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Posts Tagged ‘God’

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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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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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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