Interfaith Trip To Israel_Day Four

There was a time in my life when I was powerfully attracted by the possibility of living on a kibbutz. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country called Beit HaShitah. I fell in love with the place and the way of life. Something about the idea of working as part of a community toward a shared goal, of living outdoors and doing physical work, of breaking free from the individualistic capitalist lifestyle that the socialist-anarchist in me rejected. It felt ego-less, humble and simple; a sort of modern monastic life. I was religious at the time so I imagined my life on a religious kibbutz would be split between praying to my God and tending the earth. What better combo? I also imagined I would probably join one of the kibbutzim by the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert as I always loved being there.

Obviously I never made it happen. It remained an unfulfilled desire that I filed under “Idealistic Aspirations of Youth” in one of the drawers of my life story. Today, as we toured Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu on the bank of the Jordan river a few hundred yards north of the border with Autonomous Palestine, that desire got reactivated. Maybe this time, however, because of the turmoil in our world today, this was more about escapism than idealism. A part of me dreamt again, for a moment, of disconnecting from everything and returning to a simpler way of being. After all, it used to be that if you lived on a kibbutz, all your basic needs were taken care of. You didn’t own anything as everything belonged to the community, but you didn’t have to worry about anything either. In the first few minutes of walking through this kibbutz today that felt really right and enticing. Who needs to go back to “civilization” and why would anyone want to be a part of it? Beni, the Kibbutz member that was assigned to be our guide, showed us how over the last couple of decades, Sde Eliyahu had become the leader in Israel in organic farming through one of their promotional movies. It sounded particularly good and tempting.

I think it is healthy, from time to time, to question the decisions we have made, the life we have chosen. Often it is when we travel, when we are given the opportunity to come into contact with other ways of living and hold those as against our own, that we can step outside of ourselves and look at our own life, that we can play the compare-and-contrast game and imagine what our life might have been if we had made different choices. It is healthy as well because being exposed to other possibilities of defining how a human life may be lived in the short amount of time we are all given on this earth, helps us question the definition our society has given us and by which, consciously and unconsciously, we live. In our case we might still choose the American way of life, yet if we do, we might do it with greater awareness. I wouldn’t choose, today, the life of a kibbutznik. Though I still find many parts of it attractive and a part of me would have no problem with rejecting civilization in order to live as a farmer/meditator recluse, my life path lays elsewhere. I am grateful for the chance today has given me to touch again this part of self that, unless placed in this kind of context, doesn’t get activated. It is good to spend time sitting together with this other part of me, my inner monk.

Tomorrow we climb Masada. And that’s altogether another metaphor for our lives.

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Interfaith Trip to Israel_Day Three

How do we heal our world? How do we move past what divides us to create, together, a tomorrow that will be richer because of the pain of yesterday? How do we stand strong for what we believe in without demonizing those others who stand strong for what they believe in? Yes, I am talking about the US Presidential elections and, yes, I am talking about Israel. Because the Israeli-Palestinian experience has something to teach us, Americans, about moving forward. We could go one direction—as Israeli and Palestinian governments have done—that of separation, that of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and move the two sides of the country further and further apart until all possibility of communication breaks down and all that’s left is violence and death. Or we could go a different direction—as some small minorities within Israel-Palestine still are—and choose healing and reconciliation, understanding and compassion. Today we met those who refuse to accept as fait-accompli the polarization of peoples meant to share the same land. Today we humbly learned at the feet of Jews and Palestinians alike, how to move forward back home. Today, among others working toward peace on the ground, we met Dr. Hassan Agbaria, the principal of a bilingual Arab-Jewish school named “Bridge Over The Wadi,” in the Arab village of Kafar Qaba. He is my new hero (and I never use the word hero lightly).

In his school, hundreds of children, pre-K through 12th grade, Jews and Arabs learn together in both languages; Hebrew and Arabic. Instead of simply opting for their local Israeli public school, families from the nearby Jewish village of Katzir, choose every day to drive their children to this Arab village so that they can benefit from a bilingual education and be raised to learn tolerance in an integrated community. Every day, Muslim families of this and other villages around, defy their own society and its norms, and choose to drive their kids to this school as well. Each classroom in every grade has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew, one who teaches in Arabic. Teachers are all women. This was a deliberate choice of Principal Hassan in part because he believes women were better conveyers of the school’s vision, in part because having working Arab women also creates change back in their own communities. We arrived at the school right at noon and, as it probably was lunch break, dozens of kids were running around in the courtyard some playing soccer, some playing “marching band” and banging on improvised drums. Girls and boys of all ages, Muslims and Jews playing together. One of the Jewish ten year olds was asked to say a few words to us because he was known to speak some English. His name was Lior. We asked him how many Jews and how many Muslims were in his class. He had no idea. The thought never occurred to him to look at his classmates that he had known since he was three in this kind of way. Next to us, two girls who must have been the same age as Lior, one Jewish one Muslim, were talking to each other as best friends do sitting side by side and interlacing their legs and giggling together. It was so simple, it was so normal, it made me cry. I asked Principal Hussan how they choose their curriculum, especially around teaching history, knowing full well that there is no shared historical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis. Each side sees what has happened over the years in a radically different way than their counterpart. Dr. Agbaria used an apt example since we just had been at the Independence Hall Museum in Tel Aviv, that of Israel’s Independence Day. Each year, May 14th, toward the end of the school year, comes the marking of a day that the Palestinians call “Nekba – The Catastrophe.” Principal Hussan told us that they are not there to try and manufacture a third historical narrative that would retell a modified story and smooth over the difficult parts. Instead they see their mission as being about teaching both opposing narratives, exactly as each side tells it, to all the kids. They teach kids, from the youngest age, to recognize the truth in each competing and contradicting story, to see that each perspective is right however partial and limited to only one side. These kids learn to listen to each other’s story, to appreciate multiple points of view, to hear the pain and recognize the fear behind them from the youngest age; and we, adult citizens of the supposed greatest civilization that ever ruled the earth can’t even do that between Americans who, for the most part, don’t have language and religion as an obstacle.

Principal Hussan holds a vision as his guiding principle. His vision to which he dedicates every minute of every hour of his life, is a vision of peace, mutual recognition and understanding. In an area of the world where the overwhelming majority perceives such a vision as a threat, Principal Hussan is risking his life to give these children the chance to live a different dream. There are now six such bilingual schools in Israel that follow this model. “Bridge over the Wadi,” however, is the only school in a 100% Arab village. Beyond the world-changing model that these centers of education promote, there are dozens of other such programs and organization working on the ground, and in spite of their government, to make peace with their neighbors. Israel is changing, a new dawn of possibility is here. And this is exciting for Israel-Palestine.

But what about us? What is our vision for our country? Can we learn from this experience and stand, with love in our heart and an invitation on our lips, for such a vision without rejecting or demonizing those who think otherwise? Can we act today to manifest our vision for tomorrow? Can we take a firm stand in support of that vision and move from a center of love, understanding and compassion, to counter the forces of exclusion and division?

We have much to learn from this growing grassroots movement toward peace, blossoming in Israel, and, for once, though they may be a thousand setbacks and many dark days ahead, there may be cause for optimism. And I’ll take optimism over bloodshed anytime.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

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Interfaith Israel Trip 2016_Day One

Is it possible?

After spending time in Tel Aviv this morning both at the Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s existence, and walking through the artists’ market of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Suk; we drove north to the Galilee and spent time visiting a couple churches in Nazareth each claiming to be the spot of the Annunciation where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she soon would become pregnant. We learned that there are two churches because of two competing stories. One had Mary at her home, the other at the village’s well drawing water when Gabriel appeared. Both churches, in their own way, are magnificent designs of inspired sacred space. Time and again I find myself drawn into the silence that places such as these are able to evoke in me.

