A disciple once asked the Baal Shem Tov, “Why is it that one who is rooted in the Divine sometimes experiences a sense of separation and remoteness?” The Baal Shem answered, “It is like a mother who supports the hands of her toddler learning to walk. The toddler toddles toward the mother, but then the mother steps back and loosens the child’s hands a bit, making walking a bit harder. In this way, the child learns to walk on their own.”
Spiritual practice is not unlike other practices such as physical exercise or playing music; while it is true that every moment we spend exercising or practicing an instrument allows us to improve, it is also true that only through regularly engaging with the exercise or instrument can we continue to develop and not regress. In this way, both the experience of improvement and the possibility of regression can be motivating forces, urging us on to continue developing on our path.
Spirituality is just like that.
When our practice bears the fruit of ecstasy, peace and spaciousness, should motivate us to continue and develop our practice even more. Don’t think that the journey is over, just because you had a special experience – practice more!
Because at some point, the wonderful experience we thought we had achieved simply vanishes; like all experiences, it comes and eventually goes. This too should motivate, rather than disappoint us. In this way, whether we experience closeness or remoteness, the answer is the same: don’t give up!
This is the imperative of the seventh sefirah of Netzakh, which means “eternity” or “victory.” The idea is that we need to be “eternally” persistent in our spiritual path, and that this commitment itself is the “victory,” rather than the achievement of some particular experience. Experiences come and go, but our persistence can endure, if we are committed. This is Netzakh.
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן חֲכִינַאי אוֹמֵר, הַנֵּעוֹר בַּלַּיְלָה וְהַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ יְחִידִי וְהַמְפַנֶּה לִבּוֹ לְבַטָּלָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ
Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakhinai said, “One who stays awake at night and walks on the road alone and turns their heart to emptiness, behold, bears guilt in one’s soul.”
-Pirkei Avot 3:4
This particularly stern mishna warns us not to waste a moment of our precious and short time we have on this earth. Every moment can be a form of practice – of learning, of service, or even of simply being present to the Ever-Present. This kind of teaching can be a powerful reminder of our task and potential.
But also, we should hear it in the context of Tiferet, of striking a balance in life; it is not meant to make us neurotic, tight, or too serious. And, it is important to know, the way to balance is different for everyone; the main thing is to ask oneself the question, to be aware of and take responsibility for the choices we are making, to consciously craft the structures of our lives, so that we can grow in fulfillment of our potential for the peace and spaciousness that is our deepest nature. There is a hint in the parshah:
וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר׃
He looked, and behold – a well in the field, and behold – three flocks of sheep lying beside it, for from that well the flocks drank, and the stone was great on the mouth of the well.
This passage describes the moments before Jacob meets and falls in love with Rachel; like the earlier story, when Eliezer is seeking a bride for Isaac, it begins at a “well” in a “field.” Both the “well” (בְּאֵ֣ר b’er) and the field (שָּׂדֶ֗ה sadeh) are different aspects of Hokhmah, or consciousness.
The “field” is the quality of spaciousness – consciousness as the open field within which all experience comes and goes. This field is always present as the background of our experience.
The “well” is power of consciousness to impart a sense of connection, an experience of Oneness or Wholeness. In this sense, Hokhmah is like water, quenching our thirst for returning to our Divine essence. This is the experiential dimension of consciousness which becomes available through meditation. Unlike the “field,” which is always there, we need to “roll the rock” off the “well” again and again through regular practice, so that the “three flocks” may drink.
What are these three flocks? These are the three dimensions of our experience, present right now:
Sensory awareness – physical body
Feeling-tone, mood, attitude – emotional body
Thought structures, points of view, narrative – mental body
Ordinarily, we tend to be focused on some object within these realms – we might be involved with some thoughts, or we might be dealing with physical objects, or whatever. But when we wish to “roll away the rock” from the “well” and drink from the “waters” of consciousness, we must “gather” the “three flocks” together:
וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁ֣מָּה כָל־הָעֲדָרִ֗ים וְגָלֲל֤וּ אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מֵעַל֙ פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֔ר וְהִשְׁק֖וּ אֶת־הַצֹּ֑אן וְהֵשִׁ֧יבוּ אֶת־הָאֶ֛בֶן עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵ֖ר לִמְקֹמָֽהּ׃
When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled (galalu) from upon the mouth of the well and the sheep drank; then the stone would be returned upon the the mouth of the well, to its place.
“Gathering the flocks” means becoming aware of the presence of all three dimensions of experience at once; it means being the awareness of all three dimensions. This is Presence, which is the essence of meditation and all spiritual practices. But in order to be effective over time, spiritual practice must be engaged regularly, again and again:
וְגָלֲל֤וּ אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ – and the stone was rolled…
The word for “rolled” is galalu, from the two-letter Hebrew root, גל. “Rolling” implies something that is done over and over again, like the turning of a wheel, as in the word gilgul, which is reincarnation.
גל is also the root of the words:
גָלוּת galut – “exile”
גְאוּלָה ga’ula – “redemption”
גַליָא galuya or גִלוּי galu’i– “revelation.”
These three words, which describe the stages of the Israelites’ going out to freedom from slavery in Egypt, also describe the process of spiritual unfolding: first there is the experience of separateness or suffering that leads one to the path (galut). At some point, there is the experience of release from this narrow state, a taste of inner freedom that contrasts with and gives meaning to the state of constriction (ga’ula). Finally, there is the unfolding of knowledge and increased perception which allows one to live from the state of freedom (galu’i).
The two-letter root itself also expresses this process:
Gimel ג represents the Fullness, Completeness, or Wholeness of Hokhmah, represented by the “waters” of the “well.”
Lamed ל represents transformation – the gradual learning over time how to bring forth the “waters” and express them in our lives over time.
Bringing together all these levels of meaning, we can understand גָלֲל֤וּ galalu, the “rolling” of the “stone,” to mean:
Persistent practice toward the redemption of the experience of separateness into the revelation of the Wholeness of consciousness…
Persistent practice is often likened to the tending of a garden; just we would tend the plants with water and good soil and make sure it gets enough sunlight, so too our regular practice nurtures transformation over time. And, like the garden, we must be patient, and we must trust the process. Accordingly, the “Saying of Creation” associated with Netzakh is the bringing forth of seeds and plants:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים תַּֽדְשֵׁ֤א הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ דֶּ֔שֶׁא עֵ֚שֶׂב מַזְרִ֣יעַ זֶ֔רַע עֵ֣ץ פְּרִ֞י עֹ֤שֶׂה פְּרִי֙ לְמִינ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר זַרְעוֹ־ב֖וֹ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃
And Elohim said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind with their seeds in them upon the earth, and it was so.
Similarly, the mitzvah of the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) associated with Netzakh is the only one having to do with the regular cycles of spiritual practice:
זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ
Remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it.
שֵׁ֤֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים֙ תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֮ וְעָשִׂ֖֣יתָ כָּל־מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒
Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
וְי֙וֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔֜י שַׁבָּ֖֣ת לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֗יךָ לֹֽ֣א־תַעֲשֶׂ֣֨ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡֜ה אַתָּ֣ה וּבִנְךָֽ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּ֗ךָ עַבְדְּךָ֤֨ וַאֲמָֽתְךָ֜֙ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֔֗ךָ וְגֵרְךָ֖֙ אֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽ֔יךָ
And the seventh day is a Shabbat to the Divine, your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servants, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates.
כִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ׃
For in six days the Divine made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Divine blessed the day of Shabbat and sanctified it.
-Exodus 20: 9-11
This fourth “commandment” is actually two mitzvot which form the foundational positive and negative structures of Shabbat:
Zakhor et Yom HaShabbat l’kadsho…
זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ
Remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it…
This means all the many practices which frame Shabbat as a sacred time – lighting candles Friday night, chanting the kiddush prayers on Friday night and Saturday, enjoying festive meals, learning Torah, chanting the special prayers and songs for Shabbat, and so on.
Lo ta’asei khol melakhah…
You shall not do any work…
The meaning of מְלָאכָה melakhah, “work,” is somewhat complex, but the essence is not doing things aimed at achieving material goals in time – this means not only refraining from livelihood work, but also not talking or even thinking about plans for the future at all – as well as no errands, no travel, no cooking, no purchasing, and so on. The essence is that Shabbat is a retreat from the world of time and doing, a twenty-five-hour immersion into the blessedness of simply Being.
This weekly practice of Shabbat, together with the micro-practices of daily avodah and Torah (meditation, prayer and learning), along with the micro-micro-practices of returning to Presence hundreds of times per day through the practice of brakhot (chanting blessings), are the rhythms of the spiritual life. They are the expressions of Netzakh as the structures which support the spiritual life, the גָלֲלוּ אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר gal’lu et ha’even me’al pi hab’eir– the “rolling of the stone from the mouth of the well” – the regular practices which establish our realization of our essence within the highs and lows of the turning wheels of time, transforming the world one step at a time…
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Lamp in the Dark Wood – Parshat Vayeitzei
12/2/2019 0 Comments
There’s a funny thing with the newer cars nowadays. Since I travel a lot, I’ve had the experience of renting fairly new cars, and they all seem to have the strange and irritating characteristic of the radio coming on automatically as soon as you turn the car on. It seems to matter not whether the radio was on or off when the car was turned off; when you turn the car on, the radio comes on blasting. Why would a car be designed that way? Are people that uncomfortable with silence that the default should be noisiness?
Recently I was in such a car with my son. We laughed and yelled at the car every time it happened. But after a while, my son became adept at slapping the button to turn it off instantaneously, as soon as the very first sound wave emitted from the speakers. And thus, the irritating car radio design became the impetus for developing a new level of awareness…
The mind is not so different.
As soon as we wake up in the morning, the “radio” of the mind starts playing things at us. Do we simply get drawn into whatever the mind gives us? Or do we develop the attentiveness to slap the button and turn it off? Or at least change the “station” to the one we choose? Although, with the mind, it’s not like we have buttons we can push. How can we silence the mind or tune in to the station we want?
A disciple came to Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn and said, “Whenever I listen to you teach, a state of deveikus (oneness with the Divine) comes over me. A warm light permeates my whole being and I feel connected to the Divine Presence in all things. But when I go back to ordinary activities, all kinds of thoughts come into my mind and I feel disconnected once again. How can I clear my mind and tune in to the light?”
The Rabbi of Rizhyn answered: “This is like a person who stumbles through the forest in the darkness. Then someone comes along with a lamp, and as they walk together, they are able to see the path. But, when the one with the lamp leaves, again the person is plunged into darkness and can’t tell which way to go. The trick is, you must carry your own lamp!”
The lamp, of course, is a metaphor for awareness. If we want to turn off our thoughts, we can’t simply push a button; we have to be purposefully aware of our thoughts, which means, paradoxically, allowing the thoughts to be there.
Imagine you turn on your car and the radio starts blaring at you, but instead of hitting the button to turn it off, you listen intently to every little sound you’re hearing. And as you listen, the radio becomes softer and softer… until all that’s left is the listening, and the sound of the radio disappears completely.
That’s what it’s like with silencing our mind, because our thoughts and our awareness are coming from the same mind. Put your energy into being present rather than thinking, and the thoughts disappear on their own. It’s like turning over an hourglass – the sand is in one side, and when you turn it over, it simply flows to the other side. Similarly, when our consciousness is taking the form of thinking, if you simply be aware of your thoughts then your consciousness will begin flowing from the “thought side” to the “Presence side.”
A teacher can help you do this. When good teachings come to us externally, it’s not difficult to “tune in” to the “station” that the teacher is “broadcasting.” This is like the person who walks with another who carries a lamp.
Receiving this way from a teacher is a good and helpful thing, but it should ultimately lead to an awareness of one’s own inner light rather than make one dependent upon the light of the teacher. Only our own light isn’t something external to us, like carrying a lamp. In fact, it isn’t even something we “have” at all; it is what we already are.
And yet, it’s easy to be so seduced by our experiences on the levels of thought, feeling, and sensory perception that we can forget the luminescent field of consciousness within which all experience is arising. Our lamp is already shining, but it’s as if it is covered by a dark cloth that conceals its light. We need to take off the covering and reveal the light, so that it can illuminate whatever experience we’re having, and shine even into the darkest moments. This begins to happen as soon as we become conscious of whatever is present in this moment, accepting this moment as it appears, and knowing that we are the consciousness of this moment. Just that little shift – awareness becoming aware of awareness and being simply present – allows that luminescence to be revealed. And that luminescence is not something separate from the Divine; it is the consciousness of Existence Itself, becoming aware through you, right now. This is the deepest dimension of who we are, beyond the personal, beyond our personhood.
This is not to denigrate the personal dimension; our personhood is precious, fragile, flawed, growing, learning, transforming. But all of our personal qualities are possible only because of the impersonal field within which the personal dimension arises; they are inseparable.
In our sacred stories and in our tefilah (prayer), we often imagine the Divine as personal; we give Existence a personality, so that we can relate to It in a personal way. This is the great feat of devotional path: it allows us to personally approach the absolutely most impersonal thing imaginable – Existence Itself. As long as we engage in the personalization of the Completely Impersonal in order to open our hearts in gratitude, awe and surrender to the Mystery (rather than engage in blame, victimhood, entitlement and arrogance toward the “God” that didn’t give us what we want), the devotional path is uniquely precious: it elevates the personal to its highest potential and allows us to see Being Itself as our Father, our Mother, our Lover, our Friend, our Master. This paradox of a personal relationship with the Impersonal is expressed in the haftora:
כִּ֣י אֵ֤ל אָֽנֹכִי֙ וְלֹא־אִ֔ישׁ בְּקִרְבְּךָ֣ קָד֔וֹשׁ
For I am the Divine, not a “person” – I am the Holiness within you!
It is ironic – God is talking like a person, telling us that He is not a person! But “He” can do this because “He” is really b’kirb’kha kadosh – the Holiness within you. Meaning, God is the consciousness beneath our personhood, our deepest self. This is hinted in the first part of the phrase: El Anokhi – I am the Divine. Meaning, the “I” – the awareness beneath the person – is the Divine.
And yet, this Divine “I” at the root of our being is not somehow trapped inside our bodies; it is not “within” as opposed to “without.” It is neither external not internal, because everything we perceive on all levels is perceived within Its light. That’s why the “lamp” is an apt metaphor; the lamp shines its light outward into the forest, just as the light of consciousness shines through all experience, revealing all things to be different forms of the One Thing. This is hinted in Jacob’s dream of the ladder between heaven and earth, when the Divine speaks to him:
וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
And behold, the Divine stood over him and said, “I am All-Existence, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac, the land upon which you are lying; to you I will give it and to your descendants…”
This is usually translated to mean:
I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, and I will give the land to your descendants…
But here I am translating it:
I am the God of Abraham, and I am the God of Isaac, and I am the land upon which you are lying; to you I will give it…
Seen in this way, God is standing over Isaac, showing him that the Divine is above him. But God is telling Isaac that the Divine is the earth below him! In other words, the totality of experience: above, below, and b’kirb’kha kadosh – the Holiness within you.
הוּא הָאֱלהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוד
It is the Divine in the heavens above and upon the earth below, there is nothing else…
Uncover the lamp within – know the light of consciousness that you are. And in that light, see the Divine shining from all things and all beings, especially the person who is before you. And know that when you offer kindness and Presence to that person standing before you, you make an offering to the Divine, and you help reveal the Divine light in that person as well…
The Way Up is The Way Down – Parshat Vayeitzei
11/14/2018 0 Comments
Imagine you lived in a place where the sky was constantly overcast, so that the sun was hardly ever visible. From your point of view, it would look like the dim light of the overcast sky was coming from the clouds themselves. If you were a small child and had never heard of the sun, that’s what you would probably assume.
Now, imagine you are that child – you have no knowledge of the sun, and your parents take you for a trip on an airplane. As the plane gets higher and higher, you look out the window, and you see nothing but cloud all around. Soon after, the plane bursts through the cloud cover and you see the blazing sun and the blue sky for the first time. Imagine what a revelation that would be!
That’s what spiritual awakening is like.
For most of us, the sky has been covered with clouds our whole lives. Meaning, our minds are constantly moving with the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings. Without ever questioning, we assume that our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings are identical. Because of this, we also don’t tend to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings we have about reality, and actual Reality. All we know are the clouds; we experience the present moment through the lens of our stories, through our sense of past and future.
How to awaken from the seductive dream of our minds and hearts and come to the truth of this moment?
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜ום וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ
He encountered The Place and spent the night there, for the sun had set…
In this week’s reading, Jacob is running from his murderous brother. The sun had set – meaning, he was in a state of inner darkness. He was running and running, until he “encounters The Place” – he sets stones for his head and lays down on the earth. In other words, he connects with the physicality of his present experience.
Then, after a dream in which the Divine appears to him and he sees a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven with angels going up and down, it says:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתֹו֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
Jacob awakened from his sleep and said, “Surely the Divine is in this Place and I didn’t even know it!”
The Divine is not something separate from the truth of this moment – it is the radiant sun of consciousness, ever-present as the perceiving Presence that you are.
But, there are clouds!
The way to “rise of above the clouds,” so to speak, is paradoxically to connect with the earth. That’s because when we become conscious of our physical sensations, the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings can clear up naturally, revealing the radiant awareness beneath them. This is expressed in the next verse:
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this Place – it is none but the House of the Divine, and this is the gate of heaven!”
In fact, the word for “The Place” is HaMakom, which is Itself a Divine Name.
So, if you want to rise above the dark clouds of this world, the way up is actually the way down. Come down from your mind, into your body and into connection with the earth, to HaMakom, because This, Here-Now, is the gateway of heaven…
Be Still- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/24/2017 2 Comments
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob running away from his brother Esau, who wants to murder him. It says,
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran, and he encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange phrase- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God HaMakom, The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where the Divine can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. In other words, between the past and the future. So, where is this special Place between your past and your future in which we can encounter the Divine? That Place, of course, is always where we already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. So, past and future are important, but when they become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment. And when that feeling of being disconnected dominates your life, and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. His origin and his goal became so heavy, that for an instant he was able to pop out of the story and see the moment.
So, before Jacob encounters the Present, he’s just running. But now that Jacob is beginning to despair, he is letting go of his story in time; he is giving up hope. And in this “giving up,” he begins to notice the place he is in. He brings his mind all the way down to the stones, and becomes still.
So on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we go out from our automatic and unconscious responses to things, may we become still and connect with the Presence of this moment, so that we may say, “Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!” Good Shabbos!
Go Out! Parshat Vayeitzei
12/8/2016 1 Comment
"Vayeitzei Ya'akov- And Ya'akov went out from Be'er Sheva..."
Our reading begins with Jacob fleeing for his life from his brother’s rage.
"Vayifga bamakom- He encountered the Place..."
This word for "The Place"- HaMakom- is unusual because it’s also one of the Names of God.
So why is God called The Place?
Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder set toward the earth, with its top reaching toward the heavens. There are angels going up and down the ladder. Suddenly he has a vision of the Divine and receives a special message of hope and protection.
When he wakes up, he says,
“Akhein, yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
"Surely the Divine is in this Place, and I didn’t even know it!"
The word for knowing- Da’at or Da’as- isn’t the same as the English word for knowing, which implies an intellectual understanding. The Hebrew word is the same word used in the Garden of Eden story-
“V’ha’adam yadata et Khava- and Adam knew Eve...”
This the knowing of intimacy and connection, not the mind and thinking.
So the hint here is that if you want to really "see" the Divine in this Place- the Makom that you’re in right now- then you have to really connect with it fully and consciously. Know- Da- that there is only one experience happening right now, that everything within your experience in this moment is arising within the open space that is your awareness.
If let your awareness open and connect deeply with the fullness of what’s happening, then you’ll know for yourself-
“Akhein- Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh!"
The Divine is not just in this space, the Divine is this space. And all aspects of your experience- your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions- are all one with the space that you are:
The open space of awareness within which this moment arises.
But to know that, to be intimate with the space of this moment, you have to go out- Vayeitzei- from those limited forms of consciousness- the thoughts and feelings we often think of as “me”- and into the vast open space of Presence.
So my friends, on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from ego to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. And, let’s go out to greet the Timeless One as the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Presence of Shabbat.
Good Shabbos good Shabbos!!!
The Flight- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/19/2015 11 Comments
This past Monday I boarded the plane for Costa Rica to join my wife and children on our six-month excursion to Central America.
The trouble started the moment I tried to check in.
Due to a new baggage restriction that went into effect that very day, the woman at the ticket counter told me I was only allowed to check two bags. I had three.
After a scramble to repack everything right then and there, another woman came over and started whispering something to the first woman. The new woman nervously informed me that I also wasn’t allowed my two carry-on bags. I could only have one carry-on, plus a small item such as a purse or tiny backpack.
Repack again. Text my friend who dropped me off, run out to curb with a bunch of stuff I expelled from my suitcases, dump it in the trunk. Finish checking bags, get to gate just in time to board. Not in a good mood.
Sitting between two people. One continuously rubs his arm against mine for hours as he types at his tablet device. A thought occurs to me- what if they lose my luggage? Airlines have misplaced my suitcases on multiple occasions, and once, a suitcase of mine was even lost for good. And I don't even like hot humid weather!
Suddenly, as these thoughts are occurring to me, the plane starts lurching violently. The captain asks the flight attendants to have a seat. It feels like the plane keeps hitting huge potholes in the sky. The guy next to me gasps as his tablet device literally flies up into the air. I feel myself thrown upward as well, but I’m held in place by the seatbelt.
After a few minutes of this, another thought occurs to me- I didn’t have time to finish davening that morning! Without hesitation I reach for my siddur and start the morning prayers:
Barukh she’amar v’ahyah ha’olam-
Blessed is the One who speaks the universe into being…
Now I tell you the truth- the turbulence stopped immediately within seconds after I started davening. Did the davening cause the turbulence to stop? Was this testimony to the power of prayer?
The mind loves this kind of question.
Some minds will jump in- “See, the power of prayer at work!” Others will be skeptical- “The turbulence would have stopped anyway, but because you started praying at that time, your mind makes a correlation where there was none…”
That’s the dualistic mind- it’s one or the other.
But there is a third way-
And that’s to see that all events are part of a single Reality, and that This One Reality is what we call God. God is the turbulence, God is the prayer, and God is the ending of the turbulence. It’s not three things- it’s not me stopping the turbulence with prayers; there’s only one continuous event, one Reality- God’s unfolding in time.
Seen that way, the prayers could even be taken right out of the equation. There was turbulence. It stopped. Is that not miracle enough?
I was thrown out of my seat. That reminded me to pray. Is that not miracle enough?
I’ll tell you this:
In the moment that the turbulence subsided as I chanted the prayers, that moment was all there was. The luggage tzures no longer mattered. What had happened at the ticket counter was in the past, and whatever was going to happen later at the San Jose airport was in the future. Only that moment was real.
In this week’s reading, Jacob has a similar experience:
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran. He encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange sentence- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where God can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. Between the past and the future, he encountered God.
Where is this special Place between your past and your future that you encounter God?
That Place, of course, is always where you already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. Past and future are important.
But when past and future become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment.
When disconnectedness dominates one’s life (God forbid), and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. He was running from his brother Esau whom he had tricked and cheated, and now Esau was trying to kill him. Jacob is in a dark place:
“Vayalen sham ki va hashemesh-
And he spent the night there because the sun had set”.
The setting of the sun is a symbol of his inner darkness- Jacob is in despair over his situation.
So what does he do?
“He took from the stones of The Place and put them for his head…”
What are the qualities of stones? They are dense. They are heavy. They don’t blow around, but are still.
A person’s head, on the other hand, is the place where thought happens. Thought is perhaps the least physical thing in our experience. Rather than being still, it constantly bubbles this way and that.
So bringing “stones” to his “head” hints at a radical shift in consciousness. He is bringing his mind all the way down to the stones and becoming still.
And then something startling happens:
“And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, and behold! Angels of God ascended and descended upon it.”
What's the meaning of this vision?
There's a tradition that everything has an angel, or spiritual force, causing it. According to this idea, everything we experience is determined in the “spiritual” realm, and we really have nothing to do with it.
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). In other words, everything that happens is predetermined, except our relationship to it. Other than that, we have no real power. Seen from this point of view, the angels descending the ladder would be the determining forces for what goes on in our world.
However, there’s another opposing idea that every deed a person does actually creates an angel. Do good, create good angels. Do bad, create bad angels. These created angels then go around producing good or bad effects in the world.
So in this view, what happens is not determined by the angels, but by the human beings creating the angels. In other words, everything is in our hands. This view is represented by the angles ascendingthe ladder.
But in Jacob’s vision, there are angels going up the ladder and down the ladder; he sees the paradox of both realities at once. Everything is determined by forces which are created by our actions, yet our actions are themselves determined by forces, which are themselves created by our actions, and so on ad infinitum.
So what's the meaning here?
The answer is in HaMakom- this place we have now come to.
Because in order to access the Divinity of this moment, you have to surrender your preoccupation with the way things “come out”- you have to give up control.
This is the meaning of the angels coming down- everything is in the “hands of heaven”.
At the same time, this supreme surrender actually frees you from your automatic responses to things. You are no longer a victim of your own preferences; you have choice. So next time you get annoyed with a loved one and you feel yourself going into your same old response, stop. Surrender. Access the power of transformation- the power that allows you to choose how to be.
This is the meaning of the angels going up- your choice to be in "awe of heaven"!
Then you will realize like Jacob did:
“Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!”
There is a mishna that sums it up well:
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no choice, so surrender your attempt to control anything.
But, in that surrender, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
Jacob’s newfound freedom is expressed a few verses later:
“Jacob lifted his feet and went…”
It is as if he is now flying, his feet in the air...
At the end of my flight, I had ample opportunity to practice surrender once again, when my two suitcases never arrived at baggage claim.
It took the airline three more days to locate them in Mexico, send them to Costa Rica and deliver them to The Place we’re now staying. And while this particular practice of surrender was powerful for me and apparently necessary, I am happy to be reunited with my sandals and my coffee paraphernalia (along with my beautiful wife and children). Barukh Hashem!
On this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from our stories in time to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. Let’s greet the Timeless One- the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Hei Ha'olamim- Life of the Worlds, uniting Her with Her Source through our own inner return to the Ayin- the Nothing from which everything springs- on this Holy Shabbos Kodesh.
Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,
"Touch the Earth"- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/25/2014 6 Comments
Right now, as you read these words, how are you relating to this moment? Do you feel it to be a passage in time, a means to travel from your past toward your future? Do you feel that this moment is merely a stepping-stone from one moment to the next?
Or, instead, do you encounter this moment in and of itself? In other words- are you present, or are you hurrying through the present?
This parshah begins with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau and heading to Haran where he will get married and begin a family. The drama of the story portrays this scene purely as a transitional moment. And yet, at this time of hurrying from one place to another, from one stage of life to another, something remarkable happens: “Vayifga BaMakom- He encountered the place” (Gen. 28:11).
What does that mean?
The word for “encounter” (peh-gimel-ayin) means to “meet” or to “happen upon”, but it can also mean to “hit”, as in “hitting the bulls eye”. In other words, this seemingly insignificant moment becomes the “target”. Jacob has an encounter.
What does he encounter? He encounters the “place”. Not a particular thing or being, but the space in which things and beings appear. The word for “the place”- HaMakom- is also a Divine Name. So, when Jacob shifts his attention toward the space within which this moment unfolds, he encounters the Divine. Meaning, he encounters the Reality of the Space Itself, rather than his mental idea of the space as merely a temporal hallway between memory and anticipation.
How does he do it? He places stones around his head and lies down in the “place”. He brings that which is most ethereal and formless- mind and thought- to the most concrete and solid- stones of the earth. This practice of focusing on something physical brings the mind out of its constant stream of thinking, out of its ideas about what is going on, and into connection with what is really going on, right now. Awareness becomes presence by touching forms that are actually present.
Jacob then dreams of a ladder set on the earth, reaching toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it- “Jacob’s Ladder”. Hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin taught on this verse that the ladder itself is an instruction in presence. It teaches that when one’s feet are firmly rooted in the earth, one’s head can reach the heavens. Being “rooted in the earth” means that awareness is connected with the physical world, as it is. The “head reaching the heavens” means that, paradoxically, when awareness is totally connected to the physical, you can become aware of that which is aware; awareness becomes aware of awareness. As long as awareness is wrapped up in thinking, it dreams that it is the thinking. It dreams up the “me” that is defined by thinking. But when thinking subsides, there can be this realization: I am not this thought-based self. I am just this boundless, free, radiant awareness. The head has reached the heavens!
Jacob then awakens and exclaims: “Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh- The Divine is in this place- v’anokhi lo yadati- and I didn’t even know it!”
Here, the Torah gives us an excellent description of what “awakening” is all about- it gives us a "Torah of Awakening". In the dream state, the mind-generated self imagines the Divine to be elsewhere. It is something to be reached, achieved, hoped for, given up on, disillusioned about. But even within the dream there are clues. Just as Jacob understood the message of the ladder, so it is with everything in our lives: If we look carefully, it is possible to see: That which we seek is That which is Present. But to see this requires becoming present. The present is whole, complete, Divine. To be present is to not be separate from that wholeness.
Then, as you journey in the world of time, you can stay connected to that wholeness. You can draw from the wellspring of renewal, even as you do your work in the world, as it says a few verses later- “vayar v’hinei v’er basadeh- he looked, and behold- a well in the field!”
To be sure, as Jacob’s ensuing twenty years of servitude to his uncle Lavan shows, life can still be replete with challenges. But when you are rooted in the earth and your head reaches the heavens, the challenges are different. There is a lightness- as it says when Jacob leaves the “place” after his vision-“Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelekh- Jacob lifted his feet and went”- it is as if he is flying. Actually, the things and events in time are flying- endlessly coming and going, while the Place remains endlessly the same. What is that Place? It is always where you are and it is also ultimately what you are: Divine Presence, living as this one, ever-changing moment.
Take a moment to connect with the Place through connecting with the Earth- take off your shoes, touch the Earth, bow your head to the ground... enjoy!
The disciples of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn once noticed that their rebbe was in a particularly light and open mood, so they figured they would ask him the biggest question they had: “What is the best path to Hashem?”
“I have no idea,” replied the rebbe, “but I will tell you a story. Once there were two friends who had been caught committing some crime for which the punishment was death. They were brought before the king who was a kind and benevolent ruler, and he could see that they were regretting what they had done. He wanted to figure out a way to acquit them while still honoring the law of the land, so he devised a plan: he had a tightrope stretched over a vast chasm, and told the prisoners: “If you can make it across this tightrope and not fall to your death, you can go free.”
The two friends stood before the tightrope, terrified but hopeful. After a few moments, one of them blurted, “I’ll go first!” He put one foot on the rope, testing its tautness. Getting his balance, he lifted his other foot, took a step, and quickly scrambled across the tightrope to the other side. He made it!
The second friend called to the first across the pit – “Do you have any advice for me? How in the world did you do it?”
“I have no idea,” he called back. “But I will tell you this: when I started to fall to the left, I would lean to the right; and when I started to fall to the right, I would lean to the left…”
The sixth path is the sefirah of Tiferet, which means beauty, radiance, or splendor. Situated in the middle of the Tree, it comes as the reconciliation between the opposing sefirot of Hesed (loving-kindness) and Gevurah (strength, boundaries). On their own, Hesed and Gevurah are primal principles of life, but they lack direction; they need to be administered wisely according to the needs of the moment. Hesed is always saying “yes” and Gevurah is always says “no.” But Tiferet says “sometimes” – and in this sense, Tiferet represents Truth; it is the truth of how much “yes” and how much “no” we need in the moment – when we need openness and when we need boundaries, when we need kindness and when we need sternness, tempering one with the other. For this reason, Tiferet is also called Rakhamim, compassion; when there is leaning too far to the left into strictness and judgment, Tiferet leans us back to the right, into kindness and mercy.
The truth of Tiferet is different from the truth of Hokhmah. Hokhmah is awareness; it is that which knows the experience that is now unfolding. In this sense, Hokhmah represents the absolute Truth of this moment.
Tiferet, on the other hand, is future-oriented. In discerning what thoughts, words and actions are appropriate to the Truth of the moment, it attempts to act to bring about the desired future. In this sense, Tiferet is Hokhmah in action; it is the application of wisdom.
Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz summed it up when he said: “Since I have tamed my anger, I keep it in my pocket. When I need it, I take it out.”
Meaning: first we need to take care not to be taken over by anger. Anger is associated with Gevurah, and we can avoid being taken over by the powerful forces of Gevurah by being rooted in Hokhmah, by staying present and aware of whatever feelings are arising. Then, in the inner spaciousness provided by Hokhmah, we can think clearly (Binah) and do our best to respond to the moment with the right doses of Hesed and/or Gevurah. In this way, we may choose to temporarily “clothe” ourselves in the garment of Gevurah without identifying with it, without being taken over by it.
There is a hint of this in the parshah. Ya’akov, (who represents Tiferet) has disguised himself as his brother Esav (who represents Gevurah), in order to receive the blessing from their father Yitzhak (who also represents Gevurah):
וַיִּגַּ֧שׁ יַעֲקֹ֛ב אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיְמֻשֵּׁ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו׃
Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice (kol) is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands (yad) are the hands of Esau.”
On a symbolic level, this is like when we encounter difficult, Gevurah-like people and situations. In such cases, the best path forward may be to display strength or sternness. But the spiritual task is to know that it is only a “costume.” In the above passage, this is hinted by “voice” and hand.”
“Voice” is קוֹל kol, composed of the letters koof, vav and lamed.
Koof ק represents kedushah, holiness, meaning the essence of things.
Vav ו is the prefix “and,” hinting that our essence is able to co-exist with our “mask” of the moment, beneath the surface of a sometimes contradictory external appearance.
Lamed ל means “learn,” hinting that our ability to respond wisely to the need of the moment is a process of personal growth, a learning that happens over time.
This is another feature that distinguishes Tiferet from Hokhmah. Becoming present (Hokhmah) is something we can do almost instantaneously, once we understand how. Being kind (Hesed) and being strict or getting angry (Gevurah) are also inherent parts of our experience; we don’t have to “learn” them. But knowing how to wisely respond to the moment with the right balance of inner forces (Tiferet) is something that is learned by trying, failing, and getting up and trying again. It is something that needs to be developed.
“Hand” is יָּד Yad, composed of the letters yod and dalet.
Yod י actually means “hand,” and represents simple presence in action, or external expression in the world.
Dalet ד means “door,” hinting that whatever we perceive in the world of form, that is, the outer expressions of things that we perceive with the senses, is really a “doorway” to their inner essence, to the inner kedushah or “being-ness” behind everything. And this is the task of Tiferet – to consciously act in the world in a way that is rooted in our essence (kol, voice) but channels whatever quality is needed in the moment (yad, hand).
In the larger sense, the Tree of Life itself is a symbol that depicts the flow and balance between opposing forces, with its sefirot on the right and left and central pillars. In this way, it is a picture of the microcosmic human experience, which is seen as an embodiment of Divine qualities – that is, qualities inherent in the macrocosmic reality:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
Vayomer Elohim, “Na’aseh Adam b’tzalmeinu, kidmuteinu.”
And Elohim said, “Let us make Human in Our Image and Likeness.”
According to the Zohar, the sefirot on the Tree are the plurality of Elohim; they are referred to by “Let us make…”
The idea is that when Tiferet is operating within us and we are operating according to the Truth of the moment, according to the needs of the actual situation within which we find ourselves, that is when we best express the Divine Image, our nature as being b’tzelem Elohim.
Accordingly, the mitzvah of the Aseret Hadibrot associated with Tiferet is the ninth of the Ten Commandments:
לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר
Lo ta’aneh v’rei’akha ed shaker
Don’t be a lying witness against your neighbor
The plain meaning of this precept is to tell the truth in a court of law. But on an inner level, it means: don’t do what is “false” for the situation; instead, “bear witness” to the Truth of the moment by responding wisely.
How do we cultivate this Tiferet quality of acting in a way that is true to the situation?
Generally speaking, it is the function of all the mitzvot to help us cultivate this sensitivity, but of all the mitzvot, there is perhaps one that embodies this principle most strongly:
לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ
Lo t’vashel g’di b’halev imo.
Do not cook a kid in the milk of its mother.
This is the source for the practice in kashrut of not mixing meat and milk. The image is striking, and the wrongness of cooking a young animal in the milk of its mother resonates on a heart and gut level. Who would do such a thing?
And yet, in practice, we tend to almost completely desensitized to the reality of eating meat. This is especially true today, but even two thousand years ago, the rabbis saw the need to institute practices to re-sensitize ourselves to reality; in this spirit, they expanded on this precept by interpreting it to mean the prohibition against mixing meat and milk in general.
In this way, every time we eat animal products, we are invited to realize: there is a place for an animal being nourished by its mother, and there is a place for slaughtering animals for meat; these two places are not the same. To mix them would be to be insensitive to what is appropriate in the moment; the Hesed of milk and the Gevurah of meat have their own domains in which they are appropriate, and the practice of not mixing them is a ritual aid to developing this inner sense of Tiferet.
In a more general sense, we can develop the middot of balance and appropriateness by simply taking the space to ask ourselves: what is needed now? What is being ignored? Are things in balance? What can I do to restore balance?
This line of inquiry is a wonderful contemplation practice to manifest Tiferet and bring harmony, balance, truth and beauty into your life…
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Altar of Earth – Parshat Toldot
11/26/2019 0 Comments
A friend once brought me to a Baptist church to hear a wonderful preacher. He was amazing – this preacher was a master at moving the congregation. His words had such soulfulness and spontaneity, instigating a lively interplay between himself and the congregation, as people constantly responded to his words with “amen” and “preach it” and “u-huh.” Besides his preaching, the prayers were also largely spontaneous, springing from the hearts and mouths of those who prayed, with very little pre-scripted text.
I reflected how completely opposite this was to most Jewish services, in which prayer consists almost entirely of reading texts from a book, and “preaching” usually looks more like a scholarly lecture. And yet, the early Hassidim seem to have been more like a Yiddish version of the Baptists than today’s typical synagogue. There’s a teaching by Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn on the following verses that implies this was the case:
מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֒ ... בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
Make for Me an altar of earth … in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.
וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.
(Exodus 20:21, 22)
Rabbi Yisrael expounded, “The altar of earth is the altar of silence, which is most precious to Hashem. But if you do make an altar of words, don’t hew and chisel them, for such artifice would be profanity.”
Rabbi Yisrael seems to be advocating a kind of spontaneous prayer from the heart, rather than the recitation of texts. But he also says something even more remarkable – that silence is the most precious form of service! From this teaching, you might think that if you walked into Reb Yisrael’s House of Prayer, you would see mostly of silent meditation, interrupted only occasionally by spontaneous outbursts of improvised prayer.
But in another teaching of the Rabbi of Rizhyn, he seems to say the exact opposite; he says that our supreme task is “to shape matter into form, to work on matter until the light penetrates the darkness, so that the darkness itself shines and there is no longer any division between the two. As is says, וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד – It was evening and it was morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)
The meaning here is a little mysterious, but to “shape matter into form” sounds like we’re back to “hewing the stones” – meaning working on ourselves, cultivating our words and behaviors, as opposed to being spontaneous.
These two descriptions of spiritual practice, silence and spontaneity on one hand, and cultivated, prescribed words and behaviors on the other, are really two aspects of one process. We can understand this process through the metaphor of digging a well:
…וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up…
In Parshat Toldot, Isaac spends most of his time digging wells, during which he encounters many obstacles. First, he has to re-dig the wells of his father Abraham which were stopped up by the Philistines. Then, as he digs new wells, he is challenged by the herdsman of Gerar who claim that the wells belong to them. He keeps moving and digging more and more new wells, and the herdsman keep bothering him. Finally, he digs a well far enough away so that they leave him alone. He calls this well רְחֹב֔וֹת – r’khovot, which comes from a Hebrew root that means “wide” or “expansive,” because now he finally has ample space.
Digging a well is a wonderful metaphor for spiritual practice for a few reasons. For one, when you begin digging, you don’t see water right away; you have to first get through a lot of earth before you reach the water. This experience of having to continue digging, even though you have no immediate experience of the water, takes some faith and discipline; it takes a willingness to persevere even when the outcome is uncertain.
Similarly, when one begins a spiritual practice, there is usually not enough immediate experience of the benefit to keep you motivated. There should be at least some experience of benefit, but it’s usually not enough to keep you going; you still need plenty of faith and discipline, just as in digging a well.
But, at some point, you hit water.
There is a point in spiritual practice when the “waters” gush forth from within. At that point, there is no need for any faith or discipline at all, because the experience of the “water” is enough to sustain your practice.
What is the water?
Just as there is physical thirst for water, so too there is a psychospiritual thirst for Wholeness, for Completeness. That thirst is behind all our ego-based motivations: our desire to be heard, to be validated, to have status, wealth, love, identity – in short, to arrive. Like physical thirst, our spiritual thirst is only temporarily quenched through achieving things and experiences; every gratification leads back to more thirst, because it’s the nature of ego to be thirsty.
But, our awareness beneath the ordinary, ego-based personality already has that quality of Completeness, only it is hidden by the “dirt” of the ego; we have to spend some time digging before the “waters” our own deepest being become visible to us. And, even when we do find the “water,” there are many inner and outer distractions that can still interfere with our being able to consistently access it. That’s why Isaac has to dig so many wells before his final one. He calls that final well רְחֹב֔וֹת – r’khovot, because when you establish a stable connection with your inner “waters,” life takes on a much more spacious, unbounded quality.
Another reason that digging a well is a wonderful metaphor for spiritual practice is that the two stages of first digging and only later reaching the water corresponds to the two aspects of practice mentioned in Rabbi Yisrael’s teachings earlier: working on and refining ourselves, on one hand, and silence and spontaneity, on the other.
In the “digging” phase, the discipline and commitment we need to persevere has the quality of work, of doing a job. That’s why Isaac, who in Kabbalah represents the quality of Gevurah, of strength and discipline, is the archetypal well-digger. At this stage, texts and rituals are helpful – they are the tools with which we dig. This is tefilah – traditional Jewish Prayer, in which we dig away the “dirt” by focusing our mind and heart on the chanting of pre-scripted words.
(In our practice, we also use tefilot, sacred Hebrew words and Divine Names to do this inner “digging,” such as the Atah Hu chant.)
But then, at some point, all that well digging pays off. And that’s why, after Isaac digs his final well and enjoys rest from his opponents, it says:
וַיֵּרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָה֙ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֔וּא
The Divine appeared to him that night…
The flow of water and the appearance of the Divine are really the same thing. In this next phase, when we reach the inner “water” of the Divine in an experiential way, our task is different; we need to relax and drink, we can’t remain fixated on the work of chanting words. This is the “altar of earth” and the “altar of un-hewn stones” – silence and spontaneous words from the heart:
וַיִּ֧בֶן שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה
He built an altar there and invoked the Name of the Divine…
In this phase, there is a shift from that sense of “me doing the practice” into a sense of the Divine unfolding everywhere, in everything, all arising in the Completeness which is the miracle of this moment, all arising within the consciousness that we are, and our actions and words take on this quality of stillness and gratitude; our bodies become like an “altar of the earth.”
But then, what does Isaac do next?
וַיֶּט־שָׁ֖ם אָהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּכְרוּ־שָׁ֥ם עַבְדֵי־יִצְחָ֖ק בְּאֵֽר
He pitched his tent there and the servants of Isaac dug another well…
This two-part process is not linear, but circular; once we reach the waters of the Divine within and drink in the silence, we must also circle back and start digging again. This is how we access the blessing of a dedicated spiritual practice – through alternating between chanting and silence, between immersing in the Oneness of Being, and expressing that Oneness in ordinary life…
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ
In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you!
Who Will You Elect? Parshat Toldot
11/8/2018 0 Comments
The political climate nowadays is polarized into two opposing and extremely passionate camps. The positive side of this is the high level of engagement. The turnout for the midterm elections of few days ago was greater than ever. With dramatic anticipation, the country watched the news coverage of the election results as they came in.
But there’s another election going on right now as well – can you watch it with the same enthusiasm? It is the race between two different versions of yourself.
Candidate Number One is from the Ego Party. For most of us, this candidate usually wins in landslide victories, over and over. And, rightly so. The Ego candidate has the most experience, with the advantage of being constructed over a lifetime, not to mention having the constant support of the Thinking Mind.
Candidate Number Two is from the Awareness Party. This candidate usually doesn’t win because people don’t even see her on the ballot. They can’t see her because she is the seeing itself; it may never occur to them that she is even running. Furthermore, even though Awareness is far more ancient than the Thinking Mind, she never really ages. She is always seeing this moment anew, so she seems young and naïve. She must, we tend to think, need the Ego and his Thinking Mind to run the show.
The basic approach of the Ego is struggle:
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
The children struggled within her, and she said, “If it be so, why am I like this?”
But there comes a time when a person is ready to give up the struggle. Have you reached this point? Do you want to go beyond Ego? Are you ready to inquire of Reality and find another way?
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
She went to inquire of the Divine…
If you’re ready, listen: a message vibrates from the Silence:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר
The Divine said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger.”
Two nations are in your womb – there are two of you – the Ego is not all there is!
Two peoples will separate from within you – be aware of the distinction between the ordinary me, the Ego, and the awareness behind and beyond the Ego…
And one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger – the Ego, the conditioned me, is old; it is based on experience from the past. But, there is a deeper I that never grows old; it is always fresh, alive and new, The Ego likes to be in charge, but it is destined to serve Awareness. Then, there will be a great Silence far more profound than any thought. That Silence is your nakhalah, your birthright, if you would but awaken to it.
How to awaken to It?
וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים
Esau was a man who knew hunting... but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
Give up your "hunting," give up your seeking for control. Come into the “tent” of your heart, into this moment as it is, and dwell here in simplicity…
Timeless- Parshat Toldot
11/17/2017 1 Comment
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. 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, on this Shabbat Toldot, the Sabbath of Generations, may we surrender ever more deeply into Reality as it unfolds in this moment, making Presence an ever new habit in this generation, and live from the open heart, responding to whatever is needed. Good Shabbos!!
The Mountains- Parshat Toldot
“The children struggled within her, and she said: ‘Why am I like this?’ So, she went to inquire of the Divine. Hashem said to her, “Two nations are within your womb… and the elder shall serve the younger…”
Here in Tucson, the Catalina mountains rise majestically in the north of the city. When we first moved here, I would look up and think, “I wonder if those mountains will ever seem normal and unimpressive?”
As lovers of travel know, when you visit a new place where you have no history or baggage, there’s a brightness to everything- even dirty things are bright, vivid, and rich.
But after you’ve been somewhere a while, the nervous system tends to clump everything together. You look at the tree you’ve seen a million times in your backyard, and instead of seeing the miracle of the tree, you see your laundry, the bills, the broken sink, the broken relationships. All your past experiences of a place seems to soak into every particular piece of that place. You become conditioned.
Conditioning is not in itself a bad thing; it’s how we learn. But it’s vital to remember that there is always an aspect of your experience that is unconditioned. You can see and feel that unconditioned aliveness in children- their wonder, their innocent excitement about things.
And of course, along with that exquisitely innocent and unconditioned consciousness comes... stupidity!
That’s why we, the old and the conditioned, need to protect them from themselves. The older must serve the younger.
“V’rav ya’avod tza’ir- And the older shall serve the younger...”
And that’s as it should be- the experience of the old and the conditioned must preserve and protect the fragile, the bright, the unconditioned.
But this truth applies not only in the external realm of protecting children, but also in the inner realms of consciousness. For there is a level within your own being that is still completely unconditioned. Like the child, it is bright, alive, and curious.
You may think, “But I am old- my conditioning is too heavy, my trauma is too great, my life has been too difficult, or too easy, or whatever… how can I get rid of all the oldness to discover my inner youthfulness? How can I reach the unconditioned?”
The Good News is: You don’t have to “reach” it, and you don’t have to get rid of your conditioning. That which sees all your conditioning, is itself Unconditioned.
Instead of saying, “I am old”- instead of saying, “my conditioning”- simply notice the feeling of oldness. Notice the impulse to think or judge things in a certain way. Notice the feeling that arises when you see the tree in your backyard.
The seeing itself- That is the Unconditioned.
If you practice staying in the seeing, in the noticing, without getting absorbed into the reaction, you will also begin to notice- there is an inner vastness that is untouched by the old thoughts and old feelings. That vastness is your Presence, your Awareness. You don’t need to find it, you are it- but you need to be with all that conditioning instead of being the conditioning. Then, you will see the mountain anew, every day.
There is a story that the disciples of Rabbi Elimelekh came to him and asked: “In the Torah we read that Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Show a wonder to you.’ How are we to understand this? He should have said, ‘Show a wonder to me.’”
Rabbi Elimelekh explained: “Magicians know what they want to accomplish and how to accomplish it. It is not a wonder for them, but only for their beholders. But for those who are merely a vessel for the miracle that God accomplishes through them, their own wonder arises from their deeds and overwhelms them. And that’s what Pharaoh meant: ‘Don’t show me your conditioned expertise! Show me the wonder that arises out of your Unconditioned innocence…’
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, may we open and see the miraculous eons of conditioning that are creating our experience right now. May we know that the seeing and the opening is Itself Unconditioned- Hadeish yameinu kikedem- may our days be fresh and new as they were at the beginning, before the story began. And as we enter the month of Kislev and of Hanukah, the Holiday of Dedication, may we dedicate ourselves ever more deeply to a path of ever increasing Light of Presence.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov!
Adam- Parshat Toldot
11/12/2015 12 Comments
This d'var is dedicated to Adam Schachter- Hanan Yitzhak ben Moshe v'Merka z"l.
d. 25 Heshvan, 5776
Last Saturday, Adam passed away from this world. Adam was my half-brother, the son of my father Michael and Adam’s mother Marlene. He lived in New York.
The life and character of a person is infinitely complex. But there is also something fundamental about how a person moves through life, about what moves them, what makes them get out of bed in the morning.
On this fundamental level, Adam was a deeply compassionate person and an enjoyer of life. He wasn’t a complainer or a worrier. He was also deeply insightful and spiritual. I enjoyed the deep conversations we had over the years. Toward the end, we spent some time meditating together on the phone and Skype.
At the funeral, I saw how many considered Adam to be their best friend. From what they said, he seemed to me to be their counselor, regularly helping them through difficult and confusing times in their lives.
He was twenty-nine when he died from brain cancer.
When someone so young suffers and dies like this, it defies any sense of fairness or justice in the world. And we know, many suffer and die unfairly every day, God forbid.
Awareness of all this needless suffering can chip away at you. There is an urge to harden, to shut down. It can feel like there is a war going on inside- a war between your natural and innocent connection with life, on one hand, and a contracted, angry rejection of it, on the other.
How could this happen??
In this week’s reading, Rebecca experiences an inner war as well. After Isaac prays for a child, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins who literally war inside her body. She cries out:
“Lama zeh anokhi-
Why am I like this?!”
At its core, spirituality is about radical acceptance, not about questioning why things are as they are.
But the truth is that questioning can be a great ally toward acceptance, if you go deep enough with your questioning. If you question into the nature of your own mind, into the nature of your own resistance, the questioning itself can become a path of surrender:
“Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem-
She went and inquired of the Divine...”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”?
The Divine is Nothing but Reality- so to “inquire of the Divine” means to look deeply into what you are experiencing, in this moment. If you are feeling negativity, ask yourself: What is this resistance within me? What is this urge to complain, to judge, or to control things?
The first-born twin, Esau, represents this urge. Esau is called an “Ish Yodea Tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. He is your urge to go out and “trap” the world, to make it conform to your will.
But the other twin, Jacob, is an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim- a simple man, abiding in tents”. He is your deeper urge to return to the “tent” of your heart- the open heart that accepts what is with simplicity.
Accordingly, the word “tam” means not only simplicity, but also “taste”. So to be tam means to not seek control, but rather to simply taste this moment as it is- to drink the nectar that flows from intimacy with this moment- even when this moment is filled with pain.
Understandably, many of us spend most of our lives in the “Esau” state, running around doing things, as if to run away from this life. Perhaps if we run around and stay busy enough, we won’t have to feel the pain.
But in the end, all that running and outward seeking leaves Esau drained:
“Esau came in from the field, exhausted”.
Eventually, Esau gives up his seeking and returns to drink from Jacob’s nectar:
“Pour into me please some of this very red stuff!” he says to Jacob.
The word for “red” is “Adom”- a slight variation on the name of my brother, Adam. “Adam” means “human”, because according to legend, the first human was created from the “Adamah”- the red earth.
This Adom is the nourishment we all need- the life blood that flows within the tent of the heart- the nourishment that my brother Adam was connected to, and helped his fellow humans connect to as well.
How do you connect to it?
In order for Esau to receive the nourishment he lacks, he has to surrender his “birthright”. That is, to fully enter the tent of the heart, you have to surrender your sense of entitlement, your sense that the world owes you something, that things should be a certain way.
That’s the way Adam was. In all of my experience of him, he never complained about his situation. He enjoyed life as he was able, and helped others to do so as well.
After all, the world is not “fair”- at least not according to ordinary understanding. All our running will not make it conform to our sense of what is right. In fact, all that does is reinforce a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy available within the tent of the heart.
But drink of this nectar and you will see- there is blessing everywhere, and bountiful opportunity to love, to spread the blessing. Drink of this nectar, but let the bitterness mix with the sweetness. This mixing produces Rakhamim- compassion for all the suffering of life. According to the Zohar, Rakhamim is the spiritual quality that Jacob embodies.
Then, from the place of Rakhamim, you can start running around again and getting things done. You can’t just stay in the tent forever.
In fact, Jacob is not complete until he gets outside his tent and starts working in the fields for old uncle Laban. Fearing that his brother Esau wants to murder him for taking his birthright and his blessing, he flees to his uncle Laban, where he works as a shepherd for fourteen years.
Only then, after years of being out in the field himself, is he able to finally make peace with his brother. Older and softened by years of suffering, Esau and Jacob reunite. They weep and kiss each other; true compassion is born.
This rhythm of alternating between the World of Doing and the World of Being is, of course, the wisdom of Shabbos, inviting us every week to enter the tent of the heart before going back out into the field.
But it is also the wisdom of the mourning process. We need time to be with pain- the world can wait. Only by fully feeling the pain of loss can we fully appreciate the gift of our present life with full awareness.
There is a story-
In the late 1700s, in Belarus, Reb Shlomo of Karlin joyfully broke the fast with his hassidim at the close of Yom Kippur.
Reb Shlomo was known for his many miraculous talents. One such talent was the ability to know what each of his hassidim had prayed for, and what the Divine response would be to their prayers. At this festive gathering with their master, the hassidim begged him to perform this feat:
“Tell us, what did we pray for?” they implored.
Reb Shlomo turned to the first disciple: “You prayed that Hashem should make you healthy, so that you’ll be able to wholeheartedly serve God and study Torah without your poor health and thoughts of your mortality distracting you.”
“Bravo! You are right! But what is Hashem’s answer?” asked the disciple.
“Hashem doesn’t want your prayer or your Torah study. Hashem wants your broken heart that grieves because you are distracted by your mortality from fully praying and studying.”
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, and as we come to the end of MarHeshvan, the Bitter Month of Heshvan, may we not shrink from our suffering, but open to the bitter-sweet compassion that awakens through the mixing of the Adom- the inner life force of the Eternal Present- with the Adamah- the earth to which the bodies of every Adam will one day return.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov,
The Tent is in the Field- Parshat Toldot
11/20/2014 0 Comments
When psychological pain burns, it can feel like there is a war going on inside. The mind feels stuck and the emotions are seething. As Rivka (Rebecca) says in Parshat Toldot when the twins in her womb fought with one another: “lama zeh anokhi- why am I like this??”
In the throws of psychological suffering it is natural to question why we should have to feel thus, to question why circumstances are such, to complain bitterly against Reality. Ordinarily, such questioning is an expression of resistance and only creates more suffering. But if you go deeper with your questioning- questioning into the nature of your mind, into the nature of your resistance, you can find the path that leads to liberation. As it says of Rivka’s questioning: “Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem- she went and inquired of the Divine.”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”? The Divine is Reality- so we have to look at what is really going on. Notice that there is this urge within to control- to bend the world to “my” will. This is the first-born twin- Esav (Esau) who is called “ish yodea tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. The mind seeks to know how it can “trap” the world into conforming to its will. But the other twin, Yaakov (Jacob), is an “ish tam”. “Tam” means both “simplicity” and “taste”; to be simple means to not seek control, but rather to “taste” this moment.
The Esav seeks externally, running out into the “field” to see what he can “trap”. The Yaakov dwells in the tent of the heart, cultivating the nectar of bliss that flows from intimate connection with the inner level of Being. But not to worry- all that outward seeking leaves the Esav drained, as it says- “Esav came in from the field, exhausted”. Eventually, Esav gives up his seeking and returns to drink of the true nourishment: “Pour into me some of that very red stuff!” he says to Yaakov. The word for “red” is “adom”- a slight variation on “adam” which means “human”. This is the nourishment that every human needs! In other words, we cannot live merely by manipulating the world, because no matter how much we are able to make the world conform to what we think we want, manipulation only reinforces a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy that you can feel and connect with now, the moment that “now” becomes your aim. Not what you want now, but the “now” itself. But for Esav to receive this nourishment, he has to surrender his “birthright”; he has to give up on his self-image, his identity. To fully enter the present is to surrender the “me”- the time-based identity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be effective in the world or that we shouldn’t have the intention to fulfill our will. That would be madness. In fact, Yaakov is not complete until he gets outside his tent and learns to work in the field as well. Only then, after enduring the hardships of working outside for many years, is he able to make peace with his brother. The inner and outer come into harmony, because the inward quality of the “tent” and the outer quality of the “field” are not really separate anyway. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Torah is good together with an occupation because the exertion of both of them makes sin forgotten…”
This means not merely that one should spend some time on Torah and some time on earning a living, but rather that one should remain rooted in the Timeless while doing one’s work in time. Only then can your thoughts, words and actions flow from the Place of the Timeless, bringing true blessing into manifestation. May this Shabbat be a wellspring of nourishment from the Timeless tent of the heart! Good Shabbos!
There’s a story about Rabbi David of Lelov, before he became a rebbe, that he fasted from Sabbath to Sabbath for six years in an attempt to purify and open himself to a direct knowing of the Divine. At the end of the six years he still hadn’t achieved what he was looking for, so he took on yet another six years – twelve years total of fasting and other restrictive practices.
Still, he failed to achieve is aim. He had heard about a great rebbe, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, that he was known as a “healer of souls,” and he thought that this rebbe might be able to help him.
So, he set off to visit Rabbi Elimelekh and spend Shabbos with him. When he arrived in town, he secured a place for himself at the inn and came to the beis medrash (House of Study) on Friday afternoon before prayers. Many hasidim were there, and Rabbi Elimelekh greeted each one, shaking their hands and wishing them Gut Shabbos. David pushed his way through the crowd and put out his hand eagerly. But, Rabbi Elimelekh just ignored him; he didn’t return the greeting and didn’t even look at David, but just passed him by.
David left the Beis Medrash feeling downcast and rejected and went back to his room, where he sat on the bed dumbfounded, not knowing what to do. Eventually, he concluded that it must have been a mistake; the rebbe must have somehow not seen him there, or mistaken him for someone else. So, he headed back to the House of Prayer and again extended his hand to the rebbe just after the evening prayers. But again, Rabbi Elimelekh just turned away and completely ignored him.
There was no mistake this time; Rabbi David was devastated. He went back to his room and spent Shabbat alone, alternating between grief and anger. He resolved to leave as soon as Shabbat was over and never return there again.
But Saturday afternoon, as the time approached for Rabbi Elimelekh to teach at the Shalosh Seudes, the “Third Meal” of Shabbat, David could not restrain himself from going back and trying to catch a few words of the rebbe’s teaching. He didn’t go inside, but stood at the window and listened. After a short while, he heard the rebbe say:
“It sometimes happens that a person wishes to achieve the inner connection, devekus with Hashem. Maybe he even fasts for six years, and still not satisfied, he fasts yet another six years, but still nothing! And so he comes to me, thinking that I can give him the final something that he lacks to crown all his efforts and give him the devekus he seeks. But the truth is, all that fasting is a service not to Hashem, but to the idol of his own pride; such a person has to be utterly broken down and go to the very depths of their being. From there, they must start serving Hashem sincerely, with a truthful heart, from the bottom up.”
Rabbi David nearly fainted when he heard these words. Trembling and sobbing by the window, he waited until the Havdalah ceremony was over, after which he made his way to the entrance. Dizzy and bewildered, he opened the door with great fear and stood on the threshold, not daring to enter.
Immediately, Rabbi Elimeliekh rose from his chair, ran over and embraced his motionless visitor exclaiming, “Barukh haba! Blessed is he who comes!” David was drawn into the room and invited to sit next to the rebbe at the table. The rebbe’s son, Elezar, couldn’t believe his eyes, and he leaned over and whispered to his father: “Abba, this is the man you turned away twice because you couldn’t stand the sight of him!”
“No my son,” Rabbi Elimelekh replied, “That was a completely different person. Don’t you see – this is our dear friend Rabbi David!”
Fasting and other restrictive practices are common in Judaism and other spiritual traditions. What is their purpose? Why would the seeker willingly cause their body suffering? It is because our tendency is to identify with our experience. If we feel hunger, we tend to think, “I” am hungry. If we feel angry, we tend to think, “I” am angry.
But the intentional taking on of deprivation allows us to consciously say not that “I am hungry,” but that “I am aware of the hunger.” And even deeper: “I am the awareness of the hunger.”
And this is the key – not the mere cultivating of the ability to endure suffering, but the transcending of the “me” that doesn’t want to suffer, the knowing of ourselves as far more than any particular experience that we might unconsciously identify with. In this way, the fast (or other restrictive practice) becomes a doorway into the field of consciousness that we are beyond the ordinary ego – the simple radiance of being that is not separate from or other than Being Itself.
But there is the danger, as there is in any spiritual practice or endeavor, that we might identify with the practice itself; that rather than lead us into true realization of the Divine, we end up with a “spiritualized ego” – a sense of “me” that engages in fasting (or whatever), giving a feeling of spiritual status, not unlike any other materialistic kind of status.
That is, apparently, what happened to Rabbi David. His fasting didn’t result in the transcending of ego, but in the reinforcing of it. We can see this in the story, how he begins by eagerly pushing his way up to the rebbe and extending his hand. But by the end of the story, the rebbe’s medicine had taken effect – David doesn’t even enter the space until invited. Instead he waits on the threshold, revealing his release from the grips of ego, from that sense of “me” that wants something, that feels entitled to get.
Fasting, along with other restrictive practices that put limitations on our natural impulses, are expressions of the Fifth Path, the sefirah of Gevurah, meaning “Strength” or “Might.” When practiced with the right kavanah (attitude), they can help us develop the inner strength to break free and remain free from the seductive power of ego – that is, the tendency to identify with our experience. But to have the right kavanah, we have to understand the egoic impulse within; we have to understand its dynamic.
This is why the mitzvah from the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) that is associated with Gevurah is לֹא תִּגְנֹב – lo tignov – don’t steal.
Of course, in the literal sense, not stealing is an obvious ethical necessity. But on a deeper level, not stealing is more than not taking property that doesn’t belong to you; it means living with the realization that the “me” is not entitled; the “me” is, after all, a psychological self-sense that is itself on loan; even our very self-sense is not something we own. Put another way – everything we receive is, in fact, a gift from the Divine.
Accordingly, the “Saying of Creation” that is associated in the Zohar with lo tignov, the mitzvah to not steal, is the passage where God gives the gift of food to human beings:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃
Elohim said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; for you they shall be for food…”
It is interesting that the paradigm for human eating in the Garden of Eden is vegetarianism; meat eating isn’t mentioned until after the great flood of Noah, after humans had reached a dangerous level of corruption. Accordingly, there is the recognition in Judaism that meat eating tends to reinforce the predator-like tendencies of ego, and so the eating of animals is limited and up-leveled by the practices of kashrut. This is another example of how self-limiting gevurah practice aids in sanctification and self-transcendence.
Kashrut has many dimensions which utilize eating as symbol and metaphor for spiritual realities. For example, the species of “kosher” animals must both chew their cud and have cloven hooves – both of which represent specific ways of relating consciously to our experience:
“Chewing cud” means thoroughly thinking things through, not jumping to judgment, but rather investigating and probing with the mind as deeply as possible before asserting what is true and what is not. This is the sefirah of Binah, Understanding. And, just as a “cloven hoof” has two contact points with the earth, so too does being conscious require us to see situations from different angels, to engage in multi-perspectival thinking; this is the sefirah of Hokhmah, Wisdom.
The signs of kosher species of fish, which are the presence of both fins and scales, also have a spiritual meaning. “Fins” means being able to flow with what is, not resisting Reality as it unfolds, but receiving the moment from the hands of the Divine. “Scales,” on the other hand, mean nevertheless protecting oneself from influences that are dangerous or harmful; we can be open and give ourselves to the truth of the moment, saying “yes” to what is, while also making decisions toward this and away from that, saying “no” to things as well. The coexisting of the “yes” and the “no” is the balance between Hesed and Gevurah, embodied in the Sixth Path of Tiferet, which we will look at in the following lesson.
Another aspect of kashrut is sh’khitah – the kosher slaughter of mammals and birds. Again, the principle of “not stealing” is embodied, as the animal is slaughtered in a compassionate and relatively pain-free way, accompanied by a brakhah, a prayer that expresses thanks for the life we are taking, as well as the intention to receive the mitzvah of compassionate slaughter.
Another aspect of kashrut is the not mixing of meat and milk, which comes from the mitzvah of “not cooking a calf in its mother’s milk” – again, a symbolic act aimed at bringing compassion and sensitivity to the taking of animal life. We will look at this one more in a different lesson.
Finally, there is the practice of not eating blood. Much of the blood from the animal is drained at the time of slaughter, and blood is further removed through a process of salting the meat. Again, the idea here is to put constraints around our predator-like impulses.
There is another mitzvah connected to blood, not directly related to kashrut, but similar in principle:
לֹ֥א תֹאכְל֖וּ עַל־הַדָּ֑ם
You shall not eat on the blood…
- Leviticus 19:26
In context, this strange verse seems to be a prohibition of a particular idolatrous practice – probably something related to necromancy, in which an animal is slaughtered in some kind of ceremony and its flesh is eaten as it lies in its blood. But the rabbis understood this verse to be the mitzvah of self-restraint in general, not being gluttonous or voracious, as it says in Pirkei Avot:
כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא
Such is the way of Torah: bread with salt you shall eat, and rationed water shall you drink; on the ground you shall sleep, and a life of constraint you shall live; and in the Torah shall you labor.
If you do this, “Happy shall you be and it shall be good for you.” (Psalms 128:2) “Happy shall you be” in this world, “and it shall be good for you” in the world to come.
In other words, true happiness doesn’t come from self-gratification; it comes from developing inner strength and devoting ourselves to wisdom. At the same time, it is important to understand this mishna in the context of the tradition in general; the Jewish path is not one of asceticism, as you might think if all you read was this mishna. The “bread and salt,” meaning eating simply and living un-extravagantly, is the weekday meal. On Shabbos, feasting and drinking are uplifted, because they are in honor of the Divine; the sensual world is not denied, but sanctified.
Just as Avraham represents the sefirah of Hesed, loving-kindness, so Avraham’s son Yitzhak represents Gevurah. The source for this attribution came in the last parshah:
וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה...
And (the Divine) said, “Take your son, your special one whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as an elevation offering…”
God tells Avraham to take his beloved son Yitzhak, who was miraculously born to him in his old age, and slaughter him as a sacrifice on the mountain. Avraham obeys, and just as he lifts the knife to kill his son, an angel of God stops him, saying:
אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
“Do not send your hand against the boy, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you are surrendered to the Divine and have not withheld your beloved son from Me.”
This story represents the ultimate fruit of Gevurah – the total surrender of all we cling to most tightly. It’s a disturbing story. In its plain meaning, losing a child is a parent’s nightmare; slaughtering one’s child is incomprehensible. But that is why the story is so potent – Avraham’s surrender and self-transcendence is total. Not only is he losing a child, he is losing his very reason for existence, which is dependent on Yitzhak to carry forth his purpose as the father of Jewish people.
But then, the angel stops him; meaning – surrender doesn’t necessarily mean destruction. In the end, all that we have and all that we are is only temporary; we eventually have to let go of everything. But before that time, we can let go while we are still alive; we can “die before we die” – we can surrender now, and practice surrendering again and again, by practicing restraint of the self.
Another expression of surrender, self-restraint and not-stealing comes in this parshah, which is connected to the particular rabbinic understanding of לֹא תִּגְנֹב lo tignov, don’t steal. The mitzvah of not stealing is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, and so the rabbis explained the repetition of this law by explaining that lo tignov in the Ten Commandments does not mean don’t steal in general, but rather means don’t kidnap.
In this parshah, Avraham instructs his servant Eliezar to go back to Avraham’s homeland to find a wife for Yitzhak.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אוּלַי֙ לֹא־תֹאבֶ֣ה הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה לָלֶ֥כֶת אַחֲרַ֖י אֶל־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את הֶֽהָשֵׁ֤ב אָשִׁיב֙ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֔ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יָצָ֥אתָ מִשָּֽׁם׃
And the servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman doesn’t want to follow me to this land, shall I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אַבְרָהָ֑ם הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תָּשִׁ֥יב אֶת־בְּנִ֖י שָֽׁמָּה׃
Abraham answered him, “On no account must you take my son back there!
וְאִם־לֹ֨א תֹאבֶ֤ה הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְנִקִּ֕יתָ מִשְּׁבֻעָתִ֖י זֹ֑את רַ֣ק אֶת־בְּנִ֔י לֹ֥א תָשֵׁ֖ב שָֽׁמָּה׃
And if the woman does not consent to follow you, you shall then be clear of this oath to me; but do not take my son back there.”
Once again, just as in the Akeida (the story of the binding of Yitzhak on the altar), Avraham is ready to surrender his whole purpose for being. He needs to find a bride for Yitzhak to be the mother of the future generations, but if the woman doesn’t want to come with him, so be it. And again, the lesson is: let your life be a movement toward your goal; live with purpose and do your best to accomplish your purpose, but also surrender your purpose – know that everything is in “God’s hands” so to speak. Don’t identify with the “me” that wants this and doesn’t want that; “bind” your ego on the altar of the present moment.
And this brings us to the deepest level of Gevurah, the binding of the mind itself. Moment by moment, thoughts arise, both in relation to our goals and in distraction from our goals. But the power to take the reins of the mind in our hands and choose which thoughts to think and which to dismiss is our innate power and our core responsibility; through this inner Gevurah, we are set free.
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Fiddler on the Balcony – Parshat Hayei Sarah
11/19/2019 0 Comments
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Vanity of vanities – says Kohelet – vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
King Solomon’s wisdom book seems aimed at destroying our sense that we can make a difference with our actions; there is no ultimate profit from our efforts:
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
What profit is there for a person in all their effort that they labor under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth stands forever…
The bigger reality – the sun above and the earth below – are unaffected by our little ambitions and dramas:
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth stands forever…
Everything that comes eventually goes, so mah yitron – what’s the point? Why be concerned with future gain, when the cycle of birth and death simply goes on and on?
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת
A time to live, a time to die…
This is in stark contrast to our parshah, in which Abraham goes to great lengths to determine the direction of his lineage:
לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
You will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell –
כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק׃
For to the land of my birth you shall go and take a wife for my son Isaac.
He commands his servant Eliezer to take an oath that he will do his best to find a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s homeland, requiring him to travel far and seek the right woman to bring back. It might seem that Abraham is doing the thing that King Solomon warns against, רַעְי֥וֹן רֽוּחַ – striving after wind.
But when Eliezer goes off to find her, his task is strangely easy – he serendipitously meets the girl right away. When he explains to her family his mission and tells the synchronistic story of how they met, they reply:
מֵיְהוָ֖ה יָצָ֣א הַדָּבָ֑ר לֹ֥א נוּכַ֛ל דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ רַ֥ע אוֹ־טֽוֹב
This matter is from the Divine – it is not possible for us to say to anything bad or good…
In other words, yes – Eliezer made a great effort and traveled to Abraham’s homeland to find Rebecca, but his effort was in alignment with what needed to happen – it was מֵיְהוָ֖ה – the story was unfolding from Reality, from the Divine – it wasn’t mere הֶ֙בֶל֙ וּרְע֣וּת ר֔וּחַ – vanity and striving after wind, because it was in service of the greater Reality.
There is an analogue here with our practice: if our practice is aimed at gaining something for ourselves that we can hold onto, if it is motivated by “getting,” than it too is הֶ֙בֶל֙ וּרְע֣וּת ר֔וּחַ – vanity and striving after wind. All experiences come and go; the point is to enjoy this moment, as King Solomon says a little further on:
אֵֽין־ט֤וֹב בָּאָדָם֙ שֶׁיֹּאכַ֣ל וְשָׁתָ֔ה וְהֶרְאָ֧ה אֶת־נַפְשׁ֛וֹ ט֖וֹב בַּעֲמָל֑וֹ גַּם־זֹה֙ רָאִ֣יתִי אָ֔נִי כִּ֛י מִיַּ֥ד הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽיא׃
There is nothing good for a person but to eat and drink and to enjoy the goodness from his effort; for this, I see, also comes from the Hand of the Divine.
One’s efforts are vanity only if they are aimed at establishing something permanent for yourself in the future, because they are already a gift in the present; they are מִיַּ֥ד הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים – from the Hands of the Divine. This is true of ordinary food and drink, but on the deepest level, it is true of the present in all its fullness: this moment is fleeting, fragile, and impermanent – so enjoy it now! In this way there is still effort, but it is an effort to simply step up to the present with a willingness to be the vessel for the blessing of simply being. The key is to approach this moment without judgment:
מֵיְהוָ֖ה יָצָ֣א הַדָּבָ֑ר לֹ֥א נוּכַ֛ל דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ רַ֥ע אוֹ־טֽוֹב
This matter is from the Divine – it is not impossible for us to say to anything bad or good…
This moment is now emerging from the Divine, from Reality – it is. Come to this is-ness without looking for good or running away from bad, and there is a natural joy that has the power to conquer all fears and doubts. This is why music is such a powerful spiritual tool. Music has the power to embody both happiness and sorrow, while penetrating to the deeper joy of Being that underlies them both.
The Rabbi of Apt once proclaimed a fast for the townspeople during a time of great distress, in order to call down Divine mercy. But when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn heard about it, he hired some musicians to play the most beautiful music night after night on his balcony. The town was in a state of fear and misery, but when the hasidim would hear the sweet sounds of the fiddles and clarinets floating down from above, they would begin to gather in the garden, until there was a whole crowd of them. The music would soon triumph over their dejection, and they would dance, stomping their feet and clapping their hands.
People who were indignant about this complained to the Rabbi of Apt that the time of fasting he had ordered was turned into a time of rejoicing. The Rabbi responded, “What can I do? I cannot condemn one who takes the commandment in the Torah seriously: ‘When you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets…’” (Numbers 10:9)
Communing in the Field – Parshat Hayei Sarah
11/1/2018 1 Comment
Did you ever see one of those fake little plastic pieces of sushi?
They look so delicious, but of course, they are not really food. Or, consider those fake, plastic plants they have on the tables in restaurants sometimes. They look nice, so why doesn’t everyone have only plastic plants? What’s the point of having real plants that you have to water?
Plastic plants and plastic sushi have their place. Maybe you need plastic sushi to make an enticing display in order to get people to come into your restaurant. Maybe plastic plants are adequate for adding some decoration to your dining table. But the fake items are meaningless in and of themselves; they’re only useful because they point to the real thing. Once you feel enticed by the plastic sushi and come into the restaurant, you’re not going to order the plastic sushi; you want real food.
Similarly, there are character traits that are fake, and character traits that are genuine.
Fake character traits have their place. When you’re playing a certain role like an employee, or a parent, or a student, or whatever, there are appropriate behaviors that are useful to follow, even if they’re not genuine. Politicians have to especially be masters of fake character traits.
But if you want to find the genuine Divinity of your own being, if you want real peace, real wholeness, real realization, no amount of mimicking behaviors will get you there. For That, you have to go to the root of your own being, and turn fully toward the Root of All Being, which are ultimately the same thing: The Beloved “Being-ness” of this moment.
There is a hint in this week’s reading:
Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, had gone to the city of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. He returns with Rebecca in the late afternoon, riding on a camel. Isaac goes out into the field as they approach:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים
Isaac went out toward the evening to commune in the field. He lifted his eyes, and behold – camels were coming!
Each piece of this wonderful verse instructs us in how to meet the genuine Beloved.
Vayeitzei Yitzhak – Isaac/laughter went out…
Isaac’s name, Yitzhak, actually means laughter. It refers to the laughter of his mother Sarah, who laughed both with humor and joy at the idea of giving birth at her advanced age of ninety. The idea here is that just as Sarah couldn’t imagine being fruitful in her old age, so too we often develop a negative attitude about what is possible. We may think, “How can I possibly experience the Divine? I can’t even control my own thoughts for more than a second!”
But this attitude itself keeps us locked in the perspective of the ego, of the separate “me.” Instead, decide right now to let go of negative thinking. Know that you are, in essence, Divine, and that all you need do is begin shifting your attention to That which you already are. “Go out” to the fulness of this moment, to your experience as it is right now, with an attitude of openness.
Lasuakh basadeh – to commune in the field…
Everything that you are perceiving right now is living within your field of awareness. This field doesn’t itself have any shape or border, but…
Lifnot erev – before the evening/mixture…
The word for evening, erev, also means mixture, since it is the time when day and night mingle. Similarly, there is a rich mixture within our experience right now – sensory perceptions, the space and objects and beings around us, as well and different feelings and thoughts within. Our experience spans a vast spectrum of pleasant and unpleasant, everything intimately mixed in one experience that is the present moment.
Vayisa einav – he lifted his eyes…
Know that the full mixture within your experience right now is not at all separate from the vast space of awareness within which it is arising. Everything is, in fact, literally made out of your consciousness. Furthermore, it isn’t “your” consciousness; you are the consciousness. And so, all things within your experience are literally manifestations of your own being, constantly shifting and moving. “Lift your eyes” – bring your awareness into direct connection with whatever is happening, now.
V’hinei, g’malim ba’im – behold, camels were coming!
The camel is a symbol of self-abundance, as the camel carries around the nourishment it needs in its hump as it traverses the desert. Similarly, as you learn to shift into the oneness of your experience in the present, the sense of peace and completeness, ofshalom/shalem, can begin to blossom. Perhaps you are getting a glimpse now… but if not, don’t give up! The camels are coming!
For the Love of Pain – Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/10/2017 1 Comment
“V’ayavo Avraham – Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her..."
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Hayei Sarah, which means, “The Life of Sarah,” and it begins by declaring that Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty-seven years. Then it says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Vatamat Sarah – Sarah died – Vayavo Avraham – Avraham came – lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah – to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”
So, first Sarah dies, then Avraham comes and eulogizes her, then he weeps. It’s a strange verse. Why does it say that Avraham “comes?” Where is he coming to? And if he’s coming to Sarah after she dies, wouldn’t he weep first, and then eulogize her? And to whom is he eulogizing? Isn’t a eulogy something you deliver to others? But this verse doesn’t mention any other people. It just says that he comes – doesn’t say where he’s coming to – then he eulogizes, then he weeps.
To answer, let’s reflect first on the question, what is death? Death means the end of a continuity; the end of something or someone that came into being, that was born, that had some span of life, and then expires. And when a loved one that plays a major role in your life dies, it’s not just the person that dies, it’s a continuity in your life that dies as well. Our lives contain all kinds of continuities – the place we live, the bed we sleep in, and so on. And part of that tapestry of continuity is composed of our relationships. If one of those relationships comes to an end because the person comes to an end, then something of ourselves as died as well; the tapestry, or the form of our lives gets torn. And of course, the experience of being torn is pain.
So, at this deeper level, we’re talking about pain. And what’s the normal response to pain? AAHH! Crying out. But that’s not what Avraham does. – Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah. First Avraham comes, then he eulogizes, then he cries out. Why?
Normally, we cry out in pain because we don’t like the pain. In fact, that’s the whole reason for pain to exist. Pain is there as a signal for danger, so it has to be unpleasant; you’re supposed to not like it. You feel your hand burning, you’ve got to get it out of the fire fast. If you only noticed intellectually, “oh, my hand is in the fire, that’s dangerous,” you’d already be burned. You need something to force you to get out of the fire immediately, and that’s pain. So, crying out is a venting of that impulse to get away from the thing causing you pain, and get yourself to safety. It’s also a signal for others to help you, just as when a baby cries out, and the parent immediately tries to see what’s wrong and help. That’s the ordinary way we operate.
But there’s another way to relate to pain, and that is instead of trying to get away, to deliberately bring yourself into connection with the pain, to come to the pain. Vayavo Avraham – come to the pain that is arising and be with it on purpose; that’s the practice of Presence, of being conscious with your experience, rather than be taken over by your impulse to escape. Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse. If your hand is burning, you should certainly escape by moving your hand out of the fire. But when we feel emotional pain, the impulse is the same; you want to get away from it, vent, blame and so on. But if instead you become present with your pain, then you use the pain to strengthen your Presence, to dis-identify from your impulses, and to ultimately know yourself ever more deeply as the space of consciousness within which your experience in this moment is arising.
So, on this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember to come ever more deeply into the truth of this moment, both in pain and joy, and through Presence with whatever is, grow in our experiential knowledge of the radiant awareness that we are. Good Shabbiss!
The Telephone- Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/25/2016 1 Comment
Once I saw a video of some children being shown an old telephone from the 1970s, complete with a rotary dial.
“What is it?” they wondered.
When they were told it was a phone and how it worked, how you dial numbers by pushing the wheel around, they said, “Wait, you mean all this phone does is call people?”
For many of is, it’s hard to imagine a time when our calendar, internet, email and a million other functions weren’t instantly available on our phones. What a miracle! But recently I noticed that whenever I take out my phone, there’s a slight pain in my stomach, because I don’t want all those functions to distract me from the reason I took out the phone in the first place.
Have you set out to do something, gotten distracted, and completely forgotten what it was you had intended to do?
In the Haftorah for this week’s reading, King David is old and lying on his deathbed. Meanwhile, his son Adonijah has taken power against King David’s will, throwing a big party and inviting all his supporters, while excluding those close to David.
The prophet Nathan and King David’s wife Bathsheba enter King David’s bed chamber and inform him about what’s going on. The king is roused and swears that his son Solomon must succeed him.
Every intention that arises within the mind and heart arises within a particular kind of situation. As time goes on, situations change; in fact, “time” and “change” are not two separate things. Like King David’s desire for Solomon to succeed his kingship, the moments of our original intentions can become old and dim, while new moments and new desires arise. Like the thousands of apps, reminders, alerts, and new emails popping up, we sometimes find ourselves thinking: “Wait, what was I doing?”
But let’s stand back for a moment, back from all the different intentions and priorities of life. Before you had relationships, before you had values, before you had goals- can you go back before any of that and ask,
“What was I doing? Why did I come into this life in the first place?”
Every intention, whether positive or negative, has its root in some thought or feeling- the desire for happiness, the desire to help the world, the desire to create or to destroy. Consciousness is like the smartphone- its functions are infinite, and the mind is infinitely complex!
But is there something simple, something far more deep than any thought or feeling?
Before you wanted anything, before you had an opinion, there was consciousness- this miracle of perception somehow awakened within your body-mind and began meeting the world as it appeared.
The world- sometimes nurturing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes loving, sometimes painful, sometimes horrific.
But whatever the form the world happens to takes in any given moment, behind it all is this simple awareness: the awakening of Reality to Itself. And this awakening is happening, right now, as the Presence that you are.
Can you remember why you came into existence?
On this deepest level, awareness comes into existence simply to be aware. And behind all the complexity of life is this simple truth- you are aware- which is to say, you are awareness.
Know yourself as this Presence- behind your thinking, behind your words, behind your actions- and you become like the air we breathe: ever-present, completely surrounding us from without and nourishing us from within, yet essentially separate from all the drama of our existence- intimate and transcendent in one.
But to do this you have to get back to basics. Like the rotary phone that only did one thing, you have to find the one thing within yourself behind all the many things. A great way to start is, become aware of the air!
Become aware of the ever-present nourishment which is your own constant breath, and you can begin to notice that your noticing is just like the air. The noticing itself is your ever-present consciousness within which all experience arises.
And, paradoxically, it is through the awakening of this transcendence beyond the world that you become a great force of blessing within the world, because it is through the openness of your transcendence that genuine love can flow.
Can you remember your original intention- to be awake?
King David is the symbol of Moshiakh- the awakening of all humanity out of the dream of separation. This dream is so powerful- it creates all the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others.
His rightful heir is Solomon- the symbol of wisdom. We come into this world to awaken as that wisdom- to embody consciousness in form and thereby heal the world. We humans have become so lost in form, so caught within its web. The rogue son has taken over and usurped the throne.
But any moment, and that means this moment, is the potential to rouse David from his slumber and get the world back on track. Awaken!
It is told that in the late 1700s, when Reb Shneur Zalman was incarcerated in a Russian prison, a guard noticed the great presence of the rabbi and went to ask him a question:
“You are a holy man. There is a question that has been bothering me about the scriptures. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden and he ate from the forbidden fruit, it says that God asked him where he was. How is it possible that God didn’t already know where he was?”
Reb Shneur Zalman answered- “It’s like this. At every moment and at every time, God is asking you- where are you? Right now you are twenty-seven years old. Are you fulfilling the purpose of your life?”
At this point the guard almost fell over, because the rabbi had mentioned his actual age, and there was no way he could have known. At that moment, a deep knowing awakened within the guard and he devoted himself to love and service.
On this Shabbat Hayey Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember ever more deeply who we are really- the Presence and Life of Reality Itself. May that Presence be free from the dream of all fear and negativity, and may our words and deeds become sources of blessing on this earth, today.
The Fiancé- Parshat Hayei Sarah
11/4/2015 2 Comments
Back in the summer of 1988, I was home from music school after Freshman year.
One night, I went out with some high school friends to a diner. One of them surprised us with the news that he had met the girl of his dreams and they were getting married.
“Really? Are you sure it’s the right thing?” we asked.
We were only nineteen. The idea of getting married was inconceivable to us.
“I know it’s the right thing,” he replied. He then went on to recount all the serendipitous events “proving” to him that she was his perfect life partner.
“I’ve never been so sure about anything in my entire life,” he said.
Having never experienced that kind of certainty myself, I was suspicious, but I didn’t question it further.
The next summer, in 1990, we all went out again, and he told us what horrors had transpired after they were married: She had stolen his car, emptied his bank account and disappeared. So much for serendipity!
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to “trust the universe”, we give away our power to make decisions. Rather than ask ourselves the crucial questions, we instead look for signs and coincidences to confirm that we’re on the right track, that things are beshert.
In this week’s reading, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac. When Eliezer arrives at the city of Nahor, he prays:
“Hashem… let it be that the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please tip over your jug so that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac…”
At first glance, it might seem that Eliezer is making this same kind of mistake, relying on an external sign to tell him what to do, rather than using his own intelligence to find the right wife for Isaac.
Or is he?
If Eliezer had prayed that the girl should be wearing a purple dress, or have a really big hat, certainly that would have been arbitrary.
But what does he say?
He says that she should offer water to him and his camels. In other words, she should be a mentch- a kind and generous person.
He’s not giving away his power in favor of superstition; he’s actually specifying the exact criteria by which to make his decision: she should be kind and generous. He doesn’t want Isaac to marry someone who will steal his money and his donkey! If she’s not a mentch, he’s not interested.
If you want to live with clarity and purpose, if you want to truly say “yes” to your life, you’ve got to be able to say a clear “no” as well. The “yes” and the “no” go together.
Saying “no” can be really difficult. So many things can get in the way- stories in your head telling you what you “should” do, feelings of guilt for letting others down, or lack of trust in yourself.
But, there are decisions that only you can make. Take your power in your hand and meet your destiny! Don’t be blown around by the winds of fate!
To be decisive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust. Trust your ability to make your decision!
Then, after you’ve made your decision, trust whatever happens next. Surrender to what happens. Ultimately, we have no control over how things unfold, but we always have the power to choose.
Are there decisions you are avoiding?
Or, after you make decisions, are you easily derailed because you can’t say “no” to other things that come along? Do you ever blame others for your inability to follow through on your own decisions?
Remember- your life is like a boat. The steering wheel is in front of you. Take it and steer; don’t wait for someone else, don’t blame anyone else. The ocean has its own currents, but you are the captain.
And, if you’re not sure yet which decision to make, that’s fine too. Be uncertain. Sometimes it's wonderful to just go with the currents. Sometimes life really can be a magical tapestry of serendipity, effortlessly bringing you to good things.
But sooner or later, that kind of magic ends, and the currents leave you drifting aimlessly, or even worse, headed toward the rocks. When that happens, take the wheel and decide which way to go! Then, a new kind of magic begins.
Each of us has a completely unique path with unique decisions to be made. But there is one decision that is completely universal. It’s the decision that each of us faces at all times: the decision to fully inhabit this moment.
To fully inhabit this moment, the “yes” and the “no” must be one: “yes” to what is, “no” to resisting what is.
And yet, if a feeling of “resisting what is” arises, you must say “yes” to the presence of that feeling- because in that moment, “resistance to what is”- is what is!
In this way, resistance is transformed into non-resistance; the “yes” and the “no” are completely one.
What is this moment like?
Is it peaceful? Is it tense? Is it gentle? Is it harsh? Are you willing to decide, right now, to say “yes” to this moment, as it is?
This is actually the most important decision you will ever make, because it's the foundation of all other decisions. Without this decision, there is unrest; there is struggle.
But with this decision, your potential for real peace can manifest. With this decision, the Messiah is born, little by little.
Martin Buber, in his essay Judaism and the Jews, tells the story that when he was a child, he read an "old Jewish tale" that I later found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met the Prophet Elijah. He said to him, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah answered, “Go ask him! The Messiah sits at the gates of Rome, waiting among the poor, afflicted with disease.”
Buber says that he later came upon an old man and asked him, “What does he wait for?”
The old man answered, “He waits for you.”
On this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember our power to decide for this life, for this moment. May true and lasting peace be swiftly born in the world for love, wisdom and healing.
Coming Today to the Wellspring of Nothingness - Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/13/2014 1 Comment
We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is "El", which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
Once, some thieves broke into the home of Rabbi Zev Wolf of Zbarazh. The rabbi hid in his room and watched as they went through the house and took whatever valuables they could find. Just as they were about to leave with all their loot, one of them grabbed a goblet from the kitchen and tossed it into his sack.
The rabbi burst out from his hiding place and ran after them, shouting: “My brothers! My brothers! Please – you can keep everything you have taken – it is yours. But, that goblet was recently used by a sick man. Please be careful that you don’t put it to your lips and catch his disease!”
From that point on, before Rabbi Zev Wolf went to sleep at night, he would say: “All my possessions are common property” so that, just in case more thieves would come, they would not be guilty of theft.
This week’s parshah tells of the three angels who visit Avraham and Sarah, before visiting the wicked city of Sodom. Avraham’s hospitality toward the angels is what defines him in Kabbalah as the embodiment of Hesed, “loving-kindness.” The inhabitants of Sodom, however, embody the opposite. When Avraham’s nephew Lot (who lives in Sodom) invites the angels into his home to try and keep them safe from the inhabitants of Sodom, men from the city quickly descend upon Lot’s house and demand that the visitors be handed over to them:
הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
“Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
נֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם – neida otam – we will “know” them. The implication here is that they wish to sexually assault Lot’s visitors! The use of the verb to know as an expression of sexual intimacy is first introduced in Bereisheet, describing Adam and Eve. But here it is ironic, because it is no longer describing the “knowing” connection between beings, but rather it describes an aggressive intention to do harm.
The assaulters attempt to fight their way into the house:
וַֽיִּגְּשׁ֖וּ לִשְׁבֹּ֥ר הַדָּֽלֶת – vayigshu lishbor hadelet – they approached to break the door…
At this point, the angels frustrate their evil efforts:
וְֽאֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁ֞ים אֲשֶׁר־פֶּ֣תַח הַבַּ֗יִת הִכּוּ֙ בַּסַּנְוֵרִ֔ים מִקָּטֹ֖ן וְעַד־גָּד֑וֹל וַיִּלְא֖וּ לִמְצֹ֥א הַפָּֽתַח׃
And the men who were at the entrance of the house, they (the angels) struck with dazzling blindness, from small to great, so that they wearied to find the entrance…
There is something incongruous about this scene. First, they are trying to break the door down. Then, when the angels strike them with “blindness,” they are no longer able to find the door. But, they were already at the door! A loss of sight shouldn’t prevent them from finding the door. Furthermore, the ordinary word for blind is עיוור – iver. The word used here, סַּנְוֵרִ֔ים sanveirim, means “dazzled,” as if temporarily blinded by an intense light.
Descriptions in the Torah that don’t make sense are invitations to look a little more deeply…
When they are trying to break down the door, the word used is delet, “door.” But when it says that they could no longer find the door, it used the word petakh, which literally means “opening.”
There is another example of this word petakh:
פִּתְחוּ־לִ֥י שַׁעֲרֵי־צֶ֑דֶק אָֽבֹא־בָ֝ם אוֹדֶ֥ה יָֽהּ – Pitkhu li sha’arei tzedek; avo vam, odeh Yah!
Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and thank the Divine...
In this verse, petakh becomes the verb – pitkhu li sha’arei tzedek – open for me the gates of tzedek.
צֶ֑דֶק Tzedek literally means “justice” but not in the sense of punishing the guilty, (which would be din) but in the sense of fairness or equity, as in the famous pasuk:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ – Tzedek tzedek tirdof, l’ma’an tikhyeh – Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live!
צֶ֑דֶק Tzedek is also related also to צדקה tzedakah, which is “charity” – that is, justice and fairness toward those in need through giving. And giving, of course, is another way of saying כסד Hesed, Loving-Kindness.
With these in mind, we can understand the “opening” that the assailants couldn’t find as the “Gates of Tzedek” – they could no longer access their own inner goodness. Thus, we can re-translate our verse:
וַיִּלְא֖וּ לִמְצֹ֥א הַפָּֽתַח – vayil’u limtzo hapatakh –
“They were no longer able to find an opening to loving-kindness within themselves…”
Because their relationship with the ger, the stranger, had become so corrupted that rather than respond to wayfarers with hospitality, they saw them as their victims. Rather than “getting to know” the stranger, their “knowing” was perverted into its opposite. This is the inner message of their eventual destruction: the sha’arei tzedek, the “gates of loving-kindness,” could no longer be found within them, because they had become so identified with their aggressive impulses.
בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה:
Ben Azzai said: Be one who runs/ratz to do a minor mitzvah, just as a major one, and make distance from misdeeds, for a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and a misdeed leads to another misdeed; for the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of a misdeed is a misdeed.
This beautiful mishna expresses this basic truth – what you do, you will likely do again. Do good, and goodness will likely become your habit. Do bad, and you will likely do more of the same, leading down a path of self-destruction. Or, read a slightly different way, doing good is its own reward – you become what you do!
This, I believe, is the true Jewish version of heaven and hell. It is not an afterlife (though there does exist the belief in an afterlife in the rabbinic tradition); it is rather the recognition that heaven and hell exist as potentials within us, and our choices moment to moment determine which potential is brought forth.
Therefore, find the petakh/openness within yourself through which hesed flows, and ratz/run to do loving-kindness! This is what Avraham did:
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יי בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
The Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre; he was sitting at the petakh/entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.
וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
He raised his eyes, and behold! Three men were standing over him; he saw, and he ran/ratz to greet them from the entrance/petakh of the tent, and he bowed to the ground…
The rabbis drew a connection between these opening verses in our parshah and the closing verses of the last parshah:
בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה נִמּ֖וֹל אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְיִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל בְּנֽוֹ׃
Thus, on that day, Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised…
When Avraham sat in the petakh/opening of his tent, he was in pain; he had just been circumcised. Furthermore, he sat k’khom hayom – “in the heat of the day.” The word for “the day” – hayom – can also mean “today” – the present moment. Heat, khom, is also an expression of discomfort. The scene, then, is that as Avraham dwells simply sits with his discomfort, he nevertheless dwells in the petakh, the openness of the heart, the sha’arei tzedek, the gates of loving-kindness. Even in his pain, he ratz/runs to invite in the ger, to do hospitality toward the stranger.
This is the inner reality of true meditation: יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם – to sit in openness to whatever comes, even in discomfort. The tendency, in meditation, is of course to want peace, to want a nice and quiet environment. And b’ezrat Hashem we should have plenty of that! But the disturbances are also part of the training; they are a necessary gift, helping us to stay conscious and not allow our practice to devolve into egocentricity.
There are six primary mitzvot of Hesed, all coming from two consecutive verses in Vayikra/Leviticus:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ ׃ – Lo tisna et akhikha bilvavekha
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk (literally “brother”) in your heart.”
הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ – Hokheyakh tokhiyakh et amitekha
“You shall (repeatedly) reprove your friends” – meaning, when we see our friends walking a dangerous or destructive path, we are responsible to try and help them make better decisions. This only applies when there is a possibility they will listen.
לֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא – Lo tisa alav kheit
“Don’t embarrass anyone.”
(Literally: “Don’t place sin upon him” – i.e., don’t make him look bad.)
לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ – Lo tikom et b’nei amekha
Don’t take vengeance upon the children of your people
וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ – Lo titor
Don’t bear a grudge
וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ
Love your neighbor as yourself!
The fourth of the Ten Commandments, which is the practice of Shabbat, is sometimes associated with the fourth path of Hesed, but in my view the more appropriate one is the sixth of the Ten Commandments, לֹא תִּֿרְצָ֖ח lo tirtzakh – “do not murder.” This mitzvah prohibiting murder is so obvious that it may seem not worth discussing, but the rabbis drew a connection between this mitzvah and prohibition above of not embarrassing anyone, as this passage from the Talmud demonstrates:
תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים א"ל שפיר קא אמרת דחזינא ליה דאזיל סומקא ואתי חוורא אמר ליה אביי לרב דימי במערבא במאי זהירי א"ל באחוורי אפי דאמר רבי חנינא הכל יורדין לגיהנם חוץ משלשה
The tanna taught before Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak: Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said to him: You have spoken well, as we see that after the humiliated person blushes, the red leaves his face and pallor comes in its place, which is tantamount to spilling his blood. Abaye said to Rav Dimi: In the West, i.e., Eretz Yisrael, with regard to what mitzvah are they particularly vigilant? Rav Dimi said to him: They are vigilant in refraining from humiliating others…
More on Vayeira...
The Rooster – Parshat Vayeira
11/11/2019 0 Comments
The foundation of spiritual transformation is Presence, meaning: intentional attentiveness to whatever is present. But, is it possible that Presence can be misused? Is it possible for Presence to be harmful?
There’s a strange story in the Talmud about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: he had a neighbor who would mock him and constantly disrupt his prayers and study. Rabbi Yehoshua was so tormented by this heretic that he resolved to put a curse on him.
So, he took a rooster, tied it to his bedpost and proceeded to stare at it intently. Why a rooster? According to another passage in the Talmud, there is an instant every day – a rega – that God becomes angry, and if you were to curse someone right at that precise moment, your curse would be successful.
But how could you know exactly when that moment happens?
Well, you know it by seeing the crest on a rooster’s head pale from its normal red color while it stands on one foot, during the first three hours of the day. As soon as you see a rooster doing this in the morning, that’s the moment!
So, Rabbi Yehoshua got ready with his rooster, watching it intently for the exact moment to pronounce his curse. But, he dozed off, and the next thing he knew he was waking up in the evening, long after the supposed moment had passed. From this he concluded that it is not proper to curse someone this way; for as it says in Psalm 145:
וְ֝רַחֲמָ֗יו עַל־כָּל־מַעֲשָֽׂיו – Rakhamav al kol ma’asav – Its compassion is upon all of Its creations!
In this bizarre story, Rabbi Yehoshua stares intently at his rooster – he’s being present, in a sense, but he has an ulterior motive. His attentiveness is based on ego – he wants to get revenge on this guy who’s been giving him a hard time.
This isn’t true Presence; it is only half of the equation. Presence includes attentiveness, but the attentiveness has to be given freely, without ulterior motive; Presence is not just a matter of the mind, but also a matter of the heart. That’s why the rooster is “standing on one foot” – Rabbi Yehoshua’s attentiveness “stands” on the mind, but not the heart.
When Presence is firmly rooted in both the mind and the heart, it results in being spiritually awake – meaning, you come to know yourself as the awareness. When there is an ulterior motive, on the other hand, you know yourself (at least partially) as that motive. So, in the example of the above story, Rabbi Yehoshua is being attentive but he is motivated by anger, so he experiences the “dream” of being the anger, rather than the “wakefulness” of being the awareness of the anger. That’s why he “dozes off.”
Furthermore, the rooster is itself a symbol of ego – that’s why we have the idiom of arrogant people being “cocky.” The crest that stands upright on its head is like a crown, and the redness leaving the crest is like blood leaving the brain – another symbol of unconsciousness.
So, Rabbi Yehoshua’s attempt at “knowing the mind of God” fails, because it leads him to unconsciousness. Compare this with our parshah, when the “mind of God” is revealed to Abraham. This revelation comes after Abraham and Sarah give hospitality to three mysterious beings who are alternatingly described as men, as angels and even as God. The idea here is that whatever beings appear to us in the moment, they are manifestations of God, and they are also “angels” in a sense, because our meeting with them fulfills a particular Divine purpose.
As the angels leave, Abraham escorts them away, and then it says:
וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה – And Abraham was continuously standing before the Divine…
Abraham is being present, continuously standing, but unlike Rabbi Yehoshua, there is no ulterior motive. There is simply a spirit of hospitality, of being of service – that’s standing before the Divine.
From this attitude of complete Presence, revelation naturally flows:
וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
Hashem said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Next, the Divine reveals that the sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are very great, and the cities are about it be destroyed. Again, Abraham’s response is one of love:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע׃
Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?
Abraham then argues with God on behalf of the inhabitants of the cities. At the conclusion of the dialogue, and after securing the safety of the cities on the condition that at least ten righteous people are found living there, it says:
וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר כִּלָּ֔ה לְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְאַבְרָהָ֖ם שָׁ֥ב לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
The Divine went after finishing speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The words for “returned to his place” – Avraham shav limkomo – hint at the supreme rhythm of the Divine-conscious life: Begin by being present with the Divine as It appears in the moment:
וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה – And Abraham was continuously standing before the Divine…
When it is necessary, step out of the moment in order to serve the future:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר – Abraham came forward and spoke…
When the task of creating a better future is finished, return to Presence:
וְאַבְרָהָ֖ם שָׁ֥ב לִמְקֹמֽוֹ – and Avraham returned to his place…
The word here for “place” – Makom – is itself a Divine name, hinting at this truth: to return our awareness to where we are, to this Makom, is to return to the Divine.
Of course, when life becomes difficult, it can be extremely challenging to maintain the simplicity of this paradigm. We may feel depleted; we may feel that we don’t have any consciousness left for devoting to service or returning to Presence – we’re just barely getting by.
