It is said that the Baal Shem Tov never kept money in his house overnight. When he returned from raising funds during his journeys as a teacher, he would pay off all the debts which had accumulated in his absence, and distribute the rest of the money to the poor.
One time, after returning from such a journey, he did his usual custom of paying debts and giving the rest away. He then went off to the synagogue for Ma’ariv, the evening prayer. But during the service, he felt something was impeding his ability to daven. He knew something was wrong – perhaps some of the money had remained in his house and was not given to the poor.
When he returned home, he asked his wife about it, who admitted she had put some money aside so that she wouldn’t have to buy on credit for the next few days. He took the money and gave it as tzedakah for the needy right away, and his ability to pray was restored.
At first glance, this unusual story may seem irrelevant to most of us. The Baal Shem Tov’s practice of not keeping any money for more than a day doesn’t seem like a wise way to live, and indeed I have not heard of this as a Jewish practice in any other context.
But, there is a deeper meaning to the story, beyond the literal level. The “money” can mean whatever deem as important, whatever we are concerned about. The tendency is to become “attached” to things psychologically, to inwardly rely on things and conditions. This tendency to become entangled in cares and worries is the essence of what impedes prayer; or, in a more general sense, it impedes our ability to feel present and connected to the sacred, to the Mystery, to the Presence that we call the Divine.
What is the solution?
Give it away – meaning, reframe your cares and worries as offerings. Whatever are the objects of concern – relationships, work, health, whatever – know that they are all tools of offering, of giving something, rather than trying to gain some sense of security from them. In this way, you can wield the ז zayin – the inner sword of liberation – cutting through your attachments by remembering (zakhor) to live from the motive of love.
This remembering is the idea behind the practice of the ritual garment fringes, called tzitzit:
וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃
It shall be for you tzitzit – you shall look upon it and remember all the mitzvot of the Divine and do them, and you shall not follow after that which your heart and your eyes are distracted by.
First, it says רְאִיתֶם r’item – “see them” – meaning, be aware of whatever is present. That is, be the conscious presence behind whatever experience is happening in the moment.
Next, it says זְכַרְתֶּם z’khartem – “remember them” – meaning, remember your intention to cut through worries and entanglements through the attitude of offering. In this spirit of love, you can come to see this moment as
אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת יי et kol mitzvot Adonai – “all the Divine Commandments.”
Meaning, receive this moment, in all its complexity, in all its fullness, אֶת – from א alef to ת tav – as a “Divine Commandment.” There is a hidden potential within this and every moment, an opportunity to bring a bit of heaven down to earth, if we approach the moment in this spirit.
Parshat Tzav is, in a sense, a metaphor for this transformative potential. On one hand, the parshah is mostly a tedious litany of ritual laws, similar to the tedium that we may experience in the day to day of mundane tasks. But the message is – these are korbanot – offerings – opportunities to draw close to the Divine:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering: The Elevation Offering shall remain on the pyre, upon the altar, all night long, until the morning – the fire on the altar shall continue to burn on it…
It begins, צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ Tzav et Aharon – “Command Aaron.”
The word tzav, “command,” is not casual; it is a call to wake up to our Divine potential, to make our actions into korbanot, into offerings. This is the antidote to tedium that we can bring into whatever we are doing. For example, in doing the dishes, there can be the tendency to become less conscious, to mechanically act while the mind is somewhere else. But if we infuse the act with Presence, making our dish doing into an offering from the heart, then a simple mundane act becomes meditation.
כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ … זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה
This is the teaching of transcendence… all night long, until the morning, the fire on the altar shall continue to burn on it…
Meaning – all through the “night” of mundane or dull activities, keep your awareness “burning” bright; let whatever you are doing be an olah, a means toward transcendence, towards recognizing the Mystery that appears in this form, right now, within the vast field of awareness that you are…
וְעָֽרְבָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה מִנְחַ֥ת יְהוּדָ֖ה וִירֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם כִּימֵ֣י עוֹלָ֔ם וּכְשָׁנִ֖ים קַדְמֹנִיּֽוֹת׃
Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Divine, as in the days of yore and in the years of old…
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Return to Wholeness – Parshat Tzav
3/30/2020 1 Comment
A disciple asked the Baal Shem Tov, “Why is it that sometimes the experience of Divine Oneness comes so easily, and other times it is so difficult and I feel so distant?”
The Baal Shem answered, “It is like a mother with a toddler – the mother holds the toddler’s hands to help the toddler walk to her, but when the toddler comes close, she backs up and even lets go of the child’s hands, so that the toddler learns to walk on her own…”
That which we seek is already present; it is Presence Itself – the Oneness of the Divine is the Oneness of this moment. Sometimes this truth may dawn on us by grace, but then it disappears so that we may actively choose It; without our power of choice, without actively coming to this moment, we wouldn’t be conscious of it.
Now… be wise… be disciplined!
Atah, Haskilu – Now, be wise – it is crucial to understand that the Goal is not found elsewhere, It is found atah, in the Now. עת eit means “moment,” and the ה hei at the end means to point ourselves toward the moment. The ה hei also implies not just being aware of the moment, but of giving our awareness to the moment, of connecting from the heart.
But merely “being wise” is not enough; we must also be disciplined – hivasru. Like the toddler, when we fall, we must get up again and again. The Mother will help us, for sure! But we must make the effort.
There is a hint in this week’s special haftora reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Pesakh:
שׁ֤וּבוּ אֵלַי֙ וְאָשׁ֣וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם
Return to Me, and I will return to you!
The Divine Grace will come, but we must “first” make the effort. And how do we do that?
הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה
Return us, Hashem, to Yourself, and we will return!
We must pray for the strength to make the effort!
This is the circle of Grace and Effort, because the truth is that the “mother” and the “toddler” are not separate at all; we pray that the Divine should help us return, but the prayer is itself already the Divine answer. We receive the commandment to direct our awareness to the Divine, and our awareness is itself the Divine!
But in order to really know that, we must persist even through times of darkness, times of not knowing that:
זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר
This is the Torah of the Olah – Elevation Offering: It is the Olah upon the flame, upon the altar, all night until morning…
If we wish to “elevate,” to transcend the self that feels separate from the Oneness we seek, we must “burn” our awareness brightly into the darkness of that separateness, all night until morning. This means, when the Divine feels remote and distant, cry out, ask for the strength to return, and know that in doing so, you have already begun:
Hashiveinu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah – Return us, Hashem, to Yourself, and we will return!
The Mask – Parshat Tzav
3/20/2019 0 Comments
How do you come up with the complete works of Shakespeare?
Just take a bunch of hydrogen, and leave it alone for about fourteen billion years!
There seems to be a miraculous potential within the very fabric of reality itself to evolve – to develop into higher and more complex structures, to go from inanimate matter to conscious beings. You start off with hydrogen atoms, and over time, you end up with us. In Judaism, that potential is called Hashem.
This Divine potential to create and to become is inherent within us; just as sure as we exist, so the power of Hashem is at the core of who we are, calling us to evolve, to be willing partners in the process of Creation. It is not something we have to acquire; it is our essential being, behind the mask of our individuality. Our task is only to remember it, to awaken it, and to express it.
וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵנוּ אַשְׁרֵינוּ מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵנוּ,
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafa yerushateinu!
We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!
Our Divine nature is our heritage, our destiny, our task – and when we’re ready, it becomes our commitment:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering. It is the Elevation Offering that is on the flame on the altar all night long until the morning; the fire on the altar should be kept burning on it.
“All night long” – in this dark time of such tremendous suffering and violence on our planet, we are “commanded” – if we can “hear” it – to “keep our fire burning” – to stay present, to be Presence, to elevate by burning up whatever destructive and unconscious patterns we find within ourselves. And as we transform ourselves, so do we transform the world. Because the more conscious we become, the more others will be able to feel that Presence in our presence, and that consciousness will spread – just as one flame ignites another without diminishing itself.
In this way, our Divine potential that is ordinarily hidden becomes more and more revealed.
There’s a story that before Reb Simcha Bunam was a rebbe, he traded in lumber. Once when he was in Dansig on business, the other merchants asked him why he bothered visiting his rebbe. “How can your rebbe teach you anything that you haven't already learned from all those books you read?” They said.
That night, a number of them went to the theater. They invited Reb Simcha Bunam along, but he declined. Later, when they returned, they lamented he had missed such an amazing performance.
“What do I need to see the performance for? I already know all about that show!” said Reb Simcha Bunam.
“What do you mean? How could you know all about it – you haven’t seen it!”
“Yes, but I read the program!”
“You can’t really know a show just by reading the program, you have to experience it for yourself!” they retorted.
“And so it is with my rebbe – what he reveals cannot be learned from books.” The merchants were silenced.
On this week of Shabbat Tzav and Purim, may we keep the flames of Presence burning on the altar of this moment and reveal the Divine potential behind all of our masks. Hag Samayakh, Good Shabbos!
This is It! Parshat Tzav
3/22/2018 0 Comments
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was gathered with his hasidim after Yom Kippur. Setting his eyes on one disciple, he turned to him. “I will tell you what you prayed for and what Hashem’s response is," he told him.
“You prayed that you should receive your livelihood for the whole year all at once, so that you would be free to spend the rest of the year praying and and studying,” he explained.
“But then, you realized that if you had all the money at once, you’d probably not be able to resist starting a new business venture with all that capital, and you’d be in the same situation as before. So, you asked that you’d be given half now, and half in six months." The hasid was wide-eyed with amazement as his master miraculously reported his whole thought process.
“But then you realized that still wouldn’t work," Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued, "so you asked that it be given to you in monthly installments. The truth is, however, Hashem doesn’t want your prayers and Torah study; Hashem wants you to labor in your business!”
The central and universal message of Hasidism is to connect with the Divine in every moment, in every action. Without diminishing the importance of the particular spiritual practices, the aim of those practices is to awaken the constant awareness of the Divine Presence by becoming totally present in all of life. In this way, presence realizes The Presence.
But to do that, it is important to make sure you have the two main dimensions of Presence operating. There's a hint of these two dimensions at the beginning of our weekly reading (Leviticus Chapter 6):
א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
1. And the Divine spoke to Moses, saying,
ב צַ֤ו אֶת־אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָֽעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָֽעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֨יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ:
2. "Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the Elevation Offering: it is the the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it.
If you wish to elevate every moment and every situation so that everything becomes a realization of the Divine, you have to have let this moment be an offering, even in moments of darkness: "That is the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night..."
And to accomplish that, you have be totally aware: "...and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it." – meaning, your awareness should "burn" on the "altar" of your heart, constantly.
These two dimensions, staying aware of the fulness of this moment, on one hand, and offering yourself to this moment as an act of love, on the other, are the two essential dimensions of Presence. They are not separate, and yet we seem to find ways to separate them! One person has good intention, but bumbles about nervously. Another seems to be very aware, yet they are aloof and un-compassionate. Neither of these is very elevating.
But bring the heart and the mind together, and everything becomes holy, no matter how mundane or even disturbing, barukh Hashem.
Here's an inquiry to bring these two dimensions from potential into actuality: "What is the offering right now? Mah HaOlah?" Try and asking this often to yourself, and see what comes. Sometimes, you might get a great new insight about how to respond to the moment. Other times, there might only be the openness of the question. Either way, the inquiry can help to bring you to the "altar" of your heart and let your awareness burn brightly...
Burn! Parshat Tzav
4/6/2017 1 Comment
The Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, hints at the Passover theme of liberation- going out from the bondage of ego, represented by slavery in Egypt, and into the spacious freedom of the midbar- the wilderness of Reality Itself, beyond the limited maps of Reality generated by the mind. It says the priest should take the Minkha- the “meal offering”- “v’hiktir hamizbeiakh reiakh nikhoakh azkarata Lashem- and burn its remembrance on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Divine.”
Now the image of burning has two main aspects. On one hand, fire creates light and warmth, which are necessary and pleasurable. On the other hand, fire burns and destroys- it can be dangerous and painful. In other words, fire is a metaphor for life itself- beautiful, pleasurable, and also incredibly painful at times. But if you offer your awareness as a gift to this moment as it is- v’hiktir hamizbeiakh-your awareness will burn of the altar of the present, reiakh nikhoakh- your connection to this moment in the face of both pleasure and pain is like a pleasing aroma, azkarata Lashem- bringing the remembrance of the Divine Oneness within which everything appears and disappears.
Of course, this isn’t always easy, because of what I call the “yeah but” principle. One moment you’re relaxed, open and in harmony with Reality, and the next moment something happens that throws you off, and your mind says, “yeah but…” That’s why offering the minkha- the gift of your Presence- azkarata Lashem- it must be a remembrance of the Oneness that you recall to yourself every day, as it says in the seder, Kol y’mei khayiekha- all the days of your life. And when you remember the Oneness, you actually re-member yourself- meaning, your consciousness that’s become fragmented and contracted can relax back into the open field that is your nature.
So on this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Command, of Mitzvah, may we receive this mitzvah of re-membering- practicing daily, nightly and constantly the return to Presence and opening to the love that flows from there. Good Shabbos!!!
Locked in the Bathroom- Parshat Tzav
3/24/2016 5 Comments
Last week, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom.
The doorknob had broken a few days before. I went in to use the bathroom, and when I was finished, I realized I couldn’t get out.
I took the screen out of the window, but soon realized that if I tried to squeeze my body through that tiny opening, I would not only be stuck in the bathroom, but stuck halfway though the window. Not a good plan.
I had no regular tools- only a bunch of various pieces of doorknob lying around the bathroom. So, I grabbed a piece of metal and started bashing the doorknob as hard as I could.
That didn’t work.
Only one thing left to do-
Sitting there and looking carefully, I could see something that looked like a lever inside the door hole in which the knob was recessed. I found a metal thing which fit right inside and carefully pushed the lever thing. The doorknob released and it came right open.
It was a good test, and a perfect reminder of the importance of Presence in the midst of the absurdities and challenges of life.
There are three phases for dealing with absurdities and challenges.
This week’s reading, Parshat Tzav, begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform:
“… olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker-
“…the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.”
If you want to live an “elevated” life, let the "night" of challenges be reminders to remain alert. Keep the "flame burning all night long." This is the first stage.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp.
In other words, after you’ve burned through the negativity and come out the other end, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it around by creating mental stories about it; let it out of your space. This is the second stage.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is called:
“… aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.”
In other words, after the challenge is over and you’ve let go of it, you’ve got to still practice being conscious. It doesn’t work very well to get conscious only when things are challenging!
And fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to stay present in the many uneventful moments that comprise much of our lives- don’t take them for granted! That’s the blessing of the many prayers, sacred phrases and Divine Names you can use to come deeply into Oneness of the present moment, all day long.
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon that's traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur.
The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the Sanctification of the Moon- that night. Determined, he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. He eventually accepted his failure as what needed to be, and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance.
Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the waxing moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the brakha- the blessing- and averted the danger.
On this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Connection, may we connect the three phases as the Baal Shem tov did- accepting challenge and even failure when it happens, letting go of negativity and opening to the joy of the Dance, and blessing the holiness of each moment, regardless of whether our fortune is "waxing" or "waning".
Good Shabbos, Hag Purim Samayakh!
Keep Burning! Parshat Tzav
3/27/2015 4 Comments
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon as is traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur. The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the sanctification of the moon, that night. Anxiously he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. Sunk in gloom, he eventually gave up and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance. Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the crescent moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the blessing and averted the danger.
At first glance, you might think that this story is about the power of joy and community- about how the master needed the innocent enthusiasm of his disciples to cheer him up, which then miraculously cleared the clouds from the sky.
A fine and valid interpretation!
But another way of seeing the story reveals a unity between all the different elements- the Baal Shem’s experience of the darkness, the joy of the disciples and the revelation of the moon are all parts of one happening. The point is not the disciples cheering him up; the point is the way in which he relates to the darkness.
If you want true freedom, if you want to leave Egypt for good, you need to have a constant and unconditional commitment to being conscious. Meditation and prayer are only one part of the practice- the rest happens in the flow of life, in real time. Every part of life must be brought into the arena of practicing awareness.
In order to understand how to do this, it can be useful to divide your life experience into three categories.
The first involves moments when challenges come into your life from things you are committed to. For example, you might have challenges with work or children or relationships. In those moments, you must remain conscious that this is the arena of practice. Be committed to not letting the negativity take over your mind, creating pessimistic, complaining or blaming stories. Know that you have the power to completely be with the unpleasantness and that ultimately it can’t hurt you. It will certainly pass. Then, deal with the situation from that place.
The second involves negativity that comes into your life from things you are not committed to. For example, someone cuts you off on the road or someone insults you at work. Or, it could be negativity from your own mind. Regardless of the source, if you are not committed to the relationship, eject it from your mind completely. Don’t waste a second struggling against the annoying co-worker or the bad driver. Be with whatever feelings arise, but let go of any thoughts that keep those feelings alive. Even better- make a blessing for those who bother you. If possible and appropriate, take action. Even a smile can transform some situations.
The third involves the “empty” or “neutral” moments. When you are walking from one place to another, eating, driving and so on, there is no inherent content and the mind often wanders. Those times are such precious gifts because it’s not so difficult to be awake in those moments. Identify those moments- be aware of how they come in your day. When you brush your teeth, make your tea, whatever; use your mind on purpose. And that means either one of two things: either focus your thinking in an intentional way, or let go of your thinking and simply be present with whatever is happening.
Focused thinking can be contemplation on either spiritual or practical things. It can be solving a problem or thinking a prayer of gratitude. Presence means knowing you are not your thinking. It means putting aside your thinking and simply being.
Finally, take some time every day to step out of the flow of life. In order to practice in the three types of life experience, it is vital to separate from them to do your daily avodah- spiritual work. The vital elements of avodah are also three- meditation (quiet presence, just being with Being), prayer (expression of your heart toward Being) and contemplation or learning (like what you are doing right now as you read this).
There is a hint of these three life situations in the avodah that is described in this week’s reading. Parshat Tzav begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform. It says that the “olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker- the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.” In order to be “elevated”, you must remain alert the whole time you are experiencing something challenging or negative. Don’t become unconscious! Keep the flame burning all night long. This corresponds to being awake as you deal with challenges in things you are committed to, such as relationships and work.
In our opening story, this is when the Baal Shem tries his best to disperse the clouds, and then eventually retires to his room to fully be with his sadness.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp. In other words, after you have burned through the negativity, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it alive by creating mental stories about it! Get it out of your space. This corresponds to negativity from things you are not committed to. Don’t waste your energy on things that don’t matter!
This is when the Baal Shem lets go of the sadness and joins in the dance.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is an “aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.” In other words, after the challenge is over and life has become neutral again, you should still remain conscious. Don’t just try to get conscious when things are challenging! This corresponds to the many neutral moments that comprise much of our lives. It’s easy to be awake in those moments- don’t take them for granted!
This is when the Baal Shem makes his blessing on the moon. The moon, waxing and waning, sometimes visible and sometimes not, represents the up and down flow of the every day. Sanctify the ordinary- as it says, “when you lie down and when you get up”.
On this Shabbat HaGadol- the Great Sabbath preceding our festival of liberation, may we all grow in our constant practice of being conscious and sanctifying every moment of this precious existence. Good Shabbos!
The Power of Preparation- Passover and Parshat Tzav
3/21/2013 4 Comments
There are moments when our situation dictates our next move, and there is no ambiguity about what we must do. If there were a baby in the middle of the road, for example, it is clear we should rescue the baby. In such a moment, there is no leeway for weighing options, for considering which path to take. The path is clear, and the mind is wholly present in the task at hand. We might call this active presence- being totally present and committed in one’s action.
There is also a situation we might call passive presence, or receiving presence. This could be when you receive something or behold something so satisfying that there is no part of you that is left out of the experience; there is a sense of arrival. The present is not experienced as a stepping-stone to some other moment, but the present is IT. An example of this might be beholding something awesome in nature, or even drinking a glass of water when you are parched.
Ordinarily, these moments tend to be few. The aim of spiritual work, however, is to totally reorient yourself to become fully present in every moment, to connect deeply with reality as it presents itself now, always now, in this moment. To do this, we have to shift our perspective from mind and thought to the awareness behind mind and thought. Just as both the baby in the road and the satisfying experience automatically bring one to the fullness of the present beyond thought, so we must learn to bring ourselves fully to the present, even and especially in ordinary and mundane moments.
This is the hidden message in this week’s parsha, Tzav. Throughout the Torah, when G-d tells Moses to communicate something to the Israelites, it usually says, “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to the Israelites…’”. In this case, rather than saying, “speak to the Israelites”, it says “command the Israelites”. That’s the meaning of the word Tzav- it is the command form of the word “command”. By saying, “command” rather than “speak”, it implies a sense of intensity, and calls the one commanded to a state of presence. To receive a “commandment” is different from receiving a “suggestion” or a “possibility”; the baby is in the road, and you must act.
However, the Torah then goes on to enumerate tedious details about certain ritual sacrifices. The subject matter is not even new; it is merely a continuation of last week’s parsha, which introduced the subject (see last week’s blog entry). Why is the special word tzav used in this context?
But this is the whole point. Much of our lives are spent with ordinary, repetitive things- the daily grind of keeping things moving. The ritual sacrifices are a metaphor for how to frame the ordinary: By bringing our awareness fully into each moment, the “ordinary” is transformed into something sacred. The word for sacrifice, korban, actually doesn’t mean sacrifice at all; it means “drawing near”. The “daily grind” becomes a way of drawing near to the Ultimate, for everything is part of the Ultimate. Once the mind ceases pulling us away from this moment, we can see this moment as an opportunity to awaken, to be a vessel for consciousness.
This is also the meaning of the instructions to “keep the fire on the altar burning all night” (Lev. 6:2). The “day” represents those special experiences and deeds that bring us to the sacred and the fullness of presence. The “night” represents the ordinary and mundane, when we tend to fall asleep in the spiritual sense. To “keep the fire burning” in the “night” means to transform the ordinary into a korban- into a sacred moment through the power of awareness.
This lesson is a powerful reminder as we move into the preparation time for Pesakh (Passover). Preparing for Pesakh has a very mundane, detail-oriented aspect to it, involving going through your fridge and cabinets to find all the hameitz (foods made with wheat, oats, barley or spelt, except of course matzah) to either eliminate it or sell it. (Click here for info on traditional Pesakh preparations- and don't let it freak you out! Even a little effort at whatever level you are comfortable can be very powerful). Often, this will reveal hidden dirtiness and inspire a deep cleaning of the house. The hameitz is a symbol for ego and separation from the present. The matzah, in its flatness and simplicity, represents full intimacy with the present and freedom from ego.
So what is the lesson? The ego craves something special. It wants to be impressed, and to impress. But preparing for Pesakhis an opportunity to embrace the mundane, to discover the sacred in the cleaning of kitchen muck. In surrendering to these mundane tasks and doing them not as drudgery but as “commandment”, as mitzvah, we open ourselves to receive the true and liberating power of Pesakh.
When you eat the matzah this Pesakh, may you taste the joy, sweetness and purity of real liberation, and may your liberation bring this world a step closer to a global awakening and healing.
Hag Samayakh! Good Shaabbiiiisss!
There is a story that the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov once heard of a certain rabbi who was known as a great spiritual teacher. They wished to attend one of his teachings, and the Baal Shem gave them permission. Before they set out, they asked their master: “How shall we know if he is a true teacher or a fraud?”
“Ask him how to eliminate distracting thoughts,” replied the Baal Shem. “If he gives you advice, he is not a true teacher, for it is the task of every person until the hour of their death to do battle with the extraneous, and continuously returning attention to the true.”
There is a misconception that, in meditation, one should completely turn off the thinking mind. This is part of an even broader misconception, that the fruit of spiritual awakening is the elimination of sorrow and a permanent state of happiness and bliss. Actually, there are no permanent states – as the story says, “until the hour of their death…”
Asking how to achieve a permanent state would be like asking how to clean the kitchen in such a way that it never gets dirty again… or how to eat so as to never get hungry again. The task is not achieving a permanent state of cleanliness or fullness, but rather it is learning how to effectively clean and eat!
On the inner level, this means not stopping the mind, but shifting from involvement with thought to being the open space of consciousness within which thought comes and goes; it is the severing of one’s clinging to the thinking mind. This cutting away of attachment to thought is represented by the Seventeenth Path, the Hebrew letter ז zayin.
Zayin can mean “weapon” or “sword,” pointing to our ability to “cut” the inner “chains of bondage,” which is also the theme of Passover, the festival of liberation. The central ceremony of Passover, the ritual meal called the seder (meaning “order”) is based around the number four, hinting at four primary ways that we can sever the ties of inner bondage and get free from “Egypt,” from the constrictedness of Mitzrayim. We can see these archetypal fours reflected in the Four Questions:
מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Actually, the Four Questions are really one question, with four answers! Here is the first answer:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה
Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin hameitz umatzah, halailah hazeh kulo matzah!
On all other nights we eat hameitz and matzah, but on this night, only matzah!
Matzah is the ritual food of Pesakh, the lekhem oni, the “Bread of Affliction.” But what is matzah on the symbolic level?
Ordinary bread rises through the action of the yeast; as the yeast ferments the bread, tiny bubbles of gas cause the dough to puff up. The dough pulls away from itself because of those tiny bubbles, and in a similar way, our consciousness also pulls away from itself when we engage in the process of thinking:
Everything in our experience, on all levels, happens within a singular, vast, field of consciousness. This field is the essence of who we are; it is our essence because it is the one thing that is essential to our existence. All experiences, all thoughts, all feelings come and go, but they come and go within the field of consciousness.
When we think about something, we create the illusion that there is something in our experience that is separate, something other than this consciousness; there is the sense of “me” thinking, on one hand, and the thing that “I” am “thinking about,” on the other. The thinking mind is like the rising dough, like hameitz; the “bubbles” of thought cause consciousness to “puff up,” and “pull away from itself,” creating a sense of separation, a sense of “me” and “that.”
Matzah, on the other hand, is simplicity; it is the cessation of involvement with thought, the coming into connection with the experience of this moment, a merging back into oneness. We can see a hint of this in the letters that make up the word matzah, which is מצה mem-tzaddie-hei.
Mem מ is mayim, water, which merges with whatever vessel contains it. Water does not “pull away” from the sides of the vessel, it simply takes the shape of the container. Mem means no resistance.
Free from resistance, the quality of tzaddie emerges. Tzaddie is the tzadik, the perfected person who is fully surrendered, fully trusting, accepting completely whatever happens as an expression of the Divine. With that sense of total Trust in What Is, one can breath deeply; this is the hei which makes the H sound, the sound of breathing.
In practice, we can work these three letters backwards – begin by bringing awareness into your breathing. As you become present, worry and anxiety begin to melt away, making space for Trust. In that Trust, there can be a releasing of resistance.
This matzah practice of coming out of the “Egypt” of excess thinking, corresponds to a different grouping of four in the seder – the “Four Children.” Particularly, freedom from excess thinking is the תָּם Tam, the “Simple Child.”
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר
Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh maror!
On all other nights we eat many vegetables, but on this night, maror!
In our home, we use fresh horseradish as maror. While our family seders are not necessarily very meditative, the eating of the maror is the exception – it is a practice of simply being with the intense discomfort and burning sensation of the horseradish. In the deeper sense, the willingness to be with physical discomfort hints at the inner practice of letting go, of not needing to be seen in any particular way, not needing to uphold any status or image. Again, we can see this reflected in the letters:
Maror is מרור mem, reish, vav, reish. We looked already at mem. Reish ר hints at the word reisheet, which means “beginning.” This is having a “beginners mind,” not being an expert, but seeing things in a fresh and new way, without preconception.
Vav ו is the Hebrew prefix which means “and,” hinting at the practice of saying “yes and” to whatever arises, affirming rather than resisting the truth of experience in the present. The eating of the maror is an especially powerful opportunity to practice this.
The second reish is like the word rosh, “head.” It means the leader or head of something, such as a rosh yeshivah, a “head of school.” The shape of the rosh invokes the image of a bowed head, a sign of respect for the rosh. It is the acknowledgment that Reality is “above” us, of taking an attitude of respect and humility.
All this points to getting free from craving status, or self-image. This is the חָכָם Hakham, the “Wise Child,” because relinquishing the cravings of ego is a path of wisdom. Furthermore, חָכָם hakham comes from חָכמָה hokhmah, which means “wisdom,” but also means consciousness itself – the spacious field of awareness beyond all form, beyond ego.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים
Sheb’khol haleilot ayn anu matbilin afilu pa’am ekhat, halailah hazeh sh’tei p’amim! – On all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night, twice!
This refers to the practices of dipping the karpas, the green vegetable, into salt water, as well as dipping the maror, the bitter herb, into haroset, a dish made from fruits and nuts, symbolizing the mortar of the bricks that our ancestors were forced to build with.
But on a deeper level, the dipping שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים sh’tei p’amim, “two time,” hints at the practice of inquiry, or deep questioning.
Generally, we tend to assume what is true and what isn’t, without any deep thinking. But with inquiry, not only we do we really analyze the truth or untruth of things thoroughly, but we also analyze thought itself. The truth about Truth is that, while we can and must do our best to think deeply and understand things, our minds are not able to know anything with absolute certainty except the truth of what is arising in experience at this moment. When we recognize this obvious but illusive fact, we can see through and get free from our conditioning and beliefs. This is the רָשָׁע Rasha, the so-called “Wicked Child,” because those who question assumptions and norms are often considered to be “wicked.” But this is a channeling of that rebellious tendency toward one’s own ego – that is, toward identification and imprisonment in one’s own beliefs.
Finally, we come to the last of the four questions/answers:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין
Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin,
halailah hazeh kulanu m’subin! – On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, only reclining!
What is מְסֻבִּין m’subin, reclining, on the inner level?
When we sit, a small part of our bodies is in contact with the chair or ground that supports us. But with reclining, we bring far more of our bodies into connection with our support. We can see this reflected in the letters for m’subin, which are מְסֻבִּין – mem, samekh, bet, yod, nun.
Samekh ס actually means “support.” Its shape is the circle, hinting at our relationships with one another, and the support we give and receive in community.
Bet ב is bayit, which means “house,” hinting at the most basic expression of supporting one another, which is hospitality.
Yod י is the tiniest of letters and the starting point for drawing all the letters. In this way, it is another representation of simple awareness, which is the starting point of all experience, and freedom from excess thinking.
Nun נ begins the word noflim, which means “fallen ones,” hinting at the recipients of support – those who are in need of support from others. This is expressed in the opening kavanah of the seder: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”
All of this brings us back to the straightforward meaning of reclining, which is simple enjoyment, dwelling like royalty as we drink and dine together. This is going out from the bondage of the heart – the joy of receiving and giving in the moment. This is the also שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל She’einu Yode’a Lish’ol – the “One Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask,” because where there is genuine enjoyment and love for one another, there are no more questions – just appreciation of that which is obviously and simply good, for its own sake…
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God Never Passes Over – Shabbat Pesakh
4/6/2020 0 Comments
Rabbi Raphael of Bershad, the most beloved disciple of Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz, told of an encounter he had with his master: “Once I complained to my rebbe that in times of adversity it is very difficult to keep my faith in the Divine. It seems in such times that God is hiding His Face from us when we are unhappy. I asked him, “What I can do to strengthen my faith?”
My rebbe replied, “If someone is hiding from you, it only works if you are fooled into thinking the person has truly disappeared. But if you know that they are hiding, then the hiding ceases to be a hiding.”
The experience of inner freedom, like all experiences, waxes and wanes like the moon. But it only becomes truly hidden when we imagine that it is somewhere other than we are. This is the essential obstacle: the belief in God as something other than this.
There is a hint in this week’s special Torah reading for Pesakh (Exodus 33:12-23):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה רְ֠אֵה אַתָּ֞ה אֹמֵ֤ר אֵלַי֙ הַ֚עַל אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְאַתָּה֙ לֹ֣א הֽוֹדַעְתַּ֔נִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־תִּשְׁלַ֖ח עִמִּ֑י וְאַתָּ֤ה אָמַ֙רְתָּ֙ יְדַעְתִּ֣יךָֽ בְשֵׁ֔ם וְגַם־מָצָ֥אתָ חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינָֽי׃
Moses said to the Divine, “Look! You said to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Furthermore, You have said, ‘I have known you by name, and also you have found grace in My eyes.’
וְעַתָּ֡ה אִם־נָא֩ מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֜ן בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ וְאֵדָ֣עֲךָ֔ לְמַ֥עַן אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וּרְאֵ֕ה כִּ֥י עַמְּךָ֖ הַגּ֥וֹי הַזֶּֽה׃
“Now, if I have truly found grace in your eyes, please let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue find grace in Your eyes, and see that this nation is Your people.”
Moses is afraid that God won’t be present with them anymore, because of the incident with the golden calf. But God answers:
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃
And (the Divine) said, “My Presence will go (along with you) and be restfulness for you.”
God is reassuring Moses that they should be at peace, because the Presence will always be with them. But Moses still doesn’t believe it:
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ הֹלְכִ֔ים אַֽל־תַּעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה׃
And he said to (the Divine), “If Your Presence doesn’t go (with us), don’t make us leave this place!
וּבַמֶּ֣ה יִוָּדַ֣ע אֵפ֗וֹא כִּֽי־מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמֶּ֔ךָ הֲל֖וֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֣ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְנִפְלֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמְּךָ֔ מִכָּ֨ל־הָעָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
“For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes – I and Your people –unless You go with us, and I and Your people be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth?”
God already told Moses that the Presence is always with them, but Moses seems to be caught in the belief that it can be otherwise; he’s afraid that he and the people he leads won’t be special anymore if God isn’t with them.
This is the psychology of the ego – the ego imagines that God can be present or not, and that if God is present, the ego will have a feeling of being special. We can substitute many other words for “God” – we might say peace, wisdom, ease, wholeness, enlightenment, or any number of things.
The point is, the anxiety of the ego comes from the belief that That which we seek is conditional, that it might leave us. That’s the true Mitzrayim, the true “bondage in Egypt” – the egoic belief that God is “elsewhere.”
But Moses isn’t convinced; he needs proof:
יֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃
He said, “Please show me Your Presence!”
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִ֨י אַעֲבִ֤יר כָּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ וְקָרָ֧אתִֽי בְשֵׁ֛ם יְהוָ֖ה לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וְחַנֹּתִי֙ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָחֹ֔ן וְרִחַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲרַחֵֽם׃
And (the Divine) said, “I will make all My Goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the Divine Name, and the Grace with which I Grace and the Compassion with which I am Compassionate.
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃
And (the Divine) said, “You cannot see My Face, for no person can see My Face and live.”
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה הִנֵּ֥ה מָק֖וֹם אִתִּ֑י וְנִצַּבְתָּ֖ עַל־הַצּֽוּר׃
And the Divine said, “Behold the ‘Place’ with Me, and stand upon the rock.
וְהָיָה֙ בַּעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עָבְרִֽי׃
“And it will be as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.
וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My Face must not be seen.”
In order for Moses to understand this Divine message, he must “stand upon the rock” – meaning, become still – be present. Then, he can see God’s “back” – meaning, he will see everything, all forms of existence, as manifestations of the same Divine Presence.
But why can’t we see “God’s Face” directly?
Because of the Divine is the ever-present Presence in all being, that means we are God’s Face; the eyeball cannot see itself; we cannot look at our own face.
Unless, of course, we look into a mirror; in this sense we can even see God’s Face as well, as when Jacob makes peace with his brother Esau, and says to him:
רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים – “Seeing your face is like seeing the Divine Face!”
When we are truly present with another person, when face meets face, then truly Face meets Face:
אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם
But, when two sit together and there are words of the Torah between them, the Divine Presence dwells within them…
Don’t read it as conditional: “If there are words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells,” but rather, the “Words of Torah” are telling them: “The Divine Presence always dwells!”
פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃
My Presence always goes with you – rest in That
Four Stages of Liberation – Passover of Awakening
4/15/2019 0 Comments
Recently someone told me that he was angry at someone. And, not only was he angry, but he likes being angry; he had no desire to “let go” or “get over it.” Then, a few days later, another person told me almost the same thing about someone else, but with the addition: “I will never forgive.”
There’s an idea that the festivals contain certain transformational potentials, and that as we enter their seasons, the barriers that we need to transcend start coming to the surface. And certainly, anger and non-forgiveness are ways that we can get stuck in Mitzrayim, in narrow identification with feelings of woundedness, of being a victim.
But getting free doesn’t have to mean a denial or pushing away of our true feelings; rather, it is precisely our true feelings that are the means to liberation. They are the gravity of unconsciousness that forces us to either wake up or get pulled in. Without them, there can be no liberation; that’s the sacred role of Egypt and Pharaoh.
According to the structure of the Passover seder, this process of liberation has four basic stages, corresponding to the four cups of wine. The Jerusalem Talmud (10a) asks, “Why do we have four cups of wine? Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to the four stages of redemption.”
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Therefore, say to the children of Israel: “I am Reality. I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will rescue you from their work. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through great judgments. I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be for you as a God. And you shall know that it is I, Existence Itself, your own Divinity, Who brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt…” (Exodus 6:6 – 7)
Hotzeiti – I will bring you out: There is a difference between the experience of liberation and the reality of liberation. Experience is always in motion; the degree to which we experience freedom changes from moment to moment. The reality of our freedom, on the other hand, is absolute; it is our task to recognize it and live it, regardless of our experience in the moment. The experience we’re having right now arises within our field of awareness; awareness is not trapped or compelled by it in any way. I am Reality – I will bring you out. The simple recognition of our own being as the vast and formless field of awareness within which this present experience is now unfolding brings us out from the illusion of being stuck, into the reality of our inherent freedom.
Hitzalti – I will rescue you: Once we recognize our freedom in the present, there is always the possibility that we will forget and again get drawn back into the dream of bondage. After all, the illusion is so formidable! The Egyptian army is behind us, the sea is in front of us – what shall we do? Our recognition must become commitment; we must remember to return ourselves to this recognition again and again in the face of the seductive and encroaching tides of experience.
Ga’alti – I will redeem you: When we come to the recognition of and commitment to our absolute freedom in the present, there can be a tendency to deny our past, which only creates a more subtle form of bondage. But when we embrace our past, when we recognize that ALL of our past experience, no matter how discordant or even evil, has brought us to this present moment of wakefulness, there can be redemption. There is no doubt – slavery and oppression are wrong. They are to be opposed. But, they are part of our sacred history, and through the telling, they have a sacred role. Gam zeh l’tovah – this too is for the good. This is not to whitewash or deny our pain; it is to embrace the supreme potential given to us by that pain.
Lakakhti – I will take you: It is true, there is nothing more vital for our own wellbeing then liberation. Anger and resentment can be sweet in a strange way, but they are nothing compared to freedom. And yet, it may take many years of bondage and many plagues to convince us that freedom is preferable. We cling to our bondage as if our life depended on it! And in a way, it does, because the price of freedom is our very identity; freedom changes who we think we are. At this stage, we give up fascination with our own story, with our own process, and meet the Divine at Sinai to answer Its call. Freedom is not merely for ourselves; it is the liberation of Reality Itself, waking up to Itself…
Re-Membering for Passover
What is spiritual bondage?
When the Torah describes the beginning of the Israelite’s bondage in Egypt, is says, “Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael b’farekh- Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with farekh- with crushing servitude.”
Now within this verse are three hints about the nature of spiritual bondage.
The first hint is in the word farekh, which means crushing labor. Now the root of farekh means to break apart or fracture, hence its usage to describe “crushing” labor. The obvious hint here is that spiritual bondage is unpleasant- it involves suffering. But on a deeper level, it hints that there is some kind of breaking or fracturing happening, and that’s the fracturing of Reality Itself as it appears in your consciousness.
Consider- in this moment, everything is as it is, and your consciousness is meeting whatever is appearing- your sensations, your feelings, your perception of what’s around you, whatever thoughts arise, and so on. As long as consciousness simply meets what is, there’s a wholeness to Everything. But when something unpleasant arises, whether external or internal it doesn’t matter, because all experience arises within the one space of consciousness, there’s a tendency for consciousness to contract into resistance, in the form of thoughts, feelings, or even words and actions- “dang farnet- what the??”- that’s resistance- that’s the farekh- the tearing apart of Reality, because now there’s me over here, resisting that over there, even if the “over there” is on my own mind.
This move from Wholeness to an opposing position implies a kind of contraction, because now rather than simply being the space of awareness within which all experience happens, you become a finite entity, resisting something within your experience. This brings us to the second hint in this verse, the word Mitzrayim. Mitzrayin means Egypt, but it comes from the root tzar which means “narrow,” probably because Egypt was built along the Nile. But metaphorically, it hints that to be in mitzrayim is to be in a narrow state; the native and full spaciousness of your consciousness gets contracted into a fixed point of view- the narrow “me” called “ego.”
And what’s the basic activity of ego? Ego tries to control things. That’s because ego feels disconnected from the fullness of its experience. That’s the basic hallmark of ego- that feeling of incompleteness, and with it, the need to change things in order to be okay. That egoic feeling of incompleteness comes from the contraction into a mitzrayim state that happens spontaneously in reaction to farekh- suffering that breaks apart the wholeness of your experience.
And this brings us to the third hint in the verse, vaya’avidu, which means “enslaved.” The arising of suffering, represented by farekh, which causes the contraction into the ego, represented by Mitzrayim is obviously not something we consciously choose; it seems to just happen to us. Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael- that contraction just seems to grab you and enslave you against your will.
And yet, on a deeper level, ya’avidu is related to the word Avodah, which means work or service not in the negative sense of slavery, but in the positive sense of prayer, or spiritual practice- which is an act of love and devotion. The hint here is that the experience of suffering and the spiritual bondage that comes from it has a purpose, and that is to be transformed into avodah, into a path of liberation. Because it’s only from experiencing and getting caught in all kinds of spiritual bondage, and then finding your way out of bondage, that you can really mature and evolve. A baby in the womb is already whole and one with all being, but it’s not liberated, because there’s no appreciation of the Wholeness. In order to know liberation, you have to first taste bondage.
The danger, of course, is that the experience of bondage, however that manifests for you, seduces you into a negative attitude and you become resigned to your stuck-ness. That’s why the Torah says, “l’maan tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim kol y’mei khayiekha- that you remember your going out from Egypt all the days of your life.”
This verse, which also appears near the beginning of the seder, urges us to constantly remember that our basic nature is freedom, reminding ourselves every day, and even every night as the words of the seder say, “Kol y’mei khayiekha, l’havi haleilot- all the days of your life means, the nights also.”
And what’s the every day and night practice for remembering the going out of Egypt? It’s the chanting of the Sh’ma, because the Sh’ma reminds us, Hashem Eloheinu- Hashem- All existence- meaning everything that arises in your experience- is Eloheinu- your own inner divinity, meaning your awareness. Then it says, Hashem Ekhad- Existence, or Reality is One. Again and again you may get pulled into farekh- that involuntary suffering in which we contract into the egoic mitzrayim state, but if you remember ekhad- the oneness of Being, you can find your way back into harmony with what is through the verse that follows: ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha- Love Hashem your Divinity, that’s the Hesed- the lovingkindness of offering your awareness as a gift to this moment just as it is, even if it feels like suffering, that’s the first part of meditation, b’khol l’vavkha uvkhol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha- with all your heart and soul and might- that’s the Gevurah, the strength, of grounding and sustaining your awareness in your body- that’s the second part of meditation, and of course, Sh’ma Yisrael- Listen, be aware, and know yourself as the awareness- spacious, free and borderless- that’s the third part of meditation.
The Perfect Passover
4/20/2016 3 Comments
One Passo\ver, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev led the first night seder so perfectly, that every word and every ritual glowed with all the holiness of its mystical significance. In the dawn, after the celebration, Levi Yitzhak sat in his room, joyful and proud that he had performed such an perfect seder.
But all of a sudden, a Voice from above spoke to him: “More pleasing to me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
“Hayim the water-carrier?” wondered Levi Yitzhak, “Who’s that?”
He summoned all his disciples together, and asked if anyone had heard of Hayim the water-carrier. Nobody had. So, at the tzaddik’s bidding, some of the disciples set off in search of him.
They asked around for many hours before they were led to a poor neighborhood outside the city. There, they were shown a little house that was falling apart.
They knocked on the door. A woman came out and asked what they wanted. When they told her, she was amazed.
“Yes,” she said, “Hayim the water carrier is my husband, but he can’t go with you, because he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you wake him, you’ll see he won’t even be able to move.”
“It’s the rabbi’s orders!” answered the disciples.
They barged in and shook him from his sleep. He only blinked at them and couldn’t understand what they wanted. Then he rolled over and tried to go on sleeping.
So they grabbed him, dragged him from his bed, and carried him on their shoulders to the tzaddik'shouse. There they sat him down, bewildered, before Levi Yitzhak. The rabbi leaned toward him and said-
“Reb Hayim, dear heart, what kavanah, what mystic intention was in your mind when you gathered the hameitz- the leavened foods- to burn in preparation for the seder?”
The water carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked into every corner and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued questioning him-
“And what yihudim- what holy unifications did you contemplate when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s all still lying on the shelf.”
When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak heard this, he grew more and more uncertain, but he continued asking- “And tell me Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to quicken in his eyes and limbs, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I shall tell you the truth. You see, I had always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on all eight days of the festival, and so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me eight days. Then I got tired and fell asleep.
“When my wife woke me in the evening, she said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like all the other Jews?’
“I said, ‘What do you want from me? I’m an ignorant man and my father was an ignorant man. I don’t know how to read, and I don’t know what to do, or what not to do.’
“My wife answered, ‘You must know some little song or something!’
“I thought for a moment, and then a melody and words came to me that I had heard as a child. I sang-
“Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot- Why is this night different from all other nights?
“I thought, 'why is this night different?'
“Then, something strange happened. It was as if I awoke from a dream, and everything was suddenly more real, more present. It was as if the night itself woke up all around me…
“Then I looked and saw the table before me, and the cloth gleamed like the sun, and on it were platters of matzot, eggs, and other dishes, with bottles of red wine. So we ate of the matzot and eggs and drank of the wine.
“I was overcome with joy. I lifted my cup to the heavens and said, 'Oh Hashem- I drink to you!'
“Then we sang and rejoiced in the nishtana- the specialness- of that moment… then I got tired and fell asleep.”
So my friends- before you fall asleep! Why is this moment different?
On this Shabbat Pesakh, the Sabbath of Passing, may we awaken to know that everything is passing, savoring the unique specialness of this moment. Let the unfolding of Reality become what it will, letting go of whatever it was, and breathing the intention of peace and love and awareness into every thought, every word, every act. Let’s go forth, again, out of mitzrayim- out of constriction- and into the mystery of the Presence as the present. This moment is truly different from all other moments, and always is…
There is a story that a well-respected woman once came to seek advice from Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt. But as soon as he saw her, his power of inner vision caused him to perceive that she had been cheating on her husband. He immediately lashed out at her:
“Adulteress! You sinned only a short time ago, and now you have the insolence to enter this holy place seeking my advice?”
The woman was taken aback, but then gathered herself together and spoke from the depths of her heart: “The Lord of the world has patience with the wicked, and is in no hurry to punish. God does not reveal their sins to anyone, so as to not prevent them from returning out of shame. But the rabbi of Apt sits there in his chair and cannot resist revealing what the Creator has kept hidden!”
From that time forward the rabbi of Apt would tell that story, saying, “There was only one time when a person got the best of me – and it was that woman.”
There is a danger in spiritual growth, in that as we transform and rise above the unconsciousness of our past, we tend to become more likely to judge others unfavorably. Transcendence of ego does not eliminate ego; we cannot “take our hands off the steering wheel” so to speak, but rather we must always be as vigilantly present to not get caught by reactivity. As Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz taught: “If you want to guide people in your house the right way, you must not express anger at them, for anger contaminates not only your own soul, but the souls of those with whom you are angry.”
At the same time, he also said, “I keep my anger in my pocket. When I need it, I take it out.”
There are times when expressing anger is actually the only thing that will work, because anything less won’t be taken seriously. The trick is to develop that sense of what is appropriate in the moment, and then to have enough consciousness to not be taken over by reactivity as it arises. The seeing of what is appropriate is the quality of the sefirah of Tiferet, while having the consciousness to effect self-restraint is ו vav.
The more we can work with these two wisdom-skills, the more conscious our words and actions can be, and the more the structures of our lives can then function to form a Mishkan, a “temple of Presence.”
בְּיוֹם־הַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ תָּקִ֕ים אֶת־מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃
On the first day of the first month, you shall raise up the Sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting.
בְּיוֹם־הַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן B’yom hakhodesh harishon – On the day of the first month…
The word for “on the day,” b’yom, can also be read bAyom, meaning “on today” – in other words, now.
The word for “month” is חֹ֥דֶשׁ khodesh, composed of the letters ח khet, ד dalet, and ש shin. Each of these letters is a Path of Presence, representing a particular quality:
Khet ח is the quality of being present with others as they are, not trying to change them, nor running away from them. In other words, ח khet is Patience.
Dalet ד , which means “door,” is the recognition that all we have and all we are is constantly given to us as a gift, coming to us through the “door” of being. In other words, ד dalet is the recognition of Grace.
Shin ש, which is associated with fire, is the quality of intense watchfulness, staying alert to perceive what one is being called to do in the moment, like Moses at the Burning Bush.
הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן HaRishon means “the first,” hinting that these are the first steps in building a Mishkan.
Seen this way, we could interpretively retranslate the verse thus:
In constructing a Sanctuary of Presence from your words and actions, the first steps are to approach whatever is present with Patience, to recognize that this moment comes to you as a form of Grace, and to be intensely Watchful to see what action is needed in the moment…
This approach to life is succinctly summed up in the aphorism:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:
He (Ben Azzai) used to say: do not be scornful of any person, and do not be disdainful of anything, for there is no person without their hour, and there is no thing without its place.
Embracing the moment as it appears, rather than as we think it should be, saying “yes and” to the truth of what we are now meeting, is the path to accessing our inner intelligence to respond to the moment with wisdom and love. Even more, it is the path to recognizing that this inner intelligence flows from who we are at the deepest level – the vast ocean of consciousness within which the waves of thought and feeling rise and fall; this is the Path of ו Vav.
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Light as an Eagle – Parshat Pekudei
3/7/2019 0 Comments
“When I get the message that it’s time to let go, how do I get myself to listen?”
When we are powerless to change something we don’t like, we can understand intellectually that we need to “let go” because the resistance we feel is painful. And yet, it’s hard to “let go” because the impulse to resist has already taken over. What to do?
יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Yehudah ven Tabai says, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven…
– Pirkei Avot 5:20
הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר – Be bold as a leopard
First, we must realize that we can get out of it; we must reject the belief that we can’t. So first of all, cultivate the awareness that there is no experience that can trap you; you are always bigger than any experience, because you are the field of awareness within which the experience is happening. This takes boldness – holy hutzpah as it’s sometimes called.
וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר – light as an eagle
Being “bold” or “brazen” (az) doesn’t mean being aggressive, controlling or imposing. Simply be bold in knowing that you cannot be controlled by feelings of resistance. This means, don’t resist your resistance! Simply accept its presence, being the open space within which it arises. This is being kal – “light as an eagle.”
וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי – swift as a deer
But, to do any of this, you have to be faster than your impulses. Ordinarily, when an impulse is triggered, it happens very quickly and we tend to get taken over very quickly. Our awareness must be ratz – we must be even faster. This takes practice, and we may fail many times. But the key is to articulate your intention to yourself over and over, so that when the moment comes, you will be ready. This is the point of prayer – to articulate to ourselves our highest kavanah – our highest intention – every day, many times per day.
But then we must also practice carrying out the intention, and that’s meditation:
וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי – strong as a lion
Meditation is a workout for consciousness. Through daily practice, we become gibor – we strengthen our ability to consciously relate with whatever experience arises. Like any strengthening exercise, it can take time to bear fruit; that’s why it’s so important to have faith in the process and practice every day, even if you don’t notice much difference at first. The fruit will ripen!
There is a hint of this in the symbolism of the decorative fruits that were placed on the hems of the priestly robes:
וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ עַל־שׁוּלֵ֣י הַמְּעִ֔יל רִמּוֹנֵ֕י תְּכֵ֥לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֖ן וְתוֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֑י מָשְׁזָֽר
And they made, on the hem of the robe, pomegranates of turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, twisted…
– Exodus 39:24
Turquoise, tekheilet, is the color of the tzitzit – the traditional ritual fringes that are worn to serve as a reminder to be constantly and vigilantly conscious – swift as a deer.
Purple is the color of royalty, representing our sovereignty over experience – bold as a leopard.
Crimson is the color of blood, the strength of the body – strong as a lion.
וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ פַעֲמֹנֵ֖י זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר
And they made bells of pure gold…
The bell is a symbol of awareness itself, as the sound of the bell awakens us into a higher alertness. This is light as an eagle – just as the eagle hovers and soars through the open air, so too when we awaken to the full potential of who we are beyond our thoughts and feelings, we find that we are the open air, we are the miracle of consciousness, the effortless dwelling with just how this moment is unfolding, right now…
The Carver, The Weaver and The Embroiderer- Parshat Pekudei
This week’s reading recounts the building of the Sanctuary-
“Eleh p’kudei HaMishkan…
“These are the remembrances of the Sanctuary…” (Ex. 38:21)
Remember- right now- make yourself into a sanctuary!
How do you do that? It goes on to say:
“The Sanctuary of Witnessing…”
The moment you become the witness to what’s happening, seeing without judgment or resistance, your inner space becomes a Sanctuary of Presence.
The parsha then goes on to describe the builders and artisans, including one named Oholiav, who is described as a “carver, weaver and embroiderer.”
To become a Mishkan HaEidut, a Sanctuary of Witnessing, first let your inner space be “carved” by the content of this moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Don’t resist, let your inner space take the form of this moment.
Then, let the fullness of everything in this moment be “woven” into a whole within the space of your awareness. Don’t tear the moment apart with judgments and resistance- it’s already one whole tapestry, when you allow it to be.
Let your own thoughts/words/actions “embroider” the sacred. Give your thoughts a form with a Divine Name or sacred phrase, letting it vibrate repeatedly in your mind.
Try this phrase, which means, “The Glory of the Divine Presence Fills”-
Kavod Hashem Malei! Kavod Hashem Malei!
This phrase is from the following verse which describes how the Sanctuary was so full of Presence, Moses could not enter-
“Moses could not enter the Sanctuary… for the Glory of the Divine Presence filled the Sanctuary.” (Ex. 40:35)
When your presence completely fills this moment, there's no more room for the separate “me”- there’s just the Presence, not separate from anything…
On this Shabbat Pekudei, the Sabbath of Remembrance, may we remember this most fundamental sacred task, clearing the way for joy and celebration in this new month of Adar II, the month of Purim...
Good Month to you!
Mishei Nikhnas Adar Marbim Simkha!
When the month of Adar enters, joy increases!
There’s a story of the Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once he sat alone in the middle of the night contemplating the mystical teachings. Suddenly, he was disturbed by a loud pounding on the window. When he went to see who was making all the commotion, he was shocked by a drunken peasant motioning and waving to the rabbi to open the window.
“Can I help you?” said the rabbi sternly as he pushed the window open.
“I need a place to sleep. Can you give me a bed for the night?”
Instantly, the rabbi was filled with bitter rage, and a thought entered his mind: “How dare this drunkard have the insolence to interrupt my study in the middle of the night? And what business does he have in this house anyway?”
But then, just as quickly, another thought entered his mind: “And for that matter, what business does he have in God’s world? But if God gets along with him, than I shall do the same!” He opened the door at once and prepared him a bed.
One of the more challenging aspects of staying spiritually awake is recognizing our inner freedom in the face of the powerful negative emotions known as reactivity. But, while we may not be able transform negativity into generosity as quickly as the Rabbi of Sasov, this alchemical process is open to us all. It is true – forces of ego do arise, and they are powerful, but they arise within and disappear back into the field of awareness that we are on the deepest level; and from that field, a different response is possible.
Furthermore, cultivating the inner freedom to respond consciously in the presence of reactivity is not only an option; when it comes to how we treat others, the tradition views it as an imperative:
א"ר יוחנן משום ר"ש בן יוחאי גדול אונאת דברים מאונאת ממון שזה נאמר בו (ויקרא כה, יז) ויראת מאלהיך וזה לא נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך ור' אלעזר אומר זה בגופו וזה בממונו רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר זה ניתן להישבון וזה לא ניתן להישבון
Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: Greater is the transgression of verbal mistreatment than the transgression of monetary exploitation…
And Rabbi Elazar said: This (verbal mistreatment) affects one’s body; but that (monetary exploitation) only affects one’s money. Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says: This (monetary exploitation) is given to restitution; but that (verbal mistreatment) is not given to restitution…
- Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b
There is a common aphorism – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But today we know that abusive verbal treatment can indeed hurt on a physical level; every experience we have, for positive and negative, contains physical correlates in our bodies, affecting the immune system, brain function, and more. Put more simply, stress has a physically destructive effect. And while it is true that one can surely heal from the effects of stress (this is part of the function of meditation), it is solely upon the one who has suffered the stress to engage in the healing process; the one who perpetrated the stressful abuse has no power to heal, no power to “make restitution.”
The Talmud is so emphatic about the power of our words, it goes on to compare the act of humiliating another to murder:
תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים א"ל שפיר קא אמרת דחזינא ליה דאזיל סומקא ואתי חוורא אמר ליה אביי לרב דימי במערבא במאי זהירי א"ל באחוורי אפי דאמר רבי חנינא הכל יורדין לגיהנם חוץ משלשה
The tanna (early rabbi) taught before Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak: “Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though they were spilling blood.”
It was replied to him: “You have spoken well, as we see that the redness departs the face and pallor comes.”
It then goes on to emphasize the severity of verbal abuse by way of listing three of the worst sins:
הכל ס"ד אלא אימא כל היורדין לגיהנם עולים חוץ משלשה שיורדין ואין עולין ואלו הן הבא על אשת איש והמלבין פני חבירו ברבים והמכנה שם רע לחבירו מכנה היינו מלבין אע"ג דדש ביה בשמיה
…Anyone who descends to Gehenna (“hell” or “purgatory”) ultimately ascends, except for three who descend and do not ascend, and these are they: One who is intimate with a married person, one who humiliates another in public, and one who calls another a derogatory name.
“One who calls another a derogatory name” – but that is identical to one who humiliates – why are they listed as two separate things??
Because this applies even if the victim grew accustomed to being called a derogatory name, and therefore no longer feels humiliated!
For the most part, verbal abuse happens not as the result of conscious decision, but of being temporarily seized by reactivity; a negative feeling arises in relation to a person, and we lash out. This is why it takes a particularly strong vigilance to stay awake when strong feelings arise.
This vigilance is represented by the 16th Path of Presence, the letter Vav ו, which means “and” – hinting that when inner reactivity is triggered, remember to say, “Yes AND.” Welcome whatever is present – the situation, the person before you, as well whatever feelings have arisen. In this way, you can consciously relax your resistance to your experience. But more importantly, in the affirmation of whatever is present, you can come to recognize yourself as the transcendent awareness within which all experience happens. This is because, at the deepest level, we are openness; we need only remember and practice accessing it.
How do we do that?
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃
…זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל
When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, each shall give an atonement for their soul to the Divine, when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them. This they shall give – everyone who passes through the census – a half shekel…
This passage describes the instructions Moses received to take a census of the Israelites; when each person is counted, they are to give a half-shekel, so that they don’t suffer a plague. But why would there be a plague from taking a census?
There is a hint in the word for “plague” – נֶגֶף negef, which is נ nun – ג gimel – ף pei.
Nun נ begins the word noflim, which means “fallen ones,” and signifies impermanence, falling apart, destruction.
Gimel ג begins gadol which means “great,” signifying fullness, completeness, wholeness.
Pei פ literally means mouth, signifying speech.
Thus, on a deeper level, we can understand “plague,” נֶגֶף – negef, to mean “speaking from the destruction of one’s wholeness” – in other words, reactivity.
In the context of consciousness, reactivity is the primary plague. It is the unconscious flaring of negativity that arises from resistance to our experience. The remedy for this resistance is hidden in the contribution of the “half shekel” which everyone must give:
The words for “half shekel” are מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל makhazit hashekel. But if we replace the ק koof with the similar letter, כ kaf, you get שֶׂכֶל – sekhel, which means “mind,” “intelligence” or “awareness.”
So, if we read it as “half awareness” rather than “half-shekel,” we can understand that to avoid getting caught by negef, by reactivity, keep a portion of your awareness – a makhazit hasekhel – rooted in your body, constantly staying present and “watching” your emotions. Through this intensification of Presence, you can remain free from the grip of reactivity when you find yourself in triggering experiences, and speak consciously and intentionally, rather than projecting the “plague” onto others.
וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם – so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them…
In this way, we can insure that every person we encounter truly “counts!”
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The Wayfarer – Parshat Ki Tisa
3/9/2020 0 Comments
The Maggid of Mezritch taught: “Today the holy spirit comes upon us more easily than when the Temple was standing. Once there was a king of a country that was conquered by a foreign power, and the king was driven into exile. In the course of his wanderings, he came upon the home of some poor people who recognized him as king. They took him in, offered him modest food and shelter, and treated him as honored royalty the best they could. The king deeply appreciated their hospitality and chatted intimately with his hosts, as he had once done in his court with those closest to him.
“Now that the Holy One is in exile from His Holy Temple, He does the same with us.”
The secret of realizing the Presence of the Divine is a spirit of hospitality from the heart. Welcome this moment as it is, in all its fullness, in its beauty and ugliness, in its orderliness and chaos, and you welcome the Divine Essence that is the Presence of all things, that is the Presence within you, reading these words right now. That Presence is a gift – you cannot manufacture It, you cannot generate It, but you can do your part to open to It, to reveal Its Reality through you.
There is a hint in the parshah:
זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל... תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה
This shall be given by all who pass through the counting – a half shekel, an offering to the Divine…
The “half” we bring in the building of the sanctuary of this moment is ourselves; we, meaning our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts, are “half” – the other half is the Divine, the Reality behind all forms. Make yourself hospitable to That Reality, and the Divine appears, barukh Hashem.
How do we do it?
וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת
The Divine passed before his face and called out, “Being! Being! Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in Lovingkindness and Truth!”
These Divine qualities that God reveals to Moses are a practical instruction:
Hashem! Hashem! – Being! Being! The Divine Name that means “Being” is said twice, indicating the realization that whatever is before you is a form of the Divine, and your own consciousness is also the Divine; through the meeting, The Divine becomes One with Itself. This is the fundamental knowledge that brings the felt connection with the Divine Presence.
El Rakhum V’Hanun – Compassionate and Gracious God… that is, make the qualities of compassion and grace “God” over all your other qualities. You may not feel like it, but you can bring forth these qualities if you decide that they are “God” to you.
Erekh apayim v’ravhesed ve’emet – Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Lovingkindness and Truth… You have the ability to not get caught by your anger and to act from the impulse of love. It says Emet –Truth – because it is not about “faking” it; it is about finding these qualities within and bringing them forth.
Then, the prophesy of Purim will be fulfilled:
לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׁוֹן וִיקָר
For the Jews there was Light, Joy, Gladness and Essence…
כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָנוּ – So may it be for us!
Offering – Parshat Ki Tisa
2/20/2019 0 Comments
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!
The Plague of Separation – Parshat Ki Tisa
2/27/2018 0 Comments
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...
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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
2/25/2016 2 Comments
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
3/6/2015 3 Comments
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-