Torah Reflections: April 16 – 22, 2017

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Merging With The Light

As our weekly reading resumes, following the end of Passover, we are met by one of the most mesmerizing stories in Torah: the fiery death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Most rabbis explain their deaths as Divine punishment and as a cautionary tale “against spontaneous worship… and the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights” as Nehama Leibovitz highlights in her commentary. Due to the complexity of the Hebrew, however, no one can fully grasp the ultimate meaning of the story.

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering… And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and brought-near, in the Presence of the Eternal, a strange fire, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from within the Presence of the Eternal and consumed them, so that they died within the Presence of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aharon: This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to me I will be known as Holy… [Lev. 9:23-10:3]

With the nearness of the holiday of Lag BaOmer, the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu connected me to the legend of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, every year, on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (Lag BaOmer,) people gather around bonfires to mark in festive ways the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In the northern Galilee town of Meron, 300,000 people make a pilgrimage to his grave on that day. Why? The legend describes Rabbi Bar Yochai as a towering mystical figure; the author of the Zohar (the Book of Splendor)—the seminal composition of kabbalistic thought—and perhaps the only Jewish mystic known to have spent years meditating in a cave after fleeing for his life from the Roman armies. Once out of his hiding, it is told that Bar Yochai began to reveal the deepest secrets concerning God and Creation to his disciples. Rabbi Abba, one of his students, became the scribe for Bar Yochai’s oral teachings. As Rabbi Bar Yochai was on his death bed, revelation after revelation came pouring out of him at an increasingly faster pace, as if in a race against time. On his last day, a force within compelled him to share all the mystical teachings he had yet to reveal. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave—Bar Yochai dictating with urgency, Rabbi Abba writing furiously. Finally, Bar Yochai finished, and a fire-like radiance, a brilliant light, filled the house as his soul departed his body.

In those last moments of his legendary life, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merged with the One Light of Being. He remembered the Light he had always been, and became that Light. He had drawn near to the Presence of the Eternal and was transformed into a strange fire, a radiance, a burst of Light. The mythical story of Nadav and Avihu speaks of a similar experience. Aharon’s two sons, just like Bar Yochai, are described by some rabbinic commentators as “towering personalities… [and] men of exalted saintliness.” These two holy beings can’t help but be transformed in the overwhelming Presence of the Eternal, and the strange fire they bring near is the Light of Being they awaken to in that moment. They, like Bar Yochai, die in a burst of Light, merging with the One Light of Being in a spiritual ecstatic self combustion. But legend or myth is not to be taken literally. These stories act as mirrors to deeper spiritual truths. What is described here might be an experience of the “little self” combusting in the awesome awakening to one’s own Light. What is consumed in such a moment of en-light-enment—outshined by the Light of the Divine Presence—is that separate sense of self. But what is revealed, born in that same moment, is one’s true identity, the true Light of one’s Infinite Being.

Torah Reflections: April 2 – 8, 2017

Passover 5778

Mah Nish’tanah? What has changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus a couple weeks back, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. A few years ago I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few:

Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless — aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”— to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence.

To me this is a critical point. Am I even aware of my Mitzrayim? When Moses comes to tell our ancestors that it is time for them to leave Egypt, to break free from slavery: “…they could not hear him, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6:9] The Chasidic masters teach that the darkest depth of enslavement is when we have grown accustomed to it; we then no longer know we are enslaved. This portion of our Haggadah concludes with a powerful quote from Harriet Tubman that says: “I could have saved thousands more if I could have convinced them they were slaves.” Our first step toward freedom, therefore, is to know that we are enslaved; enslaved to our routine, enslaved to our old stories, enslaved to our rigid views. Our second step is to ask Mah Nish’tanah?

[Our story telling begins] with astonishment: “Ma nish’tanah? …How is this night different from other nights?” By astonishment and questioning, we are able to liberate ourselves from the grip of certain habits of thought, convictions, theories, opinions, and prejudices that are held toward self, toward others, and toward the many readily-accepted ways of the world. This question, however, has another dimension. “Mah nish’tanah?” “What has changed?” “What has shifted?” Because the question is even possible, we know that it is our awareness that has shifted. The questioning itself implies awareness. Whatever our enslavement is, our questioning implies that we are now able to step outside of it, and look at it as a “what” — as an object in our consciousness. Our ability to question means that this “what” no longer owns us.

