Archives for October 2017

Torah Reflections: October 22- 28, 2017

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Heading Home

Lech Lecha marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. We have traveled through the confusion of Creation and the Flood, and now we are about to embark on our spiritual journey as the descendants of our patriarchal fathers and mothers. And right away, this parashah calls us to appreciate the deeper significance of what it means to seek sacred space in our lives. It begins with Abraham receiving a divine call to “go forth”:

The Eternal One said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

What is this place that Abraham is asked to leave? The concept of “birthplace” is symbolic of a place we know well, the place that nourishes us and supports us in our growing, the place where we are loved and cared for. Our “father’s house” might be the archetypal expression of a place where we feel protected, a place from which we draw strength and courage, learn values and direction. This was Sacred Space that Abraham was leaving.

To me this pithy verse captures the essence of personal growth and spiritual evolution. The image is that we are spiritual travelers, evolving from one level in consciousness to the next, while preserving the essential attributes of the levels we are called to leave. Some spiritual teachers call it the evolutionary impulse at the heart of all creation. Like Abraham, we need to let go of Sacred Spaces where we have been because staying there, no matter how comfortable, safe, and predictable they have been, would stifle our growth. Staying there would transform those Sacred Spaces into places of enslavement where we would begin to feel stuck, unhappy, constricted. We need to move beyond the confines of such a place in consciousness and venture into the unknown.

But before we are able to embark on such a trying journey, before we are able to let go of it, we need to create and solidify this Sacred Space for ourselves. We first need to find our “birthplace,” the place where, time and again, we can be reborn, nurtured back to life, where we are able to hold ourselves in love and compassion. We need to know that archetypal “father’s house” of safety, groundedness, and purposefulness. There is no point trying to grow beyond the level we are currently at, until we have found balance and healing at that level.

So I would invite you to hold off on the call to “go forth” until you have reflected upon where you find this nurturing Sacred Space in your life. Where is your “birthplace” of support and nourishment? Where is your “father’s house” of security and rootedness? Amidst the turmoil we witness all around us, overwhelmed by the fast pace of our world, we need to be able to define and recognize our Sacred Space right now. Before we can embark on the next stage of our evolution, we need to know where home is; we need to know to slow down, breathe, and be deeply connected to what really matters.

Torah Reflections: October 15- 21, 2017

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

A World Filled with Violence

Our, then, 10-year-old daughter, Amalya came home one day from the Jewish day-school she attended, with an assignment: to write a short essay about the first verses of Noah, this week’s Torah portion.

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japhet. The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. [Genesis 6:9-11]

She was to respond to this question: “What would a world filled with violence look like? If Noah was righteous in a world filled with violence, what was it like for him to live in that world?” Her essay’s immediate answer was: “We don’t have to imagine what it would be like; we already live in a world filled with violence.” A few lines later she pondered: “I wonder why God created something in us that made us become violent.” By simply asking the question, she happened upon an awareness of the inner dimensionality of this problem: inside all of us are both the potentials for peace and compassion and for violence and destruction. A part of us is like Noah; righteous and blameless, walking in alignment with the Divine within. Another part of us joins with the rest of earth’s inhabitants described in Torah as beings “with wicked thoughts in their heart” [Gen. 5:5]. Judaism is replete with stories about this inner struggle. Just last week we read about Cain and Abel. But there are such stories in most spiritual traditions the world over. One of my favorite is from a Cherokee legend which goes like this:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That which God created in us that can lead us to violence is the illusion of separation; this sense of an estranged self, isolated and afraid, always ready for battle in the barren world of scarcity. This wolf is called Yetzer HaRa, in Hebrew: Evil Inclination. Evil because it is the inclination in us that collapses our consciousness away from knowing the Divine embodiment we are, and attaches it to this illusory separate sense of self. What we are to be mindful of is what we feed this wolf. We feed the Yetzer HaRa when we live unexamined lives, gorging unconsciously at the trough of our senses and the tales our minds tell. We starve the Yetzer HaRa when we live mindfully, are more discerning in giving validity to our thoughts, and remain both aware and equanimous when faced with the pull of our senses and emotions. But that’s not all. Our culture also contributes to its feeding. Boys in our society, for example, are fed ideals of hyper-masculinity which venerates physical strength, aggression and sexual dominance. They are taught to resolve conflict with violence, to not share their feelings and be loners, to never appear weak and transmute their emotions of sadness into anger. They are told to “man up,” to never cry, and to fear being called a girl or any other insult that demeans the feminine and feminine attributes. No wonder we have a gun violence epidemic on our hands, no wonder our girls and women are assaulted, abused, raped in our schools, colleges, work places, homes, streets, every day. We will only starve this wolf when we take the steps necessary to reverse what our culture does to our boys, adopt and actively promote a different set of values.

The other wolf, we call: Yetzer HaTov, the Good Inclination. It draws us nearer to Source, reconnects us to Truth, erases the delusory boundaries that divorce us from Being. We feed the Yetzer HaTov by practicing humility, love, and truthfulness in our everyday life, in our encounters with each other. We feed that wolf when we nourish one another with the gifts of understanding, generosity and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. To feed the Yetzer HaTov in our boys, we need to work with them on valuing empathy, on reclaiming their inner femininity, on accepting and trusting their emotions, on helping them develop true friendships where they can feel safe to express their innermost feelings and learn to resolve their problems in healthy, constructive, and peaceful ways.

Now is the time for us to take a serious look at the ways we contribute to feeding one wolf over another in ourselves. But let’s also take an honest look at the ways we, too, sponsor directly or indirectly by our choices a society that idealizes violence, objectifies women, and glorifies power and dominance. Decide today, and every day, which of the two wolves you want to feed.

Torah Reflections: October 8- 14, 2017

Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Cain & Abel: A Teaching on Generosity

Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? [Gen. 4:2-9]

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But do we ever? Going a little deeper, we find that this story is not as black and white as it seems; that there may be attenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one, God seems to bear some responsibility in the matter. Not only did He disregard Cain’s offering, but He created an explosive antagonistic situation by approving his brother’s. Any book on sibling rivalry would tell you that this is a big “no-no.” The fact that Cain has a temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag for God. Instead, His infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to be blaming Cain for what happened, only added fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God Himself should be sentenced as well as accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving. While Abel understands that nothing he has really belongs to him, but to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself. God couldn’t approve of Cain’s half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your vanity, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right’, if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

Sin, an archery term in Hebrew, means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is all. A sinful act drives us away from our Divine center. Our vanity is a sin because it strengthens our false sense of self, our illusion of separateness. It is this delusion that drives us to possess “stuff/people/power” as an illusory validation of our existing as a separate being. God told Cain that he could dominate/overcome this sinful egocentric avaricious trait not by killing it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by doing right, by bringing full offerings; by practicing acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity. But, Cain didn’t listen and killed Abel or Hevel in Hebrew, when the name Hevel means: “vanity.” Yet, only vanity would want to kill vanity in itself. What Cain created with this act is the exact opposite of what he aimed for: more separation, and greater alienation from Source.

These past High Holy Days, whatever character trait you identified in yourself that no longer serves you—that might even have become an obstacle in your life, your work, the health of your relationships—don’t fight it. Don’t try to kill it in yourself. Instead, our Torah portion is telling us, practice developing the opposite character trait. In the long run the latter will overtake the former, causing it to shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering.