Archives for December 2014

Torah Reflections – December 14-20, 2014

Miketz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

The Next Messiah

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of light, the commemoration of an ancient miracle. It is a time for us to reflect on the light in our life, and be reminded of the miracle that is life. Chanukah means “dedication.” It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish worship by the victorious Maccabee rebels, after its desecration following the Greek pagan invasion and takeover. The rebellion came at the end of 150 years of the Jews living under Greek dominion. The Greek leaders cared mostly about keeping themselves in power, concentrating wealth in as few hands as possible, and imposing their culture, their values, upon everyone else. Chanukah is a story of the uprising of people living under a rule that didn’t resemble them, that didn’t reflect their values as a nation. The revolt broke out because Jews felt disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected and spiritually crushed. Theirs was a struggle to maintain a way of life that they saw being systematically eradicated. There are times when history seems to be repeating itself. I believe ours is such a time.

In order to stay in power the Greeks pit the Jews against each other: those who embraced Hellenism against those who resisted it. The divisiveness came to a head when the High Priest appointment to the Temple was taken away from its legitimate heir by the Greek ruler, and given — after a major bribe — to a pro-assimilation candidate. In our days this would be akin to unlimited financial contribution by special interests. What it meant then was that brothers of the same nation became enemies overnight and civil war ensued. The war turned into revolt against Greek rule only after the latter stepped into the conflict on the assimilationists’ side.

Learning from our ancestors’ history, we need to reject the divisive mindset that elements of our media and our politicians have led us to buy into: that we are a deeply divided nation, living in a highly individualistic society, where the accumulation of stuff matters more than people. We need to let go of the alienating isolating storyline that we have been fed to believe; and rebuild relationships based on mutual support and shared action. Today, we need to empower each other to dream a different dream, to envision a different future. We need to come together to manifest that vision, that dream, in our cities, in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Today we are called to rededicate our Temple.

So where do we start? We can start in the only place there ever is to start: right here and right now. The lesson of Chanukah points us in one direction: the tremendous power of community to change our collective fate. Bet Alef as a committed spiritual community can forward such a vision. Our vision is one where we manifest in our world all that we learn, who we each become by practical engagement in the very spirituality we embrace. Our vision is one where our community itself becomes the container through which these spiritual values are expressed; where we create the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of life we want to participate in, the kind of society we want to raise the next generation in. Like the Maccabees, we are the ones called to spiritual warriorship — to compassion and care for one another. We are the ones called to open our hearts to break down the isolation, in order to rebuild relationships between us on a basis of trust, mutual interdependence, and love.

This is “applied spirituality.” In Jewish tradition one’s spiritual height is measured by one’s actions in the world. The same is true for our communities. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quoted an ancient sutra that says: “The next Buddha will be the Sangha.” Our rabbis would have put it thus: “The next Mashiach will be the Kehillah” or, in other words, “The next Messiah will be the Community.” And for this Messiah, we certainly don’t have to wait.

Happy Chanukah.

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.

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.