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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Psalm for Wednesday. Psalm 94, verse 8

 Dear online community:

As you may be aware, I have not been writing about the daily psalms for quite sometime. As I am on retreat for the week, I decided to use this as an opportunity to start again.

Since I did complete my commentaries on the psalms for Monday and Tuesday, I am now continuing with psalm 94, the psalm for Wednesday.

After my commentary on verse 8, I have pasted my commentaries for verses 1-7, should you wish to refresh you memory or read some of them for the first time.

Shalom/Salaam,
Steven


8. Understand, you senseless among the people: and, you fools, when shall you comprehend.

In my exploration of this complex psalm, the main theme is how the ego tries it’s best to make us feel separated from God, humanity and the world.  This is how the ego tries to destroy us.  The verse is simply a call to each of us, even if we do not feel that we have succumbed to the tricks of the ego.

In someway at some times each of us is senseless.  Each of us just misses what is happening around and within us.  At these moments we are called upon to wake up and understand what is happening. We are urged to be mindful, to pay attention to the moment in order to comprehend the reality of the moment. That is the only reality that exists.

When we don’t head the call and instead allow our ego to take control, or to focus on the past or the future instead of the present, then we remain senseless fools.  And, let’s face it, this happens to all of us more than we might like to admit.

But when we are mindful, living in the moment and experiencing the ultimate reality of oneness and connectedness, then we are no longer foolish. It is then that we comprehend the Truth of the universe and of existence.  This is not as simple as it might seem and yet it is much less complex than we imagine.
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Since I have not posted on the psalms in such a long time, here are my commentaries on the previous verses of Psalm 94, should you wish to read or review them.   spn


1. "The Eternal is a God of vengeance; avenging God shine forth!"

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

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


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

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

I began to feel more comfortable doing this the moment I realized that the talents I was “promoting” were gifts from God.  I often feel that the words I write do not come from me, but flow through me from some other source.  This is especially true when writing poetry.  Being mindful allows me to recognize and acknowledge this.  And it enables me to promote myself and be proud of myself, because I realize that it is the Divine energy that flows through me which is the source of my creativity.  We each have gifts that we are given. I am simply trying to share those that have been given to me.

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

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

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

3. Until when [will the] wicked, O God, until when [will the] wicked rejoice?

In looking at this verse, I was struck by two things: the repetition of the phrase "until when" (עד מתי) and the claim that the wicked are rejoicing, and will continue to rejoice (יעלזו).

From a mindfulness perspective, the repetition of "until when" reminds us of how long we can get stuck in our narratives, even (or especially) when they might be destructive to our serenity or our relationships with God, humanity and the world.  How long will we allow our anger, hatred, pettiness, revenge, etc. to guide and control us?  From a non-judgmental point of view, I hesitate to label these emotions or thoughts as wicked, for they are not inherently so.  However, to the degree that they lead us away from unity wih God and the universe, then they are wicked.

In the Passover seder, when we read about the four children, the one who is labelled "wicked/רשע" is the one who separates themselves from the community.  It has always seemed unfair to me that child is labelled as wicked.  However, in this moment I am borrowing from the teaching of that text in order to say that I view the "wicked ones" in the psalm not as people, but the thoughts, feelings, desires, and passions within us that separate us from the world and from the Divine.  Yet, if the wicked ones are not people, how and why are they rejoicing? And how do we get them to stop?

I believe that these things that pull us away from a sense of unity and connection have their root in our ego.  The ego is that part of us that tries to prevent connection to God and others and to instead focus only on the self, or the illusion of self.  Each time the ego and its emissaries, the thoughts, feelings, etc. succeed in separating us from God and the world and convinces us to focus only on ourselves and our perceived needs, desires and passions, then it is as if they are rejoicing.  They are rejoicing because they have succeeded in their task.

But until when will the "wicked ones" exist?  Until when will they rejoice?  The words "until when" are written twice because there are different answers to each question.  They will always exist.  The ego and the thoughts and beliefs it creates are always there within us. That is why we always need to be mindful and aware of their existence.

How long will they be rejoicing?  Until the moment when we recognize them for what they are and let go of the stories they tell us.  When we turn away from the self and turn towards unity and God, they cease rejoicing.   They have failed.  But don’t forget that they are still there waiting for an opportunity to drag us into their trap again.

And what is it that helps us in our quest to avoid the pitfalls of the ego and keep ourselves connected?  The answer is simple, and it is the word that is at the center of the verse:  God.  It is the Divine within us, the source of unity and connection to all,  that gives us the clarity of mind and the strength of spirit to turn away from ego and separateness towards connection and unity.  We each may have a different definition of what God is or is not. But I believe that the essence of God is the Divine energy that flows through all of humanity and the entire created world.  This is what reminds us that all is One, and that everyone and everything is connected.  That knowledge is what enables all of us to truly rejoice in each moment.

