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Greetings from the Holy Land. My hiatus from this blog has seen me swept away with many demands on my time, many blessings. The broken keyboard was an invitation to step away from the weekly posts and give myself over to a few months of solid teaching.

And now here I sit, in Jerusalem. Got here Tuesday.

In honor of this place, I want to share with you a terrible secret.

Perhaps the most famous question in all of Torah commentary (posed a thousand years ago by Rashi, the most authoritative of all later interpreters) is “ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s the idea of the Sabbatical Year together with Mount Sinai?

It’s a good question, considering that the only time the Bible ever tells us explicitly that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai is in the section outlining the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. So what’s the connection? Why here, of all places?

Far beyond the realms of Torah scholarship, this question has become embedded in broader Jewish consciousness. Years ago a rabbi friend of mine was visiting Israel, and happened to watch an old rerun of Kojak. When one of the characters said, “what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”, my friend laughed to see Rashi’s question, verbatim, flash across the bottom of the screen—“ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s one thing got to do with the other?

As is so often the case, everything. The answer Rashi gives, in the case of the Sabbatical Year and Mount Sinai, is that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove that the entire Torah in all its details was given directly by God to Moses during their meeting on the fiery hilltop. Oddly enough, especially for Torah discussions, where pretty much anything is open for debate, challenge, reevaluation and, especially, irresolution, this answer remains entirely uncontested.

What this means is, it’s a widely if not universally accepted premise within traditional Jewish circles that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years prove the validity of the entire Torah. This is a serious load to carry. If you have a fraction of a appreciation of what the Torah means within Jewish tradition, you will recognize that to prove the validity of the Torah is to prove the validity of Judaism itself, to prove even the reality of existence and, reasoning back, possibly to prove even God. We say that the Torah preexisted creation, that God looked into it and created the world. According to tradition, the Torah is not a reflection of reality, rather its cause.

What’s interesting though is not Rashi’s uncontested “fact”, but its implications. The centuries of commentators move on from his bold assertion (which is based in very early sources), to question not whether the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove the authenticity of the Torah, only how. Over the centuries, the discussion on this matter has been rich, layered and profound.

And with this we arrive at our terrible secret, which is really just my attempt at an answer to this thousand year-old question. I decided to write about it yesterday evening, as I was sitting beside David’s Tower within the walls of the old city, watching what I fully expected to be an exceedingly dull, drawn out sound-and-light show, but which turned out to be not half-bad and blessedly brief.

Sitting there, watching the play of colors on the ancient stone walls, I was thinking about triumphalism, and the propensity of some to flaunt possession of this land, this place.

Our tradition teaches us that after the sin of the Golden Calf, in order to renew the covenant (and live), the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were established as the cornerstones of a system of reward and punishment. With the first covenant, the Torah was entirely free. The second came with responsibilities. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years became our part of the bargain. Keep them, and all would be well; fail, and the consequence is exile, perhaps the gravest of all possible punishments.

At the heart of these two multifaceted commandments is the principle of hefker, ownerlessness. God outlines these laws and says, ki li ha’aretz, “for the earth is mine.” The Sabbatical and Jubilee years are a manifest expression of this deeper spiritual truth. These mitzvot (commandments) call upon us to release indentured servants, allow the earth rest, share all food freely and nullify debts. The essence of everything we’re meant to do and not do during these years is letting go—spiritually and physically.

And this letting go is the terrible secret. We were given this land, this earth, as an inheritance, but to earn it, to merit living here we must let it go. We must give up our sense of unqualified possession and open to a deeper recognition of “ownership” beyond the narrow, human realm. We must awaken to a deeper sense that all that exists, all of creation, is part of something far greater than our specifically human drama.

Why is this so terrible? It speaks to the spiritual irony that the only way to gain what we most want is to relinquish our very grasping for it. What does it mean that to merit this land, this earth we’ve been dreaming of for millennia, we’ve got to let it go?

There is much discussion in the commentaries about the Sabbatical Year’s role as the condition for living in the land. The Torah itself makes this abundantly clear when it says the earth will ‘vomit’ us out for failure to keep the Sabbatical Year. The third to last sentence of the entire Tanach, the full body of our most sacred texts, reemphasizes this by stating that not keeping this commandment was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the cause of our exile.

