Packing Up, Heading out: TorahCycle Lekh Lekha

P1000256I bought a little piece of pottery last week, shaped like an old- fashioned suitcase. It reminds me that my parents were immigrants, of the We came to this country with $10 in our pockets, so work hard, get an education, and all will be fine variety. (Yeah, maybe, sometimes.) It reminds me of journeys ahead, and of the personal baggage we all bring along. Our memories and hopes, secrets and fears. The things we keep tucked deeply inside, though our close ones would get lots pretty right.

We carry the emotional legacy of our past, of what’s formed us, and often pack what we think we’ll need to stay safe, to avoid being hurt again (at least in the same way). These defensive patterns shield us. But they also insulate us from what might teach or heal us.

In this week’s reading, Abram (soon-to-be Abraham) leaves his land, his parents’ home, and his country. There’s a strong, dynamic, tension between what we’ve always done/how we’ve always done it and our desire, curiosity, and need for the new. The more old stuff we carry with us, the harder and slower it may be to let go. Think Chinese finger puzzle.

There are places in your soul and heart that have been that way so deep and long that you have to actively choose to make room for change. For the unknown. The hoped-for, but also the unanticipated, surprising, even startling and challenging. Easier said than done.

This is a great time to think about what you’re bringing along, and what not to pack. If you need a meat cleaver to discern the difference, put behind you anything that’s hobbling your growth or seems like a repetitive pattern. If you’re not sure, look for bad outcomes and work back to their source. Catherine Shainberg, whom I respect as a teacher, has many great exercises, to help sort grain from chaff.

How can you develop the part of you that’s looser, that’s easier on yourself, on those you’ve tangled with, and on the folks who see and support you on your journey? It takes both will and a willingness to release.

Many folks organize their lives with compartmentalization and denial. An ignore-the-elephant-under-the-rug practice. But a reframe of that, its higher aspect, is to say What hurt me, or how I’ve hurt myself, no longer has authority over me.

A declaration of emotional independence. A clipping of the ties that bound. Leaving behind your stubbed toes and heart surgeries, whether they were literal or visceral. Transcending what you’ve outgrown. And bringing along the best. The joyous and sweet memories. The lessons learned. And the wisdom and flexibility they engender.

It’s about non-resistance. Yes easier said than done. And easy to get distracted by the clamor of our lives or our very human frailties. But if you pull it off, you’ll travel lighter and happier.

The reading concludes with the covenant of circumcision to mark the relationship with the divine. I prefer the metaphor of peeling back yet the next layer from your heart. Unveiling more you. And experiencing everything in your life one notch more intensely. Living more openly, more vulnerably, more receptively, and with less baggage.

One More Time: TorahCycle Noach

NasoHere’s the good news about the Noah story: we get another chance. Assuming we’re identifying with the hero. And why would we not?

What if you got a do-over? A real, honest-to-goodness second chance to redo your life. To redefine yourself in some substantive and meaningful way. How would you live then?

It doesn’t matter whether you got there by hitting bottom with bankruptcy, addiction,  a health crisis, or by making new agreements with yourself about your next now. Whether the road is easy or hard, this week’s reading says, you get to head out again.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey describes the trip pretty well: aspire to a great goal, try/fail/fall/keep trying, purifying your soul and karma in the process. Who hasn’t already done it a coupla zillion times? Raise your hand high if you’re where you want to be, and then tell the rest of us how you did it.

Torah says the first ten generations become rife with all manner of corruption and decay. We don’t hear about their journey. Just know they screwed up so badly it’s HaShem who wants the do-over.

In most lives it’s more mundane, but we’re still hobbled by bad decisions, usually about money, partner, career, or habits. Too often we go back to our vices instead of doing our holy work. In the actual Torah story, after getting to dry land, Noah blows it almost immediately with women and wine.

It helps to be curious what we got so wrong. If you know the old stories maybe you’ll have better vision about the big picture. I say that believing that you/we/I are here now to get it right. Or at least better than our previous tries. Because none of us gets it right at once. Even if you do, you get another lesson thrown at you. So do this one as best you can. You don’t wanna have to come back to clean up stray threads of karma.

We’re standing in the gateway of our second chance. In the moment when you decide the future is gonna be different from the past. The whole rest of Torah is the journey to make that true. Trekking through soul space. Learning yourself, finding a tribe, earning and achieving the redemption you have just been granted. We get a rainbow to mark the experience.

Why wouldn’t you sign on for that ride? Why wouldn’t you do it now? (Really, why wouldn’t you? Why haven’t you? Why do you feel hesitant or unready to? Chew on those for a bit.)

It’s time to go back to Go. Back to baseline. Time for the next take. What do we do? We say Yes. That’s what Noach offers. A chance to come out of the wet and the storm and build a fire. To think about how grateful you are for this one more chance to be you. And then to do a good job of it. Your soul is watching and wishing and hoping you’re going to

Lucky you.

New Blank Document: TorahCycle Bereishit

B 3Whether you’re a creative writer or just someone who’s ever faced a term paper, you know that the blank page is a wonderful and terrifying landscape. If you’re not writing by choice, don’t feel passionate about your topic, or generally feel awkward with words, it can be like having two left feet on the dance floor. But for a writer a blank page can be the gateway to a sense of infinity and awe. Anything can happen. Something rising up or through you.

In her brilliant TED talk on creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert cites a poet out in a field who hears a poem come thundering on the air towards her, and who feels her only purpose in life is to run like hell towards pencil and paper to write it down, to be taken by its mystery, to give the words shape, lest they blow through and past her towards another, readier poet.

How do we catch those wise, insightful, whimsical, and challenging thoughts that come knocking at our door on their way through the cosmos? By listening with every part of us that we can keep present and open. By seizing the moment and by allowing ourselves to be seized by it. By paying attention to new possibilities, and being less focused on what we think we know or want or how life is supposed to turn out.

We need to engage in the dance the universe regularly invites us to. Fearfully or fiercely. Whether we think it’s the right time or not, that we’re ready or not, that time is now.

This is not a new message, from me or anyone else. But it’s one that, no matter how often it is said and heard, bears listening to.

If we are very lucky, life’s creative, not dry. I know the joys of a task list accomplished and getting one’s chores done. But I’m a much bigger sucker for the messy, unpredictable, anything’s-possible-on-this-blank-page invitations of the muses. Because when life feels like that, whether the form is words, music, art, love, or cooking, you’re part of the rush of creative inspiration that this week’s reading invokes. You can live with beginningness.

Great quote from a recent book: A good book invites you to read it again. A great book compels you to reread your soul.

That’s how I see I see the annual re-rolling and re-opening of the Torah, which happens this week. Now is when everything that is was and will be is created out of chaos and void. Now is when all is most fertile, when everything new is possible. We have another chance to get it right. To improve and heal as we trek through our own soul turnings.

One more time we are offered beginningness. The beginning of Genesis is the thundering poem about to grab us by the ankles, the heart, and the soul. It’s an invitation to go on a ride of self-examination, self-discovery, and self-recreation. One more time. Lucky us.

So invite whatever parts of your soul are aching to dance. And invite whatever guides and muses you believe in to inspire you, to fill your own blank document with joy and creativity, as we enter the new unknown.

The Harvest of Our Lives: Sukkot 2014

sukkot 2014At the end of the day, what do you talk about, you and your soul? Do you get into the existential Why am I here? stuff, or do you think about how you’re doing with your chores, whether they’re simple things like chopping veggies for dinner or deeper tasks like taking a karmic inventory?

In the quiet of the day, what’s the conversation between you and you?

There’s a great holiday that starts this week, early in the Jewish calendar year and at the very end of the Torah cycle. It’s called Sukkot, from the word sukkah, which means booth. Traditional folks build covered shelters, as simple as a frame tented with fabric or wood and a canopy of thatch, harvest stalks, and reeds. They eat and sleep in them. The more observantly elastic take part of each day to meditate outside and share a meal with friends in a less formal sukkah.

The observance is a powerful mirror of the Passover holiday we celebrated six months ago.

Way back then we chose to leave mitzrayim, the narrow place, the symbolic land of constraint. We left slavery and went into the unknown. Now, after reaching our symbolic goal (and a new year), we take time to harvest the blessings of the land, give thanks, and take stock of the insights from our journey.

I’m not always a good practicing Jew. But I cherish the way Judaism organizes the year, the way it moves us inexorably through the cycles of self-examination and growth that so many of us profess to want to partake of.

I frame this writing on the weekly turning of the scrolls because I think that somewhere along the way someone got it right. That there’s a story here, and it’s a good one. That there are paths and processes and journeys that we go on. Spiritually. Emotionally. Intellectually. Physically. That what takes place in the material world happens in parallel in your soul. And if you pay good attention to your process you might learn something that’ll help make it easier/kinder/gentler and also deeper/more meaningful/spiritually valuable. If we all did that, this place would be happier/sweeter/more joyous. And all our paths would be paths of peace.

So if you and your soul aren’t talking, if you don’t think you’re here to learn/grow/improve and to find/create greater goodness and compassion, then what are you doing? Does it teach you or satisfy you? Energize you and open you?

I hope so. If not, then get on with figuring out what’ll give you the same bang for your karmic buck.

As we sit amidst the harvest of the season–the squashes that will sustain us this winter, the aromatics that will flavor our soups, the apples and pears that will sweeten our winter evenings–we give thanks for not only our liberation but for our arrival in this place of safety. Our ability to have perspective and quiet time. No more scrambling and searching and wondering. We have arrived.

At this turn of the seasons, in the oasis of whatever sukkah you choose, take a sweet moment to have a good heart to heart with your higher self. There is simply nothing better.

I’m Sorry: Yom Kippur 2014

YK-2014On any given day, what I believe may differ from the day before. I’m pretty consistent about basic physics. Gravity, for example, is easy to discern and trust (except in airplanes). My personal mash-up of faith has some reliable components. I believe in synchronicity more than randomness. No white-guy-on-a-throne. But though I believe in prayer, I couldn’t explain it with prepositions like to or from. I think we’re collectively spirit, and that our actions matter. That karma happens, but don’t look for linear examples of it. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to people who don’t seem to deserve them.

Although we’re trying to do good and better, we often blow it. Individually and collectively. I’m not talking about failures to give up cigarettes, carbs, or cocaine. I’m talking about the ways we treat one another on a daily basis, both those we profess to care about, and the rest of humanity.

Judaism has a great annual ritual for acknowledging our lapses, and for asking for forgiveness. It truly doesn’t matter whether you’re asking for it from an external energy or from your own conscience. What’s important is to acknowledge how you’ve not lived at the highest level of personal integrity. To clear the slate and do better the next 364 days.

The process happens on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starting this year the eve of October 3rd. We say a very specific prayer accompanied by literal pounding of fist over heart. It’s chanted as and in the collective, in part to mask our individual lapses, and also because we act as witnesses to one another, and to the idea that as a community, a tribe, and a global family, we’re each part of a spiritual ecosystem that cannot heal until we all do.

Each phrase is prefaced with For the wrong we have done before you…. and interspersed with the request Please forgive us, pardon us, and help us atone. Read it slowly, thinking about your own hits and misses, and your ability to atone, forgive yourself , and to do better more often.

For the wrong we have done before you….

  • In the closing of the heart,
  • Without knowing what we do,
  • Whether open or concealed,
  • Knowingly and by deceit,
  • Through the prompting of the heart,
  • Through the influence of others,
  • Whether by intention or mistake,
  • By the hand of violence,
  • Through our foolishness of speech,
  • Through an evil inclination,
  • In the palming of a bribe,
  • By expressions of contempt,
  • Through misuse of food and drink,
  • By our avarice and greed,
  • Through offensive gaze,
  • Through a condescending glance,
  • By our quickness to oppose,
  • By deception of a friend,
  • By unwillingness to change,
  • By running to embrace an evil act,
  • By our groundless hatred,
  • In the giving of false pledges.

The focus of the Jewish High Holidays is a process called t’shuvah, return. We’re aiming for a clarity of soul and purpose, a re-commitment to living with integrity, honor, goodness, and compassion. And to creating a world of peace. Amen.

The Way It Feels: TorahCycle Ha’azinu

hold for later

Somewhere along the way we make agreements with ourselves. Agreements on a soul level about what and how we’ve agreed to experience this time around. Sometimes they show up and I think, I get this lesson easily. Other times not so much. (Of course the “easy” time could really be the fiftieth and I wasn’t paying close enough attention the first forty-nine.) Either way, it helps to be doing your karmic homework.

We all have issues we seem to need to learn the hard way. They’re as unique as our DNA, but the process is pretty much the same: butt your head repeatedly getting it wrong; fall down, complain, cry, or all the above. Rinse and repeat

So how do we learn?

A handful of years ago I said a capital Y Yes to a process I hoped would culminate in emotional and spiritual development. I got a grace period, then a big kick in the butt, some serious choices over a period of time, with lots of healing, friends, head-butting and small bits of progress along the way. It meant moving past fear, sadness, wanting what I didn’t have, not getting what I wanted, or at least not in the way that I wanted it, or as much as I wanted, mourning what I’d lost, and feeling a little wiser. You know the drill.

Making progress took visioning the life I wanted to create and an equally clear knowing of what I was saying No to. Mostly it took shedding a load of heaviness and making lots more room inside for good things to grow.

In Lev Grossman’s brilliant conclusion to his Magicians trilogy [Note: the wise will follow great instructions from the jacket blurb: Throw your electonica down a well and duct tape the door when you begin], he uses the image of a flower to represent the combined emotions of awe and joy and hope and longing. That’s pretty much a summary of a divine spiritual experience. It’s hard to sustain, which is why those peak moments stay etched so clearly in our souls. The moment when….

…. you touch that place in your soul when you’re as close to an enlightenment experience as you’re likely to get this time around.

In the life that follows, your regular one, where you jump-start your day with coffee, put up with colleagues, bad drivers, and stubbing your toe on one thing or another, you sometimes remember that feeling. It can come through a scent or a sight or a thought. And you’re transported to that complex sense of awe and joy and hope and longing.

We are at the cusp of a brand new Jewish calendar year. Soon we’ll be re-rolling the whole Torah and starting again with Genesis. The air is pungent with that freshly-sharpened pencils smell of childhood. We’re anticipating the blessings just around the corner.

Sure, there’ll be butt kicks too. But what the hell. We signed on for this ride, so let’s see what it offers. With luck it’ll be awe and joy and hope and longing. Glimpsed, fulfilled, and more to come.

Choosing Life: TorahCycles Nitazvim/Vayelech

Mattot 2014Unless you’re in the mood for an earworm, don’t itune the Rent song that so lyrically wraps its arms around what we do with our time in this incarnation. It asks how you measure a life, and answers: In minutes, in daylights, in sunsets, In midnights, in cups of coffee, In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife. It encourages us to measure in Seasons of Love, In truths that she learned or In times that he cried, In bridges he burned or the way that she died, and invites us to remember the love.

This week’s reading says, Choose life. There’s simply no better way to spend your time here.

Your choice might be trekking in Nepal and mine watching hummingbirds from my chaise. Others might wish for potable water or a safe place to sleep.

Choosing life comes down to resonating with what your inner voice, your soul, is pointing to and encouraging you see/hear/feel. It’s why some people are good gardeners, and why others sail or put out to sea. Why we write or make art, parent or make love.

We’re each such a strange, wonderful, and mysterious constellation of resources and desires. Life comes down to how we share them.

Several friends have had parents die in the last while, and others are pending same. The ones on the before side are tenser. Each time the phone rings, it’s a potential crises. The caretaker, doctor’s office, or other bad news. The ones who talk about their recently deceased seem to glow a little. They’re free from the worry, and can relax into memories of the gentler times.

Judaism buries folks within a day, and then asks friends to sit with the kin for the first week of evenings. To say prayers and speak of the departed love one. To hear about a mother who loved to docent at the art museum, and learned to tango at 80. The dad who taught his kids to play tennis and chess. These people come alive again in the telling.

Why? Because they lived doing what was most precious to them. And shared their pleasure and joy in doing so.

 

It’s hard to get really angry when you’re happy. Harder to exploit others or start wars. Though it’s pretty easy to feel dissatisfied if you’re having trouble simply staying alive, or feeding and educating your kids.

If we want to keep choosing the life we want, we’ll need to work a little harder making sure everybody else gets the same choices.

There’s always gonna be some evildoers. But if most of us are trying to make a good life for us all, ya gotta think there’ll be less kindling for the flames the malcontents try to light.

If you do nothing else this week, take some moments here and there to be very conscious of what you’re doing right then. To think how you have chosen it, to really feel it, and then choose it again. Or not to, and decide instead to choose something else, a different way of living.

If you really listen, you’ll choose the life you want.

 

 

 

Growing Up: TorahCycle Ki Tavo

KiTavo

It happens to all of us eventually. Perhaps sooner in some areas of our lives than in others. But some day we all look around, and think: Wow, that’s not such a big issue for me any more. The issues are as varied as our DNA and karma. But show me someone without any and I’ll listen hard to whatever they have to say.

This week’s reading begins, “When you come into the land…” Amazing. All that long beginning ago there was chaos and void; then lots of begetting, slavery, and most recently forty years of trekking. Finally someone’s talking about a payoff. Hooray.

The instruction goes, When you get there, give gratitude. There’s details of course, but it comes down to regular invocations of awe and wonder and saying lots of thank yous. It doesn’t really matter if the thanks yous are to self or external entities. The energy’s coming from the same place, the one where you say Good job! And really mean it.

Personal development is more than a theory. It’s not just possible. It’s becoming real and we are here to prove it.

What’ve we done in all our time of trekking and searching, striving and berating, trying and trying and trying yet again? We’ve grown “a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.” There is no wonder we’re not equipped to witness. And no tragedy we can ignore. If we stay open and aware we’ll be in a continual state of witnessing and growth.

The promised land offers us plenty to give gratitude for. We’re able to share, to gift our family, friends, and neighbors. So do it.

You’ve heard the summer joke about people locking their car doors so people don’t fill the seats with zucchini. Turn it around. Practice practical gratitude. If you have money, donate some. If you have time, share it. If you know, hear, and see something that needs to be fixed, start fixing it.

That includes continuing to work on yourself, as well as looking outside. In this time of harvest we’re being gifted with a sense of optimism. It’s the time to believe not just in the possibility of change but in its manifestation.

I’ve been noticing how happy the current crop of babies is making people. It’s always that way of course, its just that in my circle there’s a dozen or so newborns/not-yet-walking souls. They make people smile. We’re tickled that they haven’t done anything wrong yet. Haven’t screwed up a relationship or a job, gotten stuck in a rut of bad habit or foolish opinion. Haven’t made the work of being human any harder than it need be.

This week’s about that same sense of newness. Of starting over with a clean slate. Of having made it through a passage that seemed endless. And, now, poof it’s gone. Over. Done. We have new life, more energy. We’re happier and in a better mood, We are fueled with the buoyancy of gratitude and wonder that an open heart can bring.

We are soon to enter a new year, a time of starting over. With our hearts open, eyes open, and ears open. May they see, hear, and share blessings.

All or Nothing?: TorahCycle Ki Tzeitzei

Ki Tzeitze 2014I got an image earlier of a wadi (a valley, ravine or other potential channel for water), most often heard in the context of Three hikers were washed away in a flash flood in the wadi.

That’s how I respond to this week’s reading. Life’s going along in its fashion, things more or less in their place. Changes ongoing but not dramatic, maybe even subtle. Life in motion and at rest, at the same time. The world feels natural and manageable.

Then suddenly Whoosh. A Big Shift. An idea or feeling that’s so hard to wrestle with that you’re washed away in its complexity.

Torah offers a strong narrative about personal development, told through stories and history. We’re also given a gazillion mitzvot (rules about daily life). They’re a good template for a life of goodness and justice. But I care a lot more about the big questions, the kind that sweep over you like the rushing water, and are as difficult to tame.

This week’s perhaps the deepest: to forgive or not. The last line is You shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget

Huh?

Are we supposed to forget or to remember? To remember, but make everyone else forgets? To remember forever so the violence that Amalek signifies never happens again? To be hyper-vigilant? How will that help us make peace?

I’m framing the question as: Do we remember and never forgive? Or can we forgive, even if we do not forget?

Are there harms so egregious they cannot be forgiven? What happens to us if we do not? if we allow the harm that has been done to define us? Who do we become? And what happens to the collective that we share?

The 20th century alone has names and places that make our understanding of evil simply stop cold. So do equally painful stories of abuse in the lives of friends and loved ones. Much as we might try, we can’t assuage their horror and the pain.

The desire to strike back is great, with a flood of emotions just as intense and formidable as the waters rushing through the wadi. Forget forgiveness; we want revenge. We want to have the stories heard, and to have evildoers punished. Neil Gaimon’s new graphic short story The Truth Lives in a Cave in the Black Mountains is a tough microcosm of these emotions. I understand it, but it’s sad.

My own hurts are small in comparison, and I don’t have any moral authority to say Forgiveness makes this world a better place, so please find a path to it. But I’d like to think that we’re hardwired for kindness as well as justice, and that we can learn to be good to one another in ways that will break the cycles of anger and violence. That we can remember the harm not to stoke the fires of revenge, but to remind us to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It shouldn’t be an all or nothing world. If we can inch our way towards forgiveness, perhaps we’ll be able to make more peace.

Who’s To Judge? : TorahCycle Shoftim

Shoftim 2014

Sorry to interrupt the sweet end of summer with tougher stuff, but the world has seemed an angrier place the last while. Hating and killing. Killing and hating. There’s lots of judging going on. Most of it landing in the I’m better than you are place, with its nasty and dangerous corollary So your life’s not worth as much as mine.

How does that kind of judgment get justified?

The God of Torah has basically one instruction: Do what I told you, or else…. Where the “or else” ranges from death to long years of painful exile. Which pretty much dooms humanity to the bad stuff, because if any one of us can’t get it right, how’re the whole of us going to? In theory we‘ll all be better and kinder in the time of a future messiah (think Hair’s Age of Aquarius). But in a Catch-22, no goodness = no messiah. So in the short run (and I’m talking millennia here) it’s pretty much crime and punishment, judgment and hatred, killing and being killed.

This week’s reading appoints judges and has various prohibitions. My favorite is the ban against “wanton destruction of something of value,” which can be anything from a fruit tree to a person. So how to justify the slaughter of tribes, then and now, when people have just been described as “trees of the field.”

We’re all guilty of judgment, whether it’s our own bad hair day to the wholesale condemnation of groups with different religions, skin color, politics, and lifestyles. We mostly do it with rhetoric rather than live ammunition. But by practicing judgment so regularly we become inured when it happens all around us. We forget that compassion breeds more compassion, while anger and judgment calcify and harden our hearts.

Yes there are unequivocally objectionable actions that require adjudication and punishment. In Torah the catchall justification for slaughter is the label “idolator.” It’s like a get out of jail free card. But in a more relativistic world, with lots of legitimate variations on truth, whether it’s in religion or choice of whom to love, what’s the responsibility of the community, the state, and of each of us, to make sure bad things don’t happen to good people, just because someone with a badge or a better missile system judges them as different?

When one of your kids justifies walloping a sib with He hit me first, do you respond with, Okay then, go ahead and pound the crap out of him? Or do you say Use your words? What works for children should translate at least a little to ostensibly civilized nation-states and to small-town police forces.

If I judge myself as having a bad hair day, it costs only some lowered self-esteem or the extra time for a wash and dry. Judging any group as the contemporary equivalent of idolators can have disastrous consequences, ones that raise the stakes for all of us. Who would you trust to make that judgment, and how would you feel if it was made about you?

If we’re going to have a planet to bequeath Generations X, Y, and Z, we’re going to have to start using more words and less ammunition.