Wake Up!!! TorahCycle Korach

KorachI recently had a brush with death. Sadly I’m not exaggerating. Another 5-10 minutes faster by the fire or slower by the alarm company and poof: gone or burn ward. I’m still processing it. But when I realized the next parshah was Korach, I laughed.

On the surface, it’s about a rebellion to displace Moses as leader. A full bore, get outta here you’re fired attempt to take charge. It’s really about our persistent ability to be unconscious. What looks like a story about rising up and being cast into a fiery pit is really about our unconsciousness’s nasty habit of using complacency, forgetfulness, and mindless acts of stupidity to create confusion and chaos.

Raise your hand if you’ve never blurted the wrong word to exactly the wrong person or missed a critical deadline. Give yourself a gold star if you’ve never sliced your thumb instead of the bagel, hit another car, or tweaked your knee trying to do too much too fast.

When you’re so close to manifestation–making it to your personal promised land–along comes your inner saboteur. Your unconscious. Your stubborn ability to take a good situation and make it bad.

This reading is about screwing up in a serious way. The kind where you really blow it. Get very close to the edge of that deep pit. Maybe even get charred and smokey from the billowing sparks.

Disaster can happen in an instant, even if you build up to it slowly. Unconsciousness can take many creative forms, even seemingly passive ones like laziness, procrastination, and failure to see the big impacts of small choices. Mostly it’s about not being present in the given moment, whether that’s by distraction or entrenched patterns of behavior.

Staying alive means being fully present, not sorta kinda half-assed being here.

Korach has a simple plot. A lot of Torah does. That’s part of why the phrase “Bible stories” conjures simple picture-book imagery. Like us, it’s a collection of stories that describe and define us. Each family has stories that any relative could tell in virtually the same words and with the same timing, pausing for the laugh lines and moans. They’ve become myth, iconic, and archetypal: The time when……

We also carry personal stories. Deeper ones, sometimes never even told, about people and passages long closed or others longed for but never manifested, the places we’re longing to get to. We tell stories of our promised land, even if we haven’t seen it yet.

Torah cycles around every year so we can keep peeling back the layers of its stories. Keep learning from them. Maybe not make the same mistakes over and over.

Unconsciousness keeps us stuck in an old story. It’s a lifestyle that hobbles you, keeps you walking around the same old same old until you either totally check out or something happens so big and dramatic that you have to change. Because being unconscious for too long can propel you into a %^#^&%%#ing mess of a story like a car wreck or a fire that forces you to pay attention. Really pay attention.

Better to wake up now and tell better stories. If you really wanna get to where you’re going, it helps to be alive.

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 Do With A Do-Over?: TorahCycle Beha’alotecha

BehaalotechaGolfers have this great concept called a Mulligan, named, I assume, for the guy who whined/cajoled his play buddies until they let him take his shot over without a penalty. We’ve all done, or certainly wished for, the same. Would that all our mistakes were confined to the world of recreation, and had such benign consequences, and that we could self-declare the moments when we wished to invoke our do-overs.

In this week’s reading, the Israelites who’d been considered impure during Passover ask for a chance to make up their missed opportunity to give offerings. In another section, the people complain they’re sick and tired of manna and ask for meat to eat. For the record, manna can taste like anything you want it to, from carrot cake to lobster. Okay maybe not lobster, but whatever kosher delicacy you can conjure. You may hold and ingest the same glumpfy stuff every day, but you’re supposed to be able to transform it into something that satisfies your imagination as well as your nutritional needs. But apparently that wasn’t enough. If it looks like manna, even if it doesn’t taste like manna, it’s still manna. And even though you don’t have to do anything more than pick it off the ground each morning and eat, we’re a grumbly greedy lot.

Where from, this perpetual desire to have things better and better? Why do we suffer from FMS (fear of missing something)? And why do we whine for more or different when our lives are abundant and filled with blessings?

Someone once told me the UN definition for sufficiency of life. It’s roughly: a safe place to sleep, a choice of food, and a means of transport other than your feet. Look around your world and see how it stacks up. I’m betting on the high side.

I’m not suggesting we live in a permanent state of guilt over our comparatively fortunate lives. But I am strongly advocating that when we reflexively reach for more, or complain about the lots and lots we have in our hands, we’d be far better off taking a couple of deep breaths and a time out for some introspection and gratitude.

It’s also the perfect opportunity to practice some generosity. One of the organizational pillars of Judaism is tzedakah, which is translated more as righteousness and justice than charity. It’s meant to be done with an open heart, and without concern for future payback or reputational glory. The benefits accrue to the giver as much as to the receiver.

The next time you get a chance for a Mulligan, go past taste buds, personal comfort, ego and desire. Stretch a little. Think about someone other than yourself and the narrow circle of those you usually care for and about. If you have manna, share it. Ditto for money and time. Do some volunteer work. Clear through your possessions; then donate to those with less. Offer up what you can afford to, and add in some more. Help your tribe and your life become less grumbly and more caring. Who knows, maybe you won’t need more Mulligans in the future. You’ll be part of a happier and more satisfying flow.

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.

Holy, Holy, Holy: TorahCycle Kedoshim

Kedoshim-2014I’ve always love the synergistic connection between holiness and wholeness. Many of us embrace the holistic paradigm, seeing the whole as more than the sum of its parts. In theory, we should see ourselves as whole and holy (and each holy me as part of a whole and holy us). But more often we go though life scratching at our most annoyingly repetitive parts, and forgetting to use our better and stronger ones.

In a wonderful old Woody Allen image he’s clutching a piece of land, bequeathed him by his Russian serf father. It’s about the size of a cupcake. But it’s “his” and he holds it fiercely. Preserving that small patch is like tending your ego self in your current lifetime. It takes lots of work to keep it whole. And to make it healthy And, oh yes, to become holy, or at least holier than you might often feel.

This week’s reading is about paths to holiness. My lazy person’s gripe with Leviticus has always been that’s all about rules. Rules and regs. Laws and rules. Do’s and don’ts. And then more and more of them. Mostly they’re a great collection how to treat one another, moral compasses, aimed at creating strong and civilized community, though some feel arbitrary. There’s certainly lots to remember, let alone follow

As lapsed addict Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco admits to her sponsor, I have a problem with authority. Most of us do. We display varied responses, from rebellion to sucking up. Mostly we create complex, idiosyncratic dances to convince ourselves that our moral virtue is intact; then we scurry home with our paycheck, promotion, kudos, or whatever we needed from authority.

But what if, instead of being opportunities to rebel or feel guilty, those rules and regs were useful and helpful? If they created a path pointing exactly to the sense of grace that you seek?

Sure, they’re a minefield of chances to screw up. But what if you could envision a whole/holy you on the other side? Someone worth the effort of becoming. That’s the bait of before/after pics in weight loss and gym membership ads. Follow this holy carrot to a new and better you.

But what if by being just a little holier, you could actually become that you?

And what if, instead of being forced, ruled, or regimented into the process, you moved towards it. If instead of shirking or shying away from the path, you embraced the doing?

I have a friend who says, Don’t start a diet unless you’re really excited about it. What if you got excited about tending your small patch of you?

You know your stuff (which I call karmic homework) and I know mine. We probably have some good guesses (and probably some wrong ones) about each other’s. But what if we actually lived in a way that helped us get to where we wanna go? What if we followed the rules and they helped?

My lessons for the next phase of my life: Get excited about my karmic homework. Enjoy doing it. Do it well. Trust where it’s leading me. How’s that sound to you?

Got Your Goat: TorahCycle Acharei Mot


shoftimThere’s an ancient image of the scapegoat that comes from this week’s reading. Two goats are selected: one is sacrificed, the other cast into the wilderness bearing everyone’s sins.

While you might prefer your odds in the desert to the certainty of the blade, it’s considered an honor to be offered up, and a sign of shame to symbolically bear everyone’s evil doings. It also contains the infamous passage of Leviticus 18 so regularly cited by fundamentalists decrying “deviance,” though it also includes prohibitions against many things that are commonplace in contemporary life.

It’s so tempting to point fingers. To create an ”other,” a person or group on whom to project the feelings and traits we’re uncomfortable carrying around ourselves. Folks to aim at and talk about. Them not Us.

I had a troublesome employee once. Her mood was a seemingly permanent state of truculence and wheel-dragging. Her big tell was that she always said you instead of we. The rest of us were all other to her.

It’s hard to imagine snuggling up to the them’s once we’ve laden them with all our sins. Much easier to ship them out and far away to be sure our paths don’t cross.

A custom in the Middle Ages was to load the town’s outcasts (perceived deviants, mentally ill, and heretics) onto boats, and ship them down the river. That’s where the phrase “ship of fools” comes from. It’s also the title of Katherine Anne Porter’s book about a boatload of people fleeing Germany in 1939, adrift in the Atlantic as WWII erupts.

The scapegoats, the unwanted, the goats who escaped with only their skins and what they could carry. My own grand-parents were on such a boat. Two hours into Brazilian waters, or they would’ve been turned back to the charnel house of Europe.

I find it interesting that this reading comes so close to Passover, when the Jews themselves go into the wilderness. Perhaps liberated from Egypt more than thrust out of it. But still entering a dry, relentless place. One where you cannot hide who you are or what you do behind your possessions or social status. A place where every night you are cheek and jowl by your neighbors and their tents. Seeing their sins and having your own seen by them.

We don’t really see the folks we brand as Other. We lump them together in an amalgam of stereotypes (for example: greedy, anti-ecological Republicans; menacing, black men; raucous, irresponsible youth). And once we’ve slapped a label on someone, it’s pretty easy to focus on all they ways they are different from us. They are well on the way to becoming our goat.

But what if we had to look at the them in us? If we had to acknowledge that we too are capable of every form of sin? That our love is someone else’s deviance. And our piety is someone else’s blasphemy.

We might become a little more tolerant and understanding, and a whole lot more compassionate. Not casting folks as other or them is a good first step. If you want a bigger jump start towards a more compassionate world, practice saying we when you talk about anyone else and see how it feels.

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?

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.

Wake Up!! TorahCycle Shemot

shemot 2013

We’re at the beginning of the next beginning. Actually 400 or so years into it. It’s like waking into a bad dream: We’re overworked chattel. The sun’s hot. Threats abound. Blessings, poof! We’ll need everything we worked so hard to learn, if only we can remember what that is.

We get used to our realities. We don’t live under overseers’ whips, though our lives are filled with requirements and expectations, to ourselves and others. We go through our days, find comfort where we can, and are happy to collapse in front of dinner and our screens.

We stay in jobs, relationships, and other situations that don’t nourish us. It’s not that we don’t know we’re dissatisfied. Certainly our kvetching and the sadness around our eyes are big giveaways. But we feel like we made a commitment, aren’t sure if just one more try might make the difference, or even what we would do differently, because we’re not sure we’d be able to pull it off.

Economists have a theory called sunk cost. It’s the idea of Don’t throw good money after bad. (And implicitly, stop whining about what you can’t get back and do something different.) Even understanding it intellectually, I’ve always found it hard to embrace. It goes against every fiber of heart. Nooooo! I want this to work out. To be okay. Not to disappoint, or hurt. Not to cause or feel pain. Just hang in. Things’ll get better.

In our attempt to accept the status quo, we keep lowering the bar of what’s good enough to put up with. To our own detriment. As Kenny Rodgers sang: Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.

Shemot arives to say Hey! Wake up!!

It’s a shofar blast, jolting us out of our discomfort zone. Time to get going. To acknowledge this now is bad for you and to do something about it. Time to face whatever’s next. Even if the birthing process is unknown, risky, or scary. Because doing nothing is worse.

Eastern religions are full of great enlightenment stories. There’s meditative sitting. Focusing on breath. Solving intractable riddles. And immediate experience, like the woman who groks the wholeness of creation as her chapatti dough drops into hot oil. Snap, crackle, pop and suddenly it all makes sense.

This story will take longer. Lots of hubbub and equivocation before the race for the gates. But it signals the most important message: we will change.

Have you ever woken one morning realizing it’s time to end a job, relationship, or addiction. How could I have stumbled so long in the dark?, you ask. What I need to do is so clear. Duuuuhhhh!!

Each life has good times and hard ones, growth and stasis, joy and sorrow. (For everything there is a season.) But like seasons, lives should transform.

A handful of years ago the book Not Quite What I Was Planning started the idea of a six-word memoir. Try writing one for your life. And for right now. Are they the same or different? What pushes and pulls you, inner and outer? What are they telling you to do next? What six words would you want to write next year?