Growing Up: TorahCycle Ki Tavo

KiTavo

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.

What We’re Good At: TorahCycle Eikev

KedoshimWe all have things we’re good at. Sometimes they’re thing to be proud about, like prowess with money, math, or words. Others are less admirable and useful, like being great at driving under the influence. We want admiration for the first set of traits, and hope the others won’t end up getting us in too much trouble.

This week Moses gives the Israelites a detailed litany of their failures and transgressions. It’s delivered the way an ex (or soon-to-be ex) might recite them: The time when you blah blah blah. And the time when you didn’t…. It’s not endearing, but it does raise rather interesting questions of why we’re so good at disobedience. Why we’re so good at rebelling, acting out of fear and lack of trust, impatience and desire trumping faith and the higher moral high ground. And also whether we’re happy repeating that pattern over and over or are ready for a change.

Eons ago, at the dawn of my deeper metaphysical work, I was studying higher math. This came after decades of flipping past charts and tables whenever they appeared. It was only intro calculus, but it was enough to show me two of the principles of the cosmic dynamic.

Stay with me because they’re not that hard. Principle One: the universe stretches from one infinitely far away place to its opposite infinitely far away place. Principle Two: the difference in space/time between any one thing and its neighbor can be teeny tiny small, just a nano-breath greater than zero, but any two things that are different are by definition not the same.

I use these principles to illustrate what I call the calculus of the soul. No matter what issue or action you’re thinking about taking, you have a huge range of possible behaviors available to you. Plus an infinite amount of equivocation and rationalization to help you decide where on the spectrum you’re going to land today, this time. That’s an intellectual approach. You may function on gut or emotion, but the outcome is still somewhere on the range between pure obedience and pure screwing up.

In my world, obedience means not eating sugar anymore. Perhaps not to the zero tolerance, not even if it’s ingredient number twelve on a package, level. But between the raw white stuff, honey, agave, date or coconut sugar, stevia, and zero none, I’m sticking to fruit, and whatever’s in a glass of wine, or the occasional slice of bread. It’s a health thing, but it’s also retraining my taste buds. I don’t ever expect to lust for sour, but it would be nice to be satisfied with savory. I’m in day seven, and it’s easier than it’s been the last zillion times I’ve tried.

We trek the same territory year after year. Cycle through Torah striving to become better and better, or at least get it right more often than we did the last time around. You may be trying to become the you that you feel you are in your soul, even if her disobedient clones cause you to stumble on your path.

Eventually though, you will improve. We all do. And you’ll get one step closer to where you wanna go.

What Comes Next: TorahCycle V’etchanan

Vetchanan 2014Do you ever look to the end of a book or sneak a peek to the bottom of the page because the suspense is killing you? Most of us think we want to know what happens next, but sometimes our interest, or at least our belief, wanes quickly when we learn. Like any experienced prognosticator will tell you, people prefer good news.

Prophets generally foretell gloom and doom, unless of course folks commit to changing their evil ways. They’re likely to get ignored or run out of town bedecked with tar and feather.

This week, Moses (who’s not going into the promised land) reminds everyone about the 10 Commandments and unambiguously informs the crowd: You’re gonna screw up. No matter how clear these rules are, you will disobey, and as a consequence you’ll get thrown out and scattered for a long bad time until you get to come back. [On the question of biblical mandates, click This Land Is Mine cartoon for some timely brilliance.]

What about your life?. Could you have predicted what’s actually happened? If you’d been told ahead of time what to do or don’t, would you have obeyed? Most of us not only wouldn’t have, but even if we’d tried we’d likely have gotten distracted by life’s daily blessings and mishaps. By bad drivers, falling in love, cranky bosses, newborn babies, fabulous sales, broken appliances, and meeting new friends. For good or ill, it’s all in the mix. While we’re busy with daily life, lots of twists on our path no matter how well we planned for the journey.

Having a road map is no guarantee you’re going to follow it.

Truth is, you can think you’re making a right decision that turns out very wrong. You get married and are visualizing decades of harmony and grandkids, not a freak car accident or undiagnosed aneurysm that could take your beloved in an instant. We truly have no idea what life holds even if for brief moment we think we’re in charge. Or we make a decision for one reason that helps in an unforeseen way. Example: I didn’t die in a fire because I’d installed an alarm system after a scary neighbor moved in. I’d have never thought to thank him then, but we’re all part of more complex plots we can’t always see the breadth of.

Even forewarned we mostly learn our lessons the hard way. We fall in love with the wrong person and get our heart broken. Rinse and repeat. Ditto for choices with money, health, career, addiction, etc. But your life can also change in a heartbeat. There are good stretches and bad ones. If you’re committed to your journey you will keep searching for a way to your promised land no matter how often they do.

A friend gave me a great scene from a Russian novel. A philosopher takes a child to the zoo: Life is like the zebra, my child. The black times are followed by white ones, but the black times come again. When you are in the black ones, you must run very fast, and in the white ones you must cherish every moment. Yeah, what he said.

What You Say: TorahCycle D’varim

Dvarim 2014There’s a Chinese proverb that says the symbol for crisis also is the symbol for opportunity. In the midst of the current Middle East violence, I’ve been thinking about how we use language and how that influences how we perceive and act.

We’re at the very beginning of the last book of Torah. This week’s reading, D’varim is a Hebrew word that means both words and things. In the beginning the world is spoken into being. This whole universe we inhabit and share with one another begins with speech: energy and intention taking physical form. At each step, creation is given a cosmic seal of approval, And it was good.

Things were simpler without people to get greedy or angry, to start sparring with their kin and other tribes. Though even within the first family story there’s strife and murder: Cain killing Abel, a battle between brothers that continues with Isaac/Ishmael, and Jacob/Esau.

As Torah progresses, the stories become less personal, but peace is always shattered and blood spilled. Those people/they/them are defined as other. As fair game for our tribal rage. As acceptable collateral damage in modern parlance.

What would happen if instead of saying enemy people said neighbor? If instead of The man who killed my brother, we said The man whose son I killed?

I confess to the sadness/fatalism about Middle East politics that Israeli novelist David Grossman bemoaned in a recent speech: a loss of hope, especially ironic given that Israel’s national song is Hatikvah (Hope). For the record, I believe in Israel’s right of self-defense, but also in its responsibility for different, better, socio-politics.

As long as the people of the region identify as warring tribes rather than neighbors caught in a complicated situation, we’re all doomed to cycles of violence and retribution.

It is a sad, sad waste, given what we humans are capable of in our best and most creative times. But like Jacob wrestling an angel who could represent his most crippling aspects of self, we seem to be trapped in an endless struggle of killing and revenge. Time heals some wounds but seems to deepen others. There’s such a long legacy of anger and pain; forgiveness and healing feel far away.

Writers try to wrap their arms around it: In The Jewish Lover, Topol uses a contemporary murder mystery to dramatize the 1,000-year ambivalence between Russians and Jews, from the tenth-century Jewish Khazar kingdom in southern Russian until now. The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan, is about a house built in 1930’s Palestine by an Arab patriarch, taken in 1948 by Israelis, and settled by immigrants from Holocaust Europe. It’s a microcosm of regional conflict that recounts good and evil on both sides, with all the tangled roots and acidic fruit.

I believe in the power of words, be they fiction, essay, or self-talk. My writing focuses on personal growth because it feels like a necessary precursor to larger shifts. Also, because it’s what we can wrap our heads around.

So the only thing I know for sure is that while people are using words of war they are unlikely to create peace. If we can change our words maybe we can change the world.

 

Fingers Crossed: TorahCycle Mattot

Mattot 2014Sometimes we cross our fingers for good luck. We’re wishing and hoping. Other times we cross them while rationalizing a “white” lie (to protect someone’s feelings, though as often it’s our own self-interest). And sometimes when we promise something we cross them because we want a great big loophole to vault through later.

This week’s reading deals with the rules for breaking vows: commitments made with sacred intention and obligation. A kind of spiritual promissory note. Often made in times of great stress, and abandoned later when what caused that stress abates. Think hospitals, wars, night terrors, and other forms of acute fear.

More optimistically, individuals make pledges to everything from diets to fund drives. Countries make promises too, as treaties and alliances. But when conditions change, we break our vows. It’s no more honorable in a country than a person, though there’s usually  spin-doctors to wrap the betrayal in flags and slogans.

Making a vow you’re not going to keep reinforces the idea that your word is worthless. Why would anyone else believe your promise to them if you don’t keep your promises to yourself? Why would you make a commitment if you didn’t really plan to keep it? Mostly, because we’re human. Fallible. Filled with good intentions and lousy habits.

Ironically, more often than not we do better at meeting commitments we make to others. That’s part of why behavior modification programs like diet plans, AA, and the like have public meetings. External accountability is often more effective than putting patches on your arm and hoping that you’ll be able to quit inhaling.

I believe in few absolute vows. Thou shalt not kill, is an example of a good one. But as I age I’m becoming more of a relativist. Not just to go easier on myself when I stray from my program du jour. But because I don’t think they work well for really effective change.

I’m finding vows more of a guilt trip than a benefit. Thou shalt not eat gluten, for example, in the absence of actual ciliac disease, is more a chance to screw up than to stare down temptation. The sense of failure that comes with a bagel is worse for me than the actual gluten.

Better to build up our sense of progress and pride by honoring intentions more gradually, more naturally, and more authentically. By making the right choices in each moment, time after time. Not saying something once and hoping I’m done. Because “done” is more often the path to backsliding and recrimination, looking for the loopholes, rather than taking the next step on the right road.

What vows do you make and which do you keep? What would happen if you allowed your deep intention to guide you rather than struggle with a one-time promise?

Too often vow-making and vow-breaking go hand in hand. Far better to choose good in the moment than out of fear or obligation. Regular reinforcement of your intention by making good choices more often is far more effective, llong lasting, and gentler on the soul.

Better to count the times you get it right, not the ones you blow it.

Too Much: TorahCycle Pinchas

shemot 2013Most of us are passionate about something, whether it’s our soccer team, favorite candidate, or religion. I’m pretty anti-evangelical about religious passion, although I make an exception for Rumi, who refers to The Divine as The Beloved, with such open-hearted yearning that you hope he made it to nirvana.

Virtually of us have been passionate about passion at least once in our lives. That glorious cosmic zap when nothing exists but your new love. The Gotta have you now! kind of passion. One of my favorite Rumi quotes: At the sound of love’s flute, even the dead shall rise and rend their shrouds with desire.

The problem for me in this week’s reading, is that the lovers in question are killed by a guy named Pinchas, who enforces his personal morality with the sharp end of a spear, and is rewarded for doing so.

I’m from the “make love, not war” generation, a sentiment good for all time. Many rabbis don’t condemn Pinchas, who seems to have skipped his “use your words” training and gone immediately for the self-righteous knockout blow.

I think this reading is about excess. Not just acting out our super-sized moral values as though we’re the only ones who have it right., or lust’s temporary blindness. But the smaller, seemingly more trivial decisions that cause big problems over time. The eat-the-whole-chocolate-bar instead of a one or two pieces kind of excess. Whipping out our visas instead of saying I can live without that.

My teaching: excess at any end of the spectrum is wrong. And it’s  a great time to cut it out.

In more personal terms, it might mean setting up (and then-gulp –living on) a monthly budget. Ditto for calories, TV, frittered time, etc. Whatever you’re doing too much of, this is a great week to think about reining yourself in.

Because if you don’t, the universe will do it for you. Not in a death and damnation way. But in the actions have consequences way.

If I don’t limit sugar/carbs, my body’s gonna rebel. I suspect you know which of your passions has been running on overdrive. You might not be on borrowed time yet, but Act III could be here or near.

I always prefer a carrot to a sharp stick. (Actually I prefer chocolate, but without it carrots taste much sweeter.)

Metaphor aside, payoffs often help motivate us. To make a change, chooose a different source than the one you usually gravitate to. If food’s your downfall, use kissing for nourishment. Spending too much? Appreciate what you already own: use the good china, or put on your dress-up duds on a weekday.

Whatever’s on your bucket list, pick a payoff that’ll help you choose change. And then, as the ad, says, Just do it.

But whatever you do, don’t be a zealot. Take the process a little slower and gentler than you might in your most self-righteous, first-to-fifth in six seconds mode.

It’s okay to be excited. But more kindness and less self-judgment will keep you on the right path far longer and better than a pointed stick or flaming out in a burst of short-lived glory.

Yikes!! TorahCycle Shelach Lekha

Shelach 2014Back in the day, in a different golden age of television, Lily Tomlin played a character called Edith Ann, a charmingly incisive toddler sitting in a B.I.G rocker. Adult life can feel like that. Inside we can feel like little kids pretending to be grown-ups, an emotion as true in our sixties as in our teens.

This week spies are sent into Canaan on a reconnaissance mission. They return with clusters of fruit and report a land flowing with milk and honey. But they are afraid, and tell tall tales: Ah, um, oh yeah, did we mention the G.I.A.N.T.S? They’re b.i.g. and not looking to leave. This may have been a bad idea. How about a giant U-turn back to good old Egypt, where, really, how bad could it have been?

When we’re faced with a challenge–be it physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional–do we see opportunity and possibility, or danger and risk? Do we say Yes or No? Jump in or run? What are we saying Yes or No to? The seduction of adventure and reward? Long-run gain for short-run sacrifice? Or saving our hides and Never mind, I’m outta here!

What are the consequences–both desired and unintended–of our choices? Do they make us better, strong, wiser, or do they lube the path towards failure and regret? Once we’ve told the first lie, starting a complicated process of rationalization, what can stem the slide? What’ll it cost us to climb back out of the pit we’re digging. Or to descend from whatever precarious perch we’ve climbed onto?

Mostly, why isn’t this whole life thing just easier?!? It can be, but that often requires an attitude adjustment.

At the pulsing surge of spring into summer, nature in all her fecundity is impressive, even a little intimidating. That dynamic urge to grow. As Michael Pollan says in his splendid The Botany of Desire, the zeal of life to recreate itself.

This vitality demands we step up. That we participate. Not just by weeding and watering. But opening ourselves, every part and every chakra, wider and more receptive. Let in all that color and birdsong. Encourage those rosebuds and tomato blossoms. Calls of Smell me, Taste me are beckoning from our future.

Like the spies, we’re being invited to a land of good and plenty. No question there are challenges real and imagined. Pollen, aphids, and drought. But they’re a small price to pay for the bounty that follows.

The invitation is unambiguous and delicious: Step up and grow. Step up and bloom. Step up and transform.

Your promised land and mine may have nothing in common. But the things that matter to me matter to me a lot. I hope you’re as committed to your own vision. And that you’re willing to face the possibility even of giants to reap your own harvest.

Don’t get sidetracked by fear. Whatever challenge you’re trying to avoid will only show up later in another form if you duck it now. You’ve schlepped all this way to get here. No way out but through. With great rewards ahead of you.

Don’t fall for the Yikes! Do what you came here to do.

What Do You Bring to This Party?: TorahCycle Naso

Naso 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You know what it’s like at a potluck where everyone’s brought the same thing. Cheese/crackers or dessert have a time and place, but sequencing and variety are more interesting, nourishing, and tastier.

In this week’s reading each of the tribes bring offerings to inaugurate the altar on different days. Each is described individually but they are the very same gift. What’s this trying to tell us?

Our DNA tints our hair, skin, and eyes. The circumstances of birth impact our material comfort. But each of us is here working out very individualized karma. We create families and friend networks, communities and tribes, each to help us solve and reveal a little more of the mystery.

Our lessons interact with one another in a splendid and intricate dance. It’s staggeringly complex, a little scary, and very beautiful. The word for this is awe, which in Hebrew is y’ira, a word that intertwines jaw-dropping gratitude with healthy doses of Yikes!

Only in brief moments do we even get brief insights into how the whole system works. Unless of course we get enlightened, and then, I’m told, there are no more questions. Just deep/broad wisdom and understanding. Plus lots of cheerful smiling, if the Dalai Lama is a good example. For the rest of us, regular karmic homework. More or less in any given moment. But minute by minute, passage by passage, Spirit invites us to grow.

This happens to us as individuals and as part of the collective. We do our work dancing with and tripping over one another. Friend and foe. Ally and nemesis. Lover and enemy. We have more in common than we sometimes remember when we dispute politics or religion. But each action, each thought, each prayer is another heartbeat in our being-ness and evolution.

There was a great FaceBook post the other day (apologies for length): Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story. Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU. It’s enough. It’s Plenty.

This it our party and, like in the classic went-to-school-naked dream, we’ve all shown up in our karmic birthday suits. We can bring all the offerings we want. But they won’t buy us a pass on any of the terror, thrills, tragedies, and blessings of being here.

No RSVP required. You’re here. Let’s dance.

 

 

On the Road Again: TorahCycle Bamidbar

vayetze 2013We’re used to measuring. We experience both excess and scarcity, but tend to think more of good things will make us happier and help dim the annoyances of daily life. That’s true about love, but when we feed our lust for chocolate, drugs, and other cravings, less would be a better path.

We count our lives in days and years, though the things we remember best are moments: the first bite, not the twentieth. We measure by future events that may never happen, and from past ones that may be old baggage it’s time to set by the side of the road.

How do we decide what’s the right road, and what to bring along? What does experience teach us, and what’re we still struggling to learn? What’s buried in the creases of those old maps we keep folding and unfolding, trying to find our way?

When I was a kid, my wise mother had a simple dessert rule: one cuts, the other chooses. So much energy to get the bigger piece of cake, when learning to skip sugar would’ve been the better lesson.

How do we change? Are behavior and identity fixed? I’d like to think not, though believe we’re each in this wilderness to experience unique lessons, ones that are built into our karmic DNA. We are capable of learning them. Even my auto-correct (as befouled as it sometimes make things), has acquired an elegant mystical vocabulary through repeated word use. Maybe we too can grow, albeit slowly.

In ancient tribes roles were assigned, and fixed for life. Do your family of origin stories still define you? If not, how do you find or make your own tribe?

In Alice Hoffman’s new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the two central characters make their way in a dark world. Each carries serious burdens, complicated by complex feelings for family, mentors, and friends. It’s a fascinating, sad, and ultimately redemptive book that navigates a landscape of incredible beauty and harshness in early 20th-century America. Hoffman raises important questions about what separates us and what pulls us towards one another.

Who are your inner tribes? If you took a census, as this week’s reading does, what parts of you would guard the innermost sanctuary and which would be on the fringes? Are you more often fierce or holy, impetuous or wise? Who are you to yourself, and who to others? How much do you share, and what do you keep hidden away? Why?

This journey is all about becoming. We are at the beginning of book four. Bamidbar. In the wilderness. What better time and place to figure out who you are and who you are becoming.

I just turned 65. Cheers for aging and wisdom. Sighs for creaky knees, and the sins of youth come home to roost. This is still a long road, I hope, learning lessons all the time. The more we trek through these passages, the more familiar the wilderness becomes. It’s never the same journey one day to the next. Our job is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, learning ourselves along the way.

What’s It Worth?: TorahCycle Bechukotai

Bechukotai 2014When we make promises we expect to keep them. That’s not just blind optimism, though most often we fail at promises we make to ourselves, rather than others, whom we disappoint less regularly. It’s an expression of hope springing eternal, even if it’s unsubstantiated, even contradicted, by experience.

This week’s reading has instructions on valuing pledges made to HaShem. You know the kind: If you do/fix/make x y or z situation, I promise to be/do/act more or less _______ing.  I promise.

Generally these vows are made in circumstances of need–even desperation–acute or perceived. But there you are. Sworn. Pledged. Ostensibly committed. Some part of you has grabbed the wheel and given it a hard turn in the right direction. (P.S. And this time I mean it. I really do.)

I’m reading a great book on breaking through creative blocks and overcoming resistance: The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. As he says, it’s good for anyone who’s ever said they want to be more creative, start a new health regimen, cure an addiction, or tighten their abs. Read it. Please contact me immediately if it doesn’t mirror your own dance; I want to know your secret.

When you make a pledge you’re supposed to want to keep it. And then do so. This reading details how the loopholes are calculated: what it’ll cost to weasel out of your promise. Many are measured in market value with a 20% markup, though many of us would happily pay double to escape following through on what we’re not quite ready for. Please wait. We’ll start next Monday. Really. Trust us.

I recently organized an event. It was only a qualified success. But I tried. Planned. Did all the right stuff. Why? I had a vision. I was pledged. I had a passion. I made a commitment. I wanted to follow through, and I did.

So what’s the difference between that and say, starting and failing with a diet? What are we willing to put our energy behind, and what do we just give lip service? If we only give lip service over and over again, but never invoke energy, what’s the message? Would having to pay a hefty fine change your behavior? What stops you from following through on your promises?

Often life intrudes. Energies and events get in the way, whether they’re entrepreneurial surges or bouts of insomnia, planting your garden, falling in love, or caring for ailing parents. When they do, what happens to your vows? Do you hit the pause button? Or use them to help get you through the hard and busy times?

I think Pressfield is right: the more important what we’re trying to embrace and accomplish is to us, the more resistance we will encounter. There’s no enemy stronger, cleverer, or more persistent than the obstructions resistance can conjure. So be careful about what you pledge, because each time you do, the cost of not following through goes up. Like yo-yo dieting, you can make a problem worse by not actually dealing with it.

If you want to avoid the costs of delay and avoidance, your first pledge should be to overcoming resistance. If you want help with something, start by asking for that.