Archives for September 2016

Torah Reflections – Sept. 25 – Oct. 1, 2016


Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Embracing Our Unpreparedness


My heart is beating a little bit faster than usual today. No, I didn’t have one cup of coffee too many. But it just so happens that the Torah portion for this week isNitzavim; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvahportion”—read during the High Holy Days—where we are called to return, to turn inward. This means that the High Holy Days are just around the corner, and with that, come both excitement and trepidation; excitement, because this is the time of the year when we get to embark on the most meaningful journey inward; when space is provided for us to dig deeper and face our own shadow, all the while being surrounded by the supportive energies of a community of fellow travelers. Yet trepidations arise, because this is also the time of the year when the title of one of my favorite books (by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l) flashes before me its neon-red letters blinking in my panicked awareness: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. My feeling exactly!

But what if this is exactly what it is all about? What if our being “Completely Unprepared” is exactly what is required of us to fully enter into the “Real”-ness of the High Holy Days? Let’s face it, no matter how much time we spend getting ourselves ready to meet these holy days, when Rosh Hashanah eve comes around, we still feel totally unrehearsed. What if, therefore, showing up as we are, with all our messes and contradictions, unpolished and raw, was all that is asked of us? Perhaps fully embracing our unpreparedness, letting go of the well-adjusted façade we present the world the rest of the year, and inviting all aspects of our self to meet these days, is the first spiritual teaching that the Holy Days offer. This seems to be, indeed, what the first two verses of Nitzavim—in my interpretative translation—are calling us to do:

        You are standing here, this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God—your leader-self, your wise-self, your controlling-self… your inner child… your alienated part of self, your destructive self, the part of self connected to Source…(Deut. 29:9-10)

Embracing the messiness of life, letting go of the pretense that keeps us separate, that prevents us from truly knowing not only each other’s heart but our own heart as well,  is the prerequisite to our embarking again on this journey of healing which begins with this new year, on Rosh Hashanah. So come exactly as you are! Come utterly unprepared! But come! Bring all aspects of your being to meet that moment! Then you will be able to say, when God calls to you: “Hineni—here I am.”

Torah Reflections – Sept. 18 – 24, 2016

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Listening to God’s Voice


As the rabbis of Talmudic times ordered the daily prayer schedule, they made sure we recite the Sh’ma—the central affirmation of our tradition—at least three times a day; during morning and evening services and immediately preceding sleep. It is also well-known that the six words of the Sh’ma are to be the final words we utter on our last breath; and since we do not know when that will be, we are to continuously be present to these words. The verse itself is found in the book of Deuteronomy, and is translated thus: “Listen, Israel: The Eternal manifests as all that Is, the Eternal is One.” [Deut. 6:4] Because the Sh’ma is so fundamental to Judaism, we might mistakenly think that this one passage in Deuteronomy is the only place Israel is called to listen. But in truth, this injunction is found in other places in Torah, including in this week’s Torah portion; and this instance bears no less gravitas than its more prominent counterpart. It reads: “Be Silent! Listen, Israel… listen to the voice of the Eternal One.” [Deut. 27:9-10]

However powerful the command, one can’t help but wonder how one is supposed to heed it. How do we listen to the voice of God? Our teachers over the generations have told us that God never stops talking; that it is us who have to make ourselves available for hearing. One of the metaphors is that God’s voice is like an ongoing radio wave and that all we have to do is tune our inner transistor to the right frequency. Tuning ourselves to hearing God’s voice, therefore, requires an inner turning, as that voice expresses from within us, not from without. It might be a bit daunting to consider that we are the conduit through which God’s voice is heard, that we are, in fact, the voice of God. We know ourselves and the hurtful ways we speak at times, and doubt we would be a reliable conduit for Divine expression. But that is because most of the time we are tuned to our ego frequency, to our conditioned self; and when we are, our words are mostly expressions of that conditioning.

When we are tuned exclusively to the ego frequency, what we hear is the relentless voice of the inner controller, the inner critique, the fearful, the embattled, the endlessly dissatisfied. When we are tuned to the frequency of our inner Higher Self, what we hear is the voice of the loving, of the compassionate, the embracing, the non-attached, non-preferring, equanimous, always content One. Shifting from the former to the latter begins with recognizing that— because an alternative exists—we don’t have to remain collapsed in the conditioned ego self. We don’t have to believe in these voices that tend to dominate our day-to-day life. Armed with this recognition we engage in meditation, following the Torah’s invitation to “Be Silent!” Meditation is one of the techniques that help us dis-identify from the voices of the conditioned self by simply looking at them from the standpoint of our True Self, as objects arising within the awareness of that True Self. Both the voices of the conditioned ego self and those of the True Self are God’s voices, but the latter transcends and includes the former. As our practice deepens, we are able to stand increasingly as Awareness, as our True Self, and to tune-in to the voice of God awakening at that level. When we do, the voice of our True Self begins to infuse and transform our conditioned self and we noticeably begin to show up in our daily life more loving and compassionate, less fearful and controlling. Listening to God’s voice we are transformed. Being transformed we, in turn, transform the world around us into a more peaceful, loving and caring place.

Torah Reflections – Sept. 11 – 17, 2016

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Why There’s a Blessing for Everything  


As we find ourselves entering the second half of the book of Deuteronomy, our weekly parasha/portion contains a record of individual, familial, and communal laws and mitzvot. In the passage that pertains to individual vows, we read: “Guard what comes forth through your lips.” [Deut. 23:24] In order to ensure the letter of the commandment is followed, our rabbis often generalize and thusly determine that this applies to all speech. Knowing the difficulty of fulfilling such a mitzvah, our sages devised an intense regimen of daily study, prayers and blessings that limit opportunities for idle time and casual conversation. By busying ourselves with words of Torah, praying three times a day, and always being on the lookout for an opportunity to say a blessing, the likelihood of our minds remaining steeped in spiritual matters and focused on the holy is greater.
A mitzvah is an act in the world connected or flowing from our inner Divine Source. The very act of performing a mitzvah connects or re-connects us to that Source. With this understanding, the words we utter become a mitzvah when they flow from that inner Divine Heart of compassion, inclusiveness, and love. When we speak in this way, our very being becomes a connector between the Transcendent and the Manifest; we are the links between Heaven and Earth. Saying blessings over our food is a good case in point. I learned about this in my pre-teen years from my rabbi in France. I asked him why we had to say the blessing over the fruits of the trees before biting into an apple. He explained to me that the reason we say this blessing is not for ourselves, but for the apple. In the moment of consuming an apple, he continued, we are fulfilling its life-purpose. This apple was created to sustain and nourish us, and as we eat it we complete its lifecycle. The words of blessings we utter before our biting into it are, therefore, said on behalf of the apple which doesn’t have a mouth, and cannot praise and thank its Creator for the blessing of its life now made whole. It is our responsibility to say words of blessing in order to redeem the life of that apple, connecting Earth to Heaven, remembering the Many as infinite expressions of the One.

In this month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days, as we search our hearts and take stock of a year that was, we are asked to assess the many ways we have failed toguard what comes forth through [our] lips. We bring to awareness the times when we’ve become disconnected from Source, from knowing the Divine in all of Its creations, and missed the mark. This has manifested itself in us through hurtful speech, deception, unfair judgment, and scorn of self and others. But rather than fighting ourselves to change ourselves (which never works,) our tradition offers us to practice the mitzvah of Shmirat Halashon/Right Speech instead. While Right Speech includes abstaining from gossip, lies and slander, most importantly it is about engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of blessing. This simple and beautiful practice serves to support our living more consciously, and with greater intentionality. We often joke that, in Judaism, there is a blessing for everything; but kidding aside there is power in saying “Blessed One, You are That which manifests as…” in the face of all our experiences. So bless the apple, bless the roof over your head or the warmth of deep friendship. Bless the light and the darkness, the love and the fear. Bless every precious moment of awareness, l’shem Yichud, for the sake of Unification, for the sake of Connection, for making Heaven and Earth One.

Torah Reflections – Sept. 4 – 10, 2016


Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Humility is not Humiliation 


This week is the first week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, to reviewing the year that was, and to beginning the spiritual process called Teshuvah. Teshuvahis a re-turning, a turning inward, an invitation to fearlessly examine the unhealthy and sometimes even harmful ways we show up in our lives. And, our sages tell us, we are to engage in this process with humility.

Humility is one of those words that is often misunderstood. We know its opposite to be arrogance or pride, and we associate it with the idea of meekness, submissiveness and self-abnegation. In our minds the word “humility” has become synonymous with “humiliation,” and we feel a profound aversion toward that. To make matters worse, we live in a society that rewards those with narcissistic charismatic personalities, and looks down upon or, at best, overlooks the unpretentious, the modest, the unassuming. But Mussar—Jewish teachings on ethical and spiritual discipline—offers a new definition for the word “humility” that opens a doorway to its deeper meaning. For the teachers of Mussar, real humility is not about self-abasement or servility—that would be a pathological expression of the midah/the quality—rather it is about strengthening a healthy sense of self. It is not about making yourself “less-than” what you are, but about being exactly and fully who you are. True humility is about constraining oneself to occupy only the space fitting to us, while leaving all the space necessary for others to do the same. “Space” here can be understood figuratively, but can also refer to the physical, interpersonal, and/or emotional space each of us inhabits.

The Torah sees this definition of humility as a paragon of behavior for all persons, but especially emphasizes that those in leadership positions live by it. We see this particularly in this week’s portion when Moses enjoins the people to choose a king to rule over them once they settle in the land. This king, Moses urges, must be humble:

               …he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah… Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life… He will thus not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or to the left… [Deut. 17:16-20]

In this month of Elul, we need humility to help us discern whether we, in our own life, have deviated right or left, overstepping our rightful space. Humility is the conduit through which we are able to take an honest inventory of our behavior and measure the ways we have either let our ego overflow its boundaries, or shrink in the face of life’s challenges. Do you make enough room in your life for others or do you find yourself mostly focused on your own story? Do you tend to take over other people’s space, or, alternatively deflate in their presence? Are you holding your ground for what you believe in, or find that you often shrink from the space you ought to claim? Humility helps one see oneself from an objective, measured, truthful perspective; and as such, the Mussar masters held that cultivating humility is the ground for the introspective journey called Teshuvah. May it guide our steps, this month, to find greater clarity about who we are, so that we might become more fully who, at the soul level, we know ourselves to be.