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.

This Is What Made Moses Great

by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

This week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, is always very traumatic for me.  First, we have the death of the great prophetess Miriam, which is described in one sentence, “…and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation…”(Numbers 20:1-2)  Later in the same chapter we experience the death of Aaron, “…and Aaron died there in the top of the mount…and when all the congregations saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.” (20:28-29)

But, the most difficult part of this Torah portion for me to understand is that, in this same chapter, God tells Moses that he will not live to bring the people Israel into the Promised Land.  After Miriam’s death, the people complain that there is no water to drink – the well has dried up.  So, God tells Moses “Take the rod, …and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; ….And Moses lifted up his hand and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly…. And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘because ye believed not in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’”(20:8-12)

Why should Moses be denied entrance into the land of Israel because he struck the rock,  instead of speaking to the rock?    Most times I see Hashem as a compassionate being, but at other times, I see God as someone who has no patience for the greatest of all the prophets.

Why is my favorite prophet Moses, “our teacher,” lifted up on God’s highest mountain (Numbers 12), yet when Moses asks Hashem to transform him into a bird so that he can fly over Israel, or into a soldier just so he can allow his boots to feel the mud of Jerusalem, why does God say “no.”  This is the same God, whom King David describes in Psalm 145 as, “slow to anger and of great mercy.”

Imagine being so close to your goal—having led the Jewish people through the desert for 40 years, only to be told that you will not be allowed to cross the finish line, into the Promised Land.  When Moses strikes the rock, he has just suffered the loss of his sister Miriam.  Is he not allowed to feel grief? Is he not allowed to sit shiva for his sister? Is he not allowed to misunderstand God’s direction? Why does God have no patience for his circumstances?

These are the questions I wrestle with every time I read this Torah portion.  And every year, as I study this, I feel frustration for the fate of Moses.  But, perhaps it is because Moses is such a great leader that he has to die outside the Promised Land.  Now, it is up to the rest of the “team,” led by Joshua, to enter Israel.  God and Moses both know that it is time for the people to accept responsibility for themselves.  They are no longer slaves, following directions – but they are free men and women, who will have to build this new land, which has been promised to them.  It is time for the next generation to take charge.

I find solace in knowing that, while Moses is not allowed into Israel, he goes to a much better place – he is drawn next to the bosom of the Lord.  The death of Moses, a true tzaddik, is a terribly sad time, but, it is also a time of rebirth, an illumination of life.  When a child is born in this world, she departs from the world of souls. When a tzaddik dies, he undergoes the reverse – he departs from this world and returns to the other world.  And, perhaps the actions that happen in this week’s Torah portion, have to happen, so that the next generation is empowered to assume new leadership roles, with Joshua at the helm.

The Midrash frequently mentions that the death of a tzaddik atones for the sins of a generation and of the whole world (Exodus Rabba 35:4), because the greater the individual who is taken from the world, the more significant the changes generated by the transition are. Hence, when Moses leaves this world, the void that is created changes the nature of the world forever.  Perhaps Moses has to die, so that this new generation can get a clean slate.

Moses will always be remembered not as an angel, but as a man of flesh and blood who God remembered, not as the Messiah, but as a man, who loved the Lord with all his heart and soul and might. And yet, he was not afraid to challenge the greatness of God when he felt he had to .This is what made Moses great.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

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 ”

 

 

Weaving Our Thoughts With a Wise Heart

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

It is said that the tabernacle described in Exodus is a metaphor for our inner realms, the way our spirit works together with our mind to negotiate life.  Parsha Terumah delineates the myriad details necessary to construct the Tabernacle.  Commentators note, “God’s presence is not found in a building.  It is found in the hearts and the souls of the people ….”   It is our spirit, soul and mind that fashions a tabernacle, a mishkan, for God’s presence.   Accordingly, our thoughts must be intentionally fashioned.

