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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Parshat Terumah: Allowing God to Dwell Within

This week's Torah parasha/portion is Terumah (Shemot/Exodus 25:1 - 27:19).  In this parashah, God begins instructing Moshe on how the mikdash, or portable sanctuary, is to be constructed.  A key concept can be found in the beginning of the parashah when God says to Moshe, "And let them make Me a sanctuary/holy place that I may dwell among them" (25:8).  The Hebrew word for "I may dwell" is v'shakhanti.  The root of this word is shin-khaf-nun the same as for the word mishkan, another name used in the Torah for the wilderness Tabernacle or sanctuary. 

It appears from this verse that the mikdash/mishkan is to be built so that God can dwell in the presence of the people.  Yet isn't God to be found everywhere?  Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah commentary, points out that the verb sh-kh-n connotes a temporary, nomadic dwelling, not a permanent home.  As we read elsewhere in the Torah, God dwells periodically in the mikdash/mishkan.  When God is not dwelling there, it is a sign that it is time to pack up the structure and the entire camp and begin traveling again. Another key word in this verse is b'tocham.  Translated as "among them," it can also mean "within them."  Many commentators notice this and focus on what it means for God to dwell 'within' the people.   

As Aviva Zornberg points out in her commentary, Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture,  the word does not translate as "among the nation [as a whole]," but rather, "within [each of] them" [i.e., the people].  The mishkan/mikdash is meant to represent the fact that God will be able to dwell within and among each individual.  Siftei Chachamim, a commentary on Rashi (11th century France), states that the mikdash is meant to be a "house in which there is a 'midst' to dwell."  Alternatively, as Zornberg states it, "a hollow core where God may dwell."  

In other words, the mishkan is an empty space awaiting God's presence.  Zornberg discusses at length the tension and contradiction of the concept that God is everywhere and yet can dwell within one specific space.  The image of the empty place within and God outside waiting to be allowed in is echoed in much of the language of the Biblical book Shir ha'Shirim/Song of Songs, where the lover (God) is portrayed as waiting outside the door for the beloved (Israel) to let God in. 

Furthermore, Zornberg discusses the paradox that it is the very absence of God that fuels the longing for God.  This longing causes us to be truly awake and aware of God's presence.  Zornberg writes, "To be awake, pulses beating, is to be aware of distance, difference, to yearn to open [to God] at the right moment.  That is, God cannot be inside if He is not outside, if the heart cannot imagine its emptiness."  She compares this to the work of Gaston Bachelard who, in speaking about the paradoxical relationship of warmth to cold writes, "we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors" and how, "...everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate."

When I read this verse, I stopped in my tracks.  All at once, the image of God waiting to come inside struck me in a way that it had not before.  I have long been familiar with the classic Hassidic dictum of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev that "God dwells where we let God in."  Yet, for the first time I began to sense the contradiction  at the heart of this quote. 

The idea that each of us is a mikdash "a hollow structure with the potential for housing holiness"is a powerful one.  Yet, it is up to us to allow holiness to fill the space.  It is only through acknowledging and being mindful of the emptiness within that allows us to sense the presence of God outside of us.  Without this sense of God without we cannot experience God within.  That is the paradox.  That is the contradiction that fuels our desire for God. 

As human beings, we cannot but help feel lonely, empty, isolated and depressed at various times in our lives.  Rather than focusing on the emptiness and wallowing in sorrow or fear, as many of us are prone to do, this paradigm allows us to shift our focus.  Instead of focusing simply (is anything about this simple?) on the emptiness inside and filling ourselves with pity we can instead allow the feeling of emptiness to call us to recognize what it is that is causing us to feel empty.  For it is the warmth of the Divine Presence around us that allows (or causes?) us to feel the cold of the emptiness within.  Just as feeling cold is the impetus for us to light a fire or turn up the heat, so the feeling of emptiness is the impetus for us to turn to God and open the door to let God in. 

The more we recognize the paradoxes and contradictions within, the more we can acknowledge what causes us to feel discomfort, pain or suffering.  The more we acknowledge those feelings, the more opportunity there is to recognize the opposing feelings that exist outside of our home/body.  If we recognize this we are not only providing ourselves with an opportunity to let the Divine enter our hearts and our lives, but we are also denying the ego its hold over us.   

