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.

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

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Torah Reflections – September 7 to 13, 2014

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open     

This week’s Torah portion begins:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Torah Reflections – August 31 to September 6, 2014

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

Wrestling With The Uncomfortable   

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

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

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

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

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