Where’re You Headed?: TorahCycle Vayikra

Vayishlach 2014

Said if before and likely will every year: Leviticus, the middle book of Torah, is not my favorite. The word means laws. Laws as in: rules; do’s and don’ts; regulations; lots more sticks than carrots, as in punishments for transgressions more than rewards for right actions. Unless you’re counting on an Age of Aquarius style messianic future, which your soul will certainly get an invite for, but your ego/now you may be long forgotten at the party.

Con men and politicians talk about playing the long game. It takes lots of growing up to appreciate. This requires big think, and most of us are stuck in the small stuff, self included.

We get caught, in some life sectors more than others, in the gimme now trap. We may rise to a more tactical approach to satisfying desire in some ways, learn a little delayed gratification. But even when we graduate to having a strategy, we’re still trying to win, to beat the system, too often trying to figure out how to slide in one more pint of Ben and Jerry’s before our diet starts, or the last I-mean-it-this-time cigarette, bet, or needle.

Leviticus assumes you’re going to blow it. But it also gives you guidelines, so if you at least try to color inside the lines, maybe you’ll get it more right more often. It’s a bet on the side of the angels. We’ll get the rebel’s story later.

Now’s the time to make some affirmations. To set some goals, whether they’re for your soul or your waistline.

Six plus months from now we will get to the edge of what is called The Promised Land. Big as a barn wall as it may seem, the messianic age also requires us to all aim that direction sincerely at once. I’ve got enough on my plate coping with my own karma, so I’m gonna choose something achievable, within my skill set, and good for me.

I know mine. If you know me well you probably know mine too. I suspect yours is gonna feel familiar also. If either of us had managed to keep our souls and selves at goal long enough at the same time, we’d be a whole lot closer to the actual Promised Land.

So decide what it’s gonna be for you, for the next six months, now till late September. Write it down. Say it at rising and/or bedtime. Start a journal. Identify barriers that keep you from goal. Reverse the language into a positive. Write down your fears and throw the page into a fire with herbs and incantations. Make up your rituals as you go and enjoy every minute of how you do it. Exercise polite tolerance for the folks next door, who may (and likely will) do something completely different from you. All that really that matters is that they’re aimed at betterment and mutual peace.

The reading is about our next steps to the promised land. Whatever that first step is for you, say it along with your goal as often as you remember. When you get there, identify your next step. Rinse and repeat as needed.

Hide and Seek: TorahCycle Vayakhel-Prkudey

Yitro

In the mid-80’s a British illustrator came up with a clever set of visual puzzles that challenged viewers to identify a playful character amid throngs of other similarly-clad folks. It reminded me of a game that readers of the Sunday NY Times played, in the days of the great Al Hirshfield. He signed each week’s entertainment cartoon with a number, like 3 or 5,  by his name: that was how often the name NINA would be hidden in the angles of his cover story drawing.

They’re variations of hiding the truth in plain sight. Challenging and simple. And like the optical illusion of the old/young lady or lady/vase, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee, or believe it took so long, or that you could ever not have seen it. But until you do, there’s so much mystery and searching.

This and recent readings have focused on the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelis would cart with them through decades of trekking. The instructions are given twice, in such tediously exquisite detail that one finds oneself hoping against hope that there’s a revelation so simple and obvious waiting for us once we perceive it. In the interim, there’s counting and measuring of objects as diverse as dolphin skins, spices, and jewels.

We’re told that HaShem will hover over the mishkan in a cloud, so everyone will know they are not alone on their journey. (Always a deeply satisfying reminder: Spirit is with you!) Moses alone will be invited in to talk face-to-face, like you and your best buddy over a cuppa. Come in; sit down; receive the word. That’s when the system works well and you’re in synch with your guides, listening to and hearing one another.

When I was far younger, and every incoming call was a blush-evoking maybe-a-date, my father would answer the phone saying just too loudly, Nobody home! on the principle that anyone too easily cowed was someone I’d be better off without.

That’s how the mishkan works. Your inner Moses has to be brave and smart enough to receive truth. And the universe generous and lined up for you to actually hear it. (Note to self: it helps to be listening.)

Each of us has our own cues: a deer on your walking trail; a synchronistic message from a loved one; a vibrant dream; or even a bright penny by your feet. When things like that appear, we listen a little harder.

The mishkan’s like an extra antenna. Designed to operate on all channels like a SETI beacon beaming out and scanning the heavens, hoping we’ll meet another set of souls with a different cosmic address,

We’ve got a lot of trekking in front of us. But having the mishkan with us helps keeps out feet and souls aimed pretty much aimed the right way, assuming we can hear the directions.

However you think of your mishkan, this is the perfect time to visit it. You’ll find something much deeper and more profound than Waldo.

Thumbs Up: TorahCycle Ki Tisa

BoIn gladiator movies there’s invariably a scene when the honorable protagonist has a sword pointed at the throat of prone combatant, while evil Romans signal thumbs down, so the defeated’s life can be given for their amusement. Our hero throws down his sword and turns away, in essence saying I choose mercy even at the cost of my own life.

Most of us make much less important decisions, with less serious consequences, with much more fanfare and ado than they deserve. Too rarely do we demonstrate the qualities that’re at the core of this week’s reading. In addition to the Golden Calf story, we’re told of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which in the mystery traditions transmute into a thirteen-petaled rose signifying both forgiveness and remembering.

In our lives I see them as the ability to say to yourself: Stand down. Put those sharp emotions and feelings aside. Put your weapons, your anger, and your destructive patterns away. Give yourself, and whatever you’re pointing all that negativity at, a break. Take a breather. It’s kinda like a time-out period for grown ups. A good kind.

For a little and maybe longer, you surrender to something that’s better than the way you might feel or act reflexively. You give up the helm. Stop trying so hard to do, make, please others, or struggle. You look at your crap and you say simply, Ya know. Let’s try something different this time.

In Torah metaphor it’s dawn. You can stop wrestling. All past failures gone and forgiven. Evaporating like an old bad dream. Sunk cost, as an economist might say. Time to move on in a better direction. Don’t look back, because it won’t be pretty.

Because while you were out carousing, getting caught up in office politics, or in personal dramas, you were pretty much dead to the world as far as living with awareness goes. The more you prattle stories about how you’re trying as hard as you can, unappreciated, entitled, victimized, needy, afraid, blah blah blah, you’re really building a golden calf instead of getting more godlike. And like the Jews condemned to trekking penance, you’re gonna have to serve your time.

This can be a moment of waking up. Albeit it may only be for an instant. But many eastern paths tell us –and hold out for us the hope – that an instant is all that may be needed. A favorite story is of the housewife who, when she hears the chapatti batter hit the splattering oil, suddenly groks the oneness of all things.

Talk about something to pray for.

The next sections of wandering in the wilderness offer us many paths to work on our holiness, assuming we aren’t granted a swift and dramatic revelation. We have yet a lifetime of getting to walk our talk: loving and quarreling, being thoughtful and thoughtless, jubilant and sad, triumphant and questioning, and exploring worlds seen and unseen as best we can.

Sometimes it’s hard to simply take a breath before we do something we will regret. But that’s what a mercy moment is: consciousness knocking hard on your door, hoping you will answer.

Playing With Dolls: TorahCycle Tetzaveh

Kedoshim In my tomboy years I denied ever having played with dolls, even while seated next to a picture of younger me holding one. I did like the nested wooden dolls. They start out five inches tall, but when you’ve opened them all, the teeniest sits like a helpless baby in your palm. My closet’s pretty similar. In the work/playtime/dressy groupings, side by side hang the may-one-day-fit, looks-fine-now, and yikes-need-bigger-today wardrobes.

This week’s reading is about priestly garments. Would you think me more priestly in my smaller or my larger duds? In my jeans or a ceremonial robe?

The ways we appear to others may be very different than how we feel inside. We can look spiffy on the outside, while we protect and hide our smallest inner doll.

