One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers and starts showing them all the crafty knick-knack imports: “This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one piece to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it and says, “Oh, can you can put your weed in there!” – and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a police officer comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The officer walks over to them and says, “How ya doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then bursts out uncontrollably: “WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The police officer says, “Why are you yelling that?” He then examines the knick-knack he is holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says, “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death” (Sukkah 52a). In the sketch, all the stoner guy has to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help himself – he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are we given the opportunity for life to go well and smoothly, and somehow we find ourselves messing the whole thing up? As I look back on my life, I can think of plenty of such times. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the most dangerous person to me has been myself!
Why do we have this yetzer hara (the “bad inclination”) – this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something I find very compelling. He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our enormous potential. We know, on some level, how great our potential is, and this creates a kind of psychological pressure; we become terrified of not living up to our full potential.
So, to avoid the pain of not doing our best, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential at all, that we are worthless; seen in this way, the purpose of our self-destructive behaviors are to prove our own worthlessness to ourselves and avoid the pain of failure.
The parshah begins in the aftermath of another self-destructive incident. The Israelites are on the threshold of entering the Promised Land; all they have to do keep focused and stay on track. But what happens? They are seduced into an idolatrous orgy by the Midianites! At the height of it, Pinhas grabs a spear and kills an Israelite man and Midianite women in sexual embrace, thus appeasing “God’s wrath” and saving many Israelite lives. The end of Parshat Balak says:
וַיַּ֗רְא פִּֽינְחָס֙ בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֔ר בֶּֽן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֥ח רֹ֖מַח בְּיָדֽוֹ׃
When Pinhas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he rose up from the assembly and took a spear in his hand.
וַ֠יָּבֹ֠א אַחַ֨ר אִֽישׁ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־הַקֻּבָּ֗ה וַיִּדְקֹר֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֚ת אִ֣ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה אֶל־קֳבָתָ֑הּ וַתֵּֽעָצַר֙ הַמַּגֵּפָ֔ה מֵעַ֖ל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
He came after the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly, and the plague against the Children of Israel was checked…
– BaMidbar (Numbers) 25:7-8, Parshat Balak
Parshat Pinhas then begins with Pinhas being rewarded for his heroic murder by receiving a Brit Shalom – a “Covenant of Peace.” God says:
פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃
“Pinhas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Children of Israel with his passion for My passion among them, so that I did not consume the Children of Israel in My passion.”
לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃
“Therefore I say, behold! I grant him My covenant of peace!”
– BaMidbar (Numbers) 25:11-12, Parshat Pinhas
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Murder in the name of religious zealotry is an unfortunate and embarrassing part of humanity and of our religious history.
And yet, if we dig deeper into the underlying currents of the narrative, there is an urgent message: there is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick us and lure us into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, when we are aware of it, it has not power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the yetzer hara will be revealed for what it really is: when the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key to not being ensnared is being conscious of it, and clearly holding the kavanah – the intention – that we are notliving to serve our ego, but rather we are here to serve the Divine with the enormous potential that is our essence, our own Divine Nature. Yes, we may fall many times, but the key is to get back up again; it is to not merely have faith, but to be faithful to our deepest nature, to return again and again, to do t’shuvah.
This power to faithfully return, though we may repeatedly fall, is the path of נ nun.
Nun means “fish” in Aramaic, and the “fish” swims in the “water” – the endless flow of Reality in time, the non-solidity of all forms, the impermanence of all things. Fish don’t close their eyes, hinting that nun is about fully confronting the “water” – the temporary nature of things, not being in denial about death. Only the Divine, only Reality Itself, creating and manifesting all forms, is Eternal. Nun נ also begins the word נָפוּל naful, “fallen” – hinting that though we may “fall” from our open-eyed relationship with Reality, we always have the power to return.
Fetishizing the Temporary
There are many reasons we might fall from our deepest intentions, but they all point back to the basic psychological tendency to fixate on something, while ignoring the big picture. In the story, this is represented by the Children of Israel being seduced by the Midianites into idolatry.
After all, what is idolatry?
In the Zohar and in many other texts, idolatry is understood not primarily as the worship of statues, but as seeing sacredness as separate from its Divine Source.
For example, let’s say you recognize the sacredness of a particular flower. Good!
But then, a landscaper guy comes along and accidentally cuts it down with his weed-wacker, and so you murder the landscaper because he cut down your sacred flower. That would be idolatry, not because the flower isn’t sacred, but because in your mind you have cut off the sacredness of the flower from the sacredness of human life; you have fetishized the flower; you have made an “idol” out of it.
Similarly, when Pinhas comes along and pierces the couple with his spear, he is “piercing” through false separation; he is “killing” the seductive force of idolatry, the tendency to confine the Eternal to something finite. This is why he is given the brit shalom – the “covenant of peace” – for such a “violent” act. The “violence” is really the cutting away of attachment that usually comes from loss, from the suffering of clinging to things that are impermanent, and from having whatever is most beloved eventually torn away from us.
The suffering of loss – the loss of others, the loss of our success and status, the loss that comes from our own spiritual “falls,” the loss of our own faculties and ultimately of our own lives – this suffering is unavoidable; it is an aspect of our humanness. But when we open deeply to this suffering, when we allow it to “pierce our bellies,” so to speak, we too can win the brit shalom – the inner peace that comes from letting go of all separate forms of God, and returning again to the Eternal behind all forms; this is the path of נ nun.
A different Pinhas, the Hassidic Rabbi Pinhas, was once asked by a disciple: “Why should Moshiakh, (the Messiah) be born on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, as tradition tells us?”
He answered: “The seed which is planted in the earth must disintegrate before the new life can sprout from it. That moment when an old form dissolves and a new one is born – this is the moment of Ayin, of No-Thingness. In the husk of forgetting, the power of memory grows – that is the power of redemption! On the day of destruction, power lies at the bottom of the depths, and grows from there. That is why, on Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor and visit graves; that is why, on this day, Moshiakh is born.
Food for Consciousness
Pain and loss, then,are one side of an equation; the other side is the peace that comes from letting go, as well as the sprouting of new potential. These two sides are also reflected in two different types of pain:
The first type of pain is like when you stub your toe. It happens suddenly, and once it happens, you’re going to feel pain; there is no choice involved. The second is like when someone is talking too much at you, and you want to escape. The discomfort increases moment by moment, but you can leave the situation any time you choose.
These two kinds of pain require two different responses. The first requires simple acceptance; there is no way to escape the intense pain once you stub your toe, for example. The second requires conscious choice about when to stay in the discomfort and keep listening to the person talk at you, and when to simply walk away.
Yet for some reason, we often confuse these two situations. We can trick ourselves into thinking we're “trapped” by someone talking at us, and not realize that we have a choice. When we finally do escape, we might be angry at the person: “How could they keep talking at me like that! How insensitive!” And yet, we could have left any time; we don't take the power that is ours, and instead blame someone outside ourselves for our experience.
Or, we lament and complain about some discomfort that we can’t control, when we should really just accept it; it has already happened – we have no control! So why be in conflict with it?
צַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֶת־קָרְבָּנִ֨י לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י תִּשְׁמְר֕וּ לְהַקְרִ֥יב לִ֖י בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ
Command the children of Israel and say to them, “My offerings, My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, you shall take care to offer Me in its special time…
– BaMidbar (Numbers) 28:2, Parshat Pinhas
When we draw awareness into our pain, it becomes לַחְמִי לְאִשַּׁי – food for My fires – that is, food for awareness, because awareness is strengthened through the practice of being fully present with whatever we feel the impulse to resist. This the first kind of pain, like stubbing your toe; it is the pain of what has already happened.
