Choose Life: TorahCycle Nitzavim-Vayelach

NitzavimThis week’s reading is chock full of prophecy. Also familiar threats, instructions, and foreboding about future trials and tribulations. But the key to it all, perhaps the key to everything the whole process of searching and self-betterment is about, is the declaration that you have a choice between life/goodness and death/evil. You might quibble with those pairings, but would you do so with the command that you are to choose life?

So much to unpack. And life offers so many chances to use your free will to do exactly the opposite. To run for the door and say, Thanks, I’m outta here. Done.

Terrifying challenges in individual lives and in history. Choosing death to escape the horrors of Auschwitz, or of systematic abuse. To end a terminal illness before the pain is too great. To assist a loved one who chooses that. Or simply to say, I’ve done what I wanted to do this time around. Next….

That’s literal death. There’s also metaphoric, emotional, and spiritual killings: the more subtle ways that we shut down, live safely, forget to stay open to the new and the now, avoid embracing whatever might threaten our tidy realities.

Sometimes we do set the bar higher, like when we make changes in partners, jobs, locations, even belief systems or daily practices. But often those choices simply reinforce what we’ve decided we want our lives to be like in context and form. So many assumptions made over time, or encouraged by family and institutions, about whom we’ll become, how we’ll live.

So much time devoted to manifesting personal goals, that we sometimes forget we’re also part of an ethos, a zeitgeist.

Often we identify as part of groups based on our age, region, religion, or sports team. We may live like that’s who we are. But it’s important to remember that this life we’ve been given, this gift, is about very much more than our affiliations, or comfort, or who dies with the most toys. It’s about making some difference while you’re here, to your own soul and the lives of those around you.

Choose life is literally that: Don’t kill yourself. It also means, don’t forsake your responsibility for being part of both your chosen tribes and also our collective humanity.

Live as both witness and actor. Don’t shut your eyes to difficult things in the world because they’re painful, or might inconvenience you. Engage with the world, taking responsibility for what you see. Make choices that’ll help clean up this planet, your neighborhood, and your soul. That can mean recycling, volunteering, or planting a garden. Teaching reading or donating money. Even prayer.

Choosing life means an active awareness of your free will in each moment. It means choosing kindness and compassion instead of pique or anger. Choosing generosity instead of self-interest. Choosing love, social justice, environmental responsibility, and love. It means choosing goodness: seeing, creating, and affirming your highest values in as many times and places as you can.

You get to choose. Each time you choose life, we all win.

Exercise: Answer this one question: What does “Choose life!” mean I should do differently?

Giving Gratitude: TorahCycle Ki Tavo

KiTavoWhat a lovely bit of instruction we are given: Give thanks. Offer up the first fruits in gratitude and appreciation for the gifts of the universe. For the cycles of nature, for evolution both physical and spiritual, and for the sheer joy of being able to.

We should all do it more often.

Also, Moses says that only now, forty years after leaving Egypt, have the people attained “a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”

It takes a long time to develop healthy relationships with our senses. Newborns are one big mouth in a noisy, busy world. As we grow, our other organs become informative, fun, useful, grounding, energizing, distracting. Windows and doors.

Sometimes we castigate ourselves for our senses’ seemingly endless desires: feed me, touch me, show me. Bless my ears, eyes, nose with lovely sounds, and sights, and smells.

They are sources of great joy and great pain. We love, and make love; we hurt and grieve when great loves wither or die. We see great beauty; we witness great suffering. We smell roses; we smell death and decay. We hear symphonies; we hear cries of pain.

One of the teachings of this time is that we’re supposed to give gratitude for all of these. Not just for what looks, sounds, tastes, feels, or smells pleasing. But for the opportunity discern what’s good and righteous, and what is not. And for the chance to learn how everything affects us, whether we’re lusting after the wrong partner or more chocolate mousse, or trying to better our souls.

With luck or spiritual evolution we’re moved to take action against what feels wrong and discordant. To do tikkun olam, helping heal the world, and ourselves along the way. Giving thanks for the opportunity to become better people. Even if the menu is more bitter than we’d design on our own.

Part of this teaching is about being kinder to others as well as yourself. A reminder that every time you receive a gift you should to set some aside in gratitude. Not on some altar, but for the homeless guy on the corner, or the non-profit that helps manifest your values.

This is a time to open the cocoon of your life. As part of doing t’shuvah (reconnecting with your holiness), take a fresh look at how you live. Not just in your little world, the home, garden, and friends that bring you flowers, birdsong, and fresh tomatoes. But the more complicated world you share with the rest of us, with those who are hungry for the fruits of your compassion.

Give gratitude for your life in new ways. In ways that matter. To give back, give thanks. Plant seeds that will feed you and yours and also others and theirs. Offer up not only your extra zucchini but also your time, your caring, your willingness to see, hear, and help. Use all your senses to know what needs to be done. Let your heart open, and respond with action.

Exercise: Think of one thing you can do this week to give gratitude in a new way, especially one that’ll connect you with someone you do not yet know.

Remember, Forget, Remember: TorahCycle Ki Tzeitzei

KiTzeitzeiWe’re instructed to obliterate the memory of those who have harmed us. And also never to forget what’s been done. A mental yoga pose at the high end and an anatomically impossible curse at the lower.

Nursing a memory of pain can keep you stuck in a place where it’s hard to get far past the hurting. Life can get calcified, organized around pain past and fear of pain future.

Virtually all of us have been hurt in ways that’ve left emotional scars. Often these impact our behavior in ways that disproportionately magnify their original impact. Like a plant growing towards the sun we lean unevenly to one side, trying to avoid the darkness and hurt, or, worse, repeating the cycle.

We’re left off balance, a stance which might be okay in good times, but leaves us vulnerable when life goes askew, especially when something gets tangled in the roots of our history.

We may look like we’re here. But too often we’re measuring our lives by the past, instead of being present, being in the now, in ways that might make us happier. Like alcoholics cradling a bottle: knowing it’s causing damage, but craving the familiar oblivion we hope will keep the demons at bay.

No wonder this reading comes early in our time of t’shuvah, what Rabbi Simon Jacobsen calls “A time of regret, forgiveness, and reconciliation. A time to return to pristine beginnings. To discover our true self, and the divine spark at the core of our soul.”

T’shuvah is coming home to your true self, from wherever you’ve been and whatever you’ve been hiding from. Hiding, btw, can take various forms: from depression to Type A success. From substance addiction to fierce piety.

T’shuvah is about acknowledging everything that’s happened on your path, and about opening the door to forgiveness as well. Eyeball to eyeball with capital T Truth, as best as you can, without judgment, anger, self-pity, or fear.

It can be hard both to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. We may be haunted by victimization or by having hurt others, each conjoined with guilt and/or shame. Hard enough to forgive self for hurting other, let alone forgiving those who have hurt us.

It’s tough juggling. Never forgetting what happened but obliterating the memory of the ones who hurt us. Re-opening wounds to clean them out. Trying to recreate trust in the universe. Believing it will offer us blessings as well as trauma.

This period is the gateway to the High Holidays, a time when we start a new year, and a month later reach the end of the Torah. We’ll reroll it, and begin the cycle again with Genesis. A new beginning. The next you, trying to live better and happier, without repeating the mistakes of the past.

None of us gets it right in any one try. Our lives are an ongoing process of cleansing and healing. We do the best we can, hoping for progress. During this time of return. And in every moment of now.

Exercise: Identify the patterns you’ve generated in response to a core hurt. Ask yourself and your guides how you can lighten and change its hold on you.

Who’s To Judge?: TorahCycle Shoftim

shoftimThis week¹s reading discusses judges and the law, seen, like people, as open to interpretation and evolution. Both strict and loose constructionists, those old Jews: literal about some things, yet completely comfortable with the idea that every situation is unique. That we need to consider our actions and their consequences as we go along.

The reading also identifies men exempted from battle: if you’ve just built a home, planted a vineyard, or gotten married. And my favorite, if you’re “afraid and soft-hearted.” It¹s a lovely acknowledgement that some of us are, and some of us are not, suited for certain things.

Most of us spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others. There’s often a profound relationship between the things we judge flawed in others and the things that piss us off about ourselves. It’s called projection, and if you’re not raising your hand guilty-as-charged you’re either enlightened or in denial.

We spend time fretting, usually about why we are or aren’t everything from kinder or more generous to tougher and more assertive. The list of desired qualities changes, of course, as we evolve and our lives take different forms.  But most of us judge ourselves about our inadequate and inconsistent progress too often and too harshly.

Until something happens. Until we find some grace. Because all that judging actually had some purpose, other than annoying ourselves and those who love and listen to us.

At some point in your life you choose to be or not to be certain things. You say I am or I am not. A parent. A poet. A painter. A philanderer. A priest. The infinite list of beings and doings.

Maybe we just get lucky. Maybe we learn something. Or maybe we finally exhaust ourselves. Like a toddler up past nap time, we get so cranky that we finally conk out. Give in. Say I surrender. This is who I am and this is who I am not.

In self-acceptance, you can embrace your true self, your form in this lifetime. Not in the ego exalting ways of movie stardom or CEO capitalism. But in the loving and less self-judgmental knowing that is the basis of acceptance and self-love.

This acceptance includes becoming more of a soft-hearted person. A wonderful side benefit: as you become more compassionate towards yourself, you also become more compassionate towards others. It’s win-win for all of us. Less angst, less struggle, and maybe someday even less war.

If only we could shorten that nasty middle phase of harping on our failings. The best I can say is that all that judging, all that refinement of your inner laws, helps you learn and understand your values. That in Situation A it’s okay to act or be such and such. But not in Situation B. I accept that there are lines I will not cross. I know them; I forgive myself for when I have and will be kinder to myself in the future.

Not because I am soft-headed, but because as my heart softens I choose peace.

Exercise:  Which parts of yourself are you still judging and fighting?

Hit the Road, Jack: TorahCycle Re’eh

Re'ehThis week’s story is about pilgrimages. Literal pilgrimages. The kind we’re told to take three times a year. To Jerusalem, a word that today I’ll use to mean a special center of the spiritual universe: a moment and place in space-time where you can hook up to energies of insight and peace. You can substitute any special place of your own, but think of a pilgrimage as the journey you’re instructed to take regularly to commune with the divine.

It’s an action that supersizes whatever’s your daily practice, whether that’s sitting in quiet meditation or walking in the woods. Three times a year to carve out a chunk of time to remember that we’re here to do some holy work, to heal this planet and ourselves, to learn compassion, to practice good and free will. Three conscious opportunities to exercise them, and to enhance the likelihood that all of us can live a life of abundance and joy, however you translate those concepts.

They’re times to remember where we’ve been and where we still want to go. Where and why our spiritual energy is focused. So why wouldn’t we aim there in a fast straight line? Hit the road running and not stop till we get to go. Build our temple; live on milk and honey.

Because we’re human. And we blow it regularly. We get distracted by paying our bills or broken water heaters, by dark chocolate and summer berries, by falling in or out of love. We forget and we need help to remember.

Every time I wrestle with something, whether it’s a deep spiritual lesson or some silly life blunder, I always come back to the question: How do I live with greater awareness and greater intention? How can I wake up, and live more consciously?

The problem’s chronic, probably eternal at least while we incarnate as humans.

No matter how much good advice we get, human or divine. No matter how clear the instructions on the roadmap, we take wrong turns. Pull into dark canyons. Fall over cliffs and have to start again, sometimes after healing a broken leg or heart.

Life’s journey isn’t simply from a here to a there. We make pilgrimages to remind ourselves how we want to feel whenever we get there for real. We hope the glimpses will help us stay awake between them. Sacred art, music, prayer, and nature reinforce those glimpses.

What matters is your intention. A sincere and humble visit to wherever you find that sense of grace. An opening. Your heart open to the heart of the divine. A deep meeting of like energies. No buffers. A willingness to listen. A willingness to be witnessed and to be open to what you need to receive.

Some days you may go unconscious, or get lost. But every step on your pilgrimages will bring you a little closer to the temple of your holy spark, a little closer to your inner Jerusalem.

This week: Think about where you feel peaceful, inspired, and holy. Go there. And resolve to return and return and return.

Put A Carrot on That Stick: TorahCycle Eikev

EikevHow to live so your choices don’t lead to remorse? How to stay conscious enough to live by your values, keep your vows, and move towards your goal?

Too often we get blind-sided by immediate gratification. Fall for the distraction of cheap bait, no matter how lofty our aims. Our vision blurs, or we blink, because our destination seems far off. A blessing perhaps out of reach.

How can you get where you wanna go without compromising too often along the way?

It’s a fine line between goal orientation and incentives for progress. Not just a mythical reward, but something to see in the short run, while you walk your road. The carrot on your stick, just out of reach but always in sight.

I understand that the journey matters. That the process itself is powerful, transformative, transformational. Etc, etc, etc. Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s Commandment 9 is Enjoy the ride as much as the win.

But as much fun as anticipation can be, it’s hard to keep striving for something you’ve never experienced. Most of us need a taste of success, pleasure, or both along the way. It makes the road a little easier and our step a little lighter and faster.

Because we don’t know what’s on the other side of all our striving. Even if reaching goal, whatever it is, would more satisfying than anything you’ve ever experienced, how could you know? You haven’t been there yet. We act on faith. On hope. On trust. And try to stay motivated along the way.

Most of us also choose interim rewards. As in, If I make it to point X, then I get Y. X can be anything from finishing a project or a degree, to losing weight or lasting a week or month without gluten or sugar. The carrot might be new duds, a concert ticket, or a vacation.

If it keeps you moving towards your goal, your carrot is dong its work. And treats feel so much better than beating oneself with that stick, to the familiar drumbeat of remorse that failure engenders.

The trick is the right carrot. Not too many brownies now when you really want weight loss later. Instant gratification is the bane of many a seeker. And we all blow it far too often, out of impatience, frustration, or in response to other unfilled longings.

So how can you use your imagination to harness your spiritual, emotional, and physical energies? To keep your goal in front of you in a way that motivates but doesn’t distract or derail you?

Moses describes the Promised Land as flowing with milk and honey, and abundant with “seven kinds” of growing things that represent divine blessings (wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, dates, and olives for oil).

Things to think about this week: What would make you feel your world overflowed with whatever’s your version of milk and honey? What’re your seven kinds, the elements that sustain you and make you appreciate life’s sweet and savory? How can you use them in a healthy way on your journey? To motivate and inspire you? To treat yourself? To help fuel your practice with awareness and intention?

What’s Your Code?: TorahCycle Va’etchanan

va'etchananOf all the voices that try to tell you what to do–both inner and outer–which do you listen to? When push comes to shove, who gets the last and deciding vote about what you do with your time, your energy, your heart? Do your best acts of kindness or your least charming moments of petty pique happen randomly or by some plan? By your intention or by a seemingly unseen hand?

This week’s reading is a curious mix of a longing unsatisfied (Moses again implores and is denied entry into the Promised Land), and a prophetic warning that those who do enter, who get what they’ve been striving for, are going to blow it, be exiled, and suffer again before having another chance to do better.

All this and a reminder that we’ve been blessed with the joys and teachings of the direct encounter with the Divine at Sinai. Remember being so filled with the holy light that you drank it in with every sense? And having been given rules, the “ten instructions” as modernist Jews sometimes wryly call them.

A decade ago I appointed myself Your Jewish Fairy Godmother. As part of the process I wanted both a good chicken soup recipe and YourJFG’s ten commandments, meant as good guidelines for coping with day-to-day reality.

There I was, eyeball to eyeball with my values. Yikes! What were they?

Wrestling with that question was fun, challenging, and worth it. The answers have stood the test of time, and did a good job for preparing me  for this iteration of me, though my KabbalahGlass 10C are different, deeper, and still emerging.

Our core values are intrinsic. They’ve evolved with our history.

You’ve lived by yours for so long now that they’ve become part of your infrastructure. Like your skeleton: unseen, but critical to how you navigate the world. You enjoy the benefits of that complex geometry without being conscious of its detailed function.

Your values are like a spider’s web. With an amazing tensile strength that supports you, and also provides a net to hold you, no matter how hard the winds of life’s vicissitudes blow at you. A slender thread to the eye, but a powerful anchor for your soul.

Note: values are different than goals. They’re not about what you want to accomplish. They’re about how you act on the road to getting there.

Your code of values is worth identifying and thinking about. Teasing them out and trying them on, seeing how they work together and suit you. It’s like finding just the right pear of jeans. Seeing how they fit and feel, naming the code that shapes and frames you.

These inner commandments are allies that’ve been helping you all along. Give them names and voice.

How do you find them? Start by asking yourself what you think they are. Then listen and take good notes.

Your answers will come in clusters of insight alternating with vaguer impressions. Your values’ nouns and verbs may sometimes seem commanding and other times elusive. But once you get them right you’ll know. You’ll feel a tingling resonance when insights are brighter and clearer. They’ll help illuminate your journey.

Long and Winding Road: TorahCycle Devarim

DevarimThere’s an old axiom that says you can’t know where you’re gong until you know where you’ve been. Looking at your past usually involves both lesson harvesting and revisionism. Hard to do one without the other, because the now you will have a different perspective on past choices than then you who made them.

The need for immediate gratification diminishes in the long view. But choices made in moments of acute need or desire may’ve been valuable shortcuts to learning that might have taken far longer if you’d always taken the road of reason.

Devarim literally means “words” and/or “things.” It introduces the last book of Torah, that includes a summary of everything that’s happened since the Jews left Egypt, “the narrow place. “

Most of us have many such leavings. We’re often in the process of creating and re-creating ourselves. Hopefully each iteration is an improvement. As we change, our vocabulary about ourselves (the words) changes as our situations and perspectives change.

In the very beginning of Genesis we’re told the world was spoken into being. That words have complete generative power. So this is a great time to do a re-cap. A spiritual resume-writing week. A time to look at the big events that made you who you are, and the littler private moments, that forged your soul and perspective. Most especially at the words you use to describe those moments and yourself on your journey. They’ve become your own creation stories. But when’s the last time you unpacked them and truly listened to them?

In Hebrew the letter vav (like a V) is a connector. It ties thing-words like this and that, or place-words like here and there, or time-words like now and when. Vav is the essence of this exercise. Looking at the self you were when you began search for higher consciousness and at the self you are now.

In physics’ Heisenberg principle we cannot see the same thing in the same moment as both observer and the object of scrutiny. Like the old adage You can’t step into the same river twice. But you can look upstream, to reflect on your journey, and to motivate yourself: to find the energy and perspective to go the last leg of the way. If you need a visual, watch a recent movie called The Way, about a walking pilgrimage.

It’s the time when the hummingbirds come for the bright blooming flowers. They seem always in motion, seeking the next burst of bright sweetness. So like us: busy, busy, busy. Doing, doing, doing. Seeking, seeking, seeking, But sometimes there’s blessed moments when hummingbirds hover. They seem to pause in flight, taking in the sweetness, before they dart off searching for more.

That’s what now’s the time to do. In the heat of summer, to pause. To reflect on how you got to here and now. Take moments to feel all your words, both your memories and your dreams. Taste the nectar of knowing that you’ve travelled well and long on your road, survived the bumps, and you’ve earned the right to simply be, and to taste life’s sweetness.