Please Remove Your Shoes
The letter ק koof is associated with the root קדש K-D-Sh, which means “holy,” “sacred,” or “transcendent.” In particular, ק koof has to do with recognizing the sacred in the ordinary, the transcendent in the mundane. The passage of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush expresses this recognition:
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
And (Hashem) said, “Do not come closer to here. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the Place upon which you stand is holy earth – admat kodesh...”
- Shemot (Exodus) 3:5
שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ – Remove your sandals from your feet…
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught:
“Remove the habitual which encloses your ‘foot’ – which comes between you and your experience of the world – and you will know that the place upon which you find yourself is holy; for there is no rung of human life on which we cannot find the holiness of the Divine everywhere and at all times.”
In other words, the sacred dimension of being is ever accessible in all experiences, all encounters – we need only remove our conditioning, our habitual way of seeing things as mundane and unspiritual. How do we do this?
Parshat Ki Tavo
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…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1, Parshat Ki Tavo
The parshah then goes on to talk about a special ritual of gratitude that involves putting the first fruit of one’s 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.”
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land…
On a simple level, this is a farmer’s gratitude ritual for the goodness of the produce of the earth. But on a deeper level, “coming into the land” means coming into the place you already are, being fully present with the “earth” – meaning, whatever happens to be present in the moment.
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in…
This is hinted at by V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in –meaning, entering the mode of Being. The word וְהָיָה v’hayah, “it will be,” actually consists of the letters of the Divine Name in a slightly different order. Thus, we might understand that to encounter the Divine, we need to “come into” the mode of Being.
Our lives consist of both Doing and Being, but we tend to identify with the Doing mode. Doing is “going out” – 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 is not balanced by the mode of Being, if there is total identification with the mind and with Doing, then there is no sacredness. There is also no peace or contentment, because one is constantly focused on a goal in the future; there is never any “arrival.”
What is the solution?
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land…
Come fully into the place that you are, by connecting your awareness with the aretz – the earth on which you dwell, this body through which you live, and with anything else that is perceived; this is Presence.
The Basket of Gratitude
וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית כׇּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה
V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah – You shall take from the first fruits of the earth…
There is a “fruit” is ripening right now – that “fruit” is fulness of this moment; it is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
Our “first fruit,” then, is the raw present, before we impose our conditioning upon it. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both joy and suffering, and we may have stories and judgments about it. But before the stories, before the judgments, there is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When we descend deeply into ourselves, when we return from the journeys of the mind and into the reality of the naked present, it can dawn on upon us: there is a choice! We 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 we realize that this is in fact our choice, that we can choose to collect our “first fruits” in the “basket” of gratitude, we shift into awareness of the fundamental holiness of Reality, the sacredness of Being. This is the path of ק koof.
When that happens, we can then say as the ancient farmer said:
וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם Vayotzieinu Hashem mimitzrayim – Hashem brought us out of Egypt –
Meaning – we are brought out of the contracted bundle of mind-identified ego (Mitzayim, “Egypt”) through simply being (Hashem, “Existence” or “Being”).
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכׇל־הַטּ֗וֹב V’samakhta v’khol hatov – And then you will rejoice with all the goodness that you are given, you and the strangers among you...
Heaven on Earth
There is a passage in the morning prayers:
כִּי הוּא לְבַדּוֹ מָרוֹם וְקָדוֹשׁ פּוֹעֵל גְּבוּרוֹת עֹשֶׂה חֲדָשׁוֹת בַּֽעַל מִלְחָמוֹת זוֹרֵֽעַ צְדָקוֹת מַצְמִֽיחַ יְשׁוּעוֹת בּוֹרֵא רְפוּאוֹת נוֹרָא תְהִלּוֹת אֲדוֹן הַנִּפְלָאוֹת
For the Divine alone is exalted and holy, Doer of mighty deeds, Maker of newness; Master of battles, Sower of acts kindness, Causing salvation to sprout forth, Creator of remedies, Awesome in praise, Lord of wonders!
Rabbi Barukh’s disciples came to him and asked, “Hashem is called ‘Creator of remedies, Awesome in praise, Lord of wonders.’ Why? Why should ‘remedies’ come before ‘praise’ and ‘wonders’?
He answered, “Hashem does not want to be praised for supernatural miracles. And so here, through the mention of ‘remedies,’ Nature is introduced and put first; in this way it is clear that everything is a miracle and a wonder.”