4. They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; All who do wickedness boast of themsleves.

In my comments on verse three I interpreted "wicked ones" as referring to the ego and the messages it gives us in order to keep us focused solely on the self and to keep us away from connecting with God, humanity and the world.

The words of the ego often pour forth in a seemingly endless stream.  These words do not spring fully formed from the ego itself.  They are the messages that we have told ourselves or that others have told us through the years and which the ego has assimilated.

Sometimes they are messages of self-deprecation or self-condemnation.  These voices, these words, can lead us to separate ourselves because we feel unworthy of others or of God.

Other times the words are of extreme praise or self-aggrandizement.  These words lead us to remain separate because we feel we are better than others or that we don't need them, or God.

This verse focuses more on the latter type of message from our ego.  These arrogant, boastful messages may originate from us or from others, either from a true sense of "superiority" or in order to mask a sense of insecurity.  But wherever the root and whatever the underlying feelings, they serve to keep us separated and alone.  And this is never good for the soul.

Ultimately, it is not good for the world either, for each person who is separated from the Oneness is another person unable to bring compassion and love in the world and unable to make the world a better place.

This boasting and arrogance, as phrased in the psalm, is a form of "doing wickedness" because it prevents goodness from manifesting itself.

I am not claiming, as some traditions and teachings might, that all forms of pride in what we do or who we are are evil.  When balanced with humility and acknowledgment of the Source of All, feeling good about ourselves can be a blessing.  But balance is the key word.  If at any time pride in our accomplishments or in who we are causes us to feel out of balance, then we need to stop and take a look at what's happening.  Chances are that the ego is trying to do its dirty work.  But with mindfulness, compassion and seeking connection to others and God, we can bring that balance back into our lives, and ultimately the world.

5. 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.

6. 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, 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 and 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.

7. 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 the root of Jacob's name is the 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, May 27, 2011

Parshat Be'midbar - who really counts?

With this week's parashah/portion, Be’midbar, we begin reading the fourth book of the torah, also called Be’midbar, which means "in the wilderness.  This book of the Torah is known as Numbers in English, for it begins with the counting of the Israelites for a census. Jewish tradition has long taught that counting people can be a dangerous business.  An obsession with numbers can indeed be destructive, yet we still continue to count.

In writing the poetic commentary on this parashah I had in mind two facts:

1) It  has intrigued commentators for years that the individual numbers in the census never seem to add up to the total that is given in the parashah.

2) In his commentary,  R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (19th century) comments on the fact that the Levites are counted in a census separate from the other 11 tribes of Israel. The tribe of Levi is the priestly tribe that serves in the Sanctuary, or Mishkan, and will later serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. As  priests, they have a special status.  However, Levi Yitzhak remarks that the separate census for the Levites can also remind us today, that within each of us there can be found  both Israel (the ordinary people) and Levi (the priestly tribe


what really counts

I   you   we are here
to be counted
but I wonder why this is

the counting has begun
it is now completed
it makes no sense

numbers don't add up
     as if they ever do
each of us is remembered
     each of us is forgotten
as we continue to count

should we take a recount
no   it’s  too dangerous
once is enought
that is why
one should not count people
as numbers
we play with them
  manipulate them
    make them say what we want
as if they could tell us the truth

inflation  deflation      all numbers
they mean nothing
    they are not real
they are not the truth
for the truth is that
we are each individuals
adding up to one
there is no
me  you  him  her  them
there is only one

people cry out      the count is wrong
there should more of dan
   less of shimon   more of joseph
the census makes no sense
numbers only serve to confound

but they are missing the truth
there is no more      and no less
there only is what is
but they can only see is what they wish
what their hearts desire

levi cries out
we do not count
we do not belong

the others cry out
only levi counts
he is special   alone
all of this is  foolishness
stupidity  futility  counting
none of this is real
all and none of us count
it is all an illusion
the only real number that matters
is one

yet still  to this day  we count
who is in    who is out
who is with    who against
who remains    who is banished
who matters       who does not

we argue  we fight  we kill
over numbers
          over counting
all of us wanting to be levi
    though all are israel
all bemoaning we are israel
    though all are levi

if we did not count
perhaps the struggle would end
or perhaps not
for the one   the all
the unity of being
is not    cares not     about counting

the one is about
knowing    sensing
feeling connections
but counting is a fantasy
it separates      it divides
it can kill    and  it  does

yet it will continue
until we stop worrying about the count
and remember that we all belong
to the one without number
             without end
        without borders
without separation

