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Saturday, June 26, 2010

A (revised) Poetic Commentary on Parshat Balak

This week's parasha/portion is Balak (Be'midbar/Numbers 22:2-25:9).  In this narrative, Balak king of Midian, hires the magician Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, no matter how hard he might try, he may only utter words of praise provided him by God.
On his way to Balak, Bilaam encounters a fiery angel on the path. However, Bilaam does not see the angel. Only his donkey, who stops in his tracks and refuses to move, sees it. Finally, after Bilaam begins to beat the donkey in order to get him to move, the donkey miraculously begins to speak. To paraphrase, he says "you've known me all these years! Doesn't the fact that I stopped dead in my tracks tell you that something is wrong? Open your eyes!"
In reading this section, the old adage "never assume" came to mind. And so, this midrashic poem on the parashah.  I did publish this poem last year on the blog.  However, I have edited and refined it further and so I wanted to share it with you one more time.

Shabbat Shalom,
never assume

never assume
     for when you assume
you know the rest

never assume
       that you know what is
   that you know the truth
before experiencing it

never assume
   for when you do
     you blind yourself to truth
   unable to see what is
                             before you
                          within you
                       around you
             waiting for you to open
           your heart    your soul
   to be present
        to what is in this moment

the truth is
you think
    you know
what you see
    is truth

when told it is not
          there is more to see
       you do not listen with the heart
    you do not see with the soul
 you rely on only five senses
           in reality
        you rely on the ego
     fearing the truth
  needing to be always right
and so you try to
to move on
to take the next step on the journey
but you cannot

what stops you is
    the present
      the truth you cannnot see
          crying out to be known
     without that    you will never move
you are stuck
not in present or past
simply stuck unable to step into the future
and make it present

why can't you see
the angel
the presence
the present
the truth
in the moment

do you push
         yourself    and others
      to move on
   past the present
avoiding the truth
again and again

   open your heart
     see feel know the moment
       the truth
     the angel
   divine presence
       whether you experience it as
     beautiful or not
  comforting or frightening
pleasant or painful
all of these
it does not matter
for it is
   the moment
    the divine reality
      the truth
        all there is

open your heart
     your soul
       to the all-in-the-moment
         do not assume to understand
     what you think you see
  until you open yourself to the truth within

do not assume
whether good bad or both
that it will remain
beyond this moment
     nothing does

do not

be open
   live fully
     in the moment
acknowledging its truth
  then you will find within
   infinite blessings for all
    and that is enough

Friday, June 18, 2010

Parshat Hukkat: Poetic Commentary on Loss and Grief

This  week's parashah, Hukkat  (Bemidbar/Numbers 19:122:1),  begins with the description of the ritual slaughter of the red heifer by Eleazar the priest. The ashes of the heifer are then to be mixed together with water, hyssop, crimson thread and other ingredients in order to make a solution that will be used to purify those who have becometamei/ritually impure (for lack of a better translation) through contact with a corpse.

Following the description of the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, we read of the death of Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses and Aaron. Immediately following her death the people cry out to Moses that they have no water to drink This passage is most likely the origin of the ancient rabbinic legend of Miriam’s Well, that sustained the people through their years in the desert and dried up following Miriam’s death.

As the people cry out to the bereaved Moses and Aaron for water, God instructs them to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Instead, Moses and Aaron gather the people together and then Moses strikes the rock with his rod and water gushes forth. God then tells Moses and Aaron that because they did not trust in God and simply speak to the rock, neither of them will be able to enter the Promised Land.

Following this episode, we then read of Aaron’s death, for which the peoplemourn for thirty days. After the period of mourning ends, the people once again complain to Moses that they should not have been brought out of Egypt simply to die in the desert. God then sends a plague of snakes to attack the people. Only looking upon Moses’ staff, upon which he has placed a copper snake figure, can heal the wounds of the people. The Amorites and people of Bashan and Og then attack the people, but the Israelites are victorious.

This parashah is one of great loss for Moses. Not only does he lose his only siblings, but he also loses the right to enter the Promised Land at the end of the journey. Suddenly, Moses comes to realize how alone he is.
Though he has a wife and two sons (about whom we know very little) the two people who were his support during the journey, even when they might disagree, were now gone. On top of this, the people continue to complain, and do not allow him time to grieve for very long.

In this poetic commentary, I imagine how Moses might have felt at the moment when he was finally left alone by his complaining people and allowed to face his loss and his grief.

I dedicate this poem to the memory of my beloved father, Alvin Nathan z”l, whose tenth yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) will be observed later this month, my grandfather, M.J. Waldman, whose 19th yahrtzeit is this month; I also want to remember my mother's sisters, Mickie Brown and Annette Goldreyer, as well my partner David's father, Steven Bauer, all of whom died within the past 14 months.  May their memories be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

grieving waters

am alone
are gone

those I knew in egypt
            those I came to know as an adult
  in what seems a moment
      they are both gone
brother and sister
   no time to mourn him
       before she was gone

closing my eyes
I see water
         living waters
      life-giving waters
  death-cleansing waters
water bringing death to egypt
      water gushing from the rock
          water streaming down my face

two holes pierce my heart
   two wholes
       leaving me broken
 in pieces

the people
do not understand
they only want
            return to egypt

I do not understand
I want them
to leave me

I want to mourn
                   I  want to wail  
          to tear at my hair  flesh  clothes
  to scream
     or simply to weep
in this moment
  I want to be
man brother son  human
leader teacher emissary prophet

I wish
     to drown myself
         in waters of sorrow
emerging cleansed
              perhaps someday

miriam understood
     her name     bitter waters
    she knew the bitter and the sweet
prophet leader singer visionary
            jealous judgmental unyielding
      always passionate and caring
she received her reward
       waters of her well sustained us all
she received her punishment
        skin white as snow
cleansed only by isolation
    and bitter salt water tears

when she died the well dried up
     water ceased
       tears screams complaints
            in torrents
     from the people
 replacing its gentle flow
    we want
        we need
               always more

God said to me   to aaron
      speak to the rock
         it will give you
what they think they need

still in mourning
I   we cannot talk
      to people or rock
I   we can only
          scream in silence
      strike the rock
   bringing forth living water
sealing  our fate   our death

now he is gone
    the one who was my voice to pharaoh
          with whom I could speak
              even after he had turned away from me
          angry jealous frustrated
only to turn return  and forgive
each other

no water can cleanse my grief
through eyes filled with anger  pain   isolation
     I see red
         heifer hyssop thread
              blood life death
      mixed with miriam’s water
 divine magic
        purifying those who
touch feel witness death

I cannot be purified
death has touched
not merely   my body
        but   my soul
    I thirst
for life
for water
for them
but there is nothing
to comfort me

I want to die
to be with them
    instead I must
be with the people
my people
        god’s people
until we reach the jordan’s waters
  only then will I finally rest
      only then can I be me
        brother son father husband
     no longer alone
dwelling with God
      with them
   our souls immersed
      in holy waters
         of the divine spirit
   God’s shekhinah
birthing me
         into new life
   with them
  with all
at One
for eternity

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

sorry for the hiatus

Dear online kehillah (community),

I have not been sending out my psalm commentaries this week at first because of time issues and then computer issues. I will try to send at least one out this week in addition to my Torah commentary. The truth is that much of June and July are going to be quite hectic. I will do my best to keep up with the weekly parashah (Torah portion) and eventually finish up the daily psalm commentaries, but not on as regular basis as usual.

On another note, I am scheduling Shabbat and weekend teaching opportunities for 5771 (aka 2010-2011).   If you would like to bring me to your community as a scholar in-residence please be in touch - or pass along my information to the people who make those decisions in your community.

I hope you are all enjoying your summer so far.



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, verse 7

הסירותי מסבל שכמו כפיו מדוד תעברנה
I removed the burden from his shoulder; his hands were freed from the jug.

Why do the earlier verses in the psalm tell us to rejoice ?  We are not really told.  This verse provides one possible answer.  We are commanded to rejoice because God has freed him from slavery.  But who is the "him" to which the verse refers?  Most translations use the plural "they" instead.  But I want to stick with the original Hebrew

In looking at the preceding verse, perhaps this verse refers to Joseph.   God has released Joseph from being burdened and God has freed his hands from the jug.  But what does this mean?  Joseph had not been enslaved for years!

Perhaps, the burden that was removed from Joseph was the burden of his ego.  We know from the narrative in Genesis that Joseph was indeed an egotistical young man, thanks in part to his father's preferential treatment.

After everything that Joseph went following being sold into slavery by his brothers, the culmination of the narrative takes place when he finally arrives at the moment when he reveals himself to his brothers after seeing their compassion (see commentary on verse 6).  When he reveals his true self to his brothers it is as if the burden of the ego that sought revenge all those years was lifted from his shoulders.  No wonder verse 5 speaks of God as the "God of Jacob".  For the burden of ego that was lifted from Joseph's shoulder was, in part, placed there by his father Jacob. It was Jacob's unique legacy to his favorite son.

But what of the second half of the verse? The Hebrew word dood דוד found in the verse can refer to any container used to carry water, grain, etc.  Therefore, it seen by many as representing servitude.  And yet, as I wrote above, Joseph had not been a slave or a servant for years. On the contrary, he was second in command to Pharaoh.  Joseph's primary duty was to distribute the food to those who were starving during the years of famine.  But even this righteous an act could have been one of ego and hubris (though the Torah does not point in this direction).  For we all know that there are those who perform righteous deeds because they are righteous and those who perform them in order to receive praise.

Perhaps when the burden of ego was removed from Joseph's shoulders he was also able to become more selfless in his other actions.  Therefore, it was as if his hands were symbolically removed from the vessels used to distribute or carry the food to those who were hungry.  The verb ta'avorna  תעברנה ,from the verb for "to pass", implies that someone literally took the hands and moved them away from the jug or container.  Who removed his hands, in this case, was God.  And God did this so that Joseph would realize that it was God that was holding the jug, it was God that was the source of the abundance, all along.  Hence, Joseph tells his brothers that their selling him to slavery and everything else that occurred subsequently was all part of God's plan.

And so, this verse teaches that the celebration described earlier in the psalm was the celebration of the removal of the burden of the ego and the recognition that all the goodness, all the gifts, all the talents that we possess are from God.  And those are certainly worth celebrating every day.  We simply must be aware and help others to become aware as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, Verse 7

ויאמרו לא יראה־יה ולא־יבין אלהי יעקב
They said, "Yah (God) shall not see and the God of Jacob (elohai Yaakov)shall not understand."

In my commentary on verse 5,  I wrote of how the forces of  the ego (the "they" of which the psalmist writes, in my interpretation) tries to destroy the pieces within us that are seen as "weak" or "vulnerable." These are the compassionate, merciful caring parts of us.

In verse 6, the psalmist begins by writing that Yah יה (God) will not understand. Yah is an ancient name for God which some believe is simply the sound of breath. It is also the first two letters of the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God י–ה–ו–ה pronounced by some as Yahweh or simply adonai (my Lord). According to a midrash (rabbinic legend or commentary) in Shemot Rabbah (a collection of rabbinic tales  on the biblical book of Exodus) this four letter name represents God's qualities of compassion and mercy.

Therefore Yah can simply be seen as breath, but it also incomplete. It is missing the last two letters. It is true that the breath is viewed in meditative practice, and elsewhere in tradition, as connecting us to the Divine within. However, if it is incomplete, if we are not fully present (ie, breathing completely), then we also cannot access the full compassion and mercy of the Divine within us, as represented by the full four-letter name. And we must be fully present to the divine quality of compassion within us all in order to resist the ego.

The name of God used in the 2nd half of this verse is elohai yaakov אלהי יעקב. This is a contraction of Elohim and the name Jacob. The midrash I cited above teaches that whenever God judges people, then god is referred to as Elohim אלהים. So, one could read this name midrashically as "the judging God of Jacob."

Now, if you go back to the Torah's stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, we find that Jacob's name was rooted in  the Hebrew word for heel עקב, because at birth he grabbed the heal of his twin brother Esau trying to usurp his place as first born. In the end, Jacob was able to do this anyway, as he convinced Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew and then tricked their father Isaac into giving him Esau's rightful blessing.

Jacob, the heal grabber, can be seen as ego running rampant. All he cared about was himself. He manipulated, cheated and stole (sometimes with his mother's help) to get what he wanted. It wasn't until he struggled with the angel and was injured that he finally woke up to the reality that life was not all about him. When this happened, the angel bestowed upon him a second name, Israel ישראל - the one who struggled with the Divine.

But in this psalm it is the God of Jacob, not the God of Israel. It is the quality of judging within the egotistical deceiver before he discovered compassion. When we are judgmental and caught up in our own needs, desires and wishes  we don't understand that it is our duty to show compassion and to protect the caring and vulnerable parts within. All we can feel is the need to judge self and others and not to be compassionate and caring. When we are in this place it is easy for the ego to win, for it able to fulfill all of these desires.

This verse can then be read  as a warning. If we are not fully present to ourselves, God and the world, then we are unable to see the tricks the ego is trying to play. If we are only concerned with judging others or with getting what we want, then we also play right into the egos hands. In that way we are not yet the Children of Israel, but the only the children of Jacob. And Jacob without his other name, his other half, Israel, is incomplete. And so are we. And that is exactly what the ego wants us to be.  And so we must do what is necessary to present, complete, compassionate and caring to all within the Oneness of God.  If we do that, then the ego will have  a much harder time grabbing hold.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Poetic Commentary on Parshat Shelah-Lekha - the story of the spies

This week's portion/parashah is Shelah-Lekha (Be'midbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41). In this parashah, Moses, at God's command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies.  Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report to the people.  "See what kind of country it is.....investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests and] bring back some of the fruit of the land,” they are told.  They do bring back grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing "with milk and honey," it is filled with large fortified cities, "giants," and other dangerous inhabitants.  Only two of the spies, Yehoashua/Joshua and Calev/Caleb, bring back a positive report and remind the people that God is with them, and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. 

Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the negative report of the majority and wonder if Moses brought them this far out of Egypt only to die in the desert.  As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies, God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation of adults dies.  Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.

This poem is based this on the names of the two spies who were allowed to enter the land because they brought back a positive report.  The first is Yehoshua/Joshua, who is to become Moses successor, and whose name means salvation.  The second is Calev/Caleb, whose name can be translated as "like a heart.”  I believe the rest speaks for itself.

the heart of salvation

yehoshua calev
       salvation like a heart
that is us
     we are one
     the two
who survived
    the two
who saw and understood
                the truth
           the land
       flowing with milk and honey
    blessed by God
      waiting for us
         to be ready
             to enter

the others could not see
          their hearts closed
            salvation impossible
instead they saw
      giants     danger     obstacles
            they saw themselves
            ripe for destruction

sometimes I wonder
did we really travel the same land

walking the land
we saw   the same beauty
we saw   the same abundance
we ate    the same fruit
we returned carried the same gifts

in the moment
   we returned
      they forgot
 all they had seen
       they built a wall
       around their heart
       hardened themselves
       unable to remember
            the beauty and joy
in the moment
      feeling only fear and trepidation
unable to trust God
within themselves

they did not believe in
they could only believe in
they could not trust
they could only trust
            the small mind of the ego

only able to see themselves
            as grasshoppers
ego created within the mind
the others
creatures who never saw us
yet imagining they would destroy us
the ego-mind creates
        that destroy

the ego-mind creates
that build walls
       around the heart
  keeping   God out
               fear in
           salvation at bay

the other ten
are now gone
killed by the plague
their fears come to fruition
but the damage has been done
the people are doomed
never to enter the land
never to achieve full salvation

but not so the children
      they are blessed
   they can begin again
they can reclaim the land
reclaim true divine heritage
       of beauty and faith
of belief in truth
         in God
      in the One

as One
yehoshua calev
salvation like a heart
the heart and salvation
of the Divine
shall lead them
to a place they cannot know
a place where they can
             be truly free

it is the same place
their fathers saw
            but did not see
the same place
that was their death
will be their children's
life and salvation

yehoshua calev
I will be sure
that they see
with their hearts
with their souls
open to all
the truths
the possibilities
in each moment of being
of recognizing the One
supporting and connecting us all

they may still see themselves
like grasshoppers
       but they will realize
    that does not mean
  that they are doomed
they can still escape
    finding freedom and salvation
       if they remain open
     to the truth of the moment

for them milk and honey will flow
        in the land
          from their lips
            from their hearts
       enabling all to embrace
        land    each other     God

together as One
we will banish the giants
       created by the ego-mind
creating in its place a home
land within the heart and soul
   filled with peace
      source of salvation
  for all who dwell within

this we will do together
      in remembrance
  of all those who came before
    those who still are
      those who will be
  unable to see the truth
              the One
   unable to experience
  the heart of salvation
             within all

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, verse 6

אלמנה וגר יהרגו ויתומים ירצחו׃
They shall kill the widow and the stranger; they shall murder the orphans. 

The ego can not only crush and oppress the soul, as I wrote in last week's commentary (May 26), but left unchecked the ego has the power to truly destroy.  When we let our ego take over and believe that the self is the center of existence, that I am all that I need, then our spirit can easily be annihilated.  But we can also destroy others.   Those with egos that are out of control can prey on those who are most vulnerable, represented in this verse by the widow, the stranger and the orphans.  However, the ego can also destroy the vulnerable pieces within us as well.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible we are commanded to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  In Biblical language, the stranger is not simply someone unknown to us.  Rather, the stranger is most often someone from a different nation who has come to dwell within the Israelite camp.  Even though they are technically "other" we are commanded to treat them as we would our own, even to the point where they are also commanded to observe the laws of the Sabbath and other customs.  The stranger is part of the people, yet not quite.

If we look at verse 6 as speaking not of other people, but of parts of the soul, then the three types take on a different meaning altogether.   In the community, the widow must be cared for because women were to be taken care of by the men in their lives, first father, then husband.  To be left without a man, meant being left vulnerable and reliant upon the community.  Widowhood could also be seen as representing the feeling that it was as if a piece of that person was missing.  And the missing piece was that which provided certainty, stability and security.  

The orphan, or literally the fatherless, was vulnerable for similar reasons.  However, they were even more vulnerable, for they were not yet adults.  In this way, they could be seen as even more vulnerable than the widow.  

However, the stranger is different.  For the stranger needed to be protected, I believe, not so much because they were without a parent or spouse, but because they were ultimately seen as 'other.'  Even though they chose to be a part of the community, they were still not truly of the community and therefore could be subject to prejudice and violence at the hands of others.

As pieces of our soul, I see the widow as that piece within us that never totally feels secure.  It is the part of us afraid that  we are ultimately alone, without support or community.  It is the part that feels partnerless in the world.

The orphan represents the part that wants to be dependent on others and then feels abandoned when they realize that you can't always be dependent. It is the piece which believed that there  is, was and will always be a person bigger and stronger to watch over us and now realizes that this is not true.  The orphan is afraid and feels alone and helpless.

The stranger is simply the part of us that feels it doesn't really belong. Even in a room full of family, friends and loved ones, the stranger within may acknowledge that we are physically present with others, but spiritually it feels separate, disconnected and vulnerable.  The stranger fears attack at any moment from hostile forces, even when everyone and everything around may feel warm and welcoming.

I believe we can all relate to these pieces within us, whether we want to or not.  However, it would be easy to label them as "negative", "bad" or "dysfunctional."  On the contrary.  For on some level they are the most functional parts of us.  When kept in balance (and that is always the key), these are the pieces of our soul which remind us that life is fleeting, that there is no true certainty and that we must live in and cherish each moment for the next one is unknown.  In balance, they are the parts that also help us realize  that what allows us to face all of these fears and uncertainty is a belief in interconnectedness and in the Oneness that we call God,  though it goes by different names in different traditions.

That is why the ego wants to rid us of these pieces of the soul.  The ego wants us to believe we are in control and that the universe is at our beck and call.  It is the existence of these vulnerable pieces within, that remind us that this is not the case.  It is also the vulnerable pieces within that allow us to be compassionate towards others, as well as ourselves.  And so the ego seeks to destroy them.

But what struck me was the fact that the verb used concerning the widow and the stranger is from the Hebrew root h-r-g    ה–ר–ג which means simply to kill, whether intentionally, murderous or otherwise. It simply means to end another's life. But the verb used regarding the orphan is r-tz-ch ר–צ–ח , which means to murder, or to intentionally take another's life.  What spiritual lesson, I wondered, could the use of these two different verbs provide?

Perhaps it is this.  The stranger and widow represents pieces within us that are vulnerable and uncertain, but they are pieces that of our "adult" selves.  Just as we have hopefully matured through the years, so too have these parts of us.  And so the ego can kill them more gently and subtly.  The ego can almost lull them into a never ending sleep by convincing them that things are really better than they are, that we are firm and secure and that the world is unchanging. It is death through a sense of complacency and a belief in the obsolescence.

However, the orphan is part the child within the soul.  This piece also feels unsafe and uncertain, but it has the energy of a child.  It is powerful, even as it feels helpless.  It can take control of the soul, just as we have all seen young children take control of their parents or all the adults in the room, by simply doing the equivalent of throwing a tantrum.  Therefore, this piece within us is much more dangerous to the ego.  

The scared orphaned child within cannot so easily be lulled into complacency and then simply die a peaceful death.  No.  For it sees what the other parts do not see.  It feels what they do not feel.  It fears what they don't fear.  And it doesn't have the filters or the internal censors of the other parts.

And so, the orphan within threatens at any moment to throw a tantrum to remind us that there is danger and uncertainty in the world.  It seeks to remind us that we can't simply rely on the illusion of self-sufficiency the ego tries to create.  It knows on a primal level that we need others, we need to feel connected, we need to be at one.  And so, to rid us of this piece of the soul, the ego must not simply kill it or let it die, it must murder it.  It must be certain that it will not return.

The ego wants, with all its being, to make certain that the orphan, the scared child within is silenced.  Otherwise it could ruin the ego's entire plan of self domination.

As we look into our souls any given moment, let us remember to pay attention to these pieces within.  Let us remember the vulnerable, frightened pieces that recognize the ultimate uncertainty and ephemeral nature of existence.  For they are the parts of our soul that lead us to that place of compassion and connection.  For it is compassion and connection to the One which are keeps these pieces ultimately calm and in balance.  

Then, when we start to feel a little too secure or smug, a little too certain of our own power to control ourselves and the world,  we must listen for those voices in our soul.  We must especially listen for the screams and cries of the orphaned, lonely, scared child within beginning to throw a tantrum.  For these voice are what will ultimately bring us back to reality, to each other and to the One.

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