Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Let Your Heart Crack Open
Let Your Heart Crack Open
The Healing Power of Self-Awareness
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-
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 tzedek in 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.
Happiness Beyond Thought
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.
This is the power of a curse–or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.
So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.
But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator — to name but a few — and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and — most importantly — remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.
This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.
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.
When Korach Takes Over
We left the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land last week. Twelve tribal leaders, who had gone to scope out the Land, had come back. Ten against two, they advised not to enter into the Land, opting to remain in the wilderness. They argued that more time was needed to prepare. The people weren’t ready to let go of the spiritual retreat that the wilderness afforded. They wanted to stay in that wilderness state a little longer. Above all, they didn’t want to reenter the world, have to raise kids and go to work every day. They wanted spirituality divorced from everyday reality. They wanted more highs, more miracles, more ecstatic moments.
But these were the voices of Mitzrayim, of narrow consciousness, of addictive behavior; the voices of ego that always want more. These voices had turned the wilderness, their spiritual retreat itself, into another narrow place; because when the ego gets attached to wanting more highs, more spiritual experiences, the attachment itself becomes an insurmountable obstacle to experiencing them again, a new place of stuckness.
In the biblical myth, God understands that though He had taken the Hebrews out of Egypt, He didn’t succeed in taking Egypt out of the Hebrews. Therefore, He decrees that the generation of Israelites that were slaves in Egypt will have to die off in the wilderness; for only beings who had never known slavery could settle the Promised Land. You can imagine how pleased the Israelites were! As we open this week’s Torah portion a revolt erupts led by a member of the Levite tribe: Korach.
“The Hebrew root k-r-ch means ‘division’ or ‘split,’ and our Sages associate Korach…with these tendencies;” writes the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Likkutei Sichos. Korach is the quintessential splitting and dividing energies of ego. But, for the ego, it is “divide and conquer.” Not surprisingly, Korach and his followers attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron — who represent the higher levels of our awareness. The ego wants to take over; to go beyond what it is designed to do, and let its need for control spill over the many facets of our being. In Torah Moses answers Korach: “Hear me son of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart… and given you direct access to perform the duties of the Eternal…and to minister to the community and serve them? Now…you seek the priesthood too?” [Num. 16:8-10]
In Torah it is the voice of Moses that eventually wins the day. Korach ends up being swallowed by the earth at God’s command, and 250 of his followers consumed by Divine fire. But for most of us it is still the voice of ego that speaks the loudest in our lives, and which — most of the time — obscures the light of our True Self, our inner Moses. Our journey to the Promised Land takes work and takes time (though hopefully not 40 years). We, too, have to practice constantly and persistently to get Egypt out of ourselves. But if Torah is any measure of truth, spiritual practice will inevitably lead us back to that Land, the Land of our soul.
Why The Spies Were Wrong
This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!‘” [Num. 13:30]
I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders — wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses — be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.
The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones-indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy — leaving no time for Spirit — and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.
But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.
PS: Once a year I come to you asking those of you who are not members of Bet Alef — if you enjoy receiving and reading these (almost) weekly Reflections — to consider making a donation to the organization that strives to be the spiritual community I describe here-above, and, as such, supports me in making these Reflections available to you. Please go to our website, and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of your screen (as you scroll down). Thank you.
Knowing God vs. Playing God
The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood: “No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20] What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free?
The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read: “And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy-such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24] As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to achieve ego-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity — which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality — stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the façade, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest.
How can we, spiritual wrestlers of the 21st century — having long left behind the sacrificial cult — enter in relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalm offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart.” [Psalm 51:18-19] The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but awakening instead on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and human fallibility is embraced. Suddenly we are asked to acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection we hold for ourselves, our loved ones and our world too. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our life, we are not. Though we would like to mold our life, our world, and our loved ones in our image/vision, to create a world that would be an expression of our will, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God; and live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken, rather it is the klippot— the husks of illusion — that encircle it that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered; for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.
Drawing Closer Through Generosity
There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?
I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban“-translated as “sacrifice”-might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.
So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.
Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives-not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are-we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.
We Are Energy Bodies
This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, one way to bypass it is to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. This time, for a change, we find at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.
The second Torah portion of the two assigned to this week’s reading is called Metzora.
I am one of many who are convinced that, 2500 years ago, the Middle-East and the Far-East were already intimately connected. Trade routes crossed through the known world from China and India, all the way to Egypt. Spiritual practices and healing techniques traveled along these routes as well. I checked in with friends, professionals in the arts of Chinese medicine, and asked them what was likely commonly known about the connections for these places on the body: ear, thumb and big toe.
The acupuncture chart for the ear reveals that its center ridge is directly related to skin diseases. The thumb point is the last point of the lung energy channel. The lung and large intestine are the organs containing the metal element in the body, and the tissue ruled by metal is the skin. So skin ailments are often considered to have lung and/or large intestine involvement. The big toe’s outside corner of the nail is the Spleen channel (digestion, absorption, assimilation of food/ideas/events; related to the earth, to harvest time;) and the inside corner is the liver channel (harmonization and smooth flow of energy; related to springtime, vision and hope) — all linked to energetic imbalances expressed as inflammatory responses of the skin.
What our sages understood then, and we have lost touch with since, is that we are energy bodies. The Temple Priests practiced acupressure as a form of healing 2500 years ago because they knew our bodies were channels for the flow of Divine energy. They understood the energy lines that course through us, and saw each spiritual practice as a way to bring balance to the energy body. In fact, our sages divided the traditional 613mitzvot/commandments into two groups: 248 were connected to what they saw as the 248 organs of our bodies, and 365 were connected to what they saw as the sinews or tendons, nerve connectors. Performing the mitzvot was not only a way to heal the world “out there,” to bring harmony into society; it was a way to heal our inner energetic world, to bring it into balance. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim these ancient practices, to shift our vision of the embodied beings we are to more holistic, integrated, multidimensional selves, and work through our prayers, our chants, our meditations, our songs and our spiritual practices to bring our energy bodies into greater wholeness, greater harmony, greater shalom.
Canceled - Adult Sukkot Workshop
Simchat Torah Dinner
History of Zionism
Whether you come for every Shabbat and workshop or just once a year, our community is only sustainable thanks to your ongoing financial support.
Bet Alef will receive 5.25% of your purchase any time you buy anything from Amazon using this link to Amazon, through our website, and you're helping Bet Alef!
© Copyright 2011 · Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue · 206-527-9399 · All Rights Reserved ·