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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parshat Naso - Beyond the Bitter Waters

The parashah/portion this Shabbat is Naso (Be'midbar/ Numbers 4:21 - 7:89 ). The parashah includes one of the most difficult and painful passages in the Torah, the ordeal of the Sotah, or suspected adulteress. According to the Torah if a man suspects his wife of adultery (not the other way around, since man could have many wives and have sexual relations with other women as long as they weren't betrothed or married to another man) he would bring her before the priest and there would be a ritual in which she would be made to drink the "bitter waters". This was a concoction consisting of water, dirt from the sanctuary floor and ink from a piece of parchment on which had been written the words of the curses that would befall the woman were she to be found guilty and which had just been read aloud to the woman and all those present. The parchment was then dipped in the solution. If the woman drank the bitter waters and nothing happened she would be declared innocent and the husband would have no recourse other than to take her back. However, if her "thigh sagged and belly distended," which many commentators interpret as not only stomach pains, but that she is rendered unable to bear children, then she is declared guilty and will be cursed among the people.

I have always found this passage to be troubling and perplexing because of its inherent misogyny and patriarchy. However, it is also troubling because I have always believed (as have others) that no woman would have ever been found guilty since the waters would probably do nothing other than make her a little nauseous. However, I think there is another way to re-read the ritual through a modern lens that almost (and I emphasize "almost") makes it seems like perhaps this was actually a way to protect and not denigrate the women involved. That was the basis for my first the poem/d'var on this passage,
The Sotah's Lament.

As a man, I have also tried to imagine, through a modern lens, what her husband might have been thinking as he accused her. I was quite aware that this might be interpreted as a man's apologetic response to a clearly misogynistic text, but I still felt in my heart that the man's voice needed to be imagined as a way of trying to perhaps find some way to reconcile ourselves with the text in this particular moment in time.  It was written in another moment and one can only imagine what was in the minds and hearts of the authors at that time. I can only try to look into my own soul in this particular moment and see what response arises.

In writing this "response" I tried to give the man a voice while also realizing that he is clearly the one who has all the power in this patriarchal society, and that the woman is clearly under his control (not to mention that of the priest). Yet to reduce the man to anonymity also means that he becomes objectified (though certainly not to the same degree as the woman). Both the husband and the wife are objects of the author that were used to send a specific message at that time. Objectification of a human being, no matter what gender, is destructive.

I ask you to  read my imagined "husband's response" with an open mind and in combination with the first poem.  Read consecutively these can provide us with one writer's imagining of what might have been going on within the minds and hearts of the man and woman involved in this ordeal.
[note: I have written this poem in one column in order to make it easier to read on the computer screen. If you want to print it up I suggest pasting it into your word processing program and creating two or three columns.  Otherwise you will have a ream of material]

the sotah’s lament

I stand here accused
of what I do not know

of betraying him
husband-master I am his
he is not mine     never will be
I don’t want him to be

he says  I am unfaithful  I must be cursed
I am dragged to the priest
hair unloosed offering in my hand
I hear don’t hear the words the curse
ringing in my ears
I don’t comprehend
I say amen    to what     to him    to nothing
his words thoughts accusations

why am I here       of what am I accused
I think to myself what will happen
will my belly distend thigh sag
unable to bear children his children

do I care
yes no
I want my children      not his
I want freedom to choose
man woman someone
anyone    not him
I want to be left alone to live

suddenly the cup is at my lips
I am forced to drink
bitter waters dirty waters
filled with words of curse  words of hatred
filling me with the same

I know nothing will happen
I suspect the priest knows as well
the goal of this charade is to convince him
of an unreal truth
to make peace between us
between two for whom
peace is a theoretical construct      not a reality
or why would he bring me here

I wish something would happen
better to be unable to bear children
than to have to bear    him    his    both

I pray to show signs of guilt
let him cast me out send me away for all time
so I can start again          on my own
to start      to be      on my own
someday perhaps
foolish       impossible
in this moment   I hear the verdict
I am innocent   pure
he looks at me relief disbelief
I look at him resignation frustration depression
I must return to him with him
to his home      not really mine
to continue the charade

I am my beloved’s    my beloved is mine
foolish words       never to be a reality
perhaps a dream for the future
a true messianic era
never to be mine

the sotah's husband

I stand alone waiting to hear
the words to be uttered from his lips
the priest silent watching waiting for nothing speaks
she is innocent pure I am in shock
this is not what I hoped to hear not what I wished for me