That is why the offering is called קָרְבָּנִי – My Korban – because korban means to “draw near.” The magic is that even though we are drawing awareness into something unpleasant, the attitude of openness can transmute the pain into a connection with the Divine, with Reality, with our own being, which are all ultimately the same thing.
The second type of pain, as in the example of someone talking at you, is the רֵיחַ נִֽיחֹחִי –pleasing aroma. That’s because there is a sweetness when we claim our own power to change our situation, and not blame others; we can choose to leave. This is the empowerment that arises from realizing our potential for choice.
Our response to these different kinds of discomfort must be done בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ – it its special time – meaning, our response has to be in alignment with the reality of our situation. Is it time to simply accept the loss that has already happened, or is it time to act and “lose” whatever is holding us back?
Both of these – acceptance of suffering and rising out from suffering, falling and returning, are the path of נ nun. Through this path, we are reminded that falling off the path is itself part of the path; nothing is left out. That which we fear most, that which threatens to tear our most cherished away from us, leads us back to faith, to return.
There is a story that when Rabbi Dov Baer was five years old, his home was destroyed in a fire. When he saw his mother grieving and crying over their loss, he asked her, “Mother, should we really be so unhappy about losing a house?”
“I am not sad about the house,” said his mother, “but about our family tree which was burned up. It began with the Talmudic master, Rabbi Yohanan the sandal maker.”
“That’s okay mother,” said the boy, “I will begin a new family tree for you!”
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The mystical prayer, Ana b’kho’akh, begins:
אָנָּא בְּכחַ גְּדֻלַּת יְמִינְךָ תַּתִּיר צְרוּרָה
Please, with the strength of the greatness of Your right hand (meaning – loving-kindness, compassion), untie the tzar – that which is narrow and contracted (meaning – the narrow, limited self-sense, or ego).
קַבֵּל רִנַּת עַמְּךָ שגְּבֵנוּ טַהֲרֵנוּ נורָא
Receive the song of your people! Strengthen us, Purify us, O Awesome One!
נָא גִבּור דּורְשי יִחוּדְךָ כְּבָבַת שמְרֵם
Please, Divine Strength, those who foster Your Oneness – like the pupil of an eye, guard them!
This third line is unusual. If we’re asking God to guard us, to keep us safe, why are we likening ourselves to a bavat – a “pupil” of an eye? It would make more sense to pray that we be guarded like a baby, or like a city – but like a pupil?
Let’s look at this a bit more deeply.
What is a pupil? It is simply an opening through which light enters the eye; the pupil is essentially a hole. And yet, if you make eye contact with a person, it is really the pupil of the eye that gives you the sense that eye contact is being made. That’s why in all those zombie movies, when they want to make a person seem like they’re dead, they somehow take away the pupils from the actors’ eyes; an eye with no pupil creates the effect of there being “nobody home.” It’s a disturbing image to see a person’s eye with no pupil, because we somehow know intuitively that the pupil indicates consciousness; it conveys that there is someone there, looking back at us.
This is interesting, because everyone’s pupils look more or less the same. The color of people’s eyes are different, the shape of people’s eyes are different, and the face in which the eyes are set is completely unique for each person. You can’t tell the identity of someone by their pupils; you need to see their face. And yet, it is the pupil that tells you there is consciousness. Which is interesting, because consciousness itself is also not unique to individuals; it is essentially the same in everyone – simply an open space of perception. And yet, consciousness is our essence, without which we would cease to exist.
The pupil, then, is really a symbol for who we are on the deepest level. Are we our bodies? No. Are we our faces? No. Are we our feelings? Our thoughts? Our personalities?
All of these things are parts of who we are, but none of them are essentially who we are. The essential ingredient is consciousness. And, like the pupil of your eye, your consciousness is simply an opening. It’s not unique, it’s more or less the same for everyone, and yet it’s the most miraculous and precious thing. Without consciousness, everything else is just a shell; just a bundle of patterns.
So this prayer is crying out, tatir tzerura- untie the bundle! Meaning, uncover and reveal this essential openness that we are, beneath the bundle of patterns comprised of our bodies, thoughts and feelings, so that we can know ourselves as this simple openness, k’vavat – like a “pupil.”
The Absolute Yes
There is a certain paradox of consciousness which is also reflected in the pupil:
On one hand, consciousness effortlessly takes the shape of whatever is present in experience. When we relax the thinking mind and let go completely into the fluidity of consciousness, merging with the fulness of the moment, we are walking the path of מ mem.
Notice: there is a richness to your experience right now – sensations, senses, the movement of your breathing, and feelings or mood tone that may be vibrating in your body. Thoughts arise, persist for some time, and then dissipate. Relaxing into the richness of this one experience unfolding now is the path of מ mem.
And yet, at the same time, there also arises the choice to entertain some things within your experience and to not to entertain other things. For example, if some anger were to arise, or the impulse to judge, or to complain – you could notice its presence, but not act on it. So, on the deepest level, you can say “Yes” to it, you can recognize that a negative impulse exists, and that it is perfectly okay to exist. But on the level of choice, you can say “No” – you can choose not to act on it; you simply let it be there and then let it dissipate.
On the other hand, an positive impulse may arise, such as the impulse to be generous or responsible in some way, and you may choose to say “Yes” to that impulse on both levels; you say “Yes” first to its existence, just as you would for anything that arises, but you might also say “Yes” to act on it.
So, on the deepest level of awareness, there is a single “Yes” to everything that arises in the moment. That’s the path of מ mem and “water,” surrendering into the moment. But on the level of choice, there is a “Yes” to some things and a “No” to other things; that’s the duality of discernment – the path of ש shin and “fire.”
This truth is also reflected in the metaphor of the pupil, in that we generally have two pupils. On one hand, the pupil is a simple openness to light which creates a single image, a single experience – that’s the מ mem, or “water” level. And yet, there are two pupils, hinting at the Yes and the No, the duality of choice, the ש shin or “fire” that arises from the מ mem.
…וְעַתָּה֩ לְכָה־נָּ֨א אָֽרָה־לִּ֜י אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֗ה כִּֽי־עָצ֥וּם הוּא֙
“And now, go please and curse this people for me, since they are too numerous for me…”
Balak, the king of Moav, becomes frightened when he hears about the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley. So, he sends messengers out to the reclusive sorcerer Bilam, to request that he put a curse on the Israelites. At first, Bilam refuses. But after several requests, he concedes and rides out on his donkey. Next, there’s a strange and unique passage – one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals. (The other one is the talking snake in the Garden of Eden).
In this passage, Bilam rides out on his donkey through a vineyard, when suddenly an angel appears and blocks his path with sword drawn. But, only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets angry and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי לְךָ֔ Ma asiti l’kha?
“What have I done to you?”
Bilam yells back:
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey:
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” admits Bilam.
Suddenly, Bilam’s eyes are magically “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, apologizes and offers to turn back. The angel tells him no, but he should be careful to only say the words that God will place in his mouth to say.
So, Bilam goes on his way, and meets up with King Balak, who pleads with Bilam to curse the Israelites. But, every time Bilam opens his mouth, he pronounces blessings instead. King Balak tries again and again to get Bilam to curse, bringing him to different places on a mountain overlooking the Israelite camp, as if that would change something. But every time, it just comes out more blessings. In Bilam’s final blessing, he says,
נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃
“The words of Bilam son of Beor, the words of the man with an open eye…”
נְאֻ֕ם שֹׁמֵ֖עַ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃
“The words of the one who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shaddai, while fallen and with uncovered eyes…”
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael!
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!”
