The Salad- Parshat Ha'azinu
A few days ago, my son told me about a show he saw on food waste. He learned that in our country alone, every person wastes a staggering twenty pounds of food per month! And yet, with a little more consciousness and care, much of the wasted food could be put to good use.
To illustrate the point, they assembled a group of folks and served them a gourmet salad. They asked the group to rate the salad, and everyone loved it.
Then, they revealed the truth: the salad was made entirely out of food waste!
A gourmet chef was given food that is normally considered waste- peelings, stems, stalks and other items that are usually discarded. The food scraps were cut, peeled, marinated, pounded and transformed into something the group perceived to be not only edible, but a unique and delicious gourmet dish.
It’s a good thing that the human mind can differentiate between food and garbage, between “wheat and chaff”, between nourishment and poison. But the shadow side to this dualistic thinking is that we tend to develop a rigid narrative about what is good and usable, and what needs to be thrown away.
Or, sometimes the opposite happens-
Out of fear that something valuable might be lost, some people become hoarders, surrounding themselves with far more junk than they could ever use.
But what if the human mind could be flexible enough to fully use whatever is present? Not hoard for another day, and not look at a fridge partially filled with odds and ends and decide, “there’s nothing to eat!”
A couple months ago, I was away with my son visiting my mother. My wife Lisa was home alone for a few days with our daughter.
Lisa thought, “I wonder if I can avoid going shopping and just live off whatever is in the house?”
Guess what- she did! No shopping that week. They were fine.
When the mind is full of rigid preconceptions, it’s impossible to see the full potential of what is present. But get some space around your thoughts (like send the boys to Arizona!), connect with what is really here in this moment, and new possibilities open up. There are little miracles waiting to happen.
But to open up this space and become present, you need to bring together the two opposite poles of your being- consciousness and flesh.
Ordinarily, human consciousness tends to congeal into a constant stream of thinking, taking the thinker into all kinds of imagined realities, while the body is left to deal with the here and now. The eyes are looking in the fridge, but the mind is thinking about something else!
This week’s reading begins with Moses’ words to the Israelites:
“Ha’azinu hashamyaim va’adabeirah-
Give ear, O Heavens, and I shall speak-
“V’tishma Ha’aretz imrei fi-
And listen, O Earth, to the words of my mouth.”
The “Heavens” and the “Earth” are metaphors for these opposite polls of our being. When mind is extricated from the relentless narratives of thought and brought into intimate connection with the body, then the mind and body can “listen” together as one. When that happens, the “secrets” that are hidden in plain sight can be revealed.
These “secrets” are ever-present, as it goes on to say-
“Let my teaching fall like rain, let my utterance flow like dew, like storm winds on vegetation, like raindrops on blades of grass…”
Torah is everywhere, soaking everything like rain, blowing through everything as the air we breathe. But to see it, to hear it, you have to open to it.
Opening means: there must be an opening in your thoughts, so that your awareness and your body can fully join together.
When that happens, there is no more sense of “me” as the thinker and “my body” that “I” inhabit. That separate “I” drops away.
There is a hint of this in the concluding verses of the parshah:
“Aley el har… ur’eh et eretz… umoot b’har…
Ascend the mountain… see the land… and die on the mountain…”
“Ascend the mountain” means to rise above your thinking mind.
“See the land” means to really see what is right here before you, now.
“Die on the mountain” means that when you rise above your mind and yet connect fully with your body, your ordinary thought-bound self can drop away.
This is the deepest freedom- freedom from the sense of “me” as a separate entity that is living in “my” body.
And when there is no more separate "me", what is left?
This can’t really be described, because language itself is rooted in thought, which is the basis for separateness. But there is a hint in this parshah:
“He is suckled with honey from a stone, and oil from the hardness of a rock…”
In other words, what seemed to be dead is bursting with life. Everything is miraculous, everything is nourishing.
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, told a story in the name of his grandfather:
“Once there was a fiddler who played so sweetly that no one who heard the music could resist dancing. One time, a man walked by a house where the fiddler played and he saw people dancing through the window. He couldn’t hear the music they heard, and so he thought they were madmen, flailing their bodies about tastelessly.”
As we approach the joyful and celebratory days of Sukkot, may we hear the music of Existence that plays all around us and within us. May we be like the sukkah- an open form, a beautiful frame, without much differentiation between “inside” and “outside”.
And as we leave behind the day of fasting, may we take care to fully use and share what we have, nourishing each other and minimizing our food waste. If you haven’t already, make the fast of Yom Kippur real by donating to your local food bank or other relief organization. Take a moment and give tzeddaka now!
A few days ago, my wife Lisa and mother-in-law Bonnie (aka BB) were giving a bath to our three-year-old daughter. A few minutes after she got in the water, she looked up at Ima and BB and said, “Um, could you guys please put some toys in here so I don’t have to play with my feet?”
The mind loves things to play with. As children we call those play objects toys. As adults, we have different names for them, but they are essentially the same. They are stimulation. They are external content that we become fascinated with.
We don’t want to just “play with our feet”, or even worse, have nothing to play with at all. What could be worse for a child than to have to sit still, be quiet and do nothing? The mind craves and needs stimulation. For children, this stimulation is essential for the healthy growth of their brains, and so some kind of stimulation must be almost constant.
But at some point, that changes.
At some point, you might notice: all the stimulation, all the thinking, all the experiencing, wonderful and essential as they are, can be like the flaming sword of the keruvim, guarding the entrance to Gan Eden- the entrance to paradise.
At some moment, and maybe that moment is now, you notice:
There is an inner depth so vast, so beautiful, so alive, if you would only put down your toys and open to it.
That vastness is your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem- it is awareness meeting the truth of the present moment- Eloheikhem Emet.
But many people never discover this, and remain identified and entangled in the noise of mental toys, in the mind’s perpetual narratives. This creates an experience of separateness, of craving for the wholeness that is actually there all along, beneath the mind. That craving can lead to great inner disturbance, and ultimately, all of the horrors that still plague humanity.
What is the remedy?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Levi Bar Chama says in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish that when you feel yourself gripped by unwholesome motives, you should study some Torah (Berakhot 5a).
In other words, study some spiritual teaching that puts you in touch with your inner Divinity, just like you are doing right now! For the aim of spiritual teaching is not just to convey information, it’s to awaken your higher potential.
But, if that doesn’t work, he says to chant this verse:
“Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Ekhad-
Listen Israel, Existence Itself is your own inner Divinity; there is only One Existence.”
In other words, stop and become aware that God is not something “out there” or separate. All you need do is “listen” because this moment is nothing but God, if your thinking mind would relax.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s one more trick: Think of your own death.
The irony of children is that, on one hand, they are such bright little explosions of life, free and unencumbered by the heaviness that so many adults carry around with them.
And, at the same time, they are so utterly obsessed with things that are really trivial, as anyone knows who has had to negotiate “sharing toys” with three-year-olds.
But as adults, despite the years of psychic crust we accumulate in our nervous system, there is this tremendous opportunity for depth when we let go of everything. That is the contemplation of death. We will all die, but we can die before we die, surrendering into the reality of this moment, letting go of the story of “me”.
This week’s reading begins shortly before Moses’ death:
Moses went and spoke these words...
‘Hayom lo ukhal…’-
‘today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come in…’”
When you live on the surface, in the mind’s narratives, there is this sense of “me” going here and there, doing this and that.
But in the “hayom”- in the “today”- there is no longer a “me” coming and going. In the present, you live from your depths that are far beyond your personal story. This is the death before you die.
It is told that a heavenly voice told the Baal Shem Tov that he would be denied life in the World to Come for some small sin he commited. When he heard this news, he jumped for joy and danced.
“Why are you so happy?” said the heavenly voice.
“Because now I can serve God for its own sake, without ulterior motive.”
In these days of teshuvah, leading to Yom Kippur- The Day of At-One-ment, may our commitment to live from our depths become ever more deep, and may that depth be revealed in our thoughts, words and actions. May we speedily see a day when all of humanity lives and loves from its true depth and potential!
Good Shabbos, and g’mar hatimah tovah-
May you be inscribed for all good things!
Last week I took my 3-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy out for dinner, along with my son’s nine-year-old friend.
As we sat in the vegan Japanese restaurant waiting for noodle soups and avocado rolls, the friend was singing some popular song, trying to get my daughter to sing along and do the dance moves that apparently went with it.
“Watch me whip! Watch me ney-ney!” he sang, showing her how to wave her arm in a certain way that I assume is from a video he saw.
I had never heard the song before, and something about the way he was doing the arm wave and singing “watch me ney-ney” seemed a little off to me. I don’t want to say it sounded obscene, but not knowing what “ney-ney” meant, I was suspicious. Was this appropriate for a three year old?
I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I told him to please stop.
The next day, I went to pick up my daughter from her Jewish preschool. When I got there, all the kids were being led in a dance by their teacher.
What was the dance?
“Watch me whip! Watch me ney-ney!”
The song blasted from the stereo and all the kids were doing the moves. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently her teacher thought the song was perfect for preschoolers!
Later on, I told my wife the story and we laughed so hard. The next day, she told the whole story to the teacher, who also laughed and said, “Yeah I thought the song was a little strange too, but I learned it from the Rebbetzen- the rabbi’s wife!”
Our narratives about reality are not the same as actual reality. Was the song appropriate or inappropriate? We had different narratives about it, but I still have no idea what "nay nay" means.
Similarly, we have all kinds of narratives about who we are and who other people are, but ultimately they are just stories, mental fabrications. The roles we play, the scripts we run, the functions we fulfill, are not what we actually are.
So what are we?
This week’s reading opens with Moses’ words to the Children of Israel:
“Atem nitzavim hayom-
You are standing today…”
He then goes on to describe all the different identities of the people who are “standing”: the heads of the tribes, the elders, the officers, the men, the women, the children and the stranger, ending with the sweepingly inclusive description-
“…meikhoteiv eitzekha ad sho’eiv meimekha-
From the hewer of your wood to the carrier of your water.”
In other words, all the different identities are standing together.
What does it mean to “stand today”?
It means to take your stand in the present. When you stand in the present- awake, still, and attentive- all of your identities and roles are temporarily suspended. When you stand in the present, you are pure potential, pure aliveness, a field of awareness encompassing a human form.
Why are they standing today?
It goes on to say,
“L’ovrekha bivrit Hashem Elohekha-
To cross over into the covenant of Being, which is your own Divinity…”
All identities, in the end, are just roles, just stories. It doesn’t matter if you are a hewer of wood or a carrier of water. When you simply stand, you stand as Being, as the Divine Being that you are.
I remember one time a visiting rabbi came to our shul and gave a talk for a Shabbat service. When he stood up to talk, he first stood in silence. He looked around the room, making eye contact with everyone. The silence was powerful, and lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.
Finally, he began to talk. His teaching was very good, but the truth is, it was nothing compared to his silence. When he stood in silence and connected with everyone in the room one by one, there was a shift. That ineffable quality of being- the quality that some call “Divine”- was palpable.
The roles we play, on the other hand, have the potential to divide us. Our roles can create competition. Our stories can become arguments over who is right, over who has the “truth”.
The solution? Stand together.
We need not get rid of our roles, but we do need to choose roles that express our basic oneness, our inner Divinity. But to do that, we need to be committed to it. That’s the brit, the covenant.
Commitment to transformation, to truly embody who you want to be, may seem difficult. But, as the Torah reminds us later in the same parshah,
“Ki karov eilekha hadavar me’od-
this matter is very near to you-
b’fikha uvilvavkha la’asoto-
in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
A shopkeeper once complained to Reb Moshe of Kobrin that his neighbor, who sold exactly the same goods as he did, always made a killing, while customers just passed on by his shop.
“I can promise big profits to you, too,” said the tzaddik, “but only on the condition that when you see your neighbor doing well, you must thank Hashem for his success. Something like this- Thank God for the rich livelihood of my neighbor!
"It may be difficult to say this wholeheartedly at the beginning, but as you train your mouth to say the words, in time they will find their way into your heart as well- until in fact you will be saying them with all your heart.
"For, in the verse- ‘in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it’- we first find ‘in your mouth’, and only after is it written ‘in your heart.’”
If you want your life to express your inner Divinity, rather than merely repeat old scripts and narratives, it’s important to consciously construct your narratives- don’t let them construct you!
Choose who you want to be, write it down and repeat it often.
And, to tap into the transformative power that makes this possible, you must go beyond all narrative, and stand in the silence of pure potential. That’s meditation.
As we come into Shabbat Nitzavim, the Sabbath of Standing, and then into the New Year beginning Sunday night, may we renew our connection with the Divinity of Being. May we “crown” Reality as “King” over all our mental narratives. May we know ever more deeply the sweetness and bliss of what we truly are, and the power and potential of what’s possible when we stand together.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu-
May you be inscribed for a good year-
And may you consciously inscribe yourself as an expression of your deepest potential!
PS- Following the High Holidays this year, I will be offering a powerful new learning opportunity, specifically aimed at this kind of personal transformation through the power of meditation and commitment. Stay tuned and look for more info in November!
Chosen to Choose- Ki Tavo
As I was making coffee yesterday 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 the first of the two blessings are that that come before the Sh’ma.
“Yotzer orr uvorei hoshekh- the 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 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, and 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 for the Israelites 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 goodness and suffering. You may have many stories and judgments about it.
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 Shabbos of Entering, and in this month Elul, the month of return- may we fully enter the place we are already in. May we re-turn evermore to gratitude for the blessing of this “fruit”, and for the suffering that has brought us to this gratitude. May we too rejoice with those we considered to be “strangers” and heal all wounds of separation.