In the Torah, we’re promised that if we do let go, if we do share this world and keep the commandments of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the earth will naturally provide all we need. We’re promised that we don’t actually have to work so hard, we can slow down, step back and let go, and all will be well.

No human could make this promise, and some interpreters take this to be the foundation of Rashi’s claim for proof of divine origin.

Through linking the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years so intimately with Sinai, the Torah is telling us something very significant about the nature of reality, of change, of peace, justice and freedom. Sinai is the paradigm of collective awakening. It is the moment of shift, when and how we come to God not only as individuals, but together, as humanity. To achieve this fulfillment of our collective potential, we must shift our relationship to the world and ground ourselves in the principle of hefker, letting go of any fixed sense we have of who we are and how the world works. We must relinquish our conception that how things are today—our governments, our economies, our societies and families—are how they are because we are somehow fixed in how we are. To open new doorways of possibility, we must release our narrow sense of who we are and what we are doing here.

Nothing is given. Everything can change in an instant. The Torah is offering us a terrifying glimpse of how that happens. To change the world and find ourselves again standing before Sinai, we must let go completely.

The Jubilee takes this to the ultimate extreme. It is, as I’ve called it, God’s holy reset button, a new beginning. We have the capacity to do just this. But to move from where we are today to where we have the potential to be involves this terrible, divine process of letting go. We cannot enter the Promised Land with our old ways intact. We must, as Joseph, Abel, Eve, Adam and so many of our spiritual masters have done before us, sacrifice our very selves to the service of truth.

It isn’t easy, but no one said it would be. From where we stand, God’s justice seems a terrible price to pay. From the other side, from that world where unity and sharing have replaced enmity and hoarding, it appears the most wonderful gift imaginable.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Yonatan

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The challenges we face are human challenges.

There is no real scarcity in the world, only a dreamt scarcity—and we are the dreamers; there is no true need for violence, only an invented need—and we, the inventors; no cause to pillage and pollute the earth, only a blindness—and we, the blind.

The solutions to these challenges are human solutions: A new dream; a re-invention of how we function as a human family; a clearer vision of who we are, what we are doing here, and how we relate to the earth and all its creatures.

To change how the world works, we must change. To heal this earth, we must heal ourselves.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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It’s a long, long journey. And there’s nowhere to go. This is the great paradox of the spiritual life. We spend our days pursuing god, brahma, enlightenment, while everything we’re looking for, all that we seek is right here on the tip of our nose, hidden in plain sight. As long as we look outside this moment, this place, for fulfillment, peace, we look in exactly the wrong place.

This is the deeper meaning of Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the man who goes off to seek his treasure, traveling the world, returning home only to find it hidden in his own kitchen. This is not simply a tale of staying within one’s own religious tradition, as many have thought, it’s an expression of deep truth about the nature of life, consciousness, and our relationship to the divine, the animating force of all that is.

It’s also one of the messages of Eden, the reason why the story, the journey, begins at the end. Everything we’re looking for is here already.

This is a difficult lesson to internalize for someone such as me, who has spent his adult life trying to figure out how to change things. But if we look at things objectively, we have to admit that it’s true: We want a world of peace? Surely we’ve got everything we need to achieve that; there’s nothing more—no object, no technology—we require to simply stop hurting each other. If anything, we’ve got to get rid of stuff. Want everyone to have nutritious food? There’s plenty to go around. Once again, it’s our own blindness that gets in the way. A healthy planet with life supporting systems that sustain us in perpetuity? Got that too. For how much longer, who knows…but it’s clear that if we can get our act together as a species we can have that without lifting a finger.

What’s the point of this? Just a reflection of my own journey these days. Reminding and reminding and reminding myself that everything I yearn for is right here. It’s helpful to remember, and a blessing to let go of striving, of anxiety, of control, of the idea that somewhere somewhen somehow else things will be more complete. It’s all right here. And when I let go into that, the universe simply, elegantly, incredibly provides.

