Congregation Etz Chaim’s Approach
Congregation Etz Chaim is a unique community of teaching and supporting people to experience the spiritual power of prophetic and liberation Judaism based the Great Torah Way. All services are free to the greater community of Am Israel. We are the only synagogue in Southern Arizona south of Tucson.
Congregation Etz Chaim teaches Judaism as a full, authentic, spiral-historical, and Torah liberation path to enlightenment. It embraces heartfelt Orthodox observance (shomer Shabbat, all the mitzvoth possible, prayer three times daily, and Shema twice daily). At the same time it has a “modern” or “contemporary” aspect, which is refining the minhag traditions to address the imbalances of the current world. For example, this includes refining minhag that have become dangerous to our health secondarily to environmental pollution and radiation, such as traditionally eating fish, chicken, and meat for Shabbat and Holidays. Congregation members, as in the Torah tradition, are encouraged to move into this level of orthodox observance at a rate they are ready for. We also place a particular emphasis on the halakah as not only a sanctifying and a traditional protection from the dark side but also a holistic, Torah-based lifestyle as an elevated heroic response to the planet’s perennial degenerate challenges. We emphasize lives of prayer, meditation, charity, service, Torah study and application.
The Great Torah Way, taught at Congregation Etz Chaim, helps us understand that we are multi-dimensional beings integrating the merging of the heavens and earth in a spiritually artful, heart-wisdom (binah halev) and Hashem guided walk between the B’limah (Nothing) and the Mah (Something).
In accord with the prophecy and directive of Yoel 3:4, one of our main Torah practices is repetition of the name of HaShem (Tetragrammaton) constantly.
- Yoel 3:4 says, “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of HaShem shall be delivered.”
- Shemot 20:21 says, “Wherever I allow My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”
- Tehillim 16:8 says, “Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid,” meaning, “I will keep The Name before me at all times.”
Repeating the name of HaShem (hagiya) eventually leads one to experiencing oneself, the Torah, and HaShem as One. This experiential awareness has the power to move one into hitlahavut (ecstatic burning love of God); hitpashtut (ability and power to expand one’s consciousness in any direction); hitalvut (equal vision); and ultimately histalkut (dying into the Nothing). These states bring one into the consciousness of Deveikut/Chey’rut, which eventually, by the grace of HaShem, becomes our steady supernormal state.
Repeating the name of HaShem is the first step of prophetic meditation (hitbonenut) leading to a silent mind. The Bal Shem Tov wrote in Tzava‘at Harivash that meditation is seven times more important than Torah study. The foundation of prophetic meditation goes back to Devarim 34:9 where it says, “Yehoshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, because Moshe had laid his hands on him,” and in Shemu’el 16:13 where it says, “Then Shemu’el took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers: and the spirit of HaShem came upon David from that day onwards.” Shemu’el 19:20–21 says, “And Sha’ul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the band of the prophets prophesying, and Shemu’el stationed over them, the Ruach Elohim came upon the messengers of Sha’ul, and they also prophesied.”
The Great Torah Way has three levels:
1) Mitzvoth and Halakah, as summarized in both: Amos 5:4, “Seek HaShem and live,” and Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous (or just) person shall live by faith in God alone.” A fuller understanding of the mitzvoth and halakah ask of us that we create sacredness in every aspect of our lives and naturally strengthen and develop our character (midot). This Torah way of life includes tzedakah, teffilah, teshuva, omez (spiritual courage), kavod (honor, dignity, self-respect), arvut (responsibility), and mussar (morals, ethics, and spiritual discipline). These qualities help create berur (clarification of the nature of absolute reality), which empowers one to see through alma d’peruda (world of duality) and alma d’shikrah (world of illusion). They help us to begin to understand koach mah (power of what) and koach ha me da mei (power of similitude as things appear and disappear into the Nothing). Thus we are able to penetrate into the essence of creation, which is ayn zulato – HaShem is ONE. From this oneness apperception we naturally begin to relate to humanity and the living earth more profoundly such as with deeply knowing the importance of protecting the environment.
2) Hamtaka (sweetness) and intense love of God including nesikat deveikut (divine kiss) and the awareness of yehudim (liberating the light of God in all creation). It also empowers t’shekut deveikut (divine urge).
3) These then spontaneously lead to achdut (the direct knowledge of HaShem). This is a post–berur state in which there is only HaShem (ayn zulato and ayn od milvado). At the achdut level there is a constant illuminated emptiness (bitul ha’esh). In this great emptiness we become the flow of HaShem moving through us as the individual expression of the Divine Will (keter). Eventually this spontaneously leads us into histalkut (dying into the Nothing) while still in the physical body; it is a mystical death in the play of the world.
The Great Torah Way frees us from the slavery of the occult darkness world and of our own minds so that we may become the expression of the Divine in the world. The Great Torah Way supplies an answer to the question posed in Tehillim 15:1, “Lord, who shall abide in thy tent? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”
Although one cannot eat one’s way to HaShem, the original Torah diet as defined by Beresheit (Genesis) 1:29 is a powerful support to Deveikut –
“And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food”.
This plant-source-only, live-food diet naturally helps us perform the following mitzvoth:
- Pikuach Nefesh – (preserve and protect human life)
- V’nishmartem meod l’nafshotechem — “Be extremely protective of your lives.” (Deuteronomy 4:15) (This means preserving all life on the planet, including humanity.)
- Sh’mirat Haguf — preserving the health of the body
- Tza’ar Ba’alei Chaim – non-cruelty and compassion to animals
- Bal Tashit – preserve and protect the Ecology
- Tzedakah — Charity/Service
- Shalom – peace and harmony
- Kol Israel — protection and preservation of the community
- Deveikut/Chey’rut Kedusha – Holiness and Enlightenment
A plant-source-only, live-food diet also honors the last 5 of the Ten Speakings (Ten Commandments):
- Do not murder. (6th speaking) (Do not kill animals for ones own selfish appetite.)
- Do not bear false witness. (7th speaking) (Do not gossip or slander.)
- Do not steal. (8th speaking) (Do not steal lives, fur, flesh, and skin of others.)
- Do not commit adultery. (9th speaking) (Do not commit sexual perversion, which includes cross species artificial insemination.)
- Do not covet. (10th speaking) (Animal agriculture represents excessive consumption and thus coveting the land, water, and air of the world population.)
This also includes:
- Do not pollute the public commons. (Deuteronomy 23: 10–15) (Animal agriculture is a polluter.)
The great Jewish sages throughout history support our teaching about the importance of building and maintaining physical health for supporting spiritual heath.
- “…the soul cannot function on earth without the body. Thus one must safeguard physical health for illness of the body weakens the soul.” ~ Tzava’at Harivash – The Teachings of the Bal Shem Tov
- The Bal Shem Tov wrote in his Tzava’at Harivash,“When the body ails, the soul too is weakened, and one is unable to pray properly, even when clear of sins. Thus, you must guard the health of your body very carefully.”
- Maggid of Mezhirech said, “A small hole in the body causes a big hole in the soul.” (Maggid Devarav Leya’akev Addenda sect. 91)
- Maimonides said in Hilchot De’ot (3:3 and 4:1), “The welfare of the soul can only be achieved after attending to the welfare of the body.”
- The importance of safeguarding one’s health is not just good advice; it is actual Torah law, a fundamental, practical observance which supports our entire Torah path. RaMBaM writes in ever so many places about the importance and obligation of robust physical health. RaMBaM clearly expresses to us why the mitzvah of good health is of such vital spiritual importance. In his Hilkhot Deot (4:1) he writes, “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d, for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill, therefore, one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthy and helps the body become stronger.”
- RaMBaM states in Deot 5:2, “One should eat food that is healthy for one’s body.”
- “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is knowledge of the Creator…” (Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1) In other words, Maimonides is summarizing the essence of the Great Torah Way, which is our first priority as Jews is to know God. If overeating is the major source of physical illness, and that physical illness prevents us from having “knowledge of the Creator”, then gluttony and obesity are must be considered sins, which separate us from HaShem. With this understanding the intake of “junk food” and GMOs are also forbidden by Torah law because of its inherent danger to physical health, which may effectively block full God-knowledge.
We are a drug-free community (with the exception of ceremonial use of wine). Our drug-free teaching is in accord with the Torah teaching regarding Nadav and Avihu found in Vayikra 10:8–11,
“God spoke to Aharon, saying: When you enter the Communion Tent, neither you nor your descendants may drink wine or any other intoxicant; otherwise you will die. This is an eternal law for all your generations. [You will thus be able] to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the ritually unclean and the clean.”
According to Midrashic teachings, Nadav and Avihu (b’nei Aharon) were intoxicated before God, and this is at least one major reason they died. (Vayikra Raba 20)
Holistic Ecological Emphasis
Congregation Etz Chaim’s physical temple is completely “off grid”, as are the rest of the facilities and farm. We are also using various methods of water collection, and all our new buildings are straw-bale and natural. The temple itself is a straw-bale structure with a pressed dirt floor. It is perhaps the only fully ecologically built temple of its kind in the United States. It is part of our fully ecological harmonious alignment with the living planet. We live not as stewards (which implies separation from the living earth), but as part of the living Earth in oneness.
We have a several acre farm using organic, sustainable, veganic farming technology, which allows us to eat almost all of our vegetables freshly picked within a few hours to a few days of harvest. With veganic farming there is no death or animal exploitation. Our café is certified kashrut. We teach kashrut as a way of eating in holiness, which uplifts and honors the web of life on the planet. A vegan dietary approach gives a no death association with the food, as this protects our taharah. As part of our ecological approach we discourage bal tashit (wastefulness of resources) and preserve our ecology through our organic, veganic, sustainable farming and solar powered electricity in our temple, administration buildings, and water wells. It is also significant that animal agriculture appears to be the biggest source of global warming gases such as CO2, methane (which is 29 times more global warming than CO2), and NO2 (which is 296 times more global warming than CO2). Each acre of an organic farm actually pulls 3,700 lbs of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year back into the soil. We see the use of oil and coal as unnecessarily depleting the blood and bones of the planet, which is antithetical to living in harmony and oneness with ourselves as the living planet for this reason Congregation Etz Chaim has never financially invested in oil, coal, or gas.
Congregation Etz Chaim is located on 181 acres of land, at an altitude of 4,050 feet, nestled within the pristine natural setting of the Mountain Empire of Patagonia, Arizona, about an hour south of Tucson. We are the same latitude as the City of Jerusalem. Designated as the 4th highest quality of air in the country, our rural high desert environment provides the ideal context for healing and spiritual connection. The expansive night skies, closeness to nature, and sacred silence inspire a profound inward journey. By living in the country we also fulfill one of the directions of the Great Torah Way, which is to live where we can be most connected to nature.