that is the truth
we always seem to miss
the only truth
that truly counts




Thursday, May 19, 2011

Parshat Behukotai: Walking with the God Within

Dear online community,
Once again I must apologize for missing a week. For various personal reasons, these last few weeks have been quite hectic and my blog has suffered for it. Hopefully things are now back on track and you will seeing my commentaries every week once again.
But before I continue with my commentary, I must do a bit of shameless self promotion ;-)  I am currently beginning to schedule visits to teach and learn together with communities across the country in the upcoming Jewish/academic/programming year (i.e., Sept-June, and even summer if you'd like).  If you would like to bring me to your community, please either contact me at mindfultorah@gmail.com or pass my information along to those who are doing the planning for your community for next year.  I would love to work something out so I can pay you a visit! This is true for synagogues, schools, JCCs Hillels and other campus venues, as well as non-Jewish or interfaith venues.  So please keep me in mind as you're doing your planning.
Thanks.  Now, on to my commentary....
 
This week's parashah/portion is Behukotai (Vayikra /  Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and it is the final parashah in the book of Vayikra. In this parashah, God tells Moses to inform the people that if they "walk with my statutes and observe my mitzvot/commandments," all will go well for them. However, if they do not, the heavens and earth will dry up and tragedy will befall them. The parashah then describes in detail what will happen if the people indeed do continue to ignore God's commandments.  

Though I don't take this type of "reward and punishment theology" literally, I believe that there is an important spiritual lesson to be found in this parashah

At the start of the parashah, Moses is told that if the people walk with God, then "I (God) will walk about in your midst hithalkhti b'tokh'khem)."  The simple interpretation of the  word b'tokh'khem is "in the midst of the people."  However, rabbinic commentators often interpreted it as meaning "within each individual." So if we walk in God's statutes, then God will be within each of us wherever we go.

Later in the parashah, God begins to warn the people of the consequences if they choose not to walk in God's ways. However, the phrasing used, which Everett Fox translates as "if you walk with me in opposition, then I will walk with you in opposition," is curious. Furthermore, this warning is found three times in the parashah God is abandoning one another, for they are. And each time God accuses the people of walking "in opposition with" God the threatened punishments will bebecomes more severe. In spite of these threats and accusations however, the neither the people nor God is abandoning the other. For they are still portrayed as walking with one another, even if in opposition. 

It is almost as if God is saying, "no matter how much you may seem to reject me, you can never get rid of me." But beyond that, the text is also saying that no matter how much we might go against "God's will" or walk in ways other than those which are prescribed for us, God is still with us -- even if we have made it so that God is in opposition. When walking with God in opposition, one might say then that God is walking with us, but God is not not b'tokh/within us.

When we choose not to walk in God's ways, then God is simply walking next to us. It is almost as if God becomes a shadow, or even an adversary, but one that is prepared at any moment to become our support and comfort, if we so choose. It is our actions, our opposition, which prevents God from being within us.  And it is our actions that will allow God to be within us once again. As the great Hassidic rebbe Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said, "God dwells where we let God in." In the context of this verse, it seems that God is simply walking along side us, waiting for each of us to let God in.

For each person "letting God in," means something different. To some it has a more anthropomorphic sense; to others it is more mystical. To others, such as myself, it can mean allowing the Power that brings peace and goodness into the world to flow through us. 

When we let got dwell within us, it is as if our world is flourishing and abundant.  But when we walk in opposition to God, when we don't follow the path that brings holiness into our lives and the world, then it is as if the heavens and earth have closed themselves off from us and we are living in a world that is arid, parched and lacking in beauty.  But the spiritual steps we must take in order to bring back beauty and abundance are much simpler than one might imagine. And they are different for each of us and at different points in our lives

Moment by moment we must each pay attention and determine what "letting God in" means to us and what we are doing that may be preventing God from dwelling within us. In this way, we can make our lives and our world better by walking with the God within us and infusing all that we do with the oneness and holiness of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Parshat Kedoshim (belated): Finding Holiness Beyond the Ordinary

I must apologize for not writing a commentary for the past two weeks.  Between Passover and other things happening, I just let the two weeks stop by.  However, I feel that this past Shabbat’s parashah/portion from the Torah is significant enough that I did not want to let this opportunity pass.

This past Shabbat we read from Parshat Kedoshim (Vayikra/Leviticus).  The word kedoshim means holiness, and this parashah contains within it the Holiness Code.  This code is physically and spiritually at the center of the Torah and represents the central principles guiding the formation of the new people of Israel.  Though we may take issue today with some of the prohibitions, including that against homosexuality (which is actually more complex than I can discuss right now), the main principle of the parashah  This is encapsulated in the final verse of the chapter: “Love your fellow human being (or neighbor) as yourself. I am the Eternal your God”  is still central to Judaism and to being part of any community.