…כְּגַנֹּ֖ת עֲלֵ֣י נָהָ֑ר… כַּאֲרָזִ֖ים עֲלֵי־מָֽיִם׃ יִֽזַּל־מַ֙יִם֙ מִדָּ֣לְיָ֔ו וְזַרְע֖וֹ בְּמַ֣יִם רַבִּ֑ים
Like gardens by a river… like cedars by water, their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water…
- BaMidbar (Numbers) 24:3-6, Parshat Balak
Water is such a powerful metaphor for consciousness, not only because of its ability to take the shape of the vessel into which it is poured, but because it is so fundamental – not only is it an essential nutrient that makes up about 70% of our bodies, but it is also the medium through which we are cleansed on both inner and outer levels.
Similarly, just as our bodies are made primarily out of water, on the inner level we are fundamentally made out of awareness. And just as our physical bodies become polluted and must be regularly purified with the help of water, so too we are affected by every experience – everything that happens to us, every emotion we feel, every thought that arises. We are, in a sense, like sponges, absorbing the energies of all that we experience, constantly.
Fortunately, just like a sponge that is cleaned with water, so too we can get clean on the inner level. Whatever we experience, no matter how intense, traumatic, or disappointing, is ultimately not who we really are; it eventually leaves our consciousness if we know how to rinse, squeeze, and rinse again.
And, if we don’t immerse frequently in the waters of Presence, then just like a sponge, we can dry out. The dried-out sponge can neither absorb anything new, nor can it be distinguished from all the dried-on schmootz within it. Similarly, when we become “dried out,” our belief systems are frozen; we can’t see anything new, but rather we perceive everything through the screen of our preconceptions. The inner “pollution” becomes indistinguishable from who we are.
But, no matter how dried out and encrusted we might become, just like the sponge – soak it in the water of awareness and the life comes back. If you are really dried out, it might take some time for the water to penetrate. But once it does, you will know, because all that stuff you thought was you will start rinsing away.
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Mah tovu – How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
“Jacob” and “Israel” are the before and after of inner cleansing. At first you may be practicing – meditating, davening, learning – but you still feel like a dried-out sponge, because the waters of awareness haven’t penetrated yet. That’s ohalekha Ya’akov – the “tents of Jacob” – because you’re sitting and working in the “tent” of goal-oriented practice.
But eventually, the water breaks through and you get soaked. At that point, just like a sponge, you still can get dirty again and again, but you know that the dirt isn’t you; you know how to get clean. Then you can bring that “moisture” of consciousness out of the tent and into more and more of life – that’s mishklanotekha Yisrael – the “dwellings of Israel,” because wherever you are, you can bring that Presence with you.
How do you do it? The haftora tells us:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗
You have been told, O human, what is good, and what the Divine requires from you!
- Mica 6:8
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ Hidid l’kha – You have been told – meaning, you already know the answer intuitively, but then it tells you again just in case:
כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
Only to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your Divinity…
On the inner level, asot mishpat – doing justice – means giving your attention fully to all of this moment, not “favoring” some experiences over others, just as a judge would hear all testimonies and not take any bribes.
וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד Ahavat hesed – love of kindness means giving your awareness from the heart – not in a cold, mechanical way, but as an expression of generosity and benevolence.
וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיך Hatzneia lekhet im Eloheikha – walking humbly with your Divinity means being aware of the Mystery, of the limits of your own understanding, and living through your faith in That Mystery, knowing the Divine as the underlying Reality behind all experience…
The Wisdom of the Beast
We are still left with two questions for our story.
Why is it that Bilam’s donkey perceives the angel before he does, and why do his eyes become “uncovered” as a result of the donkey speaking to him? And, once his eyes are uncovered, how does that allow him to “hear” the Divine voice, transforming curses into blessings?
One way to grasp this passage is to understand the donkey as the human body. There is a tendency to take our bodies for granted, as if they are only vehicles for achieving our agendas – like a car, or a donkey for that matter. But the spiritual potential of our bodies is to literally be temples of Presence – vessels for the “waters” of our awareness.
So, at first Bilam is just hitting his donkey, trying to control it. That’s the ego – selfish, angry, and entitled. But when he starts listening to what the donkey is telling him, then suddenly he can see the angel and hear it speak. Meaning – when we become present with our bodies, then we can clearly see the nature of whatever impulses that arise, and therefore we can come to hear the “angels of our better nature,” so to speak.
Then, rather than simply being taken over by our impulses, there is a space to really see which ones would bring blessings and which would bring curses if acted upon; that’s the “uncovering of the eyes,” so to speak. If there arises an impulse of anger, or an urge to put someone down – we can see that clearly and choose not entertain it. Or, if there arises an impulse of love, of supportiveness, of listening – we can see that clearly too and choose to act upon it. That is the “fire” that comes from the “water” – the Yes and the No of ש shin that comes from the Absolute Yes of מ mem.
I’ve Got Two Eyes, One Two
There is a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, being warm and loving, but see candy with your left eye, not grabbing at it!”
נָא גִבּור דּורְשי יִחוּדְךָ כְּבָבַת שמְרֵם Na Gibor, dorshei yekhudekha, k’vavat shomreim!
Please, Divine Strength, those who foster Your Oneness – like the pupil of an eye, guard them!
To walk the path of מ mem, pouring awareness into the body and merging with the moment, and yet also to walk path of שshin, realizing the freedom to choose blessing and not curse, we have to be ever-watchful. Just as the pupil of an eye – k’vavat – is an open space of perception, so too our awareness is also an open space through which we can watchfully guard – shomreim – the movements and sensations of our bodies with gibor, strength. And, in so doing, we become dorshei yikhudekha – the ones who “foster” awareness of the Oneness of Reality, the Divinity of Being…
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Reb Pinhas taught, “If you wish to guide others, you must not become angry at them, because not only will the anger pollute your own soul, it will infect those you are guiding as well.”
And another time he said, “Since I've learned to tame my anger, I keep it my pocket, and take it out when needed.”
In order to occasionally use anger in a directed and effective way, you have to not be taken over by it. Only when you are free from anger, can you use it effectively. But in most situations, it’s best to be conscious of anger as it arises, feel your anger fully, but not direct it at others. This is the path of ו vav, of having the inner strength not to be taken over by reactivity. But what about transforming the reactivity? Is there a way to cool the fires of anger? This is the path of מ mem, which means mayim, “water” – not merely the transcending of reactivity, but its transformation…
זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶ֩יךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃
This is the decree of the Torah that the Divine commanded, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they should to bring you a red cow, whole and without blemish, on which no yoke has been laid…”
- BaMidbar (Numbers) 19:2, Parshat Hukat
The parshah begins with laws of purification for coming into contact with death. The name of the parshah – Hukat – is a form of the word hok, which means “decree” or “statute.” The particular hok in this parshah contains the strange instructions to burn up a completely red cow – a parah adumah – and make a magical purification potion by mixing its ashes with water. Due to the particularly obscure and bizarre nature of this practice, the rabbis came to see the word hok to refer to any of the Jewish practices in general that don’t seem to make obvious sense, such certain animals being unkosher, or having a day of rest on Saturday. These hukim contrast with more obvious and universal mitzvot, such as not killing and helping the poor.
This water of purification was sprinkled on anyone who had touched a corpse, in order to ritually purify them. The premise was that if one touches a corpse, they become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that they wouldn’t be able to bring offerings into the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and later the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), without first doing this purification process.
How is this relevant today?
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught on the inner meaning of this practice. He pointed out that “death” represents the past, because the past is done; it’s dead. The tuma (ritual impurity) is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that has already happened keep you stuck – you are holding on to something that you really need to let go of; that’s the tuma.
The red cow is itself the very embodiment of death – a living creature that is completely burned up. It is also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal. The redness and burning can also represent anger, as a person’s face becomes red and “burns” with anger.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death?
Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death – from being angry at something in the past – from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, then, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So, paradoxically, it is in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. But as you let go and accept what has been, you are purified; you are “sprinkled with the purifying waters,” so to speak. Then you become tahor – free from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the sacred dimension of simply Being in the present.
