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.

Torah Reflections – June 26 – July 2, 2016

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

They Warned Moses & They Were Right
This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.

Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But — they were wrong.

Why? Because what the ten elders knew, was that the Israelites were not spiritually ready to be immersed in such a society; that they would lose themselves there, their spirit crushed again; this time not by harsh slave labor, but by the temptations of a life of riches. In this society agriculture provided an abundance of produce — in excess, in fact. People had genetically modified grapes to grow them into giant clusters. Cattle, too, was abundant, and milk products flooded the market.  Even the insect world was manipulated to allow both for abundant harvests and excessive honey production. Can you imagine the shock of stepping into such a land when all you have ever known is slavery?

Those ten leaders knew that the Hebrews slaves, overcome with desires, would go unconscious in such seductive surroundings; they would lose their newly acquired moral compass and fall prey to the temptations of materialistic pursuit. Without first a strong spiritual and moral anchor, without having spent more time secluded in the wilderness, the Hebrews’ resolve to the one God, their embrace of the laws of Moses, would collapse, and the faith of Abraham would be lost forever. The elders’ concern wasn’t that the Israelites would be defeated by these giants who lived in fortified gated cities. Rather, they were concerned they would become like them, overweighed gluttonous war-mongers focused on amassing, bigger, better, more material wealth by plundering earth resources.

We, too, need to remember to create spaces in our lives that promote our re-sourcing at the silent center of our inner wilderness. And though there are many ways to accomplish this; belonging to spiritual communities that foster cultivating such inner wilderness is, powerfully, one of them. In such communities one is able to find authentic relationships, support amidst isolation, spiritual nourishment, and moral strength. They help affirm our own moral compass, our own deeply cherished values, that we may express them in our lives. They keep us connected to the possibility of a world that speaks of compassion, love, peace and tolerance, and where the sustainability of our planet and all its life forms is seen as sacred. The Israelites had not yet constituted themselves into such a community. They didn’t have the spiritual tools to face the world of Canaan. And though it is going to cost thirty-eight more years of wandering, and the death of a whole generation; there was no viable alternative but to take the time and space necessary to establish spiritual grounding.The ten elders were right.

Torah Reflections – June 19-25, 2016

Behaalot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Receiving Torah with a Kiss  
Arguably, the most important moment in the entire Jewish Bible, is that of the Revelation at Sinai and of matan Torah, of God gifting Torah. “Torah” means “teaching.” There, atop the trembling smoking mountain, from within a cloud, God spoke the Ten Commandments.  There, according to the rabbinic myth, Moses received the entire transmission of God’s teaching, both oral (later codified as the Talmud) and written (the Torah itself.) This transmission was through a direct communication from God to Moses. As our Torah portion reminds us this week:

And God said, “Hear these My words: When prophets of the Eternal arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses… With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Eternal.”
[Num. 12:6-8]

Transmission, as we learn here, happens at different levels for different recipients. The Torah that Moses received at Sinai was mouth to mouth, was through God’s kiss. The Hebrew in that verse is literally: “mouth to mouth I speak within him.” What Moses awakens to in that transmission is the very essence of Torah, its innermost light, the pure light of God’s Being. It is a Torah of light that Moses receives directly; an identity with the “I AM/Anochi” of the first commandment. This I AM-ness, the prophets can realize mediated through dreams and visions, but the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, at a lower level yet, couldn’t even hear it. They “saw the voices” the Torah recalls (Exod. 20:15,) but were unable to hear. They asked Moses to act as intercessor, and whatever commandments he would speak they vowed “Naaseh V’nishmah – We will do them, and then we will hear.” (Exod. 24:7) Perhaps there are, therefore, three levels of Torah. Moses’ Torah of pure light, beyond words and images; the Torah of the prophets—which awakens at the subtle level of dreams and visions—and the Torah for the rest of us, the one which comes in a scroll of words, telling stories and imparting commandments.

