Friday, July 10, 2020

Understanding The Ritual of the Red Cow in Chukat

As I was conducting a Friday evening Shabbat Service during the week of Korach and speaking about the portion, I said that every time the Israelites stray or exhibit a moral downfall, there is a ritual section allowing them to reconnect with God. After the sin of the Golden Calf (Parashat Ki Tissa), the section allowing us to reconnect is a moral section, known as the Thirteen Attributes of God. After the Sotah instructions in Naso, where there may be adultery on the part of a wife or there may be causeless jealousy on the part of a husband, the ritual section is about the Nazirite, a temporary nun or monk. When the Scouts return from scouting out the land of Canaan and give a negative report in Shelach Lecha, demoralizing the people who then refuse to enter and possess it, there are three ritual sections: libations to accompany offerings, a fire offering of a small piece of dough, known as Challah, which is one of the last remaining fire offerings that is still done today, and the commandment of Tzitzis, wearing fringes to help us remember who we really are and what we are capable of. In Korach, I said that there is Pidyon Haben, the redemption of the Firstborn.

When I said Pidyon Haben in that service, I was immediately dissatisfied with it. This was not a new ritual, it having been mentioned in Exodus 13:13, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt and again in Exodus 34:20, after the Golden Calf. So where was the ritual section for Korah, I asked myself? And the answer came immediately: it is the Ritual of the Red Cow in Chukat, the portion which directly follows Korach.

The ritual of the Red Cow is notorious for being difficult to interpret. Even King Solomon was to have said (Numbers Rabbah 19:3, commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:23) that it was beyond him. The chok, decree, of the Red Cow is the ritual section we expect after all the deaths in the portion of Korach. Now, all of a sudden, this ritual makes perfect sense because it deals so much with death. In Parashat Korach, he, Datan, Abiram, and also 250 leaders die. As reported in Torah, 14,700 more people die in a plague, bringing the total to almost 15,000 people. In this time of Coronavirus, so many people have died. We are mostly shielded from all this death, as the majority of people have died in hospitals. We don’t see corpses lying in our streets or on our sidewalks, but the Israelites did see the almost 15,000 corpses.

The people say to Moses and Aaron, “You have killed the people of God,” (Num. 17:6) and then, “Behold we perish, we are lost, all of us are lost. Everyone who approaches closer to the Tabernacle of God will die. Are we doomed to perish?” (Num.17:27-28) This wail of fear is reminiscent of the cry of the Egyptians in Bo (Ex. 12:33) of “We are all dying!” The Israelites have been traumatized by all the death around them. They need a way to reconnect with God and feel cleansed.

When someone wrongs us, they cannot look us in the eye. It seems as if that should be reversed – that if someone wrongs me, I should be angry at them and should not be able to look them in the eye. But what actually happens is that the person who wrongs another knows, at some level, that they have done wrong and cannot look the person they have wronged in the eye. The Israelites could not, figuratively speaking, look God in the eye, knowing they had done wrong. They needed a way to forgive themselves, to feel forgiven, cleansed, and renewed. They had been defiled on an inner level, by the horror of death, with no way to recover their inner goodness and feel blessed again by God.

The Ritual of the Red Cow directly addresses the effects of death on the living, and there are three instances in Chukat where people must be purified: 1. Anyone who touches a corpse (19:11) 2. A person in the tent or entering the tent of someone who has died (19:14) and 3. Anyone who touches a slain person, a bone, or grave (19:16). These are the people who have seen death and who need the Holy Water, the Water of Sprinkling.

The ashes of the Red Cow dissolved in spring (or living) water are sprinkled on the person who has come in contact with death, which purifies by calling forth our intrinsic ability to rise to a higher self. The Jewish Path to holiness is a setting apart something to make it special or Holy, and we, ourselves, are the ones who create the holiness. One who has touched ashes of the red cow is impure, and one who sprinkles is impure, because of all the contact with the ashes. This is not inconsistent if seen as a ritual to call forth the person’s holiness. The ashes themselves are from a dead body, which causes impurity.

In Chukat being sprinkled is very different from touching. The ritual has its own logic, which is that ashes from death cause impurity, but holy water set apart for purification and designated as holy, even containing some ash, perhaps something like activated charcoal, causes a person to FEEL cleansed and released from the death all around. This ritual changes death, which is something AW-Ful to a connection to the Divine, which is AWE-Some. In Torah, God always gives us a means to find our way back when we are lost, despairing, or have fallen down. We are given tools to continue to grow and choose inner goodness, connecting to our inner holiness. Torah sets out many pathways to reconnect with God. The ritual of the Red Cow is one of them.(July 2020)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A Life of Possibilities

YK 2019 (to be sung:)How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing Ever a child can do! Up in the air and over the wall, Till I can see so wide, Rivers and trees and cattle and all Over the countryside— Till I look down on the garden green, Down on the roof so brown—Up in the air I go flying again, Up in the air and down! These words were written by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) {A Child’s Garden Of Verses}// When we were young we loved the swings. The feeling of freedom, of flying, of going fast, beyond the physical constraints of walking on the earth. And when we were a little older, some of us loved roller coasters and the thrill of amusement park rides. Still later, some yearned for extreme sports like bungee jumping, skydiving, or even just driving a car very fast. I think music and dance can often contact that same part of us. There is something in us which loves transcending the physical. And this is partly what Yom Kippur is about. For one day, we abandon eating and drinking to become more like the angels, more spiritual than physical.

In our Torah portion for today Aaron, the high priest or Kohen Gadol, receives instructions. He must wash himself, and Yom Kippur can be seen as our spiritual mikveh, a chance to purify and refine ourselves, and even to be reborn. Then he was to clothe himself all in white, in a sacred linen tunic, linen breeches, a linen sash and a linen turban: in sacred vestments. There is a famous midrash about clothing written by an ancient, First Century scribe, Rabbi Meir. When Rabbi Meir was writing a Torah, he came to the section in Genesis, in B’reisheet (3:21), the first Torah portion, where we are told the story of the Garden of Eden. When Rabbi Meir got to the verse, And God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and God clothed them, Rabbi Meir didn’t write the word skin, He changed one letter – an ayin – into an aleph, which are the two silent letters in the Hebrew Alphabet. By changing an ayin into an aleph, Rabbi Meir wrote, Garments of Light. God made for the man and woman garments of light and God clothed them. There is more truth to this midrash than we often understand. We are beings of light. There is another story about this, one that Rabbi Gelberman told, which is that the original light of the first day of creation was to dazzling for human beings, so God hid that light. And where did God hide the light? God hid it where no one would think to look – inside of us. We are the light, or rather, the light is part of us. This is more than metaphor. The scientist Fritz Albert Popp has shown that every cell in our body emits light in addition to electrical and magnetic energy. (The Field, McTaggart). There are some people who can see auras, the electromagnetic field around each living thing. Now, before you think that this is getting too weird for you, here is a way of view this topic. Most of us have or have had a TV set. We know that a TV set can show different programs depending on how it’s tuned. The TV is the hardware. We also know that the TV programs are not IN the TV. They are broadcast from outside the set and the TV is merely the receiver. If our TV breaks down, we can buy a new one. Our bodies are like the TV set and our electromagnetic energy, which is not merely inside of us, but is also surrounding us, is like the TV programing, allowing us to think and feel, and live. A Dr. Bruce Lipton wrote in his book, The Biology of Belief, describing his spiritual epiphany, he discovered about his body, I’m not in there! I am not my body, I’m not really even inside of my body. I’m both in it and outside of it. In other words, My body isn’t me.

Abraham Joshua Heschl, in his book, Man Is Not Alone, wrote: What we are, we cannot say: what we become, we cannot grasp. The self is something transcendent in disguise. We are energetic beings: being of light. This is the true self. This is what the Torah refers to when it says about the death of Rachel: her soul departed, for she died. The true self is other than our bodies. The true self is the energetic field around our bodies. And we are experts at interpreting each other’s fields. Do you get what some call a good vibe around children or someone who is happy? Can you sense when someone is angry or sad, before they say anything, just by being close to them? When you enter a room, can you read the emotions of the people in it? Do you know how people feel about you? If a person says they like you and they smile buy they really don’t like you, how do you know that? Scientists now know that atoms are mostly empty space, filled with energy fields. We are energetic beings living in a world of energy and our energy extends into each other. In our scientific, analytical time, we have given up the awareness of our true energetic nature for the compromise of a solid physical universe, as that verse in the Morning Blessings says, that God: Rokah ha-aretz al ha-mayim, spread the earth over the waters, giving us a firm place to stand. This morning blessing tells us that our physical realty is overlaid upon the deeper energetic reality. So what difference does this make? And how should we live in the world with this understanding? At the very least, this knowledge expands our ideas about who we are. It is only our beliefs and emotions which hold us back from our becoming. Those beliefs and emotions, as I have said before, are the walls we construct for ourselves which help us feel secure, but which may not ultimately be serving our growth and expansion. A greater conception of who we are elevates and liberates us. When we feel that elevation, we are more loving and caring about others. We are able to live so as to not disappoint ourselves, honoring ourselves, able to honor others, and honor life. To take one spiritual baby step,