For in reality, constant, single-minded focus on our internal struggles and emptiness is merely another form of ego-centered .  Even focusing on our feelings of insecurity or lack of self-esteem is a form of ego-centrism, for it keeps us focused on ourselves and prevents us from being mindful of God's presence.  It keeps us from noticing and acknowledging the paradox that then leads us to action.  Merely focusing inward on oneself allows us to delude ourselves into imagining that there is an internal consistency, even if that consistency is a feeling of emptiness or pain.  And that belief in consistency breeds ego-centered stasis, apathy and resolution instead of spiritual passion, desire and revolution. 

Through inviting and allowing God's presence to enter and take its place within our own holy dwelling place, we then discover the potential to go outside of our egos and ourself and connect with others and the world around us.  This does not mean that the pain, sadness, or difficulties in our lives will miraculously disappear.  However, the miracle that occurs when we allow the Divine into ourselves is that we can then begin to turn outward in order to connect so that we can give each other the strength to face the difficulties in our lives that we all share. 

The contradictions and paradoxes of our lives are the matter that fuels the fires and leads us to Divine-human interaction.  Without them, our internal mikdash is simply an empty space of unfulfilled potential.  To live one's life that way is to waste what we have been given by God.  To live one's life that way is to choose a living death over living life, selfishness over connection and emptiness over holiness.  To live one's life that way is to turn away God and to waste the precious gift that has been given to each of us, for we may never know what it means to have the Divine dwelling in our midst, even though it has always been there. 

Shabbat Shalom,
SPN

Friday, February 17, 2012

Parshat Mishpatim: Revelation and Revolution

This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus/Shemot 21:1 – 24:18). Following on the heels of the giving of the Ten Commandments (well, Ten Statements, to be exact), Mishpatim continues the Sinai narrative by listing the various additional ordinances decreed by God to Moses, which he is then meant to communicate to the people. 

According to ancient rabbinic understanding, mishpatim are the laws that might easily be obeyed without being explicitely commanded. In contemporary parlance, they are 'no-brainers.’ 

It makes sense that we should treat other people kindly, not murder and not insult one's parents (yes, that is included here as a follow-up to honoring your parents). On one level it might seem superfluous to even mention these laws, if they are based on common sense. However, we all know too well that common sense does not always prevail. Therefore, a reminder never hurts. However, there is much more to this parashah than simply reminding us to obey the laws that come naturally.

 In her discussion of the parashah/portion, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg (The Particulars of Rapture, Doubleday, 2001) analyzes the interpretation of Rashi (12th century France), which he bases on the rabbinic principle that the Torah has no necessary chronological order. Therefore, Rashi writes, these mishpatim were actually given prior to the Ten Commandments! He bases this on his interpretation of certain Hebrew words, but most importantly relates this to the response of the people to Moses after he relays the laws to them: "we shall do and we shall hear.” According to Zornberg (and Rashi) the people are responding to the narration of the laws that have existed from Creation until that moment as well as to the laws that are about to be given on Sinai. They will obey (do) the laws that exist and they are prepared to hear the laws that God is about to give them, as well as everything that will come after.

Two weeks ago, in my commentary on the splitting (or, tearing apart) of the Sea of Reeds, I discussed the need for us to make radical paradigm restructurings in our lives. These restructurings are a necessary part of the death/growth cycle that is life, whether we are talking about individuals, communities, nations or the world. In Zornberg's analysis, she writes that Rashi's reading of this text represents "a moment of existential meeting with God that is a precondition of Revelation. This is an experience of rupture: all previous history comes to an end, is written down, is read aloud and affirmed.” 

Furthermore, what Zornberg believes the people are affirming at this just moment before Sinai is what we would categorize as “natural law, by which all human societies protect and preserve themselves. In committing themselves to the Covenant [that has yet to be given], the people recognize that the force of these laws lies not in their pragmatic, conventional nature, but in the fact that they are the will of God. Moses narrates to them once again the old laws, the old story from Creation to the present, but in a newly sacralized form. Natural law is newly infused with a sense of relationship to God, the Creator, who desires these modes of behavior.” Based on this interpretation, the 'natural laws' are not simply 'no-brainers' based on pragmatism and instinct, but an expression of God's will. Perhaps this is why they indeed seem so natural and instinctual.

In the personal and political realms, especially in today’s polarized and extreme climate, much of the rhetoric from the extreme religious right concerning so many issues of civil law (but all of which seems to relate to human nature, especially sexuality) views these issues as reflecting natural, or what they see as “God's will.” We see this most explicitly in the debates over same sex marriage, abortion rights, contraception, and so on. In these debates of civil law, it seems that many on the extreme "religious" right believe that they know what God's will is, and that it is this will upon which we should base our legal system. They proclaim that homosexuality, in general, same-sex marriage, abortion, birth control, etc are against the will of God and the laws of nature. We were created to procreate and that is the reason for marriage and for sexual relationships. Therefore, homosexuality, birth control and abortion (though I realize that there are some people who only object to one or two of this trio) are simply wrong.

This argument has many flaws. Based on this logic one would have to question whether people unable to bear children should be allowed to marry or whether infertility should be a reasonable grounds for divorce. Though Judaism certainly emphasizes procreation (it is the first commandment in the Torah) it also accepts the fact that marriage is still viable and meaningful even when the couple has no children. Love and relationship is just as important according to many classical commentators. The argument that homosexuality is an aberration based on the "fact" that it does not occur elsewhere in nature has also been put to rest by recent research which shows that homosexual relationships do exist among other animals.But, this is really a red herring that takes us from what is the fundamental issue.  For none of us should have to defend ourselves against such spurious arguments. To do so only gives the critiques a validity that they do not deserve. 

Even the general argument is based on a faulty assumption (by some) that what the gay and lesbian community is seeking is “permission to marry” or looking for "special rights".  This is not the case. Rather, what is being sought is simply the acknowledgment all human beings have the same right to create sanctified relationships based on love and respect, and that all of these committed, sanctified relationships should be recognized and acknowledged as such.

However, the larger issue here, is that certain politicians believe that our laws should be based on their religious values. Of course, I expect that any politician who views themselves as “religious” or a “person of faith” will use their religious beliefs and faith to help them make their decisions. Yet, in the end religious law should not be the basis for civil law. As a matter of fact, as Judaism teaches, there are times when civil law directly contradicts religious law. In those cases, unless the civil law were to force one to break one of the more serious commandments, the law of the land supersedes religious law. But I digress (though only slightly!).

In Zornberg's analysis, she speaks of infusing natural law with a sense of relationship with God. It is our relationship with God, however one chooses to define it, which allows us to redefine our understanding of natural law. However, one must never forget that this understanding is based on the will of God, and NOT on the whim of humankind.

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that being left-handed was against human nature and a sign of immorality or even demonic possession. Only a little more than a century ago, religious forces in the United States were proclaiming that slavery was part of God's will and the divine order. Luckily, that was a long time ago! However, it was not that long ago that inter-racial marriage was viewed as contrary to God’s will and against natural law. The change in this perception occurred not simply because the laws were changed. Rather, the laws were changed because people recognized that this was not "the will of God" as they understood God.

It is true that both the removal of anti-miscegenation laws from our legal system and the eventual removal of laws stating that marriage is only between two people of the opposite sex are political and legal issues. It is also true that we have separation of government and religion in our country. However, as a person with a deep belief in God I cannot help but frame this issue in religious terms, even if the legal decisions must ultimately be based on the concepts of freedom, equality and civil rights for all human beings.

As the debate continues on all of these social, cultural and human issues, perhaps it is time to allow
a “rupture” to take place, as Zornberg calls it, so that we can receive our Revelation. It is time for us the American people, and all of humanity, to reach a new understanding of natural law that is based on what we believe to be the will of a Power greater than ourselves. The splitting of the Reed Sea allowed our ancestors to be redeemed, but it was the Revelation at Sinai that gave them the responsibilities that allowed them to be truly free.

In so many ways, concerning these and other important social and human issues, the sea has been split and we are safely on the other side (or at least some of us are). However, without the giving and
acceptance of Revelation of laws, freedom cannot truly be achieved and the people will eventually return to being enslaved. And this Revelation cannot occur until we first accept the new understanding of "natural law" derived from our encounter with the Divine, an encounter that takes place each time we interact with and relate to another human being.

The history that we have been given has been “written down and affirmed” even though we do not agree with, nor are we proud of, every chapter in the book. Now the time has come to accept the new definitions that will prepare us for this new Revelation. This revelation is one not based on the
chosen status of any single belief or group of people, but on the core Torah belief that we are all created b'tzelem elohim/in the image of God. We all deserve to have the same rights and we all must accept the same responsibilities.

I believe that this is the essence of natural law for us. It is a reality that we see when we look in the eyes of another human being and see their soul, and not their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, personal beliefs or practices.

We have seen numerous minorities and oppressed groups come to this understanding of natural law and then fight to help others to realize and accept it as well. Now the paradigm is shifting yet again for so many of us who have been denied full rights. The sea has split. The rupture has occurred. The people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, which is now beginning to smoke and tremble.

The time has come to write our new history based on the understanding and acceptance of what has been true of humanity since the dawn of creation. We are all one. We are all the same and yet each totally unique. That is our beauty. Once we recognize this then we shall be ready to receive our
Revelation. May this soon, happen in our country and throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

SPN

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Parshat Yitro: The Voice of Sinai Continues

This week's parashah/portion) is Yitro (Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23). It contains within of the central, dramatic mythic moments, when God speaks the Ten Commandments (literally, the ten utterances) from the mountain.  But the text is unclear as to what the people heard and what Moses heard.

There is a story about a group of rabbis who were arguing (what a surprise) about exactly what the people heard at Sinai. The first rabbi said that the people heard the first two commandments: I am the Lord and You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me (nor make any graven images).  No, exclaimed the next rabbi, the people only heard the first commandment "I am the Eternal, Your God.  That's all they needed to hear in order to begin their relationship with the Divine!'

Each rabbi claimed that the people heard progressively less and less until the final rabbi stated that all the people heard was the first letter of the first word of the first commandment. That letter 'aleph' is silent. However, the rabbi taught, it is not merely silent, but it is the beginning "no-sound" that
precedes speech. In other words, the aleph that the people "heard" was the "no-sound" sound that begins God's conversation with us - and ours with God.  That is the teaching behind this poem that I would like to share with you.

Some of you have read this poem before, but I have edited it yet again, as I feel so many of my poems, are always evolving.  And so I hope that this current version  begins a new conversation between each of and the Divine, however you choose to define, experience or understand it.


Shabbat
Shalom,
SPN
The Conversation Begins

we stand beneath the mountain
the ground    our bodies   shaking    quaking
we see the thunder  
    the voices  of God
we not only hear     but see  God's voice
reaching  our soul
becoming part of us
reality shifts
we see the world   differently
see what before      we could only hear
see what before    was beyond our perception
see  within  ourselves
feel within  our souls
the voice   essence    of God

what is this voice
I cannot tell
I think   I know
     it is me
but you say   you know
    it is you
and you say   you know    it is
child    mother    father     friend
comforting     frightening      challenging       compassionate
yet within we each know
it is none    it is all     of these


I stand here frozen
fear    terror     joy
  in liminal space
on the boundary between the realms
     of divinity and humanity
  
I cannot move
I cannot speak
I can only   hear   feel   sense
I know not exactly what

a voice
     that is no voice
a word
     never uttered word
only thunder and lightning
a barely perceptible deafening whisper

I hear the aleph
the no-sound sound
beginning of a conversation
the contents I do not know
I only know
that it is real true
more than anything 
I have    will ever   experience

strange
the deepest truth
cannot be heard    or truly known
still
I hear  I know  in my soul
what it is

we stand at sinai
long ago        this moment
hearing the lightning  
Feeling the earth    my soul   quake
we listen for the voice
trying to discern what it says
in this moment

that is our task
our holy work      each and every day
to delve in   to decipher the sound and meaning 
    of the aleph
the no-sound sound
the beginning   with no end
infinite continuation
of the conversation
with God   world   all existence
returning us once again to sinai
though we have never left it
it has never left us
etched on our souls
engraved on our hear
we are one with it     and it with us
for all eternity

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Parshat Beshallakh: Creating Miracles


This week's parashah, Beshallakh (Shemot/Exodus 13:17-18:1) contains within it the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds. At first glance, this is a story of God redeeming the people through the performance of a miracle. In the narrative, the role of the people is clearly secondary to that of God. Nevertheless, there is some human involvement in the miracle. When Moses prays to God for deliverance at the shore of the sea God responds, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground."

We also read in a midrash (rabbinic legend), the rabbis tell us that God splits the sea because one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, walks into the sea first, rather than waiting around for God. Nachshon acts. He takes matters into his own hands. God sees this and tells Moses that it's time for him to lead the people through the sea. Therefore, even though this is the story of a Divine miracle, without human action, the miracle might not have taken place. The mystical tradition of kabbalah teaches that our actions can affect the Divine realms. Or one might say that a miracle happens when human beings connect with the Divine that is within and around us. However one chooses to frame it, I believe that the splitting of the Sea reminds us that miracles require a degree of divine-human interaction. In fact, it would seem that the Divine cannot enter our life if we do not act first, nor is there a reason for God to enter our life if we do not first make it known that we have some desire for this to occur. This is reminiscent of Hassidic rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's dictum that “God dwells where we let God in.”

The image of the splitting and crossing of the Sea is a powerful one that contains a multitude of truths and meanings within it. Each of us faces seas that we must cross in our lives. We each face obstacles that seem insurmountable. Yet, when we stand before our own Sea of Reeds, our own challenges, we know that we must either cross the sea or perish.

In order to do so we must take the first step. We must walk or leap into the sea as did Nachshon. We must raise our arms and stretch forth our staff, like Moses, showing the strength within us, in order to split the sea. Either action shows not only our desire for a miracle, but the trust that God will deliver one. The Hebrew phrase for the splitting or tearing of the sea is k’riyah. This same word also describes the act of tearing a garment when a loved one dies. Here it symbolizes a tear in the fabric of our lives that can never be completely mended.

The splitting of the sea is a tearing in the fabric of nature. It is a radical action which reminds us that what we assume to be permanent and unchanging can indeed change. One could call this a paradigm shift, but 'shift' is not radical enough. For the splitting of the sea symbolized a total obliteration of the old paradigm and the creation of a new one. But even after the tearing is “repaired,” anyone who witnessed it knows that its effects remain. On the surface, the sea may look the same, but beneath it is not. If we look closely and pay attention we can actually see the almost imperceptible traces of the place where the waters were torn apart and the natural order was turned upside down before our very eyes. So when we look at our sea before us it reminds of what happened, just as when the Israelites looked at the now calm sea, they knew that the Egyptian soldiers lay dead just beneath its surface.

As we look at our own “seas” after they have been torn apart we are reminded the parts our lives that needed to die in order to bring about our redemption. We must mourn the loss of these forces, ideas, habits and desires, just as a midrash teaches that God mourned the death of the Egyptians. For these too were a part of us, even if they did keep us from growing.

The crossings of the sea is a difficult process. Change often is. There will indeed be many dead left on the floor of the sea after it closes. Sometimes the process takes longer than we had hoped. Yet, with faith, we can remain confidant that the redemption will occur and that the crossing will be successful.

Each moment provides an opportunity for the sea to be torn apart. At times it takes great human effort, at other times it simply seems to happen on its own. In either case we need to watch and pay attention so that we do not miss the splitting. For just as quickly as the sea splits, it can close up again, and if we did not pay attention enough to see it split we will never know that it did. We often live much of our lives as consecutive moments of oblivion trying to avoid these moments of change – and pain. Perhaps we believe that if we do not pay attention the sea will never split and all will always be as it was. Perhaps we are simply so caught up in the minutia of our lives that our oblivion unintentionally takes over because of our lack of attention to what is really happening. No matter the reason, ignoring the changes that take place does not prevent them from occurring. Lives change, the world changes, seas get torn apart every moment. Noticing this can cause uncertainty or pain, but ignoring this reality is what will eventually cause true suffering.

This scenario does not only work for us as individuals, but as a community or even a nation as well. As we face one of the most difficult economic times in recent history, as well as difficult societal battles which are being fought, we are each provided the opportunity to choose how to act in each moment.

May we each face our seas, individually and communally, with faith, even in the midst of fear. May we pay attention to the changes happening in each moment and continue to praise creation even as it constantly changes and shifts around and beneath us. Together with God, may we create a world filled with love and compassion for all humanity as we collaborate to create miracles and make the world better for all.

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