Monday, July 5, 2010

Green Pastures and the Color of Abundance

My mother was neither a Bible reader nor a particularly devout woman.   Questions of ethics, aesthetics, and social justice often came up in our home; Judaism, or for that matter the notion of the existence of God, did not.  The music-box menorah that played “Rock of Ages” on Chanukah was more a sentimental cultural artifact than a religious symbol – not all that different, or so it seemed, from the kitschily decorated evergreen that occasionally showed up in our living room around the same time of year.  However she loved the twenty-third Psalm.  Whether she experienced it as literature or prophecy or consolation or nostalgia, I have no way of knowing, but my acutely selective memory still echoes with her incantation: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...” By the time Psalms became meaningful to me she was long gone. 

In a private audience in 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that I say a chapter of Psalms early each morning as an aid to concentration in daily practice.  I naturally gravitated to Psalm 23, musical versions of which already figured prominently in the repertoire of my fellow seekers of Chassidic wisdom.  It’s also one of the shorter ones, and therefore easily memorized in the original Hebrew.  The connection to my mother was icing on the cake.  I couldn’t even begin to count how many thousands of times I must have said or sung or muttered those six verses over the years since then.  Some of that has been, inevitably, rote recitation – one of the pitfalls of regular ritual.  Nonetheless the Psalm has continued to be a deepening, resonant source of inspiration and an effective medium for the cultivation of mindfulness.

Imagine my delight, therefore, upon discovering a ma’amar the Rebbe delivered some 44 years ago based on the opening verses of Psalm 23 – a discourse whose core teaching addresses one of my lifelong concerns: financial security.  Overcoming an inbred sense of scarcity and an expectation of poverty (not to mention the ennobling of poverty) has been a major challenge for me, as it has for so many other lower-middle-class red-diaper baby boomers.  Developing trust and optimism and a sense of abundance has loomed large on my personal self-improvement agenda.  Every opportunity to offer a charitable donation (such opportunities arise about every eighteen minutes in the Jewish community) triggers a confrontation between the generosity to which I aspire and the anxieties embedded in my nervous system from formative years.  As the Rebbe explains it, this Psalm turns out to be David’s self-help bestseller, a quick course in miracles for the chronically impecunious.  It applies directly to that most down-to-earth of preoccupations, the earning of a livelihood.

“The Lord is my shepherd…” A shepherd, of course, protects and feeds his flock faithfully and unfailingly.  Therefore I shall not want – I’m safe, assured of sustenance no matter what.  A midrashic gloss on this verse envisions God’s non-stop, unmitigated benevolence, flowing forth from the most sublime dimension of the universe, bestowing parnassah – material abundance – upon all “creatures.”  The choice of that term indicates even those with no merit other than the fact that they’ve been created.  He is an infinite source of blessing, a magnanimous force that no bear market or economic downturn can deny.


The cynic in me resists.  The Rebbe gets that; he acknowledges that this easy abundance might seem counterintuitive to some, and goes on to say that there are actually two modes of pursuing one’s purpose in this world.  One is the way of war, of struggle.  We hack our way with machetes through thorny underbrush; we grapple with competitors, cross deserts, slay dragons, dodge bullets, sail seas, do battle against all odds to bring home those scattered scraps we need to survive, perchance to thrive.

The other is the way of peace, tranquility. 

David insists that we have a choice, and that the latter is the preferred m.o. He lays me down in green pastures; he guides me beside the still waters.  Take it easy.  Trust Me.  Chill.  Still waters: mei menuchot, in Hebrew.  What exactly is menuchah?  Rest?  Peace?  Serenity?  Satisfaction?  Deep relaxation?  All of the above, and more.  The Rebbe extrapolates from various Scriptural occurrences of the word and concludes that menuchah is a quality associated with the indwelling of the Shechinah, the Divine presence in the world.  Specifically, in a once golden age, this was manifest in the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Divine presence rested between the staves of the Ark in the Holy of Holies.  The Ark was the vortex, the serene energy center of a turbulent universe, and it was therefore the galvanic attractor of all the wealth in the world.  Spiritual wealth, to be sure; but also, by extension, material wealth.  They are, after all is said and done, one.  (No wonder the fictional Indiana Jones went to such lengths to retrieve the Ark from the clutches of the other side.) 

Before the Ark was lost, before Jerusalem fell, while King Solomon reigned and the Temple he built was the major theme-park attraction of the then-civilized world, wealth flowed easily to Israel.  The Queen of Sheba herself came to pay lavish tribute, as did emissaries of all the nations, attracted to the vortex like swirling sparks around a blazing bonfire.  The esoteric truth behind this historical phenomenon explains how the manifest presence of omnipotent Divinity trumps both the limiting laws of nature and the necessity of struggle.  More simply put, we learn from this that back in that glorious moment in the arc of our story, we did not want for anything.  Menuchah ruled.  The all-powerful shepherd had us covered – and not just collectively, but each individual according to his needs and abilities.  Or disabilities, as the case may be.  A truly faithful shepherd (as epitomized by Moshe, the Midrash says) knows which of his sheep need to graze in the tender grass, and which can handle the rougher terrain.

The Rebbe continues:  what’s the deal with the green pastures?  (This ma’amar, by the way, was said during one of his rare trips out of New York City, on a visit upstate to a children’s summer camp nestled in mountain meadows.) Turns out there are two kinds of pastures, too.  There are wilderness pastures that require a lot of work before they’re fit for grazing, and the green pastures which are ready-made for providing the good life.  Kabbalistic sources associate the green pastures with the quality of tiferet – beauty and balance; a harmonious blend of all the qualities and all the colors of the spectrum of life; perfectly centered, and therefore channeling abundance from the uppermost, innermost source of Divine benevolence that is so powerful it can reach everyone, everywhere, yet so pure it cannot be usurped or stolen or misdirected toward selfish ends.

That ought to cover the bills.

Can this be made real?  Are those green pastures and still waters accessible to the likes of us?  What now, since the Temple is in ruins and the Divine presence is in exile here with us?  Are we then doomed to struggle for our livelihood on hardscrabble landscapes amidst these turgid, polluted waters so far downstream?  A glance at the news and the leading economic indicators (not to mention the value of our homes or portfolios or 401K’s – or unemployment benefits) would seem to indicate that’s the case.
Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, who knew a thing or two and who presided over that aforementioned golden age, tells us in Ecclesiastes (3:8) that there’s “a time for war, and a time for peace.”  (Some of us heard it first from the Byrds.)  In this ma’amar, the Rebbe does not dismiss the reality of struggle.  In fact, less than two weeks later he said another ma’amar about the path of spiritual battle against internalized patterns of negativity – a.k.a. prayer.  But here he emphasizes the way of peace.  Clearly there is a degree to which we can make the Lord our shepherd, luxuriate in green pastures, and gratefully allow abundance to be delivered our doors.  And we needn’t wait until all the world’s swords have been beaten into plowshares.  We’ve got plowshares of our own.

The Rebbe gives both explicit instruction and clues, embedded in the discourse. In general, while the Zohar tells us prayer is war (in one sense, doing battle against our bad habits and erroneous perspectives) the study of Torah is the path of peace. In the trenches, good and evil vie for market share and we grope myopically through minefields of moral relativity.  In the greener pastures of Torah there are fewer booby traps. In particular it is the inner dimension of Torah that offers a foretaste of the serpent-free, incorruptible Tree of Life.  Those gardens are watered by a peaceful, pure, unstoppable stream that flows from Eden.  Chassidus nourishes inner wisdom, and puts that wisdom to work.


The nature of that inner work is hinted at in an incisive section of the ma’amar where the Rebbe is discussing how it could be possible for infinite, utterly unbounded Divinity to dwell within the confines of space and time.  There are two opinions (aren’t there always?) – two metaphors that attempt to describe how the Shechinah rests between the staves of the Ark in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.  One says it’s like fingers writing down an idea.  The fingers don’t really understand the idea; but they are uniquely suited (more than the toes, for example) for conveying the idea in written words.  Applying the metaphor, this means that the Divine presence is sort of passing through the space in which it rests.  The finite space doesn’t embody the infinite any more than the fingers understand the idea.  According to another point of view, however, it’s more like an idea contained in a brain, and by extension in the heart.  The brain and heart are more sophisticated than fingers; they are organs that can understand and feel.  The ideas they embrace become one with the containers.  In fact according to both the Kabbalistic literature and newly emerging evidence in the science of neuroplasticity, the physical organs are actually changed, materially transformed, by the activity and the effort of thinking deeply into an idea.  The technical term Chassidus gives this deep internalization is hitlabshut – like wearing a perfectly fitted garment.  (Other sources liken it to the relationship between the transcendent soul and the conscious mind.)  Shifting again from the metaphor back to its analogue, from this perspective the non-physical Divine presence can, paradoxically, be unified with the physical place in which it is revealed.

There’s abundant food for thought in all this, but for the moment I’ll attempt to bumper-sticker it.  When an insight or inspiration comes along, when we encounter a potentially life-transforming idea, are we “just passing through” – or do we make the effort to truly wear it well, to unify with it in mind and heart, in a meaningful and sustainable way?

If we’re told, for instance, that Psalm 23 is intended as a meditation to lift us up beyond the struggle for a livelihood and connect our consciousness with an all-powerful, faithful shepherd, what do we do with that information?  Does it genuinely alter our attitudes and expectations?  The mind tends to travel in well-worn ruts; the Zohar calls them r’hitei mocha – brain troughs.   We think, feel, speak, and dance to the tune of obsolete memes, mind-habits we acquired unwittingly, which have probably outlived their usefulness if indeed they ever served us well.  I’m not worthy.  It’s too hard.  Get real, get practical, don’t be a dreamer.  Life’s a struggle and then it’s over.

Having internalized messages like that, it takes some rather rigorous work to learn how to lie down in green pastures and meander by the babbling brook of certainty, serenity, and security.  We might as well get to it, though.  Every disempowering thought can be replaced with a nourishing truth.  We can take the time to remind ourselves on a daily basis that the Shepherd is alive and well, and He’s not just passing through.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

a fragment from this morning's pages

I love
I say I love
I want to love
I want love to garb itself in me
I enter the love
I accept the love
I surrender to the love
I allow the love
I relinquish the love
I rectify the love
I love the love
I release the love
I see the love
I hear the love
I feel the love
I return the love
I create the love
I channel the love
I give the love
I am the love
I love

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mightier than the (S)word?

The other day at a Shabbos morning kiddush I met an 82-year-old newlywed - how cool is that? - who regaled us with tales of his youth.  Seems after a rough start as a street punk he became a prizefighter, proudly wearing the star of David on his trunks.  In fact his name was David.  In 1946 he found himself in the ring up against a blonde, blue-eyed German opponent who had the misfortune of representing, in my new friend's eyes, the unspeakable evil from which the world had only recently been delivered.  As they shook hands prior to the first round, the swaggering, swarthy Jewish fighter launched a torrent of verbal threats that struck fear into the German's heart.  They returned to their corners; the bell rang; David then proceeded to chase the German around the ring, cursing him mercilessly but never laying a hand on him, though not for want of trying.  When the bell rang to start the second round the terrified German refused to leave his corner.  I told David that his was the quintessential Jewish victory: the hands are hands of Esau, but "hakol kol Yaakov" - the voice is the voice of Jacob.

As it happens, the current Torah portion, Balak, addresses this very contrast between brawn and brain.  It's nearing the end of the 40-year spiritual sojourn in the wilderness and the children of Israel are preparing to enter the promised land.  Some of the locals are none too pleased.  Even though the Israelites have no intention of attacking Moab, the weak but devious Moabite King Balak schemes to stop them in their tracks.  Informed that the miraculous military might of the Jews derives more from the  power of prayer than from their skill with the sword, he decides to hoist them with their own petard, as it were, and hires a sorcerer named Bila'am to curse them with magical incantations.  Turns out to be a poor choice of tools; and in a dazzling display of irony the Holy One Blessed Be He foils Bila'am's and Balak's dastardly plan - first with a talking donkey (ha! so you think you've got the gift of gab?) then with a warrior-angel brandishing a sword (you guys tried to usurp the Jews' best weapon - now watch us come back atcha with yours!) and, finally, taking total control of Bila'am's voice and transforming his curses into blessings, giving voice to the highest and brightest of messianic prophecies.  (And later, in a most apropos epilogue, Bila'am dies by the sword.)


What drives all this turnabout is, essentially, character.  Bila'am tips us off as to his lack thereof, not just with his seething Jew-hatred and self-aggrandizing greed, but with a telling little exchange with Balak's boys.  When they ask him how come such a hotshot is riding on a donkey instead of a horse, he responds disingenuously: Oh, I usually ride horses, but the horses are out to pasture at the moment.  It reads sort of like the Biblical equivalent of a bumper sticker on a beat-up 15-year-old Oldsmobile: "My other car is a Ferrari."  The donkey speaks up and blows his cover, testifying not only that Bila'am rides him all the time, but that he also takes other liberties with his animal which decency precludes repeating here.

The power of our words is a function of our integrity.  Whether communing with a friend or negotiating with a foe, it's when mind and heart and mouth are all lined up that we harness our higher power to the task at hand.  The rite of prayer, in fact, is among other things an exercise in harmonizing our speech with our innermost intent - otherwise it's at risk of becoming lip service.  But while our inner work is performed in private, the proof of the pudding is in public.  Victory calls for congruency in thought, speech, and deed.

We are on our way to the fulfillment of those prophetic promises, but the deal is not done.  Balak and Bila'am reside incarnate in those who would destroy, defame, and delegitimize us, not necessarily in that order, with their big lies and fake flotillas and incantations to numb the multitudes.  At times it appears they've become consummate masters of the very arts of communication (read: propaganda) at which we're purported to excel - and we're too often forced to man the ramparts and resort to the sword.  I have no doubt that their donkeys and other enablers will stumble before too long, but from our side it behooves us to remember that the voice is the voice of Jacob.  Perhaps if we train ourselves finally to speak truth with the unmitigated confidence of youth we'll win by a TKO before having to fight another round.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On the Right to Write

Artists and poets and composers of all stripes are wont to protest that "it only comes through me." True enough, to an extent; but on the other hand we also originate. What distinguishes humans from less complicated creatures is not just the ability to communicate with words and symbols, but personal responsibility for what we say. For those of us who are of the shy or self-effacing persuasion, that can be intimidating. But lately it occurs to me that we might be held equally responsible for what we don't say.

Hence this blog.

Though I've been a jack of many trades, for a number of years I made a living largely as a writer for hire, selling words more or less by the pound. As a copywriter or ghostwriter or editor or amanuensis I would give voice to the various agendas of those who engaged my services - provided of course that I could find some alignment with their intentions, that their products or purposes did not conflict with
values I hold dear. I'd write my own stuff from time to time; an article here or there, an insight, an occasional song or poem, a fragment of a story or an outline for some as-yet-unwritten masterpiece. But for the most part the more I wrote for others, the less juice I had left with which to water my own garden. At one point I realized that if I were ever to come unblocked and really speak my mind, I'd have to find another profession first. That was one of my motivations for returning to graduate school in my late forties and turning a lifelong avocational love of Chinese medicine into a new career. "Live by the work of your hands," sings the Psalmist, "and you'll be happy." So I became an acupuncturist.

As the mind ripens, introspection seeks expression. The advent of the blog as a literary medium has some distinct advantages. Not unlike 'journaling' as a therapeutic exercise or the practice of writing morning pages (as popularized by
Julia Cameron), a blog invites spontaneity and immediacy, does not necessarily demand rigorous scholarship, and tends to disarm that pesky left-brain editor. It also invites comment and feedback. I'll refrain from discussing its disadvantages just now - I don't want to talk myself out of this enterprise before it lifts off.

So we'll see where this leads. Often during prayer or meditation, or while studying and ruminating on some seminal text, a seed of thought will flash past my field of vision that cries to be fleshed out in full-blown form. That that rarely happens - life's to-do lists come fast and furious, do they not? - has been no small source of frustration. Excuses begone: it's my intention to make this space a place where such flashes of lightning become not just thunder, but rain that falls on fertile earth.