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: February 26 – March 4, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Temples Within Temples Within Temples

We find, in this week’s Parashah the Divine injunction that adorns Bet Alef’s new ark: “V’asu Li Mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham – Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8] Following this verse and for the rest of the Torah portion, the Eternal communicates to Moses the detailed plans of how to build and assemble such a Sanctuary — also called a Tabernacle (Mish’kan in Hebrew) — in the wilderness. The Mish’kan was to be placed at the center of the traveling twelve tribes, a reflection of what the newly freed Israelites held sacred, of what defined their way of worship, and what united them as a nation.

We too, as a nation, have created temples that are a reflection of what we worship. As a society, we have built at great expense our temples of sports in so many big arenas and gigantic stadiums. We have our temple of money in Wall Street, our temples of political power in the White House and Congress. The temple of our military power is the Pentagon, and Corporate America’s temples are all the skyscrapers that make up the skyline of our cities. And let’s not forget our shopping malls.

What about our own lives? What are our temples and how do they reflect what it is we worship? Our TV sets, our American Idols and those who walk the red carpets? Our technology? Abundant are the means of distraction that keep our ego busy with preferences, opinions and fears. But these temples, rather than uplifting us, tend to close us in. Rather than connecting us, they divide and alienate us from one another and from our Self. Where are the temples reflecting our basic goodness, the holiness we embody, the compassionate heart within or the love we yearn to express through our lives? The issue might be that our focus is outwardly rather than inwardly directed. We have built so many temples out there in our lives that we are no longer able to recognize the Temple that is our life.

A Midrash relates that the Torah is like a king’s daughter who was about to be wedded to a far away prince. Her father said that he could not keep her from marrying, nor could he live without her. So he asked her to make a small room for him in her new home, so that wherever she might go, he could come and dwell with her. For the rabbis of the Midrash, the Torah and Israel were one; and wherever she went in her Diaspora, whatever foreign nation she was to espouse, she was to make her home, her community, her life, a Tabernacle. Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel explains that Israel’s steadfast sanctification of Shabbat was her way to make room in her life for her King, replacing the burned-down Temple in space by building a Mish’kan in time.

Taking it one step further, the Torah injunction — read slightly differently — calls us to remember the Sacred Space within ourselves where the Presence of the One already dwells: “They will make Me a Holy Place, I will dwell within them.” Holy space, Sanctuary, is to be awakened to, realized, as our inherent nature; what we are. We are to recognize that each of us is the indwelling Presence of God, that every fiber of our being is God’s Temple. Not only my being but all sentient beings, all of nature, the entire universe, Temples within Temples within Temples, all the way up and all the way down.

Torah Reflections: February 12 – 18, 2017

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).” [Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing the Essence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.