Torah Reflections: November 12 – 18, 2017

Toledot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Breaking Free From The Great Teachers

At the opening of Toledot we find Isaac pleading with God, in the presence of his barren wife, Rebecca, that she might—after twenty years of waiting—finally bear a child. God hears Isaac’s plea and Rebecca becomes pregnant. The next verse warrants our attention, not so much for what it says, but for what generations of rabbis have come to make it mean. It has become quasi-impossible for us to read these words just as they are, without the overlay of rabbinic interpretation (read: “Rashi”). Not surprisingly, the translations we find today are skewed to reflect this accepted interpretation.

In Rashi’s view the pregnancy doesn’t go well. Rebecca is carrying twins and experiences much pain because they—Esau and Jacob—are wrestling in her womb. The idol worshiper Esau is wrestling his Torah-loving brother Jacob in utero over who will be the firstborn son and is to inherit Abraham’s blessing. Based on Rashi, translators have read the verse: “Vayit’rotz’tzu habanim bikir’bah, vatomer: Im ken, lamah zeh anochi” to mean: “The children crushed within her, and she said: ‘If this is so, why do I exist?’” (Gen. 25:22). Nachmanides, a century after Rashi, goes so far as to read Rebecca’s question as: “What good is life if I have to suffer like this?”

I take issue with Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations for several reasons. First, they deliberately make Esau into a bad guy and Jacob into a good one, when—as the story unfolds—we find, arguably, that the opposite is true. Second, because it introduces a two-sided conflict between the sons when, in fact, only Jacob will plot against, deceive, and betray his brother (and father). Esau—once past his feelings of anger and revenge for what Jacob did to him—is the one to seek peace and reconciliation between them in the end. Third, it paints Rebecca as weak and meek when her character is anything but. Other dissenting rabbis argue that multiple pregnancies are often difficult but not to the point of causing the mother-to-be to fall into such dire despair. (Mizrachi; Siftei Chachamim)

So what would a translation freed from Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations allow us to see? One possibility would be to read the verse to mean: “And the sons were squeezed within her, and she said, ‘If so, why is this [happening through] me?’” (Gen. 25:22). The first part of the verse simply states that Rebecca is pregnant with twin boys and that they shared a tight space together. It could be interpreted to mean that, in the womb, they were close to each other. Rebecca’s question doesn’t portray her as being in pain or suicidal. And even if she did experience pain through her pregnancy, as mothers often do, contrary to Rashi’s or Nachmanides’ assumptions Rebecca doesn’t necessarily hold as a primary expectation that life should be exclusively good or free of suffering. The opposite is true. She says: “If so…,” meaning if this is what is. Rebecca simply accepts what is. She doesn’t resist her experience or label it as good or bad. Then she asks: “Why is this?” Why two children and not just one? What is God’s plan? How is this going to impact the fulfillment of God’s Promise? Suddenly she knows herself to take center stage in a play of cosmic proportion. We can infer this because of the last word of her question translated as “me.” The word here is “Anochi—I am.” Anochi is the “I Am” that God speaks in the First Commandment. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) homiletically interprets anochi as the “I, who is wearing the crown.” This is the Divine “I Am” within Rebecca: her Higher Self. This is the “I Am” she is connecting to in this moment of realization; the “I Am” through which the Divine story unfolds; through us, through her.

As Rebecca asks, I too wonder: “Why is this?” Why is it that we let ourselves be convinced that one interpretation is the interpretation? How many “truths” have we swallowed whole and never challenged? How many great teachers have paradoxically narrowed our understanding, made us more rigid and stuck in a particular interpretation? To this, Rashi himself would say: “Dar’sheini!—Expound me!”

Torah Reflections: November 5 – 11, 2017

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah

This week’s Torah portion opens with Abraham setting out to find a wife for his son Isaac. To do so, he sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find him a spouse from his clan. Knowing that eligible young women gather at the well in the evening to draw water for their families, Abraham’s servant waits with his camels by the well of Nachor and begins talking to God, describing his mental scenario 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 in chesed 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 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 these verses from his servant seem to indicate that as Abraham’s days were coming to an end, the quality of chesed may have been slipping away. 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.

I would suggest that there is another interpretation of the story. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is to embody this loving-kindness by giving him water from the well and spontaneously offering to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his requirements exactly. God may not restore Abraham to his former status; instead God may be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to The Promise—the continuity of this quality of chesed. And Isaac is in dire need of chesed in 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 on the Tree of Life. 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 that dominating quality and ask ourselves if it is so powerful that it is in fact a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth and disabling 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 embrace the inner Rebekah we will meet.

Torah Reflections: October 29- November 4, 2017

Vayeira

Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Beyond Our Need For Justice

In his life storyline, Abraham did not always rise to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story is 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 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 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 the exclusionary box that we have created. 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 always to be just?

Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffer and the wicked thrive? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we 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 all of us—as expressions of the One—contain both the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we act as channels of the deepest love—taking a stand for justice, choosing prison rather than death for murderers, raising our voices for the voiceless, and acting passionately to heal our world— without 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, we will be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.

Torah Reflections: October 22- 28, 2017

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Heading Home

Lech Lecha marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. We have traveled through the confusion of Creation and the Flood, and now we are about to embark on our spiritual journey as the descendants of our patriarchal fathers and mothers. And right away, this parashah calls us to appreciate the deeper significance of what it means to seek sacred space in our lives. It begins with Abraham receiving a divine call to “go forth”:

The Eternal One said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

What is this place that Abraham is asked to leave? The concept of “birthplace” is symbolic of a place we know well, the place that nourishes us and supports us in our growing, the place where we are loved and cared for. Our “father’s house” might be the archetypal expression of a place where we feel protected, a place from which we draw strength and courage, learn values and direction. This was Sacred Space that Abraham was leaving.

To me this pithy verse captures the essence of personal growth and spiritual evolution. The image is that we are spiritual travelers, evolving from one level in consciousness to the next, while preserving the essential attributes of the levels we are called to leave. Some spiritual teachers call it the evolutionary impulse at the heart of all creation. Like Abraham, we need to let go of Sacred Spaces where we have been because staying there, no matter how comfortable, safe, and predictable they have been, would stifle our growth. Staying there would transform those Sacred Spaces into places of enslavement where we would begin to feel stuck, unhappy, constricted. We need to move beyond the confines of such a place in consciousness and venture into the unknown.

But before we are able to embark on such a trying journey, before we are able to let go of it, we need to create and solidify this Sacred Space for ourselves. We first need to find our “birthplace,” the place where, time and again, we can be reborn, nurtured back to life, where we are able to hold ourselves in love and compassion. We need to know that archetypal “father’s house” of safety, groundedness, and purposefulness. There is no point trying to grow beyond the level we are currently at, until we have found balance and healing at that level.

So I would invite you to hold off on the call to “go forth” until you have reflected upon where you find this nurturing Sacred Space in your life. Where is your “birthplace” of support and nourishment? Where is your “father’s house” of security and rootedness? Amidst the turmoil we witness all around us, overwhelmed by the fast pace of our world, we need to be able to define and recognize our Sacred Space right now. Before we can embark on the next stage of our evolution, we need to know where home is; we need to know to slow down, breathe, and be deeply connected to what really matters.

Torah Reflections: October 15- 21, 2017

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

A World Filled with Violence

Our, then, 10-year-old daughter, Amalya came home one day from the Jewish day-school she attended, with an assignment: to write a short essay about the first verses of Noah, this week’s Torah portion.

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japhet. The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. [Genesis 6:9-11]

She was to respond to this question: “What would a world filled with violence look like? If Noah was righteous in a world filled with violence, what was it like for him to live in that world?” Her essay’s immediate answer was: “We don’t have to imagine what it would be like; we already live in a world filled with violence.” A few lines later she pondered: “I wonder why God created something in us that made us become violent.” By simply asking the question, she happened upon an awareness of the inner dimensionality of this problem: inside all of us are both the potentials for peace and compassion and for violence and destruction. A part of us is like Noah; righteous and blameless, walking in alignment with the Divine within. Another part of us joins with the rest of earth’s inhabitants described in Torah as beings “with wicked thoughts in their heart” [Gen. 5:5]. Judaism is replete with stories about this inner struggle. Just last week we read about Cain and Abel. But there are such stories in most spiritual traditions the world over. One of my favorite is from a Cherokee legend which goes like this:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That which God created in us that can lead us to violence is the illusion of separation; this sense of an estranged self, isolated and afraid, always ready for battle in the barren world of scarcity. This wolf is called Yetzer HaRa, in Hebrew: Evil Inclination. Evil because it is the inclination in us that collapses our consciousness away from knowing the Divine embodiment we are, and attaches it to this illusory separate sense of self. What we are to be mindful of is what we feed this wolf. We feed the Yetzer HaRa when we live unexamined lives, gorging unconsciously at the trough of our senses and the tales our minds tell. We starve the Yetzer HaRa when we live mindfully, are more discerning in giving validity to our thoughts, and remain both aware and equanimous when faced with the pull of our senses and emotions. But that’s not all. Our culture also contributes to its feeding. Boys in our society, for example, are fed ideals of hyper-masculinity which venerates physical strength, aggression and sexual dominance. They are taught to resolve conflict with violence, to not share their feelings and be loners, to never appear weak and transmute their emotions of sadness into anger. They are told to “man up,” to never cry, and to fear being called a girl or any other insult that demeans the feminine and feminine attributes. No wonder we have a gun violence epidemic on our hands, no wonder our girls and women are assaulted, abused, raped in our schools, colleges, work places, homes, streets, every day. We will only starve this wolf when we take the steps necessary to reverse what our culture does to our boys, adopt and actively promote a different set of values.

The other wolf, we call: Yetzer HaTov, the Good Inclination. It draws us nearer to Source, reconnects us to Truth, erases the delusory boundaries that divorce us from Being. We feed the Yetzer HaTov by practicing humility, love, and truthfulness in our everyday life, in our encounters with each other. We feed that wolf when we nourish one another with the gifts of understanding, generosity and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. To feed the Yetzer HaTov in our boys, we need to work with them on valuing empathy, on reclaiming their inner femininity, on accepting and trusting their emotions, on helping them develop true friendships where they can feel safe to express their innermost feelings and learn to resolve their problems in healthy, constructive, and peaceful ways.

Now is the time for us to take a serious look at the ways we contribute to feeding one wolf over another in ourselves. But let’s also take an honest look at the ways we, too, sponsor directly or indirectly by our choices a society that idealizes violence, objectifies women, and glorifies power and dominance. Decide today, and every day, which of the two wolves you want to feed.

Torah Reflections: October 8- 14, 2017

Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Cain & Abel: A Teaching on Generosity

Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? [Gen. 4:2-9]

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But do we ever? Going a little deeper, we find that this story is not as black and white as it seems; that there may be attenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one, God seems to bear some responsibility in the matter. Not only did He disregard Cain’s offering, but He created an explosive antagonistic situation by approving his brother’s. Any book on sibling rivalry would tell you that this is a big “no-no.” The fact that Cain has a temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag for God. Instead, His infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to be blaming Cain for what happened, only added fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God Himself should be sentenced as well as accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving. While Abel understands that nothing he has really belongs to him, but to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself. God couldn’t approve of Cain’s half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your vanity, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right’, if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

Sin, an archery term in Hebrew, means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is all. A sinful act drives us away from our Divine center. Our vanity is a sin because it strengthens our false sense of self, our illusion of separateness. It is this delusion that drives us to possess “stuff/people/power” as an illusory validation of our existing as a separate being. God told Cain that he could dominate/overcome this sinful egocentric avaricious trait not by killing it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by doing right, by bringing full offerings; by practicing acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity. But, Cain didn’t listen and killed Abel or Hevel in Hebrew, when the name Hevel means: “vanity.” Yet, only vanity would want to kill vanity in itself. What Cain created with this act is the exact opposite of what he aimed for: more separation, and greater alienation from Source.

These past High Holy Days, whatever character trait you identified in yourself that no longer serves you—that might even have become an obstacle in your life, your work, the health of your relationships—don’t fight it. Don’t try to kill it in yourself. Instead, our Torah portion is telling us, practice developing the opposite character trait. In the long run the latter will overtake the former, causing it to shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering.

Torah Reflections: September 10- 16, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Embracing Our Unpreparedness

My heart is beating a little bit faster than usual today. No, I didn’t have one cup of coffee too many. But it just so happens that the combined Torah portions for this week are Nitzavim and Vayelech; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvah portion”—read during the High Holy Days—where we are called to return, to turn inward. This means that the High Holy Days are just around the corner, and with that, come both excitement and trepidation; excitement, because this is the time of the year when we get to embark on the most meaningful journey inward; when space is provided for us to dig deeper and face our own shadow, all the while being surrounded by the supportive energies of a community of fellow travelers. Yet trepidations arise, because this is also the time of the year when the title of one of my favorite books (by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l) flashes before me its neon-red letters blinking in my panicked awareness: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. My feeling exactly!

But what if this is exactly what it is all about? What if our being “Completely Unprepared” is exactly what is required of us to fully enter into the “Real”-ness of the High Holy Days? Let’s face it, no matter how much time we spend getting ourselves ready to meet these holy days, when Rosh Hashanah eve comes around, we still feel totally unrehearsed. What if, therefore, showing up as we are, with all our messes and contradictions, unpolished and raw, was all that is asked of us? Perhaps fully embracing our unpreparedness, letting go of the well-adjusted façade we present the world the rest of the year, and inviting all aspects of our self to meet these days, is the first spiritual teaching that the Holy Days offer. This seems to be, indeed, what the first two verses of Nitzavim—in my interpretative translation—are calling us to do:

You are standing here, this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God—your leader-self, your wise-self, your controlling-self… your inner child… your alienated part of self, your destructive self, the part of self connected to Source… (Deut. 29:9-10)

Embracing the messiness of life, letting go of the pretense that keeps us separate, that prevents us from truly knowing not only each other’s heart but our own heart as well, is the prerequisite to our embarking again on this journey of healing which begins with this new year, on Rosh Hashanah. So come exactly as you are! Come utterly unprepared! But come! Bring all aspects of your being to meet that moment! Then you will be able to say, when God calls to you: “Hineni—here I am.”

Torah Reflections: September 3- 9, 2017

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 27- September 2, 2017

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

On Being Commanded

This week’s Torah portion is the last in Deuteronomy to present us with a collection of laws. With this kind of portion, we find ourselves struggling with some aspects of the text and truly moved by others. Among the more disquieting injunctions are the laws about stoning to death one’s “wayward and defiant son” [Deut. 21:18], or the disturbing “punishment” for a rapist who is not only mandated to marry his victim but also prohibited from ever divorcing her. Other laws are more inspiring. Torah commands us to pay employees’ wages on time, to defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, to engage in ethical business practices, and to sustain the destitute by donating one’s surplus.

Being “commanded,” however, is a challenge to us. We have been raised to be fiercely independent. We question authority and seek to carve our own path in life, to live out our own truth. There is real self-empowerment in living this way. There is also a real danger to make ourselves overly self-centered and narcissistic. Consider, therefore, that there may be value in being commanded. Consider how to be commanded, to be given a choiceless choice, might help us tame our ego. We are commanded, for example, to give tzedakah/charity every week before Shabbat, because, our rabbis say, meeting the poor’s needs cannot be dependent on whether or not we feel generous on any given week. The fact that we know ourselves to be commanded bypasses the resistance of our ego and obligates us to behave in holistic ways. This is what Halacha—the complete body of Jewish law evolving from the Jewish Bible and the Talmud—is about. Through the Halacha, Judaism has mapped out every moment and aspect of a Jewish life and, the more orthodox among us, follow these commandments strictly.

I studied Halacha for a while with an orthodox rabbi. To him, there was true beauty in following a spiritual path that one believes is divinely inspired, true humility in embracing a “God-given” way of life as prescribed by a still-evolving three-thousand-year-old tradition. In my studies, I have discovered that without rejecting the historical relevance of the commandments which challenge our modern consciousness, the rabbinic exegetes of the Halacha have re-interpreted some and stopped following others. My friend shared with me that living in this prescribed way supports one’s awareness of God’s ever-Presence. This kind of God-consciousness opens one’s heart beyond one’s ego, and causes one to act in humble ways. And true humility, our rabbis teach, manifests itself when the ego’s endless needs are silenced in the face of Divine commandment.

Now I am not a halachic Jew, meaning that I do not strictly follow the laws of Halacha, but I can see the value of this kind of teaching. Without adopting orthodoxy, we can still embrace a strong ethic of living for our days that infuses the way we eat, care for our body, our environment, and the other beings in our lives. We can, step by step, create a consistent discipline in our spiritual practice; slowly building a meditation practice for example, or observing Shabbat by “unplugging” for 24 hours, or simply committing to saying “I love you” more often. The prophet Micah calls upon us to “walk humbly with God.” Halacha, in Hebrew, means “to walk.” To walk humbly with God is to move beyond the ego by following a disciplined spiritual practice that permeates all aspects of our lives, steeped in the intimate knowledge of God’s Presence moment to moment. May we, in this upcoming Jewish new year, be inspired to heed Micah’s call and take the first steps of our “walk,” our Halacha.

Torah Reflections: August 20- 26, 2017

Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.

But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’s Torah portion—which inaugurates the month of Elul each year —give us instructions in regard to this inner process:

You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. [Deut. 16:19-20]

Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial, the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.

And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedek in Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.