Torah Reflections – Sept. 25 – Oct. 1, 2016

Nitzavim

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 Torah portion for this week isNitzavim; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvahportion”—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 – Sept. 18 – 24, 2016

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Listening to God’s Voice

 

As the rabbis of Talmudic times ordered the daily prayer schedule, they made sure we recite the Sh’ma—the central affirmation of our tradition—at least three times a day; during morning and evening services and immediately preceding sleep. It is also well-known that the six words of the Sh’ma are to be the final words we utter on our last breath; and since we do not know when that will be, we are to continuously be present to these words. The verse itself is found in the book of Deuteronomy, and is translated thus: “Listen, Israel: The Eternal manifests as all that Is, the Eternal is One.” [Deut. 6:4] Because the Sh’ma is so fundamental to Judaism, we might mistakenly think that this one passage in Deuteronomy is the only place Israel is called to listen. But in truth, this injunction is found in other places in Torah, including in this week’s Torah portion; and this instance bears no less gravitas than its more prominent counterpart. It reads: “Be Silent! Listen, Israel… listen to the voice of the Eternal One.” [Deut. 27:9-10]

However powerful the command, one can’t help but wonder how one is supposed to heed it. How do we listen to the voice of God? Our teachers over the generations have told us that God never stops talking; that it is us who have to make ourselves available for hearing. One of the metaphors is that God’s voice is like an ongoing radio wave and that all we have to do is tune our inner transistor to the right frequency. Tuning ourselves to hearing God’s voice, therefore, requires an inner turning, as that voice expresses from within us, not from without. It might be a bit daunting to consider that we are the conduit through which God’s voice is heard, that we are, in fact, the voice of God. We know ourselves and the hurtful ways we speak at times, and doubt we would be a reliable conduit for Divine expression. But that is because most of the time we are tuned to our ego frequency, to our conditioned self; and when we are, our words are mostly expressions of that conditioning.

When we are tuned exclusively to the ego frequency, what we hear is the relentless voice of the inner controller, the inner critique, the fearful, the embattled, the endlessly dissatisfied. When we are tuned to the frequency of our inner Higher Self, what we hear is the voice of the loving, of the compassionate, the embracing, the non-attached, non-preferring, equanimous, always content One. Shifting from the former to the latter begins with recognizing that— because an alternative exists—we don’t have to remain collapsed in the conditioned ego self. We don’t have to believe in these voices that tend to dominate our day-to-day life. Armed with this recognition we engage in meditation, following the Torah’s invitation to “Be Silent!” Meditation is one of the techniques that help us dis-identify from the voices of the conditioned self by simply looking at them from the standpoint of our True Self, as objects arising within the awareness of that True Self. Both the voices of the conditioned ego self and those of the True Self are God’s voices, but the latter transcends and includes the former. As our practice deepens, we are able to stand increasingly as Awareness, as our True Self, and to tune-in to the voice of God awakening at that level. When we do, the voice of our True Self begins to infuse and transform our conditioned self and we noticeably begin to show up in our daily life more loving and compassionate, less fearful and controlling. Listening to God’s voice we are transformed. Being transformed we, in turn, transform the world around us into a more peaceful, loving and caring place.

Torah Reflections – Sept. 11 – 17, 2016

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Why There’s a Blessing for Everything  

 

As we find ourselves entering the second half of the book of Deuteronomy, our weekly parasha/portion contains a record of individual, familial, and communal laws and mitzvot. In the passage that pertains to individual vows, we read: “Guard what comes forth through your lips.” [Deut. 23:24] In order to ensure the letter of the commandment is followed, our rabbis often generalize and thusly determine that this applies to all speech. Knowing the difficulty of fulfilling such a mitzvah, our sages devised an intense regimen of daily study, prayers and blessings that limit opportunities for idle time and casual conversation. By busying ourselves with words of Torah, praying three times a day, and always being on the lookout for an opportunity to say a blessing, the likelihood of our minds remaining steeped in spiritual matters and focused on the holy is greater.
A mitzvah is an act in the world connected or flowing from our inner Divine Source. The very act of performing a mitzvah connects or re-connects us to that Source. With this understanding, the words we utter become a mitzvah when they flow from that inner Divine Heart of compassion, inclusiveness, and love. When we speak in this way, our very being becomes a connector between the Transcendent and the Manifest; we are the links between Heaven and Earth. Saying blessings over our food is a good case in point. I learned about this in my pre-teen years from my rabbi in France. I asked him why we had to say the blessing over the fruits of the trees before biting into an apple. He explained to me that the reason we say this blessing is not for ourselves, but for the apple. In the moment of consuming an apple, he continued, we are fulfilling its life-purpose. This apple was created to sustain and nourish us, and as we eat it we complete its lifecycle. The words of blessings we utter before our biting into it are, therefore, said on behalf of the apple which doesn’t have a mouth, and cannot praise and thank its Creator for the blessing of its life now made whole. It is our responsibility to say words of blessing in order to redeem the life of that apple, connecting Earth to Heaven, remembering the Many as infinite expressions of the One.

In this month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days, as we search our hearts and take stock of a year that was, we are asked to assess the many ways we have failed toguard what comes forth through [our] lips. We bring to awareness the times when we’ve become disconnected from Source, from knowing the Divine in all of Its creations, and missed the mark. This has manifested itself in us through hurtful speech, deception, unfair judgment, and scorn of self and others. But rather than fighting ourselves to change ourselves (which never works,) our tradition offers us to practice the mitzvah of Shmirat Halashon/Right Speech instead. While Right Speech includes abstaining from gossip, lies and slander, most importantly it is about engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of blessing. This simple and beautiful practice serves to support our living more consciously, and with greater intentionality. We often joke that, in Judaism, there is a blessing for everything; but kidding aside there is power in saying “Blessed One, You are That which manifests as…” in the face of all our experiences. So bless the apple, bless the roof over your head or the warmth of deep friendship. Bless the light and the darkness, the love and the fear. Bless every precious moment of awareness, l’shem Yichud, for the sake of Unification, for the sake of Connection, for making Heaven and Earth One.

Torah Reflections – Sept. 4 – 10, 2016

Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Humility is not Humiliation 

 

This week is the first week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, to reviewing the year that was, and to beginning the spiritual process called Teshuvah. Teshuvahis a re-turning, a turning inward, an invitation to fearlessly examine the unhealthy and sometimes even harmful ways we show up in our lives. And, our sages tell us, we are to engage in this process with humility.

Humility is one of those words that is often misunderstood. We know its opposite to be arrogance or pride, and we associate it with the idea of meekness, submissiveness and self-abnegation. In our minds the word “humility” has become synonymous with “humiliation,” and we feel a profound aversion toward that. To make matters worse, we live in a society that rewards those with narcissistic charismatic personalities, and looks down upon or, at best, overlooks the unpretentious, the modest, the unassuming. But Mussar—Jewish teachings on ethical and spiritual discipline—offers a new definition for the word “humility” that opens a doorway to its deeper meaning. For the teachers of Mussar, real humility is not about self-abasement or servility—that would be a pathological expression of the midah/the quality—rather it is about strengthening a healthy sense of self. It is not about making yourself “less-than” what you are, but about being exactly and fully who you are. True humility is about constraining oneself to occupy only the space fitting to us, while leaving all the space necessary for others to do the same. “Space” here can be understood figuratively, but can also refer to the physical, interpersonal, and/or emotional space each of us inhabits.

The Torah sees this definition of humility as a paragon of behavior for all persons, but especially emphasizes that those in leadership positions live by it. We see this particularly in this week’s portion when Moses enjoins the people to choose a king to rule over them once they settle in the land. This king, Moses urges, must be humble:

               …he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah… Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life… He will thus not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or to the left… [Deut. 17:16-20]

In this month of Elul, we need humility to help us discern whether we, in our own life, have deviated right or left, overstepping our rightful space. Humility is the conduit through which we are able to take an honest inventory of our behavior and measure the ways we have either let our ego overflow its boundaries, or shrink in the face of life’s challenges. Do you make enough room in your life for others or do you find yourself mostly focused on your own story? Do you tend to take over other people’s space, or, alternatively deflate in their presence? Are you holding your ground for what you believe in, or find that you often shrink from the space you ought to claim? Humility helps one see oneself from an objective, measured, truthful perspective; and as such, the Mussar masters held that cultivating humility is the ground for the introspective journey called Teshuvah. May it guide our steps, this month, to find greater clarity about who we are, so that we might become more fully who, at the soul level, we know ourselves to be.

Torah Reflections – August 21 – 27, 2016

Eikev

Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Truth and Love

 

 

Here are a few verses in this week’s Torah portion that, to me, symbolize the essential challenge of the spiritual path and perhaps, moreover, the challenge of our western civilization:

 Be mindful lest you forget the Eternal One awakening within you, and fail to follow His spiritual paths, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Oneness of Being that is all, which liberates you from places of constriction… Remember that it is the Eternal One that manifests through you as wealth… [Deut. 8:11-18]

This is the human paradox: we exist on multiple planes; body, mind and spirit. At the physical level our lives are bent on having our basic needs for safety and security, food and shelter, met. At the mind/ego level this basic process is transformed into a never-ending search for more comfort, pleasure, power and status. Pretty soon this material search itself becomes the major focus of our life and, like our Torah portion notes, we forget the spiritual dimension of our being. Ignoring the Divine aspect of self, the ego begins to act haughtily, believing it is the sole creator of its reality and works to manipulate that reality in an attempt to control it. Reality, however, has one essential characteristic—it changes. So the ego is forced to live an exhausting ongoing lie—that it can handle it all, that it is in control. But it can’t. And it isn’t. Looking beneath the surface we find that this lie arises from the ego’s own fear of change and impermanence seeing in both the inescapable reality of its own demise.

Our sages tell us that rather than struggling with our Yetzer HaRa—our negative traits—and trying to rid ourselves of them, we are to work on expending our Yetzer HaTov—our positive traits. As we begin our preparation for the High Holy Days, truth is the magnifying glass through which we are to look at our lives and seek to become more aware of the ways our ego is distorting reality. But we are to do it from a place of love and compassion for ourselves, without blame, anger or resentment because we understand that the ego is just acting out its own conditioning. Our purpose is to bring understanding where there is confusion, awareness where there is unconsciousness.

So what are the expectations I always bring along that prevent me from being simply present to what is? How does my needing the past to be different than it was, rob me from truly being alive today? How is my wanting my spouse, my kids, my parents, my boss to be different than they are, rob me from simply loving and appreciating them for who they are? What are the stories about who I am, that prevent me from truly growing and evolving beyond the limitations I impose on myself? Seeing truthfully the many ways our conditioned ego manifests is the first step toward liberation, for Truth (one of the many names of God) is the force “which liberates you from places of constriction.” The container in which we are to hold that newfound truth is the heart itself. It is in the heart of compassion that letting go of fear is possible. It is in the heart’s ocean of love that resistance and control are allowed to dissolve. It is in the heart of acceptance that I finally become transparent, and remember the One that I am, the One that I have always been.

Torah Reflections – August 14 – 20, 2016

Va-Et’chanan

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Because Love is our Natural State

 

This week we find in our parashah the words that are at the center of our daily worship: the Sh’ma, and the first verses of the V’ahavta. While the Sh’ma is calling us to “Listen!” and know the One that is every one, the V’ahavta is giving us the key to opening ourselves to this realization. “Love!” instructs us the V’ahavta; “Love the One in all Its manifestations with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your energy!” [Deut. 6:5] The rabbis insist that though the verse might sound like a commandment, love cannot be commanded, for it has to do with human nature. And that is exactly the point, the rabbis continue: to love the One in all Its manifestations is the natural inclination of every being. It is not something we need to do, something to struggle for. Rather, it is about remembering our True Nature; peeling off the Klippot – the husks — of ego around our heart that have distorted our perception of reality, and simply letting the natural flow of love at the center of our being take us over. Because love is our natural state.