A key aspect of our enslavement is that we have given up questioning. We have settled into our version of reality, of truth, of right and wrong and we have stopped questioning our own assumptions, we have stopped listening to the other side. Our teachers are, therefore, challenging us: “You want to be free? Question everything! Challenge all your truths! Doubt all your certainties!” Judaism itself is, at its core, a tradition of iconoclasts, of revolutionaries, of provocative questioners. So I start my process this year, embracing my lineage, with “Mah Nish’tanah?” What has changed in me? Am I still growing? Am I still evolving? Am I still questioning and challenging the inner status quo?

Torah Reflections: March 26 – April 1, 2017

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love

The last few Torah portions of the Book of Exodus were, as we have seen, focused on the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; a Sacred Space amidst the traveling Israelite tribes where God came to dwell. We related to this seemingly outward structure as a mythical Temple that acted as a mirror to the Temple awakening within each of us, reminding us of the inner Sacred Space we are within which the Divine Presence not only dwells but through which it expresses. But lost in our separate sense of self, lost in the delusion of our ego’s drama, we seldom know ourselves to embody such awareness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us guidelines as to what we are to do in order to come closer and closer to awakening to such awareness and ultimately fully inhabiting our inner Temple. Put simply, we are to follow practices that help us draw near to the One we are; that, time and time again, pushes us to reconnect to Source and ground ourselves in Truth. To walk this path of coming closer to the One, in the consciousness that was prevalent in biblical times, one had to bring offerings to the Temple or make animal sacrifices. The Hebrew word that is poorly translated as “sacrifice” has very little to do with what the English word conveys: victimhood, abnegation, destruction, loss and suffering. This word, korban, means “to draw near,” which was the essential purpose for the ritual. And if our post-modern egos are quick to judge our ancestors as barbaric because of the way they slaughtered animals for ritualistic purposes, we need only to remind ourselves that, in our generation, our practices of meat slaughtering are arguably not only much worse than they were then, but lacking any spiritual grounding. In biblical times, offering one’s animal was a true hardship, a real personal sacrifice, as animals held great value for families and not everyone was wealthy enough to be able to afford it. The idea of korban was to surrender what was most precious to us as a means to heal the brokenness in our world, to forgive and be forgiven, to restore balance and purity in our lives, and find peace within and without.

At a deeper level, this ritual of surrendering what we are most attached to is a profoundly humbling spiritual practice supporting our breaking free from the bondage of ego. Just take the verse that introduces the whole litany of different korbanot in our portion for example: “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai.” [Lev. 1:2] It is usually translated as: “When any of you presents a korban to the Eternal,” and refers mostly to the physical offering of animals. But, in truth, it is more accurately read as: “If anyone presents a korban from within you to the Eternal.” Here, we begin to grasp the inner dimension of the practice; that something from within needs to be “released” as we aim to draw nearer to Source. What is being called to be surrendered; burnt up as a burnt offering? Not an animal on the outside, but what our teachers call our very own “animal nature:” the bundle of our thoughts, desires, emotional and physical attachments, our pathological need for control and our paralyzing fears; in other words, our false self. This drawing near is about stepping into the transformative fire of Divine Love so that our conditioned separate sense of self can be completely consumed. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite teachers, wrote along these lines that in the process of authentic transformation: “The self is not made content; the self is made toast.”

This Divine Love, our rabbis call “the fire of heaven.” It reduces our “animal nature,” our false self, to dust and ashes. It is the fire within the Cloud of Glory that fills our inner Tabernacle, now empty of self, where that which imagined it was separate and alone realizes in the blaze of a moment that it had always been One and Eternal.

Torah Reflections: March 12 – 18, 2017

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Living Our Lives “All in!”

I have been fascinated, this year, by Moses’ spiritual evolution one Torah portion at a time. Since the beginning, I noticed, Moses has been ambivalent toward the Israelites; remaining somewhat distant, aloof. Perhaps, wrestling with a dual Egyptian-Israelite sense of identity, Moses was unsure about his own path. I suspect that Moses’ ambivalence was felt by the Israelites as well. This week’s portion brings us the episode of the Golden Calf. Once Moses disappears up Mount Sinai, their lack of trust in his commitment to them drives them to erect a Golden Calf to replace him: “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” [Exod.32:1] It’s possible to read the story of the Golden Calf as being all about Moses.

