for oil commonly used at the time such as “sesame seed, flax, and animal fat.” [p. 503] Additionally, since biblical times, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace. Choosing olive oil to light the Great Menorah of the Temple imbued the daily ritual with deeper meaning and the intentionality to kindle energies of peace in the world. Interestingly, the reason for the olive branch to have historically been associated with peace, our commentator continues, is that “olive trees mature slowly, so only when there was an extended time of peace, with agriculture left undisturbed, could the olive tree produce its fruit.”

Beyond the practical or symbolic aspects of the text, the first verse of the portion speaks of our being individually commanded to bringing oil to the Temple, and that this oil needs to be “clear” or “pure.” The Etz Hayim commentator pays particular attention to the relational component between the people and the oil they are bringing as an offering. It is not just what the individual is bringing that needs to be pure, but the heart of the individual making the offering itself needs to be “uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.” Our inner states, our teachers are saying, impact the quality of what we are offering our world. It might not be that the olive oil itself is physically contaminated by our emotional states—though we hold a vision that nature and humanity are not two but rather inseparably intertwined and inter-vibrating—but that the nature of our offering becomes polluted when our heart is clouded or closed-off by the inner battles of our ego.

Our task, therefore, is to become increasingly mindful of how we show up in our world. We are inherently creative beings who—whether we want it or not—continuously bring our unique blend of olive oil to every moment we share. To be mindful means that we recognize the shadow as well as the light when it expresses through us. It means that we hold ourselves with compassion when we fall short of the “Pure Extra Virgin” impossible ideal, and that we know to take responsibility and make amends when needed. And when our offering mindfully includes all aspects of ourselves, then the essence, the pure oil of our being joins with others’ to kindle the Great Menorah of the Temple of Creation with energies of peace, and harmony.

Torah Reflections – January 31 – February 6, 2016

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

You Shall Be Holy  

Both this past week and this week’s Torah portions speak of God’s desire for us to be holy. Last week, just before the Decalogue, God said: “… all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me… a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6) This week again God reiterates: “Be a Holy people to Me.” (Exod. 22:30) This Divine injunction seems to be of overriding importance in our entering into this Covenant with God. Yet why is this so critical and, most significantly, is this a fair demand to place on inherently flawed human beings?

Is holiness—that ideal we project upon heroic and saintly figures in all spiritual traditions—an achievable goal, even if we were to follow perfectly the entire 613 Mitzvot that Judaism sets before us as a practice? Isn’t God, by making such a demand of perfection of the fallible beings that we are, de facto abrogating the very Covenant He is wanting to enter into with us? Surely God knows better than to ask what is beyond human reach.

So how do we solve this dilemma? Given the text and God’s imperative, we are left with the only variable: the reader, the translator—the interpreter. What if we first asked ourselves: “Who is reading these words?” If we are able to listen carefully, we will notice that the part of self that is reading God’s words as a command that we be holy, is the striving part of self; the part of self that believes it can be perfected, the aspect of our being which lives in a world of “should” and beats itself up when it doesn’t meet its own expectations. In other words, only the ego is that part of self capable of reading God’s words as a demand made upon it.

But we can read these words at a very different level; a level which assumes that what looks to the ego like God’s commanding, is but a statement, an acknowledgment of Truth. The translation of Exod. 19:5-6 would, then, read: “… I manifest as all of Creation, therefore, as expressions of Me… you are holy.”  That kind of realization, beyond the grasp of the ego, sets the Covenant itself at a different level. We are not to strive to become what we are not, we are to let the holiness of the Divine we are flow through us as unencumbered as possible. The laws of the Torah are not there to coerce us into becoming holy; they are there to help us clear out the obstacles, the resistances, which prevent us from being the clearest channels possible for that Holy One to manifest through us. God needs us, as the unique beings that we are, to fulfill such a task.

Torah Reflections – January 10 – 16, 2016

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves  

There is one peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this week’s Torah portion. While the Torah portion itself tells of the last plagues wrought upon Egypt by God and, in the end, of the Israelites’ mass departure from Egypt; the root of the word that concerns us here is Avad. At the beginning of the portion we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim (translated here as “servants” or “courtiers”), in order that I may display my Signs among them.” [Ex. 10:1] However, later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim (rendered here as “bondage” or “slaves”).” [Ex.13:3] Yet, in another place where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may v’YaAv’duni (“worship Me”).” [Ex. 10:3]

I posit, however, that there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened heart. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, but we have hardened our heart to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.

But the Divine within, continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our heart. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from of our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may YaV’duni/“become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate.  No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e. no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating His will over ours. Rather we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here;” leading a life that embodies the Divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting and understanding ways of being; and expresses our highest value, doing justice, practicing love and compassion and walking humbly along our unique path.

Torah Reflections – January 3 – 9, 2016

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Know Thyself to be Enslaved

Every year, as I meet the text narrating the plagues of Egypt, I am confronted with the same paradox. God commends Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. God brings down a plague. Pharaoh yields to Moses’ demands. Then, inexplicably, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and the latter, consequently, reverses his edict and keeps the Israelites enslaved. Why is God playing both sides? And why does God need to replay this scene ten times? One can take this questioning further and ask why God sets up the whole thing in the first place? Why, already in the time of Abraham, had God determined that the Hebrews would descend into Egypt, be enslaved there for four hundred years, only to then be liberated and brought to the Promised Land? Why did we have to get there via Egypt?

We find the answer to our questions in the early verses of this week’s Torah portion. In the first verse Moses is described as stepping into the Truth of his being, into the True I Am-ness that he is: not the illusion of the separate sense of self, of the ego; rather YHVH Itself, the transcendent aspect of Being. “I am YHVH” says the Torah [Exod. 6:2]. This I Am-ness, that Moses embodies, is now aware of the parts of the conditioned self still oppressed and in bondage, under the tight lid of the narrow consciousness that is Moses’ inner Mitzrayim, his inner Egypt. As our text has it: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage.” [Exod. 6:5] These are the parts of self he is to free from the illusion of separateness: “I am YHVH; I will free you from the burdens of Egypt.” [Exod. 6:6] Because God, is a force that liberates. God is defined as an energy that frees us from our addiction to power, to control; from the exclusive narrow-mindedness of ego; a force that leads us into a land of inclusiveness, compassion, serenity, awe and humility. Why? So that “you shall know that I Am YHVH” [Exod. 6:7], so that our separate sense of self may dissolve in our knowing the Greater “I Am” that we are. Because in that knowing of our Greater Identity, there is no more need for control or power, and we can relax, breathe deeply and let go, as the little “i” is seen through and through for the emptiness that it is.

The journey in and out of Egypt that God sets up is, therefore, part of the process of spiritual awakening. The plagues themselves are necessary. We might mistakenly think that they are directed at the Egyptians, but I would venture to say that they are for the ultimate benefit of the Israelites, instead. Because “when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit.” [Exod.6:9] The reality of our conditioned self is that it can’t hear our inner Moses, no matter how powerful the Truth. It needs the plagues. It needs the pain of the spiritual practice that results from time to time in a little glimpse into that Truth, knowing full well that after each such opening experience, our heart closes off and hardens again, and we fall back into thinking ourselves to be the separate ego. Perhaps our text is telling us that liberation comes after ten of these experiences, after ten awesome displays of God’s Presence. And so there might be no other way to get to the Promised Land but via Egypt. Without Egypt we might never be able to even recognize the Promised Land or even know that it exists. In order for us to know the Light of the One we are, we first need to recognize the bondage that keeps us in darkness. We need to know that we are enslaved in order to awaken to the possibility of liberation.

Torah Reflections – Dec. 27 – Jan. 2, 2015

Shemot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

You Can Take Moses Out of Egypt, But…  

This week marks the beginning of the Exodus story with Moses as its central character. At its core, this story is one of liberation. And beneath its literal level, it is about the inner spiritual journey of liberation told through a character named Moses; a stand-in for all our spiritual journeys.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s court. His privileged elitist upbringing reflects an egocentric narrow level of consciousness—the Hebrew word for Egypt being understood here to mean “narrow” or “constricted”.  Many midrashic stories paint Moses as a deeply spiritual and exceedingly bright youth, growing up in a place that was too constricting for his soaring spirit. As he matures, he begins to wrestle with his inner egotistic Egyptian taskmaster that keeps his spiritual being in shackles, brutalizing it and beating it into submission. But as Torah relates, one day, “Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen,” [Exod. 2:11] and killed him. The rabbis of the Midrash tell us that Moses kills the Egyptian by pronouncing God’s Name. In a first brief flash of awakening, and through Divine Grace, Moses temporarily transcends his ego (though the biblical image is that of killing). But the inner voices of fear soon take over again, and though Moses is now aware that—after such an experience—he will never be able to go back to Pharaoh’s court, he is also afraid of facing the consequences of his awakening, so he flees in an attempt to hide away from his uncovered higher Self.

Now you can run, but you can’t hide. When fear drives him to run away, Torah describes Moses ending up in the land of Midian (when Midian means “striving” in Hebrew) and sitting down by a well: the life-giving inner Source. In Midian he meets Jethro (whose name means “Preeminent One,”) a priest who fathered seven daughters. Kabbalists understand Jethro to represent the Divine Masculine transcendent principle, and his seven lower Sefirot (stages of Divine emanation as the manifest universe) as representing the Divine feminine principles. And so Moses begins a time of spiritual initiation, striving to uncover the deeper Truth of his being, while shepherding the inner flock of the Preeminent One; his mentor.

And this leads up to the story of the burning bush. On that day, Moses comes to the mountain of God called Horeb, which can be understood to mean “solitude,” and describes the state of consciousness one reaches prior to experiencing revelation. There, Moses is startled by a great Light awakening within him that transcends human rational understanding. He realizes that the burning Light that calls his name is the Light that he is, and he exclaims “Hineni! – Here, I am!” this blazing Light of Being!  In that moment Moses awakens to the nondual Light that is all, the “I AM” that is Is-ness itself yet transcends it at the same time. The very next verse, however, God tells him to go back and free the parts of self that are still stuck in his Egypt, to liberate those shadow parts of his being still repressed, still denied; for enlightenment doesn’t deal with healing the conditioned self. But Moses resists. He argues with God that he doesn’t want to go back to Egypt; that he won’t be able to free those parts of self forever enslaved to fear and to the entrenched patterns of ego. Why not stay in this blissful state of consciousness instead? The spiritual path, however, does not end with enlightenment. In a way, it begins there. But now, with the Light of Nondual Understanding one is called to do the work that will illuminate the darkest corners of one’s psyche. And as we will see, it will take Moses the rest of his life, after having taken himself out of Egypt, to take Egypt out of himself.