I was sure of what I do not know
of her guilt perhaps of my suspicions certainly
of God's justice I cannot say
was this real a dream a sham a ruse to bring us back together
us what is that I don't know
two individuals man woman joined together
by fate politics parents tradition forces outside of ourselves
I know she does not love me for I do not love her
for we do not know one another
two entities thrown together by others as always why

will it ever change
I do not know I do not care I just want something more
so I do what I am told I can do
I am the man in charge she is the woman with no control
I accuse the priest must listen
I watch trying not to feel anything
she is dragged before him hair unloosed
offering in her hand she listens hears every word
the curse is uttered
she opens her mouth drinks willingly
perhaps hoping for the same consequence

but nothing happens
she is proclaimed innocent she must return to me 
I must accept her
we must return    to live together      a farce
I did the only thing I could       I accused
she did the only thing she could         she obeyed
she had no choice        I did       I still do
I have the power to choose       yet I do not
neither of us can truly choose    of our own free will
but at least I can pretend

will any of us ever be able to truly choose
why ask foolish questions
why question what I know will not be changed
we return home husbandandwife     masterandservant
is that what God meant   by ezer k'negdo*
a helper    facing     opposite     opposing    me
a man shall leave his mother and cling to his wife
how absurd        how can I cling to a non-person
how can I cling to    anyone    anything
if only I knew then perhaps we could both be free to live
but perhaps that is too much for anyone to ask 
at least for now 

* in Genesis Chapter 2 Eve is referred to as an ezer k'negdo. Usually translated as a “help mate” it can also be translated as a helper opposite or opposing him

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Encountering God at Sinai and Today (a commentary on the festival of Shavuot)

In the Jewish calendar we begin counting 7 weeks from the second day of Passover. After the 7 weeks have ended, on the 50th day, we celebrate the festival of Shavuot (weeks). In the Torah this festival is simply considered one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, along with Pesakh/Passover and Sukkot. However, in later Rabbinic times, it became associated with the giving of the Ten Commandments, as this seminal mythic event had no festival of its own. However, it was not just the giving of the Ten Commandments that occurred at Sinai. For according to the rabbis of old, the entire Torah and all of its subsequent interpretations (referred to as the “oral Torah”) were also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In other words, all that ever was and ever will be said was given by God at that auspicious moment at Sinai.This year, the festival of Shavuot began at sundown on Saturday and either ended tonight at sundown or will continue through tomorrow at sundown, depending on one's custom.

But what does this mean? And what did happen at Sinai? I am not discussing the historical veracity of the Biblical account, but rather, the deeper meaning, or the Truth, behind the narrative. Last night I heard two fascinating teachings on Exodus/Shemot Chapter 19, which is the preparation for the revelation at Sinai. I am going to attempt to distill some of the teachings that I heard (it was late at night, so I wasn't as awake as I'd like to be) and provide my own interpretation of how these can apply to our lives today from a mindful perspective.

In the Exodus narrative, Moses tells the people that on the third day God is to come down on Mount Sinai and appear to them. When God does appear, it is amidst thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, blasts of the shofar/ram's horn. And God appears in a thick, dark cloud from which God speaks.

Using the rabbinic technique of midrash, whereby the rabbis would provide their reading of the text while answering questions, explaining apparent contradictions or filling in gaps, a conversation is created between God and Moses as well as God and the people. In short, the people are made aware that God is going to speak to Moses from the cloud and that Moses will relay the message from God. The people complain that they desire to hear the words directly from God AND that they want to see, and not only hear God! Such audacity! But, in this midrashic conversation, God ultimately tells Moses that God will indeed “come down in the sight of all the people on Mount Sinai.” The people will get their way!

However, in Exodus Chapter 21, vs. 19, after all 10 Commandments are uttered, we read that after the people heard and saw the thunder, lightening, smoke and flame, they proclaimed "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." And so the question remains, what did the people hear and what did they see? After all of their bargaining (as portrayed in the midrash) did they ever actually hear God's voice?

However, there is another account of the giving of the Ten Commdments at Sinai. In the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (Chapter 4:10-14) Moses recounts these events during his final orations to the people prior to his death he tells a very different story:
“The day when you stood before YHWH, your God in Horeb (synonymous with Sinai), when the Lord said to me, Gather the people together and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. And you came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, clouds and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. And God declared to you God's covenant, which god commanded you to perform, ten commandments; and God wrote them upon two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might do them in the land where you go over to possess it.”

As this text was taught by Dr. Tamar Komionkowsky, it became clear that what Moses was describing here was a very different experience. Rather than thunder and lighting coming “down” from the heavens and the cloud descending onto the mountain, here the fire, cloud and smoke are simply there. However, whereas in Exodus God promises the people that they will “see God's presence” (I know this is problematic, but I cannot address that just now) here is is made clear that the people hear the words, but they don't see anything. All they heard was a disembodied voice coming from the cloud. In reading this, it is important to remember that in Deuteronomy, Moses is talking to the descendants of those who were at Sinai. For that generation had died off in the intervening 40 years. He is also speaking to them as they prepare to enter that very land of which he spoke. So it is quite possible that these realities colored his recounting of the story.

As I listened to these teachings and tried to assimilate them for myself, the question that kept arising for me was not so much “what did they hear at Sinai (if anything)” or “which version is the 'real' story?” but rather, “why does it matter?”

The accounts of Sinai in Exodus and in Deuteronomy are different enough, and yet they point to the same truth, that Sinai is a mythic symbol of the human encounter with the Divine. For each of us the divine-human encounter is different. In fact, for each individual the experience is different from moment to moment. There is a midrash which states that each person present at Sinai heard God's words in their own way, according to their own strengths or abilities. In addition, another midrash states that all of our souls were present at Sinai. And so this isn't just a past event (whether one views it as historical or mythic). It is something which we have all experienced. It is something we all conitnue to experience. And each time the experience is the same, yet different.

And so, perhaps each of these different narratives or interpretations is simply pointing to a different possible way in for each of us to encounters the Divine in our lives. For some of us in certain moments, we want or need to see the fire and smoke, the thunder and lightening, but we don't want to hear the voice. We want stand in awe and fear of the unknowable God, or perhaps we simply want to maintain the sense of mystery. Simply put, don't want to know too much.

For others and at other times, we want to know God intimately. We don't want to get our God through an interpreter, such as Moses. We want certainty. We want to “hear and see” God. The smoke and fire, bells and whistles, etc. is all well and good. But what we really need is proof. Perhaps it is proof of God's existence or perhaps we simply need proof that we still have a relationship with God!

And for still others, the Deuteronomy narrative makes the most sense. We want some pomp and ceremony, the smoke and fire, but we don't need the descending cloud, the thunder and lightening or the blasts of the shofar. We don't need a top down, hierarchical experience of the Divine. In this case, the smoke, fire and cloud is enough. For smoke and fire may be awesome, but very much a part of nature. The blast of the shofar, the thunder and lightening, the cloud descending, those are all part of a heavenly show that is unnecessary. We want to find our God in something more accessible and imminent. We don't need or want to experience God's transcendence in order for us to experience God. As a matter of fact, to think of God as transcending this world, makes it more difficult for us to connect with the Divine. We want to experience the imminent and intimate nature of God as we find God in our world and in our lives.

In the end, whichever narrative or interpretation works best for us in any given moment, they are all about one thing. They are about experiencing the Divine. And the essence of this connection or encounter is pointed to in the final lines of the midrash in which God eventually promises to come down on the mountain so that they people can see and here the Divine presence. For this midrash concludes: “So too, in the future, Israel will see the face of the shekhinah (divine presence) eye to eye, as it is said, 'for they shall see eye to eye' and it is said 'Behold, this is our God, we have waited for God.'” (Mehilta d' Rabbi Shimon bar yochai, 19).

All of these versions of the story are about us wanting to experience God's presence and to see God “eye to eye.” But what does that mean, if God is not corporeal and if we are told elsewhere in the Torah that no human being can “look upon God” and live? For me this is simple, the eye-to-eye relationship is the relationship between human beings. It is in the intimate encounters we have with others that we find the Divine. Some of those encounters bear more resemblance to Exodus, with all of the storm and drama. Others are simpler and more “natural.” Some encounters require negotiations and others simply occur. Each encounter is different, yet each has the potential for being an encounter with the Divine. As we expreience the human and the Divine in each moment, let us not seek to evaluate or judge each encounter. Let us simply experience them as they occur moment by moment.

By simply being present with each encounter, we not only allow ourselves to connect more intimately and honestly with others, but we also experience a form of Divine revelation. That way in each moment of each interaction, we have the potential to encounter Sinai once again.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Parshat Be'Midbar: Sound and Silence

The name of this week's parashah/portion, and the fourth book of the Torah, is Be'midbar which means "in the wilderness"  (Be’midbar /Numbers 1:1 - 4:20).

A rabbinic commentary points out that if we change one vowel in the name of the parashah,  the word במדבר  be’midbar, in the wilderness, becomes be'midabeיr, or with one who is speaking.

I found this ironic, since the wilderness is usually associated with silence and solitude. However, we can imagine that the wilderness of Sinai and its surroundings must have been anything but silent, with the multitudes of Israelites and others wandering through it for 40 years.

However, we all know that even in the midst of a cacophony one can experience silence, just as one can experience deafening noise while walking in solitude.  What determines the silence or the solitude is not one’s physical surroundings, but one’s inner state.

This poem uses the two different readings of the letters מדבר mentioned above to explore these various images.  (Note: I first published this poem a few years back, but this is a newly edited version)

the wilderness of silent speech
silent    still   serene
filled only with sounds  of nature
wind rustling   brush blowing  sand      
animal footfalls   howls in the night
all whisper the truth     of creation   existence
a whole civilization   within this  wild expanse
humans go there    to be alone    at one   at peace
        so we think
for this is  fantasy    the ideal     not real
for us

our wilderness     is filled with people
is wild with sound
        joyous shouts
            words of love
    never with silence

for 40 years     give or take
we take what we have been given
            give back what has been taken
our life in the wilderness
alive with the sounds  speech words
creating and destroying
  people   life    worlds
     engulfing the silence
  creating a wild place of words
      filling it with cries of revolt
  it swallows up rebels
      with critical words
turning a sister’s skin white
    a chorus of complaint
filling us to bursting
words of mistrust
setting us wandering
words also  soothe    praise    comfort 
our grief over
    the death of sons
        of a sister and brother
            of so many

words decree the death of a dream
the death of a leader
the birth of a new people
the start of a new journey

and yet I wish words would cease
     filling the wilderness     and my mind
     emptying me of the ability
to be still   silent  alone  at one     with you
I want a  another wilderness
one without speech   words
damnation   praise     love   hate   comfort
I do not want   I do not need   any words
I need a sanctuary   not a wild place  
but a place  where I can hear
   only you   only me one and the same
            in the stillness     the silent sounds
       the whispers of the spirit
   hovering around   within   us all 
    in the stillness of the One

this is  what I long for
what we all need
    ye most do are not aware
for they cannot hear  the whisper of your voice
they can only hear    their own words
constant cacophony   constantly striving for everything
sound and fury achieving nothing

it is only in subtle stillness we can find   everything
only in nothingness  we can find the truth
the oneness of existence

now    in this moment
I wish we would all   stop talking
exile words from our lips
allowing us to return 
to the land of silence 
the true wilderness  of the soul
where it all began   where it all continues
where we are   here    now
present in the moment   within you
in your wilderness
we are home

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parshat Behar-Behukotai - With liberty and justice for all!

This week we conclude the reading of the book of Leviticus/Va'yikra with the reading of the double parashah/portion Behar-Behukotai (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34).  I would like to focus primarily on a concept found in the first part, Parshat Behar.  For in Behar, God gives Moses the instructions concerning the Sabbatical/Shabbaton and the Jubilee/Yovel

Moses is told that, once they are settled in the land of Canaan, every seventh year the land must "rest" completely. One is not allowed to plant, sow or reap at all.  No real harvest may take place.   The people may gather whatever grows from plants seeding themselves the previous year, but that is all. They are not to sow or reap anything. Just as the people need a rest every seven days, so too the land needs a Shabbat in order to replenish itself.

After the conclusion of seven cycles of seven years,  in the 50th year the Jubilee/Yovel is to be announced with the blast of a shofar.  Just as this week we are nearing the end of the counting of the Omer, which counts the forty-nine days between Pesakh/Passover and Shavuot/the Festival of Weeks, the parashah commands us to commemorate the fiftieth year as well. 

Eventually, the rabbis will come to associate the 50th day festival of Shavuot, with the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mt. Sinai. In Behar, we are told that in the fiftieth year we are to "proclaim dror/ liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof" (yes, this is where the verse on the Liberty Bell originated). In this special year all properties which may have changed hands during the previous forty-nine years are to be returned to the original owners. This is viewed by the Torah as a ge'ulah/redemption for all time. At the heart of this equality is a degree of equality between all people. 

When the people first enter then land, it is to be apportioned to the 12 tribes and then, within each tribe, to each family or clan.  Should anyone need to sell land for any reason, such as to pay a debt, it will revert to the original owner in the 50th year.  In modern parlance, no single person or family will be allowed to own all of the prime real estate. Just as the shabbaton/Sabbatical year (every seventh year) is meant to remind us that the land belongs to God and not to us, the yovel reminds us that, even when it may that we may "possess" the land, since it has been in the family for up to 49
years, it is still not ours. Each of us is merely a long term, but temporary, renter.

The one exception to the rule of the
yovel is that those owning homes in a city with a wall around it need not return the house to its original owner. They are not "redeemed." Rather, the "new" owner is allowed to keep the home. If the home is not in a walled city, it is treated in the same manner as the fields of the earth and the property is redeemed.

Rabbi Shmuel Birnbaum, of Vancouver, BC, gave a beautiful interpretation of this passage at a retreat I attended a number of years ago. He spoke of how, in our quest for personal, spiritual redemption, we must try to free ourselves from whatever is keeping us chained to the past and  preventing us from being in the present.  Old habits, behaviors, and thoughts often hinder us from feeling free or"redeemed. We each build a wall around our heart that prevents redemption from
  occurring. It is these walls that prevent God, and others, from entering our lives.

However, Rabbi Birnham also reminded us of the fact that a
shofar (ram's horn) was to be blown to announce the start of the yovel year. Later, in the biblical book of Joshua, we read that Joshua and his men blew the shofar in order to knock down the walls of Jericho so they could conquer it as part of their conquest of the land of Canaan. We too must find a way to tear down the walls that we have built around our hearts in order to liberate and redeem ourselves from our self-imposed captivity. 

For each of us this means something different. However, we must remember that each has the sound of the shofar within us.  For within our souls, we possess the innate ability to tear down the walls our ego has built so we can let God and others in. Even when things might seems most hopeless, we can all find the divine energy that flows within us and with which we can redeem ourselves.

But this also has an important message for us as a community, a country, and a world in the year 2012.  For during the past year we have heard and red of the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" in our society.  I doubt that there is anyone who has not encountered the "Occupy" movement or those chanting "we are the 99%" this past  year.  And though I do not usually enter the realm of politics in this blog, I believe that the spiritual truth in the Torah is also reflected in this movement.  The truth of which I speak is not that all the wealthy are evil, for to call them evil is simply to judge them and place a label on them, which is counter to the principles of mindfulness (and the values of Judaism, as I understand them).  For I am certain that there are people who do good things and people who do bad things within both the 1% and the 99%.   For the same reason, I do not believe that the message is that all in the 99% are good, righteous and just people.  Rather, the message that I believe is found in the parashah which is also at the core of these movements is that there must be equality in our world.  No one person or group of people should control everything.  That is not part of the Divine plan.  That is the work of the all-too-human ego!

The Torah does teach that there will always be poor on the earth (though we can certainly work towards transforming that in to a falsehood), but that doesn't mean we just sit idly by as more and more people fall beneath the poverty line.  We must fight for equity and equality as a reflection of the principle of equanimity that is at the heart of mindfulness and, I believe, of the Torah.

I am not saying that we need to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Nor am I saying that there should not be any wealthy, or that those who innovate, create and (hopefully) improve our world and our lives should not be rewarded for what they do.  I am enough of a realist to know that financial gain for the Steve Jobs of the world is part of the system.  However, the symbolic 1% should not be continually becoming richer at the expense of the rest of the society.  We are all responsible for one another and we all need to work towards a more just and fair world in terms of poverty and wealth. I firmly believe that this is what the Torah teaches and which the Prophets implored even more emphatically.  

In the second half of this week's parashah, called Behukotai, we read of the punishments that the people will incur if they disobey God's commandments, including those in Behar.  The text states that if we do not obey God's commandments our world will eventually be in such turmoil that we will run in fear from "the sound of a driven leaf."  

