Once, when Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was traveling, he stopped to spend the night in the town of Lwow. He knocked on the door of a very wealthy man and asked for lodging.
“I have no use for vagrants like you! Why don’t you stay at the inn?” said the man.
“I am not able to afford the inn,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak. “Please, I won’t be any trouble, let me stay in one of your rooms just for the night.”
“Well then, if you can’t afford the inn,” said the miserly rich man, “go around the corner to the schoolteacher. He likes to take in vagrants, and he will offer you a room, food and drink.”
So, Reb Levi Yitzhak went around the corner to the schoolteacher and was offered lodging. But on his way there, someone in the town recognized him, and began to spread the word that the great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was at the schoolteacher’s house. Before long, there were throngs of people crowding the house, trying to get a blessing from the master.
Among the crowd was the miserly rich man, who pushed his way to the front. “Master! Master! Forgive me! I didn’t know who you were! Please come and stay with me. All the great rabbis who come through town stay with me!”
“Do you know,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak, “why such a fuss is made over Avraham and Sarah for their hospitality when they opened their home to the visiting angels and gave them food and drink? Didn’t Lot also invite them in and give them food?
“But in the Torah’s description about Lot, it says, ‘vayovo’u shnei hamalakhim s’domah – two angels came to Sodom,”but with Avraham it says, ‘shloshah anashim nitzavim alav – three men were standing over him.’Lot saw majestic angels, whereas Avraham saw only dusty wayfarers…”
It is easy to see the value of helping others out of love, without ulterior motive. But the “dusty wayfarers” are not just people in need; they can be any undesirable experiences that come to us. When was the last time you were annoyed with something or someone? Were you able to open yourself fully? Did you give your attention generously to the situation or were you like the miserly fellow: “don’t bother me!”
Every experience is an opportunity to remember: “this, now, is the Divine, appearing to me in this form. This, now, is the moment to live my destiny, to step up to the task the Divine is now giving.”
But to do that, you have to be aware not only of what is happening around you, but of what is happening within you. This week’s reading describes the lighting of the menorah:
בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps shine.
How can the lamps shine their light “toward the face of the menorah?”
Light is awareness; the menorah is your own body. Ordinarily, our “light” tends to shine mostly “outward,” so that there’s a sense of “me” in the body, looking out. But shine your “light” back into your body, and you will be able to sense your own impulses, your own feelings. And as you sense them, you also transcend them; you are not your thoughts and feelings alone. You are the light.You are here now to be a light in the world, to be a beacon of hospitality toward everything that appears to you.
To realize your own being as the "Light" of awareness, try inquiring: "Who is seeing?'
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"Shine!" Seven Affirmations for Liberation – Parshat Beha'alotkha
Psalm 91 talks about a person yosheiv b’seiter Elyon- who sits in the refuge of the Most High. Such a person, it says, is protected from all danger. Rak b’einekha tabit- all they have to do is peer with their eyes- v’shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- and the retribution of the wicked they will see.
So it sounds like it’s saying that when you take refuge in the Divine, then you’ll see anyone who does you harm be punished. But the words for retribution of the wicked, v’shilumat r’shayim, imply something much deeper. The root of retribution is shin-lamed-mem- the same as shalom- peace, as well as shalem- wholeness. In other words, it’s not talking about punishing your tormentors, but coming into harmony with them.
And how do you do that? Rak b’einekha tabit- only peer with your eyes. In other words, when you only “see,” meaning when you stick to just being aware of the r’shayim- meaning the things that disturb you- rather than reacting, rather than judging, rather than trying to push or pull anything in any direction, then shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- the “seeing” meaning the perceiving itself creates a sense of shalem- a sense of wholeness and peace. This is because the more you simply perceive, the more you can sense yourself as the perceiving, rather than the reacting and the judging. And that perceiving, that deeper awareness, is always already at peace, always already whole, because perception is nothing but an open space, simply knowing and connecting with the experience of this moment.
So how to you cultivate this kind of simple awareness? There’s a wonderful hint in this week’s Torah reading.
In Parshat Beha’alotkha, it says, beha’alotkha et haneirot- when you kindle the flames- el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shiv’at haneirot- toward the face of the menorah the seven fires shall cast their light.
Now when the Kohanim would kindle the flames of the menorah, most likely they didn’t create the fire by rubbing sticks together. Rather, they had some fire already from which they would light the lamps, so that the act of lighting would be almost effortless. Once you have some flame, it’s not difficult to ignite another flame.
