Shalom friends – G'mar hatimah tovah – may you be inscribed for goodness! Here is the drash I gave Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782:
Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz, would travel to the city of Apt every year on his father’s yartzeitto visit his grave. While he was there, he would preach to the community in the synagogue. One year, on such a visit, he neglected to show up at the synagogue, so some people found him outside the inn where he was staying to ask him when he would come.
“I don’t think I will preach this year,” he replied. “I don’t see any evidence that my preaching has done any good.” He went up into his room and shut the door.
The people were dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to say. Then, a young craftsman stepped forward, went into the inn, up to the Maggid’s room and knocked on his door. The Maggid answered.
“You say that your preaching hasn’t had any effect,” said the craftsman. “But that’s not true. Last year you spoke about the practice ofSh’viti Hashem L’negdi Tamid – I place the Divine before me constantly. Ever since then, I always see the Divine before me in whatever I am doing, and in whatever is happening; It appears to me like black fire on white fire.”
“Hmm,” replied the Maggid, “Okay then, I guess I’ll come and preach.”
As we come into this new year of 5782, and as this world is going through so many profound shifts accompanied by so many catastrophes and so much suffering, we need so deeply to know that white fire on black fire – meaning, we need to know the underlying Reality behind all opposites; we need to plug directly into That Source.
We need to know that this Mystery which is at the root of all things, not separate at all from the awareness that hears these words right now, the field of consciousness that you are, fully within yet infinitely beyond your thoughts, your feelings, and your body, that which we call the Divine who is not a supreme being, but is rather Beingness Itself, That is the Source from which we can draw the strength and inspiration we need to meet this moment.
We hope and pray for relief, for healing and normalcy, and b’ezrat Hashem may it manifest speedily.
But instead of focussing too much on how we would rather things to be, I think we will be far better served to embrace, rather than resist this time of crisis, to accept that this is the moment in which we live, and do our best to meet it, to plant and nurture seeds of light in these opaque times.
How do we do this?
If we want to find Reality, if we want to find the Divine, if we want to find the truth of our own beings, all of which are the ultimately same thing, then we need to learn how, again and again, to fully bring ourselves to what is present, and to spend some time every day, in whatever way we can, in silence, in simple Presence with Reality as it is appearing to us.
כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
For this teaching which I enjoin upon you today is not hidden from you, nor is it distant.
לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will ascend for us to the heavens and get it for us that we may hear it and do it?
וְלֹא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבׇר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross over for us beyond the sea and get it for us that we may hear it and do it?
כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
For this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:11-14
This special day, the “head” of the year, tells us how. The Talmud says:
אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא
The Holy Blessed One said –
אִמְרוּ לְפָנַי בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה מַלְכִיּוֹת זִכְרוֹנוֹת וְשׁוֹפָרוֹת
Recite before Me on Rosh HaShanah – Sovereignty, Remembrance and Shofars.
מַלְכִיּוֹת כְּדֵי שֶׁתַּמְלִיכוּנִי עֲלֵיכֶם
Sovereignty, so that you should honor That which is above you –
זִכְרוֹנוֹת כְּדֵי שֶׁיָּבֹא לְפָנַי זִכְרוֹנֵיכֶם לְטוֹבָה
Remembrance, so that your remembrance should rise up before Me for the good.
And through what? – through the shofar!
- Talmud Bavli 34b
These three elements – Malkhyot, Zikhronot, and Shofrot, are actually a recipe for waking up out of the dreams of the mind and heart, into the full potential of the spacious field of Divine Being that we are at the deepest level. They form the three sections of the Musaf, but they are also something we can practice right now and always:
We begin with Zikhronot- remembering. This is not a remembering something that happened in the past; it is remembering to bring our attention fully into the senses, out of the ever wandering thinking mind and into the richness of this moment.
When we do this, there’s a transformation – everything appearing now in our field of experience – sensation, feeling, emotion, the arising and falling away of thought, everything present literally becomes like Shofrot – it all becomes like the sound of the ram’s horn, waking up out of the dream and into connection not just with the forms that are present in experience, but with the underlying Beingness of things, that which we call Hashem, the Divine. In becoming present with the truth of this moment, whatever is present serves to help us awaken more deeply.
And from this awake-ness, there naturally arises a sense of openness and connection, a sense of receiving the truth of this moment from God’s hands, so to speak. This is Malkhuyot, bowing before the majesty of Existence as it is, and as it could be – which is the meaning of the Highest Divine Name, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I Will be What I Will Be.
If all of this seems confusing, that’s okay. But I wonder, even if these words are not completely clear, might there be something in you that resonates on some level, either with these words or maybe just with the energy of this special time that is now blossoming into being?
Whatever resonance there might be, I want to encourage us all to nurture it. May this be a Rosh Hashanah, in the sense of Reishit HaShinui – the beginning of a change – a first step in a new transformation within each of us to move to the next level in our spiritual development both for ourselves and for bringing the best of ourselves to this world in need.
This is our fifth year of being so blessed to be collaborating with Urban Adamah. May these holy days inspire us all to gather and learn and practice year round, b’khol yom – every day for those of us together in the Torah of Awakening community. And for those here who are visiting from other communities, may you receive inspiration to take the next steps on your paths. And for those who are not yet part of a spiritual community – perhaps this will be your first step in connecting on this level. Know that you are welcome whatever your background, whatever your experience – come come whoever you are, this is no caravan of despair…
There’s a story that Rabbi Zevi Hirsh of Rymanov once complained to his teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, that whenever he prayed, he saw fiery letters flash before his eyes.
“Ah – these are the mystical kavanot (contemplations) of our sacred master, Rabbi Isaac Luria,” replied Rabbi Mendel. “What cause do you have to complain?”
“But I just want to pray in a simple way, from my heart! I don’t need these mystical visions!” answered the disciple.
“What you have in mind is a very high level,” said Rabbi Mendel. “This is the level of having mystical experience, and then simply praying like a little child.”
While all the paths reveal the many intricacies of spirituality, the path of reish is the recognition that we are in the Presence of something that is infinitely beyond anything the mind can comprehend. The paths give us a map, but ר reish reminds us that the map is not the Territory, and that the appropriate attitude to have towards the Territory is always awe, always “beginner’s mind.” The path of ר reish is knowing that Reality is beyond what we can possibly think in our heads.
Reish ר actually means “head” (rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah) and also means “beginning,” as in the opening line of the Torah:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning (BeReisheet) of Elohim creating heaven and earth…
Rosh Hashanah is the “head” of the year, bringing the meanings of “head” and “beginning” together. There are actually four Rosh Hashanas – four “New Years” in the Jewish year, corresponding to four different letters in the alef-bet which all represent different kinds of “beginnings.”
The ordinal beginning is א alef, which is the first letter of the alef-bet. The phonetic beginning is ה hei, because ה hei is the pure exhalation, the breath that is behind all vocalized sounds. The visual form of every letter begins with י yod, the “point” that is formed when the pen first touches the parchment in the writing of every letter. Reish ר is actually “beginning” in its meaning. When you combine these four letters together in a certain order, you get: יראה yirah – which means something like “awe,” “respect,” or “fear.”
“Fear” is a bit misleading, as yirah is not a negative thing like “terror,” which can be paralyzing, but is rather an inspiring and motivating force. Yirah is more like “awe” and “respect,” the recognition of our vulnerability and the need for attentiveness and care, as in the way a mountain climber must be careful and attentive in their craft because of the danger involved. Yirah is knowing that we are in the Presence of the Divine, leading us to take seriously the needs of the moment; it is seeing this moment as “commandment.”
ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כׇּל־הָאָדָֽם׃
The end of the matter, when all is heard: Be in awe of the Divine and guard Its commandments, for this is the whole person.
כִּ֚י אֶת־כׇּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כׇּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כׇּל־הָאָדָֽם׃
For all the works of the Divine are brought in judgment for all that is hidden, be it good or bad. The end of the matter, when all is heard: Be in awe of the Divine and guard Its commandments, for this is the whole person.
- Kohelet (Ecclesiates) 12:13,14
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught on this passage, “Whenever we come to the ‘end’ of anything, we will always hear this one maxim: Et HaElohim y’ra – ‘Be in yirah for the Divine.’ This is the Whole – there is not one thing in all the world that doesn’t teach us how to have yirah; all is mitzvah…”
All is mitzvah – there is no aspect of life in which we are not participating in an incomprehensible miracle; to take this moment seriously is to step up to what this moment “asks” of us – it is to receive this moment from the hands of God, and finding the commandment within it.
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
You stand this day, all of you, before Hashem your Divinity—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, every person of Israel…
לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃
…to enter into the covenant (BRIT) of Hashem your Divinity, and with its oaths (ALAH) which Hashem your Divinity seals with you this day…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:9, 11
אלה – ALAH is an interesting word; it can mean “oath,” but also “curse,” as well as “to lament” or “mourn.” One way to understand these meanings is that there will be suffering, a “curse” if we violate our oath, causing us then to lament and mourn.
But on a deeper level, these meanings point to the recognition that although life certainly brings us lamenting and mourning (as expressed in the letter נ nun), we should nevertheless dedicate ourselves to the Divine (צ tzaddi) and to the work of affirming the sacred (ק koof), through practice (Netzakh) and lovingkindness (Hesed).
Actually, we need not end there with Hesed; in truth, we could include all the paths and connect them to yirah and to ר reish, which is why reish and yirah are called the “Whole.”
אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כׇּל־הָאָדָֽם׃
The end of the matter, when all is heard: Be in awe of the Divine and guard Its commandments, for this is the whole person.
Another meaning of אלה Alah, “oath” is that when you slightly change the vowels, you get eleh – “these.”
The Zohar says that the word eleh (“these”) refers to the ten sefirot, which can be incorrectly interpreted to be separate deities. This is the psychological tendency to fixate on parts of Reality and not see the Whole. To this, Kohelet responds:
רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־כׇּל־הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֔ים שֶֽׁנַּעֲשׂ֖וּ תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה הַכֹּ֛ל הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ׃
I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind!
- Kohelet (Ecclesiates) 1:14
All forms are temporary and ultimately unsatisfying; we should not make forms into gods, but rather focus on the Eternal Reality from which everything comes and to which everything eventually returns. As a remedy for this idolatrous tendency, the Zohar recommends a practice of inquiry in which one constantly asks the question, מי mi? meaning, “who?”
Through the asking of “who,” we can come to realize the inner identity of all “these” different forces – eleh combines with mi, and becomes Elohim, and “these” are revealed to be part of the One Reality. This is yirah, the path of reish – the recognition of the Divine miracle that is now present. This is the opposite of living from ego, which is psychological identification with separateness. It means living in loving service of the One, which is presently manifest in and as all beings.
But to do this, we need to make the effort; we must make an ALAH (oath) to know that ELEH (these) are really ELOHIM (One Reality that includes all plurality), and remember that when we forget this and worship the ELEH instead, this will only create more ALAH (suffering) for ourselves.
This is the essence of teshuvah, the primary spiritual movement of this time of Elul – returning to the One that is ever-present, and to bring forth this awareness in our words and deeds, in yirat Hashem – awe of the Divine.
Please Remove Your Shoes
The letter ק koof is associated with the root קדש K-D-Sh, which means “holy,” “sacred,” or “transcendent.” In particular, ק koof has to do with recognizing the sacred in the ordinary, the transcendent in the mundane. The passage of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush expresses this recognition:
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
And (Hashem) said, “Do not come closer to here. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the Place upon which you stand is holy earth – admat kodesh...”
- Shemot (Exodus) 3:5
שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ – Remove your sandals from your feet…
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught:
“Remove the habitual which encloses your ‘foot’ – which comes between you and your experience of the world – and you will know that the place upon which you find yourself is holy; for there is no rung of human life on which we cannot find the holiness of the Divine everywhere and at all times.”
In other words, the sacred dimension of being is ever accessible in all experiences, all encounters – we need only remove our conditioning, our habitual way of seeing things as mundane and unspiritual. How do we do this?
Parshat Ki Tavo
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
It will be when you come into the land that Hashem, your Divinity gives to you as an inheritance and you take possession of it and dwell within it…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1, Parshat Ki Tavo
The parshah then goes on to talk about a special ritual of gratitude that involves putting the first fruit of one’s harvest into a basket, making a pilgrimage to the Temple, and offering the fruit in gratitude for having come out of slavery in Egypt, and into the the “land flowing with milk and honey.”
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land…
On a simple level, this is a farmer’s gratitude ritual for the goodness of the produce of the earth. But on a deeper level, “coming into the land” means coming into the place you already are, being fully present with the “earth” – meaning, whatever happens to be present in the moment.
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in…
This is hinted at by V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in –meaning, entering the mode of Being. The word וְהָיָה v’hayah, “it will be,” actually consists of the letters of the Divine Name in a slightly different order. Thus, we might understand that to encounter the Divine, we need to “come into” the mode of Being.
Our lives consist of both Doing and Being, but we tend to identify with the Doing mode. Doing is “going out” – reaching toward a goal we imagine in the future. This is how we create and accomplish things, which is wonderful and necessary. But if it is not balanced by the mode of Being, if there is total identification with the mind and with Doing, then there is no sacredness. There is also no peace or contentment, because one is constantly focused on a goal in the future; there is never any “arrival.”
What is the solution?
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land…
Come fully into the place that you are, by connecting your awareness with the aretz – the earth on which you dwell, this body through which you live, and with anything else that is perceived; this is Presence.
The Basket of Gratitude
וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית כׇּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה
V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah – You shall take from the first fruits of the earth…
There is a “fruit” is ripening right now – that “fruit” is fulness of this moment; it is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
Our “first fruit,” then, is the raw present, before we impose our conditioning upon it. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both joy and suffering, and we may have stories and judgments about it. But before the stories, before the judgments, there is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When we descend deeply into ourselves, when we return from the journeys of the mind and into the reality of the naked present, it can dawn on upon us: there is a choice! We have the choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude.
This is not a denial of suffering. In fact, it is often thanks to our suffering that we are awakened to those things that truly matter, to the blessings we are constantly receiving but often take for granted.
And when we realize that this is in fact our choice, that we can choose to collect our “first fruits” in the “basket” of gratitude, we shift into awareness of the fundamental holiness of Reality, the sacredness of Being. This is the path of ק koof.
When that happens, we can then say as the ancient farmer said:
וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם Vayotzieinu Hashem mimitzrayim – Hashem brought us out of Egypt –
Meaning – we are brought out of the contracted bundle of mind-identified ego (Mitzayim, “Egypt”) through simply being (Hashem, “Existence” or “Being”).
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכׇל־הַטּ֗וֹב V’samakhta v’khol hatov – And then you will rejoice with all the goodness that you are given, you and the strangers among you...
Heaven on Earth
There is a passage in the morning prayers:
כִּי הוּא לְבַדּוֹ מָרוֹם וְקָדוֹשׁ פּוֹעֵל גְּבוּרוֹת עֹשֶׂה חֲדָשׁוֹת בַּֽעַל מִלְחָמוֹת זוֹרֵֽעַ צְדָקוֹת מַצְמִֽיחַ יְשׁוּעוֹת בּוֹרֵא רְפוּאוֹת נוֹרָא תְהִלּוֹת אֲדוֹן הַנִּפְלָאוֹת
For the Divine alone is exalted and holy, Doer of mighty deeds, Maker of newness; Master of battles, Sower of acts kindness, Causing salvation to sprout forth, Creator of remedies, Awesome in praise, Lord of wonders!
Rabbi Barukh’s disciples came to him and asked, “Hashem is called ‘Creator of remedies, Awesome in praise, Lord of wonders.’ Why? Why should ‘remedies’ come before ‘praise’ and ‘wonders’?
He answered, “Hashem does not want to be praised for supernatural miracles. And so here, through the mention of ‘remedies,’ Nature is introduced and put first; in this way it is clear that everything is a miracle and a wonder.”
The Mystery of the Commonplace
Many common experiences are completely ineffable and inexplicable, yet we take their reality for granted because they are so common. Like the flavor of food, for example. Or music – can you explain the experience of listening to music? Can we even know what music is? Of course not – music is a mystery. Flavor is a mystery.
And yet, if someone says, “mmmmm” we understand they’re enjoying food, because we know that experience. If we see someone dancing to the rhythm, we know they are hearing the music. We can’t really explain it, but because we know the experience, we can recognize the outward signs of the experience in someone else.
כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֙שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה־אֶ֔רֶץ וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל לְאֻמִּ֑ים וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה׃
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Divine will shine, and Its Presence will be seen over you.
- Isaiah 60:2, Haftora Ki Tavo
What does this passage in the haftora mean – the Divine will shine and Its Presence will be seen? It sounds like a contradiction – if “darkness covers the earth,” how can the “Presence” be seen?
But that’s the point – you cannot “see” the Divine any more than you can “see” the flavor of food, or “smell” the sound of music. The dimension ק koof, the sacred within the ordinary, is nevertheless not an uncommon experience; we know the outward signs of it, just like we recognize the savoring of food or dancing to music.
What are the outward signs?
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ – Knowing one’s place
- Pirkei Avot, 6:6
In the rabbinic wisdom text Pirkei Avot, there is a list of qualities one needs to acquire wisdom, and among them is hamakir et m’komo – knowing one’s place. It may sound like a negative thing, like being passive and not speaking up for yourself. But the word for knowing, makir, also means “friend” – so the “knowing” is like the knowing of a friend; it is a knowing of love, of relationship. The word for “one’s place” – m’komo – is a form of Makom, which is also a Divine Name. So, to be hamakir et m’komo means to “make friends” with the place you are actually in, right now, and thereby connect to the Divine Presence that shines beneath the surface of all things.
When we encounter someone who practices this, we can recognize it – we sense an inner light, a friendly aliveness, a peaceful presence. We may not be able to conceptualize it or explain it – darkness shall cover the earth – but nevertheless there is the recognition – Its Presence will be seen.
From this quality of making friends with the present moment, there naturally arises the next quality mentioned in the mishna:
וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקו – and being happy with one’s portion…
It is good to appreciate what you’ve got. But to be truly samayakh b’helko – happy with one’s portion – we must realize what we are on the deepest level:
וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה – And upon you the Divine will shine, And Its Presence will be seen over you…
This Presence, this Light, is what we are – it is the awareness that befriends this moment and expresses Itself as radiance and peace within the one who realizes.
And yet, even though we are this Light, it is easily concealed; we must make the effort to realize this Light by coming to this moment as a friend, by being hamakir et m’komo – making friends even with our own darkness, with our own negativity. Because it is through Presence With the negativity – with the fear, with the anger, with the resentments, with the irritability – that we can reclaim the consciousness that has temporarily taken a negative form and transmute it back into Light. When that happens, it can then be said:
ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּכְב֥וֹד יְהוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח – Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Divine has shone upon you!
- Isaiah 60:1, Haftora Ki Tavo
Conquering Darkness with Light
There is a Hasidic story that the once the Jews of the town of Apt were threatened by a local decree against them and were in great distress, so the Rabbi of Apt issued a command for a universal fast in order to call down God’s mercy. But when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn heard of the threat, he called for his favorite klezmorim (musicians) to come and play on his balcony every evening. As the sounds wafted down, a crowd of Hasidim would begin to gather below, and as the gathering grew, they would begin to dance.
Word eventually came to the Rabbi of Apt of what was happening: “Rabbi! Your decree of a time of fasting has been turned into a time of rejoicing by Rabbi Yisrael!”
The Rabbi of Apt responded by quoting a pasuk:
וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃
“When you come into battle in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound the trumpets, that you may be remembered before Hashem your Divinity and be delivered from your enemies…
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 10:9
“How can I judge someone who is taking this command of the Torah to heart?”
In this story, the response of the Rabbi of Apt to the impending calamity is to impose austerity. This is a common traditional response; when life brings us danger, the practice is to try to avert the danger through asceticism. In this taking of suffering upon oneself on purpose, the belief is that you can stop the danger from manifesting externally.
The logic of this type of approach comes from our ordinary experience of relationships. You may have experienced that when a person realizes they have wronged you, and they come to you with sincere apologies and grief, it is not difficult to forgive them.
But there is also another path; instead of being repentant and sorrowful, the offender might do something so delightful that the offense is forgotten. This is often true in the case children! While children might occasionally be sorry, usually their offenses are forgiven when they do something adorable.
In terms of Kabbalah, the ascetic approach is the path of Gevurah, while the approach of delight is the path of Tiferet. In the story, it is the playing of music that draws down Divine compassion, hence the association of Tiferet with “beauty” and “splendor,” which are straightforward translations of Tiferet, but also with “compassion,” or rakhamim.
Another dimension of the story is the description of the scene: the musicians play up on the balcony, and the music wafts downward to the gathering Hasidim below, who begin to dance. This is the transcendent beauty of Tiferet above, arousing Yesod below, which represents the foundational functions of joy and community.
In addition to the association of Tiferet with beauty and compassion, Tiferet is also associated with emet, truth.
…תורָתְךָ אֱמֶת: תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקב. חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם
Your Torah is Truth; Grant Truth to Jacob, Kindness to Abraham…
- Atah Kadosh liturgy (weekday Shakharit, Shabbat Minkha, Motzei Shabbat Maariv)
In this liturgical text, Abraham is associated with Hesed/Kindness, while Jacob is associated with Emet/Truth. In Kabbalah, the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, come to be associated with three sefirot, Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; hence the association of Tiferet with Truth.
But this is strange – how can Tiferet represent beauty and compassion, and also truth?
Beauty and compassion make sense; we experience beauty, and this arouses compassion. But to have compassion, we often have to ignore truth to some degree; we overlook the truth of a person’s guilt in order to respond compassionately. Furthermore, beauty is often an external effect that covers up truth, as when a person puts on makeup or dyes their hair. We can “photoshop” an image to make a person look more beautiful than they actually are. In recording, we can digitally “fix” a person’s voice when they sing off key, hiding the truth of how they actually sang.
There is a hint to this riddle in the parshah:
אֶת־יְהוָ֥ה הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְוֺתָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃
You say today that Existence Itself will be for you as God, that you will walk in Its ways, that you will guard Its practices and commandments and ethical rules, and that you will listen to Its Voice.
וַֽיהוָ֞ה הֶאֱמִֽירְךָ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְלִשְׁמֹ֖ר כָּל־מִצְוֺתָֽיו׃
And Existence Itself affirms today that you are to It a treasured people, as said to you, and to guard all of Its commandments,
וּֽלְתִתְּךָ֣ עֶלְי֗וֹן עַ֤ל כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה לִתְהִלָּ֖ה וּלְשֵׁ֣ם וּלְתִפְאָ֑רֶת וְלִֽהְיֹתְךָ֧ עַם־קָדֹ֛שׁ לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃
And you will be set far above the nations that were made, for praise and fame and splendor (Tiferet), and you will be a holy people to Hashem your Divinity, as said.
- Deuteronomy 26.17-19
This passage describes the benefits that the Children of Israel will receive for living in alignment with the Divine. Each of these qualities are aspects of Tiferet:
עֶלְיוֹן Elyon – exalted, above, transcendent; this is Tiferet in relation to Malkhut, as Tiferet is symbolized by the Sun, and Malkhut by the Earth.
לִתְהִלָּה Lit’hilah – “for praise,” particularly through song. This is the beauty of music, as in the story above. The Psalms, which were sung by the Levites in the temple, are called Tehilim.
לְשֵׁם L’shem – “for name” meaning “famous.” The artists and musicians are the beloved icons of culture, the celebrities that embody the beauty and transcendence of Tiferet.
תִפְאָ֑רֶת L’tifaret – for Tiferet! That is, for “beauty” or “splendor.”
But how are we to receive all this Tiferet?
אֶת־יְהוָ֥ה הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים
You say today that Existence Itself will be for you as God…
The qualities of Tiferet come not merely from doing the mitzvot, but from verbally expressing the Reality of the Sacred. In other words, they result from expressing the truth of our deepest recognition. This is the underlying message of the Jewish idea of brit, of covenant: The Torah is not merely the legislation of right action, but the commitment to bear witness to the truth of the sacred. In this way, beauty and compassion come not to cover up truth, but arise as expressions of it. This expression of the truth of the sacred is the path of ק koof.
The Cow in the Field
Once, I was in the Oakland Airport with my family, preparing to board a plane to Tucson. After checking our suitcases, we arrived at security to find an incredibly long line, winding around rope dividers and culminating with a tiny funnel into only two security gates. There were several more gates that could have been opened to move things along, but for whatever reason, they were not staffed and were closed.
Right in front of us, a middle-aged man started cursing angrily. “What the %$^$ is going on here? Why don’t they ^%&$*# open the other gates??”
He started verbally abusing the security person looking at IDs and checking tickets. He demanded to speak to a supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, he cursed him out too. The supervisor said, “You just hold that thought, and I’ll go get someone for you to speak to.”
I was sorry that my then three-year-old girl had to hear that language. I was bracing myself for some police to come and wrestle this guy to the ground.
Strangely, no police showed up. Instead, he just kept on cursing and venting all the way through the line.
When it was time to remove our shoes and put our laptops in separate bins, I didn’t want to aggravate him more with our clumsy family choreography, so I offered to him that he go ahead of us.
“Nah, that’s okay,” he said, “I have plenty of time, I’m just mad about how they’re running this place.”
He had plenty of time!
I saw an interview once with an Indian spiritual teacher who had a novel way of explaining the spiritual path that I had never heard before.
He said that the “self” is like a cow in a pasture.
The cow always wants to wander outside the field and into the town or woods, but when she does, she gets attacked by wild animals, kids throw rocks, people shoot guns. Eventually, she figures out she’s better off to just stay in her own field.
The “field” is the inner heart. When the “self” dwells in the inner heart, according to this teacher, it enjoys union with the Divine. When it gets tempted and wanders outside the heart, it always ends up suffering. So, in this teaching, the aim is to learn to keep yourself in the cave of your heart. That’s it.
