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Archive for the ‘kabbalah’ Category

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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“People like us…know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
–Albert Einstein

If time doesn’t exist, which it can’t, then space can’t truly be said to exist either, since they are of the same “substance.” This is much harder to grasp (especially given our “normal” perception of reality), yet nonetheless true.

There is nothing else, nowhere else, but this. The universe was created for this moment of perception. You, sitting wherever you are sitting, reading this on whatever you are reading it, contain the consciousness of the universe in its entirety.

You, in a way, are the universe.

And you are nothing, nothing at all.

Me, writing this here…you, reading this there—simply one character wearing two masks, looking through two sets of eyes.

We don’t perceive this. But we can.

This is a time of great possibility—in the narrow sense, and the broader. Funny to speak of something that doesn’t exist as containing possibility, but there you have it. For the actor behind the mask to communicate with itself, the drama is necessary.

We are heading into Sukkot, the Festival of Booths and harvest, Zman Simchateynu—the “Time of our Rejoicing.” We’ve just emerged, are emerging, from the Days of Awe, the phase from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. I’ve been reflecting on that seed from my previous post a lot recently. It seems to me the entire period of Awe can be considered a seed. During the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we prepare ourselves; draw furrows into the otherwise caked crust of our selves, hoping to soften the ground of our being and aerate the soil of our lives. On Rosh Hashanah we place the seed in the earth, and for several days following we become it; in the safe custody of this sacred time we reshape ourselves, re-orient our inner workings. We become, during this period, plasmic—no longer solid. We are given the gift of possibility—the opportunity to redefine, rediscover, recreate ourselves.

Yom Kippur is the final stage of the seed process. At Ne’ilah, as the long day of fasting and prayer draws to a close, the seed cracks open, and whatever work we’ve done, whatever truth we’ve discovered and strength we have found breaks through and begins to take expression, an expression that will unfold over the coming year.

At this time, still in this cocoon of holiness, our shoots remain beneath the soil—safe and nurtured. As we enter Sukkot, the time of ingathering, we begin to reap the harvest of the spirit. We move outside our homes, out into the world, and push above the soil to actualize the wisdom we have shaped within the seed of our lives.

During Sukkot, we dwell in temporary structures with roofs we can see straight through. We manifest, in the very structure we inhabit, the truth of our sojourn on earth—that the world we inhabit is itself, down to the last detail, a temporary dwelling place. The real harvest of this time is the spiritual harvest we gather from our inner work—the new eyes that look out at the world, the fields of reality. The eyes that see, god willing, a little more clearly; eyes no longer deceived by the masks of the actors who walk this stage; eyes that see through the roof of our selves to the infinite expanse beyond and within.

At this time, as we emerge from and enter into this holy time, I pray that over the coming year the seeds we have planted unfurl and flourish into new life, so that next year, as the plants we have nurtured over the year again yield their seed, our next harvest will be on a level of kedusha, of holiness, we can scarcely imagine from where we stand today…that the world we bring into being over the coming year bears seeds so robust we crack open altogether, see through the veil of this world, and enter the next.

A Peaceful Sabbath and a time of great rejoicing to you all,

Jonathan

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self-consciousness, you could say, is the purpose of the universe. we, our lives, are the second phase of that experiment. the first was consciousness itself, awareness. our current stage is consciousness of the physical self, the self contained in form. the next is the experiment’s fruition, the payoff; it is true self-consciousness, consciousness of the true self. the true self is not confined by form, but expressed through it. this “greater self” is the self shared by, connecting and interpenetrating all form—the identity of the universe. you can call it god, emptiness or being, christ, allah or great creator. it has no true name. it is lived, not spoken; known, but not understood. it is only when we are not separate from it—in mind, body and spirit—that we taste it. and in becoming one with it, we have no fingers left to point, save inwards.

peaceful sabbath,

jonathan

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What is Judaism?
The path of gratitude.
Yehudi (from the same root as todah),
one who gives thanks, who acknowledges.
And what does it mean to be grateful?
To acknowledge what is,
rather than what is not.
To approach the world from a place of gratitude
is to approach the world from a place of fulfillment.
Rather than seeking someone
or something to complete me,
to be grateful means to see how
I am complete already,
and to live accordingly.
Living in fulfillment
all is fulfilled.

