Monday, June 16, 2014

Perceptions and Illusions - Greg Marzullo

Parshat Shlah Lekha

Perceptions and illusions are the meat of this week's dramatic Torah portion. After liberation from slavery in Egypt and the famous Red Sea crossing, the Jewish people march through the desert and almost reach the Holy Land. God commands Moses to choose twelve scouts who will check out Canaan, take stock of its natural resources and, most importantly, size up the locals who already live there.

The spies head off to gather intel, and when they come back, all but two of them say how difficult it will be to win this country flowing with milk and honey. The inhabitants are plentiful and very large, so much so that the spies saw themselves as "grasshoppers" compared to these giants. The people of Israel begin wailing about their impossible hardships, saying it would be better that they had never left Egypt. 

The Torah paints God as having had enough with the constant lack of faith, and He tells Moses that He'll wipe them all out and start again with a line of Moses. Luckily, our well-worn human hero begs God to reconsider, and Adonai relents; yet, He decrees that the generation which doubted His power - even after seeing all those miraculous interventions - will die in the desert. After 40 years of wandering, only the non-believers' children will reach the land promised to their ancestors.

Harsh, right? Seemingly. But, of course, there's more to it than that. 

Medieval scholar, teacher and commentator Rashi exhorts us to remember that the heart and eyes are the body's spies. This powerful observation, based on a line at the end of this week's portion to not follow the heart's and eyes' lustful urges, throws the entire portion into a new light - one based less on a seemingly Draconian punishment and more on the natural laws of cause and effect.
In yogic philosophy, the senses are viewed with wariness. They so easily lead us astray from our true intentions. The Upanishads, beautiful mystic texts of India, liken the human experience to being in a chariot drawn by the horses of the senses who madly plunge down the roads of our selfish desires. It's only with a firm grip on the reins that we can peacefully ride through the world and go where our true, transcendent nature would have us, as opposed to being dragged hither and yon by passing fancies. We're all too often pulled in multiple directions at once, convincing ourselves that our addiction to busyness is a necessity to leading a successful life, when in truth, our perceptions are only drawing us further and further away from the real promised land - the sacred earth that lies within our own divine consciousness.

The Israelites give up on their long-awaited goal because of mere perceptions - those guys are bigger than us! there are too many of them! we'll never be able to do it! - thereby creating their own punishment and exile. Stumbling after our every whim and sensory input only leads to chaos and a lack of fulfillment. Ultimately, the very things which drew us away from our connection to God are only going to betray us in the end. No job, car, house, person, experience, personal story, mental habituations (good or bad) can bring us the lasting contentment we're seeking, because all those things are transitory by design. 
We're supposed to fall out of love with the impermanent, so we can become intoxicated with love for the eternal Adonai. 

Seen through this lens, the wandering of the Israelites is not some story in a long-ago faraway place. It happens here and now. Turning our eyes from the land of milk and honey, perhaps not so much a geographic location as a state of being, leads us into the vast desert of ego-driven fantasies and desire that cannot possibly bear any fruit. Instead, we must give no credence to the faulty reports from the spies of our senses, instead staying focused on the Holy Land and gaining entry into the sacred place that has been ours since before the world was made.

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