Divine Your Words

By Alison C. Brown

This week we begin to read the first and only book of the Chumash that it is written in first person. Moses had so surrendered his ego to the Divine that his words were also God’s words, explain the commentators of this week’s parsha Devarim.

“Moses’ utter identification with the divine wisdom empowers our own lesser souls, each of which possesses ‘a spark of the soul of Moses,’ to do the same (albeit on a lesser level): to create of ‘our own words’ receptacles for the divine wisdom,” writes Rabbi Yanki Tauber.

This interpretation strengthens the possibility that we might make our thoughts worthy to ascend the Four Worlds to God, as Kabbalists assert they do. At the meta-level, what we think matters, what we think empowers our lesser souls and the world of which we are one with, not separate from. Our words represent our thoughts and our soul. Words carry more long-lasting, impactful weight than a 140-character tweet might indicate. Ours words are our personal ambassador, just as Moses was God’s earthly ambassador.

“We understand the Hebrew Language to be very sacred,” writes Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer. “According to Jewish tradition, inherent in each letter are electric-like forces that God uses to create the Universe. ‘For when the world was created, it was the supernal letters that brought into being all the works of the lower world, after their own pattern….Jewish tradition maintains that God continually creates day and night.”

“The laws of language are identical to the laws of the universe,” Rabbi Goldhamer adds. The door to my office is made up of the Hebrew letters dalet-lamed-tav. When I touch my door, I am touching the Hebrew letters dalet-lamed-tav. This imagery resonates for me, especially as it compares to what we know from science. “Push your finger down on the table top and it feels solid. But no solids are ever contacted, not for an instant. Rather, the outmost atoms of your skin are surrounded by negatively charged electrons, and these are repelled by the similar electrons in the table. The sense of solidity is illusory; you feel only repulsive electrical fields. Fields. Energies. Nothing solid, ever,” Robert Lanza, MD, teaches in Beyond Biocentrism.

Words, made of letters, have the weight of energy and their energetic motion continues beyond the brain or two in their path. Words create. Moses knew this. He knew that he needed to relay God’s guidance to emphasize that a  Jewish path leads to the marvels of a Promised Land.

An Invisible Bee

Look how desire has changed in you,
how light and colorless it is,
with the world growing new marvels
because of your changing.

Your soul has become an invisible bee.
We don’t see it working,
but there’s the full honeycomb.
– Rumi

 

Human desire, as referred to in Pirkey Avot 1:4, is above all the desire for lifelong learning and growth asserts Rabbi Reuven. Your soul, sparked by the Divine, is an invisible bee. You experience and witness the material world and with a searching desire become aware that you are part of an Divine energy field. Energies are exchanged. When your thoughts and words are light and colorless, ie. kind, your soul becomes one with the energies of others. God creates the world’s marvels anew each day with the Hebrew letters and, Rabbi Goldhamer writes, the 22 Hebrew letters “are codes that allow us to connect the divine principle within us to the divine principle outside of us.” Moses shares this code with us in Deuteronomy. Reading Torah will change you.

Korach’s and the Country’s Accounting

Korach, Numbers 16:01-18:32
by Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison C. Brown

In contemporary commentary, Korach is sometimes described as a demagogue. Just as often, Talmud Brachot 58a is quoted: “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” In our time, just about everyone, leaders on both sides of the aisle included, can be accused of responding with demagoguery. In our time, Brachot 58a can serve as a mantra to remind us that we do perhaps live in only one of multiple universes, i.e. the world does not revolve around us. Life includes infinite possibilities, an opinion that I endlessly repeat. Possibility is my working definition of God too. This definition excludes nothing and is itself nothing – Ayn Sof, the One without End.

Yet, just because all is possible doesn’t mean we don’t need to do heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. All of the characters of our parsha this week surely weighed and measured their motives, at least after they responded if not before. Acting from possibility also allows us to, after an accounting of the soul, to apologize and try to make right our careless words and actions. “To me they’re not even people,” illustrates the level of political discourse and conflict in America’s book of life today.

Another useful mantra comes from Nachmanides, “Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger…[then]…Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart.” By mantra I mean, phrases repeated over and over like a chant, as it occurs to you, throughout your day. You breathe and imbibe these inspirational words of your choosing and they become who you are. Humility rarely leads one to demean or exclude others. Our choices wire our brain to repeat that choice. Choose from life’s possibilities with humility. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz writes, “A mitzvah does not exist in a vacumn…but rather, brings other mitzvot in its wake,”

“CS Lewis rightly defined humility not as thinking less of yourself but as thinking of yourself less,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us. “[Great leaders] are motivated by ideals, not by personal ambition….in Judaism, to lead is to serve. Those who serve do not lift themselves high. They lift other people high.” Those I consider leaders, among them Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer of course, are servant leaders by speaking from and role-modeling the possibility and importance of being our best self. We read Torah to learn how to be our best self, we practice heshbon ha-nefesh (perhaps as a nightly journaling routine) to move toward our best self, and we think of ourself less often as an act of anavah, humble modesty.

Being our best self isn’t easy to be sure. We have to love and be compassionate with ourselves as psychologists have discovered, integrated into modern therapies and augmented with meditations and mantras. Rabbi Jill Zimmerman notes, “Every time our heart opens and we then reach out to another human being, blessing flows from us.  We desperately need as much blessing as all of us can conjure up — not only for others, but for our own bruised souls.” Rabbi Zimmerman has created a Jewish version of the Buddhist Metta practice of loving kindness that I was taught by Sharon Salzburg and will now practice in the language of my people. Key this mantra into a note on your phone and repeat whenever you get the chance. As the Rabbi says, “Start with 5 minutes a day.  Start with yourself.

In Hebrew, we might say something like this [an example of openness and humility!]:

May I feel safe (b’tachon) בטחון

May I feel content (see’pook) סיפוק

May I feel strong (oz) עוז

May I feel peace (shalom) שלום ”

 

 

Mindful Remembering

Shelach Lecha

By Student Rabbi Dr. Roberta Glick

The Torah portion this week begins with the story of the spies. It ends with the third paragraph of the Shema, perhaps our most well-known prayer. It is this paragraph I am going to focus on because I believe it frames the essence of Judaism: zakar – mindful remembering. This drash was inspired by several teachers, especially Jordan Bendat-Appell. But first as a lead into the third paragraph, I want to say a few words about the first and second paragraphs.

The first paragraph of the shema speaks to us as individuals. It’s an intimate love story. Abraham Joshua Heschel says words of prayer are a commitment. This paragraph is also an important reminder for right speech and right thought. S’fat Emet (a Hasidic master) says it is written that “we should speak of “them”, and not idle talk. To me this means, we must think and speak of ‘these’ words, words of Torah, words of lovingkindness, gratitude, justice, compassion chesed and emet. And not ‘those’ words, especially today: words of politics, fear, gossip, and intolerance. This is not Torah. I’m trying to stay in a G-d consciousness in a crazy world.

Regarding the second paragraph, as Jonathan Sacks says, it’s about us as a people, accepting the covenant and commandments. And I read it as an awareness that our actions have consequences. “If” we don’t treat each other, and the earth with kindness respect, with words and actions of Torah, “then” indeed the world and all humankind will be destroyed — by us. One of my teachers Norm Fischer says: “the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other,” and I add, the earth.

Now let’s focus on the third paragraph. Why is this one so important: it’s about reminders and memory: zakar.   From Norm Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion, he says that perhaps we are not always as loving and compassionate as we want to be. We are too busy, we are worried about family and health and jobs, and/or anxieties of the real world. We feel overwhelmed at times. He suggests that we have to train our hearts and minds to be more open, more kind, more compassionate, just as we train our bodies at the gym. We can do this by meditation, and other practices, and by right intention, kavanah: mindfulness.

For me, meditation is one of the tools in the tool box of improving my life as a human being. Other tools may include yoga, tai chi, prayer, music, art, and poetry. Each are unique.

Meditation consists of techniques for training your mind, just as you go to the gym to train your body, you train by focusing the mind, calming the mind, mastering your thoughts, creating a sense of spaciousness and expansiveness of mind. These qualities enable you to see more clearly, to be more awake and aware in your present experience, to be able to hold and observe your thoughts and feelings, and opening your heart and mind. These qualities of mind don’t result in your being a ‘great meditator’, but in your being able to respond to, not react to, life and the world as it presents itself with emet and chesed. These qualities result in your responding more rationally, and with more kindness, compassion, connection and gratitude to others and ourselves. Jeff Roth offers a snow globe analogy: when you shake it, you cannot see what is there because of the snow flakes. These are your thoughts flying all over the place. But once they settle you can see more clearly — life as it really is. That’s it. No magic or enlightenment, just practical stuff like being awake in the present moment. “Present moment. Wonderful moment” says Tichct Nhat Hahn a Buddhist master. And it’s Hineni in Judaism. And again, why do we need to train in compassion? Because the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other.

But we constantly need re-minders: to re-center, re-turn, (tsheuvah). In Christianity, there is the cross. In Buddhism, there is the bell and the mantra: “when I hear the sound of the bell, I return to my true self”. In Judaism, some of our reminders are mezuzah (first paragraph) and Tzitzit (third paragraph) of the shema.

Talmud Bavli, Menachot 43b tells us, “Look at it and be aware, and observe them.” Looking leads to awareness, awareness leads to doing. This is the essence of Jewish mindfulness, zakar, memory. Mindful remembering which is the opposite of forgetfulness and we find it in the third paragraph of the Shema, Numbers 15:37-41. As you read it, Focus on the words raitam, zacartam, and asitam: You shall see them, and remember them, and do them. Words, thoughts and actions of Torah: Commandments. All leading to a good life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

37 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: לזוַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
38 Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. לחדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹֽרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת:
that they shall make for themselves fringes: Heb. צִיצִת, [so named] because of the threads suspended from it, as in,“he took me by a lock of (בְּצִיצִת) my hair (lit., by the fringes of my head)” (Ezek. 8:3) (Men. 42a). Another interpretation: [It is called] צִיצִת because of the [command], “you shall see it” (verse 39), as in,“peering (מֵצִיץ) from the lattices” (Song 2:9). ועשו להם ציצת: על שם הפתילים התלוים בה, כמו (יחזקאל ח, ג) ויקחני בציצית ראשי. דבר אחר ציצית על שם וראיתם אותו, כמו (שה”ש ב, ט) מציץ מן החרכים:
blue: The green-blue dye obtained from the chillazon [See Aruch Hashalem under חִלָּזוֹן, Yehudah Feliks, Nature & Man in the Bible (New York: Soncino Press, 1981, pp. 18-20]. תכלת: צבע ירוק של חלזון:
39This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. לטוְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֘ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת יְהֹוָ֔ה וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם:
you will remember all the commandments of the Lord: because the numerical value of the word צִיצִית is six hundred (צ = 90, י = 10, צ = 90, י = 10, ת = 400). [Add to this the] eight threads and five knots, and we have [a total of] six hundred and thirteen [the number of commandments in the Torah]. – [Num. Rabbah 18:21] וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’: שמנין גימטריא של ציצית שש מאות, ושמונה חוטים וחמשה קשרים הרי תרי”ג:
and you shall not wander after your hearts: Heb. וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ, like“from scouting (מִּתּוּר) the Land” (13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression. – [Mid. Tanchuma 15] ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם: כמו (לעיל יג כה) מתור הארץ. הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף ומסרסרים לו את העבירות, העין רואה והלב חומד והגוף עושה את העבירות:
40So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. מלְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְו‍ֹתָ֑י וִֽהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
41I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God. מאאֲנִ֞י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִֽהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
I am the Lord: Faithful to pay reward. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אני ה’: נאמן לשלם שכר:
your God: Faithful to exact punishment. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אלהיכם: נאמן ליפרע:
Who took you out: I redeemed you on condition you accept My decrees upon yourselves. – [Sifrei Shelach 73] אשר הוצאתי אתכם: על מנת כן פדיתי אתכם שתקבלו עליכם גזרותי:
I am the Lord, your God: Why is this repeated? So that the Israelites should not say, “Why did the Omnipresent say this? Was it not so that we should perform [the commandments] and receive reward? We will not perform [them] and not receive reward!” [Therefore, God says,] “I am your King, even against your will.” Similarly, it says, “[As I live, says the Lord God,] surely with a strong hand…will I reign over you” (Ezek. 20:33). Another interpretation: Why is the exodus from Egypt mentioned? It was I who distinguished between the drop [of sperm] of a firstborn and of that which was not of a firstborn. So in future will I distinguish and punish those who attach indigo-dyed [fringes, which is extracted from a vegetable] to their garments, claiming that it is sky-blue [dye extracted from the chillazon]. – [B.M. 61b] From the commentary of R. Moshe Hadarshan [the preacher] I transcribed [the following:] Why is the passage of the wood gatherer juxtaposed with the passage addressing idolatry? To inform [you] that one who desecrates the Sabbath is regarded as one who worships idols, for it [namely the Sabbath] too [just like the prohibition against idolatry] is as important as [the sum of] all the commandments. So Scripture says in Ezra (Neh. 9:13-14, which is strictly part of Ezra. See Rashi on Neh. 1:1), “You descended upon Mount Sinai… and you gave Your people the Law and the commandments (sic). And Your holy Sabbath You made known to them.” Likewise, the passage of fringes; why is it juxtaposed with these two [passages]? Since it too is equally important as [the sum of] all the commandments, as it states, “and perform all My commandments.” אני ה’ אלהיכם: עוד למה נאמר, כדי שלא יאמרו ישראל מפני מה אמר המקום, לא שנעשה ונטול שכר, אנו לא עושים ולא נוטלים שכר, על כרחכם אני מלככם. וכן הוא אומר (יחזקאל כ, לג) אם לא ביד חזקה וגו’ אמלוך עליכם. דבר אחר למה נאמר יציאת מצרים, אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לשאינה של בכור, אני הוא עתיד להבחין ולהפרע מן התולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא. ומיסודו של רבי משה הדרשן העתקתי למה נסמכה פרשת מקושש לפרשת עבודה זרה, לומר שהמחלל את השבת כעובד עבודה זרה, שאף היא שקולה ככל המצות, וכן הוא אומר בעזרא (נחמי’ ט, יג – טו) ועל הר סיני ירדת ותתן לעמך תורה ומצות ואת שבת קדשך הודעת להם, ואף פרשת ציצית לכך נסמכה לאלו לפי שאף היא שקולה כנגד כל המצות, שנאמר ועשיתם את כל מצותי:
on the corners of their garments: Corresponding to [the verse said in connection with the exodus from Egypt]“I carried you on the wings (כַּנְפֵי) of eagles” (Exod. 19:4). On the four corners, but not on a garment of three or five [corners]. [This] corresponds to the four expressions of redemption that were said in Egypt:“I will take you out…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you” (Exod. 6:6-7). – [Mid. Aggadah] על כנפי בגדיהם: כנגד (שמות יט, ד) ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים. על ארבע כנפות ולא בעלת שלש ולא בעלת חמש, כנגד ארבע לשונות של גאולה שנאמר במצרים (שמות ו, ו – ז) והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי:
a thread of sky-blue [wool]: Heb. פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, so called because of the bereavement [suffered by the Egyptians] over the loss of their firstborn. The Aramaic translation of שִׁכּוּל, bereavement, is תִּכְלָא [a word similar to תְּכֵלֶת]. Moreover, the plague struck them at night, and the color of תְּכֵלֶת is similar to the color of the sky, which blackens at dusk; its eight threads symbolize the eight days that Israel waited from when they left Egypt until they sang the song at the [Red] Sea. – [Mid. Aggadah] פתיל תכלת: על שם שכול בכורות. תרגומו של שכול תכלא. ומכתם היתה בלילה וכן צבע התכלת דומה לצבע רקיע המשחיר לעת ערב. ושמונה חוטים שבה, כנגד שמונה ימים ששהו ישראל משיצאו ממצרים עד שאמרו שירה על הים:

 

Godcidences & Giving

November 29th is Giving Tuesday, a worldwide holiday that encourages giving back to our communities.  With one voice, non-profits reach out on Giving Tuesday to ask for our time, skills, and dollars to make a difference in other people’s lives.  Giving back to the community is a long-standing Jewish tradition.  Isaiah 32:17 says, “and the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.”

I asked Hebrew Seminary professor, Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub, to share a “Giving Tuesday” teaching with us.  Rabbi Vaisrub agrees that Tzedakah speaks to something greater. 

My favorite teaching on the obligation to support people in our community comes from Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Rules of Gifts to the Poor 10:1:

“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the commandment of tzedaqah to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because tzedaqah is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform tzedaqah.”

“The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaqah, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness [tzedaqah].”

“And Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaqah, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity [tzedaqah].”

Note how Maimonides enumerates [and thus connects] four seemingly disconnected ideas, all through tzedaqah:
1. Personal righteousness
2. Proper governance / political stability
3. True faith proper religious belief
4. National redemption

In this rule, Maimonides is NOT merely teaching us why tzedaqah is important: any one of the reasons he enumerates would more than suffice, so why waste ink and parchment?

Rather, Maimonides teaches us how tzedaqah binds these different aspects of people’s lives together: the personal, the social, the religious, and ultimately the redemptive. In a particular way, acts of tzedaqah, which encompass justice and kindness, create individuals, and communities, and religious movements, and ultimately a nation, capable of actualizing human potential. Tzedaqah is thus the glue that ultimately binds people together, which speaks to its power to transform the world, micro and macro, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Dr. Goldhamer wants to add that it is a Godcidence that we celebrate Giving Tuesday, during the same week that we read Parshat Toldot, the scriptural reading for this week.  The essence of this parasha is good and evil. Jacob represents good and his twin brother Esau represents evil.  I believe this simplistic understanding misses the point. What is evil?  In Kabbalah, evil is selfishness.  We are all concerned about our own welfare. We are all concerned about how to improve our own lives. We all do things to benefit ourselves. This is considered evil in Kabbalah.

Everyone is created with a desire to receive for oneself alone. There is a difference between receiving for yourself and receiving in order to share. The second form of receiving is considered good in KabbalahKabbalah comes from the root word meaning “to receive.” But Hashem wants us to receive in order to share and do tzedakah. And so, our Kabbalistic tradition teaches us to receive in order to share.

Nothing is wrong with accumulating millions of dollars and becoming wealthy. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing to accumulate wealth–but we need to accumulate so that we can share what we accumulate. This is the essence of the teaching of this week’s parasha.  We need to receive in order to share.  When we receive and we do tzedakah, we are doing a high mitzvah in Judaism.  This is the essence of this week’s teaching of Toldot and Giving Tuesday.

For Giving Tuesday, Hebrew Seminary is asking that you donate food and/or funds to  Congregation Bene Shalom’s The Brian Glassenberg Food Pantry at Congregation Bene Shalom, 4435 W. Oakton Street Skokie, IL 60076 or call 847/ 677- 3330.

 

Finding Possiblity In Bad News

By Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We look to Abraham to teach us advocacy. Last week we read of God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. The story teaches us to argue with the powers that be when lives are at stake. Abraham teaches us to argue for the rights of all people and there is no doubt that we need to step-up our advocacy here in America. Allow me to share some examples of why we need to put ourselves out there and allow me to offer Jewish teachings that may inspire us to do so. I do believe God is with us every move we make. I believe in a God of love and possibility. I do not accept impossibility.

“On November 20, hundreds gathered for an anti-hate rally at a vandalized Brooklyn park named in memory of the late Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch. The rally Sunday at the Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn came after the park was defaced with swastikas and the message ‘Go Trump.’” (Jewish Telegraph Agency)

An Anti-Defamation League report issued in October identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 with an estimated reach of 10 billion impressions, which the task force believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”

As an introduction to its “Hate Crime Statistics 2015” report released this November, the FBI wrote: “Earlier this year, a Florida man pled guilty to threatening to firebomb two mosques. A Virginia man was charged with assaulting a gay victim. And an Iowa man was convicted of stomping on and kicking the head of an African-American victim.”

I do not accept this foreboding news. Let us bring about a prevailing wind of kindness. Let us be upstanders, people who speak up even to their peers when a wrong is being perpetrated. Humans are social and prone to group think. We need to conspicuously role model mutual respect, act for social justice and unequivocally leave no one to fend for themselves. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, each and every person has a piece of the truth. When Rav Huna would eat a meal, he would open his door and say, “Whoever is in need, let that person come and eat.” (Ta’anit 20b) In our communities, many read the newspaper and simply put it down. Children fallen in the street are set aside. The Wisdom of our Fathers, Pirke Avot 2:5, echoes through the house: “Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community.”

Think about what it means to be inclusionary. When we are open to everything and everyone, we don’t define ourselves or make decisions based on subconscious fears. We draw back when demagogues venomously tell us what to think. We sit with our initial response to a choice or a person different than ourselves and witness it. Being with our fears and prejudices allows them to dissipate. Then we can be open to possibilities. Then we can be open to being our best self. Snap judgements close countless doors. Grudges epitomize the certainty of only one possibility.

Psychologist Erich Fromm believed that God is a metaphor for our best self. He theorized that we believe in and seek to connect with our ideal self. Fromm was searching for meaning, a way to respond to the inevitability of change. The definition of time is change. We often don’t know why things change, we can only weigh change against what is the most good for the most people. As a rabbi once said: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Philosopher John D. Caputo beckons us, “The religious sense of life has to do with exposing oneself to radical uncertainty and the open-endedness of life…. The Scriptures are filled with narratives in which the power of the present is broken and the full length and breadth of the real open like a flower, unfolding the power of the possible, the power of the impossible beyond the possible, of the hyper-real beyond the real. … faith, hope and love are what we need to keep up with what is really going on in the real beyond the real ….”

I believe that the possible, my ideal self, love, and the hyper-real beyond the real are all different names for The Source, The Name, HaShem. I am assured and inspired by the words of Kabbalist Kedushat Levi, “Now He is giving His people life!” The creation of man into Yesh (existence) happened in the past tense and is happening right now. God is continually creating us and we are part of Her creative activity here on the physical plane.

Each and every moment of our lives, God gives us possibility. These possibilities exist for everyone equally and we are responsible to recognize and actualize those possibilities for our self and all fellow human beings. We thank God for our gift of possibility by assuring that our brothers and sisters, all of them, can actualize their gifts. We show our gratitude by assuring equal rights for all, which opens doors to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and education, which opens an inner door toward our ideal self.

Lech Lecha, Go to Your Authentic Self

 

From the pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison Brown

First thing every morning my mind begins its chatter. What is the order of my day? What needs doing at work? What needs doing after work? In my mind tasks skirmish for priority. On the occasion that I disengage, I pat myself on the head with compassion. The mind works loves to conjure up problems and solve them. We are master puzzlers! It is no wonder that we are drawn to the practices of meditation and mindfulness.

People need space. We need space to Lech Lecha, to “go to yourself” in the words of Genesis 12:1. Jewish practices can support this effort to get in touch with our best self, our piece of the divine truth, to then go forth moment-by-moment, interaction-by-interaction to make a better world, if only through kindness. I hope to get in touch with myself so that I can act as often as possible from no-self.

Chaim Vital wrote that, “Every person must search and discover the root of his soul, so he can fulfill it and restore it to its source, its essence. The more one fulfills himself, the closer he approaches his authentic self.”

Our authentic self can be radically free and empty. In this state of consciousness there is no me and you. I am you.

After school yesterday my daughter shared something of her workload with me. Sometimes, having practiced lech lecha, I am able to listen from my authentic self. If I spoke from my chattering self, I would proceed to direct my daughter. When you get home do this, don’t take a break until you get this done, be sure you get plenty of sleep, so on and so forth. Speaking from my authentic self, my empty and full of wonder self, I empathize and offer the thought that she be compassionate with herself. I am confident that she will be her best self. She has no need for my chattering self.

A wise man knows nothing – well, maybe one song — Ikkyu

 

 

 

Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

 

 

Practicing Kindness

Chesed
By Sandra Charak

Kindness is so much more than charity.  Acts of kindness, Chesed, come from the heart.  They are spontaneous gestures of goodwill to strangers as well as friends.

Acts of kindness are done without expectation of anything in return and begins with being aware of your surroundings.  Small gestures of kindness are as simple as a smile while saying please and thank you to a shop clerk or to wait staff.   Everyone wants to be acknowledged and appreciated.  Let someone know when she/he drops something.  Use a smile to cheer someone up.  Offer a positive outlook.  Give someone a heartfelt compliment; it could make their day.

Rabbi Hillel, the renowned teacher living in Palestine in the first century BCE, is credited as the original source of the Golden Rule. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 31:1.   According to the Midrash, a non-Jewish man said to Hillel, “He would convert if Hillel could explain Judaism while he stands on one foot.” The man probably asked Hillel this question not expecting a meaningful answer, but Hillel responded with this insightful response, according to the Talmud.

Treating everyone with kindness in a loving way may not always be easy.   One needs to acknowledge everyone’s points of view and have compassion even when exhausted, angry or feeling low.  That compassion may lift your own spirits and influence others to mirror your actions.

In the Book of Ruth, read in many synagogues on Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the 10 commandments.  Rabbi Zei’ra states in the Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13 “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written?  To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).  Ruth, childless and widowed gave all of herself, going from princess to humble Jewish woman, to honor and serve her Mother-in-Law.

Everyone can act with Chesed or Kindness.  We need only to offer small daily acts of kindness to make a change in our home, our neighborhood and our community.  Kindness can become contagious.

I believe that the antonym of Chesed or Loving Kindness is fear. When a person is afraid they are unable to open themselves up to exploration and meet new people.  Fear leads to division, meanness and hatred.

In our current environment the mainstream media espouses and promotes fear and mistrust.  When practicing Chesed you may find the majority of people want the same thing you do, love and kindness.

 

 

Practicing Kindness

We asked our students for their thoughts on practicing kindness.  We are pleased to share some of their essays.

Stop the madness!!!  —   I want to get off!!!
by Tirtzah Israel

Where’s our compassion for one another?  What happened to kindness?  Why are we so afraid to acknowledge its need and purpose in everyday life?  The power of kindness is here in our world waiting to be accessed as a collective resource, even as a preventive measure to counteract violence.

We are all sickened by the latest wake of mass killings and gun-violence due to bigotry and hatred.  Right now the earth seems to be filled with strife and malcontent.  I am reminded of the pre-flood portion to the Noach story where in his time the earth was filled with so much corruption that God decided to destroy the earth.  In our own time, we live in a society where both politician and gunman present themselves as demigods with the  “ultimate” solution for the world that appeals only to the lowest denominator of human existence.  They “fan the fires” for violence, divisiveness, power and influence both physically and psychological as a rationale for problem-solving.  These people, in my opinion, act out of ignorance, mis-information, mis-education, fear or/and are mentally deranged.

In real-time, the news outlets inundate viewers and readers with the gruesome details of human carnage that both sensationalize and desensitized the suffering of others so much so that we are rendered helpless in our grief.  We re-live these traumatic events and are shakened to the very core of our existence, yet too frightened to act as a collective body for the sake humanity.

Sure, there’s a collective, world-wide outpouring of kindness in response to these tragedies.  Yes, we are energized in those moments to support one another during the horrific initial emotional realization of raw cruelty.  However, no amount of kindness can offset the impact of the trauma perpetrated upon humanity when the outpouring of kindness occurs only in response to specific tragedies.  Without these horrific events, we too easily slip back into our self-serving and self protecting mode wishing for  safety as we desperately hold-on to our preferred lifestyle.  The test for all of us is for us to realize that we are all one people, intimately connected as one race; the human-race.  We all belong to one another and we are all responsible for one another as a collective human society.   Basically, we all want the same things out of life.  We all want to have the reasonable opportunity to be able to reach our potential, to be successful and prosperous, to be safe, happy, healthy, and no one wants to be made to feel “left-out.”  We naturally strive towards sharing — and when that doesn’t happen an eruption occurs.

Collectively, we have access to some of the most powerful tools in the world; more powerful than bullets and bombs in the form of love, compassion and kindness.   Yes, people we are designed to be kind because we all naturally gravitate towards it.  We seek kindness in one another.  Yet, it appears at least on the outside, as if we have forgotten or maybe we are ashamed of accessing that which is inherently fulfilling, intimately close and intrinsically healing  — Kindness/compassion.    These attributes are divinely bestowed upon us by The Creator.  They are part of our Universe.  In particular, kindness/compassion allows us to fulfill our highest purpose at being a shared and common humanity.  Kindness can be stress relieving.  Kindness is benevolent; Kindness fulfills our desire to do good and charitable deeds that benefits others.  And it begins with each and everyone of us, individually, to activate the kindness within ourselves; to love ourselves and to experience compassion for ourselves that can be shared by others.

If we could imagine our world without strife, without hatred and bigotry then we can actualize it.  It’s not impossible.  Together, we have the ability and power within us to make this dream a reality.  However, we  must decide to do this together.  We can simply begin by forming prayer networks that pray for the activation of kindness and compassion.  We can pray to activate healing the world; and to pray for a shared compassion that ends suffering.  It can become a contagious movement, neigborhood by neigborhood, community by community.  But, it begins with just one person — visualizing; imagining; and engaging their power to heighten kindness; compassion and love.  For the pessimist among us, I say to them I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and sing “kum-bi-ya” around the campfire (although, that’s not a bad thought).  No, I referring to a clear sense of responsibilty, and active-state of mindful kindness that honors life.

If we could just stop being so damagingly competitive, stop trying to be “the winner” and “king of the hill” for just a moment, it could create an intutive-moment that allows us to find that balance towards wholeness.  We can actually heal the world.  It’s within our power to do so because we are all connected to one another whether we like it or not.  When you are not healed, I’m not healed.  When I’m not healed, you are not healed.  But colllectively, we have the ability to end violence in our world and to achieve the wealth of balance by actively participating.     We each have the responsibilty.  We each have the power.  We each can help to turn our world around.

Please don’t be that one person who may be holding out from the rest of us impending us from achieving our goal for harmony.  It’s not too late.  The world is waiting for the power of your kind prayers with compassion.  I thank you for praying with me.

 

 

 

 

Practice Kindness

We asked our students for their thoughts on practicing kindness.  We are pleased to share some of their essays.

Kindness in the Grey Zone
by Matthew Katz

One of our tradition’s most esteemed scholars was Rabbi Hillel, who is perhaps most renowned for his gratifying a potential convert’s challenge to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg, by responding, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this, in a few words, is the entire Torah; — all the rest is but an elaboration of this one, central point.  Now, go and learn it.”  This seemingly simple admonition, enshrined in our Babylonian Talmud at Shabbos 31a, is, however, arguably, the greatest puzzle in the history of humanity because we have not yet learned how to apply this “golden” rule.

There are easier ways to apply this rule, such as not throwing a knife at a your friend’s face, or not stealing another’s car.  We hear about violent incidents and crimes like these on the news each night and feel proud that we’re not like “those people” who don’t know how to follow the golden rule like we do because we opt to not engage in those horrid acts.  But there are many harder tests of our character that we get wrong every day, such as speaking negatively about others or not cautioning others for doing so, or failing to act to prevent state violence or economic animosity against others.

Yale ethicist Thomas Pogge is author of the widely acclaimed 2002 work, World Poverty and Human Rights, which indicts our institutionalized complicity in the very nature of our being first world consumers: some 270 million preventable poverty related deaths have occurred since the end of the Cold War up to the book’s publication, alone.  How many more have died since or have died today but for access to what you and I spent on one beverage?  I studied Pogge as part of an ethics course last fall titled “Rights and Justice” wherein we tackled the deep questions like what are our obligations to the 800 million people who regularly go an entire day with nothing to eat.

Forever living in what Primo Levi dubbed the “Grey Zone” we can’t but continue our quest for answers to the great questions of how to apply the golden rule—of how to embody kindness in our actions toward our friends, our enemies, those we don’t know or will likely never meet, and in where to draw the line between caring for and protecting against.  It is into this void where the teachings of Hillel and his progeny offer profound instruction regarding where to orient our behavior and how to refine our character in search of an ethical world, a world where kindness would be easy to discern and apply without artificial and arbitrarily imposed borders not of our making.

Last semester Rabbi Dr. Goldhammer introduced us to Aryeh Kaplan, who in his Meditation and Kabbalah actually discerns the five stages of character development that will establish us on the road to prophecy, imaginably the highest level of righteousness we can attain:

  1. Devekut—attachment to God in all of one’s thoughts, as in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s instruction to forever act in compassion for God’s frustration for the state of the world;
  2. Hishtavut—meaning stoicism, or as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov instructed, having no preference in ego matters, i.e., “all things should be equal to you.” This, according to Rabbi Kaplan, was the test determinative of a prospective student’s readiness for Kabbalah study, who would be asked by the would be instructors, “Do you prefer one who speaks well of you to one who speaks badly of you?”  If the answer was yes, the rabbis said keep trying and come back when you’re there;
  3. Hitbodedut—meditation in isolation to reach higher states of consciousness;
  4. Ruach HaKodesh—reception of the holy spirit and enlightenment;
  5. Prophecy.

Finally, as hard as we try, as disciplined and as studious as we might be, we probably won’t reach the level of prophecy.  That said, if consistently more of us, more diligently and more committedly, continue to work on new solutions to these millennia old problems of how to be able to be kind, to not be hateful to our fellow, in Hillel’s words, we just might see progress toward that kind of world.  It would presumably be a world in which we are not complicit in a system of depravity and injustice to billions every time we turn on the tap water or buy a cup of coffee.  It would perchance be a world where all of God’s creation would be treated as sacred, and thereby worthy of God’s presence.  I look forward to learning from you as we search together.