To me, this is a wonderful description of Presence, particularly the practice of keeping awareness anchored in the body and the heart. To be anchored in the body means that the mind is no longer wandering off into paths of thought, but is staying connected to the senses and hence to the present moment. To be “in the heart” means to have the attitude of offering your attention to the fulness of the moment from the heart, so that simply being is an acy of love.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose this connection with the body and with heartfulness by wandering into the ever-blossoming pathways of the thinking mind, which in its continuous thinking can dream up something wonderful one moment, but then change to a nightmare in the next.
I thought of this teaching when I saw this guy in the airport. Even if he was going to miss his flight and his plans would be all disrupted, what is it that is really creating all his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Of course, nothing but his mind.
The mind creates all these stories and gets all excited about them. It was even more telling to learn that he wasn’t even going to be late; he was just out to make some enemies, to do some warfare.
Parshat Ki Tetzei
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:10, Parshat Ki Tetzei
When we leave the sacred place of the heart, when we leave our connection with the present moment and travel the labyrinth of the mind and its necessarily self-centered stories, we create our enemies and battles.
וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand and you capture its captivity…
It’s a strange construction – וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽו v’shavita shivyo – “capture its captivity.”
But if we understand that it is we who are captured by seeing the world as our enemy “out there,” then we need to “capture our captivity” – meaning, we need to know that we are bigger than any of those ensnaring mental narratives.
How do we do it?
We can do it by understanding – וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Existence, which is not separate from our own Divine nature, is giving this moment into our hands.
This realization has both a passive and active aspect; it is both surrender and empowerment: surrender to the truth of what is, rather than fighting with our idea of what is, and also empowerment to dedicate ourselves to serve the Divine as this moment comes to us – to dwell in the cave of the heart, to respond not from ego, but from the Divinity that we are.
This is the path of צ tzaddie, the practice of dedicating our full selves to the One.
The Mitzvah of Destruction
It once happened that a large group of hassidim went to visit Reb Yitzhak of Vorki in a village near Warsaw. In their enthusiasm to get to their rebbe more quickly, they cut through a field of a wealthy land owner and damaged his crops with their trampling.
One of the employees of the land owner, by the name of Moshe, saw what the hassidim had done. He himself a hassid, so he followed them to the rebbe. When they all arrived, Moshe stormed into the rebbe’s room and cried, “You must hear what these idiots have done – they have trampled my master’s crops! They should be beaten for this! In fact, it would be a mitzvah to beat them!” – for this was the custom among wealthy land owners of that time.
Reb Yitzhak gave no answer. Assuming that the rebbe agreed with his view, the angry man strode out to have the hassidim beaten.
But the tzaddik called him back and said, “When you perform a mitzvah, you must articulate your holy intention by first contemplating and pronouncing the evocation that begins ‘l’shem yikhud- for the sake of the Unification.’ Since you are a hassid, you should also purify yourself for the holy act by immersing yourself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath). So, after you go to the mikveh, then chant l’shem yikhud devoutly, then go ahead and perform your mitzvah…”
Moshe’s attitude shifted visibly, and he left without another word.
Never Give Up
Part of the function of a spiritual teacher is to wake up our tzaddik within, that level of our being beyond ego. But this can only help us in the long term if it leads to the commitment to try to live from our inner tzaddik, moment to moment. This is the most challenging work, but we must never give up, no matter how many times we may fail.
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once he travelled through many villages trying to collect funds so that he could liberate the poor Jews who were incarcerated in the Ukrainian debtor’s prison. Day after day, he went from door to door pleading the case of those poor souls rotting away in the dungeon, but no one would contribute anything.
After weeks of failure, feeling dejected and frustrated, he gave up and set out to return home, regretting having wasted all that time he could have spent learning and praying. But just as he approached his house, a woman ran up to him in a panic:
“Rabbi, my husband was caught stealing a piece of clothing and was viciously beaten by the police and thrown in jail!”
Without hesitation, the rabbi turned around and went to intercede with the judge. After much effort, he was able to get the prisoner released. When he went to fetch the prisoner from jail, he sternly warned him: “Remember the beating they gave you and don’t ever do anything like that again!”
“Why not?” replied the thief, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”
Upon hearing his words, the rabbi resolved to return to his task of raising money to ransom prisoners, and eventually was highly successful in paying their debs and liberating many.
Only One Thing
There is a debt must be paid for our inner freedom as well.
We too must not give up “raising the funds” – meaning, we too must bring our attention fully to each moment, to each situation, to each feeling, to each reaction, to each thought. Again and again – we might get caught, absorbed and coopted by whatever is arising in our experience, but don’t give up! The real danger is never failure; it is allowing our failures to develop into the belief that inner freedom is impossible. It is true – our experiences have a certain gravity; we tend to be captured by them, but we can “capture” them instead – if we remember that we are far more vast than any impulse, than any experience. We are, in essence, the open space within which this moment unfolds. We must constantly remember this one thing.
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
Life is, in a sense, like a battle ground. If you want to liberate your heart and live from your inner tzaddik, you have to be one pointed and relentless, like a warrior.
And yet, וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand – the victory is a gift placed in our hands by the Divine; it is not something we win through effort. This is the paradox: on one hand, we’ve got to have unshakable will, and on the other, total surrender. In fact, there’s no contradiction, because the unconscious impulse is to struggle, to fight with Reality, to go out from the heart lamilkhama al oyevekha– to battle your enemies. If we wish to conquer this impulse to struggle, we must be relentless in our surrender.
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine, this I seek: to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life and meditate in Its Sanctuary…
These words from Psalm 27, traditionally recited this time of year, are an affirmation of this kavanah, this “ransoming” of our inner freedom through the “funds” of consciousness we must collect in every moment, every situation, every feeling, every thought: Above every goal, above every desire, there is only one thing.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה
Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v’ya’ameitz libekha, v’kaveh el Hashem –
Hope to the Divine, be strong and your heart will be courageous, hope to the Divine!
A disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the Seer of Lublin, had been fasting all week and was traveling to spend Shabbos with his master. On the way, he came upon a well, and was suddenly overcome with an uncontrollable thirst. He thought he might die if he didn’t drink some of that water!
Involuntarily, he drew some water from the well and brought the cup to his lips, when suddenly he realized – “If I drink now, I will have nullified my entire fast! Just a few more hours to go!”
And with that, he managed to overcome temptation and walk away from the well. But then he noticed within himself a bit of pride that he had withstood the test. “Better that I drink and nullify my entire fast than have this pride!”
He went back to the well and again began to draw some water, when to his astonishment, he realized that his thirst had completely disappeared. So, he returned to his journey without drinking any water. When he arrived at the home of his master, the Seer greeted him harshly, barking at him: “Patchwork!”
In Martin Buber’s short book, The Way of Man, he tells this story and talks about his own contemplation of its meaning. “Why was the Seer so harsh with the disciple?” he wondered. He eventually came to understand the meaning of the story by asking the question, “What is the opposite of ‘patchwork?’” The opposite of patchwork, he answers, is “of a piece.”
In other words, the Seer scolds the disciple because he was not one within himself; he was second guessing, going back and forth, not deciding on a path and walking it.
A common misconception on the spiritual path is that spiritual practices alone can produce a unity within ourselves.
While it is true that spiritual practices can help us perceive the unity that is already there, that is, the unity of consciousness itself, beneath all the conflicting forces of our various experiences, we still must forge that unity in how we approach the practices; we must decide on the spiritual path and walk it whole-heartedly. This self-unifying part of the work should be done before we fast, before we sit down to meditate, pray, study, or whatever. We must always unify ourselves in the decision to practice first; our practices will not accomplish this for us. And if we fail to do this, our practices won’t have any lasting endurance; we will give up. This is why the first path is Keter, the “Crown,” which is the act of unifying ourselves through the power of intention before we traverse any of the other paths.
But what goal is our unifying intention to be directed toward?
It is the dedication of our full selves to serving the Divine – the path of צ tzaddie – to bring forth and live from our Divine potential. This potential to devote ourselves to living from our highest selves is ever-present, but to do so we must recognize the ever-present choice to overcome the forces of inner “wishy-washy-ness” and become “of a piece.”
Paradoxically, the more we are able to become one in our devotion to the One, the more we are able to transcend the decision-making mind and know the deepest level of who and what we are, beyond all forms that come and go in experience – the open space of awareness itself. This is the fruit of the practice, and it comes to us by Grace; we cannot force it to happen, but it is given to us when we give ourselves completely to the Path.
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ – Ki teitzei – When you go out…
The word כִּי ki is usually translated as “when” but it can also mean “because.” Translated this way, it is because we make the effort to go out from our inertia and conditioning; it is because we engage the inner battle to forge a unity within and fully step onto the spiritual path with commitment; it is because we make that effort that:
וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand…
Again, paradox: The fruit of the path is not something we control with our decisiveness, it is “put in our hand” by Grace. And yet, it is given to us כי ki – because we have made the effort to dedicate ourselves to the Divine. This is the path of צ tzaddie, to dedicate our full selves to the One. Then, through the meeting of effort with Grace:
וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ – and you capture their captivity…
The more that the inner fruit ripens, the less effort is needed to unify ourselves, because the more we experience the goodness of this “fruit,” the less temptation there is to waver; the less distraction there is from the Goal. We experience the benefit for ourselves, and we know.
And yet, it is crucial to not think that we’ve “made it.” As numerous stories and teachings tell us, the true tzaddik does not think that they are a tzaddik at all. Knowing this protects us from the trap of thinking that we are exempt from continuing to walk the path; realization must always be accompanied by humility.
On the Integral Tree, this is depicted by the juxtaposition of Netzakh, which means “Victory,” with Hod, which is associated with humility. With humility, we can remain vigilant to the inner danger that ego can coopt even the most sublime spiritual attainment – as they say, the higher you climb, the harder you fall…
The Success of Failure
כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ
When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof, and you won’t bring blood upon your house when one falls from it…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:8, Parshat Ki Tetzei
The fact that the Torah talks about preventing a person from falling off the roof by building a protective barrier implies that, indeed, people must have fallen off of rooves; it was probably the failure to anticipate this danger that led to the law of making a ma’akeh (parapet).
Similarly, when we become aware of our own spiritual failures in the past, we too can build some kind of ma’akeh, some kind of protective fence to prevent the same thing from happening again.
There are two main types of spiritual failures: mistakes and temporary insanity. A mistake would be: you’re up on the roof and you’re goofing around, not paying attention, or maybe you just miscalculated your footsteps and you fall of the roof, God forbid. Temporary insanity would be: you’re up on the roof with someone, you get into a fight and push them off the roof, God forbid. You didn’t intend to hurt them; you just got angry and lost control.
The ma’akeh prevents both types of scenarios. Whether accidental or by temporary insanity, the parapet prevents a person from falling. There’s a hint in the wording of the pasuk: “one who falls” is יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל yipol hanofel – literally, “will fall, the falling.” The repeating of the verb “fall” is an idiom of emphasis, but also hints that the ma’akeh can prevent both the accidental and the impulsive falling crisis.
Similarly, we too can take measures to prevent ourselves from repeating our misdeeds, whether they be accidental or impulsive. To do that, we need to see our lives clearly, contemplate, and create our own “parapets.” This is the transformative part of teshuvah, the main practice of the month of Elul in which this parshah falls.
There is yet a third kind of spiritual failure, one that is far more difficult to prevent. This is the misdeed of habit, the misdeed that has become part of one’s personality and lifestyle – such as addiction, relationship dysfunction, abuse, and so on. The more emmeshed we become in the negative behavior, the less likely we are to change it. And yet, we absolutely can change it. This is the deepest and most transformative kind of teshuvah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once came upon a wealthy man in the street who was known to be abusive with his money and power. “Oh, I envy you sir!” said Levi Yitzhak. The rasha (evil person) looked proudly at Levi Yitzhak, thinking that the rabbi wished he too could have all that money and power. But then Levi Yitzhak continued, “I envy you, because when you finally return, when you finally do teshuvah, all your sins will be transformed into magnificent lights, and what a brilliant spectacle that will be! Oh sir, I envy you that brilliance!”
These three types of misdeeds – accidental, impulsive and intentional, are three main types of “sins” mentioned in the liturgy: het means “missing the mark,” as in shooting an arrow and missing the target. This is the accident. An aveira is crossing over a boundary impulsively; you accept that there is a boundary, but you become possessed by strong feelings and you violate it. Lastly, an avon is a misdeed that is not a mistake and is not impulsive; it has become part of how you operate. The avon cannot be prevented by any kind of ma’akeh; you can’t “trick yourself” out of this kind of misdeed. For the avon, you actually have to choose differently; you have to turn completely from ego and bring forth your inner tzaddik.
These three kinds of “sin” are different from each other, but for a person who wants to become free from them, there is a single ingredient is needed.
