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Friday, June 24, 2011

Parshat Korach: Between Destruction and Creation

This week's parashah/portion is Korach (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-18:32).It begins with the rebellion against the leadership of Moses led by Korach, Dathan, Aviram and their followers. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed up by the earth.  The parashah ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is to be redeemed by the priests and replaced by the Levites, who are to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem in their stead. Furthermore, the first born of impure (unfit) animals are also to be redeemed, but the first born of cattle, sheep and goats are not to be redeemed for they are to be dedicated to God through their sacrifice on the altar.

Though it may not seem so at first, there is a connection between these two parts of the parashah. This common thread is found in the concept of “opening.” In the rebellion narrative the earth 'opens up its mouth' to swallow the rebels. In the latter passage the first born is referred to not simply as "pehter rechem" - the one who opens up the womb.

Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth - associated within many traditions (including parts of Judaism) as the maternal source of life - opens up its mouth to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of the first-born is also that of a maternal opening, but in this case, it is to bring life into the world. Though different Hebrew words are used, the image bears a striking similarity, albeit of polar opposites.  One image is of destruction and the other is of creation. Yet, it is an opening that allows the powerful force of the Divine to enter the world in both cases to either destroy or create life.

In addition, the phrase, pehter rechem (one that opens the womb) can be interpreted another way. Though rechem is the word for womb, it is also the root of the word rachamim/compassion. Keeping this in mind, I believe pehter rechem can be interpreted as  "the opening of compassion." In that case, verse 18:15 would be translated (or interpreted), as "All things that open up compassion to all living creatures shall be yours to bring near to God." It is opening up to the womb-like quality of compassion within all living creatures that brings us near to God. It is our ability to show be compassionate that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of godliness.

This type of opening is the antithesis of the opening that which swallowed Korach and company. In that part of the narrative, the opening is not a natural one, as is birth or, I would add, having compassion. Rather, the Torah tells us that the death of the rebels is caused by something that is decidedly outside of the natural order. The earth is not meant to open up and swallow human beings. For it to do so is not only outside of the natural order it is the antithesis of compassion!

The swallowing of Korach can also be viewed as a reversal of the processes of birth and opening to compassion. For what brings about the opening in the earth is not a natural birthing process or a drive towards creation or compassion, but rather an excessive drive towards control, domination and hegemony on the part of the rebels. The rebels are clever; they couch their demands in the language of egalitarianism (i.e. Chapter 16: 3-4, " You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why do you [Aaron and Moses] raise yourselves above the congregation?") However, what they actually desire is not equality for all, but more power for them.

It is their obsessive desire and drive towards power and control that eventually brings about their demise. It is the power of their desire that eventually causes a fissure in the natural order of the world and that causes 'mother' earth to split open and devour the source of this negative energy. Looking at this from a non-supernatural perspective this incident is about negative human energy causing destruction as opposed to positive human energy (i.e., compassion) causing creation to take place.

In both cases, the image of opening is central, and yet the words used in the text point to different types of opening. In the rebellion narrative the rebels are warned that the mouth of the earth will "burst open" (p-tz-h).  The earth is then described as "tearing open" (k-r-') to swallow the rebels. The violence of this language clearly befits a violent and intense response to the violent and intense passion and obsession of the rebels. The intensity of their need to control begets the intensity of their destruction, which ultimately represents their lack of control.

In describing birth, which we know is an intense, and even violent, physical experience, the verb used (p-t-r) always implies a sense of separating, removing or setting free. In other word, the opening of the womb separates the fetus from its mother, but it also sets it free to live in the world as a unique human being. This is peaceful and embracing language. So it is with the concept of compassion. For when we separate ourselves from the ego’s need to control, we then open ourselves to the others and allow compassion to go forth from within us and be set free into the world as a force meant to heal and comfort.  It is as if compassion takes on a life of its own.

In the rebellion narrative the opening is actually a closing that ultimately destroys. Pehter rechem is a true opening that brings life, compassion and godliness into the world.

We are each capable of opening up to the compassion within and to birth it into our world. This is what it means to bring God into our world and our lives. We are also capable of focusing so much on ourselves and our ego that we separate ourselves from the compassion within us.  we then focus instead on the ego-driven need to control. In doing so we then risk forcing an opening to occur which in the end destroys us and those around us, closing us off from the world.

It is all a matter of choice on our part, as is everything. May we each use the God-given power within us wisely to choose compassion over control and creation over destruction. In doing so we can then truly say that we have learned our lesson from Korach.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Parshat Shelah-Lekha: Holy Reminders

This week’s parashah/portion is Shelakh – Lekha (Bemidbar/Numbers) 13:1 - 15:41).  In this parasha, Moses is commanded to choose one representative 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 land 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, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a positive report and remind the people that God is with them, so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the negative report of the majority and question whether Moses brought them this far out of Egypt only to die in the desert. As punishment for their blind acceptance of 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.

The parasha also includes the story of a man who is discovered gathering wood in public on Shabbat and is summarily stoned to death for his transgression. It then concludes with what is later to become the third paragraph of the Shema ("Vayomer"). This passage commands the people to wear tzitzit, fringes, on their garments as a reminder of the covenant with God and to prevent them from going astray after other gods or the "lusts of their hearts."

At first glance, it would not seem that there is much to connect these three sections of the parasha. However, this being the Torah, it’s not that difficult to discover an underlying theme that creates a whole from the seemingly disparate parts.. The juxtaposition of the man being stoned for transgressing the laws of Shabbat and the commandment to wear tzitzit can teach us that if we do not have a constant reminder of our commitment to God and the mitzvot we may also walk down a ritually transgressive path. It’s also important to remember that, according to tradition, what made the man’s transgression even more serious was that he broke the law in public. Judaism has a long history of considering various transgressions more serious if they are performed in public. This reminds us that we are each meant to serve as an example to our fellow Jews, and our fellow human beings. We are each responsible for one another. If someone blatantly transgresses a law in public, others may assume that it is permissible to do so. After all, if so-and-so can do it, why can't I?

One might assume that this is only true for leaders of the community, as in the case of the spies. In that case, the ten tribal leaders act irresponsibly in front of the community and bring the rest of the community down to their level through their actions. As leaders, they should have been cognizant of their responsibility to help prepare the people to enter.  And they should have had faith that God would guide them, as did Joshua and Caleb. But by listening to the fearful voice of the ego within them, they could only relate to the people their own individual fears and concerns.  In doing so they abdicated their responsibility as leaders and created panic among the people.

The man who gathered wood on Shabbat was not a leader. As a matter of fact, he is nameless.  So, he can be seen as representing all of the people, or all of us. What happened to him is therefore meant to teach each of us that, no matter how insignificant we might believe ourselves to be, we each have a responsibility to serve as an example and to help the community reach for higher goals.  Each individual is as important as the “leaders”.  Each of us must be mindful of our actions and the effect they can have on the entire community and, indeed, all of humanity.

Though we in the 21st century do not agree with the punishment meted out to the transgressor, but the message is still one that we must give some serious thought. We are each responsible for one another. Yet, we are only human.  We are often forgetful, even of the most important things.  And so we need reminders. That is the role of the tzitzit worn on our ancestors' clothing and still worn by many adult Jews on the tallit (prayer shawl) or as a ritual undergarment. This simple fringes symbolize the commandments in the Torah, which in turn represent our connection to the Divine within us all. They remind us that we can't simply follow the dictates of our heart. From moment to moment we must do our best to be in tune with call of the Divine that connects us all.  At all times, we have a responsibility to God, which means we have a responsibility to all of creation.  In each moment we must each try our best to meet these responsibilities if we want to be examples to our community and our world.

Whether or not we wear tzitzit, we must each find something to make us mindful of our actions and their potential consequences. Each of us as individuals can wear tzitzit in order to keep us mindful in each moment. Some people who wear tzitzit wear them so that all can see them; others tuck them in their clothing so that only they are aware of their presence. Originally, the tzitzit were attached to the outer garments. This was and is a public reminder of an inner state of mindfulness.

Still, even if today one chooses to wear actual tzitzit underneath ones clothing they are still a reminder of God’s presence and this can help a person to be mindful in each moment and effect a change in one’s behavior. In this way, one’s behavior becomes the outer manifestation for all to see, rather than the actual tzitzit. If one chooses not to wear traditional tzitzit, we should find something to serve as a reminder. It doesn’t even need to be  something tangible. For one can also use meditation techniques such as a mantra or
simply paying attention to the breath or other spiritual practices such as yoga or tai chi, non-tangible “tzitzit.” These reminders of our connection to the divine can serve the same purpose and help us to act in a compassionate, godly, mindful way in the world.

