Thursday, March 31, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 5th Portion, Leviticus 10:16-20, March 31, 2016

“Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, ‘Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? 18 Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’ And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’ And when Moses heard that, he approved.” (Leviticus 10-16-20)
In Buddhism, there is a process called transmission where an exchange occurs between teacher and student. Though the teacher would have been previously transmitted, and the student had not, it is a two-way exchange.

In the same way that Moses sometimes talks back to God and tells him to “cool down,” here in this lovely interchange, Aaron speaks back to him brother/mentor Moses... and Moses is pleased.

Here is one more educational lesson. The teacher can learn from the student. The teacher can be wrong and admit it when presented with the facts. Aaron is allowed to save face, after both failing in his solo offering last week to bring the Lord to the Tabernacle, and then in failing to properly train and supervise his two sons so that they die. 

Moses now tries to be a better teacher to Aaron, telling him that he made an error in the offerings. But the lesson turns out far greater than correcting an improperly performed temple offering. The lesson is to admit to your student that you are wrong. Well, done, Aaron for standing up to Moses... and well done, Moses, for admitting that you were wrong.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 4th Portion, Leviticus 10:12-15, March 30, 2016

“And Moses spoke to Aaron and his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Take the meal offering that is left over from the Lord's fire offerings, and eat it as unleavened loaves beside the altar, for it is a holy of holies;...’”(Leviticus 10:12)   
We are reminded that the altar is the holy of holies. I suspect that only God herself would be more holy. Given that there are no extraneous words in the Torah (as some say), the repetition is a kind of explanation to Aaron why his two sons got zapped. The phrase “surviving sons” suggests that the other sons should have been zapped as well for the sin of the Golden Calf. If God was only vengeful then they would have been, but as a merciful God, two were spared. I think it also suggests that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the act and the penalty.

It is interesting that two of the most serious indiscretions didn't have to do with what one person did to another, but rather with a lack of faith in God. Being the skeptic that I am, it seems natural that one would doubt or not follow God from time to time. But no, this is the most grievous sin. Disobedience.

Let's suppose that God is not out there but rather in here. Disobedience then would be not following your heart—not being true to oneself. And sometimes it is returning to our original self. When we don't do this, there is no life left in us... reiterating  God's prediction, “...and you shall die.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 3rd Portion, Leviticus 9:24-10:11, March 29, 2016

“And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces. 
And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. 
And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 
Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 9:24-10;2)
For me, this portion is all about many elements of teaching.

1) Moses and Aaron do the job right and the Lord appeared. They had been told to do the offerings, they knew the forms, and they did them wholeheartedly.

2) Aaron's sons try to follow suit, but they missed some important ingredients: they weren't told to do it, and they might not have had the right state of mind. Some say they were drinking because a few lines later we are told, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die.” (Leviticus 10:9)

We don't know if they were intoxicated with wine, or if they acted as if they were not in control of their faculties.

But why was their dad silent when they were killed? Because there had been warning "and you will die" before this portion, and more importantly, people in a community are responsible if anyone messes up because they could have been a better guide. Aaron is at fault when his sons are at fault. He was given the greatest of all punishments: losing his sons... greater than losing his own life. It was Aaron who really died because he had not properly guided his sons. And he could not complain.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 2nd Portion, Leviticus 9:17-23, March 28, 2016

“And Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people and blessed them. He then descended from preparing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering. 
And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting. Then they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” (Leviticus 9:22-23)

In a midrash for these verses some interesting angles are revealed. The people are hoping that Shechinah  (the female form of God) will appear when Aaron does the offerings, and she does not. Today we do not focus on the expectation or merit for our efforts. We do not judge God by the quality of our lives... or at  least, we shouldn’t.

Aaron becomes angry at Moses because he is humiliated that the magic did not work as the people hoped. This would be like a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat except the trick fails and a rat appears instead.

In any case, Aaron’s brother and mentor, Moses, accompanies him back into the Tent and this time Shechinah appears. This foreshadows (once more) what happens if you don’t do the offering right, which causes the death of two of Aaron’s sons.

But what does it mean “to do it right”? It is not only the gesture, but how one communicates with the Lord... the authentic... was Aaron just doing the gestures?

We say “I love you.” They can be empty words, or they can move a mountain. It is not enough to say the words. To get Shechinah to appear we need to be there wholeheartedly.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 1st Portion, Leviticus 9:1-16, March 27, 2016

“And they took what Moses had commanded, to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the entire community approached and stood before the Lord. 
And Moses said, “This is the thing the Lord has commanded; do [it], and the glory of the Lord will appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:5-6)
Three points for Moses. He corrects the narrative—that the command was not his but the Lord’s. We mistakenly believe our teachings are our teachings, when really they belong to something much bigger than we are. At best, we discover them. And these universal teachings are discovered over and over again? Nothing is new since Aristotle, as the saying goes.

When Buddha died, he didn’t believe that he’d be replaced by another teacher, but rather by the teachings. And for Buddha, it is our experience that verifies those teachings. 

One could take the commandments as self-evident truths for a sane society that are discovered from time to time. It should be the commandments that we follow, not because they were given by the Lord, but because they seem to jive with our best judgement.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Parshat Tzav, 7th Portion, Leviticus 8:30-36, March 26, 2016

“And you shall stay day and night for seven days at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. You shall observe the Lord’s command, so that you will not die, for thus I was commanded.” (Leviticus 8:36)
This portion describes the seven day ordination of the first priests. There are connections to the creation story, i.e. that it took seven days, that creation of a priest is parallel to the creation of the world, and following God’s process is a matter of life and death. We see later that Aaron’s sons do not follow the form and die. And interesting, Aaron doesn’t appear to blame God for their demise.

It is interesting that saving a life is one of the most important precepts of Judaism*, yet God frequently threatens to take lives when people stray from doing what they were told. In fact, we are led to believe that death comes to humans because Adam and Eve did not listen to God.

Is this a contradiction? It would be easy to make the argument that it is. The  argument that it is not a contradiction is more interesting. There is a physical sense of being alive. Your heart pumps and your lungs breathe. But if are straying from your path, are you really alive, or are you just using up oxygen? “...and you will die...” suggests not that God will kill you... but simply that you will not be alive... you will be shunned from your community.

The Torah says, “and one shall live by the commandments,” on which the Talmud comments, “and not die by them.”

And finally, to confuse the issue (perhaps):

  “(There is) a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2)

*—This is a good description of “saving a life”:

Martyrdom is not part of Judaism as it is in some other faiths. Buddhists who light themselves on fire, Christians who whip themselves (or are crucified), Muslims who suicide bomb are all putting other values in front of saving a life.
  • Life always takes precedence over death. If a funeral procession meets a wedding procession at a crossroads, the wedding procession has the right of way.
  • Graveyards are called “land of the living,” because people go to visit there, and because of the living spirits. At least, that's what I think.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Parshat Pekudei, 2nd Portion, Exodus 39:2-21, March 7, 2016

Parshat Pekudei, 2nd  Portion, Exodus 39:2-21, March 7, 2016

“And its decorative band, which is above it, [emanated] from it, of the same work: gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Exodus 39-5)

The last five words, “as the Lord had commanded Moses,” would be the hardest for me to explain to my grandkids. Moses went up the mountain for 40 days. During this time, the Lord had supposedly spoken with Moses, who in turn, retained an enormous amount of detail.

Some people believe that this actually occurred. Others take it as a story. Did Geppetto really make a puppet called Pinocchio that came to life? As it says in Wikopedia, it is a fantasy film. 

One could say that the Torah is a fantasy just the same. If so, does the Torah have any special meaning that the story of Pinocchio does not have? Is there more wisdom in the Torah than in any number of great books? Do we have characters to emanate, or do we just learn by watching their imperfections (that we also get from newspapers).

Some teachings are important just because they are the cement that brought people together. So it is more than just a fantasy in that sense. Just like the story of how your parents met is important as one defines who they were, so is the Torah important because people took it seriously and followed its instructions. 

I don’t follow the instructions when I make art of using twisted fine linen, and I don’t follow the sabbath (so far), but I do try to pay attention to my practices. For example, I carefully cleaned the glass on my scanner. I try to reread what I write to cut down on the parts that are hard to read (I miss some too). I don’t believe in a God that talks to men and tells them what to do. I do believe that there are lessons to be learned about working in such a way that you are saying thank you to the universe for giving us such a rich life. 

If we just made a simple mud shack, and expected to feel the presence of God in it, would it work? Maybe. But going to extremes, as in building a beautiful exquisite Tabernacle, makes it a little easier to see it as an offering to something much greater than ourselves.

In Japanese Tea Ceremony, we hand a bowl of tea to a guest with two hands. We don’t take a bowl for ourselves. We bow to them. This is the kind of attention and reverence that the Israelites built into Tabernacle. It was a prayer that they made with their entire attention. The words weren’t mindlessly mouthed and voiced. They were felt through and through. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Parshat Pekudei, 1st Portion, Exodus 38:21-39:1, March 6, 2016

These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses' command; [this was] the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen. (Exodus 38:21)


An interesting topic. The Mishkan/Tabernacle was a testimony to God that the Israelites were serious about making a home for God. It was a testimony that they would accept the commandments and that they would not idolize false gods.

Also, I think it interesting how, even with the best of intentions, humans often fail. Not just the other guy either, but each one of us fails in some ways. We make promises that we break. We get discouraged and do things we are later ashamed of doing. So though we make testimonies with the best of intentions, we need to constantly correct our course. An average adult makes 35000 decisions a day. How many are good ones?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Parshat Ki Tisa, 7th Portion, Exodus 38:1-20, March 5, 2016

“And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)
The mirrors were a big issue here. The women would use the mirrors to seduce their hard working men when they brought them food. The women would position the mirror so the man would see himself with his wife, entice them to copulate and make a baby.

Moses didn't want to take the copper mirrors, but God changed his mind, saying the mirrors were good because making babies is good.

Do we still have that disagreement today? Is sex something that pleases God?

I'm interested in the mirror in another vein today. When we see others, we have no problems combining their mind and body into a singular phenomenon that stands in front of us. Not so with ourselves. We are the perceiver, separate from our bodies. But then, when we look in the mirror, we magically become one. In photography we have a rangefinder focusing system where two images become one. This happens when we look in the mirror, though it is not two images but rather a mind and a body coming together.

N says that he doesn't have a sense of himself. He feels he is "thinning out, becoming diaphanous, slipping away." I wonder if that is also a strong sense of self, except his sense is that the self is fading. In any case, it is a sense of a non-material entity. 

So I go in the bathroom and look in the mirror. My God, I think, I'm right over there, merged... reversed, but there, all the same. I can now see myself as only others see me—or so I believe. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Parshat Ki Tisa, 6th Portion, Exodus 37:17-29, March 4, 2016

“And he made the menorah of pure gold; of hammered work he made the menorah, its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers were [all one piece] with it.
And six branches coming out of its sides: three menorah branches from its one side and three menorah branches from its second side.” (Exodus 37:17–18)
As Eve came from Adam's rib so do the branches come from the stem of the menorah. We assemble the menorah from parts. These parts are not the menorah. They are just parts. It is when they are integrated that they become sacred, emitting light onto the world.

I went to three doctors today. Better said, I took my body around to be probed and analyzed. By the end of this ordeal, I started to resent this body that was not perfect. At one point, a doc said that the good news for me was that there was nothing wrong. I commented that it was not good for his business.

I was in a conversation later with eight others. I watched how animated they all were, even when they were not talking. I realized that we aren't separate parts, but an integrated and sacred whole like the menorah, made of parts, yet not only a collection of parts.

Just watch someone listening or watching. All their parts are engaged. All their parts are one. Like the menorah, though they are made of parts they are no longer parts—they are a community.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Parshat Ki Tisa, 5th Portion, Exodus 36:20-37:16, March 3, 2016

“And he made the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright. ֽ 
Ten cubits [was] the length of each plank, and a cubit and a half [was] the width of each plank.” (Exodus 36:20-21)
Lots of details here about building the Tabernacle. First thought again was to ask for a pass because I have nothing to say about so many details.

Then the idea of details started bouncing around in my head.

I was looking tonight at a garden and realizing that there were unlimited details right infront of me. I remembered how I'd show a photo to my class and we'd write on the board the details. We could go on for a long time. It was never ending.

My friend Michael tonight told me that birds don't like golf courses because there aren't many details. They think they are deserts.

Mitt Romney today seemed to be pretty sketchy about his details condemning the Trump (he did say that Trump was the only person whose name had an article infront of it—that was a detail).

I thought too about the purpose of the many details for the Tabernacle. When Buddha and his disciples were out walking, Buddha said, “we should build a temple.” “Where,” asked one of the disciples. “Right here,” said Buddha, pointing to the ground. Another disciple then stuck a blade of grass in the ground and said, “Now the temple is built.”

So sacred is created with intention. Any place can be sacred. In fact, the Tabernacle travels to many sites, and each time it works.

When you are stuck in the myriad of details you have no time to dream. You need to be like a race car driver or a flight tower controller. A blink of the eye and you might cause a catastrophe.

Yesterday I wore a heart monitor for 22 hours. It recorded tons of data about every beat. It recorded over 125,000 heart beats, with details about each beat. That is a lot of detail. The cardiologist’s office has a specialist come in to parse the data. And all those beats were unintentional.

Not so with the Tabernacle. All was intentional. Would a blade of grass work for the Tabernacle? Was there something special or magic about the building that would make God appear? Or was there something special in the diligence of the Israelites in building it that did the job? Did they need to go to that trouble to convince God they were ready for his presence? I suppose.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Parshat Ki Tisa, 4th Portion, Exodus 36:8-19, March 2, 2016

My first reaction to this portion was that I couldn't write anything about it. Then I came on a nice little article: on the dynamics of relationship that discusses the symbolism of the tapestries.

All good stuff, but still not my bag of tea.

As I meditated tonight, I thought of the two sacred places in my life: the art museum and the class room. In both of these places, gods live. They touch us as we walk through their minds and productions.

The Tabernacle is made of many materials, with exacting focus on color, numbers, materials. This is a recreation of the earth. Everything is needed to build the Tabernacle. The role of the human being is to put everything together. And it is not made from “nothing,” rather, it is made of everything.

Yet, it is still “just a Tabernacle” until people and God occupy it, and use it to talk with each other. It is a machine, like a camera or a computer. It is precisely made, and has a precise form for its use. But it has no life of its own. It can't make a picture or write a poem. That is are purpose. Our hearts, souls and skills combine to build it, and now we use it, along with classrooms and schools, and all other institutions, to connect with one another, and to connect with the mystery of life beyond what we know. As the Tabernacle gave the Israelites a home when they were away from the promised land, so do we find institutions, like the corner bar, where we are at home away from home.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Parshat Ki Tisa, 3rd Portion, Exodus 35:30--36:7, March 1, 2016

“He imbued them with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of work of a craftsman and a master worker and an embroiderer with blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen and [of] weavers, those who do every [manner of] work, and master weavers.” (Exodus 35:21-29)
Questions here: 1) Who imbues wisdom? 2) Is wisdom of the heart (feeling?) needed for art, 3) Is wisdom of the heart compassion, or just good ol’ wisdom? 4) Or is creativity a component of wisdom? 5) Is beauty created by man or God?

There was the implication here that man could not have built the Tabernacle on his own talents as great as they might have been.

What does that mean? That man cannot live by bread alone. That he needs the help of God like Moses needed God’s promise of help so that he could raise the last pole for the Tabernacle.

Not the answers but some thoughts:

1) I sometime wonder in Buddhism if Buddha discovered or created the Four Noble Truths? Wisdom seems connected with the discovery of some truth that is out there. It is seeing something that other people haven’t seen. It is finding some pattern that was hidden to others.

2 & 3) There seems to be a difference between knowing how something works and knowing how it feels. I’m not sure if compassion is a necessary part of all art, but it certainly is important to have a heartfelt relationship with materials. Though there would be exceptions to any thought like this.

4) I’ve often thought that creativity is not fantasy which makes up stuff, but rather communication one vision to another. Again, there are probably successful art fantasies. They just aren’t my brand of tea (is that the expression?).

5) Maybe it is a joint project. God imbues wisdom of the heart to man. With practice, man makes beautiful objects with that wisdom of the heart. And now we know that the heart does more that pump blood. It has neurons, causing some people to believe it “thinks.”