Once there was a rabbi who decided to start a yeshivah, a school for Jewish learning. He wanted it to be refuge from the world where young men could grow spiritually, so he built it away from civilization, on the bank of a beautiful river.
Many people came to learn. But after a few months, he noticed some commotion on the other side of the river. Many cars were coming and going, and people seemed to be partying and having a good time.
When he investigated, he found that that a courtesan had opened a bar and brothel. Lots of rich men came in big cars and carried on all night. He started thinking to himself, “Oy! That’s just what I need! My boys will be tempted away!”
Then he became angry: “Why is she wasting her life like that, and leading so many people to sin? She really shouldn’t be doing that!”
Meanwhile, it happened that the courtesan looked across the river and saw the littleyeshivah. “I don’t know why I’m leading such a dirty life like this. Look at those holy people! They must be so happy and spiritual, so connected to the Divine, I wish I could be like that!”
The two of them contemplated like this for many months, each fixating on the other, when one day they suddenly both died. Angels came to accompany the spirit of the woman to paradise. But a hoard of ugly demonic spirits came for the rav.
“Hey, what going on? You must have gotten your addresses mixed up!”
“No mistake,” replied the demons, “We’ve come to take you to she’ol.”
“But what have I done wrong? I sit and learn and pray and fast and meditate all day, and help these boys to do the same!” he argued.
“Yes,” said the demons, “you do all the right things physically, but in your mind, you’ve been doing nothing but contemplating how ugly, unholy a life that woman is living, and so that’s the future you have created for yourself– we have come to the right place!”
To live an awakened life doesn’t mean to merely do external practices. It means: totally accept what comes to you with love, even and especially when it’s not what you want, but then also you must actively create what you do want, and you do that first of all on the level of thought. In Pirkei Avot 2:1, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says:
אֵיזוֹ הִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
What is the straight path a person should choose for oneself?
Kol shehi tiferet l’oseha – everything that is good to do for oneself, v’tiferet lo min ha’adam – and that will be appreciated by others.”
In other words, take responsibility to create the life you want, and share that goodness with others.
But so often, we unconsciously do just the opposite– we begrudge what comes to us, blaming others or blaming the world for our perceived misfortune, and then we don’t take the steps we can take to create something better. And, we can often do this without even knowing it, if we’re not aware of our own minds. Like the story, we can seem to be doing the right thing externally, but in our minds, we can be creating the opposite. This week’s reading begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrin titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha –
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…
How do you guard the gates of your own mind, so that negativity doesn’t sprout and create a personal hell?
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְהוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד
Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid
I keep the Divine Name before me constantly…
Keep your mind vibrating with a sacred phrase, such as Atah Hu – You are the Divine,knowing that everything arising in your experience are all forms of the One Reality. Like the woman in the story, see the Divine everywhere, focus on the Divine in everything. Then the Divine will be your refuge from all potential danger that can sprout from your thoughts. As the psalm says:
אַתָּ֤ה ׀ סֵ֥תֶר לִי֮ מִצַּ֪ר תִּ֫צְּרֵ֥נִי רָנֵּ֥י פַלֵּ֑ט תְּסֹ֖ובְבֵ֣נִי סֶֽלָה
Atah seiter li, mitzar tizreini, ranei faleit t’soveveini, selah!
You are a shelter for me, from constriction you rescue me, with glad song of rescue you envelop me, selah!
More On Shoftim...
Two Steps to Actualization: Parshat Shoftim
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to "judge the judge" in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.
It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So, on this Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High and Holy days of up-leveling our relationship with life, may we all refocus our efforts on both of these crucial aspects of the Path – realizing and embodying, realizing and embodying, and may our suffering world please come closer to healing and transformation as well. Good Shabbos!
There Goes the Neighborhood- Parshat Shoftim
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of 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’s 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 curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, 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 may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “place the judge in your gate”- meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”