Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #8: Tiferet – Radiant Beauty
There’s a Hasidic story that the once the Jews of the town of Apt were threatened by a local decree against them and were in great distress, so the rabbi of Apt issued a command for a universal fast in order to call down God’s mercy. But when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn heard of the threat, he called for his favorite klezmorim (musicians) to come and play on his balcony every evening. As the sounds wafted down, a crowd of Hasidim would begin to gather below, and as the gathering grew, they would begin to dance.
Word eventually came to the rabbi of Apt of what was happening: “Rabbi! Your decree of a time of fasting has been turned into a time of rejoicing by Rabbi Yisrael!”
The rabbi of Apt responded by quoting a pasuk:
וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃
“When you come into battle in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound the trumpets, that you may be remembered before Hashem your Divinity and be delivered from your enemies…
“How can I judge someone who is taking this command of the Torah to heart?”
In this story, the response rabbi of Apt to the impending calamity is to impose austerity. This is a common traditional response; when life brings us danger, the practice is to try to avert the danger through asceticism. In this taking of suffering upon oneself on purpose, the belief is that you can stop the danger from manifesting externally.
The logic of this type of approach comes from our ordinary experience of relationships. You may have experienced that when a person realizes they have wronged you, and they come to you with sincere apologies and grief, it is not difficult to forgive them.
But there is also another path; instead of being repentant and sorrowful, the offender might do something so delightful that the offense is forgotten. This is often true in the case children! While children might occasionally be sorry, usually their offenses are more often forgiven when they do something adorable.
In Kabbalah, the ascetic approach is the path of Gevurah, while the approach of delight is the path of Tiferet. In the story, it is the playing of music that draws down Divine compassion, hence the association of Tiferet with “beauty” and “splendor,” which are straightforward translations of Tiferet, but also with “compassion,” or rakhamim.
Another kabbalistic dimension of the story is the description of the scene: the musicians play up on the balcony, and the music wafts downward to the gathering Hasidim below, who begin to dance. This is the transcendent beauty of Tiferet above, arousing Yesod below, which represents the foundational functions of joy and community.
In addition to the association of Tiferet with beauty and compassion, Tiferet is also associated with Emet, Truth.
…תורָתְךָ אֱמֶת: תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקב. חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם
Your Torah is Truth; Grant Truth to Jacob, Kindness to Abraham…
- Atah Kadosh liturgy, weekday Shakharit, Shabbat Minkha, Motzei Shabbat Maariv
In this Talmudic liturgical text, Abraham is associated with Hesed/Kindness, while Jacob is associated with Emet/Truth. In Kabbalah, the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, come to be associated with three sefirot, Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; hence the association of Tiferet with Truth.
But this is strange – how can Tiferet represent beauty and compassion, and also truth?
Beauty and compassion make sense; we experience beauty, and this arouses compassion. But to have compassion, we often have to ignore truth to some degree; we overlook the truth of a person’s guilt in order to respond compassionately. Furthermore, beauty is often an external effect that covers up truth, as when a person puts on makeup or dyes their hair. We can “photoshop” a photo to create a more beautiful image of a person. In music recording, we can digitally “fix” a person’s voice when they sing off key, making the recording more beautiful while hiding the truth of how they actually sang.
There is a hint to this riddle in the parshah:
אֶת־יְהוָ֥ה הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְותָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃
You say today that Existence Itself will be for you as God, that you will walk in Its ways, that you will guard Its practices and commandments and ethical rules, and that you will listen to Its Voice.
וַֽיהוָ֞ה הֶאֱמִֽירְךָ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְלִשְׁמֹ֖ר כָּל־מִצְותָֽיו׃
And Existence Itself affirms today that you are to It a treasured people, as said to you, and to guard all of Its commandments,
וּֽלְתִתְּךָ֣ עֶלְי֗וֹן עַ֤ל כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה לִתְהִלָּ֖ה וּלְשֵׁ֣ם וּלְתִפְאָ֑רֶת וְלִֽהְיֹתְךָ֧ עַם־קָדֹ֛שׁ לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃
And you will be set far above the nations that were made, for praise and fame and splendor (Tiferet), and you will be a holy people to Hashem your divinity, as said.
This passage describes the benefits that the Children of Israel will receive for living in alignment with the Divine. Each of these qualities are aspects of Tiferet:
Elyon – exalted, above, transcendent; this is Tiferet in relation to Malkhut, as Tiferet is symbolized by the sun and Malkhut by the earth.
Lit’hilah – “for praise” particularly through song. This is the beauty of music, as in the story above. The Psalms, which were sung by the Levites in the temple, are called Tehilim.
L’shem – “for name” meaning “famous.” The artists and musicians are the beloved icons of culture, the celebrities that embody the beauty and transcendence of Tiferet.
L’tifaret – for Tiferet! That is, for “beauty” or “splendor.”
But how are we to receive all this Tiferet?
אֶת־יְהוָ֥ה הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים
You say today that Existence Itself will be for you as God…
The qualities of Tiferet arise not merely from doing the mitzvot, but from verbally pledging to do them, and then following through. In other words, they result from being true. This is the underlying message of the Jewish idea of brit, of covenant: On the deepest level, it is not only the commandments in the abstract which are the essence of the teaching, but being true to one’s word, that is, being one within oneself, so that one’s intentions and words and actions become one and thereby express the One. In this way, beauty and compassion come not to cover up truth, but arise as expressions of it.
There is another way that truth and beauty can be allies:
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, would sometimes take a pinch of snuff right in the middle of davening. One time, a fellow davener saw him do this corrected him: “It is not proper to interrupt prayer.”
The Seer responded, “Let me tell you a story. Once there was a great king who, while traveling through his kingdom, heard a ragged old street singer, singing and playing an old harp. The king was moved by the music, so he invited the street musician into the palace, where he enjoyed his music day and night.
“The minstrel didn’t want to part with his old harp, and he often had to stop in the middle of playing to tune it up again and again. One day, a courtier snapped at him: ‘You really aught to tune up your instrument beforehand.’
‘“The king has many musicians in his orchestras and choirs much better than I,’ replied the minstrel, ‘But the king has picked me and my harp, so it is apparently his wish to endure its peculiarities and mine...’”
More on Ki Tavo...
Making Friends with the Now – Parshat Ki Tavo
9/17/2019 0 Comments
Many common experiences are completely ineffable and inexplicable, yet we take their reality for granted because they are so common. Like the flavor of food, for example. Or music – can you explain the experience of listening to music? Can we even know what music is? Of course not – music is a mystery. Flavor is a mystery.
And yet, if someone says, “mmmmm” we understand they’re enjoying food, because we know that experience. If we see someone dancing to the rhythm, we know they are hearing the music. We can’t really explain it, but because we know the experience, we can recognize the outward signs of the experience in someone else.
כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֙שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה־אֶ֔רֶץ וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל לְאֻמִּ֑ים וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה׃
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Divine will shine, And Its Presence be seen over you.
(Isaiah 60:2, Haftora Ki Tavo)
What does this mean – that yizrakh Hashem – the Divine will shine and Its Presence will be seen? It sounds like a contradiction – if “darkness covers the earth,” how can the “Presence” be seen?
But that’s the point – you cannot “see” the Divine any more than you can “see” the flavor of food, or “smell” the sound of music. The dimension of the sacred is, nevertheless, not an uncommon experience; we know the outward signs of it, just like we recognize the savoring of food or dancing to music.
What are the outward signs?
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ – knowing one’s place
(Pirkei Avot, 6:6)
In Pirkei Avot, there is a list of qualities one needs to aquire wisdom, and among them is hamakir et m’komo – knowing one’s place. It may sound like a negative thing, like being passive and not speaking up for yourself. But the word for knowing, makir, also means “friend” – so the “knowing” is like the knowing of a friend; it’s a knowing of love, of relationship. The word for “one’s place” – m’komo – is a form of Makom, which is also a Divine Name. So, to be hamakir et m’komo means to “make friends” with the place you are actually in, right now, and thereby connect to the Divine Presence that shines beneath the surface of this moment.
When someone does this, we can recognize it – we sense an inner light, a friendly aliveness, a peaceful presence. We may not be able to conceptualize it or explain it – darkness shall cover the earth – but nevertheless there is recognition.
From this quality of making friends with the present moment, there naturally arises the next quality mentioned in the mishna:
וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקו – and being happy with one’s portion…
It is good to appreciate what you’ve got. But to be truly samayakh b’helko – happy with one’s portion – we must realize what we are on the deepest level:
וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה
And upon you the Divine will shine, And Its Presence be seen over you.
This Presence, this Light, is what we are – it is the awareness that befriends this moment and expresses Itself as radiance and peacefulness on the one who realizes.
But, even though we are this Light, it is easily concealed; we must make the effort to realize this Light by coming to this moment as a friend, by being hamakir et m’komo even with our own darkeness, with our own negativity. Because it is through presence with the negativity – with the fear, with the anger, with the resentments, with the irritability – that we can reclaim the consciousness that has temporarily taken a negative form and transmute it back into Light. When that happens, it can then be said:
ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּכְב֥וֹד יְהוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח
Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Divine has shone upon you!
(Isaiah 60:1, Haftora Ki Tavo)
Only One Thing– Parshat Ki Tavo
8/29/2018 1 Comment
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once while he was absorbed in a mystical ecstasy, he heard a knock at the window. A drunken peasant stood outside and asked to be let in and given a bed for the night. For a moment, the tzaddik’s heart raged with anger and he thought to himself, “How can this drunk have the hutzbah to ask to be let into this house!”
But then he said silently in his heart, “And what business does he have to exist at all, when Existence is nothing but the Divine? But if Hashem gets along with this guy and allows him to exist in this world, who am I to reject him?” He opened the door at once and prepared a bed.
Everything that appears in our awareness is actually nothing but a form of awareness. So, when we resist something or someone who appears, we are really resisting our own being; we are creating an inner split, an experience of exile, of being not at home. But when we welcome whatever comes, whether it be a person, or a situation, or a feeling – it doesn’t matter – the hospitality we express toward that which appears allows us to be at home ourselves, in this moment.
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
It will be when you come into the land that Hashem, your Divinity gives to you as an inheritance and you take possession of it and dwell within it…
The fullness of this moment, along with these bodies we now inhabit, is like a nakhalah,an inheritance; it comes to us from the boundless past, as an unearned gift. From the infinite possibilities of what could be, here we are, now.
But the ordinary activity of the ego is to resist aspects of this moment, and thereby create a sense of dis-ease, of not being at home in our nakhalah. We’re like the Israelites wandering in the desert. But if we want to truly feel the peace of dwelling within our inheritance, we have to actively take possession of it, and that means actively welcoming whatever appears, while resting awareness within our bodies. In that active welcoming, we can come to the state of simply being (hayah) through “coming in” (ki tavo) to the “land” that is this moment (el ha’aretz).
This is both the goal and the path of awakening: to continuously dwell in the truth of this moment:
אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Akhat she’alti me’eit Hashem, otah avakeish, shivti b’veit Hashem kol y’mei hayay, lakhazot b’no’am Hashem, ul’vakeir b’heikhalo!
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine – this I seek – to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of the Divine and to meditate in Its Sanctuary!
Doing and Being: Parshat Ki Tavo
9/8/2017 1 Comment
Parshat Ki Tavo begins, “V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land that the Divine gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, and to dwell within it…” It then goes on to talk about a special ritual of gratitude that involves putting the first fruit of your harvest into a basket, making a pilgrimage to the Temple, and offering the fruit in gratitude for having come out of slavery in Egypt, and into the the "land flowing with milk and honey."
On a simple level, this is a farmer’s gratitude ritual for the goodness of the land. But on a deeper level, V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – coming into the land means coming into the place you already are, coming into the full Presence of whatever is present. This is hinted at by V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in – meaning, coming in to the mode of Being. Our lives consist of both Doing and Being, but we tend to identify with the Doing mode. Doing means, constantly going out– constantly reaching toward a goal we imagine in the future. This is how we create and accomplish things, which is wonderful and necessary. But if it’s not balanced by the mode of Being, if there’s total identification with the mind and with Doing, then there’s no peace, there’s no contentment, there’s no coming in.
So, what’s the solution? V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – come into this place that you are, by connecting your awareness with the Presence of the aretz- the earth on which we live, this body through which we live, and with whatever else happens to be present. The mind tends to lurch toward some imagined fruits in the future. Instead, bring your focus to the fruits that are already here, in the basket of this moment. Then you will be able to say as the ancient farmer said, “Vayotzieinu Hashem mimitzrayim – Hashem brought us out of Egypt – meaning, we are brought out of the contracted bundle of mind-identified ego through simply Being, because the Hebrew Name of God actually means, Being. V’samakhta v’khol hatov – and then you will rejoice with all the goodness that you are given, you and the strangers among you.
So on this Shabbat Ki Tavo – The Sabbath of Coming In, may we reel in our awareness from the tendrils of thought and time, into deeper connection with the earth, with the body, with our senses, with all the fruits that are just now ripe, giving thanks for this moment of Existence as it is –
Chosen to Choose- Parshat Ki Tavo
9/19/2016 2 Comments
As I was making coffee one morning, my almost ten year old son came into the kitchen and sat with me a bit. We started talking about the Sh’ma, the Jewish affirmation of Divine oneness. I asked him if he knew what was the first of the two blessings that come before the Sh’ma.
“Yotzer or uvorei hoshekh- Former of light and Creator of darkness- Oseh shalom uvorei et hakol- Maker of peace, Creator of All.”
I told him that these words actually come from the Bible, from the Book of Isaiah. There, Isaiah describes God with the same words- except for one difference.
At the end of the verse in Isaiah, it doesn’t say-
“… uvorei et haKol- Creator of All."
Rather, it says- “… uvorei et haRa- Creator of evil”!
Of course, “Creator of all” must include “evil” as well, since evil is part of the “all”, but the rabbis who composed this blessing must have thought Isaiah’s words were just a little too provocative, a little too dangerous.
After all, how could a “good God” create evil?
It’s the age-old theological dilemma (for those who go for theological dilemmas).
Still, they included this verse right before the Sh’ma to emphasize that God is not one side of a polarity. God is Oneness, and that Oneness includes everything.
I asked my son, “What do you think about Hashem creating evil?”
He said, “There might be evil, but we are not evil, Abba.”
And, I would add, sometimes it takes the experience of evil to realize your own inherent goodness. Sometimes it takes the experience of the “bad” to come to a true and simple humility, to a deep gratitude for the blessings that can otherwise go unnoticed.
This week’s reading, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude and joy that the Israelites are to perform when they come to dwell in the Promised Land:
“Ki tavo el ha’aretz-
"When you enter the land…
"V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah-
"You shall take from the first fruits of the earth…”
It goes on to describe how the celebrant should put the fruit in a basket and bring it to the place where the Divine “chooses” to “make the Holy Name rest”.
The celebrant then makes a declaration of having come from slavery to freedom, of having now received the gift of the land, and of now coming to offer its first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with "family" and “stranger” together.
There is a fruit that you are reaping right now-
That fruit is the fullness of this moment. This, now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
But what is your “First Fruit?"
It is your immediate relationship with this moment. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both joy and suffering. Your mind may comment with stories and judgments.
But before the stories, before the judgments, there is something more immediate. There is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When you descend deeply into yourself, when you return from the journeys of the mind into the reality of the present, it can dawn on you: you have the choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude.
This is not a denial of suffering. In fact, it is often thanks to our suffering that we are awakened to those things that truly matter, to the blessings we are constantly receiving but often take for granted.
And when you have the choice to relate to this moment with gratitude, is that not grace? It is your choice, but the fact you have become aware of that choice is a gift. It is as if God has chosen "rest Its Presence" in the place of your own awareness.
Is there any greater gift than that? Is that not the movement from slavery to freedom?
Two disciples of the Hassidic Master known as the “Maggid of Mezritch” came to the Maggid with a question:
“We are troubled by the teaching of our sages, that one must bless for the evil one experiences as well as the good (Mishna, Berachot, 9:5). How are we to understand this?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the beit midrash (house of study). There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him.
Zusha just laughed and said, “I think you’ve come to the wrong man. I have never experienced suffering in my life.”
But the two knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty, loss and illness… and they understood.
On this Shabbat Ki Tavo, the Sabbath of Entering, and in this month Elul, the month of Return- may we fully enter this place we are already in. May we re-turn evermore in gratitude for the blessing of this “fruit,” and for the suffering that has brought us to this gratitude. May we too rejoice with all who are strange, knowing everyone as expressions of the One...
The Basket- Parshat Ki Tavo
9/11/2014 3 Comments
Two disciples of the Hassidic Master known as the “Maggid of Mezritch” came to the Maggid with a question: “We are troubled by the teaching of our sages, that one must bless for the evil one experiences as well as the good (Mishna, Berachot, 9:5). How are we to understand this?” The Maggid replied, “Go to the beit midrash (house of study). There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.” So they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him. Zusha just laughed and said, “I think you’ve come to the wrong man. I have never experienced suffering in my life.” But the two knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of need and anguish. They understood.
When we hear a teaching like this, it can sound as though it is advocating that we play act. Suffering happens and we should pretend that it’s “all good”. We should put on a happy face. But the teaching is much deeper than that.
This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude that the Israelites should do when they dwell in the promised Land: “V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah- you shall take from the first fruits of the earth”. It goes on to describe how the celebrant should put the fruit in a basket and bring it to the place where the Divine “chooses” to “make the Holy Name rest”. The celebrant then makes a declaration of having come from slavery to freedom, the gift of the land, and of offering the first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with one’s family as well as the “stranger”.
This moment, right now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before. What is our “first fruit”? It is our primary relationship with this moment. The content of this moment may be complex; it may have both goodness and suffering. Nevertheless, it is our choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude. Without pretending away our problems, it is still our choice to give thanks for the gift of this “fruit”. In giving thanks, we also recognize that we are free, because we are not controlled by the “good” and the “bad”. We can remain open. And here is also the recognition that the Divine “rests” in this moment; in choosing to be present and give thanks for this, we receive this moment as G-d’s choice.
In this month of return, may we re-turn evermore into the space of freedom that is gratitude for this eternal presence of Being. Amein.
Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #7: Netzakh – Victory and Persistence
“Aneinu – Answer Us!”
A disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the Seer of Lublin, had been fasting all week and was traveling to spend Shabbos with his master. On the way, he came upon a well, and was suddenly overcome with an uncontrollable thirst. He thought he might die if he didn’t drink some of that water!
Involuntarily, he drew some water from the well and brought the cup to his lips, when suddenly he realized – “If I drink now, I will have nullified my entire fast! Just a few more hours to go!”
And with that, he managed to overcome temptation and walk away from the well. But then he noticed within himself a bit of pride that he had withstood the test. “Better that I drink and nullify my entire fast than have this pride!”
He went back to the well and again began to draw some water, when to his astonishment, he realized that his thirst had completely disappeared. So, he returned to his journey without drinking any water. When he arrived at the home of his master, the Seer greeted him harshly, barking at him: “Patchwork!”
In Martin Buber’s short book, The Way of Man, he tells this story and talks about his own contemplation of its meaning. “Why was the Seer so harsh with the disciple?” he wondered. He eventually came to understand the meaning of the story by asking the question, “What is the opposite of ‘patchwork?’” The opposite of patchwork, he answers, is “of a piece.”
In other words, the Seer scolds the disciple because he was not one within himself; he was second guessing, going back and forth, not deciding on a path and walking it.
A common misconception on the spiritual path is that spiritual practices can produce a unity within yourself.
While it is true that spiritual practices can help you perceive the unity that is already there, that is, the unity of consciousness itself, beneath all the conflicting forces of our various experiences, we still must forge that unity in how we approach the practices; we must decide on the spiritual path and walk it whole-heartedly. This self-unifying part of the work should be done before we fast, before we sit down to meditate, pray, study, or whatever. We must always unify ourselves in the decision to practice first; our practices will not accomplish this for us. And if we fail to do this, our practices won’t have any lasting endurance; we will give up.
This is the quality of Netzakh, which means “Victory” and also “Eternity,” and is associated with the middah of “Endurance” or “Persistence.”
Netzakh is Victory in the sense that when we unify ourselves in our decision to practice, we claim victory over the forces of “wishy-washy-ness” and become “of a piece.” But it is also Eternity in the sense that when we practice with this unified intention, we can transcend the decision-making mind and recognize the Eternal dimension of Being, beyond all forms that come and go in experience. This is the fruit of the practice, and it comes to us by Grace; we cannot force it to happen, but it is given to us when we give ourselves completely to the Path.
There is a hint in the parshah:
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ – Ki teitzei – When you go out to battle…
כי Ki is usually translated as “when” but it can also mean “because.” Meaning, it is because we make the effort to go out from our inertia and conditioning; it is because we engage the inner battle to forge a unity within and fully step onto the spiritual path with commitment; it is because we make that effort that:
וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand…
This is the paradox: The fruit of the path is not something we control with our decisiveness, it is “put in our hand” by the Divine, by Reality Itself. And yet, it is given to us כי ki – because we have made the effort. This is the second meaning of Netzakh as “Eternity” – the realization of the Eternal dimension that blossoms on its own when we achieve “Victory” over our inner divisions. Then, through the meeting of effort with Grace,
וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ – and you capture their captivity…
Once the inner fruit ripens, there is no longer any effort needed to unify oneself. That’s because, at that point, there is no longer any temptation to waver, no more distraction from the Goal; we experience the benefit for ourselves, and we know.
At that point, walking the spiritual path becomes just like breathing, just like eating and sleeping; this is the deeper Netzakh, The Victory of the Eternal over the conflicting pulls of the temporal, accomplished through Persistence…
More on Ki Teitzei
Falling from the Roof of the Mind – Parshat Ki Tetzei
9/10/2019 0 Comments
Is there a time when failure is actually success?
כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ
When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof, and you won’t bring blood upon your house when one falls from it…
The fact that the Torah talks about preventing a person from falling off the roof by building a protective barrier implies that, indeed, people must have fallen off rooves; it was probably the failure to anticipate this danger that led to the law of making a ma’akeh, or parapet.
Similarly, when we become aware of our own misdeeds in the past, we too can build some kind of ma’akeh, some kind of protective fence to prevent the same thing from happening again.
There are two main types of misdeeds: mistakes and temporary insanity. A mistake would be: you’re up on the roof and you’re goofing around, not paying attention, or maybe you just miscalculated your footsteps and you fall of the roof, God forbid. Temporary insanity would be: you’re up on the roof with someone, you get into a fight and push them off the roof, God forbid. You didn’t intend to hurt them; you just got angry and lost control.
The ma’akeh prevents both types of scenarios. Whether accidental or by temporary insanity, the parapet prevents a person from falling. There’s a hint in the wording of the pasuk: “one who falls” is yipol hanofel – literally, “will fall, the falling.” The repeating of the verb “fall” is an idiom of emphasis, but also hints that the ma’akeh can prevent both the accidental and the impulsive falling crisis.
Similarly, we too can take measures to prevent ourselves from repeating our misdeeds, whether they be accidental or impulsive. To do that, we need to see our lives clearly, contemplate, and create our own “parapets.” This is the transformative part of teshuvah, the main practice in this month of Elul, leading to the Days of Awe.
There is yet a third kind of misdeed, one that is far more difficult to prevent. This is the misdeed of habit, the misdeed that has become part of one’s personality and lifestyle – such as addiction, relationship dysfunction, abuse, and so on. The more emmeshed we become in the negative behavior, the less likely we are to change it. And yet, we absolutely can change it. This is the deepest and most transformative kind of teshuvah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once came upon a wealthy man in the street who was known to be abusive with his money and power. “Oh, I envy you sir!” said Levi Yitzhak. The rasha (evil person) looked proudly at Levi Yitzhak, thinking that the rabbi wished he too could have all that money and power. But then Levi Yitzhak continued, “I envy you, because when you finally return, when you finally do teshuvah, all your sins will be transformed into magnificent lights, and what a brilliant spectacle that will be! Oh sir, I envy you that brilliance!”
These three types of misdeeds – accidental, impulsive and intentional, are three main types of “sins” mentioned in the liturgy: het means “missing the mark,” as in shooting an arrow and missing the target. This is the accident. An aveira is crossing over a boundary impulsively; you accept that there is a boundary, but you become possessed by strong feelings and you violate it. Lastly, an avon is a misdeed that is not a mistake and is not impulsive; it has become part of how you operate. The avon cannot be prevented by any kind of ma’akeh; you can’t “trick yourself” out of this kind of misdeed. For the avon, you actually have to choose differently; you have to fully transform.
These three kinds of “sin” are different from each other, but for a person who wants to become free from them, a single ingredient is needed.
Whether we are merely setting a boundary to prevent mistakes and impulsivity, or we are seeking to overcome a deeply ingrained behavior, the root of all transformation on any level is the application of awareness. The outer teshuvah of returning to intentional action is rooted in the inner teshuvah of bringing our awareness out from its compulsive preoccupation with thought (which ordinarily reinforces our patterns), and into our actual present experience, into our senses, into our bodies. In doing so, acceptance and forgiveness of the past is natural and spontaneous, as the pain we cause ourselves by holding on to the past becomes blatantly obvious. And not only that, but the more we bring our attention to this moment, the more we can see that we are the awareness of this moment. We are openness, we are free, and we are in no way trapped by the past or by habit. In Presence, the power to choose reveals itself.
Whenever I travel (and I travel a lot), I am always amazed that I can draw together the clothing, toiletries, books, computer equipment, etc., and pack them all into a single suitcase. It actually seems miraculous to me, that all the disparate items can come together into a single whole.
But miraculous as that is, it is nothing compared to the miracle of Presence: that through the simple shift of opening to the immediacy of actual experience, all the disparate chaos comes together in the “suitcase” of the present moment; in Presence, there is no longer “me” and “that” – there is only the fullness of the what is, in all its richness, arising and falling away in the one field of awareness that we are.
בְּרֶ֥גַע קָטֹ֖ן עֲזַבְתִּ֑יךְ וּבְרַחֲמִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים אֲקַבְּצֵֽךְ
For a tiny moment I forsook you, but with a vast compassion I will gather you together…-- Isaiah 54:7
When we “gather together” our awareness into the fullness of the present, there is paradoxically a vastness and a benevolence – a rakhamim gedolim that is our own nature, revealing all past misdeeds for what they really are: tiny moments of forgetfulness arising and disappearing into the vastness of Being…
The Price for Freedom – Parshat Ki Teitzei
8/21/2018 0 Comments
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once he travelled through many villages trying to collect funds so that he could liberate the poor Jews who were incarcerated in the Ukrainian debtor’s prison. Day after day, he went from door to door pleading the case of those poor souls rotting away in the dungeon, but no one would contribute anything.
After weeks of failure, feeling dejected and frustrated, he gave up and set out to return home, regretting having wasted all that time he could have spent learning and praying. But just as he approached his house, a woman ran up to him in a panic:
“Rabbi, my husband was caught stealing a piece of clothing and was viciously beaten by the police and thrown in jail!”
Without hesitation, the rabbi turned around and went to intercede with the judge. After much effort, he was able to get the prisoner released. When he went to fetch the prisoner from jail, he sternly warned him: “Remember the beating they gave you and don’t ever do anything like that again!”
“Why not?” replied the thief, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”
Upon hearing his words, the rabbi resolved to return to his task of raising money to ransom prisoners, and eventually was highly successful in liberating many.
There is a debt to be paid for our spiritual freedom as well.
We too must not give up “raising the funds,” moving from one situation to the next, bringing our consciousness fully to each moment, to each feeling, to each reaction, to each thought. Again and again – we might get caught, absorbed and coopted by whatever is arising in our experience, but don’t give up! The real danger is never failure. The real danger is allowing our failures to develop into the belief that freedom is impossible. The phenomena of our experience have a certain gravity; they tend to draw us in, to capture us.
But if you don’t give up, if you keep at it, you will eventually capture their captivating power. After all, you are far more vast than any impulse, than any experience. You are the open space within which the experience unfolds.
But how can you access this truth? This week’s reading begins:
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
Life is, in a sense, like a battle ground. If you want spiritual freedom, you have to be one pointed and relentless, like a warrior.
And yet, וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand – the victory is a gift placed in your hands by the Divine; it is not something you win through effort. So, there’s this paradox – on one hand, you’ve got to have unshakable will, and on the other, total surrender. In fact, there’s no contradiction, because the unconscious impulse is to struggle, to fight with Reality. The impulse to fight is oyevekha– your enemies– and to conquer that kind of enemy requires surrender to the “is-ness” of this moment.
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine, this I seek: to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life and meditate in Its Sanctuary…
These words from Psalm 27 are an invocation for this Kavanah, this heart direction, for the inner freedom that must be ransomed through the consciousness-funds collected in every moment, every situation, every feeling, every thought: Above every goal, above every desire, there must be Only One Thing.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה
Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v’ya’ameitz libekha, v’kaveh el Hashem –
Hope to the Divine, be strong and your heart will be courageous, hope to the Divine!
In this time of Elul, let us remember and practice ever more deeply this one-pointed surrender… Good Shabbos!
Effortless Battle: Parshat Ki Teitzei
8/31/2017 2 Comments
On the surface, this parshah begins by talking about laws of battle. But on a deeper level, what are your enemies? They’re the intense experiences that we tend to get caught in. You get angry, and you project the blame on something out there, struggling, maybe yelling, or judging, all of which are all about trying to force reality into conforming to your will, or maybe punishing it for not conforming. Or, you have a wonderful experience, and you get disappointed or even depressed when it’s over, because you’re psychologically clinging to the past.
