Archives for April 2017

Torah Reflections: April 23 – 29, 2017

Tazria-Met’zora

Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

We Are Energy Bodies

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, one way to bypass it is to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. This time, for a change, we find at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

The second Torah portion of the two assigned to this week’s reading is called M’tzora. In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about?

I am one of many who are convinced that, 2500 years ago, the Middle-East and the Far-East were already intimately connected. Trade routes crossed through the known world from China and India, all the way to Egypt. Spiritual practices and healing techniques traveled along these routes as well. I checked in with friends, professionals in the arts of Chinese medicine, and asked them what was likely commonly known about the connections for these places on the body: ear, thumb and big toe.

The acupuncture chart for the ear reveals that its center ridge is directly related to skin diseases. The thumb point is the last point of the lung energy channel. The lung and large intestine are the organs containing the metal element in the body, and the tissue ruled by metal is the skin. So skin ailments are often considered to have lung and/or large intestine involvement. The big toe’s outside corner of the nail is the Spleen channel (digestion, absorption, assimilation of food/ideas/events; related to the earth, to harvest time;) and the inside corner is the liver channel (harmonization and smooth flow of energy; related to springtime, vision and hope)—all linked to energetic imbalances expressed as inflammatory responses of the skin.

What our sages understood then, and we have lost touch with since, is that we are energy bodies. The Temple Priests practiced acupressure as a form of healing 2500 years ago because they knew our bodies were channels for the flow of Divine energy. They understood the energy lines that course through us, and saw each spiritual practice as a way to bring balance to the energy body. In fact, our sages divided the traditional 613 mitzvot/commandments into two groups: 248 were connected to what they saw as the 248 organs of our bodies, and 365 were connected to what they saw as the sinews or tendons, nerve connectors. Performing the mitzvot was not only a way to heal the world “out there,” to bring harmony into society; it was a way to heal our inner energetic world, to bring it into balance. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim these ancient practices, to shift our vision of the embodied beings we are to more holistic, integrated, multidimensional selves, and work through our prayers, our chants, our meditations, our songs and our spiritual practices to bring our energy bodies into greater wholeness, greater harmony, greater shalom.

Torah Reflections: April 16 – 22, 2017

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Merging With The Light

As our weekly reading resumes, following the end of Passover, we are met by one of the most mesmerizing stories in Torah: the fiery death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Most rabbis explain their deaths as Divine punishment and as a cautionary tale “against spontaneous worship… and the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights” as Nehama Leibovitz highlights in her commentary. Due to the complexity of the Hebrew, however, no one can fully grasp the ultimate meaning of the story.

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering… And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and brought-near, in the Presence of the Eternal, a strange fire, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from within the Presence of the Eternal and consumed them, so that they died within the Presence of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aharon: This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to me I will be known as Holy… [Lev. 9:23-10:3]

With the nearness of the holiday of Lag BaOmer, the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu connected me to the legend of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, every year, on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (Lag BaOmer,) people gather around bonfires to mark in festive ways the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In the northern Galilee town of Meron, 300,000 people make a pilgrimage to his grave on that day. Why? The legend describes Rabbi Bar Yochai as a towering mystical figure; the author of the Zohar (the Book of Splendor)—the seminal composition of kabbalistic thought—and perhaps the only Jewish mystic known to have spent years meditating in a cave after fleeing for his life from the Roman armies. Once out of his hiding, it is told that Bar Yochai began to reveal the deepest secrets concerning God and Creation to his disciples. Rabbi Abba, one of his students, became the scribe for Bar Yochai’s oral teachings. As Rabbi Bar Yochai was on his death bed, revelation after revelation came pouring out of him at an increasingly faster pace, as if in a race against time. On his last day, a force within compelled him to share all the mystical teachings he had yet to reveal. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave—Bar Yochai dictating with urgency, Rabbi Abba writing furiously. Finally, Bar Yochai finished, and a fire-like radiance, a brilliant light, filled the house as his soul departed his body.

In those last moments of his legendary life, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merged with the One Light of Being. He remembered the Light he had always been, and became that Light. He had drawn near to the Presence of the Eternal and was transformed into a strange fire, a radiance, a burst of Light. The mythical story of Nadav and Avihu speaks of a similar experience. Aharon’s two sons, just like Bar Yochai, are described by some rabbinic commentators as “towering personalities… [and] men of exalted saintliness.” These two holy beings can’t help but be transformed in the overwhelming Presence of the Eternal, and the strange fire they bring near is the Light of Being they awaken to in that moment. They, like Bar Yochai, die in a burst of Light, merging with the One Light of Being in a spiritual ecstatic self combustion. But legend or myth is not to be taken literally. These stories act as mirrors to deeper spiritual truths. What is described here might be an experience of the “little self” combusting in the awesome awakening to one’s own Light. What is consumed in such a moment of en-light-enment—outshined by the Light of the Divine Presence—is that separate sense of self. But what is revealed, born in that same moment, is one’s true identity, the true Light of one’s Infinite Being.

Torah Reflections: April 2 – 8, 2017

Passover 5778

Mah Nish’tanah? What has changed?

