My father-in-law once commented that when he attended minyan daily to say kaddish for his father, he would finish putting on his tefillin by Aleinu.
(The tefillin are ritual objects worn on the body, and the Aleinu is one of the very last prayers. He was joking that it took him the time of the entire service to get his tefillin on, which are supposed to be put on before you begin the service.)
It’s true that for many Jews who attend synagogue, the Aleinu is the most familiar prayer, since all the latecomers are present by the time it happens. And it’s appropriate, since Aleinu is the great equalizer:
Aleinu leshabeiakh Ladon Hakol – It is upon us to praise the Master of All.
It doesn’t matter if you’re early or late, if you put on your tefillin quickly or slowly – in the face of the Divine, in the face of the Mystery of Existence, we are all equal. As the Divine name proclaims, Reality unfolds however it unfolds:
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I will be What I Will Be
We all equally have this supreme task: to harmonize ourselves with What Is:
Va’anakhnu korim umishtakhavim umodim lifnei… HaKadosh Barkhu Hu – We kneel and prostrate and surrender before the Holy Blessed One…
A disciple asked Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov: “Why is it that humility is the most important virtue, yet the Torah doesn’t command us to be humble? It only says that Moses was the most humble of men, but it doesn’t ever say that humility is a mitzvah.”
“That’s because,” replied the master, “if humility were a mitzvah, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish it; we would end up having pride in our humility!”
Once there was a rabbi who was davening with great intensity toward the end of Yom Kippur, when he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance. Before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out, “Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan – the cantor – saw him do this, he too became inspired, and suddenly realized the same thing. “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
Suddenly, Shmully the shoemaker also became deeply moved and cried out as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” When the hazzan saw Shmully’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
The essential quality of authentic spirituality involves meeting Reality as it appears – which is to say, meeting the Divine in the fulness of the present. The opposite of this is ego, which instead is concerned with one’s own identity, with the “me.” To accomplish the task of transcending ego and meeting the Divine, religion gives us all kinds of traditions and devices, but the irony is that the ego can co-opt all of that for its own self-bolstering purpose. Thus, according to the maggid, humility must remain free from being a mitzvah; it is a level higher than any particular religious practice.
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם
When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה
This they shall give… a half a shekel … an offering to the Divine.
The ego wants to “count” – there is a self-image to maintain; this is the negef, the root plague of being human. The ego is insatiable, never satisfied for long, because it is by nature incomplete; it is only a “half shekel.” The only way to become complete and avert the “plague” is to make it תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה – an “offering” to the Divine.
How to do that?
Simply notice the impulse to “be” something – to be recognized, to be validated, to be seen in a certain way. Let that impulse be there, but don’t buy into it; don’t give the ego any reality. Recognize that it is just a bundle of thoughts and feelings. Offer it up: “Oh Hashem, I am only here to serve your purpose; only in aligning with You can there be wholeness.”
In that letting go of the incomplete self into the One, there can arise a completeness that is not any particular thing, that is not dependent on anything, but it emerges and blossoms when there is openness to the truth of this moment.
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing!
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The Plague of Separation – Parshat Ki Tisa
This week's Torah reading begins with instructions to Moses on how to take a census of the Israelites. Everyone who is counted has to give a half shekel as an "atonement" to prevent a plague:
יא וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
11 The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
יב כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם:
12 "When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
יג זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
13 This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Divine.
But why would there be a plague for being counted in a census?
To be "counted" means to be discerned as a separate entity. This is the "plague" of the ego – the felt sense of being something separate, driving your life through a separate universe. Ordinarily, this is how we think of ourselves; there's "me in here" and "that out there." This is the basic duality of the egoic perspective.
But consider: whatever you perceive to be "out there" is always perceived within your consciousness. So when you think of yourself as being within your body, looking out at something separate, you've actually split yourself in half. You've identified with the half that's in your body, and exiled the part of your own awareness within which "out there" is perceived.
So to heal this rift and escape the "plague" of separateness, the two halves have to rejoin one another. That's the makhatzit hashekel – the half shekel. Give your awareness fully to whatever you perceive in the present moment, and the self-contracting activity of ego can relax and you merge back into Oneness. This is meditation, also called Presence.
