Meditations for the Days of Awe – In the Book of Life – Day 6

During the Ten Day of Awe we engage in a process of deep introspection. We open our heart with love and compassion while acknowledging our own limitations and taking responsibility for the hurtful ways we show up in our lives. At the same time, we seek to shake ourselves out of the torpor of a life of unhealthy habits and, sometimes, cruel behaviors, in order to wake ourselves up. In many ways, we pray during the High Holy Days to be supported in living a wakeful life.
We say:

B’Sefer Chayim – May we be all recorded in the Book of Life, Blessing, Peace and Abundance.

When we write ourselves in the Book of Life for the year about to be, the words we find are words that speak of such a wakeful life. They are not words that describe all the ways we should think and act so as to manifest the total perfection of our self. These kinds of words are as self-defeating as they are unattainable. Instead, they are words which speak of increasing self-awareness, of gentler ways of being toward self and others, of looking for opportunities, each day, to bless what is exactly as it is. They are words which convey our renewed sense of awe and wonder for a world of abundance, of incredible beauty, and a world of darkness and shadow, all at once. They are words of celebration, of aliveness, of tasting to the fullest the precious moments of our too short life. Ultimately, they are words of love.

When we write in the Book of Life for the year ahead, we begin with “I am.” We do not postpone to an undetermined future what we seek to awaken to now. We write in the present tense. We write as if what we are seeking to open to is already happening right now, for the Greater Self to which these words are addressed knows of no past and no future.

I am already blessed now with…

I am living a life aware and awake. I …

Meditations for the Days of Awe – The Awe of God – Day 5

We read in our High Holy Days meditation booklet this prayer:

Now give the awe of You, Eternal God, upon all Your works, and the reverence for You upon all Your creation.

These are the Days of Awe, an invitation to open to the wonder of each moment, to become increasingly aware of the Divine Presence in every experience. We perceive through our senses what appears to be an outer reality. Awe opens our heart to the realization that this reality is God manifesting moment to moment.

We are aware of what appears to be an inner reality, where thoughts, emotions, desires and body-sensations arise in consciousness. Awe enables us to sense thatthis reality, too, is a manifestation of God.

The unique expression of the Divine that I am meets another unique expression of the Divine, and enters into relationship. Awe allows us to recognize the miracle thatis this interconnectedness, where God manifests as intimate communion.

In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality… Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”

Spiritual awakening begins with awe, with wonderment, with amazement. We pray that we may be able to open our heart just enough, that awe might find its way in.

Today I…

… open my heart to the wonder of each moment by breathing mindfully.

… take time to really taste the food I taste, to find beauty in the things I see, to delight in the interactions I have with others, and marvel at the Life I share.

Meditations for the Days of Awe – Shabbat Shuvah – Day 3

Return again… return to Where you are, return to What you are, return to Who you are.

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of turning, of returning. Today is, especially, a day for introspection, a day for reflection.

On this day we might be looking at our world, at our nation, in disbelief; seeing that division and hatred not only still prevail, but have seemingly taken a more radical turn. At home the political debate has seen so sharp ideological lines be drawn, that dialogue seems impossible and pragmatism a lost principle. Abroad, fear of economic collapse, violence and war continue to dominate our news media headlines.

But isn’t the world on the outside a reflection of the work we have yet to complete on the inside? Can we say, in all honesty, that we no longer hold any grudges; that we no longer fear that which we don’t understand, that we no longer throw anyone out of our heart? However we seek to become increasingly inclusive, aren’t there still people we exclude from our circle? Aren’t there people we have shut out of our lives because we can no longer hear their views, let alone enter into a dialogue with them?

All of us are a work in progress. We seek to be gentler with ourselves and acknowledge our current limitations while continuing to work toward transcending them. Paradoxically, what might help us move forward is to return; to remember the One that we are, the One we have always been, the One which manifests as all sentient beings, as the whole of Creation. When we are able to remember the interconnectedness of Being, then our acts in the world are able to flow from a more compassionate, loving and forgiving heart.
Today I…

… look at the ways I tend to exclude others from my life; and explore the patterns within, which often cause me to throw others out of my heart. I do so with a curious and compassionate heart.

… look at the ways I am able to open my heart to others; the ways I often seek to understand who they are, as well as the perspective they present. I do so with a curious and compassionate heart.

Meditations for the Days of Awe- Rosh HaShanah – Day 2

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…

For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You…
On this second day of Rosh HaShanah, of the New Year, I wanted to invite you to enter into a daily meditation process; that we might support one another as we travel through the ten days of awe. Each day I will offer a phrase, a prayer or a song out of our High Holy Days Machzor, our prayers and meditations booklet and share a few words about them.
Let not my words limit you, however. Find the words awakening within you, inspired by the quote, and take them to be with you through the day.
The “Al Chet” prayer, for example, calls me to open my heart to greater self-awareness; to take the risk and begin gently noticing the hurtful ways I show up in my life. Noticing is at the core of many meditation practices, but you could just as well journal whatever you notice on a piece of paper.

Engaging in this practice we find that our thoughts, emotions and sensations arise as objects in our awareness. And though we have these thoughts, emotions and sensations, if we are able to watch them, notice them, we are not them. They are just objects in our awareness, not who we are. Furthermore, this practice causes us to notice that these thoughts, emotions and sensations happen on their own. Millions of physical functions are happening in us, at any given moment, on their own. I don’t beat my heart, cause my nose to smell, my skin to itch etc… Our emotions, too, unfold out of our control. If we could control them we would be a lot happier, wouldn’t we, getting rid of painful feelings before they even arose. And if we could control our thoughts we would know right now what we will be thinking two minutes from now. At this level of consciousness, our self is a conditioned self, and we are acting out that conditioning in the ways we show up in our life moment to moment.

Noticing is not about beating ourselves up for the numerous hurtful ways we act out our conditioning in the world. The opposite is true. Noticing is simply about paying attention, being curious to learn about our conditioned self by just observing that self as it interacts with the world. Our noticing, our becoming aware, in and of itself impacts that conditioning. We notice from a place of compassion, understanding, wisdom and loving care. In fact, noticing or “paying attention” in Hebrew is “Lasim Lev,” which literally means: “To put your heart into it.” We notice by opening our heart. 

 

Today I…
… notice the times I grow upset, angry, or resentful, with an open heart. I seek to discover the source of my reactions with compassion and care.

… notice the times I am joyful, with an open heart. I seek to discover the source of my happiness with compassion and care.

In addition to this exercise, I offer that, over these Days of Awe–as we engage in this practice of noticing–we also write our own “Al Chet,” our own list of the harmful ways we have acted out our conditioning this past year. I invite you to come with your Al Chetconfession on Yom Kippur and recite it in place of the one in our prayer booklet. Here is a place to start writing:

 

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…
For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You by hurting others through speech.

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…
For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You through…

Torah Reflections – September 7 to 13, 2014

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open     

This week’s Torah portion begins:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Torah Reflections – August 31 to September 6, 2014

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

Wrestling With The Uncomfortable   

Each year, when I meet Ki Teitzei – this week’s Torah portion — I come to realize again why so many people are moved to altogether abandon any kind of religious pursuit. Though we find many uplifting verses about ethical living for a 2500 year old society, some of what we read in this portion goes squarely against our most basic modern sensitivities. Laws surrounding instances of rape are among the most disturbing to us. They not only negate the fundamental rights of women, but often compound the woman’s suffering as the sentencing punishes both the perpetrator and the victim.

What do we, citizens of the 21st century, do with such a Torah portion? Some of us would like to simply take out these passages and only keep the ones that align with our current worldviews. Some suggest more extreme action: to simply discard the Torah as an obsolete anachronistic relic. Yet were we to follow the path of editing out distasteful passages in every generation, there wouldn’t be much left of the text after 2500 years. Torah would be so diminished that it would be unrecognizable and we would lose our rootedness in a shared spiritual document.

