Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
Weekly Chant Phrase:
"Ham'khadesh B'khol Yom – Renewing Each Day"
This week’s chant phrase is Ham'khadesh B'khol Yom – Renewing Each Day. Throughout the week, use this phrase to remind you that there is a bright "newness" available, if you open fully to your experience, however it is arising in this moment.
This week’s Lesson in Presence explores this more deeply through the Torah reading, Parshat Toldot. Although not absolutely necessary, I recommend reading through Toldot to fully appreciate these teachings (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). Here are two resources for reading the parsha on line:
Toldot on Sefaria
Toldot on Chabad
Note: Many more teachings, chants and meditations available in the Index (in process)
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
We’re looking at the very rich Parshat Toldot, the Parshah of Generations. It says, “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham – these are the generations or the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham – Avraham holid et Yitzhak – Abraham begot Isaac. So right away we have a strange construction: it says that Isaac, or Yitzhak, is the son of Abraham, Avraham, then it says, Avraham begot Yitzhak. Well, obviously if Yitzhak is the son of Avraham, then of course Avraham begot Yitzhak. It seems redundant, right? So, we’ll come back to that question.
A little further down, it says that Yitzhak’s wife, Rivka, or Rebecca, became pregnant, and that “Vayitrotz’tzu habonim b’kirbah – the children were fighting inside her.” The children are the twins Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Now, in many commentaries of the past, Yaakov and Esav represent some form of duality. Sometimes Esav is the body and Yaakov is the soul, sometimes Esav is earthiness and Yaakov is scholarliness, but most of the time, these dualities are framed as some form of bad and good. And just as Esav and Yaakov are fighting within Rivka’s womb, so too there’s the idea of a battle going on in each one of us between the Yetzer HaTov, the drive toward good, and the Yetzer HaRa, the drive toward evil.
This concept, that within us there’s a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, a good urge and a bad urge, is a basic Jewish spiritual concept, but I want frame it a little differently. Rather than the yetzer hara being the drive toward bad, I want to understand it as the drive toward dividing the world into good and bad. This is also pictured in another form at the beginning of the Torah, as the Eitz Daat Tov V’ra – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. So that’s the Yetzer Hara, dividing the world into good and bad. And then, rather than the yetzer hatov being the drive to do good, I want to understand it as the drive to see the goodness in everything. This, of course, is the Eitz Hayim – the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, because when you’re able to see the goodness in everything, which means the underlying goodness of Being Itself, not pretending that violence is really nice, or that sad is really happy, but just tapping into the underlying goodness of simply Being, then it’s really like eating from the Tree of Life. There’s a simple bliss and spaciousness of this moment.
When we understand it that way, then we can see that we always need both Esav and Yaakov; we need Esav, we need to differentiate between good and bad, between nourishing food and poison, between getting up with the alarm and sleeping late, and so on. That’s why Esav is the hunter- going out and taking what he needs from the world. But, if that’s all we’ve got, then we’re totally identified with the mind, with agendas and judgment, and the Tree of Life is hidden behind the fiery sword of thoughts and feelings. So we also need Yaakov; we need to simply open to this moment, to taste the bliss of Being, which is why we came into being in the first place. If life is just a tragic struggle leading nowhere, then what’s the point, right? The point is, there’s a Garden of Eden within; there’s a Tree of Life with fruit to taste right now, if you’re open. That’s why Yaakov eventually gets renamed Yisrael, Israel, and B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel are characterized by freedom, by coming out of Egypt, out of slavery. That means the spiritual slavery of the ego, which means total identification with the thoughts, feelings, judgments, agendas, and really, time itself.
So how do we open? How do we awaken to the Eternal Present that’s beyond time, beyond ego? In the story, Esav comes in from the hunt, exhausted and hungry. He asks Yaakov for some food, and Yaakov convinces Esav to sell him his birthright as the firstborn for some stew. Later, Yaakov tricks their father Yitzhak by disguising himself as Esav and receiving the blessing of the firstborn from their father. These two strategies that Yaakov uses to get the blessing and the birthright away from Esav are really two phases of the Path, which I want to call, Disguising and Empowering.
Let’s first look at Disguising. Presence is not just another thing on your to do list. Presence is not an agenda. Presence does not get you somewhere, it’s not an achievement, it’s not a badge you can wear, it’s not something you can accomplish and then cross off your bucket list. Presence is a way of Being, it’s an approach to this moment right now that sets you free. And, as such, it very easily gets psychologically overshadowed by nearly everything else in life. It’s not hard at all to taste the freedom of Presence, but for most people it can seem nearly impossible to make Presence into a constant way of Being, rather than just be an occasional experience. To do that, you have to “disguise” Presence in the clothing of time-bound agendas. You have to actually put it on your to do list, in a sense. That means, setting aside time for meditation and prayer, setting aside time to absorb this lesson, and so on. You’ve got to work it into your schedule, just like anything else, even though it’s fundamentally not like anything else. You’ve got to dress up Yaakov like Esav.
And that brings us to the second phase, Empowering. Just as Yaakov wouldn’t give Eisav any stew until he gave up his birthright, so too, you have an impulse to eat, to satisfy your hunger? Great. Eat. But first, stop. Say a brakha. Realize that it’s not a given that we should always have food to eat. Realize that millions of humans have died of starvation. Realize that this moment could be your last, that this moment is all we truly have. Give thanks for the gift of nourishment, and for the privilege of Being. Then eat. Then give Eisav his stew.
So, this is actually a strategy, a technique, that goes way beyond saying a brakha before you eat. You can take any of your common activities, and attach them to taking a moment of Presence, so that Presence becomes habit. Before bed at night, you can stop and meditate even for a few moments. However it works for you, the key is to train yourself, just like you would a child. You want a bedtime story? Fine, but you have get in bed by seven-o-clock. You want to play with that toy? No problem, but help clear the table first. Do the same for yourself. You might feel lazy or you might feel that everything else is more important, but if you want real transformation, you’ve got to make Presence into a constant habit. Disguise it as an agenda, then trick yourself into doing it. then, once you’re inside it, surrender. Because in this moment, there is no agenda, there is no movement, there is no time. There is only the blessed space of Being within which everything is unfolding, and you are that blessed space.
So this is a practice to renew for yourself every day. You lost it yesterday? No problem, renew it today. Become present again today, and open to the newness of now. We’re going to sing the words from the first blessing of the sh’ma in the morning, HaM’khadesh B’khol Yom – The Renewer Every Day. Or, the Renewer of the Fulness of Today. This is actually a Divine Name. As we chant, keep in mind your constant potential to return again to the holiness of the Present, that Ham’khadesh B’khol Yom, the Power of Renewal, is available now, when you become present.
Ham'khadesh B'khol Yom
Renewing Each Day