What Do You Do With A Do-Over?: TorahCycle Beha’alotecha

BehaalotechaGolfers have this great concept called a Mulligan, named, I assume, for the guy who whined/cajoled his play buddies until they let him take his shot over without a penalty. We’ve all done, or certainly wished for, the same. Would that all our mistakes were confined to the world of recreation, and had such benign consequences, and that we could self-declare the moments when we wished to invoke our do-overs.

In this week’s reading, the Israelites who’d been considered impure during Passover ask for a chance to make up their missed opportunity to give offerings. In another section, the people complain they’re sick and tired of manna and ask for meat to eat. For the record, manna can taste like anything you want it to, from carrot cake to lobster. Okay maybe not lobster, but whatever kosher delicacy you can conjure. You may hold and ingest the same glumpfy stuff every day, but you’re supposed to be able to transform it into something that satisfies your imagination as well as your nutritional needs. But apparently that wasn’t enough. If it looks like manna, even if it doesn’t taste like manna, it’s still manna. And even though you don’t have to do anything more than pick it off the ground each morning and eat, we’re a grumbly greedy lot.

Where from, this perpetual desire to have things better and better? Why do we suffer from FMS (fear of missing something)? And why do we whine for more or different when our lives are abundant and filled with blessings?

Someone once told me the UN definition for sufficiency of life. It’s roughly: a safe place to sleep, a choice of food, and a means of transport other than your feet. Look around your world and see how it stacks up. I’m betting on the high side.

I’m not suggesting we live in a permanent state of guilt over our comparatively fortunate lives. But I am strongly advocating that when we reflexively reach for more, or complain about the lots and lots we have in our hands, we’d be far better off taking a couple of deep breaths and a time out for some introspection and gratitude.

It’s also the perfect opportunity to practice some generosity. One of the organizational pillars of Judaism is tzedakah, which is translated more as righteousness and justice than charity. It’s meant to be done with an open heart, and without concern for future payback or reputational glory. The benefits accrue to the giver as much as to the receiver.

The next time you get a chance for a Mulligan, go past taste buds, personal comfort, ego and desire. Stretch a little. Think about someone other than yourself and the narrow circle of those you usually care for and about. If you have manna, share it. Ditto for money and time. Do some volunteer work. Clear through your possessions; then donate to those with less. Offer up what you can afford to, and add in some more. Help your tribe and your life become less grumbly and more caring. Who knows, maybe you won’t need more Mulligans in the future. You’ll be part of a happier and more satisfying flow.

What Do You Bring to This Party?: TorahCycle Naso

Naso 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You know what it’s like at a potluck where everyone’s brought the same thing. Cheese/crackers or dessert have a time and place, but sequencing and variety are more interesting, nourishing, and tastier.

In this week’s reading each of the tribes bring offerings to inaugurate the altar on different days. Each is described individually but they are the very same gift. What’s this trying to tell us?

Our DNA tints our hair, skin, and eyes. The circumstances of birth impact our material comfort. But each of us is here working out very individualized karma. We create families and friend networks, communities and tribes, each to help us solve and reveal a little more of the mystery.

Our lessons interact with one another in a splendid and intricate dance. It’s staggeringly complex, a little scary, and very beautiful. The word for this is awe, which in Hebrew is y’ira, a word that intertwines jaw-dropping gratitude with healthy doses of Yikes!

Only in brief moments do we even get brief insights into how the whole system works. Unless of course we get enlightened, and then, I’m told, there are no more questions. Just deep/broad wisdom and understanding. Plus lots of cheerful smiling, if the Dalai Lama is a good example. For the rest of us, regular karmic homework. More or less in any given moment. But minute by minute, passage by passage, Spirit invites us to grow.

This happens to us as individuals and as part of the collective. We do our work dancing with and tripping over one another. Friend and foe. Ally and nemesis. Lover and enemy. We have more in common than we sometimes remember when we dispute politics or religion. But each action, each thought, each prayer is another heartbeat in our being-ness and evolution.

There was a great FaceBook post the other day (apologies for length): Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story. Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU. It’s enough. It’s Plenty.

This it our party and, like in the classic went-to-school-naked dream, we’ve all shown up in our karmic birthday suits. We can bring all the offerings we want. But they won’t buy us a pass on any of the terror, thrills, tragedies, and blessings of being here.

No RSVP required. You’re here. Let’s dance.

 

 

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?

What If? : TorahCycle Tzav

KarmaRide 2013If you ran the world, how would it spin?

Everybody’s idea of happiness is different. (For some clues about how different, take a handful of buzzworthy quizzes.) Your idea of relaxation might be a four-star beach; your friend’s could be backpacking. You might aspire to being a musician or a CEO. Another’s dream is being a priest, a seeker whose job is to make ritual and to bless.

This reading tells us about the seven-day purification process for Aaron and his sons to become priests. But because I think this whole story is really about/for us, it suggests how to shed whatever’s keeping you from living not just holier but happier.

So, what would make you happy?

Most folks want to change something: from their bodies to a bad job, an unhappy relationship, or an unhealthy habit. We hope the payoff will be a better life, a good life. I’d like to expand the “good life” to be more than a satisfied sense of achievement and self-indulgence. I’d like it to include goodness in the moral and ethical sense.

One of my favorite bumpers stickers has always been If you want peace work for justice. Collectives, whether they’re tribes, nations, or political parties, tend to have goals that seem complicated. Individuals are easier. They mostly want to be happy. To not have to fret about safety, love, or money. To know the bills will get paid, that there’ll be food on the table, and that the house and kids are squared away. That there’s hope for the future.

Social equity breeds peace. Happy people are less likely to fight or kill.

If you decided to initiate yourself as a happier person, what would it take? Making and keeping vows? Making more time for your own priorities? Doing more for others? How would you do it and how will you know when you’re there?

The classic Buddhist answer is to shed desire. But for most of us there’s always one more nagging gimme, big or small, profound or silly.. The classic Jewish answer is similar: be happy with the life you’ve got. See everything that happens to you–no matter how undeserved or painful it may sometimes feel–as a chance to step up and show your faith.

Those may be the enlightened views, but small steps are a great start. Happiness with ourselves can amplify our caring and compassion for our friends and neighbors. And happier, more satisfied, people make this a better planet to hang out on.

We’ve all seen zillions of internet and email promises of Just 10 steps to [insert goal]. They generally include buying vitamins or pills, CDs, or books. But what if, as this reading suggests, taking seven days to focus on initiation could actually change you. Commit to doing any one thing, and actually stick to it. You might not become a priest, but what if you could become more/less  _____________?

What if you committed to one change for the next seven days, just to see how you’d feel on the other side? Nothing dramatic, just a single right step, repeated consistently. I’m going to do it, and pay good attention along the way. Please join me.

Yes, Me: TorahCycle Vayikra

Va'eirahThe most common answer from kids to Who Did This?!? is Not Me! It doesn’t change much as we grow up.

We’re quick to put distance from our flaws and failings, especially once they’ve been discovered. We try hard to be noticed for achievements, but are often surprisingly shy to accept praise, even when it’s well-deserved. Such a strange mix of seeking on the one hand, and hiding on the other.

Who did this? Not me. Ummm……., Yup, me.

We need to take credit for the good we do, and responsibility for the not-so-good. It turns out better in the end. Dodging rarely does, as politics often proves: It’s not the misdeed that screws you, but the cover up.

This week’s reading, the first of Leviticus (a book primarily about laws and rules) is about what to do after we’ve done wrong. Atonement rituals, specifically sacrifices, for spiritual transgressions, bad actions, and sins real or even merely possible.

Lots of places to set the bar. And many bendy, twisty things to do once you get there. I’m a metaphorist, so words are as real to me as offering up critters or grain. I’m hoping sincerity counts on the scales of justice, as well as literal sacrifice.

Regardless of form, it’s useful and healing to have atonement rituals. You might get there by truly saying Sorry, by making a peace offering, or by sacrificing in measure and kind, or with your time and energy. All to wipe the slate clean, or at least cleaner.

The first step is simple and necessary: taking responsibility for your words and deeds. First to yourself–in whatever squeaky voice of conscience you use. And then to whomever you’ve wronged. Even when it stings, it feels good to raise your hand and say Yes, me. And then to do what needs to be done.

We know we’ll feel better on the other side. So why’re we so slow to raise our hands?

I think because we’re used to hugging the midline. Dodging blame even when it’s due, and ducking praise even when it’s well-earned. We may feel guilty for saying Not me when we need to. So when we’re appreciated, we’re more modest than we should be.

That’s how karma accretes. Like a snowball getting bigger as it rolls downhill, the layers that shield our holy self grow each time we don’t step up. Jewish mysticism calls these layers klipot. Think of them as husks or veils. Coverings that conceal your inner holy spark. Every time you do anything less than be your highest and best self, you add more klipot to your holiness.

These rituals help thin those layers. They’re meant to happen soon after we blow it, not to wait for the annual fall confessional, when we core dump all our sins. Don’t wait; step up now.

There are wonderful website and postcard projects where people can take their darkest secrets and toss them overboard with anonymous confessions. Not as direct as an apology, but a good first step in saying Yes, me.

However big or small your sins, imagine how much lighter you’d feel if you did that. How much brighter would your holy spark shine? How much happier would you be?

Holy Wow: TorahCycle Yitro

Chukat

We all have forms of practice. Spiritually obvious ones like daily meditation or prayers, and more grounded forms like running or gardening. Leaving Egypt is like getting your K-6 certificate for doing a good job with your practice, so far. It’s a big deal.

So what do our guides do?  Give us a recess or two to figure out the lay of the land and the new us we want to be? Nope. We’ve barely got our feet on the trail and we’re catapulted to the holy of holies. A chance to seriously up our game.

Sinai imagery is of thundering sound from a cloud and lightning shrouded mountaintop. Hearing color. Seeing sound. Every sense askew from both message and delivery.

How about you? Do you want your next batch of lessons to arrive by knocking your doors off? Or do you prefer a process that guides you carefully, even gently, to greater insights and blessings? Do you want those lessons to deepen who you already are, or to challenge you to become different?

Torah talks about our physical senses being shattered open by revelation. The sacred geometry of mind and matter is complex and not under our direct control. But I get regular affirmations that what we think affects what happens in our lives, both for good and ill. We can’t make things happen, but when they come we can decide whether to welcome or run from them.

At its core, the Sinai experience is about deep kavannah, commitment and intention. Intention in a multi-dimensional, seven chakras at a time way: Yes. I’m all here and all in.

To reassure those who aren’t always so ready: in the story, the people close their eyes, cover their ears, and beg Moses to serve as their interlocutor. But for an instant, we each had a chance to say a profound Yes.

Buddhism teaches the importance of preparing for death. For the “go towards the light” moment between nows when you can shape your karma and consciousness. That moment’s also about intentionality and choice.

Mantra: Each choice matters, and impacts what happens next.

The big choice is choosing intention. This reading asks, What’s it gonna take to get your attention? A Holy Wow, a sweet arm around your shoulder, or something else? The universe has many ways, from kind to sly, even scary, of knocking on our doors. Some ways we neither invite nor welcome. But it also responds well to commitments that are deep and true. That align your holiest self with your deepest intention.

Get clear on what you want so you can start asking for it.

I welcome holy moments, but haven’t always accepted the responsibilities that accompany their invitations. As I age, I increasingly value the importance of listening to these messages, whether they come with trumpets or as whispers, as subtle hints or with clear instructions about what to do and how to live.

My advice: The next time you’re scared and want to cover your ears and eyes, instead embrace the idea that what’s happening is for your highest good. That it’s an opportunity to jump tracks, up your game, catapult yourself in the right direction. Then open your hands in gratitude and say Yes.

 

 

Second Chances: TorahCycle Noach

Noach 2013There’s a great health prayer that gives gratitude for body parts appropriately open and flowing or closed and contained. It’s really about sufficiency and balance, the harmony of a smoothly functioning system. Excess or blockage can create chaos, as we’re told happened after creation, with generalized self-serving corruption.

Some excesses, large or small, are a source of joy. Falling in love. A beautiful day. Sublime music. A clean house and a good book. Heading out for an adventure.

But highs are often countered by lows. Being dumped. Traffic jams or flat tires. Leaky roofs. Not enough of whatever you think you need to be happy.

This week’s reading’s about what happens after excess. A total reset. Wiping the creation slate clean and starting over. When it happens to you, it’s easy to feel like the folks in the post-Katrina or –Sandy pictures. The forlorn survivors, standing in matchsticks of rubble, as far as the eye can see. Few volunteers to be that poster child.

Our lives are rarely one smooth arc.  We go through many cycles of joy, excess, loss, hope, and renewal. Over love, jobs, homes, births, deaths. Often much more trivial endeavors. Our lows aren’t as brutal as global devastation, but when you’re hurting and weeping, no matter the cause, it can feel that hard.

When we careen too far in one direction, we tip the balance, inviting in lessons that, if we were paying better attention, we might learn without having loss and pain come as teachers.

Chances are you’ve bumped into those lessons before. That they’re the ones, no matter how well you do with your other karmic homework, that you just can’t quite seem to get out from under.

You might see the storm clouds coming. External circumstances pushing you towards some edge. Or your own emotional patterns steering you onto the rocks. The universe is filled with hints and foreshadowing. But, if you’re not paying attention, you can get pretty wet before you find dry land again.

Most of us have good instincts about what’s important to our happiness, whether that’s body, mind, heart, or spirit. Think about the yin and the yang of what matters to you. What you’d really need to create your next world. Bring that on board. Then release what’s ready to be washed away as you enter the ark of your future.

Most of us won’t see doves bearing divine messages. But hopefully you’ll learn the markers of better decision-making and know what to do next.

At the end of the Noah story, the rainbow symbolizes the divine promise that devastation will never again be so total. Translation: once you’ve tanked, there’s nowhere to go but up. You’ve earned another chance to get it right. Another chance to get clearer about how you want to live.

Take time this week to think about the next cycle of your adventure. What do you want your life to be about? What parts do you need to shed, to say Thanks but good-bye? Which to heal and improve? To invest in, give voice, learn from? If you can contemplate the answers with more curiosity than fear, hooray for the promise of this next round.

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?