Archives for July 2016

Torah Reflections – July 10-16, 2016

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth  

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother—replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886)  Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies—those we hold grudges against, those we dislike—into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently—like with a Golem—given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

Torah Reflections – July 3-9, 2016

Korach


Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Do You Believe in Free Will?

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and his brother Aaron are confronted with a revolt led by Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi. Korach and his followers challenge Moses’ authority, questioning his position as their leader: “Why do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] they vehemently argue. But Moses isn’t moved by their accusations. He retorts that they should leave it to God to choose the one to lead the people. Preparations are made for the next morning’s showdown. Then, as God is about to unleash His wrath upon the rebels, Moses declares: “By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising.” [Num. 16:28]

This declaration left me perplexed. On one hand Moses was negating his role as a leader seemingly saying that anyone could have done what he did since he only obeyed God’s orders. One the other hand, he was painting a pretty deterministic picture of his life, thus abdicating all personal responsibility as a leader. In both cases he was justifying Korach’s accusation. This came on the heels of a conversation I was having with one of my B’nai Mitzvah students. We talked about Joseph (back in the Book of Exodus) telling his brothers that they had sold him into slavery as part of God’s plan to ultimately place him in command of Egypt so that he could save their lives from the impending famine. My student was arguing against this sense of inescapable destiny, claiming that it removed the responsibility for our actions from us.

He raised a critical question. Do we, or do we not believe in determinism? Our first reaction is “of course not!” We are rational beings, educated modern thinkers, and we cannot conceive of anything being predetermined. After all, that wouldn’t leave room for freedom, would it? Or for meaning. Nor, like my student pointed out, for personal responsibility or accountability. Our entire legal system would be in jeopardy. That being said, how often do we catch ourselves saying “Oh, it was meant to be,” or “things happen for a reason;” sayings that suggest a deterministic line of thinking? So which is it? Does everything happen for a reason, or is everything totally random? In truth, there are competing answers in our tradition as well. Even though our rabbis insist on “free will” being the very cornerstone of Judaism, God doesn’t make much room for it in Torah. Moses is right, “it was the Eternal who sent [him] to do all these things.” Moses didn’t even want to go! God performed all the miracles, sent all the plagues. Moses repeated God’s teachings and performed God’s commands.

Except once. Once — in next week’s Torah portion — Moses loses his composure. Once, he becomes so angry at the Israelites’ never-ending complaints that, contrary to God’s explicit orders to tell a rock to yield water, Moses hits the rock with his staff in anger instead. That moment of apparent free will, that moment of disobedience, where his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, overtook him, caused Moses to be punished by God. He was to die before entering the Promised Land. Is this one moment of disobedience enough to restore our belief in free will? I cannot tell you what my answer would be, for the process of Torah study is about wrestling with the question and for you to come up with your own answer… or with the answer that God had already seeded in your soul.

Torah Reflections – June 26 – July 2, 2016

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

They Warned Moses & They Were Right
This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.

Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But — they were wrong.

Why? Because what the ten elders knew, was that the Israelites were not spiritually ready to be immersed in such a society; that they would lose themselves there, their spirit crushed again; this time not by harsh slave labor, but by the temptations of a life of riches. In this society agriculture provided an abundance of produce — in excess, in fact. People had genetically modified grapes to grow them into giant clusters. Cattle, too, was abundant, and milk products flooded the market.  Even the insect world was manipulated to allow both for abundant harvests and excessive honey production. Can you imagine the shock of stepping into such a land when all you have ever known is slavery?

Those ten leaders knew that the Hebrews slaves, overcome with desires, would go unconscious in such seductive surroundings; they would lose their newly acquired moral compass and fall prey to the temptations of materialistic pursuit. Without first a strong spiritual and moral anchor, without having spent more time secluded in the wilderness, the Hebrews’ resolve to the one God, their embrace of the laws of Moses, would collapse, and the faith of Abraham would be lost forever. The elders’ concern wasn’t that the Israelites would be defeated by these giants who lived in fortified gated cities. Rather, they were concerned they would become like them, overweighed gluttonous war-mongers focused on amassing, bigger, better, more material wealth by plundering earth resources.

We, too, need to remember to create spaces in our lives that promote our re-sourcing at the silent center of our inner wilderness. And though there are many ways to accomplish this; belonging to spiritual communities that foster cultivating such inner wilderness is, powerfully, one of them. In such communities one is able to find authentic relationships, support amidst isolation, spiritual nourishment, and moral strength. They help affirm our own moral compass, our own deeply cherished values, that we may express them in our lives. They keep us connected to the possibility of a world that speaks of compassion, love, peace and tolerance, and where the sustainability of our planet and all its life forms is seen as sacred. The Israelites had not yet constituted themselves into such a community. They didn’t have the spiritual tools to face the world of Canaan. And though it is going to cost thirty-eight more years of wandering, and the death of a whole generation; there was no viable alternative but to take the time and space necessary to establish spiritual grounding.The ten elders were right.