The problem with these responses stems from their premise. They both assume that religion or spirituality should be exclusively about “the good stuff:” love, compassion, and kindness. Our reaction to a Torah portion like this is a reflection of such a worldview. We start with the expectation that our lives and our world ought to be good, loving, and nice. We become resentful when our reality doesn’t meet these impossible expectations. So, we surmise, if we can’t find that in the “real world” then, at least, spirituality must be the place to uncover this elusive goodness and yearned-for love. We find ourselves attracted to the spiritual teachers and gurus who preach messages of love and light, and become addicted to simplistic platitudes. But as they continue to sell us on what our ego wants to hear, we allow ourselves to be lulled into an ever deeper slumber. And that is not true spirituality.

True spirituality is like Torah when Torah reflects back to us the unsavory parts of the universal ego as well. Torah, as it is, is an expression of our human condition in all its verses, and our discomfort with it speaks to our own biases. Our engaging with Torah shouldn’t be solely about uncovering the good and the light in it. Our wrestling with the text needs to push us to grapple with the shadow and the darkness embedded within as well. To only want the light is imbalanced and dangerous. In truth, light is most needed when confronting darkness, not ignoring it. Loving when the world is hateful, having compassion when society is telling us to be narcissistic, expressing kindness when all around us is callousness and carelessness, and knowing that we, too, harbor both sides of each divide; that’s true spirituality.

In our necessarily tumultuous relationship with Torah we learn to be with what is, as it presents itself to us. We learn to choose it all, welcome it all; to reject nothing, cut out nothing. Most importantly we learn to wrestle with what makes us uncomfortable, to know ourselves in all our light and our darkness in order that we might, ultimately, transcend our self. Such is the journey and such is the path of Torah.

Torah Reflections – August 24 to 30, 2014

Shof’tim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness  

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Torah Reflections – August 17-23, 2014

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Waking up From Our Collective Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the rebbe goes one step further:

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

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

Torah Reflections – July 6 – July 12, 2014

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Mount of Transitions

As we are nearing the end of the Book of Numbers, and therefore the end of the Exodus narrative — which will be retold by Moses in the last book of Deuteronomy — this week’s Torah portion tells of Moses receiving God’s instructions on how to prepare for his impending death. Moses is to climb up a mountain where he is to die, but only after being given the opportunity to look upon the Promised Land for the last time. From the mountaintop, Moses looks into the future. A future without him. The mountain itself has an intriguing name. It is called Har HaAvarim, which, in Hebrew, means the Mount of Transitions.

I often share that in my reading of Torah I see all the characters in the stories as representing different aspects of ourselves. This week, you are Moses. What would you do if God had made known to you the imminence of your own death, yet with enough time to prepare? How would such knowledge impact your life? Here you are, at the twilight of your life, about to die, thinking back on all that you have accomplished; but also given the opportunity to look forward in time, taking-in the vast territory to be explored still, yet knowing full well that you will not be able to taste its promises, or discover its gifts. [Read more...]

Torah Reflections – June 29 – July 5, 2014

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

We Are Not in Control               

 

This week’s Torah portion retells one of the most peculiar stories in Torah; that of Balaam and his donkey. Balaam is a professional curser hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Hebrew tribes amassed at his borders, poised to invade his land. That morning, Balaam saddles his donkey and rides to meet Balak. Though the story ends with Balaam blessing — rather than cursing — the Hebrews, it is the side story of Balaam riding his donkey that is most intriguing. It is intriguing because, for one, the Torah — which is normally pithy in its narration– has no need to offer a lengthy description of Balaam’s ride. It adds nothing to the general narrative. Two, in the rare instances when Torah does detail episodes of characters’ lives, these are usually Israelites and certainly not their enemies. This story clearly begs for our attention.

Balaam is on his way to meet Balak. His donkey suddenly, and for no apparent reason, “swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass back onto the road.” [Num.22:23] A few minutes later, however, as Balaam was approaching vineyards enclosed by stone wall fences, the donkey veered off the road again, squeezing Balaam’s foot against one of the walls; “so he beat her again.” [Num. 22:25] Then once more, as the path narrowed, all of a sudden Balaam’s donkey stopped dead in her tracks and decided to “lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.” [Num.22:27] [Read more...]