Putting aside the difficulties I have with the traditional theology of reward and punishment, I believe there is an important message in that verse.  For when we as a society ignore the greater good (which is how I am choosing to define "God's commandments") we allow society to run amok and spiral downwards. We then find ourselves living in constant fear.  We fear losing all we have. We fear  not being able to pay our mortgages.  We fear not having medical care.  We fear that we won't be able to afford groceries this week.  The simple basics of life have the potential to instill fear within us when the world is not in balance.  

And so, this week's parashah as a spiritual lesson that also instructs us in how to handle seemingly mundane or secular parts of life (the best spiritual lessons tend to do that).  It does not tell us what political approach to use, what laws to pass, what taxes to raise or lower.  But what it does tell us is that we must make the good of all, and the creation of fairness and equity paramount, even while acknowledging that there will always be poor and there will always be rich in our world.

This is an important message for us to keep in mind during the counting of the Omer - this special time of the year between Pesakh/Passover, the holiday of our freedom, and Shavuot, the holiday of responsibility (the giving of the Law). However, the fact that in a free society we all have responsibilities to one another, is a message that we must remember every day and every moment. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, may his memory be a blessing wrote, "in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."  Let us work towards the day when all indeed recognize their responsibility, but none will be guilty of neglecting it.  May we all find the sound of the shofar within us so that we can tear down the walls around our hearts and bring redemption and hope into our lives and into our world. May its sound be clear and strong, so that it pierces not only our own hearts, but also the heart of all people, of the universe and of God with it's call.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Psalm for Wednesday: Psalm 94, vs. 12

 Note:  I apologize for not being consistent with my psalm commentaries, I will try to improve on this.  In the meantime, we are still looking at the traditional Psalm for Wednesday.  I hope you find this meaningful.  spn

  לְהַשְׁקִ֣יט  לֹ֖ו  מִ֣ימֵי  רָ֑ע  עַ֤ד  יִכָּרֶ֖ה  לָרָשָׁ֣ע  שָֽׁחַת
[verse 12 - Happy is the one who is chastened by God, and those whom You teach from Your Torah,...]... may you grant them quiet from the days of adversity [or bad days] until a pit is dug for the wicked.

I have included verse 12 in this translation because in English it really forms the first half of the verse.  In my blog commentary on verse 12 (Dec.21, 2011) I write about the connecting the concept of  chastisement with learning a life lesson. I also related it to how mindfulness practice can teach us as well.

However,  I can't help but notice that, read as one long verse, it expresses the idea that learning Torah can grant us quiet from life's adversities.  But if Torah simply means teaching, then it is the teaching that we learn from the Divine, as flows through all of us, that brings about this sense of quiet and solitude.  It takes us away from the days of adversity or, as I prefer to call them, the bad days.

Connecting with the Divine through spiritual practice, connecting with the breath during meditation or connecting with other human beings through learning or simply through relationship, helps turn bad days into days of quiet, serenity and tranquility.  Or perhaps that is a bit too ambitious a goal. 

Perhaps the goal is simply to provide a moment of tranquility, which can then be added to another moment and another and another......   In this way, moment by moment we can hopefully create a day, and a life,  that is filled with serenity, tranquility and quiet.

Yet, the Psalmist does not say that the bad days will be gone forever.  On the contrary, if connecting with the Divine turns a bad day tranquil, then the underlying assumption is that there are, and will always be, bad days.

And yet, what is a bad day?  What is adversity?  These are words that we use to define a day or an experience that causes us discomfort, pain or even suffering.  And yet, as mindfulness teaches, these are all labels that we place on our experiences.  But through spiritual practice, we don't necessarily achieve the cessation of adversity, which is then replaced by tranquility.  Rather it simply that which we come to two realizations. First, that pain is an unavoidable part of life.  Second, is our need to label pain or difficulty as bad that turns it into adversity, and eventually to suffering.  

If we let go of the need to label and the need to hold on to our pain so firmly that we turn it into suffering, then we can find the tranquility and quiet that was there all along.  It was just being masked by the story of adversity, pain and suffering that our egos have created for us.

But what about the last part of the verse?  What does it mean to say that this will continue to happen until a pit has been dug for the wicked?  Can wickedness ever be abolished from our world?  Will a day come when murder, destruction, persecution and all those things that we consider evil will be no more?  I wish I could answer this in the affirmative, but I don't feel like I would be honest if I did.

For if human history has shown us anything, it is that the capacity to love and show compassion is only matched by the capacity to hate and destroy.  Having spent today in a symposium on the Holocaust, I am aware of this all too well.  For this was a time when suffering was not "created" by us holding on to our pain.  It was a time when suffering was objectively real.  Yet, we simply need to listen to or read the daily news to be keenly aware of this.  We don't need to look back into history to see that there is evil and there is suffering that is not caused by our egos, but by the evil actions of other human beings.

So what can this verse mean?  From a global perspective, it could be a messianic wish.  It is a desire that eventually God will bring about a time when all of creation will be filled with quiet and solitude.  It is a dream for a future that we can hope and pray for for, but also which me must work towards.

But there can also be a more personal way to understand this.  We can see it as a call to find ways of experiencing the quiet and serenity that we find by connecting with the Divine within us  and which connects us to all.  May we do our best through spiritual practice, reaching out to others, creating relationships and communities and making the world a better place for all.  For if we do this as much as we can, each moment, each hour, each day, then finally all of our cumulative efforts will create a place within which, the source of suffering and adversity can be buried.  

In this way, it is wickedness itself which is to be buried.  I will define wickedness as that which separates us from God, humanity and the world.  It is that which our egos create to bring suffering into our lives and the world.  But if we try our best through our personal practice each day to bring quiet and serenity into our own lives, perhaps it will eventually bring about a time when wickedness will be dead and buried.

As I write these words, I realize that I am speaking about the Messianic Era after all.  But in this vision, it is our individual and communal actions that eventually lifts all of us above the pettiness and quarrels of our egos, which separate us from the Oneness of the universe, to a place where the love, compassion, mercy and joy that is the essence of divinity and humanity divine will envelope us all.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: The Essence of Holiness

This week we read the double portion/parashah of Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-20). These two portions contain numerous mitzvot/ commandments, some of which make sense to us today, some which don't, and some which are totally antithetical to what we view as righteousness and justice. This includes the "holiness code" in chapter 19 which includes the commandment "you shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" as well as "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself."  This section is viewed by our tradition as the center of the Torah.  Indeed, it is actually located almost at the center of the scroll itself.                                              

Though some of the prohibitions in the parashah are problematic, at best, and abhorrent, at their worst, I am going to focus specifically on the holiness code of chapter 19 and ignore the problematic verses in chapter 18 and elsewhere.   The essence of this code is not simply holiness, but life itself. We are to be holy for God is holy.  We are to live holy lives because we are created in the Divine image.  We are to remember that we are all interconnected. All is One.

The name of the double parashah itself  is telling, if interpreted a little creatively.  Aharei Mot means "after the death" and refers to after the death of Aaron's sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu, who were killed by God for offering "strange fire" (see commentaries on Parshat Shemini).  Kedoshim means "holy ones".  And so the name of the parashah could be translated as "after death, holy ones."  After the horror of the death of Nadav and Avihu, the message given is not "behave, or else God will get you!"   Rather, the message is, be holy ones.  Even in the face of death, destruction, loss and tragedy, we must always remember to be holy, for we are indeed holy.  And our task is to bring holiness, love, and unity into the world.  

With those words as my kavvanah/intention, I offer this poem to you based on the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19.

Shabbat Shalom,



God spoke
to all then now forever
be holy be whole
be at one with me
as I am with you

be filled with awe at creation
for we are all creators
humandivine partnership
together we create each other
each day life anew

do not worship the many    or the individual
as if it were the One
lest they tear you away from the
truth the reality  the divine

offer gifts of wholeness and peace
to me      to you     to all
give freely to others what you have brought
do not attach yourself to what is yours
for it is not
hold on fast and it will consume you
turning holy into profane
shattering the unity
into broken pieces of illusion

the earth and all it contains is ours
share what you have been given
leave for others        give to others
all that is       belongs to      them us
to everyone     to no one 
for it is mine
as you are mine 
and I am yours 
for we are wholly
                                                                                                                                             do not steal  with your words
do not obliterate   with your speech
the holiness within and around you
instead     search your heart
discover love   uncover compassion
let loose mercy   upon all creation
without limits

pay attention  to those who do not follow the one
show them the way
help them to find the one      to open their eyes
that they may see me   in themselves     in you
in everything

do not hide your love
do not hate      those still unable
unwilling       to see
whose eyes and hearts  remain closed
whose fear prevents them
from being holy
from being whole
from being at one

love all others as yourself
love yourself as all others
for in truth other and self are delusions
all are One     all is love
completely    utterly    holy
that is all we need to know

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