Counting the Omer: Tipheret


Tipheret is the point of balance between chesed (loving-kindness) and gevurah (restraint). It is about the joy that comes from both working in balance. Tipheret’s about choosing what is best for the whole, not only for yourself or another. Tipheret is about compassion, beauty, and mercy. It energizes creativity. Tipheret feels and creates harmony. It feels like you have been blessed.

Ultimately tipheret is about the beauty and appreciation of ongoing creation. Sometimes this kind of creativity comes in an energized form, other times from peacefulness and contentment. Neither is better or worse. But you’ll understand tipheret best when you feel hardwired into what’s best and right with the world, and when evil or ugliness feel very far away.

Rabbi David Cooper uses the analogy of spooning whipped cream onto your dessert. If chesed had no balancing force you’d drown in it. With too much gevurah you’d get little or none. There’s a perfect equilibrium between sweetness and health that’s good for you. In Goldilocks terms, tipheret feels “just right.”

Think about walking a tightrope or climbing a ladder, to which Tree of Life is similar. Only by maintaining balance can you reach your true destination.

Though Tipheret represents balance, it is dynamic. Think white and red making shades of pink. Any pendulum will find its true center in time. But in your life, there’s not necessarily only one right answer, even dead center, because every situation is unique. Tipheret lets you try them on and see what fits and feels right.

Tipheret is about being kinder and gentler. Not in the unlimited love way of chesed, but in the sense of greater empathy and caring. You don’t have to give away all your worldly goods. But you should become more willing to share, and to forgive the transgressions of others. It’s about creating more calm, generosity, goodness, and well-being.

The dance of dialogue, even about troublesome topics on which people disagree, can be part of tipheret. It’s about learning to see an issue through another’s point of view and to become able to incorporate that perspective into your own worldview.

Tipheret is sometimes associated with the idea of a tzaddik, someone who goes through the world doing good, making wise judgments, creating peace and justice. These qualities are also associated with what are called the thirteen attributes of God or the thirteen attributes of mercy. They include compassion, mercy, graciousness, truth, being slow to anger, and forgiveness/pardon.

Tipheret is also associated with physical beauty. The sun bursting through clouds, or art, music, and poetry. You may be a conduit for beauty’s creation, or an admirer of the harmony and peace that it creates. It’s all tipheret when you feel it soften and open you.

Think about situations that make you feel balanced and in harmony. People or situations that engender your sense of compassion. Is it a process of actively energizing your chesed and your gevurah and then consciously creating balance? Or does it arise spontaneously in you?

What calms your heart and what excites it? Does it more often feel natural or like a goal? Are you satisfied or hungry for more? How can you help bring more tipheret into your life?

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.

Testing, Testing: TorahCycle Va’eira

Vaeira 2015When I was young and hospitalized, there was a toddler in the bed next to me. He spent most of the day and much of the night banging his head against the wooden sides of his crib. Surprisingly he didn’t howl in pain, as I certainly wanted to while witnessing his relentless, self-inflicted suffering.

I think about him sometimes when I’m castigating myself for falling short at something I’ve repeatedly tried to do. My efforts are often about physical or emotional healing. Things like strengthening my quads, lowering my blood sugar, or resolving an emotional interaction. If I fall short on my health program or fail to speak my truth, the image of this child sometimes shows up.

I’m not dumb. I know what I should be doing. As my mother once observed, in a painfully quotable moment “If you’re so smart, how come you’re _____.” Fill in your own blank with whatever you’re trying to heal from.

I think a lot about deep personal work. About what we have locked inside and what it takes to release it. About the pain and thrashing we go through along the way, whether that’s self-imposed or comes from the world.

This week’s reading has Moses and Aaron appearing repeatedly before Pharaoh, asking him to free the Hebrews. It’s the classic Let my people go! moment. To which Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart, and stays stuck.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew, mitzrayim, means “the narrow place. We’re each in our own narrow place and aiming for our own promised land. But they’re inter-connected. We cycle between times of light and dark. One question this reading raises is how long we’ll stay in those dark times and places. How long we’ll stay stuck, mucking about until we are ready to choose release.

The message is that you need to stop punishing yourself and others, both for your failings and your wounds. That you need to find compassion and forgiveness to move forward. To lighten up and heal. That means not banging your head against a wall, repeating the mistakes of the past.

Those emotions can be difficult to find and invoke, especially when the world feels hard and bleak, scary and unjust. When we face despair and fear, as in the wake of the terror in Paris, it is especially complicated to access our higher selves. It’s easier to bang our heads and scream, even if we are shouting into what seems like a dark and implacable void. Because it’s not just our own selves caught in this cycle of frustration and anger, but the societies we live in.

If we cannot heal ourselves, how can we possibly aspire to healing the world around us? My only answer: we gotta keep trying, and trying, and trying.

I don’t have any easy answers, or words any wiser than what have been said in the past week. I only know that it is important, even vital, for us each to do whatever we can do to stop screaming, stop banging, and stop hurting ourselves and one another.

It may all get worse before it gets better. But if we aren’t all trying to get better, it’s going to stay worse for much much longer.

Till Death Do Us Part: TorahCycle Chayei Sarah

Chayei Sarah 2013People with relationship issues tend to fall into one of two categories: How do I find and keep a good one? How do I change or dump a bad one? There are auxiliary questions of romance relating to finding/losing/mourning one’s true love. And a zillion issues related to communications, money, messiness, honesty, household chores, and bloopers.

I do know a handful of remarkable relationships. The sort we were weaned to believe in. The decades-long partnerships where both halves have grown and evolved in love and support of one another. Sure, they argue and disagree on matters great and small, but the testing anneals the bond rather than breaking it. It’s admirable and enviable.

Why don’t the rest of us have it? Why’s it so hard to find and nurture the connections that challenge, nourish, and enhance our bodies and souls in equal measure?

I wish I had easy answers.

Every single person who’s looking for a relationship has their own version of “the list.” Qualities that Mr. or Ms. Unknown will have as basic part of their core DNA, lifestyle, and character. The pretty much standard ones (in an order reflecting any given moment) are sensuality, integrity, intelligence, spirituality, communications, financial stability, and senses of humor, honor, curiosity, and common sense. A friend one told me one of hers was “forthright,” which I interpret in part as an absence of passive aggressive or whiny tendencies. The ability to disagree and not hold a grudge or desire to prove one’s point.

My own summary is Someone who appreciates my best qualities and tolerates my worst ones with patience and humor. (And hopefully agree on which is which.

Because let’s face it, we have gnarly places. Ways we respond when life doesn’t go our way. Attitudes and behaviors that make us and/or our loved ones crazy. I’m not talking about serious maladies like substance abuse, or petty annoyances like knuckle-cracking. More retreating to a gloomy corner or the frustrating ward-off of cheerful denial. The kinds of traits that make you feel a loved one is either remote or clueless.

This week’s reading has a servant sent on a mission to choose Isaac’s wife. What seals the deal is her compassion. That’s setting the bar at the right place. Because when the hot sensuality is less frequent and times are tough, what you want, or should, is someone who has the grace to approach life (and you) with equanimity and a sense of caring.

For your sake I hope you’ve had at least one great love. The kind that shakes your soul to the core. A red-hot, zappy, can’t keep your hands off one another that lasts until the end. A love you so much my heart hurts kind of romance.

But I also hope you’ve met the person who satisfies your list. The one you want standing by you in the daylight, both when life seems hard and you can’t make it through alone, and in times when you’re happy and excited about the possibilities life is offering.

Partners like that should be well-loved. I hope you are one and appreciate or find yours.

The Harvest of Our Lives: Sukkot 2014

sukkot 2014At the end of the day, what do you talk about, you and your soul? Do you get into the existential Why am I here? stuff, or do you think about how you’re doing with your chores, whether they’re simple things like chopping veggies for dinner or deeper tasks like taking a karmic inventory?

In the quiet of the day, what’s the conversation between you and you?

There’s a great holiday that starts this week, early in the Jewish calendar year and at the very end of the Torah cycle. It’s called Sukkot, from the word sukkah, which means booth. Traditional folks build covered shelters, as simple as a frame tented with fabric or wood and a canopy of thatch, harvest stalks, and reeds. They eat and sleep in them. The more observantly elastic take part of each day to meditate outside and share a meal with friends in a less formal sukkah.

The observance is a powerful mirror of the Passover holiday we celebrated six months ago.

Way back then we chose to leave mitzrayim, the narrow place, the symbolic land of constraint. We left slavery and went into the unknown. Now, after reaching our symbolic goal (and a new year), we take time to harvest the blessings of the land, give thanks, and take stock of the insights from our journey.

I’m not always a good practicing Jew. But I cherish the way Judaism organizes the year, the way it moves us inexorably through the cycles of self-examination and growth that so many of us profess to want to partake of.

I frame this writing on the weekly turning of the scrolls because I think that somewhere along the way someone got it right. That there’s a story here, and it’s a good one. That there are paths and processes and journeys that we go on. Spiritually. Emotionally. Intellectually. Physically. That what takes place in the material world happens in parallel in your soul. And if you pay good attention to your process you might learn something that’ll help make it easier/kinder/gentler and also deeper/more meaningful/spiritually valuable. If we all did that, this place would be happier/sweeter/more joyous. And all our paths would be paths of peace.

So if you and your soul aren’t talking, if you don’t think you’re here to learn/grow/improve and to find/create greater goodness and compassion, then what are you doing? Does it teach you or satisfy you? Energize you and open you?

I hope so. If not, then get on with figuring out what’ll give you the same bang for your karmic buck.

As we sit amidst the harvest of the season–the squashes that will sustain us this winter, the aromatics that will flavor our soups, the apples and pears that will sweeten our winter evenings–we give thanks for not only our liberation but for our arrival in this place of safety. Our ability to have perspective and quiet time. No more scrambling and searching and wondering. We have arrived.

At this turn of the seasons, in the oasis of whatever sukkah you choose, take a sweet moment to have a good heart to heart with your higher self. There is simply nothing better.

Who’s To Judge? : TorahCycle Shoftim

Shoftim 2014

Sorry to interrupt the sweet end of summer with tougher stuff, but the world has seemed an angrier place the last while. Hating and killing. Killing and hating. There’s lots of judging going on. Most of it landing in the I’m better than you are place, with its nasty and dangerous corollary So your life’s not worth as much as mine.

How does that kind of judgment get justified?

The God of Torah has basically one instruction: Do what I told you, or else…. Where the “or else” ranges from death to long years of painful exile. Which pretty much dooms humanity to the bad stuff, because if any one of us can’t get it right, how’re the whole of us going to? In theory we‘ll all be better and kinder in the time of a future messiah (think Hair’s Age of Aquarius). But in a Catch-22, no goodness = no messiah. So in the short run (and I’m talking millennia here) it’s pretty much crime and punishment, judgment and hatred, killing and being killed.

This week’s reading appoints judges and has various prohibitions. My favorite is the ban against “wanton destruction of something of value,” which can be anything from a fruit tree to a person. So how to justify the slaughter of tribes, then and now, when people have just been described as “trees of the field.”

We’re all guilty of judgment, whether it’s our own bad hair day to the wholesale condemnation of groups with different religions, skin color, politics, and lifestyles. We mostly do it with rhetoric rather than live ammunition. But by practicing judgment so regularly we become inured when it happens all around us. We forget that compassion breeds more compassion, while anger and judgment calcify and harden our hearts.

Yes there are unequivocally objectionable actions that require adjudication and punishment. In Torah the catchall justification for slaughter is the label “idolator.” It’s like a get out of jail free card. But in a more relativistic world, with lots of legitimate variations on truth, whether it’s in religion or choice of whom to love, what’s the responsibility of the community, the state, and of each of us, to make sure bad things don’t happen to good people, just because someone with a badge or a better missile system judges them as different?

When one of your kids justifies walloping a sib with He hit me first, do you respond with, Okay then, go ahead and pound the crap out of him? Or do you say Use your words? What works for children should translate at least a little to ostensibly civilized nation-states and to small-town police forces.

If I judge myself as having a bad hair day, it costs only some lowered self-esteem or the extra time for a wash and dry. Judging any group as the contemporary equivalent of idolators can have disastrous consequences, ones that raise the stakes for all of us. Who would you trust to make that judgment, and how would you feel if it was made about you?

If we’re going to have a planet to bequeath Generations X, Y, and Z, we’re going to have to start using more words and less ammunition.

The Path of Blessing: TorahCycle Naso


This week’s reading contains one of my favorite prayers: the Priestly Blessing. I think this prayer is at the core of our relationship with the divine.

It’s said at very special times in the Jewish calendar, though my memory is that it was said whenever I went to services. I think so because I reveled in hearing the deep-voiced rabbi bless us all, with both hands outstretched (in a way that mirrors the Vulcan salute that Spock gives on Star Trek when he says, “Live long and prosper.”)

The three lines are profound and powerful. The prayer creates a womb of love and protection for each and all. If you surrender to it, you’re filled with the feeling that nothing can harm you and that you are an extension of holy light.

Here’s what I remember from my childhood, with apologies to those who don’t like the G word: May God bless you and keep you. May the light of God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s face be lifted unto you and may all your paths be paths of peace.

Hard to have a bad day when you’re held in that.

The Priestly Blessing is about being illuminated from without, and of taking that holy light into your beingness, so you are also illuminated from within. Of having your holy spark rekindled. Of bringing that spark into every aspect of how you breathe and live.

That’s a whole lot of prayer rolled into three lines. And a direct key to the heart of why we pray: We want to be and feel loved. We want a divinity that will help us make and enjoy a life of protection and peace.

But the world’s not at peace. Even we aren’t always at peace, within ourselves or towards others. This blessing asks us to create peace so that we and everyone can enjoy it.

Shalom is one anchor of the prayer. The other is “graciousness,” an expansive, inviting quality untroubled by fear or desire. Most of us aren’t in that state often enough. Our prayers are too often about wanting something or avoid something. An ailment healed, or maybe help at work. A shiny red bike or its adult variations. Give me generally outweighs me giving you.

When our personal stories take up all our time and attention it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, what we’re here to do not only for ourselves but for others. If we’re reminded regularly to be, to truly let in HaShem’s light, something changes. We’re prompted to elevate our wishes for a more gracious world for everyone.

The Priestly Blessing offers us a safe place for the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. The ones we think no one ever sees, or that no one would love if they did. The ones we most fear might be wounded or misunderstood. The Priestly Blessing gives us the knowing that we will be loved and blessed regardless. It gives us hope for both inner and outer peace.

Does this blessing give you what you need? If you were writing the priestly blessing, what would it say?