Zekher: Remembrance Phrases
"Being the Open Space of Perception"
Weekly Chant Phrase:
"K'vavat Shomreim – Like a Pupil (of an eye) Guard Them" (Ana B'khoakh prayer)
Listen, Watch and Read HERE.
As I am traveling and getting ready to teach at the Aleph Kallah next week, I am reposting one of my favorite Lessons in Presence from the archive. This one is based on this week's Torah portion, Parshat Balak, and also explores the Kabbalistic Ana B'khoakh prayer. It was the third part in a series on Ana B'khaoakh, and you can access the other parts below as well.
Watch, Listen and Read HERE.
Please Note Summer Schedule:
Upcoming Weekly Meditation Livestreams for July:
July 17 and July 24. August is back to weekly schedule.
More on Parshat Balak
(Click on titles for original posts)
The Eyes of a Donkey- Parshat Balak
Once, during a monthly commute back to the Bay Area, I took an Uber from the airport to my car which was parked near our old house in Oakland. When I arrived, I got out of the Uber, unloaded my suitcases from the trunk onto the street, unlocked my dirty car that had been sitting for a month, loaded the suitcases into the car, got into the driver’s seat and reached for my cell phone to plug into the car charger.
But… no cell phone! I had left it in the Uber.
Immediately I looked- the Uber was half way down the street! I took off running like my pants were on fire. The car started to slow down- yes! He sees me! But then he went over a speed bump and… started accelerating again!
Adrenaline pumping, I ran even faster. I yelled for him to stop. He approached a second speed bump, slowed down, and… yes! He stopped!
As I reached his car, he handed me the phone out of the driver’s side window. “You’re a fast runner!” he said.
“Not usually,” I replied.
The body has tremendous potential, usually untapped. But in the moment of emergency, that potential can be unleashed. When I was little I remember hearing a story of a woman who lifted a car to save her child who had become trapped.
But there’s another potential of the body besides its physical potential- the potential to save you by lifting the weight of ego, under which you may have become trapped. Have you ever been motivated by negativity or craving to do something that would have terrible consequences, and in that emergency your body gave you the message to stop and turn back?
In this week’s reading, Balak king of Moab becomes frightened of the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley, so he petitions the prophet/sorcerer Bilam to curse the Israelites. As Bilam rides out on his donkey to the Israelite camp, there is a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals (the other one being the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden).
Bilam rides his donkey through a vineyard, when an angel blocks the path with sword drawn. But only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets mad and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you that you hit me?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
Then Bilam’s eyes are “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, prostrates, apologizes, and goes up the mountain to view the Israelite camps.
When Bilam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse, his mouth utters a blessing instead:
“Lo hibit avein b’Ya’akov-
“(The Divine) sees nothing bad in Jacob...
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
The donkey is your body- the beast you live in. You may think you want to say something, but your words will be a curse if you can’t “see the angel.” But the donkey sees it- and the donkey can talk!
What is the blessing that God “wants” you to say?
Your body is the gateway to this awareness, if you become present. Connect with your body, open your mouth and let the blessing come through.
But, the question may arise:
Isn’t the body also a hindrance to consciousness and wisdom? Isn’t your body the source of negativity and cravings?
In Kabbalah, one of the symbols for wisdom is fire- as in the fire that Moses saw at the burning bush. This is the fire of Reality becoming conscious- the fire that looks through your eyes, reading these words, right now.
But fire is also a symbol of destruction- of craving and negativity- as in the plague of hail and fire that rained down on the Egyptians. This is the fire of anger and craving, seducing you to satisfy its every impulse, then leaving you unsatisfied, with a trail of unwanted consequences.
Both of these manifestations of fire, however, are teachers of wisdom- if only you learn to discern whether it’s the fire of “yes” or the fire of “no.”
“Yes” to love, “no” to reaching- to seeing fulfillment outside yourself. “Yes” to blessing, “no” to the impulses that keep you stuck.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, and candy with your left eye!”
On this Shabbat Balak, the Sabbath of Body-Blessing, may we keep our awareness deeply connected to our senses and our breathing, so that the fire of Presence burns brightly with wisdom and with love. May we not identify with the urgencies of craving and negativity, and know that through the power of Presence, we are totally free from their power. And may the warmth and light of that freedom deepen more and more…
Remembrance Chant Phrase:
Ezreinu B'shem Hashem, Oseh Shamayim Va'arets -
Our help is in the Name of the Divine, Maker of heaven and Earth (Takhanun Prayer)
Listen or Watch:
Click below to download or stream audio:
Watch video below:
Ezreinu B'shem Hashem, Oseh Shamayim Va'arets -
Our help is in the Name of the Divine, Maker of heaven and Earth (Takhanun Prayer)
Click below to download or stream audio:
Watch video below:
Reb Pinkhas taught, "If you wish to guide others, you must not become angry at them, because not only will the anger pollute your own soul, it will infect those you are guiding as well."
And at another time he said, "Since I've learned to tame my anger, I keep it my pocket, and take it out when needed."
In order to occasionally use anger in a directed and effective way, you have to not be taken over by it. Only when you are free from anger, can you use it effectively. Lord knows there is a lot in our world to be angry about!
But in most situations, it's best to be conscious of anger as it arises, feel your anger fully, but not direct it at others.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Hukat. The Israelites complain once again against Moses and Aaron that they are thirsty. Hashem instructs Moses to speak to a rock, and it will give forth water for them to drink. But instead, Moses yells at the people: "You rebels!" and then hits the rock with a stick. Water comes forth, but Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land for his burst of anger.
And so it is: If we want to dwell in the "Promised Land," we must be at home in this moment, in whatever this moment brings. People are complaining? Anger is arising? Be conscious of it. "Speak" to the "rock" of your own heart: "Ah, here is anger arising. This is actually a gift, an opportunity to practice being conscious in real time, not just during meditation."
Let the "water" flow from your heart out of Presence, rather than being demanding, and you will enter the Promised Land from wherever you find yourself...
More on Parshat Hukat –
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The Mystery of Music- Parshat Hukat
V’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah-
And they should take to you a cow that is red, completely...
In Parshat Hukat, it says, Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely.
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah-song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So on this Shabbat Hukat- the Sabbath of the Mystery- I bless you to use your voice in prayer and song. “Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
Ain't Misbehavin'- Parshat Hukat
On the way to the airport, our daughter started shrieking in the back seat. "What's the matter honey??"
"The phone died!!!" she screamed. She was playing a game on my wife's phone and it ran out of juice.
"I see you're really upset," said my wife.
It always amazes me how Lisa is able stay present even with that shrieking sound; a great reminder to me.
It all began a few years ago, when she read about a parenting method called, “Positive Discipline.” Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting.
The catch phrase for this is “Connection Before Correction.” In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did, and only afterward speak to them firmly about what behavior needs to change.
While I have not found this approach to be workable all of the time, especially in extreme situations, I still find the principle incredibly useful. And when it does work, it’s not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent. That’s because when you communicate only through harshness, it’s all too easy to be seduced into anger.
And though it is possible for the parent to correct the child with anger, the parent is then misbehaving too!
After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure- the very thing you want to correct in the child. So while expressing anger may have the desired effect of correcting the child’s behavior, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
Spiritually speaking, impatience and loss of composure have a deeper root- they stem from a loss of presence, and consequently, loss of connection with the Presence. When a child acts out, they have lost their presence; they have been taken over by their impulses. Have you ever seen an adorable and beautiful child suddenly become a monstrous terror?
And in the presence of such lack of presence, it can be very difficult to keep your own presence.
In this week’s reading, there’s a metaphorical demonstration of this principle. The name of the parshah- “Hukat”- is a form of the word hok, which means “decree,” or “statute.” The particular hok described here is the ritual for purifying someone who has come in contact with death. Metaphorically, death represents the loss of presence that comes when you are taken over by anger and negativity.
In the ritual, one must take a completely red cow and slaughter it, then burn it up completely. (Both the redness of the cow and the burning represent the fire of anger, which causes one to become spiritually “dead.”)
