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Monday, May 31, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, Verse 5

כי הנה המלכים נועדו עברו יחדו
For here the kings/rulers assembled; they passed together.

It is a beautiful Memorial Day here in Amherst, so I'm going to keep today's commentary brief.

In my commentary on the previous verse (May 17)  I wrote of the importance of remembering the Divine within us, which connects us to everyone and everything.  When we remember this we can avoid the snares and traps of the ego and connect with the "heavenly Jerusalem," that higher plane which I have presented as the central focus of this psalm.
When we remember to connect to the Oneness of the universe, we become as 'rulers' (I am trying to gender neutralize a gendered text) for we find power and majesty within.  But we are not rulers of others, but rulers of ourselves.  It is as if we are all masters of our own destiny.  However, this is not totally true, for this only occurs if we realize that the ultimate source of our power is indeed a Higher Power and not the self or the ego.  Beyond this, we must also remember  that we are inextricably linked to everyone and everything else through that Power.  Hence the final phrase "they passed together."  

When we 'pass together' through the world, with recognition of our interonnectedness, then we are truly fulfilling the concept of being created in the image of the Divine.  Hence, just as God is described as  a ruler or sovereign throughout the Torah and elsewhere in Jewish tradition, so do we find a ruler's sense of power and majesty within us all.

דבר אחר/Another possible interpretation...using a common rabbinic hermeneutical technique, if we add one letter to the word for kings/rulers we then have the word for messengers/angels.  The letter we add is simply the aleph.  This first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is silent.  But the vowels (which traditionally are not written) associated with this change the word from m'lachim מלכים to malachim מלאכים.  The aleph, or alpha, as I have written before, can also be viewed as the beginning no-sound sound of our ongoing conversation with the Divine.  When we remember that finding the power within is about making ourselves part of this ongoing conversation, then we are not only rulers, but we become angels, messengers of the Divine to the world.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Psalm for Sunday: Psalm 24, Vs. 5

ישא ברכה מאת יהוה וצדקה מאלהי ישעו
They shall lift up blessing from the Eternal and righteousness from the God of their salvation.

Last week's commentary concluded with: "By being mindful we can avoid these traps [when the ego tries to convince us that self-centered action is really for the good of the One] and do that which lifts up our soul to holiness and connects the soul to its source. When we act this way, then we will certainly find ourselves standing on holy ground on "God's holy mountain". And that is where we are all meant to be."

When any of is able to act in a way that affirms our connection with all creation through the One of the universe then we are standing on 'God's holy mountain.'

From our place on the mountain we can see the world and the glory it contains. We are able to see the unity that connects all within God. In every moment when we are mindful and recognize this, then we lift up a blessing from the Divine. 

For though we may be standing on the mountain, that does mean we are any closer to God. For God is not in the heavens or on the mountaintop. And the mountaintop of which the psalmist speaks is not a physical location. The mountain of God is on a spiritual plane and represents being with God and with all in the moment. It means letting down our guard, breaking down the walls we build around us and allowing ourselves to connect with others and with our universe. God dwells in all places where we let God in, as the hassidic rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev  taught. When we open our heart and soul  in this way, then we stand on God's mountain and let God in.

This is what connects us with the rest of the universe and allows us to raise up God's blessing. We raise this  blessing up not from some physical place, but from deep within ourselves. It rises from our soul, the spark of the Divine within, it infuses our entire being and then it radiates out to the world. Thus the cycle of interconnectedness at the heart of Oneness continues.

When we lift up the Divine blessing from deep within our souls what is it that we receive as our gift from the Source of all blessing?  What we receive is tzedakah צדקה. Often translated as 'charity', this word actually means righteousness. But this is not self-righteousness or "holier than thou" righteousness. This is righteousness that is comprised of doing justice and correct action. Yet, how do we know when something is truly just and correct? How do we know it's not just another trick of the ego leading us to believe the opposite of what is true?

For something to be truly righteous, just and correct it must, as the verse implies, come from אלהי ישעו the God of our salvation. Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism,  saw salvation as a striving for personal and societal perfection. In the Hebrew Bible the word for righteousness ישוע yeshua implies an expansiveness of the soul, rather than a narrowness or constricted nature implied by tzarot צרות, the word for troubles, which is often viewed as its antithesis.

Does that mean that, if we experience a perfected life free from trouble, strife and constrictedness then we can be sure we have achieved salvation?  Of course not!  However, if the sense of blessing rising up within from our souls causes us to act in a way that we alleviate some degree of suffering in our world and does not just address our own individual suffering or individual desires, then it can be seen as a blessing that has come to us from the God of our Salvation.  Doing this must be our goal in every moment.

There are some moments when we achieve the goal and many others when we do not.  For none of us is immune to the tricks of the ego.  And none of us is always totally selfless and altruistic.   So we just keep trying our best in each moment to be mindful so that we may find ourselves standing on God's holy mountain, receiving the blessing from of our soul and then acting to make the world a better place.  It's not a simple task, but it's one we must try our best to achieve in every moment - or as often as possible. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Poetic Commentary on Parshat Be'haalotekha


This week's parashah is Be'haalotekha (Numbers/Be'midbar 8:1-12:16).  At the end of the last parashah, God was described as speaking to Moses from between the wings of the cherubim (angelic/animal beings too difficult to describe right now) that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant.  This occurred immediately following the completion of the Mishkan/ portable desert sanctuary.  In the opening line of Be'haalotekha, God continues the conversation and tell Moses to instruct his brother Aaron, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest concerning his ascent to kindle the lights of the seven-branch menorah.  Hence the name Be’haalotekha, meaning “when you ascend.”

Rabbis and commentators through the ages have discussed the symbolism of the menorah as representing the light of the Divine.  In addition, the Kabbalists/mystics imagined that the seven branches of the menorah represented the seven lower sefirot/divine emanations that human beings can experience in this world through their actions and spiritual practice.

Light as a representation of God's presence is also found in this particular parashah in the image of the fire enshrouded in a pillar of cloud that hovered over the Mishkan as a sign of God's presence.  According to the text, the fire/presence of God would be seen within a cloud over the Mishkan by day and simply as fire by night, which is when Aaron would kindle the menorah.  When the cloud/fire would lift that was the signal to the people that it was time for the community to move on. When the cloud would again descend, the people knew that God was “dwelling” in their midst and so they would stop and set up camp.  Then they would wait for the cloud to lift again and the command from Moses to continue their march through the desert.

The pillar of cloud/fire, the conversation between God and Moses, as well as Aaron's ascent to light the menorah, can be seen as representing the divine-human partnership.  Moses was able to "hear" God's voice directly from between the angelic wings, Aaron was able to bring the light of the Divine to the people by lighting the menorah, and the people experienced God’s presence through the cloud and fire.  The poetic commentary that follows builds upon this premise.  I hope that you find it meaningful and always welcome any comments or questions that you might have.

Shabbat Shalom,
Steven

The Ascent

I
 Aaron
   ascend
     to light
       God’s lamps
          an overwhelming
            responsibility

           Moses
       my brother
 hears           God’s voice
    from         between
the wings of cherubim
   God speaks to him
        not to me

why
is this so
I question
yet
I still
I ascend
       I light
God’s lamps
                illuminating
the sanctuary
God’s house
       my house
my soul
our soul

I see the light
    Still
he hears
what I wish
I could
the Voice speaks
only
to
him

I cannot here
still
I do see
God’s light
enabling others
to see it

lighting the lamps
the glow increases
   piercing  my soul
     their warmth
penetrating my heart
       breaking through
              the jealousy
             enveloping it
          allowing me
    to still see
the light
within all

               each evening
as darkness fall
      fear   uncertainty
descends
         I rise to light
           for us all

                 as
              flames
          grow brighter
     each person  sees   feels
  the light surrounding them
 love   strength   peace  serenity
majesty    eternity      wholeness
her presence   shekhinah glorious
        divine   holy   light
   filling us with abundance

 outside the tent
  all can see
         cloud and fire
      God’s presence
standing where we are
in awe of the Presence
trembling with fear and love
opening our hearts
to compassion   mercy
   divinity   humanity

in daytime
God’s light is enshrouded
within a pillar of cloud
still
we know
we feel
the Presence

at night
God’s presence burns
a pillar of fire
flames searing soulmindheart
infusing us with
the Presence

fire is
more easily seen  
                 feared   
             respected

clouds of mist
       blur vision
    fog the mind
block the way
soften the intensity
then fire returns again
    burning it away
so we can see
more clearly
    truth
   reality
    God
the Presence
of which we are
   a part
we need both
we need balance
fire and cloud
complimentary opposites

