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Monday, January 31, 2011

Psalm for Monday. Psalm 48, verse 14

שיתו לבכם לחילה פסגו ארמנותיה למען תספרו לדור אחרון׃
Note well her fortified walls; pass through her palaces that you may tell of them to the next generation.

In my commentary of verse 13, I discussed how we build walls as boundaries around heart and soul .  However, as I stated, we need to make these boundaries the right strength so that they protect us, but also allow others in.  This is all part of maintaining a balance and preventing the ego from taking control and alienating us.

In verse 14, we are at first commanded, literally, to “place in our hearts” the city’s fortified walls.  An expression meaning to ‘note well’ or ‘pay attention,’ it reminds us that we can’t simply ignore the fortified walls that we have built around our own holy city and around our heart.  For if we do not acknowledge the existence of the walls, then that will allow the ego to continue building them unchecked.  This will eventually lead to a state when we are walled off completely from the world around us and from the Divine.

Part of acknowledging the walls is also acknowledging what it is they are “protecting.”  We do this by passing through the glorious palaces that comprise our spiritual home.  These palaces are filled with beauty.  They are the places where we feel and experience God’s presence and our oneness with the Divine.  And yet, these palaces are surrounded by the fortified walls.

So again, we find an image that calls to us for balance and equanimity.  The walls, the boundaries, are not inherently “bad.”  They are necessary in life.  But we must always remember that there is a beautiful palace, a holy place, that they are surrounding.  Therefore, the walls must not be impenetrable.  We must be able to scale the ramparts without too much effort.  In short, we must face the difficulties of life, face the ego head on and find balance.  For we know that a balanced path is the one that leads us to the palace that is the soul.

We do this not only for ourselves, but also for the next generation.  So often we teach our children that life is either simple or difficult in the extreme.  If our children believe that life is simple and all beauty, then they are at a loss when they experience the inevitable and necessary difficulty and pain of living.  However, if we teach them that life is only pain and difficulty, then they spend their lives fortifying their walls while being totally oblivious to the beauty of the palace on the other side.

Our balance, our equanimity, our acknowledgment of both the pain and beauty of existence is what we must pass on to the next generation.  Finding this balance four ourselves is difficult enough.  Passing it on to the next generation sometimes seems like an insurmountable task.

However,  if we pay attention to the beauty of existence, the palace of the soul that is within us all, then it becomes just a little bit easier to do the difficult work necessary for us and for those who are to come to experience life in all of its complexity.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Parshat Mishpatim: Enslavement to the Ego

This week's parashah/portion is Mishpatim (Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18). The parashah is the beginning of what is referred to as the "Book of the Covenant."  The contents of the parashah are instructions given to Moses by God while still on Mount Sinai; it is the first series of detailed laws to be given following the speaking of the Ten Commandments.  It includes laws on how to treat slaves and lists the penalties for various crimes. All of these laws are meant to provide a structure for the Israelite people. For this is a people that had only known slavery and now they must be taught the rules and regulations of a free society. Without these, they might assume that freedom was equivalent to anarchy and havoc would ensue (just think of the Golden Calf incident which takes place while Moses is still on Sinai receiving all of these laws).

In reading these laws it has always fascinated me that the first law given is concerning how to treat a Hebrew slave. How strange that the first regulation for a newly freed people would be how to treat their own slaves! One would think the text would state unequivocally that slavery was not to be permitted or that this would be the last thing on the people's minds.

The laws concerning slaves are complex. They are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, yet they differ greatly each time. However, focusing on the version in this
parashah, they include the fact that slaves are to be freed every seventh (sabbatical) year -- unless that slave decides that he does not desire freedom (this section does not actually discus female slaves). In that case, the slave is to be brought "...before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life."

I believe that these texts about slavery, which is actually more of an indentured servitude, remind the reader of the importance of freedom. Freedom is a precious gift. If we are forced to give up that freedom due to financial hardship, then this status should only be temporary and the slaves must be treated with dignity.
  However, if for some reason that slave becomes accustomed to his slave status, he must be permanently marked.   This must be done "before God."

God tells Moses on Sinai that we are to be servants of the Divine and serve no human master. If we choose to abdicate this responsibility and instead serve another person, then we must let God and the
  community know of our choice. Just as Cain was forced to wander the world with the mark on his forehead to remind the world of his sin (murdering his brother), so the slave that chooses to remain enslaved is forced to wear a permanent reminder that he has chosen to reject God's gift of freedom.

It would be easy to use this text, as many have, as a metaphor for how human beings can become enslaved not only to other people, but to work, greed, luxurious living, or substances such as drugs and alcohol. The list is endless. Though these various passions and addictions can enslave us, they are only symbols of a deeper kind of enslavement. For ultimately they represent enslavement to our desires, for the things that we think we need in order to feel like we are fulfilled. We all have passions and desires.
  In Judaism, they are not to be treated as inherently bad. For even our yetzer ha'ra – our inclination to do evil – was seen by the rabbis as a catalyst for us to be productive. Yet, when our passions and desires begin to control our lives, then we risk becoming enslaved to them.

This enslavement to our passions and desires masks what is actually our enslavement to the ego. We want to possess, to have, to keep, so that we can feel good, so we can show off, so we can brag, or simply so we can feel secure. This is what the ego wants. This is how the ego keeps us focused on our own needs and ourselves and directs us away from compassionate action meant to serve others, our world, and God. When we allow ourselves to become so ensnared in our desires and passions, then we no longer wish for anything but to increase our possessions, our wealth, and our status. We no longer care about others or our world. We become attached to all that we supposedly own or that we think fulfills us.
  It is almost as if we have been nailed to the doorposts of our house, as is the slave wishing to forgo freedom.

However, if we stop for a moment and realize that we have become slaves to our passions, then we can change. When we acknowledge that all that we think we possess is ultimately meaningless if we are not connected to the world, to others and to the Divine, then we are able to detach ourselves from being nailed down and stuck. For they can be gone tomorrow just as easily as they are here today. This is true of everything we have and everything we think we are.
  For the only

Yet, even after beginning a new journey, we carry with us a reminder of
  our enslavement, like the scar on the ear of a slave who had chosen to have his ear pierced to the doorpost. That internal scar, that spiritual wound, is meant to remind us that it is always possible to become enslaved yet again. For it is too easy to allow the ego to trick us into believing our old ways yet again.

In those moments when we feel the pull to follow our ego and our
  passions, we can look to the mezuzah – what is really meant to be nailed to the doorpost - as a reminder of what it means to live life as a human being created in God's image and recognizing God's presence in every moment, at every step. We can remember in that moment that we are not the sum of our passions and that our passions are not what should guide us. 

What must guide us is the awareness of our inherent godliness in each moment, the compassion that we possess for every human being – including ourselves – and the desire to bring holiness into our fractured universe. If we remember that, the moment when we hear the voice of ego and passion within, then we will take the right step and remain free human beings. It is not an easy task to remember this in each moment, but it is what we must do if we are to be truly free.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Parshat Yitro: Taking the Journey

The week's parashah is Yitro (Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23). It begins,  "And Yitro (Jethro), father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done to Moses and to Israel his people, that God had taken Israel out of Egypt." The parashah then continues with Yitro's advice to Moses that he not take on the duty of judging the people's grievances alone, but appoint judges to help him. Finally, it  reaches a climax with the central event of our religious mythology, the giving of the law/Torah at Sinai. It is at Sinai that the ragtag bunch of former slaves finally covenant themselves to God as a people. At Sinai the nation/people of Israel is born.

Whether or not one believes in Sinai as an historical event, does not concern me. For what matters is not the historical veracity of the narrative, but rather, the "Truth" within; the spiritual message that it is meant to teach. I believe that the ancient rabbis too cared more about the inner truth than the factual nature of the narrative.  For in one prominent rabbinic  reading of the text, the Sages stated that Yitro actually came to see Moses AFTER the giving of the law at Sinai, even though the text states that he arrived before the sacred event. The rabbis permit themselves this license based on the rabbinic exegetical principle that "there is no early or late in the Torah." Standard chronology does not affect sacred text.  Time can be suspended – or reversed – by the interpreter if need be. The Torah is not bound by time, but is, in effect, beyond it.

And so our Sages wrote that when Yitro "heard all that God had done to Moses and his people" the text is speaking not only about the exodus from Egypt, but the events at Sinai as well. In 12th century France the great commentator Rashi  also wrote that Yitro journeyed "…out to the wilderness, a place of emptiness, in order to hear words of
Torah.  In her book on Exodus, "The Particulars of Rapture," Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg posits that, upon hearing of the giving of Torah at Sinai, Yitro left his material life and all of his world behind.  He gave up the glory of the priesthood (he was a priest of
Midian) and emptied himself  of ego so that he could then hear the words of Torah.

But how could he hear the words? Had not the Torah already been given? Obviously, he must have heard them from Moses. However, the truth of the matter is that all of the people heard God's word only through Moses.  Though God initially began to speak to all the people people, we read in the narrative that it was too much for them to bear.  And so, they told Moses to go up the mountain, receive the word of God and bring it back to them. Since they knew that Moses was a true prophet to whom God spoke, they also knew they could trust what he would relate to them.

Yitro too relied on the words of his son-in-law in order to understand what God spoke. In the parashah Yitro states "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods" (18:11).  Rashi interprets this to mean that Yitro had experienced the worship of all gods of the world, but that he came to realize [upon hearing of what happened at Sinai] that our God was THE God. In discussing the idea that Moses relayed all that had happened at Sinai Rashi also states "…Moses narrated …everything that God had done in order to attract his [Yitro's] heart, to bring him close to the Torah."

Furthermore, the commentaries speak of Yitro's connection to his past and being caught between a desire to embrace God and fear based on his past identity and experience (something which I don't have time to discuss in this brief commentary).  Yet, the Sages still believed that Yitro was "converted" by hearing all that God had done. However, Zornberg reminds her readers that this occurred even though he had not personally experienced the giving of Torah at Sinai (Zornberg, pp. 253-254).  Even so,  Yitro is brought close to God by hearing Moses tell him the redemption/revelation narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah. Though still reticent because of his connection to his Midianite past, Yitro eventually embraces God and God's word. His acceptance of the words of Torah heals his soul and removes from him any sense of fear or trepidation .

However, perhaps the central point of this commentary is revealed in Zornberg's reminder towards the end of her commentary that Yitro had "…already made all the necessary spiritual movements away from civilization and into the wilderness, as soon as he heard of the Exodus. Moses' narrative works not to bring near one who was far, but to bring near one who has already come close."

Zornberg writes eloquently of how Moses's speech "…engages with the ambivalences, the attraction and the repulsion, of one who, against all odds, approaches Sinai…" and that the "therapeutic" quality of Moses's words recounting all that had happened addresses "a real trauma, a wound inflicted, in a sense by the very encounter with God."

This verse spoke to me on a deep level. For I believe Zornberg is saying that Moses's retelling of the narrative becomes therapeutic, healing speech because it acknowledges the intensity as well as the traumatic nature of the human-Divine encounter. Simultaneously, it also helps Yitro become aware of its beauty and the reality of what it means to approach Sinai.

Moses knows that Yitro is both attracted (out of love, rooted in the present) and repulsed (out of fear, rooted in his past) by Sinai, and so Moses acknowledges this dichotomy. This then allows Yitro to embrace the entire experience, and ultimately God.

We are all aware that God and Judaism (indeed, all religions) have the ability to attract and repel, often simultaneously. We want to find God, we want to connect to community, and yet we are often repelled by the memories, often painful, of our childhood traumas related to this desire. Perhaps it was a rabbi who bored us to tears every Shabbat, who ignored the children or who chastised people harshly for not coming to services.  Perhaps it was an overly strict or an ineffective religious schoolteacher.  Or perhaps it was experiencing Judaism in one's family as boring, judgmental, superfluous or even (especially for women) oppressive. 

Many of us may have experienced these traumas in the past and yet, the fact that you are reading this commentary means that you have chosen to connect in some way to the tradition. Somehow, the attraction overcame the repulsion; the love overcame the fear or anger. Remember, Rashi said that Moses was able to reach Yitro only because Yitro had already prepared himself spiritually. He could be reached and healed by Moses's words because he was not so far away as he might have otherwise been. He had a desire to be close to God and to be part of the new people, and so he had begun his approach to both. That is why Moses was able to bring him all the way to Sinai even though
he had not witnessed it first hand.

This is true for so many of us who consider ourselves on some level to be seekers, but are uncertain exactly how to reach our final destination (or where it is or what it looks like). But if those of us who have begun the journey listen carefully to the words of Torah as filtered through contemporary teachers, whether rabbis, professionals or simply other Jews, as well through our community, then we empower ourselves to continue the journey. If we seek meaning that speaks to us wherever we may be at that moment, then we can be brought the rest of the way in love.  Then together with one another, we can experience the beauty of Jewish community as well as the spirit of the Divine in our lives.

For those who do not believe that they have begun the journey, just stop for a moment and look where you are. You are on the journey with each step you take, no matter how small it might seem. Don't worry about how long it will take. Just pay attention to where you are now and then take the next tiny step. Join with the rest of us as we walk from slavery to Sinai and beyond, over and over again. We are together, yet separate, on this sacred journey. That is what it means to be part of a Jewish community. That is what it means to stand together at Sinai.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Parshat Beshallakh: Moving Beyond Destruction

These week’s parashah/portion is Beshallakh (Shemot/Exodus 13:17-18:1) As I sat down to write this week’s commentary, I knew I wanted to connect it in some way with the tragic events this past Saturday in Tucson.  However, how to do this, while still being true to the basic concept of this blog was somewhat perplexing to me.

And so, in good mindfulness fashion, I read through the text and sat to see what thoughts or ideas arose in my mind.  After all, the parashah begins with the Israelites leaving, continues with the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army and ultimately also deals with the people complaining to Moses in the desert about water and food, leading to the first fall of manna from heaven and God directing Moses to strike the rock in order to get water.  So much material

However, some verses jumped out at me as I reread the text. I have decided that I will simply write down the verses first and then see what happens. That way I don’t have to worry about citing chapter and verse as I write.

1)   We read that God did not lead the people out by way of the Philistines for “the people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt” (13:17) and yet, we also read “the Israelites went up [from Egypt] armed” (13:18)
2)   God continues to stiffen Pharaoh’s heart even after the Israelites leave, so he then pursues them.  God does this so “the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH (God)!” (14:4)
3)   When the Israelites see the Egyptians coming at the shore of the sea they cry out “was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness!” (14:11) and question if it would have been “better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (14:12)
4)   When the Egyptians enter the sea we read God “threw the Egyptian army into panic” (14:24), “locked the wheels of their chariots” (14:25)
5)   As the sea closed in on them the Egyptian army tried to flee but “YHWH hurled the Egyptians into the sea…not one or them remained.” (14:28)
6)   When the people saw what God did at the sea “the people feared YHWH; they had faith in God and in God’s servant [Moses].”

In reviewing these verses, the characters of God, Pharaoh and the Israelites are called to me. I was surprised that Moses did not draw my attention.  But, perhaps I just see him as an extension of God in the moment?

In the text, God knows instinctively that the people are not ready for conflict. They have been enslaved all these years, and so they would probably flee at the slightest sign of conflict.  And yet, why do they leave Egypt armed for battle?  Perhaps this serves as a reminder that, even when we don’t want or are afraid of conflict, we must still be prepared for the unknown?

Then, even though God knows the people will be afraid of war, he sends the fully-loaded Egyptian army after them.  But God does this for no other reason than to show the Egyptians who is really in charge!  The whole encounter at the Sea of Reeds is meant to showcase God’s power for the “enemy.”  And yet, no Egyptians are present at the sea other than the soldiers that are killed.  Except, perhaps Pharaoh.  For we are told that his soldiers, horses and chariots entered the sea, but it does not say that Pharaoh himself did.  Why? Perhaps his role was to witness the destruction and then be forced to take the news back to the people?

When the Israelites see the army approaching, they do not take up the arms with which they have left Egypt.  No. They react as we imagine a group of slaves might, they fear for their lives.  Further, they criticize Moses for bringing them into the desert to die.   And then, as the people berate Moses and, by extension, God, it is time for God to spring into action.

