Can’t You Do Anything Right?
As important as it is to be conscious in our words and actions, it is also crucial to admit when we haven’t been conscious. This takes a different kind of courage – the courage to confess our imperfection, the courage to tell the truth.
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to say how he knew 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, because we can see you are telling the truth!”
We may be conditioned to think that spiritual reward is earned through perfecting ourselves, but actually, it is free. The “World to Come” is not in the future at all, but is present now – it the condition of Wholeness that is inherent in Reality Itself, ever-present and always available.
And yet, as we know, it is easy to get blocked from feeling and knowing this Truth for ourselves. One of the main ways we can get blocked is by craving validation. 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, in the absence of a defensive posture, he is open to receive the spiritual Gift that is ever being given.
Why does defensiveness cut us off from this Gift?
Because defensiveness actually creates the sense of self as something separate, as something incomplete. That’s the paradox – if you cling to a self-image of being 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 that tense, contractive self-concern can relax, and you can more easily 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 impulse to defend ourselves that is the burden! Let go of that, and the Wholeness of simply being naturally follows.
וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
And the man Moses was very humble – more so than any other man on the face of the earth.
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. When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it is humbling… and liberating.
Which brings us to a second paradox: In order to keep our attention on the Divine, rather than on our identity, we have to keep our awareness rooted in the body. That’s right – our fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical bodies are actually the gateways to Eternity, when our attention is rooted there. There is a hint of this in the opening of the parshah, where Aaron is instructed to kindle the menorah:
בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, the seven lamps should shine toward the face of the menorah…
The light is your awareness; the menorah is your body. “Kindling the lamps” is becoming present with the body.
But why seven lamps?
Seven in a symbol of completeness, of the whole person, hinting that we must bring consciousness to all areas of our lives. This is a challenge because there is a tendency to pay attention only to some areas of our lives, while ignoring others; we tend to pay attention to either the inner or the outer, either to the mind or to the heart, either to the physical or to the conceptual, either to the political or to the personal. The key is to bring awareness to all levels, to all dimensions…
Once, one of our community members sent me an article criticizing the “mindfulness industry” and asked for my thoughts on the topic. The article claimed that the marketing of mindfulness totally misleads people into thinking that all they need to get rid of stress and be happy is to practice mindfulness, while ignoring the real problems in our society that actually create stress and unhappiness.
While this may be true about mindfulness as an industry, it actually points to a much deeper problem that exists not just in spirituality but in every human endeavor, and that’s the problem of reductionism. When we get excited about something – whether it’s an art, a philosophy, a spiritual practice, a political movement, anything – we tend to reduce everything to that, and ignore other things of vital importance.
The mindfulness industry may be exploiting this tendency toward reductionism for its own marketing ends, but the root of the problem is deeper. And, it’s worth noting that there are both “spiritual” people and “political” people who do this: “If only we would change society,” or “If only we would meditate enough” – then our problems would be solved.
In the realm of spirituality, this is sometimes called spiritual bypass, but there is also political bypass, economic bypass, and many other bypasses. How can we be truly integral in our view and not unconsciously bypass?
First, it is helpful is to understand why we might bypass. Why would we believe in something so strongly that we ignore other things that are also important? If you work in a kitchen, you have to wash both of your hands. No matter how clean you get your left hand, you still have to wash your right hand; there is no point at which your left hand gets SO clean that you no longer have to wash your right hand. Why would we think otherwise when it comes to other facets of life?
There are two basic reasons this might happen:
The first is that we may recognize some core truth, and that truth gets exaggerated into a bypass. In the case of spirituality, this isn’t hard to see, because the more present we become, the more we are able to be of genuine service to those around us. While our spiritual practice may not seem to have any discernible effect on our political/economic system, it can have a profound effect on the real people we interact with every day. This is no small thing – as we know, our daily interactions with others affect not only the tone of our own lives, but have an incalculable effect beyond our immediate experience on countless beings whom we may never meet.
And, while some of us may sometimes have a discernible and occasionally profound effect at the political level, nearly all of us are constantly affecting and are being affected by others that we encounter daily. The quality of our interactions, especially with family and others we are close with, can sometimes make the difference between life and death, or between a healthy life and a life of alienation and misery.
It is understandable, then, that in knowing the profoundly transformative and life-changing power of waking up in one’s life, that one might “overstep” and assume that if we awaken, everything else will simply take care of itself.
For this reason, it is helpful to remember: meditation can have a profoundly positive effect, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily and automatically “trickle down” to solve all the world’s problems, or even other personal problems such as health or money issues. For those, we may certainly have to do something else. But still, whatever we may have to do, Presence can help to open the inner space so that we can clearly see the choices before us, rather than be mired in conditioning and reactivity.
The second reason is the plain fact that we are not in control of what happens.
Nowadays, many of us are experiencing such distress in relation to our larger political, social and natural world realities, that it can be overwhelming. Combine that with the fact that no matter what we do, we are never guaranteed any positive outcome, we can be tempted to give up on trying to exert any influence, and focus instead solely on the immediate personal realm, where we may be more likely to have some positive effect. We know that we can’t control the world – so why should we drive ourselves crazy trying? Resignation is seductive, and to avoid the pain of despair, we might adopt the belief that we really are doing our best simply by meditating.
There is a wonderful rabbinic aphorism to help us avoid these pitfalls: Rabbi Tarfon says:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.
Simple, clean, and radiating with truth: yes, we have no certainty, we have no control. It is not upon us to figure it all out; we can’t figure it all out. But we can act, from where we are and from what we see and with what is available to us, to participate in tikkun, in improving the situation. And that means, don’t reduce – the Divine needs to be realized bashamayim uva’aretz – in the heavens and on the earth, both.
Let’s look again at the opening of the parshah:
בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, the seven lamps should shine toward the face of the menorah…
It is a strange sentence – how can the light of the seven lamps be made to shine back toward the menorah? Light would simply shine out in all directions.
But on a metaphorical level, the “seven lamps” are the many facets of human endeavor, such as politics, sciences, arts, relationships, and so on, and the menorah as a whole is a glyph that represents an integral vision, including all aspects of the whole person. Each branch expresses its own unique “light” – its own expression of consciousness – and the key is to get them all to illuminate their “root” – the unified human being, the one consciousness that we are beneath all our complexity, beneath all our multifaceted experience.
Change Takes Time
Many years ago, my wife Lisa joined a group of egalitarian rabbinical students who had gathered at the Western Wall in the Old City, in Jerusalem, to pray and chant Torah. This was a bit risky, as women and men praying together is considered to be illegal by the hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who dominated (and still dominate) the religious norms of Israel.
