Monday, February 24, 2014

The Holiness Within Us

By Greg Marzullo

In an almost charming moment in the wilderness, the people of Israel go overboard in a good way. Moses has commanded that everyone bring various items - tanned hides, gems, yarns, oil, spices - in order to create the tabernacle and its glorious surroundings. As soon as word goes out, people come in droves bearing heaps of gifts, until finally the craftsmen take Moses aside and say, "The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do."

Moses tells the crowds, "No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary."

When do we actually give so much that we're told to stop? 

More commonly, when asked to give, we ignore the asker completely (e.g. a homeless person on the street or one of the hoards of Greenpeace/Planned Parenthood/Save the Children workers outside the Metros). Even on occasions when giving couldn't be simpler (e.g. at the register of Whole Foods where we're spending a paycheck on gluten-free cookies made with organic chia seeds but can't donate a dollar to help women form businesses in underdeveloped nations), we still say "no." 

Here, in this beautiful moment of the Torah when the people of Israel are out in the wilderness, they give everything they have, various men and women "whose hearts made them willing to bring anything." They're giving it all up for the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

Yogic thought has a similar idea in that we're constantly asked to renounce all the fruits of our actions, doing everything, instead, for the Divine. Each word we speak, each thing we do becomes a stick of incense, a lit candle or a piece of fruit left at the altar of God. Going one step further, God is living in every person and creature we meet, so now the altar isn't in the temple, but in the world.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, an avatar of God, says to his mortal disciple Arjuna, "Those who possess this wisdom have equal regard for all. They see the same Self in a spiritual aspirant and an outcaste, in an elephant, a cow, and a dog."

Later on, "When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union."

And in an especially beautiful passage: "They alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every creature, who see the deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Thus they attain the supreme goal."

If God exists in all beings, then the Holy of Holies exists within each person, too. The tabernacle is a living, breathing thing that gains in value because we give honor to it, not just through the mouthing of prayers but through giving our all to God. 

So, the next time someone asks you for some change, even when you don't have it, be like the Israelites and give whatever you do have: a smile, a conversation, a renewal of the humanity between people and the chance to worship God. 

No Regrets

Shabbat Shekalim
24 Adar 1, 5774
February 24th, 2014

My social media is filled with people telling me that they live life with no regrets. I stare dumbly at these posts, trying to figure out what they mean.

It’s not clear to me how to live without regret. By the time most people I know have gotten anywhere in life, they’ve made at least a couple of decisions that were real stinkers; that’s not to mention the kind of stuff that happens to us, instigated by God, nature, or other people, outside of our control. 

I think we all want to be clean; I think we want to live free of the detritus of the past; I think we wish that we were unburdened. I wonder, though, if we’re really free when we go all death metal with both hands, scream out ‘YOLO’, and bungee jump off that bridge. Don’t get me wrong: I’m an adrenalin junkie; I love all that stuff; but, after the rush, we still have to go back to being ourselves.

In the Torah, God’s first recorded emotion is regret. Around chapter six of Genesis, God realizes that these humans are a bit more than the Holy One had bargained for. “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that God had made humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.” (Bereishit 6:5-6)

Regret exists for a purpose; even the Holy One feels it. Some kinds of change require one to confront the past, even its wreckage. Right beyond regret lives the kinds of radically new choices that one cannot make without first looking back. 

Perhaps our desire to be carefree is leading us astray from real spiritual work. Robert Frost said it well, "the best way out is through."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Are You Committed to God or a Golden Calf?

By Greg Marzullo

When we study Torah, it’s staggering to imagine the various biblical heroes speaking with Adonai so directly. Who were these people and what was this time when the veil between the divine and humanity seemed nonexistent, such that Moses could speak with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus, 33.11)? These days, our willingness to believe in a divine presence has dwindled, because the fantastical episodes of earlier millenia seem far afield from the world we live in now. What happened to the clouds of fire and the thundering voice from the mountains? What about the sanctified leaders who can help guide us through the marshes of confusion surrounding us?

Throughout the yoga community I’ve encountered plenty of people who feel betrayed by their family’s religious traditions and, often, with good reason. Politics have taken the place of spiritual evolution, and dogmatic renderings of ancient texts appear downright antagonistic to an ever-expanding view of the human condition. This can lead us to feeling left adrift as the Israelites do in this week’s Torah portion. While Moses is up on the mountain, we’re all stuck down here, rolling around in the muck of human existence. For the Israelites, they decided to craft their own god, and we often do the same.

The classical era yogic scholar Patanjali composed a famous philosophical work titled the Yoga Sutras, and in it, he lays out the very clear, scientific method of achieving enlightenment. More than any other suggestion – more than moral codes or ways of meditating – Patanjali says that Isvara pranidhana, surrender to God, is the fastest way to achieve Self-realization.

The yogic sage is working with the time-honored principle that whatever we turn our attention to is what we eventually become. If our thoughts are constantly obsessed with God, we gain a greater relationship with God. If our thoughts are taken up with our job, we gain a greater focus on our work. If our thoughts center on making money, playing an instrument, finding love or any of the other thousand things people think about, we will gain a deeper relationship with that thing.

The question is: Are you committed to God or a golden calf?

The ancient yogis remind us constantly that only the divine gives lasting pleasure – everything else yields pain. Even when we experience something good (a promotion! a new love!), it’s fraught with concerns about the proverbial shoe hovering just over our heads. Pleasure is haunted and hunted by its inevitable end.

In the Katha Upanishad, one of India’s mystic texts, a boy has a run-in with Yama, the god of death, who is so entranced by the child’s wisdom that the deity grants him three wishes. The child’s greatest wish is to learn the secrets of the soul’s everlasting nature, and when Yama tries to offer him riches and women instead, the boy replies, “How can we be desirous of wealth when we see your face and know we cannot live while you are here?”

Yet, that’s exactly what most of us do. We buy ourselves into an uneasy denial with gods that are as facile as that golden calf crafted by a nervous Israel. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, upon coming down the mountain and seeing the madness of the people below, destroys the tablets written with God’s hand and then grinds the golden calf down to a powder, forcing the idol-worshippers to drink it after mixing it with water. Those very same people are then beset by a plague sent from God. While this might sound heavy-handed, more potently, it’s actually a symbolic rendering of what happens to us when we turn away from devotion to the divine. We become obsessed with things that don’t truly matter, that can’t truly last, and in the end, those very obsessions poison us. We’ve all fallen prey to this toxicity – a one-night stand didn’t heal our loneliness, the evening out on the town just left us hung over, brushing past the beggar didn’t leave us richer, just colder. Idolatry in dead things only causes a sickening of the heart.

“The joy of the spirit ever abides,
But not what seems pleasant to the senses.
Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt
Us to action. All is well for those who choose
The joy of the spirit, but they miss
The goal of life who prefer the pleasant.
Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.”

These are Yama’s first teachings to his young charge, and his words are just as powerful today as they were thousands of years ago. Things that appear to our favor because they feel good in the moment aren’t necessarily our best friends. The golden calf of whatever we currently worship – cynicism, privilege, self-centeredness, wealth, beauty – will betray us in the end.
Only the Eternal can grant us eternal joy.

(All translations of the Katha Upanishad by Eknath Easwaran.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

I Have a Story to Tell

3 Adar Rishon, 5774
February 3rd, 2014

The Torah speaks its message in three different voices: law – like the Ten Commandments; narrative – like the story of the Exodus from Egypt; and prophecy – like Isaiah’s vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares. I love all these voices; over time, they have made a home in my heart; I welcome each one as an old friend.

Throughout the Bible God uses each voice according to its particular strength. Law teaches us what to do. Prophecy gives us perspective on the state of our world, and pushes us to hope for better.

Explaining narrative – stories, really – is harder. Their function is to show us how to know ourselves and know God; however, they don’t always present that way. Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac – what could an example that extreme have to teach us? God places Moses in the cleft of a boulder and passes by so that Moses can see God, but only from “the back”. I find it unlikely that I’ll be put in that position any time soon – why does this story matter to me? And does God even have a back?

People often ask me why the Torah isn’t clearer. It’d be a lot easier if Torah just said what was what: God is about 7 foot tall and wears size 15 shoes; make sure you write that check to Hadassah or you’ll be afflicted with mild gastric irritation.

But that’s not how it works. Substantive knowledge of ourselves and of the Soul of the Universe is hard won – and that’s when the answers are easy. We have spent the entirety of human history seeking the spiritual truth of things, and we have never yet found that truth.

Paul Kalanithi, the chief neurosurgical resident at Stanford, wrote a brilliant and heartrending article about his quite-likely-terminal cancer. In explaining why doctors do not give clear answers about life-expectancy, he says, “What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

Torah is just like that. Even if it were possible to give some kind of concrete spiritual truth (and I’m not convinced it is), we simply wouldn’t know what to do with it. Maimonides teaches that we wouldn’t understand it, or we’d get it completely wrong, or we might see that truth and decide that we should put our neighbors to the sword for being unbelievers (my addition). The only way to find authenticity is through an authentic search. And that’s why the Torah teaches in stories: narratives take work to understand, and one inevitably understands them through one's own perspective. And that is proper.

So whenever you encounter a story in Torah, know that you are being invited to dig in. Every story is a metaphor, pointing the way towards a deeper truth. The trick is to enjoy the ride, and to be satisfied with the wisdom we find, even in the knowledge that it is incomplete.