Can't Stand It? Parshat Nitzavim
What happens when you can't stand something?
Ordinarily, there is a sense of "me" and the thing or person you "can't stand." Reality is split in two, and there is tension, contraction, stress.
How do you rise above this tension?
The Parshah begins:
"Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem...
"You all stand together today... from your hewer of wood to your carrier of water... to pass into the covenant...״
What is a covenant?
A covenant is a special, intentional connection between two beings- a coming together of two, rather than a separation and tension.
How do you connect with the Divine?
Nitzavim Hayom- Stand today- meaning, take your stand in this moment.
When you "stand" your head is raised up- meaning, you can see all that is below- your body, your feelings, your thoughts. Use your head to be aware of yourself in this moment, rather than spinning off into judgments, fantasies, and opinions about what you can't stand! Instead, take your stand in this moment.
From your hewer of wood to your carrier of water-
It doesn't matter what your identity is, what roles you play, what your opinions are. On the level of awareness, we are all the same transcendent presence.
Then it says:
"L'ma'an hakim ot'kha hayom-
"In order to establish you today..."
That is, establish yourself in the present moment! Make Presence a way of living, not merely a technique or occasional practice.
When your presence burns brightly like the sun, far above your opinions and yet intimately aware of them, then the One Being looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere. Then there is no longer "you" connecting with "God," but there is simply Being, shining forth from everything. From that state, the love and wisdom to make peace and "stand with others" becomes available...
Click Here for more on Nitzavim and a funny dance called "Watch me Nae Nae"...
Once 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 nae-nae!” 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 nae-nae” seemed a little off to me. I don’t want to say it sounded obscene, but not knowing what “nae-nae” 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 nae-nae!”
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 "nah nae" 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 "today"- 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 on Shabbat. 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, it is tremendously helpful to frequently go beyond all narrative, and stand in the silence of pure potential. That’s meditation- that's standing today.
As we come into Shabbat Nitzavim, the Sabbath of Standing, and then into the New Year beginning Sunday night, may we stand in connection with all 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!
Chosen to Choose- Parshat Ki Tavo
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...
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!
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…”