Nazareth is known to be the capital of the Galilee. Eight percent of this region of Israel is Arab-populated and predominantly Muslim but with a strong Christian minority as well. Nazareth itself is one hundred percent Arab-Israeli with roughly 60,000 Muslims and 20, 000 Christians. Some years ago, Israeli Jews started building a little village the next hill over that they named Upper Nazareth. Attracted by the modernity of the new constructions, Arab-Israelis from Nazareth started buying homes in Upper Nazareth and constitute now 20-30% of the new village’s population. It is predicted that, within a generation, it will soon become an Arab-majority village with Arabs living side by side with Jews.

So I asked myself, is it possible? One of the main arguments that I have heard from the political right in Israel that opposes the peace process is the fear that Palestinians’ only goal—despite their claim to the contrary—is, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. That we can’t trust them with a peace agreement they will never honor; that Israel needs to fortify its defenses, keep building a separation wall, impose strict checkpoints to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and maintain a military presence inside Palestinian towns, villages and territories. But these 80,000 Muslims and Christians of Nazareth don’t have a security wall surrounding them, don’t have checkpoints that restricts their movement in Israel whatsoever, and have no Israeli military presence in their streets. Yet with complete and unrestricted access to any place in Israel, I can’t remember a time when any Arab resident of Nazareth ever perpetrated a terrorist act against Jews. Even though, as full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel, they are still a discriminated-against minority (as minorities seem to be the world over) which could justify them having a bone of contention against Israeli Jews; without mentioning the legitimate anger and resentment toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems to me that the example of decades of peaceful cohabitation within Israel between Israeli-Jews and Arab-Israeli could serve as a tangible example of success and something to point to as a more probable outcome of a negotiated peace agreement between the two people. I understand that there are many complex layers of this conflict that a short blog post that is necessarily limited cannot address. There are legitimate concerns coming from all sides of the political spectrum both in Israel and in Palestine. Yet, to me, the security fear-based argument from Israel’s political right I mentioned above, though understandable, may not be as iron-clad that it purports to be. I don’t think that Israel is really afraid of what a potential fledgling Palestinian State could do. The balance of military power is overwhelmingly on Israel’s side, and a disarmed Palestinian State could be a negotiated condition for independence. Looking at the Nazareth example; given the chance to live peacefully and freely in a democratic context, it appears as though—like other peoples the world over—that the Palestinians would chose to contribute, respect and be part of such democratic nation-building. The narrative one chooses, the example one points to, affects one’s vision about what could be. After today, I am growing more convinced that Nazareth more than Gaza, is a true representation of the future of Israel/Palestine where Jews and non-Jews have already lived together in peace side by side for decades. And as it has happened within the Israeli State borders, so could it happen within the boundaries of a Palestinian State as well. And though I reject Gaza and the violent aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, I choose Nazareth. Like we heard this morning at Independence Hall: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But that is the problem, isn’t it?

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Interfaith Israel Trip 2016 _Arrival Day

Tel Aviv, Israel; November 17, 2016

What a miracle! I am re-reading these first few words—the date and the place where I am writing from—and I am moved by a sense of awe. Don’t get me wrong, my zealous Zionist years are far behind me. As an Israeli citizen, I have found myself highly critical of Israel’s current government and, at the same time, concerned with the world’s criticizing of Israel indiscriminately, as if all Israelis supported this government’s policies and actions. What would we say if other people painted Americans as being all Obama-supporters or, starting January 20th all Trump-policies supporters? But disagreeing with one’s government doesn’t make one a traitor or an anti-American/Israel; doesn’t cause one to go burn the flag tomorrow. Often the opposite is true. We are highly critical and work to hold our government accountable to fulfilling our country’s vision because we care; because we know ourselves to be part of a human evolution project bigger than ourselves; bigger than any one nation.