Whether we are merely setting a boundary to prevent mistakes and impulsivity, or we are seeking to overcome a deeply ingrained behavior, the root of all transformation on any level is the application of Presence. The outer teshuvah of returning to intentional action is rooted in the inner teshuvah of bringing our awareness out from its compulsive preoccupation with thought (which ordinarily reinforces our patterns), and into our actual present experience, into our senses, into our bodies. In doing so, acceptance and forgiveness of the past is natural and spontaneous, as the pain we cause ourselves by holding on to the past becomes blatantly obvious. And not only that, but the more we bring our attention to this moment, the more we can see that we are the awareness of this moment. We are openness, we are free, and we are in no way trapped by the past or by habit. In Presence, the power to choose reveals itself.
Dedicating the Whole Self
Whenever I travel, I am always amazed that I can draw together the clothing, toiletries, books, computer equipment, etc., and pack them all into a single suitcase. It actually seems miraculous to me, that all the disparate items can come together into a single whole.
But miraculous as that is, it is nothing compared to the miracle of Presence: that through the simple shift of opening to the immediacy of actual experience, all the disparate chaos comes together into the “suitcase” of the present moment; in Presence, there is no longer “me” and “that” – there is only the fullness of the what is, in all its richness, arising within and falling back into the one field of awareness that we are. The haftora says:
בְּרֶ֥גַע קָטֹ֖ן עֲזַבְתִּ֑יךְ וּבְרַחֲמִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים אֲקַבְּצֵֽךְ
For a tiny moment I forsook you, but with a vast compassion I will gather you together…
- Isaiah 54:7
When we “gather together” our awareness into the fullness of the present, there is paradoxically a vastness and a benevolence – a rakhamim gedolim that is our own nature, revealing all past misdeeds for what they really are: tiny moments of forgetfulness arising and disappearing into the vastness of Being. From this vastness, from this awareness that leaves nothing out, we can (once again) dedicate all of it, in all of its disparate complexity, to the One Reality, and to remember (once again) the One Thing we seek – to dwell in the House of the Divine all of our days, day by day. This is the path of צ tzaddie, the gathering together of our full selves in dedication and devotion to the One.
The Greatness of Not Being So Great
There’s a story about Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the “Seer” of Lublin, that once he was confronted by his nemesis, Rabbi Azriel Hurwitz. Rabbi Hurwitz was the Rav, the chief rabbi of Lublin, and was known as the “Iron Head” because he was such a giant of Torah learning. He was often enraged by the Seer’s power to attract followers to himself.
“You yourself admit that you are not a tzaddik (perfected master); why do you continue to mislead the people by allowing them to come and follow you?” said the Iron Head.
“What can I do?” replied the Seer, “The people rejoice in my teachings, so they come.”
“This is what you must do,” said the Iron Head. “Next Shabbos, tell them that you are nothing special, that you don’t deserve their adoration.”
The Seer agreed.
Next Shabbos, when many hassidim came to hear the Seer teach, he told them that he was nothing special, and that they shouldn’t give him honors that he didn’t deserve. But, when they heard his self-deprecations, their hearts were set aflame even more, and they loved him and followed him even more for being so humble.
Later the next week, the Seer told the Iron Head what had happened. The rav thought for a moment, then said, “Ah, that’s the way it is with you hassidim – you love humility! Here is what you should do. Next Shabbos, tell them that you really are a great tzaddik; tell them that you are God’s chosen one, that you have come to save the Jewish people!”
“That I cannot do,” replied the Seer, “I am not a tzaddik, but neither am I a liar!”
Another time, the Iron Head was berating the Seer as usual for the crowds he attracted. “I am so much more learned than you, yet they don’t throng to me!”
“I too am astonished by this,” replied the Seer, “For my learning is not very great, and it is well known that your learning moves mountains. But perhaps the reason they come to me because I am astonished that they come to me, and the reason they don’t come to you is because you are astonished that they don’t come to you.”
The tzaddik, or spiritual master, is characterized by the quality of humility; this is the paradox of the tzaddik, that they do not think they are a tzaddik. This is represented by the position of the letter צ tzaddie on the Integral Tree (our version of the Tree of Life), connecting the sefirot of Yesod and Hod.
Yesod, which means “Foundation,” is life energy – the magnetic and charismatic joy of being – and hints that the tzaddik dedicates all their life energy and charisma to serving the Divine.
Hod, which means “Glory” or “Splendor,” is associated with the qualities of both humility and gratitude. This association stems from the word הודאה hoda’ah, which can mean confession, conceding an argument, and also grattitude, as in the morning prayer מידה אני Modeh/Modah Ani, which is chanted upon awakening to give thanks for being alive another day.
The life energy of joy and charisma (Yesod) is not typically paired with humility (Hod), which tends to be a personality trait of dampened joy and charisma. But the path of צ tzaddie shows that they can be joined in the persona of the tzaddik when life energy is dedicated to the Divine, to joyfully serving That which is beyond the self.
This supreme quality of צ tzaddie may seem far fetched, beyond reach for most people. And yet, it is not in any way something remote or separate from us; it is, in fact, the essence of who we are:
וְעַמֵּךְ֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם צַדִּיקִ֔ים לְעוֹלָ֖ם יִ֣ירְשׁוּ אָ֑רֶץ נֵ֧צֶר מַטָּעַ֛י מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדַ֖י לְהִתְפָּאֵֽר׃
And your people are all tzaddikim, forever they will possess the land; They are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I glory…
- Isaiah 60:21
The context in this verse from Isaiah is that it is talking about the future, that all of us are potentially tzaddikim and that we will eventually evolve into being tzaddikim. But these words are also used as the introductory verse to each chapter of the wisdom text Pirkei Avot, as if to encourage the reader: don’t be disheartened! To be a tzaddik is our Essence; we need only to become transparent to our It. We cannot own It or possess It; we cannot try to claim it as an identity. Rather, it shines through when the ego bows to It.
But how do we do that?
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates– which Hashem your Divinity gives you– for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with justice.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18, Parshat Shoftim
In the plain meaning, this is the instruction to set up a just legal system. But on a deeper level, putting “judges and officers” in your “gates” means first of all to see your thoughts clearly and to know that they are only thoughts. Ordinarily, we tend to be wrapped up in constant thinking, never stopping to reflect: “Ah, there is a thought… and there is another thought.”
But when we simply acknowledge the fact that thoughts are just thoughts, there can arise the realization that we are not merely our thoughts; we are not bound by our ego-self, which is based on thought. This seeing and acknowledging of thought is represented by the שֹׁפְטִים shoftim – the “judges.”
Once we recognize that thoughts are only thoughts, that they are not the essence of who we are, we can then choose which thoughts to think and which thoughts to allow to dissipate. It is appropriate that the rav in the story was called the Iron Head, because he was so rich in knowledge – he had greatly cultivated his thinking mind – but his thoughts were like iron; he was locked in the prison of his mind. He was completely stuck in ego – that is, he was stuck in that sense of self created from thought. If he had a bit of objectivity on his own mind, he would have realized that his thoughts of being threatened by the Seer and his urge to attack him and knock him down were not useful thoughts; they only served to keep him trapped. He would have said, “Oh well, that’s the old ego” (yetzer hara) and simply let those thoughts go.
This second step, that of choosing to use our minds rather than be used by our minds, is represented by the שֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים – shotrim, the “officers.” Once we have a clear, objective view on our own minds (shoftim), we then have the power to choose which thoughts are worth keeping and which ones are not (shotrim). This leads us to the famous verse:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְיְ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Hashem your Divinity gives you…
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק – Tzedek tzedek – “justice” is written twice, to hint: this is not only the execution of justice in the world; we must also work to see the world in a way that is un-biased. We must “judge the judge,” so to speak, by knowing that thought is just thought, and then consciousy choosing which thoughts to think. To do this, we must know the dimension of our own being that is beyond ego, the dimension of simple awareness, so that we can drop our attachment to thought and thereby let go of our need for validation, for praise and for status – then the tzaddik nature can shine through quite naturally.
There Goes the Neighborhood
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha – the afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in r-r-r-repetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R.” She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage – “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what is your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t real – you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of your day, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be compassion.
My immediate reaction was certainly not compassion, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged – not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you, like me, may not feel compassion in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to compassion; this is the path of צ tzaddie – knowing that the tzaddik nature is there within you, even if it is not your immediate experience in the moment. The content of our experience constantly changes, but behind that change is awareness, and within that awareness is the potential of צ tzaddie, the potential to embody our Divine nature.
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha – Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates...
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “appoint judges in your gates” – meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be limited by them; remember That to which you are devoted. Then, you can consciously choose how to frame your experience in your thoughts, and consequently choose how to act as well; these are the “officers.”
Still, our reactive impulses can be incredibly powerful and seductive; it is crucial to not be afraid of our experience, to know that we are bigger than any particular impulse:
שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם׃
Hear, O Israel! You are near, today, to battle against your enemies. Don’t let your heart be distant; don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and don’t be broken before them...
Sh’ma – listen/become aware, Israel!
This verse begins just like the other, better known verse – Sh’ma Yisrael – listen – be aware, Israel! When we bring our awareness into connection with our actual experience in the present moment, there can be a dropping of our ordinary preoccupation with thought and emotion, and the spacious quality of awareness itself appears...
אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם
You are close, today...
This word for “close,” k’reivim, can mean “near,” “intimate.” Hayom – “today” – of course means Now. It is saying: become present – come close to this moment…
To battle against your enemies…
When we experience emotional pain, the tendency is to recoil, to contract, to project blame upon something we imagine to be the source of our pain. The imagined source – a person, a situation, whatever – seems to be our enemy, and we unconsciously oppose it. But here it reminds us, come close to that urge to battle against your enemies. Notice this unconscious impulse; be the awareness behind the impulse.
Don’t let your heart falter…
The word for “falter” – yeirakh – is similar to the word for “hip” – the place where Jacob was struck by the Divine being, after which he limped – hence the connection with “falter.” But the hip is also a euphemism for the reproductive organs, the part of the body that is usually hidden. So, al yeirakh levavkhem can mean, “don’t hide your heart.” Together, it means: don’t cripple your heart by contracting! Don’t split yourself in two – whatever disturbing experience arises is literally made out of your own awareness – be present to it and don’t be ruled by it:
Don’t be afraid, and don’t panic!
Don’t fear your own fear – bring your awareness into the fear. Relax and don’t panic – don’t buy into the drama, simply feel whatever is there to be felt.
And don’t be broken before them!
This sums up the entire teaching: don’t divide yourself by imagining there is something in your experience that is separate from you; everything you perceive arises in your own awareness. Furthermore, this awareness that you are is actually far beyond “you” – it is Reality Itself, incarnating and becoming conscious as you; it is the Divine, seeing through your eyes.
This is hinted by the construction of each of these phrases: al yeirakh, al tir’u, al takh’p’zu, v’al ta’artzu – Don’t let your heart be distant; don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and don’t be broken before them – don’t don’t don’t don’t!
The word for “don’t” – אַל al – also can mean both “to” (אל el) and “God” (El). The hint is that when we dissolve our fear by bringing our awareness to (אל el) the fear, that awareness is actually God’s awareness (El); the Divine is ever-present as our own consciousness! When strong emotions threaten to pull us into smallness, into contractedness, our deliberate Presence With the emotions actually harnesses their energy for deeper awakening from their drama. As it says in Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited at this time of year:
יְיְ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א
The Divine is my Light and my Salvation, who shall I fear?
This is path of צ tzaddie – bringing forth the tzaddik nature from within ourselves through the power of Presence...
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics experiences.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck” – a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets up on the stage to practice his stand-up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Mastery and Adversity
Why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it is because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him; his goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to give him good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it is the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to practice our responses to different experiences and master the art of life. But to do this, we need to be clear that we want to do this; we need to know what our goal is for this life we are in.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck – then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do. But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that…
Beyond Good and Bad
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned – with an entire herd of wild horses following behind! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again, the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again, the villagers came: “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything. Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, I set before you today blessing and curse.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26, Parshat Re’eh
הַיּוֹם Hayom – Today means now! In this moment, there is the potential for either blessing or curse; it is our choice:
אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙
The blessing, that you listen to the commandments.
There are three levels of meaning for the word mitzvot – “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain; this moment has already become what it is.
This recognition of the authority of the moment is expressed by the farmer in the story in a simple way: “Maybe blessing, maybe curse – we don’t know.” Meaning, it is futile for us to expend energy judging something that is beyond our control.
There are other ways of expressing this truth. For example, we might say, “There is no use resisting what is. We must work with the moment as it appears; we must work with what we’ve got.” This would the ו vav approach, accepting what comes our way and not getting caught by reactivity.
Or, we might frame it in a more devotional way: “Hashem has given me this situation, so I trust Hashem and accept that this what I need to work with right now.” This would be more of a י yod approach.
Whichever path we walk in order to embrace the reality of whatever comes our way, the expression of this wisdom in words is the path of פ pei, the “mouth.” The path of פ pei is about words of teaching – the meanings of the words, but also the sounds of the words, the vibrational reality of things, which brings us to the second level of meaning of mitzvah:
The word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word צותא tzavta which means not “to command,” but rather “to connect” or “to join together.”