Later Torah verses describe the making of Aaron’s priestly vestments including the ephod (a short coat “girded” on over other garments).  The ephod, say commentators, protects the wearer against the dangers of idolatry and symbolizes a right relation between man and God.  Those who were “skillful” (hochme-lev, wise of heart) would cunningly “weave” (hoshev, thinking) gold with blue, purple and crimson yarns into the ephod’s fine linen.   These materials were woven with thought and a wise heart to create a relationship with God.  Our relationship with God includes our thoughts.   If my microwave is beeping to remind me of the coffee I reheated, I can either weave thoughts of annoyance because the beeping won’t stop and I’m busy or I can skillfully and cunningly weave thoughts of appreciation for the gift of coffee and offer up this moment of thankfulness to the Source of Being.  A mind, spirit and soul steeped in prayer and meditation will default to the latter.

What if we took care of our spirit as we, often without thinking about it, take care of our body?  Create a Jewish practice.  Five minutes here and five minutes there creates space for a mishkan, a place inside that is nurturing.  That is what the Torah alludes to.  “Make Me a sanctuary for Me to dwell in.”  There is a space inside of us that is dynamic, upstanding and attuned to the One-ness.  Think about that when you walk down the hall at work. There is a space inside of us that is dynamic, upstanding and attuned to the One-ness.

Heavenly Opportunity

By Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Our Torah portion this week, called Mishpatim, identifies the theory of reincarnation in many of our Judaisms. Our Torah portion begins, “These are the judgments that you shall place before them. “  According to the Kabbalah, and the Divine Rabbi who wrote the ZOHAR , Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai,  this verse means “This is the order of judgments and laws and rewards and punishments, that dictate the reincarnation of souls.”  Every individual receives the appropriate GILGUL or incarnation, corresponding to the life he previously led.

When a person is born, he receives the first part of his soul, Nefesh. If he does good deeds and meditations and practices Torah all his life, his Nefesh soul will develop two more parts – Ruach and Neshoma.  IF he does indeed receive all these three parts of his soul – Nefesh and Ruach and Neshoma—she does not need to reincarnate.

But he goes back to the world of souls at the time of his death in this world. But if a person does not achieve Nefesh and Ruach and Neshoma, they may need to reincarnate over a number of lifetimes.

Each person goes down to earth several times in different reincarnations, and the purpose of these reincarnations is to correct all the harm and injury that he has created in his lifetimes. And so, sins originate from a person who was born with bad attributes at birth. This does not mean we believe in Original Sin – just the opposite.  Each person has the right and responsibility and opportunity to correct the sins of his previous lifetimes and then, when he succeeds in this, he is given the opportunity to go to heaven. That is why souls come down again and again, through reincarnation.

Earth is the school for souls. Each one of us learns how to be a better person through our incarnations or our gilgulim. And just as earth is a school for souls, heaven is the graduation that is offered to each one of us. And many of our Judaisms do believe that we do visit with family members once again after we leave this earth.

Over the years, people have come to me for an exorcism. They feel that their husband or child has been possessed. And, they wonder if I could exorcise the demon from within them. Do we Jewish people do exorcisms, similar to the Catholic priest?

Yes, there is a form of reincarnation which is called a dybbuk. It is referred to as “being possessed.” This means that a person’s soul becomes possessed by another person’s soul or by an evil spirit. This dybbuk is a separate soul that never becomes unified with one’s own soul, and when a person is possessed by this other soul, he feels there is something external to his own life, living in his body. The Torah calls this Ruach Ra’ah, an evil spirit. We see this In the Bible, when the first king of Israel, King Saul was suffering from great depression, and the Torah says, “A spirit of the Lord which is evil troubled King Saul.”  In the Bible, this phenomenon was called Ruach Ra’ah, a Demon. But in later years, in the 18th century onwards, this was called a dybbuk.

Once upon a time, there lived two friends—both wives became pregnant.  “I promise, if your wife has a boy and my wife has a girl, they will marry.”

Later on, one of the friends and his wife, went on a business trip out of town.  There was an accident on the road, and the husband was killed.  The wife, subsequently gave birth to a boy, and moved to another town.  The other wife gave birth to a beautiful girl.

But the vow was forgotten.

The boy grew up and he came to study in the college of the same town as the girl.  HE even stayed as a guest in the home of that girl. He didn’t know it.  The boy and girl fell in love.

The girl’s stepfather—who didn’t know about the vow that had been made—said, “You are not rich. You cannot marry my stepdaughter.”

But the girl loved the young man.  AND he loved her. But the boy understood that they could not marry.  And with a broken heart, the boy died.

The girl’s parents found a rich suitor and arranged for their marriage. Before the wedding, the girl visited the boy’s grave and begged his soul to break through from the worlds above and come to her wedding.

As the girl cried at his grave, the soul of the boy entered her body as a dybbuk. She began acting like him, speaking like him.  The rabbis tried to do an exorcism but failed.

In the end, the girl died, in love with the soul of her beloved boyfriend.

This type of experience occupies a place in Jewish literature, because it reflects the spiritual history of our people.  Reincarnation, exorcism, dybbuks have played a part in Jewish spiritual history.

I do believe that we experience reincarnation. I am sure that some of you have experienced déjà vu.  Déjà vu is so real, and at times so powerful that, while having this experience, we think “I know this man. I’ve met him before.  Oh my God. I have experienced this exact same experience. I just can’t remember where or when.”  Anyway, I do believe that déjà vu is just another way of expressing this week’s first line in our Torah, which teaches reincarnation.

 

Turns of Fate

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

The Joseph story with its many turns of fate is compelling on many levels.  The events of his life speak to us of the vicissitudes of mind, body, and spirit that we all experience.  I too have found myself at the bottom of a pit hollowed out by the loss of a loved one.  While we all intellectually understand the bittersweet nature of human existence, when there is seemingly no way out and the bitter becomes caustic it’s impossible to make sense of it.

Work as we may to focus on the sweet gifts of life, the daily news tosses us time and time again into more pits: a toddler is gunned down, terror is orchestrated in Paris, our kinsmen stabbed in Israel.  I close my eyes and find footing in the Shema.  Connecting with the One I hear myself asking, “help me keep the faith in me and in You”, You who are the One and Whole of everything and everyone.  Shaleim, whole, comes from the Hebrew root as shalom, peace.  When we are of the Whole we find peace.  Help me keep faith in my being a part of the Whole, a resourceful, loving part of the Whole — a kind and justice-seeking part of God.  Help me help.

In Gen. 37:13 Israel tells Joseph to check on his brother’s welfare.  Joseph says “hinneni”.  Rashi, who earlier interpreted hinneni to mean, “I am here, at your service,” tells us that Joseph’s hinneni includes humility as well as readiness.  Cast into one of life’s pits are we humbly ready to do whatever needs doing?  To climb out of the pit, to do what needs doing takes faith.  We need faith in our self that we will find the courage, the stamina to move through the bitter times in life.  We, like Joseph, are sometimes part of plot we don’t understand yet with intent we can play our part in support of the Whole.

My Shema moments remind me to get out of my own head, to be in communication with all of creation, all of the worlds, beyond space and time.  To move beyond what seems to be going right or wrong, easy or difficult for me.  When tested, Joseph finds his inner strength.  We too can find ours, but we have to listen.  A moment of Hitbodedut (meditation), a Shema moment, or walking in a forest preserve allows us to climb out of the pit and with humility meet the task we have been given.  Every story has elements of choice.  May we make our choices from makom shalom, from a place of peace, a place of the Whole.

Kedoshim – Love Thy Fellow As You Love Yourself Because We Are All One

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, is the single Torah portion that not only inspired me to be a rabbi, but recognizes the amazing teaching of Judaism.

When the world was overwhelmed by war, from Mesopotamia to Europe, when communities were pitted one against the other, the Scriptural author of Judaism, rather than enter into the fray of competition, wrote in our magnificent Torah, “Thou shalt love thy fellow as you love yourself.”

That statement itself is most inspiring, but when the rabbis were asked to comment on this Biblical verse, they added, “because your fellow is yourself.” We are all One.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

President,  Hebrew Seminary