Walking with our group through the streets of Tel Aviv to and from our first group dinner at Magenda, a local and oh-so-delicious Israeli restaurant, I was moved by seeing the Israeli flag wave in the wind. That reaction surprised me. I pointed out to my son Lior who was walking by my side of the miracle that such a flag existed, that Tel Aviv existed, that Israel existed. That a flag with a Jewish star painted on it could symbolize the existence of a place of refuge for all Jews of the world—a safe haven from the dangers of living at the mercy of the next rise of an anti-Semitic wave in whatever country we currently find ourselves—is an absolute miracle.

And though we might disagree with the current Israeli government policies, though we may be aware that for too many non-Jewish minorities in this land this flag represents oppression and evil, we simply cannot abandon Israel and what it was founded to stand for. When it comes to the Israeli project, still in its infancy when compared to America’s or the European nations’ for example, the phrase from the Talmud’s Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” comes to mind: “Lo Aleicha HaM’lacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah – It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from contributing to it altogether.”

Perhaps this interfaith tour of Israel might give us a new way to think not only about the unfolding of the Israeli narrative and project but give us clues as to how we can move forward together as an American nation as well. I am looking forward to the journey ahead.

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Torah Reflections – March 27 – April 2, 2016

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Joy And The Possibility of Forgiveness  

The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini – On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:

           Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron 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 offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]

One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifest teshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership.

Thus we are told, joy overwhelmed those witness to the final moments of the dedication ceremony when God appeared and, in a display of fire, accepted the sacrifices that Aaron had made on their behalf. They knew then that they had been forgiven, and that no matter how far from God they would stray, no matter how apparently lost from the Source (remember the Golden Calf?), there would always remain the promise of return, the potential for atonement, for mending and healing. Moreover, they also knew that what they had created was not only the possibility of forgiveness for themselves but for all future generations.

This possibility of teshuvah is part of our inheritance. Now, like then, we are the ones called upon to create the container in our lives in which teshuvah can take place. And since we no longer offer up animals and priests are no longer among us, we are also the ones to perform the necessary personal “sacrifices” toward forgiveness, and atonement. This is a liberating practice. As we learn to forgive, heal and mend; as we perform acts of charity and lovingkindness as part of this process of teshuvah, we free ourselves from the layers of anger, resentment, guilt and fear that have walled-off our hearts and weighed us down. We draw nearer to the Source within, closer to the Divine. Teshuvah becomes a pathway to experiencing joy; a practice toward living a joyful life.

And like our ancestors before us, we might even find ourselves singing joyfully in the experience of the Divine Presence burning up—in Its all-consuming fire—those hardened shells around our hearts; remembering in that moment the One we share, the One we are, the One we have always been.

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Torah Reflections – March 13 – 19, 2016

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love  

The last few Torah portions of the Book of Exodus were, as we have seen, focused on the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; a Sacred Space amidst the traveling Israelite tribes where God came to dwell. We related to this seemingly outward structure as a mythical Temple that acted as a mirror to the Temple awakening within each of us, reminding us of the inner Sacred Space we are within which the Divine Presence not only dwells but through which it expresses. But lost in our separate sense of self, lost in the delusion of our ego’s drama, we seldom know ourselves to embody such awareness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us guidelines as to what we are to do in order to come closer and closer to awakening to such awareness and ultimately fully inhabiting our inner Temple. Put simply, we are to follow practices that help us draw near to the One we are; that, time and time again, pushes us to reconnect to Source and ground ourselves in Truth. To walk this path of coming closer to the One, in the consciousness that was prevalent in biblical times, one had to bring offerings to the Temple or make animal sacrifices. The Hebrew word that is poorly translated as “sacrifice” has very little to do with what the English word conveys: victimhood, abnegation, destruction, loss and suffering. This word, korban, means “to draw near,” which was the essential purpose for the ritual. And if our post-modern egos are quick to judge our ancestors as barbaric because of the way they slaughtered animals for ritualistic purposes, we need only to remind ourselves that, in our generation, our practices of meat slaughtering are arguably not only much worse than they were then, but lacking any spiritual grounding. In biblical times, offering one’s animal was a true hardship, a real personal sacrifice, as animals held great value for families and not everyone was wealthy enough to be able to afford it. The idea of korban was to surrender what was most precious to us as a means to heal the brokenness in our world, to forgive and be forgiven, to restore balance and purity in our lives, and find peace within and without.

At a deeper level, this ritual of surrendering what we are most attached to is a profoundly humbling spiritual practice supporting our breaking free from the bondage of ego. Just take the verse that introduces the whole litany of different korbanot in our portion for example: “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai.” [Lev. 1:2] It is usually translated as: “When any of you presents a korban to the Eternal,” and refers mostly to the physical offering of animals. But, in truth, it is more accurately read as: “If anyone presents a korban from within you to the Eternal.” Here, we begin to grasp the inner dimension of the practice; that something from within needs to be “released” as we aim to draw nearer to Source. What is being called to be surrendered; burnt up as a burnt offering? Not an animal on the outside, but what our teachers call our very own “animal nature:” the bundle of our thoughts, desires, emotional and physical attachments, our pathological need for control and our paralyzing fears; in other words, our false self. This drawing near is about stepping into the transformative fire of Divine Love so that our conditioned separate sense of self can be completely consumed. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite teachers, wrote along these lines that in the process of authentic transformation: “The self is not made content; the self is made toast.”

This Divine Love, our rabbis call “the fire of heaven.” It reduces our “animal nature,” our false self, to dust and ashes. It is the fire within the Cloud of Glory that fills our inner Tabernacle, now empty of self, where that which imagined it was separate and alone realizes in the blaze of a moment that it had always been One and Eternal.

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Torah Reflections – February 28 – March 5, 2016

Vayak’hel

Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

Our Spiritual Attitude Toward Work  

This week’s portion in our Torah reading nears the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. The construction of the Tabernacle begins in earnest, only preceded by Moses gathering the entire community of Israel to tell them that even during the construction of this Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle), “for six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal.” [Exod.35:2]

In his commentary, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—notices the passive form used in the first half of our verse: “work may be done.” He explains that just as the Torah uses the passive form, so should we relate to our weekday work in this way: “It means that during the six days of [our] work, [we] should be occupied, but not preoccupied by the secular.” Just like the work that took place in the biblical wilderness, our secular work is but a container for the Divine Presence to be expressed, “a channel for [God’s] blessing” as the Rebbe so powerfully describes. This passive attitude, this practicing non-attachment toward our weekday work prevents us from haughtily taking credit for the authorship of creation. Furthermore, since Torah commands to perform necessary work, it curtails our egotistic tendencies to go beyond the necessary in an attempt to make ourselves special or important.

Certainly, in a society like ours where innovation, entrepreneurship, pushing the limits, pursuing fame, and individualism, are part of the dominant worldview, the words of the Rebbe appear, if not outdated, at least at odds with the prevalent culture. But that religion or spirituality appears to be running countercurrent to the societal norm isn’t to be frowned upon; in fact, it is a badge of honor. What can we learn from the Rebbe about this idea of “work” that would allow us to relate to our own weekday work at a deeper level?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the Hebrew itself. In Hebrew the only day of the week with a name is Shabbat. The other days of the week from Sunday to Friday are called “Day One,” “Day Two,” “Day Three” etc… In their full expression the days are actually: “Day One toward Shabbat,” “Day Two toward Shabbat,” etc… Every day we are working toward getting ready for Shabbat, preparing ourselves for our weekly spiritual retreat, for our encounter with God. Readying ourselves for Shabbat consciousness is the central aim of our weekday work. The Rebbe’s attitudinal prescription is to prevent us from mistakenly paying too much attention to our secular activities, from being caught in them and assigning them an importance they do not deserve. Not that we shouldn’t tend to our world and do the work that is necessary; but our true focal point, our attention is to remain inner directed, divinely focused. And so in our doing this weekday work we should lack inner involvement, we should remain unattached. The work is to be carried out “LiSh’ma – for its own sake.” Not for pleasure sake, not for fame sake, not for any kind of reward or thank you. We do what is necessary to be done just because.”

