Ancient tradition says that much of the Bible’s deepest wisdom lies hidden beneath the surface text. Mending the Heart, Tending the Soul, Gail Albert provides a detailed and practical guide to such deep wisdom, providing interpretations, contemplative meditations, and personal experiences to act as guides for the spiritual journey. Exploring texts from Genesis through Deuteronomy, Albert traces a path of psychological growth and spiritual transformation that addresses the big questions: Who am I? What is life about? How should I live each day? Where is G-d? How can I find peace?
Mending the Heart, Tending the Soul seeks to speak to your heart at each step of the way on the path toward enlightenment.
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About the Author
In Mending the Heart, Tending the Soul, National Book Award Finalist Gail Albert, PhD offers clear, practical, and profound guidance for bringing the universal spiritual journey into daily life. Exploring interpretations and contemplative meditations for the Bible’s first five books, she opens our hearts to their deepest wisdom about love, equanimity and connection to the mystery we call God.
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Mending the Heart, Tending the SoulDIRECTIONS TO THE GARDEN WITHIN
By Gail Albert
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Gail Albert, PhD
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGeneral Framework of Genesis/B'reishit
The English title of the first book of the Bible is Genesis; in Hebrew, the title is B'reishit. The meanings are essentially the same, for the Hebrew name means "In the Beginning," from the opening phrase of the book's first sentence, commonly translated as "In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth." Genesis seems to have an odd beginning for a holy book. Cain murders his brother Abel in the very first section, and Noah gets drunk after the Flood and curses his grandson, the son of Ham. In later chapters, Jacob takes his brother Esau's birthright and then steals his father's blessing, flees so that Esau not kill him—and then is tricked into marrying Leah, the woman he never wants, instead of Leah's sister, his beloved Rachel. And much, much, much more.
When I first read Genesis, I was horrified by the behaviors described. But I gradually realized the question that was being put to us: can we humans, who seem naturally dominated by the instincts of self-preservation and self-concern, somehow rise above ourselves to live in this dangerous world as guardians of its resources and of each other?
In the very first chapters, G-d reaches out to us, calling to Adam in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge; later, G-d asks Cain where his brother, Abel, is after Cain has killed him. But Adam and Eve try to hide from G-d, and Cain tries to lie. "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asks, in a line that reverberates through all of the rest of Torah.
From the opening pages, we are shown how hard it is for us to be open to G-d's call. While Genesis hints at YHVH being a moral force, it doesn't read like a morality tale in which we demonstrate our goodness. Rather, it is an unblinking view of our general failure to remain in relationship with G-d, or to behave well once we break that connection.
The basic structure of creation is set out in Genesis. G-d is the creator of this physical world, and a special relationship exists between G-d and humans. In one version of creation, all creatures, including humans, are created simply by the act of Divine speech. In the other version of creation in Genesis, we are made from the dust of the earth, becoming alive only after G-d breathes Divine essence directly into us. Either way, only we are said to be made "in the image of G-d." Either way, we have an earthly, physical nature that is somehow permeated by the Divine.
In particular, we are the only beings on earth to have choice. We alone can choose to mimic the qualities of G-d, to obey or disobey the desires of the Divine, to know, even, that we can choose. We are given the task of responding to G-d's call to Cain about Abel by choosing just how we live in the world.
We are asked by the Divine to guard creation. Even more, the Cain and Abel story implies that we are, indeed, to act as our brother's keeper. This implication is spelled out later in the Torah as the central commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself.
The narratives of Genesis then illustrate what we actually do.
As we move more deeply into Torah, we will see even more clearly the dilemma laid out. Each of us is asked to emulate the Divine qualities of compassion, mercy, and love while living in this world in a vulnerable physical body that has needs, desires, and a drive to preserve itself and its offspring. While our spiritual essence may be made in the Divine image, our bodies are necessarily concerned with self-protection, and with consequent self-concerns, looking out primarily for what benefits us—what is sometimes called our "little i."
And we have good reason to be self-centered. For it is bad enough to know that we are mortal, but it is even worse to know that terrible things can happen to us at any time, even if we do not die because of them. We know that bad things happen even to good people, and that they can happen despite our best efforts at self-protection.
The bulk of Genesis traces our efforts to cope with the awareness of our vulnerability. The text uses concrete imagery to make clear that we are bound by our physical limitations, describing us as being made from the very dust of the earth. In fact, the very name for human, which is adam, means "earthling" in Hebrew, for the word for earth is adamah. So we are an inextricable mix of G-d's essence and the dust of the earth. And our dual nature places us in inevitable conflict with ourselves.
We may be able to express G-d's qualities of love, mercy, and compassion if we choose, but how well do we really do if we are left to ourselves? The answer of Genesis is that we generally do pretty badly.
Genesis/B'reishit Week by Week
Genesis/B'reishit, 1, "In the Beginning"/B'reishit (Gen. 1:1–6:8)
"In the beginning of G-d's creating the skies and the earth...." —Gen. 1:1
Interpretive Overview: The opening of the Book of Genesis sets the frame for the rest of the Torah in its stories of the creation of the world, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the first murder—of Abel by his brother Cain—and the continued bad behavior of the following generations. Through its image of G-d breathing life into humans, who are made of the dust of the earth, it offers a way to see ourselves as physical and spiritual beings who are inevitably conflicted, caught between our lower and higher selves.
Summary of Parshah: This most famous chapter depicts G-d's creation of the world in six days, with the seventh a day in which G-d rests. (In Hebrew, G-d is "re-ensouled.") The creation of man and woman is also described, but in two conflicting versions that are presented without comment. In both versions, the man and woman are placed in the Garden of Eden, where the Divine tells them that they can eat of every tree except the Tree of Knowledge. But the serpent tempts Eve, who eats of it, and gives some to Adam, who also eats.
Immediately thereafter, they become aware that they are naked, and make clothing to cover themselves. When they hear G-d in the Garden, they hide because they know that they are naked, and G-d accuses them of having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. Adam then blames Eve, she blames the serpent, and G-d curses them all: the serpent to crawl on his belly on the ground and be hated, the woman to have the pain of childbirth, and the man to have a life of hard work.
Commenting that the humans might also eat now of the Tree of Life and become immortal, the Divine then banishes them from the Garden of Eden. Sometime after this, Cain, and then, Abel are born. Cain grows up to be a farmer, while Abel becomes a herdsman; Cain offers "some" of his crop as sacrifice to the Divine, while Abel offers one of the "choice lambs of his flock." When G-d approves Abel's offering, but not Cain's, Cain murders his brother in jealousy. When G-d then asks Cain where Abel is, he answers with the famous words, "Am I my brother's keeper?" In response, G-d curses Cain with unending wandering, never to settle in one place.
After this comes a listing of Cain's descendants, the birth of Eve's third child Seth, and the naming of Seth's descendants down to Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Finally, the chapter nears its finish with a statement about (unexplained) divine beings mating with the daughters of men, giving birth to giants called the Nephilim. In its final lines, G-d decides that it was a mistake to make humans because they behave so wickedly, and gets ready to destroy humanity, except for Noah.
Parshah Interpretation: "Where are you?" G-d cries to Adam and Eve after they've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. And they hide in shame. And when G-d asks Cain where his murdered brother is, Cain too hides— his answer defensively evasive.
The question is not, "Have you sinned?" Because, of course, we have. Rather, one of the eternal questions of Genesis is simply, "Where are you now?" Because G-d is calling to us every moment to become more than our most limited selves.
In the literal reading of this parshah, G-d appears to be an external presence that is in some way separate from us. The Divine creates the world, breathes life into Adam, judges, and punishes. But later on, in the book of Exodus/ Sh'mot, G-d is described not simply as an external presence, but as, in some way, internal. For Exodus asks each of us to become a dwelling place for the Divine; the text says that G-d can somehow be within each of us. And the apparent contradiction, like so many other contradictions in Torah, is simply accepted.
Later parts of the Hebrew Bible expand on each of these views of G-d, and Jewish tradition has for millennia contained the whole range, from fully transcendent—and external to us—to fully immanent, and internal. But humans have a unique role in all cases, for we are the only creatures described as having awareness of ourselves as distinct beings with moral choices.
In the metaphor, Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowledge and suddenly know that they are naked. The metaphor is describing the fact that we are not simply immersed in being-ness, the way animals are. The lion hunts the zebra because that is the lion's nature, with no morality attached. But we are not as bound by instinct, although we have animal needs. Like Adam and Eve, like Cain, we have consciousness of ourselves existing in a moral sphere. Having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, we know that some acts are good and others are bad, and we can choose which way we go. Unlike the lion, we are making a choice in a moral dimension when we kill. As Cain chose.
So here we are, selecting one action over another in this realm of malchut, filled with our egos, with our cravings and emotions and self-concerns, while at the same time, we are, in some way, manifestations of G-d.
For Formal Practice: Whatever your beliefs about the nature of G-d, please use the metaphor given in this chapter of Genesis for today. As you meditate, ask what it means to be made both of the dust of the earth and of the breath of the Divine.
When you are ready, inhale and allow yourself to feel the Divine breath filling you and permeating every cell of your body.
As you exhale, release that blended essence of Divine breath and physical self.
Inhale again, allowing yourself to feel the Divine breath filling you and permeating every cell of your body.
As you exhale, release that blended essence.
As you continue to inhale and exhale in this way, have your intention hover over the question, "What does it mean to be made of both the dust of the earth and of the breath of the Divine?"
Remember that this is a contemplative meditation and not an intellectual exercise. Just let your attention hover over your question without letting yourself think your way to answers.
As you try to stay with the meditation, you will notice ways in which your mind distracts you with its concerns: with thoughts about finding a right answer, worries about whether you're doing this meditation the right way, reminders of "To Do" lists, and other fears and distractions. Remember that these concerns are all part and parcel of being in physical bodies that require our protection. For this is our essential problem: the apparent conflict of being made of both the dust of the earth and of Divine essence.
Each time you notice yourself thinking, gently return to the image of G-d breathing into you and melding with you. Notice what appears to you and let it go.
Throughout this week, see if you can return to the question, "What does this image mean to me? What does it mean to be human?" Don't think about it. Just see what comes to you. Experience your deepest nature.
In My Own Practice: As I begin to breathe in and out, I see a clear image of a baby being born. Its skin is dotted with what looks like grayish clay. It takes a deep breath and begins to cry. It has become separate and it has become aware of separateness, both at the same time. And with separateness comes fear. The thought appears to me: But I can take G-d in with each breath. I am not really alone.
I picture G-d's breath moving into me and through me and out. And again. For a moment, I see that there doesn't have to be conflict. As it passes into each cell of my body, the Divine breath melds with my physical being. Each permeates the other, cooperating and joining together. Even uniting. In this moment, there is no conflict. This is what it truly means to be human.
Genesis/B'reishit, 2, "Noah"/Noach (Gen. 6:9–11:32)
"These are the records of Noah: Noah was a virtuous man." —Gen. 6:9
Interpretive Overview: The destruction of the Flood is brought on by the violence and corruption of the generations after Adam and Eve. While the waters cover the land to erase all signs of what has taken place, Noah rests in the safety of the ark on the limitless sea. When the Flood ends, the Divine makes a covenant with Noah, telling humans to forgo violence and promising never to wreak world destruction again. Metaphorically, we read that we can always come back to the infinite sea of the Divine, supported by G-d, no matter how far we've strayed from G-d's call for love and compassion.
Summary of Parshah: At the literal, narrative level, this second parshah begins ten generations after Adam and Eve. G-d says that the behavior of humanity has gotten steadily worse, and the Divine wants to erase us from the earth to start again with Noah, who is "a virtuous man." After the Flood, G-d blesses Noah and his sons, and makes a covenant with every living being that, "I will not again strike down all livings things as I did." In addition, humans are told to forgo violence toward one another. This high point of the narrative is followed immediately by Noah getting drunk, after which some kind of sin occurs, probably sexual, that involves some action with his son Ham, whose son Canaan he then curses. Then comes the story of the Tower of Babel, whose construction is described by G-d as sinful, arrogant, and something to be punished. The chapter closes with a naming of the ten generations from Noah to Abraham (just as there were ten between Noah and Adam), many of the names being identified with different nations of the Middle East. (Archeologists currently agree that at least some of the history appears to go back as far as 1300 BCE.)
Parshah Interpretation: The frame of this second parshah is the same as for the first, for it is the general frame of Genesis. We are an inextricable mixture of the dust of the earth and the breath of G-d, and both aspects of our nature are to be cherished. Thus, at the end of the creation story, "G-d saw everything that G-d had made, and, here, it was very good."
In the traditional understanding of Torah in Judaism, our needs for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and protection of our physical selves gives us the energy for all of our own acts of creation, procreation, and invention. Thus our needs are a necessary and valuable part of us. (Freud would agree.) But it is also true that these physical needs give rise to our selfish, fear-driven, arrogant, and nasty impulses too. Our task is to be aware of our violent and destructive tendencies and tame the impulses to act them out.
As we read the narrative of the Flood, we see that it can be interpreted with this understanding in mind. Rather than accept the story in terms of punishment—as described at the simple, literal level—we can choose to read it as a metaphor for the actions of what we might call fate, or life, rather than the actions of G-d. Bad things happen. Sometimes they just happen, and sometimes they happen as an inevitable consequence of our bad behavior.
By our behavior, we can create the destruction of our worlds. Our physical world, our homes, our families—all of these can be drowned in the flood of our own untempered self-centeredness and arrogance. And, as this parshah implies, after we start again—after the Flood—we inevitably err again. It is inherent in our nature to struggle with that part of us that, in Hebrew, is called the yetzer harah, which is generally translated as "the evil impulse," even though this impulse is also understood to be the root source of our drives for survival and material well-being.
The deep, mystical lesson of Noah is that we can always return to the place where all parts of ourselves are simply with G-d. Again and again we err, and again and again we can choose to return.
The ark is described as a box, using the same word in Hebrew that is used for the cradle in which Moses is placed upon the water as an infant to escape Pharaoh's decree of death. Noah's Ark, however, is a closed container three floors high, with an opening only at the topmost level, to the heavens. Like a womb, the box holds Noah safely enclosed as he rides on the waves of the unending ocean, awaiting rebirth.
At the literal level, we have the animals at the bottom, Noah's human companions in the middle, and the opening to the sky on the third level. These are symbolic of the three aspects of our own selves: animal, human, and that which is close to the Divine. In Jewish tradition, these are the first three levels of soul.
Excerpted from Mending the Heart, Tending the Soul by Gail Albert Copyright © 2012 by Gail Albert, PhD. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Genesis/B'reishit....................16
Chapter 2 Exodus/Sh'mot....................95
Chapter 3 Leviticus/Vayikra....................153
Chapter 4 Numbers/B'midbar....................206
Chapter 5 Deuteronomy/D'varim....................274
Chapter 6 Suggestions for Exploring the Formal Meditations in This Book....................335
Chapter 7 The Bible We Don't Know....................337
Chapter 8 Making the Bible Relevant to Each Generation by Adding Oral Torah to the Written Text....................345
Chapter 9 Jewish Meditation Practice in Overview....................349
Chapter 10 A Final Personal Comment....................360
Appendix A Instructions for a Body Scan....................363
Appendix B Visualization of the Hebrew Letters yud, heh, vuv, and heh for Meditation Practice....................367
Appendix C Glossary....................369
Appendix D Bibliography....................372
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I am finding it a great delight to read this book. It leads you through the Five Books of Moses (the Torah or Pentateuch), with the greatest of ease. Her writing style is simple and clear as a bell. This book is not just for Jews but for anyone who cares about the Bible. Dr. Albert’s basic approach is to understand these scriptures symbolically. This makes a huge difference. It humanizes the Bible and also spiritualizes it. It is not just a long litany of rules. It’s positive. The Biblical text, we find, is full of instructions for spiritual growth, but these instructions lie hidden in plain sight just under the surface. Dr. Albert, using traditional scholarship and her own insights, gives very cogent explanations on both the spiritual and psychological levels. With these decoded instructions, the author tells us how to draw close to God, or, as the cover subtitle puts it, we are given “Directions to the Garden Within.” ¿ ¿ With each portion, first she gives an overview; then a summary of the portion on the literal level; then she interprets its meaning in terms of how to grow spiritually; then a suggested meditation to implement these ideas in our lives; finally she gives her own very personal experience with the suggested meditation. Thus we travel through the 54 portions that make up the Five Books of Moses, leaving nothing out. The interpretations she gives are mystical. Her understanding of the text is that God is present in all that exists, even us. The commandments when understood properly and put into practice help us realize this. The meditations help us incorporate these mystical meanings into our lives and this, the author suggests, will lead toward “Mending the Heart and Tending the Soul.” To me, these are very congenial ideas.¿ ¿ The book also contains a supplementary section with hints on meditation. It points out something, not well known, that Jewish meditation has a long history even if not at the forefront of customary Jewish practice. Also, the author traces the long tradition in Judaism of looking below the surface reading to get at the meaning of the text. Thus the author’s technique is not something she has cooked up herself. This approach has enabled her to do something that may be unique, namely seeing the entire Torah as a continuous and connected narrative, a manual of instructions for spiritual growth.¿ ¿ If it intrigues you that the Five Books of Moses constitute a handbook of spiritual practice, then this book is for you.