Torah Reflections – March 9 – 15, 2014

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

The Light of Our Heart

In my approach to Torah, I see the text as myth, not reality. I presuppose that, as such, the stories it conveys speak of universal archetypes relating to the human spiritual journey, and seek to unpack the deeper meaning of the text often as if I was interpreting a dream or a vision. 

The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept aflame…. The Kohen shall… remove the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them next to the altar. He shall then… carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.  The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning… [Lev. 6:2-5]

What if the burnt offering represented, here, the waking hours of our day? Was relating to how we “burn up” our time and energy? If lived mindfully, every day of our lives can become an offering of the best we have to give. Each day lived to the fullest is a day we didn’t hold back and shared the choicest aspect of our self regardless of our circumstances; a day we stepped into the “fire” of life fully and with great gusto. Though not a rabbi himself, G.B. Shaw could very well have been reflecting on these verses when he said: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.” [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – March 2 – 8, 2014

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.

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Torah Reflections – February 23 – March 1, 2014

P’kudei

Exodus 38:21 – 40:36

Building The Inner Tabernacle                                          

This week’s Torah reading brings us to the close of the Book of Exodus. In these final moments the Israelites build all the many pieces of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which Moses is to later assemble. S’fat Emet (Rabbi Leib Alter of Ger – 19thc. Poland) comments that many of the verses in our portion echo, in their wording, verses from the story of Creation that began the Book of Genesis. It is as if the last lines of the Book of Exodus serve as a mirror to the first lines of the Book of Genesis. The word m’lachah, usually translated as “work,” for example, repeats at least ten times in our combined portions this week. This is the word used in Genesis to describe God’s “work” of creating. Furthermore, we read in Genesis: “And God saw all that He had made… Thus were completed the heavens and the earth… Then God blessed the seventh day….” [Gen. 1:31 - 2:3]

S’fat Emet compares this with this week’s reading: “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting…And Moses saw all the work that they had done… And Moses blessed them” [Exod.39:32 - 43]. For the S’fat Emet, this parallel in both stories hints at the redemption of all Creation, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s work. With the building of the Tabernacle, the work of Creation is finally complete. And as our story concludes, the Cloud of Glory can now come down to earth; the Presence of the Holy One can now come to dwell in the Mishkan: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle.” [Exod. 40:34]

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Torah Reflections – February 9 – 15, 2014

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. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – February 2 – 8, 2014

T’tzaveh

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 have 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? [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – January 26 – February 1, 2014

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Temples Within Temples Within Temples                                       

We find, in this week’s Parashah the Divine injunction that adorns Bet Alef’s new ark:

V’asu Li Mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham - Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8]

Following this verse and for the rest of the Torah portion, the Eternal communicates to Moses the detailed plans of how to build and assemble such a Sanctuary — also called a Tabernacle (Mish’kan in Hebrew) — in the wilderness. The Mish’kan was to be placed at the center of the traveling twelve tribes, a reflection of what the newly freed Israelites held sacred, of what defined their way of worship, and what united them as a nation.

We too, as a nation, have created temples that are a reflection of what we worship. As a society, we have built at great expense our temples of sports in so many big arenas and gigantic stadiums. We have our temple of money in Wall Street, our temples of political power in the White House and Congress. The temple of our military power is the Pentagon, and Corporate America’s temples are all the skyscrapers that make up the skyline of our cities. And let’s not forget our shopping malls. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – January 19 – 25, 2014

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within                                      

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-Self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

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Torah Reflections – January 12 – 18, 2014

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

One With The One                                     

Now Moses went up to God. The Eternal One called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you hear, deeply hear My voice, and keep My covenant, you will be to Me a special treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” [Exod. 19:3-6] 

Thus begins chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, the chapter leading up to the Ten Commandments and Revelation at Sinai. Moving beyond the literal level, I read this chapter as a transmission of a spiritual encounter couched in the literary form of myth. Though the words of Revelation meet us in the next chapter, chapter 19 describes the moment of awakening.

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Torah Reflections – December 22 – 28, 2013

VaEira
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Know Thyself to be Enslaved

Every year, as I meet the text narrating the plagues of Egypt, I am confronted with the same paradox. God commends Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. God brings down a plague. Pharaoh yields to Moses’ demands. Then, inexplicably, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and the latter, consequently, reverses his edict and keeps the Israelites enslaved. Why is God playing both sides? And why does God need to replay this scene ten times? One can take this questioning further and ask why God sets up the whole thing in the first place? Why, already in the time of Abraham, had God determined that the Hebrews would descend into Egypt, be enslaved there for four hundred years, only to then be liberated and brought to the Promised Land? Why did we have to get there via Egypt? [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – December 15 – 21, 2013

Shemot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear And Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told,

“the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9], began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

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