Weekly Remembrance Phrase:
"Doing my best, yet knowing I have no control whatsoever..."
This episode explores the paradox of responsibility to do our best, on one hand, and yet realize that we have no control whatsoever, on the other. Responsibility and Freedom in One. It is the also the fifth episode and chant from the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh and connects with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Matot. To access the other four teachings on Ana B'khoakh, Click here for the first, here for the second, here for the third, and here for the fourth. Or, check out those and many others in the new index (under construction).
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
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The fifth line of the mystical prayer Ana B’khoakh says, Hasin Kadosh- Powerful and Holy- B’rov Tuv’kha- In Your abundant Goodness- Nehel Adatekha- Guide Your congregation.
Let’s look at that last phrase- Nehel Adatekha- Guide Your congregation. Why would you pray for guidance? Obviously, it’s because we human beings do something called, “making mistakes.” What does that mean to make a mistake? It means that we intended one thing with our actions, but we got something else. For example, just the other day, I looked out the window and saw my wife and five-year-old daughter leaving for work and camp. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, so I slipped on my sandals and ran outside as fast as I could to catch them before the car drove off.
But, it turned out, my wife was playing a game with my daughter in which they were trying to get out of the house without me noticing, which was fun for our daughter and helped to get her moving out the door. When I ran out, my daughter started screaming and crying because thought she lost the game and got all upset. So then my wife had to leave with a screaming daughter in the backseat.
Now, of course, my intention in running out was to have a nice goodbye with them. The result, however, was a stressful ugly moment that probably continued for some time for my wife as she drove away with a bitter, screaming child. Hopefully it didn’t last too long. But the point is twofold: first, I made a mistake. Second, I couldn’t have not made that mistake. Right? There was no way for me to know about the game they were playing; it had never happened before. Of course, now I’ll think twice before running and saying goodbye to them in the car, but in that moment, there was no way I could have known.
And that is, in fact, the very nature of a mistake; a mistake, for the most part, means that you had no control over it. It wasn’t your intention. And, it’s the nature of being human that you’re going to make mistakes. Of course, it seems like it would be nice not to make mistakes, so that’s what this prayer is saying: Reality gives us situations in which we are bound to make certain mistakes, so on the surface, the prayer is crying out, “Hashem, please guide us – Nehel Adatekha – so that we don’t inadvertently cause all kinds of chaos and suffering.”
But there’s a deeper level that emerges when we look at the preceding phrase: B’rov Tuv’kha- In Your abundant Goodness- Nehel Adatekha- Guide Your congregation.
Okay on the surface, this seems to make sense. You want good things to happen, or things that you think are good anyway, so the prayer is invoking God’s goodness. But if we look a little deeper, we might ask, what is goodness, anyway? Most of the time, when we talk about goodness, we talk about it in relation to something else. Like we might say that a particular world leader is “good for the Jews” or not. Or we say that a food is good, because we enjoy it. In these examples, goodness is defined by being in positive relation to something else.
But in the very beginning of the Torah we have a different framing of goodness in the story of the creation of the universe. Every time God creates something new, it says “Vayar Elokim ki tov- and God saw that it was good.” It doesn’t say why it was good, it doesn’t say that it was good in relation to anything else, God just “sees” it, and it’s good.
And this brings us to the deeper meaning of goodness, which is that when you simply see what is there, not judging whether something is good or not, but just seeing, the just seeing is itself inherently good. Good in relation to what? Good in relation to everything. There’s nothing in your experience – nothing at all – that doesn’t benefit from your simply seeing what is in this moment. Because in the act of simply seeing, without judging, without pronouncing things as good or bad, you allow the moment to be whole, which means you allow yourself to be whole. You’re not contracting into one corner of your experience, judging something in the other corner, because the whole experience is you; you are the fullness of consciousness within which this moment is unfolding.
So, from this absolute point of view, there are no mistakes, because we’re not judging things anymore in relation to what we think is good, in relation to what we want. Rather, we are being the seeing. And in that simple seeing, there’s an absolute goodness even when there’s “bad stuff” going on, because the simple seeing frees you from the tzar – the narrowness of a limited point of view.
So really there are two levels here in this verse. First there’s the ordinary level; we intend to do something good, and if it doesn’t turn out that way, that’s called making a mistake. We don’t have any control over whether we make mistakes; that’s why they’re called mistakes. So, on this level, we’re acknowledging that we’re not in control of what happens, so we cry out Nehel Adatekha – Guide Your congregation. In other words, help us to act in a way that will be successful, so we don’t have to mess up so much.
But on a deeper level, it’s saying to guide us b’rov tuv’kha- with Your Abundant Goodness. And what is God’s goodness? “Vayar Elokim ki tov- and God saw that it was good.” God’s abundant goodness is in the seeing of what is. So, on this level, there are no mistakes, because things are mistakes only in relation to a mind that intends and judges. But to awareness itself, there’s a wholeness to Reality as it is, beyond judgment and control.
There’s a hint of these two different levels in the Torah parshah that talks about vows and oaths.
In Parshat Mattot, it says that if a person makes a vow to do something, or takes an oath not to do something, “lo yakhel d’varo- his word shall not be desecrated or emptied – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – as everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do.”
So, on the surface this is talking about keeping your word. You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. But on a deeper level, when we have an intention to do something or not do something, there’s a reason for the intention. The point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you go to work not because you necessarily like your work, but so you can make money. And you make money not because you like the money, but because you want to use the money to benefit your family. But then let’s say you use the money to buy food for your family, and someone in your family has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets really sick, God forbid.
So now there’s a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called making a mistake. So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo- don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example that I just gave, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them. They happen by accident. And while it’s true and good to be as conscious and wise as you can, it’s also true that you’re going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
So then, the next verse says, that if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah- God forgives her, ki heini aviah otah- because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
So, who is this child the Torah talks about? It’s us. We may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening. Who is the parent? It’s Reality Itself – it’s the Truth of what is – as it says, Emet malkeinu efes zulato – Truth is our king and there is nothing else, meaning, there is nothing but the Truth of what is – there is nothing but God.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, yes you should be as conscious and careful as you can with your actions – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – make sure you do your best to bring about the positive result that you intend. But on the other hand, know that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that’s just the ego clinging to a self-image of being successful, or good or whatever. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place, so you must forgive yourself if you want to be free from hameitzar- from the separateness and narrowness of ego, and really experience anani hamerkhav Yah- the infinitely vast expansiveness of the Divine.
But how do you do that? How do you come to forgive yourself so that you can experience Hashem yislakh lah – that you are truly forgiven for all your mistakes? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that you have to forgive everyone else! As it says in Vayikra- Leviticus 10:18, ve’ahavtah l’reiakha k’mokha – love your neighbor as yourself – and if you’re not sure what it means, that you should love others like you love yourself, then right before that it says, lo titur et b’nai amekha- don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people.
So to help us connect with rov tuv’kha – Your abundant goodness – meaning, the goodness of simply seeing the fullness of this moment without resistance, without judging others and without judging ourselves – just Being with what is, let’s chant B’rov tuv’kha – In Your abundant goodness – nahel adatekha – guide Your congregation. In other words, help us Hashem to be successful with our good intentions, but also guide us ever back beyond the ego that judges and struggles, into the spaciousness and freedom of Presence.
B'rov Tuv'kha, Nahel Adatekha
With Your Abundant Goodness, Guide Your Congregation
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks