Archives for January 2016

Torah Reflections – January 10 – 16, 2016

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves  

There is one peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this week’s Torah portion. While the Torah portion itself tells of the last plagues wrought upon Egypt by God and, in the end, of the Israelites’ mass departure from Egypt; the root of the word that concerns us here is Avad. At the beginning of the portion we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim (translated here as “servants” or “courtiers”), in order that I may display my Signs among them.” [Ex. 10:1] However, later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim (rendered here as “bondage” or “slaves”).” [Ex.13:3] Yet, in another place where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may v’YaAv’duni (“worship Me”).” [Ex. 10:3]

I posit, however, that there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened heart. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, but we have hardened our heart to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.

But the Divine within, continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our heart. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from of our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may YaV’duni/“become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate.  No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e. no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating His will over ours. Rather we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here;” leading a life that embodies the Divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting and understanding ways of being; and expresses our highest value, doing justice, practicing love and compassion and walking humbly along our unique path.

Torah Reflections – January 3 – 9, 2016

Va’eira

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?

We find the answer to our questions in the early verses of this week’s Torah portion. In the first verse Moses is described as stepping into the Truth of his being, into the True I Am-ness that he is: not the illusion of the separate sense of self, of the ego; rather YHVH Itself, the transcendent aspect of Being. “I am YHVH” says the Torah [Exod. 6:2]. This I Am-ness, that Moses embodies, is now aware of the parts of the conditioned self still oppressed and in bondage, under the tight lid of the narrow consciousness that is Moses’ inner Mitzrayim, his inner Egypt. As our text has it: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage.” [Exod. 6:5] These are the parts of self he is to free from the illusion of separateness: “I am YHVH; I will free you from the burdens of Egypt.” [Exod. 6:6] Because God, is a force that liberates. God is defined as an energy that frees us from our addiction to power, to control; from the exclusive narrow-mindedness of ego; a force that leads us into a land of inclusiveness, compassion, serenity, awe and humility. Why? So that “you shall know that I Am YHVH” [Exod. 6:7], so that our separate sense of self may dissolve in our knowing the Greater “I Am” that we are. Because in that knowing of our Greater Identity, there is no more need for control or power, and we can relax, breathe deeply and let go, as the little “i” is seen through and through for the emptiness that it is.

The journey in and out of Egypt that God sets up is, therefore, part of the process of spiritual awakening. The plagues themselves are necessary. We might mistakenly think that they are directed at the Egyptians, but I would venture to say that they are for the ultimate benefit of the Israelites, instead. Because “when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit.” [Exod.6:9] The reality of our conditioned self is that it can’t hear our inner Moses, no matter how powerful the Truth. It needs the plagues. It needs the pain of the spiritual practice that results from time to time in a little glimpse into that Truth, knowing full well that after each such opening experience, our heart closes off and hardens again, and we fall back into thinking ourselves to be the separate ego. Perhaps our text is telling us that liberation comes after ten of these experiences, after ten awesome displays of God’s Presence. And so there might be no other way to get to the Promised Land but via Egypt. Without Egypt we might never be able to even recognize the Promised Land or even know that it exists. In order for us to know the Light of the One we are, we first need to recognize the bondage that keeps us in darkness. We need to know that we are enslaved in order to awaken to the possibility of liberation.

Torah Reflections – Dec. 27 – Jan. 2, 2015

Shemot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

You Can Take Moses Out of Egypt, But…  

This week marks the beginning of the Exodus story with Moses as its central character. At its core, this story is one of liberation. And beneath its literal level, it is about the inner spiritual journey of liberation told through a character named Moses; a stand-in for all our spiritual journeys.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s court. His privileged elitist upbringing reflects an egocentric narrow level of consciousness—the Hebrew word for Egypt being understood here to mean “narrow” or “constricted”.  Many midrashic stories paint Moses as a deeply spiritual and exceedingly bright youth, growing up in a place that was too constricting for his soaring spirit. As he matures, he begins to wrestle with his inner egotistic Egyptian taskmaster that keeps his spiritual being in shackles, brutalizing it and beating it into submission. But as Torah relates, one day, “Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen,” [Exod. 2:11] and killed him. The rabbis of the Midrash tell us that Moses kills the Egyptian by pronouncing God’s Name. In a first brief flash of awakening, and through Divine Grace, Moses temporarily transcends his ego (though the biblical image is that of killing). But the inner voices of fear soon take over again, and though Moses is now aware that—after such an experience—he will never be able to go back to Pharaoh’s court, he is also afraid of facing the consequences of his awakening, so he flees in an attempt to hide away from his uncovered higher Self.

Now you can run, but you can’t hide. When fear drives him to run away, Torah describes Moses ending up in the land of Midian (when Midian means “striving” in Hebrew) and sitting down by a well: the life-giving inner Source. In Midian he meets Jethro (whose name means “Preeminent One,”) a priest who fathered seven daughters. Kabbalists understand Jethro to represent the Divine Masculine transcendent principle, and his seven lower Sefirot (stages of Divine emanation as the manifest universe) as representing the Divine feminine principles. And so Moses begins a time of spiritual initiation, striving to uncover the deeper Truth of his being, while shepherding the inner flock of the Preeminent One; his mentor.

And this leads up to the story of the burning bush. On that day, Moses comes to the mountain of God called Horeb, which can be understood to mean “solitude,” and describes the state of consciousness one reaches prior to experiencing revelation. There, Moses is startled by a great Light awakening within him that transcends human rational understanding. He realizes that the burning Light that calls his name is the Light that he is, and he exclaims “Hineni! – Here, I am!” this blazing Light of Being!  In that moment Moses awakens to the nondual Light that is all, the “I AM” that is Is-ness itself yet transcends it at the same time. The very next verse, however, God tells him to go back and free the parts of self that are still stuck in his Egypt, to liberate those shadow parts of his being still repressed, still denied; for enlightenment doesn’t deal with healing the conditioned self. But Moses resists. He argues with God that he doesn’t want to go back to Egypt; that he won’t be able to free those parts of self forever enslaved to fear and to the entrenched patterns of ego. Why not stay in this blissful state of consciousness instead? The spiritual path, however, does not end with enlightenment. In a way, it begins there. But now, with the Light of Nondual Understanding one is called to do the work that will illuminate the darkest corners of one’s psyche. And as we will see, it will take Moses the rest of his life, after having taken himself out of Egypt, to take Egypt out of himself.