This latter Torah is the one we, at the base of Mount Sinai, are to study and derive from it the teachings and practices relevant and applicable to our life in support of a deeper hearing: Naaseh V’Nishmah. “The commandment is a lamp and Torah is light” says the book of Proverbs (6:23). Within each commandment, within each practice the totality of the light of Torah is contained, the infinite light of God is present. We study Torah because it is a vehicle which inspires our growth on the spiritual path up the mountain. As our mastery expands, and begins to move beyond the literal level of understanding, more is revealed to us. Between the words and through them, we awaken to the more subtle teachings, to the visions of the enlightened masters who wrote them, to the sparks of divine light embedded within. Our study can also lead us beyond the words altogether, where the sparks become pure light and we are finally able to hear the Anochi of the first commandment, the I AM that we are, the I AM that we have always been. This is the promise that Torah study holds. This is our particular path to universal Truth.

Torah Reflections – June 12-18, 2016

Naso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Freedom From The Yoke of Desires  

Mindfulness is often described as the art of being present to each moment, of paying attention to each experience in our everyday life. Interestingly, paying attention in Hebrew is “lasim lev,” meaning “to place heart.” The Hebrew enjoins us to pour our heart into every moment we live. Yet there is an added dimension of the practice of mindfulness; that of intentionality. Mindfulness is not only paying attention to every moment but also entering into every moment with kavanah, with sharp intentionality. I add the word “sharp” here, because the root of the word kavanahimplies aiming, strict directionality, one-pointedness. Depending on the specific spiritual practice, different kavanot, different intentions can be used. Our particularkavanah will correspond to our personal answer to the question: “What is the purpose of my engaging in this practice?”

In this week’s Torah portion we read about a specific and highly intentional spiritual practice; that of the Nazarite Vow. For a limited amount of time, one vows to renounce all worldly pleasures and passions and become a Nazarite, which in Hebrew means “set aside” or “consecrated.” Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) comments: “Know that all human beings are slaves to their passions, the true king and master, he who wears the genuine crown of sovereignty upon his head, is he who is free from the rule of passions.” The kavanah, in the Nazarite case, was to free oneself from desires, and cravings. Though he seems to support the potency of the Nazarite practice, Ibn Ezra and the overwhelming majority of our rabbis since Talmudic times saw such a vow as undesirable. Our masters frowned upon asceticism and disapproved of self-denial. Not only did they object to any restrictions above and beyond the prohibitions of the Torah (seeing it as an expression of arrogance rather than humility,) but saw such practice as denying the abundant goodness provided by God through Creation. Even though the kavanah had some merit, the practice itself was deemed counterproductive. Our rabbis believed that abstinence only leads to more cravings and fuels more desires.

Perhaps the answer resides midway between these two opposing views. Though we find in our days that abstinence is one necessary aspect of combating addiction, mindful living might, in fact, be another part of the answer to the problem the Nazarite Vow sought to conquer. In this case I would offer that our kavanah for mindfulness practice be: “To be present to what is, just as it is.” When we are in the moment with all our heart, and with the kavanah to let whatever is arising in our awareness be what it is, without judging, without comparing, without wanting, without even naming or labeling our experience; then all desires cease to be, all cravings disappear, all attachments dissolve. We can even be mindfully present to our desires and our cravings themselves, letting them arise in consciousness. And as we do so, holding them as object in awareness, we are no longer identified with them and they lose their power over us. We can watch them arise, with curiosity and interest, but we no longer automatically react to their dictates. In that moment, like Ibn Ezra said a thousand years ago we are “free from the rule of passions,” liberated from the yoke of the misery of our endlessly unfulfilled desires.

Torah Reflections – June 5-11, 2016

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 

We Lose Our self to Find Our Self

The midrash relating to the opening of this week’s Torah portion, “B’midbar,” meaning: “In the wilderness;” asks its reader: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” Why not, our rabbis wondered, give the Torah in the more spiritually elevated Promised Land atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, for example? Besides, why give the Torah in the desert to a generation of stiff-necked people whose spirit had been crushed by years of enslavement? Giving the Torah in the Promised Land to the first generation of born-free Israelites offered the possibility of greater spiritual readiness on the part of the recipients.