The Mystery of the Commonplace
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 will be seen over you.
- Isaiah 60:2, Haftora Ki Tavo
What does this passage in the haftora mean – 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 ק koof, the sacred within the ordinary, 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 the rabbinic wisdom text Pirkei Avot, there is a list of qualities one needs to acquire 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 is 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 all things.
When we encounter someone who practices 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 the recognition – Its Presence will be seen.
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 will 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 peace within the one who realizes.
And yet, 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 – making friends even with our own darkness, 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
Conquering Darkness with Light
There is 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…
- Bamidbar (Numbers) 10:9
“How can I judge someone who is taking this command of the Torah to heart?”
In this story, the response of the 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 forgiven when they do something adorable.
In terms of 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 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 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” an image to make a person look more beautiful than they actually are. In recording, we can digitally “fix” a person’s voice when they sing off key, 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 וּמִצְוֺתָ֛יו 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־מִצְוֺתָֽיו׃
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.
- Deuteronomy 26.17-19
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:
עֶלְיוֹן Elyon – exalted, above, transcendent; this is Tiferet in relation to Malkhut, as Tiferet is symbolized by the Sun, and Malkhut by the Earth.
לִתְהִלָּה 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.
לְשֵׁם 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.
תִפְאָ֑רֶת 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 come not merely from doing the mitzvot, but from verbally expressing the Reality of the Sacred. In other words, they result from expressing the truth of our deepest recognition. This is the underlying message of the Jewish idea of brit, of covenant: The Torah is not merely the legislation of right action, but the commitment to bear witness to the truth of the sacred. In this way, beauty and compassion come not to cover up truth, but arise as expressions of it. This expression of the truth of the sacred is the path of ק koof.
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The Cow in the Field
Once, I was in the Oakland Airport with my family, preparing to board a plane to Tucson. 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 that my then 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 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 is a wonderful description of Presence, particularly the practice of keeping awareness anchored in the body and the heart. To be anchored in the body means that the mind is no longer wandering off into paths of thought, but is staying connected to the senses and hence to the present moment. To be “in the heart” means to have the attitude of offering your attention to the fulness of the moment from the heart, so that simply being is an acy of love.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose this connection with the body and with heartfulness by wandering into the ever-blossoming pathways of the thinking mind, which in its continuous thinking 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 was going to miss his flight and his plans would be all disrupted, what is it that is really creating all his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Of course, nothing but his mind.
The mind creates all these 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.
Parshat Ki Tetzei
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…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:10, Parshat Ki Tetzei
When we leave the sacred place of the heart, when we leave our connection with the present moment and travel the labyrinth of the mind and its necessarily self-centered stories, we create our enemies and battles.
וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand and you capture its captivity…
It’s a strange construction – וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽו v’shavita shivyo – “capture its captivity.”
But if we understand that it is we who are captured by seeing the world as our enemy “out there,” then we need to “capture our captivity” – meaning, we need to know that we are bigger than any of those ensnaring mental narratives.
How do we do it?
We can do it by understanding – וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Existence, which is not separate from our own Divine nature, is giving this moment into our hands.
This realization has both a passive and active aspect; it is both surrender and empowerment: surrender to the truth of what is, rather than fighting with our idea of what is, and also empowerment to dedicate ourselves to serve the Divine as this moment comes to us – to dwell in the cave of the heart, to respond not from ego, but from the Divinity that we are.
This is the path of צ tzaddie, the practice of dedicating our full selves to the One.
The Mitzvah of Destruction
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 of a wealthy land owner and damaged his crops with their trampling.
One of the employees of the land owner, by the name of Moshe, saw what the hassidim had done. He himself a hassid, so he followed them to the rebbe. When they all arrived, Moshe stormed into the rebbe’s room and cried, “You must hear what these idiots have done – they have trampled my master’s crops! They should be beaten for this! In fact, 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, then chant l’shem yikhud devoutly, then go ahead and perform your mitzvah…”
Moshe’s attitude shifted visibly, and he left without another word.
Never Give Up
Part of the function of a spiritual teacher is to wake up our tzaddik within, that level of our being beyond ego. But this can only help us in the long term if it leads to the commitment to try to live from our inner tzaddik, moment to moment. This is the most challenging work, but we must never give up, no matter how many times we may fail.
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 paying their debs and liberating many.
Only One Thing
There is a debt must be paid for our inner freedom as well.