Although we closed the Book of Exodus a couple weeks back, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. A few years ago I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few:

Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless — aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”— to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence.

To me this is a critical point. Am I even aware of my Mitzrayim? When Moses comes to tell our ancestors that it is time for them to leave Egypt, to break free from slavery: “…they could not hear him, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6:9] The Chasidic masters teach that the darkest depth of enslavement is when we have grown accustomed to it; we then no longer know we are enslaved. This portion of our Haggadah concludes with a powerful quote from Harriet Tubman that says: “I could have saved thousands more if I could have convinced them they were slaves.” Our first step toward freedom, therefore, is to know that we are enslaved; enslaved to our routine, enslaved to our old stories, enslaved to our rigid views. Our second step is to ask Mah Nish’tanah?

[Our story telling begins] with astonishment: “Ma nish’tanah? …How is this night different from other nights?” By astonishment and questioning, we are able to liberate ourselves from the grip of certain habits of thought, convictions, theories, opinions, and prejudices that are held toward self, toward others, and toward the many readily-accepted ways of the world. This question, however, has another dimension. “Mah nish’tanah?” “What has changed?” “What has shifted?” Because the question is even possible, we know that it is our awareness that has shifted. The questioning itself implies awareness. Whatever our enslavement is, our questioning implies that we are now able to step outside of it, and look at it as a “what” — as an object in our consciousness. Our ability to question means that this “what” no longer owns us.

A key aspect of our enslavement is that we have given up questioning. We have settled into our version of reality, of truth, of right and wrong and we have stopped questioning our own assumptions, we have stopped listening to the other side. Our teachers are, therefore, challenging us: “You want to be free? Question everything! Challenge all your truths! Doubt all your certainties!” Judaism itself is, at its core, a tradition of iconoclasts, of revolutionaries, of provocative questioners. So I start my process this year, embracing my lineage, with “Mah Nish’tanah?” What has changed in me? Am I still growing? Am I still evolving? Am I still questioning and challenging the inner status quo?

Torah Reflections: March 26 – April 1, 2017

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love

The last few Torah portions of the Book of Exodus were, as we have seen, focused on the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; a Sacred Space amidst the traveling Israelite tribes where God came to dwell. We related to this seemingly outward structure as a mythical Temple that acted as a mirror to the Temple awakening within each of us, reminding us of the inner Sacred Space we are within which the Divine Presence not only dwells but through which it expresses. But lost in our separate sense of self, lost in the delusion of our ego’s drama, we seldom know ourselves to embody such awareness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us guidelines as to what we are to do in order to come closer and closer to awakening to such awareness and ultimately fully inhabiting our inner Temple. Put simply, we are to follow practices that help us draw near to the One we are; that, time and time again, pushes us to reconnect to Source and ground ourselves in Truth. To walk this path of coming closer to the One, in the consciousness that was prevalent in biblical times, one had to bring offerings to the Temple or make animal sacrifices. The Hebrew word that is poorly translated as “sacrifice” has very little to do with what the English word conveys: victimhood, abnegation, destruction, loss and suffering. This word, korban, means “to draw near,” which was the essential purpose for the ritual. And if our post-modern egos are quick to judge our ancestors as barbaric because of the way they slaughtered animals for ritualistic purposes, we need only to remind ourselves that, in our generation, our practices of meat slaughtering are arguably not only much worse than they were then, but lacking any spiritual grounding. In biblical times, offering one’s animal was a true hardship, a real personal sacrifice, as animals held great value for families and not everyone was wealthy enough to be able to afford it. The idea of korban was to surrender what was most precious to us as a means to heal the brokenness in our world, to forgive and be forgiven, to restore balance and purity in our lives, and find peace within and without.

At a deeper level, this ritual of surrendering what we are most attached to is a profoundly humbling spiritual practice supporting our breaking free from the bondage of ego. Just take the verse that introduces the whole litany of different korbanot in our portion for example: “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai.” [Lev. 1:2] It is usually translated as: “When any of you presents a korban to the Eternal,” and refers mostly to the physical offering of animals. But, in truth, it is more accurately read as: “If anyone presents a korban from within you to the Eternal.” Here, we begin to grasp the inner dimension of the practice; that something from within needs to be “released” as we aim to draw nearer to Source. What is being called to be surrendered; burnt up as a burnt offering? Not an animal on the outside, but what our teachers call our very own “animal nature:” the bundle of our thoughts, desires, emotional and physical attachments, our pathological need for control and our paralyzing fears; in other words, our false self. This drawing near is about stepping into the transformative fire of Divine Love so that our conditioned separate sense of self can be completely consumed. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite teachers, wrote along these lines that in the process of authentic transformation: “The self is not made content; the self is made toast.”

This Divine Love, our rabbis call “the fire of heaven.” It reduces our “animal nature,” our false self, to dust and ashes. It is the fire within the Cloud of Glory that fills our inner Tabernacle, now empty of self, where that which imagined it was separate and alone realizes in the blaze of a moment that it had always been One and Eternal.