Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully
as our awareness evolves.

Torah Portion for week of August 11 - 17, 2019:
Va'etchanan

(Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11)

Hope is born from the ashes of our pain

This parashah, containing the core of the ancient Jewish Wisdom Tradition, is read on the Shabbat of the week containing Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, a day of destruction and loss. On Tisha B'Av, traditionally a day of fasting and grieving, both ancient Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. Other events, like the failed second-century Bar Kochba revolt, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and the expulsion from Spain in 1492, are also pinned to that date.

It is, for the traditional Jewish community, the saddest day in the Jewish year. Perhaps we can link the ever-expanding tragedy of climate change, the suffering of those seeking refuge in our country, and the apparent dismantling of our democracy to our grieving. This can be a week for refusing to turn away from the suffering of so many in our world.

But this week also brings Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort that always follows Tisha B'Av. The message of our tradition following destruction and loss is clear:

"Comfort, O Comfort My people, says your God. . ." (Isaiah 40:1)

Hope is born from the ashes of our pain.


How shall comfort find us?

But how shall this comfort find us when we are feeling the anguish of lost relationships, lost innocence, lost security? How are we to comfort and be comforted when confronting the pain of others who are grieving and who are hurting because of the ravages of hate and violence?

The ancient Psalmist must have been responding to these very same questions when singing,

"I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where does my help come? My help comes from the One Eternal Being, the Creator of all that is. . . . The Eternal One guards you as you come and go, now and forever." (Psalm 121:1, 2, 8)

When we attempt solutions only from the level of the problem, we cannot significantly reduce the impact of human hate and violence. It is necessary to move beyond that level to seek a greater vision. We "look to the mountains" for a greater awareness; we meet our pain and our fear, and then we look beyond them.


The consequences of forgetting

An abundance of timeless spiritual teaching is contained in this week's Torah portion. As the people pause at the boundary of the Promised Land, Moses delivers several lengthy discourses reminding them of the story that unites them, the commandments that bind them, and the spiritual teachings that enliven them.

Moses emphasizes again and again the cardinal sin: idolatry. There is nothing that can be perceived or conceived by a human being that is worthy of worship other than the One. Oneness is absolutely inclusive; nothing can "be" outside that One. Idolatry forces us to act as if this is not so, separating power and authority in ways that result in confusion and conflict.

Idolatry splits reality into different factions. It is only Oneness that is absolutely inclusive, a teaching and a reality that we are still striving to understand and to live. The greatest trouble will befall the people, about to become a nation, when they devolve into idolatrous thinking and practices. Perhaps this is still the foundation of the greatest difficulties we face as individuals, as religions, as national entities, and as a world.

"It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the One Eternal Being alone is God; there is nothing else but God." (4:35)

The anger and violence of our world are the consequences of forgetting the fuller nature of our Being. When we collapse into our separate selves, each of us striving to protect what is ours, each suspicious and watchful and fearful, we are vulnerable to prejudice, to programmed hatred, to demonizing and dehumanizing the other. When we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, imagining that we are victims of another, we cement ourselves into our separateness.


The consequence of the realization of One

In this parashah are the verses that have become a part of virtually every Jewish worship service, the verses most familiar and most spoken.

Listen, Israel; The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One; and you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your moreness; (6:4-6)

The six words of Deuteronomy 6:4 are called the Sh'ma, after the first word, which means, "Listen," or "Hear." What follows is what there is to hear when we are attuned to the universal whispers of the Life we share.

In the particular expression within Judaism, this Oneness expresses as ultimate transcendence (YHVH, translated "Eternal," a way of indicating "Being without limitation of space or time") and each particular expression (Elohim, translated "God," indicating by its plural form that this is "the One expressing as the many").

These six words of the Sh'ma form the central affirmation of Judaism, and become a focus for meditative practice. (Some years ago, I wrote a teaching on using the Sh'ma in meditation that is available here.)

In biblical times, "heart" was where one thought. Only later was it associated with feeling. So the original Hebrew indicated that the words of the Sh'ma were to be held in the mind — always. It is interesting that today there are scientists who have found that the heart may well have a "brain," that such functions may not be limited to the contents of our cranial cavities.

It is no accident that the next verse speaks of love. When we awaken to the One Life we share, we meet a deep reverence, acceptance, and love of all life. Since "the Eternal" (absolute transcendence) and "our God" (all particular expressions of that One) comprise "all that is," the words indicate the embrace of all Being.

While often translated as a command — "You shall love" — there is no linguistic need to do so. It may just as properly be translated, "Then you can love," indicating the consequence of the realization of One.

When we become more aware of the Life we share, when we become more conscious of our interconnectedness to all others, love is the natural soul expression that follows.


Writing Prompts

The idolatries I most often meet include. . .
When I dream of contributing more compassionately, I imagine. . .
I open most fully to Oneness when. . .


Focus Phrases

Compassion flows through me now.
I accept this moment exactly as it is.
I am a unique expression of One Life.






Photo: Mark Reden