The Ten Sefirot are a foundational deep structure of reality according to Kabbalah...
What makes you and I special? Often we look for external evidence for the answer. We each know how special our child, our significant other, our friend, are. But is the specialness we recognize in them truly due to the talents, the deeds, and or the physical or other characteristics that we like to point out? I would suggest not.
The specialness we recognize stems from our intimate access to a deeper spiritual quality inside ourselves and others. We call that quality holiness. The word holy, Kadosh, קדוש, in Jewish tradition means “special”, “unique”, “different”. God is sacred, a place is holy, or a person is Kadosh because we experience them as special, stand alone or somehow off-limits.
Most of us think of the seventh day, or Shabbat, as the holy/special day in the Jewish week. But in fact there is a special virtual day, as it were, holier than Shabbat. It is known as the Eighth Day, Yom HaShemini, יום השמיני (Leviticus 9: 1). It is so special that it doesn’t appear on the normal seven day calendar cycle. The Eighth Day, Yom HaShemini, יום השמיני, is conceptual, creative, and reserved for special milestones.
For example, the circumcision ceremony, Bris, is always performed on the eight day after birth. The holiday of Sukkot concludes with Shemini Atzeret, the “Eighth Day gathering”, and Hanukkah ends on the eight day. The Mishkan, משכן, the original desert version of the Holy Temple, that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments, was inaugurated on the Eighth Day (ibid.).
According to the “Beit Avraham”, Rabbi Avraham Winberg (Early 20th century Bernowitch, Russia), “the number eight represents the paradigm of detachment from the physical world, as eight surpasses the seven days of creation. It is the unifying principle that, at once, permeates and supersedes the structures of physical reality”. In fact, the number eight stretched horizontally is the mathematical symbol for infinity, “lemniscate”. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for eight, Shemonah, שמונה, conceals within it, in scrambled form, the Hebrew word for soul, Neshama, נשמה.
Therefore, the special eighth day that is reserved for unique milestones along the life cycle and calendar cycle, such as circumcision and Shmini Atzeret, represents a spiritual quality that stands outside of ordinary existence. Eight is the numerical expression of specialness. It represents a corner of reality that is deeper and exists beyond the visible. “Eight” is the specialness in each one of us as per each our most inner soul-print. It is a reminder of the sacredness, that hides beneath the greatest as well as lowest of tangibles. The Eight Day, Yom HaShemini, יום השמיני could be considered as the “Jewish day of the soul”, our soul and that of others, the special interior we are charged to cherish and nourish. Eight for holy, eight for special, as special and unique as you truly really are.
Rabbi Reuben Modek
As the Purim story goes, Haman was a narcissist who planned to massacre all Jews in Persia because the Jewish Mordechai refused to bow down. Mordechai preserved the integrity of his faith and dignity and Haman took insult. This is a story of ethnic hatred that ended up in misfortune and defeat for the haters while the Jews were spared. Till this day we commemorate our lucky moment with merrymaking, gift-giving, costumes and a bit of booze. The Vilna Gaon (18th century Lithuania) teaches that the word Purim shares the root of the name of another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippurim or for short Yom Kippur. Thus Purim too, like Yom Kippur, is a time for inward reflection.
Recent events are particularly calling us to reflect this Purim. The Tree Of Life massacre, the Christchurch massacre, and the growth of violent white supremacism. Do we have any part in these extreme events, perhaps by omission if not by commission? Greta Thunberg, a high school student from Sweden, has initiated an international school strike to bring attention to Climate Change and the perilous future we are handing our children. Have we been doing enough to secure a sustainable environment for the next generations by omission, if not by commission? Haman engaged in Jew harassment, are we doing enough to prevent ethnic based harassment/massacres in our own times? Are we doing enough to prevent the extinction of species and the dangerous alteration of the climate?
[floating image: 'grogger']
The holiday of Purim is fun-filled. The Talmud advises us to wear masks, get high, and party. In fact we are told to dress in costumes pretending to be someone else entirely. The full story and observances of Purim indeed give voice to deep spiritual and ethical principles, such as humility, courage, tolerance, mystery, beauty, wit, love, joy of life, and more.
[floating image: 'grogger']But when we examine the story’s dramatic core we are reminded not to get high but rather to be on high alert, mindful of the rise of evil and insanity in our midst. This Purim as we slip on our costumes let us actually unmask. Let us stop the pretense that all is well. Let us become the fierce activist dormant within us. Let us make our hopeful voices heard louder than the noisiest groggers drowning the name Haman. Let us assure safe streets, safe places of worship, and a safe planet for generations henceforth. May our grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond enjoy many costume parties that reenact ancient and purely symbolic stories of long forgotten wows. Long forgotten. This Purim let us assure the integrity of life, faith, and dignity for all peoples for all times.
Rabbi Reuben Modek
Is there God in our lives, felt, seen, heard? Often we speak of God in theoretical terms, in the third person, as if we were describing a neighbor. We debate whether Gd exists or whether He is just a figment of wild ancient human imagination. The first word of the Torah-book Vayikra (the third of the “Five Books of Moses”) gives us a hint: “(he) called Moses and the Eternal spoke to him...” (Vayikra chapter 1: verse 1).
Vayikra, ויקרא, which literally means “he called” is spelled with a smaller size letter at its end, the letter Aleph (א or “a”) to be precise. The Zohar (13th century mystical Torah commentary) teaches that whenever letters appear small in the Torah they allude to the “lower” world that God inhabits.
A larger א represents the transcendent aspect of God, the incomprehensible one, the God we will never encounter due to limited human capacity. The transcendent God does not exist to human experience. The smaller א, though, to the contrary, represents the direct-experience God that we encounter day in and day out. We know Her when we touch Her.
The smaller א, of direct-experience, is also termed Shekhina, שכינה, the Indwelling One, also the feminine aspect of God. She resides in our midst. Where? You know where as She is within your subjective experience in your moment to moment living. At times She surprises you with little synchronicities, some call them coincidences. Sometimes you meet Her during earth-shaking miraculous events. Other times you meet Her in the intensity of emotion related to life’s significant passages, birth, puberty/sexuality, marriage, and brushes with death. Others meet Her in the quietude of meditative breathing. No one can tell you where She is, because only you know.
Thus you are Vayikra, ויקרא, you are called, by a voice so ancient yet fresh, so subtle yet undeniable, whose poetry sings your breathing from out-of-the-womb to the threshold of the great void. Someone had “called to Moses” (ibid.) just as someone is still calling to each of us moment by moment. Have you heard your unique calling(s)? When we hear, see, touch the “calling” then the spiritual dimension we call “God” livestreams at us “… and the Eternal spoke…” (ibid.), as it were. Do not believe in Him, simply listen and hear Her calling. She is not a “neighbor” but the pattern in the fabric of your own very life.
Like Moses, may we listen.
Rabbi Reuben Modek
“Let’s get it together, together”, taught Reb Zalman Z”L. The power of togetherness as both a spiritual incubator and spiritual safe-haven is the core purpose of the Jewish Minyan (a prayer quorum of ten on more people) and of Jewish spiritual community in general. Why ten? Because, according to the Kabbalah, the world is established upon ten unique qualities, known as the ten Sefirot. The balanced presence of those ten ingredients makes any entity whole and complete. Ten or more people praying together allows the full array of the inner ten flavors to manifest into an interpersonal symphony that lifts up everyone involved. That is the function of spiritual community and of Minyan specifically.
You know it when you feel it, and you like it when you taste it.
In fact, the practice of communal spiritual practice is not unique to Judaism but rather universal. Christians have prayer groups, Sufi’s have Zik’r circles, Buddhists have Sanghas, Native Americans gather in the medicine circle, and so on. Spiritual development and spiritual nourishment very rarely happen in solitude. Warner Erhard, an American thought-leader of the 1970s, said “If God wanted people to function in solitude, God, instead of continents, could have created one-person islands all over the world’s oceans to accommodate everyone, but S/He didn’t”.
We, humans, are social creatures for purposes that are both physical and spiritual. Together, we get it together, and rise to where alone, each one of us would not have been able to reach. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts. We thrive in intentional social settings enhancing our joy and the wellbeing of our spirits. The weekly attendance at a Shabbat Minyan can be for the soul what nutrients and fluids are for the body.
One must acknowledge, though, that the beauty and power of communal Shabbat practices have been substituted by some practitioners in some communities with adherence to dry lists of do and don’t. Some of us have experienced Shabbat as restrictive, dull, overly “religious”, oppressive and more. Others haven not experienced Shabbat at all, as for many Shabbat was lost when our ancestors replaced Jewish traditions with modernity.
It is, though, within our reach to simply reclaim the deep spirituality and satisfying social dynamics available when we gather on Friday night to pray, play and feast. The lights of the candles are reflections of the light within us. The sounds of singing are the sounds of the heart’s innert melody. The sharing of experiences, aspirations, inspirations, and thoughtful discourse are expressions of the brilliance within each one of us. The sweet encounter with new and old friends reflects the The encounter with The Friend we sometimes call The Holy One Blessed Be, הקדוש ברוך הוא.
I look forward to co-creating a peaceful “sanctuary in time”, a Shabbat, a few hours of retreat, this Friday night, when we will get together to spiritually get-it-together.
Rabbi Reuben Modek
Not A Religion
What does it mean to be Jewish? What is Judaism? If the High Holiday season triggers existential questions, this would probably be one of the foundational ones? And furthermore, is there a God? What or who is the God that dominates the pages of the prayer book and the Torah that we will engage with for hours at synagogue during the holidays? If God exists, then why is She/He/It so illusive? If God doesn’t exist, why do intelligent people spend so much time and energy celebrating a delusion? And furthermore, why so many questions? Why am I so ambivalent in my relationship to my religion?
Here is why! Because we think like Christians. You are Jewish but you are most likely thinking about yourself like a Christian would.
What do I mean?
The late, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi of Boulder Colorado, used to say that we are like pickles. Our lives turn out to be like the pickle juice we marinate in. In America, in a Christian majority society, in a Christianity dominated culture, we have all been marinating in Christian pickle juice, as it were.
what is the mental framework we have available to us for understanding our own Jewish identity? Yes, a Christian framework. Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling? When it comes to understanding our own identity, many of us are ever so subtly the Swan gosling among the ducks. No wonder we are ambivalent.
What is the hallmark of Christian identity? “Religion”. Christianity is a religion, by definition. It is based on a person’s relationship to God. Jesus, the son of God, died on the cross on our behalf, Christians claim. You will attain your Salvation, spiritual satisfaction, your “enlightenment”, once you accept Jesus’s love into your heart. You will be a good Christian once you follow the god-Jesus as a role model. A Christian’s relationship to God defines his or her identity, a religious identity by definition. The culture we marinate in, is thus obsessed with the god-relationship as a mark of personal virtue and religiosity.
What defines a Jewish person’s identity? Bloodline. You are either born a Jew or you choose to join the blood lineage. When a person converts into Judaism he or she are not asked to accept God into his or her heart. The convert is asked to step out of his or her birth-lineage and enter the Jewish lineage by taking on a new name, “so-and-so, son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah (our original ancestors)”. Whether or not you believe in God or have a relationship to God is irrelevant to your being Jewish, bloodline is.
How do Christians view Jews through their framework? As a variation on Christianity, another kind of religion, an outdated religion at that, but nevertheless a religion. There is the Christian religion, the Muslim religion, other religions and Judaism is in that lineup.
How do Jews identify as being Jewish? As a people - unless of course you are a Jew who has primarily marinated in a Christian dominated culture. Judaism is not a religion, it is a peoplehood. I submit that you and I are not interested in attending Rosh HaShannah “religious” services. Our deeper interest is in having our “Knesset”, our gathering with our Jewish brothers and sisters to connect with our history and our traditions.
Whether you believe in, comprehend of, worship, or love God, or whether you disbelieve in, object to, ridicule, or even hate God, is immaterial to the purpose of attending High Holiday services. And furthermore, it is irrelevant to your Jewish identity. As a Jew you are a member of the Jewish people, and it is an unwavering identity.
As a people we have the three “L”s in common: land, language and legacy. The land of Israel, the Hebrew Language and our collective legacy, our story of origin, the Torah. We will attend services this year to tap into the 4000 year long flow of our shared land, language and legacy, together with our tribesmen and tribeswomen.
And sometimes when we gather, God may show up in our midst as well - or not. We may touch upon a sacred moment at services - or not. But whether or not we do, I feel that we always successfully dip our minds and hearts into our people’s collective lifestream and draw nourishment from it.
This Rabbi will be so bold as to permit you, at least during this season, to ignore the majority culture view of you. No, your Judaism is not a religion. Instead I invite you to explore your identity on your own terms, as a tribesman/woman with a 4000 year old land, language and legacy. It is literally your birthright. About that, please have no ambivalence.
May you have the sweetest and happiest Jewish New Year.
Shannah Tovah U’Metukah,
Rabbi Reuben Modek