At some point, while a woman was reading Torah, a few young hareidi boys gathered around the group, snickering, pointing and making fun. The woman just continued, ignoring the taunts. But soon, the older brothers and cousins started showing up, and the taunting intensified. Soon, young men dressed in black and white had surrounded the colorful group and started throwing rocks and other things.
The commotion aroused the attention of the police, who quickly came between the hareidim and the students, protecting and allowing them to continue their service despite the increasingly dangerous threat that was forming all around them. As Lisa describes, the whole scene was a fantastic display of color: the rainbow shades of the egalitarian rabbinical students’ dress in the center, a ring blue police uniforms surrounding the rainbow colors, and a growing throng of black and white surrounding the blue.
Finally, they finished, many of them shaking and weeping, and the police began escorting them from the plaza. The hareidi men followed and continued hurling insults. One old man with a long beard and long payos (side locks) approached one of the women and shouted: “I have to tell you!”
“Don’t talk to me!” the women yelled back.
“I have to tell you!” the old man persisted.
“I don’t want to hear what you have to tell me!” yelled the woman.
“I have to tell you!” retorted the old man, “You are right! And change takes a long, long time.”
Here we have the meeting point between the different “branches of the menorah” – the inner and outer life. That old man was reminding the women: it is good to have the courage to come out and stand up for positive change in the outer world. But, it is also important to allow things to unfold as they unfold, to recognize that we are not controlling anything, and to let go. This requires Presence in one’s inner world, so as not to be caught by reactivity and fear.
This can be so challenging when confronting the aggression of others. It can be helpful to remember that the hareidim in the story were merely acting out an impulse we all have probably experienced – the sense of being threatened by ideas that we don’t agree with.
Why do we feel threatened by ideas?
Because our sense of self is derived from our structure of thoughts and feelings; thoughts and feelings are the substance of ego. Ego, like any creature, fights to defend itself and stay alive. Just as an animal will be aggressive toward a perceived threat, so too does ego tend to be aggressive toward ideas that contradict its own deeply held assumptions and conditioning. So, if we are to recognize intolerant, aggressive impulses within ourselves, there has to be this basic shift into objectivity and willingness to question one’s own thoughts.
There is a wonderful mishna that expresses this idea:
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר ... וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ
Hillel said, “Don’t believe in yourself until the day of your death…”
– Pirkei Avot 2:5
Hillel is saying, don’t believe everything you think!
Recognize: “Here is a thought of judgment, here is a feeling of fear is arising in my body...”
Once you have successfully broken your unconscious attachment to the impulses that arise from the ego by being aware of them, then another challenge may arise – the tendency to identify with those impulses, and therefore with the shame, guilt, and self-judgment that comes from seeing this part of yourself. In the short run, this is a good thing; we must fully acknowledge our unconscious impulses. If we acted on them, we should apologize and make restitution when possible to create a space for healing. But then we must also recognize: we are not our thoughts, we are not defined by our conditioning.
For example, today there is a great increase of awareness about racism. In this cultural environment, I have often heard white people say, “I always thought I wasn’t racist, but now I realize that I too am a racist.”
אַל תְּהִי רָשָׁע בִּפְנֵי עַצְמְךָ…רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר
Rabbi Shimon said… “Don’t judge yourself to be a wicked person.”
– Pirkei Avot 2:18
Yes, we may become aware of our racist conditioning – racist thoughts arise in the mind, racist feelings arise in the body. But all these are arising within the field of awareness that we are beyond the body, beyond thoughts, beyond feelings. We are that field, that vast spaciousness, beyond all form; we are not the thoughts and feelings that arise within.
But to really know this for ourselves in the challenging moments, we must be the witness not only to our undesirable thoughts in those moments, but of all thoughts, at every moment.
בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, the seven lamps should shine toward the face of the menorah…
Awareness, like physical light, “shines” outward in all directions, open to perceiving whatever is going on externally. But, if we want to awaken, if we want to know ourselves as the light of awareness, we have to deliberately shine that light back into ourselves. We have to look objectively at our own thoughts and feelings and recognize, “I am not limited by that. I am not limited by any identity; I am this Light of Presence, free and inherently benevolent.”
And from that self-knowing, we can bring forth the courage we need to both press for positive change in the outer world, as well as overcome and transcend the source of all violence and aggression that lies within – the human ego – for this is the work only we can do for ourselves…
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי
He (Hillel) used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
One night, when our daughter was two years old, we were woken up around 1:00 in the morning when she 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 her words reminded me of a real fear that can arise on the path of spiritual awakening – the fear of being alone:
“If I awaken, will I still be able to relate to other people? Will I feel all alone if I let go of the games and dramas that I used to engage in?”
It’s true, there can be some awkwardness at first in relating to others as you transform, but this is only an adjustment period. However, there is an aspect of waking up that does require a certain aloneness, though not necessarily loneliness.
On the most basic level, there has to be a willingness to let go of one’s addiction to thinking. As long as the mind is constantly generating a stream of thought, the world will appear to be a projection of that thought. Let go of your stream of thinking, and you begin to awaken – meaning, you begin to feel who you are beneath and beyond your thoughts – a vast, radiant field of consciousness, utterly alone with yourself, because you are no longer keeping company with the endless narrations of your mind.
Stepping into this aloneness can be challenging because it triggers the fears of the ego. After all, the ego is literally made out of thoughts and feelings; step into aloneness, and the ego dissolves. The ego doesn’t want to dissolve, it wants to survive – so it generates fear. Awakening, then, requires transcending that fear; it requires a special kind of courage. This spiritual courage necessary to awaken from the dream of ego is represented by the letter כ kaf.
The meaning of כ kaf is “palm of the hand,” which both represents the place of action, as well as the transmission of blessing, as when a person is blessed by one placing their palms on the head of the one being blessed. The letter כ kaf also begins the word keter, “crown” – representing the royal quality of courage that “crowns” a true leader. Bringing these different images together, כ kaf is our inner royalty, courageously “building” our inner “sanctuary of blessing” within which our essence can dwell, alone and sovereign.
The courage of כ kaf isn’t something we have to acquire or create. It is inherent in our being; we only need remember it and bring it forth. But to do that we have to want to do it. This can be the biggest challenge, because when we are possessed by other concerns, our power of intention can become focused elsewhere; it takes a special effort to refocus ourselves on our deepest desire – the desire to awaken.
So, if we wish to bring forth the courage we need to truly stand alone from our thoughts, we need to not be so seduced by our other concerns; we need to somehow put them aside...
צַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וִֽישַׁלְּחוּ֙ מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה כׇּל־צָר֖וּעַ וְכׇל־זָ֑ב וְכֹ֖ל טָמֵ֥א לָנָֽפֶשׁ׃
Command the Israelites to send out from camp anyone with a skin affliction, anyone with a bodily discharge and anyone who has been defiled by a corpse.
