The letter ב bet, which means “house,” points to the quality of welcome, of hospitality. And, just as bet corresponds to the number two, so too does hospitality have two main aspects: welcoming guests in, as well as allowing the guests to leave. Both aspects need to be there for hospitality to exist; a home is a wonderful thing, but not if you are trapped inside!
On the social level, this is obvious, but hospitality has its analogue on the inner level as well. In meditation, it can be tempting to try to control your mind, to try to keep your thoughts out. But this aggressive and manipulative approach isn’t really meditation; the essence of meditation is not controlling thought, but transcending thought. Meaning: meditation is the shift of self-sense from the thinking mind to the space of awareness behind and beyond the thinking mind.
How do we do that?
Through the attitude of welcome; be the open space that allows present experience to be as it is. Welcome your thoughts in, but also allow them to leave. Without becoming involved in the stream of thinking, thoughts will come and go, and through this practice, the thought stream can come to subside altogether, on its own.
There is a hint of this in the parshah:
At the end of the book of Bereisheet, Pharaoh generously welcomes the Children of Israel into Egypt, and they settle in the district of Goshen. As the book of Shemot begins, a new Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews and won’t let them leave; hospitality turns into control. This is how the mind tends to work – we are open and welcoming to thoughts that arise, and then we unconsciously become involved with our thoughts, seeking through them to gain some sense of control over our experience. This is the “enslavement” of consciousness through identification with thought and feeling, the creation of ego, represented by Pharaoh.
If we try to get free by seeking to control the mind and not think, this is just more ego, more of that impulse to control our experience. This impulse stems from the two basic qualities of ego, expressed in the following verse:
וְהַכְבֵּד֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע
His heart became heavy/stubborn, and he didn’t listen…
Moses is pleading with Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go free, but Pharaoh is both “stubborn” and “not listening.”
וְהַכְבֵּד֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ – v’hakhbed et libo – His heart became heavy/stubborn…
This “heaviness” of the heart is emotional resistance, not accepting the moment as it is, seeking instead to control one’s experience.
וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע – V’lo shama – and he didn’t listen…
This resistance arises in the vacuum created by the absence of Presence, the absence of fully “listening,” fully connecting with whatever is present. The remedy is to bring consciousness into connection with the fullness of the moment for its own sake, not for the sake of a certain experience, even a spiritual experience. It is to honor the appearance of Reality in this moment, to hear Reality’s message to us, as it says in the opening of the parshah:
וָאֵרָא – Va’eirah – And I appear…
The ו vav at the beginning of the word means “and,” hinting that Reality is constantly appearing in new ways, now this way, now that way, as expressed by the Name given to Moses at the Burning Bush:
אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I Will Be Whatever I Will Be.”
There was once an old and widowed hasid who lived by himself. He wasn’t interested in getting remarried; instead, he prayed constantly that Shekhinah, the Divine “Bride,” would appear to him on Friday night, on Shabbat. (The Shekhinah is personified as the feminine aspect of the Divine.) One day, a majestic female Voice came to him and said, “I will come visit you this Friday night.”
“So wonderful! Thank you!” said the hasid, “May I invite guests?”
“Of course!” said the Shekhinah.
The hasid was so excited, he invited all his friends. On Friday he spent all day making the most sumptuous Shabbos feast. He cleaned the house, beautifully decorated the dining room, and set off to shul for Friday night prayers. After prayers, his friends accompanied him back to his house. He had prepared the table in advance, and was excited to bring his friends into the dining room to make Shabbos and witness the manifestation of the Divine Presence at his Shabbos table.
But, when they entered the dining room, all were shocked to see a huge dog on top of the table, eating up the challah and other delicacies! He grabbed a broom and started beating the dog and shooed it out the door. “Oy! I am so sorry! This is so terrible – the food has become unfit, and now I have nothing to serve you.”
Dismayed and somewhat shocked, his friends left.
The man sat at the table for a while in grief. “I’m sure Shekhinah will not appear now, after what happened.” After some time, he took some wine and began chanting the Kiddush, the sanctification of Shabbat said over a cup of wine.
But then, as he finished chanting the words, m’kadesh HaShabbat, a queenly and radiant woman appeared before him, only she was all cut and bruised!
“You have come!” exclaimed the hasid, “But what happened to you? Are you okay? You must have been in some kind of accident!”
“It was no accident,” she said, “it was you!”
The hasid was taken aback – “Me??”
“Yes! I wanted to enjoy your delicious Shabbos feast, so I came in the form of a dog – who could enjoy food more than a dog? But you beat me and kicked me out!”
The hasid then understood – he hadn’t recognized the form that the Divine had taken, and he begged forgiveness…
This moment, just as it is, is the form that the Divine now takes. Will you welcome Her in?
אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I Will Be Whatever I Will Be!”
More on Parshat Va'eira...
The Magician – Parshat Va'eira
1/20/2020 0 Comments
When I was little, being sick meant that I got to stay home from school and watch TV all day. What else was I going to do? The dangerous part of this, of course, is that being sick was incentivized. I don’t remember if that was a problem for me, but I’m extra aware of this problem nowadays for my own children. That’s because “television” is now much worse – it’s no longer a big piece of furniture in the living room enjoyed by all, but rather it’s a little device that can be watched with headphones under the covers.
We know that sitting around watching television or YouTube for hours and hours isn’t ideal for the nervous system. Even without the ample scientific evidence telling us what the brain needs to stay healthy, we know it intuitively: learning, creativity, physical exercise. Any decent children’s school will be giving a good dose of all three to its students every day.
And yet, while we know this is good for us and therefore give it to our children, many adults won’t give it to themselves. For many, the end of school marked the end of learning and the beginning of a work life that is mostly mechanical and uncreative…and we suffer for it.
The remedy is something Judaism has always known: keep learning! Make learning part of your daily routine:
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן תְּרַדְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶן דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב.
אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אָז נִדְבְּרוּ יִרְאֵי יְיָ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ וַיַּקְשֵׁב יְיָ וַיִּשְׁמָע וַיִּכָּתֵב סֵפֶר זִכָּרוֹן לְפָנָיו לְיִרְאֵי יְיָ וּלְחֹשְׁבֵי שְׁמוֹ.
Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion said, “If two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners, as it is said: “In the session of scorners he does not sit” (Psalms 1:1); but if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) abides within them, as it is said: “Then those in awe of the Divine spoke one with another; and the Divine listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before the Divine, for those in awe of the Divine and who meditate on the Divine Name.” (Malachi 3:16)
(Pirkei Avot 3:3)
The Shekhinah is not merely an esoteric belief. Every new thing we learn literally builds new neural pathways and the brain is enlivened. There is a natural joy in learning and growing (be it physical, intellectual or creative), because it is only through learning and growing that our aliveness is active, that our tremendous potential is realized. This is Shekhinah sheruyah veineihem – the Divine Presence dwells within them; it the actual experience of learning and growing.
The Divine listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written…
When we learn, our nervous system literally grows and changes. This is the “Book of Remembrance” – the new neural pathways that we create.
For those in awe of the Divine and who meditate on the Divine Name…
There are many kinds of learning. We are most familiar with the type of learning that happens on the level of thought, but meditation in which thought is suspended is also a kind of learning; it is learning how to give the mind rest from thought while remaining totally conscious. This is “meditating on the Divine Name” – using sounds or sacred words as foci for the mind, while intentionally letting go of thoughts as they arise. It is far better to combine meditation with conceptual learning rather than practice only one or the other, because meditation keeps the mind fresh, alive, creative and conscious of the awesome mystery that lies beyond the grasp of thought.
There is a hint of this in our parshah:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃ כִּי֩ יְדַבֵּ֨ר אֲלֵכֶ֤ם פַּרְעֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֧ח אֶֽת־מַטְּךָ֛ וְהַשְׁלֵ֥ךְ לִפְנֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה יְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘produce a wonder for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a serpent.”
A disciple asked Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk about the meaning of this verse: “Why does Pharaoh say, תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת t’nu lakhem mofet – produce a wonder for yourselves. He should say, produce a wonder for ME. The point is to convince Pharaoh with the miracle, not themselves!
Rabbi Elimelekh explained, “When a magician produces a wonder, it’s only a wonder to the audience, not to the magician; the magician knows how the trick is done. But a miracle is not accomplished by the person who facilitates the miracle, but by the Divine, and so the miracle is just as much a wonder to the one doing it as it is to others who witness it. So, this is what Pharaoh is saying: Don’t give me a magic trick, let me see a miracle that would be just as much a wonder to you as it is to me!”
Regular learning is essential for living a joyful and fulfilled life. But the danger is that the more information and understanding the mind acquires, the less susceptible it becomes to the Mystery and to Awe:
גָּ֘ד֤וֹל יְהוָ֣ה וּמְהֻלָּ֣ל מְאֹ֑ד וְ֝לִגְדֻלָּת֗וֹ אֵ֣ין חֵֽקֶר
Great is Existence; abundantly praised as Divine – It is a Greatness beyond all comprehension… (Psalm 145:3)
This is why meditation together with learning is so important; in learning to rise above thought by practicing regularly, the mind is washed from its arrogance and complacency and enlivened to behold the Supreme Mystery yet again, right now…
Missing the Train – Parshat Va'eira
1/3/2019 0 Comments
The other day, one of the folks in our community wrote me that he often feels like his mind is a train station and his thoughts are the trains, constantly taking off every few seconds. He wants to just let the “trains” go and stay in the “train station,” but he feels compelled to hop on every “train” that leaves, compulsively journeying into nearly every thought that arises. “When will I learn to relax and just stay in the train station?” he wondered.
He's in good company! At the end of last week’s reading, Moses wonders in a similar way:
וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the Divine and said, “My Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
Moses is on his Divine-given mission to free the Israelites, but he’s feeling like a failure. Similarly, when we commit to getting free from our own minds, we may feel like failures as well. Those trains are so tempting!
Part of the problem is expressed in the metaphor of “staying in the train station.” That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Going on different journeys, on the other hand, that’s enticing! And this is why we get carried away so easily with our thoughts; they promise adventure. They promise understanding. They promise new ideas, new plans, cherished memories and fantasies of possibility. No wonder we get carried away so easily by those trains!
If we want to get free from our own minds, we need to be seduced by something more powerful, more compelling than our own thoughts. This is the hidden message of the Divine response to Moses:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃
Then the Divine said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
Pharaoh, the symbol of ego and enslavement to the mind, will let them go free because of a “greater might” (literally, a “mighty hand”). What could be greater than the enticingly seductive power of thought?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Existence Itself.”
Meaning: the “I” is not separate from All Existence, because every experience, every perception, every thought, every feeling that arises in our awareness is inseparable from awareness, and we are the awareness. The ani, the “I,” is really the ayin – the open space of perception, vast and borderless, and nothing is separate from that openness.
So, don’t try to control your mind; don’t try to discipline yourself to “stay in the train station” while your mind tempts you with all kinds of things. Know that your awareness is not just a train station, not just the place from which the “trains” of thought arise, but is rather an ocean of bliss, complete and ever-creative, ever-renewing. Consciousness is the true adventure. Let yourself be seduced by That. Let yourself fall in love with That, and don’t worry about the trains. Thoughts can seem powerful, but the awareness that you are is the יָד חֲזָקָה – the mightier hand – if you let yourself be seduced…
The Gift Beyond Self – Parshat Va'eira
When Moses complains that he can't confront Pharaoh due to his "sealed lips," Hashem responds with the strange words: "N'tatikha Elokim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!"
What does this mean?
There is a dimension of your being that transcends all your problems, all your reactions, all your conditioning. It transcends your thoughts, your opinions, your goals, your hopes, and your fears. Every experience you have arises within It, and disappears back into it. It is a vast, free, wellspring of peace, healing and renewal, regardless of what happens in your experience.
When we are unconscious of this vast dimension of being, we tend to identify with the content of our experience; we feel that our thoughts, our feelings, and our bodies are "me." That's the Pharaoh; it's the "me" that wants to control things, that seeks approval, that judges.
But when you remember the awareness within which everything in your experience appears and disappears, then you know your own Divinity – your own absolute freedom from the tyranny of ego. Then, there can be a tremendous sense of gratitude – N'tatikha Elohim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!
Your own Being is not separate from or other than God, and that's the most supreme Gift; though it's an even greater gift to know it! As it says (Pirkei Avot 3:18): "Beloved are human beings, for they are created embodiments of the Divine. But they are extra beloved in that it is made known to them that they are embodiments of the Divine!"
The Plague- Parshat Va'eira
1/6/2016 3 Comments
This week’s reading begins the onslaught of plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. Appropriately, the other day I went into the bathroom to find the toilet teaming with huge ants- darting with lightning speed along the outside and inside of the bowl. A plague of ants!
I flushed the toilet- hundreds were sucked down the pipe in seconds… only to make room for hundreds more which miraculously emerged from under the rim. Ah… the wildlife of Costa Rica!
Not sure what to do, I glanced around the bathroom, when a movement caught my eye outside the window. It looked like a woody stick was caught in some cobwebs behind the window screen, but this stick was moving. I looked closer- it was a “stick bug”- a huge locust-like insect camouflaged like a stick. It had gotten caught in a nest of old webs.
I went out around the house to the window in order to free the entangled stick bug. I used a real stick to twirl the webby strands like spaghetti. The stick bug struggled free and leaped onto an adjacent boulder sticking out of the earth. (That boulder’s new name is Mt. Sinai.)
For me, those old webs were mere feeble threads, easily overcome with minimal effort. But to the stick bug, they formed an unbreakable prison.
So too with those psychological webs that ensnare the soul!
From the outside, it’s easy to see how a person can get free- they just have to stop thinking a certain way, or stop doing a certain habit. But from within the mind of the person who’s caught, it can seem impossible. That’s why it can be so incredibly helpful to have someone else- a teacher, coach or friend- to give you feedback and perspective.
There’s a story in Talmud about this idea:
Rabbi Yohanan was a great miracle-worker and healer. When he visited a sick person, he would ask, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
They would then answer, “Neither they nor their reward.” Then he would take them by hand and they’d be instantly healed.
One day, Rabbi Yohanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Answered Rabbi Yokhanan, “Neither they nor their reward.”
Then, just as Rabbi Yohanan had done for so many others, Rabbi Hanina offered his hand and healed Rabbi Yohanan.
The Talmud then asks, why did Rabbi Yohanan need Rabbi Hanina’s help? Let him heal himself! It then answers its own question:
“Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim-
“A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
Just as a prisoner needs someone else to get free, so too the right person can help liberate you, spiritually speaking.
And yet, if someone gives you the perspective you need to get free from the thought-webs of your own mind, then that means there must be a part of yourself that’s already free. Otherwise, it would be impossible to see beyond your limited perspective and you’d be stuck forever. The part that “sees” was never stuck in the first place.
As the traditional morning blessing says,
“Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, shelo asani oved-
“Blessed are You, Divine Being, our own Divinity, who has not made me a slave…”
Now matter how stuck you get, your essential identity is free from that web of thoughts and personal stories that the “me” gets caught in. In fact, the “me” and the “web” are the actually the same thing. But your essential identity, beyond the “me,” is always free.
Of course, when you’re stuck, you’re not living in your essential identity; you’re resisting it. In this week’s reading, Moses too resists freedom, complaining that he can’t possibly confront Pharaoh:
“Behold, I have sealed lips- how is Pharaoh going to listen to me?”(Ex. 6:30)
But Hashem reassures Moses in an incredibly surprising way-
“Re’eh- n’tatikha Elokim l’Paro-
“See! I have made you God (Elohim) to Pharaoh...”
Moses is God? What does this mean?
But the key is in the first word- “Re’eh- See!”
That which sees, the awareness that looks through your eyes, is the master over all the other forces within. It is the God within- your essential identity. If you don’t know that, you identify with the other forces- with feelings, with thoughts, with memories, with ideas- all those webs of the personality, of “Pharaoh.”
But as soon as you “hear” the Divine command to see (meaning, "be aware") then the exodus begins, and your essential identity starts to awaken.
But not only is your awareness the master over your personality- it’s even deeper than that. There’s a hint of this at the very beginning of the parsha (Ex. 6:2):
“Elohim said to Moses, ‘I am YHVH.’”
The first divine name, Elohim, means the divine personality. It’s the deity. The second Name, the unpronounceable Y-H-V-H, is far more expansive, meaning Existence Itself, not a divine being merely within existence.
The message here is that your essential identity is not something separate from the rest of Existence. Your essential identity is Existence, waking up as you, yet completely beyond “you.”
The awakening of your essential identity beyond your personality is actually something very simple. And while it may take years of learning and practice for this awakening to stabilize completely (if ever), it takes no time at all to shift into an awakened state, at least temporarily. In fact, lots of learning and practice can sometimes get in the way of it, if your learning and practice become part of your ego- if they become strands in the web of your mind-created identity.
But, crack open your heart and you naturally and effortlessly slip from the webs and step onto the rock of Sinai for yourself.
One year, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak held the Passover Seder so perfectly and devoutly, that every word and ritual glowed with holiness and secret significance. The next morning, while he sat in his room joyful and proud, a Voice came to him:
“More pleasing to Me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
The rabbi asked around about the man whose name he had heard, but no one knew who he was. So, some of his disciples went off to search for him.
At the outskirts of the city in a poor neighborhood, they found the hovel of Hayim the water-carrier. They knocked on the door and a woman answered:
“Yes, my husband is Hayim the water-carrier, but he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you try and wake him you’ll find he won’t even be able to move.”
They went in anyway and shook him. He just blinked and tried to turn over and go back to sleep, but they wouldn’t give up. They pulled him out of bed, carried him on their shoulders to their rebbe’s house, and sat him up in a chair.
Reb Levi Yitzhak leaned toward him and asked, “Reb Hayim dear heart, what kavanos (mystical intentions) were in your heart when you gathered the humitz (leavened foods)?”
The water-carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked around and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued his questioning- “And what kavanah did you have in mind when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s still lying on the shelf.”
“Hmm,” the rabbi puzzled, “And tell me, Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to light up in the eyes of the man, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I’ll tell you the truth. You see, I’ve always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on the eight days of Pesakh, so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me all eight days, and I got tired and fell asleep.
“Then my wife woke me in the evening and said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like other Jews?’
“‘What do you want from me?’ I said, ‘I am an ignorant man, son of an ignorant man, and I don’t know what to do and what not to do.’
“Still, I went and sat down to the table, where she had placed matzos and eggs. Broken hearted, I began to sing a wordless melody. My wife joined me, and we sang together mournfully, pouring out our hearts.
“I cried, ‘Ribono Shel Olam- Master of the World! You brought our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom- will you make us free too?’
“As we sang, something started to change inside me. The burden of my life- my troubles- my fears- none of it seemed to matter anymore. I looked around- everything seemed to glow with the most beautiful light. My wife could see it too. We felt as though we were tasting true freedom- as though we were coming out of Egypt.
“So the two of us sat and sang and drank and rejoiced. Then I got tired, lay down, and fell back asleep.”
On this Shabbos Va’eira, the Sabbath of Appearing, may we learn to not fall back asleep from the Divine when She appears. Instead, may we bring our wakefulness into connection with everyone we meet. May the world be transformed in the image of our Divine potential, bringing an end to all the unnecessary plagues we unconsciously create for ourselves and for the earth, speedily in our day- Moshiakh Akhshav!
There’s a story of Rabbi Pinhas of Kortez, that early in his career, people began calling upon him for advice and special blessings. A day wouldn’t go by without him having to interrupt his learning and davening to answer the knocks at the door, which irritated him greatly.
Finally, when he could take no more, he prayed that the interruptions would stop so that he would be able to serve Hashem in peace and solitude. His prayer instantly manifested, and everyone who knew him suddenly hated him. The interruptions ceased, and for the first time in years, Rabbi Pinhas had some peace.
When the festival of Sukkot came around, however, R. Pinhas couldn’t find anyone to help him build his sukkah, the outdoor hut which is central to the celebration of Sukkot. He had to do it himself, and even his wife had a terrible time trying to find someone from whom to borrow tools.
Now, the central theme of Sukkot is hospitality, and it is a great mitzvah to invite guests into your sukkah for meals – both human guests and the ancestral spirits, especially the Biblical personalities. On Erev Sukkot, the afternoon before the holiday began, R. Pinhas tried to invite the wayfarers he saw at the synagogue, but they refused to come, so widespread was his infamy.
So, without guests, he and his wife observed the festival alone. When it came time to invite in the ushpizin, the ancestral guests, the spirit of Abraham suddenly appeared and stood at the entrance of the sukkah. But as R. Pinhas pronounced the invocation, Abraham just stood there, not entering the sukkah.
“Avraham avinu – Abraham our father – why do you not enter? What have I don’t wrong?” asked R. Pinhas.
“It is not my custom to enter a place where there are no guests,” he replied.
R. Pinhas realized his error, and prayed once again, this time that people should resume their visits. This prayer too was succesful, and thus began his career as a rebbe.
The Eleventh Path is the second letter, ב bet, which literally means house – bayit. Bet hints, therefore, at the quality of hospitality, both in the ordinary social sense in which one welcomes the presence of beings, as well as the deeper sense in which one welcomes the Presence of Being.
Along this line, the bet represents the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the modern synagogue, the family home, as well as the space in the home designated for spiritual practice, and even the personal space of our own bodies. In the broadest sense, bet means form itself, because all forms, all beings, all phenomena, are embodiments of Being, manifestations of That which we call the Divine. The spiritual task is to make this conscious, to live with the attitude of welcome, so that the Divine dimension is not just acknowledged, but actively invited.
יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה וְיוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם
Yose ben Yoezer, a man of Zeredah, and Yose ben Yohanan, a man of Jerusalem, received [the oral tradition] from them [i.e. Shimon the Righteous and Antigonus]. Yose ben Yoezer used to say: “Let your home be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.
יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ
Yose ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, used to say: “Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be (as) children of your household.”
These two aphorisms speak of different aspects of hospitality – the first is a kind of sanctifying hospitality, in which the home is made hospitable to our teachers, to those who will help up us on our path. The second is more of a humbling hospitality, in which the home is made hospitable to those we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have in our space, other than to practice hospitality.
Together, these two aspects also metaphorically hint at the embodiment of hospitality at a deeper level – the level of thought and speech:
יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים – Y’hi beitkha beit va’ad lahakhamim – Let your home a house of meeting for the sages…
On this level, “sages” refers to the expression of meaning; this is the putting together of thoughts and sounds into language.
יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה – Y’hi beitkha patuah larvaha – Let your house be open wide…
This means that, even as the forms of words and sentences are constructed, they should be “open” – meaning, not rigid, not ideological, not reified. This is so important today, when societal polarization over ideology is so common. There is a teaching about this on a verse from Parshat Noakh, the story of Noah’s flood:
צֹ֣הַר תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה – Tzohar ta’aseh latevah – A window you shall make for the ark…
The Baal Shem Tov taught on this verse that the word for ark, tevah, can also mean “word.” He said that our words must be “open,” that we must make “windows for our words,” in a sense. Meaning, our thoughts and words aren’t the end of the story; they are like maps, merely pointing to a much more vast territory than they can ever express, and they therefore must always be open to new insight, new information, new nuance of perception.
Another dimension of this teaching, connected to the first, is Presence in speech – the practice of brining awareness to one’s words as they are spoken, so that the act of speaking itself is a kind of meditation. This practice of Presence in speech both helps maintain an open, non-ideological attitude, as well as helps prevent identification with words – the unconscious process by which we tend to lose our ability to differentiate between our thoughts and our essence.
This process of unconscious identification with thought is what we might call the birth of ego. In Torah this is represented by the Israelites’ descent into slavery in Egypt, which begins in Parshat Shemot:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names (shemot) of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each person and his household came…
Shemot, which means “names,” represents thought in general, as the essence of thought is the breaking up experience into parts and then naming those parts. While thought is essential for growing in our understanding of Reality, as well as navigating practical matters, it is a double edged sword; as our vast and formless consciousness takes on specific form as thought, the danger is that it can easily “lose itself.” We can become “lost in thought,” believing ourselves to be merely “thinkers,” and forgetting the inner freedom of our vast and formless essence – the field of awareness that we are, beneath and beyond our thoughts.
This process of identification, of losing touch with our essence, actually happens not only with thought ("names"), but with our bodies and with our feelings as well ("houses").
אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ … וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙
These are the names… each person into their house came…
Just babies learn the limits of their own bodies and come to feel that they are “inside” the body looking out at an external world, so too we eventually come to feel that we are “inside” our thoughts and feelings, as well. This sense that we are inside the “houses” our bodies, thoughts and feelings is what is meant by identification, the beginning of ego, the beginning of bondage.
Furthermore, once this inner bondage of ego-creation takes place, we then become subject to fear and insecurity, for we know on some level that all forms are inherently temporary, fragile, and therefore insecure:
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us!"
This “new king,” the “Pharaoh,” is of course the ego – the “bondage” of consciousness identified with form. This fearful ego seeks to secure its status and eliminate threats, just as Pharaoh does in the story. Pharaoh begins by enslaving the Israelites and attempting to reduce their population by telling the Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all the baby Hebrew boys.
But the midwives refuse to buy into this fear-based violence, and they do the opposite, saving the babies. This is the remedy for the suffering of ego that results from identification with form – the Spirit of Welcome, or Hospitality.
וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃
And because the midwives had reverence for the Divine, Elohim made for them houses…
This strange verse tells us the reward the midwives received for saving the babies – Elohim made for them houses. In other words, the “houses” of their bodies and feelings and thoughts became “Divine” – their essence was no longer trapped by form, but was rather embodied and expressed by form.
This is the key to inner liberation, to tziyat mitzrayim, to “going out from Egypt,” to being free from ego: rather than creating ego by identifying with our “house,” with body and thought and feeling, we can instead inhabit our “house,” while still knowing we are infinitely more than the “house” – we are not merely body and thought and feeling; we are the vast and free space awareness itself, both within and far beyond the “house.” We do this by making our “house” into a place of welcome; in other words, we do it by welcoming whatever arises in the moment.
There is a famous story that a young Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where does God live?”
Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Melo khol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth full of God’s glory!”
Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”
Welcoming the Divine in and as this moment is a direct and simple thing to do; all it requires is the attitude of openness to this moment as it appears, right now. But, this is not always easy, because once ego is created, it seems so real; emotional pain arises, and it can seem impossible to get beyond it, to access our spacious essence. The key, however, it to actually use our pain to transcend it:
וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃
The Israelites were groaning because of their work, and cried out; and their cries from their work rose up to Elohim…
The word for work here is עֲבֹדה avodah, which also means prayer, or spiritual practice in the broader sense:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the survivors of the great assembly. He used to say: “The world stands upon three things: Torah, Spiritual Practice (avodah), and Acts of Kindness."
This formulation gives the three pillars of a spiritual life – learning Torah (which is what you are doing right now as you read this), transformative practices such as prayer and meditation, and living the teaching through acts of generosity and service toward others.
But the fact that the word avodah is also the word used to describe the suffering of slavery hints at a crucial point: the suffering we endure must become part of our spiritual practice if it is to lead to liberation.
We have to fully feel and fully acknowledge the suffering, without denial but also without resignation and victimhood; we must “cry out to the Divine” – bring the truth of our suffering into our practice, which means laying our burden at the feet of Hashem, so to speak. This is authentic prayer; this is how the cry of suffering leads to liberation. But to do this, we must be awake enough to remember, moment by moment, this vital task:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall command the Children of Israel to bring to you oil of olives, pure, crushed for lighting, for kindling lamps continuously…
This mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, again points to this process of turning our pain, our sense of being “crushed,” into the pure oil of consciousness that burns constantly and illuminates the space within all forms.
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
They shall make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among/within them…
This verse, which in its context is describing the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, expresses a universal message and a practical and useful instruction: make your life – both the joy and the pain – into a “home” for the Divine. We do this through the three major forms, the three "houses" of Torah learning, daily practices (avodah) and acts of kindness, remembering to transmute the pain through our avodah, by laying our burden at the “feet” of Hashem…
מַה טֹּֽבוּ אֹהָלֶֽיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּ֒נֹתֶֽיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael!
How good are your tents, O Jacob, places of Dwelling Presence, O Israel!
(From Morning Blessings liturgy)
More on Shemot...
The Blazing Love – Parshat Shemot
1/13/2020 0 Comments
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
A disciple once asked Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt: “It says that the seven years Jacob worked to marry Rachel seemed like a few days to him because of his love for her. How does this make sense? If he loved her so much, the seven years should seem even longer, not shorter! I would think that every minute he had to wait would feel like an eternity!”
The rabbi of Apt responded: “There are two kinds of love: the kind that attaches you to the object of your love, and the kind that is given freely to your beloved. We are most familiar with the first kind – we love someone or something, and the love enslaves us; that’s the kind when every minute away from your beloved seems like an eternity. But Jacob had the second kind of love – his love was given away freely to Rachel, and so he too was free. In that freedom, he wasn’t longing for the future, he was simply being in the moment; so, the entire seven years seemed like only a moment, because throughout that time he had always been in the moment!”
On the physical level, we are absolutely slaves, in constant need of external support to survive. This is reflected in the parshah – the children of Israel are driven to Egypt by the famine and the promise of food, and there they become slaves.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ
Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with crushing labor…
Egypt is Mitzrayim, which comes from the root that means “constriction” and “suffering,” hinting that on the physical level we are ever incomplete, ever in need of external nourishment, without which we suffer and die.
But the physical, form-based dimension of experience is not all there is.
The very fact that we can feel suffering at all means there is awareness that feels. That awareness, that dimension of being without which there cannot be any experience at all, is itself beyond Mitzrayim, beyond constriction. Spacious and free, awareness is the ever-present background against which the constriction of Mitzrayim comes and goes. How do we access this dimension of freedom?
Love this moment!
It is true, we are often acting to bring about results that we need for our survival; even our next breath is toward this end. But our actions need not only be aimed at the narrow and conditional goals of the future; we have the power to also be in this moment lishma, for its own sake, to offer our Presence to the inner goodness of this moment, as it is. This is the second kind of love the Rabbi of Apt speaks about: the love that sets us free.
To bring forth the love that sets us free, we must remember that the inner goodness of this moment is easily hidden by our goals in time, by our Mitzrayim-based aim to secure something for ourselves. There is a hint of this in the passage about Moses’ birth:
וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ
She saw that he was good, so she hid him…
She feared for Moses’ life, because Pharaoh threatened to kill him. Moses represents the pathway to freedom, while Pharaoh represents the encroaching and deadening power of ego that kills the simple joy of being. Moses’ mother is the beginning of desire for freedom, the desire that cries out:
בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ לִּ֑י חָ֝נֵּ֗נִי וּשְׁמַ֥ע תְּפִלָּתִֽי
Batzar Hirkhavta Li, Honeni uSh'ma Tefiltati!
From constriction You expand me – be gracious to Me and hear my prayer!
If the path to freedom were not hidden, there would be no desire for it, no longing in the heart for release from Mitzrayim, and freedom wouldn’t stand a chance. It is only because it is hidden that desire for freedom is born:
דִּרְשׁוּ יְהֹוָה וְעֻזּוֹ בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָיו תָּמִיד
Seek the Divine and Its Power; search for Its Presence constantly…
(I Chronicles 16:11)
And when we seek, we find – because It is not elsewhere; It is hidden within this moment, hidden as the Presence of Being within all being. Give your attention to this Presence and you draw it forth. Just as Pharaoh’s daughter drew forth Moses from the river, so too we draw forth the light of the present from the river of time; it shines like a soft glow at first, then like a fire that blazes forth but heals rather than burns. All we need do is give our attention to It, to love this moment for Its own sake. Then, the path to freedom appears in the present, as Presence…
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה
And Elohim said to Moses, “I Am That I Am”
Seek the Face – Parshat Shemot
12/28/2018 0 Comments
It is difficult to be present when we face adversity. But it can be just as difficult, if not more so, when we are in easeful situations. That’s because without the motivation to escape suffering, the tendency is to forget all about the constant effort required to present.
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמֹות֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
The children of Israel went down into Egypt because it they needed nourishment; Egypt was a place of satisfaction, and only gradually did it become a place of great suffering. And, it was only because of the suffering that the Israelites were motivated to leave and return home.
Similarly, when our experience is pleasant and easeful, it is easy to sink into “Egypt” without knowing it – meaning, it’s easy to sink into identification with the mind and its thinking. After all –
נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיֹוסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם
Joseph was in Egypt.
“Joseph” represents the power to grow, to be creative, and this is the power of thought. But when thought becomes so constant that we lose connection with the space of awareness within which thought arises, we’ve become stuck in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness.
Then, when adversity comes, the degree to which we’ve become trapped gets revealed with the reactivity that arises, and the suffering that comes along with it.
But, not to worry!
The force of the suffering itself can cause “Pharaoh” to let go. Meaning, consciousness that’s become trapped in identification with thought – called “ego” – is motivated to let go when it feels the suffering that it unconsciously created.
The key is to use suffering in the right way – accept it fully, let it do its thing. In that openness to whatever arises lies the key to liberation. The suffering may persist for some time, but eventually it burns itself out, just as Pharaoh eventually relents after the ten plagues.
But even better is to learn to remain conscious when things are good!
Give thanks for the great and constant blessings of Being, root your awareness in your body, let go of the stream of thinking, and know yourself as the Light of Presence within which this moment arises. This is hinted at in a verse from Chronicles:
בַּקְּשׁ֥וּ פָנָ֖יו תָּמִֽיד
Bakshu Fanav Tamid
Seek Its Face Constantly
Behind every experience is the radiant Light of Being, but you have to "seek it out" in a sense. This is a totally different kind of seeking from the ordinary kind, in which you seek something that isn't present, something that's hidden somewhere else. "Seeking the Face" means remembering that whatever the moment brings is literally the Face of the Divine – a manifestation of Reality, arising in the vast field of consciousness that you are...
"I" Am With "You" – Parshat Shemot
1/3/2018 2 Comments
When Moses confronts the Voice from the Burning Bush calling him to his destiny, he responds, Mi anokhi ki elekh el Paro? – Who am I to come to Pharaoh? To which the Voice responds, Ki Ehyeh imakh – For I will be with you.
On the surface, God is reassuring Moses – “don’t worry, I’ll be there to help you out.” But look at what the words are actually saying: Mi anokhi? – Who am I? The answer is, Ehyeh imakh – I will be with you. In other words, Ehyeh imakh is actually who Moses is.
This is, in fact, who we all are at the very root of our being – an open space of awareness, awake to whatever arises in its field. We might call this level of our being, “Presence With.” This Presence (that is both the Divine Presence and our own presence) has a dual nature: on one hand, it has no other agenda than to simply be. On the other hand, since it is free from all other motivations, it also bubbles with potential. Every idea, inspiration and motivation arises from within it. That’s why the tense of Ehyeh is ambiguous; it can mean I Am, but it can also mean I Will Be.
And to clarify this further: a few verses later, Moses asks the Voice what its Name is. The answer is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I Am That I Am, or I Will Be What I Will Be. Presence and Potential, Being and Becoming, in One.
This Presence and Potential is not something we must develop or create; it is who we are, if we can uncover it – if we can step off the worn path of our habits and behold the firey core of this moment.
And how to do that?
Say: Ehyeh imakh. Open yourself to fully be with this moment as it is. And in that Presence, is your own presence – along with the infinite potential of Whatever Arises Next.
Against the Wall- Parshat Shemot
12/31/2015 5 Comments
One summer when I was about eight years old, I was walking through the playground at my day camp in upstate New York. As I passed by a certain play structure, built as a replica of a covered wagon, a bigger kid with a mean face came out of the wagon and told me to get inside. Hypnotized by his authoritative tone, I immediately acquiesced.
Once inside, I saw what was going on: several scared kids, some of whom were my friends, were all trapped at one end of the room with their backs against the wall.
“Get against the wall with the others!” the big mean kid barked at me. I did.
He then proceeded to lecture us: “You are all now my slaves. You will do exactly as I say, or I will crush your head!”
With that, he took a small thick stick and rammed it against the wall near us. He then continued bashing it and grunting, violently splintering off pieces of wood against the corrugated aluminum.
I became very still and alert. I couldn’t accept being this kid’s prisoner. I watched him very closely for several minutes, waiting intently for a moment when his awareness of me would lapse.
As he threatened us and repeatedly rammed his stick against the wall, he glanced just briefly at the spot where he was pretending to bash someone’s head. That was the moment. Without thinking, I darted for the door, jumped down the steps and escaped.
I hope the other kids were okay that day.
At that time, all I could do was free myself. But in this week’s reading, Moses receives the calling to free his entire people. He had already freed himself, escaping from the wrath of Pharaoh into the dessert. Eventually, he settled down with the Midianites and married Zipporah, daughter of the priest Jethro.
Then, one day while shepherding the flock, a Divine angel appears to him in a blazing fire burning within a thorn bush. He goes to examine the strange sight and notices that the bush is not being consumed by the flame:
“Moses hid his face- afraid to gaze on the Divine…”
Why was he afraid?
In this and every moment, there is nothing but Truth-Reality-Divinity everywhere, fully available and free. And yet, we too tend to “hide our face”- to shrink away in fear.
There are three types of fear gripping Moses at the burning bush, hinting at three types of psychological resistance we often feel toward being fully present with the “burning bush” of this moment.
First, when Moses hides his face, what does Hashem say to him?
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Being present can make you temporarily vulnerable to feelings of pain- both your own and the pain of others. In fact, the increased suffering of the Hebrews on the threshold of their liberation hints at this truth: To become free, you must be willing to fully feel whatever pain comes to you.
But, for us as in the story, there comes a time when the pain of resistance becomes greater than your resistance to pain. When that happens, you can surrender your resistance, feel whatever temporary pain you were resisting, and get free.
Second, when God chooses Moses for the awesome mission of liberating his people, what’s Moses’ response?
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”
If you become free from your limited narratives about yourself, you then must confront your enormous potential. This gives rise to a different fear- what if I fail? Sometimes it’s easier to think of yourself as worthless than to acknowledge your tremendous potential. If you're worthless, then you don’t even have to try; you can stay comfortable with the status quo.
But when the magic of empowerment becomes sweeter than the security of comfort, you too will be able to look unflinchingly into your inner “fire”- your true potential- and get free.
Finally, when Moses asks what God’s Name is, what’s the reply?
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh- I Will Be That Which I Will Be…”
Entering the world of the Eternal- that is, the present moment- means letting go of the world of time. To let go of the world of time means putting aside the world of thought. To put aside your thoughts, you must have trust:
“If I stop worrying about the future and be fully here, will I be okay? Will things work out?”
The Divine is reminding Moses: “You don’t have to worry. I will be with you. Who made your mouth anyway? And even deeper- everything is ultimately Me. I am the Hebrews, I am the Pharaoh. I am everything in this moment, and later on, it will still be Me. I’ll be whatever I’ll be. Let go into this moment, trust that you will have what you’ll need, and embrace your path.”
Letting go into this moment and trusting is like pouring water into a cup:
The water takes the shape of the interior. It doesn’t resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
In the same way, you can “pour” your awareness into the “vessel” of this moment. There’s a hint of this in the beginning of the parsha:
“Uv’nai Yisrael paru… vatimalei ha’aretz otam-
“And the children of Israel were fruitful… and the land became filled with them”
Who are the “Children of Israel?”
“Israel” comes from the Hebrew Yashar El- “straight to God”- so to be Israel means to drop the idea that you are separate from God/Reality. To drop the separateness is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to the vessel of this moment.
But then it says:
“Vayakam melekh hadash al Mitzrayim-
“And a new king arose over Egypt…”
This king, the Pharaoh, is fear.
It’s the fear of pain, the fear of your own potential and the fear of the unknown. Ultimately, it’s the fear of death of the separate “me.” The separate “me,” or ego, is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment.
Pharaoh is the king of Mitzrayim- the land of tzar- of narrowness. He is the King of Contraction.
So how do you let go and fill the vessel of this moment?
You don’t- gravity does.
Just as gravity causes the water to descend and fill the cup, there’s an inner “gravity” that will pull down your awareness into the vessel of this moment, if you surrender to it. This surrender comes not from pushing away your fear or trying to get rid of it, but from fully feeling it and transforming it into the cries of prayer. As it says:
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Meaning: When you fully feel, surrender, and cry out to the One, this revolutionary possibility comes into being: the possibility of realizing that you are the miracle of awareness. You are the Divine who sees, hears and feels all that arises in this moment.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divine potential- to perfectly fill the imperfect manifestation of being as it moves in time. And in your perfect connection with the ever-imperfect manifestation of this moment, it is to bring healing and tikkun to yourself and others through words and acts of love, support, wisdom and understanding.
Living your full potential in the present is simple, but not easy. It takes training and practice, just like mastery of any skill requires.
Once Rabbi Chaim of Krozno, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was walking through town with his disciples on their way to pray. They came upon a boy, dangerously walking along the edge of a towering stone wall. Rabbi Chaim stopped and became completely engrossed in the boy's antics.
“Rabbi,” a disciple queried, “What’s so interesting about that foolish boy that you make us late for prayers?”
“This boy,” replied Reb Chaim, “is risking his life and I have no idea why. But I am quite sure he’s not worrying that he might not keep his balance, because if he did, he certainly wouldn't.”
On this Shabbat Shemot- the “Sabbath of Names”- may we drop all of our "slave names”- the "bricks" in the wall of fear against which "Pharaoh" seeks to keep us confined. Instead, may we courageously practice walking the razor's edge of the present and fearlessly gaze into the “fire” of our own Divine potential. May we actualize that potential not just for ourselves, but for the sale of freeing the entire world.
Amein, Good Shabbos,
Perfectly Imperfect- Parshat Shemot
1/9/2015 2 Comments
Pour water into a vessel. Perfectly, it takes the shape of the interior. It does not resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
Through its fluidity and the pull of gravity. Without fluidity, the water would already have its own form, and therefore could not conform. Without gravity, the water would not pour; it would move like smoke through space.
Now imagine: the water is alive and the vessel is alive. The vessel, once beautiful, has become twisted, contorted, wounded. It longs to be reshaped; it wants to be healed. The water is intelligent- it contains the knowledge of how to heal this twisted vessel. All it needs to do is to push on the walls of the vessel in just the right way to help it back into a wholesome shape, into its potential beauty.
But the water is impatient. In its zeal to fix the vessel, it contracts away from the interior and shapes itself into its idea of the perfected vessel. It pushes on the remaining surface that it touches in attempt to coax the vessel into its own shape, but to no avail. Without complete contact with the entire inside of the vessel, it cannot exert its influence. Now there are two shapes, one distorted and one ideal, with no connection to one another. The water has taken on the imagined ideal of the vessel, but it has lost its perfect connection with the vessel.
Now and always we find ourselves in “This”. By “This” I mean the totality of existence as it meets awareness in this moment. Awareness is like water; it is able to perfectly fill and take the shape of This that Is and is Becoming, Now. But awareness is not passive, inanimate water; it is living water. It is intelligent. It sees and responds. It is not only given shape by the vessel, but exerts force, desires to shape.
And in its desire to shape the reality it meets, it tends to contract away from the surface. This is the power of mind- to imagine the world as different, and to contract awareness into itself in order to form this image. Awareness contracts, and a sense of self as separate from the rest This is born. And, as a result, this self suffers terribly.
There is a hint of this in this week’s reading, Parshat Shemot. It says that the Children of Israel filled the land of Egypt- vatimalei ha’aretz. Who are the Children of Israel? “Israel” means to penetrate the shell of reality to the Divine. To find the Divine is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to Reality as it arises.
But then it says that a new king arose who was afraid of the Children of Israel, afraid that they might become too strong and destroy Egypt. This king, the Pharaoh, is fear. It is the fear of death of the separate “me” that is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment. Pharaoh is the king Mitzrayim- the land of narrowness, the King of Contraction.
What is his strategy for survival? He imposes harsh labor on the Children of Israel and attempts to weaken them that way. This is the suffering that comes not from work, but from the tension we bring to our work- the tension of contracting into separateness. At some point, the suffering becomes too great and the Israelites cry out to the Divine “from their labor”. It says that the Divine “saw the Children of Israel, vayeida Elokim- and the Divine knew.”
This word for “knew”- yeida- means to “join with”. It is the same verb used to describe the intimate union of Adam and Eve. It is telling us- when our suffering becomes the cry of prayer, the awareness that is our Divinity within can again become fluid like water, re-joining in the fullness of presence with the presence of fullness- Reality as it arises, Now.
How do you make this happen? You don’t; gravity does. “Gravity” is the natural movement of awareness to fill this moment with its presence, once it surrenders its separateness. When we express our suffering in the cry of prayer, there can be this profound release. This release doesn’t destroy our vision for the future. It doesn’t deny the pressure we must exert on the walls of the vessel. It simply releases the contraction away from the walls and returns us to our own wholeness, our own perfection.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divinity, right Now: to perfectly fill the ever-imperfect manifestation of being as it moves Now. In this is the release of all inner tension, the release of the whole drama of the “me” in the world. And, it is the birth of the Divine as it expresses Itself through you, as it is needed, Now. It is the inner Moses, whose name means “drawn from the water”…
And this is also the sacred promise of Shabbos- to separate from Pharaoh’s crushing labor for twenty-five hours and become fluid once again, to surrender to the gravity of wholeness, for the Divine to be born within. So it may be, Now, for us all-
The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Yitzhak Eisik, had an ailment which caused him tremendous pain. And yet, his pain wasn’t noticeable from looking at him; never did he show that he suffered any agony. Once, his physician asked him, “How is it that you can endure such pain without complaining or groaning?”
“You would understand,” replied the rebbe, “if you thought of pain as scrubbing and purifying the soul in a strong solution. When you understand it that way, what can you do but accept it with love and without grumbling? And with practice, you can build the strength to endure any present pain. After all, one need only be concerned with the moment – all pain from the past is no longer present, and who would be so foolish as to worry about pain that hasn’t happened yet?”
The ability to transcend pain is one of the most powerful fruits of spiritual practice. This power is represented by the letter aleph, and is associated with the middot (qualities) of “equanimity” and “integrity.”
But this is not the equanimity of detachment or lack of feeling; it is just the opposite. The aleph represents the singularity of consciousness, the vast field of awareness within which arises both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, fulfilment and loss, and so on. All of these polarities of experience are deeply felt, but they are felt within the unitary, open space of awareness. In knowing oneself as this openness, one tastes both the sweetness and the bitterness, but the polarities of experience are no longer seductive or dramatic; they are no longer compelling. They are simply the coming and going of qualities within the inner spaciousness that we are, and this spaciousness is infinitely more vast than any particular experience.
There is a mishna hints at this power:
רַבִּי יַנַּאי אוֹמֵר, אֵין בְּיָדֵינוּ לֹא מִשַּׁלְוַת הָרְשָׁעִים וְאַף לֹא מִיִּסּוּרֵי הַצַּדִּיקִים
Rabbi Yannai said: it is not in our hands [to explain the reason] either the tranquility of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous…
On the surface, this mishna is expressing that old and tired philosophical and religious dilemma: why do good things happen to bad people, and why do bad things happen to good people? But on a deeper level, it is actually giving us an entryway into aleph, into being the space within which the שלוה shalvah (tranquility) and the יסורין yisurin (afflictions) both arise and disappear:
אֵין בְּיָדֵינוּ – ayn b’yadaynu – it is not in our hands…
When we recognize that the experience of this moment is not something we can control at all, that it is simply what is, we take the perspective of our essence – the space of awareness that simply perceives, prior to the judging activity of thought and emotion.
This does not contradict the fact that we can and must take responsibility for our actions, so as to not create unnecessary suffering for the next moment; it is only to say that in this moment, the present experience is already here. If we first of all accept it, we can use it to transcend it; this is the purification that Rabbi Yizhak Eisik was talking about.
Moreover, when we cease to view our יסורין yisurin as a problem, we will not be grasping after external things to make us feel better. We will not be tempted to cheat, steal, or act out of integrity in our dealings with our fellow beings.
לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔
Lo tasig g’vul rei’akha – You shall not move your neighbor’s landmarks…
This mitzvah of not cheating our neighbors by respecting boundaries is an outer expression of the quality of aleph; when we know the strength and boundlessness of our own being, we need not forsake our integrity to get just a little more land, a little more money, and so on. When we know the strength and boundlessness of our own being, then our pain becomes like the יִּסּוּרֵי הַצַּדִּיקִים – yisurei hatzadikim – the afflictions of the righteous.
This week’s parshah finishes Sefer Bereisheet, the Book of Genesis, and also finishes the Yosef cycle. In the tradition, Yosef is often called HaTzadik, the “perfected one” or “righteous one,” because he perfectly embodies this quality of accepting and transcending all suffering. Earlier in the story, Yosef told his brothers not to be distressed about their having wronged him. He explains that it was all part of the Divine intelligence that he should be brought to Egypt in order to save them from the famine.
In this parshah, their father Yaakov/Yisrael dies, and the brothers bring him back to Canaan to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, along with Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rifka, and Leah. Afterward, the brothers again become distressed, worrying that perhaps now that their father is dead, Yosef might take his revenge on them:
וַיֵּלְכוּ֙ גַּם־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ לְפָנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ הִנֶּ֥נּֽוּ לְךָ֖ לַעֲבָדִֽים׃
His brothers went and fell before him, and said, “We are ready to be your slaves.”
וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֛ם יוֹסֵ֖ף אַל־תִּירָ֑אוּ כִּ֛י הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי׃
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I instead Elohim?
וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃
Although you intended me harm, Elohim intended it for good, in order to do, as it is on this day, to keep many people alive…
This is Yosef’s integrity – that he doesn’t hold a grudge, but accepts everything from the “hands of God,” which is another way of expressing the teaching in the above mishna:
אֵין בְּיָדֵינוּ – ayn b’yadaynu – it is not in our hands…
In other words, Yosef doesn’t hold a grudge because he is relating to Reality as God, rather than as something to be judged and manipulated. Judging and manipulating would be the activity of the ordinary, ego self – the sense of “me” that does not know how to receive the moment as it is. This is expressed beautifully in the pasuk:
וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֛ם יוֹסֵ֖ף אַל־תִּירָ֑אוּ כִּ֛י הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי׃
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I instead Elohim?
Another way to read this would be,
“Don’t fear, because takhat אֱלֹהִ֖ים Elohim אָֽנִי ani –the “I” is underneath the Divine…”
When the alef of our ani, the open space of awareness that we are, opens to allow this moment to be as it is, then we can access the Alef of Elohim, the Divine Reality that removes all fear and reveals the miraculous intelligence that is behind and unfolds within all happening…
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The Dog Hair – Parshat Vayekhi
1/6/2020 0 Comments
When we’re about to sweep and mop the dining room floor in our house, I like to put the dog outside first.
Our dog sheds an uncannily huge amount of hair (a fact of which we were unaware when we took her in). If we didn’t put her outside during cleaning, there would be no point at which the floor would actually be clean, because the dog would be constantly dropping more and more hair on it as we cleaned it.
And yet, what even is the point? As soon as we let the dog back in, the floor will start getting coated with hair again.
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
What gain is there for a person in all their work that they labor under the sun?
The point, of course, is that it’s nice to experience a clean floor, even if just for a short time. If you thought that by cleaning the floor it would somehow stay clean forever, that would be הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ hevel ur’ut ruakh – “vanity and striving after wind.” But if you value the temporary yet regularly recurring experience of a clean floor, it’s perfectly worth it to get out the broom!
And so it is with our spiritual life.
Just like the dining room, our inner world also has a “floor” that gets “dirty.” Meaning, there is root, an essence, a basic level to our beingness, that gets overlaid with thoughts, feelings, emotions, impressions, memories, ideas, opinions, and all kinds of experiences. That basic level is awareness itself – it is the simple miracle of perception, beneath and beyond our person-hood.
Most people never realize that there’s a difference between the “floor” and the “hair” – they never experience their own being in a pure way, and so life is assumed to be nothing but a tapestry of the overlay. But the miracle of meditation is that it “sweeps the floor” and reveals the essence beneath; that essence is spacious, free, creative, benevolent and inherently joyful.
It’s true, when we move from meditation back into the flow of life, awareness is bound to get “dirty” again. But that’s okay – when you know yourself as that pure awareness, you don’t need to be fooled by the “dirt.” You have seen the “clean floor” with your own eyes, and you can sweep it again, any time!
In fact, it is only because our awareness becomes overlaid with all kinds of experience that we are able to fully recognize our deepest nature. When we were infants, our awareness was fresh, pure and innocent, but we had no appreciation for it, no recognition of the beauty within our own being.
Of course, adults could recognize it – that’s why people love babies! But babies don’t recognize their own beauty. Only after we become adults, after our innocence seems to be lost, can we re-discover our essential innocence and appreciate it for the first time. We make think our innocence is long gone, but sweep the floor and see – it has never gone anywhere. At the root of all experience, beneath all the overlay – we are that freshness, that innocence, that open aliveness.
Life is not easy – its trials and tribulations, consisting of both what happens to us and of the misdeeds we commit, accrue over time and become heavy burdens, burdens which we may not even recognize until we experience freedom from them. But when we do, when we finally come to know the freedom that we are beneath all that accumulated past, the curse of the burden is no longer really a curse; it is, in fact, a blessing.
It is a blessing because without it, without the pain that life gives us, there cannot be a full knowing of who we are beneath the pain. Without the pain that life gives us, there can be neither the wisdom nor the experience we need to help others discover their essence as well.
There is a hint of this in the parshah:
כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣ים עָשָׂ֑ר וְ֠זֹאת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר לָהֶ֤ם אֲבִיהֶם֙ וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אוֹתָ֔ם אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כְּבִרְכָת֖וֹ בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֹתָֽם׃
All these were the tribes of Israel – twelve – and this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, each according to their blessing, he blessed them.
He “blessed” them? But to at least half of them he delivered curses:
Shimon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel… Issachar is a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheep… He bent his shoulder to the burden, and became a toiling serf… Gad shall be raided by raiders… Joseph is a wild ass… Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him….
But that’s the point: the “curses” are in fact the blessings, because it is through the pain of life experience that our true path of blessing is revealed. That’s why it says he “blessed them according to their blessings” – each of them had their own pain, their own “curses” that became their ultimate blessings. This is most clearly expressed in the story of Joseph, that through his tremendous suffering, masses of people were saved, as Joseph says to his brothers:
וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃
You intended me harm, but the Divine intended it for good, so as to bring about as it is today – to bring life to many people.
And even deeper – whatever pain and negativity come from the past, עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה – asoh kayom hazeh – to bring about as it is today – meaning, this moment is as it is because of what has come before. And in the embrace of this moment as it is, לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב – the essential life beneath all pain is revealed as the vastness beyond person-hood…
Spiritual Double Take – Parshat Vayekhi
12/20/2018 1 Comment
The moment you wish to awaken, you have already awoken to a certain degree. That’s because the desire to awaken can’t even arise at all unless there is already a certain amount of objectivity on your thoughts and feelings. Even if you feel like you are failing, even if you feel that your mind is too busy, or you feel emotionally reactive or whatever, your awareness of that is already a movement in the direction of wakefulness.
The key is to use the wakefulness you already have to deepen your wakefulness further, rather than focusing on how not-awake you are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ ... הַמַּעֲבִיר שֵׁנָה מֵעֵינַי
Blessed are You, Hashem… who removes sleep from my eyes…
This morning blessing gives thanks for waking up from sleep, but on a deeper level, it’s appreciating the tremendous grace we’re receiving just for being awake enough to say the prayer at all!
A little later the prayer says:
And attach us to your mitzvot (commandments)…
Traditionally speaking, the mitzvot, commandments, are the actions that the Divine “wants” us to do. So to do a mitzvah, in this traditional view, is to fulfill the meaning of your existence. The deeper desire expressed in this prayer, then, is the longing for meaning: Help me be motivated to fulfill my purpose!
This desire for meaning, for purpose, is core to the spiritual drive. But, it is only half of the equation. A little further on it says:
וְאַל תַּשְׁלֶט בָּנוּ יֵצֶר הָרָע
And don’t let the yetzer hara (personal impulses, literally the “bad desire”) rule within us…
The other half of the equation is the desire for freedom, for transcendence.
These two core desires that drive the spiritual path are, in a sense, the opposite of one another. The first wants to transform the world; the second wants to transcend the world. The first wants fulfill one’s role; the second wants to be liberated from all roles. The first wants to serve the Divine; the second wants to realize that All is Divine.
These two core desires are the opposite of one another, but they are not opposed to one another. In Kabbalah and Hassidic teaching, they must work together. You cannot really serve the Divine if you don’t awaken your own inner Divinity. You cannot really transform anything for the better, if you’re emotionally attached to things being a certain way.
In Kabbalah, this is called ratz v’shuv – running and returning. In meditation, we “run” – we transcend every particular aspect of experience and know ourselves as the ayin, the Nothing, the open space of this moment within which everything arises. In prayer, we “return” – we appreciate particular things and give thanks; we envision transformation and ask the Divine for help in its manifestation. On a broader level, all spiritual practices, including both prayer and meditation, are a kind of “running” and our ordinary work and life with people is “returning.”
In Judaism, both are necessary. This theme manifests at all levels of the tradition: Liberation from Egypt, followed by building the Sanctuary. Or, in the opposite order: six days of working the world, followed by a full day of letting everything be as it is onShabbat.
And, in this last example, we see the emphasis unique to Judaism: Six days of work, one day of rest – both are necessary, but transformation is emphasized. In many traditions, it’s the opposite; the holy person is the one who withdraws from the world. But in Judaism, withdraw and transcendence, while absolutely necessary, are not the goal.
These two poles are represented by Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim.Menasheh comes from leaving the past behind – transcending the world:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי
And Joseph named the firstborn Menasheh, for "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."
But Ephraim comes from being “fruitful” – that is, successful – in the world:
וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי
And the second one he named Ephraim, for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Menasheh is the first born, hinting at the usual way that spirituality is viewed: transcendence is primary. But when Jacob blesses the two boys, he switches his hands to give the blessing of the first born to Ephraim instead:
וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasheh's head…
This is why the traditional blessing for boys on Friday nights puts Ephraim first, even though Menasheh was first born – Y’simkha Elohim k’Ephraim v’k’Menasheh!
Transformation is the goal (Ephraim), but to achieve that goal, transcendence is also necessary (Menasheh). This is a basic key to living in awakened life: being involved, helping, serving, creating, but also letting go at the same time – accepting everything as it is, not trying to control anything, being the simple, open space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
I call this the Spiritual Double-Take.
The Double-Take is really not double; it is the simple, single move of Presence. But until it becomes integrated into the way we operate, it requires this ratz v’shuv attitude, this oscillation back and forth between effort and letting go. Eventually, this awakens a sense of effortless effort, of acting in the world without any sense of the “me” doing the acting. As Joseph responded to Pharaoh when asked if he could interpret Pharaoh’s dream:
בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַֽעֲנֶ֖ה – Biladi, Elohim ya’aneh! – It is totally beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
There is nothing but the Divine manifesting in all forms, and so from this awakened point of view, there need not be any tension whatsoever – life simply unfolds effortlessly. So may it be for us, amein! Good Shabbos!
Die Before You Die – Parshat Vayekhi
12/28/2017 0 Comments
This week’s reading begins, “Vayekhi Ya’akov b’eretz Mitzrayim – Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…”
The last time we heard about “seventeen years” was back in Parshat Vayeishev, where Joseph is described as a na’ar – a seventeen-year-old youth. Seventeen, then, symbolizes youthfulness. Joseph is the embodiment of youthfulness: he is both beloved and hated, he has BIG and unrealistic seeming dreams, and he has no common sense about how to get along with his brothers.
Egypt, on the other hand, means limitation, suffering, constricted-ness (Egypt is Mitzrayim, from tzar,which means “narrow). The youthful Joseph must first get enslaved in Egypt before his eventual ascent to Egyptian royalty.
Similarly, the youthfulness in each of us gets constricted by the limitations and conditioning of our physical bodies, families and culture. And yet, we need not be burdened by the temporary challenges of life. Like Joseph, we can be like cream – always “rising to the top” – if we can really let go of resistance to all our seeming limitations as they appear.
Ironically, this “letting go” isn’t really a quality of youthfulness, but of old age. As we get older and approach the ultimate Letting Go, it’s natural for attachments to fall away. This is hinted at in the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. Menasheh means “forgetting troubles,” hinting at old age, which is fitting since Menasheh is the elder. Ephraim means “fruitfulness,” which is fitting for the younger brother.
But Jacob deliberately switches his hands, giving the blessing of the elder to the younger, which is why the traditional blessing for boys is that they should be like Ephraim and Menasheh, and not the other way around, as if to say: Let go of your troubles while you are still fruitful! Die before you die!
On this Shabbat Vayekhi, the Sabbath of Life, may we recognize the precious opportunity we have while we’re alive, to die before we die, to get free now, in this life. Good Shabbos!
Getting Real in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot- Parshat Vayekhi
12/24/2015 6 Comments
Last Friday afternoon I went to pick up some kosher wine at Trader Joe’s. (Less than $5 for a cabernet and not too bad!) I pulled into the narrow entrance of the indoor parking lot and saw a woman getting into her car, so I paused to let her pull out so that I could take her spot.
Just then, a niggun (melody) came to me. I thought it would be great to sing in the service I was leading that night, so I pulled out my iPhone to record it and send out to the other service leaders.
Just then, I heard an angry voice yelling at me-
“What the hell are you doing?? Look at you sitting there on your phone- backing up traffic!!”
An older man was tensely yelling and walking toward me. I thought he might burst a blood vessel! I ignored him at first, but he kept walking right up to my car.
I rolled down the window a little and explained, “I’m waiting for this car to pull out so I can pull in.”
“What about that spot??” he yelled and gestured.
There was another open spot behind me, but I couldn’t pull in since there were now several cars blocking the way. Due to the angle of the turn, it wasn’t visible when I had first pulled in.
“Oh okay, I didn’t see that,” I said.
“Aaagghh!” he gestured angrily and stormed away.
Now, as far as I know, pausing and holding up traffic for a few moments in order to allow someone to pull out of their parking spot is kosher. But to this guy, I was clearly in the wrong, and he was letting me have it.
I assume it’s because he thought I was talking on the cell phone while driving, which really triggered him. As happens to folks so often, his mind judged something external (me) and then lost all self-awareness and composure. He became a jerk because he was convinced that I was a jerk.
At such moments of being triggered, people are often swept away by emotion. All the positive middot- wisdom, sensitivity, awareness, compassion and so on- are out the window.
How often do you experience such moments?
Is it possible to take another path? Can triggered emotion actually be put to good use?
Back in 1998, during a radically transformative time of my life, I had such an experience:
I was driving, when a car violently cut me off at an intersection. I gasped, adrenalin pumping. I felt the heat of anger swelling within me, and the urge to retaliate and curse the guy behind the wheel.
Then, the thought occurred to me that this moment of being triggered was the moment to be present.
I brought my awareness deep into the feeling of the anger. It burned within me, and it was extremely painful. Next, I felt it move upward through my body and out the top of my head. It was like a huge cloud of darkness left me.
As the last of it left my body, everything looked totally different. The road glistened with moisture from a recent rain and the sound of a bird’s caw filled the sky. I began to see that driver in a completely different way. He wasn’t against me- he was actually setting me free! It left me feeling raw, simple, innocent and at peace.
The truth is, the human nervous system is a heaven/hell engine.
Of course we want the heaven and not the hell. But, if you really want heaven to be born within you, the key is to not resist the hell. Like physical birth, there is pain in birthing heaven. If you’re willing to open to this pain, it can serve its function- to set you free. As in the birth of a child, it’s ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring him his two grandsons, so that he can bless them before he dies.
Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menasheh at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Ephraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom.
However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. Then he says:
“By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.’”
Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boys on Friday nights with these words. Girls are blessed with the names of the matriarchs.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What’s so special about Ephraim and Menasheh that boys should be blessed with their names, rather than the names of the patriarchs?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says,
“The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”.
He names the second son Ephraim because-
“The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually map out the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner heaven:
First, there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering created by that.
In other words, the “troubles”, are “forgotten.” This is Menasheh.
“Forgetting troubles” opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking. After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner heaven. This is Ephraim.
But, as Joseph said, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them.
But those inner barriers take energy. They block us from feeling our own aliveness and from the life of this moment. They impede the blossoming of heaven on earth.
But open to the blocked pain, and the blockages begin melting away.
When you do, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula-
“Y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe-
“May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe!”
In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
There’s a Hassidic story of the brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz.
They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (Berakhot 9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as for good things.
They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him-
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for suffering?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him.
Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced anything bad!”
The two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they began to realize what Zusha was saying: He didn’t see his suffering as “bad”. Zusha's suffering had transformed him into the ecstatic saint he was.
On this Shabbat Vay’khi, The Shabbat of Life, let’s open to life as it is in its fullness, with its joy and suffering.
And when life brings you suffering, let it be a pointed reminder to once again become present, to allow the pain to break open your heart and reveal the light within. Rather than judge, snap or plot, let that light come through you in a word of kindness or act of service. And if the response you are called to give is harsh, let it be strong and clear- but without anger and malice.
I Have Never Suffered In My Life- Parshat Vayekhi
1/1/2015 2 Comments
There is a Hassidic story of the saintly brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz. They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as good. They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him, “Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for our suffering?
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him. Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced suffering in all my life.” At first, the two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they realized- Zusha had a very different relationship with his “suffering”.
The human nervous system is a Heaven/Hell engine. Which one will your engine produce? The whole purpose of the spiritual path is to produce Heaven, for Heaven to be born within. To do this requires not just conscious choice, but also commitment. The moment you make this commitment, you are on the Path.
You need commitment because there is a common pitfall. If you wish to have Heaven and not Hell, you may think that you can somehow avoid the Hell, avoid the suffering. But, like physical birth, there is pain in birthing Heaven. A person must be willing to endure this pain, to get to the other side- to walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Without commitment, you are likely to give up at this point. But if you persevere, the pain of suffering begins to look entirely different. As in the birth of a child, it is ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring his two sons to him, that he may bless them before he dies. Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menashe at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Efraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom. However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. He then blesses the boys with the words- “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe.’” Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boy children on Shabbat with these words.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What is so special about Efraim and Menashe that they should become the paradigm for blessing boys?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says, “The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”. He names the second son Efraim because “The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually describe the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner Heaven. First there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering that is created by this type of thought. The ordinary worries of the mind, the “troubles”, are “forgotten”. This opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking.
After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner Heaven. But, as the verse says, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them. But those inner barriers take energy. They divide us internally and block us from our own life energy and from life as it is happening in this moment. They block the blossoming of Heaven on Earth.
When you begin to open to this inner suffering, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula- “y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe- may the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe”. In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through Hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the Hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully. This means becoming deeply open to whatever arises in your field of awareness as your consciousness comes to dwell within your body, in your heart, in the present.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
Jacob gives his blessing on the threshold of the Book of Exodus, where his descendents descend into the suffering of slavery, only to be saved and brought into freedom with the Divine Presence. May we all receive this instruction and with it the faith and commitment to walk through the fires of whatever “hell” emerges in service of the Divine Presence that wants to be born through each of us. Amein, Good Shabbos!
There is a story that Rabbi Shmelke and his brother were once learning a passage of Mishna:
חַיָּב אָדָם לְבָרֵךְ עַל הָרָעָה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא מְבָרֵךְ עַל הַטּוֹבָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר
וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ
One must bless for the bad in the same way as one blesses for the good, as it says, “And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”… (Deuteronomy 6:5)
This passage greatly distressed them, as they thought, “How can we possibly give praise and thanks for hardship and suffering as we do for our wellbeing?” So, they brought their dilemma to their master, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch.
“Go ask Reb Zusha,” replied the Maggid, “You will find him in the beit midrash (the house of study) smoking his pipe.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha, merrily smoking his pipe and chanting verses of sacred text. When they put their question to him, he just laughed and replied, “Ha! You certainly have come to the wrong man! If you want to know how to give thanks for bad things, you must find someone who has experienced something bad! I, unfortunately, have never experienced anything bad in my life, so I cannot help you.”
The brothers were awestruck and speechless, because they knew Reb Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty and anguish. But gradually they began to realize – the answer had to with the way Zusha received suffering; he received suffering with love.
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Tzadok ha-Kohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823 – 1900), taught:
“If you want to understand the spiritual meaning of a Hebrew letter, look at the first word in the Torah that begins with that letter…”
We find the first instance of א aleph in the first verse of the Torah:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz
In the beginning of אֱלֹהִים Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
This first instance of aleph is the Divine Name, אֱלֹהִים – Elohim. As a Name of God, Elohim is remarkable, in that it is a plural word – it actually means “gods.”
But, the verb create is conjugated in the singular – בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים – bara Elohim; it is as if we were to say in English, “Gods is creating.” We wouldn’t say that; we would say “gods are creating.” By saying “is,” singularity is implied in the plural word.
In this way, the very first sentence of the Torah gives a message to the dominant polytheistic culture in which the Torah appeared: “The deities you worship are actually a singular Reality.”
Furthermore, Elohim can also mean “mighty ones” or “judges,” and for this reason, Elohim is associated with might and power. Accordingly, in Kabbalah, Elohim is associated with the sefirah of Gevurah (Strength) on the Tree of Life. In addition, one of the meanings of aleph is “ox,” also reinforcing this sense of might and strength.
From all of this, we can begin to get a picture of the inner meaning of aleph: aleph has to do with the inner strength it takes to be unified in oneself, to be singular, uncomplicated, un-self-contradictory.
There are two levels of unity in a person – inner and outer unity.
Inner unity is something that we already are on the deepest level; there is always already only one experience happening right now. Our present experience is multifaceted and constantly changing, but all the content of experience is appearing and disappearing within the one space of consciousness. We are already that space of consciousness on the deepest level; there is nothing we have to do to achieve this deepest oneness of being.
According to the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, this inner unity is represented by the form of the aleph – a letter ו vav in the middle with a י yod on top and a י yod on the bottom. The letter ו vav, when appearing as a prefix to a word, means “and.” The upper י yod represents the “waters of joy” and the lower י yod represents the “waters of bitterness.”
In this way, the form of the aleph embodies the attitude of saying “yes” to bitterness and sweetness, to the full spectrum of experience that appears and disappears. Again, this is already what consciousness does; at the level of awareness, we are simply aware of whatever appears; it is only at the level of thought and feeling that we judge good and bad, what we like and what we don’t like.
So, the practice of aleph on this level is the recognition that we are not essentially our thoughts and feelings; we are the open space that transcends thoughts and feelings. As we rest in this recognition, our sense of self shifts its center from identification with thoughts and feelings (ego) to the singular space of awareness, the space of aleph; this is meditation.
Outer unity, on the other hand, is not something we automatically have; it is something we must forge through the power of intention and decisiveness. Outer unity means being trustworthy, and not self-sabotaging. It means that once we choose a path, we don’t keep going back in our minds to the other path; it means giving up on all what-ifs, giving up on all resentments and grudges. It means being one in how we think, speak and act. It means having integrity.
Accordingly, the mitzvah of aleph is the mitzvah of integrity: Don’t cheat.
לֹא־תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֖וֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט בַּמִּדָּ֕ה בַּמִּשְׁקָ֖ל וּבַמְּשׂוּרָֽה׃
You shall not do injustice in judgement, in quality, in weight, or in measure.
The plain meaning here is aimed at merchants – don’t cheat your customers. When you weigh out the stuff you are selling, use a true scale and give people what they pay for. But on a deeper level, it also means: don’t cheat yourself. You have this limited time on this planet, in this body. What is your commitment to your practice, to your learning? Know what it is and stay true to it; don’t cheat yourself.
It is difficult to forge outer unity without awareness of our inner unity. Experientially knowing our inner unity is what allows us to be free, to not be caught by the many contradictory thoughts and impulses that arise. This is why meditation is so important – not merely because it creates a feeling of peace and spaciousness, but because it shows us that we are spaciousness. And from that realization, the path toward forging outer unity becomes clear.
This is the easiest way – through realizing the inner unity that we are, we can see and not get caught by the tendencies of outer contradiction. But there is also a harder, and probably more common, way as well – the way of failure. Because when we experience the pain of our own lack of integrity, this can wake us up and motivate us to change course. This was the path of Yehudah:
וְעַתָּ֗ה יֵֽשֶׁב־נָ֤א עַבְדְּךָ֙ תַּ֣חַת הַנַּ֔עַר עֶ֖בֶד לַֽאדֹנִ֑י וְהַנַּ֖עַר יַ֥עַל עִם־אֶחָֽיו׃
“And now, please let your servant dwell, instead of the boy, as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers…”
The beginning of Parshat Vayigash is the climax of the Yosef story. Yosef is fooling his brothers, saying that he is about to take their brother Binyamin as a slave for stealing Yosef’s magic goblet. Of course, Binyamin didn’t really steal it; Yosef framed him for the purpose of bringing the brothers to recognize their past sins toward him. Finally, it is Yehudah who steps us and takes responsibility. “Take me instead” he says.
This is the Yehudah who was shamed for his arrogance and aggressiveness in the last parshah. Now, Yehudah has been transformed; he has become a mensch. He is willing to be a slave himself in order to save his brother and his father. This is the quality of aleph, both on inner and outer levels; he is willing to receive suffering with love, like Reb Zusha, for the sake of serving his father and brother.
Interestingly, the words for “father,” av, and “brother,” akh, both begin with aleph, as does the word Adon, Lord, the superlative that Yehudah calls Yosef:
אדון – אח – אב
In this way, Yehudah’s humbled and service-oriented relationship with those around him symbolizes our relationship with the the Divine Aleph which is the Oneness of All Being. Through recognition and transcending of our past failures, through willingness to feel the sting of their pain and choose to move forward and unify ourselves in service of Reality, we follow the pattern of Yehudah; we become Yehudim, Jews, in the deepest sense of the word…
More on Vayigash...
Glass of Sunshine – Parshat Vayigash
12/30/2019 0 Comments
Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Apt said, “A person should be like a vessel that willingly receives what its owner pours into it, whether it be wine or vinegar.”
What does this teaching mean?
The other day I went to see a production of the Nutcracker with my family. I loved it – the lead dancers were wonderful, but also there were many little children who danced adorably as well, at their level.
But I was most impressed by the sets.
One moment the entire huge stage looked like the inside of a fancy mansion, and the next moment the mansion set lifted into the air and was replaced by a winter wonderland. This happened several more times; one set flew away and another completely different scene manifested. It was hard to believe that all those different sets could fit somewhere above the stage, out of sight. Each one looked so substantial; the change from one set to another in a few seconds was truly magical seeming.
And so it is with our different experiences as well.
As I am writing this, the sky has been cloudy for most of the day. The dampened sunlight and cold, moist December air creates in me a somewhat muted emotional tone; the outside is reflected on the inside. Then, about an hour ago, the clouds parted and the sunlight broke through. Instantly, my inner world changed as well – light on the outside, light on the inside – magic!
The weather is a great metaphor for experience in general. Qualities of experience persist for some time, then change. Of course, we are not completely passive; there are many ways we can and must regulate our experience. We certainly have the ability to drink the “wine” and reject the “vinegar.”
And yet, in this moment, a certain experience is already manifest. We can steer the experience in certain ways as we move through time, but whatever experience is already manifest now, that is the experience we must be with now. The “wine” or “vinegar” has already been “poured.” If we do not willingly receive this moment as it is, we create resistance, stress, dis-ease.
But if we do open to this moment as it is, even as we may steer it into the future, then there is a deeper magic that can manifest: we can come to know ourselves as the vessel.
After all, what is a vessel? It is just an open space. The point is that on the deepest level of your being, you are simple openness; you are the “stage” upon which an infinite number of different “sets” are assembled and disassembled instantaneously. You are not the clouds or the sunlight penetrating the clouds; you are the openness of this moment, the stage upon which everything is unfolding.
And, as it turns out, when we are open to both the wine and the vinegar, there is a deeper “wine” that can reveal itself; a deeper “sunlight” that shines from within. There is a hint of this in the parshah:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃
Joseph said to his brothers, “Please approach me.” And when they approached, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.”
Up to this point in the story, Joseph had been disguised as a merciless dictator, giving rise to fear and despair in the brothers. But then Joseph reveals himself by saying, g’shu na eilai– please approach me.
To “approach” is the opposite of resisting. And just as Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers when they approach, so too when we “approach” this moment with openness, we can come to see that this experience too is our “brother” – whatever quality is present, be it “vinegar” or “wine,” is arising within the field of consciousness that we are. In fact, every experience is only a form – a “disguise” – of our own consciousness. Come to this moment and see – your “brother” is ready to embrace you; your “sister” is ready to kiss you. All are forms of consciousness, and consciousness is nothing but the Divine, alive and awake within you, as you…
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
Vayigash eilav Yehudah – And Judah approached…
That is, to be a “Jew” is to approach this moment with gratitude!
(Jew, Yehudah, is from odeh et Hashem – “I thank the Divine.”)
Approaching the Eternal – Parshat Vayigash
12/11/2018 0 Comments
Recently I was teaching my Bat Mitzvah cohort about the Sh’ma. We talked about how the word sh’ma (listen) is really an invitation not merely to do the act of listening, but to be the listening. When you are the listening, you can take a break from the roles you play – roles like daughter, student, friend, sister, and so on – and simply be a knowing presence.
“But why would we want to do that?” one of them said. “I like my identity!”
“Sure, identity can wonderful. But that doesn’t mean we need it all the time. For example, it’s great to live in a house. But would you want to be trapped in your house?”
“Yes, I love my house! I want to be in it all the time!”
They were toying with me. At their age, it’s not common to want to take a break from identity; there is not yet knowledge of the burden of identity, because identity is still new, still forming.
But on some level, the heart knows. Many people go their whole lives without making this knowledge conscious and intentional, but still the seed is there of the realization: There is much more to existence than identity.
Children are usually not interested in going beyond identity, and most adults aren’t either. Some adults may come to realize it would be a good idea to meditate in order to let go of stress or whatever, but still they don’t necessarily do anything about it. Even fewer will get to the point of realizing: the whole drama of life with its ups and downs, with death ever lurking at the end of the story, is not the deepest level. There is an intuition of something deeper – but how to get to It?
The truth is, we don’t have to “get” to It – all we need do is stop and turn toward It. The mind constantly generates this whole noisy drama of life, but there is a Center. The Center is vast silence, and that Center is none other than your own being, which is not separate from the One Being.
But, we shouldn’t think that the noisy drama and the vast, silent Center are two different things!
Rather, all the content and movement of our life drama are nothing but the Vastness, dressed up in different costumes. We need not turn away from life, we need only to turn more completely toward it. Beneath the costume, the Divine is whispering to us, as Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them:
אֲנִ֣י יֹוסֵ֔ף – I am Joseph!
The name Yosef (Joseph) means “increase,” so on the deepest level, this is the Divine message to us: whatever we are relating with in the moment, its deepest identity is the Mystery from which all emerges. Then Yosef says,
גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י – g’shu na eilai – Approach me please!
In other words, don’t be fooled by the masks – come to the heart, come to the vast and silent Center behind all the actors playing out the drama. That Vastness is home, that Vastness is peace, that Vastness is the Divine, and it was Here all along.
But this realization of the Center is not the end of the drama – not at all! Because now that you’ve tasted the Real Thing, you want more – you want to stay there. You want It all the time. But life pulls you back into its chaos again and again! What to do?
Hear the Divine’s message to Jacob, as he prepares to descend in Egypt:
אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵֽרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם – Don’t be afraid of descending into Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there…
Egypt is Mitzrayim – narrowness, constriction. Don’t be afraid to get pulled back into a constricted state, because it is through your descent that your ascent will become more mature and stable. You can only grow spiritually through the learning that comes through failure.
Then it says:
אָֽנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ – I will descend with you into Egypt and I will surely bring you up as well…
Even in the depths of separation there is nothing but the Divine, so the power to return is always inherent within every experience, no matter how far you seem to fall.
גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ – and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes…
The eyes are a symbol for awareness. Joseph’s name, Yosef, means “increase,” and the hand is a symbol of action: It is through your descent and subsequent ascent that you will gain the power to increase your own awareness, to be free from the tremendous pull ofMitzrayim, to awaken completely out of the seduction of life’s noisy dramas. Then you will say as Jacob said:
אָמ֣וּתָה – Amutah – I will die –
The “me” that is dependent on the Mitzrayim of life’s dramas can die, because
רְאוֹתִ֣י אֶת־פָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּ֥י עֽוֹדְךָ֖ חָֽי – r’oti et panekha ki odkha khai! I have seen Your Face, that it lives forever!
Every form we encounter is the Nothing but the Face of the Living, Eternal Presence…
What is Egoless Intention? Parshat Vayigash
12/20/2017 0 Comments
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, that he is the one they nearly killed and sold into slavery, he says, "don't be distressed for having sold me here, ki l'mikhyah sh'lakhani Elokim lifneikhem – for it was to be a provider that the Divine sent me before you!"
Here we have the great paradox that includes yet goes beyond morality. The brothers did him wrong; there's no excusing them. And yet, Joseph says, "Al ta'atzvu – don't be distressed!" Why? Because it needed to happen that way. Their sin leads to their redemption; their evil was all for the sake of Mercy.
And this is our choice now, in every moment – to practice Al ta'atzvu – not being distressed – and instead knowing that this moment is as it should be. This doesn't excuse or justify hurtful and wrong behavior; it just sets it in the widest, infinite context of Reality, and opens the door to redemption, no matter what the situation... if we can remember to approach this moment, as it is.
A Little Bee Says- Parshat Vayigash
12/16/2015 2 Comments
Have you ever misheard the lyrics of a song and gone around singing it completely wrong?
When I was about four years old, the song “I Believe in Music” by Mack Davis was popular. There was some PBS children’s show I used to watch that put the song with some animation, so I heard it all the time.
Only I didn’t really hear it, I misheard it.
The song actually went-
“Oh I… believe in music… Oh I… believe in love!”
But in my mind, the song went like this-
“Oh-ah! A little bee says… Oh-ah! A little bee!”
I have fond memories of my father shaving in the bathroom, singing, “Oh-ah! A little bee says…”
A few years ago there was some animated Disney movie- I think it was Shark Tale. I was watching it with my four year old son, when suddenly that rap about “big butts” comes on. I sat there, incredulous. Oh no! Corruption!
Luckily, he thought the lyrics were, “I like… big… birds in the cats!”
Then, I got to shave in the bathroom and sing, “I like big birds in the cats!”
When a child hears some catchy music but doesn’t understand the meaning of the words, the child’s mind fills in the meaning spontaneously (and cutely). I was reminded of this when I was leading a Shabbat service a few years back, and I saw a man singing his heart out with the Hebrew prayers. After the service, I spoke with him.
“Wow you were so into davening that prayer!” I said. “You know the meaning of those words is interesting…”
“Don’t tell me what the words mean!” he yelled. “I don’t want to know! If I know the real meaning of the Hebrew, it will ruin it for me!”
Just like children who create their own versions of songs, he had created his own meaning for that prayer, and was davening so passionately. He didn’t want to know the “real” meaning because it wasn’t his meaning, and would probably contain off-putting religious ideas besides.
I think this is true for many American spiritual seekers and practitioners- not just in the Jewish scene, but in many traditions.
Americans chant Sanskrit in yoga classes. They chant Turkish and Arabic in Sufi gatherings. They chant Japanese and Tibetan in Buddhist zendos and temples.
For many of these seekers and practitioners, a lack of understanding the language is freedom. The exotic and foreign sounds can easily accommodate the true prayers of the heart, because they are not locked into any precise linguistic meaning.
And yet, for many people, the opposite is true:
For some who know how to say the words but don’t understand them, the prayers can feel rote and meaningless. Others, who neither know nor understand the words, end up feeling alienated, like outsiders.
In response to that type of reaction, the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic Mass from Latin to the local vernacular languages in the early 1960s. For some, this made the Mass more meaningful. But for others, getting rid of the Latin destroyed its mystery and power.
You can’t please them all!
No rabbi, no priest, no guru or shaykh or roshi or lama can ever come up with the formula that will “work” for everyone- it’s impossible.
The real question is not how to make it work for everyone. The real question is: How can you make it work for you?
And the question is even broader. It’s not just a question of how to connect with the external language of a traditional practice, but how to connect with any practice whatsoever.
I remember several years ago when I was teaching a workshop on prayer and meditation. There was a guy in the class who raised his hand at the end and said, “I’m trying to do the practices you’re teaching me, but every time I try, it just feels so fake, so forced.”
Whether traditional practices feel foreign and alienating because they’re so new to you, or whether you know them so well that they’re boring and tedious, it’s really the same question: How can I connect deeply to an external practice? How can it become authentic? How can it be transformative?
This week’s reading begins after last week’s cliffhanger.
Joseph’s brothers stand around him, not knowing his true identity, seeing him only as a foreign ruler from whom they must beg for sustenance due to the famine. Joseph has been toying with them, threatening to take the youngest brother, Benjamin, as a slave.
Judah steps forward to plead with Joseph:
“Vayigash eilav Yehudah-
-And Judah approached him-
“Vayomer, bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…
And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
The Hebrew wording in Judah’s plea with Joseph has a strange idiom:
“… bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…”
The word “bi” is usually left un-translated. Literally, “bi” means “in me” so a literal rendering would be, “In me, my lord, let your servant please speak…”
Or, to say it more clearly, “May my inwardness express itself in speech…”
If Judah represents the expression of inwardness and authenticity, Joseph represents externality, superficiality. Joseph is a political leader. For Judah and his brothers, Joseph is (or seems to be) a foreigner, something alien. And, most importantly, Joseph is hiding his inner identity from them. They can only see the most external part of him.
But Judah, the internal and authentic self, approaches (yigash) the external and foreign form with three special qualities- humility, honesty and sacrifice.
First, he approaches with humility:
“And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
Humility is the opposite of coming in with a lot of judgments and ego. With judgments and ego, you’ve already sabotaged any potential for connection before you even begin the conversation. If you want to connect, leave those at the door.
