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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A prelude to Rosh Hashanah

The joyous, introspective time of soul searching begins at sundown tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.  As we light the candles to welcome the holy day, it is good to remember that bringing light where there is darkness first requires darkness.  And seeking forgiveness means there are things for which we need to be forgiven.  May we all do our best to bring in the light, forgive ourselves, forgive others and seek forgiveness from those whom we have harmed and from God.
L'shanah tovah,
A good year to you all

Rekindling the flame:  a poem for the evening of Rosh Hashanah

we come together tonight  

as one community

extended family in celebration

apples and honey
wine and challah
fill our bellies
gladden our spirits

candles glow
flickering beacons
illuminating the room and our souls

then suddenly
candles are extinguished
some unknown force seems to
plunge us
the world around us
into darkness
I am terrified
feeling alone in the dark
yet I know I am not

standing still silent

I hear
the breath of others
of my self
of the divine spirit
surrounding me
comforting me

I hear a voice coming from within and around
do not be afraid
you are not alone
you are never alone

waiting for the light to return
I remember I hear
my mother’s voice my father’s voice
the voice of all who came before
my voice
the voice of all yet to come
echoing God's voice
do not be afraid
you are not alone you are never alone

yet I still am alone
even as I am not
in this deepest darkness
the absence of light
but so much more
a darkness you can feel you can touch

immersed in the darkness
you begin
to feel
your light
your soul
into the void
black hole

afraid of what lies ahead
you scream
where is the light
who has a match
who can help
there is no response
just breath darkness fear

just breathe

sitting there
afraid alone silent

and feel all of this
and more

then with each breath
something shifts slightly within
you hear a voice saying
breathe out fear
breathe in peace
breathe out rejection
breathe in acceptance
breathe out separation
breathe in unity

nothing about
peace hope tranquility perfection
self help books
cannot prepare you
for this for this is felt not merely written
this is experience not simply theory
this is for real
yet it is something new and yet ancient
hidden deep within the soul

what is it
don't ask don’t think don't question
just be listen experience know

breathe out fear
breathe in sadness

wrong answer
perverse alchemy
turning fear into sadness
shouldn't it become
something else
comfort certainty joy
the essence of the holiday
the goal of living
or so you have been taught so you have thought

in the stillness the silence the darkness
continue to pay attention
notice what is in the moment
still with each breath
as fear dissipates
sadness increases

but this is wrong this is not what is meant to happen
it is not what I was taught not what I was prepared for

but then you realize as you breathe in the darkness
this is simple what is the truth

in the darkness you have dug down
to the roots of sadness
the realization of
what is still undone
what is finished
what will never be
what was
who you are
who you are not
what you have accomplished
what you have neglected
the realities of existence
this is a holy moment
holy day holy time
as is every moment every day every time
if we simply allow it to happen

for just a moment
your breathing stops
instead of air you let out a cry
a scream a wail
replaces the breath
it surrounds and envelopes
all that is
reaching outward
to the ends of the universe
calling out to the divine
the still small voice within

tears flow without ceasing
you are afraid that this flood of tears
will obliterate you your world everything
God said never again the rainbow in the sky reminds us
of God's unbreakable covenant to humanity
yet you fear this flood of human tears
could destroy all as God did once before

inside the soul
where once there was breath
there is nothing
where moments ago
you thought there was joy

all you can feel is this overwhelming
frightening threatening sadness

in that moment when you finally allow yourself
to feel the sadness the hurt the fear the loneliness
suddenly your heart your core your soul
shatters completely
your heart is broken
and God is the only one who can
heal those who are truly broken hearted

experiencing all this suddenly
the candles reignite
their flames now reaching to heaven
their glow filling your soul
you realize now that you are home
you have returned to the one
to yourself to the world
to family to community

you know that the sadness all too real
can be healed
in the meantime it is what helps you grow

realizing this
now you are ready
to change to be to do
to connect with the world
with others known and unknown

now you are ready to bless
the flame the holiness of the day
now you can approach the divine
and celebrate the truth
as you recognize feel acknowledge
the joy awe wonder
of living in this moment
or it is all we ever have

let us rejoice
let us accept
let us be
what who we are right now
regardless of whether it I who we thought we would be

let us gather to celebrate a beginning
an ending
a beginning
the moment
whatever it may be

and so we bless the flames and the moment

blessed are you Eternal One
who has given us life and the ability to live
who has sustained us enabling us to see the reality of existence even when it may seem too much to bear
and has brought us to this moment whatever it may be
however we may feel we acknowledge that it is simply
a gift from you
and for this we celebrate

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Parshat Ki Tetzei: Share the Wealth (it's not ours to begin with)

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 such diverse issues as 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 is that we must return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. There is a Hassidic tale which relates to this mitzvah. In the story there was a man who came to the great Rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl to tell him of a terrible recurring nightmare that he was having. In the nightmare the man found a wallet containing a fortune. When he could not find the owner in the crowd he kept the money; 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 the man to find the one 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.

There exists another parable which teaches 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 seemed 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 "take everything from your storehouses filled with grain."  For Rabbi Pinchas, since the original grain had belonged to them, so too did all that was subsequently produced from that grain

In the first story,  the man was unable to abide the fact that he had profited from the loss of another. He was then 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, Rabbi Pinchas knew immediately what he was to do.  Pinchas didn't simply share the wealth, but he handed all of the remaining grain (ie, the profits) 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 the original property, as well as all or part of what had accumulated. Both stories remind us that 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.  They also remind us that following these teachings 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
However, there is another assumption underlying these parables, as both seem to be based on the belief that the property is owned by anyone at all. Yet, 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 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 amass.
In writing this, I couldn't help but think of the survivors of personal or communal tragedies.For their losses, truly puts into perspective the need to appreciate what we have in the moment, for it may not be here the next.

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 significant and unavoidable challenges of life. 
Acknowledging the truth that everything is temporary can cause us to despair, if we let it, Yet, we are commanded to rejoice in all we have and everyone who is part of our lives at this very moment. Therefore, we must participate in life and in bettering God's world 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, And we can 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.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Parshat Eikev: Finding our Place within God

In this week's parashah/portion is Eikev (D'varim/ Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25), Moses continues to address the people in preparation for his death and their entry into the land of Canaan. He recounts for them what occurred at Sinai, including the incident of the Golden Calf. In addition, he continually reminds them of the blessings that they will receive from God if they obey the commandments and the curses that shall befall them if they do not. He then recounts the miracles that God performed for them in the desert and the promise that God will slowly, but surely, dislodge the inhabitants of Canaan so that they can inherit the land promised to their ancestors.

For my commentary I would like to focus on two specific passages:

1) "Remember the long way that YHWH, your God, has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might afflict you as a test in order to discover what is in your heart and whether or not you would keep God's commandments." (8:2)

2) "If you keep all of this instruction (mitzvah) that I command you, loving YHWH your God, walking in all God's ways, and clinging to God, then God will drive out all of these [other] nations from before you: you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you. Every place/kol ha'makom upon
which your feet travel shall be yours, from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River - the Euphrates - to the Western Sea (the Mediterranean).
No person shall stand up to you: YHWH your God will put awe and fear over the whole land which you traverse, just as God has promised to you." (11: 22-25).

This parashah, and these verses in particular, are about journeying. The people are reminded of the long, strange trip they have traveled over the last 40 years. This journey was viewed initially as a punishment for their parents' generation, because they did not trust God and instead listened to the 10 spies who told them that they could not conquer the land. But 40 years later, the years are described as an ordeal, a test, to see whether or not this new generation of Israelites would follow God's ways. More than that, it was a test to discover what was truly in their hearts.

In the Hebrew it is unclear who is discovering what is in the people's hearts. Was it God or the people themselves making the discovery? Does it matter? Is there a difference? For when we discover the true contents of our hearts and souls then our true nature becomes known to us. In becoming known to us it also becomes known to God, to the Divine within us.

There is an ancient concept in Judaism called isurim shel ahavah/punishments out of love. This essence of this concept is that God sometimes causes us to suffer out of love for us, in order for us to learn a lesson or to become better people. This is akin to a parent causing a child to endure suffering or pain "for his/her own good" in order to teach a lesson.

As a spiritual teacher and human being I have difficulty with the concept of a God that would cause us to suffer in order to teach us anything. As a parent, I am equally troubled when anyone tries to apply this concept to the parent-child relationship, or any relationship!

However, in reading this verse again, I believe that it contains within it an important instruction for living. This instruction is to remember that all of our wanderings, all of our pain, all of our difficulties in life can help us discover what is truly in our hearts. The origin of pain and difficulty is not God, per se, but simply the reality of life. However, the suffering that sometimes arises from our pain is something we create ourselves. By obsessively focusing on the pain, not letting go of it, or through reacting to it in ways that are not productive or helpful we can turn our pain into suffering. Yet, ultimately the pain and suffering, the feeling of wandering and being lost, can also help us discover our true essence, if we let it. We simply need to pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that arise within us.

The second passage cited above can be viewed as instructions for walking our individual and communal journeys through life in a way that allows us to experience what is within our hearts, rather than simply wandering aimlessly. However, these instructions are conditional. If we follow them, then the desired results will happen. If we love God, walk in God's ways and cling to God, then we are on the right path. If we don't, then the opposite will occur.

We must bring love into God's world and to God's creation, whether human or not; we must listen to the voice of God within us that guides us down the path of right action (including speech, deeds and thoughts). We must cling to God, remembering that the only thing that is permanent in this world is God. Therefore, clinging to anything or anyone else means we are clinging to something temporary and ephemeral. And if we grab on tightly to impermanence, whatever we hold will eventually slip from our grasp and we will suffer once again. But if we try to reach these goals outlined in this portion moment-by-moment, one step at a time, then we will ultimately find reward in the results.

Yet, what are the results? The text tells us that other, seemingly more powerful nations, will be displaced. The people will run away in fear and awe. In the allegory that I am proposing, these other nations can represent the potentially damaging forces within and around us, which can seem so strong at times, but which will disappear if we follow the right path.
The feelings, such as fear, hatred, insecurity, or jealousy are the "other nations" ready and able to destroy our heart and soul, if we allow them to gain control. However, as with everything, this state too is not permanent. For if we connect with the source of compassion within us, then we can vanquish them from the place where we find comfort, connection and strength from the Divine. Yet, this victory, or this state of connection is also not permanent. The forces of the ego, which desires us to put ourselves before anything else, can pull us away from connecting with others and from God. And they are always there lying in wait and ready to return and attack whenever we give them the opportunity by losing our sense of interconnectedness.

However, if we are in relationship with the Divine spirit, which permeates our world and our lives, then we can see and experience the truth of these forces of the ego. We can then put them in the proper perspective, so they can no longer harm or hinder us. And then we may take the next step on our journey..

This is a process that we have go through repeatedly as we journey through life. It is a process which brings about growth. It is an integral part of what it means to live a life guided by the Divine. It is essential if we are to feel that sense of interconnectedness with the universe.

If we allow ourselves to face these "other" forces (that are truly not other) and then displace them we are then told that "every place/kol ha'makom upon which your feet travel shall be yours, from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River - the Euphrates - to the Western Sea (the Mediterranean). No person shall stand up to you: YHWH your God will put awe and fear over the whole land which you traverse, just as God has promised to you."

What struck me about this verse was the use of the word "ha'makom." Though this literally means "the place" it is one of the names for God found throughout classic rabbinic (post-biblical) literature. For God is “the place” of the world. All of the universe is contained within God. If we read this verse using both meanings simultaneously then the text is saying that, if we do all of these things, wherever our we stand at any given moment becomes a place where we can experience the Divine. In every place/kol ha'makom we have the potential to discover and experience God/ha'Makom.

When our feet take us to the wilderness, the barren places where it seems that there is nothing but emptiness and distress, we can find God. When we travel to Lebanon, biblically seen as the place of hills and strong cedar trees, a place where it seems that all is majestic, strong and secure, perhaps making us feel insignificant in contrast, we can find God. If we are swimming in the river, ever changing, ever shifting, pulling us along in its current whether we want it to or not, we can find
God. And when we are standing at the shore of the Sea, experiencing at once the beauty of its existence and it's vast, unknowable power and its depths, we have the ability to experience that place as The Place, as God.

As we take each step in our lives we must stop and experience the moment. We must pay attention to the hand of God guiding us, through the guidance we receive from others and from within ourselves. We also must embrace God with all our heart, all our soul and all our might. If we do this, then in any moment we can face the fear and uncertainty. When we face and acknowledge them, they can no longer block our path or pull as away from our connections. It is then we can recognize the Divine within ourselves and our world. It is then we can understand what it means to be present in ha'Makom ... the place where we are at one with ourselves, others and the world. The place which we call God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Parshat Va'etchanan: Listen and Remember.......Hear and Embrace

This week's parashah/portion is Va'etchanan (Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11). This portion contains within it some of the central ideas and texts of the Torah and of all of Judaism. The portion begins with Moses saying to the people: “And I pleaded [va'etchanan] with God at that time....” The time of which he is speaking is when he pleaded to God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land together with the people. God had forbidden Moses to enter the Land and Moses pleaded with God to be allowed to cross over the Jordan River with the people. But God did not grant Moses's plea. And so now Moses is speaking to the people as they prepare to be led across the Jordan by Joshua. And so, Moses begins to recount what happened during the 40 years of wandering. For those about to cross into the Land were either children or not yet born when the journey began some 40 years earlier. 

The words of the parashah reminds the people that the Eternal is the only God in heaven above and on earth below and that they must observe God's mitzvot/commandments. Moses then recounts the mythic events of Mt. Sinai and recites to the people the words of what we call the 10 Commandments, but which in the Torah itself are referred to only as the 10 “Words” or “Utterances.” However, d'var, which means word or utterance, can also be translated as “thing,” reminding us of the reality that words can often take on a life of their own.

Finally, towards the end of the parashah we find what has been called by some the central tenet or watchword of Judaism, the Shema and V'ahavta: “Hear, oh Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One” and “You shall love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your being...” 

These words are to be taught to our children wherever they might be and are to be recited upon rising and when going to bed (as is still the custom today). And they are to be “bound as a sign upon your arms and as a symbol between your eyes; and they are to be written upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” These customs also continue until the day when Jews wrap tefillin, leather straps with small boxes containing parchment with these words written upon them, on their arms and on their forehead and when Jews affix a mezuzah, a small container with similar parchment within them, on the doors of our homes.

Throughout the parashah, the themes of hearing/listening/ paying attention, to the Oneness of God, and the observance of the mitzvot/commandments are central. In addition to this, there is one other point which I believe may be at the heart of this week's parashah. For in when recounting the Ten “Commandments” Moses uses a different wording for the Fourth Commandment. When originally uttered in the book of Shemot/Exodus the commandment reads “You shall Remember (zakhor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy....”. In this parashah Moses states, “You shall Observe/Keep/Protect (shamor) and keep it holy...”. The rabbis of old stated that a miracle occurred at Sinai in that both the words shamor (observe) and zakhor (remember) were uttered simultaneously by God, in a manner that “the human mouth could not speak and the human ear could not hear.”

Furthermore, in Exodus we read that the Shabbat/Sabbath was meant to remind us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. In Deuteronomy we read that Shabbat is to remind us that we were once slaves in Egypt and that God freed us with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

All of these verses and teaching form the source material for the poem I would like to share with you at this time.

Listen and remember........hear and embrace

I stand on the hilltop
preaching to those who do not remember
what happened before
who do not know the meaning of it all
each step of the journey each word of the divine
a world    an experience    a life    of its own

I remind them of that which they never knew
how we were all forbidden to enter the land
though now I am the only forbidden one who remain
 I speak to them of how the Divine has guided us

has wrought miracles in speech and action
of how the Divine is One that which unites all
human     animal    time    space    eternity

I tell them of how I pleaded for compassion from
the One who is all compassion
       at first I believed that I received none
yet in the end what I received was pure compassion
      for in being forbidden to enter the holy land
I have been allowed to leave this world
to leave my people                   who were never really mine
    to leave behind the desire to control to chastise
to be seen as the one      upon whom they must depend
               though I was simply the messenger
I shall not enter the holy land
       but I shall dwell forever with the source of holiness
the One of all being           the source of all that is
listen oh stubborn   exasperating    exquisite  people
pay attention to   the words    the voice    the silence
        of the Divine
God is One         we are all united within God
we must all love God    by using our divine-human gifts
compassion      mercy     justice       righteousness
in order to make wherever we dwell a holy land

remember and observe Shabbat
                          the crowning jewel of creation
remember and guard God's creation
                 through the gifts of rest and renewal
remember and protect the freedom which God gave us
          by making us in God's image     and by bringing us forth
from the narrow places where we were enslaved
                        and where we enslaved ourselves
into the expanse of the universe where all can be free     
            where we celebrate the freedom of all God's creatures
by bringing God's precious gift to those still enslaved

do all of this in the name of the One
whose name our lips cannot utter nor mind comprehend       
      yet which heart and soul know deeply
for it is the name and essence of us all

this task is not too great for you to endeavor nor to achieve
for all you must do is simply     to love
love each human being    each animal    each plant
           each part of creation
for in loving and caring for creation
we give our love to the Creator who unites us

remember these words in your heart and in your soul
protect and guard them with all your might
teach them to all the generations to come all whose souls were present at Sinai     when the words were first uttered
share them with those whose minds may seem    
closed to the message
and yet buried deep within
their soul longs to hear and to embrace it

inscribe these words on your being in your soul
remember them wherever you dwell
and wherever you may wander
for they are the essence of what it means to be human
what it means to be part of the Divine
the One who creates   renews   redeems    every day
     the One who reveals to us the Divine essence each moment
by helping us to experience and to know
the truth        the meaning       the beauty      the wonder
of what it means     to be one
of what it truly means       to be truly alive

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