Friday, August 31, 2018

First to Cry Out in Horror, then to Raise up Sparks -- Torah’s Challenge from within its Own “Harsh Passages”

The pain was palpable around the learning table. How to enter the harshness of the passage, even as it seems the Torah itself wishes to soften what it knows to be wrong in its essence? How do we read through the lens of our own sensibilities words that hurt and discomfort, words that describe a situation that never should have come to be? Yet it does come to be, then and now, over and over and over again. It is one more instance of the brutality that people bring upon each other, reflected not in the news of the day, but in our holiest text. Regardless of how the details vary, of time and context, in the varied guise of people and place, degrees of sophistication in the ways of our hurting others, so we have done and so we continue to do.

This weekly Torah portion Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), opens in the midst of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes so helpfully as one of the “harsh passages” of the Torah. Whether of life or of Torah, we struggle to know if this is what defines the essence. Is this the Torah? Is this life? Is this what it is all about, what we are left with when all else is scraped away? The portion opens, ki tetze la’milchamah al oy’vecha/when you go forth to war against your enemies, and, God, your God, delivers one of them into your hand, and you will take his captives, and you see among the captives a woman of beautiful form, you desire her and you take her as your wife.... It is the pain of women that sears the pages. Perhaps that is why it is there, to help us appreciate the pain of others by seeing the pain of those most vulnerable, those most in need of empathy and help, as in the constant reminder of our duty to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And here it is the woman, torn from her family, her people, her land to become another’s wife, to be forcibly married to a soldier who has been drawn to her body.  First we cry out with horror for such debasement of women, not to see in the controlled license given to the solder an act of sensitivity, but a glimmering of sensitivity that bids us to complete it. Before we can act on that glimmering, though, first we need to address the situation for what it is—rape—in the context of a forced and unequal marriage.

           It is painful to read these verses, painful to share them, to draw attention to them. And yet I do, because if we avoid what is painful, fearing to engage with the harsh passages of Torah and life, then we shall never transcend them. For all of the pain in life, we see and feel the warmth of a summer’s sun; we delight in the gleeful and oblivious laughter of children, in the spark of love when people are truly drawn to each other as equals. We witness within ourselves and in the world around us the power of kindness to transform and transcend. We stay engaged because we are alive, we are human, we have no choice if we would feel and affirm goodness and hope, a future for those very children whose laughter keeps us engaged.

In the face of the very harshness that he identifies, Rabbi Heschel responds out of the pain of his own soul.        Having witnessed enough of human brutality, fleeing the fires of Europe, much of his family having remained and been consumed, he describes the “harsh passages” as seeming “to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God.” Wrestling for his sake and ours, he writes (God in Search of Man, p. 268), “the standards by which those passages are criticized are impressed upon us by the Bible…, which is the main factor in ennobling our conscience and in endowing us with the sensitivity that rebels against all cruelty….” He reminds us that the “harsh passages” do not represent abiding values, that they are not prescribed as a way of behavior, “that they stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice, and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times.

We scream, we cry out, and we ask where do go from here and how do we get there? The Torah is a context for struggle. It is called Torat Chayyim/Living Torah, Torah of Life. It is real and often as seamy and sordid as it is sublime, a reflection of life in all realms of life. We are meant to wrestle and to struggle with life as it is reflected in Torah in order to learn how to struggle with life as it happens around us. The challenge is to learn the ways of redirecting the violence, of transcending and transforming the seamy and the sordid, of text and of life. That is why we engage with texts, to learn about life and how to live. The Torah is holy because it challenges us to be holy, not only through exhortation, but through engagement with the profane as well as the sacred, all part of life. Moved by the beauty of creation as it is in the world around us and by the words of B’reishit/Genesis that describe the world’s coming to be, moved by the laughter of the children and of the flowers that sway in a summer’s breeze, we know that it is “the compassion, justice, and wisdom” that are meant to abide for all time, the vision and the way until we get there, when the harsh passages shall be but a memory of a long and arduous journey.

          We take a breath around the table. There is a glimmering that rises through the pain. The law that the soldier is to marry a woman that he is drawn to hurts in its incompleteness, and yet it is a glimmering, a channeling on some most basic level, an effort to redirect initial passion, perhaps to prevent rape on the battlefield, so incomplete, but a glimmering. Perhaps? The challenge then is where do we go from here…; from there in the Torah to here amidst the churning of our own gentler sensibilities, from here to there…, to a time when the harsh passages shall have been smoothed away by the very gentleness that allows us, that demands of us to feel such pain.

