Archives for February 2017

Torah Reflections: February 19 – 25, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

This is the question Moses asks himself that next morning. After Sinai, he knows he needs to give people something concrete, something tangible to do; something that will help them integrate into their lives the transcendent experience they just lived through. His answer is this week’s Torah portion. Moses begins to transpose the Sinaitic encounter into a spiritual code for living that represents the individual and social embodiment of this profound experience of Oneness. He reveals the spiritual practices and new ways of being that are the expression of this newfound awareness. In so doing he teaches us that—as far as Judaism is concerned—what matters most is, in fact, the laundry. How we bring our Sinai moments back down into our world and lead lives infused by them is, essentially, the Jewish path’s main concern. Why? Because our sages knew that, inherent to our human make-up, we can’t help but forget. We have a spiritual peak experience, a bright moment of clarity yielding deepening insights, and then life takes over. We’re back at work soon after, and within a few weeks we forget all that was glimpsed. Ongoing practices, keeping conscious company, are pathways to remember, pathways to guide us back to the place we just left and is now at risk of fading into the fog of memory.

But these practices, however wonderful, are just empty containers without fierce kavanah—fierce intentionality—without an ardent inner yearning to remember. Our Torah portion addresses that as well. Once Moses is done enumerating the laws and practices we are to follow, God steps in and tells us: “Here, I am placing an angel within you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have made ready.” [Exod. 23:20] There is a force within us, an evolutionary impulse that is always aching to remember the One we are. The Midrash tells us that this angel is the same angel that protected and guided Jacob on his journey, perhaps even wrestled with him—for angels in our tradition are the fierce kind; not the sweet cherubs of Hallmark cards fame. “Take-you-care in his presence and hearken to his voice… for My Name is within him” continues the Torah. [Exod. 23:21] This angel within us guides us to “the place” where God is waiting, when “the place” in Hebrew is “HaMakom,” and is, itself, a name of God. Our inner angel is guiding us on a journey up our own inner Sinai to reach “the place” of remembering, the place that is always already here: HaMakom, our Divine Self. Hearken to His voice.

Torah Reflections: February 12 – 18, 2017

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).” [Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing the Essence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.

Torah Reflections: January 29 – February 4, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

God Acts in Wondrous Ways

Our Torah portion opens, this week, with the last four plagues to befall Egypt. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart… so that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount… how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’.” [Exod. 10:1-2] The Hebrew doesn’t actually speak of plagues but of signs, wonders, miracles or signals. These signs are out-of-the-ordinary events in nature that are meant to trigger a reaction of awe in the hearts of the Israelites. Awe was what God intended for us to feel in the great display of God’s might; for us to know the Divine Presence in our world in unmistakable ways.

For those of us living in Western Washington one of the most “out-of-the-ordinary” awe-filled event in nature at this time of the year is snow. When some in Seattle might experience snowfall as a plague, many see it as a wondrous occasion. Because it is so rare, snow has a great power in our region: it quiets things down. Snow slows everything down to a quasi standstill. Snow does on the outside what meditation does on the inside. When it snows in Seattle, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We retreat inward, we Shabbat. We cozy up on the couch with a hot beverage, we grab a good book, dust off a few board games. Suddenly we have time for a few minutes of meditation. We hit the reset button. We reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives. We look out the window in awe of the beauty of our natural world; we look at the people in our lives in awe of the love we share. Snow does for us what Moses was trying to do with Pharaoh: open his heart.

Though our text says that God is the One Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, I suspect that, mythologically, Pharaoh stands as the symbol for the hardening of our heart. Pharaoh is the energy in us that closes us down, that causes us to fear, and consequently reject, exclude, deny, or repress; the energy that might see snow as a plague. The root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew are the three letters peh, resh, and ayin. Peh means mouth or voice. Resh and ayin put together make the word Ra, which means “bad,” or “negative.” Pharaoh can be said to represent the Peh Ra, the “negative voice” within us. On the opposite side of it, we have Moses. Moses is the voice of love in us that is urging us to let go, to release, to relax. Moses is the inner power that is able to peel off the layers of what the kabbalists call the klippot, the shells around our heart. He does so with wonder, with amazement, with awe-inspiring snowstorms that drive us inward.

For our mystics, the process of spiritual awakening is an ongoing process of peeling off the layers of ego that have obstructed the Light Being that we are. It is an ongoing process of letting go of our concepts and rigid certainties, of the strictness of our worldview, of the relative truth we mistake to be absolute. Ultimately it is about letting go of our separate sense of self, of our ego-bound identity, and to open ourselves to the Greater I AM that we are, the ego-less Being-ness that we are. In other words, it is a journey of self-transformation from Pharaoh to Moses. In Gematria, the letters of the word, Pharaoh, add up to 355; Moses to 345. One subtracts 10 from the former to attain the latter: 10 layers of shells around the heart to be peeled off through 10 Divine signs, 10 experiences of breathtaking awe, 10 concentric circles of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to be transcended, from the outermost gross physical circle of self-identity, to the innermost circle of Pure Is-ness. Let’s not wait until the next snowstorm to begin practicing awe, for awe is to be found in every day, in every moment, in every breath.