Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwaivering love.

Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwavering love.

Torah Reflections: January 8 – 14, 2017

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Conditioned Happiness

Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this—models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.

This week’s Torah portion opens: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]

In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come? He reminds us that we encountered the number “seventeen” just a few chapters earlier, when we first met his favorite son Joseph, and he was seventeen. From there, Rabbi Ben Asher draws a parallel between the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life and the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, before the latter is sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. The answer comes to him through the Gematria of the word “Vayechi – lived,” which adds up to thirty four. And this, he concludes, “teaches that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for thirty four [of them], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold and seventeen years in Egypt [during which he and Joseph were together again].”

Unwittingly perhaps, R. Ben Asher helps us uncover a darker side of Jacob. Jacob’s myopia—his choice to link the “good years” exclusively with this one son—so severely limits his vision, that he, de facto, cuts himself off from experiencing the fullness of the rest of his life. He fails to relate to the unique blessings of each of his wives, of each of his children. He fails to take responsibility for the disfunction in his family that will continue to manifest itself for centuries in the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. Then again, the Torah does not paint portraits of perfect heroes, but helps us see our own flaws reflected in theirs. Who among us can claim that they do not suffer, at times, from the same myopia as Jacob? Who hasn’t failed to recognize the unique blessings of people who walked in and then out of our lives? How often do we make our happiness contingent on a single issue or a single person, and drive ourselves and others around us miserable because of it? And so perhaps we can learn to become more aware of the ways we surrender our intrinsic power to be happy to something outside of ourselves: the objects of our unending desires, or the opinion of others. Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that happiness might be a state of being, not a hope of becoming; an opening now to the blessings right in front of us, not a postponing of that realization conditioned on a different yesterday or a better tomorrow. Because Jacob’s happiness was conditional to a fault, he was miserable for a hundred and thirteen years of his life. And that’s a mighty long time to waste!

Torah Reflections: January 1 – 7, 2017

Vayigash

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Accountability & Free Will

Chapter 45 is pivotal in the Book of Genesis. Joseph, Jacob’s favored son, who had been second-in-command of Egypt for the past nine years, reveals himself to his brothers after they come to Pharaoh’s court from Canaan to beg for food, as the Mideast’s famine enters its second year. Joseph, in a tearful embrace, forgives his step-brothers for selling him into slavery some twenty-two years earlier, and asks them to bring his father and the entire tribe down to Egypt where he will provide them with the most fertile parcels of land. He says to them:

Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here but God.” [Gen. 45:5-8a]

Though on the surface Joseph’s statement is filled with compassion and understanding, it raises many questions. What about the brothers’ accountability for their earlier misdeeds? And what about free will?

Joseph is clearly saying that God conjured up this “awesome plot,” as the Midrash itself calls it. He and his brothers were simply playing their parts in the great Divine plan. Accordingly, the brothers are not to be held accountable for their actions, “be distressed or reproach [them]selves.” The rabbis, understandably, are troubled by this, and offer many a contortionistic explanation to justify Joseph’s comment. A footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) betrays their ambivalence: “God could not prevent the brothers from choosing to do something cruel.” Here the rabbis—going against the text—attempt to preserve their belief in free will; but in doing so reduce an all-powerful God to an impotent one. They continue: “God’s role was to sustain Joseph and guide him…” But if God could “sustain” and “guide” Joseph, than why assume He couldn’t do the same with the brothers? And if we grant that God can play a “role” and intervene ever-so-slightly by guiding us in our lives then there is no possibility of free will. How would we know which decisions we make are absolutely our own and which are directed by God’s guidance? The footnote continues: “Abravanel notes that, although God used the sale of Joseph to further the divine plan, the brothers were still accountable for what they did.” But which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

