Passover Reflections – March 22 – 28, 2015

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

 

Mah Nish’tanah? What Has Changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus two weeks ago, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. In 2010 I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few: 

Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless – aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”- to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence.

 

To me this is a critical point. Am I even aware of my Mitzrayim? When Moses comes to tell our ancestors that it is time for them to leave Egypt, to break free from slavery: “…they could not hear him, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6:9] The Chasidic masters teach that the darkest depth of enslavement is when we have grown accustomed to it; we then no longer know we are enslaved. This portion of our Haggadah concludes with a beautiful quote from Harriet Tubman that says: “I could have saved thousands more if I could have convinced them they were slaves.” Our first step toward freedom, therefore, is to know that we are enslaved; enslaved to our routine, enslaved to our old stories, enslaved to our rigid views. Our second step is to ask Mah Nish’tanah?

 

[Our story telling begins] with astonishment: “Ma nish’tanah? …How is this night different from other nights?” By astonishment and questioning, we are able to liberate ourselves from the grip of certain habits of thought, convictions, theories, opinions, and prejudices that are held toward self, toward others, and toward the many readily-accepted ways of the world. This question, however, has another dimension. “Mah nish’tanah?” “What has changed?” “What has shifted?” Because the question is even possible, we know that it is our awareness that has shifted. The questioning itself implies awareness. Whatever our enslavement is, our questioning implies that we are now able to step outside of it, and look at it as a “what” – as an object in our consciousness. Our ability to question means that this “what” no longer owns us.

A key aspect of our enslavement is that we have given up questioning. We have settled intoour version of reality, of truth, of right and wrong and we have stopped questioning our own assumptions, we have stopped listening to the other side. Our teachers are, therefore, challenging us: “You want to be free? Question everything! Challenge all your truths! Doubt all your certainties!” Judaism itself is, at its core, a tradition of iconoclasts, of revolutionaries, of provocative questioners. So I start my process this year, embracing my lineage, with “Mah Nish’tanah?” What has changed in me? Am I still growing? Am I still evolving? Am I still questioning and challenging the inner status quo?

 

PS:

There are copies of the Bet Alef Haggadah available to anyone who needs one for the first Seder, for a small donation to cover printing and mailing costs. Contact Rachel in the office.

Make sure you attend our Community Passover Seder, Saturday April 4th, and join us in exploring the deeper mystical teachings embedded in the Haggadah, in this tale of personal liberation. Click here to register.

Torah Reflections – March 8 – 14, 2015

Vayak’hel – Pekudei

Exodus 38:21 – 40:38

Practices on The Way to Sinai                         

                   

This week’s Torah portion brings the book of Exodus to a close. On the surface, these past weeks told the story of our Exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim) and our experience at Sinai; yet at a deeper level, the text speaks of a spiritual journey of awakening. The wordMitzrayim can also be understood as meaning “narrow places” (of consciousness).Mitzrayim represents the self-centered contracted awareness. Conversely, Sinai symbolizes the inner space of freedom, of expanded awareness where we are able to experience Revelation and meet God. The inner journey from one to the other is one of dis-identification from our enslaving conditioned mind, from our ego; and of awakening to the One that is All. But how can we, today, retrace the steps of our ancestors in order to glean such an expanded awareness?

 

Our Torah portion begins:

 

These are the accountings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony that were accounted by Moses for the labor of the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aharon the priest. [Exod. 38:21]

 

What we are called to do, in the concluding verses of Exodus, is to build a Tabernacle; a sanctuary wherein we will be able to worship our newly revealed God. We have journeyed from a place of slavery under the whip of Pharaoh in Egypt, to “labor” toward creating a place of worship under the thundercloud of God at Sinai. Interestingly, the word for “slavery” in Hebrew shares the same root as the word for “labor” and the word for “worship;” respectively: av’dut, avodah, and avodah again. There is a fourth word sharing this same root; the word for “service” (also avodah). So what is the Hebrew hinting at here?

 

First and foremost, if a language conveys the deepest values of a people, then we can see that, since biblical times, the Hebrews considered Avodah/service to be mankind’s ultimate purpose. As far as Judaism is concerned, to serve is our primary reason for being; not the pursuit of happiness. And so our journey from av’dut to avodah, from slavery to Divine Work can be seen as a journey of expanding service. It begins with the awareness that we are stuck in serving (or even worshiping) the every whim of our ego, unconsciously acting out the trappings of our conditioned mind. It continues with shifting the object of our service from self to other, to all others, to planet, and ultimately to God or Life. In transforming the work/labor that is our life to becoming one of service, we are able to dis-identify with the constricted ego-personality and sense into God’s Presence not only in the other’s eyes but in the world that envelops us.

