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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Psalm 27: Seeking Strength , Seeking God

From the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, through all of the fall holiday season, it is customary to read Psalm 27 every day. Known as the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, it is a psalm filled with faith and hope.

The following is a line-by-line poetic commentary on the poem. Each line of the psalm is written in bold italics, and the poetic interpretation of that line follows. As we enter this new year of 5772, I hope and pray for all of us and our world, that we shall see an end to suffering and the beginning of a new time of peace and tranquility for us all. But it all begins with forgiveness and acceptance.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a Happy and Sweet New Year - to you, my online community. Thanks so much for reading my words and for allowing me to share them with you,

SPN



Psalm 27: Seeking Strength , Seeking God

The Eternal is my light and my life.
Whom shall I fear?

I am filled with fear
fear of self others the world life
fear of change of remaining the same
of moving of lingering

alone I am in darkness with God I see light
alone I fear death with God I find life

yet I still fear
I do not know who or what

at one with God
I can face the fear
I am not alone


The Eternal is the foundation of my life.
Whom shall I dread?


for so many years
I see me as
the center core foundation
the all of being

but that is not me
that is ego
cunning baffling tempting me
to forget it is not me
not self not I

at the center the core the root
but the divine
my champion my strength

I must remember this
when facing fear dread
creeping up within me
each moment each day


When evil-doers come upon me to devour me
Even my adversaries and foes stumble and fall.

forces of evil gather within
sent by ego
they bore into my soul
seeking to destroy undermine
convincing me I am not
worthy of God

but in truth god is within me
when I turn to you
the dark forces within turn on themselves
they stumble and fall

even then they are there
lying in wait for the moment when I forget you

If an army should encamp against me,
My heart will not fear.
Though war should wage up against me
Even then will I be confident.


I still fear
I still do not trust you are there
within me within others
filling the world my soul all creation
protecting each of us from enemies


I must remember

to keep my heart strong yet compassionate
towards self others humanity the world

One thing I ask of the Eternal, Only this do I seek:
To live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
To gaze upon Adonai's beauty; to frequent God's temple.

how do I remain

strong yet compassionate
resolute yet merciful
I ask you beloved
help me maintain balance
help me remember

I am forever dwelling within you
you are forever dwelling within me
your home is my home
your shelter my shelter
your heart my heart
your world my world
filled with beauty
divine and human together
same yet different
all is your temple your dwelling place
beautiful serene loving strong glorious comforting
help me remember this is all you
the true reality of the existence

For You conceal me in Your shelter

on the day of evil.
You hide me in the secret place

in Your tent.
You lift me up on a rock.


yet days hours minutes seconds moments arise
when it seems I can only feel evil
burrowing from within
attacking from without
causing pain suffering
my mind perceives only enemies
my heart feels only fear
under attack from others
under attack from me
my heart hardens to protect its self
to keep out others and God

in these moments protecting one
I seek your shelter
I find you within my heart my soul
in the heart and soul of others
breaking down the walls
I have built around my heart
hiding me from the forces that seek to destroy
hiding me from my ego the self that is not real
within your tent you hide me from these forces

you lift me up to realize

if I am with you and you with me
I need not hide I can stand tall
in full view of my enemies my self
filled with the strength of your glory
the inheritance of all humanity

And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies all around me; And I will offer sacrifices in Your tent

with the sound of trumpets I will sing, yes, I will sing praises

to Adonai.

in that moment I realize
I must let go of my self my desires my needs my will
I realize none of these are real
I have no strength no power no will

I surrender to the reality

all is you
I am powerless as are we all
in that moment
I sacrifice my self my ego my desires my passions
I feel power surging within coming from you
the call of the shofar arises from deep within
the place I had forgotten that the ego had obscured
shouts of praise arise songs of joy emanate from my lips
coming from my soul the divine breath within
praising the divine throughout the world
salvation has arrived
for this moment

Listen adonai when I call aloud.
Be gracious to me; answer me!

uncertainty and fear arise
as it always does
God will you hear me
beloved will you whisper back
compassionate one will I feel your compassion
merciful one will your mercy comfort me
gracious one will I receive your grace
your love overflowing unending unconditional
or will the conditions place on my self
that my ego slips into my mind and heart
cause me to disregard your answer to my call
to miss the experience of your love
always there waiting for each of us
help me to ask to find the strength to call to you

help me receive that which you are
always there to give freely to your children
help me hear the questions and the answers
within me coming from you


To you my heart cries out, to you

my face is turned;
Your Presence, Eternal One, I seek.


feeling the need within I cry to you
from my heart I look for you
often in the wrong places

the storm the thunder the whirlwind
clouding my mind with emotions and thoughts
as I seek certainty control once again
I must turn my face and heart inward
to the soul the source
the breath of life
to find you in each breath
the still small voice whispering
I am here
you are loved
we are one



Hide not your face from me.
Do not put your servant off in anger.

You are my help.

do not allow

my ego self-doubts self-loathing fear
to hide you from me
to hid me from you

do not allow

my anger my emotions my irrationality my ego
to convince me that you have abandoned me
left me alone disconnected
without help or support



Forsake me not, nor abandon me, O God, the One who delivers me. For though my father and my mother have abandoned me
The Eternal shall gather me in.


all upon which I have built
my life my self the foundation of my existence
what I believed sustained me
what I believed was me
is gone
I am alone abandoned
I have no roots no certainty
I have no stability no grounding
I am a blank slate
that is as it should be
moment to moment we start anew
what we thought sustained us is fantasy
what we thought was eternal is ephemeral
permanence abandoned begets the transient
from the ashes of confidence in self now destroyed
arises the phoenix of uncertainty ungrounding
disconnection from the counterfeit power of the self
I can now fly free
knowing that I am guided by god not the self
present not the past
awareness not vagueness
compassion not aggression
joy not fear love not hatred


Show me Your ways, O God,
And lead me on a just path
Because of my ever-watchful foes.


eternal one source of strength and compassion
guide me help me find balance
keep me on your path
for I know the forces that brought me down are still there
the ego my passions desires frustrations
lie in wait ready to pounce
waiting for the moment when I abandon you



Deliver me not over unto the will of my adversaries
For false witnesses have risen up against me
And they fume in violence.


help me to remain with you
remind me that with you is joy peace hope
keep me from the lies snares traps of the ego
the voices within calling truth a lie
and falsehood reality
seeking to do violence against my soul
to create chaos where there is peace
to draw me back into the world of
fantasy desire obsession
where I am at the center not you
where I believe the power is mine not yours
where the master of my fate the captain of my ship
are not mere cliché but perceived realities
that can beget only pain suffering disaster



If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of God,
in the land of Life...


had I not experienced the reality of your presence
your love compassion mercy guiding me
I would never have known what it means
to be truly alive
had I not discovered you within me and others
had I not heard your voice in my heart
in the words of others
had I not known that in each moment
I can experience your goodness
I do not know how I would survive
moment to moment each day of life



Hope, then, for the Eternal; strengthen your heart with courage,
And have hope in the Eternal.


hope
not for an imagined future
a fantasy mind and ego create
hope only in you
the eternal my beloved my source my strength

hope in you
not certainty in the world the self human beings

give me the strength the courage
to face the uncertain ever-changing
reality of life

eternal one grant me courage
keep my heart and soul open
to each moment
compassionate towards self and others
seeking peace for all humanity
in each moment
finding joy where it seems most elusive
experiencing divine love in each place each moment
so that I may embark on the path of teshuvah return

in each moment with every breath
bring me back to you
bring us all back to our source
today every day each moment
so we may do your will

now and always

amen

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: What Falls Down, Must Get Up

Dear online Hevre (community):

I apologize for this arriving during Shabbat. I thought I had posted it yesterday and then realized that I did not. For those who are unable to read it until after Shabbat, I am sure you can still learn something from it.

Comments are always welcome.

Shabbat Shalom or Shavuah Tov (a good week), as the case may be.

SPN

-----------------------------------


This week's Torah portion is Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30). It is one of seven parashiot/portions that is read as a double portion in a non-leap year order to assure that the entire Torah is read in the course of a single year. The parashah/portion is near the end of Moses' speeches to the people before he is to die. At the start of Parshat Nitzavim Moses informs the people that he is addressing his remarks to all those who "stand this day, before the Eternal your God. To enter into the covenant God swore to your ancestors. I make this covenant, both with those who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not with us here this day."

In the beginning of Parshat Vayelekh
, Moses warns them that God has revealed to him that, following his death, "the people will go astray and worship alien gods. They will break the covenant that God had made with them. Many evils will then befall them, at which point they will say to themselves, "surely it is because God is not in our midst that this evil has befallen us."

These two opening phrases seems at first to be contradictory. Yet, I believe instead that they present us with a tension that is an essential part of life. My teacher and friend, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches that life is a series of events that can be encapsulated in the phrase "fall down get up." I have intentionally not place any punctuation in this phrase in order to emphasize R. Weinberg's point that this is a continual process and not two distinct activities. For every time we fall, we instinctively begin the process of returning to where we were before we fell. Yes, it is true that after certain false, it may be difficult or seemingly impossible for us to rise, but our instinct is to attempt to do so as quickly as possible.

Yet, viewing this as a spiritual metaphor, we often get stuck in the prone position seemingly unable to lift ourselves up again. We start to wallow in the muck that we believe to be the true nature our lives. We fill ourselves with negative messages saying that we are incompetent, ineffective, incapable of doing things differently, or simply bad people. In short, we see ourselves as powerless and unable to change.

In the beginning of Nitzavim
, Moses is speaking to both "with those who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not with us here this day." He is speaking to all of humanity and we are all standing upright. As a spiritual metaphor, we are "standing" upright before God, we are fully present and we are aware of our connection to the Divine. We know that God is a part of us and that we are a part of God. We sense our connection to humanity and the world within that which we call God. This sense of connection then calls to us to take the next "step" on our journey. This is a journey of holiness, the goal of which is the betterment of God's world and strengthening the connection of all to God, self, and others.

With God as our source of strength, we embark on this journey. At this time of year, we also embark on this journey with a sense that we are returning to our "true" spiritual selves through the work of teshuvah
, the act of returning and repentance. However, somewhere along the way we are each destined to experience moments that are reflected in the opening lines of Vayalekh: "[in the future] the people will go astray and worship alien gods. They will break the covenant that God had made with them. Many evils will then befall them, at which point they will say to themselves, 'surely it is because God is not in our midst that this evil has befallen us.' "

In other words, somewhere along the journey we will fall down. At some point we will stray from the path upon which we have been walking. We will be distracted by "alien gods," or those things that appeal to our passions and desires, but which ultimately are destructive forces in our world and our lives. These forces separate us from the godliness within and around us. This sense of separation and alone-ness are antithetical to the sense of connection and at-one-ness that are at the heart of a spiritual life. They leave us vulnerable, depressed, dejected and certain that the future holds nothing but despair. It is in these moments that we say to ourselves "surely, God is not our midst."

For it is in these moments that we forget that God is always in our midst. God is
always within each of our souls. Rather, it is we who are no longer in God's midst, as if that were possible. By focusing on the forces that draw us away from God, it feels as if we are no longer standing in God's presence, even though God is always there within us. We have experienced the "fall down," but we are unable to continue with "get up." We are alone. We are forlorn. We are powerless. And we are not. For, in truth, we are never alone, even though indeed we are powerless.

Yet, the feeling of powerlessness is actually not a negative experience, though our ingrained habits and beliefs lead us to label it as such. For it the experience and acceptance of the powerlessness or our “self” or “ego” that then allows us to realize that there is a power within us that can lift us up after all. However, that power does not come from us, but rather it flows through us and has its source in the Divine. As it states in the first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, we must "admit that we are powerless" and then turn to our Higher Power (as we choose to understand or experience it) as our true source of power before we can move on.

When we are spiritually in balance and we fall down, we can get up with relative ease, even though it is still a painful experience. One might call this our `autonomic spiritual system' at work. For just as our autonomic nervous system tells our body to breathe without any thought on our part, so "fall down" causes us to instinctively "get up" spiritually when we are in balance. However, when we are in the spiritual state described above, when we fall down we then find it difficult, if not impossible, to get up.

At these moments we must not struggle to lift ourselves or "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," as the classic American ethos might tell us to do. Rather, we must simply lie where we are. We must pay attention to what is happening within and around us. We should not judge our situation or ourselves in a negative light (or any light, for that matter). Rather, we must simply experience the moment as it is, without judgment or commentary.

Lying there we can see ourselves as we are at that moment and we can experience our powerlessness, as frightening as that might feel. Then, slowly, moment by moment, we can begin to notice that there is something
else present within us and around us. That something is the Divine flow of energy that we first simply pay attention to, then eventually turn to, in order to give us strength to face the challenge of the moment and eventually get up.

As we prepare to enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah
/Return next week, let us remember that life is a series of these various types of moments. Some are "fall down get up" moments and others are "fall down, stay down, be present, and let God lift us up" moments. Both are part of life. Neither is better or worse. Both simply are what they are. In reviewing the series of moments that make up the year that is about to end, let us not judge ourselves for what has occurred. We each make choices that we might label as "mistakes" and choices that we might label as "good." But let us now simply see what has been, make amends for choices we have made and things we have done that have harmed self or others, and remember that in the end that we are all human, but that our ultimate strength comes from the Divine within.

If we do this, then we are prepared to take the first step of the new year and continue on our path of falling down, getting up, and everything else that we call the blessing of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

SPN

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Poem In Remembrance of 9.11.01

This poem is a work in progress. I have been working on it all day as I have watched the programs memorializing the events of 9.11.01. I am sure I will make more changes as time goes on. But please feel free to send me any comments you might have. I always welcome responses of all kinds.

Shalom/Salaam/Peace,
Steve


In the book of Deuteronomy we read of the ritual the people are commanded to enact upon entering the Promised Land. Moses tells people that they are to stand between two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal. As they stand in the valley, curses are to be pronounced from Mount Ebal and blessings from Mount Gerizim.


This is followed by the commandment for the people to utterly and completely destroy all the sites at which the other nations worship their gods in the land of Canaan (to become the “Promised Land”) and a warning that they are not to worship God in a like manner, but to "look only to the site that YHWH your God will choose" (eventually, Jerusalem, the “city of peace/ir shalom”), as the proper place for worship.

I could not help but think of this imagery of the twin mountains on this anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The imagery of walking in the valley between the two mountains also brought to mind the 23rd Psalm and it’s traditional translation “Yea, though I would through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For you are with me.”

I also thought of the commandment to destroy the worship sites of other nations in order to worship only in the place that God will command, the city of Peace, as I watched reports on the wars that have been raging since 9/11 and also the anti-Islamic vitriol that has become a part of the public discourse for some.

Keeping all of these thoughts in mind I tried to create a poem to express my thoughts and feelings in this moment. I hope you will find it meaningful.


between the mountains

between the towers


Walking between the mountains

between the towers of blessing and curse

wondering which is which

knowing each is both and neither

the curse permeates all

stench of burning flesh melted steel charred paper asbestos and fuel

the smell of hopes and dreams destroyed

permeating beyond nostrils

filling our souls as it empties them over and over

here in this valley there is no light no life

only deepest darkness and death

the curse is to live to survive when so many have died

true then and now

for those who walked that day between

the mountainous towers of blessing and curse

casting their shadow even after collapse

filling our world with putrid darkness

true for all who lived through the horror

and for those sitting glued to the screen

sorry we could not do more to help

glad we were far enough away from danger

at least for that moment

for ten years we have continued to walk through the valley

of darkness and light shadow and sun blessing and curse

still unable to know in each moment which is which

what once was seemed shadow suddenly bursts with light

what seemed a blessing now seems a curse then again a blessing

people things transformed in our minds through a mere word or gesture

gone are the days when it was simple to distinguish

right and wrong blessing and curse dark and light

if it ever was that easy

since that day when the entire world was immersed

in the valley of death’s shadow

when the obliteration destroyed all creation

the world again a formless void God waiting for us to reshape it

while in the same instance the goodness and godliness

of humanity of the world shone brightly through the darkness

on that day when humanity was at its worst

humanity was also at its best

as curses of hate were shrieked as evil ones sought to destroy our world

cries of blessings of love were uttered by those seeking to repair

from the streets the rooftops the mountains the world

those who survived those who cared

heard in the still small voice within all of us who cared

today the blessings still drown the curses

of those asserting that we must destroy

those claim that hatred can defeat hatred

for we know that it never can

as we walk between the mountains of smoke and shadow

we are called from above and within not to remain in the valley

but to walk through it on our way

to create a city country world

of peace and harmony love and blessing

the task is not easy

the memories of the days keep us stuck in the valley at times

but together we must continue to march out from the shadows

guided by the names the faces the souls

to the city of light and love that we are still creating in each moment

to the place beside the waters that restore our soul

enabling us to rest on the fields of peace

remembering all we have lost

being grateful for all we have gained

keeping the light of memories alive as new ones are created

one moment one soul one light at a time

Friday, September 9, 2011

Parshat Ki Tetze: Being Grateful for What We Have, Even Though We Know It Is Not Ours

This week's parashah/portion, Ki Tetzei (Devarim /Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19), contains the greatest number of mitzvot/commandments of any Torah portion. The 72 mitzvot found in the parashah focus on everything from the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, suspected adulterers and the poor. This amalgam of mitzvot may seem random at times, and yet there is a guiding principle which reminds us not to be indifferent to other people and the world around us.


One of the mitzvot
found in the parashah concerns the to return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. In reading, the commentaries on Ki Tetzei I came across many concerning this specific mitzvah.

One Hassidic tale relates the story of a man who came to the great rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl to tell him of a terrible recurring nightmare that he was having. The man had found a wallet containing a fortune. When he could not find the owner in the crowd he kept the money, and with it became even wealthier than he could have imagined. In his nightmare, the man to whom the money had originally belonged became destitute and had to beg in the streets. He died leaving his wife and children in poverty so that his children could not even afford an education.

The rabbi instructed him to find the man who had originally owned the money and give him half of the wealth he had accumulated. Once he did so, the man's nightmares ceased.

The other story is used as a parable to teach about this mitzvah
in a more indirect manner. In this Talmudic story (Ta'anit 25a) men carrying two measures of barley visited Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. They deposited the barley with him and seem to forget about it. Seven years later, the men returned to find that Rabbi Pinchas had sowed the barley and reaped great harvests. When he saw them, Rabbi Pinchas told them, without hesitation, to take everything from "your storehouses filled with grain." The original grain had belonged to them, and so did all that was produced from that grain in the future,.

In the first story, the man who found the wallet realized that he had profited from the loss of another. Unable to abide this, he was instructed not to return his entire fortune, but instead to share the wealth with the man to whom the money had originally belonged. In the second story, the grain was not lost, but it was simply forgotten. Still, in good faith, Rabbi Pinchas not only shared the wealth, but he handed all of the remaining grain back to the original owners.

Both stories operate based an underlying assumption that there is someone who is the "rightful" owner and someone else who is simply a "proxy" or "temporary" owner who must eventually relinquish not only the original property, but also all or part of what had accumulated. In principle, this moral is one to which we can relate. We must care for others as well as for ourselves. We have no right to profit from the misfortune, negligence or forgetfulness of others. Nor can we profit completely from that which is not completely ours.

These parables remind us that this is part of creating a caring society, just as much as the laws that protect the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger that we also find in this week's parashah. However, I believe that there is another underlying assumption within these parables that we should question. The assumption of which I speak is that the property is owned by anyone at all. In Psalm 24, we read "the world belongs to God in all its fullness, the earth and all who dwell on it..." In other words, everything on this earth belongs to God. Nothing is truly owned by any human being. An extension of this can also be found in the central teachings of mindfulness practice. For mindfulness teaches that nothing truly belongs to anyone and that nothing in life is permanent. Everything is temporary and ephemeral. We must rejoice in the moment, because that is all we have. We must rejoice in what we have now because we do not know if it will be "ours" the next moment, if indeed it ever was "ours."

We spend so much of our lives focusing on acquiring things, whether money, property, books, music, etc., etc. that we often forget to enjoy what and who is in front of us at any given moment. In both of the stories above, there was an assumption that something belonged to someone and therefore needed to be returned. Yet, there was also an assumption that nothing truly belonged to anyone, or else neither of the "finders" would have dared to profit at all or to keep – or return - any of what they had amassed.

I couldn’t help but think of this both as the 10th anniversary of September 11th approaches and as I watched the victims of the horrendous flooding in the areas of Pennsylvania that surround where I live. Those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and those who lost their homes and possessions in the flooding, along with all those who have lost property and loved ones in tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, learn this lesson the hard way.

The survivors of tragedy know too well the sense of loss, whether it is of the life of a loved one or of their property. This truly puts into perspective the need to appreciate what we have in the moment, for it may not be here the next. I am not equating these experience completely, for though the lost pictures of loved ones, of family heirlooms and even one’s home can indeed cause intense pain, yet the loss of a loved one’s life is clearly without measure.

These two stories bring to light an essential paradox in life with which we must struggle that I believe is also highlighted by the loss experienced by the victims and survivors of great tragedies. Given the nature of society as it has developed we must realistically focus on "ownership" and yet if we look at the grand scheme of things we really don't own anything. Those who choose to become monastic or practice a life of true simplicity give up everything except what they need to keep themselves warm and fed. Most people are not willing to do that, nor is that what I am proposing. For we are also commanded to rejoice in God's world and everything in it. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that everything is temporary, from a human perspective, while everything is eternal from a Divine perspective. How to enjoy what we have and who is in our lives in this very moment while knowing deep down that the next moment everything may change is one of the most common, yet most difficult, challenges of life. We all know this deep down. Yet it is tragedies such as 9/11, Katrina and the recent flooding that bring it home for us on a different level.

Therefore, we must continue to engage ourselves with things and people to fill our days, and theirs, with joy. We honestly do not know who and what will be here with us the next moment. Acknowledging the truth that everything is temporary can cause us to despair, if we let it, and yet we are commanded to rejoice in what we have and who is part of our lives at this very moment. We must participate in life with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might so that we can experience that joy.

May we experience this Shabbat and every day as the series of moments in time, which they are. May we be mindful of and experience all the joy that each moment has to offer. May we remember to be grateful for everything and everyone with whom we share each particular moment. And may we do so acknowledging that nothing and no one can ever truly belong to us, nor can anything or anyone be permanent and eternal.

Still, knowing this, and knowing that each moment will end, and a new one begin, we must praise, give thanks and rejoice for what we have. In that way we can honor God, humanity and the universe, but also the memory of everyone we have lost and all that we once thought belonged to us, even though we realize now that it never did.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Humility and Renewal: A Commentary on Parshat Shofetim and the Month of Elul

This week's parashah/portion,  Shofetim (D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9) begins with the command to appoint judges and legal officials to carry out justice within the newly-formed Israelite society and continues with a warning against worshipping other gods. The parashah then discusses the lawas concerning witnessing a homicide, the setting up of a judicial system and the appointment of a king once the people enter and conquer the land of Canaan. In addition, it also contains specific laws against worshipping false gods, child sacrifice, sorcery and divination, as well as following "false prophets."

In writing this commentary I was also aware that this past Wednesday was Rosh Hodesh Elul
– the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. This is the month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new Jewish year. Therefore, it was designated by the ancient rabbis as the time when we are to begin the process of teshuvah/return and repentance associated with the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Traditionally, each day during Elul, with the exception of Shabbat, the shofar/ram’s horn is sounded as a wake up call that we must engage in the work of return and repentance. In addition, the ancient rabbis also read the Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) as an acronym for the phrase from the Biblical book Shir ha'Shirim/ Song of Songs: "ani-l'dodi-v'dodi-li," commonly translated, as "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

Though in Song of Songs the phrase is spoken by a human being in reference to her beloved, the rabbis also read the entire book as an allegory of the love between God and the Jewish people. In this way, the phrase "ani l'dodi v'dodi li" can be read as "I am God's and God is mine." It is this relationship between God and humanity (or,in this case, the Jewish people), with love at its core, that enables us to turn to God and seek forgiveness.

Though in the past I liked this interpretation, this time there was something about it that disturbed me. I don't have a problem with the idea of a relationship between us and God, per se
(though the nature of that relationship is something with which I struggle constantly). Rather, what disturbs me is the possessive nature ofthe phrase "ani l'dodi …". For we are taught, in various Jewish and Eastern traditions, that nothing truly belongs to us, nor do we belong to anything else. When we believe that we really possess something or someone, we bring about our own suffering, and often the suffering of others. For once something belongs to us we often desire nothing more than retaining that which we think we possess. Yet, we many traditions teach that nothing truly belongs to us. One reason it cannot is that there really is no us and them, yours and mine.  All is part of the One, which Judaism and others choose to call God. So, if possessiveness is not beneficial for humanity, perhaps it is not good for the One in whose image we are created either?  Actually, if we are all part of God and God is part of us, the idea of either belonging to the other is just a fantasy.

In looking at the parashah
one can find examples of God's concerns for the Israelites (read: Jews) that are based on the idea of possession and exclusivity. All of the various laws, in this parashah and elsewhere, that forbid the worshipping of `other gods', the building of altars, visiting soothsayers, diviners and sorcerers,
and listening to "false prophets" are ways of saying to the people "we are God’s and we had better not cheat on God with anyone … or else." The "or else" according to the Torah, being death!

Of course, in a monotheistic system it is not surprising that deity should expect fidelity, or what I would call "spiritual monogamy." Yet the degree to which the
authors of the Torah focus on this, and on God's jealous nature, can lead one to believe that "the deity doth protest too much!"   It is as if God is almost irrationally concerned with the loyalty and fidelity of the people. And it is this concern and jealousy that leads God to behave in ways that might also be considered irrational were a human being to act that way.

Perhaps it is God questioning God's own commitment to the people that leads God to question the people’s commitment to God? But all of this can also be seen as the kind of  unreasonable and hyperbolic behavior that is brought about by the jealousy and suspicion that arises in people when one becomes possessive.

Both partners in a relationship do need to feel a sense of trust and security in the nature of their commitment to one another.  However, commitment is not the same as possession. In applying this to the Divine-human relationship (however one chooses to interpret it) it is difficult enough to to seek forgiveness from God, just as it is from a human being. But how much more difficult the task if we are unsure of the love, commitment of the relationship!

Conversely, as Abraham Joshua Heschel (may his memory be a blessing) might say, this is not only about our desire for God, but God also needs us in order to truly be God. Therefore, it might be that God needs assurance of our love and commitment in order to hear our our please for forgiveness and to help us find kapparah/atonement and taharah/purification when this process concludes asthe end of Yom Kippur draws to a close.  The relationship between God and humanity, and between humans, that is at the heart of forgiveness and return must be based on love, trust and commitment. But if it is based instead possessiveness, then it is doomed to failure.

However, the simple solution to this problem can be found through re-translating the "ani l'dodi v'dodi li
" True,  it can be translated as " I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine, " which implies possession.  Yet, it can also be translated as "I am for my beloved, as my beloved is for me," which implies a supportive, mutual relationship. This translation is much more in keeping with what I would view as the essence of relationship within Judaism, and within mindfulness practice across traditions. The relationships we have with other human beings and with the Divine are about caring and support, not about possession.  They are based on the oneness of all humanity and the universe, and not on the belief that we are separate, distinct entities.  Finally, They are constantly changing and shifting each moment due to the ever-changing nature of our essence, and not fixed and static in the way that those who seek possession and control of others might desire.

In this week’s parashah
, when the rules are being given concerning the future king, Moses instructs the people that the king must always study Torah throughout his lifetime in order to avoid arrogance and remain humble. The commandment to always study and connect with the teachings we have been handed down in order to avoid hubris is a commandment from which we can all benefit.  However, I believe this command also serves as a reminder that the king, and all people, are constantly and eternally in a relationship with God. This is what helps guide us on our journey through life.

The proscriptions against worshipping other gods, etc. and related offenses show us the jealous and possessive side of God (and therefore, of all human beings).  But this gentler prescription to study is more about reminding us that all of humanity, regardless of any “status”, has one primary relationship – the relationship with God.  That is, the connection with the part that within each of us which connects us to everyone and everything else.  This is something we must always keep at the front of our minds and hold within our hearts. We find this human-Divine relationship manifest in our interactions with others and the love we share with them.  We also become aware of it when we look within our own souls and see who we are and how all is indeed all connected. This is what allows us to face ourselves, others and God during this significant season of the year.

May we all have a Shabbat, an Elul, and a year, filled with love, support, introspection, growth and renewal.

Steven

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