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Archive for April, 2009

All week long I’ve been planning to write about something else—Adam and the fiftieth. But now I want to talk about paradox.

Paradox—two seemingly opposite, apparently mutually exclusive phenomena being true simultaneously. Or something like that.

For a while now, one of my takes on the story of Adam and Eve is that in the Garden they lived in a pre-paradoxical state. They saw only their oneness, their unity. They were merged with the divine and with one another. They saw no other, no multiplicity.

After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve entered a state of paradox. Suddenly, they could see otherness, separateness. Reconciling this manyness with the unity they could now only remember became the source of great confusion. Living in a world of reason, they could no longer see how two could possibly equal one. It didn’t made sense, and still doesn’t, for these two seemingly opposite, apparently mutually exclusive possibilities to be true simultaneously.

The objective—of spiritual practice, of Torah, of humanity—can partly be characterized as a shift into a post-paradoxical state—where we see two, yet know one, and hold these two truths simultaneously and without conflict.

Why am I writing about this now? It’s Thursday evening, actually really early Friday morning. I’ve just been outside doing my practice, dialoguing about my day with, for lack of any truly appropriate terminology, God. I’ve had a long, challenging day. There were several stories percolating in my mind about situations with other people. This hasn’t been the case recently. Mostly, I’ve just been in a place of blessed union (not ultimate union, but still blessed). Going into the dialogue this evening I felt confused, agitated, concerned. After clearing away the cobwebs of identification with my stories, I came back to the recognition that everything coming my way is for my own good, that literally everything that comes towards me is a gift, beckoning me to awaken. I return feeling present, connected and blessed.

It struck me how one set of phenomena can lead to two such disparate results. On the one hand, I can get completely trapped in my stories about events, their impact and consequences. This, evidence seems to indicate, is the general state for most of us. On the other hand, knowing the stories fully, moving through them, understanding my relationship to them in the deepest sense, the same events can help lead me to clarity, truth and greater peace.

The great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, said that in Egypt (where we just were 15 days ago) the nation of Israel had reached the 49th level of degradation. According to this view, had we remained slaves for even one more instant, we would have fallen to the 50th and suffered complete spiritual death as a nation. As we know, we turned things around, 180, and reached instead the 50th level of purity at Mount Sinai. One circumstance, two opposite directions.

This challenge, and opportunity, is the paradoxical universe we face still today. As we move through this time of year, counting the fifty days of our journey from Passover—physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual slavery—to the ultimate freedom of our encounter with the divine, I pray that we can find the strength, as a species, to not turn from the great challenges we face, but to confront them head on. I pray that we come, all of us, to fully grasp the pain of a world plagued by violence, hunger and ecological destruction, and that we move through these crises to see them as terrible gifts, urging us ever more intently to awaken to our true nature—many-faceted beings who, to survive and blossom, must come to comprehend and embody our fundamental and astonishing oneness.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I’ve been thinking about free will lately. I just came back from an event called Pesach in the Desert. A wonderful time spent with about sixty like-minded people in the spare, hot wilderness far to the east of here.

I offered a class on one of my favorite stories from the Talmud, about Eliezer be Dordia:

Eliezer ben Dordia’s claim to fame was that he had slept with every prostitute on earth. One day, he heard of one more prostitute. She lived in a distant land at the edge of the sea, a perilous journey, and charged several hundred gold dinars for her hire. But this was his life, his reason for being, this was who he was, so he somehow collected the money and set out to meet her.

He traveled across seven rivers to the edge of the sea. He gave her the money, and they went into her chambers. Just as they were about to do it, to consummate, she let out a loud fart. She looked him directly in the eye. “That,” she said, indicating her release, “has as much chance of going back to its source as Eliezer ben Dordia does of going back to his.”

He ran from her room and into the hills. He sat between two mountains. “Mountains and valleys,” he cried, please intercede for me in the heavenly court and beg for my forgiveness!” “Sorry,” they replied. “We cannot bear true witness for you. We too are unworthy. We cannot do it.”

“Heaven and earth,” Eliezer ben Dordia pleaded, “intercede in the heavenly court on my behalf and beg for my forgiveness!” But they too claimed to be unworthy and unable. He next turned to the Sun and Moon, then to the stars and galaxies, with the same result.

Finally he proclaimed, “I understand, it’s all up to me.” He put his head between his knees and he wept. At the end of an hour, his soul left his body and a voice came from the heavens, “Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia has been accepted into the World to Come.”

Hearing this, the great Judah Hanassi remarked, “Some of us, it takes an entire lifetime to gain the merit to enter the World to Come. Eliezer ben Dordia did it in one hour of weeping, and he gets called Rabbi.”

*

Certainly a perplexing tale to find in a code of sacred law, the story of Eliezer ben Dordia bears interpretation on many levels. But I’d like to focus on just one for now.

The last words we hear from ben Dordia are, “I understand, it’s all up to me.” This is, in a way, his final lesson.

We tend to think of free will in the abstract. It seems to me that way at least. In my tradition, Judaism, and I imagine in others, free will is a fundamental, bedrock principle. Yet rarely do we seem to confront what that truly means; we bump around life, going from place to place, activity to activity, work, eating, sleeping, mostly in a kind of fog. But what free will actually means is that at every given moment, this moment, any future is possible. We literally have the freedom, always, to choose whatever world we wish to create. This is true for us as individuals, and as a species. From this point on, we can build whatever is deepest in our hearts. All we really need to do is, like Eliezer ben Dordia, wake up to the true depths of our freedom.

At this time of year, as we move from the energy of slavery and make our way towards the promise of freedom, I pray that we find the strength to see the full scope of our free will, and ultimately that we come to exercise it in the service of building a world of peace, justice and freedom for all people, all creatures and the earth.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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Hi folks;

As many of you know, the time leading up to Passover (Pesach) can be just about the busiest time of year. There are many preparations to make. In light of this, the posting this week is brief. It’s a poem I wrote a few days ago. What it lacks in rhythm and meter, it makes up for in brevity:

what is Pesach?

birth
beginning
possibility

an opportunity
to leap across boundaries
and come home

pesach is the threshold
of this bridge
taking 49 steps
to cross

inward and out

the far side
deep within
the fiftieth

gateway
to another world
either direction

though it looks like we left there
long ago
we stand in the middle
still

our only responsibility
to shift the balance
in this moment

if we take one step
towards love
now
here

the entire world will tip
to one side
and blossom

I wish you all true freedom; exodus from whatever holds you back as an individual, and an easy passage through the desert of change for us all, along with quick entry into a world of our most highly realized potential.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

please note: because of the holiday, next week’s posting may not appear until Friday. I’ll try to make it Tuesday if I can…

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