The Coconut Oil- Parshat Ki Tisa
Here in Costa Rica, it’s hot. How hot is it?
Here’s a good way to understand it:
When I was back in Berkeley last week, I was staying with some friends in their warm and cozy home. One morning, while the heat was on in the house due to the cold outside, I took out my jar of coconut oil to make my “bullet-proof” coffee (ask me about this if you don’t know what it is). I was surprised to find that the coconut oil was completely hard and white, even though the house was so warm.
That’s because in Costa Rica, the coconut oil is always clear liquid, even at night when the air seems cool in relation to how hot it was during the day.
And, because it’s so dang hot, it’s pretty common to take not one, but two showers per day.
Before Costa Rica, I would take a shower to go out and do something, or, I would take a shower when I returned home from somewhere.
But in Costa Rica, everything is hot, everything makes you sticky and filthy, so you’ve got to shower before going out and shower when you come in.
It reminds me of the mitzvah to repeatedly cleanse your inner space, chanting the affirmation of the Unity of Being with the Sh’ma, which is to be said-
“… when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”
In other words, there’s a rhythm of inwardness and outwardness, of activity and rest, and staying present applies to all those times.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, has it’s own version of the “two shower” practice:
The parshah describes the construction the Kiyor- a special basin of water for the kohanim (priests) to wash themselves with. Whenever they entered the Sanctuary or burned offerings on the altar outside the Sanctuary, they would use the kiyor:
“V’asita kiyor n’khoshet bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh v’natanta shama mayim-
“You shall make a basin of copper between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar, and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l, taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life. The inner Sanctuary represents your avodah- spiritual practice- that you do separate from mundane life.
The fact that the kiyor- the water basin- was between the inner and the outer indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before doing either one. Without the right intention, both outer and inner life will be expressions of ego, of the energy of self-enhancement rather than self-transcendence.
It makes no difference if you’re praying, earning a living, enjoying some food, helping someone out, whatever. Without right intention, anything you do- holy or mundane- will have an ensnaring quality.
But with right intention, both inner and outer life become the arena of transformation, as the rhythmic movement between the two gently wears away at the substance of ego.
What is right intention?
It’s being in service of the moment.
Whether it’s inner or outer life, being in service of the moment means letting the movement around you and the movement within you be one thing. It means not opposing yourself to what is, but being what is. It means being fully yourself, as you are, here in this moment, as this moment is, without resistance.
What’s the key to right intention?
It’s knowing that your existence right now is fully an expression of Truth, of Reality, of God- just as it is.
Can you accept that ultimate Truth right now?
In the beginning of the reading from which the parsha gets its name, the Israelites are told they must all donate a half-shekel when they’re counted in the census, in order to prevent a plague-
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael…
“When you take a census of the children of Israel… they shall give a half-shekel for atonement, so there won’t be a plague…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you forget your essential unity with all that is, if you forget that you’re ultimately here to serve the One, and that your very existence is already a service of the One.
Why a half-shekel?
Because your existence is half the equation- the piece that everyone brings equally. The other half is your unique task, the task that only you can do. But it begins with the “half-shekel”- it begins with knowing your own existence as non-separate from this moment.
Then, in this open embrace of Being, there can be balance between the inner and the outer. No need to run after external experiences, and no need to close yourself off to find internal holiness- though sometimes the moment requires one and sometimes the other.
Night and day, Hasidim of all ages and types knocked on the door of Reb Pinkhas of Korets. Some wanted spiritual guidance, others wanted wisdom, others sought special blessings.This disturbed Reb Pinkhas from his inward devotions so much, that he prayed he should become disliked by people.
“That would solve everything!” he thought. “If people hated me, they would leave me alone to my meditations and I’d be able to enjoy the Divine Oneness in peace.”
His prayer was answered-
From that day onward, he lived a secluded life in blissful aloneness, and was never seen in the company of others, except at synagogue.
