Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens in the aftermath of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and God warns that one must enter the kadosh kadoshim, the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary, in a particular way in order for it to be safe. Only the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, may enter to offer the sacred ketoret (incense) once per year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Another feature of Yom Kippur is the casting of lots over two goats, to determine which one should be offered to God, and which should be sent off to “Azazel” in order to carry away the sins of the Children of Israel. The parshah then warns against bringing korbanot (animal or meal offerings) anywhere but in the Sanctuary (or later the Temple), forbids the consumption of blood, and details the laws of incest and other types of prohibited sexual relations.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֒יךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכׇל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
Hashem said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:2; Parshat Akharei Mot
There is a story that once Rabbi Yehezkel of Kozmir strolled with his young son in the Zaksi Gardens in Warsaw. His son turned to him with a question: “Abba, whenever we come here, I feel such a peace and holiness, unlike I feel anywhere else. I would expect to find it when I’m studying Torah, but instead I feel it here.”
Reb Yehezkel answered: “As you know, it says in the Prophets: מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ – the whole world is filled with the Divine Presence. But, sometimes we’re blocked from recognizing it.”
“But Abba,” pressed his son, “Why should I feel blocked when I’m learning Torah? And why would I feel it so strongly in this non-religious place?”
“Let me tell you a story,” answered the rebbe. “In the days before Reb Simhah Bunem of Pshischah evolved into great tzaddik, he would commute to the city of Danzig and minister to the community there, even though he lived in Lublin. When he returned to Lublin, he would always spend the first Shabbos with his rebbe, the “Seer” – Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak.
“One time when he arrived back at Lublin, he felt disconnected from the holiness he had felt while he was in Danzig. To make matters worse, the Seer wouldn’t give him the usual greeting of Shalom, and in fact behaved rather coldly to Reb Simha.
Figuring this was just a mistake, he returned to the Seer some hours later, hoping to get his rebbe’s attention, but again the Seer just ignored him. He left feeling alone and rejected. Then, a certain Talmudic teaching came to his mind: that a person beset with unexpected tribulations should scrutinize their actions. So, he mentally scrutinized every detail of his conduct in Danzig, but he couldn’t recall anything he had done wrong. If anything, he noted with satisfaction that this visit was definitely of the kind that he liked to nickname ‘a good Danzig,’ for he had brought down such holy ecstasy in the prayers he had led there. But then he remembered the rest of the teaching. It goes on to say:
פִּשְׁפֵּשׁ וְלֹא מָצָא יִתְלֶה בְּבִטּוּל תּוֹרָה – If he sought and did not find, let him ascribe it to the diminishing (bitul) of Torah.’ (Berakhot 5a:9) Meaning, that his suffering must be caused by having not studied enough. Taking this advice to heart, Reb Simhah decided to start studying right then and there. Opening his Talmud, he sat down and studied earnestly all that day and night. Suddenly, a novel light on the Talmudic teaching dawned on him. He turned the words over in his mind once more, and began to think that perhaps what the sages really meant by their advice was not that he didn’t study enough, but that he wasn’t ‘diminished’ (bitul) by his studying. Rather than humbling himself with Torah, all that book knowledge was simply building up his own ego, and blocking his connection with the Presence. As soon as he realized this, he put down his book, let go of his “scholar,” identity, and began to open to the Presence that is always present.
Later that evening, the Seer greeted him warmly: ‘Danzig, as you know, is not such a religious place, yet the Divine Presence is everywhere, as it says: מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ The whole world is filled with Its Presence… if you could feel It while you were there, this was no great feat accomplished by your extensive learning; it was because, in your ecstasy, you opened to That which is always already present.’”
The heart is imprisoned by the burden of whatever we compulsively “hold.” If we want to “let go” and be free, we have to look at why we “hold on.” There are two main reasons we tend to “hold on” to things. First, there can be holding on to the fear about what might happen. It is true – the future is uncertain, and knowing this can create the feeling of being out of control. Holding onto time – meaning, thinking about the future – can give us a false sense of control. There is often the unconscious belief that if we worry about something enough, we will be able to control it.
Of course, that is absurd, but we can unconsciously believe it because of a deeper fear: the fear of experiencing the uncertainty itself. If we really let go of our worry about what might happen, we must confront the experience of really not knowing, of being uncertain. But, if we allow ourselves to experience the uncertainty, our resistance to it will dissipate. The key is: don’t block the feeling of uncertainty with thought – on the other side of uncertainty is liberation – the expansive and simple dwelling with Being in the present.
Second, there can be negativity about something from the past; in our resistance to a memory, we keep the memory alive as though it is still happening in the present. If we want to let go of the burden of the past, we must confront the fact that the past is truly over. The deeper level of this is confronting our own mortality. Everything, eventually, will be “over.” But, if we let go of the past, and allow ourselves to feel the insecurity of knowing that everything is passing, then we can see – there is a gift being offered right now. It is precious; it is fragile, like a flower – this precious moment.
וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכׇל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ – He shall not come at all times into the Holy (Sanctuary)… We may try to reach holiness by working out the past in our minds, or by insisting on a certain future, but as it says: …he shall not come at all times. In other words, you cannot enter the sacred through time!
To enter the sacred, we must leave time behind, and enter it Now. Let your grasping after the future dissipate; let your clinging to the past be released. There is a hint further on in the description of the Yom Kippur rite…
גּוֹרָ֤ל אֶחָד֙ לַיהֹוָ֔ה וְגוֹרָ֥ל אֶחָ֖ד לַעֲזָאזֵֽל׃… וְלָקַ֖ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֣י הַשְּׂעִירִ֑ם– Aaron shall take the two he-goats...one marked for Hashem and the other marked for Azazel… The goat for the Divine means: the future is in the hands of the Divine. This goat is slaughtered and burned. Meaning: we must experience the “burning” of uncertainty and “slaughter” our grasping after control. The word Azazel is composed of two words: עוֹז oz means “strength”, and אָזַל azal means “exhausted, used up.” In other words, the “strength” of the past is “used up” – it is over. Let it go, or it will use you up! This goat is let go to roam free into the wilderness.
The past is gone, the future is in the hands of the Divine. But those Divine hands are not separate from your hands. Set your hands free – put down the narratives – and receive the “flower” of this moment, as it is, free from the burden of time. This is the Path of י Yud – Trust and Simplicity. In this week of Shabbat Akharei Mot, the “Sabbath After the Death,” let us practice dropping excess thought and let go of time. May we live in this sacred moment that is always already present…
Read past teachings on Akharei Mot HERE.
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Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens with the laws of purification after a woman gives birth, which includes immersing in a mikvah (a naturally gathered pool of water) and bringing offerings. All male infants are to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. It then details the subject of tzara’at (an affliction often mistranslated as leprosy), which can afflict people’s skin as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark red or green in garments), a kohen is summoned. Judging by various signs, such as an increase in size of the afflicted area after a seven-day quarantine, the kohen pronounces it tamei (ritually unfit) or tahor (ritually fit). A person afflicted with tzaraat must dwell alone outside of the camp (or city) until they are healed, and the afflicted area in a garment or home must be removed. If the tzara’at recurs, the entire garment or home must be destroyed…
Torah of Awakening
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֺתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא׃ וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עׇרְלָתֽוֹ׃ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טׇהֳרָ֑הֿ בְּכׇל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טׇהֳרָֽהּ׃
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman gives birth to a male, she shall be tamei seven days; like the days of her menstrual separation, she is tamei. On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days she shall dwell in the blood of taharah: Any holy thing she shall not touch, and into the holy space she shall not enter until her days of taharah are full…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 2-4; Parshat Tazria
There is a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that despite an ailment which caused him great physical exhaustion, he would arise at midnight on weekdays to recite the lamentations over Jerusalem, and then sneak off to some unknown place. Once, when his disciple Rabbi Hirsch was a guest in his house, he hid so that he might watch Rabbi Moshe and see what he was doing. At midnight he saw him put on peasant’s clothes, go into the snow covered yard, fetch a load of wood out of the cellar, and hoist it on his back. Then, as Rabbi Moshe walked away down the road, Rabbi Hersch followed him in the crackling cold of the winter night to the end of town. There Rabbi Moshe stopped in front of a miserable hut and unloaded the wood. His disciple crept up to a window in the back and peered into a bare room. The stove was out, and lying on the bed was a woman pressing a newborn baby to her breast with an expression of utter despair. At that moment, the Rabbi of Sasov entered the room. He went up to the woman and spoke to her in Ruthenian: “I have a load of wood for sale, and I don’t want to carry it any further. Will you buy it at a bargain price?”
