Archives for June 2016

Torah Reflections – June 19-25, 2016

Behaalot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Receiving Torah with a Kiss  
Arguably, the most important moment in the entire Jewish Bible, is that of the Revelation at Sinai and of matan Torah, of God gifting Torah. “Torah” means “teaching.” There, atop the trembling smoking mountain, from within a cloud, God spoke the Ten Commandments.  There, according to the rabbinic myth, Moses received the entire transmission of God’s teaching, both oral (later codified as the Talmud) and written (the Torah itself.) This transmission was through a direct communication from God to Moses. As our Torah portion reminds us this week:

And God said, “Hear these My words: When prophets of the Eternal arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses… With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Eternal.”
[Num. 12:6-8]

Transmission, as we learn here, happens at different levels for different recipients. The Torah that Moses received at Sinai was mouth to mouth, was through God’s kiss. The Hebrew in that verse is literally: “mouth to mouth I speak within him.” What Moses awakens to in that transmission is the very essence of Torah, its innermost light, the pure light of God’s Being. It is a Torah of light that Moses receives directly; an identity with the “I AM/Anochi” of the first commandment. This I AM-ness, the prophets can realize mediated through dreams and visions, but the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, at a lower level yet, couldn’t even hear it. They “saw the voices” the Torah recalls (Exod. 20:15,) but were unable to hear. They asked Moses to act as intercessor, and whatever commandments he would speak they vowed “Naaseh V’nishmah – We will do them, and then we will hear.” (Exod. 24:7) Perhaps there are, therefore, three levels of Torah. Moses’ Torah of pure light, beyond words and images; the Torah of the prophets—which awakens at the subtle level of dreams and visions—and the Torah for the rest of us, the one which comes in a scroll of words, telling stories and imparting commandments.

This latter Torah is the one we, at the base of Mount Sinai, are to study and derive from it the teachings and practices relevant and applicable to our life in support of a deeper hearing: Naaseh V’Nishmah. “The commandment is a lamp and Torah is light” says the book of Proverbs (6:23). Within each commandment, within each practice the totality of the light of Torah is contained, the infinite light of God is present. We study Torah because it is a vehicle which inspires our growth on the spiritual path up the mountain. As our mastery expands, and begins to move beyond the literal level of understanding, more is revealed to us. Between the words and through them, we awaken to the more subtle teachings, to the visions of the enlightened masters who wrote them, to the sparks of divine light embedded within. Our study can also lead us beyond the words altogether, where the sparks become pure light and we are finally able to hear the Anochi of the first commandment, the I AM that we are, the I AM that we have always been. This is the promise that Torah study holds. This is our particular path to universal Truth.

Torah Reflections – June 12-18, 2016

Naso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Freedom From The Yoke of Desires  

Mindfulness is often described as the art of being present to each moment, of paying attention to each experience in our everyday life. Interestingly, paying attention in Hebrew is “lasim lev,” meaning “to place heart.” The Hebrew enjoins us to pour our heart into every moment we live. Yet there is an added dimension of the practice of mindfulness; that of intentionality. Mindfulness is not only paying attention to every moment but also entering into every moment with kavanah, with sharp intentionality. I add the word “sharp” here, because the root of the word kavanahimplies aiming, strict directionality, one-pointedness. Depending on the specific spiritual practice, different kavanot, different intentions can be used. Our particularkavanah will correspond to our personal answer to the question: “What is the purpose of my engaging in this practice?”

In this week’s Torah portion we read about a specific and highly intentional spiritual practice; that of the Nazarite Vow. For a limited amount of time, one vows to renounce all worldly pleasures and passions and become a Nazarite, which in Hebrew means “set aside” or “consecrated.” Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) comments: “Know that all human beings are slaves to their passions, the true king and master, he who wears the genuine crown of sovereignty upon his head, is he who is free from the rule of passions.” The kavanah, in the Nazarite case, was to free oneself from desires, and cravings. Though he seems to support the potency of the Nazarite practice, Ibn Ezra and the overwhelming majority of our rabbis since Talmudic times saw such a vow as undesirable. Our masters frowned upon asceticism and disapproved of self-denial. Not only did they object to any restrictions above and beyond the prohibitions of the Torah (seeing it as an expression of arrogance rather than humility,) but saw such practice as denying the abundant goodness provided by God through Creation. Even though the kavanah had some merit, the practice itself was deemed counterproductive. Our rabbis believed that abstinence only leads to more cravings and fuels more desires.

Perhaps the answer resides midway between these two opposing views. Though we find in our days that abstinence is one necessary aspect of combating addiction, mindful living might, in fact, be another part of the answer to the problem the Nazarite Vow sought to conquer. In this case I would offer that our kavanah for mindfulness practice be: “To be present to what is, just as it is.” When we are in the moment with all our heart, and with the kavanah to let whatever is arising in our awareness be what it is, without judging, without comparing, without wanting, without even naming or labeling our experience; then all desires cease to be, all cravings disappear, all attachments dissolve. We can even be mindfully present to our desires and our cravings themselves, letting them arise in consciousness. And as we do so, holding them as object in awareness, we are no longer identified with them and they lose their power over us. We can watch them arise, with curiosity and interest, but we no longer automatically react to their dictates. In that moment, like Ibn Ezra said a thousand years ago we are “free from the rule of passions,” liberated from the yoke of the misery of our endlessly unfulfilled desires.

Torah Reflections – June 5-11, 2016

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 

We Lose Our self to Find Our Self

The midrash relating to the opening of this week’s Torah portion, “B’midbar,” meaning: “In the wilderness;” asks its reader: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” Why not, our rabbis wondered, give the Torah in the more spiritually elevated Promised Land atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, for example? Besides, why give the Torah in the desert to a generation of stiff-necked people whose spirit had been crushed by years of enslavement? Giving the Torah in the Promised Land to the first generation of born-free Israelites offered the possibility of greater spiritual readiness on the part of the recipients.

The answer to these questions has to do with purpose. On one hand, Torah is akin to a spiritual conveyor belt whose purpose is to support anyone interested in personal growth and insight into Truth, to expand one’s consciousness through practice. As such it offers laws, guidelines and paths to follow; all of which are made universally available. Torah doesn’t discriminate as to where one finds oneself when embarking on one’s spiritual journey. One doesn’t need to already be at a specific level of consciousness, spiritually ready, to step onto the path of Torah. There is no Promised Land to have reached before being able to receive Torah; it is available to all of us — stiff-necked or not. Torah was given in the desert because, oftentimes, that’s where we find ourselves as we take our first step on our spiritual journey. As the Chasidic masters explain: “The desert is the most miserable of all places. Having received the Torah there, Israel could take its Torah to the deprived of the earth, and from lowliness ascend to the heights.”

On the other hand, that the Torah was given in the desert teaches us about the purpose of the path itself. The questions the rabbis of the midrash ask, are reflective of our own resistance to embarking on any kind of spiritual journey. We are the ones endlessly postponing our commitment to our path, waiting for the “right time” or the “right conditions.” We wait for our Jerusalem, for our life to be in that “Promised Land” place where we’ll finally have the time, resources and support to really do it. Once our life is no longer chaotic, unpredictable, and open-ended — the very definition of wilderness — then we will be able to receive Torah, to engage fully in our spiritual practice. Not only will that day never come, the path itself invites us to take steps in the opposite direction. The Torah was given in the desert because that’s exactly where our spiritual unfolding is taking us that we might become available to deeply hearing her teachings; that’s where she is inviting us to meet her. Awakening to the empty Truth of who we are can only be attained through emptying ourselves from all that we believe is our self. The process is one of deconstruction, of unknowing, of embracing uncertainty, unpredictability and open-endedness. In other words, the desert is where we lose our self in order to find our Self. As themidrash ultimately answers: “Who knows Torah? Those who make themselves like the wilderness

Torah Reflections – May 29 – June 4, 2016

B’chukotai

Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

The last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, B’chukotai, begins with: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Lev. 26:3] and continues with defining for us all the rewards God will bestow upon us for doing so. It then goes on to say: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” [Lev. 26:14-16] and proceeds to graphically detail all the punishments that would result from such behavior.

That God deals in rewards and punishments, however, is an idea that no longer works for the overwhelming majority of modern western thinkers. This anachronistic idea has brought many to abandon religion altogether. The thought that righteous behavior yields success, prosperity and peace, and sinful behavior brings disease, poverty and fear—though it might have influenced the people of antiquity—is no longer useful; for it is simply not true. But the solution is not so much that religion needs to be done away with along with this ancient notion of God; rather we might be able to save both by awakening to a new idea of God—to “evolve” God to meet our modern minds. Why? Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.

“Evolving” God to a new understanding is exactly what our sages did several hundred years ago. Already at the time of the Renaissance sixteenth century mystics like Rabbi Moses Cordovero or Rabbi Isaac Luria of the kabbalistic school of Safed in northern Israel, presented a revolutionary nondual theology. With it, the idea of God asexclusively “out there,” external to, or other than, the manifest Universe was replaced by a vision of God which—while still recognizing its transcendent aspect—added the notion that God is not only fully present in the manifest Universe, but that He is that Universe through and through. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of Modernity, the founding figure of Chassidism; Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760) and his many successors in the Chassidic movement, made this nondual, panentheistic theology the central pillar of their belief system, defining God through “negative theology” which claimed that there is no one that God is not, no where that God is not, no when that God is not, nothing that God is not.

With an idea of God better fitting to our twenty first century sensitivities, rooted in Kabbalah and early Chassidism, we come back to the biblical text with a different set of eyes. Wearing our nondual reading glasses we recognize that, in this story, God is the bestower of reward and the rewarded, the punisher and the punished all at once. We come to realize that one of the deeper teaching available in our text is that, inherent in Creation, is the existence of light and darkness, plenitude and pain; and that both are expressions of the Divine One. This dualistic experience is simply par for the course of our lives. The more we resist it, the more we seek to exclusively experience the light, want only happiness and rewards, the more we set ourselves up for suffering. The true reward of the spiritual path—of taking up the covenant—however, lies in the acceptance that our lives are a series of “acts of God” some fortunate, others tragic, that we neither cause nor have control over. As we let go of our need for our human experience to be different than what it is (or what it was), and are able to embrace both the light and the shadow of life with equanimity, we come closer to experiencing our true Divine nature, the nondual Essence of Being that we are.