we all must learn
       to see
the fire
within the cloud
the cloud
         within the fire
the tranquility
within chaos
the serenity
         within uncertainty
    all is one
the not-quite-darkness-not-quite-light
unknowable illuminating Presence
    infusing every moment

within our tents
our bodies
our homes
our sanctuaries
each night
we ascend
as one
God’s partners
light the lamps
       in that moment
         we are Moses
 trying to discern the voice
          the message
         surrounded by
  not quite angelic beings
striving     seeking     together
          we are Aaron
lighting the lamps with our actions
       bringing God’s light
     into our tent
       into the universe
Our compassion justice mercy
   feed the fire within
     brings the Presence into the world
    lends clarity to a clouded world
  bringing the reality of the presence
      the truth of the present
          Into our lives
         allowing us all
    to continue the journey

Moses and Aaron
two brothers
    one essence
experiencing
      showing others
           divinity
different yet the same
    alone    yet not
 fire and cloud
day and night
sight and sound
body and soul
together
inseparable
one
with
in
God


 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, verse 6 (vs. 5 in Christian translations)

עדות ביהוסף שמו בצאתו על־ארץ מצרים ;שפת לא־ידעתי אשמע             
I believe this is the most difficult verse to translate of all that I've come across so far. I looked at any number of translations, and all of them differed in significant ways.  After thinking about the verse for quite some time I would like to propose the following translation: 

It is a testimony that he (God) placed in Yehoseph (Joseph) when he went out over the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt); a language that I did not know I shall hear.

I still am not sure what I believe these words mean. So I am going to simply present what I have arrived at right now and hope that some of my readers in cyberspace will perhaps offer some additional interpretations:

At first, the verse seemed to refer to the previous verse, which commanded the sounding of the shofar on the new moon and full moon.  This verse referred to the shofar as  both a חק hok, a law not easily understood, as well as a  משפט mishpat, a law that is easily understood (see my blog commentary from Thursday May 13).

Somehow this law of the shofar seems to be viewed as a testimony that God placed within Joseph.  But why is this particular law seemingly implanted in him by God?  One possibility is that the shofar is an instrument the sound of which symbolizes joy, freedom, battle and teshuvah (repentance/return).  These were qualities that were essential to Joseph's existence and survival.  

Joseph was the joy of his father's old age.  He later brought joy to his father, and brothers, by being the catalyst for repentance/teshuvah when he forgives his brothers and reunites his family, including his beloved father.  

As we know, Joseph was also sold into slavery and later set free when he interpreted Pharaoh's dreams.  It was through this freedom that he was able to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. It was also his freedom that allowed him to grow personally and to gain fame.  This fame, and the power that came with it, eventually enabled him to take action when his brothers came to Egypt.  

Finally, the shofar is a sound of battle or war.  Joseph may never have fought in a war or lifted a bow or a spear, but his life did depend on his ability to struggle and defend himself.  Even though he was the pampered favorite child, he somehow  survived being sold into slavery and being enslaved again in Egypt.  It is possible to view this particular phase of his life was a battle which he fought and won.  This enabled him to eventually become the equivalent of a general over the land of Egypt and also to use his courage and his power when he eventually faced his brothers.

In these ways the shofar was indeed a testimony of some of the qualities which Joseph possessed.  But what is interesting in this psalm is that Joseph's name is written as ye-ho-seph יהוסף and not yo-seph יוסף, as it is written throughout the Torah.  There are other instances in the Torah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible where a person's name is spelled two different ways.  In those instances, including Elijah and Joshua, the extra י  or י–ה  is  interpreted as adding the first letters of the ineffable four-letter name of God) to the person's name. More simply stated, adding the letters adds God to the person's name.

Therefore, one could say that implanting within Joseph the spirit of the shofar also imbued him in an intimate way with the knowledge that his name - his being - was inextricably linked with the Divine.  God was within him.

It was this knowledge of  being part of God and connected to all creation through God that enabled him to go out "over" Egypt not only as a lord or vizier, but as an emissary of the Divine.  He went out over Mitzrayim (Egypt), which can be translated as "the narrow or constricted places" and through his actions brought the Divine spirit to the people.  In this way he released them from the narrowness and suffering brought about by the famine.

But what about the last verse:  "a language that I didn't know, I shall hear"?  What could this mean?  Who is speaking it?
It seems to me that not the psalmist, but Joseph, is uttering these words.  I imagined that perhaps these were words that Joseph heard within himself as began to recognize the Divine Presence that was within him.  At the moment when he recognized his oneness with the Divine and with all of humanity, whether Israelite, Egyptian, or other, he knew on a deep level that he was one day to hear a language that was foreign to him. This language, however, was not Egyptian or any other "foreign tongue".

I believe the language, the words, that he did not know and which he was perhaps to hear in the future was the language  of forgiveness and the language of compassion.  

At the moment in time referred to in the first part of the verse, one could imagine that Joseph was not yet ready to utter words of forgiveness to his brothers.  Nor could he ever imagine that the brothers that had nearly killed him and instead sold him into slavery could ever show compassion to anyone in their family.  All they cared about themselves.  And the same could really be said about Joseph up until that point.

These were words of compassion that he had never before heard from his brothers.  And so he responded with words of forgiveness, which he never imagined he would speak to them.

It is the union of compassion and forgiveness that brings about the reuniting of the brothers.  All this is made possible by Joseph - and, I believe, his brothers as well - letting go of their ego and instead recognizing the Divine Presence within. They then acknowledged that it was this connection with Divinity that connected them not only as brothers but as part of the human family. 

Coming full circle, I believe that this experience of compassion and forgiveness, the language he did not know, is also a testimony to God's presence, as referred to at the beginning of the verse.

We all must do our best to negate the ego so that we can experience the testimony of the Divine within us as well.  This can then lead us to the expression of compassion and forgiveness.  It can also allow us to recognize  the divinity within all humanity, whether we have thus far labeled them friend, enemy or neutral.  And this, God willing, is what will ultimately unite us all in Peace שלום.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, verse 5


 I apologize for the absence of psalm commentaries for the last two days (I am not writing them on Shabbat).  As I wrote at the begin, I will try to write these on a daily basis, but there are simply times when this is not possible.   Thank you for understanding.  SPN

עמך יהוה ידכאו ונחלתך יענו
  God, they may crush your people; they may oppress your inheritance.

As in my commentaries on the two preceding verses, "they"  refers to the ego and its forces that try to separate us from the Oneness of the universe.

This verse is profound in its very simplicity.  It is these  forces of the ego that try to get us to think that the I, which is merely an illusion, is more important than the One, which is the true reality. These forces, through their manipulations, can ultimately bring about destruction. 

However, it is important to remember that the two verbs, translated here as forms of "crush" and "oppress," are not the  future tense as we understand it. In Biblical Hebrew there  is no future tense. There is only the imperfect form, which implies that an action MAY take place at a future time, but is in no way stating that it will.  Therefore, I have translated the verses to clearly read that the actions MAY occur and not that they WILL.

From the perspecitve of mindfulness teachings, we only have the present moment, past is a dream and future is an illusion. I believe that this is how the psalmist, at least in this case, also understands the world.  They are not predicting nor stating with certainty what will occur. They are simply implying what might happen should the wicked ones continue prevail. This crushing and oppression are the potential results should we allow the forces of the ego to prevail.

These forces have the ability not merely to injur, but to spiritually crush all of God's people, which means all people. Indeed, all of God's world.  The ego, in setting the individual above all else, ultimately brings about the downfall of that person, but not without wreaking havoc on others around them as well.

But more than that, these forces "oppress God's inheritance." Using a verb ענה,  which has also been used to describe slavery, the psalm reminds us that the ego can enslave. From that place of enslavement we become a people oppressed and a people that oppresses others. In allowing this to happen we are indeed oppressing or afflicting God's inheritance. For all of us, all of the world, is the inheritance of God. 

We are from and of God and our souls also will ultimately be "inherited" by God when our body departs this world. If we allow the forces of the ego to prevail, then God receives a damaged, oppressed soul. But more than that, we must live with that damaged, oppressed soul prior to our death.

However, we must remember that the verse is not predicting any of this with certainty. Rather, it is reminding us of what may happen if we allow it to happen. 

May we work together to see that this does not occur and that the ego does not prevail.  May we do this for the sake of the One of all Creation, the Source of All Life and  the good of our world.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Comentary on Parshat Naso and the Priestly Blessings


Naso
(Be'midbar/Numbers 4:21-7:89)

In the parashah, God commands Aaron and his sons to bless the people with the words that have become so familiar to us, "May God Bless you and keep you; May God's face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May God lift up the Divine face towards you and grant you Shalom/Peace."

Until this day, in more traditional communities, the Kohanim - those believed to be descended from Aaron - stand in front of the congregation and offer this blessing in the same way we believe the ancient Kohanim did.  They spread their hands out in front of them, palms facing down, and their fingers separated in the special manner reserved for the priests (though more familiar to many of us
as Spock's "live long and prosper" sign on Star Trek, which Leonard Nimoy borrowed from his Jewish heritage). Then they recite the blessing for all the "non-Kohanim" present.  This ceremony has been viewed throughout the centuries as mysterious and awe-inspiring.  However, it is also clearly hierarchical. The priests are "above" the people, literally and figuratively, and act as conduits for blessing between God and the people.

In his commentary on the priestly blessings, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev cites a short drash, or homily, attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, 18th century founder of Hasidism.  The B'esht (acronym for Baal Shem Tov) cites Psalm 121:5, "The Eternal is your shadow." He then states, "Just as a shadow does everything that a person does, so the Creator, blessed be God, does, so to speak, everything that a person does." Levi Yitzhak then adds to this the reminder that we should always act in such a way that God would be proud of us. In other words, God should not be embarrassed to be our "shadow." Then, in commenting on the way in which the blessing is given, Levi Yitzhak continues, "...when one prays only for oneself, one is only a receptacle; that is, one's hands are spread out with the palms up and the back of the hands down. But, when one prays only to give God pleasure, then one is as one who pours blessing; that is, one's hands are spread out with the palms down and the back of the hand up (see description above)."

In his modern commentary on this interpretation, R. David Blumenthal writes that Levi Yitzhak's three main points are, "...that true blessing is a pouring-forth of an energy we receive, a channeling of divine power; that this type of blessing gives God pleasure, it makes God proud; and that such an act evokes a shadow movement by God, a parallel response of poured-forth blessing from God."
("God at the Center," Harper and Row, 1988; p. 110).

How awesome - and how frightening - that human beings can be part of this channeling process. Through our own actions, we cannot merely receive blessings from God, but we can bring God's blessing to others. Beyond that, if we believe, as do the mystics, that our actions actually affect God in this divine-human "shadow play" what an awesome responsibility each of us is given.

If we are to be a nation of priest/Kohanim, as the Torah teaches, then I believe the lesson found in this week's parashah also applies to each one of us.  Keeping that thought, and the previous commentaries, in mind I would like to offer you my own interpretation of this passage as a blessing for all of us on this eve of the Shabbat of Parshat Naso (Numbers/Be’midbar 4:21-7:89) where the Priestly Blessing is found.

Shadowplay and Blessing


I
stand here
        arms and hands outstretched
     uttering ancient words
  blessing
shalom

I
feel the blessing
   divine energy
      flow through me
          to you
             to me
                to God
           a circuit
       cycle
    never-ending
blessing

as it flows
through me
  you
  God
I hear the voice
     Sinai
    echoing
  resounding
   in my soul
constant energy
   flowing
  long after hands descend
I feel blessing
energy
  source of life
    source of action
        source of love

it   does not pull
             push
         force
it  animates
        energizes
             guides
while
        I    
  struggle

I do not want
to follow the voice
   do as it says

in this moment
   I have power
what I do
   God must do
shadow puppeteer
peter pan
with a shadow
 that cannot be lost
    cannot be separated

God is always
  within me
I am always
   within
    God

such power
responsibility
am I worthy
is anyone

suddenly
cannot move
cannot act
cannot risk
what if
I
make the wrong move
     pull the wrong strings

  I want to be
     puppet
not puppeteer
  I want to be
   the shadow
 not it's source

I breathe
I sit
I wait
afraid now
if I act
I may be wrong
then
God must still follow
but the chain
of blessing
may be broken
all my fault

I breathe
I sit
I wait
I pray

finally
I listen

the voice
within around
guiding me

I feel the power
again
but now
  I realize
    I know
     in my soul
       it is not mine
         it is not
            I

I am still
afraid
must act
the alternative
 stagnation
is to die
   to block the flow
    of divine blessing

before I act
        I pray
     allow the blessing
   the energy
to flow through me
may I
may we
be worthy
may I bring your blessing
     to all
may I bring their blessing
     to you
may they bring blessing
     to me
       to you
         as well
    may we bring
             joy
        pride
satisfaction
to God
to all
through our actions

as I pray
    I hear
the voice of Sinai
in my heart
    I feel
the power of sinai
in my soul
    I see
the shadow of sinai
brightly hovering over me
    I know
the One of Sinai
           is here
       within
     around
me
   us all
      moving with us
           guiding
           protecting
           reminding
we are not separate
      we are
always together
always complete
always whole
always
one

we are
the blessing
the blessed
living
with  in
shalom



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Psalm for Friday: Psalm 93, Verse 5

Your witnessing is truly affirmed; holiness befits your house, God, for all times.

The conclusion of this brief, but joyous, psalm reminds us of the nature of holiness and godliness in our world. It is God that witnesses the beauty, glory and complexity of existence. 

We can affirm this completely because it is through us that God witnesses the nature of existence.  We are the eyes of God.  We, One with the Divine, have the eyes to see the world in all its splendor because we are living and acting in eat day after day. If we pay attention, we can  see the splendor around us, even beneath the mire that sometimes appears to be the reality.

What we witness when we look at the world with our souls, the godliness within us, is the holiness that exists within everything.  This holiness fills the world, which is God's house. When we see the world in this way we also connect with the holiness within ourselves.

The great 18th century hassidic rebbe, Nachman of Bratslav, made it a habit to go out into nature every day to pray. Part of the prayer he is believed to have composed includes the line "may all the foliage of the fields, the grasses, trees and plants, awaken at my coming, I pray; and may they send their life into my words of prayer..."  The essence of this prayer is that the godliness/holiness within the "non-human" must connect with the godliness/holiness within us so in order to create prayer.  It is this connetion that enables us to see the underlying holiness and to praise its existence.  The prayer continues with the acknowledgment that "I know that everything is one, because I know that everything is You!"  That is the ultimate Truth of which this psalm speaks.

Holiness is indeed most befitting "God's house", the  'created' world where/how we experience God. One of the most common names for God used by the rabbis of the Talmud was המקום, the Place. As it is written, 'it is not that the world is the place of God, but that God is the place of the world.' Divinity contains the entire universe within it. We all dwell within Divinity, just as we all are a part of Divinity. This connection between plant, tree, animal, human, and all of nature is the manifestation of the concept of God as the world's place.

The Oneness of the universe and the holiness that is within everything, if we look hard enough, is the only constant in our lives. Uncertainty and temporariness may be the only constants when it comes to the daily lives which we live. But the reason we can live with all the uncertainty, is because of the one true constant. The holiness of the Divine, the divine-human-animal-nature connection of the world, exists for all days, beyond any time frame that we can imagine.

This  we can all witness and affirm, if we simply pay attention.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poem for the Festival of Shavuot (Weeks)

 
Torah can be seen as a conversation between God and us.  Or between the Divine that is within us and the human that is within us.  According to one tradition, the only sound that was heard by the people at Mount Sinai was that of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet....the aleph.  The aleph, though thought of as silent, can be seen as the silent sound within us before we actually create speech.  This evening we begin the celebration of the festival of Shavuot Meaning 'weeks' in Hebrew, Shavuot is the day after we counted 7 weeks from the 2nd day of Passover.  It was originally an agricultural pilgrimage/harvest festival which came to be viewed as the celebration of the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, may we all quiet our minds so we can hear the sound of the silent aleph within each of us.

Chag Sameakh - Happy Holiday -
Steven

The Conversation Begins


We stand at the mountain
Ground shakes    quakes
we see the thunder  
the voices
of God
not just hear     but see
God's voice
reaches  our soul
becomes part of us
reality shifts
see the world
differently
see what
before
we could only hear
see what
before
was beyond
perception
see
within
ourselves
feel
within
our souls
the Voice
God

what is
the Voice
I cannot tell
I think
I know
it is me
but you say
it is you
and you say
it is
child    mother    father     friend
comforting     frightening      challenging       compassionate

I am frozen
fear    terror     joy
standing
on the boundary
between
God and humans
liminal space

I cannot
     move
I cannot
     speak
I can only
     hear

I cannot tell
what I am hearing

There is
a voice
     no voice
a word
     no word
only thunder and lightenting
a deafening whisper
imperceptible

the Aleph
no-sound sound
the beginning
of conversation
I
do not know
the contents
of the conversation
I
only know
that
it
is
real
true
more than
anything

Strange
the deepest truth
I cannot hear
cannot know
still
I hear
I know
in my soul

Sinai
long ago
this moment
Hear
the lightning  
Feel
the earth
my soul
quake
Listen
for
the Voice
Trying
to discern
what it says

That is
our task
holy work
each and every day
to decipher
the aleph
the no-sound sound
the beginning
with no end
of the
conversation
with God
ourselves



Shavuot 5763
6/6/93

Psalm for Tuesday: Psalm 82, Verse 5


They know nothing, they understand nothing.  They walk about in darkness;  all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 

The ego and the forces in the world try to separate us and make us believe that we are alone, self-sufficient and have no need to think beyond ourselves. They try to convince us that they know the truth, when in reality they known nothing.  

But these "forces", and those human beings who allow themselves to fall into the trap of the ego (which is all of us various times in our lives), really do not understand the nature of existence.  They do not understand that "going it alone" and "rugged individualism" run counter to the reality of existence.

And so, led by the ego, we walk around in darkness, unable to see the truth of what is in front of us.  We may be able to see the physical forms, but the essence of the universe is hidden from us. We spend our days in utter futility chasing after self-gratification and fulfillment so that we eventually become so wrapped up in ourselves that it seems as if there is no turning back.

When this happens, it is as if all the foundations of the earth are shaken.  For the foundations of the earth, the foundations of existence, are based in the truth of unity.  That truth is the oneness of all and the existence of the Divine flow of compassion, love and holiness that animates our bodies through the soul within each of us.  When we deny this reality, then we are all standing on shaky ground prone to fall at any moment.  

When we acknowledge the reality of Oneness, the ground beneath may still be shaky, as uncertainty is unavoidable in life.  However, we know that in those moments of uncertainty we will not be stumbling in the dark.  Instead, we will know that we are supported in those moments.  The Divine, as made manifest in our fellow human beings, will be there to guide and support us at every turn. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, Verse 4


God is known in her palaces as a stronghold.

The psalm continues to extol  Jerusalem, God's holy city.  However, my commentary continues to focus on the "heavenly Jerusalem."

I ended last week's commentary (May 10, 2010) with the following: "Our goal in each moment is to be mindful and pay attention to our own spiritual self so that we can find the hidden place within.  That hidden place will enable us to enter that realm where there are no separations or divisions, where there is only unity.  Then the challenge is to bring that sense of oneness and unity back to the world in which we all live and to make it a reality here as well."

This week's verse speaks of the palaces of Jerusalem.  The Hebrew word used here is armon ארמון, which can also be translated as a citadel or fortified tower.  But whatever this structure is,  the psalmist makes clear  that its strength comes not from the bricks or stones from which it is made, but from God's presence within.  In the heavenly Jerusalem, since there are no actual physical structures, this makes perfect sense.  But what about in the physical world in which we live?
Within this world I see the palace or citadel not as referring to any building, but to the universe itself.  We, human beings, animals and all of the created world, are the bricks from which this majestic structure is made.   We are part of a structure, a unity, that is glorious as a palace and strong as a citadel.  But what gives this structure it's  glory and  strength?  It is the reality that  we are part of the Oneness of the universe.  In that way, God, or the Divine flow in the universe, is indeed our stronghold.

But should one of us separate ourselves from the One, then we lose that strength that comes from the Divine.  We are like a stone that has dislodged itself from the walls of palace.  When this happens we are most vulnerable to the ego's manipulations and snares.  

That is when we are must likely to falter and become lost.  But if we remember that hidden Presence within each of us, then we will once again find that the Divine is our stronghold and we are once again part of the glorious structure that fills the Universe with beauty and holiness.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Psalm for Sunday: Psalm 24, Verse 4


Only those whose hands and hearts are pure, who has not raised up their soul to emptiness and has not sworn deceitfully.

This verse refers to the question in verse 3:  "who may ascend God's holy mountain and stand in God's holy place?"  In last week's commentary I wrote that we all have the ability to "climb God's holy mountain" and to stand in holiness.  In other words, we each have the ability to be present with the Divine if we are mindful.    Verse 4 gives another answer to the question, though I see it more as a further explication.  