This verse describes the final preparations for completing the Mishkan, the Holy Sanctuary in the middle of the Israelite camp. In order for it to become activated, they are instructed to separate anyone who is a tzaru’a, a zav, or who is tamei lanafesh. All three of these terms have to do with bodily phenomena, but metaphorically, they are related to ways that our thoughts, speech and actions can block us from the courage we need to awaken.
The first is צָרוּעַ tzaru’a, which 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.
The second is זָב zav, which means some kind of bodily emission and is associated with sexuality. Metaphorically, this outward emission represents the way thoughts of sexuality can be a kind of “reaching” or “grasping” for gratification, and a loss of vital energy and Presence.
These two represent the basic polarity of unconsciousness – the tzaru’a is negativity, and the zav is wanting, grasping, neediness. Both of these lead to an absence of Presence in the body, which brings us to the third one: טָמֵ֥א לָנָֽפֶשׁ tamei lanefesh, which is someone who has become “spiritually contaminated” by a corpse.
To the degree that we become seduced by the energies of “I hate” and “I want,” our bodies become temporarily “dead” to our deeper desire for awakening. We must “separate them from the camp” in a sense, so that we can access that deepest desire. But how do we do that?
Burning Down the House
If you look back in time through your family photos, you will eventually find pictures of people not smiling. It’s an interesting thing – why didn’t people smile back then when posing for pictures? And why and when did people start smiling as we do today?
It’s funny – a person could be grumpy, then someone comes along to take a photo and they instantly manifest an expression of deep happiness. In a sense, the old paradigm is more honest; if we want to take a snapshot of life, the practice of always smiling probably gives a false impression, that life is constantly fun and joyful, when we know that is not.
Happiness is a wonderful thing, but what about honesty?
וְדֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃ …מִי־יָג֣וּר בְּאׇהֳלֶ֑ךָ מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קׇדְשֶֽׁךָ׃
Who may sojourn in Your tent, Who can dwell on Your holy mountain? …one who speaks Truth from their heart…
And yet, in Pirkei Avot, the sage Shamai says:
וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת – Receive every person with a cheerful face.
And later in the text, Rabbi Yishmael takes it even further:
וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּשִׂמְחָה – Receive every person with joy!
So, which is it? Is it best to be honest about our feelings, or should we “put on a happy face?”
A disciple once asked the Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, which is the true path – the path of sorrow or the path of joy?
He answered that there are two kinds of sorrow, and two kinds of joy. The wrong kind of sorrow is when you become negative, think of yourself as a victim and complain about your life. The right kind of sorrow is when you simply feel your suffering and the suffering of others in an honest way, without embellishment.
The wrong kind of joy is when you only become happy about things you like, when things are going your way, when you get what you want. The right kind of joy, on the other hand, is like when a person’s house burns down, and as they rebuild what was destroyed, they rejoice over each and every brick.
It’s a remarkable image – the right kind of joy is like when your house burns down!
The genius of this teaching is that the right kind of joy and the right kind of sorrow are really the same thing; they are merged in the truth of our experience, that everything we love and enjoy will eventually burn down; it takes a special courage, the energy of כ kaf, to face this and “rejoice over each and every brick.”
We can do this because that deeper joy arises from the depths of who we are, beneath our temporary experience, beneath the “house” of our thoughts and feelings. This is the simple joy of being, the joy of existence, which becomes available when we let the “house” of ego “burn down” and fully open to the truth of our experience without resistance – even, paradoxically, the experience of pain and suffering. And in that openness, we begin this moment anew, rejoicing over every “brick” – over every action offered in service of “building the sanctuary” – making a home for the Divine out of this brief life we are given.
This, then, is the secret of freeing ourselves from our wants and hates – it is not a matter of literally “expelling them from the camp,” but rather feeling them fully and going to their root, because behind our ordinary wants and hates is that deeper desire for awakening itself.
This deep openness to the truth of whatever feelings are present is very simple, but it can be challenging in the flow of ordinary life. That’s why daily practice is so important – to take time away from the ordinary distractions to cultivate the awareness necessary.
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַפְלִא֙ לִנְדֹּר֙ נֶ֣דֶר נָזִ֔יר לְהַזִּ֖יר לַֽיהוָֽה׃
…מִיַּ֤יִן וְשֵׁכָר֙ יַזִּ֔יר
Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly swears the vow of the Nazir, to abstain for the sake of the Divine, he shall abstain from wine and intoxicants…
The Nazir mentioned in the parshah is someone who has become disconnected from the Divine and wishes to come back. How do they do it?
They take a period of abstinence from alcohol and haircuts.
Alcohol is a way of altering our inner state, while grooming our hair is a way of altering our outer state. In other words, they are examples of manipulating our experience toward our liking. Consciously abstaining from manipulating our experience for a period can help us get in touch with our deepest level of awareness that simply receives the moment as it is, that “lets the house burn down,” so to speak. This level of awareness already knows the Oneness of the Divine as the basic condition of Reality, prior to the impulse to do something about it. Through this practice, the Nazir could find their way back to the Divine, back to their deepest nature, and then return to ordinary life from this higher place. For us, a periodic withdrawal from acting on the world is actualized through daily meditation, as well as the traditional practices of Shabbat and the festivals.
The weekly reading of Parshat Naso usually happens around the festival of Shavuot, during which the Book of Ruth is traditionally chanted. This book begins with Naomi’s house “burning down” as great tragedy befalls her: first, her husband dies, and then both of her sons die. She tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their families, but her daughter-in-law Ruth swears allegiance to Naomi, and they return to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, penniless. Someone says, “Could this be Naomi?” but Naomi tells her that is no longer her name:
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֔ן אַל־תִּקְרֶ֥אנָה לִ֖י נָעֳמִ֑י קְרֶ֤אןָ לִי֙ מָרָ֔א כִּי־הֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד׃
“Do not call me Naomi (pleasantness),” she replied. “Call me Mara (bitterness), for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter.”
After that, their luck begins to change. Ruth serendipitously meets the wealthy Boaz, a relative of Naomi, ends up marrying him. They have a son, and through his line comes King David, who is himself believed to be the ancestor of the future Moshiakh, the salvation of all humanity.
The hint is: their salvation begins to sprout when Naomi expresses her bitterness: “Call me Mara (bitterness), for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter.”
She is not complaining about her lot; she is receiving it from the hands of the Divine. She is speaking Truth from her heart – her experience isn’t pleasant, it is bitter – but from that honesty, her fortune begins to change and will lead ultimately to world salvation. In other words, it is from the openness to the bitter that a deeper, transcendent joy arises.
This is the blessing behind the curse; it is the discovery of the transcendent blessing that comes through embracing the moment as it is…
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ כֹּ֥ה תְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָמ֖וֹר לָהֶֽם׃
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel – say to them: May the Divine bless you and guard you!
In this verse, the Divine tells the kohanim (priests) to bless the people by praying that the Divine should bless the people. It is strange – why does the Divine need the priests for this? If Hashem wants to give blessing, why doesn’t the Hashem just do it without the priests having to say it first?
But this is the point: The Divine blessing is always already inherent in simply being; our very essence is blessing. But, because our being-ness is constant, our tendency is to not notice it; we have to consciously receive the blessing of this moment in order to experience it and appreciate it. Just as the priests had to say the blessing, so too must we become aware of the blessing that we are by bringing our minds and hearts to the blessedness of this moment.
The verse hints at this by combining being “blessed” with being “guarded” –yivarekhekha, v’yishm’rekha.
Meaning, if we want to receive the blessing that is constantly given, we have to “guard” our hearts and minds so as not to be swept away by thoughts and feelings that obscure the blessedness.
These two realities, blessing and guarding, are represented by the two letters bet and shin:
ב – Bet, Brakha, “Blessing”
ש – Shin, Shomer, “Guard”
בּכָל יום אֲבָרְכֶךָּ וַאֲהַלְלָה שִׁמְךָ לְעולָם וָעֶד
Every Day/all day (constantly) I will bless You, and I will praise Your Name unto Eternity!
שׁומֵר ה' אֶת כָּל אהֲבָיו וְאֵת כָּל הָרְשָׁעִים יַשְׁמִיד
Guarded will be all who love the Divine, but all the wicked will perish…
Together, these two letters form שב shev, “sit” – hinting, sit and meditate!
Furthermore, the letter ו vav means “and.” If we add the ו vav to say: ש shin AND ב bet, we get שובshuv, “return.”
The ups and downs, the beauty and ugliness, the love and hate, the bitterness and sweetness of our time-bound lives tend to obscure the blessedness that is ever-present, but we always have the power to שוב shuv, to return; even a person who is thoroughly wicked and emmeshed in creating suffering and destruction has this power to do teshuvah. This is hinted by the word רשע, “wicked person.”
וְאֵת כָּל הָרְשָׁעִים יַשְׁמִיד…
…but all the wicked will perish
That is, the wickedness itself perishes when the wicked person changes. But in order to change in a positive way, a person must “see” the reality of their situation:
Rasha, a “wicked person,” is:רשעA
ר Reish, which means “beginning,” ש Shin, as in shanah, which means “change,” and ע Ayin – which means “eye,” as in “seeing.”
In other words, true change begins with seeing.
This is why, if we wish to awaken the Divine Blessedness within, we must simply see this moment as it appears to us. Seeing, meaning not visual seeing but rather perceiving the truth of this moment, is the key to transformation.
But also, if we wish to bring about positive change in others, we must embody the change ourselves. We cannot force anyone else to change, but if we embody love and not hate, the רשע who sees this in us is offered a doorway to teshuvah, to return to the Divine essence of their own being.
This is why it is so important for us to be watchful, to “guard” ourselves constantly, for any moment the blessedness that we reveal in our words and actions could potentially transform the whole world. And that is our charge and our mission – not to succumb to the momentum of the ordinary and the expected, but to bring forth the כ kaf, the inner courage that we need to return and awaken to the Mystery of our Essence, again and again…
The Garbage Truck
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 out the garbage 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 that 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 had his coffee already. Maybe a little too much, but I was grateful that he had taken it at all. That was maybe my first experience of getting out of bed according to how traditional Jewish teaching says we should get out bed…
The Urgency of the Eternal
The codes of Jewish law are somewhat paradoxical about getting up in the morning. On one hand, they say that one should leap out of bed – 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.
It is imperative for a person to be strong as a lion. Immediately upon awakening, you should rise with alacrity for the service of the Blessed Creator, before you are over-whelmed by your yetzer hara with various excuses not to rise, and be outsmarted and seduced in the winter: “How can you rise now so early in the morning when the weather is so cold?” Or, in the summer it will argue: “How can you rise from your bed while you are still not satisfied with enough sleep?” or other similar claims…
On the other hand, before you get up, you should take a moment to receive the gift of your life, chanting: “Modeh/Modah 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 you leap your day?
No. First there are many blessings to be chanted, many prayers to pray.
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 –
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!
מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
From the age of twenty years up, all who go out into the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions, you and Aaron.
In its plain meaning, this is an instruction to take a census of those qualitied to fight in battle. But “counting soldiers” is also 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” – It is imperative for a person to be strong as a lion.
But then, a bit later, it gives the other half of the equation:
וְהַלְוִיִּ֖ם לְמַטֵּ֣ה אֲבֹתָ֑ם לֹ֥א הָתְפָּקְד֖וּ בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
The Levites, however, by their tribe of their ancestors, were not counted...
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 – to be in balance, to express our inwardness 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!
This is the path of י yod, the “hand” that represents the world of action, but also the “tiny point” which represents the ultimate simplicity of pure awareness, simply perceiving what is.
Think More, Think Less
The message of י yod is, “Don’t think so much. Think less, perceive more.” And yet, we often hear the message that we should think more, that mistakes can be avoided if we thoroughly think things through.
So, which is it? Should we think more, or think less?
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃
Lift the head (take a head count) of the whole community of the Children of Israel, by the families of the houses of their fathers, counting the names of every male, head by head.
Hidden within this narrative about taking a census of the soldiers, there is a wisdom for harmonizing the contradictory advice to think more and yet to think less:
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ – S’u et rosh – lift the head…
This phrase is an idiom for taking a census. But the deeper implication is that before going out to “do battle” with the challenges of life, we must “lift our head” – that is, elevate our perspective to see our situation as clearly as we can, which means transcending and getting free from whatever thoughts and feelings in which we might be entangled. This is thinking less – the path of י yod, of simple Presence and trust.
But from this elevated place of not-thinking, we can then enter into a process of conscious thinking, so that we may discern the right path of action to take.
כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל – kol adat b’nei Yisrael – all the assembly of the Children of Israel…
Yisrael means sarita El, “striving” or “wrestling with the Divine.” It describes the spiritual path of acting with conscious intention: “What is my purpose in doing such-and-such? What am I trying to accomplish?”
Through questioning ourselves, we can avoid that unconscious tendency to act automatically, without really considering what we are trying to do. Self-inquiry cuts through that unconsciousness and brings forth our power of decision. It doesn’t guarantee that we will succeed, but if we don’t question ourselves, we are almost certain to fail.
