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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Life, Death, and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

There is an old Jewish story in the Midrash in which the question is asked, what has God been doing since creation was completed? The answer given is: God has been busy making marriages. Only marriages? someone asks, and the reply is given: Is there anything more difficult? (Numb. Rabbah 3:6) Yes, I think there is something much more difficult, requiring much more of God’s time and attention: it is bringing the world, bringing us, forward from where we are to where we need to be. We human beings are God’s big project.

The very first commandment in the Torah is: Be fruitful and multiply: p’ru u’r’vu. We can understand being fruitful in our lives as doing much more than having children. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says that carrying out this first commandment allows us to be able to discharge all the other commandments. This makes sense, and I think there is an additional reason for this commandment. 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. So one reason we are to be fruitful and multiply is to bring human consciousness forward.

Each one of us is born with talents and challenges in our personalities. There are things we are good at, things that we are not good at, things we like about ourselves and other things we dislike. There are things we are born knowing. Some people refer to children who seem to know things at an early age, as old souls. There are other things that may take us many years to learn. During my lifetime I may, through learning and my experiences, take a step or two into the water and see just a little farther than I did when I was born. If I am lucky and blessed I may be able to take an extra step or two. There are things I’ll never be able to see, that people 300 years from now will know just by being born at that time.

For example, in the 18th century, the great founder of chassidism called Baal Shem Tov thought he could hasten the coming of the Messiah by bringing all Jews into a state of goodness and purity. 300 years later, not only sages but all of us know that the time of peace and harmony can’t come about until all people on the earth, not just Jewish people, participate in this tremendous change.

The Torah reading for this morning begins by mentioning the death of Aaron’s two sons. God asks Moses to tell his brother Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest: Aaron “shall not come at all times into the sanctuary within the curtain in front of the ark cover so that he should not die.” Why is Aaron being cautioned? Perhaps it’s because his job was dangerous. In addition, I think it was so that Aaron could have the time to accomplish the soul work he was given to do in his personality. Aaron allowed the Israelites to build the Golden Calf, and God subsequently put Aaron in a highly structured and ritualized job to give him the opportunity to see that certain things are not acceptable – keeping the peace at any cost after having agreed, in the 10 Commandments, to abandon idol worship is not acceptable. He was to learn a certain kind of moral scrupulousness, a refinement of his integrity which was hard for him, just because he was such a people person with a need to be liked. Similarly, as in the Cain and Abel story, God did not destroy Cain for having killed Abel. God sent Cain off to learn, to give him the time to refine away the selfishness and hatred in his personality.

The Chassidic Masters taught there is nothing but God, which is expressed by the Apter Rebbe, Abraham Joshua Heschl of Apt, who said, “there is only the ever present of God knowing and understanding God’s self.” Earlier than that, a poet in 12th century France took similar ideas from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and wrote the piyut, the sacred poem I sang last night at the Kol Nidre service: Ki Hineh vachomer: Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are we in your hand.” In a sense, we are on a trip we didn’t plan with people we may not have selected, and with inner baggage we didn’t pack. No wonder we are often bewildered by life.

In today’s Torah reading the 19th Century sage Malbim called attention to the man described as a designated person, the one who was assigned the task of conducting the scapegoat to the wilderness. We too are designated people -- with a task – to accomplish the soul learning we were meant to do. And we experience two contradictory tugs at us: we yearn for union with the Divine, for a deep happiness and contentment: an improvement in our lives and in ourselves-- and -- we are often unwilling to change. Again we can visit Cain and Abel. God told Cain, “surely if you improve yourself you will be forgiven, but if you don’t, sin rests at the door, its desire is toward you yet you can conquer it.” The entire Torah exists to help us accomplish our soul tasks and to show and urge us how to treat each other better; to care more, to find happiness in service and kindness. Yom Kippur actually encourages us in this endeavor in two ways: by helping us to focus on the communal and also in the letting go of the ego-self, what the Chassidic sage S’fat Emet calls negating ourselves before God.

What would negating ourselves and caring more look like? We might have to strive to give up a certain kind of self-centeredness that comes from the way we appear to each other, as if we are all separate and discontinuous beings. We might have to give up that world view for the way the Torah tells us it really is, that there is a deeper connectedness to God and each other than can be seen or apprehended with our five senses. The world can only change for the better if WE go forward. It all depends on us. This puts life and death in a different light. The Torah intimates an afterlife in at least three separate places: where Abraham is buried in one place and it says “he was gathered to his people,” who were buried a thousand miles away, so that being gathered to his people has to mean his soul was gathered to his people. Also, when Rachel died the Torah says “her soul departed,” and in Deuteronomy it says, baruch atah b’voecha u’ varuch atah b’zetcha, blessed are you in our coming and blessed are you in your going out.

