Torah Reflections: May 21 – 27, 2017

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Too Big to Fail

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: May 14 – 20, 2017

B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: May 7 – 13, 2017

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God

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

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

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

Bet Alef members ask Chase Bank not to fund oil pipeline

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: April 30 – May 6, 2017

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

Drawing Closer Through Generosity

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban”—translated as “sacrifice”—might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives—not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are—we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.

Torah Reflections: April 23 – 29, 2017

Tazria-Met’zora

Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

We Are Energy Bodies

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, one way to bypass it is to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. This time, for a change, we find at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

The second Torah portion of the two assigned to this week’s reading is called M’tzora. In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about?

I am one of many who are convinced that, 2500 years ago, the Middle-East and the Far-East were already intimately connected. Trade routes crossed through the known world from China and India, all the way to Egypt. Spiritual practices and healing techniques traveled along these routes as well. I checked in with friends, professionals in the arts of Chinese medicine, and asked them what was likely commonly known about the connections for these places on the body: ear, thumb and big toe.

The acupuncture chart for the ear reveals that its center ridge is directly related to skin diseases. The thumb point is the last point of the lung energy channel. The lung and large intestine are the organs containing the metal element in the body, and the tissue ruled by metal is the skin. So skin ailments are often considered to have lung and/or large intestine involvement. The big toe’s outside corner of the nail is the Spleen channel (digestion, absorption, assimilation of food/ideas/events; related to the earth, to harvest time;) and the inside corner is the liver channel (harmonization and smooth flow of energy; related to springtime, vision and hope)—all linked to energetic imbalances expressed as inflammatory responses of the skin.

What our sages understood then, and we have lost touch with since, is that we are energy bodies. The Temple Priests practiced acupressure as a form of healing 2500 years ago because they knew our bodies were channels for the flow of Divine energy. They understood the energy lines that course through us, and saw each spiritual practice as a way to bring balance to the energy body. In fact, our sages divided the traditional 613 mitzvot/commandments into two groups: 248 were connected to what they saw as the 248 organs of our bodies, and 365 were connected to what they saw as the sinews or tendons, nerve connectors. Performing the mitzvot was not only a way to heal the world “out there,” to bring harmony into society; it was a way to heal our inner energetic world, to bring it into balance. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim these ancient practices, to shift our vision of the embodied beings we are to more holistic, integrated, multidimensional selves, and work through our prayers, our chants, our meditations, our songs and our spiritual practices to bring our energy bodies into greater wholeness, greater harmony, greater shalom.

Torah Reflections: April 16 – 22, 2017

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Merging With The Light

As our weekly reading resumes, following the end of Passover, we are met by one of the most mesmerizing stories in Torah: the fiery death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Most rabbis explain their deaths as Divine punishment and as a cautionary tale “against spontaneous worship… and the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights” as Nehama Leibovitz highlights in her commentary. Due to the complexity of the Hebrew, however, no one can fully grasp the ultimate meaning of the story.

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering… And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and brought-near, in the Presence of the Eternal, a strange fire, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from within the Presence of the Eternal and consumed them, so that they died within the Presence of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aharon: This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to me I will be known as Holy… [Lev. 9:23-10:3]

With the nearness of the holiday of Lag BaOmer, the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu connected me to the legend of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, every year, on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (Lag BaOmer,) people gather around bonfires to mark in festive ways the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In the northern Galilee town of Meron, 300,000 people make a pilgrimage to his grave on that day. Why? The legend describes Rabbi Bar Yochai as a towering mystical figure; the author of the Zohar (the Book of Splendor)—the seminal composition of kabbalistic thought—and perhaps the only Jewish mystic known to have spent years meditating in a cave after fleeing for his life from the Roman armies. Once out of his hiding, it is told that Bar Yochai began to reveal the deepest secrets concerning God and Creation to his disciples. Rabbi Abba, one of his students, became the scribe for Bar Yochai’s oral teachings. As Rabbi Bar Yochai was on his death bed, revelation after revelation came pouring out of him at an increasingly faster pace, as if in a race against time. On his last day, a force within compelled him to share all the mystical teachings he had yet to reveal. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave—Bar Yochai dictating with urgency, Rabbi Abba writing furiously. Finally, Bar Yochai finished, and a fire-like radiance, a brilliant light, filled the house as his soul departed his body.

In those last moments of his legendary life, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merged with the One Light of Being. He remembered the Light he had always been, and became that Light. He had drawn near to the Presence of the Eternal and was transformed into a strange fire, a radiance, a burst of Light. The mythical story of Nadav and Avihu speaks of a similar experience. Aharon’s two sons, just like Bar Yochai, are described by some rabbinic commentators as “towering personalities… [and] men of exalted saintliness.” These two holy beings can’t help but be transformed in the overwhelming Presence of the Eternal, and the strange fire they bring near is the Light of Being they awaken to in that moment. They, like Bar Yochai, die in a burst of Light, merging with the One Light of Being in a spiritual ecstatic self combustion. But legend or myth is not to be taken literally. These stories act as mirrors to deeper spiritual truths. What is described here might be an experience of the “little self” combusting in the awesome awakening to one’s own Light. What is consumed in such a moment of en-light-enment—outshined by the Light of the Divine Presence—is that separate sense of self. But what is revealed, born in that same moment, is one’s true identity, the true Light of one’s Infinite Being.

Torah Reflections: April 2 – 8, 2017

Passover 5778

Mah Nish’tanah? What has changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus a couple weeks back, 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. A few years ago 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 powerful 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 into our 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?

Torah Reflections: March 26 – April 1, 2017

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: March 12 – 18, 2017

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Living Our Lives “All in!”

I have been fascinated, this year, by Moses’ spiritual evolution one Torah portion at a time. Since the beginning, I noticed, Moses has been ambivalent toward the Israelites; remaining somewhat distant, aloof. Perhaps, wrestling with a dual Egyptian-Israelite sense of identity, Moses was unsure about his own path. I suspect that Moses’ ambivalence was felt by the Israelites as well. This week’s portion brings us the episode of the Golden Calf. Once Moses disappears up Mount Sinai, their lack of trust in his commitment to them drives them to erect a Golden Calf to replace him: “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” [Exod.32:1] It’s possible to read the story of the Golden Calf as being all about Moses.

Atop the mountain God has just given Moses the tablets that He had carved, when He tells him about the golden calf worshiping happening down below. God is about to destroy the Israelites but Moses manages to obtain a stay of execution as he makes his way down the mountain with the tablets. There, shocked by the boisterous worship he witnesses, Moses is confronted with a decision. He sees that his ambivalence, his indecisiveness with regards to his own identity, has now caused the Israelites to commit the ultimate sin—that of idolatry—and has placed them on the brink of Divine destruction. With the anger one feels when one’s resistance to doing the right thing has been exposed, Moses smashes the tablets. The Midrash, the homiletic rabbinic commentary on Torah—the stories rabbis tell writing between the verses of the text—expresses Moses’ profound realization (Torah verses italicized):

“He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them” [Exod. 32:19]. “Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God: ‘They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,’ as Scripture tells us: ‘Now if You will forgive their sin… then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of Your book that You have written’” [Exod. 32:32]

In his process of spiritual maturing, Moses still needed to work through this major shadow in him, a place where some residual ego was still hiding. Moses’ life was to be one of service. But true service can be neither coerced nor half-hearted. Moses had to go “all in,” heart, mind and soul. Service, as such, is a powerful spiritual practice because by freely giving of ourselves we cultivate selflessness. As we serve the people in our life, in our community, those in need, and those we love, we transcend our self-absorbed concerns and complaints. When we allow others to serve us, we are able to cultivate true humility and to let go of our misplaced pride. Both, however, need to be genuine and wholehearted. This is what Moses needed to learn. Perhaps this is true not only for the practice of service, but for how we live our lives altogether. What have we “set in stone” in our life that prevents us from living fully, wholeheartedly, passionately? What fears are still holding us back? Perhaps the time has come for us to smash those stone tablets and commit to life; perhaps, like Moses, the time has come to fully live the hand we are dealt.