I have a challenge for you. The challenge is, to change one belief about yourself. It can be any belief, like – I’m not a good sleeper, or I need certain types of food at certain times, or any self-limiting belief like, I’m clumsy. I challenge you to change one belief. That change can open the door into giving up the entirely logical life for a life of possibilities. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that I love: I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors – Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof, The Gambrels of the Sky – Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise. Living a life of possibilities means that we let God and life show us the way to go. We don’t force things or people, but allow our lives and ourselves to unfold, with faith and trust that we are being led toward goodness, flowing with that guidance and not fighting against it. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizenhsk, said, all things move toward goodness. We can make a commitment with ourselves to affirm once a day our non-physical, energetic nature, perhaps doing this by sensing the energy around you, being in tune with its higher, non-physical frequency, and allowing you to walk a little taller as you stroll down the sidewalk. This knowledge helps us to appreciate the great gifts of the physical life and to know that the physical life is only an accommodation and not the entire reality. This knowledge allows us to do what the 20th Century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested was our purpose on earth: to Hallow life – to make life holy. This leads us to ask and be interactive with all the strangeness and wonder of a non-physical existence, locating our true self and appreciating that self, and how magnificent are the gifts of life and growth and understanding, reveling in an awareness of how wondrous life is.

When we are assembled here on Yom Kippur like the angels, less physical beings and more spiritual beings, we have a unique opportunity: the ability to align with our energetic nature and become more of who we really are, knowing that our personalities are like garments of skin that we wear. Our true realities are our garments of light: transcendent and miraculous, and as Rabbi Heschel said, waiting to bloom and flourish. What life are you wearing as your garment? Who would you be if you could be anyone? Who would you be if you really knew the nobility of who you actually are and the great power and wisdom that has been hidden within us? The swings, the amusement park rides, extreme sports are a memory of existing as a purely energetic being. The researchers Brymer and Schweitzer, after interviewing athletes who engage in extreme sports reported that “extreme sports helped participants feel closer to nature, more self-aware, at peace and even transcendent. There’s an ineffable aspect people find very difficult to describe,” Brymer says, “a feeling of coming home.” Our tradition says this too: Ner Adonai nishmat adam, the lamp of God is the soul of man, and a part of the Kol Nidre liturgy: Or zarua la-tzaddik, light is sown for the righteous. (Prov. 20:27 & Psalm 97:11). Now you know more fully who you are, the person who you always suspected you might be. May this knowing be the beginning of a change in your relationship to yourself, to those you know, and to those who share this wondrous world with us. There was a Daoist sage whose handprint can still be seen in a solid rock. We live in a world of light, of Divine energy, and of possibilities. It is how we look upon ourselves and the world which either limit or expand those possibilities. We are being of light. May your world expand in marvelous ways in this New Year.

Manifesting Through Love

Well, it’s been quite a year, but not in the way you think. The political situation aside, through several authors and teachers I have learned some amazing facts. I say, facts, because initially this learning has come from a book called, The Field, by Lynn McTaggart, a science writer. No please stay with me, because this is important and it relates to you. How many of you have ever heard of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics? The scientists Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg made discoveries in the early 20th Century which informed us that you can’t predict where an electron is in an atom. Einstein proved that matter and energy can be converted into each other. Another way to express Einstein’s discovery is that waves of light become particles in our physical world and particles can become energy, or waves of light. Consider the following experiment. A scientist named Robert Jahn, educated at Princeton, who also taught there, made something called an REG machine or Random Event Generator. He and his colleagues collected reams of data from many human studies concerning our ability to influence this machine. Then a French scientist named Rene Peoc’h took one of Jahn’s machines and imprinted baby chicks on it as if the machine were their mother. The machine was set to wander around a room randomly. He found that the desire of the chicks to be near their mother changed the path of the machine so that it approached them more often than randomly. This has been called the Observer Effect: that our minds and hearts have the power to change reality.

What was going on here and how does this relate to us? McTaggart’s book documents hundreds of double blind peer reviewed experiments, the gold standard in science, which taken together show two things: #1) the model of classical physics, Newtonian physics is wrong or perhaps in complete. And #2) The Uncertainty principle of the atomic world operates not just on the atomic level, but in our bodies and our physical world. There is now scientific proof that we live in a field of energy which apparently has intelligence and heart or feeling, and further, that we have the power to influence that field. In reading about this research, one can even go so far to see in it a scientific proof for the existence of God. To me, this is all amazing to know, but how does it affect us? In investigating healing techniques for my husband Hal, who has mental and physical challenges from cardiac arrest a number of years ago, I was gradually led to some contemporary scientists whose work I’ve read or whom I’ve listened to on the internet. The scientists include Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, Joe Dispenza, author of You are the Placebo, and Gregg Braden, author of The Divine Matrix. These authors have rediscovered the principles of affecting the Field in a purposeful way, for healing and for peace. I’ve been teaching about some of these principles for years. I’ve said that Love is the spiritual currency of the Universe; that we are all One, that we are meant to live both in the physical Universe AND the spiritual universe; that God appears to every person according to their experience and belief, and that the coming age will produce a synthesis of science and spirituality. However, it was not until recently, through the work of these and other contemporary teachers, that I’ve grasped the missing pieces in my understanding.

We can find the missing pieces in Torah, if we know what we are looking for. In Deuteronomy, what I call the Love Book, because there is an emphasis on Loving God. Love is mentioned 15X in Deuteronomy and heart is mentioned 48X. It says (if) you will seek God your God and you will find God if you search with all your heart and all your soul (4:29). The same portion, Va Etchanan contains the Shema, the prayer of the Oneness of all being and also V’ahavta, begging us to love. These verses show us the key that unlocks heaven’s doors: emotion, love, feeling, and compassion. The second paragraph of the Shema in the next Torah portion clearly tells us that through love and service we can influence physical reality. Where am I going with this? The energy field is influenced through thought; we know that. What we don’t realize is that the thought has to be powered by the emotion. It is the unity of thought and emotion that produces a result. Love, gratitude, and joy supply the current which allows us to communicate with the Field; to communicate effectively with God, if you will. The current is both electrical and magnetic. Studies have shown that the brain sends out weak electrical and magnetic waves. Heart energy is 100x more powerful electrically and 5,000X more powerful magnetically than the brain’s energy. This is why love energy paired with thought is so important. King David said this too. We affirm it in the Ashrei prayer: God is near to all those who call upon God, to all who call upon God in truth. The Eternal will fulfil the desire of those who fear him; he also will hear their cry, and will save them. God preserves all those who love him…. Zechariah said: not by might nor by power but by my spirit, says the Holy One. And there’s more to understand: We’ve been taught that biology is our destiny, that genes determine our health and much more. However the science now shows that belief and expectation direct gene expression. It sounds like magic, but it has been proven to be true. This is also the Observer effect – what we expect to see is what manifests in our lives. Change our perspective, change our expectations, and supply the power of emotion and we change ourselves and change the nature of our reality.

The Kabbalistic masters of the past understood many of these principles without being able to quote the science behind them. There are kabbalistic writings from Roman times among the Essenes, a sect of Judaism which is no more, writings from the 16th Century rabbis of Safed, the circle of Rabbi Isaac Luria, and also most importantly and readily available, the 18th & 19th Century teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the many Chasidic rebbes who taught and extended his wisdom. The Baal Shem Tov taught us to live joyously. He taught that everything is God. And he taught about the power of emotion: One Teaching: A student of The Baal Shem Tov became distraught over losing the kavanot, the secret meditations before the blowing of the shofar on RH and burst in tears. The Baal Shem said: There are many halls in the King’s palace and intricate keys open the doors, but the axe is stronger than all of these and no bolt can withstand it. Pure emotion unlocks heaven’s doors. The Chassidic masters could change the nature of reality, averting severe decrees against individuals and communities and in the case of the Baal Shem Tov, arrive at a distant location several days journey away by coach, overnight, even taking his students with him in the coach. A slightly later master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhenk was troubled by his ability to alter the physical universe and wrote about it a number of times in his work, Noam Elimelech. He said, God…created the Tzaddik who can nullify and annul God’s decrees. How can he annul decrees that have already been determined and decided in the higher worlds? Now you may say that the stories of the Chassidic masters cannot be proven, and yet, like God speaking to the prophets, there are too many instances of what some may call miracles to discount them all. Also, the contemporary scientists have proof that alterations in our physical reality can be accomplished by ordinary people. Think about the chicks: If chicks can change the nature of reality, one researcher said, just think what human beings can do.

Meditative states amplify our ability to remain in an elevated emotional state, in our subconscious, where change can more effectively occur. Repetition is also a way to build a new habit of being, into our lives. There are projects in place to heal people and also bring more peace and harmony into the world through group intention and elevated emotions. Negative emotions and fixed expectations limit us, and make us feel that we are victims and not creators of our reality. God has shown us the way to a true renewal – through morality, integrity, love, joy, gratitude, and an unlimited imagination. As I have taught, we have a vision of peace and harmony that we and God have dreamed of together. How will we get there? It is not the world that will change. WE will change – change our beliefs, our thoughts, and our emotions and the world will change. Rabbi Gelberman taught that LIFE means to be loving unconditionally, to be inspiring unconditionally, to be forgiving unconditionally and to be excited unconditionally; and he was a Satmar, the inheritor of the Chassidic tradition. If we are open minded and open hearted we can be God’s partners in creating a marvelous future. God as created the world this way. A new reality is already upon us and now we have the understanding to be creators in it. Isn’t life grand?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The New Science of Forgiveness

On this Yom Kippur, literally a day of wiping: a day of wiping away our sins, we confess communally for every human sin that anyone may commit. And shortly we will read that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, had an obligation each Yom Kippur to atone for himself, his household, and for all the Israelite nation. In the ancient sacrificial service, which was the way our ancestors drew near to God, each time a person brought any offering – even of grain or wine or oil, they placed their hands on or above the offering and confessed. This was the most important part of the offering, the confession. Our sage Maimonides taught us about atonement, which truly means at-ONE-ment. Maimonides said in his work, Mishneh Torah, that the first stage of repentance is acknowledging something we’ve done and discontinuing it. The second stage is confessing it with an attitude of regret, and evaluating its negative impact on you and others. And finally, resolving not to do it anymore. This afternoon we will read the Holiness code from Leviticus, which tells us not to take revenge or bear a grudge. We are, then, asked to forgive each other. Friedrich Nietsche said, “it is much more agreeable to offend and later ask forgiveness than to be offended and grant forgiveness.” And yet, this is what God asks us to do – to forgive each other, as Moses told us repeatedly – for our own benefit.

Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi of blessed memory, tells a wonderful story. When he would do a wedding, he would ask the family to assemble and then he performed a forgiveness ritual, because in every family it’s nearly impossible that there be no hurts, resentments, disappointments, or grudges from the past. So too, on this day, we have an opportunity to enter the New Year without the baggage and weight of past slights and injuries. At one of Rabbi Zalman’s weddings, there was a little girl who wanted to know how to do forgiveness. He said to her: “can you imagine that you have a beautiful shiny white dress on and here comes this big clump of mud and dirties it? You would want to clean it off, wouldn‘t you? Oh, yes!” She said. “Could you imagine then, instead of the mud being on the outside on your dress, the mud is on your heart? I sure want to get rid of that,” she said. He suggested that she close her eyes and draw down some golden light and let it flow over the mud on her heart until it was all washed away. This sounds so easy, and we all know it is not. Even those we have forgiven intellectually, we may not have totally forgiven emotionally – that when we think of that person, there is still some negativity there, in thinking about them. And to be honest, sometimes it feels good to be the injured party – to feel that we are right, and know the other person was wrong. It helps us to maintain our good opinion of ourselves.

Did you know that there is a new science of forgiveness? It’s what a psychologist friend of mine used to call Grandma research – research proving something your grandmother could have told you. Doctors and researchers are now studying forgiveness. And here is what they have found. Charlotte van Oyen Wilvliet found that not forgiving resulted in higher blood pressure and heart rate; the subjects sweated more and experienced more stress. Another researcher found more cortisol in subjects’ saliva. McCullogh and Rachal found negative indicators for physical, mental and spiritual health. Toussaint found higher instances of hostility and type A behavior, while Worthington & Scherer, in a review of the scientific literature, found that not forgiving compromised the immune system at many levels, disrupting the production of important hormones, interfering with the way cells fight of infections, bacteria, and even periodontal disease. Dr. Karen Swartz at Johns Hopkins University Hospital urged people to forgive. She said, “do it for yourself.”

Because God is One and we are part of that Universal Oneness, we can’t do anything truly good or bad that does not affect ourselves, others, the world: the whole. Think, if you will, of all the figurative mud that we, all the people on this earth, are carrying around from year to year; how much of a burden for ourselves and the world that we manufacture and maintain unnecessarily. Caroline Myss, a spiritual teacher, has spoken about the experience of a hurt an insult, or a slight. She said that someone taught her that in the moment of the hurt, in the person who was hurt, the insult brought up that same ugliness in the recipient. In other words, we experience in ourselves the capability of inflicting the same damage or even more damage to someone else, and we hate that in ourselves. Therefore, one reason to forgive, among many, is to do it out of a desire never to want to do that very thing to anyone else and never to hate, as we will hear this afternoon, (Levit. 19) “Do not hate your brother in your heart.”

Another interesting fact concerning forgiveness research is that Worthington and Wade found that forgiveness takes time. The amount of time a person spent trying to forgive was highly related to the degree of forgiveness that person experienced. So it’s something we have to work at. In one sense, it is learned behavior and there are many levels of forgiveness. We may forgive someone and find that there is residual hatred or pain or anger there. We can look back to Moses Rabbenu, our teacher, and of course to God, who told us that forgiveness is good for us. Indeed, it is holy work. It allows us to live more in the present, that sacred spiritual moment of Now; to live a happier life; and if the researchers are correct, a healthier life, body, mind, and soul. In the 13 attributes of God, which the Divine Presence spoke to Moses as a gift, during their most intimate encounter in Exodus, God said, I am gracious, and compassionate, slow to anger, forgiving and cleansing. We were given these attributes that we might imitate them and become just a little more like God, who forgives us continually. Let us, for the sake of life itself, dedicate ourselves to forgiving, being in this way, most like God, and bringing goodness to ourselves and others.
Given on Yom Kippur 2016

The Virtual World and the Spiritual World, it's Mirror Image

We have come here today on Rosh Hashanah, the spiritual New Year for something – or perhaps for a few different reasons. In the Torah, Rosh Hashanah’s only instructions are that we gather and listen to the sound of the shofar. We listen that it might speak to us and arouse in us a desire. Perhaps we might call it a desire for spiritual renewal or spiritual nurturing. The S’fat Emet taught that there is a spiritual point in each of us which we yearn to expand, placed there by the Divine Presence. The word spiritual means that which is related to the spirit – the non-physical world. We have come here with a hunger in our souls for some kind of connection or renewal-to that non-physical world that we intuit but seemingly have limited access to. The Torah speaks about this when we are barred from re-entering the Garden of Eden.

In ancient times, this renewal was framed in a moral sense. Our machzor, our prayerbook for the Holy Days quotes Maimonides, who lived in the 12th Century. He said, “Awake from your slumber and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance…mend your ways and your actions; forsake the evil path and unworthy purposes.” Our moral choices have much more to do with spiritual renewal than we might think. They either form barriers or enhanced access to the spiritual universe, or, in other words to the Divine Presence. We have moved beyond that idea of crime and punishment in our modern sensibilities. Who wants to be part of religion that threatens us?

We look at the Torah today in an entirely new light, interpreting it with more love, kindness, soul, and understanding than our ancestors did, to mine its deep wisdom and benefit from its assistance. Some of you have heard me speak about the evolution of human consciousness. I explain this to myself with the image of a beach. I am standing on a beach at the water’s edge looking at the horizon. Those born after me: the 12 year old Bar & Bat Mitzvah kids I teach who were born after me, are standing well into the water. They can see a farther horizon than the horizon I can see. Those born before me are standing up the beach. They can’t see as far as the horizon I can see. This image is also useful in that it helps me not to make others who hold different opinions wrong, as the reality they see is different from my reality. We know we are physical beings, living in the physical world. And this too is shifting. In the late 1960’s Woodstock’s Love-In, the idea of the Age of Aquarius from the show Hair represented the movement that began at that time, in which we began to accept and include all people: people of color, different ethnicities, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and physical and mental challenges.

This progress has continued through the advent of cell phones and the internet, allowing us to see people across the earth and form connections with them. Our current reality is that we now spend much of our time in the non-physical world. Stores are disappearing. We talk to each other via cell phone, skype, and other platforms, across the city and sometimes across the world. We are coming together and in a sense, we are no longer as bound to the physical world as we once were. A brief comment about transgender publicity in the media: I have a cousin in Israel who made a comment about all the transgender emphasis in this country. I told her that it’s the physical representation of what is happening within people: Mothers are working, Fathers are nurturing; gender roles are changing and becoming more fluid, more malleable. Most of the young people who come to me for me to marry them tell me they are spiritual but not religious. The recent Pew Survey of Religion in the country has identified the fastest growing segment of our population, the “Nones.” Between 70 and 80% of young people who do not have a high level of religious commitment are identified as “nones- having no religion.”