The rabbis spoke of this law, in all of its incompleteness, as a context of struggle with the yetzer ho’rah/evil inclination: lo dibra torah eleh k’neged yetzer ho’rah/the Torah speaks only as counter to the evil inclination (Kiddushin 21b). Some say the statement is only about this context of struggle, the soldier on the battlefield. And yet, from the most extreme context of violence in which this teaching is set, the context of war and its brutality, a way is set to help us find the way out. For the Chassidic teachers, the context of war in the Torah becomes a context in which to face our own inner struggles with the evil inclination and our own demons, to wrestle toward the transformation and redirection of the less than admirable forces within our selves. These are the very forces, anger, greed, lust, self-loathing, which on a mass scale if left unchecked can precipitate the ways of war, violence, and rape that the Chassidic teachers seek to transform. The surface meaning and context, the p’shat of the text, is immediately transformed, deftly turned with gentle hand as though to say this is not the way, the transformation of words pointing the way to the transformation of reality.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, the Apta Rov, called the Ohev Yisrael/Lover of Israel, ancestor of our Rabbi Heschel, a thread unfolding through the generations, transforms the very verse that is the source of our pain. Of the captive referred to in the opening verse of the parsha, this refers to the holy sparks that were scattered, and engulfed, and locked away, and confused in all the external realities of the world….         Our task is not to abuse and betray one another, but to raise up those scattered sparks of holiness and return them to their source, thereby creating a world of wholeness.    Referring to us, and so to encourage, the Apta teaches of the vision and the way, of how to get from then to now, from here to there, b’ma’asehem ha’tovim, u’v’machshavtam ha’t’horah hayu podim otam me’ha’sh’vi/through their good deeds, and through their pure thoughts, shall they redeem them (the holy sparks) from captivity.

What may be the most startling transformation of the text, and so of war and violence, is in the commentary to this passage of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov in his work Igra d’Kallah, fittingly, The Letter of the Bride.         
The Dinover teaches that the captive woman is none other than the Sh’china, God’s female presence in the world: l’derech ha’m’kubalim/in the way of the kabbalists/mystics, kol ha’parasha m’daber al golus ha’sh’china/the entire portion is speaking about the exile of the sh’china/she’hi b’shiv’ya/for she is in captivity. The harsh passage is softened, touched by sparks of light, in the way of our reading and making our way through it, in the challenge leveled from within at the violence of its own context.

Reading through the lens of my own experience of text and life as a male, I acknowledge with humility that the possibility of so re-creating the p’shat/surface meaning is, of course, rooted in the painful real-life experience of women as reflected in the words of Torah themselves. The challenge and the glimmerings of response also begin in the Torah itself, awaiting completion through us. Raising the nascent sparks to fullness, it is for us to liberate the captive by insuring, first and foremost, that such brutality doesn’t occur in the first place. Our task is to free the captive woman of Ki Tetze, as everywoman and as Sh’china, allowing her gentleness to flow out into the world, softening its harshness with her motherly love, and ours.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, August 24, 2018

That We MIght Walk Humbly With God and People

After the rains fell so suddenly and then the sun appeared, I quickly got up from my desk and went downstairs, opening the door and stepping outside. As I always do in such times of rain and sun in quick succession, I had come to search for a rainbow. A rainbow is a symbol of peace, of wholeness and harmony. The rabbis long ago taught that the rainbow is the symbol of God’s universal covenant with all of humanity, a promise not to again destroy the earth. In ancient times, an inverted bow was a sign of peace, a hope for reconciliation. As between heaven and earth, so the rainbow becomes our challenge to respond in kind to God’s promise. The rainbow as our witness, we too are then to solemnly swear not to destroy this precious planet, that we too turn all weapons upside down and promise not to use them again.

Searching diligently, I did not see a rainbow on that morning. Walking back up the front stairs, I could see the quizzical look on the housepainter’s face. I explained that I had come to look for a rainbow, sharing my disappointment in not seeing one. The housepainter smiled and offered a beautiful teaching. He quietly said to me, as though to reassure, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” It is such a deep and encouraging teaching, expanding the arc and embrace of the rainbow. Somewhere else, other people are looking up and seeing a rainbow and delighting in its magic and promise.

God needs all of us to see a rainbow and be reminded of its promise and its challenge. Simply to see a rainbow softens the heart and opens our souls to greater embrace. The very presence of a rainbow is the beginning of its own promise fulfilled. Touched by wonder, how can we countenance the ways of damage and destruction?

With heart softened and soul opened, we are more able to ask of ourselves and of God, what do you seek of me, what shall I do, how shall I be in this world? It is a question in the weekly Torah portion called Ekev. Moses says to the people, and now, O Israel, what does God your God require of you/mah ha’shem elokecha sho’el may’imach? Only to revere God, your God; to walk in all God’s ways and to love God, and to serve God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut. 10:12). Soon after, the Torah explains what it is to love God, to be as God, for God is one who secures the rights of the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger, to give the stranger bread and clothing. You too shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… (Deut. 10:18-19). Love of God requires that we love people. That is what God seeks of us.

            There is an immediate parallel between these words in our Torah portion and the words of the prophet Micah in the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Micah also asks of what God wants and then tells us, higid l’cha adam/it has been told to you, O mortal, mah tov u’mah ha’shem doresh mim’cha/what is good and what God seeks of you/ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatzne’ah lechet im elokecha/only to do justly, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God… (Micah 6:8).

I feel a particular connection between the verses of God’s seeking in in the portion Ekev and in Micah. Ekev is my birth portion, though my Bar Mitzvah was a few weeks earlier on the Shabbos of Balak. Ever since chanting the words of Micah at my Bar Mitzvah, they have remained as a compass in my life, as a rainbow reminder of what God seeks in all the ways of my going. As I always like to share, when I spoke of Micah’s words at my Bar Mitzvah, my mother, her memory be a blessing, asked me to add a few words to Micah’s. Urged to walk humbly with God, so my mother asked me to say, “and with people.” In the portion Ekev, the portion of my birth, my mother’s concern is given voice. If we would revere God and walk in God’s ways, so we are to love the most vulnerable among us, to walk humbly with them as our way of walking humbly with God.

These two portions become as one to me, joined beneath a rainbow’s arc, the Torah portion of my birth and the Torah portion of my Bar Mitzvah, Ekev and Balak. As the housepainter taught, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” With that awareness, feeling the wonder as beheld through another’s eyes, may our hearts be softened and our souls be opened, that we might walk humbly with God and with people.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, August 17, 2018

Seeking Simplicity

              Quite a few years ago, I gathered with a number of other folks from our community for a 6 week series on “Voluntary Simplicity”.  The workshop sessions were designed to raise our consciousness about the methods by which we can simplify our lives in all kinds of ways, from de-cluttering to down-sizing to re-cycling and on and on.  The idea being that, in many cases, small and less are better - that there is liberation in simplification.   Even though I have not necessarily made lifelong friendships with the people in the group, they are still “there” as a virtual support group for my own personal efforts to simplify my life.

Fast forward to today, the work is ongoing.  My “support group” currently resides between the covers of three books: EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis,  FREEDOM OF SIMPLICITY by Richard Foster, and THE BUDDHIST PATH TO SIMPLICITY by Christina Feldman.

As my husband and I age, we are acutely aware of a desire not to leave a huge mess for our kids when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”  So simplifying has a very concrete reality attached to it.    We need to downsize our pile of “stuff.”  I am the first to admit that this process is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, as well as very time consuming. Every book, every tchotchke, every old photo, every piece of furniture evokes emotions, memories, and the inevitable choice of whether to retain or let go. 

To maintain a bit of momentum with this process, I have engaged Morinis, Foster and Feldman as my spiritual “clean-up” support people.  Much to my delight I have found that the spiritual practice of simplicity is well developed in Buddhist, Jewish and Christian tradition.   My first eye-opening reminder came from Foster: “The first insight into simplicity that we receive from [the Hebrew Scriptures] is radical dependence, the second is radical obedience.  Perhaps nowhere is this more graphically seen than when Abraham was called upon to surrender his most priceless treasure- his son Isaac...through a long and painful process Abraham’s life had been honed down to one truth - obedience to the voice of YHWH.  This “holy obedience” forms the grid through which the life of obedience flows.”

As I reflect on the notion of “radical obedience” I am aware that this is a challenge to the various idolatries of  “more”, “bigger”, “shinier”, “newer.”  “Radical dependence” implies letting go of a lot of contingency plans - the illusion that I can create a  secure, worry free future if I can acquire just the right “stuff.”    And that inevitably leads to more complexity - - how to insure it all?  where to store the excess?  how to protect from the corruption of moths and dust?   As Foster notes: The idolatry of affluence is rampant.  Our greed for more dictates so many of our decisions.”   

 On a personal level, greed might determine where I choose to live, how I spend  my resources, what I demand in the way of services and resources to keep me comfortable in the manner to which I have become accustomed.  In the larger world greed for more determines whose land will be violated for more oil.  Greed determines which oceans will be polluted with untold square miles of plastic waste.   The need to protect what we “have” dictates who may enter this country and who must leave.  Greed dehumanizes life from the highest levels of government on down.   Radical dependence and radical obedience are somewhat alien concepts - - easily rejected challenges to our unexamined way of being..

      Alan Morinis  offers a brief bit of wisdom: “An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin  and stopped to visit the Chafetz Chaim.  Entering the great sage’s simple apartment he was struck by how sparsely it was furnished.  ‘Where is your furniture?’ the man asked.  ‘Where is yours?’ replied the Chafetz Chaim.  “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the man. ‘I too am only passing through,’ was the Chafetz Chaim’s reply.”

The principle behind this wisdom is “being content with what we have,”  perhaps identifying what we really need and separating it from all that we want.   Again from Morinis: “A need is different from a desire.  A need really is essential.  A desire on the other hand, is backed by an emotional force that turns it into a virtual demand: I have to have it.  And it is our desires that create trouble for us.  Desires can commandeer our lives on behalf of their fulfillment. And when they go unrealized, they deliver up anxiety, anger, frustration, and unethical behavior that we want to avoid.”

Thankfully, when confronted with our everyday desires, most of us have a built in mechanism that keeps us from veering into unethical behavior in order to achieve what we want.  But I would venture to say that few of us are free of the anxiety and frustration that accompany our desires.   Therein lies the challenge to simplify, I think - - to do the spiritual work of downsizing in the “desire department” in order to experience a simpler sense of inner peace.

         My morning reading today led me to Christina Feldman’s notion of compassion as a key element in a life of simplicity.  She describes Kuan Yan, the bodhisattva of compassion, as “one who  listens to the sounds of the universe.”  Feldman writes of compassion: “Compassion is a true vastness of the heart and a depth of wisdom that listens to, embraces and receives suffering.  It is an antidote to hostility, resistance, and division.  Learning to listen to the sounds of the universe is learning to soften and melt our armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.”

Whew!!  Exploring the path to simplicity is anything but simple.  The very micro-environment of my home becomes a constant external reminder of the internal work I need to be doing.   So - just for today - my inner focus will be on “learning to listen to the sounds of the universe” in order to discern more clearly where I need to dismantle my own personal “armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.” 

It seems to be a fundamental truth that a path to liberation, whether in the inward realms of spirit or in the external world of wealth, power and politics, may be found in the discipline of simplicity.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, August 10, 2018

God's Formless Presence is Crystallized in the Form of Every Human Being

       It is a truism, yet one whose truth and its implications is most often forgotten. Not a matter of remote theological musing, but of urgent and immediate challenge, Jews sing of it in prayerful song, in Yigdal, as drawn from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, eyn lo d’mut ha’guf v’eyno guf, lo na’aroch elav k’dushato/God has neither bodily form nor substance, holiness beyond compare. It is deeply held in Jewish thought and tradition that God has no body, no physical form. It is for that reason that iconography finds no place in artistic expressions of Jewish faith. And yet…, a small word in whose balance so much hangs, the human being is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elokim (Gen. 1:27). The human being is told to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), God, whose holiness is beyond compare. It is the human being who carries God’s unformed image in the world and gives it form. That is in part why we are not to create images by which to depict God. God already has an image to represent the Godly in this world, and that is the human being, mortal adam..

        In caring for other human beings, we care not only for God’s representatives in this world, but so too for God’s very likeness, and so we become holy, as God is holy. Beyond perception in itself, God’s likeness is, nevertheless, ever before our eyes. Meant to be cared for, every person carries the precious image of God. Every act that harms another human being is a failure of moral perception, a failure to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in this world. God has no form or image, and yet over and over and over again, we destroy God’s image, and God weeps with pain. Every word that cuts to the quick of another’s soul cuts to the quick of God’s soul. Every act of callous disregard for the depth of feeling that makes us human is an act of disregard for God’s pleading presence in the world. Every act that harms the body, soul, and psyche of another human being fills the world with cosmic weeping from beyond the world itself.