I believe finding some kind reminder for ourselves is essential for us to live as individuals in community. It is also essential if we are to act in such a way that will bring the divine blessings of compassion, loving-kindness, and wholeness into our broken world in each moment of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parshat Be'haalotekha: The Cycle of Holiness

This week’s parashah/portion is Be’haalotekha (Numbers/Be'midbar 8:1-12:16). It begins with the instructions for the lighting of the menorah in the mishkan/tabernacle by Aaron. It then continues with instructions for the purification and dedication of the Levites, or priestly tribe.  Aaron, brother of Moses, and his sons were to be the kohanim, or main priests, meant to carry out the sacrifices.  However, the entire tribe of Levi, to which the kohanim also belonged, were to also be a priestly class meant to serve in the mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

What struck me in reading the instructions given in the parashah was what was to occur after the Levites purified themselves:  “You shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting (or tabernacle) and you shall gather together the entire community of Israelites.  Then you shall bring Levites near to God and the Israelites shall place their hands upon the Levites.  And Aaron shall ‘present’ (lit., wave) the Levites as a tenufa/wave offering before God on behalf of the Israelites so they may perform the service of God (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:9-11).”  Following this, the Levites are then instructed to place their hands on the heads of the animals to be sacrificed as a sin offering and a burnt offering on their behalf.  Only then may they begin to perform their priestly duties.

What interested me in these verses is that the laying on of the hands of the people is what confers power upon the Levites.  I have always simply thought of the Levites’ holiness and special status as coming simply from their genetic lineage.  However, though that is what makes them Levites, it seems as if they would have no power as priests, per se, were it not for their affirmation by the people.

This is also true of so much in our lives.  A thought may arise as a reaction to an important event or a certain person may come into our lives seemingly to serve a specific purpose.  However, we are the ones who give the thoughts or the people and their actions power over us.  It is not inherent in them.  Yes, they may be linked to significant aspects of our life, but they only have power if we allow them to.  And that power, if we choose to confer it, can also be used to benefit the universe and us or to our detriment. 

What also fascinates me about the description of the ritual is that Aaron is then to present the Levites as a wave offering before God.  It is as if he is commanded to actually wave or show the Levites to God (and the people) the same way he is to wave the first fruits when they are presented as an offering.  But again, he is doing this on behalf of the people.  They have sanctified the Levites and now Aaron, who is himself a Levite, is showing them to God. It is as if he is saying to God “these are the ones whom the people have affirmed may represent them.  They are sacred not because of their lineage, but because the people has declared them to be so. So look closely!”  It is only then that the Levites are ready to perform their priestly tasks.

Continuing with the analogy above, this piece of the ritual represents the conferring of power to be used for compassion, kindness and all humanity and not for anger, hatred or selfishness.  When we allow people or thoughts into our mind and our life, the ego would like to use them to serve it’ purposes. The ego wants to use them either for self-aggrandizement or self-deprecation (flip sides of the same coin).  But the holy spark within us, that which longs for unity and connection, guides us to use our thoughts, feelings and emotions for the holy purpose of bringing compassion and goodness into our lives and the world around us.  We simply have to pay attention to its voice from moment to moment.

It is as if there is something in us, which, like Aaron, declares before that piece of God that is within us,  “I am using these thoughts, feelings and emotions for the betterment of the world.  I am trying my best in this moment to bring holiness into the world.  See this. Acknowledge this. And help me in my endeavour.”  The divine spark within is therefore acting not only on our behalf, but also on behalf of the entire universe to which it is connected, since all of the sparks within each of us are ultimately a part of the One from which they emanated.

Though the Levites have ritually purified themselves before all this occurs, they are still not ready to be the conduits between God and the people.  So too, we may purify our minds and our hearts before acting.  We can do this through prayer, meditation or other spiritual practice, even if for but a few moments. But if we do not see our thoughts and actions as ultimately connected to the greater good and to the Oneness of the universe, our purification is for naught.

Once the Levites are presented, they then offer a sacrifice before God to atone for their sins. They may be purified and affirmed by the community, but they are still not perfect. They are still human.  So it is with us as well.  None of this is about perfection. Rather, it is about being mindful as much as possible of the intention of our actions and how they can bring compassion and holiness into the world.  We will ultimately make mistakes. We will err. We will do things we might consider “unholy.”  But we continue the process, as each moment provides us with a new opportunity for holiness.

Finally, after making their sacrifices, the Levites are then ready to put their hands on the head of the animals to be sacrificed on behalf of the people who had recently done the same to them. 

