Friday, August 14, 2015

Heaven in a Grain of Sand (Portion Re'eh)

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
            -Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh

Numerous times in the book of Deuteronomy, God offers us the choice between blessing and curse, then urges us to choose blessing.  Why?  Surely this seems like no-brainer.  Who wouldn’t prefer blessings over curses?

But perhaps the choice is more difficult than it appears at first glance.  Before laying out the options, God implores us, see; indeed, the Hebrew word for seeing, re’eh gives our portion its name.  Here is the challenge: in order to discern the paths of blessing and curse, we have to look very carefully.  All too often in life, we pay half-hearted attention to what we are doing, and when we do this, it is easy to take the wrong way.  If anything, this is even truer today than it was for our biblical forebears, given the immense amount of distractions that our technological culture showers upon us.

With this in mind, our tradition gives us a full month before the Days of Awe to work on our seeing.  This is the first week of Elul, the Hebrew month of preparation for the High Holy Days.  Our challenge is to use this time to look carefully at both the world around us and the world within us—so that we might make better choices in both in the coming weeks.

How do we do this?  In his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew offers a suggestion that is both profound and realistically achievable.  He writes: “Focus on one thing.  It may not be realistic to expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans or mediation groups during the month of Elul. . . So I am pleased to inform you that it is perfectly possible to fulfill the ancient imperative to begin becoming more self-aware during this time without doing these things.  Let me recommend a simpler method, and you won’t even have to set aside a special time to practice this.  Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul.  ‘A world in a grain of sand,’ as the poet Williamk Blake reminded us.  Everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives.  It doesn’t really make any difference what it is that we choose to focus on, but it ought to be something pretty basic, something like eating or sex or money, if for no other reason than that these concerns are likely to arise quite frequently in our lives and to give us a lot of grist for the mill.  The truth of our lives is reflected in everything we do, and if we focus on even one small part of our lives, it brings up the entire truth of it.

Give it a try.  Choose one thing—just one thing—and pay really close attention to it throughout this month.  Then see—really see—re’eh—how you can bring a bit more holiness into your life in the coming year.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Power of Surprise (Portion Korach)

All that is beautiful, true, always comes as a surprise.  So retain the capacity to be surprised.  Once you lose that capacity you are dead.  If things can surprise you, you are still alive.  And the more you are surprised by things, the more alive you are.
                                    -Osho, Above All, Don’t Wobble

As we grow older, it is easy to become jaded—to lose our capacity for surprise.  Like the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes, we may be tempted to declare that nothing is new under the sun.  We come to view all that is currently happening through the fixed lens of past experience.  When this happens, we lose our capacity to embrace change and novelty and thereby calcify our souls and our selves.

Torah seeks to jar us out of such cynicism and complacency.  Part of God’s calling is to keep us on our toes, attentive and open to surprise.  Consider this week’s Torah portion, Korach.   It tells the tragic story of the most heinous of several mutinies launched against Moses and his leadership.  The leader of the rebels, Korach, is ultimately swallowed up by the earth, along with his followers.  In both the biblical story and the many centuries of commentary that follow, Korach remains a symbol of greed and bloodthirsty lust for power.

Yet, lest we get too attached to a simplistic worldview in which Korach and his company represent pure and everlasting evil, when we get to the book of Psalms, we find that twelve of the 150 psalms (42-49, 85, 87, and 88) are attributed to b’nai Korach, the children of Korach.  What a remarkable surprise: just a few generations after the father of all rebellions is severely punished directly by God, along with his entire family, we find that his descendants are creating magnificent songs of praise to God that merit inclusion in the Psalter!

This is an important reminder for us to resist our negative preconceptions based on past experience.  If we seek to experience beauty—in music and art and poetry and, really, any aspect of life—we must be prepared to be surprised at its often deeply unexpected origins.    Life is far stranger than we often give it credit for being—thank God!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Narrow Bridge (Portion Shelach L'chah)

The whole world is a very narrow bridge—and the main thing is not to. . .

I love this analogy from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which captures the risk and reward of living mindfully.  I think I’ve always identified with this teaching because I have a strong fear of heights.  My biggest challenge when I trekked in Nepal six years ago was crossing the numerous high—and very narrow—swaying suspension bridges that the trail took to make its way across deep Himalayan canyons.  Anticipating this difficulty after reading the maps and guidebooks, I spent hours prepping for the trip.  I met with a therapist who taught me the visualization and guided meditation techniques that enabled me to overcome my trepidation.  It was not easy but I made it.

But even after all of my preparation, with many miles—and narrow bridges—behind me, it was not easy.  I never really got past my fear.  I just powered through it.

This is why I’ve left off the end of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching, which is usually phrased “and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”  These words have never made sense to me.  We all have fear—that’s the human condition.  The main thing is not to be fearless, but, rather, to refuse to give our fear the last word.  And it turns out, Rabbi Nachman (not surprisingly) knew this very well, as scholars have found alternative versions of this quote with the word l’hitpached replacing the more common l’fached—meaning, “and the main thing is not to be paralyzed by one’s fear.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach L’chah, Moses sends out twelve scouts to reconnoiter the Promised Land.  All of them see a place of abundance, but they do not agree on their assessment of the inhabitants of the land—and the prospects for success if the Israelites decide to invade.  Ten of the twelve urge a hasty retreat.  They spread fear among their people, insisting: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  The people that we saw in it are men of great size. . . .We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  Only two scouts—Joshua and Caleb—keep the faith and urge, “Let us by all means go up and gain possession of the land.”  Unfortunately, the masses of Israelites follow the pessimistic and fearful majority.  They complain bitterly, railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to go forward into Canaan.  As a consequence of their rebellion, God decrees that this entire generation must die out before the Israelites can finally enter the Promised Land.  Forty years of wandering ensue.

What was the difference between Joshua and Caleb and the rest of the scouts (and the Israelites who followed them)?  I suspect Joshua and Caleb were also afraid.  But they overcame their fear and urged others to do the same.  Yes, the world is a very narrow bridge, and there is no shame in fear.  But if we wish to cross over to new things—to grow as people—then the main thing is to remember that we can move forward despite our fear.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Complaining--It's Not About the Meat (Portion Beha'alotechah)

Sometimes it is helpful—even essential—to complain.

More commonly, our complaints are not really about what they purport to be, but are, instead, symptoms of a poor attitude in need of adjustment.

Ecclesiastes famously teaches that there is a time and season for everything.  So it goes with complaining.  If no one complained about unjust, inequitable, and intolerable situations, nothing would change for the better.  We need whistle-blowers and activists—justified complainers—to speak out against the unacceptable status quo.  Thus, early in the Torah’s exodus narrative, the Israelites complain about a real lack of food and water, and God responds respectfully, providing them with what they need.

However, most of the time our complaining is merely the outward expression of our own inner negativity.   In such cases, our whining is not ameliorated when we get what we supposedly want, for we will always find a new excuse to keep up the kvetching.  There is no limit to the potential objects of discontent for fundamentally dissatisfied people.

Such is the nature of the complaining in this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha.  The Israelites carp at Moses: “Who will feed us meat?”  Yet, as Rashi notes in his commentary, they actually have plenty of meat to eat.  Torah tells us that when we left Egypt, “A great multitude went up with them, and also flocks and cattle.”  Forty years later, as we prepare to enter the land of Israel, Torah again points out, “The children of Reuben had much cattle.”  In other words, the Israelites had no shortage of steak.  As God and Moses both recognize, their craving and complaining is not really about the meat.  It is, instead, a reflection of the Israelites’ own failure of faith and imagination.

This week, every time you are tempted to complain about something, consider your motivation.  Are you questioning the status quo in order to change it for the better?  Or are you just giving voice to your own, deeper discontent?  If you can honestly affirm the former, then speak (and act) up!  If not, then reflect on ways to shift your attitude.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tyranny of "Mine" (portion Behar)

It starts so early.  The first word of many a child is “Mine!”  Thus begins a life of striving after ownership.  Much of American culture is built around this propensity to crave and accumulate, with multi-billion dollar industries manipulating us to want stuff we don’t need.
Of course, as Ecclesiastes recognized long ago, this is a kind of vanity, a striving after wind.  Indeed, it is far worse than empty gesture, for the impulse behind “mine!” is at the heart of much of our human unhappiness.  No matter how much we acquire, the urge for more is never satisfied.
Given this crushing human propensity to possess stuff (and sometimes people, too), our weekly portion, Behar, offers what I believe to be the most radical teaching in the entire Torah.  Consider its words:
‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Eternal Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop,  but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. 
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. . .   It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, [e]and each of you shall return to his family. 
 ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. 
This is extraordinary.  Every seven years we give the land a compete rest and every fifty years we redistribute it so that no one is left poor and landless.  This guards against the grossly unjust distribution of wealth that increasingly undermines both America’s and Israel’s economy.  It also reminds us that the assertion of “Mine!” is ultimately idolatrous, for in the end, all of Creation belongs only to the Creator.
Imagine if an America politician were to propose such a policy!  This is not a platform upon which one is likely to get elected, in either of our major political parties.  Yet here it is in our Torah, as a core part of its vision of a just society and a critical antidote to our consistent craving for more power and possessions.  It may not become economic policy any time soon, but it remains essential for us as a way out of the trap of materialism into which we sometimes stumble.
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Why?  Because what is wild is, by definition, that which cannot be owned.  This is why Torah was given in the wilderness, a wild place, open to all, possessed by none.  As we move toward Shavuot and our celebration of receiving Torah, consider: how can I open myself to more wildness and escape the clutch of my impulse to insist upon mine?

For more on the sabbatical and jubilee years, and their potential to transform our contemporary culture, see the work of Hazon, starting at: