Weekly Inquiry Phrase:
"How shall I speak to myself? How shall I transform speech into prayer?"
Weekly Inquiry Phrase:
"Hashem sifatai tiftakh ufi yagid tehilatekha – Hashem, open my lips, let my mouth speak Your praise!"
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
Once, when Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev had finished leading the davening, he went out into the congregation and greeted everyone: "Shalom aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!" – as if he they had just arrived after a journey.
"Rabbi, why do you greet us as if we just got here? We've been praying with you all morning!"
"Have you?" replied the rebbe, "but in your mind, you were just in the marketplace, you were just wondering what's for lunch, you were just arguing with someone, and when the prayers ended, you all returned, so I greeted you!"
The essence of spiritual work is Presence, and the goal of Presence is freedom. Freedom means: no resistance to whatever happens to arise within your experience. It means: no resentment, no blame, no persisting anger – no resistance at all!
One of the biggest obstacles in our quest for freedom can be the way we talk to ourselves. How do you narrate your experience? How are you framing this moment right now? The way we speak to ourselves has the power to either lead us to more inner clutter, or lead us into the spaciousness of the Present; the power is in our mouths, so to "speak"...
There's a hint in this week's reading, Parshat Emor:
אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו
Speak – Emor – to the priests, the children of Aaron, and say to them, "don't become polluted for a person among your people..."
If you wish to keep yourself open, spacious, uncluttered, then "speak to the priests" – that is, know that you are literally a "priest" – you're not merely a separate entity navigating through life, you are a connecting point between heaven and earth – between the vast space of consciousness, and everything that you perceive – thoughts, feelings, sense perceptions – the whole world around and within. Speak to yourself, remind yourself in this way: "Here is this feeling, here is this thought..." And even more, transform it into a prayer:
"O Hashem, help me to know myself as the vast space of awareness, help me to accept everything that arises and live in simplicity, with love, serving Your highest potential and uplifting the world..."
Audio for streaming or download:
Audio for streaming or download:
אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ
Hashem Sifatai Tiftakh Ufi Yagid Tehilatekha
Hashem, open my lips, let my mouth speak Your praise!
(Opening of Amidah )
"Say"- Parshat Emor
"Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai-
"Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals."
(Inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson- The Rebbe)
The Torah reading Parshat Emor emphasizes the mitzvot of making sacred times- in this case, of setting aside special days in which you put aside all your time-bound agendas so that you can more deeply connect with Eternal dimension of Being. It says, "Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai- Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals." It then goes on to talk about the various festivals, beginning with Shabbat: "Uvayom hash’vi’i Shabbat Shabbaton- and on the seventh day shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths."
Why does it call Shabbat a Sabbath of Sabbaths?
Because ultimately, the purpose of Shabbat- the purpose of the festivals, as well as any other times you set aside for spiritual practice- is not merely to have a special holy experience during those times alone. Rather, the purpose is to immerse in the Eternal dimension of Being so that you can continue to practice Presence even as you operate in the mundane world of time. In that way, all times become like a Sabbath, and the actual Sabbath is then a Sabbath of Sabbaths. Because as we all know, there are many forces of distraction on many levels that block the sense of life being a Sabbath. But when you regularly put those distractions aside in order to do your spiritual practice, you give yourself that space you need and allow the Eternal dimension of Being to blossom more and more into all your life.
So what does it mean to put aside the things of ordinary time? As it says, "...mikra kodesh- a sacred time- kol melakha lo ta’asu- all melakha, that is all work, don’t do."
Meaning, anything that has goals in time such as earning a livelihood, traveling, planning, working on projects- all those things that define your life in time, as opposed to your actual life- that sense of simply Being, as you are, right now, don’t do that stuff. Make sure you have some special times that are sacred.
So on this Shabbat Emor, the Sabbath of saying, may we say out loud to ourselves our commitment to set aside time to go beyond time, whether in the traditional practices of Shabbat and the mo’adim, the Sabbath and festivals, or even for just a few seconds throughout the day to stop, breath and be present, perhaps even putting away phones and computers. May the whole world be nourished by our commitment to practice, that we might be greater channels of love and healing in the world.
The Zombies- Parshat Emor
Once I saw my son looking at You Tube, ravenously drinking in the old 1980’s Michael Jackson Thrillervideo.
Oh man, that brought me back!
The way Michael morphs into some kind of wer-cat and then leads a band of zombies in that funky dance of the dead-
And then the really scary part- his girlfriend cowering in the corner of her house while zombies crash through windows, breaking through the walls and floor- it’s the classic zombie scene that both draws and repels.
Why is the “zombies-invading-the-house” thing so compelling?
