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: January 29 – February 4, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

God Acts in Wondrous Ways

Our Torah portion opens, this week, with the last four plagues to befall Egypt. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart… so that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount… how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’.” [Exod. 10:1-2] The Hebrew doesn’t actually speak of plagues but of signs, wonders, miracles or signals. These signs are out-of-the-ordinary events in nature that are meant to trigger a reaction of awe in the hearts of the Israelites. Awe was what God intended for us to feel in the great display of God’s might; for us to know the Divine Presence in our world in unmistakable ways.

For those of us living in Western Washington one of the most “out-of-the-ordinary” awe-filled event in nature at this time of the year is snow. When some in Seattle might experience snowfall as a plague, many see it as a wondrous occasion. Because it is so rare, snow has a great power in our region: it quiets things down. Snow slows everything down to a quasi standstill. Snow does on the outside what meditation does on the inside. When it snows in Seattle, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We retreat inward, we Shabbat. We cozy up on the couch with a hot beverage, we grab a good book, dust off a few board games. Suddenly we have time for a few minutes of meditation. We hit the reset button. We reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives. We look out the window in awe of the beauty of our natural world; we look at the people in our lives in awe of the love we share. Snow does for us what Moses was trying to do with Pharaoh: open his heart.

Though our text says that God is the One Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, I suspect that, mythologically, Pharaoh stands as the symbol for the hardening of our heart. Pharaoh is the energy in us that closes us down, that causes us to fear, and consequently reject, exclude, deny, or repress; the energy that might see snow as a plague. The root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew are the three letters peh, resh, and ayin. Peh means mouth or voice. Resh and ayin put together make the word Ra, which means “bad,” or “negative.” Pharaoh can be said to represent the Peh Ra, the “negative voice” within us. On the opposite side of it, we have Moses. Moses is the voice of love in us that is urging us to let go, to release, to relax. Moses is the inner power that is able to peel off the layers of what the kabbalists call the klippot, the shells around our heart. He does so with wonder, with amazement, with awe-inspiring snowstorms that drive us inward.

For our mystics, the process of spiritual awakening is an ongoing process of peeling off the layers of ego that have obstructed the Light Being that we are. It is an ongoing process of letting go of our concepts and rigid certainties, of the strictness of our worldview, of the relative truth we mistake to be absolute. Ultimately it is about letting go of our separate sense of self, of our ego-bound identity, and to open ourselves to the Greater I AM that we are, the ego-less Being-ness that we are. In other words, it is a journey of self-transformation from Pharaoh to Moses. In Gematria, the letters of the word, Pharaoh, add up to 355; Moses to 345. One subtracts 10 from the former to attain the latter: 10 layers of shells around the heart to be peeled off through 10 Divine signs, 10 experiences of breathtaking awe, 10 concentric circles of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to be transcended, from the outermost gross physical circle of self-identity, to the innermost circle of Pure Is-ness. Let’s not wait until the next snowstorm to begin practicing awe, for awe is to be found in every day, in every moment, in every breath.

Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwaivering love.

Torah Reflections: January 29 – February 4, 2012

Parashah (portion) B’shalach – At The Edge of The Wilderness 
Exodus 13:17 – 19:16

Our Torah portion opens with liberation: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go…” [Exod. 13:17] As we approach biblical stories as myth, we no longer read the text literally; but see it, instead, as the expression of a universal spiritual unfolding. To us, therefore, our text speaks here of our inner Pharaoh-the voice of fear and exclusion within. This inner Pharaoh is finally releasing the grip that perpetuated the illusion of our separate sense of identity. In this first step on the spiritual journey, a spark of light enters into our consciousness that illuminates for us the darkness in which we had forgotten we live, having become numbingly habituated to it. Once the spark is perceived, once the tiniest flash of light has come through, there is no turning back, try as we may.

In the biblical myth, we learn, two paths are laid in front of us; a direct path to the Promised Land of enlightenment and a more circuitous path: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” [Exod. 13:17-18] Our mystics teach, arguably, that in the early stages of one’s spiritual journey, the direct path might not be the preferred one for it is fraught with inner “battles” that could overwhelm one who is unprepared, causing him/her to abandon the journey altogether. Alternatively, this have been a warning directed at those who, even in biblical days, might have been tempted to shortcut the journey by using mind-altering substances, and ran the risk of not only hurting themselves physically, but also psychologically ill-equipped as one might be to face the inner demons one might awaken in the process.
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Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2012

Parashah (portion) VaEira – Know Thyself To Be Enslaved 
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Every year, as I meet the text narrating the plagues of Egypt, I am confronted with the same paradox. God commends Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. God brings down a plague. Pharaoh yields to Moses’ demands. Then, inexplicably, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and the latter, consequently, reverses his edict and keeps the Israelites enslaved. Why is God playing both sides? And why does God need to replay this scene ten times? One can take this questioning further and ask why God sets up the whole thing in the first place? Why, already in the time of Abraham, had God determined that the Hebrews would descend into Egypt, be enslaved there for four hundred years, only to then be liberated and brought to the Promised Land? Why did we have to get there via Egypt?
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