However, rather than focusing on that verse, which gets so much attention, I would like to focus on the verse 4 of chapter 19: “do not turn to idols.”  I would specifically like to look at a commentary by the Degel Machane Ephraim, a Hassidic commentator who was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism:

“Do not turn to idols.” Our sages interpreted this to mean, “Do not turn to that which you conceive in your own minds” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 149a). We can understand this according to the teaching of my grandfather (the Baal Shem Tov) regarding the verse, “that you turn away and worship other gods” (Deuteronomy 11:16). He interpreted [this verse] thus: “’that you turn away’ – as soon as you turn your attention away from cleaving to the Holy One – ‘you will worship other gods’ – it is as if you have become an idolater.” Although his teaching is very deep, my feeble explanation is this: Anyone who serves God in all his ways, seeking to fulfill the injunction “know God in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), will do everything mindfully. Eating, drinking, sleeping, engaging in conversation in order to bring others closer to God, or to help dispel their sadness, or to help them in their business to sustain them so that they may devote more time to serving God – if even these (worldly) activities are done mindfully, then they also constitute divine service.

First of all, what struck me was this great scholar admitted his own limited ability to understand the depths of Torah.  Translated as “feeble explanation,” what he is saying is that his explanation of his grandfather’s understanding of the verse is limited by his own intellect.  How true that is for all of us.  Though I would hesitate to use a pejorative such as “feeble,” we must each remember that as much as we try to understand the Torah, we each have our own limited understand.  My understanding will certainly differ, even if only subtly, from another’s and so on.  Yet, if we listen not only to our understanding, but to those of others – no matter how much they may be at odds with our own – we may eventually have a more holistic and complete understanding of the text.

That said, what are the Baal Shem Tov and his grandson teaching us?  Simply put, whenever we turn our hearts or our intentions to anything other than God we are on the path to idolatry.  If we forget that everything we do is in some way meant to connect us to the One, through connecting with others and our world, then we are in danger of focusing only on that which is “created in our own minds.”  In other words, we allow the ego to guide us, rather than God.

The ultimate goal of all forms of religious mysticism, including Kabbalah, upon which Hassidism is based, is to achieve a mystical union with the Divine.  Deveikut, clinging to God, is how one achieves this union.  And Deveikut is achieved by being mindful of everything we do and how it can connect us to the Divine and thereby turn everything into “divine service.”   Even the most seemingly insignificant act can be something that connects us to the Divine, to our Higher Power, to the rest of humanity and the universe.  Conversely, when guided by the ego we can just as easily detach.

We must keep this in mind in terms of our daily activities as well as those things that are less frequent as well.  And this is often the place where many meet their downfall.  Through mindfulness practice, we are taught how to pay attention to the small details, yet when something especially significant or unusual arises we can be thrown because it is so unlike that which we usually experience.  This can cause us to react from a place of strong emotion, which is guided by our own sense of self-protection, or by the ego.    Then we lose ourselves in the rhetoric that is the voice of the ego and start to believe it is the voice of God. When we enter this state, we are in a dangerous place.

I have been thinking about this as I listen to all the political rhetoric filling the airwaves in recent times (and seemingly always).  I do not want to discuss politics per se, as that is not the goal of this blog, but just think of how often something happens or something is said by one person, or a small group, that then causes a strong reaction by another which is countered by a strong reaction of another, and so on.  It sets off a chain reaction of ego-driven responses that only serves to mask the central issue.  That issue is not a partisan one.  It is rather something on which we must all focus, whether political or not.  The central concern is how do we all do our best to serve God with each action.  It is not “how do we serve our own theological or religious bias or belief system?”  For that question is ultimate serving only our individual or group egos and causes further separation.  Rather, the question is how do we do that which is best for society, or humanity, as a whole?  How do we look at all members of society as all part of one greater whole and act accordingly? How do we avoid dividing society and humanity into “us and them” and instead look at everyone as one?  If we focus on these questions, then we are serving God (however one chooses to understand that) and all we do can be seen as Divine service rather than as serving our own ideology or ego.

I wish I had some great wisdom to offer that would help all of us, including leaders of all types of institutions, governments, etc. to behave this way, but my understanding is also limited.  But I can’t help but believe that if all would begin to listen to the multiple voices of the people we will eventually begin to see the whole, the truth, and the essence of existence and of what is the right thing to do.  And then we will act from a place focused on serving the greater good of all.  This service to all, to the whole, is at the heart of serving God and of what it means to be holy.

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