 

Torah’s subtle injunction might be: be of service to your loved ones, your neighbors, your co-workers. Be of service to your community and beyond your community. Serve to bring peace, and understanding between nations and religions. Serve to heal the ecosystem both locally and globally. Become the peaceful steward of the earth. Why? Because the path of service — from av’dut to avodah — is one of the paths that lead from Egypt to Sinai, enabling us to evolve from ego-consciousness to God-consciousness; and from this place, to know the world to be an all-embracing sacred Tabernacle.

Torah Reflections – February 22-28, 2015

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One                                   

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Ornate garments are designed by the artists among the people for the ceremony, sewn together and decorated with gold, precious stones and colorful fabrics. In all, the celebration lasts for a week, throughout which sacrifices are made and a special altar is built at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in the Presence of the Eternal.

For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be God for them, and they may know that I am the Eternal One their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst. I am the Eternal One their God. [Exod. 29:42-46]

I am the Eternal One…” These simple words are the first words of the Ten Commandments. They are repeated here and dozens of other places in Torah. We read these words over and over again throughout the biblical text, but can we truly hear them? Can we truly know that these are not words pronounced by a deity outside of ourselves, rather, they are the words that we are to speak, that we are to awaken to; the Truth that we are to know? “I am the Eternal One” that manifests as all the me’s and all the you’s, all the I am’s ever uttered, even though we all have confused our “I am” with the narrow thoughts of our conditioned separate sense of self.

Yet Spirit is calling out to us from the Tent of Meeting, promising to greet us, longing to be remembered. This Tent is a space in consciousness, beyond the trappings of the ego, where our Divine self awakens, yearning to be known. It is reaching out from within us, telling us that if we simply return to the inner space, simply come to dwell in the inner Tent: “I will meet with you… I will speak with you…” All we have to do is take the first steps toward the Tent of Meeting, for the Divine Itself is the energy that will draw us back, that will liberate us. God is the inner power that moves us to transcend, to free ourselves from the shackles of the ego. It is the force that brings us “out of the land of Egypt,” out of the confining narrow space of ego-bound consciousness, so that It could “dwell in [our] midst,” dwell within us, as the True Being that we come to realize is our being, our “I am.”

But how are we to take these first steps? The image of this week’s Torah portion is that of an ordination. We are to know ourselves to be priests and priestesses. We are to consecrate ourselves to the sole desire to remember the One we are. And we are to engage in spiritual practices that support letting go of all our attachments, worldviews, partial truths and certainties; symbolized in our text by the image of the sacrifices. The way inward is, indeed, a process of shedding. One after the other we surrender the multiple layers of our mistaken identity that have obscured the Divine Light within. One after the other we let go of our false beliefs and opinions as if we were to surrender one piece of clothing after another from the many layers accumulated over the years that both suffocate us and weigh us down. Ultimately, underneath it all, we will find our spirit dressed in the most beautiful priestly garments adorned with gold and precious stones, with “blue, purple, and crimson yarn, and… fine twisted linen.” [Exod. 28:15]

Torah Reflections – February 15-21, 2015

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

 

Creating an Inner Sanctuary                                      

This week’s Torah portion opens with the famous verse: “V’asu Li mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham,” usually translated: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Though from this verse forward the entire portion enunciates God’s directions to building a Tabernacle in the wilderness in tedious detail, we read the text not as an Ikea book of instructions for assembling an actual structure in the Sinai desert, but as a blueprint to create a mishkan, a sanctuary within. Our translation of this verse in Exodus varies, therefore, from the common understanding. We take it to mean: “Let them create an inner sacred space that I might dwell within them.” But how are we to create this inner sacred space?

Our rabbis offer us a four-step approach. The first step, the foundation of this inner structure, is called Hoda’ah — thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Every morning, as we first wake-up, we are to acknowledge the Divine nature of Existence and the unfathomable gift of yet another day, by simply saying the words of the Modeh Ani. This attitude of thankfulness is a prerequisite to worship, to any ritualistic act and to any legal practice. And this is where we start; with an opening of the heart, with a sense of awe for the miracle of Creation. This attitude of thanksgiving is coupled with an acceptance of our role as surrendered participants in the unfolding of Creation called in Hebrew Kabbalat Ol. Both lay, together, the foundation of our inner sanctuary.

The second step, the walls of our inner mishkan, is called AvodahAvodah means work; in this case, spiritual work. Our spiritual work or practice is the natural expression of the foundation of our inner temple. For some of us it manifests through prayer and uttering words of blessings in every possible occasion; for others it means setting time aside to meditate each day; for others, it means immersing ourselves in nature as often as possible. Whatever our primary spiritual practice; this is Avodah; and no inner temple can be built without actively engaging in practice.

The third step, the coverings of your inner temple, is Torah. Torah, in this case, doesn’t refer to the five books of Moses, but is understood in its etymological sense meaning “Teaching.” Learning in general is a modality that supports growth in consciousness by expanding our awareness to include a plurality of thoughts and perspectives. But the study of spiritual text, in particular, is essential in our tradition, for it is seen as the doorway from the material world into the soul, and from the soul out to the material world. On one hand study opens our minds to understanding what lies beyond the narrow confines of our current worldview, our current truths, and allows us to continue to grow and evolve. On the other hand, study gives us the ability to live a principled-centered life and manifest in our world the highest spiritual teachings available to us.

And this leads me to our last step, which has to do not with the structure itself, but rather with the purpose this structure serves: Gemilut Chasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness. There is no point in creating an inner mishkan, our sages say, if it doesn’t lead us to performing right acts, to transforming ourselves into the loving and kind beings we know ourselves to be, and bring these energies into our world through our actions. Spirituality without action, as our rabbis point out, is for naught.

Surrendered gratitude, spiritual practice, life-long learning, and acts of Loving-Kindness are the foundation, the walls, the coverings and the purpose of our inner sanctuary. It is a sanctuary that not only is ever-changing, growing and evolving, but that ultimately remains forever unfinished.

Torah Reflections – February 8 – 14, 2015

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Our Highest Spiritual Principles                   

When a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:35-36]

These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Though taken at the literal level, these rules might appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives (who among us owns an ox anymore?); they are, at a deeper level, far more than simple rules and legislations.

Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st century concepts: When a corporation (call it BP for argument sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the cleaning up costs. Going further with the second verse: If it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for 2 prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area back to its pristine state.

The same goes for peoples’ behavior.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned… but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner too, shall be put to death.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:28-29]

To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a university coach abuses a neighbor’s son, the coach shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that coach had been in the habit of abusing young boys for many years, and his superior, though aware, had failed to restrain him, the coach is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story everyday; in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our work places and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principals that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses, speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.

Torah Reflections – February 1-7, 2015

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief                           

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There were was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard — i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).”

[Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing theEssence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.

Torah Reflections – January 11-17, 2015

Va-eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

 

Many Faces of God                                  

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).'” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohimrevealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of ElohimYHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appearsin/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature-immanent and transcendent at once-now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the highertranscending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH andElohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune withYHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.

Torah Reflections – December 28, 2015 – January 3, 2015

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Awakening to a Deeper Trust                                

Trust is a central tenet in our tradition. Judaism is not a creedal religion, by which I mean that no acceptance of a specific theological system, no adoption of dogma, is required in order to be Jewish. Instead, Judaism asks for trust. And this notion goes back to biblical times. Take Abraham for example. God appears to him and immediately orders him around, promising him land and numerous descendants, in exchange for his trust. God never asks Abraham — or any other hero in Torah for that matter — to believe in Him. God is. His being is assumed, a fact never discussed or questioned. It is Abraham’s trust, not faith, which is tested throughout his life.

With trusting comes a different kind of worldview, a different set of expectations from life in general and our reason for being in particular. Many of us have come to believe — and our modern western capitalist societies make sure to continuously reinforce this belief — that our main life purpose is the pursuit of happiness. Judaism holds, however, that mankind’s main job is not to seek happiness, but rather, to strive to make ourselves clear channels of God’s manifestation; or, in other words, we are to remember that we are the sacred instruments of God’s work. Engaging in the pursuit of individual happiness leads us to a dualistic understanding of existence, to the false conviction that we are in control of this, our discrete life; and to the suffering that comes with holding that only good things ought to happen to good people. As God’s servants we understand and accept the shadow which inevitably comes with the light, walk humbly with the knowledge that control is but painful illusion and, paradoxically, are better able to surrender to what is, aware that everything is but the manifestation of the One.