Second, he approaches with honesty:
“For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”
Judah brings his true concerns and fears- that’s the way to approach prayer. Whatever is really going on inside you, that’s your korban- your offering, your means to draw close. Just like the fellow who didn’t want to know the meaning of the words, fill the sounds of the words with your own sincere cries.
This doesn’t mean you have to be anti-intellectual. If you can understand the words and identify with their meaning, all the better. Then you can take your place in the chain of tradition that brings those words to this moment in history. But whether you understand the words or not, it just means that you fill the words with the energy of your heart.
Lastly, he approaches with sacrifice:
“So now, please let (me) your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.”
On one hand, real prayer has to come from the depths of your own desire. But then, it needs to go beyond that, to be offered for the sake of others. Don’t do it merely for your own experience, but to refine yourself so that you can be of more benefit to others, to bring more light into this world.
Then, the externality of Joseph will break down:
“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ And he wept out loud, and said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph!’”
Bring these three qualities to your daily practice, to your synagogue, to the tradition, and it will open itself to you, revealing itself as your brother, your sister; it isn’t cold or alien underneath.
How do you invoke these three qualities in yourself?
The secret is in the tune. Music opens the door. Don’t just recite, chant. Don’t just speak, sing. The nervous system relaxes, dopamine is released, and even incomprehensible words can become carrier waves for depths of longing and ecstatic expressions of the heart, drawing you back into connection with yourself, with others and with the present moment.
As Psalm 147 says:
“Ki tov zamra leiloheinu navah tehillah-
How good it is to sing praises to our God!”
The 18th century Hassidic sage, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, expounded on this verse like this: “It’s good when a person is able to bring about that God sings within him!”
On this Shabbat Vayigash, the Sabbath of Approaching, may everything we approach that appears foreign and alienating open with warmth and connection, revealing the secret brother/sisterhood between all beings. May our words sprout from the fertile soil of melody and rhythm!
There was once a king who decided to test his subjects, so he had all the riches of his palace brought out into a huge field, while he sat on a raised throne in the center. He invited everyone in the kingdom to come and pick one thing in the field to take for themselves. Droves of people came and wandered around anxiously, trying to decide what to choose.
Then, a little old woman made her way through the field and up to the king. “Is it true that we can take anything in the field?” she asked the king.
“Yes,” he replied, “everything is this field is available. You just have to decide which one to choose.”
“In that case,” said the old woman, “I choose you!”
Beneath the world of beings and things, the world of this and that, of relative values, there is a supreme Value that remains hidden in plain sight. This is the Value of Being Itself, and it is ever available, if we can only bring ourselves to notice It and choose It. But since It is not a thing, but is rather the Being-ness of all things, it is elusive and ineffable.
So what do we do?
We dress It up in the clothing of the familiar; we invoke It through the feelings and images of relationships that we know. One of the most common traditional Jewish images of the Divine is that of Melekh, of King. In relating to the One as Melekh, the world then reveals itself as Malkhut, the Divine Kingdom, the ever shifting abode of the ever-present Presence.
In contrast to the world of time and form, in which all things are temporary and ultimately unstable, there is a Wholeness in the world of being and space that is not only available to us, it is our essence; it is who and what we are on the deepest level. Knowing this experientially dissolves that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with one’s life situation, and opens the door to splendor of life – the miracle that shines within all the ups and downs.
This is why the mitzvah from the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments) associated with Malkhut is לֹא תַחְמֹד – lo takhmod – don’t covet (Exodus 20:14). In order for recognition of the Oneness to be more than an experience, it must become a commitment; this is the commitment to accept our situation as it is, to fully occupy our own reality, not get lost in fantasies about where and who we would rather be – it is being שָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ samayakh b’helko, “happy with one’s portion.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃
Hashem Elohim said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper against him.”
The Bahir expounds on that Eve was not created from Adam’s rib, as the typical translation reads, but rather that Adam was androgynous, and that Eve’s creation entailed separating the female and male aspects of the Adam so that they might face one another. Since the Adam is b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, this hints at our existential predicament: we too tend to experience ourselves as separate, as alone, and this is lo tov – not good!
But, there is a path to remedy our predicament, when we recognize that the consciousness we are is not something separate from the world around us; all things are part of this One Reality that we are. There appears to be this and that, “I” and “other,” and we may feel our “I” to be separate from the “other” – but this is just the dream of duality; it is possible to wake up, now.
In Parshat Mikeitz, Yosef interprets Pharaoh’s two dreams about the seven sickly cows devouring the seven healthy cows, and seven scorched stalks of grain devouring the seven healthy stalks of grain. He explains they are the same dream, representing seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of severe famine. He then says:
וְעַ֨ל הִשָּׁנ֧וֹת הַחֲל֛וֹם אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֖ה פַּעֲמָ֑יִם כִּֽי־נָכ֤וֹן הַדָּבָר֙ מֵעִ֣ם הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים וּמְמַהֵ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
As for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh two times, it is because the matter is definitely from Elohim, and that Elohim will soon carry it out…
פַּעֲמָ֑יִם – pa’amayim – two times…
On a deeper level, “two” means the duality of our experience in the world of form – past and future, me and other, and so on. The hint here is that duality is a dream; when we awaken from the dream, we can see:
כִּֽי־נָכ֤וֹן הַדָּבָר֙ מֵעִ֣ם הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים – ki nakhon hadavar mei’im HaElohim – for definitely the matter is “from-with” the Divine…
מֵעִם – mei’im is a strange word – it literally means, “from-with.” Meaning, all devarim, all things, are manifestations of the One, all creations of the Divine (from), and the Divine is the Being-ness, or Presence of all things (with).
Besides the well-known image of Melekh (King) that is used by the tradition to help us relate to the Divine, there is also the image of the Av (Father). These two images are combined in the well-known liturgy of Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King.”
Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn taught on the difference between these two different images, noting that most prayerbooks say:
וְהַעֲמִידֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנו … הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ
Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu… v’ha’amideinu Malkeinu
Lay us down, Hashem Our God…and raise us up, our King
“But in some prayer books,” the Rabbi of Rizhyn taught, “instead of ‘Malkeinu, our King,’ it says ‘Avinu, our Father.’ This is because thinking of the Divine as the “King of the Universe” is not exactly conducive to restfulness. A father, however, is a loving and familiar presence that calms you down and ‘tucks you in,’ as the prayer says a bit later:
וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ
Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shelomekha
Spread over us the shelter of Your peace…
Besides Ruler and Parent, there is also the less common but more evocative image of the Lover:
צְר֨וֹר הַמֹּ֤ר דּוֹדִי֙ לִ֔י בֵּ֥ין שָׁדַ֖י יָלִֽין׃
Tzeror hamor Dodi li bein shadai yalin
A satchel of myrrh is My Beloved, laying between my breasts….
These three Divine images, Ruler, Parent and Lover, come together in the piyut (spiritual poem/song) Yedid Nefesh by Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri (1533-1600), which is traditionally sung Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons, and in some communities every day. In this way, our experience with beings can lead us to the experience of Being, guiding us through prayerfulness through the portal of ordinary life, into the extraordinary spaciousness of Life…
Here is how the three Divine images express throughout Yedid Nefesh:
יְדִיד נֶפֶשׁ אָב הָרַחֲמָן
Yedid nefesh av ha-rahaman
My soul's dear one, merciful Father,
מְשׁוֹךְ עַבְדְךָ אֶל רְצוֹנֶךָ
יָרוּץ עַבְדְּךָ כְּמוֹ אַיָּל:
יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל מוּל הֲדָרֶךָ
m’shokh avd’kha el r’tzonekha
Draw your surrendered to your will!
Your surrendered will run like a gazelle,
To bow before your splendor.
יֶעֱרַב לוֹ יְדִידוֹתֶיךָ
מִנּוֹפֶת צוּף וְכָל טָעַם
הָדוּר נָאֶה זִיו הָעולָם.
נַפְשִׁי חולַת אַהֲבָתֶךָ.
אָנָא אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ:
בְּהַרְאוֹת לָהּ נוֹעַם זִיוָךְ.
אָז תִּתְחַזֵק וְתִתְרַפֵּא.
וְהָיְתָה לָהּ שִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם
Ye’e’rav lo y’diydoteykha,
minofet tzuf v’khol ta’am
Hadur na-eh ziv ha-o’lam,
nafshi holat ahavatekha
Ana El na refana lah,
b’harot lah no’am zivekha
Az tit’hazeik, v’titrapei,
v’haytah lah simhat olam
Your love is sweeter
Than the dripping honeycomb, and any taste!
Resplendent, beautiful, radiance of the world,
My soul is sick for your love,
Please, O God, heal her now,
By the beauty of your radiance, by showing her.
Then she will be strong, she will be healed,
And she will be your joyful forever more.
וָתִיק יֶהֱמוּ נָא רַחֲמֶיךָ.
וְחוּסָה נָא עַל בֵּן אֲהוּבֶךָ:
כִּי זֶה כַּמָּה נִכְסוֹף נִכְסַפְתִּי
לִרְאוֹת בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶךָ.
Vatik yehemu na rahmekha,
v’husa na al ben ahuvekha
Ki zeh kama nikhsof nikhsafti
Lirot m’heirah b’tiferet uzekha
Ancient one, rouse, please, your mercy.
Please, on your beloved son, have pity,
For so much has this yearning been,
To see your strength, in its beauty,
אֵלֶה חָמְדָּה לִבִּי.
וְחוּסָה נָא וְאַל תִּתְעַלֵּם
הִגָּלֶה נָא וּפְרוֹס חֲבִיבִי עָלַי
אֶת סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ.
Eileh hamdah libi
v’husah na v’al tit’a’lam
Higaleh na u-fros havivi alai
Please, my God, the love of my heart,
Hurry, please, and do not remain hidden.
Please, be revealed and spread the covering, beloved,
Upon me, the shelter of your tranquility
תָּאִיר אֶרֶץ מִכְּבוֹדֶךָ:
נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בָּךְ.
Ta-ir eretz mik’vodekha,
nagilah v’nismihah bakh
Illuminate the earth with your nobility
We will celebrate and rejoice in you
מַהֵר אֱהוֹב כִּי בָא מוֹעֵד
וְחָנֵנוּ כִּימֵי עוֹלָם:
Maheir ehov kiva mo’ed,
v’honeinu kimei olam!
Hurry, beloved, for the time has come,
And be good to me, as in days past
More on Mikeitz...
The Gift of Loneliness – Parshat Mikeitz
12/26/2019 1 Comment
Rabbi Barukh told a parable about one who comes to a strange land; he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know the customs. He feels deep loneliness. Then, he meets another stranger, and the two of them become close friends, because they are both strangers together in this alien land.
That stranger is you, and the other stranger is God…
It sometimes happens that we come to feel alone, alienated, disconnected, and we then seek connection through fulfilment of our cravings. And while it is true that God hides within all forms and all beings, this is especially true of our cravings. We think we need this or that experience, we feel we need some validation, some comfort, or whatever, but in fact what we really need is only God.
Of course, we are never separate from God, for there is nothing in our experience in this moment that is not God; and yet, we can become disconnected – meaning, consciousness becomes disconnected from itself, which really means disconnection from the Divine, from the “Is-ness” of this moment…
וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ׃
For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.
Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery out of jealousy and hatred, but unbeknownst to them, Joseph has risen from slave to the rank of Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Now there is a famine in the land and Joseph’s brothers come before him to plead him for provisions. Joseph recognizes his brothers who had done evil to him, but they don’t recognize him; all they see is a potential savior who has the food they need.
In the same way, we may seek fulfillment in something or someone – we may “descend into Egypt” to find what we think we need, but beneath the surface, the thing we seek is our own “brother” we “sold into slavery.”
Meaning, at some point in our past, we may have disowned some aspect of our experience. We may have done something we’re ashamed of, or suffered some guilt or trauma, and the energy we unconsciously expend keeping this aspect of ourselves in exile creates a deep sense of lack, of un-fulfillment.
What is the solution?
וַיְהִ֕י מִקֵּ֖ץ שְׁנָתַ֣יִם יָמִ֑ים
And it was MiKeitz – at the end – of two years, days…
The word for “year” – shanah – also means “change.” Shanatayim שְׁנָתַ֣יִם – means “two years” or, translated interpretively, “the duality of change.” This is the duality of our present moment experience, on one hand, and what we seek to experience, on the other.
This word מִקֵּ֖ץ mikeitz, is similar to the word used for Pharaoh’s awakening from his dream: וַיִּיקַ֖ץ פַּרְעֹֽה vayikatz Paroh. To transcend the duality of time, the duality of present experience in relation to that which we crave, we must awaken from the dream of separation and reconnect with our own exiled consciousness, and hence with the Divine.
How to do it?
Look beneath the disguise – bring awareness deep into the craving itself, into the feeling of alienation, into the loneliness itself – embrace it – be the Presence with the pain. Stop seeking – the Divine you seek is here with you, hidden within your pain, if you would stop and make friends with the present moment. The pain is only a form of consciousness; be willing to feel it, and the form will relax back into its true nature. Then, consciousness can reunite with consciousness – the Divine within you can reunite with Itself, and in this realization of Divine Oneness there is a Supreme Aloneness, but not loneliness. This Aloneness is fullness, wholeness, connectedness.
There is a hint of this in the miracle of Hanukkah. Just as the single days worth of oil miraculously burns for eight days, so too if we bring the awareness that we have “today” – meaning right now – to whatever feeling of lack we may have, that feeling of lack can miraculously open into the brightness of the Eternal Present; stay with it and see!
It's Beyond Me! Parshat Mikeitz
12/6/2018 0 Comments
This past Shabbat I was at a meal where some friends were lamenting the expectation that their kids had to receive presents on Hanukkah. One young woman from Israel said that when she was growing up, there were no presents, but they would play games instead. This seems to be an old custom, because there’s a story of Rabbi Moshe of Sasov, that once during Hanukkah he came into the beit midrash to find some of his student playing checkers.
When they saw their rebbe, they were embarrassed and started putting the game away.
“No, keep on playing!” said Reb Moshe. “You know, you can learn three important things from the game of checkers: first, you can only make one move at once. Second, you can only go forward and not backward. And lastly, when you get to the last row, you can move in any direction you want…”
In order to accomplish anything, you need a plan; you need to envision the end result and imagine all the different steps you must take to get you there. But, in any given moment, you can only do the step you’re on. This is obvious, and yet because we have the power to envision our next steps, the mind tends to dwell in the imagination of the future. The present is often approached merely as a stepping stone toward something else, and this creates a feeling of separation from this moment, a disconnect from Reality. This in turn can produce the unconscious belief that wholeness is somehow not present, that fulfillment lies somewhere in the future.
The remedy is, remember: “You can only make one move at once.”
Bringing attention to the “move” we are now making liberates consciousness from its imprisonment in the world of thought and its imagined future, allowing the realization: thisis Reality, this moment is complete, the Divine is Present.
But what if, when we really connect with the move we are now making, thoughts of regret arise about the past, pulling us into a painful dwelling on what could have been?
Remember: “You can only go forward and not backward.”
Accepting the past and moving on doesn’t mean you have to somehow push away the feelings of regret; that would just be more rejection of the present! Instead, acceptwhatever thoughts and feelings arise, and let them dissolve of their own accord. Everything that arises is part of the complete texture of the present – don’t resist.
And in this act of coming to this moment without resistance, there can be the realization that, in fact, you have arrived – there is nowhere else to go, because you’re always Right Here!
Then, you can “move in any direction you want” – you can think about the future or the past and not get caught by them, because they all arise in the open space of the Present – the Eternal Now has come to the foreground.
This quality of freedom is embodied by Yosef. Pharaoh asks him to interpret his disturbing dream, but Yosef says, Biladai, Elokim Ya’aneh – It is beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
This short phrase contains a code for this teaching:
Biladai – It is beyond me: There is only the task of this moment; whatever will be will be.
Elokim – the Divine: We cannot go back and change the past; whatever has been is the “Divine Will” – meaning, it already is. The only right relationship we can have with the past is total surrender.
Ya’aneh –(the Divine) will answer: In Presence and Surrender, there arises a natural and unforced trust in the way everything is unfolding; all “answers” to the mind’s questions will be revealed in time. At this point, there need not be any strained effort in “trying to be present” or in “letting go of the past” because the movements of the mind are no longer charged, no longer motivated by grabbing after fulfillment. The Divine is ever-present as the fundamental Beingness that underlies all being…
The Dream is Over – Parshat Mikeitz
12/14/2017 0 Comments
When Joseph advised Pharaoh to put someone in charge of amassing grain during the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine, Pharaoh replied:
“Akharei hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot, ayn avon v’hakham kamokha – Since the Divine has revealed to you all of this, there can be no one as understanding and wise as you.”
The words for “understanding and wise” are avon v’hakham, which are forms of the two root attributes of consciousness on the Tree of Life, Hokhmah and Bina – Wisdom and Understanding. Bina, Understanding, refers to the function of thought: the capacity to create images of reality in one’s mind, then manipulate the images so as to comprehend and predict things that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent in one’s immediate, present moment experience.
For example, if my refrigerator is full in my immediate experience, I can nevertheless predict that in the future it will be empty, and that I will starve unless I go out and buy some more food. The empty refrigerator is a thought, a mental image, but it allows me to navigate the objective world. That’s Binah –Understanding.
Hokhmah, on the other hand, is the awareness from which thought arises. Awareness is the space of consciousness within which the perception of what’s happening in the present arises – in this case, the perception of a full refrigerator, along with the arising of the thought that soon it will be empty. Awareness perceives, “there’s the refrigerator, and there’s the thought about the empty refrigerator in the future.” So, awareness is “above” or “transcendent” of thought.
But ordinarily, we tend to perceive the present moment as somewhat in the background, while our thoughts about reality tend to dominate in the foreground. Like the cows in our story, the fullness of awareness is “swallowed up” by the neediness of thought, the need to understand and control things. This reinforces an experience of lack, of incompleteness. But when we allow the present to come into the foreground, seeing our thoughts come and go within the open space of the present, then Hokhmah and Binah can function freely, and there is an experiential sense of wholeness, of completeness. That is meditation, or Presence.
Then – hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot – it is revealed that the fullness of experience in this moment, from sensory awareness of the outer world, to the rising and falling of feelings and thoughts, to the open space of consciousness itself, kol zot – all of this is Elohim – One Divine Reality, and there is nothing but Elohim, always and only. Bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitakhat – In the heavens above and the earth below, ayn od- there is nothing else.
Only a Dream- Parshat Mikeitz
12/28/2016 0 Comments
Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem-
And it was at the end of two years to the day, Pharaoh dreamed…
and Pharaoh awoke…
This week’s reading begins with Pharaoh’s dream:
He is standing by the Nile, when seven beautiful, healthy cows emerge from the water and begin grazing in the marshland. Suddenly, seven more cows emerge, except these ugly and gaunt cows eat up the seven healthy cows. Next, he dreams that seven beautiful, healthy ears of grain get swallowed up by seven thin and scorched ears of grain. Then Pharaoh wakes up, agitated and disturbed.
The name of this parshah is Mikeitz, which means “at the end”- referring to the end of a two-year period after which Pharaoh had the dream. But when Pharaoh awakens from his dream, the same word is used again in a different form- “Vayikatz Paro- Pharaoh awakened.”
Why is the word for “ending” used also for awakening?
For most of us, there’s no awareness of dreaming while we’re dreaming; it’s only in waking up that you realize, “Oh, it was only a dream.” You say, only a dream because it has no external reality; it’s just an experience generated by the mind. Then, when you wake up, you become aware of what’s actually going on around you. Life is real, and unlike the dream, there are real consequences in the world external to your mind.
And yet, there’s an aspect of waking life that’s also like a dream.
Right now, your awareness is perceiving the richness of this moment- the beings around you, the space you’re in, the sense of your body, your feelings and your thoughts. Ordinarily, you perceive some things as external to you, such as these words, and some things as internal to you, such as your thoughts. There are physical things out there, and emotional and mental things in here.
But what many people never notice is that everything in your perception- from the ground under your feet to the clouds in the sky to the feelings in your gut- are all nothing but consciousness, exactly like a dream. Of course there’s also the whole universe out there independent of your consciousness, but your perception of the universe completely arises within your consciousness as part of your consciousness. In other words, everything you perceive is actually you, since ultimately, you are consciousness.
So that means that when you judge people, or complain, or in any way resist the truth of whatever arises in the moment, you’re actually resisting yourself- you’re creating a split within yourself which creates a sense of being not whole, of being incomplete. And that’s the dream- that’s the illusion- you think that you need something out there to change in order to feel whole or complete. Just like the gaunt and hungry cows who eat up the full cows, you’re never satisfied because you’re constantly pulling away from yourself, creating an inner split.
But when you awaken to realize that everything “out there” is always only perceived “in here,” then you can relax and accept everything in your experience as your own being. When you do that, your consciousness that's become split in two can merge back into oneness, bringing that sense of inner duality to an end.
And that’s why the word that’s used here for “awaken” is the word for “ending”- katz- because it’s an end to inner duality. It’s also an end to time, in a sense, because there’s no longer any journey to wholeness or fulfilment; wholeness is simply what you are when you stop pulling yourself apart.
There’s a hint of this in the opening line as well-
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem- And it was at the end of two years, to the day…”
The word for “year” is shana, which also means “change” or “time.” “Two years” hints that in order to have time, you need two-ness; you need duality. That's because time and change are based on the perception of before and after. But when you see that reality is not in any way ever separate from your perception, that your memories of the past and projections of the future are all arising in the now, that's the keitz shana- the end of time, the awakening into the Eternal Present.
So on this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, may everything that arises in your perception be fully embraced as the energy of consciousness, burning ever more brightly within your being and expressing itself in love and healing on all levels.
