A disciple came to Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn and said, “Whenever I listen to you teach, a state of deveikus comes over me: A warm light permeates my whole being and I feel connected to the Divine Presence in all things. But when I go back to ordinary activities, all kinds of thoughts come into my mind and I feel disconnected once again. How can I clear my mind and tune in to the light?”
The Rabbi of Rizhyn answered: “This is like a person who stumbles through the forest in the darkness. Then someone comes along with a lamp, and as they walk together, they are able to see the path. But, when the one with the lamp leaves, again the person is plunged into darkness and can’t tell which way to go. The trick is, you must carry your own lamp!”
In this story, the Rabbi if Rizhyn reminds us that we need not be dependent on external factors for our realization of the Divine. But to bring forth this potential from within ourselves, we must understand what is mean by “lamp” and what is meant by “carrying.”
Actually, the “lamp” is not something that we literally carry; it is something that we are. On the deepest level of our being, we are nothing but consciousness, represented by the metaphor of “light.” Our consciousness is not secret or hidden; it is that which is reading these words right now. It is the most fundamental and obvious dimension of our experience, always.
And yet, because it is so obvious and basic, it is hidden in plain sight; if we wish to realize the full significance of our essence experientially, we have to make the effort of being conscious of consciousness; we have to practice Presence. This is what is meant by “carrying” in the story. To be more precise, we might amend the story to say that the wanderer had a flashlight in his pocket all along; he simply had to take it out and use it.
Unlike specific practices such as prayer, meditation, and study, “carrying your lamp” is ideally a constant practice, something to cultivate as much and as often as possible, as we move through our days, moment by moment.
How do we do that?
There is a hint in our parshah, a teaching I heard from Rabbi Alan Lew, zikhrono livrakhah:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear – stand firm and see the Divine salvation that is done for you today; for Egypt that you see today, you will never see again.
יְהוָ֖ה יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן
The Divine will battle for you; and you will be silent…
Moses’ instruction to the people outline a series of steps through which we can enter into an awakened state, at any moment:
Al tira’u – Do not fear…
Fear is, at its core, a resistance to experience, a resistance to the moment being as it is. Al tira’u reminds us: we need not contract from whatever experience is now arising; our consciousness is an openness, like space itself, and all experiences come and go without tarnishing the space of consciousness within which they arise. Prove it to yourself:
Hityatzvu – Stand firm…
On the level of form – the level of body, feeling and thought – we are in motion. But on the level of consciousness, we are stillness. Like the eye of a hurricane, awareness perceives all the movement, but is itself not moving; it is simply an open space within which this moment arises. We can know this deepest level of our being by doing one thing:
R’u – See
“Seeing” means simply perceiving what is present. When we put our full effort into perceiving this moment as it is, not thinking about it, but simply “seeing,” then the quality of consciousness that is present as the seeing can become apparent to itself.
What is that quality?
It can be describes as fullness, wholeness, completeness. It is the radiant lamp of life itself, the bliss of being. This is the quality of ג gimel, the sense of being free, open, yet also connected, intimate.
The passage goes on to say:
כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
For Egypt that you see today, you will never see again.
Each of the main words here unfolds a deeper meaning:
Mitzrayim – Egypt – means limitedness, or constriction.
Hayom – Today – this means now, in the present.
ad olam – unto Eternity – The ordinary translation is “ever again,” but it also means “Eternity” – that is, beyond time, beyond the thinking mind which conceives of time through memory and anticipation.
With these in mind, we can retranslate this verse:
כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
For the constriction that you feel in this moment will not persist as you open to the Timeless…
From this point of view, we can then recognize:
יְהוָ֖ה יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן
The Divine will battle for you; and you will be silent…
The liberation we seek is not something we control. The battle is done for us; all we need do is open the door by letting our minds become silent, by recognizing that on the deepest level, we are silence; we are Wholeness. It is true – on the level of form and time, we are never whole – we must always act to maintain and satisfy the next moment. Take a breath and you are whole for a few seconds, and then you must take another breath.
But beyond and behind our ongoing need to fill the ever arising lack, there is Wholeness, and this Wholeness is there for us to know, to rest in, and to rely upon. It is because of this inner Wholeness that we can be authentically generous, that we can get free from the egoic tendency toward greed and self-centeredness:
וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am Being Itself, your own Divinity.
The mitzvah of not entirely reaping our harvests from the land, but rather leaving some abundance for those in need to take and use, is possible to fulfill because the act of generosity itself helps to awaken the realization of this gimel quality of inner Wholeness. And while we may not be farmers (and even for those of us who are farmers, it may not help the needy to leave our produce out in the field nowadays), we can certainly actualize this principle by giving of our energy and resources for the blessing and benefit of others...
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Thirty-Two Paths – Parshat Beshalakh
2/3/2020 0 Comments
Recently some visiting friends from the Bay brought their musical ensemble to perform in Tucson. Their specialty is Jewish music from Spain, North Africa and middle eastern countries, and one of their songs was a setting of a mystical piyut (spiritual poem) that mentioned “thirty-two paths.”
Before the performance, after their rehearsal in our living room, the singer and oud player asked me if I knew what the “thirty-two paths” were. I said they were probably from the Sefer Yetzirah, an early Jewish mystical text which talks about the “thirty-two paths” as consisting of the twenty-two Hebrew letters and the ten sefirot.
We talked a bit about what the sefirot are, and she said, “I don’t know much about Kabbalah because when I was little, my Hebrew school teacher taught me that Kabbalah was complete nonsense, not even really part of Judaism. She said that Judaism is a religion of the mind, of concepts and thinking, not mystical mumbo-jumbo.”
She went on to say how, as she got older, she could tell that her teacher was deeply wounded, and that her “Judaism of the head” was probably a defense mechanism against fully feeling her painful emotions.
It’s interesting how we humans, and particularly we Jews, tend to gravitate toward either/or thinking, preferring one side or the other of realities that clearly are composed of two sides. In the case of spirituality and Judaism, the intellect is in indispensable; there is no way you can engage a spiritual path without the discerning power of the mind and thinking.
But, the mind is a tool, and like all tools, there is a time to wield it and a time to put it away. Imagine if you went out to chop some firewood – you would need an axe for the job. The axe would be essential – it would be unlikely that you could meditate the log into splitting.
Imagine now that you went back inside with the chopped wood, built a fire, and curled up on the couch with your loved ones, but you still had the axe. There you were, snuggling up to the axe!
That would be strange, right? We might call it neurotic or crazy. Certainly, you should put the axe back in the shed before you curl up on the couch. And yet, that is how some Jewish people are with their minds – they don’t want to set aside mind and thinking, even though it may have served its purpose, and it’s time to move on.
After all, the mind is like the axe – necessary, but also a bit violent in a sense, because the purpose of the mind is to pick apart the wholeness of reality into different parts, question the parts, understand the parts, and try to put them back together the way you want them to be. Again – it is necessary to do this in order to be effective in time, but it doesn’t give us what we can only get from the cessation of thinking and doing, and the arising of simple being, of Presence.
There is a hint in the parsha. The Israelites are complaining that they don’t have water to drink, so Hashem tells Moses to strike rock with his staff, and water comes forth from the rock to quench the thirst of the people. It then says that the place where this happens was named Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (riv, from which Meribah is derived) and they tested (nasotam, from which Maasah is derived.)
This is the job of thought – “quarreling” רִיב and “testing” נַסֹּתָם; from the point of view of thought, we must not “accept things as they are” but rather question, wrestle, and then test our conclusions. But, all this quarreling and testing does not quench our deepest thirst; for that we must go to the “water” of consciousness that flows from the “stone” of silence.
Because silence is the vast field of awareness within which thought arises; it is its source and basis. If we remain fixated on thought, then our consciousness becomes trapped in form and forgets its essential freedom, its nature as spaciousness and peacefulness.
There is a hint of this in the verse when the Children of Israel are complaining to Moses:
הֲיֵ֧שׁ יְהוָ֛ה בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן
Is the Divine present among us or not?
This is the usual translation of this verse – the Israelites are questioning whether God is with them or not. But the word for “is,” יֵ֧שׁ yesh, and the word for “not,” אָֽיִן ayin, are the kabbalistic designations of the Divine paradox: God is both Yesh, Being or Existence, and also Ayin, Nothing, meaning not any particular thing. Furthermore, the word for “or” is אִם, which more commonly means “if.”
Seen in this way, we can translate the verse like this:
הֲיֵ֧שׁ יְהוָ֛ה בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן
(We know) the Divine is (yesh) within us, IF (we are) Ayin/openness.
In other words, if we want to sense the Yesh, the Presence of the Divine within, we need to become Ayin – we need to let go of thinking and be still and open. Only then can we receive the true nourishment, intimacy with the Presence, as it says in Pirkei Avot, quoting Lamentations:
יֵשֵׁב בָּדָד וְיִדֹּם כִּי נָטַל עָלָיו
He sits alone in stillness, for the reward is upon him…
(Pirkei Avot 3:3, Lamentations 3:28)
Rabbi Kalman of Crackow asked Rabbi Hirsh the Servant, who was the successor of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov: “What is the secret of your way in prayer?”
He replied, “My way was shown to me by my holy teacher, may he merit life in the World to Come. Concerning the Manna, it is written:
וְיָצָ֨א הָעָ֤ם וְלָֽקְטוּ֙ דְּבַר־י֣וֹם בְּיוֹמ֔וֹ
The people went out and gathered the amount for the day, in its day…
“Every day is different, and every day has its own particular flow that comes to us in prayer, if we make ourselves open enough to receive it. This means there must be space between the words and space within, so that we may perceive from which prayer the flow is coming in each day…”
Living the Miracle – Parshat Beshalakh
1/16/2019 0 Comments
We often hear that we should get out of situations, jobs, or relationships that aren’t good for us. But sometimes staying in a situation, even if it feels bad, is the right thing. For example, when a father abandons his family, doesn’t he do it because the responsibility feels bad to him? Doesn’t he just want to be free? In that case, it’s obvious that “freedom” is not the highest value.
