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?

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.