Similarly, if you want to become present, it’s almost effortless because your awareness that connects with the simple reality of this moment is already here. All you need is the intention of becoming present, and miraculously it happens almost by itself. Beha’alotkha et haneirot- to light the fire of awareness- just ask yourself, what is present? And then you can notice- are there sounds that you’re perceiving? Are there sensations? Are there feelings? Emotions? Thoughts? It’s very simple because with Presence, you’re not doing anything about anything, you’re just staying in the noticing.
And when you do that, there’s this wonderful paradox. On one hand, this temple of your own body comes into the foreground. Your own breathing, ordinarily taken for granted, becomes the central event. Your body is like the menorah- just as the menorah supports the fire, so your body is the basis for your consciousness, and when you become present, the lamps of awareness are all facing into your body.
On the other hand, just as the light that shines on the menorah isn’t confined to the menorah but shines without limit or border, so too your awareness isn’t confined to your body at all, but rather is an open field, vast, spacious and without border or limit. So as you notice what is present right now, see if you can also notice the vastness that notices, the light of awareness el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru- shining on the menorah of your body, and also beyond.
And yet simple as Presence is, the forces that pull us away from Presence can be very powerful. Thankfully, we have not one but seven lamps- shiv’at haneirot- to help us. These are, of course, the seven sefirot of the Kabbalah, which correspond to the seven weeks of the Omer period that just ended with Shavuot- Hesed- Loving-kindness, Gevurah- Strength, Tiferet- Beauty or Harmony, Netzakh- Persistence, Hod- Gratitude and Humility, Yesod- Foundation and Malkhut- Kingdom.
CHANT AND MEDITATION
We can use each of these sefirot as kavanot, or affirmations of Presence, and when you do all of them together in sequence, their effect together is very very deep. Let’s try it now:
Bringing your right hand to your heart for Hesed- Loving-Kindness, and please repeat after me:
“I offer my awareness”
Now left hand on your belly for Gevurah- Strength- and say,
“to the temple of this body”
Now touch your right hand to your forehead for Tiferet, Harmony, and say,
“arising in the open space of awareness”
And bringing right hand palm up to your right thigh for Netzakh, Persistence, and say,
“Returning again and again to Presence”
Now bring your left hand, palm up, to your left thigh for Hod, Gratitude, and say,
“Giving thanks for this constant opportunity to Return”
And bring your palms together over your heart for Yesod, the Foundation of living Presence, and say,
“Expressing this Presence in loving words and actions”
And finally opening your hands, palms up, for Malkhut- the Kingdom of Reality, and say,
“Trusting the way everything is unfolding.”
Amein. And chanting from the parshah, ya’iru- which means, they shine, referring to the seven sefirot. So as we chant ya’iru, perceptualizing the seven lights shining in your body.
And coming to silence, chanting Ya’iru___ silently in your mind for about seven minutes. When your mind wanders, you simply return to the chant- "Ya’iru" letting it vibrate in your mind...
Chopped- Parshat Beha'alotkha
During my son’s tenth year, he started getting really into gourmet cooking. He was inspired mostly by the competitive cooking show, “Chopped.”
On Chopped, four contestants would cook under pressure, limited by time and strange ingredients. The challenge was to come up with something delicious and original under the constraints they were given.
I’ve watched Chopped many times with him. One thing I’ve found interesting is that in the interview clips with the contestants, they would all boast about how great they were and how they would beat everyone.
As the show unfolds, three courses are prepared- an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. After each course, the contestants are critiqued and one is “chopped” by the judges, until one winner is left at the end.
As each contestant loses, we see some post-losing interview clips. Almost invariably, the contestants express a little sadness for losing. But then they express gratitude for having been given the opportunity to compete, and say they look forward to improving their skills and continuing to serve people with their cooking.
It seems to me that the contestants must be coached by the producers on what to say in the interviews, because it just doesn’t make sense- people who boast generally don’t turn around and express gratitude and humility when they lose, and people who are humble generally don’t boast about how great they are. It's as if when they are "chopped," their egos get chopped as well!
On the other hand, tremendous self-confidence can paradoxically live side-by-side with tremendous humility and gratitude.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses-
“V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od-
“And the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble?
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel, delivering laws from God and leading them in numerous victorious battles with their enemies. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t have to mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you.”