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the sense of “listening” is a metaphor for connecting. When we say that we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we are connecting with the speaker: “I hear you!”
So if you want to connect with the underlying blessing before you, listen deeply to the vibration of this moment, rather than just the surface of the situation, which we tend to judge as good or bad. This is the other side of פ pei, which is listening to the “vibration” or “feel” of the moment rather than merely judging it conceptually.
Connect with both the blessing and the curse – that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and resist the curse – that’s the curse!
This principle is power behind music; music can express a vast spectrum of emotion, both sweet and bitter, and yet even within the most bitter is a sweetness when expressed in music! This is because music has the power to draw us into full embrace of whatever is being expressed. And in this embrace of the expression of music, we are deeply nourished. This is another dimension of the path of פ pei – that our consciousness is nourished by the vibratory sounds of Torah and tefilah, teaching and prayer.
But in order to receive this nourishment, we have to be aware of our situation:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
Re’eh – See, I set before you today blessing and curse.
רְאֵה Re’eh – See…
Just as the sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, so the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case: “Oh, I see now!”
What should we see?
בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה Barakha u’klalah – blessing and curse…
On the level of ordinary perception, blessing and curse are not optional; there will always be a spectrum of experience. It is in our response that we have some choice. The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the “curse” of judging blessings and curses. What is the way out?
אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם Anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom – I place before you today…
Behind all the blessings and curses is the One Reality. If we want to go beyond the duality of preference and connect with the blessing of the One Presence within all things, let go of the judging mind; listen to the fullness of how it is, to the vibration of this moment.
When we do that, we are free. Like Commander Data, it is not a problem if the audience doesn’t laugh at our jokes. That’s how we learn! Like the farmer, we can respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of mitzvot – the plain meaning as “God’s commandments.”
When we free ourselves from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then we know we are not something separate from the Whole. Our actions can flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole – in service of God.
This state of “living for God” (represented by the letter צ tzaddie) may seem far-fetched and out of reach. Nevertheless, it is a potential within us, and we can nurture that potential by articulating it – by contemplating it, saying it, and chanting it. This is the power of פ pei, to articulate a stage of consciousness that is higher than we actually are, and thus help bring forth our potential into actuality.
The Sound of Blessing
בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה Brakhah uklala, blessing and curse, are ever the potentials before us. They are set before us הַיּוֹם hayom – “today” – meaning, they are not merely consequences that we’ll have to deal with later; they are inherent within this moment. Which shall we choose?
אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
Blessing, if you listen the mitzvot of Hashem, your Divinity, that I command you today;
- Deuteronomy 11:27
Meaning, “listen” – be aware of this moment as it appears – that is the “commandment.” In this deep listening, not merely to the surface of experience but to its inner vibration, there can be the realization of the blessing within the awareness itself that listens, the awareness that we are on the deepest level.
And through the window of this fundamental blessing of being conscious, all of the thirty-two paths can manifest, which can be represented simply by just the seven lower sefirot: Hesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (beauty, radiant presence), Netzakh (persistence), Hod (humility, gratitude), Yesod (joy), and Malkhut (presence, relationship).
וְהָיָ֣ה הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֥ם בּוֹ֙ לְשַׁכֵּ֤ן שְׁמוֹ֙ שָׁ֔ם שָׁ֣מָּה תָבִ֔יאוּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֑ם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶ֣ם וְזִבְחֵיכֶ֗ם מַעְשְׂרֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ וּתְרֻמַ֣ת יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְכֹל֙ מִבְחַ֣ר נִדְרֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּדְּר֖וּ לַֽיהוָֽה׃
And it will be that the Place that Hashem your Divinity chooses Its Name to dwell, you shall bring everything I command you – your Ascensions, your offerings, your tithes and those that you elevate with your hands, and all your choicest vows that you vow to the Divine.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 12:11-12, Parshat Re’eh
וְהָיָ֣ה הַמָּק֗וֹם – V’hayah HaMakom – And it will be, the Place…
The “Place” that is chosen is the Place we are now in; in fact, the Divine and the Place are not two separate things. V’hayah, “will be,” is in fact the Divine Name with the letters in a slightly different order, and HaMakom, The Place, is itself a Divine Name. The message is: it is always to This Place that we must bring our offerings. The five offerings embody five of the sefirot:
עוֹלֹתֵיכֶ֣ם – Oloteikhem – “Your Ascensions” is Tiferet, the transcendent beauty of Presence.
זִבְחֵיכֶ֗ם – Zivheikhem – “Offerings” is Hesed, the spirit of love and giving.
מַעְשְׂרֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ – Ma’sroteikhem – “Tithes” is Gevurah, the inner strength to not take only for oneself, to give up something for the sake of others.
תְרֻמַ֣ת יֶדְכֶ֔ם – T’rumat Yedkhem – “Elevated with your hands” is Hod, which means “elevating” one’s actions through humility and gratitude. And finally:
מִבְחַ֣ר נִדְרֵיכֶ֔ם – Mivhar Nidreikhem – “Choicest of your Vows” is Netzakh, which is committing to a path and following through with consistency and vigilance.
All of these qualities are dependent on the foundation (Yesod) of joy, as the next verse expresses:
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֮ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ אַתֶּ֗ם וּבְנֵיכֶם֙ וּבְנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַבְדֵיכֶ֖ם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשַֽׁעֲרֵיכֶ֔ם כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃
And you shall rejoice (s’makhtem) before the Hashem your Divinity with your sons and daughters, with your male and female servants, along with the Levite in your gates, for they have no portion or inheritance among you…
This is the power of sound – to bring forth all of our spiritual potential into actuality, so that it is available to us even in the midst of the storms of life. As the Haftora says:
עֲנִיָּ֥ה סֹעֲרָ֖ה לֹ֣א נֻחָ֑מָה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י מַרְבִּ֤יץ בַּפּוּךְ֙ אֲבָנַ֔יִךְ וִיסַדְתִּ֖יךְ בַּסַּפִּירִֽים׃
Afflicted, storm-tossed, uncomforted one, behold! I will lay your floor stones upon pearl (Malkhut) and make your foundations (y’sad’ti, Yesod) with sapphires (the five upper sefirot)…
- Isaiah 54:11
Sound delivers the most basic spiritual nourishment, but unlike food and water which must be purchased with money, spiritual nourishment is purchased with something else:
ה֤וֹי כָּל־צָמֵא֙ לְכ֣וּ לַמַּ֔יִם וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־ל֖וֹ כָּ֑סֶף לְכ֤וּ שִׁבְרוּ֙ וֶֽאֱכֹ֔לוּ וּלְכ֣וּ שִׁבְר֗וּ בְּלוֹא־כֶ֛סֶף וּבְל֥וֹא מְחִ֖יר יַ֥יִן וְחָלָֽב׃
Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; come, buy food and eat; buy food without money, wine and milk without cost…
- Isaiah 55:1
Spiritual nourishment is still “bought,” but not with “money,” not with “cost” – meaning, unlike when we purchase with money, we don’t lose anything. Joy still must be purchased – meaning, there is an effort to be made, there is a path to walk. But this effort doesn’t expend our resources, it makes available our deepest resources.
How do we “purchase” the spiritual nourishment we need?
Less is More
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzen and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice,” which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man chugging a big glass of noni juice. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almost exactly the same, except – the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt so that it would be permitted for us to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to buy any product with a shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a having no shirt?” I asked. “Isn’t the human body holy? Are you saying there’s something wrong with the human body?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive. A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more we get, the less sensitive we become to what we already have – hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, often the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
V'hayah eikev tishma’un – It shall be a reward if you listen to these rules and guard them and do them, then Existence your Divinity will guard for you the covenant and the kindness was sworn to your ancestors…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12, Parshat Eikev
The sentence contains a strange idiom – the word עֵקֶב eikev really means “heel,” but it is understood here to mean “reward” or “because” or “consequence.” This is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing.
When Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (b. 1789) was little boy, his grandfather would teach him Torah. One time, when they were studying a portion about Abraham, they came to this verse:
עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָהָ֖ם בְּקֹלִ֑י
“Eikev asher shama Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 26:5
Menachem Mendel’s grandfather asked him to explain it. The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev – even with his heel!”
The grandfather, Reb Shneur Zalman, was ecstatic with his answer and said, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev – our heel – should ‘listen,’ meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do we do that?
We must be our own parent – we must restrict ourselves.
The most astonishing thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake in Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water for several days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Hallelujah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: she was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more.” Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
וַֽיְעַנְּךָ֮ וַיַּרְעִבֶ֒ךָ֒ ... לְמַ֣עַן הוֹדִֽיעֲךָ֗ כִּ֠י לֹ֣א עַל־הַלֶּ֤חֶם לְבַדּוֹ֙ יִחְיֶ֣ה הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֛י עַל־כׇּל־מוֹצָ֥א פִֽי־יְהֹוָ֖ה יִחְיֶ֥ה הָאָדָֽם׃
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know – ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:3, Parshat Eikev
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth.”
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing) – either the traditional one or something in your own words. When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃
“You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless Existence, your Divinity, for the good land which is given to you…”
Absolute Certainty of the Eye
As a symbol for awareness, ayin ע represents this sensitivity, but it also means “eye,” and so also implies “seeing” what is true for yourself, rather than relying on hearsay; ע ayin is a move from the maps of the thinking mind to direct perception. On the deepest level this is not merely the perception of what is happening “out there,” but the perception of perception itself; it is the knowing that we are that perception, that we are the ע ayin, the eye that opens in the universe.
The infamous and much hated Rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, once visited his little home town where he grew up. While he was there he made a point of seeing his first, early childhood teacher who had taught him the alef-beis, whom he loved very much.
Before he returned home, he happened to run into another teacher of his. “I see that you visit your preschool teacher, but you don’t visit me? What have I done to offend you?” asked the teacher.
“You taught me things that can be refuted,” replied the Kotzker, “because according to one interpretation they can mean this, and according to another they can mean that. But my first teacher taught me things which cannot be refuted, and so they have remained with me; that is why I owe him special reverence.”
We tend to live in the maps of our minds and take for granted the direct perception represented by ע ayin; the mind tends to dwell upon that which it does not know for sure.
That’s because it is the job of the mind to figure out, to conjecture, to approximate, to guess; that is how we are able to navigate life and make decisions. But this useful tendency often becomes a compulsive habit, usurping awareness away from what we actually do know.
Eventually, we can come to give no attention at all to what we do know, and instead invest our guesses, conjectures and approximations with a reality they don’t really possess; this is called “living in one’s head.” Nowadays, people often feel most strongly and defend most passionately (and attack most violently in defense of) things they don’t really know for sure.
What is it that we do know for sure?
Turn your attention from involvement with your thoughts and “see” what is actually happening, right now. This is the path of ע ayin – simply noticing and therefore knowing what is actually present in your experience.
When you do, there may be a feeling of disorientation or fear.
What if thoughts are just thoughts? What will happen if you let go of all that mind generated drama and attend to what is present, to what you actually know for sure?
The ego is uncomfortable with this, because ego is the sense of identity that is built out of our thoughts and feelings. Let go of your thoughts and feelings, and the ego can feel threatened.
הָלַ֣ךְ חֲשֵׁכִ֗ים וְאֵ֥ין נֹ֙גַהּ֙ ל֔וֹ יִבְטַח֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה וְיִשָּׁעֵ֖ן בֵּאלֹהָֽיו
Though one walks in darkness and has no glow, let them trust in the Name of the Divine, and rely on their Divinity…
- Isaiah 50:10
The haftora hints that there is an aspect of our consciousness that is forever in a state of not-knowing: ayn nogah lo – has no glow. It doesn’t say that one has no “light” but rather one doesn’t even have any “glow” at all. One absolutely halakh hasheikhim – walks in darkness.
But if we can be totally clear about not being clear, if we can truly understand and know on the deepest level that all of our mind’s judgments are guesses and approximations, then we also transcend the ego; we transcend our separate self-sense that thrives on belief in our own thoughts and denial of the darkness.
Then, in that surrender to not-knowing, a new way of being emerges:
יִבְטַח֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה וְיִשָּׁעֵ֖ן בֵּאלֹהָֽיו Yivtakh b’shem Hashem v’yisha’ein Elohav – trust in the Name of the Divine and rely on Divinity…
That is the letting go – the letting of Mystery be Mystery.
Then, we can realize: there is something we can know, if we would only turn toward It: we are consciousness, we are the ע ayin, the awareness that is aware of however this moment presents itself, Now.
Rejection of Rejection
During my summer between fifth and sixth grade, my parents schlepped me back and forth to a day camp. But, for one night, the day camp became a sleepaway camp – the sleepover began with a dance in the barn, after which we spent the night in our sleeping bags out in a huge field.
In the barn, I danced with a particular girl for most of the night. I guess I thought this girl liked me, so during the sleeping-bags-in-the-field part, I kept trying to sneak out of the “boys area” and into the “girls area” so I could go see her.
At some point a counselor caught me. “Brian, stop bothering the girls!”
“No you don’t understand,” I pleaded, “They want me to be here!”
Suddenly, that girl and several of her friends cried out in unison, “No we don’t!”
Sometimes we think we are wanted, but we are not. That’s just the truth. The person who thinks that they are wanted despite all protestations is an egomaniac. Kids can be like egomaniacs sometimes, and at some point, the delusion is toppled: “No, you really are annoying the hell out of me and I want you to STOP!”
But these kinds of hurtful childhood experiences can also create another kind of misperception into adulthood: a self-image that you have nothing to offer, that people don’t need or want you.
I remember once being in a situation where I wanted to help someone, but I wasn’t being asked for help. In my post-rejection psychology, I didn’t offer anything, because I thought that if my help was wanted, I would be asked.
As time went on, however, I could see that I would never be asked – not because my help wasn’t wanted, but because the person wasn’t comfortable asking. So, I gathered my will against my personality, offered my help directly, and it was promptly accepted; so easy.
אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן … וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
“I pleaded with the Divine at that time, saying… ‘Please let me cross and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan!’”
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 3:23-25, Parshat Va’etkhanan
The parshah begins with Moses telling the Children of Israel about how he pleaded (וָאֶתְחַנַּןva’etkhanan) with God to let him enter the Promised Land.
But, God doesn’t let him:
רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
“Too much of you! Do not increase your words to me about this thing!”
Moses, the beloved prophet who “knows God face to face” is rejected. But does Moses develop a bad self-image and stop doing his job? Not at all – he immediately goes on teaching them Torah:
וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע V’atah Yisrael sh’ma – And now Israel, listen!
Sometimes our offers are accepted, and sometimes they are rejected. But if we shut down when we are rejected and stop offering, we may miss what we are called upon to do.
And furthermore, what’s wrong with being rejected anyway?
If rejection feels bad, it is because there is a self-image that is feeding off the desire to be appreciated. That ego, that separate self-sense, is natural, but ultimately it is a burden. When the ego is bruised, take that as medicine. Accept the pain – let it burn away the ego’s substance. Ultimately, the pain will be liberating, and in that liberation there can be a seeing of who we are beyond the self-image – which is to say, we can see that we actually are the seeing – we are the miracle of awareness itself; we are the “eye” that opens in the universe.
Furthermore, this “eye” is not merely our own awareness; it is the awareness of Reality Itself; it is the Divine incarnating as us and seeing through our own eyes. This activity of seeking and discovering is the path of ע ayin, the letter which literally means “eye.” This path has two aspects – first, there is a seeking, motivated by the drive to find fulfillment, to find oneness, to find peace, to come home. This ultimately leads to the second part – the realization that the Divine we seek is not separate from the awareness that we are. This field of awareness at the root of our being is represented by the second sefirah of Hokhmah. On the Integral Tree, ע ayin is connected to Hokhmah, representing the process of awareness becoming aware of itself.
The Greatness That You Are
אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֗ה אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֙וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶֽת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גׇּדְלְךָ֔ וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
“I pleaded with the Divine at that time, saying: ‘My Divine Lord, you have begun to reveal to your servant Your Greatness…’
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 3:23-25, Parshat Va’etkhanan
וָאֶתְחַנַּן Va’etkhanan, “I pleaded” – comes from חֵן hein, which means “grace.” To “plead” is to beg for Grace.
What “Grace” is Moses praying for? The revelation of Gadol, God’s “Greatness.” Gadol begins with ג gimel, the letter that represents wholeness, completeness, fulness.
But this “Greatness” is not something separate from you; it is the basic quality of your own innermost being. It is “great” in the sense that it is far more spacious than anything within your experience; it is the Wholeness of the space within which all experience arises – the space of awareness itself, of Hokhmah.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם
He used to say, ‘Beloved are human beings, for they are created in the Divine Image…’
- Pirkei Avot, 3:14
This Divine “image” is the Greatness, the ג gimel, of your own awareness, or Hokhmah. Rabbi Akiva calls us “beloved” because of this gift.
Then he says,
חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לוֹ שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם
It is an even greater love that our Divine Image is made known to us…
In other words, though our Divine Greatness is a wonderful gift, it doesn’t do us much good unless we can see it – unless we experience the Infinite directly. This is the path of ע ayin, the seeking and finding of the ג gimel of Hokhmah, the Wholeness of awareness. This is the greatest gift, the Supreme Grace, because it is the revelation of our own being, something that can never be taken away.
But, this Divine Greatness is not really hidden; it is just that our awareness tends to look at everything except Itself, so it can be difficult to notice…
Once I was on a family vacation in Rome. At one point, we had split up into two different cabs, and I was in a cab with my father-in-law. He turned to me and said, “So, Brian – are you enjoying yourself or would you rather be at some ashram in India?”
I replied, “Well, I don’t really put energy into rather-ing things.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “I get that. That’s good. I’m going to eliminate ‘rather’ from my vocabulary!”
What does it mean to not “rather” something?
It doesn’t mean that you can’t make good judgements. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take yourself out of an undesirable situation, or that you don’t help to make things better for yourself or others; it just means that whatever your experience is, in whatever situation you find yourself in, you don’t put mental and emotional energy into wishing things were different. You first of all accept the moment as it is, and then do whatever you do from this place of openness and surrender.
It is important to understand that the practice of “not rathering” is not really a character trait; it is not something that you add on to your personality, but rather it is a quality of Presence – a quality inherent within Hokhmah, within your field of awareness that is underneath your personality, beyond your thoughts, infinitely more vast than your feelings. And, while your thoughts and feelings are always flowing and changing, awareness is the background against which your thoughts and feelings are happening.
So, when you shift from feeling that “I am this personality, I am these thoughts and feelings,” into knowing yourself as the field of Presence within which your thoughts and feelings are happening, then it is very natural not to rather anything, because awareness itself is never preferring one thing over another thing; it is simply open to whatever there is to perceive in the present moment – that’s why it has the quality of Wholeness, represented by ג gimel.
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת – I implored Hashem at that time…
Moses is saying, “I implored that I should be at some other time, at a time other than now. I don’t want to be here, I want to get to the Promised Land!”
But God tells Moses that he should look and see the Promised Land from afar:
עֲלֵ֣ה רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ
“Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise up your eyes…”
The expression for “ascend to the top of the cliff” beginsעֲלֵ֣ה רֹ֣אש alei rosh, which literally means, “Raise up the head.” Meaning, get out of your head! Don’t be so identified with your own opinions, with your emotional reactions and so on. How do you do that?
וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ v’sa einekha – and raise up your eyes – meaning, instead of putting energy into judging, into “rather-ing,” simply see what is happening in this moment. Be the witnessing Presence within which your present experience is unfolding. In seeing what is present, you will come to know: the “Promised Land” is, in fact, “where” you already are; it is not what you see from afar, but is which is seeing.
But what if this realization of the Promised Land continues to seem far off?
Ox and Field
A disciple of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Ger came to the rebbe with a complaint: “I’ve been trying for twenty years, and still I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere! If a craftsman practiced their craft for twenty years, they would either be much better at their craft, or at the very least they would be able to do it much more quickly. But with me, I’ve been praying and praying, and I don’t feel any closer than when I began.”
“It is taught in Elijah’s name,” replied the rebbe, “that a person should take Torah upon themselves as an ox takes the yoke. You see, the ox leaves its stall in the morning, goes to the field, plows, and his led back home. This happens day after day. Nothing changes with regard to the ox, but the ploughed field bears the harvest.”
On the spiritual path there can be times of tremendous transformation, but there can also be times of plateau, times when it seems we are plugging away without much result, and that can feel frustrating. At such times, it is good to express our frustration through prayer, just like Moses did:
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
I pleaded with the Divine at that time, saying…
Just like the hassid who complained to his rebbe, Moses is saying, “I’ve been leading this people toward the land for forty years – please let me at least enter along with them!”
The “land” is a metaphor – in relation to our spiritual path, it represents the fruit of the practice – that sense of coming home into the Oneness, coming home into the present, the ג gimel. When we feel the angst of separateness, when we feel like an ox that goes on day after day with the same old routine, don’t hold back – cry out in prayer! This is the first phase of ע ayin, the phase of seeking.
This crying out in prayer helps come to the second phase, hinted by God’s response to Moses:
רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
“Too much of you! Do not increase your words to me about this thing!”
That separate self-sense, the “me” that thinks and speaks and acts, is the “ox.” The truth is, the ox will always be an ox. At some point, we need to give up on all this “me” – Rav lakh! Too much of you! – and discover the aspect of our being that is silence – Al tosef daber! Do not increase your words!
In that silence we can discover the deeper aspect of our being – the ג gimel – the Wholeness of that vast, boundless “field” of Hokhmah.
This is not to deny or devalue the “ox” in any way; we need the ox. We need to organize our lives and set aside time for practice, in addition to all the practical necessities of life. But just as the ox cannot become the field, just as Moses cannot enter the land but must die outside the land, so too we must let go of this self-ness and recognize the aspect of ourselves that is beyond the ox. The truth is, on the deepest level, we already are the field.
עֲלֵ֣ה רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ
“Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise up your eyes…”
Moses climbs up the cliff and sees the “land” from afar, and there he dies. Similarly, we can understand the goal with our minds, but that is only a “seeing from afar.” To truly enter the “land,” we must discover what is beyond the ox-self. Alei rosh – elevate the head – recognize that beneath all the content, you are the seeing, totally transcendent of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
How do you do that?
וְשָׂא עֵינֶיךָ v’sa einekha – raise up your eyes – “see” whatever is arising in your awareness, right now; be the transcendent space within which this moment unfolds. In this way, prayer leads to silence, and you can make that shift from being the “ox” to being the “field” – from being the “seeker” to being the “finder” – the finder of the vast field of silent Presence, the ע ayin seeing the ג gimel of the Hokhmah.
A rabbi once asked Menachem Mendel of Vorki, “Where did you learn the art of silence?” Menachem Mendel was about to respond, but then he changed his mind and said nothing.
A Good Eye
There is another dimension to the path of ע ayin, which is what the tradition calls having a “good eye.” It means seeing the good in others, rather than dwelling on the negative. When we discover that the Wholeness (ג gimel) we seek is none other than our own innermost being (Hokhmah), the outer consequence is that we are freed from that egoic drive to judge others in a negative way:
וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת – Judge every person toward the pan of merit…
- Pirkei Avot 1: 6
Once there was a rabbi who wanted to start a yeshivah – an institution for Jewish learning. After many years of planning and raising funds, his vision was finally realized – the new Torah school was built in a beautiful area out in the country, on the bank of a river. Many young people came to live and to learn, and the rabbi was gratified to see his goal and passion manifested.
On days with good weather, he would often go outside with the students to the river’s edge to daven Minkhah – to pray the afternoon prayer. One day, while they were all outside praying, he noticed that the building across the river (which seemed to have been abandoned) was being renovated and readied for something. Day after day he watched as workers came to refurbish the old building, and he could see that there seemed to be a woman in charge of the enterprise because she was there every day, busily involved with whatever was going on.
Eventually the building seemed to open for business, because he saw men coming and going at all hours of the day and night. He wondered, what could be going on over there?
Then he found out – the new business was a brothel, and the women he had seen was the head of the brothel. He was so upset – his Torah school was right across from a brothel! How terrible! He feared that his boys would be tempted into going over there; he was angry that his life’s work was being contaminated with such sinfulness and he was filled with scorn for the woman who was responsible.
Nevertheless, he refused to change his practice of bringing the students out to daven by the river. It was Spring, and the weather had just become warm and beautiful. One time, while they were all praying, he noticed that the woman had also come outside. He glared at her across the river, and he saw her looking back at him. He was filled with rage and cursed her in his heart.
This became a pattern – every day during those pleasant months, the rabbi and the students would go outside to daven, and every day he would see the women. He would try to ignore her, but he was driven by his irritation to look at her, and every time he did, he saw her looking back at him.
Soon after, it happened that the rabbi had a heart attack and died. When he came to Olam HaBa, the “World to Come,” he was told that he would not be able to enter right away, but would have to spend some time in Gehinnom (Jewish Hell) first to cleanse himself from the spiritual impurities caused by all his anger and cursing of the brothel owner. So, he willingly descended into Gehinnom. After what felt like an eternity of torment, he was finally cleansed enough to be allowed into the World to Come.
He was ushered into Paradise – a beautiful, peaceful place of lush gardens, in which the Divine Presence was palpably felt – and led to a small, modest dwelling, which was to be his heavenly home. It wasn’t much, but he accepted it with gratitude. As he approached his dwelling, he looked around and noticed that there was an immense palace next door. “Wow” he thought, “That must be the abode of some great tzaddik (saint).”
“Actually,” said his angelic escort, “That’s the house of the brothel owner across the river; she happened to die the same day you did.”
“What?” shouted the rabbi, “There must be some mistake! I mean, I realize I wasn’t perfect, I shouldn’t have gotten so angry at her, but still – I was studying Torah all day, and she was running a brothel!”
“Actually,” said the angel, “She studied much more Torah than you did.”
“Really? How could that be?”
“All those days that you stared at her from across the river, you seethed with anger thinking, ‘What a horrible person she is! Look what a terrible sin she has done, building that brothel and seducing people into sin!’
“But as she stared back at you, she was thinking, ‘What a sweet holy soul that is! Look at what a great mitzvah he has done, starting that yeshivah and nourishing so many with a Torah education!’ Over time, her holy thoughts of blessing toward you infiltrated the rest of her life, until she was almost constantly blessing you in her heart. Whereas in your case, your destructive thoughts of anger and cursing infiltrated the rest of your life, so even when you were studying Torah externally, internally you were filled with scorn…”
There is a beautiful Mishna that expresses the essence of this story:
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן תְּרַדְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶן דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מוֹשַׁב לֵצִים,
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים א) וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב
: אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם
R. Hananiah 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: “And in the seat of the scornful he does not sit…” (Psalms 1:1); But, if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them…
- Pirkei Avot 3:3
At first, this mishna might seem extreme; is it saying that if two people are talking and they don’t discuss Torah, then they are “scorners?”
But if we look at it from the opposite direction, it is actually telling us what “Torah” really is. If “scorn” is the opposite of Torah, then the opposite of “scorn” is Torah! In other words, when we speak from a sense of love and blessing, when we see others with an ע ayin tovah, a “good eye” – we speak words of Torah.
Furthermore, the words we speak form the structure of perception through which we see things – the “window” through which the ע ayin sees, so to speak. Just as the thoughts of the characters in the story formed the abodes for their souls in the afterlife, so too we construct our perception, our inner “dwelling” through our thoughts and words. This is why Binah, the third sefirah of the Tree of Life which represents the activity of thinking, is sometimes referred to as the “Palace.”
But, if our thoughts have such power, why are we so careless with them? In the story, the rabbi is a scholar of Torah – how could he make such a mistake?
We seem to make the mistake of wrong thinking because we’re not aware of our choice. We get taken over by an impulse and our minds start running; we get swept away by our thoughts. If we want to gain sovereignty over our own minds, then our thinking needs to be balanced by not thinking; thought needs to be balanced by space, Binah needs to be balanced by Hokhmah. In this space of no-thought, we can more easily see others through the “eyes” of Hesed, of lovingkindness. This is why, on the Integral Tree, the path of ע ayin connects Hokhmah and Hesed, connecting spacious awareness with loveingkindness.
There is a hint in the parshah, which may be the first place in any text that Hokhmah and Binah are mentioned:
…רְאֵ֣ה לִמַּ֣דְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֗ם חֻקִּים֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֔ים
See, I have taught you ethical rules and spiritual practices…
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חָכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם־חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃
Guard them and do them, for She is your Wisdom (Hokhmatkhem) and Understanding (Binatkhem)in the eyes of the peoples that will hear all of these practices and say, “Surely this great nation is a people of Wisdom (Hokham) and Understanding (N’Vonam).”
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:5-6 Parshat Va’etkhanan
These passages begin with a description of the Teaching (“She,” Torah) as hukim and mishpatim. Mishpatim refers to universal ethical laws such as “don’t steal,” and “don’t slander” and the like; they are laws that anyone might arrive at through contemplation of right and wrong. Hukim literally means “decrees” and has come to mean the particularistic ritual laws of the tradition, practices that may seem strange and arbitrary from the outside, such as kashrut and Shabbat, but have an inner transformational wisdom to them that you can experience only through practicing them. (That is why I translated hukimas “spiritual practices.”)
These two elements – ethical behavior and spiritual practices – form the foundation of the spiritual path; neither can replace the other, because it is through spiritual practice that we sensitize ourselves to seeing beyond the narrow view of ego. Without widening our view beyond ego, we can’t see right and wrong clearly; we will always see things in terms of our preconceptions and prejudices.
Again, this is why Hokhmah and Binah are both so important. Through meditation and prayer (hukim), we transcend the thinking mind so that we can get free from our preconceptions and prejudices and see reality more clearly. From this clear place, we can contemplate (Binah) the right paths we should take with our behaviors (mishpatim).
Thus, hukim and mishpatim are the expressions of Hokhmah and Binah. The text then mentions another pair of concepts:
שְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – Sh’martem va’asitem – Guard them and do them.
In order for the Teaching to become fully integrated into our lives, we need not only try to practice the Teaching, but we must also “guard” Her. This means keeping Her forward in our minds; it means making Her into our highest value. Again, this is only possible in an authentic way if we balance our thoughts about the Teaching with space from thought, because it is through the space of Hokhmah that we can experience the Oneness of Being in a direct way; thus, the Divine becomes not merely a concept, but a lived Reality.
Finally, the text mentions two different modes of perception:
לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן – l’einei ha’amim asher yishm’un – in the eyes of the peoples that will hear…
“In the eyes” and “will hear” refers to the senses of both “seeing” and “hearing.”
Both of these are themselves metaphors. “Seeing” represents direct perception because when we look around, we have a sense of what is going on instantaneously; we don’t have to think about it. Thus, “seeing” and ע ayin are connected to Hokhmah on the Integral Tree.
“Hearing,” on the other hand, refers not to hearing sounds, but to hearing words, and so relies on the thinking process – Binah. We need both; we need to see what is plainly in front of us in the present, and we need to use thought to chart a path into the future – Hokhmah and Binah together.
Binah and Hokhmah are also the starting point and end point of the two phases of ע ayin. Binah is thought, which allows us to judge and decide. On the path of ע ayin, thought is that which allows us to be dissatisfied with how things are and motivates us to seek and to cry out in prayer for something better. This leads to the second phase, in which our seeking, represented by ע ayin, looks back upon Hokhmah, upon awareness itself, and finds there the Wholeness and Peace it longs for, represented by ג gimel…
The Fox and the Scorpion
Have you ever had the experience of being in conflict with someone, and then realizing that the same conflict has happened a thousand times before, in different forms? It is as if the conflict is a virus, a replicating pattern. It has no real life of its own; it is just a dead, repetitive, automatic story that lives off your life energy, playing itself out again and again.
Once there was a scorpion who was looking for a way to get to the other side of a river. As he searched up and down the banks, he came upon a fox who was about to swim across.
“Please let me swim on your back!” implored the scorpion.
“No way!” replied the fox, “You’ll sting me!”
“Why would I do that?” argued the scorpion, “If I stung you, we would both drown.”
After thinking about it, the fox agreed. The scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim across. But, when they were about half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. As the poison began its work, the fox started to sink.
“Why did you do it?” said the fox, “Now we’ll both drown!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” said the scorpion, “It is in my nature.”
Is it in your nature to always react in the same old ways, perpetuating the same old conflicts? Or is there a way out?
There is a way out, but it can be difficult because the old patterns are usually motivated by the desire to escape pain. Something happens that triggers a painful emotion, and we may lash out unconsciously or passive aggressively in an attempt to vent the pain and punish the one who caused it.
But, it doesn’t work, because it just perpetuates a dynamic that guarantees the cycle will continue – that is, until we wake up to realizing that there is another way; this means seeing the pattern, and choosing to stop feeding it. This usually involves feeling the triggered pain on purpose, without doing anything about it – just being with it.
You might think that a lot of meditation can help you “just be with it,” and that is true, but it can also sometimes create a hinderance. Meditation can give you beautiful and blissful experiences, and if you get attached to those experiences, then the pain that life brings can sometimes be even harder to endure. I often hear people lament about having to come down from the “lofty mountain” of the spirit to deal with the pain of life.
It reminds me of a passage I read in one of Ram Dass’ books, where he talks about coming down from a spiritual high and literally “seeing” a tidal wave coming toward him – a tidal wave made out of all the broken relationships, tedious responsibilities, unconscious expectations – the whole mess. It is natural to resist the pain of that tidal wave, and yet, what are we really resisting? What are we holding on to?
I remember going to the dentist when I was maybe seven years old, and he gave me nitrous oxide while he filled a cavity. It gave me the experience of feeling like I was floating in a warm ocean, breathing under water, in total bliss. At some point, he shut off the nitrous oxide, and I pleaded, “No! A little bit more!” I remember his response: “All good things must come to an end.”
If we want to live free from our conditioned patterns, we must be willing to move with the changing moment; we must be willing to not cling to anything. And yet, the patterns are so strong – how can we stand up to them and recognize that we need not be controlled by them?
The moment is like water, ever changing, ever shifting, and nothing is permanent – nothing in the outer world, and nothing in our inner world of consciousness; this truth is expressed in the letter מ mem. And yet, there is something solid to stand on; there is a foundation from which we can live on purpose, free from conditioned patterns. That support is available as our own deepest nature; and our nature is not separate from our Source and Destination. This truth is expressed by the letter ס samekh, which means “support.”
Devarim means “words,” referring to the words spoken by Moses to the Children of Israel as this last book of the Torah opens. They too stand by a river, the Jordan, while Moses recounts the story of their highest moment, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard the Divine speak to them. But rather than dwell on the details of that experience, Moses simply says this:
יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֵ֖ינוּ בְּחֹרֵ֣ב לֵאמֹ֑ר רַב־לָכֶ֥ם שֶׁ֖בֶת בָּהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
Hashem, our Divinity spoke to us at Horeb, saying: “It is too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain!”
In other words, don't be the scorpion, trapped in your conditioned patterns – life is change. The world is turning, and you must turn with it; you cannot stay forever in an experience from the past.
… וּסְע֣וּ לָכֶ֗ם וּבֹ֨אוּ הַ֥ר הָֽאֱמֹרִי֮
Journey for yourselves and come to the mountain of the Amorites…
The journey is “for yourselves” – it is for your own happiness and fulfillment that you must not cling to your idea of happiness and fulfillment!
…and come to the mountain of the Amorites.
The word for “Amorites” has the same letters as the verb “to speak” – אמר aleph-mem-reish. The hint here is that you must leave the “mountain” where you hear God’s “speech” so that you can come to a new mountain, where there will be new “speech.” Don’t cling to the old speech; it is dead.
Then it goes on to say:
וְאֶל־כׇּל־שְׁכֵנָיו֒ בָּעֲרָבָ֥ה בָהָ֛ר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָ֥ה וּבַנֶּ֖גֶב וּבְח֣וֹף הַיָּ֑ם
…and to all who dwell in the plains, in the hill country, the lowlands, the desert, and the seacoast…
The point is not only the next “mountain” experience you will come to. There is also the “plain” – the aravah – the ordinary, daily work of life, a mixture (ערב erev) of many different kinds of experiences. This is related to the letter ק koof, which is about finding holiness in the ordinary.
Then there is the “lowland” – the sh’felah – times of sadness, of tragedy, of failure – all part of the Divine, all part of Reality. This is נ nun, the impermanence of all forms, a bitter but necessary medicine for the distortions of the ego.
Then there is the “desert” – the negev – times when your life and work don’t seem to be yielding anything good, and you must nevertheless persevere. This is when we need the letter ז zayin, which is about focus, and the sefirah of Netzakh, which is persistence, to train us to stay focused and committed to our goals.
Then there is the “seacoast” – the hof hayam – like when the children of Israel stood at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army behind them. These are times when the outcome is unknown, when we are tempted to fear and despair. This is when we need כ kaf, which is the quality of courage, and י yod, which is trust, for taking the leap into the unknown.
Finally, it says you will come all the way to HaNahar HaGadol – the “Great River!”
The Great River is at the end of the journey, because if you can learn to work with life in all of its manifestations, you will see that life is itself the Great River. God incarnates in the forms of your mind and your body to take a little journey on the Great River, and this moment is the arena within which we are learning how to journey. Our task is to remember that the Divine is our own deepest identity, and rely on That, rest in That. We may fall again and again from the sense of stability that comes from knowing our deepest nature, but as it says, סוֹמֵךְ לְכָל־הַנֹּפְ֒לִים Somekh L’khol HaNoflim – the Divine supports all who have fallen! (Psalm 145)
And, as we come to rely more and more strongly on that inner support of the Divine that is not separate from our own nature, we can also be a useful support for others as well…
I have a memory of being very young, maybe three or four, and my parents (probably mistakenly) took me to some kind of vacation resort. We were by the pool, and I saw someone running. I had heard that running wasn’t allowed, so I went up to the lifeguard in his tall chair and yelled up to him: “Is it true that there’s no running allowed around the pool?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Okay,” I answered, and proceeded to dart off past him. In an instant, he tossed his whistle up in the air, caught it in his mouth, and emitted a piercing whistle blast that caught me in my tracks. I froze. “Don’t you run,” he said. I had been thinking about the other person I saw running, and my brain hadn’t applied the rule to myself.
How similar it is with remembering not to “run” away with our own thoughts and feelings…
It is relatively easy to see when someone else is trapped by their thoughts and feelings. We see someone being defensive, angry, or complaining, or blaming, and it’s easy to diagnose. But when we become annoyed with that person for getting caught, how easy it is to get caught ourselves; we resist the resistance of others, and can’t see that we ourselves are resisting.