It is for this reason that we have the gifts given to us by the tradition.
The gifts of the tradition – the texts, teachings, prayers, rituals and holy days – have the power to enliven our consciousness when the weight of life threatens to extinguish it. That is, after all, the purpose of reading these words right now.
In the haftora (II Kings, 4), there’s the story of an impoverished woman with two sons. When her husband dies, she is terrified that a creditor will come and take her sons as slaves, because without her husband she has no means of paying off her debt. So, she brings her case to the prophet Elisha and cries to him about her plight.
Elisha asks her what she has of value, to which she replies that she only has one jug of oil. Elisha then tells her to go out borrow as many empty vessels from her neighbors as she can, and to start filling the vessels with oil from her one jug. She does so, and – a miracle! The one jug of oil fills up many vessels. She sells the oil and becomes so wealthy that she is able to not only pay off her creditor, but she also has enough to live off the remainder.
This is another version of the Hannukah miracle. Oil is a metaphor for consciousness, and consciousness is infinite – meaning, in this moment, the field of consciousness reading these words right now has no boundary, no fixed shape – it is a vast and unlimited field, and you are that field.
But, to know this experientially, we need “vessels” into which the oil is poured. These “vessels” are the sacred texts and practices that come to us from the tradition. In this sense, they are “external” to us. We have to “borrow” them from our “neighbors” – meaning, we have to receive them from our lineage; we can’t invent them ourselves. And, “receiving the vessels” is not something that is ever finished; it is an ongoing and infinite process:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כִּמְלֹ֣את הַכֵּלִ֗ים וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶל־בְּנָהּ֙ הַגִּ֨ישָׁה אֵלַ֥י עוֹד֙ כֶּ֔לִי וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד כֶּ֑לִי וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֖ד הַשָּֽׁמֶן׃
When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” He answered her, “There are no more vessels”; and the oil stopped.
In our culture, we tend to think that learning is something you do while you’re in school. After high school, or after college, or after the end of whatever was your last official schooling, we think “Okay, I’m done with learning, now it’s time for life.” But spiritually speaking, learning and growing must become the way of life itself; there are always “more vessels” to “borrow” from our great tradition. In this way, the oil will continuously find new forms and flow ever stronger…
Hello Death! Parshat Vayeira
10/24/2018 0 Comments
Last week I heard a story on NPR, that Coca-Cola had put a sign on vending machines in New Zealand, which said, Ki Ora Mate!
The words Ki Ora are Māori words that mean something like “Hello,” similar to “Shalom” or “Aloha,” and Mate is just the New Zealand English word meaning “friend.” The intention was to mix English and Māori to create a friendly multi-cultural greeting that would mean something like, “Hello, friend!”
The only problem is, the word Mate in Māori means “Death.” So, to a Māori reader, the sign looks like, “Hello Death!”
Probably not what Coca-Cola intended, yet the message is appropriate. Coca-Cola is not a healthy product. Many nutritional authorities cite soft drinks as the absolute worst of all junk foods. And in fact, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in the developed world, with one out of three New Zealanders classified as obese. In addition,fifty percent of Māori adults are obese, as well as eighteen percent of Māori children.
What’s the lesson here? Truth finds a way!
We are a funny species. In many situations, we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, and yet so often we seem to do what is not good for us. It is no secret that Coke and other soft drinks are dangerous; that’s what makes this story so funny. But ultimately, it’s not so funny that we cause ourselves so much misery. Why do we do it?
We do it because we crave experiences. We seem to be wired to seek certain experiences, regardless of the effects, so we are often in denial about what we know to be true. This isn’t to say that we always know what’s best for ourselves; sometimes we have to try things and learn from our mistakes. But often we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, yet we choose the dangerous path because of our cravings. Even when it tells us how bad it is right on the label! We don’t need the irony of “Hello death!” – just read the ingredients. If the thing you focus on is made out of greed, arrogance, or negativity – those are the “corn syrups” ands “artificial colorings” of the ego.
But the real irony is that while we focus on all the little shiny, distracting objects in that appear in our consciousness, we ignore consciousness. If only we would turn around and pay attention to the attention itself…
There was once a king who held a great outdoor festival and invited the whole kingdom. He put all his treasures out in a big field, and anyone could come and take one treasure from the field, whatever they chose. On the day of the festival, thousands came and took whatever special treasure they wanted most.
Then, a little old woman walked right through the field, past all the treasures, and up to the king himself. “Is it true we can take any treasure we want?”
“Yes, anything,” said the king.
“Then I take you!” said the woman.
“Ah, you have chosen wisely!” said the king. “Now you get me and the whole kingdom!”
Everything we wish to experience arises in consciousness. We lust after this and that, but we already have consciousness; we already have the completeness that we seek, as the whole field of awareness within which this moment arises. Experiences span an immense spectrum of pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, love and hate; but the consciousness itself is simple, vast and unbroken. Find that, find that which is behind and beyond all experience, and you’ve found the ultimate treasure.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Vayeira, Sarah gives birth to a son, Yitzhak, which means “laughter.” He is named Yitzhak because Sarah and Avraham were very old, so Sarah said, “The Divine has made laughter (tzekhok) for me.”
One day, the son of Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, was found mocking Yitzhak. So, Sarah told Avraham to send away Hagar and her son into the desert, with nothing but a little bread and a skin of water. Soon after, the water ran out. Fearing that her son would die of thirst, Hagar despaired and wept.
The ego often craves satisfaction by putting another person down. But, the scrap if satisfaction we receive from feeling superior to another is just a drop of water in a dry desert. To break the spell of the ego, the heart often needs to be broken; we need to come face to face with our own delusion. Then, another possibility can reveal itself:
אֶל־הָגָר֙ אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י… וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים
A divine angel called to Hagar, “Don’t be afraid…”
There is more to Reality than the drama of the ego after all:
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
The Divine opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…
The “water” we need to quench our thirst was there all along, if we would but shift our focus from the desert of the ego to the wellspring of the sacred that hides in plain sight. How do we do that?
וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ:
She sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept…
Feel the “distance” – feel the pain of lack, of incompleteness, and let yourself cry out; transform your pain into prayer. The tears are like a cleansing river, washing away the trivial, the egocentric, the immature. And then, be attentive – that’s meditation. Within the depths of the heart from which your prayer pours forth, there is a great light. It might be just a glimmer at first, but make that glimmer the center of your attention, and it will become a great illumination…
"Inviting Reality in for Tea" – Parshat Vayeira and Morning Sh'ma Blessing
10/30/2017 0 Comments
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeira, begins with Avraham having a vision of the Divine: “Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei mamrei – and the Divine appeared to him in the plains of Mamrei – v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Bereisheet 18:1)
It then goes on to say that three men (who we later come to understand are actually angels) pay Avraham a visit. Avraham runs from his tent to greet them, invites them to stay a while, to wash their feet and eat a meal. The angels then tell Avraham and Sara that Sara will give birth to a son, even though Sara is already ninety years old.
After this, the angels leave and head toward the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God appears again to Avraham and tells him that the cities are about to be destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. Avraham pleads with God not to destroy them, arguing that there might be some good people among the wicked, and that it would be unfair to destroy the innocent along with the guilty.
One interesting thing about this passage is that there seems to be a confounding of the characters. At first it says God appears to Avraham. But then it says, "...and he raised his eyes and saw – three men were standing over him." First it says that God appears, then it says Avraham looked and saw three men. It’s as if God is now appearing as the three men. Then, later in the story, it describes the same men, saying, "the two angels came to Sodom." Now they’re two? Before, they were three. Furthermore, before they were described as anashim – men, and now they're malakhim – angels.
And in between these two bookends, the text moves fluidly back and forth between saying what the men, or angels are saying and doing, and what God is saying and doing, as if the angels and God are interchangeable. You can check out the passage in Genesis, chapter 18 and 19 to see what I mean.
This kind of ambiguity in the text is so gorgeous, because it all comes to highlight the opening phrase: Vayeira eilav Hashem – and the Divine appeared to him. This is, of course, the whole point of the mystical path – to perceive beyond the surface of things, through to Divine Reality. And what is the Divine Reality? Hu Eloheinu, Ayn od – Existence is the Divine, there is nothing else. And, Hashem Ekhad – the Divine is One. Meaning not that there is only one god, but that there is only God as the One Reality.
So, to perceive the Divine doesn’t mean perceiving something in addition to everything else you’re already perceiving, as many folks imagine. When we begin the spiritual journey, it’s common to think that God is something different from what you normally perceive, like some kind of Mount Sinai experience. But, while such experiences do happen, perceiving the Divine for the most part means to uncover the Divine nature of everything that you’re already perceiving. And since the Divine nature is Hashem Ekhad – Divine Oneness, this means you have to learn to relax the natural tendency of the mind to frame things as separate. Not to erase separateness all together – that would render you unable to function as a human being, G-d forbid, but to balance the separateness with the perception that everything arising right now in your field of awareness is part of one experience, One Reality.
And how do you do that?
“V’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
So, what is a tent? It’s a barrier that defines your personal space. There’s a vast world just outside, but you put this flimsy material around you, call it a tent, and you have some sense of separateness from the rest of the world. Just like our egos: there’s a vast Reality, and we are in no way separate from that Reality, but we tend to identify with our bodies, our personalities, our personal stories and so on, and call all of that “me.” That’s the ego; that’s the tent.
But rather than shutting himself up inside the tent, he yosheiv petakh ha’ohel – he sits in the opening of his tent. In other words, there’s still a tent, there’s still a sense of “me,” but he sits in the petakh, in the opening, so there’s also a sense that the space within the tent and the space outside the tent are one thing, one space. Meaning, be aware that everything arising in your experience in this moment, both your perception of things outside your “tent,” meaning outside your body, and things inside your “tent,” such as your emotions and your thoughts, are all arising in the one space that is your awareness. You can still think of this tiny corner of your awareness that encompasses your body and heart and mind as “me,” but the entirety of your experience, even your perception of the stars millions of light years away, are all arising in the one space that is your field of awareness, and that’s actually the deepest you – that formless, borderless, field of awareness.
But to really do that, you have to consciously invite everything within your experience to exist, even if it’s unpleasant. That’s the key. Because when you resist certain aspects of your experience, that’s the equivalent of shutting the flap on your tent, so there’s no more petakh, no more opening. That’s why Avraham is seen as the embodiment of hospitality, just as in the story when he runs to greet his guests and gives them food. He sits in the opening of his tent, and whatever happens to come by, he invites in. That’s why is says, Vayeira eilav Hashem– and the Divine appeared to him, because when you consciously invite everything to be as it is, you sit in the open space between separateness and Oneness, and you can sense that everything is a manifestation of the One Thing; first It appears as three men, then as two angels, it doesn’t matter, because everything are forms of the One Thing.
And this brings us to a kind of paradox, because when it’s revealed to Avraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God; he tries to change the course of what’s happening. So, on one hand, he invites everything to be as it is, but on the other, he’s arguing and trying to change it for the sake of compassion.
And this is really the supreme spiritual teaching. When we talk about acceptance, about inviting everything to be as it is, our minds tend to go in the direction of passivity. But this creates a false duality. If we really invite everything to be as it is, that includes our own desire for things to be different. So, on one hand, we accept Reality as it is, but on the other, Reality includes our own desire to change things; Reality is dynamic, alive, and always in motion. The distinction is that when we are hospitable to Reality as it arises, inviting things to be as they are rather than resisting how things are, we can work for change from a spirit of love and openness, rather than from judgment and anger.
This is hinted at in the opening words: v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. The word for “the day” is hayom, which can also mean, “today” – in other words, the right now. The word for heat, khom, can also mean “warmth.” So, in this sense, khom hayom could mean “the warmth of Presence.” If you want to pierce through the separateness of things to the underlying Divine unity, open your heart to this moment. Warmly invite Reality to be as it is, and then when you act to change things, do it from a place of inviting change, rather than forcing. Even in those rare times when you do have to force something, you can still do it from a place of love rather than resistance and anger. Just like when you abruptly grab a child away from the danger of a precipice or an oncoming car – externally there might be a violent forcing quality, but of course you’re not angry at the child, you just have to act swiftly and effectively. If you have the right kavanah, the right attitude that arises from Presence rather than resistance, then your action toward change will flow from the Oneness, and will be an expression of the Oneness, even when there’s conflict. That’s why Avraham can argue with God, and yet the argument itself is an expression of God, because Avraham is arguing that God should be more compassionate, and yet elsewhere in the Torah, Moses calls God El Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger…
Last week we chanted some words that come from the first blessing before the Sh’ma. The words were, Or Hadash Ta’ir – Shine a New Light, pointing to the quality of fresh aliveness that emerges when you are present. Now let’s look at some words from the second blessing of the Sh’ma: “V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments.”
The two pieces of this phrase express the paradox we explored earlier: V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, meaning, open us to “see” the Oneness in everything, to see everything as an expression of the Divine. This is expressed in the hospitality of Avraham, and hinted at by the words we looked at earlier: Vayisa einav vayar – and he raised his eyes and saw. Avraham sits in the opening of his tent, a master of hospitality, and so he is able to see, vayar, the Divine in everything. This is also the root of the name of this parsha, Vayeira.
But the second part says, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – attach our hearts to Your commandments.What are the commandments? They are actions we take to bring more kindness into the world. Externally, Reality can manifest as chaos and suffering. But as Reality becomes conscious through us, we are “commanded,” in a sense, to manifest compassion, so that the Divine qualities of Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger, reveals Itself through us.
Parshat Vayeira- The Heat is On!
11/17/2016 1 Comment
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t understand this ‘present moment’ stuff. What if the present moment is terrible? Why would I want to ‘be in the moment’ when the moment is so painful and awful?”
This week’s reading begins with Abraham sitting in his tent on a scorching hot day. Suddenly, he is visited by a Divine revelation:
"Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
“The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Let’s look at the Hebrew in this opening line carefully. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew says- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day.
Read this way, the verse says that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”- that is, this moment.
In other words, yes- the present moment sometimes appears as discomfort, as ugliness, as pain. But the crucial thing to remember is: everything that arises in your experience is a gateway to the Divine, if you open to it.
As it says,
“…v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel-
“… and he was sitting at opening of the tent…”
The “tent” is your identity- your individual self. The “opening” is the willingness to open to Reality as it presents itself, even when it appears as “heat”- as discomfort. In that willingness, in that openness, is the appearance of the Divine.
Because in the open space of simple Presence with what is, there's no big distinction between the “outside” and the “inside”- between the inner world of thought and feeling, on one hand, and the outer world you take in through your senses, on the other. Everything that happens in your experience- outside as well as inside- is part of one experience. And your one experience is nothing but your one consciousness, constantly taking on different forms.
When you really see this, when you realize that all of your experiences are always only One Experience, and that your One Experience is ultimately made out you- meaning, made out of your consciousness- there can be a relaxing of resistance, a relaxing of the “me” that’s separate, that’s judges, that wants. After all, why would you resist yourself? That just creates inner tension, unnecessary suffering.
Then you can see- there is simply this Reality, everpresent- the Divine appearing as the form of this moment, suffering and ugliness and all.
The famous brothers and Hassidic rebbes- Zusya and Elimelech- were the sons of a village innkeeper who was unusually hospitable.
One day a band of beggars came to the doorstep of his inn. He and his wife received them warmly, served them food and drink, and prepared them a place to sleep. Seeing that their guests wanted to bathe, they went down to the bathhouse and heated water for them.
Among the beggars was a pauper whose entire body was covered with repulsive sores, and none of the other vagrants was willing to help him wash. The innkeeper’s wife had compassion and helped him, whereupon he turned to her and said: “In return for your kindness, let me bestow upon you my blessing- that you bear sons like me.”
Dismay came over her- sons like him?
But within seconds, this man and all his companions along with their wagon vanished before her very eyes. Years later, when her sons grew up, it then dawned on her- she had been put through a test, in order to bestow upon her the gift of such saintly children.
When Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi once recounted this story, one of his listeners asked him: “Who was that leper?”
But the rebbe gave not a word of reply.
There are no words to describe this Reality that is appearing, just now. Sometimes ugly, sometimes repulsive, it is the gateway to the sacred- to the most beautiful essence that you are. Even if ugliness arises as your own thoughts, as your own feelings- when you welcome them, the welcoming Presence is Itself beautiful, and in Its Light, everything has a sacred purpose.
So on this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we embody the supreme art of hospitality- not only external hospitality, but also the inner kind- welcoming the ugliness that arises, until it too vanishes and reveals its secret blessing...
The Move- Parshat Vayeira
10/30/2015 3 Comments
This past Tuesday, my family left for Costa Rica. I’ll join them in a few weeks, but first I had to stay behind and get the house ready for our renters who moved in on Thursday.
I had no idea what “getting the house ready” really meant, but I knew I wasn’t so good at making beds. So, I called our friend and space-artist Devorah for help. I thought it would take her about a half an hour at most.
Once we got started, however, every task we finished seemed to reveal a new task that needed to be done. What I thought would be a half hour turned into 11.5 hours! Thank G-d for Devorah- I couldn’t have done it without her.
All the little details- the soaps, the towels, the flowers, the toilet paper- I wanted to arrange everything just right so that the space would be welcoming to our new guests.
Not that any of those little details were so significant in and of themselves; their significance was that all together, they created a welcoming space. For me, a space that’s clear, beautiful and uncluttered says “welcome”. But even more importantly, a beautiful space makes room to notice a different kind of space- your inner space.
What is inner space?
Space- inner or outer- isn’t something we generally hear about very much. People like to talk about the things that occupy space- objects in the outer world or thoughts and ideas in the inner world- but rarely do we hear about the space itself. After all, space is nothing, so there’s nothing much to talk about. You can’t see or touch it.
And yet, your inner space is that which sees and touches. It’s the space of your own awareness. It’s the openness in which these words are appearing, in this moment. In fact, your own inner space is not something different from this moment.
And that’s why a beautiful external space can help you to connect with your inner space-
When you feel welcomed, it’s easy to be welcoming. In that inner opening of welcome, the beauty of this moment can blossom.
But once you are conscious of this, you no longer need anything external to welcome this moment. In fact, you can welcome a moment of pain and ugliness just as you can welcome a moment of beauty and peace.
This week’s reading begins with a story of Avraham’s ability to embody hospitality even in the midst of intense discomfort:
“Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
"The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Rashi comments that Avraham was not merely basking in the Divine bliss, he was experiencing intense discomfort-
“Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and inquired about his welfare.” (Rashi, Bereishis 18:1)
Avraham is recovering from being circumcised, while roasting in the intense heat! And, to make it worse, three strangers suddenly show up.
What does he do?
“Vayar vayarotz likratam-
“He saw and ran to greet them…”
He runs out to the strangers and begs them to stop and rest. He fetches water to wash their feet. He and Sarah prepare food.
How is he able to be so welcoming in such an unpleasant situation?
Let’s look back at the Hebrew in the opening line. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew is actually- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day!
Read this way, it’s saying that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Discomfort is a form of God.
Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”.
What is “today”? Today is the open space of this moment, in which these words are now appearing.
So Avraham welcomes the painful moment in which he finds himself as his Divine guest. The very next moment, Avraham’s solitude is over, and God appears as three strangers- so he welcomes them as well and feeds them.
Whatever the moment brings, it’s all just different forms of the One Reality. The message?
Welcome this moment! God is visiting!
Take a moment now to see, hear, feel the presence of this moment. Take a breath- welcome it's ever-changing appearance. Let this moment be your friend, your intimate. As the Sabbath hymn says, "Boi Kalah- Come, oh Bride!"
As I write these words on this particularly warm day in the East Bay, I am (thank G-d) not in pain, and I’m recovering nicely from pushing myself to the limit for the sake of hospitality.
And thanks to my friend Janet who has generously taken in this new wayfarer for the next few weeks, I am now the recipient of her wonderful hospitality! Thank you Janet!!
There’s a story that on a particularly cold winter evening in early nineteenth century Poland, a group of learned guests came to visit the father of then five-year-old Simchah Bunem. While they were eating, the father called in his son, and said: “My boy, go and prepare us some novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality.”
When the child returned after a little while, his father asked, “Well, what have you got?”
The boy beckoned the guests to follow him into another room. Curious, they followed him, eagerly anticipating some impressive teaching from the young prodigy. When they entered the room, they were caught pleasantly by surprise: for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place!
On this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we grow ever more deeply in the Torah of Welcome- welcoming those who appear to us in our lives with a generous spirit of hospitality.
And, may we always remember to welcome this moment as the appearance of the One Reality- be it hot or cool, remote or intimate- making room for That which is now appearing…
In The World, Not of the World- Parshat Veyeira
There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!
The art of ritual is a way of consciously framing the drama of life.
Things are happening – but what is it that is happening? From the ordinary perspective, we are navigating through time, enacting our intentions and reacting to what comes, oscillating between joys and sorrows, successes and failures.
But ritual invites a deeper frame within which our successes are gifts from their Divine root; it invites a perspective within which our labors and even our sorrows are offerings to their Source. Our willingness to feel the pain of life, like Isaac bound to the altar, transcends the mere machinations of human drama and becomes an act of self-transcending love, connecting us with the enduring Reality within which our fleeting separate existences appear and disappear. In this way, the drama of ritual becomes a practice for actual life, a lifting of our personal stories up onto the stage of the present moment.
In Torah, the classic representation of this stage is the mizbeiakh, the altar.
In the Torah’s particular version of the universal and ancient human phenomenon of making offerings upon altars, there is an awareness of a danger in ritual; the possible side-effect of a skilled priesthood presiding over a sophisticated enactment of ritual offerings is that relation with the Divine can become an elitist business. Its function of uplifting human life out of the pettiness and negativity of ego and into the light of humility and gratitude can easily become distorted and serve instead to merely spiritualize the ego – to drag God down, rather than lift the human up.
It is with this awareness that the Torah instructs regarding the building of the mizbeiakh:
לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙ וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃
You shall not make with Me any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.
מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֣ עָלָ֗יו אֶת־עֹלֹתֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁלָמֶ֔יךָ אֶת־צֹֽאנְךָ֖ וְאֶת־בְּקָרֶ֑ךָ בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My Name to be spoken, I will come to you and bless you.
וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned it.
We are prone to make gods of material wealth, of status, of power – these are the gods of the ego. Therefore, in making the altar to the One, the Israelites are instructed not contaminate it with reference to those values – it must be made of earth, or stones that are as they are, not manipulated by human artifice.
The eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, went deeper into this passage about the priestly ritual of the past, seeing in it a model for practice in the present: The “altar of earth,” said the Rabbi of Rizhyn, is silence, which is the superior kind of practice. But, if we do make an “altar” of words, we shouldn’t “hew” them or “chisel” our words, because our artifice would profane it!
The hint here is that our avodah, our spiritual practice, should consist of both silence and words, meditation and prayer. (And if we must choose one over the other, silence wins!) There is a hint of this paradigm in the parshah, in its description of Avram building his altars when he first enters the land of Canaan:
וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ר אַבְרָם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ עַ֚ד מְק֣וֹם שְׁכֶ֔ם עַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה וְהַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֖י אָ֥ז בָּאָֽרֶץ׃
Avram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.
וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לַיהוָ֖ה הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו׃
Hashem appeared to Avram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And he built an altar there to the Divine Who had appeared to him.
וַיַּעְתֵּ֨ק מִשָּׁ֜ם הָהָ֗רָה מִקֶּ֛דֶם לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וַיֵּ֣ט אָהֳלֹ֑ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֤ל מִיָּם֙ וְהָעַ֣י מִקֶּ֔דֶם וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה׃
From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Divine and called the Name of the Divine.
Avram builds two altars; the first is in response to the Divine that “appears” to him:
וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ…וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָה֙
Vayar Hashem… vayiven sham mizbeiakh… The Divine appeared… and he built there an altar…
Meaning, Avram became aware of the Eternal dimension of Being, and his altar was a monument to this moment of revelation. This represents the Altar of Silence, the practice of meditation. This is also the perspective Hokhmah, the spacious field of awareness within which the oneness of experience appears.
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה =
Vayiven sham mizbeiakh Ladonai, Vayikra b’Shem Adonai – And he built an altar… and called the Divine Name –
Meaning, now Avram is crying out to the Eternal, and his altar is the stage upon which this crying out happens. This is the Altar of Words, the practice of prayer. This is also the perspective of Binah, the thinking mind which conceives of “me” and “beyond-me,” the longing heart which seeks transcendence and connection with That.
According to Rabbi Yisrael, prayer must not be “hewn;” we must not
“chisel” our words. But what does this mean? Interestingly, “not chiseling” can actually mean two opposite things:
On one hand, “not chiseling words” can mean spontaneous prayer, not using pre-conceived words and not composing your words in advance; this is “praying from the heart” – not thinking too much, but letting the words flow.
On the other hand, it can also mean receiving the words from the tradition – that is, chanting the traditional prayer texts that were composed long ago – not altering them or creating them yourself.
However, these two seeming contradictory approaches to prayer, channeling words spontaneously or reading them from a book, can be harmonized. There is a hint in the parshah, in the opening passage when Avram begins his journey:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
Hashem said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house…”
This verse mentions three things that Avram should leave, representing three types of conditioning:
מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ – mei’artzekha – your land…
These are the experiences to which we are accustomed – the familiar world we wake to and move within every day.
מִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ – mimolad’t’kha – your birthplace…
This means our culture, our values, and world-view.
מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – mibeit avikha – your father’s house…
This is the deepest strata of conditioning – our behaviors, our personal habits, the way that we live.
Our introduction to Avraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, paints him as one who hears the call to break through old conditioning, to discover something new. How is he to do that? The second half of the verse tells us:
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I will show you.
In other words, the path to breaking free from the bonds of conditioning and entering into realization of the Unconditioned is to become aware of what is being “shown” now – being present to Reality that is before us, coming to this moment afresh with our senses and letting our conditioning drop away. And this brings us back to a verse in our first passage:
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
…in every place where I cause My Name to be spoken, I will come to you and bless you!
