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.

What’s It Worth?: TorahCycle Bechukotai

Bechukotai 2014When we make promises we expect to keep them. That’s not just blind optimism, though most often we fail at promises we make to ourselves, rather than others, whom we disappoint less regularly. It’s an expression of hope springing eternal, even if it’s unsubstantiated, even contradicted, by experience.

This week’s reading has instructions on valuing pledges made to HaShem. You know the kind: If you do/fix/make x y or z situation, I promise to be/do/act more or less _______ing.  I promise.

Generally these vows are made in circumstances of need–even desperation–acute or perceived. But there you are. Sworn. Pledged. Ostensibly committed. Some part of you has grabbed the wheel and given it a hard turn in the right direction. (P.S. And this time I mean it. I really do.)

I’m reading a great book on breaking through creative blocks and overcoming resistance: The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. As he says, it’s good for anyone who’s ever said they want to be more creative, start a new health regimen, cure an addiction, or tighten their abs. Read it. Please contact me immediately if it doesn’t mirror your own dance; I want to know your secret.

When you make a pledge you’re supposed to want to keep it. And then do so. This reading details how the loopholes are calculated: what it’ll cost to weasel out of your promise. Many are measured in market value with a 20% markup, though many of us would happily pay double to escape following through on what we’re not quite ready for. Please wait. We’ll start next Monday. Really. Trust us.

I recently organized an event. It was only a qualified success. But I tried. Planned. Did all the right stuff. Why? I had a vision. I was pledged. I had a passion. I made a commitment. I wanted to follow through, and I did.

So what’s the difference between that and say, starting and failing with a diet? What are we willing to put our energy behind, and what do we just give lip service? If we only give lip service over and over again, but never invoke energy, what’s the message? Would having to pay a hefty fine change your behavior? What stops you from following through on your promises?

Often life intrudes. Energies and events get in the way, whether they’re entrepreneurial surges or bouts of insomnia, planting your garden, falling in love, or caring for ailing parents. When they do, what happens to your vows? Do you hit the pause button? Or use them to help get you through the hard and busy times?

I think Pressfield is right: the more important what we’re trying to embrace and accomplish is to us, the more resistance we will encounter. There’s no enemy stronger, cleverer, or more persistent than the obstructions resistance can conjure. So be careful about what you pledge, because each time you do, the cost of not following through goes up. Like yo-yo dieting, you can make a problem worse by not actually dealing with it.

If you want to avoid the costs of delay and avoidance, your first pledge should be to overcoming resistance. If you want help with something, start by asking for that.

Time Off For Good Behavior: Parshah Behar

Behar 2014Admit it, part of fantasizing a beach vacation is the vision of kicking back to do absolutely nothing without a shred of guilt. You’ve earned it. Sit. Stare. Dream. Drink. Nap. No obligations to do or be anything but be limp and relaxed.

The sad irony is how hard it is to gift ourselves that luxury.

Academics have a great job perk called a sabbatical. Teach six years, then get one off (though research and writing are implied). Farmers do something similar: letting fields lie fallow so the soil can replenish. What comes after is supposed to be richer and more nourishing than what came before.

It requires prep and planning. But if you do it right, life is easier. Time to do…..whatever you want! In ancient Israel, produce was free for all each seventh year. In addition, after seven cycles of seven years, the 50th was called a jubilee year. In a jubilee year, slaves are freed. All of them, freed; poof, chains gone.

When you think about your life, are there times you step back and see the changes? The big cycles and evolutions? Not just in yourself but also in those around you. Seeing young men/women you knew as toddlers or high-schoolers suddenly becoming married and parents?

We get used to life in the day-to-day. There may be changes and bends in the road, but sometimes they’re subtle. Perhaps you’re changing so slowly you don’t notice or create a moment of conscious choice, but when you look back they’re very clear. There’s obvious exceptions like birthdays ending in zero or five, graduations, weddings, and the like. But when do you give yourself a big chunk of time to look around and feel where you are on your path?

The past month I’ve been living in a construction zone. A long, tedious process of deconstruction and site prep, and now the glories of beautification. A change from old to new, with a fallow time in between.

I’ve needed it, and love the bursts of creativity it has engendered. But before that came discomfort. Watching how s.l.o.w.l.y. people work. Surrendering control. Abandoning the known. Forced quietude. Lots more being than doing.

For the record, my meditation practice includes lots of watching quietly. Wood stove in the winter; yard and sky in summer. Each season has a different tune and soundtrack. Different rhythms, but the basic message is the same: Feed your soul.

That’s the core message of this parshah: Take the time to feed your soul.

Maybe you can’t do it for a whole year. But take at least a little time each day to sit and watch. Listen, and give thanks. Work up to doing it one day a week, say, shabbat. Find special times during the year to yourself periods of quietude and perspective. To slow down and be present.

You’ll spend some of your mental energy in the past or future. But there will come a depth of welcome silence that will nourish and replenish you, if you let it.

Summer’s coming. Your jubilee moments may include a hammock, a hummingbird feeder, and or a gin and tonic. Whatever brings you quiet bliss, sit back and drink in the luxurious vibes of your jubilant now.

Look What’s Coming: TorahCycle Emor

Emor 2014We talk about living in the eternal now. But anticipation adds spice to life. It’s exciting having something to look forward to. It’s good to know where you are in the immediate now of space/time. But it’s also useful, fun, and motivating to have nouns and verbs to describe the nows of the future. Their possibilities help keep us open, help us remember that more joy is possible, and help us prepare for the us we’re striving to become.

We tend to measure by what’s already happened, because even for the imaginative it’s harder to count backwards from a future we can’t predict with nuanced detail. But we’re complicated matrices of memories and habits, rituals and desires. We’re hardwired to anticipate events like birthdays and holidays, just like we tend to dig in our heels before work deadlines or dentist appointments. It’s physical as much as mental: If I say “long weekend,” your cells immediately fire up and smile; your pulse shifts up a gear, hoping for fun and relaxation.

This reading details the annual “callings of holiness.” It lays out weekly and annual cycles for being spiritually present. More than 130 days of the 365 are identified as times for various combinations of celebration, prayer, fasting, ritual, contemplation, atonement, study, making love, and giving thanks.

Economists generally use one-third of income as a benchmark for home/utility expenses. Imagine if you actually spent a third of your life in the habits and rituals of holiness. Not in a haphazard, grab-the-moment, isn’t-that-an-insightful/inspirational post or video kind of way. But in the committed, focused, sincere practice of goodness.

Studies repeatedly affirm that people with daily meditation practices are less anxious, more creative, and more compassionate. This reading outlines an annualized calendar for shifting focus from the simple daily palette of breath in and out to more complex patterns of observance.

Holidays and festivals break up the routines of our lives. They offer us chances to say thanks or ask for help in different ways. Prayer and gratitude in their many varietal forms.

I love reading Anne Lamott. She captures the essence of our relationship with the divine simply and honestly. If I could be the karmic love child of Anne and Rumi, I’d have my perfect writer’s pedigree. If you haven’t read Help, Thanks, Wow! and Stitches, buy or borrow them. They nicely summarize the importance of finding mean, hope, and repair, and using various forms of prayer as the punctuation marks of life.

That’s what the big calendar days do for us, whether we celebrate them with fireworks or shofar blasts. They help us affirm that in this now, we are witness to one another’s joy, suffering, striving, and triumphs. They help lift the daily weight off our shoulders, and reaffirm the value of silent prayer and singing songs that get in your head like cosmic earworms, humming your various chakras into time with cosmic rhythms.

Take a moment to mark your calendar with the big days coming up, from the personal to the societal, the spiritual to the familial. Mark them out the way you might an upcoming vacation. See how much depth, joy, and insight awaits you. I hope it makes you smile in anticipation.

Holy, Holy, Holy: TorahCycle Kedoshim

Kedoshim-2014I’ve always love the synergistic connection between holiness and wholeness. Many of us embrace the holistic paradigm, seeing the whole as more than the sum of its parts. In theory, we should see ourselves as whole and holy (and each holy me as part of a whole and holy us). But more often we go though life scratching at our most annoyingly repetitive parts, and forgetting to use our better and stronger ones.