Once we get clear on our kavanah, our intention, then we can choose to act in alignment with our intention, and move on to the next step:
לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם – l’mishp’khotam – by their families…
“Family” consists of those close to us, those we for whom we are responsible, and those who are responsible for us. At this point, we can ask: “How will this action affect people?”
“People” doesn’t necessarily mean other people; we also need to consider how things will affect ourselves. For example, we might consider looking at the news or social media. We might determine that our intention is good, that we are trying to be informed and connected to the world. But then we ask, “How will this affect people?”
To a certain point, there may be no ill affect. But beyond that point, if exposing ourselves to news and social media creates negativity and anxiety, that would be a consideration. Plus, in that state of negativity, we might express or even project that negativity onto others. This brings us to the final question:
בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם – b’mispar shemot, kol zakhar l’gulg’lotam – by the number of names, every male, head by head…
Once we “name” both what our purpose is and what the effects will be with regard to a particular decision, we have to “number” it – we have to ask, “Is it really worth it?”
In other words, if our intention is good but some of the consequences may not be so good, we need to ask which “counts” more; we need to evaluate and decide. Again, this is no guarantee that we will make the right choice, but if we don’t evaluate and decide, it is likely we will make the wrong choice. And if, after careful thinking the situation through, we do end up making the wrong choice, this too has goodness to it, because we will learn from it.
This two-part process of “lifting the head,” that is, the stripping away of thought, followed by the “numbering of names,” that is, careful evaluation of purpose and learning from experience, is represented by the path of י yod, which is simplicity and trust, and the path of לlamed, which has to do with thought and learning. Both letters are the active expressions of the dual sefirot of the mind, Hokhmah (wisdom, awareness) and Binah (understanding, focused thought). Seen in this way, there is no contradiction in the advice to “think more” and “think less” – they are two parts of one process.
The ability to engage in this process of י yod andל lamed in real time, however, takes training and practice; we need to engage in meditation and contemplation in the space of regular avodah, daily practice, if we want the paths to be available to us in the flow of life.
Yankel the Lazy
Yankel wasn’t inclined to do physical exercise. But as he got older, he realized that he had better take care of his body, or he would be in trouble. So, he hired a personal trainer to motivate him out of his sloth and get him work out.
The personal trainer began by coming to his house every day. First, she taught him the exercises that would be best for him. But when it came to actually doing them, Yankel was so lazy, that the trainer would have to yell cheers to get him to exert himself. “Come on you can do it!” she would shout. “That’s seven, just three more to go! Do it!” Over time, Yankel’s resistance seemed to drop away, and it became easier and easier for the trainer to motivate him.
After several weeks, the trainer didn’t have to do anything except come over and make sure Yankel was working out, simply by witnessing him. Yankel even shouted out his own motivational cheers: “I can do it! One! Two! Just seven more to go! Getting stronger! Three!”
Eventually, the trainer didn’t even come inside, but just listened at the door. She would hear Yankel yelling to himself: “Getting stronger and stronger! I can do it! Five! Six! Four more to go!” When she would hear him yelling through the door, she would leave, satisfied that he had established his workout habit.
But, when they had a meeting after several months to evaluate and adjust his routine, she noticed that he didn’t look like he was exercising at all; he was just as unfit looking as he had been before they began. “How strange! I hear you working out every day, but it seems to not be working!”
“Oh, I haven’t been working out,” said Yankel.
“But I come by every day and hear you!” said the trainer.
“Oh, that’s just me yelling, not actually working out. I figured if you heard me yelling, you would think I was working out and leave me alone!”
Overcoming the difficulties of establishing a daily habit of avodah, (spiritual practice) is crucial, but it is not enough. Many are able to break through the initial inertia of establishing a habit, but their practice is just like Yankel’s – perhaps going through the motions, saying the words and so on, but nothing is really happening.
It’s not that the forms are irrelevant – the “cheers” and “counting of reps” can be a good accompaniment to practice, and even an expression of practice, but they’re not the practice itself. As long as the forms are helping you do the real inner activity of the practice, they are doing their job. But if they become a substitute for the inner reality, then you miss the mark.
It is understandable that the forms of practice – how many times per day, what texts to chant, and so on, could easily eclipse the inner reality of practice, because form is quantifiable. You can easily define how to fulfill a practice in form; it is not as easy to define connection with the Timeless, with the Un-Countable.
But again, this doesn’t mean that form is irrelevant; the form is vital, as long as we are relating to it properly, as long as we are using the quantifiable form as a portal into the Eternal. In fact, there are even some forms that we can take with us when the safety of our avodah is over, to help us stay connected even as we run after the garbage trucks of the world…
The Mitzvah of Tzitzit
“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, you might be still looking for some experiential connection. But after you discover what you’re searching for, the problem is even deeper: How do you keep the connection?
The simple answer, of course, is practice. You have to practice keeping that connection in different life situations, and you will get better and better at it.
But that doesn’t help much, because when you are in stressful or triggering situations, two things happen:
First, you don’t care anymore about your spiritual connection, because you are triggered! You go into in a fight-or-flight mode. Second, even if you would care about practicing in that moment, you probably can’t remember to practice, because you are triggered! Your emotions have taken over.
So, if you are going to actually practice in those triggering situations, you need a strategy for those two problems. You need to first of all remember to practice (זָכוּר zakhor), and second of all, you need to be motivated to practice (שָמור shamor).
There are many mitzvot which function as a solution to this problem. Let’s look at one:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃
Speak to the Children of Israel and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.
וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃
It shall be for you tzitzit – look at it and recall all the mitzvot of the Divine and do them, so that you do not wander after your heart and your eyes that become distracted.
לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
So that you shall remember to do all My mitzvot and to be holy to your Divinity.
אֲנִ֞י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
I am Existence, your Divinity, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am Being, your Divinity.
The purpose of the tzitzit, the ritual fringes traditionally worn on the corners of one’s garment, is exactly what we are talking about – they are a physical reminder on your body to dedicate your actions to the Divine and avoid getting caught in distractions that take you away from that intention. Another purpose of the tzitzit is to remind you to do the other mitzvot, the particular spiritual practices of Judaism, both ritual and ethical, throughout your day.
This brings us to the second problem – how do you keep yourself motivated?
Let’s take a particular mitzvah and see how this can work. There is a daily mitzvah to chant these words as part of the Sh’ma:
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃
Ve’ahavtah Et Adonai Elohekha, b’khol l’vav’kha, uv’khol nafsh’kha, uv’khol me’odekha.
You shall love Existence, your Divinity, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
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 tzitzit come 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. 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.
Of course, any reminder could work, though there is a power in using the traditional forms, in that they connect you to the support of the lineage. But whatever form you use, the key is to verbally say your intention out loud every day, and then have something to remind you throughout the day. This is the inner function of chanting Sh’ma and ve’ahavtah and wearing the tzitzit.
There are two other physical mitzvot mentioned in the Ve’ahavtah which have a similar function:
וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol between your eyes.
וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…
This is the practice of tefillin and mezuzah – binding tiny scrolls of Torah passages on the body during avodah so that you physically feel your intention on your body, and affixing a scroll on the doorposts in the home, so that you see and touch your intention as you move through different spaces.
The Idol of Form
The key with these ritual practices is, as always, is to use the outer forms to point to the inner reality; otherwise, there is the danger that the practices become a kind of idolatry, a means for the ego to prop up its self-image as being a “religious” person. Rather than the form pointing to the Eternal, beyond the world of the mind and counting, it simply points us back into the world of counting of status, of self-image.
There is a hint of this in the haftorah of our parshah. This portion from Hosea talks about how the Children of Israel have strayed from the Divine and run after idols, the ba’alim. Israel is compared to a harlot, an unfaithful wife, running after other lovers. Why does she do this?
“I will go after my lovers, for they will give me my bread and water, my wool and linin, my oil and my drink.”
In other words, the children of Israel aren’t satisfied; they want to count more. Rather than appreciate what is present, they run after that which is not present; they imagine they can achieve more gratification.
Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them; and seek them as she may, she shall never find them. Then she will say, “I will go and return to my First Husband, for then I fared better than now.”
Eventually, Israel realizes that the obsession with counting, with more, also called idolatry, only causes her suffering, and so she comes to appreciate the gifts she had and thereby returns to true connection with the Divine.
Then the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; they shall be called “Children of the Living Presence…
The hint here is that, on a deep and yet practical level, “idolatry” really means to fixate on that which is not present; it means to elevate the images we “engrave” in our minds above the actual Reality right in front of us. The “idol” is that which is not present; the true Divine is Presence.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with imagining what we need or want in the future; that’s the job of the mind. We have to count and quantify; we have to make maps of the world in order to navigate life. The point is not to elevate the map over the territory; the point is not to live in your mind, but to live in the Living Present.
And fortunately, no matter how lost in our minds we become, and no matter how caught up in the external urgencies and “garbage trucks” of the world 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.
The Ecstatic and the Still
Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn said that when he was learning with the great Maggid, Rabbi Dov Bear of Mezrich, all the disciples learned the master’s teachings except one: Reb Zushia. This is because when the Maggid would begin to expound a verse of Torah, so many of the verses began like this: Vay’daber Hashem – and the Divine spoke…
Whenever Reb Zushia would hear these words, he would go into a fit of seizures: “Hashem spoke!!! Hashem spoke!!!” he would scream, and they would have to take him out into the shed until the teaching was over.
“But,” rabbi Yisrael would add, “that’s okay, because even one word spoken in truth and received in truth is enough…”
Right now, and always, the Divine is speaking. The words aren’t necessarily conveying a conceptual message – even one word spoken in truth and received in truth is enough – meaning, when we take the path of י yod – when we become simple and receive the fulness of this moment in simplicity and trust, then Reality Itself can be received as the Divine Speech. When we receive the present moment in this way, it is deeply liberating, shaking us from the dead maps of the mind into the Living Present. For some, realizing this may cause convulsions of ecstasy, but not for everyone.
A disciple asked Reb Pinhas of Koretz, “Why is it that you are so calm and still when you daven(pray), unlike so many other tzadikim who thrash about in ecstatic convulsions?”
Reb Pinhas replied, “You know, the essence of prayer is deveikut, attachment to the Divine, and this involves the death of the separate self. There are two kinds of death: one kind is as difficult as pulling a rope through a mast, and the other is easy as removing an eyelash from a glass of milk. It is the second kind that I was granted…”
As we come to the end of the annual ritual of counting the 49 days of the Omer, may we use the quantifying mind wisely to express our praise, gratitude and ultimate unity with the Eternal within the world of time… Good Shabbos
Rabbi Leib, son of Sarah, was one of the disciples of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. Rabbi Leib would wander the countryside teaching, following the flow of the rivers to guide him on in his journeys. When asked what he learned from his teacher, he would reply, “I didn’t go the Maggid to hear Torah from him, but to see how he unlaced his shoes and laced them up again.”
The teaching of simplicity, of Presence-in-Action, is the Twentieth Path of the letter י yod. Spelled out,יד yod means “hand,” and thus represents action. Yod is also the smallest of letters, as well as the starting point of all letters; when a sofer (scribe) begins to draw a letter, the letter always begins as a yod, a simple point without dimension – representing the un-manifest, simple potential, Nothingness.
At the same time, י yod is also the number ten, hinting at the ten sefirot, which represent all of Reality, or Everything-ness. Yod therefore has the paradoxical meaning of being Nothing and Everything at the same time. Together, these two opposite meanings point to simple awareness as it interacts with the complexity of life; in other words, Presence-in-Action. And, since Presence-in-Action involves a letting go of past and future, simply and fully engaging in whatever one is doing, it also implies an attitude of trust.
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם וְשָׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת
שֵׁ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ תִּזְרַ֣ע שָׂדֶ֔ךָ וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְמֹ֣ר כַּרְמֶ֑ךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָֽהּ׃ לַיהוָֽה׃
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
…וְ֠הָיְתָה שַׁבַּ֨ת הָאָ֤רֶץ לָכֶם֙ לְאָכְלָ֔ה
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall rest – a Shabbat for the Divine. Six years you shall sow your fields and six years you shall prune your vineyards and gather in your yields. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a Shabbat of Shabbats, a Shabbat to the Divine; do not sow your field and do not prune your vineyard. And it will be a Shabbat of the land for you to eat…’”
The practice of Shabbat, of refraining from work for one day in the week, takes a certain leap of faith, a willingness to trust and let go of doing for twenty-four hours and simply be. The above passage, however, describes the practice of sh’mita – a Shabbat not for people to rest from working the land one day in the week, but a Shabbat for the land itself that lasts an entire year. The amount of trust required for this would be far greater, as farmers would have to refrain from working the land and simply eat whatever happened to come up – not only for the year of sh’mita itself, but for the following year as well, since nothing would be planted during the sh’mita year.
This parshah is read near the festival of Lag b’Omer. Lag b’Omer comes during the “Omer” period between Pesakh and Shavuot, when it is traditional to ritually count each of the forty-nine days between the two holidays. Each of these days represent a particular permutation of the seven lower sefirot of the Tree of Life.
Lag b’Omer literally means the “thirty-third day of the Omer.” Lag is composed of the letters ל lamed – ג gimel, which together have the numerical value of thirty-three. These two letters, ל lamed – ג gimel, also have special meanings:
Lamed ל means “learn.” To learn means to go from a state of less knowledge to more knowledge; it is forward moving in time, filling a lack, going from incomplete to more complete without end, never reaching completion (since there is always more to learn).
Gimel ג has the opposite connotation, as we have learned. Gamal means to “pay back,” in the sense of being complete and overflowing. A gamal is also a camel, which carries its water in its hump as it traverses the desert; again, a symbol of being already complete-within-oneself.
These two opposite meanings – the never-complete of lamed ל and the already-complete of gimel ג – point to two dimensions of our experience, right now. On the level of form, we are ever-incomplete. Our bodies need constant nourishment and exercise, and our minds must actively learn new things to stay sharp. In terms of spirituality, this is the ongoing practice of studying texts and contemplating meaning with the mind. As the parshah says:
שֵׁ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ תִּזְרַ֣ע שָׂדֶ֔ךָ – Six years you shall sow (tizra) your fields…
Tizra תִּזְרַ֣ע, “sowing” or “seeding,” is the work we must do on the “fields” of our minds. This is lamed ל, “learning.”
But on the level of consciousness, the open space of awareness within which all forms come and go, there is a completeness to this moment; there is a wholeness when we “arrive” into the present. This is gimel ג.
But to experience this fullness, we paradoxically need more emptiness; we need to “prune” away excess thought, so that we can sense the underlying Presence beneath our thoughts:
וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְמֹ֣ר כַּרְמֶ֑ךָ – and six years you shall prune (tizmor) your vinyards…
Tizmor תִּזְמֹ֣ר, “pruning,” is the work we must do on “grapevine tendrils” of thought; this is meditation.
“Sowing” and “pruning,” learning and meditation, thinking and not-thinking, are the substance of daily spiritual practice aimed at bringing about inner transformation.
Six years you shall sow your fields and six years you shall prune your vinyards…
“Six Years” is sheish shanim שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים. Shanim, “years,” also can mean “change.” “Six” also means time and change, as in the “six days of creation.” The Hebrew letter that represents the number six is vav ו which, as a prefix, means “and” – again, implying adding, transforming, doing the dual spiritual work of “sowing” and “pruning.”
But there is also a level at which all work stops.
It stops not because the “sowing” and “pruning” are no longer happening, but because at this deep level, there is the recognition that it is not “me” who does the work; there is the recognition that everything comes from and returns to the same Reality; we can’t “take credit” for any of it.
This level is represented by Lag B’Omer. In terms of the sefirot, Lag B’Omer is Hod Sheb’Hod, or “Humility/Gratitude of Humility/Gratitude.” The essence of humility is not some kind of self-deprecation or belittlement; it is the recognition that the “me” comes from beyond the “me.” Existence is a gift; everything I have and am is a gift. This is also freedom: we have nothing to lose or gain, because ultimately there is only Reality, there is only the Divine.
וְשָׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָֽה – The land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine…
This is not something so abstract or difficult; we can “let the land rest a Shabbat for the Divine” right now – try it – simply recognize that this is Reality, right here and now; let the “me” dissolve and let this moment be as it is. This is the path of י yod.
The Bird and the Lizard
And yet, when the moment is difficult, challenging, or torturous, of course simply trusting can be difficult. In such moments we need to go back to א alef with its two yods – the upper and lower yods – representing the “waters of joy” and the “waters of sorrow,” as we have learned.
A friend of mine once went to let out his dog, when he noticed a cute little baby dove huddled on the ground. Above was the nest that it must have fallen from. He kept his dog in the house while he went out and lifted the baby bird back into its nest. He wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but it seemed the right thing in the moment, and it was a warm and gratifying feeling to save that baby bird.
Not long after, he was moving some furniture in his workplace. As he lifted a desk, be was taken aback by a huge, dead, rotting lizard with maggots crawling in it! It was a disgusting sight, and he winced and cringed as he proceeded to deal with it and clean it up.
He told me this story because it seemed to him almost like a symbolic dream, and he was wondering what it meant. Why such a gratifying, life-affirming, cuddly experience followed by such a disgusting horrific, death centered experience? What was the meaning of it?
Sometimes we are given situations that require immediate action. These are the real-time “commandments” – the mitzvot we don’t learn from books, but that appear to us and demand a response without hesitation. Sometimes the action required is to save a cute little bird, sometimes to clean up a rotting lizard corpse. Sometimes it is to feed a hungry baby, sometimes it is to yank a child out of the street when a car is coming, and sometimes it is to bury a loved one. In other words, when it comes to being present to what is needed in the moment, it may be bitter or it may be sweet. There is a full spectrum of human experience, and if we want to be available to the “commandment” of the moment, we have to be open to both – we can’t avoid any of it.
Of course, most of the time, there isn’t some unexpected urgent thing to deal with, barukh Hashem. Still, when it comes to the path of simplicity, of connecting with the Divine as the Reality of this moment, there is an ever-present urgency. There is only one place and one time to recognize the Oneness of the Divine, and that is here, right now.
As Hillel says, אִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי – If not now, when?
And yet, paradoxically, to simply be present is to fully accept and trust; it is to embrace the Reality of this moment, not resist it. This has almost the opposite quality of urgency. It is more like patience; it is more like planting a seed and simply watching it grow, rather than jumping in and taking some action.
לֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד
…a timid person can’t learn, and an impatient person can’t teach…
Full Presence means the unity of these two seemingly opposite qualities of urgency and patience, or, as we have learned, Netzakh and Hod. On one hand, don’t be timid – jump fully into the present, Now. On the other hand, jumping fully into the Now means allowing it to be as it is, not to be impatient about how you think it should be or how you want it to be.
אֵ֣ת סְפִ֤יחַ קְצִֽירְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִקְצ֔וֹר וְאֶת־עִנְּבֵ֥י נְזִירֶ֖ךָ לֹ֣א תִבְצֹ֑ר שְׁנַ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְ֠הָיְתָה שַׁבַּ֨ת הָאָ֤רֶץ לָכֶם֙ לְאָכְלָ֔ה
You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce…
This description of the shmita is a perfect metaphor for Presence: accept fully what this moment gives you, both the nourishing food and the thistles and thorns. Even as we work externally to bring about certain results, as we must do, on an inner level there can be a Sabbath of the land; we can accept both the “bird” and the “lizard” with that quality of trust, allowing the moment to unfold as it will.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak once saw a man running. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“I am running after my livelihood!” replied the man.
“You think your livelihood is in front of you and you must catch up to it, but how do you know it’s not behind you, and all you have to do is stop and let it catch up to you?”
The Rules of Checkers
There is a story of Rabbi Nahum of Stepinesht, the son of Rabbi Yisrael of Ryzhyn, that once he entered the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, when his students did not expect. When they realized their master had entered they were mortified, because rather than learning, they were sitting around playing checkers. They immediately stopped sand began putting the game away.
“Don’t stop!” said the rabbi. “You know, you can learn a lot from a game like checkers. Do you know the rules of the game?”
Out of shyness and embarrassment his students didn’t answer, but he continued: “I shall tell you the rules. First, you must not make two moves at once. Second, you may move only forward, and not backward. And the third is that when you reach the last row, you may move any way you like.”
Rabbi Nahum’s teaching on the rules of checkers are a wonderful way to walk the path of י yod, the path of simple Presence-in-Action.
You must not make two moves at once. It is an obvious and simple truth that we can only do what we can do in the moment; we cannot also do something else, no matter how important the something else may be. And yet, there can be a tendency of the mind toward restlessness, toward not accepting the moment as it is and being occupied with some imaginary moment, rather than being fully attentive to the one we are in. So, this is the first rule of י yod – to simply be where you are, to simply do what you are doing.
You may move only forward, and not backward. Action is, by its nature, aimed at the future, at bringing about a certain result. The power of an act is only weakened and corrupted if we are “living in the past” – that is, wishing things had been different, regretting how things have been. Of course, we must be aware of the past, learn from the past, build on the foundation of the past – but not be stuck in the past.
When you reach the last row, you may move any way you like. The “last row” is the end of any process of action; everything we do eventually comes to an end. When you finish doing something, recognize that you are free to decide what action to take next. Again, this is obvious – but so often we can lose consciousness of our own freedom and imprison ourselves in our own minds. These three rules help us to be free from all of that, and live with simplicity in the moment. When we do that, when we simply be where we are, let go of the past and claim our own freedom, there is a kind of magic – a miraculous quality of Being that becomes visible, even in things that might seem most mundane and tedious.
A Spoon Full of Sugar
“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find that fun and… snap! The job’s a game!”
With that, Reb Mary Poppins formulated her famous aphorism-
“Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
Meaning – when you’re doing something mundane or tedious, find a way to sweeten it – to change its context so that it becomes a vehicle for delight rather than torturous boredom.
But how do you do that?
In the movie, the children don’t want to clean up the nursery, until Mary Poppins adds some magic and singing animatronic birds to spice things up. When they finish and Poppins tells the children it’s time for their outing, Michael Banks says, “But I want to clean the nursery again!”
What she added is the miraculous.
Something the children expected to be dull and routine became brilliant and delightful. But what is it that makes things dull and routine in the first place?
Nowadays, I see people walking around with water bottles everywhere. At some point, the importance of drinking a lot of water spread throughout our culture, and now hardly anyone is caught without their water bottle. For many, drinking water has become a routine habit, like checking your phone.
But have you ever taken a sip of water after going thirsty for hours, like after Yom Kippur perhaps? The glass of water might as well be the splitting of the sea. And yet, the miracle of the splitting of the sea is nothing compared to the miracle of Existence Itself. After all, splitting the sea only involved taking something that existed already – water – and making it behave in an unusual manner. But the real miracle is that water exists in the first place.
How is it that there is anything at all?
And yet, this greatest of all miracles seems completely ordinary, even tedious and boring, because we are used to it. Being “used to it” means that we approach this moment through the lens of what has come before – through the monotony of conditioned memory.
But step fully onto the path of yod – step fully into the present, and the miracle reveals itself: there is nothing ordinary at all about this moment. Step out of your conditioned mind, and it’s as if you step into a different universe. In fact, you do – you step out of the universe of your head, into the universe of the Real.
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
וּבָצִ֖יר יַשִּׂ֣יג אֶת־זָ֑רַע…וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם
“If you walk with My decrees and guard My commandments and do them, I will provide your rains in their time… your vintage will last until the last sowing…”
The word that’s translated “with my decrees” is the name of this reading- Bekhukotai. A khok is a type of commandment that doesn’t necessarily have an obvious rationale. For example, it’s easy to understand laws like “don’t murder” and “don’t steal.” Those laws that “make sense” are called mishpatim. But “rest on the seventh day” and “only eat mammals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves” is not so clear. Those are a khukim.
And yet, the truth is that everything is a khok. Does it “make sense” that anything exists at all?
Existence is a mystery, a miracle, an enigma!
וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru – and My commandments you guard…
The word for “commandment,” מִצוָה mitzvah, is related to the Aramaic צו tzav, which actually means “connection.” So, if we retranslate the sentence with these underlying meanings, we can understand:
“If you walk with My Mysteries and guard My Connection…”
In other words, step into the mystery of the present, where Existence is no longer routine, no longer ordinary. Guard your connection with this Mystery, and then-
“Your vintage will last until the last sowing…”
Meaning, your drunkenness on the miracle of this moment will sweeten all your labors – a spoon full of sugar!
In the late 19th century, there was a hassid by the name of Reb Aharon who lived in the town of Dokshetz.
Every Saturday night in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, Reb Aharon would make a batch of panes – a hot drink made from boiling water, vodka and sugar. There he would serve the drink to crowds of spiritually thirsty folks before teaching hassidus – spiritual teachings. People would come from all over to warm their bones and make merry with the panes as they also drank in his holy teachings.
Once a year, Reb Aharon would travel to see his rebbe in Lubavitch- Reb Shmuel. On the Saturday night following his return from Lubavitch, he would concoct an extra large batch of panes for the crowd and then share the luminescent teachings he had heard from the mouth of his master. Those nights were on fire!
Once, when Reb Aharon was in Lubavitch, his rebbe said to him:
“I hear that in Dokshetz, they learn hassidus with panes. Tell me, what connection is there between Torah and getting drunk?”
Embarrassed, Reb Aharon returned home and put an end to his ritual. From then on, he continued his teaching on Saturday nights, but without the panes. People still came to learn, but each week there were fewer and fewer people than the last week. Before long, the vibrant crowd was reduced to a few devoted die-hards.
The next time Reb Aharon was in Lubavitch, his rebbe asked him-
“What’s doing in Dokshetz?”
Reb Aharon reluctantly reported that his class now attracted only a fraction of the folks that used to come for the “drink-and-learn” format.
“Nu,” said the rebbe, “So bring back the drink – Abi men zol lernen hassidus- so long as they study hassidus!”
Alcohol, as well as many other intoxicants, are powerful because they can bring a person into the miracle of the moment, often by impairing the thinking mind and artificially making a person “simple.” But we don’t need special substances to open to this simplicity; it is our essence and birthright, if we but engage the practice. And, since Presence is not only something we cultivate but something we are at the deepest level, it is ever available, in every moment, to the degree that we decide to step onto the Path of י Yud.
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