Atop the mountain God has just given Moses the tablets that He had carved, when He tells him about the golden calf worshiping happening down below. God is about to destroy the Israelites but Moses manages to obtain a stay of execution as he makes his way down the mountain with the tablets. There, shocked by the boisterous worship he witnesses, Moses is confronted with a decision. He sees that his ambivalence, his indecisiveness with regards to his own identity, has now caused the Israelites to commit the ultimate sin—that of idolatry—and has placed them on the brink of Divine destruction. With the anger one feels when one’s resistance to doing the right thing has been exposed, Moses smashes the tablets. The Midrash, the homiletic rabbinic commentary on Torah—the stories rabbis tell writing between the verses of the text—expresses Moses’ profound realization (Torah verses italicized):

“He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them” [Exod. 32:19]. “Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God: ‘They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,’ as Scripture tells us: ‘Now if You will forgive their sin… then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of Your book that You have written’” [Exod. 32:32]

In his process of spiritual maturing, Moses still needed to work through this major shadow in him, a place where some residual ego was still hiding. Moses’ life was to be one of service. But true service can be neither coerced nor half-hearted. Moses had to go “all in,” heart, mind and soul. Service, as such, is a powerful spiritual practice because by freely giving of ourselves we cultivate selflessness. As we serve the people in our life, in our community, those in need, and those we love, we transcend our self-absorbed concerns and complaints. When we allow others to serve us, we are able to cultivate true humility and to let go of our misplaced pride. Both, however, need to be genuine and wholehearted. This is what Moses needed to learn. Perhaps this is true not only for the practice of service, but for how we live our lives altogether. What have we “set in stone” in our life that prevents us from living fully, wholeheartedly, passionately? What fears are still holding us back? Perhaps the time has come for us to smash those stone tablets and commit to life; perhaps, like Moses, the time has come to fully live the hand we are dealt.

Torah Reflections: March 5 – 11, 2017

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Ornate garments are designed by the artists among the people for the ceremony, sewn together and decorated with gold, precious stones and colorful fabrics. In all, the celebration lasts for a week, throughout which sacrifices are made and a special altar is built at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in the Presence of the Eternal.

For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be God for them, and they may know that I am the Eternal One their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst. I am the Eternal One their God. [Exod. 29:42-46]

“I am the Eternal One…” These simple words are the first words of the Ten Commandments. They are repeated here and dozens of other places in Torah. We read these words over and over again throughout the biblical text, but can we truly hear them? Can we truly know that these are not words pronounced by a deity outside of ourselves, rather, they are the words that we are to speak, that we are to awaken to; the Truth that we are to know? “I am the Eternal One” that manifests as all the me’s and all the you’s, all the I am’s ever uttered, even though we all have confused our “I am” with the narrow thoughts of our conditioned separate sense of self.

Yet Spirit is calling out to us from the Tent of Meeting, promising to greet us, longing to be remembered. This Tent is a space in consciousness, beyond the trappings of that false self, where our Divine Self awakens, yearning to be known. It is reaching out from within us, telling us that if we simply return to the inner space, simply come to dwell in the inner Tent: “I will meet with you… I will speak with you…” All we have to do is take the first steps toward the Tent of Meeting, for the Divine Itself is the energy that will draw us back, that will liberate us. God is the inner power that moves us to transcend, to free ourselves from the shackles of our mistaken identity. It is the force that brings us “out of the land of Egypt,” out of the confining narrow space of ego-bound consciousness, so that It could “dwell in [our] midst,” dwell within us, as the True Being that we come to realize is our being, our “I am.”