Religion is losing its grip on people. This was foretold by one of the Chassidic masters, Rabbi Zakok HaKohen of Lublin, as quoted by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi: “Some say the world is becoming less and less religious, but I say, on the contrary, the souls of people are becoming more and more refined. Perhaps on the outside it looks as if they are breaking away from God, but on the inside they are getting closer and closer.” Now we do yoga and tai chi for our bodies and also for our souls; for the hunger within us: a hunger for the sacred. We know we have physical needs AND we also have spiritual needs – perhaps more spiritual needs than we are aware of. We know we need love and friendship. We also need to experience beauty and art. We need time for quiet, a sense of community, beliefs that give meaning to our lives and inspire us with hope, giving us comfort. We need integrity, truth, and justice. In fact, we yearn for these three even though we are not always aware of it. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said in the Mishna, during Roman times, “By virtue of 3 things does the world endure: Truth, justice, and Peace.” We need to feel safe, to have ethical values, to contribute to others, to pray alone and sometimes together. One teacher from Islam said we need recognition and appreciation; AND we need a connection to the Divine. The Medical Community worldwide has begun to articulate and teach physicians, nurses, and other professionals about our spiritual needs. From the University of Maryland Medical Center to the US Army, to groups in Liverpool, Japan, Germany, to the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces – in all of these organizations and locations people are speaking about and teaching about our spiritual needs.

Judaism is changing in this area too. There is an expansion occurring for us clergy so that we can live in the same interfaith, accepting world where non-clergy live, not only partly in the virtual world, but partly in the spiritual world. When we gather each year to look inside ourselves, we have an opportunity to be renewed by creating sacredness here together. The Judaism you find today, not only in this synagogue, but also in the greater Jewish Community is expending, even in Orthodoxy, where a few women Talmud scholars have been ordained as rabbis. Each of our spiritual needs is a gateway into our souls. Finding a way to express and explore those needs is an entry point into the spiritual world, which is a companion to the virtual world and its mirror image. What is the benefit of all of this? It directly affects our contentment, happiness, and well-being – all that we want for ourselves but are unsure just how to achieve.

And where is God in all of this? One perspective is that God is the Divine, creative force which has brought us to this time and place and is continuing to lead us forward from here. We know how little of our spiritual potential we currently use. How much of our spiritual potential can we realize by seeking the Divine within? In the future, we will be more aware of our intuitive nature and in tune to its wisdom. The Torah teaches us that the physical and spiritual universes are a unity. To change our physical reality, we have to change our minds, opening them to the possibilities within us. By enlarging our perspective to encompass not only the virtual world where we spend so much of our time, but also the spiritual world, its mirror image, we can vaguely see where we humans are going, and how we will live in several more generations.

The pathways into this dimension of our lives is contained in the Ancient teachings of Judaism. The Divine Presence gave us these pathways as a gift, to be opened when we were ready. Ancient mystics like Moses, Rabbi Akiva and Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in Roman times, Moses de Leon, the author of the Zohar, who lived in the 12th Century, Moshe Chaim Luzatto in the 17th Cent., and the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th Century, through their understanding and wisdom were able to unwrap these gifts. I know one very spiritually gifted person who was able to receive one of these gifts. He told me that he goes into this state as easily as you or I would go onto the internet. The pathways have been waiting for us in our generation, to be discovered by us, not only by the great souls and teachers of the past. We are now ready as ordinary people to begin to understand them. We have a hunger for this knowledge, wholeness, and connection in our souls. We stand at a doorway we can now choose to walk through by growing in goodness, caring, kindness, integrity, charity, and forgiveness. The doors are now waiting for us. Judaism holds some of the keys. It is a marvelous journey that we humans are programmed to take. As the rabbis of the Talmud so often said, “Come and Learn.”
Given on Rosh Hashanah, 2016

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Speech at The UN for Interfaith Harmony Week on Building Bridges

There is something important that the spiritual needs to say to the political, and it begins with a story from the Book of Numbers. When the Israelites were very close to entering the Promised Land, the prophet Moses sent messengers to the surrounding nations to ask permission for the Israelites to pass through their lands. He promised that the Israelites would stay on the main road, that they would not eat their food or drink their water, and that if they did, that they would pay for them. Not one nation agreed, and a few of them attacked or threatened to attack. This story, seen through the lens of our understanding, actually provides the paradigm of a perfect world. If all the nations had cooperated, everyone would have benefited. They would have become allies and friends; there would have been trade and commerce, prosperity and enough resources for all. Instead there was death, destruction of crops and property, illness, privation, war, and loss of land.

This story gives us a glimpse of how the world is really supposed to work. When we cooperate and help each other, with kindness, compassion, generosity, and caring, there is more for everyone. It shows that there is not a finite amount of resources, but that through cooperation and friendship, there is enough for all. There is a miraculous component to all of this, and it’s been said that there is no religion at all without miracles. We know we share one earth. On a spiritual basis we share one life and one soul. This is our deeper reality. However, we humans also share a common problem: that we look separate from one another. Our 5 senses tell us where I end and where you begin. But there is a deeper reality: that we are all connected to each other and to the great Oneness of existence that some call God. As such, we are part of each other, all brothers and sisters for each other. If we could shake hands and exchange our protoplasm, our cell matter, in a spiritual handshake, we would understand this. There is truly no Us and no Them: only Us.

Since we are all One, the energies of giving to each other create more goodness and plenty in the system, activating the spiritual forces which allow all of us to be in the great cycle of giving and receiving. Similarly, should I harm you, it is like putting a knife into my own heart. The Chassidic masters in Judaism taught that blessings will flow to us as long as we don’t prevent those blessings from reaching us, by a failure to live out of the deeper reality that we are all One. We are already a part of each other. Our task is to shift our consciousness, our inner dialogue, away from purely linear and logical thinking, so that we can include the spiritual in our deliberations, and begin to live out of the truth that we are One. The bible says, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I always wish that it had added, because your neighbor IS yourself. The bridges between us already exist. It is up to us to realize this truth and to take concrete action to make these bridges real.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Higher Purpose

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Go for yourself. The portion relates God’s call to Abram, his going forth out of Mesopotamia to Canaan. It contains God’s promises that the land will be given to Abraham’s descendants, the birth of Ishmael, and the prophecy of the birth of Isaac, the covenant between God and Abram in which Abram and Sarai receive their new names, Abraham and Sarah, culminating in their promise to worship only God, and the rite of circumcision.

There is a wonderful account here (Gen. 15) of a prior covenant between God and Abram, before he becomes Abraham, called the covenant between the pieces. In a vision, God tells Abram that his reward will be very great. Abram responds that he has no children to inherit anything he receives and God reassures him that he will have offspring. The Eternal promises Abram the land of Canaan for the 3rd time, and Abram asks God how he will know that he’ll inherit it. God very tenderly proposes that they make a treaty just as if God were a real human person.

If we think of all the promises that God made to Abraham, from the beginning of this chapter, they include many material rewards: children and many descendants, prosperity, land, security in that God will bless those who bless Abram and curse those who curse him, and also fame. In verse 7 (15:7) God says, I am God who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.” All by itself, it is an unremarkable verse, but seen against the backdrop of the rest of the Torah, in which God says, I am God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, over 30 times, the verse speaks to us differently from it’s plain meaning.

It recalls a story I once read from a book I don’t have anymore. It went something like this: one day the lord of the manor summoned one of his workers to ask him to fetch water in a very large bucket and bring him the water. The worker took the bucket and tried to fill it, but the bucket had many small leaks and it was impossible to fulfill his master’s request. He filled it again and again, but in vain, the water would not remain in the bucket. The man brought the bucket back to his master in deep frustration and said, I tried and tried but could not bring you water in this bucket. The lord smiled kindly at him and said gently, I really didn’t want the water. What I wanted was to have the bucket cleaned.

This story gives us a peek into the relationship between God and Abram. God seems to offer Abram many material blessings, but really, God has other rewards in mind. God wants to take Abram out – out of his family, out of his native land, and out of himself, to discover a higher, more spiritual, holier self. We are all being taken out of one place and being led to another. Wherever we are now, God is leading us out of that place en route to our better selves, not always to a physical place, but sometimes that does occur: a place where new experiences, possibilities of change, and opportunities to be a blessing will be found. As it is said in the midrash: “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. So shall the king desire your beauty (ib. 12), to make you glorious in the world. (Gen. 39:1,3)… this refers to Abraham, who united the whole world for us, like a person who sews a tear together.”

The midrash teaches us that this elevation is not done just for our enjoyment or to bless us alone. Our relationship with God is for a higher purpose, to unify the world and elevate all our relationships thereby. May we know that all that comes to us must serve that higher purpose, and that in addition, the Eternal Holy One is constantly trying to send us personal blessings along the way.