Friday, January 16, 2015

Encountering God in the Everyday

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, which means the life of Sarah. Sarah has died at 127 years of age; and Abraham purchases a plot of land for her burial, large enough to be a burial estate for his family. It is a deed of sale embedded in the Torah. He then prepares to send his servant, Eliezer, to his family in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac.

The servant asks if Isaac may come along on the journey, but Abraham will not permit it. Abraham says that God of Heaven and Earth will send an angel to make his errand successful. As he approaches his destination, the servant prays, “God, God of my master Abraham, may you so arrange it for me this day that you do kindness and Truth with my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water and the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water. Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, Tip over your jug so I may drink and who replies drink and I will even water your camels, her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac, and may I know through her that you have done kindness with my master. (Gen 24:13-14)”

The Torah reports that he had not yet finished his prayer, when Rebecca came out and offered to give him water, and to water the camels too. The text says, “The man was astonished at her. (24:21)” Eliezer finds out that she is Abraham’s relative and when he asks about lodging, she extends her family’s hospitality to him. Why should he be astonished? Perhaps it is because of the speed with which these events occurred. Also, perhaps it is because we are not used to having our prayers answered. The Talmud speaks about one reason the prayer was answered: because Eliezer was not praying on his own behalf.

There are several instances of this in the Torah. We read, “And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maidservants” (Gen. 20:17), and immediately after it says: “And God remembered Sarah as God had said,” [i.e.] The Talmud remarks: “as Abraham had [prayed and] said regarding Abimelech.”(Baba Kama 92a); another instance is the prayer of Moses about Miriam, when he cries out to God, “Please God heal her now!” (Num. 12:13), and she was healed at that moment. For Eliezer, when his prayer was immediately answered, it must have been a kind of spontaneous conversion. It’s not often that we have a shattering, peak spiritual experience in our everyday lives; an experience which is such a meaningful coincidence that it convinces us that the Divine Presence reached across the divide which separates Heaven and Earth, into our very lives. We don’t expect to encounter God in the everyday. Perhaps this is what Abraham meant by, “God of Heaven and God of Earth” (Gen. 24:3): that the Divine Presence encounters us at unexpected moments.

We don’t often believe our own experiences. If we did, we would not have had to wander 40 years in the wilderness after having seen the 10 Plagues, the parting of the sea, the giving of the 10 Commandments, the manna, and the pillar of cloud leading us each day. We would have trusted in God’s care and protection. We often attribute God in the mundane to mere coincidence. When the Torah says that Eliezer prayed that God do kindness and truth with his master, this is to say that when things go our way, we experience kindness. When we recognize Divine help, this is truth. It’s real. Another person may not recognize it from the outside, but we know it inwardly.

Does God answer prayer? Sometimes, and not always in the form we have asked for. Does God hear prayer? I’m convinced that the answer is yes, always. We should remember that is up to us to make the contact, through prayer, intentionally keeping the awareness of the Divine Essence in our consciousness, and through developing our relationship to the Divine. Out of our closeness can come the reaching from the Divine realm into the mundane, into our human affairs. As King David witnessed and wrote, God is there to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145:18). May our prayers, our calling out to God, allow us to experience the reaching out from shamayim, from the heavenly realm, into our lives for goodness and for blessing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Mystery of God's Support

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, or, go for yourself, in which Abraham, whose name is still Abram, receives the call from God to leave his family and go forth from his native land to a land God promises to show him. He is told he will be greatly blessed with land, fame, and descendants, and that God will bless his friends and curse his enemies. This portion shows, in a series of incidents, how God teaches Abraham. There is a midrash that the sages like to quote, “Abraham knew the Torah before it was given.” I’ve seen this in more than 3 sources. I think Abraham must have been a very good and moral person to begin with; however we see Abraham being educated slowly, as well, in this portion.

First there is a famine. Abraham asks Sarah to say she is his sister, so that he will not be killed. As the custom was to seize the beautiful wife and kill the husband, she agrees, but Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s harem, a terrible turn of events. If Abraham had trusted that God would curse his enemies and protect him, would he have needed to lie? Would he have put Sarah in danger? We don’t’ know. God sends an illness to Pharaoh’s household so that no one feels well enough to have sexual relations, and Abraham leaves with Sarah unscathed and great wealth, the payment in a sense, given to Abraham by Pharaoh when he seized Sarah. God has taught Abraham that God will keep the promises of blessing and protection.

Then comes another test: there is a war of 4 chieftains fighting 5 chieftains. Lot, Abraham’s nephew is captured; so Abraham enters the war to get him back. Abraham is successful, and after the war is over, the victorious kings assemble to divide the spoils of war. What happens is strange; and we know that the sages taught that there are no coincidences. God arranges for a man named Malchizedek, whose name means righteous king, to be present. Malchizedek is described as a priest of God the most high,” who lives in Jerusalem. As they are about to divide the spoils, Malchizedek brings out bread and wine, which has become our Jewish custom, perhaps an ancient pagan custom, but also perhaps something Abraham picked up from this non-Jewish priest. He then blesses Abraham.

It is strange because we are not told that Malchizedek blessed the other chieftains. He is fixated on Abraham; and then he says, Blessed is Abraham of God the Most High, the owner of heaven and earth, and blessed is God the Most High, who has delivered you foes into your hand. (Gen. 14:18).” It is almost as if Malchizedek is a plant, put there by God just for Abraham. What is Malchizedek teaching Abraham here? He reminds Abraham by stressing that God owns everything, that all the wealth belongs to God: in other words, the spoils of war don’t really belong to you or to the others. Malchizedek then reminds Abraham that God has given them the victory, not their own strength or military prowess. The Sages in Pirkei Avot famously said, “Who is wise, the one who learns from every person.”

The support that Malchizedek gives Abraham is just what Abraham needs at this very moment, to be able to do the right thing. Abraham gives a 10 % donation to this priest, another monotheist, and then he gives up all the spoils, the wealth he might have taken, and by the customs of the time, that he was entitled to, as war at that time was a money making proposition; kind of like investing in junk bonds: you may win big or you may lose big. Abraham then explains that it will be God who makes him rich.

This portion shows us that God teaches us through tests, and also by making sure that we are supported when we have to make an important decision, so that we will do the right thing. Abraham repeats what Malchizedek said, that God owns everything, and repeats the word for tithe, from the root, 10, esser, becoming fixated on the teaching that our money and also our time and our life’s energy really belong to God. If Malchizedek had not been there and said what he said, might Abraham have been tempted to take some of the wealth? Would he have invoked God’s name and Presence at that time? We don’t know.

What is clear is that God supported Abraham with Malchizedek’s presence and words, helping him to become an even greater blessing. May we realize that we are being tested and also supported in our lives and tests; that our time and energy and also our money really belong to God, and may we eagerly embrace God’s support and precious teachings, so that, like Abraham, we will be a very great blessing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Soul-Rest of Noah

This week’s Torah portion is Noach, the second portion in B’reisheet, the well-known story of the Flood, the animals, and the ark. We are told that Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” Rashi famously said, “The generations of the righteous are mitzvot and good deeds.” Most interpretations of this portion concern Noah’s goodness. In addition to considering Noah’s righteousness, we can also look at this portion as an allegory.

Noah means rest. The Zohar, our book of spirituality from the Middle Ages says, this refers to the soul, the inner spiritual center of a person. When we, through our particular spiritual path, whether it be the path of deeds of loving kindness, meditation, Yoga, charity, study, any other spiritual pathway, or a combination of some of these, find that rest, that place of inner composure and peace, the Torah says, interesting things begin to happen.

Noah had 3 sons: Shem, Ham, and Yafet. Shem literally means Name. Ham means warmth, and Yafet means beauty. When we strive, ethically, morally, and spiritually for what is true and good, we may be surprised that we have renown or fame, or even a very good name. We generate and exhibit warmth, the capacity to touch others; and we have beauty, inner beauty, that others sense. The sum of these three, a good name, warmth, and beauty, is that we become magnetic: others will feel the shift in our energy. People will be drawn to us; not really to us, actually, but to the God nature that we express. It isn’t really about us, it’s about something much larger: Divinity and goodness, being expressed through us.

To extend the allegory: Noah built the ark. He did the work God asked of him, and then the animals came to him. This can teach us that when we do our own inner work, that everything will come to us – that blessings and also Divine Protection, will come to us, as it says, “and you shall enter the ark,” (Gen. 6:18) in other words, enter protection and “come into my protection because you are righteous.” (Gen.7:1). Later when the flood, the difficulties, have abated, Noah sends out the raven and then the dove, but they return, not finding a resting place. Yet finally, the dove brings back an olive leaf, and all the animals leave the ark.

This might be teaching us to persist in our spiritual practices: not to be too impatient with the energies we expend, and not to be discouraged in our spiritual practices, but to wait, knowing that our efforts will bear fruit. Rest, calmness, serenity, goodness, generosity, working on ourselves, as well as on behalf of others is powerful, much more powerful, than we know. May we seek that rest, that inner calmness and elevation of spirit that brought such blessing to Noah and was beloved by God.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

If There Were No Chanukah...

This year, Christmas comes just as Chanukah ends, which is just as it should be, for you see, if there were no Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Why is that so? Toward the end of the Greek Empire, the Greeks were feeling tremendous pressure from the new power in the world, the Roman Empire, which was threatening to engulf them. We are familiar with the Nazis trying to exterminate all the Jews and so many others, Catholics among them, during the Second World War. In the 2nd Century BCE, a similar thing was happening, only the Greeks were not attempting to kill the Jewish people, although many were murdered; they were trying to destroy the Jewish religion.

The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV’s idea was to resist Rome by making his Syrian Greek Empire thoroughly Greek. Only Greek Gods could be worshipped, only Greek culture could exist. The Jewish religion must be wiped out. A band of Jewish rebels resisted swearing allegiance to the Greek Gods and to the worship of Antiochus IV himself as a God. Jews were forced to eat pork, prohibited from observing the Sabbath and from circumcising their children. A band of them, later called the Maccabees, ran into the hills to train as a guerilla army. The Greeks sent larger and larger forces against them, even elephants, the “tanks” of the day. Then “a great miracle happened there,” (symbolized by the letters on the dreidel): the few defeated the many; the weak overcame the strong. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they cleaned and rededicated the great Temple. There is a legend that a small amount of holy oil burned for the eight days of the re-dedication celebration.

However, most importantly, Judaism survived, and Jesus, also known as Rabbi Joshua, could be born, about a hundred and fifty years later. There is a growing acknowledgement from Christians that Jesus really lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. And there is a small but growing acknowledgement from within Judaism that Jesus’ teachings are fully Jewish, and that he was an important prophet, in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. So if the Jews had not defeated the Greeks, there would have been no Rabbi Joshua, to become Jesus, the great teacher to Christendom. As we celebrate this holiday season, may we appreciate our common roots, accept and love each other, and know that we are much more interdependent than we realize. Happy Chanukah! Merry Christmas!

Jill Hausman is the Rabbi and Cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple.
This article was published in Times Square Chronicles in December, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Linking Ourselves to the Divine

This week’s Torah portion is Nasso, which means do, as in, do a census. Moses continues to take a census of the Levites; and the Levites are assigned tasks for dismantling and carrying the Tabernacle. Instructions for purifying the camp are given, there is a process to atone for sins, and laws that have been abandoned, such as the trial by ordeal, when a husband is suspicious of a wife; and the rules for temporary nuns and monks, the Nazarites, are outlined. This portion famously includes the Priestly Benediction; and concludes with the description of identical offerings of the tribal leaders for the dedication of the altar.

Each year I read this section: “....When a man or woman shall commit any sin that earthlings commit, to do a trespass against God, and if that person is guilty; Then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and he shall make restitution for his trespass in full, and add to it its fifth, and give it to him against whom he has trespassed. (Num. 5:6-7). I have spoken before that the words, against God, B'Adonai, can also be interpreted as, “in God,” which tells us that we live inside of God, or inside of being, inside of existence. Since there is no life outside of existence, outside of being, how can we re-establish the feeling of being loved and cared for and accepted by God after we have been less than charming? This Torah portion gives us a few ways to re-link ourselves back to God, which is the meaning of the word, religion: a re-establishment of our connection to equanimity within God.

The first method in this portion is confession and then giving 20% more, when we have sinned. That's like apologizing and also giving flowers or candy, or doing something extra nice for someone. The broader principle is that by giving we can feel good enough about ourselves to allow ourselves to feel better about what we did, and feel accepted by God.

The second way is through ritual that involves an official representative of religion itself. This is suggested by the arcane trial by ordeal of the Sotah, the wayward wife and the jealous husband. Something was wrong in this marriage. Neither the wife or husband was happy. The priest steps into this breach with a prescribed set of actions which all parties hope will effect an improvement in the relationship. Perhaps even just the triangulation of the wife and husband speaking to the Priest separately and then the priest speaking to the other spouse could increase positive communication, which is the basis for all healthy relationships. It was a kind of early marriage therapy, by bringing a pastoral presence to calm the situation and to help.

And then there is the method of the Nazarite. Perhaps this person is really tired of repeating the same negative behaviors, over and over again. The nazarite has taken himself or herself in hand to put a stop to the undesirable pattern and choose differently. Alternately, perhaps this person is frustrated by the unceasing demands of everyday life, and needs some peace, to feel rejuvenated and relinked to God. The method here, with the Nazarite, is by establishing a set of prohibitions upon oneself. No wine? Understandable. No grapes or raisins? No haircuts? Ridiculous, and yet the process of abiding by a prohibition, just because God asked it of us, does many things: it reduces our ego. It helps us to abide by God's laws. It shows us how to develop our inner fineness by letting us set the limits. It develops our integrity, not allowing us to fool ourselves or be less than totally honest with ourselves.

All of these techniques helps us to reestablish our connection to the Divine. The priestly Benediction, speaks of prayer and acceptance. By being gathered together for a blessing, we are reassured that eventually we will be forgiven. This portion then circles back to exactly where it began: with giving. The giving of gifts by the Tribal heads stresses the importance of charity and tells us that this is a pathway to help us to do good in the world and to feel good about who we are and our actions.

Living within God isn't easy for us humans. We often don't measure up even to our own standards, no less God's standards. Luckily we don't have to be perfect. We can make mistakes and be forgiven, relinking ourselves to the Divine. Ultimately it's about caring: how earnest we are in trying to do the right thing, and how quickly we can reestablish our connection to God, feeling good about ourselves again. Because we live inside of God and are made of Divine matter and energy, our innate goodness helps us to yearn to feel the flow of love between earth and heaven. May we make the effort to keep our love flowing to each other, and may we be guided back into love and acceptance when we need a helping hand.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Possessing and Sharing

This week’s Torah portion is Behar, which means, on the Mountain. Behar asks us to observe a Sabbath for the land every seven years, and a Jubilee, every 50th year. At the Jubilee, the land was to return to its original, ancestral owners, slaves were freed, loans were forgiven, and liberty was proclaimed for all inhabitants, the sentence inscribed on our Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Then there are laws to prevent poverty, such as the necessity to buy back land that was sold out of dire economic need, and the responsibility to help a relative or any person in the community, who becomes impoverished. This portion contains a number of interesting concepts that stress kindness, charity, integrity, and also trust in God. At the beginning of this portion the Torah says “But on the seventh year there shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God. Your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The aftergrowth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you shall not pick.” Rashi comments that, “you shall not reap” means “to take possession like other harvests, rather it shall be ownerless for all (to take freely).

This comment about ownership introduces a theme that runs throughout this portion. Later the Torah says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are sojourners and residents with me.” And later, with regard to indentured servitude, in the case of one who becomes poor, we are commanded not to work each other with slave labor. God says, “for they are my servants who I have taken out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as the selling of a slave.”

We humans are acquisitive and possessive, not always in a bad way. Some things we have are necessities: a place to live, savings for the future, food to eat, money to spend in the course of living. Our possessions help us to feel secure, but this Torah portion brings to the fore a larger truth: we are just passing through. As we say toward the beginning of the Amidah, Ayl Elyon, v'koneh hakol: God on high, who owns everything. We might think that if God owns everything, that God would want to distribute all wealth and resources equally, in a kind of exquisite Divine communism. But we know that this isn't the way God structured the world. Some are happy with a little; some are only happy with much more. Behar's solution to the inequality is to emphasize some larger truths and command us to share and help each other, giving us a gift: the opportunity to perform mitzvahs, deed of loving kindness for each other.

In the seventh year, no one can sell any crops. Everyone can come and eat whatever has grown on its own, and there will be enough for all. No one will be hungry. No one should be allowed to amass all the land. We are commanded to strengthen the poor and we should not own each other. The commentary Sifra says, “for they are my servants and so should not be subject to my other servants.” This leads us to another truth: our possessiveness – the desire to hold onto things, goes against the natural order. Our lives flow, money and possessions flow; very little is fixed. My teacher, Rabbi Gelberman said, “if you can lose it you never had it to begin with.”

We are not here to have, to acquire, or to amass. We are here to serve, to give and to share, nurturing & engendering life, being good stewards of the gifts we have been given: the earth, our physical selves, our souls. Serving, giving, sharing make us happy, and add holy energy to the world, enriching it and creating plenty for all. Rabbi Plaut, in his Torah commentary, points out that the word for the Sabbath of the land, Shemitah, comes from the root to let something drop. We can let go of a need to control and possess, which block the coming of the future, by allowing the flow of energy to ebb and flow in our lives. May the energy that flows toward us be for the good and may we by our actions and choices help and strengthen one another.

The Right Kind of Fire

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, which means 8th. This eighth day was to be a grand holiday, the day on which the priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people in the newly built Tabernacle for the very first time. All the Israelites were assembled there. They had made the Tabernacle and the priests vestments just as they had been commanded. The priests offered the sacrifice exactly as God instructed them and the cloud of God’s glory, showing God’s approval, appeared to them, letting them know that God was happy with them. Then tragedy struck. The Torah says, “Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it and they brought before God an alien fire that God had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.”(Levit 10:1-2) This is one of three notable instances in the Torah in which fire is associated with misfortune.

Twice in Numbers fire injures us. The Torah says (Num. 11:1) “The people took to seeking complaints. It was evil in the ears of God and God heard; God’s wrath flared and a fire burned against them and it consumed at the edge of the camp.” Just a few portions later, “They journeyed from Mt. Hor by the way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom and the spirit of the people grew short on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food.’ God sent fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people.” (Num. Chukat) In these three passages we can see that the fire, or the energy for the burning, came from the people themselves. In each instance, these people were acting for themselves alone, not for the greater good.

Rabbi R.S. Hirsch brings out the very important point that the two sons, Nadav and Abihu, took their own fire pans, not the holy objects that belonged to the nation to make this sacrifice. This tells us that they were concerned with their own prestige, their own ideas, and their own power. The people who complained in the book of Numbers had lost sight of the reason for their wandering, the reason behind the existence of the Jewish nation, and its mission. Shemini tells us that there is a mission, a reason for us to participate in the what the S’fat Emet calls a “system of restraint,” which could mean the laws in the Torah, or even just the dietary laws at the end of this portion.

There is a reason for everything that has been commanded, and asked of us. There is the right kind of fire and a wrong kind of fire. From our small vantage point, none of it makes sense, when the focus is on ourselves. We literally cannot see the forest for the trees. Rabbi Hirsch says that in idol worship, the aim of the sacrifices was to bend the Gods’ will to our own, but Judaism concerns the fulfillment of God’s will which is a better life for us all. This requires us to send out the right kind of energy into the world. Not the fire of complaints or of ambition, but the fire of love for goodness, a burning desire to be of help and service to others, the fervent faith that what we do matters vitally in the world, so that God can guide it toward greater goodness and blessing for us all.

We all want to feel important, to live lives in which others look up to us. We all want to live secure lives of comfort and ease, expressing ourselves and fulfilling ourselves. We can achieve these ends by harmonizing our inner fire to serve the unfolding of a higher consciousness in the world, and by exhibiting that consciousness when we interact with others. As Rabbi Hillel famously said in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” And if not now, when? Our unfolding and the quality of our growth is in our own hands. And anyone who wants to expand into goodness will be encouraged, helped, and lifted from above.