As the festival of Sukkot drew near, he had to build his sukkah all by himself, for nobody would help him (which was fine by him). On the first night of the holiday, the rabbi sat in his sukkah all by himself (which was fine by him), and he began chanting the invocation to Avraham, inviting the spirit of the ancient patriarch into his sukkah.
Reb Pinkhas looked up in wonder- the spirit of Avraham had appeared, and was standing just outside!
At first, Reb Pinkhas fell into an ecstatic wonder at the apparition before him, but soon became anxious because the spirit wouldn’t enter the sukkah, despite Reb Pinkhas’ invitational invocations.
“Master, why do you not enter my sukkah?” cried Reb Pinkhas.
Avraham Avinu replied, “It is not my custom to enter a place where there are no guests.”
Avraham then disappeared.
Sad and regretful, Reb Pinhkas made Kiddush by himself, then took the special water vessel to cleanse his hands before the blessing over bread.
As he washed his hands, he prayed- “Ribono Shel Olam, cleanse me from my reclusiveness- may I accept the holiness of being with people as well as being alone. Please, Ribono Shel Olam, take away the hatred people have for me.”
From that time onward, Reb Pinkhas was restored to his rebbe-hood and Hasidim began visiting him once again.
On this Shabbat Ki Tisa, the Sabbath of Raising Up, may we raise up the Reality that includes others and includes ourselves, for there’s only One Reality, and we're all part of it. Let’s remember the supreme middah of hospitality, honoring whomever we’re with, allowing this moment to be a welcoming home for all we encounter... and may our hearts and minds flow with this moment... like the liquid coconut oil in Costa Rica!
Do you ever listen to music in headphones?
Sometimes I’ll want to hear the same song in my headphones over and over again, until I get sick of it. The song takes on a personal theme quality, and I want it to score my whole life.
But imagine going out to see the singer of your favorite song perform live. Would you pull out your headphones and listen to a recording of it, rather than listen to the actual concert?
Of course not!
And yet, that’s often what happens in the spiritual sense, when your mind becomes engrossed in some thought, idea, desire, or memory. Rather than live life as it’s happening, you're absorbed in your own mind.
It’s like listening to a recording in headphones when the real thing is happening live right in front of you!
This week's reading begins:
“V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael...”
“And you shall command the Children of Israel that they should take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually.”
“Oil” represents awareness.
To “take” the “oil” means to take your awareness into your own hands. Your mind need not wander about like a child- you can take “command” of it.
“… pressed, for illumination”
Ordinarily the mind wanders aimlessly, and awareness glows dully in the background. But if you “press” your awareness, which means bringing your mind back again and again to the present, it will begin to glow brightly, illuminating your mind.
“… to kindle a lamp continually.”
With ordinary fire, once you kindle it, it burns on its own. But with consciousness, you must “kindle” it “continually.” This means developing the habit of reeling your mind back, again and again, to the Reality of this moment.
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak began greeting everyone after prayers as if they had just returned from a long journey.
“Shalom Aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!” exclaimed the rebbe to each and every congregant.
When they gave him strange looks, he responded-
“Why do you look surprised? While the hazan was singing, you weren’t here at all. This one was in the market place, this one was on a cargo ship, this one was relaxing at home. When the singing stopped, you all returned, so I greeted you shalom aleikhem!”
The Greatest Singer of All performs a concert right now. It’s the only concert there is- the magical unfolding of this moment!
On this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we remember to heed the Great Command that sings to us continuously: Be present! And through our mindfulness, may the consciousness of all humanity be elevated, so that awareness and love may reign supreme in the minds and hearts of all.
When I was growing up, my mother and sister loved to watch Mr. Ed, the TV show about the talking horse.
I have a memory of coming home from school and finding them on the couch in a darkened living room with the theme song playing: “A horse is a horse of course of course…” with my mother singing along.
At the end she sang, “You never heard of a talking horse? Well listen to this!” Then she pointed at my sister who belted out, “I AM MR. ED!”
It’s a funny memory but with profound implications!
You see, the word for “witness” in Hebrew is “Ed.”
Ordinarily, we go around thinking “I” am the character in the story; “I” am the one who does this and that, who comes home from school, who sings the funny song.
But the song tells us- the “I” is actually the “ed”- the witness, the conscious presence that’s aware of everything- the song, the singing, the living room, and the character who’s singing. But to be aware of the awareness takes a special effort. It’s not difficult, but it’s subtle. It’s a kind of effortless effort.
When you look at a painting, you’re actually looking at a visual design of paint overlaid on a canvas. But how often are you aware of the canvas? You’re looking right at it, but the mind doesn’t tend to register it. You see only the paint.
What happens when you remind yourself that you’re also looking at the canvas?
As your mind holds the awareness of the canvas in addition to the paint, you may notice that your mind becomes still. That’s because when your mind holds the awareness of the unseen, there’s less freedom for it to wander. The same is true when your awareness becomes aware of itself. Your awareness is like the canvas- the constant yet invisible component of all experience.
We tend to look for fulfillment on the level of the painting, looking for a perfect picture, or seeking to change the picture to make it better. But all along, what we seek is already inherent in the canvas.
Become aware of your awareness, and the shape of your thoughts and feelings will come to reflect your inner depth, changing the “painting” of your character from the deepest level, rather than merely rearranging things on the surface.
This week’s reading describes various clothing worn by the Kohanim- the priests- the spiritual leadership in the community. The High Priest has to wear a special head piece- a gold platelet which bore the Divine Name. It says:
“V’hayah al mitzkho tamid-
“And it shall be on his forehead always.”
The Talmud (Tractate Yoma) comments- “…that he should never divert his attention from it.” In other words, he must remain constantly mindful of the Divine.
It’s very clever that the symbol of the Divine, the engraved Name, is on his forehead- so close to his eyes, yet impossible to see! That's exactly what deveikus, or awareness’ awareness of awareness, is like. You can’t see it because it is the seeing itself. The awareness looking through your eyes in this moment is the waking up of Existence through your body/mind.
That awareness tends to fall into the dream of thinking, “I am this body, I am this story, I am so-and-so”.
But in becoming aware of awareness, the mind becomes still and the sense of “I” as the story drops away. There's the sense of awareness, but there’s no “me” in the awareness; it’s simply Reality witnessing Itself.
Than you can truly know, “I AM MR. ED!”
As it says in the beginning of the parshah:
“Tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael v’yik’hu elekha shemen…
“Command the children of Israel to bring you oil… to kindle a lamp constantly… outside the Edut- the Tablets of Witness”.
The “lamp” is your awareness.
The “oil” is the fuel- your consciousness.
The “Edut”or “Tablets of Witness” are your inner witnessing. These are three aspects of the same thing: consciousness becoming aware of itself as the witness:
Awareness’s Awareness of Awareness.
But being aware in this way requires a constant effort. How can you possibly maintain this effort? How can your awareness’s awareness of awareness be more than fleeting?
There’s a story of Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin.
When the Seer was a young disciple, he was asked by his master Reb Shmelke to help him never lose is deveikus- his constant awareness of the Divine in everything.
The rebbe asked him to be especially watchful during the activity of Talmudic debate, when his intellectual arguing could distract him from the Divine. If he noticed his master losing his awareness, he was told to gently touch his gloves to remind him. The Seer reported that he never had to touch his master’s gloves even once.
Why would that master give his disciple such a task, if in fact he never needed his disciple’s help?
Of course, it was to help his disciple remain mindful himself! By watching the deveikus of his rebbe, he was also able to remain in deveikus along with him.
To remain present constantly and live from your own inherent freedom, from the wellspring of wisdom and peace that springs from your own awareness, you have to be tremendously selfish. It takes a heroic effort to constantly arouse deveikus, moment by moment.