We too must not give up “raising the funds” – meaning, we too must bring our attention fully to each moment, to each situation, 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; it is allowing our failures to develop into the belief that inner freedom is impossible. It is true – our experiences have a certain gravity; we tend to be captured by them, but we can “capture” them instead – if we remember that we are far more vast than any impulse, than any experience. We are, in essence, the open space within which this moment unfolds. We must constantly remember this one thing.
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 to liberate your heart and live from your inner tzaddik, 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 our hands by the Divine; it is not something we win through effort. This is the paradox: on one hand, we’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, to go out from the heart lamilkhama al oyevekha– to battle your enemies. If we wish to conquer this impulse to struggle, we must be relentless in our surrender.
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, traditionally recited this time of year, are an affirmation of this kavanah, this “ransoming” of our inner freedom through the “funds” of consciousness we must collect in every moment, every situation, every feeling, every thought: Above every goal, above every desire, there is 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!
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 alone can produce a unity within ourselves.
While it is true that spiritual practices can help us 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 why the first path is Keter, the “Crown,” which is the act of unifying ourselves through the power of intention before we traverse any of the other paths.
But what goal is our unifying intention to be directed toward?
It is the dedication of our full selves to serving the Divine – the path of צ tzaddie – to bring forth and live from our Divine potential. This potential to devote ourselves to living from our highest selves is ever-present, but to do so we must recognize the ever-present choice to overcome the forces of inner “wishy-washy-ness” and become “of a piece.”
Paradoxically, the more we are able to become one in our devotion to the One, the more we are able to transcend the decision-making mind and know the deepest level of who and what we are, beyond all forms that come and go in experience – the open space of awareness itself. 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.
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ – Ki teitzei – When you go out…
The word כִּי ki is usually translated as “when” but it can also mean “because.” Translated this way, 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…
Again, paradox: The fruit of the path is not something we control with our decisiveness, it is “put in our hand” by Grace. And yet, it is given to us כי ki – because we have made the effort to dedicate ourselves to the Divine. This is the path of צ tzaddie, to dedicate our full selves to the One. Then, through the meeting of effort with Grace:
וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ – and you capture their captivity…
The more that the inner fruit ripens, the less effort is needed to unify ourselves, because the more we experience the goodness of this “fruit,” the less temptation there is to waver; the less distraction there is from the Goal. We experience the benefit for ourselves, and we know.
And yet, it is crucial to not think that we’ve “made it.” As numerous stories and teachings tell us, the true tzaddik does not think that they are a tzaddik at all. Knowing this protects us from the trap of thinking that we are exempt from continuing to walk the path; realization must always be accompanied by humility.
On the Integral Tree, this is depicted by the juxtaposition of Netzakh, which means “Victory,” with Hod, which is associated with humility. With humility, we can remain vigilant to the inner danger that ego can coopt even the most sublime spiritual attainment – as they say, the higher you climb, the harder you fall…
The Success of Failure
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…
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:8, Parshat Ki Tetzei
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 of rooves; it was probably the failure to anticipate this danger that led to the law of making a ma’akeh (parapet).
Similarly, when we become aware of our own spiritual failures 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 spiritual failures: 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 יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל 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 of the month of Elul in which this parshah falls.
There is yet a third kind of spiritual failure, 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 turn completely from ego and bring forth your inner tzaddik.
These three kinds of “sin” are different from each other, but for a person who wants to become free from them, there is 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 Presence. 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.
Dedicating the Whole Self
Whenever I travel, 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 into 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 within and falling back into the one field of awareness that we are. The haftora says:
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. From this vastness, from this awareness that leaves nothing out, we can (once again) dedicate all of it, in all of its disparate complexity, to the One Reality, and to remember (once again) the One Thing we seek – to dwell in the House of the Divine all of our days, day by day. This is the path of צ tzaddie, the gathering together of our full selves in dedication and devotion to the One.
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The Greatness of Not Being So Great
There’s a story about Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the “Seer” of Lublin, that once he was confronted by his nemesis, Rabbi Azriel Hurwitz. Rabbi Hurwitz was the Rav, the chief rabbi of Lublin, and was known as the “Iron Head” because he was such a giant of Torah learning. He was often enraged by the Seer’s power to attract followers to himself.
“You yourself admit that you are not a tzaddik (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 hassidim 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 hassidim – you love humility! Here is what you should do. Next Shabbos, tell them that you really are a great tzaddik; 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 tzaddik, 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 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 tzaddik, or spiritual master, is characterized by the quality of humility; this is the paradox of the tzaddik, that they do not think they are a tzaddik. This is represented by the position of the letter צ tzaddie on the Integral Tree (our version of the Tree of Life), connecting the sefirot of Yesod and Hod.
Yesod, which means “Foundation,” is life energy – the magnetic and charismatic joy of being – and hints that the tzaddik dedicates all their life energy and charisma to serving the Divine.
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 grattitude, as in the morning prayer מידה אני Modeh/Modah Ani, which is chanted upon awakening to give thanks for being alive another day.
The life energy of joy and charisma (Yesod) is not typically paired with humility (Hod), which tends to be a personality trait of dampened joy and charisma. But the path of צ tzaddie shows that they can be joined in the persona of the tzaddik when life energy is dedicated to the Divine, to joyfully serving That which is beyond the self.
This supreme quality of צ tzaddie may seem far fetched, beyond reach for most people. And yet, it is not in any way something remote or separate from us; it is, in fact, the essence of who we are:
וְעַמֵּךְ֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם צַדִּיקִ֔ים לְעוֹלָ֖ם יִ֣ירְשׁוּ אָ֑רֶץ נֵ֧צֶר מַטָּעַ֛י מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדַ֖י לְהִתְפָּאֵֽר׃
And your people are all tzaddikim, forever they will possess the land; They are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I glory…
- Isaiah 60:21
The context in this verse from Isaiah is that it is talking about the future, that all of us are potentially tzaddikim and that we will eventually evolve into being tzaddikim. But these words are also used as the introductory verse to each chapter of the wisdom text Pirkei Avot, as if to encourage the reader: don’t be disheartened! To be a tzaddik is our Essence; we need only to become transparent to our It. We cannot own It or possess It; we cannot try to claim it as an identity. Rather, it shines through when the ego bows to It.
But how do we do that?
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.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18, Parshat Shoftim
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” (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 יְיְ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Hashem your Divinity gives you…
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק – 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 “judge the judge,” so to speak, by knowing that thought is just thought, and then consciousy choosing which thoughts to think. To do this, we must know the dimension of our own being that is beyond ego, the dimension of simple awareness, so that we can drop our attachment to thought and thereby let go of our need for validation, for praise and for status – then the tzaddik nature can shine through quite naturally.
There Goes the Neighborhood
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha – the 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 is 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 compassion.
My immediate reaction was certainly not compassion, 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, like me, may not feel compassion in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to compassion; this is the path of צ tzaddie – knowing that the tzaddik nature is there within you, even if it is not your immediate experience in the moment. The content of our experience constantly changes, but behind that change is awareness, and within that awareness is the potential of צ tzaddie, the potential to embody our Divine nature.
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha – Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates...
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “appoint judges in your gates” – meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be limited by them; remember That to which you are devoted. Then, you can consciously choose how to frame your experience in your thoughts, and consequently choose how to act as well; these are the “officers.”
Still, our reactive impulses can be incredibly powerful and seductive; it is crucial to not be afraid of our experience, to know that we are bigger than any particular impulse:
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...
Sh’ma – listen/become aware, Israel!
This verse begins just like the other, better known verse – Sh’ma Yisrael – listen – be aware, Israel! 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...
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 present – 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 Reality Itself, incarnating and becoming conscious as you; it is the Divine, seeing through your eyes.
This is hinted by the construction of each of these phrases: al yeirakh, al tir’u, al takh’p’zu, v’al ta’artzu – Don’t let your heart be distant; don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and don’t be broken before them – don’t don’t don’t don’t!
The word for “don’t” – אַל al – also can mean both “to” (אל el) and “God” (El). The hint is that when we dissolve our fear by bringing our awareness to (אל el) the fear, that awareness is actually God’s awareness (El); the Divine 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. As it says in Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited at this time of year:
יְיְ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א
The Divine is my Light and my Salvation, who shall I fear?
This is path of צ tzaddie – bringing forth the tzaddik nature from within ourselves through the power of Presence...
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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 experiences.
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 up 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.
Mastery and Adversity
Why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it is 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 give him good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it is the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to practice our responses to different experiences and master the art of life. But to do this, we need to be clear that we want to do this; we need to know what our goal is for this life we are in.
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…
Beyond Good and Bad
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 following behind! 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?
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, I set before you today blessing and curse.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26, Parshat Re’eh
הַיּוֹם Hayom – Today means now! In this moment, there is the potential for either blessing or curse; it is our choice:
אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙
The blessing, that you listen to the commandments.
There are three levels of meaning for the word mitzvot – “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.
This recognition of the authority of the moment is expressed by the farmer in the story in a simple way: “Maybe blessing, maybe curse – we don’t know.” Meaning, it is futile for us to expend energy judging something that is beyond our control.
There are other ways of expressing this truth. For example, we might say, “There is no use resisting what is. We must work with the moment as it appears; we must work with what we’ve got.” This would the ו vav approach, accepting what comes our way and not getting caught by reactivity.
Or, we might frame it in a more devotional way: “Hashem has given me this situation, so I trust Hashem and accept that this what I need to work with right now.” This would be more of a י yod approach.
Whichever path we walk in order to embrace the reality of whatever comes our way, the expression of this wisdom in words is the path of פ pei, the “mouth.” The path of פ pei is about words of teaching – the meanings of the words, but also the sounds of the words, the vibrational reality of things, which brings us to the second level of meaning of mitzvah:
The word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word צותא tzavta which means not “to command,” but rather “to connect” or “to join together.”
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the sense of “listening” is a metaphor for connecting. When we say that we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we are connecting with the speaker: “I hear you!”
So if you want to connect with the underlying blessing before you, listen deeply to the vibration of this moment, rather than just the surface of the situation, which we tend to judge as good or bad. This is the other side of פ pei, which is listening to the “vibration” or “feel” of the moment rather than merely judging it conceptually.
Connect with both the blessing and the curse – that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and resist the curse – that’s the curse!
This principle is power behind music; music can express a vast spectrum of emotion, both sweet and bitter, and yet even within the most bitter is a sweetness when expressed in music! This is because music has the power to draw us into full embrace of whatever is being expressed. And in this embrace of the expression of music, we are deeply nourished. This is another dimension of the path of פ pei – that our consciousness is nourished by the vibratory sounds of Torah and tefilah, teaching and prayer.
But in order to receive this nourishment, we have to be aware of our situation:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
Re’eh – See, I set before you today blessing and curse.
רְאֵה Re’eh – See…
Just as the sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, so the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case: “Oh, I see now!”
What should we see?
בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה Barakha u’klalah – blessing and curse…
On the level of ordinary perception, blessing and curse are not optional; there will always be a spectrum of experience. It is in our response that we have some choice. The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the “curse” of judging blessings and curses. What is the way out?
אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם Anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom – I place before you today…
Behind all the blessings and curses is the One Reality. If we want to go beyond the duality of preference and connect with the blessing of the One Presence within all things, let go of the judging mind; listen to the fullness of how it is, to the vibration of this moment.
When we do that, we are free. Like Commander Data, it is not a problem if the audience doesn’t laugh at our jokes. That’s how we learn! Like the farmer, we can respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of mitzvot – the plain meaning as “God’s commandments.”
When we free ourselves from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then we know we are not something separate from the Whole. Our actions can flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole – in service of God.
This state of “living for God” (represented by the letter צ tzaddie) may seem far-fetched and out of reach. Nevertheless, it is a potential within us, and we can nurture that potential by articulating it – by contemplating it, saying it, and chanting it. This is the power of פ pei, to articulate a stage of consciousness that is higher than we actually are, and thus help bring forth our potential into actuality.
The Sound of Blessing
בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה Brakhah uklala, blessing and curse, are ever the potentials before us. They are set before us הַיּוֹם 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, not merely to the surface of experience but to its inner vibration, there can be the realization of the blessing within the awareness itself that listens, the awareness that we are on the deepest level.
And through the window of this fundamental blessing of being conscious, all of the thirty-two paths can manifest, which can be represented simply by just the seven lower sefirot: Hesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (beauty, radiant presence), Netzakh (persistence), Hod (humility, gratitude), Yesod (joy), and Malkhut (presence, relationship).
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.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 12:11-12, Parshat Re’eh
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, “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. The five offerings embody five of 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 committing 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…
This is the power of sound – to bring forth all of our spiritual potential into actuality, so that it is available to us even in the midst of the storms of life. As the Haftora says:
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 (the five upper sefirot)…
- Isaiah 54:11
Sound delivers the most basic spiritual nourishment, but unlike food and water which must be purchased with money, spiritual nourishment 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
Spiritual 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.
How do we “purchase” the spiritual nourishment we need?
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