My spirituality is very practical, so when I approach a text, I ask, “How can I read this in a way that will be useful?”
“How will the study-experience effect my awareness, state of consciousness, sensitivity to others, or capacity to give and receive Love? How can I dedicate the power of this text to the force of evolution that moves me towards loving awareness of the Whole of Life and its Holiness?”
I remember after my first year of studying Talmud intensively in Rabbinical School, I came home to my husband, who said, “You know, Shefa, you are much more argumentative since you started studying Talmud.” He was right. I was practicing the art of argument which cultivated a mind that was very keen, quick and competitive. When I engaged in Torah study, it seemed like everyone was trying to “figure out” the text – master it – and become smarter somehow. And we were all encountering an ancient Jewish neurotic pattern that whispered, “You’ll never be smart enough… .” which only made us study harder.
At some point I made a decision that I didn’t need to get any smarter. I needed instead to open my heart wider to the blessings of Torah that I knew were there. The powers of critical thinking were not going to unlock those blessings. I needed to fully receive the spiritual challenge that Torah was offering me. In rising to that challenge I must first surrender to it. I’m then called to focus all the courage, honesty and determination I can possibly find in order to rise to that challenge.
(I certainly haven’t stopped learning, but my learning is fueled by a joyous curiosity rather than the neurotic quest for MORE knowledge.)
Instead of attempting to master Torah I decided instead to surrender to its power and allow myself to be transformed by it. I decided to climb aboard and let Torah take me on a journey. The journey of Torah is the journey of the soul. Every soul travels the path of Self-Realization which is a process of Enlightenment, expanding Awareness, the finite discovering its hidden infinitude. It is the path of the Human waking up to its Divinity.
I lift myself up to the level of Torah and ask, “How can I read this in a way that will be useful for my life right now?” Well, first I want to know, “What is this about?” Instead of just collecting lots of particulars and piling them up inside me haphazardly… I want to know where to put all these ideas, stories, laws, myth, history, poetry. In answering the question, “What is this about?” I am more able to contextualize and understand the purpose of each of those myriad details. I am able then to put the words of Torah to good use.
It’s the same in conversation. If someone comes to talk to me, I’d like to know what they’re talking about first. Then I can listen attentively and know where to put all the information that is coming in through their words and presence. When I don’t know what it’s about, I have a harder time listening and taking in the details.
As I’m reading Torah, I wear two very different kinds of lenses. One lens is like a magnifying glass that focuses in on specific words or phrases that I sense are hidden treasures of power and mystery. As I read, my ears and heart are listening and watching for energy surges that happen when I am in the presence of veiled power or beauty. I watch for difficulties in the text which appear like cracks on the smooth surface of a narrative. Then I enter through those cracks and step inside the text. I know that what looks like a problem from the outside will become a doorway to expanded consciousness…. If only I can find my way “inside.” What begins as a contradiction, proceeds into the realm of paradox. Paradox stretches the mind beyond its normal confines and is a sign that I am encountering the realm of ultimate truth.
Another lens I wear when I encounter holy text is one that sees the whole Parsha at a glance. I ask, “What is this really about?” I create a frame or context for understanding the purpose and meaning that the text brings to my life in this very moment. Sometimes meaning is revealed through the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate (though adjacent) texts, rather than in looking at just one passage by itself.
I also have used that wide-perspective lens to look at the whole of each of the Five Books. This gives me insight into the entire flow of the Journey of Soul. I offer this framework which has been useful to me in my journey so that you can try it on…. And then come to the text and ask the question yourself, “What is this really about?” Asking this question is a sacred act. When I keep in mind (and heart) the reminder that Torah is the story of my soul’s journey and can help me to step onto my path with conscious devotion, then there’s less chance that I’ll get lost or trapped in the myriad details of the text. I can dedicate my understanding of those details to the overall context and underlying purpose of this journey of Torah.
- The Book of Genesis is about INCARNATION.
- The Book of Exodus is about LIBERATION.
- The Book of Leviticus is about HOLINESS.
- The Book of Numbers is about JOURNEY.
- And the Book of Deuteronomy is about PRACTICE.
These over-arching themes help me to receive the words of Torah and put them to good use in my own process of Self-Realization, Growth, Healing and the unfolding awareness of my Soul-Journey.
Genesis is about INCARNATION
By Incarnation, I mean the flow of the Infinite into this finite reality. Genesis first addresses the mystery of Creation, and traces that flow of pure potential as it becomes manifest. This is not a history of Creation; it is a description of a process that is happening just now. “V’nahar yotzei me-eden l’hashkot et HaGan.” The river issues forth from Eden to water the Garden of our Lives. Divine Blessing is flowing forth right now and our job is to open and receive it. The Divine blessing pours into this world through us. In order to receive this blessing we must become fully embodied, fully Human. Being Human means accepting yourself as part of a family (however complicated that is) and entering into the drama of Identity, Inheritance and Belonging.
All of the family stories in Genesis lead us ever-deeper into the tangle and density of material existence. By the end of the Book of Genesis, our soul has journeyed “down into Egypt/Mitzrayim,” where she loses herself and becomes enslaved to the material plane. The word for Egypt …Mitzrayim means the narrow places. It represents the narrow consciousness that sees the material world as “all there is.”
Exodus is about LIBERATION
As Exodus begins, the pressure and narrowness of our slavery and conditioning call forth the diamond of prophesy in the image of Moses. He represents the spark of enlightened wakefulness at the very center of the dull hard husks of this material world. As prophesy awakens, a groaning cry emerges from the heart of our suffering and is answered by God’s loving perspective. Min HaMetzar karati Yah; Anani baMerkhav Yah. “From the narrow places I called out to God who answered me with the Divine Expanse.” (Psalm 118:5)
This awareness of our enslavement begins the process of liberation. This process begins in self-awareness and moves in stages, through plague and miracle as we explore the true meaning of Freedom. At each point in the process – the crossing of the Sea, the journey through wilderness, the receiving of Revelation – we realize that we are not yet free. We discover that the bitterness of slavery has corrupted and poisoned us. The imprint of slavery exiles us into habit and the illusions of separateness.
Through the story of Exodus we are remembering the true meaning and purpose of Freedom. Again and again God reminds us, “I brought you out of Egypt to BE YOUR GOD…” in other words…”to be in relationship with you.” That relationship, that awareness of our connection to the Source and all Creation is what sets us free. The last third of the Book of Exodus is about the building of the Mishkan (the portable Sanctuary), which is the place where the intimate connection with God can manifest. God says, “Build me a holy place so that I can dwell inside you and between you. Through this inter-connectedness, you will know Freedom.”
In the Mishkan, we get a glimpse of Freedom and we taste the Holiness of connection.
Leviticus is about HOLINESS
That taste of holiness comes and goes, leaving us with a fragrant memory and a yearning for sustained connection. Then the Priest or Priestess within us rises up to face the challenge: What is the meaning of Holiness and how is it sustained? Is there a sacred technology that will keep us close to God? Are there principles of justice and love that can inform each step of the Journey of Soul and open our hearts to the Mystery that surrounds and fills our lives?
Our spiritual lives are about building a Mishkan, within us and between us – a place for the Divine Presence to dwell. Yet even the Mishkan – our spiritual practice, is in danger of corruption, rigidity, deception or pettiness. How do we keep our Mishkan safe? And how do we purify our intentions as we continue to build those holy places within and between us?
Often the Book of Leviticus speaks in the language of Korbanot, which is translated as sacrifices, but literally means “the way of coming close” to God. The Korbanot describe a system of addressing the many ways that the connections between human and Divine are broken. Each korban is a pathway of Return. Leviticus explores the nature of Holiness – how to notice and what to do when we have distanced ourselves from the blessing of connection.
Numbers is about JOURNEY
At some point on our soul’s journey, we realize that this is indeed a journey. We realize that the destination is not as important as the path itself. The Journey becomes holy as we open to its power to heal and transform us. Becoming aware of the meaning and purpose of our journey changes the nature of each step. When we know that the journey is meant to heal us and set us free from that which enslaves us on the inside, then each step, each bend in the road becomes an opportunity for awakening.
The Book of Numbers, called in Hebrew, BaMidbar ( In the Wilderness), begins with a census which represents the process of thorough self-awareness. The purpose of our journey cannot be fulfilled until we know who it is that is making this journey, and who it is we are becoming through our encounter with God in the wilderness. Only in the wilderness, the place outside of our civilized constructs of Reality, can this transformation take place.
Deuteronomy is about PRACTICE
In Hebrew the book is called D’varim, after its opening phrase, “These words.” The oldest name of the book, however, was Mishneh Torah, “The Repetition of the Torah.” In Deuteronomy the wisdom accrued along the path of the Soul is repeated, refined and given to us again so that we can make it our own. “These Words,” are given to us through Moses, the aspect of prophesy. Moses stands at the borders of the Holy Land and looks back at the whole of the path we have traveled. He gives us the perspective that can help us make meaning of “the long strange trip it’s been.” Through meaning we are encouraged and strengthened in our practice.
This journey teaches us to live each moment of Life as Practice. Through Practice, we learn to love God with the fullness of heart, soul and might, whether we are sitting, standing, walking or lying down. To love fully takes a lot of practice. And it is impossible to love God without loving and identifying with all of God’s creatures.
Towards the end of Deuteronomy God instructs Moses to give the people a song,”to put it in their mouths,” as a way of truly remembering. The song is a practice of remembrance and we need it because it’s so easy to become forgetful, complacent, distracted, and in our unconsciousness to turn to “other gods,” like comfort, fame, entertainment, wealth or security. When the Moses/ Prophet part of us creates the song, the practice of remembrance, she must use all her intelligence, artistry and passion to craft a practice that is beautiful, compelling and alive with subtlety.
When I remember that Deuteronomy is about Practice, then I am compelled to put “These Words,” into action.
Journeying through Torah is a way of sanctifying my own Life’s path. And though each of our paths is unique, we travel together through the same text and let the ancient stories shine their light, illuminating, magnifying and bestowing upon each of us our own particular blessing and spiritual challenge.
Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.