But how are we to take these first steps? The image of this week’s Torah portion is that of an ordination. We are to know ourselves to be priests and priestesses. We are to consecrate ourselves to the sole desire to remember the One we are. And we are to engage in spiritual practices that support letting go of all our attachments, worldviews, partial truths and certainties; symbolized in our text by the image of the sacrifices. The way inward is, indeed, a process of shedding. One after the other we surrender the multiple layers of our mistaken identity that have obscured the Divine Light within. One after the other we let go of our false beliefs and opinions as if we were to surrender one piece of clothing after another from the many layers accumulated over the years that both suffocate us and weigh us down. Ultimately, underneath it all, we will find our spirit dressed in the most beautiful priestly garments adorned with gold and precious stones, with “blue, purple, and crimson yarn, and… fine twisted linen.” [Exod. 28:15]

Torah Reflections: February 26 – March 4, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Temples Within Temples Within Temples

We find, in this week’s Parashah the Divine injunction that adorns Bet Alef’s new ark: “V’asu Li Mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham – Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Following this verse and for the rest of the Torah portion, the Eternal communicates to Moses the detailed plans of how to build and assemble such a Sanctuary — also called a Tabernacle (Mish’kan in Hebrew) — in the wilderness. The Mish’kan was to be placed at the center of the traveling twelve tribes, a reflection of what the newly freed Israelites held sacred, of what defined their way of worship, and what united them as a nation.

We too, as a nation, have created temples that are a reflection of what we worship. As a society, we have built at great expense our temples of sports in so many big arenas and gigantic stadiums. We have our temple of money in Wall Street, our temples of political power in the White House and Congress. The temple of our military power is the Pentagon, and Corporate America’s temples are all the skyscrapers that make up the skyline of our cities. And let’s not forget our shopping malls.

What about our own lives? What are our temples and how do they reflect what it is we worship? Our TV sets, our American Idols and those who walk the red carpets? Our technology? Abundant are the means of distraction that keep our ego busy with preferences, opinions and fears. But these temples, rather than uplifting us, tend to close us in. Rather than connecting us, they divide and alienate us from one another and from our Self. Where are the temples reflecting our basic goodness, the holiness we embody, the compassionate heart within or the love we yearn to express through our lives? The issue might be that our focus is outwardly rather than inwardly directed. We have built so many temples out there in our lives that we are no longer able to recognize the Temple that is our life.

A Midrash relates that the Torah is like a king’s daughter who was about to be wedded to a far away prince. Her father said that he could not keep her from marrying, nor could he live without her. So he asked her to make a small room for him in her new home, so that wherever she might go, he could come and dwell with her. For the rabbis of the Midrash, the Torah and Israel were one; and wherever she went in her Diaspora, whatever foreign nation she was to espouse, she was to make her home, her community, her life, a Tabernacle. Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel explains that Israel’s steadfast sanctification of Shabbat was her way to make room in her life for her King, replacing the burned-down Temple in space by building a Mish’kan in time.

Taking it one step further, the Torah injunction — read slightly differently — calls us to remember the Sacred Space within ourselves where the Presence of the One already dwells: “They will make Me a Holy Place, I will dwell within them.” Holy space, Sanctuary, is to be awakened to, realized, as our inherent nature; what we are. We are to recognize that each of us is the indwelling Presence of God, that every fiber of our being is God’s Temple. Not only my being but all sentient beings, all of nature, the entire universe, Temples within Temples within Temples, all the way up and all the way down.

Torah Reflections: February 19 – 25, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

This is the question Moses asks himself that next morning. After Sinai, he knows he needs to give people something concrete, something tangible to do; something that will help them integrate into their lives the transcendent experience they just lived through. His answer is this week’s Torah portion. Moses begins to transpose the Sinaitic encounter into a spiritual code for living that represents the individual and social embodiment of this profound experience of Oneness. He reveals the spiritual practices and new ways of being that are the expression of this newfound awareness. In so doing he teaches us that—as far as Judaism is concerned—what matters most is, in fact, the laundry. How we bring our Sinai moments back down into our world and lead lives infused by them is, essentially, the Jewish path’s main concern. Why? Because our sages knew that, inherent to our human make-up, we can’t help but forget. We have a spiritual peak experience, a bright moment of clarity yielding deepening insights, and then life takes over. We’re back at work soon after, and within a few weeks we forget all that was glimpsed. Ongoing practices, keeping conscious company, are pathways to remember, pathways to guide us back to the place we just left and is now at risk of fading into the fog of memory.

