Knock, Knock: TorahCycle Vayeira

Vayeira 2014Much of lot of Torah is about recognizing and responding to messengers. Messengers and messages that come in various forms. It’s easy to imagine holy messengers looking like white-robed angels. In fact, the Hebrew word for angels is malachim, which translates as messengers.

They come bearing news and pronouncements, instructions and even commands, both joyous and dire. They’re interpreted as performing divine errands. But they’re not on call to you. When you might want them to save or guide you, they can be absent or silent, no matter how much you search, ask or plead.

Who do you listen to then?

This week’s reading has several important moments, with messengers and otherwise. It’s almost a distillation of Torah, framing questions about who one listens to when, how far one is willing to go (in obedience to a god or a spouse), and the generational consequences of those decisions.

In the ultimate supremacy of hospitality, Abraham interrupts a conversation with the divine to welcome three strangers who approach his tent. They are, of course, angels come to bless him and his ostensibly barren wife with news of a child to come. The stories in this reading seed centuries of Middle East conflict: Ishmael/Isaac and Hagar/Sarah, the ancestors of warring tribes, nations, and faiths. It also presents the almost sacrifice of Isaac, interrupted by yet another holy messenger.

Too often we’re shown Abraham acting, but not deliberating, even though he’s confronting serious issues that have deep and long-range consequences. It’s certainly not how I consider far smaller decisions, and contrasts mightily with the bargaining he does to try and save Sodom. What’s the pointing finger trying to tell us?

The metaphor of child sacrifice is scary and compelling. I read it as  putting us eyeball to eyeball with our values. About knowing which voice to follow in very difficult circumstances, albeit of our own making. The whole process that we’re engaged in as humans is about pushing ourselves to understand our true values, and how we’re going to live as a consequence of embracing them. That goes for daily life and bigger things, like elections. If we believe something we need to act to keep it alive.

One of my friends said recently, Nothing important in my life has ever happened where I didn’t hear a call. I feel the same. I’d like to think that if an angel hadn’t appeared Abraham would’ve decided a loving god would not actually require him to kill a child.

I believe in holy resonances but I also believe they’re here to teach us by offering opportunities to step up. In any given moment you have to decide where the lines is that you will or will not follow or cross. Just because you walk down a path doesn’t mean you have to follow it to the sad and bitter end. You get to write your story.

The point is to notice when the messengers and messages arrive. Then to listen very carefully.

You get to decide what you believe in. All the rest is pointing and whispers and hints. And if you are lucky sometimes a great big cosmic pat on the back.

I’m Sorry: Yom Kippur 2014

YK-2014On any given day, what I believe may differ from the day before. I’m pretty consistent about basic physics. Gravity, for example, is easy to discern and trust (except in airplanes). My personal mash-up of faith has some reliable components. I believe in synchronicity more than randomness. No white-guy-on-a-throne. But though I believe in prayer, I couldn’t explain it with prepositions like to or from. I think we’re collectively spirit, and that our actions matter. That karma happens, but don’t look for linear examples of it. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to people who don’t seem to deserve them.

Although we’re trying to do good and better, we often blow it. Individually and collectively. I’m not talking about failures to give up cigarettes, carbs, or cocaine. I’m talking about the ways we treat one another on a daily basis, both those we profess to care about, and the rest of humanity.

Judaism has a great annual ritual for acknowledging our lapses, and for asking for forgiveness. It truly doesn’t matter whether you’re asking for it from an external energy or from your own conscience. What’s important is to acknowledge how you’ve not lived at the highest level of personal integrity. To clear the slate and do better the next 364 days.

The process happens on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starting this year the eve of October 3rd. We say a very specific prayer accompanied by literal pounding of fist over heart. It’s chanted as and in the collective, in part to mask our individual lapses, and also because we act as witnesses to one another, and to the idea that as a community, a tribe, and a global family, we’re each part of a spiritual ecosystem that cannot heal until we all do.

Each phrase is prefaced with For the wrong we have done before you…. and interspersed with the request Please forgive us, pardon us, and help us atone. Read it slowly, thinking about your own hits and misses, and your ability to atone, forgive yourself , and to do better more often.

For the wrong we have done before you….

  • In the closing of the heart,
  • Without knowing what we do,
  • Whether open or concealed,
  • Knowingly and by deceit,
  • Through the prompting of the heart,
  • Through the influence of others,
  • Whether by intention or mistake,
  • By the hand of violence,
  • Through our foolishness of speech,
  • Through an evil inclination,
  • In the palming of a bribe,
  • By expressions of contempt,
  • Through misuse of food and drink,
  • By our avarice and greed,
  • Through offensive gaze,
  • Through a condescending glance,
  • By our quickness to oppose,
  • By deception of a friend,
  • By unwillingness to change,
  • By running to embrace an evil act,
  • By our groundless hatred,
  • In the giving of false pledges.

The focus of the Jewish High Holidays is a process called t’shuvah, return. We’re aiming for a clarity of soul and purpose, a re-commitment to living with integrity, honor, goodness, and compassion. And to creating a world of peace. Amen.

Anybody Home?: TorahCycle Pekudei

Toldot

When I was in high school, my father, much to my chagrin, began answering the phone saying Nobody home!, mostly in jest but also implying prospective friends or dates too flummoxed or intimidated were people with whom I should not socialize. (This the same guy who, invited to a boring relative’s three months out, intoned gravely I’m sorry, I have a funeral.)

These days when we say Nobody home, we’re usually referring to what we politely call a “senior moment,” a confusion/absence of facts or names, one or many synapses misfiring. We’re so in the moment we can’t add more to it, or so “out to lunch” we can’t cope with what’s already on our plate.

So how do you know if there’s somebody home or not?

In this reading we’re told “HaShem’s glory” descended to fill the mishkan and will hover over it in a cloud as a sign of God’s presence. If the cloud rises in the morning, time to pack up and get shlepping. If the cloud remains low, a day to stay put. HaShem will also keep a fire burning in the mishkan each night.

Hearth fires give security. Very different than being out in the dark wondering what’s too near, eying us with predatory intent. The fire mean’s God’s home and with you. No matter what’s circling, you can feel safe and protected, if you believe HaShem is home.

How can we know as clearly when we’re really present? Having our brains respond accurately is a good start. Other parts showing up help too. If we’re talking I might hear your words. But that doesn’t guarantee I really understand you, or that I’m ready to help. I may hear that you need something, but unless I open my hands, my wallet, or my heart, you might think nobody’s home.

So if we’re not always fully present—for whatever reasons–why would we assume the divine presence is always on tap? Cloud, schmoud! Couldn’t it be smoke and mirrors?

Q: How do you know anyone’s really home in the mishkan?
A: It’s partly a matter of faith. But if you’re not at home in you, it won’t much matter.

More answer: To live with greater awareness and intention, you have to be home in yourself, regardless of what/who is outside you. You need a strong center, though not one that’s housed in too strong an ego. You should be at least as receptive as you are active. Working on your karmic homework while listening for the help that’s offered you regularly.

How? To really connect with HaShem, not just sidle up to the reassuring presence of the fire or the cloud, you have to really be home in your inner mishkan. You need to listen with your heart and soul as well as with your ears. If you’re thinking too much about your t-shirt dyed pink in the wash, you’re unlikely to hear divine insights, even if they’re telling you how to bleach it–or your soul–white again.

Final answer: If you’re at home with you, HaShem is too.

Mercy, Mercy: TorahCycle Ki Tisa

Vayeira 2013Have you ever done something so bad you thought you’d never be forgiven? Not a small thing, but something you thought, maybe even swore, you’d never do?

That’s what the Israelites do this week, while waiting for Moses to descend Sinai. They get impatient, worry he might not come back. They violate the No other gods commandment, and smelt their gold into a golden calf. It’s not as small as Don’t think about X and then doing so obsessively. But it’s a helluva lot more than We were restless. Hard to stay calm when your mind keeps chewing over  the insufficient calming of Don’t worry. Be patient..

I just finished two books about guilt and shame. About actions taken which dominate the lives of the people who did them. Both Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands are good reads, though it’s tough living inside the heads and hearts of people in chronic emotional pain. Each needs to find a road to redemption. A way to start over is lots harder and more important than dialing up a pizza or a Netflixx movie.

It means finding and accepting forgiveness. In this story it’s gonna take a coupla generations and forty years of schlepping. A road, a long one, to the promised land. Moses, pleading for them, gets HaShem to say yes to coming along as witness, guide, protector.

Interestingly this same reading includes the thirteen attributes of mercy  (rachamim in Hebrew, a lovely sounding word), including compassion, mercy, graciousness, truth, forgiveness, and pardon.

Imagine if those qualities organized your life, your head, and your heart. Imagine a world slow to anger. Imagine yourself slow to anger.

When Moses returns, his face is so touched with holy light that the people, albeit guilty and ashamed, cannot look directly at him. His face also gets red with wrath as he breaks the tablets.

There was a great NPR riff the other day (though it may have been on Bluff the Listener) about an app that lets you see what someone else sees when they’re watching you. How you look when flushed with joy, red with anger, or blushing in shame. A chance to witness yourself as others see you.

My family didn’t do anger with sound. Instead people retreated to their corner with a book. No eye contact. The app would not have shown their inner turmoil, that churning of anxiety, guilt, and fear of future consequences, even if apologies were said and officially accepted.

External forgiveness is great. But it doesn’t really take hold until you forgive yourself. Imagine extending the thirteen qualities of mercy towards yourself. Imagine being able to bathe in them, wash clean your bad choices and your mistakes. Whatever you said or did not undone but cleared of its power to influence your next forty years. Imagine mercy that releases their hold on your heart.

It takes time for a new equilibrium to settle in. We’ve all learned from our personal shlepping that the road is rarely smooth and level. There are always more tests, reality checks large and small, to test our resolve. But if we let mercy in, and our commitment to change is strong, we can move from this now to a better next.

Put On Your Robes: TorahCycle Tetzaveh

Tetzaveh 2014

This week’s reading has very detailed instructions about priestly vestments. Think special in the way of prom and wedding dresses. Clothes we wear for high occasions, for initiations, and that ready the wearer for ritual. In this case, white linens and a jeweled breastplate, and rituals of atonement and renewal.

Torah names a select few, and one High Priest, as initiated and elevated. In my cosmology, humanity is a nation of priests, each for another.

Some days I can see my robes and on other days yours. When it’s yours, I transcend knowing you don them on one arm at a time, just like I do. Instead I listen up, and can hear deeper truths from you about how I’m off-track and screwing up, or doing well, making good choices. I credit your stories with more authority.

Most problems in life come when my non-robe-wearing self butts into your non-rob-wearing self. If we could remember who we really are, we’d be less easily annoyed and frustrated by what’s said. We’d listen better and argue less. We’d tell stories of friendship, growth, and hope.

There’re days when you feel like a priest and days when you don’t. Days (or at least moments) when you walk around glowing with wow. Others when you’re cranky and nothing helps, no matter what you’re wearing. In those moments what I most need—and can seem furthest away–is to laugh. Or at least a good story.

Neil Gaimon’s sequel to American Gods dramatizes the transition from gods whose stories were tales of carnage, red in tooth and claw, to the rise of trickster gods and clever heroes. Gods who teach by making us think. The God of Torah is yet another evolution: a god whose stories open our consciousness and our hearts. Who helps us out of stuck. Who readies us to elevate both our stories and our souls.

Good priests do that too. Beyond conducting a great ritual, they invite you to see yourself in a clearer light: to witness, accept, and ask for more insight–from yourself and others, from holy messengers in every form. They bring you closer to the holiness inside and around you. They help you make more moments of your life feel sacred, or at least better.

The stories we tell matter. They make us priestly or competitive, feel holy or provoked. Because thought is the greatest trickster god of all. A thought can make you hungry or sad, satisfied or victorious. It’s all in how you tell your stories, and the rituals you conduct to reinforce them. Why choose anger when you could choose love?

Try to be and see the priest in yourself and others, even wearing jeans and an old t-shirt. Even in your nemesis or the guy asking for handouts. It’s harder, and usually we don’t. More often we judge our own or others’ distance from the very holiness we profess to aspire to. Each time we do, we fail an initiation.

Putting on your robes lets you access your wisdom and experience. Lets you leave stories of hurt, cynicism, and doubt in your past. And gives you new stories of love and hope.