Torah Reflections – May 3 – 9, 2015

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

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.

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Torah Reflections – April 26 – May 2, 2015

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

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.

 

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Torah Reflections – April 19 – 25, 2015

Tazria – Metzora

Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

 

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.

In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about?

 

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.

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Torah Reflections – April 12 – 18, 2015

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

 

Merging With The Light

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Passover Reflections – March 22 – 28, 2015

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

 

Mah Nish’tanah? What Has Changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus two weeks ago, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. In 2010 I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few: 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

PS:

There are copies of the Bet Alef Haggadah available to anyone who needs one for the first Seder, for a small donation to cover printing and mailing costs. Contact Rachel in the office.

Make sure you attend our Community Passover Seder, Saturday April 4th, and join us in exploring the deeper mystical teachings embedded in the Haggadah, in this tale of personal liberation. Click here to register.

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Torah Reflections – March 8 – 14, 2015

Vayak’hel – Pekudei

Exodus 38:21 – 40:38

Practices on The Way to Sinai                         

                   

This week’s Torah portion brings the book of Exodus to a close. On the surface, these past weeks told the story of our Exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim) and our experience at Sinai; yet at a deeper level, the text speaks of a spiritual journey of awakening. The wordMitzrayim can also be understood as meaning “narrow places” (of consciousness).Mitzrayim represents the self-centered contracted awareness. Conversely, Sinai symbolizes the inner space of freedom, of expanded awareness where we are able to experience Revelation and meet God. The inner journey from one to the other is one of dis-identification from our enslaving conditioned mind, from our ego; and of awakening to the One that is All. But how can we, today, retrace the steps of our ancestors in order to glean such an expanded awareness?

 

Our Torah portion begins:

 

These are the accountings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony that were accounted by Moses for the labor of the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aharon the priest. [Exod. 38:21]

 

What we are called to do, in the concluding verses of Exodus, is to build a Tabernacle; a sanctuary wherein we will be able to worship our newly revealed God. We have journeyed from a place of slavery under the whip of Pharaoh in Egypt, to “labor” toward creating a place of worship under the thundercloud of God at Sinai. Interestingly, the word for “slavery” in Hebrew shares the same root as the word for “labor” and the word for “worship;” respectively: av’dut, avodah, and avodah again. There is a fourth word sharing this same root; the word for “service” (also avodah). So what is the Hebrew hinting at here?

 

First and foremost, if a language conveys the deepest values of a people, then we can see that, since biblical times, the Hebrews considered Avodah/service to be mankind’s ultimate purpose. As far as Judaism is concerned, to serve is our primary reason for being; not the pursuit of happiness. And so our journey from av’dut to avodah, from slavery to Divine Work can be seen as a journey of expanding service. It begins with the awareness that we are stuck in serving (or even worshiping) the every whim of our ego, unconsciously acting out the trappings of our conditioned mind. It continues with shifting the object of our service from self to other, to all others, to planet, and ultimately to God or Life. In transforming the work/labor that is our life to becoming one of service, we are able to dis-identify with the constricted ego-personality and sense into God’s Presence not only in the other’s eyes but in the world that envelops us.

 

Torah’s subtle injunction might be: be of service to your loved ones, your neighbors, your co-workers. Be of service to your community and beyond your community. Serve to bring peace, and understanding between nations and religions. Serve to heal the ecosystem both locally and globally. Become the peaceful steward of the earth. Why? Because the path of service — from av’dut to avodah — is one of the paths that lead from Egypt to Sinai, enabling us to evolve from ego-consciousness to God-consciousness; and from this place, to know the world to be an all-embracing sacred Tabernacle.

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Torah Reflections – February 22-28, 2015

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One                                   

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

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

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

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

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

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Torah Reflections – February 15-21, 2015

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

 

Creating an Inner Sanctuary                                      

This week’s Torah portion opens with the famous verse: “V’asu Li mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham,” usually translated: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Though from this verse forward the entire portion enunciates God’s directions to building a Tabernacle in the wilderness in tedious detail, we read the text not as an Ikea book of instructions for assembling an actual structure in the Sinai desert, but as a blueprint to create a mishkan, a sanctuary within. Our translation of this verse in Exodus varies, therefore, from the common understanding. We take it to mean: “Let them create an inner sacred space that I might dwell within them.” But how are we to create this inner sacred space?

Our rabbis offer us a four-step approach. The first step, the foundation of this inner structure, is called Hoda’ah — thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Every morning, as we first wake-up, we are to acknowledge the Divine nature of Existence and the unfathomable gift of yet another day, by simply saying the words of the Modeh Ani. This attitude of thankfulness is a prerequisite to worship, to any ritualistic act and to any legal practice. And this is where we start; with an opening of the heart, with a sense of awe for the miracle of Creation. This attitude of thanksgiving is coupled with an acceptance of our role as surrendered participants in the unfolding of Creation called in Hebrew Kabbalat Ol. Both lay, together, the foundation of our inner sanctuary.

The second step, the walls of our inner mishkan, is called AvodahAvodah means work; in this case, spiritual work. Our spiritual work or practice is the natural expression of the foundation of our inner temple. For some of us it manifests through prayer and uttering words of blessings in every possible occasion; for others it means setting time aside to meditate each day; for others, it means immersing ourselves in nature as often as possible. Whatever our primary spiritual practice; this is Avodah; and no inner temple can be built without actively engaging in practice.

The third step, the coverings of your inner temple, is Torah. Torah, in this case, doesn’t refer to the five books of Moses, but is understood in its etymological sense meaning “Teaching.” Learning in general is a modality that supports growth in consciousness by expanding our awareness to include a plurality of thoughts and perspectives. But the study of spiritual text, in particular, is essential in our tradition, for it is seen as the doorway from the material world into the soul, and from the soul out to the material world. On one hand study opens our minds to understanding what lies beyond the narrow confines of our current worldview, our current truths, and allows us to continue to grow and evolve. On the other hand, study gives us the ability to live a principled-centered life and manifest in our world the highest spiritual teachings available to us.

And this leads me to our last step, which has to do not with the structure itself, but rather with the purpose this structure serves: Gemilut Chasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness. There is no point in creating an inner mishkan, our sages say, if it doesn’t lead us to performing right acts, to transforming ourselves into the loving and kind beings we know ourselves to be, and bring these energies into our world through our actions. Spirituality without action, as our rabbis point out, is for naught.

Surrendered gratitude, spiritual practice, life-long learning, and acts of Loving-Kindness are the foundation, the walls, the coverings and the purpose of our inner sanctuary. It is a sanctuary that not only is ever-changing, growing and evolving, but that ultimately remains forever unfinished.

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Torah Reflections – February 8 – 14, 2015

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Our Highest Spiritual Principles                   

When a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:35-36]

These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Though taken at the literal level, these rules might appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives (who among us owns an ox anymore?); they are, at a deeper level, far more than simple rules and legislations.

Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st century concepts: When a corporation (call it BP for argument sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the cleaning up costs. Going further with the second verse: If it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for 2 prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area back to its pristine state.

The same goes for peoples’ behavior.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned… but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner too, shall be put to death.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:28-29]

To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a university coach abuses a neighbor’s son, the coach shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that coach had been in the habit of abusing young boys for many years, and his superior, though aware, had failed to restrain him, the coach is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story everyday; in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our work places and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principals that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses, speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.

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Torah Reflections – February 1-7, 2015

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief                           

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Torah Studies, p.107]

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

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