       Created in the image of God, the human being carries the divine likeness, reflecting God’s image in all the ways of human diversity, refracting God’s light through deeds of holiness. As a focal point of veneration, therefore, images are not to be fashioned either of God or of people. It would be as though to replace, or displace, the human, and so to displace God. It would be to replace who we are as vessels and means of holiness, in all of our eternal essence, with finite images of stone, or metal, or wood. As a thread that runs through the weekly Torah portion Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), we are both cautioned and commanded not to make images. There are some thirteen direct or indirect references to images and to the way of our perceiving things in the portion. There are four specific prohibitions to the making of images, culminating in the second of the Ten Commandments as carried in Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:6-18), You shall not have another God before My Presence. Do not make yourself a representation/lo ta’aseh l’cha pesel, in the form of an image, nor in the form of any other likeness….

It is not only God who is not to be replaced by an image, but the human being. As its own teaching on care for others as rooted in care for ourselves as bearers of God’s image, introducing the Torah’s several warnings not to create images there is a preface with some form of the word shamor/watch over: as in rak hi’shamer l’cha u’sh’mor naf’sh’cha m’od/only take heed and guard your soul exceedingly Deut. 4:9); v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’teychem/so take heed exceedingly for the sake of your souls… (4:15); hi’sham’ru l’chem/therefore take heed to yourselves (4:23). It is in the various forms of this phrase as a call to watch over ourselves that the rabbis rooted a sacred obligation, a mitzvah, to look after and care for our bodies, to regard the body as holy, a sacred vessel worthy of respect and care.

In its joining of respect and care for the human body as a reflection of God’s image and the prohibition against creating what we might call replacement images, so the Torah roots the moral power of that prohibition. Every single human being is irreplaceable, each one unique and precious in their humanness. Of that moral import, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in a powerfully moving essay in his book, “Man’s Quest for God” (p. 125), “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.” Heschel goes on to write (p. 126-127), “What is necessary is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol…. The divine symbolism of man is not in what he has—such as reason or the power of speech—but in what he is potentially…: to be holy as God is holy….” The likeness of God, Heschel writes, “may be defiled, distorted, and forfeited…. The goal of man is to recognize and preserve his likeness or at least to prevent its distortion….”
     As Rabbi Heschel teaches, evil finds its root in our failure to recognize God’s image in every human being. In fierce tension, such is the potential for human goodness and the potential for evil. In our failure to live in accord with who we are and are meant to be, in our failure to recognize ourselves and others as bearers of God’s image, the potential for evil is realized. In a nation, a world, a time of so much violence, of so much disregard for each person’s humanity, God’s image is cut down as though it was so much stone, or metal, or wood.
We are the flesh and blood representation of the Holy One. It is that all-inclusive we of humanity that underscores the barbarity of tearing children from their parents’ arms, of hounding human beings as though they were so much vermin, of speaking in ways to demean and belittle, of wars, of nuclear imaginings, of disregard for the very earth on which we live and strive. And God weeps and mourns for the image-bearers, groaning with the pain of God’s flesh and blood children.

At the end of a day while in Prague recently, a day when I had traveled to Terezin, one of so many hells on earth where human beings were burned as though wood, or stone, or metal, I prayed at the Alt Neue Shul, most famous of Prague’s synagogues. It is the synagogue where the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, prayed, the place where so long ago he learned and taught and wrote his books. I stood directly across from the seat that had once been his, no longer used since the 15th century in deference to him, still his seat.     It was my father’s sh’loshim, the thirtieth day since his funeral. As I rose to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead that speaks only of life, so too did the one member of the local community, saying Kaddish as a matter of course for all of those for whom there is no one to say Kaddish. When the man realized that I was a mourner, he lowered his voice and motioned to me in deference. I was overcome with emotion, trying mightily to stem the flow of tears as they rose with the sacred words carried on my voice. As well as for my dad, I realized that I was saying Kaddish for all those nameless souls, there in the synagogue of the Maharal, across from his seat, words rising to the vaulted ceilings and then beyond.
       On portion Va’etchanan, the Maharal wrote on the matter of images, a teaching to remind of what is ultimate, of the human being who is not to be displaced: ki v’tzelem elokim bara et ha’adam/for in the image of God did God create the human, and since the human was created in the image of God, hinei/behold, k’mo she’ha’shem yisborach hu/the human is like the holy blessed one…, she’ha’adam she’hu nivra b’tzalmo hu kolel kol olamo/for as the human is created in God’s image, the human contains all of God’s world… (Gur Aryeh, vol. 5., p. 31).
         Of urgent and ultimate truth, of challenge as immediate as the day’s wrenching news, God’s formless presence is crystallized in the form of every human being. Such is our potential to be vessels of holiness, our choice through deeds of goodness to be reminders of God’s presence. 
Beyond the work of human hands in stone, or metal, or wood, of imperishable essence before the edicts of pharaohs, fuehrers, or presidents, before the fires of hell on earth in which Jewish bodies were burned, every human being is of ultimate meaning. Caring for and honoring the flesh and blood reality of each one’s being, tending to the needs of each one’s soul, so we honor the formless Holy One, source of all life in whose image we are created.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Skunk

At least twice a week I take a walk with a friend.  We pass a school and often hear laughing children at recess.  We enter a wood that lets out onto a clearing, and the children’s voices fade away.   Occasionally a red tailed hawk is perched on a branch over our heads or soars hunting over the field.        The crows caucus loudly, and I hope for a flock of bluebirds that turn iridescent in the morning light.  Back in the woods there are some houses.  One has an impressive garden in which an orange fruit, perhaps a persimmon, clings to its branches even as the temperatures drop.  Another’s breezeway gives us a glimpse of the ocean we’ll encounter full on a little ways ahead.  Sometimes the waves come over the seawall, the spray chilling our faces with 30 mile an hour winds.  Sometimes we see all the way to the mainland. We walk along a road that winds along a pond. Once we stood there for half an hour routing traffic around a box turtle making its daily pilgrimage from the wetlands on one side of the road to the pond on the other.  But these last few months we’ve been marking the decay of a skunk. 
         At first it shocked us, its blood staining the ground.  The blood seemed still to be running, so freshly dead it was on those first sightings.  Hungry crows eventually carried its viscera and part of its carcass down into the swamp.  But they’d left the skunk’s head, tufts of fur, skeletal detritus and the depression it had made in the ground.  Then the snow covered it all, but we still stopped to talk about the skunk, because there is always a lesson for us.  The snow has since melted, yet we still see the skunk, the pieces, the whole, its shadow.  Three yards on we stand at the edge of the pond counting geese or mallards, marveling at the light, watching a swan feed, looking across to the sea.   

“When you grasp the edge, you grasp the whole,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov.
One lesson of the decaying skunk and the pond beyond:  I can get both into my field of vision at once, or I can focus on only one or the other.  When I focus on just the decaying skunk, I am overwhelmed by sadness, by ugliness and by the pain of seeing another being tortured, even in death.  Sometimes I can see the ecological whole cloth:  the carrion nourishing the crows, the minerals of its bones leeching into and enriching the earth, the fur providing nesting material for birds and small rodents.  This is beautiful, if I can get there.  If I can’t, I am just in pain in the World of Separation. When I am able to capture the picture of the decaying skunk in the same field of vision as the pond beyond, I can begin to fathom the World of Unity. If I can glimpse the world of unity, if I can accept that all sides of the contradictions—the ugliness and the beauty, the pain and the love, the suffering and the relief—are all God-given, I can glimpse the goodness that runs through everything in this world. 

Why do both the World of Separation and the World of Unity exist? 
 The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century and is attributed with founding the Hasidic movement of Judaism, teaches that both good and evil are parts of the unity.  He explains through the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that the goodness of Israel’s redemption from slavery was only made possible by the evil of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  This and This are both true.   
The question for us is: can we see the goodness in the evil?  Can we discern the unity in the separation?  Can we “find sweetness in the heart of the judgment” so as to “find the loving-kindness within”?

