Torah Reflections – December 7-13, 2014

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

You Make a Difference                               

Reuben is a character that is mostly overlooked in these weeks’ Torah portions dominated by the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn son, from his first wife, Leah. Technically, he is the one in line to inherit the Abrahamic promise from his father, and the one through which the lineage must continue. Only technically, though. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was the result of a trick his father-in-law played on him, forcing him to marry his firstborn daughter before allowing him to marry Rachel, his second born, whom Jacob loved and desired. Leah is the unloved unwanted first wife of Jacob; Rachel is the love of his life. Rachel’s firstborn son is Joseph; and — as we learn from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion — Jacob “loved Joseph best of all his sons… and he made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him…” [Gen. 37:3-4]

Reuben’s relationship to Joseph was most complicated. On the one hand Joseph was Reuben’s direct rival when it came to family preeminence, which gave him an added reason to hate him. On the other hand, as the eldest son, Reuben was responsible to his father for Joseph’s and all the brothers’ well-being. This complex relationship comes to a head in this week’s Torah portion as the brothers, fueled by their hatred and jealousy, resolve to kill Joseph. “But when Reuben heard it, he saved him from their hands saying: ‘Let us not take his life… Shed no blood! Cast him into this pit, [here] in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand against him’-intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” [Gen. 37:21-22] At first, the brothers obey. But no sooner than Reuben’s back is turned, do they sell Joseph to a passing caravan of slave dealers on its way down to Egypt. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes” as a sign of deep grieving and, believing that Joseph was dead, cried out: “The boy is gone; where am I to go?” [Gen.37:29-30]

Reuben’s despair at the thought of Joseph’s death is deeply moving, especially knowing that he had the most to benefit from his step-brother’s disappearance. But that doesn’t even enter Reuben’s consciousness. His single focus was that his standing up for what was right — saving Joseph’s life — ended in failure. He wasn’t able to prevail and create change. Joseph had died. The reader knows, however, that Reuben’s intervention had immeasurable impact. Indeed, according to the story, saving Joseph changes the course of history.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for all of us. So many of us are working to impact change, to make a difference. Seldom do we see the results of our hard work and are able to celebrate our victories. Often we despair at how little change we actually witness with our own eyes. Perhaps we, like Reuben, are attached to a certain outcome, and are often blind to seeing results when change manifests itself in ways we don’t expect or recognize. Perhaps what we set in motion ends up bearing fruit only after we have already moved on. We made a difference, yet we don’t know we have. But this not knowing need never prevent us from doing what is right; and neither should our being met with resistance, anger or even contempt.

What we learn from Reuben, ultimately, is that “right action” is always ego-less. Had he listened to his ego he would have sided with his brothers and killed Joseph. But when our ego is set aside, the place from which we act is always a place of compassion and care. Operating from this place, the fullest integrity of our being is allowed to express. We let go of our need to control the outcome, and make our actions a true offering of selfless love. And that, more than anything else, is what truly makes a difference.

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Torah Reflections December 30 – November 6, 2014

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Awakening Beyond Silence

One of the first revelations that meditation allows is one’s encounter with the unbelievable noise which lies within us, right behind our closed eyes. As if by magic, as soon as our eyes are closed an onslaught of thoughts comes rushing in. As our practice progresses, however, we realize that the thoughts themselves are always there, endlessly parading in our consciousness. But our inward meditative gazing makes us increasingly aware of their loud incessant presence. One specific exercise that meditators can do is to journal one’s meditative experience, try and classify the types of thoughts arising in awareness through each meditation in order to get a sense of the different patterns of one’s conditioned mind. Some report that most of their thinking is spent in rehearsing conversations for example; past conversations or anticipated conversations. Personally, I find that my mind is most interested in planning and organizing.

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion reminded me of my meditations. The story begins as Jacob is now on his way back from his 20 year exile in Haran, hours before his feared confrontation with his brother Esau who had vowed to kill him. So striking is the resemblance to my inner states of consciousness while meditating that I suspect that the first 30 verses of this Torah portion (Gen. 32:4-33) are but the transcript of Jacob’s meditation journal.

