Maybe Something Doesn’t Love a Wall

“To show we’re great, we’ll build a wall!”
He shouted, “Long and big and tall!”

Does God define those out and in
By race or creed or next of kin?
If that’s the purpose of your wall
May all your bills in Congress stall!

But a worse lesson you must learn
Before you take one more bad turn:
Your wall cannot change to a boat
When every house now has a moat.
Walls will not be thought of more
When men must now rebuild a shore.

Your surety you thought would keep
But even you must watch and weep
As walls and towers built to abide
Are strewn across the countryside.

And now will the jeweled isles cry
While you continue to deny
The changes come upon our land?
We can all see the stronger Hand.

We know pride goes before a fall.
Do you think God cares for your wall?

New Light on Rosh Hashanah

For the coming month of Elul, I’ve decided to start a separate blog series on the Rosh Hashanah prayers, in coordination with a podcast that will make the same material available in a listening format on Spreaker.  I’ll continue posting here also, though perhaps lest often for awhile.

If you’d like to follow my new blog as part of your own preparation for the holidays, you can connect to the “Blog for Elul” at Rosh Hashanah 5778 by clicking here.

The Meeting of Sun and Moon

This coming Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will be visible, partly or in its totality, over much of North America. The next day, we will celebrate the New Moon of the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the year 5777.  Are these two astronomical events connected? And if so, what does it mean?

Yes, they are connected. The moon, in its dance with the sun through a month, always has a dark time when we cannot see it at all.  That followed by the “new moon” when a sliver of the moon’s sunlit side appears in the sky, shortly after sunset.  But the dark moon does not usually result in an eclipse; that only happens when the sun and moon are aligned from a certain earthly point of view (the “path” of the eclipse).  That unique alignment is happening just before Elul’s new moon.

What does it mean?  We are told that in ancient times people were awed by eclipses and feared them as omens. Not so in Judaism — our priests and rabbis knew that this was an astronomical phenomenon. Nevertheless, they also knew that the world is a divine creation, and that the connection between our own lives and the phenomena of nature can inspire us.  For example, the Torah tells us to set up our calendar by the moon. Our Sages then used the moon’s waxing and waning to help us understand the cycles of good and bad times for the Jewish people.

Our tradition also describes each lunar month as having its own unique character within the annual round of moons. The month of Elul is cherished as a time of teshuvah, “return.,” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we begin to look back on the past year and prepare for the new one, it is a time conducive to reflection and introspection.

Elul is also the month when “the King is in the field,” as a traditional parable puts it. Rather than having to approach God in the palace amid pomp and ceremony, one can experience God out in the fields, among the people, open to prayers in a different way, recognizing our trouble and pain outside the restraints of the great system of halls and chambers that organizes cosmic energy.  For us, it is a time of repentance because we are asked to be humble too, and step out of the frameworks that we use to organize our lives, to meet the king in the fields.

The word Elul is spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed.  These letters also make an acronym for a famous verse in the Song of Songs (6:3):  Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship between God and us is like that of lover and beloved in that beautiful biblical poem, where also the two sometimes celebrate their coming together and sometimes are apart, yearning for one another.

This resonates with the traditional symbolism where the sun represents the divine and the moon the Jewish people. Astrologically speaking, sun and moon move in ways that are sometimes close, sometimes far.  They are closest together at the dark of the moon, but we cannot see it. Metaphorically, our relationship to God in this darkness is largely behind the scenes, even unconscious.

But in a total eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon during the daytime, their relationship is out in the open, so to speak.  Yet the sky will darken, because the moon hides the sun’s light. In an uncanny shift of roles, the brilliant sun retreats, highlighting the moon and the darkness.

We can see, though, that the moon even in her “darkest” moment has within her the greatness that can cover the sun.  So with us: when the “light of day” is hidden, this is when we as human beings must become more aware of our potential, to bring forth what must be born from the darkness.

