Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
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This episode goes into the liturgy of Yom Kippur, in preparation for the High Holy Days beginning in a month. It is the also the sixth episode and chant from the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh and connects with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim.
To access the other five teachings on Ana B'khoakh, Click here for the first, here for the second, here for the third, here for the fourth and here for the fifth. Or, check out those and many others in the new index (under construction).
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
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The sixth line of the mystical prayer Ana B’khoakh says, "Yakhid ge’eh l’amkha p’nei – Oneness or Unity of Being, turn Your face toward your people – zokhrei kedushatekha- those who remember Your holiness…"
There’s a wonderful paradox here – one of my favorite paradoxes actually – in that the Divine Name used in this verse is Yakhid, which means Oneness, or Unity. So, this Name hints at the understanding that what we call the Divine, or God, is not a separate entity, not a Being within a larger Reality, but rather, God is the Larger Reality; God is the Oneness within which everything exists.
But then it says, ge’eh l’amkha p’nei – turn Your face toward your people. So now, suddenly, there’s not One, but two, because I’m asking God over there to turn His/Her/Its Face toward us over here, as if we’re something separate, something other than God.
The next words make the duality even more pronounced – zokhrei kedushatekha- those who remember Your holiness. So, we’re over here, remembering the holiness of God over there, and asking God to “face” us, meaning that all our efforts in remembering the Holiness should please bear fruit; it’s a prayer that we should be rewarded with the experience of the holiness, rather than just thinking about it in our heads.
This paradox is of course the whole point of spirituality. It comes from the understanding that on one hand, there’s a Unity or Wholeness to everything. As it says in the Aleinu prayer, Ki Hashem, Hu HaElohim- That which we call “God” is Existence Itself, and Ayn Od- there is nothing but Existence, nothing but God. V’Hu Haya, v’Hu hoveh, v’Hu yiyeh b’tifara- The Divine is all that was, is and will be, in radiant splendor. (from the Kabbalistic hymn, Adon Olam.)
And yet, on the other hand, in the morning liturgy we read, bakshu fanav tamid – you have to actively seek out the Divine Presence, even though there’s nothing but the Divine Presence, because the default human experience tends not to be the realization of the Yakhid, the Oneness. In fact, it’s often the opposite. This is poignantly reflected in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, in the Viddui, the Confessional.
It says, "My God, even before I was formed, I was not enough – and now that I am formed, it is as if I am not formed. I am dust in my life – how much more so in death?"
This Yom Kippur prayer sounds like kind of downer, but it really brings home the basic condition of our natural self-sense, otherwise known as, ego. "Ad shelo notzarti, eini khadai –even before I was formed, I was not enough." That’s the fundamental feeling of ego: “I am not enough. I have to become more, I have to have more, I have to get better, I have to look better, I have to complete myself.” So, the prayer is crying out, look! Even before I got here, I didn’t even have a fighting chance. The deck was stacked against me, because the very feeling of being a someone, of being a being, is inherently one of incompleteness. V’akhshav shenotzarti, k’ilu lo notzarti- and now that I am formed, it is as if I am not formed. Meaning, I’m never fully formed. No matter what I do, there’s always this sense of being almost defective. No wonder there’s such a booming self-help industry!
So, what’s the solution?
There are two parts to it. First, zekher kedushah – remember holiness. By holiness, I mean something very specific. As we move through time, our default is to be aware of the things that are passing through our experience. That means all the content: all the stuff that happens, all the people we deal with, our responsibilities, good things, bad things, and so on. But behind all that experience is that which experiences; the open space of awareness within which everything comes and goes. That awareness is kadosh- holy, meaning utterly transcendent of everything else that we normally fixate on. So, to be zokhrei kedushatekha – the ones who remember Your holiness – means that you simply remember the space of this moment that’s always present. It doesn’t mean you somehow forget about all the stuff going on, that would be insane and irresponsible, but it just means you balance your awareness of the always unstable, always incomplete world of form, with the ever-present and ever-complete wholeness of this moment. And when you do that, you can begin to see more and more that you are that wholeness; that your awareness isn’t something you have, it’s something you are.
So, when you really remember this, when you really become zokhrei kedushatekha, you will know that you are not the yitzir- you are not the ever-inadequate form. You don’t have to and you can’t perfect yourself as form. That’s why Yom Kippur comes every year. You don’t get atoned and then you’re all done. It’s like eating. You just had a wonderful meal, now you’re fed. You never have to eat again, right? It’s like my beloved father-in-law: whenever he eats a really big and satisfying meal, he says, “I’m never eating again.” The humor, of course, is because matter how much you eat, a few hours later you have to eat again. So, that’s why on Yom Kippur, you just let yourself be hungry, because you are not the hunger. You are not the form. Rather, all forms are perceived within the openness that you are, the vast field of awareness within which that sense of “me” appears.
But, that’s only half of the equation. The next step is to practice your zikharon, your zikr, your remembrance, in your actions. And this takes radical self-honesty. You have to ask yourself, “when I do such-and-such, is that coming from ego, meaning is it coming from a psychological need to enhance my self-sense, to make myself feel better, to feel more recognized, more worthy, whatever?” And if the answer is yes, then the next question is, how can I transform my behavior so that it instead embodies the realization of the Yakhid, the Oneness. There’s a hint of these two levels in this week’s Torah portion.
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to judge the judge in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live. It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So to practice this zikr, this remembrance of tzedek tzedek, the inner acceptance of all that arises and the outer doing of love in the world, let’s chant Yakhid- which means Unity or Oneness, Zokhrei Kedushatekha- Rememberers of the Kedusha, of the transcendence. When we chant Yakhid, Oneness, have in mind to accept all that arises in your experience in this moment. When we chant Zokhrei Kedushatekha- Rememberers of the Transcendence, have in mind to embody the Oneness in your speech and actions. If you’d like to add movement to it, you can open your hands palms up for Yakhid, and put palms together in prayer pose for Zokhrei Kedushatekha...
Yakhid, Zokhrei Kedushatekha
Oneness, Rememberers of Your Holiness