Torah Reflections – December 7-13, 2014

Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

You Make a Difference                               

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

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

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

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

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

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Torah Reflections December 30 – November 6, 2014

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Awakening Beyond Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Torah Reflections – November 9-15, 2014

Chayei Sarah

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

Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread                            

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

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

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

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah. It is there not to cause us to wallow in the frightful suffering of an “unreliable world,” but to remind us to break free from the fear that strangles our ability to be fully alive now.
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Torah Reflections – October 12 – 18, 2014

Bereishit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

In The Image of God                        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meditations for the Days of Awe – Today! – Day 9

Those of us who gathered on Rosh HaShanah morning were privileged to listen to a a song that has become a staple of our Holy Days. It is called HaYom, which means either “this day” or “today.” And so here it is, this day – that in a lot of ways we have been waiting for all year long – is now upon us, and we are definitely not ready for it. We’re not even sure what “ready” would look like anyways.

I remember growing up, walking into the synagogue on Yom Kippur, being impressed by those who prayed with so much fervor, singing all the songs, knowing all the tunes; their eyes glued to the pages of the prayer book, and always standing up for the next prayer long before the rabbi would ask the rest of us to rise. I was sure that they embodied what “ready” should look like.

I no longer think so. In fact, I have learned to appreciate that the ego loves to hide behind the familiarity of the service order, of the songs and the prayers. It is so easy to get caught in practicing what we already know, rehearsing the expected, that we get lost into what we think is supposed to be and fail to be present to what is. Knowing the prayers and the songs so well that you are reading one page ahead of the rabbi, doesn’t leave room for the unexpected, the surprising, or the novel. Being so attached to the form, we miss the essence; being so focused on “doing it right,” we miss being available for the deeper teaching that the moment itself offers.

And so perhaps being ready means something altogether different. Being “ready” for a day like Yom Kippur, might mean being able to step into the sanctuary, open to receiving whatever it is we need to hear this year; and being absolutely okay not knowing what that might be. Being “ready” might mean letting go of our expectations, being curious to discover new possibilities, looking forward to being surprised. Being ready, HaYom, might actually mean being excited about not being ready at all. Which actually leads me to my favorite line in the HaYom prayer:

HaYom T’gadlaynu – Today, evolve us

To me, these simple words express the inextricable intimacy between the self and the Divine; the perfect union that our mind mistakenly defines as that of two separate entities, when the phrase itself speaks of the evolving energies of the Divine permeating our entire being. But for the Divine to evolve us, today, we have to get out of the way, we have to be as unprepared, as not ready, as possible.

Throughout these Ten Day of Awe I have ended my meditations with space for you to write your own; to write further whatever awakened within you. Each time I started with “Today I…” But this time, on the eve of Yom Kippur, I invite you to omit the “I” and to write the first few lines of your own HaYom prayer. It begins simply with “Today, …”

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Meditations for the Days of Awe – I Got Nothing! – Day 8

Friday evening we will meet again to enter, together, into the holiest of days in Jewish tradition; the day called Yom Kippur or Yom HaKippurim. Kapparah, the noun form – issue from the same Hebrew root as the word Kippur – is often translated as Atonement.  The process itself, which takes place on Yom Kippur, is that of spiritual catharsis.

It is interesting to notice that the Hebrew name, Yom HaKippurim, could also easily be understood as Yom Ha-Ki-Purim: The day like Purim. However, the holiday of Purim is the Jewish carnival; we dress up and wear masks, drink and eat a lot, and engage in raucous partying.  How could that be analogous to Yom Kippur? At first sight it might seem, indeed, that Purim is the exact opposite of Yom Kippur where, traditionally, we fast (abstaining from both eating and drinking,) dress modestly, wear no make-up and altogether let go of any physical concerns. So, how is it that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim?

This is one of these cases where the two extremes meet. Both days, in fact, call for the disruption of our ego’s barriers, for breaking through its resistances. Both days call for letting go of pretense and aim at our facing the empty truth of who we are. Both days call for a deep surrender of the mask we wear the rest of the time. Yom Kippur is that spiritual catharsis; a day to let go of that mask, to let go of the clutter of stories, resentments, guilt, anger and upset that the ego – the small self – has piled up around our heart, and which obscures the pure light of Being yearning to express through us, as us. To me, this spiritual catharsis, this deep letting go, is best expressed in the Avinu Malkainu prayer we sing together as a community:

Avinu Malkainy… ain banu ma-asim – Holy One of all Being… I got nothing!

But from that emptiness, from that emptying, from that deep releasing of all our clutter, then transformation becomes possible. Then we are able to connect with our Greater Self and affirm:

Asay imanu tzedakah va-chesed – Let justice and lovingkindness manifest through my life.

This year, Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, also falls on Shabbat. Though we will spend it together attending to the inner spiritual dimensions of the day, I would like to invite you to pay attention to the form as well, to the outer garment which helps create the container for such a deep process to unfold. Our sages say that on Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; the container itself holds the energies. This year more than any other year, the container is that of Shabbat. And so I would like to encourage all of us, for 25 hours, to create that Shabbat container by turning off our cell phones and our computers; by letting our TVs and radios remain silent for a day. I would like to offer that you might consider fasting (if your health allows it,) not shaving, or otherwise keeping to a minimum anything that, we know, is part of this outer mask we wear on all other days. The experience is of body, mind and spirit, unfolding with the support of community. All four are needed to create a Yom Kippur, a day of At-One-Ment.

Today I…

… become aware of the different masks I wear.

… take time to look back at the experiences and people in my life which influenced the personality that I have.

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Meditations for the Days of Awe – In the Book of Life – Day 6

During the Ten Day of Awe we engage in a process of deep introspection. We open our heart with love and compassion while acknowledging our own limitations and taking responsibility for the hurtful ways we show up in our lives. At the same time, we seek to shake ourselves out of the torpor of a life of unhealthy habits and, sometimes, cruel behaviors, in order to wake ourselves up. In many ways, we pray during the High Holy Days to be supported in living a wakeful life.
We say:

B’Sefer Chayim – May we be all recorded in the Book of Life, Blessing, Peace and Abundance.

When we write ourselves in the Book of Life for the year about to be, the words we find are words that speak of such a wakeful life. They are not words that describe all the ways we should think and act so as to manifest the total perfection of our self. These kinds of words are as self-defeating as they are unattainable. Instead, they are words which speak of increasing self-awareness, of gentler ways of being toward self and others, of looking for opportunities, each day, to bless what is exactly as it is. They are words which convey our renewed sense of awe and wonder for a world of abundance, of incredible beauty, and a world of darkness and shadow, all at once. They are words of celebration, of aliveness, of tasting to the fullest the precious moments of our too short life. Ultimately, they are words of love.

When we write in the Book of Life for the year ahead, we begin with “I am.” We do not postpone to an undetermined future what we seek to awaken to now. We write in the present tense. We write as if what we are seeking to open to is already happening right now, for the Greater Self to which these words are addressed knows of no past and no future.

I am already blessed now with…

I am living a life aware and awake. I …

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Meditations for the Days of Awe – The Awe of God – Day 5

We read in our High Holy Days meditation booklet this prayer:

Now give the awe of You, Eternal God, upon all Your works, and the reverence for You upon all Your creation.

These are the Days of Awe, an invitation to open to the wonder of each moment, to become increasingly aware of the Divine Presence in every experience. We perceive through our senses what appears to be an outer reality. Awe opens our heart to the realization that this reality is God manifesting moment to moment.

We are aware of what appears to be an inner reality, where thoughts, emotions, desires and body-sensations arise in consciousness. Awe enables us to sense thatthis reality, too, is a manifestation of God.

The unique expression of the Divine that I am meets another unique expression of the Divine, and enters into relationship. Awe allows us to recognize the miracle thatis this interconnectedness, where God manifests as intimate communion.

In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality… Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”

Spiritual awakening begins with awe, with wonderment, with amazement. We pray that we may be able to open our heart just enough, that awe might find its way in.

Today I…

… open my heart to the wonder of each moment by breathing mindfully.

… take time to really taste the food I taste, to find beauty in the things I see, to delight in the interactions I have with others, and marvel at the Life I share.

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Meditations for the Days of Awe – Shabbat Shuvah – Day 3

Return again… return to Where you are, return to What you are, return to Who you are.

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of turning, of returning. Today is, especially, a day for introspection, a day for reflection.

On this day we might be looking at our world, at our nation, in disbelief; seeing that division and hatred not only still prevail, but have seemingly taken a more radical turn. At home the political debate has seen so sharp ideological lines be drawn, that dialogue seems impossible and pragmatism a lost principle. Abroad, fear of economic collapse, violence and war continue to dominate our news media headlines.

But isn’t the world on the outside a reflection of the work we have yet to complete on the inside? Can we say, in all honesty, that we no longer hold any grudges; that we no longer fear that which we don’t understand, that we no longer throw anyone out of our heart? However we seek to become increasingly inclusive, aren’t there still people we exclude from our circle? Aren’t there people we have shut out of our lives because we can no longer hear their views, let alone enter into a dialogue with them?

All of us are a work in progress. We seek to be gentler with ourselves and acknowledge our current limitations while continuing to work toward transcending them. Paradoxically, what might help us move forward is to return; to remember the One that we are, the One we have always been, the One which manifests as all sentient beings, as the whole of Creation. When we are able to remember the interconnectedness of Being, then our acts in the world are able to flow from a more compassionate, loving and forgiving heart.
Today I…

… look at the ways I tend to exclude others from my life; and explore the patterns within, which often cause me to throw others out of my heart. I do so with a curious and compassionate heart.

… look at the ways I am able to open my heart to others; the ways I often seek to understand who they are, as well as the perspective they present. I do so with a curious and compassionate heart.

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Meditations for the Days of Awe- Rosh HaShanah – Day 2

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…

For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You…
On this second day of Rosh HaShanah, of the New Year, I wanted to invite you to enter into a daily meditation process; that we might support one another as we travel through the ten days of awe. Each day I will offer a phrase, a prayer or a song out of our High Holy Days Machzor, our prayers and meditations booklet and share a few words about them.
Let not my words limit you, however. Find the words awakening within you, inspired by the quote, and take them to be with you through the day.
The “Al Chet” prayer, for example, calls me to open my heart to greater self-awareness; to take the risk and begin gently noticing the hurtful ways I show up in my life. Noticing is at the core of many meditation practices, but you could just as well journal whatever you notice on a piece of paper.

Engaging in this practice we find that our thoughts, emotions and sensations arise as objects in our awareness. And though we have these thoughts, emotions and sensations, if we are able to watch them, notice them, we are not them. They are just objects in our awareness, not who we are. Furthermore, this practice causes us to notice that these thoughts, emotions and sensations happen on their own. Millions of physical functions are happening in us, at any given moment, on their own. I don’t beat my heart, cause my nose to smell, my skin to itch etc… Our emotions, too, unfold out of our control. If we could control them we would be a lot happier, wouldn’t we, getting rid of painful feelings before they even arose. And if we could control our thoughts we would know right now what we will be thinking two minutes from now. At this level of consciousness, our self is a conditioned self, and we are acting out that conditioning in the ways we show up in our life moment to moment.

Noticing is not about beating ourselves up for the numerous hurtful ways we act out our conditioning in the world. The opposite is true. Noticing is simply about paying attention, being curious to learn about our conditioned self by just observing that self as it interacts with the world. Our noticing, our becoming aware, in and of itself impacts that conditioning. We notice from a place of compassion, understanding, wisdom and loving care. In fact, noticing or “paying attention” in Hebrew is “Lasim Lev,” which literally means: “To put your heart into it.” We notice by opening our heart. 

 

Today I…
… notice the times I grow upset, angry, or resentful, with an open heart. I seek to discover the source of my reactions with compassion and care.

… notice the times I am joyful, with an open heart. I seek to discover the source of my happiness with compassion and care.

In addition to this exercise, I offer that, over these Days of Awe–as we engage in this practice of noticing–we also write our own “Al Chet,” our own list of the harmful ways we have acted out our conditioning this past year. I invite you to come with your Al Chetconfession on Yom Kippur and recite it in place of the one in our prayer booklet. Here is a place to start writing:

 

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…
For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You by hurting others through speech.

Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…
For the ways we acted out our conditioning before You through…
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