But in the spiritual sense, freedom doesn’t necessarily mean leaving behind that which imprisons us; rather, if we really want inner freedom, we must turn toward our bondage. This may feel counterintuitive; if we want freedom from pain, it’s natural to want to get away from whatever is causing the pain. Just as in the Exodus from Egypt – the Israelites cry out because of their suffering, and Moses leads them out of Egypt and to freedom. That’s the ordinary way of thinking – leave Egypt behind. But there’s a hint of something different in this week’s reading:
דַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת
Speak to the children of Israel – they should turn back and encamp before Pi Hakhirot…
When we think of the Exodus story, it’s common to imagine the Israelites fleeing Egypt, then coming to the Sea of Reeds and getting trapped with the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them. But look at the text: they had already past the Sea of Reeds – they were already on their way, when the Divine tells them: vayashuvu – turn back!
They deliberately turned around and back tracked, coming to camp at Pi Hakhirot, in front of the Sea of Reeds. There the Egyptian army caught up with them, and there the miracle of the parting of the sea occurred.
Pi Hakhirot means “Mouth of Freedom.”
The message is: If you want to truly leave bondage behind and go through the “Mouth of Freedom,” you have to first fully turn back toward your “oppressor.” Is there something or someone that “triggers” you, that stresses you out, that makes you angry or uncomfortable? Those feelings are within you; they are only brought to the surface by the external trigger. Until you can be present in the face of those feelings arising and not get caught, not get seduced, you will be in bondage, no matter far you flee from the external trigger.
Instead, וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת – shuv – return to the discomfort, and make friends with it, because that is the “Mouth of Freedom.”
Ordinarily, we keep emotional pain alive by feeding it with our thoughts. Just as the soldiers of Pharaoh rode after the Israelites on their horses, so the mind is the “rider” and the emotion is the “horse,” pursuing us and seeking to drag us back into bondage. But stop feeding the emotion with thought, and instead become present your feelings – bring your awareness to your actual experience without adding extra interpretation – and the “army drowns in the sea.” That’s because all pain, all constriction, are nothing but forms of awareness. Bring your awareness to the constricted form of awareness. It may hurt a bit at first, but the constriction cannot persist in the light of Presence; through being conscious, it will let go. Then you too will be able to sing:
אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם
I will sing to the Divine, Transcendently Exalted, horse and rider are cast into the sea…
Close- Parshat Beshalakh
2/7/2017 0 Comments
Metaphorically speaking, Pharaoh sending out the Israelites is like when we are sent out of our inner bondage by the experience of suffering; we don’t like the suffering, so we’re motivated to find spiritual freedom. And if you want spiritual freedom, there’s a really fast, direct way to get it- just come to this moment as it is, without resistance. That’s the practice of Presence.
But then it says:
“V’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu-
"God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer because God said, ‘The people might reconsider when they see battle and return back to Egypt.’”
And this is the obstacle that many people get caught in when doing spiritual work. You start practicing Presence, then all this inner pain comes up- all your psychological issues and resistances, and rather than be motivated by all that suffering you’d rather go back to your old strategies. It’s easier to just drink some wine and watch a movie!
At that point, you need something even deeper to keep you on track, and that’s the power of faith hinted at in the phrase, “ki karov hu.”
In the plain sense, this simply means, “which was close” referring to the road in the land of the Philistines, which would have been the closer path for the Israelites to take. But the word Hu is also a Divine Name. Karov means close, but it can also mean intimate, connected. So on this deeper level, it’s saying that the Divine is present on the road of battle, that is, the experience of deep suffering.
Have faith in that, because at first you won’t experience it. You’ll experience pain. But know ki karov hu- beneath the suffering is the spacious openness and wholeness of this moment, the Divine Presence that is not separate from your own presence, your own consciousness. You can access this Presence by being present- that is, by being karov, coming close to your actual experience in this moment, especially in suffering. Faith, and prayer, can help you do that.
So as we come close to this Shabbat Beshalakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we come close, karov, to the Reality of our actual experience and allow that truth to send us out from Mitzrayim- from the constriction of separation, into the wild mystery of Presence.
"Yo That's Fresh!" Parshat Beshalakh
1/21/2016 2 Comments
This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.
Fire and Cloud- Parshat Beshalakh
1/29/2015 6 Comments
In this week’s reading, Parshat Beshalakh, the Israelites escape Egypt and are confronted with many challenges.
But what is a “challenge” exactly?
Challenges exist because there arises an emotional resistance to things happening that conflict with what we want. Since it is impossible to act without being motivated by a want, and since it is impossible for the universe to absolutely conform to our wants, the conditions conducive to creating “challenges” are built into the fabric of reality. There is nothing we can do to change this basic fact: Reality is challenging.
The more conscious you are, however, the less you will be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. And the less caught you are by the emotional resistance that arises, the less it arises!
To make effort in consciousness, then, is the only way to remove your resistance, and hence to remove the problematic quality of life. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations.
When you are living in alignment with your deepest values, clear in yourself about what you are dedicated to, you are fully conscious of your intentions and you live life with purpose. When you are conscious of your intentions, it is not such a leap to be conscious of your emotional resistance as well.
However, if you find yourself spending time and energy on things that are not of your full choosing, things that are sapping energy and time away from what truly matter in your life, it is almost impossible to be conscious of your resistance because you are not even conscious about what you are doing. You have allowed things into your life- commitments, relationships, activities, whatever- that have no value to your life mission. Whatever those things are that you unconsciously find yourself stuck in- those are your Mitzrayim- your “Egypt”.
If you want to be conscious and free from the constriction of emotional resistance, you have to first be conscious of your decisions. You have to eject these useless things from your life. You have to say goodbye to the Egypt of purposeless living.
Life will be challenging either way, but why do you need to be challenged by things that are meaningless to you? Is it because of guilt? Because of fear? Because you just never stopped and asked the question, “is this serving my life purpose?” Get rid of it. Let the army of irrelevancy drown in the sea.
Once you free yourself from the Egypt of your unconscious involvements, you’re energy is freed up to apply consciousness in a deeper way. There is a hint of this in the way the Israelites travel after leaving Egypt. It says that Hashem went before them “yomam b’amud anan- by day as a pillar of cloud… v’laila b’amud aysh- and night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” is when challenges happen. Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of fire”- meaning, move your awareness into the burning of the emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going well. There is a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you are receiving. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of cloud”- meaning, be aware of the uncertainty of the next moment. Know that everything that is working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now for you from this unknowable Reality.
So get yourself free, then follow the pillars of fire and cloud that lead you on your way through the wilderness of freedom. It is a raw and uncertain road, but interestingly the word used for Hashem leading the people is nakham, which also means to “comfort”. Reality is rough on the ego that seeks comfort. And yet, to follow the pillars of fire and cloud is to find the ultimate comfort- the comfort of not running the show, of surrendering the “me” that wants to run the show. This Shabbat may we step off the stage and receive the true comfort of the One behind all shows. Good Shabbos!
Early in the career of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, he and his wife lived in great poverty. There were times when they had nothing to eat for days. During one such period, they were so hungry that his wife’s body could no longer produce milk for their infant. At first, the baby cried from hunger, but eventually, the baby became too weak even to cry.
The Maggid never complained about anything, but simply accepted life as it happened. But this one time, as he sat with his wife and the baby who was too weak to cry, he let out a sigh of despair. Immediately, a Voice came to him and declared that for this little complaint, he would be denied life in Olam Haba, the World to Come.
The Maggid smiled to himself and prayed, “Barukh Hashem! Now that the future has been done away with, I can begin to serve God fully lishmah, for its own sake, in the present.”
The Thirteenth Path is third Hebrew letter, ג gimel. Gimel means “camel,” which hints at the inner meaning of the Path: just as the camel carries its nourishment in its hump as it traverses the desert, so too there is a vast and inexhaustible abundance within that we carry with us as we traverse the “desert” of life; we only need to know how to access it.
This inner abundance is fundamentally different from our ordinary, dualistic desires and needs for outer abundance. In the outer sense, in the flow of life through time, there is always an oscillation between abundance and lack. Take a deep breath and you feel complete; a few moments later you feel need, and you must take another breath. But inner abundance is different, because it is inherent in the consciousness that perceives both outer abundance and outer lack in time; inner abundance is the abundance with no opposite. Consciousness is, by nature, vast, spacious, whole, and complete.
And yet, even though the abundance inherent in consciousness is always there at the root of our being, our experience of it comes and goes, just as all experiences come and go. It is like the ocean – always there, but we need to take the action of going to the beach and immersing ourselves in it. That act of immersion is meditation.
Meditation, at its root, is sustained Presence – the bringing of consciousness into intimate connection with the fulness of experience as it appears in the present. As we intentionally connect with whatever is present, disengaging from the stream of thinking, that quality of wholeness inherent in consciousness becomes visible to itself. With sustained practice, consciousness becomes more and more reflected in the three levels of experience – sensory (Nefesh), emotion/feeling/mood (Ruakh), and thought/mind (Neshamah) – renewing our sense of wellbeing at all levels.
But, meditation is not the only way to bring forth a connection with one’s inner abundance; we can also approach it from the opposite angle, the angle of action. When we behave as if that abundance is there, by living from love and giving generously to others, the giving itself can bring forth an awareness of our inner wellspring.
כִּֽי־יִהְיֶה֩ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן מֵאַחַ֤ד אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּאַ֨רְצְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵאָחִ֖יךָ הָאֶבְיֽוֹן׃
If there is a needy person among you, from one of your brethren in any of your settlements in your land that the Hashem your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and do not shut your hand to your needy brethren.
כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃
Rather, open your hand to them and willingly lend them enough for whatever they need.
These verses encompass two different mitzvot – the mitzvah of giving to those in need (tzedakah), as well as the mitzvah of lending to those in need. The situation determines which is appropriate; if one is in an emergency for basic needs, tzedakah is more appropriate. But if their need is an investment to start a business and help themselves, lending is better. It is also worth noting that it is forbidden to charge interest when lending. While the precise rules about this are complex, the basic idea is simple – giving of oneself to uplift fellow beings.
וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י – V’ha’aveit ta’aviteinu dei – willingly lend enough…
In the social sphere, the word dei, “enough,” means that our giving must be aimed at actually being helpful to the recipient. But on the inner level, the hint here is that through the act of giving “enough” to others, we can become aware of our own inner “enough-ness” – that is, the recognition that we are, in essence, complete and whole; this is awakening to the gimel quality of our deepest being.
And in this recognition, we can let go of the psychological urge to “look” toward something or someone to make ourselves complete, to fill the lack we often feel on the external level of time and form. We can “let go” of it because it will have done its job; in fact, it is impossible to fully recognize our inner wholeness without first feeling the pain incompleteness.
לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
No one could not see their brethren and no person could arise from their place for three days; but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings…
This passage, describing the plague of darkness inflicted on Egypt in the Exodus story, juxtaposes dark and light, representing the states of incompleteness and wholeness. When we are stuck in the hoshekh, the “darkness,” we are in Egypt, Mitzrayim, the narrow place; that is, identification with limitedness:
שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים …וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ …לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ –They could neither see nor rise, three days…
Ra’u, “seeing,” is perceiving goodness in life. Kamu, “rising,” is feeling motivated to live, feeling that there is something to live for. Shloshet yamim, “three days,” represents those three levels of being that make up our sense of separate self: physical/sensory awareness (Nefesh), emotion/feeling/mood (Ruakh), and thought/mind (Neshamah). All of this makes up ego, the sense of being a separate someone. Ego is “darkness” in the sense that it obscures our essence; it covers up the inner vastness that we are.
וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם – and for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings…
On the other hand, all three levels exist only because of our essence; this is the “light” of awareness itself. The hint here in juxtaposing the “light” and the “darkness” is that they need each other; it is through our awareness of the darkness – meaning, our Presence with our experience as it arises in the three levels – that our awareness can come to recognize itself, that we can come to know our essence as the light. This is hinted in the opening line of the parshah:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙
The Divine said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh – for I have hardened his heart…
The “hardened heart” is the ego’s resistance to present experience; it is the ossified sense of self as a being-in-need with its sense of incompleteness. It is emotional pain.
But Hashem says, בֹּא Bo!
Come to this moment as it is, bring the light of awareness to the truth of this moment; this is the path to Exodus, the path to the freedom of knowing our inner vastness, the gimel within…
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The Driver – Parshat Bo
1/27/2020 0 Comments
The other day, I called a Lyft at the airport and I was picked up by an interesting fellow named Art. Art told me that he was much more than a mere Lyft driver, and that he liked to serve his customers by giving them special advice.
The first advice he gave me was about the fact that Phoenix will soon be forbidding Lyft and Uber from taking people to or from the airport, due to a dispute about the fees the companies would have to pay to the city. His advice was that I could take Lyft to the rental car buildings near the airport, and then take the shuttle the rest of the way.
The second advice he gave me had to do with the proper tequila to use for different purposes – one brand for shots, another for margaritas, another for mixing with lime and soda.
Finally, he told me about a recent tragic incident in which one of those new driverless cars hit and killed a pedestrian. He explained that a homeless woman walked out into the street from behind some bushes, and the car was not able to “see” the woman until it was too late. He explained that a human driver would have been able to see the woman through the bushes, but the car was unable to sense her through the foliage.
As we automate more and more of the world we inhabit, we must be ever aware of the dangers inherent in turning over control to machines. This is one of the great themes of our day, expressed in classics like the Terminator movies, the Matrix movies, The Borg of Star Trek, and many more. In a slightly more concealed way, it is also found in the many Zombie movies and television shows. Zombies are like mindless machines, simply carrying out their programming to eat anyone and everyone in their path.
Both cultural images – the rogue machines as well as the undead – are so powerful not only because we are automating more and more of our external world, but also because they point to our inner world as well: the world of impulses, desires, and passions.
Like most of our external automations, our desires are mostly useful. When we feel the impulse to breath, for example, we can generally trust that impulse. We don’t have to pay much attention to it; we can let it “take over” and dictate our next breath. However, when we swim under water, the impulse to breath can be deadly. In that case, we’ve got to be aware of the impulse and not succumb to it until we come up for air.
Similarly, the impulse to eat is crucial to our survival. But if you work in a bakery and you’re surrounded by cake all day long, you might have to watch your impulse to eat. The same goes for many other impulses we have.
The problem is not desire; desire serves our survival. The problem is unconsciousness of desire, of letting the desire take control, of becoming the victim of our desires. Just as it is with driverless cars: we shouldn’t lose our attentiveness completely; we still have to watch.
All of this is true for anyone in ordinary situations.
But for the aspirant who wants to become more conscious, attentiveness has a whole other dimension. It’s not merely for the sake of averting danger, it’s also for its own sake. Ordinarily, it is important to be aware of our breathing only if we are under water. But spiritually, it is beneficial to be aware of our breathing constantly, because it is through the deliberate cultivation of awareness that we come to know ourselves as awareness and thus become free. In fact, awareness of our impulse to breath or eat is itself a kind of breathing and eating; through awareness of our desires, awareness itself is deeply nourished.
There is a hint of this in the parshah:
וַיַּ֣עַל הָֽאַרְבֶּ֗ה עַ֚ל כָּל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם
And the locusts came upon all the land of Egypt…
וַיֹּ֜אכַל אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב הָאָ֗רֶץ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹתִ֖יר הַבָּרָ֑ד וְלֹא־נוֹתַ֨ר כָּל־יֶ֧רֶק בָּעֵ֛ץ וּבְעֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
And they ate all the greenery of the land and all the fruits of the trees which the hail had left, so that nothing green was left of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt.
These locusts are the embodiment of desire, consuming everything in their path. They are also insects, which are often considered to be disgusting by humans and generally unfit for eating:
כֹּ֚ל שֶׁ֣רֶץ הָע֔וֹף הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֑ע שֶׁ֥קֶץ ה֖וּא לָכֶֽם׃
All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you.
Insects are generally not kosher. And yet, when it comes to locusts, the taboo against eating insects no longer applies:
אֶת־הָֽאַרְבֶּ֣ה…אַ֤ךְ אֶת־זֶה֙ תֹּֽאכְל֔וּ מִכֹּל֙ שֶׁ֣רֶץ הָע֔וֹף הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֑ע
But this you shall eat from all winged swarming things that walk on fours… the locust!
The locust, the symbol of desire and consumption, is good to consume! The hidden message here is that we must “eat” our “eating” – we must “feed” our consciousness by being present with our impulses and desires. How do we do that?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
The Divine said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, so that I may place My signs among them…
Bo el Paro – “Come to Pharaoh” means that the Divine is within Pharaoh, beckoning us to “come” – meaning, to bring awareness to the feeling of the impulse in order to reclaim the consciousness trapped within it.
Hikhbadti et libo – I have hardened his heart – The “hardness” of our impulses is not merely for keeping us alive. Its deeper purpose is to give our consciousness something to wrestle with, so that it may be strengthened and thus awaken to its full potential. That is the greatest miracle – the miracle of coming to know what we truly are – alive, spacious and free – so that I may place My signs among them...
The Inner Child – Parshat Bo
1/11/2019 0 Comments
I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son an electric guitar after he expressed a desire to play. He then surprised me by spending enormous chunks of time learning guitar from YouTube videos – The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen – the rock guitar classics. Some days he’s been sitting and practicing for nearly six hours at a time!
Now what to do you think would happen if I told him that he has to sit for six hours and practice guitar? Obviously, that wouldn’t work, and I might be arrested for child abuse. Maybe Mozart’s father could get away with that kind of thing, but I wouldn’t dare try. That kind of intensity has to come from an inner passion; you don’t sit and practice for six hours unless you really want to.
Passion is totally different from self-discipline, from making and sticking to commitments and obligations. And, passion is something we have as children; it’s not something we have to develop, like the adult qualities of being responsible, following through on plans and so on.
Obviously, adult qualities are also necessary. In fact, it is doubtful he would have been able to sit down and teach himself guitar like that had I not been requiring him to practice piano and drums from a very young age. I imposed an adult-based discipline structure on him, and that gave him a basic foundation of musical skill. That skill is useful for musical greatness, but not sufficient. For greatness you need to become passionately obsessed! And that kind of passion is a child-like quality; it doesn’t have to be developed or created, only uncovered and unleashed.
This is especially true with spirituality.
It is important, perhaps essential, to have a committed practice, to study the teachings regularly, to put spirituality on your to-do list and use your adult mind to make it a priority.
But if that’s all you’ve got, it won’t go deep. You may master texts and rituals and words, but all that will remain on the surface. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for prayer, but once you start praying, you’ve got to become like a child and cry out from the heart. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for meditation, but once you start meditating, you’ve got to be really curious like a child – what is happening in this moment? – rather than merely doing a technique.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ ... כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ
Moses said, “With our children and our elders we will go… for it is a festival of the Divine for us…”
In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh asks Moses who will be leaving Egypt, hoping that only the men will go. That’s what the ego whispers to us: “It’s okay, you can do your spiritual practice – just put it on your agenda. Be adult about it.”
But Moses says, “No, we’re all going – our children and elders both must go celebrate the festival!”
If we want our spiritual life to be true celebration of Being, and not be coopted by ego/Pharaoh, we’ve got to invoke the child within. Certainly, we need the z’keinim – the elders – as well, but once the adult mind has performed its function, once the adult mind has done its organizing and planning, give the adult a break and bring forth the child within. Only then can you really serve b’khol levavkh’a – with all your heart, with all your being…
The Sweet Roll- Parshat Bo
1/14/2016 5 Comments
I remember a funny sketch from an old Electric Company episode. A man dressed in what looks like a navel uniform sits in a restaurant and orders from a waitress with puffy red hair and a classic blue waitress uniform:
“I’ll have a cup of coffee and a sweet roll,” says the man.
“We are out of sweet rolls,” says the waitress.
“A glass of milk and a sweet roll.”
“We- are- out- of- sweet- rolls,” the waitress repeats a little bit more slowly.
“Ice tea and a sweet roll.”
“We are out of sweet rolls!” The redness of her hair starts migrating into her face, leaving her hair white.
“Orange juice and a sweet roll?”
She really leans in now- “WE ARE OUT OF SWEET ROLLS!!!”
“Okay, then, I’ll just have a sweet roll.”
“AAAAARRRRRGH!!!!” She screams and runs out the door.
How many times have you gotten some message over and over again in your life, but you didn’t listen? Or perhaps you couldn’t listen?
In this week’s reading, that’s what happens to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron present plague after plague to Pharaoh in order to persuade him-
"Let my people go!"
During each plague Pharaoh relents, but after each one subsides, he contracts into his old position- he just doesn’t get it. What does he think he’s accomplishing?
But that’s exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself over and over again, rather than learning the all-important lesson: Let go!
So why is it often so difficult to let go?
One common reason is the fear that if you were to let go, you’d be ignoring your real problems- that you’d become irresponsible and everything would fall apart.
Actually, the opposite is true.
When you lose your happiness and freedom because you’re struggling with your problems, you now have two problems- both the difficult situation and the inner tension and negativity generated by your struggling and worrying.
And with all that inner tension, how are you going to improve things?
But when you bring your awareness to your resistance and see it clearly for what it is, there’s a higher wisdom that can flow into your life. New possibilities can appear that were previously hidden.
That’s because your awareness is much bigger than “you” can see. Your ego/personality is “Pharaoh”- king of Mitzrayim- of narrowness, of limitedness, mindlessly repeating the same old patterns over and over again.
But your awareness is Divine- it’s Reality looking through your eyes- courageous, creative, present and free.
So next time you find yourself struggling, resisting or reacting with negativity, see if you can "catch yourself in the act." Be curious about it- see the pattern that's emerging. If you're feeling too much negativity to see clearly, try prayer. Ask the Divine to help you, to free you from the pattern. Just this simple act creates a new inner space in which your awareness can rise above whatever inner noise you're experiencing. Then, be alert for whatever answer comes, whatever new possibility reveals itself.
The Divine Presence is always with you- It is your own presence, beneath your mind, beneath your personality.
There's a story about a hasid named Mottel of Kashlin, a businessman who had extensive dealings in Warsaw and spoke Polish fluently. One day, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki called for him with a request.
The Polish government had issued a decree to burn all extant copies of the Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat- The Code of Jewish Law that deals with civil and criminal matters. The goal was to force Jews to take their litigation to the Polish courts rather than the rabbinical courts. No books had been burned yet, and Reb Yitzhak wanted Mottel to approach a certain powerful Polish minister and convince him to retract the decree.
“But that minister has a raging temper!” Mottel protested. “He threatens to shoot anyone who comes with requests like that!”
The tzaddik replied, “When Hashem sent Moses to save his people, he didn’t tell him to go to Pharaoh. He said:
'Bo el Paro-
“Come to Pharaoh…'
"Moses was afraid, so Hashem reassured him that the Divine Presence would be going with him."
So Mottel set out to confront the minister, calm and unafraid. When he arrived, he spoke eloquently and convincingly. The powerful man was awestruck by the presence of the brave yet calm and joyful hasid who stood before him, and granted his request.
O Hashem, on this Shabbos Bo, the Sabbath to Come, may Your wisdom and transcendent bliss come into our lives through this gift of awareness with which you imbue us. May this awareness come to touch every manifestation of "Pharaoh" that You've given each of us to elevate and transform. May we not require any more of the plagues of violence and narrowness on our planet in order to evolve- Transformation now! Moshiakh Akhshav!
Ignoring Ignorance- Parshat Bo
1/23/2015 1 Comment
Sometimes you might be fooled into thinking that spiritual freedom is a delusion, that in order to have it you would need to ignore your real problems. Actually, the opposite is true. When you lose your happiness and freedom because you are thinking about your problems, isn’t that the delusion? Is it not delusion to think that by making yourself miserable you are somehow addressing or improving your situation? In reality, you now have two problems- the difficult situation and the inner tension and negative energy generated by your thoughts.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Bo, Moses has been presenting plague after plague to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that his refusal to let the Israelites go free is bringing plagues upon himself. What does he think he is accomplishing? But that is exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself, rather than allowing liberation to happen.
The remedy is in the opening lines in which G-d says to Moses, “Bo el Paro- come to Pharaoh.” G-d doesn’t say, “go to Pharaoh” but “come to Pharaoh”, indicating that G-d is there with Pharaoh, telling Moses to “come”. In other words, the Divine is found in the suffering itself, not in trying to avoid it.
Bring your awareness into your suffering. Don’t look out into the future from your suffering, imagining that things will be better once you get what you want. The end of suffering and the beginning of liberation is the un-knotting of the Pharaoh, and that begins with bringing your attention into the Pharaoh, becoming conscious of the energetic knot of resistance within. Once that knot is broken, liberation is immediate; it is a leap. Don’t try to be too prepared. When it’s time to go, just go. Unleavened bread and all. There is only one chance, and that chance is now… and yet "now" never ends!
There is a hint of this in the word "bo" which means "come". It is composed of two letters- bet and aleph. The bet has the numerical value of two, and can mean "house". The aleph as the value of one, and among its many meanings are "chief" and "ox". In the movement of consciousness toward any contraction that is arising within your body, the contraction can release and the duality between consciousness and contraction of consciousness can shift into unity. Rather than there being suffering on one hand, and resistance to suffering on the other, there is just presence with Being as it is unfolding. To do this, you have to be like a bayit- a welcoming home for whatever arises within. Then, you can evolve into an aluf- a "chief" of self mastery, unified within, strong and rooted like an ox.
May this Shabbat see the un-knotting of all contracted separateness and may we come close to the Divine Presence in sweet intimacy for healing, peace and wisdom. Amein.
The letter ב bet, which means “house,” points to the quality of welcome, of hospitality. And, just as bet corresponds to the number two, so too does hospitality have two main aspects: welcoming guests in, as well as allowing the guests to leave. Both aspects need to be there for hospitality to exist; a home is a wonderful thing, but not if you are trapped inside!
On the social level, this is obvious, but hospitality has its analogue on the inner level as well. In meditation, it can be tempting to try to control your mind, to try to keep your thoughts out. But this aggressive and manipulative approach isn’t really meditation; the essence of meditation is not controlling thought, but transcending thought. Meaning: meditation is the shift of self-sense from the thinking mind to the space of awareness behind and beyond the thinking mind.
How do we do that?
Through the attitude of welcome; be the open space that allows present experience to be as it is. Welcome your thoughts in, but also allow them to leave. Without becoming involved in the stream of thinking, thoughts will come and go, and through this practice, the thought stream can come to subside altogether, on its own.
There is a hint of this in the parshah:
At the end of the book of Bereisheet, Pharaoh generously welcomes the Children of Israel into Egypt, and they settle in the district of Goshen. As the book of Shemot begins, a new Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews and won’t let them leave; hospitality turns into control. This is how the mind tends to work – we are open and welcoming to thoughts that arise, and then we unconsciously become involved with our thoughts, seeking through them to gain some sense of control over our experience. This is the “enslavement” of consciousness through identification with thought and feeling, the creation of ego, represented by Pharaoh.
If we try to get free by seeking to control the mind and not think, this is just more ego, more of that impulse to control our experience. This impulse stems from the two basic qualities of ego, expressed in the following verse:
וְהַכְבֵּד֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע
His heart became heavy/stubborn, and he didn’t listen…
Moses is pleading with Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go free, but Pharaoh is both “stubborn” and “not listening.”
וְהַכְבֵּד֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ – v’hakhbed et libo – His heart became heavy/stubborn…
This “heaviness” of the heart is emotional resistance, not accepting the moment as it is, seeking instead to control one’s experience.
וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע – V’lo shama – and he didn’t listen…
This resistance arises in the vacuum created by the absence of Presence, the absence of fully “listening,” fully connecting with whatever is present. The remedy is to bring consciousness into connection with the fullness of the moment for its own sake, not for the sake of a certain experience, even a spiritual experience. It is to honor the appearance of Reality in this moment, to hear Reality’s message to us, as it says in the opening of the parshah:
וָאֵרָא – Va’eirah – And I appear…
The ו vav at the beginning of the word means “and,” hinting that Reality is constantly appearing in new ways, now this way, now that way, as expressed by the Name given to Moses at the Burning Bush:
אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I Will Be Whatever I Will Be.”
There was once an old and widowed hasid who lived by himself. He wasn’t interested in getting remarried; instead, he prayed constantly that Shekhinah, the Divine “Bride,” would appear to him on Friday night, on Shabbat. (The Shekhinah is personified as the feminine aspect of the Divine.) One day, a majestic female Voice came to him and said, “I will come visit you this Friday night.”
“So wonderful! Thank you!” said the hasid, “May I invite guests?”
“Of course!” said the Shekhinah.
The hasid was so excited, he invited all his friends. On Friday he spent all day making the most sumptuous Shabbos feast. He cleaned the house, beautifully decorated the dining room, and set off to shul for Friday night prayers. After prayers, his friends accompanied him back to his house. He had prepared the table in advance, and was excited to bring his friends into the dining room to make Shabbos and witness the manifestation of the Divine Presence at his Shabbos table.
But, when they entered the dining room, all were shocked to see a huge dog on top of the table, eating up the challah and other delicacies! He grabbed a broom and started beating the dog and shooed it out the door. “Oy! I am so sorry! This is so terrible – the food has become unfit, and now I have nothing to serve you.”
Dismayed and somewhat shocked, his friends left.
The man sat at the table for a while in grief. “I’m sure Shekhinah will not appear now, after what happened.” After some time, he took some wine and began chanting the Kiddush, the sanctification of Shabbat said over a cup of wine.
But then, as he finished chanting the words, m’kadesh HaShabbat, a queenly and radiant woman appeared before him, only she was all cut and bruised!
“You have come!” exclaimed the hasid, “But what happened to you? Are you okay? You must have been in some kind of accident!”
“It was no accident,” she said, “it was you!”
The hasid was taken aback – “Me??”
“Yes! I wanted to enjoy your delicious Shabbos feast, so I came in the form of a dog – who could enjoy food more than a dog? But you beat me and kicked me out!”
The hasid then understood – he hadn’t recognized the form that the Divine had taken, and he begged forgiveness…
This moment, just as it is, is the form that the Divine now takes. Will you welcome Her in?
אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I Will Be Whatever I Will Be!”
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The Magician – Parshat Va'eira
1/20/2020 0 Comments
When I was little, being sick meant that I got to stay home from school and watch TV all day. What else was I going to do? The dangerous part of this, of course, is that being sick was incentivized. I don’t remember if that was a problem for me, but I’m extra aware of this problem nowadays for my own children. That’s because “television” is now much worse – it’s no longer a big piece of furniture in the living room enjoyed by all, but rather it’s a little device that can be watched with headphones under the covers.
