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.

All Those Gifts!! : TorahCycle Vayechi

Her Twelve TribesOur inner selves reflect different aspects of who we are, or like to think we are. Our lover. Our banker. Our artist. Our bargainer. Our internalized parent. The proverbial inner child. The manifestor and the needy one.

This week Jacob blesses his sons with what range from character assessments to hopes for their future. Individually the blessings are interesting; as a group they encompass a useful and hopeful set to build a future upon.

What’s the point of blessings? It’s great to be smart, attractive, or athletic. But beyond making life easier or happier, what good do blessings do?

Blessings are somewhere between the best hits of elementary school (understanding things like how weather works), and the best of adulthood (falling in love, appreciating music, poetry, or wine). The discerning and savoring selves: your brain and sense of wonder dancing happily together. They’re also teachers and guides.

Blessings help you become clearer about who you are and what you’re here to do. Blessings help you get on with life with less fuss and grumbling.

Note: Blessings aren’t like shopping. You can get better or worse about using and appreciating your blessings. But you can’t trade them in for new or different ones, like you might a car. They’re gifts, not assets. They should inform your ability to do your karmic homework.

What you need to do more/less of, and when to start or stop doing so, isn’t a secret. Probably not to you. Certainly not to your guides, or even your friends and family (many of whom would be happy to tell you). Instead of waiting for an instruction manual, say Thanks and use your gifts. You’ll figure it out.

We don’t always use our blessings wisely. We get too ambitious, overshoot the mark. Or are too cautious, don’t try as hard as we should.

We have small triumphs, like mastering a new techno toy. And larger ones, like a better job or happier relationship. And we screw up. We learn from our failures, and sometimes get luckier than we ever though we could or even deserve. Favorite lines from Joan Baez, Life’s a thump ripe melon. So sweet and such a mess.

Blessings are what get us from one melon to the next. They’re somewhere between home base and everywhere you’ve always wanted to go.

I’m calling 2014 The Year of the Grand Experiment. Manifesting my lists of how I’d want to live if all my blessings were happily working synergistically, and I were truly honoring what I tell myself is important. Baseline reality: choices around time, money, food, and stuff. Deeper: spiritual practice, creativity, and emotional growth. Winnowing the cupboards and expanding the soul.

What a great week to meditate on your blessings. Don’t focus on things that come with worldly acclaim. Think about aspects of self that make you happiest to be you, and that offer clues and challenges about how to live your evolving life.

The next parts of Torah are about how to free yourself from what constrains you. Take some time now to think about how your blessings can illuminate the journey to your personal promised land.

Ups and Downs: TorahCycle Vayigash

Vayigash 2013

Thanksgiving’s over. We’ve moved on to gifting. We live lives of great abundance. Like Jacob and Joseph united, and the Israelites given a fertile patch of Egypt to settle into, everything seems rosy. We can rub our satisfied tummies and embrace the season’s pleasures. Many holiday gatherings share gratitudes. With good reason. We live good lives. As Joy Harjo, the brilliant Native American poet, says so well: We are rich in this place of many horses.

Now’s a great time to open your heart a little wider and stash in some memories of your abundance. Inhale the last scents of autumn. Appreciate the warmth of hot cider and your family’s embrace. Share you blessings with those who have less. Because nothing lasts, no matter how much we might want it to.

What do you do when times are really good, beyond enjoying them and giving thanks?

You can’t store them up, the way expectant parents might want to stockpile hours of sleep. There’s no way to preserve happiness and contentment,, like you would tomatoes or peaches. No banking system for the good times, so you can draw upon them when the famines return.

Just as no one can predict earthquakes, tsunamis, or natural disasters, we can’t know what’s coming. Jacob’s family thinks they’ve landed in a good spot, not a dangerous one. No one imagines that today’s abundance is a precursor to slavery that will last hundreds of years. Or that the exodus, Judaism’s defining story, is many generations in the future.

Who could have predicted the Shoah, or other horrific genocides? Even after millennia of anti-Semitism, the assimilated Jews of Europe could not have imagined anything as broadly lethal as the Holocaust. The Inquisition had dispersed them centuries before. But even after centuries of legal discrimination and policies of progroms, the Shoah was impossible to conceptualize, let alone to understand. Who would want to?

I’m developing a Holocaust literature project. When I talk to people about it, they either say, Yes, I too read to witness, or recoil, saying, I can’t. It’s too hard.

We’ve all seen Normal Rockwell’s classic holiday scene: a happy family around the burgeoning table. Judaism’s correlate is the Seder. Everything we could possibly want (except leavened bread). We retell the story that begins now: from safety to slavery to rescue, and then the long road to freedom. That, and the first bite of matzo, reminds us we’ve been here before. One more circle around the sun, and we’re still here. We survived slavery and concentration camps. Long road, hard road. Not all blessings and abundance.

When we’re comfortable, even complacent, what motivates us to work harder emotionally and spiritually than daily life requires? Why confront life’s harder aspects if we don’t have to? Isn’t giving thanks enough?

Struggle shouldn’t be a pre-condition to personal growth. But if you don’t do your homework in the good times, the bad ones will feel far worse. If you’ve only coasted on your happiness, instead of sharing your blessings with those who need them, you’ve missed a chance to develop the compassion and equanimity you’ll need later, when the wheel turns again for you. No one can know when that will be.

Not Quite Yet: TorahCycle Mikeitz

Mikeitz 2013Forgiveness doesn’t come fast or easy Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. That’s true whether the offender is another or ourselves. Careless, or even intentional, words and deeds hurt and wound us. We feel them deeply. Sometimes even allow them to define us. We identify as the aggrieved or victimized on the one hand, and the ashamed or guilty on the other.

Getting from hurt to forgiveness takes many steps. The deeper and more important the hurt, the more we need to process the healing. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes we don’t think it should even be a goal.

Bad drivers in your path may annoy or rankle; they earn a quick  hand flip. Here and gone.

Family dysfunction can last decades, even lifetimes. Emotional scarring, physical and sexual abuse becomes woven into us. We may feel forgiveness is impossible or unwarranted.

Folks tend towards either: Someone hurt me!, or I must have deserved it. And the converse: I screwed up! Now what? Each has its own burdens.

A great photo from 1900s New York: an old Jewish immigrant woman, bent over double, with an enormous shipping crate on her back. That’s what carrying around anger or shame can feel like. A very large and weighty burden. One you cannot put down until you reach  sanctuary. Even if that’s a fifth-floor walk up with noisy neighbors and no running water.

Releasing even some of your anger and pain will make you lighter, clearer, healthier, and happier.

This week finds Joseph in high office in Egypt, after interpreting Pharoah’s dreams of impending famine. Who walks in hungry and needy but the very crew of brothers who sold him into slavery. They don’t recognize him; but he knows them.

The Jewish High Holidays have a very active process around forgiveness. Often we erase the simpler, more recent, happenstances of life, rather than old deep ones. The option is there, but you’ve gotta be ready. Even wanting to be ready can be a journey of a thousand steps. And it’s unlikely to be a linear or level path.

We spend lots of energy carrying around our inner crates of hurt and shame. We’re angry at others and ourselves. IThose feelings have become a filter and a reflex for how we live and how we interact with others. Not just those who caused the hurt, but almost everyone.

Joseph’s not ready to forgive his brothers. Like him we play tricks, set up tests. Challenge ourselves, others, and the universe. We’re looking for some key to unlock our stuck feelings. Permission to set the crate down.

A great new novel, Visitation Street, highlights the surviving friend of a missing and presumed drowned teen-ager. Everything that happens is a test: If the next song on the radio is X, June will come back. If Jonathan kisses me, June will come back. If I can …., June will come back.

Our hurts are like that. Bubbling beneath the daily surface of our lives, waiting for us to release them. Waiting for us to shed our burdens of anger, shame, hurt, regret, and sadness. We need to forgive ourselves so we can get closer to forgiving others.

What would it be good for you to let go of?

Karma Ride: TorahCycle Vayeishev

KarmaRide 2013We’re all here for different reasons, working out our unique and evolving karma. But yours, mine, theirs are at core pretty much the same stuff even if the nouns, verbs, locations, and languages seem very different. My cosmology says we’re all learning the lessons of understanding and compassion. I may get hung up on one piece of it and you on another. So we get different stories to live and tell along the way.

Those stories are our lives. If you think of each incarnation as a going to sleep and waking up in a different dream, then we’re each here dreaming, trying to make sense of the imagery and lessons of those stories. Dreaming is the metaphor of this and next week’s readings: what we’re being told and how to make sense of it in ways that are useful.

Joseph, our new protagonist, has a wild ride. Like the spinning cups at the amusement park, knocked and jolted from every side, turning all the while in crazy loops.

His story this week: he’s daddy’s favorite son; full of himself; wears a distinctive “coat of many colors”; is gifted with prophetic dreams (in which he’s the boss and the hero); gets tossed into a pit by his jealous brothers, then sold into slavery; becomes the target of his owner’s wife’s affections; resists her would-be seduction; lands in jail; interprets more prophetic dreams; gets a reputation for being insightful and special.

It’s clear early that he’s not going to become a simple herder. There’s a star on his head (even if he painted it there himself) that says, Look at me. Big things coming.

Most of our journeys are less dramatic. We take longer to find our gifts. Sure, there’s the occasional Mozart, a prodigy at age six. But most of us come into our own more slowly, in stages, over time. Or even blossom late, like Grandma Moses. Our gifts are learned from all our stories, the joyous and the painful, the easy and the hard. The living dream of our journey.

Using Torah as an allegory for personal growth helps you see its archetypes as both for and about you. Instructive if not directly prophetic. A tool to help you get more from your process.

There was a recent radio story about people with the chance to choose one super power. The most popular were the ability to fly or to become invisible (with gazillion caveats, like How fast? or Do my clothes go invisible too?). Joseph’s super power is dream interpretation. What to others is a complex jumble of images or strange situations is for him a vivid and prophetic story.

Insight about what’s coming, or at least what energies are turning the gears, creates perspective. And as much as most of us wouldn’t choose slavery and prison, each piece of the journey helps him to where he’s doing. Ditto for you.

Even if you can’t fly, become invisible, or prophesize, think about what makes you special. How did you acquire and deepen those skills? How they can help you get closer to your goals? How can they help you make better choices on your journey?

All Night Long: TorahCycle Vayishlach

Vayishlach2013Let’s get clear. I’m not an advocate of no-pain no-gain. If anything, I honor the high arts of bargaining, denial, procrastination, half-measures, and prayer as sincere, even fervent, alternatives to doing what needs to be done. That’s especially true if the focus isn’t my creative jones du jour, or involves self-discipline in any but brief or minor forms.

Enough about my failings. What about yours? Do you step up and do what’s needed, without avoidance? When you’re given dictums like Eat less, move more; or, Save more, spend less, do you hop to or look the other direction?

This week finds Jacob travelling to reconcile with the brother he wronged. He’s laden with gifts and an army, hedging his bets, as most of us do. We offer our adversary (self or other) both carrot and stick, hoping one will work if the other doesn’t. [Note: What’s a strategy to us might seem foolish or random to an observer. Without consistency, insights are harder to discern. Sigh.]

Jacob wrestles until dawn with a stranger, an angel. A silent and important emissary of the divine. Part of the message: step up, and don’t give up. If you do, you risk staying stuck wherever you are in your process, like when someone yells “Freeze!” in a childhood game.

Continuing until dawn doesn’t ensure a decisive victory. Jacob ends up with a permanent limp. But his name is changed to reflect his commitment and a big chunk of his old bad karma drops away. The message: If you actually work your program, something will change. Not exactly as you might predict or wish for, but for the better.

I’m fascinated by the wrestling metaphor. Not the bombastic faux battles of cable TV. But with the premise that no matter where we go, we’re always gonna come face-to-face with our stuff.

If you ask me to summarize the personal growth story, soul-wrestling would be its verb. It takes place in many domains, from deep dreamland to cold light of day. We are invited and frequent visitors.

Your adversary may wear the face of a mysterious stranger or someone you know. May come at you in a red satin cape or a clown costume, with flowers or with a chain saw. May sound like your internalized parent, a disappointed partner, or an angry boss. But your real nemesis is always your own stuff.

The good news: When our procrastinating and half measures fail, when we’re on the run from our failings, our higher selves show up to change the channel. To give us a real wrestling match. To help us find what we’re made of. And to send us on our way with a deeper knowledge of our own strength and possibilities.

We don’t always hang in. We’re scarred and scared and we sometimes give up, say Uncle. It’s okay.

We still have lots of wrestling ahead of us. But this reading reminds us that it’s time again to go deeper. To embrace your resolve and your endurance. To work your program. Wear your scars proudly; give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. Then move forward not weakened by the struggle, but strengthened and renewed.

Here and Now: TorahCycle Vayetze

vayetze 2013

We all have sacred places. Places that make us feel completely safe, held. Places that expand our consciousness. That connect us with the world of the unseen, either by their majestic grandeur or their simple peace. As we go through life, those places and their talismans shift. Your crib and blanket give way to a special park or beach, or a magnificent vista. Any places that come with a special knowing and a healing resonance we respond to as sacred, and accord them reverence and appreciation.

This week’s reading finds Jacob on the road. He’s left his father’s house and his brother’s anger; he’s off to find a wife. The image of a stone shows up several times, early as a pillow and later as the memorial of a peace treaty. Both times, the sites are declared holy places.

Stones sometimes say Notice me! when I’m out walking. I especially like it when they appear as I’m wrestling with a problem, trying to gain insight and clarity. They come home to sit with others that said hello in the past.

Altars everywhere. That’s a lot of what Torah is about. Journeying from sacred place to sacred place. Finding them, recognizing them, naming them. Acknowledging both the divine presence and the reciprocity of that relationship.

This reading brings us the phrase Jacob’s Ladder, a stairway he dreams of, angels coming down and angels going up. Last week for Halloween folks had faux cobwebs everywhere, obscuring things. This is the opposite, a route of direct transmission. He calls it HaMakom, literally “the place,” as in God was in this place and I did not know.

HaMakom is a place to ask questions as much as to hear answers. There’s a quality about the asking, getting to the bedrock of your sincerity, that clears away all the extras.

The Hebrew word for angel is generally translated as messenger. And that’s ultimately what angels are. Bringing you what you need when you need to hear, see, or receive it. These messengers can be the person who stops to help you with your flat tire or the stone on your path.

We are those messengers too. Appearing in hamakom for one another as and when we are meant to be. Angels in our human skins.

In Nicole Krauss’s History of Love she says: Angels sleep unsoundly. They toss and turn, trying to understand the mystery of the living. They know so little about what it’s like to fill a new prescription for glasses and suddenly see the world again, with a mixture of disappointment and gratitude. Because being human is more complicated, more raucous, and more painful. But the more we engage with what we’re here to do, the more vital it feels to do it well and right. The more clearly we see.

Hamakom is not just your own little bubble. It’s all of our bubbles interacting at the same time. So it’s important to be here now. In hamakom. For you and for the rest of us.

Whenever stones or angels talk to you, listen up. Hamakom is wherever you go, wherever you are invited. It’s where you are right now. We’re always in hamakom.

Your Evil Twin: TorahCycle Toldot

Toledot 2013

We’ve all got them. Not just one; more like a handful. They usually appear as counterpoint to however we’re trying to be. Typically at inconvenient, even critical, moments. The shadow sides of who we aspire to become, even if we generally act more evolved.

There’s no mistaking when they show up. Like an anti-fantasy. You’re aiming for charming: out comes the truth teller or the boor. Need to be articulate or persuasive: stupid brain takes over. Your evil twin embarrasses you. It also steers you to self-sabotage, both active and passive, decisions both made and avoided.

To be clear, your evil twin might be something I aspire to. My best self might be someone else’s evil twin. We’re all here doing learning different lessons. So our shadow selves take different forms and bring different lessons.

This week’s reading’s about two brothers. Opposites: bookish vs. hunter, sly vs. forthright, strategic vs. wanting immediate gratification. The one who lies and cheats to gain an inheritance? After his own tough homework, he’ll transform into a revered patriarch. There’s hope for us all.

Torah’s enacted in a time when we lived more outside. Sat by the fire after dark. Looked at the stars and shared stories. Who a person was, was in part who they were told to be.

Who “you” are is how others speak and think about you, as well as who you feel on the inside. A gap between aspiration and action can exist even when it’s just you watching. But when your twin takes the wheel, your foibles are prime time.

We tend to see what we want and surround ourselves with folks that seem to like and accept us. If our shadow has little need to appear, we can coast pretty easily through our days. No need to look into our darker corners.

But each time your inner twin reaches for the foresworn chips or chocolate, picks a bad relationship, acts stubbornly, selfishly, or foolishly is a chance to look deeper. To ask what your hidden, hungry, unfulfilled self really wants.

We’re attracted to certain types of people or situations. We know when we’ve met our kin, whether that’s religion or voting pref, profession or sexual orientation. Your twin feels safe, and less likely to act up or out.

Other times we seem predestined to butt heads. Things and people that don’t fit so nicely, no matter how you might want them to. That electric bristling of not liking. Nothing seems to come out right. Murphy’s law condemns every word and action. What a playground for the evil twins!

These people and situations are in our lives to teach us. Yes, the lessons reflect a side of ourselves we’d rather not  be known for. But seeing and naming are good ways to bring your shadow into the light. Not always pleasant but necessary to grow,

Think about people and situations that push your buttons, where your not-best-self pops out of the woodwork. What do they have in common? Knowing will show you the parts of you that need more work and integration. They’ll almost certainly offer you more chances to do your karmic homework.

Let’s Talk Relationships: TorahCycle Chayei Sarah

Chayei Sarah 2013

When people kvetch or dream, the topic of their soul mate, true love, partner, or the absence of same is often high on their list of joys or laments. There are people who are well-loved and happy in their romantic life. Mazel tov. Other folks who are single and looking, hoping, and praying for love. Yet others partnered, but feel uncertain, taking  inventory and weighing possibilities.

There’s a great Hebrew song, Dodi Li, with the refrain, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. It’s sung about a relationship with the Divine, but it’s also about earthly love. Ditto the Song of Songs, evocative prose about passion, for one’s beloved and God.

Being loved matters. It’s embedded in our psyches. We yearn for its bountiful blessings. It’s about sensuality (where it often begins). It’s also about creating friendship, family, and ultimately about caring and support. A depth and duration of witnessing.

That’s the basis of this week’s reading: the death of a mother and the finding of a bride. In both cases the women are wise, compassionate, enduring, and loving. Not the first four words in most ads.

Some folks genuinely prefer to be single. Others can’t endure a month alone before coupling again. And a rare few met their life love early and stayed together. Most of us, however, have bounced unevenly through dating and relationships, and have a history of base hits, maybe even a home run, but also lots of swings and misses.

Is it because we’re looking for the wrong things?

The complex algorithms of cyber-dating notwithstanding, creating a good, strong, long-lasting relationship is work. Fact: I also write an advice column. Most people’s relationship questions boil down to two: How do I find and keep a good one? How do I dump or change a bad one?

My answer: look within. Look within yourself and look within your partner, prospective or actual. Look for a depth of heart and soul that makes you want to share your deepest truths. That makes you feel seen, accepted, and loved, as well as passionately alive.

Most folks go partner shopping with “lists.” Requirements and deal breakers. Everything from financial security to table manners, looks to profession. But nothing substitutes for chemistry. That sense of recognition you feel when you realize someone’s gong to be important in your life, whether it’s a teacher or a colleague, let alone someone to date.

Because we’re here to do that for one another. To inspire, to help, to teach, to excite, to listen, to share, to share laughter and adventures, and to say what needs to be said. To witness one another’s highest aspirations and deepest pain. To be there in triumph and in despair. As needed, without being asked. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

This week think about what you most value in your relationships. I’m talking family of choice and of origin. What do you care about most in the people you love? What do those who love you love most about you?

Try to be more of all those qualities, towards yourself and others. The practice will change you, in good and lasting ways.