What makes us holier? The outer doll we dress for the world or something else? I’m definitely more priestly when my compassion and sense of responsibility to truth telling are greater. But I might be cleaning house or making bad puns about the sacred at the same time. Like our jeans and our ball gowns, we’re wired to be both sacred and irreverent. Neither makes us priestly by default. We have to earn it.

Science confirms faith: we definitely become more like how we say we and believe we are. Words or thoughts, if you aspire to something long enough, even if you’re playing dress-up and pretending, you help make it so.

Where I used to work, our standing joke about the boss was his request (so often prefaced by Helen,…) was Please make it so! The old Bubbe Jewish equivalent, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

But what if, indeed, as in quantum physics theories visualized in movies like What the ^%^#@*& Do we Know? or studies of the shapes that water takes around various emotions, we actually did make it so? If we became the selves we act, talk, and wish we were?

How does your “me” doll act and look to others, in your suits, your jeans or your robes? Can you be a holy fool, laugh at your foibles? Do you choose to be in the middle of the pack, suppressing your true self? Or can you strip down to your essence and interact directly with the world?

If you read any random fifty match.com profiles you might think virtually all of us were into long walks on the beach and romantic evenings. The few that stood out would either draw you in or push you away. Too often we with very used to hiding our most personal and special parts, be they sacred or damaged. Just like our wardrobes, we’ve all got both parts that make folks want to run like hell and others that inspire love and holiness.

Which aspects of self you encourage and nurture, which you believe in, and dress in like they are the truest you, are the ones you will grow into. Just like your inner holy robes, or your smallest inner doll, that’s the you we all deserve to witness and honor.

You Turns: TorahCycle Terumah

terumah 2015The big image of the week is The Golden Calf. The ultimate u-turn of unconsciousness. The biggest, shiniest, recidivist party in Torah. The Israelites blow it big, and model for us how to be deaf, dumb, blind, impatient, and afraid. Not an example to follow, but a familiar enough one for most of us to recognize.

Like the comfort foods of childhood, some things exert a strong pull. The imagery of the 1950s Ten Commandments movie is one of those for me. While seemingly silly in our pixilated age, the images are still iconic. Everyone singing and dancing around a giant golden idol like they’re at an ecstasy-fueled rave, oblivious to their recently granted state of grace. The issue isn’t how many commandments the idol violates but what it represents.

After several margaritas, one of my friends told me about her “bad boy” phase. Choosing the gnarly motorcycle rider over the safe doctor. Enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll instead of working in grad school or a career. We’ve all been somewhere similar, whether the siren is singing about sex, money, or rampant desire in another costume. Gimme, now! Feed me, now! More is better! Now! Now! Now!

The old saying about plumbers goes All you gotta know is that water flows downhill. That’s us, tumbling towards the abyss of our old bad habits. Our internalized bad boy reminding us once again that we don’t deserve better. We roll belly up what we’ve known and done before, no matter how bad for us it may be. We screw up the good we worked so very very hard to earn.

Is there an antidote to this psychic kryptonite?

No quick dose in Torah. We’re given forty years of wandering to make up for the calf. In our real lives, bad decisions cost us years of heartache, with sides of shame, debt, and worse.

One of the images this parshah evokes is not the smashed tablets or the mass frenzy. Rather, a kid blindfolded and spun thrice around and back at the beginning of a game. Lost and confused. How you feel when you genuinely don’t know why you’ve done what you’ve done, or what to do next, or next after that.

For all the noise and glitter, the reading invokes a quiet sobriety. Sadness about having made a bad wrong turn. One that requires not only remediation, but a depth of self-examination deeper than you’ve done before.

Lip service won’t be enough. You’re going to have to actually commit. To getting it right. To the long hard slogging path through the desert. To change.

Dig deep. Keep marching. One foot, one year, after another.

Along the way there are many teachings. Ones you want and ones you’d prefer to never know about. Lessons you can go to a movie the night before and still get an A+ on your exam. Others that will spin you in circles so wide and scary that you’ll long to tear off your blindfold.

Don’t get lost in the slogging. Keep an eye out for those feelings. Because if you can catch one at just the right moment, you can reclaim something important you might not even remember you’ve lost.