But if you know that you’re not just doing it for yourself, that you in fact must do it in order to serve others, it becomes not just about you. It becomes a duty. Just as a parent generally does not forget to go to work to make money to buy food for the children, so it's far easier to remember to be present when you know that it’s your duty and service, not just for your own pleasure. It’s a mitzvah- something that's “commanded”-
“Command the children of Israel… to kindle a lamp constantly"
On this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Commanding, may we be aware of the command that our awareness be aware of awareness! May your awareness burn brightly within you, illuminating your mind and your heart to love deeply and feel fully.
The Floor- Parshat Terumah
Let’s face it- people can be annoying.
Once I was in a workshop at a retreat center. I was in a room full of people, listening to the teacher speak to the class. Next to me there was this guy who happened to be standing on an area of floor that emitted a really loud squeak whenever someone stepped on it.
So what did this guy do?
He stood on that spot and rocked his body back and forth, making a terribly annoying and loud squeak, over and over again. He appeared to be totally unconscious of what he was doing. I was amazed that he either couldn’t hear the loud noise he was making or he just didn’t care.
In that moment, as that relatively trivial annoyance provoked such a strong response within me, I appreciated the difficulty of staying present and free when disturbances are not trivial- when they’re deeply offensive or hurtful.
Have you ever been enraged by someone you love? Have you ever deeply offended someone you would die for? Or have you deeply enraged your beloved?
If you have, than perhaps you know the pain of separation it causes- the sour flavor that permeates life in the wake of such mis-steps.
What’s the remedy? How can the sundered fabric of relationship be healed and closeness be restored?
There’s a word in Hebrew for “holy” or “sacred”- kadosh.
Kadosh actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. In the case of a wounded relationship, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, alienation. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Your partner or spouse becomes “separate” because they’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all less intimate relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection.
This week’s reading begins the Divine instructions for building the Mishkan- the portable temple for the wandering Israelites:
“V’asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham-
“Make for me a Mikdash- a Sanctuary- and I will dwell within you.”
The word Mikdash has the same root as holy- kadosh. In the Torah, the Mikdash is the place that the Divine Presence manifests and communes with the Israelites. The other word for the Sanctuary, Mishkan, implies the Divine Presence- the Shekhina.
And how did the Israelites commune with the sacred? Did they go into the space to just sit and meditate?
They came into the Mikdash to offer presious gifts- first to build the sanctuary, then to make offerings. They brought things that were most precious- first their gold, silver and copper, then their fruit, their wine, grain and animals.
In giving and burning what was most precious, they burned away their own inner obstacles to intimacy; they burned away the alienation caused by their own “clinging.” The word for a sacrificial offering is “korban,” which means not sacrifice, but nearness, intimacy.
Where was this Mikdash erected? Was it separate from the camp, off at a distance, so that you’d have to hike out to it?
No- it was in the center of the camp!
And within the Mikdash was a special place considered the most holy- the Kadosh Kadoshim- the “Holy of Holies.” This most sacred space was the innermost room in the Mikdash- the center of the center.
This representation of the sacred in space and architecture is not mere ritual magic from the past. It’s a pointer to the true sanctuary of Presence within your own life. There can only be one center of your life, and that center is the one place that life is actually being lived- this moment. You’re never separate from this moment, and yet- are you truly dwelling within it?
“Asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham…”
There’s a Divine call. It calls to us in pain and in joy, in excitement and in boredom. It says, “Come to the center. Build me a sanctuary.”
How do you build it?
The essence of the sanctuary is not the structure, but the space within the structure. The structure is already there as your body, your mind, your heart. They become a sanctuary the moment you allow there to be a space. The space completes the structure.
Come into that space- come into your body, come into this moment. Bring your korban to the altar. Is there pain? Is there fear? Is there regret? Is there embarrassment? Bring it all. Let the fire on the altar of the present moment burn away the separation. If it hurts, let it hurt- your obstacles are being burned away- and the pain is temporary.
In allowing yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, there’s a transmutation that takes place. The energy of separation and pain burns up and becomes the energy of love. For when the illusion of separation caused by clinging is burned up, every face is a form of the Face; every being is a manifestation of Being.
And when you see every person as nothing less than a Form of God, the Form of God that steps up to you in every encounter, can there be room for negativity? Can there be anything but the fire of love? And in that fire of love, will you hold back your forgiveness, or your asking forgiveness?
A disciple asked Rabbi Shmelke-
“We are taught- ‘Ve’ahavtah lereiakha kamokha- Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ But how can I love my neighbor if he has wronged me?”
“You must understand these words deeply,” replied Rabbi Shmelke. “You must love your neighbor as something that you yourself are, for all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this original soul is expressed in all souls, just as your soul is expressed in all the different organs of your body.
“It may happen that your right hand slips with a knife and cuts your left hand. But would you then take a knife with your left hand and start cutting your right hand to punish it?
“It’s the same when your neighbor wrongs you. If you punish him, you punish yourself.”
The disciple wasn’t satisfied-
“But if I see someone who is truly evil, how can I love that person?”
“Don’t you know,” replied Rabbi Shmelke, “that the original soul emerges from the Divine, and in fact is not separate from the Divine at all. So won’t you have mercy on the Divine when you see that one of Its sparks has become lost in a maze is being stifled by the deeds of that person who thinks he’s separate?”
On this Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Giving, may we guard and remember- Shamor V’Zakhor- to make every word a praise of the One, every deed an offering of love, rooted in the Sanctuary of Presence that is our own human body. Amein, Sela!
If you awaken to spiritual freedom, does that mean that you’ll remain free all the time? Is spiritual freedom a permanent state?
This question reminds me of before I was married, when I had different girlfriends. On one hand, they were committed relationships. On the other hand, we always had the choice to spend time together or not. At the end of the day, I was always free to go home to my own house if I wanted to. So, although there was a kind of commitment, it was nothing like being married.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect?
Of course not!
Like all living things, it’s in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people commit to having one life together, to be one family.
Spiritual awakening is just like that.
At first, you may have a spiritual experience. That experience tells you something about reality; it changes your whole outlook. However, like all experiences, it’s temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you might forget all about what you’ve learned. You’re not having the spiritual experience anymore, so you don’t have access to its truth.
You may long for that experience, you may seek it out in different ways, you may even find it. You may find it in sports, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it’s a place you visit, not the place you live. It is your girl/boyfriend, not your life partner.
This week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim, begins with laws regarding a male Hebrew indentured servant. It says that he can work for six years but must be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2):
“Sheish shamim ya’avod-
“Six years he shall work…”
The word for indentured servant is the same as the word for slave- eved. The master of the slave is called an adon- “lord”.
But these two words, eved and adon, also have a completely different connotation: God is sometimes called Adon, and a holy person is called an Eved Hashem- a Servant of God.
Seen metaphorically, then, the Hebrew eved that goes free is like someone who has a spiritual experience, but when the experience is over, s/he goes free from it. It’s only temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved doesn’t want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new wife and children and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever (Ex. 21:6):
“And he shall serve him forever…”
Metaphorically, this is one who becomes an Eved Hashem- a Servant of the Divine. It’s getting “married” to God.
But if spiritual awakening is about freedom, what does that have to do with being a servant or a spouse? Why the contradictory metaphors?
Rashi points out another contradiction in the text that will shed light on this first contradiction: In the above verse, it says:
“He shall serve him forever.”
But this contradicts another verse, which states that all Hebrew slaves are set free on the Jubilee Year, the last year in a fifty-year cycle, no matter what (Lev. 25:10):
“V’ish el mishpakhto t’shuvo-
“And you shall return each person to his family…”
To resolve this contradiction, he says that the word olam- “forever” or “eternal”- is actually another word for the Jubilee Year, because after the Jubilee Year, the status of everything completely changes. The original state of reality is gone, so everything up to the Jubilee Year, the year of freedom, is called “forever.”
So, being a “slave forever” gets you to “freedom!”
Meaning- the point of committing yourself to a life of spiritual practice is to shift out of the time-bound, thought-created sense of self, into connection with That which is Eternal- the present moment, always existing as the space of your own awareness, beyond thought.
How does that work?
Back to our text-
When it says the slave is taken to the doorpost, the word for doorpost is mezuzah- the same as the ritual scroll traditionally fastened to the doorposts of Jewish homes.
And what is the first word of the text written on the mezuzah? “Sh’ma”- “Hear”!
Hearing, unlike seeing and tasting, is the sense that we can't shut down; our ears are always open. We can't shut our ears to escape the sounds around us.
Similarly, we can't escape Reality. There's nothing but Reality, everywhere!
And yet, we create this inner resistance to Reality, and that resistance is the basis of ego- that contracted sense of self which imprisons the spirit.
To relax that resistance means to return to openness- to be an open ear, wholly with what is.
That’s the point- and the mechanism- of spiritual practice: to leave your identification with your inner resistance (ego) and awaken into your true and free nature as awareness, by "hearing" the truth of the present moment.
At some point, when you’re ready, it’s time to “get married”- to let go of your attachment to mind created reality and commit to Actual Reality. Then, this moment becomes your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality becomes your “family”- your home base- the place you live, not the place you merely visit.
Does that mean then the relationship is perfect?
Of course not! There’s risk- failure is possible. But you’ve stepped into commitment with Beloved.
And, just as relationships sometimes need coaches and therapists, so too the spiritual life is helped by spiritual teachers:
Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, once said to his disciple, Reb Zvi of Zhidochov:
“So long as I am alive, I’m not afraid that you’ll slip from your commitment to the Divine. But afterwards- who knows?”
Said Reb Zvi: “I don’t want to live longer than you, rebbe.”
“How can you say such a thing?” protested the Seer. “You are still a young man, and I am old!”
“Rebbe,” replied Reb Zvi, “I will pray that you live forever.”
“But does mortal man live forever?” asked the Seer.
“I meant, rebbe, that you should live one hundred and twenty years, as Moshe Rabeinu (Moses Our Teacher) did,” explained Reb Zvi.
“Come now, Reb Zvi,” said the Seer, “Just a moment ago you said ‘forever,’ and now you’re saying ‘one hundred and twenty years.’ A hundred and twenty years is not forever.”
Replied Reb Zvi: “I came across the idea in some book I read that Moshe Rabeinu lived one hundred twenty years, corresponding to the number of Jubilee Years within our present six thousand year cycle. For in the Talmud it is written-
‘Shita alfei shanei havah alma-
‘Six thousand years the world will be…’
“And, in six thousand years, there are a hundred and twenty Jubilee Years.
“In the Torah, furthermore, the Jubilee is sometimes called olam- meaning, ‘forever,’ as in the passage where the Hebrew slave pierces his ear-
“And he shall serve him forever…’
Meaning, the slave serves until the Jubilee year, which is called ‘forever.’
“The point is, I will pray that your hundred and twenty years on this earth should inspire me commit forever. Like that Hebrew slave, I should make the Eternal Beloved my Lord and my family…”
“And in what book did you see that idea?” the Seer asked.
“Well, actually,” replied Reb Zvi, “It could have been mine…”
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgments, may we open to the one judgment now before us: Commit. Hear. Awaken. May we too write the “books” of our lives, each pointing toward this awakening, and may we support each other on our unique paths. And, may every personal transformation lead us speedily toward the evolution of humanity, to a time of true peace and mutuality.