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!"
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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!
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