A Meditation from the Code of Jewish Law

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Judaism is a fourfold path. There are physical practices that rectify the body, prayer that cleanses the heart, meditation that stills the mind, and Torah study that awakens the deepest layer of soul. The first level of meditation instruction appears on the opening page of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Arukh).

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Sisera’s Mother Sets the Tone for our Rosh HaShana Shofar

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RH.2014Rosh HaShana, 5775 / 2014
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month…it is for you a day of teruah(sounding the shofar).[1]

: וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ …יוֹם תְּרוּעָה יִהְיֶה לָכֶם

The essential obligation of Rosh HaShana (from the Torah) is not to pray all day, or to get dressed up and have a big family meal, but rather, simply, to hear the shofar. Yet what exactly does Hashem have in mind with this command? Would a short toot suffice or must we hear it several times over?  Should the shofar’s blast be long and steady or perhaps, instead, staccato?

The search for answers to this question led the rabbis to a most unlikely role model: the cruel mother of our ferocious adversary, Sisera.

The Talmud’s investigation begins with the Torah which calls Rosh HaShana the “day of teruah (sounding the shofar).” The next clue is the Targum which translates teruah into Aramaic as yevava(יבבה). [2] The third clue is that the root of that Aramaic word (י.ב.ב) is also Hebrew and appears only once in the entire Bible—in the bloody tale of Sisera’s battle with the Israelites.[3]

Most are familiar with the story of Devorah, the prophetess, who is renowned as the only recorded woman judge. The Bible describes how she sat beneath a palm tree ruling on legal matters and resolving disputes. During her judgeship Devorah determined that it was time to initiate a military revolt against Yavin, the tyrannical Canaanite king. [4] Continue Reading…

The Secret of Sorting Truth From Lie

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by-the-rivers-of-babylon-GoodSalt-prcas1576 Tisha B’Av, 5774/2014 Sarah Yehudit Schneider

R. Yehoshua ben Levi met Mashiach and asked him: “When will you come, Master? When will you announce yourself?” Mashiach answered: “Today!” But the day passed and Mashiach did not come. R. Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah the Prophet and reported his encounter with Mashiach: Elijah inquired: What did he say to you….” “He spoke falsely,” complained R. Yehoshua. “He said that he would come today, but he did not.” Elijah explained that when Mashiach said, “Today,” he was quoting a verse from Psalms : “Today, if you listen to His voice [היום אם בקולו תשמעו]” [1] and, apparently, we did not fulfill the criterion, so Mashiach did not come. [2]

Everyone knows that Tisha B’Av is the lowest point of the Jewish calendar. HaShem’s protective aura thins, and we grow vulnerable to error and to harm. The downward tug of this time is ancient and nearly impossible to resist. It started with the incident of the spies [Num. 13 –14]; we failed to listen in to HaShem’s voice and gave credence instead to words proffered in bad faith. The chink that precipitated that fiasco was a defect in our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. It was a flaw in our listening skills. As soon as we manage to fix that fault and only take truth to heart, we will meet the condition of “heeding [HaShem’s] voice (אם בקולו תשמעו) and Mashiach will come, today.

Let’s examine what went wrong that fateful day, the 9th of Av in the Sinai desert on the border with Israel, poised to cross into our Promised Land. There is much to learn from that mistake whose reverberations still shake our world 3,325 years later.

The sense of hearing has two channels and both malfunctioned on that fateful day. 1) Our outer ears hear words and sounds that emanate from without. 2) Our inner ear hears guidance from within. Each of our five outer senses has an inner, spiritual, equivalent. With our inner ear we sort through the barrage of stimuli (words from without, impulses from within) and separate truth from falsehood. Continue Reading…

Like it Or Not, We Are In This Together

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people.mountShavuot 2014 / 5774 Sarah Yehudit Schneider

The Torah’s revelation at Sinai was the most profound manifestation of God that ever transpired on the planet. An estimated four million people beheld that historic event. A searing revelation of Presence engraved the souls of an entire nation with the-truth-of-the-universe compressed into a single burst of light. Its impact continues to impel their generations to be seekers and servants of God and will do so until the end of time.

