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Posts Tagged ‘outer change’

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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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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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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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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“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Is this true? Was FDR simply affecting rhetorical flourish, seeking a bon mot, or is there real wisdom in this phrase?

The first thing that Adam said to God after eating from the tree that got us cast out from Eden was, ‘I heard your voice in the garden, and I am afraid.’ This was not Adam relating some passing emotional episode; he was expressing the new nature of human existence.

As one teacher of mine put it, “fear is the glue that binds the ego together.” Eckart Tolle too, in both the Power of Now and A New Earth, points to fear as the underlying emotional impulse of the ego identity.

Let’s look at one more, long quote:

…a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Sound familiar? Possibly Barack Obama? This quote too, as with ‘fear itself’, comes from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. FDR closed his address by saying, “…in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money…”

Why has nothing changed? FDR said it himself, fear. But fear in so many dimensions it’s hard to capture, even to see: Fear that if we make too many changes, too fast, the system will collapse and we’ll all become poor (the ‘Sky is Falling’ economics); fear that we can’t let go of our individualized pursuit of wealth and wellbeing and broaden our orientation towards the health and wellbeing of all because then maybe I won’t get a reasonable share, maybe I won’t get enough (‘Ring of Gyges’ economics), and; underneath it all, the fear that comes from the misperception that we’re all separate, that we’re somehow not intimately and always connected to all that is—Adam’s fear.

“Ask not if a thing is possible. Ask only if it is necessary.” This quote from the Alter of Kelm, an old Jewish mystic, underlay an approach to the world that has as its basis not fear, but faith. Today, we might call it ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics, after John Rawls “original position,” which posits that we should determine the course of justice in our world by divesting ourselves of personal details, that we should organize our societies and economies without knowing where we might find ourselves within them; that is, we should have as our guide truly blind justice. From behind a veil of ignorance, would we really choose to develop a society that awards roughly 85 percent of its resources to only 20 percent of the population? Not likely, since chances are we’d fall into the category that more or less gets shafted, the group that’s loosing their jobs right now, or didn’t have them to begin with.

Is ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics necessary? Certainly. Is it possible? Who knows? We cannot predict the future; the only thing we can do is work today to build the one we choose and hope for the best—or if you prefer, put the results in God’s hands. What stands between us and building a world of true justice, freedom and peace? Only fear itself.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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