Torah Reflections – June 7 – 13, 2015

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Why The Spies Were Wrong

 

This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!‘” [Num. 13:30]

 

I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders — wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses — be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.

 

The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones-indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy — leaving no time for Spirit — and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.

 

But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.

 

 

 

 

 

PS: Once a year I come to you asking those of you who are not members of Bet Alef — if you enjoy receiving and reading these (almost) weekly Reflections — to consider making a donation to the organization that strives to be the spiritual community I describe here-above, and, as such, supports me in making these Reflections available to you. Please go to our website, and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of your screen (as you scroll down). Thank you.

 

Rabbi Olivier

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Our Last Shabbat

Our last Friday in Israel might have been the cherry on top of our traveling cake. That morning, a few of us made our way to the Hebrew University atop Mount Scopus where I studied for a few years in the early 90’s. Our little group went to the Hecht Synagogue on campus which is one of my favorite places there. The Synagogue itself isn’t anything special; but the view from it is unbelievable. Instead of a bimah and an Ark, in front of the sanctuary is a very large window. The Ark itself is to the left side of that window. The view is that of the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rocks mosque, and the old city. We prayed there, we meditated (with our eyes wide open); mostly we remained silent in the face of such incredible vista.

We then made our way to the Western Wall in the old city to join another group for a global peace ceremony. Our friend, Rabbi Eliyahu McLain and the Jerusalem Peacemakers had organized a worldwide moment of interfaith prayer for that day. As we, at 1PM Jerusalem time, held a circle at the Wall and prayed and chanted for Shalom, a group of Muslims by the Mosque atop the Temple Mount and of Christians inside the Holy Sepulcher did the same. Nearly half a million people, the world over, had signed up on the Peacemakers’ website in solidarity with the event and joined our prayers at that time. It was a true blessing, for all of us, to take part of this circle; the perfect way to usher-in Shabbat.

And what a Shabbat this was! After dinning in a Druze village a few days earlier, being invited for lunch in a Bedouin home after that, Jana re-connected with Rabbi Yehoshua—whom she had met on another Israel trip years ago—who invited us in his home for Shabbat dinner. Rabbi Yehoshuah and his family live in Efrat, a huge (mostly) religious Jewish settlement in the West Bank, minutes from downtown Jerusalem. It was an incredible opportunity for us to experience the other side of the political conflict.

And experience we did! Because Jews stop working early Friday morning to prepare for Shabbat, our three cab drivers were Muslims from the nearby Arab villages. Fully present to my own discomfort in having a Palestinian man drive us to what I could only assume was, for him, the symbol of Israeli occupation, I opted to openly share with him my feelings and started a conversation. More than the settlement itself, what he most resented was the security barrier that Israel had built to, supposedly, protect itself from Palestinian terrorist intrusions and suicide bombers. To him, the barrier broke down the Israeli-Arab relationships on the ground that common people enjoyed prior to the peace process. He reminisced about how, up until a couple of decades ago, Jews and Arabs could visit and knew each other. Non-religious Jews would travel on Shabbat to Arab villages to eat at the local restaurants and to shop, and Arabs would work in Israel and be friends with Israeli families. Nowadays he lamented, the only Israelis most Palestinian children ever meet are the soldiers at the checkpoints or worse. Not a healthy basis to build relationships and work toward peace and mutual understanding.

Rabbi Yehoshuah met us at the entrance of his synagogue. His is an orthodox Chasidic synagogue where men and women are separated, and everyone dances and sings with incredible soul energy, love, and joy. The guys in our group who had never been in a Chasidic synagogue before and knew none of the prayers, were enthralled, and eagerly joined in the dances and the ya-dai-dai parts of the Shabbat songs. The mechizah/separating fence between men and women, drew some mixed reactions on the women side, causing our group to wrestle—with an open mind—with their own feelings about this foreign way of worshipping. After services was a short walk to Rabbi Yehoshuah’s orthodox kosher home. There, we met his religious wife Anette and four of his five children (one being in the army). Dinner was absolutely delicious and the many beautiful personal sharings were only interrupted by more beautiful singing and teachings from Yehoshuah. A member in our group later noted that he had never been to a dinner where you eat a little, stop, sing, talk and study, then eat some more, and repeat this four or five times until the final blessings. It was an amazing experience! I was thrilled that our group could live Shabbat the way I lived it being in Israel, and see that there are other ways of celebrating just as beautiful and powerful as what they know from Bet Alef. My favorite part of the evening remains, nonetheless, the moment when—completely unannounced and without even knocking on the door—one of their neighbors waltzed into their home, said “Shabbat Shalom” and sat down with us for dinner. I thanked him for doing that from across the table for he, in that moment, exemplified what I love and miss the most about Israel; this open-door way of life where people are like family and your home is their home as much as theirs is yours.

We loved Yehosuah, we loved his family, and we loved dancing and singing at his synagogue. Imagine how much more torn we were, at the end of the night, when our Palestinian cab drivers came to pick us up to drive us back to the hotel. But this is the reality of Israel; this is the complexity and multidimensionality of this little country. You pray in the morning facing the Temple Mount. By lunch you participate in a global interfaith Peace event at the Western Wall. Your Shabbat dinner is with a Chasidic community in a West Bank settlement. And, finally, you are driven back to your hotel at night by Palestinian drivers. Dizzy yet? If anything else, our group got to experience the many faces of Israel first-hand. And that is priceless.

Torah Reflections September 2 – 8, 2012

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Listening to God’s Voice

As the rabbis of Talmudic times ordered the daily prayer schedule, they made sure we recite the Sh’ma–the central affirmation of our tradition–at least three times a day; during morning and evening services and immediately preceding sleep. It is also well-known that the six words of the Sh’ma are to be the final words we utter on our last breath; and since we do not know when that will be, we are to continuously be present to these words. The verse itself is found in the book of Deuteronomy, and is translated thus:

Listen, Israel: The Eternal manifests as all that Is, the Eternal is One.” [Deut. 6:4] Because the Sh’ma is so fundamental to Judaism, we might mistakenly think that this one passage in Deuteronomy is the only place Israel is called to listen. But in truth, this injunction is found in other places in Torah, including in this week’s Torah portion; and this instance bears no less gravitas than its more prominent counterpart. It reads: “Be Silent! Listen, Israel… listen to the voice of the Eternal One.” [Deut. 27:9-10]

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Torah Reflections August 26 – September 1, 2012

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Why Say A Blessing?      

 

As we find ourselves entering the second half of the book of Deuteronomy, our weekly parasha/portion contains a record of individual, familial, and communal laws and mitzvot. In the passage that pertains to individual vows, we read: “Guard what comes forth through your lips.” [Deut. 23:24] In order to ensure the letter of the commandment is followed, our rabbis often generalize and thus determine that this applies to all speech. Knowing the difficulty of fulfilling such a mitzvah, our sages devised an intense regimen of daily study, prayers and blessings that limit opportunities for idle time and casual conversation. By busying ourselves with words of Torah, praying three times a day, and always being on the lookout for an opportunity to say a blessing, the likelihood of our minds remaining steeped in spiritual matters and focused on the holy is greater.

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Torah Reflections August 19 – 25, 2012

Shoftim; Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.

But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’s Torah portion–which inaugurates the month of Elul each year–give us instructions in regard to this inner process:

You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. [Deut. 16:19-20]

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Presenting: The New Bet Alef Worship Service Booklet

Rabbi Olivier has compiled a new worship booklet for our Shabbat services.  This booklet will debut and make its inaugural performance at our March 16 Meditative Services at Unity.  We are excited to give you a sneak peak (see below) of this booklet.

 

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