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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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Silk scarf on mountain.

I was at an event. Beautiful. A hundred and twenty people celebrating Sukkot on a farm north of Santa Cruz. I was blessed to teach a class on the deeper meanings of the holiday, in a redwood grove off a horse pasture. Over the course of the weekend, this image—silk scarf on mountain—kept coming back; again and again I saw its relevance as I encountered people “out there” on their spiritual journey.

I’ve become, in a way, a professional. My spiritual life is no longer something I fit in between daily bouts of figuring out how to survive in this world; it’s my full-time job. This hermitage is a fishbowl of my own consciousness; meditation isn’t something I do for a few minutes here and there—it’s my life. After two years, I’ve noticed some shifting.

And thus the image: Silk scarf on mountain. It comes from a Buddhist story of a tall mountain of solid granite. Every thousand years, a bird passes overhead with a long silk scarf trailing in its beak, which lightly caresses the top of the mountain. The time it takes to wear the mountain down to nothing, that is the spiritual journey.

There is much truth to this image. Frustrating though it may be, it is also quite hopeful—keep at it and you will wear down the mountain.

The tricky part is those intervening thousand years between silk scarves. That’s when we beat ourselves up—for not being good enough, not doing enough, not changing…We often get so caught up in the day-to-day, we haven’t the perspective to look back and see that many thousands of years ago, the granite mountain of our selves was a lot taller. But it was.

What am I trying to say here? Having accelerated for a time my spiritual journey, I’ve had an opportunity to see how it works from a different perspective. The mountain does wear down; the jagged peaks do soften; there is hope. It seems one of the central pieces is to fill in the gaps between scarves by cultivating a deep acceptance of what is—a quality of trust, trust that we are on the journey.

The part of us that beats ourselves up for not doing or being enough is actually an outcropping of the very mountain we aim to dissolve. Cultivating acceptance and trust, we take over from that negligent crow and diligently apply sandpaper to the rock hard surface of our selves. If we do so continually—remind and remind and remind ourselves that we can trust the journey—eventually we’ll come to terms with the fact that, perplexing as it may seem, there’s nothing we need to do and nowhere we need to go to awaken to our truest selves and dwell in presence. We come to see that trust itself, no matter where we are, is the substance of true being; you see that here, right now, with this vast empty sky and no bird nor scarf in sight, is the very beginning and end of your journey. You find that you’ve arrived, that we never left.

This reminds me of a series of classes I’ll be teaching (below), should any of you be in the bay area (SF, Berkeley…) and potentially interested. I apologize for the blatant self-promotion, but what can you do?

Peaceful Sabbath and joyful times,

Jonathan

Humanity’s Choice: The Torah’s Vision of Global Transformation

Sundays 2:30-5pm, October 11 – November 1, at Chochmat Halev

Where are we heading as a species? All of us have a role to play in bringing a world of peace, justice and freedom. While this will involve many technical challenges, the true remedy is, at its root, profoundly spiritual. Healing this planet will require real transformation—for us as a species, as nations, and as individuals. In this series of classes, open to people of all faiths, we will explore the Torah’s unique wisdom about the nature of this transformation, along with its vision for how we might bring it about—in ourselves and in the world around us. The classes will include both discussions and experiential exercises. They are intended for anyone interested in spirituality and social change. No background in Torah is required.

Instructor: Jonathan Sheff has taught Jewish mysticism and social justice throughout California, drawing on decades of experience in both fields. He holds a masters degree in Public Policy from Harvard University and is currently preparing for rabbinic ordination.

Each class stands on its own, though it would be great if you could attend the whole series…

October 11—In the Beginning is the End: Understanding Edenic Consciousness
October 18—The Tree of Knowledge and the Heirs of Kain
October 25—Shabbat and the Great Return
November 1—The Seventh Hidden Truth: Humanity’s Great Choice

Tuition is on a sliding scale (pay what you can). No one will be turned away.
Suggested rates:
Full series: $50-125. Individual sessions: $15-40. 10% discount for Chochmat members.
You can either show up at the door, or if you can please register in advance be contacting Nichola at ntorbett@seminaryofthestreet.org, or 510 225-8561

All classes will be held at Chochmat Halev, 2215 Prince St. in Berkeley, in the Garden Room

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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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I’ve got this beach, and the Pacific Ocean, all to myself. I’ve just finished Tashlich, casting my sins into the living waters. As I was tossing tiny bits of my organic, sunflower bread failings into the depths, a family of dolphins came to dance in the waves before me, bearing witness and reminding me, as I was in the process of remembering, what life is really about.

I’ve been considering memory these days. This past weekend was Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year. One of the original names for this holiday, before it became know as Rosh Hashanah, was Yom Hazikaron—Day of the Memory.

What is it we’re meant to recall?

A hint, as it so often does, resides in the word itself, zikaron, which has the same numerical value as the word zerah, seed.

Rosh Hashanah, to me this year at least, is about this more than anything else: If I strip away all the encrustations, all the mistaken identities and voices I have inherited and created, if I nullify all falsehoods and remember the seed that was planted in the universe that has become and is becoming me, who am I? Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering who we truly are, is an invitation to become that pure self, an opportunity to connect to and embody our truest identities.

This is a powerful time, especially as we had the double-blessing this year of Rosh Hashanah falling on the Sabbath. Judaism is, by and large, a religion of sacredness built into time—holiness comes in waves throughout the year; though the ocean is constant, the tides shift. But the amazing thing is, we determine the times; according to tradition, we set the dates when we look to the sky and declare the new moon. In other words, it is our responsibility to call sacredness into being; we choose the holy tide.

If anything, I pray that we learn—as a people, as humanity—to live up to this responsibility; that we look to the heavens—the constellate arc of our past, present and future—and say, ‘I see the new moon, a new era is dawning.’ I pray that we put down our distractions, our busyness, accumulation and competition, and together kindle the lights that usher in a sacred new world.

The choice is ours. The duty is ours. Ours alone. We have been conditioned to wait for someone else to heal this world, to remedy the ills that we’ve known to be unconscionable since we were small children, fresh seeds. This is the memory we are called to recollect—that the world is ripe for a new way of being; that we know this, and that we care.

I pray that at this time, when the world so desperately needs it, we all nurture these seeds within us; that our efforts to draw holiness into this world bear fruit, and that we all come to taste the sweetness of this sacred ripening.

A sweet and holy year to you all,

Jonathan

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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 the first of Elul, the thirty-day period of self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah. Chodesh Hachesbon–the “Month of Accounting.”

There’s an image, I believe it comes from Maimonides, of life. It captures the uncertainty–how all of it, every moment, is an ongoing mystery. In the image, we’re wandering through the desert on a pitch black, stormy night. Every now and then there’s a sudden flash of lightning, and in the moment before we’re plunged back into blindness we see the mountaintop, our destination, revealed in the distance. Then we stumble through the dark once more, aligning our course with, we hope, greater accuracy.

I grew up being assured, ‘you can do anything,’ only to be told, once I’d made my choices, ‘you can’t do that.’ These cultivated voices have led to warring factions within me. On the one hand, a sense of great, almost boundless aspiration; on the other, sometimes paralytic doubt.

Once in awhile I’m given the gift of knowing, a sense that I’m on the right path–however difficult, long and sometimes lonely it might be. These moments are a deep blessing. Not as dramatic as the flashes of lightning but, in a way, more dear.

Last week was big for me. I did something I hadn’t really done before–wrote about myself and sent it to someone. It’s a slight change in course, but something that feels right. It’s funny, how sometimes even a small adjustment, a tweak in perspective, can draw everything that’s come before, along with all the unknown to follow, into clearer focus.

What becomes apparent is: It’s all a desert and it’s all blind, but no matter where we place our next foot–in error or in judgment–each step is utterly perfect. The reason the view is so good every time the lightening strikes, the reason we see so far, is we’re standing on the mountain already. In the darkness, in doubt, we lose sight of this; we stumble, fall and cast about only to find that the only place to go, the one destination, is returning to ourselves; we carry the summit within us.

If we’re there already, what’s the point of a process like Elul? If we’re standing at the peak, why reflect on the journey and even attempt to adjust our course? If there’s nowhere to go, why bother trying?

I suppose one way to put it is, the degree to which we must travel is the degree to which we remain in error; it’s more about stripping away than it is about actually going anywhere. Becoming ourselves, our truest selves, is a delicate journey, one that requires not rushing headlong to some imagined finish line, but slowing down enough to get a deeper sense of the landscape. It’s about knowing ourselves as we are–as in knowing our beingness–rather than knowing ourselves as we do, in our busyness.

It’s only in stopping altogether, in fully grasping the immediate topography of our selves, that we are freed to move most steadily–to place every foot with utter confidence, in total surrender, with absolute trust.

Elul is an opportunity to begin the process of slowing down; after a mad summer of activity, to ready ourselves to greet the autumn with an inner preparedness. It’s an invitation to ask yourself, how have I strayed from my truest self? An occasion to spend time each day reconnecting to your inner landscape and make adjustments to your course so by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives (or, if that doesn’t work for you, whatever date you choose), you’re truly ready to arrive, open all your doors, put down your bags–the inherited and imagined versions of yourself–and stop completely. It’s an invitation to give yourself over in surrender to the ongoing mystery of life and to trust that if you loosen your grip, let go of any sense that you can control the world, the universe will simply and elegantly provide you with everything you need.

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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