 

Getting Better: TorahCycle Mishpatim

Vayeira 2014

Jack Nicholson has a wonderful line in the movie As Good As It Gets. He’s a selfish misanthrope wooing Helen Hunt, and, in a desperate move to forestall rejection, says, You make me want to be a better man. Who wouldn’t fall for that?!

Like the G word, everyone’s idea of being a better person is different. I’m going to use the word goodness as shorthand. Goodness is not so much observant piety or zen-like enlightenment, either of which might be a worthy goal depending on what matters to you. I’m talking about becoming a kinder, gentler, more compassionate human. The kind of folks we need more of on the planet, if only to keep it spinning towards the light.

How do we become better people? Do it on our own? Through another? After struggle and tragedy? Through gratitude and compassion? Is it a state of grace that sticks, or do we repeatedly need to up the ante on ourselves when we go back to our old, unconscious ways.

This week’s reading and the next are like mismatched twins: instructions on finding the path and then losing it in a dramatic way. It’s a long way to home.

The reading includes the statement We shall do and we shall hear. Note this is directly contradicted later in Torah by We shall hear and we shall do. It brings up the which comes first chicken/egg question.

Do you get better access to your higher self, your guides, whatever divine goodness you believe in if you walk on the right path?

In counseling there’s a modality called the comprehensive resource model. It’s a psychological version of prayer. It asks for help, from all your allies and guides seen and unseen. The simple organizing principle beneath it is this: I need you. Please show up. Guide me and help me heal. Not much beats that feeling of that wind at your back.

I come from the do-as-you’re-told school of karmic homework. For me that’s inner voice more than books of rules. But both paths lead to goodness.

Most of us know goodness by how it feels, whether we’re on the giving or receiving end. Both contribute to a pay it forward world, in which goodness multiplies and spreads like a beneficent virus.

The core teaching is a direct follow-up to last week’s Know your values. Live with goodness and you will hear more — from Spirit and from this world –- about how to become a yet better person. You’ll feel better inside and you’ll keep getting told more of what you need to hear and do to keep feeling that way. And, a great side benefit, to help those around you feel that way too.

Someone posted recently on FaceBook, Once you’re happy why would you be with anyone who doesn’t make you feel that way? No duh. Feel the goodness and you’ll attract more blessings. Maybe even find true love.

 

Count to Ten: TorahCycle Yitro

Yitro 2015Many years ago, in my Your Jewish Fairy Godmother persona, I developed her Ten Commandments. I was coaching people addressing life issues like tough relationships or jobs, blocked decision-making and creativity. Developing Ten C was a good exercise for navigating the world.

As I’ve thought about them the past decade plus, they’ve pretty much stood the test of time. I would change only glib number five, and replace it with Know your values. That was the core of how I worked with folks. Because once you’re clear about what feels okay and what does not, your choices become much simpler, even in the pursuit of difficult goals.

It’s rarely a simple do or don’t, like Torah’s original Ten Commandments, handed down in this week’s reading. Most of us never think about violating Thou shalt not kill. But none of us can truly know how we’d act when supremely tested, like in the post-pandemic reality of Emily Mandel’s brilliant new novel Station Eleven, or in the Holocaust.

The original Ten C ask for obedience to a deity and offer guidelines for living together. Though it’s officially none of them, great commentators in virtually every religion say they all boil down to Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. Shouldn’t be complicated.

Something more open to interpretation, like keeping the Sabbath, gets trickier. Your way may seem like dogma to me or mine like apostasy to you. It’d help world peace to get past judging one another; but we still need to decide what our own values are, affecting a gazillion daily choices.

My painting class is illustrating for me how we shape and form, and then reshape and reform our world. It’s a good mirror for values. Each time you refine your sense of self or your vision for your life, you’re getting clearer on who you are, what you believe, what you stand for, and what you’ll act towards.

Whether you call them commandments, instructions, or suggestions, the Ten C also a useful model to clarify other subjects. What if you considered the ten rules of friendship? Of healthy eating? Of compassion and generosity?

Think about ten things that make you laugh or cry, joyful or angry. Ten things you wish you’d done differently. Ten you still can do in a way more like the now you. Ten hopes for the coming year. Ten intentions to make them manifest.

It’s an exercise I find useful when I’m stuck, whether it’s in a negative emotion, problem-solving, or even creatively stuck. It clears mental litter like the daily morning pages Julia Cameron advocates. It helps you peel away whatever’s stopping you from getting to your core, even if what you find there are unresolved questions.

Your lists of ten will reveal truths about what you really want. Themes will emerge, so don’t just toss the lists. You can’t ask for what you want until you know what it is and what you’ll do, or not, to make it real.

Knowing your values will help you find direction. It’ll help you take the the next steps and the ones after. With that compass you’re less likely to lose your path through the wilderness.

Edge to Edge: TorahCycle Beshellach

Chayei SarahOf all the images in Torah, the fleeing Israelites facing the (as-yet-unparted) Red Sea has a special place in my heart. Long before I started using these readings as a weekly exercise to view personal process, I understood the challenge of facing a challenge and having no frigging idea what the &^$#@%^ to do next.

We often feel like we’ve come so far. Made it through so much. Made a shift, made some progress, on the road to somewhere better. It’s time for celebration even reward, not another rough patch. I’m willing to enjoy kale chips instead of cookies, so it doesn’t seem fair for a giant new obstacle to appear on the path. Not just a daunting one. But a test to my skills, imagination, and commitment. Even my faith in the process itself.

The old saying goes No way out but though. Or in this metaphor, in.

The classic commentary is of the guy who jumps first. Supposedly the sea did not part until the water reached his nostrils. This while most of us are standing around muttering about making a u-turn back to slavery, aka the known, even with its known bad results.

The waters rarely part quite so easily for me or mine. There’s almost always more drama, even when we think we’re in well past our eyebrows. As I’ve paced the edge of my own Red Seas, I’ve paid attention to my reluctance to jump-start change. A recipe for resistance that includes fear, denial, laziness, and contentment….. plus knowing that change has a compelling momentum of its own, as in, more change happens next, and keeps happening. Add your own favorites.

I’m great at vow-making, drawing lines in the sand, and dipping a couple toes at a time in and then out when the water is cold or the undertow is scary. I’ve gotten wet up to my ankles more often than I can count. But to fully commit without turning away or back, still hard to do.

Each edge is a doorway for the next transition. We’re being asked to say Yes, and… and to follow through, no matter how scary it looks or feels.

In the classic before and after pics used in gym and weight-loss commercials, progress is promoted as effortless and speedy. But any of us who’ve tackled a big shift know there’s a whole lot more middle than advertised. That comes later. But unless you take that first big step now, you’re gonna stay stuck on the “before” shore. I can’t guarantee any seas will part. But I can testify that you will feel better once you begin to change your story.

You’re likely to keep basics like your name and your incarnation. But you might have to choose to recommit or leave a partner, job, home, or health regimen. What you gain from leaping over all that resistance is a new sustenance that the metaphor of manna offers: knowing that you are capable of change. To get to your own version of “after,” you need to keep believing in that.

For now, jump in and keep breathing. Oh yeah, sing and dance often on the next edge.

 

Waxing and Waning: TorahCycle Bo

Bo 2015Hooray for my intro to oil painting class, which focuses on process: the getting ready, preparing the palette, and the stroke by stoke doing. The careful application of layers of color, each of which changes what has gone before, bringing it forward and transforming it, helping it evolve and emerge.

It’s all about pacing, and, against all my instincts, about patience. Like the moon, waxing and waning in a regular rhythm. Not the fits and starts of impulse alternating with denial and procrastination. Breathe in/breath out; look/stroke; breathe in/breathe out; look/stroke. Watch the change.

That’s at the core of this weeks reading. After the last plague (the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn) and even before the Jews leave Egypt, they’re given their first mitzvah (instruction) about how to organize their new lives: to establish and live by a lunar calendar. It’s a primal rhythm, and one that requires us to look outside ourselves. It lays down a bass line for both timekeeping and for ritual, and establishes a potent metaphor about what’s growing, emerging and possible, and what it is time to forgo and bid goodbye.

Egypt is a metaphor for our heart. The place where we hold pain. We’re used to keeping it safe, even if that seals in what we should release. We can stay locked in slavery to old hurts for a long, long time, until the cycle eventually shifts. Metaphorical centuries before we find liberation, or the first slice of moon in the sky.

We’re used to the rhythm of our solar days. Wake up and do in the light; rest and dream in the dark. A lunar calendar shifts our perspective. Teaches us that whatever’s lousy or hard will shift, and that whatever’s good may also transform, even if that path is not a smooth and reliable arc.

The moon helps us to think about eternity. Nothing more waxing than being born nor more waning than death in the karmic calendar. But we want progress in this life. Rarely Boddhisatva enough to appreciate how our struggles also help us move through our soul calendar.

The moon’s a visual of expansion and contraction pushing against one other, daring and forcing the shifts. Cycles of learning, getting centered, screwing up again, and starting over. Time after time.

But whether the cycles are fast or slow, by their very repetition they teach us we are not stuck. That no matter how hard we are tested and how long it takes for things to shift, eventually they will. That slavery can transmute into freedom. That the heart can and will eventually choose healing.

Our job is to get into the flow. To find the right speed for the circumstances we find ourselves in. For those of us whose “slow” is 3rd gear, it can be exhausting to take things way, way down. To look so deeply within that time seems to stop.

When we look up into the sky we can see the moon waxing and waning, a metronome to our process. Eventually, we get more of something right. We become ready to move on. To choose freedom. To leave the old crap behind and test ourselves on the waters ahead.

 

Testing, Testing: TorahCycle Va’eira

Vaeira 2015When I was young and hospitalized, there was a toddler in the bed next to me. He spent most of the day and much of the night banging his head against the wooden sides of his crib. Surprisingly he didn’t howl in pain, as I certainly wanted to while witnessing his relentless, self-inflicted suffering.

I think about him sometimes when I’m castigating myself for falling short at something I’ve repeatedly tried to do. My efforts are often about physical or emotional healing. Things like strengthening my quads, lowering my blood sugar, or resolving an emotional interaction. If I fall short on my health program or fail to speak my truth, the image of this child sometimes shows up.

I’m not dumb. I know what I should be doing. As my mother once observed, in a painfully quotable moment “If you’re so smart, how come you’re _____.” Fill in your own blank with whatever you’re trying to heal from.

I think a lot about deep personal work. About what we have locked inside and what it takes to release it. About the pain and thrashing we go through along the way, whether that’s self-imposed or comes from the world.

This week’s reading has Moses and Aaron appearing repeatedly before Pharaoh, asking him to free the Hebrews. It’s the classic Let my people go! moment. To which Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart, and stays stuck.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew, mitzrayim, means “the narrow place. We’re each in our own narrow place and aiming for our own promised land. But they’re inter-connected. We cycle between times of light and dark. One question this reading raises is how long we’ll stay in those dark times and places. How long we’ll stay stuck, mucking about until we are ready to choose release.

The message is that you need to stop punishing yourself and others, both for your failings and your wounds. That you need to find compassion and forgiveness to move forward. To lighten up and heal. That means not banging your head against a wall, repeating the mistakes of the past.

Those emotions can be difficult to find and invoke, especially when the world feels hard and bleak, scary and unjust. When we face despair and fear, as in the wake of the terror in Paris, it is especially complicated to access our higher selves. It’s easier to bang our heads and scream, even if we are shouting into what seems like a dark and implacable void. Because it’s not just our own selves caught in this cycle of frustration and anger, but the societies we live in.

If we cannot heal ourselves, how can we possibly aspire to healing the world around us? My only answer: we gotta keep trying, and trying, and trying.

I don’t have any easy answers, or words any wiser than what have been said in the past week. I only know that it is important, even vital, for us each to do whatever we can do to stop screaming, stop banging, and stop hurting ourselves and one another.

It may all get worse before it gets better. But if we aren’t all trying to get better, it’s going to stay worse for much much longer.