The answer to these questions has to do with purpose. On one hand, Torah is akin to a spiritual conveyor belt whose purpose is to support anyone interested in personal growth and insight into Truth, to expand one’s consciousness through practice. As such it offers laws, guidelines and paths to follow; all of which are made universally available. Torah doesn’t discriminate as to where one finds oneself when embarking on one’s spiritual journey. One doesn’t need to already be at a specific level of consciousness, spiritually ready, to step onto the path of Torah. There is no Promised Land to have reached before being able to receive Torah; it is available to all of us — stiff-necked or not. Torah was given in the desert because, oftentimes, that’s where we find ourselves as we take our first step on our spiritual journey. As the Chasidic masters explain: “The desert is the most miserable of all places. Having received the Torah there, Israel could take its Torah to the deprived of the earth, and from lowliness ascend to the heights.”

On the other hand, that the Torah was given in the desert teaches us about the purpose of the path itself. The questions the rabbis of the midrash ask, are reflective of our own resistance to embarking on any kind of spiritual journey. We are the ones endlessly postponing our commitment to our path, waiting for the “right time” or the “right conditions.” We wait for our Jerusalem, for our life to be in that “Promised Land” place where we’ll finally have the time, resources and support to really do it. Once our life is no longer chaotic, unpredictable, and open-ended — the very definition of wilderness — then we will be able to receive Torah, to engage fully in our spiritual practice. Not only will that day never come, the path itself invites us to take steps in the opposite direction. The Torah was given in the desert because that’s exactly where our spiritual unfolding is taking us that we might become available to deeply hearing her teachings; that’s where she is inviting us to meet her. Awakening to the empty Truth of who we are can only be attained through emptying ourselves from all that we believe is our self. The process is one of deconstruction, of unknowing, of embracing uncertainty, unpredictability and open-endedness. In other words, the desert is where we lose our self in order to find our Self. As themidrash ultimately answers: “Who knows Torah? Those who make themselves like the wilderness

Torah Reflections – May 29 – June 4, 2016

B’chukotai

Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

The last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, B’chukotai, begins with: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Lev. 26:3] and continues with defining for us all the rewards God will bestow upon us for doing so. It then goes on to say: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” [Lev. 26:14-16] and proceeds to graphically detail all the punishments that would result from such behavior.

That God deals in rewards and punishments, however, is an idea that no longer works for the overwhelming majority of modern western thinkers. This anachronistic idea has brought many to abandon religion altogether. The thought that righteous behavior yields success, prosperity and peace, and sinful behavior brings disease, poverty and fear—though it might have influenced the people of antiquity—is no longer useful; for it is simply not true. But the solution is not so much that religion needs to be done away with along with this ancient notion of God; rather we might be able to save both by awakening to a new idea of God—to “evolve” God to meet our modern minds. Why? Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.

“Evolving” God to a new understanding is exactly what our sages did several hundred years ago. Already at the time of the Renaissance sixteenth century mystics like Rabbi Moses Cordovero or Rabbi Isaac Luria of the kabbalistic school of Safed in northern Israel, presented a revolutionary nondual theology. With it, the idea of God asexclusively “out there,” external to, or other than, the manifest Universe was replaced by a vision of God which—while still recognizing its transcendent aspect—added the notion that God is not only fully present in the manifest Universe, but that He is that Universe through and through. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of Modernity, the founding figure of Chassidism; Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760) and his many successors in the Chassidic movement, made this nondual, panentheistic theology the central pillar of their belief system, defining God through “negative theology” which claimed that there is no one that God is not, no where that God is not, no when that God is not, nothing that God is not.

With an idea of God better fitting to our twenty first century sensitivities, rooted in Kabbalah and early Chassidism, we come back to the biblical text with a different set of eyes. Wearing our nondual reading glasses we recognize that, in this story, God is the bestower of reward and the rewarded, the punisher and the punished all at once. We come to realize that one of the deeper teaching available in our text is that, inherent in Creation, is the existence of light and darkness, plenitude and pain; and that both are expressions of the Divine One. This dualistic experience is simply par for the course of our lives. The more we resist it, the more we seek to exclusively experience the light, want only happiness and rewards, the more we set ourselves up for suffering. The true reward of the spiritual path—of taking up the covenant—however, lies in the acceptance that our lives are a series of “acts of God” some fortunate, others tragic, that we neither cause nor have control over. As we let go of our need for our human experience to be different than what it is (or what it was), and are able to embrace both the light and the shadow of life with equanimity, we come closer to experiencing our true Divine nature, the nondual Essence of Being that we are.

Torah Reflections – May 22-28, 2016

B’har

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

 

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” Andthat is vastly different.

This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16] How does the Torah justify this process? It reminds us that we are but renters, temporary visitors on this planet: “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]

The same applies if one is to become the bound laborer of one’s neighbor. On the fiftieth year, there is to be an amnesty, private debts are cancelled, and he and his family are to be returned to their previous status in society. Why? Again the Torah reminds us: “For they are My servants, who I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.” [Lev. 25:42]

Henry George (1839-1897) was an American politician and economist who sourced from the Bible the inspiration for his economic philosophy. He wrote:

“Moses saw that the real cause of the enslavement of the masses in Egypt was what has everywhere produced enslavement, the possession by a class of the land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership… would be inevitably to separate people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave labor… Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator… which no one has the right to monopolize… [Moses] tried hard to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotism… the wrong that is already filling American cities… There are many who believe that the Mosaic institutions were literally dictated by the Almighty, yet who would denounce as irreligious and ‘communistic’ any application of their spirit to the present day.”

Henry George might not have known it but he was also both a rabbi and a visionary. He powerfully captured the Torah’s warning against economic monopolies, against the concentration of financial power into too few hands which, inexorably, leads to the loss of the very freedom proclaimed by the Liberty Bell. Most critically, he recognized the Torah’s warning against creating societies devoid of Spirit, overrun by deified egos mainly concerned with securing the wealth and liberties of the few over the many. Ultimately, the “liberty” that Torah insists on and the Bell underscores is that which comes from wealth-redistribution and greater economic equality “throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Torah Reflections – May 15-21, 2016

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

 

What we Celebrate Defines Who we Are
In our weekly Torah reading we find the list of holidays to be celebrated by the Israelites on a yearly basis. This annual cycle of celebrations sets a beautiful frame for a life punctuated by spiritual encounters. Torah calls them “Moadei YHVHappointed-times of the Eternal.” [Lev. 23:2] Throughout the year we have appointments with God, meetings with Spirit. And each appointment is set with a different spiritual theme; a theme that is meant to support the deepening of the varying facets of our inner personal work. In the spring, Passover calls us to free ourselves from our habituated life. Then, for seven weeks, the Counting of the Omer invites us to purify ourselves and subdue our egos. On the fiftieth day we re-enact the moment of Revelation, place ourselves back at Sinai and receive the Torah all over again. We seek, that day, to drop beyond the self and know the still small voice of the One that is our voice. The summer months are spent in preparation for the High Holy Days; a time to forgive and a time to make amends, a time to clean house and heal both within and without. Yom Kippur itself is a death rehearsal where we let go of our physical self. Sukkot, which immediately follows in the fall, is a time to harvest the energies of the High Holy Days and place ourselves again in the cycle of life, immersed in nature, and celebrating the Divine in the abundance of all Its earthly manifestations. Then winter comes, and all goes dormant until next Passover. Beyond the biblical holidays, other celebrations were added to the calendar later on; namely Chanukah and Purim, which are both winter holidays and are not considered moadei YHVH, appointments with God. The energies of these holidays are strikingly different than their predecessors. Both are militaristic in nature, both are stories of resistance, political maneuvering, revolt and military triumph. In those days, our people felt the need to celebrate a different kind of miracle, a different kind of story. Uprooted from our ancestral land we needed to tell a different myth, reinvent ourselves, share a different hope for tomorrow.

In truth, there is something powerful about what it is we, as a people, celebrate; because what we celebrate defines who we are, not only as a nation but also as individuals participating in the unfolding of this national story. Take a look at the U.S. for example. What are the moadim, the appointed times of our secular calendar? As a nation we celebrate (in the order they were nationally decreed) holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday (a.k.a. President’s Day), Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Columbus Day and more recently, Martin Luther King Day. Out of these eight holidays, three are connected to war, three celebrate individuals who changed the course of U.S. history, one celebrates blue collar workers and their families, and one celebrates the bountifulness of America’s land. This paints a portrait of who we are and what we most value as a nation; and that in turn—whether made conscious or not—informs how we act in the world and who we become. In other words, if it looks like you are celebrating war and individualism, then that’s what you are passing on as a value. We have a sacred responsibility, therefore, when the holidays come around to make the unconscious conscious; to have conversations about the deeper meanings behind the celebratory rituals, and to reinterpret them in order to make them our own—a very Jewish thing to do. It is each individual’s job to see to it that there be congruence between the values one wishes to manifest in their world and pass on, and the message of our celebrations. Memorial Day is just around the corner, what will you be celebrating that weekend?

