The Juice - Parshat Shelakh L'kha
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land...
In our family, one of the things we have to watch out for on Shabbat is how to distribute the grape juice in such a way so that our seven-year-old daughter doesn’t feel ripped off, though we usually fail. This past Shabbat was no exception. “He got more than me!” she screamed after Kiddush.
There is a famous teaching of Reb Menachem Mendel (the Kotzker Rebbe) about comparing yourself to others, that has an unusually Ernie and Bert-esque quality to it. I quoted it to her in an attempt to arrest the nearly inevitable cascade of fighting and crying that would surely ensue: “You know what the Kotzker Rebbe said about that?”
“What?” she asked. I had her hooked!
“He said, ‘If I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I, and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you and you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you!’ So, don’t worry how much grape juice your brother has!”
She laughed a little. It worked – sort of.
Not all the other people at the table were convinced. “That doesn’t mean anything!” someone said.
And it’s true, this riddle-like quote eluded me for many years. I knew it sounded interesting, but I didn’t understand the point until I saw the context in a book. Apparently, the quote was in response to someone comparing one person to another – “So-and-so is so much greater than so-and-so…” and the Kotzker responded with that quote. So, apparently what he is saying is: don’t base your identity on your idea of how you see others – or put more simply, don’t compare yourself to others.
It may seem silly to see how a child compares herself with her brother and feels cheated out of grape juice, but comparing ourselves with others and feeling inferior or superior as a result is an all-pervasive psychological reality for most adults as well. We may feel uncertain about whether we are really worthy of what we have, or whether our abilities are good enough to maintain what we have, or to acquire what we lack. We may worry about losing our abilities as we age, or any number of other things. And it’s understandable – we really don’t know the answer to what will be. Uncertainty is the Truth.
Some deal with uncertainty by trying to pretend it’s not there. We may try to convince ourselves that we are great, that we’re better than others. We all know people who have this kind of insecurity-based arrogance. Or, we may affirm the worst so that we don’t get disappointed. The problem with both these approaches is they’re not based on Truth; they’re based on a reaction to our discomfort with Truth.
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וְהִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק
Rabban Gamaliel used to say: “Make for yourself a teacher, and remove yourself from uncertainty…” – Pirkei Avot 1:16
On the surface, this mishna seems to be saying that a teacher can take away your uncertainty. But the Hebrew implies a deeper message: Aseh l’kha rav – make for/to yourself a teacher – in other words, make that which is to yourself – whatever is arising in this moment – into your teacher. Pay attention to the fullness of this moment, which is the only thing you truly know, rather than dwelling on what you don’t know in your mind. In this way, “remove yourself from uncertainty” – that is, remove your consciousness from dwelling in thinking mode, and bring it into Being mode, into connection with the Truth of this moment.
But, you might say, what if there is fear in this moment? What if there is anxiety? What if there is great resistance to uncertainty? The Israelites were also afraid of the uncertainty of confronting the “giants” in the land, but Joshua and Caleb said to them:
…אַל־תִּֽירְאוּ֙ אֶת־עַ֣ם הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י לַחְמֵ֖נוּ הֵ֑ם ... וַֽיהוָ֥ה אִתָּ֖נוּ
Do not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread… the Divine is with us!
Ki lakhmeinu – they are our bread! “Bread” means nourishment. When we fully confront our difficult emotions and open to the fear or anger or whatever, it literally becomes “food” for consciousness. Whatever we tend to resist can actually help us become more awake – if we decide not to be fearful of our fear, and instead open to the fullness of whatever arises in the field of awareness, without getting seduced by it. Because actually, all emotions are literally made out of awareness – and furthermore, it’s not our awareness, but the awareness of Reality, of the Divine, incarnating as us…and that is infinite power, infinite freedom, if we are willing to recognize it and stand firmly in the Presence of Truth…
כִּי עִמָּנוּ אֵל… אַל תִּירָא מִפַּחַד
Al Tira MiPakhad – Ki Imanu El!
Don't be Afraid of Fear, For the Divine is With Us!
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Bold in Holiness – Parshat Shelakh L'kha
6/8/2018 0 Comments
Once, Reb Zushia commented on the saying of the sages, "the bold-faced will go to hell, and the shame-faced to paradise."
