Torah Reflections: February 11 – 17, 2018

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Creating an Inner Sanctuary

This week’s Torah portion opens with the famous verse: “V’asu Li mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham,” usually translated: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Though from this verse forward the entire portion enunciates God’s directions to building a Tabernacle in the wilderness in tedious detail, we read the text not as an Ikea book of instructions for assembling an actual structure in the Sinai desert, but as a blueprint to create a mishkan, a sanctuary within. Our translation of this verse in Exodus varies, therefore, from the common understanding. We take it to mean: “Let them create an inner sacred space that I might dwell within them.” But how are we to create this inner sacred space?

Our rabbis offer us a four-step approach. The first step, the foundation of this inner structure, is called Hoda’ah – thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Every morning, as we first wake-up, we are to acknowledge the Divine nature of Existence and the unfathomable gift of yet another day, by simply saying the words of the Modeh Ani. This attitude of thankfulness is a prerequisite to worship, to any ritualistic act and to any legal practice. And this is where we start; with an opening of the heart, with a sense of awe for the miracle of Creation. This attitude of thanksgiving is coupled with an acceptance of our role as surrendered participants in the unfolding of Creation called in Hebrew Kabbalat Ol. Both lay, together, the foundation of our inner sanctuary.

The second step, the pillars of our inner mishkan, is called Avodah. Avodah means work; in this case, spiritual work. Our spiritual work or practice is the natural expression of the pillars of our inner temple. For some of us it manifests through prayer and uttering words of blessings in every possible occasion; for others it means setting time aside to meditate each day; for others, it means immersing ourselves in nature as often as possible. Whatever our primary spiritual practice; this is Avodah; and no inner temple can be built without actively engaging in practice.

The third step, the coverings of your inner temple, is Torah. Torah, in this case, doesn’t refer to the five books of Moses, but is understood in its etymological sense meaning “Teaching.” Learning in general is a modality that supports growth in consciousness by expanding our awareness to include a plurality of thoughts and perspectives. But the study of spiritual text, in particular, is essential in our tradition, for it is seen as the doorway from the material world into the soul, and from the soul out to the material world. On one hand study opens our minds to understanding what lies beyond the narrow confines of our current worldview, our current truths, and allows us to continue to grow and evolve. On the other hand, study gives us the ability to live a principled-centered life and manifest in our world the highest spiritual teachings available to us.

And this leads me to our last step, which has to do not with the structure itself, but rather with the purpose this structure serves: Gemilut Chasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness. There is no point in creating an inner mishkan, our sages say, if it doesn’t lead us to performing right acts, to transforming ourselves into the loving and kind beings we know ourselves to be, and bring these energies into our world through our actions. Spirituality without action, as our rabbis point out, is for naught.

Surrendered gratitude, spiritual practice, life-long learning, and acts of Loving-Kindness are the foundation, the pillars, the coverings and the purpose of our inner sanctuary. It is a sanctuary that not only is ever-changing, growing and evolving, but that ultimately remains forever unfinished.

Torah Reflections: February 4 – 10, 2018

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Our Highest Spiritual Principles

When a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal. [Exod. 21:35-36]

These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Though taken at the literal level, these rules might appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives (who among us owns an ox anymore?); they are, at a deeper level, far more than simple rules and legislations.

Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st century concepts: When a corporation (call it BP for argument sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the cleaning up costs. Going further with the second verse: If it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for 2 prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area back to its pristine state.

The same goes for peoples’ behavior.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned… but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner too, shall be put to death. [Exod. 21:28-29]

To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a gymnastics team doctor abuses a neighbor’s daughter, the doctor shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that doctor had been in the habit of abusing young girls for many years, and his superior, though aware, had failed to restrain him, the doctor is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story everyday; in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our work places and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principals that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses, speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.

Torah Reflections: January 28 – February 3, 2018

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

One With the One

Now Moses went up to God. The Eternal One called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you hear, deeply hear My voice, and keep My covenant, you will be to Me a special treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” [Exod. 19:3-6]

Thus begins chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, the chapter leading up to the Ten Commandments and Revelation at Sinai. Moving beyond the literal level, I read this passage as a transmission of a spiritual encounter couched in the literary form of myth. Though the words of Revelation meet us in the next chapter, chapter 19 describes the moment of awakening.

These early verses might, therefore, detail the initial meditation from which the unfolding chaotic, awesome and terrifying vision unfolds. “Moses,” the “house of Jacob,” as well as “the children of Israel,” represent different layers of consciousness being addressed here. Our inner Moses, the always already enlightened part of self, is the one to ascend and channel this transmission. The “house of Jacob” represents the level of ego consciousness, while the “children of Israel” the more spiritually inclined aspects of consciousness.

To the ego consciousness God says: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians;” because the ego needs to see in order to believe. To the “children of Israel” God says: “I bore you on eagles’ wings” because, the kabbalists remind us, the eagle is one of the four animals Ezekiel describes in his vision of the celestial chariot, and is associated with the Cosmic Spiritual World. In this meditation, therefore, God carries the “children of Israel” part of self, up to cosmic consciousness. In so doing God “brought” us to Him—a Hebrew expression used in the context of marriage or union. It is this union with the Divine, becoming one with the One, which this meditation describes. For our mystics the transmission expressed in these verses unfolds at the cosmic level of consciousness and depicts the union of the individual human soul with the Godhead.

Now, then, having reached this state of union, we can hear God’s voice which is our voice. Now, then, we can know that “all the earth” is God’s; and echo the words of the Chasidic masters: “God fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds.” Now, then, we can know ourselves to be a “kingdom of priests”—which Martin Buber translated as “Royal retinue”—one with the One, serving the Holy One of all Being by bearing witness to and acting as the conduits of Its Presence in the world, of Its Holiness in all lives. Now, then, we can truly hear the first word of the Ten Commandments “Anochi – I am,” not as an affirmation from an entity outside of our self, but as the “I am” that I am, the “I am” that you are, one with the One as we forever are.
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1. In Genesis, Jacob sheds his ego-identity through a night of God-wresting & awakens to a higher self named Israel.

Torah Reflections: January 21 – 27, 2017

B’shalach

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Then!

This week’s Torah portion has all the traits of a great adventure novel. We ran away, but they pursued us. We took an unexpected turn that brought us to the edge of an impassable sea; and they were closing in on us fast. But at the last minute, miracle of miracles, the seas parted, allowing us to cross on dry land. And, as the last one of us barely managed to climb to safety onto the opposite shore, our pursuers—now just a few yards away— were drowned by the waters that suddenly came crashing down on them. We had won! We were delivered! Halleluyah!

What follows in Torah is what scholars believe to be the oldest text in the five books of Moses: The Song at The Sea. First sang by Moses, it is then reprised by Miriam the prophetess picking up a hand-drum and dancing with the women. The verse says: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Eternal.” [Exod.15:1] It is the word “Then” that catches our rabbis’ attention. Rarely is such a simple word pregnant with so much meaning. In the two thousand years of Jewish exile, before the creation of the State of Israel almost 65 years ago, this “Then” represented the aspirations of redemption for many generations of Jews scattered the world over, living in most precarious conditions and—not unlike the Egyptian slaves of the Exodus myth—at the mercy of the sovereigns who ruled over them. They dreamed, one day, to sing a song of redemption, delivered from the harsh labors of exile.

One of these rabbis is the Alter Rebbe of Ger, known as the S’fat Emet (Speaker of Truth), a Chassidic rabbi of 19th century Poland. The Rebbe can’t help but read into the tale of the Exodus the story and hopes of Polish Jewry in his time, living in fear of the next Pogrom. He writes:

The Egyptian bondage was an iron furnace in which [the Israelites] were made pure, to serve as proper instruments for song and hymn before God. When redemption was complete, their mouths opened and they began to sing… When Israel came forth from Egypt, they did not understand what value there had been in exile. But then, as they became God’s instruments, they came to understand.

Exile, he teaches his contemporaries, is not a mistake but a necessary passage through which we have the opportunity to learn from our suffering and transform ourselves into a better people; refining ourselves as a pathway to redemption here and now. Though we might not understand it while in the midst of it, there is value in our Egypt; to intimately know the pain and the suffering of the downtrodden and oppressed must make us even more committed to a path of compassion, love, acceptance and inclusiveness. Then, we are made pure. Then, even still in physical exile, we are redeemed; and ready to become God’s instruments for song. The Chassidic path is, indeed, one of pure joy, one of ecstatic song and dance. Even in the darkness of their Polish exile, the chassidim’s Shabbats were weekly experiences of redemption to which they sang and danced and somersaulted with their souls afire.

Of course, as Chassidic masters teachings do, the Rebbe’s works on multiple levels. For him, this Egypt is our Egypt; the necessary iron furnace of our spiritual journey, where the hold that our desires, our senses, our thoughts have over us is to be burnt up, so that we might be redeemed from them. Then, and only then, will we transform ourselves into pure channels of Divine energy. Then, and only then, will we make our voices the instruments that sing the song of the One we will finally remember ourselves to be; the One that is always already free.

Torah Reflections: January 14 – 20, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves

There is one peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this week’s Torah portion. While the Torah portion itself tells of the last plagues wrought upon Egypt by God and, in the end, of the Israelites’ mass departure from Egypt; the root of the word that concerns us here is Avad. At the beginning of the portion we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim (translated here as “servants” or “courtiers”), in order that I may display my Signs among them.” [Ex. 10:1] However, later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim (rendered here as “bondage” or “slaves”).” [Ex.13:3] Yet, in another place where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may v’YaAv’duni (“worship Me”).” [Ex. 10:3]

I posit, however, that there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened heart. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, but we have hardened our heart to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.

But the Divine within, continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our heart. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from of our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may YaV’duni/“become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate. No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e. no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating His will over ours. Rather we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here;” leading a life that embodies the Divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting and understanding ways of being; and expresses our highest value, doing justice, practicing love and compassion and walking humbly along our unique path.

Torah Reflections: December 10 – 16, 2017

Mikeitz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Interpreting Dreams, Creating Reality

This Torah portion begins with Pharaoh’s famous dreams. First, seven cows come up from the Nile fat and sturdy, followed by seven cows sickly and gaunt; the latter eat the former. Then, seven ears of grain are solid and healthy, but are swallowed up by seven ears that are thin and scorched. Pharaoh wakes up anxious and summons his court diviners to interpret the dreams’ significance, but they are at a loss to explain what the dreams could mean. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, witnessing the scene, remembers that one of his former jail companions—Joseph—had a knack for dream interpretation. He immediately tells Pharaoh that a “Hebrew lad” had interpreted his and another cellmate’s dream successfully. But it is his specific choice of words that piqued my interest, when he says to Pharaoh: “And as he [Joseph] interpreted for us, so it came to be” (Gen. 41:13).

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

The Sages made a remarkable claim regarding dreams and their interpretation: ‘Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation’ [Talmud, Berachot 55b]. The interpreter has a key function in the realization of a dream; his analysis can determine how the dream will come to pass… Does the interpreter really have the power to determine the meaning of a dream and alter the future accordingly? (Gold From The Land of Israel, p.83)

Do dream interpreters and others who claim to have prescient gifts really tell the future; or do their interpretations plant seeds in our minds for a possible future that consciously or unconsciously we find ourselves moved to manifest? The suggestive power of words and stories can be so compelling, especially when we’re told what we want to hear, that we begin to look for what interpreters foretell. Consequently, a coincidence that we likely would have ignored reminds us tangentially of a piece of the prediction we heard, and what would normally recede in the foggy background of the non-essential moments of everyday life now takes center stage in the unfolding of our personal story.

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

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

Torah Reflections: December 3 – 9, 2017

Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Embracing Imbalance

Vayeishev, the name and first word of this week’s Torah portion has caused much ink to be spilled. Vayeishev is translated in English to mean: “And he settled,” referring to Jacob finally settling down “in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” [Gen. 37:1] Our sages tell us that Jacob believed God’s blessing to Abraham had now been fulfilled through his life and in his settling down in Canaan: the Promised Land. After all—doing his own math—between his grandfather’s, his father’s and his own “sojourning,” plus his years of slavery and affliction under Laban, Jacob wants to believe that, give or take a couple hundred years, the “metaphor” of God’s foreseeing 400 years of slavery in Egypt was now interpretatively fulfilled. “Now,” writes Avivah G. Zornberg (The Beginning of Desire, p.245) “‘Jacob’s mind was settled’: things seemed to fall into proper perspective, a kind of clarity and coherence invested in the narrative of family history, as he set himself to read it.”

Who can blame Jacob? Even if it requires re-interpreting our own narrative somewhat, aren’t we all yearning for balance, stability, peace of mind; a time when we will finally be able to settle down? Yishuv ha-da’at, the settling of the mind, as the midrash calls it, is praised in our tradition as a state of consciousness attained as one grows wiser. It is opposed to tiruf ha-da’at—literally meaning to be of torn mind—bewildered, confused, lacking awareness. After our sojourning, after years of hard work and our facing many difficulties along the way, we identify with Jacob. “Balance” is our leitmotiv. We seek greater work-life balance, to eat more balanced meals; we go to yoga class to achieve balance in our body. We project onto spirituality the task of making us more balanced beings, to find stillness within chaos.

But that isn’t Reality is it? No true yoga practice has as a goal to help us find perfect balance, but rather to help us live increasingly aware of the fact that balance is but a never-ending counter act to our inherent imbalance. There is no such a thing as standing still, sitting still or even lying still. Finding balance while riding a bicycle is about continuously correcting the imbalance caused by pressing on one pedal or the other. Walking is a perpetual state of imbalance, moment to moment catching ourselves from falling. There is nothing in life, nothing in the Universe that ever is in an absolute static state of balance. Everything is always in flux, always changing. So why, like Jacob, do we pursue this illusion? And if you think the purpose of spirituality is to help you become a more balanced being, think again! The pithiest, yet most powerful one-word spiritual mantra I ever came across is: “Further!” And that is what Rashi himself is saying, commenting on this first verse, and quoting a midrash where God is exclaiming that especially the righteous shouldn’t “seek to dwell in contentment in this world!” — no yishuv ha-da’at for us. Our task, therefore, might not be to find balance, but to embrace the imbalances in our life. Imbalance is that force which impels us forward, helping us grow through course-correction. Resisting or fighting imbalance and change is akin to resisting and fighting Reality itself. Consciously making peace with it is what truly frees us.

But Jacob couldn’t do that. He denied Reality in the name of what Zornberg calls his “cognitive and aesthetic ambition to see history resolved, sojournings over… What ‘leaps upon him’ is the wild animal that tears Joseph apart—tarof toraf Yosef. Instead of yishuv ha-da’at, clarity, composure, coherence, there is tiruf ha-da’at, confusion, bewilderment, loss of consciousness.” (p.247) Life is a wild animal. It is our desire to tame it, to control it—futile as it may be—that is ultimately the cause of our own misery. A better strategy might be for us to allow that wild animal to roam free.

Torah Reflections: Nov. 26 – Dec. 2, 2017

 

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Awakening from Within the Silence

One of the first revelations that meditation gifts us with is an encounter with the unbelievable noise that lies within us, right behind our closed eyes. As if by magic, as soon as our eyes are closed an onslaught of thoughts comes rushing in. As our practice progresses, however, we realize that the thoughts don’t suddenly appear when meditation starts, they are always there, endlessly parading in our consciousness. Our inward meditative gazing simply makes us increasingly aware of their loud, incessant presence. An exercise one can do is to journal one’s meditative experience. To classify the types of thoughts that arise in each meditation to get a sense of the different patterns of one’s conditioned mind. Some find the mind rehearsing and rehashing conversations. I find that my mind likes to plan and organize.

The beginning of this Torah portion reminds me of my meditations. Jacob is going home after his 20-year exile in Haran and is just hours away from a dreaded confrontation with his brother, Esau, who had vowed to kill him. So striking is the resemblance to my meditative experience that I suspect that the first 30 verses of this Torah portion (Gen. 32:4-33) are but the transcript of Jacob’s meditation journal.

Jacob has this big meeting coming up. He sits down to meditate to find peace and quiet, but thoughts invade his consciousness. Jacob’s conditioned mind seems to be that of a planner, a strategist. Instead of slowing down, it begins to organize an entire convoy of people and gifts to be sent wave after wave ahead of the meeting to his brother in order to appease his vengeful wrath. He divides and orders, weighs all possible future scenarios. He even rehearses the dialogues that might take place between the servants he is sending ahead and Esau himself. He counts off the camels and the goats, the rams and the asses to be given away while bargaining with God for success.

Then, verse 22 tells us: “And all this gifting passed from his consciousness.” It is as if something finally cleared in his meditation, as if his thinking finally gave way. His mind could no longer handle the torture of the never-ending loop of thoughts that was burning up within him. A crack through the thickness of the mind allowed him to break free from his attachments to the possessions and the stories that had defined him. In that moment, he was able to even let go of his attachment to those closest to him and to all he still dearly clung to. The Torah uses a powerful image to convey this deep letting-go whereby Jacob sends all that is/who are most precious to him—et asher lo – all that he identified with (Gen.32:24)—across the Jaboc river.

Then comes what is, to me, among the most powerful verses in Torah:

Vayivater Yaacov L’vado – And Jacob surrendered in aloneness (Gen. 32:25).

After having let go of all attachments, it was the deep silence of aloneness, the emptiness at the source of our being, to which Jacob surrendered and awakened. He went “out of his mind,” transcended the calculating, organizing, planning, future-wrestling and past-worrying conditioned mind that keeps us both stuck and identified with its concerns and its objects. In that ultimate surrender, he encountered God “Presence to Presence” (Gen. 32:31) and realized that he was that Oneness of Being.

Torah Reflections: November 19 – 25, 2017

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

God Was in This Place

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: November 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!”