This is the path of מ mem, the path of “water.” Just as water effortlessly takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured, so the practice of mem is surrender, letting go of the past, letting the past die. It is therefore also the path of forgiveness, of letting go of any grudges or negativity against others.
But how do we do that? How do we accept whatever we are resisting, and let go? In other words, what are the “waters of the red cow” we can use today?
The Most Direct Path
There is a Hebrew cipher known as atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to Kabbalah, words that are linked through atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
As we have seen, the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah – “song.” And this is exactly the power of song and music in general – to transform negativity and resistance – not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it, by transforming it and expressing it in melody.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad – hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples. In this way, music can be the “waters” of inner purification, transforming anger, fear, frustration and so on into Presence – not by distracting or suppressing the emotions, but by expressing them and uplifting them.
This is the basis for the Hassidic practice of the niggun, the wordless melody. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can’t sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway?
That is one of the greatest hukim, the great mysteries – that music has this power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the Wholeness that we are…
Once, I heard a girl shrieking at her mother as I was waiting in the airport.
“What's the matter honey?” said the mother.
“The phone died!!!” screamed the girl. She apparently was playing a game on her mother’s phone and it ran out of juice.
“I see you're really upset,” said the mother.
It always amazes me when a parent can stay present when a child shrieks about a video game. It reminded me of a parenting method my wife had learned about called “Positive Discipline.” Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting.
The catch phrase for this is “Connection Before Correction.” In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did, and only afterward speak to them firmly about what behavior needs to change.
While I have not found this approach to be workable all of the time with my own children, especially in extreme situations, I still find the principle incredibly useful. And when it does work, it’s not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent. That’s because when you communicate only through harshness, it is all too easy to be seduced by the fires of anger. And though it is possible for the parent to correct the child with anger, the parent is then misbehaving too!
After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure – the very thing you want to correct in the child. So while expressing anger may have the desired effect of correcting the child’s behavior, it could have the opposite effect on oneself.
Spiritually speaking, impatience and loss of composure have a deeper root – they stem from a loss of Presence, and consequently, loss of connection with the Presence. When a child acts out, they have lost their Presence; they have been taken over by their impulses. Have you ever seen an adorable and beautiful child suddenly become a monstrous terror?
And, in the presence of such lack of Presence, it can be very difficult to keep your own Presence.
וְשָׂרַ֥ף אֶת־הַפָּרָ֖ה V’saraph et haparah – the cow shall be burned…
This is reflected in the ritual of the red cow – while the ashes mixed with water cause the impure person to become pure again, they also cause the one who sprinkled the potion to become impure – just as parents who discipline their children with anger may help to “purify” the child’s behavior, but in the process they become impure themselves.
This theme continues to vibrate throughout the parshah. Shortly after the hok of the red cow, Moses’ sister Miriam dies.
וַתָּ֤מׇת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃ – Miriam died there and was buried there.
Metaphorically, Miriam’s death is the loss of connection with the Divine Presence, which Miriam represents.
וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה – And there was no water for the community…
After she dies, we are then told that there is “no water to drink.” Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with the Presence that was lost.
וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃ – and they joined against Moses and Aaron…
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. Hashem instructs Moses to “take the staff” – meaning, take hold of his own inner power, the power of ו vav to transcend anger – and “speak to the rock before their eyes” – meaning, speak from the heart, or we might say, sing from the heart – bring the “waters” of Presence to the “stone” of the hardened heart, to resistance and reactivity, to the lack of connection.
קַ֣ח אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֗ה וְהַקְהֵ֤ל אֶת־הָעֵדָה֙ אַתָּה֙ וְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּ֧ם אֶל־הַסֶּ֛לַע לְעֵינֵיהֶ֖ם וְנָתַ֣ן מֵימָ֑יו וְהוֹצֵאתָ֨ לָהֶ֥ם מַ֙יִם֙ מִן־הַסֶּ֔לַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ֥ אֶת־הָעֵדָ֖ה וְאֶת־בְּעִירָֽם׃
“Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it should give forth its water; you shall bring forth water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
- BaMidbar (Numbers) 20:8, Parshat Hukat
But, this is not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels,” and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink, but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile; he purifies the people but contaminates himself.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself. How often do you beat yourself up for not living up to your highest intentions? While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly. Even better, sing to yourself. You have the power to teach yourself from your inner Torah – to set yourself on the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to the waters of Presence and let them gently wear away the hardness of your heart…
A Person, A Torah…
זֹ֚את הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אָדָ֖ם כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּת בְּאֹ֑הֶל כׇּל־הַבָּ֤א אֶל־הָאֹ֙הֶל֙ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּאֹ֔הֶל יִטְמָ֖א שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
This is the Torah (teaching): When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be tamei seven days…
- BaMidbar (Numbers) 19:15, Parshat Hukat
After describing the process of purification of one who is tamei from contact with the dead through the special water mixed with ashes from the red cow, it goes on to talk about the situation of a person who dies in a tent. There is a story of Reb Yitzhak of Vorki which expresses a novel approach to this verse.
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin, who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time to sit for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe of him.”
But as soon as he sat down, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him. Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them: “You know, every person is like a holy book; that’s why you mustn’t lean on or push one another.”
One of the hassidim countered, “But aren’t we allowed to stack holy books on top of other holy books?”
Replied Reb Yitzhak: “Yes… but even though you should see every person as a holy book, you shouldn’t see yourself as a holy book.”
One of the hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
Waters of Consciousness
אָדָ֖ם כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּת בְּאֹ֑הֶל Adam ki yamut ba’ohel – When person dies in a tent…
We can also learn from the next piece of the phrase:
The אֹהֶל Ohel, the “tent” can be seen as a metaphor for the body, the “tent” of consciousness.
The word for “dies,” יָמוּת yamut, contains the word ים yam, which means “ocean,” and also includes the מ mem, which represents the “waters” of consciousness; this is the “ocean of consciousness.” The next letter, ו vav, means “and,” and is followed by ת tav, which is the last of the Hebrew letters – the “end” of the alef bet.
Seen this way, יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל yamut ba’ohel – “dies in a tent” can be read:
The End of the “Ocean” of Consciousness in the “Tent” of the body…
That is: loss of Presence in the body, being taken over by reactivity or anger.
The irony is that while one might be eager to hear a teaching and rush, push, shove and get stressed or aggressive, all of this creates the state of being tamei – being disconnected the body, not being present, which, of course, contradicts any authentic spiritual teaching!
The remedy is the path of מ mem – letting go, not reaching after the future, not holding on to the past, and merging with the Truth of this moment…
The Serpent of Boredom
Mem is the great Ocean of Consciousness, effortlessly taking the shape of this moment, ever flowing, formless, boundless and formless, purifying and nourishing. This vastness is the root of our own being; it is not something remote or attainable by only a few. Rather, it is our own sentience, the field of awareness behind all experience, ever- available.
And yet, because it is the constant and un-varying backdrop of all experience, it is ordinarily unnoticeable, just as the ocean is unnoticeable to the fish. It is, on one hand, ironically the most miraculous thing available to us, the only Thing that can quench the thirst of the human soul; yet, on the other hand, its extraordinariness is easily missed.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר הָעָ֗ם בֵּֽאלֹהִים֮ וּבְמֹשֶׁה֒ לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֙נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֙חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל׃
And the people spoke against Elohim and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and our souls have come to loathe this ‘miserable bread!’”
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 21:5
This passage comes a bit after the incident with the water from the rock. Let’s look at these words more deeply:
– Ayn lekhem v’ayn mayim – No bread and no water…אֵ֥ין לֶ֙חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם
“Bread and water” are metaphors for varieties of experience; they are different types of contrasting and complementary gratification.
