Archives for May 2016

Torah Reflections – May 22-28, 2016

B’har

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

 

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” Andthat is vastly different.

This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16] How does the Torah justify this process? It reminds us that we are but renters, temporary visitors on this planet: “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]

The same applies if one is to become the bound laborer of one’s neighbor. On the fiftieth year, there is to be an amnesty, private debts are cancelled, and he and his family are to be returned to their previous status in society. Why? Again the Torah reminds us: “For they are My servants, who I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.” [Lev. 25:42]

Henry George (1839-1897) was an American politician and economist who sourced from the Bible the inspiration for his economic philosophy. He wrote:

“Moses saw that the real cause of the enslavement of the masses in Egypt was what has everywhere produced enslavement, the possession by a class of the land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership… would be inevitably to separate people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave labor… Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator… which no one has the right to monopolize… [Moses] tried hard to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotism… the wrong that is already filling American cities… There are many who believe that the Mosaic institutions were literally dictated by the Almighty, yet who would denounce as irreligious and ‘communistic’ any application of their spirit to the present day.”

Henry George might not have known it but he was also both a rabbi and a visionary. He powerfully captured the Torah’s warning against economic monopolies, against the concentration of financial power into too few hands which, inexorably, leads to the loss of the very freedom proclaimed by the Liberty Bell. Most critically, he recognized the Torah’s warning against creating societies devoid of Spirit, overrun by deified egos mainly concerned with securing the wealth and liberties of the few over the many. Ultimately, the “liberty” that Torah insists on and the Bell underscores is that which comes from wealth-redistribution and greater economic equality “throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Torah Reflections – May 15-21, 2016

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

 

What we Celebrate Defines Who we Are
In our weekly Torah reading we find the list of holidays to be celebrated by the Israelites on a yearly basis. This annual cycle of celebrations sets a beautiful frame for a life punctuated by spiritual encounters. Torah calls them “Moadei YHVHappointed-times of the Eternal.” [Lev. 23:2] Throughout the year we have appointments with God, meetings with Spirit. And each appointment is set with a different spiritual theme; a theme that is meant to support the deepening of the varying facets of our inner personal work. In the spring, Passover calls us to free ourselves from our habituated life. Then, for seven weeks, the Counting of the Omer invites us to purify ourselves and subdue our egos. On the fiftieth day we re-enact the moment of Revelation, place ourselves back at Sinai and receive the Torah all over again. We seek, that day, to drop beyond the self and know the still small voice of the One that is our voice. The summer months are spent in preparation for the High Holy Days; a time to forgive and a time to make amends, a time to clean house and heal both within and without. Yom Kippur itself is a death rehearsal where we let go of our physical self. Sukkot, which immediately follows in the fall, is a time to harvest the energies of the High Holy Days and place ourselves again in the cycle of life, immersed in nature, and celebrating the Divine in the abundance of all Its earthly manifestations. Then winter comes, and all goes dormant until next Passover. Beyond the biblical holidays, other celebrations were added to the calendar later on; namely Chanukah and Purim, which are both winter holidays and are not considered moadei YHVH, appointments with God. The energies of these holidays are strikingly different than their predecessors. Both are militaristic in nature, both are stories of resistance, political maneuvering, revolt and military triumph. In those days, our people felt the need to celebrate a different kind of miracle, a different kind of story. Uprooted from our ancestral land we needed to tell a different myth, reinvent ourselves, share a different hope for tomorrow.

In truth, there is something powerful about what it is we, as a people, celebrate; because what we celebrate defines who we are, not only as a nation but also as individuals participating in the unfolding of this national story. Take a look at the U.S. for example. What are the moadim, the appointed times of our secular calendar? As a nation we celebrate (in the order they were nationally decreed) holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday (a.k.a. President’s Day), Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Columbus Day and more recently, Martin Luther King Day. Out of these eight holidays, three are connected to war, three celebrate individuals who changed the course of U.S. history, one celebrates blue collar workers and their families, and one celebrates the bountifulness of America’s land. This paints a portrait of who we are and what we most value as a nation; and that in turn—whether made conscious or not—informs how we act in the world and who we become. In other words, if it looks like you are celebrating war and individualism, then that’s what you are passing on as a value. We have a sacred responsibility, therefore, when the holidays come around to make the unconscious conscious; to have conversations about the deeper meanings behind the celebratory rituals, and to reinterpret them in order to make them our own—a very Jewish thing to do. It is each individual’s job to see to it that there be congruence between the values one wishes to manifest in their world and pass on, and the message of our celebrations. Memorial Day is just around the corner, what will you be celebrating that weekend?

Torah Reflections – May 8-14, 2016

Kedoshim

Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

 

A Holiness Code for Tomorrow
The concluding verses in last week’s Torah portion marked the beginning of what is known as the Holiness Code which continues this week and will span the rest of the Book of Leviticus. This Holiness Code is a code of conduct, a guide that seeks to define a powerful spiritual practice, a way of being and acting in the world for the Jewish people. This all-important text begins with:

 

…I am the Eternal One your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their traditions… You shall observe my decrees and regulations, through the practice of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal One. [Lev. 18:2-5]

 

This sets the tone for creating a Holiness Code that sets apart, that distinguishes the Jewish people from its Canaanite neighbors. In the early years of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan this made perfect sense. All of us too, in our formative years, have spent much energy shaping our unique identity by defining who we were based on what we were not; differentiating ourselves from the social norms, and adopting behaviors antithetical to those in place (see parents for details.) No wonder that the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, also means “separate.” In the formative years of the Jewish people, such a Holiness Code solidified a specific Jewish identity through unique practices that were antithetical, as well, to those in place in the land. Three thousand years later, however, does the Holiness Code and the Halacha as its offshoot still serve this purpose, or has it evolved to embody something else? In other words, should post-modern Jewish identity still be tied to a Holiness Code?

 

In our days, many see these biblical verses as God denouncing assimilation. They argue that the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing for having too readily adopted the culture and practices of their host nations. Abnegating the teachings of the Torah—the precepts and values of our tradition, the practices that make us unique and, therefore, separate—they claim, threatens our very survival. There are deep truths in their argument. In many aspects, the culture in which we live is far from being holy; it is violent, hyper-sexual, unjust, and altogether values-confused in many ways. We might, indeed, be better off sticking to our time-honored traditions, our Holiness Code, in order to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual compass. But does that mean that we, as Jews, are to remain stuck at a reactive teenage level of consciousness in order to continue defining our sense of identity in this global world?

 

Let’s be honest though, there is a plurality of ways to express one’s Jewish identity in the 21st century. In truth, there has always been a plurality of ways. While many preach the myth of the once-upon-a-time “one way” everyone was Jewish, this has never been the case in our 3000 year history. Perhaps, in our days, we have taken this pluralism a little too far, though, and our Judaism has become individualistic to the extreme—each of us picking and choosing from the Holiness Code what works best for our lifestyle but without being consistent with that either. Is what’s left still Judaism then, or have we hollowed it out so much that it is no longer recognizable as such?

 

The answer to these questions, I suspect, lies in the middle. Not in the rejection of modernity as a threat to Jewish survival and, consequently, a fearful withdrawal into the rigid container of the ancient Holiness Code. Not in the rejection of this Holiness Code altogether as irrelevant and passé and, consequently, cutting ourselves off from our Judaic heritage which for generations has gifted us a spiritual practice that has helped us live more ethical, loving, compassionate, values-centered, healing lives. No; our day calls for a re-interpretation of our Holiness Code, of our Halacha, in a way that would make it relevant to our post-modern global lives. And not just “relevant,” but essential to it. A spiritual discipline that would help bring balance to the multidimensionality of our exponentially complex global lives. Perhaps, contrary to the original biblical Holiness Code of Leviticus—which set out to separate the Israelites from their neighbors in a reactive way—this Holiness Code of tomorrow would set out to redefine an evolving Jewish spiritual practice that would proactively contribute to uniting the nations of the world as one diverse human race on one precious and fragile planet. And on that day, Kadosh, the Hebrew word for holiness would no longer be understood as “separate,” rather it would have to rise to a loftier meaning: that of “integrated.”

Torah Reflections – May 1-7, 2016

Acharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

 

Drawing Closer to God
There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban”—translated as “sacrifice”—might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives—not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are—we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always