We know that sitting around watching television or YouTube for hours and hours isn’t ideal for the nervous system. Even without the ample scientific evidence telling us what the brain needs to stay healthy, we know it intuitively: learning, creativity, physical exercise. Any decent children’s school will be giving a good dose of all three to its students every day.
And yet, while we know this is good for us and therefore give it to our children, many adults won’t give it to themselves. For many, the end of school marked the end of learning and the beginning of a work life that is mostly mechanical and uncreative…and we suffer for it.
The remedy is something Judaism has always known: keep learning! Make learning part of your daily routine:
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן תְּרַדְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶן דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב.
אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אָז נִדְבְּרוּ יִרְאֵי יְיָ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ וַיַּקְשֵׁב יְיָ וַיִּשְׁמָע וַיִּכָּתֵב סֵפֶר זִכָּרוֹן לְפָנָיו לְיִרְאֵי יְיָ וּלְחֹשְׁבֵי שְׁמוֹ.
Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion said, “If two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners, as it is said: “In the session of scorners he does not sit” (Psalms 1:1); but if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) abides within them, as it is said: “Then those in awe of the Divine spoke one with another; and the Divine listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before the Divine, for those in awe of the Divine and who meditate on the Divine Name.” (Malachi 3:16)
(Pirkei Avot 3:3)
The Shekhinah is not merely an esoteric belief. Every new thing we learn literally builds new neural pathways and the brain is enlivened. There is a natural joy in learning and growing (be it physical, intellectual or creative), because it is only through learning and growing that our aliveness is active, that our tremendous potential is realized. This is Shekhinah sheruyah veineihem – the Divine Presence dwells within them; it the actual experience of learning and growing.
The Divine listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written…
When we learn, our nervous system literally grows and changes. This is the “Book of Remembrance” – the new neural pathways that we create.
For those in awe of the Divine and who meditate on the Divine Name…
There are many kinds of learning. We are most familiar with the type of learning that happens on the level of thought, but meditation in which thought is suspended is also a kind of learning; it is learning how to give the mind rest from thought while remaining totally conscious. This is “meditating on the Divine Name” – using sounds or sacred words as foci for the mind, while intentionally letting go of thoughts as they arise. It is far better to combine meditation with conceptual learning rather than practice only one or the other, because meditation keeps the mind fresh, alive, creative and conscious of the awesome mystery that lies beyond the grasp of thought.
There is a hint of this in our parshah:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃ כִּי֩ יְדַבֵּ֨ר אֲלֵכֶ֤ם פַּרְעֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֧ח אֶֽת־מַטְּךָ֛ וְהַשְׁלֵ֥ךְ לִפְנֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה יְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘produce a wonder for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a serpent.”
A disciple asked Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk about the meaning of this verse: “Why does Pharaoh say, תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת t’nu lakhem mofet – produce a wonder for yourselves. He should say, produce a wonder for ME. The point is to convince Pharaoh with the miracle, not themselves!
Rabbi Elimelekh explained, “When a magician produces a wonder, it’s only a wonder to the audience, not to the magician; the magician knows how the trick is done. But a miracle is not accomplished by the person who facilitates the miracle, but by the Divine, and so the miracle is just as much a wonder to the one doing it as it is to others who witness it. So, this is what Pharaoh is saying: Don’t give me a magic trick, let me see a miracle that would be just as much a wonder to you as it is to me!”
Regular learning is essential for living a joyful and fulfilled life. But the danger is that the more information and understanding the mind acquires, the less susceptible it becomes to the Mystery and to Awe:
גָּ֘ד֤וֹל יְהוָ֣ה וּמְהֻלָּ֣ל מְאֹ֑ד וְ֝לִגְדֻלָּת֗וֹ אֵ֣ין חֵֽקֶר
Great is Existence; abundantly praised as Divine – It is a Greatness beyond all comprehension… (Psalm 145:3)
This is why meditation together with learning is so important; in learning to rise above thought by practicing regularly, the mind is washed from its arrogance and complacency and enlivened to behold the Supreme Mystery yet again, right now…
Missing the Train – Parshat Va'eira
1/3/2019 0 Comments
The other day, one of the folks in our community wrote me that he often feels like his mind is a train station and his thoughts are the trains, constantly taking off every few seconds. He wants to just let the “trains” go and stay in the “train station,” but he feels compelled to hop on every “train” that leaves, compulsively journeying into nearly every thought that arises. “When will I learn to relax and just stay in the train station?” he wondered.
He's in good company! At the end of last week’s reading, Moses wonders in a similar way:
וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the Divine and said, “My Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
Moses is on his Divine-given mission to free the Israelites, but he’s feeling like a failure. Similarly, when we commit to getting free from our own minds, we may feel like failures as well. Those trains are so tempting!
Part of the problem is expressed in the metaphor of “staying in the train station.” That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Going on different journeys, on the other hand, that’s enticing! And this is why we get carried away so easily with our thoughts; they promise adventure. They promise understanding. They promise new ideas, new plans, cherished memories and fantasies of possibility. No wonder we get carried away so easily by those trains!
If we want to get free from our own minds, we need to be seduced by something more powerful, more compelling than our own thoughts. This is the hidden message of the Divine response to Moses:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃
Then the Divine said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
Pharaoh, the symbol of ego and enslavement to the mind, will let them go free because of a “greater might” (literally, a “mighty hand”). What could be greater than the enticingly seductive power of thought?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Existence Itself.”
Meaning: the “I” is not separate from All Existence, because every experience, every perception, every thought, every feeling that arises in our awareness is inseparable from awareness, and we are the awareness. The ani, the “I,” is really the ayin – the open space of perception, vast and borderless, and nothing is separate from that openness.
So, don’t try to control your mind; don’t try to discipline yourself to “stay in the train station” while your mind tempts you with all kinds of things. Know that your awareness is not just a train station, not just the place from which the “trains” of thought arise, but is rather an ocean of bliss, complete and ever-creative, ever-renewing. Consciousness is the true adventure. Let yourself be seduced by That. Let yourself fall in love with That, and don’t worry about the trains. Thoughts can seem powerful, but the awareness that you are is the יָד חֲזָקָה – the mightier hand – if you let yourself be seduced…
The Gift Beyond Self – Parshat Va'eira
When Moses complains that he can't confront Pharaoh due to his "sealed lips," Hashem responds with the strange words: "N'tatikha Elokim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!"
What does this mean?
There is a dimension of your being that transcends all your problems, all your reactions, all your conditioning. It transcends your thoughts, your opinions, your goals, your hopes, and your fears. Every experience you have arises within It, and disappears back into it. It is a vast, free, wellspring of peace, healing and renewal, regardless of what happens in your experience.
When we are unconscious of this vast dimension of being, we tend to identify with the content of our experience; we feel that our thoughts, our feelings, and our bodies are "me." That's the Pharaoh; it's the "me" that wants to control things, that seeks approval, that judges.
But when you remember the awareness within which everything in your experience appears and disappears, then you know your own Divinity – your own absolute freedom from the tyranny of ego. Then, there can be a tremendous sense of gratitude – N'tatikha Elohim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!
Your own Being is not separate from or other than God, and that's the most supreme Gift; though it's an even greater gift to know it! As it says (Pirkei Avot 3:18): "Beloved are human beings, for they are created embodiments of the Divine. But they are extra beloved in that it is made known to them that they are embodiments of the Divine!"
The Plague- Parshat Va'eira
1/6/2016 3 Comments
This week’s reading begins the onslaught of plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. Appropriately, the other day I went into the bathroom to find the toilet teaming with huge ants- darting with lightning speed along the outside and inside of the bowl. A plague of ants!
I flushed the toilet- hundreds were sucked down the pipe in seconds… only to make room for hundreds more which miraculously emerged from under the rim. Ah… the wildlife of Costa Rica!
Not sure what to do, I glanced around the bathroom, when a movement caught my eye outside the window. It looked like a woody stick was caught in some cobwebs behind the window screen, but this stick was moving. I looked closer- it was a “stick bug”- a huge locust-like insect camouflaged like a stick. It had gotten caught in a nest of old webs.
I went out around the house to the window in order to free the entangled stick bug. I used a real stick to twirl the webby strands like spaghetti. The stick bug struggled free and leaped onto an adjacent boulder sticking out of the earth. (That boulder’s new name is Mt. Sinai.)
For me, those old webs were mere feeble threads, easily overcome with minimal effort. But to the stick bug, they formed an unbreakable prison.
So too with those psychological webs that ensnare the soul!
From the outside, it’s easy to see how a person can get free- they just have to stop thinking a certain way, or stop doing a certain habit. But from within the mind of the person who’s caught, it can seem impossible. That’s why it can be so incredibly helpful to have someone else- a teacher, coach or friend- to give you feedback and perspective.
There’s a story in Talmud about this idea:
Rabbi Yohanan was a great miracle-worker and healer. When he visited a sick person, he would ask, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
They would then answer, “Neither they nor their reward.” Then he would take them by hand and they’d be instantly healed.
One day, Rabbi Yohanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Answered Rabbi Yokhanan, “Neither they nor their reward.”
Then, just as Rabbi Yohanan had done for so many others, Rabbi Hanina offered his hand and healed Rabbi Yohanan.
The Talmud then asks, why did Rabbi Yohanan need Rabbi Hanina’s help? Let him heal himself! It then answers its own question:
“Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim-
“A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
Just as a prisoner needs someone else to get free, so too the right person can help liberate you, spiritually speaking.
And yet, if someone gives you the perspective you need to get free from the thought-webs of your own mind, then that means there must be a part of yourself that’s already free. Otherwise, it would be impossible to see beyond your limited perspective and you’d be stuck forever. The part that “sees” was never stuck in the first place.
As the traditional morning blessing says,
“Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, shelo asani oved-
“Blessed are You, Divine Being, our own Divinity, who has not made me a slave…”
Now matter how stuck you get, your essential identity is free from that web of thoughts and personal stories that the “me” gets caught in. In fact, the “me” and the “web” are the actually the same thing. But your essential identity, beyond the “me,” is always free.
Of course, when you’re stuck, you’re not living in your essential identity; you’re resisting it. In this week’s reading, Moses too resists freedom, complaining that he can’t possibly confront Pharaoh:
“Behold, I have sealed lips- how is Pharaoh going to listen to me?”(Ex. 6:30)
But Hashem reassures Moses in an incredibly surprising way-
“Re’eh- n’tatikha Elokim l’Paro-
“See! I have made you God (Elohim) to Pharaoh...”
Moses is God? What does this mean?
But the key is in the first word- “Re’eh- See!”
That which sees, the awareness that looks through your eyes, is the master over all the other forces within. It is the God within- your essential identity. If you don’t know that, you identify with the other forces- with feelings, with thoughts, with memories, with ideas- all those webs of the personality, of “Pharaoh.”
But as soon as you “hear” the Divine command to see (meaning, "be aware") then the exodus begins, and your essential identity starts to awaken.
But not only is your awareness the master over your personality- it’s even deeper than that. There’s a hint of this at the very beginning of the parsha (Ex. 6:2):
“Elohim said to Moses, ‘I am YHVH.’”
The first divine name, Elohim, means the divine personality. It’s the deity. The second Name, the unpronounceable Y-H-V-H, is far more expansive, meaning Existence Itself, not a divine being merely within existence.
The message here is that your essential identity is not something separate from the rest of Existence. Your essential identity is Existence, waking up as you, yet completely beyond “you.”
The awakening of your essential identity beyond your personality is actually something very simple. And while it may take years of learning and practice for this awakening to stabilize completely (if ever), it takes no time at all to shift into an awakened state, at least temporarily. In fact, lots of learning and practice can sometimes get in the way of it, if your learning and practice become part of your ego- if they become strands in the web of your mind-created identity.
But, crack open your heart and you naturally and effortlessly slip from the webs and step onto the rock of Sinai for yourself.
One year, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak held the Passover Seder so perfectly and devoutly, that every word and ritual glowed with holiness and secret significance. The next morning, while he sat in his room joyful and proud, a Voice came to him:
“More pleasing to Me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
The rabbi asked around about the man whose name he had heard, but no one knew who he was. So, some of his disciples went off to search for him.
At the outskirts of the city in a poor neighborhood, they found the hovel of Hayim the water-carrier. They knocked on the door and a woman answered:
“Yes, my husband is Hayim the water-carrier, but he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you try and wake him you’ll find he won’t even be able to move.”
They went in anyway and shook him. He just blinked and tried to turn over and go back to sleep, but they wouldn’t give up. They pulled him out of bed, carried him on their shoulders to their rebbe’s house, and sat him up in a chair.
Reb Levi Yitzhak leaned toward him and asked, “Reb Hayim dear heart, what kavanos (mystical intentions) were in your heart when you gathered the humitz (leavened foods)?”
The water-carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked around and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued his questioning- “And what kavanah did you have in mind when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s still lying on the shelf.”
“Hmm,” the rabbi puzzled, “And tell me, Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to light up in the eyes of the man, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I’ll tell you the truth. You see, I’ve always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on the eight days of Pesakh, so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me all eight days, and I got tired and fell asleep.
“Then my wife woke me in the evening and said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like other Jews?’
“‘What do you want from me?’ I said, ‘I am an ignorant man, son of an ignorant man, and I don’t know what to do and what not to do.’
“Still, I went and sat down to the table, where she had placed matzos and eggs. Broken hearted, I began to sing a wordless melody. My wife joined me, and we sang together mournfully, pouring out our hearts.
“I cried, ‘Ribono Shel Olam- Master of the World! You brought our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom- will you make us free too?’
“As we sang, something started to change inside me. The burden of my life- my troubles- my fears- none of it seemed to matter anymore. I looked around- everything seemed to glow with the most beautiful light. My wife could see it too. We felt as though we were tasting true freedom- as though we were coming out of Egypt.
“So the two of us sat and sang and drank and rejoiced. Then I got tired, lay down, and fell back asleep.”
On this Shabbos Va’eira, the Sabbath of Appearing, may we learn to not fall back asleep from the Divine when She appears. Instead, may we bring our wakefulness into connection with everyone we meet. May the world be transformed in the image of our Divine potential, bringing an end to all the unnecessary plagues we unconsciously create for ourselves and for the earth, speedily in our day- Moshiakh Akhshav!
There’s a story of Rabbi Pinhas of Kortez, that early in his career, people began calling upon him for advice and special blessings. A day wouldn’t go by without him having to interrupt his learning and davening to answer the knocks at the door, which irritated him greatly.
Finally, when he could take no more, he prayed that the interruptions would stop so that he would be able to serve Hashem in peace and solitude. His prayer instantly manifested, and everyone who knew him suddenly hated him. The interruptions ceased, and for the first time in years, Rabbi Pinhas had some peace.
When the festival of Sukkot came around, however, R. Pinhas couldn’t find anyone to help him build his sukkah, the outdoor hut which is central to the celebration of Sukkot. He had to do it himself, and even his wife had a terrible time trying to find someone from whom to borrow tools.
Now, the central theme of Sukkot is hospitality, and it is a great mitzvah to invite guests into your sukkah for meals – both human guests and the ancestral spirits, especially the Biblical personalities. On Erev Sukkot, the afternoon before the holiday began, R. Pinhas tried to invite the wayfarers he saw at the synagogue, but they refused to come, so widespread was his infamy.
So, without guests, he and his wife observed the festival alone. When it came time to invite in the ushpizin, the ancestral guests, the spirit of Abraham suddenly appeared and stood at the entrance of the sukkah. But as R. Pinhas pronounced the invocation, Abraham just stood there, not entering the sukkah.
“Avraham avinu – Abraham our father – why do you not enter? What have I don’t wrong?” asked R. Pinhas.
“It is not my custom to enter a place where there are no guests,” he replied.
R. Pinhas realized his error, and prayed once again, this time that people should resume their visits. This prayer too was succesful, and thus began his career as a rebbe.
The Eleventh Path is the second letter, ב bet, which literally means house – bayit. Bet hints, therefore, at the quality of hospitality, both in the ordinary social sense in which one welcomes the presence of beings, as well as the deeper sense in which one welcomes the Presence of Being.
Along this line, the bet represents the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the modern synagogue, the family home, as well as the space in the home designated for spiritual practice, and even the personal space of our own bodies. In the broadest sense, bet means form itself, because all forms, all beings, all phenomena, are embodiments of Being, manifestations of That which we call the Divine. The spiritual task is to make this conscious, to live with the attitude of welcome, so that the Divine dimension is not just acknowledged, but actively invited.
יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה וְיוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם
Yose ben Yoezer, a man of Zeredah, and Yose ben Yohanan, a man of Jerusalem, received [the oral tradition] from them [i.e. Shimon the Righteous and Antigonus]. Yose ben Yoezer used to say: “Let your home be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.
יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ
Yose ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, used to say: “Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be (as) children of your household.”
These two aphorisms speak of different aspects of hospitality – the first is a kind of sanctifying hospitality, in which the home is made hospitable to our teachers, to those who will help up us on our path. The second is more of a humbling hospitality, in which the home is made hospitable to those we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have in our space, other than to practice hospitality.
Together, these two aspects also metaphorically hint at the embodiment of hospitality at a deeper level – the level of thought and speech:
יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים – Y’hi beitkha beit va’ad lahakhamim – Let your home a house of meeting for the sages…
On this level, “sages” refers to the expression of meaning; this is the putting together of thoughts and sounds into language.
יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה – Y’hi beitkha patuah larvaha – Let your house be open wide…
This means that, even as the forms of words and sentences are constructed, they should be “open” – meaning, not rigid, not ideological, not reified. This is so important today, when societal polarization over ideology is so common. There is a teaching about this on a verse from Parshat Noakh, the story of Noah’s flood:
צֹ֣הַר תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה – Tzohar ta’aseh latevah – A window you shall make for the ark…
The Baal Shem Tov taught on this verse that the word for ark, tevah, can also mean “word.” He said that our words must be “open,” that we must make “windows for our words,” in a sense. Meaning, our thoughts and words aren’t the end of the story; they are like maps, merely pointing to a much more vast territory than they can ever express, and they therefore must always be open to new insight, new information, new nuance of perception.
Another dimension of this teaching, connected to the first, is Presence in speech – the practice of brining awareness to one’s words as they are spoken, so that the act of speaking itself is a kind of meditation. This practice of Presence in speech both helps maintain an open, non-ideological attitude, as well as helps prevent identification with words – the unconscious process by which we tend to lose our ability to differentiate between our thoughts and our essence.
This process of unconscious identification with thought is what we might call the birth of ego. In Torah this is represented by the Israelites’ descent into slavery in Egypt, which begins in Parshat Shemot:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names (shemot) of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each person and his household came…
Shemot, which means “names,” represents thought in general, as the essence of thought is the breaking up experience into parts and then naming those parts. While thought is essential for growing in our understanding of Reality, as well as navigating practical matters, it is a double edged sword; as our vast and formless consciousness takes on specific form as thought, the danger is that it can easily “lose itself.” We can become “lost in thought,” believing ourselves to be merely “thinkers,” and forgetting the inner freedom of our vast and formless essence – the field of awareness that we are, beneath and beyond our thoughts.
This process of identification, of losing touch with our essence, actually happens not only with thought ("names"), but with our bodies and with our feelings as well ("houses").
אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ … וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙
These are the names… each person into their house came…
Just babies learn the limits of their own bodies and come to feel that they are “inside” the body looking out at an external world, so too we eventually come to feel that we are “inside” our thoughts and feelings, as well. This sense that we are inside the “houses” our bodies, thoughts and feelings is what is meant by identification, the beginning of ego, the beginning of bondage.
Furthermore, once this inner bondage of ego-creation takes place, we then become subject to fear and insecurity, for we know on some level that all forms are inherently temporary, fragile, and therefore insecure:
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us!"
This “new king,” the “Pharaoh,” is of course the ego – the “bondage” of consciousness identified with form. This fearful ego seeks to secure its status and eliminate threats, just as Pharaoh does in the story. Pharaoh begins by enslaving the Israelites and attempting to reduce their population by telling the Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all the baby Hebrew boys.
But the midwives refuse to buy into this fear-based violence, and they do the opposite, saving the babies. This is the remedy for the suffering of ego that results from identification with form – the Spirit of Welcome, or Hospitality.
וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃
And because the midwives had reverence for the Divine, Elohim made for them houses…
This strange verse tells us the reward the midwives received for saving the babies – Elohim made for them houses. In other words, the “houses” of their bodies and feelings and thoughts became “Divine” – their essence was no longer trapped by form, but was rather embodied and expressed by form.
This is the key to inner liberation, to tziyat mitzrayim, to “going out from Egypt,” to being free from ego: rather than creating ego by identifying with our “house,” with body and thought and feeling, we can instead inhabit our “house,” while still knowing we are infinitely more than the “house” – we are not merely body and thought and feeling; we are the vast and free space awareness itself, both within and far beyond the “house.” We do this by making our “house” into a place of welcome; in other words, we do it by welcoming whatever arises in the moment.
There is a famous story that a young Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where does God live?”
Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Melo khol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth full of God’s glory!”
Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”
Welcoming the Divine in and as this moment is a direct and simple thing to do; all it requires is the attitude of openness to this moment as it appears, right now. But, this is not always easy, because once ego is created, it seems so real; emotional pain arises, and it can seem impossible to get beyond it, to access our spacious essence. The key, however, it to actually use our pain to transcend it:
וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃
The Israelites were groaning because of their work, and cried out; and their cries from their work rose up to Elohim…
The word for work here is עֲבֹדה avodah, which also means prayer, or spiritual practice in the broader sense:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the survivors of the great assembly. He used to say: “The world stands upon three things: Torah, Spiritual Practice (avodah), and Acts of Kindness."
This formulation gives the three pillars of a spiritual life – learning Torah (which is what you are doing right now as you read this), transformative practices such as prayer and meditation, and living the teaching through acts of generosity and service toward others.
But the fact that the word avodah is also the word used to describe the suffering of slavery hints at a crucial point: the suffering we endure must become part of our spiritual practice if it is to lead to liberation.
We have to fully feel and fully acknowledge the suffering, without denial but also without resignation and victimhood; we must “cry out to the Divine” – bring the truth of our suffering into our practice, which means laying our burden at the feet of Hashem, so to speak. This is authentic prayer; this is how the cry of suffering leads to liberation. But to do this, we must be awake enough to remember, moment by moment, this vital task:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall command the Children of Israel to bring to you oil of olives, pure, crushed for lighting, for kindling lamps continuously…
This mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, again points to this process of turning our pain, our sense of being “crushed,” into the pure oil of consciousness that burns constantly and illuminates the space within all forms.
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
They shall make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among/within them…
This verse, which in its context is describing the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, expresses a universal message and a practical and useful instruction: make your life – both the joy and the pain – into a “home” for the Divine. We do this through the three major forms, the three "houses" of Torah learning, daily practices (avodah) and acts of kindness, remembering to transmute the pain through our avodah, by laying our burden at the “feet” of Hashem…
מַה טֹּֽבוּ אֹהָלֶֽיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּ֒נֹתֶֽיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael!
How good are your tents, O Jacob, places of Dwelling Presence, O Israel!
(From Morning Blessings liturgy)
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The Blazing Love – Parshat Shemot
1/13/2020 0 Comments
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
A disciple once asked Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt: “It says that the seven years Jacob worked to marry Rachel seemed like a few days to him because of his love for her. How does this make sense? If he loved her so much, the seven years should seem even longer, not shorter! I would think that every minute he had to wait would feel like an eternity!”
The rabbi of Apt responded: “There are two kinds of love: the kind that attaches you to the object of your love, and the kind that is given freely to your beloved. We are most familiar with the first kind – we love someone or something, and the love enslaves us; that’s the kind when every minute away from your beloved seems like an eternity. But Jacob had the second kind of love – his love was given away freely to Rachel, and so he too was free. In that freedom, he wasn’t longing for the future, he was simply being in the moment; so, the entire seven years seemed like only a moment, because throughout that time he had always been in the moment!”
On the physical level, we are absolutely slaves, in constant need of external support to survive. This is reflected in the parshah – the children of Israel are driven to Egypt by the famine and the promise of food, and there they become slaves.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ
Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with crushing labor…
Egypt is Mitzrayim, which comes from the root that means “constriction” and “suffering,” hinting that on the physical level we are ever incomplete, ever in need of external nourishment, without which we suffer and die.
But the physical, form-based dimension of experience is not all there is.
The very fact that we can feel suffering at all means there is awareness that feels. That awareness, that dimension of being without which there cannot be any experience at all, is itself beyond Mitzrayim, beyond constriction. Spacious and free, awareness is the ever-present background against which the constriction of Mitzrayim comes and goes. How do we access this dimension of freedom?
Love this moment!
It is true, we are often acting to bring about results that we need for our survival; even our next breath is toward this end. But our actions need not only be aimed at the narrow and conditional goals of the future; we have the power to also be in this moment lishma, for its own sake, to offer our Presence to the inner goodness of this moment, as it is. This is the second kind of love the Rabbi of Apt speaks about: the love that sets us free.
To bring forth the love that sets us free, we must remember that the inner goodness of this moment is easily hidden by our goals in time, by our Mitzrayim-based aim to secure something for ourselves. There is a hint of this in the passage about Moses’ birth:
וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ
She saw that he was good, so she hid him…
She feared for Moses’ life, because Pharaoh threatened to kill him. Moses represents the pathway to freedom, while Pharaoh represents the encroaching and deadening power of ego that kills the simple joy of being. Moses’ mother is the beginning of desire for freedom, the desire that cries out:
בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ לִּ֑י חָ֝נֵּ֗נִי וּשְׁמַ֥ע תְּפִלָּתִֽי
Batzar Hirkhavta Li, Honeni uSh'ma Tefiltati!
From constriction You expand me – be gracious to Me and hear my prayer!
If the path to freedom were not hidden, there would be no desire for it, no longing in the heart for release from Mitzrayim, and freedom wouldn’t stand a chance. It is only because it is hidden that desire for freedom is born:
דִּרְשׁוּ יְהֹוָה וְעֻזּוֹ בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָיו תָּמִיד
Seek the Divine and Its Power; search for Its Presence constantly…
(I Chronicles 16:11)
And when we seek, we find – because It is not elsewhere; It is hidden within this moment, hidden as the Presence of Being within all being. Give your attention to this Presence and you draw it forth. Just as Pharaoh’s daughter drew forth Moses from the river, so too we draw forth the light of the present from the river of time; it shines like a soft glow at first, then like a fire that blazes forth but heals rather than burns. All we need do is give our attention to It, to love this moment for Its own sake. Then, the path to freedom appears in the present, as Presence…
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה
And Elohim said to Moses, “I Am That I Am”
Seek the Face – Parshat Shemot
12/28/2018 0 Comments
It is difficult to be present when we face adversity. But it can be just as difficult, if not more so, when we are in easeful situations. That’s because without the motivation to escape suffering, the tendency is to forget all about the constant effort required to present.
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמֹות֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
The children of Israel went down into Egypt because it they needed nourishment; Egypt was a place of satisfaction, and only gradually did it become a place of great suffering. And, it was only because of the suffering that the Israelites were motivated to leave and return home.
Similarly, when our experience is pleasant and easeful, it is easy to sink into “Egypt” without knowing it – meaning, it’s easy to sink into identification with the mind and its thinking. After all –
נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיֹוסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם
Joseph was in Egypt.
“Joseph” represents the power to grow, to be creative, and this is the power of thought. But when thought becomes so constant that we lose connection with the space of awareness within which thought arises, we’ve become stuck in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness.
Then, when adversity comes, the degree to which we’ve become trapped gets revealed with the reactivity that arises, and the suffering that comes along with it.
But, not to worry!
The force of the suffering itself can cause “Pharaoh” to let go. Meaning, consciousness that’s become trapped in identification with thought – called “ego” – is motivated to let go when it feels the suffering that it unconsciously created.
The key is to use suffering in the right way – accept it fully, let it do its thing. In that openness to whatever arises lies the key to liberation. The suffering may persist for some time, but eventually it burns itself out, just as Pharaoh eventually relents after the ten plagues.
But even better is to learn to remain conscious when things are good!
Give thanks for the great and constant blessings of Being, root your awareness in your body, let go of the stream of thinking, and know yourself as the Light of Presence within which this moment arises. This is hinted at in a verse from Chronicles:
בַּקְּשׁ֥וּ פָנָ֖יו תָּמִֽיד
Bakshu Fanav Tamid
Seek Its Face Constantly
Behind every experience is the radiant Light of Being, but you have to "seek it out" in a sense. This is a totally different kind of seeking from the ordinary kind, in which you seek something that isn't present, something that's hidden somewhere else. "Seeking the Face" means remembering that whatever the moment brings is literally the Face of the Divine – a manifestation of Reality, arising in the vast field of consciousness that you are...
"I" Am With "You" – Parshat Shemot
1/3/2018 2 Comments
When Moses confronts the Voice from the Burning Bush calling him to his destiny, he responds, Mi anokhi ki elekh el Paro? – Who am I to come to Pharaoh? To which the Voice responds, Ki Ehyeh imakh – For I will be with you.
On the surface, God is reassuring Moses – “don’t worry, I’ll be there to help you out.” But look at what the words are actually saying: Mi anokhi? – Who am I? The answer is, Ehyeh imakh – I will be with you. In other words, Ehyeh imakh is actually who Moses is.
This is, in fact, who we all are at the very root of our being – an open space of awareness, awake to whatever arises in its field. We might call this level of our being, “Presence With.” This Presence (that is both the Divine Presence and our own presence) has a dual nature: on one hand, it has no other agenda than to simply be. On the other hand, since it is free from all other motivations, it also bubbles with potential. Every idea, inspiration and motivation arises from within it. That’s why the tense of Ehyeh is ambiguous; it can mean I Am, but it can also mean I Will Be.
And to clarify this further: a few verses later, Moses asks the Voice what its Name is. The answer is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I Am That I Am, or I Will Be What I Will Be. Presence and Potential, Being and Becoming, in One.
This Presence and Potential is not something we must develop or create; it is who we are, if we can uncover it – if we can step off the worn path of our habits and behold the firey core of this moment.
And how to do that?
Say: Ehyeh imakh. Open yourself to fully be with this moment as it is. And in that Presence, is your own presence – along with the infinite potential of Whatever Arises Next.
