This week’s reading is the double parshah of Akharei Mot and Kedoshim. Both portions begin with instructions that relate to “holiness” or “sacredness,” which in Hebrew is the 3-letter root, KDSh, קדש :
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִיךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכָל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
The Divine said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother that he is not to come at any time into the Holy (Kodesh, shrine) behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he not die; for in the cloud I appear upon the cover.
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם
Holy (Kadosh) you shall be, for holy am I, Hashem, your own Divinity.
In the first passage, the Kodesh is a particular sacred space; it is the innermost sanctum of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem. This verse is a warning that the act of entering into this most holy space must be done by a particular person, at a particular time, in a particular way, in order to avoid accidental death.
The second passage is more of a general instruction – not to merely enter a holy place (kodesh), but to actually be holy (kadosh). The first verse is talking about something external; the second is talking about an inner reality:
Holy you shall be, for holy am I…
In other words, the Divine “I” is the sacred. Furthermore:
Ani Hashem Eloheinu – “I” am your (own inner) Divinity.
The deepest level of our being is not something separate from what we call the Divine; the sacred is already our own deepest nature. On this level, the verse is reminding us of who we really are – Kedoshim tihyu – be what you already are!
But why do we need to be told to be what we already are?
Because our tendency is to become lost in the particulars of our experience – our thoughts, feelings, opinions and so on, and to forget our own deepest reality. That brings us back to the first verse:
Al yavo b’khol eit el hakodesh– Don’t come into the holy space at any time…
The kodesh is not just the ancient Tabernacle; it is the space we take for daily meditation. Meditation doesn’t happen b’khol eit – at any time; it happens at particular times. But through entering the “space” of the sacred by practicing at particular times, we forge a connection with our own being at the deepest level, so that we can be holy all of the time; that’s the point.
But on a deeper level, al yavo b’khol eit – Don’t come in any time – means: there is only one time that you can enter the space of the sacred, and that is Now. This is the trickiest and yet the most simple part: if we want to awaken at the deepest level, if we want to experience and express the truth of our own being, we need to reel ourselves in from the time-creating mind and rest in the spaciousness of the present moment…
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The Bakery – Parshat Kedoshim
5/8/2019 1 Comment
The other day a friend told me a story about when he lived in Israel back in the eighties. He rented a room in a small apartment with only one bathroom and a tiny kitchen from a very poor family. So, he would use the bathroom at the men’s mikveh down the street and eat most of his meals out in order to not be in their way. When he would sometimes come home late at night, he entered from the fire escape so as not to wake them up.
He worked for the newly formed Israeli Ministry of the Environment and day after day he would catch the same bus to work, at the same time every morning. On his way to the bus, he would always stop at the same Arab bakery, and get the same breakfast which was essentially a big flat sesame bagel with an egg baked into the center of it.
One day he stopped in for his usual breakfast, but the Arab baker (who was usually incredibly warm and friendly to him) behaved coldly and completely ignored him. My friend tried to get his attention several times to let him know he was there was ready to order his usual breakfast… but the baker completely ignored him. Frustrated and confused, he left the bakery and headed to the bus.
As he waited for the bus to arrive, he realized that he was really hungry, and that he wouldn’t make it through to lunch time if he didn’t eat something. So, he made a dash for a little food cart to buy a sack of pumpkin seeds. When he got to the food cart, another person rudely cut the line in front of him. He was now doubtful if he could make it back to the bus in time, but he was really hungry, so he waited for the line-cutter to get served, and then ordered his snack as fast as he could.
He paid for the food and made a dash back to the bus stop, but to his dismay, the bus had just left without him. His heart sank as he watched the bus drive away up and over the hill. Suddenly, he was startled by an ear shattering boom. The bus had exploded just after going over the crest – many of those on the front of the bus, where he would have been, were killed.
Days later, when the initial shock had faded a bit, my friend went back to the Arab baker, who was completely friendly again. My friend asked him if he had been upset with him for some reason, looking to find out why he had acted with such rudeness that day... a rudeness that had literally saved his life. The baker said he didn’t know what he was talking about – “You’re my friend! Why would I do that to you?”
This is a true story.
When we hear miraculous stories like this, there can be an impulse to try to make sense of it, to fit it into some belief system, to draw conclusions from it… but if there is something to learn from this kind of experience, it should be: don’t draw conclusions; don’t try to fit things into your belief system.
When someone is rude to us, when people behave in a way that triggers our judgment, that draws us into some mental/emotional drama, don’t judge. Don’t interpret. The rude man in the bakery could be saving your life. The guy who cut in front of you in line could be saving your loved ones. The point is not to make up some story like this, the point is to really know that you don’t know.
The thinking mind wants to know, it wants to understand, and that’s understandable! Of course, we must do our best to understand to make the best decisions we can. But all of our understanding is incomplete and even dangerous unless we also understand that we don’t really know for sure; we are inherently uncertain, and there is always much, much, much more going on that we can ever really know.
This deep knowing of not-knowing brings us into connection with the one thing we really do know – the only thing we actually know – which is that there is consciousness; there is an experience happening, right now.
This experience, right now, is unfolding within this mystery that we call awareness, and the awareness is ultimately what we are, beneath the thoughts, beneath the feelings, beneath whatever situation we find ourselves in. It is our true identity; we are not merely bodies, or personalities, or memories, conditioning, opinions, merits and faults, or personal stories – we are the open space of knowing, the vast field of awareness within which all these things are now living.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
He used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This little aphorism of the famous sage Hillel, which is often understood only on an ethical level, actually contains a formula for discovering our deepest identity:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? – It is up to us to realize who we really are; no one can do it for us. We do it by noticing that there is, in a sense, two of “me” – the “me” that is made out of my body and mind and feelings, and the “I” that perceives all that. Which “me” am “I”?
And if I am for myself, what am I? – “I” am not the self that I perceive – the body, the thoughts, the feelings – rather, “I” am the awareness that perceives all of that.
And if not Now, when? – The way to know this for yourself is to simply come into connection with the Now; to be the awareness that simply receives whatever is present. Then, you will come to know yourself as that awareness, as that Presence. And, paradoxically, everything you perceive is also Presence.
There is a hint at the very beginning of the parshah:
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם
Be holy, for I, the Divine, am holy.
