Archive for March, 2013
Yesod she b’Chesed Foundation within Lovingkindness
Jewish tradition teaches that each generation stands on the shoulders of the last. Thus we are able to see farther into the future by standing high, on a firm foundation. Today we remember that this entire pyramid of generations is supported by story, memory and love. Without the foundation, the pyramid, like a tower of cheerleaders, can tumble. The parade of generations is like a caravan over time, where precious cargo is guarded lovingly and passed on at each oasis.
Stepping Into The Great Unknown
This is a time of great transition. Transition for us as a Jewish people, as this time of year is one of significant shift, as Pesach marks our leap from slavery to freedom. How does Jewish tradition help us deal with transition?
The tradition recognizes that transitions take time. Despite our desire to leave Egypt, it took many repetitions of Moses’ pleading, Pharoah’s refusals, and ever more onerous plagues for the Israelites to finally begin the process of physically departing from Egypt. Certainly Gd could have acted instantly, performing some miracle or set of miracles by which the Israelites could have been immediately delivered out of slavery. But instead, this set of escalating events set up the first step in the transition. The forty years we spent in the wilderness, wandering, taught us that major switches require patience, time and trust.
Every transition, whether monumental (for an entire population) or intimate and personal, also requires a stage of preparation. Some preparations are intentional, and operate on a known timetable, as when an engaged couple plans their wedding, does premarital counseling and signs a prenuptial agreement. When we recognize the preparation stage of a transition, we can analyze the situation, engaging our cognitive abilities to get ready for the change and use our knowledge of past situations to mentally rehearse for this upcoming change.
Other changes are unanticipated and require quick action, as when, in Egypt, we quickly baked matzo and packed our kneading bowls in preparation to depart…trusting that, this time, Pharoah would relent and let us go. When dramatic changes are unforeseen, we depend on trust.
Tradition tells us that transitions are difficult. How many times did the Israelites complain about their situation as free people in the desert, wishing to return to the security of slavery? How often do we, after having made some difficult choice, go back and revisit our decisions, examining the alternative futures we imagine might have resulted from the decision we did not make? A psychological theory known as Cognitive Dissonance explains that when a choice has to be made between two alternatives, say ‘Choice A” and “Choice B” which appear equally attractive at time X, we change our attitudes about the choice we did make over time. If we chose “A”, then choice “B” looks less and less appealing with hindsight. It is not intentional justification of the choice we did make, but a subtle shift in our perception of how tempting choice “A” really was at the time we made the decision. During transition times these perceptions are shifting rapidly, and often unpredictably.
Times of transition require us to experience the discomfort of the unknown. When we are no longer in the prior situation, but the new circumstances have not yet developed or been revealed, we find ourselves in a kind of limbo, often known as a ‘liminal’ period. Overflowing with potential and packed with uncertainty, liminal times can be intensely positive, as when a bride or groom is walking up to the chuppah about to be married, or can be strongly negative, as the period between the death and burial of a loved one. While some Eastern spiritual traditions teach non-attachment as a way to attempt to deal with the discomfort of the “not-knowing” of transitions, Jewish experience has taught us the usefulness of recognizing and honoring the challenge of liminal times, and then encouraging adaptation to the new.
A long history of adjusting to the unfamiliar has given Jews the ability to be culturally nimble while maintaining a sturdy but flexible framework of ritual, practice and belief. Transitions are harder when unexpected, but whether predictable or not, they lead us toward growth — personally, as a community, and as a people.
Day 5 of the Counting of the Omer 2013
Hod she b’Chesed
Splendor within Lovingkindness
Of the many interpretations of Hod, the one that most resonates is splendor — the amazing variety of everything in creation. Today we focus on diversity within lovingkindness…the many ways love is expressed in the world. The current discussions about the definition of marriage reflect the fact loving relationships are heterogeneous. It was not too many years ago that marriage between two people of different races was illegal; now it is not. Families built by adoption were rare, but families created through surrogacy were just a dream. When we recognize the many ways endless compassion and caring are manifest in the world, we open ourselves even more in the journey toward revelation in which we are engaged this Omer season.
Day 2 of Omer counting
Gevurah she b’Chesed
Appropriate boundaries within endless lovingkindness
How necessary are those boundaries, defined with love. This is the essence of ‘tough love’, or parenting, or dog training (which I’m in the midst of). Personally, if I don’t remember to set those boundaries, to exercise restraint, I have a tendency to just give and give and give…and then end up exhausted, or frustrated. Self-care is discernment, well applied.
Blessings to all for careful self-care for this day of counting. Remembering, that, in the grand scheme of things, YOU count.
Tiferet she b’Chesed
Harmony/Balance within Lovingkindness
If we think of Chesed as endless flow of endless Love, then Harmony within that flow turns it into melody, the music of compassion. Keeping balance in the complex lives we lead is challenging….we can, today, focus on the availability of the exact amounts of the rights kinds of compassion that will help us readjust to changing realities. Facing tragedies of death or major accidents, challenges of mental illness or chronic health conditions, the demands of dynamic work requirements and the needs of family and friends, we need to keep ourselves in balance. Tiferet she b’Chesed helps us.
As we move into Passover, I am excited to once again begin the psycho- spiritual journey through the counting of the Omer. We begin the count tomorrow evening, during the second Seder. It seems fitting to begin this journey of the soul when we, as a people, are just beginning our freedom walk, entering the unknown, in trust.
This first week of the counting of the Omer focuses on the theme of the endless flow of lovingkindness, or Chesed. When we pay attention, we can recognize the existence of compassion in our lives, and rejoice in our ability to share it with others.
The Passover Seder commemorates deliverance from slavery many thousands of years ago, yet is also a contemporary event. The Passover Haggadah states: “In every generation each person should feel personally redeemed from slavery in Egypt…for the Eternal One redeemed not only our ancestors; we were redeemed with them.” How can we do that? In part, the Passover Seder is designed for us to re-experience slavery, through eating bitter foods and eating unleavened bread, and then to celebrate freedom.
The word for Egypt in Hebrew, mitzrayim, means ‘tight place’. This week, we begin by thinking of the ‘tight places’ in our own lives. These might be restrictive relationships, jobs that stifle our creativity, health challenges that limit our mobility, reduced income, emotional tensions left from painful past experiences, or other complex situations where our choices are limited by matters we cannot control. Some of these limits are external, factual circumstances; others might be a result of accepting a narrow view of the possibilities in our lives, a product of fear, violence, a difficult childhood or other painful experiences.
Today we begin a contemporary journey out of our own version of slavery, out of the tight places in our lives, away from those parts of ourselves that are enslaved. By appreciating the gifts in our lives, the flow of Chesed, we can more easily value our liberty and exercise it with humility and gratitude. We begin to use our freedom to have more insight into our own lives. Doing so can help us see our way out of difficult circumstances more clearly. By easing our own narrowness, we move toward personal liberation, improving our own lives, and being more able to take action toward improving the world.
Chesed refers to unconditional love, boundless lovingkindness, flowing constantly from God, the Source. Chesed is grace flowering endlessly, opening new possibilities at each moment of life. Chesed is the ‘spark’ of creativity, where we brainstorm expansively and bubble over with inspiration, as new concepts seem to come from nowhere…and from everywhere. Chesed is like the flow of groundwater over the landscape after a steady rain, streaming, coursing, pulled by hidden forces of gravity, nurturing everything it touches, uncovering hidden secrets, cleansing and brightening.
The first week of the counting of the Omer is an opportunity to be aware of God’s loving presence in the world, manifested and experienced in many ways. Chesed reminds us that our unconscious contains the archetype of unconditional love, the perfect, unquestioning love that we all deserve. In this week of Chesed, we recognize that unending love is always available, and we start to accept it, receive it, and allow it to enrich us and then to channel it through us into the world.
Passover is almost here! Cleaning and more cleaning. Shopping and more shopping. Organizing and planning. With all the logistical arrangements (and cleaning), I sometimes forget to prepare for the season’s more important transformations.
I’ve been making a lot of bread this winter: baguettes and pizza, whole wheat loaves and challah. I know from my experiments that flour, salt and water, plus the wild yeasts in my house can combine to make wonderful sourdough bread, given the right time and conditions. It’s been a delicious set of explorations. But I know that next week I can’t just reach for a bagel at lunchtime. So what’s my relationship with that bagel now? Do I want it more because I know that I won’t be able to eat it next week? Do I start ‘withdrawal’ now? The approach of Passover is not just about the bagel (or challah or rye bread), tasty as those home baked goodies might be. It’s not just about the crumbs that all that bread baking has left in odd corners. The question is what those pieces of tasty bread mean.
Some commentators emphasize how light, yeasty breads reflect puffed-up egos, so that eating matzah for a week is a humility practice. But another way to look at avoiding chametz for a week relates to the fact that Shavuot is coming in just seven weeks.
Preparing ourselves for any big change involves separating from the comfortable, almost automatic existences we often lead. It is easy to rely on whatever it is we are used to, whether that is slavery (in Egypt, for example) or sandwiches made on pre-sliced bread. We know that next week there will be challenges to our culinary creativity (the vegan, gluten-free, recovering alcoholic seder guest, for example). But that kind of challenge is what German design theorist Horst Rittel called a ‘tame problem’, the kind of problem that can be solved with the appropriate investment of resources (time, money, and available organic vegetables). The more serious challenge is this: what will we do without the comfort of the predictable; but rather, with abundant freedom of choice within the boundaries of Passover food restrictions? Rittel would call that a ‘wicked problem’, the kind that, when you think you are close to a solution, reveals a whole new set of issues. Freedom of choice is a wicked problem because there is no set ‘correct’ answer, but rather a range of possible solutions, each with unique opportunities and pitfalls.
The culinary restrictions of the week of Passover are an immersion period, when we recall our ancestors plunge into the realities of freedom. We imagine ourselves there, in a way that wakes us up to the impact of change. During that week, we start the seven week psycho-spiritual process of adapting to that freedom, by preparing to receive Torah, using the process of Counting the Omer. We begin the 49 day practice of examining and refining ourselves, exploring the possibilities and limits of freedom. Open to changing ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, we step into the wicked challenge of the unknown. Counting the Omer begins next Tuesday evening, March 26.