But this verse is saying, untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – and Hashem puts them in your hands. In other words, you can have victory over your enemies, but it doesn’t come through fighting or struggling. Your victory is put right in your hand, if you open your hand. Meaning, don’t struggle with your experiences. Fully let them be as they are, without clinging to good things or blaming anyone for bad things, and then let them go when they want to go. It’s really effortless, because it’s not about controlling things, but about relaxing the impulse to control things. That’s why it says, shavita shivyo – you capture their captivity. Meaning, our experiences are constantly trying to capture us, to draw us in to their dream and sometimes nightmare, but if you remember: simply be with this moment as it is, and let it go when it goes, then you easily “capture its captivity” – you can control your impulse to control, and be victorious over your own mind.
This is also totally relevant in dealing with other people that may be possessed by collective ego, such as what we are seeing today with neo-nazis and so on. When you see others that are hateful or angry or demeaning, and you get dragged into their drama, judging and hating them back, you only reinforce the context that creates people like that. So even as you stand up for justice, even as you say "no" to ideologies of hate and the people who promote them, remember that you have a tremendous power to make a difference in the world on a very deep level if you can stay conscious and not get dragged into the drama. Because ultimately, it’s only when there’s a profound change in consciousness, only when enough people learn to see through their own egos, only then will the plug get pulled on the destructive forms of collective ego that we see today.
And to help make that change in consciousness, there’s ultimately only one way, and that’s to see through your own ego. You’re never going to get someone else to see through their ego by judging and yelling at them, right? You can only see through your own, and in so doing, create a ripple of awakening that will join with other ripples of awakening, until enough people wake up. It doesn’t have to be everyone, it just has to be enough to tip the balance.
So on this Shabbat Ki Teitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, let’s remember that to engage the enemy of resistance, of ego, don’t “go out” into battle, because that only creates more ego, more resistance. Instead, know that untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Victory is being put right in your hand, if only you open your hand, if you open yourself to the experience of this moment. Then you can "go out" and do battle, but it's not a battle of resistance and struggle, it's a battle of overcoming darkness with light, of overcoming resistance with love. Good Shabbos!
The Security of Anger- Parshat Ki Teitzei
9/12/2016 6 Comments
Once I was in the Oakland Airport with my family. After checking our suitcases, we arrived at security to find an incredibly long line, winding around rope dividers and culminating with a tiny funnel into only two security gates. There were several more gates that could have been opened to move things along, but for whatever reason, they were not staffed and were closed.
Right in front of us, a middle-aged man started cursing angrily. “What the %$^$ is going on here? Why don’t they ^%&$*# open the other gates??”
He started verbally abusing the security person looking at IDs and checking tickets. He demanded to speak to a supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, he cursed him out too. The supervisor said, “You just hold that thought, and I’ll go get someone for you to speak to.”
I was sorry my three-year-old girl had to hear that language. I was bracing myself for some police to come and wrestle this guy to the ground.
Strangely, no police showed up. Instead, he just kept on cursing and venting all the way through the line.
When it was time to remove our shoes and put our laptops in separate bins, I didn’t want to aggravate him more with our clumsy family choreography, so I offered to him that he go ahead of us.
“Nah, that’s okay,” he said, “I have plenty of time, I’m just mad about how they’re running this place.”
He had plenty of time!
I saw an interview once with an Indian spiritual teacher who had a novel way of explaining the spiritual path that I had never heard before.
He said that the “self” is like a cow in a pasture.
The cow always wants to wander outside the field and into the town or woods, but when she does, she gets attacked by wild animals, kids throw rocks, people shoot guns. Eventually, she figures out she’s better off to just stay in her own field.
The “field” is the inner heart. When the “self” dwells in the inner heart, according to this teacher, it enjoys union with the Divine. When it gets tempted and wanders outside the heart, it always ends up in suffering.
So, in this teaching, the aim is to learn to keep yourself in the cave of your heart. That’s it.
To me, this was a wonderful description of Presence.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose connection with this moment by getting lost in the mental narratives that our minds are constantly superimposing on Reality. The mind can dream up something wonderful one moment, but then change to a nightmare in the next.
I thought of this teaching when I saw this guy in the airport. Even if he were to miss his flight and his plans would be disrupted, what is really creating his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Nothing but his mind!
The mind creates stories and gets all excited about them. It was even more telling to learn that he wasn’t even going to be late. He was just out to make some enemies, to do some warfare.
As this week’s reading begins-
“Ki teitze la-milkhama al oyvekha-
"When you go out to battle against your enemies…”
When you leave the sacred place of the heart, when you leave your connection with the present as it is and travel the labyrinth of the mind and its necessarily self-centered stories, you create your enemies and battles.
But then the rest of the verse says,
“Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha v’shavita shivyo-
"And Existence- your Divinity- puts it in your hand, and you capture its captivity.”
It’s a strange construction- “shavita shivyo- capture its captivity.”
But if you understand that it is you who are captured by seeing the world as your enemy “out there”, then you need to “capture your captivity”- meaning, you need to be bigger than those ensnaring mental narratives.
How do you do it?
You can do it by understanding- Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha - Existence, which is your own Divine nature, is giving this moment to you.
This is both surrender and empowerment:
Surrender to the truth of what is, rather than fighting with your idea of what is, and also empowerment to create a narrative that allows you to dwell in the cave of your heart, that allows you to respond not from ego, but from the Divinity that you are…
It once happened that a large group of hassidim went to visit Reb Yitzhak of Vorki in a village near Warsaw. In their enthusiasm to get to their rebbe more quickly, they cut through a field and damaged the grain crops with their trampling.
One of the employees responsible for the damaged field was himself a hassid by the name of Reb Moshe. Seeing the damage the hassidim caused, Reb Moshe stormed into the rebbe’s room and cried, “Look what these idiots have done! They should be beaten for this! It would be a mitzvah to beat them!”- for this was the custom among wealthy land owners of that time.
Reb Yitzhak gave no answer. Assuming that the rebbe agreed with his view, the angry man strode out to have the hassidim beaten.
But the tzaddik called him back and said, “When you perform a mitzvah, you must articulate your holy intention by first contemplating and pronouncing the evocation that begins, ‘L’shem yikhud- for the sake of the Unification.’ Since you are a hassid, you should also purify yourself for the holy act by immersing yourself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath). So, after you go to the mikveh, and devoutly chant l’shem yikhud, then you can go ahead and perform your mitzvah…”
Of course, the thought of performing those rituals to sanctify his "mitzvah" made him realize his own unconsciousness. Embarrassed, he left the rebbe's presence.
My friends, before going out against our “enemies”, may we enter the mikveh of the present and connect with our deepest heart-intention for unity and peace. And, may we have the strength of commitment to remember to remember, even as life circumstance and reactive forces try to pull us into the battlefield!
Spiritual Awakening through Integral Kabbalah Meditation
In Collaboration with ALEPH
Three Portals of Presence – Basic Instructions
Come into a comfortable position seated, standing or lying down.
Place your right hand on your heart, offering your awareness devotionally to the fullness of whatever arises in the present, to the Divine as the present, and chant:
לְךָ – L’kha
Bring left hand down to your belly, over the navel area, seeing your belly glow with light, radiating outward to fill your whole body with the light of awareness, and chant:
נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה – Na’aseh
(“We will do”)
Bring right hand up and touch fingers to forehead, bringing awareness to the space around you, noticing that everything you perceive both within your body and in the space around your body is all arising within your own awareness, and is actually not separate from your awareness, and chant:
וְנִשְׁמָֽע – V’Nishma
(“We Will Hear”)
Kiss your fingers and relax your arms, feeling the three major centers of your body- heart, belly, mind- alive and radiant with presence, and rest your awareness on the flow of your breathing.
Begin repeating the power words, את יה היא, אַתָּה הוּא – Atah Hu and/or At Yah Hi in your mind.
(Atah means both “You” masculine, but also “Now” when spelled differently. Hu means He or It. At Yah Hi means “You are the Divine” in the feminine.)
If your mind wanders from the words, gently bring your mind back to repeat the sacred phrase, without judgment. If your mind feels like letting go of the words, you can rest in silence, simply being with your breathing.
When you’re finished meditating, repeat the Awakening practice above.
It’s good to meditate for at least seven minutes per day, and up to twenty minutes twice per day. You can also meditate briefly any time, and use “Atah Hu/At Yah Hi” to stay present in anything you’re doing that doesn’t take thought, such as walking, cooking, driving, cleaning, and so on…
Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #6: Hod – Humility and Gratitude
“El Nora Alilah – Awesome, Transcendent Divine”
There’s a story about Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the “Seer” of Lublin, that once he was confronted by his nemesis, the head rabbi of Lublin, Rabbi Azriel Hurwitz. Rabbi Hurwitz was known as the “Iron Head” because he was such a giant of Torah learning, and he often challenged and taunted the Seer for attracting followers to himself.
“You yourself admit that you are not a tzadik (perfected master); why do you continue to mislead the people by allowing them to come and follow you?” said the Iron Head.
“What can I do?” replied the Seer, “The people rejoice in my teachings, so they come.”
“This is what you must do,” said the Iron Head. “Next Shabbos, tell them that you are nothing special, that you don’t deserve their adoration.”
The Seer agreed.
Next Shabbos, when many hasidim came to hear the Seer teach, he told them that he was nothing special, and that they shouldn’t give him honors that he didn’t deserve. But, when they heard his self-deprecations, their hearts were set aflame even more, and they loved him and followed him even more for being so humble.
Later the next week, the Seer told the Iron Head what had happened. The rav thought for a moment, then said, “Ah, that’s the way it is with you hasidim – you love humility! Here is what you should do. Next Shabbos, tell them that you really are a great tzadik; tell them that you are God’s chosen one, that you have come to save the Jewish people!”
“That I cannot do,” replied the Seer, “I am not a tzadik, but neither am I a liar!”
Another time, the Iron Head was berating the Seer as usual for the crowds he attracted. “I am so much more learned than you, yet they don’t throng to me!”
“I too am astonished by this,” replied the Seer, “For my learning is not very great, and it is well known that your learning moves mountains. But perhaps the reason they come to me is because I am astonished that they come to me, and the reason they don’t come to you is because you are astonished that they don’t come to you.”
