מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃
Who can dwell on Your holy mountain?
This verse from Psalm 16 is one form of the ultimate spiritual question: The root for “dwell” is the same as Sh’khinah – Divine Presence. The “holy mountain” hints at transcendence – like when you stand on top of a mountain and see civilization down below. Or, when you see the earth from outer space – there’s a sense of freedom from the chaos and turmoil you might sense in the middle of traffic, for example. But the paradox is that even in the midst of the chaos, there can be an experience of transcendence, of “looking down from the mountaintop,” when you learn how to “dwell” – that is, to be present with the fulness of whatever is arising in your field of experience.
But how do you do that? The psalm answers:
הוֹלֵ֣ךְ תָּ֭מִים וּפֹעֵ֥ל צֶ֑דֶק וְדֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃
One who walks with simplicity, who does what is right, and speaks Truth in one’s heart…
Holekh tamim – walks with simplicity – meaning, let your awareness rest in your movements. Rather than the ordinary way, which is to do one thing while thinking about all sorts of other things, be simple – connect with the simplicity of your movement in the present – the flow of your breathing, and whatever you happen to be doing. Then, in that deep Presence with the fullness of the moment, it’s not so difficult to see how to be fo’el tzedek – to do what is right.
Why? Because, paradoxically, there’s humility in being present. You feel elevated, like being on the mountaintop, but you surrender the idea of “knowing” things, of “being right.” That’s the simplicity – simply knowing what you really know, not what you think you know. That’s dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in your heart. It’s the opposite of judging other people, of making up stories in your head. Like Hillel says in Pirkei Avot:
וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ
Do not judge a person until you reach their place… (2:5)
There’s a story that Reb Zushia was once with his master, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, when a man came into the room and started aggressively nagging the Maggid for a blessing on his business. Now Reb Zushia had special powers, and could perceive all the past deeds of a person simply by looking at them. When he looked at this man begging for a blessing, he could see this guy had done many awful things. In an instant, Reb Zushia lost his temper and snapped at the man: “How dare you ask the great Maggid to help you with your business? You should be asking him how you can atone for the things you’ve done!”
The man turned red with embarrassment and left in a hurry. Reb Zushia suddenly realized what he had done, that he had shamed this man, and he didn’t know what to do. The Maggid placed his hands upon Reb Zushia and gave him a blessing that from that point onward, he should only see the good in other people. But, since the Maggid didn’t have the power to take away Zushia’s ability to perceive one’s past deeds, from that point onward Zushia perceived the sins of others within himself.
When we feel deeply triggered by another person’s perceived faults, it is usually because the same fault exists or used to exist within ourselves. I know that’s true with my children – oy I wish they wouldn’t do what I used to do! But that is dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in your heart. It is recognizing the Whole Truth – that what we perceive “out there” is always also “in here.” There is one Reality, unfolding now.
In Parshat Metzorah, there’s a hint on how to connect with the Whole Truth – that is, the truth of the wholeness of this moment – in the description of how a person becomes whole again (tahor) after being infected with the skin disease tzara’at: (Lev. 14:14)
וְלָקַ֣ח הַכֹּהֵן֮ מִדַּ֣ם הָאָשָׁם֒ וְנָתַן֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן עַל־תְּנ֛וּךְ אֹ֥זֶן הַמִּטַּהֵ֖ר הַיְמָנִ֑ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדוֹ֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְל֖וֹ הַיְמָנִֽית׃
The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Lev. 14:14)
The ozen (ear) represents our mental understanding of what’s going on, since it is through the ear that we hear language. Our thinking is easily taken over by ego, which unconsciously creates narratives of judgment and blame. But when we become conscious of our thoughts, we can recognize: “this is only a thought – it may or may not be true” – then we can stay free from the seductive power of ego.
The bohen (thumb) represents our actions, since the thumb is the tool for manipulating the world that’s unique to humans. Once we become free from the unconscious motivations of ego by observing our own thoughts, we can consciously choose our actions so as to embody this awareness.
The bohen of the foot, the “big toe” represents our sensory awareness, since our feet connect with the earth, “grounding” us in the world of the senses. By putting our attention into our sensory awareness – into our breathing, our sensations, sounds and sights – we can greatly reduce the seductive power of thought and emotion, and thereby stay rooted in dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in the heart...
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Something is in the House- Parshat Metzorah
4/13/2016 0 Comments
A couple sits anxiously in the therapist’s office, unsure how to begin talking about their problems at home. “Why don’t you start,” says the therapist to the woman.
“My husband is a jerk!” she blurts.
“Please’” says the therapist, “Only ‘I’ statements. Don’t tell me about him, tell me what’s going on with you. You can start by saying, ‘I feel…’”
“Okay,” says the wife, “I feel like he is a jerk!”
Differentiating between your actual feelings in the present moment and your impulse to accuse, judge, or blame, is no easy matter when your emotions are inflamed.
But making this differentiation is crucial.
There’s a world of difference between “I feel like he is a jerk,” on one hand, and “When he comes home late, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach...” on the other.
The first one is an attack- it’s accusatory. The second one is truthful… and vulnerable, exposing the actual experience of what happens when he comes home late.
And of course, if you’re feeling punched in the stomach, the last thing you want is to be vulnerable. You want to attack back, accuse, blame. But ultimately, it’s a self-defeating impulse. Your negative words create an effect, and the ripples of that effect continue on in time.
There’s a Jewish proverb of unknown origin-
“A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will never return.”
This week’s reading also involves setting a bird free.
It begins describing the ceremonial purification of a person afflicted with tzara’at- a skin disease that afflicted those who had committed negative speech.
“Zot tiyhyeh torat ham’tzora b’yom taharato-
“This is the law of the afflicted one on the day of purification…”
The ceremony uses two birds, a piece of cedar wood, a crimson thread, and some hyssop.
One bird is slaughtered into an earthenware vessel filled with “living waters.” The live bird is then held together with the cedar wood, the crimson thread and hyssop, and dipped into the bloody water. The bloody water is then sprinkled on the afflicted person seven times, and the live bird is set free into an open field.
What does this mean?
Medieval commentator Rabbeinu Ephraim explains the symbolism of this ritual in transformational terms:
The first bird represents negative speech- gossip, slander and so on. This “bird” must be “slaughtered” into an “earthenware vessel.” The vessel represents the “home” of our bodies- fragile, temporary, of the earth. By contemplating the temporary nature your bodily home, you free yourself from arrogance and allow the impulse toward negative speech to be “slaughtered.”
The “living waters” represent Truth, which fills the humble “earthen vessel,” once the arrogance is gone.
The bird that’s set free represents the disease- just as the bird flies away, so should the disease depart. But, just as the bird might return, so too can the affliction return if you allow yourself to fall back into your patterns of negative speech.
Why is it so easy to fall back into negative speech? Why is it so hard to stay present with what you’re actually experiencing, and be nourished by the “living waters” of the vulnerable truth?
Because the truth can be painful and ego crushing.
And yet, if you constantly project blame and judgment, without fully being with the truth of what you’re experiencing, healing cannot happen. You become the disease- a disease of living on the surface, holding back from your own inner depths, out of fear that your depths are too painful. That’s why tza’arat is a skin disease.
It reminds me of the times my family would return to our house after a few weeks of being away. All the windows and doors would have been shut, and there would be a kind of unpleasant smell from the stagnant air, until we opened the windows and doors and let the air flow.
That’s what it’s like- your inner world is like a shut up house, festering.
But open the doors and windows- speak the truth, and healing begins! As it says in Psalm 30:
“Shivati elekha vatirpa’eini-
“I cried out to You and you healed me…”
This is the true potential of prayer and meditation- to give yourself the space to go into your depths every day, feel whatever needs to be felt there in meditation, express what needs to be expressed in prayer, and tap the renewing and healing power of the Presence that is ever-present. The "living waters" will fill the “home” of your body and renew your spirit.
There’s a story of Reb Mordechai of Pintchov, that his poverty was so extreme, he could barely support his household at all. His wife would nag him incessantly to tell their woeful situation to his rebbe, the Seer of Lublin.
Time after time he would travel to Lublin, but never once did he mention his troubles to the rebbe, because on arriving there he would forget them completely.
Being a practical woman, his wife decided to say nothing more, but to make the journey there by a separate wagon immediately after he had left home. When Reb Mordechai arrived at Lublin, he was confronted by the fact of his wife’s presence. There was no way out- and he told the rebbe all about their state of affairs at home.
“Why did you never mention this until now?” asked the Seer.
“Rebbe,” answered the hasid, “I assumed that my situation would be known to you through Ruakh Hakodesh (Divine inspiration), through the holy spirit that rests upon you.”
“Not so,” answered the rebbe. “It’s true, the Torah says- ‘A person whose skin has the plague of tza’arat shall be brought to Aaron the priest, and the priest shall see the plague.’
“That is to say: As soon the ailing person is brought before the priest, the priest will be able to see the the malady for himself, without being told.
“But, in the case of plagues that affect houses, the Torah teaches otherwise: ‘And the house owner shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘Something like a plague seems to be in the house!’
“From this we see that for plagues affecting houses, one should come before the ‘priest’ and tellhim about it!”
On this Shabbat Metzorah- the Sabbath of Affliction- may we fully feel and truthfully express our inner afflictions- not with judgment and blame, but as prayers of healing; may we not shrink from the "bitter herbs!" And just as our ancestors tasted the bitterness of slavery before their liberation from narrowness into the Presence, so may it be for us.
רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בַפְּרוֹזְדוֹר כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לַטְּרַקְלִי
Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the waiting room so you may enter the banquet hall!
(Pirkei Avot 4:24)
One of the most basic dualities on the spiritual path is the “before” and “after” of waking up. Both the “banquet hall” and “the World to Come” are metaphors for this aim of the path: the complete “fixing” of our sense of incompleteness and arriving into wholeness. Before that, we may get glimpses of the Wholeness – the door cracks open and for a moment we can see…
Once, a disciple complained to his rebbe that when in the rebbe’s presence, Divine Reality is palpable and he has peace. But as soon as he leaves the rebbe’s presence, it all vanishes and his suffering returns.
“This is like a person who gropes about in the dark forest,” answered the rebbe, “and someone comes along with a lantern and walks with him for a while. For a time, he can see where he is going. But eventually, the guy with the lantern goes his own way, and the person is left alone again in the dark. This is why it’s so important to carry your own lantern!”
When we get that glimpse – either through a rebbe or any other means – it should remind us to work on igniting our own flame. Hat’kein atzm’kha – we have to “fix” ourselves in the “waiting room.”
How do we do that?
Take the time to simply “wait” – be aware of the inner darkness – that is meditation. The awareness is itself the Light – it is your own inner Light. But if you spend all your time in thought and activity, you may not notice…
וְאִם־בַּהֶרֶת֩ לְבָנָ֨ה הִ֜וא בְּע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֗וֹ ... וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
And if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body ... the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days…
This week’s parsha talks about tzara’at – an affliction of the skin that renders a person tamei – ritually unfit to enter the Sanctuary. The affected person has to be quarantined for a period to become purified.
The skin is a metaphor – it is the physical boundary of self, representing that inner sense of oneself as separate, called ego. The “affliction” hints at the ego’s feeling of incompleteness, of being disconnected, of having “not yet arrived.”
The remedy: withdraw from the world of time, into solitude with the feeling. Be the Light, illuminating the darkness in solitude for “seven days” – meaning, until you reach Shabbat! Shabbat is that arriving into the spaciousness that is your deepest essence – the field of awareness itself, within which this moment arises.
So next time you find yourself in a waiting room, or waiting in line, remember the opportunity for illumination that comes as a hidden gift in those moments...
Sh'ma and Body of Light Course – learn more and register here.
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Cage Free – Omer and Tazria – Metzorah
4/18/2018 0 Comments
In the supermarket, you may see eggs and chicken that are labeled “cage free.” This is supposed to make you think that these chickens aren’t confined to tiny little cages as are most commercial chickens, but are instead running around the farm, happy and free.
I used to buy “cage free” eggs, until I was told that actually, “cage-free” doesn’t really mean cage-free at all. It means that for a certain portion of the day, the doors on the cages are opened so that the chickens can escape the cages if they want to.
But, they don’t. The chickens always choose to stay in their cages. If you want chickens that actually walk around the farm, you have to buy “pastured” eggs and chickens.
But why don’t the chickens leave their little cages when the doors are opened?
Because they’re conditioned to be in their cages; they don’t realize they can leave, even when the door is opened. Perhaps, if they had more time, their instinct for freedom would eventually lead them to discover the opening. But, the doors aren’t open long enough for that; they’re only opened long enough for the company to be able to legally label the product as “cage-free.”
And, it’s the same with us.
At the Pesakh seder, we label ourselves as free: Avadim hayinu, v’ata b’nai khorin – we were slaves, but now we are free. The cage door is actually always already open, ready for us to step through. But do we step through? Like the chickens, we only step through if we have the time to discover that open door, if we have the time for that impulse for freedom to grow within. And, after we walk through the door, we need time to discover how to roam the farm, to explore the wild terrain of the uncharted midbar, rather than return to the security of the cage.
Like the Israelites, the tendency is to revert, to backslide: “Hamib’li ayn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kakhtanu lamut bamidbar? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”
So, there is an aspect of awakening that is unbound by time, that takes only an instant to realize: the cage door is open. The cage is made from the patterns of your thoughts and feelings; it’s your identity. But the open space is your own awareness right now. It is the field of consciousness, within which your experience in this moment is now appearing. Everything within your experience arises from and falls back into this open space, including the cage of identity. In truth, it’s not that you must go through the open space, you are the open space. And you can realize this, right now; it takes no time at all to simply recognize – you are already free. Perhaps a moment ago, Avadim hayinu, we were slaves, but now, ata b’nai khorin – now we are free.
So, in a sense, freedom is the easy part. We are already free – free to be you and me. All we have to do is remember – l’ma’an tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim, kol y’mai hayeikha – so that you may remember the day you went out from Egypt all the days of your life.
But, to then go and live that freedom, to not only see the open door, to not only see the unboundedness in the midst of the cage, but to step out and live your freedom, that’s the hard part. That part takes time, it takes constant practice. It’s not instantaneous. It’s not about: get out of Egypt really fast and don’t let the dough rise. The matzah is instant realization. No more separation of dough caused by yeast bubbles that take time to ferment!
But this second, time-bound aspect requires living into this question: how may we translate the freedom that we are into words and deeds, into a way of living?
The Sefirat HaOmer is a prompt to that question. The practice is, count each of the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, count the path from liberation to revelation – from the instantaneous realization of freedom to the long-term project of living that freedom.
The Sefirat HaOmer gives us a map of seven times seven Divine qualities: Hesed –Lovingkindness – are you motivated by love? That sounds really good, but what about when something that doesn’t feel loving happens to you. Can you be warrior of the love motivation, or do you become a victim? Life has plenty of the opposite of love in it. But living freedom means expressing your freedom to choose to live from love, even when external and even internal forces are pushing you in other directions.
Which brings us to Gevurah – Strength. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says, Ezehu gibor? Who is strong? Who has Gevurah? Hakoveish yitzro – one who masters their own motivation. Because then you’re not tossed around by circumstances – then you can radiate gracefulness, equanimity. And that’s the third quality – Tiferet, Grace, Beauty.
And through this equanimity, you can be victorious over the powers of time and change, knowing HaMakom, the Eternal Space within which everything is happening, and knowing yourself as that Space. That’s Netzakh, which means Victory, but also Eternity.
And from that rootedness in the Eternal, arises a gratitude for the ever-present simple blessings, a humble gratitude for the simple privilege just to be. That’s Hod, which means Gratitude and Humility.
And out of the positive vibration of this simple humility and gratitude arises the pleasure of connection – the Eros, the joy, of living, of communing with the Presence as it manifests in this moment. That’s Yesod, which means Foundation, because the enjoyment of life is the foundation of life. If you can’t enjoy, then all the richness of meaning and value will slowly drain away.
But with that joy, there can also arise a deep sense of trust, a trust that transcends all the tragedy and sorrow, and impels us to trust the process, to trust that Reality has its own endgame, in a sense. That’s Malkhut, which means Kingdom, pointing to the idea that all Reality is really a Divine Kingdom/Queendom, but that union of King and Queen, of Kudsha Brikh Hu Ushekhintei, the Holy Transcendent Space with the Imminent Presence, happens through us, through our Pesakh realization and our Shavuot application, through our counting of the qualities and bringing them into being in our own lives, day after day, each day anew, amein.
There’s a story that a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev came to the master and asked: “In the Talmud it says that a tzaddik, a perfect person, can’t stand in the place of the Ba’al T’shuvah, one who was wicked but who has turned to the Divine and transformed. According to this, one who has been blameless from youth is at a lower level than one who has done many misdeeds. How can this be?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak replied, “A person who perceives a new light every day, light that wasn’t perceived the day before, must leave behind the way they lived in the past, and start afresh to embody the new light. The blameless ones who believe they are already perfect, don’t perceive the new light, and so there is no transformation.”
May the counting of the Omer remind us to constantly open ourselves to a new light every day, to find a fresh path for embodying the freedom that we are.
Parshat Tazria – Metzorah
Birth – Tazria
“… ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar-
when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she’ll be ritually unfit for seven days just as in the days of her menstrual separation, and into the sacred space she may not enter...”
On the plain level, this is talking an ancient ritual purity law.
But on the metaphorical level, what does it mean to give birth? It means to create something new. And whether or not you have children, all of us are constantly creating. On the deepest level, our creation begins with the spontaneous arising of thought that happens almost constantly for most people. Then, as our thoughts become externalized in our decisions and actions, we literally co-create our life situations along with all of our fellow beings. And whenever something new appears on the horizon of our consciousness, whether it’s a blossoming of thought, or sensation, or feeling, or something happens around us like- someone knocks at the door, or you go and knock on someone else’s door, or the kitchen sink breaks, or it starts to rain, or you decide on a new career- whatever new is arising, it doesn’t matter- there’s the tendency to lose your connection with eternal dimension of Being- that open space of the Present which is not separate from your own consciousness- and instead get tangled up in whatever particular experience you are having. And that’s how we lose our freedom- we forget all about the space of this moment and get stuck in whatever is going on. Then, once you’re in that state of being stuck, even if you bring yourself back to a state of presence at that point, you may still feel stuck.
That’s because before you can transform, you first need to simply be present with whatever mind state you’re already in.
The trick is not to become disheartened and give up- just be wherever you’re at. That’s v’tamah shivat yamim- being tamei- or ritually unfit to enter the mikdash- the sacred space- for seven days. “Seven days” means the world of time which is created by the mind that imagines past and future. This is hinted at in the story of the seven days of creation. “…kimei nidat dotah tima”- like the time of niddah, which means “separation.” Because when you get caught by your experience, you lose connection with your inherent wholeness, and you feel separate from how you imagine you’d like to feel.
But if you stay with it, being conscious of any feelings of constriction as they arise in your body and continuously bring your attention back again and again to your sensations and your breathing, the barrier to wholeness will drop away at some point. As it says:
“Uvayom hashmini yimol b’sar orlato- On the eighth day, the male baby’s foreskin will be circumcised.”
The foreskin- the orlah- is a metaphor- a strange metaphor perhaps, but as a barrier, it hints at the feeling of separation that the ego feels. The number eight represents Eternity, as it’s one step beyond seven, plus the number eight on its side is the infinity symbol.
So the idea is that when your consciousness gives birth to a new experience, there’s an inherent orlah- a feeling of separation that arises when you get absorbed into the drama of whatever is going on, and that’s okay and natural. When you’re in the “seven days” of disconnection from the mikdash- from the sacredness of Presence- just be there. It’s only temporary. Stick with the practice and draw your awareness into your body with Gevurah- with strength and persistence. If you do, you will come to yom hashmini- this moment of Eternity where all barriers drop away and you return ever more deeply to the openness of Presence.
So on this Shabbat Tazria- The Sabbath of Birth, let’s remember to fully accept and be with whatever states we find ourselves in, and in the freedom of Presence, seek to birth a more kind, loving and conscious world. Good Shabbos!
The Great Mother- Parshat Tazria
4/6/2016 1 Comment
This past Shabbat, my wife Lisa went off to Punta Mona in the jungles of Costa Rica to take some much needed rest from the constant demands of motherhood.
While it was certainly a tiny drop in the bucket of what she really deserves (may she receive it fully and swiftly), I was happy she took the time to drink a little of the nectar of renewal. I am so grateful for her unending motherly devotion, and look forward to supporting more of that! And, I was happy to have some more devoted time with our children for a few days before my trip back to the Bay Area, during which she’ll be left alone with the kids for the next ten days.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with my sister-in-law, in which she said she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot- Jewish practices that happen at particular times, such as morning prayers, for example.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because mothering can be all consuming,” she replied. “Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It’s a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, it’s a suffering of love, a fire of love.”
Her words made me think of the two kinds love as explained in the classic work of Kabbalah and Hassidic philosophy, the Tanya.
According to the Tanya, the first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life. In fact, the two are not separate; you love God as your own beingness.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it’s more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise.
It goes on to explain that when you know the Godliness within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But, if you see God as separate, and you’re willing to give up your very life for God, that’s far more transcendent and selfless.
When my sister-in-law was talking about the all-consuming love of mothering, she was basically talking about the Tanya’s self-sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who’s constantly sacrificing her life for the child!
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria:
“Ki tazria v’yalda zakhar-
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she is ritually un-fit for seven days- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit…she shouldn’t touch any holy thing, and into the holy she shall not come…”
It’s talking about how a woman who gives birth shouldn’t touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate.
However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather as central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It’s not some distant site outside the camp. It’s the very center of the camp, in the very center of the Sanctuary, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”.
It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation.” It means separateness in that it’s the closest, and therefore separate from all other things that are less close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, Kodesh and Nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (Kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (Nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service.
The new mother is in a state of Nidah because she’s not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she’s completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever.
She’s in a Nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she returns to connection with the Kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an Eved Hashem- a servant of God, devotedly (or sometimes drudgingly) giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything out of it.
Other times, we are B’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essential nature.
Even in our Avodah, our daily spiritual practice, these two poles exist. Sometimes there’s a palpable flow of blissful connection with the One- and the One is not other than our own being.
But sometimes, that connection is not felt, and your commitment to your Avodah must come from a deeper motivation- one of service. That’s why the prayer that happen in synagogue is called a “service.” You may not feel like you’re getting much out of it, but you do it because you’re devoted, because you’re committed.
These two poles even manifest in the two main forms of Avodah- meditation and prayer.
In the stillness of meditation, the Completeness of the present moment is not something other than your own being. But in the fire of prayer, the self’s longing for Completeness reaches out for help from That which is infinitely greater than the self.
Yet there comes another point- perhaps that point is now- when these two poles meet, when they’re not separate at all, when the fire of love and service is the very thing that opens the door to your own inner Divinity.
It’s said that once the Baal Shem Tov heard a Bat Kol- a Heavenly Voice- tell him that for some little sin he had committed, he would be denied life in the World to Come. When he heard this news, he began dancing for joy.
The Voice then asked, “Why are you so happy? I just said you will have no life in the World to Come!”
The Baal Shem replied, “I dance because now I am free to serve God for it’s own sake, without ulterior motive.”
On this Shabbat Tazria, the Sabbath of Conception, may we deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being a servant of God, and may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms.
And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the Kodesh, and may we give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
The Higher Separation- Parshat Tazria
4/24/2015 6 Comments
When it comes to the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer, you might practice for a while without getting any compelling result. But if you continue to practice, you will find something that you can only get through putting in that daily effort.
Some say that what you find comes into you from the outside. It is pictured as a transcendent Light that flows into your being from the Ain Sof- the Infinite. Others say that the Light is your own nature; that it comes from within you.
But these explanations are simply maps which come from the practices themselves: when you pray, it makes sense to think of the Light as given from the outside. When you meditate, it makes sense to think of It as coming from within.
The Hassidic text called the Tanya talks of these two ways of seeing in terms of two kinds of love. The first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it is more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise:
When you see the God within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But if you see God as separate, and you are willing to give up your very life for God, that is far more transcendent and selfless.
Last night I was having a conversation with my sister-in-law, and she was saying that she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, because mothering can be all consuming. Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It is in fact a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, she said, it is a suffering of love, a fire of love.
Her example made me think of the Tanya’s idea of the dualistic, self sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who is constantly sacrificing her life for the child.
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria. It opens, “…ki tazria v’yalda zakhar- when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son- v’tamah shivat yamim- she is ritually un-fit for seven days- kimei nidah dotah titma- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit… b’khol kodesh, lo tiga- she shouldn’t touch any holy thing- v’el hamikdash lo tavo- and into the holy she shall not come…”
It is talking about how a woman who gives birth should not touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate. However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It is the very center of the temple, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in a special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”. It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation”. It means the separateness of being the most close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, kodesh and nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service. The new mother is in a state of nidah because she is not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she is completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever. She is in the higher and selfless nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she must return to connection with the kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an eved Hashem- a servant of God, humbly giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything from it. Other times, we are b’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essence.
May the dual practice of meditation and prayer help us all to more deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being servants of God; may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms. And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the kodesh, and may we all give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
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We know that we must remember to take time for ourselves; if we go on and on serving others only, we will burn out. But when it comes to meditation, taking time for yourself is also an essential service to others. That’s because no matter what you do, the quality of presence that you bring to your actions will have a deep effect on others around you.
There’s a story of that some of Reb Simcha Bunam’s disciples decided to feast together and engage in Torah learning and spiritual conversation. When Reb Simcha observed them in their feast, he noticed there was a slight air of tightness and over-seriousness among them.
“Let me tell you a story” said the rabbi. “Once there was a businessman who wanted to find a new enterprise that would be lucrative. He researched and discovered that making and selling mead would be very profitable, so he set off to a neighboring city and found a master mead maker to train him.
“The businessman spent months learning the craft, and when he was thoroughly trained, he headed back to his home, brewed up his first batch, and invited many people from the town to come to his mead-tasting party. But, when the guests tried it, they winced in disgust. ‘What, you don’t like it? How could that be?’ said the businessman.
“So, he headed back to the city and demanded a refund from the mead maker. ‘Did you do exactly as I taught you?’ the mead maker asked. ‘Yes of course.’ They went over each step carefully, and confirmed that the businessman had done everything correctly. ‘And of course, you added the honey, right?’ asked the mead maker.
“‘Honey? No – you didn’t tell me that.’
“‘You fool! You mean I have to tell you to add honey??’”
No matter how detailed and precise our service in the world is, it will be bitter if we don’t do it with good heartedness – we have to “add the honey.” This is so obvious, and yet many people feel guilty taking the time they need for meditation, learning, prayer and so on.
אָמַר לָהֶם, צְאוּ וּרְאוּ אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיִּדְבַּק בָּהּ הָאָדָם. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, עַיִן טוֹבָה. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, חָבֵר טוֹב. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, שָׁכֵן טוֹב. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, לֵב טוֹב. אָמַר לָהֶם, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי אֶת דִּבְרֵי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ מִדִּבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁבִּכְלָל דְּבָרָיו דִּבְרֵיכֶם.
He said to them: Go out and see what is the straight path that a person should cling to. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yosi says: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: Seeing the consequences of one’s actions. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart. He said to them: I see the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as better than all of yours, because your words are included in his.
-Pirkei Avot 2:8
Cultivating a “good heart,” that is, a conscious heart, is foundational for being of service in the world. There is a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קְרַ֤ב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־חַטָּֽאתְךָ֙ וְאֶת־עֹ֣לָתֶ֔ךָ וְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וּבְעַ֣ד הָעָ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
Moses said to Aaron: “Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people; and then make the offering for the people and atone for them, as the Divine has commanded…
Strange – it should have said, “atoning for yourself” and then “atone for them,” but instead it says, “atoning for yourself and the people,” and then “atone for them.” The people get “atoned” for twice – because when you work on yourself, you are also serving others by doing so. Then, only after you have worked on yourself, “atone for them” – meaning, go out and serve in the world with a purified heart…
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More on Parshat Shmini...
How Much is Enough? Parshat Shmini
4/11/2018 1 Comment
A disciple of the Seer of Lublin was fasting "from Sabbath to Sabbath." Late Friday afternoon, he came to a well, and became so overcome with thirst that he thought he might die. So, he broke down and was about to draw some water to drink. Suddenly he realized- "Wait! If I drink now, I will have nullified the whole week of fasting! I can wait one more hour until Shabbos!"
So he left the well, despite his intense thirst.
But then he noticed – he was feeling some arrogance for having withstood the test! Better that he drink the water than foster the arrogance, so he went back to the well to drink. But when he got there, he noticed his thirst had vanished. "Never mind!" he thought, and went on his way to the Master's house for Shabbos.
As soon as he entered the house, the Seer looked right at him and said, "wishy washy!"
It's a common practice in the Jewish tradition, as well as nearly all other traditions, to cultivate a sense of transcendence through various forms of asceticism – fasting, celibacy, and so on. The idea is that we tend to be identified with our impulses, cravings, feelings, and opinions, and this creates a sense of narrowness, of being trapped.
So, in order to dis-identify from these seductive aspects of experience, one can take a break from engaging them and practice simply being in the presence of the feeling or craving or whatever, and not feed it. This is the basic idea behind any restriction-based practices, such as kashrut, not working on Shabbat, and so on: you are bigger than your impulses. They can be powerful, but they can never overpower you if you remember what you actually are: a vast field of awareness, within which your impulses come and go.
But there's a potential trap in this and all practices, in that you can identify with the practice itself and get trapped in feelings of pride or inadequacy, depending on how "good" or "bad" you think you're doing.
The remedy is, keep going with your renunciation right to the core of identification: your own thoughts. The guy in the story renounces food and water for six days (just the daytimes actually, these kinds of fasts permit eating at night), but he doesn't renounce his thoughts about food and water. "I've got to drink! No I can't that would ruin everything! Oh no but now I'm feeling pride, better to drink! Oh no but I don't have to because I'm not thirsty anymore!"
It's all overthinking; he's just exchanged one schtick for another.
Instead, don't just limit your food and drink, limit your mind. Think when necessary or productive, and otherwise accept things and let go. This is the message of this week's S'firat HaOmer, called Gevurah, meaning Strength, Limitation, Boundary. The paradox is that in order to be free and realize yourself as expansiveness, you have to be able to set limits.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'mini. Moses is giving Aaron and the Israelites instructions about certain offerings they must bring, in order that:
כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ – Ki hayom Hashem nir'ah aleikhem
Today the Divine will appear to you.
The first offering is a Hatat – a "sin offering." In other words, if you want to behold the Presence of Being, you have to "let go of your sins" – meaning, stop berating yourself, stop worrying about the past. Come to the present. That's the offering – the limiting of your involvement with your past mistakes.
The second offering is an Olah - an "elevation offering." In other words, after you let go of the past, you must "elevate" your impulses in the present. Whatever your motive, be it desire or negativity, transform it – up level it – into prayer. See the Divine impulse within every particular impulse, and reframe it through your prayer.
Do you want something? Direct your want to the Divinity of Being as it is manifesting right now.
Are you angry or fearful about something? Direct your feelings in prayer toward their transformation.
It is so important to do some of this every day. That's what the Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman called, hitbodedut.
In Pirkei Avot, 4:1, we read, "Ben Zoma said... who is strong? Koveish et yitzro – One who masters one's own yetzer, one's own motivation."
This is the task in each day: to remember our own masterfulness, that we are infinitely more vast than any particular experience, that we can let go of the past and alchemically transform whatever arises in the present...
Give it Up- Parshat Shmini
"And it was on this day of Eternity..."
Let’s look at what happens when you’re craving something, and then you get what you’re craving. Take food for example. You feel the pain of hunger, the desire to eat something, and then you eat it and feel satisfaction. But there’s something else going on of which you might not be aware unless you’re really paying attention, and that is the sense of incompleteness that’s caused not by the hunger, but by the mental and emotional fixation on the object of your desire. It’s not just that you’re hungry, it’s that there’s a basic dis-ease with the present moment, and a psychological “reaching” for a future moment when you imagine that you’ll be satisfied.
Then, when you finally get what you were craving, not only is there a satisfaction with the experience of the food, there’s also hopefully a relaxing into present moment reality while you enjoy the food, and a dropping away of that dis-ease of wanting. And that simple connection and dropping away of dis-ease is itself very pleasurable, and naturally lovable, even more so perhaps than the food. Now everyone experiences this at least to some degree, but rarely to people realize that what’s going on. Instead, people just assume that all the pleasure comes from the food or whatever particular gratification they’re experiencing.
But the truth is, the deeper pleasure comes not from the food, though food is certainly a wonderful thing, but from the letting go of wanting and instead connecting deeply with the present. That’s why we have practices like fasting, for example, or giving up bread on Pesakh. Normally when we feel a craving, the heart tends to run after what we want and we lose connection with the present. But if you let yourself feel the craving on purpose, returning your attention to your heart again and again so that it doesn’t carry you away, then you can learn to open your heart and drop into the wholeness and bliss of the Present without needing to satisfy whatever urge you’re feeling. In that way, you get to experience Ahavat Hashem- love of God- meaning love of Being or Existence or Reality Itself, because your connection to the Reality of the present is by its nature very pleasurable, healing and liberating.
There’s a hint of this in the Torah reading Parshat Sh’mini. It opens, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini kara mosheh- It was on the eighth day that Moses called out."
Moses then gives instructions to the Israelites for the offerings they should bring in order for them to have a vision of the Divine. It then goes on in great detail about the animals and grains and oils they burned as fire offerings. At the end of this litany it says, “… vayeyra kh’vod Hashem el kol ha’am- the Divine Glory appeared to all the people.”
When you experience satisfaction such as eating delicious food, you can elevate that experience through gratitude- through realizing that your food is literally a gift from God, emerging from the field of Being. But if you want to experience ahavat Hashem- the love of God that’s there even when you’re not feeling satisfied, you have to differentiate the pleasure that comes from Presence from the pleasure that comes from gratification, and you can do that through sacrifice- through purposely giving something up.
Then, just as the Divine Glory appeared to the Israelites, so you too will perceive the deep satisfaction and bliss of connecting with Reality as it is, beyond all those temporary and finite pleasures, wonderful as they might be. And when you do that, a much deeper gratitude can emerge- gratitude not only for the particular blessings we experience, but for the constant opportunity we have to practice Presence and connect with the completeness and peace of this moment.
This is also hinted at in the opening verse, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini- It was on the eighth day…” Y’hi is a form of the verb “to be.” Bayom means “on the day” but it can also mean “in today” meaning in the Present, and hashmini means, “the eighth.” The number eight on its side is a symbol for infinity. So the idea here is that you connect with the Eternal, hashmini, through Being, y’hi, in the Present, bayom.
So on this Shabbat Shmini, the Sabbath of the Infinite, let’s absorb the lessons of Pesakh, learning to delay and sometimes surrender gratification, opening our hearts to that deeper connection with the Eternal Present.
The Toes- Parshat Sh'mini
Once when I was driving, I saw a man asking for money with a sign that read, “I have three toes- please help.” For an instant, my heart twinged with compassion. But that was immediately followed by a disorienting surprise as I reconsidered his sign.
He needs money because he has three toes?
I immediately thought of Aimee Mullins. Aimee Mullins had both legs amputated when she was one year old. Rather than adopt the identity of a disabled person, she became a star athlete, a model and an inspirational speaker who empowers her listeners to transcend limited thinking and limited identity.
I don’t mean to be uncompassionate to the man with three toes who needed some money, or to imply that it’s no big deal to lose a part of your body. I want to bless that man that he should have relief from any suffering caused by his body or anything else.
But the real disability, as Aimee Mullins and countless others have demonstrated, is not in how many toes or legs you have, but how imprisoned you are by your thoughts. If you narrate your life in negative terms, telling yourself sad stories of victimhood, then that will be the lens through which you live, and that is what will seem to manifest.
On the other hand, if you refuse to accept limiting labels, if you refuse to identify with negative stories, is there any fixed limit to what you can accomplish?
In this week’s reading, Parshat Sh’mini, the Torah narrates the climax of the inauguration ceremony for the priests. Moses tells the Israelites that after the various offerings are brought-
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem-
“Today Hashem will appear to you!”
The offerings are brought, the rites performed, and then it happens-
“Vayeira kh’vod Hashem el ha’am-
“The glory of the Divine appeared to the people!”
Then something tragic happens: in the ecstasy of the moment, the high priest Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, break ranks and rush forward to offer their own incense. A fire streams forth from the Divine and kills them. Moses tells Aaron that Hashem is sanctified and honored by their death. Of Aaron it says-
“Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent.”
There’s a story of the Hassidic master Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe.
One day, the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk was visiting him. The Kotsker asked his guest to please tell some Torah from his saintly father-in-law, to which he replied with this teaching:
“When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying- ‘Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent’ because he was able to accept his misfortune with equanimity and not become a victim.
But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in the psalm-
‘L’man y’zamerkha khavod v’lo yidom-
‘So that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent’-
-for even in times of great distress he would still sing God’s praises.”
This teaching, though somewhat extreme, points to the power of your mind to define the way you frame reality. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use your mind.
The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, you learn to free your mind from all the thought forms that tend to imprison most people to some degree.
The praise of David indicates prayer. In prayer, the sacred dimension that’s revealed in meditation is given expression.
These two basic practices together- meditation and prayer- tap into the sacred dimension and draw forth Its nourishment into expression.
The name of this parshah is “Sh’mini” which means “Eighth.” This refers to the eighth day of the ceremony on which the action takes place. The number eight symbolizes infinity, both in its Arabic shape and in its Hebrew meaning as the number that transcends seven, which is the number of finite creation. One of the names of God in Kabbalah is Ayn Sof, which also means Infinite- literally “there is no limitation”. Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites on the day of infinity.
And when is the “day of infinity” as it applies to each of us?
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem- today Hashem will appear to you!”
Today, of course, means now.
In the subsiding of thought, there’s the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there’s the blossoming of the only Reality there is- the Reality of this moment, the one and only moment. This moment is not fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn sof, without limit, unbound by past and future.
On this Shabbat Sh’mini, this Sabbath of the Infinite, let us co-create this moment not as victims of the many mishaps and tragedies that unfold in time. But rather, from the silent depths of our being, let the voice of God emerge through our voices to praise Its own Mystery…
How do you come up with the complete works of Shakespeare?
Just take a bunch of hydrogen, and leave it alone for about fourteen billion years!
There seems to be a miraculous potential within the very fabric of reality itself to evolve – to develop into higher and more complex structures, to go from inanimate matter to conscious beings. You start off with hydrogen atoms, and over time, you end up with us. In Judaism, that potential is called Hashem.
This Divine potential to create and to become is inherent within us; just as sure as we exist, so the power of Hashem is at the core of who we are, calling us to evolve, to be willing partners in the process of Creation. It is not something we have to acquire; it is our essential being, behind the mask of our individuality. Our task is only to remember it, to awaken it, and to express it.
וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵנוּ אַשְׁרֵינוּ מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵנוּ,
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafa yerushateinu!
We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!
Our Divine nature is our heritage, our destiny, our task – and when we’re ready, it becomes our commitment:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering. It is the Elevation Offering that is on the flame on the altar all night long until the morning; the fire on the altar should be kept burning on it.
“All night long” – in this dark time of such tremendous suffering and violence on our planet, we are “commanded” – if we can “hear” it – to “keep our fire burning” – to stay present, to be Presence, to elevate by burning up whatever destructive and unconscious patterns we find within ourselves. And as we transform ourselves, so do we transform the world. Because the more conscious we become, the more others will be able to feel that Presence in our presence, and that consciousness will spread – just as one flame ignites another without diminishing itself.
In this way, our Divine potential that is ordinarily hidden becomes more and more revealed.
There’s a story that before Reb Simcha Bunam was a rebbe, he traded in lumber. Once when he was in Dansig on business, the other merchants asked him why he bothered visiting his rebbe. “How can your rebbe teach you anything that you haven't already learned from all those books you read?” They said.
That night, a number of them went to the theater. They invited Reb Simcha Bunam along, but he declined. Later, when they returned, they lamented he had missed such an amazing performance.
“What do I need to see the performance for? I already know all about that show!” said Reb Simcha Bunam.
“What do you mean? How could you know all about it – you haven’t seen it!”
“Yes, but I read the program!”
“You can’t really know a show just by reading the program, you have to experience it for yourself!” they retorted.
“And so it is with my rebbe – what he reveals cannot be learned from books.” The merchants were silenced.
On this week of Shabbat Tzav and Purim, may we keep the flames of Presence burning on the altar of this moment and reveal the Divine potential behind all of our masks. Hag Samayakh, Good Shabbos!
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This is It! Parshat Tzav
3/22/2018 0 Comments
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was gathered with his hasidim after Yom Kippur. Setting his eyes on one disciple, he turned to him. “I will tell you what you prayed for and what Hashem’s response is," he told him.
“You prayed that you should receive your livelihood for the whole year all at once, so that you would be free to spend the rest of the year praying and and studying,” he explained.
“But then, you realized that if you had all the money at once, you’d probably not be able to resist starting a new business venture with all that capital, and you’d be in the same situation as before. So, you asked that you’d be given half now, and half in six months." The hasid was wide-eyed with amazement as his master miraculously reported his whole thought process.
“But then you realized that still wouldn’t work," Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued, "so you asked that it be given to you in monthly installments. The truth is, however, Hashem doesn’t want your prayers and Torah study; Hashem wants you to labor in your business!”
The central and universal message of Hasidism is to connect with the Divine in every moment, in every action. Without diminishing the importance of the particular spiritual practices, the aim of those practices is to awaken the constant awareness of the Divine Presence by becoming totally present in all of life. In this way, presence realizes The Presence.
But to do that, it is important to make sure you have the two main dimensions of Presence operating. There's a hint of these two dimensions at the beginning of our weekly reading (Leviticus Chapter 6):
א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
1. And the Divine spoke to Moses, saying,
ב צַ֤ו אֶת־אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָֽעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָֽעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֨יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ:
2. "Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the Elevation Offering: it is the the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it.
If you wish to elevate every moment and every situation so that everything becomes a realization of the Divine, you have to have let this moment be an offering, even in moments of darkness: "That is the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night..."
And to accomplish that, you have be totally aware: "...and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it." – meaning, your awareness should "burn" on the "altar" of your heart, constantly.
These two dimensions, staying aware of the fulness of this moment, on one hand, and offering yourself to this moment as an act of love, on the other, are the two essential dimensions of Presence. They are not separate, and yet we seem to find ways to separate them! One person has good intention, but bumbles about nervously. Another seems to be very aware, yet they are aloof and un-compassionate. Neither of these is very elevating.
But bring the heart and the mind together, and everything becomes holy, no matter how mundane or even disturbing, barukh Hashem.
Here's an inquiry to bring these two dimensions from potential into actuality: "What is the offering right now? Mah HaOlah?" Try and asking this often to yourself, and see what comes. Sometimes, you might get a great new insight about how to respond to the moment. Other times, there might only be the openness of the question. Either way, the inquiry can help to bring you to the "altar" of your heart and let your awareness burn brightly...
Burn! Parshat Tzav
4/6/2017 1 Comment
The Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, hints at the Passover theme of liberation- going out from the bondage of ego, represented by slavery in Egypt, and into the spacious freedom of the midbar- the wilderness of Reality Itself, beyond the limited maps of Reality generated by the mind. It says the priest should take the Minkha- the “meal offering”- “v’hiktir hamizbeiakh reiakh nikhoakh azkarata Lashem- and burn its remembrance on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Divine.”
Now the image of burning has two main aspects. On one hand, fire creates light and warmth, which are necessary and pleasurable. On the other hand, fire burns and destroys- it can be dangerous and painful. In other words, fire is a metaphor for life itself- beautiful, pleasurable, and also incredibly painful at times. But if you offer your awareness as a gift to this moment as it is- v’hiktir hamizbeiakh-your awareness will burn of the altar of the present, reiakh nikhoakh- your connection to this moment in the face of both pleasure and pain is like a pleasing aroma, azkarata Lashem- bringing the remembrance of the Divine Oneness within which everything appears and disappears.
Of course, this isn’t always easy, because of what I call the “yeah but” principle. One moment you’re relaxed, open and in harmony with Reality, and the next moment something happens that throws you off, and your mind says, “yeah but…” That’s why offering the minkha- the gift of your Presence- azkarata Lashem- it must be a remembrance of the Oneness that you recall to yourself every day, as it says in the seder, Kol y’mei khayiekha- all the days of your life. And when you remember the Oneness, you actually re-member yourself- meaning, your consciousness that’s become fragmented and contracted can relax back into the open field that is your nature.
So on this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Command, of Mitzvah, may we receive this mitzvah of re-membering- practicing daily, nightly and constantly the return to Presence and opening to the love that flows from there. Good Shabbos!!!
Locked in the Bathroom- Parshat Tzav
3/24/2016 5 Comments
Last week, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom.
The doorknob had broken a few days before. I went in to use the bathroom, and when I was finished, I realized I couldn’t get out.
I took the screen out of the window, but soon realized that if I tried to squeeze my body through that tiny opening, I would not only be stuck in the bathroom, but stuck halfway though the window. Not a good plan.
I had no regular tools- only a bunch of various pieces of doorknob lying around the bathroom. So, I grabbed a piece of metal and started bashing the doorknob as hard as I could.
That didn’t work.
Only one thing left to do-
Sitting there and looking carefully, I could see something that looked like a lever inside the door hole in which the knob was recessed. I found a metal thing which fit right inside and carefully pushed the lever thing. The doorknob released and it came right open.
It was a good test, and a perfect reminder of the importance of Presence in the midst of the absurdities and challenges of life.
There are three phases for dealing with absurdities and challenges.
This week’s reading, Parshat Tzav, begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform:
“… olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker-
“…the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.”
If you want to live an “elevated” life, let the "night" of challenges be reminders to remain alert. Keep the "flame burning all night long." This is the first stage.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp.
In other words, after you’ve burned through the negativity and come out the other end, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it around by creating mental stories about it; let it out of your space. This is the second stage.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is called:
“… aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.”
In other words, after the challenge is over and you’ve let go of it, you’ve got to still practice being conscious. It doesn’t work very well to get conscious only when things are challenging!
And fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to stay present in the many uneventful moments that comprise much of our lives- don’t take them for granted! That’s the blessing of the many prayers, sacred phrases and Divine Names you can use to come deeply into Oneness of the present moment, all day long.
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon that's traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur.
The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the Sanctification of the Moon- that night. Determined, he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. He eventually accepted his failure as what needed to be, and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance.
Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the waxing moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the brakha- the blessing- and averted the danger.