But, sometimes there are powerful emotions that can become blocked. In that case, you may not be able to relax into Oneness through meditation alone. That's where prayer comes in. Through prayer, you invite your emotions to be fully felt by putting them into words or chants or even just sounds, crying out from the heart. In this way, previously exiled feelings can be released and an inner alchemy can take place, transforming negativity into love...
Greetings friends! I hope you enjoy these spiritual awakening teachings on this week's Parshat Ki Tisa, and there's more below. You can also:
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Is Your Motivation Disrupting Your Meditation? Parshat Ki Tisa
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nei Yisrael lifkudeihem..."
"When you take a census of the children of Israel to count them- every person should give an atonement for their souls to the Divine when you count them- so that there won’t be a plague among them when they’re counted.”
This is a super strange passage. First God is telling Moses to take a census of the Israelites- not so strange- Moses is leading thousands of Israelites through the desert so it makes sense that he would want to keep track of them all. But then it says something strange- that every Israelite should give a kofer- an atonement or a ransom. This word kofer is the same as in Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement. In the next line it explains that the kofer they give should be a half shekel, which is a kind of coin, and they should give this coin to prevent a plague from breaking out.
But why do they have to atone for being counted, as if being counted is some kind of sin that would bring on a plague?
But if we look more deeply at the words, the idiom for “When you take a census” is “Ki tisa et rosh”- which literally means, “When you lift up the head.” What is lifting up the head? It is elevating consciousness- meaning, the disentanglement or dis-identification of consciousness with thoughts, feelings, personality- all that stuff that normally makes up the sense of “me” or ego. That process of ki tisa- of transcending the ego and experiencing the freedom and bliss of pure consciousness is, of course, the aim of meditation.
And normally, when we decide to meditate, we’re motivated by wanting to experience something like that- maybe we want less stress, maybe we want to stop feeling the burden of our problems, or whatever. And these are all totally valid motivations, but the problem is, they’re all rooted in the experience of “me” wanting to get “something.” But since the thing you’re trying to get is to let go of the “me,” it doesn’t work- it turns your meditation into a kind of plague, because you’re chasing after something you can never get with that approach. The only way you can get it, is by changing your approach- changing your motivation- don’t do it from that drive to get something.
Instead, do it as an act of giving- an act of love for its own sake. And that’s the donation of the half shekel. It’s only a half shekel because there’s of course the acknowledgment that meditation is good for you- that’s the other half of the coin so to speak- but what’s good for you is also good for others. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children, otherwise you might not be able to help your children. So the donation of the half shekel means that you’re dedicating your spiritual work that you do on yourself toward the service of others.
So this Shabbat Ki Tisa- the Sabbath of Elevation, is a good time to rededicate yourself to your meditation practice, through the intention of love.
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!
The Plumber- Parshat Ki Tisa
I have a friend who told me an amazing story about how she used to earn a living. She is a particularly handy person, with a knack for things like plumbing, light carpentry, and so on. Several years ago, she discovered that most people (myself included) don’t have such a knack and often need a handy person, so she started to take little fix-it jobs to earn extra money. For a while the jobs were easy for her. One day, she was asked to do a job that baffled her.
What did she do?
Did she say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” and go on to an easier job? No. She pretended she knew how to do the job, went home and watched You Tube videos on how to fix that particular thing, then went and fixed it. That was just the beginning. Eventually, she was learning and growing by taking on harder and harder jobs. Her work became her school.
There is an analogue here to spirituality. Just as the basic point of work is to receive physical sustenance in the form of money, so the basic point of spirituality is to receive spiritual sustenance- the Inner Light of bliss and oneness that manifests as wisdom, joy, love and many other wonderful qualities.
The most direct way to connect with your spiritual sustenance is to remove outer distractions and do your avodah- spiritual work such as meditation, chanting, and so on. If you really just want that spiritual sustenance, you should involve yourself with as few other things as possible. Do what you need to do to eat and have basic necessities, then devote yourself to spiritual practice. That would be analogous to my friend taking the easy handy jobs she already knew how to do.
But if your intention is not merely to get the sustenance, rather to learn and grow in your ability to stay connected to the Source of that sustenance even in the midst of life, then you can bring your spiritual Light into the chaos and complexity of life. Then, distractions are really not distractions anymore. They are what you need to train. They are your helpers on the path of becoming spiritually masterful.
Many folks tend toward one side or the other. Some get so caught up in the drama of life that it is impossible remain present and bring forth the Inner Light when things get stressful. Others tend toward the other direction, seeing the drama of life as a distraction and withdrawing into solitude. And, there are times in life when it’s good to lean toward one side or the other.
The truth, however, is that these two sides are not really separate or opposed to each other. The Inner Light that flowers within wants to express Itself; it wants to connect with life and bring its power of healing and wisdom. But to balance the rhythm between the Eternal and the temporal, the Silent and the noisy, requires attentiveness and intention. It takes a special effort to create the boundaries you need to have the space in the day for spiritual avodah. And, no matter how complete your realization of the One is in solitude, life will generate challenges for you when you get back in its game. Receiving those challenges as your spiritual training, and not merely distractions, takes a tremendous effort; but it is ultimately an effortless effort.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, contains instructions for constructing a special basin of water that the kohanim (priests) were to wash their hands and feet with whenever they entered the sanctuary space or brought offerings onto the altar that was outside the sanctuary: “v’asita kiyor n’khoshet- you shall make a basin of copper…bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh- between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar…v’natanta shama mayim- 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 activities. The inner sanctuary represents one’s spiritual practice and connection with Eternal, separate from mundane life. The fact that the kiyor- the basin- was between the two indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before entering into your avodah, on one hand, and before entering into ordinary life activities as well. Having the right intention is the key to unifying the life of Being with the life of Doing.
Having right intention with your avodah means to approach it in the spirit of service. You meditate and davven not just to “get” something from it but also to serve as a conduit- to bring the Spirit into form. Similarly, you don’t enter into mundane life only to derive material benefit from it, but also to receive its lessons, to be a student and become more and more adept at bringing the Spirit into expression.
What is the key to right intention? It’s knowing you are here to serve. We are all constantly receiving, taking so much in so many different ways, but it must be for the sake of giving. That’s why, in the beginning of the reading, the Israelites are told they all must donate a half shekel when they are counted for 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… v’natnu ish kofer- they shall give for atonement… v’lo yiyeh vahem negef- so there won’t be a plague…makhazit hashekel- a half shekel…”
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 get stuck in it, if you forget right intention, if you forget that you are ultimately here to serve the One.
How do you serve the One? By being connected to the One and bringing Its Light and Bliss and Love into the mundane, into the chaos. And how do you do that? By taking time to separate from the mundane and doing your daily spiritual practice… not to mention the one full day of the week that is all spiritual practice- Shabbat.
May this Shabbat be a full immersion into the Eternal and may our world drink of Her healing power-
Someone told me recently that she felt so bad about herself, that she hadn’t done anything of worth, that she had messed up so much in her life. I encouraged her to notice that those were thoughts, that she didn’t have to “buy in” to those thoughts.
“But it’s TRUE!” she insisted.
“What is true,” I said, “is that those thoughts are present, the feelings that come with those thoughts are present, the sense of your body breathing right now is present, the sound of my voice is present… that’s TRUE.” She started to relax a little bit… barukh Hashem, because as we know, she could have punched in the mouth instead!
When a person is captivated by thoughts and feelings, it is not always helpful to point that out; a person has to be ready for that kind of pointing. We may or may not be able to help another person get free from the web of ego, but there is one person we can help – and that’s ourselves.
Notice: there is an absolute truth, and that’s the truth of whatever is arising in your experience, right now. The point, however, is not necessarily the content of your experience; the point is being the noticing. When you can see clearly – there is a thought, there is a feeling, there is a sensation – then there is the possibility of knowing: you are the noticing, you are the awareness, you are not trapped by any thought or feeling. You are the openness within which this moment unfolds. That is freedom. And from that freedom, you can see clearly: is this thought helpful? Is this thought destructive?
Spiritual teachings often come in diametrically opposed pairs.
There’s a teaching of the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shikha, that everyone should carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes,” (Genesis 18:27) and on the second, “For me the world was created” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 37b). As one goes through life, one should develop the wisdom to know which slip of paper to take out at which time.
Could there be more diametrically opposed messages?
The point is, our thoughts are not “true” or “not true,” they are either useful or not useful. From a spiritual point of view, they are useful if they move us from ego to freedom, from resistance to acceptance. Sometimes, acceptance means letting go and letting things be (“I am but dust and ashes.”) But that doesn’t mean passivity or weakness; often, it means the acceptance of responsibility (“For me the world was created.”) This moment, this situation, as it is, right now, is. How shall we respond? Shall we turn away, deny and ignore? Or, shall we address this moment as it is and step up to what must be done? This too is acceptance, this too is freedom – not freedom from responsibility, but freedom from resistance to accepting the responsibility that is already yours.
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד
You shall command the Israelites to take for you oil of olives, pure, crushed, for illumination, to kindle continuous flame...
The oil is already burning – it is the ner tamid – the continuous flame of your consciousness, the essence of who you are, within which this moment unfolds. The question is, are you conscious of your consciousness? You are already aware, but are you aware that you are the awareness?
To wake up, to become aware on this deeper level, you have to purify your awareness from its identification with thoughts and feelings; you have to “crush” them from your consciousness. Like the olive, there’s a hard pit at the core; that’s the ego.
Be the loving Presence that surrounds your ego. No need to try to get rid of it – that’s just more ego! Instead, accept the fulness of this moment as it is, resistance and all, feelings and all, thoughts and all, without “adding to the story” – without “buying in.”
In doing that, you illuminate the awareness that is already free from all that; לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד – you kindle the eternal flame – that is the beginning of awakening.
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Wringing Out the Sponge – Parshat Tetzaveh
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall command the Israelites to bring you olive oil, clear, pressed, for illumination, for kindling lamps constantly...
Becoming present is like ringing out a sponge, or pressing the air out of an air pump. On one hand, there's a kind of contraction, as you squeeze the sponge or pump. On the other hand, the water in the sponge or the air in the pump becomes more expansive as it's released.
Similarly, thoughts tend to be absorbed in the "sponge" of thinking. Becoming present requires a "pressing" of consciousness from it's ordinary absorption in thought, into the expansive fullness of your experience in the present.
This is hinted at in the above passage. The olive oil should be zakh – clear, pure – meaning, not mingled with thoughts and attitudes. Simply be the clear space within which this moment arises. To do this, it has to be kateet – pressed. Meaning, "press" yourself into your present moment experience. This "pressing" is the freeing of consciousness from the forms it takes in thought...
Darkness to Light – Parshat Tetzaveh
March 10, 2017
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh means, “And you shall command.” It begins with God telling Moses: “V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael- and you shall command the children of Israel- v’yik’khu eilekha shemen zayit zakh katit lama’or- they should take to you oil from olives, pure, crushed, for illumination- l’ha’alot ner tamid- for kindling the eternal flame.”
So what’s the “eternal flame?” It’s your awareness that’s there all the time- whether you’re asleep or awake, whether you’re angry or openhearted, there’s always this basic awareness there, so you don’t have to create it- it’s already tamid- already constant.
But, the tendency is for your awareness to constantly get drawn in by the dramas of the mind and heart, the image we have of reality, rather than connect with Reality directly. So in order to free your awareness from your mind, you do have to “kindle it” so to speak. Just as when you’re asleep, you’re a little bit aware, otherwise no one would be able to wake you up. But once someone does wake you up, your awareness greatly increases. So too there’s a way l’ha’alot ner tamid- to kindle the eternal flame- meaning, to increase your awareness that’s already there, and wake up even more.
And how do you do that? You need shemen zayit- olive oil.
