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.

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]

The True Source of Human Sustenance

Shabbat eve 8/15/14 –

Most of us probably remember an early childhood ‘experiment’ – taking a lima bean, placing it gently in a small cup of dirt from the yard, giving it a bit of water, and waiting….watching….waiting….until one day, a tiny green tendril poked its head out from the soil, reaching upward, stronger each day. A leaf unfurling, a new shoot sprouting forth.  A moment of creation, re-enacted.  As a child, it was almost miraculous to behold; but soon enough, with age and time, the miracle more than likely became routine, even burdensome – awe transformed into chores of weeding (though Ralph Waldo Emerson says: ‘What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’) or raking for our parents, then later on maybe to landscaping and planting gardens for ourselves….and the more that we do, the more we are impressed by the work of our own hands.

That changed for my family 7 years ago.  We moved into a house where there were 12 fruit trees, and a large yard with potential for a large produce garden.  John and I – well, mostly John – slowly and systematically redesigned our yard, creating a drip-irrigated fruit and vegetable garden, to the extent that there was very little that I bought anymore in terms of produce.  We would eat whatever was growing, whatever was in season.  Moreover, the more that we cultivated, the more that we became acutely aware that while we worked very hard, either trying to replicate things that ‘worked’ or trying different techniques and arrangements, using varieties of seeds and plants – sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t.  While we worked to create and prepare all of the conditions for growing, there was a piece of it that was out of our hands. And we stood in awe of that – God’s presence in creation, in our yard.

In our Torah cycle this week, the Israelites are [still] standing at the edge of the Promised Land – “For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8) a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;”  It is an image I totally relate to, standing at our back door in California, looking out at the abundance of what we coaxed from our yard.  And now, I stand here, glimpsing the abundance of my new ‘promised land’: of meaningful work, a new community, and bright new opportunities ahead in this next phase of my career and my family’s life; the gifts of life bring us sustenance.

As we look over the Land of our lives – lands of streams and springs, walking paths and trees; of abundant produce and beauty; lands of shopping malls and billboards, of life’s comforts and the illusion of security… we are always in some danger of forgetting the source of all of these gifts.  It is all too easy for us to think that what we have is solely because of our own work, our own education, our own talents, or our own perseverance.  It is too easy to forget that our successes depend on so many things beyond our own talents.  I know – it is too easy to be lulled into believing excessively in the extent of my own capacity – whether excess pride in our garden, or excess pride in the achievements that helped me to get to this moment.

Our tradition knows this danger.  Moses exhorts us to remember that with abundance and plenty comes the risk “that your heart will grow haughty and you will forget Adonai your God” (8:14) and “You will say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth…” (8:17).

Ah, you might think, but that isn’t me, is it? I am not haughty or egotistical or self-impressed…..for myself, I could look at all the good that I have done – we shared our abundant harvest with neighbors, friends and family;  or – look at what a great job I am already doing here at NVHC!  We all pride ourselves on a job well done. We all consider ourselves deserving of the profits of our labor.

The concern for the tendency of humanity toward self-promotion and need for appreciation and admiration is clearly addressed here– a trap for each of us.  But – here’s the beautiful part – we are given a way to avoid that path of arrogance, to avoid thinking that all that we have achieved is by our own hands alone. The prescription for how to counteract this is here, in the verses that follow, in the commandment embedded in this section: ‘V’achalta v’savata uveirachta’ – after we have eaten the manna that God has provided, and we are satiated, we are to give thanks – literally offer blessing to God, the ultimate source of all of our sustenance.  That is, when we start thinking this way, we are to remember that our strength was, after all, given to us by God.

Gratitude for the source of life, to the Source of Life, is meant to be at our center. And how does Torah describe the consequences of not holding this consciousness? “If you do forget the Eternal your God . . . I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 8:19).  Will God really come and strike us down? Unlikely – at least not in my theological construct.  But, look around at our world.  At people whose lives seem full of stuff, who procure every material thing that they desire, who are never left wanting for food or clothing.  That is only sufficient if we can recognize that things are fleeting; without expressed and understood gratitude and blessing for all that we have, our lives become overrun with an endless spiritual hunger, bereft of finding true joy and sustenance, even when our bellies are full of manna.

There is a teaching from Menachem Mendyl of Rymanov, an 18th Century chasidic teacher who teaches that the virtue of manna was that it was given every day in appropriate measure to each person’s needs.  Even so, this did not quench the cravings of the Israelites, for their cravings were spiritual in nature. Food feeds the body but not the spirit. The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. While we may pursue money or materialism, there is a spiritual dimension of life that ultimately satisfies the soul, making our existence feel truly worthwhile.

The successes we achieve do not guarantee our happiness. After we’ve bought the house of our dreams, or our fantasy sports car, the latest cell phones, laptops or DVDs, we are all too often looking to the next thing. This is the essence of our teaching here: For satisfaction to be lasting, it must be more than material; it must be spiritual. It is right here in this week’s reading: “…in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone…” meaning, we need more than bread and money; we need stimulation and a sense of meaningful achievement. We need to know that our lives have purpose, and that somehow we have made a difference. We want to be assured that our work is productive and will have lasting value.

The spiritual challenge of Ekev therefore becomes how to break the spell of consumerism – the human obsession with acquisition and ownership – whose power over us rests only in our continual dissatisfaction.  Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, writes: “Shifting away from obsessive consumerism does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.” Physical and spiritual.  True Sustenance requires meaning.

One more story: It is of a prisoner in a Russian labor camp whose job it was to turn a heavy wheel attached to a wall. For twenty-five years, the prisoner worked at his backbreaking labor. He assumed that this wheel must be attached to a mill on the other side of the wall; perhaps he was milling grain, or pumping water that irrigated many fields. In his mind’s eye, though, he saw the plentiful crops and the sacks of milled grain feeding thousands of people. After twenty-five years of hard labor, when he was about to be released, the prisoner asked to be shown the apparatus behind the prison wall. There was nothing there! The wheel was just a wheel—all his “work” had served no useful purpose. The man collapsed in a dead faint, absolutely devastated. His life’s work had been in vain.

What we find here about living is that it is upon us to go beyond just eating and being satisfied, but it is rather in making the opportunity to acknowledge that we are part of a larger world, that much as we like to think we are in control, and whatever one’s theology, belief in God, looks like, it is just not all in our hands.  As we approach the transformative time of our High Holy Days, may we find ways to explore how we can truly sustain our souls in order that we can pursue real t’shuvah – a true turning to our best selves.

Chazak

All I can think about is Israel.  As a Jew, as one who has family and friends living there, as one who has lived there myself, as one who is connected to the life of our people that looks to the east – to our spiritual homeland – I am so troubled by the events in the Middle East.  The violence against innocents, the skewed news reporting, the insanity of hatred….on all sides. The flood of articles, of blogs, of emails, of Facebook posts all make it almost impossible to think clearly anymore.  I consider myself to be more passionate than eloquent on the subject, feeling that I must put something in writing here, to acknowledge the struggle and the pain of this time.  Even the struggle to somehow find meaning in this all through Torah feels like an overwhelming climb.

So I share here two things:

One is a link to an piece that resonates particularly well with me, and I am grateful to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for his thoughtful and inspiring, yet difficult words.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-menachem-creditor/im-done-apologizing-for-i_b_5606650.html

The other is my own simple prayer – that as we conclude the Book of Numbers this week, we will say together as a community as we do whenever we finish a book of Torah, ‘Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik’.  Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. This week, more than any other, may that be so.

The Excess of Zealotry

“God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the kohen [priest], turned away My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake . . . Therefore . . . I shall grant him My covenant of peace . . .” [Numbers 25:11–12].

I find myself highly distracted this week by the events in Israel.  We have family living there about whom we worry; friends and colleagues who are there for various study and travel, hundreds of kids from Reform congregations on their trip of a lifetime to Israel, to connect with and understand their own personal connection to our homeland.  I am worried, troubled, angry, frustrated, feeling helpless.  My prayers are also with the Fraenkel, Shaer, Yifrach, and Abu Khdeir families.

Zealotry is defined as fanatical devotion. Pinchas’ deed evokes many associations—courage, decisiveness and religious passion are several that come to mind—but peace hardly seems one of them.

The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking others. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas in killing Zimri.  Pinchas is protected because God grants him a covenant of peace. Why does God call for this? I struggle so much with this story, this episode in Torah. It doesn’t matter how much the commentaries try to massage the text and find a reason, a lesson, an explanation…

No matter the reasoning, I can’t get my head around why God would call for this. Isn’t there another solution? This is one of the times when I look at Torah and think that this moment is to challenge us to think differently, perhaps to learn and discern when to disagree with what is taught to us. That is just as important a life skill as learning from positive models of behavior and understanding. It is all I can think about.

[Pinchas 2014]

 

 

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