Inner Accounting (5774/2014)

Parshat Bamidbar describes a census, a literal counting of people.

In Jewish tradition, we also talk about inner accounting, cheshbon hanefesh.

Sometimes we talk as if an Inner Witness does the accounting. This voice of conscience, a divine judge within, offers a neutral perspective on self.

But psychologist James Hillman thinks this idea of a single specially gifted inner witness is not realistic. He says we like to imagine that the soul represents the ONE God, and thus we can use a Divine aspect of the soul to judge and improve our own selves. But really, we’re rarely that integrated. Even when we judge ourselves, we use a multiplicity of perspectives.

The names of the tribal leaders in Bamidbar who do the counting reinforce Hillman’s point. If you translate the Hebrew names, you realize: these names can’t be for real. Torah must be calling our attention to a deeper message about spiritual development.

Here are the names — translated with very little poetic license:

Spark of God born of breasts of light

Divine wholeness born of stability

Intuitive diviner born of humility

God’s gift born of pain

Divine child born of valor

God’s payback born of redemption

Child of justice born of the poor baby goat

My brother’s helper born of my Godly people

Encounter with God born of troubles

God increases born of knowledge of God

My brother’s beloved friend born of insight

Each of these hints at an inner posture. The variety of postures reminds us. We have hard times, we have easy times. Painful times, and soaring times. All our experiences stay with us, and adding perspectives from which we evaluate ourselves ourselves. The ongoing dialog between perspectives becomes part of our inner life as we keep learning and shifting.


Census Projections (5772/2012)

We usually speak negatively about psychological “projection.” And no wonder! We notice when others project thoughts and feelings onto us. For example, if someone had a difficult childhood relationship with a sibling, they may see their relationship with us in the same way. No matter how unique our behavior is, they respond only to what they think and feel. Sometimes the process seems hurtful; yet sometimes we gather the courage to name it.

Consider that “projection” can sometimes be a positive, transformative experience. Thoughts we might hide even from ourselves are projected onto the big screen of the world. There we can finally see the themes and yearnings that drive us.

Torah study at the Or Shalom Retreat gave us some insight into positive projection. Participants in the “Grind” Torah Study workshop posed a question: How is Parshat Bamidbar’s discussion of an ancient census relevant to us? One reader saw the counting process as a spiritual metaphor. Another saw in the census numbers a numerological code that expresses the world’s physical and social structures. A third saw in the design of the camp a structure for loosely organizing large groups. And I saw in the name of the leader Nachshon ben Aminadav – Snake son of My People are Humble – an ancient Israelite respect for fellow creatures.

Each of us thinks our insight is “really in” the Torah. At the same time, each of us thinks everyone else’s insight is a reflection of their personality and interests! Torah becomes the screen onto which we project the inner lenses we take for granted. As we study in a group, we each get to show our lens, and receive meaningful feedback on it, learning more about the themes that drive our lives.


What’s in a Name? (5771/2011)

In Parshat Bamidbar, Moshe and Aharon conduct a census of the Israelites, with the help of the tribal leaders. Though each individual is counted, Torah only tells us the names of the tribal leaders. They have unusual names, such as:

God is My Rock son of God is Light

Diviner son of My Generous People

God’s Abundance son of Knowing God

Perhaps these are symbolic names they take when they commit to positions of leadership, names that express national values in their spiritual community. A look at the Hebrew language supports this.

The Hebrew word for name is shem. When we speak of acting for the sake of something, we say we are acting l’shem – in the name of – that thing. In Kabbalistic Hebrew, the shem of God means any manifestation of God’s presence. With their names, the leaders have pledged to act for the sake of their values, and to help make God’s presence manifest in the community.

What’s in your name? If it was a gift from your parents, what did they mean to transmit to you? If it is shared with a partner or spouse, what values does your choice to share a name express? If you chose it yourself, what did you pledge to bring into the world? In what way would you like your life to count?


Encircling the Torah (5766/2006)

The Torah is a record of God’s evolving relationship with human beings, and a source of continued inspiration for that relationship. A traditional Jewish Torah reading ceremony divides the day’s Torah reading into sections.  Before each section is read, someone is called up for an aliyah (an ascent), and chants a blessing. Traditionally, the first person called is a cohen, a descendent of the original High Priest Aharon.  The second person called is a levi, a descendent of the religiously active Levite tribe.  The third person, a yisrael, is any member of the Jewish people.

Parshat Bamidbar provides us insight into the origin of this custom.   The Torah describes the arrangement of the Israelite camp in the wilderness.  At the center of the camp sits the mishkan, the portable national sanctuary.  The priests serve in and at the sanctuary.  The Levites camp around the sanctuary guarding and maintaining it.  The rest of the Israelites camp in a huge square around the Levites.

The people and the sanctuary share a symbiotic relationship.  The sanctuary sits at the center of national life.  Its presence invokes the protection of God for the people, and makes possible rituals that maintain the spiritual and emotional life of the people.  In return, the people protectively encircle the sanctuary.  The Torah service recalls this ancient symbiotic relationship, and affirms that it continues today.  People called up to the Torah feel honored.  At the same time, they honor the Torah.  Forming a protective circle around it, they participate in its preservation, transmission, and interpretation.


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