I remember having a conversation with my Uncle Howard when I was about twelve years old. He was one of the few people in my life who would engage me in conversation about spirituality when I was growing up. I had been explaining some idea which I can’t remember now and in the course of my talking I had made several references to the “meaning of life”. “Wait a minute wait a minute” he interrupted, “life has meaning?”
I was stopped in my tracks. I said, “What do you mean? Isn’t that what this is all about? How could you ask that?” I couldn’t believe that this religious man who was having a religious conversation with me was questioning whether life had meaning.
Eventually I came to see that “meaninglessness” has at least two very different “meanings”. The first and more common meaning has to do with the disappointment we feel when we are searching for meaning and we can’t find it. People suffer and their minds want to find some meaning in the suffering so they can feel encouraged and hopeful. Or, people feel that life itself is missing something and they search for meaning. One of the places they search is religion and spirituality- perhaps meaning can be found. That’s what I was doing in my younger years- I felt there was something more to life than I had been taught, some deeper meaning. Uncle Howard knocked that down: “Life has meaning?”
But there is another meaning of meaninglessness that is completely different. To get it, let’s look a little more closely at what “meaning” is all about. “Meaning” is when one thing refers to another thing. The word “couch” means something. It refers to that thing I sit on. But what is the meaning of sitting on the couch? It’s meaning is to fulfill a purpose- the purpose of rest and comfort. But what is the meaning of rest and comfort? There is no meaning- we’ve come to the end of the meaning train. Rest and comfort are just for their own sake, because I like to rest and feel comfortable- that’s all.
Now, you might disagree on religious grounds. You might say, no, rest does have a meaning. It is to allow your body to recharge itself so that you can go and do good in the world. In that case, the meaning of rest is to do good in the world. But what is the meaning of doing good in the world? Okay, you might say its meaning is to be an expression of love. But what is the meaning of love? Aha! You’ve gotten to the end again. Love does not need any meaning because it is good in and of itself. Love is the thing that other things mean; love itself is beyond meaning. So if Uncle Howard comes along and says that love is meaningless (or beauty or truth or whatever), that is not an insult- it is actually a wonderful complement. It is pointing out that which is beyond the meanings that our thinking minds assign to things. It is pointing out something ultimate- something that fulfills our deepest needs, not something that merely leads to something else.
The lights of Hanukah do have meaning. They are symbols. To some they may mean hope, to some endurance, to some consciousness- take your pick. But whatever they “mean”, the things they mean are themselves meaningless; they are for their own sake. And that is the power of ritual in general- by symbolizing something Ultimate, they invite us to move beyond the mind with its meanings and move directly into communion with That which transcends meaning.
You can in fact do this any time. You can do this now. Simply bring yourself to what is happening in this moment and let go of the activity of the mind and the meaning it assigns things. Is there a desire within you to find meaning? Is there a longing for something? Bring yourself even to this- bring yourself entirely to whatever you are feeling- be it longing, rage, desire, terror, love, amazement, boredom, whatever. When you do, you may begin to glimpse that inner Light hinted at by the lights of Hanukah and Shabbat that seem to shine from Beingness Itself, healing and illuminating those who open to It. In this Light, the mind no longer needs to know the “meaning of life” because that which life means is That which you are, That which Everything Is!
Blessings of peace, illumination, realization and liberation on this sweet Shabbat Hanukah to you all!
Spiritual growth is like a log that’s been pulled from the ocean and is drying on the beach. Over a long time, the sun gradually dries the whole thing out. But sometimes a wave comes and soaks the log again, or rain comes and drenches it. Still, it then gets wet on the surface, but the deeper parts that have already dried remain dry. So too, for most of us, there is some wetness on the surface and some wetness really deep down. In between there is the felt effect of the sun.
The wetness is ego- that is, the self which is defined by the mind’s concept of what has happened and what will happen in time. When you’re all wet, you might think, “I am wet- wetness is what I am”. But you are not the wetness, you are the sensing of the wetness. When the sun dries you out, you can see in retrospect that there was wetness but it was not really you. You are not actually defined by time at all; you are happening now, you are Reality.
Meditation is like the log opening to the sun’s drying power. Stop creating time, stop the incessant involvement with mental activity and you begin to dry out. But there is another way. You can also generate heat from within and that will evaporate the water and dry you inside out; this is prayer. In prayer, you bring out all of your inner content- your terror, your longings, your faults, your desires, everything- and offer them up on the altar of the present. You say to Reality/God, “here is all of it. You know what to do with it, as it is ultimately all You anyway. I put it in Your hands”.
Meditation and Prayer are the refining practices for the two poles within which life happens: rest and activity. Through meditation and prayer, you can dry the log little by little, day by day. Eventually, you might notice- all of life has become meditation and prayer! This is the Hanukah miracle- a little fire and heat can ignite the whole of life. May this Hanukah season mark our own “rededication” the practice!
Vayishlakh- the Power of Laziness
Once upon a time, in a place called Sesame Street, there were two muppet friends named Ernie and Bert. You may not know that Ernie and Bert were Jewish, and that later in life, Bert became a devout Baal T’shuvah- one who chooses to become very religious. Bert was a meticulous person, carefully collecting and arranging bottle caps and generally liking things to be neat and ordered. He brought this same care and fastidiousness to his devotions, praying three times a day, observing all the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, giving tzedakka (charity) and so on. When it was time for him to leave the earthly realm and put to rest his little yellow elongated muppet body, he came to the afterlife and was rewarded with a beautiful mansion of light and splendor in which to live. There he spent his time learning Torah with the great sages and enjoying many spiritual delights. He missed his old friend Ernie, and lamented that he would probably never see Ernie again, since Ernie’s life wouldn’t merit that he should spend eternity in Bert’s paradise.
One day, the door to Bert’s mansion flew open and in walked Ernie. “Hiya there ol’ buddy Bert!” “Ernie!” Bert was surprised, “what are you doing here?” “Oh buddy Bert, I’m staying here with you now. I’ve been greatly rewarded or my very very holy life, Bert.”
“Very holy life? I don’t understand Ernie, I mean you never were into all that stuff. I mean, you were always mixing up the meat and milk dishes, you never wanted to study Gemara with me, what happened?”
“Oh Bert, that might be true, but I had one very important quality, Bert.”
“What’s that Ernie?”
“I was lazy, Bert.”
“Lazy? I don’t get it? What’s so holy about that?”
“Well, Bert, you weren’t always so fun to be around. You were a little stiff before you got religious, and afterward it was even worse. I used to feel frustrated and angry with you a lot Bert, but thanks to my laziness, I was never mean to you and I never did anything to get back at you.”
“Thanks to your laziness.”
“That’s right Bert, and thanks to my laziness, I always perfectly kept Shabbat. I never worked at all on Shabbat”
“But you never worked anyway, Ernie.”
“I know, Bert, but I still get holiness credit for not working on Shabbat. You see, it’s because of my laziness that I get to come and live in your spiritual palace.”
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. “Who could this be now?” asked Bert, opening the door. It was Biff, and he had a clipboard in his hand. “Heya, you Bert?” “Yeah, I’m Bert, what’s wrong?” “Well I’m sorry to say,” said Biff, “It seems a mistake has been made over here. You’re not supposed to be here, I have to take you to the other place. Come on let’s go.” “What do you mean?” cried Bert, “What did I do? What did I do?” “Well,” said Biff, “It turns out you weren’t lazy enough.” “What? What? No!”
“Yeah yeah, come on, let’s go.” As they left, Ernie gave his famous laugh- “khh khh khh khhh kkhhh!!”
Judaism is religion of the whole person. Its concern is not with just one aspect of the person, but with integrating all of the different aspects- inner and outer, heart and mind, soul and body, thought and action. The Torah wants the whole person, as it says, “V’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha b’khol levav’kha… you shall love the Divine with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength”. And yet, when pushed to prioritize one aspect over another, Judaism comes down on the side of action. It’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason that to not do the right thing and wait until you have the right inention. There is a phrase in the Talmud that expresses this- “Shemitokh Shelo Lishma ba lishma- from acting not for its own sake, one will come to act for its own sake.” This was the Rabbis’ version of behaviorism- don’t worry about whether your heart is in the right place or not, worry about doing the right thing. Why? Because Shemitokh shelo lishma ba lishma from doing the right thing, your heart will come to realize that it wants to do the right thing.
