Torah Reflections: January 14 – 20, 2017

Bo

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.

Torah Reflections: Nov. 26 – Dec. 2, 2017

 

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Awakening from Within the Silence

One of the first revelations that meditation gifts us with is an encounter with the unbelievable noise that lies within us, right behind our closed eyes. As if by magic, as soon as our eyes are closed an onslaught of thoughts comes rushing in. As our practice progresses, however, we realize that the thoughts don’t suddenly appear when meditation starts, they are always there, endlessly parading in our consciousness. Our inward meditative gazing simply makes us increasingly aware of their loud, incessant presence. An exercise one can do is to journal one’s meditative experience. To classify the types of thoughts that arise in each meditation to get a sense of the different patterns of one’s conditioned mind. Some find the mind rehearsing and rehashing conversations. I find that my mind likes to plan and organize.

The beginning of this Torah portion reminds me of my meditations. Jacob is going home after his 20-year exile in Haran and is just hours away from a dreaded confrontation with his brother, Esau, who had vowed to kill him. So striking is the resemblance to my meditative experience that I suspect that the first 30 verses of this Torah portion (Gen. 32:4-33) are but the transcript of Jacob’s meditation journal.

Jacob has this big meeting coming up. He sits down to meditate to find peace and quiet, but thoughts invade his consciousness. Jacob’s conditioned mind seems to be that of a planner, a strategist. Instead of slowing down, it begins to organize an entire convoy of people and gifts to be sent wave after wave ahead of the meeting to his brother in order to appease his vengeful wrath. He divides and orders, weighs all possible future scenarios. He even rehearses the dialogues that might take place between the servants he is sending ahead and Esau himself. He counts off the camels and the goats, the rams and the asses to be given away while bargaining with God for success.

Then, verse 22 tells us: “And all this gifting passed from his consciousness.” It is as if something finally cleared in his meditation, as if his thinking finally gave way. His mind could no longer handle the torture of the never-ending loop of thoughts that was burning up within him. A crack through the thickness of the mind allowed him to break free from his attachments to the possessions and the stories that had defined him. In that moment, he was able to even let go of his attachment to those closest to him and to all he still dearly clung to. The Torah uses a powerful image to convey this deep letting-go whereby Jacob sends all that is/who are most precious to him—et asher lo – all that he identified with (Gen.32:24)—across the Jaboc river.

Then comes what is, to me, among the most powerful verses in Torah:

Vayivater Yaacov L’vado – And Jacob surrendered in aloneness (Gen. 32:25).

After having let go of all attachments, it was the deep silence of aloneness, the emptiness at the source of our being, to which Jacob surrendered and awakened. He went “out of his mind,” transcended the calculating, organizing, planning, future-wrestling and past-worrying conditioned mind that keeps us both stuck and identified with its concerns and its objects. In that ultimate surrender, he encountered God “Presence to Presence” (Gen. 32:31) and realized that he was that Oneness of Being.

Torah Reflections: November 19 – 25, 2017

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

God Was in This Place

There is one verse in this week’s Torah portion which encompasses the entirety of the Kabbalistic endeavor: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’” [Gen. 28:16] The Hebrew uses a word here which is rarely translated: the word “yesh”—yesh YHVH bamakom hazeh. “Yesh” is ignored because it is mostly thought of to mean “there is;” which, if kept, makes the English phrasing awkward: “there is the Eternal in this place.” But that’s because most translators aren’t Kabbalists. “Yesh” also means: “something-ness, being, or essence.” In other words, one could translate this verse to mean: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Essence of YHVH is in this place, and I did not know it.’” This one verse describes the unique path that is Judaism in general, but Jewish mysticism in particular. Ours is a path that seeks to awaken to “the Essence of YHVH in this place,” in this world—to realize the Divine Presence filling all of Creation yet transcending all of Creation.

יהוה approximately rendered YHVH in English, are the four letters of God’s unpronounceable name, of the formless, transcendent, unmanifest aspect of the Divine; what the Kabbalists also call “Ayin” or Nothingness. Ayin’s counterpart—though our language betrays us since, in absolute terms, Ayin knows no counterpart— is also called Yesh, when Yesh, in this case, is understood as Something-ness. In Kabblistic principles, this Universe was created Yesh me-Ayin, Something-ness out of Nothingness. However, in our everyday perspective we live under the illusion that this Something-ness is separate from Nothingness. We perceive this world and ourselves within it to exist independently from the Divine. The reason for this is that—as the Kabbalists explain—we, like Jacob, are asleep, unknowing, ignorant. Husks cover our consciousness as well as all physical creation and conceal the Divine from us. In other words, the Nothingness/Ayin appears to be concealed within the Something-ness/Yesh. From this perspective, Yesh is all we know.

Our spiritual practice is, therefore, geared toward seeing the most mundane aspects of creation as holy. The half-joke that in Judaism there is a blessing for everything, highlights this very practice. We will remain asleep as long as we continue to see ourselves and the world outside, as other than Divine. For our sages, the performance of mitzvot in this world serves as a pathway to reveal the Divine Essence in every moment of our existence, in every action we undertake, in every being we interact with. One mitzvah at a time, one spiritually grounded action at a time, we chip away at the husks that seemingly mask the Ayin at the source of it all. Eventually, this process leads to what is referred to in Kabbalah as bitul haYesh: at once the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the world, and the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the ego. After both drop away, all that is left is Ayin.

Ultimately both perspectives are united. As the Chassidic Master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains; in our waking up, even the idea of the concealment of the Divine is seen as an illusion. Something-ness and Nothingness are understood as not two, for there isn’t one separate from the other to conceal it. Like Jacob we exclaim: “The Essence of YHVH is in this place!” Both Yesh and Ayin are one, everything is nothing, everything is God.

Torah Reflections: November 5 – 11, 2017

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah

This week’s Torah portion opens with Abraham setting out to find a wife for his son Isaac. To do so, he sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find him a spouse from his clan. Knowing that eligible young women gather at the well in the evening to draw water for their families, Abraham’s servant waits with his camels by the well of Nachor and begins talking to God, describing his mental scenario about how meeting the right woman for Isaac would unfold, down to the specific behavior she would have to display for him to know she is the one. As he prays for success, he repeats time and again the word chesed (loving-kindness): “Act in chesed with my master Abraham” (Gen. 24:12). “Through her I will know that you have acted in chesed with my master” (Gen. 24:14). And when he is certain he’s found the one in Rebekah, he bows down and cries: “Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, Who has not relinquished His chesed from my master” (Gen. 24:27).

For our mystics, chesed is the quality (the Sefirah of the Kabbalisitc Tree of Life) associated with Abraham. Throughout his life, they affirm, Abraham embodied chesed in his actions and his level of faith. But these verses from his servant seem to indicate that as Abraham’s days were coming to an end, the quality of chesed may have been slipping away. Some commentators suggest that since the Akedah—the near sacrifice of Isaac—God had stopped talking to Abraham. It was even an angel, and not God Himself, that intervened in extremis to stop Abraham from killing his son. Perhaps in finding Rebekah, the servant is seeking to either compel God to bestow chesed upon Abraham once again, or to be reassured that, despite the episode of the Akedah, God still holds his master in loving-kindness.

I would suggest that there is another interpretation of the story. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is to embody this loving-kindness by giving him water from the well and spontaneously offering to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his requirements exactly. God may not restore Abraham to his former status; instead God may be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to The Promise—the continuity of this quality of chesed. And Isaac is in dire need of chesed in his life. One of the consequences of the Akedah is that Isaac comes out of the ordeal embodying the qualities of restraint (of one’s impulses), of strict justice, and of righteous power. Isaac, the Kabbalists say, symbolizes the quality of gevurah (power, strength), the opposite of chesed on the Tree of Life. Opposites may or may not attract but they need one another. Isaac finds in Rebekah the energies, the qualities that balance out his own. She not only consoles him after the death of his mother but keeps alive in his life, his father’s energies as well.

What about us? What would be our Sefirah on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? What is our dominant character trait, our personal “center of gravity”? What unique primary quality do we embody? Our Kabbalistic reading of Torah invites us to look for that dominating quality and ask ourselves if it is so powerful that it is in fact a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth and disabling our relationships. And if that’s the case, our work is to discover and practice enhancing the opposite quality. To find healing and balance in our lives we are not to disown our inner Isaac (nor let it remain single), but to seek instead to find its counterpart at the well of our Self, and embrace the inner Rebekah we will meet.

Torah Reflections: August 20- 26, 2017

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]

Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial, the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.

And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedek in Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.

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: May 21 – 27, 2017

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Too Big to Fail

“Too big to fail.” It seems this pithy phrase has become the new mantra of American life since 2008. Time and again our news media brandishes the fear of financial disaster if this company goes under, or that country doesn’t shape up. Failure is not an option we are told. And to avoid failure at all costs we, the people, jump in to strengthen those already “too big to fail.” We infuse more capital into them in order to not only keep them “big” but to help them grow unsustainably ever more. But if they were “too big to fail” then, what will they be tomorrow?

Our sages believe that whatever is happening on the outside is but a reflection of what is taking place on the inside; that our outer world reflects our inner world. Just as we, as a nation, are paralyzed from the fear of failure, we—as individuals—are just as petrified. This fear of failure is deeply ingrained in American society. Growing up in France I learned early on that the worst faux pas was to be perceived as an idiot. Back in Israel to be known as someone easily taken advantage of, a “freier,” would mean immediate social-ostracizing as well. In the U.S. you find yourself excluded from social circles if you are a “loser.” No failing allowed. The ego, which has internalized this message since early childhood, carries this fear of failure with it all the time. To protect itself from being a “loser,” it goes on to surround itself with “more,” or “better,” or “more powerful” stuff, to prove to itself and to other egos that it is not a failure. Perhaps, in a society where narcissism is rampant, we have built up our egos so much that they, too, have become too big to fail. We keep feeding them with addictions of all sorts, for we need to “bail out” our fragile egos over and over again with any kind of “feel good” potion. Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote an entire book demonstrating that we are addicted to control. How else are we going to protect ourselves from failure? Strengthening our ego is our only option, and that is not sustainable either.

True spirituality offers us a different pathway if we are courageous enough to take it on. It is the pathway alluded to in the name of this week’s Torah portion: B’midbar—In the desert. In the desert there is nothing. There is nothing to hide behind, nothing to own, nothing to lose, and nothing to pretend to be. In the desert we remember the smallness of our being; we break through the illusions and the mirages to realize our powerlessness and our lack of control. In the desert we are naked; stripped bare of our stories, our ideas, our views, our knowledge, our reasons, our justifications. In the desert there is no success and no failure, no winner and no loser. In the desert there is no fear.

In the desert there is silence. It is not a mistake that the word midbar—desert—in Hebrew, shares the same root as the word medaber, meaning: that which speaks. Only in the midbar, in the silence, are we able to hear that which speaks. Only after letting go of the clutter, shedding the inessential, surrendering the noise of the ever-racing egoic mind, are we able to hear the still small voice within the heart that has never stopped whispering “V’ahavta! – Love!” So take the road less traveled; the one that leads us forward to the yet uncovered midbar of the soul—the road of deepening meditation, the road of contemplation, the place where you find the silence in your life. Embark on a journey toward a simpler, more loving, more giving and forgiving, more compassionate way of life. Journey to the midbar, to that space where the ego is gently allowed to fail so that the heart can heal and open to true freedom.

Torah Reflections: May 14 – 20, 2017

B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

The last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, B’chukotai, begins with: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Lev. 26:3] and continues with defining for us all the rewards God will bestow upon us for doing so. It then goes on to say: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” [Lev. 26:14-16] and proceeds to graphically detail all the punishments that would result from such behavior.

That God deals in rewards and punishments, however, is an idea that no longer works for the overwhelming majority of modern western thinkers. This anachronistic idea has brought many to abandon religion altogether. The thought that righteous behavior yields success, prosperity and peace, and sinful behavior brings disease, poverty and fear—though it might have influenced the people of antiquity—is no longer useful; for it is simply not true. But the solution is not so much that religion needs to be done away with along with this ancient notion of God; rather we might be able to save both by awakening to a new idea of God—to “evolve” God to meet our modern minds. Why? Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.

“Evolving” God to a new understanding is exactly what our sages did several hundred years ago. Already at the time of the Renaissance sixteenth century mystics like Rabbi Moses Cordovero or Rabbi Isaac Luria of the kabbalistic school of Safed in northern Israel, presented a revolutionary nondual theology. With it, the idea of God as exclusively “out there,” external to, or other than, the manifest Universe was replaced by a vision of God which—while still recognizing its transcendent aspect—added the notion that God is not only fully present in the manifest Universe, but that He is that Universe through and through. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of Modernity, the founding figure of Chassidism; Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760) and his many successors in the Chassidic movement, made this nondual, panentheistic theology the central pillar of their belief system, defining God through “negative theology” which claimed that there is no one that God is not, no where that God is not, no when that God is not, nothing that God is not.

With an idea of God better fitting to our twenty first century sensitivities, rooted in Kabbalah and early Chassidism, we come back to the biblical text with a different set of eyes. Wearing our nondual reading glasses we recognize that, in this story, God is the bestower of reward and the rewarded, the punisher and the punished all at once. We come to realize that one of the deeper teaching available in our text is that, inherent in Creation, is the existence of light and darkness, pleasure and pain; and that both are expressions of the Divine One. This dualistic experience is simply par for the course of our lives. The more we resist it, the more we seek to exclusively experience the light, want only happiness and rewards, the more we set ourselves up for suffering. The true reward of the spiritual path—of taking up the covenant—however, lies in the acceptance that our lives are a series of “acts of God” some fortunate, others tragic, that we neither cause nor have control over. As we let go of our need for our human experience to be different than what it is (or what it was), and are able to embrace both the light and the shadow of life with equanimity, we come closer to experiencing our true Divine nature, the nondual Essence of Being that we are.

Torah Reflections: May 7 – 13, 2017

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God

The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood: “No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20] What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free?

The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read: “And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy—such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24] As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to realize self-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity—which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality—stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the belief, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest.

But how do we, spiritual wrestlers of the 21st century—having long left behind the sacrificial cult—enter in relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalm offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart.” [Psalm 51:18-19] The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but awakening instead on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and human fallibility is embraced. Suddenly we are asked to acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection we hold ourselves, our loved ones and our world to. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our life, we are not. Though we would like to mold our life, our world, and our loved ones in our image/vision, to create a world that would be an expression of our will, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God; and live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken, rather it is the klippot— the husks of illusion—that encircle it that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered; for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.

Torah Reflections: April 30 – May 6, 2017

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

Drawing Closer Through Generosity

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban”—translated as “sacrifice”—might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives—not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are—we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.