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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I don’t know how most of you do it. I’ve been in the city a week now, and I’m just about cooked.

One thing I’ve noticed out here is how much green has become part of the landscape. It’s everywhere. Seems that the big beast of profit has figured out green sells. This is probably no news to you, but being in an urban environment full-time for the first time in a long time, I can see how remarkably this trend has grown in almost no time.

It’s one thing to label the world green, however, and another thing altogether for it actually to be so. I’m beginning to see more clearly the symbiotic relationship between concrete and ego—ego being that sense of separateness we carry around within us, that I am who I think I am, and that what I do has little to no bearing on you. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the psychological underpinning for war, poverty and destruction of all kinds.

Part of becoming awake, present, returning to god, source, the divine, one, whatever you want to call it, is spacious awareness. It’s a state where everything becomes available, where the light and color, sounds and energy of this world move through us fluidly, effortlessly. The urban world, it seems to me, is an outward projection of the state of mind where this is simply not so, our so-called “normal” state of mind. The concrete jungle is a reflection of our inner compartmentalization; it’s the planet, made rational.

Have you ever been in raw, un-manicured nature? If you have, then you know the way that something within us unlocks, lets go. Nothing is in a rush. Most of it isn’t going anywhere at all. Yet it’s astoundingly here, alive, happening. This is true green. Nature, unchecked.

I remember years ago reading about a campaign to have one square inch of silence protected in each state. It’s a deceptively simple idea, until you realize how much space needs to surround that square inch to make it possible—miles of un-peopled land in every direction.

We used to live in the natural world. Our settlements were pockets in the otherwise vast cloth of unrestrained nature. This reality has been fundamentally reversed. We banded together, in part, to protect ourselves from the forces of nature. Now, nature needs protection from us. One of the milestones on our journey towards balance will surely be the recognition of how essential the natural world is to our own wellbeing, in too many ways to be counted.

If we really want to go green, let’s actually be green, and reintegrate nature back into our lives. I’m not suggesting we all live in our own square inch of silence, but I am suggesting that we move beyond our current stage, where the natural world survives in our midst as lonesome outposts, representatives of a fallen army standing in soldierly, spindly rows on our streets. Rather, let us integrate dense colonies of green into our lives, scenes from another world we move through in order to navigate our own, until we realize that they are one and the same.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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What astonishes me, in the midst of our generalized global economic meltdown, is how shortsighted we still seem to be. Even as the spiraling fates of American industry flash us time-lapsed glimpses of our own future, we still don’t seem to get it.

Among this week’s calls to restructure the American auto industry, I haven’t seen anyone climbing atop the spire of the Chrysler building to shout, “Enough!” Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that we’re connecting the dots.

This planet is in shock, and we are the cause. Our behavior is compromising the integrity of the organism on which we live and upon which we depend, literally, for absolutely everything; we’re jeopardizing its ability to grow food, create oxygen and produce water. We need these things to survive. This behavior is, at best, nuts.

When it comes to cars, we act as if the only problematic thing about them is the gas that goes into their tanks, and the subsequent carbon they release from their rear ends. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Every time we buy a new car, we’ve got to extract all that metal from the earth, not to mention the plastics and chemicals involved. We can’t keep doing this forever.

Our desires are limitless, literally without end, and often run contrary to our self-interest in their effect. Organizing our societies around the pursuit of these inexhaustible desires, which is how things currently work, what capitalism is, is to design for certain catastrophe. It’s the antithesis of every true spiritual teaching passed down to us through the ages.

Rather than a car industry, what we need is a far industry (couldn’t resist); that is, a transportation industry that looks deep into the future. Currently, industry thrives on incrementalism. Changing things bit by bit allows the corporate world to sell us more, but it doesn’t make sense when we look at the size of the planet and the number of people we’ve got. Every material good we have comes from the earth, and it needs a rest. So what I propose is that we bypass hybrids altogether—at best a transitional technology, think peak oil—and go straight to electric. But rather than go out to build and buy fancy new electric cars, we simply convert all the cars already on the road as they come of age.

Converting a combustion car to electric is a rather simple procedure that can be done within a day or two. If we were to dedicate the remains of the auto industry to this pursuit, including all the labor already familiar with how our cars are built, we could probably make the turn around even quicker, and certainly cheaper. Electric motors, once in place, run for years without need of repair; some say they can pass the million-mile mark without need of replacement. They do need their batteries swapped every so often, but as we move in this direction battery technology should catch up pretty quickly, especially if we make it a priority. Any way you cut it, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a whole new car. For most people, the 150 – 200 miles that an electric car can run on a single charge is more than enough. We can fill in the gaps for the remaining 5 percent of us with plug-in hybrids or some other technology.

Rather than give the auto industry a facelift, we should be giving it a heart transplant. Same body, different motor. In order to get our money, Chrysler, along with any other manufacturers who may follow suit, should be required to reorganize at least some of their plants to get up to speed with a massive fleet conversion. There are roughly 150 million cars on the road in the US. Think of how much we would diminish our impact on the earth if we simply re-use them.

Taking this route would be far more responsible. We fetishize the new, but how much hipper would it be to know that our great-grandchildren will look back and think of us as a generation that finally woke up to our duty? Let’s choose the future with our eyes open, not our wallets. We have the opportunity to leap forward; the more we lag behind, the longer we have to smell our own gas.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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