But the truth is, if we wish to be an effective support for others in their wakefulness, the most important thing is not to necessarily to give advice or feedback (though sometimes that is appropriate); the most important thing is to embody wakefulness ourselves. After all, there is a synergy between people; awakening begets more awakening, and unconsciousness usually begets more unconsciousness.
So, in the moment that we perceive the ego of someone else and forget to be aware of our own, we must remember: there is only one time to be awake, and that time is always now. This can be difficult because now is constant; we tend to be unconscious of things that are constant, like our breathing, for example.
How can we maintain constant connection with the inner ס samekh and receive the support we need for being awake? The key is to use that which is not constant to remind us of the constant, to use time and change to stay awake to the Changeless and the Timeless.
The Circle and the Spiral
וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה
Be careful with a light mitzvah as with a grave one…
There are lesser and greater mitzvot; obviously, the mitzvah to light a Shabbat candle is not as great as the mitzvah to not murder someone, for example. And, yet, this mishna is saying we should be just as careful with the lesser ones as with the greater ones. How can this be? If we should be just as careful with the lesser ones as with greater ones, doesn’t that destroy the whole idea that are lesser ones and greater ones?
The word for “careful” is זָהִיר zahir, which can also mean “watchful” or “attentive.” Understood this way, it is not saying that it is just as important to observe the lesser mitzvot as the greater ones; it is saying that no matter what mitzvah you are doing, you should be just as zahir – you should be just as attentive, just as present. And furthermore, it is our awareness of the very fact that not all mitzvot are equal that reminds us: even though the mitzvot are not all equal, we can bring equal Presence to them all.
Furthermore, as different as the various mitzvot are, even more varied are our moments in life; you cannot compare a moment of childbirth or a moment of death to a moment of putting toothpaste on your toothbrush. And yet, the message is: הֱוֵי זָהִיר hevei zahir – be present in all moments, great and small. And, use your awareness of the great and small to remind you: the moment to be zahir is always this moment.
לֹֽא־תַכִּ֨ירוּ פָנִ֜ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט כַּקָּטֹ֤ן כַּגָּדֹל֙ תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן
Don’t show favoritism in judgment; like the lesser as the greater, you shall listen.
In this verse from the parshah, Moses is telling the Israelites how the judges should behave: they shouldn’t show favoritism, but they should judge fairly, not giving preference to either the poor and powerless or to the great and powerful.
But on a metaphorical level, כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל֙ kakaton kagadol – regardless of whether the moment is mundane and insignificant or crucially important, תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן tishma’un – listen! Be fully present.
The marriage between the constant and the changing is embodied in the shape of the ס samekh, which is like a circle. In the plain sense, the circle implies equality, sameness; this is the practice of being conscious in all moments and situations equally. But, the circle can also be a spiral, which is moving ever upward; this is the both the hierarchy of less and more important moments to which we can practice bringing the same, “circle” awareness. The spiral also represents our own evolutionary movement, the blossoming of our potential to live more and more wakefully, to recognize the Divine more and more clearly in all things, in all moments, great and small.
When Rabbi Yitzhak Mer of Ger was a boy, someone said to him: “My boy, I will give you a gulden if you can tell me where God lives.”
The boy replied, “I will give you two gulden if you can tell me where He doesn’t!”
One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot. So, I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After some time, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized – I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler; all the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for welcoming whatever appears in the moment. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive. In that case, it is possible that you have “left the window open” – all your best intentions are blowing right out the window!
Meaning, there is not yet a continuity of intention; during prayer or study or meditation, our intention might be clear, but when we get into challenging situations, our intention can vanish. This is very common, as building the inner structures to hold the intention continuously takes time and practice; in fact, this is the main function of spiritual practice.
In my view, it is good to use a variety of modalities of practice for “rolling up the window” and building the inner structures necessary for having a continuity of intention. One of those modalities is the practice of regularly stating your intentions, or kavanot, out loud.
אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
If a person vows a vow to the Divine or swears an oath to forbid something to one’s soul, they shall not empty their word; everything that comes from their mouth, so shall they do…
On the surface, this verse is reminding us to have integrity; if you say you are going to do something, do it. But the verse can also be understood as a promise – if you say that you will do something, saying it will help you do it!
This is because verbally saying your intention – and repeating it often – is a powerful way to “shut the window” – meaning, it is a way to keep yourself focused on the intention, so that it doesn’t dissipate in the face of distractions. Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against old habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t discipate as life unfolds in real time.
The qualities of נ nun are actually both the source of the problem and the solution!
Nun נ represents impermanence, and we can see this impermanence clearly in the fluidity of our own states of consciousness; it is easy for an intention that is solid and strong in one moment to simply vanish in another. But, nun נ is also faithfulness and return; we can overcome the impermanence of our states of consciousness by returning again and again to our intentions, and this is aided by repeating our intentions out loud.
Furthermore, the fact of impermanence also applies to the old habits and distractions we are attempting to overcome! They too are temporary, and when we faithfully return to our deepest intentions, distractions and habits can simply fall away over time. Contrary to the old saying, “some things never change,” even the most deeply ingrained parts of our personalities can change, if we learn to stop feeding them.
Letting Go of Letting Go – נ Nun and מ Mem
And yet, we must also recognize – even if we are able to fully stay connected to our intentions, this is no guarantee that the purpose of our intentions will be realized. This is the other side of the equation; on one hand, it is good for our intentions to have clear continuity over time. On the other hand, we must not be attached to a particular outcome, and instead recognize that Reality is ultimately beyond our control.
אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
If a person vows a vow to the Divine or swears an oath to forbid something to one’s soul, they shall not empty their word; everything that comes from their mouth, so shall they do…
When we have an intention to do something or not do something, there is usually a reason for the intention – an intention for the intention. In other words, the point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you get up in the morning and go to work – not because you necessarily like your work, but because you want to earn some money. And furthermore, you want to earn some money not because you like the money itself, but because you want to use the money to buy food, and you want to buy the food to cook a meal for someone. But then, let’s say that when you cook the meal, the person who eats it has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets sick, G-d forbid.
So now there is a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called “making a mistake.” So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo – don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them; they happen by accident. And while it is true and good to be as conscious and wise as we can, it is also true that we are going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
This brings us to the next section:
וְאִם־הֵנִ֨יא אָבִ֣יהָ אֹתָהּ֮ בְּי֣וֹם שׇׁמְעוֹ כׇּל־נְדָרֶ֗יהָ וֶֽאֱסָרֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר־אָסְרָה עַל־נַפְשָׁ֖הּ לֹ֣א יָק֑וּם וַֽיהֹוָה֙ יִֽסְלַח־לָ֔הּ כִּי־הֵנִ֥יא אָבִ֖יהָ אֹתָֽהּ׃
But if her father restrains her on the day he hears, all of her vows and all of her oaths that she swore to forbid something to herself shall not stand; and the Divine will forgive her, since her father restrained her…
In this verse, if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah – God “forgives” her, because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
Who is this “child” the Torah talks about?
It is us; we may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening.
And who is the parent? It is Reality Itself – it is the Truth of what is – That which we call the Divine.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, we should be as conscious and careful as we can with our actions – כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – we should make sure we do our best to bring about the results that we intend. But on the other hand, we must know that we have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that would just be the ego clinging to a particular self-image. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place.
This is the path of מ mem, of letting go and forgiveness – which is necessary in order to enter the path of נ nun – being faithful to return to the Divine after we make mistakes that damage or destroy our outer structures of support, or our own positive self-image. These both point to the ego death that is the essence of the path of נ nun, and is hinted at by Tisha b’Av, the day which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.
But how do we do that? How can we come to truly forgive ourselves? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that we have to forgive everyone else!
לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people; love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Divine.
This is the mitzvah of נ nun: Do not take revenge or hold onto a grudge. Only when we truly let go of our negativity toward others and the past can we experience the renewal and peace that comes on the other side of loss.
…אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt…
This verse opens the origin story of the Children of Israel, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and recounting all the places they visited and battles they engaged up to that point. It then goes on to instruct what they should do once they enter the land – how they should conquer the land, how they should divide the land between the tribes, and so on. As the final reading of fourth book of the Torah, leading into the last book of the Torah,
Parshat Matot functions to give context and define the identity of the Children of Israel: “This is where you come from, this is where you’re going, and this is what you have to do…” Identity and story are important; they are what give us direction, definition and purpose.
And yet, in the Mishna, we find a passage that seems to contradict this principle:
עֲקַבְיָא בֶן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר ... דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, ... מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה,
וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, לִמְקוֹם עָפָר רִמָּה וְתוֹלֵעָה...
Akavyah, son of Mahalalel said: “... Know from where you come, and where you are going... From where do you come? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots...”
While this passage seems to begin with the same premise, advising to “know from where you come and where you are going,” the answers it gives seem to have the opposite effect from the parshah; there is no special identity, no collective story of being liberated from slavery and becoming a holy people, no goal of promised land, just the harsh biological facts: you’re going to a “place of dust, worms and maggots.”
The first passage tells us who we are; it tells us we are something; the second knocks down our stories; it tells us we are nothing.
There are two Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as “nothing” – they are, אַיִן ayin and הֶבֶלhevel, with opposite implications.
Ayin אַיִן is actually the spiritual goal: to realize the dimension of our own being that is “no-thing-ness” beyond all form. This is the open space of awareness itself, boundless and free. We can see this in the letters themselves: Ayin is composed of א alef, י yod and נ nun.
נ Nun, as we know, means that all things are impermanent; all things come and go. But, behind this impermanence is the י yod, the simple awareness, of the א aleph, the Oneness.
The Maggid of Metzritch taught that as great as the creation of the universe is Yesh me’Ayin, Something from Nothing, even greater is our task: to transform the Something back to the Nothing –Ayin me’Yesh!
Meaning: right now, as you read these words, the words are a something. You perceive the something, but what is it that perceives? The awareness that perceives is literally no-thing; it is that which perceives all particular things – all sensations, all sensory perceptions, all feelings, all thoughts.
This is the Ayin inherent in our own being, as well as the underlying Presence of Existence, also called the Divine Presence, inherent in all things. These two are not even separate, because everything we perceive arises within and is made out of nothing but awareness, and the awareness that we are is the awareness of Existence Itself, looking through our eyes, hearing through our ears.
The other word for “nothing,” which has a negative implication, is hevel. Hevel could be translated as nothingness, futility, emptiness, or vanity. We can see this in the letters as well: ה hei, ב bet, and לlamed. The letters hint at the process of learning (ל lamed, “learn”) that whatever we build (ב bet,“house”) is passing like the wind (ה hei, which has the sound of breath). This is expressed in the verse:
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Havel havalim – vanity of vanities – said Kohelet – vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
- Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:2
This famous opening line from Ecclesiastes springs from King Solomon’s disillusionment with all his experiences and accomplishments. He had everything, and could do anything he wanted – and yet, all was nothingness; everything comes and goes, a time for this and a time for that, nothing is really new, nothing really satisfies.
The same word is used in the haftora:
כֹּ֣ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה מַה־מָּצְא֨וּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֥ם בִּי֙ עָ֔וֶל כִּ֥י רָחֲק֖וּ מֵעָלָ֑י וַיֵּֽלְכ֛וּ אַחֲרֵ֥י הַהֶ֖בֶל וַיֶּהְבָּֽלוּ׃
Thus says the Divine: What did your ancestors find in Me that was wrong, that they distanced themselves from Me and went after nothingness (hevel), and became nothingness?
- Jeremiah 2:4
Both of these passages point to our human condition: we tend to make much of the hevel, running after this and away from that, but it is all for naught; we are going to “place of dust, worms and maggots.”
Still, as the haftora implores, there is a way that leads to the Divine, that leads to Wholeness, beyond all the hevel. There is a way that leads beyond the hevel, to Ayin. As the last line of Ecclesiastes says:
ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃
The end of the matter, when all is perceived: Be in awe of the Divine and guard the mitzvot! For this is the Whole Person.
Be in awe of the Divine – that is, know the Ayin that underlies everything, the Ayin that is perceiving, right now. Guard the mitzvot – that is, don’t act from the motive of running after or away from the hevel, act for the sake of the Divine – the Ayin from which all springs and to which all will return.
After we do all of that, after we fully confront the hevel and reorient towards the Ayin, then we can return to the Yesh, the Somethingness, and affirm our identity and purpose:
…אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt…
The Divine has brought you to this moment to realize your inner freedom and has given you the only important choice there is, in this moment: to turn from the hevel of ego to the underlying Ayin of your deepest nature, right now. This is the path of נ nun.
Once there was a rabbi who was davening (praying) with great intensity toward the end of Yom Kippur, when he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of how attached to vanity, to hevel, he had become.
“Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe!” he cried out, “I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan (the cantor) saw him do this, he too became inspired and cried out as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
The truth was infectious. Suddenly, a poor congregant, Shmully the shoemaker, also became deeply moved and exclaimed as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan saw Shmully’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
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