Holy, kadosh, means “separate,” or better, “transcendent.” The true “I” is the awareness that transcends what it perceives, and this “I” is not your “I” but is the “I” of the Divine; it is the “I” of Reality Itself, knowing Itself through you – that’s our spiritual potential! It’s not only that we become free when we realize that we are not the ordinary “I” we thought we were, but rather, God wakes up to Itself; we play our part in Existence awakening to Itself.
A disciple of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, started home after studying with the Maggid for many years. On his way he stopped in Karlin to see his old friend Rabbi Aaron, who had once been his learning companion in the Maggid’s House of Study. It was already midnight by the time he arrived in the city, but he was so excited to see his old friend, he made his way to Rabbi Aaron’s house anyway. When he arrived, he could see light coming from the window, so he looked in and saw his friend learning from books at the table by candlelight. Excited to see his old friend, he knocked on the window enthusiastically.
Rabbi Aaron looked up from his books: “Who is there?”
“It is I!” exclaimed the disciple.
Rabbi Aaron looked back down at his books and continued studying. The student waited a bit, then knocked again, and again, but no reply. “Aaron, why don’t you open the door for me?”
Rabbi Aaron looked up and spoke with grave seriousness: “Who is it that dares to call himself “I” as befits only the Divine?”
When the disciple heard this, he realized that he had not learned nearly enough, so he immediately turned around and headed back toward Mezrich…
Separate- Parshat Akharei Mot, Kedoshim
5/3/2017 1 Comment
"Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem-
"Holy you shall be, because holy am I, Hashem your God.”
There’s something strange about this passage. God is telling the children of Israel that they should be holy without really explaining what that means, and then it says that the reason they should be holy because God is holy- ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem. So the question is, why does one follow from the other? Why should we be holy just because God is holy, and what does holy mean anyway?
The word for holy, Kadosh, actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. Normally, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, or alienation, such as when a relationship goes sour and you lose that connection with another person. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony, for example, we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Meaning, your beloved becomes kadosh or “separate” not because they’re separate from you, but because they’re exclusive to you. They’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all other relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but to something that’s most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection. And just as your beloved is separate from all other relationships, so too when you become present, this moment becomes separate from all other moments, and you’re able to get some distance from the world of time- from your memories about the past and your anticipations of the future. This allows you to experience yourself not as a bundle of thoughts and feelings inhabiting a body, but as the open, radiant space of awareness within which your thoughts and feelings come and go. That’s why your presence, your awareness is by its nature kadosh- separate from the world of thought and feeling within which we tend to get trapped, yet fully and intimately connected with everything that arises in this moment.
So when God says kedoshim tihyu- you should be holy- it’s telling you to do the practice of holiness by becoming present- by separating your mind from the entanglements of thought and time. How is it possible for us to get free from time? Ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem- because the holiness of Being- Hashem- is already your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem. In other words, by practicing presence, you bring forth your own deepest nature, which is holiness.
This is also hinted at in the name of Parshat Akharei Mot, which means “after the death.” In order to know your own deepest nature as shamayim mima’al, the vastness of space, you have to let go of your mind-based identity- all your stories and judgments about yourself, and that can actually feel like a kind of death. But this death has an Akhar- an afterward in which your true life, the awareness that you are, becomes liberated.
So on this Shabbat Akharei Mot and Kedoshim may we come to know more deeply the holiness that is felt after the death of the false self, and may we express that holiness as love and blessing to everyone we encounter.
The Pie- Parshat Kedoshim
5/11/2016 2 Comments
It was Mother’s Day this past week.
I looked for a nice picture to post on Facebook. I found one from my birthday a couple years ago with me and my mother. I was eating some chocolate pecan pie she had made for me. (And always makes for me on my birthday- thanks Mom!)
After I posted it, I was looking at the picture. There was something funny about the expression on my face. Then, it struck me- the particular way I was smiling and looking into the camera looked just like my father.
There’s so much that’s passed on from parent to child- not just genetics, knowledge and language, but also mannerisms and patterns of behavior.
And some of these patterns, alas, are ones we perhaps could do without. Have you ever been critical of some behavior in your parents, and then caught yourself unconsciously acting exactly the same way?
And, its not their fault! Patterns of thought, speech and behavior have been passed down through the generations for ages.
When you become aware of this, there’s a tremendous opportunity for transforming not just your own patterns, but the patterns of those who came before you. As you awaken to your deeper potential, there’s redemption for your ancestors as well.
As it says in this week’s reading:
“Ish imo v’aviv tira’u…
“You shall revere your mother and your father…”
The word here for “revere”- tira’u- has the double meaning of both “revere” or “respect” as well as “fear.” In other words, you should “fear” your potential to perpetuate the negative qualities of your parents, and “revere” them by emulating their positive qualities and transforming the negative ones within yourself!
And this is the call of this week’s parsha- to awaken your potential for holiness- your potential for the expression of integrity, truth, compassion, gratitude, and all the other middot (spiritual qualities):
“Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elohekhem…”
“You shall be holy, for I- Divine Being, your own Divinity- am holy…”
Holiness is intrinsic to who you are- it’s your own inner Divinity. It calls upon you to craft your garments of expression- your thoughts, words and actions- into expressions of the Truth of who you are.
How do you do that?
This parsha contains many beautiful prescriptions for expressing holiness:
“You shall not steal… you shall not lie… You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not favor the poor, nor honor the great... You shall not go around gossiping… you shall not hate others in your heart…you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, this last mitzvah- “Love your neighbor as you love yourself- ve’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha”- is the essence of the whole Torah.
But to really become aware of your unconscious negative patterns, to really get free from them and choose to embody the middot of love and integrity, there needs to be space. The suffering of life is too great for one to remain present and aware without a break from its momentum. Perhaps that’s why the verse about revering one’s parents concludes with the words:
“V’et Shab’totai tishmoru-
“My Sabbaths you shall guard…”
In the stillness, you can recover from the patterns of suffering and reconnect with your inner wellspring of holiness. From that place, you can remain open to whatever suffering arises without losing yourself in it.
There’s a story about Reb Mordechai Dov of Hornisteipl, that once he visited a doctor for a painful sore on his back.
The doctor decided the best thing to do would be to cauterize it. In those days, this would involve heating up three metal rods, each one hotter than the last. If the patient didn’t cry out with the first hot rod, they would apply the second. And in the rare occasion the patient didn’t respond to the second one, a third super hot rod was ready.
The only problem was, this tzaddik was accustomed to accepting pain in silence, not losing his inner connection regardless of how much he suffered.
So, when the doctor applied the first hot rod and got no reaction from Reb Mordechai Dov, he went on to the second rod. Still no reaction. When he applied the third white hot rod and the tzaddik still didn’t respond, the doctor exclaimed- “I don’t know whether this is an angel or a demon!”
Reb Mordechai Dov didn’t understand Russian, so he asked the translator to tell him what the doctor said. When he was told, he answered:
“Please tell the doctor that when someone comes to me and asks that I pray on their behalf, and I see that I won’t be able to relieve their suffering with my prayers, it hurts much much more than these hot rods… and even then, I must not lose myself.”
On this Shabbat Kedoshim, the Sabbath of Holiness, may we become aware of our true potential and practice it in real time. May we reconnect with the Source of that potential, the infinite wellspring of holiness within- the holy awareness that looks though your eyes and hears through your ears, in this moment.
A Psalm of David: The earth and all her fullness is of the Divine – the world and all who dwell within her…Who may ascend the mountain of the Divine? Who may stand in the holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart… This is the generation of those who turn to the Divine, who seek Your presence… Be uplifted, openings to the Eternal, so that the King of Presence may enter! Who is the King of Presence? The Divine, mighty and strong, strong in battle! (Psalm 24 excerpt)
לַֽ֭יי הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ – The earth and all her fullness is of the Divine…
The fullness that we seek, that sense of Peace and Wholeness, is already within the fullness of this moment; ha’aretz um’lo’ah – all the “earth” partakes of this fullness.
מִֽי־יַעֲלֶ֥ה בְהַר־יְהוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ – Who may ascend the mountain of the Divine? Who may stand in the holy place?
Here is the hint: we can transcend the experience of limitedness or constriction by asking the question, Who?
נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב – One who has clean hands and a pure heart…
We are “purified” – meaning, we can clear our inner space through the practice of inquiring, “Who is this Presence that fills this moment?”
מְבַקְשֵׁ֨י פָנֶ֖יךָ – those who seek Your Presence…
This simple question is a path to finding the Wholeness. But then, the psalm seems to offer a contradictory image:
Be uplifted, you Openings into the Eternal, so the King of Presence may enter! Who is the King of Presence? The Divine, mighty and strong, strong in battle!
How can the Presence “enter” if It already fills all Existence? Why does there need to be a “battle?”
Because the unconscious tendency is for the mind to be filled with thoughts, and this is what creates the barrier that hides the Presence. We don’t need to battle against the thoughts, but we do need to battle against our unconscious tendency to get drawn into our thoughts. We do that by simply turning our attention to the underlying Presence; we ask, Who? – and in the asking, a space is cleared; we actually are that space:
וְֽ֭הִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵ֣י עוֹלָ֑ם – Be uplifted, you Openings into the Eternal…
That is, be the open space within which thought arises by being aware of Presence behind your thoughts, and you open to the Eternal dimension of your own being, the Presence that you are. This dimension is your own Divine nature; it is an inner strength available to us when we recognize that it comes from beyond the “me”; it is the Melekh HaKavod, the “King of Presence.”
There is a hint in the parshah:
אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּותָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא
When a woman gives birth to a male, she shall be tamei – separate from the sacred – for seven days; she shall be tamei as in the days of niddah – separate from sexual intimacy.
V’tam’ah shivat yamim – separate from the sacred for seven days…
That is, when Binah, the thinking mind, gives birth to thought, this causes a feeling of separation from the sacred dimension. This is because thought takes us into the world of time, and out of the present; this is “seven days.”
וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ
On the eighth day, the flesh of his skin shall be circumcised.
The orlah, the “skin” that is “circumcised,” is the sense of separateness that arises with the “birth” of thought. After experiencing the separateness inherent in thought and time (the “seven days”) we can remove the barrier and enter the “eighth day” – that is, the Eternal dimension.
How do we do that?
Be like מְבַקְשֵׁ֨י פָנֶ֖יךָ m’vakshei fanekha – those who seek Your Presence. After you engage in a thought process in order to accomplish some purpose, ask: Who? Who is the Presence behind these thoughts? Who is the Presence behind all being?
מִ֥י זֶה֮ מֶ֤לֶךְ הַכָּ֫ב֥וֹד – Who is the King of Presence?
Exactly! The question Who? brings forth our potential to become masters of our own minds, masters of being present…
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The Waiting Room – Parshat Tazria
4/3/2019 0 Comments
רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בַפְּרוֹזְדוֹר כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לַטְּרַקְלִי
Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the waiting room so you may enter the banquet hall!
(Pirkei Avot 4:24)
One of the most basic dualities on the spiritual path is the “before” and “after” of waking up. Both the “banquet hall” and “the World to Come” are metaphors for this aim of the path: the complete “fixing” of our sense of incompleteness and arriving into wholeness. Before that, we may get glimpses of the Wholeness – the door cracks open and for a moment we can see…
Once, a disciple complained to his rebbe that when in the rebbe’s presence, Divine Reality is palpable and he has peace. But as soon as he leaves the rebbe’s presence, it all vanishes and his suffering returns.
“This is like a person who gropes about in the dark forest,” answered the rebbe, “and someone comes along with a lantern and walks with him for a while. For a time, he can see where he is going. But eventually, the guy with the lantern goes his own way, and the person is left alone again in the dark. This is why it’s so important to carry your own lantern!”
When we get that glimpse – either through a rebbe or any other means – it should remind us to work on igniting our own flame. Hat’kein atzm’kha – we have to “fix” ourselves in the “waiting room.”
How do we do that?
Take the time to simply “wait” – be aware of the inner darkness – that is meditation. The awareness is itself the Light – it is your own inner Light. But if you spend all your time in thought and activity, you may not notice…
וְאִם־בַּהֶרֶת֩ לְבָנָ֨ה הִ֜וא בְּע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֗וֹ ... וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
And if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body ... the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days…
This week’s parsha talks about tzara’at – an affliction of the skin that renders a person tamei – ritually unfit to enter the Sanctuary. The affected person has to be quarantined for a period to become purified.
The skin is a metaphor – it is the physical boundary of self, representing that inner sense of oneself as separate, called ego. The “affliction” hints at the ego’s feeling of incompleteness, of being disconnected, of having “not yet arrived.”
The remedy: withdraw from the world of time, into solitude with the feeling. Be the Light, illuminating the darkness in solitude for “seven days” – meaning, until you reach Shabbat! Shabbat is that arriving into the spaciousness that is your deepest essence – the field of awareness itself, within which this moment arises.
So next time you find yourself in a waiting room, or waiting in line, remember the opportunity for illumination that comes as a hidden gift in those moments...
Cage Free – Omer and Tazria – Metzorah
4/18/2018 0 Comments
In the supermarket, you may see eggs and chicken that are labeled “cage free.” This is supposed to make you think that these chickens aren’t confined to tiny little cages as are most commercial chickens, but are instead running around the farm, happy and free.
I used to buy “cage free” eggs, until I was told that actually, “cage-free” doesn’t really mean cage-free at all. It means that for a certain portion of the day, the doors on the cages are opened so that the chickens can escape the cages if they want to.
But, they don’t. The chickens always choose to stay in their cages. If you want chickens that actually walk around the farm, you have to buy “pastured” eggs and chickens.
But why don’t the chickens leave their little cages when the doors are opened?
Because they’re conditioned to be in their cages; they don’t realize they can leave, even when the door is opened. Perhaps, if they had more time, their instinct for freedom would eventually lead them to discover the opening. But, the doors aren’t open long enough for that; they’re only opened long enough for the company to be able to legally label the product as “cage-free.”
And, it’s the same with us.
At the Pesakh seder, we label ourselves as free: Avadim hayinu, v’ata b’nai khorin – we were slaves, but now we are free. The cage door is actually always already open, ready for us to step through. But do we step through? Like the chickens, we only step through if we have the time to discover that open door, if we have the time for that impulse for freedom to grow within. And, after we walk through the door, we need time to discover how to roam the farm, to explore the wild terrain of the uncharted midbar, rather than return to the security of the cage.
Like the Israelites, the tendency is to revert, to backslide: “Hamib’li ayn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kakhtanu lamut bamidbar? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”
So, there is an aspect of awakening that is unbound by time, that takes only an instant to realize: the cage door is open. The cage is made from the patterns of your thoughts and feelings; it’s your identity. But the open space is your own awareness right now. It is the field of consciousness, within which your experience in this moment is now appearing. Everything within your experience arises from and falls back into this open space, including the cage of identity. In truth, it’s not that you must go through the open space, you are the open space. And you can realize this, right now; it takes no time at all to simply recognize – you are already free. Perhaps a moment ago, Avadim hayinu, we were slaves, but now, ata b’nai khorin – now we are free.
So, in a sense, freedom is the easy part. We are already free – free to be you and me. All we have to do is remember – l’ma’an tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim, kol y’mai hayeikha – so that you may remember the day you went out from Egypt all the days of your life.
But, to then go and live that freedom, to not only see the open door, to not only see the unboundedness in the midst of the cage, but to step out and live your freedom, that’s the hard part. That part takes time, it takes constant practice. It’s not instantaneous. It’s not about: get out of Egypt really fast and don’t let the dough rise. The matzah is instant realization. No more separation of dough caused by yeast bubbles that take time to ferment!
But this second, time-bound aspect requires living into this question: how may we translate the freedom that we are into words and deeds, into a way of living?
The Sefirat HaOmer is a prompt to that question. The practice is, count each of the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, count the path from liberation to revelation – from the instantaneous realization of freedom to the long-term project of living that freedom.
The Sefirat HaOmer gives us a map of seven times seven Divine qualities: Hesed –Lovingkindness – are you motivated by love? That sounds really good, but what about when something that doesn’t feel loving happens to you. Can you be warrior of the love motivation, or do you become a victim? Life has plenty of the opposite of love in it. But living freedom means expressing your freedom to choose to live from love, even when external and even internal forces are pushing you in other directions.
Which brings us to Gevurah – Strength. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says, Ezehu gibor? Who is strong? Who has Gevurah? Hakoveish yitzro – one who masters their own motivation. Because then you’re not tossed around by circumstances – then you can radiate gracefulness, equanimity. And that’s the third quality – Tiferet, Grace, Beauty.
And through this equanimity, you can be victorious over the powers of time and change, knowing HaMakom, the Eternal Space within which everything is happening, and knowing yourself as that Space. That’s Netzakh, which means Victory, but also Eternity.
And from that rootedness in the Eternal, arises a gratitude for the ever-present simple blessings, a humble gratitude for the simple privilege just to be. That’s Hod, which means Gratitude and Humility.
And out of the positive vibration of this simple humility and gratitude arises the pleasure of connection – the Eros, the joy, of living, of communing with the Presence as it manifests in this moment. That’s Yesod, which means Foundation, because the enjoyment of life is the foundation of life. If you can’t enjoy, then all the richness of meaning and value will slowly drain away.
But with that joy, there can also arise a deep sense of trust, a trust that transcends all the tragedy and sorrow, and impels us to trust the process, to trust that Reality has its own endgame, in a sense. That’s Malkhut, which means Kingdom, pointing to the idea that all Reality is really a Divine Kingdom/Queendom, but that union of King and Queen, of Kudsha Brikh Hu Ushekhintei, the Holy Transcendent Space with the Imminent Presence, happens through us, through our Pesakh realization and our Shavuot application, through our counting of the qualities and bringing them into being in our own lives, day after day, each day anew, amein.
There’s a story that a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev came to the master and asked: “In the Talmud it says that a tzaddik, a perfect person, can’t stand in the place of the Ba’al T’shuvah, one who was wicked but who has turned to the Divine and transformed. According to this, one who has been blameless from youth is at a lower level than one who has done many misdeeds. How can this be?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak replied, “A person who perceives a new light every day, light that wasn’t perceived the day before, must leave behind the way they lived in the past, and start afresh to embody the new light. The blameless ones who believe they are already perfect, don’t perceive the new light, and so there is no transformation.”
May the counting of the Omer remind us to constantly open ourselves to a new light every day, to find a fresh path for embodying the freedom that we are.
Birth – Tazria
“… ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar-
when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she’ll be ritually unfit for seven days just as in the days of her menstrual separation, and into the sacred space she may not enter...”
On the plain level, this is talking an ancient ritual purity law.
But on the metaphorical level, what does it mean to give birth? It means to create something new. And whether or not you have children, all of us are constantly creating. On the deepest level, our creation begins with the spontaneous arising of thought that happens almost constantly for most people. Then, as our thoughts become externalized in our decisions and actions, we literally co-create our life situations along with all of our fellow beings. And whenever something new appears on the horizon of our consciousness, whether it’s a blossoming of thought, or sensation, or feeling, or something happens around us like- someone knocks at the door, or you go and knock on someone else’s door, or the kitchen sink breaks, or it starts to rain, or you decide on a new career- whatever new is arising, it doesn’t matter- there’s the tendency to lose your connection with eternal dimension of Being- that open space of the Present which is not separate from your own consciousness- and instead get tangled up in whatever particular experience you are having. And that’s how we lose our freedom- we forget all about the space of this moment and get stuck in whatever is going on. Then, once you’re in that state of being stuck, even if you bring yourself back to a state of presence at that point, you may still feel stuck.
That’s because before you can transform, you first need to simply be present with whatever mind state you’re already in.
The trick is not to become disheartened and give up- just be wherever you’re at. That’s v’tamah shivat yamim- being tamei- or ritually unfit to enter the mikdash- the sacred space- for seven days. “Seven days” means the world of time which is created by the mind that imagines past and future. This is hinted at in the story of the seven days of creation. “…kimei nidat dotah tima”- like the time of niddah, which means “separation.” Because when you get caught by your experience, you lose connection with your inherent wholeness, and you feel separate from how you imagine you’d like to feel.
But if you stay with it, being conscious of any feelings of constriction as they arise in your body and continuously bring your attention back again and again to your sensations and your breathing, the barrier to wholeness will drop away at some point. As it says:
“Uvayom hashmini yimol b’sar orlato- On the eighth day, the male baby’s foreskin will be circumcised.”
The foreskin- the orlah- is a metaphor- a strange metaphor perhaps, but as a barrier, it hints at the feeling of separation that the ego feels. The number eight represents Eternity, as it’s one step beyond seven, plus the number eight on its side is the infinity symbol.
So the idea is that when your consciousness gives birth to a new experience, there’s an inherent orlah- a feeling of separation that arises when you get absorbed into the drama of whatever is going on, and that’s okay and natural. When you’re in the “seven days” of disconnection from the mikdash- from the sacredness of Presence- just be there. It’s only temporary. Stick with the practice and draw your awareness into your body with Gevurah- with strength and persistence. If you do, you will come to yom hashmini- this moment of Eternity where all barriers drop away and you return ever more deeply to the openness of Presence.
So on this Shabbat Tazria- The Sabbath of Birth, let’s remember to fully accept and be with whatever states we find ourselves in, and in the freedom of Presence, seek to birth a more kind, loving and conscious world. Good Shabbos!
The Great Mother- Parshat Tazria
4/6/2016 1 Comment
This past Shabbat, my wife Lisa went off to Punta Mona in the jungles of Costa Rica to take some much needed rest from the constant demands of motherhood.
While it was certainly a tiny drop in the bucket of what she really deserves (may she receive it fully and swiftly), I was happy she took the time to drink a little of the nectar of renewal. I am so grateful for her unending motherly devotion, and look forward to supporting more of that! And, I was happy to have some more devoted time with our children for a few days before my trip back to the Bay Area, during which she’ll be left alone with the kids for the next ten days.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with my sister-in-law, in which she said she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot- Jewish practices that happen at particular times, such as morning prayers, for example.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because mothering can be all consuming,” she replied. “Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It’s a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, it’s a suffering of love, a fire of love.”
Her words made me think of the two kinds love as explained in the classic work of Kabbalah and Hassidic philosophy, the Tanya.
According to the Tanya, the first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life. In fact, the two are not separate; you love God as your own beingness.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it’s more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise.
It goes on to explain that when you know the Godliness within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But, if you see God as separate, and you’re willing to give up your very life for God, that’s far more transcendent and selfless.
When my sister-in-law was talking about the all-consuming love of mothering, she was basically talking about the Tanya’s self-sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who’s constantly sacrificing her life for the child!
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria:
“Ki tazria v’yalda zakhar-
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she is ritually un-fit for seven days- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit…she shouldn’t touch any holy thing, and into the holy she shall not come…”
It’s talking about how a woman who gives birth shouldn’t touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate.
However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather as central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It’s not some distant site outside the camp. It’s the very center of the camp, in the very center of the Sanctuary, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”.
It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation.” It means separateness in that it’s the closest, and therefore separate from all other things that are less close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, Kodesh and Nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (Kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (Nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service.
The new mother is in a state of Nidah because she’s not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she’s completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever.
She’s in a Nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she returns to connection with the Kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an Eved Hashem- a servant of God, devotedly (or sometimes drudgingly) giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything out of it.
Other times, we are B’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essential nature.
Even in our Avodah, our daily spiritual practice, these two poles exist. Sometimes there’s a palpable flow of blissful connection with the One- and the One is not other than our own being.
But sometimes, that connection is not felt, and your commitment to your Avodah must come from a deeper motivation- one of service. That’s why the prayer that happen in synagogue is called a “service.” You may not feel like you’re getting much out of it, but you do it because you’re devoted, because you’re committed.
These two poles even manifest in the two main forms of Avodah- meditation and prayer.
In the stillness of meditation, the Completeness of the present moment is not something other than your own being. But in the fire of prayer, the self’s longing for Completeness reaches out for help from That which is infinitely greater than the self.
Yet there comes another point- perhaps that point is now- when these two poles meet, when they’re not separate at all, when the fire of love and service is the very thing that opens the door to your own inner Divinity.
It’s said that once the Baal Shem Tov heard a Bat Kol- a Heavenly Voice- tell him that for some little sin he had committed, he would be denied life in the World to Come. When he heard this news, he began dancing for joy.
The Voice then asked, “Why are you so happy? I just said you will have no life in the World to Come!”
The Baal Shem replied, “I dance because now I am free to serve God for it’s own sake, without ulterior motive.”
On this Shabbat Tazria, the Sabbath of Conception, may we deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being a servant of God, and may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms.
And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the Kodesh, and may we give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
The Higher Separation- Parshat Tazria
4/24/2015 6 Comments
When it comes to the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer, you might practice for a while without getting any compelling result. But if you continue to practice, you will find something that you can only get through putting in that daily effort.
Some say that what you find comes into you from the outside. It is pictured as a transcendent Light that flows into your being from the Ain Sof- the Infinite. Others say that the Light is your own nature; that it comes from within you.
But these explanations are simply maps which come from the practices themselves: when you pray, it makes sense to think of the Light as given from the outside. When you meditate, it makes sense to think of It as coming from within.
The Hassidic text called the Tanya talks of these two ways of seeing in terms of two kinds of love. The first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it is more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise:
When you see the God within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But if you see God as separate, and you are willing to give up your very life for God, that is far more transcendent and selfless.
Last night I was having a conversation with my sister-in-law, and she was saying that she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, because mothering can be all consuming. Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It is in fact a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, she said, it is a suffering of love, a fire of love.
Her example made me think of the Tanya’s idea of the dualistic, self sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who is constantly sacrificing her life for the child.
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria. It opens, “…ki tazria v’yalda zakhar- when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son- v’tamah shivat yamim- she is ritually un-fit for seven days- kimei nidah dotah titma- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit… b’khol kodesh, lo tiga- she shouldn’t touch any holy thing- v’el hamikdash lo tavo- and into the holy she shall not come…”
It is talking about how a woman who gives birth should not touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate. However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It is the very center of the temple, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in a special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”. It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation”. It means the separateness of being the most close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, kodesh and nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service. The new mother is in a state of nidah because she is not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she is completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever. She is in the higher and selfless nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she must return to connection with the kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an eved Hashem- a servant of God, humbly giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything from it. Other times, we are b’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essence.
May the dual practice of meditation and prayer help us all to more deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being servants of God; may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms. And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the kodesh, and may we all give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
Before Rabbi Dov Baer, (the Maggid of Metzrich) was well known, he lived with his wife and baby in deep poverty. They tried their best to keep mom nourished enough so that there would be milk in her breasts for the baby, but the day came that the baby couldn’t get any milk at all. The baby was hungry, but she was so weak that she was even unable to cry. The Maggid could no longer take it, and for a moment he lost his equanimity and cried out in anguish.
Instantly a voice came from heaven and proclaimed that because he had complained, he had now lost his share in the World to Come. The Maggid smiled and said to himself, “Oh good – now that reward has been done away with, I can finally serve Hashem for its own sake!”
Religion often paints a picture of the spirituality as a place of arrival in time; if we are true to the path, we will eventually come to the spiritual fruit, whether we call that fruit Olam Haba – The World to Come, or Enlightenment, or Awakening, Peace, or anything else. But the true Peace, the true arrival into Divine consciousness, is actually the dropping away of projecting ourselves in time and arriving into the present.
הוּא אֱלהֵינוּ אֵין עוד
Hu Eloheinu Ayn Od!
Existence is our own Divinity, there is nothing else!
This verse from the Aleinu prayer is telling us: Hu – that is, Existence as it presents itself in this moment, is Eloheinu – it is the Divine we seek, is it the ever-present fruit and goal, wholly available when we arrive into the abundance and fullness of this moment.
There is a hint in the parsha:
כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם
Because today the Divine will appear to you!
That is, the Divine appears ki hayom – because we open to the today.
How do we do that?
Simply by letting go of the idea that what we seek is in time, and instead (re)turning attention to what is present, to hayom. Let go of the restless movement of the mind, ki hayom Hashem Nir’ah– because That which we seek is already appearing, if we would stop looking elsewhere for It.
In this week of Hesed/Lovingkindness, the time of counting of the seven weeks between Pesakh and Shavuot, the holidays of Liberation and Revelation, may we receive this supreme gift that frees us and reveals the Divine Presence ever shining from the silent depths of awareness…
More on Shmini...
Just a Spoonful of Honey – Parshat Shmini
3/26/2019 0 Comments
We know that we must remember to take time for ourselves; if we go on and on serving others only, we will burn out. But when it comes to meditation, taking time for yourself is also an essential service to others. That’s because no matter what you do, the quality of presence that you bring to your actions will have a deep effect on others around you.
There’s a story of that some of Reb Simcha Bunam’s disciples decided to feast together and engage in Torah learning and spiritual conversation. When Reb Simcha observed them in their feast, he noticed there was a slight air of tightness and over-seriousness among them.
“Let me tell you a story” said the rabbi. “Once there was a businessman who wanted to find a new enterprise that would be lucrative. He researched and discovered that making and selling mead would be very profitable, so he set off to a neighboring city and found a master mead maker to train him.
“The businessman spent months learning the craft, and when he was thoroughly trained, he headed back to his home, brewed up his first batch, and invited many people from the town to come to his mead-tasting party. But, when the guests tried it, they winced in disgust. ‘What, you don’t like it? How could that be?’ said the businessman.
“So, he headed back to the city and demanded a refund from the mead maker. ‘Did you do exactly as I taught you?’ the mead maker asked. ‘Yes of course.’ They went over each step carefully, and confirmed that the businessman had done everything correctly. ‘And of course, you added the honey, right?’ asked the mead maker.
“‘Honey? No – you didn’t tell me that.’
“‘You fool! You mean I have to tell you to add honey??’”
No matter how detailed and precise our service in the world is, it will be bitter if we don’t do it with good heartedness – we have to “add the honey.” This is so obvious, and yet many people feel guilty taking the time they need for meditation, learning, prayer and so on.
אָמַר לָהֶם, צְאוּ וּרְאוּ אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיִּדְבַּק בָּהּ הָאָדָם. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, עַיִן טוֹבָה. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, חָבֵר טוֹב. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, שָׁכֵן טוֹב. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, לֵב טוֹב. אָמַר לָהֶם, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי אֶת דִּבְרֵי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ מִדִּבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁבִּכְלָל דְּבָרָיו דִּבְרֵיכֶם.
He said to them: Go out and see what is the straight path that a person should cling to. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yosi says: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: Seeing the consequences of one’s actions. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart. He said to them: I see the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as better than all of yours, because your words are included in his.
-Pirkei Avot 2:8
Cultivating a “good heart,” that is, a conscious heart, is foundational for being of service in the world. There is a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קְרַ֤ב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־חַטָּֽאתְךָ֙ וְאֶת־עֹ֣לָתֶ֔ךָ וְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וּבְעַ֣ד הָעָ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
Moses said to Aaron: “Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people; and then make the offering for the people and atone for them, as the Divine has commanded…
Strange – it should have said, “atoning for yourself” and then “atone for them,” but instead it says, “atoning for yourself and the people,” and then “atone for them.” The people get “atoned” for twice – because when you work on yourself, you are also serving others by doing so. Then, only after you have worked on yourself, “atone for them” – meaning, go out and serve in the world with a purified heart…
Drinking from the Well - Parshat Shmini
4/11/2018 1 Comment
A disciple of the Seer of Lublin was fasting "from Sabbath to Sabbath." Late Friday afternoon, he came to a well, and became so overcome with thirst that he thought he might die. So, he broke down and was about to draw some water to drink. Suddenly he realized- "Wait! If I drink now, I will have nullified the whole week of fasting! I can wait one more hour until Shabbos!"
So he left the well, despite his intense thirst.
But then he noticed – he was feeling some arrogance for having withstood the test! Better that he drink the water than foster the arrogance, so he went back to the well to drink. But when he got there, he noticed his thirst had vanished. "Never mind!" he thought, and went on his way to the Master's house for Shabbos.
As soon as he entered the house, the Seer looked right at him and said, "wishy washy!"
It's a common practice in the Jewish tradition, as well as nearly all other traditions, to cultivate a sense of transcendence through various forms of asceticism – fasting, celibacy, and so on. The idea is that we tend to be identified with our impulses, cravings, feelings, and opinions, and this creates a sense of narrowness, of being trapped.
So, in order to dis-identify from these seductive aspects of experience, one can take a break from engaging them and practice simply being in the presence of the feeling or craving or whatever, and not feed it. This is the basic idea behind any restriction-based practices, such as kashrut, not working on Shabbat, and so on: you are bigger than your impulses. They can be powerful, but they can never overpower you if you remember what you actually are: a vast field of awareness, within which your impulses come and go.
But there's a potential trap in this and all practices, in that you can identify with the practice itself and get trapped in feelings of pride or inadequacy, depending on how "good" or "bad" you think you're doing.
The remedy is, keep going with your renunciation right to the core of identification: your own thoughts. The guy in the story renounces food and water for six days (just the daytimes actually, these kinds of fasts permit eating at night), but he doesn't renounce his thoughts about food and water. "I've got to drink! No I can't that would ruin everything! Oh no but now I'm feeling pride, better to drink! Oh no but I don't have to because I'm not thirsty anymore!"
It's all overthinking; he's just exchanged one schtick for another.
Instead, don't just limit your food and drink, limit your mind. Think when necessary or productive, and otherwise accept things and let go. This is the message of this week's S'firat HaOmer, called Gevurah, meaning Strength, Limitation, Boundary. The paradox is that in order to be free and realize yourself as expansiveness, you have to be able to set limits.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'mini. Moses is giving Aaron and the Israelites instructions about certain offerings they must bring, in order that:
כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ – Ki hayom Hashem nir'ah aleikhem
Today the Divine will appear to you.
The first offering is a Hatat – a "sin offering." In other words, if you want to behold the Presence of Being, you have to "let go of your sins" – meaning, stop berating yourself, stop worrying about the past. Come to the present. That's the offering – the limiting of your involvement with your past mistakes.
The second offering is an Olah - an "elevation offering." In other words, after you let go of the past, you must "elevate" your impulses in the present. Whatever your motive, be it desire or negativity, transform it – up level it – into prayer. See the Divine impulse within every particular impulse, and reframe it through your prayer.
Do you want something? Direct your want to the Divinity of Being as it is manifesting right now.
Are you angry or fearful about something? Direct your feelings in prayer toward their transformation.
It is so important to do some of this every day. That's what the Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman called, hitbodedut.
In Pirkei Avot, 4:1, we read, "Ben Zoma said... who is strong? Koveish et yitzro – One who masters one's own yetzer, one's own motivation."
This is the task in each day: to remember our own masterfulness, that we are infinitely more vast than any particular experience, that we can let go of the past and alchemically transform whatever arises in the present...
Give it Up- Parshat Shmini
"And it was on this day of Eternity..."
Let’s look at what happens when you’re craving something, and then you get what you’re craving. Take food for example. You feel the pain of hunger, the desire to eat something, and then you eat it and feel satisfaction. But there’s something else going on of which you might not be aware unless you’re really paying attention, and that is the sense of incompleteness that’s caused not by the hunger, but by the mental and emotional fixation on the object of your desire. It’s not just that you’re hungry, it’s that there’s a basic dis-ease with the present moment, and a psychological “reaching” for a future moment when you imagine that you’ll be satisfied.
Then, when you finally get what you were craving, not only is there a satisfaction with the experience of the food, there’s also hopefully a relaxing into present moment reality while you enjoy the food, and a dropping away of that dis-ease of wanting. And that simple connection and dropping away of dis-ease is itself very pleasurable, and naturally lovable, even more so perhaps than the food. Now everyone experiences this at least to some degree, but rarely to people realize that what’s going on. Instead, people just assume that all the pleasure comes from the food or whatever particular gratification they’re experiencing.
But the truth is, the deeper pleasure comes not from the food, though food is certainly a wonderful thing, but from the letting go of wanting and instead connecting deeply with the present. That’s why we have practices like fasting, for example, or giving up bread on Pesakh. Normally when we feel a craving, the heart tends to run after what we want and we lose connection with the present. But if you let yourself feel the craving on purpose, returning your attention to your heart again and again so that it doesn’t carry you away, then you can learn to open your heart and drop into the wholeness and bliss of the Present without needing to satisfy whatever urge you’re feeling. In that way, you get to experience Ahavat Hashem- love of God- meaning love of Being or Existence or Reality Itself, because your connection to the Reality of the present is by its nature very pleasurable, healing and liberating.
There’s a hint of this in the Torah reading Parshat Sh’mini. It opens, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini kara mosheh- It was on the eighth day that Moses called out."
Moses then gives instructions to the Israelites for the offerings they should bring in order for them to have a vision of the Divine. It then goes on in great detail about the animals and grains and oils they burned as fire offerings. At the end of this litany it says, “… vayeyra kh’vod Hashem el kol ha’am- the Divine Glory appeared to all the people.”
When you experience satisfaction such as eating delicious food, you can elevate that experience through gratitude- through realizing that your food is literally a gift from God, emerging from the field of Being. But if you want to experience ahavat Hashem- the love of God that’s there even when you’re not feeling satisfied, you have to differentiate the pleasure that comes from Presence from the pleasure that comes from gratification, and you can do that through sacrifice- through purposely giving something up.
Then, just as the Divine Glory appeared to the Israelites, so you too will perceive the deep satisfaction and bliss of connecting with Reality as it is, beyond all those temporary and finite pleasures, wonderful as they might be. And when you do that, a much deeper gratitude can emerge- gratitude not only for the particular blessings we experience, but for the constant opportunity we have to practice Presence and connect with the completeness and peace of this moment.
This is also hinted at in the opening verse, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini- It was on the eighth day…” Y’hi is a form of the verb “to be.” Bayom means “on the day” but it can also mean “in today” meaning in the Present, and hashmini means, “the eighth.” The number eight on its side is a symbol for infinity. So the idea here is that you connect with the Eternal, hashmini, through Being, y’hi, in the Present, bayom.
So on this Shabbat Shmini, the Sabbath of the Infinite, let’s absorb the lessons of Pesakh, learning to delay and sometimes surrender gratification, opening our hearts to that deeper connection with the Eternal Present.
The Toes- Parshat Sh'mini
Once when I was driving, I saw a man asking for money with a sign that read, “I have three toes- please help.” For an instant, my heart twinged with compassion. But that was immediately followed by a disorienting surprise as I reconsidered his sign.
He needs money because he has three toes?
I immediately thought of Aimee Mullins. Aimee Mullins had both legs amputated when she was one year old. Rather than adopt the identity of a disabled person, she became a star athlete, a model and an inspirational speaker who empowers her listeners to transcend limited thinking and limited identity.
I don’t mean to be uncompassionate to the man with three toes who needed some money, or to imply that it’s no big deal to lose a part of your body. I want to bless that man that he should have relief from any suffering caused by his body or anything else.
But the real disability, as Aimee Mullins and countless others have demonstrated, is not in how many toes or legs you have, but how imprisoned you are by your thoughts. If you narrate your life in negative terms, telling yourself sad stories of victimhood, then that will be the lens through which you live, and that is what will seem to manifest.
On the other hand, if you refuse to accept limiting labels, if you refuse to identify with negative stories, is there any fixed limit to what you can accomplish?
In this week’s reading, Parshat Sh’mini, the Torah narrates the climax of the inauguration ceremony for the priests. Moses tells the Israelites that after the various offerings are brought-
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem-
“Today Hashem will appear to you!”
The offerings are brought, the rites performed, and then it happens-
“Vayeira kh’vod Hashem el ha’am-
“The glory of the Divine appeared to the people!”
Then something tragic happens: in the ecstasy of the moment, the high priest Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, break ranks and rush forward to offer their own incense. A fire streams forth from the Divine and kills them. Moses tells Aaron that Hashem is sanctified and honored by their death. Of Aaron it says-
“Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent.”
There’s a story of the Hassidic master Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe.
One day, the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk was visiting him. The Kotsker asked his guest to please tell some Torah from his saintly father-in-law, to which he replied with this teaching:
“When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying- ‘Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent’ because he was able to accept his misfortune with equanimity and not become a victim.
But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in the psalm-
‘L’man y’zamerkha khavod v’lo yidom-
‘So that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent’-
-for even in times of great distress he would still sing God’s praises.”
This teaching, though somewhat extreme, points to the power of your mind to define the way you frame reality. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use your mind.
The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, you learn to free your mind from all the thought forms that tend to imprison most people to some degree.
The praise of David indicates prayer. In prayer, the sacred dimension that’s revealed in meditation is given expression.
These two basic practices together- meditation and prayer- tap into the sacred dimension and draw forth Its nourishment into expression.
The name of this parshah is “Sh’mini” which means “Eighth.” This refers to the eighth day of the ceremony on which the action takes place. The number eight symbolizes infinity, both in its Arabic shape and in its Hebrew meaning as the number that transcends seven, which is the number of finite creation. One of the names of God in Kabbalah is Ayn Sof, which also means Infinite- literally “there is no limitation”. Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites on the day of infinity.
And when is the “day of infinity” as it applies to each of us?
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem- today Hashem will appear to you!”
Today, of course, means now.
In the subsiding of thought, there’s the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there’s the blossoming of the only Reality there is- the Reality of this moment, the one and only moment. This moment is not fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn sof, without limit, unbound by past and future.
On this Shabbat Sh’mini, this Sabbath of the Infinite, let us co-create this moment not as victims of the many mishaps and tragedies that unfold in time. But rather, from the silent depths of our being, let the voice of God emerge through our voices to praise Its own Mystery…
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
More on Passover...
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…
It is told about Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk that when he chanted the Kiddush, he would repeatedly look at his watch in order to keep himself connected to the world of time, otherwise he might dissolve into the Eternal completely.
In spiritual awakening there is a kind of balance that must be struck between the "world of time" – a.k.a the thinking mind, and the "Eternal World" – a.k.a. the space of awareness within which the thinking mind functions. While all the holy days and Shabbat are designed to help you dip more deeply into the Eternal World, the ritual of kiddush – the sanctification of the holy day with wine – points most strongly to this Eternal dimension of experience.
As it says in the Friday night Kiddush as well as all the festivals, "Zekher L'tziyat Mitzrayim – Remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt." It is a "remembrance" because the condition for freedom is already fulfilled; you just have to remember it. You are already free as Presence, as the open space of awareness within which experience arises.
And yet, even though you always already are freedom as awareness, embodying this truth in life is challenging; it requires constant effort. The Ishbitzer Rebbe pointed out that this is symbolized by the Karpas, the ritual vegetable eaten at the seder, because vegetables have to be planted again and again year after year. Whatever state was achieved yesterday, it is over today; we must constantly apply our awareness to overcome the forces of bondage within, day after day.
Which brings us to Urkhatz, the washing of hands that happens between Kadesh and Karpas. Wash yourself of yesterday's conditioning; today we must start again...
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…
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