Day 19: Emotional Integration for Balance and Holiness

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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


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

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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.




Counting the Omer: Contemplating God’s Manifestation In Our Lives

Orchides - lilac - edited - medium sizeLast Shabbat, on the 14th day of the Omer, our congregation was celebrating a bar mitzvah. As the music resonated throughout the room, I could feel the incredible spiritual power in community gathering together to celebrate this young man’s rite of passage.

At one point during the ceremony, three generations of his family – he, his mother, and his grandmother – came to the front of the room. The mother said a traditional bar mitzvah blessing of releasing the responsibility for her son’s sins, and the grandmother gifted him a new tallit.

Seeing these three generations gathered together, with the young man – their future – accepting the gift of this spiritual tradition from them, felt profoundly moving. In that moment, God’s presence, the Shekhina, was palpable in the room.

I noticed this in particular because in the Kabbalistic worldview, day 14 of the Omer corresponds to Malchut sheb’Gevurah – Malchut within Gevurah. Malchut, “Kingdon,” represents Shekhina – God’s presence among us. Gevura is associated with strength and power, as well as coalescence and community.

On day 14, we are asked to contemplate the meaning of Shekhina showing up through the lens of Gevura, and on that day in the case of our congregation, that expression was obvious. The spirit, Shekhina, was very much on display that Shabbat as our community coalesced around this young man.

Having a basic understanding of the Kabbalistic view of the structure of the universe can be profoundly meaningful as we count the Omer – particularly if we become aware of how that understanding applies to our lives. Having that understanding can mean the difference between a mechanistic ritual of counting and one that helps us perceive God’s manifestation in every moment of our lives.

Counting each day with this framework in mind helps us feel the holiness of each day and of everything that it contains – the holiness of all creation.


What Is Embodied Judaism?

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The idea of “embodied Judaism” came to me when I first began to engage with Judaism in a deep way back in 2009.

Having made the plunge, I got the distinct impression that the study and practice of Judaism revolved exclusively around intellectual engagement, leaving the rest of our being – in particular the physical, the emotional, and sometimes, unfortunately, even the spiritual – out.

In the meantime, having traveled the journey that many Jews end up traveling – the route of yoga, meditation, and study of holy scriptures from other traditions, I could see that our own traditions and rituals, not to mention the language of prayers, were clearly supposed to engage the heart and the spirit – in other words, a worshiper’s whole self.

I began to explore deeper these practices, paying particular attention to their underlying spiritual meaning. One of my favorites is the ritual of immersion – the mikveh, which is one of the most “embodied” practices we have. Yet most mikveh users hardly ever think about its profound spiritual meaning.

Another example is the use of fragrant herbs. Did you know that if we could “smell” the Bible, we would be overwhelmed by all the beautiful and spiritually elevating fragrances of the fragrant plants it mentions?

Having previously studied the properties of aromatic herbs and essential oils, I could immediately appreciate this: the sense of smell is one of the most powerful (yet least appreciated) senses, wired as it is right into the lymbic system of our brain. It connects directly into our emotional centers, the deeply visceral parts of us that bypass language.

Yet, most people, even those who had spent years and decades studying the Torah, simply glided past the names of these herbs, never asking themselves: why did God guide us to use frankincense with our burnt offerings? Why is the Song of Songs filled with a symphony of fragrances, from myrrh to frankincense to the Rose of Sharon? Why does Psalm 51 refer to hyssop when it talks about spiritual purity, as in “cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow”?

I had possible answers to these questions but I wasn’t sure anybody wanted to hear them. Still, I began sharing the information, bringing a few bottles of fragrant essential oils – the essences of aromatic plants – with me to services as specific parshiot called for them. Many people reported powerful experiences when their prayers were enhanced with those. Then I began to teach classes about it.

I also started wondering about movement. Why do we traditionally shukle during prayer? Why do hasidim dance? What stepping forward and backward during the Amidah, bowing at various places, prostrating at High Holy Day services?

The truth is that  Judaism is unabashedly physical, expressive. Miriam and King David danced ecstatically for God. The Psalms speak of singing new song to God. Our offerings are nothing if not physical.

I see it as my mission to help my fellow Jewish worshippers to rediscover deep spiritual meaning in these practices: help them acquire a new meaning and become a new doorway for further spiritual exploration.

How Important Is the Body in Jewish Spirituality?

Today’s Jewish practice all too often seems to favor a highly intellectual approach. Opportunities to express spiritual connection in physical ways are few, and where they do exist, their deeper meaning is often lost.

In fact, the few practices that do engage our bodies – the mikveh (immersion), the laying of tefillin, the shuckling during prayer, or davening, – are often the province of the more observant worshipers, leaving members of liberal communities with few resources to express their spirituality physically.

But the physical plays a critically important role in our spiritual experience. It’s through the body that we experience God’s presence in our lives.

Jewish liturgy has numerous specific references to various parts of our bodies: from kol atzmotai tomarna (“all my bones shall praise you”) to references to God examining and knowing all our inner parts (kidneys are referenced some five times, e.g. in Psalm 26:2).

At the beginning of the Amidah, we ask God to open our lips and let our mouths declare His praise; at the end we ask Him to keep our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from speaking deceit. We talk about lungs expanding with the praise of God (Psalm 34:1).

And, of course, there is the blessing in which we thank and acknowledge God for the miracle of the body, recognize all the many open passageways and enclosed organs that our bodies contain, and that if even one thing went wrong with even one of them, we would not be able to survive.

In fact, the examples of full-body engagement are too many to mention: from King David’s very  physical ecstatic dance before the ark, to King Saul’s witnessing of a group of men prophesizing in motion, to Miriam leading women in dance: what we learn from the Torah and the liturgy is that prayer is a very physical business.

Yet this connection is mostly absent in today’s synagogues. In fact, the very atmosphere of today’s communal worship seems to discourage any physical expressions of an inner spiritual state.

The early Hasidim, in fact, paid significant attention to the body, realizing that the physical is the vehicle for the spiritual. This wisdom, which we are just starting to rediscover in our modern world through advances in mind-body medicine, was a given among the spiritual seekers of 18th century Eastern European shtetls.

Much of this knowledge has vanished with the disappearance or breakage of lineages in Hasidic dynasties during the Shoah. It is up to us to revive it and reclaim that which is ours.

When I lead meditation during services or in classes, I intentionally try to help bring awareness to the body. I will often offer guidance to focus people’s attention on a specific part of their body, such as the heart. Here, again, Jewish liturgy offers an endless source of inspiration. We are asked to love the Lord our God with all our heart; to purify our hearts so that we can serve Him; we are asked to walk before God and be wholehearted.

I have found the meditations that help people visualize the opening, expanding and repairing of their hearts to be meaningful for many. Meditations that remind one of the connection between our higher soul, neshama, and the neshima, our breath, which God used to breathed the soul into us, can also be powerful.