To me, the home is a sanctuary- a place to be safe, to relax, to sip a cup of tea on the couch- wouldn’t you agree? And let’s face it- nothing messes with our nice, safe, home-sanctuary like a bunch of zombies clawing at your window!
But there is also an inner sanctuary- a place of peace and stillness, a place of vitality, of creativity, of light and benevolence. That place is your own deepest layer of being- the space of awareness itself.
When you dwell in that space, you dwell in the temple of your own being, which is also Divine Being. That space is always here, always open and sacred- the space of consciousness that is eternally this moment.
But, there are zombies!!
Sometimes there are only a few pathetic zombies, wandering around on your lawn. Sometimes they are fast, tricky and vicious, fooling and distracting you into letting them in. Sometimes, they are disguised as something you lust for- they are seductive- more like vampires- making your eyes glaze over as you lurch unconsciously toward the door and turn the knob...
These zombies and vampires are your own thoughts.
There was once a hassid who went to his rebbe for advice on how to empty his mind. He knocked on the door of his rebbe’s house, but no answer. He peered through the window- the rebbe was sitting at a table, reading.
The hassid knocked again, a little louder- no answer. Growing more and more frustrated, his polite greetings and knocks turned into screams and bangs, pounding on the doors and windows. This went on for hours!
Eventually, the rebbe opened the door-
“Just as I can ignore you, no matter now much fuss you make, so you can ignore your own thoughts and not admit them into your mind.”
It’s true, your zombie/vampiric thoughts can trick you, distract you, lure you, entice you. But unless you believe in them, they have absolutely no power. It is your own mind that is creating them; if you let them be and don’t get drawn in, they fade away. The power is completely with you.
This can be learned and practiced, but it is not merely a technique. It is a way of being that reveals your own inner freedom, your own inner divinity.
Free from thought, you dwell in the sanctuary of presence- a space of freedom, of blissful goodness within your own being. This is the space of kadosh- holiness, or sacredness. Kadosh means “separate”, because in it you are separate from the tornados of life. However, it’s not a separateness of alienation, but of the closest intimacy- not far off at a distance from the storm, but at the eye of the storm.
Get seduced by the storm- get absorbed into the drama of time and people, get dragged around and eaten by those flesh-rotten zombies, and you become tamei- spiritually contaminated. Let go of the drama, let the thoughts dissolve and you return to the Presence- to the Kadosh. This is your role, if you choose to accept it, as priest or priestess of your own inner sanctuary.
On that subject, this week’s reading begins with Moses telling the priests,
“L’nefesh lo yitama b’amav-
"You shall not become tamei (spiritually contaminated) to a person among your people.”
In its plain meaning, it’s talking about a priest not becoming tamei from touching a corpse (a regular corps, not the undead!). But metaphorically, it also can refer to the inner tuma we can incur from allowing our thoughts about others to contaminate our minds.
When was the last time you allowed your mind to become tamei because of what some person did or said that you didn’t like, some argument you had, or anything else involving another person? It’s one of the great traps.
And yet, the power is with YOU! Remember- the tzures (suffering) you experience is mostly generated by your own mind. You can stop empowering it NOW and come into the sanctuary.
And yet, the next verse qualifies the first-
“Ki im lish’eiru hakarov-
"EXCEPT for a close relative…”
Here we move from the metaphorical to the actual- from people as thoughts in your mind, to actual living and breathing people.
There are people who are our “close relatives”- not necessarily blood, but those in our tribe, in our community, in our web of interdependence. For them we must become tamei at times, meaning that the relationship sometimes requires the sacrifice of our own needs in order to serve.
Sometimes that sacrifice takes a few minutes, as with a screaming child, and sometimes it can go on for years, as in someone who needs on-going care. Sometimes we must sacrifice the plush-ness of kadosh for love, for the love that binds us together.
But then there are those who are not “close relatives”, who seek to insert themselves into your life for whatever reason. They have their dramas, their pathologies, their fixations, and they are truly zombies and vampires, seeking to drag you down to their level.
As all famous people learn, you can’t let every person into your life who tries to get in. It’s impossible. But, this truth is not just for famous people. The rhythm of reality dictates we work with both sides of the Tree of Life- the Hesed and the Gevurah- the loving-kindness and the setting of boundaries and limits. And life/Hashem will test you on this- you must learn both sides of the Tree!
Of course, there is also gray area- folks who lie somewhere in between close and not-so-close.
Then what do you do?
Make a decision, and don’t worry. Each moment is new. The enemy is not the not-knowing, it is the not-deciding.
On this Shabbat Emor, The Sabbath of Saying, may we speak our intentions with decisiveness, balancing openness with boundaries. And, once our decisions are made, may our minds let go and drink in the Divine Words that are being said in this moment, as this moment.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks