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: October 22- 28, 2017

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Heading Home

Lech Lecha marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. We have traveled through the confusion of Creation and the Flood, and now we are about to embark on our spiritual journey as the descendants of our patriarchal fathers and mothers. And right away, this parashah calls us to appreciate the deeper significance of what it means to seek sacred space in our lives. It begins with Abraham receiving a divine call to “go forth”:

The Eternal One said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

What is this place that Abraham is asked to leave? The concept of “birthplace” is symbolic of a place we know well, the place that nourishes us and supports us in our growing, the place where we are loved and cared for. Our “father’s house” might be the archetypal expression of a place where we feel protected, a place from which we draw strength and courage, learn values and direction. This was Sacred Space that Abraham was leaving.

To me this pithy verse captures the essence of personal growth and spiritual evolution. The image is that we are spiritual travelers, evolving from one level in consciousness to the next, while preserving the essential attributes of the levels we are called to leave. Some spiritual teachers call it the evolutionary impulse at the heart of all creation. Like Abraham, we need to let go of Sacred Spaces where we have been because staying there, no matter how comfortable, safe, and predictable they have been, would stifle our growth. Staying there would transform those Sacred Spaces into places of enslavement where we would begin to feel stuck, unhappy, constricted. We need to move beyond the confines of such a place in consciousness and venture into the unknown.

But before we are able to embark on such a trying journey, before we are able to let go of it, we need to create and solidify this Sacred Space for ourselves. We first need to find our “birthplace,” the place where, time and again, we can be reborn, nurtured back to life, where we are able to hold ourselves in love and compassion. We need to know that archetypal “father’s house” of safety, groundedness, and purposefulness. There is no point trying to grow beyond the level we are currently at, until we have found balance and healing at that level.

So I would invite you to hold off on the call to “go forth” until you have reflected upon where you find this nurturing Sacred Space in your life. Where is your “birthplace” of support and nourishment? Where is your “father’s house” of security and rootedness? Amidst the turmoil we witness all around us, overwhelmed by the fast pace of our world, we need to be able to define and recognize our Sacred Space right now. Before we can embark on the next stage of our evolution, we need to know where home is; we need to know to slow down, breathe, and be deeply connected to what really matters.

Torah Reflections: October 8- 14, 2017

Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Cain & Abel: A Teaching on Generosity

Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? [Gen. 4:2-9]

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But do we ever? Going a little deeper, we find that this story is not as black and white as it seems; that there may be attenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one, God seems to bear some responsibility in the matter. Not only did He disregard Cain’s offering, but He created an explosive antagonistic situation by approving his brother’s. Any book on sibling rivalry would tell you that this is a big “no-no.” The fact that Cain has a temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag for God. Instead, His infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to be blaming Cain for what happened, only added fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God Himself should be sentenced as well as accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving. While Abel understands that nothing he has really belongs to him, but to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself. God couldn’t approve of Cain’s half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your vanity, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right’, if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

Sin, an archery term in Hebrew, means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is all. A sinful act drives us away from our Divine center. Our vanity is a sin because it strengthens our false sense of self, our illusion of separateness. It is this delusion that drives us to possess “stuff/people/power” as an illusory validation of our existing as a separate being. God told Cain that he could dominate/overcome this sinful egocentric avaricious trait not by killing it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by doing right, by bringing full offerings; by practicing acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity. But, Cain didn’t listen and killed Abel or Hevel in Hebrew, when the name Hevel means: “vanity.” Yet, only vanity would want to kill vanity in itself. What Cain created with this act is the exact opposite of what he aimed for: more separation, and greater alienation from Source.

These past High Holy Days, whatever character trait you identified in yourself that no longer serves you—that might even have become an obstacle in your life, your work, the health of your relationships—don’t fight it. Don’t try to kill it in yourself. Instead, our Torah portion is telling us, practice developing the opposite character trait. In the long run the latter will overtake the former, causing it to shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering.

Torah Reflections: September 3- 9, 2017

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Let Your Heart Crack Open

This week’s Torah portion begins:

When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving your as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place that the Eternal your God chooses to have His name dwell… You shall then recite [a prayer] before the Eternal your God… You shall leave [the basket] before the Eternal your God and bow low in the Presence of the Eternal your God. [Deut.26:1-10]

With only days separating us from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Torah is laying out for us a threefold path to meet the moment in its fullness: bring a basket of your fruit, pray and bow. Though in our time we no longer come to moments of solemn convocation such as the High Holy Days with baskets of fruit from our land, today’s equivalent might be engaging in these awe-inspiring holidays by bringing to them the honest assessment of our personal work this past year, the true fruits of our personal harvest.

But what about prayer? For many of us, the experience of prayer—especially during the High Holy Days—consists of reading pages and pages of prescribed formulas that only come to life for us because of the familiarity of the melodies that accompany them. And so our challenge, this year again, is to enter into prayer on these High Holy Days with a different intention, a different goal; that of letting our heart crack open. The Kaballah describes our hearts as being sheathed by klippot, husks or shells. Our mystics teach that through the practice of mitzvot (mindful living,) meditation, and focused prayer; one is able to incrementally open one’s heart and uncover the Divine sparks hidden within.

It is our task to come to these upcoming High Holy Days with such kavanah, with such purpose; to bypass our ego’s natural resistance to doing the inner work at hand, and enter into prayer with both humility and receptivity, and “bow low in the Presence of the Eternal.” True prayer is that which is allowed to flow from the heart, not from the mind. Merely repeating words from a prayer book won’t do. We are to enter into prayer the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav did; engaging God in raw, unadulterated straight talk—the way one would with a best friend—honestly, sincerely, and genuinely. Through the deep surrender and profound letting go that accompany such an experience, we can breach the shells around our heart and discover, through the fissures, the light of Being, the light of Love and Compassion bursting forth from within.

I offer that we come to the High Holy Days with the basket of our life-review in hand and, on our lips, just one humble prayer: “Ein Banu Maasim” – “Holy One, we have too few good deeds.” I suspect that with our bowing, in that space of profound humility, we will find the tightening around our heart begin to release, and our words, steeped in the light of Love, will be carried along to reach the soul-level. There, liberated from the stranglehold of the ego on our life, we will be able to open ourselves to the possibility of deep transformation.

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: August 13- 19, 2017

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Waking Up From Our Collective Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the rebbe goes one step further:

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: May 28 – June 3, 2017

Nasso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The True Purpose of Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah Reflections: 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 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

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

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

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

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

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

Interfaith Trip To Israel_Day Four

There was a time in my life when I was powerfully attracted by the possibility of living on a kibbutz. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country called Beit HaShitah. I fell in love with the place and the way of life. Something about the idea of working as part of a community toward a shared goal, of living outdoors and doing physical work, of breaking free from the individualistic capitalist lifestyle that the socialist-anarchist in me rejected. It felt ego-less, humble and simple; a sort of modern monastic life. I was religious at the time so I imagined my life on a religious kibbutz would be split between praying to my God and tending the earth. What better combo? I also imagined I would probably join one of the kibbutzim by the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert as I always loved being there.

Obviously I never made it happen. It remained an unfulfilled desire that I filed under “Idealistic Aspirations of Youth” in one of the drawers of my life story. Today, as we toured Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu on the bank of the Jordan river a few hundred yards north of the border with Autonomous Palestine, that desire got reactivated. Maybe this time, however, because of the turmoil in our world today, this was more about escapism than idealism. A part of me dreamt again, for a moment, of disconnecting from everything and returning to a simpler way of being. After all, it used to be that if you lived on a kibbutz, all your basic needs were taken care of. You didn’t own anything as everything belonged to the community, but you didn’t have to worry about anything either. In the first few minutes of walking through this kibbutz today that felt really right and enticing. Who needs to go back to “civilization” and why would anyone want to be a part of it? Beni, the Kibbutz member that was assigned to be our guide, showed us how over the last couple of decades, Sde Eliyahu had become the leader in Israel in organic farming through one of their promotional movies. It sounded particularly good and tempting.

I think it is healthy, from time to time, to question the decisions we have made, the life we have chosen. Often it is when we travel, when we are given the opportunity to come into contact with other ways of living and hold those as against our own, that we can step outside of ourselves and look at our own life, that we can play the compare-and-contrast game and imagine what our life might have been if we had made different choices. It is healthy as well because being exposed to other possibilities of defining how a human life may be lived in the short amount of time we are all given on this earth, helps us question the definition our society has given us and by which, consciously and unconsciously, we live. In our case we might still choose the American way of life, yet if we do, we might do it with greater awareness. I wouldn’t choose, today, the life of a kibbutznik. Though I still find many parts of it attractive and a part of me would have no problem with rejecting civilization in order to live as a farmer/meditator recluse, my life path lays elsewhere. I am grateful for the chance today has given me to touch again this part of self that, unless placed in this kind of context, doesn’t get activated. It is good to spend time sitting together with this other part of me, my inner monk.

Tomorrow we climb Masada. And that’s altogether another metaphor for our lives.