The woman answered, “I don’t have a penny in the house.” But the rabbi didn’t give up: “I’ll come back for the money some other time, if you will just take the wood.” The woman objected: “What shall I do with the wood? I can’t chop it myself, and I don’t have an axe anyway.” The Rabbi of Sasov replied, “You just let me take care of that,” and he went outside and chopped the wood into small pieces. While he was chopping, Rabbi Hirsch heard him chanting the Lamentations at Midnight associated with our foremothers Rachel and Leah. Then he brought the wood back into the house, made her a warm fire, and returned home, walking very quickly.
The Tanya, the hasidic text of Chabad Lubavitch hasidism, talks about two different kinds of love: the first springs from knowing the Divine as the deepest level of your own being. Since people naturally love their own lives, the experience of God as your own essential nature means loving God just as you love your own life. The second kind of love happens when you think of 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 them. The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from my 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?
On one hand, the non-dual way could be seen as higher, because it is an awakening to the deepest level of who we are. However, the Tanya takes another approach: when we see the Divine as our own essential being, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that arises from transcending the separate sense of self. But if we see God as something separate, and we are willing to give up our very life for God, that is even more self-transcending, and is therefore the higher love. But in truth, these two ways are not really different at all; they are two sides of one coin. When we recognize that our own being is not separate from Being Itself and we shift identification from our separate self-sense to the Oneness of Reality, then there is the possibility of transcending our natural fear of death; Reality cannot die, only our particular form dies. Self-transcendence is not merely a feeling of bliss; bliss is simply a reflection of transcendence on the feeling level – a “bonus” in a sense, not the essential thing.
Nevertheless, in the actual flow of life, there are times we need to drink from the nectar of bliss to replenish ourselves, and there are times in which we must put aside our own needs for the sake of others. The Tanya’s example of sacrificing one’s life for a parent may not be so common; more common perhaps is the parent being willing to sacrifice their life for their child. Parenthood, and new motherhood in particular, is not necessarily good for you. Even if your situation is not as bad as the woman in the story, it can still it can be a fire of suffering – the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the baby. But, it is a suffering of love.
בְּכׇל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א – Any holy thing she shall not touch, and into the holy space she shall not enter… The word for “holy,” קֹדֶשׁ kodesh, means “separate” – not in the sense of being distant or removed, but rather central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It is the very center of the Mikdash, the Kadosh Kadoshim – the “Holy of Holies.” Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “Holy of Holies.” It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of its intimacy. So קֹדֶשׁ kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation!” It means “separateness” only in that it is the most close.
כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֺתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא – like the days of her menstrual separation, she is tamei… The menstrual period is considered a time of נִדָה nidah, which also means “separation.” During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy – no קֹדֶשׁ kodesh – no “separation-from-all-separation.” In this sense, the “separation” of נִדָה Nidah really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation.” These two states, קֹדֶשׁ kodesh and נִדָה 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 we more commonly experience, as your own child (nidah). Seen in this way, the opening of the parshah is a description of these two kinds of love and service: The new mother is in a state of נִדָה 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 a נִדָה nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she returns to connection with the קֹדֶשׁ 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 two poles – sometimes being an Eved Hashem – a servant of God, humbly 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 essence. Knowing how to balance these two poles is essential – we must be awake in the moment to know when it is time to let go of our needs and be of service, and when we must say “no” to the needs of others and take care of ourselves. This is the Path of Tiferet – of balance, harmony, appropriateness, wisdom-in-action. In this time of Sefirat HaOmer, may we become more conscious of our task to balance the opposing forces of the Tree, knowing when to step up as a servant of God, and knowing when to repose and simply Be God, as we walk the Tree of Life, watering the seeds of revelation embodied by Shavuot…
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Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens with the eighth day (yom hashmini) of the inauguration ceremony for Aaron and his sons to begin officiating as the kohanim (priests). In a dramatic appearance of Divine power, a fire streams forth to consume the offerings on the altar, and the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. In their enthusiasm, Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, rush forward to offer aysh zarah – “strange fire.” They are consumed by the fire and perish, yet Aaron remains silent in face of his tragedy.
Moses and Aaron subsequently disagree as to a point of law regarding the offerings, but Moses ultimately concedes that Aaron is in the right. The laws of kashrut are given, identifying the animal species permissible and forbidden for consumption. Land animals may be eaten only if they have split hooves and also chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales; a list of non-kosher birds is given, and a list of the kosher insects, which include four different types of locusts…
Torah of Awakening
הַיּ֔וֹם יְהֹוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֤ה לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
“Today the Divine will appear to you!”
And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them; thus they died before Hashem. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is as Hashem spoke, saying: ‘Through those near to Me I am sanctified, And before all the people I am glorified.’” And Aaron was silent…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:4, 10:2-3 Parshat Shmini
There is a story of the Hasidic 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 Reb Shlomo, to which he replied with this teaching: “When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying: וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן Aharon was silent, because he was able to accept the intense pain of his misfortune with equanimity. But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in Psalm 30: לְמַֽעַן יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד וְלֹא יִדֹּם so that I may sing of Your glory and NOT be silent – for even in times of great distress he would still praise the Divine.”
This extreme teaching points to a universal truth – it is not primarily our circumstances and happenings that define our experience, but our minds. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use our minds:
וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן – Aaron was silent… The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, we can learn to embrace whatever pain arises without resistance and free our minds from excess thought. As the mind becomes more still and spacious, we become free from conditioned, time-bound experience, coming to dwell more and more in the spaciousness of the Timeless Present.
לְמַֽעַן יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד וְלֹא יִדֹּם – so that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent… The singing of David hints at prayer. In prayer, that sacred dimension revealed in meditation helps to build our inner world of experience as a conscious expression of the sacred, rather than an unconscious expression of our conditioning. These two basic practices – meditation and prayer – first strip away our unconscious and unintentional conditioning so that the sacred might be revealed; and second, they draw forth the nourishment of the sacred into expression, rebuilding our inner world in Its Image.
וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – On the eighth day, Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and to the elders of Israel… 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 infinity – literally, “there is no limit.” Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינ֔י – on the “Day of Infinity.” And when is this “Day of Infinity” as it applies to each of us?
הַיּ֔וֹם יְהֹוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ – Today the Divine will appear to you! Today, of course, means Now. In the subsiding of thought, there is the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there is the blossoming of the only Reality there is – the Reality of this moment, this One and Only moment. This moment is not static or fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn Sof, without limit, inseparable from past and future, yet also unbound by past and future; when we get free from the burden of time created by thought, we tap into the infinite potential of the Ayn Sof.
יי נִרְאָ֥ה – The Divine will appear… The word נִרְאָ֥ה nirah, “appear,” is related to יִראָה yirah, “awe.” The Divine Name יְ–הֹ–וָ–ה Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei is related to the verb “to be,” לִהיוֹת lihyot. In other words, the “appearance of the Divine” is simply a way of describing a relationship with Existence based on awe and wonder, which are inherent qualities of consciousness when it is free from the burden of excessive thought. We can awaken awe through meditation and express it through prayer. Or, we can work in the opposite direction, awakening awe and wonder by reminding ourselves that Reality is inherently unknowable, a Mystery that transcends all understanding. This is the Path of ר Reish, which means both “head” and “beginning,” hinting that our “heads” have the power to transcend the limitations of thought, so that we may know this moment as a New Beginning, pregnant with the potential of the Ayn Sof. This is also the spirit of Pesakh, during which the practice of refraining from hameitz (leavened foods) ritually connects us to that radiant spaciousness of the Unconditioned, prior to the “rising dough” of thought. In this time of the Festival of Liberation, may we awaken once again to the bright and radiant simplicity of Being, going out of narrowness and into the spacious wilderness of the Present…
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וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ וַיָּקֻ֕צוּ מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃
The more they oppressed them, the more they increased and spread out, and they came to dread the Children of Israel. So, Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing servitude… -Shemot (Exodus) 1:13 Parshat Shemot
One Passover, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev led the 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 of 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’s house. There they sat him down, bewildered, before Levi Yitzhak. The rabbi leaned toward him and said, “Reb Hayim, dear heart, what kavanah, what 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 intentions of unification 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, what intention did you have when you celebrated the seder?”
Then something seemed to quicken in his eyes and limbs, and he replied enthusiastically. “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 came to me that I had heard as a child. I began to sing:‘Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot – Why is this night different from all other nights?’ As I sang I began to think, ‘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 alive. It was as if the night itself woke up all around me. I began to feel as if I were flying high above my life, and all of my troubles, all of my problems, were just ripples in an ocean far below me; but at the same time, I felt more connected to everything, to my wife and to our humble lives together – and then I realized – everything is part of Hashem! Everything is One! Then I got tired and fell asleep.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak smiled and understood.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃ – Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing servitude… Within this verse are three hints about the nature of spiritual bondage. The first hint is in the word פָֽרֶךְ farekh – “crushing labor.” The root פרך means “to break apart” or “fracture.” The 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 is the fracturing of Reality Itself as it appears in your consciousness. Consider – in this moment, our consciousness is meeting whatever is appearing right now – our sensations, our feelings, our perception of what is around us, whatever thoughts are arising, and so on. As long as consciousness simply meets whatever is present, there is 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 is a tendency for consciousness to contract into resistance. That is the פָֽרֶךְ farekh – the tearing apart of Reality, because now there is me “over here,” resisting that “over there” (even if the “over there” is in 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 experience happens, we become finite entities, resisting something within our experience.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם – Egypt enslaved… This brings us to the second hint in this verse, the word מִצְרַ֛יִם Mitzrayim – “Egypt,” – 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 our consciousness gets contracted into a fixed point of view – the narrow “me” called “ego.” And what is the basic activity of ego? Ego tries to control things, because it feels incomplete. 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 feeling comes from the contraction into a mitzrayim state that happens spontaneously in reaction to farekh – suffering that breaks apart the Wholeness of our experience…
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם – Egypt enslaved… And this brings us to the third hint in the verse, יַּעֲבִ֧דוּ ya’avidu – “enslaved.” The arising of suffering, represented by farekh, which causes the contraction into ego, represented by Mitzrayim, is obviously not something we consciously choose; it seems to just “happen” – that contraction seems to “grab” and “enslave” us against our will. And yet, on a deeper level, יַּעֲבִ֧דוּ ya’avidu is related to the word עֲבוֹדָה 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 Presence 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 עֲבוֹדָה avodah, into a path of liberation. Because it is only from getting caught in spiritual bondage, and then finding our way out of bondage, that we can really mature and evolve. A baby in the womb is already whole and one with all being, but it is not liberated, because there is no appreciation of the Wholeness. In order to know liberation, we have to first taste bondage. The danger, of course, is that the experience of bondage, however that manifests, seduces us into a negative attitude and we become resigned to our stuck-ness; that is why we need to remember:
לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ – So that you remember your going out from Egypt all the days of your life… Deut. 16:3 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:
יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת – “The days of your life” means the daytime; “all the days of your life” means the nights also. And what is the daytime and nighttime practice for remembering our essential nature?
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ יי אֶחָד – Listen, Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One…
יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ – The Divine is our God… Meaning: Being, or Existence, is not separate from Eloheinu – from our own inner Divinity – that is, from our awareness. In fact, our awareness is not really “ours” at all, but it is rather God’s awareness, waking up as us, within our body/mind…
יי אֶחָד – Existence, or Reality, is One.
Again and again we may get pulled into farekh – that involuntary suffering in which we contract into the egoic mitzrayim state, but if we sing out to the Ekhad – to the Oneness of Being – we can find our way beyond our problems and troubles (which exist primarily in our thoughts and feelings) and into the transcendent spaciousness of the present moment. And here, within the transcendence of this moment, may we recognize the true answer to the question – “Mah nishtana halaila hazeh – Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Because THIS “night,” really, this moment, is the only real moment! And this is the true Exodus – going out from the mitzrayim, the “virtual reality” of our minds – into actual Reality, the freedom and spaciousness of the present…
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