Archives for February 2018

Torah Reflections: February 11 – 17, 2018

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Creating an Inner Sanctuary

This week’s Torah portion opens with the famous verse: “V’asu Li mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham,” usually translated: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Though from this verse forward the entire portion enunciates God’s directions to building a Tabernacle in the wilderness in tedious detail, we read the text not as an Ikea book of instructions for assembling an actual structure in the Sinai desert, but as a blueprint to create a mishkan, a sanctuary within. Our translation of this verse in Exodus varies, therefore, from the common understanding. We take it to mean: “Let them create an inner sacred space that I might dwell within them.” But how are we to create this inner sacred space?

Our rabbis offer us a four-step approach. The first step, the foundation of this inner structure, is called Hoda’ah – thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Every morning, as we first wake-up, we are to acknowledge the Divine nature of Existence and the unfathomable gift of yet another day, by simply saying the words of the Modeh Ani. This attitude of thankfulness is a prerequisite to worship, to any ritualistic act and to any legal practice. And this is where we start; with an opening of the heart, with a sense of awe for the miracle of Creation. This attitude of thanksgiving is coupled with an acceptance of our role as surrendered participants in the unfolding of Creation called in Hebrew Kabbalat Ol. Both lay, together, the foundation of our inner sanctuary.

The second step, the pillars of our inner mishkan, is called Avodah. Avodah means work; in this case, spiritual work. Our spiritual work or practice is the natural expression of the pillars of our inner temple. For some of us it manifests through prayer and uttering words of blessings in every possible occasion; for others it means setting time aside to meditate each day; for others, it means immersing ourselves in nature as often as possible. Whatever our primary spiritual practice; this is Avodah; and no inner temple can be built without actively engaging in practice.

The third step, the coverings of your inner temple, is Torah. Torah, in this case, doesn’t refer to the five books of Moses, but is understood in its etymological sense meaning “Teaching.” Learning in general is a modality that supports growth in consciousness by expanding our awareness to include a plurality of thoughts and perspectives. But the study of spiritual text, in particular, is essential in our tradition, for it is seen as the doorway from the material world into the soul, and from the soul out to the material world. On one hand study opens our minds to understanding what lies beyond the narrow confines of our current worldview, our current truths, and allows us to continue to grow and evolve. On the other hand, study gives us the ability to live a principled-centered life and manifest in our world the highest spiritual teachings available to us.

And this leads me to our last step, which has to do not with the structure itself, but rather with the purpose this structure serves: Gemilut Chasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness. There is no point in creating an inner mishkan, our sages say, if it doesn’t lead us to performing right acts, to transforming ourselves into the loving and kind beings we know ourselves to be, and bring these energies into our world through our actions. Spirituality without action, as our rabbis point out, is for naught.

Surrendered gratitude, spiritual practice, life-long learning, and acts of Loving-Kindness are the foundation, the pillars, the coverings and the purpose of our inner sanctuary. It is a sanctuary that not only is ever-changing, growing and evolving, but that ultimately remains forever unfinished.

Torah Reflections: February 4 – 10, 2018

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Our Highest Spiritual Principles

When a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal. [Exod. 21:35-36]

These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Though taken at the literal level, these rules might appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives (who among us owns an ox anymore?); they are, at a deeper level, far more than simple rules and legislations.

Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st century concepts: When a corporation (call it BP for argument sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the cleaning up costs. Going further with the second verse: If it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for 2 prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area back to its pristine state.

The same goes for peoples’ behavior.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned… but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner too, shall be put to death. [Exod. 21:28-29]

To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a gymnastics team doctor abuses a neighbor’s daughter, the doctor shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that doctor had been in the habit of abusing young girls for many years, and his superior, though aware, had failed to restrain him, the doctor is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story everyday; in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our work places and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principals that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses, speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.

Torah Reflections: January 28 – February 3, 2018

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

One With the One

Now Moses went up to God. The Eternal One called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you hear, deeply hear My voice, and keep My covenant, you will be to Me a special treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” [Exod. 19:3-6]

Thus begins chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, the chapter leading up to the Ten Commandments and Revelation at Sinai. Moving beyond the literal level, I read this passage as a transmission of a spiritual encounter couched in the literary form of myth. Though the words of Revelation meet us in the next chapter, chapter 19 describes the moment of awakening.

These early verses might, therefore, detail the initial meditation from which the unfolding chaotic, awesome and terrifying vision unfolds. “Moses,” the “house of Jacob,” as well as “the children of Israel,” represent different layers of consciousness being addressed here. Our inner Moses, the always already enlightened part of self, is the one to ascend and channel this transmission. The “house of Jacob” represents the level of ego consciousness, while the “children of Israel” the more spiritually inclined aspects of consciousness.

To the ego consciousness God says: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians;” because the ego needs to see in order to believe. To the “children of Israel” God says: “I bore you on eagles’ wings” because, the kabbalists remind us, the eagle is one of the four animals Ezekiel describes in his vision of the celestial chariot, and is associated with the Cosmic Spiritual World. In this meditation, therefore, God carries the “children of Israel” part of self, up to cosmic consciousness. In so doing God “brought” us to Him—a Hebrew expression used in the context of marriage or union. It is this union with the Divine, becoming one with the One, which this meditation describes. For our mystics the transmission expressed in these verses unfolds at the cosmic level of consciousness and depicts the union of the individual human soul with the Godhead.

Now, then, having reached this state of union, we can hear God’s voice which is our voice. Now, then, we can know that “all the earth” is God’s; and echo the words of the Chasidic masters: “God fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds.” Now, then, we can know ourselves to be a “kingdom of priests”—which Martin Buber translated as “Royal retinue”—one with the One, serving the Holy One of all Being by bearing witness to and acting as the conduits of Its Presence in the world, of Its Holiness in all lives. Now, then, we can truly hear the first word of the Ten Commandments “Anochi – I am,” not as an affirmation from an entity outside of our self, but as the “I am” that I am, the “I am” that you are, one with the One as we forever are.
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1. In Genesis, Jacob sheds his ego-identity through a night of God-wresting & awakens to a higher self named Israel.