Archive | D’var Torah

Acknowledging struggle peacefully brings biggest gain

Posted on 05 December 2018 by admin

When facing obstacles, whether internal or external, there are three general approaches to undoing tension. One approach is to disengage — try to avoid any feelings of conflict. Another is to try to defeat the challenge, and the third way is to accept the situation, engage it and eventually elevate it. This final approach demands the greatest inner strength, but is the most fulfilling victory.
To loosely illustrate these three approaches, let’s take the example of a psychological obstacle, a social interaction and a spiritual victory.
Inner challenges: In personal growth, we encounter challenging times when it’s hard to resist negative feelings — resentment, pain, anger, anxiety and so forth. The natural inclination is to detach from the uncomfortable feeling (escape).
The second response opts to tackle things head-on. Staying aware of what’s going on inside, struggle ensues. The inclination is to resist or overpower negativity by arousing extra willpower.
The third (and often most difficult) approach is not to view struggle as a teaching device — to look inside oneself and ask, “What is this feeling trying to tell me?” In this vein, I once heard someone remark, “So much good suffering is wasted [by ignoring or fighting it, instead of uncovering the lesson].”
Social interaction: An example from the realm of human relations is when we inevitably encounter people who make hurtful comments, or narrow-minded teachers whose main approach in the classroom is punitive rather than education, or people who we see are trying to harm us. The disengagement approach is to “take the high road” — to walk away, leaving the situation alone in order to keep peace — reasoning, “It’s not worth my time.”
The second approach is to size up the perceived opponent and shift into conquer mode, to confront the person, or try and win the battle (or debate by putting them in place — feeling a responsibility to defend, set the record straight or ensure justice).
The third approach is to take a step back, acknowledge what you’re feeling inside, then try to sort through it — to set aside a critically injured ego, listen and learn from any criticism and grow from it. And in the event that an honest discussion arises, make sure to communicate an alternative approach without any animosity.
Applying these three methods to a spiritual philosophy involves the inherent tension between the material and spiritual worlds. In the first approach, the person may desire to escape the responsibilities of what they view as the nonsense, or trappings, of a materialistic world. In the second approach, there is battle, the need to assert priorities. In the third and most comprehensive approach, a person embraces the uncomfortable challenge while recognizing that there must be a hidden purpose — “this is the situation I was given” — then tries to work through it and eventually transform it.
Depending on the circumstances, one of these three approaches — to avoid, overpower or elevate — may be the most appropriate or inevitable. Each has its advantages. Healthy escape, for example, is the most comfortable (in the short term) because you never engage and truly overcome. As a result, the negative emotion or opposition may easily resurface. The second approach can be risky and rough because you need to confront the situation. The third approach likewise has hazards, but the tangible benefit — on all the parties involved — is long-lasting.
In general, these approaches correspond to the biblical characters that appear over the past few weeks’ parshiyot: the forefathers, the 12 tribes and Joseph. The tribes were “shepherds tending to their flock.” In the mystical tradition, this phrase symbolizes the desire to remove tension and discomfort, escaping so that materialistic life does not interfere with spiritual pursuits. On this level, investing mental and physical energy in worldly affairs is viewed in opposition to the momentum of an upward journey toward godliness.
In contrast, the forefathers are the classic example of the chariot, wherein all their limbs and actions are so perfectly in tune with divine purpose that material affairs cannot affect their focus to achieve an eternal mission. They were bold and persistent, and the surrounding nations recognized their enormous spiritual stature and royalty. “And the sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst’” (Genesis 23:5-6).
But the highest level of divine service — uplifting — is epitomized by Joseph, the protected child, the “dreamer” and visionary whose forced descent into a foreign culture and heavy material concerns became a harsh and fierce test. Upon his arrival, he was a servant, promoted to overseeing all matters of his master’s house. At the same time, these occupations never steered him away from his spiritual heights.
“And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand” (Genesis 39:3). Wherever he went, “the Lord was with Joseph, and extended charisma to him; He gave him favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison” (Genesis 39:20), which Joseph always attributed to a godly gift, even as he stood before the king of the land.
It is within the story of Joseph that we find the culmination of what Israel, over the generations, has stood for. Ironically, it was the brothers selling him into slavery, an event that seemed undeniably destructive, that eventually allowed him to become a leader over all of Egypt, distributing sustenance to the entire land.
On the one hand, the entire episode of this lonely journey into Egypt was a fall from grace, both in leaving his family and spiritual comforts. On the other hand, he ended up bringing light with him and causing others to recognize it. The most compelling lesson and theme in the current Torah sections, then, is how amid exile comes prosperity. What appears to be the most difficult situation can evolve into a blessing that penetrates unforeseen areas and people.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Caught in a land mine, no escape from reality

Posted on 14 November 2018 by admin

Movies and song are intertwined with our daily lives and attitudes, our memories and legends. The recent biographical film “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells the story of British rock band Queen, their music and their lead singer, Freddie Mercury. The title of the movie is taken from the first legendary six-minute single from their album “A Night at the Opera.”
Widely considered one of the best songs of all time, the form is intensely rich — a cappella, a ballad, an opera and rock mixed into one — as the composer takes these contrasting sections and creates a symphony with them. The ambiguous content likewise conveys a blend of dark sadness, silliness, regret, courage and indifference.
As with all good lyrics, the ballad section puts intense emotions into words, capturing the complex human condition so the listener can empathize with the narrator’s inner turmoil. After expressing his shame, in the peak of the confession, the narrator declares, “I don’t wanna die. I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
If we briefly freeze that snippet for inspection, at first glance, the two lines (and emotions) may appear contradictory. If you don’t want to die, you must want to be alive. Why then do you wish you’d never been born?
I’ve heard people resolve the simultaneous, yet apparently conflicting, thoughts in different ways. Not wanting to die may simply be prompted by fear of the unknown. This fear or pain associated with leaving the world, however, would never be felt if there was no birth, leaving space to squeeze the meaning of the latter verse within the former. The emotion of wishing you’d never been born may sometimes be an expression of failure, the regret at having caused damage to others, or simply a desire to escape the suffering that comes within life.
From a less self-centered perspective, fearing death may be a concern for all your leaving behind in this world — a deep sense of responsibility to be available for the people who love and depend on you. At the same time, had you not been born, the situation would have never come into existence in the first place.
In the sacred text of Jewish guidance, Ethics of our Fathers (4:22), the Mishna addresses these discrete emotions, likewise expressed in paradoxical phrasing, except in the reverse order — first the desire not to be born (and live), then a feeling of not wanting to leave this world:
“Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape…for against your will you are born, against your will you live and against your will you die.”
Viewing these two opposing desires in the broader context of the soul’s journey — rather of the individual voice — the esoteric texts explain an existential tension in a spiritual framework. And here too, there seems to be a contradiction: Saying “against your will you live,” suggests that the inherent longing to leave the confines of the physical. On the other hand, saying “against your will you die,” reflects the person’s wish to remain alive.
What’s so bad about being born? Each neshama (soul), before being born into a body, is comfortable, a spiritual being in a spiritual world — no struggle, no tests of faith or moral dilemmas, no suffering. It resides in a high place, with a storehouse of souls and wants to remain basking in the glory of divine radiance. Suddenly, it’s sent down into a body and physical existence, which attempts to make it forget its origin and mission.
What, then, is so bad about dying? Beyond the natural fear of the unknown, the soul comes to understand the unique opportunity for accomplishment that only this physical world presents. Uniting the spiritual and physical through mitzvahs is more powerful than any insight, experience or revelation. Contrary to other religions and forms of mysticism, our physical world — the most removed, completely concealing divinity — is paradoxically the most connected to the source.
So, amid the journey, there is a shift. The soul begins to detect just how precious the opportunity is. Then another desire, to remain, kicks in.
Through years of labor, trials and the risk of getting lost in a spiritual abyss, a person must develop the mind, guide the body to act and attempt to rectify a portion in the world, through taking care of family, having a career and giving back to community. When the soul departs, it experiences a full revelation of its potential and the realization of what could have been achieved in this world, but can no longer be, is the deepest possible anguish.
The underlying message is that as long as you’re still alive in this world, there is a chance to rewrite one’s story. Hence, “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come (Pirkei Avot 4:17).
The book of the Tanya explains that the ideal state of mind is when there is a proper balance between the inspirational thirst of the soul and the ability to stay conscious of a higher purpose and act accordingly. In kabbalistic terminology this is called the experience of “run and retreat” within the soul.
The desire to break free of physical limitations (run) is an inherent quest of a healthy soul. But in the grand purpose, the aim is to uplift this world instead of trying and escape it. Initially, a spiritual person experiences a longing to transcend, yet must embrace the challenge to find the discipline, trust and focus (retreat) — against your will — to reside within a less ideal environment, for the sake of transforming it.
At the same time, while being occupied with rectifying the world through positive actions (tikkun olam), there needs to be an underlying sense of the soul’s sojourn in a foreign land. In other words, the soul is born, placed down here against her wishes, but for a specific purpose.
Connection to this week
This week’s parasha opens by repeating where we ended off last week — the lonely journey of our forefather, from the spiritual ambience of the Holy Land, the shelter of his home, to cross the border into Haran, headed for his uncle’s home: “And Yaakov went out from Beer-Sheva and went towards Haran.”
The explanations for the name Beer-Sheva signify a state of tranquility. The name of the destination, Haran, indicates the opposite — fierce anger (charon af) of the world. There are multiple layers of interpretation to each word of the Torah, and moving from Beer-Sheva is often seen as a metaphorical journey, moving from a place of peacefulness and sanctity into a lowly corrupt environment.
On the surface, the verses relate a challenge for the individual who feels insignificant in a giant world: On a mystical level, it’s the journey each soul takes into a “world of falsehood”; on a global level the verses foreshadow the long exile that Yaakov’s descendants, the Jewish people, will endure throughout history, forced from their homeland and scattered throughout the globe.
The common theme is that precisely through Yaakov’s grit and resilience, perseverance within a coarser hostile spiritual place — not simply by staying home in the Holy Land — will he ultimately merit building the House of Israel.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Listening is the key during a conversation