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

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

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

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

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

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Torah Reflections – November 16 – 22, 2014

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Inward Bound                    

There is a popular ice-breaker I often use to start a workshop or a meeting. I ask the people present, as they introduce themselves to the group, to add before their name an adjective that reflects who they are in the moment; like “Happy Henry” for example. If Isaac, the central character of this week’s Torah portion, was part of this group, I suspect he would say: “Silent Isaac.” It is striking to see how much of his life is about silence.

His childhood, itself, is a deafening silence. Isaac is the child of his parents’ old age, impacted by the overprotecting presence of his mother and his near sacrifice at the hand of his own father, Abraham. As the child of these two formidable figures, a rather imposing shadow is cast upon him. Perhaps, as a consequence, Isaac turns out to be more of a reserved quiet character. He doesn’t even have a say in choosing his own wife. The core of his life — spanning one pithy 35-verse chapter — virtually duplicates Abraham’s. Even when God talks to him, it is always in the name of God’s relationship with his father. Case in point: Gen. 26:24, God addresses Isaac saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you! I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of my servant Abraham.” Next verse, Isaac is already old and nearly blind. Here, he is tricked by his wife, Rebeccah — who merely carries out the plans God had revealed to her and not to him — into giving his blessing to his second-born son, Jacob, instead of Esau, the first-born and rightful heir. After that the rest of his life is a mere silent footnote to Jacob’s story.

But is Isaac really the anti-hero that the Torah seems to portray? It is natural to think so because, in a narrative, we get attached to those characters and those stories that contribute actively to move the plot forward, and pay less attention to the ones who, less active, are in fact the glue holding it all together. Isaac is that character. He is less active and more meditative. I posit that meditation is, actually, what defines him in the second half of his life. At the threshold of this new stage, just before meeting Rebeccah for the first time, last week’s Torah portion read:

Now Isaac went out to meditate in the field around the turning of sunset. [Gen. 24:63]

There and then, something was “turning” in his life; Isaac the self-reflective meditator was being born. And that this transformative moment took place “in the field” is not random. Isaac is the quiet force through whom deep roots are planted in the land that was promised to Abraham. It is not a mistake that Torah describes him as a well-digger and a seed-sower. Isaac is the bridge, the effaced stabilizing power. He draws his strength from being a survivor, from being able, time after time, to accept what is, to accept what was: the power of an accomplished meditator. Isaac becomes a man of peace who fully embraces and carries forward the faith of his father. He is the quintessential second generation persona, whose role is to ground and transmit the teachings of the previous generation to the next one.

Isaac might represent this time in our journey when we feel the need to move into a more self-reflective, inward gazing space. This might be a time when we are seeking more silence and seclusion. There is a depth of being to be found in silence. In its presence we are able to better ground ourselves and put together the parts of our lives which might have come unglued. In that silence we are able to meet the quiet force within, giving roots to our life experience, and sowing new seeds for a future awakening to a higher, more inclusive, level of consciousness.

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Torah Reflections – November 9-15, 2014

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
I originally posted these Reflections on Chayei Sarah last year. They are, today, more relevant to me than ever before, and seem to capture perfectly where I currently find myself on this amazing spiritual journey that accompanies my recovering process.  — Rabbi Olivier.

Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread                            

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah, says a midrash.  This midrash comes to fill-in the blank space between the end of last week’s Torah portion and the beginning of this week’s. It describes Sarah being told that Abraham had taken her son Isaac, and had slaughtered him; offering him up on an altar as a sacrifice: “Sarah began to cry and moan the sounds of three wails that are the three blasts of the shofar. And her soul burst forth from her and she died.” Thus begins our weekly reading: with Sarah’s sudden death.
I found an arresting footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) on this first verse; a statement attributed to commentator Avivah Zornberg. Sarah’s death, according to the note, “is a reflection of her inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” Zornberg’s statement is one of existential nature par excellence. It points to this fragile place within us that seems to require that there be meaning, predictability and safety in our life. Sarah, faced with such dreadful fate, is robbed of all three all at once, and finds herself unable to sustain such a loss. The emotional pain is so unbearable that “her soul burst out forth from her.”