In fact, there is no separate “you” at all, there is just Reality in all Its different forms. That's why Moses was humble- he was great, but he wasn’t concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and empowering at the same time.
Which brings us to a second paradox:
In order to keep your attention on the greatness of Reality, rather than on your own self-image in relation to others, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your own body. Your fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens:
“Beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot-
“When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness, the menorah is your body.
Keep the “light” of your awareness rooted in your body, and you become present. Become present, and the vastness of Eternity is open to you- not as some heaven or afterlife to be earned and enjoyed later, but as the living experience of this moment- free and open to all.
And yet, this gift is not completely free. To receive it, you have to “chop” the idea that it must be earned, by you or anyone else. Otherwise you will judge yourself and others, and in that judgment, the present moment is lost.
Instead, let the truth of this moment be as it is. Let the truth of your own talents and flaws be as it is. Let others be as they are. That’s humility- and greatness- honoring the truth without judgment, being present to Reality.
Then, the separate ego-self that demands and judges naturally gets “chopped,” and the vastness of heaven is available.
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to say that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come. He explained that when he dies and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come on in! We can see that you honor the truth, and for that you are ready for all the rewards of heaven!”
On this Shabbat Beha’alotkha, the Sabbath of Light, may the light of awareness shine in our bodies with great depth and presence, opening the vastness of heaven that's ever available. May we serve the Greatness in whatever way it calls to us, and may that service bring benefit to all.
Can't You Do Anything Right? Parshat Baha'alotkha
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to express his immense gratitude that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come.
He explained that when he leaves his body and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the Mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come right on in! We can see you are telling the truth, and for that you deserve all the rewards of the World to Come!”
The “World to Come” is actually free, and it is not even in the future, but is present now- thank God! The wholeness of your innermost being cannot get anymore whole than it already is!
But, it is easy to get blocked from feeling and knowing this truth for yourself, simply by craving validation and defending yourself. Reb Elimelekh was considered to be a tzaddik, a spiritual master, yet he had no need to claim anything. He admits- “I could have done better.” He is not defending himself to the heavenly court, and therefore he is open to receive the spiritual gift that is ever-flowing.
Why does defensiveness cut you off from your inherent bliss?
Because defensiveness actually creates your “self” as something separate, as something incomplete. That’s the paradox- if you claim to be somehow superior, valid, righteous or whatever, you create a sense of self that is inherently inferior, invalid, incomplete and separate.
But if you admit- “I could have done better… and whatever good I’ve done is by the grace of God”- then you relax the tense contraction of self concern, and return to the Wholeness that you already are, but that you can’t claim or own.
Then, simply to be is a tremendous gift, not a burden. In fact, it’s the need to defend yourself that’s the burden! Let go of that, and gratitude naturally follows.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- and the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble??
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you”; in fact there is no separate “you” at all, there is just the Mystery of Being in all Its different forms. That's just what Moses did- he was not concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
What Greatness is calling to you?
At this moment, what are you being asked to step up to and serve?
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and liberating.
Which brings us to a second paradox: In order to keep your attention on Being, rather than on your identity, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your body. That’s right- your own fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens: “…beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot- when you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness. The menorah is your body, with its seven centers of consciousness and seven basic “middot”- spiritual qualities that express your inner Divinity, beyond ego.
Of these qualities, “humility” and “gratitude” are often coupled together as the fifth middah (if you are counting from the top down, or the third of you count from the bottom up).
On this Shabbos Beha’a lotkha, I bless you that you should ignite the fire of your awareness to greater depth and presence in your body, that you more deeply taste the freedom and bliss of your inner Divinity, and that you recommit to serve the Greatness in whatever way you are being called to serve.
Be good to one another, Good Shabbos!
Reb Pinkhas taught that r'shsayim, "wicked" people, are just as precious as righteous people. The rightous are like the palace of a prince, but the wicked are like little cottages in the country that the prince visits while traveling. Those little cottages accomplish what the palace cannot, as they give the prince a place to stay far from the palace home.
Similarly, when someone who is usually far from holiness, posessed by desires and negativity, turns from ego to the Divine, that person accomplishes something the righteous cannot: transformation.
Divine Light is like the sun; if you open the door a crack, it just flows in without judgment. It doesn't care if you deserve it or not! All that is necessary is opening the heart. But if you're embroiled in ego, you might need an ice pick to break open the heart. The ice pick is teshuvah, prayers of admitting that you made a mistake, prayers asking for forgiveness....
Why Did I Wake Up Lonely? Parshat Nasso
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One night we were woken up around 1:00 AM when our two-year old daughter wandered into our bedroom and cried, “Why did I wake up lonely?”
I think she meant to ask why she woke up alone, not lonely. But, I realized, this can be a concern for many people on the Path- “If I wake up spiritually, will I be lonely?”
Put another way- “If I awaken to a new level of consciousness, will I still be able to relate to people? Will I feel all alone if I let go of all the games and dramas that I am used to playing out with people?”
It’s true, there is an aspect of waking up that requires aloneness, but not necessarily loneliness.
On the inner level, there has to be a willingness to let go of your addiction to thinking. As long as the mind is constantly generating a stream of thought, the world will appear as a projection of your thought. Let go of your stream of thinking, and you open to the Divine Presence that is your own awareness, seeing Its own glory and unity in everything.
This happens when your consciousness fully stands alone, not seduced by the compulsive narratives of the mind.
This week’s reading, Parshat Nasso, is the finale for describing the construction of the Mishkan- the sanctuary of the Divine Presence. In preparation for the Mishkan becoming activated, the Israelites are told to expel anyone who is a tzaru’a, a zav, or who is tamei lanafesh.
All three of these terms have to do with bodily things that many people would consider to be kind of gross. Metaphorically, they are related to ways that our thoughts, speech and actions can keep us unconscious and in “exile” from the Presence.
“Tzaru’a” means someone with a particular skin affliction, and is associated with the sin of lashon hara- gossip and slander. Since the skin is the boundary of a person but also the place of intimate connection with others, this mythic disease is an expression of relationships getting tarnished through destructive speech.
“Zav” means some kind of bodily emission and is associated with sexuality. Metaphorically, the outward emission represents the way thoughts of sexuality can be a kind of “reaching” or “grasping” for gratification, a loss of vital energy and presence.
These two represent the polarity of unconsciousness-
“Tzaru’a” is negativity, and “Zav” is wanting, grasping, neediness. Both of these lead to an absence of Presence in the body, which brings us to the third one: “Tamei Lanefesh” means spiritually contaminated by a corpse.
To the degree that you become seduced by the energies of “I hate” and “I want,” your body is temporarily dead to the Presence that is not separate from your own Being. In order for your body to become a sanctuary again, these forces and the thoughts they produce must be “expelled from the camp” in a sense.
You must stand alone from them- let go of your resistance, and you will come to know your inner Wholeness. Once you know your inner Wholeness, you can let go of your wanting as well. It's enough to be with what is.
Rabbi David Novaodok would say-
“Why is it that people don’t have what they want? It’s because they don’t want what they have. If they wanted only what they have, they would have what they want!”
On this Shabbat Nasso, the Sabbath of Carrying, may we constantly carry with us the knowledge of letting go, so that we cease to carry the burdens of resistance and wanting. And in so doing, may the Presence that we are reveal Itself ever more deeply, making our bodies into temples of the Presence.
Once, Rabbi Shmelke and his brother came to their teacher, the Maggid of Metzritch, with a problem: "Our sages say that we should give praise and thanks to Hashem for all the misfortunes that befall us, as well as for the blessings. How can we understand this?"
"Go ask Reb Zushia," replied the Maggid, "he sits in the Beit Midrash, smoking his pipe."
They went and found Reb Zushia and put the question to him. Reb Zushia just laughed. "Ha! Surely you've come to the wrong man, for I have never experienced misfortune!"
"How can you say that?" replied Reb Shmelke, "for you have been impoverished for most of your life!"
"Let me tell you a story," said Reb Zushia. "Once there was a king who wished to test his subjects, so he arranged a massive festival in an outdoor park. He had hundreds of precious objects from the palace brought out on display, and sent this message throughout the kingdom: "Let everyone come and pick one object from among my treasures to take for themselves."
People came from all over and wandered through the park, picking and choosing the treasures they wanted. Among them was an old beggar woman who made her way to the king and asked, "Your Highness, is it true I can choose anything in this park to take for my own?"
"Yes!" replied the king, "anything you want."
"Then," replied the old woman, "I choose you!"
"Ha, you have chosen wisely!" said the king. "You get me, and my whole kingdom!"
The amazing news is, you're in that park right now. Ordinarily, we tend to focus on the different treasures – the fruits of our efforts that we desire. But just one small shift, and you have the whole kingdom, instantly.
What is that shift?
Dedicate your actions to the Divine. Dedicate your words to the Divine. Dedicate your thoughts to the Divine. Don't worry about the fruits; just do your best in service and love, and let the Divine give you what It gives you. Shift your motivation from the separate things and goals, to the One Thing, the One Goal. The One is always instantly available, but you have to shift into that frame; you have to elevate the way you think.
This week's reading begins with the instruction to take a census of the Israelites:
...שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
S'u et rosh kol ada'at b'nei Yisrael – Lift the heads of the children of Israel...
"Lift the heads" is an idiom that means to take a "head count" – that's the census.
Yisrael means, SARita im ELohim – Strive for the Divine (Gen. 32.29).
So, if you want to reach the Divine, you must "lift your head". You must elevate the way that you think. All your goals, responsibilities, tasks, your whole life situation – know that it's all a path to the Divine, if you but keep the Divine in mind, and dedicate everything to the Divine.
Pirkei Avot, 1:3, says:
אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס
Don't be like the servant who serves the master to receive a reward, be like the servant who serves the master not to receive a reward...
In other words, shift your motivation to serve the One, and let go of separate, particular goals. This doesn't necessarily mean changing anything you're doing; it means changing your motivation, changing your frame.
וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם
and let the awe of heaven be upon you.
"Heaven" means the space of your own awareness, within which your experience arises. Your awareness is the gateway to Heaven – it is always whole, complete, at peace. So when you declutter yourself from all separate aims, and instead aim at the One Thing that is ever-available, you can know yourself as the space of this moment, and Heaven can come together with Earth...
This Saturday night is Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation. May we all receive a new insight for bringing Heaven down to Earth, a new revelation on our paths...
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The Garbage Truck- Parshat Bamidbar
One morning, as I lay in bed around 6:30 am, I heard a rumbling sound from deep within whatever dream I was having.
“That sound… it means something… something important… what is that sound?”
The garbage truck!
I had forgotten to put the garbage out the night before, and the can was pretty full. I leapt out of bed, slid into some pants, darted downstairs and out the front door.
I looked and saw- the garbage truck had already passed my house and was halfway down the street! I grabbed the can and ran after him, rolling it behind me.
When I caught up, I started to politely ask him if he would take it, but before even one word came from my lips he grabbed it from me violently, almost knocking me over and barked something like “GIMMEE IT!” …I think.
Wow- he had certainly drunk his coffee already. Maybe a little too much. But I was grateful that he took it at all!
So, what would make you get up in the morning so fast?
The codes of Jewish law are somewhat paradoxical about getting up in the morning. On one hand, they say that you should leap out of bed to “do the Will of the Creator”- no laziness! Not a moment should be wasted- there is much to do! Get up with the “strength of a lion” and jump into the day.
On the other hand, before you get up, you should take a moment to receive the gift of your life, chanting- “Modeh ani lifanekha- I give thanks before you…”
Then should you leap into your day?
No, you should ritually wash your hands, with the kavanah (intention) to purify your heart so that you can serve with love in all your actions.
Okay now should get on with it, right?
No. First there are many blessings to be chanted, many prayers to pray. And even before all of that, they say you should take some moments in silence to tap your inner depths in preparation.
So which is it?
Should you leap out of bed and get to work, or take your time to connect with your inner depths?
But that’s the point- it's both.
If you spend all your time in meditation, the bliss of Being reveals Itself within your own awareness, but the world remains untouched. On the other hand, if your life is focused solely on the external, then you become lost in its dramas, disconnected from you inner Source, and the world suffers for it.
But connect with the Eternal in order to bring it into the temporal- that’s the alchemy!
This week’s reading hints at this spiritual rhythm. It begins with Hashem instructing Moses to take a census of all the soldiers who are ready for battle-
“Vay’daber Hashem el Moshe b’midbar Sinai-
“Hashem spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness…
“Se’u et rosh kol adat-
“Take a census of the entire assembly…”
Counting the soldiers is a metaphor for our external lives. Each day we should arouse ourselves like soldiers to do battle with our inner inertia and make every moment “count”.
But then a few verses later, it gives the other half of the equation:
“Akh et hamateh Levi lo tifkod-
“But the tribe of Levi your shall not count…”
The Levites weren’t soldiers, they were priests and musicians- caretakers of the Mishkan- the Sacred Space at the center of the camp. The soldiers went out to conquer the many, but the Levites connected to the One. And in the One, there’s nothing to count! There is only One!
The trick is for these two sides- the internal and the external- the many and the One- to be in balance. Ideally, you express your inward sacredness through the external wilderness of life. But this takes practice- it’s no small thing staying connected to the holiness of this moment while running after the garbage truck!
But fortunately, no matter how lost in the external we become, the present moment has not gone anywhere. It’s always here, open to our return, to our t’shuvah.
There’s a story of the Chofetz Chayim, that he once had a student who was sunk in crushingly oppressive poverty. The student would often implore his master to pray on his behalf, and promised that if his prayers were answered and he were to become wealthy, he would give abundant tzeddaka- abundant charity to those in need. The Chofetz Chayim would just listen compassionately and nod.
Years later, after the student had moved away to the city, he had indeed become exceedingly wealthy. The Chofetz Chayim went to visit him and asked-
“So, how are things?”
“Very well thank God,” said the former student, “I’ve been blessed with many riches.”
“And how has your tzeddaka been going?”
The rich former student turned red, embarrassed that he had forgotten his promise. In fact, as his riches grew more and more, his stinginess had grown as well.
“You know,” said the Chofetz Chayim, “The more successful you are in your external battles, the stronger your yetzer hara- your lust for the external- also becomes.”
In that moment, his delusion was broken, and he returned fully to the inner path that his heart had abandoned. He dedicated his wealth to service and became a fountain of relief for many who suffered in poverty.
On this Shabbat Bamidbar, the Sabbath of the Wilderness, may we reconnect with this holy intention: to neither become lost in the drama and grasping of the external wilderness, nor abandon this world that is so in need of healing. Rather, let us connect frequently and deeply with the truth of this moment, bringing its love and wisdom into the story of our lives as it unfolds in time- for this brief time we inhabit these bodies, on this earth.
Guard and Remember- Parshat Bamidbar
A question I often hear goes like this:
“When I am meditating or chanting, I feel so deeply connected and I have no problem being my highest self. But, when stressful things in life push my buttons, all of that is out the window.
"How do I maintain my spiritual connection in those moments?”
This is a question that often comes up after you have had some success with your practice. Before that success, sure, you will still have been looking for a spiritual connection, realization, experience or whatever.
But then, at the very moment when you think you've discovered and connected with what you've been searching for. . . Oy! . . . The problem is even deeper:
How do I keep the connection?
The simple answer, of course, is practice. You have to practice keeping that connection in different life situations. Only then will you get better and better at it.
But I bet that answer doesn't feel so helpful to hear, right? After all, you know that when you find yourself in a stressful or triggering situation, two things sneak up and derail you:
1) You don’t care anymore about your spiritual connection, because you are triggered! You go into in a fight-or-flight mode. You just want to get out of there or lash out.
2) Even if you do care to practice in such a moment, you probably can’t remember to practice because you are triggered! Your emotions have taken over and blocked your memory of what's most essential, and how to get back to it!
I guess you can see why, if you are going to actually be able to practice in those triggering situations, you'll first need a foolproof strategy for working through the two problems above.
And . . . Here is exactly that!
First of all, you need to remember to practice (zakhor), and second of all, you need to be motivated to practice (shamor).
There are many ways to approach this, but let’s explore one.
First, how do you remember?
A great way to remember is to use what I call the “Fringe Technique”. You may know the traditional practice to wear fringes, called tzitizt, on a four-cornered garment, or tallit.
The purpose of the tzitzit is exactly what we are talking about- they are a physical reminder on your body to dedicate your actions to the Divine and to avoid getting caught in distractions that take you away from that intention.
Another purpose of the tzitzit is to remind you to do the mitzvot, the particular spiritual practices of Judaism, throughout your day.
This brings us to the second problem- how do you remain motivated?
Let’s take a particular mitzvah and see how this can work:
There is a daily mitzvah to chant the words, “Ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha… You shall love Existence, your inner Divinity, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”
These words are an expression of commitment. For the sake of clarity, let’s rephrase it to express this commitment more explicitly. You might say, “I commit to serving the Divine in everything I do.”
If you say this commitment every day (or use the traditional words, but understand them and mean them as a commitment), then you are adding tremendous power to your intention to practice in difficult moments.
Because even when you don’t care about spirituality in a moment of being triggered, you have made a commitment and you can rely on that commitment. You don’t have to care; you just have to honor your commitment. The actual saying out loud of a commitment will give tremendous power to your intention, even in the most difficult moments.
But now you still have to remember your commitment. That’s where the “fringe” comes in. You need to have some kind of reminder that works for you all day long, so that your chances of remembering in those difficult moments are increased thousand-fold.
Your reminder could actually be tzitzit. Of course, just wearing tzitzit is not enough; you have to train yourself to be reminded of your intention by them. For example, make it a practice to say your commitment over and over again, every time you look down and see them.
But, any reminder will work, as long as you empower it as a reminder. For example, you could set your smart phone to give you reminders throughout the day. Or, you could wear something else like a piece of jewelry to remind you.
Whatever you use, the key is to verbally say your intention out loud every day, and then have something to remind you throughout the day. Using this “Fringe Technique” is so powerful, you can transform your entire life in any direction you choose, simply by programming yourself with the intentions you choose.
This week’s reading begins, “Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe b’midbar Sinai- Hashem spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness… se’u et rosh kol adat- take a census of the entire assembly… according to their head count…”
Moses is instructed to count the Israelites who are ready to out go to battle.
The wilderness, the midbar, is the arena in which we live. Like the wild of nature, life itself is not totally predictable. It throws us curve balls. We need to be like soldiers if we are to make each moment count by bringing our spiritual commitments to every situation.
But later it says, “V’hal’viyim lo hotpakdu- the Levites were not counted…”
The Levites weren’t soldiers. They were in charge of the sanctuary- the sacred space at the center of the camp where the Divine rested. They represent the people’s connection to the One. In the One, there is nothing to count! There is only One!
And this is the paradox-
To bring liberating intention to each moment, you need strategies that work in time. You need to be like a soldier. But, the Reality you safeguard through those strategies is Itself beyond time. It is the space of Presence that does not change; it is Being Itself- it is not born and does not die. When you stay connected to That, the storms of life cannot shake you. You sit within the eye of the hurricane, the holy of holies.
May we bring forth our potential for unity and love through the power of our commitment to this moment, and may the world swiftly be transformed by it-
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Ascend- Parshat Behar- On the Mountain
"When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine..."
The Torah reading Parshat Behar opens by talking about Shabbat not as a day of rest for people, but as a rest for the land. It says:
Ki tavo’u el ha’aretz asher ani notein lakhem, v’shavta ha’aretz Shabbat laShem- When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine.
It then goes on to explain what it means for the land to rest:
"Sheish shanim tizra sadekha v’sheish shanim tizmor karmekha v’asafta t’vuatah-
"Six years your will plant your field, prune your vineyard and gather in your produce.
"Uvashana hashvi’it Shabbat shabbaton yiyeh la’aretz-
But the seventh year should be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land… don’t plant your field or prune your vineyard..."
Now the Torah doesn’t talk much about vegetables. When it refers to planting fields, it’s mostly talking about grain, and from the grain is made the ancient staple, bread. Pruning vineyards is a reference of course to grapes that are made into wine. Now wine and bread are not only basic foods, they’re also sacramental foods- forming the ritual part of sacred meals on Shabbat and festivals. In fact, the first mention of this is in Bereishit 14:18 when Makitzedek, the priest-king of Shalem, blesses Avraham and brings him bread and wine.
I heard once from a friend a special teaching that he heard from Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory. He pointed out that wine is something that gets better and better with age. You pay more for wine depending on how old it is. Bread, on the other hand, has to be fresh. No one wants a fifty year-old loaf of bread.
Similarly, there’s an aspect of the spiritual path that’s ancient and an aspect that’s fresh and new. For example, the Torah, and really the whole Jewish tradition, is ancient and there’s a special richness in that. And even though there are plenty of passages in the Torah that may seem wrong and even disturbing, that’s offset in a sense by the richness of being connected to a lineage that’s many thousands of years old. And yet, that richness doesn’t really come to life unless it’s combined with fresh, new insights and interpretations. No one wants to hear the same old canonized interpretations over and over again. For the tradition to really live, it also has to be like bread- we need khidushim-new insights.
On a deeper level, the very practice of Presence also contains these two aspects. On one hand, there is nothing more ancient than the present moment. There’s nothing that’s ever existed that didn’t exist in the space of its own present. That’s why one of the names of God is Atik Yomin- the Ancient of Days. And when you become fully present to the ancient space of this moment, there’s an intoxication, as you drink in the wine of the Being.
At the same time, in becoming present to That which is most ancient, there’s also a spontaneous letting go of mental and emotional baggage from the past so that everything in your experience becomes alive and new like a freshly baked challah.
So on this Shabbat B’Har and B’khukotai- the Sabbath of the Mountain and the Decree- may continue to ascend the mountain of transcendence and freedom through both the wine of tradition and the bread of immediacy, bringing that transcendence into the flow of actual life, doing our part to fulfill the decree of tikum olam- transforming this world into a celebration of creation and an expression of love.
The Lonely 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-
Once, when Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev had finished leading the davening, he went out into the congregation and greeted everyone: "Shalom aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!" – as if he they had just arrived after a journey.
"Rabbi, why do you greet us as if we just got here? We've been praying with you all morning!"
"Have you?" replied the rebbe, "but in your mind, you were just in the marketplace, you were just wondering what's for lunch, you were just arguing with someone, and when the prayers ended, you all returned, so I greeted you!"
The essence of spiritual work is Presence, and the goal of Presence is freedom. Freedom means: no resistance to whatever happens to arise within your experience. It means: no resentment, no blame, no persisting anger – no resistance at all!
One of the biggest obstacles in our quest for freedom can be the way we talk to ourselves. How do you narrate your experience? How are you framing this moment right now? The way we speak to ourselves has the power to either lead us to more inner clutter, or lead us into the spaciousness of the Present; the power is in our mouths, so to "speak"...
There's a hint in this week's reading, Parshat Emor:
אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו
Speak – Emor – to the priests, the children of Aaron, and say to them, "don't become polluted for a person among your people..."
If you wish to keep yourself open, spacious, uncluttered, then "speak to the priests" – that is, know that you are literally a "priest" – you're not merely a separate entity navigating through life, you are a connecting point between heaven and earth – between the vast space of consciousness, and everything that you perceive – thoughts, feelings, sense perceptions – the whole world around and within. Speak to yourself, remind yourself in this way: "Here is this feeling, here is this thought..." And even more, transform it into a prayer:
"O Hashem, help me to know myself as the vast space of awareness, help me to accept everything that arises and live in simplicity, with love, serving Your highest potential and uplifting the world..."
love and all blessing,
reb brian yosef
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"Say"- Parshat Emor
"Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai-
"Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals."
(Inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson- The Rebbe)
The Torah reading Parshat Emor emphasizes the mitzvot of making sacred times- in this case, of setting aside special days in which you put aside all your time-bound agendas so that you can more deeply connect with Eternal dimension of Being. It says, "Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai- Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals." It then goes on to talk about the various festivals, beginning with Shabbat: "Uvayom hash’vi’i Shabbat Shabbaton- and on the seventh day shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths."
Why does it call Shabbat a Sabbath of Sabbaths?
Because ultimately, the purpose of Shabbat- the purpose of the festivals, as well as any other times you set aside for spiritual practice- is not merely to have a special holy experience during those times alone. Rather, the purpose is to immerse in the Eternal dimension of Being so that you can continue to practice Presence even as you operate in the mundane world of time. In that way, all times become like a Sabbath, and the actual Sabbath is then a Sabbath of Sabbaths. Because as we all know, there are many forces of distraction on many levels that block the sense of life being a Sabbath. But when you regularly put those distractions aside in order to do your spiritual practice, you give yourself that space you need and allow the Eternal dimension of Being to blossom more and more into all your life.
So what does it mean to put aside the things of ordinary time? As it says, "...mikra kodesh- a sacred time- kol melakha lo ta’asu- all melakha, that is all work, don’t do."
Meaning, anything that has goals in time such as earning a livelihood, traveling, planning, working on projects- all those things that define your life in time, as opposed to your actual life- that sense of simply Being, as you are, right now, don’t do that stuff. Make sure you have some special times that are sacred.
So on this Shabbat Emor, the Sabbath of saying, may we say out loud to ourselves our commitment to set aside time to go beyond time, whether in the traditional practices of Shabbat and the mo’adim, the Sabbath and festivals, or even for just a few seconds throughout the day to stop, breath and be present, perhaps even putting away phones and computers. May the whole world be nourished by our commitment to practice, that we might be greater channels of love and healing in the world.
The Zombies- Parshat Emor
Once I saw my son looking at You Tube, ravenously drinking in the old 1980’s Michael Jackson Thrillervideo.
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.
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