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)
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
Audio for Streaming or Download:
Ta’arokh l’fanai shulkhan- You prepare a table before me- neged Tzor’rai- in front of my tormentors. Dishanta vashemen roshi- You anoint my head with oil.
These words are from Psalm 23 that begins with the famous words, Hashem ro’i v’lo ekhsar- God is my shepherd, I shall not want. Let’s more closely at this verse- Ta’arokh l’fanai shulkhan- You prepare a table before me- neged Tzor’rai- in front of or against my tormentors.
The word for “my tormentors” is tzorerai, which comes from the root tzar, meaning narrow, or constricted. It’s the same root as Mitzrayim, Egypt, the place of slavery. So these “tormentors” are forces of narrowness, of constriction. A shulkhan, a table, on the other hand, has the feel of openness, of spaciousness- a wide palette upon which nourishment is placed.
Now if you think of the image these words are invoking: The table is l’fanai- before me- literally before my face. The tormentors are neged- against or opposite. So you might imagine a table with a feast on it, with your enemies facing you on the other side of the table.
But another way to read it is that l’fanai and neged are just two ways of saying the same thing. Read in this way, it’s the delicacies themselves that are your tormentors! Some of us may be able to relate to that, since it’s a common experience to desire some food or treat that may not be good for you, and it’s in those moments that you can really feel the constrictive power of desire. Meaning, a desire arises, and instantly you’re all caught up in wanting something. A moment ago you may have been fine, you may have been at peace, but now you’re needing that thing on the table.
Unless, that is, you’re able to become present with your object of desire.
So what does that mean? Let’s look at what happens normally when a desire arises. First there’s the perception- you see a piece of cake, for example. Next, a feeling of wanting arises, triggered by the perception. Then, that feeling instantly gets associated with the cake, which takes you out of the present, and into a fantasy of the immediate future, when you will fulfill the desire by consuming the cake.
On the other hand, when you consciously be present with the desire instead, you cut that whole process down by simply staying with the initial feeling and not getting carried away by it. You can do this by simply saying, “Oh, there’s a desire. Let me just feel that desire.” And if you can stay with that, and really sink into it, you’ll begin to sense the underlying energy of the feeling, and rather than get seduced by the feeling and give it more power, your presence becomes intensified and your thoughts and feelings can cool down.
This is hinted at by the next three words- Dishanta vashemen roshi- You anoint my head with oil. That oil is your own awareness, caressing and cooling down your thoughts and feelings. There’s also a hint of this in the Torah, in the story of Korakh and his rebellion against Moses.
Parshat Korakh begins, “Vayikakh Korakh- Korakh separated himself…”
This is referring to how Korakh “separates himself” by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of unfairly wielding their power. Korakh’s argument is pretty convincing. He says:
“This entire assembly is holy and the Divine is among them- why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Divine?”
Now, the word for “he separated” is vayikakh, which literally means “he took”- hinting at the selfish motive behind his challenge to Moses. Just like when you feel desire for something, like a sugary treat for example, and there’s the urge to reach for it and take it, so too Korakh was grabbing at what he wanted. Only his desire object wasn’t food, but status and control. And just as the body can have physical cravings, so the ego has identity cravings: I want control, I want recognition, and so on, and that ego craving can be much more powerful than bodily cravings in some cases.
Next, it says:
Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.
Why did he fall on his face?
There’s a story that once an opponent of the Hassidic movement came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman of Liadi- to attack him with accusations of arrogance:
“You claim to be a holy man- a leader of Hassidim- but look how you sit alone in your study, separate from the people… and with an attendant at your door, only admitting people according to your command- how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are anyway?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanun prayer.
After a few minutes, he lifted his head and spoke-
“The expression the Torah uses for ‘leaders of the people’ is ‘roshei alfei Yisrael- heads of the thousands of Israel,’ from which we learn that our leaders are known as ‘heads.’
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. Nevertheless, they’re clothed separately and differently. Why is this?
“Because the head must be distinct from the body, just as the ‘heads’ of any generation must be distinct from the people.”
The questioner was impressed with the answer and went on his way.
But the Rebbe’s little son (who would eventually be known as Reb Dov Bear of Lubavich), had a different question for his father:
“Abba, in order to give that answer, there was no need to rest your head in your arms. Why didn’t you give him the answer immediately?”
The Alter Rebbe replied-
“In Parshat Korakh, when Korakh and his followers accused Moses and Aaron of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused them with these words-
“‘Umadua titnasu- And why do you exalt yourselves?’
“Then we read, ‘Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
“Only after he fell on his face, did Moses answer Korakh. So we might ask the same question there- why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
“Because Moses suspected that perhaps there was some truth to the accusation- perhaps there was a bit of ego involved in his leadership, so he had to go inside himself and search inwardly to see if there was some truth there.
“Then, after searching within and purifying himself from any ego (as the Torah says, ‘V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- Moses was exceedingly humble’), he was able to respond with clarity.
“A similar thing happened with me here today.”
The Alter Rebbe’s description of the head in relation to the body- intimately connected, yet separate, transcendent- is not just a metaphor for a leader in relation to the people, but also for consciousness in relation to your thoughts and feelings.
So just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, so you too can be the “attendant” of your own mind, keeping yourself free from thoughts and feelings generated by ego.
But, to do this, you don’t really have to “keep out” any of your thoughts or feelings. All you need to do is be conscious of them. By simply acknowledging the presence of selfish or aggressive thoughts and feelings, they’re no longer controling “you.” Then, as you continue to stay present, your thoughts and feelings naturally cool down, revealing themselves as nothing more than fleeting moments of experience.
As it says in Psalm 23, Dishanta vashemen roshi- My head is anointed with oil. When you stay present, your awareness is like aromatic anointing oil poured over your head, cooling and relaxing your mind and heart. And when that happens, you can experience yourself more and more as consciousness, totally beyond and yet inclusive of your mind and heart. And that consciousness is the opposite of ego. Because while ego is needy and is forever restless, trying to fulfill itself, consciousness is full and complete- Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full.
So let’s sing these words- Dishanta vashemen roshi- You anoint my head is with oil, and also the next two words, Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full. Dishanta vashemen roshi- You anoint my head with oil, refers to the anointing oil of awareness, conscious of and present with your thoughts and feelings. Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full, means that when you don’t buy into the ego’s narrative of neediness, you can experience the fullness and completeness that you are on the level of Presence...
Dishanta Vashemen Roshi, Kosi Rivaya
You anoint my head with oil; my cup is full!
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks