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?

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.

Who’s To Judge?: TorahCycle Shoftim

shoftimThis week¹s reading discusses judges and the law, seen, like people, as open to interpretation and evolution. Both strict and loose constructionists, those old Jews: literal about some things, yet completely comfortable with the idea that every situation is unique. That we need to consider our actions and their consequences as we go along.

The reading also identifies men exempted from battle: if you’ve just built a home, planted a vineyard, or gotten married. And my favorite, if you’re “afraid and soft-hearted.” It¹s a lovely acknowledgement that some of us are, and some of us are not, suited for certain things.

Most of us spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others. There’s often a profound relationship between the things we judge flawed in others and the things that piss us off about ourselves. It’s called projection, and if you’re not raising your hand guilty-as-charged you’re either enlightened or in denial.

We spend time fretting, usually about why we are or aren’t everything from kinder or more generous to tougher and more assertive. The list of desired qualities changes, of course, as we evolve and our lives take different forms.  But most of us judge ourselves about our inadequate and inconsistent progress too often and too harshly.

Until something happens. Until we find some grace. Because all that judging actually had some purpose, other than annoying ourselves and those who love and listen to us.

At some point in your life you choose to be or not to be certain things. You say I am or I am not. A parent. A poet. A painter. A philanderer. A priest. The infinite list of beings and doings.

Maybe we just get lucky. Maybe we learn something. Or maybe we finally exhaust ourselves. Like a toddler up past nap time, we get so cranky that we finally conk out. Give in. Say I surrender. This is who I am and this is who I am not.

In self-acceptance, you can embrace your true self, your form in this lifetime. Not in the ego exalting ways of movie stardom or CEO capitalism. But in the loving and less self-judgmental knowing that is the basis of acceptance and self-love.

This acceptance includes becoming more of a soft-hearted person. A wonderful side benefit: as you become more compassionate towards yourself, you also become more compassionate towards others. It’s win-win for all of us. Less angst, less struggle, and maybe someday even less war.

If only we could shorten that nasty middle phase of harping on our failings. The best I can say is that all that judging, all that refinement of your inner laws, helps you learn and understand your values. That in Situation A it’s okay to act or be such and such. But not in Situation B. I accept that there are lines I will not cross. I know them; I forgive myself for when I have and will be kinder to myself in the future.

Not because I am soft-headed, but because as my heart softens I choose peace.

Exercise:  Which parts of yourself are you still judging and fighting?