All is connected. We receive holiness from each other in order to pass it on to others.  Our thoughts arise out of the things that happen to us and the people we encounter.  However, our intention and actions – and the recognition of our imperfection – is what makes us ready to continue the process of connecting with others, who are not really others, for we are all part of the One.  We all shine with the Divine light of the menorah, which was lit at the start of this parashah.  And we are all both Israel and Levi – the ordinary and the holy.  For we are all one.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Slightly Belated Shavuot Commentary: May We All Stand Together at Sinai

Today and, for many tomorrow, is the festival of Shavuot (Weeks), also known as “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.”  In the Torah itself, Shavuot is simply referred to as one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Sukkot).  It takes place after seven weeks of counting from the second day of Passover and is the holiday when the people would bring their first fruits before God.  Later, in rabbinic times, it became primarily associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  It has always struck me as strange that the other seminal events of our biblical ancestors were celebrated with a festival, but the original biblical holiday cycle had no holiday to celebrate what we often see as THE seminal event.  Why did the Exodus receive Passover and our 40 years of wandering in the desert get Sukkot, while the giving of the Ten Commandments/Torah at Mt. Sinai initially received nothing?

There are those in the world of biblical/historical criticism who point to this fact, along with the number of times in psalms and elsewhere in which the exodus, wanderings and entry into the Promised Land are mentioned without any mention of Mount Sinai to suggest that the giving of the Torah at Sinai was actually a later addition to the narrative.  This may well be true, but I am not here to discuss or debate the historical veracity of Sinai, but to see what me might learn from the” Time of the Giving of Our Torah” in this day and age from a mindfulness perspective.

In meditating on this question I was drawn to the word “our”, as in “our Torah.”  It is not simply the time of giving the Torah, but OUR Torah.  Traditionally, “our” means the Jewish people, the descendants of the ancient Israelites.  Tradition teaches that all Jewish souls that would ever exist were present at Mount Sinai.  All Israelites and future Jews were part of the divine-human encounter of which we read in the Torah itself.  This is part of the bigger picture of viewing the Jewish people as the Chosen People or as an am segulah/treasured people (the preferred biblical term), as it states in the Torah.

However, if I adhere to the belief that everything and everyone is connected within what I chose to call God, and that there is a oneness to the universe, then how can I believe that only certain souls were present for this mythic moment or that one group is chosen over another?  This is especially problematic if the underlying principle of unity claims that there is ultimately only one soul of which we are all a part and thereby no individual or group can truly be set apart.

When we look more closely at the narrative, we also find other “texts of separation,” as I will call them.  The men are commanded not to go near a woman for three days prior to the main event.  And beyond that, there were boundaries set around the mountain and the tribes were stationed in a specific way as well.  All of these together seem to have intentionally created a system of divisions and separations, even though the ultimate belief was that this event belonged to all of the people and their descendants, ad infinitum.

If this entire scenario were the creation of later authors who added it to the Torah, then I would posit that everything that created separation between Israelites/Jews and others, or within the Israelite/Jewish people, were created with a specific agenda in mind that was meant to reinforce the distinctions and separations which they purport were part of the original scenario.  As I said before, I am not going to discuss or debate whether or not the events at Sinai occurred.  However, what I am challenging is the way in which they are described.  For whether one views the giving of the Torah as mythic or historical, I do not believe that these distinctions are in keeping with what I believe is the Divine order of the world.  Therefore, I reject that they are part of the original narrative. And I reject the assumptions that they carry with them.

If I were to rewrite the Sinai narrative I would remove all of the distinction.  All of us would be standing together at Sinai, regardless of gender, sex, religions, nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, nationality or any other artificial distinctions we humans have created in order to separate and divide us from each other and from God.  Indeed, I believe we WERE all standing together at Sinai, each of us hearing the word of God, as we understood it.  Even the rabbis said that all at Sinai heard the voice of God “according to one’s own strength.”   And so one message issued forth, and still does today in “our time” and in each and every moment.  These messages issue forth from the time and place that we call Sinai.  It is a message of oneness and unity.  A message of peace, compassion and harmony.  But the divisions and distinctions we have created have caused the message to become garbled or incomprehensible to so many.  And so we imagine what we believe the voice to be saying.  And those messages we create are the messages of violence, hatred, and bigotry. The voices that destroy rather than perpetuate the Divine created order.

And so on this Shavuot, let us think of all humanity as an am segulah/treasured people, each person in their own way a treasure of God’s.  Let us not think of any group as chosen over another.  Let us instead observe this festival as the moment of the giving of our Torah – of everyone’s Torah.  The giving of the teaching and the message that belongs to us all.  In each moment we may hear it a little differently, but the essence is always what I mentioned above.  If we do this, then perhaps one day we will come to realize that our entire world is indeed Sinai, a place where the Divine message goes forth and unites us all in Shalom, Salaam, unity and peace. Amen.

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