The transformation that occurred then was so deep that it actually restored the Israelites to the purity of Adam and Chava before their sin, before death descended into the world.[1] In Gan Eden, says the Talmud, Adam and Chava “spanned from heaven to earth and from one end of the world to the other.”[2] They contained the souls of all reality inside themselves—of every human being from the beginning of time until its end (including each one of us).[3] We all gave consensus to their decision to eat and we all suffered the contaminating consequences of it. But at Sinai the process reversed. That intense revelation of heavenly light flushed out the impurities imbibed from that infamous Tree.

In the language of the Talmud, paska zuhamtan.[4] When the serpent seduced us to taste the forbidden fruit, our consciousness narrowed, our visual-field shrunk, our judgment skewed and our desires twisted. The serpent’s poison (zuhama) snaked through our veins. But at Sinai, paska zuhamtan, its filth departed and we reattained the purity of Eden before the sin.

But if that be so, how did we worship a Golden Calf forty days later? If we were really so squeaky clean we could not have fallen to such idolatrous depravity. Something doesn’t add up.

Continue Reading…

Plagues by Land…Plagues by Sea

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plaguesPesach 2014 / 5774
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

Rabbi Yosi the Gallilean said: The Egyptians were struck by ten plagues in Egypt, and fifty plagues at the sea…
Rabbi Eliezer said
: …In Egypt they were struck by forty plagues, and at the sea by two hundred plagues. 
  
Rabbi Akiva said:
 …In Egypt they were struck by fifty plagues, and at the sea by two hundred and fifty plagues.

This is the most obscure passage in the Hagada. The rabbis culled our vast body of teachings and created a script for families to recite year after year to recall our story, bolster our faith, bind us as a people, and transmit our precious tradition to the next generation. But what did they expect us to learn from this esoteric debate that seems divorced from reality.

There are two issues. The first is figuring out what these plagues actually were that struck the Egyptians at the sea. The ten plagues in Egypt were so noteworthy that the Torah spends reams of precious words extolling them. Now the rabbis inform us that those plagues were trivial compared to the barrage at the sea. Yet the Torah does not mention this second assault at all. Not a word. The second issue is the numerics. All three rabbis agree that the plagues at the sea were five times worse than the ones by land. Their debate concerns how many plagues there were in total—50, 200, or 250. What is the significance of these numbers?

I’m going to explore the first question at length and address the second more briefly.

Continue Reading…

Remember Amalek…Don’t Forget

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purim.haman.2PurimBurst 2014
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

(1) Remember[1]….(2) to blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens[2]….(3) Do not forget![2]

     Who is this Amalek that three of our 613 mitzvot revolve around him? And how do we “remember to eliminate the memory of something while also never forgetting it?” Isn’t that self-contradictory?

The Torah accords Amalek the mysterious distinction as “First of the nations…” [ראשית גוים עמלק...][4]. The midrash explains that this is because Amalek was the first tribe to assault the Israelites in their journey to Sinai.[5] The wonders that accompanied Israel’s exodus from Egypt proved God’s love for them, yet Amalek was undeterred. Without a trace of compunction, its soldiers attacked straight away.[6] Amalek’s distinction as “first” to assault Israel (God’s chosen ones) attests to its rotten core. In the Torah’s lexicon of symbols Amalek becomes the token of pure evil. Continue Reading…

A Tribute to Wheat for Tu B’Shvat

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Sarah Yehudit Schneider

wheat

It is customary to eat fruits and drink wine in celebration of Tu B’Shvat, the Rosh HaShana of fruit trees. And it is fitting to admire each fruit and speak its praises before you eat it. In that spirit A Still Small Voice presents a tribute to wheat. 

Wheat has a special status in the Jewish tradition. As the staff of life, it is the most important food. A person could live on bread and water for an extended period of time. The thanksgiving prayer recited after partaking of a meal where bread is served is a special, elaborate blessing distinct from others.

  The Talmud teaches that wheat was actually a tree in the Garden of Eden, with tasty cakes growing straight from its bough. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, reality shattered and transformed completely. Wheat, which was the loftiest tree in Eden, became one of the lowliest plants in our fallen world. That which was highest fell lowest. It now takes enormous effort, and many sequential labors, to turn wheat from tough kernels into edible loaves, pale imitations of those that grew straight from the vine in Eden.

A child first acquires the awareness that enables speech when it begins to ingest wheat. Kabballa explains that this is because the numerical value of the Hebrew word for wheat (חטה) is 22, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This Kabbalistic fact connects wheat to the sefira of wisdom for it is there that the capacity for conscious awareness first appears. Not only do letters enable speech, they are also required for thought. These rarified letters that glimmer in the mind as the source of our creative insights are the spiritual root of wheat. 

Continue Reading…

Chanukka and the Feminine

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chanukkah.2013.thumbnailby Sarah Yehudit Schneider

In Jewish symbology, the masculine archetype conflates with the sun and the feminine with the moon. Based on this equation the Ari maps out a seven-stage sequence from waning to waxing—from diminishment to fullness of stature—that is the secret (and the prototype) of the archetypal feminine. Our messianic goal, says the Ari, is for he and she “to become completelyequal.”[1] These teachings apply on every scale, from the inner feminine inside us all, to woman in relation to man, and to the Shekhina (Divine immanence) in relation to HaShem (Divine transcendene).

     We’ll define the feminine polarity (or Shekhina) as that aspect of the universe that is engaged in hishtalmut (dynamic perfecting) as opposed to the masculine which holds the pole of shelaymut (unwavering perfection).[2] We and all of creation are feminine in relation to HaShem.  We are that aspect of Divinity undergoing hishtalmut, for Divine Perfection, by definition, can lack nothing, even (paradoxically) the experience of perfecting.

Like the gears of a clock where the small wheels rotate once per second, while others take a minute, an hour, a day or even year to chanukka 2013.gearsrevolve. So it goes for the feminine on the inner plane, says the Ari.  There are daily cycles, monthly, yearly and even multi-millennial ones, for the entire course of human history is but a single revolution of the cosmic moon.

And each cycle leaves its residue of tikun. Although, the moon wanes again after she has waxed, each ascent to fullness leaves a permanent trace of growth.  Consequently, in the next descent, her “low point” will not be as low as it was before because of the light she absorbed in the last round. Continue Reading…

Paradox #11 — The Quagmire of Moral Relativism

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How do I become a patron of paradox without compromising my moral convictions? That is the question explored in this new video called, “The Quagmire of Moral Relativism.”

Paradox Video Teaching #10

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This video teaching, called Varieties of Paradox, is a summary of the different types of paradox that we encounter in the world. People expressed confusion because we have introduced so many different kinds of paradox and each one calls for a different response and they felt a bit overwhelmed by the unruliness of the subject. This video provides a framework that organizes the complexity and makes it more manageable.

Sweetening the Dinim

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rosh.hashana.2013Rosh HaShanna 2013/5774 

Sarah Yehudit Schneider

 Our Rosh Hashana avoda—its soul-searching, lengthy prayers, and special mitzvot—is all directed toward one mysterious aim called “sweetening the dinim”, a holy endeavor that serves both man and G‑d alike. The obvious question is what are these dinim and how do you go about sweetening them and why is it so important at this time of year?

The simplistic answer is that dinim are harsh judgments—punitive decrees from on high—that we are hoping to avert through our Rosh HaShana beseeching. There is truth to that perspective for it fits the facts and motivates the exertions appropriate for these awe-filled times. Yet, because its anthropomorphisms have not been cracked, it conceals the ineffable instead of conjuring it and that creates problems even bigger than the one it solved.[1]

Kabbala defines this term differently: Dinim (says kabbala) are the dark knots of unactualized potential that comprise the lion’s share of our soul. They contain (in potential) both our magnificence and our fatal flaws fused into compact slivers of compressed light strewn throughout our psyche and, actually, throughout the world. They are also called sparks, gevurot, dark lights and black fire.

Our mission (and our destiny) is to unpack these dinim—to extract their resources and use them for good. This is what it means to sweeten dinim. Our Rosh Hashana practices employ several methods for accelerating this task which always comes round to “infusing the dinim with consciousness,” i.e. bringing awareness into areas of our life that were previously unconscious (and reactive). Continue Reading…

Paradox #9 — Hashmal Jig 3/3

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This illustrated video teaching, called The Hashmal Jig 3/3, is the ninth installment in our series on Paradox.  It examines the second step of our Hashmal Jig—the need to make a choice despite our ambivalence—and the tools available to help us do so.

Master of Prayer — Tisha b’Av, 5773 / 2013

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“Everything that the Merciful One does is good.”[1] That means everything, without exception. Our job is to find that good…and proclaim it. From this perspective complaints with providence expose the chinks in our faith. If we don’t get what we want, then we just need to reprogram ourselves to want what we get. It’s all good, be happy.

But if that were the only truth, then what’s the point of our three long weeks of mourning and semi-depression between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Our obligation, at this time is to diminish simcha. (משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה).[2] The Talmud lists certain behaviors that people naturally do when they are depressed and it requires us to emulate them at this time. The point is to awaken a melancholia inside our souls—a genuine sadness for the great sins and tragic calamities of Jewish history that cluster around this time.

Scientists note that when a person makes a happy face, even when it’s completely fake, his body starts to produce the physiological symptoms of joy. And similarly, when a person frowns their physiology changes in ways that indicate sadness.[3]

And that is the point (and the obligation) of these three weeks…to behave in ways that express sadness—focusing on the losses, lacks and calamities of Jewish history in order to reduce our simcha (a state of mind we try to cultivate at every other time of the year). Continue Reading…

Paradox 8–Hashmal Jig 2/3

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This video teaching, called The Hashmal Jig 2/3, is the eighth installment in our series on Paradox. It develops the kabbalistic secret of Hashmal—the energy of consciousness generated from dancing between the poles of a paradox.

Paradox 7 — The Hashmal Jig

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This video teaching, called The Hashmal Jig 1/3, is the seventh installment in our series on Paradox. It introduces the kabbalistic secret of Hashmal—the energy of consciousness generated from dancing between the poles of a paradox.

Dewdrops of Light–Shavuot 5773 / 2013

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 When HaShem revealed the Torah at Sinai, the Israelites died at every word. Their souls flew from their bodies and Hashem revived them with the dew that He will use to resurrect the dead. [MR Ex. 29:4; TB 88b]

 From where does the dew of resurrection descend? From the head of God, as it says (SHS 5:2), “For My head is drenched with dew, My locks with the damp of night” [YS SHS 988]

 This is the Torah when a man dies in a tent…” (Num. 19:14)1 Resh Lakish derives from this verse that the Torah’s words will only endure when those who have learned them will also die for them. [TB Shabbat 83b]

  “Your dew is droplets of light…” (Isaiah 26:19)  From this we learn that one who engages with the light of Torah [and dies for it], the luminous dew of the Torah will resurrect him/her. [TB Ketuvot 111b; TZ Tikun 19]

 Truth be told, we are born pleasure seekers. HaShem endowed our souls with an innate drive to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. This legacy (called the pleasure principle) is a mixed bag—it is our greatest stumbling block and the force that drives us toward redemption. Our appetite for pleasure will not cease until it’s satiated, and that will not occur until the messianic golden age. Continue Reading…

PoleHolders — Illustrated Video Teaching on Paradox #6

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This illustrated video teaching, called Poleholders, is the sixth installment in our series on Paradox.  It uses the polarity of Truth and Faith to model a way of grappling with paradox that alters consciousness and expands ones capacity to hold complex truths. It demonstrates how to extract the energy locked inside a paradox and channel it toward growth and change.

Tsafun—Afikoman

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Pesach 5773 / 2013
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

The 12th step in our seder is called Tsafun—meaning hidden or secret. It follows the festive meal and marks the time for “dessert” which, at the seder, means our last portion of matzah, called the Afikoman. Really, the dessert should be the Paschal lamb—the sacrificial centerpiece of our evening’s ritual, but without the Temple there is no way to truly sanctify the lamb’s slaughter so we substitute matzah instead.

In the original Passover (in Egypt) we needed to start eating the lamb by midnight and to finish by dawn.[1] The rabbis subsequently added a fence. They ruled that from Temple times onward a korban Pesach must be finished by midnight. There are a range of opinions about whether we should also eat our Afikoman by then. Some say yes, and some rule that other factors take precedence. All agree that at the very least, the first portion of matzah and maror (stage 8 & 9 of the seder) should be completed by midnight.

Nevertheless, at whatever point you do eat your Afikoman (whether before, during, or after midnight) that moment becomes for you “like midnight”[2] ( כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה), for you are reenacting the first korban Pesach eaten in Egypt around 3325 years ago.

The drama of that event is nearly impossible to convey. Huge upheavals ripped through the cosmos on both its inner and outer planes. Forces converged to produce a paradigm shift that brought heaven down to earth with all the sweetness and anguish that entails. Below are three perspectives on that event which can serve as kavvanot for eating the Afikoman.

1 – Pshat. The Torah paints the scene as follows: The Israelites divided into groups that gathered in a single home and shared the same Paschal lamb. As evening approached they slaughtered their lambs and (as per instruction) smeared its blood on their doorposts and lintels, an ominous sight that lent an air of foreboding to their preparations. They roasted the entire lamb in one piece (stripped of its skin) arranged in a fetal position רֹאשׁוֹ עַל-כְּרָעָיו וְעַל-קִרְבּוֹ )3 All this despite the Egyptians’ worship of the lamb as one of their gods.

At dusk each group gathered in the home where it would eat its korbon. Once the sun set, no one was permitted to exit that space until daybreak under threat of death.[4] They began their seuda, saving the Paschal lamb for dessert. The blood on the lintel dampened the atmosphere. And then, at midnight, while eating their korban Pesach, chaos erupted outside their blood-stained doorways. Screams and cries filled the streets. Every Egyptian household bewailed its dead. The Torah does not exaggerate when it states that there never was and never will be a cry of anguish that compares to this.[5] All the while the Israelites stayed locked in their homes, hearing the shrieks, gazing upon their bloodied doorways, eating their korban Pesach, the god of Egypt.[6] Continue Reading…

PurimBurst 2013 / 5773

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DIALOGUE WITH DESTINY
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

Said Haman to Achashverosh: “Let these [Jewish] people be destroyed…” The King removed his signet ring, gave it to Haman and replied: “Do with them as you see fit.” …A decree went out to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews, young and old, women and children on a single day, the 13th of Adar and to plunder their possessions…[1]

Shortly after Hamen’s demise (in the month of Sivan), Esther begged the King to annul Haman’s genocidal plot that was still scheduled to occur in seven months time.

Achashverosh replied: “An edict which is written in the King’s name and sealed with the royal signet may never be revoked.”…[2]

The rabbis note that the book of Esther begins with a codeword that signals hard times ahead.  The verb, ויהי (and it was), seems innocent enough, but in Hebrew its first two letters spell vay (meaning oy, or woe). R. Berekhia wonders: How could it be that already, there, in the first word, tragedy lurks.

And he actually concludes that, really, it’s always that way, for destiny is a real force in the universe. It seems that from the beginning of time HaShem decreed the fate of each soul and the mark it would leave on the world.

…From the first instant of creation HaShem assigned a fitting destiny to each and every person [that would walk the earth]…He appointed Cain to be the model of all slayers and Abel the prototype of those slain. He made Noah the first of those saved from disaster and Abraham the first to be circumcised [by Divine command]…He put Nebuchadnezzar at the head of all ravagers.  And, [most relevant to our matter at hand,] He made Achashverosh the prototype of sellers and Haman, the prototype of buyers.[3] When the people saw that these last two souls were here, now, and set to go they cried, “vay vay (oy oy).” Esther and Mordecai wrote the Megilla and opened it with this word to convey that mystery.[4]

This commentary introducing the Midrash on Esther presents free will and determinism as the central theme of our Purim tale.[5]   The story revolves around a genocidal decree signed by “the king,” a double entendre that (in the Megilla) also always indicates the King of Kings (KoK)—the Prime Mover and Shaker of history. And the Megilla informs us that a pronouncement from the king (read KoK) can never be revoked. Once issued it MUST be executed. Yet in this instance, despite the irrevocability of Divine decree, the proclamation does not, in the end, materialize; there was no genocide. Clearly there is a contrary force—hidden and formidable—that can oppose HaShem’s decrees and prevail. Yet this rival power could not possibly succeed unless it too had God on its side. Continue Reading…

Illustrated Video Teaching #5 — The Kabbala of I-Centers

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This illustrated video teaching is the fifth installment in our series on Paradox.  It explores the mystical underpinnings of  I-Centers and how they interact to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This 7 min. video ends with practical instructions about how to work with I-Centers that we find disagreeable.

We recommend viewing the video in full-screen mode by clicking the box (made from arrows) at the bottom right of the screen when the video begins. The logo will disappear when you move your cursor off the screen.

A Tribute to Wine for Tu B’Shvavt 2013 / 5773

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It is customary to eat fruits and drink wine in celebration of TuB’Shvat, the Rosh HaShana of fruit trees. And it is fitting to admire each fruit and speak its praises before you eat it. In that spirit I present a tribute to wine.

Of the five fruits indigenous to Israel only grapes can be processed in such a way that their “status” increases.  When eaten off the vine the blessing we say is the same as for all fruits. But when turned into wine (or grape juice), an exclusive blessing gets said that applies only to it.

This is because wine is more than a beverage—it is psycho-active substance and, in fact, the archetype of them all. The path that grapes traverse in their odyssey of becoming wine parallels our cosmic journey of expanding consciousness.

Continue Reading…

Paradox 4: Introducing I-Centers

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This Illustrated Video Teaching introduces the concept of I-centers—an extremely useful tool for sorting through the complexities of paradox. It is always good to build an idea from the ground up. In the next teaching (Part 5 or our series) we will examine the mystical origins of this concept as well as its practical applications.

We recommend viewing the video in full-screen mode by clicking the box (made from arrows) at the bottom right of the screen when the video begins. The logo will disappear when you move your cursor off the screen.

Paradox — A Hanukkah Dilemma

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Hanukkah teaches us how to survive exile and how to accomplish the purpose of it.  And that brings us the paradox of “isolation and integration” as you shall see.

 

We recommend viewing the video in full-screen mode by clicking the box (made from arrows) at the bottom right of the screen when the video begins. The logo will disappear when you move your cursor off the screen. If you are having trouble viewing this video, you can download it here.

Chanukah, 2012 / 5773

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Inspired by R. Tsadok HaKohen, Resisei Laila, 56 and 57 
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
Artist Yoram Raanan - Menorah

Hillel says to start with one candle and add another each day until, at the end, there’s eight…Shammai says to start with eight and remove one each day until, at the end, we’re left with one….[TB Shabbat 21b]1

Now, we rule like Hillel, but in the messianic days-to-come we will rule like Shammai [Mikdash HaMelek, Parshat Bereshit 17b; R. Tsadok HaKohen, Chanukah 8] 

“The era of revealed miracles ends with Purim. ‘But what about Chanukha?’”2 [TB Yoma 29a]. R. Tsadok explains that the essential miracle of Chanukha, the miracle of lights, was not visible to the world. No one saw it but us, and you had to be an insider to appreciate the significance of it.  And really, what kind of miracle was it? We could have lit the menorah with contaminated oil, or delayed the kindling for a week until we produced a new batch. What practical difference did it make? The essence of the miracle was the quiet affirmation of relationship between HaShem and His beloved people packaged in a form that only we would appreciate.

Continue Reading…

Paradox 3: The Cosmic Roots of Paradox

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“The Cosmic Roots of Paradox” is the third in a series of video presentations that explore Paradox as a Kabbalistic Path of Expanding Consciousness.” It explains why a deepening relationship with the Holy One requires one to grapple with ever more challenging dilemmas. Know, says kabbala, that each new paradox is a portal to higher consciousness.  (It is best to watch this video in full-screen.) To view other videos in this series, visit our Media page.

 

We recommend viewing the video in full-screen mode by clicking the box (made from arrows) at the bottom right of the screen when the video begins. The logo will disappear when you move your cursor off the screen. If you are having trouble viewing this video, you can download it here.