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies in what is now called Hebron and Abraham enters into negotiations to buy the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his beloved wife.
Ephron, the Hittite, owned the Cave of Machpelah and first offered it as a gift to Abraham, but Abraham refused. He wished to buy the cave outright and asked for the price. Ephron replied, naming an outrageous price, “My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver — what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.”
Abraham paid the asking price without haggling and “thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.” Why didn’t Abraham haggle, as would be expected? Why did he simply pay the outrageous asking price?
I am reminded of how I purchased my backgammon set in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem when I was a graduate student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion the first year I was studying to become a rabbi. I was poor, but desperately wanted an inlaid wood backgammon/chess set and decided to see what was available one morning when I was going to the Kotel with a friend. We entered a shop on the narrow street deep in the market and looked at a beautiful set. “Inlaid with genuine mother-of-pearl,” the shopkeeper claimed, and while there was no way that claim was true, it was, nevertheless, a beautiful set. “Only 400 shekels.”
For me, a poor graduate student, 400 shekels was a couple months of my food budget and far more than I wanted to spend. “It is a beautiful set, but I can’t afford it,” and I started to back away. “How much will you pay for it?” “I’m sorry I bothered you, I just can’t afford it.” “200 shekels?”’ “400 or 200, it’s more than I can afford.” “How much did you want to pay?”
At this point, I was a little ashamed at my poverty and just wanted to get out of the shop, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. “I only wanted to spend 50 shekels.” “This is worth far more than 50 shekels.” “I know. I’m sorry I bothered you.” “100 shekels.” I tried to leave the shop. “70 shekels.” “Come on, Ben, just buy it and let’s go,” my friend urged me. “It’s only an extra $5.” So for 70 shekels, I bought a beautiful backgammon set with fake mother-of-pearl inlay and a great story thrown in free.
The shopkeeper and I were in the same conversation, but speaking about two different things. He thought I was bargaining politely, praising his wares while claiming poverty as an excuse to get the price down. I thought I was trying to get out of an embarrassing situation. Ephron thought he was providing an opening bargaining position, stating an outrageously high price. Abraham was trying to establish legal ownership of the Cave of Machpelah without any future claims against it that the sale was coerced or at too low a price.
Sometimes, when we’re talking with people it seems like we’re talking past each other and not even having the same conversation. That’s because we aren’t. We need to listen to each other, trying to understand what they are saying from their perspective before we can truly have a conversation, rather than talking at cross purposes.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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This week’s parasha urges us to spring into action

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

The current Torah readings discuss the life of our patriarch Avraham, referred to as the first Jew. Last week, the section of “Lech Lecha” opened with Avraham receiving a command to journey from the comfort of his birthplace to the unknown, “the land that I will show you.” This week opens with “Vayeira,” in which G d reveals Himself to Abraham three days after his circumcision.
The soul — loosely defined as the bridge between our experiencee of the body and the physical world around us, and our experience of divinity — has three main modes of expression: thought, speech and action. Simply put, our personality is reflected in how we think, what we feel and what we do.
In the very first Torah portion about creation, the commentaries explore the defining feature of a human. The natural selection is superior intellect and wisdom. Indeed, thought is potent — our mindset has a powerful influence on the outcome of any action.
But in the Holy Tongue (Hebrew), a human being is called a medaber (a speaking being), indicating that, more than any other trait, the faculty of speech reflects our primary distinction. The esoteric commentaries explain that the natural willingness and ability to share thoughts and feelings with another is sublimely rooted within the soul, stemming from a place inside that recognizes no boundaries — no separation between one individual and another.
When someone is precise with language, capturing images and fleeting reality in words for the sake of transferring light (wisdom and information) to uplift another person, then he or she has utilized this garment of the soul on the highest level.
Then comes action — what we choose to do — which seems to be the most external feature of our personality, largely removed from the intense color and vitality of the inner world. At the same time, action is the garment with the most tangible impact on the environment.
For us to be whole, we must continually sort through and upgrade how we use these three modes of expression, often deciding where to place priority.
When it comes to the emotion of love, for example, people may assess it in different ways. Is love primarily measured by one’s experience or displays of emotion? Or is it measured more simply, by whether someone adheres to the other’s wishes through action?
In relationships and marriage, a deficiency in one type of expression may result in dissatisfaction. Some may want the other person to think and feel more, not just to “do what’s right.” They want their partner to be interested, able to understand them and recognize what makes the other person special. Or the partner may turn around and say, “Don’t just love me in your way; it’s great that you appreciate and feel for me so much, but I want you to do more — show, don’t tell.”
In the spiritual arena, the notion of “a covenant” focuses mainly on doing, regardless of what’s experienced in the moment. Indeed, the real test of commitment within any relationship is what you do when you aren’t enthused or inspired, or even when you are pulled in the opposite direction.
With this idea, we can return to answer a common question about why, despite all the great accomplishments of Abraham, the Torah begins with the command of “go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…”
When beginning to study, a Jewish child encounters a series of rich stories within our tradition, relating Avraham’s growth — progressing from an idolatrous upbringing into a profound intellectual investigation, arriving at the recognition of a singular Creator, showing the courage to stand against the prevalent culture of the time and sharing his insights with the multitudes.
We often take the above episodes for granted. It’s strange, however, that within these passages of the Torah, there is no mention, not even a brief introduction, about Avraham’s character. Our first encounter is the divine instruction (and his submission) to “leave your land…” Moving into this week, the style of the Torah is rarely to describe his thoughts, disposition and emotions. All this is reserved for accompanying commentaries and midrashim, while the scriptural verses focus on action, self-sacrifice and withstanding tests.
One explanation of this omission of literary content is that the Torah is sending a message for all generations: Notwithstanding the merit of individual elevation, contemplation and spiritual experience, the starting point of Judaism is listening to “lech lecha,” being able to take the personal journey that is not always comfortable or understood. While knowledge and inspiration vary from one individual to the next, the connection to God through the simple fulfillment of a mitzvah is in a distinct category.
Like the first instruction, each mitzvah we encounter is an opportunity to unite divine desire with human action. The essential quality that fuels action is commitment. Commitment is the ability to dependably override what you may feel for the sake of what you believe is right — adhering to a purpose or principle beyond your immediate desires.
Similarly, the characteristic that surfaces in the continuation of Avraham’s life is blind loyalty, which may be taken as a deficiency. But there’s another way of viewing the simplicity: as a virtue and the foundation of a relationship. After having determined one’s beliefs, ideals and purpose, there will always be temporary moments of darkness, where the inner resolve to move forward — to act despite any lack of enthusiasm — must be employed.
The term for this quality in Jewish literature is “kabalat ol” (acceptance of the commandments), a commitment that joins faith to action. This quality demands (and evokes) more strength than any other. When implemented, that power also flows into other faculties to provide an internal boost.
If, for example, using only the intellect will take a person to a certain level, by tapping into the energy of commitment, the mind is able to function more smoothly. That’s one reason why somebody who is motivated in a certain area will automatically grasp it better. Or, on a lower level, why discipline in a craft can paradoxically generate more creativity.
A clear message from this week, then, is that God values buy-in. He wants us to trust Him and sincerely try, for a while, to get in the habit of not demanding endless miracles in return on a timeline that we dictate. But whether in one’s own experience or that of the Jewish people, once we take enough sincere steps in that direction and stop thinking about the quid pro quo, we receive opportunities to see the divine hand at work, when we least expect it.
Returning to our opening theme, Avraham first recognized his Creator (thought process), then he spread his teachings (speech) and finally performed circumcision (deed). Ever since the Torah was received, however, the spiritual development of a Jew moves in the reverse order: from action (refinement of the body), to speech and, finally, study (thought).

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Pure joy comes when you give from the heart

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

The theme of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the eight-day festival we just concluded, is “simcha,” happiness and joy. To be sure, there is an experience of joy within every Jewish holiday. The difference, however, is that other emotions are usually mixed into the picture, such as the recent days of awe and the sense of freedom provoked during Passover, whereas Sukkot is permeated with pure joy. In our prayers, we refer to it as “the time of our rejoicing.”
Every culture has its own way of celebrating. In some settings, the inner mood of happiness is softer, more contained, even rehearsed. Other times, the expression of joy is set free, more spontaneous and explosive. During Sukkot, and specifically the dancing of Simchat Torah, our celebration with the Torah spills into the streets in front of synagogues as we pull down buckets of blessings and carry the images and memories into the year.
There is an aphorism about the effect of happiness — “simcha breaks through barriers.” The surface interpretation of this phrase is that when this uplifting feeling flows through you, it helps overcome personal inhibitions or perceived limitations. A person who feels genuinely happy can slip off the chains of logic and act in a way that defies the normal mode.
It also removes external obstacles, even heavenly decrees. Commenting on the verse “the Lord is your shadow” (Psalm 121:5), the Baal Shem Tov interprets the word “shadow” (usually taken to mean protection) to indicate that just as a person’s shadow corresponds to his movements, so too G-d relates to us according to our behavior and our attitudes.
Simply put, there is an ongoing relationship whereby our actions (or emotions) cause a mirroring effect above. When a person is happy down here, it creates a corresponding joy within the heavens. And just like the internal experience transcends the usual limitation/restrictions, so too above, at the time of happiness, all barriers and restrictions/limits are nullified/removed.
On a deeper psychological level, “simcha breaking barriers” means that most barriers we perceive are often illusions. And through feeling happiness, the illusion that these barriers exist falls away.
The boundless quality of joy does not stem from any reasoning, but rather a deeper force inside us, an unexpected fortune or sense of gratitude beyond what the heart can contain.
Any fulfilment based on condition or reason — success, accomplishment or desire — is limited. But when based on commitment, motivation about doing what’s right, connecting to above, mitzvah — then it taps into unlimited energy, which in turn affects that which rises above limitations, which is true joy.
Genuine joy stems from commitment, the motivation to move beyond one’s comfort and connect to a higher purpose.
In the Jewish cycle, the themes behind the full month of holidays are not incidental; they are specifically the commitment we established on Rosh Hashanah, reaching to the source of all life, then the introspection and cleansing on Yom Kippur, that allows for the true experience and expression of happiness that plays out during Sukkot.
As it applies to the rest of the year, happiness must penetrate into the three spiritual pathways — “Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness.” And here too, we must seek to break limits.
When it comes to balancing the obligation to give — the desire to make a difference in somebody else’s life — and the counter voice inside calling to look after oneself, a common approach is “first take care of yourself, then you’ll be in a better position to give to others.” A similar view sparks the overused counsel of “you can’t really love others if you don’t first love yourself.”
The problem with the above mentality is that while you’re striving to make progress in the first stage, the second stage usually suffers — once you start focusing on improving or loving yourself, there is no end to the “self’s” demands. It often results in a bourgeois outlook, a measured giving aimed at feeling good. But true wisdom and spiritual growth comes only through sacrifice.
On the other hand, it is difficult to give happily when you are busy, feeling weak or overwhelmed.
One approach to resolving this tension begins with changing our perception of the conflict and division between these two. The key comes through internalizing how, through connecting with someone else, a person refines himself in a way that could never be achieved while alone and focused inward.
In other words, helping another is an essential part of fixing oneself and should never be completely pushed aside or delayed. It’s only a question of how many calculations are made. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tzedakah shares a root with (tzedek) “just” — a moral requirement, not simply an altruistically inspired act.
More practically, when a person designates a fixed time in the schedule for giving to others, knowing that during this part of the day they must go against the grain and give more, this sacrifice of personal advancement for the sake of uplifting another in turn benefits the giver immeasurably. This sacrifice also includes “spiritual tzedakah” — being charitable with one’s time, breaking away from one’s busy schedule to be with, teach, share wisdom or advise another.
The fifth Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty, known as “the Tzemach Tzedek,” once guaranteed that the merit of giving tzedakah will lift the person to the extent that the mind and the heart are, in the process, refined thousandfold. The result is that a project or business deal, for example, which would have taken the person 1,000 hours to complete, due to challenges, hindrances or insight, will end up being accomplished in only an hour because the internal faculties of the person, and the outside world, have been enhanced.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Don’t let fear block your heart from love

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

“Take good care of yourself.” A common phrase with different implications, depending on the context. If we look further, the question becomes what is “the self” — which aspect of you needs attention, and how do you take care of it?
When it comes to physical health, for example, taking care of yourself may mean giving your body what it needs to be strong — making sure to exercise, eating healthy and getting the proper amount of rest and recuperation.
Taking care of yourself mentally entails avoiding negative thinking patterns, being patient with perceived shortcomings — not being too “hard on yourself” and choosing to stay away from toxic characters or activities.
There is an ongoing relationship, an interaction born of tension, whereby one part of us nurtures, neglects or harms another part.
William Faulkner, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, mentioned “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Jewish mystical teachings describe this inborn conflict in a broader context, not only as a split within the heart, but as a struggle between two distinct souls inside us, each vying for control over our consciousness, feelings and actions.
In this context, when speaking of a relationship with the “yourself,” the person can look at the godly soul inside with great pain and compassion, realizing how through ignorance or unwise decisions, the most powerful and sublime spark was dragged through the mud, roughed up and suffocated — the imposed environment of a personal exile and prickly path that, if understood properly, would never have been chosen, yet in the long run (after the fact) is paved with lessons and unique opportunities for redemption.
Imagine witnessing an innocent child, who you are entrusted to care for, being beaten up or treated unfairly. You feel sadness, anger and outrage. So too, many of the experiences and emotional traumas people endure, from the moment the soul is thrust into an unfamiliar setting, leave their mark. Much of our drive and ambition — even “standing up for yourself” — is a form of protecting that child inside us who carries memories of the psychological blows and cuts that parents, instructors, peers or the larger world has thrown over the years.
And so, we arrive at the most auspicious time of the Jewish year for repair and new and better beginnings. Superficially, the current buzz words of teshuvah (repentance) and kaparah (atonement) are all about wiping the slate clean, seeking forgiveness from people and from G-d. But, within the broader spiritual framework, these holidays are just as much about reaching a new level of thinking — how we view and relate to ourselves.
In developing our own self-awareness, we automatically discover habits that are totally unworthy of us or decisions that conflict with what we truly value. In this sense, honest introspection can be a tricky maze of memories and emotions. We must tread a fine line between being too frivolous and easily forgiving oneself, dismissing damaging actions with excuses, or holding oneself accountable — a cathartic regret that also allows for letting go afterward, without carrying along the shame or guilt.
The beautiful facet of teshuvah (literally “returning”) and this day of kaparah (“cleansing”) is that whenever you sincerely go through it, it’s done; it counts—even if there will be a relapse.
Yom Kippur is about reconnecting to ideals to fulfill our unique potential. But reconnecting requires change, an internal elevation and willpower. Change begins in the heart. The heart is naturally untamed, always running from place to place, one scene to another, wavering between holy and harmful attractions.
We face critical decisions throughout the day. The power to choose freely stems from a deep level of the soul, but there are two conscious emotions that make tough choices easier.
The mainstay of the “heart” — our emotions and character traits — begins with love and fear. Love drives you to move closer. Fear pulls you away. The natural undeveloped soul applies its power of love to physical pursuits and gratification. Likewise, fear manifests as fear of failure, financial loss, dreading social rejection and so forth.
Inside the rival soul, however, these same traits of love and fear are applied differently. Loves propels us to give, to do good. Fear (of consequences) keep us from doing something immoral or destructive, even when, in the moment, we are pulled toward it.
Throughout the Torah, cultivating these two main emotions in our relationship with G-d is stressed time and again. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask of you? Only that you FEAR the Lord your G-d and LOVE Him (Devarim 10:12)”
The lowest level of fear is anticipation of the consequences — worrying about harm to oneself.
A higher fear is blended within the emotion of love — when you love something enough, you automatically are afraid to be separated from it. In spiritual terms, all sin separates—affecting our soul connection through the display of disloyalty.
Healthy fear, the antidote, comes from the awareness of G-d’s presence, wherein this consciousness creates humility and prevents rash decisions. A more sophisticated development in the emotion is when fear merges to become awe, the overwhelming sense of being minuscule within the face of a much grander force, a feeling that naturally inspires a healthy mix of regret, embarrassment and renewed loyalty — and we are in “the Days of Awe.”
In this era, where spiritual movements and philosophies are explored almost like a hobby or trend, there is plenty of love to go around. Fear, on the other hand, is often misunderstood, looked at as “old school,” or some primitive view of a punitive deity. But in Jewish view, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. (Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 9:10)”
This type of fear is not simply watching your back or wondering “what will happen to me?” It stems from an awareness of where we stand. Its taking that same natural emotion and directing it where it belongs: to the primary mover of the universe, the source of life.
In kabalistic terminology, fear and love are the two wings that lift us beyond the animal world. Embracing love without fear, or vice versa, the soul attempts to soar with only one wing.
The deeper accomplishment during these “Days of Awe” is removing the blockage over the heart and soul to reveal the latent love and fear. Being able to feel healthy emotions is itself a gift, but this gift only comes as a response to our toil during these times—through teshuvah (regret and resolve), tefillah (prayer and attachment), tzedakah (charity and community work)—determining the fruitfulness in all areas for the coming year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Don’t ignore blessings for fear of what ‘could’ be

Posted on 29 August 2018 by admin

This week in Parashat Ki Tavo, we read an entire section of blessings and curses, though mostly curses.
I will admit that I normally read over the curses as quickly as possible because they aren’t at all pleasant. I don’t know why, but this year, one particular curse resonated with me in a way that it hadn’t before. I have felt for a long time that I have led a privileged life, a life filled with blessing. But this year, it was the curse that caught my attention.
Deuteronomy 28:66-67 reads: “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ — because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”
The times we are currently living through feel precarious and uncertain. I have been appalled by what my eyes have seen. I have lived in dread of what the future might bring us. There is so much anger and hatred in the world today that it fills me with fear. I cannot honestly say, however, that there is more to fear today than in previous centuries. Europe 75-80 years ago was far, far worse. The Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 were devastating. The Crusades were not fun times to live through for anyone. Maybe it’s precisely because I have led a privileged life, a life filled with blessing, that today’s uncertainty feels so dreadful.
Toward the end of her life, my great-aunt, Lillian, also lived in dread. It’s not that she had a bad life or that bad things had happened to her. On the contrary, she lived a very good, very comfortable life. But I think it was the dementia she suffered at the end of her life that gave rise to the dread she felt. When I went to visit her, she didn’t remember me specifically, but she remembered my mother and that my mother had sons, so she welcomed my visits.
The conversation always started with the same cycle of questions filled with fear. The best I could do was try to steer the conversation into one of the other two cycles of questions that were less fear-filled. It was during these visits that I learned an important lesson. I couldn’t do anything for my aunt’s day-to-day life — she was lost to her own world. Nor would she remember my visits or how often I came. But I could brighten the moments that I spent with her and lift her fear in those specific moments.
What we dread is what we fear could come to be, “could” being the critical word. “Could” is the critical word because “could” means that what we fear might not come to be. For sure, we live in uncomfortable and uncertain times. It would truly be a curse, however, to ignore the blessings we enjoy right now in these moments to live only in fear of what might, but might never, be.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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This month of preparation is no ordinary month

Posted on 23 August 2018 by admin

When looking at the current period within the Jewish calendar, a common misperception is that next month is a big deal — “the High Holy Days” — but now we’re still in ordinary times. But as with any major event in life, the preparation period possesses its own distinct flavor, a mix of anxious anticipation and excitement that prods focused effort, a collection of necessary steps to embrace the moment, so you don’t find yourself in an awkward position, standing on the big stage in stunned hypnotic stillness as the bright lights suddenly come on.
In some ways, the preparation period is even more precious and valuable than the main event. What we do in the absence of an externally imposed urgency, when things appear routine, can be the most telling mark of character. It also sets the tone for our performance when it really counts.
Elul — this month of preparation — has a unique character and appeal: There are two general modes of ongoing interaction between us and God, between the soul and its source. The first is likened to an ethereal waterfall — heavenly streams and messages that fall to us and manifest in feelings of inspiration, prompting our action. The other mode begins with human initiative — grinding, digging, climbing the spiritual ladder — before detecting a response.
Within the yearly cycle, this is the time when we activate our strength to connect. Drifting through Jewish communities across the world, is a fresh breeze of heartfelt prayer and teshuva — a struggle to return to personal peak form. Nevertheless, as we strive to progress during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, we receive a hidden push like a supernatural tailwind that elevates our effort through divine compassion, a unique form of “the 13 attributes of mercy.”
The Code of Jewish Law refers to the onset of Elul as an eit ratzon, a time of goodwill. Simply put, some periods are riper than others to achieve desired results. In a marriage, for example, receiving a check-in call from one’s spouse at the office is not the same quality of bonding as entering the home, sitting comfortably together and talking face-to-face with tenderness. So too, there are more intimate stages within our abstract spiritual connection, windows when God comes closer and is more approachable, so to speak, which provides tremendous opportunities.
This favorable period is not random; it has a history. On the first day of Elul, Moses ascended to Mount Sinai a third time, staying there 40 days, until Yom Kippur, which marked the completion of forgiveness. He then descended, holding the second tablets of the covenant. Ever since, Elul has been distinguished as days of goodwill, with the 10th day of Tishrei stamped as “the day of atonement.”
Four classic verses hint at how to tap into the power of Elul. In the first, noted by Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), the letters spelling the name Elul are the same initial letters of the words “(God) caused it to happen, and I will provide (a place) for you (to which he can flee)” (Exodus 21:13). The literal context of this verse involves establishing “a city of refuge,” a protected area where someone who has accidently killed runs to be healed. The broader hint is that Elul is a refuge in time, the opportunity for personal rehabilitation, and the rectification of any slips over the past year, even inadvertent blunders.
Since Elul is the preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation, the prime service during this month entails the three pillars that uphold the world — Torah, prayer and deeds of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). These are also the channels to refine our thoughts, speech and action.
While the general function of Elul as a spiritual refuge in time, a more specific reference is to Torah study — purifying the mind. As the Talmud says, “The words of Torah offer refuge.”
Perhaps the most famous phrase associated with Elul is, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” which refers to tefillah (prayer), the daily purpose of which is to join man and God. Finally, Elul is the same initial letters of the phrase “each person (shall give) to his fellow, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22) — an obvious reference to tzedakah (charitable acts). During Elul, the commentaries conclude, a person should be quick to pursue these pillars and increase them with more intensity.
The core, the internal ignition for us to travel smoothly down these three pathways toward the metaphysical “city of refuge” is teshuva (return). This inner shift is alluded to in another verse whose opening letters spell Elul: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Such a cryptic phrase — possessing a natural association with the fleshly process — begs explanation, and there are many. In the view of the Ramban (Nachmanides), the passage forecasts the ultimate transformation, a return to the pristine environment of Gan Eden, where man lived in perfect harmony.
Tradition relates that the primordial sin sent the world out of order. After being exiled from the garden and its beauty, man yearned for the light in which he once lived. Then, in the blackness of night, he fumbled around and found two stones. Rubbing them against each other, he saw a spark fly out — which provided hope that he would eventually return to the brightness in Gan Eden. Though a physical flame is but a poor flicker compared to the heavenly brilliance, it is reminiscent of the great light.
Jewish mystic teachings explain that our task in this world is to put things back in order, beginning with fixing “the miniature world,” ourselves. Sometimes a person feels dried up inside, like a dark dead planet. The soul has forgotten its song. What face, sound or sentence will revive its memory is yet unknown.
But there is fresh hope. Elul is the auspicious time to remove all internal obstacles to growth and joy. Only, unlike the above verse, where “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” we begin to make the change ourselves. At the same time, we have extra assistance from this “month of mercy” to return to God and uncover our ideal self.
As the shofar is customarily sounded each morning (as practice), we are reminded that what we do right now, during these days, is most valuable. For soon, we will be tiny figures placed on the grand stage, singing in the synagogue with pleading prayers that pull blessings and renewed life into the entire year. Let’s not miss this opportunity to plant internal seeds — developing the consciousness, an alert mind and healthy emotions — that will easily blossom into a sweet, healthy new year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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God gives us both natural and supernatural

Posted on 01 August 2018 by admin

One of the pervading and profound themes throughout Torah is that from one Infinite Source emanates two inherent features within all creation — light and darkness, good and evil, heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, male and female, and so forth. Our job is to, in some way, reconcile or unite these two contrasting elements.

Sometimes, this reconciliation involves moral clarification, recognizing what harmful elements to avoid or disengage from and what to embrace. Other times it may entail working to create harmony between or unite two separate entities, as in a marriage.

Today, we will discuss a spiritual application that helps to refine our mind.

A recent appearance in the Torah occurs after verses speaking about the delivery from Egypt and entrance to the land of Israel, where we encounter a fundamental verse: “You shall comprehend today and instill in your heart, that Havayah (the Eternal) is Elokim (God) in heaven above and on the earth below; there is nothing else.” –Deuteronomy 4:39

A name, in general, is only a word, an arbitrary title used by people to refer to something or someone. Divine names describe specific manifestations or attributes. Here, we have two: The name Havayah (used for God’s essential Name spelled with the four letters — yud, hei, vav, hei) appears exactly 1,820 times throughout the five books of the Torah. We refer to it as the “essential Name,” or “the unique Name.” It may only be pronounced in the Holy Temple; its correct pronunciation is no longer known today.

The name Elokim is the title first used in the opening line of the Torah — “In the beginning, ‘God’ created…”

Biblical commentaries explain that the name Havayah brings limitless revelation or kindness; Elokim enacts judicious restraint. In a mystical context, it’s the power to shield, hiding the overwhelming expansive divine energy from our perception (as reflected in Psalms 84:12: “a sun and a shield is Havayah and Elokim).”

Havayah is also the source for all miracles; Elokim leads to nature (its composition of Hebrew letters even possesses the same numerical value as “the nature”). The connection between the above characteristics — restraint/concealment and nature — is that by blocking the intensity of the “light,” Elokim makes room for independent existence and multiplicity: a created system which we call “the natural world,” with consistent predictable ways of operating.

As a general principle, the power to hide simultaneously allows for focused divulgence. If a genius instructor, for example, decides to just impart the quantity and quality of ideas — exactly as they initially appear in the mind — the overwhelmed student could never grasp the information. But by filtering the amount of information — “light” — and simplifying the concepts, according to the mental capacity of the recipient, that student can now process and integrate the teaching.

The reason that the first words of the Torah, the passage describing creation, references a name connoting concealment is because although the process comes from Havayah, it is funneled through Elokim (the screen of nature). Later, the verses in Deuteronomy instruct us to recognize how these names — with opposing traits — are, in fact, manifestations of the same essence.

Plugging in the attributes conveyed by these titles, the supernatural (Havayah) and the natural (Elokim), the most basic understanding is perhaps that the same God is responsible for both miraculous events. In addition to negating the notion that existence is only physical substance — or that the laws of nature function independently — this contemplation also extends to rethinking the boundaries of supernatural and natural.

The way the term “natural” is defined in one system is not necessarily how it applies in another. From one perspective, just because something is non-material doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.

The lower aspects of the soul’s life-giving energy invigorating the body, while immaterial, can still be classified as belonging to the natural system, possessing a defined structure. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as “the natural soul.” Then, there are deeper aspects of our soul, more transcendent features of our being, that possess more potency and unlimited capacities.

More poetically, but no less precisely, we can create “inner miracles” when we tap into the more “supernatural” levels of the soul, which can then penetrate and influence our natural behavior (e.g., inclinations) and surroundings by allowing us to break barriers and achieve results we once thought to be impossible.

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Moses’ memory tricked him at the wilderness

Posted on 20 July 2018 by admin

Memory can be a tricky thing. I know that when I recall past events, I don’t always get all the details correct. Sometimes I don’t manage to get any of the details correct.
It’s like that song from Gigi (if I remember correctly), where two of the characters are reminiscing back and forth: “We met at 9. We met at 8. I was on time. No, you were late. Ah, yes, I remember it well.” The emotional memory was strong and accurate, even if the details were completely off. And that’s what makes memory so tricky because we might vividly remember how we felt, even though we don’t recall an accurate memory of events as they occurred.
This week, we start the fifth and final book in the Torah, Devarim, which is conveniently the name of both the book and the portion. The entire book is Moses’ recollection and final charge to the Israelites whom he has led for the past 40 years. There we were about to cross over the Jordan River, and Moses was preparing for his own death. So, Moses began to recount the events that led them to that moment in our history and leave final instructions for our own benefit and relationship with God.
But this is where the tricky memory part comes in. In recounting how the 12 spies entered the Land of Israel to scout out the land, Moses blames the People of Israel for him not being allowed to enter the Land (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, and God said: ‘You shall not enter it either.’” Oh, yes, Moses remembered it well, if not accurately.
In actual fact, it wasn’t until sometime later, after the incident with the spies (see Numbers Chapters 13 and 14) and when they had arrived at the wilderness of Kadesh (see Numbers Chapter 20), that Moses is barred from entering the Land of Israel. Famously, Moses strikes the rock to bring out water for a thirsty and complaining people, instead of invoking God’s name to bring out water. And in response? (Numbers 20:12) “But the Eternal said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’”
What an emotional blow it must have been to Moses that he had led the People of Israel for all that time, only to lose his temper and lose his chance to make it to the Promised Land. I understand and empathize with the emotional memory that they had provoked him and it was their provocation that made Moses miss out. But that wasn’t was really happened.
It is important, vital even, to remember where we have come from before we are able to move forward. It is equally important that our memories be as accurate as possible to the actual event. When we argue with each other about past events, it’s quite possible that both sides are experiencing completely accurate memories of how they felt, while simultaneously remembering the actual event differently. We might perfectly recall our feelings, while conflating them onto inaccurate recollections of events. After all, memory is a tricky thing.
Rabbi Benjamin D. Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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