Torah Reflections: July 9- 15, 2017

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Rabbi Moses

There is a beautiful passage in this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses to ascend a mountain and, from its peak, to gaze at the Promised Land before him. After that, God says to him, you “shall be gathered to your kin.” [Num. 27:13] Moses’ response is most poignant. Instead of arguing his case with God, or collapsing at the announcement of his imminent death, or having any other expected reaction, Moses replies in calm acceptance and asks God to choose his successor as the leader of the Israelites. He asks for someone who, like him, would “go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in.” [Num. 27:17] He does not ask for his sons to take over. He is not interested in creating a dynasty. Rather he asks God to provide his people with the best and most devoted leader. Not specifically a leader with the highest spiritual qualities either, but one who would selflessly love and dedicate his life to the community.

Why? Because Moses had a unique relationship with his people. He never saw the Israelite community as a pack of anonymous faces. In the verses that preceded this interaction between God and Moses, a census was taken of the new generation of Israelites now that the generation who had left Egypt had died. And even though only the men over 20 years of age and fit for battle were counted, the sense one gets from reading all these names is that Moses knew them all personally. You can’t be on a camping trip with people for forty years without getting to know them intimately. If he was anything like a rabbi, Moses probably participated in many celebrations over these four decades; births and weddings, holidays and Shabbats. He was also probably there in difficult times of illness, tragedies, complicated pregnancies, marriage difficulties, losses and deaths. He knew countless stories, and saw the essence of each individual behind every face.

One can sense this intimacy between Moses and the Israelites in the way he addresses God in his request for a new leader. He calls God; “Elohei Haruchot l’chol basar – Source of the souls of all flesh.” [Num.27:16] He says ruchot – souls in the plural, and not ruah – soul, in the singular. That is because Moses saw the uniqueness of each individual; he saw how the Divine Essence manifests uniquely through each human form. He understood that even though we are all expression of the One Soul; that One Soul manifests in a plurality of ways, a plurality of unique souls. He knew intimately each individual soul; he knew each unique way that God manifested through his people. He saw God reflected through each being. And for him, the very name of God became the expression of that realization.

In many ways, spirituality is a practice which, ultimately, leads us know the Divine Light not only in ourselves but reflected in each individual. One of the ways we close our heart to others is when we lump people together under alienating labels. We do that based on the clothe they wear, the car they drive, if they are watching Fox News or MSNBC. Worse, we do that to entire nations and races. We fail to recognize the uniqueness of each individual soul, the plurality of thoughts and viewpoints, behaviors and convictions that make up human beings. We forget that God is infinite, that God manifests in infinite ways. Moses didn’t. He not only acknowledged but celebrated the uniqueness of each being; and in doing so, taught us to open our hearts and minds to the abundant fullness of the Divine Presence around us, within us, and within each other.

Torah Reflections: January 8 – 14, 2017

Vayechi

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Conditioned Happiness

Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this—models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.

This week’s Torah portion opens: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]

In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come? He reminds us that we encountered the number “seventeen” just a few chapters earlier, when we first met his favorite son Joseph, and he was seventeen. From there, Rabbi Ben Asher draws a parallel between the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life and the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, before the latter is sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. The answer comes to him through the Gematria of the word “Vayechi – lived,” which adds up to thirty four. And this, he concludes, “teaches that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for thirty four [of them], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold and seventeen years in Egypt [during which he and Joseph were together again].”

