Getting Better: TorahCycle Mishpatim

Vayeira 2014

Jack Nicholson has a wonderful line in the movie As Good As It Gets. He’s a selfish misanthrope wooing Helen Hunt, and, in a desperate move to forestall rejection, says, You make me want to be a better man. Who wouldn’t fall for that?!

Like the G word, everyone’s idea of being a better person is different. I’m going to use the word goodness as shorthand. Goodness is not so much observant piety or zen-like enlightenment, either of which might be a worthy goal depending on what matters to you. I’m talking about becoming a kinder, gentler, more compassionate human. The kind of folks we need more of on the planet, if only to keep it spinning towards the light.

How do we become better people? Do it on our own? Through another? After struggle and tragedy? Through gratitude and compassion? Is it a state of grace that sticks, or do we repeatedly need to up the ante on ourselves when we go back to our old, unconscious ways.

This week’s reading and the next are like mismatched twins: instructions on finding the path and then losing it in a dramatic way. It’s a long way to home.

The reading includes the statement We shall do and we shall hear. Note this is directly contradicted later in Torah by We shall hear and we shall do. It brings up the which comes first chicken/egg question.

Do you get better access to your higher self, your guides, whatever divine goodness you believe in if you walk on the right path?

In counseling there’s a modality called the comprehensive resource model. It’s a psychological version of prayer. It asks for help, from all your allies and guides seen and unseen. The simple organizing principle beneath it is this: I need you. Please show up. Guide me and help me heal. Not much beats that feeling of that wind at your back.

I come from the do-as-you’re-told school of karmic homework. For me that’s inner voice more than books of rules. But both paths lead to goodness.

Most of us know goodness by how it feels, whether we’re on the giving or receiving end. Both contribute to a pay it forward world, in which goodness multiplies and spreads like a beneficent virus.

The core teaching is a direct follow-up to last week’s Know your values. Live with goodness and you will hear more — from Spirit and from this world –- about how to become a yet better person. You’ll feel better inside and you’ll keep getting told more of what you need to hear and do to keep feeling that way. And, a great side benefit, to help those around you feel that way too.

Someone posted recently on FaceBook, Once you’re happy why would you be with anyone who doesn’t make you feel that way? No duh. Feel the goodness and you’ll attract more blessings. Maybe even find true love.

 

Count to Ten: TorahCycle Yitro

Yitro 2015Many years ago, in my Your Jewish Fairy Godmother persona, I developed her Ten Commandments. I was coaching people addressing life issues like tough relationships or jobs, blocked decision-making and creativity. Developing Ten C was a good exercise for navigating the world.

As I’ve thought about them the past decade plus, they’ve pretty much stood the test of time. I would change only glib number five, and replace it with Know your values. That was the core of how I worked with folks. Because once you’re clear about what feels okay and what does not, your choices become much simpler, even in the pursuit of difficult goals.

It’s rarely a simple do or don’t, like Torah’s original Ten Commandments, handed down in this week’s reading. Most of us never think about violating Thou shalt not kill. But none of us can truly know how we’d act when supremely tested, like in the post-pandemic reality of Emily Mandel’s brilliant new novel Station Eleven, or in the Holocaust.

The original Ten C ask for obedience to a deity and offer guidelines for living together. Though it’s officially none of them, great commentators in virtually every religion say they all boil down to Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. Shouldn’t be complicated.

Something more open to interpretation, like keeping the Sabbath, gets trickier. Your way may seem like dogma to me or mine like apostasy to you. It’d help world peace to get past judging one another; but we still need to decide what our own values are, affecting a gazillion daily choices.

My painting class is illustrating for me how we shape and form, and then reshape and reform our world. It’s a good mirror for values. Each time you refine your sense of self or your vision for your life, you’re getting clearer on who you are, what you believe, what you stand for, and what you’ll act towards.

Whether you call them commandments, instructions, or suggestions, the Ten C also a useful model to clarify other subjects. What if you considered the ten rules of friendship? Of healthy eating? Of compassion and generosity?

Think about ten things that make you laugh or cry, joyful or angry. Ten things you wish you’d done differently. Ten you still can do in a way more like the now you. Ten hopes for the coming year. Ten intentions to make them manifest.

It’s an exercise I find useful when I’m stuck, whether it’s in a negative emotion, problem-solving, or even creatively stuck. It clears mental litter like the daily morning pages Julia Cameron advocates. It helps you peel away whatever’s stopping you from getting to your core, even if what you find there are unresolved questions.

Your lists of ten will reveal truths about what you really want. Themes will emerge, so don’t just toss the lists. You can’t ask for what you want until you know what it is and what you’ll do, or not, to make it real.

Knowing your values will help you find direction. It’ll help you take the the next steps and the ones after. With that compass you’re less likely to lose your path through the wilderness.

Knock, Knock: TorahCycle Vayeira

Vayeira 2014Much of lot of Torah is about recognizing and responding to messengers. Messengers and messages that come in various forms. It’s easy to imagine holy messengers looking like white-robed angels. In fact, the Hebrew word for angels is malachim, which translates as messengers.

They come bearing news and pronouncements, instructions and even commands, both joyous and dire. They’re interpreted as performing divine errands. But they’re not on call to you. When you might want them to save or guide you, they can be absent or silent, no matter how much you search, ask or plead.

Who do you listen to then?

This week’s reading has several important moments, with messengers and otherwise. It’s almost a distillation of Torah, framing questions about who one listens to when, how far one is willing to go (in obedience to a god or a spouse), and the generational consequences of those decisions.

In the ultimate supremacy of hospitality, Abraham interrupts a conversation with the divine to welcome three strangers who approach his tent. They are, of course, angels come to bless him and his ostensibly barren wife with news of a child to come. The stories in this reading seed centuries of Middle East conflict: Ishmael/Isaac and Hagar/Sarah, the ancestors of warring tribes, nations, and faiths. It also presents the almost sacrifice of Isaac, interrupted by yet another holy messenger.

Too often we’re shown Abraham acting, but not deliberating, even though he’s confronting serious issues that have deep and long-range consequences. It’s certainly not how I consider far smaller decisions, and contrasts mightily with the bargaining he does to try and save Sodom. What’s the pointing finger trying to tell us?

The metaphor of child sacrifice is scary and compelling. I read it as  putting us eyeball to eyeball with our values. About knowing which voice to follow in very difficult circumstances, albeit of our own making. The whole process that we’re engaged in as humans is about pushing ourselves to understand our true values, and how we’re going to live as a consequence of embracing them. That goes for daily life and bigger things, like elections. If we believe something we need to act to keep it alive.

One of my friends said recently, Nothing important in my life has ever happened where I didn’t hear a call. I feel the same. I’d like to think that if an angel hadn’t appeared Abraham would’ve decided a loving god would not actually require him to kill a child.

I believe in holy resonances but I also believe they’re here to teach us by offering opportunities to step up. In any given moment you have to decide where the lines is that you will or will not follow or cross. Just because you walk down a path doesn’t mean you have to follow it to the sad and bitter end. You get to write your story.

The point is to notice when the messengers and messages arrive. Then to listen very carefully.

You get to decide what you believe in. All the rest is pointing and whispers and hints. And if you are lucky sometimes a great big cosmic pat on the back.

I’m Sorry: Yom Kippur 2014

YK-2014On any given day, what I believe may differ from the day before. I’m pretty consistent about basic physics. Gravity, for example, is easy to discern and trust (except in airplanes). My personal mash-up of faith has some reliable components. I believe in synchronicity more than randomness. No white-guy-on-a-throne. But though I believe in prayer, I couldn’t explain it with prepositions like to or from. I think we’re collectively spirit, and that our actions matter. That karma happens, but don’t look for linear examples of it. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to people who don’t seem to deserve them.

Although we’re trying to do good and better, we often blow it. Individually and collectively. I’m not talking about failures to give up cigarettes, carbs, or cocaine. I’m talking about the ways we treat one another on a daily basis, both those we profess to care about, and the rest of humanity.

Judaism has a great annual ritual for acknowledging our lapses, and for asking for forgiveness. It truly doesn’t matter whether you’re asking for it from an external energy or from your own conscience. What’s important is to acknowledge how you’ve not lived at the highest level of personal integrity. To clear the slate and do better the next 364 days.

The process happens on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starting this year the eve of October 3rd. We say a very specific prayer accompanied by literal pounding of fist over heart. It’s chanted as and in the collective, in part to mask our individual lapses, and also because we act as witnesses to one another, and to the idea that as a community, a tribe, and a global family, we’re each part of a spiritual ecosystem that cannot heal until we all do.

Each phrase is prefaced with For the wrong we have done before you…. and interspersed with the request Please forgive us, pardon us, and help us atone. Read it slowly, thinking about your own hits and misses, and your ability to atone, forgive yourself , and to do better more often.

For the wrong we have done before you….

  • In the closing of the heart,
  • Without knowing what we do,
  • Whether open or concealed,
  • Knowingly and by deceit,
  • Through the prompting of the heart,
  • Through the influence of others,
  • Whether by intention or mistake,
  • By the hand of violence,
  • Through our foolishness of speech,
  • Through an evil inclination,
  • In the palming of a bribe,
  • By expressions of contempt,
  • Through misuse of food and drink,
  • By our avarice and greed,
  • Through offensive gaze,
  • Through a condescending glance,
  • By our quickness to oppose,
  • By deception of a friend,
  • By unwillingness to change,
  • By running to embrace an evil act,
  • By our groundless hatred,
  • In the giving of false pledges.

The focus of the Jewish High Holidays is a process called t’shuvah, return. We’re aiming for a clarity of soul and purpose, a re-commitment to living with integrity, honor, goodness, and compassion. And to creating a world of peace. Amen.

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.

Do The Right Thing: TorahCycle Balak

Balak 2014There’s a great Spike Lee movie in which a young black man has a choice between defending the white pizza-shop owner who hired him or siding with his rioting neighbors. The movie smolders relentlessly to a tight climax: heat and tension inexorably rising.

The guy in the moral cross hairs of this week’s story is named Balaam, hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites, whom he fears may settle in his land. In our times, uninvited neighbors might get a rock through the window or a burning cross on the lawn.

Balaam sets out, happy to have a gig. On the road, his donkey stops and says No further. No cursing. Do the right thing instead. PS, If you don’t believe me, can you see the angel blocking our way? Even with that, Balaam tries to curse, but blessings flow from his mouth instead.

We can’t pick our lessons. But we can pay attention when they show up. Unless they’re catastrophic we might not even notice them, usually for far too long. We get used to ignoring those nagging whispers or strange feelings every time we think about a certain person, place, or thing.

Because they’re almost always inconvenient, we rarely embrace our lessons with joy. For most of us, karmic reprimands aren’t pretty or fun. They’re annoying distractions from what we’d rather be doing. Gratitude, or even bemused irony, is hard to come by. We’re so involved in the immediacy of our lives that we forget this whole experience is just a small blip in the larger cosmic drama.

The Hindus have a great word, leela. It means cosmic play, which you can interpret as anything from hopscotching quarks to the fates rolling dice with our lives. We can learn our lessons the easy way or the hard way, depending on everything from attitude to karma. A lot depends on how well we heed the messengers who deliver them.

It helps to learn how your particular guides like to talk to you. Many cultures have trickster legends, guides who smile, beguile, and riddle. Judaism sends angels, malachim, often translated as messengers. Ignore them at your own peril. Much better to pay attention to what’s being said and asked of you.

Angels and talking critters are hard to come by. Spirit guides invisible. And their stand-ins, family and friends, so easy to ignore. But like in the old cartoon of a tiny angel and devil whispering into opposite ears, we usually know when we’re facing an important choice.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we knew what the right choice was? If we didn’t need a cosmic 2×4 to get our attention, like ultimatums from doctors, judges, or divorce papers. If we did the right thing willingly and easily.

We get greedy, forgetful, and lazy. But mostly we know what’s good, right, and true. My optimistic self believes we’re hard-wired for goodness. That mostly we want to get it right. It’d be a bleak world to think otherwise.

What if we did the right thing more often? If we created more joy and more caring, more blessings than curses, because we’re more light than dark, more good than afraid, more loving than angry.

Can you image the beautiful world we’d create?

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.

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.

Making My Mishkan: TorahCycle Vayakhel

Class - Post

Much of this week’s reading is about the making of the mishkan, the portable ark, and the accoutrements for its assembly and use. I’ve spent the past several weeks working on a different sort of mishkan, the workbook for a class/process I’m developing. I’m loving the chance to re-encounter Jewish mysticism and to express my take on Kabbalah, the system of insight that’s become the spine of my spiritual journey.

Our spirituality is deeply individual. We may share holidays or prayers, language or metaphors, a belief in what’s eternal. But at its heart, spirituality is a conversation you have most often with yourself, and with the world of the unseen, however and wherever you encounter it.

The mishkan is a receptor site. A place to encounter the world of the unseen in space-time.

Some folks get that sense of connection in services or ritual. I find it most often through writing. In the magical connection between words and synapses. Images and ideas than run through me, teach me, help me talk to others.

I hope you find this place, because there’s few feelings as good as being connected with a wisdom greater than one’s own.

Developing this course is pushing me to go face-to-face with my beliefs and practices. Just as the ice storm that disconnected me from the internet for days left me grateful for my wood stove, I’m distilling what really matters. What’s necessary and core. What gives nourishment. When it’s incredible joy, it’s rewarding from soul to gut. I hope the same for you, however you get there.

I’m working through images and practices that connect us with our highest selves, and that help us examine why our less noble parts sometimes grab the wheel. I’m trying to express these concepts in ways that feel accessible and whole. As I do, I’m struck again by the importance of sharing our best with one another. For me, that’s writing and problem solving. For someone else it might be singing or carpentry.

We’re a community. Each one of us part of a whole trying to express itself through the imperfect instruments that we are. Our job is to listen well, and then do our best to give our best. Together we make a mishkan, a place to receive the holy and to heal this imperfect world.

We may have snarky days, or clumsy ones. No one can be sacred and in a good mood all the time. No email, phone, and FaceBook made me cranky as well as giving me time to write.

Being human means we need lots of slowing and quieting down to hear what we’re supposed to. Turning down outer noise, albeit not by choice, brought all the blessings of any great vacation or extended Shabbat. A chance for reflection, for hearing the universe tell me more than I often try to ask or tell it. Visiting the mishkan of greater quietude.

By being in your own mishkan you’ll hear what you most need. Let what comes through open and teach you. However you find your mishkan, I hope you’ll visit often and receive much.

PS – If Discovering Your Inner Tree of Life sounds interesting, please let me know.

Day By Day: TorahCycle Mishpatim

Mishpatim-

This is the Year of the Grand Experiment. Living simply, with more emphasis on what matters to health, heart, and soul than to doing and stuff. Buying less,  and more consciously. Going eyeball-to-eyeball with my values, not just about money but with time, food, relationships, energy. Trying to make conscious choices in every dimension of life. Trying to live by guidelines and “rules,” notes that I wrote down last autumn, when I was contemplating what would make my life better, healthier, more creative, productive, and joyous.

The gifts that are coming towards me as I live by these rules are abundant. Some new, others I’ve sought for a long time. Some are delightful. Others challenging. When I do this experiment well, I hear them and if I hear them….That’s the rub, can I keep doing them?

I think the answer is Yes, because somewhere along the way I’ve moved from that old karmic dance routine of “one step forward, two steps back,” to its more evolved sister, two steps forward for every one back, sideways, or standing still staring into space wondering if I really can keep this process going.

This week’s reading has the great line We will do and we will hear (in contrast to a later one, We will hear and we will do). It’s a synergistic form of self-improvement. One that, like a childhood game, doesn’t matter where you jump into the circle. Just that you commit to doing. And keeping doing. Day by day.

This is the first reading in which we get lots of rules. Instructions for daily life: 613 in all coming our way, with 50+ here out of the gate. About everything from cooking to praying. Rules for behavior. But more importantly, an expression of values.

Sinai gave us the biggies, the Ten Commandments. These rules are the how-to manual for daily life.

When I work with people, coaching or problem solving, I’m always trying to get them to understand their values, and how those values influence and relate to their goals. What they’re striving for as well as their ethics and moral elasticity.

How we live daily life should be an extension of our values.

There’s a concept in Jewish mysticism of the big face and the little face: the face of the divine and our own. The little a reflection of the big. In the image, so to speak. There’s also the value of treating others as we wish to be treated.

If you cannot see yourself clearly, it will be harder to see another. Ditto to respecting, accepting, loving, having compassion for, and caring for yourself and others.

Take some time to think about your own values. Relationships, money, time, food, your body, and your spiritual practice. You can call them rules if you need a prod or an organizational tool. But in a more elevated consciousness, it’s about committing to living with ritual and with intention. About making the choice to elevate your actions by consciousness and awareness. Each choice, each moment. You may not see the face of God, but you can very clearly see your own.