The art of ritual is a way of consciously framing the drama of life.
Things are happening – but what is it that is happening? From the ordinary perspective, we are navigating through time, enacting our intentions and reacting to what comes, oscillating between joys and sorrows, successes and failures.
But ritual invites a deeper frame within which our successes are gifts from their Divine root; it invites a perspective within which our labors and even our sorrows are offerings to their Source. Our willingness to feel the pain of life, like Isaac bound to the altar, transcends the mere machinations of human drama and becomes an act of self-transcending love, connecting us with the enduring Reality within which our fleeting separate existences appear and disappear. In this way, the drama of ritual becomes a practice for actual life, a lifting of our personal stories up onto the stage of the present moment.
In Torah, the classic representation of this stage is the mizbeiakh, the altar.
In the Torah’s particular version of the universal and ancient human phenomenon of making offerings upon altars, there is an awareness of a danger in ritual; the possible side-effect of a skilled priesthood presiding over a sophisticated enactment of ritual offerings is that relation with the Divine can become an elitist business. Its function of uplifting human life out of the pettiness and negativity of ego and into the light of humility and gratitude can easily become distorted and serve instead to merely spiritualize the ego – to drag God down, rather than lift the human up.
It is with this awareness that the Torah instructs regarding the building of the mizbeiakh:
לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙ וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃
You shall not make with Me any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.
מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֣ עָלָ֗יו אֶת־עֹלֹתֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁלָמֶ֔יךָ אֶת־צֹֽאנְךָ֖ וְאֶת־בְּקָרֶ֑ךָ בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My Name to be spoken, I will come to you and bless you.
וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned it.
We are prone to make gods of material wealth, of status, of power – these are the gods of the ego. Therefore, in making the altar to the One, the Israelites are instructed not contaminate it with reference to those values – it must be made of earth, or stones that are as they are, not manipulated by human artifice.
The eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, went deeper into this passage about the priestly ritual of the past, seeing in it a model for practice in the present: The “altar of earth,” said the Rabbi of Rizhyn, is silence, which is the superior kind of practice. But, if we do make an “altar” of words, we shouldn’t “hew” them or “chisel” our words, because our artifice would profane it!
The hint here is that our avodah, our spiritual practice, should consist of both silence and words, meditation and prayer. (And if we must choose one over the other, silence wins!) There is a hint of this paradigm in the parshah, in its description of Avram building his altars when he first enters the land of Canaan:
וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ר אַבְרָם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ עַ֚ד מְק֣וֹם שְׁכֶ֔ם עַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה וְהַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֖י אָ֥ז בָּאָֽרֶץ׃
Avram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.
וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לַיהוָ֖ה הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו׃
Hashem appeared to Avram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And he built an altar there to the Divine Who had appeared to him.
וַיַּעְתֵּ֨ק מִשָּׁ֜ם הָהָ֗רָה מִקֶּ֛דֶם לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וַיֵּ֣ט אָהֳלֹ֑ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֤ל מִיָּם֙ וְהָעַ֣י מִקֶּ֔דֶם וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה׃
From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Divine and called the Name of the Divine.
Avram builds two altars; the first is in response to the Divine that “appears” to him:
וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ…וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָה֙
Vayar Hashem… vayiven sham mizbeiakh… The Divine appeared… and he built there an altar…
Meaning, Avram became aware of the Eternal dimension of Being, and his altar was a monument to this moment of revelation. This represents the Altar of Silence, the practice of meditation. This is also the perspective Hokhmah, the spacious field of awareness within which the oneness of experience appears.
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה =
Vayiven sham mizbeiakh Ladonai, Vayikra b’Shem Adonai – And he built an altar… and called the Divine Name –
Meaning, now Avram is crying out to the Eternal, and his altar is the stage upon which this crying out happens. This is the Altar of Words, the practice of prayer. This is also the perspective of Binah, the thinking mind which conceives of “me” and “beyond-me,” the longing heart which seeks transcendence and connection with That.
According to Rabbi Yisrael, prayer must not be “hewn;” we must not
“chisel” our words. But what does this mean? Interestingly, “not chiseling” can actually mean two opposite things:
On one hand, “not chiseling words” can mean spontaneous prayer, not using pre-conceived words and not composing your words in advance; this is “praying from the heart” – not thinking too much, but letting the words flow.
On the other hand, it can also mean receiving the words from the tradition – that is, chanting the traditional prayer texts that were composed long ago – not altering them or creating them yourself.
However, these two seeming contradictory approaches to prayer, channeling words spontaneously or reading them from a book, can be harmonized. There is a hint in the parshah, in the opening passage when Avram begins his journey:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
Hashem said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house…”
This verse mentions three things that Avram should leave, representing three types of conditioning:
מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ – mei’artzekha – your land…
These are the experiences to which we are accustomed – the familiar world we wake to and move within every day.
מִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ – mimolad’t’kha – your birthplace…
This means our culture, our values, and world-view.
מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – mibeit avikha – your father’s house…
This is the deepest strata of conditioning – our behaviors, our personal habits, the way that we live.
Our introduction to Avraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, paints him as one who hears the call to break through old conditioning, to discover something new. How is he to do that? The second half of the verse tells us:
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I will show you.
In other words, the path to breaking free from the bonds of conditioning and entering into realization of the Unconditioned is to become aware of what is being “shown” now – being present to Reality that is before us, coming to this moment afresh with our senses and letting our conditioning drop away. And this brings us back to a verse in our first passage:
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
…in every place where I cause My Name to be spoken, I will come to you and bless you!
And this is the paradox: that the path to transcending the conditioning of the past is to receive the Divine Name from the past; to break free from the conditioning of our ancestors, we chant the sacred texts that come to us from our ancestors.
Because in receiving the “Names,” the sacred words that come to us from tradition, we enact the ritual drama of offering our attention on the altar of the moment; we receive Reality as it comes to us, without acting upon it, without that conditioned urge to adjust and manipulate that comes from our personal preference for this and not for that.
This is the second meaning mentioned above of “not-chiseling words” – receiving them from tradition. But in order for this to really be effective, our chanting of sacred text must not be mechanical – it must also include the first meaning, which is to be spontaneous, unrehearsed, not pre-conceived.
But the words are preconceived! How can they also be spontaneous?
There is a verse from which is derived the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon, the blessings said after eating. It comes in a passage which describes the experience of receiving the pleasures of the senses in the natural world:
כִּ֚י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מְבִֽיאֲךָ֖ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ טוֹבָ֑ה אֶ֚רֶץ נַ֣חֲלֵי מָ֔יִם עֲיָנֹת֙ וּתְהֹמֹ֔ת יֹצְאִ֥ים בַּבִּקְעָ֖ה וּבָהָֽר׃
For the Divine your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill;
אֶ֤רֶץ חִטָּה֙ וּשְׂעֹרָ֔ה וְגֶ֥פֶן וּתְאֵנָ֖ה וְרִמּ֑וֹן אֶֽרֶץ־זֵ֥ית שֶׁ֖מֶן וּדְבָֽשׁ׃
a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;
אֶ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹ֤א בְמִסְכֵּנֻת֙ תֹּֽאכַל־בָּ֣הּ לֶ֔חֶם לֹֽא־תֶחְסַ֥ר כֹּ֖ל בָּ֑הּ אֶ֚רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲבָנֶ֣יהָ בַרְזֶ֔ל וּמֵהֲרָרֶ֖יהָ תַּחְצֹ֥ב נְחֹֽשֶׁת׃
a land where you may eat bread without poverty, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.
And here is the verse from which the blessings after eating is based:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃
And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land which the Divine gives to you…
The key here is that our prayer must spring from our experience: Be satisfied, and then bless!
In other words, our prayers must spring from our hearts. The words themselves can be received externally from the lineage, but our expression of the words must spring from the heart. We can do this by putting our hearts into the words – by feeling whatever is present, whatever mood or emotion springs forth from within, and channeling that energy into our davening.
On an external level, this tapping into the energy of the heart can be helped along by the spontaneous expression of melody. This is the “jazz” of tefilah – the improvisatory intoning of prayer. You need not be a musician to do this, but it does take practice. The essence is, relax your attention into your heart and into your gut, let your feelings manifest in the vibrations of your voice, through the vessel of the words. Interestingly, the Hebrew phrase above describing the chanting of Divine Names is azkir et Sh’mi – literally, “remembering My Name.” Azkir, “remember,” is the same root as Arabic word zikr, the Sufi practice of chanting Divine Names.
The most basic form in davening is the traditional blessing formula:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם – Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam
“Blessed are You, Existence/Reality, our own Divinity, Sovereign of the Universe”
This phrase forms the opening line of the many brakhot (blessings) that the rabbis composed in response to the verse – And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless…
Traditionally, there are at least one hundred of these composed blessings to be chanted every day. In this way, the Torah mitzvah of giving thanks for our food becomes the model upon which all kinds of enjoyment, as well as all kinds of service in the world, are lifted up on the altar of the present moment through the many brakhot that the rabbis composed for this purpose. There is again a hint in the parshah:
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ – avarekh’kha – I will bless you – meaning, when we leave our conditioning of the past and taste the blessing of this moment by fully receiving and chanting the sacred words of the brakhot, then –
וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה – vehyeh brakhah – and you will be a blessing – in this recognition and receiving of blessing, we ourselves become blessing, meaning that we experience our own being as actual blessedness, and this self-knowing is essential if we are to be a light in the world and fulfill the function of being a goy gadol, a people of Greatness.
The recognition of blessing, of course, implies the distinguishing of blessing from its opposite, as well as distinguishing the “me” from the blessing that “I” am receiving; it is the beginning of separation between subject and object, between consciousness and the content of consciousness; it is the beginning of duality.
This beginning of duality, of the Eternal Present stepping into life-in-time, is Binah, “Understanding,” the third sefirah on the Tree of Life, and is expressed in the third “Saying of Creation”:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים יִקָּו֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם מִתַּ֤חַת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד וְתֵרָאֶ֖ה הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃
Elohim said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so.
Both “water” and “heavens” are different metaphors for different aspects of consciousness:
יִקָּו֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם מִתַּ֤חַת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד – Let the waters… be gathered into one place –
Meaning, “waters” are the experience of Oneness – the Makom Ekhad, the “One Place.”
וְתֵרָאֶ֖ה הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה – that the dry land may appear – meaning, within the Oneness of awareness, duality arises – different perceptions appear; these are the “dry land” which we sanctify through our receiving them as blessing, as it says:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃
Ve’akhalta v’savata uveirakhta et Adonai Elohekha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lakh – And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land which the Divine gives to you!
Ha’aretz hatovah – the “good land” is none other than the seeing of the goodness of what is now appearing – אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
This is the essence of blessing.
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Flower and Chalice – Parshat Lekh L'kha
11/5/2019 0 Comments
There is something magical about friends holding up a glass of some fermented beverage, looking at one another, saying some formula of affirmation, then drinking.
Nearly every culture has its version of this practice. In Judaism, it has become deeply ritualized as the act of sanctification – Kiddush – for many sacred times and rituals. But even without any overtly spiritual intention, the act of raising the glass has an elevating effect that even the most materialistic person is unlikely to escape. Something about the receptivity and openness of the vessel, filled with intoxicating, joy producing substance, raised up in well-wishing affirmation with friends… it is indeed a kind of kiddush regardless of the context.
Another nearly universal practice with a similar effect is the giving of flowers. Like the glass filled with wine, the flower too conveys a sense of openness, grace, and beauty that express the same well-wishing affirmation when offered to another.
The Zohar links together the images of the flower and the cup of wine:
רִבִּי חִזְקִיָּה פָּתַח, כְּתִיב, כְּשׁוֹשַׁנָּה בֵּין הַחוֹחִים. מָאן שׁוֹשַׁנָּה, דָּא כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל
Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, “It is written, like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens.” What is a rose? It is the Assembly of Israel. Because there is a rose, and then there is a rose! And just as a rose among thorns is tinged with red and white, so the Assembly of Israel consists of judgment and mercy… וְשׁוֹשַׁנָּה דָא אִיהִי כּוֹס שֶׁל בְּרָכָה – and this rose is the cup of blessing… Concerning this mystery it is written, “I will raise the cup of salvation.” This is the “cup of blessing,” which should rest on five fingers, and no more, just as the rose rests on five sturdy leaves that represent the five fingers… they are the five gates…
(Zohar, Haqdamat Sefer HaZohar [Introduction], translation by Danny Matt)
Here, the flower and the cup are the community. But on a more immediate level, they are actually representations of our own bodies. Just as the rose is filled with nectar and the cup is filled with wine, there is a sweet blessedness when we fill our bodies with the light of consciousness. How do we do that? By bringing our consciousness more intensely into the “five gates” – that is, present moment awareness through the five senses.
כְּשֽׁוֹשַׁנָּה֙ בֵּ֣ין הַחוֹחִ֔ים – like a rose among thorns…
But, there are challenges – “thorns” – which can block the “wine” of consciousness from flowing into the “cup” of the body. The three main “thorns” are: fear, desire and excessive thinking.
There is a hint of this in Avram’s plea with the Divine that he have some assurance of the promise that his offspring will come to possess the land:
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהוִ֔ה בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו קְחָ֥ה לִי֙ עֶגְלָ֣ה מְשֻׁלֶּ֔שֶׁת וְעֵ֥ז מְשֻׁלֶּ֖שֶׁת וְאַ֣יִל מְשֻׁלָּ֑שׁ וְתֹ֖ר וְגוֹזָֽל׃
And he said, “O Divine Lord, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” The Divine answered him, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.” (Genesis 15:8, 9)
The “heifer” is fear, expressed as Avram’s torment:
וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵימָ֛ה חֲשֵׁכָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה נֹפֶ֥לֶת עָלָֽיו׃ – And behold, a great dark dread descended upon him. (15:12)
The “goat” is excess thinking, expressed as Avram’s demand for assurance:
בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע – By what can I know…
The “ram” is desire, his preoccupation with a future goal:
כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה – that I am to possess it?
The animals are each cut in half, hinting that we need to free ourselves from the inner tyrannies of the mind and heart. But –
וְאֶת־הַצִפֹּ֖ר לֹ֥א בָתָֽר – He didn’t cut the bird… (15:10)
The two wings of the bird represent the positive counterparts to desire and fear, which are love and discipline. Love and discipline are also symbolized by the red and white colors of the rose, mentioned in the Zohar above. Both are necessary – discipline provides the regular structure to engage your practice, while love is the actual content of the practice. The fluttering of both wings together represents the harnessing of the movement of the mind, directing intention – kavanah – toward the Divine goal.
In other words, while the animals represent the tyranny of the heart and mind, the birds represent the redirection of the heart and mind into prayer. The idea is of course not to destroy the heart and mind, but only to destroy their tyranny by realizing your mastery over them. Then, you can use their energy to discover and reveal your Divine essence, so that the “wine” of consciousness fills the “cup” of your body. Then, the awareness becomes like a fire, illuminating the five senses and burning up the “thorns” of fear and desire, revealing their Divine root:
וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ בָּ֔אָה וַעֲלָטָ֖ה הָיָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֨ה ... וְלַפִּ֣יד אֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָבַ֔ר בֵּ֖ין הַגְּזָרִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה
The sun had set; it was dark and, behold! A flaming torch passed between the parts… (15:17)
One time, when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn was traveling through the city of Sanok, several opponents of the Hassidic movement (mitnagdim) came to him and complained:
"In our congregation we pray at dawn, and after that we sit wrapped in tallis and tefilin (prayer shawl and phylacteries) and learn a chapter of the Mishnah. Not so with you hasidim! You pray way after the set time has passed, and when you're finished praying, you sit drink schnapps. And you are called 'devout' and we are called the 'adversaries!'"
Lieb, Rabbi Yisrael's assistant, laughed when he heard their complaint and retorted: "The prayers of the mitnagdim are cold and lifeless, like a corpse. And when you sit and guard a corpse, you must study the chapter of Mishnah prescribed for the occasion. But when we hasidim have done our prayers, our hearts glow and are warm like one who is alive, and whoever is alive must drink some schnapps!"
The rabbi was silent for a moment and then added, "We'll let the jest pass. But the truth of the matter is this: ever since the Temple was destroyed, we offer prayers instead of sacrifices. And just as the sacrifices in ancient times were disqualified if one's heart was not pure, so it is with prayer. That is why the yetzer hara (evil urge) tries ruse after ruse to confuse one who prays with all kinds of distracting thoughts.
"But, the hasidim outsmart the yetzer hara with a counter-ruse: after praying, they sit and drink and wish one another l'hayim! To life! Each tells the other what is burdening their hearts, and then they say to one another, 'May Hashem grant your desire!'"
"And since our sages teach that prayers can be said in any language whatsoever, this toasting and speaking to one another while drinking is a kind of prayer. But all the yetzer hara sees is friends drinking together, so it stops bothering them!"
Look Up – Parshat Lekh L'kha
10/16/2018 1 Comment
When I was young, there was something called “television.” I remember those long afternoons: as the sunlight that poured through the living room windows waned minute by minute, the glow of the television grew stronger and stronger – the Brady Bunch, the Flintstones, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, Carol Burnett, Star Trek. Total absorption. As the hours went by, and the nagging feeling that other things had to get done (like my homework) increased, I would cling ever more ferociously to the characters and narratives beaming from the screen. Eventually the spell would be broken only by hunger, or having to go the bathroom, or my mother.
Oh yes, the screen is still just as strong; stronger in fact.
No more need for big pieces of furniture; my daughter can take a screen under a blanket and hide from everyone. Where did she go?
I have strategies for prying my children away from their screens. Usually, there are meltdowns and tears. But occasionally, I am successful. It works best if I am present when the screen time begins, and I can secure an agreement; a “covenant” of sorts: “Do you promise to turn off the screen and give it to me when I ask you to, without any arguments and without any Please Abba Just One More Minute?
Then, when it’s time, the power of the covenant kicks in, and she gives it right back – no resistance at all. This proves: no matter how hypnotized we become by something, we do have the power to let it go, if we are properly prepared.
This is so crucial to understand, if we wish to put down an even more powerful screen –the screen of our own minds, upon which we project the drama of our lives – also known as “ego.”
Most people are glued to the screen of ego almost constantly, looking up only occasionally when the walls of the heart are breached, or when a temporary lapse in the noise of the mind allows the radiant silence to shine through, even if for only a moment.
But we need not be screen addicts; we can put down the ego anytime. Listen: The Voice of the Beloved is calling you to dinner – there’s a banquet prepared just for you! Let go of your judgments about yourself and others. Let go of how you wish things were. Let go of your obsessions, assertions, denials, angers, grudges… there is something so much better than all of that, if you would be willing to set it aside, look up and go.
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go for yourself from your land, from your family, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you…
All those opinions, assertions, cravings, disappointments – they seem so real, so important. But they aren’t the real you. They are imprints from your “land” – your culture, your inherited identity, patterns from your family, your experiences, your traumas – but you need not be imprisoned by them.
Lekh L’kha – go for yourself – el ha’arets asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
We’re being called to the banquet hall and the feast is waiting. The Voice is calling you constantly, and whatever is constant is easily ignored. But you can tune into the Call if you’re willing to wake up from the ego’s hypnosis. The key is to have a covenant– commit to stop at regular times, turn away from the pull of the ego and toward the fullness of this moment…
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה
And there he built an altar and called upon the Name of the Divine…
The essential thing is to build a space in time, and commit to regularly withdraw from the ego’s momentum for long enough to connect with Reality, with the Divine. If you want to hear the Call, then call out – this is the movement of prayer. And then, be the stillness that hears – this is the spaciousness of meditation. Make a covenant to do it every day – even a few minutes goes a long way!
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה
Rise up, walk the Land, it’s length and breadth, because to you I give it…
The ego believes itself to be a separate entity, navigating through the “Land.” But in truth the Land is fully yours. You are the Land, because everything arising in your experience in this moment is truly you; it all arises in the open space of this moment, which is not separate from the awareness that you are...
"River of Light" – Parshat Lekh L'kha and Morning Sh'ma Blessing 1
10/23/2017 1 Comment
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lekh L’kha, begins with God telling Avram: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereisheet 12:1)
If you examine your experience right now, in this moment, you’ll probably see that most of the content of your experience is nothing new. You may be in a place that you’ve been many times, with sights, sounds and feelings that are familiar. And generally speaking, unless you’ve recently moved, or if you’re traveling, or changing careers, or if you’ve just had a child or started or ended a relationship, or endured another kind of loss (and if so, may you have comfort and healing), unless you’re experiencing some big changes like these, then life tends to feel familiar, maybe even old hat. And that’s why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to what’s familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, both happen on the level of the conditioned mind. Meaning, the aspect of your experience that derives from the past. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing brand new places, but you can’t fully appreciate it because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as you’re stuck in the conditioned mind, which really means being stuck in the past.
So, this is the Divine call to Avram: Don’t be stuck in the past! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come “el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I am now showing you.”
So, this is actually not just a story, it’s an instruction. You can keep in mind – Reality as it’s being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that that’s your conditioned mind. The familiarity comes from memory, from the past. And that’s a good thing; you don’t want to get rid of your memories, G-d forbid, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so this moment is also completely fresh and new, when you allow your conditioned mind – meaning, your thinking and your judging – to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha – Divine revelation is always now. That’s the practice of Presence.
But what if you keep getting stuck by your conditioning? How do stay present and deepen your presence, when conditioning can seem so powerful? Again, the main thing is recognizing your conditioning. And to do that, it’s helpful to see that there are three main levels, alluded to by the verse:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha, umimoladt’kha, umibeit avikha – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Mei’artz’kha means, “from your land.” This refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction from Presence; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a sign that your mind works, and that it’s there when you need it, thank G-d. Then, simply recognize – there’s my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.”
The next level is, umimoladt’kha, which means, “from your relatives.” These are your relationships, and this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. The other day I was talking to someone who made a mistake at work, and she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “get a life!”
We are social beings, we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also useful for normal functioning. But again, recognize: There’s my mind and its old conditioning, pulling me into its drama. Just recognizing it frees you from its tyranny, and you can choose to lekh lekha – go for yourself out from your past, and into this moment. Or, it can also be translated, lekh lekha – go to yourself –meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning. Go to your actual experience in this moment.
Which brings us to the last level, “umibeit avikha” which means, “from your father’s house.” This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how you were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that all of that is not the real you; they are parts of your conditioning.
Then, after you recognize all your conditioning for what it is, you can simply choose to shift your attention into your present moment experience, so that you stop empowering the illusory part of the conditioning. Again, the conditioning is still there when you need it, but by shifting into the present, the conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real.
So then, what is real? Meaning, what is the Reality of who you are, beneath your conditioned mind? It’s the light of awareness that perceives the conditioning, as well as the aretz asher arekha, Reality as it is revealed in this moment. In fact, your conditioning is part of haaretz asher arekha; it’s part of the landscape of the present moment, part of the ever-shifting content of your experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant light of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that’s the deepest level of you.
The tefilot, the traditional prayers, are all pointing to this truth. Structurally speaking, all the liturgy points to the Sh’ma, the centerpiece of all the prayers, calling us to awaken. The Sh’ma is decorated by special blessings that come before and after. I the morning, the first of the Sh’m’a concludes with, “Or hadash al tzion tair – Shine a new light on Zion –hinting at this quality of newness inherent in your awareness, because awareness is like light; it’s tair – shining and illuminating whatever is perceived in its field...
Why Aren't You Worried? Parshat Lekh L'kha
10/21/2015 4 Comments
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you must worry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
The Future is the Present- Lekh L'kha
10/26/2012 0 Comments
"Lekh L'kha- Go, for yourself, from your land, from your relatives and from your father's house, to the land I will show you..." So says Hashem to Avram at the beginning of this week's parsha.
These three things- land, family and home- are security of the known; they are extensions of self, indicated by "Your land" and "your relatives". "The land I will show you"- this is the unknown, the future.
We cling to the known and resist the uncertainty of the future, though we know it is coming. But it is possible to dive fully into the unknown now, to release the burden of all our preconceptions we carry in this moment. In this letting go, we can see that this moment is in fact "the land I will show you"- it is not "ours"- we cannot grasp it- but we can behold it. And yet, when you release resistance and fear and enter this moment fully, then you are truly at home; you are not living in your idea of the present, you are living in the real present. Then you can feel the mystery of the future in the present, and the unburdened heart can bubble with possibility!
There’s a story in the Talmud about the great sage and healer, Rabbi Yohanan, that once Rabbi Hiya bar Abba became ill and was suffering greatly. Rabbi Yohanan came to visit and asked him, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Rabbi Hiya mustered the strength to answer: “Neither they nor their reward!”
Rabbi Yohanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Hiya gave him his hand, and instantly he stood up and was revived.
Another time, Rabbi Yohanan himself became deathly ill, and Rabbi Hanina went to visit him. Rabbi Hanina asked him, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” to which Rabbi Yohanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward!”
Rabbi Hanina said to him, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Yohanan gave him his hand, and instantly he too was revived.
The Gemara then asks, “Why would Rabbi Yohanan need someone else to heal him? Let him heal himself!” It then answers its own question:
אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים – Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim
A prisoner cannot free oneself from a prison!
What is this enigmatic story talking about?
When the rabbis say that they want neither the afflictions “nor their reward,” it brings to mind the Jewish doctrine that whatever happens to us is the result of our own deeds, that there is an ethical balance in the universe, a kind of “karma” that makes us responsible for whatever we experience.
But if this is true, that our experience of suffering comes from our own misdeeds, why would these holy sages be suffering? And second, why does the story emphasize that R. Yohanan can’t heal himself?
Let’s look at the first question – does our suffering come from our misdeeds? The story of Noah and the great flood seems to say so:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Elohim said to Noah, “The end of all humans has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of the humans; behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth!
The story of the great flood is among the earliest examples of the Jewish idea of Divine justice. At the same time, the tradition has also always understood that suffering cannot possibly be caused only by one’s misdeeds. After all, there are countless examples of innocent and even holy people suffering, such as the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva who, while having his skin raked off his body by the Romans, calmly chanted the Sh’ma, not to mention the case of the holocaust and countless other examples in history and in our own experience.
In fact, for some of our teachers, the idea of “karma” or Divine justice is outright denied:
בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה
Ben Azzai said: Run to do a minor mitzvah (commandment, good deed) even as you would a major one, and distance yourself from an aveirah (misdeed, sin). For one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and an aveirah leads to another aveirah. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of an aveirah is an aveirah.
In this mishna, the author is clear: the reason to cultivate right behavior is because it leads to more right behavior, and the reason to avoid misbehavior is because it leads to more of the same. Life is its own purpose; we don’t live a certain way to bring about some other result, we live for its own sake. Another mishna says it in a different way:
אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם
Antigonus, leader of Sokho, received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Don’t be like servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven (Mora Shamayim) be upon you.
These two opposing views – that we should (1) be motivated by the consequences of our actions, on one hand, or that we should (2) not be concerned with the future, but rather we should live with integrity for its own sake, on the other – are brought together by this teaching from the Talmud:
אָמַר רָבָא, וְאִיתֵּימָא רַב חִסְדָּא: אִם רוֹאֶה אָדָם שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין בָּאִין עָלָיו — יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה׳״. פִּשְׁפֵּשׁ וְלֹא מָצָא — יִתְלֶה בְּבִטּוּל תּוֹרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּהּ וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ״
וְאִם תָּלָה וְלֹא מָצָא — בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין שֶׁל אַהֲבָה הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה׳ יוֹכִיחַ״
Rava, and some say Rav Ḥisda, said: If a one sees that suffering has come, one should examine their actions. As it is stated: “We will search and examine our ways, and return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).
If one examined and did not find, attribute it to the emptying of Torah, as it says: “Happy is the person whom You afflict, Yah, and from Your Torah you teach (Psalm 94:12).
And if one doesn’t find it there either, then you know they are “Afflictions of Love” – as it says, “For those who are loved by the Divine are rebuked…”
This almost humorous yet incredibly useful teaching seems to be saying – you might be suffering because you did something bad, OR you might be suffering because you are so very good!
In other words, to put it bluntly, suffering happens.
We cannot escape it, but we can relate to it in a way that is either spiritually helpful or not. The real questions is not why suffering happens; the question to each of us is: can we use our suffering in a way that brings about positive transformation?
This Talmudic teaching gives us three possibilities for using our suffering in this way:
First, is suggests looking at our ethical behavior. Regardless of whether our suffering was really caused by a lack in our ethical behavior or not, we can use the suffering as a signal to ourselves to become more conscious of our actions, to become more awake to our responsibility toward others.
Second, it suggests looking at how we spend our time. The idiom “yitlei b’vitul Torah – let him attribute it to the emptying of Torah,” means neglecting one’s Torah study. To the ancient rabbis, studying Torah was the highest value, and today as well, a committed spiritual life should include a regular practice of learning.
But, we also might expand this idea to include any worthwhile use of our time; the deficiency, then, would be the wasting of time, the squandering of these few precious moments of life we have in these bodies on this earth. Seen this way, while the first part has to do with responsibility toward others, the second has to do with responsibility toward ourselves.
But the last is the most remarkable:
וְאִם תָּלָה וְלֹא מָצָא — בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין שֶׁל אַהֲבָה הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה׳ יוֹכִיחַ״
And if one doesn’t find it there either, then you know they are yisurin shel ahavah – “Afflictions of Love” – as it says, “For those who are loved by the Divine are rebuked…”
While the first two suggestions are to improve our behavior in some way, the last suggests the suffering itself can have a transformative effect, if we receive it “with love” – meaning, bringing our hearts and attentiveness into connection with the experience of the suffering – in other words, be present with the suffering.
Because when we relax our natural impulse to resist that which is unpleasant or painful, and instead bring our awareness deep into the actual feeling of suffering, the pain becomes food for consciousness. And as we persist in this challenging but simple practice of presence with pain, we are liberated from identification with the pain; the pain subsides in time, and in its place there is a greater ease and sense of spaciousness, a knowing of ourselves as the limitless space of consciousness within which the pain and all experience comes and goes.
From here, we can begin to understand the Talmudic aphorism:
אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים – Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim
A prisoner cannot free oneself from a prison!
It is ironic, because on the surface, it is talking about Rabbi Yohanan’s desire to be set free from his suffering. But on a deeper level, this teaching points to being set free by the suffering. Seen this way, his taking of Rabbi Hanina’s hand represents the embrace of the suffering, the allowing of its fire to liberate him from the prison of narrow identification with pain; in other words, it represents getting free from ego.
There is a beautiful verse in Psalms which also expresses these two ways of relating to suffering –first as consequence of actions, and second, as a path of liberation:
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה יִרְאַ֬ת יְהוָ֗ה שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֭וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד׃
The beginning (Reisheet) of Wisdom (Hokhmah) is fear of God (Yirat Hashem); good intelligence to all who practice – Its praises stand forever!
On the surface, this verse is simply saying that if we want to act wisely, we should have a healthy fear of the consequences of our actions. But a deeper level emerges when we understand the richness of some of the words:
Seen this way, we can read:
Reisheet Hokhmah – The beginning of transcendent, spacious consciousness is Yirat Hashem – Awe of Existence; wise understanding comes to all who practice this – Praises to That which stands forever!
The medieval Kabbalah text, the Bahir, takes it a step further. First, it equates רֵאשִׁית Reisheet with חָכְמָה Hokhmah, understanding “the beginning of wisdom” to mean that “beginning” is an aspect of “wisdom”:
רֵאשִׁית Reisheet, “Beginning” = חָכְמָה Hokhmah, “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”
It then goes on to retranslate the first verse of the Torah with this is mind:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
BeReisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim V’et Ha’aretz…
With Hokhmah, (Transcendent Spacious Awareness, called Reisheet), The Divine creates the heavens and the earth…
Why is it interesting to connect Hokhmah, spacious awareness, with creation?
Because it hints about the key to being creative – if we wish to create, we must make space within ourselves for the creative idea to emerge; this is meditation, the cultivation of Hokhmah, of inner space.
The sefirah of Hokhmah is traditionally connected in Kabbalah to the “Second Saying of Creation,” which also expresses this idea of making space:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יְהִ֥י רָקִ֖יעַ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַמָּ֑יִם וִיהִ֣י מַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין מַ֖יִם לָמָֽיִם׃
Elohim said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.”
רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם – “Sky in the midst of the Waters”
Both “Water” and “Air” are metaphors for consciousness/Hokhmah, functioning in different ways:
“Air” is the quality of open space, the field of awareness from which all thought and creativity emerges.
“Water” is the power of awareness to “dissolve” and “purify” us from inner negativity, the practice of Presence with pain.
These two metaphors for consciousness are embodied in the traditional daily practice of waking up in the morning – the prayer of gratitude for the breath of life (air) and the cleansing ritual of washing the hands. There is a hint for these practices in the second verse of the Torah:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
And the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep, and the spirit/wind of Elohim hovered over the face of the waters…
First it mentions the “wind,” then the “water” – hinting at the order of the traditional daily practice – first gratitude for the breath of life, then the ritual washing of the hands.
The ritual handwashing has its roots in another Torah passage:
וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ כִּיּ֥וֹר נְחֹ֛שֶׁת וְכַנּ֥וֹ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת לְרָחְצָ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֗וֹ בֵּֽין־אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּבֵ֣ין הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְנָתַתָּ֥ שָׁ֖מָּה מָֽיִם׃
Make a basin of copper and a stand of copper for it for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and place water there.
וְרָחֲצ֛וּ אַהֲרֹ֥ן וּבָנָ֖יו מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־רַגְלֵיהֶֽם׃
And let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet from it…
This passage originally instructed the ancient kohanim, the priests, to engage in a water purification ritual before performing their priestly duties. But the ancient rabbis saw in these verses the pattern a daily practice of external cleansing for the sake of awakening an inner cleansing.
The practice of washing the hands is traditionally done for the following three situations: 1. upon waking from sleep, 2. before eating bread, and 3. before each of the three daily prayers.
Here is the prayer for chanting upon awakening:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ:
Modeh/Modah Ani Lifanekha, Melekh Hai v’Kayam
She’hekhezarta Bi Nishmati B’khemla
I give thanks before You, Living and Enduring King,
for You have restored my soul/breath with Compassion –
Great is Your faithfulness!
This is followed by the purification ritual of pouring water from a vessel three times over each hand, focusing mind and heart on receiving purification from any negativity or inner burden that blocks the peace and wholeness of Hokhmah, our essence as spacious awareness…
Here is a summary of the KETER and HOKHMAH practices thus far:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad!
Hear, O Israel – Existence is our God, Existence is One!
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ:
Modeh/Modah Ani Lifanekha, Melekh Hai v’Kayam
She’hekhezarta Bi Nishmati B’khemla
I give thanks before You, Living and Enduring King,
for You have restored my soul/breath with mercy –
Great is Your faithfulness!
More on Noakh...
Walking with the Divine – Parshat Noakh
10/28/2019 0 Comments
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ
These are the offspring of Noah; Noah was a righteous person; he was perfect in his generation; Noah walked with the Divine.
The word for “perfect” is tamim, which comes from tam, meaning “simple,” as in the “simple son” of the Passover Seder. In that context, tam doesn’t seem to be a positive thing, at least on the surface; the tam is normally thought of as someone without much intelligence.
But in his commentary on Deuteronomy 17:13, Rashi says, Kol mah sheyavo eilekha – all that comes to you – kabel b’timimut – accept with simplicity.
This “simple acceptance of whatever comes to you” is the deeper level of being tamim. On the surface, it resembles being unintelligent – isn’t it stupid to “simply accept” bad things? But this misunderstanding of acceptance makes the common mistake of forgetting to include oneself in “what happens.” Of course, “what happens” includes what we do; it’s not only “what happens” outside ourselves.
So, being tamim doesn’t mean passively resigned to whatever happens; it means being present with what happens.
There is a hint of this in the word טעם which has the same sound as תם – tam, and means “taste” – to be tamim means to “fully taste” the present moment, to be intimately connected with whatever is present.
And, this connection with our situation includes what we do about the situation. For example, if we accept and “fully taste” a situation that is causing suffering, then that naturally leads us to a response aimed at relieving the suffering. That’s why this pasuk doesn’t only say that Noakh was tamim, it also says he was an ish tzaddik – a “righteous person.”
Presence is Acceptance and Love in One.
Another hint of the this comes from the unusual form of the pasuk:
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ – Eleh toldot Noakh, Noakh – These are the offspring of Noah, Noah…
The name Noakh actually means “comfort” or “ease.” The fact that the word Noakh is repeated hints at two kinds of ease: ease within oneself (accepting what happens with simplicity, being tamim), and bringing easefulness to others (love, righteousness, being a tzaddik).
There’s a wonderful mishna that expresses this idea:
הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ, וְאַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ
They said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own, and don’t easily become angry. And, return one day before your death.
(Pirkei Avot 2:15)
These three aphorisms are all connected: if you want to make the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own honor, you’ve got to get free from your own anger, because it is anger that causes us to be callous toward others.
Furthermore, there is a funny play on words here: v’al t’hi noakh likh’os – don’t be easeful/comfortable (noakh) to get angry.
If we want to be like Noakh, if we want to be easeful, accepting what is (tamim) and we also want to be a helpful person to others (ish tzaddik), then we should not be noakh likh’os – easy to anger.
But how do we do this?
וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ – V’shuv yom ekhad lifnei mitatkha – Return one day before your death.
On the surface it’s saying we should “repent” every day, because we don’t know what day we will die. But on a deeper level, this is the “death” of everything extraneous to this moment; it is the death of anger, of worry, of overthinking. We achieve this “death” through shuv yom ekhad – returning to this one day – meaning, returning to this moment.
But to do this means learning to distinguish between being Present and being lost; between the truth of this moment and the mental projections we impose on this moment. This is a constant effort of discernment:
Noah walked with the Divine.
The Divine Name here is Elohim, the Name associated with discernment. Our natural tendency is to become absorbed into our own thinking and then see the world through the lens of our minds. To counter this, we must constantly “walk ourselves back” to the truth of our actual experience, into the Divine Presence that is always present…
Snake and Scorpion – Parshat Noakh and Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
10/9/2018 0 Comments
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish practice. It is believed to be so sacred that, traditionally speaking, one should not allow oneself to be interrupted while praying the Amidah. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah prayer for specific reasons. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there’s a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק: אמר רב ששת לא שנו אלא נחש אבל עקרב פוסק
We learned in the mishna that even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not interrupt one’s prayer. In limiting application of this principle, Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this mishna with regard to a snake, as if one does not attack the snake it will not bite him. But if a scorpion approaches an individual while one is praying, one stops, as the scorpion is liable to sting even if it is not disturbed.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors:
The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the holy words of the prayer, and suddenly you’re salivating for a cheeseburger.
In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the cheeseburger isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life.
On the other hand, if a scorpion starts crawling on you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer, do something to awaken your passion, and start over again.
But how do you awaken your passion?
Of course, there are many ways, but here is one that I find helpful: do something to create beauty and order in the world. Paint something. Make some art. Organize your closet. Vacuum the rug. Do the dishes. When you do, you will feel empowered by the force of blessing can comes through you, and you can direct the energy of that blessing into your practice – into your prayer, chanting, or meditation.
The reason this is so powerful is because beauty and order are actually qualities of Presence. When consciousness is cluttered, the radiant beauty Being can get covered up somewhat. But the more you come to this moment with openness, the more your consciousness becomes more and more expansive and free. Then, your inner beauty begins to glow its own brightness.
Sometimes, however, the ambient chaos (and sometimes trauma) of life can keep that beauty stifled on the inside, even when you attempt to become present through meditation or prayer. Then we need an extra boost from the outside; we need to take some physical action. This is the secret of how art becomes ritual – do something on theouter level to create an effect on the inner level.
There’s a hint of the power of beautification in this week’s reading, Parshat Noakh:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם …
May God expand Yaphet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…
This verse is part of a blessing that Noakh gives his son Yafet after the famous flood. The name Yafet means beauty, or expansiveness. The words are: Yaft Elohim l’Yafet –meaning, May the Divine expand Expansiveness, or May the Divine beautify Beauty.
This hints at the secret of how beauty becomes revealed: Consciousness contains the quality of beauty, but this inner beauty is easily obscured from itself. So, consciousness externalizes its beauty through action, and this outer beauty reflects the nature of consciousness back to itself, freeing it from its constraining clutter: The Divine expands Its Expansiveness…
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month. Heshvan is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began a week ago. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to this week’s Torah reading. In Kabbalah, water is often associated with awakening passion and desire, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow.
Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion.
Thus, Heshvan is a time to shift from the inner beauty accessed during Tishrei (through the prayers of the High Holy Days and Sukkot) to outer beauty through action, in order to reveal the inner beauty externally. This in turn further awakens the inner beauty, creating a positive pulsation between the inner and the outer…
The Ark- Parshat Noakh
11/3/2016 1 Comment
The world is a river; you cannot hold a river.
The world is a wave, but we see it as particles.
Forever the mind is building arks to float upon the churning ocean of Truth,
Holding frames of changing being above the morph so as to discern a narrative-
The arks- words!
The tzaddik’s naming of beings saves them from dissolution in God;
The tzaddik gives full attention to the being beheld, while all else drowns (for now) in the One.
Two by two- one being beholds another-
But when the ark is beached on the dry wasteland of things and agendas, the tzaddik cannot function!
S/he must plant a vineyard in the midst of the wreckage and take refuge in the wine of ecstasy-
That is, withdrawal from time into the Place where prayer erupts.
To others s/he looks naked and dysfunctional- useless.
“Let’s cover up this embarrassment!”
People are more comfortable with the building of great towers so they can say,
“Look what we have done!”
Not content with the warmth (Ham) of life, they must make a name (Shem) for themselves, claiming authorship of beauty (Yafet).
Have you forgotten how to let go?
To behold the one who stands before you and let all else drown in the One?
Don’t grasp for the spotlight, you will find everyone speaking gibberish.
But relax and take a walk with God~
God will show you how to construct your words, and illuminate them from above…
The Window- Parshat Noakh
10/15/2015 8 Comments
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality. That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
There is a story in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) about the great sage Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina was a miracle worker, and whatever he prayed for would immediately manifest. Yet, despite his miraculous powers, he was extremely poor.
One day, his wife got fed up with living a life of such deprivation. “You have the power!” she said to him, “Why don’t you pray for mercy and get us out of this wretched life?”
So, Rabbi Hanina prayed, and immediately an angelic hand appeared out of thin air and handed him a golden table leg. “Barukh Hashem, we are rich!”
But, that night, his wife had a nightmare. In the dream, she was in olam haba, the future world. She looked around and saw all the other sages sitting and feasting at tables which were all supported by three legs. But, when she saw her husband, his table had only two legs!
She awoke in a cold sweat. “My husband, I saw a disturbing vision in my dream!”
She explained what she saw, to which he responded, “How do you feel about your husband having a deficient table in the World to Come?
“Not good!” she exclaimed. “Please, once again, pray for mercy!”
He did, and immediately the hand appeared again out of nowhere and took the golden table leg back.
The Talmud then relates a quote by an unknown source:
גדול היה נס אחרון יותר מן הראשון דגמירי דמיהב יהבי מישקל לא שקלי
The last miracle is greater than the first, for we have a tradition that what is given is not taken back…
It is a strange story – what does it mean? Is it saying that riches are bad and that poverty is good?
There is a passage in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that seems to confirm this idea:
מְתוּקָה֙ שְׁנַ֣ת הָעֹבֵ֔ד אִם־מְעַ֥ט וְאִם־הַרְבֵּ֖ה יֹאכֵ֑ל וְהַשָּׂבָע֙ לֶֽעָשִׁ֔יר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ מַנִּ֥יחַֽ ל֖וֹ לִישֽׁוֹן׃
A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.
Both this passage and the Talmudic story seem to be saying that wealth is more trouble than it’s worth. They say it in different ways, but both seem to be linking the acquisition of wealth with worry about the future. (And disturbed sleep!)
But, there is another passage in Kohelet that clarifies:
הִנֵּ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־רָאִ֣יתִי אָ֗נִי ט֣וֹב אֲשֶׁר־יָפֶ֣ה לֶֽאֶכוֹל־וְ֠לִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִרְא֨וֹת טוֹבָ֜ה בְּכָל־עֲמָל֣וֹ ׀ שֶׁיַּעֲמֹ֣ל תַּֽחַת־הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ מִסְפַּ֧ר יְמֵי־חַיָּ֛יו אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־ל֥וֹ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־ה֥וּא חֶלְקֽוֹ׃
Behold that which I have seen is good – that one should eat and drink and experience the goodness from all the work that one toils under the sun, during the numbered days of life that the Divine has given; for that is one’s portion… a gift from the Divine.
Here we can see – it’s not saying that wealth and enjoyment are bad. Rather, King Solomon is saying that it’s good to enjoy things; eat and drink lir’ot tovah – so that you can experience goodness!
But, here is the caution – receive the enjoyment as a gift. It is not something you can hold onto; it does not have permanence, you cannot rely on it beyond the moment:
מִסְפַּ֧ר יְמֵי־חַיָּ֛יו אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־ל֥וֹ – from the numbered days of one’s life that is given…
All things, all forms, all experiences, all phenomena come to an end, and so the idea here is not to push good things away, but also it is not to try and hold on to them. Instead, enjoy them as a gift, in this moment; in other words, be present.
But, you might say, doesn’t Rabbi Hanina pray to get rid of his gold? Why wouldn’t he simply enjoy it as a gift too?
When we see miracle stories, there is usually a hidden meaning. Why is it a golden table leg, rather than just a pile of gold? Why does it appear out of thin air?
There is something in our experience, right now, that also magically appears a disappears: thought. Our thoughts are constantly manifesting out of nowhere, and they can dissipate just as quickly. Furthermore, a “table leg” supports the top of the table upon which we eat; the “table leg” represents support for what we need to survive.
So, the magical appearance of the golden table leg doesn’t mean actual physical gold, it means a way of relating to gold; it means seeing the gold (wealth, possessions, or good experiences in general) as something solid that we can rely upon, like a table leg. And it is this kind of thinking that brings about the nightmare of the two-legged table: when we try to rely upon passing phenomena as solid and enduring, this only creates insecurity and worry:
הַשָּׂבָע֙ לֶֽעָשִׁ֔יר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ מַנִּ֥יחַֽ ל֖וֹ לִישֽׁוֹן – But the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep…
And not only our possession, but more importantly, our very lives eventually come to an end:
One must depart just as one came. As one came out of their mother’s womb, so must they depart, naked as they came. They can take nothing of their wealth with them; so what is the good of one’s toiling after the wind?
Ultimately, everything is hevel, impermanent.
But, not to worry! There is, nevertheless, something we can rely on.
Because when we become present, when we receive this moment as a gift and let go of thoughts about the future, there is a Wholeness and a Wholesomeness inherent in simply being…
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, taught on this first verse of the Torah that existence itself is a greater miracle than any of the well-known miracles. The splitting of the sea, the water from the rock, the manna from heaven – these are all based on phenomena that already existed, but which only behaved a little differently than what we would expect. But existence itself is a much greater miracle than all of those, because – why should there be anything at all? How it is that anything comes to be anyway, seemingly Yesh me’Ayin, Something from Nothing?
And yet, when we recognize the miracle of existence, when we receive this moment, as it is, as a supreme miracle – there then arises another possibility: we can actually move from the Something back to the Nothing!
Meaning: when we let go of the movement of the mind and its preoccupation with the future, with its seeking the “golden table-leg” of security in time, we can simultaneously become aware of the great No-Thing within which this moment appears – the vast field of awareness within which all experience lives. And this, said the Maggid, is an even greater miracle – not the bringing forth of Something from Nothing in creation, but of returning the Something back to the No-Thing in our spiritual work. As the Talmud says:
…גדול היה נס אחרון יותר מן הראשון
Gadol hayah nes akharon yoter min harishon – The last miracle is greater than the first!
In Kabbalah, this Ayin, or No-Thingness, the essential Being-ness behind all things, is represented by the first sefirah on the Tree of Life, called Keter, which means “Crown.” It is the crown because just as an actual crown adorns the head of royalty and reminds us of our relationship with the one who bears it, so too we are reminded to offer our attention and reverence toward Being Itself, the miraculous No-Thing that is ever-present in and as all things. Crowns are also circular, reminding us not to try to derive security through the persistence of things in linear time, but rather to “circle back” our awareness into the Truth of this moment, back into the boundless circle of our awareness within which all experience comes and goes.
This is the beginning and the end of the spiritual path, also symbolized by the circle – be present, enjoy this moment in recognition of the Oneness of Being, the One Reality Who gives this moment to you as a gift, right now. That’s why the fundamental Jewish practice is the chanting of the Sh’ma, six words that point us toward this recognition:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad!
Hear, O Israel! Existence Itself is our God, Existence is One!
This is the invitation: In the morning and at night, after the break of dawn and the falling of darkness, take a moment to become present, to reconnect with the Oneness:
שְׁמַע – Sh’ma – “Listen” meaning be aware, become present to this moment as it is.
יִשְׂרָאֵל – Yisrael – “Israel,” coming from sarita-El, one who “strives for” the Divine.
יְהוָה – Vocalized as Adonai, this unpronounceable Divine Name comes from the root היה hayah, “to be,” and thus means Existence, Reality or Being-ness.
אֱלֹהֵינו – Eloheinu – “Our God” – reminding us to “Crown” Existence, to recognize Reality Itself as God, through the devotion of the heart and attentiveness of the mind, and to know that this Divinity is not separate from who are at the deepest level…
יְהוָה אֶחָֽד – Adonai Ekhad – “Existence is One.”
This basic Oneness of Reality, the macrocosmic Mystery of Being, is reflected in the microcosmic field of awareness; just as there is only One Reality, so too there is only ever One experience, happening now. And while the ever coming-and-going content of our experience may be bitter or sweet, painful or pleasurable, the field of awareness within which experience happens is always Whole; it is the goodness that is ever available to us, at any moment, always in this moment:
…וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
Elohim said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And Elohim saw that the light was good…
This “light” that is “good” is the basic goodness of simply being, the goodness inherent in consciousness itself, within and beyond all particular experiences, positive or negative. This light is Keter, the Oneness of Being, ever-present and therefore easily ignored. But it is also easily invoked; meaning: it must be invoked with easefulness. Therefore, take a moment, twice each day, become easeful, let go of the “golden table legs” of life in time, and chant:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד׃
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad
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The Refrigerator – Parshat Bereisheet
10/23/2019 0 Comments
Sometimes it happens that a jar of something spills in the refrigerator. It is rare, in our home, for the refrigerator to be totally clean; usually it shows the signs of being well used. But when something spills, it crosses over from acceptable shmootz to a genuine crisis of muck. The spilled mess pushes me over the edge of complacency and drives me to clean not just the spilled stuff, but also the dirtiness in general. It is then, ironically, that more dirtiness leads to more cleanliness.
And so it is with the spiritual life.
When things are going well, there is a low level of discomfort that is easily tolerated without much effort. We can become lazy in our attentiveness. But when the “jar” of our expected routine “breaks,” when some crisis disrupts our sense of normalcy, causing the mind to rush and the emotions to flare more than usual, we are driven from the comfort of our ordinary laziness. It is then that we are again motivated to find our way back to the true peace within, the peace that lies not in the external and temporal, but in the Eternal Present within which all experience arises.
This sense of being driven out from our comfort, a universal experience fundamental to the human condition, is appropriately expressed in this first parsha, in the story of the expulsion from Eden:
וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֵ֛הוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים מִגַּן־עֵ֑דֶן לַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֻקַּ֖ח מִשָּֽׁם׃
The Divine sent them from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which they were taken.
Adam and Eve are sent out of Eden because they “ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.” In other words, they became conscious of the possibility of crisis. Rather than passively and unconsciously receive the moment as it unfolds, the way a fetus would in the womb, this daat/knowledge is imagining how things might go wrong; we might say this is the beginning of worry. It is also the beginning of ego, of the attempt to control our experience.
וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃
He drove the Adam out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery sword, ever-turning, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.
When our awareness of crisis triggers the turning movement of the mind and the enflames the fire of the heart, driving us from our peace to “work the soil” and deal with our situation, our worry can eventually become compulsive, and we may come to feel as though we have been exiled forever (or worse, lose all memory of peace altogether). The plain meaning of the text seems to support this: “…the fiery sword, ever-turning, to guard (lishmor) the way to the Tree of Life.” This is the bitterly pessimistic view of human life that we sometimes see in Biblically based perspectives – that the Way back to The Garden, the derekh eitz hahayim, is completely blocked to us in this life by the “fiery turning sword” that guards it.