Torah Reflections – May 8-14, 2016

Kedoshim

Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

 

A Holiness Code for Tomorrow
The concluding verses in last week’s Torah portion marked the beginning of what is known as the Holiness Code which continues this week and will span the rest of the Book of Leviticus. This Holiness Code is a code of conduct, a guide that seeks to define a powerful spiritual practice, a way of being and acting in the world for the Jewish people. This all-important text begins with:

 

…I am the Eternal One your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their traditions… You shall observe my decrees and regulations, through the practice of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal One. [Lev. 18:2-5]

 

This sets the tone for creating a Holiness Code that sets apart, that distinguishes the Jewish people from its Canaanite neighbors. In the early years of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan this made perfect sense. All of us too, in our formative years, have spent much energy shaping our unique identity by defining who we were based on what we were not; differentiating ourselves from the social norms, and adopting behaviors antithetical to those in place (see parents for details.) No wonder that the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, also means “separate.” In the formative years of the Jewish people, such a Holiness Code solidified a specific Jewish identity through unique practices that were antithetical, as well, to those in place in the land. Three thousand years later, however, does the Holiness Code and the Halacha as its offshoot still serve this purpose, or has it evolved to embody something else? In other words, should post-modern Jewish identity still be tied to a Holiness Code?

 

In our days, many see these biblical verses as God denouncing assimilation. They argue that the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing for having too readily adopted the culture and practices of their host nations. Abnegating the teachings of the Torah—the precepts and values of our tradition, the practices that make us unique and, therefore, separate—they claim, threatens our very survival. There are deep truths in their argument. In many aspects, the culture in which we live is far from being holy; it is violent, hyper-sexual, unjust, and altogether values-confused in many ways. We might, indeed, be better off sticking to our time-honored traditions, our Holiness Code, in order to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual compass. But does that mean that we, as Jews, are to remain stuck at a reactive teenage level of consciousness in order to continue defining our sense of identity in this global world?

 

Let’s be honest though, there is a plurality of ways to express one’s Jewish identity in the 21st century. In truth, there has always been a plurality of ways. While many preach the myth of the once-upon-a-time “one way” everyone was Jewish, this has never been the case in our 3000 year history. Perhaps, in our days, we have taken this pluralism a little too far, though, and our Judaism has become individualistic to the extreme—each of us picking and choosing from the Holiness Code what works best for our lifestyle but without being consistent with that either. Is what’s left still Judaism then, or have we hollowed it out so much that it is no longer recognizable as such?

 

The answer to these questions, I suspect, lies in the middle. Not in the rejection of modernity as a threat to Jewish survival and, consequently, a fearful withdrawal into the rigid container of the ancient Holiness Code. Not in the rejection of this Holiness Code altogether as irrelevant and passé and, consequently, cutting ourselves off from our Judaic heritage which for generations has gifted us a spiritual practice that has helped us live more ethical, loving, compassionate, values-centered, healing lives. No; our day calls for a re-interpretation of our Holiness Code, of our Halacha, in a way that would make it relevant to our post-modern global lives. And not just “relevant,” but essential to it. A spiritual discipline that would help bring balance to the multidimensionality of our exponentially complex global lives. Perhaps, contrary to the original biblical Holiness Code of Leviticus—which set out to separate the Israelites from their neighbors in a reactive way—this Holiness Code of tomorrow would set out to redefine an evolving Jewish spiritual practice that would proactively contribute to uniting the nations of the world as one diverse human race on one precious and fragile planet. And on that day, Kadosh, the Hebrew word for holiness would no longer be understood as “separate,” rather it would have to rise to a loftier meaning: that of “integrated.”