Mr. Fimmen- Parshat Mikeitz
12/9/2015 6 Comments
Back in the eighties, Mr. Fimmen was the Vice Principal in my High School. He was known as the disciplinarian. If you did something bad, you got sent to him. I was sent to him as a freshman when I screamed in the hallway after finding out that I got the part of Renfield in the school play, “Dracula.”
When I was a senior, my class put on an original musical in which I impersonated Mr. Fimmen.
In the play, the main character was a “nerd” who was searching to find himself. In one scene, the nerd’s journey takes him into the depths of Hell. We had him walk down off the stage and into the orchestra pit, where I was dressed like Satan. When he asked who I was, I said,
“I have been known by many names- The Trickster, Beelzebub, HaSatan… revealed to the West as… Mr. Fimmen!!”
The audience roared.
I wasn’t sure how Mr. Fimmen was going to take it, but it turned out he loved it. Every time I saw him in the hallway after that, he gave me a satanic look and said, “Do you know my name?”
We became good friends after that. One time, we were having a conversation in his office about religion. He said that just as Judaism is the root of Christianity and Islam, and Hinduism is the root of Buddhism and Jainism, there must be a common root between Judaism and Hinduism.
“That’s what I want to find out about!” he said with a smile.
But when I was about to leave his office, he became concerned about other students finding out that he was friendly. He said, “Remember Brian, not a word about this to the other students. To them, I’m just MR. FIMMEN!!”
It’s true- the other students had no idea who Mr. Fimmen really was. They only saw an image created by their own minds- a “Mr. Fimmen the scary mean guy” narrative. And that’s the way he wanted it.
But sometimes, the mind tells negative stories about people that they wouldn’t want. Some bad experience ferments in the memory and sprouts into an inevitably over-simplified story, and that’s the screen through which you then see things. And sometimes, life itself sinks into a negative frame, and you feel that Reality or God is conspiring against you.
What’s the way out?
To get free of this negativity, the story must come to an end. The whole narrative has to collapse. This week’s reading is called Mikeitz, which means, “At the end”. The parsha begins:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim, uparo holeim-
And it happened at the end of two years, to the day, Pharaoh was dreaming…”
The phrase, “Sh’natayim yamim” literally means, “Two years, days”- a strange construction. The first word, “sh’natayim”, is a contraction of two words- “shanah” which means “year” or "change," hinting at the concept of time, and the word “sh’tayim” which means “two”.
“Sh’natayim”, then, could be translated as “the duality of time”. When you add “yamim” which means “days”, the full phrase could be translated:
“The duality of time, the multiplicity of days”.
Time is dependant on duality, on the ability of the mind to compare one thing to another. In the case of time, the mind compares one moment to another. Through the imagination of past and future moments, a sense of time is created.
Once the mind creates a sense of time, we experience life as a “multiplicity of days”. Meaning, we experience life as receding tunnel of yesterdays, and an impending journey of tomorrows.
But this time-based version of life is actually a dream. Just like Pharaoh’s dreams, this version of life is a tapestry of healthy, peaceful moments, alternating with ugly, monstrous moments. And sometimes, the monstrous seem to overtake and swallow up everything that’s good, as happens in Pharaoh’s dream:
“The cows of ugly appearance and gaunt flesh ate up the seven cows of beautiful appearance…”
But, dreams come to an end:
“Vayikatz Paro, v’hinei halom-
And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream!”
The word for “awoke” is “yikatz”- sharing two letters with “mikeitz” which means “at the end”- hinting that “awakening” is the end of something.
What is it the end of?
Let’s look back at the first verse, retranslating it according to the above ideas:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim-
Awakening from the duality of time is the end of the multiplicity days…”
To come to the end of time, to awaken, is actually profoundly simple. It can happen at any moment, and yet it can only happen in this moment. It happens when you let go of your grip on narrative and allow this moment to speak for itself.
Is there any greater beauty than the richness of this moment? Is there any greater gift than your consciousness of this miracle?
And in the consciousness of this miracle, is there any room for negative, judgmental thoughts about others?
When you see how your own mind works and get free from its illusions, it also becomes easy to see how others are trapped by their illusions. Then, you don’t get pulled into their drama, no matter how they treat you. Even the nastiest insults will only evoke compassion from your heart. You don’t take it personally, because you can see that they are trapped- they are hurling their negativity toward some idea of you, not the real you.
There is a story that Reb Yitzhak of Vorki had a friend who would always verbally bash Reb Yitzhak’s rebbe, Reb Simha Bunem. This friend would always say terrible things about Reb Simha right in front of Reb Yitzhak, but Reb Yitzhak never said anything about it or got upset in the slightest.
Reb Yitzhak’s hassidim were astonished by this. They asked him how he could possibly allow his friend to speak so harshly about his rebbe and never say a word of defense or reprimand.
“I’ll tell you about something that happened to me,” Reb Yitzhak replied.
“I was once traveling in a certain city when a stranger approached me, looked at me for a moment and exclaimed, ‘that’s him!’ Then a second man did the same thing, and then a third, though I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Before long, a crowd of noisy men and an upset woman surrounded me, showering me with curses and abuses, the gist of which was: ‘You are the man who deserted this woman and left her as an aguna!’”
(In traditional Jewish law, an aguna is a woman who’s husband runs away without granting a legal divorce, thus leaving her unable to remarry.)
“They were so convinced they knew who I was, that no amount of explanation on my part could persuade them that I was not the man they were looking for. In the end, I had to go along with them to the rabbinical court and grant the woman a bill of divorce.
“Now all that time they were busy abusing me, I wasn’t the slightest bit angry at them, because I knew that it wasn’t at me they were directing their complaints and curses. They thought I was her husband. In truth, they couldn't see me at all- they only saw their own story.
“So, too, with my friend who talks bad of my rebbe. I don’t get excited. I know he talks this way only because he doesn’t really know my rebbe. In truth, he talks about a character that lives only in his mind.”
On this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, and Shabbos Rosh Hodesh (new moon), may our inner light ever increase to bring the negative dreams of life to an end, awakening us to the miraculous gift of the true life, just as it is. And, at the same time, may the function of our dreams be fulfilled: To guide us as we navigate this ever changing moment and help us bring more peace, intelligence and relief to this world that so needs it.
Holes and Stars- Parshat Mikeitz, Shabbat Hannukah
12/17/2014 8 Comments
Here in Oakland, the fleas are like monsters- much bigger than on the east coast. Our cat brings them in, so we have to treat the cat once per month with some anti-flea stuff. To get the flea stuff on him, I have to part the hair on the back of his neck and squirt the stuff as best I can onto his skin. To do that, I first have to pet him, make him feel relaxed, then apply the fluid when he’s not suspecting.
There’s only one problem. When I first got the cat as a kitten, I lived in a bachelor pad with two roommates. The cat got plenty of attention. Since having kids, however, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for taking care of a pet has waned. Two little humans with all their needs, desires and demands are simply enough; I can’t get so excited about taking care of an animal too. Not that I am neglectful or anything- the cat gets fed and taken care of- but I don’t exactly sit around and pet him.
And that’s the problem: Since I only pet him when I am about to put the flea stuff on him, he knows what’s coming! As soon as I start being nice and try to pet him, he runs away. In order for him to relax when I pet him, petting would have to become an every day thing, not a monthly occurrence.
It’s exactly the same with spiritual practice. If you only do it occasionally when you feel like you need it, it’s not going to do what it has the potential to do- transform you completely. For that, it has to become an every day thing.
There is a spectrum of spiritual intelligence along which the human experience dances. At one extreme, a person is like a “black hole”-never satisfied, always needing to grab more for him/herself. At this extreme, a person lives to “get”. The “black hole” is always restless, always seeking the next experience to feel more complete.
At the other extreme, a person can be like a star- radiant, burning with joy and aliveness, giving of him/herself for its own sake, out of love for giving.
Each person lives somewhere on this spectrum. These two poles are not merely potentials of the human personality; they actually exist at different levels of our being. For example, at the level of the body, we truly are like black holes. Every day we have to take in more food and water. Even more desperate is our need for air. The body is not satisfied with a deep breath for more than a few seconds before it has to take another.
At the level of awareness, however, the opposite is true. The job of awareness is to sense what is, not to prefer one thing over another. If awareness were to have preferences, it wouldn’t work. First we have to perceive whatever is there, then our mind can have preferences about it. Awareness itself is just openness- a boundless field of knowing.
As long as things basically go our way, as long as our needs are pretty much taken care of, it is very easy to live in the dream of the “black hole” without even knowing it. The satisfied person may feel no need for spirituality, because the “black hole within” gets its needs met. But sooner or later, the system shatters. Health fails, loss happens, failure happens, and a person goes into crisis. Like the body gasping for air, the ego can desperately seek a way out of its pain.
So what is the solution? How can we awaken from the dream of ego without having to get shattered?
Parshat Mikeitz begins with the Pharaoh having a disturbing dream. He dreams that seven robust, healthy cows emerge from the Nile, grazing in the marshland. Then, seven sickly emaciated cows emerge and swallow up the seven healthy cows. Furthermore, after the skinny cows eat the fat cows, they are just as skinny as before. He then has a similar dream with ears of grain rather than cows. Pharaoh calls on his necromancers and wise people, but no one can interpret the dream. He then gets a tip that an imprisoned Hebrew named Joseph is a great dream interpreter. Joseph is summoned and interprets the dream for Pharaoh: The seven healthy cows and ears of grain represent seven years of plenty. The seven bad cows and grain represent seven years of famine that will follow the seven years of plenty. Pharaoh is impressed. He elevates Joseph to a royal status and places him in charge of gathering and storing grain for the time of famine. In this way, Egypt is saved and becomes a breadbox for surrounding countries during the time of famine.
The essence of Joseph’s message is to not take for granted the abundance you’ve got. Prepare for famine, because famine is sure to come. Spiritually speaking, this means you need to awaken from the dream of entitlement, from the unconscious belief that your ego will continue to be fed. Make a “crisis” for yourself now. This is actually the job of daily spiritual practice: to shatter the callousness of your ego that takes things for granted and open to the living uncertainty of the present.
How do you do it?
During the seven years of abundance, the people gave Joseph their grain to store away for the years of famine. In the metaphorical sense, Joseph represents the Divine. He interprets dreams on behalf of the Divine. His own dream has the stars, sun and moon bow down to him. His very name, Yosef, means “to increase”, indicating the Source from which all things in the universe come into being.
So, in this sense, the people giving Joseph their grain suggests a profound practice in which we intentionally “give back” everything we have to G-d. This is the purifying fire and water of daily prayer and meditation, stripping away the expectations of ego and “me”, accustoming us to being in the naked present. For a person who lives in the naked present, times of “famine” do not lead to crisis, because that person is not relying on the temporary and transitory. That person is like a star, burning with bliss and truth, giving without ulterior motive.
This Hanukah, as we increase the light each night, may the flames burn away the barriers of the heart, that we may feel ever more clearly: That which we seek is the only thing there is. That which we crave is what we already are. Amein, Hag Samayakh!
The students of Reb Simkha Bunim decided to meet together regularly for learning and fellowship. When the master heard about this, he told them this story:
“Once, there was a man who wished to change careers so that he might make a better living. He investigated what types of work would earn him more, how expensive they would be to learn, how much time they would take, and so on. After some research, he decided he would start a business making mead.
So, he went into the city and found an expert mead brewer who could teach him the craft. He paid the man, learned with him for several weeks, and then returned home to launch his enterprise. After brewing up his first batch, he invited many friends and relatives to his home for a tasting party, hoping they would become customers and spread the word. But after pouring everyone a glass and inviting them to take a sip, they all recoiled in disgust!
“What is wrong?” he exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” someone said, “taste it – it seems really bitter!”
The man tried it and it was true, the mead was terrible. Embarrassed and enraged, he set off for the city once again, found his teacher, and demanded his money back. But the teacher insisted he must have done something wrong. “Did you do such-and-such properly?” The master mead brewer went through each step of the process, and the man said that he had done them all correctly.
“Hmm… maybe there was something wrong with the honey you used,” said the mead brewer.
“Honey?” said the man, “I didn’t use and honey.”
“No honey?? You fool – do I have to tell you everything? Of course you can’t make mead without the honey!!”
Reb Simkha Bunim then concluded to his students, “And that is how it must be for you. It is good to get together and learn, but you must remember to add a good amount of hasidic honey!”
The ninth of the Thirty-Two Paths is Yesod, which means “foundation.” What is the foundation of the spiritual life? It is that hasidic honey – it is joy, enjoyment, having a positive attitude – it is health of the spirit. On the physical level, it is also health of the body. Both are foundational not just for spirituality, but for any endeavor.
In the Torah, Yesod is represented by Jacob’s beloved son, Joseph:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃
Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.
וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃
And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.
וַיַּחֲלֹ֤ם יוֹסֵף֙ חֲל֔וֹם וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאֶחָ֑יו וַיּוֹסִ֥פוּ ע֖וֹד שְׂנֹ֥א אֹתֽוֹ׃
Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more…
The Joseph story is characterized right from the beginning by the experience of both love and hate:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ – V’Yisrael ahav et Yosef – And Israel loved Joseph…
יוֹסֵף Yosef actually means “increase,” and this was Joseph’s characteristic – no matter what happened to him (and he truly had the hardest life out of any of the Biblical characters), he never let anything bother him. He was like cream, always rising to the top, no matter how much he was beaten down: He was almost killed and then sold into slavery by his brothers, and then he rose to be the most trusted servant in the house of a wealthy nobleman. Again, he was falsely accused of a crime and thrown into the dungeon, but eventually he was taken into the palace and made second only to Pharaoh. And through all his troubles, he never complains; he simply goes with what is happening.
יִשְׂרָאֵל Yisrael is Joseph’s father, who loves him the most. And just as Joseph is a symbol for the quality of success and not being beaten down by anything, so too “father” represents the Supreme Father, the Divine Source. After all, Yisrael can be read as Yishar El, “straight to the Divine.”
Seen in this way, his father Israel represents the vertical dimension of experience, Joseph’s relationship with the Source of Being. His brothers, however, represent the horizontal dimension – relationship with beings, with happenings in time, which express the exact opposite of the vertical dimension:
וַיּוֹסִ֥פוּ ע֖וֹד שְׂנֹ֥א אֹתֽוֹ – vayosifu od s’no oto – and they increased even more their hatred of him…
The word for “increase” here is a play on words: וַיּוֹסִ֥פוּ vayosifu is like the name Yosef; as Yosef increases, the hatred of his brothers also increases. The hint here is that as we grow and become successful in something, there are often “haters.” People will try to tear you down. And even when this is not the case, there are new challenges that emerge as we become more and more successful at something.
The key, then, is to be like Yosef. He wasn’t bothered by the difficulties of the horizontal dimension, because he was rooted in the vertical dimension:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ – V’Yisrael ahav et Yosef – And Israel loved Joseph…
He trusted in his “dream,” his vision that he was given for the future; he had a purpose, and so it didn’t matter to him how that purpose would be fulfilled. So too, we can receive this moment as it unfolds from the “hands of God” so to speak; we can know that the same Reality from which we are created is expressing Itself in every happening. Our very existence and our very journey in this life is Grace, an expression of Love.
Yesod and Yosef are also associated with sanctified sexuality:
וַיְמָאֵ֓ן וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַתִּשָּׂ֧א אֵֽשֶׁת־אֲדֹנָ֛יו אֶת־עֵינֶ֖יהָ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שִׁכְבָ֥ה עִמִּֽי׃
After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused…
When Joseph’s master’s wife makes advances, he doesn’t succumb to temptation. She then accuses him of making advances on her, and he is thrown in the dungeon, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he is eventually put in charge of all the other prisoners! For these reasons, Yosef is also called HaTzadik, “righteous one,” both because he can’t be seduced into improper sexuality, and because he trusts that “things are unfolding as they should.” This association with sanctified sexuality also connects Yesod with brit milah, the practice of circumcision as the sign of covenant with the Divine.
The “Saying of Creation” associated with Yesod connects to the aspect of life and procreation:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים תּוֹצֵ֨א הָאָ֜רֶץ נֶ֤פֶשׁ חַיָּה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ
Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind…
And, the imperative from the Aseret Hadibrot, The Ten Commandments, relates to the aspect of sanctified sexuality:
לֹא תִּנְאָֽף – Lo tinaf – don’t commit adultery
By contrast, Joseph’s brother Judah expresses the opposite qualities. After the devastating incident of selling their brother Joseph into slavery, Judah leaves the family for some time, marries a woman and has three sons. The eldest marries a woman named Tamar, and he dies soon after. Then next son then marries Tamar, but he dies too. So, Judah withholds his third son from Tamar, fearing he will die as well.
But, Tamar doesn’t want to be childless, so she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits for Judah by the crossroads. When he sees her, he stops and asks to be her customer:
…וַיֵּ֨ט אֵלֶ֜יהָ אֶל־הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הָֽבָה־נָּא֙ אָב֣וֹא אֵלַ֔יִךְ כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔ע כִּ֥י כַלָּת֖וֹ הִ֑וא
So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Please, let me come to you”— for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law…
He cannot pay her anything, so he gives her his staff and signet as a pledge to hold while he goes and sends her a goat. Later, when he sends the goat, the messenger returns back with the goat, saying he could not find any prostitute by the crossroads.
Three months later, Judah is told that his daughter in law has been promiscuous and his now pregnant, to which Judah demands that she be taken out and burned! Tamar coolly holds up the staff and the signet, and says that the father of the child in her womb is the their owner. Judah realizes his folly, and in his embarrassment, he takes responsibility for the whole situation. This is the beginning of Judah’s transformation, which culminates in the next parshah.
On a symbolic level, Yehudah and Yosef are archetypes of opposite qualities:
Yosef is described as looking after his brothers. In Genesis 37:2, it says that Joseph was a shepherd with his brothers, but it can also be read that he was a shepherd toward his brothers – יוֹסֵ֞ף ... הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה אֶת־אֶחָיו֙
Yehudah, on the other hand, sells his brother, as in Genesis 37:26, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…”
Yosef maintains integrity and doesn’t succumb to the temptation of his master’s wife, but is then humiliated wrongfully when he is thrown in prison. Yehudah does succumb to the temptation of Tamar, and is then humiliated rightfully, meaning, his humiliation humbles him and begins his transformation.
Yosef ends up with great power in the end when he becomes like a king, second only to Pharaoh, and Yehudah ends up having to humble himself before Yosef to get food and not starve to death.
These two opposite archetypes of Yosef and Yehudah manifest in the tradition that there will one day be two messiahs, one that will come from Joseph, and one that will come from Judah. The more commonly known messiah legend is the one from Judah, and it has its origins in this parshah, when Tamar, who was impregnated by Judah, is about to give birth:
וַיְהִ֖י בְּעֵ֣ת לִדְתָּ֑הּ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תְאוֹמִ֖ים בְּבִטְנָֽהּ׃
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb!
וַיְהִ֥י בְלִדְתָּ֖הּ וַיִּתֶּן־יָ֑ד וַתִּקַּ֣ח הַמְיַלֶּ֗דֶת וַתִּקְשֹׁ֨ר עַל־יָד֤וֹ שָׁנִי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר זֶ֖ה יָצָ֥א רִאשֹׁנָֽה׃
While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first.
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּמֵשִׁ֣יב יָד֗וֹ וְהִנֵּה֙ יָצָ֣א אָחִ֔יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מַה־פָּרַ֖צְתָּ עָלֶ֣יךָ פָּ֑רֶץ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ פָּֽרֶץ׃
But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez.
וְאַחַר֙ יָצָ֣א אָחִ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־יָד֖וֹ הַשָּׁנִ֑י וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ זָֽרַח׃
Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.
Perez, or Paretz, begins the line from which comes King David, and King David begins the dynasty of kings which, according to legend, will one day be restored by Moshiakh ben David, the “Messiah son of David.”
The legend of Moshiakh ben Yosef is found in the Talmud:
ויראני ה' ארבעה חרשים מאן נינהו ארבעה חרשים אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר רבי שמעון חסידא משיח בן דוד ומשיח בן יוסף ואליהו וכהן צדק
“The Divine then showed me four craftsmen” (Zechariah 2:3). Who are these four craftsmen? Rav Ḥana bar Bizna said that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida said: They are Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Yosef, Elijah, and the righteous High Priest…
According to this legend, Moshiakh ben Yosef will come first at the “end of days” and fight the wars of Armageddon to prepare the way for Moshiakh ben David, who will usher in a new era of world peace.
What does this all mean?
Joseph and Judah, Yesod and Hod, really point to the two basic aspects of our being:
Yosef HaTzadik is our deepest being. It is our capacity to recover from anything that might happen and return to positivity, to the basic vibrant goodness of being, which is the quality of our foundational life energy – this is Yesod, the power of consciousness that is eternal renewal and youthfulness, ever available to heal all wounds, to effect peace and tikun.
Yehudah, on the other hand, is our ordinary personhood; it is the one who makes mistakes again and again, with the capacity to be humbled and ultimately transformed by the process. This is the Baal Teshuvah, the one who repents, represented by Hod which is humility and gratitude (as expressed by Judah toward Joseph in next week’s reading).
And this is the dynamic between these two levels within us – as the personal dimension of Judah – our body, personality, feelings and thoughts – humbles itself and opens to the deepest transpersonal dimension of Joseph – the luminescent field of awareness that we are on the deepest most essential level, then “Joseph can feed Judah.” Meaning, our Divine essence can shine within and express itself through our personhood, bringing healing and redemption on all levels. This is the birth of Moshiakh within, and both the shining Yosef and the imperfect but growing Yehudah are essential for this process…
More on Vayeishev...
