Weekly Inquiry and Chant Phrase:
"Mah Ani? What Am I?"
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
Pesakh and Shavuot are two sides of the single "coin" of Awakening.
Pesakh is liberation from the experience of a narrow, constricted sense of self. This constricted self, or ego, arises from emotional resistance to some aspect of your experience. But the moment you turn around and embrace your experience, liberation begins. Sometimes this can be painful, since painful experiences are often the ones we resist! There can be a process of going through the "ten plagues" before the experience of the spaciousness manifests.
Shavuot, on the other hand, is the "revelation" of living your liberation. The spaciousness of inner freedom is not an endpoint, but a starting point for living an awakened life in service of the Whole, of the Divine. It is your nature to do this. As the Torah says, it is already "in your mouth and heart to do it." Each of us is already uniquely positioned to do whatever tikkun we need to do, if we become open and receptive to the "Divine Will" that needs to be actualized through us.
And yet, both the experience of our innate freedom as well as our path for actualizing that freedom is easily obscured; we need to pay attention to the ways we get in our own way, so that we can learn both what we need to do and what we need to not do, to live an awakened life.
And so, in this time of "Counting the Omer," of contemplating the seven qualities of awakened living, it is good to ask ourselves: What do I need to stop doing? What do I need to start or continue doing? This takes constant vigilance and great persistence, reflecting the sefirah of this week: Netzakh, which can mean Eternity, Victory, and Persistence...
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Who Am I?
(Pirkei Avot 1:14 )
Separate- Parshat Akharei Mot, Kedoshim
"Speak to the entire assembly of the children of Israel and say to them- Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem-
"Holy you shall be, because holy am I, Hashem your God.”
There’s something strange about this passage. God is telling the children of Israel that they should be holy without really explaining what that means, and then it says that the reason they should be holy because God is holy- ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem. So the question is, why does one follow from the other? Why should we be holy just because God is holy, and what does holy mean anyway?
The word for holy, Kadosh, actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. Normally, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, or alienation, such as when a relationship goes sour and you lose that connection with another person. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony, for example, we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Meaning, your beloved becomes kadosh or “separate” not because they’re separate from you, but because they’re exclusive to you. They’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all other relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but to something that’s most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection. And just as your beloved is separate from all other relationships, so too when you become present, this moment becomes separate from all other moments, and you’re able to get some distance from the world of time- from your memories about the past and your anticipations of the future. This allows you to experience yourself not as a bundle of thoughts and feelings inhabiting a body, but as the open, radiant space of awareness within which your thoughts and feelings come and go. That’s why your presence, your awareness is by its nature kadosh- separate from the world of thought and feeling within which we tend to get trapped, yet fully and intimately connected with everything that arises in this moment.
So when God says kedoshim tihyu- you should be holy- it’s telling you to do the practice of holiness by becoming present- by separating your mind from the entanglements of thought and time. How is it possible for us to get free from time? Ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem- because the holiness of Being- Hashem- is already your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem. In other words, by practicing presence, you bring forth your own deepest nature, which is holiness.
This is also hinted at in the name of Parshat Akharei Mot, which means “after the death.” In order to know your own deepest nature as shamayim mima’al, the vastness of space, you have to let go of your mind-based identity- all your stories and judgments about yourself, and that can actually feel like a kind of death. But this death has an Akhar- an afterward in which your true life, the awareness that you are, becomes liberated.
So on this Shabbat Akharei Mot and Kedoshim may we come to know more deeply the holiness that is felt after the death of the false self, and may we express that holiness as love and blessing to everyone we encounter.
The Pie- Parshat Kedoshim
It was Mother’s Day this past week.
I looked for a nice picture to post on Facebook. I found one from my birthday a couple years ago with me and my mother. I was eating some chocolate pecan pie she had made for me. (And always makes for me on my birthday- thanks Mom!)
After I posted it, I was looking at the picture. There was something funny about the expression on my face. Then, it struck me- the particular way I was smiling and looking into the camera looked just like my father.
There’s so much that’s passed on from parent to child- not just genetics, knowledge and language, but also mannerisms and patterns of behavior.
And some of these patterns, alas, are ones we perhaps could do without. Have you ever been critical of some behavior in your parents, and then caught yourself unconsciously acting exactly the same way?
And, its not their fault! Patterns of thought, speech and behavior have been passed down through the generations for ages.
When you become aware of this, there’s a tremendous opportunity for transforming not just your own patterns, but the patterns of those who came before you. As you awaken to your deeper potential, there’s redemption for your ancestors as well.
As it says in this week’s reading:
“Ish imo v’aviv tira’u…
“You shall revere your mother and your father…”
The word here for “revere”- tira’u- has the double meaning of both “revere” or “respect” as well as “fear.” In other words, you should “fear” your potential to perpetuate the negative qualities of your parents, and “revere” them by emulating their positive qualities and transforming the negative ones within yourself!
