Archives for September 2017

Torah Reflections: September 10- 16, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Embracing Our Unpreparedness

My heart is beating a little bit faster than usual today. No, I didn’t have one cup of coffee too many. But it just so happens that the combined Torah portions for this week are Nitzavim and Vayelech; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvah portion”—read during the High Holy Days—where we are called to return, to turn inward. This means that the High Holy Days are just around the corner, and with that, come both excitement and trepidation; excitement, because this is the time of the year when we get to embark on the most meaningful journey inward; when space is provided for us to dig deeper and face our own shadow, all the while being surrounded by the supportive energies of a community of fellow travelers. Yet trepidations arise, because this is also the time of the year when the title of one of my favorite books (by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l) flashes before me its neon-red letters blinking in my panicked awareness: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. My feeling exactly!

But what if this is exactly what it is all about? What if our being “Completely Unprepared” is exactly what is required of us to fully enter into the “Real”-ness of the High Holy Days? Let’s face it, no matter how much time we spend getting ourselves ready to meet these holy days, when Rosh Hashanah eve comes around, we still feel totally unrehearsed. What if, therefore, showing up as we are, with all our messes and contradictions, unpolished and raw, was all that is asked of us? Perhaps fully embracing our unpreparedness, letting go of the well-adjusted façade we present the world the rest of the year, and inviting all aspects of our self to meet these days, is the first spiritual teaching that the Holy Days offer. This seems to be, indeed, what the first two verses of Nitzavim—in my interpretative translation—are calling us to do:

You are standing here, this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God—your leader-self, your wise-self, your controlling-self… your inner child… your alienated part of self, your destructive self, the part of self connected to Source… (Deut. 29:9-10)

Embracing the messiness of life, letting go of the pretense that keeps us separate, that prevents us from truly knowing not only each other’s heart but our own heart as well, is the prerequisite to our embarking again on this journey of healing which begins with this new year, on Rosh Hashanah. So come exactly as you are! Come utterly unprepared! But come! Bring all aspects of your being to meet that moment! Then you will be able to say, when God calls to you: “Hineni—here I am.”

Torah Reflections: September 3- 9, 2017

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open

This week’s Torah portion begins:

When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving your as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place that the Eternal your God chooses to have His name dwell… You shall then recite [a prayer] before the Eternal your God… You shall leave [the basket] before the Eternal your God and bow low in the Presence of the Eternal your God. [Deut.26:1-10]

With only days separating us from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Torah is laying out for us a threefold path to meet the moment in its fullness: bring a basket of your fruit, pray and bow. Though in our time we no longer come to moments of solemn convocation such as the High Holy Days with baskets of fruit from our land, today’s equivalent might be engaging in these awe-inspiring holidays by bringing to them the honest assessment of our personal work this past year, the true fruits of our personal harvest.

But what about prayer? For many of us, the experience of prayer—especially during the High Holy Days—consists of reading pages and pages of prescribed formulas that only come to life for us because of the familiarity of the melodies that accompany them. And so our challenge, this year again, is to enter into prayer on these High Holy Days with a different intention, a different goal; that of letting our heart crack open. The Kaballah describes our hearts as being sheathed by klippot, husks or shells. Our mystics teach that through the practice of mitzvot (mindful living,) meditation, and focused prayer; one is able to incrementally open one’s heart and uncover the Divine sparks hidden within.

It is our task to come to these upcoming High Holy Days with such kavanah, with such purpose; to bypass our ego’s natural resistance to doing the inner work at hand, and enter into prayer with both humility and receptivity, and “bow low in the Presence of the Eternal.” True prayer is that which is allowed to flow from the heart, not from the mind. Merely repeating words from a prayer book won’t do. We are to enter into prayer the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav did; engaging God in raw, unadulterated straight talk—the way one would with a best friend—honestly, sincerely, and genuinely. Through the deep surrender and profound letting go that accompany such an experience, we can breach the shells around our heart and discover, through the fissures, the light of Being, the light of Love and Compassion bursting forth from within.

I offer that we come to the High Holy Days with the basket of our life-review in hand and, on our lips, just one humble prayer: “Ein Banu Maasim” – “Holy One, we have too few good deeds.” I suspect that with our bowing, in that space of profound humility, we will find the tightening around our heart begin to release, and our words, steeped in the light of Love, will be carried along to reach the soul-level. There, liberated from the stranglehold of the ego on our life, we will be able to open ourselves to the possibility of deep transformation.

Torah Reflections: August 27- September 2, 2017

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

On Being Commanded

This week’s Torah portion is the last in Deuteronomy to present us with a collection of laws. With this kind of portion, we find ourselves struggling with some aspects of the text and truly moved by others. Among the more disquieting injunctions are the laws about stoning to death one’s “wayward and defiant son” [Deut. 21:18], or the disturbing “punishment” for a rapist who is not only mandated to marry his victim but also prohibited from ever divorcing her. Other laws are more inspiring. Torah commands us to pay employees’ wages on time, to defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, to engage in ethical business practices, and to sustain the destitute by donating one’s surplus.

Being “commanded,” however, is a challenge to us. We have been raised to be fiercely independent. We question authority and seek to carve our own path in life, to live out our own truth. There is real self-empowerment in living this way. There is also a real danger to make ourselves overly self-centered and narcissistic. Consider, therefore, that there may be value in being commanded. Consider how to be commanded, to be given a choiceless choice, might help us tame our ego. We are commanded, for example, to give tzedakah/charity every week before Shabbat, because, our rabbis say, meeting the poor’s needs cannot be dependent on whether or not we feel generous on any given week. The fact that we know ourselves to be commanded bypasses the resistance of our ego and obligates us to behave in holistic ways. This is what Halacha—the complete body of Jewish law evolving from the Jewish Bible and the Talmud—is about. Through the Halacha, Judaism has mapped out every moment and aspect of a Jewish life and, the more orthodox among us, follow these commandments strictly.

I studied Halacha for a while with an orthodox rabbi. To him, there was true beauty in following a spiritual path that one believes is divinely inspired, true humility in embracing a “God-given” way of life as prescribed by a still-evolving three-thousand-year-old tradition. In my studies, I have discovered that without rejecting the historical relevance of the commandments which challenge our modern consciousness, the rabbinic exegetes of the Halacha have re-interpreted some and stopped following others. My friend shared with me that living in this prescribed way supports one’s awareness of God’s ever-Presence. This kind of God-consciousness opens one’s heart beyond one’s ego, and causes one to act in humble ways. And true humility, our rabbis teach, manifests itself when the ego’s endless needs are silenced in the face of Divine commandment.

Now I am not a halachic Jew, meaning that I do not strictly follow the laws of Halacha, but I can see the value of this kind of teaching. Without adopting orthodoxy, we can still embrace a strong ethic of living for our days that infuses the way we eat, care for our body, our environment, and the other beings in our lives. We can, step by step, create a consistent discipline in our spiritual practice; slowly building a meditation practice for example, or observing Shabbat by “unplugging” for 24 hours, or simply committing to saying “I love you” more often. The prophet Micah calls upon us to “walk humbly with God.” Halacha, in Hebrew, means “to walk.” To walk humbly with God is to move beyond the ego by following a disciplined spiritual practice that permeates all aspects of our lives, steeped in the intimate knowledge of God’s Presence moment to moment. May we, in this upcoming Jewish new year, be inspired to heed Micah’s call and take the first steps of our “walk,” our Halacha.