"'The bold-faced will go to hell,'" said Reb Zushia, "this means that if you are bold in holiness, you don't have to fear descending into hell. You can engage in all kinds of worldly things, and you will receive the light hidden within them. But if you're shame-faced in your holiness, you'd better stick to the paradise of prayer and meditation and stay away from the world..."
There is a taste of this idea in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'lakh L'kha, in which Moses send out spies to check out the Land and bring back a report:
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land...
Most of the spies come back and say that the land is wonderful, but that there are “giants,” and they discourage the Israelites from entering the land on account of the giants. They are being “shame-faced” in a sense, lacking courage and confidence.
There are times for withdrawing from the world and from people, in order to heal or gain perspective. But when it's time to move back into the world, it is good to be “bold-faced” with your holiness. Meaning, have confidence that there is a task you can do – that only you can do. It might be something you need to learn. It might be serving others in a particular way. Or, it might just be an opportunity to surrender on a deeper level.
To be “bold” doesn't mean you have to have confidence in yourself. The spies in the story lacked self-confidence, but the remedy would not have been to bolster their self-confidence. Rather, the remedy would be for them to have had Divine-confidence. Hashem told them not to be afraid; if they had Divine-confidence, their lack of self-confidence wouldn't have been a problem.
Similarly, if you don't have self-confidence, don't worry! You don't need it. It's often better not to have self-confidence. As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot, “Don't believe in yourself until the day you die.” (2:5)
But trust: here you are, in such-and-such situation, and this is the situation you should be in; you have some unique role to fulfill. Trust that the Divine “put” you here for a reason. Trust, trust, trust! That's liberation!
Hashem ro’i v’lo ekhsar- the Divine is my shepherd, I shall not lack. Binot deshe yarbitzeini- in lush meadows the Divine lays me down- al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me. Nafshi yeshovev- my soul is revived.
These words from Psalm 23 reflect a common attitude about spirituality, that realization of the Divine leads to pure bliss and freedom from all suffering- from anger, fear, judgment, and so on. But if we go a little further down, it says:
Ta’arokh l’fanai shulkhan neged tzorerai- You prepare before me a table in front of my tormentors…
In front of my tormentors? I thought we were just lounging in the grass beside the tranquil waters- how did my tormentors get into the picture?
These images hint at an important distinction that will help you navigate your practice and avoid a very common pitfall. This is the distinction between the idea of getting rid of negativity all together, which is misleading, versus shifting the context within which the negativity arises, which is actually what the practice is all about.
One reason this can be confusing is because the practice of Presence willof course decrease negativity and suffering. It decreases stress, it decreases repetitive and unhelpful thinking, and definitely opens you to more joy and bliss. Al mei menukhot y’nahaleini- beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me.And at some point, you’re likely to experience all negativity dropping away completely.
However, this does not mean that the possibility of negativity has been eliminated, and that’s where you can get into trouble. Because once you’ve had some deep success with your practice, once you’re “lying down by the tranquil waters” so to speak and the Eternal dimension of Being has become a direct and palpable experience for you, there can be a tendency to think that negativity shouldn’t bother you at all anymore; that your feelings should never get hurt, that you should never feel insulted, that nothing should make you angry and so on.
Then, when some negativity does arise, you can mistakenly conclude that you’ve somehow lost it, that the power of Presence isn’t working for you anymore, when really you’ve just been given a tremendous gift, and you just need to shift the way you’re looking at it to see the gift. Why?
Gam ki elekh b’gei tzalmavet- even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death- lo ira ra ki atah imadi- I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
The real power of Presence is not that it destroys the possibility of negativity arising. After all, we’re all in the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death. But rather the power of Presence is that it changes the context in which everything arises, including negativity. But, you can’t know this and prove it to yourself unless you have a chance to practice it, which is why the arising of negativity is a gift.
So when negativity arises, use it as an opportunity to realize that you are not trapped by the negativity- ki atah imadi- know that the Divine is with you, because the Divine is the eternal dimension of Being, and this eternal dimension is npt separate from the space of your own awareness, within which the negativity as well as everything else comes and goes. And, you can use the Three Portals of IJM to realize this in any moment. First is the Portal of the Heart. A feeling has arisen that needs to be felt, so be generous. Offer your awareness to it- l’kha.
