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Friday, April 30, 2010

Psalm Before Shabbat (for Friday): Psalm 93, vs. 2 (previously listed as verse 1)

Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.

I'm sorry I did not get to the psalm for Friday until now, but I have been busy preparing for a teaching weekend in Keene, NH that begins tonight.  Since Shabbat is almost here, I will keep today's comment short and sweet.

God's presence is one of the few, if not the only, constant in our lives.  All else is impermanent and temporary, but God's presence is eternal.  Of course, how we experience that presence and what it means to us often changes based on what is happening in our life or simply in the moment.

The idea of God's throne can be a problematic one, as it represents an image of God that no longer resonate with me (God as the old man on the throne ).  However, just as the throne is the seat of power, so too God is the source of power in my life.  It is not that God rules over me like a king or queen, makes my decisions for me or causes things to happen.  Rather, God's presence is the source of life, the source of love, the source of all that was, is and shall be.   Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Finding Compassion Within - a commentary on Parshat Emor


Margins are still problematic. Again, my apologies if you are receiving this post multiple times. I think I figured out the problem and I'll make sure it doesn't happen again (hopefully)!

spn


This week's parashah/portion is Emor (Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23). In this parashah we find the commandments to observe the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesakh/Passover, Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks).  All three of these festivals were traditional pilgrimage festival when the people would thank God for the various seasonal harvests.  Later, in rabbinical times, the festival of Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, since the festival occurs exactly seven weeks from the second day of Pesakh, which represents the exodus from Egypt.
Immediately following the instructions for the festivals and the commandment to harvest the fields and bring grain as an offering for the Shavuot festival, we find a reiteration of the commandment found earlier in the Torah.  "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God" (Vayikra 23:22).  
The proximity of the instructions concerning Shavuot, which becomes associated with the giving of Torah, to this commandment to save the corners of the fields, prompted the following commentary in Meshekh Hokhmah (Latvia, 1845-1926):

"You are to observe Shavuot, the festival commemorating the Giving of the Law, not only for the sake of the statutes for which we would never have felt a need if they had not been set down in the Torah, but also in thanksgiving for the laws which readily make sense even to the human mind, such as the laws pertaining to compassion on the unfortunate and charity to the poor. For experience has shown that, without faith in God, man [sic] is liable to become like a wild beast which has not a spark of compassion and is therefore capable of committing the basest crimes in order to satisfy his selfish desires.  "Only if you will observe the commandments concerning the leaving of parts of your harvest for the poor and the stranger are you permitted to proclaim the festival of Shavuot as a `holy convocation' to give thanks even for such readily understandable commandments of charity and compassion as these.  For had the Torah not been given, you might never have come to observe them" (Wellsprings of Torah, pp. 255-56).

One might think that the author would have written that the Torah was given primarily to instruct us on the commandments that do not readily make sense to us, so that we might perform them.  But, be seemingly to reversing this logic, the author teaches that it is normal for a law code to focus on the laws that aren’t instinctive or seemingly rational.  However, it is actually more important for the law to focus on those acts that may appear to be instinctive, but which we often ignore precisely because of their instinctive nature.

Just think for a moment.  We all know that it is right and just to help those in need, to give tzedakah/charity and to do gemilut hasadim/acts of kindness.  Yet, how often do we neglect to perform these mitzvot because we get so caught up in our own lives, or we believe that someone else will do it if we don’t?  Furthermore, as my colleague, Rabbi Ethan Franzel pointed out, the modern worldview of the early 20th century that prized rationalism above all else, and so it was easy to believe that the rational mind would lead one to perform rational, meaningful acts, such as caring for those in need. However, today we know all too well that the rational mind is not all that we believed it to be.  In the extreme, the rational mind created the irrational and inhumane horror of the Holocaust, and the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.  On a more everyday level, the rational mind allows people to ignore those in need who are right in front of our noses or half way around the world.  It also permits us to ignore the thousands of children who to go to bed hungry every night in our own country and to cut allocations to crucial social service agencies rather than, God forbid, to raise taxes or repeal tax cuts.

Keeping these facts in our hearts and minds, it is easy to see why the author of
Meshekh Hokhmah wanted to remind us that, were it not for the fact that the Torah makes compassionate actions towards others a Divine Commandment (Mitzvah), we might easily care only for ourselves.  After all, isn't that precisely what  many human beings have done so many times in our history up until today?

Therefore, he continues, we cannot truly proclaim Shavuot as the communal festival of the Giving of the Torah, the moment when the people acknowledged the covenant, the oneness with the Divine,  if we do not act compasionately.  It is not the practice of the "irrational" commandments, such as not mixing linen with wool that gives us permission to celebrate our covenant with the Divine.  Rather, it is the observance of these seemingly rational, intuitive commandments of leaving food for the poor, caring for those less fortunate and having compassion on all of God creatures that gives us permission.  It is as if he is saying, "If there is no compassion, there is no Torah!”  Perhaps that is the essence of all the teachings of Judaism?

Of course, the cultivation of compassion towards oneself and towards all of God's creatures is an ultimate goal of mindfulness practice as well.  We cultivate compassion first by paying attention to each moment as it arises.  The commentary above teaches us that the Torah is meant to remind us to pay attention to that which seems ordinary, mundane and instinctive and not only to what we might label as irrational, illogical.  Mindfulness also teaches that we must pay attention to all of the thoughts that arise in our minds without labeling or judging them, even those that we might be inclined to label as inconsequential or mundane.  For paying attention to all that arises in our minds, in our lives and in our world helps us to view the world with compassion and not with judgment. It helps to create compassion within us for the suffering we cause ourselves by our actions and reactions.  This, in turn, leads us ,by extension ,to a sense of compassion for all of creation.  It is this sense of compassion that then calls us to compassionate, kind and just action in our world.

The Meshekh Hokhmah commentary ends with the statement that "without faith in God, [a human being] is liable to become like a wild beast which has not a spark of compassion …[so that s/he will do anything] in order to satisfy his/her selfish desires." I would like to reword this as my closing statement. For, I believe that without a connection to the soul, the Divine essence that we share with all humanity, we are liable to become cold and indifferent to ourselves and to all of creation. By focusing only on one's suffering, one becomes unable to feel and acknowledge the inner Divinity of one's soul.  Therefore, one becomes increasingly self-focused and caught up in the story of his/her own suffering.  This makes it impossible to focus on the  pain and suffering of others.  Over time, such a person builds a wall that is cold, unfeeling and self-centered around his/her soft, loving, compassionate soul. This is what the ego desire and what we must do our best to avoid through being mindful and paying attention.

The person who has built this wall around themselves cannot celebrate Shavuot, or any moment, as a `holy convocation' of the Giving of the Torah.  For that would require the person to have a sense of connection to God, the source of holiness, and a sense of belonging to community and of oneness, that is necessary for a convocation.  And this person can only feel, see and connect with themselves and no one else.

When we see this we must have compassion on them and turn our hearts towards them.  By doing so, we can hopefully help them to break through the wall  their ego has built and begin to rediscover the soft spot of Divine compassion that we call the soul, which is found deep within each of us.  If that happens then they will then be able to have
compassion not only upon themselves, but upon others as well.  Then they will be willing  and ready to rejoin the community of the One and truly celebrate what it means to receive Torah, the sense of unity with the Divine.

As we count down to Shavuot, now only a little more than two weeks away, may we do our best to help ourselves and others find the soul, the divine essence within, that is filled with compassion.  Then we will be able to truly join together as a holy community, at one with the Divine, with all Jews and all of humanity to receive Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.
 

Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, vs. 3

Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.

After the violent and difficult verse from yesterday's psalm, today's is a pleasant sight!
This is clearly a psalm of joy.  It has always amazed me how many words there are for joy or celebrate in Hebrew, as well as in English and other languages.  Many of these words are found in the psalms and other biblical texts.  But today's verse is not simply about the need to celebrate, but intructions are given.  And these tell us that the Levites had quit an orchestra  all those years ago.  For they were the ones who would sing the psalms as part of the rituals that included animal sacrifices as well as other sacrifices and offerings to God.  And so, just as animals were being slaughtered and burned and blood was being sprinkled on the altar, so too the Levites were singing and playing their instruments.  Both song and sacrifice were part of the effort to praise and thank God

in this verse the psalmist does not just instruct us to sing, or to play specific instruments at different times. It would seem that the song and the playing of the tambourine and lyre with harp was happening  concurrently.  And so singing, playing instruments and sacrifices were all a part of worship in Biblical times.  The diversity of worship and the diversity of instruments in this and other psalms reminds us that we are each unique.  But the fact that all of this took place either simultaneously or within close proximity reminds us that even though we are unique and different, we are all one.  And that is an important message to remember in our fractured world.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, verse 2 (corrected version)

Rise up, O Judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve

This psalm is definitely the most challenging for me.  The images are strong and often violent.  So I'm interested in seeing what arises within me as I sit with each verse.

Pride is something with which I have a real love/hate relationship.  I am proud of my accomplishments in life, and yet I know that pride can easily lead to hubris.  In Christianity, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  Judaism doesn't go quite that far.  But our tradition does give warning to those who might become too proud.  This verse is a case in point.

As I have taken to writing, teaching and performing more, I have struggled with the issue of "promoting myself." It has always felt a bit haughty and certainly not modest.  And yet I know that I have something to teach and to offer others.  I wouldn't be writing this blog if I didn't.

The turning point that allowed me to feel more comfortable was the moment when I realized that my talents were from God.  I often feel that the words I write do not come from me, but flow through me from some other source.  This is especially true when writing poetry.  Being mindful allows me to recognize and acknowledge this.  And it enables me to promote myself and be proud of myself, because I realize that it is the Divine energy that flows through me which is the source of my creativity.

But the pride of which this psalm speaks, I believe, is the pride of hubris.  Believing that I am the source of everything that comes from me.  It is a pride born of ego,  not of humility or a connection with divinity.  When people exhibit this kind of pride, it is almost certain that at sometime they will "get what they deserve."

This phrase usually connotes punishment.  But I'd like to turn it on its head and propose that "what they deserve" is to be hit over the head with the realization that it's not about them. It's not about ego.  It's about being in partnership with the Divine.  Bringing the Divine energy flow into the world.  We are the conduits.  We are not the source.

When we are ruled by ego, WE judge what is good and what is bad. We determine what is right and what is wrong.  When we let go of ego, we let go of judgment.  We leave judgment for the realm of the Divine.  And so, when we are acting from a place of ego, the wish is that somehow we can tap into the Divine energy that tells us "this is not what it's about....it's not all about you!"  When those with excessive pride are able to hear that voice rise within them, then they will get what they - what we - all deserve.  A sense of serenity and of oneness with the Divine.

And so I thank the Divine Source for helping me to find this message inside of me.  I only hope I will be able to be present and allow this to happen again when I get to the next verse in this psalm next Wednesday!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Psalm for Tuesday: Psalm 82, Verse 2

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah

In many ways avoiding judgment is THE central principal of mindfulness.  "Moment by moment non-judgmental awareness" is how Jon Kabat-Zinn  once defined mindfulness.  Yet, we all judge. We judge our selves. We judge others. We judge thoughts, actions, ideas, foods, colors, clothing.....the list could go on ad infinitum.

Judging of any kind can bring suffering into the world and eclipse compassion and mercy.  But another problem with judging is that it is often based on faulty observations, past experience and biases.  How often have we judged only to later realize that our judgment was based on faulty information?

This verse can remind us that there really is no way to judge justly (I'm not talking about the world of jurisprudence).  Judging is unjust, or shall we say counterproductive, to being mindful and compassionate.  In passing judgment we can also run the risk of supporting someone who has acted wickedly (and yes, there are some acts that I believe we can label as wicked or evil. Not everything is value neutral! That's not the lesson of being non-judgmental) or dismissing someone who has actually made a choice that brought goodness and compassion into the world.

In the end, what makes judging dangerous is that it's root is in the human ego and not in the "higher realms," where we find the source of compassion, mercy and kindness.  Judging is all about our minds comparing people, actions, beliefs, etc.  It is never productive nor is it about equanimity.  And so we must do our best to avoid it.

When we find ourselves judging, we simply need to stop, notice that we are judging and do our best to stop.  Perhaps that is the meaning of the illusive final word "Selah."  No one seems to know what it means, but the assumption is that it was a musical notation for the Levites when they sang the psalms and that it was probably some type of pause. And so when judging, pause, let go of ego and judgment and then continue.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, vs. 1

1. A Song; a Psalm of the sons of Korah

Normally, if a psalm begins "A Psalm of ...." I would simply add vs. 2 and comment on both.  However, the phrase "a psalm of the sons of Korah" struck me.  13 of the 150 psalms are attributed to b'nei KorahHow strange, since Korah was the cousin of Moses, from the tribe of Levi, who led a brief rebellion against Moses and was swallowed up by the earth as a consequence.  How is it that his descendants became not only sacred musicians, as were all the Levites, but sacred composers as well?

As Rabbi Perry Netter points out in his commentary on the Torah portion of Korah, "The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms...Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope."

The sons who wrote the psalm lived generations after their namesake.  The fact that they were still very much a part of the priestly Levite tribe reminds us that the sins of the parents are not visited upon the children (or at least not for long) in the Biblical tradition.  Yet, how many of us carry the "sins" of our parents within us, and even to the next generation, because we are unwilling to let go.  Each of our parents have acted in ways that have angered us.  Perhaps more frequently than we would have liked.  And those of us who are parents have angered or hurt our own children more times than we would probably like to admit.  We have made mistakes, sometimes serious ones.  I know I have.
And yet, as mindfulness teaches, we must live in the present moment and not in the past.  Yes, we must seek for giveness for wrongs we have committed, but it also our obligation to accept the amends made by parents or other who have hurt us.  If they do not acknowledge that they have done wrong, or not sought to apologize, then we owe it to ourselves to forgive them or at least, to let go of the anger that will simply continue to gnaw at us.

Korah believed he was at least as holy, if not holier, than his cousin Moses and so he deserved the mantle of leadership as much as his cousin.  His hubris and ego brought violence and destruction to himself and the community.  The sons of Korah believed that they were holy for we all are holy, we are all a part of the divine.  And so they provided song, joy and comfort to the community and to themselves. Hence they are, as Rabbi Netter wrote, a "symbol of hope."  Not the hope for things of the future that we can know nothing about in this moment.  But hope simply as a recognition that life continues from moment to moment.  Hope and belief that divinity can be found in each person and in each moment. Hope that comes from letting go of past hurts and living in the presence.  Hope that makes us want to sing!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Psalm For Sunday: Psalm 24, Vs. 1

1 A Psalm of David.
The earth is the Eternal's, and the that fills it; the world, and those who dwell within.

I have always found David to be one of the most difficult biblical figures to like.  He may have been heroic when he fought Goliath.  He may have been tender in his love of Jonathan.  But he also connived, manipulated and murdered (or at least sent the 'hit men') in order to marry a woman who was another man's wife (Bathsheba).  Tradition teaches that God did not allow David to build the Temple in Jerusalem because of the blood of war that was on his hands.  Perhaps all of this is why the majority of the psalms have been attributed to David by our sages.

Allowing David, the conniver, to also become the "sweet singer of Israel" in a way redeems him.  Or it least shows us that he was more than just the sum of his misdeeds.  It can also serve to remind us that we have all of these aspects within each of us as well.  We are complex beings with many layers.  But ultimately, whether we see ourselves as manipulative or kind, we must remember that we are also part of the Divine and part of the Universe.  All of us, what we label "the bad" as well as "the good."

This verse serves to remind us that all is God's.  All is God.  Divinity fills everything that exists.  There is nothing that is without the Divine flow of energy coursing through it.  And this includes those who dwell within.  In this verse, we are not first and foremost, as Genesis might like us to believe.  In fact, we are almost an afterthought.  

The earth is God's.  All of it is God's .... including all who dwell in it!  Come to think of it, it doesn't even say human beings, even though it is translated that way.  This puts things in perspective. It counteracts the ego's desire to make us believe that we as individuals, as well as humanity in general, are at the center of things, when in reality it is the Divine, however we choose to define that term, that is the center, the source, the all of being.







Friday, April 23, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week we read the double portion/parashah of Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-20). These two portions contain numerous mitzvot/commandments, some of which make sense to us today, some which don't, and some which are totally antithetical to what we view as righteousness and justice. This includes the "holiness code" in chapter 19 which includes the commandment "you shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" as well as "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself."  This section is viewed by our tradition as the center of the Torah.  Indeed, it is actually located almost at the center of the scroll itself.  And yet, much of what is found in this parashah is still perplexing to me.  Some of it is abhorrent.

I was thinking about this when I read R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's 19th century commentary on a verse from the parashah: "You shall observe My statutes and My laws which, if a person do them, that person shall live by them; I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:5). In the rabbinic tradition, the hukkim (statutes) are viewed as commandments that have no apparent rational reason, while the
mishpatim (laws) are those that have an apparent rational reason. The prohibition against murder is one of the mishpatim. The prohibition against mixing linen and wool in garments or eating meat and milk together are among the hukkim.

In his interpretation, Levi Yitzhak states that the observance of the "irrational" hukkim "purifies" a person's mind so that s/he can then truly understand the meaning of the mishpatim, or "rational" commandments. By looking at the commandments this way, Levi Yitzhak says that a person then come to "live by them," meaning that s/he will "come to understand that they are the source of
his/her vitality."

In his analysis of this text, R. David Blumenthal discusses how the essence of this teaching is that all of the mitzvot/commandments are part of God's plan and God's will. It doesn't matter whether or not they have an apparent reason.  Furthermore, it is being subservient to God's will that is at the core of
observance and this too must guide us through the path of mitzvot.

Looking at all of these comments together it would seem that Levi Yitzhak is trying to tell us that the observance of the 'irrational' mitzvot somehow purifies or clears out our minds so that we can then view the 'rational' mitzvot in a new light. This new light allows us to realize that the "rationality" of
these mitzvot is inconsequential. What is consequential is that the mitzvot are the tools by which we create holy lives for ourselves and through which we connect ourselves to God. All the mitzvot are as one and their purpose is one - connection with the Divine and the Divine will.

Divine will is something with which many of us - myself included - struggle. I admit that I try to do God's will in my life, even though I am uncertain what that means. In the broadest sense, it means to do those things that make the world a better place. God's will also means doing those things that make us feel connected to God and, beyond that, help us to realize that we are all a part of God and God is a part of us.

We don't need to analyze or try discover the hidden meaing behind the mitzvah "do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind" (also found in this parashah).  It is quite obvious why this is holy behavior.   But Levi Yitzhak instead focuses how performing the irrational mitzvot can add to our understanding of the rational ones and heighten our sense of holiness.

Following his logic, then the irrational can become rational in our minds.  We may argue about the reasons behind the laws of keeping kosher.  There are many theories about the rationale behind them.  And yet in the end, from the Torah's point of view, what matters is that they are about maintaining holiness when eating.  If one accepts and abosorbs that point of view then the irrational act of separating dishes becomes the rational act of extending that idea of holy eating to every aspect of the meal, even down to the silverware we use.

However, there are some mitzvot that are neither rational nor irrational, even though the rabbis of old may have classified them as such.  These mitzvot are not only anachronistic, as are so many mitzvot, but they are, as I wrote above, abhorrent.  Perhaps they were not abhorrent in their original context, but they are today.

The most obvious is the prohibition of male homosexuality.  "Do not lie with a man as with a woman" may have made sense in the context of the times and in terms of the other commandments that surround it in the Torah.  But I do not want to engage in that analysis right now.  There are enough who have done that before me.  But what makes this text abhorrent to me is how it has been used  throughout the centuries to persecute, ostracize and kill gay men and lesbians, as well as bisexual and transgender folk, in the name of God.  When it comes down to the tachlis,  practical application, of this verse I ultimately don't care about the original context or intention.  What I care about is how it has been used and what it has come to mean to so many. 

I realize that there are orthodox gay men who still abide by this verse in terms of limiting the types of sexual activity in which they will engage.  And I am in no way chastizing them or their choices.  They are making a mindful choice to live a life based on the mitzvot that they believe come directly from God, even when they are difficult and painful ones.  This is one of those mitzvot.

However,  I am chastizing those who have mindlessly used this verse, and others, to sanction hatred and bigotry in our world.  Just as Biblical verses were used to condone the enslavement of Africans in the United States,  this verse has been used for its own kind of enslavement and abuse of human beings.  That is why I may read it in synagogue, for it is part of the Torah, but, I read it with the understanding that it may be part of the traditions, but it is no longer for me.

What does any of this have to do with mindfulness?  Perhaps nothing.  Or perhaps, what I am ultimately saying is that looking at this text, and others, with equanimity may enable me to let go of the disdain and anger that I feel when I read it now, even though I will still reject it. 

In addition, I believe that it is the inability to look at the text this way, and the insertion of ego and judgmental thinking into the reading of the text, that has caused people to use it to legitimize hateful and ultimately unholy behavior.  This use of the text is antithetical to the mindful principals of non-judgmental awareness, equanimity and compassion.

In closing, I must admit that this is a very personal issue for me, and so perhaps I have not been as non-judgmental or approached it with as much equanimity as I should have been.  But that is my truth in this moment.  However, in the end, I feel that, just as the practice of "irrational" mitzvot can enhance the rational ones, so too can the rejection of those which I - and others - can no longer accept as a mitzvah at all that also frees us to practice the others with a great sense of meaning and as a way to help us become more aware of the Divine within us and which connects us to each other and the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Psalm for Friday - Psalm 93, vs. 1

The Eternal reigns; God is clothed in majesty;  The Eternal is clothed, God has girded God's self with strength; yes, the world is established, that it cannot be moved.

Since I still need to post a Torah commentary for Shabbat I will keep this brief.

In looking at this verse I am simply reminded of the eternal nature and the oneness of the Divine.  The created worlds, including we imperfect humans, are the majestic clothing of the Divine.  The ebb and flow of the divine energy through humanity, the world and back to God ad infinitum is the girding of strength.  The world is one with God. We are one with God.  Creation is one with God.  The essence of Divinity is unity.  That is the essence of the world.  That is what is, was and will be established.  That is what will never change.  If we humans would only remember this more often there would be far less suffering in the world!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, vs. 1-2

לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל-הַגִּתִּית לְאָסָף. הַרְנִינוּ, לֵאלֹהִים עוּזֵּנוּ;    הָרִיעוּ, לֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב
For the Leader; upon the Gittith. [A Psalm] of Asaph. Sing aloud unto God our strength; shout unto the God of Jacob.
[Note: Gittith is an instrument of unknown origin. Asaph, though here the name of the author or group of authors,  comes from the verb for "to gather"]
Each day we must sing from our hearts.  We must make each word, each breath, each utterance a song to God. Everything that comes out of our mouths should be for the betterment of the world and not its detriment.

We are commanded in verse 2 to sing to the God of our strength.  This reminds us that we must temper our inner strength and power with joy and compassion.  Singing our strength keeps up in balance. But we must also shout to the God of Jacob.

When our ancestor was simply Jacob, he was a spoiled, conniving young man who stole the birthright and blessing from his brother Esau and then ran for his life.  Only when his name was changed to Israel after wrestling with a Divine being, was he ready to be a leader.  Yet, even once he was Israel, he remained Jacob. Both names and both identities remained.  Perhas we shout to the God of Jacob to awaken the more duplicitous parts of ourselves, the Jacob within us, for we must acknowledge that part in order to keep it in check. We must acknowledge the Jacob within  in order to be Israel, the one who struggles with the Divine (and prevails).

So these simple words seem filled with dichotomies and challenges.  Singing to our strength and power, shouting out and awakening the trickster, the deceitful one, within us.  But life is filled with dichotomies, contradictions and challenges.  We must always seek to find balance while acknowledging the complexities of who we are.  It is through finding this sense of balance that we are able to be present in the moment. Present in our lives.  Perhaps that is why this is a psalm of Asaph, the gatherer.  We must gather together all the pieces, all the emotions, all the feelings, all the contradictions in order to be truly whole and present.

One more thing....all of this takes place while being accompanied by an instrument called the Gittith.  What that instrument was really does not matters.  What matters is that we remember that, even though this is all challenging, if we relax into the moment and are present we can here the music that accompanies us.  The music that reminds us that, even in the difficult moments, even when we are struggling, joy, beauty and harmony can be found.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Psalm for Wedneday - Psalm 94, Vs. 1

"The Eternal is a God of vengeance; avenging God shine forth!"
We don't want to think of vengeance as part of God. Yet if the Divine is the source of all, we must grapple with what we label as being "negative," "bad," or "evil."  And so this psalm reminds us that vengeance, one of our most primal and primitive drives, also has its roots in the Divine energy that flows through us.  And so we are not asking God to shine vengeance on the world.  Rather, we are asking God that is the source of all (however you want to define that), including vengeance, to enable us to see the vengeance in the world. Only by shining light on it and acknowledge it can we then do what is necessary to avoid it.  As human beings created in God's image and working in partnership with the Divine, this reminds us that it is our responsibility to do the godly work of helping to rid our world of vengeance and hatred as well.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

(Hopefully) Daily Psalm Commentary Begins

I'm going to try to comment on a verse from the psalm designated for that day in the Jewish tradition as a mindfulness practice, so I figured I'd share them with you. I hope to be able to do this every day and keep them as brief as possible. If not, I'll try not to judge myself too harshly!

So here comes my first effort:Psalm 82, Vs. 1 (sorry this comes so late in the day): "God stands within God's community; in the midst of "gods" the Eternal judges." We are all connected through a power greater than ourselves. Wherever we are, we are constantly surrounded by other 'gods', other forces that pull us and tempt us. But in the midst of all this we must find our center...that sense of connection that which grounds us in the moment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Light Within. A Commentary on Parshat Tazria-Metzora


This week we read the double parashah (portion) of Tazria-Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1-15:33). These two parshiot dealing with issues of skin afflictions, purity and holiness.  The beginning of the parashah describes how Aaron and his sons, the cohanim/priests, are assigned the duty of examining people with tzara'at/skin afflictions both to determine the extent of the affliction and when they are healed.  While afflicted, the person must remain outside the camp. Once declared to be healed they may return to the community. 

The classic rabbinic interpretation of tzara'at is that it is the result of some type of moral or spiritual "impurity" or immoral actions.  In fact, metzorah (the one suffering from the disease) is read by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra, one who one who slanders another's name. Therefore, one who slanders or gossips is punished with this affliction. 

The idea that a physical affliction is an external manifestation of an internal flaw or impurity is anathema today. It reminds us too much of those who state that AIDS or other diseases are a punishment for "immorality." However, in Biblical times and even later on it was a common belief that everything was either a punishment or reward from God. Disease and illness were no exception.

However, the Hassidic master 
Sefat Emet provides us with an alternative interpretation. His interpretation is a powerful metaphor for how we bring distress upon ourselves by closing ourselves off the Divine and the spiritual life.

The
Sefat Emet begins his commentary by focusing on the simple verse "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore ..." (Leviticus 13:1-2). He makes the link between the Hebrew word 'or (עור), beginning with the letter "ayin", meaning skin, and 'or (אור), beginning with the letter "aleph," which means light. There is a  tradition within Judaism, especially within the mystical schools, that focuses on the belief that originally humanity existed in a purely spiritual form and were clothed in "garments of light." However, after the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were then clothed in "garments of skin" ('or'). At that moment, humans realized, as we read in Genesis, that they were naked. They became truly corporeal beings.

From the moment  human being knew the difference between good and evil, human beings were then split, as it were, into beings consisting  of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element. The spiritual, represented by the garment of light, still exists but it is covered by the garment of skin only to "shine through" at specific moments.

That is why, according to the
Sefat Emet, Moses' face glowed upon returning from Mt Sinai. For after encountering God "face to face, his inner light was able to shine through his corporeal skin." Sefat Emet believes that all of Israel was ready to achieve that state at Sinai, but that they (read: we) did not remain on that high rung of the spiritual ladder for very long.

Due to human nature, we all experience various degrees of spiritual affliction.  What happens when we are afflicted spiritually is that the light is unable to shine through. Normally this spiritual light is able to shine through the skin through the pores. However,
Sefat Emettzara'at is translated in Aramaic (the ancient vernacular of the Jewish people) as 'segiru/closing.' The tzara'at represents a closing of the pores and a closing off of the inner spiritual nature of the human being due
to sin. And so, the Torah prescribes that the sufferer must be examined and then purified by Aaron and his sons, who are the arbiters of holiness and "purity" on behalf of God.
believed that "sin clogs up those pores, so that 'darkness covers the earth' (Isaiah 60:2)" and that is why the skin affliction of
Though this text still maintains the duality of the spiritual and the physical realms,  it still has a profound message for us today. For the text reminds us that we all possess an inner spiritual core. It is an essential piece of being human. It is the divinity within and a reminder that we are all one with divinity. It is not that the spiritual piece is something that we must seek to find "out there in the world." Rather, it is something that we must seek to discover within ourselves. The skin hides this spiritual self, but it also serves to protect it. The spirit, being of Divine origin, is powerful and yet fragile.
The power of its light can blind us, as well as others, which is why we Moses wore a veil over his face after the Sinai encounter. Yet, when used properly our spirit, or soul, can warm and enlighten us. It is something that must be treated with respect and kept in balance. According to the Sefat Emet, we will
not all be able to have our spiritual light shine through until the Messianic Era arrives. That is when, metaphorically, the whole world will be prepared to accept God's "sovereignty."

Until that time arrives, we must do our best to maintain a sense of spiritual balance that will allow the light to shine through. This is not done by denying our corporeal nature, but by realizing that it is through the use of body and mind that our inner divine spirit is made manifest in the world. We can in some way radiate a modified light of God from within by acting, thinking, and speaking in a holy way. However, in the times when we find it is difficult to act in a holy way, in the moments when we instead allow our ego, our desires and our petty jealousies take control, and then we become closed off to the divine spirit within.


Judaism provides us many ways for us to re-open ourselves so that we can find balance, bring holiness into the world and allow our light to shine forth.  Through prayer, meditation, study, acts of
gemilut hasadim/loving kindness and tzedakah/righteousness we can regain that inner balance, return to our divine source and allow the inner light of the soul to shine through. That is how we "purify" ourselves, in contemporary terms.

Doing the spiritual work needed to open ourselves up to God  begins by simply paying attention to where we are in the moment. It requires nothing more than noticing our thoughts and feelings and accepting them as part of who we are. That way, we can hopefully avoid reacting to the thoughts and feelings we might normally label as "negative." For it is the reactions to those thoughts that pull us away from the Divine and get us caught up in our ego. This is what closes us off to the divine light of the spirit.


Instead of reacting out of habit, we simply need to act with intention. We need to notice those thoughts and feelings that we are tempted to label as "negative" or "bad" and wait for them to dissipate. We don't need to give them any more energy than that. Then, once they have dissipated,as they eventually will, (even if they do try to come back a few times) we can be in the present and allow ourselves to act with intention and in a holy way.


If this doesn't work, and we allow ourselves to be drawn in by our ego, and our tendency to judge our thoughts, ourselves, or others, then we simply wait until we notice this. At that moment, we will recognize that we have closed ourselves off to the inner light of the spirit. Instead of berating ourselves for that, we need to do what I described above. We simply need to acknowledge who and where we are at that moment, let the thoughts and feelings pass and know that at each moment we have the ability to open ourselves up to God and our inner Divine light. That is the beauty of acknowledging that the light is always in us, even when everything seems dark. It reminds us that the darkness will not last forever and that we simply need to live our lives one moment at a time. For if we do that then we cannot help but know that the moment will arrive when we will once again open ourselves up to God. Patience is the key to unlocking our souls and opening our hearts so that the inner light will shine forth.