And this is the paradox: that the path to transcending the conditioning of the past is to receive the Divine Name from the past; to break free from the conditioning of our ancestors, we chant the sacred texts that come to us from our ancestors.
Because in receiving the “Names,” the sacred words that come to us from tradition, we enact the ritual drama of offering our attention on the altar of the moment; we receive Reality as it comes to us, without acting upon it, without that conditioned urge to adjust and manipulate that comes from our personal preference for this and not for that.
This is the second meaning mentioned above of “not-chiseling words” – receiving them from tradition. But in order for this to really be effective, our chanting of sacred text must not be mechanical – it must also include the first meaning, which is to be spontaneous, unrehearsed, not pre-conceived.
But the words are preconceived! How can they also be spontaneous?
There is a verse from which is derived the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon, the blessings said after eating. It comes in a passage which describes the experience of receiving the pleasures of the senses in the natural world:
כִּ֚י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מְבִֽיאֲךָ֖ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ טוֹבָ֑ה אֶ֚רֶץ נַ֣חֲלֵי מָ֔יִם עֲיָנֹת֙ וּתְהֹמֹ֔ת יֹצְאִ֥ים בַּבִּקְעָ֖ה וּבָהָֽר׃
For the Divine your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill;
אֶ֤רֶץ חִטָּה֙ וּשְׂעֹרָ֔ה וְגֶ֥פֶן וּתְאֵנָ֖ה וְרִמּ֑וֹן אֶֽרֶץ־זֵ֥ית שֶׁ֖מֶן וּדְבָֽשׁ׃
a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;
אֶ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹ֤א בְמִסְכֵּנֻת֙ תֹּֽאכַל־בָּ֣הּ לֶ֔חֶם לֹֽא־תֶחְסַ֥ר כֹּ֖ל בָּ֑הּ אֶ֚רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲבָנֶ֣יהָ בַרְזֶ֔ל וּמֵהֲרָרֶ֖יהָ תַּחְצֹ֥ב נְחֹֽשֶׁת׃
a land where you may eat bread without poverty, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.
And here is the verse from which the blessings after eating is based:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃
And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land which the Divine gives to you…
The key here is that our prayer must spring from our experience: Be satisfied, and then bless!
In other words, our prayers must spring from our hearts. The words themselves can be received externally from the lineage, but our expression of the words must spring from the heart. We can do this by putting our hearts into the words – by feeling whatever is present, whatever mood or emotion springs forth from within, and channeling that energy into our davening.
On an external level, this tapping into the energy of the heart can be helped along by the spontaneous expression of melody. This is the “jazz” of tefilah – the improvisatory intoning of prayer. You need not be a musician to do this, but it does take practice. The essence is, relax your attention into your heart and into your gut, let your feelings manifest in the vibrations of your voice, through the vessel of the words. Interestingly, the Hebrew phrase above describing the chanting of Divine Names is azkir et Sh’mi – literally, “remembering My Name.” Azkir, “remember,” is the same root as Arabic word zikr, the Sufi practice of chanting Divine Names.
The most basic form in davening is the traditional blessing formula:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם – Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam
“Blessed are You, Existence/Reality, our own Divinity, Sovereign of the Universe”
This phrase forms the opening line of the many brakhot (blessings) that the rabbis composed in response to the verse – And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless…
Traditionally, there are at least one hundred of these composed blessings to be chanted every day. In this way, the Torah mitzvah of giving thanks for our food becomes the model upon which all kinds of enjoyment, as well as all kinds of service in the world, are lifted up on the altar of the present moment through the many brakhot that the rabbis composed for this purpose. There is again a hint in the parshah:
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ – avarekh’kha – I will bless you – meaning, when we leave our conditioning of the past and taste the blessing of this moment by fully receiving and chanting the sacred words of the brakhot, then –
וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה – vehyeh brakhah – and you will be a blessing – in this recognition and receiving of blessing, we ourselves become blessing, meaning that we experience our own being as actual blessedness, and this self-knowing is essential if we are to be a light in the world and fulfill the function of being a goy gadol, a people of Greatness.
The recognition of blessing, of course, implies the distinguishing of blessing from its opposite, as well as distinguishing the “me” from the blessing that “I” am receiving; it is the beginning of separation between subject and object, between consciousness and the content of consciousness; it is the beginning of duality.
This beginning of duality, of the Eternal Present stepping into life-in-time, is Binah, “Understanding,” the third sefirah on the Tree of Life, and is expressed in the third “Saying of Creation”:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים יִקָּו֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם מִתַּ֤חַת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד וְתֵרָאֶ֖ה הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃
Elohim said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so.
Both “water” and “heavens” are different metaphors for different aspects of consciousness:
יִקָּו֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם מִתַּ֤חַת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד – Let the waters… be gathered into one place –
Meaning, “waters” are the experience of Oneness – the Makom Ekhad, the “One Place.”
וְתֵרָאֶ֖ה הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה – that the dry land may appear – meaning, within the Oneness of awareness, duality arises – different perceptions appear; these are the “dry land” which we sanctify through our receiving them as blessing, as it says:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃
Ve’akhalta v’savata uveirakhta et Adonai Elohekha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lakh – And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land which the Divine gives to you!
Ha’aretz hatovah – the “good land” is none other than the seeing of the goodness of what is now appearing – אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
This is the essence of blessing.
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Flower and Chalice – Parshat Lekh L'kha
11/5/2019 0 Comments
There is something magical about friends holding up a glass of some fermented beverage, looking at one another, saying some formula of affirmation, then drinking.
Nearly every culture has its version of this practice. In Judaism, it has become deeply ritualized as the act of sanctification – Kiddush – for many sacred times and rituals. But even without any overtly spiritual intention, the act of raising the glass has an elevating effect that even the most materialistic person is unlikely to escape. Something about the receptivity and openness of the vessel, filled with intoxicating, joy producing substance, raised up in well-wishing affirmation with friends… it is indeed a kind of kiddush regardless of the context.
Another nearly universal practice with a similar effect is the giving of flowers. Like the glass filled with wine, the flower too conveys a sense of openness, grace, and beauty that express the same well-wishing affirmation when offered to another.
The Zohar links together the images of the flower and the cup of wine:
רִבִּי חִזְקִיָּה פָּתַח, כְּתִיב, כְּשׁוֹשַׁנָּה בֵּין הַחוֹחִים. מָאן שׁוֹשַׁנָּה, דָּא כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל
Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, “It is written, like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens.” What is a rose? It is the Assembly of Israel. Because there is a rose, and then there is a rose! And just as a rose among thorns is tinged with red and white, so the Assembly of Israel consists of judgment and mercy… וְשׁוֹשַׁנָּה דָא אִיהִי כּוֹס שֶׁל בְּרָכָה – and this rose is the cup of blessing… Concerning this mystery it is written, “I will raise the cup of salvation.” This is the “cup of blessing,” which should rest on five fingers, and no more, just as the rose rests on five sturdy leaves that represent the five fingers… they are the five gates…
(Zohar, Haqdamat Sefer HaZohar [Introduction], translation by Danny Matt)
Here, the flower and the cup are the community. But on a more immediate level, they are actually representations of our own bodies. Just as the rose is filled with nectar and the cup is filled with wine, there is a sweet blessedness when we fill our bodies with the light of consciousness. How do we do that? By bringing our consciousness more intensely into the “five gates” – that is, present moment awareness through the five senses.
כְּשֽׁוֹשַׁנָּה֙ בֵּ֣ין הַחוֹחִ֔ים – like a rose among thorns…
But, there are challenges – “thorns” – which can block the “wine” of consciousness from flowing into the “cup” of the body. The three main “thorns” are: fear, desire and excessive thinking.
There is a hint of this in Avram’s plea with the Divine that he have some assurance of the promise that his offspring will come to possess the land:
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהוִ֔ה בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו קְחָ֥ה לִי֙ עֶגְלָ֣ה מְשֻׁלֶּ֔שֶׁת וְעֵ֥ז מְשֻׁלֶּ֖שֶׁת וְאַ֣יִל מְשֻׁלָּ֑שׁ וְתֹ֖ר וְגוֹזָֽל׃
And he said, “O Divine Lord, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” The Divine answered him, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.” (Genesis 15:8, 9)
The “heifer” is fear, expressed as Avram’s torment:
וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵימָ֛ה חֲשֵׁכָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה נֹפֶ֥לֶת עָלָֽיו׃ – And behold, a great dark dread descended upon him. (15:12)
The “goat” is excess thinking, expressed as Avram’s demand for assurance:
בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע – By what can I know…
The “ram” is desire, his preoccupation with a future goal:
כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה – that I am to possess it?
The animals are each cut in half, hinting that we need to free ourselves from the inner tyrannies of the mind and heart. But –
וְאֶת־הַצִפֹּ֖ר לֹ֥א בָתָֽר – He didn’t cut the bird… (15:10)
The two wings of the bird represent the positive counterparts to desire and fear, which are love and discipline. Love and discipline are also symbolized by the red and white colors of the rose, mentioned in the Zohar above. Both are necessary – discipline provides the regular structure to engage your practice, while love is the actual content of the practice. The fluttering of both wings together represents the harnessing of the movement of the mind, directing intention – kavanah – toward the Divine goal.
In other words, while the animals represent the tyranny of the heart and mind, the birds represent the redirection of the heart and mind into prayer. The idea is of course not to destroy the heart and mind, but only to destroy their tyranny by realizing your mastery over them. Then, you can use their energy to discover and reveal your Divine essence, so that the “wine” of consciousness fills the “cup” of your body. Then, the awareness becomes like a fire, illuminating the five senses and burning up the “thorns” of fear and desire, revealing their Divine root:
וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ בָּ֔אָה וַעֲלָטָ֖ה הָיָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֨ה ... וְלַפִּ֣יד אֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָבַ֔ר בֵּ֖ין הַגְּזָרִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה
The sun had set; it was dark and, behold! A flaming torch passed between the parts… (15:17)
One time, when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn was traveling through the city of Sanok, several opponents of the Hassidic movement (mitnagdim) came to him and complained:
"In our congregation we pray at dawn, and after that we sit wrapped in tallis and tefilin (prayer shawl and phylacteries) and learn a chapter of the Mishnah. Not so with you hasidim! You pray way after the set time has passed, and when you're finished praying, you sit drink schnapps. And you are called 'devout' and we are called the 'adversaries!'"
Lieb, Rabbi Yisrael's assistant, laughed when he heard their complaint and retorted: "The prayers of the mitnagdim are cold and lifeless, like a corpse. And when you sit and guard a corpse, you must study the chapter of Mishnah prescribed for the occasion. But when we hasidim have done our prayers, our hearts glow and are warm like one who is alive, and whoever is alive must drink some schnapps!"
The rabbi was silent for a moment and then added, "We'll let the jest pass. But the truth of the matter is this: ever since the Temple was destroyed, we offer prayers instead of sacrifices. And just as the sacrifices in ancient times were disqualified if one's heart was not pure, so it is with prayer. That is why the yetzer hara (evil urge) tries ruse after ruse to confuse one who prays with all kinds of distracting thoughts.
"But, the hasidim outsmart the yetzer hara with a counter-ruse: after praying, they sit and drink and wish one another l'hayim! To life! Each tells the other what is burdening their hearts, and then they say to one another, 'May Hashem grant your desire!'"
"And since our sages teach that prayers can be said in any language whatsoever, this toasting and speaking to one another while drinking is a kind of prayer. But all the yetzer hara sees is friends drinking together, so it stops bothering them!"
Look Up – Parshat Lekh L'kha
10/16/2018 1 Comment
When I was young, there was something called “television.” I remember those long afternoons: as the sunlight that poured through the living room windows waned minute by minute, the glow of the television grew stronger and stronger – the Brady Bunch, the Flintstones, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, Carol Burnett, Star Trek. Total absorption. As the hours went by, and the nagging feeling that other things had to get done (like my homework) increased, I would cling ever more ferociously to the characters and narratives beaming from the screen. Eventually the spell would be broken only by hunger, or having to go the bathroom, or my mother.
Oh yes, the screen is still just as strong; stronger in fact.
No more need for big pieces of furniture; my daughter can take a screen under a blanket and hide from everyone. Where did she go?
I have strategies for prying my children away from their screens. Usually, there are meltdowns and tears. But occasionally, I am successful. It works best if I am present when the screen time begins, and I can secure an agreement; a “covenant” of sorts: “Do you promise to turn off the screen and give it to me when I ask you to, without any arguments and without any Please Abba Just One More Minute?
Then, when it’s time, the power of the covenant kicks in, and she gives it right back – no resistance at all. This proves: no matter how hypnotized we become by something, we do have the power to let it go, if we are properly prepared.
This is so crucial to understand, if we wish to put down an even more powerful screen –the screen of our own minds, upon which we project the drama of our lives – also known as “ego.”
Most people are glued to the screen of ego almost constantly, looking up only occasionally when the walls of the heart are breached, or when a temporary lapse in the noise of the mind allows the radiant silence to shine through, even if for only a moment.
But we need not be screen addicts; we can put down the ego anytime. Listen: The Voice of the Beloved is calling you to dinner – there’s a banquet prepared just for you! Let go of your judgments about yourself and others. Let go of how you wish things were. Let go of your obsessions, assertions, denials, angers, grudges… there is something so much better than all of that, if you would be willing to set it aside, look up and go.
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go for yourself from your land, from your family, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you…
All those opinions, assertions, cravings, disappointments – they seem so real, so important. But they aren’t the real you. They are imprints from your “land” – your culture, your inherited identity, patterns from your family, your experiences, your traumas – but you need not be imprisoned by them.
Lekh L’kha – go for yourself – el ha’arets asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
We’re being called to the banquet hall and the feast is waiting. The Voice is calling you constantly, and whatever is constant is easily ignored. But you can tune into the Call if you’re willing to wake up from the ego’s hypnosis. The key is to have a covenant– commit to stop at regular times, turn away from the pull of the ego and toward the fullness of this moment…
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה
And there he built an altar and called upon the Name of the Divine…
The essential thing is to build a space in time, and commit to regularly withdraw from the ego’s momentum for long enough to connect with Reality, with the Divine. If you want to hear the Call, then call out – this is the movement of prayer. And then, be the stillness that hears – this is the spaciousness of meditation. Make a covenant to do it every day – even a few minutes goes a long way!
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה
Rise up, walk the Land, it’s length and breadth, because to you I give it…
The ego believes itself to be a separate entity, navigating through the “Land.” But in truth the Land is fully yours. You are the Land, because everything arising in your experience in this moment is truly you; it all arises in the open space of this moment, which is not separate from the awareness that you are...
"River of Light" – Parshat Lekh L'kha and Morning Sh'ma Blessing 1
10/23/2017 1 Comment
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lekh L’kha, begins with God telling Avram: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereisheet 12:1)
If you examine your experience right now, in this moment, you’ll probably see that most of the content of your experience is nothing new. You may be in a place that you’ve been many times, with sights, sounds and feelings that are familiar. And generally speaking, unless you’ve recently moved, or if you’re traveling, or changing careers, or if you’ve just had a child or started or ended a relationship, or endured another kind of loss (and if so, may you have comfort and healing), unless you’re experiencing some big changes like these, then life tends to feel familiar, maybe even old hat. And that’s why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to what’s familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, both happen on the level of the conditioned mind. Meaning, the aspect of your experience that derives from the past. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing brand new places, but you can’t fully appreciate it because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as you’re stuck in the conditioned mind, which really means being stuck in the past.
So, this is the Divine call to Avram: Don’t be stuck in the past! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come “el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I am now showing you.”
So, this is actually not just a story, it’s an instruction. You can keep in mind – Reality as it’s being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that that’s your conditioned mind. The familiarity comes from memory, from the past. And that’s a good thing; you don’t want to get rid of your memories, G-d forbid, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so this moment is also completely fresh and new, when you allow your conditioned mind – meaning, your thinking and your judging – to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha – Divine revelation is always now. That’s the practice of Presence.
But what if you keep getting stuck by your conditioning? How do stay present and deepen your presence, when conditioning can seem so powerful? Again, the main thing is recognizing your conditioning. And to do that, it’s helpful to see that there are three main levels, alluded to by the verse:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha, umimoladt’kha, umibeit avikha – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Mei’artz’kha means, “from your land.” This refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction from Presence; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a sign that your mind works, and that it’s there when you need it, thank G-d. Then, simply recognize – there’s my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.”
The next level is, umimoladt’kha, which means, “from your relatives.” These are your relationships, and this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. The other day I was talking to someone who made a mistake at work, and she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “get a life!”
We are social beings, we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also useful for normal functioning. But again, recognize: There’s my mind and its old conditioning, pulling me into its drama. Just recognizing it frees you from its tyranny, and you can choose to lekh lekha – go for yourself out from your past, and into this moment. Or, it can also be translated, lekh lekha – go to yourself –meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning. Go to your actual experience in this moment.
Which brings us to the last level, “umibeit avikha” which means, “from your father’s house.” This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how you were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that all of that is not the real you; they are parts of your conditioning.
Then, after you recognize all your conditioning for what it is, you can simply choose to shift your attention into your present moment experience, so that you stop empowering the illusory part of the conditioning. Again, the conditioning is still there when you need it, but by shifting into the present, the conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real.
So then, what is real? Meaning, what is the Reality of who you are, beneath your conditioned mind? It’s the light of awareness that perceives the conditioning, as well as the aretz asher arekha, Reality as it is revealed in this moment. In fact, your conditioning is part of haaretz asher arekha; it’s part of the landscape of the present moment, part of the ever-shifting content of your experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant light of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that’s the deepest level of you.
The tefilot, the traditional prayers, are all pointing to this truth. Structurally speaking, all the liturgy points to the Sh’ma, the centerpiece of all the prayers, calling us to awaken. The Sh’ma is decorated by special blessings that come before and after. I the morning, the first of the Sh’m’a concludes with, “Or hadash al tzion tair – Shine a new light on Zion –hinting at this quality of newness inherent in your awareness, because awareness is like light; it’s tair – shining and illuminating whatever is perceived in its field...
Why Aren't You Worried? Parshat Lekh L'kha
10/21/2015 4 Comments
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you must worry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
The Future is the Present- Lekh L'kha
10/26/2012 0 Comments
"Lekh L'kha- Go, for yourself, from your land, from your relatives and from your father's house, to the land I will show you..." So says Hashem to Avram at the beginning of this week's parsha.
These three things- land, family and home- are security of the known; they are extensions of self, indicated by "Your land" and "your relatives". "The land I will show you"- this is the unknown, the future.
We cling to the known and resist the uncertainty of the future, though we know it is coming. But it is possible to dive fully into the unknown now, to release the burden of all our preconceptions we carry in this moment. In this letting go, we can see that this moment is in fact "the land I will show you"- it is not "ours"- we cannot grasp it- but we can behold it. And yet, when you release resistance and fear and enter this moment fully, then you are truly at home; you are not living in your idea of the present, you are living in the real present. Then you can feel the mystery of the future in the present, and the unburdened heart can bubble with possibility!
There’s a story in the Talmud about the great sage and healer, Rabbi Yohanan, that once Rabbi Hiya bar Abba became ill and was suffering greatly. Rabbi Yohanan came to visit and asked him, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Rabbi Hiya mustered the strength to answer: “Neither they nor their reward!”
Rabbi Yohanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Hiya gave him his hand, and instantly he stood up and was revived.
Another time, Rabbi Yohanan himself became deathly ill, and Rabbi Hanina went to visit him. Rabbi Hanina asked him, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” to which Rabbi Yohanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward!”
Rabbi Hanina said to him, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Yohanan gave him his hand, and instantly he too was revived.
The Gemara then asks, “Why would Rabbi Yohanan need someone else to heal him? Let him heal himself!” It then answers its own question:
אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים – Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim
A prisoner cannot free oneself from a prison!
What is this enigmatic story talking about?
When the rabbis say that they want neither the afflictions “nor their reward,” it brings to mind the Jewish doctrine that whatever happens to us is the result of our own deeds, that there is an ethical balance in the universe, a kind of “karma” that makes us responsible for whatever we experience.
But if this is true, that our experience of suffering comes from our own misdeeds, why would these holy sages be suffering? And second, why does the story emphasize that R. Yohanan can’t heal himself?
Let’s look at the first question – does our suffering come from our misdeeds? The story of Noah and the great flood seems to say so:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Elohim said to Noah, “The end of all humans has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of the humans; behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth!
The story of the great flood is among the earliest examples of the Jewish idea of Divine justice. At the same time, the tradition has also always understood that suffering cannot possibly be caused only by one’s misdeeds. After all, there are countless examples of innocent and even holy people suffering, such as the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva who, while having his skin raked off his body by the Romans, calmly chanted the Sh’ma, not to mention the case of the holocaust and countless other examples in history and in our own experience.
In fact, for some of our teachers, the idea of “karma” or Divine justice is outright denied:
בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה
Ben Azzai said: Run to do a minor mitzvah (commandment, good deed) even as you would a major one, and distance yourself from an aveirah (misdeed, sin). For one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and an aveirah leads to another aveirah. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of an aveirah is an aveirah.
In this mishna, the author is clear: the reason to cultivate right behavior is because it leads to more right behavior, and the reason to avoid misbehavior is because it leads to more of the same. Life is its own purpose; we don’t live a certain way to bring about some other result, we live for its own sake. Another mishna says it in a different way:
אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם
Antigonus, leader of Sokho, received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Don’t be like servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven (Mora Shamayim) be upon you.
These two opposing views – that we should (1) be motivated by the consequences of our actions, on one hand, or that we should (2) not be concerned with the future, but rather we should live with integrity for its own sake, on the other – are brought together by this teaching from the Talmud:
אָמַר רָבָא, וְאִיתֵּימָא רַב חִסְדָּא: אִם רוֹאֶה אָדָם שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין בָּאִין עָלָיו — יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה׳״. פִּשְׁפֵּשׁ וְלֹא מָצָא — יִתְלֶה בְּבִטּוּל תּוֹרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּהּ וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ״
וְאִם תָּלָה וְלֹא מָצָא — בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין שֶׁל אַהֲבָה הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה׳ יוֹכִיחַ״
Rava, and some say Rav Ḥisda, said: If a one sees that suffering has come, one should examine their actions. As it is stated: “We will search and examine our ways, and return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).
If one examined and did not find, attribute it to the emptying of Torah, as it says: “Happy is the person whom You afflict, Yah, and from Your Torah you teach (Psalm 94:12).
And if one doesn’t find it there either, then you know they are “Afflictions of Love” – as it says, “For those who are loved by the Divine are rebuked…”
This almost humorous yet incredibly useful teaching seems to be saying – you might be suffering because you did something bad, OR you might be suffering because you are so very good!
In other words, to put it bluntly, suffering happens.
We cannot escape it, but we can relate to it in a way that is either spiritually helpful or not. The real questions is not why suffering happens; the question to each of us is: can we use our suffering in a way that brings about positive transformation?
This Talmudic teaching gives us three possibilities for using our suffering in this way:
First, is suggests looking at our ethical behavior. Regardless of whether our suffering was really caused by a lack in our ethical behavior or not, we can use the suffering as a signal to ourselves to become more conscious of our actions, to become more awake to our responsibility toward others.
Second, it suggests looking at how we spend our time. The idiom “yitlei b’vitul Torah – let him attribute it to the emptying of Torah,” means neglecting one’s Torah study. To the ancient rabbis, studying Torah was the highest value, and today as well, a committed spiritual life should include a regular practice of learning.
But, we also might expand this idea to include any worthwhile use of our time; the deficiency, then, would be the wasting of time, the squandering of these few precious moments of life we have in these bodies on this earth. Seen this way, while the first part has to do with responsibility toward others, the second has to do with responsibility toward ourselves.
But the last is the most remarkable:
וְאִם תָּלָה וְלֹא מָצָא — בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין שֶׁל אַהֲבָה הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה׳ יוֹכִיחַ״
And if one doesn’t find it there either, then you know they are yisurin shel ahavah – “Afflictions of Love” – as it says, “For those who are loved by the Divine are rebuked…”
While the first two suggestions are to improve our behavior in some way, the last suggests the suffering itself can have a transformative effect, if we receive it “with love” – meaning, bringing our hearts and attentiveness into connection with the experience of the suffering – in other words, be present with the suffering.
Because when we relax our natural impulse to resist that which is unpleasant or painful, and instead bring our awareness deep into the actual feeling of suffering, the pain becomes food for consciousness. And as we persist in this challenging but simple practice of presence with pain, we are liberated from identification with the pain; the pain subsides in time, and in its place there is a greater ease and sense of spaciousness, a knowing of ourselves as the limitless space of consciousness within which the pain and all experience comes and goes.
From here, we can begin to understand the Talmudic aphorism:
אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים – Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim
A prisoner cannot free oneself from a prison!
It is ironic, because on the surface, it is talking about Rabbi Yohanan’s desire to be set free from his suffering. But on a deeper level, this teaching points to being set free by the suffering. Seen this way, his taking of Rabbi Hanina’s hand represents the embrace of the suffering, the allowing of its fire to liberate him from the prison of narrow identification with pain; in other words, it represents getting free from ego.
There is a beautiful verse in Psalms which also expresses these two ways of relating to suffering –first as consequence of actions, and second, as a path of liberation:
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה יִרְאַ֬ת יְהוָ֗ה שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֭וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד׃
The beginning (Reisheet) of Wisdom (Hokhmah) is fear of God (Yirat Hashem); good intelligence to all who practice – Its praises stand forever!
On the surface, this verse is simply saying that if we want to act wisely, we should have a healthy fear of the consequences of our actions. But a deeper level emerges when we understand the richness of some of the words:
Seen this way, we can read:
Reisheet Hokhmah – The beginning of transcendent, spacious consciousness is Yirat Hashem – Awe of Existence; wise understanding comes to all who practice this – Praises to That which stands forever!
