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: May 14 – 20, 2017

B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

The Evolving God of Our Understanding

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

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 Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.

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

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

Torah Reflections: April 23 – 29, 2017

Tazria-Met’zora

Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

We Are Energy Bodies

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, one way to bypass it is to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. This time, for a change, we find at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

The second Torah portion of the two assigned to this week’s reading is called M’tzora. In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about?

I am one of many who are convinced that, 2500 years ago, the Middle-East and the Far-East were already intimately connected. Trade routes crossed through the known world from China and India, all the way to Egypt. Spiritual practices and healing techniques traveled along these routes as well. I checked in with friends, professionals in the arts of Chinese medicine, and asked them what was likely commonly known about the connections for these places on the body: ear, thumb and big toe.

The acupuncture chart for the ear reveals that its center ridge is directly related to skin diseases. The thumb point is the last point of the lung energy channel. The lung and large intestine are the organs containing the metal element in the body, and the tissue ruled by metal is the skin. So skin ailments are often considered to have lung and/or large intestine involvement. The big toe’s outside corner of the nail is the Spleen channel (digestion, absorption, assimilation of food/ideas/events; related to the earth, to harvest time;) and the inside corner is the liver channel (harmonization and smooth flow of energy; related to springtime, vision and hope)—all linked to energetic imbalances expressed as inflammatory responses of the skin.

What our sages understood then, and we have lost touch with since, is that we are energy bodies. The Temple Priests practiced acupressure as a form of healing 2500 years ago because they knew our bodies were channels for the flow of Divine energy. They understood the energy lines that course through us, and saw each spiritual practice as a way to bring balance to the energy body. In fact, our sages divided the traditional 613 mitzvot/commandments into two groups: 248 were connected to what they saw as the 248 organs of our bodies, and 365 were connected to what they saw as the sinews or tendons, nerve connectors. Performing the mitzvot was not only a way to heal the world “out there,” to bring harmony into society; it was a way to heal our inner energetic world, to bring it into balance. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim these ancient practices, to shift our vision of the embodied beings we are to more holistic, integrated, multidimensional selves, and work through our prayers, our chants, our meditations, our songs and our spiritual practices to bring our energy bodies into greater wholeness, greater harmony, greater shalom.

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 19 – 25, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

This is the question Moses asks himself that next morning. After Sinai, he knows he needs to give people something concrete, something tangible to do; something that will help them integrate into their lives the transcendent experience they just lived through. His answer is this week’s Torah portion. Moses begins to transpose the Sinaitic encounter into a spiritual code for living that represents the individual and social embodiment of this profound experience of Oneness. He reveals the spiritual practices and new ways of being that are the expression of this newfound awareness. In so doing he teaches us that—as far as Judaism is concerned—what matters most is, in fact, the laundry. How we bring our Sinai moments back down into our world and lead lives infused by them is, essentially, the Jewish path’s main concern. Why? Because our sages knew that, inherent to our human make-up, we can’t help but forget. We have a spiritual peak experience, a bright moment of clarity yielding deepening insights, and then life takes over. We’re back at work soon after, and within a few weeks we forget all that was glimpsed. Ongoing practices, keeping conscious company, are pathways to remember, pathways to guide us back to the place we just left and is now at risk of fading into the fog of memory.

But these practices, however wonderful, are just empty containers without fierce kavanah—fierce intentionality—without an ardent inner yearning to remember. Our Torah portion addresses that as well. Once Moses is done enumerating the laws and practices we are to follow, God steps in and tells us: “Here, I am placing an angel within you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have made ready.” [Exod. 23:20] There is a force within us, an evolutionary impulse that is always aching to remember the One we are. The Midrash tells us that this angel is the same angel that protected and guided Jacob on his journey, perhaps even wrestled with him—for angels in our tradition are the fierce kind; not the sweet cherubs of Hallmark cards fame. “Take-you-care in his presence and hearken to his voice… for My Name is within him” continues the Torah. [Exod. 23:21] This angel within us guides us to “the place” where God is waiting, when “the place” in Hebrew is “HaMakom,” and is, itself, a name of God. Our inner angel is guiding us on a journey up our own inner Sinai to reach “the place” of remembering, the place that is always already here: HaMakom, our Divine Self. Hearken to His voice.