Unwittingly perhaps, R. Ben Asher helps us uncover a darker side of Jacob. Jacob’s myopia—his choice to link the “good years” exclusively with this one son—so severely limits his vision, that he, de facto, cuts himself off from experiencing the fullness of the rest of his life. He fails to relate to the unique blessings of each of his wives, of each of his children. He fails to take responsibility for the disfunction in his family that will continue to manifest itself for centuries in the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. Then again, the Torah does not paint portraits of perfect heroes, but helps us see our own flaws reflected in theirs. Who among us can claim that they do not suffer, at times, from the same myopia as Jacob? Who hasn’t failed to recognize the unique blessings of people who walked in and then out of our lives? How often do we make our happiness contingent on a single issue or a single person, and drive ourselves and others around us miserable because of it? And so perhaps we can learn to become more aware of the ways we surrender our intrinsic power to be happy to something outside of ourselves: the objects of our unending desires, or the opinion of others. Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that happiness might be a state of being, not a hope of becoming; an opening now to the blessings right in front of us, not a postponing of that realization conditioned on a different yesterday or a better tomorrow. Because Jacob’s happiness was conditional to a fault, he was miserable for a hundred and thirteen years of his life. And that’s a mighty long time to waste!

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016_Day One

Is it possible?

After spending time in Tel Aviv this morning both at the Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s existence, and walking through the artists’ market of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Suk; we drove north to the Galilee and spent time visiting a couple churches in Nazareth each claiming to be the spot of the Annunciation where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she soon would become pregnant. We learned that there are two churches because of two competing stories. One had Mary at her home, the other at the village’s well drawing water when Gabriel appeared. Both churches, in their own way, are magnificent designs of inspired sacred space. Time and again I find myself drawn into the silence that places such as these are able to evoke in me.

Nazareth is known to be the capital of the Galilee. Eight percent of this region of Israel is Arab-populated and predominantly Muslim but with a strong Christian minority as well. Nazareth itself is one hundred percent Arab-Israeli with roughly 60,000 Muslims and 20, 000 Christians. Some years ago, Israeli Jews started building a little village the next hill over that they named Upper Nazareth. Attracted by the modernity of the new constructions, Arab-Israelis from Nazareth started buying homes in Upper Nazareth and constitute now 20-30% of the new village’s population. It is predicted that, within a generation, it will soon become an Arab-majority village with Arabs living side by side with Jews.

So I asked myself, is it possible? One of the main arguments that I have heard from the political right in Israel that opposes the peace process is the fear that Palestinians’ only goal—despite their claim to the contrary—is, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. That we can’t trust them with a peace agreement they will never honor; that Israel needs to fortify its defenses, keep building a separation wall, impose strict checkpoints to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and maintain a military presence inside Palestinian towns, villages and territories. But these 80,000 Muslims and Christians of Nazareth don’t have a security wall surrounding them, don’t have checkpoints that restricts their movement in Israel whatsoever, and have no Israeli military presence in their streets. Yet with complete and unrestricted access to any place in Israel, I can’t remember a time when any Arab resident of Nazareth ever perpetrated a terrorist act against Jews. Even though, as full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel, they are still a discriminated-against minority (as minorities seem to be the world over) which could justify them having a bone of contention against Israeli Jews; without mentioning the legitimate anger and resentment toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems to me that the example of decades of peaceful cohabitation within Israel between Israeli-Jews and Arab-Israeli could serve as a tangible example of success and something to point to as a more probable outcome of a negotiated peace agreement between the two people. I understand that there are many complex layers of this conflict that a short blog post that is necessarily limited cannot address. There are legitimate concerns coming from all sides of the political spectrum both in Israel and in Palestine. Yet, to me, the security fear-based argument from Israel’s political right I mentioned above, though understandable, may not be as iron-clad that it purports to be. I don’t think that Israel is really afraid of what a potential fledgling Palestinian State could do. The balance of military power is overwhelmingly on Israel’s side, and a disarmed Palestinian State could be a negotiated condition for independence. Looking at the Nazareth example; given the chance to live peacefully and freely in a democratic context, it appears as though—like other peoples the world over—that the Palestinians would chose to contribute, respect and be part of such democratic nation-building. The narrative one chooses, the example one points to, affects one’s vision about what could be. After today, I am growing more convinced that Nazareth more than Gaza, is a true representation of the future of Israel/Palestine where Jews and non-Jews have already lived together in peace side by side for decades. And as it has happened within the Israeli State borders, so could it happen within the boundaries of a Palestinian State as well. And though I reject Gaza and the violent aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, I choose Nazareth. Like we heard this morning at Independence Hall: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But that is the problem, isn’t it?