This trust of what is as God manifesting is what the Hebrew calls emunah, usually mistakenly translated as “faith.” Emunah shares the same root with the word amen which means “it is so.” Emunah is about trusting the it-is-so-ness of the Divine manifesting moment to moment. Ours is a spiritual path to wake up to the ego-free instruments we already are through which Divine energies flow unobstructed. In Torah Joseph becomes, in his adult years, a man of deep trust. He sees himself as a servant of God, a channel for God. For him the challenges of life become opportunities for growth and a way to refine his character. He lives in the moment with trust, sharing the gifts he has been blessed with, sharing who he is in all circumstances. As his story comes to a close and he has finally been reconciled with his long-estranged brothers, he says to them:

Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Now, therefore, have no fear — I will provide for you and your little ones. [Gen. 50:20-21]

Few of us lead a life as Joseph does. Yet we learn from the selflessness, the capacity for forgiveness, the level of trust and Divine sense of purpose beyond ego that Joseph displays throughout his life in Egypt. And there is a Joseph already in all of us yearning to express the sacred dimensions of our being with complete emunah, with unconditional trust. And so, perhaps this week’s Torah portion calls us to live our lives sourced in the sacred dimensions of being as embodied by Joseph, to remember ourselves as sacred channels for the One Spirit that we are, that we have always been.

Torah Reflections – December 14-20, 2014

Miketz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

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. In our days this would be akin to unlimited financial contribution by special interests. 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. Today, we need to empower each other to dream 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 — to compassion and care for one another. We are the ones called to open our hearts to break down the isolation, in order to rebuild relationships between us on a basis of trust, mutual interdependence, and love.

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 Kehillah” or, in other words, “The next Messiah will be the Community.” And for this Messiah, we certainly don’t have to wait.

Happy Chanukah.

Torah Reflections – December 7-13, 2014

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

You Make a Difference                               

Reuben is a character that is mostly overlooked in these weeks’ Torah portions dominated by the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn son, from his first wife, Leah. Technically, he is the one in line to inherit the Abrahamic promise from his father, and the one through which the lineage must continue. Only technically, though. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was the result of a trick his father-in-law played on him, forcing him to marry his firstborn daughter before allowing him to marry Rachel, his second born, whom Jacob loved and desired. Leah is the unloved unwanted first wife of Jacob; Rachel is the love of his life. Rachel’s firstborn son is Joseph; and — as we learn from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion — Jacob “loved Joseph best of all his sons… and he made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him…” [Gen. 37:3-4]

Reuben’s relationship to Joseph was most complicated. On the one hand Joseph was Reuben’s direct rival when it came to family preeminence, which gave him an added reason to hate him. On the other hand, as the eldest son, Reuben was responsible to his father for Joseph’s and all the brothers’ well-being. This complex relationship comes to a head in this week’s Torah portion as the brothers, fueled by their hatred and jealousy, resolve to kill Joseph. “But when Reuben heard it, he saved him from their hands saying: ‘Let us not take his life… Shed no blood! Cast him into this pit, [here] in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand against him’-intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” [Gen. 37:21-22] At first, the brothers obey. But no sooner than Reuben’s back is turned, do they sell Joseph to a passing caravan of slave dealers on its way down to Egypt. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes” as a sign of deep grieving and, believing that Joseph was dead, cried out: “The boy is gone; where am I to go?” [Gen.37:29-30]

Reuben’s despair at the thought of Joseph’s death is deeply moving, especially knowing that he had the most to benefit from his step-brother’s disappearance. But that doesn’t even enter Reuben’s consciousness. His single focus was that his standing up for what was right — saving Joseph’s life — ended in failure. He wasn’t able to prevail and create change. Joseph had died. The reader knows, however, that Reuben’s intervention had immeasurable impact. Indeed, according to the story, saving Joseph changes the course of history.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for all of us. So many of us are working to impact change, to make a difference. Seldom do we see the results of our hard work and are able to celebrate our victories. Often we despair at how little change we actually witness with our own eyes. Perhaps we, like Reuben, are attached to a certain outcome, and are often blind to seeing results when change manifests itself in ways we don’t expect or recognize. Perhaps what we set in motion ends up bearing fruit only after we have already moved on. We made a difference, yet we don’t know we have. But this not knowing need never prevent us from doing what is right; and neither should our being met with resistance, anger or even contempt.

What we learn from Reuben, ultimately, is that “right action” is always ego-less. Had he listened to his ego he would have sided with his brothers and killed Joseph. But when our ego is set aside, the place from which we act is always a place of compassion and care. Operating from this place, the fullest integrity of our being is allowed to express. We let go of our need to control the outcome, and make our actions a true offering of selfless love. And that, more than anything else, is what truly makes a difference.