We all know this place within. All our lives are about making meaning out of our circumstances. We are the greatest commentators of the Torah that is our life, ascribing meaning to the most mundane of events.  We yearn for meaningful relationships, seek meaningful work, want meaningful experiences. Yet we want it all to be as predictable as possible — afraid as we are of what we cannot foresee. And we want it all to unfailingly fall within the framework of our expectations. We want to be fully in control of the predictably unfolding meaningful life we expect to live. We, for sure, never want to feel that “life hangs by… a fragile thread.” Our greatest fear is to find ourselves in Sarah’s shoes, overwhelmed by tragedy, faced with the emptiness of a meaningless life. But isn’t this very fear what is preventing us from truly being alive in the first place?

What if we lived tomorrow holding in consciousness that, indeed, “life hangs by… a fragile thread;” alive in this moment, and perhaps dead the next? How precious each instant would become! How miraculous each breath! Perhaps our greatest delusion is our belief that life ought to be predictable, safe and meaningful. But meaning is constructed based on an anticipation of the future and the reconstruction of the past. We plan for tomorrow’s meaningful events so that we can document them thoroughly in order to create meaningful memories. Meaning is never of the “now.” Now is happening now, raw and immediate, alive and dead in an instant; a fragile exhilarating thread pulsating between what isn’t yet and what no longer is. Now is all we have. Now resides in a place inherently empty of meaning, explanation, justification, right or wrong, better or worse. Now is the place where we can be fully alive, blissful beyond our wildest thoughts.

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah. It is there not to cause us to wallow in the frightful suffering of an “unreliable world,” but to remind us to break free from the fear that strangles our ability to be fully alive now.
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Torah Reflections – November 2 – 8, 2014

Vayeira

Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

Beyond Our Need For Justice                         

In his life storyline, Abraham has not always risen to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story his worthy of praise: his standing up to God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham remained standing before the Eternal…then came forward and said: “Will You in anger sweep away the innocent with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?[Gen. 18:22-25]

What a powerful question to ask! Our entire Western Civilization is, indeed, founded on the answer to this question. We need to know that God acts justly. If we are going to project onto a God “out there” infinite omnipotent power, we want reassurance that He will use it for good and not do so indiscriminately or whimsically. Though God never responds to Abraham in our story, we have assumed since biblical times that God’s answer couldn’t have been anything other than a thundering “Yes He must! Absolutely. Unquestionably.”

And since we have continued to witness injustice in our world, since we have continued to see the innocent suffer in every generation, we have resolved to either blame it on the victim’s own necessary wickedness (even when the victim is us,) or to externalize this punishing aspect of God and place it onto God’s made-up alter ego: Satan or the devil. So that when bad things happen to me or to others, it is either my fault, theirs, or the devil’s fault. But it is certainly never God’s fault. And if we know ourselves or the others to be good and innocent, then the suffering we bear or witness around us is simply held as being beyond our limited comprehension; that, obviously, God has a greater (just) purpose which will eventually be revealed in a distant future. Because God acts justly, always!

It is our concept of a God exclusively “out there,” transcendent and otherworldly, that pushes us to become intellectual contortionists in order to fit our narrow idea of what the Divine is into the box of our own limitations and egotistical needs. But when we no longer limit God to otherworldly status, when we follow the Jewish mystics, and open ourselves up to also seeing the Shechinah (the indwelling Presence of God) awakening in/through/as all of Creation, and recognize the inner spark of the Divine within us and within every sentient being, then we can free God from the claustrophobic walls of His exclusionary box. Then we can say with the Chasidic Masters that there is no one, no when, no where, nothing that God is not. God awakens as light and shadow, good and evil, justice and injustice. No wonder God does not answer Abraham’s question; he might not have been able to handle “Yes and no” as an answer. But can we? Can we stop needing our world to be always just?

Can we live our lives being accepting of injustice? Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffers and the wicked thrives? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we then let go of our anger, our resentments, and our need to punish the other? Can we take responsibility for our wrongs and hold others accountable for theirs, while acknowledging that in all of us — as expressions of the One — is the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we yet still — as channels of the deepest love — take a stand for justice, imprison the murderer, be a voice for the voiceless and act passionately toward healing our world, but without ever being attached to any particular outcome? Can we act justly “lish’ma – for its own sake,” without expectations, without preferred end result, just because? When we do, then we will no longer need God or our world to conform to our egos’ needs and wants. And then, perhaps, will we be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.

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Torah Reflections – October 12 – 18, 2014

Bereishit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

In The Image of God                        

As the Torah scroll is open once more to its very first word, and the annual cycle of our Torah study begins again, we are immediately plunged into the grand story of creation of sacred space. In the opening verses of Torah, the Transcendent Emptiness, the Un-manifest aspect of the Divine, begins a process of manifesting Itself as Sacred Space, as concentric circles upon concentric circles of Sacred Space from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small.

At the end of this process, last in the Creation account, mankind is formed. Some commentators read this as a teaching in humility, reminding us in the moments when our ego becomes over-inflated, that we were — after all — created after the worms. Others read into this order that mankind is the apex of Creation. I believe that both are true. Regardless, however, of how we interpret this passage, our own process of spiritual evolution — a process designed to lead us from the exclusive identification with the finite small separate self, toward an awakening to the infinite Being that we are — begins inevitably with introspection; begins with remembering that — though created last — we, too, are Divine Sacred Space. This is what our Torah portion expresses so beautifully in recounting God’s fashioning the androgynous Adam, the prototypical human being:

God [thus] created Adam in Its image. (Gen. 1:27)

 All of us are created as an image, as an expression of the Divine; an expression in the realm of Creation of the un-manifest One. All of us are a unique manifestation of the Divine, a unique embodiment of the Formless. It is not so much that God is to be found only in the remote corner of our heart, or as the still small voice in the deepest recess of our soul; rather, God fills our entire being. God is every cell of our body, every thought, emotion, sensation, or desire we have ever experienced — the totality of who we are. We are Sacred Space.

As individuals and as a community, we value the diversity of all sacred forms through which the Eternal One manifests. We seek to become increasingly able to recognize the Divine Presence behind the eyes of all those we meet. We look to stand as bridges when the world offers energies of separateness, of isolation, of division. When met with intolerance, we seek to offer compassion; and when confronted with clinched fists, to respond with an open heart. We work toward easing the suffering of all sacred beings, toward ending poverty, racism, bigotry, prejudice, and violence both in our own neighborhoods and throughout the world.

If this is something you value then perhaps, as this new yearly cycle begins, this might be an opportunity to examine whether you are acting in your world and toward yourself in a way that is congruent with these beliefs. Are you treating your body as sacred? Are you still challenging your mind to learn beyond the already known concepts and theories? Are you carving enough time out of your day for your spirit? Are your actions aligned with your values? Self-awareness is always the first step toward personal growth, toward opening our heart to the Divine manifesting in every heart.

The High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, our Torah recounts, wore on his forehead a plate of pure gold where the words “Holy to God” were engraved in a way that he would see them reflected on the forehead of all those he met. May we, like the High Priest, know these words to be imprinted on the forehead of all the people in our lives, may we awaken to the holiness that we are, and treat ourselves — body, mind and spirit — and each other as Sacred Space.

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Torah Reflections – September 7 to 13, 2014

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open     

This week’s Torah portion begins:

When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving your as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place that the Eternal your God chooses to have His name dwell… You shall then recite [a prayer] before the Eternal your God… You shall leave [the basket] before the Eternal your God and bow low in the Presence of the Eternal your God. [Deut.26:1-10]

With only days separating us from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Torah is laying out for us a threefold path to meet the moment in its fullness: bring a basket of your fruit, pray and bow. Though in our time we no longer come to moments of solemn convocation such as the High Holy Days with baskets of fruit from our land, today’s equivalent might be engaging in these awe-inspiring holidays by bringing to them the honest assessment of our personal work this past year, the true fruits of our personal harvest.

But what about prayer? For many of us, the experience of prayer — especially during the High Holy Days — consists of reading pages and pages of prescribed formulas that only come to life for us because of the familiarity of the melodies that accompany them. And so our challenge, this year again, is to enter into prayer on these High Holy Days with a different intention, a different goal; that of letting our heart crack open. The Kaballah describes our hearts as being sheathed by klippot, husks or shells. Our mystics teach that through the practice of mitzvot (mindful living,) meditation, and focused prayer; one is able to incrementally open one’s heart and uncover the Divine sparks hidden within.

It is our task to come to these upcoming High Holy Days with such kavanah, with such purpose; to bypass our ego’s natural resistance to doing the inner work at hand, and enter into prayer with both humility and receptivity, and “bow low in the Presence of the Eternal.” True prayer is that which is allowed to flow from the heart, not from the mind. Merely repeating words from a prayer book won’t do. We are to enter into prayer the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav did; engaging God in raw, unadulterated straight talk — the way one would with a best friend — honestly, sincerely, and genuinely. Through the deep surrender and profound letting go that accompany such an experience, we can breach the shells around our heart and discover, through the fissures, the light of Being, the light of Love and Compassion bursting forth from within.

I offer that we come to the High Holy Days with the basket of our life-review in hand and, on our lips, just one humble prayer: “Ein Banu Maasim” – “Holy One, we have too few good deeds.” I suspect that with our bowing, in that space of profound humility, we will find the tightening around our heart begin to release, and our words, steeped in the light of Love, will be carried along to reach the soul-level. There, liberated from the stranglehold of the ego on our life, we will be able to open ourselves to the possibility of deep transformation.

 

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Torah Reflections – August 31 to September 6, 2014

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

Wrestling With The Uncomfortable   

Each year, when I meet Ki Teitzei – this week’s Torah portion — I come to realize again why so many people are moved to altogether abandon any kind of religious pursuit. Though we find many uplifting verses about ethical living for a 2500 year old society, some of what we read in this portion goes squarely against our most basic modern sensitivities. Laws surrounding instances of rape are among the most disturbing to us. They not only negate the fundamental rights of women, but often compound the woman’s suffering as the sentencing punishes both the perpetrator and the victim.

What do we, citizens of the 21st century, do with such a Torah portion? Some of us would like to simply take out these passages and only keep the ones that align with our current worldviews. Some suggest more extreme action: to simply discard the Torah as an obsolete anachronistic relic. Yet were we to follow the path of editing out distasteful passages in every generation, there wouldn’t be much left of the text after 2500 years. Torah would be so diminished that it would be unrecognizable and we would lose our rootedness in a shared spiritual document.

The problem with these responses stems from their premise. They both assume that religion or spirituality should be exclusively about “the good stuff:” love, compassion, and kindness. Our reaction to a Torah portion like this is a reflection of such a worldview. We start with the expectation that our lives and our world ought to be good, loving, and nice. We become resentful when our reality doesn’t meet these impossible expectations. So, we surmise, if we can’t find that in the “real world” then, at least, spirituality must be the place to uncover this elusive goodness and yearned-for love. We find ourselves attracted to the spiritual teachers and gurus who preach messages of love and light, and become addicted to simplistic platitudes. But as they continue to sell us on what our ego wants to hear, we allow ourselves to be lulled into an ever deeper slumber. And that is not true spirituality.

True spirituality is like Torah when Torah reflects back to us the unsavory parts of the universal ego as well. Torah, as it is, is an expression of our human condition in all its verses, and our discomfort with it speaks to our own biases. Our engaging with Torah shouldn’t be solely about uncovering the good and the light in it. Our wrestling with the text needs to push us to grapple with the shadow and the darkness embedded within as well. To only want the light is imbalanced and dangerous. In truth, light is most needed when confronting darkness, not ignoring it. Loving when the world is hateful, having compassion when society is telling us to be narcissistic, expressing kindness when all around us is callousness and carelessness, and knowing that we, too, harbor both sides of each divide; that’s true spirituality.

In our necessarily tumultuous relationship with Torah we learn to be with what is, as it presents itself to us. We learn to choose it all, welcome it all; to reject nothing, cut out nothing. Most importantly we learn to wrestle with what makes us uncomfortable, to know ourselves in all our light and our darkness in order that we might, ultimately, transcend our self. Such is the journey and such is the path of Torah.

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Torah Reflections – August 24 to 30, 2014

Shof’tim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness  

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.

But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’s Torah portion — which inaugurates the month of Elul each year  — give us instructions in regard to this inner process:

 

You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. [Deut. 16:19-20]

 

Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.

And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedekin Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.

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Torah Reflections – August 17-23, 2014

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Waking up From Our Collective Amnesia

See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, that I enjoin upon you today; and the curse if you do not listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way that I enjoin upon you today… [Deut. 11:26-28]

In light of the ongoing wars, unspeakable violence, racism and hatred that seem to be defining the first decades of the 21st century, these opening verses from our weekly Torah portion appear to us as a dire prophetic warning. We look out at our world and wonder how far we have already “turned aside” from the way of Spirit, and if there is a path to trace back, to reorient ourselves.

In truth, what we are seeing out there in the world isn’t new — though it is unfolding on a greater scale and with more sophisticated weaponry than ever before — but it is happening because we, as a human race, suffer from collective amnesia. And what we have forgotten — and keep forgetting — is that not only are we not separate from one another, but that every being (and every thing) is but an expression of the One. “You are children of the Holy One” [Deut. 14:1] the Torah reminds us this week.

Why do we forget? Because the Unity of Being is hidden from the eyes of the ego. The ego looks out and all it sees is separation, differences and polarities. It looks at the infinite spectrum of colors in the rainbow of Creation and forgets that each one of them is but an expression, a refraction of the one Divine White Light. But how can we awaken to the White Light when all our senses only register the variegated colors of the rainbow?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a Chasidic master of 19th Century Poland, offers an answer through one of the most powerful commentaries on these first two verses of this week’s Torah portion.

In everything there is a living point from the Life of Life. But that inwardness lies hidden in this world. [One] has to arouse and reveal this inwardness that lies within all things by means of the mitzvot… Through the mitzvot we bring all our deeds near to [the One]…

The rebbe’s answer is that only through our spiritual practices do we stand a chance to remember, to wake up from our amnesia. We bring ourselves to remember time and time again by keeping conscious company (Torah,) through a disciplined daily spiritual practice (Avodah,) and by acting mindfully and compassionately in our world (Gemilut Chasadim.) This way, we increase our capacity to see the One within every one and every thing more and more often and for longer periods of time.

But the rebbe goes one step further:

Each person has to give light to the inner point, which is as though in prison until we have the strength to light up its darkness. This point is itself ‘the blessing, that you listen…..’ When you attach yourself to the point within each thing, you will come to see that it is the blessing. Then, indeed, “see” — by negating yourself before the point.

Realizing the Oneness of Being alight in every one and every thing leads one — if one has “the strength” and fierce determination to do so — to “give light” to one’s own “inner point,” and “see” oneself, as well, as an expression of that Divine Light. In the process, however, the existence of the separate sense of self — root of our forgetfulness — is negated and dissolves in the blessing of awakening to the One “inner point” of Light that is our Source.

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