We walk along, back into the woods.  Today the snow hangs on the cedar branches.  We have to walk single-file and duck under the branches to stay on the path.  I go first.  When I look back, I see my friend in a sparkling green and white world.  I have been telling her my hurt at feeling slighted by another, my guilt for speaking about another, but now I see her beautiful smile reflecting my own back at me, the hurt having melted into sheer joy and wonder at seeing the beauty of the snow glisten in the sun. I am grateful for the connection between us that deepens and widens every walk we take.    
We are in both worlds, the world of division and the world of unity.  We experience pain and suffering and we have the power to ameliorate them.  Our exile from Eden, from ourselves, from others and from God is the source of the pain we feel.  If we accept that the pain is part of our existence, if we understand in our hearts that God gave us both the pain and the love, we can then perhaps open our hearts to discover the sparks of the Divine within ourselves that can act to ameliorate the pain and suffering.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the meaning of the verse “’you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,’ wherever you are and whatever is going on, counters the pain and suffering.”  Accepting the daily troubles is accessing and connecting with the “spirit soul.” The teaching continues:  “You shall love your God with your God, taking the loving side of God to love the judging side.” By accepting with love the daily challenges we face, the harsh, judging side is cancelled out. 

      She teaches me what it means to sit with people in pain, to receive and hold the pain.  The skunk teaches this to me, as well.  In the early stages of its decay, its odor dominated the air like murder dominates the Metro section of the daily paper.  Walk after walk, I seemed to become more connected with the skunk.  I looked forward to seeing it after a while, because I felt I was seeing a part of me now and how I will become in time.  I have stopped being repulsed and the separation between the skunk and me has begun to dissolve.
Our job is to end the separation between the Realm of Unity and the Realm of Division, within ourselves and within the world.  To do this, we need to “channel the love and the unity consciousness that we have experienced into our daily actions, consciousness and relationships.”  One way we do this is through prayer.  

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our degradation is from a loss of faith.  Yet everyone has access to Divine grace.   This comes from sincere prayer, because “God wants to kiss the lips of the man who speaks Torah, [God’s instruction], from trembling and awe.”  Focused, sincere prayer touches God, which leads to repair of the brokenness of this world. 

Today on our walk I had the sensation of absorbing  the shadow of the skunk.  My eyes were doing this funny thing of independently—without my willing it—zooming in and out on the piece of ground on which the skunk had died, like you can make your digital camera zoom in and out of a scene on which you are focusing.  As my eyes were in this process, it seemed to me that I was absorbing the essence of the skunk, along with the essence of the pond beyond, the essence of the phragmites and of the crows that had devoured the carrion.  It seemed as if my eyes were the first part of my consciousness of the absorption, but that the absorption was taking place on many levels and that I, too, was being absorbed.

How do we serve the Divine in this world?  There are some actions in which this is more easily achievable for me, and perhaps you, than others.  In the garden and at my CSA I have no trouble seeing the unity; God is everywhere abundantly.  But it is much harder for me to maintain mystical mindfulness in the mundane and in the momentary annoyances, such as when the phone line is not working at intervals and having to replace the burner on the stove. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that “God hides behind many barriers and is veiled in many garments.  But what is true is that ‘the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.’  Every thought, every movement comes from God.  Everything is made of God’s own essence.  Those who truly understand this know that the walls, towers, gates, gold and castle are only God in hiding, ‘for there is no place devoid of the Divine.’” 

       What keeps coming back into view for me is that I live in both worlds, the world of skunk-Oneness and the world of skunk-Division.  In truth, I’m not sure I want only to be in the Realm of Unity, not yet.  In truth, I’m earthy and lusty.  I know that about myself.  Just watch me eat some time.  The Ba’al Shem Tov honored this.  This is why I think he would honor my belief about where I am right now:  that I can do what it takes to help heal the brokenness, to help bring about repair in the universe, to be with people where they are and help them move closer to God, to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to see the goodness in the evil,  AND also to struggle with the dis-integration, the ugliness, the desire, the brokenness as one who experiences that and feels that and yearns for the Unity of the One but isn’t there yet all the time.  I sit with being in the “both/and” place, the This and This place, and try to be both content with where I am in the World of Separation as I strive to be in the World of Unity.

Rabbi Lori Shaller, guest blogger


Elior, Rachel.  The Mystical Origins of Hasidism.  Portland, Oregon:  the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.
Jacobson, Burt.  Teachings on the Ba’al Shem Tov:
            The Four Core Truths of the Ba’al Shem Tov with texts of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
                        A Perennial Kabbalist, June, 2009.
                        The Four Core Truths, Shorter Version, sent via email, October, 2009.
                        The Quest for the Divine:  a parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov.