Tonight We Mourn

Today is one of the darkest days in the Jewish community’s history since our people came to the shores of this country. That our people are murdered in our houses of worship is as horrifying as it is revolting. Our hearts break in deep mourning for the loss of life, for the families destroyed by this barbaric act, for the Pittsburgh Jewish community scarred forever by the unspeakable violence of antisemitic rhetoric made manifest.

American Jews have seen acts of antisemitism rise 57% in 2017. In our schools and on college campuses, our children witness ever-growing antisemitic propaganda, that translates into having their lockers defaced with swastikas, or their comrades freely telling anti-Jewish jokes. Our synagogues, community centers and even cemeteries have been targeted, our people accosted in our streets. Today’s shooting further highlights what we’ve known all along, that the inflammatory rhetoric and incitement to violence against minorities by the President of this nation is not only destroying the very social fabric of our society, but it is literally life-threatening.

“What now?” Our response to this unraveling must be strong and principle-centered. Our tradition states that Pikuach Nefesh—Saving Lives, is the highest of all duties, exceeding in importance all the other commandments of our faith. Defeating this current administration, countering the rise of antisemitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia—to name but a few—that has come in its wake is now a matter of Pikuach Nefesh, not only for the Jewish people, but for all minorities of color, religion and gender, for women, and for the very survival of all species. We can no longer wait and hope, we must act now. We have German synagogue records from the 1930’s of the Jewish community rabbis and leaders writing that the German constitution would protect Jews, that the enlightened German people would never allow anything to happen to “its Jews,” that fascism was a fad that would disappear in the next election. Those next elections never came. Hope is a dangerous illusion that we can ill afford.

Lo aleicha ha-m’lacha ligmor… reminds us Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” [2:21] All of us can and must do something. This Shabbat’s Torah portion,Vayeira, began with Abraham welcoming strangers into his tent, washing their feet and feeding them. Welcoming the migrant is a key value of our people as we, too, “were strangers in a foreign land.” [Ex. 22:21] HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, of which Bet Alef is a member, is in the trenches upholding this Jewish principle, and challenging the immigration policies of this administration. HIAS’ work was a trigger for the fanaticism of the racist perpetrator of this act of terror against the members of the Tree of Life synagogue. Bet Alef and its partners in the Jewish community will not be deterred, nor will we stand idly by while minorities are being marginalized and otherized. We will continue to be a voice for the voiceless, a home for the silenced and the excluded. Their fate and ours are inextricably intertwined. A matter of Pikuach Nefesh.

Torah Reflections: March 18 – 24, 2018


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


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.

Torah Reflections: February 11 – 17, 2018


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


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


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.
1. In Genesis, Jacob sheds his ego-identity through a night of God-wresting & awakens to a higher self named Israel.

Torah Reflections: January 21 – 27, 2017


Exodus 13:17 – 17:16


This week’s Torah portion has all the traits of a great adventure novel. We ran away, but they pursued us. We took an unexpected turn that brought us to the edge of an impassable sea; and they were closing in on us fast. But at the last minute, miracle of miracles, the seas parted, allowing us to cross on dry land. And, as the last one of us barely managed to climb to safety onto the opposite shore, our pursuers—now just a few yards away— were drowned by the waters that suddenly came crashing down on them. We had won! We were delivered! Halleluyah!

What follows in Torah is what scholars believe to be the oldest text in the five books of Moses: The Song at The Sea. First sang by Moses, it is then reprised by Miriam the prophetess picking up a hand-drum and dancing with the women. The verse says: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Eternal.” [Exod.15:1] It is the word “Then” that catches our rabbis’ attention. Rarely is such a simple word pregnant with so much meaning. In the two thousand years of Jewish exile, before the creation of the State of Israel almost 65 years ago, this “Then” represented the aspirations of redemption for many generations of Jews scattered the world over, living in most precarious conditions and—not unlike the Egyptian slaves of the Exodus myth—at the mercy of the sovereigns who ruled over them. They dreamed, one day, to sing a song of redemption, delivered from the harsh labors of exile.

One of these rabbis is the Alter Rebbe of Ger, known as the S’fat Emet (Speaker of Truth), a Chassidic rabbi of 19th century Poland. The Rebbe can’t help but read into the tale of the Exodus the story and hopes of Polish Jewry in his time, living in fear of the next Pogrom. He writes:

The Egyptian bondage was an iron furnace in which [the Israelites] were made pure, to serve as proper instruments for song and hymn before God. When redemption was complete, their mouths opened and they began to sing… When Israel came forth from Egypt, they did not understand what value there had been in exile. But then, as they became God’s instruments, they came to understand.

Exile, he teaches his contemporaries, is not a mistake but a necessary passage through which we have the opportunity to learn from our suffering and transform ourselves into a better people; refining ourselves as a pathway to redemption here and now. Though we might not understand it while in the midst of it, there is value in our Egypt; to intimately know the pain and the suffering of the downtrodden and oppressed must make us even more committed to a path of compassion, love, acceptance and inclusiveness. Then, we are made pure. Then, even still in physical exile, we are redeemed; and ready to become God’s instruments for song. The Chassidic path is, indeed, one of pure joy, one of ecstatic song and dance. Even in the darkness of their Polish exile, the chassidim’s Shabbats were weekly experiences of redemption to which they sang and danced and somersaulted with their souls afire.

Of course, as Chassidic masters teachings do, the Rebbe’s works on multiple levels. For him, this Egypt is our Egypt; the necessary iron furnace of our spiritual journey, where the hold that our desires, our senses, our thoughts have over us is to be burnt up, so that we might be redeemed from them. Then, and only then, will we transform ourselves into pure channels of Divine energy. Then, and only then, will we make our voices the instruments that sing the song of the One we will finally remember ourselves to be; the One that is always already free.

Torah Reflections: January 14 – 20, 2017


Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves

There is one peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this week’s Torah portion. While the Torah portion itself tells of the last plagues wrought upon Egypt by God and, in the end, of the Israelites’ mass departure from Egypt; the root of the word that concerns us here is Avad. At the beginning of the portion we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim (translated here as “servants” or “courtiers”), in order that I may display my Signs among them.” [Ex. 10:1] However, later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim (rendered here as “bondage” or “slaves”).” [Ex.13:3] Yet, in another place where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may v’YaAv’duni (“worship Me”).” [Ex. 10:3]

I posit, however, that there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened heart. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, but we have hardened our heart to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.

But the Divine within, continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our heart. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from of our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may YaV’duni/“become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate. No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e. no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating His will over ours. Rather we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here;” leading a life that embodies the Divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting and understanding ways of being; and expresses our highest value, doing justice, practicing love and compassion and walking humbly along our unique path.