According to a kabbalistic understanding of Jacob and Esau, these two brothers represent the basic duality of being human. The Tanya maps the human as having two parts- our physical impulses and instincts, called the Nefesh Behamit or Animal Soul, and the Nefesh Elokit or Divine Soul. We might say that the Animal Soul is made of the forces that drive life- the desire to live, to have pleasure, to avoid pain, to eat, to reproduce and so on, while the Divine Soul is our awareness that knows yet transcends those desires. The mind and heart form the arena within which these opposing realities play out their dance. In this system, Jacob represents the Divine within, Esau the physical passions. The two brothers begin their lives wrestling with each other. According to Midrash, Jacob was conceived first and they wrestled in the womb to be the firstborn. Esau appears to be victorious, coming out first, but during their lives Jacob manages to purchase the right of the first born back from Esau and later tricks their father Isaac into giving him the blessing. Esau threatens to kill Jacob who flees. Later in the story, when the two brothers are going to confront each other, Jacob stays awake all night wrestling some mysterious being. Jacob is victorious this time, and the being blesses Jacob with the name Israel, because he “wrestled with the Divine and prevailed”. The next day, Jacob and Esau meet and make peace with each other, hugging and kissing and weeping. Jacob says that seeing Esau’s face is like seeing the face of the Divine, hinting that perhaps the man he wrestled with all night was in fact Esau himself. Their reconciliation represents, then, the ideal of spiritual work- that the spiritual and the physical should be harmonized within, that a person should move beyond the activity of inner wrestling to a place of inner peace. In this inner peace, both sides are necessary- the physical passions provide our energy and motivation, while our higher consciousness provides the guidance and channeling of our motives.
According to Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, there are two main ways, positive and negative, that the animal soul can corrupt us if it isn’t guided by our inner divinity. One way is represented by fire and heat, the other by coldness and water. Fire represents desire and passion, which can corrupt into greed, anger, aggressiveness and so on. Water represents passivity, laziness, comfort, and the like. The way to counter these corrupt versions of fire and water are with the holy versions of fire and water. In this way, you channel your inner fire into passion for truth, desire for integrity and for doing kindness. As for water, you channel your laziness into apathy for things that bring trouble for you and others around you.
When Jacob approaches Esau in this parsha, he sends many gifts ahead of him to cool down Esau’s dangerous fieriness. Among the gifts are an ox and a donkey. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch interpreted that the ox represents the holy fire of strength and passion of the spirit, while the donkey represents holy laziness. By gifting these qualities to Esau, the story hints at how we can take the very qualities that might be obstacles for us and co-opt them for holiness. And as the Talmud says, if you do something good out of laziness or pride or whatever, through doing it you give strength to your inner divinity, and ultimately you will come to do good just because it’s good, for its own sake.
But there is also a deeper level to the holiness of laziness. Ordinarily, the mind is constantly churning with thoughts and this mental activity causes us to hold the burden of our thoughts as though they were reality. Reality is all around us, there is nothing but Reality but instead we mistake our thoughts about Reality for the real Reality. What we call God or spirit or holiness is nothing but Reality as it is, once this screen of mental activity subsides. But for our constant mental activity to subside, we have to become lazy with it. We have to taste the sweetness of what lies beneath all that mental illusion in order to be passionate about being lazy. And that is the sweetness that is available on Shabbat! Shabbat is a kind of vessel within which we can shine the beacon of awareness on Being itself, and lazily forget about what’s coming up and what there is to worry about. From this seed can sprout a whole different way of living life when it’s not Shabbat. Like the havdallah candle which represents the entwining of Shabbat and the weekdays together, and like Jacob and Esau after they make peace and their love triumphs, and even like Ernie and Bert who I know love each other despite Ernie’s tricks and Bert’s fastidiousness- may we drink so deeply from the Light of holy laziness this Shabbat that the business of our future weekdays should spring from that open field of inner freedom and present beingness.
Meditation and prayer are not the same thing, but they are very closely related, kind of like tasting and swallowing. It is possible to just taste and not swallow, but it is rare. Occasionally you might swallow something without tasting, like swallowing a pill, but it is not the norm. Ordinarily, the two are part of one process, and often experienced as one event.
Meditation is the art of being; prayer is the art of relating to Being. In meditation, you cease having a particular point of view, and instead you have more of a space of view. You discover your awareness as the space within which experience is happening. That space has no preference, though preference might exist within the space as part of experience. I said experience, not your experience, because in that space there is no claim of “me” or “mine”; there is just whatever is happening.
Prayer, on the other hand, happens on the level of heart. Within the space of consciousness, a door is opened through which flows a special inner fire. This fire might be described as love, adoration, devotion or reverence. It may take the form of words or actions, or it may simply glow in silence. Like physical fire, this inner fire has the power to burn and transform one’s whole inner world, remaking one’s self in its fiery image.