On this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Connection, may we connect the three phases as the Baal Shem tov did- accepting challenge and even failure when it happens, letting go of negativity and opening to the joy of the Dance, and blessing the holiness of each moment, regardless of whether our fortune is "waxing" or "waning".
Good Shabbos, Hag Purim Samayakh!
Keep Burning! Parshat Tzav
3/27/2015 4 Comments
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon as is traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur. The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the sanctification of the moon, that night. Anxiously he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. Sunk in gloom, he eventually gave up and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance. Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the crescent moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the blessing and averted the danger.
At first glance, you might think that this story is about the power of joy and community- about how the master needed the innocent enthusiasm of his disciples to cheer him up, which then miraculously cleared the clouds from the sky.
A fine and valid interpretation!
But another way of seeing the story reveals a unity between all the different elements- the Baal Shem’s experience of the darkness, the joy of the disciples and the revelation of the moon are all parts of one happening. The point is not the disciples cheering him up; the point is the way in which he relates to the darkness.
If you want true freedom, if you want to leave Egypt for good, you need to have a constant and unconditional commitment to being conscious. Meditation and prayer are only one part of the practice- the rest happens in the flow of life, in real time. Every part of life must be brought into the arena of practicing awareness.
In order to understand how to do this, it can be useful to divide your life experience into three categories.
The first involves moments when challenges come into your life from things you are committed to. For example, you might have challenges with work or children or relationships. In those moments, you must remain conscious that this is the arena of practice. Be committed to not letting the negativity take over your mind, creating pessimistic, complaining or blaming stories. Know that you have the power to completely be with the unpleasantness and that ultimately it can’t hurt you. It will certainly pass. Then, deal with the situation from that place.
The second involves negativity that comes into your life from things you are not committed to. For example, someone cuts you off on the road or someone insults you at work. Or, it could be negativity from your own mind. Regardless of the source, if you are not committed to the relationship, eject it from your mind completely. Don’t waste a second struggling against the annoying co-worker or the bad driver. Be with whatever feelings arise, but let go of any thoughts that keep those feelings alive. Even better- make a blessing for those who bother you. If possible and appropriate, take action. Even a smile can transform some situations.
The third involves the “empty” or “neutral” moments. When you are walking from one place to another, eating, driving and so on, there is no inherent content and the mind often wanders. Those times are such precious gifts because it’s not so difficult to be awake in those moments. Identify those moments- be aware of how they come in your day. When you brush your teeth, make your tea, whatever; use your mind on purpose. And that means either one of two things: either focus your thinking in an intentional way, or let go of your thinking and simply be present with whatever is happening.
Focused thinking can be contemplation on either spiritual or practical things. It can be solving a problem or thinking a prayer of gratitude. Presence means knowing you are not your thinking. It means putting aside your thinking and simply being.
Finally, take some time every day to step out of the flow of life. In order to practice in the three types of life experience, it is vital to separate from them to do your daily avodah- spiritual work. The vital elements of avodah are also three- meditation (quiet presence, just being with Being), prayer (expression of your heart toward Being) and contemplation or learning (like what you are doing right now as you read this).
There is a hint of these three life situations in the avodah that is described in this week’s reading. Parshat Tzav begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform. It says that the “olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker- the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.” In order to be “elevated”, you must remain alert the whole time you are experiencing something challenging or negative. Don’t become unconscious! Keep the flame burning all night long. This corresponds to being awake as you deal with challenges in things you are committed to, such as relationships and work.
In our opening story, this is when the Baal Shem tries his best to disperse the clouds, and then eventually retires to his room to fully be with his sadness.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp. In other words, after you have burned through the negativity, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it alive by creating mental stories about it! Get it out of your space. This corresponds to negativity from things you are not committed to. Don’t waste your energy on things that don’t matter!
This is when the Baal Shem lets go of the sadness and joins in the dance.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is an “aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.” In other words, after the challenge is over and life has become neutral again, you should still remain conscious. Don’t just try to get conscious when things are challenging! This corresponds to the many neutral moments that comprise much of our lives. It’s easy to be awake in those moments- don’t take them for granted!
This is when the Baal Shem makes his blessing on the moon. The moon, waxing and waning, sometimes visible and sometimes not, represents the up and down flow of the every day. Sanctify the ordinary- as it says, “when you lie down and when you get up”.
On this Shabbat HaGadol- the Great Sabbath preceding our festival of liberation, may we all grow in our constant practice of being conscious and sanctifying every moment of this precious existence. Good Shabbos!
The Power of Preparation- Passover and Parshat Tzav
3/21/2013 4 Comments
There are moments when our situation dictates our next move, and there is no ambiguity about what we must do. If there were a baby in the middle of the road, for example, it is clear we should rescue the baby. In such a moment, there is no leeway for weighing options, for considering which path to take. The path is clear, and the mind is wholly present in the task at hand. We might call this active presence- being totally present and committed in one’s action.
There is also a situation we might call passive presence, or receiving presence. This could be when you receive something or behold something so satisfying that there is no part of you that is left out of the experience; there is a sense of arrival. The present is not experienced as a stepping-stone to some other moment, but the present is IT. An example of this might be beholding something awesome in nature, or even drinking a glass of water when you are parched.
Ordinarily, these moments tend to be few. The aim of spiritual work, however, is to totally reorient yourself to become fully present in every moment, to connect deeply with reality as it presents itself now, always now, in this moment. To do this, we have to shift our perspective from mind and thought to the awareness behind mind and thought. Just as both the baby in the road and the satisfying experience automatically bring one to the fullness of the present beyond thought, so we must learn to bring ourselves fully to the present, even and especially in ordinary and mundane moments.
This is the hidden message in this week’s parsha, Tzav. Throughout the Torah, when G-d tells Moses to communicate something to the Israelites, it usually says, “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to the Israelites…’”. In this case, rather than saying, “speak to the Israelites”, it says “command the Israelites”. That’s the meaning of the word Tzav- it is the command form of the word “command”. By saying, “command” rather than “speak”, it implies a sense of intensity, and calls the one commanded to a state of presence. To receive a “commandment” is different from receiving a “suggestion” or a “possibility”; the baby is in the road, and you must act.
However, the Torah then goes on to enumerate tedious details about certain ritual sacrifices. The subject matter is not even new; it is merely a continuation of last week’s parsha, which introduced the subject (see last week’s blog entry). Why is the special word tzav used in this context?
But this is the whole point. Much of our lives are spent with ordinary, repetitive things- the daily grind of keeping things moving. The ritual sacrifices are a metaphor for how to frame the ordinary: By bringing our awareness fully into each moment, the “ordinary” is transformed into something sacred. The word for sacrifice, korban, actually doesn’t mean sacrifice at all; it means “drawing near”. The “daily grind” becomes a way of drawing near to the Ultimate, for everything is part of the Ultimate. Once the mind ceases pulling us away from this moment, we can see this moment as an opportunity to awaken, to be a vessel for consciousness.
This is also the meaning of the instructions to “keep the fire on the altar burning all night” (Lev. 6:2). The “day” represents those special experiences and deeds that bring us to the sacred and the fullness of presence. The “night” represents the ordinary and mundane, when we tend to fall asleep in the spiritual sense. To “keep the fire burning” in the “night” means to transform the ordinary into a korban- into a sacred moment through the power of awareness.
This lesson is a powerful reminder as we move into the preparation time for Pesakh (Passover). Preparing for Pesakh has a very mundane, detail-oriented aspect to it, involving going through your fridge and cabinets to find all the hameitz (foods made with wheat, oats, barley or spelt, except of course matzah) to either eliminate it or sell it. (Click here for info on traditional Pesakh preparations- and don't let it freak you out! Even a little effort at whatever level you are comfortable can be very powerful). Often, this will reveal hidden dirtiness and inspire a deep cleaning of the house. The hameitz is a symbol for ego and separation from the present. The matzah, in its flatness and simplicity, represents full intimacy with the present and freedom from ego.
So what is the lesson? The ego craves something special. It wants to be impressed, and to impress. But preparing for Pesakhis an opportunity to embrace the mundane, to discover the sacred in the cleaning of kitchen muck. In surrendering to these mundane tasks and doing them not as drudgery but as “commandment”, as mitzvah, we open ourselves to receive the true and liberating power of Pesakh.
When you eat the matzah this Pesakh, may you taste the joy, sweetness and purity of real liberation, and may your liberation bring this world a step closer to a global awakening and healing.
Hag Samayakh! Good Shaabbiiiisss!
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן
The Divine called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘when one of you draws close with an offering…’”
– Leviticus 1:1, 2
Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov taught on the verse, Deuteronomy 5:5 –
אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־יְהוָ֤ה וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙
I stood between the Divine and you…
"It is the 'I' that stands between the Divine and us. When a person says 'I' and asserts oneself, a wall is placed between oneself and the Divine. But for one who offers the 'I' – there is no barrier. It is to this person that the words in Shir Hashirim refer:
אֲנִ֣י לְדוֹדִ֔י וְעָלַ֖י תְּשׁוּקָתֽוֹ – I am my beloved’s and His desire is toward me… "
To be a someone – to assemble one’s thoughts, feelings and experiences into a sense of “me” – takes energy. Ordinarily we don’t even realize how much energy is being expended maintaining this ego. But in offering our “I” to the Mystery from which we emerge and to which we will eventually return, there can be a great inner surrendering to that Mystery, a great falling into the Beloved.
But how do we do that?
Rabbi David Lelov taught that there can be no experience of the Divine without first recognizing ourselves. When Joseph’s brothers came to him in Egypt and said, “We are upright men!” Joseph accused them: “You are spies!” But when they admitted they had sinned against their brother, it was then that Joseph wept and revealed himself to them.
Similarly, if we want the Divine to reveal Itself to us, we must first learn to fully be with ourselves. Free of self-assertion and self-justification, just being open and vulnerable with our actual experience, without distractions, can itself be an offering; then the inner barrier of the “I” can relax into the Divine Presence that we are beyond the “I” – and that is meditation.
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The Cow and the Sheep – Parshat Vayikra
Pirkei Avot 3:8 says, "Give to the Divine from the Divine, for you and all you have are nothing but the Divine..."
Freedom means, no more burden, no more worry, no more tension with What Is.
The devotional path of spiritual freedom is a path of offering one's self to the Divine moment by moment, so that your whole life has the quality of openness, of living not for "me" but for Reality Itself. In that total offering is the realization that "I" am also the Divine; "I" am also Reality. In this way, all of life can be realized as an expression of the Divine.
But to practice this moment by moment means embodying a paradoxical confluence of opposing qualities: Strength and Surrender.
This week's Torah reading begins:
א וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר
1. And (the Divine) called to Moses, and the Divine spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם:
2. Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person from [among] you brings an offering to the Divine; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your offering.
In order to make yourself into an offering, you need the "cattle" and the "flock" – meaning, you need to be bold and strong like a bull, but also submissive and passive like a lamb. That's because you need strength to stand up to the forces of resistance within, (that's the "bull,") and once you do that, what's left is open acceptance of Reality as it presents Itself. (That's the "lamb.")
Ordinarily, we may associate resistance with strength. But the impulse to resist is spontaneous and seductive; the real strength is in knowing that your impulses aren't you. Acceptance takes tremendous strength, courage and faith to be present with whatever impulses arise and not be seduced.
Then, from that place of acceptance of whatever is arising now, you can ask the question: How am I been called? Like Moses at the "burning bush," your calling might be to stand up for what is right, to stand against oppression, for example. This kind of political or social "resistance" is not the same as spiritual resistance. Being "called" can stem from an acceptance of what is, and then from embracing your calling to try and change things for the better...
What is Humility? Parshat Vayikra
"Vayikra el Moshe, vay’daber Hashem Eilav-
"Hashem called to Moses, and spoke to him..."
The word Vayikra means, “called.” The 14th century Rabbi, Ya’akov ben Ra’ash, known as the Baal Haturim, pointed out that the letter alef at the end of the word Vayikra is written really tiny. He explains that Moses, in his humility, wanted to write it without the alef all together, so that it would spell Vayikarinstead of Vayikra, implying that God didn’t call to Moses, but simply happened upon Moses by accident. God said no, I am calling to you Moses, you have to put the alef in there, so Moses wrote it small, as an expression of his humility.
So why is a small alef a symbol of humility? Ordinarily, there’s that sense of the separate “me”- that’s the ego- the sense of self that’s made out of our thoughts and feelings. This egoic self-sense tends to get inflated- puffed up like a big alef. But when you become aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than get absorbed and identified with them, that inner “me” seems tiny compared to the vastness of your awareness. And that vastness isn’t ego because it doesn’t have any content- it’s not based on thoughts or judgments about “me” and “my story,” it’s just aware. It’s literally nothing, called ayin in Kabbalah, because it’s not a thing. It’s the space within which everything is perceived.
So on this Shabbat Vayikra, the Sabbath of Calling, may we hear the Divine call to be aware of our thoughts feelings, sensations and everything that arises in this moment, as part of the tapestry of Reality, the Oneness that manifests in all forms. And as we come to know that Oneness more deeply, may we also see that Oneness in each other and be motivated by genuineness and love in all our relations. Good Shabbos!!
Call For Help! Parshat Vayikra
This morning, I had yet another computer and IPhone breakdown- the latest in a string of digital tzuresthat has plagued me for the last few weeks. Thank God for my friend Ben! He figured it out and got me my back on my virtual feet- I'm so grateful for his expertise! I really needed his help.
Some kinds of help, however, are the opposite of help.
Take my friend Josh, for example, who is blind. When he walks around in public, it’s not uncommon for someone to grab his arm aggressively and say, “Here let me help you!” and try to force him in a certain direction.
There are folks who psychologically need to help others. Their kind of help is often not really help- it’s simply food for their self image.
It reminds me of an old Sesame Street episode, where Grover is straining to carry a really heavy brick. The brick has the word “HELP” carved into it. As he moans and groans trying not to drop the brick, he keeps yelling, “Help! Help!”
The great trickster Ernie walks up and says, “Oh, Grover, you need some help? I’ve got some help for you, hold on just a minute.” He bends down and picks up another big heavy brick, also with the word “HELP” carved into it, and piles it on top of the first brick, increasing Grover’s burden.
“HELP! HELP!” Grover yells louder.
“Oh, you want more help??” says Ernie. Ernie then picks up yet another big heavy “HELP” brick and piles it on top of the two that Grover is already holding.
This goes on a few more times- Grover yelling “Help!” and Ernie just making it worse and worse by piling on more and more HELP bricks. Finally, Grover just screams and falls backwards, all the bricks falling on top of him.
Have you ever noticed a strong desire in yourself be the helper?
Or, instead of needing to be the helper, have you felt that you needed to achieve something, or experience something, or be right about something?
If you so feel strongly, you’ve got to check in with yourself- are you seeing clearly what’s needed, or are you unconsciously trying to satisfy your own need to be a certain way, achieve a certain goal or have a certain experience?
The root of the problem is not helping or achieving or having. It’s identifying with what you’re doing. It’s seeing your “self” as the “doer.”
When my daughter was three, she liked “helping” me cook in the kitchen. The “help” usually entailed holding my wrist while I stirred something in a hot pan, or holding my arm while I lifted something much too heavy and dangerous for her to lift. She felt like she was helping, but she wasn’t really the doer.
That’s actually our situation.
We go through motions, thinking “I am doing such-and-such,” but actually the act is being done by Everything- we’re only apparently doing it.
When you turn on the car, it may seem like the key is turning it on. But is it the key? Is it the starter? Is it the spark plug? There’s no single thing doing anything; Everything is doing everything all the time.
Yet we tend to think, “I am doing it”.
In thinking of ourselves as doers, we take on the most profound burden of all. Like Grover, we strain and moan under the burden of life, yelling, “Help! Help!”
But when it comes to the burden of being the doer, any “help” you get is ultimately like Ernie’s help. You don’t need that kind of help! You just need to drop the burden.
But, you can’t “try” to drop the burden. That’s just more burden! The “me” that tries to drop the burden is itself the burden.
So how do you drop the burden?
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayikra, talks about how the various sacrificial offerings were performed. When bringing a sacrifice, it says that one should bring it-
“… el petakh ohel mo’ed… yakriv oto lirtzono-
“… to the opening of the Tent of Meeting… bring it close, willingly.”
The word for “bring it close”- “yakriv”- is the same root as “korban”- the word for the sacrificial offerings. So the meaning of the offerings is not actually “sacrifice,” but “drawing close.”
What is the Tent of Meeting?
The “Tent of Meeting” is the place we meet Reality.
Where is that?
It’s always only where you are!
But, just because you’re here now, doesn’t mean you’re connected to the Here and Now. You need to willingly come to this moment-
“...el petakh ohel mo'ed yakriv oto lirtzono-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Draw your attention willingly into the petakh- the "openness" that is the present. Don’t hold it as a burden that you need to change or control; offer yourself to it. That’s the key.
There’s also a hint of this practice in the next verse-
“V’samakh yado el rosh ha’olah-
“One should lean one’s hand on the head of the burnt offering.”
“Leaning” is the exact opposite of "carrying."
To carry a burden, you have to put your hands under it. Here it says to lean on the korban- rest in the "drawing near." There's a quality of surrender, not an effortful quality-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Let your awareness simply dwell with Reality as it’s appearing now. That’s letting go.
As long as you don't let go, the message will continue to come. It will come in the form of whatever situations arise, over and over again. As it says in the first verse of our parshah-
“Vayikra el Moshe-
“Called to Moses.”
It doesn’t say who called to Moses, it just says “called”.
The last letter of the word Vayikra- “Called”- is the letter Alef. Alef has the numerical value of one, and in Kabbalah, it’s also a symbol of the Divine Oneness. On a Torah scroll, this particular Alef is written smaller than all the other letters, hinting that the “Oneness” is hidden within everything, calling to us from everything, nudging you to see- it's not you who acts.
When you can see that it’s not you who acts, but the Divine Oneness that is Everything, you can let go of your burden. Then, the help you offer is also not a burden- it doesn’t demand anything in return, or push anybody around. It becomes a true gift- a Divine gift- with no strings attached…
There’s a story of Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh, that once he was saying the blessing after his meal. When he got to the following passage, he repeated it three times with great fervor-
“V’na al tatzrikheinu, Adonai Eloheinu, lo lidei matnat basar v’dam, v’lo lidei halvatam, ki im l’yadkha hameleiah hap’tukha kak’dosha v’harkhavah…
“Please let us not need the the gifts of flesh and blood, nor their loans, but only your full, open, holy and generous hand…”
When he finished, his daughter asked- “Abba, why did you pray so hard that you should not need the gifts of people? Your only livelihood comes from the gifts people bring you out of gratitude!”
“My daughter,” he replied, “You must know that there are three ways of bringing gifts to the tzaddik. The first way is when a person thinks, ‘I’m a generous person, so I’ll bring a gift.’ This way is referred to by the words, ‘let us not need the gifts of flesh and blood.’
“The second way is when a person thinks, ‘I’ll give something now, and then I’ll get some reward in the future.’ Those people want heaven to pay them interest- that’s the ‘loan.’
“But there are some who know- ‘God has put this money in my hand to give, and I’m just the messenger.’ These are the ‘full, open, holy and generous hand...’”
On this Shabbat Vayikra, The Sabbath of Calling, may we hear message of Oneness that calls from all things, urging us to drop the burden of separateness and be messengers of the Divine compassion and generosity in this world...
Five Windows to This- Parshat Vayikra
This week begins the first parsha of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra- “He called”. It gives instructions about five different kinds of sacrifices which the Israelites were to offer. These five sacrifices can be seen as a paradigm of life, each one a symbol for a particular way of approaching this moment.
The first is the Olah, or “Elevation” offering. This offering was unique in that it was burned completely on the altar, with nothing left over. This hints at giving ourselves entirely to the task of this moment. We tend to see this moment as a mere stepping-stone to another moment, and we are often doing one thing while our minds are somewhere else. The Olah hints that if we wish to live in an “elevated” way- that is, free from mundane stresses and worries, we paradoxically need to completely bring ourselves to the mundane. We need to “burn ourselves” completely in this moment, without leaving over part of our minds to dwell on something else.
The second is the Minkha, or “gift” offering. This was a grain offering, brought by those who were not wealthy enough to bring animal offerings. This hints at the wisdom of humility and the willingness to offer of ourselves what we can, even if we think it is inadequate, or that the work required is “below” us. It is the willingness to serve the needs of this moment, without imposing our own preconceptions.
The third is the Shlamim, or “Peace” offering. This offering was brought out of gratitude and praise. It brought peace partially because the priests and the offerer both enjoyed it as food, and partially because it was supposed to have a peaceful effect on the world in general. This hints at dedicating our actions toward universal benefit for all. When we act, we do so because we have some particular motivation. If we take a moment to dedicate our actions to universal benefit, this will give our actions and even our decision-making process a special quality of openness and generosity.
The fourth and fifth are the Hatat and the Asham- the “Sin” offering and the “Guilt” offering. Their purpose was to correct and make healing for wrongs committed. It is good to remember that we have not always been perfect. Whenever we do anything, we are not acting from a clean slate, but rather we act against a hidden karmic background. Keeping this in mind will allow us to approach this moment with humility and the intention for healing whatever negativity lingers from the past. It will also help us accept what happens to us moment by moment, cleansing us from the arrogance of resisting things we don’t like- “How could this happen to me?” Instead, let us accept what is, and offer ourselves to this moment as a force of healing.
May these five offerings manifest themselves in our lives toward greater awakening to the spiritual potential of this moment, always.
“When I get the message that it’s time to let go, how do I get myself to listen?”
When we are powerless to change something we don’t like, we can understand intellectually that we need to “let go” because the resistance we feel is painful. And yet, it’s hard to “let go” because the impulse to resist has already taken over. What to do?
יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Yehudah ven Tabai says, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven…
– Pirkei Avot 5:20
הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר – Be bold as a leopard
First, we must realize that we can get out of it; we must reject the belief that we can’t. So first of all, cultivate the awareness that there is no experience that can trap you; you are always bigger than any experience, because you are the field of awareness within which the experience is happening. This takes boldness – holy hutzpah as it’s sometimes called.
וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר – light as an eagle
Being “bold” or “brazen” (az) doesn’t mean being aggressive, controlling or imposing. Simply be bold in knowing that you cannot be controlled by feelings of resistance. This means, don’t resist your resistance! Simply accept its presence, being the open space within which it arises. This is being kal – “light as an eagle.”
וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי – swift as a deer
But, to do any of this, you have to be faster than your impulses. Ordinarily, when an impulse is triggered, it happens very quickly and we tend to get taken over very quickly. Our awareness must be ratz – we must be even faster. This takes practice, and we may fail many times. But the key is to articulate your intention to yourself over and over, so that when the moment comes, you will be ready. This is the point of prayer – to articulate to ourselves our highest kavanah – our highest intention – every day, many times per day.
But then we must also practice carrying out the intention, and that’s meditation:
וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי – strong as a lion
Meditation is a workout for consciousness. Through daily practice, we become gibor – we strengthen our ability to consciously relate with whatever experience arises. Like any strengthening exercise, it can take time to bear fruit; that’s why it’s so important to have faith in the process and practice every day, even if you don’t notice much difference at first. The fruit will ripen!
There is a hint of this in the symbolism of the decorative fruits that were placed on the hems of the priestly robes:
וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ עַל־שׁוּלֵ֣י הַמְּעִ֔יל רִמּוֹנֵ֕י תְּכֵ֥לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֖ן וְתוֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֑י מָשְׁזָֽר
And they made, on the hem of the robe, pomegranates of turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, twisted…
– Exodus 39:24
Turquoise, tekheilet, is the color of the tzitzit – the traditional ritual fringes that are worn to serve as a reminder to be constantly and vigilantly conscious – swift as a deer.
Purple is the color of royalty, representing our sovereignty over experience – bold as a leopard.
Crimson is the color of blood, the strength of the body – strong as a lion.
וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ פַעֲמֹנֵ֖י זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר
And they made bells of pure gold…
The bell is a symbol of awareness itself, as the sound of the bell awakens us into a higher alertness. This is light as an eagle – just as the eagle hovers and soars through the open air, so too when we awaken to the full potential of who we are beyond our thoughts and feelings, we find that we are the open air, we are the miracle of consciousness, the effortless dwelling with just how this moment is unfolding, right now…
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The Carver, The Weaver and The Embroiderer- Parshat Pekudei
This week’s reading recounts the building of the Sanctuary-
“Eleh p’kudei HaMishkan…
“These are the remembrances of the Sanctuary…” (Ex. 38:21)
Remember- right now- make yourself into a sanctuary!
How do you do that? It goes on to say:
“The Sanctuary of Witnessing…”
The moment you become the witness to what’s happening, seeing without judgment or resistance, your inner space becomes a Sanctuary of Presence.
The parsha then goes on to describe the builders and artisans, including one named Oholiav, who is described as a “carver, weaver and embroiderer.”
To become a Mishkan HaEidut, a Sanctuary of Witnessing, first let your inner space be “carved” by the content of this moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Don’t resist, let your inner space take the form of this moment.
Then, let the fullness of everything in this moment be “woven” into a whole within the space of your awareness. Don’t tear the moment apart with judgments and resistance- it’s already one whole tapestry, when you allow it to be.
Let your own thoughts/words/actions “embroider” the sacred. Give your thoughts a form with a Divine Name or sacred phrase, letting it vibrate repeatedly in your mind.
Try this phrase, which means, “The Glory of the Divine Presence Fills”-
Kavod Hashem Malei! Kavod Hashem Malei!
This phrase is from the following verse which describes how the Sanctuary was so full of Presence, Moses could not enter-
“Moses could not enter the Sanctuary… for the Glory of the Divine Presence filled the Sanctuary.” (Ex. 40:35)
When your presence completely fills this moment, there's no more room for the separate “me”- there’s just the Presence, not separate from anything…
On this Shabbat Pekudei, the Sabbath of Remembrance, may we remember this most fundamental sacred task, clearing the way for joy and celebration in this new month of Adar II, the month of Purim...
Good Month to you!
Mishei Nikhnas Adar Marbim Simkha!
When the month of Adar enters, joy increases!
Some folks are confused by my leading ecstatic, musical Shabbat services on one hand, and teaching quiet meditation on the other. “What are you,” they say, “are you Mr. Ecstatic Guy or are you Mr. Contemplative Guy?” – as if a person really should be just one or the other.
There is a collection of traditional prayers said before going to sleep, called The Bedtime Sh’ma. Near the end, there is a line from Psalm 4:
רִגְז֗וּ וְֽאַל־תֶּ֫חֱטָ֥אוּ אִמְר֣וּ בִ֭לְבַבְכֶם עַֽל־מִשְׁכַּבְכֶ֗ם וְדֹ֣מּוּ סֶֽלָה
Tremble and sin no more, speak within your heart, upon your bed, and be silent, selah!
The idea here is that, before falling asleep, you bring yourself to a state of awe and reverence, resolve to correct any tendencies toward acting wrongly, and become inwardly quiet. This is a simple but very powerful form of meditation – connecting with the silent depths of your being, and reflecting on how to live from this depth in your daily life.
But Psalm 30, from the morning prayers, says something different:
לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ
So that my inner vastness will sing to You and NOT be silent; Hashem, my Divinity, constantly I will thank You.
In this psalm, the idea is to sing out and not be silent. So which is it?
Of course, this is the second half of the equation – living from this depth in your life. Taken together, we have a whole: awaken to your vast silent depths, but then express that silence outwardly as “singing” – in a way that is harmonious, ecstatic, and filled with gratitude.
But how do you do that when your external conditions are burdensome or difficult?
There’s a story of Rabbi Zev Wolf, that once while sitting in his bedroom, he heard a thief break into the house. He cracked the door open slightly and peered out to see the thief filling his sack with valuables. Among the items he stole was a cup which had been used earlier in the evening by a sick man. As the thief was about to leave, Reb Wolf leapt from his hiding spot and cried out:
“Good sir! You can keep all the things you’ve taken, but beware! That last cup you took as the breath of a sick man within in it – I don’t want you to drink from it and become sick yourself!”
When we hear a story like this, we might be inclined to think of Reb Wolf as a super-human tzaddik, embodying an ideal that’s out of reach for most of us.
But I don’t think so.
There’s actually a practical lesson here: Imagine that as Reb Wolf observed the thief from his bedroom, he could have been like any of us – experiencing fear, anger, and so on. But since he was hiding and not confronting the thief immediately, there was a space to be aware of the reactive emotions as they arose. And, from the silent depths of that awareness that transcends all feelings and impulses, he decided to do the opposite of his impulse, and express love rather than negativity.
There’s a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ
Every person came whose heart inspired them…
It is talking about the gifts the Israelites brought to build the Sanctuary, that their hearts were inspired, or elevated, to bring the gifts. But the words used here, נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ nisa’o libo, can also mean tested their hearts; the root for elevated and tested are the same.
Meaning: when our hearts are tested – when we peer from our safety to see the thief coming for our things and our hearts inflame with fear, anger, and so on – it is in precisely those moments that we can become truly elevated by choosing our path consciously rather than be taken over by whatever impulses are arising. In this way, we can move from domu, be silent, to v’lo yidom – I will not be silent – constantly I will give thanks!
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Wanting What You Don't Want – Parshat Vayk'hel
This week's Torah reading interrupts the instructions on building the Sanctuary with the mitzvah of Shabbat:
א וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל משֶׁ֗ה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם
1. Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.
ב שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה כָּל־הָֽעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת
2. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day will be sacred for you, a Shabbat of Shabbats for the Divine; whoever does work on it shall die."
What? Death penalty for breaking Shabbos? How archaic!
But on a deeper level it can be read: "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of work- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, that sense of "me" that is identified with the work that "I" do, is allowed to "die" on Shabbat.
There's a story of Reb Yehiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov. He lived a life of great poverty and hardship, yet he was constantly joyful and filled with gratitude. Once, a disciple saw him praying the morning prayers, and he chanted the blessing, "Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha'olam, She'asah li kol tzarki – Blessed are You, Divine Being, Our Divine Nature, Sovereign of the Universe, for fulfilling my every want."
The disciple asked, "how can you pray that blessing, when you are in such poverty?"
"Poverty," replied the master, "must be what I really want!"
We tend to invest ourselves in our work, in our wants, and in what we think we know. This creates that narrow, limited self-sense known as ego. But ask the question – "What do I really know right now?" – and allow the question to take us beyond our mind-based identifications.
Notice: The mind is a necessary tool, but we don't really know anything for sure except the fact that we are conscious of the experience arising in this moment. Let go of what you think you know, of who you think you are based on what you do, and realize the vast space of consciousness that you really are, right now...
Eye of the Hurricane- Parshat Vayak'hel
"Vayak'hel Moshe et kol adat b'nei Yisrael...
"Moses assembled all the community of the children of Israel..."
The Torah reading Parshat Vayak’heil begins with Moses assembling all of the children of Israel. The word Vayak’hel means, “He assembled.” Moses then tells them about the mitzvah of Shabbat-
"Sheishet yamim ta’aseh melakha- six days you should do work- uvayom hashv’iyi yiyeh lakhem kodesh- but the seventh day will be holy for you- Shabbat shabbaton Ladonai, kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat."
Now these last words may seem disturbing- kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat- literally- all the doers on it of work, will die. This is usually understood to be harsh law, that those who violate Shabbat will be put to death- death penalty for not keeping Shabbos. Oy vey!
But there’s another way to read the verse- "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of word- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, the "me" that is the doer of work, the "me" that’s identified with my thoughts, feelings and actions, will die on Shabbat. Why? Because Shabbat yiyeh kodesh- Shabbat is the sacred space of simply being. This is the deeper meaning of Shabbat- not merely as a particular day in the week, but as the space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
So how do you enter Shabbat consciousness?
Simply allow the presence of everything happening in this moment to be assembled within your field of awareness. This is the hint of the word Vayak’hel- assembled. Rather than be out in the whirlwind of thoughts, judgments, and emotions, come to the eye of the hurricane by simply connecting with your breathing, your sense perceptions, returning your awareness back to the present moment experience of your body, and back again, and back again, training yourself to live from kadosh kedoshim, the center of awareness within which all the elements of your experience are assembled into a Whole, regardless of what’s going on.
So in this week of Shabbat Vayakhel, the Sabbath of Assembly, may the tapestry of Reality be assembled effortlessly though the practice of Presence, of connecting with this moment as it is. And from this place of Wholeness, may our words and actions flow as blessing for everyone that we encounter as well.
The Car Ride- Parshat Vayakhel
I started college in the late summer of 1987, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Although I was brought up without any religious practice at home, a spontaneous experience of spiritual awakening that summer led me to want to explore traditional Judaism just as I was beginning college.
So what did I do?
Of course, I contacted Chabad… on Friday afternoon at about 4 pm! And, I had no way of getting to the rabbi’s house, so I asked if he would pick me up.
Of course, asking an observant Jew to drive across town and pick you up right before Shabbos is not exactly the polite thing to do… but I didn’t know! The rabbi drove out to pick me up, giving me the “hurry up!” look as I walked toward his car from the dorm entrance.
I got in the car and he sped off.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” I said. “How are you?”
“Thank God” he said.
I thought that was an odd response to the question. But as I got to know the Jewish religious community more, this was of course the standard response-
“How are you?”
“How’s your family?”
“How’s work? School? Whatever?”
It can sound funny if you’re not used to it. And, if you are used to it, it might sound formulaic, or dishonest. But it has a profound spiritual basis:
In Hebrew, the most sacred Name of God consists of the letters that form the verb “to be” in all three tenses. So although God is often pictured as a deity, this is metaphor. The Name doesn’t mean a deity, a being among beings- not even the greatest of all beings. It just means Being. I means Reality.
So when you say, “Thank God,” it also means “Thank Everything” and “Thank Everyone,” since nothing is separate from God. It downplays the individual and instead focuses on the Whole. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”?
The Maggid of Zlotchov (1) taught on a verse (2) in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
“Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem-
“I stood between the Divine and you…”
The Maggid interpreted like this-
“The ‘I’ stands between us and God. When you say ‘I,’ a wall stands between you and God. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my Beloved’s, then it’s toward me that my Beloved’s desire turns.”
But if the “I” stands between “me” and the Beloved, between “me” and Reality, than who is “me”?
Of course, the “me” is also Reality! God is also the awareness that looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere.
Remember that everything is God, and you can be instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that God has gone anywhere- there’s nothing but God, only we become so used to It!
It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you’re on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you’re holding hands! To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel (3):
“Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha-
“Six days shall work be done…”
It doesn’t say, “Six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “Six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work (4); there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says-
“… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton-
“… and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you- a Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the six weekdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths!
Meaning, even the weekdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One Doer, and the One includes all the different beings playing their different roles. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elohim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. God is the many in the One.
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat-
“… A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there’s a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die,” but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it’s the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That’s liberation.
Say “Thank God” or “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from beyond the “I.” Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there’s only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that’s you! That’s the paradox- on one hand, you do nothing- it's all Hashem. On the other, only you can decide to open to this awareness.
How do you open to it?
Like Moses, you must assemble the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment-
“Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat-
“And Moses assembled the entire assembly (4)…”
And then, knowing that everything in Existence- every face you greet, every creature you encounter- is the Face of the Divine, acknowledge- “Barukh Hashem!”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me.”
May true peace come now! Kein y’hi ratzon, Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1
There is No "I" in Team- Parshat Vayakhel
Both my father and my father-in-law were so happy a few years ago when my son started getting into playing sports like baseball and soccer. I have no interest in sports (except for when my son is playing, of course), so I think they were relieved that I hadn’t passed on my apathy for the “game”.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” my father-in-law would say. He was pointing out the importance of teamwork for building a spirit of connectedness and an ability to work well with others.
And yet, it’s funny- while team sports are clearly all about people working together, the news media doesn’t seem to emphasize that side of it at all. As an experiment, I googled “sports news” and clicked on ESPN. A huge list of headlines came up for the latest news stories.
Was there even one headline about how a team worked together?
Not one. In fact, EVERY single story was about an individual- Byron Maxwell, Frank Gore, Brandon Flowers, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson- the list went on and on (all people I’ve never heard of).
Despite the fact that the true story in any team sport emerges from the interaction between players, we seem to paint the story in terms of individuals. We love heroes. We love to point to the guy that’s the best, even though that guy would be nothing without the work of teammates.
If you’ve ever given a complement to a religious Jew, or asked, “how are you doing?” you’ve probably heard the response, “thank G-d” or “Barukh Hashem”. This convention in the religious world is meant to downplay the focus on the individual and instead focus on the Whole. When a person says, “thank G-d”, it also means, “thank everything” and “thank everyone”, since nothing is believed to be separate from G-d. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”? The Maggid of Zlotchov1 taught on a verse2 in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Moses says, “Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem- I stood between the Divine and you”.
The Maggid interpreted like this- “The ‘I’ stands between G-d and us. When you say ‘I’, a wall stands between you and G-d. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my beloved’s, then it is toward me that His desire turns.”
The “Beloved” is nothing other than total Reality; everything is G-d. Each time you remember that everything is G-d, you are instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that G-d has gone anywhere- there is nothing but G-d, only you have become used to It. It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you are on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you are holding hands. To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel3: “Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha- six days shall work be done”. It doesn’t say, “six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work4; there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says “… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton- on the seventh day it should be a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths . . .”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the workdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths! Meaning, even the workdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One doer, and the One includes all the different beings doing their different jobs. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elokim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. G-d is the many in the One. G-d is the team!
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat- A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there is a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die”, but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it is the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That is liberation.
Say “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from Beyond. Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there is only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that is you! That’s the paradox- you must be the hero, like Moses, assembling the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment- “Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat- and Moses assembled the entire assembly4…”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we all surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me”. May true peace come now! Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1
My father-in-law once commented that when he attended minyan daily to say kaddish for his father, he would finish putting on his tefillin by Aleinu.
(The tefillin are ritual objects worn on the body, and the Aleinu is one of the very last prayers. He was joking that it took him the time of the entire service to get his tefillin on, which are supposed to be put on before you begin the service.)
It’s true that for many Jews who attend synagogue, the Aleinu is the most familiar prayer, since all the latecomers are present by the time it happens. And it’s appropriate, since Aleinu is the great equalizer:
Aleinu leshabeiakh Ladon Hakol – It is upon us to praise the Master of All.
It doesn’t matter if you’re early or late, if you put on your tefillin quickly or slowly – in the face of the Divine, in the face of the Mystery of Existence, we are all equal. As the Divine name proclaims, Reality unfolds however it unfolds:
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I will be What I Will Be
We all equally have this supreme task: to harmonize ourselves with What Is:
Va’anakhnu korim umishtakhavim umodim lifnei… HaKadosh Barkhu Hu – We kneel and prostrate and surrender before the Holy Blessed One…
A disciple asked Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov: “Why is it that humility is the most important virtue, yet the Torah doesn’t command us to be humble? It only says that Moses was the most humble of men, but it doesn’t ever say that humility is a mitzvah.”
“That’s because,” replied the master, “if humility were a mitzvah, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish it; we would end up having pride in our humility!”
Once there was a rabbi who was davening with great intensity toward the end of Yom Kippur, when he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance. Before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out, “Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan – the cantor – saw him do this, he too became inspired, and suddenly realized the same thing. “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
Suddenly, Shmully the shoemaker also became deeply moved and cried out as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” When the hazzan saw Shmully’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
The essential quality of authentic spirituality involves meeting Reality as it appears – which is to say, meeting the Divine in the fulness of the present. The opposite of this is ego, which instead is concerned with one’s own identity, with the “me.” To accomplish the task of transcending ego and meeting the Divine, religion gives us all kinds of traditions and devices, but the irony is that the ego can co-opt all of that for its own self-bolstering purpose. Thus, according to the maggid, humility must remain free from being a mitzvah; it is a level higher than any particular religious practice.
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם
When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה
This they shall give… a half a shekel … an offering to the Divine.
The ego wants to “count” – there is a self-image to maintain; this is the negef, the root plague of being human. The ego is insatiable, never satisfied for long, because it is by nature incomplete; it is only a “half shekel.” The only way to become complete and avert the “plague” is to make it תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה – an “offering” to the Divine.
How to do that?
Simply notice the impulse to “be” something – to be recognized, to be validated, to be seen in a certain way. Let that impulse be there, but don’t buy into it; don’t give the ego any reality. Recognize that it is just a bundle of thoughts and feelings. Offer it up: “Oh Hashem, I am only here to serve your purpose; only in aligning with You can there be wholeness.”
In that letting go of the incomplete self into the One, there can arise a completeness that is not any particular thing, that is not dependent on anything, but it emerges and blossoms when there is openness to the truth of this moment.
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing!
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More on Ki Tisa...
The Plague of Separation – Parshat Ki Tisa
This week's Torah reading begins with instructions to Moses on how to take a census of the Israelites. Everyone who is counted has to give a half shekel as an "atonement" to prevent a plague:
יא וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
11 The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
יב כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם:
12 "When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
יג זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
13 This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Divine.
But why would there be a plague for being counted in a census?
To be "counted" means to be discerned as a separate entity. This is the "plague" of the ego – the felt sense of being something separate, driving your life through a separate universe. Ordinarily, this is how we think of ourselves; there's "me in here" and "that out there." This is the basic duality of the egoic perspective.
But consider: whatever you perceive to be "out there" is always perceived within your consciousness. So when you think of yourself as being within your body, looking out at something separate, you've actually split yourself in half. You've identified with the half that's in your body, and exiled the part of your own awareness within which "out there" is perceived.
So to heal this rift and escape the "plague" of separateness, the two halves have to rejoin one another. That's the makhatzit hashekel – the half shekel. Give your awareness fully to whatever you perceive in the present moment, and the self-contracting activity of ego can relax and you merge back into Oneness. This is meditation, also called Presence.
But, sometimes there are powerful emotions that can become blocked. In that case, you may not be able to relax into Oneness through meditation alone. That's where prayer comes in. Through prayer, you invite your emotions to be fully felt by putting them into words or chants or even just sounds, crying out from the heart. In this way, previously exiled feelings can be released and an inner alchemy can take place, transforming negativity into love...
Greetings friends! I hope you enjoy these spiritual awakening teachings on this week's Parshat Ki Tisa, and there's more below. You can also:
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Is Your Motivation Disrupting Your Meditation? Parshat Ki Tisa
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nei Yisrael lifkudeihem..."
"When you take a census of the children of Israel to count them- every person should give an atonement for their souls to the Divine when you count them- so that there won’t be a plague among them when they’re counted.”
This is a super strange passage. First God is telling Moses to take a census of the Israelites- not so strange- Moses is leading thousands of Israelites through the desert so it makes sense that he would want to keep track of them all. But then it says something strange- that every Israelite should give a kofer- an atonement or a ransom. This word kofer is the same as in Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement. In the next line it explains that the kofer they give should be a half shekel, which is a kind of coin, and they should give this coin to prevent a plague from breaking out.
But why do they have to atone for being counted, as if being counted is some kind of sin that would bring on a plague?
But if we look more deeply at the words, the idiom for “When you take a census” is “Ki tisa et rosh”- which literally means, “When you lift up the head.” What is lifting up the head? It is elevating consciousness- meaning, the disentanglement or dis-identification of consciousness with thoughts, feelings, personality- all that stuff that normally makes up the sense of “me” or ego. That process of ki tisa- of transcending the ego and experiencing the freedom and bliss of pure consciousness is, of course, the aim of meditation.
And normally, when we decide to meditate, we’re motivated by wanting to experience something like that- maybe we want less stress, maybe we want to stop feeling the burden of our problems, or whatever. And these are all totally valid motivations, but the problem is, they’re all rooted in the experience of “me” wanting to get “something.” But since the thing you’re trying to get is to let go of the “me,” it doesn’t work- it turns your meditation into a kind of plague, because you’re chasing after something you can never get with that approach. The only way you can get it, is by changing your approach- changing your motivation- don’t do it from that drive to get something.
Instead, do it as an act of giving- an act of love for its own sake. And that’s the donation of the half shekel. It’s only a half shekel because there’s of course the acknowledgment that meditation is good for you- that’s the other half of the coin so to speak- but what’s good for you is also good for others. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children, otherwise you might not be able to help your children. So the donation of the half shekel means that you’re dedicating your spiritual work that you do on yourself toward the service of others.
So this Shabbat Ki Tisa- the Sabbath of Elevation, is a good time to rededicate yourself to your meditation practice, through the intention of love.
The Coconut Oil- Parshat Ki Tisa
Here in Costa Rica, it’s hot. How hot is it?
Here’s a good way to understand it:
When I was back in Berkeley last week, I was staying with some friends in their warm and cozy home. One morning, while the heat was on in the house due to the cold outside, I took out my jar of coconut oil to make my “bullet-proof” coffee (ask me about this if you don’t know what it is). I was surprised to find that the coconut oil was completely hard and white, even though the house was so warm.
That’s because in Costa Rica, the coconut oil is always clear liquid, even at night when the air seems cool in relation to how hot it was during the day.
And, because it’s so dang hot, it’s pretty common to take not one, but two showers per day.
Before Costa Rica, I would take a shower to go out and do something, or, I would take a shower when I returned home from somewhere.
But in Costa Rica, everything is hot, everything makes you sticky and filthy, so you’ve got to shower before going out and shower when you come in.
It reminds me of the mitzvah to repeatedly cleanse your inner space, chanting the affirmation of the Unity of Being with the Sh’ma, which is to be said-
“… when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”
In other words, there’s a rhythm of inwardness and outwardness, of activity and rest, and staying present applies to all those times.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, has it’s own version of the “two shower” practice:
The parshah describes the construction the Kiyor- a special basin of water for the kohanim (priests) to wash themselves with. Whenever they entered the Sanctuary or burned offerings on the altar outside the Sanctuary, they would use the kiyor:
“V’asita kiyor n’khoshet bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh v’natanta shama mayim-
“You shall make a basin of copper between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar, and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l, taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life. The inner Sanctuary represents your avodah- spiritual practice- that you do separate from mundane life.
The fact that the kiyor- the water basin- was between the inner and the outer indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before doing either one. Without the right intention, both outer and inner life will be expressions of ego, of the energy of self-enhancement rather than self-transcendence.
It makes no difference if you’re praying, earning a living, enjoying some food, helping someone out, whatever. Without right intention, anything you do- holy or mundane- will have an ensnaring quality.
But with right intention, both inner and outer life become the arena of transformation, as the rhythmic movement between the two gently wears away at the substance of ego.
What is right intention?
It’s being in service of the moment.
Whether it’s inner or outer life, being in service of the moment means letting the movement around you and the movement within you be one thing. It means not opposing yourself to what is, but being what is. It means being fully yourself, as you are, here in this moment, as this moment is, without resistance.
What’s the key to right intention?
It’s knowing that your existence right now is fully an expression of Truth, of Reality, of God- just as it is.
Can you accept that ultimate Truth right now?
In the beginning of the reading from which the parsha gets its name, the Israelites are told they must all donate a half-shekel when they’re counted in the census, in order to prevent a plague-
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael…
“When you take a census of the children of Israel… they shall give a half-shekel for atonement, so there won’t be a plague…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you forget your essential unity with all that is, if you forget that you’re ultimately here to serve the One, and that your very existence is already a service of the One.
Why a half-shekel?
Because your existence is half the equation- the piece that everyone brings equally. The other half is your unique task, the task that only you can do. But it begins with the “half-shekel”- it begins with knowing your own existence as non-separate from this moment.
Then, in this open embrace of Being, there can be balance between the inner and the outer. No need to run after external experiences, and no need to close yourself off to find internal holiness- though sometimes the moment requires one and sometimes the other.
Night and day, Hasidim of all ages and types knocked on the door of Reb Pinkhas of Korets. Some wanted spiritual guidance, others wanted wisdom, others sought special blessings.This disturbed Reb Pinkhas from his inward devotions so much, that he prayed he should become disliked by people.
“That would solve everything!” he thought. “If people hated me, they would leave me alone to my meditations and I’d be able to enjoy the Divine Oneness in peace.”
His prayer was answered-
From that day onward, he lived a secluded life in blissful aloneness, and was never seen in the company of others, except at synagogue.
As the festival of Sukkot drew near, he had to build his sukkah all by himself, for nobody would help him (which was fine by him). On the first night of the holiday, the rabbi sat in his sukkah all by himself (which was fine by him), and he began chanting the invocation to Avraham, inviting the spirit of the ancient patriarch into his sukkah.
Reb Pinkhas looked up in wonder- the spirit of Avraham had appeared, and was standing just outside!
At first, Reb Pinkhas fell into an ecstatic wonder at the apparition before him, but soon became anxious because the spirit wouldn’t enter the sukkah, despite Reb Pinkhas’ invitational invocations.
“Master, why do you not enter my sukkah?” cried Reb Pinkhas.
Avraham Avinu replied, “It is not my custom to enter a place where there are no guests.”
Avraham then disappeared.
Sad and regretful, Reb Pinhkas made Kiddush by himself, then took the special water vessel to cleanse his hands before the blessing over bread.
As he washed his hands, he prayed- “Ribono Shel Olam, cleanse me from my reclusiveness- may I accept the holiness of being with people as well as being alone. Please, Ribono Shel Olam, take away the hatred people have for me.”
From that time onward, Reb Pinkhas was restored to his rebbe-hood and Hasidim began visiting him once again.
On this Shabbat Ki Tisa, the Sabbath of Raising Up, may we raise up the Reality that includes others and includes ourselves, for there’s only One Reality, and we're all part of it. Let’s remember the supreme middah of hospitality, honoring whomever we’re with, allowing this moment to be a welcoming home for all we encounter... and may our hearts and minds flow with this moment... like the liquid coconut oil in Costa Rica!
The Plumber- Parshat Ki Tisa
I have a friend who told me an amazing story about how she used to earn a living. She is a particularly handy person, with a knack for things like plumbing, light carpentry, and so on. Several years ago, she discovered that most people (myself included) don’t have such a knack and often need a handy person, so she started to take little fix-it jobs to earn extra money. For a while the jobs were easy for her. One day, she was asked to do a job that baffled her.
What did she do?
Did she say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” and go on to an easier job? No. She pretended she knew how to do the job, went home and watched You Tube videos on how to fix that particular thing, then went and fixed it. That was just the beginning. Eventually, she was learning and growing by taking on harder and harder jobs. Her work became her school.
There is an analogue here to spirituality. Just as the basic point of work is to receive physical sustenance in the form of money, so the basic point of spirituality is to receive spiritual sustenance- the Inner Light of bliss and oneness that manifests as wisdom, joy, love and many other wonderful qualities.
The most direct way to connect with your spiritual sustenance is to remove outer distractions and do your avodah- spiritual work such as meditation, chanting, and so on. If you really just want that spiritual sustenance, you should involve yourself with as few other things as possible. Do what you need to do to eat and have basic necessities, then devote yourself to spiritual practice. That would be analogous to my friend taking the easy handy jobs she already knew how to do.
But if your intention is not merely to get the sustenance, rather to learn and grow in your ability to stay connected to the Source of that sustenance even in the midst of life, then you can bring your spiritual Light into the chaos and complexity of life. Then, distractions are really not distractions anymore. They are what you need to train. They are your helpers on the path of becoming spiritually masterful.
Many folks tend toward one side or the other. Some get so caught up in the drama of life that it is impossible remain present and bring forth the Inner Light when things get stressful. Others tend toward the other direction, seeing the drama of life as a distraction and withdrawing into solitude. And, there are times in life when it’s good to lean toward one side or the other.
The truth, however, is that these two sides are not really separate or opposed to each other. The Inner Light that flowers within wants to express Itself; it wants to connect with life and bring its power of healing and wisdom. But to balance the rhythm between the Eternal and the temporal, the Silent and the noisy, requires attentiveness and intention. It takes a special effort to create the boundaries you need to have the space in the day for spiritual avodah. And, no matter how complete your realization of the One is in solitude, life will generate challenges for you when you get back in its game. Receiving those challenges as your spiritual training, and not merely distractions, takes a tremendous effort; but it is ultimately an effortless effort.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, contains instructions for constructing a special basin of water that the kohanim (priests) were to wash their hands and feet with whenever they entered the sanctuary space or brought offerings onto the altar that was outside the sanctuary: “v’asita kiyor n’khoshet- you shall make a basin of copper…bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh- between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar…v’natanta shama mayim- and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher rebbe Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life activities. The inner sanctuary represents one’s spiritual practice and connection with Eternal, separate from mundane life. The fact that the kiyor- the basin- was between the two indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before entering into your avodah, on one hand, and before entering into ordinary life activities as well. Having the right intention is the key to unifying the life of Being with the life of Doing.
Having right intention with your avodah means to approach it in the spirit of service. You meditate and davven not just to “get” something from it but also to serve as a conduit- to bring the Spirit into form. Similarly, you don’t enter into mundane life only to derive material benefit from it, but also to receive its lessons, to be a student and become more and more adept at bringing the Spirit into expression.
What is the key to right intention? It’s knowing you are here to serve. We are all constantly receiving, taking so much in so many different ways, but it must be for the sake of giving. That’s why, in the beginning of the reading, the Israelites are told they all must donate a half shekel when they are counted for the census, in order to prevent a plague- “Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael- when you take a census of the children of Israel… v’natnu ish kofer- they shall give for atonement… v’lo yiyeh vahem negef- so there won’t be a plague…makhazit hashekel- a half shekel…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you get stuck in it, if you forget right intention, if you forget that you are ultimately here to serve the One.
How do you serve the One? By being connected to the One and bringing Its Light and Bliss and Love into the mundane, into the chaos. And how do you do that? By taking time to separate from the mundane and doing your daily spiritual practice… not to mention the one full day of the week that is all spiritual practice- Shabbat.
May this Shabbat be a full immersion into the Eternal and may our world drink of Her healing power-
Someone told me recently that she felt so bad about herself, that she hadn’t done anything of worth, that she had messed up so much in her life. I encouraged her to notice that those were thoughts, that she didn’t have to “buy in” to those thoughts.
“But it’s TRUE!” she insisted.
“What is true,” I said, “is that those thoughts are present, the feelings that come with those thoughts are present, the sense of your body breathing right now is present, the sound of my voice is present… that’s TRUE.” She started to relax a little bit… barukh Hashem, because as we know, she could have punched in the mouth instead!
When a person is captivated by thoughts and feelings, it is not always helpful to point that out; a person has to be ready for that kind of pointing. We may or may not be able to help another person get free from the web of ego, but there is one person we can help – and that’s ourselves.
Notice: there is an absolute truth, and that’s the truth of whatever is arising in your experience, right now. The point, however, is not necessarily the content of your experience; the point is being the noticing. When you can see clearly – there is a thought, there is a feeling, there is a sensation – then there is the possibility of knowing: you are the noticing, you are the awareness, you are not trapped by any thought or feeling. You are the openness within which this moment unfolds. That is freedom. And from that freedom, you can see clearly: is this thought helpful? Is this thought destructive?
Spiritual teachings often come in diametrically opposed pairs.
There’s a teaching of the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shikha, that everyone should carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes,” (Genesis 18:27) and on the second, “For me the world was created” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 37b). As one goes through life, one should develop the wisdom to know which slip of paper to take out at which time.
Could there be more diametrically opposed messages?
The point is, our thoughts are not “true” or “not true,” they are either useful or not useful. From a spiritual point of view, they are useful if they move us from ego to freedom, from resistance to acceptance. Sometimes, acceptance means letting go and letting things be (“I am but dust and ashes.”) But that doesn’t mean passivity or weakness; often, it means the acceptance of responsibility (“For me the world was created.”) This moment, this situation, as it is, right now, is. How shall we respond? Shall we turn away, deny and ignore? Or, shall we address this moment as it is and step up to what must be done? This too is acceptance, this too is freedom – not freedom from responsibility, but freedom from resistance to accepting the responsibility that is already yours.
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד
You shall command the Israelites to take for you oil of olives, pure, crushed, for illumination, to kindle continuous flame...
The oil is already burning – it is the ner tamid – the continuous flame of your consciousness, the essence of who you are, within which this moment unfolds. The question is, are you conscious of your consciousness? You are already aware, but are you aware that you are the awareness?
To wake up, to become aware on this deeper level, you have to purify your awareness from its identification with thoughts and feelings; you have to “crush” them from your consciousness. Like the olive, there’s a hard pit at the core; that’s the ego.
Be the loving Presence that surrounds your ego. No need to try to get rid of it – that’s just more ego! Instead, accept the fulness of this moment as it is, resistance and all, feelings and all, thoughts and all, without “adding to the story” – without “buying in.”
In doing that, you illuminate the awareness that is already free from all that; לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד – you kindle the eternal flame – that is the beginning of awakening.
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More on Tetzaveh...
Wringing Out the Sponge – Parshat Tetzaveh
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall command the Israelites to bring you olive oil, clear, pressed, for illumination, for kindling lamps constantly...
Becoming present is like ringing out a sponge, or pressing the air out of an air pump. On one hand, there's a kind of contraction, as you squeeze the sponge or pump. On the other hand, the water in the sponge or the air in the pump becomes more expansive as it's released.
Similarly, thoughts tend to be absorbed in the "sponge" of thinking. Becoming present requires a "pressing" of consciousness from it's ordinary absorption in thought, into the expansive fullness of your experience in the present.
This is hinted at in the above passage. The olive oil should be zakh – clear, pure – meaning, not mingled with thoughts and attitudes. Simply be the clear space within which this moment arises. To do this, it has to be kateet – pressed. Meaning, "press" yourself into your present moment experience. This "pressing" is the freeing of consciousness from the forms it takes in thought...
Darkness to Light – Parshat Tetzaveh
March 10, 2017
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh means, “And you shall command.” It begins with God telling Moses: “V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael- and you shall command the children of Israel- v’yik’khu eilekha shemen zayit zakh katit lama’or- they should take to you oil from olives, pure, crushed, for illumination- l’ha’alot ner tamid- for kindling the eternal flame.”
So what’s the “eternal flame?” It’s your awareness that’s there all the time- whether you’re asleep or awake, whether you’re angry or openhearted, there’s always this basic awareness there, so you don’t have to create it- it’s already tamid- already constant.
But, the tendency is for your awareness to constantly get drawn in by the dramas of the mind and heart, the image we have of reality, rather than connect with Reality directly. So in order to free your awareness from your mind, you do have to “kindle it” so to speak. Just as when you’re asleep, you’re a little bit aware, otherwise no one would be able to wake you up. But once someone does wake you up, your awareness greatly increases. So too there’s a way l’ha’alot ner tamid- to kindle the eternal flame- meaning, to increase your awareness that’s already there, and wake up even more.
And how do you do that? You need shemen zayit- olive oil.
Now olives have a hard, inedible pit within them. Similarly, there’s ordinarily a hard, seemingly impenetrable pit at the core of who we are. From the moment we wake up in the morning, there’s that sense that “I” have woken up. You feel angry at someone, there’s a sense that “I” am angry. If you let go of the anger and you get all expansive and forgiving and loving, there’s still the sense that “I” am expansive and forgiving and loving. That’s the pit- the pit is the “I.” And just like you can’t eat the pit and transform it into nourishment, so it seems that the “I” is irreducible. No matter what experience you have, it’s always “you” having it.
But just as the olive fruit is crushed along with the pit to make olive oil, as it says, zakh katit- pure and crushed, so too that hard sense of “me” known as the ego can be crushed into oil, and that oil becomes fuel for consciousness- fuel for enlightenment.
So how do you get the oil from the olive pit of the self and burn it in the light of awareness?
The essential thing is not to try and control your mind, or try to not have judgments or think less, but rather it’s simply to notice what is in this moment. You have thoughts and feelings? Just know that there are thoughts and feelings. Let your awareness rest in the actual truth of your experience in this moment- being present with your feelings as they arise and fall, being present with your body and the rise and fall of your breathing, and being the perceiving presence behind your thoughts.
In this way you naturally let go of the mental urge to retreat into your mind, which is what creates the sense of “me,” known as ego, and instead feel yourself as the luminous presence within which the mystery of this moment is unfolding. There’s a wonderful hint of this in the next line:
“B’ohel mo’ed- In the tent of the special time of meeting- that is, the tent of meeting the present- mikhutz laparokhet asher al ha’eidut- on the outside of the concealing curtain that’s over the tabletson which the ten commandments are written, that’s where Aaron will kindle the eternal flame.
Now the word for the tablets, eidut, actually doesn’t mean tablets, that would be lukhot. Rather, eidutmeans testimony or witness. This witness is behind the parokhet- behind the curtain- you can’t see the witness. And this is exactly the nature of consciousness. Consciousness sees everything else, but just like the eyeball, it can’t see itself; it’s a mystery to itself. So what you get in spiritual awakening is not any new piece of information or expanded knowledge, but rather the awareness of the Nothing; the is-ness beyond all understanding that’s forever behind the curtain, so to speak.
And yet, you are the witness- you are behind the curtain. You can’t understand consciousness, but you can simply be conscious- you can simply be present… and that’s awakening out of the dream of the mind.
But to do this in a really deep and transformative way, the olive pits have to be katit- crushed. This means that when suffering comes your way- when things go wrong, when you suffer loss, when you experience anger or worry or fear- bring your awareness into the feelings. Let the feelings be without elaborating on them too much in your mind, without blaming or trying to figure out how to avoid them in the future. Instead, let their energy crush the pit of ego. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s temporary and leads to greater illumination.
To help remember, you can say to yourself repeatedly- “Whatever suffering comes my way is for the purpose of illumination.” So write that down, and say it to yourself over and over. In this way, any ordinary situation that produces suffering can be an opportunity to increase the light of consciousness and ultimately open to greater joy and bliss in simply Being.
So as we approach this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we all receive this mitzvah-this commandment- to ignite the eternal flame of awareness with the oil that’s pressed out of us through whatever suffering happens to come our way. And as our light increases, so too may we transform our actions to crush any stuck patterns of negativity and open to the blessing inherent in this life...
Take Off Your Headphones! Parshat Tetzaveh
Do you ever listen to music in headphones?
