Lonely The Drive- Parshat Behar
If you could choose exactly how much time to waste every day, how much would it be? Would you waste two hours per day? One hour per day? Or would you be conservative- maybe only waste twenty minutes? Five minutes?
And furthermore, what does it mean to “waste time” anyway?
Is watching a movie wasting time? What about sitting around enjoying a cup of tea? Taking a walk for no particular reason?
Or, is “wasting time” about doing something that creates the exact opposite of what you want?
If enjoyment is what you want, maybe watching a movie is a good use of time, as long as it’s not in excess. If peace is what you want, maybe sipping tea and taking walks are a great way to spend time.
And, if you want to be miserable, maybe complaining and judging and gossiping and putting yourself and others down are just what the doctor ordered.
But who wants to be miserable?
And yet, many spend time complaining and judging and gossiping and putting self and others down. When was the last time you did one of those things?
There’s really only one reason you would do something that creates the opposite result of what you want, and that’s not being conscious of what you are doing. Consciousness is the key.
You want health, but an impulse arises to eat that unhealthy food. The impulse is bothering you, and you unconsciously assume that fulfilling the impulse will make you feel better and bring you peace. The problem is, fulfilling the impulse only gives you a temporary experience of relief, and you still haven’t come closer to the real peace you are seeking... plus you are working against your health.
The real peace you seek can only come from getting to know who you are beneath all the impulses. It comes from knowing that underneath all your restless energies, there is an awareness that knows the restlessness.
That awareness is peace. Shift your home from the restlessness to that awareness, and peace is yours, because you rise above all the stories about how you need this or that to have peace. But to do that, you need to be willing to let go of the company of your own thoughts, and be truly alone.
This week’s reading begins-
“Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe b’har Sinai-
"Hashem spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai…”
After driving my son to school in the morning, I used to return home along Skyline up in the Oakland hills, from which I can catch a glimpse of the entire East Bay and San Francisco. Seeing these cities from above is an entirely different experience from being down in them. There is a sense of peace, of wonder, of floating above the seething urban chaos.
It’s the same spiritually. To hear the Voice of the Divine, you have to take some time to tune out the voices of the mundane- that is, the voices of your own mind. Sinai is totally within you and available, once the movement of the mind subsides. And from Sinai comes the “Voice of the Divine”- meaning, the inner wisdom of how to live- to live without wasting time.
A still mind is not a waste of time, it is the end of time.
As the end of time, it's also the fulfillment of time. Fulfillment is completely available to you, right now, to the degree that you can open to your inner Sinai.
The reading goes on to say-
“Ki tavo el ha’arets… v’shavtah ha’arets Shabbat LaShem…
"When you come into the land… the land itself shall rest a Shabbat…”
The “land” is life itself- messy, chaotic, beautiful life itself. But, when you stop wasting time, guess what- life doesn’t take so much energy! Life itself becomes a “Shabbat”- simple, clear, straightforward.
Do you want simplicity? Do you want clarity? Do you want peace? Do you want a life that is wholly Shabbat?
Make a commitment now:
“I will let go of all excess thought, moment by moment. I will refrain from creating negative narratives and stand alone in the Presence of God, without the noise of the mind.”
Can you make this commitment?
The Baal Shem Tov told:
"Once I dreamed that I traveled to Gan Eden- the Garden of Eden- and many people went with me, chattering excitedly. But the closer I came to the Garden, the more of them disappeared, and the more quiet it became.
"When I finally entered Paradise, there were only a few of them left, speaking softly, with few words. But when I stood beside the Tree of Life, I looked around- and I seemed to be alone."
On this Shabbat Behar, The Sabbath on the Mountain, may have the courage to walk the road of true aloneness- aloneness not in the sense of being without others, but in the sense of allowing the mind to stand alone, without the constant and relentless company of thought. May we be renewed in peace and clarity-
I Am Nothing! Lag Ba'Omer
There is a Hassidic story about a certain rabbi who was leading services for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur services are very long and intense, filled with language of remorse and repentance for one’s sins. It’s also a twenty-five hour fast, so the effect is to really bring you to a state of bitul- a kind of deflating or nullification of your ego and purification from arrogance.
As this rabbi was davening (praying) with great intensity toward the climax of the service, he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance- a total dropping away of his ego. He realized with embarrassment how arrogant he had become, and before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out-
“Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan- the cantor- saw him do this, he too became inspired. The sincerity of the rabbi’s cry combined with the intensity of the holy day shot through him, and he suddenly realized the same thing.
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
The truth was infectious. Suddenly, a poor congregant, Shmuyel the shoemaker, also became deeply moved and cried out as well:
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan saw Shmuyel’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Genuine spiritual transformation is real. It’s emerges from the truth of who we are, and everyone has access to it, at least potentially. But, anything that the mind can recognize and label can be coopted by the ego! One moment there is genuine humility, the next moment you want to wear the humility like some kind of badge. In an instant, you can become arrogant about being humble!
What’s the remedy?
Today is the festival of Lag Ba'Omer, the thirty-third day of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot (Lag is simply the letters Lamed and Gimel which together make the number 33- Lamed is thirty, Gimel is three). Each of the forty-nine days is a permutation of the seven spiritual qualities in Kabbalah.
Today, the thirty-third day, is Hod Sheb’Hod, which we could call Humility of Humility, but we could also call it Gratitude of Humility.
What is humility?
To me, humility is not really a thing, but the absence of a thing. It’s the natural state of a person when ego, or separate self-sense, is not inflamed with arrogance or other ego qualities.
But since arrogance and other ego qualities are often present unconsciously, it can be a great and surprising relief when they drop away. The heart feels so free when the qualities of ego dissolve, and like the story, you may not have even known how much ego was there until it disappears.
But then the mind comes in a makes that freedom into a “thing,” into a badge, into something to identify with- in other words, egoless-ness becomes a form of ego.
So today, Lag b’Omer, comes along and reminds us:
If you experience egoless-ness, it’s a gift. Give thanks for it, don’t think of it as “me.” That’s Gratitude of Humility, and it’s also Humility of Humility.
Hag Samayakh and Good Shabbos!
"Humility of Persistence"
Today has a particularly wonderful symbolism in Kabbalah. Each of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot correspond to a permutation of the seven classic Divine qualities.
Today is Hod Sheb'Netzakh- "Humility of Persistence."
These qualities are somewhat opposed-
Humility has a passive ring to it- it carries the willingness to respect that which is beyond you, to not impose your will.
Persistence is more hutzpadic- it means not giving up, and that means continuously imposing your will, no matter what.
And yet, when it comes to living in the present, both are required-
One one hand, you must persistently bring yourself to this moment. If you don't, the default of the mind is to make its home in the world of thought, not Presence.
On the other hand, being present means first of all being with Reality as it is in this moment- and that is supremely passive and non-willful.
How do we reconcile these?
Being present doesn't mean not having a will, but rather it means standing outside of your will. Your will, your thoughts, your intentions, all arise in the space of this moment, and that space is beyond and far bigger than your will. It is the space of your pure awareness.
So on one hand, you use your will to return again and again to Presence; on the other hand, return to Presence means return to the space that is beyond your own will. And that is Hod Sheb'Netzakh.
For more on Presence from the Torah portion, please enjoy this week's d'var by clicking here...
The Zombies- Parshat Emor
Once I saw my son looking at You Tube, ravenously drinking in the old 1980’s Michael Jackson Thriller video.
Oh man, that brought me back!
The way Michael morphs into some kind of wer-cat and then leads a band of zombies in that funky dance of the dead-
And then the really scary part- his girlfriend cowering in the corner of her house while zombies crash through windows, breaking through the walls and floor- it’s the classic zombie scene that both draws and repels.
Why is the “zombies-invading-the-house” thing so compelling?
To me, the home is a sanctuary- a place to be safe, to relax, to sip a cup of tea on the couch- wouldn’t you agree? And let’s face it- nothing messes with our nice, safe, home-sanctuary like a bunch of zombies clawing at your window!
But there is also an inner sanctuary- a place of peace and stillness, a place of vitality, of creativity, of light and benevolence. That place is your own deepest layer of being- the space of awareness itself.
When you dwell in that space, you dwell in the temple of your own being, which is also Divine Being. That space is always here, always open and sacred- the space of consciousness that is eternally this moment.
But, there are zombies!!
Sometimes there are only a few pathetic zombies, wandering around on your lawn. Sometimes they are fast, tricky and vicious, fooling and distracting you into letting them in. Sometimes, they are disguised as something you lust for- they are seductive- more like vampires- making your eyes glaze over as you lurch unconsciously toward the door and turn the knob...
These zombies and vampires are your own thoughts.
There was once a hassid who went to his rebbe for advice on how to empty his mind. He knocked on the door of his rebbe’s house, but no answer. He peered through the window- the rebbe was sitting at a table, reading.
The hassid knocked again, a little louder- no answer. Growing more and more frustrated, his polite greetings and knocks turned into screams and bangs, pounding on the doors and windows. This went on for hours!
Eventually, the rebbe opened the door-
“Just as I can ignore you, no matter now much fuss you make, so you can ignore your own thoughts and not admit them into your mind.”
It’s true, your zombie/vampiric thoughts can trick you, distract you, lure you, entice you. But unless you believe in them, they have absolutely no power. It is your own mind that is creating them; if you let them be and don’t get drawn in, they fade away. The power is completely with you.
This can be learned and practiced, but it is not merely a technique. It is a way of being that reveals your own inner freedom, your own inner divinity.
Free from thought, you dwell in the sanctuary of presence- a space of freedom, of blissful goodness within your own being. This is the space of kadosh- holiness, or sacredness. Kadosh means “separate”, because in it you are separate from the tornados of life. However, it’s not a separateness of alienation, but of the closest intimacy- not far off at a distance from the storm, but at the eye of the storm.
Get seduced by the storm- get absorbed into the drama of time and people, get dragged around and eaten by those flesh-rotten zombies, and you become tamei- spiritually contaminated. Let go of the drama, let the thoughts dissolve and you return to the Presence- to the Kadosh. This is your role, if you choose to accept it, as priest or priestess of your own inner sanctuary.
On that subject, this week’s reading begins with Moses telling the priests,
“L’nefesh lo yitama b’amav-
"You shall not become tamei (spiritually contaminated) to a person among your people.”
In its plain meaning, it’s talking about a priest not becoming tamei from touching a corpse (a regular corps, not the undead!). But metaphorically, it also can refer to the inner tuma we can incur from allowing our thoughts about others to contaminate our minds.
When was the last time you allowed your mind to become tamei because of what some person did or said that you didn’t like, some argument you had, or anything else involving another person? It’s one of the great traps.
And yet, the power is with YOU! Remember- the tzures (suffering) you experience is mostly generated by your own mind. You can stop empowering it NOW and come into the sanctuary.
And yet, the next verse qualifies the first-
“Ki im lish’eiru hakarov-
"EXCEPT for a close relative…”
Here we move from the metaphorical to the actual- from people as thoughts in your mind, to actual living and breathing people.
There are people who are our “close relatives”- not necessarily blood, but those in our tribe, in our community, in our web of interdependence. For them we must become tamei at times, meaning that the relationship sometimes requires the sacrifice of our own needs in order to serve.
Sometimes that sacrifice takes a few minutes, as with a screaming child, and sometimes it can go on for years, as in someone who needs on-going care. Sometimes we must sacrifice the plush-ness of kadosh for love, for the love that binds us together.
But then there are those who are not “close relatives”, who seek to insert themselves into your life for whatever reason. They have their dramas, their pathologies, their fixations, and they are truly zombies and vampires, seeking to drag you down to their level.
As all famous people learn, you can’t let every person into your life who tries to get in. It’s impossible. But, this truth is not just for famous people. The rhythm of reality dictates we work with both sides of the Tree of Life- the Hesed and the Gevurah- the loving-kindness and the setting of boundaries and limits. And life/Hashem will test you on this- you must learn both sides of the Tree!
Of course, there is also gray area- folks who lie somewhere in between close and not-so-close.
Then what do you do?
Make a decision, and don’t worry. Each moment is new. The enemy is not the not-knowing, it is the not-deciding.
On this Shabbat Emor, The Sabbath of Saying, may we speak our intentions with decisiveness, balancing openness with boundaries. And, once our decisions are made, may our minds let go and drink in the Divine Words that are being said in this moment, as this moment.
The Pie- Parshat Kedoshim
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.
What does it take to set your heart free?
Put another way, what is it that imprisons your heart?
Once I was holding a bunch of Jewish books in my hands. My three-year-old daughter came up to me and said, “Here Abba, for you!” She was trying to give me a little flower.
“One moment,” I said, “let me put these books down first.”
It’s like that.
The heart is imprisoned by the burden of whatever is being held. Let go of what you’re holding and the heart is open to receive. There’s a little girl offering you a flower- that flower is this moment. Put down your books and receive the gift.
A friend once said to me, “I always hear that I should ‘just let go.’ But what does that mean? How do I do that?”
To really know how to “let go,” we have to look at why we “hold on.” There are two main reasons the mind tends to hold on to things.
First, there’s holding on to the fear about what might happen.
It’s true- the future is mostly uncertain, and knowing this can create an unpleasant feeling of being out of control.
Holding onto time- meaning, thinking about the future- can give you a false sense of control. There’s often the unconscious belief that if you worry about something enough, you’ll be able to control it. Of course, that’s absurd, but the mind thinks that because of its deeper fear: fear of experiencing the uncertainty itself.
If you really let go of your worry about what might happen, you must confront the experience of really not knowing, of being uncertain. That can be painful, and there’s naturally resistance to pain. But, if you allow yourself to experience the pain of uncertainty, it will burn away. Don’t block the pain with a “pile of books”- that is, a pile of stories about what might be. On the other side of this pain is liberation- the expansive and simple dwelling with Being in the present.
Second, there can be some negativity about what might have happened in the past.
If you let go of your preoccupation with time, if you let go of whatever “happened,” you must confront the fact that the past is truly over. The deeper level of this is confronting your own mortality. Everything, eventually, will be “over.”
But, let go of the past, and feel the insecurity of knowing that everything is passing. Don’t block that feeling of insecurity with a “pile of books”- with narratives about days past. Then you will see- there’s a gift being offered right now. It is precious; it is fragile- a flower offered by a little child, this precious moment.
This week’s reading, Parshat Akharei Mot, begins with a warning to Aaron the Priest concerning the rites he is to perform on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:
“V’al yavo b’khol eit el hakodesh-
“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- “V’al yavo b’khol eit… he shall not come at all times…”
In other words, you cannot enter holiness through time!
To enter the holy, you must leave time behind, and enter it Now. Let your grasping after the future burn, let your clinging to the past be released. As it says, continuing the description of the Yom Kippur rite-
“V’lakakh et sh’nei hasirim-
“He shall take two goats…”
Letting go of time means letting go of past and future- one goat for the past, one for the future.
The first goat, it goes on top describe, is “for Hashem”- meaning, the future is in the hands of Hashem. This goat is slaughtered and burned. Meaning: experience the burning of uncertainty and slaughter your grasping after control.
The other goat is “for Azazel.”
The word Azazel is composed of two words- “az” means “strength”, and “azel” means “exhausted, used up”. In other words, the “strength” of the past is “used up.” The past is gone, over, done. 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, and with all its creative potential for what could be…
There’s a story that once Reb 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- ‘M’lo khol ha’aretz k’vodo- the whole world is filled with the Divine Glory.’ But, sometimes we’re blocked from recognizing it.”
“But Abba,” pressed his son, “Why would I be blocked from feeling the Divine Glory 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”- Reb Yaakov Yitzhak of Lublin.
“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 a blast of the rebbe’s spiritual juice, but again the Seer just ignored him. He left feeling dry and sad that his rebbe had rejected him.
“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 and chanting.
“But then he remembered the rest of the teaching. It goes on to say-
‘Pishpeish v’lo matza, yitleh b’vitul Torah-
‘If he sought and did not find, let him ascribe it to the diminishing (bitul) of Torah.’
“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:
‘Pishpeish v’lo matza, yitleh b’vitul Torah.’
“He 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 ‘let go’ of the books- he let go of being a great scholar, and the Presence that he longed for returned.
“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- the whole world is filled with Its Glory. If, while you were there, the Divine Presence rested upon you, this was no great feat accomplished by your extensive learning- it was because in your ecstasy, you opened to what is always already here.’”
On this Shabbos Akharei Mot, the “Sabbath After the Death,” may all that we hold out of pride drop away. May all that we hold out of fear drop away. May all that we hold in an attempt to control drop away… and may we live in this holiness that is always already here.