Then, the ashes are mixed with water and made into a potion to be sprinkled on the impure person. And, while the potion causes the impure person to become pure again, it causes the one who sprinkled the potion to become impure- just as parents who discipline their children with anger may help to “purify” the child’s behavior, but in the process they become impure themselves.
This theme continues to vibrate throughout the parshah-
Shortly after the hok of the red cow, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, Miriam’s death is the loss of connection with the Divine Presence, which Miriam represents. After she dies, we are then told that there is “no water to drink.” Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with the Presence that was lost.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. Hashem instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of his own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hardness- to the lack of connection.
Then it says-
“Hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah-
“You shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…”
The barrier to holiness can be penetrated by gently bringing awareness to it through speech, by using speech to return people to presence. That’s the role of the spiritual teacher- to help others return to Presence, often through speech.
But, as you may know, that’s not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels,” and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink- but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself! How often do you beat yourself up for not living up to your highest intentions?
While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly. You have the power to teach yourself from your “Inner Torah”- to set yourself on the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
But to do this, you have to consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah. Yes, we are flawed humans, but on the deepest level we are also Torah. That level of Torah within is ever available, if you but remember and open to it.
There’s a hint of this in the parshah as well, when it describes the law for a person who dies in a tent:
“Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel-
“This is the torah (teaching) for when a person dies in a tent…”
The beginning of this verse can also be read in a completely different way- “Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!”
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time to sit for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance from him of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe of his presence.”
But as soon as he sat down, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him anyway.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them: “You know, every person is like a holy book- every person is in fact a Torah- as it says, ‘Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!’And just as you wouldn’t pile things on top of a Sefer Torah, so too please don’t push and shove one another.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
On this Shabbat Hukat, the Sabbath of Decree, may we take care to embrace the “decree” of what is, even when confronting the negativity of others, not allowing our resistance to be embodied in self-defeating anger. But rather, let us embody Presence in all three garments- in our actions, words and thoughts.
Zekher: Remembrance Phrases
Weekly Inquiry Phrase:
"What Desire is Arising Now?"
Weekly Chant Phrase:
"Dishanta Vashemen Roshi, Kosi Rivaya
You anoint my head with oil; my cup is full!" (Psalm 23)
Listen, Watch and Read HERE.
Since I am traveling this week, I am reposting one of my favorite Lessons in Presence from the archive. This one is based on this week's Torah portion, Parshat Korakh, and talks about how to use desire as a means to become more conscious and free, rather than get caught by it. It also features a chant from Psalm 23.
Watch, Listen and Read HERE.
Please Note Summer Schedule:
Upcoming Weekly Meditation Livestreams for June and July:
June 19, July 17 and July 24. August is back to weekly schedule.
More on Parshat Korakh:
The Farmer – Parshat Korakh
Once there was a farmer who lived on his farm with his son. The son grew up helping the farmer with all the chores- cleaning the chicken coup, milking the cows, planting, tending, harvesting and so on. As the son grew up, however, he became disdainful of the farm life. He resented his father for raising him in such a sheltered life, and he wanted to experience more.
As he grew more and more restless, he would get into fights with his father, insulting him and calling him a bumpkin and a hick and so on. Eventually he left the farm and set out for a more urban evnvironment. He became a party animal, living for the nights when he would drink himself into oblivion with his newfound crowd of party animals.
One such night, one of his companions who knew about the son’s origins got out of hand and started insulting him and his father. The son suddenly felt protective of his father’s honor, and threatened to beat the guy up. Some other people restrained him, and said “why don’t you settle it with a drinking contest?” They both agreed.
As the son downed shot after shot, there was something different in the way he was drinking. In the past, he drank for his own pleasure. Now, he was drinking for his father. This gave him more drinking strength than ever, and he easily won the contest.
The next night, when he went out drinking, he was reminded of what it was like to drink for his father, and how it somehow gave more strength and depth to his drinking, so he tried it again: Before taking a sip, he would say, “Dad, this is for you”. From then on, every night he went out, he would dedicate his partying to his father. After some time, he felt something like a fire kindle inside his heart. A great love for his father grew inside him. Sometimes he would sit with the glass of wisky for long periods without drinking anything, just savoring this love that was growing within him.
Eventually, he began to realize that the love within him was infinitely more deep and sweet than the scrap of pleasure he got from the alchohol. He knew he had to return home, but he felt so guilty facing his father.
When he arrived and saw his father, he said, “I left here because I had felt like I was just one of your animals, mindlessly doing your farm work. But now that I’ve been out in the world, I feel like I am not even as good as your animals, because your animals at least faithfully serve you, while I just run around after my own pleasure. I am less than an animal. But I love you, and I realize I was wrong, and I want to come back.”
The father was in tears. “My son, these animals don’t serve me on purpose. They follow their instincts, and I know how to work with them so that they serve me and the farm. You, on the other hand, have chosen to some back out of love, and that is the most precious thing to me.”
In the story, the son follows his own desires, satisfying himself through drinking. But when he accidentally imbues his drinking with love for his father, the drinking begins to have a new effect. It becomes a path of transformation.
On Shabbat, as we come together to sing and dance and praise in joy, most of us are drinking in the tavern for God. We’re doing enjoyment, but dedicating it to God, so it becomes a path of transforming the heart, of awakening the power of love. But in order for that power to become a true transformation, we have to take it back to the farm.
But of course there is something in the way; it is easier to drink for the farmer than to clean the chicken coup for the farmer. So the story is really about the very beginning of the son’s spiritual work- the real work begins after the story ends. That’s where the transformation of ego happens- when you clean the chicken coup, when you endure the hardships of life and are able to dedicate it to the One.
The other day, I lost my kippa, and I was afraid- it’s my last one, what am I going to do? Then I realized what a crass materialist I was being. What kind of spirituality is that? Worrying about a hat? So insignificant compared to the real hardships of life, but it affected me. But those to me are the golden spiritual moments- when you get to see your own ego at work- because that is the opportunity to drop it for real. Real transformation happens in the flow of actual life, when we offer the whole of our life on the altar of actuality.
In this parasha, Korakh makes a rebelion against Moses with 250 followers, accusing Moses of exalting himself over everyone else, and calling for something more democratic. The midrash asks why this incident comes right after the mitzvah of tzitzit- the ritual fringes worn the corners of the one's garment to remind one of the Path. The tzitzit are supposed to have a special thread of blue in them. It answers that Korakh came to Moses with a garment made entirely of blue and asked Moses, “Does this need tzitzit?” Metaphorically, Korakh was saying that he was totally aware of God’s presence everywhere, so there was no need for the specific tzitzit as a reminder; Korakh was like the garment that was all blue. There was no need for Moses to lead him, Korakh argued, because whatever happens, God is always in control anyway. It’s a very spiritual argument, and it is actually true from a spiritual point of view. But he was using a spiritual argument to justify being a farm animal rather than being a son of God. The farm animals do what they do, and the farmer manipulates the situation. But the son comes back to serve out of love and awareness of the farmer, and that’s the difference between Moses and Korakh. Korakh’s actions did ultimately serve a holy purpose- the story is in the Torah, and is part of the Teaching, but Korakh was motivated by ego. Moses was trying to do his job.
So the point is not using spiritual ideas as argument; the point is our relationship to the present moment. It is being willing to allow this moment to be what it really is anyway, and serving That. This is what it means to serve in simkha- in joy- but also in yirah- in fearsome awe; because only awe and surrender can the things we resist transform us into hearts that burn with Divine Love. May we merit truly spiritual lives, so that the ecstasy of drinking in the tavern be channeled into cleaning the chicken coup. Shabbat Shalom!
Weekly Inquiry Phrase:
"Bold in Holiness?"
Weekly Chant Phrase:
"Motzi Asirim – Liberating the Captive" (Morning Liturgy)
Listen or Watch:
Click below to stream or download audio:
מוציא אסירים, ופודה ענוים
Motzi Asirim, Ufodeh Anavim
Frees the Captive, Liberates the Humble
Click below to stream or download chant audio only:
Once, Reb Zushia commented on the saying of the sages, "the bold-faced will go to hell, and the shame-faced to paradise."
"'The bold-faced will go to hell,'" said Reb Zushia, "this means that if you are bold in holiness, you don't have to fear descending into hell. You can engage in all kinds of worldly things, and you will receive the light hidden within them. But if you're shame-faced in your holiness, you'd better stick to the paradise of prayer and meditation and stay away from the world..."
There is a taste of this idea in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'lakh L'kha, in which Moses send out spies to check out the Land and bring back a report:
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land...
Most of the spies come back and say that the land is wonderful, but that there are “giants,” and they discourage the Israelites from entering the land on account of the giants. They are being “shame-faced” in a sense, lacking courage and confidence.
There are times for withdrawing from the world and from people, in order to heal or gain perspective. But when it's time to move back into the world, it is good to be “bold-faced” with your holiness. Meaning, have confidence that there is a task you can do – that only you can do. It might be something you need to learn. It might be serving others in a particular way. Or, it might just be an opportunity to surrender on a deeper level.
To be “bold” doesn't mean you have to have confidence in yourself. The spies in the story lacked self-confidence, but the remedy would not have been to bolster their self-confidence. Rather, the remedy would be for them to have had Divine-confidence. Hashem told them not to be afraid; if they had Divine-confidence, their lack of self-confidence wouldn't have been a problem.
Similarly, if you don't have self-confidence, don't worry! You don't need it. It's often better not to have self-confidence. As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot, “Don't believe in yourself until the day you die.” (2:5)
But trust: here you are, in such-and-such situation, and this is the situation you should be in; you have some unique role to fulfill. Trust that the Divine “put” you here for a reason. Trust, trust, trust! That's liberation!
More on Shelakh L'kha...
Hashem ro’i v’lo ekhsar- the Divine is my shepherd, I shall not lack. Binot deshe yarbitzeini- in lush meadows the Divine lays me down- al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me. Nafshi yeshovev- my soul is revived.
These words from Psalm 23 reflect a common attitude about spirituality, that realization of the Divine leads to pure bliss and freedom from all suffering- from anger, fear, judgment, and so on. But if we go a little further down, it says:
Ta’arokh l’fanai shulkhan neged tzorerai- You prepare before me a table in front of my tormentors…
In front of my tormentors? I thought we were just lounging in the grass beside the tranquil waters- how did my tormentors get into the picture?
These images hint at an important distinction that will help you navigate your practice and avoid a very common pitfall. This is the distinction between the idea of getting rid of negativity all together, which is misleading, versus shifting the context within which the negativity arises, which is actually what the practice is all about.
One reason this can be confusing is because the practice of Presence willof course decrease negativity and suffering. It decreases stress, it decreases repetitive and unhelpful thinking, and definitely opens you to more joy and bliss. Al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me.And at some point, you’re likely to experience all negativity dropping away completely.
However, this does not mean that the possibility of negativity has been eliminated, and that’s where you can get into trouble. Because once you’ve had some deep success with your practice, once you’re “lying down by the tranquil waters” so to speak and the Eternal dimension of Being has become a direct and palpable experience for you, there can be a tendency to think that negativity shouldn’t bother you at all anymore; that your feelings should never get hurt, that you should never feel insulted, that nothing should make you angry and so on.
Then, when some negativity does arise, you can mistakenly conclude that you’ve somehow lost it, that the power of Presence isn’t working for you anymore, when really you’ve just been given a tremendous gift, and you just need to shift the way you’re looking at it to see the gift. Why?
Gam ki elekh b’gei tzalmavet- even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death- lo ira ra ki atah imadi- I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
The real power of Presence is not that it destroys the possibility of negativity arising. After all, we’re all in the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death. But rather the power of Presence is that it changes the context in which everything arises, including negativity. But, you can’t know this and prove it to yourself unless you have a chance to practice it, which is why the arising of negativity is a gift.
So when negativity arises, use it as an opportunity to realize that you are not trapped by the negativity- ki atah imadi- know that the Divine is with you, because the Divine is the eternal dimension of Being, and this eternal dimension is npt separate from the space of your own awareness, within which the negativity as well as everything else comes and goes. And, you can use the Three Portals of IJM to realize this in any moment. First is the Portal of the Heart. A feeling has arisen that needs to be felt, so be generous. Offer your awareness to it- l’kha.
Second is the Portal of the Body. Now that you’ve offered your Presence, sustain it by anchoring it in your body and your breathing. This keeps you with your present moment experience and calms the tendency to spin off into unhelpful thinking. Na’aseh-returning again and again to sustaining presence in your body.
Third is the Portal of Awareness itself. This is where the shift in context happens most fully. Bring to mind that whatever you’re feeling is happening within awareness, is made out of awareness, and that the awareness itself is a vast field without border or limit, while whatever particular experience you’re having is something that comes and goes- v’nishma- you are the space of perception. There’s a hint of this in the Torah story of the spies who are sent to investigate the promised land.
InParshat Shelakh Lekha,God speaks to Moses and says, “Shelakh lekha anashim v’yaturu et eretz Cana’an- send for yourself men to spy out the land of Cana’an…”
The spies go out and climb a mountain to check out the land, and they return with giant grapes, pomegranates and figs. They report back, “Yes! This land flows with milk and honey and here are some of the amazing fruits growing there. But, the inhabitants of the land are giants; they would destroy us. Van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- and so we were in their eyes.”
When a person ascends the mountain of transcendence and eats the fruit of joy and bliss that comes from such an awakening, there can sometimes be a tremendous frustration and resignation when you come down from the mountain into the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death- the place of ordinary, sometimes negative emotions such anger, fear, sadness, and so on. That’s when we need the words of Yehoshua- the words of encouragement that Joshua speaks to them: Hashem itanu- al tira’um- the Divine is with us- don’t be afraid of them!
Meaning that just because you came down from a high experience of joy and bliss into the valley of negativity, in fact nothing has changed. The spacious freedom you experienced on the mountain, so to speak, is still the open space of your own awareness within which the experience of negativity arises. You can conquer any negativity not by fighting against it directly, but by simply seeing that it comes and goes within the space of this moment, and you are that space. Hashem itanu- your very nature is Divine, meaning that you are space of this moment.
But of course, that’s not what happens in the story. Instead, the Israelites are afraid. They say, “Forget it! Let’s go back to Egypt.” Meaning, let’s go back to the ordinary and familiar way of being, before we experienced the radical freedom of awakening. Then, they change their minds out of fear of punishment, and try to go fight the enemy after all. But Moses says to them, “Lo yiyeh Hashem imakhem- God will not be with you!” They go anyway, and get pounded.
So how can this be? If your nature is the Eternal space of this moment, how can that change? Of course, it doesn’t change, it’s our awareness of this fact that changes. We get seduced by our feelings and believe them into giants. Rather than know our own vastness, “van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes” and grasshoppers don’t want to get smooshed, so we try and fight our feelings, try to push them away, or deny them, and that just creates inner conflict so that- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- so we were grasshoppers in their eyes- meaning, the very thing that we’re fighting gets bigger and bigger because negativity is empowered by more negativity.
On the other hand, if you know Hashem itanu- the Divine is literally your own nature- then al tira’um- there’s never anything to be afraid of in your experience. You’re on top of the world? No big deal it’s a passing experience. You’re in the depths of hell? No problem, it will pass. Rather than get caught up in your experience which is always changing, realize the space within which your experience is arising. You can do that through the practice of Presence in general, and through daily meditation in particular.
Then you’ll know the truth of the words of Yehoshua- “Al tir’u et ha’am ha’aretz- don’t be afraid of the people of the land,” meaning, don’t be afraid of any particular experiences that arise, “Ki lakhmeinu hem- for they are our bread,” meaning, when you stand courageously in the midst of difficult experiences, they become food for your awakening, deepening your grounded-ness in the reality of Presence. Then you’ll know directly, Hashem itanu- the Divine is with us- al tira’um”- there’s nothing to be afraid of.
(So on this Shabbat Shelakh,the Sabbath of Sending, let us send forth our full attentiveness with courage and confidence into the depths of whatever arises in our experience, thereby eating the feast of whatever avodah- whatever practice is put before us. And through this, may the consciousness of our species continue to evolve and bring us speedily to a time of freedom from the horrors of ego and violence that continue to plague our species. Kein y’hi ratzon, so may it be, Good Shabbos.)
So see if you can really take this in, that you need not be afraid of any particular experience. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should go and do things that are unsafe or that create negative experiences, there’s no reason for that either, but once a negative experience has already arisen, you can use it to deepen your awaken-ness- to know, as the psalm says, “Shavti b’veit Hashem- I dwell in the house of the Divine” meaning, you are constantly dwelling in and as the space of this moment- “l’orekh yamim- for long days”- meaning, for the borderless and timeless Present. Let’s sing.
Beyond and Back- Parshat Shelakh
In the seventies, when I was in second or third grade, there was a movie I loved called “Beyond and Back.”
“Beyond and Back” was about the near death experiences of several different people. As their stories were told, almost all of them described hovering above their dead bodies and grieving loved ones, rushing through a tunnel of light, feeling immense love and oneness, then having the sense that it “wasn’t yet their time” and returning back to their bodies.
I loved this movie, of course, because the people claimed to have direct experience of something that most consider to be an impenetrable mystery- the mystery of death. Death is the one journey all of us will take, or so it seems, and so to find information on what happens when you die can be tremendously reassuring to those who “don’t like surprises” (as both of my children tell me they don’t).
As I got older, I had a similar experience with regard to spirituality- I was much more attracted to those who seemed to have direct experience of enlightenment than those who merely quoted scriptures. In a sense, authentic spiritual teachers are like those who have died and come back to tell about it. Only with enlightenment, it’s not about physical death, but a totally different kind of death.
In this week’s reading, God tells Moses,
“Shelakh l’kha anashim vayaturu et Eretz Canaan-”
“Send for yourself people to spy out the land of Canaan…”
Canaan is the “Promised Land." It is the aim of the liberation from Egypt (Mitzrayim- the place of constriction- tzarim- narrows) and the ultimate home of b’nei Yisrael- those who see through “straight to God” (Yishar- straight- El- God).
In other words, the Land is a metaphor, pointing to the aim of spiritual liberation. What is that aim? It is described as flowing with halav ud’vash- with milk and honey.
What is milk? Milk is pure nourishment. What is honey? Honey is sweetness.
There’s a sweetness and nourishment that flows from Reality, but to receive it there has to be a relaxing of all contraction (mitzrayim) and an openness to simply Being with this moment as it is.
But most of those spies came back with bad reports, telling of insurmountable “giants in the land.”
You too might be skeptical about Liberation, and there might be fear. That’s because you know on some level that if you truly open to Reality as it is, there will be pain- Reality is sometimes painful. With resistance, at least you can hold back some of that pain. That’s the advice of the “spies” who reported back about the “giants” in the land.
“We are like grasshoppers in their eyes…”
You might think- “I’m not a super human. I’m just human. How can I possibly accept everything? How can I surrender? How can I become present?”
In that fear, there’s the tendency to turn spiritual awakening into just an idea, into something to talk about, but not something you can really be. When that happens, the spies with the bad reports have won. Like the Israelites who were condemned to wander another forty years in the desert, the intellectualizing of spiritual awakening keeps the searching and wandering going on and on, and puts off the Arriving for another time.
But you don’t have to be superhuman; you don’t have to be anything in particular, because openness is not a special thing; it is Nothing. It is just a willingness to allow everything to be as it is.
It is told about Rabbi Leib, one of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, that when he heard rabbis expound on the Torah, he would remark-
“What does all this intellectual expounding amount to? A person should totally be a Torah, so that you can learn from their smallest movements as well as their motionless cleaving to the Oneness. They must become empty and spacious like heaven itself, of which it is said-
“Ayn omer v’ayn devarim- There is no speech and there are no words…”
This is the spaciousness of Presence- the “heaven” that is born within when resistance dies, but you do not.
On this Shabbat Shelakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we open to the energy of liberation that is being sent our way, constantly, always in this moment. And when we do, may any pain that Reality throws our way be brief, and may we drink deeply from the milk and honey of Being.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks