Day 24: Our Holy Missions

Day 24 - Colored Glass photo-500

This is the week of Netzach on our Omer-counting path to Shavuot. We associate Netzach with our ability to discern and pursue our mission, to formulate our values and principles. Throughout the week, we get to look at Netzach through different prisms, as if lifting pieces of colored glass up to our eyes to discern the new shapes and outlines that may reveal themselves within the concept of Netzach.

Today’s prism is one of Tiferet, understood as holiness, beauty and equilibrium. And so today is an opportunity to consider how holiness fits in within our missions and values. Another way to look at it is to ask: How holy are our missions?

From the spiritual perspective, there is an understanding that our mission is given us by God. Here is, for example, what Rabbi Luria wrote (thanks to Simcha Raphael for providing this beautiful passage on his website):

Before anything else, a person needs to meditate well and dig deeply into the knowledge of what his/her special task is in the world· We are given signs by which to discern it, and sometimes we know it because it is the most difficult thing we could ever undertake· But when we have clarity about our “special mission to earth”, through which we fulfill ourselves, we no longer get confused about the great work or equivocate about the amount of energy we must invest in it. Nor do we lose hope in life, because we know that our soul’s purpose is fulfilled by means of it and no sacrifice is too precious if we can carry it out.

There is a clear reference to the notion of holiness of one’s true mission here. We discern our mission through our interaction with God, and once we have understood it, we act with greater energy and integrity, bringing more wholeness – and holiness – into everything that we do.

And yet, how complex this notion is when put into the ordinary human context. My own story, which I shared recently, is a prime example. I went about happily pursuing my mission, but it was my parents who later bore the brunt of my financial missteps. It was my friend who gave up part of her living space in order for me to stay at her place when things went south.

And so one question one might ask is, to what extent are we responsible toward others in our lives as we pursue what we consider to be our sacred missions? This question may face a parent who dedicates his life to his life’s work while finding little time for his kids. An artist who gives all her time to her art while leaving little time for her friends and family may face the same question. And what if our mission doesn’t enable us to provide for ourselves? What if it leads us to distance ourselves from our communities, which depend on our participation? The outcome of the work may be beautiful. But is it truly infused with holiness and beauty if it takes away from those other areas of our lives?

So as we contemplate holiness within our missions, we may refer ourselves to what seems to be a fundamental Kabbalistic notion that the Universe at large is built on the notion of balance and must over time remain in balance. It’s a concept that is expressed so well in the very image of the Kabbalistic tree When we understand this, we will also understand that when we do move out of balance, we can take steps to correct that.

Day 23: The Power of Your Mission


Today is the day of Gevurah within Netzach, when we have the chance to contemplate the meaning of power within the energy of our personal mission, values, and principles.

Power is a crucial and touchy subject in our society. We want it, and we’re afraid of it, and most of the time, we think of power as something external. We feel that it derives from something – or someone – else. Money brings power, and so we have to go get it. So do positions of authority, and so we have to work to attain them. We view the office of the president of the United States as conferring the greatest power possible on its occupant. We acknowledge that a professor has power over his students, and a doctor has power over her patients. A wealthy woman has more power than a homeless man in the street.

Certain physical characteristics can also accrue a perception of power to those who possess them. We assign an enormous amount of power to physical beauty. People who are physically stronger are understood to have power over those who are less so. Someone who has modern weapons is more powerful than one armed with a bow and arrow.

But there is another kind of power that we rarely talk about. This is power that derives from somewhere deep within the person. It is a kind of power that is based on the strength of the person’s spirit, the power of her convictions, his dedication to his mission, her commitment to living life according to her values and principles for the benefit of the greater good. We all have access to this kind of power, and we don’t have to go anywhere to get it – only ourselves. And this is what Day 23 of the Omer, Gevura she b’Netzach, asks us to consider.

Eli Wiesel is such a person. Wiesel, who had experienced the brutality of Hitler’s murder machine, became an uncompromising spokesperson for human dignity. When the Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize, it referred to him as a “messenger to mankind.” In his acceptance speech Wiesel said:

I have tried to keep memory alive… I have tried to fight those who would forget… I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

Wiesel lives that mission. It is this mission, his principled life, his dedication to humanistic values that have turned this man into a model of fortitude and spiritual power. This, despite the fact that at one point he was a prisoner at Auschwitz – a place of ultimate powerlessness, where everything you possessed had been taken from you, including, for most, life itself.