And the Rebbe to conclude: “Only when [one] sees [one’s] work for what it is, a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of God, will [one’s] work take the passive form and the focus of [one’s] thoughts be on God alone.” (Likkutei Sichot Vol. I).

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Torah Reflections – February 21 – 27, 2016

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

What if Moses Never Came Back?  

         When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him. [Exod. 32:1]

This “god” Aaron is going to help build, is the infamous golden calf.  It had been forty days and forty nights since Moses had disappeared atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites had become restless, unable to tolerate weeks upon weeks of inaction. Moses must have died, they presumed. All these trials and tribulations were for naught. And so they resolved to resurrect an Egyptian god—that the golden calf represented—to find reassurance in the familiar. The episode of the Golden Calf is, therefore, seen by many rabbis as a spiritual backslide brought about by a lack of trust in the unfolding of a process.

Haven’t we all been there too? In our relationships; we cherish that peak experience moment (just like Sinai), but become impatient and disillusioned when it doesn’t happen again in subsequent encounters. Not Moses but “the magic” must have died. In our work too; we had this fabulous report, this successful event, this highly praised project we completed. Surely a promotion is coming next, success will be knocking at the door. But then weeks go by and, we surmise, all has been forgotten, our hard work was for naught. It is the same with spirituality. We have a peak experience following a specific practice. Immediately we commit ourselves to this teacher or that technique, ready to do whatever it takes to follow this newfound path. But when nothing happens for weeks and months our commitment fades, our trust in the practice or the teacher wanes and pretty soon we are back at square one.

Why is that? Where is this human universal pattern coming from? Two main answers come to mind: craving and distrust. One of the greatest pitfalls on the spiritual path, and in many other areas of our lives (especially our relationships,) is our all-too-human craving for the multiplication of blissful moments. There is inherently nothing wrong with living through such moments, through peak experiences. They are the energy-source that has the potential to fuel our growth, to dislodge us from our ego-bound identity. But they become pathological when we become stuck in grasping at them. Craving is a function of the ego. It is the ego that wants. That which is already everything, lacks nothing and, therefore, wants nothing. Our ego, wanting to see the blissful moment reproduced, steps in to control our experience and, in doing so, blocks any possibility of it happening again. Paradoxically, it is our craving for these experiences that prevents us from re-living them.

Our lack of trust—often a consequence of our pathological cravings—is another hurdle to overcome on our spiritual journey, on our life-journey. Though we might not readily see it, every encounter, every moment of practice has an impact on our evolution. Relationships deepen mostly when, after the fireworks, people are present to and engaged with one another in their commitment to walk together as one, day in and day out. A spiritual teacher once said: “Enlightenment is, most often, an act of grace, an accident. A serious day-to-day meditation practice—though it might not bring one to blissful states each time—makes one ‘accident-prone.’” Trust in the process. Trust that things are moving in the depth of our being even when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. This is the key to spiritual growth; the key to growth at any level. The Israelites’ experience at the foot of Mount Sinai speaks of the challenge of trust in the face of the invisible; be it God or Moses—or who or what—ever. It calls us to steadfast commitment to the deeper Truth we know within our heart, the Truth we recognize at the soul level.

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Torah Reflections – February 14 – 20, 2016

Tetzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

The Olive Oil Paradigm  

       You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to kindle an eternal light. Aaron and his sons shall set it up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be an eternal decree for the Israelites throughout their generations.
[Exod. 27:20-21]
Thus we learn why in every synagogue, to this day, the Jewish people continues to kindle a flame, a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light over the ark that houses the Torah. Our people has followed this biblical injunction for 3000 years, beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem and the kindling of the seven-branched Menorah; which is, initially, what these verses referred to. Though our rabbis would say that this commandment was given to the Israelites at Sinai in anticipation of the Temple being built later — since the Israelites had no way of acquiring olives in the desert, let alone the necessary equipment for extracting oil — many scholars agree that this passage was written, instead, at a time when the Temple was already standing and retroactively inserted into the narrative.

But why oil from olives? A commentary found in the Etz Hayim Torah explains that olive oil was easier to refine so as to be perfectly “’clear,’ or… free of dregs,” compared to other sources for oil commonly used at the time such as “sesame seed, flax, and animal fat.” [p. 503] Additionally, since biblical times, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace. Choosing olive oil to light the Great Menorah of the Temple imbued the daily ritual with deeper meaning and the intentionality to kindle energies of peace in the world. Interestingly, the reason for the olive branch to have historically been associated with peace, our commentator continues, is that “olive trees mature slowly, so only when there was an extended time of peace, with agriculture left undisturbed, could the olive tree produce its fruit.”

Beyond the practical or symbolic aspects of the text, the first verse of the portion speaks of our being individually commanded to bringing oil to the Temple, and that this oil needs to be “clear” or “pure.” The Etz Hayim commentator pays particular attention to the relational component between the people and the oil they are bringing as an offering. It is not just what the individual is bringing that needs to be pure, but the heart of the individual making the offering itself needs to be “uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.” Our inner states, our teachers are saying, impact the quality of what we are offering our world. It might not be that the olive oil itself is physically contaminated by our emotional states—though we hold a vision that nature and humanity are not two but rather inseparably intertwined and inter-vibrating—but that the nature of our offering becomes polluted when our heart is clouded or closed-off by the inner battles of our ego.

Our task, therefore, is to become increasingly mindful of how we show up in our world. We are inherently creative beings who—whether we want it or not—continuously bring our unique blend of olive oil to every moment we share. To be mindful means that we recognize the shadow as well as the light when it expresses through us. It means that we hold ourselves with compassion when we fall short of the “Pure Extra Virgin” impossible ideal, and that we know to take responsibility and make amends when needed. And when our offering mindfully includes all aspects of ourselves, then the essence, the pure oil of our being joins with others’ to kindle the Great Menorah of the Temple of Creation with energies of peace, and harmony.

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Torah Reflections – January 31 – February 6, 2016

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

You Shall Be Holy  

Both this past week and this week’s Torah portions speak of God’s desire for us to be holy. Last week, just before the Decalogue, God said: “… all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me… a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6) This week again God reiterates: “Be a Holy people to Me.” (Exod. 22:30) This Divine injunction seems to be of overriding importance in our entering into this Covenant with God. Yet why is this so critical and, most significantly, is this a fair demand to place on inherently flawed human beings?

Is holiness—that ideal we project upon heroic and saintly figures in all spiritual traditions—an achievable goal, even if we were to follow perfectly the entire 613 Mitzvot that Judaism sets before us as a practice? Isn’t God, by making such a demand of perfection of the fallible beings that we are, de facto abrogating the very Covenant He is wanting to enter into with us? Surely God knows better than to ask what is beyond human reach.

So how do we solve this dilemma? Given the text and God’s imperative, we are left with the only variable: the reader, the translator—the interpreter. What if we first asked ourselves: “Who is reading these words?” If we are able to listen carefully, we will notice that the part of self that is reading God’s words as a command that we be holy, is the striving part of self; the part of self that believes it can be perfected, the aspect of our being which lives in a world of “should” and beats itself up when it doesn’t meet its own expectations. In other words, only the ego is that part of self capable of reading God’s words as a demand made upon it.

But we can read these words at a very different level; a level which assumes that what looks to the ego like God’s commanding, is but a statement, an acknowledgment of Truth. The translation of Exod. 19:5-6 would, then, read: “… I manifest as all of Creation, therefore, as expressions of Me… you are holy.”  That kind of realization, beyond the grasp of the ego, sets the Covenant itself at a different level. We are not to strive to become what we are not, we are to let the holiness of the Divine we are flow through us as unencumbered as possible. The laws of the Torah are not there to coerce us into becoming holy; they are there to help us clear out the obstacles, the resistances, which prevent us from being the clearest channels possible for that Holy One to manifest through us. God needs us, as the unique beings that we are, to fulfill such a task.

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