Learning to breathe

I was very fortunate to have some time off this summer. I was able to spend good times with friends and family. I also had some time to learn and reflect.

The most important thing I learned to do was breathe. This sounds kind of funny, because we all breathe every day without much training or effort. We cannot even hold our breath for long before our bodies force us to start again.

I learned to breathe in two different ways. The first is through some advanced meditative breathing techniques that I learned that could be applied to private prayer and meditation and would work pretty well during services, too. They have helped me focus on the power of the present moment in deep way. I will be discussing those techniques at my Sunday morning hamakOhm program, which is starting August 25th.

The other kind of breathing I learned is a lot harder, but has been very helpful to me and how I react to things that happen in my life. I know that change is always occurring, and that nothing really stays the same. I should say that I knew it in my head, but my heart was lagging a bit.

The people that I love, both young, old, and in the middle, have been going through a lot of changes lately, mostly good, some not so good, but all inevitable and unstoppable and a natural part of life.

For some reason it just hit me hard. I wanted everything to just stop and be the way it has been, because when others changed, it meant I changed too.

They may have been ready, but I was not. It felt like it was hard to breathe.

My first reaction was to ignore it, and just say to myself, “Everyone goes through this, what is the big deal?” That did not work. Knowing that someone else faces the same thing does not really help lessen your feelings about your own situation.

Instead of turning away from what I was feeling, I sat with the feelings and embraced them. I realized I was lucky to have such wonderful people in my life to worry about, and feel nostalgic and sentimental about, and if they did not need me in the same way that they used to, they still needed me and wanted me to be a part of their lives. Things would be different, but they would be okay.

I also realized that I did not have to fix the difficult part of their lives, and that I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It is also possible that what I thought of as a difficulty for them was a challenge they wanted to face on their own, and that they just wanted my love and support and, often, my silence. We could love each other for just who we are at every moment.

This is when I started to breathe again. 

The Command to Remember Who You Are

There has been an attempt over the last few years to put copies of the Ten Commandments in American public spaces, such as courtrooms. Aside from the challenge of Church and State separation issues, there is the matter of which version of the Ten Commandments to put up. The Catholic division of the Commandments is different from the Jewish and Protestant one. The Commandments were written in Hebrew, so there is the question of the appropriate translation. Perhaps most importantly, the Torah itself has two different versions. Though they are mostly alike, they do contain some fundamental differences.

The most significant variations are found in the Commandment about Shabbat, the sabbath. The version in the book of Exodus says, Remember the Shabbat…because God created the Heavens and the Earth. The version in our Torah portion, in the book of Deuteronomy, says, Guard the Shabbat…because you were a slave in Egypt and God brought you out of Egypt.

The first version, God the Creator, was given to the people right after they had left Egypt. Pharaoh thought he was a god and used that idea to terrorize the weak. This version reminds the people that no human being has supreme value over another. Even though the Israelites had been slaves, they needed to remember that they were created in the image of God and were entitled to full human rights.

The second version was given to them before entering into the Promised Land. The Jewish people were soon to be in power, and they needed to remember that they had once been powerless and that they needed to use their power to protect and care for the disenfranchised, not take advantage of them.

I believe this is why there are two different beginnings to the Commandments. Remember is more passive. Remember you are fully human. Guard is more active. Engage fully in helping those who need help to get the help that allows them to live in human dignity.

The Torah is not concerned with what we put on our walls, but what we put in our hearts. Remember that you are in God’s image. Guard that everyone else is treated that way, too.

You can’t leave the wilderness if you you stay where you are

I remember when my parent’s friends (not anyone reading this) would come back from vacation and insist on showing us their pictures. The first few were interesting. The next dozen were tolerable. The following several hundred were excruciating. We did not want to be rude, and tried to at least look like we were paying attention. The pictures were even worse if we had been to the places ourselves.

The entire first Torah portion of Deuteronomy is Moses’ travelogue on all the places the people had been in the wilderness. Didn’t Moses know how much this would aggravate them? Of course he did. That was the point.

Moses wanted the people to leave the wilderness and go into the Promised Land of Israel. He knew they did not want to leave the wilderness, because it had become comfortable to them. Their lives were dreary and mediocre, but they clung to them out of fear of the unknown. Moses needed to jolt them out of their complacency.

The description that Moses gave of their travels is relentless misery in each place they went. Their time in the wilderness was not necessarily all that bad. The people had been living on manna, which is like living on cream of wheat. Nutritious, but bland and uninspiring. They liked it, though, because they did not have to work for it. When they were in danger, God would fight their battles. Why did Moses want to push them out to a land that was strange and unfamiliar to them?

Moses understood that living in the wilderness is not living, it is not being truly alive. The wilderness is a metaphor for when we allow life to just happen to us. We make no decisions. We take no chances. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We settle for dull and average, and then wonder why we do not feel like ourselves, why we do not feel fully engaged in the world.

The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar, which has the same root as to speak. The wilderness is when you say you are going to do things in your life, but just settle for talking instead of doing.

The Hebrew word for our Torah portion is Dvarim, which means words, but also deeds. It is an anagram for midbar, wilderness. Moses is telling the people, that if they do not take a chance, if they do not mix things up, they will miss their lives. 

There is no possibility, of course, of controlling what happens in our lives, and we certainly cannot control the outcomes of what we do. We can though, choose to live our lives with courage, without being held back by fear, by not settling for mediocrity.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Moses teaches us the unlived life is not worth examining.

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