If there is an evolution of human consciousness, that can be observed, (which I spoke about from a spiritual perspective in my Rosh Hashanah sermon of September of 2011), and which the Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote about from a scholarly perspective in his 2011 book, published just after my sermon, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, proving that we are becoming kinder and gentler, then our soul learning is being passed on in some way to the next generations. This means that death can be seen as our giving back to the universe. Death is our gift to life. During our lifetime we are bringing the world forward. Then, in death, we release that soul learning to the Universe.

May we know that by being here on Yom Kippur and participating in this process of atonement, we are helping to accomplish our soul tasks. We are clay, and we are the hands of God, going forward, so the world can go forward toward the Oneness and harmony that existed before creation. May each of us know how vitally important we are in accomplishing the tasks we have been given and may each of us be greatly blessed for a healthy and good life of forward motion in this New Year!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Flowing in the Zone - Rosh Hashanah 2015

In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Claremont University Graduate School psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about a phenomenon many athletes describe as being "in the Zone." This has been written about for more than 30 years. He described this “flow” as a state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity, especially one which involves creativity. During this peak time they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, un-selfconscious, and at the height of their abilities.” They often “lose track of time and external concerns or stimuli, feel connected to something greater than themselves, and report having their ability and attention challenged but not overwhelmed in the completion of a task.” He studied flow because he was curious about what makes people happy, and his research suggests that being in the Zone applies across cultures and activities. You may be thinking, what has this to do with Judaism?

The Torah begins, B’reisheet bara Elohim, which is translated, in the beginning of God’s creating. In these first 3 words of Torah there is motion. The undifferentiated God essence is already creating, even before we come into the story, before we have contact with or knowledge of the Divine. God whose name is the verb, 'being or existence' may not only be a thing, but may be understood as process, and even more, as a creating process. Rabbi Zalman Shacter Selomi, who passed away this year, said in his book Paradigm Shift, “God is a verb. He went on to say: “Our current understanding of process requires that we create an interactive, not passive or active form of verb. The flag does not wave in the wind the wind does not wave the flag. The flag and wind are inter-waving.” One of his protegees, Rabbi David Cooper, wrote a book with the title, God is a Verb.

The movement of creation is very familiar to us. We live it. We know there is motion all around us: the earth turns, the wind blows, the air vibrates, our hearts beat, and we breathe. We never stop moving and creating, thinking and feeling. God and the Universe are all about motion and flow. This may seem obvious, however the constant creative movement of God and all life has something important to teach us. My favorite sage, the 19th Century S’fat Emet taught that we have to prepare ourselves to be a vessel in which God’s essence, which he speaks of as Torah light, can be contained” This wonderful teaching from about 100 years ago still instructs and delights; yet it feels a little static 100 years later. If God is process and not thing, then surely we have to be a different kind of vessel, a vessel for flow, allowing God Goodness to be expressed through us; a prism allowing God’s light energy to shine through us.

The Talmud speaks about this motion, saying “Mercy is a wheel that turns” (Betza 16a). On Shabbat, in the Lecha Dodi prayer from the 16th Century, we sing “ki hi makor ha-b’racha,” that Shabbat is a flowing spring of blessings; and a famous Chassidic kabbalist of the mid 18th Century Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, wrote about pipelines of blessings, or Shefa, which is flow. He said, “when we fall from our spiritual level lacking trust in our Creator, who is the true provider…we cause a blemish in the higher worlds…this disrupts the shefa. God then has to re-command or reconnect the flow of blessings anew, so that it can flow again" (Noam Elimelech, P. 201). This teaching is a slightly more modern approach, but perhaps we can go farther still.

Here is another understanding. Someone once said, people have been making money for thousands of years. Where did it all go? This quip tells us that having things and holding on to things is not the ideal state. Of course we need a place to live, we need food each day, loving friends and other relationships, a plan to provide for our elder years. However beyond the basic necessities, all else, such as: kindness, love, compassion, even money and possessions, are supposed to pass through us. Holding on to too much can stop the flow that is the natural order of things: life as it was meant to be. Looked at from a slightly different perspective, flow can also be about our ability to change and grow. It is easy for us to get stuck in who we think we are. The God-state of flow tells us that movement, becoming – is where we should always be. If we stop the flow of God’s goodness as it is expressed through our becoming, we prevent that goodness from being expressed in the world. Making a stoppage actually creates a lack of some kind. Anger and hatred, selfishness, hoarding, revenge, grudges, all the negative things mentioned in Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, Leviticus, Chapter 19, are a stopping of the flow, the God-ing to use a word that Rabbi Shacter Sheomi said. We are supposed to be agents of flow, allowing and helping all things to come through us as we ourselves are going forward in the flow. In this way we can be of help to each other and the whole world.

In the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which will be read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, what is often missed is the amount of reassurance and help God gave to Abraham going into his test. God promised him numerous times that he would have many descendants, God told him twice that these descendants would come through Isaac. When Abraham asked if Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed if there were 10 righteous people there, God reassured him that God cares about and protects the righteous. And God kept every promise of prosperity, protection and offspring to Abraham. Going into the test, Abraham held the paradox, Isaac will have many descendants, on the one hand, and Kill Isaac on the other hand. They could not both be true. By giving Abraham this paradox, the Torah teaches us that God helps us with every choice, arranging the circumstances and guiding us so we can choose correctly, so that we keep moving forward, and keep growing in goodness.

How does one get to the zone? Of course it takes preparation. Athletes train for years to experience it occasionally. And it can be experienced spiritually too, but that also takes effort and much preparation, and patience. In a sense, living in the zone, sometimes, is our birthright. It is an unfathomable gift from the Divine. On the second day of creation God separated the physical universe from the spiritual universe. This is also what Maimonides taught. The Zone is not ordinarily accessible all the time, but by dint of our own energy and commitment, if one longs for a better way, we can live in the flow by being part of the flow, by living in consonance with its structure, by expressing it. Just like love, the spiritual currency of the universe, when we begin the flow of love, we have the possibility of experiencing its gifts. In this New Year, may we be agents of flow, clear prisms allowing God light to shine through us and helping us to move forward. May we be giving of ourselves, which is ultimately to ourselves. May we use our Energy not to withhold, but to keep it flowing, that goodness will flow to all those we touch and also out into the world.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Paradigm of a Perfect World

Originally published by T'Ruah, Rabbis for Human Rights

Chukat, from the Book of Numbers, describes Moses and the Israelites’ journey as they were nearing the Promised Land, and provides two starkly different visions. Moses sent emissaries, first to the King of Edom, then to the Canaanite King of Arad, and to Sihon, King of the Amorites. Moses made them this offer: “Let us pass, I pray you, through your country; we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, nor will we drink well water; we will go by the kings highway, we will not turn to the right nor to the left, until we have passed your borders… The people of Israel said to him, We will go by the highway; and if I and my cattle drink of your water, then I will pay for it; I will do you no injury, only pass through on foot.” (Num. 20:17, 19) Midrash Rabbah emphasizes the generosity of Israel’s offer: “Moses said to Edom: We have a well with us and we eat manna, yet, do not suppose that we shall give you only trouble. You will make a profit for yourself!’…God spoke to Moses in the same way: You shall purchase food of them for money ([Deut. II, 6] Numbers Rabbah XIX:15).

We are told that the Edomites, descendants of Esau, the Canaanites, the Amorites and also the people of King Og of Bashan attacked the Israelites, not permitting them to pass through their land. It is notable that the Torah begins this section by emphasizing the connection between Israel and Edom, saying that Israel was Edom’s “brother.” Right away we can place ourselves in this metaphor – we are all connected to each other, every person is our brother, our sister. But the King of Edom was either ruled by fear or resistant to change, or he couldn’t be bothered to help his figurative brother. He is all supposed self-interest, even when his people stand to benefit by making money selling food and water to the Israelites.

Had the Israelites been permitted to pass through these lands, everyone would have benefitted: the people of those nations would have made a profit. Both sides would have gained an ally and the Israelites would have reached their destination sooner, with fewer problems, and much more ease. Instead there was war. People died and crops were destroyed. The nations made the Israelites their enemies. Their cities were captured and because of these battles, there was destruction and privation.

These starkly contrasting possibilities provide a teaching: the Source of Life structured the world so that when we cooperate and help each other, there is enough for everyone. No one need experience any lack. This is the paradigm of a harmonious and perfect world. It is the world as it was designed to operate, a world of one-ness where we know of our connection to each other and to God. The Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschl of Apt wrote: “When we purify our thoughts and only allow spiritual thoughts of the Divine in our mind we connect…to the highest level of spiritual knowledge and we purify the breath that comes from the heart and connects it to the heavenly breath, the Divine understanding, which emanates holiness to all the spiritual worlds. And as we purify our voice we connect to the Divine Voice….And finally when we connect our speech, we complete God.” (The Heschl Tradition by Moshe A. Braun) When we are selfish - attacking and victimizing each other, trying to keep all the resources for ourselves, we create privation. The world is designed to work like an enormous and intricate machine with many different moving parts, each part working with the others in a finely balanced whole. When we cooperate, everyone benefits. The gears mesh and the world operates well. When we are each other’s adversaries, we all lose.

Coincidentally, just this week in the New York Times, this was illustrated by an article written by Jodi Rudoren. She reported that the Rand Corporation concluded that the Israeli and Palestinian economies would gain $183 Billion if there were a two peaceful states.

The more we figure out how to work with each other rather than against each other, the more we allow God’s blessings to flow to us. We can create scarcity or prosperity, and it is a conscious choice. May we respect and help each other, going with the way reality is structured and not against it; working together to create more blessings and prosperity for us all.

Jill Hausman is the Rabbi and also serves as Cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple in Manhattan. She has previously served as Cantor/Assistant Rabbi in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and has been a marine biologist, a singer, and actress. Her commentaries on the weekly Torah portion have been published by The Jewish Week in New York City.