Norman gives his first talk of the Pesach Intensive 2015 to Makor Or. Due to technical difficulties, this talk was not recorded, so the transcript is provided here.
Welcome. This year we’ll have a total of five meeting in our intensive, four evening meetings on successive Tuesdays: March 3,10,17,24, and an all day retreat on Sunday March 29 at JCC 10am – 5pm. First seder is the Friday evening following the Sunday retreat 4/3.
As many of you know, the Pesach intensive doesn’t really consist of those meetings, they are only encouragement meetings, times to come together to help each other with our spiritual work. The actual intensive consists in your life every day, your own meditation and prayer and study, and, especially, your own deep participation in and reflections on your life during this next month or so. Also, an important part of the intensive is work with your chevrutah partner — a conversation you’ll have with him or her each week. I’ll say more about that later.
And also, i will be giving assignments each week, things to pay attention to, to work with, to reflect on — and you’ll be discussing these assignments with your chevrutah partner.
All in all, it’s a month to plunge more deeply into this great question of what it means to be a human being, to take the time to get more in touch with yourself and what is truly and deeply going on with you than you usually have the time and the inclination to do. getting closer to what matters sounds good and is good but usually it takes effort, and the effort can sometimes seem vague, and often painful or uncomfortable. So we need to help each other.
This year we’re starting our Pesach Intensive with Purim, which is tomorrow night. Purim, it seems, is a holiday that doesn’t have the heft of Pesach or the High Holidays, it seems pretty light hearted — even though, as with many of our holidays, its story features lots of slaughter and threat to the Jewish people. But all in a lighthearted fun manner. It’s odd that the Purim story, which I guess has some historical basis, becomes a kind of folk tale of good guys and bad guys, and the funny joke common in many folk tales, of the good guys turning the tables on the bad guys so that everything works out in the end. And the holiday is celebrated like a folk tale, complete with a beautiful fairy princess, costumes, food and merry-making. The fear and the danger and the sense of helplessness, which are at the center of the story, are completely left out.
Rabbi Lew always taught that Purim is the holiday of disguises, deceptions, and mistaken identities. Esther, disgusted as a non-Jew, becomes queen through Mordecai’s ruse, and it is her finally taking the risk to reveal herself that ultimately saves the day. Haman and Mordecai change places several times in the story — Haman has garbage thrown onto his head by someone who thinks he’s throwing it on Mordechai, and is ultimately hung on the gallows he’d built for Mordecai. And then there’s the famous injunction that on Purim we should get drunk enough that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai when we hear their names read in the Megillah.
Somehow this reminds me of the moment in Bereshith when Adam and Eve eat the fruit, which gives them the knowledge of good and evil, and they immediately feel compelled to hide from God in their shame. And God says to them, “Where are you?”
One of the things that is impressing me this year is the rhyme between these seemingly disparate things— between Purim and Peach, between Purim and this story in Genesis, between the story of the exodus from Egypt and the the weekly parshiot we read during the time of Peach and the weeks leading up to it — and, especially between all this and our lives right now, each of our lives as they unfold in this next month. I have been spending time immersing myself in all this and it has been a jumble in my mind. I am hoping I can make some sense of it for our intensive.
Anyway, to get back to Purim and Adam and Eve – and then to Pesach: Disguise, deception, mistaken identity, knowledge of good and bad: this is really the basic stuff of being human, isn’t it? Who among us isn’t in disguise? Who among us isn’t hiding, as Esther is hiding, Adam and Eve are hiding — not revealing our true selves. This is the problem. We can’t avoid it. And we have to try to sort it out, one way or another, even if we can’t ever get it right. Because this disguise, this falseness, makes us feel uncomfortable, uneasy. We long for wholeness, for integrity, we long to reveal ourselves, to be revealed to ourselves, and we have to try.
Redemption is one of the most salient ideas in Judaism. But what does it mean? Redemption from what? Redemption into what? Why do we feel a need for redemption? It seems neurotic, maybe overly Jewish, this need for redemption. And yet, whatever the language or tradition, I think it is a basic human feeling. Things are not quite right. We are not quite ourselves. We are pretending, wearing a disguise, hiding out. When God asks “Where are you?” I don’t think God doesn’t know where Adam and Eve are. God already knows. But Adam and Eve don’t, so in kindness and mercy God’s big voice calls them out. The child’s version of the story has Adam and Eve sinning, being disobedient, and making God mad at them. But the deeper and truer story is that this was something Adam and Eve were always going to do, they were always going to have to raise to this level of consciousness, this level of discriminating good and bad — they were never going to be able to remain in their animal innocence. It was their nature to become fully human, with all the problems and pain and ambiguity that that entails. And there was a point to this, a purpose in this. And God was always going to call them back, redeem them.
Anyway, tomorrow is Purim, and we kick off our Pesach intensive this year with Purim. Beth Shalom has a pretty extensive series of celebrations.
Recently a friend of mine told me a wonderful story about her life. She had been telling me for some time about a conflict that she was having at work. It had to do with a co-worker who seemed to be avoiding her and blocking her in the things she needed to do. She depended on this person to get important things done, so it was pretty frustrating. This person was also the personal assistant of her boss, and was a favorite of his, so her efforts to gently bring this up with the boss were always unsuccessful. The boss would say “Can’t you cover these things yourself? I am sure it’s not so bad.” So this was a major problem, very annoying and painful, and it went on for a long while, and there wasn’t any way around it.
Then recently my friend came and told me she had had a breakthrough. After trying various ways to solve this problem she decided, maybe out of sheer exhaustion, just to give up, just to accept it. And when she took that attitude suddenly she felt a lot of compassion for her coworker. She could notice — as she hadn’t noticed before — that the coworker, was uncomfortable, in distress. That that was why she was behaving as she was. So my friend just said to her one day – “I’m so sorry about all this. I’ve been pushing against you all this time and it’s just painful for both of us. I’m not going to do it anymore.” And the coworker suddenly broke down and said, “And I feel terrible about the way I’ve been failing to do the things for you you’ve needed me to do. But i just can’t do them. I’ve got too much on my plate. There’s too much work and its killing me.” So both of them went to their boss and told him about this and he was finally able to see that yes, something was going to have to change, they’d have to get more help. And a situation that had been terrible and insoluble for a long time was suddenly alleviated.
This story reminded me of the work I do with my friends in the conflict resolution profession.There too the effort is to try somehow to find that moment of breakthrough. As in this story, usually breakthrough involves letting go, giving up, seeing something you have never seen before. And then compassion. Breakthrough doesn’t always happen, but it can. Anyway, you can’t go on beating your head against a wall forever.
The Pesach story is a story of breakthrough of course. Literally. Coming to the end of your rope, the end of the line, pursued by your worst fear and nightmare behind you, and with no place to go before you. And then, suddenly: breakthrough. And as we’ve discussed many times before in the Peach intensive, the breakthrough is a breakthrough into compassion, and is caused by compassion. As we’ve quoted so many times — God hears the peoples cries and moans, feels the people’s pain, and its God’s newly awakened mercy and compassion that sets in motion the dramatic events of the story.
In his book “Be Still and Get Going” Rabbi Lew talks about this moment of breakthrough in the Pesach story: pages 119-125. He quotes the five verbs in the passage at the brink of the Red Sea:
al tira-u – don’t be afraid, or maybe, don’t be pushed around by, don’t proliferate, your fear or your frustration. Or maybe— don’t think you understand the situation that is troubling you. It may not be as it seems.
hityatzvu – collect yourself, return to your body, to your vitality
uru – see, see your life as it is, without distortions
tachirishun – be still, deeply settle
v‘yisa-u – get going, act
Each of these is a consequence of the last: when you practice al tira-u, exhaling, letting go, you are willing to be with your fear and your anxiety, you don’t have to flail around anymore, or hide or run away or disguise yourself somehow. Then naturally you will practice hityatzvu, breathing in. your life will be revitalized, you will stand up firm. And after you breath for a while naturally you will see, uru, your mind will clear and you will have the strength to face what is true in your life. and this will deeply settle you, tacharishun, and give you strong confidence. And then you will know what to do and how to act, v’yisa-u.
so lets practice this for a few moments:
hityatzvu,breathing in – collect yourself,
breathing out, al-tira-u, letting go of fear and resistance – or troubled viewpoint…….
then uru simply look. don’t try to see something special or extraordinary-just look within. ………..
then tachirishun – settle into a deep and confident peace.
This will be our practice for this week— to meditate on the first four of the five steps. And then after meditation you can stand up and say the shema if you want or just stand with your hands open palms up, for a moment or two, and see what happens. Conceive of this moment as a moment of prayer — to face God and be met by God and see what happens.
Every pesach intensive so far we have worked with the Exodus story – which makes sense of course! But this year it struck me more than usual how odd it is that we read the account of the Exodus from Egypt each year months before Pesach, and by the time Peach comes round we are on to other things. On the one hand, this might just be a kind of stubborn inelegance of the rabbis — they wanted to stick to their system of Torah reading on schedule and not mess it up to accommodate the holiday. Or it may be a profound teaching. It may be that the parsha we are reading during the time of Passover is actually a stronger clue to the practice of this year than the Exodus story itself. So I thought about this and began looking at Torah portions we are reading now, starting with this week’s, Ki Tissa. And I found that there is so much in it for practice that I would like to spend time — maybe the whole time — investigating its teachings and seeing how they illuminate Pesach — and breakthrough.
Ki Tissa is a pretty momentous parsha. It concludes the lengthy description — that has taken several parshiot— of the specifications for the mishkan.Then, oddly, to me at least, it says something about Shabbat. And then it returns to the narrative that includes the dramatic episode of the golden calf, the breaking of the tablets, the carving of new ones, and concludes with the famous image of Moses’ face glowing so strongly that he had to wear a veil most of the time so his projected inner light wouldn’t dazzle people too much.
Quoting the opening lines of the Parsha:
Exodus, Chapter 30:
verse11:The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
12″When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
13This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Lord.
14Everyone who goes through the counting, from the age of twenty and upward, shall give an offering to the Lord.
15The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to the Lord, to atone for your souls. 16You shall take the silver of the atonements from the children of Israel and use it for the work of the Tent of Meeting; it shall be a remembrance for the children of Israel before the Lord, to atone for your souls.”
There are a lot of echoes here to things we have already been talking about. This first section is the last detail or two about building the mishkan. Remember that Rabbi Lew says hityatzvu, collect yourself, comes from a word that means to gather materials, to build a sturdy structure — which is what the last parshiot have been about. So breathing in is building the mishkan- our very life and spirit, which gives us the sturdy human confidence we can develop from our spiritual practice. All these details we have read in the last several weeks tell us this isn’t a simple or an easy task. It is very detailed, very painstaking. And yet, once it is built, it lasts. Never mind that the temple, that succeeded the mishkan, was destroyed.The temple was something else —a permanent ornate structure reflecting an imperial state. It was always going to be destroyed, we were always going to grieve over that, that was always going to be part of our Jewish journey. The mishkan had to become the temple and the temple had to be destroyed and we had to be exiled. But the mishakan itself was a product of exile. It was portable, light, you took it apart and put it back together again constantly. Just like the inhale that disappears and then comes back again and again.
The half shekel given here is for silver used for either the foundation of the mishkan, or the joints — the commentator differs on this. But in any case, a pivotal, special,crucial, part. For this part everyone must give exactly a half shekel, no more no less.
But it says they must give it for atonement. Why do the people need atonement, redemption, at this point? They haven’t done anything terrible as yet. But somehow when you take account of people — when you count heads, as it literally says — when you objectify people —you notice redemption is needed. We say “make an account of yourself.” “Stand up and be counted”. In other words, you have to live among others, be someone, be objectified, no one escapes this. And so naturally, given this, you need atonement. According to a midrash, Moses couldn’t understand how giving a half shekel would redeem a person’s soul. It didn’t make sense to him. So God reached under the throne of glory and pulled out a coin of fire and said, “They should give a coin like this.” This story takes us to another level.
What is that coin of fire? It’s not exactly money — because the rich don’t have more of it than the poor, as it says, with all the other offerings to the mishkan people were to give according to their capacity and generosity but for this offering everyone was going to give exactly the same amount: one coin of fire. The Kotzker rebbe says this coin of fire is an act of mercy, of compassion performed with fire and passion. Like the story of my friend’s breakthrough – hard-won compassion, connection, that comes from conflict and frustration. But that might not be right. Or that might only be part of it.
So here is another assignment for you: to meditate on, journal about, think about, what is this coin of fire for you? What is this redemptive coin of fire?