The pillar of smoke that was leading the people (in which God was present) moves from the front to the rear, blocking the Egyptians from passing.  Then Moses is instructed to stretch out his staff and split the sea.  The miracle has begun. Wasn’t this enough?  Why did God need more?  If God split the sea, let the Israelites through and then closed it, leaving the Egyptians on the other side, wouldn’t the power of God be undeniable?

But this was not enough for the God of Exodus. This God needs to leave no question as to the extent of Divine power.  So, God allows the Egyptians to enter the sea, then God confounds them, God makes their wheels stick so the chariots cannot move and finally, as they try to escape the walls of water closing in on them, God literally hurls them back into the sea!

It is only then that the people fear God and have faith in God and Moses.  Of course, not long thereafter they lose their faith repeatedly as they continue to complain to Moses and question his leadership and God’s power.  But I am not going to go into that part of the parashah.

Rather, I want us to look at one specific moment.  If mindfulness is about being aware of each moment and our connection to God in that moment (which is how I would define it) then the moment I would like us to experience is the when the Egyptians have been killed in the sea and, as we read in verse 14:27 “the sea returned to its normal state.”

And so it seemed. In that moment, the sea looked the same as it had before it had split and before it had covered the Egyptians.  And yet, the sea is not the same.  For beneath its surface lie the victims of God’s need to show what Divine power was all about. Beneath the waves is the collateral damage of God’s campaign of “shock and awe.”  One can only imagine that part of the fear the Israelites were feeling in the moment was the fear that what just happened to the Egyptians could just as easily happen to them.  Who knows? They don’t yet trust God. They don’t yet know God.  All they know is what they are feeling in that moment.  Not long before this, they questioned whether Moses (and God) should have let them stay in Egypt as servant.  If they react like that again, what would stop God from killing them?

And so, the only way they could move on is by imagining that the sea was just the same as it was before and by singing a song of joy for their redemption.  But they have not yet begun to sing.  As is human inclination, I am already thinking of the future, rather than being in the present. For this is the moment that will give birth to singing, but they are not ready to sing just yet. They are still in shock and disbelief.

And what about on the other side of the sea?  If this act of Divine violence and redemption was meant to prove God’s might to the Egyptians, how will they find out?  Certainly, when their husbands, sons and brothers don’t return home they will know something happened.  But what would they believe?  That a group of ex-slaves somehow defeated the Egyptian army? Perhaps. We don’t know.

I imagine at this moment Pharaoh is standing on the other side of the sea asking himself these questions.  Not only that, but he is questioning why he is there.  His mind jumping to the immediate past, he wonders why he followed the Israelites when he had just freed them.  Now that it’s all over, he realizes that he would not have done what he did if some other force were not urging him on.  And so he stands there, grief-stricken at the loss, confused as to why it had to happen and frightened of what he is going to tell his people when he returns.  And he stands there both in awe of, and furious at, this God of the Israelites.  For he knows in his heart that this God was the force behind everything.

But how does all this relate to our present moment?  After a week in which we mourned such great loss as a nation, where are we?  I believe we are in both the place of Pharaoh and the place of the Israelites.  We are split.  We are standing on both sides with the sea, seemingly serene yet actually a watery grave, in between.

We are examining ourselves as a nation.  We wonder what led up to last week’s horrific event.  We are casting blame.  We are in shock.  As a nation, we may be armed with weapons of self-defense (and mass destruction), like the Israelites, and yet we know that at any moment, something unexpected could happen and none of that will matter.  As witnesses to death, we are mindful of our own mortality, and we are afraid of the possibilities.  And yet, there is something in us that is urging us to open our mouths in song of praise, in spite of this all.  But we are not quite ready to do that.

For we are also Pharaoh.  We are filled with confusion at what has happened to our country and its people.  We are furious at whatever force is behind this violence.  Even if a primary motivating factor was mental illness, which is beyond our control and must seriously be addressed by our nation, there was some other force that brought us to this place where we are standing at the sea, which is burying our dead.

And where is God in this?  In the narrative, God is the prime mover. God is the force behind all that happens.  But how can we say that God is the force behind the violence in our country?  I can’t. But I can say that there are forces beyond our control and understanding that are part of the cosmic scheme of things.  For evil and violence are also a natural part of God’s created world, whether or not we like to realize that.

But God is also the force that is helping us at this moment to come to terms with where we are.  As Pharaoh, God is the force telling us that we must let go of our need to show our power.  We must let go of our need to be right.  For if we do not, it will eventually destroy us, those we love, and our world.  We don’t like to admit when our actions cause bad things to happen, or that we have allowed other forces to compel us to act in ways we know are wrong.  But that is simply one of the truths of reality.  And the only way to stop this from happening again is to be aware of that reality in each moment.

As the Israelites, God is also the force that is helping us to realize that there are things beyond our control and that there is evil and violence in the world.  And yet, we must continue.  We must prepare ourselves to sing.  And we can only do so by pretending that the world is the same as it was before, while also knowing within us that this is anything but the truth.

When President Obama spoke to the nation the other day he called upon us to move beyond blame and partisan bickering.  He called on us to find the best within ourselves in order to make our country, and our world, the best in can be.  In short, he called on us to take the next step, even knowing that the dead are still right before us.

And so he we are. We know, as Pharaoh did, that we must let go of our need for power. That we must humble ourselves and even take on some of the blame as a society.    But we must also continue on, as we must assume he did when he returned to his people.

And we know, as did the Israelites, that this is both a frightening and a beautiful world.  That with each step we can act from a place of fear or faith, doubt or trust.  And we know what we must do in this moment.   While acknowledging all of these complexities and contradictions that exist within and around us, we must turn away from the sea, take the next step on our journey and sing with joy for life, for love and for all the world!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Psalm for Monday (a day late)- Psalm 48, vs. 13

סבו ציון והקיפוה ספרו מגדליה
Walk around Zion, and encircle her; count (“tell of”) her towers.

In my commentaries on the last few verses, I focused on the divine/human attributes of tzedek/righteousness and hesed/overflowing love, as the attributes that connect humanity on earth (i.e., the “earthly Jerusalem”) with the heavenly realm (“heavenly Jerusalem”).  Now in this verse, we are requested to walk about and survey Jerusalem and then to either “tell of” or “count” her towers (the Hebrew verb ס-פ-ר can be translated either way).

As the psalm nears its conclusion, it is as if the Psalmist is instructing us to survey the results of the actions we have taken.  Now that we have connected ourselves with the heavenly realm, thereby bringing peace and joy into our world, we must walk around “Jerusalem” and see the results of our actions.

We are told both to “walk around” (סבו) and “encircle” (הקיפו) the city.  Though these two almost synonymous, but not quite.  Together, they imply that we must both walk all through the city, as well as encircle it.  We are to view the city from both within and without.   In doing so we are both active participants and in the inner workings of the city and we are more passive observers.

How often in life are we simultaneously both actors and observers.  In some ways, this is what mindfulness practice asks of us.  We must live life in the moment, yet we must also pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that arise from our actions.  However, the trick is to simply notice and observe the thoughts and feelings, but not to judge them or become attached to them, thereby bringing about suffering.

I have written of this many times.  I try to practice this in my own life.  But, I am in no way implying that this is a simple task.  It takes practice and patience.  It takes that sense of connection to the One, rooted in righteousness and love, of which I have written.  And it requires us to have compassion on ourselves as we stumble and make mistakes.

Though in past verses I have interpreted Jerusalem and Zion as referring to the “heavenly” versions, here I believe we are being instructed concerning the human realm in which we live.  However, Jerusalem here is more than a city.  It is the holiness within us; it is the holy dwelling place we create here on earth by our holy actions.  We must pay attention to the effects our actions have on the world around us.  We must try to both intimately involve ourselves in this process and look at it as objectively as possible.

But what is the meaning of the command found in the second half of the verse?  What are these towers?  Are we to count them or tell of them?  We know that in ancient cities, towers were places from which soldiers or citizens could look out and spot any approaching enemies.  They were part of the protective barrier built around the city.  They were strongholds and fortresses of protection.

In surveying our spiritual home, our own Jerusalem, we must pay attention to (count) the structures we have built both to protect us and to give us security.  But counting them is not enough.  For only by acknowledging their existence (telling of them) can we begin to use them properly.  For they are not only meant to keep out the enemy, but they are also meant to allow the residents of the town to enter and exit safely.

We all have protective towers that we build around heart and soul.  After all, we do need boundaries to live an emotionally, psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  But too often, we allow our boundaries to become too strong or rigid.  We build our towers so sturdy that we keep out others who try to connect with us.  And ultimately we keep out God. 

But the closed, rigid nature of these ‘towers’ also keeps in that which we want to let go of us well.  These rigid structures can prevent us from casting out pride, anger, hatred, jealousy and fear.  All of these are natural emotions, but they can begin to gnaw at us if we do not notice them and then let them go.  And so, by acknowledging and naming (telling of) these protective structures we can also do the work we need to in order to use them appropriately in life. 

If we build our tower too strong, we are unable to let out these forces of the ego, which seek to destroy us from within.  It is by building the towers just strong enough, and then constantly paying attention to them, that will allow us to maintain a balance of emotion, spirit, psyche and intellect.  This balance allows us to remember that we are part of the One, connected to all, while still acknowledging that which makes each of us unique.  And we can only achieve this by looking at ourselves from inside and out, with compassion, love and righteousness.  We can only achieve this by making sure that our boundaries neither too rigid nor too porous and by remembering that the ultimate goal is not to protect, but to connect with the One.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Parshat Bo: Humility Without Humiliation

This week's parashah/portion, Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1 - 13:16), includes within it the final three plagues brought against Egypt.  We also read of the first Passover Seder meal, observed by the Israelites as the horror of the tenth plague coursed through Egypt. It ends with the Israelites setting forth by the light of the full moon on their journey out of Egypt and into freedom and the unknown.

The story is so familiar. Yet, as with all narratives of the Torah, if one pays attention to the text one can find a myriad of new truths within. And just as no two people are exactly alike, neither are two truths.

The truth of which I became aware while reading the
parashah was sparked by my initial misreading of a commentary on chapter 12, verses 31-32. After the horror of the tenth plague has been visited on Egypt, Moses and Aaron are summoned to Pharaoh's house. Pharaoh then says to them, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! " Go; worship the Lord as you said! Take also you flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"

In the JPS Torah commentary, Nahum Sarna comments that for Pharaoh to seek Moses and Aaron's blessing is the ultimate humbling of the despot. The first time I read this, I read this line as “humiliation of the despot.” I understood this misreading as stating that for Pharaoh to ask Moses and Aaron for a blessing is the quintessential humiliation of the tyrant after realizing that he was worthless and powerless.
  That is truly humiliation.  But Sarna writes of humility, which is something else entirely.

Living, as we do, in a world where so many people flaunt their accomplishments in order to prove their brilliance, humility is not often found (or appreciated), as it should be. It is true that we can be brilliant.
 It is true that we can be talented.  We can make the world a better place through our actions.

According to the Torah, we are the only beings created in the image of God. We are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. We each carry within us a spark of the Divine light. So if we are indeed brilliant and talented, why be humble? Why not simply admit our brilliance and revel in our mastery over “lesser beings” in the universe?

First, in spite of the brilliance that human beings can and do often possess, we need only look at our history of destruction, pollution, violence and greed to find other reasons not to be proud of who and what we are. However, it is often easier to close our eyes than to admit that reality.

Yet, when we close our eyes to the shortfalls of humanity, which is part of what makes us human, we can easily become caught in the snare of pride and hubris. Yet, those who focus only on the shortfalls and deny the beauty and brilliance are just as easily caught in the trap of humiliation and shame.  Adhering to either extreme point of view, we simply end up stuck wherever we are. We are unable to move. Unable to do the work to improve our world. And that is not what being human is all about.

In this week's parashah, and the one that precedes it, Moses and Aaron are constantly commanded to seek freedom for the people so they can go into the desert to worship God. Pharaoh's advisers urge him to give permission to the Israelites, perhaps because they realize that Egypt is lost. However, Pharaoh is unable to see this. Even when he seems to be convinced after yet another plague, he still places conditions upon the Israelites. Moses and Aaron wish to leave with all the adults, children and their herds to worship God in the desert. Pharaoh first tells them that only the men may go, for he fears that
  they will not return. Eventually, he acquiesces slightly and agrees to allow the women and children to go, but the herds must stay behind. Moses refuses this offer for he knows that they must have the flocks with them in order to choose the proper animals for sacrifice to God.

Of course, Pharaoh refuses and the rest is history - and tragedy. In this
  narrative, Pharaoh is the epitome of hubris and pride. He is unable to believe that there is anything or anyone greater than he. He deliberately ignores his advisers because he does not believe that Egypt could be lost. For that would mean that Pharaoh himself was lost, for Pharaoh was Egypt.

Yet, it could be said that he was trying to temper his hubris and strictness with a modicum of compassion by allowing some of the Israelites to leave, or even all of them without their herds.
 However, what he does not realize is that it is an all or nothing proposition.  He is not making the rules.  The Israelites are a single unit and this unit includes everyone and everything. Even the smallest animal is part of the whole. This is perhaps the essence of humility.  To realize that we are connected to everything in the universe, including the animals and plants, is to acknowledge being created in God's image.  This is what connects us and makes us responsible for all of God's creation, even if we are not we are in control of it.

Moses and Aaron knew that in order to worship God they needed to go together as a single unit. No one or nothing could be left behind. Complete unity was required. Pharaoh believed that all of creation was subservient to him. Moses and Aaron understood that all of creation is united as one and subject only to the One that is the Source of all. This too is the essence of humility.

Pharaoh's inability to see divinity in others and the world around him caused him to learn the powerful and painful lesson that his perceived divinity was nothing but a fantasy.
  This inability to find humility is what brought about his humiliation. He was no more, or no less, divine than any other human being. However, this was not something that a Pharaoh could accept. For in Pharaoh’s mind his divinity and power were the all or nothing proposition. 

Once it became clear to him that he was not a god, he was forced to reject the essence of his entire existence. He would not allow himself to see that God was within him as well as within the Israelites, as well as the Egyptians. All he could see was that the Israelite God was more powerful than the Egyptian gods, including him. Because of this distorted perception of reality, he could only feel humiliation. It was from that place of humiliation, that he asked Moses to bring a blessing upon him just as he (Moses) had brought a blessing upon the Hebrews by bringing about their freedom.

Even here, Pharaoh missed the point yet again. He was unable to see that Moses did not bring the blessing of freedom upon the people, nor could he bring it upon Pharaoh.
  God freely gave the blessing.  And God gave this blessing not because of anything the people did or said. The blessing was given because the people were God's people, just as are we all.

The blessing that Pharaoh sought was, and is, within everyone. It is part of what it means to be human. Pharaoh only needed to understand and accept this in order to receive (or should I say recognize) the blessing. He did not need to ask Moses or anyone else. Unfortunately, he was incapable of this kind of humility. He could only feel the humiliation that came from the realization that without his perceived power he was nothing.

The middle path, which is what all human being must strive for, means acknowledging that our sense of power over the universe, or even ourselves, is ultimately an illusion. At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that we are all part of the One that is God.

All humanity, indeed all of creation, is blessed. But we cannot experience that blessing until we acknowledge where and who we are in that moment.
  Then we begin to experience existence with a heart of wisdom and compassion that leads us to care for and love all of creation. This begins in the place where there is humility without humiliation, gratitude without pride, and strength without the illusion of power or control.

parashah ends with the commandment that every first born of the Israelites and every first born of their flocks shall be dedicated to God as a reminder of the death of the first born of Egypt, which helped to bring them freedom. This commandment is also a reminder of our interconnectedness. We are all in this together. All creatures belong to God and all creatures much be cherished and protected. Yes, we are free. However, we can only appreciate and embody true freedom if we recognize that we are still responsible and connected to something
greater than ourselves. We can only appreciate our freedom when we sense this connection and realize all that has been sacrificed by others for the sake of that freedom.

All creatures must sacrifice something. This is part of existence. The
  dedication of the firstborn simultaneously reminds us of the sacrifice of others and the need to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of unity. For unity is the essence of humility. Unity is the essence of what it means to be a blessing to us and to all of creation. It is the essence of what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. Realizing that we are connected to and responsible for all of creation is the essence of what it means to be truly free.

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