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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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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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I live off to the side of the world, so my involvement in current affairs is intermittent at best. I don’t get caught up much in the minutia of day-to-day developments. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for us, things don’t change much.

I’ve been dipping in and out of these health care debates. Having spent most of my life in countries where health care is universal, I may have a different perspective on this than many Americans. But as a human being, I imagine we can somehow relate.

I grew up in Canada. When I was 24, I spent my first extended stay in the States, working at a magazine in New York City. After a particularly intense yoga class one day, I woke up in the middle of the night in intense pain. My calf muscle had popped out of place somehow, and felt as if it was being torn from my body. After the initial inchoate shock of pain, my first thought was, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t have health care.’ This was the first time, ever, this thought had entered my mind.

My next thought, fleeting because of the pain, was, ‘what a criminal thought to have to have.’ For 24 years I had lived with the invariant, bedrock sense that should anything happen, all I had to do was go to the doctor and everything else would be taken care of. That’s it. It wasn’t even really a thought; because there was no question that it could be otherwise, it had become part of the fabric of reality, a lifelong sense of security, simply the way things were.

My trauma that night was fairly minor—the muscle eventually just popped back into place—but there are millions of people in this country with more serious health concerns who spend their days—walk around, eat, work and sleep—with the opposite invariant sense from the one I grew up with. Rather than a sense of safety, of everything being taken care of, I imagine part of the fabric of their lives must be a sense of anxiety; should anything happen, there’s no one waiting to help.

My sense that this is criminal hasn’t shifted. It’s not the thought itself, of course, but the ongoing choice of a society so blessed, as this one is, to organize things in such a way that the thought is even possible.

Like any two- (or more) sided conflict, as long as they are governed by competing interests our debates about health care can seesaw along without cease. The only interest, the only ground for debate should be how can we eradicate that criminal thought—“I don’t have health care”—from American consciousness. Private, public…rather than narrowly delineating the discussion around existing territories, we should expand the dialogue to address the real question—how, in the 21st century, can the most powerful, most productive, wealthiest country in history organize itself to ensure that all of its citizens, regardless of economic standing, can have access to first-rate medical care? This is the only real remaining question when it comes to health care. As long as we all agree on that, start with that bedrock position and goal, then the rest, however haltingly, should follow.

This, it seems to me, is a decidedly human question—not limited to pro or con, liberal or conservative. It is a question, hopefully, we might all wish to answer.

I don’t have health care. I choose to live in this country because it has much to offer. Like any relationship, we take the good and the bad. This is one of the uglier features of my current sojourn. But contrary to conventional platitudes, people do change, sometimes. Usually, it takes some kind of trauma. Perhaps we can look around and see that we’ve got such an opportunity right now. With the economy foundering and millions of our neighbors, who’d up ‘til now been financially secure, in difficult straights, we can see that things aren’t always guaranteed, for any of us. And clearly we can see that our corporate leaders don’t always have our best interests at heart. Just as they can’t be trusted to run our economy safely or use our bailout money wisely, they can’t be relied upon to determine the status of our health.

If we take these cues and use this opportunity, we may be able to shift the debate from us and them, to we. We need to redefine the challenge in human terms; let’s not worry so much about “health care”, and realign our focus to caring about health.

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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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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