Archives for July 2017

Torah Reflections: July 16- 22, 2017

Mattot-Masei

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

First, Break All Your Vows

Yom Kippur is fast approaching. Rabbis don’t need to look at the calendar to figure this out. We know. This is Mattot-Masei, the weekly Torah portion that is ten weeks away from Yom Kippur, and whose opening verses allude to the “Kol Nidrei,” as they are about the annulment of vows.

Torah, we are reminded as we read these first challenging verses, is an ancient text edited some 2500 years ago from texts even more ancient. It is born out of a deeply patriarchal clan-based and male-dominated hierarchical society whose worldview and relationship with the Divine are unavoidably reflected in its narrative. This week’s portion brings up, for example, the power a father had to annul any vow his daughter would make while still part of his household. Once married, however, this power reverted to her husband with respects to both the vows she made while still single or since she became his wife. The rabbis of the Talmud remind us that a Jewish marriage was in their days—and in some circles today as well—a two-step process that took place at two different times. First was Kiddushin (betrothal) whereby one committed oneself to an exclusive relationship with their beloved; followed weeks or months later by Nissuin (marriage proper) where the two were to “become one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] The rabbis explain that it was only during the period of betrothal that, retroactively, the husband had the power to annul the vows his wife made while single. After Nissuin, he no longer could. During the time of betrothal the husband-to-be had to act in conjunction with the father of the bride to annul the vows she had made while single. The husband didn’t have this retroactive power in and of himself.

We could read this passage at the literal level, and immediately denounce this archaic system that enslaved women to the will of their fathers and husbands. Or, because our teachers have taught us that there always are four levels of interpretation to every text, we could attempt, instead, to read it at the mystical level. Since the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalists have used the images/stages of betrothal, marriage, and cosmic intercourse to express Jewish spirituality. For them, this is not talking about societal law, but about spiritual awakening. All of Israel is to be married to God and spiritually progress through these stages. The highest spiritual stage is that of Nissuin. This stage is a place of total oneness with Source, the realization that God and Creation are not-two, that Spirit manifests as all forms, where one “become[s] one flesh” with God in a cosmic spiritual intercourse. When one has mastered this spiritual stage, then the fruits of one’s marriage with God are the acts of compassion, love and care (i.e. Mitzvot) that one naturally births into one’s life; together with the dissolving of one’s ego-identification, of the illusion of a separate self.

But first is the Kiddushin (betrothal) period; the stage when the spiritual seeker commits exclusively to one spiritual practice and gives it total devotion. There the betrothed awakens to the realization that one has no power in and of oneself; that one is but a channel to the flow of Divine energy and that one’s life is to be aligned with—in conjunction (i.e. joined together) with—“the Father,” with Source. At this stage, one must unite with that Higher Power, allowing it to flow into one’s life. “And, acting together with Him,” Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, “one can reach heights that one alone could not aspire to. One can arrive at the power of ‘annulment’, namely, nullifying oneself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide God’s Presence from humanity. And one’s power is ‘retroactive’, that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space.”

By moving beyond the literal and opening to the deeply spiritual, the mystics are reading in this text an invitation addressed to us to embark on a spiritual journey. To choose a practice and commit to it. To let go of our illusion of control and let our Higher Self guide our way forward. We are to begin by annulling the vows of certainty, the “truths,” concepts, ideas, worldviews that bind us to only see life with the mental blinders we have created. As the Rebbe puts it: “Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so one… releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of God.” And this is the liberating power of our Kol Nidrei.

Torah Reflections: July 9- 15, 2017

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Rabbi Moses

There is a beautiful passage in this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses to ascend a mountain and, from its peak, to gaze at the Promised Land before him. After that, God says to him, you “shall be gathered to your kin.” [Num. 27:13] Moses’ response is most poignant. Instead of arguing his case with God, or collapsing at the announcement of his imminent death, or having any other expected reaction, Moses replies in calm acceptance and asks God to choose his successor as the leader of the Israelites. He asks for someone who, like him, would “go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in.” [Num. 27:17] He does not ask for his sons to take over. He is not interested in creating a dynasty. Rather he asks God to provide his people with the best and most devoted leader. Not specifically a leader with the highest spiritual qualities either, but one who would selflessly love and dedicate his life to the community.

Why? Because Moses had a unique relationship with his people. He never saw the Israelite community as a pack of anonymous faces. In the verses that preceded this interaction between God and Moses, a census was taken of the new generation of Israelites now that the generation who had left Egypt had died. And even though only the men over 20 years of age and fit for battle were counted, the sense one gets from reading all these names is that Moses knew them all personally. You can’t be on a camping trip with people for forty years without getting to know them intimately. If he was anything like a rabbi, Moses probably participated in many celebrations over these four decades; births and weddings, holidays and Shabbats. He was also probably there in difficult times of illness, tragedies, complicated pregnancies, marriage difficulties, losses and deaths. He knew countless stories, and saw the essence of each individual behind every face.

One can sense this intimacy between Moses and the Israelites in the way he addresses God in his request for a new leader. He calls God; “Elohei Haruchot l’chol basar – Source of the souls of all flesh.” [Num.27:16] He says ruchot – souls in the plural, and not ruah – soul, in the singular. That is because Moses saw the uniqueness of each individual; he saw how the Divine Essence manifests uniquely through each human form. He understood that even though we are all expression of the One Soul; that One Soul manifests in a plurality of ways, a plurality of unique souls. He knew intimately each individual soul; he knew each unique way that God manifested through his people. He saw God reflected through each being. And for him, the very name of God became the expression of that realization.

In many ways, spirituality is a practice which, ultimately, leads us know the Divine Light not only in ourselves but reflected in each individual. One of the ways we close our heart to others is when we lump people together under alienating labels. We do that based on the clothe they wear, the car they drive, if they are watching Fox News or MSNBC. Worse, we do that to entire nations and races. We fail to recognize the uniqueness of each individual soul, the plurality of thoughts and viewpoints, behaviors and convictions that make up human beings. We forget that God is infinite, that God manifests in infinite ways. Moses didn’t. He not only acknowledged but celebrated the uniqueness of each being; and in doing so, taught us to open our hearts and minds to the abundant fullness of the Divine Presence around us, within us, and within each other.

Torah Reflections: July 2- 8, 2017

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Happiness Beyond Thought

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

This is the power of a curse—or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator—to name but a few—and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and—most importantly—remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.