Archives for March 2015

Passover Reflections – March 22 – 28, 2015

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

 

Mah Nish’tanah? What Has Changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus two weeks ago, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. In 2010 I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few: 

Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless – aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”- to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence.

 

To me this is a critical point. Am I even aware of my Mitzrayim? When Moses comes to tell our ancestors that it is time for them to leave Egypt, to break free from slavery: “…they could not hear him, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6:9] The Chasidic masters teach that the darkest depth of enslavement is when we have grown accustomed to it; we then no longer know we are enslaved. This portion of our Haggadah concludes with a beautiful quote from Harriet Tubman that says: “I could have saved thousands more if I could have convinced them they were slaves.” Our first step toward freedom, therefore, is to know that we are enslaved; enslaved to our routine, enslaved to our old stories, enslaved to our rigid views. Our second step is to ask Mah Nish’tanah?

 

[Our story telling begins] with astonishment: “Ma nish’tanah? …How is this night different from other nights?” By astonishment and questioning, we are able to liberate ourselves from the grip of certain habits of thought, convictions, theories, opinions, and prejudices that are held toward self, toward others, and toward the many readily-accepted ways of the world. This question, however, has another dimension. “Mah nish’tanah?” “What has changed?” “What has shifted?” Because the question is even possible, we know that it is our awareness that has shifted. The questioning itself implies awareness. Whatever our enslavement is, our questioning implies that we are now able to step outside of it, and look at it as a “what” – as an object in our consciousness. Our ability to question means that this “what” no longer owns us.

A key aspect of our enslavement is that we have given up questioning. We have settled intoour version of reality, of truth, of right and wrong and we have stopped questioning our own assumptions, we have stopped listening to the other side. Our teachers are, therefore, challenging us: “You want to be free? Question everything! Challenge all your truths! Doubt all your certainties!” Judaism itself is, at its core, a tradition of iconoclasts, of revolutionaries, of provocative questioners. So I start my process this year, embracing my lineage, with “Mah Nish’tanah?” What has changed in me? Am I still growing? Am I still evolving? Am I still questioning and challenging the inner status quo?

 

PS:

There are copies of the Bet Alef Haggadah available to anyone who needs one for the first Seder, for a small donation to cover printing and mailing costs. Contact Rachel in the office.

Make sure you attend our Community Passover Seder, Saturday April 4th, and join us in exploring the deeper mystical teachings embedded in the Haggadah, in this tale of personal liberation. Click here to register.

Torah Reflections – March 8 – 14, 2015

Vayak’hel – Pekudei

Exodus 38:21 – 40:38

Practices on The Way to Sinai                         

                   

This week’s Torah portion brings the book of Exodus to a close. On the surface, these past weeks told the story of our Exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim) and our experience at Sinai; yet at a deeper level, the text speaks of a spiritual journey of awakening. The wordMitzrayim can also be understood as meaning “narrow places” (of consciousness).Mitzrayim represents the self-centered contracted awareness. Conversely, Sinai symbolizes the inner space of freedom, of expanded awareness where we are able to experience Revelation and meet God. The inner journey from one to the other is one of dis-identification from our enslaving conditioned mind, from our ego; and of awakening to the One that is All. But how can we, today, retrace the steps of our ancestors in order to glean such an expanded awareness?

 

Our Torah portion begins:

 

These are the accountings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony that were accounted by Moses for the labor of the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aharon the priest. [Exod. 38:21]

 

What we are called to do, in the concluding verses of Exodus, is to build a Tabernacle; a sanctuary wherein we will be able to worship our newly revealed God. We have journeyed from a place of slavery under the whip of Pharaoh in Egypt, to “labor” toward creating a place of worship under the thundercloud of God at Sinai. Interestingly, the word for “slavery” in Hebrew shares the same root as the word for “labor” and the word for “worship;” respectively: av’dut, avodah, and avodah again. There is a fourth word sharing this same root; the word for “service” (also avodah). So what is the Hebrew hinting at here?

 

First and foremost, if a language conveys the deepest values of a people, then we can see that, since biblical times, the Hebrews considered Avodah/service to be mankind’s ultimate purpose. As far as Judaism is concerned, to serve is our primary reason for being; not the pursuit of happiness. And so our journey from av’dut to avodah, from slavery to Divine Work can be seen as a journey of expanding service. It begins with the awareness that we are stuck in serving (or even worshiping) the every whim of our ego, unconsciously acting out the trappings of our conditioned mind. It continues with shifting the object of our service from self to other, to all others, to planet, and ultimately to God or Life. In transforming the work/labor that is our life to becoming one of service, we are able to dis-identify with the constricted ego-personality and sense into God’s Presence not only in the other’s eyes but in the world that envelops us.

 

Torah’s subtle injunction might be: be of service to your loved ones, your neighbors, your co-workers. Be of service to your community and beyond your community. Serve to bring peace, and understanding between nations and religions. Serve to heal the ecosystem both locally and globally. Become the peaceful steward of the earth. Why? Because the path of service — from av’dut to avodah — is one of the paths that lead from Egypt to Sinai, enabling us to evolve from ego-consciousness to God-consciousness; and from this place, to know the world to be an all-embracing sacred Tabernacle.