Rabbi Harry writes…


Erev Shabbat Yitro

Dear Ones,

Greetings from Rehovot, Israel. After some grueling hiking and climbing in the desert, we are now on a short break with Daveed and our extended Israeli family. India was a place of massive craziness and wonder. Amidst all the filth and noise, we met and connected with remarkable people and found oases of calm and spiritual connection. Life in the ashram was very intense and a bit too regimented for me. RaeAnn loved the morning yoga despite the fact that it began at 4:30 am. The daily learning was meaningful and I really loved the guru and the ashram administrator—two men who radiated compassion and friendship. We spent a Shabbat in Kolkata and gave some support to a young rabbinical couple who are caring for the dwindling Jewish community. They are working for Star-K Kosher certification and are lovely people committed to serving a struggling Jewish community. We also did some touring with a street urchin who showed us Kolkata through his eyes. Varanasi is a powerful place where life and death intermingle at the Ghats, the banks of the Ganges.  We met some sadhus, holy men who have renounced material possessions and wander about the country in prayer. One sadhu who befriended us spoke fluent English and, on our last night saying goodbye, he taught us a beautiful chant that I now sing to myself on the trail.

Two personal goals for our journey have been to make pilgrimage visits. One is to the former home of a nineteenth-century swami, Lahiri Mahasya, who for reasons unbeknownst to me has come to me in dreams and visions. A core teaching of his for me to remember: “It is all God, Ain Od Levado.” We live in the world of impermanence, in the world of illusions, and it takes awareness to remember that it is the Eternal—both inside us and around us—that is true and real. The other pilgrimage place for me will be Kever Rachel, the place where our biblical mother, Rachel, is buried. For me, Rachel teaches that, for us to know that it is all God, we need to reach into our aspirational selves and then interact with each other from a place of compassion and love.

There is a powerful teaching from Talmud that I was learning while in India that for me speaks to all the lessons I experienced in India. It comes from tractate Bava Metzia, and is a well-known passage that sets out a hypothetical question about two men wandering in the wilderness who have between them only one canteen.  The canteen holds enough water for only one of the men to reach civilization and survive. Ben Petura, a relatively obscure Talmudic sage and probably a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, taught that both men should drink from the canteen and die so that one man does not need to see the death of his friend. Rabbi Akiva taught that your life should come before your friend’s, using the verse from Leviticus as a proof text, “And your brother shall live with you.”  Both men should not die, the one who owns the canteen should live.

There is an understanding that the torah of Ben Petura is the one we should accept in the world to come, whereas the torah of Rabbi Akiva is the torah that we hold now. The torah we hold now sees the individual as separate from other. This is the torah that works in the realm of impermanence and illusion. It allows for an ethical system and a framework for life. On a practical level, one death is preferable to two deaths. However, when we take a stark look at our current world, we can see that the systems we hold onto no longer contain us. The level of fear that manifests in xenophobia, racism, and classism, where cultures and peoples choose tyrannical leadership, is expanding all over our planet. Environmental degradation, which is so powerfully evident throughout India, cannot be solved using the same consciousness that allowed us to generate the destruction in the first place. Ben Petura represents the paradigm shift, a deep change in consciousness that understands that the life of another is intrinsically connected to my life and that we are all a part of Divine Unity. We cannot wait for the torah of unity to be the torah of the world to come. We need to live and learn the torah of the world to come now, in this world, because this is the eternal torah of permanence. Gurujis teach that the Ātman, self, is Brahma, God. Our work is to realize this. Ain Od Levado–there is nothing but God. When we realize this, we can emulate Rachel our mother and be our aspirational selves, interacting with one another and with self in love.

B’virkat Shalom

Rabbi Harry


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An inclusive, warm, and progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, B.C.

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