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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In the practice of Mussar, a Jewish system of gradual self-transformation, the greatest barrier to self-realization is often identified as busyness. Distractions, errands, entertainment, talking, running, work, driving, rushing…all make the task of self-awareness and growth more difficult. We occupy ourselves with physical reality—moving things, including ourselves, about in space—and forget about spirit, the underlying force that sustains that space and everything in it.

The essence of Sabbath is the undoing of this tendency, the interruption of our one-thing-after-another lifestyles that absorb so much of our time and attention. It’s about redirecting our awareness from doing to being.

The story of Kain and Abel is a perfect illustration of the distinction between being and doing and their consequences. As you recall (see “bizarre bazaar” from two weeks ago), both brothers offered sacrifices before God, yet only Abel’s was accepted. The only difference the Torah records between their two offerings, besides the purely physical details that Kain, the agriculturalist, brought from the fruits of his field while Abel, the shepherd, brought animals from his flock, is that Abel brought the “best” or “choicest”. This distinction is emphasized by the word “and”, as in, “and from the choicest,” indicating that Kain’s offering was not from the best of his fruits.

How did Abel know to bring the best while Kain did not? Let’s consider their two lifestyles: Kain was a farmer. He cleared his fields of stones, tilled the soil, erected fences to protect the plants, gathered seeds, planted, weeded, watered and, finally, harvested. By the time his crop was ready, Kain had put in quite a bit of labor. It’s easy to understand how he could look out at his land, burgeoning with fruits and vegetables, and think, ‘I did this.’

Abel on the other hand, was a shepherd. All he really had to do was protect his flock from predators. He didn’t tell the sheep and goats to mate and multiply, produce milk and grow wool. They did that all by themselves. He just watched.

When the time came to make their offerings, it’s easy to see how Kain would have gotten confused. He lost sight of the nature of the sacrificial transaction. Thinking he had produced his crop through his own hard labor, we can forgive him that he found it acceptable to keep the best for himself and offer some still very nice fruits to God. Abel, by contrast, could see that he had done nothing. He was still intimately aware that everything he had—the sheep, the goats, the pasture—came from God, and that in truth he could offer nothing that wasn’t already God’s to begin with. Give the best? Of course. He wasn’t actually giving anything. Abel could see that he was and would always be only a receiver.

Our world of doing is based on Kain’s error. The constancy of our busyness is founded, in part, on the misperception that we are actually doing something, that there’s something we need to accomplish that isn’t already here, that there’s something we need to get that we don’t already have. This is the terrible paradox of the spiritual journey: There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to accomplish; there’s nothing we need to become that we are not already. We are still dwelling in Eden, enlightened from the beginning; we haven’t actually gone anywhere, moved a single inch. There is nowhere else to go. The tragedy is only that we cover up this reality with mental noise, projections and constant, frenetic movement. We distract ourselves from the truth that pervades every moment of our lives. The challenge is that our minds, our identities caught up in doing, can never figure this out, never accept it.

The remedy is not about doing, it’s about undoing, about shifting from doing to being. How? See if you can stand in Abel’s sandals and recognize that everything you see, touch, taste and smell comes from a deeper source—that in reality, despite all our busyness, we are actually doing nothing at all. The only thing we are here to accomplish is to actually be here, to see the world as it is, to actually experience life. We have taken form only so that God, the universe, consciousness, can know and experience itself. Awakening to that truth, living it, is the fulfillment of all that we are and the ultimate end to all suffering and destruction.

The challenge we face is that from where we stand this seems like the most difficult thing we could possibly accomplish. From the “other” side it seems the most natural thing in the world.

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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