But we can understand this word for “guard” – lishmor – in a different way by looking at some other passages:
שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ׀ יְהוָ֥֣ה אֱלֹהֶֽ֗יךָ
Guard (shamor) the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, as the Divine has commanded you.
This passage from the Ten Commandments says to “guard” the Sabbath. Does that mean that we are kept away from the Sabbath? Of course not! To “guard” doesn’t mean we are blocked from it; it means that we should not take it for granted, that we should recognize its sacredness so that we can enter into it more deeply.
Or how about this passage:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם
And it will follow if you listen to these rules and guard (ushmartem) them…
Does it mean to guard the rules so as to keep away from them? Of course not – it means the opposite. And this reveals the deeper dimension of the “fiery turning sword” – yes, the movement of the mind and the triggering of emotion drives us out from our peace, but it also serves as a beacon to bring us back, showing us exactly where to find the Path to the Tree of Life! More dirtiness leads to more cleanliness.
That is why the “guardian” of the Path is not just movement and fire, not just thought and emotion, but is also a sword. This is the sword of intention that directs us into awareness of thought and emotion, so that we need not be caught by them. And more than that, as we intensify our awareness of the movement of the mind and the fire of the heart, the quality of awareness itself comes to the foreground, showing us not only the Way Back to the Garden, but also revealing that the Garden is who we really are, beneath and beyond the mind and heart. The Tree of Life is not external; it is our own nervous system.
וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים – and caused to dwell east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim…
The “east” is the place of the rising sun, the place of the dawn, reminding us: when we awaken in the morning and the mind is moving and the heart is agitated, let that “fiery turning sword” show you the way back to the Garden. Before you go out to “work the soil,” spend some time first with meditation, using the “sword” of intention to cast off the bonds of the temporal, dip into the spacious freedom of the Eternal Present, and nourish yourself with the Tree of Life.
It is a new year – let us recommit and deepen our practice – the Garden is waiting for you. I’ll be there with you tomorrow morning!
The Garden- Parshat Bereisheet
10/27/2016 3 Comments
“Bereisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim v’Et Ha’aretz-
"In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
What Is My Purpose?
When you awaken from sleep, is it because you’ve decided to awaken?
Or, do you simply wake up when your body is finished sleeping?
In sleep, there’s no deciding.
Once you are awake, you are faced with the question:
What shall I do? What is my purpose?
Waking up itself solves nothing-
There was no problem to begin with.
But once awake, life becomes a problem.
The universe springs into being-
Does creation have a purpose?
But “purpose” is itself something that’s created!
“Purpose” is a thought; “purpose” is a thing.
There cannot be a purpose for creation until after creation.
Before, there is no problem.
The universe comes into being because:
Sometimes, after many months, I clean my car.
My wife asks, “Why did you have to clean it now all of a sudden?”
But the only answer is: Why Not?
Before creation, there is no problem.
After, all the problems.
What is the solution to all the problems?
Go back to before the problems!
“Hinei Tov Me’od-
Behold it was very good!”
That is the Shabbat- the remembering that there were no problems before we got involved;
In fact, there are still no problems.
The “Before” never went anywhere, because it is not a thing.
It is always right here.
The Shabbat, the Garden- they were Here before Anything.
From within the Garden, there is no problem with moving back into problems.
From within Shabbat, there is no problem with moving back into time.
Seeing from within the Garden, even outside the Garden is really still inside the Garden-
For where can the Garden not be?
Seeing from outside the Garden, even inside the Garden is just more of the same:
“How can we manage to get back in?”
“Once we get in, how can we make sure that we stay there?”
But- The Garden is not “there.”
Thought springs into being from No-Thought; in No-Thought, there is no problem.
From No-Thought, why not think?
“Eitz Hada’at Tov v’Ra-
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad…”
Here we are amidst the trees of the Garden-
Why not take a bite of the good and the bad?
Of the This and the That?
Of the Before and the After?
But once you leave the Timeless, the Sword of Fire blocks your way back.
What is the Sword of Fire?
Nothing but thought!
You can't decide to awaken-
You can’t think your way back into the Garden-
The Garden never went anywhere.
But let thought cease, and you will see for yourself:
The “Purpose” is to come back to No-Purpose-
To the Place from which the Universe springs:
“Y’hi Or- Let there be light!”
To return to No-Purpose requires living with Great Purpose-
The Purpose of Being Present.
From There (which is always Here)
We can create something beautiful-
You, Me, and Others.
The world is waiting!
Do you not believe me?
Don’t worry- it’s Friday afternoon!
The Pool- Parshat Bereisheet
10/8/2015 1 Comment
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
Rabbi Shmelke and his brother came to their master, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, with a problem:
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank God for our suffering and pain just as much as for the blessings we receive. How is this possible? We can understand accepting suffering, but how is it possible give thanks for it?”
“Go ask Reb Zusha,” the Maggid replied, “He sits in the Beit Midrash smoking his pipe.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him. Zusha just laughed – “I don’t think you are asking the right person,” he said, “because I have never experienced suffering – how should I know how to give thanks for it when I’ve never had it?”
But the brothers knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty and anguish, and they understood: the answer is to receive suffering with love…
This story points to a way by which we might relate to our suffering. But what does this mean, to “receive suffering with love?”
The festival of Sukkot provides some hints:
בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃ לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your future generations may know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I Hashem, your Divinity.
This passage gives the reason for the festival – it is so that future generations should know:
בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם
I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…
The movement from bondage to freedom involves dwelling in a sukkah. But what is a sukkah? There was a disagreement in the Talmud:
דתניא כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו דברי ר' אליעזר ר"ע אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם
We have learned: “I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot”; (these booths were the) Clouds of the Divine Presence, these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They made for themselves actual sukkot/huts.
Rabbi Eliezer believed that the original sukkot were Ananei Kavod – “Clouds of the Divine Presence” that protected the Children of Israel on their journeys. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, disagreed; he said no, they were sukkot mamash – actual, physical huts. But either way, both of these interpretations are insubstantial; a temporary hut couldn’t provide much protection, and certainly a “cloud” is the most insubstantial thing there is. Why would these phenomena be celebrated as protection?
Let’s look a little deeper at the symbolism of the “Clouds of the Divine Presence” through this passage in the Talmud:
ר' יוסי בר' יהודה אומר שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל אלו הן משה ואהרן ומרים וג' מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם ואלו הן באר וענן ומן באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for Israel, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given by their hands, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses…
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are three siblings who play major roles in the Exodus story. But in Kabbalah, Biblical personalities are not merely characters, they are archetypes, embodiments of specific spiritual qualities. Since the “pillar of cloud” is connected to Aaron, we might ask – what is Aaron’s special quality?
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה
Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.
Aaron is, according to this mishna, the embodiment of Peace, of Shalom, and according to a midrash, his role in the Exodus was to help others make peace. There is a story that when two Israelites would be in an argument, Aaron would come to each one privately and tell them that the other wishes to apologize, but that they are too embarrassed to come themselves. In this way, he would stand in for egoless-ness, and when each person perceived the other as being egoless, they would drop their own egos.
There are two major qualities of egoless-ness: willingness to be wrong, and gratitude. The egoic opposites of these, of course, are the psychological need to be right and kvetchiness!
Both of these qualities, the ability to concede an argument and as gratitude, are both embodied in the word modeh:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ
Modeh/modah ani lifanekha – I give thanks before You, living and everlasting King, for You have restored my soul with mercy; great is Your faithfulness!
With this prayer, modeh (m.) or modah (f.) becomes the first spoken word of the day, giving thanks for waking up in the morning. The plain meaning is gratitude, but on a deeper level it also includes the other meaning as well, for just as one surrenders being right when conceding an argument, so too the attitude of thankfulness to be alive involves a surrender to the truth of our situation, an embrace of the reality of the moment, as the prayer says a little later in the morning blessings:
יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַֽיִם וּמוֹדֶה עַל־הָאֱמֶת וְדוֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ לְעוֹלָם
Always a person should be in awe of heaven (the space of awareness within which this moment happens), and surrender to the Truth, and speak Truth in their heart…
The Kabbalists associated these qualities of modeh/modah with the sefirah of Hod, whose plain meaning is “Glory.” And yet, “Glory” would seem to be to opposite of the egoless-ness of modeh!
Which brings us back to Reb Zusha, who said that he never experienced suffering – meaning not that his life was only pleasure and abundance, but that he received his suffering in such a way that he no longer experienced it as suffering; he received it with love, with humility and gratitude, and this allowed his deeper essence to shine forth with laughter as he sat with his pipe and studied Torah – this is his Glory!
In actual practice, receiving suffering with love may not feel very glorious. It is helpful to understand that while we have the choice to practice receiving this moment as it is, with love and gratitude, transformation is not instantaneous; transformation is a process that takes time, though the decision to practice now takes no time at all. So, there is a dimension of practice that is time-bound, the dimension of spiritual development and the movement toward “Glory,” and there is a dimension that is not time-bound at all, that we can and must engage only in the Eternal Present.
These two dimensions are the first and final Hebrew letters, Alef and Tav.
א – ת
Tav, which means “sign,” is the final letter in emet, “Truth.” As the final letter, it represents the final truth of things, the fact of this moment, as it is. The essence of our practice is this basic opening to the Truth of this moment, the fullness of experience as it arises, in its full spectrum, from joy to pain, from bitterness to sweetness. This is the practice of Alef – being the oneness of awareness within which the dualities of experience arises.
Through this practice, which is always in the present, there evolves over time a sincerity of embracing Truth; over time, with practice, we can reach that state of Reb Zusha, of no longer seeing our suffering as suffering. At that point, the practice is no longer even a practice, it is simply who we are; it becomes truly sincere, and that is the Tav. Tav comes at the end of all the letters, reminding us – the process takes time.
There is a hint in our final parshah…
וְזֹ֣את הַבְּרָכָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר בֵּרַ֥ךְ מֹשֶׁ֛ה אִ֥ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לִפְנֵ֖י מוֹתֽוֹ׃
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Children of Israel before his death…
As Moses stands lifnei moto, “before his death,” he becomes Ish HaElohim – the “God-Man.” Meaning, he fully acknowledges his mortality, the fleeting nature of all forms, and in doing so identifies with That which is not fleeting – the Eternal Being-ness which incarnates as all forms. In other words, he becomes like the sukkah – temporary huts, insubstantial clouds; but clouds of the Divine Presence. And this is why that which is insubstantial and fleeting is the supreme protection on our journey from mitzrayim, from slavery to freedom – because it “protects” us from ourselves, from the illusory sense of solidity that ego rests upon.
And in this realization, in the death of the man and the birth of the God-Man, there can be the realization that there is only This…
And THIS (and this, and also this) is the Blessing!
Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! Be Strong, Be Strong, and May We be Strengthened!
More on V'Zot HaBrakhah...
The Stranger – V'Zot HaBrakha
10/4/2018 0 Comments
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said, “Imagine you come to a strange country, where you know neither the language nor the customs. You feel like an alien, disconnected from others around you. But then you meet another traveler from your own country. Under normal circumstances, you may never have been interested in this person; but since you are both strangers, you have something in common in the strange land, and you become great friends…”
Rabbi Barukh’s “strange country” is really all of life, and the “companion” is really the Divine Itself. There is no experience which is not completely Divine; still, we are inclined to never notice this, until we begin to feel the pain of alienation. Motivated by feelings of disconnection or being “out of sync,” we become seekers of wholeness and peace, and it is then that the possibility of finding the Divine appears.
But to do that, our estranged self (ego) must “die” into intimacy. The “me” that seeks can motivate us, but it can never “get there” itself; it must be surrendered into the vast space of awareness that is already not separate from anything you perceive, that is already the Divine in the form of you and everything else that exists.
This past week we completed the Torah reading cycle. In the final parshah, V’Zot HaBrakha, Moses is not allowed to reap the fruits of his years of leadership; he must die just outside the Promised Land. Immediately, we go right back to the very beginning and start the reading cycle anew: Bereisheet bara Elohim – In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth…
Maybe it seems harsh and unfair that Moses couldn’t enter the land. But if we see the inner dimension of the story, there is a pointer to our own experience: the seeker of the “Promised Land” must die if you wish to truly “enter.” Stop seeing the Garden of Eden as something to get to, and connect with your actual experience now, in the present. The “Garden” is all there is, the Divine is all there is; relax the “me” and know: you are the Garden, you are the Divine…
The Mishna discusses the five (or six, depending on how you count!) restrictive practices of Yom Kippur:
יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה וּבִשְׁתִיָּה וּבִרְחִיצָה וּבְסִיכָה וּבִנְעִילַת הַסַּנְדָּל וּבְתַשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה. וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַכַּלָּה יִרְחֲצוּ אֶת פְּנֵיהֶם, וְהֶחָיָה תִנְעֹל אֶת הַסַּנְדָּל, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר, וַחֲכָמִים אוֹסְרִין
[On] Yom HaKippurim it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals, or to have sexual intimacy. A king or bride may wash their face, and a woman after childbirth may put on sandals, the words of Rabbi Eliezer. But the sages forbid it.
עִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם – initem et nafsheikhem – (you shall) afflict your souls…
The Talmud then asks the question on the Mishna – where do these practices come from, since the Torah does not mention them?
אסור באכילה הני חמשה ענויין כנגד מי אמר רב חסדא כנגד ה' ענויין שבתורה ובעשור ואך בעשור שבת שבתון ושבת שבתון והיתה לכם
The mishna taught that as per the five prohibited activities on Yom Kippur it is prohibited to engage in eating and in drinking, and in bathing, and in smearing the body with oil, and in wearing shoes, and in sexual intimacy.
The Gemara asks: These five afflictions of Yom Kippur, to what do they correspond? Where is the Torah source or allusion to them?
Rav Ḥisda said: They are based on the five times that the afflictions of Yom Kippur are mentioned in the Torah. It is stated:
(1) “And on the tenth of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall afflict your souls” (Numbers 29:7);
(2) “But on the tenth of this seventh month is the day of atonement, it shall be a holy convocation for you and you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27);
(3) “It shall be for you a Shabbat of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls (Leviticus 23:32);
(4) “It is a Shabbat of solemn rest [shabbaton] for you, and you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:31);
(5) “And it shall be a statute for you forever, in the seventh month on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29).
The Medieval Rabbi, Yaakov ben Asher (known as the Baal Haturim (Master of the Columns) – further interpreted that these five restrictive practices correspond to five times that “soul” is mentioned in the single passage about Yom Kippur, Levitcus 23:26-32:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
אַ֡ךְ בֶּעָשׂ֣וֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ֩ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֨י הַזֶּ֜ה י֧וֹם הַכִּפֻּרִ֣ים ה֗וּא מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֥ם אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃
Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall afflict your souls/nafshoteikhem, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Divine;
וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֣י י֤וֹם כִּפֻּרִים֙ ה֔וּא לְכַפֵּ֣ר עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
You shall do no work throughout that day, for it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Divine your God.
כִּ֤י כָל־הַנֶּ֙פֶשׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־תְעֻנֶּ֔ה בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְנִכְרְתָ֖ה מֵֽעַמֶּֽיהָ׃
Indeed, any soul/nefesh who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from their kin;
וְכָל־הַנֶּ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר תַּעֲשֶׂה֙ כָּל־מְלָאכָ֔ה בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַֽאֲבַדְתִּ֛י אֶת־הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמָּֽהּ׃
And any soul/nefesh who does any work throughout that day, I will cause that soul/nefesh to perish from among their people.
כָּל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכֹ֖ל מֹֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם׃
Do no work; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages in all your settlements.
שַׁבַּ֨ת שַׁבָּת֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּתִשְׁעָ֤ה לַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ בָּעֶ֔רֶב מֵעֶ֣רֶב עַד־עֶ֔רֶב תִּשְׁבְּת֖וּ שַׁבַּתְּכֶֽם׃ (פ)
It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls/nafshoteikhem; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath..
The 16th century kabbalist, the Maharal of Prague, expanded on this idea even more by discussing the five different levels of the soul in Kabbalah, and how each level is made uncomfortable through one of the restrictive practices. This discomfort allows for a proactive disidentification from ego.
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – dimension of our being that remains pure, as in the prayer Elohai Neshamah shenatati bi, tehorah hi – My God, the soul You place within me is pure. It is made uncomfortable through refraining from anointing.
רוחRuakh – “Wind” – lightness, lifting off the ground – made uncomfortable through not wearing shoes.
נשמהNeshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – known as the “Divine Lamp” (Proverbs 20:27). The “light” cannot shine through a dull vessel, and so is made uncomfortable through not bathing.
חיהHayah – “Life Force” – made uncomfortable through not eating and drinking.
יחידהYekhidah – “Oneness” – made uncomfortable through social refraining from sexual intimacy, as intimacy is “becoming one” with another.
These five levels of the soul correspond to five levels of experience:
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – Sensory awareness
רוחRuakh – “Wind” – Emotion, mood
נשמהNeshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – Thought
חיהHayah – “Life” – Simple Aliveness
יחידהYekhidah – “Oneness” – Unity of Spacious Awareness with Form
Here is an example of how awareness of the five levels can be included in the Three Portals Practice:
Five Levels of Soul in the Three Portals:
רוח Ruakh – “Wind” – Emotion, Mood
(Bring right hand to heart, offering awareness as a gift)
נפש Nefesh – “Soul” – Sensory awareness
(Bring left hand to belly, bringing awareness into body)
(“We will do”)
נשמה Neshamah – “Spirit-Breath” – Thought
(Bring right hand to forehead, bring to mind awareness as field beyond the body)
חיה Hayah – “Life” – Simple Aliveness
(Notice that everything is perceived by this Simple Aliveness that you are)
יחידה Yekhidah – “Oneness” – Unity of Spacious Awareness with Form
(Notice that everything you perceive is also nothing but consciousness)
(“We will hear”)
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