Archives for June 2017

Torah Reflections: June 11- 17, 2017

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Why The Spies Were Wrong

This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!’” [Num. 13:30]

I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders—wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses—be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.

The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones—indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy—leaving no time for Spirit—and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.

But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.

Torah Reflections: June 4 – 10, 2017

B’haalot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

The Many Branches of Our Inner Menorah

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” Aaron did so… This is the workmanship of the Menorah; hammered out of gold, from its base to its flower it is hammered out; according to the vision that the Eternal had shown Moses, so was the Menorah made. [Num. 8:1-4]

The beginning of this week’s Torah reading brings us to the final preparations for the use of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The seven-branched Menorah which stood at the entrance of the traveling structure is, to this day, one of the most universally recognized symbols of Judaism. At inception, it was meant to recall the scene of the burning bush, a spiritual image of the ever-present Light of God. In early centuries, it was associated with Aaron and the priestly caste of his descendants. Later on, the Menorah became a symbol of victory when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple from Greek pagan worship by re-kindling it. Then, a symbol of Jewish defeat when it was carried off to Rome in 70 C.E. by Titus and his victorious armies. Today, the Menorah is the seal of the State of Israel and a giant replica stands at the entrance to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem.

In between Rome and Jerusalem nearly 2000 years later, the symbol of the Menorah continued to ignite the imagination of many of our sages; but none more powerfully than that of the Jewish mystics. With its three branches left and right and its central pillar, its twenty-two gold-hammered flowers, parallels were drawn between the Menorah and the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), one of the greatest kabbalists that ever lived, taught — well ahead of his time — that the six branches on both sides of the Menorah represented the lights of the multiple scientific and academic disciplines available to mankind, while the center stalk stood for the light of Torah, the light of spiritual endeavor. He insisted that secular and spiritual pursuits were not rivals, but rather not only complemented each other — as they each address a unique set of human concerns and questions — but also shed light on one another.

Just as this is true when it comes to our different modalities of learning, Rabbi Luria’s teaching brings home the notion that we, ourselves, are a seven-branched Menorah; composite beings made of multiple intelligences. To name but a few of our many inner branches: all of us possess beyond our spiritual intelligence, a certain degree of moral, emotional, relational, creative, aesthetic, and kinesthetic intelligences. What is important to realize is that, for each individual, different branches reach different heights. Our spiritual development might have led us to some of the highest peak experiences, but our sitting in a cave to meditate for so many years left us poorly equipped when it comes to our relational and emotional intelligences. I could excel as a CEO of a fortune 500 company when it comes to relational and creative intelligences, but perform devastatingly poorly when it comes to moral intelligence and end up in jail.

A spiritual path for the 21st century is a path that includes all of the branches of our inner Menorah. It is a path that integrates as many aspects of the human make-up in an evolutionary spiral of growth. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to take into account the multifaceted nature of our being when it comes to creating curriculums for learning and pathways for personal development. We need not reach the highest levels of development for each branch of intelligence, yet none should be left to atrophy. Only by caring for the whole Menorah can we become more complete and integrated beings. These are, after all, the multi branches of our inner burning bush, the ways through which the Light of God shines in the world as us.

Torah Reflections: May 28 – June 3, 2017

Nasso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The True Purpose of Blessing

In our Torah reading this week we happen upon one of the central blessings of our tradition; the Priestly Blessing.

And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying; Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying; Thus you shall bless the children of Israel, say to them: YeVarech’cha YHVH V’Yish’mrecha – The Eternal One blesses and keeps you always. YaEr YHVH Panav Elecha, ViChuneka – The Eternal One shines His face upon you, and is gracious to you. Yissa YHVH Panav Elecha, V’Yassem Lecha Shalom. – The Eternal One lifts up His face toward you, and brings you peace.

V’Samu et sh’mi ahl b’nai Yisrael V’Ani Avarechem. – And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them. [Num. 6:22-27]

The concept of blessing is a real challenge to 21st century modernists. It feels uncomfortable to revert back to these ancient practices because, oftentimes, they appear to conjure up the goodwill of a God “out there;” a notion that has become foreign to many of us. It might be especially true in this case, as the opening verses leading up to the blessing seem to place the Temple priests as intermediaries between God and the people; a concept that tends to add to our discomfort to begin with.

What were the priests attempting to do in performing this blessing? The concluding verse might give us the answer. First, by placing the name of God upon that which is being blessed, the Priest is to recognize that the object of the blessing is a manifestation of God. Second, the Priest’s task is to help the “children of Israel” themselves awaken to the name of the One within them, so that they may directly receive God’s blessing; know that God is the One who “will bless them.” In doing so, the biblical author gives us the key to unlock the true purpose of blessing. We are the Priest. The practice of blessing is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Presence in every thing and every one we encounter; as much as it is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Being that we are.

The first aspect is directed toward the “outside.” Here, the practice of blessing helps us pause and contemplate for a brief instant what is present in our experience of the moment. The blessing we utter pushes us to remember that this moment, this object, this person is sacred; an expression of the One. The question this practice triggers within us is: What is the true nature of that which I am blessing? It acts as a reminder that all of reality is God God-ing, including these words you are reading and the screen on which they appear. Everything is God.

The second aspect is directed within. Each time we bless causes our perspective to shift away from self, to help us see that which we are blessing as-if through the eyes of God. We practice being “one with God” even though we have yet to realize its Truth. The question this practice triggers within us is: Who is blessing? Here we move from a dualistic ego-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Katnut: small mind,) to a God-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Gadlut: big mind.) Seeing the world through God’s eyes we expand beyond the constricted identity of our separate sense of self to an ever more inclusive “I,” until all sense of self dissolves and our “I” merges with the One “I.” From this place in consciousness there is no self saying the Priestly Blessing; in fact, it isn’t a blessing anymore but an affirmation that naturally flows through us.

Therein lies the spiritual potency of the path of blessing. It is a direct path to awakening as it opens us up to the Divine Being within and without all at once. All that is required is that we, from time to time, take a break from the rush of our ego-driven lives to consciously engage with the moment at hand, and to bless it. That in this sacred moment we might truly say: “Amen!”