Torah Reflections – November 16 – 22, 2014

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 9-15, 2014

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
I originally posted these Reflections on Chayei Sarah last year. They are, today, more relevant to me than ever before, and seem to capture perfectly where I currently find myself on this amazing spiritual journey that accompanies my recovering process.  — Rabbi Olivier.

Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread                            

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah, says a midrash.  This midrash comes to fill-in the blank space between the end of last week’s Torah portion and the beginning of this week’s. It describes Sarah being told that Abraham had taken her son Isaac, and had slaughtered him; offering him up on an altar as a sacrifice: “Sarah began to cry and moan the sounds of three wails that are the three blasts of the shofar. And her soul burst forth from her and she died.” Thus begins our weekly reading: with Sarah’s sudden death.
I found an arresting footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) on this first verse; a statement attributed to commentator Avivah Zornberg. Sarah’s death, according to the note, “is a reflection of her inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” Zornberg’s statement is one of existential nature par excellence. It points to this fragile place within us that seems to require that there be meaning, predictability and safety in our life. Sarah, faced with such dreadful fate, is robbed of all three all at once, and finds herself unable to sustain such a loss. The emotional pain is so unbearable that “her soul burst out forth from her.”

We all know this place within. All our lives are about making meaning out of our circumstances. We are the greatest commentators of the Torah that is our life, ascribing meaning to the most mundane of events.  We yearn for meaningful relationships, seek meaningful work, want meaningful experiences. Yet we want it all to be as predictable as possible — afraid as we are of what we cannot foresee. And we want it all to unfailingly fall within the framework of our expectations. We want to be fully in control of the predictably unfolding meaningful life we expect to live. We, for sure, never want to feel that “life hangs by… a fragile thread.” Our greatest fear is to find ourselves in Sarah’s shoes, overwhelmed by tragedy, faced with the emptiness of a meaningless life. But isn’t this very fear what is preventing us from truly being alive in the first place?

What if we lived tomorrow holding in consciousness that, indeed, “life hangs by… a fragile thread;” alive in this moment, and perhaps dead the next? How precious each instant would become! How miraculous each breath! Perhaps our greatest delusion is our belief that life ought to be predictable, safe and meaningful. But meaning is constructed based on an anticipation of the future and the reconstruction of the past. We plan for tomorrow’s meaningful events so that we can document them thoroughly in order to create meaningful memories. Meaning is never of the “now.” Now is happening now, raw and immediate, alive and dead in an instant; a fragile exhilarating thread pulsating between what isn’t yet and what no longer is. Now is all we have. Now resides in a place inherently empty of meaning, explanation, justification, right or wrong, better or worse. Now is the place where we can be fully alive, blissful beyond our wildest thoughts.

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah. It is there not to cause us to wallow in the frightful suffering of an “unreliable world,” but to remind us to break free from the fear that strangles our ability to be fully alive now.

Torah Reflections – November 2 – 8, 2014

Vayeira

Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

Beyond Our Need For Justice                         

In his life storyline, Abraham has not always risen to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story his worthy of praise: his standing up to God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham remained standing before the Eternal…then came forward and said: “Will You in anger sweep away the innocent with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?[Gen. 18:22-25]

What a powerful question to ask! Our entire Western Civilization is, indeed, founded on the answer to this question. We need to know that God acts justly. If we are going to project onto a God “out there” infinite omnipotent power, we want reassurance that He will use it for good and not do so indiscriminately or whimsically. Though God never responds to Abraham in our story, we have assumed since biblical times that God’s answer couldn’t have been anything other than a thundering “Yes He must! Absolutely. Unquestionably.”

And since we have continued to witness injustice in our world, since we have continued to see the innocent suffer in every generation, we have resolved to either blame it on the victim’s own necessary wickedness (even when the victim is us,) or to externalize this punishing aspect of God and place it onto God’s made-up alter ego: Satan or the devil. So that when bad things happen to me or to others, it is either my fault, theirs, or the devil’s fault. But it is certainly never God’s fault. And if we know ourselves or the others to be good and innocent, then the suffering we bear or witness around us is simply held as being beyond our limited comprehension; that, obviously, God has a greater (just) purpose which will eventually be revealed in a distant future. Because God acts justly, always!

It is our concept of a God exclusively “out there,” transcendent and otherworldly, that pushes us to become intellectual contortionists in order to fit our narrow idea of what the Divine is into the box of our own limitations and egotistical needs. But when we no longer limit God to otherworldly status, when we follow the Jewish mystics, and open ourselves up to also seeing the Shechinah (the indwelling Presence of God) awakening in/through/as all of Creation, and recognize the inner spark of the Divine within us and within every sentient being, then we can free God from the claustrophobic walls of His exclusionary box. Then we can say with the Chasidic Masters that there is no one, no when, no where, nothing that God is not. God awakens as light and shadow, good and evil, justice and injustice. No wonder God does not answer Abraham’s question; he might not have been able to handle “Yes and no” as an answer. But can we? Can we stop needing our world to be always just?

Can we live our lives being accepting of injustice? Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffers and the wicked thrives? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we then let go of our anger, our resentments, and our need to punish the other? Can we take responsibility for our wrongs and hold others accountable for theirs, while acknowledging that in all of us — as expressions of the One — is the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we yet still — as channels of the deepest love — take a stand for justice, imprison the murderer, be a voice for the voiceless and act passionately toward healing our world, but without ever being attached to any particular outcome? Can we act justly “lish’ma – for its own sake,” without expectations, without preferred end result, just because? When we do, then we will no longer need God or our world to conform to our egos’ needs and wants. And then, perhaps, will we be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.

Torah Reflections – October 12 – 18, 2014

Bereishit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

In The Image of God                        

As the Torah scroll is open once more to its very first word, and the annual cycle of our Torah study begins again, we are immediately plunged into the grand story of creation of sacred space. In the opening verses of Torah, the Transcendent Emptiness, the Un-manifest aspect of the Divine, begins a process of manifesting Itself as Sacred Space, as concentric circles upon concentric circles of Sacred Space from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small.

At the end of this process, last in the Creation account, mankind is formed. Some commentators read this as a teaching in humility, reminding us in the moments when our ego becomes over-inflated, that we were — after all — created after the worms. Others read into this order that mankind is the apex of Creation. I believe that both are true. Regardless, however, of how we interpret this passage, our own process of spiritual evolution — a process designed to lead us from the exclusive identification with the finite small separate self, toward an awakening to the infinite Being that we are — begins inevitably with introspection; begins with remembering that — though created last — we, too, are Divine Sacred Space. This is what our Torah portion expresses so beautifully in recounting God’s fashioning the androgynous Adam, the prototypical human being:

God [thus] created Adam in Its image. (Gen. 1:27)

 All of us are created as an image, as an expression of the Divine; an expression in the realm of Creation of the un-manifest One. All of us are a unique manifestation of the Divine, a unique embodiment of the Formless. It is not so much that God is to be found only in the remote corner of our heart, or as the still small voice in the deepest recess of our soul; rather, God fills our entire being. God is every cell of our body, every thought, emotion, sensation, or desire we have ever experienced — the totality of who we are. We are Sacred Space.

As individuals and as a community, we value the diversity of all sacred forms through which the Eternal One manifests. We seek to become increasingly able to recognize the Divine Presence behind the eyes of all those we meet. We look to stand as bridges when the world offers energies of separateness, of isolation, of division. When met with intolerance, we seek to offer compassion; and when confronted with clinched fists, to respond with an open heart. We work toward easing the suffering of all sacred beings, toward ending poverty, racism, bigotry, prejudice, and violence both in our own neighborhoods and throughout the world.

If this is something you value then perhaps, as this new yearly cycle begins, this might be an opportunity to examine whether you are acting in your world and toward yourself in a way that is congruent with these beliefs. Are you treating your body as sacred? Are you still challenging your mind to learn beyond the already known concepts and theories? Are you carving enough time out of your day for your spirit? Are your actions aligned with your values? Self-awareness is always the first step toward personal growth, toward opening our heart to the Divine manifesting in every heart.

The High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, our Torah recounts, wore on his forehead a plate of pure gold where the words “Holy to God” were engraved in a way that he would see them reflected on the forehead of all those he met. May we, like the High Priest, know these words to be imprinted on the forehead of all the people in our lives, may we awaken to the holiness that we are, and treat ourselves — body, mind and spirit — and each other as Sacred Space.

Meditations for the Days of Awe – Today! – Day 9

Those of us who gathered on Rosh HaShanah morning were privileged to listen to a a song that has become a staple of our Holy Days. It is called HaYom, which means either “this day” or “today.” And so here it is, this day – that in a lot of ways we have been waiting for all year long – is now upon us, and we are definitely not ready for it. We’re not even sure what “ready” would look like anyways.

I remember growing up, walking into the synagogue on Yom Kippur, being impressed by those who prayed with so much fervor, singing all the songs, knowing all the tunes; their eyes glued to the pages of the prayer book, and always standing up for the next prayer long before the rabbi would ask the rest of us to rise. I was sure that they embodied what “ready” should look like.

I no longer think so. In fact, I have learned to appreciate that the ego loves to hide behind the familiarity of the service order, of the songs and the prayers. It is so easy to get caught in practicing what we already know, rehearsing the expected, that we get lost into what we think is supposed to be and fail to be present to what is. Knowing the prayers and the songs so well that you are reading one page ahead of the rabbi, doesn’t leave room for the unexpected, the surprising, or the novel. Being so attached to the form, we miss the essence; being so focused on “doing it right,” we miss being available for the deeper teaching that the moment itself offers.

And so perhaps being ready means something altogether different. Being “ready” for a day like Yom Kippur, might mean being able to step into the sanctuary, open to receiving whatever it is we need to hear this year; and being absolutely okay not knowing what that might be. Being “ready” might mean letting go of our expectations, being curious to discover new possibilities, looking forward to being surprised. Being ready, HaYom, might actually mean being excited about not being ready at all. Which actually leads me to my favorite line in the HaYom prayer:

HaYom T’gadlaynu – Today, evolve us

To me, these simple words express the inextricable intimacy between the self and the Divine; the perfect union that our mind mistakenly defines as that of two separate entities, when the phrase itself speaks of the evolving energies of the Divine permeating our entire being. But for the Divine to evolve us, today, we have to get out of the way, we have to be as unprepared, as not ready, as possible.

Throughout these Ten Day of Awe I have ended my meditations with space for you to write your own; to write further whatever awakened within you. Each time I started with “Today I…” But this time, on the eve of Yom Kippur, I invite you to omit the “I” and to write the first few lines of your own HaYom prayer. It begins simply with “Today, …”

Meditations for the Days of Awe – I Got Nothing! – Day 8

Friday evening we will meet again to enter, together, into the holiest of days in Jewish tradition; the day called Yom Kippur or Yom HaKippurim. Kapparah, the noun form – issue from the same Hebrew root as the word Kippur – is often translated as Atonement.  The process itself, which takes place on Yom Kippur, is that of spiritual catharsis.

It is interesting to notice that the Hebrew name, Yom HaKippurim, could also easily be understood as Yom Ha-Ki-Purim: The day like Purim. However, the holiday of Purim is the Jewish carnival; we dress up and wear masks, drink and eat a lot, and engage in raucous partying.  How could that be analogous to Yom Kippur? At first sight it might seem, indeed, that Purim is the exact opposite of Yom Kippur where, traditionally, we fast (abstaining from both eating and drinking,) dress modestly, wear no make-up and altogether let go of any physical concerns. So, how is it that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim?

This is one of these cases where the two extremes meet. Both days, in fact, call for the disruption of our ego’s barriers, for breaking through its resistances. Both days call for letting go of pretense and aim at our facing the empty truth of who we are. Both days call for a deep surrender of the mask we wear the rest of the time. Yom Kippur is that spiritual catharsis; a day to let go of that mask, to let go of the clutter of stories, resentments, guilt, anger and upset that the ego – the small self – has piled up around our heart, and which obscures the pure light of Being yearning to express through us, as us. To me, this spiritual catharsis, this deep letting go, is best expressed in the Avinu Malkainu prayer we sing together as a community:

Avinu Malkainy… ain banu ma-asim – Holy One of all Being… I got nothing!

But from that emptiness, from that emptying, from that deep releasing of all our clutter, then transformation becomes possible. Then we are able to connect with our Greater Self and affirm:

Asay imanu tzedakah va-chesed – Let justice and lovingkindness manifest through my life.

This year, Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, also falls on Shabbat. Though we will spend it together attending to the inner spiritual dimensions of the day, I would like to invite you to pay attention to the form as well, to the outer garment which helps create the container for such a deep process to unfold. Our sages say that on Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; the container itself holds the energies. This year more than any other year, the container is that of Shabbat. And so I would like to encourage all of us, for 25 hours, to create that Shabbat container by turning off our cell phones and our computers; by letting our TVs and radios remain silent for a day. I would like to offer that you might consider fasting (if your health allows it,) not shaving, or otherwise keeping to a minimum anything that, we know, is part of this outer mask we wear on all other days. The experience is of body, mind and spirit, unfolding with the support of community. All four are needed to create a Yom Kippur, a day of At-One-Ment.

Today I…

… become aware of the different masks I wear.

… take time to look back at the experiences and people in my life which influenced the personality that I have.

Meditations for the Days of Awe – The Path of Blessing – Day 7

Y’varech’cha Adonay V’Yish’m'recha
May the Holy One bless you and keep you always.

The Torah portion called “Re’eh” (Deut. 11:26) begins: “See, I place before you a blessing and a curse.” The relevance of this verse to our everyday reality is most striking. We turn on our TV, we open our newspaper and, it seems, we are continuously presented with opportunities to curse. Day after day, we are barraged with everything that is wrong with our world, divisive politics, and doomsday predictions. Fear reigns supreme.

Yet our spiritual masters teach that part of our personal work is to engage in a path of blessing rather than that of cursing; when blessing is a way to say “amen” to what is, exactly as it is. They offer us a practice of finding 100 opportunities to bless our reality each day; and in doing so offer us a choice as to the kind of energies we would want to surround ourselves with. As we practice uttering words of blessing instead of cursing, time and again, the cumulative effect helps us to be increasingly able to respond rather than react to whatever is being presented to us. We become response-able for the energies in which we live, and the energies we, consequently, contribute to our world.


Today I…

… find the words which resonate most within me to bless my reality and engage in the practice of doing so as often as I am able.

… look for opportunities to say “amen” – “it is so” to the blessings I witness.

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

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

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

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

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

I am already blessed now with…

I am living a life aware and awake. I …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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