Archives for February 2016

Torah Reflections – February 21 – 27, 2016

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

What if Moses Never Came Back?  

         When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him. [Exod. 32:1]

This “god” Aaron is going to help build, is the infamous golden calf.  It had been forty days and forty nights since Moses had disappeared atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites had become restless, unable to tolerate weeks upon weeks of inaction. Moses must have died, they presumed. All these trials and tribulations were for naught. And so they resolved to resurrect an Egyptian god—that the golden calf represented—to find reassurance in the familiar. The episode of the Golden Calf is, therefore, seen by many rabbis as a spiritual backslide brought about by a lack of trust in the unfolding of a process.

Haven’t we all been there too? In our relationships; we cherish that peak experience moment (just like Sinai), but become impatient and disillusioned when it doesn’t happen again in subsequent encounters. Not Moses but “the magic” must have died. In our work too; we had this fabulous report, this successful event, this highly praised project we completed. Surely a promotion is coming next, success will be knocking at the door. But then weeks go by and, we surmise, all has been forgotten, our hard work was for naught. It is the same with spirituality. We have a peak experience following a specific practice. Immediately we commit ourselves to this teacher or that technique, ready to do whatever it takes to follow this newfound path. But when nothing happens for weeks and months our commitment fades, our trust in the practice or the teacher wanes and pretty soon we are back at square one.

Why is that? Where is this human universal pattern coming from? Two main answers come to mind: craving and distrust. One of the greatest pitfalls on the spiritual path, and in many other areas of our lives (especially our relationships,) is our all-too-human craving for the multiplication of blissful moments. There is inherently nothing wrong with living through such moments, through peak experiences. They are the energy-source that has the potential to fuel our growth, to dislodge us from our ego-bound identity. But they become pathological when we become stuck in grasping at them. Craving is a function of the ego. It is the ego that wants. That which is already everything, lacks nothing and, therefore, wants nothing. Our ego, wanting to see the blissful moment reproduced, steps in to control our experience and, in doing so, blocks any possibility of it happening again. Paradoxically, it is our craving for these experiences that prevents us from re-living them.

Our lack of trust—often a consequence of our pathological cravings—is another hurdle to overcome on our spiritual journey, on our life-journey. Though we might not readily see it, every encounter, every moment of practice has an impact on our evolution. Relationships deepen mostly when, after the fireworks, people are present to and engaged with one another in their commitment to walk together as one, day in and day out. A spiritual teacher once said: “Enlightenment is, most often, an act of grace, an accident. A serious day-to-day meditation practice—though it might not bring one to blissful states each time—makes one ‘accident-prone.’” Trust in the process. Trust that things are moving in the depth of our being even when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. This is the key to spiritual growth; the key to growth at any level. The Israelites’ experience at the foot of Mount Sinai speaks of the challenge of trust in the face of the invisible; be it God or Moses—or who or what—ever. It calls us to steadfast commitment to the deeper Truth we know within our heart, the Truth we recognize at the soul level.

Torah Reflections – February 14 – 20, 2016

Tetzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

The Olive Oil Paradigm  

       You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to kindle an eternal light. Aaron and his sons shall set it up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be an eternal decree for the Israelites throughout their generations.
[Exod. 27:20-21]
Thus we learn why in every synagogue, to this day, the Jewish people continues to kindle a flame, a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light over the ark that houses the Torah. Our people has followed this biblical injunction for 3000 years, beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem and the kindling of the seven-branched Menorah; which is, initially, what these verses referred to. Though our rabbis would say that this commandment was given to the Israelites at Sinai in anticipation of the Temple being built later — since the Israelites had no way of acquiring olives in the desert, let alone the necessary equipment for extracting oil — many scholars agree that this passage was written, instead, at a time when the Temple was already standing and retroactively inserted into the narrative.

But why oil from olives? A commentary found in the Etz Hayim Torah explains that olive oil was easier to refine so as to be perfectly “’clear,’ or… free of dregs,” compared to other sources for oil commonly used at the time such as “sesame seed, flax, and animal fat.” [p. 503] Additionally, since biblical times, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace. Choosing olive oil to light the Great Menorah of the Temple imbued the daily ritual with deeper meaning and the intentionality to kindle energies of peace in the world. Interestingly, the reason for the olive branch to have historically been associated with peace, our commentator continues, is that “olive trees mature slowly, so only when there was an extended time of peace, with agriculture left undisturbed, could the olive tree produce its fruit.”

Beyond the practical or symbolic aspects of the text, the first verse of the portion speaks of our being individually commanded to bringing oil to the Temple, and that this oil needs to be “clear” or “pure.” The Etz Hayim commentator pays particular attention to the relational component between the people and the oil they are bringing as an offering. It is not just what the individual is bringing that needs to be pure, but the heart of the individual making the offering itself needs to be “uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.” Our inner states, our teachers are saying, impact the quality of what we are offering our world. It might not be that the olive oil itself is physically contaminated by our emotional states—though we hold a vision that nature and humanity are not two but rather inseparably intertwined and inter-vibrating—but that the nature of our offering becomes polluted when our heart is clouded or closed-off by the inner battles of our ego.

Our task, therefore, is to become increasingly mindful of how we show up in our world. We are inherently creative beings who—whether we want it or not—continuously bring our unique blend of olive oil to every moment we share. To be mindful means that we recognize the shadow as well as the light when it expresses through us. It means that we hold ourselves with compassion when we fall short of the “Pure Extra Virgin” impossible ideal, and that we know to take responsibility and make amends when needed. And when our offering mindfully includes all aspects of ourselves, then the essence, the pure oil of our being joins with others’ to kindle the Great Menorah of the Temple of Creation with energies of peace, and harmony.

Torah Reflections – January 31 – February 6, 2016

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

You Shall Be Holy  

Both this past week and this week’s Torah portions speak of God’s desire for us to be holy. Last week, just before the Decalogue, God said: “… all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me… a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6) This week again God reiterates: “Be a Holy people to Me.” (Exod. 22:30) This Divine injunction seems to be of overriding importance in our entering into this Covenant with God. Yet why is this so critical and, most significantly, is this a fair demand to place on inherently flawed human beings?

Is holiness—that ideal we project upon heroic and saintly figures in all spiritual traditions—an achievable goal, even if we were to follow perfectly the entire 613 Mitzvot that Judaism sets before us as a practice? Isn’t God, by making such a demand of perfection of the fallible beings that we are, de facto abrogating the very Covenant He is wanting to enter into with us? Surely God knows better than to ask what is beyond human reach.

So how do we solve this dilemma? Given the text and God’s imperative, we are left with the only variable: the reader, the translator—the interpreter. What if we first asked ourselves: “Who is reading these words?” If we are able to listen carefully, we will notice that the part of self that is reading God’s words as a command that we be holy, is the striving part of self; the part of self that believes it can be perfected, the aspect of our being which lives in a world of “should” and beats itself up when it doesn’t meet its own expectations. In other words, only the ego is that part of self capable of reading God’s words as a demand made upon it.

But we can read these words at a very different level; a level which assumes that what looks to the ego like God’s commanding, is but a statement, an acknowledgment of Truth. The translation of Exod. 19:5-6 would, then, read: “… I manifest as all of Creation, therefore, as expressions of Me… you are holy.”  That kind of realization, beyond the grasp of the ego, sets the Covenant itself at a different level. We are not to strive to become what we are not, we are to let the holiness of the Divine we are flow through us as unencumbered as possible. The laws of the Torah are not there to coerce us into becoming holy; they are there to help us clear out the obstacles, the resistances, which prevent us from being the clearest channels possible for that Holy One to manifest through us. God needs us, as the unique beings that we are, to fulfill such a task.