The sefirah of Hod, which means “Glory” or “Splendor,” is associated with the qualities of both humility and gratitude. This association stems from the word הודאה hoda’ah, which can mean confession, conceding an argument, and also thankfulness, as in the morning prayer מידה אני Modeh Ani, which is chanted upon awakening to give thanks for being alive another day.
The plain meaning of “glory” and the association with humility and gratitude may seem strange, but the connection is illustrated beautifully by the story of the Seer: It is through his embodiment of true humility that others can connect with the Divine “Glory” of his presence and teaching.
That’s because this supreme quality of Hod isn’t something remote or separate from us; it is the essence of who we are. But for Hod to shine through, we must be transparent to It; we cannot try to claim It, own It, or possess It. It shines through when the ego bows to It.
But how do we do that?
There is a hint in the parshah:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates– which Hashem your Divinity gives you– for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with justice.
- Deuteronomy 16:18
In the plain meaning, this is the instruction to set up a just legal system. But on a deeper level, putting “judges and officers” in your “gates” means first of all to see your thoughts clearly and to know that they are only thoughts. Ordinarily, we tend to be wrapped up in constant thinking, never stopping to reflect: “Ah, there is a thought… and there is another thought.”
But when we simply acknowledge the fact that thoughts are just thoughts, there can arise the realization that we are not merely our thoughts; we are not bound by our ego-self, which is based on thought. This seeing and acknowledging of thought is represented by the שֹׁפְטִים – shoftim, the “judges.”
Once we recognize that thoughts are only thoughts, that they are not the essence of who we are, we can then choose which thoughts to think and which thoughts to allow to dissipate. It is appropriate that the rav in the story was called the Iron Head, because he was so rich in knowledge – he had greatly cultivated his thinking mind – but his thoughts were like “iron”; he was locked in the prison of his mind. He was completely stuck in ego – that is, he was stuck in that sense of self created from thought. If he had a bit of objectivity on his own mind, he would have realized that his thoughts of being threatened by the Seer and his urge to attack him and knock him down were not useful thoughts; they only served to keep him trapped. He would have said, “Oh well, that’s the old ego (or yetzer hara)” and simply let those thoughts go.
This second step, that of choosing to use our minds rather than be used by our minds, is represented by the שֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים – shotrim, the “officers.” Once we have a clear, objective view on our own minds (shoftim), we then have the power to choose which thoughts are worth keeping and which ones are not (shotrim). This leads us to the famous verse:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Hashem your Divinity gives you…
- Deuteronomy 16:20
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק – Tzedek tzedek – “justice” is written twice, to hint: this is not only the execution of justice in the world; we must also work to see the world in a way that is un-biased. We must find the dimension of our own being that is beyond ego. And in this letting go of the need for validation, for praise and for status, the inherent “glory” of Hod, which shines from our essence, can be revealed and expressed in the fulness of our lives…
More on Shoftim...
Wholly Battle – Parshat Shoftim
9/3/2019 0 Comments
שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם׃
Hear, O Israel! You are near, today, to battle against your enemies. Don’t let your heart be distant; don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and don’t be broken before them.
When we bring our awareness into connection with our actual experience in the present moment, there can be a dropping of our ordinary preoccupation with thought and emotion, and the spacious quality of awareness itself appears.
Sh’ma – listen/become aware, Israel!
This verse begins like the other, better known verse – Sh’ma Yisrael – listen – be aware, Israel!
אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם
You are close, today
This word for “close,” k’reivim, can mean “near,” “intimate.” Hayom – “today” – of course means Now. It is saying: become aware – come close to this moment…
To battle against your enemies…
When we experience emotional pain, the tendency is to recoil, to contract, to project blame upon something we imagine to be the source of our pain. The imagined source – a person, a situation, whatever – seems to be our enemy, and we unconsciously oppose it. But here it reminds us, come close to that urge to battle against your enemies. Notice this unconscious impulse; be the awareness behind the impulse.
Don’t let your heart falter…
The word for “falter” – yeirakh – is similar to the word for “hip” – the place where Jacob was struck by the Divine being, after which he limped – hence the connection with “falter.” But the hip is also a euphemism for the reproductive organs, the part of the body that is usually hidden. So, al yeirakh levavkhem can mean, “don’t hide your heart.” Together, it means: don’t cripple your heart by contracting! Don’t split yourself in two –whatever disturbing experience arises is literally made out of your own awareness – be present to it and don’t be ruled by it:
Don’t be afraid, and don’t panic!
Don’t fear your own fear – bring your awareness into the fear. Relax and don’t panic – don’t buy into the drama, simply feel whatever is there to be felt.
And don’t be broken before them!
This sums up the entire teaching: don’t divide yourself by imagining there is something in your experience that is separate from you; everything you perceive arises in your own awareness. Furthermore, this awareness that you are is actually far beyond you – it is the awareness of Reality Itself, incarnating as you; it is the Divine, seeing through your eyes.
This is hinted at by the construction of each of these phrases: al yeirakh, al tir’u, al takh’p’zu, v’al ta’artzu – don’t don’t don’t!
The word for “don’t” – al – also means both “to” (el) and “God” (El). The hint is that when we dissolve our fear by bringing our awareness to (el) the fear, that awareness is actually God’s awareness (El). The Divine Light is ever-present as our own consciousness. When strong emotions threaten to pull us into smallness, into contractedness, our deliberate presence with the emotions actually harnesses their energy for deeper awakening from their drama.
יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א
The Divine is my Light and my Salvation, who shall I fear?
Across the River – Parshat Shoftim
8/14/2018 0 Comments
Once there was a rabbi who decided to start a yeshivah, a school for Jewish learning. He wanted it to be refuge from the world where young men could grow spiritually, so he built it away from civilization, on the bank of a beautiful river.
Many people came to learn. But after a few months, he noticed some commotion on the other side of the river. Many cars were coming and going, and people seemed to be partying and having a good time.
When he investigated, he found that that a courtesan had opened a bar and brothel. Lots of rich men came in big cars and carried on all night. He started thinking to himself, “Oy! That’s just what I need! My boys will be tempted away!”
Then he became angry: “Why is she wasting her life like that, and leading so many people to sin? She really shouldn’t be doing that!”
Meanwhile, it happened that the courtesan looked across the river and saw the littleyeshivah. “I don’t know why I’m leading such a dirty life like this. Look at those holy people! They must be so happy and spiritual, so connected to the Divine, I wish I could be like that!”
The two of them contemplated like this for many months, each fixating on the other, when one day they suddenly both died. Angels came to accompany the spirit of the woman to paradise. But a hoard of ugly demonic spirits came for the rav.
“Hey, what going on? You must have gotten your addresses mixed up!”
“No mistake,” replied the demons, “We’ve come to take you to she’ol.”
“But what have I done wrong? I sit and learn and pray and fast and meditate all day, and help these boys to do the same!” he argued.
“Yes,” said the demons, “you do all the right things physically, but in your mind, you’ve been doing nothing but contemplating how ugly, unholy a life that woman is living, and so that’s the future you have created for yourself– we have come to the right place!”
To live an awakened life doesn’t mean to merely do external practices. It means: totally accept what comes to you with love, even and especially when it’s not what you want, but then also you must actively create what you do want, and you do that first of all on the level of thought. In Pirkei Avot 2:1, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says:
אֵיזוֹ הִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
What is the straight path a person should choose for oneself?
Kol shehi tiferet l’oseha – everything that is good to do for oneself, v’tiferet lo min ha’adam – and that will be appreciated by others.”
In other words, take responsibility to create the life you want, and share that goodness with others.
But so often, we unconsciously do just the opposite– we begrudge what comes to us, blaming others or blaming the world for our perceived misfortune, and then we don’t take the steps we can take to create something better. And, we can often do this without even knowing it, if we’re not aware of our own minds. Like the story, we can seem to be doing the right thing externally, but in our minds, we can be creating the opposite. This week’s reading begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrin titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha –
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…
How do you guard the gates of your own mind, so that negativity doesn’t sprout and create a personal hell?
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְהוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד
Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid
I keep the Divine Name before me constantly…
Keep your mind vibrating with a sacred phrase, such as Atah Hu – You are the Divine,knowing that everything arising in your experience are all forms of the One Reality. Like the woman in the story, see the Divine everywhere, focus on the Divine in everything. Then the Divine will be your refuge from all potential danger that can sprout from your thoughts. As the psalm says:
אַתָּ֤ה ׀ סֵ֥תֶר לִי֮ מִצַּ֪ר תִּ֫צְּרֵ֥נִי רָנֵּ֥י פַלֵּ֑ט תְּסֹ֖ובְבֵ֣נִי סֶֽלָה
Atah seiter li, mitzar tizreini, ranei faleit t’soveveini, selah!
You are a shelter for me, from constriction you rescue me, with glad song of rescue you envelop me, selah!
Two Steps to Actualization: Parshat Shoftim
8/24/2017 1 Comment
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to "judge the judge" in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.
It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So, on this Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High and Holy days of up-leveling our relationship with life, may we all refocus our efforts on both of these crucial aspects of the Path – realizing and embodying, realizing and embodying, and may our suffering world please come closer to healing and transformation as well. Good Shabbos!
There Goes the Neighborhood- Parshat Shoftim
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in r-r-r-repetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R.” She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage- “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what’s your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t real- you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of your day, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “place the judge in your gate”- meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”
Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #5: Yesod – Joy
“Rakhamanah – The Compassionate One”
Once, when the Baal Shem Tov was leading prayers in the synagogue, he took so long to finish that all the hasidim left him and went home. Later that day, they came back for the afternoon service and found him still in deep prayer. When he finished, he said to them, “When you left me alone before, you dealt me a painful separation. Let me tell you a story:
“Once there was a beautiful, multicolored bird that flew south for the winter and came to a certain kingdom. The inhabitants sighted the unusual bird nesting up high in a tree, and they brought word to the king of this magnificent creature. The king bade them to build a human ladder, one person standing on the shoulders of another, so that they could climb up to the bird and bring it down to him. But just as the last person to climb up reached the bird, the people on the bottom became impatient and walked away, causing the whole human ladder to collapse.”