The reason we wrestle with Joseph’s statement has to do with the plane of consciousness from which we approach his words. Our plane of inquiry is the relative plane, the plane of our ego; an inherently dualistic plane. From this perspective we assume free will and accountability because this is a basic belief upon which not just our society, but our very identity is built. But this is not, however, the perspective, the plane of consciousness from which Joseph is speaking. Joseph is not speaking from ego-consciousness; his ego dissolved years before and he was left with knowing himself as a self-less instrument for Divine expression. He is—as we all are—the eyes through which God sees the world, the hands through which God works, the mouth through which God speaks; and he knows full-well that his brothers are too; even though, like us, they haven’t woken up to realizing it yet. He doesn’t deny the need to believe in free will and accountability on the relative dualistic plane of existence. He simply knows that from the (his) absolute non-dual perspective of Reality, no separate individual free-willing self exists; the One is every one, everything, and everywhere. What Joseph proclaims to his brothers is an Absolute Truth that our rational relative perspective cannot grasp. What we are asked to do, however, is resist relegating this Truth to some “antiquated deterministic religious beliefs” because our ego is uncomfortable with it; and through walking the steps of this mystical spiritual path of ours, to awaken ourselves to Joseph’s consciousness and know, from that place, the Truth he is speaking.

Torah Reflections: December 18 – 24, 2016

Chanukah 5777

The Next Messiah

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of light, the commemoration of an ancient miracle. It is a time for us to reflect on the light in our life, and be reminded of the miracle that is life. Chanukah means “dedication.” It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish worship by the victorious Maccabee rebels, after its desecration following the Greek pagan invasion and takeover. The rebellion came at the end of 150 years of the Jews living under Greek dominion. The Greek leaders cared mostly about keeping themselves in power, concentrating wealth in as few hands as possible, and imposing their culture, their values, upon everyone else. Chanukah is a story of the uprising of people living under a rule that didn’t resemble them, that didn’t reflect their values as a nation. The revolt broke out because Jews felt disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected and spiritually crushed. Theirs was a struggle to maintain a way of life that they saw being systematically eradicated. There are times when history seems to be repeating itself. I believe ours is such a time.

In order to stay in power the Greeks pit the Jews against each other: those who embraced Hellenism against those who resisted it. The divisiveness came to a head when the High Priest appointment to the Temple was taken away from its legitimate heir by the Greek ruler, and given—after a major bribe—to a pro-assimilation candidate. What it meant then was that brothers of the same nation became enemies overnight and civil war ensued. The war turned into revolt against Greek rule only after the latter stepped into the conflict on the assimilationists’ side.

Learning from our ancestors’ history, we need to reject the divisive mindset that elements of our media and our politicians have led us to buy into: that we are a deeply divided nation, living in a highly individualistic society, where the accumulation of stuff matters more than people. We need to let go of the alienating isolating storyline that we have been fed to believe; and rebuild relationships based on mutual support and shared action. And part of that shared action will be to stand up together to fight our modern “Greek rulers” when they seek to implement divisive, racist, misogynistic policies; when they aim at undermining our constitution, our Bill of Rights and the fundamentals of our democracy, or at destroying our planet’s ecosystem. Today, we need to empower each other to dream and enact a different dream, to envision a different future. We need to come together to manifest that vision, that dream, in our cities, in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Today we are called to rededicate our Temple.

So where do we start? We can start in the only place there ever is to start: right here and right now. The lesson of Chanukah points us in one direction: the tremendous power of community to change our collective fate. Bet Alef as a committed spiritual community can forward such a vision. Our vision is one where we manifest in our world all that we learn, who we each become by practical engagement in the very spirituality we embrace. Our vision is one where our community itself becomes the container through which these spiritual values are expressed; where we create the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of life we want to participate in, the kind of society we want to raise the next generation in. Like the Maccabees, we are the ones called to spiritual warriorship.

This is “applied spirituality.” In Jewish tradition one’s spiritual height is measured by one’s actions in the world. The same is true for our communities. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quoted an ancient sutra that says: “The next Buddha will be the Sangha.” Our rabbis would have put it thus: “The next Mashiach will be the Kehilla” or, in other words, “The next Messiah will be the Community.” And for this Messiah, we certainly don’t have to wait.

Happy Chanukah to all of you.

Torah Reflections: December 11 – 17, 2016

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Honoring Our Fears

In the previous Torah portion we read about Jacob’s vision of the ladder that came to him in a dream. At the end of that vision God appears to him to say: “And here I am, with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil.” (Gen 28:15) Toward the end of that portion spanning over 20 years of Jacob’s life, God appears to him again and orders him back home, saying: “Return to the land of your ancestors, to your birthplace, and I will be with you.” (Gen 31:2) In both cases one can’t help but notice that God insists on telling Jacob that He will stand as his protector; that He will be with him, on his side. Why is God so insistent on this point? This week’s Torah portion might shed some light:

Jacob now sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, in the country-side of Edom… When the angels came back to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and he, too—accompanied by four hundred men—is marching to meet you.” Jacob was terrified. [Gen. 32:4–8]

God insisted on this point because He knew that Jacob needed to be reassured, to know that He would stand as his shield when the time came to meet his brother Esau. But even with both Divine affirmations, Jacob is still terrified. Wouldn’t a person of faith be able to face the upcoming confrontation with equanimity and composure? Wouldn’t an enlightened person have transcended his/her fear? Isn’t Jacob displaying a lack of faith, denying God’s power, disregarding God’s promise through his irrational behavior?

Perhaps this is what this Torah portion is aiming to tell us about fear. Fear operates at such a primal level of our psyche that, as long as we are in a body, we are bound to experience it. Fear isn’t, at its core, negative. It is a means to our survival, a reflex of self-preservation. It is irrational because it is pre-rational. If the car in front of you stops abruptly, now is not the time to reason away your next move. Fear takes over and reacts in a split second, before any thought has time to make itself known. As in Jacob’s case, enlightenment will probably not bring about the blissful, serene, equanimous life you might hope for. Awakening is probably not a general anesthetic that dulls one’s life into an everlastingly undisturbed peaceful silence. I suspect that the opposite might be true. Being awake one sees more, feels more, is more. In letting go of the stories of the mind and being radically present to each moment one can’t help it but be more alive to all the feelings, the sensations, the emotions that are part of one’s experience without collapsing into any of them. And so when fear arose within Jacob, he remained fully present to it, fully connected to its rising energies, without letting his ego step in. He simply was the fear he felt, aware of the conditioning at the source of his experience.

From that place, I read a comment by Rashi (11th century French rabbi) who writes: “Jacob was terrified and distressed. Terrified lest he be killed; distressed were he to kill others.” On one hand, Jacob lets the energies of his conditioned pre-rational fear flow fully through his being; and, on the other hand, from a more enlightened place, he mourns the eventuality of having to kill in self-defense. I find this commentary most powerful. Rashi acknowledges the conditioned nature of our existence and, at the same time, the human potential for transcendence in care and compassion. May we, too, learn to live like Jacob, by honoring the limitations of our human condition yet striving to remember the One Life manifesting in all lives, the One Being expressing through all beings.

Torah Reflections: December 4 – 10, 2016

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Vision Quest
It is undeniable that some stones in Jerusalem radiate a certain energy. We, as Jews, come to pray at the Western Wall that supported the ancient Holy Temple built on Mount Moriah. We touch the stones of the Wall with our hands, our forehead, our lips, our tears; and one can’t help but feel the vibrations the Wall transmits. In Islam, the golden-domed mosque atop the Temple Mount is called the Dome of the Rock, because in its center is a rocky surface called the Rock of Moriah from which—Muslim legend has it—the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. For Jews, that rock is believed to be where the Holy of Holies once stood in the ancient Temple. One can only imagine the energies radiating from this rock.

The idea that stones radiate energy isn’t new. We read in this week’s Torah portion:

And Jacob departed from Beer Shava and went to Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and he put [them] around his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt… [Gen. 28:10-11]

The dream that Jacob dreamt is that of the ladder upon which angels ascended and descended. But what about this set-up leading to the dream? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) is bothered by the fact that the Torah does not specifically tell us which place is “the place” —repeated three times in this one verse. Though we know that “the place” is one of the many names of God in our tradition, Rashi reminds us that we last read about “the place” when Abraham “saw the place from afar” [Gen. 22:4] on his way to sacrificing Isaac, and therefore concludes that Jacob’s dream—like his father’s near sacrifice—took place atop Mount Moriah.

Having clarified where the scene takes place, Rashi proceeds to explain that Jacob had set the stones around his head in a “U” shape with stones on three sides, leaving one side open from which his body extended. In the middle of the “U”, he placed one larger stone for his head. These were the stones of “the place,” Divine stones. These were the stones of Mount Moriah that radiate divine energies, all placed around and underneath his head. Could this be describing a ritualistic set-up to induce dreams or visions in the practitioner through the energies of the stones? Rashi himself sees the stones as alive, even quarreling with each other. He tells his readers that as Jacob lays down “God immediately made them into one stone” to explain why the Torah uses the singular a few verses later to recall that, after his dream, “Jacob arose… and took the stone that he had place around his head…” [Gen. 28:18] These were no ordinary stones.

Perhaps, therefore, there is more to this passage than meets the eyes. I suspect that it is, indeed, describing a millennia-old Middle-Eastern version of a vision quest. For what is a vision quest about but going on a personal journey alone in the wilderness in order to find oneself and ones’ intended spiritual and life direction; and to attune oneself to the spiritual world as contact is made with Spirit and one’s life-purpose is revealed in a vision or a dream. Both, indeed, happen to Jacob in this passage. God appears to him in his dream to renew with him His promise to Abraham, and he wakes up secured in the future direction of his journey.

Where is “the place” in our own life that supports a deeper connection to the One Being which beats our heart and breathes our breath? Is it the great outdoors for you, or your little meditation corner at home? What are the “stones” that energize you, that support your own dreaming, that help you gain greater clarity along your life-journey? Are they books, meditations, journals? We owe it to ourselves, every so often, to go on such a vision quest—inner or outer—and find what is yearning to be revealed. Perhaps now, as winter sets in, might be a good time.

Torah Reflections: Nov. 27 – Dec. 3, 2016

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Why We Need Conflict

The twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, wrestled each other since before they were born. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we learn that: “Rebekah became pregnant. But the children almost crushed one another inside her.” [Gen. 25:21-22] Both, it seems, wanted to be the firstborn in order to inherit God’s promise to Abraham from their father Isaac. Esau was the one, eventually, to emerge first from the womb even though Jacob was still trying to pull him back as he “came out holding Esau’s heel.” [Gen. 25:26] The two boys grow up to become two clashing personalities; Esau was a “skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; while Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents” [Gen. 25:27] And even though Esau appears to have de-facto inherited the firstborn status, Jacob’s conniving drive pushes him, first, to trick his brother into selling him his firstborn-right; and then—with his mother’s support—to deceive his blind father by impersonating Esau when Isaac pronounces the blessing that, consequently, makes him the leader of the tribe and the inheritor of God’s promise instead of his older brother.

But Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t stop here. In fact, our rabbis argue, Jacob’s whole life will be a life of wrestling; a succession of trials, torments and crises. Some see it as payback for his original trickery. They point to the fact that Torah describes Abraham dying “at a good ripe age, old and content;” [Gen. 25:8] and Isaac dying “old and content” [Gen. 35:29] as well; but that when it comes to Jacob’s last days he, himself, confesses that “few and hard have been the days of my life.” [Gen. 47:9] Yet Jacob who, ironically, is later called Israel—Divine Wrestler—is the one biblical character that becomes the father of the people that bear his name: the B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. To this day, Jews are referred to not as the Children of Abraham or Isaac, but of Israel, of the wrestler.

