Archives for March 2018

Torah Reflections: March 18 – 24, 2018

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

 

The Light of Our Heart

In my approach to Torah, I see the text as myth, not reality. I presuppose that, as such, the stories it conveys speak of universal archetypes relating to the human spiritual journey, and seek to unpack the deeper meaning of the text often as if I was interpreting a dream or a vision.
The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept aflame…. The Kohen shall… remove the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them next to the altar. He shall then… carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.  The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning… [Lev. 6:2-5]
What if the burnt offering represented, here, the waking hours of our day? Was relating to how we “burn up” our time and energy? If lived mindfully, every day of our lives can become an offering of the best we have to give. Each day lived to the fullest is a day we didn’t hold back and shared the choicest aspect of our self regardless of our circumstances; a day we stepped into the “fire” of life fully and with great gusto. Though not a rabbi himself, G.B. Shaw could very well have been reflecting on these verses when he said: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches us that “every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary.” That is to say, that every aspect of the described outer Tabernacle in Torah represents an aspect of our inner being. For the rebbe, the human “heart is the Altar.” [Torah Studies; Tzav] Our offering, therefore, has to be “burned upon the” heart. The teaching here is that our giving, our actions in the world — in order to be a pure expression of our True Self — necessarily have to come from the heart space. This kind of actions cannot be reasoned, premeditated or calculated. They spontaneously arise of their own when we are radically present to the moment as it unfolds.
Furthermore, the Torah seems to be saying that as we practice acting from the radically present heart, the shadow of our subconscious and the limitations of our deeply rooted conditioning begin to dissolve. What is being “burned upon the altar,” is “all night:” all the dark aspects of our self. And this continues “until morning;” until the dawn of the Light of Being that eventually outshines our inner darkness. There is a caveat, however, to this process. We “shall… remove the ashes… and… carry [them] outside the camp to a pure place.” We have to let go of the ashes of our past at the end of each day; to enter into a process of releasing both the good and the bad of what was, whatever keeps us entangled to that past. We are not to deny it; what happened happened. But as we break free from its hold on us, we carry our past “outside the camp to a pure place,” so that it no longer clouds our way, blocking our own evolution. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger writes: “The commandment here to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the waste in our lives we are uplifted each day, and then we are given new light.” [S’fat Emet Commentary; Tzav]
This “new light” is the opportunity we have to “kindle [new] wood… every morning.” Every morning a fresh start with a heart clear of the ashes of yesterday, ready to live every moment in the radical fullness of the present. May the light of our heart shine in the most beautiful ways.

Torah Reflections: March 11 – 17, 2018

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A Major Step in Evolving World Consciousness

The opening of the Book of Leviticus showcases a momentous event in Western history, yet it goes mostly unnoticed. In it, we witness a major step forward in the evolution of Western consciousness that the Hebrews’ still nascent religion brings about, as it emerges sometime between the 7th and the 5th century BCE. The particular modality of worship and relation to God that Leviticus displays in its pages is one of the clues that allows us to perceive this critical shift in consciousness.

To place it in historical context, most pagan nations in the land of Canaan and in greater Mesopotamia believed that the idols they worshipped required gifts of food to be sustained. Their religious rituals included, therefore, bringing offerings and sacrifices—both human and animal—to the gods with the aim, on one hand, to appease their anger when needed, and, on the other hand, to bribe them so as to gain favor and continued protection.

Judaism’s newly awakened-to monotheistic views, as expressed in Leviticus, clashed with such concepts. Not only was there only one God to be worshipped, but the evolving understanding of the nature of what that God was, necessitated the creation of a radically different kind of relationship between this God and humanity. And though an elite few might have already lived from this newfound perspective, their task was to bring this understanding to the rest of the masses. The worship of the One God that forever remained unseen and could never be represented was so foreign to their contemporaries, that they had to find a middle-ground, a bridge to help bring about the shift in consciousness that was emerging without alienating their own people. Something needed to be put in place that would bring the Hebrews to break free from their long-held pagan-like beliefs, yet would still give them a sense of familiarity and continuity. In shaping the evolving form of Judaism, the priestly authors of Leviticus resorted to reframing what people had practiced for generations, yet transformed it into a new spiritual practice.

Though they would endeavor to end polytheistic idol worship—a struggle that will continue over several generations—they would keep the familiar rituals of food offerings and animal sacrifice. This time, however, the purpose of these rituals was specifically for personal and communal atonement and healing, as a means to removing obstacles in one’s relationship with the One God in order to draw nearer to Source again. Korban, the Hebrew word usually translated as “sacrifice,” means “to draw near,” and points to the intention behind the ritual act. Additionally, the ritual supported the reintegration of an individual or a group into the community. Spiritual and/or communal offenders would find healing and atonement through ritual offerings and sacrifices for offenses committed unwittingly. Yet, with that, they were still required to make amends and offer restitution to the injured parties. Premeditated and intentional offenses fell under different categories of punishment and compensation outside of sacrificial rites. This process transformed a ritual originally meant to “feed” the gods, to one where human beings could “feed” their longing for a spiritual relationship with God.

This was not the last time Judaism’s modality of worship evolved. Post-Temple Talmudic Judaism kept the purpose underlining the now-defunct sacrificial cult, and transformed its physical expression into a schedule of ordered prayer services. In parallel, and over the last two thousand years, our mystics created their own practices meant to also induce “drawing near” to God. Kabbalah practices such as ecstatic devotion, and many different types of meditation sought to provoke a direct awakening of the practitioner as to the True Nature of Reality and Self. These practices continue to this day to push consciousness to evolve once again, this time beyond the monotheistic dualistic understanding Leviticus brought to the Western world, and into non-dual awareness and its correlate worldview. Jewish spiritual communities such as Bet Alef are directly working toward ushering-in this next level of consciousness and non-dual understanding of the Divine. May we all be blessed to see the dawning of such consciousness in our lifetime.

Torah Reflections: March 4 – 10, 2018

Vayak’hel – Pekudei

Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

Our Spiritual Attitude Toward Work

This week’s double portion in our Torah reading marks the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. The construction of the Tabernacle begins in earnest, only preceded by Moses gathering the entire community of Israel to tell them that even during the construction of this Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle), “for six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal.” [Exod.35:2]

In his commentary, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—notices the passive form used in the first half of our verse: “work may be done.” He explains that just as the Torah uses the passive form, so should we relate to our weekday work in this way: “It means that during the six days of [our] work, [we] should be occupied, but not preoccupied by the secular.” Just like the work that took place in the biblical wilderness, our secular work is but a container for the Divine Presence to be expressed, “a channel for [God’s] blessing” as the Rebbe so powerfully describes. This passive attitude, this practicing non-attachment toward our weekday work prevents us from haughtily taking credit for the authorship of creation. Furthermore, since Torah commands to perform necessary work, it curtails our egotistic tendencies to go beyond the necessary in an attempt to make ourselves special or important.

Certainly, in a society like ours where innovation, entrepreneurship, pushing the limits, pursuing fame, and individualism, are part of the dominant worldview, the words of the Rebbe appear, if not outdated, at least at odds with the prevalent culture. But that religion or spirituality appears to be running countercurrent to the societal norm isn’t to be frowned upon; in fact, it is a badge of honor. What can we learn from the Rebbe about this idea of “work” that would allow us to relate to our own weekday work at a deeper level?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the Hebrew itself. In Hebrew the only day of the week with a name is Shabbat. The other days of the week from Sunday to Friday are called “Day One,” “Day Two,” “Day Three” etc… In their full expression the days are actually: “Day One toward Shabbat,” “Day Two toward Shabbat,” etc… Every day we are working toward getting ready for Shabbat, preparing ourselves for our weekly spiritual retreat, for our encounter with God. Readying ourselves for Shabbat consciousness is the central aim of our weekday work. The Rebbe’s attitudinal prescription is to prevent us from mistakenly paying too much attention to our secular activities, from being caught in them and assigning them an importance they do not deserve. Not that we shouldn’t tend to our world and do the work that is necessary; but our true focal point, our attention is to remain inner directed, divinely focused. And so in our doing this weekday work we should lack inner involvement, we should remain unattached. The work is to be carried out “LiSh’ma – for its own sake.” Not for pleasure sake, not for fame sake, not for any kind of reward or thank you. We do what is necessary to be done just because.”

And the Rebbe to conclude: “Only when [one] sees [one’s] work for what it is, a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of God, will [one’s] work take the passive form and the focus of [one’s] thoughts be on God alone.” (Likkutei Sichot Vol. I).

Torah Reflections: February 25 – March 3, 2018

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

What if Moses Never Came Back?

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him. [Exod. 32:1]

This “god” Aaron is going to help build, is the infamous golden calf. It had been forty days and forty nights since Moses had disappeared atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites had become restless, unable to tolerate weeks upon weeks of inaction. Moses must have died, they presumed. All these trials and tribulations were for naught. And so they resolved to resurrect an Egyptian god—that the golden calf represented—to find reassurance in the familiar. The episode of the Golden Calf is, therefore, seen by many rabbis as a spiritual backslide brought about by a lack of trust in the unfolding of a process.

Haven’t we all been there too? In our relationships; we cherish that peak experience moment (just like Sinai), but become impatient and disillusioned when it doesn’t happen again in subsequent encounters. Not Moses but “the magic” must have died. In our work too; we had this fabulous report, this successful event, this highly praised project we completed. Surely a promotion is coming next, success will be knocking at the door. But then weeks go by and, we surmise, all has been forgotten, our hard work was for naught. It is the same with spirituality. We have a peak experience following a specific practice. Immediately we commit ourselves to this teacher or that technique, ready to do whatever it takes to follow this newfound path. But when nothing happens for weeks and months our commitment fades, our trust in the practice or the teacher wanes and pretty soon we are back at square one.

Why is that? Where is this human universal pattern coming from? Two main answers come to mind: craving and distrust. One of the greatest pitfalls on the spiritual path, and in many other areas of our lives (especially our relationships,) is our all-too-human craving for the multiplication of blissful moments. There is inherently nothing wrong with living through such moments, through peak experiences. They are the energy-source that has the potential to fuel our growth, to dislodge us from our ego-bound identity. But they become pathological when we become stuck in grasping at them. Craving is a function of the ego. It is the ego that wants. That which is already everything, lacks nothing and, therefore, wants nothing. Our ego, wanting to see the blissful moment reproduced, steps in to control our experience and, in doing so, blocks any possibility of it happening again. Paradoxically, it is our craving for these experiences that prevents us from re-living them.

Our lack of trust—often a consequence of our pathological cravings—is another hurdle to overcome on our spiritual journey, on our life-journey. Though we might not readily see it, every encounter, every moment of practice has an impact on our evolution. Relationships deepen mostly when, after the fireworks, people are present to and engaged with one another in their commitment to walk together as one, day in and day out. A spiritual teacher once said: “Enlightenment is, most often, an act of grace, an accident. A serious day-to-day meditation practice—though it might not bring one to blissful states each time—makes one ‘accident-prone.’” Trust in the process. Trust that things are moving in the depth of our being even when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. This is the key to spiritual growth; the key to growth at any level. The Israelites’ experience at the foot of Mount Sinai speaks of the challenge of trust in the face of the invisible; be it God or Moses. It calls us to steadfast commitment to the deeper Truth we know within our heart, the Truth we recognize at the soul level.