There is a power in community to support our collective spiritual efforts. It is true, no person can walk another person’s path; the journey to consciousness is one that each person must walk for themselves. But still, walking the path for oneself doesn’t have to mean walking it by oneself. As each of us walks our own paths, we support each other to stay commited and connected to the teachings and the practice. Community is the foundation, the yesod of the path.
But, how it is that community functions in this foundational way? To answer that we need to look at another Baal Shem Tov story:
As Yom Kippur drew to a close, the time came say the blessing over the new moon. To say this prayer, it is necessary to actually see the moon in the sky. But, on this particular evening, the sky was overcast and the moon was not to be seen.
The Baal Shem Tov had the sense that a great calamity was coming to the Jewish people, but that he could avert the calamity, if only he could say the blessing on the new moon. He concentrated all his powers on parting the clouds so that the moon would shine through, but to no avail. Eventually he lost hope, and went into his room, grief stricken about the evils that were to come.
Meanwhile, the other hasidim who knew nothing of what the Baal Shem Tov was going through, began to sing and dance in ecstasy, so happy they were that their master had successfully led them through the Day of Atonement. As their ecstasy grew, the throng made their way into the Baal Shem Tov’s room, and they drew him into the dance. His spirits were lifted as he began to move and sing with his hasidim. Just at that moment, a hasid ran excitedly into the room to report that the moon had just become visible, and that they could now say the blessing…
In this second story, not only do we see the power of community, but we also understand the mechanism of that power: joy.
Joy, or positivity, is the deeper foundation of the path, facilitated by community. Without it, the spiritual potentials of our being are still there, but they remain un-actualized in life; they remain only potentials. This is why the sefirah of Yesod, which represents joy and connection, is the point of connection between the upper sefirot (spiritual potentials) and Malkhut, the world of time in which our lives unfold.
This foundational quality of joy is expressed in the Psalm:
עִבְדוּ אֶת יהוה בְּשמְחָה בּאוּ לְפָנָיו בִּרְנָנָה
Serve the Divine with joy; come before the Divine with joyous song…
- Psalm 100:2
But, it is important to understand: this kind of foundational joy is not a negation of grief or sorrow; it is a way of relating with grief and sorrow. In this sense, (spiritual) joy is not an ordinary emotion; it is a quality of the consciousness that becomes aware of ordinary emotions. It is within our power to access this quality at any moment, even and especially in dark moments.
There is a hint in the parshah:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, I set before you today blessing and curse.
- Deuteronomy 11:26
Brakhah uklala, blessing and curse, are ever the potentials before us. They are set before us hayom – “today” – meaning, they are not merely consequences that we’ll have to deal with later; they are inherent within this moment. Which shall we choose?
אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
Blessing, if you listen the mitzvot of Hashem, your Divinity, that I command you today;
- Deuteronomy 11:27
Meaning, “listen” – be aware of this moment as it appears – that is the “commandment.” In this deep listening, this being present with the reality of the moment, there can be the realization of blessing, the joy inherent within the awareness itself that listens.
And through the window of this fundamental blessing of being conscious, other spiritual qualities can manifest as well, represented by the five sefirot above Yesod: Hesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (beauty, radiant presence), Netzakh (persistence), and Hod (humility, gratitude).
The parshah hints at these upper sefirot as well:
וְהָיָ֣ה הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֥ם בּוֹ֙ לְשַׁכֵּ֤ן שְׁמוֹ֙ שָׁ֔ם שָׁ֣מָּה תָבִ֔יאוּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֑ם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶ֣ם וְזִבְחֵיכֶ֗ם מַעְשְׂרֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ וּתְרֻמַ֣ת יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְכֹל֙ מִבְחַ֣ר נִדְרֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּדְּר֖וּ לַֽיהוָֽה׃
And it will be that the Place that Hashem your Divinity chooses Its Name to dwell, you shall bring everything I command you – your Ascensions, your offerings, your tithes and those that you elevate with your hands, and all your choicest vows that you vow to the Divine.
- Deuteronomy 12:11-12
וְהָיָ֣ה הַמָּק֗וֹם – V’hayah HaMakom – And it will be, the Place…
The “Place” that is chosen is the Place we are now in; in fact, the Divine and the Place are not two separate things. V’hayah, “and will be,” is in fact the Divine Name with the letters in a slightly different order, and HaMakom, The Place, is itself a Divine Name. The message is: it is always to This Place that we must bring our offerings. These five offerings embody the five spiritual qualities, represented by the sefirot:
עוֹלֹתֵיכֶ֣ם – Oloteikhem – “Your Ascensions” is Tiferet, the transcendent beauty of Presence.
זִבְחֵיכֶ֗ם – Zivheikhem – “Offerings” is Hesed, the spirit of love and giving.
מַעְשְׂרֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ – Ma’sroteikhem – “Tithes” is Gevurah, the inner strength to not take only for oneself, to give up something for the sake of others.
תְרֻמַ֣ת יֶדְכֶ֔ם – T’rumat Yedkhem – “Elevated with your hands” is Hod, which means “elevating” one’s actions through humility and gratitude. And finally:
מִבְחַ֣ר נִדְרֵיכֶ֔ם – Mivhar Nidreikhem – “Choicest of your Vows” is Netzakh, which is commiting to a path and following through with consistency and vigilance.
All of these qualities are dependent on the foundation (Yesod) of joy, as the next verse expresses:
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֮ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ אַתֶּ֗ם וּבְנֵיכֶם֙ וּבְנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַבְדֵיכֶ֖ם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשַֽׁעֲרֵיכֶ֔ם כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃
And you shall rejoice (s’makhtem) before the Hashem your Divinity with your sons and daughters, with your male and female servants, along with the Levite in your gates, for they have no portion or inheritance among you…
- Deuteronomy 12:11-12
This is the power of community – to lift up one another, to spark the flame of joy in those who have lost connection with their own inner joy.
The Haftora hints as well at the renewal of spirit available through Yesod:
עֲנִיָּ֥ה סֹעֲרָ֖ה לֹ֣א נֻחָ֑מָה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י מַרְבִּ֤יץ בַּפּוּךְ֙ אֲבָנַ֔יִךְ וִיסַדְתִּ֖יךְ בַּסַּפִּירִֽים׃
Afflicted, storm-tossed, uncomforted one, behold! I will lay your floor stones upon pearl (Malkhut) and make your foundations (y’sad’ti, Yesod) with sapphires (five sefirot) …
- Isaiah 54:11
Joy is the basic spiritual nourishment, but unlike food and water which must be purchased with money, joy is purchased with something else:
ה֤וֹי כָּל־צָמֵא֙ לְכ֣וּ לַמַּ֔יִם וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־ל֖וֹ כָּ֑סֶף לְכ֤וּ שִׁבְרוּ֙ וֶֽאֱכֹ֔לוּ וּלְכ֣וּ שִׁבְר֗וּ בְּלוֹא־כֶ֛סֶף וּבְל֥וֹא מְחִ֖יר יַ֥יִן וְחָלָֽב׃
Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; come, buy food and eat; buy food without money, wine and milk without cost.
- Isaiah 55:1
This nourishment is still “bought,” but not with “money,” not with “cost” – meaning, unlike when we purchase with money, we don’t lose anything. Joy still must be purchased – meaning, there is an effort to be made, there is a path to walk. But this effort doesn’t expend our resources, it makes available our deepest resources.
What must we do to purchase joy?
More on Re'eh
Seeing the Whole – Parshat Re'eh
8/27/2019 0 Comments
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
“See, I set before you today blessing and curse”
This is the message to us in every moment: life is both blessing and curse, pleasure and pain, sweetness and bitterness, fullness and loss.
אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְות֙ ... אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם וְהַקְּלָלָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמְעוּ֙
“Blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot … that I command you today, and curse, if you do not listen…”
Both blessing and curse are ever-present features of outer experience. Nevertheless, there is an inner potential for either blessing or curse in how we relate to our outer experience:
“If you listen… today” – that is, if you can be present with both blessing and curse, receiving it as mitzvah, as commandment, and surrendering to the truth of your actual experience, then you can notice: beyond the sorrow and joy, there is a blessedness that comes from simple openness to the moment – a blessedness which is awareness itself, which is knowing yourself as this awareness. Then, even the curses are like blessings, because through awareness of the curses, you can come to know yourself as blessedness.
“And curse, if you do not listen” – that is, if we don’t receive the present moment as it is, with its mixture of blessing and curse, we forfeit the deeper blessedness which is our birthright and our nature.
וְסַרְתֶּ֣ם מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם
“but turn away from the path that I command you today…”
The path is always present before us, if we would turn toward it rather than resist it.
לָלֶ֗כֶת אַחֲרֵ֛י אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם –
“and run after other gods, whom you have not known...”
When we turn away from the present moment, “running” in our minds after the blessings we want, or running away from the curses we don’t want, we sacrifice the Real for the imaginary, worshiping the idols of thought and ignoring ever-present Reality. Then, even the blessings can be like curses – taken for granted, missed meetings with Reality.
So, embrace life as it is: blessing and curse, pleasure and pain, sweetness and bitterness, fullness and loss, and uncover the deeper blessedness of Being – the blessedness which is not at all separate from the vast openness of awareness that you are:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֞ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ
“And you shall rejoice before Reality, your own Divinity…”
The Finger – Parshat Re'eh
8/8/2018 0 Comments
One time, when my wife's parents were visiting, we went out for a big family dinner. After we ordered, we waited and waited for the food to come, but nothing came. After about a half hour or so, the family started to get restless and irritated. Eventually one of us called the waiter over to ask what's going on.
"Yes, I'm so sorry!" said the waiter, "We're having a hard time in the kitchen, but it's coming soon, I promise!"
This happened over and over – he kept saying it was coming soon, it's about to come out, but it never came out. Finally, he came over again: "I'm so sorry – The chef chopped his finger off by accident, but I promise you the food is coming out in like two minutes – I promise!"
Oh my God! How horrible! But we kept waiting; ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes go by, still nothing. Finally our five-year-old girl says, "Do you think he chopped off his other finger?"
We've all had experiences like this, waiting and waiting for something. There's some expectation that's not getting fulfilled, and a feeling of irritation arises. Then, for most of us, there is a kind of inner separation occurs, a "turning away" from whatever the experience is, a "dis-ease" with the reality of the moment. I might describe it as the opposite of relaxing into a hot tub. It's the opposite of being really tired and lying down and drifting to sleep. It's the opposite of enjoying the moment. There's a dis-ease, a resistance, a sense of judgment that happens almost automatically in the presence of discomfort.
But, it's possible for discomfort to arise and not make the decision to disconnect. But to do that, we have to make another decision: to simply come close to the feeling that we're having – to be karov.
Then, miraculously, the discomfort becomes less significant, and the more significant thing is simply the energy of consciousness that's taking the form of the discomfort;because underneath the discomfort is your own life energy. It's your own consciousness.
Yes, consciousness can take the shape of irritation due to some expectation that's not being met. But when you come close to it – when you say, "Okay, I'm going to be Karov – intimate – with this feeling," then it's just as if you were to relax into a hot tub. That's the that's the profound shift.
To do this, it doesn't take much intellect; you just decide to do it. But there are also ways of thinking that can help us be karov. One way is summed up in the phrase, "Gam zu l'tovah- This is also for the good."
Once there was a king who had a trusted minister, and the minister would be with the king all the time and give him good advice.
One day, when the king was chopping some vegetables, he accidentally cut his finger really deeply with a knife. "Oh, how could I do that? I was paying such close attention!"
He calls his minister: "Can you explain to me how I did this? It seemed like the knife jumped out of my hand!"
"Gam zu l'tovah– this too is for the good!" said the minister.
"What do you mean?" yelled the king. "How could you say gam zu l'tovah? You're out of here! Send this guy to the dungeon!"
So the minister gets thrown in the dungeon. "Gam zu l'tovah," the minister said again.
A little while later, the king went on a hunt with his hunting companions. Suddenly, he catches a glimpse of a deer and starts swiftly chasing after it, going deep into the forest, away from all the other companions. The deer gets away, and the king is left all alone, lost in the forrest. Eventually he gets tired, so he ties up his horse, sits under a tree and dozes off.
A little while later, he hears some kind of weird sound. He wakes up to find a huge lion sniffing him. He doesn't know what to do. He's terrified! The lion's throat is growling as he sniffs. Suddenly, the lion draws back his head, makes a face and runs away.
"I can't believe it!" the king says to himself. He calls out for his companions. Eventually they find him, and they all return to the palace.
"I'll have to call back my minister from the dungeon to ask about this!"
So he calls back the minister and tells the whole story. The minister says, "Yes of course!Gam zu l'tovah! That's why you cut your finger. Just as you are the king, and when we serve you food it should always be unblemished, so too the king of the beasts wants unblemished food. When the lion realized you had this cut on your finger, he thought you were not fit for the king of the beasts, and so he left."
The King was impressed. "Very good!" he replied. "But what's so gam zu l'tovah about you getting thrown in the dungeon?"
"Well," said the minister, "of course you know that I'm always with you no matter what you're doing. So if you hadn't thrown me in the dungeon, I would have been with you hunting, and I would have been there with you under that tree. Since I don't have a cut of my finger, I would have gotten eaten by the lion!"
Can we frame the moment so that we can see the ultimate goodness that will come from unpleasant experiences? Can we relax into whatever the moment brings, so we can be unified with it, so we can be karov? In other words, can we choose happiness over misery?
This week's reading is Parshat Re'eh. Re'eh means "see," which is is a metaphor for understanding, for "getting it" – like in English, when someone says, "Oh I see."
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
Right now, there is this choice: blessing or curse. And what are the conditions for blessing or curse? It says it right there:
Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- The blessing- that you listen!
Very interesting. If you want blessing, then tishma’u – listen! Meaning: be fully present, bekarov, with the fullness of your experience right now...
The Holodeck- Parshat Re'eh
8/31/2016 6 Comments
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics such as humor and other emotions.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck”- a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets on the stage to practice his stand up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Now, why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it’s because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him. His goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to get good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it’s the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to master the art of life.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck. Then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do.
But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that!
And what does it mean to “master this life?”
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned- with an entire herd of wild horses! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again the villagers came- “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything.
Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
This week’s reading begins with the words:
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
“Today”- meaning now- there is the potential for either blessing or curse.
How to choose the blessing?
It goes on to say,
“Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot-
"The blessing- that you listen to the commandments.”
There are three levels of meaning here in the word “mitzvot” or “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain. This moment has already become what it is!
The second level of meaning is that “mitzvah” is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta” which means not “to command”, but “to connect”.
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the image of “listening” to the "mitzvah" is a metaphor for connecting. When we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we deeply connect with the speaker- “I really hear you, man!”
So if you want blessing and not curse, connect with hayom- this moment- be present to what is, regardless of whether it seems like a blessing or a curse to your mind or your heart.
Accept the blessing and the curse- that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and not the curse- that’s the curse!
But in order to do that, you have to be aware of your situation:
“Re’eh- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
The sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, while the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case- “Oh, I see now!”
The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the curse of judging blessings and curses. It’s only natural!
But to go beyond that, you need to be aware: Simply listen to the fullness of how it is. Let go of the judging mind.
Once you do that, you are free. Like Commander Data, you will be happy if the audience is not laughing at your jokes. That’s how you learn. Like the farmer, you will respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of “mitzvot”- the plain meaning of “God’s commandments.”
When you free yourself from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then you know you are not something separate from the Whole. Your actions flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole- in service of God. Then, all your actions are truly mitzvot- acts of service to the One.
On this Shabbat Re’eh, the "Sabbath of Seeing," may we all “see” our Divine potential in this moment, to “hear” the Divine Voice as this moment, and to do blessing for each other moment by moment, uniting heaven and earth one step at a time.
Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #4: Malkhut – Sovereignty
“Hashem Melekh – The Divine Reigns”
When you hear the word, “Nature” – what comes to mind?
Most likely, a beautiful forest, a beach, a sunset over the mountains. Probably not the smell of rotting food or dog poop. But these are just as much nature too, yes? And yet we don’t think of those things because for most of us, they don’t invoke that sense of awe and spaciousness that we associate with nature.
And yet, if we bring to mind the inner intelligence of the natural cycles and the roles that microorganisms play as we encounter the stinky rotten food, something shifts. The unpleasant smell is still there, but it lives in a greater context; we can still have that element of awe and reverence, if we remember to evoke it.
The same is true of the sacred.
When we think of the sacred, an image of burning candles or holy texts (or, of course, a forest or a sunset) may come to mind, because those things help evoke a sense of the sacred. But the sacred is simply the dimension of Being-ness that everything participates in; the sacred is ever-present. Just as in the nature example, we can know this for ourselves, if we remember to become present, to being ourselves into connection with present Reality, and hence with the Presence that infuses all things.
There was once a king who decided to test his subjects, so he had all the riches of his palace brought out into a huge field, while he sat on a raised throne in the center. He invited everyone in the kingdom to come and pick one thing in the field to take for themselves. Droves of people came and wandered around anxiously, trying to decide what to choose.
Then, a little old woman made her way through the field and up to the king. “Is it true that we can take anything in the field?” she asked the king.
“Yes,” he replied, “everything is this field is available. You just have to decide which one to choose.”
“In that case,” said the old woman, “I choose you!”
This is our task – to not be distracted by all the seductive things, experiences, thoughts and feelings that are constantly coming and going in this universe, but to see through them all to the underlying Reality – to “choose the King,” so to speak.
This is the message of Malkhut, “The Kingdom,” the tenth and bottom sefirah on the Tree of Life. “Kingdom” may have a masculine sound to it, but it also is associated with Shekhinah, the Divine Presence which is pictured as a queen, as a bride, as a maiden. Malkhut also represents receptivity, as it receives the influx from all the other sefirot.
The message is: all the forms we perceive, all objects, all beings, all perceptions, all feelings, all thoughts – all of it – all are forms of the same One Reality that we call the Divine. The Divine is not remote; it is not somewhere other than Here. All we need do is remember and choose It.
The Torah speaks of this choosing as well:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
And it will be if you listen to these ethical principles and guard them and do them, then the Divine, your Divinity, will guard for you the covenant and the lovingkindness that was sworn to your ancestors.
וַאֲהֵ֣בְךָ֔ וּבֵרַכְךָ֖ וְהִרְבֶּ֑ךָ וּבֵרַ֣ךְ פְּרִֽי־בִטְנְךָ֣ וּפְרִֽי־אַ֠דְמָתֶךָ דְּגָ֨נְךָ֜ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֣ וְיִצְהָרֶ֗ךָ שְׁגַר־אֲלָפֶ֙יךָ֙ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת צֹאנֶ֔ךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ לָ֥תֶת לָֽךְ׃
The Divine will love you and bless you and increase you; blessing the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain and wine and oil, the calves of your herd and the flocks of your sheep, in the land that was sworn to your ancestors to give to you…
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה –And it will be if you listen to these Mishpatim, ethical principles…
Elsewhere in the Torah, the mitzvot are called hukim and mishpatim, which I’ve translated as spiritual practices and ethical principles, but here only mishpatim is mentioned. Why?
If a person has no hukim, meaning they don’t do any spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, observing Shabbat and so on, BUT they do have mishpatim – meaning, they are ethical and they do good actions, that’s still a good thing! Perhaps they can improve themselves by taking on some hukim when they are ready, but good actions are the essential part; they are the means by which Malkhut is revealed in the world.
On the other hand, if a person has lots of hukim, studies a lot of Torah, does a lot of ritual observance and so on, but they DON’T have mishpatim, they don’t have good actions, it’s better that they not have hukim either, because their practices are insincere and hypocritical. Put another way, they may reach the higher sefirot, but they fail to bring the influx of those sefirot down into Malkhut; the purpose of creation remains unfulfilled.
So, the verse is saying: if your actions are in alignment with the Divine, that is the most important thing.
And yet, on a deeper level, the verse is actually including the hukim too, but in a hidden way:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן – V’hayah eikev tishma’un – It will be if you listen…
Eikev means “heel.” Its meaning here is “if” in the sense of one thing “following on the heels” of another thing. V’hayah means “It will be,” but it is also the same letters as the Divine Name, in a different order: יה – וה. The idea here is that in order for us to realize the underlying Divinity of everything, then even our heels, the bottom and most insensitive parts of the body, must become sensitive and infused with consciousness. Thus, we might translate:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן – V’hayah eikev tishma’un – Realization of the Divinity of Being comes when even the heel listens!
This is hukim, the spiritual practices that help us cultivate presence, especially the bringing of awareness into the body, so as to become sensitive to the Malkhut dimension of the world, knowing all things as vessels for the underlying Presence.
To accomplish this usually takes a certain kind of effort. There are moments when the Presence dawns upon us as Grace, but usually we must actively remember to see through the surface of things to the Divinity at the root. We can see this in the three letters that compose the word Eikev:
עקב – ayin, koof, bet
Ayin means “eye” and indicates seeing. Koof represents kedushah, meaning “the sacred.” Bet is bayit, meaning “house.” Thus, within the word Eikev itself is encoded the practice of “seeing” through to the “sacred” dimension which is “housed” in all things.
The metaphor of “King,” which is the central metaphor of Malkhut and also of Rosh Hashanah, indicates two main kavanot, or “attitude forms” that can help us in our task.
The first is the kavanah of service. Just as a subject would serve their beloved king, so too we can direct our hearts and actions toward the underlying Presence, so that we are not merely experiencing the Divine, but living for the Divine, serving the Divine, in whatever we are doing.
The second is one of trust, which is the most basic middah of Malkhut. Just as we know that, although decomposition and death can be unpleasant, they are nevertheless necessary in the intelligence of nature, so too are all things and all happenings part of the Divine unfolding. This basic trust of How Things Are is crucial for knowing the Divine in all our ways and transforming our relationship with the world so as to bring about the dawning of Malkhut…
More on Eikev...
The Preschool Teacher – Parshat Eikev
8/19/2019 2 Comments
The infamous and much hated Rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, once visited his little home town where he grew up. While he was there he made a point of seeing his first, early childhood teacher who had taught him the alef-beis, whom he loved very much.
Before he returned home, he happened to run into another teacher of his. “I see that you visit your preschool teacher, but you don’t visit me? What have I done to offend you?” asked the teacher.
“You taught me things that can be refuted,” replied the Kotzker, “because according to one interpretation they can mean this, and according to another they can mean that. But my first teacher taught me things which cannot be refuted, and so they have remained with me; that is why I owe him special reverence.”
The mind tends to dwell upon that which it does not know for sure.
That’s because it is the job of the mind to figure out, to conjecture, to approximate, to guess; that’s how we are able to navigate life and make decisions. But this useful tendency often becomes a compulsive habit, usurping awareness away from what we actually do know.
Eventually, we can come to give no attention at all to what we do know, and instead invest our guesses, conjectures and approximations with a reality they don’t really possess; this is called “living in one’s head.” Nowadays, people often feel most strongly and defend most passionately (and attack most violently in defense of) things they don’t really know for sure.
What is it that we do know for sure?
Turn your attention from involvement with your thoughts and “see” what is actually happening, right now. That is Presence – simply noticing and therefore knowing what is actually present in your experience.
When you do, there may be a feeling of disorientation or fear.
What if thoughts are just thoughts? What will happen if you let go of all that mind generated drama and attend to what is present, to what you actually know for sure?
The ego is uncomfortable with this, because ego is the sense of identity that’s built out of our thoughts and feelings. Let go of your thoughts and feelings, and the ego can feel threatened.
הָלַ֣ךְ חֲשֵׁכִ֗ים וְאֵ֥ין נֹ֙גַהּ֙ ל֔וֹ יִבְטַח֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה וְיִשָּׁעֵ֖ן בֵּאלֹהָֽיו
Though one walks in darkness and has no glow, let them trust in the Name of the Divine, and rely on their Divinity…
The haftora hints that there is an aspect of our consciousness that is forever in a state of not-knowing: ayn nogah lo – has no glow. It doesn’t say that one has no “light” but rather one doesn’t even have any “glow” at all. One absolutely halakh hasheikhim – walks in darkness.
But if we can be totally clear about not being clear, if we can truly understand and know on the deepest level that all of our mind’s judgments are guesses and approximations, then we can transcend the ego; we can transcend our separate self-sense that thrives on belief in our own thoughts and denial of the darkness.
Then, in that surrender to not-knowing, a new way of being emerges: yivtakh b’shem Hashem v’yisha’ein Elohav – trust in the Name of the Divine and rely on Divinity. That is the letting go – the letting of Mystery be Mystery.
Then, we can realize: there is something we can know, if we would only turn toward It: we are consciousness, and we are the consciousness that is conscious of This, Now.
To really get this, to know ourselves as consciousness, and to also acknowledge our basic state of not-knowing on the level of thought, we must discern between three things:
Ordinarily, we confuse 2 with 3; we don’t differentiate between our thoughts and reality. We are generally unconscious that we are thinking at all; we merely think and judge, with no sense of the presence of thought. But when we become aware that 2 is actually within 1, that our thoughts are arising within present experience, then we can easily see the difference between our thoughts and Reality; then we can truly know that we don’t know.
וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה
And it will be if you listen to these judgments…
The parshah begins with the strange construction – v’hayah eikev tishma’un – it will be if you listen...
Eikev means “heel,” as in the English idiom that one thing will “follow on the heels” of another, meaning that one thing is the consequence of another. But according to a Hassidic teaching, the hint is that one should become conscious even in one’s heel – that is, the most insensitive part of the body should become aware. Then, when one is fully present, with awareness permeating the whole body, we can make these subtle mishpatim, subtle judgments concerning our own mental judgments, and we can begin to truly know what we know and what we don’t know, and trust in the Mystery.
Then, in connection with the Truth of this moment and in surrender to unknowability of everything beyond this moment, the heart is set free. Gratitude arises naturally, and you will know the vastness of who you really are – the simple, open space of awareness within which the fullness of this moment now arises…
וַאֲהֵ֣בְךָ֔ וּבֵרַכְךָ֖ וְהִרְבֶּ֑ךָ
And (the Divine) will love you, and bless you, and increase you…
The Toothpick – Parshat Eikev
8/3/2018 0 Comments
I heard a story once of a rabbi who, when he was a little boy, would eat ice cream with a toothpick. When my son was little, I told him this story to try to get him to slow down his eating. A few months later, I saw my son eating ice cream with a toothpick too. I was amazed– "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I want to make it last longer!" he said.
Some people want to give their children everything they ask for. But we know that when children get more and more, this often doesn't lead to more satisfaction, but more desire. We call that being "spoiled." If we want to give our children more, we often need to give them less.
It's easy to see this with children, but it's the same with us: we can deliberately restrict our intake, as in the example of eating with a toothpick. It doesn't have to be a restriction of food; it can be a restriction of words. Have you ever felt the intense desire to say something, perhaps because someone else was saying something totally wrong, and you wanted to jump in and correct them?
Or, you might have the impulse to jump in and stop something. Something annoying happens, like a child is whining and interrupting, and the impulse is to rush and stop it.
But if you pause, even when the impulse is to do something totally appropriate (which it often isn't), there's a space for a deeper wisdom to emerge. You can realize: you are not trapped by the impulse. You are, in fact, a vastly deep well of consciousness, and from that consciousness emerges all impulses, all thoughts, all sensations, all experience. And although we tend to reach for satisfaction by fulfilling our impulses, when you discover this vast space, there can be a far deeper satisfaction than the satisfaction that comes from any gratification.
"Not on bread alone does a person live," says this week's reading. In other words, if you want to truly live, you can't only be focussed only on the "bread" – the satisfaction that comes from gratification. Rather, true living means being aware of that vast well of consciousness that perceives the "bread." That awareness is always there, and so it's easy to miss it. You can go your whole life and never notice the one thing that is constant!
And that's why we have this practice of pausing, of restricting– so that we can slow down enough to become aware of this underlying reality, the reality of your own Beingness, the miracle of this present moment.
As it says a little later in the parsha, "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless..."
Don't just eat, ve'akhalta, eat and be satisfied, v'savata. Meaning, don't just be satisfied by the food alone, but feel the satisfaction that comes from simply from Being. Then, uveirakhta– bless – give thanks not just for the bread, but for the gift that is always present – the gift of Presence Itself...
The Shirt- Parshat Eikev
8/23/2016 9 Comments
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzen and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice,” which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man blowing a conch. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almostexactly the same, except- the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt so that we would be permitted to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to buy any product with a shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a man having no shirt?” I asked. “Isn’t the human body holy? Are you saying there’s something sinful about the human body?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive. A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more you get, the less sensitive you are to what you already have… hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
This week’s reading begins with the words-
“V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It shall be the reward when you listen…”
The sentence is strange, because the word “eikev” really means “heel,” but it’s understood here to mean “reward” or “because of” or “consequence.” This meaning is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing. The thing that “follows on the heels” is the consequence.
There’s a “heel” story of the founder of the Chabad lineage, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi- the "Alter Rebbe." When his grandson Menachem Mendel was a boy, he would teach the boy Torah. Once, they came to this verse-
“Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”
The Alter Rebbe asked the boy to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
Reb Shneur Zalman was ecstatic with his answer and said, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev- our heel- should ‘listen,’ meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do you do that?
Be your own parent- restrict yourself.
The most astonishing and incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake in Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water, for several days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Halleluyah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: She was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more.” Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
This idea is expressed a little later in the parshah:
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know- ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth.”
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing)- either the traditional one or something in your own words. When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later, “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat Eikev, the Sabbath of the Heel, may we become sensitive to the many gifts of sustenance that often get taken for granted. Most of all, may we be sensitive to the one gift that holds all the others- the gift of space, of awareness, within which experience unfolds. Don’t hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- that’s the one you are living, in this moment.
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