Mahatma Gandhi is known as a political leader who led his people to independence. But what was the source of his personal power? What turned him into such a beloved figure among his people? Toward the end of his life, Gandhi lived virtually as an ascetic, presenting an image of a thin, scantily-clad man who hardly had a penny to his name. Throughout his life, he had systematically given away his every possession – the very things that many believe make one more powerful.  He rejected the use of violence and refused to arm himself or his followers. And yet, such was his personal power that it forced the British to come to the negotiating table with him. They respected him even as they viewed him as their nemesis.

Gandhi was a profoundly spiritual man who was committed to living what he preached. Asked to deliver a message to the people of India on a visit to the state of Bengal, he famously responded: “My life is my message.” His personal truth – a combination of his spiritual mission, values and principles – was his true power.

Nick Vujic is another figure whose power is derived from inner strength, multiplied by his mission. Born without limbs, he found himself in a position of total disempowerment, depending on others for his every basic need. And yet, he overcame these extraordinary circumstances and became an inspirational figure for millions across the globe. It is the strength of his spirit and humanity that brought him that which we ordinarily consider to be sources of power themselves – money and success – not the other way around.

This is the kind of power that Day 23 of the Omer encourages us to consider. It is the power that is derived from us living our mission and from being our values and principles in the name of greater good.

What role do a personal sense of mission, values and principles play in your own life? In which ways do these allow you to make good judgments in order to pursue the right causes, to do the right thing? When we contemplate these questions, we address the essence of today’s day of Gevura she b’Netzach.

Day 20: The Glorious Chain of Giving and Receiving

One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all creatures. None has power, or means, for itself; it receives in order to give; gives in order to receive, and finds therein the accomplishment of the purpose of its existence.

-Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel (quote comes from Neohasid.org)

A few years ago, I had to give up a business that I considered to be the perfect expression of my life’s purpose. It had to do with mind-body medicine. I was working with very sick patients – something I found extraordinarily fulfilling – and I was teaching classes on complementary approaches to health and healing.

It had taken me years to build this business. It unraveled in weeks. The unraveling began on the day when I realized, with complete clarity, that what I had created was unsustainable.

In pursuit of my spiritual mission, I had completely disregarded life’s fundamentals. I had run not just through my savings but my retirement funds as well, while continuing to rent a very expensive apartment. There were days when I didn’t know if I’d have enough cash to fill up my car to get to my next appointment. I was literally running on fumes. During the last months of that part of my life, I had to call on my Dad to help me pay off my tax arrears.

On the day of reckoning, I pulled out my old resume and went out looking for a job. I had had a career before, and now I was praying that I hadn’t spent too much time away from it to become unemployable.

I turned to everyone I could for help, and I got a job, a great job. It was way below my qualifications, but I didn’t mind. I simply said a prayer of gratitude and continued to say it, because I recognized this as God’s helping hand. It took God and a village to pull me out of my pit.

Within weeks, I changed my occupation, my lifestyle and my routine. I moved into a single room in a dear friend’s home which was farther in the suburbs than I’d ever lived – a move that required me to give up most of my stuff and surrender most of my treasured privacy. But this friend charged me $300 per month for the use of her home, and I simply couldn’t afford anything else. She didn’t need me and my cat in her home, and she certainly didn’t need the money. It was an act of pure and humbling charity on her part, and I fully appreciated it as such.

I remember sitting one day on a sofa in my new place of residence and thinking about what had happened. I didn’t feel any bitterness – only grief over the loss of this mission-driven work that had been so important to me. And I really wanted to understand the message God was giving me. After all, I hadn’t been on a path of spiritual growth for nothing. I knew a lesson when I saw one.

The answer came to me virtually the moment I asked the question. And maybe I knew it all along. I had allowed my life to get out of balance, and now I needed to correct it. I had gotten too enamored of what had felt like my life’s purpose but failed to ground myself in the fundamental, material laws of life.

In Kabbalistic terms, I had ignored my Yesod – the energy that enables us to experience our physical needs so that we can provide for ourselves. Yesod contains within it all that is contained in the material world: our need for food, clothing, a roof over our head, our sexual needs, our desire for procreation.

They say that nature doesn’t tolerate vacuum. I believe that in a similar way, nature doesn’t tolerate out-of-balance states for too long. Eventually, every imbalance must correct itself. I was now in the stage of correcting.

There is a tendency among those of us who are in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment to consider physical needs as subservient to spiritual growth. Judaism is unequivocal about it. The ability to sustain oneself, and to do so well and in a balanced way, is considered just as spiritual as prayer and ritual.  For Kabbalists, the energy of Yesod is just as important a Divine emanation as that inherent in the sfirot of Tiferet (holiness) and Chesed (loving kindness).

When we are asked to contemplate the energy of our needs within the energy of holiness and equilibrium, as we do on this day of Yesod within Tiferet, we are able to see clearly that true balance, equilibrium and holiness are impossible when our basic physical needs are not met. And, of course, the opposite is also true:  if the fulfillment of our own needs grows out of proportion and we forget to give, then balance and equilibrium will be just as unattainable.

 

 

Day 19: Emotional Integration for Balance and Holiness

Day 19-photo

Each day of the counting of Omer offers us an opportunity to consider the multitude of ways in which Hashem shows up in our lives. We can  see how He expresses Himself through giving us new ideas, channeling into us His wisdom and loving kindness, offering opportunities to experience beauty and equilibrium.

But does He also show up in our lives through emotions, as one of today’s aspects, Hod, suggests? That seems less obvious. In joy, love and happiness – of course. But what about anger, sadness, pride, greed, jealousy?

For the Kabbalists, the answer is an unequivocal yes. After all, everything comes from Hashem, and that must hold true for our entire emotional spectrum. Each shade of that spectrum is meant serve a purpose. And so as we contemplate Hod within Tiferet, which is the lens of Day 19, we get to consider how this works in our lives.

Hod, which is typically translated as Majesty, is also understood to represent our motivating emotions. Tiferet is beauty and balance. How could the two possibly be connected if we are talking about “negative” emotions? After all, what does anger have to do with balance?

But if Tiferet is balance, equilibrium and holiness, it means that it must contain, integrate, and balance out everything. Just like the white light associated with the Divine incorporates all colors of the spectrum, Tiferet must, among other things, incorporate all aspects of our emotional being – even the ones that we refuse to admit are part of us. Rather than being a sterile place from which the so-called “negative” emotions have been scrubbed, Tiferet is the place where they are fully integrated.

In her classic book, Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert, Ph.D., an internationally recognized neuroscientist and pharmacologist, refers to emotions as signaling mechanisms which serve to connect our mind and body. Each one has a critical biochemical purpose. Each calls our attention to something important, invites us to investigate what it is that we have been overlooking in our lives.

If managed with appropriate understanding and wisdom, anger can be a driving force for change. So can sadness and any other emotion that we identify as painful. We just need to learn to discern their messages and choose a skillful and balanced course of action.

To me, the purpose of Hod within Tiferet is to help us gain insights into balancing and integrating these powerful forces, which are given to us by Hashem to motivate us into positive action. When we have learned to harness the best of every emotion for the purpose of creating more harmony and beauty, we have mastered the essence of Hod she’b’Tiferet.

 

 

Day 18: Sacredness and Beauty as an Expression of Vision, Principles and Values

Day18-photo

Any building meant to evoke a sense of beauty, harmony and holiness must adhere to certain rules. It begins with the architect’s vision. It must stand on firm foundation. Its construction is based on architectural blueprints. And the actual building process is guided by the understanding of the laws of physics, construction principles, rules of finance, and many others.

Yet, if the building is masterfully made, the first thing those visiting it will likely notice is the feeling that it evokes. If they think about the process of construction at all, it will likely happen only later.

In a building like that, harmony and beauty are inseparable from the vision, values and principles that guided its construction. Zaha Hadid’s masterpieces are an example of that. So is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The whimsical creations by Gaudi in Barcelona and Hundertwasser in Vienna are another example.

The Kabbalistic lens of this 18th day of the Omer – Netzach she’b’Tiferet – expresses that idea perfectly. While Netzach is traditionally understood as “victory” or “endurance,” the deeper interpretation, as Jay McCrensky explains in “Receiving Holiness,” is that Netzach is about God expressing himself through us by helping us formulate our values and principles, grasp our purpose and mission.

One way to think about it is to recall the construction of the Tabernacle, the tent of meetings where God was to dwell among Israelites in the desert. The Torah contains pages and pages describing the specific ways in which it was to be built: “make this Tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you,” we read in Exodus 25:9. And it doesn’t spare any effort in describing ways in which priests were to conduct themselves within it.

As a Dutch theologian Hermann Witsius observes, “God created the whole world in six days, but he used forty to instruct Moses about the tabernacle. Little over one chapter was needed to describe the structure of the world, but six were used for the tabernacle.”

Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Tabernacle’s holy of holies – its inner sanctuary, the ultimate sacred space, and even he was to do so only one day a year, on Yom Kippur, while observing specific rituals and procedures. The importance of this instruction is made abundantly clear when Aaron’s son Nadab and Abihu die after breaking some of those rules.

The holiness, perfect harmony and physical and spiritual beauty of the Tabernacle and its inner sanctum rest on the foundation of God’s vision as the architect-in-chief and the elaborate rules and procedures that He set for Israelites to build it and act within it. In its turn, the Tabernacle expresses this vision and the guiding principles and values perfectly, while evoking feelings of sacredness. That is one way in which we can think of the essence of Netzach she’b’Tiferet that this 18th day of the Omer is called to express.

Day 17: Holiness in Beauty

TiferetThe other day, a Sefardi friend told me a story. Ashkenazi rabbis were deep in their studies when, lo – a beautiful woman walked by. The rabbis buried themselves deeper into the books so as not to be led astray by the sight of the woman. On the other side of the world, a beautiful woman walked by a group of Sefardi rabbis. In contrast to their Ashkenzi holy brothers, the Sefardim stopped their studying in order to bless God.

Tiferet – beauty, harmony, and holiness – is at the heart center of Kabbala’s symbolic diagram, and when that diagram is interposed on the human body, Tiferet is all the beauty that the human heart contains.

Contemplating Tiferet in Tiferet, which is what we do on Day 17 of the counting of the Omer, is like being at the heart of beauty and holiness itself.

Tiferet corresponds to one of God’s holy Names – YHVH. Jay McCrensky writes in “Receiving Holiness” that any time The Zochar refers to HaKadosh Baruch Hu – “The Holy One Blessed be He” – we have the chance to be in the Tiferet consciousness, to tap into the energy of beauty and holiness as God created them.

To my mind, the Sefardi holy brothers got the point much better than the Ashkenazi ones. When we see beauty, what we need to do is contemplate its holiness and praise the One who created it to elevate our souls.

 

Day 16: Contemplating Beauty

Orchids - white-medium-regular-big

We are now in week three of the seven-week period of the counting of Omer – a time when we contemplate all facets of God’s manifestation in this plane of existence as understood by Kabbala – as we move toward celebrating God’s revelation and the giving of Torah during the holiday of Shavuot. Week three focuses on Tiferet – harmony, balance, beauty, and holiness. I wrote this yesterday, on Day 16, when we were asked to contemplate Gevurah (power and strength) that is in Tiferet – or the power inherent in beauty.

In our society this particular combination makes natural sense. We worship the power of external beauty even as we judge it as superficial. But adding a spiritual dimension to this contemplation allows us to take a step back and see both beauty and power as divine emanations.

The Russian writer Dostoevsky, a profoundly religious man, once famously said that beauty will save the world. We can choose to believe that beauty, including physical beauty, was given us to contemplate the beauty of all creation and thus to admire the Creator. And the power of that beauty is in the good that it can bring to the world by uplifting and inspiring it. When we see beauty, we see God’s countenance, the inherent beauty and balance of God’s presence and creation. Thus, the power of beauty leads us into holiness and back to Tiferet.

The difference between simply worshiping the power of beauty and viewing it as one of the many ways in which God manifests himself in this world can seem subtle, but it’s a profoundly meaningful one. It may mean the difference between creating an idol out of an object of beauty versus dignifying the object as part of the larger universe that God creates in every moment. It may mean the difference between falling for the illusion of the particular versus viewing comprehending all the particularities as part of a single whole.