Presence.

Society pressures us to be creative individuals. We earn attention for being innovative, original, and outstanding. I watch so many parents worrying about the extra-curricular activities of their 4 year old, thinking about the impact it will have for upon their college application status. Striving to stand out, to be unique is all but demanded in our society today; however, this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we find a different take on that idea.

We discover that the leaders of the 12 Israelite tribes are each to bring God an identical offering at the dedication of the Mishkan. We are treated to an extensive description of each leader giving the same gift as was brought by the previous tribal leader. Torah seems redundant here; why is the scene written out for us in its detailed repetition? Does God really want the same thing brought over and over again? The Torah takes the time here to give each leader his moment in the spotlight. God said, “One Nasi [leader] each day, one Nasi each day, shall bring near his offering for the dedication of the altar.” All of these offerings, each the same, could have been brought all at once, on one single day. Instead, God displays attentiveness to and an appreciation of each individual leader by allowing him his own day. Think about how you feel when you have a moment in the spotlight, a moment of appreciation for the regular person that you are, for a glimmer of acknowledgment from the world. This serves only to remind us to make the time to give that same appreciation and attention to the ordinary and extraordinary gifts of being from those we love – our friends, families, coworkers, and all those with whom our lives intersect in some way. Every one of us craves gratitude, just like the n’si’im who received their individual recognition from God.

If that is the case, then, it is not difficult to consider that the offerings themselves were not the distinguishing feature of the ritual. The offerings brought by the Israelites did not need to be unique or extravagant; the quality and uniqueness of the offering existed in the message of bringing something of value to connect with what is holy in this world. Each Nasi had to enter into the presence of God in the Mishkan on his own, not en masse. By each bringing the same gift, there were no distractions among the n’si’im around the ego of who brought what. It reminds my of something my CPE supervisor at UCLA used to say, that when we were in a patient’s room, our job was to represent the holiness in that space, to be a presence. With this read of Torah, I can say that the lesson is not about presents – what you bring – but, presence – who and how you are in this world. This Shabbat, let’s be present.

Snowy thoughts

Early Tuesday morning – the sun was just coming up. It was perfectly quiet, save for the chirping of one bird.  The snow blanketed the street, the driveway, the walkways, the grass – a smooth, silky, silent covering.  I am dressed in the ritual garb of shoveling – hat, gloves, boots, warm jacket – and for a moment, before the scrape, scrape, scrape of the shovel, I listened to the vibrations of the world beginning to awaken after a storm.  I do not look forward to shoveling snow; however, it is part of a world that also permits me to appreciate that moment of pure white, pure peace and tranquility.

Of course, this is as my family and friends are posting pictures of themselves this week at the beaches in southern California, complaining about how hot it is.  There I was, bundled up, shovel in hand…..how to find tranquility, how to quiet that inner chatter, how to be present to the beauty in front of me, even when friends and family sometimes get in the way?

In Torah this week, there is a moment of pure peace and tranquility.  The chaos of leaving Egypt, of escaping the pursuit of the Egyptians, of the masses of our people frantic in the desert is, for a moment, halted.  The plans for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are introduced. Moses begins to quietly take up a collection for the materials.  God gives Israel the plans to build this Mishkan – the layout, the materials, the size, the contents…. its purpose? A holy dwelling place.

I don’t know about you, but having lived through a number of construction projects and school projects (often designed more for parents than students!), I would describe them more as chaotic and stressful rather than as peaceful or tranquil moments, more like a volcanic eruption than like a butterfly’s emergence from a cocoon.  Yet, this Torah portion is filled with details that read like a shopping list for either Home Depot or Michaels: poles and rings, knobs and clasps, wood and fabric, shiny baubles, figures and measurements.

As you may surmise, this is about more than a synagogue master plan.  Our first clue: God said: “Let them make for me a Mishkan, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8)  The Midrash teaches: Moses’ mouth dropped!  He said, “I don’t understand. You taught me in your Torah that `God’s glory fills the heavens and the earth.’ [Jeremiah 23:2].  How can that which fills the heavens and the earth fit into this small tent that we are going to build?”  God said, “I don’t even need then whole Mishkan.  I can even fit myself in tiny space between the faces of the two Cherubim that sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  After all, I am God.  I can be everywhere in the world at once.  I can be just with each of you at the same time.” [Exodus Rabbah 34a].  The Mishkan is about recognizing God’s presence, God’s fingerprint in all of creation; it is a physical reminder of it – when we see it, we remember that God is in fact not contained, but that we have to build a place inside ourselves to be open to God’s presence in our lives.

Second clue: knowing there is actually no Home Depot in the wilderness of Sinai, God instructs that these materials are to be brought by every person ‘whose heart is inspired in generosity, you shall take My offering.’ These are details for a blueprint to create a spiritual community, where one can find peace and tranquility, support and caring.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk teaches one of my favorite pieces of wisdom about God’s presence in our lives.  He once asked a number of learned men who were visiting with him: “Where is the dwelling of God?” They laughed at him, saying, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then the Kotzker Rebbe answered his own question: “God dwells wherever [and whenever] we let God in.”  So, while I am once again fielding many comments about how cold it is here, and conclusions about how much I must miss California right now (and believe me, it would be nice to be a bit warmer!), these words are a reminder to me that holiness resides in all places, whenever we open ourselves to it.  Even in the snow, even in the shopping and building lists, maybe even especially in those details.

 

Busy-ness.

It has been a while since last posting – I have posted periodically on the synagogue blog, but have yet to figure out how to link the two blogs….

This week, in this second parashah of the Book of Exodus, God has heard the groans, the suffering, and the pain of the Israelites, and is determined to set them free. However, the people are so short-sighted and constrained by their slave mentality that they cannot get out of their own way. Moses comes bearing the Divine message, but the people “…would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by hard slavery” (Exodus 6:9). From this, we infer that listening is a key step in the process of liberation. The importance of listening mindfully is embedded in our tradition; Shema (Listen) is at the center of our prayers.

When Moses tells the people what God has said to him, they cannot ‘hear’ it; it is beyond their comprehension. Their inability to hear and respond to God’s promise of freedom is attributed in the text to the people having a ‘short spirit’ and being in ‘hard slavery’. Shortness of spirit—also translated as impatience—illustrates that the process of liberation requires great patience and discipline to take small, necessary steps, even if our pain is not immediately relieved. Full acceptance of what is awakens the power of listening. It is a paradox: one must patiently be… in order to become.

‘Hard slavery’—being in constrained bondage—is another challenge to mindful listening. To really hear and attend to life is possible only with spiritual stillness and spaciousness. Too often, we become tied to work and responsibilities so that our business, our busy-ness, becomes the driving force of our identity. This mindset keeps us from stopping long enough to listen to life. The barrage of stresses prevents us from receiving what we need to move out of our virtual bondage. The hatred and violence of recent days in France and beyond, the crisis and immediate suffering may wrench open our hearts for a moment. But, when that immediate danger is past and we have recovered from the initial shock, complacency too often allows our hearts to close again. We become impervious to the world’s imbalances, narrow our focus, deaden our senses, and deny feelings that threaten the status quo. This ‘hardening of the heart’ closes off any ability to attend to the beautiful melodies of freedom.

The challenge is somehow to remain mindfully in the present, even as we face our own anguish and the world’s suffering, listening for the call of spiritual freedom. May our call to action be opened through a mindful attention to beauty, tenderness and compassion flowing through our hearts.

Endings and beginnings

V’Zot Habracha – ‘This is the blessing.’ the last verses of Torah, Moses’ blessing of each tribe, as his time comes to an end.  It is not a regular weekly portion for Shabbat, but read only during the gossamer threads of time left after Sukkot, in the transitional moment of Simchat Torah, as we end and right away begin again our cyclical reading of Torah.

this opening line could also be read: ‘This is the blessing.’  The Midrash teaches that the gates of prayer are sometimes closed and sometimes open, but that the gates of repentance are always open.  From the awesomeness of the New Year and the spirit of community and repentance on Yom Kippur, to the celebration and gratitude of Sukkot, we conclude this period of holy days with absolute joy – celebrating Torah in our lives. That is the blessing.

I see yet another reading: ‘This is the blessing.’  This moment.  At the end and beginning of Torah, at the end of any significant period of time, at the end of any event, at the end of someone’s life – we just want to hold on to it, we don’t want to let go of the joy, the elevation, the soaring emotions.  Having just finished Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my wonderful community, on a high and exhausted all at the same time, I just want to hang on to that exhilaration, the fullness in my heart.  Continuing through the last week, I am filled with emotions of the days: of Sukkot – joyful, Simchat Torah – amazing, Yizkor – contemplative. My mindfulness practice reminds me to notice that desire to hang on, to honor it, and to know that too will pass.

V’zot Habracha – Each liminal moment, each year, each time around again; it is not about what ‘was’, but rather only about ‘this’ – now.

‘This is the blessing’ –  It is our blessing that we have these sacred words with which to engage, to look at life, to see life through.

Now back to beginning once again.

Thresholds

As the month of Elul comes to a close,

As the moon disappears from view,

The call of the shofar beckons.

Come close, it says; listen carefully.

Erase all distractions – the tiny details of preparation, the hugeness of the responsibilities.

God is calling for my return, for yours – calling us to remember, calling us up from the darkness of missed opportunities to days and life renewed.

I stand here, before the gates of the New Year,

My heart open, my voice trembling,

Filled with gratitude and joy.

Elul reflections

Today, I wrote on our synagogue blog, so please join me there –

The Scrolls of our Days.

From Darkness to Light

This is a challenging portion, in that its content is odd, especially in the midst of instruction and consideration that are Moses’ orations in the Book of Deuteronomy.  It is content we might even find difficult or objectionable:  descriptions of capital punishment, of taking captives and plunder in war, of stoning rebellious children, and of problematic and harmful relationships between spouses – rejection, adultery, divorce.

But it finishes with ‘Zachor et Amalek’  – we are to remember how soon after leaving Egypt, we were attacked by the Amalekites, without provocation; with ruthlessness, trickery and tyranny.  While the Israelites ultimately prevailed, it was a horrible moment in history. Our portion this week reminds us: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

Why remember the dark side of our history?  Don’t we just want to block those hurts out? Even at this time of year, the work of teshuvah, of repentance, is difficult because it forces us to confront that dark side.  And yet, the pull of the dark side, as Darth Vader reminds us, can be alluring and strong.

But what is the purpose of remembering who hurt us, how we were defeated and humiliated? Are we really to wallow in our own suffering?

Both scientific studies and life experience teach that our lives become defined by where we direct our attention, for actions ultimately follow intention.  Our memories, our emotions and our personal narratives become woven to create the tapestry of our lives.  We are what we remember.

Torah here merely teaches us to remember.

The key is that we can choose how we remember:

Do we hold onto grief, or can we transform it into empathy for others? Do we remain fearful, or use that experience to build courage? Can we turn our mourning into dancing, as the psalmist calls us to do?

Torah here teaches to remember what we were, even the icky and objectionable stuff – so that we can transform our narrative to become bearers of wholeness and blessing.

[Ki Teitzei 2014]

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