K’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh –
"As everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do...”
Goof! Parshat Matot (Click for original post)
In Parshat Matot, it says that if a person makes a vow to do something, or takes an oath not to do something, “lo yakhel d’varo- his word shall not be desecrated or emptied – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – as everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do.”
So, on the surface this is talking about keeping your word. You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. But on a deeper level, when we have an intention to do something or not do something, there’s a reason for the intention. The point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you go to work not because you necessarily like your work, but so you can make money. And you make money not because you like the money, but because you want to use the money to benefit your family. But then let’s say you use the money to buy food for your family, and someone in your family has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets really sick, God forbid.
So now there’s a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called making a mistake. So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo- don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example that I just gave, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them. They happen by accident. And while it’s true and good to be as conscious and wise as you can, it’s also true that you’re going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
So then, the next verse says, that if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah- God forgives her, ki heini aviah otah- because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
So, who is this child the Torah talks about? It’s us. We may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening. Who is the parent? It’s Reality Itself – it’s the Truth of what is – as it says, Emet malkeinu efes zulato – Truth is our king and there is nothing else,meaning, there is nothing but the Truth of what is – there is nothing but God.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, yes you should be as conscious and careful as you can with your actions – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – make sure you do your best to bring about the positive result that you intend. But on the other hand, know that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that’s just the ego clinging to a self-image of being successful, or good or whatever. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place, so you must forgive yourself if you want to be free from hameitzar- from the separateness and narrowness of ego, and really experience anani hamerkhav Yah- the infinitely vast expansiveness of the Divine.
But how do you do that? How do you come to forgive yourself so that you can experience Hashem yislakh lah – that you are truly forgiven for all your mistakes? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that you have to forgive everyone else! As it says in Vayikra- Leviticus 10:18, ve’ahavtah l’reiakha k’mokha – love your neighbor as yourself – and if you’re not sure what it means, that you should love others like you love yourself, then right before that it says, lo titur et b’nai amekha- don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people.
So, on this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of the Tribes, may we be vigilant against that unconscious tendency that often happens in community, to judge other members of our tribe. Not just because it’s bad for the community and for relationships, but because when your judge others instead of forgiving others, you won’t be able to forgive yourself. The ego that judges others is the same ego that gets you stuck in self judgment. Give permission for others to be as they are, even when you have to correct them. You can accept someone in your heart even as you reprimand them for something; there’s no contradiction there. And in that acceptance, you will be able to truly accept yourself, even as you try to learn from your mistakes. And through this paradox of acceptance and action, of forgiveness and correction, may the rav tov – the abundant goodness of Being Itself, of Reality Itself, become ever more apparent, healing all who seek it. Good Shabbos!
Don't Blow it Out Your Window- Parshat Mattot
One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot. So, I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After some time, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized- I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler. All the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for your daily practice. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive. In that case, it is possible that you’ve "left the window open." All your best intentions are “blowing right out the window!”
How do you “roll up the window” and make the most out of the power of your intention without wasting it? This week’s reading begins:
“Ish ki yidor neder laShem- if a person takes a vow to the Divine, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon oneself…
“...k’khol yotzei mipiv ya’aseh- according to everything that comes out of one’s mouth, one shall do…”
Why would someone want to take a vow or swear an oath?
Because verbally saying your intention- and even repeating it often- is a powerful way to “shut the window.” Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against your habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t “fly out the window” as life unfolds in real time. So, if want to transform, put the transformation in your mouth! And then, repeat it often.
What is it that you desire to bring forth from yourself?
When that becomes clear to you, commit to it. Write it down. Repeat it often. Then, when the flow of life tends to confuse and distract, you will be solid as a rock. If your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you.
But, you might ask, isn’t attaching yourself to some goal a function of ego?
It’s true- if you merely say, “I commit to accomplishing such-and-such,” you can and probably will create ego-identification with the goal. The ego seeks control, and when things don’t go your way, that creates suffering.
That’s why intention and commitment have to be balanced with surrender and trust, and this is the basic function of prayer. The purpose of praying for things is not to control God or manifest our desires, but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. When we pray for something, we recognize that we aren’t in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray- there is no “me,” there is only God- unfolding in every form and every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you.
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them:
“Won’t you stay for Shabbos?” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised- why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves?
At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the bread, a tiny crust of bread with mold on it was brought out. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed.
Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste.
For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony. After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer:
“How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??”
The Baal Shem was just silent.
A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood!
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The man whose home we visited last year was fully capable of becoming successful in business, but he was so full of faith, that he chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help himself. Yes, he prayed passionately for livelihood, but refused to take any steps toward it.
“When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep him trapped in his passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that he’d be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what he did, and just look at them now!”
On this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to action and prayer are two sides of the Whole- the passive and the active, as One. May you have abundant success and blessing in all your ways!
There are really two different kinds of discomfort.
The first is like when you stub your toe. It happens suddenly, and once it happens, you're going to feel pain; there's no choice involved. The second is like when someone is talking your ear off, and you want to get away. The discomfort increases moment by moment, and you can get away any time you choose.
If you want to live an awakened life, if you want to be free, these two kinds of discomfort require two different responses. The first requires simple acceptance; there's no way to escape the intense pain once you stub your toe. The second requires conscious choice about when to stay in the discomfort and keep listening to the person talk at you, and when to simply walk away.
Yet for some reason, we often confuse these two situations. We can trick ourselves into thinking we're "trapped" by someone talking to us, and not realize that we have a choice. When we finally escape, we might be angry at the person: "How could they keep talking at me like that! How insensitive!" And yet, we could have left any time; we don't take the power that's ours, and instead blame someone outside ourselves for our experience.
Or, we lament and complain about some discomfort that we can't control, when we should really just accept it; it already happened, we have no control! So why be in conflict with it?
There's a hint of this in Parshat Pinhas:
צַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֶת־קָרְבָּנִ֨י לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י תִּשְׁמְר֕וּ לְהַקְרִ֥יב לִ֖י בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ
Command the children of Israel and say to them, “My offerings, My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, you shall take care to offer Me in its special time…
If you draw your awareness into your pain, it becomes לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י – food for My fires –that is, food for awareness, because awareness is strengthened through the practice of fully being present with whatever you feel the impulse to resist. That's the first kind of pain, like stubbing your toe.
That’s why the offering is called קָרְבָּנִ֨י – My korban, because korban means to “draw near.” The magic is that even though you are drawing your awareness into something unpleasant, the attitude of openness can transmute the pain into a connection with the Divine, with Reality, with our own being, which are all ultimately the same thing.
The second type of pain, as in the example of someone talking at you, is the רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י –pleasing aroma. That's because there's a sweetness when you claim your own power to change your situation, and not blame others.
Our response to these different kinds of discomfort must be done בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ – it its special time – meaning, our response has to be in alignment with the reality of our situation. Is it time to simply accept, or is it time to act? Notice the inner tendency to lean away from your own power, or to lean into resisting what has already happened. Then, simply lean a bit the other way, and come back into balance.
Once, when Reb Yisrael of Rizhyn was sitting casually with his Hassidim and smoking his pipe, one of them asked, "Rebbe, please tell, me– how can I truly serve Hashem?"
"How should I know?" said the rebbe, "But I'll tell you, once there were two friends who broke the law and were brought before the king. The king was fond of them and wanted to acquit them, but he couldn't just let them off the hook completely.
"So, the king had a tight rope extended over a deep pit. He told the friends, 'If you can get to the other side of the pit on the tightrope, you can go free.' The first set his foot on the rope and quickly scampered across. The second called to his friend, 'How did you do it?'
"'How should I know?' said the first, 'But I'll tell you– when I started to fall toward one side, I just leaned a little to the other side...'"
More on Parshat Pinhas
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Piercing the Two Layers of Mind- Parshat Pinkas
"Notein lo et briti shalom –
"I give him my covenant of peace.”
Parshat Pinkhas begins in the aftermath of a plague that God put on the Israelites, because they had been seduced by the Midianites into an idolatrous orgy. At its climax, The Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Kozbi are engaged in sexual union in front of everyone, and the zealot Pinkhas comes along and kills them both by piercing them through with a spear, causing the punishing plague to subside. God then says in the opening of the parsha, that Pinkhas “heishiv et khamati- turned back my wrath from upon the children of Israel- b’kano et kinati- when he avenged my vengeance” or “my jealousy. Therefore, hin’ni, check it out- notein lo et briti shalom- I give him my covenant of peace.”
Woe, what is going on here. This sounds like the vengeful, jealous God that everyone loves to hate. What kind of a God is that, right? A God that’s jealous, a God that kills people and so on. And yet, in a sense, that’s actually perfectly true. From a certain point of view, God is a vengeful, jealous God that kills people. Not literally, of course, but this is scripture. It’s pointing to something spiritual in the language of the time it was written. So what is it pointing to?
There is a basis, or a foundation for everything you’re experiencing right now. Whether we’re talking about things that appear to be outside of you – like the sensory world, what you see, what you hear, or things that appear to be inside you, such as feelings or thoughts, everything is perceived only because of this miracle called consciousness. And in the field of your experience, everything you perceive is, in fact, made out of consciousness. So that thing that I see over there is nothing but consciousness, because seeing is a function of consciousness. And, in fact, the sense of “me” that sees the thing over there, this body/mind that I call me, is also something that I perceive, so it too is just a form of consciousness. So the thing I see and the me that sees are both forms of one consciousness.
And yet, as you know, most people have no sense of that at all. There’s just the sense of me over here in this body and that thing over there that I see. Why? Because we’re constantly framing our experience with language that reinforces the belief that things are objective and separate. The language we use refers to “me” and “that thing over there,” and so our thinking which is largely made out of language, is deeply conditioned with this assumption of separateness, even though our experience right now tells us otherwise. But to really see what our experience is telling us, we have to pierce a hole through the lie that’s created with our language.
And to do that takes a special effort because the language lie is two-ply. Just like good toilet paper. If you have only one-ply toilet paper, that doesn’t work too well. Good toilet paper has two layers of paper so that it doesn’t tear when you’re using it.
It’s the same with our minds- there’s two layers. The first layer is simply the fact that our minds are constantly going. Bla bla bla bla. It’s like a song that you get stuck in your head. Once that song is stuck, it just repeats over and over, because it’s created a groove in your nervous system. That’s why music is groovy. Dance music is always talking about “getting into the groove” and “making you move” because it’s playing on this tendency of the mind to get into grooves of thought patterns within which your mind moves. That’s the first layer you have to get through- the movement in the groove of constant thinking.
The other ply is the content of the groove- the nature of how language tends to work. How does language work? Well even right now as I talk about language, the words are creating the impression that language is this thing that “I” am talking about. So there’s the sense that “I” and the subject of this talk, language, are two separate things. This doesn’t get questioned unless we deliberately decide to question it, which is what we’re doing right now by the way, because it’s simply the background assumption of language and thinking- that there’s a me who thinks and talks, and there are things that the “me” thinks and talks about.
And yet we can, if we choose, notice that these words right now, as well as whatever concepts we’re talking about, as well as this body that’s talking, as well as the “you” that’s listening, are all living within and are forms of awareness. And as soon as we point this out, there can be this subtle but profound shift- and this is the shift into knowing that there’s only one thing going on. Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ekhad- All Existence, all Being is not separate from Eloheinu- our own divinity, meaning consciousness, and Hashem Ekhad- All Existence is just this One thing that’s going on- consciousness in form. And how do you know this? Because you are Sh’ma- you are the listening, the perceiving, and nothing you perceive is separate from that.
Isn’t it funny that we tend to look for God, thinking we know the world but we have to find God, when in Reality, God is the only thing we really know? Meaning, we know that there’s Existence. And we know that the knowing and the Existence, are not separate. That’s Hashem Ekhad; that’s the Oneness of God right there. Or should we say, right here.
So if you choose to think in this very different, very counter-intuitive and yet very obvious kind of way, you can pierce through that ply of separateness almost instantly. Because even though it’s counterintuitive, it’s also really obvious. It’s really obvious that there’s only one Reality and this is it. How many Realities could there possibly be? Only one, because Reality just means whatever is. And it’s also totally obvious that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to find Reality, because there’s only ever one place to find it, and that’s always right now in your present moment experience.
So once you do that, and hopefully we just did it, the next step is to connect with the Presence of Being in form. Meaning, let your awareness really connect whatever is present, rather than continue with all that duality producing language. Just let yourself be present. This isn’t complicated- just notice what’s going on… and be conscious of your breathing. And in doing that, your mind effortlessly becomes quiet, and you pierce through the other ply- the layer of the constantly moving mind.
So once you’ve gotten through the two layers, and maybe you just have, Reality can be your friend, and the plague, so to speak, can be lifted. What’s the plague? It’s just the belief that you’re separate. And that’s why God can be thought of as jealous or vengeful. Not literally of course, but if you’re not paying attention to God, meaning you’re not seeing the underlying Being of everything, always focused on the conditional world, then you’re literally in exile from yourself. You’re identified with this tiny piece of who you really are, and you don’t even know it.
So this is why God gives Pinkhas the covenant of shalom – of peace and wholeness – for killing Zimriand Kozbi. Because what is Zimri? It’s like the word zemer- song. So Zimri is “my song”- meaning, the constant movement of the mind; the song that my thoughts are always singing. And what is Kozbi? Kaf-Zayin-Bet means a lie, a falsehood. So Kozbi means “my lie.” And when Zimri and Kozbi unite, that’s the two ply barrier of both constant thinking and the lie of separateness that Pinkhas is able to pierce through.
Now, what is Pinkhas? It’s Pey-Nekhs. Pey is a mouth, and Nekhs is bad, or unsuccessful. So Pinkhas knows the bad side of the mouth, meaning language, how it tends to make us unsuccessful in our quest for Truth. So he pierces through both layers, and receives the Brit Shalom, reminding us that whoever wants real peace and wholeness, must also pierce through the two-ply toilet paper of the mind.
So on this Shabbat Pinkhas, which we might call the Sabbath of Silence, may we pierce more deeply and consistently through the noise and conditioning of the mind, connecting with and also embodying in our actions, words and even thoughts, the Divine Presence of Being that is ever-present...
Put Your Weed in There! Parshat Pinhas
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers and starts showing them some crafty knick-knack import. He says in a stoner voice:
“This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it and says, “Oh, and you can put your weed in there!”- and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a cop comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The cop walks over to them and says, “How you doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then busts out uncontrollably:
“WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The cop says, “Why are you yelling like that?” He then examines the knick-knack he’s holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says (Sukkah 52a), “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death.”
In the sketch, all the stoner guy has to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help it- he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are you given the opportunity for life to go well, to go smoothly, and somehow you find yourself messing the whole thing up? Why do we have this yetzer hara- this “evil urge”- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something unique and compelling: He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our unbelievably enormous potential. We know, on some level, that our potential is enormous, and that creates a kind of psychological pressure. We are terrified of not living up to our potential.
So, to avoid the pain of knowing our great potential and not living up to it, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential, that we are worthless, and all our self-destructive behaviors are aimed at proving our worthlessness to ourselves.
This week’s reading begins with the aftermath of a self-destructive incident as well.
The Israelites had just been dwelling peacefully in their camp. Then the Midianites come along and try to seduce them into an orgy of idolatry and adultery. The Midianites didn’t attack them militarily; all the Israelites had to do is say “No thank you,” and they’d be fine. But what happens? They are easily seduced and the Divine wrath flares up. It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parshah is named, Pinhas, then wields his spear and kills two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the holy “Tent of Meeting.” This week’s parshah then begins with Pinhas getting rewarded for his heroic murder, and he is given a Divine Brit Shalom- a “Covenant of Peace.”
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Murder in the name of religious zealotry? Embarrassing.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message emerges: There is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick you and lure you into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, if you are aware of it, it has no power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the Yetzer harawill be revealed for what it really is. When the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not living for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that is your essence, your divine nature.
At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you do have needs and desires.
While it’s true there are times when our impulses are so destructive that they must be completely halted as represented by Pinhas and his spear, in most cases our thirsts can be quenched in moderation, with balance and wisdom. Our desires, after all, are like the impulses of an animal. Don’t let the animal take over, but don’t torture it either. You have the power, through your awareness, to give the animal enough so that it let’s you have peace, without it taking over and pulling you toward self-sabotage.
There’s a story of a simple man who came to Maggid of Koznitz with his wife, demanding that he be allowed to divorce her.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the Maggid.
“I work very hard all week,” said the man, “and on Shabbos I want to have some pleasure. Now for Shabbat dinner, my wife first serves the fish, then the onions, then some heavy main dish, and by the time she puts the pudding on the table, I have eaten all I want and have no appetite for it. All week I work for this pudding, and when it comes I can’t even taste it- and all my labor was for nothing!
“Time after time I ask my wife to please put the pudding on the table right after Kiddush (the blessing over wine), but no! She says that the way she does it is the proper minhag (custom).”
The Maggid turned to the woman.
“From now on, make a little extra pudding. Take a bit of the pudding and serve it right after Kiddush.Then, serve the rest of it after the main dish, as before.”
The couple agreed to this and went on their way.
From that time on, it became the minhag (custom) in the Maggid’s house to serve some pudding right after Kiddush, and this minhag was passed on to his children and his children’s children. It was called the Shalom Bayit Pudding- the “Peace-in-the-House Pudding!”
On this Shabbat Pinkhas, the Sabbath of Peace, may we be aware of the needs of our hearts an bodies, giving and receiving the pleasures of life without being controlled by them. May we know that we are infinitely more vast than any particular impulse or want. May we see that all impulses come and go, and that we need not identify with them.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!
What is the pupil of an eye? The pupil is actually the opening through which pours the light that creates the images we see. The pupil is essentially a hole.
The third line of the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh, says:
“Please, Divine Strength, those who foster Your Oneness, like the pupil of an eye, guard them.”
This line is unusual. If we’re asking God to guard us, to keep us safe, why are we likening ourselves to a bavat- a pupil of an eye? It seems like it would make more sense to say, please guard us like a baby, or guard us like a city, but guard us like a pupil? It’s a strange idiom.
So let’s go into this a little bit.
What is the pupil of an eye? The pupil is actually the opening through which pours the light that creates the images we see. The pupil is essentially a hole.
And yet, if you make eye contact with a person, it’s really the pupil of the eye that gives you the sense of eye contact being made. That’s why in all those zombie movies, when they want to make a person seem like they’re dead, they somehow take away the pupils from the actors’ eyes. Maybe they do with special contact lenses, maybe they use CGI, but however they do it, the effect of an eye with no pupil is the effect of there being nobody home.
It’s a disturbing image to see a person’s eye with no pupil, because we somehow know intuitively that the pupil indicates consciousness- it indicates that there’s someone there.
Which is interesting, because everyone’s pupils look more or less the same. The color of people’s eyes are different, the shape of people’s eyes are different, the face in which the eyes are set is completely unique for each person. You can’t tell the identity of someone by their pupils; you need to see their face. And yet, it’s the pupil that tells you there’s consciousness, that there’s someone home.
This fact of the pupil indicating consciousness, on one hand, yet also being nothing but an opening, on the other, is also a great symbol for who we really are. Are we our bodies? No. Are we our faces? No. Are we our feelings? Our thoughts? Our personalities? All of these things are part of us, but none of them are essentially us. The only essential ingredient is consciousness; and like the pupil of your eye, your consciousness is simply an opening. It’s not unique, it’s more or less the same for everyone, and yet it’s the most miraculous and precious thing. Without consciousness, everything else is just a shell; just a bundle of patterns.
So this prayer is crying out, in the first line, tatir tzerura- untie the bundle! Meaning, uncover and reveal this essential openness that we are, beneath the bundle of patterns of our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings, so that we can know ourselves as this simple openness, k’vavat- like a pupil.
Now there’s a certain paradox of consciousness which is also reflected in the pupil.
On one hand, the pupil is a simple openness, taking in the whole image of whatever is being seen. Similarly, consciousness is also the simple openness of experience. So in this moment, you may notice, there’s a richness to your experience- there’s your sensations, your senses, the movement of your breathing, any feelings or emotions that may be vibrating in your body, as well as thoughts that arise, persist for some time, and then dissipate. And all this richness is part of one unfolding experience in the present.
And yet, at the same time, when you’re aware of the full richness of experience that’s arising in this moment, there also arises the choice to entertain some things within your experience and to not to entertain other things. For example, some anger arises, or the impulse to judge or complain – and you can notice that it’s there, but not act on it. So on the deepest level, you’re saying “Yes” to it, you’re recognizing that this negative impulse exists in this moment, and that’s perfectly okay, but on the level of choice you can say “No” to it by choosing not to act on it; you just let it be there and then to let it dissipate.
On the other hand, an impulse may arise to really listen to the person talking to you, or to be generous in some way, and you may choose to say “Yes” to that impulse on both levels; you say “Yes” first to its existence, just as you would to anything that arises when you’re being present, but you might also say “Yes” to act on it. So on the deepest level of awareness, there’s a single “Yes” to everything that arises in the moment. That’s the akhdut- the Oneness, or non-duality of experience. But on the level of choice, there’s a “Yes” to some things and a “No” to other things; that’s the duality of discernment or wisdom.
This truth is also reflected in the metaphor of the pupil, in that we generally have two pupils. So on one hand the pupil is a simple openness to light which creates a single image, a single experience- that’s the akhdut, or Oneness level. And yet, there are two pupils, hinting at the yes and the no, the duality of choice that arises within the akhdut of the present.
There’s also a hint of this in the Torah story of Bilam the sorcerer.
In Parshat Balak, the king of Moav, whose name is Balak, becomes frightened of all these Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley. So, he sends messengers out to the mysterious, reclusive sorcerer Bilam to request that he put a curse on the Israelites. At first, Bilam refuses. But after several requests, he concedes and rides out on his donkey. Next, there’s a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals. (The other one is the talking snake in the Garden of Eden).
In this passage, Bilam rides out on his donkey through a vineyard, when suddenly an angel appears and blocks his path with sword drawn. But, only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’sfoot into a wall. Bilam gets angry and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” says Bilam.
Suddenly, Bilam’s eyes are magically “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, apologizes and offers to turn back. The angel tells him not to turn back, but he should be careful only say the words that the Divine will place in his mouth to say.
So, Bilam goes on his way, and meets up with King Balak, who pleads with Bilam to curse the Israelites. But, every time Bilam opens his mouth, he pronounces blessings instead. King Balak tries again and again to get Bilam to curse, bringing him to different places on a mountain overlooking the Israelite camp, as if that would change something. But every time, it just comes out more blessings. In Bilam’s final blessing, he says,
“N’um Bilam, b’no v’or un’um hagever sh’tum ha’ayin-
“The words of Bilam son of Beor, the words of the man with an open eye…”
“N’um shomea imrei El, asher makhazeh Shaddai, yekhezeh nofel ug’lui einayim-
“The words of the one who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shaddai, while fallen and with uncovered eyes-
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
-and the blessings flow on from there.
So what’s going on here? Why is it that Bilam’s donkey perceives the angel before he does, and why do his eyes become “uncovered” as a result of the donkey speaking to him? And, once his eyes are uncovered, how does that allow him to “hear” the Divine voice, transforming curses into blessings?
So one way to grasp this passage is to understand that the donkey is your own body. There’s a tendency to take the body for granted, as if it’s just a vehicle to achieve your intentions- like a car, or a donkey that you ride on. But the spiritual potential of your body is to be a temple of Presence – a vessel for the light of your awareness.
So at first, Bilam is just hitting his donkey, trying to control it. That’s the ego- selfish, angry, and entitled. But when he starts listening to what the donkey is telling him, then suddenly he can see the angel and hear it speak. Meaning, when you become present with your body, anchoring your awareness in your breathing, then you can clearly see the nature of your impulses that arise, and hear the “angels of your better nature” so to speak. So rather than simply being taken over by yoru impulses, there’s space to really see which which ones are blessings and which are curses. That’s the “uncovering of the eyes” so to speak. There’s an impulse of anger, or an urge to put someone down- you can see that clearly and not be taken over by it. Or, there’s an impulse of love, of supportiveness, of listening- that’s a blessing, and you can choose that. That’s the Yes and the No of being conscious.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, being warm and loving, but see candy with your left eye, not being taken over by that urge to grab at it!”
But to maintain your Presence in your body so as to be aware of your freedom to choose blessing and not curse, you have to be ever-watchful; you have to be on guard constantly. Just as the pupil of an eye- k’vavat- is an open space of perception, so your awareness is also an open space through which you can watchfully guard- shomreim- the movements and sensations of your body with gibor- with strength. And, in so doing, we become dorshei yikhudekha- the ones who foster or tap into the Oneness of Reality, the Oneness of this moment.
So let’s chant these words: K’vavat Shomreim. As you sing k’vavat, “like a pupil,” open your hands palms upward, to express the openness and transcendence of awareness. And when you sing Shomreim, “Guard Them,” bring your hands in, palms together, intensifying presence in your body. So k’vavat, open hands and aware of the open spaciousness of awareness beyond the body, the space around your body, then shomreim, bringing in hands and intensifying awareness within the body...
The Eyes of a Donkey- Parshat Balak
Once, during a monthly commute back to the Bay Area, I took an Uber from the airport to my car which was parked near our old house in Oakland. When I arrived, I got out of the Uber, unloaded my suitcases from the trunk onto the street, unlocked my dirty car that had been sitting for a month, loaded the suitcases into the car, got into the driver’s seat and reached for my cell phone to plug into the car charger.
But… no cell phone! I had left it in the Uber.
Immediately I looked- the Uber was half way down the street! I took off running like my pants were on fire. The car started to slow down- yes! He sees me! But then he went over a speed bump and… started accelerating again!
Adrenaline pumping, I ran even faster. I yelled for him to stop. He approached a second speed bump, slowed down, and… yes! He stopped!
As I reached his car, he handed me the phone out of the driver’s side window. “You’re a fast runner!” he said.
“Not usually,” I replied.
The body has tremendous potential, usually untapped. But in the moment of emergency, that potential can be unleashed. When I was little I remember hearing a story of a woman who lifted a car to save her child who had become trapped.
But there’s another potential of the body besides its physical potential- the potential to save you by lifting the weight of ego, under which you may have become trapped. Have you ever been motivated by negativity or craving to do something that would have terrible consequences, and in that emergency your body gave you the message to stop and turn back?
In this week’s reading, Balak king of Moab becomes frightened of the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley, so he petitions the prophet/sorcerer Bilam to curse the Israelites. As Bilam rides out on his donkey to the Israelite camp, there is a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals (the other one being the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden).
Bilam rides his donkey through a vineyard, when an angel blocks the path with sword drawn. But only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets mad and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you that you hit me?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
Then Bilam’s eyes are “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, prostrates, apologizes, and goes up the mountain to view the Israelite camps.
When Bilam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse, his mouth utters a blessing instead:
“Lo hibit avein b’Ya’akov-
“(The Divine) sees nothing bad in Jacob...
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
The donkey is your body- the beast you live in. You may think you want to say something, but your words will be a curse if you can’t “see the angel.” But the donkey sees it- and the donkey can talk!
What is the blessing that God “wants” you to say?
Your body is the gateway to this awareness, if you become present. Connect with your body, open your mouth and let the blessing come through.
But, the question may arise:
Isn’t the body also a hindrance to consciousness and wisdom? Isn’t your body the source of negativity and cravings?
In Kabbalah, one of the symbols for wisdom is fire- as in the fire that Moses saw at the burning bush. This is the fire of Reality becoming conscious- the fire that looks through your eyes, reading these words, right now.
But fire is also a symbol of destruction- of craving and negativity- as in the plague of hail and fire that rained down on the Egyptians. This is the fire of anger and craving, seducing you to satisfy its every impulse, then leaving you unsatisfied, with a trail of unwanted consequences.
Both of these manifestations of fire, however, are teachers of wisdom- if only you learn to discern whether it’s the fire of “yes” or the fire of “no.”
“Yes” to love, “no” to reaching- to seeing fulfillment outside yourself. “Yes” to blessing, “no” to the impulses that keep you stuck.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, and candy with your left eye!”
On this Shabbat Balak, the Sabbath of Body-Blessing, may we keep our awareness deeply connected to our senses and our breathing, so that the fire of Presence burns brightly with wisdom and with love. May we not identify with the urgencies of craving and negativity, and know that through the power of Presence, we are totally free from their power. And may the warmth and light of that freedom deepen more and more…
Reb Pinkhas taught, "If you wish to guide others, you must not become angry at them, because not only will the anger pollute your own soul, it will infect those you are guiding as well."
And at another time he said, "Since I've learned to tame my anger, I keep it my pocket, and take it out when needed."
In order to occasionally use anger in a directed and effective way, you have to not be taken over by it. Only when you are free from anger, can you use it effectively. Lord knows there is a lot in our world to be angry about!
But in most situations, it's best to be conscious of anger as it arises, feel your anger fully, but not direct it at others.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Hukat. The Israelites complain once again against Moses and Aaron that they are thirsty. Hashem instructs Moses to speak to a rock, and it will give forth water for them to drink. But instead, Moses yells at the people: "You rebels!" and then hits the rock with a stick. Water comes forth, but Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land for his burst of anger.
And so it is: If we want to dwell in the "Promised Land," we must be at home in this moment, in whatever this moment brings. People are complaining? Anger is arising? Be conscious of it. "Speak" to the "rock" of your own heart: "Ah, here is anger arising. This is actually a gift, an opportunity to practice being conscious in real time, not just during meditation."
Let the "water" flow from your heart out of Presence, rather than being demanding, and you will enter the Promised Land from wherever you find yourself...
More on Parshat Hukat –
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The Mystery of Music- Parshat Hukat
V’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah-
And they should take to you a cow that is red, completely...
In Parshat Hukat, it says, Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely.
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah-song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So on this Shabbat Hukat- the Sabbath of the Mystery- I bless you to use your voice in prayer and song. “Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
Ain't Misbehavin'- Parshat Hukat
On the way to the airport, our daughter started shrieking in the back seat. "What's the matter honey??"
"The phone died!!!" she screamed. She was playing a game on my wife's phone and it ran out of juice.
"I see you're really upset," said my wife.
It always amazes me how Lisa is able stay present even with that shrieking sound; a great reminder to me.
It all began a few years ago, when she read about a parenting method called, “Positive Discipline.” Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting.
The catch phrase for this is “Connection Before Correction.” In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did, and only afterward speak to them firmly about what behavior needs to change.
While I have not found this approach to be workable all of the time, especially in extreme situations, I still find the principle incredibly useful. And when it does work, it’s not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent. That’s because when you communicate only through harshness, it’s all too easy to be seduced into anger.
And though it is possible for the parent to correct the child with anger, the parent is then misbehaving too!
After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure- the very thing you want to correct in the child. So while expressing anger may have the desired effect of correcting the child’s behavior, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
Spiritually speaking, impatience and loss of composure have a deeper root- they stem from a loss of presence, and consequently, loss of connection with the Presence. When a child acts out, they have lost their presence; they have been taken over by their impulses. Have you ever seen an adorable and beautiful child suddenly become a monstrous terror?
And in the presence of such lack of presence, it can be very difficult to keep your own presence.
In this week’s reading, there’s a metaphorical demonstration of this principle. The name of the parshah- “Hukat”- is a form of the word hok, which means “decree,” or “statute.” The particular hok described here is the ritual for purifying someone who has come in contact with death. Metaphorically, death represents the loss of presence that comes when you are taken over by anger and negativity.
In the ritual, one must take a completely red cow and slaughter it, then burn it up completely. (Both the redness of the cow and the burning represent the fire of anger, which causes one to become spiritually “dead.”)
Then, the ashes are mixed with water and made into a potion to be sprinkled on the impure person. And, while the potion causes the impure person to become pure again, it causes the one who sprinkled the potion to become impure- just as parents who discipline their children with anger may help to “purify” the child’s behavior, but in the process they become impure themselves.
This theme continues to vibrate throughout the parshah-
Shortly after the hok of the red cow, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, Miriam’s death is the loss of connection with the Divine Presence, which Miriam represents. After she dies, we are then told that there is “no water to drink.” Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with the Presence that was lost.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. Hashem instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of his own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hardness- to the lack of connection.
Then it says-
“Hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah-
“You shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…”
The barrier to holiness can be penetrated by gently bringing awareness to it through speech, by using speech to return people to presence. That’s the role of the spiritual teacher- to help others return to Presence, often through speech.
But, as you may know, that’s not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels,” and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink- but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself! How often do you beat yourself up for not living up to your highest intentions?
While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly. You have the power to teach yourself from your “Inner Torah”- to set yourself on the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
But to do this, you have to consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah. Yes, we are flawed humans, but on the deepest level we are also Torah. That level of Torah within is ever available, if you but remember and open to it.
There’s a hint of this in the parshah as well, when it describes the law for a person who dies in a tent:
“Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel-
“This is the torah (teaching) for when a person dies in a tent…”
The beginning of this verse can also be read in a completely different way- “Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!”
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time to sit for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance from him of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe of his presence.”
But as soon as he sat down, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him anyway.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them: “You know, every person is like a holy book- every person is in fact a Torah- as it says, ‘Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!’And just as you wouldn’t pile things on top of a Sefer Torah, so too please don’t push and shove one another.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
On this Shabbat Hukat, the Sabbath of Decree, may we take care to embrace the “decree” of what is, even when confronting the negativity of others, not allowing our resistance to be embodied in self-defeating anger. But rather, let us embody Presence in all three garments- in our actions, words and thoughts.
-reb brian yosef
See original post with video HERE.
Parshat Korakh begins, “Vayikakh Korakh- Korakh separated himself…”
This is referring to how Korakh “separates himself” by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of unfairly wielding their power. Korakh’s argument is pretty convincing. He says:
“This entire assembly is holy and the Divine is among them- why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Divine?”
Now, the word for “he separated” is vayikakh, which literally means “he took”- hinting at the selfish motive behind his challenge to Moses. Just like when you feel desire for something, like a sugary treat for example, and there’s the urge to reach for it and take it, so too Korakh was grabbing at what he wanted. Only his desire object wasn’t food, but status and control. And just as the body can have physical cravings, so the ego has identity cravings: I want control, I want recognition, and so on, and that ego craving can be much more powerful than bodily cravings in some cases.
Next, it says:
Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.
Why did he fall on his face?
There’s a story that once an opponent of the Hassidic movement came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman of Liadi- to attack him with accusations of arrogance:
“You claim to be a holy man- a leader of Hassidim- but look how you sit alone in your study, separate from the people… and with an attendant at your door, only admitting people according to your command- how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are anyway?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanunprayer.
After a few minutes, he lifted his head and spoke-
“The expression the Torah uses for ‘leaders of the people’ is ‘roshei alfei Yisrael- heads of the thousands of Israel,’ from which we learn that our leaders are known as ‘heads.’
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. Nevertheless, they’re clothed separately and differently. Why is this?
“Because the head must be distinct from the body, just as the ‘heads’ of any generation must be distinct from the people.”
The questioner was impressed with the answer and went on his way.
But the Rebbe’s little son (who would eventually be known as Reb Dov Bear of Lubavich), had a different question for his father:
“Abba, in order to give that answer, there was no need to rest your head in your arms. Why didn’t you give him the answer immediately?”
The Alter Rebbe replied-
“In Parshat Korakh, when Korakh and his followers accused Moses and Aaron of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused them with these words-
“‘Umadua titnasu- And why do you exalt yourselves?’
“Then we read, ‘Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
“Only after he fell on his face, did Moses answer Korakh. So we might ask the same question there- why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
“Because Moses suspected that perhaps there was some truth to the accusation- perhaps there was a bit of ego involved in his leadership, so he had to go inside himself and search inwardly to see if there was some truth there.
“Then, after searching within and purifying himself from any ego (as the Torah says, ‘V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- Moses was exceedingly humble’), he was able to respond with clarity.
“A similar thing happened with me here today.”
The Alter Rebbe’s description of the head in relation to the body- intimately connected, yet separate, transcendent- is not just a metaphor for a leader in relation to the people, but also for consciousness in relation to your thoughts and feelings.
So just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, so you too can be the “attendant” of your own mind, keeping yourself free from thoughts and feelings generated by ego.
But, to do this, you don’t really have to “keep out” any of your thoughts or feelings. All you need to do is be conscious of them. By simply acknowledging the presence of selfish or aggressive thoughts and feelings, they’re no longer controling “you.” Then, as you continue to stay present, your thoughts and feelings naturally cool down, revealing themselves as nothing more than fleeting moments of experience.
As it says in Psalm 23, Dishanta vashemen roshi- My head is anointed with oil. When you stay present, your awareness is like aromatic anointing oil poured over your head, cooling and relaxing your mind and heart. And when that happens, you can experience yourself more and more as consciousness, totally beyond and yet inclusive of your mind and heart. And that consciousness is the opposite of ego. Because while ego is needy and is forever restless, trying to fulfill itself, consciousness is full and complete- Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full.
So on this Shabbat Korakh, this Sabbath of Taking, may we fully “take” the only power we truly have- the power to be with what is- to be the space of awareness within which this moment unfolds, and in so doing, become free from the impulses of the mind and heart and realize the inherent peace and wholeness that we are. Good Shabbos!
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The Farmer – Parshat Korakh
Once there was a farmer who lived on his farm with his son. The son grew up helping the farmer with all the chores- cleaning the chicken coup, milking the cows, planting, tending, harvesting and so on. As the son grew up, however, he became disdainful of the farm life. He resented his father for raising him in such a sheltered life, and he wanted to experience more.
As he grew more and more restless, he would get into fights with his father, insulting him and calling him a bumpkin and a hick and so on. Eventually he left the farm and set out for a more urban evnvironment. He became a party animal, living for the nights when he would drink himself into oblivion with his newfound crowd of party animals.
One such night, one of his companions who knew about the son’s origins got out of hand and started insulting him and his father. The son suddenly felt protective of his father’s honor, and threatened to beat the guy up. Some other people restrained him, and said “why don’t you settle it with a drinking contest?” They both agreed.
As the son downed shot after shot, there was something different in the way he was drinking. In the past, he drank for his own pleasure. Now, he was drinking for his father. This gave him more drinking strength than ever, and he easily won the contest.
The next night, when he went out drinking, he was reminded of what it was like to drink for his father, and how it somehow gave more strength and depth to his drinking, so he tried it again: Before taking a sip, he would say, “Dad, this is for you”. From then on, every night he went out, he would dedicate his partying to his father. After some time, he felt something like a fire kindle inside his heart. A great love for his father grew inside him. Sometimes he would sit with the glass of wisky for long periods without drinking anything, just savoring this love that was growing within him.
Eventually, he began to realize that the love within him was infinitely more deep and sweet than the scrap of pleasure he got from the alchohol. He knew he had to return home, but he felt so guilty facing his father.
When he arrived and saw his father, he said, “I left here because I had felt like I was just one of your animals, mindlessly doing your farm work. But now that I’ve been out in the world, I feel like I am not even as good as your animals, because your animals at least faithfully serve you, while I just run around after my own pleasure. I am less than an animal. But I love you, and I realize I was wrong, and I want to come back.”
The father was in tears. “My son, these animals don’t serve me on purpose. They follow their instincts, and I know how to work with them so that they serve me and the farm. You, on the other hand, have chosen to some back out of love, and that is the most precious thing to me.”
In the story, the son follows his own desires, satisfying himself through drinking. But when he accidentally imbues his drinking with love for his father, the drinking begins to have a new effect. It becomes a path of transformation.
On Shabbat, as we come together to sing and dance and praise in joy, most of us are drinking in the tavern for God. We’re doing enjoyment, but dedicating it to God, so it becomes a path of transforming the heart, of awakening the power of love. But in order for that power to become a true transformation, we have to take it back to the farm.
But of course there is something in the way; it is easier to drink for the farmer than to clean the chicken coup for the farmer. So the story is really about the very beginning of the son’s spiritual work- the real work begins after the story ends. That’s where the transformation of ego happens- when you clean the chicken coup, when you endure the hardships of life and are able to dedicate it to the One.
The other day, I lost my kippa, and I was afraid- it’s my last one, what am I going to do? Then I realized what a crass materialist I was being. What kind of spirituality is that? Worrying about a hat? So insignificant compared to the real hardships of life, but it affected me. But those to me are the golden spiritual moments- when you get to see your own ego at work- because that is the opportunity to drop it for real. Real transformation happens in the flow of actual life, when we offer the whole of our life on the altar of actuality.
In this parasha, Korakh makes a rebelion against Moses with 250 followers, accusing Moses of exalting himself over everyone else, and calling for something more democratic. The midrash asks why this incident comes right after the mitzvah of tzitzit- the ritual fringes worn the corners of the one's garment to remind one of the Path. The tzitzit are supposed to have a special thread of blue in them. It answers that Korakh came to Moses with a garment made entirely of blue and asked Moses, “Does this need tzitzit?” Metaphorically, Korakh was saying that he was totally aware of God’s presence everywhere, so there was no need for the specific tzitzit as a reminder; Korakh was like the garment that was all blue. There was no need for Moses to lead him, Korakh argued, because whatever happens, God is always in control anyway. It’s a very spiritual argument, and it is actually true from a spiritual point of view. But he was using a spiritual argument to justify being a farm animal rather than being a son of God. The farm animals do what they do, and the farmer manipulates the situation. But the son comes back to serve out of love and awareness of the farmer, and that’s the difference between Moses and Korakh. Korakh’s actions did ultimately serve a holy purpose- the story is in the Torah, and is part of the Teaching, but Korakh was motivated by ego. Moses was trying to do his job.
So the point is not using spiritual ideas as argument; the point is our relationship to the present moment. It is being willing to allow this moment to be what it really is anyway, and serving That. This is what it means to serve in simkha- in joy- but also in yirah- in fearsome awe; because only awe and surrender can the things we resist transform us into hearts that burn with Divine Love. May we merit truly spiritual lives, so that the ecstasy of drinking in the tavern be channeled into cleaning the chicken coup. Shabbat Shalom!
Once, Reb Zushia commented on the saying of the sages, "the bold-faced will go to hell, and the shame-faced to paradise."
"'The bold-faced will go to hell,'" said Reb Zushia, "this means that if you are bold in holiness, you don't have to fear descending into hell. You can engage in all kinds of worldly things, and you will receive the light hidden within them. But if you're shame-faced in your holiness, you'd better stick to the paradise of prayer and meditation and stay away from the world..."
There is a taste of this idea in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'lakh L'kha, in which Moses send out spies to check out the Land and bring back a report:
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land...
Most of the spies come back and say that the land is wonderful, but that there are “giants,” and they discourage the Israelites from entering the land on account of the giants. They are being “shame-faced” in a sense, lacking courage and confidence.
There are times for withdrawing from the world and from people, in order to heal or gain perspective. But when it's time to move back into the world, it is good to be “bold-faced” with your holiness. Meaning, have confidence that there is a task you can do – that only you can do. It might be something you need to learn. It might be serving others in a particular way. Or, it might just be an opportunity to surrender on a deeper level.
To be “bold” doesn't mean you have to have confidence in yourself. The spies in the story lacked self-confidence, but the remedy would not have been to bolster their self-confidence. Rather, the remedy would be for them to have had Divine-confidence. Hashem told them not to be afraid; if they had Divine-confidence, their lack of self-confidence wouldn't have been a problem.
Similarly, if you don't have self-confidence, don't worry! You don't need it. It's often better not to have self-confidence. As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot, “Don't believe in yourself until the day you die.” (2:5)
But trust: here you are, in such-and-such situation, and this is the situation you should be in; you have some unique role to fulfill. Trust that the Divine “put” you here for a reason. Trust, trust, trust! That's liberation!
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Hashem ro’i v’lo ekhsar- the Divine is my shepherd, I shall not lack. Binot deshe yarbitzeini- in lush meadows the Divine lays me down- al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me. Nafshi yeshovev- my soul is revived.
These words from Psalm 23 reflect a common attitude about spirituality, that realization of the Divine leads to pure bliss and freedom from all suffering- from anger, fear, judgment, and so on. But if we go a little further down, it says:
Ta’arokh l’fanai shulkhan neged tzorerai- You prepare before me a table in front of my tormentors…
In front of my tormentors? I thought we were just lounging in the grass beside the tranquil waters- how did my tormentors get into the picture?
These images hint at an important distinction that will help you navigate your practice and avoid a very common pitfall. This is the distinction between the idea of getting rid of negativity all together, which is misleading, versus shifting the context within which the negativity arises, which is actually what the practice is all about.
One reason this can be confusing is because the practice of Presence willof course decrease negativity and suffering. It decreases stress, it decreases repetitive and unhelpful thinking, and definitely opens you to more joy and bliss. Al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me.And at some point, you’re likely to experience all negativity dropping away completely.
However, this does not mean that the possibility of negativity has been eliminated, and that’s where you can get into trouble. Because once you’ve had some deep success with your practice, once you’re “lying down by the tranquil waters” so to speak and the Eternal dimension of Being has become a direct and palpable experience for you, there can be a tendency to think that negativity shouldn’t bother you at all anymore; that your feelings should never get hurt, that you should never feel insulted, that nothing should make you angry and so on.
Then, when some negativity does arise, you can mistakenly conclude that you’ve somehow lost it, that the power of Presence isn’t working for you anymore, when really you’ve just been given a tremendous gift, and you just need to shift the way you’re looking at it to see the gift. Why?
Gam ki elekh b’gei tzalmavet- even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death- lo ira ra ki atah imadi- I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
The real power of Presence is not that it destroys the possibility of negativity arising. After all, we’re all in the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death. But rather the power of Presence is that it changes the context in which everything arises, including negativity. But, you can’t know this and prove it to yourself unless you have a chance to practice it, which is why the arising of negativity is a gift.
So when negativity arises, use it as an opportunity to realize that you are not trapped by the negativity- ki atah imadi- know that the Divine is with you, because the Divine is the eternal dimension of Being, and this eternal dimension is npt separate from the space of your own awareness, within which the negativity as well as everything else comes and goes. And, you can use the Three Portals of IJM to realize this in any moment. First is the Portal of the Heart. A feeling has arisen that needs to be felt, so be generous. Offer your awareness to it- l’kha.
Second is the Portal of the Body. Now that you’ve offered your Presence, sustain it by anchoring it in your body and your breathing. This keeps you with your present moment experience and calms the tendency to spin off into unhelpful thinking. Na’aseh-returning again and again to sustaining presence in your body.
Third is the Portal of Awareness itself. This is where the shift in context happens most fully. Bring to mind that whatever you’re feeling is happening within awareness, is made out of awareness, and that the awareness itself is a vast field without border or limit, while whatever particular experience you’re having is something that comes and goes- v’nishma- you are the space of perception. There’s a hint of this in the Torah story of the spies who are sent to investigate the promised land.
InParshat Shelakh Lekha,God speaks to Moses and says, “Shelakh lekha anashim v’yaturu et eretz Cana’an- send for yourself men to spy out the land of Cana’an…”
The spies go out and climb a mountain to check out the land, and they return with giant grapes, pomegranates and figs. They report back, “Yes! This land flows with milk and honey and here are some of the amazing fruits growing there. But, the inhabitants of the land are giants; they would destroy us. Van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- and so we were in their eyes.”
When a person ascends the mountain of transcendence and eats the fruit of joy and bliss that comes from such an awakening, there can sometimes be a tremendous frustration and resignation when you come down from the mountain into the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death- the place of ordinary, sometimes negative emotions such anger, fear, sadness, and so on. That’s when we need the words of Yehoshua- the words of encouragement that Joshua speaks to them: Hashem itanu- al tira’um- the Divine is with us- don’t be afraid of them!
Meaning that just because you came down from a high experience of joy and bliss into the valley of negativity, in fact nothing has changed. The spacious freedom you experienced on the mountain, so to speak, is still the open space of your own awareness within which the experience of negativity arises. You can conquer any negativity not by fighting against it directly, but by simply seeing that it comes and goes within the space of this moment, and you are that space. Hashem itanu- your very nature is Divine, meaning that you are space of this moment.
But of course, that’s not what happens in the story. Instead, the Israelites are afraid. They say, “Forget it! Let’s go back to Egypt.” Meaning, let’s go back to the ordinary and familiar way of being, before we experienced the radical freedom of awakening. Then, they change their minds out of fear of punishment, and try to go fight the enemy after all. But Moses says to them, “Lo yiyeh Hashem imakhem- God will not be with you!” They go anyway, and get pounded.
So how can this be? If your nature is the Eternal space of this moment, how can that change? Of course, it doesn’t change, it’s our awareness of this fact that changes. We get seduced by our feelings and believe them into giants. Rather than know our own vastness, “van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes” and grasshoppers don’t want to get smooshed, so we try and fight our feelings, try to push them away, or deny them, and that just creates inner conflict so that- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- so we were grasshoppers in their eyes- meaning, the very thing that we’re fighting gets bigger and bigger because negativity is empowered by more negativity.
On the other hand, if you know Hashem itanu- the Divine is literally your own nature- then al tira’um- there’s never anything to be afraid of in your experience. You’re on top of the world? No big deal it’s a passing experience. You’re in the depths of hell? No problem, it will pass. Rather than get caught up in your experience which is always changing, realize the space within which your experience is arising. You can do that through the practice of Presence in general, and through daily meditation in particular.
Then you’ll know the truth of the words of Yehoshua- “Al tir’u et ha’am ha’aretz- don’t be afraid of the people of the land,” meaning, don’t be afraid of any particular experiences that arise, “Ki lakhmeinu hem- for they are our bread,” meaning, when you stand courageously in the midst of difficult experiences, they become food for your awakening, deepening your grounded-ness in the reality of Presence. Then you’ll know directly, Hashem itanu- the Divine is with us- al tira’um”- there’s nothing to be afraid of.
(So on this Shabbat Shelakh,the Sabbath of Sending, let us send forth our full attentiveness with courage and confidence into the depths of whatever arises in our experience, thereby eating the feast of whatever avodah- whatever practice is put before us. And through this, may the consciousness of our species continue to evolve and bring us speedily to a time of freedom from the horrors of ego and violence that continue to plague our species. Kein y’hi ratzon, so may it be, Good Shabbos.)
So see if you can really take this in, that you need not be afraid of any particular experience. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should go and do things that are unsafe or that create negative experiences, there’s no reason for that either, but once a negative experience has already arisen, you can use it to deepen your awaken-ness- to know, as the psalm says, “Shavti b’veit Hashem- I dwell in the house of the Divine” meaning, you are constantly dwelling in and as the space of this moment- “l’orekh yamim- for long days”- meaning, for the borderless and timeless Present. Let’s sing.
Beyond and Back- Parshat Shelakh
In the seventies, when I was in second or third grade, there was a movie I loved called “Beyond and Back.”
“Beyond and Back” was about the near death experiences of several different people. As their stories were told, almost all of them described hovering above their dead bodies and grieving loved ones, rushing through a tunnel of light, feeling immense love and oneness, then having the sense that it “wasn’t yet their time” and returning back to their bodies.
I loved this movie, of course, because the people claimed to have direct experience of something that most consider to be an impenetrable mystery- the mystery of death. Death is the one journey all of us will take, or so it seems, and so to find information on what happens when you die can be tremendously reassuring to those who “don’t like surprises” (as both of my children tell me they don’t).
As I got older, I had a similar experience with regard to spirituality- I was much more attracted to those who seemed to have direct experience of enlightenment than those who merely quoted scriptures. In a sense, authentic spiritual teachers are like those who have died and come back to tell about it. Only with enlightenment, it’s not about physical death, but a totally different kind of death.
In this week’s reading, God tells Moses,
“Shelakh l’kha anashim vayaturu et Eretz Canaan-”
“Send for yourself people to spy out the land of Canaan…”
Canaan is the “Promised Land." It is the aim of the liberation from Egypt (Mitzrayim- the place of constriction- tzarim- narrows) and the ultimate home of b’nei Yisrael- those who see through “straight to God” (Yishar- straight- El- God).
In other words, the Land is a metaphor, pointing to the aim of spiritual liberation. What is that aim? It is described as flowing with halav ud’vash- with milk and honey.
What is milk? Milk is pure nourishment. What is honey? Honey is sweetness.
There’s a sweetness and nourishment that flows from Reality, but to receive it there has to be a relaxing of all contraction (mitzrayim) and an openness to simply Being with this moment as it is.
But most of those spies came back with bad reports, telling of insurmountable “giants in the land.”
You too might be skeptical about Liberation, and there might be fear. That’s because you know on some level that if you truly open to Reality as it is, there will be pain- Reality is sometimes painful. With resistance, at least you can hold back some of that pain. That’s the advice of the “spies” who reported back about the “giants” in the land.
“We are like grasshoppers in their eyes…”
You might think- “I’m not a super human. I’m just human. How can I possibly accept everything? How can I surrender? How can I become present?”
In that fear, there’s the tendency to turn spiritual awakening into just an idea, into something to talk about, but not something you can really be. When that happens, the spies with the bad reports have won. Like the Israelites who were condemned to wander another forty years in the desert, the intellectualizing of spiritual awakening keeps the searching and wandering going on and on, and puts off the Arriving for another time.
But you don’t have to be superhuman; you don’t have to be anything in particular, because openness is not a special thing; it is Nothing. It is just a willingness to allow everything to be as it is.
It is told about Rabbi Leib, one of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, that when he heard rabbis expound on the Torah, he would remark-
“What does all this intellectual expounding amount to? A person should totally be a Torah, so that you can learn from their smallest movements as well as their motionless cleaving to the Oneness. They must become empty and spacious like heaven itself, of which it is said-
“Ayn omer v’ayn devarim- There is no speech and there are no words…”
This is the spaciousness of Presence- the “heaven” that is born within when resistance dies, but you do not.
On this Shabbat Shelakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we open to the energy of liberation that is being sent our way, constantly, always in this moment. And when we do, may any pain that Reality throws our way be brief, and may we drink deeply from the milk and honey of Being.
Once, when Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was traveling, he stopped to spend the night in the town of Lwow. He knocked on the door of a very wealthy man and asked for lodging.
“I have no use for vagrants like you! Why don’t you stay at the inn?” said the man.
“I am not able to afford the inn,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak. “Please, I won’t be any trouble, let me stay in one of your rooms just for the night.”
“Well then, if you can’t afford the inn,” said the miserly rich man, “go around the corner to the schoolteacher. He likes to take in vagrants, and he will offer you a room, food and drink.”
So, Reb Levi Yitzhak went around the corner to the schoolteacher and was offered lodging. But on his way there, someone in the town recognized him, and began to spread the word that the great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was at the schoolteacher’s house. Before long, there were throngs of people crowding the house, trying to get a blessing from the master.
Among the crowd was the miserly rich man, who pushed his way to the front. “Master! Master! Forgive me! I didn’t know who you were! Please come and stay with me. All the great rabbis who come through town stay with me!”
“Do you know,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak, “why such a fuss is made over Avraham and Sarah for their hospitality when they opened their home to the visiting angels and gave them food and drink? Didn’t Lot also invite them in and give them food?
“But in the Torah’s description about Lot, it says, ‘vayovo’u shnei hamalakhim s’domah – two angels came to Sodom,”but with Avraham it says, ‘shloshah anashim nitzavim alav – three men were standing over him.’Lot saw majestic angels, whereas Avraham saw only dusty wayfarers…”
It is easy to see the value of helping others out of love, without ulterior motive. But the “dusty wayfarers” are not just people in need; they can be any undesirable experiences that come to us. When was the last time you were annoyed with something or someone? Were you able to open yourself fully? Did you give your attention generously to the situation or were you like the miserly fellow: “don’t bother me!”
Every experience is an opportunity to remember: “this, now, is the Divine, appearing to me in this form. This, now, is the moment to live my destiny, to step up to the task the Divine is now giving.”
But to do that, you have to be aware not only of what is happening around you, but of what is happening within you. This week’s reading describes the lighting of the menorah:
בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps shine.
How can the lamps shine their light “toward the face of the menorah?”
Light is awareness; the menorah is your own body. Ordinarily, our “light” tends to shine mostly “outward,” so that there’s a sense of “me” in the body, looking out. But shine your “light” back into your body, and you will be able to sense your own impulses, your own feelings. And as you sense them, you also transcend them; you are not your thoughts and feelings alone. You are the light.You are here now to be a light in the world, to be a beacon of hospitality toward everything that appears to you.
To realize your own being as the "Light" of awareness, try inquiring: "Who is seeing?'
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"Shine!" Seven Affirmations for Liberation – Parshat Beha'alotkha
Psalm 91 talks about a person yosheiv b’seiter Elyon- who sits in the refuge of the Most High. Such a person, it says, is protected from all danger. Rak b’einekha tabit- all they have to do is peer with their eyes- v’shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- and the retribution of the wicked they will see.
So it sounds like it’s saying that when you take refuge in the Divine, then you’ll see anyone who does you harm be punished. But the words for retribution of the wicked, v’shilumat r’shayim, imply something much deeper. The root of retribution is shin-lamed-mem- the same as shalom- peace, as well as shalem- wholeness. In other words, it’s not talking about punishing your tormentors, but coming into harmony with them.
And how do you do that? Rak b’einekha tabit- only peer with your eyes. In other words, when you only “see,” meaning when you stick to just being aware of the r’shayim- meaning the things that disturb you- rather than reacting, rather than judging, rather than trying to push or pull anything in any direction, then shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- the “seeing” meaning the perceiving itself creates a sense of shalem- a sense of wholeness and peace. This is because the more you simply perceive, the more you can sense yourself as the perceiving, rather than the reacting and the judging. And that perceiving, that deeper awareness, is always already at peace, always already whole, because perception is nothing but an open space, simply knowing and connecting with the experience of this moment.
So how to you cultivate this kind of simple awareness? There’s a wonderful hint in this week’s Torah reading.
In Parshat Beha’alotkha, it says, beha’alotkha et haneirot- when you kindle the flames- el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shiv’at haneirot- toward the face of the menorah the seven fires shall cast their light.
Now when the Kohanim would kindle the flames of the menorah, most likely they didn’t create the fire by rubbing sticks together. Rather, they had some fire already from which they would light the lamps, so that the act of lighting would be almost effortless. Once you have some flame, it’s not difficult to ignite another flame.
Similarly, if you want to become present, it’s almost effortless because your awareness that connects with the simple reality of this moment is already here. All you need is the intention of becoming present, and miraculously it happens almost by itself. Beha’alotkha et haneirot- to light the fire of awareness- just ask yourself, what is present? And then you can notice- are there sounds that you’re perceiving? Are there sensations? Are there feelings? Emotions? Thoughts? It’s very simple because with Presence, you’re not doing anything about anything, you’re just staying in the noticing.
And when you do that, there’s this wonderful paradox. On one hand, this temple of your own body comes into the foreground. Your own breathing, ordinarily taken for granted, becomes the central event. Your body is like the menorah- just as the menorah supports the fire, so your body is the basis for your consciousness, and when you become present, the lamps of awareness are all facing into your body.
On the other hand, just as the light that shines on the menorah isn’t confined to the menorah but shines without limit or border, so too your awareness isn’t confined to your body at all, but rather is an open field, vast, spacious and without border or limit. So as you notice what is present right now, see if you can also notice the vastness that notices, the light of awareness el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru- shining on the menorah of your body, and also beyond.
And yet simple as Presence is, the forces that pull us away from Presence can be very powerful. Thankfully, we have not one but seven lamps- shiv’at haneirot- to help us. These are, of course, the seven sefirot of the Kabbalah, which correspond to the seven weeks of the Omer period that just ended with Shavuot- Hesed- Loving-kindness, Gevurah- Strength, Tiferet- Beauty or Harmony, Netzakh- Persistence, Hod- Gratitude and Humility, Yesod- Foundation and Malkhut- Kingdom.
CHANT AND MEDITATION
We can use each of these sefirot as kavanot, or affirmations of Presence, and when you do all of them together in sequence, their effect together is very very deep. Let’s try it now:
Bringing your right hand to your heart for Hesed- Loving-Kindness, and please repeat after me:
“I offer my awareness”
Now left hand on your belly for Gevurah- Strength- and say,
“to the temple of this body”
Now touch your right hand to your forehead for Tiferet, Harmony, and say,
“arising in the open space of awareness”
And bringing right hand palm up to your right thigh for Netzakh, Persistence, and say,
“Returning again and again to Presence”
Now bring your left hand, palm up, to your left thigh for Hod, Gratitude, and say,
“Giving thanks for this constant opportunity to Return”
And bring your palms together over your heart for Yesod, the Foundation of living Presence, and say,
“Expressing this Presence in loving words and actions”
And finally opening your hands, palms up, for Malkhut- the Kingdom of Reality, and say,
“Trusting the way everything is unfolding.”
Amein. And chanting from the parshah, ya’iru- which means, they shine, referring to the seven sefirot. So as we chant ya’iru, perceptualizing the seven lights shining in your body.
And coming to silence, chanting Ya’iru___ silently in your mind for about seven minutes. When your mind wanders, you simply return to the chant- "Ya’iru" letting it vibrate in your mind...
Chopped- Parshat Beha'alotkha
During my son’s tenth year, he started getting really into gourmet cooking. He was inspired mostly by the competitive cooking show, “Chopped.”
On Chopped, four contestants would cook under pressure, limited by time and strange ingredients. The challenge was to come up with something delicious and original under the constraints they were given.
I’ve watched Chopped many times with him. One thing I’ve found interesting is that in the interview clips with the contestants, they would all boast about how great they were and how they would beat everyone.
As the show unfolds, three courses are prepared- an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. After each course, the contestants are critiqued and one is “chopped” by the judges, until one winner is left at the end.
As each contestant loses, we see some post-losing interview clips. Almost invariably, the contestants express a little sadness for losing. But then they express gratitude for having been given the opportunity to compete, and say they look forward to improving their skills and continuing to serve people with their cooking.
It seems to me that the contestants must be coached by the producers on what to say in the interviews, because it just doesn’t make sense- people who boast generally don’t turn around and express gratitude and humility when they lose, and people who are humble generally don’t boast about how great they are. It's as if when they are "chopped," their egos get chopped as well!
On the other hand, tremendous self-confidence can paradoxically live side-by-side with tremendous humility and gratitude.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses-
“V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od-
“And the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble?
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel, delivering laws from God and leading them in numerous victorious battles with their enemies. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t have to mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you.”
In fact, there is no separate “you” at all, there is just Reality in all Its different forms. That's why Moses was humble- he was great, but he wasn’t concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and empowering at the same time.
Which brings us to a second paradox:
In order to keep your attention on the greatness of Reality, rather than on your own self-image in relation to others, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your own body. Your fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens:
“Beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot-
“When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness, the menorah is your body.
Keep the “light” of your awareness rooted in your body, and you become present. Become present, and the vastness of Eternity is open to you- not as some heaven or afterlife to be earned and enjoyed later, but as the living experience of this moment- free and open to all.
And yet, this gift is not completely free. To receive it, you have to “chop” the idea that it must be earned, by you or anyone else. Otherwise you will judge yourself and others, and in that judgment, the present moment is lost.
Instead, let the truth of this moment be as it is. Let the truth of your own talents and flaws be as it is. Let others be as they are. That’s humility- and greatness- honoring the truth without judgment, being present to Reality.
Then, the separate ego-self that demands and judges naturally gets “chopped,” and the vastness of heaven is available.
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to say that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come. He explained that when he dies and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come on in! We can see that you honor the truth, and for that you are ready for all the rewards of heaven!”
On this Shabbat Beha’alotkha, the Sabbath of Light, may the light of awareness shine in our bodies with great depth and presence, opening the vastness of heaven that's ever available. May we serve the Greatness in whatever way it calls to us, and may that service bring benefit to all.
Can't You Do Anything Right? Parshat Baha'alotkha
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to express his immense gratitude that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come.
He explained that when he leaves his body and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the Mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come right on in! We can see you are telling the truth, and for that you deserve all the rewards of the World to Come!”
The “World to Come” is actually free, and it is not even in the future, but is present now- thank God! The wholeness of your innermost being cannot get anymore whole than it already is!
But, it is easy to get blocked from feeling and knowing this truth for yourself, simply by craving validation and defending yourself. Reb Elimelekh was considered to be a tzaddik, a spiritual master, yet he had no need to claim anything. He admits- “I could have done better.” He is not defending himself to the heavenly court, and therefore he is open to receive the spiritual gift that is ever-flowing.
Why does defensiveness cut you off from your inherent bliss?
Because defensiveness actually creates your “self” as something separate, as something incomplete. That’s the paradox- if you claim to be somehow superior, valid, righteous or whatever, you create a sense of self that is inherently inferior, invalid, incomplete and separate.
But if you admit- “I could have done better… and whatever good I’ve done is by the grace of God”- then you relax the tense contraction of self concern, and return to the Wholeness that you already are, but that you can’t claim or own.
Then, simply to be is a tremendous gift, not a burden. In fact, it’s the need to defend yourself that’s the burden! Let go of that, and gratitude naturally follows.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- and the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble??
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you”; in fact there is no separate “you” at all, there is just the Mystery of Being in all Its different forms. That's just what Moses did- he was not concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
What Greatness is calling to you?
At this moment, what are you being asked to step up to and serve?
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and liberating.
Which brings us to a second paradox: In order to keep your attention on Being, rather than on your identity, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your body. That’s right- your own fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens: “…beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot- when you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness. The menorah is your body, with its seven centers of consciousness and seven basic “middot”- spiritual qualities that express your inner Divinity, beyond ego.
Of these qualities, “humility” and “gratitude” are often coupled together as the fifth middah (if you are counting from the top down, or the third of you count from the bottom up).
On this Shabbos Beha’a lotkha, I bless you that you should ignite the fire of your awareness to greater depth and presence in your body, that you more deeply taste the freedom and bliss of your inner Divinity, and that you recommit to serve the Greatness in whatever way you are being called to serve.
Be good to one another, Good Shabbos!
Reb Pinkhas taught that r'shsayim, "wicked" people, are just as precious as righteous people. The rightous are like the palace of a prince, but the wicked are like little cottages in the country that the prince visits while traveling. Those little cottages accomplish what the palace cannot, as they give the prince a place to stay far from the palace home.
Similarly, when someone who is usually far from holiness, posessed by desires and negativity, turns from ego to the Divine, that person accomplishes something the righteous cannot: transformation.
Divine Light is like the sun; if you open the door a crack, it just flows in without judgment. It doesn't care if you deserve it or not! All that is necessary is opening the heart. But if you're embroiled in ego, you might need an ice pick to break open the heart. The ice pick is teshuvah, prayers of admitting that you made a mistake, prayers asking for forgiveness....
Why Did I Wake Up Lonely? Parshat Nasso
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One night we were woken up around 1:00 AM when our two-year old daughter wandered into our bedroom and cried, “Why did I wake up lonely?”
I think she meant to ask why she woke up alone, not lonely. But, I realized, this can be a concern for many people on the Path- “If I wake up spiritually, will I be lonely?”
Put another way- “If I awaken to a new level of consciousness, will I still be able to relate to people? Will I feel all alone if I let go of all the games and dramas that I am used to playing out with people?”
It’s true, there is an aspect of waking up that requires aloneness, but not necessarily loneliness.
On the inner level, there has to be a willingness to let go of your addiction to thinking. As long as the mind is constantly generating a stream of thought, the world will appear as a projection of your thought. Let go of your stream of thinking, and you open to the Divine Presence that is your own awareness, seeing Its own glory and unity in everything.
This happens when your consciousness fully stands alone, not seduced by the compulsive narratives of the mind.
This week’s reading, Parshat Nasso, is the finale for describing the construction of the Mishkan- the sanctuary of the Divine Presence. In preparation for the Mishkan becoming activated, the Israelites are told to expel anyone who is a tzaru’a, a zav, or who is tamei lanafesh.
All three of these terms have to do with bodily things that many people would consider to be kind of gross. Metaphorically, they are related to ways that our thoughts, speech and actions can keep us unconscious and in “exile” from the Presence.
“Tzaru’a” means someone with a particular skin affliction, and is associated with the sin of lashon hara- gossip and slander. Since the skin is the boundary of a person but also the place of intimate connection with others, this mythic disease is an expression of relationships getting tarnished through destructive speech.
“Zav” means some kind of bodily emission and is associated with sexuality. Metaphorically, the outward emission represents the way thoughts of sexuality can be a kind of “reaching” or “grasping” for gratification, a loss of vital energy and presence.
These two represent the polarity of unconsciousness-
“Tzaru’a” is negativity, and “Zav” is wanting, grasping, neediness. Both of these lead to an absence of Presence in the body, which brings us to the third one: “Tamei Lanefesh” means spiritually contaminated by a corpse.
To the degree that you become seduced by the energies of “I hate” and “I want,” your body is temporarily dead to the Presence that is not separate from your own Being. In order for your body to become a sanctuary again, these forces and the thoughts they produce must be “expelled from the camp” in a sense.
You must stand alone from them- let go of your resistance, and you will come to know your inner Wholeness. Once you know your inner Wholeness, you can let go of your wanting as well. It's enough to be with what is.
Rabbi David Novaodok would say-
“Why is it that people don’t have what they want? It’s because they don’t want what they have. If they wanted only what they have, they would have what they want!”
On this Shabbat Nasso, the Sabbath of Carrying, may we constantly carry with us the knowledge of letting go, so that we cease to carry the burdens of resistance and wanting. And in so doing, may the Presence that we are reveal Itself ever more deeply, making our bodies into temples of the Presence.
Once, Rabbi Shmelke and his brother came to their teacher, the Maggid of Metzritch, with a problem: "Our sages say that we should give praise and thanks to Hashem for all the misfortunes that befall us, as well as for the blessings. How can we understand this?"
"Go ask Reb Zushia," replied the Maggid, "he sits in the Beit Midrash, smoking his pipe."
They went and found Reb Zushia and put the question to him. Reb Zushia just laughed. "Ha! Surely you've come to the wrong man, for I have never experienced misfortune!"
"How can you say that?" replied Reb Shmelke, "for you have been impoverished for most of your life!"
"Let me tell you a story," said Reb Zushia. "Once there was a king who wished to test his subjects, so he arranged a massive festival in an outdoor park. He had hundreds of precious objects from the palace brought out on display, and sent this message throughout the kingdom: "Let everyone come and pick one object from among my treasures to take for themselves."
People came from all over and wandered through the park, picking and choosing the treasures they wanted. Among them was an old beggar woman who made her way to the king and asked, "Your Highness, is it true I can choose anything in this park to take for my own?"
"Yes!" replied the king, "anything you want."
"Then," replied the old woman, "I choose you!"
"Ha, you have chosen wisely!" said the king. "You get me, and my whole kingdom!"
The amazing news is, you're in that park right now. Ordinarily, we tend to focus on the different treasures – the fruits of our efforts that we desire. But just one small shift, and you have the whole kingdom, instantly.
What is that shift?
Dedicate your actions to the Divine. Dedicate your words to the Divine. Dedicate your thoughts to the Divine. Don't worry about the fruits; just do your best in service and love, and let the Divine give you what It gives you. Shift your motivation from the separate things and goals, to the One Thing, the One Goal. The One is always instantly available, but you have to shift into that frame; you have to elevate the way you think.
This week's reading begins with the instruction to take a census of the Israelites:
...שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
S'u et rosh kol ada'at b'nei Yisrael – Lift the heads of the children of Israel...
"Lift the heads" is an idiom that means to take a "head count" – that's the census.
Yisrael means, SARita im ELohim – Strive for the Divine (Gen. 32.29).
So, if you want to reach the Divine, you must "lift your head". You must elevate the way that you think. All your goals, responsibilities, tasks, your whole life situation – know that it's all a path to the Divine, if you but keep the Divine in mind, and dedicate everything to the Divine.
Pirkei Avot, 1:3, says:
אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס
Don't be like the servant who serves the master to receive a reward, be like the servant who serves the master not to receive a reward...
In other words, shift your motivation to serve the One, and let go of separate, particular goals. This doesn't necessarily mean changing anything you're doing; it means changing your motivation, changing your frame.
וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם
and let the awe of heaven be upon you.
"Heaven" means the space of your own awareness, within which your experience arises. Your awareness is the gateway to Heaven – it is always whole, complete, at peace. So when you declutter yourself from all separate aims, and instead aim at the One Thing that is ever-available, you can know yourself as the space of this moment, and Heaven can come together with Earth...
This Saturday night is Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation. May we all receive a new insight for bringing Heaven down to Earth, a new revelation on our paths...
More on Bamidbar...
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The Garbage Truck- Parshat Bamidbar
One morning, as I lay in bed around 6:30 am, I heard a rumbling sound from deep within whatever dream I was having.
“That sound… it means something… something important… what is that sound?”
The garbage truck!
I had forgotten to put the garbage out the night before, and the can was pretty full. I leapt out of bed, slid into some pants, darted downstairs and out the front door.
I looked and saw- the garbage truck had already passed my house and was halfway down the street! I grabbed the can and ran after him, rolling it behind me.
When I caught up, I started to politely ask him if he would take it, but before even one word came from my lips he grabbed it from me violently, almost knocking me over and barked something like “GIMMEE IT!” …I think.
Wow- he had certainly drunk his coffee already. Maybe a little too much. But I was grateful that he took it at all!
So, what would make you get up in the morning so fast?
The codes of Jewish law are somewhat paradoxical about getting up in the morning. On one hand, they say that you should leap out of bed to “do the Will of the Creator”- no laziness! Not a moment should be wasted- there is much to do! Get up with the “strength of a lion” and jump into the day.
On the other hand, before you get up, you should take a moment to receive the gift of your life, chanting- “Modeh ani lifanekha- I give thanks before you…”
Then should you leap into your day?
No, you should ritually wash your hands, with the kavanah (intention) to purify your heart so that you can serve with love in all your actions.
Okay now should get on with it, right?
No. First there are many blessings to be chanted, many prayers to pray. And even before all of that, they say you should take some moments in silence to tap your inner depths in preparation.
So which is it?
Should you leap out of bed and get to work, or take your time to connect with your inner depths?
But that’s the point- it's both.
If you spend all your time in meditation, the bliss of Being reveals Itself within your own awareness, but the world remains untouched. On the other hand, if your life is focused solely on the external, then you become lost in its dramas, disconnected from you inner Source, and the world suffers for it.
But connect with the Eternal in order to bring it into the temporal- that’s the alchemy!
This week’s reading hints at this spiritual rhythm. It begins with Hashem instructing Moses to take a census of all the soldiers who are ready for battle-
“Vay’daber Hashem el Moshe b’midbar Sinai-
“Hashem spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness…
“Se’u et rosh kol adat-
“Take a census of the entire assembly…”
Counting the soldiers is a metaphor for our external lives. Each day we should arouse ourselves like soldiers to do battle with our inner inertia and make every moment “count”.
But then a few verses later, it gives the other half of the equation:
“Akh et hamateh Levi lo tifkod-
“But the tribe of Levi your shall not count…”
The Levites weren’t soldiers, they were priests and musicians- caretakers of the Mishkan- the Sacred Space at the center of the camp. The soldiers went out to conquer the many, but the Levites connected to the One. And in the One, there’s nothing to count! There is only One!
The trick is for these two sides- the internal and the external- the many and the One- to be in balance. Ideally, you express your inward sacredness through the external wilderness of life. But this takes practice- it’s no small thing staying connected to the holiness of this moment while running after the garbage truck!
But fortunately, no matter how lost in the external we become, the present moment has not gone anywhere. It’s always here, open to our return, to our t’shuvah.
There’s a story of the Chofetz Chayim, that he once had a student who was sunk in crushingly oppressive poverty. The student would often implore his master to pray on his behalf, and promised that if his prayers were answered and he were to become wealthy, he would give abundant tzeddaka- abundant charity to those in need. The Chofetz Chayim would just listen compassionately and nod.
Years later, after the student had moved away to the city, he had indeed become exceedingly wealthy. The Chofetz Chayim went to visit him and asked-
“So, how are things?”
“Very well thank God,” said the former student, “I’ve been blessed with many riches.”
“And how has your tzeddaka been going?”
The rich former student turned red, embarrassed that he had forgotten his promise. In fact, as his riches grew more and more, his stinginess had grown as well.
“You know,” said the Chofetz Chayim, “The more successful you are in your external battles, the stronger your yetzer hara- your lust for the external- also becomes.”
In that moment, his delusion was broken, and he returned fully to the inner path that his heart had abandoned. He dedicated his wealth to service and became a fountain of relief for many who suffered in poverty.
On this Shabbat Bamidbar, the Sabbath of the Wilderness, may we reconnect with this holy intention: to neither become lost in the drama and grasping of the external wilderness, nor abandon this world that is so in need of healing. Rather, let us connect frequently and deeply with the truth of this moment, bringing its love and wisdom into the story of our lives as it unfolds in time- for this brief time we inhabit these bodies, on this earth.
Guard and Remember- Parshat Bamidbar
A question I often hear goes like this:
“When I am meditating or chanting, I feel so deeply connected and I have no problem being my highest self. But, when stressful things in life push my buttons, all of that is out the window.
"How do I maintain my spiritual connection in those moments?”
This is a question that often comes up after you have had some success with your practice. Before that success, sure, you will still have been looking for a spiritual connection, realization, experience or whatever.
But then, at the very moment when you think you've discovered and connected with what you've been searching for. . . Oy! . . . The problem is even deeper:
How do I keep the connection?
The simple answer, of course, is practice. You have to practice keeping that connection in different life situations. Only then will you get better and better at it.
But I bet that answer doesn't feel so helpful to hear, right? After all, you know that when you find yourself in a stressful or triggering situation, two things sneak up and derail you:
1) You don’t care anymore about your spiritual connection, because you are triggered! You go into in a fight-or-flight mode. You just want to get out of there or lash out.
2) Even if you do care to practice in such a moment, you probably can’t remember to practice because you are triggered! Your emotions have taken over and blocked your memory of what's most essential, and how to get back to it!
I guess you can see why, if you are going to actually be able to practice in those triggering situations, you'll first need a foolproof strategy for working through the two problems above.
And . . . Here is exactly that!
First of all, you need to remember to practice (zakhor), and second of all, you need to be motivated to practice (shamor).
There are many ways to approach this, but let’s explore one.
First, how do you remember?
A great way to remember is to use what I call the “Fringe Technique”. You may know the traditional practice to wear fringes, called tzitizt, on a four-cornered garment, or tallit.
The purpose of the tzitzit is exactly what we are talking about- they are a physical reminder on your body to dedicate your actions to the Divine and to avoid getting caught in distractions that take you away from that intention.
Another purpose of the tzitzit is to remind you to do the mitzvot, the particular spiritual practices of Judaism, throughout your day.
This brings us to the second problem- how do you remain motivated?
Let’s take a particular mitzvah and see how this can work:
There is a daily mitzvah to chant the words, “Ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha… You shall love Existence, your inner Divinity, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”
These words are an expression of commitment. For the sake of clarity, let’s rephrase it to express this commitment more explicitly. You might say, “I commit to serving the Divine in everything I do.”
If you say this commitment every day (or use the traditional words, but understand them and mean them as a commitment), then you are adding tremendous power to your intention to practice in difficult moments.
Because even when you don’t care about spirituality in a moment of being triggered, you have made a commitment and you can rely on that commitment. You don’t have to care; you just have to honor your commitment. The actual saying out loud of a commitment will give tremendous power to your intention, even in the most difficult moments.
But now you still have to remember your commitment. That’s where the “fringe” comes in. You need to have some kind of reminder that works for you all day long, so that your chances of remembering in those difficult moments are increased thousand-fold.
Your reminder could actually be tzitzit. Of course, just wearing tzitzit is not enough; you have to train yourself to be reminded of your intention by them. For example, make it a practice to say your commitment over and over again, every time you look down and see them.
But, any reminder will work, as long as you empower it as a reminder. For example, you could set your smart phone to give you reminders throughout the day. Or, you could wear something else like a piece of jewelry to remind you.
Whatever you use, the key is to verbally say your intention out loud every day, and then have something to remind you throughout the day. Using this “Fringe Technique” is so powerful, you can transform your entire life in any direction you choose, simply by programming yourself with the intentions you choose.
This week’s reading begins, “Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe b’midbar Sinai- Hashem spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness… se’u et rosh kol adat- take a census of the entire assembly… according to their head count…”
Moses is instructed to count the Israelites who are ready to out go to battle.
The wilderness, the midbar, is the arena in which we live. Like the wild of nature, life itself is not totally predictable. It throws us curve balls. We need to be like soldiers if we are to make each moment count by bringing our spiritual commitments to every situation.
But later it says, “V’hal’viyim lo hotpakdu- the Levites were not counted…”
The Levites weren’t soldiers. They were in charge of the sanctuary- the sacred space at the center of the camp where the Divine rested. They represent the people’s connection to the One. In the One, there is nothing to count! There is only One!
And this is the paradox-
To bring liberating intention to each moment, you need strategies that work in time. You need to be like a soldier. But, the Reality you safeguard through those strategies is Itself beyond time. It is the space of Presence that does not change; it is Being Itself- it is not born and does not die. When you stay connected to That, the storms of life cannot shake you. You sit within the eye of the hurricane, the holy of holies.
May we bring forth our potential for unity and love through the power of our commitment to this moment, and may the world swiftly be transformed by it-
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Ascend- Parshat Behar- On the Mountain
"When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine..."
The Torah reading Parshat Behar opens by talking about Shabbat not as a day of rest for people, but as a rest for the land. It says:
Ki tavo’u el ha’aretz asher ani notein lakhem, v’shavta ha’aretz Shabbat laShem- When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine.
It then goes on to explain what it means for the land to rest:
"Sheish shanim tizra sadekha v’sheish shanim tizmor karmekha v’asafta t’vuatah-
"Six years your will plant your field, prune your vineyard and gather in your produce.
"Uvashana hashvi’it Shabbat shabbaton yiyeh la’aretz-
But the seventh year should be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land… don’t plant your field or prune your vineyard..."
Now the Torah doesn’t talk much about vegetables. When it refers to planting fields, it’s mostly talking about grain, and from the grain is made the ancient staple, bread. Pruning vineyards is a reference of course to grapes that are made into wine. Now wine and bread are not only basic foods, they’re also sacramental foods- forming the ritual part of sacred meals on Shabbat and festivals. In fact, the first mention of this is in Bereishit 14:18 when Makitzedek, the priest-king of Shalem, blesses Avraham and brings him bread and wine.
I heard once from a friend a special teaching that he heard from Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory. He pointed out that wine is something that gets better and better with age. You pay more for wine depending on how old it is. Bread, on the other hand, has to be fresh. No one wants a fifty year-old loaf of bread.
Similarly, there’s an aspect of the spiritual path that’s ancient and an aspect that’s fresh and new. For example, the Torah, and really the whole Jewish tradition, is ancient and there’s a special richness in that. And even though there are plenty of passages in the Torah that may seem wrong and even disturbing, that’s offset in a sense by the richness of being connected to a lineage that’s many thousands of years old. And yet, that richness doesn’t really come to life unless it’s combined with fresh, new insights and interpretations. No one wants to hear the same old canonized interpretations over and over again. For the tradition to really live, it also has to be like bread- we need khidushim-new insights.
On a deeper level, the very practice of Presence also contains these two aspects. On one hand, there is nothing more ancient than the present moment. There’s nothing that’s ever existed that didn’t exist in the space of its own present. That’s why one of the names of God is Atik Yomin- the Ancient of Days. And when you become fully present to the ancient space of this moment, there’s an intoxication, as you drink in the wine of the Being.
At the same time, in becoming present to That which is most ancient, there’s also a spontaneous letting go of mental and emotional baggage from the past so that everything in your experience becomes alive and new like a freshly baked challah.
So on this Shabbat B’Har and B’khukotai- the Sabbath of the Mountain and the Decree- may continue to ascend the mountain of transcendence and freedom through both the wine of tradition and the bread of immediacy, bringing that transcendence into the flow of actual life, doing our part to fulfill the decree of tikum olam- transforming this world into a celebration of creation and an expression of love.
The Lonely Drive- Parshat Behar
If you could choose exactly how much time to waste every day, how much would it be? Would you waste two hours per day? One hour per day? Or would you be conservative- maybe only waste twenty minutes? Five minutes?
And furthermore, what does it mean to “waste time” anyway?
Is watching a movie wasting time? What about sitting around enjoying a cup of tea? Taking a walk for no particular reason?
Or, is “wasting time” about doing something that creates the exact opposite of what you want?
If enjoyment is what you want, maybe watching a movie is a good use of time, as long as it’s not in excess. If peace is what you want, maybe sipping tea and taking walks are a great way to spend time.
And, if you want to be miserable, maybe complaining and judging and gossiping and putting yourself and others down are just what the doctor ordered.
But who wants to be miserable?
And yet, many spend time complaining and judging and gossiping and putting self and others down. When was the last time you did one of those things?
There’s really only one reason you would do something that creates the opposite result of what you want, and that’s not being conscious of what you are doing. Consciousness is the key.
You want health, but an impulse arises to eat that unhealthy food. The impulse is bothering you, and you unconsciously assume that fulfilling the impulse will make you feel better and bring you peace. The problem is, fulfilling the impulse only gives you a temporary experience of relief, and you still haven’t come closer to the real peace you are seeking... plus you are working against your health.
The real peace you seek can only come from getting to know who you are beneath all the impulses. It comes from knowing that underneath all your restless energies, there is an awareness that knows the restlessness.
That awareness is peace. Shift your home from the restlessness to that awareness, and peace is yours, because you rise above all the stories about how you need this or that to have peace. But to do that, you need to be willing to let go of the company of your own thoughts, and be truly alone.
This week’s reading begins-
“Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe b’har Sinai-
"Hashem spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai…”
After driving my son to school in the morning, I used to return home along Skyline up in the Oakland hills, from which I can catch a glimpse of the entire East Bay and San Francisco. Seeing these cities from above is an entirely different experience from being down in them. There is a sense of peace, of wonder, of floating above the seething urban chaos.
It’s the same spiritually. To hear the Voice of the Divine, you have to take some time to tune out the voices of the mundane- that is, the voices of your own mind. Sinai is totally within you and available, once the movement of the mind subsides. And from Sinai comes the “Voice of the Divine”- meaning, the inner wisdom of how to live- to live without wasting time.
A still mind is not a waste of time, it is the end of time.
As the end of time, it's also the fulfillment of time. Fulfillment is completely available to you, right now, to the degree that you can open to your inner Sinai.
The reading goes on to say-
“Ki tavo el ha’arets… v’shavtah ha’arets Shabbat LaShem…
"When you come into the land… the land itself shall rest a Shabbat…”
The “land” is life itself- messy, chaotic, beautiful life itself. But, when you stop wasting time, guess what- life doesn’t take so much energy! Life itself becomes a “Shabbat”- simple, clear, straightforward.
Do you want simplicity? Do you want clarity? Do you want peace? Do you want a life that is wholly Shabbat?
Make a commitment now:
“I will let go of all excess thought, moment by moment. I will refrain from creating negative narratives and stand alone in the Presence of God, without the noise of the mind.”
Can you make this commitment?
The Baal Shem Tov told:
"Once I dreamed that I traveled to Gan Eden- the Garden of Eden- and many people went with me, chattering excitedly. But the closer I came to the Garden, the more of them disappeared, and the more quiet it became.
"When I finally entered Paradise, there were only a few of them left, speaking softly, with few words. But when I stood beside the Tree of Life, I looked around- and I seemed to be alone."
On this Shabbat Behar, The Sabbath on the Mountain, may have the courage to walk the road of true aloneness- aloneness not in the sense of being without others, but in the sense of allowing the mind to stand alone, without the constant and relentless company of thought. May we be renewed in peace and clarity-
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