Against the Wall- Parshat Shemot
12/31/2015 5 Comments
One summer when I was about eight years old, I was walking through the playground at my day camp in upstate New York. As I passed by a certain play structure, built as a replica of a covered wagon, a bigger kid with a mean face came out of the wagon and told me to get inside. Hypnotized by his authoritative tone, I immediately acquiesced.
Once inside, I saw what was going on: several scared kids, some of whom were my friends, were all trapped at one end of the room with their backs against the wall.
“Get against the wall with the others!” the big mean kid barked at me. I did.
He then proceeded to lecture us: “You are all now my slaves. You will do exactly as I say, or I will crush your head!”
With that, he took a small thick stick and rammed it against the wall near us. He then continued bashing it and grunting, violently splintering off pieces of wood against the corrugated aluminum.
I became very still and alert. I couldn’t accept being this kid’s prisoner. I watched him very closely for several minutes, waiting intently for a moment when his awareness of me would lapse.
As he threatened us and repeatedly rammed his stick against the wall, he glanced just briefly at the spot where he was pretending to bash someone’s head. That was the moment. Without thinking, I darted for the door, jumped down the steps and escaped.
I hope the other kids were okay that day.
At that time, all I could do was free myself. But in this week’s reading, Moses receives the calling to free his entire people. He had already freed himself, escaping from the wrath of Pharaoh into the dessert. Eventually, he settled down with the Midianites and married Zipporah, daughter of the priest Jethro.
Then, one day while shepherding the flock, a Divine angel appears to him in a blazing fire burning within a thorn bush. He goes to examine the strange sight and notices that the bush is not being consumed by the flame:
“Moses hid his face- afraid to gaze on the Divine…”
Why was he afraid?
In this and every moment, there is nothing but Truth-Reality-Divinity everywhere, fully available and free. And yet, we too tend to “hide our face”- to shrink away in fear.
There are three types of fear gripping Moses at the burning bush, hinting at three types of psychological resistance we often feel toward being fully present with the “burning bush” of this moment.
First, when Moses hides his face, what does Hashem say to him?
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Being present can make you temporarily vulnerable to feelings of pain- both your own and the pain of others. In fact, the increased suffering of the Hebrews on the threshold of their liberation hints at this truth: To become free, you must be willing to fully feel whatever pain comes to you.
But, for us as in the story, there comes a time when the pain of resistance becomes greater than your resistance to pain. When that happens, you can surrender your resistance, feel whatever temporary pain you were resisting, and get free.
Second, when God chooses Moses for the awesome mission of liberating his people, what’s Moses’ response?
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”
If you become free from your limited narratives about yourself, you then must confront your enormous potential. This gives rise to a different fear- what if I fail? Sometimes it’s easier to think of yourself as worthless than to acknowledge your tremendous potential. If you're worthless, then you don’t even have to try; you can stay comfortable with the status quo.
But when the magic of empowerment becomes sweeter than the security of comfort, you too will be able to look unflinchingly into your inner “fire”- your true potential- and get free.
Finally, when Moses asks what God’s Name is, what’s the reply?
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh- I Will Be That Which I Will Be…”
Entering the world of the Eternal- that is, the present moment- means letting go of the world of time. To let go of the world of time means putting aside the world of thought. To put aside your thoughts, you must have trust:
“If I stop worrying about the future and be fully here, will I be okay? Will things work out?”
The Divine is reminding Moses: “You don’t have to worry. I will be with you. Who made your mouth anyway? And even deeper- everything is ultimately Me. I am the Hebrews, I am the Pharaoh. I am everything in this moment, and later on, it will still be Me. I’ll be whatever I’ll be. Let go into this moment, trust that you will have what you’ll need, and embrace your path.”
Letting go into this moment and trusting is like pouring water into a cup:
The water takes the shape of the interior. It doesn’t resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
In the same way, you can “pour” your awareness into the “vessel” of this moment. There’s a hint of this in the beginning of the parsha:
“Uv’nai Yisrael paru… vatimalei ha’aretz otam-
“And the children of Israel were fruitful… and the land became filled with them”
Who are the “Children of Israel?”
“Israel” comes from the Hebrew Yashar El- “straight to God”- so to be Israel means to drop the idea that you are separate from God/Reality. To drop the separateness is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to the vessel of this moment.
But then it says:
“Vayakam melekh hadash al Mitzrayim-
“And a new king arose over Egypt…”
This king, the Pharaoh, is fear.
It’s the fear of pain, the fear of your own potential and the fear of the unknown. Ultimately, it’s the fear of death of the separate “me.” The separate “me,” or ego, is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment.
Pharaoh is the king of Mitzrayim- the land of tzar- of narrowness. He is the King of Contraction.
So how do you let go and fill the vessel of this moment?
You don’t- gravity does.
Just as gravity causes the water to descend and fill the cup, there’s an inner “gravity” that will pull down your awareness into the vessel of this moment, if you surrender to it. This surrender comes not from pushing away your fear or trying to get rid of it, but from fully feeling it and transforming it into the cries of prayer. As it says:
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Meaning: When you fully feel, surrender, and cry out to the One, this revolutionary possibility comes into being: the possibility of realizing that you are the miracle of awareness. You are the Divine who sees, hears and feels all that arises in this moment.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divine potential- to perfectly fill the imperfect manifestation of being as it moves in time. And in your perfect connection with the ever-imperfect manifestation of this moment, it is to bring healing and tikkun to yourself and others through words and acts of love, support, wisdom and understanding.
Living your full potential in the present is simple, but not easy. It takes training and practice, just like mastery of any skill requires.
Once Rabbi Chaim of Krozno, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was walking through town with his disciples on their way to pray. They came upon a boy, dangerously walking along the edge of a towering stone wall. Rabbi Chaim stopped and became completely engrossed in the boy's antics.
“Rabbi,” a disciple queried, “What’s so interesting about that foolish boy that you make us late for prayers?”
“This boy,” replied Reb Chaim, “is risking his life and I have no idea why. But I am quite sure he’s not worrying that he might not keep his balance, because if he did, he certainly wouldn't.”
On this Shabbat Shemot- the “Sabbath of Names”- may we drop all of our "slave names”- the "bricks" in the wall of fear against which "Pharaoh" seeks to keep us confined. Instead, may we courageously practice walking the razor's edge of the present and fearlessly gaze into the “fire” of our own Divine potential. May we actualize that potential not just for ourselves, but for the sale of freeing the entire world.
Amein, Good Shabbos,
Perfectly Imperfect- Parshat Shemot
1/9/2015 2 Comments
Pour water into a vessel. Perfectly, it takes the shape of the interior. It does not resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
Through its fluidity and the pull of gravity. Without fluidity, the water would already have its own form, and therefore could not conform. Without gravity, the water would not pour; it would move like smoke through space.
Now imagine: the water is alive and the vessel is alive. The vessel, once beautiful, has become twisted, contorted, wounded. It longs to be reshaped; it wants to be healed. The water is intelligent- it contains the knowledge of how to heal this twisted vessel. All it needs to do is to push on the walls of the vessel in just the right way to help it back into a wholesome shape, into its potential beauty.
But the water is impatient. In its zeal to fix the vessel, it contracts away from the interior and shapes itself into its idea of the perfected vessel. It pushes on the remaining surface that it touches in attempt to coax the vessel into its own shape, but to no avail. Without complete contact with the entire inside of the vessel, it cannot exert its influence. Now there are two shapes, one distorted and one ideal, with no connection to one another. The water has taken on the imagined ideal of the vessel, but it has lost its perfect connection with the vessel.
Now and always we find ourselves in “This”. By “This” I mean the totality of existence as it meets awareness in this moment. Awareness is like water; it is able to perfectly fill and take the shape of This that Is and is Becoming, Now. But awareness is not passive, inanimate water; it is living water. It is intelligent. It sees and responds. It is not only given shape by the vessel, but exerts force, desires to shape.
And in its desire to shape the reality it meets, it tends to contract away from the surface. This is the power of mind- to imagine the world as different, and to contract awareness into itself in order to form this image. Awareness contracts, and a sense of self as separate from the rest This is born. And, as a result, this self suffers terribly.
There is a hint of this in this week’s reading, Parshat Shemot. It says that the Children of Israel filled the land of Egypt- vatimalei ha’aretz. Who are the Children of Israel? “Israel” means to penetrate the shell of reality to the Divine. To find the Divine is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to Reality as it arises.
But then it says that a new king arose who was afraid of the Children of Israel, afraid that they might become too strong and destroy Egypt. This king, the Pharaoh, is fear. It is the fear of death of the separate “me” that is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment. Pharaoh is the king Mitzrayim- the land of narrowness, the King of Contraction.
What is his strategy for survival? He imposes harsh labor on the Children of Israel and attempts to weaken them that way. This is the suffering that comes not from work, but from the tension we bring to our work- the tension of contracting into separateness. At some point, the suffering becomes too great and the Israelites cry out to the Divine “from their labor”. It says that the Divine “saw the Children of Israel, vayeida Elokim- and the Divine knew.”
This word for “knew”- yeida- means to “join with”. It is the same verb used to describe the intimate union of Adam and Eve. It is telling us- when our suffering becomes the cry of prayer, the awareness that is our Divinity within can again become fluid like water, re-joining in the fullness of presence with the presence of fullness- Reality as it arises, Now.
How do you make this happen? You don’t; gravity does. “Gravity” is the natural movement of awareness to fill this moment with its presence, once it surrenders its separateness. When we express our suffering in the cry of prayer, there can be this profound release. This release doesn’t destroy our vision for the future. It doesn’t deny the pressure we must exert on the walls of the vessel. It simply releases the contraction away from the walls and returns us to our own wholeness, our own perfection.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divinity, right Now: to perfectly fill the ever-imperfect manifestation of being as it moves Now. In this is the release of all inner tension, the release of the whole drama of the “me” in the world. And, it is the birth of the Divine as it expresses Itself through you, as it is needed, Now. It is the inner Moses, whose name means “drawn from the water”…
And this is also the sacred promise of Shabbos- to separate from Pharaoh’s crushing labor for twenty-five hours and become fluid once again, to surrender to the gravity of wholeness, for the Divine to be born within. So it may be, Now, for us all-