Torah Reflections – August 14 – 20, 2016

Va-Et’chanan

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Because Love is our Natural State

 

This week we find in our parashah the words that are at the center of our daily worship: the Sh’ma, and the first verses of the V’ahavta. While the Sh’ma is calling us to “Listen!” and know the One that is every one, the V’ahavta is giving us the key to opening ourselves to this realization. “Love!” instructs us the V’ahavta; “Love the One in all Its manifestations with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your energy!” [Deut. 6:5] The rabbis insist that though the verse might sound like a commandment, love cannot be commanded, for it has to do with human nature. And that is exactly the point, the rabbis continue: to love the One in all Its manifestations is the natural inclination of every being. It is not something we need to do, something to struggle for. Rather, it is about remembering our True Nature; peeling off the Klippot – the husks — of ego around our heart that have distorted our perception of reality, and simply letting the natural flow of love at the center of our being take us over. Because love is our natural state.

“Easier said than done!” you might object. Indeed. But the Torah’s instructions continue: “Let these words… be upon your heart.” [Deut. 6:6] Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (19th century Poland) quotes from the midrashic work called Sifre, which asks: “Why is this [verse] said? Because  it says ‘Love!’ and I do not know how, [Scripture explains that] when you place these words upon your heart, you will come to know the One…” The rebbe derives from this quote that: “By placing the words on your heart always and longing to know the Love of the One, the Spirit of Holiness that dwells within you will be revealed to you.” [S’fat Emet; Devarim, Va-etchanan b] But how do we “place” these words upon our heart?

In biblical times, the heart wasn’t associated with love or emotions; the heart was the seat of the soul, the center of consciousness. To “place” these words upon our heart meant to hold them in consciousness. And as the next verse in Torah continues to instruct us, you were to “repeat them when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” [Deut. 6:7] These words were to be a mantra to be practiced not only while sitting in mediation in our home, but throughout the day. “V’ahavta – Love the One in all Its manifestations!” repeated moment to moment, in all our actions, and while looking into the eyes of every being we meet. Both when the mind is filled with fear or anger, and when it is at peace and content. Both when we experience darkness in our world and in our life, and when we feel surrounded by light and bliss. We repeat these words. And by repeating these words we practice choosing reality just as it is, in all its manifestations. Not reality as we would want it to be, but reality as it is. Loving reality as it is, choosing reality exactly as it manifests itself in every moment, is one of the pathways to spiritual awakening, to remembering the True Nature of our being which is Love.

How does this work? Practicing loving whatever is, teaches us to impartially allow every experience to arise, without judgment. Loving “what is” opens a space in our consciousness where love is no longer attached to a particular object, where love is unconditional—i.e. no longer bound by our conditioning. Stepping into such consciousness is how “you will come to know the One” explains the Sifre. It might not happen today. It might not happen tomorrow. Yet Torah is enjoining us to keep practicing, to keep repeating V’ahavta – “Love this! Love now!” For even if the return journey to the home of our soul turns out to be a long one, at least it will be a journey of ever expanding love.

Torah Reflections – July 10-16, 2016

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth  

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother—replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886)  Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies—those we hold grudges against, those we dislike—into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently—like with a Golem—given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

Torah Reflections – July 3-9, 2016

Korach


Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Do You Believe in Free Will?

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and his brother Aaron are confronted with a revolt led by Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi. Korach and his followers challenge Moses’ authority, questioning his position as their leader: “Why do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] they vehemently argue. But Moses isn’t moved by their accusations. He retorts that they should leave it to God to choose the one to lead the people. Preparations are made for the next morning’s showdown. Then, as God is about to unleash His wrath upon the rebels, Moses declares: “By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising.” [Num. 16:28]

This declaration left me perplexed. On one hand Moses was negating his role as a leader seemingly saying that anyone could have done what he did since he only obeyed God’s orders. One the other hand, he was painting a pretty deterministic picture of his life, thus abdicating all personal responsibility as a leader. In both cases he was justifying Korach’s accusation. This came on the heels of a conversation I was having with one of my B’nai Mitzvah students. We talked about Joseph (back in the Book of Exodus) telling his brothers that they had sold him into slavery as part of God’s plan to ultimately place him in command of Egypt so that he could save their lives from the impending famine. My student was arguing against this sense of inescapable destiny, claiming that it removed the responsibility for our actions from us.

He raised a critical question. Do we, or do we not believe in determinism? Our first reaction is “of course not!” We are rational beings, educated modern thinkers, and we cannot conceive of anything being predetermined. After all, that wouldn’t leave room for freedom, would it? Or for meaning. Nor, like my student pointed out, for personal responsibility or accountability. Our entire legal system would be in jeopardy. That being said, how often do we catch ourselves saying “Oh, it was meant to be,” or “things happen for a reason;” sayings that suggest a deterministic line of thinking? So which is it? Does everything happen for a reason, or is everything totally random? In truth, there are competing answers in our tradition as well. Even though our rabbis insist on “free will” being the very cornerstone of Judaism, God doesn’t make much room for it in Torah. Moses is right, “it was the Eternal who sent [him] to do all these things.” Moses didn’t even want to go! God performed all the miracles, sent all the plagues. Moses repeated God’s teachings and performed God’s commands.

Except once. Once — in next week’s Torah portion — Moses loses his composure. Once, he becomes so angry at the Israelites’ never-ending complaints that, contrary to God’s explicit orders to tell a rock to yield water, Moses hits the rock with his staff in anger instead. That moment of apparent free will, that moment of disobedience, where his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, overtook him, caused Moses to be punished by God. He was to die before entering the Promised Land. Is this one moment of disobedience enough to restore our belief in free will? I cannot tell you what my answer would be, for the process of Torah study is about wrestling with the question and for you to come up with your own answer… or with the answer that God had already seeded in your soul.

Torah Reflections – June 26 – July 2, 2016

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

They Warned Moses & They Were Right
This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.

Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But — they were wrong.

Why? Because what the ten elders knew, was that the Israelites were not spiritually ready to be immersed in such a society; that they would lose themselves there, their spirit crushed again; this time not by harsh slave labor, but by the temptations of a life of riches. In this society agriculture provided an abundance of produce — in excess, in fact. People had genetically modified grapes to grow them into giant clusters. Cattle, too, was abundant, and milk products flooded the market.  Even the insect world was manipulated to allow both for abundant harvests and excessive honey production. Can you imagine the shock of stepping into such a land when all you have ever known is slavery?

Those ten leaders knew that the Hebrews slaves, overcome with desires, would go unconscious in such seductive surroundings; they would lose their newly acquired moral compass and fall prey to the temptations of materialistic pursuit. Without first a strong spiritual and moral anchor, without having spent more time secluded in the wilderness, the Hebrews’ resolve to the one God, their embrace of the laws of Moses, would collapse, and the faith of Abraham would be lost forever. The elders’ concern wasn’t that the Israelites would be defeated by these giants who lived in fortified gated cities. Rather, they were concerned they would become like them, overweighed gluttonous war-mongers focused on amassing, bigger, better, more material wealth by plundering earth resources.

We, too, need to remember to create spaces in our lives that promote our re-sourcing at the silent center of our inner wilderness. And though there are many ways to accomplish this; belonging to spiritual communities that foster cultivating such inner wilderness is, powerfully, one of them. In such communities one is able to find authentic relationships, support amidst isolation, spiritual nourishment, and moral strength. They help affirm our own moral compass, our own deeply cherished values, that we may express them in our lives. They keep us connected to the possibility of a world that speaks of compassion, love, peace and tolerance, and where the sustainability of our planet and all its life forms is seen as sacred. The Israelites had not yet constituted themselves into such a community. They didn’t have the spiritual tools to face the world of Canaan. And though it is going to cost thirty-eight more years of wandering, and the death of a whole generation; there was no viable alternative but to take the time and space necessary to establish spiritual grounding.The ten elders were right.

Torah Reflections – June 19-25, 2016

Behaalot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Receiving Torah with a Kiss  
Arguably, the most important moment in the entire Jewish Bible, is that of the Revelation at Sinai and of matan Torah, of God gifting Torah. “Torah” means “teaching.” There, atop the trembling smoking mountain, from within a cloud, God spoke the Ten Commandments.  There, according to the rabbinic myth, Moses received the entire transmission of God’s teaching, both oral (later codified as the Talmud) and written (the Torah itself.) This transmission was through a direct communication from God to Moses. As our Torah portion reminds us this week:

And God said, “Hear these My words: When prophets of the Eternal arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses… With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Eternal.”
[Num. 12:6-8]

Transmission, as we learn here, happens at different levels for different recipients. The Torah that Moses received at Sinai was mouth to mouth, was through God’s kiss. The Hebrew in that verse is literally: “mouth to mouth I speak within him.” What Moses awakens to in that transmission is the very essence of Torah, its innermost light, the pure light of God’s Being. It is a Torah of light that Moses receives directly; an identity with the “I AM/Anochi” of the first commandment. This I AM-ness, the prophets can realize mediated through dreams and visions, but the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, at a lower level yet, couldn’t even hear it. They “saw the voices” the Torah recalls (Exod. 20:15,) but were unable to hear. They asked Moses to act as intercessor, and whatever commandments he would speak they vowed “Naaseh V’nishmah – We will do them, and then we will hear.” (Exod. 24:7) Perhaps there are, therefore, three levels of Torah. Moses’ Torah of pure light, beyond words and images; the Torah of the prophets—which awakens at the subtle level of dreams and visions—and the Torah for the rest of us, the one which comes in a scroll of words, telling stories and imparting commandments.

This latter Torah is the one we, at the base of Mount Sinai, are to study and derive from it the teachings and practices relevant and applicable to our life in support of a deeper hearing: Naaseh V’Nishmah. “The commandment is a lamp and Torah is light” says the book of Proverbs (6:23). Within each commandment, within each practice the totality of the light of Torah is contained, the infinite light of God is present. We study Torah because it is a vehicle which inspires our growth on the spiritual path up the mountain. As our mastery expands, and begins to move beyond the literal level of understanding, more is revealed to us. Between the words and through them, we awaken to the more subtle teachings, to the visions of the enlightened masters who wrote them, to the sparks of divine light embedded within. Our study can also lead us beyond the words altogether, where the sparks become pure light and we are finally able to hear the Anochi of the first commandment, the I AM that we are, the I AM that we have always been. This is the promise that Torah study holds. This is our particular path to universal Truth.

Torah Reflections – June 12-18, 2016

Naso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Freedom From The Yoke of Desires  

Mindfulness is often described as the art of being present to each moment, of paying attention to each experience in our everyday life. Interestingly, paying attention in Hebrew is “lasim lev,” meaning “to place heart.” The Hebrew enjoins us to pour our heart into every moment we live. Yet there is an added dimension of the practice of mindfulness; that of intentionality. Mindfulness is not only paying attention to every moment but also entering into every moment with kavanah, with sharp intentionality. I add the word “sharp” here, because the root of the word kavanahimplies aiming, strict directionality, one-pointedness. Depending on the specific spiritual practice, different kavanot, different intentions can be used. Our particularkavanah will correspond to our personal answer to the question: “What is the purpose of my engaging in this practice?”

