Archives for August 2011

Torah Reflections: August 28 – September 3, 2011

Parashah (portion) Shoftim – Humility is Not Humiliation
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Today is the first day of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, to reviewing the year that was, and to beginning the spiritual process called Teshuvah. Teshuvah is a re-turning, a turning inward, an invitation to fearlessly examine the unhealthy and sometimes even harmful ways we show up in our lives. And, our sages tell us, we are to engage in this process with humility.

Humility is one of those words that is often misunderstood. We know its opposite to be arrogance or pride, and we associate it with the idea of meekness, submissiveness and self-abnegation. In our minds the word “humility” has become synonymous with “humiliation,” and we feel a profound aversion toward that. To make matters worse, we live in a society that rewards those with narcissistic charismatic personalities, and looks down upon or, at best, overlooks the unpretentious, the modest, the unassuming. But Mussar–Jewish teachings on ethical and spiritual discipline–offers a new definition for the word “humility” that opens a doorway to its deeper meaning. For the teachers of Mussar, real humility is not about self-abasement or servility–that would be a pathological expression of the midah/the quality–rather it is about strengthening a healthy sense of self. It is not about making yourself “less-than” what you are, but about being exactly and fully who you are. True humility is about constraining oneself to occupy only the space fitting to us, while leaving all the space necessary for others to do the same. “Space” here can be understood figuratively, but can also refer to the physical, interpersonal, and/or emotional space each of us inhabits.

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Torah Reflections: August 21 – 27, 2011

Parashah (portion) Re’eh – Letting Go of All Truths
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

How do I invite God into my life? How do I fill my life with the Divine Presence moment to moment? These are the questions many of us on the spiritual path ask ourselves. And more often than not, the answer comes back, simple and disarming: make room for it. For many of us, however, such a pithy answer is not sufficient. The mind wants to know “how” we are to make room for Spirit in our lives. Though we might not like what it says, this week’s Torah portion offers us a pathway to follow:

These are the laws and rules that you need to observe and practice in the land that the Eternal… is giving you to possess… You must destroy all the places at which the nations… worshiped their gods… tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that place… look only to the place where the Eternal your God shall choose… to place His name. Seek out His dwelling. There you are to go. [Deut.12:1-5]

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Bet Alef Community Picnic – 2011

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Torah Reflections: August 14 – 20, 2011

Parashah (portion) Eikev – Truth and Love
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Here are a few verses in this week’s Torah portion that, to me, symbolize the essential challenge of the spiritual path and perhaps, moreover, the challenge of our western civilization:

Be mindful lest you forget the Eternal One awakening within you, and fail to follow His spiritual paths, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Oneness of Being that is all, which liberates you from places of constriction… Remember that it is the Eternal One that manifests through you as wealth… [Deut. 8:11-18]

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Torah Reflections: August 7 – 13, 2011

Parashah (portion) VaEtchanan – Was Moses Lying?
Deuteronomy 3:1 – 7:11

A few weeks ago at Shabbat services I spoke about the story of the “Waters of Meribah” wherein God sentenced Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness for having disobeyed His specific command. God had told them to order the rock to yield its water for the Israelites to quench their thirst; but instead, Moses, furious at the relentless rebellious nation, struck the rock twice with his staff; thus going against the divine instructions.

Last week’s Torah portion finds Moses talking to the new generation of Israelites (after the rebellious one had died out) and telling them an altogether different story. There he recalled the dreadful report of the spies who went scouting the Promised Land, which caused the Israelites to kvetch about going back to Egypt. As Moses retells the story: “The Eternal heard your loud complaint and, becoming angry, vowed: ‘Not one of these people, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give your fathers…,'” but then adding: “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, saying: ‘You shall not enter.'” [Deut. 1:34-37] And this week again, in the middle of now retelling the Sinai story and warning the Israelites about idolatry, Moses interrupts himself to say: “Now the Eternal was angry with me because of you and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land… For I must die in this land…” [Deut. 4:21] Why was Moses lying?
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Read Rabbi Olivier’s interview in Artocratic Magazine

Rabbi Olivier BenHaim on Nondual Judaism
by Emily Alhadeff

Rabbi Olivier BenHaim heads Seattle-based Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, where he leads his congregation in rediscovering ancient  Jewish mystical practices that have close analogs within the Eastern nondual spiritual practices and philosophy found in Buddhism and Hinduism. On behalf of Artocratic, Emily Alhadeff set out to discover how Rabbi Olivier could interpret as nondual a religion whose teachings are traditionally based on the idea of separateness. Rabbi Olivier, who after a crisis of Jewish faith began practicing Buddhism, came to Meditative Judaism through Seattle’s Rabbi Ted Falcon. Among his many goals, he seeks to support and engage Jews who have become interested in Eastern spirituality. His embrace of major elements from mystical and Chasidic traditions informs his rather alternative, sometimes radical ideas around such fundamental concepts as sin, the idea of Jews as the “chosen people,” and navigating the moral terrain of absolute and relative realities.

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Bet Alef in The JT News

Bet Alef was featured in this article in the JT News on September 28, 2010.

The Synagogue Chronicles: Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue continues to thrive and grow
Emily Keeler Alhadeff • JTNews Correspondent








Rabbi Olivier BenHaim does a demonstration of the lulav and etrog in Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue’s during a gathering at their sukkah.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Olivier BenHaim and six members of the Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue huddled in the community sukkah over hot apple cider and ginger snaps. After leading the group in a few deep, centering breaths and a chant of “shalom,” BenHaim began his talk about the Kabbalah of Sukkot. Read More..

Torah Reflections: July 3 – 9, 2011

Parashah (portion) Balak – The Love We Are
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

One of the most popular writings of the Hebrew Bible is Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers.” Chapter 2 begins: “The world stands on three things, Torah, Service (Avodah) and upon acts of Loving-Kindness (Gemilut Chasadim),” this month’s focus.

Loving-Kindness, usually translated as chesed, is the highest of the seven lower sefirot (stages of Divine manifestation) of the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Our mystics say that this is the first sefirah (singular form of sefirot) to manifest. God emerges from emptiness into form through an act overflowing with Love and Kindness. Divine Creation is an act of love-giving that is boundless, limitless, and immeasurable. Each of us, having issued forth from that Oneness of Being, have, therefore, as our source, this unlimited capacity to love. It is our essence. Chesed manifests through us as our ability to love ourselves, to love others, and to love all of Creation. Gemilut Chasadim represents our capacity to act upon this love in ways that are selfless; devoid of expectations of return or even of gratitude.
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Torah Reflections: June 19 – 25, 2011

Parashah (portion) Korach – Do You Believe in Free Will?
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and his brother Aaron are confronted with a revolt led by Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi. Korach and his followers challenge Moses’ authority, questioning his position as their leader: “Why do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] they vehemently argue. But Moses isn’t moved by their accusations. He retorts that they should leave it to God to choose the one to lead the people. Preparations are made for the next morning’s showdown. Then, as God is about to unleash His wrath upon the rebels, Moses declares: “By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising.” [Num. 16:28]

This declaration left me perplexed. On one hand Moses was negating his role as a leader seemingly saying that anyone could have done what he did since he only obeyed God’s orders. One the other hand, he was painting a pretty deterministic picture of his life, thus abdicating all personal responsibility as a leader. In both cases he was justifying Korach’s accusation. This came on the heels of a conversation I was having with one of my B’nai Mitzvah students last Sunday. We talked about Joseph (back in the Book of Exodus) telling his brothers that they had sold him into slavery as part of God’s plan to ultimately place him in command of Egypt so that he could save their lives from the impending famine. My student was arguing against this sense of inescapable destiny, claiming that it removed the responsibility for our actions from us.
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Torah Reflections: June 12 – 18, 2011

Parashah (portion) Sh’lach Lecha – Journey through our Inner Landscape
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

This week’s Torah portion exemplifies for me the powerful impact Torah study can have on our daily lives. The text brings us to the episode of the scouts Moses sends, under God’s command, to survey the land of Canaan as a prelude to entering the Promised Land. The expression God uses, which gives us the name of the portion, is “sh’lach lecha” usually rendered: “Send for yourself…” But the Hebrew is such that the translation could very well be: “Send to yourself.” The journey spoken of here can be read as an inner journey; a journey of self-discovery. Moses told the scouts:

Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land. [Numbers 13:17-20]

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