לֶ֙חֶם֙ הַקְּלֹקֵֽל – Lekhem Haklokel – The “miserable bread” is the mon, the miraculous “manna” that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. This “manna” is a symbol for our deepest being; on one hand, it is a miracle, our sustaining essence as we traverse the wilderness of life. On the other hand, it is the constant background; it is “bread” without “water,” a “goodness” without “badness”… and therefore not really a goodness, which is why it is called קְּלֹקֵֽל klokel – miserable, tedious, boring.
The word קְּלֹקֵֽל klokel is ק koof ל lamed, then ק koof ל lamed again. The symbolism of ק koof has to do with seeing the sacred in the ordinary, and ל lamed has to do with curiosity, with learning from every experience.
So, put together, קל koof-lamed could mean, “Learning to see the sacredness in the ordinary.” This is a fundamental and not difficult practice, simply entailing the bringing of awareness into connection with the ordinary moments of life. In fact, the word קל literally means “light” or “simple.” This is Presence in the ordinary, which we will explore later in the path of ק koof.
But, when the letters are repeated, קל – קל, it implies the tediousness of trying to find the sacred in the same old thing, over and over again.
What is the remedy for this tediousness?
וַיְשַׁלַּ֨ח יְהוָ֜ה בָּעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וַֽיְנַשְּׁכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֥מָת עַם־רָ֖ב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Hashem sent fiery serpents against the people; they bit the people and many of the Israelites died.
The “fiery serpents” are emotional reactivity, anger, as represented earlier by the burning red cow. But here the fire functions differently; when we feel the tediousness of the same thing over and over again, emotions like anger and frustration can actually be a kind of relief from the tedium.
…they bit the people and many of the Israelites died.
As we have seen, anger is destructive, and ordinarily it causes the “death” of Presence. But, there is a way to make use of it:
וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּחֹ֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי׃
Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a pole; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, they would look at the copper serpent and live.
The “copper serpent” is נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת n’khash n’khoshet; it is a play on words, because “copper” and “serpent” are essentially the same word, built from the root: נ nun – ח khet – ש shin. “Copper” is a common metal, as opposed to the more precious metals of gold and silver. “Serpent” is the pain of emotional reactivity. So, the “copper serpent” represents the emotional pain that comes from too much of the same old common experience.
And yet, the copper serpent had the power to heal the Israelites who were “bitten” by the “serpent” of emotional pain. We can see how in the letters themselves:
Nun נ represents impermanence, the pain of loss. Khet ח represents patience, grace, being simply present. Shin שrepresents the fire of transformation, the increased consciousness that comes from bringing awareness to pain.
In other words, “looking” at the “serpent” means patiently being with the emotional pain, bringing “water” to the “fire” – this is the path of mem. Through the purifying waters of Presence, the latent “fire” of transformation within pain (shin) is brought into actuality, allowing us once again to truly “live” – to wash away the negativity of the past and worry about the future, and allow ourselves to be “poured” fully into the “vessel” of this moment in which we find ourselves…
One time, when I was flying home on a plane, the flight attendant came through the cabin and asked me what I wanted to drink. “I’ll have sparkling water with lime please,” which is my own “water of purification” that I always have when I fly.
“We have lime flavored sparkling water, is that okay?”
No that’s not okay! That’s what I was thinking – but I said, “Sure, thanks.”
I’ve been getting sparkling water with lime on the plane all my life, and suddenly it was gone – and in its place, a cheaper substitute. “Lime flavor” is not the same and is not as good as a piece of real lime – on a number of levels – but business decisions like this get made all the time. So many products nowadays are worse than their predecessors. This phenomenon is sometimes called, “selling out.”
“Selling out” means reducing the quality of something for the sake of monetary gain; it is an exchange of one value for another. But this doesn’t happen only in business; it is a basic ability we have to override our inner sense of what is right for the sake of something else we want. And, it’s not a bad ability to have, if used properly.
For example, it’s good to exercise every day, to eat healthy food, to spend quality time with others, and so on. But what if there is an emergency – someone has a crisis and needs your help. It is good to be able to put all those things on hold temporarily and take care of the crisis.
In this kind of case, “selling out” your personal health for the sake of another value – helping someone in crisis – can be a good thing. It is good to not be so attached your own needs so that you can respond to the needs of the situation. The problem is when this ability to override – to “sell out” – takes over and becomes our norm. The problem is when we completely “sell out” in the realm of personal health for the sake of a career, for example; that’s when we get into trouble.
This is why it’s so important to consciously choose and create our habits.
We can break them when necessary, as long as we return to them. Don’t let the exception to the rule become the new rule! Many of us are full of unconscious habits – behaviors we took on for certain reasons – that have become our norm, without ever consciously choosing them.
The haftora for Parshat Hukat tells the story of Jephtah, the son of a harlot. Jephtah’s half-brothers of the same father don’t want their son-of-a-harlot half-brother to share in their inheritance, so they kick him out of the house and send him away.
Now Jephtah is a great warrior, and he attracts a band of men who become his loyal companions. Years later, when the Ammonites attack Israel, the brothers come back to Jephtah and ask him to please come lead the fight against the Ammonites.
“But you hated me and sent me away! Now you come back to me when you are in need?”
The brothers offer him a deal: “If you come back and help us fight, then when it’s all over, we will make you our leader.” Japhteh is convinced – he “sells out” in a sense, giving up his pride and sense of justice for the sake of prestige and status.
Before Japhteh goes into battle, he prays: Oh Hashem, if you make me victorious, I will sacrifice to you whatever comes out of my house first when I return home!
What? This is very strange – what does he think is going to come out of his house? Sure enough, when he returns home, his daughter runs out to greet him, and he cries out in horror as he realizes he must sacrifice his own daughter.
This is such a strange story. Obviously, if he vows to sacrifice “whatever comes out of his house,” he will end up sacrificing a family member; it’s not like a goat or sheep is going to run out of his house! But if we understand the story metaphorically, it makes sense as an illustration of this “sell-out” mentality:
First, Jephtah is the son of a harlot, and prostitution “sells out” the ordinary values of relationship and family for the sake of pleasure and monetary gain. Second, Jephtah agrees to help his betraying brothers fight for the sake of prestige; more selling out. Finally, he vows to sacrifice whatever comes out of his house if he wins.
This is the clearest example – he is willing to sacrifice the most precious thing at a future time for the sake of gaining something else in the short run. Then, he is surprised when it leads to tragedy – just as we too can be surprised when we unconsciously make bad choices for the sake of short term, relatively unimportant goals.
On the deepest level, when it comes to how we use our own minds, “selling out” tends to be the norm for most of us.
Meaning: Right now, we have something so precious – the most precious thing there is in fact – we have the ability to merge fully with this moment, to know the miracle of Being that is this moment, to know ourselves as the Ocean of Consciousness within which the experience of this moment is now arising.
And yet, many of us unconsciously and unwittingly give up this most precious gift – for what? For mostly useless thinking. If we’re not aware of what we are doing, we can simply cover up this most precious thing with our constant stream of thoughts, just like our hand can cover our eyes and block out the entire sun. The mind has a certain illusory gravity; it says, “Pay attention to me! I have something urgently important!”
But wake up to the majesty of this moment, and see: most thinking is a bogus urgency. Make it a habit to let go, to surrender, to know yourself as the vast Ocean of Awareness that you are, rather than as busy thinking, and the miraculous becomes your norm. Yes, of course, sometimes you have to “sell out” – it’s okay – the situation will sometimes require you to get busy with your thinking, to rush around, to take care of business. Sometimes you have to put aside the most precious thing for the sake of the situation, but don’t make that the norm! When you can, come back in t’shuvah to Presence; wash yourself clean in the waters of consciousness and let go into the openness of the present.