The Whole World in Her Hands! Parshat Vayeishev
12/16/2019 0 Comments
אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל חֹ֥ק יְֽהוָ֗ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃
I am obligated to proclaim: The Divine says to me, “You are My child, today I give birth to you…”
Rabbi Nahum of Stepinesht once said of his brother, Rabbi David Moshe of Tchortkov:
“When my brother chants from the Book of Psalms, Hashem calls down to him: ‘David Moshe My son, I am putting the whole world into your hands – now do with it whatever you like.’ Oh, if only Hashem gave me the world, I would know very well what to do with it! But David Moshe is so faithful a servant that when he gives the world back, it is exactly as it was when he received it…”
This anecdote of Rabbi Nahum, the son of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, is strange; it seems to say that non-action is a virtue. It seems to say that one who does nothing it improve the world is better than one who tries to improve the world. How can this be?
When Joseph is thrown into the dungeon, two prisoners come to him with their disturbing dreams, hoping that Joseph will interpret the dreams for them. Joseph responds:
הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹהִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים – Don’t interpretations belong to the Divine?
Joseph is saying that his ability to see the meanings of their dreams is a gift that comes from beyond; it’s not really his own doing.
But on a deeper level, “dream” is a metaphor for all experience. After all, what is a dream? It is an experience we have while we’re sleeping, an experience that seems real when it’s happening, but turns out to be some kind of projection of the mind.
Similarly, our waking experiences too are comprehensible only because our minds project narrative onto them. We tend to be “asleep” in relation to most of what is going on, so that the mind can piece together a story that makes sense. And, central to that story is the character of “I.”
From our ordinary state of mind, in which we are mostly asleep, it seems there is this “I” that does things, that acts on the world, that causes things to happen. But what really is this I? Is it really something separate? Isn’t this I part of the flow of Reality, of Existence, of the Divine?
On this level, Joseph is saying: Halo l’Elohim pitronim – isn’t this dream of life we are having correctly interpreted as only the Divine?
From this point of view, Rabbi David Moshe isn’t being lauded by his brother for not doing anything, but rather for not seeing himself as the doer; he “gives the world back exactly as it was when he received it” – meaning, he gives credit back to the Divine for what happens, just as Joseph does: הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹהִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים
This is why Joseph is able to receive such extreme hardship without any complaint; he receives everything from the Hands of the Divine, including his own dreams, from which he knows that he will one day attain greatness. So, when the world seems to hate him, he still regards himself as beloved by the Root of the world. There’s a hint of this in the opening of the parshah:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙
Now Israel loved Joseph…
Israel loved Joseph – “Israel” means “strives for the God” or “straight to the God” – in other words, Joseph’s sees through the surface of things to the Divine love underneath, even though his experience of the world seems to be the opposite:
וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו… וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ
And his brothers saw…and they hated him…
His brothers – “Brothers” represents the things and beings in the horizontal dimension of experience – the forms we encounter in time. But “Israel,” the “Father,” represents the vertical dimension of experience – our encounter with Timeless that abides within and as all things. This is the great skill of the spirit that we are called upon to develop: to know the love that flows from Being, even when hatred seems to flow from the many beings.
In Pirkei Avot (6:6), it is said that Torah is acquired through 48 qualities, one of which is:
Kabalat HaYisurin – receiving of painful feelings
Our tendency is to resist that which is painful. But if we are aware that the pain itself is a means toward awakening out of the dream of separateness, then we can receive pain as a gift, even as an expression of Divine love, as it says a few qualities later:
וְאֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ, אָהוּב
Eino makhazik tovah l’atzmo, Ahuv – Not claiming credit for yourself, being Beloved…
Consciousness glistens on the rustling leaves of the present moment; there is a freedom and a beloved-ness that shines forth when we let go of the “I” that acts, and receive this moment from the hands of the Divine. Then we can know directly that we too are nothing but a fleeting form of Divine Reality, a moment of consciousness awakening in this form:
אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל חֹ֥ק יְֽהוָ֗ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃
I am obligated to proclaim: The Divine says to me, “You are My child, today I give birth to you…”
Just Say Yes! Parshat Vayeishev
11/28/2018 0 Comments
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan…
Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, actually means “heel.” So, to say that he “dwelt in the land” evokes the image of feet touching the earth, being grounded in connection with the sensory world. The “land” is the place where his “father sojourned.” On the surface, this is referring to the other patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac. But on a deeper level, aviv – his father – is a metaphor for the Divine, or the transcendent dimension Being, the hidden Presence beneath all forms.
The “land” is also called Canaan. Canaan begins with kaf - nun, which spells kein – “yes.”
So, on this level, we can freely this verse:
Dwell in connection with the Divine – say “yes” to this moment.
On the deepest level, it is already the nature of your consciousness to say “yes” to this moment, to simply shine light on what is without judgment. The nature of thought, on the other hand, is discernment – saying both “yes” and “no,” making judgments.
We need both of these levels; we need both discernment and simple openness to what is. Without the openness, we become trapped in a narrow, thought-created identity. But without the discernment, not only wouldn’t we be able to function in life, but we also paradoxically wouldn’t even be able to sustain the openness either, because to realize the deepest “yes” level of our being requires a radical discernment and decision to come fully to your present moment experience as it is and simply dwell with it:
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ
Vayeishev Ya’akov Ba’aretz
The Heel Dwells on the Earth…
Bring the awareness of your mind all the way down to the heels of your feet. Let your awareness be like light, simply shining outward, illuminating whatever arises in your experience. This is the secret of Hanukah, which comes in the darkest time of the year to illuminate the eternal dimension of Being within ordinary day-to-day life, which sometimes feels “dark” when obscured by time and the thinking mind...
The Evil Shepherd- Parshat Vayeishev
12/22/2016 2 Comments
This week’s reading begins with the story of Yosef, or Joseph:
“Yosef hayah ro’eh et achav- Joseph was a shepherd with his brothers… v’hu na’ar et b’nei Vilha v’et b’nei Zilpa- and he was a youth with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa...”
It then says that he brought evil reports about his brothers to their father.
Now the word for “shepherd” is ro’eh, and the word for “evil” is ra’ah-exactly the same letters, just voweled a little differently, hinting at a connection between shepherding and judging others. This is also reflected in the wording. A more straightforward way of saying that he was a shepherd with his brothers would be “hayah ro’eh imachav”- instead of “hayah ro’eh et achav”- which could be read that he’s being a shepherd at his brothers.
This hints at two different levels of what’s going on. On the surface, Joseph and his brothers are out shepherding the sheep. But at the same time, Joseph sees himself as shepherding his brothers. He feels that he’s above them, judging them and tattling on them to their father.
His vision of himself as above the rest of his family is of course prophetic- he eventually becomes an actual ruler with Pharaoh in Egypt. But at this point in the story, his leadership is immature- as it says, “V’hu na’ar- and he was a youth.”
There’s a level of your own being that is above everything. It's the place within you that it sees the fullness of whatever arises in your experience, yet remains free from it, unencumbered by whatever your situation is. That level of inner freedom is simple awareness. Another name for it is Hokhmah or Wisdom, because from that place of awareness, wisdom naturally flows and can guide you in your particular situation. So your awareness is above your situation, on one hand, yet offers its steady guidance at the same time- just like a ro’eh- a shepherd- guides the flock, yet is not itself a sheep.
The thinking mind, however, loves to claim the wisdom of awareness for itself in order to feed the ego. The ego thinks, "This is my wisdom"- and then gets gratification from believing itself to be above others. That’s Joseph as the na’ar- the youth- who brings evil reports. As long as the immature mind coopts the wisdom of awareness, the ro’eh becomes ra’ah- an evil shepherd.
So what’s the remedy? The remedy is hidden within the letters. The words ro’eh and ra’ah are Reish-Ayin-Heh. The middle letter, Ayin, literally means “eye,” hinting at awareness as the deepest identity of the shepherd. The Reish literally means “head,” hinting that as long as the “head” is ruling the “eye”- as long as the thinking mind claims awareness for itself, the shepherd is evil.
But if you change the Ayin to an Alef, the letter of Oneness, then the word becomes Re’eh which means, “see.” When you simply see, not in the literal visual sense but in the sense of simple perception, then you can notice the antics of the mind and ego and not get seduced by them. From this comes mature leadership, where the wisdom that pours into the mind is not coopted or claimed, but is humbly received as a gift.
So on this Parshat Vayeyshev, the Sabbath of Dwelling, may we practice dwelling in the simple Presence and receive the gift of guidance from the Ultimate Shepherd. May we be guided by this inner wisdom on a path of love, renewal and healing.
Being Now, Wanting Now- Parshat Vayeishev
12/2/2015 0 Comments
A few years ago, I was at a Shabbat table where someone was describing the different character traits of Jacob and his brother Esau:
“Jacob could see the big picture. He planed for the future, while Esau only cared about satisfying his immediate desires. Esau lived in the here and now.”
I cringed when I heard that, because “living in the here and now” and “wanting something here and now” couldn’t be more different.
So many people don’t understand this difference!
Back at that Shabbat table, I tried to clarify this point, but I was unsuccessful. I hope to clarify it “now”.
Actually, my desire to clarify this point “now” is a perfect example to use.
When I say that I want to clarify this point “now”, I don’t mean “now” literally. I mean that I hope to clarify it by the end of this d’var. Which really means that I hope to clarify it in the near future. By the time you’re done reading this, I hope that the point will be clear.
In fact, whenever anyone says that they want something “now”, what they really mean is that they want their “now” to change into a different “now”. They may want it really fast… but “fast” is still the future.
This is the exact opposite of “being in the now” or “being present”.
To “be in the now” doesn’t mean that you want a different “now”. It means you’re just being in thisnow. There’s no conflict or tension in that- you’re just present.
In fact, you are the present; there’s not you, on one hand, and the present on the other. When you are present, you and the present are the same thing.
So when that guy talked about Jacob and Esau, he wasn’t talking about long-term planning versus being in the now. He was really talking about long-term planning versus short-term planning. Neither one is about the “now” at all.
And yet, there’s a way in which long-term planning can actually can help you be fully present.
When you know exactly where you’re going, you’re less likely to worry about what you’re going to have for dinner in a few hours. It just doesn’t matter that much. You have a long-term plan, so you can fully enjoy the journey. You can be present.
That’s the way Joseph is in this week’s reading. At the opening of our parsha, it says that Joseph is Israel’s favorite son. This makes Israel’s other sons jealous of Joseph. Then, Joseph does something to further upset them:
Joseph dreamt a dream that he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear, if you please, this dream that I dreamt: Behold! We were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! My sheaf arose and remained standing. Then, behold! Your sheaves gathered around and bowed to my sheaf.”
Then, as if that weren't bad enough, he really ticks them off with a second dream: The sun, moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him, implying that one day he would rule over his eleven brothers, father and mother.
Why was Joseph unconcerned about upsetting his brothers with these dreams? Some say that Joseph was immature and vain. But I don’t think so. People who are immature and vain tend to complain when bad things happen to them.
His brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. When he later rises to be the most trusted and powerful slave in the house of his master, he is framed and thrown in the dungeon. Through all these calamities, he never once complains, never once gets angry, never even defends himself.
Because he trusts his dream and he knows where he is going.
Since he knows where he’s going, he doesn’t have to fuss much about how he gets there. His brothers are mad at him? No big deal, it will work out. Sold into slavery? There’s an interesting turn.
Everything that happens to him is merely a modulation of the present moment. Whatever it is, he’s there with it. He sees the big picture, and therefore he’s fully in the now.
In fact, his name embodies this quality. The Hebrew for Joseph is Yosef, which comes from the root that means “to increase”. No matter how terrible life gets, he pops back and increases toward his goal. He’s like cream- always rising to the top, never growing anxious or complaining. He just rides the story of his life, moving steadily toward his destiny.
There’s a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev saw a man hurrying down the street, bumping into things and knocking people over. The rabbi grabbed him and said, “Why are you rushing so?”
“I’m running to meet my destiny!” replied the man as he tried to break free from the rebbe’s grip.
“But how do you know that your destiny is in front of you?” argued the rebbe, “Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you have to do is slow down and let it catch up with you!”
On this Shabbat Vayieshev, the Shabbos of Dwelling, remember that to truly dwell in the Presence of the One who is only ever in the present, you don’t have to give up your dreams for the future. But, you don’t have to run after them either!
Instead, rest in the knowledge of where your ship is going- take the steps you need to move in that direction, then trust and enjoy the cruise, even when the world seems to be against you! And if you don’t know yet where you want to go, be present with the not knowing. In the silence, your dreams will reveal themselves.
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel was about to leave for the Holy Land, he went first to visit his master, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoy. He arrived at the inn in a troika, which seemed ostentatious to the other hasidim and annoyed them greatly. But when he came to the master’s house, they were even more flabbergasted to see that he arrived hatless and beltless. His shoes had big golden buckles, and a pipe stuck out of his mouth. They were sure Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef would boil with anger and harshly reprimand him, for his temper was well known.
But instead, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef greeted Rabbi Menachem Mendel warmly and invited him in, where they sat and talked affectionately for many hours. When Menachem Mendel left, the hasidim asked their rebbe why he wasn’t disturbed by Menachem Mendel’s conduct.
“Let me tell you a story,” said the master. “Once there was a king whose land was under attack, so he hid all his wealth and precious family heirlooms as best he could, hoping to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. But his most precious possession, the family crown jewel, he hid in palace basement, under a heap of cinders, for he knew no one would think to look for it there. And so it is with Reb Menachem Mendel – he hides his great humility in the cinder heap of vanity.”
Humility is a tricky thing, mostly because it’s not a “thing” – it is the absence of something. What is it the absence of? It is the absence of psychologically investing in one’s “self-ness.” Put more simply, it is the absence of concern for how the self looks to others; it is the absence of self-image. This is why, in the story, Menachem Mendel appears to be concerned with his self-image; in that world, displays of apparent vanity and ostentatious displays of wealth would invite harsh, judgmental attacks from others. But he doesn’t care! That’s the true humility – not being concerned with looking humble.
Part of why humility is so important is because when we are attached to a certain self-image or a certain fixed point of view, this can block us from growing; we think we “already know” or that we are “already there.” The arrogant personality doesn’t think it needs to grow. This is why Jewish teaching sees the imperfect person who transforms as far more relevant than the perfected tzadik. In fact, the three names that are commonly used for the Jewish people all point to this process of transformation:
The first name is עברי Ivri, Hebrew. The first time this word is used is in reference to Abraham, who is called Avram ha’ivri – “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The word עברי Ivri appears to be connected to the root עבר aver, which means to “cross over” or “pass by,” probably referring to the fact that Abraham and his family were part of the ancient migrations from Mesopotamia to the Land of Canaan.
But in a deeper sense, Abraham founded a new kind of spirituality. Out of the pagan culture in which he was embedded, he began teaching that the gods, the Elohim, are actually a singular Reality; Abraham’s story is one of transformation from seeing Reality as a plurality of conflicting forces, to seeing the underlying Unity.
The second name is ישראל Yisrael, Israel, which, in this parshah, is the name that Jacob is given by the mysterious being with whom he wrestles all night long and comes out victorious.
The third name is יהודי Yehudi, Jew, which comes from Jacob/Israel’s fourth son, Judah. Judah’s story comes in the next parshah, and as we will see, his story is one of being humbled, of having his arrogance broken, and his ensuing transformation results in his making peace with his brother Joseph.
Judah’s name, Yehudah, is related to the word הודאה hoda’ah, which can mean confession, conceding an argument, and also thankfulness, as in the morning prayerמידה אני Modeh/Modah Ani, which is chanted upon awakening to give thanks for being alive another day. He was given that name my his mother Leah who wanted to give thanks for his being born. The name יהודה Yehudah has the word הוד Hod within it, which is the origin of the sefirah of Hod being associated with humility and gratitude, even though Hod literally means “Glory.”
Jacob’s transformation also stems from his being humbled, and like Judah, his transformation results in his making peace with his brother as well – his brother Esau. The process begins with Jacob’s intense fear of his brother, who is coming toward him with four hundred men. Jacob, whose name means “heel,” had manipulated his brother many years earlier to sell him his birthright, and then tricked their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn as well. Esau resolved to murder Jacob, so Jacob fled to Haran, where worked for Laban, got married and built a family. Now he is returning home, and he is terrified that his brother is going to kill him.
So, he sends his brother gifts, he splits is family into two camps, and prays for salvation from his brother. He is then left alone in the night, and a mysterious being appears and attacks him; he wrestles with this “angel” all night long, and is eventually victorious. It is then that the mysterious being gives him the name Israel, which means sarita-El, one who has “wrestled with” or “strives for God.” We then have the following verses:
וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃
Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” And he said, “Why do you ask about my name?” And he blessed him there.
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
Jacob named the place Peniel, because “I have seen the Divine face to face, and my life has been spared/my soul has been rescued.”
וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָבַ֖ר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵ֑ל וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ׃
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip.
עַל־כֵּ֡ן לֹֽא־יֹאכְל֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־גִּ֣יד הַנָּשֶׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־כַּ֣ף הַיָּרֵ֔ךְ עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י נָגַע֙ בְּכַף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּגִ֖יד הַנָּשֶֽׁה׃
Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve that is on the sinew of the hip to this day, because he struck Jacob’s hip socket on the sinew.
Let’s look at each of these verses:
וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃
Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” And he said, “Why do you ask about my name?” And he blessed him there.
Why is Jacob chastised for asking the name of the being/angel he is wrestling?
This is similar to when we might be outraged by something, and we ask, What is that?? The asking itself is a way of denying its validity; it is a way for the ego to pronounce judgment on something. Additionally, learning the name for something can give the ego a feeling of security, as if calling it something imparts a sense of control. In fact, it is a common belief of early peoples that to know the name of a deity or spirit would allow you to control it.
The being’s response is, “access denied.” Immediately after, it says וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם vay’varekh oto sham – he blessed him there. Meaning, right there – the refusal to reveal its name – that itself is the blessing! Jacob’s ego is not given any wiggle room, and that is the blessing, because it is in transcending the ego that transformation becomes possible. As Reb Pinhas of Koretz said: “The strength of one who accepts reproof is greater than the one who reproves!”
The next verse says:
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
Jacob named the place Peniel, because “I have seen the Divine face to face, and my life has been spared/my soul has been rescued…
The phrase וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי – Vatinatzel nafshi – is normally translated as “my life was spared,” and this makes sense in the ordinary understanding of the words. But there is a deeper level when we look at these words more literally: nafshi literally means “my soul,” not “my life,” and vatinatzel means “rescued,” “delivered,” or “snatched away.”
Seen this way, it is saying that the deepest level of being – the soul, or consciousness, is set free – meaning, consciousness is liberated through the ego becoming humbled. And this is “seeing the Divine face to face” – meaning, when our consciousness is set free from its petty concerns and preoccupation with self-image, our eyes are open to see the wonder of Existence everywhere, and all things are the “Divine Face.”
The next verse says:
וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָבַ֖ר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵ֑ל וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ׃
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip.
“The sun rose” is another way of expressing וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי, the setting free of consciousness, and רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים seeing the Divine face to face; the “light” of consciousness is set free, and that Light is then perceived as the essence of all things. But, it doesn’t happen without a price:
וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ v’hu tzole’a al yirkho – and he was limping on his hip…
The “hip” is a euphemism for the sexual organs, which are represented by the sefirah of Yesod. Yesod represents joy and connection. So, the message is: having one’s ego humbled can temporarily put a damper on our joy! But, not to worry about this – it is temporary, and the “rising of the sun” reveals a depth and beauty that ignites a deeper joy, one not based on temporary conditions.
(This passage about Jacob’s injury is also the source of the practice in kashrut not to eat the hindquarters of the animal, so as to avoid consuming the sciatic nerve that is referred to in these verses. Why? To eat something is to make it part of us. The message is, don’t make your ego-injury part of you; don’t identify with being a victim! Instead, reignite your joy as soon as you can; let go of the past and ivdu et Hashem b’simkha – serve the Divine with joy!)
וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ – Vayizrakh lo hashemesh – The sun rose for him…
The phrase relates to the “Saying of Creation” associated with Hod:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים יְהִ֤י מְאֹרֹת֙ בִּרְקִ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם
Elohim said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky…”
Just as the “rising of the sun” represents the liberation of consciousness and the perception of the Divine Presence in all things, so too the me’orot birkia hashamayin, the “lights in the expanse of the sky” also hint at this perception. In the realm of human relationships, this perception is mirrored by our relation with our parents; they are the first “lights above” which we become aware of. The Zohar therefore relates this to the imperative of honoring one’s parents in the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments:
כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be lengthened…
Interestingly, this is one of the few mitzvot for which a clear reason is given; we should honor our parents in order to live longer! Again, honoring our parents is an expression of Hod – of humility and gratitude. The rabbis extended this much further and expressed the connection between our honoring of others and our connection with the Divine:
אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלּוּ:
Who is honored? One who honors all creatures, as it is said: “For I honor those who honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored…
וּמַרְאֵה֙ כְּב֣וֹד יְהוָ֔ה כְּאֵ֥שׁ אֹכֶ֖לֶת בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
The Divine Presence (K’vod Hashem) appeared as a consuming fire atop the mountain, to the eyes of the Children of Israel…
In other words, an important key to the liberation of our consciousness (the “rescue of the soul”) and beholding he Divine Presence, the K’vod Hashem in all things (the “rising of the sun”), is being ham’kkabed et habriyot – honoring all beings, all creation, especially those who raised us and to whom we owe our very lives.
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Raise Your Cup! Parshat Vayishlakh
12/9/2019 0 Comments
What is the nature of pleasure? Is pleasure something to be enjoyed and celebrated, or is pleasure a spiritual obstacle?
There is a teaching recorded in the Talmud that contains a puzzling dialogue between Moses and Hashem:
בקש להודיעו דרכיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן לו שנאמר הודיעני נא את דרכיך אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו אמר לו משה צדיק וטוב לו צדיק בן צדיק צדיק ורע לו צדיק בן רשע רשע וטוב לו רשע בן צדיק רשע ורע לו רשע בן רשע
(Moses) requested that the ways of the Holy Blessed One be revealed to him, and it was granted it to him, as it is stated: “Show me Your ways and I will know You” (Exodus 33:13). He said, “Master of the Universe! Why is it that there are righteous who prosper, righteous who suffer, wicked who prosper, and wicked who suffer?” (The Divine) replied to him: “Moses, the righteous person who prospers is a child of a righteous person. The righteous person who suffers is a child of a wicked person. The wicked person who prospers is a child of a righteous person. The wicked person who suffers is a child of a wicked person.
This teaching (attributed to Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Yosei) attempts to answer that old perennial question: if there is Divine justice in the world, why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there bad people who seem to have all the good things? The answer given here is a little baffling – it’s just because of their parents? Not very satisfying!
However, a novel interpretation of this passage comes from the renown 19th century rabbi known as the Chasam Sofer. He says that the good person who suffers (tzaddik v’ra lo- literally, “righteous and bad for him”) is not one to whom bad things happen. Rather, it is someone who doesn’t know to receive painful experiences. After all, painful experiences will absolutely happen to all people, regardless of how good or bad they are ethically. The issue is not whether pain will come, it is how we deal with the pain when it comes.
That’s why the passage says that the tzaddik v’ra lo is a righteous person with wicked parents. The tzaddik v’ra lo is good intentioned, but because they have wicked parents, they don’t learn how to receive pain and not get caught by it; they are still ruled by their impulses, in the same way a wicked person would be.
Conversely, the rasha v’tov lo – the wicked person who prospers – doesn’t mean a wicked person to whom good things happen; good experiences are constantly happening to all people, regardless of how good or bad they are ethically (like, for example, our next breath.) Rather, this is someone who may be ethically wicked, but because they have good parents, they have learned the skill of receiving pain without resistance, as well as the skill of cultivating gratitude and appreciation for the all the blessings.
The Chasam Sofer is interpreting the Gemara in light of this most fundamental spiritual quality: the simple receiving this moment as it is, also called “equanimity.” The main obstacle to equanimity is the impulse to resist and reject our present moment experience. This resistance, in turn, takes two main forms: rejecting or denying or judging or attacking what we don’t want, and longing for or running after what we do want.
One common approach to cultivating equanimity is to purposely restrict your enjoyment of pleasure and voluntarily take on a certain amount of pain; this is the path of asceticism. From the ascetic point of view, pleasure is seen as suspect, even immoral, because it leads to weakness of character and dependence on external experience. This is the context within which the pleasure-negative point of view arises in Judaism and in many other traditions.
The counterpoint to the ascetic point of view is the Hassidic approach, which came along to counteract the pleasure-negative ideology that became so prevalent in eighteenth century Eastern European Jewry. After all, it is not pleasure itself that is dangerous, but the clinging to and dependence on pleasure that is dangerous. Feeling good is a blessing of life – why should we go against our nature? Put another way, why should we reject the gifts that Hashem gives us?
That’s why Hassidism celebrated eating, drinking, dancing, sexuality, and so on, as a means to realize the sacred; the key was the kavanah – the intention – that one brings to pleasure.
One time, Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn walked into a room where some of his hasidim were drinking together and making merry, and he seemed to look at them with disapproval. “Are you displeased that we are drinking?” one of them asked. “But it is said that one when hasidim sit together over their cups, it is just as if they were studying Torah!”
“There are many words in the Torah that are holy in one passage, and unholy in another,” replied that rabbi of Rizhyn. “For example, it is written:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים – And the Divine said to Moses, 'carve for yourself two tablets of stone…'
“And in another place, it says:
לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ – Do not make for yourself a carved image…
“Why is the same word, fesel (“carved”), holy in the first passage and not holy in the second? It is because in the first passage, “yourself” comes after “carved,” and in the second it comes first. And so it is in all that we do: when the self comes after, all is holy; when it comes first, all is not.”
In other words, the sacred function of pleasure is to help us transcend ourselves; it is to use the pleasure as a means to praise and gratitude, to connection with the Source of blessing, rather than cling to the blessing for the sake of gratification alone. And even deeper, it is to awaken that Presence which is the deepest level of our being, beyond the “self” that craves this and that. After all, there is something essential that we can learn from enjoying pleasure: just as we enjoy pleasure for its own sake, savoring the moment without any future goal, so too we can learn to fully savor the moment as it is, even without any external gratification.
We can do this because there is a deeper goodness, a deeper pleasure, that arises from Presence Itself; when we awaken this deeper pleasure, we can see through the ups and downs of transient experience and pierce through to Oneness of Being, the Divine Ground that knows Itself through our own awareness, through the Living Presence that we are, beneath and beyond the “self” of thoughts, feelings, and changing experiences.
In the parshah, Jacob is pushed into this realization through crisis. He is terrified that his brother is coming to kill him and his family. He sends gifts to appease his brother, he prays for salvation, he divides his camp in the hope that some might survive if they are attacked. But then he spends the whole night wrestling with a mysterious being who attacks and injures him. By the time dawn breaks, Jacob is victorious, and the being gives him the name Yisrael, which means “strives for the Divine.”
Then, it says something interesting:
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
Jacob named the place Peniel, because “I have seen the Divine face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
It is true that it all turns out well for Jacob in the end; his brother forgives him and they hug and weep upon each other’s necks. But this verse comes before he sees his brother; he doesn’t know yet whether his prayers will be answered; he doesn’t know yet whether his brother will forgive him or kill him. And yet he says, וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי – which is usually translated as above: “my life has been preserved.”
But the word for “my life” – nafshi – literally means “my soul,” not “my life.” In other words, his becoming Yisrael means that he has pierced beyond the “good” and “bad” of his personal experience, to his underlying “soul” – his essential being beyond the “self,” beyond ego. He becomes Yisrael because regardless of whether he lives or dies, regardless of whether his prayers are answered or not, he knows now that everything is the Face of the Divine – ra’iti Elohim panim el panim – I see the Divine face to face.
This is our task: not to avoid pleasure, not to pursue pleasure as the goal, but to receive both pleasure and pain with full Presence. Because beneath our transient experience is a deeper pleasure, a pleasure with no opposite, a pleasure that is the nourishment we need now for our deepest being…
וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם – And one shall be like a tree planted by streams of water…
No Expectations – Parshat Vayiskhlakh
11/21/2018 1 Comment
Although we have done our best to raise our children eating healthy food, they have lately become a bit obsessed with candy. The other night, my daughter showed me a little toy electric fan filled with M&Ms that someone had given to her. As she tried to take out the M&Ms, I said, “Honey, let’s read the ingredients on the label.” We did. There were so many chemicals, both artificial flavors and colors, along with preservatives.
She asked what all those things were, and when I got to explaining about the preservatives, she said, “But that’s good, right Abba? The preservatives prevent it from going rotten.”
I suddenly realized she had a point. It’s true, many preservatives aren’t in any way nourishing. But, in certain situations, a little preservative would certainly be better than eating something that had become overrun with dangerous bacteria.
It’s kind of like spirituality. When spiritual practices like prayer and ritual are “fresh” – meaning, they are done with a spirit of openness and humility, they can be deeply nourishing. But there is a danger – when a person thinks of oneself as “spiritual” and therefore special or superior, the same practices can be a source of arrogance. The spirituality becomes “rotten” in a sense. In such a case, we need some kind of “preservative.”
What is the spiritual preservative?
Once, when Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua of Apt came to visit a certain town to teach, two men competed to have the rabbi stay with them. Both homes were equally roomy and comfortable, and in both households, all the halakhot – the rules of conduct aroundkashrut and Shabbat – were observed with meticulous exactness.
The only difference was that one of the men had a bad reputation for his many love affairs and other self-indulgent habits. He knew he was weak, and didn’t think much of himself. The other fellow, on the other hand, was perfect in his conduct, and he knew it. He walked around proudly, thoroughly aware of his spotless purity.
The rabbi chose the house of the man with the bad reputation. When asked the reason for his choice, he answered that in the Talmud (Sotah 5a), it says:
“R. Hisda said… every person in whom there is arrogance of spirit, the Holy Blessed One says, ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.”
“And,” said the rabbi, “if the Holy Blessed One can’t share a room with an arrogant person, then how could I? We read in the Torah, on the other hand, that the Divine “…dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanliness.” (Lev. 16:16) And if Hashem takes lodgings there, why shouldn’t I?”
The Divine can’t dwell with the arrogant person, because his spirituality has become spoiled. And what is the “preservative” that kept the other fellow from being arrogant?
An amazing, radical teaching: Yes, sin is sin. It’s not good, just like a preservative is not in itself healthy. And yet, it can prevent rottenness of spirit, by helping to conquer arrogance.
After all, what is arrogance really? It’s not just thinking good of oneself; it’s about entitled expectation.
Spiritual practice, on the deepest level, is about dropping all expectation.
When we’re successful in that, there can be an experience of freedom, of space, of sacredness. And in that experience, there can be a very subtle form of expectation that creeps in without our even knowing it; this is spiritual arrogance, the expectation perhaps that others should see us as special, and even more importantly, that we are somehow entitled to the spiritual bliss lasting forever. But if we reflect on our own imperfections, bringing to mind that we have made many errors and aren’t entitled to anything in particular, then we can paradoxically remain connected to the root, even when our branches falter.
וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת
Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people who were with him… into two camps.
This was Jacob’s quality that won him the name Yisrael. He is very insecure about his brother who wants to kill him, so he “divides the people” – meaning, part of him wants to simply trust the Divine protection that was promised to him, but part of him isn’t sure. His insecurity is actually the deepest nature of existence: all things, all beings, are completely insecure. Nothing is guaranteed. There may be a deep desire to trust, to believe that we have some kind of Divine protection, but this kind of trust is arrogance; if we’re honest, we must admit that insecurity is the Truth.
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of dawn.
These two sides of his being wrestled, until the “arising of the dawn” – until illumination occurred. He had done everything he could – he sent many gifts to his brother, he split up his camp, he prayed for safety – now it was time to surrender, and in that surrender, to conquer.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
He said, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Yisrael, for sarita im Elohim –you have conquered with (your) Divine (nature) and (your) human (nature), and you are able!”
Through his human nature, through his profound insecurity, he reached the true kind of trust – not trust in a particular outcome, but trust in Reality Itself, trust that this moment is as it is, and will be as it will be. Thus, through his human nature, he reached his Divine nature.
And this is our opportunity as well – to do everything we can to secure the outcome we want – pray, send gifts, work hard, all of it. But at the same time, be free. Embrace and relax into the insecurity, into the unknown, and into the true and actual security that isn’t about what we want; it’s about connecting with the truth of this moment, beautiful and fragile and tragic and miraculous. And in doing so, we can truly be one, and reunite with anything disowned or denied from our past:
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו כתיב צוארו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹ֑הֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ
And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…
Good Shabbos and Happy Thanksgiving!
Send! Parshat Vayishlakh
12/15/2016 1 Comment
“Vayishlakh Ya'akov malakhim lifanav el eisav-
And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau…”
This week’s reading begins with Ya’akov, with Jacob, sending angels ahead of him to appease his brother Eisav who had been intent on killing Ya’akov.
So who are Ya’akov and Eisav?
They’re twin brothers, but they were also opposite archetypes. Eisav was a hunter, a man of the field. Ya’akov, on the other hand, “dwelled in tents” where, according to the tradition, he would study Torah.
Get it? Eisav represents the body, and Ya’akov the mind.
Eisav wants to kill Ya’akov because Ya’akov used his cunning intelligence first to convince Eisav to sell him his birthright, and later to trick their father Yitzhak into giving Eisav’s blessing of the first born to Ya’akov.
And isn’t this what the mind so often does?
The body has its needs- not very complicated or profound- it needs good food, fresh air, good rest, and so on. But our minds have other more sophisticated and ambitions and plans. And because of all the great things we want to accomplish and experience, we end up polluting our bodies, not getting enough rest and exercise, and pushing ourselves in ways that can make us sick- not to mention the damage we cause to other people and to the earth. Eventually, Eisav will rebel- the body rebels, the oppressed rebel, the earth rebels. And that’s when life can fall apart.
So what’s the solution?
It’s to realize, first of all, that there’s a much more profound dimension to your mind than your thoughts, ideas and ambitions; and that’s your sensitivity- your awareness, your Presence.
Just as Ya’akov sends the malakhim- the angels- to Eisav, so you can send your awareness into your body. That’s how you can give yourself love, because awareness is the carrier wave for love; it’s the whole basis for love. After all, before you do anything loving for anyone, you first have to be present with them, you have to pay attention to them. Sometimes, attentiveness is all that’s needed. And, it’s the same for your own body.
So what does Eisav do when they finally meet? Eisav weeps and kisses Ya’akov.
In the same way, when you bring your mind out of its imaginary worlds of ambition and projection and down into your physical body, then with practice, your body will reflect back to you that quality of love and attention as a feeling of blissful openness, showing you the true nature of your own Being.
So on this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we send our loving attention deeply into our own bodies, and may our appreciation of the body lead us to eradicate all the needless human oppression on this planet. May we also love and protect this earth which is our physical home. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may this loving attention- this Power of Presence- ever increase like the lights of the menorah.
DON'T Let it Go! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Abba, do you want to wrestle?” asked my four-year-old daughter hopefully-
“Sure,” I said, “How do we start?”
“First, you go on that side of the bed, and I go on this side of the bed. We have to make mean faces and put our fists in the air. Then, we fall forward face down… and then… we wrestle!”
When I was in seventh grade, I was on the wrestling team, but we never started a wrestling match quite like that. Hilarious. But that’s what we did: We made our mean wrestling faces, put our fists in the air, fell onto the bed, and then… we wrestled!
Wrestling with a little four-year-old girl is not exactly fair. She thinks we’re wrestling, but I'm calling the shots. I pretend to struggle, then I fall over and say, “Oh no, she’s getting me! She’s getting me!”- but really, it's an illusion.
Kind of like when we wrestle with Reality. We can groan and moan, complain and blame, and somehow the mind thinks that all this drama will get us somewhere... but of course, it's an illusion too. We can do a lot to change our situation for the future, but we can never do anything to change what has already become.
And yet, in the case of wrestling with my daughter, just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The real value is not in the struggle itself, but the blessing of connection that comes from the struggle.
In this week’s reading, Jacob demands that a blessing comes from his struggle.
Jacob is once again in a dark place. He has received word that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men, and he fears for his life:
“Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people, flocks, cattle and camels into two camps…” (Gen. 32:8)
If Esau attacks half of his camp, at least the other half will survive. He then sends tributes ahead to appease his brother and prays for his life.
Night falls. After sending his family across the river, a strange thing happens-
“He spent the night there… Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn…”
The “night” is his not knowing- his anxiety about the danger that might befall him. So, he “wrestles” with his situation- meaning, he resists the truth of his predicament. Of course, it’s not a fair fight- the “wrestling” is an illusion. You can’t fight with Reality.
But eventually, the “man” says to Jacob,
“Let me go, for the dawn has broken!”
In every experience of fear, anger, frustration or loss, there comes a time to “let it go”. To “let it go” means you stop telling yourself stories about it, that you stop torturing yourself with it.
But- is there a value in not letting it go?
Jacob thinks so:
“I will not let you go until you bless me!”
Jacob knows that the real value is not in the struggle itself, but in the blessing that comes from the struggle. The mysterious man concedes and says:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (Sarita) with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.”
Jacob insists on a blessing, so his opponent gives him the title of one who has mastered his situation.
It’s true- Jacob has done everything he could do with both God and man to take responsibility: He’s split his camp to ensure the survival of at least half of them. He’s sent many gifts to appease his brother. He’s prayed to God for safety and protection.
And now, after an all night struggle with his anxiety and fear, the dawn is breaking. He’s done his best- he has become Yisrael- and now he’s ready to let go, surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
But something is missing. He is not satisfied with the mere title of Yisrael, there’s something he still needs to learn- so he asks a question:
“Vayishal Ya’akov- Jacob asked- ‘Tell me please your name!’”
The word for “asked” is “yishal”- the same letters as his new name, “Yisrael,” except that it’s missing a letter Reish.
The letter Reish means “head”. It implies authority, as in the “head of a school” or the “head of a company” and so on.
As Yisrael, Jacob has used his head wisely- he’s thought through his situation and acted as the responsible “head” of his family. But in asking a question, Yisrael becomes Yishal- he loses the Reish,as if to say, “my head is incomplete- there’s something I don’t yet know.”
What is it that he doesn’t know?
He doesn’t know the identity of the “man” that he’s wrestling with. In other words, even though he might be ready to give up his struggle, he doesn’t yet understand the nature of his struggle.
Jacob’s opponent answers him with yet another question:
“Why do you ask me my name?”
His opponent puts a question back onto Jacob: What’s your motivation in asking?
When we experience the inner pain of resistance, there comes a time when we accept and let go. Little children do this all the time- they’re great a letting go. But that doesn’t help them stay out of trouble in the future. The next moment, they’re upset about something else. There’s no self reflection- no sense of how they create their own suffering.
But if you take the time to really look at your own motivation- ask yourself, “How am I creating my experience?” then there’s the possibility for growth, for actually responding to life with a new wisdom. That kind of wisdom can only be won through the real struggles of your life.
But the struggle itself doesn’t automatically give it to you. You have to hold on to it a little longer and deeply inquire into yourself, before the “dawn” makes you forget all about it. The wisdom you get from that self-inquiry is the true blessing.
When you experience the blessing that only comes through suffering, the suffering takes on a whole new dimension. It’s no longer your enemy. Behind your troubles and problems, there is the Divine Friend, urging you to grow, to evolve.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist says to God: “I am a stranger on the earth- hide not your commandments from me!”
On this verse, the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, taught:
“When a person is driven into exile and comes to a strange and alien land, he has nothing in common with the people there and not a soul he can talk to.
But, if a second stranger appears, even though the new stranger comes from a totally different place, the two can confide in one another, and come to cherish one another. And had they not both been strangers, they never would have known such close companionship.
And that’s what the psalmist means: ‘You, just like me, are a stranger on this earth, for Your Divinity is hidden by my pain and suffering. So please, do not withdraw from me, but reveal to me your ‘commandments’- reveal to me the wisdom that can only be learned through this suffering- and let us be friends…’”
On this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Shabbat of Sending, may our personal pain and all the troubles of the world be sent far away. But before it goes, may we extract the Light that can only come from the darkness- the self-knowledge we need to evolve. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may that Light ever increase as the lights of the menorah, helping our whole species to evolve. May we dedicate ourselves ever more completely to the revelation of this Light!
Send Yourself Home- Parshat Vayishlakh
12/4/2014 2 Comments
Where have you been?
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayishlakh, opens: “Vayishlakh Yaakov malakhim lefanav el Eisav akhiv- Jacob sent angels before him to his brother Esau…”
Jacob had been away from Esau for twenty years. After Jacob had tricked their father Isaac and stolen Esau’s blessing and birthright, he fled for his life from his brother. Now, as he prepares to return to Esau, he sends angels to deliver gifts and bring back information.
Esau is an ish sadeh- a man of the field- a hunter and trapper. In other words, Esau represents the physical. Jacob is a yoshev ohalim- one who “dwells tents”. According to tradition, this was the tent of learning, of the mind. Esau and Jacob, then, represent the spectrum of human existence- from the physicality of our bodies to the inner worlds of mind and thought.
Our bodies generally serve our minds, to our detriment. If our minds served our bodies, would we poison ourselves with toxic foods and stress? It is easy to take the body for granted, to make it serve our intentions, as if the mind is the adult and the body is the child. The truth, however, is that the body is older; the body is the “first born”. Only later did the mind develop. And yet, the body is often ignored, except to gratify it. We tend to live in the mind, in the world of time, not in the real world of the body that lives in the eternal present. Our minds have “stolen the birthright” of our bodies.
Like Jacob, we flee the present world of the body into the mind in order to manipulate and control, just as Jacob used his mind to outsmart the trickster Laban. But at some point, we must return home to our bodies or we become stuck in the world of lies, the world of the mind with its calculations and projections. We must return to the eternal present, to the world of truth, to the physical. The irony is that in returning to the physical, we discover the spiritual, for that which is aware of the physical is itself spiritual. But if we stay preoccupied with the mental, awareness becomes stuck in the world of thought and separation.
So what is the solution?
Like Jacob- send the angels of your awareness all the way down into your body. Let your body feel the sun, the air, the rain, the whole natural world. Pour your awareness all the way down to your feet. Take off your shoes, let your heels touch the earth. In fact, Jacob’s name means “heel”. As long as Jacob is stuck in the mind, he is paradoxically a “heel”- a manipulator. But as he prepares to meet and honor the physical, wrestling on the dark earth with his mysterious foe, he receives the name Yisrael- meaning one who “strives for" or "wrestles with the Divine”. His name is not changed; he is still Jacob, but now he is also Israel. Rather than being a "heel" in the negative sense, he becomes like the bodily heel- supporting the higher structures of the mind through full connection with the earth and the present.
G-d is ever-present, but are you present? Send the “present” of your awareness into your body, and receive what your body has to tell you. In this unity of presence with form, of awareness with the body, the Divine reveals Itself: The basic and simple Oneness of Being, manifesting in the gorgeous and awesome miracle of this moment…
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!
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