Archives for February 2015

Torah Reflections – February 22-28, 2015

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One                                   

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Ornate garments are designed by the artists among the people for the ceremony, sewn together and decorated with gold, precious stones and colorful fabrics. In all, the celebration lasts for a week, throughout which sacrifices are made and a special altar is built at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in the Presence of the Eternal.

For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be God for them, and they may know that I am the Eternal One their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst. I am the Eternal One their God. [Exod. 29:42-46]

I am the Eternal One…” These simple words are the first words of the Ten Commandments. They are repeated here and dozens of other places in Torah. We read these words over and over again throughout the biblical text, but can we truly hear them? Can we truly know that these are not words pronounced by a deity outside of ourselves, rather, they are the words that we are to speak, that we are to awaken to; the Truth that we are to know? “I am the Eternal One” that manifests as all the me’s and all the you’s, all the I am’s ever uttered, even though we all have confused our “I am” with the narrow thoughts of our conditioned separate sense of self.

Yet Spirit is calling out to us from the Tent of Meeting, promising to greet us, longing to be remembered. This Tent is a space in consciousness, beyond the trappings of the ego, where our Divine self awakens, yearning to be known. It is reaching out from within us, telling us that if we simply return to the inner space, simply come to dwell in the inner Tent: “I will meet with you… I will speak with you…” All we have to do is take the first steps toward the Tent of Meeting, for the Divine Itself is the energy that will draw us back, that will liberate us. God is the inner power that moves us to transcend, to free ourselves from the shackles of the ego. It is the force that brings us “out of the land of Egypt,” out of the confining narrow space of ego-bound consciousness, so that It could “dwell in [our] midst,” dwell within us, as the True Being that we come to realize is our being, our “I am.”

But how are we to take these first steps? The image of this week’s Torah portion is that of an ordination. We are to know ourselves to be priests and priestesses. We are to consecrate ourselves to the sole desire to remember the One we are. And we are to engage in spiritual practices that support letting go of all our attachments, worldviews, partial truths and certainties; symbolized in our text by the image of the sacrifices. The way inward is, indeed, a process of shedding. One after the other we surrender the multiple layers of our mistaken identity that have obscured the Divine Light within. One after the other we let go of our false beliefs and opinions as if we were to surrender one piece of clothing after another from the many layers accumulated over the years that both suffocate us and weigh us down. Ultimately, underneath it all, we will find our spirit dressed in the most beautiful priestly garments adorned with gold and precious stones, with “blue, purple, and crimson yarn, and… fine twisted linen.” [Exod. 28:15]

Torah Reflections – February 15-21, 2015

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

 

Creating an Inner Sanctuary                                      

This week’s Torah portion opens with the famous verse: “V’asu Li mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham,” usually translated: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Though from this verse forward the entire portion enunciates God’s directions to building a Tabernacle in the wilderness in tedious detail, we read the text not as an Ikea book of instructions for assembling an actual structure in the Sinai desert, but as a blueprint to create a mishkan, a sanctuary within. Our translation of this verse in Exodus varies, therefore, from the common understanding. We take it to mean: “Let them create an inner sacred space that I might dwell within them.” But how are we to create this inner sacred space?

Our rabbis offer us a four-step approach. The first step, the foundation of this inner structure, is called Hoda’ah — thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Every morning, as we first wake-up, we are to acknowledge the Divine nature of Existence and the unfathomable gift of yet another day, by simply saying the words of the Modeh Ani. This attitude of thankfulness is a prerequisite to worship, to any ritualistic act and to any legal practice. And this is where we start; with an opening of the heart, with a sense of awe for the miracle of Creation. This attitude of thanksgiving is coupled with an acceptance of our role as surrendered participants in the unfolding of Creation called in Hebrew Kabbalat Ol. Both lay, together, the foundation of our inner sanctuary.

The second step, the walls of our inner mishkan, is called AvodahAvodah means work; in this case, spiritual work. Our spiritual work or practice is the natural expression of the foundation of our inner temple. For some of us it manifests through prayer and uttering words of blessings in every possible occasion; for others it means setting time aside to meditate each day; for others, it means immersing ourselves in nature as often as possible. Whatever our primary spiritual practice; this is Avodah; and no inner temple can be built without actively engaging in practice.

The third step, the coverings of your inner temple, is Torah. Torah, in this case, doesn’t refer to the five books of Moses, but is understood in its etymological sense meaning “Teaching.” Learning in general is a modality that supports growth in consciousness by expanding our awareness to include a plurality of thoughts and perspectives. But the study of spiritual text, in particular, is essential in our tradition, for it is seen as the doorway from the material world into the soul, and from the soul out to the material world. On one hand study opens our minds to understanding what lies beyond the narrow confines of our current worldview, our current truths, and allows us to continue to grow and evolve. On the other hand, study gives us the ability to live a principled-centered life and manifest in our world the highest spiritual teachings available to us.

And this leads me to our last step, which has to do not with the structure itself, but rather with the purpose this structure serves: Gemilut Chasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness. There is no point in creating an inner mishkan, our sages say, if it doesn’t lead us to performing right acts, to transforming ourselves into the loving and kind beings we know ourselves to be, and bring these energies into our world through our actions. Spirituality without action, as our rabbis point out, is for naught.

Surrendered gratitude, spiritual practice, life-long learning, and acts of Loving-Kindness are the foundation, the walls, the coverings and the purpose of our inner sanctuary. It is a sanctuary that not only is ever-changing, growing and evolving, but that ultimately remains forever unfinished.

Torah Reflections – February 8 – 14, 2015

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Our Highest Spiritual Principles                   

When a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:35-36]

These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Though taken at the literal level, these rules might appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives (who among us owns an ox anymore?); they are, at a deeper level, far more than simple rules and legislations.

Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st century concepts: When a corporation (call it BP for argument sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the cleaning up costs. Going further with the second verse: If it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for 2 prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area back to its pristine state.

The same goes for peoples’ behavior.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned… but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner too, shall be put to death.

                                                                                                                       [Exod. 21:28-29]

To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a university coach abuses a neighbor’s son, the coach shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that coach had been in the habit of abusing young boys for many years, and his superior, though aware, had failed to restrain him, the coach is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story everyday; in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our work places and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principals that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses, speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.

Torah Reflections – February 1-7, 2015

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief                           

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There were was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard — i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).”

[Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing theEssence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.