Archives for May 2017

Torah Reflections: May 21 – 27, 2017

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Too Big to Fail

“Too big to fail.” It seems this pithy phrase has become the new mantra of American life since 2008. Time and again our news media brandishes the fear of financial disaster if this company goes under, or that country doesn’t shape up. Failure is not an option we are told. And to avoid failure at all costs we, the people, jump in to strengthen those already “too big to fail.” We infuse more capital into them in order to not only keep them “big” but to help them grow unsustainably ever more. But if they were “too big to fail” then, what will they be tomorrow?

Our sages believe that whatever is happening on the outside is but a reflection of what is taking place on the inside; that our outer world reflects our inner world. Just as we, as a nation, are paralyzed from the fear of failure, we—as individuals—are just as petrified. This fear of failure is deeply ingrained in American society. Growing up in France I learned early on that the worst faux pas was to be perceived as an idiot. Back in Israel to be known as someone easily taken advantage of, a “freier,” would mean immediate social-ostracizing as well. In the U.S. you find yourself excluded from social circles if you are a “loser.” No failing allowed. The ego, which has internalized this message since early childhood, carries this fear of failure with it all the time. To protect itself from being a “loser,” it goes on to surround itself with “more,” or “better,” or “more powerful” stuff, to prove to itself and to other egos that it is not a failure. Perhaps, in a society where narcissism is rampant, we have built up our egos so much that they, too, have become too big to fail. We keep feeding them with addictions of all sorts, for we need to “bail out” our fragile egos over and over again with any kind of “feel good” potion. Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote an entire book demonstrating that we are addicted to control. How else are we going to protect ourselves from failure? Strengthening our ego is our only option, and that is not sustainable either.

True spirituality offers us a different pathway if we are courageous enough to take it on. It is the pathway alluded to in the name of this week’s Torah portion: B’midbar—In the desert. In the desert there is nothing. There is nothing to hide behind, nothing to own, nothing to lose, and nothing to pretend to be. In the desert we remember the smallness of our being; we break through the illusions and the mirages to realize our powerlessness and our lack of control. In the desert we are naked; stripped bare of our stories, our ideas, our views, our knowledge, our reasons, our justifications. In the desert there is no success and no failure, no winner and no loser. In the desert there is no fear.

In the desert there is silence. It is not a mistake that the word midbar—desert—in Hebrew, shares the same root as the word medaber, meaning: that which speaks. Only in the midbar, in the silence, are we able to hear that which speaks. Only after letting go of the clutter, shedding the inessential, surrendering the noise of the ever-racing egoic mind, are we able to hear the still small voice within the heart that has never stopped whispering “V’ahavta! – Love!” So take the road less traveled; the one that leads us forward to the yet uncovered midbar of the soul—the road of deepening meditation, the road of contemplation, the place where you find the silence in your life. Embark on a journey toward a simpler, more loving, more giving and forgiving, more compassionate way of life. Journey to the midbar, to that space where the ego is gently allowed to fail so that the heart can heal and open to true freedom.

Torah Reflections: May 14 – 20, 2017

B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 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 as exclusively “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, pleasure 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.

Torah Reflections: May 7 – 13, 2017

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God

The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood: “No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20] What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free?

The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read: “And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy—such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24] As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to realize self-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity—which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality—stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the belief, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest.

But how do we, spiritual wrestlers of the 21st century—having long left behind the sacrificial cult—enter in relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalm offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart.” [Psalm 51:18-19] The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but awakening instead on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and human fallibility is embraced. Suddenly we are asked to acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection we hold ourselves, our loved ones and our world to. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our life, we are not. Though we would like to mold our life, our world, and our loved ones in our image/vision, to create a world that would be an expression of our will, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God; and live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken, rather it is the klippot— the husks of illusion—that encircle it that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered; for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.

Bet Alef members ask Chase Bank not to fund oil pipeline

On Friday, May 5, I was among nearly two dozen people who went to the Chase branch on Capitol Hill to pray and express our concern over the bank’s lead role in funding the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Elizabeth Burton of Bet Alef also took part, as did Seattle First Baptist members Harriet Platts and Imogene Williams. We are all part of Interfaith Climate Action – First Hill, a collaboration between Bet Alef and Seattle First Baptist. The pray-in was organized by the multi-congregational Faith Action Climate Team (FACT).

In keeping with the varied faith traditions of the participants (Jewish, Baptist, Quaker, Buddhist, Unitarian, Presbyterian and others), we created a sacred space inside and outside the bank lobby, where we prayed, meditated and sang. We strove to honor “that of God,” as the Quakers would put it, in the bank employees and police officers. From a Jewish perspective, we were practicing tikkun olam, repair of a world that our carbon-based economy has placed at imminent risk. We sent a clear message: that if Chase and other big banks fund the KXL Pipeline, climate chaos will accelerate.

Four of us were arrested, by order of a police lieutenant who later told us, “I really admire what you did.” He couldn’t bring himself to arrest Imogene, a great-grandmother in her 80s – much to her consternation. But for one morning, Imogene had put her body between the financial system and environmental devastation. Three days later, other activists disrupted operations at 13 Chase branches in Seattle.

Direct action is only one tool that Interfaith Climate Action – First Hill members have used on behalf of a climate that will sustain future generations. We have organized educational events, signed petitions, planted trees at Tu B’Shevat, and lobbied our elected representatives. We invite you to our next meeting on Sunday, May 21, at 7 p.m. in the Bet Alef Living Room.

Torah Reflections: April 30 – May 6, 2017

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

Drawing Closer Through Generosity

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban”—translated as “sacrifice”—might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives—not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are—we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.