Shalom dear friends!
This week I'm sharing a post from 2017 on this week's Parshat Matot that explores the paradox of doing your best, on one hand, yet realizing that you can't control things and surrendering, on the other. It's also the last part in a five-part series on the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh. You can access this Lesson along with the first four parts as well HERE.
Note: Next Tuesday, July 17, at 10:30 am Pacific and Arizona, we'll back back to weekly livestreams. See you then! (11:30 Mountain, 12:30 Central, 1:30 Eastern)
love and all blessings,
reb brian yosef
More on Parshat Matot
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Goof! Parshat Matot
In Parshat Matot, 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, on this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of the Tribes, may we be vigilant against that unconscious tendency that often happens in community, to judge other members of our tribe. Not just because it’s bad for the community and for relationships, but because when your judge others instead of forgiving others, you won’t be able to forgive yourself. The ego that judges others is the same ego that gets you stuck in self judgment. Give permission for others to be as they are, even when you have to correct them. You can accept someone in your heart even as you reprimand them for something; there’s no contradiction there. And in that acceptance, you will be able to truly accept yourself, even as you try to learn from your mistakes. And through this paradox of acceptance and action, of forgiveness and correction, may the rav tov – the abundant goodness of Being Itself, of Reality Itself, become ever more apparent, healing all who seek it. Good Shabbos!
Don't Blow it Out Your Window- Parshat Mattot
One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot. So, I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After some time, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized- I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler. All the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for your daily practice. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive. In that case, it is possible that you’ve "left the window open." All your best intentions are “blowing right out the window!”
How do you “roll up the window” and make the most out of the power of your intention without wasting it? This week’s reading begins:
“Ish ki yidor neder laShem- if a person takes a vow to the Divine, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon oneself…
“...k’khol yotzei mipiv ya’aseh- according to everything that comes out of one’s mouth, one shall do…”
Why would someone want to take a vow or swear an oath?
Because verbally saying your intention- and even repeating it often- is a powerful way to “shut the window.” Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against your habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t “fly out the window” as life unfolds in real time. So, if want to transform, put the transformation in your mouth! And then, repeat it often.
What is it that you desire to bring forth from yourself?
When that becomes clear to you, commit to it. Write it down. Repeat it often. Then, when the flow of life tends to confuse and distract, you will be solid as a rock. If your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you.
But, you might ask, isn’t attaching yourself to some goal a function of ego?
It’s true- if you merely say, “I commit to accomplishing such-and-such,” you can and probably will create ego-identification with the goal. The ego seeks control, and when things don’t go your way, that creates suffering.
That’s why intention and commitment have to be balanced with surrender and trust, and this is the basic function of prayer. The purpose of praying for things is not to control God or manifest our desires, but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. When we pray for something, we recognize that we aren’t in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray- there is no “me,” there is only God- unfolding in every form and every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you.
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them:
“Won’t you stay for Shabbos?” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised- why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves?
At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the bread, a tiny crust of bread with mold on it was brought out. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed.
Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste.
For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony. After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer:
“How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??”
The Baal Shem was just silent.
A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood!
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The man whose home we visited last year was fully capable of becoming successful in business, but he was so full of faith, that he chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help himself. Yes, he prayed passionately for livelihood, but refused to take any steps toward it.
“When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep him trapped in his passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that he’d be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what he did, and just look at them now!”
On this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to action and prayer are two sides of the Whole- the passive and the active, as One. May you have abundant success and blessing in all your ways!
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks