Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread
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.
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:
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, …”
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.
… 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.
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.
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 …
We read in our High Holy Days meditation booklet this prayer:
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.
… 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.
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.
… 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.
Al Chet Sheh-cha-tanu l’fanecha…
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.
… 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.
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Let Your Heart Crack Open
This week’s Torah portion begins:
When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving your as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place that the Eternal your God chooses to have His name dwell… You shall then recite [a prayer] before the Eternal your God… You shall leave [the basket] before the Eternal your God and bow low in the Presence of the Eternal your God. [Deut.26:1-10]
With only days separating us from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Torah is laying out for us a threefold path to meet the moment in its fullness: bring a basket of your fruit, pray and bow. Though in our time we no longer come to moments of solemn convocation such as the High Holy Days with baskets of fruit from our land, today’s equivalent might be engaging in these awe-inspiring holidays by bringing to them the honest assessment of our personal work this past year, the true fruits of our personal harvest.
But what about prayer? For many of us, the experience of prayer — especially during the High Holy Days — consists of reading pages and pages of prescribed formulas that only come to life for us because of the familiarity of the melodies that accompany them. And so our challenge, this year again, is to enter into prayer on these High Holy Days with a different intention, a different goal; that of letting our heart crack open. The Kaballah describes our hearts as being sheathed by klippot, husks or shells. Our mystics teach that through the practice of mitzvot (mindful living,) meditation, and focused prayer; one is able to incrementally open one’s heart and uncover the Divine sparks hidden within.
It is our task to come to these upcoming High Holy Days with such kavanah, with such purpose; to bypass our ego’s natural resistance to doing the inner work at hand, and enter into prayer with both humility and receptivity, and “bow low in the Presence of the Eternal.” True prayer is that which is allowed to flow from the heart, not from the mind. Merely repeating words from a prayer book won’t do. We are to enter into prayer the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav did; engaging God in raw, unadulterated straight talk — the way one would with a best friend — honestly, sincerely, and genuinely. Through the deep surrender and profound letting go that accompany such an experience, we can breach the shells around our heart and discover, through the fissures, the light of Being, the light of Love and Compassion bursting forth from within.
I offer that we come to the High Holy Days with the basket of our life-review in hand and, on our lips, just one humble prayer: “Ein Banu Maasim” – “Holy One, we have too few good deeds.” I suspect that with our bowing, in that space of profound humility, we will find the tightening around our heart begin to release, and our words, steeped in the light of Love, will be carried along to reach the soul-level. There, liberated from the stranglehold of the ego on our life, we will be able to open ourselves to the possibility of deep transformation.
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
The Healing Power of Self-Awareness
This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.
But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’s Torah portion — which inaugurates the month of Elul each year — give us instructions in regard to this inner process:
You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. [Deut. 16:19-20]
Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.
And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedekin Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.