Counting the Omer: Chesed

ChesedUnconditional love is something we all long for but rarely experience. From our pets perhaps, or young children. As adults we get momentary rushes, but they tend to be a little more specialized: gratitude, appreciation, joy, relief, new love. But in our 24/7/365 worlds too often we equivocate, hold back, or keep a quid-pro-quo relationship with our heart via-a-vis the hearts of others, even those we hold close and dear. Best to keep a little something in reserve in case the world surprises you and you need it later. Like carrying around a psychic water bottle.

It’s not for want of caring. But too many of us have been bruised and wounded in ways that leave us cautious about being too (let alone totally) vulnerable. But as we go through the world with veils of emotional protection, we’ve also limited our heart’s ability to feel. Unintended consequence or not, it happens.

We don’t advertise these shortcomings and barriers. In fact we’re pretty creative about our disguises, volunteering, putting on band-aids, and helping out, embracing altruism and compassion in our rhetoric and actions. To other we may seem completely loving and caring. But how close to the core do we let them get?

Chesed is about love with a capital L. Divine love. Unconditional love. Love that comes from the heart not from head or need or expected or hoped-for reciprocity. Love without questions asked or answered. Deep and abiding and open. Love eternal. Loving-kindness and grace. Unlimited benevolence. It’s about generosity, about reaching past the boundaries of ego and self.

Chesed is associated with the principle of expansion. About things growing. Not that unlimited growth is always for their best or highest benefit. That’s why its counterpart is Gevurah, the principle of restraint and boundaries. (Next week, stay tuned).

Chesed is the first of the seven lower sephirot on the Tree of Life. Sephirot represent the qualities that organize how we live as incarnated souls. Higher soul levels breathe through chesed. You can feel them in very special times, birthings and dyings and fallings in love.

Chesed’s about being open, kind, full of goodness and grace. It ties to tzeddakah, generosity–a right action in Judaism–sharing that benefits both receiver and giver.

Chesed’s about saying Yes. It is about optimism, willingness, receptivity, even curiosity. It’s about the absence of limits.

What prompts this in you and what makes you run from the idea? (Ask sincerely, and don’t grip your pen too tightly.)

It’s hard to imagine being heavy and dark when you’re filled with chesed. But pay good attention if anywhere in you feels looser or tighter when you think about people/situations in your life where your chesed feels either extra strong, strained, or out of balance, past or current. Are there patterns and similarities? What brings out the best in you? And what tips it past the balance where the giving remains good for both you and others.

As much as you can this week, meditate on that kind of openness and caring. It’s the beginning of this process, and the more open you can become, the more you will receive.

Ticket to Ride: Pre-Passover 2015

Tree

When I was younger, playing at Disneyland, we went on all the classic rides, and also bought “E-tickets.” They cost triple and guaranteed more screams and thrills. I carry in my pocket more computing power than first took men to the moon, so I’m sure that 1970’s special effects would seem as hokey now as 1950’s effects did then.

But E-rides challenged you. They took away your sense of time and space. Hard to hold onto small-ego You while hurtling though darkness at strange angles, lasers shooting all about, heavy metal blasting. One either retreats into denial or the boundaries between self/other get much thinner very quickly.

We’re at the gate on one of Judaism’s E-rides. In the rhythm of the sacred year we move between slow times and deeper, more intense, periods. We do have the seventh day metronome of Shabbat, tick-tocking like a heartbeat, to keep us grounded. But now we’re entering a bigger set of sevens. Seven weeks of meditations on aspects of the divine as reflected in self. Time to take a hard look, to see where you’re getting things right, and where you’re not.

All your New Year’s vows and promises, sacred and secular, are past. Most of us had just settled in to appreciating nature’s budding and blooming. Daffodils and birdsong. Feeling renewed without much stress or effort. Life was gonna coast happily.

Now comes Passover. The retelling of the exodus from slavery. We’ll land at the foot of Sinai once again. But this time, instead of brisk walk, we get fifty days to walk the path, one step in front of the other, one day at a time.

This process is called The Counting of the Omer. It’s the kind of thing that introspective people long for. A mandated and validated form of navel gazing. We meditate on the lower seven positions (sephirot) on the Tree of Life. Each an attribute of the divine, and an attribute of self as we mirror the divine. We meditate on them in succession:

Week 1   Chesed: unconditional loving-kindness
Week 2   Gevurah: restraint, justice
Week 3   Tipheret: beauty, harmony compassion
Week 4   Netzach: energy, zeal, endurance
Week 5   Hod: glory, splendor, creativity
Week 6   Yesod: foundation, possibility
Week 7   Malkuth: living in the earthly kingdom with our inner spark aglow.

You can do it alone or you can pair up, with someone you know very well, or someone you want to. You can study, share, articulate, open, and generally clean yourself out, one to the other. This kinda study- buddy system is chevruta. It can be two people or more. But think intimacy.

Can you find ten minutes a day for seven weeks starting Saturday evening/Sunday? If yes, I promise you’ll be different on the other side. Can’t say how. Pretty sure for the better. Definitely softer and more peaceful. You don’t have to do anything more than breathe and open your heart, thinking about the attribute. No giving up gluten or sugar or checking your email when you get twitchy. You just have to show up and listen.

Got your E-ticket? Get on board.

Getting Clean: TorahCycle Tzav

VayechiIn the psychological thriller Descent, author Tim Johnston sets up several interlocking pairs of troubled relationships, mostly father /son, but there’s just enough pervasive misanthropy and sense of imminent threat, that you’re just never quite sure when everything’s gonna erupt. And then, hope against hope, with not a shed of evidence to even hint you should imagine, you find yourself rooting for one of the meanest ones to become a hero, to be moved by sense of humanity you’ve had no reason to believe is there.

That’s the holy spark. The essence of being that on a soul level each of us recognizes in the other. No matter how unlikely it may seem on any given day.

That’s what this getting holy is all about. Seeing and being those people.

All the rest, in the words of the great sages, all the rest is commentary.

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.