And this is the call of this week’s parsha- to awaken your potential for holiness- your potential for the expression of integrity, truth, compassion, gratitude, and all the other middot (spiritual qualities):
“Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elohekhem…”
“You shall be holy, for I- Divine Being, your own Divinity- am holy…”
Holiness is intrinsic to who you are- it’s your own inner Divinity. It calls upon you to craft your garments of expression- your thoughts, words and actions- into expressions of the Truth of who you are.
How do you do that?
This parsha contains many beautiful prescriptions for expressing holiness:
“You shall not steal… you shall not lie… You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not favor the poor, nor honor the great... You shall not go around gossiping… you shall not hate others in your heart…you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, this last mitzvah- “Love your neighbor as you love yourself- ve’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha”- is the essence of the whole Torah.
But to really become aware of your unconscious negative patterns, to really get free from them and choose to embody the middot of love and integrity, there needs to be space. The suffering of life is too great for one to remain present and aware without a break from its momentum. Perhaps that’s why the verse about revering one’s parents concludes with the words:
“V’et Shab’totai tishmoru-
“My Sabbaths you shall guard…”
In the stillness, you can recover from the patterns of suffering and reconnect with your inner wellspring of holiness. From that place, you can remain open to whatever suffering arises without losing yourself in it.
There’s a story about Reb Mordechai Dov of Hornisteipl, that once he visited a doctor for a painful sore on his back.
The doctor decided the best thing to do would be to cauterize it. In those days, this would involve heating up three metal rods, each one hotter than the last. If the patient didn’t cry out with the first hot rod, they would apply the second. And in the rare occasion the patient didn’t respond to the second one, a third super hot rod was ready.
The only problem was, this tzaddik was accustomed to accepting pain in silence, not losing his inner connection regardless of how much he suffered.
So, when the doctor applied the first hot rod and got no reaction from Reb Mordechai Dov, he went on to the second rod. Still no reaction. When he applied the third white hot rod and the tzaddik still didn’t respond, the doctor exclaimed- “I don’t know whether this is an angel or a demon!”
Reb Mordechai Dov didn’t understand Russian, so he asked the translator to tell him what the doctor said. When he was told, he answered:
“Please tell the doctor that when someone comes to me and asks that I pray on their behalf, and I see that I won’t be able to relieve their suffering with my prayers, it hurts much much more than these hot rods… and even then, I must not lose myself.”
On this Shabbat Kedoshim, the Sabbath of Holiness, may we become aware of our true potential and practice it in real time. May we reconnect with the Source of that potential, the infinite wellspring of holiness within- the holy awareness that looks though your eyes and hears through your ears, in this moment.
The Flower- Parshat Akharei Mot
What does it take to set your heart free?
Put another way, what is it that imprisons your heart?
Once I was holding a bunch of Jewish books in my hands. My three-year-old daughter came up to me and said, “Here Abba, for you!” She was trying to give me a little flower.
“One moment,” I said, “let me put these books down first.”
It’s like that.
The heart is imprisoned by the burden of whatever is being held. Let go of what you’re holding and the heart is open to receive. There’s a little girl offering you a flower- that flower is this moment. Put down your books and receive the gift.
A friend once said to me, “I always hear that I should ‘just let go.’ But what does that mean? How do I do that?”
To really know how to “let go,” we have to look at why we “hold on.” There are two main reasons the mind tends to hold on to things.
First, there’s holding on to the fear about what might happen.
It’s true- the future is mostly uncertain, and knowing this can create an unpleasant feeling of being out of control.
Holding onto time- meaning, thinking about the future- can give you a false sense of control. There’s often the unconscious belief that if you worry about something enough, you’ll be able to control it. Of course, that’s absurd, but the mind thinks that because of its deeper fear: fear of experiencing the uncertainty itself.
If you really let go of your worry about what might happen, you must confront the experience of really not knowing, of being uncertain. That can be painful, and there’s naturally resistance to pain. But, if you allow yourself to experience the pain of uncertainty, it will burn away. Don’t block the pain with a “pile of books”- that is, a pile of stories about what might be. On the other side of this pain is liberation- the expansive and simple dwelling with Being in the present.
Second, there can be some negativity about what might have happened in the past.
If you let go of your preoccupation with time, if you let go of whatever “happened,” you must confront the fact that the past is truly over. The deeper level of this is confronting your own mortality. Everything, eventually, will be “over.”
But, let go of the past, and feel the insecurity of knowing that everything is passing. Don’t block that feeling of insecurity with a “pile of books”- with narratives about days past. Then you will see- there’s a gift being offered right now. It is precious; it is fragile- a flower offered by a little child, this precious moment.
This week’s reading, Parshat Akharei Mot, begins with a warning to Aaron the Priest concerning the rites he is to perform on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:
“V’al yavo b’khol eit el hakodesh-
“He shall not come at all times into the holy (sanctuary)…”
We may try to reach holiness by working out the past in our minds, or by insisting on a certain future, but as it says- “V’al yavo b’khol eit… he shall not come at all times…”
In other words, you cannot enter holiness through time!
To enter the holy, you must leave time behind, and enter it Now. Let your grasping after the future burn, let your clinging to the past be released. As it says, continuing the description of the Yom Kippur rite-
“V’lakakh et sh’nei hasirim-
“He shall take two goats…”
Letting go of time means letting go of past and future- one goat for the past, one for the future.
The first goat, it goes on top describe, is “for Hashem”- meaning, the future is in the hands of Hashem.This goat is slaughtered and burned. Meaning: experience the burning of uncertainty and slaughter your grasping after control.
The other goat is “for Azazel.”
The word Azazel is composed of two words- “az” means “strength”, and “azel” means “exhausted, used up”. In other words, the “strength” of the past is “used up.” The past is gone, over, done. Let it go, or it will use you up! This goat is let go to roam free into the wilderness.
The past is gone, the future is in the hands of the Divine. But those Divine hands are not separate from your hands. Set your hands free- put down the narratives- and receive the flower of this moment, as it is, and with all its creative potential for what could be…
There’s a story that once Reb Yehezkel of Kozmir strolled with his young son in the Zaksi Gardens in Warsaw. His son turned to him with a question-
“Abba, whenever we come here, I feel such a peace and holiness, unlike I feel anywhere else. I would expect to find it when I’m studying Torah, but instead I feel it here.”
Reb Yehezkel answered-
“As you know, it says in the Prophets- ‘M’lo khol ha’aretz k’vodo- the whole world is filled with the Divine Glory.’ But, sometimes we’re blocked from recognizing it.”
“But Abba,” pressed his son, “Why would I be blocked from feeling the Divine Glory when I’m learning Torah? And why would I feel it so strongly in this non-religious place?”
“Let me tell you a story,” answered the rebbe.
“In the days before Reb Simhah Bunem of Pshischah evolved into great tzaddik, he would commute to the city of Danzig and minister to the community there, even though he lived in Lublin.
“When he returned to Lublin, he would always spend the first Shabbos with his rebbe, the “Seer”- Reb Yaakov Yitzhak of Lublin.
“One time when he arrived back at Lublin, he felt disconnected from the holiness he had felt while he was in Danzig. To make matters worse, the Seer wouldn’t give him the usual greeting of “Shalom,” and in fact behaved rather coldly to Reb Simha.
“Figuring this was just a mistake, he returned to the Seer some hours later, hoping to get a blast of the rebbe’s spiritual juice, but again the Seer just ignored him. He left feeling dry and sad that his rebbe had rejected him.
“Then, a certain Talmudic teaching came to his mind: that a person beset with unexpected tribulations should scrutinize their actions.
“So, he mentally scrutinized every detail of his conduct in Danzig, but he couldn’t recall anything he had done wrong. If anything, he noted with satisfaction that this visit was definitely of the kind that he liked to nickname ‘a good Danzig,’ for he had brought down such holy ecstasy in the prayers and chanting.
“But then he remembered the rest of the teaching. It goes on to say-
‘Pishpeish v’lo matza, yitleh b’vitul Torah-
‘If he sought and did not find, let him ascribe it to the diminishing (bitul) of Torah.’
“Meaning, that his suffering must be caused by having not studied enough.
“Taking this advice to heart, Reb Simhah decided to start studying right then and there. Opening his Talmud, he sat down and studied earnestly all that day and night.
“Suddenly, a novel light on the Talmudic teaching dawned on him. He turned the words over in his mind once more:
‘Pishpeish v’lo matza, yitleh b’vitul Torah.’
“He began to think that perhaps what the sages really meant by their advice was not that he didn’t study enough, but that he wasn’t ‘diminished’ (bitul) by his studying. Rather than humbling himself with Torah, all that book knowledge was simply building up his own ego, and blocking his connection with the Presence. As soon as he realized this, he ‘let go’ of the books- he let go of being a great scholar, and the Presence that he longed for returned.
“Later that evening, the Seer greeted him warmly: ‘Danzig, as you know, is not such a religious place, yet the Divine Presence is everywhere, as it says- the whole world is filled with Its Glory. If, while you were there, the Divine Presence rested upon you, this was no great feat accomplished by your extensive learning- it was because in your ecstasy, you opened to what is always already here.’”
On this Shabbos Akharei Mot, the “Sabbath After the Death,” may all that we hold out of pride drop away. May all that we hold out of fear drop away. May all that we hold in an attempt to control drop away… and may we live in this holiness that is always already here.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks