Friday, November 29, 2013

Mikeitz- Mercy Arising

Parshat Mikeitz - Gen 43: 29-30: " And he lifted his eyes and saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother, and he said, "Is this your little brother, whom you told me about?" And he said, "May God favor you, my son. And Joseph hastened, for his mercy was stirred toward his brother, and he wanted to weep; so he went into the room and wept there."

How often do we, like Joseph, experience conflicting feelings that we hold inside? Joseph felt anger toward the brothers who had left him to die in the pit, loving-kindness toward Benjamin, and longing for his father. Initially, Joseph acted out of anger - tricking his older brothers and forcing them to leave Benjamin. Eventually, Joseph was able to move beyond his anger and forgive.

May we be blessed to allow ourselves to become aware of the full range of our emotions, from anger to compassion. May we, like Joseph, attain enough wisdom to allow lovingkindness to prevail.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Vayishlach: Seeking the name of mystery

Parshat Vayishlach
Gen 32:25 - 31 
25And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break 
of dawn.

26When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the 
socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob's hip became dislocated as
he wrestled with him.

27And he (the angel) said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking," but he 
(Jacob) said, "I will not let you go unless you have blessed me."

28So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob."

29And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,
because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men,
and you have prevailed."

30And Jacob asked and said, "Now tell me your name," and he said,
"Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there.

31And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,]
"I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved."

When Jacob asks the angel's name, the angel replies with a question. Apparently, Jacob never learns the name of the angel, even though he saw the angel face to face and received the angel's blessing. This is the reverse of Moses' encounter with God when Moses is in the cleft of the mountain. At that time, God told Moses that Moses can not see God's face, but that God will proclaim God's name before him.

In each of these encounters, the person is seeking to know the divine more deeply, yet the divine holds back from being completely known. The angel holds back telling his name. God holds back showing God's face. This reminds us that the closest encounter with the divine necessarily includes an element of mystery and of incompleteness. We are a finite vessel into which the infinite is poured, and we cannot contain the entirety of the flow. 

But although we can never know the divine completely, we can appreciate the desire that impels us to know the divine just a little more.

May we be blessed to have our unanswered questions and our unanswered desires fuel our search for closeness to and alignment with the divine.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Emor: Don't cut yourself off for fear of mortality

Emor Leviticus 21:1-3

1. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] make himself tamei for a dead person among his people        
2. except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother,        :
3. and for his virgin sister who is close to him, who was not [yet] with a man for her, he shall make himself tamei.

I am at a hospice conference this week, and am once again inspired by the vision that hospice has of facilitating the "sacred space" at the end of life. One large hospice (Hospice of Michigan) uses language about "sacred space" in their mission statement, saying:
  • Honor life to the end
  • Be witnesses to the spirit of life
  • Recognize the sacredness of leaving; honor the feelings of loss
  • Ensure patients and families achieve their quality-of-life goals while under our care
At first reading, the instructions in Emor seem to be telling us the opposite - that being around a dead person leads to a state of tamei. And if being around a dead person can make us tamei, then we might "put a fence around the torah" and not want to be around someone who is very close to dying, for fear of being present at the moment of death and thus becoming tamei.

But I think there is a different way to read the text's instruction to us. Instead of meaning "don't go near a dead person (or someone close to being dead), the text can be seen as telling us: "don't make yourself tamei because there is death among the people." If we understand tamei as the state of being closed off (and tahor as the state of being open to the flow of life), then the text is telling us "don't close yourself off from the fact of mortality."  The text is actually saying - "go, be with people near death, help them stay connected, don't let the flow of holiness be cut off. You can go with them up to the edge, don't make yourself cut off from them and from holiness." However, there is an exception for  one's own loved ones and close family. With our own family, we may make ourselves "tamei" - we may close off, retreat, pull back from the flow. The reality of the pain of personal grief is acknowledged, and we are not expected to stay fully connected to holiness in that circumstance. At a time of personal grief, we must rely on others to keep the holy connection present; we cannot do it for ourselves.

Here is an article about a hospice doula program that describes how volunteers help to keep this "flow" of communication, of love, of sacredness, going, even up to the very edge of life.

May we have the strength to stay connected to holiness, even in the face of mortality. And when that mortality comes close enough to touch our own families, may we have the wisdom to retreat, reflect and accept the help of others.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Acharei-Kedoshim Lev. 19:18 "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

How can and should we respond to evil and callousness in our midst?  The uncle of one of the Boston Marathon suspects pleads, “if you are alive, turn yourself in and ask for forgiveness.”  The West Texas fertilizer plant had last been inspected by OSHA in 1985.  Suffering and evil are real and deeply unsettling. 

May we send blessings of strength to those who seek to protect us and blessings of healing - refuach shlema – to our neighbors in the Boston and West Texas areas who have courageously confronted profound tragedy this week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tzav - pleasing fragrance

Parsha Tzav
Leviticus 6:8. "And he shall lift out of it in his fist, from the fine flour of the meal offering and from its oil and all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and he shall cause its reminder to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.”
Leviticus 8:21 "But the innards and the legs, he washed in water, and Moses made the entire ram [go up in] smoke on the altar. It was a burnt offering [with] a pleasing fragrance, a fire offering to the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

The sacrifices (the korban – with a Hebrew root implying drawing near) involved all the senses. We can imagine the sound of the live animal, the feel of the blood spattering, the heat of the fire, the site of the animals carcass, In the text, all of these sensations seem to be leading toward the “sweet savour” or “pleasing fragrance” for God. What is it about smell and scent that would call it to be singled out as the main sense making the sacrifice complete?

Smell – it evokes strong emotion. Some smells are so disgusting they can make us retch. Others are so lovely they can make us swoon or feel as though we are in love.  Smells evoke specific memory. And without smell, we cannot taste properly.

Smell is carried through the air, around barriers,  through cracks. A smell is often the first warning of danger – such as smelling the smoke of a fire.

Smell is at once the most individual of senses – infants can distinguish the scent of their mother’s breastmilk from other women’s milk – and the most democratic – you cannot confine a perfume that you might wear to be smelled by just one person in a room. It permeates the whole space.

If our deeds and prayers are the modern sacrifice, how then do we make them a “pleasing fragrance” that elevates them from the mundane to the holy?

They must be very individual– something that we are uniquely suited to do, something that expresses the very essence of ourselves. And we must release them freely into the world. We can’t just target our tzedakah or our prayers to people we know and love. We have to trust that our efforts will reach people in need.  Finally, to be like  a sweet savour, we have to acknowledge that just as taste is not complete  without smell, prayer is not fully realized without kavannah.

May we be blessed to act and pray in ways that uniquely express our true nature so that those actions and prayers are received like the coming fragrances of spring.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Parshat Vayakhel

Exodus 35:2: Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death.

This is a lived reality for me. If I don't honor the cycle of work and rest - daily, weekly, yearly - then parts of me begin to shrivel and die. Without a break from striving and working, my capacity to wonder, to appreciate, to honor life, begins to wither.

May we remember to honor periods of rest and reflection, and may this rest connect us to the wondrous, pulsing rhythms of life.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Parshat Ki Tissa

Ex. 32:1-4.  And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him: Make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.”  And Aaron said to them: “Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.”  And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: “This is your god, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

After Moses fails to return down from Mt. Sinai for what seems like an interminable time, Aaron tries to placate the desires, fears and doubts of the people by making a golden calf.  In contrast to the wise-hearted people who were called to build and furnish the miskan and create garments for the priest following  precise and detailed instructions, the description of the making of the golden calf is remarkably brief.  It almost made itself, just like our ego-driven desires, fears, and doubts often seem to have a life of their own beyond our awareness and control.

May we be blessed to make the space and take the time to allow insight to arise so that we can be wise-hearted builders, rather than mindless slaves to our immediate cravings.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Parsht Tetsaveh: Wrapped in wise-heartedness

 Ex. 28:3. And you shall speak to all the wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aaron's garments to sanctify him, [so] that he serve Me.

After this statement, the text goes on to speak in great detail about all the parts of the garments, of how they are to be constructed, of the colors, of the placement of hems and gold chains and bells and embroidered pomegranates. We might be tempted to think that it is the beauty and uniqueness of the clothes themselves that enables Aaron to serve God. But look again at the text - it says that that the wise hearted shall make Aaron's garments to sanctify him.  The text is telling us that there is something in the process of how these spirit-filled people clothe Aaron that sanctifies him.  Perhaps it is the lovingkindness that the wise hearted bring to the process of creation that is woven into the garments that inspires Aaron to serve.

May we recognize the way the wisdom from our friends and loved ones enwraps us in a layer of protection, helping us to tap into our own spirit through which we are able to serve others.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Parshat Terumah: the ark and its poles

 Ex. 25:15: The poles of the ark shall be in the rings; they shall not be removed from it.

The prohibition against the removal of the poles from the ark is one of the 613 Divine precepts. Although the table and the two altars also had rings and poles, there is no similar prohibition against removing their poles. Why so for the ark?*

This teaches us that the Torah is not a fixed, immovable text, but rather a practice we must constantly carry with us into our lives. 

May we be inspired to bring the wisdom of Torah with us on every step of our journey.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Parshat Bashalach

 Exodus 14:10  Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.
Exodus 14:19-21 Then the angel of God, who had been going in front of the Israelite camp, moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved away from in front of them and stood behind them.  And he came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and there were the cloud and the darkness, and it illuminated the night, and one did not draw near the other all night long. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord led the sea with the strong east wind all night, and He made the sea into dry land and the waters split.

When we are being pursued by powerful forces that frighten us, when we are stuck with no where else to go, what can we do? We must pause and make a space. We must withdraw just enough, not engage directly in a fight. In that pause, we breathe. Centering on the breathe, insight arises and we miraculously see a new way forward opening before us.

When pursued by the frightening events of life, may we find the strength to pause, to reflect, to draw breath. And may we then discover a new way forward.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Parshat Va-ayra

Parshat Va-ayra - Exodus 7:22: after the water turns to blood:”… and Pharaoh’s heart remained strong, and he did not listen to them.”
Exodus 9:34: after the hail stopped: “ he continued to sin: he made his heart heavy”

When first faced with Moses’ demands, Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened. Is this not a good thing? Pharaoh had to deal with a very difficult situation, a potential rebellion, a potential revolution. He needed to respond with strength and wisdom.  But Pharaoh used his strength to not listen.  This is the sin – to not listen fully.  And because of this refusal to listen, Pharaoh’s heart became heavy with rigidity.

May we use our strength to listen even to very difficult messages, so that our heart does not become so rigid, so hard, and so heavy that we cannot go forward.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Parshat Shemot

Ex. Ch. 1:8 – “Now there arose a new king of Egypt, who knew not Joseph.”

This line may be read as: “And now there arose a new ruler over the narrow places (mitzraim) within ourselves, who knew not the tzaddik, the yearning to connect with the holy one of blessing within us.

This week I had a skiing accident (non-life threatening) on a family vacation in West Virginia.  All of the temptations of ego arose and arise, like self-pity and fear over the length of recovery.  All this week I have been struggling to remember what I have learned in meditation, which is to try to not suppress these desires and fears, but to allow these emotions to arise and watch them burn like the bush in the parsha, but not be consumed by them.

May we, like Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Moses of this parsha have the bravery to resist external oppression, but may we also have the courage and patience to respond wisely to doubt and anxiety within.