With the blessing of patience, and paying attention to all that unfolds in each moment, each of us can eventually bring God's light into the world. In that way we can bring healing and purification to ourselves and to the world. May we use this Shabbat - and every day - to work on opening ourselves up so that the light of the spirit can shine through, bringing peace, salvation and wholeness to our

lives and to our fractured world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Steven

Monday, April 12, 2010

VERY belated post for Parshat Shemini

Dear friends-
I must apologize for this post being so late. I could give you all the reasons, but I don't want to bore you. So I hope you still find this post meaningful. And it will always be here when Shemini roles around next year!
Shavua Tov (a good week),
Steven

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini (Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47). Most of the final chapter of the parashah contains the rules concerning which
animals are fit for consumption by the Israelites and which are not. This
list is still the basis for the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) to this
day.

For centuries, various rabbis and commentators have attempted to explain the
reasoning behind these laws, as well as the other laws of kashrut. Some
have made the case that they were created for medical reasons. Others say
that they were created in order to keep the Jewish people separate as a community.
Still others believe that these laws are beyond human understanding and we
simply must obey them because “God said so.”

Another interesting interpretation is provided by the Hassidic rebbe Levi
Yitzhak of Berditchev. He wrote a complicated interpretation connecting various verses in Torah and the Prophets with the introduction to the laws found in this week's parashah. This verse begins with the words, “God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them …” According to Levi Yitzhak, “saying to them” refers to the fact that in the future “God is destined to speak with [all] the Jews, [and so] it is not fitting that the mouth which will speak with God should now eat forbidden foods.”

This interpretation raises an age-old question that has been addressed by people as disparate as Jesus, Maimonides and Mordecai M. Kaplan (the founder of Reconstructionism). Simply put: “is it more important what goes into your mouth or what comes out of your mouth?” Yet, this question in and of itself overly simplifies a complex issue. It is not merely a question of whether the words that come out of our mouth are more important than the food that enters the body through it. For both arevimportant, if not essential, to leaving a spiritual and meaningful life.

I don’t think I need to explain to anyone why we need to be careful with our speech. We all know too well that words can wound as well as heal. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can truly hurt us! We must do our best to praise God and God’s creation through all that we say and do. At all times we must try to speak words of caring, compassion and mercy rather than suspicion, hatred and criticism. We must be mindful of what is about to come out of our mouth before it leaves us so we can stop damaging speech whenever possible. Of course, none of us is perfect, but the more mindful we are of each thought that arises the more likely we are to stop our negative thoughts from being transformed into negative speech.

However, it is not as easy to make a case for what goes into our mouth if one is committed to not simply relating this to issues of physical health and well being. For if cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight, etc. were not issues why
should we care what we put into our bodies?

The answer Levi Yitzhak provides is that we should care because these same mouths will some day speak with God. Yet, we all have the potential to hear the voice of God and speak to God at any given moment. Therefore, the time of which Levi Yitzhak spoke is upon us now and so we must consider his rationale for kashrut at this moment as well.

In considering his commentary, I must say that it rings true for me. The idea that we should keep our mouths “clean” and “holy” because we will be using them to speak with God is a powerful one. However, it is an idea that I also believe is limited. For it is not only what goes into our mouth that determines our fitness to speak with God, but what comes out of it and what we allow to enter our souls through
our ears. We must be conscious and mindful of how we use or abuse our entire body if we are to prepare ourselves for a conversation with God.

When I am on a silent meditation retreat, I have the opportunity to be mindful of each move I make, each sensation that I feel, each sound that I hear and each morsel of food that I place in my mouth. I can do this because there is total silence. The only noise that prevents me from being mindful is the noise in my mind and the noise that is produced by my ego and its various desires and the tricks it likes to play on me.

In every day life, this is not so simple, since we also have more external distractions. Some of these distractions, such as listening to our children, partners and other loved ones, are what makes life meaningful. Others, and you can name your own, are what prevent life from being meaningful or prevent us from hearing the voice of God within.

Eating is simply one activity in which we participate each day, and yet it is an essential activity. The concept of saying a berakhah/blessing before eating helps to remind us that the food we eat is a gift from God. A berakhah also reminds us that the food is entering the body of a human being created in the image of God and, according to Levi Yitzhak, who has the potential to hear and speak to God. Eating food that is harmful to the body or rushing through meals so that we don’t even taste what we are eating in some way profanes the holiness of our bodies and our souls. In truth, it has the same effect as speaking or paying attention to harmful words.

In viewing speech through this lens, it seems clear that eating in a mindful way can help us to connect with our innate holiness just as much as taking care with our speech, our listening, and our physical actions. In this way, I agree wholeheartedly with Levi Yitzhak.

However, I don’t disagree with him when it comes to the implicit assumption that obeying the laws of kashrut is the only way of eating in a holy and mindful way. Nor do I believe that the list of permitted animals found in this week's reading is the only or the most accurate list of what constitutes “forbidden food” that might separate us from holiness.

For some, the traditional laws serve this purpose. For others, vegetarianism becomes their form of mindful, holy eating. Others commit themselves to eating only organic food and/or free range food as their form of holy eating. For others it is making sure that the dishes, utensils and packaging are as friendly to the environment as possible. Any and all of these can be forms of holy eating.

Therefore, I agree with the concept expressed in the Torah and in the commentary, but I do not accept its limitations. For we have no idea why specific animals were chosen to be considered as “improper” or “forbidden.” There are various theories, medical, anthropological and spiritual, that have been suggested. Still, in the end, we do not know if any of them are correct. The only thing we know is that this list is the same list that our ancestors possessed, and so it connects us to them. For many who observe traditional dietary restrictions, that is sufficient. For others it is not.

In the end, what matters most to me is that we each find our own path to creating a
mindful way of living that acknowledges and addresses the holiness of our bodies. This must included addressing what we put in , what comes out and what we do with our bodies. This would include our sexual ethics as well, which I don't have time to address here. This is a way for us to create a meaningful kashrut that is rooted in the values of our tradition and yet expresses our own contemporary values and beliefs as well. If we try our best to be mindful of this each moment and live our lives accordingly, then we will hopefully be prepared to hear God’s voice and to speak to God in every moment of our lives.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Commentary for the Shabbat of Passover


Shabbat Hol Ha'moed Pesakh (Intermediate Sabbath of Passover)
 
In the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Pesakh/Passover (Shemot/Exodus 33:12-34:26), we find Moses climbing Mt. Sinai for the second time after smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments at the foot of the Golden Calf.  He is preparing to spend another 40 days on the mountain in order to receive the 2nd set of tablets.  While there, one might say that Moses has a crisis of faith. He needs to know that God will be there with him and in front of him before he is prepared to return to leading the people on their journey.  Furthermore, he implores God to show him the Divine face so he can see God face to face.  In other words, Moses wants to see and to know God in an absolutely certain way.  After all that has happened, he not only needs reassurance that God is there and that God is going to be with him as he leads the people.  He needs to know God.  Just as the tablets are broken following the incident of the Golden Calf, so too Moses climbs the mountain a broken man leading a fractured people.  He is not sure how to continue.  He needs certainty.   So he thinks.
God responds that no one can see God’s face and live.  Instead, the Torah states that God places Moses in the cleft of a rock, covers Moses’s eyes and allows the Divine Glory to pass by.  Moses is only allowed to see God’s “back,” meaning that he can only see the result of God’s actions after God has “passed.”  He cannot truly know God “face to face.”  While passing by Moses, God proclaims what has come to be known as the 13 attributes of God, “Adonai, Adonai – God Who loves compassionately and cherishes, who is patient and overflows with grace and truth.  God stores up grace for thousands of generations.  God forgives rebellious sin, purposeful sin, and inadvertent sin.  God cleanses.”  (Exodus 34:5-7).  This text, which becomes an essential prayer during the High Holidays, emphasizes God’s compassion, even though the following verses also tell us that God visits the sins of the parents on the children and the children’s children up to the third generation.  But, compared to storing up grace for thousands of generations, that doesn’t seem so bad.
As Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18th century Hassidic rabbi, points out, God introduces this “prayer of compassion” following one of the most devastating moments in Israel’s young history – the incident of the Golden Calf.  Fear and uncertainty propelled the people to build an idol.  Then the habitual response of anger and frustration caused Moses to smash the tablets. Now Moses is afraid and uncertain and pleading with God.  However, rather than providing him with certainty, which is what Moses seeks, God reveals Moses Divine compassion, which is what he needs, plus the reminder that it isn’t all just about compassion and mercy.  There are still consequences for wrongful action.
The people had been seeking certainty when they built an idol of gold after Moses’s lengthy absence.  Now it Moses who seeks the certainty and both Moses and the people who need compassion from God and for each other.  Only then, as I read the text, can they continue on their journey.
It is this realization that I believe enables Moses to wait another 40 days for second set of tablets.  For when he receives them, he knows that was broken is whole once again.  Yet, the broken tablets were kept in the ark along with the whole tablets that replaced them.  And so we are reminded that feelings of brokenness and wholeness are both present and potential in every moment.  Moreover, the key to the journey from brokenness to wholeness is compassion, which is the essence of the divine image that is within each of us.
The following poem is a midrash/commentary on this section of the Torah reading from Moses's point of view.  
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameakh(happy Passover),

Steven


Brokenness/Wholeness

I need
certainty
I need
you
with
me
each moment
I need
to know
now

I cannot
we cannot
go on
without
knowing
you
are with us
leading

I stop
listen
hear
your reply
yes
I
am
here
you
my people
are special
go
on your journey
I will
be
with
you

I hear
I believe

I don’t

II.

yes
you know
me
us
by name
but
I
we
know
nothing
of you

show me
you
let me
experience
all
of
you

I cannot
see
your face
only
your back

no
this
is not
enough

I
want
need
certainty
I insist

to travel
into
the unknown
to heal
the wounds
make whole
the broken
I
we
must
know
beyond seeing
you
knowing
not just
name
but essence
being

you say
I will die
if I
see you

why

I
want
I
need
more

don’t
you

I hear
God’s reply

silence

III.

I carve the tablets
again
waiting for you

I climb the mountain
still
wanting
waiting
needing
more
than
I know
you
will ever
give

then
sudden
darkness
I hear your voice
I feel
love
compassion
anger
essence
in that moment
knowing
deep within
you shall forgive
punish
blame
absolve
all

eyes
seeing nothing
soul
seeing everything
knowing
I am
we shall all be
healed

compassion
justice
mercy
shall bring
the people
together
bring me
closer
to you
always there
within

then
eyes open
I see
the tablets
carved by my hands
awaiting your words
whole
unbroken
shining
remembrance
of your
compassion

the other tablets
shattered remembrance
of what occurred
placed beside them
inextricable
link
lifechain
brokenness
to
wholeness
and back
neverending
cycle
returning us
to you
always
with us
within us
leading
each of us
each moment

stop
look within
I know
this is
the truth

no longer needing
to see your face
to find certainty
I am content
I am whole
I am ready
to move on

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