Clearly, our tradition holds in high esteem the human experience of struggle. We need conflict. Conflict helps us grow and evolve. It challenges our convictions, and shakes us out of our complacency. Yeshiva students are, by design, paired-up to argue over biblical texts from different perspectives because doing so enriches their understanding. At an individual level, there is something deeply powerful when we allow ourselves to push through those inner places of conflict when we are put in a position that challenges our integrity, our beliefs, or our sense of right and wrong. Wrestling supports our continual evolving in the service of becoming the fullest individual we can be, by preventing us from being bogged down by too rigid personal orthodoxies.

Our culture, however, is deeply uncomfortable with conflict. It has equated conflict with clashing, war, violence, winners and losers. But conflict doesn’t have to be any of that. Every conflict is an opportunity to uncover those hidden aspects of self that might be unconscious roadblocks to our personal growth. This is how Yeshiva students approach it. Their wrestling is l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. Ideally, their arguing is not meant to be about finding out who’s the best student, the more learned. No one wins. Their debate is to remain ego-less—ideally. Their purpose is to gain as multifaceted an understanding of a problem as possible by bringing into the conversation as many rabbinic perspectives as possible. The conflict is meant to expand their consciousness. Can we, too, enter into a practice that embraces conflict with love instead of reacting to it with fear? Can we set a Kavanah – an intention for ourselves to step into conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow? Can we learn to embrace differing perspectives on a given subject? Then, we would truly make our practice l’shem shamayim.

Interfaith Trip to Israel 2016_Post Shabbat Thoughts

I can’t believe we are already coming to the end of our trip. What an amazing experience once again! We have done so much; it is really hard to fathom. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jana for making it all happen for us, and to Marla, our guide, for making every moment and every place so rich with meaning. This, differently than previous times, was a very special journey for me. Not just because I was blessed to lead the trip with Pastor Tim, but also because, for the first time, I was able to share the land of my youth with my son. This has been the most precious gift of all.

With all that, my key take away from the trip can be summed up in one sentence: who tells the story matters. Let me explain. In the past few weeks, whichever holy or not-so-holy site we have visited, we have found ourselves at the center of competing stories. We have discovered that whomever owns the site, owns the story the site tells and uses that story to convey the message that is important to them. The Independence Hall Museum tells the story of the founding of Israel, the story that is being taught in every school in Israel and that has become the quasi-unquestioned Jewish narrative of the state. Being in the bilingual school in Kafar Qaba, we got that the Arab story of this event is radically different. That school tells both stories and in doing so attempts to create a different story for the future of Israel-Palestine.

In every Church or Christian site we have visited, whomever owns the site tells through shaping this particular space the story of Jesus they want to convey. This was true throughout our trip but was really made clear to us when we visited the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, the alternative site from the Holy Sepulcher, that claims their site as the true post-crucifixion burial place of Jesus. The people in charge of the space would only allow their trained volunteers to guide and teach in that space. When Pastor Tim shared with us—following the official guided and heavily scripted tour—his version of the story while we were still there, the site crew made it clear several times that we were not welcomed to do so.

But this was true as well for the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. The Wall is “owned” by the religious ultra-orthodox. The tiny, hard to access space given outside of the main esplanade to the progressive egalitarian Jews—though an achievement in its own right—speaks volume to the religious balance of power there and who gets to dictate the story. In fact, the religious ultra-orthodox leadership is not only telling the Jewish story inside Israel, it is setting the tone for the entire Jewish people the world over. They are able to do so because they have been able to claim great political power and influence over the Israeli government, including key cabinet minister positions that allow them to shape the story of the Jewish people from Jerusalem.