But these practices, however wonderful, are just empty containers without fierce kavanah—fierce intentionality—without an ardent inner yearning to remember. Our Torah portion addresses that as well. Once Moses is done enumerating the laws and practices we are to follow, God steps in and tells us: “Here, I am placing an angel within you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have made ready.” [Exod. 23:20] There is a force within us, an evolutionary impulse that is always aching to remember the One we are. The Midrash tells us that this angel is the same angel that protected and guided Jacob on his journey, perhaps even wrestled with him—for angels in our tradition are the fierce kind; not the sweet cherubs of Hallmark cards fame. “Take-you-care in his presence and hearken to his voice… for My Name is within him” continues the Torah. [Exod. 23:21] This angel within us guides us to “the place” where God is waiting, when “the place” in Hebrew is “HaMakom,” and is, itself, a name of God. Our inner angel is guiding us on a journey up our own inner Sinai to reach “the place” of remembering, the place that is always already here: HaMakom, our Divine Self. Hearken to His voice.

Torah Reflections: February 12 – 18, 2017

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).” [Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing the Essence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.

Torah Reflections: January 29 – February 4, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

God Acts in Wondrous Ways

Our Torah portion opens, this week, with the last four plagues to befall Egypt. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart… so that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount… how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’.” [Exod. 10:1-2] The Hebrew doesn’t actually speak of plagues but of signs, wonders, miracles or signals. These signs are out-of-the-ordinary events in nature that are meant to trigger a reaction of awe in the hearts of the Israelites. Awe was what God intended for us to feel in the great display of God’s might; for us to know the Divine Presence in our world in unmistakable ways.

For those of us living in Western Washington one of the most “out-of-the-ordinary” awe-filled event in nature at this time of the year is snow. When some in Seattle might experience snowfall as a plague, many see it as a wondrous occasion. Because it is so rare, snow has a great power in our region: it quiets things down. Snow slows everything down to a quasi standstill. Snow does on the outside what meditation does on the inside. When it snows in Seattle, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We retreat inward, we Shabbat. We cozy up on the couch with a hot beverage, we grab a good book, dust off a few board games. Suddenly we have time for a few minutes of meditation. We hit the reset button. We reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives. We look out the window in awe of the beauty of our natural world; we look at the people in our lives in awe of the love we share. Snow does for us what Moses was trying to do with Pharaoh: open his heart.

Though our text says that God is the One Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, I suspect that, mythologically, Pharaoh stands as the symbol for the hardening of our heart. Pharaoh is the energy in us that closes us down, that causes us to fear, and consequently reject, exclude, deny, or repress; the energy that might see snow as a plague. The root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew are the three letters peh, resh, and ayin. Peh means mouth or voice. Resh and ayin put together make the word Ra, which means “bad,” or “negative.” Pharaoh can be said to represent the Peh Ra, the “negative voice” within us. On the opposite side of it, we have Moses. Moses is the voice of love in us that is urging us to let go, to release, to relax. Moses is the inner power that is able to peel off the layers of what the kabbalists call the klippot, the shells around our heart. He does so with wonder, with amazement, with awe-inspiring snowstorms that drive us inward.

For our mystics, the process of spiritual awakening is an ongoing process of peeling off the layers of ego that have obstructed the Light Being that we are. It is an ongoing process of letting go of our concepts and rigid certainties, of the strictness of our worldview, of the relative truth we mistake to be absolute. Ultimately it is about letting go of our separate sense of self, of our ego-bound identity, and to open ourselves to the Greater I AM that we are, the ego-less Being-ness that we are. In other words, it is a journey of self-transformation from Pharaoh to Moses. In Gematria, the letters of the word, Pharaoh, add up to 355; Moses to 345. One subtracts 10 from the former to attain the latter: 10 layers of shells around the heart to be peeled off through 10 Divine signs, 10 experiences of breathtaking awe, 10 concentric circles of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to be transcended, from the outermost gross physical circle of self-identity, to the innermost circle of Pure Is-ness. Let’s not wait until the next snowstorm to begin practicing awe, for awe is to be found in every day, in every moment, in every breath.

Torah Reflections: January 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).’” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohim revealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God telling Moses “I am YHVH, “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of Elohim. YHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appears in/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature—immanent and transcendent at once—now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the higher transcending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH and Elohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune with YHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.