In a wonderful old Woody Allen image he’s clutching a piece of land, bequeathed him by his Russian serf father. It’s about the size of a cupcake. But it’s “his” and he holds it fiercely. Preserving that small patch is like tending your ego self in your current lifetime. It takes lots of work to keep it whole. And to make it healthy And, oh yes, to become holy, or at least holier than you might often feel.

This week’s reading is about paths to holiness. My lazy person’s gripe with Leviticus has always been that’s all about rules. Rules and regs. Laws and rules. Do’s and don’ts. And then more and more of them. Mostly they’re a great collection how to treat one another, moral compasses, aimed at creating strong and civilized community, though some feel arbitrary. There’s certainly lots to remember, let alone follow

As lapsed addict Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco admits to her sponsor, I have a problem with authority. Most of us do. We display varied responses, from rebellion to sucking up. Mostly we create complex, idiosyncratic dances to convince ourselves that our moral virtue is intact; then we scurry home with our paycheck, promotion, kudos, or whatever we needed from authority.

But what if, instead of being opportunities to rebel or feel guilty, those rules and regs were useful and helpful? If they created a path pointing exactly to the sense of grace that you seek?

Sure, they’re a minefield of chances to screw up. But what if you could envision a whole/holy you on the other side? Someone worth the effort of becoming. That’s the bait of before/after pics in weight loss and gym membership ads. Follow this holy carrot to a new and better you.

But what if by being just a little holier, you could actually become that you?

And what if, instead of being forced, ruled, or regimented into the process, you moved towards it. If instead of shirking or shying away from the path, you embraced the doing?

I have a friend who says, Don’t start a diet unless you’re really excited about it. What if you got excited about tending your small patch of you?

You know your stuff (which I call karmic homework) and I know mine. We probably have some good guesses (and probably some wrong ones) about each other’s. But what if we actually lived in a way that helped us get to where we wanna go? What if we followed the rules and they helped?

My lessons for the next phase of my life: Get excited about my karmic homework. Enjoy doing it. Do it well. Trust where it’s leading me. How’s that sound to you?

Got Your Goat: TorahCycle Acharei Mot


shoftimThere’s an ancient image of the scapegoat that comes from this week’s reading. Two goats are selected: one is sacrificed, the other cast into the wilderness bearing everyone’s sins.

While you might prefer your odds in the desert to the certainty of the blade, it’s considered an honor to be offered up, and a sign of shame to symbolically bear everyone’s evil doings. It also contains the infamous passage of Leviticus 18 so regularly cited by fundamentalists decrying “deviance,” though it also includes prohibitions against many things that are commonplace in contemporary life.

It’s so tempting to point fingers. To create an ”other,” a person or group on whom to project the feelings and traits we’re uncomfortable carrying around ourselves. Folks to aim at and talk about. Them not Us.

I had a troublesome employee once. Her mood was a seemingly permanent state of truculence and wheel-dragging. Her big tell was that she always said you instead of we. The rest of us were all other to her.

It’s hard to imagine snuggling up to the them’s once we’ve laden them with all our sins. Much easier to ship them out and far away to be sure our paths don’t cross.

A custom in the Middle Ages was to load the town’s outcasts (perceived deviants, mentally ill, and heretics) onto boats, and ship them down the river. That’s where the phrase “ship of fools” comes from. It’s also the title of Katherine Anne Porter’s book about a boatload of people fleeing Germany in 1939, adrift in the Atlantic as WWII erupts.

The scapegoats, the unwanted, the goats who escaped with only their skins and what they could carry. My own grand-parents were on such a boat. Two hours into Brazilian waters, or they would’ve been turned back to the charnel house of Europe.

I find it interesting that this reading comes so close to Passover, when the Jews themselves go into the wilderness. Perhaps liberated from Egypt more than thrust out of it. But still entering a dry, relentless place. One where you cannot hide who you are or what you do behind your possessions or social status. A place where every night you are cheek and jowl by your neighbors and their tents. Seeing their sins and having your own seen by them.

We don’t really see the folks we brand as Other. We lump them together in an amalgam of stereotypes (for example: greedy, anti-ecological Republicans; menacing, black men; raucous, irresponsible youth). And once we’ve slapped a label on someone, it’s pretty easy to focus on all they ways they are different from us. They are well on the way to becoming our goat.

But what if we had to look at the them in us? If we had to acknowledge that we too are capable of every form of sin? That our love is someone else’s deviance. And our piety is someone else’s blasphemy.

We might become a little more tolerant and understanding, and a whole lot more compassionate. Not casting folks as other or them is a good first step. If you want a bigger jump start towards a more compassionate world, practice saying we when you talk about anyone else and see how it feels.

Brick By Brick: TorahCycle Metzora

SheminiThe protagonist of Stephen King’s novel Dr. Sleep has a deep, guilty, secret. He builds his life around it, hiding it in the foundation of his identity, always believing that no matter how much good he does, he’s still the guy who did That! When he finally spills in an AA meeting, something miraculous happens. He realizes everyone around him has heard and possibly done worse.

We don’t need to build our lives on a dark foundation. Better to build them with our best actions, and clean out old dry rot as we grow.

This week’s reading’s about ritual purification of a house with patches of red and green on its walls. The high priest assesses if it’s possible to cleanse or if it should be demolished. A house can mean a dwelling but it’s also a symbol for self.

For decades I thought in eastern metaphors. I would have said I was a Buddhist or Bu-Jew. A fundamental goal of many eastern religions is transcendence of the self. Goodbye to the idea of I/me. I’ve come to believe that there’s great benefit in elevation through self. Not in a chest-thumping ego way, but in a we’re-here-to-do-good way. So when I hear house, I think of self as our home base in each incarnation.

We’re here wearing earthly clothes exactly because we’re supposed to be working on earthly things. Cleaning up the place, energetically as well as ecologically, while we move our personal karma along. Helping out day by day, in both random and conscious acts of goodness.

You don’t need a scorecard to measure the good you do. It shouldn’t matter if you’re an activist or just in the right place and time to help. Whether you do a big deed or are a willing ear or shoulder to cry on, or a pair of helping hands for someone in need. However you make our collective self happier, sweeter, and more harmonious elevates your self and the rest of us. Your actions reflect the higher and better good, and raise the bar for all of us.

You and I and everyone we know have a unique and necessary constellation of talents and skills. Yes, plus all our foibles and habits and annoyances. But in the toolkit of us, we’ve got everything we need to cleanse this house of ours.

When you arc too far into greed, gluttony, or any form of darkness or sin, your ego attracts mold and dry rot. It doesn’t take a priest to see the changes in your personality, vocabulary, and day-to-day choices. The rest of us observe and feel it all too easily.

We build the houses of our lives brick by brick. By acts of kindness or acts of selfishness. By our caring or our indifference. Now’s a great time, right before Passover, to clean out the dirt before it does damage. Spring cleaning your character as well as your cupboards.

Start by looking for your old splotches. Then get out the bleach and begin paying better attention in each moment. If we can stay more conscious, live with greater awareness and intention, we might be able to prevent what we’d otherwise hide and then need to heal.

Cleaning Up Your Act: TorahCycle Tazria

Tazria 2014Yiddish has great onomatopoeic words for dirt/dirty: schmutz/schmutzadick. In case 10th-grade English didn’t kick in, onomatopoeia describes a word that is what it sounds like. In this case soiled or unclean.

This week’s reading is about cleansing body and soul (and your clothes along the way) when your body shows visible evidence of sin. Bleaching away what defines you as having done wrong. In this case getting rid of spots–which could be anything from psoriasis to leprosy.

When we’re teenagers, spots are usually hormone-related. Hormones are a great source for sinful thoughts, regardless of age. In adulthood our bad actions cover a broader range, though the spots are usually less visible.

Although most of our secrets are less dark than we fear, we do work to keep them hidden. If someone gets too close to uncovering them, we might become insular, grumpy, or even angry, act the jokester, or use another form of hyper-drive to diffuse our distress.

But what if you couldn’t hide evidence of your misdeeds? What if your spots were there for everyone to see? If you were ritually declared unclean? What then?

In this story the afflicted is Miriam, Moses’ sister, accused of the seemingly mild sin of having gossiped about him.  Officially the bad action is l’shon hara, speaking badly of another, from disparagement to rumoring.

There’s the story of a rabbi who takes the town gossip to a windy rooftop and has her slash open a feather pillow. Imagine, says the rabbi, if each feather was a story you told. Could you undo what you have done?

True or not, what is said in a moment can change how we think of someone for a lifetime.

Our inner judgements are no less damning. Our inner lady Macbeth, walking around muttering, cursing, and praying for the damn spot to be Out! Out!

When our misdeeds are recognized (or their telltale flags, the spots, become visible) we are shamed and lose social standing. But there’s a formula for cleansing, and then re-admittance back into the tribe. Slate wiped clean. Like the kid toy where you raise the cellophane and your picture disappears. Or its modern equivalent, the delete key.

Would you be willing to endure public acknowledgement that you’d done something wrong (even if folks didn’t know what) and a week of isolation, to earn that clean, refreshed screen? And remember that if folks are gossiping about what you might have done, they risk earning spots of their own.

Imagine a world where you didn’t gossip about or judge others and they did the same for you. What if we could choose this, instead of having it decided for us? What if we could devise a cleansing ritual that got us to the same place?

Judaism has the mikveh, a ritual bath, three times fully immersed in water, releasing the past and the future, then committing to being fully present. Can you imagine your own version of that? Can you imagine it working? It might not clean up acne or the past, but it could lighten your soul, and your preoccupation with what you’ve done that wish you hadn’t.

Can you imagine a world free from spots and judgement?

Playing Fair: TorahCycle Shemini

ChukatEvery year when this reading rolls around, I feel like the cranky neighbor your parents warned you about when you were a kid, the one shaking my fist and muttering about how unfair life is.

Quick plot summary: Two of Aaron’s sons enter the holy of holies with what we’re told is “strange fire” and are zapped dead. Every year I look in vain for some fine print to make this story more palatable.

The majority of rabbinic commentators assert they were killed for disobeying the rules and regs of priestly behavior. They’re castigated for being young and impetuous, possibly drunk or stoned, and generally impious. A minority offer up the possibility that their eagerness to serve was rewarded by instant graduation to their next next, whether you think that’s heaven or reincarnation.

Every year I ask: Short of harming a living being, how the *&%$^&%* can there be any wrong way to pray? To honor creation? To give praise and thanks, or even to ask for help?  That covers most of our convos with the invisible divine. It would be a short life if we got zapped for them.

There’s an old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any club that would admit him. My corollary: I don’t wanna belong to any religion that believes there’s only one right way to do things. That goes for fundamentalists of every stripe, from spiritual dogmatists, to food or fashion police, or any my-way-or-the-highway true believers.

One of the questions I asked in a recent class was, What are your personal spiritual values? Some of mine: I believe in goodness, and our individual and collective right and responsibility to practice goodness often. We should be trying to find and follow paths that heal what is hurt or broken in ourselves and others, paths that help make us more whole and holy.

It’s the logical extension of Think globally, act locally. You’re as local as it gets.

In the new Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson did a great job of locating earth and humanity in space/time. We have a similar responsibility–each cellular constellation of you and me–to navigate our holy spark through the same cosmos.

We may just be teeny specks in a gigantic universe, but we are conscious and holy ones. Our prayers are an instinctive desire to connect with other holy sparks. It doesn’t matter much to me if they are human or divine. We’re intrinsically good and should treat ourselves and others as though we are. We all deserve that.

Being human means we’re fallible and prone to all manner of blowing it, from putting self-interest first to inconsistency, denial, or fear. So despite our best hopes, we don’t always choose the right path. But most of us are trying to get it right, or at least better, and our enthusiasm shouldn’t be so harshly punished.

I have a friend who leaps into exercise regimens with vigor and passion, though sadly without stretching. She cycles through workout-injury-recuperation (the sound track is exultation-anger-frustration). But she’s trying. Hard.

The moral I want from this story is that every nanosecond of trying is good and worth it, no matter the short-run outcomes. Teach your soul to play the long game and believe it’s worth doing.