Sometimes I’ll want to hear the same song in my headphones over and over again, until I get sick of it. The song takes on a personal theme quality, and I want it to score my whole life.
But imagine going out to see the singer of your favorite song perform live. Would you pull out your headphones and listen to a recording of it, rather than listen to the actual concert?
Of course not!
And yet, that’s often what happens in the spiritual sense, when your mind becomes engrossed in some thought, idea, desire, or memory. Rather than live life as it’s happening, you're absorbed in your own mind.
It’s like listening to a recording in headphones when the real thing is happening live right in front of you!
This week's reading begins:
“V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael...”
“And you shall command the Children of Israel that they should take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually.”
“Oil” represents awareness.
To “take” the “oil” means to take your awareness into your own hands. Your mind need not wander about like a child- you can take “command” of it.
“… pressed, for illumination”
Ordinarily the mind wanders aimlessly, and awareness glows dully in the background. But if you “press” your awareness, which means bringing your mind back again and again to the present, it will begin to glow brightly, illuminating your mind.
“… to kindle a lamp continually.”
With ordinary fire, once you kindle it, it burns on its own. But with consciousness, you must “kindle” it “continually.” This means developing the habit of reeling your mind back, again and again, to the Reality of this moment.
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak began greeting everyone after prayers as if they had just returned from a long journey.
“Shalom Aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!” exclaimed the rebbe to each and every congregant.
When they gave him strange looks, he responded-
“Why do you look surprised? While the hazan was singing, you weren’t here at all. This one was in the market place, this one was on a cargo ship, this one was relaxing at home. When the singing stopped, you all returned, so I greeted you shalom aleikhem!”
The Greatest Singer of All performs a concert right now. It’s the only concert there is- the magical unfolding of this moment!
On this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we remember to heed the Great Command that sings to us continuously: Be present! And through our mindfulness, may the consciousness of all humanity be elevated, so that awareness and love may reign supreme in the minds and hearts of all.
Last Shabbat, after I taught in our Berkeley synagogue, I walked through town with a rabbi friend of mine. He told me that when he was younger, he used to attend meditation retreats and seek out teachings on spiritual awakening. But over time he moved away from those things because they seemed too abstract. It seemed to him that such teachings aimed at awakening an experience of the transcendent, but they didn’t address his fundamental question: why are we here in this life? If it’s all about transcending the world, what’s the meaning of living in the world?
Recently, I was listening to a talk by the outspoken intellectual Jordan Peterson in which he said that, to any thinking person, it should be obvious that the meaning of existence must be grounded in the fact of unbearable human suffering.
Hassidic teaching says something similar:
There is a story of Reb Levi Yitzhak, that whenever he would celebrate the Passover Seder and come to the passage about the Four Sons, he would stop at the son who doesn’t know how to ask. “That’s me, Levi Yitzhak – I am the son who doesn’t know how to ask! I don’t know how to ask what this is all for, why we are here, what is the purpose of it all. And even if I did, how could I bear the answer? I do not want to know why I suffer as I do; I want to know that my suffering is for You. And just as it says, ‘you shall answer your son, saying…’ so You, my Father, must answer!”
In this Hassidic understanding, suffering is not the meaning of existence, but it is the thing that causes us to ask the meaning of existence. And further: it is not the philosophical question of why that is of ultimate concern, but for Whom. In other words, it is a question not of the mind, but of the heart.
This points to a central truth: the question of meaning is fulfilled only through love. That is the only reason to endure all the suffering, because love is the ultimate joy – shining even at the very depths of suffering.
The mind searches for the question of meaning, but it can never really be satisfied with any conceptual answer, no matter how convincing. Trying to find meaning through the mind is like trying to taste food with your hands; no matter how much food you smear on your hands, you will never be satisfied. Only actual eating can satisfy hunger; only actual love can satisfy the hunger for meaning.
וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ... וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them… and they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.
It is only through the life of the heart that Sanctuary is built – a life in which, since the loving heart desires to give, giving is actually a form of receiving.
And, since everything we receive is taken as an expression of the Divine love for us, receiving is also a form of giving – barukh Hashem!
זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת
gold, silver and copper…
See – there are three levels to experience right now: thought, feeling and sensory experience. The feeling level determines the quality of experience – its mood – attraction and revulsion, adoration and anger, curiosity and boredom. This is the level of the heart from which love arises, and hence from which the meaning of existence is fulfilled. We might think, then, that the heart is the level of “gold” – but it is not.
Notice: your feelings, as primary as they are, are ultimately determined by your thoughts – by how you interpret your experience. Think good, feel good; think bad, feel bad.
Most of us assume the opposite: we start to feel bad, and so we start thinking in a negative way. But wake up out of the seductiveness of your feelings by being present with them and accepting them, and you can realize: you can actually decide which thoughts to nurture and which thoughts to dismiss. That decision is itself a thought, arising from a deep wisdom beyond the gravity of feeling and the seductiveness of thought. That wisdom is awareness itself – hokhmah – beyond both thought and feeling. That is why the mind, though it cannot ultimately bring us real fulfillment, is the "gold" and the heart is the "silver" – because the mind rules the heart.
The third level is sensory experience, corresponding to action. Action is an expression of the heart, which is in turn ruled by the mind. We don’t act unless we are motivated to act; we have to first want on the level of heart, and that determines our action. Thus, action is the level of copper.
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them…
Without the awareness of what we really are, beneath our thoughts, feelings and sensory experience, our thoughts tend to be ruled by the unconscious impulses of our hearts, leading ultimately to unconscious and reactive actions. But being aware that we are the awareness behind all experience, we can choose our thoughts, and thus open our hearts, and act from the radiant love that shines through that openness.
Then, all of life becomes a sanctuary for the Presence that dwells within us, as us…
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More On Parshat Terumah..
Offering Whatever – Parshat Terumah
Exodus 25:1, 2
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart motivates them.
Once a hassid came to the rebbe and asked, "Why is it that the rabbis praise Avraham for being willing to offer his son Yitzhak? For most people this would be a severe test, but how could it be a test for Avraham, who was a great prophet?"
The rebbe answered, "When a person is tested, all their spiritual attainment is taken away from them, and they are face to face with the test. All your depth of realization is out the window, and you must gather all your strength to not be seduced by your ego..."
Living in awakened life, in which every word and action overflows an offering from the heart, can seem easy when you're in the experience of blissful oneness. But these experiences become a complete reality only when you face situations that trigger you and threaten to seduce you back into an egoic state, and you manage to actually pass the test.
But, no matter how many times you may "fail" your tests, don't worry! That's totally natural. If fact, if you can let your heart break in humility when you "fail" your tests, that in itself helps to break the bonds of ego. In this way, both "failing" and "passing" can aide you in becoming true sanctuary of Presence in which your whole life is an "offering."
"Staying Present in Action" Parshat Terumah
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Terumah. Terumah means an offering, or a contribution. It begins with God telling Moses to say to the children of Israel:
“Yik’khu li trumah me’eit kol ish asher yidveinu libo-
"Take for me an offering from every person whose heart is motivated to give…”
The offerings that they’re talking about range from precious metals, to animal skins, to incense spices, to pieces of wood- all things that will be used to build the mishkan- the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them as they travelled through the wilderness. The word mishkancomes from the root which means to dwell or be present, as in the word Shekhinah which means, Divine Presence. So in the opening of this parshah, we’re hearing about all the different ways the Israelites contribute toward the Sanctuary of Presence. But if we look more deeply, this opening verse gives us three hints about how we can be more present in our own actions.
The first and most important hint is in the name of the parshah- Terumah, which means, “offering.” If you want to be present in the busyness of daily life and overcome that tendency to see this moment merely as a means to get to some future moment, then let your actions be offerings. Whenever you do something, and you can do this many times a day, bring to mind that your actions are for the sake of serving something. Since most of what we do is often serving some purpose for others, this isn’t so difficult. But even when you do things for yourself like eating or resting, you can still offer it as a gift, because of course you have to keep yourself healthy in order to be of service to others.
And, the more you think of your actions as offerings, you might even get inspired to change the way you do things for the better, or even take on some new positive actions, or get rid of some not so positive ones. The point here to bring more consciousness into whatever you’re doing by acting with a loving spirit.
The second hint is implied in the words, kol ish- every person. In other words, every person has their own unique path. If you go around wishing you were someone else, or wishing you were in a different situation, you devalue your own path, and create an inner feeling of separation. But if you constantly take to heart that this moment is the moment to offer what only you can offer, regardless of whether it seems impressive in the external sense, then you can really inhabit your body and inhabit your actions. Furthermore, the words kol ish, every person, can also mean “all of the person.” In other words, put all of yourself into whatever you happen to be doing.
And that brings us to the third hint that’s implied in the words, “…asher yidveinu libo- whose heart is motivated to give…” This means, you can learn how to be present from whatever you’re really motivated to do. Notice how it feels when you’re doing things that you love, how you’re fully engaged and doing for its own sake, and bring that degree of presence to all your actions, even when you’re doing things you don’t necessarily want to do. In that way, everything you do becomes a kind of devotion or prayer.
There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov was once smoking his pipe by the window, when he was taken aback by the sight of a man walking by, who glowed with the most beautiful holy Presence and joyful radiance. The Baal Shem asked a disciple who the man was, and his disciple told him that the man was a hose-maker.
So, the Baal Shem sent the man a message to please bring four pairs of hose. Soon after, the hose maker appeared before the Baal Shem, displaying his wares, light shining from his face. The hose were well made of good sheep’s wool.
The Baal Shem asked him, “How do you spend your days?” The man answered, “I ply my trade.”
“And how do you ply it?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I work every day until I have forty or fifty pairs of hose, then I put them into a mold with hot water and press them until they’re as they should be.”
“And do you do any special prayers or meditations?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I just recite the psalms that I know by heart, all day long as I work.”
After the Baal Shem had purchased the hose and the man left, the Baal Shem turned to his disciple and said, “Today you have seen the cornerstone which will uphold the temple until the coming of the Messiah.”
So what does the Baal Shem Tov mean when he says that this hose maker is the cornerstone of the temple until the Messiah? The temple, as we’ve seen, represents intensification of Presence. The Messiah means the end of exile, because the traditional belief is that when Moshiakh comes, all the Jews scattered throughout the world will be gathered in, and everyone will commune with the Divine in the temple once again.
But on a deeper level, exile isn’t only about being separated from your native land. Exile is what happens within when you don’t fully inhabit who you are and what you’re doing in the present moment. When that happens, your consciousness pulls away from itself, creating the experience of incompleteness. And in that inner exile, nothing is all that satisfying. But when you’re gathered in, so to speak, when you connect deeply with your actions, there’s a deep satisfaction even if you’re doing things that aren’t particularly exciting.
So as approach Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Offering, let’s practice making all our actions offerings, gathering ourselves back into the fullness of who we are and opening to the healing and wholeness that flows from that.
The Floor- Parshat Terumah
Let’s face it- people can be annoying.
Once I was in a workshop at a retreat center. I was in a room full of people, listening to the teacher speak to the class. Next to me there was this guy who happened to be standing on an area of floor that emitted a really loud squeak whenever someone stepped on it.
So what did this guy do?
He stood on that spot and rocked his body back and forth, making a terribly annoying and loud squeak, over and over again. He appeared to be totally unconscious of what he was doing. I was amazed that he either couldn’t hear the loud noise he was making or he just didn’t care.
In that moment, as that relatively trivial annoyance provoked such a strong response within me, I appreciated the difficulty of staying present and free when disturbances are not trivial- when they’re deeply offensive or hurtful.
Have you ever been enraged by someone you love? Have you ever deeply offended someone you would die for? Or have you deeply enraged your beloved?
If you have, than perhaps you know the pain of separation it causes- the sour flavor that permeates life in the wake of such mis-steps.
What’s the remedy? How can the sundered fabric of relationship be healed and closeness be restored?
There’s a word in Hebrew for “holy” or “sacred”- kadosh.
Kadosh actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. In the case of a wounded relationship, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, alienation. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Your partner or spouse becomes “separate” because they’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all less intimate relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection.
This week’s reading begins the Divine instructions for building the Mishkan- the portable temple for the wandering Israelites:
“V’asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham-
“Make for me a Mikdash- a Sanctuary- and I will dwell within you.”
The word Mikdash has the same root as holy- kadosh. In the Torah, the Mikdash is the place that the Divine Presence manifests and communes with the Israelites. The other word for the Sanctuary, Mishkan, implies the Divine Presence- the Shekhina.
And how did the Israelites commune with the sacred? Did they go into the space to just sit and meditate?
They came into the Mikdash to offer presious gifts- first to build the sanctuary, then to make offerings. They brought things that were most precious- first their gold, silver and copper, then their fruit, their wine, grain and animals.
In giving and burning what was most precious, they burned away their own inner obstacles to intimacy; they burned away the alienation caused by their own “clinging.” The word for a sacrificial offering is “korban,” which means not sacrifice, but nearness, intimacy.
Where was this Mikdash erected? Was it separate from the camp, off at a distance, so that you’d have to hike out to it?
No- it was in the center of the camp!
And within the Mikdash was a special place considered the most holy- the Kadosh Kadoshim- the “Holy of Holies.” This most sacred space was the innermost room in the Mikdash- the center of the center.
This representation of the sacred in space and architecture is not mere ritual magic from the past. It’s a pointer to the true sanctuary of Presence within your own life. There can only be one center of your life, and that center is the one place that life is actually being lived- this moment. You’re never separate from this moment, and yet- are you truly dwelling within it?
“Asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham…”
There’s a Divine call. It calls to us in pain and in joy, in excitement and in boredom. It says, “Come to the center. Build me a sanctuary.”
How do you build it?
The essence of the sanctuary is not the structure, but the space within the structure. The structure is already there as your body, your mind, your heart. They become a sanctuary the moment you allow there to be a space. The space completes the structure.
Come into that space- come into your body, come into this moment. Bring your korban to the altar. Is there pain? Is there fear? Is there regret? Is there embarrassment? Bring it all. Let the fire on the altar of the present moment burn away the separation. If it hurts, let it hurt- your obstacles are being burned away- and the pain is temporary.
In allowing yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, there’s a transmutation that takes place. The energy of separation and pain burns up and becomes the energy of love. For when the illusion of separation caused by clinging is burned up, every face is a form of the Face; every being is a manifestation of Being.
And when you see every person as nothing less than a Form of God, the Form of God that steps up to you in every encounter, can there be room for negativity? Can there be anything but the fire of love? And in that fire of love, will you hold back your forgiveness, or your asking forgiveness?
A disciple asked Rabbi Shmelke-
“We are taught- ‘Ve’ahavtah lereiakha kamokha- Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ But how can I love my neighbor if he has wronged me?”
“You must understand these words deeply,” replied Rabbi Shmelke. “You must love your neighbor as something that you yourself are, for all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this original soul is expressed in all souls, just as your soul is expressed in all the different organs of your body.
“It may happen that your right hand slips with a knife and cuts your left hand. But would you then take a knife with your left hand and start cutting your right hand to punish it?
“It’s the same when your neighbor wrongs you. If you punish him, you punish yourself.”
The disciple wasn’t satisfied-
“But if I see someone who is truly evil, how can I love that person?”
“Don’t you know,” replied Rabbi Shmelke, “that the original soul emerges from the Divine, and in fact is not separate from the Divine at all. So won’t you have mercy on the Divine when you see that one of Its sparks has become lost in a maze is being stifled by the deeds of that person who thinks he’s separate?”
On this Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Giving, may we guard and remember- Shamor V’Zakhor-to make every word a praise of the One, every deed an offering of love, rooted in the Sanctuary of Presence that is our own human body. Amein, Sela!
Free Guided Meditation Here.