Torah Reflections – January 3 – 9, 2016

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Know Thyself to be Enslaved

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

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

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

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

Shemot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

You Can Take Moses Out of Egypt, But…  

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections – December 13 – 19, 2015

Vayigash

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Four Jewish Noble Truths  

This week’s Torah portion marks the critical moment when Jacob and his clan descend into Egypt, setting up the stage for what will unfold next: enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation. Jacob’s sons travel back to Canaan following their encounter with Joseph in Pharaoh’s court. Immediately they reveal to their father that, indeed, Joseph is alive and now viceroy of Egypt. He has invited all of them to flee from the famine of Canaan and resettle in Goshen, the most fertile land of Egypt. And though Jacob’s first impulse—moved as he is by learning about Joseph being alive—is to cry out, “I must go and see him before I die!” [Gen. 45:28], he finds himself assailed by doubts of a journey so fraught with perils for his people.

In order to seek guidance, Jacob travels south to Beersheva—a place where God had once appeared to his father Isaac. We can only imagine the wrestling taking place within Jacob between his desire to see Joseph again and his knowledge of what awaits his people in Egypt. God had expressly forbidden Isaac to ever go down to Egypt [Gen.26:2], and Abraham was given a vision of what would befall his progeny there [Gen. 15:13]. Surely Jacob knew. And this knowledge challenged his deepest yearning to be reunited with Joseph. Trying to ride out the famine in Canaan may have seemed to him a more ethical decision than to condemn his descendants to “be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” [Gen. 15:13] But in a night vision, God appears to Jacob in Beersheva, reassures him, promises him that He “will make [him] a great nation there,” [Gen. 46:3] and convinces him to leave for Egypt after all.

The philosophical implications of Jacob’s decision have caused the rabbis to debate it over many generations. Did the path leading to our becoming a great people have to go through Egypt? In other words, was the suffering, the enslavement, necessary in order for us to carve out our unique national identity? Most rabbis seem to think so. In “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” an argument, echoed by many commentators, is made that: “in Goshen there would be isolation and segregation, both of which would provide a fertile soil for the development of particular national characteristics… If oppression, too, would be part of the experience, this would be the price the people-to-be would have to pay…” [pp. 297-298]

But what about personal identity? If the biblical tale is taken to be more than just the founding myth of our people, and understood, instead, on a deeper level to relate to a universal human story, does this four-fold pattern—enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation—apply to us as individuals as well? Many spiritual traditions the world over answer in the affirmative. Take Buddhism for example. This four-part unfolding of the biblical myth corresponds to the Four Noble Truths to which the Buddha awakened, though the Buddhist version puts suffering first. First Noble Truth: There is suffering. This is a fact of life at this level of being. Second: The cause of suffering is our craving for pleasant experiences and our aversion to unpleasant experiences; or, in other (Jewish) words, our enslavement to the deep conditioning of our ego; to the Egypt of our constricted deluded sense of self. The Third Noble Truth is freedom from suffering; corresponding to the Hebrew story of Redemption. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eight-Fold Path of awakening; what Torah calls Revelation, and which includes the mindfulness path of Mitzvot, spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, personal ethical discipline etc… The stories may be different; the modalities of teaching may take different shapes, but our spiritual Truths are analogous.

Jacob can’t help but go down to Egypt. And we become enslaved. That is the Jewish “First (Noble) Truth.” Consider that each of us is enslaved to the cravings and aversions of this conditioned false self we have identified with. And in this Egypt of ours, there is suffering. But God promised Abraham “…in the end they shall go free with great riches,” [Gen. 15:14] and Jacob “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will most surely bring you back up as well.” [Gen: 46:4] And so, heeding the Divine promise in Torah, I join the Buddha in prayer: “May all beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Torah Reflections – December 6 – 12, 2015

Mikeitz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Joseph: Interpreter of Dreams, Creator of Reality  

Our Torah portion begins with Pharaoh’s famous dreams. The first one: seven cows coming up from the Nile fat and sturdy, followed by seven cows sickly and gaunt. The latter eat the former. The second dream: seven ears of grain solid and healthy, followed by seven ears thin and scorched. And, again, the latter swallow up the former. Pharaoh wakes up anxious, and calls upon his court diviners to interpret the dreams’ significance. But their meaning eludes them. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, witnessing the scene, remembers Joseph — one of his former jail companions — who had a knack for dream interpretation. He immediately tells Pharaoh that a “Hebrew lad” had interpreted his and another cellmate’s dream successfully. But it is his specific choice of words that piqued my interest, when he says to Pharaoh: “And as he [Joseph] interpreted for us, so it came to be.” [Gen. 41:13]

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, notes:

          The Sages made a remarkable claim regarding dreams and their interpretation: ‘Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation’ [Talmud, Berachot 55b]. The interpreter has a key function in the realization of a dream; his analysis can determine how the dream will come to pass… Does the interpreter really have the power to determine the meaning of a dream and alter the future accordingly? [Gold From The Land of Israel, p.83]
Do dream interpreters and others who claim to have prescient gifts really tell the future; or do their interpretations plant seeds in our minds for a possible future that consciously or unconsciously we find ourselves moved to manifest? The suggestive power of words and stories can be so compelling (especially when we’re told what we want to hear,) that we begin to look to what interpreters foretell. Consequently, a coincidence that we would likely have ignored, tangentially reminds us of a piece of the prediction we heard, and what would normally recede in the foggy background of the non-essential moments of everyday life, now takes center stage in the unfolding of our personal story.

But if this is the case, what does it say about Joseph? Was Joseph, in his youth, the clueless teenager he has often been painted to be? Did he really provoke his siblings’ jealousy and parents’ ire by naively sharing the dreams he had about them bowing down to him? Or did he connivingly do it; planting seeds in their minds of a future they unconsciously couldn’t help but manifest? What about Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams? Did Joseph purposefully choose the interpretation he shared to create a de-facto reality in the minds of the Egyptians which ineluctably prompted Pharaoh to “hire” him for the job Joseph had just manifested for himself? Was this his premeditated ticket out of jail? If so, it may be that Joseph knew more about the human condition than we have given him credit for.

Perhaps this is a caution to us about our eagerness to believe the many manipulators who mold our perceptions to steer us their way. Perhaps the warning goes deeper yet, because what we call “reality” is, likewise, just our own interpretation of the events and data we register moment to moment. All we know is the interpretation, the story we tell ourselves about what happened or about what is; not reality itself. We live in the interpreted dream of our reality. Have you ever compared stories about an event you shared with someone? I ask soon-to-be-wed couples to separately tell me the most important story of their life together: their meeting story. They often are astonished hearing the other recount a tale they don’t even recognize. We play and replay the account of what we think happened until we convince ourselves that our interpretation is the truth. We are the Joseph of our own lives: “As he interpreted… so it came to be.” Joseph’s story cautions us to always question the inner interpreter narrating our experience. It impels us to practice – as best we can – being with “what is;” prior to judging, prior to comparing, or assigning it meaning. Cultivating such clear awareness of the present, might eventually lead us to wake up from this interpreted dream of ours.

Torah Reflections – Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2015

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:20

The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Joseph 

Meet Joseph. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, to whom he gave the famous coat of many colors. Though we meet him at seventeen as our Torah portion opens, Joseph is described as a lad, a youth. Why? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) tells us: “He would do things associated with youth; he would fix his hair, he would groom his eyes, so that he should look attractive.” In other words Joseph was an extremely self-centered teenager who had yet to grow beyond the narcissistic stage of his evolution. Joseph sought to outshine his eleven siblings not only by creating this peacockish self-image, but also by putting them down in front of his father every opportunity he had. Early in the portion we read that “Joseph would bring malicious reports about them to his father.” (Gen. 37:2) Even the way he shares his prophetic dreams—seeing his brothers, father and mother bowing down to him—betrays his desire to feel superior, his need to humiliate others in order to elevate himself. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Joseph was that his brothers sold him into slavery.

Many years later, when Joseph shows up—a changed man—in Pharaoh’s court, he is thirty years old. In the thirteen years between the time his brothers sell him into slavery and the day Pharaoh makes him his second-in-command over Egypt, Joseph’s journey is one of personal transformation from “eved” (Gen. 39:17) to “shaliach” (Gen. 45:5-8) The word “eved” refers to the Hebrew for “slave.” As such, Joseph is forced to learn to serve others; and in doing so for over two decades, his ego dissolves. “Shaliach” refers to the Hebrew for “emissary,” which, in this case, is about placing oneself in the service of the Divine, making oneself an instrument or a channel through which the One manifests. Twice in this episode of his story we read that “God was with Joseph.” In Midrash Rabbi Huna explains why the text had to specify that “God was with Joseph,” since we would expect that to be the case in the first place. He says that “He [Joseph] whispered [God’s name] whenever he came in and whenever he came out.”  Of course God was with him, God had always been with him; but it was now Joseph—having surrendered his ego—who was with God. Now, no longer exclusively preoccupied with interpreting his own self-aggrandizing prophetic dreams, Joseph is able to recognize others’ prophetic dreams, and use his gift to serve as their interpreter. In the awakening of this realization, he is no longer a slave; he becomes a Divine emissary.

These two aspects of Joseph’s transformation—learning to serve others, and making oneself a humble channel for the Divine energies of Love, Compassion and Peace—are the two main components of the Jewish spiritual path. On one hand, as individuals and as a community, we are to serve and support each other, to lend our energies to healing the ills of our society and our world, to pursue justice and work toward creating a communal life that embodies the highest values our tradition upholds. On the other hand we are to ceaselessly engage in inner personal work in order to become more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive and more peaceful beings; to recognize God’s Presence in every place and every one, and to know the One we are.

Torah Reflections – November 15-21, 2015

Vayetzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

God Was In This Place 

There is one verse in this week’s Torah portion which encompasses the entirety of the Kabbalistic endeavor: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’” [Gen. 28:16] The Hebrew uses a word here which is rarely translated: the word “yesh”—yesh YHVH bamakom hazeh. “Yesh” is ignored because it is mostly thought of to mean “there is;” which, if kept, makes the English phrasing awkward: “there is the Eternal in this place.” But that’s because most translators aren’t Kabbalists. “Yesh” also means: “something-ness, being, or essence.” In other words, one could translate this verse to mean: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Essence of YHVH is in this place, and I did not know it.’” This one verse describes the unique path that is Judaism in general, but Jewish mysticism in particular. Ours is a path that seeks to awaken to “the Essence of YHVH in this place,”in this world—to realize the Divine Presence filling all of Creation yet transcending all of Creation.

יהוה approximately rendered YHVH in English, are the four letters of God’s unpronounceable name, of the formless, transcendent, unmanifest aspect of the Divine; what the Kabbalists also call “Ayin” or Nothingness. Ayin’s counterpart—though our language betrays us since, in absolute terms, Ayin knows no counterpart— is also called Yesh, when Yesh, in this case, is understood as Something-ness. In Kabblistic principles, this Universe was created Yesh me-Ayin, Something-ness out of Nothingness. However, in our everyday perspective we live under the illusion that this Something-ness is separate from Nothingness. We perceive this world and ourselves within it to exist independently from the Divine. The reason for this is that—as the Kabbalists explain—we, like Jacob, are asleep, unknowing, ignorant. Husks cover our consciousness as well as all physical creation and conceal the Divine from us. In other words, the Nothingness/Ayin appears to be concealed within the Something-ness/Yesh. From this perspective, Yesh is all we know.

Our spiritual practice is, therefore, geared toward seeing the most mundane aspects of creation as holy. The half-joke that in Judaism there is a blessing for everything, highlights this very practice. We will remain asleep as long as we continue to see ourselves and the world outside, as other than Divine. For our sages, the performance of mitzvot in this world serves as a pathway to reveal the Divine Essence in every moment of our existence, in every action we undertake, in every being we interact with. One mitzvah at a time, one spiritually grounded action at a time, we chip away at the husks that seemingly mask the Ayin at the source of it all. Eventually, this process leads to what is referred to in Kabbalah as bitul haYesh: at once the nullification of theYesh/Something-ness of the world, and the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the ego. After both drop away, all that is left is Ayin.

Ultimately both perspectives are united. As the Chassidic Master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains, in our waking up, even the idea of the concealment of the Divine is seen as an illusion. Something-ness and Nothingness are understood as not two, for there isn’t one separate from the other to conceal it. Like Jacob we exclaim: “The Essence of YHVH is in this place!”  Both Yesh and Ayin are one, everything is nothing, everything is God.

Torah Reflections – November 8-14, 2015

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Inward Bound 

There is a popular ice-breaker I often use to start a workshop or a meeting. I ask the people present, as they introduce themselves to the group, to add before their name an adjective that reflects who they are in the moment; like “Happy Henry” for example. If Isaac, the central character of this week’s Torah portion, was part of this group, I suspect he would say: “Silent Isaac.” It is striking to see how much of his life is about silence.

His childhood, itself, is a deafening silence. Isaac is the child of his parents’ old age, impacted by the overprotecting presence of his mother and his near sacrifice at the hand of his own father, Abraham. As the child of these two formidable figures, a rather imposing shadow is cast upon him. Perhaps, as a consequence, Isaac turns out to be more of a reserved quiet character. He doesn’t even have a say in choosing his own wife. The core of his life—spanning one pithy 35-verse chapter—virtually duplicates Abraham’s. Even when God talks to him, it is always in the name of God’s relationship with his father. Case in point: Gen. 26:24, God addresses Isaac saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you! I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of my servant Abraham.”  Next verse, Isaac is already old and nearly blind. Here, he is tricked by his wife, Rebeccah—who merely carries out the plans God had revealed to her and not to him—into giving his blessing to his second-born son, Jacob, instead of Esau, the first-born and rightful heir. After that the rest of his life is a mere silent footnote to Jacob’s story.

But is Isaac really the anti-hero that the Torah seems to portray? It is natural to think so because, in a narrative, we get attached to those characters and those stories that contribute actively to move the plot forward, and pay less attention to the ones who, less active, are in fact the glue holding it all together. Isaac is that character. He is less active and more meditative. I posit that meditation is, actually, what defines him in the second half of his life. At the threshold of this new stage, just before meeting Rebeccah for the first time, last week’s Torah portion read:

Now Isaac went out to meditate in the field around the turning of sunset. [Gen. 24:63]
There and then, something was “turning” in his life; Isaac the self-reflective meditator was being born. And that this transformative moment took place “in the field” is not random. Isaac is the quiet force through whom deep roots are planted in the land that was promised to Abraham. It is not a mistake that Torah describes him as a well-digger and a seed-sower. Isaac is the bridge, the effaced stabilizing power. He draws his strength from being a survivor, from being able, time after time, to accept what is, to accept what was: the power of an accomplished meditator. Isaac becomes a man of peace who fully embraces and carries forward the faith of his father. He is the quintessential second generation persona, whose role is to ground and transmit the teachings of the previous generation to the next one.

Isaac might represent this time in our journey when we feel the need to move into a more self-reflective, inward gazing space. This might be a time when we are seeking more silence and seclusion. There is a depth of being to be found in silence. In its presence we are able to better ground ourselves and put together the parts of our lives which might have come unglued. In that silence we are able to meet the quiet force within, giving roots to our life experience, and sowing new seeds for a future awakening to a higher, more inclusive, level of consciousness.

Torah Reflections November – 1-7, 2015

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah 

This week’s Torah portion opens with Sarah’s death. After Abraham mourns her, he sets out to accomplish his last fatherly duty before he, too, makes his transition: finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find Isaac a spouse from his clan.

As the servant arrives at the well of the city, he begins to verbalize out loud—talking to God—the mental picture he created about how meeting the right woman for Isaac would unfold, down to the specific behavior she would have to display for him to know she is the one. As he prays for success, he repeats time and again the word chesed (loving-kindness): “Act inchesed with my master Abraham.” [Gen. 24:12]  “Through her I will know that you have acted in chesed with my master.” [Gen. 24:14] And when he is finally certain he’s found the one in Rebekah, he bows down and cries: “Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, Who has not relinquished His chesed from my master.” [Gen. 24:27]

For our mystics, Chesed is the quality (the Sefirah of the Kabbalisitc Tree of Life) associated with Abraham. Throughout his life, they affirm, Abraham embodied Chesed in his actions and his level of faith. But as Abraham’s days now come to an end, there is a fear that, perhaps, this quality was slipping away from him as these verses from his servant seem to indicate. Some commentators suggest that since the Akedah—the near sacrifice of Isaac—God had stopped talking to Abraham. It was even an angel, and not God Himself, that intervened in-extremis to stop Abraham from killing his son. Perhaps in finding Rebekah, the servant is seeking to either compel God to bestow chesed upon Abraham once again, or to be reassured that, despite the episode of the Akedah, God still holds his master in loving-kindness.

But there is another possibility. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is the one to embody this loving-kindness; the one, according to his prayer, that will give him water from the well and will spontaneously offer to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his prediction exactly. God might not restore Abraham to his former status; instead he might be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to His Promise—the continuity of this quality of Chesed. And Isaac was in dire need of bringing chesed into his life. One of the consequences of the Akedah is that Isaac comes out of the ordeal embodying the qualities of restraint (of one’s impulses,) of strict justice, and of righteous power. Isaac, the Kabbalists say, symbolizes the quality of Gevurah (power, strength,) the opposite of chesed. Opposites may or may not attract but they need one another. Isaac finds in Rebekah the energies, the qualities that balance out his own. She not only consoles him after the death of his mother but keeps alive in his life, his father’s energies as well.

What about us? What would be our Sefirah on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? What is our dominant character trait, our personal “center of gravity”? What unique primary quality do we embody? Our Kabbalistic reading of Torah invites us to look for such quality and check for ourselves if it may be so dominant in us that it has become, perhaps, a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth; a disabling force in our relationships. And if that’s the case, our work is to discover and practice enhancing the opposite quality. To find healing and balance in our lives we are not to disown our inner Isaac (nor let it remain single,) but to seek instead to find its counterpart at the well of our Self, and invite-in the inner Rebekah we will meet there.

Torah Reflections – October 25-31, 2015

Vayeira
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

A Place of Great Evil

In this week’s Torah portion we encounter a place of great evil: Sodom and Gomorrah. And God, in our story, has resolved to destroy both cities. It seems that, together with the Babel episode just a few chapters earlier, God has something against humans dwelling in cities. I suspect that, for the agrarian people of the Torah—composed mostly of shepherds and farmers—the fortified cities of their enemies represented all that was evil in the world.

God has heard the wickedness and sinfulness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and He is about to come down to wipe these cities from the face of the earth. But in this case, God isn’t sure how to proceed, mindful that He is of Abraham’s anticipated reaction. God’s Self talk in this passage is remarkable:

Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? […] For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, to do what is right and just… [Gen. 18:17-19]

In a surprising expression of openness, God ends up sharing His plan with Abraham—including him in the decision process—with the full knowledge that he might argue against His plan to destroy the cities, which, it turns out, Abraham forcefully do. Abraham’s plea, on the surface level, might appear to be on behalf of the few righteous people that might still live in Sodom or Gomorrah. At a deeper level, however, it is a plea on God’s behalf and on behalf of humanity as a whole. Abraham harangues God:

“Heaven forbid! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” [Gen. 18:25]

The Midrash (the homiletic Torah commentary) translates Abraham’s words to be saying: “The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice — if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible.” (Bereshit Rabbah 49:20). Abraham seems to be arguing with God that a world of absolutes is not achievable in the dualistic relative plane of creation; that if absolute justice is what God intends for His world then He will continue to destroy it time and again. A degree of compassion, of loving-kindness, chesed in Hebrew, is what is needed in this relative plane to balance out justice, for a world to be sustainable. Abraham, in the Kabbalistic tradition is the one who embodies these energies of compassion and loving-kindness. He is the biblical character whose name is associated with the Sephirah of chesed on the mystical Tree of Life.

And so perhaps this passage in our Torah portion is there to remind us that, despite what the world is telling us—and what our ego is prone to believe—there is no absolute evil in the world. In the moments when we find ourselves rendering (absolute) judgments about who we are, who others are, and how things should be, we, like God in our Torah portion, might be best advised to consult our inner Abraham before giving voice to our destructive wrath.

Torah Reflections October 11-17, 2015

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Noah: A Righteous Man in His Generation?

There is a thought-provoking Midrash about Noah from this week’s Torah portion that details a debate between two rabbis as to why the biblical author begins with introducing Noah as “a righteous man in his generation.” [Gen. 6:9] Why, the rabbis ask, insist on specifying “in his generation?”

 Rabbi Yehudah said: Only in his generation was he a righteous man [by comparison]; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted… Rabbi Nechemiah said: If he was righteous even in his generation, how much more so [had he lived] in the age of Moses.

[Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX, 9]

We recall from Noah’s story that—in his generation—corruption, violence and lawlessness reigned supreme in the world, which prompted God to decide to wipe the human race from the face of the earth through a great flood. Compared to the rest of humanity, the Torah tells us that Noah was a “tzadik:” the embodiment of justice. He was “tamim:” wholehearted, innocent and humble. His name itself means peaceful, quiescent, and equanimous. Our text goes so far as to specify that “Noah walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] This is who Noah was, so God spared him.

At first sight, one would be tempted to side with Rabbi Nechemiah in his assessment of Noah’s righteousness. We see in our time, with our generation wrestling still with corruption, violence and lawlessness, that the voice of the just is drowned by the cacophony of mind-numbing distraction that overwhelms us. In a highly materialistic world, surrounded on all sides by a culture of greed that relentlessly tugs at our ego to get more, be more, have more, regardless of the hurt and the devastation that come in the wake of our race to self-destruction, who has the capacity to remain impervious? When the world around offers us a non-stop whirlwind of diversion, it takes a virtually inhuman feat of character to stay untouched, quiescent and equanimous; to stave off those influences and preserve one’s integrity, ethics and authenticity.

But Rabbi Yehudah’s argument is just as legitimate. For even when Noah was the quintessential personification of justice, humility, peace and equanimity, he lacked a certain quality that would allow him to stand with the likes of Moses or the prophet Samuel. Yes, Noah “walked with God;” but for Rabbi Yehudah he did so a little too blindly. To understand why, we need to look back at our story. Right after we are introduced to Noah, we immediately see God openly telling him of His genocidal plan. He at once orders Noah to build an ark and tells him precisely how to do it. He commands him to take on board the precious cargo He specifies, giving him the most detailed instructions. God is clearly in charge, controlling every aspect of the project. Noah isn’t even the one to shut the door of the ark once the waters begin to rise; God does! We read, time and again, that “Noah did just as God had commanded him: that is what he did.” [Gen. 6:22] Even when he knows with certainty that the waters have receded and that it would be safe to leave the ark, Noah waits for God to order him out. Noah displays a total lack of initiative, and his silence his deafening. He quiescently obeys. And that is Rabbi Yehudah’s point; Moses and Samuel would never have remained silent in the face of God’s declaration of intentions. They would have stood up to God, challenged Him, and forcefully argued with Him to spare the lives of millions. What good does it do to reach the spiritual heights that Noah reached if it doesn’t infuse a way of being in the world that is fiercely compassionate, uncompromisingly loving and caring? Spirituality cannot exist in a vacuum, certainly not in our generation. It has to translate into concrete actions to benefit others, heal the planet, and support the stirring of a transformed dreamer, dreaming a different dream for our world.