The medieval Kabbalah text, the Bahir, takes it a step further. First, it equates רֵאשִׁית Reisheet with חָכְמָה Hokhmah, understanding “the beginning of wisdom” to mean that “beginning” is an aspect of “wisdom”:
רֵאשִׁית Reisheet, “Beginning” = חָכְמָה Hokhmah, “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”
It then goes on to retranslate the first verse of the Torah with this is mind:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
BeReisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim V’et Ha’aretz…
With Hokhmah, (Transcendent Spacious Awareness, called Reisheet), The Divine creates the heavens and the earth…
Why is it interesting to connect Hokhmah, spacious awareness, with creation?
Because it hints about the key to being creative – if we wish to create, we must make space within ourselves for the creative idea to emerge; this is meditation, the cultivation of Hokhmah, of inner space.
The sefirah of Hokhmah is traditionally connected in Kabbalah to the “Second Saying of Creation,” which also expresses this idea of making space:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יְהִ֥י רָקִ֖יעַ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַמָּ֑יִם וִיהִ֣י מַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין מַ֖יִם לָמָֽיִם׃
Elohim said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.”
רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם – “Sky in the midst of the Waters”
Both “Water” and “Air” are metaphors for consciousness/Hokhmah, functioning in different ways:
“Air” is the quality of open space, the field of awareness from which all thought and creativity emerges.
“Water” is the power of awareness to “dissolve” and “purify” us from inner negativity, the practice of Presence with pain.
These two metaphors for consciousness are embodied in the traditional daily practice of waking up in the morning – the prayer of gratitude for the breath of life (air) and the cleansing ritual of washing the hands. There is a hint for these practices in the second verse of the Torah:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
And the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep, and the spirit/wind of Elohim hovered over the face of the waters…
First it mentions the “wind,” then the “water” – hinting at the order of the traditional daily practice – first gratitude for the breath of life, then the ritual washing of the hands.
The ritual handwashing has its roots in another Torah passage:
וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ כִּיּ֥וֹר נְחֹ֛שֶׁת וְכַנּ֥וֹ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת לְרָחְצָ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֗וֹ בֵּֽין־אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּבֵ֣ין הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְנָתַתָּ֥ שָׁ֖מָּה מָֽיִם׃
Make a basin of copper and a stand of copper for it for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and place water there.
וְרָחֲצ֛וּ אַהֲרֹ֥ן וּבָנָ֖יו מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־רַגְלֵיהֶֽם׃
And let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet from it…
This passage originally instructed the ancient kohanim, the priests, to engage in a water purification ritual before performing their priestly duties. But the ancient rabbis saw in these verses the pattern a daily practice of external cleansing for the sake of awakening an inner cleansing.
The practice of washing the hands is traditionally done for the following three situations: 1. upon waking from sleep, 2. before eating bread, and 3. before each of the three daily prayers.
Here is the prayer for chanting upon awakening:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ:
Modeh/Modah Ani Lifanekha, Melekh Hai v’Kayam
She’hekhezarta Bi Nishmati B’khemla
I give thanks before You, Living and Enduring King,
for You have restored my soul/breath with Compassion –
Great is Your faithfulness!
This is followed by the purification ritual of pouring water from a vessel three times over each hand, focusing mind and heart on receiving purification from any negativity or inner burden that blocks the peace and wholeness of Hokhmah, our essence as spacious awareness…
Here is a summary of the KETER and HOKHMAH practices thus far:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad!
Hear, O Israel – Existence is our God, Existence is One!
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ:
Modeh/Modah Ani Lifanekha, Melekh Hai v’Kayam
She’hekhezarta Bi Nishmati B’khemla
I give thanks before You, Living and Enduring King,
for You have restored my soul/breath with mercy –
Great is Your faithfulness!
More on Noakh...
Walking with the Divine – Parshat Noakh
10/28/2019 0 Comments
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ
These are the offspring of Noah; Noah was a righteous person; he was perfect in his generation; Noah walked with the Divine.
The word for “perfect” is tamim, which comes from tam, meaning “simple,” as in the “simple son” of the Passover Seder. In that context, tam doesn’t seem to be a positive thing, at least on the surface; the tam is normally thought of as someone without much intelligence.
But in his commentary on Deuteronomy 17:13, Rashi says, Kol mah sheyavo eilekha – all that comes to you – kabel b’timimut – accept with simplicity.
This “simple acceptance of whatever comes to you” is the deeper level of being tamim. On the surface, it resembles being unintelligent – isn’t it stupid to “simply accept” bad things? But this misunderstanding of acceptance makes the common mistake of forgetting to include oneself in “what happens.” Of course, “what happens” includes what we do; it’s not only “what happens” outside ourselves.
So, being tamim doesn’t mean passively resigned to whatever happens; it means being present with what happens.
There is a hint of this in the word טעם which has the same sound as תם – tam, and means “taste” – to be tamim means to “fully taste” the present moment, to be intimately connected with whatever is present.
And, this connection with our situation includes what we do about the situation. For example, if we accept and “fully taste” a situation that is causing suffering, then that naturally leads us to a response aimed at relieving the suffering. That’s why this pasuk doesn’t only say that Noakh was tamim, it also says he was an ish tzaddik – a “righteous person.”
Presence is Acceptance and Love in One.
Another hint of the this comes from the unusual form of the pasuk:
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ – Eleh toldot Noakh, Noakh – These are the offspring of Noah, Noah…
The name Noakh actually means “comfort” or “ease.” The fact that the word Noakh is repeated hints at two kinds of ease: ease within oneself (accepting what happens with simplicity, being tamim), and bringing easefulness to others (love, righteousness, being a tzaddik).
There’s a wonderful mishna that expresses this idea:
הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ, וְאַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ
They said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own, and don’t easily become angry. And, return one day before your death.
(Pirkei Avot 2:15)
These three aphorisms are all connected: if you want to make the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own honor, you’ve got to get free from your own anger, because it is anger that causes us to be callous toward others.
Furthermore, there is a funny play on words here: v’al t’hi noakh likh’os – don’t be easeful/comfortable (noakh) to get angry.
If we want to be like Noakh, if we want to be easeful, accepting what is (tamim) and we also want to be a helpful person to others (ish tzaddik), then we should not be noakh likh’os – easy to anger.
But how do we do this?
וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ – V’shuv yom ekhad lifnei mitatkha – Return one day before your death.
On the surface it’s saying we should “repent” every day, because we don’t know what day we will die. But on a deeper level, this is the “death” of everything extraneous to this moment; it is the death of anger, of worry, of overthinking. We achieve this “death” through shuv yom ekhad – returning to this one day – meaning, returning to this moment.
But to do this means learning to distinguish between being Present and being lost; between the truth of this moment and the mental projections we impose on this moment. This is a constant effort of discernment:
Noah walked with the Divine.
The Divine Name here is Elohim, the Name associated with discernment. Our natural tendency is to become absorbed into our own thinking and then see the world through the lens of our minds. To counter this, we must constantly “walk ourselves back” to the truth of our actual experience, into the Divine Presence that is always present…
Snake and Scorpion – Parshat Noakh and Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
10/9/2018 0 Comments
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish practice. It is believed to be so sacred that, traditionally speaking, one should not allow oneself to be interrupted while praying the Amidah. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah prayer for specific reasons. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there’s a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק: אמר רב ששת לא שנו אלא נחש אבל עקרב פוסק
We learned in the mishna that even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not interrupt one’s prayer. In limiting application of this principle, Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this mishna with regard to a snake, as if one does not attack the snake it will not bite him. But if a scorpion approaches an individual while one is praying, one stops, as the scorpion is liable to sting even if it is not disturbed.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors:
The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the holy words of the prayer, and suddenly you’re salivating for a cheeseburger.
In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the cheeseburger isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life.
On the other hand, if a scorpion starts crawling on you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer, do something to awaken your passion, and start over again.
But how do you awaken your passion?
Of course, there are many ways, but here is one that I find helpful: do something to create beauty and order in the world. Paint something. Make some art. Organize your closet. Vacuum the rug. Do the dishes. When you do, you will feel empowered by the force of blessing can comes through you, and you can direct the energy of that blessing into your practice – into your prayer, chanting, or meditation.
The reason this is so powerful is because beauty and order are actually qualities of Presence. When consciousness is cluttered, the radiant beauty Being can get covered up somewhat. But the more you come to this moment with openness, the more your consciousness becomes more and more expansive and free. Then, your inner beauty begins to glow its own brightness.
Sometimes, however, the ambient chaos (and sometimes trauma) of life can keep that beauty stifled on the inside, even when you attempt to become present through meditation or prayer. Then we need an extra boost from the outside; we need to take some physical action. This is the secret of how art becomes ritual – do something on theouter level to create an effect on the inner level.
There’s a hint of the power of beautification in this week’s reading, Parshat Noakh:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם …
May God expand Yaphet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…
This verse is part of a blessing that Noakh gives his son Yafet after the famous flood. The name Yafet means beauty, or expansiveness. The words are: Yaft Elohim l’Yafet –meaning, May the Divine expand Expansiveness, or May the Divine beautify Beauty.
This hints at the secret of how beauty becomes revealed: Consciousness contains the quality of beauty, but this inner beauty is easily obscured from itself. So, consciousness externalizes its beauty through action, and this outer beauty reflects the nature of consciousness back to itself, freeing it from its constraining clutter: The Divine expands Its Expansiveness…
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month. Heshvan is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began a week ago. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to this week’s Torah reading. In Kabbalah, water is often associated with awakening passion and desire, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow.
Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion.
Thus, Heshvan is a time to shift from the inner beauty accessed during Tishrei (through the prayers of the High Holy Days and Sukkot) to outer beauty through action, in order to reveal the inner beauty externally. This in turn further awakens the inner beauty, creating a positive pulsation between the inner and the outer…
The Ark- Parshat Noakh
11/3/2016 1 Comment
The world is a river; you cannot hold a river.
The world is a wave, but we see it as particles.
Forever the mind is building arks to float upon the churning ocean of Truth,
Holding frames of changing being above the morph so as to discern a narrative-
The arks- words!
The tzaddik’s naming of beings saves them from dissolution in God;
The tzaddik gives full attention to the being beheld, while all else drowns (for now) in the One.
Two by two- one being beholds another-
But when the ark is beached on the dry wasteland of things and agendas, the tzaddik cannot function!
S/he must plant a vineyard in the midst of the wreckage and take refuge in the wine of ecstasy-
That is, withdrawal from time into the Place where prayer erupts.
To others s/he looks naked and dysfunctional- useless.
“Let’s cover up this embarrassment!”
People are more comfortable with the building of great towers so they can say,
“Look what we have done!”
Not content with the warmth (Ham) of life, they must make a name (Shem) for themselves, claiming authorship of beauty (Yafet).
Have you forgotten how to let go?
To behold the one who stands before you and let all else drown in the One?
Don’t grasp for the spotlight, you will find everyone speaking gibberish.
But relax and take a walk with God~
God will show you how to construct your words, and illuminate them from above…
The Window- Parshat Noakh
10/15/2015 8 Comments
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality. That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
There is a story in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) about the great sage Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina was a miracle worker, and whatever he prayed for would immediately manifest. Yet, despite his miraculous powers, he was extremely poor.
One day, his wife got fed up with living a life of such deprivation. “You have the power!” she said to him, “Why don’t you pray for mercy and get us out of this wretched life?”
So, Rabbi Hanina prayed, and immediately an angelic hand appeared out of thin air and handed him a golden table leg. “Barukh Hashem, we are rich!”
But, that night, his wife had a nightmare. In the dream, she was in olam haba, the future world. She looked around and saw all the other sages sitting and feasting at tables which were all supported by three legs. But, when she saw her husband, his table had only two legs!
She awoke in a cold sweat. “My husband, I saw a disturbing vision in my dream!”
She explained what she saw, to which he responded, “How do you feel about your husband having a deficient table in the World to Come?
“Not good!” she exclaimed. “Please, once again, pray for mercy!”
He did, and immediately the hand appeared again out of nowhere and took the golden table leg back.
The Talmud then relates a quote by an unknown source:
גדול היה נס אחרון יותר מן הראשון דגמירי דמיהב יהבי מישקל לא שקלי
The last miracle is greater than the first, for we have a tradition that what is given is not taken back…
It is a strange story – what does it mean? Is it saying that riches are bad and that poverty is good?
There is a passage in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that seems to confirm this idea:
מְתוּקָה֙ שְׁנַ֣ת הָעֹבֵ֔ד אִם־מְעַ֥ט וְאִם־הַרְבֵּ֖ה יֹאכֵ֑ל וְהַשָּׂבָע֙ לֶֽעָשִׁ֔יר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ מַנִּ֥יחַֽ ל֖וֹ לִישֽׁוֹן׃
A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.
Both this passage and the Talmudic story seem to be saying that wealth is more trouble than it’s worth. They say it in different ways, but both seem to be linking the acquisition of wealth with worry about the future. (And disturbed sleep!)
But, there is another passage in Kohelet that clarifies:
הִנֵּ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־רָאִ֣יתִי אָ֗נִי ט֣וֹב אֲשֶׁר־יָפֶ֣ה לֶֽאֶכוֹל־וְ֠לִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִרְא֨וֹת טוֹבָ֜ה בְּכָל־עֲמָל֣וֹ ׀ שֶׁיַּעֲמֹ֣ל תַּֽחַת־הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ מִסְפַּ֧ר יְמֵי־חַיָּ֛יו אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־ל֥וֹ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־ה֥וּא חֶלְקֽוֹ׃
Behold that which I have seen is good – that one should eat and drink and experience the goodness from all the work that one toils under the sun, during the numbered days of life that the Divine has given; for that is one’s portion… a gift from the Divine.
Here we can see – it’s not saying that wealth and enjoyment are bad. Rather, King Solomon is saying that it’s good to enjoy things; eat and drink lir’ot tovah – so that you can experience goodness!
But, here is the caution – receive the enjoyment as a gift. It is not something you can hold onto; it does not have permanence, you cannot rely on it beyond the moment:
מִסְפַּ֧ר יְמֵי־חַיָּ֛יו אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־ל֥וֹ – from the numbered days of one’s life that is given…
All things, all forms, all experiences, all phenomena come to an end, and so the idea here is not to push good things away, but also it is not to try and hold on to them. Instead, enjoy them as a gift, in this moment; in other words, be present.
But, you might say, doesn’t Rabbi Hanina pray to get rid of his gold? Why wouldn’t he simply enjoy it as a gift too?
When we see miracle stories, there is usually a hidden meaning. Why is it a golden table leg, rather than just a pile of gold? Why does it appear out of thin air?
There is something in our experience, right now, that also magically appears a disappears: thought. Our thoughts are constantly manifesting out of nowhere, and they can dissipate just as quickly. Furthermore, a “table leg” supports the top of the table upon which we eat; the “table leg” represents support for what we need to survive.
So, the magical appearance of the golden table leg doesn’t mean actual physical gold, it means a way of relating to gold; it means seeing the gold (wealth, possessions, or good experiences in general) as something solid that we can rely upon, like a table leg. And it is this kind of thinking that brings about the nightmare of the two-legged table: when we try to rely upon passing phenomena as solid and enduring, this only creates insecurity and worry:
הַשָּׂבָע֙ לֶֽעָשִׁ֔יר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ מַנִּ֥יחַֽ ל֖וֹ לִישֽׁוֹן – But the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep…
And not only our possession, but more importantly, our very lives eventually come to an end:
One must depart just as one came. As one came out of their mother’s womb, so must they depart, naked as they came. They can take nothing of their wealth with them; so what is the good of one’s toiling after the wind?
Ultimately, everything is hevel, impermanent.
But, not to worry! There is, nevertheless, something we can rely on.
Because when we become present, when we receive this moment as a gift and let go of thoughts about the future, there is a Wholeness and a Wholesomeness inherent in simply being…
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, taught on this first verse of the Torah that existence itself is a greater miracle than any of the well-known miracles. The splitting of the sea, the water from the rock, the manna from heaven – these are all based on phenomena that already existed, but which only behaved a little differently than what we would expect. But existence itself is a much greater miracle than all of those, because – why should there be anything at all? How it is that anything comes to be anyway, seemingly Yesh me’Ayin, Something from Nothing?
And yet, when we recognize the miracle of existence, when we receive this moment, as it is, as a supreme miracle – there then arises another possibility: we can actually move from the Something back to the Nothing!
Meaning: when we let go of the movement of the mind and its preoccupation with the future, with its seeking the “golden table-leg” of security in time, we can simultaneously become aware of the great No-Thing within which this moment appears – the vast field of awareness within which all experience lives. And this, said the Maggid, is an even greater miracle – not the bringing forth of Something from Nothing in creation, but of returning the Something back to the No-Thing in our spiritual work. As the Talmud says:
…גדול היה נס אחרון יותר מן הראשון
Gadol hayah nes akharon yoter min harishon – The last miracle is greater than the first!
In Kabbalah, this Ayin, or No-Thingness, the essential Being-ness behind all things, is represented by the first sefirah on the Tree of Life, called Keter, which means “Crown.” It is the crown because just as an actual crown adorns the head of royalty and reminds us of our relationship with the one who bears it, so too we are reminded to offer our attention and reverence toward Being Itself, the miraculous No-Thing that is ever-present in and as all things. Crowns are also circular, reminding us not to try to derive security through the persistence of things in linear time, but rather to “circle back” our awareness into the Truth of this moment, back into the boundless circle of our awareness within which all experience comes and goes.
This is the beginning and the end of the spiritual path, also symbolized by the circle – be present, enjoy this moment in recognition of the Oneness of Being, the One Reality Who gives this moment to you as a gift, right now. That’s why the fundamental Jewish practice is the chanting of the Sh’ma, six words that point us toward this recognition:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad!
Hear, O Israel! Existence Itself is our God, Existence is One!
This is the invitation: In the morning and at night, after the break of dawn and the falling of darkness, take a moment to become present, to reconnect with the Oneness:
שְׁמַע – Sh’ma – “Listen” meaning be aware, become present to this moment as it is.
יִשְׂרָאֵל – Yisrael – “Israel,” coming from sarita-El, one who “strives for” the Divine.
יְהוָה – Vocalized as Adonai, this unpronounceable Divine Name comes from the root היה hayah, “to be,” and thus means Existence, Reality or Being-ness.
אֱלֹהֵינו – Eloheinu – “Our God” – reminding us to “Crown” Existence, to recognize Reality Itself as God, through the devotion of the heart and attentiveness of the mind, and to know that this Divinity is not separate from who are at the deepest level…
יְהוָה אֶחָֽד – Adonai Ekhad – “Existence is One.”
This basic Oneness of Reality, the macrocosmic Mystery of Being, is reflected in the microcosmic field of awareness; just as there is only One Reality, so too there is only ever One experience, happening now. And while the ever coming-and-going content of our experience may be bitter or sweet, painful or pleasurable, the field of awareness within which experience happens is always Whole; it is the goodness that is ever available to us, at any moment, always in this moment:
…וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
Elohim said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And Elohim saw that the light was good…
This “light” that is “good” is the basic goodness of simply being, the goodness inherent in consciousness itself, within and beyond all particular experiences, positive or negative. This light is Keter, the Oneness of Being, ever-present and therefore easily ignored. But it is also easily invoked; meaning: it must be invoked with easefulness. Therefore, take a moment, twice each day, become easeful, let go of the “golden table legs” of life in time, and chant:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad
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The Refrigerator – Parshat Bereisheet
10/23/2019 0 Comments
Sometimes it happens that a jar of something spills in the refrigerator. It is rare, in our home, for the refrigerator to be totally clean; usually it shows the signs of being well used. But when something spills, it crosses over from acceptable shmootz to a genuine crisis of muck. The spilled mess pushes me over the edge of complacency and drives me to clean not just the spilled stuff, but also the dirtiness in general. It is then, ironically, that more dirtiness leads to more cleanliness.
And so it is with the spiritual life.
When things are going well, there is a low level of discomfort that is easily tolerated without much effort. We can become lazy in our attentiveness. But when the “jar” of our expected routine “breaks,” when some crisis disrupts our sense of normalcy, causing the mind to rush and the emotions to flare more than usual, we are driven from the comfort of our ordinary laziness. It is then that we are again motivated to find our way back to the true peace within, the peace that lies not in the external and temporal, but in the Eternal Present within which all experience arises.
This sense of being driven out from our comfort, a universal experience fundamental to the human condition, is appropriately expressed in this first parsha, in the story of the expulsion from Eden:
וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֵ֛הוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים מִגַּן־עֵ֑דֶן לַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֻקַּ֖ח מִשָּֽׁם׃
The Divine sent them from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which they were taken.
Adam and Eve are sent out of Eden because they “ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.” In other words, they became conscious of the possibility of crisis. Rather than passively and unconsciously receive the moment as it unfolds, the way a fetus would in the womb, this daat/knowledge is imagining how things might go wrong; we might say this is the beginning of worry. It is also the beginning of ego, of the attempt to control our experience.
וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃
He drove the Adam out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery sword, ever-turning, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.
When our awareness of crisis triggers the turning movement of the mind and the enflames the fire of the heart, driving us from our peace to “work the soil” and deal with our situation, our worry can eventually become compulsive, and we may come to feel as though we have been exiled forever (or worse, lose all memory of peace altogether). The plain meaning of the text seems to support this: “…the fiery sword, ever-turning, to guard (lishmor) the way to the Tree of Life.” This is the bitterly pessimistic view of human life that we sometimes see in Biblically based perspectives – that the Way back to The Garden, the derekh eitz hahayim, is completely blocked to us in this life by the “fiery turning sword” that guards it.
But we can understand this word for “guard” – lishmor – in a different way by looking at some other passages:
שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ׀ יְהוָ֥֣ה אֱלֹהֶֽ֗יךָ
Guard (shamor) the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, as the Divine has commanded you.
This passage from the Ten Commandments says to “guard” the Sabbath. Does that mean that we are kept away from the Sabbath? Of course not! To “guard” doesn’t mean we are blocked from it; it means that we should not take it for granted, that we should recognize its sacredness so that we can enter into it more deeply.
Or how about this passage:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם
And it will follow if you listen to these rules and guard (ushmartem) them…
Does it mean to guard the rules so as to keep away from them? Of course not – it means the opposite. And this reveals the deeper dimension of the “fiery turning sword” – yes, the movement of the mind and the triggering of emotion drives us out from our peace, but it also serves as a beacon to bring us back, showing us exactly where to find the Path to the Tree of Life! More dirtiness leads to more cleanliness.
That is why the “guardian” of the Path is not just movement and fire, not just thought and emotion, but is also a sword. This is the sword of intention that directs us into awareness of thought and emotion, so that we need not be caught by them. And more than that, as we intensify our awareness of the movement of the mind and the fire of the heart, the quality of awareness itself comes to the foreground, showing us not only the Way Back to the Garden, but also revealing that the Garden is who we really are, beneath and beyond the mind and heart. The Tree of Life is not external; it is our own nervous system.
וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים – and caused to dwell east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim…
The “east” is the place of the rising sun, the place of the dawn, reminding us: when we awaken in the morning and the mind is moving and the heart is agitated, let that “fiery turning sword” show you the way back to the Garden. Before you go out to “work the soil,” spend some time first with meditation, using the “sword” of intention to cast off the bonds of the temporal, dip into the spacious freedom of the Eternal Present, and nourish yourself with the Tree of Life.
It is a new year – let us recommit and deepen our practice – the Garden is waiting for you. I’ll be there with you tomorrow morning!
The Garden- Parshat Bereisheet
10/27/2016 3 Comments
“Bereisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim v’Et Ha’aretz-
"In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
What Is My Purpose?
When you awaken from sleep, is it because you’ve decided to awaken?
Or, do you simply wake up when your body is finished sleeping?
In sleep, there’s no deciding.
Once you are awake, you are faced with the question:
What shall I do? What is my purpose?
Waking up itself solves nothing-
There was no problem to begin with.
But once awake, life becomes a problem.
The universe springs into being-
Does creation have a purpose?
But “purpose” is itself something that’s created!
“Purpose” is a thought; “purpose” is a thing.
There cannot be a purpose for creation until after creation.
Before, there is no problem.
The universe comes into being because:
Sometimes, after many months, I clean my car.
My wife asks, “Why did you have to clean it now all of a sudden?”
But the only answer is: Why Not?
Before creation, there is no problem.
After, all the problems.
What is the solution to all the problems?
Go back to before the problems!
“Hinei Tov Me’od-
Behold it was very good!”
That is the Shabbat- the remembering that there were no problems before we got involved;
In fact, there are still no problems.
The “Before” never went anywhere, because it is not a thing.
It is always right here.
The Shabbat, the Garden- they were Here before Anything.
From within the Garden, there is no problem with moving back into problems.
From within Shabbat, there is no problem with moving back into time.
Seeing from within the Garden, even outside the Garden is really still inside the Garden-
For where can the Garden not be?
Seeing from outside the Garden, even inside the Garden is just more of the same:
“How can we manage to get back in?”
“Once we get in, how can we make sure that we stay there?”
But- The Garden is not “there.”
Thought springs into being from No-Thought; in No-Thought, there is no problem.
From No-Thought, why not think?
“Eitz Hada’at Tov v’Ra-
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad…”
Here we are amidst the trees of the Garden-
Why not take a bite of the good and the bad?
Of the This and the That?
Of the Before and the After?
But once you leave the Timeless, the Sword of Fire blocks your way back.
What is the Sword of Fire?
Nothing but thought!
You can't decide to awaken-
You can’t think your way back into the Garden-
The Garden never went anywhere.
But let thought cease, and you will see for yourself:
The “Purpose” is to come back to No-Purpose-
To the Place from which the Universe springs:
“Y’hi Or- Let there be light!”
To return to No-Purpose requires living with Great Purpose-
The Purpose of Being Present.
From There (which is always Here)
We can create something beautiful-
You, Me, and Others.
The world is waiting!
Do you not believe me?
Don’t worry- it’s Friday afternoon!
