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: September 10- 16, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Embracing Our Unpreparedness

My heart is beating a little bit faster than usual today. No, I didn’t have one cup of coffee too many. But it just so happens that the combined Torah portions for this week are Nitzavim and Vayelech; and Nitzavim holds within it a passage known as the “Teshuvah portion”—read during the High Holy Days—where we are called to return, to turn inward. This means that the High Holy Days are just around the corner, and with that, come both excitement and trepidation; excitement, because this is the time of the year when we get to embark on the most meaningful journey inward; when space is provided for us to dig deeper and face our own shadow, all the while being surrounded by the supportive energies of a community of fellow travelers. Yet trepidations arise, because this is also the time of the year when the title of one of my favorite books (by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l) flashes before me its neon-red letters blinking in my panicked awareness: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. My feeling exactly!

But what if this is exactly what it is all about? What if our being “Completely Unprepared” is exactly what is required of us to fully enter into the “Real”-ness of the High Holy Days? Let’s face it, no matter how much time we spend getting ourselves ready to meet these holy days, when Rosh Hashanah eve comes around, we still feel totally unrehearsed. What if, therefore, showing up as we are, with all our messes and contradictions, unpolished and raw, was all that is asked of us? Perhaps fully embracing our unpreparedness, letting go of the well-adjusted façade we present the world the rest of the year, and inviting all aspects of our self to meet these days, is the first spiritual teaching that the Holy Days offer. This seems to be, indeed, what the first two verses of Nitzavim—in my interpretative translation—are calling us to do:

You are standing here, this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God—your leader-self, your wise-self, your controlling-self… your inner child… your alienated part of self, your destructive self, the part of self connected to Source… (Deut. 29:9-10)

Embracing the messiness of life, letting go of the pretense that keeps us separate, that prevents us from truly knowing not only each other’s heart but our own heart as well, is the prerequisite to our embarking again on this journey of healing which begins with this new year, on Rosh Hashanah. So come exactly as you are! Come utterly unprepared! But come! Bring all aspects of your being to meet that moment! Then you will be able to say, when God calls to you: “Hineni—here I am.”

Torah Reflections: August 13- 19, 2017

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Waking Up From Our Collective Amnesia

See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, that I enjoin upon you today; and the curse if you do not listen to the mitzvot of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way that I enjoin upon you today… [Deut. 11:26-28]

In light of the ongoing wars, unspeakable violence, racism and hatred that seem to be defining the first decades of the 21st century, these opening verses from our weekly Torah portion appear to us as a dire prophetic warning. We look out at our world and wonder how far we have already “turned aside” from the way of Spirit, and if there is a path to trace back, to reorient ourselves.

In truth, what we are seeing out there in the world isn’t new—though it is unfolding on a greater scale and with more sophisticated weaponry than ever before—but it is happening because we, as a human race, suffer from collective amnesia. And what we have forgotten—and keep forgetting—is that not only are we not separate from one another, but that every being (and every thing) is but an expression of the One. “You are children of the Holy One” [Deut. 14:1] the Torah reminds us this week.

Why do we forget? Because the Unity of Being is hidden from the eyes of the ego. The ego looks out and all it sees is separation, differences and polarities. It looks at the infinite spectrum of colors in the rainbow of Creation and forgets that each one of them is but an expression, a refraction of the one Divine White Light. But how can we awaken to the White Light when all our senses register the variegated colors of the rainbow?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a Chasidic master of 19th Century Poland, offers an answer through one of the most powerful commentaries on these first two verses of this week’s Torah portion:

“In everything there is a living point from the Life of Life. But that inwardness lies hidden in this world. [One] has to arouse and reveal this inwardness that lies within all things by means of the mitzvot… Through the mitzvot we bring all our deeds near to [the One]…”

The rebbe’s answer is that only through our spiritual practices do we stand a chance to remember, to wake up from our amnesia. We bring ourselves to remember time and time again by keeping conscious company (Torah,) through a disciplined daily spiritual practice (Avodah,) and by acting mindfully and compassionately in our world (Gemilut Chasadim.) This way, we increase our capacity to see the One within every one and every thing more and more often and for longer periods of time.

But the rebbe goes one step further:

“Each person has to give light to the inner point, which is as though in prison until we have the strength to light up its darkness. This point is itself ‘the blessing, that you listen…..’ When you attach yourself to the point within each thing, you will come to see that it is the blessing. Then, indeed, “see”—by negating yourself before the point.”

Realizing the Oneness of Being alight in every one and every thing leads one—if one has “the strength” and fierce determination to do so—to “give light” to one’s own “inner point,” and “see” oneself, as well, as an expression of that Divine Light. In the process, however, the existence of the separate sense of self—root of our forgetfulness—is negated and dissolves in the blessing of awakening to the One “inner point” of Light that is our Source.

May we all follow the Rebbe’s invitation to wake up from our collective amnesia before it is too late.

Torah Reflections: July 16- 22, 2017

Mattot-Masei

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

First, Break All Your Vows

Yom Kippur is fast approaching. Rabbis don’t need to look at the calendar to figure this out. We know. This is Mattot-Masei, the weekly Torah portion that is ten weeks away from Yom Kippur, and whose opening verses allude to the “Kol Nidrei,” as they are about the annulment of vows.

Torah, we are reminded as we read these first challenging verses, is an ancient text edited some 2500 years ago from texts even more ancient. It is born out of a deeply patriarchal clan-based and male-dominated hierarchical society whose worldview and relationship with the Divine are unavoidably reflected in its narrative. This week’s portion brings up, for example, the power a father had to annul any vow his daughter would make while still part of his household. Once married, however, this power reverted to her husband with respects to both the vows she made while still single or since she became his wife. The rabbis of the Talmud remind us that a Jewish marriage was in their days—and in some circles today as well—a two-step process that took place at two different times. First was Kiddushin (betrothal) whereby one committed oneself to an exclusive relationship with their beloved; followed weeks or months later by Nissuin (marriage proper) where the two were to “become one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] The rabbis explain that it was only during the period of betrothal that, retroactively, the husband had the power to annul the vows his wife made while single. After Nissuin, he no longer could. During the time of betrothal the husband-to-be had to act in conjunction with the father of the bride to annul the vows she had made while single. The husband didn’t have this retroactive power in and of himself.

We could read this passage at the literal level, and immediately denounce this archaic system that enslaved women to the will of their fathers and husbands. Or, because our teachers have taught us that there always are four levels of interpretation to every text, we could attempt, instead, to read it at the mystical level. Since the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalists have used the images/stages of betrothal, marriage, and cosmic intercourse to express Jewish spirituality. For them, this is not talking about societal law, but about spiritual awakening. All of Israel is to be married to God and spiritually progress through these stages. The highest spiritual stage is that of Nissuin. This stage is a place of total oneness with Source, the realization that God and Creation are not-two, that Spirit manifests as all forms, where one “become[s] one flesh” with God in a cosmic spiritual intercourse. When one has mastered this spiritual stage, then the fruits of one’s marriage with God are the acts of compassion, love and care (i.e. Mitzvot) that one naturally births into one’s life; together with the dissolving of one’s ego-identification, of the illusion of a separate self.

But first is the Kiddushin (betrothal) period; the stage when the spiritual seeker commits exclusively to one spiritual practice and gives it total devotion. There the betrothed awakens to the realization that one has no power in and of oneself; that one is but a channel to the flow of Divine energy and that one’s life is to be aligned with—in conjunction (i.e. joined together) with—“the Father,” with Source. At this stage, one must unite with that Higher Power, allowing it to flow into one’s life. “And, acting together with Him,” Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, “one can reach heights that one alone could not aspire to. One can arrive at the power of ‘annulment’, namely, nullifying oneself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide God’s Presence from humanity. And one’s power is ‘retroactive’, that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space.”

By moving beyond the literal and opening to the deeply spiritual, the mystics are reading in this text an invitation addressed to us to embark on a spiritual journey. To choose a practice and commit to it. To let go of our illusion of control and let our Higher Self guide our way forward. We are to begin by annulling the vows of certainty, the “truths,” concepts, ideas, worldviews that bind us to only see life with the mental blinders we have created. As the Rebbe puts it: “Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so one… releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of God.” And this is the liberating power of our Kol Nidrei.

Torah Reflections: July 2- 8, 2017

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Happiness Beyond Thought

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

This is the power of a curse—or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator—to name but a few—and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and—most importantly—remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.

Torah Reflections: June 11- 17, 2017

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.

Torah Reflections: May 28 – June 3, 2017

Nasso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The True Purpose of Blessing

In our Torah reading this week we happen upon one of the central blessings of our tradition; the Priestly Blessing.

And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying; Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying; Thus you shall bless the children of Israel, say to them: YeVarech’cha YHVH V’Yish’mrecha – The Eternal One blesses and keeps you always. YaEr YHVH Panav Elecha, ViChuneka – The Eternal One shines His face upon you, and is gracious to you. Yissa YHVH Panav Elecha, V’Yassem Lecha Shalom. – The Eternal One lifts up His face toward you, and brings you peace.

V’Samu et sh’mi ahl b’nai Yisrael V’Ani Avarechem. – And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them. [Num. 6:22-27]

The concept of blessing is a real challenge to 21st century modernists. It feels uncomfortable to revert back to these ancient practices because, oftentimes, they appear to conjure up the goodwill of a God “out there;” a notion that has become foreign to many of us. It might be especially true in this case, as the opening verses leading up to the blessing seem to place the Temple priests as intermediaries between God and the people; a concept that tends to add to our discomfort to begin with.

What were the priests attempting to do in performing this blessing? The concluding verse might give us the answer. First, by placing the name of God upon that which is being blessed, the Priest is to recognize that the object of the blessing is a manifestation of God. Second, the Priest’s task is to help the “children of Israel” themselves awaken to the name of the One within them, so that they may directly receive God’s blessing; know that God is the One who “will bless them.” In doing so, the biblical author gives us the key to unlock the true purpose of blessing. We are the Priest. The practice of blessing is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Presence in every thing and every one we encounter; as much as it is a pathway toward awakening to the Divine Being that we are.

The first aspect is directed toward the “outside.” Here, the practice of blessing helps us pause and contemplate for a brief instant what is present in our experience of the moment. The blessing we utter pushes us to remember that this moment, this object, this person is sacred; an expression of the One. The question this practice triggers within us is: What is the true nature of that which I am blessing? It acts as a reminder that all of reality is God God-ing, including these words you are reading and the screen on which they appear. Everything is God.

The second aspect is directed within. Each time we bless causes our perspective to shift away from self, to help us see that which we are blessing as-if through the eyes of God. We practice being “one with God” even though we have yet to realize its Truth. The question this practice triggers within us is: Who is blessing? Here we move from a dualistic ego-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Katnut: small mind,) to a God-centered consciousness (what the kabbalists called Mochin de Gadlut: big mind.) Seeing the world through God’s eyes we expand beyond the constricted identity of our separate sense of self to an ever more inclusive “I,” until all sense of self dissolves and our “I” merges with the One “I.” From this place in consciousness there is no self saying the Priestly Blessing; in fact, it isn’t a blessing anymore but an affirmation that naturally flows through us.

Therein lies the spiritual potency of the path of blessing. It is a direct path to awakening as it opens us up to the Divine Being within and without all at once. All that is required is that we, from time to time, take a break from the rush of our ego-driven lives to consciously engage with the moment at hand, and to bless it. That in this sacred moment we might truly say: “Amen!”

Torah Reflections: March 12 – 18, 2017

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Living Our Lives “All in!”

I have been fascinated, this year, by Moses’ spiritual evolution one Torah portion at a time. Since the beginning, I noticed, Moses has been ambivalent toward the Israelites; remaining somewhat distant, aloof. Perhaps, wrestling with a dual Egyptian-Israelite sense of identity, Moses was unsure about his own path. I suspect that Moses’ ambivalence was felt by the Israelites as well. This week’s portion brings us the episode of the Golden Calf. Once Moses disappears up Mount Sinai, their lack of trust in his commitment to them drives them to erect a Golden Calf to replace him: “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” [Exod.32:1] It’s possible to read the story of the Golden Calf as being all about Moses.

Atop the mountain God has just given Moses the tablets that He had carved, when He tells him about the golden calf worshiping happening down below. God is about to destroy the Israelites but Moses manages to obtain a stay of execution as he makes his way down the mountain with the tablets. There, shocked by the boisterous worship he witnesses, Moses is confronted with a decision. He sees that his ambivalence, his indecisiveness with regards to his own identity, has now caused the Israelites to commit the ultimate sin—that of idolatry—and has placed them on the brink of Divine destruction. With the anger one feels when one’s resistance to doing the right thing has been exposed, Moses smashes the tablets. The Midrash, the homiletic rabbinic commentary on Torah—the stories rabbis tell writing between the verses of the text—expresses Moses’ profound realization (Torah verses italicized):

“He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them” [Exod. 32:19]. “Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God: ‘They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,’ as Scripture tells us: ‘Now if You will forgive their sin… then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of Your book that You have written’” [Exod. 32:32]

In his process of spiritual maturing, Moses still needed to work through this major shadow in him, a place where some residual ego was still hiding. Moses’ life was to be one of service. But true service can be neither coerced nor half-hearted. Moses had to go “all in,” heart, mind and soul. Service, as such, is a powerful spiritual practice because by freely giving of ourselves we cultivate selflessness. As we serve the people in our life, in our community, those in need, and those we love, we transcend our self-absorbed concerns and complaints. When we allow others to serve us, we are able to cultivate true humility and to let go of our misplaced pride. Both, however, need to be genuine and wholehearted. This is what Moses needed to learn. Perhaps this is true not only for the practice of service, but for how we live our lives altogether. What have we “set in stone” in our life that prevents us from living fully, wholeheartedly, passionately? What fears are still holding us back? Perhaps the time has come for us to smash those stone tablets and commit to life; perhaps, like Moses, the time has come to fully live the hand we are dealt.

Torah Reflections: March 5 – 11, 2017

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

You Are The Eternal One

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Ornate garments are designed by the artists among the people for the ceremony, sewn together and decorated with gold, precious stones and colorful fabrics. In all, the celebration lasts for a week, throughout which sacrifices are made and a special altar is built at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in the Presence of the Eternal.

For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be God for them, and they may know that I am the Eternal One their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst. I am the Eternal One their God. [Exod. 29:42-46]

“I am the Eternal One…” These simple words are the first words of the Ten Commandments. They are repeated here and dozens of other places in Torah. We read these words over and over again throughout the biblical text, but can we truly hear them? Can we truly know that these are not words pronounced by a deity outside of ourselves, rather, they are the words that we are to speak, that we are to awaken to; the Truth that we are to know? “I am the Eternal One” that manifests as all the me’s and all the you’s, all the I am’s ever uttered, even though we all have confused our “I am” with the narrow thoughts of our conditioned separate sense of self.

Yet Spirit is calling out to us from the Tent of Meeting, promising to greet us, longing to be remembered. This Tent is a space in consciousness, beyond the trappings of that false self, where our Divine Self awakens, yearning to be known. It is reaching out from within us, telling us that if we simply return to the inner space, simply come to dwell in the inner Tent: “I will meet with you… I will speak with you…” All we have to do is take the first steps toward the Tent of Meeting, for the Divine Itself is the energy that will draw us back, that will liberate us. God is the inner power that moves us to transcend, to free ourselves from the shackles of our mistaken identity. It is the force that brings us “out of the land of Egypt,” out of the confining narrow space of ego-bound consciousness, so that It could “dwell in [our] midst,” dwell within us, as the True Being that we come to realize is our being, our “I am.”

But how are we to take these first steps? The image of this week’s Torah portion is that of an ordination. We are to know ourselves to be priests and priestesses. We are to consecrate ourselves to the sole desire to remember the One we are. And we are to engage in spiritual practices that support letting go of all our attachments, worldviews, partial truths and certainties; symbolized in our text by the image of the sacrifices. The way inward is, indeed, a process of shedding. One after the other we surrender the multiple layers of our mistaken identity that have obscured the Divine Light within. One after the other we let go of our false beliefs and opinions as if we were to surrender one piece of clothing after another from the many layers accumulated over the years that both suffocate us and weigh us down. Ultimately, underneath it all, we will find our spirit dressed in the most beautiful priestly garments adorned with gold and precious stones, with “blue, purple, and crimson yarn, and… fine twisted linen.” [Exod. 28:15]

Torah Reflections: January 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).’” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohim revealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God telling Moses “I am YHVH, “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of Elohim. YHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appears in/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature—immanent and transcendent at once—now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the higher transcending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH and Elohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune with YHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.