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!

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 – November 8-14, 2015

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Inward Bound 

There is a popular ice-breaker I often use to start a workshop or a meeting. I ask the people present, as they introduce themselves to the group, to add before their name an adjective that reflects who they are in the moment; like “Happy Henry” for example. If Isaac, the central character of this week’s Torah portion, was part of this group, I suspect he would say: “Silent Isaac.” It is striking to see how much of his life is about silence.

His childhood, itself, is a deafening silence. Isaac is the child of his parents’ old age, impacted by the overprotecting presence of his mother and his near sacrifice at the hand of his own father, Abraham. As the child of these two formidable figures, a rather imposing shadow is cast upon him. Perhaps, as a consequence, Isaac turns out to be more of a reserved quiet character. He doesn’t even have a say in choosing his own wife. The core of his life—spanning one pithy 35-verse chapter—virtually duplicates Abraham’s. Even when God talks to him, it is always in the name of God’s relationship with his father. Case in point: Gen. 26:24, God addresses Isaac saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you! I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of my servant Abraham.”  Next verse, Isaac is already old and nearly blind. Here, he is tricked by his wife, Rebeccah—who merely carries out the plans God had revealed to her and not to him—into giving his blessing to his second-born son, Jacob, instead of Esau, the first-born and rightful heir. After that the rest of his life is a mere silent footnote to Jacob’s story.

But is Isaac really the anti-hero that the Torah seems to portray? It is natural to think so because, in a narrative, we get attached to those characters and those stories that contribute actively to move the plot forward, and pay less attention to the ones who, less active, are in fact the glue holding it all together. Isaac is that character. He is less active and more meditative. I posit that meditation is, actually, what defines him in the second half of his life. At the threshold of this new stage, just before meeting Rebeccah for the first time, last week’s Torah portion read:

Now Isaac went out to meditate in the field around the turning of sunset. [Gen. 24:63]
There and then, something was “turning” in his life; Isaac the self-reflective meditator was being born. And that this transformative moment took place “in the field” is not random. Isaac is the quiet force through whom deep roots are planted in the land that was promised to Abraham. It is not a mistake that Torah describes him as a well-digger and a seed-sower. Isaac is the bridge, the effaced stabilizing power. He draws his strength from being a survivor, from being able, time after time, to accept what is, to accept what was: the power of an accomplished meditator. Isaac becomes a man of peace who fully embraces and carries forward the faith of his father. He is the quintessential second generation persona, whose role is to ground and transmit the teachings of the previous generation to the next one.

Isaac might represent this time in our journey when we feel the need to move into a more self-reflective, inward gazing space. This might be a time when we are seeking more silence and seclusion. There is a depth of being to be found in silence. In its presence we are able to better ground ourselves and put together the parts of our lives which might have come unglued. In that silence we are able to meet the quiet force within, giving roots to our life experience, and sowing new seeds for a future awakening to a higher, more inclusive, level of consciousness.

Days of Awe Musings – September 16, 2015

What Does it Mean to Forgive? Why do we Resist it?

Day Three

Forgiving does not come easy to us. Let’s be honest, the ego is not one to easily give up the past hurts, affronts, painful incidents, and grudges it holds onto in its memory bank. All of these past experiences have impacted us greatly, taught us a great deal, and helped mold us into the person we are today. And so the ego is afraid, because it equates forgiving with erasing parts of the past that has made it who it is. But we can’t erase what was. Forgiving is not about forgetting or denying; making the past “go away.” Forgiving isn’t either about revising or putting a positive spin on the past. What happened happened. End of story.

But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? The story doesn’t end there. It is the stories we have created about our past hurts, the unexamined “truths” we have made up about the people in these stories, the anger, the resentment, and the upset, that we continue to carry around with us today; sometimes years later. Forgiving is about releasing these stories, letting go of our need for the past to have been any different than it was, the people in our past to have been any different than they were then or are now.

The other aspect of forgiveness is that the ego resists what it perceives as lack of justice. We see forgiving as whitewashing, as surrendering our rightful claim. By holding on to our anger, our resentment, our grudges we are still punishing the other for what they did. As the self-righteous “punisher” we seemingly have power. Relinquishing that power is scary to the ego who needs to feel protected and in control. But forgiving is not about letting the other off the hook. They did what they did. Forgiving is about letting ourselves off the hook. By holding on to that “punisher” stance, we keep ourselves hooked to that story. We are the ones still upset, who get activated, stressed, and sick to our stomach each time the memory comes around. They did something that hurt us then, but we have tortured ourselves so much more since. Now forgiving–letting go of our desire or power to punish the other–doesn’t necessarily mean that we will wish to be in relationship with that person again. Sometimes a complete separation is the healthiest and most appropriate response; but no particular outcome is dictated by forgiving.

So, this is my definition of forgiving; it is about getting to a place where we can say: “What happened happened. They did what they did. End of story.” And move on. We won’t get there overnight, but the journey itself, and coming all the way through to the other side of a forgiveness blockage is nothing short of liberating.

Tomorrow we will enter into the personal and more practical work of searching our heart. In preparation, I would encourage you to think about one or two people you may be ready to forgive this year. Start with the easy ones in your life, and build on your success.

Torah Reflections – August 9 – 15, 2015

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Blessings — OK, Bring Them On; But Why Curses?                  
This week’s Torah portion is close to my heart. It was the Torah portion of the week of my wedding, sixteen years ago, and is called Re’eh, which means “See!” It begins:
See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you hearken to the path of mitzvot of the Eternal your God, that I enjoin upon you today; and the curse if you do not hearken to the path of mitzvot of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way that I enjoin upon you today… [Deut. 11:26-28]

I place before you today a blessing and a curse,” an interesting injunction to launch a marriage! But as much as the ego is fine with blessings, why does God have to also place curses in front of us?

Note that both blessings and curses are linked here to following (or not) the path ofmitzvot. Typically in the Jewish world, we tend to think of mitzvot as “doing good deeds.” And that’s fine, but in relating only to the “doing,” this limited understanding misses an entire dimension of what mitzvah truly is about. To access the richer understanding we look to the Aramaic root of “mitzvah” which means “connecting.” The path of mitzvot, therefore, is a spiritual practice or discipline which aims at connecting or reconnecting us to God, to the Source of Being that we are. Yet why does embracing a spiritual practice bring blessings and not following one unleash curses? If we consider this to be not so much about outer consequences, but rather about inner awareness, then deeper layers of meaning can be extracted from this injunction.

Often, when we neglect our spiritual practice, we find ourselves caught in the world of the mind, stuck in the chaotic life of the ego. The nature of the ego is to be dissatisfied, to perceive and often dwell upon what is lacking, what is not right, on how things should be and are not. The ego worries, complains about its needs not being fulfilled, its expectations not being met. It looks out at the world and sees violence, devastation, ecological disaster. It lives in anger and resentment about yesterday and in fear of tomorrow, continually trying to manipulate and control today to make it different than it is. And so it is not so much that a life devoid of spirituality brings curses upon itself; rather, it may be that such a life is one where one is only able to see curses. As the first word of our portion may be hinting at, this is about what we are able to “see,” to be present to or aware of. Collapsed in the ego, one sees mainly lack and fear.

When we make spirituality an essential part of our existence, however, what we are able to see is radically different. Because our spiritual path serves to reconnect us to Source, it expands our awareness beyond the tunnel vision of the ego. In removing our blinders and opening our eyes it also opens our heart. As we become spiritually aware, we are able to also see the essential goodness of the world, the miracle of life, the unfathomable gift of our own birth, and the preciousness of relationship. We are able to hold the pain and suffering, the struggling and the fear with acceptance, understanding and compassion. The existence of love brings up feelings of gratitude, the wonder of aliveness, feelings of pure joy. In such awareness the other is no longer seen as a means to satisfy one’s needs; one is able to leave the past in the past, welcome the future with an open heart, and be fully present to one’s experience in every moment, just as it is. When awareness transcends the ego, one can’t help but see abundance and love.

The perfect wedding gift of a portion after all!