Mountaintop Reality – Trekking to Holiness

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“It has nothing to do with who I am as compared to everyone else. It has everything to do with who I am in companionship with God.”    

     – Craig D. Lounsbrough                                   

Try as we might, we can’t shortchange process. The American psyche cherishes innovation. We admire the overnight success (and wonder why we can’t be so lucky). But we don’t know the back-story.   Ask any “overnight success” and he or she will tell you that it was years in the making.   As Samuel Goldwyn said, “Give me a couple of years and I’ll make that actress an overnight success.”

When we try to shortchange process and leapfrog over a necessary course of development, what happens is that we fall, inevitably, and, what is worse, we often fall to a point lower than where we even started.

When that happens, it can be very destructive to the psyche because we can become cynical, and feel hopeless, thinking that we just gave it our very best shot, and alas, failed – again. So why bother.

But wait, you might ask – aren’t there instantaneous flashes of insight, moments where we can feel a real paradigm shift in that proverbial “aha moment”? Yes, but these are flashes, and flashes are, by definition, temporary.

An “aha moment” is a glimmer of potentiality. It reveals a new possible pathway. We need to create new consistent behaviors to turn that glimmer of a pathway into an actual trail, and in so doing, lock that insight into a new way of being. Otherwise, it disappears almost as fast as it appeared.

The Process of….Process

No matter what, there is a process. We had a 49-day trek that took us from Egypt (Passover) to Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah (the holiday of Shavuos).   When we left Egypt, the Jewish people were said to be at the 49th level of impurity, and it is one explanation for why the redemption took place when it did, for had we descended one more level, to the 50th level, we would have been considered unredeemable.

Every day thereafter we spent walking away from Egypt and towards Mt. Sinai we ascended one level of holiness, so that when we arrived at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah we were at the highest level of holiness.

Jewish time is not linear, but cyclical, an upward spiral. “What goes around comes around” is an expression we take literally. Every year, to commemorate that process, we count those same 49 days from Passover to Shavuos, spiritually reliving that journey with the intention that every day brings us higher and closer to the spiritual energy of Shavuos.

Trek Like a Jew

Thousands of years ago we couldn’t jump from Day 1 to Day 49; even now, we can’t pass Go and collect $200. We all know the quote, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.”   When we feel overwhelmed, it’s useful to slow things down and remember that all we can do is take one step at a time. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself for years.   No surprise that I still had a hard time getting my act together. And so I realized a deeper truth for myself, that it’s not necessarily true that the journey begins with the first step. What is true, however, is that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the thought of the 1st step. And the thought of the next step. And so on. This is a critical distinction.

In every Torah portion since leaving Egypt, God is trying to shift how we think, how we see ourselves, to break down the slave mentality and build us up to being priests unto the nations. All of the laws have an external expression in the world of action, but they should come from an internal reality. “Be holy, for I am Holy” says God. Holiness, however, has to be “whole”. Thus, as we see in this week’s Torah portion, “Behar,” holiness must permeate our business transactions.

In a free-market society, in a bottom line material world where we are disconnected from holism, many of the laws in “Behar”, make no sense. Rather, they seem irrational and counter-intuitive. For example, one law dictates that every seven years, all work on the land must cease and the produce that grows is free for the taking. Ask any MBA – this concept is unreal!   But that depends on whose version of reality you are buying into.

There is an animated musical film that came out years ago – The Prince of Egypt – where Moses is feeling pretty down and Yitro (aka Jethro), who is Moses’ father-in-law, inspires him with a song about “looking at his life through heaven’s eyes.”

Think Like a Jew

What is the reality of our lives? What is reality anyway? There is a lot of “reality” out there from which to choose. As a matter of fact, our brains receive billions of bits of information per second, but our brains can only process an infinitesimal amount of it, excluding over 99.9%.

We choose which sliver of “reality” to focus on and what to exclude. Thus, our very perspective is a matter of choice. We can choose to perceive that sliver of reality that will reveal holiness. “Behar” means “on the mountain”.   It’s as if God is saying, “Look at your life from up here. Don’t just buy into what you think the world is, what you think nature is, and what you think the reality is. Look at reality through My Eyes. Look at your life through the eyes of heaven.”

When I went to law school, we were often told that we weren’t there just to learn laws, but to learn to “think like lawyers.” The purpose of learning Torah is not just to learn laws, but to learn how to “think like a Jew,” because everything we do starts in our minds.

Before you take the next step of your journey, remember that it is preceded by a thought. Remember the thought that you are holy, look for that sliver of reality that reveals holiness, know that heaven smiles down upon you to light the way, and your footstep is bound to be sweet and sure, and you will not fall.

 

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Emor – Lighten Up!

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“Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.”

                                                                                           – William Blake

On any given day, the news reports a story of someone being indicted for some white-collar crime. I wait for the name of the alleged perpetrator. Not Jewish? I breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever Jews, and especially religious Jews, make the news for dishonest, criminal or other bad behavior, I cringe and feel sullied in the core of my Jewish collective soul.

Maybe it stems from this week’s Torah portion, “Emor”, where God charges the Jewish people with the task of sanctifying His Name here on earth. One way of doing that is to act in a way that causes people to revere God, which is called a “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s Name). By standing for and becoming living embodiments of holiness, we become God’s emissaries, as it were.

Sadly, however, the reverse is also true, and when we act in unsavory and hypocritical ways, so as to garner contempt, it is called a “Chillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s Name).

Standing Up for God – Really?

Sounds like a very tall order – “sanctifying God’s Name.” Furthermore, we are told, that “God’s honor is at stake.” How is it even possible that we mere mortals can have any effect on an infinite and perfect Being?

The Jewish people – and the world – had just witnessed the destruction of the most powerful civilization on Earth, along with the toppling (literally) of its many gods. The God that redeemed the Jewish people brought the plagues, turned nature on its head, split the sea, etc.   This unimaginable reality was a new paradigm for our understanding of God. How can we affect God’s reputation? How could this Deity need anyone or anything to sanctify His Name?   How could this Deity even have any “needs” period?

Furthermore, this command comes at a time when the Jewish People were barely out of Egypt. Had I been there, I could imagine my reaction: “Seriously? Am I supposed to be Your emissary to make You look good? I’ve been a slave all my life. And as you know, God, I have post-traumatic-stress disorder, my self-esteem is in the pits, and my inner child is wounded to the core. No offense, God, but Your expectations of me are completely unrealistic.

What Lights You Up?

One way to answer this lies in the first sentence of the Torah portion, “Emor,” which means, “Speak.”   God tells Moses, “Speak to the “Kohanim” (the Priests)….and warn them to educate their children.” The Hebrew word “to warn” is “l’hazeer” and it is related to the word, “Zohar,” which means “light.”

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

                                    – Socrates

Predating by thousands of years a contemporary idea one would find in any spiritual parenting book, the Torah wants us to understand that the purpose of educating our children is to “light them up from within.” It is no coincidence that we use the term “to enlighten” to impart knowledge. True enlightenment is not about acquiring knowledge, however, but about gaining wisdom. Being enlightened is not an external process; rather, it’s the revealing of our inner essence and wisdom, our divine truth.

And so Moses was “warning” the Priests that the process of educating children is not just the external downloading of information but the internal cultivation of their character to reveal their inner greatness, because the essence of parenting is to build a child, and in so doing, to fill the child with light.

Similarly, the essence of the Jewish people is to build this world.   All Jews – not just the “Kohanim” – are charged with being the Priests of this world and being a light unto the nations.

Stepping into Greatness

But where does it start? It is the responsibility of each person to build him or herself. When we understand who we are at our core, and when our external behavior is congruent with this inner reality, then we could never act in any way   other than sanctifying God’s Name.   And then, embodying holiness, so as to honor God’s Name, would be effortless and natural. In a very familiar quote by Marianne Williamson, she says the following:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.

We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  

We are all children of God, and so, this all-powerful Deity has a relationship, a personal connection with each and every one of us. In “Emor”, however, God is further redefining the relationship and ups the ante. If we think of ourselves as dependent children who can only “take,” it limits us and forces us to “play small.”

And so in “Emor,” God asks us to step onto the bigger playing field, where we become God’s real partner in Creation. To do that, we must become givers. Then, we are capable of sanctifying holiness. And then God returns the favor. Says Pat Conroy: “Honor is the presence of God in man.”

In giving us the Torah in the desert, God was freeing us not just from the reality of slavery, but also from the mentality of slavery. May we all embrace our divine charge to be builders and enlighteners, and to live in the paradigm where everything and everyone is illuminated.

Something To Ponder:

  1. When you internalize your own holiness and power, what becomes newly possible for you?
  1. What would be you doing differently?
  1. What does the most enlightened version of you look like?
  1. Who and what situation changes for the better when you act from your enlightened self?

Kedoshim -Authentic Freedom

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

                          David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest

There is a difference between being “free” and having a “free-for-all”. Having left Egypt, the Jews were no longer slaves and were “free”. But what does freedom look like?The Egyptian Pharaoh was considered to be a “god.” He could enslave a nation, decree genocide, act outside of all reason, and he answered to no one. In being “free” to act with impunity, Pharaoh nevertheless brought widespread death and destruction to his country. So, is that what “freedom” looks like? If so, then really, what’s the point? Surely, it must mean something else.

A New Paradigm of Freedom

In liberating the Jewish people from slavery, God had to teach us what freedom – true freedom – looks like. Without a paradigm or model to go on, God had to teach us from the ground up. The kind of freedom God wanted us to embrace was a certain kind of freedom, the freedom of being “congruent”.

Being congruent means that the actions of your external self are consistent with the values of your internal being. Essentially, it means being authentic and true to yourself. The question is, however, as we can see from the example of Pharaoh, who was evil inside and out, is which self are we, and what kind of person do we want to authentically express?

Having been slaves in Egypt for over two hundred years, how could the newly- liberated Jew know what his or her real self was? How could a newly-freed slave understand his or her potential much less how to actualize it?

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim”, which means “narrowness” or “constraint.” Leaving Egypt for the desert was going from a place of constricted boundaries to a place of no boundaries. To avoid the external chaos of a “free-for- all”, as well as the internal panic of being in a state of “free-fall”, God had to teach us what being a truly free human being looks like, and how to create our internal controls.   So the Jews had to learn both “how” to be as well as “what” to be.

One of the main themes of this week’s Torah portions, “Kedoshim”, deals with the laws of prohibited relationships. Previously, it was the laws of proper speech – what comes out of your mouth. Before that, it was the laws of kosher animals – what goes into your mouth. Laws, laws and more laws. It seems that there is no part of our lives, our relationships, our behaviors, even our bodies, which is not governed by Torah law.   That is because Judaism is an inside/outside religion.

So is this just a new form of slavery? After all, when we were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh certainly controlled us.   In so doing, however, Pharaoh wanted to crush us, to break us down utterly. In total contrast, God wants to build us up, to cultivate our character so that we understand who we truly are – a holy people.

The Freedom to be Holy

 For us to be holy, however, we must be “whole”. We must be congruent. We must be holy both inside and out. In governing all of the myriad aspects of our lives, God is teaching us that Judaism is not compartmentalized, but is a seamless integrated holistic way of being.

Therefore, we can’t say – “This is for God, but that is not.” We can’t say, “Before, I was on God’s time, but now I am on my time.” We can’t say, “What I do or say over here matters, but over there it does not.” And we certainly can’t say, “Well, this is just business…”

And so whether it’s governing what we eat, how we speak, how we conduct business, how we treat others, how we conduct our intimate relationships, etc. etc. etc.… it ALL matters. In an integrated seamless holistic life, everything HAS to matter. And therefore, we can look at each law that God gives us as another nuance and refinement, another pathway and connection, to help us close the gap between the external being and the internal selves that represent our true godly essence.

When we were delivered from Egypt, we were given the gift of freedom. To stay, free, however, is another story. Staying free means embracing freedom as a responsibility to be earned, integrated and owned – in other words, being congruent. When we can do that, no one and nothing can ever enslave us again. And that is what freedom – true freedom – really looks like.

Things To Ponder:

  1. Is there some area of your life where you are not congruent? If so, what one step can you take to close the gap?
  2. When and how will you do it?
  3. Why is this important to you and what will be different in your life – and about you?
  4. How will you know when you are being more congruent?
  5. How will other people in your life know that you are being more congruent?
  6. How does having more congruence enlarge or empower you?