Now olives have a hard, inedible pit within them. Similarly, there’s ordinarily a hard, seemingly impenetrable pit at the core of who we are. From the moment we wake up in the morning, there’s that sense that “I” have woken up. You feel angry at someone, there’s a sense that “I” am angry. If you let go of the anger and you get all expansive and forgiving and loving, there’s still the sense that “I” am expansive and forgiving and loving. That’s the pit- the pit is the “I.” And just like you can’t eat the pit and transform it into nourishment, so it seems that the “I” is irreducible. No matter what experience you have, it’s always “you” having it.
But just as the olive fruit is crushed along with the pit to make olive oil, as it says, zakh katit- pure and crushed, so too that hard sense of “me” known as the ego can be crushed into oil, and that oil becomes fuel for consciousness- fuel for enlightenment.
So how do you get the oil from the olive pit of the self and burn it in the light of awareness?
The essential thing is not to try and control your mind, or try to not have judgments or think less, but rather it’s simply to notice what is in this moment. You have thoughts and feelings? Just know that there are thoughts and feelings. Let your awareness rest in the actual truth of your experience in this moment- being present with your feelings as they arise and fall, being present with your body and the rise and fall of your breathing, and being the perceiving presence behind your thoughts.
In this way you naturally let go of the mental urge to retreat into your mind, which is what creates the sense of “me,” known as ego, and instead feel yourself as the luminous presence within which the mystery of this moment is unfolding. There’s a wonderful hint of this in the next line:
“B’ohel mo’ed- In the tent of the special time of meeting- that is, the tent of meeting the present- mikhutz laparokhet asher al ha’eidut- on the outside of the concealing curtain that’s over the tabletson which the ten commandments are written, that’s where Aaron will kindle the eternal flame.
Now the word for the tablets, eidut, actually doesn’t mean tablets, that would be lukhot. Rather, eidutmeans testimony or witness. This witness is behind the parokhet- behind the curtain- you can’t see the witness. And this is exactly the nature of consciousness. Consciousness sees everything else, but just like the eyeball, it can’t see itself; it’s a mystery to itself. So what you get in spiritual awakening is not any new piece of information or expanded knowledge, but rather the awareness of the Nothing; the is-ness beyond all understanding that’s forever behind the curtain, so to speak.
And yet, you are the witness- you are behind the curtain. You can’t understand consciousness, but you can simply be conscious- you can simply be present… and that’s awakening out of the dream of the mind.
But to do this in a really deep and transformative way, the olive pits have to be katit- crushed. This means that when suffering comes your way- when things go wrong, when you suffer loss, when you experience anger or worry or fear- bring your awareness into the feelings. Let the feelings be without elaborating on them too much in your mind, without blaming or trying to figure out how to avoid them in the future. Instead, let their energy crush the pit of ego. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s temporary and leads to greater illumination.
To help remember, you can say to yourself repeatedly- “Whatever suffering comes my way is for the purpose of illumination.” So write that down, and say it to yourself over and over. In this way, any ordinary situation that produces suffering can be an opportunity to increase the light of consciousness and ultimately open to greater joy and bliss in simply Being.
So as we approach this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we all receive this mitzvah-this commandment- to ignite the eternal flame of awareness with the oil that’s pressed out of us through whatever suffering happens to come our way. And as our light increases, so too may we transform our actions to crush any stuck patterns of negativity and open to the blessing inherent in this life...
Take Off Your Headphones! Parshat Tetzaveh
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.
Last Shabbat, after I taught in our Berkeley synagogue, I walked through town with a rabbi friend of mine. He told me that when he was younger, he used to attend meditation retreats and seek out teachings on spiritual awakening. But over time he moved away from those things because they seemed too abstract. It seemed to him that such teachings aimed at awakening an experience of the transcendent, but they didn’t address his fundamental question: why are we here in this life? If it’s all about transcending the world, what’s the meaning of living in the world?
Recently, I was listening to a talk by the outspoken intellectual Jordan Peterson in which he said that, to any thinking person, it should be obvious that the meaning of existence must be grounded in the fact of unbearable human suffering.
Hassidic teaching says something similar:
There is a story of Reb Levi Yitzhak, that whenever he would celebrate the Passover Seder and come to the passage about the Four Sons, he would stop at the son who doesn’t know how to ask. “That’s me, Levi Yitzhak – I am the son who doesn’t know how to ask! I don’t know how to ask what this is all for, why we are here, what is the purpose of it all. And even if I did, how could I bear the answer? I do not want to know why I suffer as I do; I want to know that my suffering is for You. And just as it says, ‘you shall answer your son, saying…’ so You, my Father, must answer!”
In this Hassidic understanding, suffering is not the meaning of existence, but it is the thing that causes us to ask the meaning of existence. And further: it is not the philosophical question of why that is of ultimate concern, but for Whom. In other words, it is a question not of the mind, but of the heart.
This points to a central truth: the question of meaning is fulfilled only through love. That is the only reason to endure all the suffering, because love is the ultimate joy – shining even at the very depths of suffering.
The mind searches for the question of meaning, but it can never really be satisfied with any conceptual answer, no matter how convincing. Trying to find meaning through the mind is like trying to taste food with your hands; no matter how much food you smear on your hands, you will never be satisfied. Only actual eating can satisfy hunger; only actual love can satisfy the hunger for meaning.
וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ... וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them… and they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.
It is only through the life of the heart that Sanctuary is built – a life in which, since the loving heart desires to give, giving is actually a form of receiving.
And, since everything we receive is taken as an expression of the Divine love for us, receiving is also a form of giving – barukh Hashem!
זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת
gold, silver and copper…
See – there are three levels to experience right now: thought, feeling and sensory experience. The feeling level determines the quality of experience – its mood – attraction and revulsion, adoration and anger, curiosity and boredom. This is the level of the heart from which love arises, and hence from which the meaning of existence is fulfilled. We might think, then, that the heart is the level of “gold” – but it is not.
Notice: your feelings, as primary as they are, are ultimately determined by your thoughts – by how you interpret your experience. Think good, feel good; think bad, feel bad.
Most of us assume the opposite: we start to feel bad, and so we start thinking in a negative way. But wake up out of the seductiveness of your feelings by being present with them and accepting them, and you can realize: you can actually decide which thoughts to nurture and which thoughts to dismiss. That decision is itself a thought, arising from a deep wisdom beyond the gravity of feeling and the seductiveness of thought. That wisdom is awareness itself – hokhmah – beyond both thought and feeling. That is why the mind, though it cannot ultimately bring us real fulfillment, is the "gold" and the heart is the "silver" – because the mind rules the heart.
The third level is sensory experience, corresponding to action. Action is an expression of the heart, which is in turn ruled by the mind. We don’t act unless we are motivated to act; we have to first want on the level of heart, and that determines our action. Thus, action is the level of copper.
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them…
Without the awareness of what we really are, beneath our thoughts, feelings and sensory experience, our thoughts tend to be ruled by the unconscious impulses of our hearts, leading ultimately to unconscious and reactive actions. But being aware that we are the awareness behind all experience, we can choose our thoughts, and thus open our hearts, and act from the radiant love that shines through that openness.
Then, all of life becomes a sanctuary for the Presence that dwells within us, as us…
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More On Parshat Terumah..
Offering Whatever – Parshat Terumah
Exodus 25:1, 2
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart motivates them.
Once a hassid came to the rebbe and asked, "Why is it that the rabbis praise Avraham for being willing to offer his son Yitzhak? For most people this would be a severe test, but how could it be a test for Avraham, who was a great prophet?"
The rebbe answered, "When a person is tested, all their spiritual attainment is taken away from them, and they are face to face with the test. All your depth of realization is out the window, and you must gather all your strength to not be seduced by your ego..."
Living in awakened life, in which every word and action overflows an offering from the heart, can seem easy when you're in the experience of blissful oneness. But these experiences become a complete reality only when you face situations that trigger you and threaten to seduce you back into an egoic state, and you manage to actually pass the test.
But, no matter how many times you may "fail" your tests, don't worry! That's totally natural. If fact, if you can let your heart break in humility when you "fail" your tests, that in itself helps to break the bonds of ego. In this way, both "failing" and "passing" can aide you in becoming true sanctuary of Presence in which your whole life is an "offering."
"Staying Present in Action" Parshat Terumah
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Terumah. Terumah means an offering, or a contribution. It begins with God telling Moses to say to the children of Israel:
“Yik’khu li trumah me’eit kol ish asher yidveinu libo-
"Take for me an offering from every person whose heart is motivated to give…”
The offerings that they’re talking about range from precious metals, to animal skins, to incense spices, to pieces of wood- all things that will be used to build the mishkan- the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them as they travelled through the wilderness. The word mishkancomes from the root which means to dwell or be present, as in the word Shekhinah which means, Divine Presence. So in the opening of this parshah, we’re hearing about all the different ways the Israelites contribute toward the Sanctuary of Presence. But if we look more deeply, this opening verse gives us three hints about how we can be more present in our own actions.
The first and most important hint is in the name of the parshah- Terumah, which means, “offering.” If you want to be present in the busyness of daily life and overcome that tendency to see this moment merely as a means to get to some future moment, then let your actions be offerings. Whenever you do something, and you can do this many times a day, bring to mind that your actions are for the sake of serving something. Since most of what we do is often serving some purpose for others, this isn’t so difficult. But even when you do things for yourself like eating or resting, you can still offer it as a gift, because of course you have to keep yourself healthy in order to be of service to others.
And, the more you think of your actions as offerings, you might even get inspired to change the way you do things for the better, or even take on some new positive actions, or get rid of some not so positive ones. The point here to bring more consciousness into whatever you’re doing by acting with a loving spirit.
The second hint is implied in the words, kol ish- every person. In other words, every person has their own unique path. If you go around wishing you were someone else, or wishing you were in a different situation, you devalue your own path, and create an inner feeling of separation. But if you constantly take to heart that this moment is the moment to offer what only you can offer, regardless of whether it seems impressive in the external sense, then you can really inhabit your body and inhabit your actions. Furthermore, the words kol ish, every person, can also mean “all of the person.” In other words, put all of yourself into whatever you happen to be doing.
And that brings us to the third hint that’s implied in the words, “…asher yidveinu libo- whose heart is motivated to give…” This means, you can learn how to be present from whatever you’re really motivated to do. Notice how it feels when you’re doing things that you love, how you’re fully engaged and doing for its own sake, and bring that degree of presence to all your actions, even when you’re doing things you don’t necessarily want to do. In that way, everything you do becomes a kind of devotion or prayer.
There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov was once smoking his pipe by the window, when he was taken aback by the sight of a man walking by, who glowed with the most beautiful holy Presence and joyful radiance. The Baal Shem asked a disciple who the man was, and his disciple told him that the man was a hose-maker.
So, the Baal Shem sent the man a message to please bring four pairs of hose. Soon after, the hose maker appeared before the Baal Shem, displaying his wares, light shining from his face. The hose were well made of good sheep’s wool.
The Baal Shem asked him, “How do you spend your days?” The man answered, “I ply my trade.”
“And how do you ply it?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I work every day until I have forty or fifty pairs of hose, then I put them into a mold with hot water and press them until they’re as they should be.”
“And do you do any special prayers or meditations?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I just recite the psalms that I know by heart, all day long as I work.”
After the Baal Shem had purchased the hose and the man left, the Baal Shem turned to his disciple and said, “Today you have seen the cornerstone which will uphold the temple until the coming of the Messiah.”
So what does the Baal Shem Tov mean when he says that this hose maker is the cornerstone of the temple until the Messiah? The temple, as we’ve seen, represents intensification of Presence. The Messiah means the end of exile, because the traditional belief is that when Moshiakh comes, all the Jews scattered throughout the world will be gathered in, and everyone will commune with the Divine in the temple once again.
But on a deeper level, exile isn’t only about being separated from your native land. Exile is what happens within when you don’t fully inhabit who you are and what you’re doing in the present moment. When that happens, your consciousness pulls away from itself, creating the experience of incompleteness. And in that inner exile, nothing is all that satisfying. But when you’re gathered in, so to speak, when you connect deeply with your actions, there’s a deep satisfaction even if you’re doing things that aren’t particularly exciting.
So as approach Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Offering, let’s practice making all our actions offerings, gathering ourselves back into the fullness of who we are and opening to the healing and wholeness that flows from that.
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!
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