It’s a beautiful system, this organism on and in which we live. This tendency towards perpetual abundance is not limited to physical systems; it’s built into the fabric of the cosmos themselves. The secret is simply to stop, watch and allow.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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How do you convey to someone, who’s never responded to the inkling, that there’s more going on to the world than meets the eye? This is especially challenging, since what that “more” is can’t be seen with the eye or captured by the tongue. Still, it’s nonetheless real; in fact it’s the underlying frame and perpetuating force of reality. It’s also perceivable, just not the way we normally use our given faculties.

Consider a thread (for some reason I picture it to be red). Picture it running from the time of your birth, stretching through the center of your head, reaching forward to the time of your death. Along this thread, like dust on a carpenter’s snap-line, are all of the accumulated memories, resentments, celebrations, triumphs, regrets and pains of your past. As well, there’s the collection of all your fears and hopes for the future,

This thread, with its build up of socially and personally imposed, self-directed adjectives—I’m selfish, kind, needy, stressed out, the best, the worst, too good, not good enough—is not you.

Imagine if the thread were cut, and you had no opinions about yourself at all, no collected idea of who you are or what you can or cannot be. Imagine how it would feel, what it would be like just being who you are, in any given moment, without that pervading cord locking you into a particular set of responses, judgments and perceptions. In that state, it is as if we are born again and again and again in every moment, constantly renewed, given a fresh chance, a perpetually replenished clean slate.

That might seem scary, even insane. Who would I be? What would I want? How would I get anything accomplished? Wouldn’t I just sit around and vegetate? In that state however, the thread is still available, it’s just that our relationship to it is no longer the same. It no longer runs straight through the head from birth to death; it exists as more of a suggestion than a command, an idea than a solid entity. What I’m driving at here is not a perpetual state of forgetfulness, it’s not that the memories don’t exist or the hopes don’t stir, but they are not confused with the self; there’s a relationship, but no confining identification with. Our experience of what is is not proscribed by our past and future.

We are living in Plato’s cave. What is “outside” it, what that “more” is, is impossible to describe from within its confines. I can say that war, poverty and destruction of the natural world are incompatible with that state, with the state of liberty from the cave. When we don’t identify with the false self, we come to see how truly interconnected we are with everything else; how, like a colony of aspens, we may appear to be separate trees, though underneath it all we are simply expressions of one giant organism. When we move beyond the limits of identification with our “small” selves, we see that we are “more” than we appear to be. Unbound from the tangled thread of our past and future, we come to see that the world is new at every moment, full of possibility—for ourselves, for our communities, for our species.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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[Hi folks. I’ve been at a conference all week, jam packed busy. So I offer something brief here. Hopefully we can build on it over time.]

יהיויהי

The world is a giant mirror. Society, the earth, our own individual lives…everything in existence is simply a facet of this great reflection.

The exact nature of the mirror itself, who it is that’s actually doing the looking, cannot be put into words.

As long as we sit and wait for someone else to complete, redeem or save the world, the image we see in the mirror will continue to sit, to wait.

It is only when we get up to move that the image in the mirror, whatever Name we give it, too will move.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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[I apologize for the delay in getting this out. Friday I was in no condition to write anything.]

“Now here [the sages] have awakened us to a great secret of secrets from the Torah… Bend your ear to hear what I am permitted to make you hear from it, in language that you will hear. And if you merit, you will comprehend…”
–Nachmanides

You may not have the slightest interest in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), which is completely understandable. You may even think of it as a primitive text filled with unconscionable violence and an alarmingly arrogant, malevolent god. Still, I urge you to at least consider that there may be some good reasons why it has survived as a major religious guide for so long. The secret Nachmanides is pointing towards is certainly one of them. Its relevance penetrates beyond any national, religious or cultural boundaries.

It would be difficult to overstate the authority of Nachmanides as an interpreter of the Torah. Known in traditionalist circles as the Ramban (from the initials of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), his commentary on the Torah has been a central text for nearly eight hundred years. Drawing from all possible sources to illuminate deeper meanings, it makes clear that he devoured the canon whole, and retained every morsel. His insights are challenging, and sparkle with fresh possibility even today.

Before looking at the relevance of his secret for our time however, we must acknowledge an innate difficulty. When the Ramban wrote that he would say what he was “permitted”, he did not have anyone sitting over his shoulder, staying his hand. In dealing with ancient Hebrew, we’re faced with a language that aimed to express the essence of a thing through the word used to describe it. This is why the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are one and that same: Davar means both “thing” and “word”—there is no separation. The situation at hand is a perfect illustration of this. In referring to something as a great secret, the Ramban is pointing towards what is in essence secret. As Akiva Tatz has put it, ‘it’s not secret because no one will tell you; it’s secret because no one can tell you.’ This is the Torah version of, ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.’

Seen in this light, the Ramban’s call to bend our ears is not hyperbole, it’s literal. I won’t be able to tell you the secret. Still, we can dance around the periphery, hoping to fall in. As the Ramban indicated, if we merit, we will comprehend. In this instance, the word for “comprehend” can also be read as contemplate, examine or study. If you’re still reading, congratulations! Apparently you’ve got some merit under your belt.

In order to investigate the Ramban’s secret, we’ll work from the outside in. First off, if we take a giant step back and look at the Torah from a distance, perhaps the simplest and fairest way to characterize it is: It’s about service to something greater than ourselves. This should come as no surprise to those aware that the traditional tally of the number of commandments contained in the Torah comes to six hundred and thirteen.

If service is the essence of Torah, then we can reasonably deduce that the Ramban is pointing towards some kind of secret about the nature of service. Even further, we can surmise that he is alluding to the deepest nature of service, the service of service.

While we’re out here looking from a distance, we also need to identify the countervailing force to service. All things in form exist in contrast, duality, so service too must have its counterpart. In biblical terms, we would call this counterforce exile. Just as there are degrees of service, so too with exile. These two forces have a dynamic, inverse relationship. The degree to which we serve is the degree to which we are no longer in exile. Ultimate service, the service of service, is the final end to exile, and vice versa.

The Ramban’s comments relating to this great secret are in large part an elucidation of the deeper nature of this relationship and its consequences. His words serve as both a caution and an alert to opportunity. Throughout his long commentary on the Torah, the Ramban draws attention to the connection between our actions and the fate of the world, the interrelationship between the twin destinies of humanity and the earth. One way to look at it is, he was anticipating climate change by nearly a thousand years (of course he was taking his cue from the Torah, which alluded to this relationship millennia earlier). In conveying the secret at hand the Ramban was pointing towards the essential choice we face: that is, which direction do we take—service, or exile?

To understand the nature of this choice we need to come in for a closer look and examine the Ramban’s remarks in their specific context. In doing so, we find that they relate to two commandments in particular—the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. Of all the commandments in the Torah, the argument has been made many times over hundreds of years that these two require the greatest degree of selflessness to fulfill. Putting them into practice requires that we look beyond our narrowly defined personal interests and subsume our individual wills to the greater good. Not easy.

The commandments relating to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years include radical prescriptions for economic freedom and ecological renewal. They require that we do more than hope that our individual actions will add up to a sustainable, healthy, peaceful, just, free world; they call on us to align our personal choices with a very clear endgame, a specific, shared vision. They call on us to give up liberty in favor of freedom.

But it goes much deeper than this, obviously, or it wouldn’t be such a great secret. The fulfillment of these commandments points to a mode or degree of selflessness that takes us far beyond any simple prescriptions for socialist economics. To realize the Jubilee, in particular, requires the attainment of selflessness in its ultimate form. And this is where words begin to fail, where we encounter the outer reaches of a new atmosphere and language starts to break apart upon entry.

There is a state—of mind, spirit, body—where all of this makes sense. Where the Ramban’s secret is perfectly clear, and the entire Torah comes into singular, crystal focus. This is also the state where fulfilling the Jubilee not only becomes possible, but natural. It is the end of all exile, the ultimate indwelling. In this state there is no true other. We see clearly that our own wellbeing and that of others, including the earth and all its creatures, are one and the same. This state of transcendent oneness cannot be conveyed in words, but it stands as the remedy to all exile, the ultimate form of service and the destiny of humankind, should we choose it.

I wish I could say more, and hopefully I will. But for now, if we contemplate these ideas, we may come to merit comprehending them…

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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