The month of Elul asks us to look back at the past year –  our personal lives, our communities, Israel, the world.  Certainly public life has been stunning for those of us living in the USA, where the eclipse will largely be seen; a dramatic eclipse is in many ways a fitting metaphor for the past year.

At the same time, Elul reminds us to look forward, to remember and anticipate our connection with God.  As the New Moon emerges we can ask how we can increase the light.  But also, remembering the eclipse, we can ask how to be shown the potential of the dark times, consciously encountering the hidden parts of ourselves, and liberating those resources for good.

Good Chodesh!  May you have a good month!

 

 

 

 

Kids Whose Parents Fight All the Time

The fighting didn’t start January 20th or November 8th or even two years ago; it’s been going on a long time.  The volume was turned up when Republicans decided they would vote “no” on any Obama proposal.  After the 2017 inauguration it exploded to an unbearable decibel level.

If this were your home, and you were an adolescent who had grown up with years of fighting all around you, you would be traumatized. In moments of clarity, you would see that your parents fight over anything. Even when something as clear as day occurred, like the trash pickup accidentally spilling garbage on the street, they would argue over whose fault it was that the can was too full or it wasn’t placed in a correct position.

Likewise: for three days we have listened to arguments about blame.  Today you can read a well-researched article on assigning blame to “alt-right” and “alt-left,” based on historical and statistical analyses of how extremists on either end have engaged in violence over the past 50 years.  WTF?  says the teenager.  As if that would stop the fighting?

So, three points.

Point 1: Listening to this day and night is not good for us; we need healthy choices. What would the guidance counselor advise the kid who is stuck in this impossible household for 3 more years?  Work hard, get good grades, plan your own future.  Learn from the mistakes around you.  Don’t take drugs or drown your sorrows in binge TV.  Join a club at school. Volunteer for an organization on the weekends.

You get the analogy.

Specific additional advice for our situation: Ignore those quadrated screens of commentators saying the same things every time there’s another fight.  If you must get the news, check it quickly in the morning (not before bed, it damages your sleep), ask yourself if this is worthy news, then go on with YOUR day.

Point 2:  This is like a captivating magic show; we are the gullible audience.  You know how the magician works: he keeps his hands moving around the objects on the table or waving the wand, saying “Watch!  Watch!  You see it, keep watching!”  (Watch Russia v USA. Watch Kim v Trump. Watch alt-R v alt-L.)  But the action is happening where you aren’t looking – in the magician’s other hand, or his feet, or on the other side of the stage.

While everyone’s attention is distracted, be smart!  Look at what’s going on elsewhere, backstage. That’s where you find the directors with scripts, stage managers, and the crew – mostly the group called the “Cabinet.” Orders are being given, the scene is being redone as they try to create a society in Trump’s image.  But unless you look hard, you won’t see those folks until the end, when they come out to bow for the credits – and try to get their boss re-elected in 2020.

Point 3:  Learn from what has happened. This could be a teachable moment for people, for any of us who thought “there’s always a way to work with a situation.”  For example, the CEOs who quit acquiescing to this administration are thinking differently. Maybe this is a time when those who think mainly about management – of money, resources, people — can think together about ethics, about fairness, the public good. Maybe they will listen now to people other than big shareholders who want to make megabucks.  Charlottesville was a very loud wake-up call.

The fighting could become worse, and that’s the fear that arises, in a child or in us. If we give into fear, we become paralyzed.  But we aren’t helpless.  Day by day, we can make good choices.

For Emma Lazarus and the Mother of Exiles

in reply to Mr Stephen Miller:

 

Not like the silver tongues of ancient times

Who taught with wisdom in the city gate —

Today a brazen youth steps forth with hate

To twist the meaning of an honored sign!

Our mild-eyed lady need not yield a line

Of meaning from her poem. O let him prate

With facts and figures all drawn up to mate

His pompous thoughts. But we will not resign.

When we refuse the despots in their tower,

Resolving to undo their secret schemes,

Heart’s knowledge reveals to us a different power:

The race is won by courage, love, and dreams.

The golden door will long outlast this hour —

The torch remains aloft, undimmed its beams!

–A Cosmopolitan

ON NOT BEING ALONE

If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?

With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.”  Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand.  If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most.  My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!

But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.

As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.

So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long.  The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, .  And that’s good.  When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.

But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment.  So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?

We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else.  We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.”  My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said.  Yes.  From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.

Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent.  Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person.  Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses.  Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways.  Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color.  We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.

I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.*   This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form).  When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels.  I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead.  Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.

So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.

That angel may be experienced in many forms.  As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.

Is it one angel, or many?  I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude.  And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence.  With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn.  These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.

When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people.  We can even see their angels.   I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba!  Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”

Bruchim ha-Baim!  Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.

 

 

 

 

 

* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4.  The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!”  (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality.  The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.

Imaginal Evil

It’s the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating some of the most nightmarish events in the history of the Jewish people.

As part of the exploration of Imagination as the activity of engaging with the “inner dimensions” of our lives, I am asking today:  How we can enter into the dark side of the Imaginal world?

One way, the most prominent in Jewish tradition, is through the poetry of the lament. The biblical book Eicha or Lamentations describes the disaster after the destruction of the First Temple and attributes the events to the sins of the people and especially their leaders. Eicha means “How?!” as in “How can it be, that such a thing happened!” American slang, with its customary vulgarity, has an expression that captures the idea.

Tisha b’Av has its own darkness.  In its origins – the refusal of Jews to follow God’s command or listen to His prophets – we find the same archetype of self-alienation from God that we encounter in the “fall” from Eden.  But today we are not promised a renewal, even a difficult one like that of Adam and Chava. We mourn and pray in the face of complete darkness, when God “hides his face.” We say Kinot, dirges or elegies, remembering how we were promised only that “your carcasses will fall in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:29) for forty years. We remember also the devastation of the Holy City, exiles and murders throughout Jewish history, and destruction eventually coming to the world (with World War I, which began on Tisha b’Av). The prophet does say, “Daughter of Zion, He will no more carry you away into captivity” (Eicha 4.22), but on Tisha b’Av we do not know when that promise will be fulfilled.

If we don’t like this version, the fall or rebellion of humans followed repeatedly by darkness, penitence and return, we do have other choices. A different mythic framework is a cosmic battle between good and evil:  evil occurs because a force in the universe, operative in humans but also beyond us, perpetually destroys or distorts good works. Humans can only pray, with penance, to be delivered from it. They may experience some gratification in life, but true goodness only after death. This is the message of religions of salvation in an afterlife.

In another form, such as the stories of the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, the gods struggle among themselves, and the sad events on earth are largely the effects of their quarrels. Occasionally a human hero will rise above the fray, but while his efforts are admirable and virtuous, he usually meets a tragic end. The greatness of a human being is the effort of valor (the warrior) or force of character or thought (the ethical man or philosopher), even if it is doomed.

Another version:  Evil or chaos is a force in the world, but good triumphs as the individual follows Spiritual Truth (or an Angel or Teacher as in Sufism) to rise above it, not only for himself but to spread the light to others by example or teaching. Traditional Buddhist teaching is also in this mode, although the usual word is “suffering,” rather than evil.  In its psychological dimension, suffering is caused by humans, not by specific sins but by craving, desire, attachment. When we realize the truth of non-attachment – attaching ourselves only to the Light or enlightenment – we disarm and dispel suffering.

The full Jewish teachings of returning to God combine penitence (like the prayer of a suppliant as on Tisha b’Av), the good deeds of a valorous person (like the hero, not necessarily with a tragic end), and the inner work of striving to conquer one’s ego. The Hasid is somewhat like the Buddhist, determined to “nullify the ego,” and at the same time like the Sufi, to “cling to God.”

Yet the Jewish tradition is not entirely satisfied with this because it’s an individualistic solution. Christianity and Islam also speak of the redemption of the world, not only of individuals. So the “problem of evil” remains, because these myths imply that only as individuals can we escape, and perhaps not for long or not till after death.  (Group salvation might come then, in some religions.)

Perhaps there are other myths that take account of our interconnected state?

How about this?   Evil is relative, and some people are more evil than others. Almost everyone agrees that the most evil are those who willfully dominate others to extract benefit from them.  In this situation, “good” becomes rebellion to correct the imbalance of power, overthrowing domination.

A familiar line representing this orientation is that of Cassius, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Evil triumphs, he is saying, because of human fear or passivity; he advocates assassination. The playwright does not support Cassius, however; murder and overthrow of government is no solution.

Yet, the purity of righteous revolution remains part of modern collective mythology:  the “revolt of the proletariat” in Marxist thought, or “liberation theology.” The idea is that those who have been downtrodden, or the leaders they choose, will rule more beneficently. Even American democracy was established on this foundation:  “When in the course of human events” tyranny triumphs, it is the right of the people to rebel and establish a new government based “on the consent of the governed.”  But in practice, “the governed” meant free, property-owning white men.  Elsewhere, the revolutions have not stayed “pure” either.

The opposite view would be that those who have experience in ruling, whose families have ruled, or who have ruled in other realms like finance or military, will rule best. The idea seems more plausible to the modern psyche than mythic figures, but it is no less imaginal by which, again, I do not mean “imaginary”: they express reality seen in a different light, through the Imagination.  These masters of the universe have replaced good and evil angels, or gods and demons. And like the old gods, they have their “powers” – war instead of thunder, finance instead of fertility. Their losses and gains filter down to other earthlings.

One more modern myth seeks to explain why someone would seek power, even to the point of cruel dominion over others. I have used it myself in these pages.  More specific than “craving” and deeper than “pride,” this myth seeks the origin of both, and finds it in trauma. Trauma of birth, of infancy, of childhood, of a terrifying experience later in life like war, rape, or torture – these are the sources of evil.  A perpetrator of evil must have suffered abuse, and we are seeing the after-effects, sometimes transferred down through generations.  And yet this too reminds me of an ancient imaginal pattern, expressed in the biblical verse from God’s great revelation at Sinai, “I take account of the sin of the ancestors upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth of those that love me…”(Exodus 20:4-5).

Trauma, of course, is also a sprite bursting forth from the imaginal world. Memory, preserved in story, is its vessel.  Which is not to say that the story of trauma is false.  Or that it is true. Neither is the story of sin and iniquity. Such stories are the stuff that we are made of.

Whether the story is about our “inside” or larger forces “outside” probably doesn’t matter much either; only that we are accountable to it.  Truth, after all, is the accumulated result of imaginal tellings to which we have all agreed.  At some point most of us stopped consenting to leprechauns and faeries, and instead became fascinated with quarks and photons.

The natural world is of God’s presenting and the creatures’ consenting.  The creatures also present, to one another and to God, and She consents (or not).

Does it matter which myth you choose?  Yes it does, but not because one is better than another, or because anyone knows “how it will turn out.”  What matters is that it thrills you and energizes you in love of the world and God, and sustains you in courage to resist those who would destroy that love.

Is this not another individualistic choice?  Yes, but it relies on love, and love is inherently shared. That is a discussion for another post.

Tonight and tomorrow we face the darkness.  See your darkness for whatever it is – what terrifies you, stops you dead in your tracks, leaves you desolate, raging, or falling through what seems like an endless abyss.  Feel it:  let the darkness both stir within you, in your heart and your body as well as in your mind.  Speak to it, within it.  You will find its boundaries – for it is not endless – and beyond that you will begin to sense light.  Daughter of Zion, you will sing again.

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