In fact, our innate capacity to return from the trivial to the miraculous is encoded in Jephtah’s name – Yiftakh – which means, “open.” No matter how much we have “sold out,” our potential to return to the open sea of consciousness – to know ourselves as that openness – is ever-present, and we can do it from wherever we are, right now...
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One of the radical teachings of Hassidism, once regarded by some Rabbinic authorities as heretical, is that we all have equal and immediate access to the Divine, regardless of book learning and even regardless of purity in thought and action. That’s because the Hassidic understanding is that the Divine is not something separate from anything, but is rather the basic Reality of Everything – similar to the relationship between the waves and the ocean. The waves have form and duration; they have individual “identity” in a sense, yet they are never separate from the vast and formless ocean.
Similarly, all things are like waves in the great Ocean of Being, and all we need do to connect with the Divine is shift our attention from the “waves” – the world of time and thinking – to the Ocean – the realm of the Timeless Present, the open space of awareness within which all experience comes and goes.
Cottages of the Prince
One of the disciples of Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz wasn’t convinced: “I am not really a holy person; I don’t see how I could possibly ever know Hashem with all the wicked things I’ve done.”
Rabbi Pinhas responded with a parable: “Once there was a prince who liked to go on journeys, so he had many little cottages scattered throughout the land. When he would travel, he would stay in those cottages, among the common folk. Those cottages were very different and far more modest than his palace, but they were in no way inferior, because they served a different function; what the palace could not do, the cottages could, and vice versa.
“It is the same with people: when a supposedly ‘wicked’ person turns their heart to the Divine and connects in prayer or in good deed, the Divine rejoices in a way that is not possible with the tzaddikim; that’s why it’s important for everyone to understand that they can connect to Hashem, regardless of how unscholarly or unsaintly they may regard themselves.”
In this parable of Rabbi Pinhas, the “palace” and the “cottages” are different, but they are both dwelling places of the “prince.” The message is, no matter who we are and what we do, we all can potentially become “homes” for the Divine.
“Home” is a wonderful metaphor for connection with the Divine, because the Divine is literally “at home” everywhere – just as the ocean is “at home” within every wave. Home should be a place of restfulness and security; just like the state of inner connectedness that comes from Presence. But also, the home is a place we leave frequently, only to return again. If we were trapped in our home, the home would be like a prison; we would be “under house arrest.” Appreciation for being at home is partially dependent on regularly visiting other places!
Similarly, we can leave our “home” in the present moment to travel through landscapes of thought and feeling. If thought and feeling function as temporary abodes for serving the betterment of life, they are like the “cottages of the prince” so to speak… as long as we don’t get trapped! We don’t want to get “taken hostage” by the mind and lose sight of our true home, the Palace of Presence.
וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְי וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְיְ׃
And they gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them. “You make much of yourselves! For all the community – all of them are holy, and the Divine is among them all! Why do you exalt yourselves above the community of Hashem?”
-BaMidbar (Numbers) 16:3, Parshat Korakh
Parshat Korakh describes a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The protestors have a good point – yes, everyone is holy. This is what the mind whispers to us: “These thoughts are important and holy too!” – which is true! But, visit them and dwell in them as if you were royalty, traveling and visiting your country house; don’t get lost in them! Remember the Palace of Presence, remember your true home.
But how do you do that?
In the haftorah, the prophet Samuel rebukes the people for rejecting Hashem as their King and requesting a human king, king Saul. The people feel remorse and beg for mercy. But Samuel reassures them:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֤ל אֶל־הָעָם֙ אַל־תִּירָ֔אוּ אַתֶּ֣ם עֲשִׂיתֶ֔ם אֵ֥ת כָּל־הָרָעָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את אַ֗ךְ אַל־תָּס֙וּרוּ֙ מֵאַחֲרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲבַדְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶֽם׃
But Samuel said to the people, “Have no fear. You have, indeed, done all those wicked things. Do not, however, turn away, but serve the Divine with all your heart…
- I Samuel 12:21
The point is, it’s okay to have a human king. It’s okay – it’s necessary and good in fact – to engage in the world, to enjoy the world. It’s okay to travel in the paths of thought and feeling. The key is to remember, in whatever you are doing, that this moment is a kind of training; this moment is for learning how to be in the waves while staying connected to the ocean. Let this moment teach you how to not get lost – al tasuru – don’t turn away! Learn to turn your attention back again and again toward the Divine as the Ever-Present Reality of this moment; this is the Path of ל Lamed.
Black Fire on White Fire
Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz, used to visit the city of Apt every year on his father’s yartzeitto visit his grave. For years, he would teach the community on those visits. One year, on such a visit, they asked him when he would come and preach in the synagogue.
“I don’t think I will preach this year,” he replied. “I don’t see any evidence that my preaching has done any good.” The people were dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to say.
Later, a crowd gathered around the inn where the Maggid was staying. They wanted to convince him to come and speak, but weren’t sure how. Then, a young craftsman went into the inn and knocked on the Maggid’s door. The Maggid answered.
“You say that your preaching hasn’t had any effect,” said the craftsman. “But that’s not true. Last year you spoke about the practice of Sh’viti Hashem L’negdi Tamid – I place the Divine before me constantly. Ever since then, I always see the Divine before me in whatever I am doing, and in whatever is happening; It appears to me like black fire on white fire.”
“Hmm,” replied the Maggid, “Okay then, I’ll come and preach.”
The Three Strategies of Ego
And they gathered against Moses and Aaron…
Moses and Aaron represent our capacity to be in alignment with the Divine – meaning, living from the realization that all things are part of One Reality, One unfolding. From this point of view, there is no tension between oneself and the situation within which one finds oneself, because both “self” and “situation” are arising within (and not separate from) the space of consciousness that we are; there is unity with the moment.
Ego, on the other hand, is living from the sense of oneself as separate from one’s situation; ego is the sense of “me” and “other.” This is Korakh – the incarnation of ego. Ego thrives on conflict, because conflict reinforces the sense of oneself as separate; conflict is food and water for the ego. We can see this in the opening words:
וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח – Vayikakh Korakh – And Korakh took…
This is usually translated as “Korakh separated himself,” but literally it means “Korakh took.” Took what? He “took” his feeling of existence by creating conflict, by rebelling against Moses and Aaron and trying to seize power for himself. The passage then goes on to illustrate the three primary strategies that the ego employs to accomplish its craving for the illusion of existence:
The first strategy of ego is co-opting the truth for its own purpose – Korakh makes an argument against Moses and Aaron that is essentially true:
כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים – Kulam kedoshim – all of them are holy!
Instead of trying to say that Moses and Aaron are bad leaders and that he would be a better leader, which would be more straightforward but debatable, Korakh instead says something that can’t really be argued: Everyone is holy!
Moses’ approach is wise – he doesn’t argue back, but simply points out that the truth will eventually reveal itself:
…בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ וְאֶת־הַקָּד֖וֹשׁ וְהִקְר֣יב אֵל֑יו
In the morning, The Divine will make known who is in alignment with the Divine, who is holy and close to the Divine…
In other words, Reality ultimately reveals the truth of things. We may not know where a person’s heart is – whether a person is really concerned with the truth of what they are saying, or whether they are really concerned only with the enhancement of their ego; we may have to simply “wait and see.” But, while we can’t necessarily know the motivation of another person, we can know our own motivation:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּפֹּ֖ל עַל־פָּנָֽיו׃ – Vayish’ma Mosheh vayipol al panav – And Moses heard and fell on his face…
The word for “his face,” panav, can also mean presence, or awareness. So, “fell upon his face” can mean letting our awareness “fall” into our bodies, being quiet and alert to notice whatever feelings are present within, so as not to get caught by our own egos.
The second strategy of ego is projection:
יי וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל – Umadu’a titnas’u al k’hal? Why do you exalt yourselves over the community of Hashem?
Korakh’s accusation against Moses and Aaron is actually a projection of himself; his own ego feels disempowered and craves enhancement, but that can only happen if his true motivation is hidden. So, he throws the spotlight on the ones he is attacking.
The third strategy of ego is securing validation from others – Korakh does not attack Moses and Aaron by himself, but first gets the backing of men who are respected leaders:
נְשִׂיאֵ֥י עֵדָ֛ה קְרִאֵ֥י מוֹעֵ֖ד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם – N’si’ei eidah, kriy’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – leaders of the community who are called to assembly, men of renown…
Validation from others hides the profound insecurity of ego and stuffs it full with self-confidence. But Moses does the opposite. After examining himself by “listening” and “falling on his face,” he stays with the uncertainty, confident that the truth will be revealed in time.
Similarly, we too can give the benefit of the doubt to those who seem to oppose us. We can look within and discover where ego may be secretly operating, and in that awareness, transcend the ego’s clutches and connect with the life that matters most – the deepest dimension of who we are, beyond ego, beyond all argument. Because, ultimately, the ego’s self “propping up” is bound to collapse:
וַתִּפְתַּ֤ח הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלַ֥ע אֹתָ֖ם
And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them…
Meaning, all of the illusions of ego are eventually revealed for what they are. The question is, can we debunk the illusory pull of ego within ourselves first? We can – but only if we are genuinely curious about our own motivations, about how we are operating. We need to turn the ל lamed inward and really learn what is going on with ourselves, instead of merely focusing on the “outside” world.
When I was about three years old, I was at a swimming pool. I had just seen a kid running, and I thought that wasn’t allowed, so I called up to the lifeguard, “Are we allowed to run around the pool?”
“No, no running allowed around the pool.”
“Okay!” I said, feeling confident now in my judgment of that other kid. Then, without realizing what I was doing, I immediately proceeded to run off myself. In a split second, the lifeguard’s whistle was in his mouth and he let off a short blast that pierced my soul:
“Don’t you run!” he said.
Who Do We Think We Are?
An opponent of the Hassidic movement once came to the Alter Rebbi – Reb Sheur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Lubavitch – to attack him with accusations of pride:
“You claim to be a holy man, but look how you sit alone in your study, separate from the people – and with an attendant at your door, shielding you from those who come to see you, and only admitting them one by one according to your command – how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanun prayer.
After a few minutes, he lifted his head and spoke:
“The expression the Torah uses for ‘leaders of the people’ is ‘roshei alfei Yisrael – heads of the thousands of Israel,’ from which we learn that our leaders are known as ‘heads’.
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. Nevertheless, they are clothed separately and differently. Why is this? Because the head must be distinct from the body, just as the ‘heads’ of any generation must be distinct from the people.”
The questioner was impressed with the answer and went on his way.
But the Rebbe’s little son (who would eventually be known as Reb Dov Bear of Lubavich), had a different question for his father:
“Abba, in order to give that answer, there was no need to rest your head in your arms. Why didn’t you give him the answer immediately?”
The Alter Rebbe replied, “In Parshat Korakh, when Korakh and his followers incited mutiny against Moses and Aaron and accused them of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused Moses with these words- ‘Umadua titnasu – why do you raise yourself up above the people of God?’
“Then we read, ‘Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
“Only afterward did Moses give his answer to Korakh – that in the morning, Hashem would make clear who were the chosen leaders. The same question could be asked there: Why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
“But Moses suspected that perhaps there was some truth to the accusation – perhaps there was a bit of ego involved in his leadership, so he had to go inside himself and search inwardly to learn if there was some truth there.
“After searching within and finding that the accusation was false, (for as the Torah says, ‘V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od – Moses was exceedingly humble’) he was able to respond with clarity. A similar thing happened with me here today.”
The Alter Rebbe’s description of the head in relation to the body – intimately connected, yet separate, transcendent – is not just a metaphor for a leader in relation to the people, but also for consciousness in relation to the mind.
Just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, admitting them one by one according to the wishes of the rebbe, so too we need to be the “attendants” of our own minds, admitting our thoughts one by one, as they need to be dealt with. This “attending to our own minds” allows our consciousness to remain free and not be besieged by our thoughts.
When you practice this, it sometimes happens that your mind rebels against you, like Korakh: “What makes you so great that you get to call all the shots? All of us thoughts are holy too!”
Thoughts will come with incredible urgency, accusing you of being negligent, of being disconnected, of being arrogant, whatever. And even though Moses and the Alter Rebbe may find no trace of ego within themselves, most people will find at least a little. For most, cleansing oneself inwardly from ego is a daily task. That’s why it’s so important to spend some time each day turning the ל lamed inward, looking inside ourselves to learn the truth about whatever feelings and motivations are present. In seeing and acknowledging the truth of our own egos, we can free ourselves from it, and enjoy the inner aliveness that comes with that freedom. Because that aliveness is actually who you are – not who you think you are!
Learning and Teaching – the Mitzvah of ל Lamed
וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃
These words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשׇׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
Teach them to your children and speak them when you sit at home and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…
-Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:6-7
These well-known verses from the Ve’ahavtah are understood to be the mitzvah of Torah study, the learning of Jewish texts. But on a deeper level, they hint at an attitude, an approach to the moment –
When you sit at home and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…
In other words, whatever we are doing, wherever we find ourselves – there is Torah to be learned, if we make the moment into our teacher. This is the deeper dimension of the mitzvah of Torah learning – to be constantly receptive to what is being taught, to become a student of the Present…
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Reb Menachem Mendel, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, once overheard someone comparing some person to another person: “So-and-so is a much greater scholar than so-and-so!”
To this, the Kotzker replied:
“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 are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you!”
In other words, don’t base your identity on how you see others – or put more simply, don’t compare yourself to others.
This bit of wisdom, albeit said in a riddle-like way, is simple and obvious. And yet, comparing ourselves with others and feeling inferior or superior as a result is an all-pervasive psychological reality for most humans.
At its root, this tendency to compare ourselves with others comes from a feeling of insecurity that stems from uncertainty. 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 acquire what we lack, or we may worry about losing our abilities as we age. And it’s understandable – we really don’t know the answer to what will be. Uncertainty is the truth.
But rather than confront this 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, creating a kind of insecurity-based arrogance. Or, we may put ourselves down, affirming the worst in ourselves so that we don’t get disappointed. The problem with both these approaches is they’re not based on truth; they’re based on our reaction to our discomfort with truth – that is, the truth of uncertainty.
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וְהִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר
Rabban Gamaliel used to say: “Make for yourself a teacher, and remove yourself from uncertainty…”
- Pirkei Avot 1:16
On the plain level, this mishna is reminding us of the importance of having teachers. Learning from teachers accomplishes three important things – first, it helps us to grow. Second, it puts us in a relationship of humility toward another, helping us to accept our own uncertainty rather than fight against it with arrogance or self-deprecation, so that we can be open to learning something new. Third, it is actually a path to transforming some of our uncertainty into knowledge.
But on a deeper level, this mishna can me read, “Make for/to yourself a teacher” – in other words, make that which is to yourself – whatever is arising in this moment – into your teacher.
אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם Eizeihu hakham? Halomed mikol Adam.
Who is wise? One who learns from every person.
- Pirkei Avot 4:1
This is the Path of Lamed ל, which means both “learn” and “teach,” pointing to the attitude of curiosity – alert openness to learn whatever the moment has to teach us. On the deepest level, this is not the learning of specific content, but rather it is the ongoing learning of how to be; that is, how to move through life as an embodiment of Presence, knowing yourself as the open space of awareness within which this moment unfolds, not separate from the One Reality we call the Divine.
Again, this deepest level of the Path of Lamed ל is not merely the learning of ideas or concepts; it is a way of approaching the moment. There is a story that once, when Rabbi Yisrael of Apt was giving a public teaching, great throngs of people were pushing and shoving to try to get closer so they could hear his words.
“That won’t help you!” cried the rabbi, “Those who are able to hear will hear, even at a distance. Those who are not able to hear will not hear, no matter how near they come.”
In other words, the root of “hearing the teaching” is in our relationship with the moment, not in our hearing of specific words.
יַחְדָּו אֶשְׁכְּבָ֪ה וְאִ֫ישָׁ֥ן כִּֽי־אַתָּ֣ה יְי לְבָדָ֑ד לָ֝בֶ֗טַח תּוֹשִׁיבֵֽנִי׃ בְּשָׁל֣וֹם
In peaceful unity I lie down and sleep, for You, Hashem, cause me to dwell in solitude and security.
- Tehilim (Psalms) 4:9
There is a sense of peace and unity that is found when we learn to simply be in the fulness of this moment. In this unity, there is no other, no sense of “me” and “not me.” To dwell in this unity, then, is to be truly alone, because there is nothing that arises in our field of awareness that is separate from awareness; this is the supreme security in which we can constantly trust.
…l’vadad lavetakh toshivieni – to dwell in solitude and security.
In fact, the word for security, vetakh, is the same root as “trust” – בטח. As is says in Tehilim:
וַאֲנִי בְּחַסְדְּ֒ךָ בָטַֽחְתִּי – As for me, in Your kindness I trust (vatakhti)…
- Tehilim (Psalms) 13:6
But this inner peace, this “dwelling” in “solitude and security” is not something solid, not an experience that persists permanently in time. It is, in fact, nothing but the open space within which everything is constantly changing; therefore, if we want this ultimate peace and security, we must stop resisting the fact that there is no permanent peace and security in time.
So then why strive for it if it can never be permanently established?
Parshat Shelakh L’kha
On an inner level, this was the argument of the spies who were sent by Moses to go investigate the land and bring back reports.
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Shelakh l’kha – Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land of Canaan...
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:2
Most of the spies come back and say that the land is wonderful, but that there are “giants,” thus discouraging the Israelites from attempting to “conquer the land.”
But on a deeper level, “conquering the land” represents the aim of “dwelling with the Divine in solitude and security.”
The spies are saying that yes, peace and security are real, but we won’t be able to have them as a permanent state; the “giants” of thoughts and feelings are too powerful. So, why even bother?
וְהַ֨יָּמִ֔ים יְמֵ֖י בִּכּוּרֵ֥י עֲנָבִֽים וְהִ֨תְחַזַּקְתֶּ֔ם וּלְקַחְתֶּ֖ם מִפְּרִ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ
“…strengthen yourselves to take from the fruit of the land.” And those days were the days of the first grapes…
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:20
“Fruit” is a metaphor for the experience we seek. Here the fruit is the grape, and the word for grape is ענב anav. These three letters, ayin, nun and bet, have meanings:
Ayin ע means “eye,” and so represents “seeing.”
Nun נ is associated with the word נָפוּל naful which means “fallen,” and refers to the fact that Israel would eventually “fall” to her enemies. Nun נ, then, represents impermanence.
Bet ב means “house,” the archetype of which is the ancient Temple in Jerusalem which would eventually “fall” to the Babylonians.
Together, then, we can read ענב anav as meaning, “seeing the impermanence of sacred structure” – that is, the impermanence of spiritual experiences. The “grapes” that the spies bring back are plump and good – meaning, the “fruit” of experiencing unity and peace is possible, but there are “giants.” States of consciousness are not permanent.
So, on this level, the spies are embodying a self-defeating attitude that can thwart our practice:
“I can’t seem to hold on to the states I experience in meditation, so maybe I shouldn’t even bother.”
But, there is another word which shares letters and sounds with ענב anav (grape):
ענוה – anavah – “humility.”
In this word, theב bet is replaced with aו vav (which has the same “v” sound). When the ו vav comes as a prefix to a word, it means “and,” implying movement into the future, the embrace of change, opening to something new, saying “yes and.”
This is the key:
The true בֶטַח vetakh, the true security, comes not from holding on to a particular state or moment; it comes not from trying to preserve the “fruits” of our practice, the עֲנָבִֽים anavim which are destined to die and decay. It comes instead fromענוה anavah, humility, which is openness and surrender to the impermanence of all forms and experiences. Because in this openness, there is the ever-renewing ו vav, the ever-saying “yes” to the newness that the moment brings.
And this is the paradox: when we say “yes and” to the moment as it is becoming, when we embody the openness of ענוה anavah and let go of the עֲנָבִֽים anavim, the “fruits,” we discover the שָׁלוֹם יַחְדָּו, shalom yakhdav, the true peace and unity of all being, beyond yet including all experiences, the space of Reality Itself, supremely Alone in all Its resplendence.
The Bread of Affliction
Furthermore, as we learn to embrace whatever disturbing thoughts, feelings and sense perceptions arise, our awareness is actually strengthened by 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!
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 14:9
“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 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 Itself, 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 Its Truth…
אַל תִּירָא מִפַּחַד...כִּי עִמָּנוּ אֵל Al Tira MiPakhad – Ki Imanu El!
Don't be Afraid of Fear… for the Divine is with us!
- Mishlei (Proverbs) 3:25, Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 8:10
בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃
In our eyes we are like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes…
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:33
So too, we might think: “I’m not super human – how can I possibly accept everything that arises in the moment? How can I actually transcend my thoughts and feelings and become truly present in the face of the many challenges that arise in life?”
From that fear, there’s the tendency to turn spirituality into just another idea, into something to talk about, but not something you can really live. 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 spirituality 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 this moment 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 One. They must become empty and spacious like heaven itself, of which it is said:
אֵֽין־אֹ֭מֶר וְאֵ֣ין דְּבָרִ֑ים בְּ֝לִ֗י נִשְׁמָ֥ע קוֹלָֽם
“Ayn omer v’ayn devarim, b’li nishma kolam – There is no speech and there are no words; their sound is not heard…”
- Tehilim (Psalms) 19:4
This is the spaciousness of Presence – the “heaven” that is born within when resistance and ego die, but you do not.
Go to Hell
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 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 whatever difficulties you encounter are food for your consciousness, and all experiences are part of your “schooling” for learning to be awake.
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, “Don't believe in yourself until the day you die.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
But trust: here you are, in such-and-such situation, and this is your training; this is the exact situation you need to practice and to learn; This is the Path of Lamed ל.
Learning to Lie Down
… מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד יי רֹ֝עִ֗י לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר׃ בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי עַל־מֵ֖י מְנֻח֣וֹת יְנַהֲלֵֽנִי׃ נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב
A song of David – the Divine is my shepherd, I shall not lack. In lush meadows the Divine lays me down, beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me – my soul is revived !
These opening 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:
תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י
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?
But that is the point. The point is not to get rid of the “tormentors,” but to shift the context within which the “torment” arises. This distinction can be confusing, because meditation will, after all, decrease negativity and suffering. It decreases stress, it decreases repetitive and unhelpful thinking, and it increases joy and bliss. And, at some point, you’re likely to experience all negativity dropping away completely.
Beside tranquil waters the Divine leads me…
However, this does not mean that negativity has been eliminated. That’s where you can get into trouble, because once you’ve had some deep success with your practice, once you “lie down by the tranquil waters,” so to speak, 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 challenge does arise, you can mistakenly conclude that you’ve somehow lost it, that spirituality 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.
Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, 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 it – know that the Divine is with you, because the Divine is literally not separate from the space of your own awareness, within which the negativity as well as everything else comes and goes.
How do we do that?
Be a student of the moment – this moment, just as it is, is teaching you right now. This is the Path of ל Lamed.
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