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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

Friday, July 5, 2013

Parshat Matot-Maasei: Embracing the "Other" (which is really not "other" at all)

This week's parashah/portion is the double portion called Matot-Maasei, which brings to a close the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. I will focus on the text of Matot, in the beginning of the parashah we read that if a man makes a vow it is binding on him. However, if a woman makes a vow while still living in her father's house and her father becomes aware of the vow and agrees to its terms, then the vow remains in effect. However, if he does not approve of the vow, then he may render it null and void. The same applies if the woman is married and her husband discovers the vow. If her father or husband do annul her vow, the woman is not to be held as guilty for not fulfilling the vow she has made. However, if her husband agrees to the vow upon discovering it and later changes his mind and annuls the vow, then there is guilt, but it is to be upon the husband's head.

Viewing this text through 21st century eyes, it is yet another example of how women had little or no control over their own fate. The only way a woman's vow could be binding without her father or husband's approval would be if she kept it a secret or if she were a widow or divorcee. In other words, only through divorce, death or deceit could a woman make a binding vow of her own accord.

As if this were not enough, the following passage does even more violence, literally speaking, to women. For in this passage, Moses berates the leaders of the tribes that, during their slaughter of the Midianites in their most recent battle they spared the Midianite women. This was particularly vexing to Moses because he believed it was the women who had "induced the Israelites to trespass against God" through illicit sexual conduct, thereby prompting Moses to attack. Therefore, Moses commanded the captains to murder any Midianite woman who was not a virgin, and to let the virgins survive and be counted as part of the spoils of war. In other words, as property.

I find these texts to be distasteful and misogynistic. However, as is often the case, that which we find to most troubling is often where we can find new teachings if we pay close attention. But how does one derive meaning from such problematic passages?

In first reading the text, it seems clear to me that in the biblical view, women could not be trusted. If they could, then there would be no need to give men the power to annul their vows. In addition, women are viewed as dangerous, especially if they are sexually active (outside of marriage), as made evident by Moses' anger and his command to kill all of the Midianite women who were not virgins.

In pondering these texts, it appears that the source of the mistrust and impetus for the violence commanded towards the women may well be the fear and mistrust that the men have of themselves. For no matter how "seductive" the Midianite women might have been, the men would not have "trespassed" with them if they did not have the same sexual desires and if they were able to control them. But, as is often the case throughout history, and until today, it is much easier to simply blame it on women. 

Rather than looking within and seeing what was in their own hearts, it was easier to look outward, to see the perceived immorality of the neighboring women and then destroy them. This kind of behavior was not new then, and it still happens today, as we are all too well aware. If Moses had wanted to help the Israelite men to avoid transgressive behavior in the future, he would have done better to command them to look inside their own hearts, to find the lusts and desires within and pay attention to them, rather than focus on the external forces that "drove them" to act as they did.

However, this interpretation does not address the passage concerning vows and women. In order to come to terms with this passage I feel the need to more drastically re-read in a more allegorical, and psychological, manner.

We know that each human being has male and female characteristics within. For each of us there is part within that feels more authentic. In a manner of speaking, there is a part within us that feels more like "I" and a part which feels more like "other" within our own individual psyches. The parts within that seem most like other are often the parts that we have kept most hidden throughout our lives. However, these parts are no more or less a part of who we are than those parts with which we are more comfortable. Yet, they are the parts try to ignore, repress, destroy or control. In a way, they are the parts within us that we don't trust.

Carl Jung wrote that there are aspects of the other sex within each us, what he referred to as the animus and anima, but I am talking about more than gender. For I am referring to any and all parts within us with which we are so uncomfortable or which we fear so much, that we try to repress, ignore or even
destroy it. However, if we don't succeed, we can at least try to control those parts. We try to do this not only to ourselves, but when we see that problematic attribute in someone else, we may also avoid or attack them as well. I think we all know that this is true in our lives.

In the Torah text, a husband or father has ultimate control over the vows of his wife or daughter. Both are seen as an extension of him, and both are seen as other and not to be trusted. This is where the two passages dealing with women in the parashah connect. For just as the women of Midian are viewed as having the ability to control the Israelite men and bring about their moral downfall, so too a wife or daughter who has made the wrong kind of vow (and we can only imagine what those vows might have been) could bring about the downfall of her father or husband.

Following my analogy to a conclusion, it is the pieces of ourselves that we view as “other” of which we are most afraid and which we try to control or destroy. But it is because we remain ignorant or living in fear of these pieces that they have the potential to cause us the most suffering and harm. However, the solution is not to try to control or destroy them - whether within us or within others who bring up these
feelings within us. Rather, the solution is to become more aware of them, acknowledge them, and accept them as part of who we are. These unknown "other" parts of us are not bad or evil. They are not "other."

Ultimately, we cannot control them, for there is no "them." There is not even "I." For all of us and all that is are simply part of the oneness of the universe that connects us with every other "I." Throughout the Torah we are reminded not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. And so too we must not only not oppress, but we must embrace, what we view as the stranger within. For we cannot control these unknown aspects of our world and ourselves any more than we can control anything. All we can do is become more mindful of what is within each of us, and what we see in others, that makes us most afraid. Then we must look at that fear with compassion and with honesty in order to determine how to best approach it so that we no longer feel the need to control it out of the believe that, if we don't, it will ultimately control us.

Though I have no doubt that this is not anywhere near what was the original intention or lesson of the Torah text, we are always striving to find new meanings within Torah. I can only imagine how differently the scenario in this week's parashah might have ended if they had looked at things through this perspective and embraced what they saw as different or 'other' rather than being afraid of it and trying to destroy or control it. How different all of our lives, and our world, might be if we could practice this on a more regular basis ourselves.

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