Again, each one of us has the potential.  We each have holiness and Divinity within our souls.  But in order to truly experience holiness in the moment we need our actions and thoughts to be "pure."  I do not read this as in anyway saying that we should judge which thoughts and actions are to be labeled as "pure."  Rather, I believe that most, if not all, actions can be seen as pure and holy if they are done with the intent of connecting us with the oneness of the universe and not with the intent of separating us from the Divine in the world and attempting create a duality.  The verse teaches that we must each raise up our soul by acting in a way that is consonant with what the soul, the Divine within, is saying to us.  We can hear this message by quieting our minds and simply paying attention with our hearts.  

However, if we focus on that which is ultimately empty and vain and claim that we are doing holiness then we are "swearing deceitfully."  We are deceiving ourselves by claiming that we are acting in a way that brings compassion, goodness, beauty and holiness into our world, when in actually we are simply following the ego and acting in a way that serves only ME.   We are acting in a way that perpetuates the myth of separateness, of duality and the self.  The ego excels in convincing us that what is actually self-centered action is instead for the betterment of the world and in service to the Divine.  So watch out and pay careful attention to the true message of your soul!

By being mindful we can avoid these traps and  do that which lifts up our soul to holiness and connects the soul to its source.  When we act this way, then we will certainly find ourselves standing on holy ground on "God's holy mountain".  And that is where we are all meant to be.




Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetic Commentary on Parshat Be'Midbar


The name of this week's parashah, and the fourth book of the torah, is Be'midbar meaning "in the wilderness."  It can be found in the book of Be’midbar /Numbers 1:1 - 4:20).

A rabbinic commentary points out that if we change one vowel in the name of the parasha,  the word במדבר  be’midbar, in the wilderness, becomes be'midabeיr, or with one who is speaking.

I found this ironic, since the wilderness is usually associated with silence and solitude. However, we can imagine that the wilderness of Sinai and its surroundings must have been anything but silent, with the multitudes of Israelites and others wandering through it for 40 years.

However, we all know that even in the midst of a cacophony one can experience silence, just as one can experience deafening noise while walking in solitude.  What determines the silence or the solitude is not one’s physical surroundings, but one’s inner state.

This poem uses the two different readings of the letters מדבר mentioned above to explore these various images.

The Wilderness of Silence and Speech

wilderness
is silent
still
serene
filled only
with
sounds  of nature
       wind rustling
     brush blowing
sand      animal footfalls
howls in the night
whispering the truth
a whole civilization lives
within this  wild place
humans go there
         to be at peace
       alone
  so we think
this is
fantasy
    ideal     not real

our wilderness
is filled with people
is wild with sound
                with speech
          with dissent
    with screams
with tears
    with laughter
        with joyous shouts
            with words of love
          with speech
    never silent
40 years   
give or take
give and take
we take what we are given
            give back what has been taken
a life in the wilderness
alive with the sounds
the speech
         the words
creating and destroying
  people   life    worlds
     filling the silence
  a wild place of words
      cries of revolt
  it swallows up rebels
      critical words
turn a sister’s skin to white
    a chorus of complaint
fills us to bursting
words of mistrust
set us wandering
               still
words soothe praise comfort
    the death of sons
        of a sister and brother
            of so many

words decree the death of a dream
the death of a leader
the birth of a new people

I wish words would cease
     filling the wilderness
        filling my mind
     emptying me of the ability
to be still
silent
alone
at one
with you
I want
a wilderness
without speech
without words
damnation
       praise
    love
   hate
  comfort
distress
it does not matter
I do not want
I do not need
any words

I need a sanctuary
          not a wild place
but a place
where I can hear
   only you
       only me
            in the stillness     the silent sounds
       the whispers of the spirit
   hovering around us all

this is  
what I long for
what we all need
 Unfortunately
    most do not know
    for they cannot hear
    the whisper of your voice
they can only hear
their own words
constant cacophony
striving for everything
sound and fury achieving nothing

only in subtle stillness can we find
everything
only in nothingness
can we find the truth
you
ourselves
one and the same

now
this moment
I wish
we would all
stop talking
exile words from our lips
allow us to return
home
to the silent land
the true wilderness
of the soul
where it all began
where it all continues
where we are
here
now

present
in the moment
with you

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