Torah Reflections – August 21 – 27, 2016

Eikev

Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Truth and Love

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections – August 14 – 20, 2016

Va-Et’chanan

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Because Love is our Natural State

 

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections – August 3 – 13, 2016

Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

The Power of Spiritual Transmission

 

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

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

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

A Letter From Interfaith Climate Action

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

By Keith Ervin and Harriet Platts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Reduce carbon emissions;

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

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

 

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

For more information visit the website yeson732.org.

Torah Reflections – July 10-16, 2016

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth  

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

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

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

Torah Reflections – July 3-9, 2016

Korach


Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Do You Believe in Free Will?

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

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

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

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

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