The Pool- Parshat Bereisheet
10/8/2015 1 Comment
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
Rabbi Shmelke and his brother came to their master, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, with a problem:
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank God for our suffering and pain just as much as for the blessings we receive. How is this possible? We can understand accepting suffering, but how is it possible give thanks for it?”
“Go ask Reb Zusha,” the Maggid replied, “He sits in the Beit Midrash smoking his pipe.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him. Zusha just laughed – “I don’t think you are asking the right person,” he said, “because I have never experienced suffering – how should I know how to give thanks for it when I’ve never had it?”
But the brothers knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty and anguish, and they understood: the answer is to receive suffering with love…
This story points to a way by which we might relate to our suffering. But what does this mean, to “receive suffering with love?”
The festival of Sukkot provides some hints:
בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃ לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your future generations may know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I Hashem, your Divinity.
This passage gives the reason for the festival – it is so that future generations should know:
בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם
I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…
The movement from bondage to freedom involves dwelling in a sukkah. But what is a sukkah? There was a disagreement in the Talmud:
דתניא כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו דברי ר' אליעזר ר"ע אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם
We have learned: “I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot”; (these booths were the) Clouds of the Divine Presence, these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They made for themselves actual sukkot/huts.
Rabbi Eliezer believed that the original sukkot were Ananei Kavod – “Clouds of the Divine Presence” that protected the Children of Israel on their journeys. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, disagreed; he said no, they were sukkot mamash – actual, physical huts. But either way, both of these interpretations are insubstantial; a temporary hut couldn’t provide much protection, and certainly a “cloud” is the most insubstantial thing there is. Why would these phenomena be celebrated as protection?
Let’s look a little deeper at the symbolism of the “Clouds of the Divine Presence” through this passage in the Talmud:
ר' יוסי בר' יהודה אומר שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל אלו הן משה ואהרן ומרים וג' מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם ואלו הן באר וענן ומן באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for Israel, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given by their hands, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses…
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are three siblings who play major roles in the Exodus story. But in Kabbalah, Biblical personalities are not merely characters, they are archetypes, embodiments of specific spiritual qualities. Since the “pillar of cloud” is connected to Aaron, we might ask – what is Aaron’s special quality?
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה
Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.
Aaron is, according to this mishna, the embodiment of Peace, of Shalom, and according to a midrash, his role in the Exodus was to help others make peace. There is a story that when two Israelites would be in an argument, Aaron would come to each one privately and tell them that the other wishes to apologize, but that they are too embarrassed to come themselves. In this way, he would stand in for egoless-ness, and when each person perceived the other as being egoless, they would drop their own egos.
There are two major qualities of egoless-ness: willingness to be wrong, and gratitude. The egoic opposites of these, of course, are the psychological need to be right and kvetchiness!
Both of these qualities, the ability to concede an argument and as gratitude, are both embodied in the word modeh:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ
Modeh/modah ani lifanekha – I give thanks before You, living and everlasting King, for You have restored my soul with mercy; great is Your faithfulness!
With this prayer, modeh (m.) or modah (f.) becomes the first spoken word of the day, giving thanks for waking up in the morning. The plain meaning is gratitude, but on a deeper level it also includes the other meaning as well, for just as one surrenders being right when conceding an argument, so too the attitude of thankfulness to be alive involves a surrender to the truth of our situation, an embrace of the reality of the moment, as the prayer says a little later in the morning blessings:
יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַֽיִם וּמוֹדֶה עַל־הָאֱמֶת וְדוֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ לְעוֹלָם
Always a person should be in awe of heaven (the space of awareness within which this moment happens), and surrender to the Truth, and speak Truth in their heart…
The Kabbalists associated these qualities of modeh/modah with the sefirah of Hod, whose plain meaning is “Glory.” And yet, “Glory” would seem to be to opposite of the egoless-ness of modeh!
Which brings us back to Reb Zusha, who said that he never experienced suffering – meaning not that his life was only pleasure and abundance, but that he received his suffering in such a way that he no longer experienced it as suffering; he received it with love, with humility and gratitude, and this allowed his deeper essence to shine forth with laughter as he sat with his pipe and studied Torah – this is his Glory!
In actual practice, receiving suffering with love may not feel very glorious. It is helpful to understand that while we have the choice to practice receiving this moment as it is, with love and gratitude, transformation is not instantaneous; transformation is a process that takes time, though the decision to practice now takes no time at all. So, there is a dimension of practice that is time-bound, the dimension of spiritual development and the movement toward “Glory,” and there is a dimension that is not time-bound at all, that we can and must engage only in the Eternal Present.
These two dimensions are the first and final Hebrew letters, Alef and Tav.
א – ת
Tav, which means “sign,” is the final letter in emet, “Truth.” As the final letter, it represents the final truth of things, the fact of this moment, as it is. The essence of our practice is this basic opening to the Truth of this moment, the fullness of experience as it arises, in its full spectrum, from joy to pain, from bitterness to sweetness. This is the practice of Alef – being the oneness of awareness within which the dualities of experience arises.
Through this practice, which is always in the present, there evolves over time a sincerity of embracing Truth; over time, with practice, we can reach that state of Reb Zusha, of no longer seeing our suffering as suffering. At that point, the practice is no longer even a practice, it is simply who we are; it becomes truly sincere, and that is the Tav. Tav comes at the end of all the letters, reminding us – the process takes time.
There is a hint in our final parshah…
וְזֹ֣את הַבְּרָכָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר בֵּרַ֥ךְ מֹשֶׁ֛ה אִ֥ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לִפְנֵ֖י מוֹתֽוֹ׃
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Children of Israel before his death…
As Moses stands lifnei moto, “before his death,” he becomes Ish HaElohim – the “God-Man.” Meaning, he fully acknowledges his mortality, the fleeting nature of all forms, and in doing so identifies with That which is not fleeting – the Eternal Being-ness which incarnates as all forms. In other words, he becomes like the sukkah – temporary huts, insubstantial clouds; but clouds of the Divine Presence. And this is why that which is insubstantial and fleeting is the supreme protection on our journey from mitzrayim, from slavery to freedom – because it “protects” us from ourselves, from the illusory sense of solidity that ego rests upon.
And in this realization, in the death of the man and the birth of the God-Man, there can be the realization that there is only This…
And THIS (and this, and also this) is the Blessing!
Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! Be Strong, Be Strong, and May We be Strengthened!
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The Stranger – V'Zot HaBrakha
10/4/2018 0 Comments
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said, “Imagine you come to a strange country, where you know neither the language nor the customs. You feel like an alien, disconnected from others around you. But then you meet another traveler from your own country. Under normal circumstances, you may never have been interested in this person; but since you are both strangers, you have something in common in the strange land, and you become great friends…”
Rabbi Barukh’s “strange country” is really all of life, and the “companion” is really the Divine Itself. There is no experience which is not completely Divine; still, we are inclined to never notice this, until we begin to feel the pain of alienation. Motivated by feelings of disconnection or being “out of sync,” we become seekers of wholeness and peace, and it is then that the possibility of finding the Divine appears.
But to do that, our estranged self (ego) must “die” into intimacy. The “me” that seeks can motivate us, but it can never “get there” itself; it must be surrendered into the vast space of awareness that is already not separate from anything you perceive, that is already the Divine in the form of you and everything else that exists.
This past week we completed the Torah reading cycle. In the final parshah, V’Zot HaBrakha, Moses is not allowed to reap the fruits of his years of leadership; he must die just outside the Promised Land. Immediately, we go right back to the very beginning and start the reading cycle anew: Bereisheet bara Elohim – In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth…
Maybe it seems harsh and unfair that Moses couldn’t enter the land. But if we see the inner dimension of the story, there is a pointer to our own experience: the seeker of the “Promised Land” must die if you wish to truly “enter.” Stop seeing the Garden of Eden as something to get to, and connect with your actual experience now, in the present. The “Garden” is all there is, the Divine is all there is; relax the “me” and know: you are the Garden, you are the Divine…
The Mishna discusses the five (or six, depending on how you count!) restrictive practices of Yom Kippur:
יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה וּבִשְׁתִיָּה וּבִרְחִיצָה וּבְסִיכָה וּבִנְעִילַת הַסַּנְדָּל וּבְתַשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה. וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַכַּלָּה יִרְחֲצוּ אֶת פְּנֵיהֶם, וְהֶחָיָה תִנְעֹל אֶת הַסַּנְדָּל, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר, וַחֲכָמִים אוֹסְרִין
[On] Yom HaKippurim it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals, or to have sexual intimacy. A king or bride may wash their face, and a woman after childbirth may put on sandals, the words of Rabbi Eliezer. But the sages forbid it.
עִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם – initem et nafsheikhem – (you shall) afflict your souls…
The Talmud then asks the question on the Mishna – where do these practices come from, since the Torah does not mention them?
אסור באכילה הני חמשה ענויין כנגד מי אמר רב חסדא כנגד ה' ענויין שבתורה ובעשור ואך בעשור שבת שבתון ושבת שבתון והיתה לכם
The mishna taught that as per the five prohibited activities on Yom Kippur it is prohibited to engage in eating and in drinking, and in bathing, and in smearing the body with oil, and in wearing shoes, and in sexual intimacy.
The Gemara asks: These five afflictions of Yom Kippur, to what do they correspond? Where is the Torah source or allusion to them?
Rav Ḥisda said: They are based on the five times that the afflictions of Yom Kippur are mentioned in the Torah. It is stated:
(1) “And on the tenth of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall afflict your souls” (Numbers 29:7);
(2) “But on the tenth of this seventh month is the day of atonement, it shall be a holy convocation for you and you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27);
(3) “It shall be for you a Shabbat of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls (Leviticus 23:32);
(4) “It is a Shabbat of solemn rest [shabbaton] for you, and you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:31);
(5) “And it shall be a statute for you forever, in the seventh month on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29).
The Medieval Rabbi, Yaakov ben Asher (known as the Baal Haturim (Master of the Columns) – further interpreted that these five restrictive practices correspond to five times that “soul” is mentioned in the single passage about Yom Kippur, Levitcus 23:26-32:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
אַ֡ךְ בֶּעָשׂ֣וֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ֩ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֨י הַזֶּ֜ה י֧וֹם הַכִּפֻּרִ֣ים ה֗וּא מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֥ם אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃
Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall afflict your souls/nafshoteikhem, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Divine;
וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֣י י֤וֹם כִּפֻּרִים֙ ה֔וּא לְכַפֵּ֣ר עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
You shall do no work throughout that day, for it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Divine your God.
כִּ֤י כָל־הַנֶּ֙פֶשׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־תְעֻנֶּ֔ה בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְנִכְרְתָ֖ה מֵֽעַמֶּֽיהָ׃
Indeed, any soul/nefesh who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from their kin;
וְכָל־הַנֶּ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר תַּעֲשֶׂה֙ כָּל־מְלָאכָ֔ה בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַֽאֲבַדְתִּ֛י אֶת־הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמָּֽהּ׃
And any soul/nefesh who does any work throughout that day, I will cause that soul/nefesh to perish from among their people.
כָּל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכֹ֖ל מֹֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם׃
Do no work; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages in all your settlements.
שַׁבַּ֨ת שַׁבָּת֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּתִשְׁעָ֤ה לַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ בָּעֶ֔רֶב מֵעֶ֣רֶב עַד־עֶ֔רֶב תִּשְׁבְּת֖וּ שַׁבַּתְּכֶֽם׃ (פ)
It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls/nafshoteikhem; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath..
The 16th century kabbalist, the Maharal of Prague, expanded on this idea even more by discussing the five different levels of the soul in Kabbalah, and how each level is made uncomfortable through one of the restrictive practices. This discomfort allows for a proactive disidentification from ego.
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – dimension of our being that remains pure, as in the prayer Elohai Neshamah shenatati bi, tehorah hi – My God, the soul You place within me is pure. It is made uncomfortable through refraining from anointing.
רוחRuakh – “Wind” – lightness, lifting off the ground – made uncomfortable through not wearing shoes.
נשמהNeshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – known as the “Divine Lamp” (Proverbs 20:27). The “light” cannot shine through a dull vessel, and so is made uncomfortable through not bathing.
חיהHayah – “Life Force” – made uncomfortable through not eating and drinking.
יחידהYekhidah – “Oneness” – made uncomfortable through social refraining from sexual intimacy, as intimacy is “becoming one” with another.
These five levels of the soul correspond to five levels of experience:
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – Sensory awareness
רוחRuakh – “Wind” – Emotion, mood
נשמהNeshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – Thought
חיהHayah – “Life” – Simple Aliveness
יחידהYekhidah – “Oneness” – Unity of Spacious Awareness with Form
Here is an example of how awareness of the five levels can be included in the Three Portals Practice:
Five Levels of Soul in the Three Portals:
רוח Ruakh – “Wind” – Emotion, Mood
(Bring right hand to heart, offering awareness as a gift)
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – Sensory awareness
(Bring left hand to belly, bringing awareness into body)
(“We will do”)
נשמה Neshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – Thought
(Bring right hand to forehead, bring to mind awareness as field beyond the body)
חיה Hayah – “Life” – Simple Aliveness
(Notice that everything is perceived by this Simple Aliveness that you are)
יחידה Yekhidah – “Oneness” – Unity of Spacious Awareness with Form
(Notice that everything you perceive is also nothing but consciousness)
(“We will hear”)
The 18th century Hassidic master, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, said:
“Nowadays, in this time of exile and great suffering of our people, the Divine Presence is felt much more easily than when the Holy Temple was still standing. How is this possible?
“Once there was a king whose realm was conquered by an invading army. The king left the palace and disguised himself as a wayfarer, wandering from place to place in secrecy. In the course of his wanderings, he was recognized by a poor family, still loyal to the king. They invited him into their modest dwelling gave him whatever food they could offer. His heart grew light in their company, and he sat and spoke with them as intimately as he had once done with his inner court.
“Now that the Divine Presence is also in exile, She does the same!”
Judaism tends to glorify the past and the future; the past was the golden age when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and the future is the ultimate Messianic redemption to come. This view may have been helpful psychologically during times of great difficulty, boosting self-esteem with stories about the glorious past and giving hope for a better tomorrow. But in the above teaching, the Maggid has taken the opposite approach by telling his students the truth – that the Unbroken Light of Being we call the Divine Presence comes to us most vividly and intimately in the Now.
It is true – Judaism tends to emphasize the more normative, time-bound view, but the simple truth of fulfillment in the present is hidden just below the surface. We can see this in the texts of both Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year, a time we can become free from all accumulations of past negativity, a time of supreme presence before the One. And yet, on this holiest day of the year, we say this:
אֱלֹהַי עַד שֶׁלֹּא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי אֵינִי כְדַאי, וְעַכְשָׁו שֶׁנּוֹצַֽרְתִּי כְּאִלּוּ לֹא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי. עָפָר אֲנִי בְּחַיָּי. קַל וָחֹֽמֶר בְּמִיתָתִי. הֲרֵי אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ כִּכְלִי מָלֵא בוּשָׁה וּכְלִמָּה.
My God, before I was formed, I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed, it is as if I had not been formed. I am like dust while I live, how much more so when I am dead. Here I am before You like a vessel filled with shame.
Sukkot, which comes as the fruit of the freedom and presence attained on Yom Kippur, is z’man simkhateinu – a time of supreme joy and celebration. Like the king’s hosts in the Maggid’s parable, the practice is to dwell in the humble, make-shift hut of the sukkah, within which the Supreme Guest – the Divine Presence Herself – is felt most closely on this harvest festival.
And yet, on this most sacred time of fulfillment, we chant this:
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Vanity of vanities! – said Koheleth – Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
What profit is there for a person in all their toil beneath the sun?
רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֔ים שֶֽׁנַּעֲשׂ֖וּ תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה הַכֹּ֛ל הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ׃
I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is vanity and striving after wind…
In other words, our individual existence is characterized by imperfection, and the world in which we live is ephemeral, non-substantial, passing. And yet, when we dive fully into this truth without avoidance and without embellishment, we can discover the other side of the equation: the comings and goings of time and the successes and failures of human life dance against the background of Wholeness. That Wholeness is the consciousness that we are, the consciousness that perceives the brokenness; we are the sukkah – the simple open space of this moment, intimate yet infinitely vast and transcendent, the space of welcome to whatever is now arising…
וּפְרוש עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שלומֶךָ
Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Sh’lomekha!
Spread over us the Shelter of Your Peace!
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The Dog – Shabbat Sukkot
10/16/2019 0 Comments
ה֤וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֭נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֝מַ֗עַן שׁוֹרְרָֽי
Reveal to me, Hashem, Your way, and guide me on a straight path, because of my watchful foes.
In this psalm that is chanted during this holiday season, King David prays to be in alignment with the Divine so that he might merit salvation from his enemies. But this and many other psalms are so universally relevant because they point not only to external foes, but to our inner reality.
I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
What a beautifully succinct and useful piece of wisdom! We know that believing in absurdly distorted thoughts is called insanity; we can see when a person is insane, because the reality they describe is completely different from what most normal people would consider to be true. And yet, there is some degree of insanity for most people; when our minds make automatic judgments, we tend to believe our thoughts without question, especially if there is an emotional charge attached to them.
In this way, it is our own thoughts that lead us onto a crooked path; it is our own thoughts that become the enemy.
וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ
Don’t judge your friend until you have reached his place…
(Pirkei Avot 2:5)
Until you have the same perspective as your friend, says the sage Hillel, you should refrain from judging them… which is really the same as saying that we should never judge anyone, because it is impossible to ever see from someone else’s perspective. This is an amazing statement for a text that is mostly directed toward actual judges! The message is: we must sometimes make judgments, but don’t believe in them as absolute truth. Be open. Let your thoughts be translucent to the light that Reality continuously reveals, and be conscious of the infinite complexity that is not revealed.
But if the function of the mind is thought, how can we possibly transcend thought?
Rabbi Yitzhak Mer of Ger was once talking to a hasid of Rabbi Simcha Bunam. The hasid said his master once remarked he was amazed that a person wouldn’t become spiritually perfected by merely saying birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. Rabbi Yitzhak thought for a moment and then replied, “I think differently. I am amazed that a person isn’t spiritually perfected merely by eating! After all, a donkey knows its owner.”
We may not have so much experience with donkeys, but many of us have experience with dogs – how a dog will run to its owner with love and enthusiasm the moment they walk through the door.
How does the dog know the owner is there?
Usually all it takes is the sound of the door opening, or the sound of the voice, and the dog comes running. The dog doesn’t want the door or the voice, the dog wants the person; but the sounds are the cue.
ה֤וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֭נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֝מַ֗עַן שׁוֹרְרָֽי
Reveal to me, Hashem, Your way, and guide me on a straight path, because of my watchful foes.
There is profound lesson here for us as well: if we want to run into the arms of the Divine, we too can listen for the cues to tell us which direction to go. Only with us it is even more simple – all we need do is pay attention to whatever is present, to whatever presents itself. And this is the deeper lesson of Reb Yitzhak’s spiritual perfection through eating: it is the realm of the senses that brings us into the arms of the Master, not the realm of language and thinking (though, paradoxically, language and thinking is certainly needed to tell us this!)
There is a hint in this week’s reading for Shabbat Sukkot:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה רְ֠אֵה אַתָּ֞ה אֹמֵ֤ר אֵלַי֙ הַ֚עַל אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְאַתָּה֙ לֹ֣א הֽוֹדַעְתַּ֔נִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־תִּשְׁלַ֖ח עִמִּ֑י
Moses said to Hashem, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me….”
Moses is asking, who and where are You, God? How can I know You? God responds by putting Moses in a cleft of rock and then passes by Moses while shielding Moses’ eyes from seeing the Divine directly. After God passes by, the shielding is removed, and Moses sees God’s “back.”
וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ
Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
What is this “back” of God that Moses sees? It is nothing but the world of the senses, the presence of whatever is present. This is the deeper wisdom of Rabbi Yitzhak’s teaching: this moment is grace. You need not even wait until the next time you eat; every moment we are “eating” the air around us. Every moment is grace. But we can only really see this if we come fully to the moment, if we come into the senses, into the body, into our breathing, and out from the world of thought.
In this way, our thoughts become like the sukkah – not a solid edifice of assertion, but a framing of a tiny space in the world, a translucent embellishment of the Mystery…
The Mouse- Shabbat Sukkot
10/21/2016 4 Comments
Once, during the days after Yom Kippur, we suspected that there was a mouse in the house.
First, the strange little pieces of refuse that would show up on the floor when we knew we had already swept. Then, the little mysterious scratchy sounds I would hear when I knew everyone else was asleep. But we knew for sure when we found that a bag of leftover hallah had been chewed through.
Not knowing how the mouse got in and out, we quickly became much more disciplined about putting all our food away! We could tell the mouse was still coming in, but most of the time there was nothing for it to steal.
It wasn’t until Sukkot began, however, that I actually saw it.
We were eating in the sukkah, when I went back into the house to get the main course. As soon as entered the back door of our house, I saw the little mouse scurry across the floor and squeeze right through a little opening below a sliding door that goes into the wall.
I took some plastic bags and pushed them into the opening to block it, then used duct tape to seal it up. A temporary measure, but the mouse seems to have not returned, leaving the sanctuary of our home free from it for now.
But there is another kind of sanctuary- a space in which the heart is free and the mind is clear. That space is a sanctuary from all stress, from all problems, from all tzures.
That space is the present moment.
It is ever available, and always right here. And yet, the ordinary human mind is unaware of this space. Living life almost entirely through the screen of thinking, this sanctuary is overrun with the “rodents” of thought.
Craving some peace, one attempts to put life in order so that the rodents won’t disturb anything too much. Unaware of where the rodents are coming from, all you can do is put the food away so as not to attract them.
By “putting the food away” I mean arranging your life to your liking- organizing things so that stress and chaos are kept at bay. This is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you, our kitchen was never so consistently clean as when that mouse forced us to develop better habits!
But once you see where the mouse is coming from, you can seal up the hole at its source. Meaning- once you see that the source of all chaos and worry is your own mind, you can “close the hole” through which chaos and misery enter.
Then, you can still clean your kitchen if you want to, but you’re not dependant on it. Meaning- you can organize your life to maximum benefit, but even when life is chaotic externally, even when there is loss, failure and uncertainty, the Sanctuary of the Present is not lost. Your mind can be free from those “rodents” of excess thinking, and in that clarity the Sanctuary reveals itself.
And yet, this is still a big secret, even for long-time spiritual practitioners!
Many people enter the Sanctuary in their moments of avodah, of meditation, ritual, chanting and so on, but cannot seem to stay connected in the midst of life.
In this week’s special reading for Shabbat Sukkot, Moses seems to have this very problem. Moses- the one who speaks to Hashem face-to-face, is afraid that the Divine Presence will not accompany him on his journey of leading the people (Exodus 33:12):
“Re’eh Atah omer eilai, ha’al et ha’am hazeh-
"See, You say to me, ‘take this people onward’, but You did not reveal whom You will send with me!”
Moses is afraid that the One who sends him on his mission will abandon him. What is Hashem’s response?
“Panai yelekhu v’hanikhoti lakh-
"My Presence will go and give you rest!”
The Presence “goes” wherever you go!
That’s because the “Presence” is not something separate from your own presence, from your awareness when it is actually present. And when your awareness is present, there is “rest”.
The word here for “I will give rest”, hanikhoti, has the same root as the name Noakh, the fellow who built the ark for the great flood. Whether the metaphor is rodents or destructive floodwaters, the idea is the same- there is an ark that floats above the raging waters in which you can find refuge.
In the case of Moses and the Israelites, they lived in temporary dwellings on their journeys- the sukkot in which Jews everywhere are now dwelling for this holiday that commemorates the ancient dwellings of the Israelites.
The sukkah is a sanctuary, yet it is hardly a solid thing. Open to the sky, vulnerable to the elements, it is really just a frame, not secure at all.
And that’s the paradox- that “sealing the hole” and securing your mind from the “rodents” of thought does not mean something hard or effortful. No plastic and duct tape! It means relaxing the mind, allowing the mind to be open to the fullness of what is already present.
But still, to do this constantly takes a special kind of effort that eludes most people. So much of the language of prayer is longing for the fruit of this effort!
As King David says in Psalm 27:
“Akhat Sha’alti me’eit Hashem-
"Only one thing I ask of You, Hashem, that I should dwell in Your house and meditate in Your sanctuary all the days of my life!”
The Sanctuary of Presence is ever-present, yet it is so easy to block it. Think of this- the sun is 864,938 miles in diameter, yet you can block its view entirely with just your little hand.
And yet, even while you are blocking the Presence, the blocking is itself happening in the present! The only thing blocking God, ultimately, is God- as God tells Moses a few verses later (Exodus 33:22):
“It will be when My Glory passes, I shall place you in a cleft in the rock and shield you with My hand…”
When our fleeting and immaterial thoughts hide the “Glory” of this passing moment, hardening the openness of the present into what feels like a narrow cleft of rock on all sides, remember: Your thoughts themselves are also part of this moment. Accept them with openness and let them pass as well.
In accepting and releasing your thoughts, they can dissolve, revealing the open space once again, as Hashem says next:
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see my ‘back’…”
Meaning, you will see in retrospect that your thoughts blocking the Sanctuary are themselves part of the Sanctuary. They are part of the reality of the present moment.
But the more simple and direct path is simply to bring your attention to literally anything physical that is already present. The more you train yourself to do this, the more you will become aware of the space behind whatever is present- the ineffable openness that is the present moment.
There is a story of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, that once he asked his son what he “prays with”. The boy answered that he inspires himself with the verse, “Every form shall prostrate itself before You.”
The boy then asked the rebbe, “What do you pray with, Abba?”
The rebbe answered, “I pray with the bench and the floor.”
On this Shabbat Sukkot, may we commit our attention ever more deeply to the bench on which we sit and the floor on which we stand, that we might open ever more deeply to the Sukkat Shalom- the Space of Peace that is this moment in which we now live.
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