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.

Growing Up: TorahCycle Ki Tavo


It happens to all of us eventually. Perhaps sooner in some areas of our lives than in others. But some day we all look around, and think: Wow, that’s not such a big issue for me any more. The issues are as varied as our DNA and karma. But show me someone without any and I’ll listen hard to whatever they have to say.

This week’s reading begins, “When you come into the land…” Amazing. All that long beginning ago there was chaos and void; then lots of begetting, slavery, and most recently forty years of trekking. Finally someone’s talking about a payoff. Hooray.

The instruction goes, When you get there, give gratitude. There’s details of course, but it comes down to regular invocations of awe and wonder and saying lots of thank yous. It doesn’t really matter if the thanks yous are to self or external entities. The energy’s coming from the same place, the one where you say Good job! And really mean it.

Personal development is more than a theory. It’s not just possible. It’s becoming real and we are here to prove it.

What’ve we done in all our time of trekking and searching, striving and berating, trying and trying and trying yet again? We’ve grown “a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.” There is no wonder we’re not equipped to witness. And no tragedy we can ignore. If we stay open and aware we’ll be in a continual state of witnessing and growth.

The promised land offers us plenty to give gratitude for. We’re able to share, to gift our family, friends, and neighbors. So do it.

You’ve heard the summer joke about people locking their car doors so people don’t fill the seats with zucchini. Turn it around. Practice practical gratitude. If you have money, donate some. If you have time, share it. If you know, hear, and see something that needs to be fixed, start fixing it.

That includes continuing to work on yourself, as well as looking outside. In this time of harvest we’re being gifted with a sense of optimism. It’s the time to believe not just in the possibility of change but in its manifestation.

I’ve been noticing how happy the current crop of babies is making people. It’s always that way of course, its just that in my circle there’s a dozen or so newborns/not-yet-walking souls. They make people smile. We’re tickled that they haven’t done anything wrong yet. Haven’t screwed up a relationship or a job, gotten stuck in a rut of bad habit or foolish opinion. Haven’t made the work of being human any harder than it need be.

This week’s about that same sense of newness. Of starting over with a clean slate. Of having made it through a passage that seemed endless. And, now, poof it’s gone. Over. Done. We have new life, more energy. We’re happier and in a better mood, We are fueled with the buoyancy of gratitude and wonder that an open heart can bring.

We are soon to enter a new year, a time of starting over. With our hearts open, eyes open, and ears open. May they see, hear, and share blessings.

The Other Side: TorahCycle Beshellach


Sometimes you feel like you’re leaping towards liberation and other times the pace is glacial. But all roads lead to the sea, a metaphor of the last barrier which must be crossed, though the path ahead has vanished.

The story goes that everyone was standing on the edge, unsure and afraid, an angry army getting closer, until one guy jumps in. Only when the water hit his nostrils did the sea part.

That’s how ready and committed you need to be.

They emerge into a place called the Sea of Reeds. Still a sea, but with some purchase underfoot. Things returning to scale instead of a colossal tsunami on either side. And the reality of entering a new world. A new land, where everything’s unknown, both the gifts and the challenges. How nicely prophetic for the turn of the year.

Perhaps you too have made a shift in your life. Maybe not as big as getting out of slavery, but in your world just as important. Hooray if it was conscious. Even if not, think about where you were last year this time. And when you’d like to be next January. Find the vision you’ll need.

Mystical Judaism has the image/idea of klipot. Layers with which our holy spark gets covered and obscured. Think coats of pain that accrue from all your actions of denial and confusion, hesitancy or mistakes. They keep you just disconnected enough from your holiness that it can feel a little out of reach.

Now’s different. The turn of the year seems to peel away a few layers. Like you just had a loofa scrub. A little red and tender. But definitely refreshed and invigorated.

On the other side we’re like newborns. Full of potential, with our freedom, our spark, and our hope.

Take a minute to let the idea of “the other side” sink in. Big or small, you’ve made changes and committed to more. Your holy spark’s a bright ember. How’re you going to keep it glowing brightly?

What do the Israelites do on the other side? They dance and sing.

I’ve been listening to playlists put together by wise and knowing friends. One spins a beautiful refrain: What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this fragile beauty?

That’s the song of now. To decide what to do with your hard-won and fragile beauty. You can sign songs of triumph or songs of new desire. But also sing songs of hope and of commitment. Blow on your holy spark with a sure and encouraging breath. A breath of appreciation for past courage and of trust in your future.

There are moments in life when time slows. When we can get the perspective we need to move forward. That this reading comes at the time of light’s return is no accident. It encourages continuing work on our process. Asks us to look into the eye of God and then back at ourselves. To see and use our inner spark to light the way.

Whether you got here fast or slow, take a good look around. Remember this place of joy and possibility. Carry it with you as you embrace your next challenges.

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.

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.

Harvest Time: Succot 2013

Succot 2013Anyone who’s visited a farmer’s market lately knows it’s a gorgeous time of year. Abundant in virtually every fruit and veggie we could conjure: bright, fresh, full of nutrients and flavor.  As we give thanks for nature’s blessings, we’re filled gratitude and delight. Wouldn’t it be grand to feel so enthusiastic about your own progress?

We’ve also reached almost full Torah circle. The perfect moment to look at how far you’ve come with what you started “in the beginning.”

You know the questions I care about in this blog: How can we create greater awareness and intention? How we can elevate our recalcitrance? How can we better connect to our holy spark? How we can become lighter beings, kinder and more compassionate? How can we heal our core stuff? How can we live with greater goodness and joy? How can we be fully present in the moments of our lives?

This week’s about looking your crap in the eye and saying both Good job! and I can do better.

Acknowledge where you’ve fallen short of the mark you’d hoped to reach. But also remember to give yourself credit. What you failed to score in reality points you may have reached in insight. Getting holier and wiser, or even healthier, more successful, or better partnered is a process that takes time. What’s more important than paying good attention, stepping up and trying to do better?

Judaism has a holiday for this season that involves setting up a small booth. The kind you might see at a craft show. A place to go, eat, and pray regularly for a week. To sit in the field of your being and say: This is what I have sown, and this is what I have reaped.

Poet Marge Piercy, speaking of the High Holidays, observes: I will find there both ripeness and rot./ What I have done and undone/ what I must let go with the waning days and what I must take in./ With the last tomatoes, we harvest the fruit of our lives.

That’s what this week is about. About making good salad, good  blessings, and enough time to contemplate the fields of your soul and your life.

It’s a time to breathe a little deeper and move a little slower. Be more contemplative as your lungs fill with both late summer and incipient autumn. Feel your heart nostalgic for the seasons ended as you remember the bright daffodils in your future.

That’s one of the beauties of Torah. The cycle repeats, and we get to appreciate it before we start again.

Jewish days begin at sundown, and Jewish years in autumn. We go inward into the darker time, getting ready to listen. Now’s the time to prepare to do better, while you can still taste the fresh tomatoes. A time to get ready to change I did into I will. To say good-bye and thank you, before we say Hello again. I’ll do better.

This week take some time to be silent, truly silent, and sit outside. Then listen to what you are being told about what has been and what comes next.

That’s your homework for now, and for the next round.

Giving Gratitude: TorahCycle Ki Tavo

KiTavoWhat a lovely bit of instruction we are given: Give thanks. Offer up the first fruits in gratitude and appreciation for the gifts of the universe. For the cycles of nature, for evolution both physical and spiritual, and for the sheer joy of being able to.

We should all do it more often.

Also, Moses says that only now, forty years after leaving Egypt, have the people attained “a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”

It takes a long time to develop healthy relationships with our senses. Newborns are one big mouth in a noisy, busy world. As we grow, our other organs become informative, fun, useful, grounding, energizing, distracting. Windows and doors.

Sometimes we castigate ourselves for our senses’ seemingly endless desires: feed me, touch me, show me. Bless my ears, eyes, nose with lovely sounds, and sights, and smells.

They are sources of great joy and great pain. We love, and make love; we hurt and grieve when great loves wither or die. We see great beauty; we witness great suffering. We smell roses; we smell death and decay. We hear symphonies; we hear cries of pain.

One of the teachings of this time is that we’re supposed to give gratitude for all of these. Not just for what looks, sounds, tastes, feels, or smells pleasing. But for the opportunity discern what’s good and righteous, and what is not. And for the chance to learn how everything affects us, whether we’re lusting after the wrong partner or more chocolate mousse, or trying to better our souls.

With luck or spiritual evolution we’re moved to take action against what feels wrong and discordant. To do tikkun olam, helping heal the world, and ourselves along the way. Giving thanks for the opportunity to become better people. Even if the menu is more bitter than we’d design on our own.

Part of this teaching is about being kinder to others as well as yourself. A reminder that every time you receive a gift you should to set some aside in gratitude. Not on some altar, but for the homeless guy on the corner, or the non-profit that helps manifest your values.

This is a time to open the cocoon of your life. As part of doing t’shuvah (reconnecting with your holiness), take a fresh look at how you live. Not just in your little world, the home, garden, and friends that bring you flowers, birdsong, and fresh tomatoes. But the more complicated world you share with the rest of us, with those who are hungry for the fruits of your compassion.

Give gratitude for your life in new ways. In ways that matter. To give back, give thanks. Plant seeds that will feed you and yours and also others and theirs. Offer up not only your extra zucchini but also your time, your caring, your willingness to see, hear, and help. Use all your senses to know what needs to be done. Let your heart open, and respond with action.

Exercise: Think of one thing you can do this week to give gratitude in a new way, especially one that’ll connect you with someone you do not yet know.