“Easier said than done!” you might object. Indeed. But the Torah’s instructions continue: “Let these words… be upon your heart.” [Deut. 6:6] Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (19th century Poland) quotes from the midrashic work called Sifre, which asks: “Why is this [verse] said? Because  it says ‘Love!’ and I do not know how, [Scripture explains that] when you place these words upon your heart, you will come to know the One…” The rebbe derives from this quote that: “By placing the words on your heart always and longing to know the Love of the One, the Spirit of Holiness that dwells within you will be revealed to you.” [S’fat Emet; Devarim, Va-etchanan b] But how do we “place” these words upon our heart?

In biblical times, the heart wasn’t associated with love or emotions; the heart was the seat of the soul, the center of consciousness. To “place” these words upon our heart meant to hold them in consciousness. And as the next verse in Torah continues to instruct us, you were to “repeat them when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” [Deut. 6:7] These words were to be a mantra to be practiced not only while sitting in mediation in our home, but throughout the day. “V’ahavta – Love the One in all Its manifestations!” repeated moment to moment, in all our actions, and while looking into the eyes of every being we meet. Both when the mind is filled with fear or anger, and when it is at peace and content. Both when we experience darkness in our world and in our life, and when we feel surrounded by light and bliss. We repeat these words. And by repeating these words we practice choosing reality just as it is, in all its manifestations. Not reality as we would want it to be, but reality as it is. Loving reality as it is, choosing reality exactly as it manifests itself in every moment, is one of the pathways to spiritual awakening, to remembering the True Nature of our being which is Love.

How does this work? Practicing loving whatever is, teaches us to impartially allow every experience to arise, without judgment. Loving “what is” opens a space in our consciousness where love is no longer attached to a particular object, where love is unconditional—i.e. no longer bound by our conditioning. Stepping into such consciousness is how “you will come to know the One” explains the Sifre. It might not happen today. It might not happen tomorrow. Yet Torah is enjoining us to keep practicing, to keep repeating V’ahavta – “Love this! Love now!” For even if the return journey to the home of our soul turns out to be a long one, at least it will be a journey of ever expanding love.

Torah Reflections – August 3 – 13, 2016

Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

The Power of Spiritual Transmission

 

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother—replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886)  Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies—those we hold grudges against, those we dislike—into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently—like with a Golem—given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

A Letter From Interfaith Climate Action

Why we support a carbon tax: The faith struggle of loving our neighbor and the need for action now

By Keith Ervin and Harriet Platts

How do we begin reducing Washington State’s carbon emissions at the rapid pace needed to do our part to prevent global climate catastrophe? And how do we do this while honoring the needs of our less privileged neighbors?

There’s no single, easy-to-execute answer to this big challenge. But nearly everyone working for climate justice agrees that one essential tool is to put a price on the fossil fuels that are the primary source of greenhouse gases. Washington voters will decide in November whether to adopt Initiative 732, a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

We support this initiative and urge your support. We didn’t come to this decision easily or lightly. As members of Interfaith Climate Action, a joint project of Seattle First Baptist Church and Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, we studied and discussed I-732 for months before reaching a unanimous consensus to support it.

Members of our climate group supported Initiative 732 last year and collected signatures to put it on the ballot. We took a fresh look at the measure this year after some people in the environmental and labor movements actively opposed it. Among those opponents are members of racial minorities who feel that — once again — their voices have not been heard.

We want to explain how we wrestled with this conflict and concluded that I-732 deserves our support. As people of faith we believe we must recognize the connections between climate change and the difficulties faced by many of our fellow citizens. Poor families and people of color are over-represented among those who live on the front lines breathing dirty air (close to the Interstate, next to factories), who are struggling to find affordable housing and access to whole foods, and who are systemically excluded from decision-making circles.

We must acknowledge that our patterns of consumption are disproportionately harmful to our neighbors. Some of the harshest criticism of Initiative 732 has come from groups representing people of color, who complain they weren’t included in the drafting of the proposal. We are troubled that the initiative sponsor, Carbon Washington, failed to bridge the gap with these communities. Nevertheless, we find that I-732 is a viable approach to reducing carbon emissions and it would free Washington’s poorest working families from over taxation.

Here’s the initiative in a nutshell: We would pay more for gasoline and other fossil fuels, with the size of the tax increasing 3.5 percent per year, until reaching approximately $1 per gallon of gas. Every dollar in new taxes would be offset by equal reductions in the sales tax, business tax on manufacturing, and a tax rebate to low-income working families. The initiative would:

-Reduce carbon emissions;

-Reduce tax burden for 400,000 low income households; and

-Accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

 

Initiative 732 is not perfect. But it represents an effective way to address the most pressing challenge of our time.  Climate change is already upon us, in the form of higher temperatures, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, massive storms, wildfires and long-term drought. As stewards of God’s creation, we are called on to take action now.

For more information visit the website yeson732.org.

Torah Reflections – July 10-16, 2016

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth  

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother—replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886)  Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies—those we hold grudges against, those we dislike—into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently—like with a Golem—given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

Torah Reflections – July 3-9, 2016

Korach


Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Do You Believe in Free Will?

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and his brother Aaron are confronted with a revolt led by Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi. Korach and his followers challenge Moses’ authority, questioning his position as their leader: “Why do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] they vehemently argue. But Moses isn’t moved by their accusations. He retorts that they should leave it to God to choose the one to lead the people. Preparations are made for the next morning’s showdown. Then, as God is about to unleash His wrath upon the rebels, Moses declares: “By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising.” [Num. 16:28]

This declaration left me perplexed. On one hand Moses was negating his role as a leader seemingly saying that anyone could have done what he did since he only obeyed God’s orders. One the other hand, he was painting a pretty deterministic picture of his life, thus abdicating all personal responsibility as a leader. In both cases he was justifying Korach’s accusation. This came on the heels of a conversation I was having with one of my B’nai Mitzvah students. We talked about Joseph (back in the Book of Exodus) telling his brothers that they had sold him into slavery as part of God’s plan to ultimately place him in command of Egypt so that he could save their lives from the impending famine. My student was arguing against this sense of inescapable destiny, claiming that it removed the responsibility for our actions from us.

He raised a critical question. Do we, or do we not believe in determinism? Our first reaction is “of course not!” We are rational beings, educated modern thinkers, and we cannot conceive of anything being predetermined. After all, that wouldn’t leave room for freedom, would it? Or for meaning. Nor, like my student pointed out, for personal responsibility or accountability. Our entire legal system would be in jeopardy. That being said, how often do we catch ourselves saying “Oh, it was meant to be,” or “things happen for a reason;” sayings that suggest a deterministic line of thinking? So which is it? Does everything happen for a reason, or is everything totally random? In truth, there are competing answers in our tradition as well. Even though our rabbis insist on “free will” being the very cornerstone of Judaism, God doesn’t make much room for it in Torah. Moses is right, “it was the Eternal who sent [him] to do all these things.” Moses didn’t even want to go! God performed all the miracles, sent all the plagues. Moses repeated God’s teachings and performed God’s commands.

Except once. Once — in next week’s Torah portion — Moses loses his composure. Once, he becomes so angry at the Israelites’ never-ending complaints that, contrary to God’s explicit orders to tell a rock to yield water, Moses hits the rock with his staff in anger instead. That moment of apparent free will, that moment of disobedience, where his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, overtook him, caused Moses to be punished by God. He was to die before entering the Promised Land. Is this one moment of disobedience enough to restore our belief in free will? I cannot tell you what my answer would be, for the process of Torah study is about wrestling with the question and for you to come up with your own answer… or with the answer that God had already seeded in your soul.