Who gets to tell the story is critical. We have watched the religious story falling increasingly into the hands of the most radical orthodox in all three Abrahamic faiths. When the voice of religion could play a defining role in supporting the evolution of global consciousness, what we are seeing is that it is, instead, retracting, recoiling in fear from the advances of the post-modern world. But just as we, progressive Jews, cannot let the ultra-orthodox define who is a real practicing Jew and who isn’t, cannot let this one form of practice among a spectrum of practices be turned into the one gold standard of Jewishness, so can’t we let radical orthodoxy in any of our monotheistic faiths dictate the next chapter of human history. Just like in the bilingual school of Kafar Qaba, there is room for more than one story. We are richer for it when we can take multiple perspectives, include and integrate others’ stories. And so without denying the rightful space that belongs to the orthodox among us, we also need to boldly claim ours and be just as loud and proud as they are.

And loud and proud we certainly are. You should have seen us sing and dance at the Western Wall last night as we welcomed Shabbat together with the thousands of Jews of all traditions and from all places in the world who, as they do each week, gathered there to celebrate the Shabbat Queen with contagious joy. We proudly took our place in the many hora circles that form all over the place, and we loudly joined in song together with them. And that made me really happy.

Shavuah Tov, from Jerusalem.

Interfaith Trip to Israel 2016_Day Six

There is a beautiful parable in the story of Jesus that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane that we visited today. The story goes that during Jesus’ celebration of Passover as he and his disciples are drinking the four cups of wine, sharing the matzah and eating the maror at their Seder, he leaves the table to go pray in the Garden. There, the very human Jesus who has foreseen the future that will follow his Last Supper, asks God to “remove this cup” from him. I imagine him crying that he is not ready. He is not prepared. He is not the one. Someone else should be chosen for this. He won’t be able to go through with it.

It is often when the mind comes to an impossible dead-end, when there is no way out, and no more explanations to be had, that something is released, something snaps. That something that falls away is the self’s illusion of control and, with it, the beginning of the dissolution of the self itself. Jesus arrives at that realization when he eventually comes to see the futility of his request that God “remove this cup” from him. He surrenders to the inevitable, he surrenders to “what is” and lets go of his need for this moment, for his life unfolding, to be any different than it is. In that place of realization, he exclaims: “Not mine but Your Will be done!” Now I don’t know what the original Hebrew or Aramaic would have been, but I hear in his declaration Joseph’s declaration to Pharaoh just before he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams: ‘Biladai – Without me/without a ‘me’, I am just an empty channel through which God will interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.” Here, too, Jesus may be saying “Biladai, Ken Yehi Ratzon. – I am empty of self, Thy Will be done/I realize that I am empty of self, and that all there is unfolding in Creation is Your Will, including my life path. I am not in charge nor have I ever been in control.”

All the spiritual traditions the world over have a version of this story, even the 12 Steps of Recovery speak of our powerlessness and invite their practitioners to “let go and let God.” One of the reasons is that this teaching, this realization, is the first required step on the journey toward enlightenment. Yet, at this time in our nation’s history when we are asked to step up and take a stand, the Truth of this teaching might look like an abdication of responsibility. If all is God’s Will, then I can just sit back and watch the world’s story unfold before my eyes. But that would be missing the point that the Gethsemane encounter is making. In the garden, Jesus was bearing witness to his own agony, to his own inner resistance while at the same time contemplating the magnitude of history in his story. In that place of witnessing all that was arising in that moment, the inner turmoil and the historical unfolding, he sourced in the silence of the heart what God was moving through him to do. He dissolved his resistances and surrendered into the flow of Divine unfolding. He grabbed ahold of that metaphorical cup again and forged ahead. Had he followed his own will he might have gone home to Nazareth and, who knows, try his hand at carpentry and live to a ripe old age. Surrendering to God’s Will, he stepped into a story bigger than himself even if that meant he would be suffer an agonizing death.

On my personal small scale, I find myself pacing back and forth in my own metaphorical garden of Gethsemane. There is great turmoil within since November 8.  I sense the historical unfolding around me, and many competing voices swirl in my consciousness with conflicting messages from “go home and try carpentry” to “grab onto that cup and run with it.” I feel I need to wait a while longer and find my “Biladai” moment in the silence of the heart. Maybe this journey through Israel came at the right time to help me just do that. Ken Yehi Ratzon.