Second is the Portal of the Body. Now that you’ve offered your Presence, sustain it by anchoring it in your body and your breathing. This keeps you with your present moment experience and calms the tendency to spin off into unhelpful thinking. Na’aseh-returning again and again to sustaining presence in your body.
Third is the Portal of Awareness itself. This is where the shift in context happens most fully. Bring to mind that whatever you’re feeling is happening within awareness, is made out of awareness, and that the awareness itself is a vast field without border or limit, while whatever particular experience you’re having is something that comes and goes- v’nishma- you are the space of perception. There’s a hint of this in the Torah story of the spies who are sent to investigate the promised land.
InParshat Shelakh Lekha,God speaks to Moses and says, “Shelakh lekha anashim v’yaturu et eretz Cana’an- send for yourself men to spy out the land of Cana’an…”
The spies go out and climb a mountain to check out the land, and they return with giant grapes, pomegranates and figs. They report back, “Yes! This land flows with milk and honey and here are some of the amazing fruits growing there. But, the inhabitants of the land are giants; they would destroy us. Van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- and so we were in their eyes.”
When a person ascends the mountain of transcendence and eats the fruit of joy and bliss that comes from such an awakening, there can sometimes be a tremendous frustration and resignation when you come down from the mountain into the gei tzalmavet- the valley of the shadow of death- the place of ordinary, sometimes negative emotions such anger, fear, sadness, and so on. That’s when we need the words of Yehoshua- the words of encouragement that Joshua speaks to them: Hashem itanu- al tira’um- the Divine is with us- don’t be afraid of them!
Meaning that just because you came down from a high experience of joy and bliss into the valley of negativity, in fact nothing has changed. The spacious freedom you experienced on the mountain, so to speak, is still the open space of your own awareness within which the experience of negativity arises. You can conquer any negativity not by fighting against it directly, but by simply seeing that it comes and goes within the space of this moment, and you are that space. Hashem itanu- your very nature is Divine, meaning that you are space of this moment.
But of course, that’s not what happens in the story. Instead, the Israelites are afraid. They say, “Forget it! Let’s go back to Egypt.” Meaning, let’s go back to the ordinary and familiar way of being, before we experienced the radical freedom of awakening. Then, they change their minds out of fear of punishment, and try to go fight the enemy after all. But Moses says to them, “Lo yiyeh Hashem imakhem- God will not be with you!” They go anyway, and get pounded.
So how can this be? If your nature is the Eternal space of this moment, how can that change? Of course, it doesn’t change, it’s our awareness of this fact that changes. We get seduced by our feelings and believe them into giants. Rather than know our own vastness, “van’hi v’eineinu kakhagavim- we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes” and grasshoppers don’t want to get smooshed, so we try and fight our feelings, try to push them away, or deny them, and that just creates inner conflict so that- v’khein hayinu b’eineihem- so we were grasshoppers in their eyes- meaning, the very thing that we’re fighting gets bigger and bigger because negativity is empowered by more negativity.
On the other hand, if you know Hashem itanu- the Divine is literally your own nature- then al tira’um- there’s never anything to be afraid of in your experience. You’re on top of the world? No big deal it’s a passing experience. You’re in the depths of hell? No problem, it will pass. Rather than get caught up in your experience which is always changing, realize the space within which your experience is arising. You can do that through the practice of Presence in general, and through daily meditation in particular.
Then you’ll know the truth of the words of Yehoshua- “Al tir’u et ha’am ha’aretz- don’t be afraid of the people of the land,” meaning, don’t be afraid of any particular experiences that arise, “Ki lakhmeinu hem- for they are our bread,” meaning, when you stand courageously in the midst of difficult experiences, they become food for your awakening, deepening your grounded-ness in the reality of Presence. Then you’ll know directly, Hashem itanu- the Divine is with us- al tira’um”- there’s nothing to be afraid of.
(So on this Shabbat Shelakh,the Sabbath of Sending, let us send forth our full attentiveness with courage and confidence into the depths of whatever arises in our experience, thereby eating the feast of whatever avodah- whatever practice is put before us. And through this, may the consciousness of our species continue to evolve and bring us speedily to a time of freedom from the horrors of ego and violence that continue to plague our species. Kein y’hi ratzon, so may it be, Good Shabbos.)
So see if you can really take this in, that you need not be afraid of any particular experience. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should go and do things that are unsafe or that create negative experiences, there’s no reason for that either, but once a negative experience has already arisen, you can use it to deepen your awaken-ness- to know, as the psalm says, “Shavti b’veit Hashem- I dwell in the house of the Divine” meaning, you are constantly dwelling in and as the space of this moment- “l’orekh yamim- for long days”- meaning, for the borderless and timeless Present. Let’s sing.
Beyond and Back- Parshat Shelakh'Lkha
6/29/2016 1 Comment
In the seventies, when I was in second or third grade, there was a movie I loved called “Beyond and Back.”
“Beyond and Back” was about the near death experiences of several different people. As their stories were told, almost all of them described hovering above their dead bodies and grieving loved ones, rushing through a tunnel of light, feeling immense love and oneness, then having the sense that it “wasn’t yet their time” and returning back to their bodies.
I loved this movie, of course, because the people claimed to have direct experience of something that most consider to be an impenetrable mystery- the mystery of death. Death is the one journey all of us will take, or so it seems, and so to find information on what happens when you die can be tremendously reassuring to those who “don’t like surprises” (as both of my children tell me they don’t).
As I got older, I had a similar experience with regard to spirituality- I was much more attracted to those who seemed to have direct experience of enlightenment than those who merely quoted scriptures. In a sense, authentic spiritual teachers are like those who have died and come back to tell about it. Only with enlightenment, it’s not about physical death, but a totally different kind of death.
In this week’s reading, God tells Moses,
“Shelakh l’kha anashim vayaturu et Eretz Canaan-”
“Send for yourself people to spy out the land of Canaan…”
Canaan is the “Promised Land." It is the aim of the liberation from Egypt (Mitzrayim- the place of constriction- tzarim- narrows) and the ultimate home of b’nei Yisrael- those who see through “straight to God” (Yishar- straight- El- God).
In other words, the Land is a metaphor, pointing to the aim of spiritual liberation. What is that aim? It is described as flowing with halav ud’vash- with milk and honey.
What is milk? Milk is pure nourishment. What is honey? Honey is sweetness.
There’s a sweetness and nourishment that flows from Reality, but to receive it there has to be a relaxing of all contraction (mitzrayim) and an openness to simply Being with this moment as it is.
But most of those spies came back with bad reports, telling of insurmountable “giants in the land.”
You too might be skeptical about Liberation, and there might be fear. That’s because you know on some level that if you truly open to Reality as it is, there will be pain- Reality is sometimes painful. With resistance, at least you can hold back some of that pain. That’s the advice of the “spies” who reported back about the “giants” in the land.
“We are like grasshoppers in their eyes…”
You might think- “I’m not a super human. I’m just human. How can I possibly accept everything? How can I surrender? How can I become present?”
In that fear, there’s the tendency to turn spiritual awakening into just an idea, into something to talk about, but not something you can really be. When that happens, the spies with the bad reports have won. Like the Israelites who were condemned to wander another forty years in the desert, the intellectualizing of spiritual awakening keeps the searching and wandering going on and on, and puts off the Arriving for another time.
But you don’t have to be superhuman; you don’t have to be anything in particular, because openness is not a special thing; it is Nothing. It is just a willingness to allow everything to be as it is.
It is told about Rabbi Leib, one of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, that when he heard rabbis expound on the Torah, he would remark-
“What does all this intellectual expounding amount to? A person should totally be a Torah, so that you can learn from their smallest movements as well as their motionless cleaving to the Oneness. They must become empty and spacious like heaven itself, of which it is said-
“Ayn omer v’ayn devarim- There is no speech and there are no words…”
This is the spaciousness of Presence- the “heaven” that is born within when resistance dies, but you do not.
On this Shabbat Shelakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we open to the energy of liberation that is being sent our way, constantly, always in this moment. And when we do, may any pain that Reality throws our way be brief, and may we drink deeply from the milk and honey of Being.
This week one of our community members sent me an article criticizing the “mindfulness industry” and asked for my thoughts on the topic. The article claims that today’s mindfulness marketing 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.
The real trick is, how can we be truly integral in our view and not bypass?
One thing that can 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 reason 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: the more awake 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. So, it is good to remember: meditation can have a profoundly positive effect, but that doesn’t mean that 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 (or mindfulness) 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 extreme distress about our larger political and social realities, that it can be overwhelming. Combine that with the fact that no matter what we do, we are not guaranteed any positive outcome, and we can become tempted to give up on that arena. We can be tempted to 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 our society – so why should we drive ourselves crazy trying? Resignation is seductive, and to avoid the pain of despair, we may 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. In Pirkei Avot, 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, we should act, from where we are and from what we see and with what is available to us, to participate in tikun, 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.
There is a hint of this in 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…
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. Each branch expresses its own unique “light” – its own expression of consciousness – and the trick 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.
How do we do that?
By constantly working to bring our awareness into connection with the Divine Presence as it manifests in and as this moment, not merely as a technique to bring about a certain effect such as less stress or more happiness, but to be really open to how the Presence is calling upon us to respond, so that we may shine from all “seven branches” – in all dimensions of our lives and at all levels of responsibility, without bypassing even one…
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Who is Seeing? Parshat Beha'alotkha
5/29/2018 1 Comment
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?'
"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!
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.
Today this trend gets extended with social media – Facebook posts in which people look like all is wonderful and everyone is having a great time are very common. Often, I’ve heard people say, “How are you?” and then, before an answer comes, “I know you are great because I see your posts on Facebook!”
Happiness is a wonderful thing, but what about honesty? Psalm 15 says:
מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ – Who can dwell on Your holy mountain? דֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ – One who speaks Truth from their heart…
Truth is a basic middah, a basic spiritual quality, necessary for transcending the mundane and realizing the sacred, for “dwelling” on the “holy mountain.”
And yet, in Pirkei Avot, 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, without getting caught by the negativity.
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. If our happiness is based on gratification alone, then we are slaves to our experience.
But there is a deeper joy that arises from the depths of who we are, beneath our temporary experience, beneath the “house” of our thoughts and feelings. That 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 a home for the Divine during this brief life we are given.
This deep openness of consciousness to whatever arises is very simple, but it’s not easy, because the complexities of life can easily distract. That’s why we have spiritual teachings and practices – to develop our ability to remain awake and free in the midst of life.
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. By abstaining from both, one can get in touch with that deeper level of awareness that simply receives the moment as it is, that “lets the house burn down,” so to speak. This level of awareness experientially 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.
Last week was the festival of Shavuot, during which the biblical Book of Ruth is traditionally read. 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, and they have a son who ends up being an ancestor of King David, who is 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 the 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 can arise.
And so, for us – may we open to the truth of our experience with simplicity and without resistance, receiving everything from the hands of the Divine, and may we merit to feel the deeper joy that arises from that openness. May we share that joy with everyone we encounter: וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּשִׂמְחָה – Receive every person with joy – and may true peace and salvation sprout for this world, speedily in our day!
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Why Did I Wake Up Lonely? Parshat Nasso
5/28/2015 1 Comment
Last night, around 1 AM, our two-year old daughter wandered into our bedroom and cried, “Why did I wake up lonely?”
Sometimes Torah comes in the form of adorableness!
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 appearing in all its glory and unity. 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…well… 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 destructiveness (like anger), and “zav” is wanting, grasping, neediness. Both of these lead to an absence of sacred 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 Sacred Presence that is actually not separate from your own living, conscious, 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.
And yet, standing alone in this way removes the energies that contaminate your relationships. Free from negativity and neediness, you potentially increase your connection with others. Standing alone does not mean being alone or isolated. So, in this game of waking up, you don’t have to fear being lonely at all. It’s just the opposite.
This Shabbos may we increase our connection to others by consciously letting go of any inner narratives of judgment, negativity, complaining, wanting and needing, and instead open fully to people as they are, in their beautiful uniqueness.
The Lazy Man – Parshat Bamidbar
Yankel was too lazy to do physical exercise. But as he got older, he realized that he had better take care of his body, or he would soon be in trouble. So, he hired a personal trainer to teach him and motivate him to 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 and encouragements: “Come on Yankel you can do it!” she would shout. “That’s seven, just three more! Go! Go!” Over time, Yankel’s resistance dropped away more and more, 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 to check and make sure Yankel was exercising. 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 was doing it on his own.
But, when they finally had a meeting after several months to evaluate and adjust his exercise routine, she noticed that he didn’t look like he was exercising at all; he was almost as unfit as he had been before they began. “How strange! I hear you working out every day, but it seems like you haven’t been doing anything!”
“Oh, I haven’t been working out,” said Yankel.
“But I come by every day and hear you yelling and counting reps!” said the trainer.
“Yes – I figured if you heard me counting, you would think I was working out and leave me alone.”
When it comes to prayer, many folks are just like Yankel – perhaps going through the motions, saying the words, but nothing is really happening. It’s not that the words are irrelevant – the cheers and counting of reps can be a good accompaniment and even encouragement to exercise; but it’s no substitute for exercise.
Similarly, sacred words and rituals can be a wonderful accompaniment and even expression of prayer, but they’re not the prayer itself. As long as the words are helping you do the real inner activity of prayer, they are doing their job. But if they become a substitute for prayer, then we are missing the point.
It is understandable that the form of prayer – how many times per day, what texts to say on which day, and so on, could easily eclipse the real, inner reality of prayer, because form is quantifiable. We can easily talk about and define how to fulfill prayer in form.
But the inner reality of prayer is connection with the Timeless, with the Un-Countable; it’s more difficult to talk about and evaluate. There is a nice hint about these two sides of reality – form and The Formless, finite and Eternal, in the opening lines of the parshah and the haftorah. The parshah begins:
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.
This is about quantifying the people, giving them a number, so as to know how many soldiers they have. On the other hand, the haftora from Hosea, chapter 2, begins:
וְֽ֠הָיָה מִסְפַּ֤ר בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כְּח֣וֹל הַיָּ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יִמַּ֖ד וְלֹ֣א יִסָּפֵ֑ר וְֽ֠הָיָה בִּמְק֞וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יֵאָמֵ֤ר לָהֶם֙ לֹֽא־עַמִּ֣י אַתֶּ֔ם יֵאָמֵ֥ר לָהֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י אֵֽל־חָֽי׃
The number of the children of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called “Children of the Living God.”
The text then leaves this uplifting vision and talks about how the Children of Israel have strayed 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 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 her obsession with more, (called “idolatry”) only causes her suffering, and so she comes home to appreciate the gifts she already had (called teshuvah, returning to the Divine).
The hint here is that, on a deep and practical level, “idolatry” really means fixating on that which is not present; it means elevating the images in our minds above the actual Reality right in front of us. The “idol” is that which is not present; the 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 it. 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. The maps of the mind are useful, but they are not alive; they are not the Real Thing.
This understanding of idols as dead concepts about reality substituting for Actual Living Reality is expressed in Psalm 15:
פֶּֽה־לָ֭הֶם וְלֹ֣א יְדַבֵּ֑רוּ
They have mouths, but cannot speak…
The true Divine, however, is That which speaks, as the parshah opens:
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד
The Divine spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting…
The Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, told that when he was learning with the great Maggid, Rabbi Dov Bear of Mezrich, all the disciples learned and memorized 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 deeply connect with the truth of this moment, then Reality Itself can be received as “Divine Speech.” When we receive the Present in this way, it is deeply liberating, shaking us from the dead maps of the mind and into the Living Present. For some, realizing this may send you into convulsions like Reb Zushia, but not necessarily so.
A disciple asked Reb Pinkhas 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 Pinkhas 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…”
For some, ecstatic movement is the path; for some, stillness. The point is not the particular path, but rather that we use the mind properly, that we use the mind as a tool to navigate the world in time, but not let it get in the way of connecting with the Eternal. As the beginning of the parshah says: S’u et rosh – normally translated “take a census,” but literally: “lift up the head!”
In other words, elevate your mind by understanding its limitation; use the mind to go beyond the mind.
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!
5/17/2018 1 Comment
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...
The Garbage Truck- Parshat Bamidbar
6/9/2016 2 Comments
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
5/21/2015 3 Comments
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-