In this week’s Torah portion we read about a specific and highly intentional spiritual practice; that of the Nazarite Vow. For a limited amount of time, one vows to renounce all worldly pleasures and passions and become a Nazarite, which in Hebrew means “set aside” or “consecrated.” Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) comments: “Know that all human beings are slaves to their passions, the true king and master, he who wears the genuine crown of sovereignty upon his head, is he who is free from the rule of passions.” The kavanah, in the Nazarite case, was to free oneself from desires, and cravings. Though he seems to support the potency of the Nazarite practice, Ibn Ezra and the overwhelming majority of our rabbis since Talmudic times saw such a vow as undesirable. Our masters frowned upon asceticism and disapproved of self-denial. Not only did they object to any restrictions above and beyond the prohibitions of the Torah (seeing it as an expression of arrogance rather than humility,) but saw such practice as denying the abundant goodness provided by God through Creation. Even though the kavanah had some merit, the practice itself was deemed counterproductive. Our rabbis believed that abstinence only leads to more cravings and fuels more desires.

Perhaps the answer resides midway between these two opposing views. Though we find in our days that abstinence is one necessary aspect of combating addiction, mindful living might, in fact, be another part of the answer to the problem the Nazarite Vow sought to conquer. In this case I would offer that our kavanah for mindfulness practice be: “To be present to what is, just as it is.” When we are in the moment with all our heart, and with the kavanah to let whatever is arising in our awareness be what it is, without judging, without comparing, without wanting, without even naming or labeling our experience; then all desires cease to be, all cravings disappear, all attachments dissolve. We can even be mindfully present to our desires and our cravings themselves, letting them arise in consciousness. And as we do so, holding them as object in awareness, we are no longer identified with them and they lose their power over us. We can watch them arise, with curiosity and interest, but we no longer automatically react to their dictates. In that moment, like Ibn Ezra said a thousand years ago we are “free from the rule of passions,” liberated from the yoke of the misery of our endlessly unfulfilled desires.

Torah Reflections – June 5-11, 2016

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 

We Lose Our self to Find Our Self

The midrash relating to the opening of this week’s Torah portion, “B’midbar,” meaning: “In the wilderness;” asks its reader: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” Why not, our rabbis wondered, give the Torah in the more spiritually elevated Promised Land atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, for example? Besides, why give the Torah in the desert to a generation of stiff-necked people whose spirit had been crushed by years of enslavement? Giving the Torah in the Promised Land to the first generation of born-free Israelites offered the possibility of greater spiritual readiness on the part of the recipients.

The answer to these questions has to do with purpose. On one hand, Torah is akin to a spiritual conveyor belt whose purpose is to support anyone interested in personal growth and insight into Truth, to expand one’s consciousness through practice. As such it offers laws, guidelines and paths to follow; all of which are made universally available. Torah doesn’t discriminate as to where one finds oneself when embarking on one’s spiritual journey. One doesn’t need to already be at a specific level of consciousness, spiritually ready, to step onto the path of Torah. There is no Promised Land to have reached before being able to receive Torah; it is available to all of us — stiff-necked or not. Torah was given in the desert because, oftentimes, that’s where we find ourselves as we take our first step on our spiritual journey. As the Chasidic masters explain: “The desert is the most miserable of all places. Having received the Torah there, Israel could take its Torah to the deprived of the earth, and from lowliness ascend to the heights.”

On the other hand, that the Torah was given in the desert teaches us about the purpose of the path itself. The questions the rabbis of the midrash ask, are reflective of our own resistance to embarking on any kind of spiritual journey. We are the ones endlessly postponing our commitment to our path, waiting for the “right time” or the “right conditions.” We wait for our Jerusalem, for our life to be in that “Promised Land” place where we’ll finally have the time, resources and support to really do it. Once our life is no longer chaotic, unpredictable, and open-ended — the very definition of wilderness — then we will be able to receive Torah, to engage fully in our spiritual practice. Not only will that day never come, the path itself invites us to take steps in the opposite direction. The Torah was given in the desert because that’s exactly where our spiritual unfolding is taking us that we might become available to deeply hearing her teachings; that’s where she is inviting us to meet her. Awakening to the empty Truth of who we are can only be attained through emptying ourselves from all that we believe is our self. The process is one of deconstruction, of unknowing, of embracing uncertainty, unpredictability and open-endedness. In other words, the desert is where we lose our self in order to find our Self. As themidrash ultimately answers: “Who knows Torah? Those who make themselves like the wilderness