Although we have done our best to raise our children eating healthy food, they have lately become a bit obsessed with candy. The other night, my daughter showed me a little toy electric fan filled with M&Ms that someone had given to her. As she tried to take out the M&Ms, I said, “Honey, let’s read the ingredients on the label.” We did. There were so many chemicals, both artificial flavors and colors, along with preservatives.
She asked what all those things were, and when I got to explaining about the preservatives, she said, “But that’s good, right Abba? The preservatives prevent it from going rotten.”
I suddenly realized she had a point. It’s true, many preservatives aren’t in any way nourishing. But, in certain situations, a little preservative would certainly be better than eating something that had become overrun with dangerous bacteria.
It’s kind of like spirituality. When spiritual practices like prayer and ritual are “fresh” – meaning, they are done with a spirit of openness and humility, they can be deeply nourishing. But there is a danger – when a person thinks of oneself as “spiritual” and therefore special or superior, the same practices can be a source of arrogance. The spirituality becomes “rotten” in a sense. In such a case, we need some kind of “preservative.”
What is the spiritual preservative?
Once, when Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua of Apt came to visit a certain town to teach, two men competed to have the rabbi stay with them. Both homes were equally roomy and comfortable, and in both households, all the halakhot – the rules of conduct aroundkashrut and Shabbat – were observed with meticulous exactness.
The only difference was that one of the men had a bad reputation for his many love affairs and other self-indulgent habits. He knew he was weak, and didn’t think much of himself. The other fellow, on the other hand, was perfect in his conduct, and he knew it. He walked around proudly, thoroughly aware of his spotless purity.
The rabbi chose the house of the man with the bad reputation. When asked the reason for his choice, he answered that in the Talmud (Sotah 5a), it says:
“R. Hisda said… every person in whom there is arrogance of spirit, the Holy Blessed One says, ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.”
“And,” said the rabbi, “if the Holy Blessed One can’t share a room with an arrogant person, then how could I? We read in the Torah, on the other hand, that the Divine “…dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanliness.” (Lev. 16:16) And if Hashem takes lodgings there, why shouldn’t I?”
The Divine can’t dwell with the arrogant person, because his spirituality has become spoiled. And what is the “preservative” that kept the other fellow from being arrogant?
An amazing, radical teaching: Yes, sin is sin. It’s not good, just like a preservative is not in itself healthy. And yet, it can prevent rottenness of spirit, by helping to conquer arrogance.
After all, what is arrogance really? It’s not just thinking good of oneself; it’s about entitled expectation.
Spiritual practice, on the deepest level, is about dropping all expectation.
When we’re successful in that, there can be an experience of freedom, of space, of sacredness. And in that experience, there can be a very subtle form of expectation that creeps in without our even knowing it; this is spiritual arrogance, the expectation perhaps that others should see us as special, and even more importantly, that we are somehow entitled to the spiritual bliss lasting forever. But if we reflect on our own imperfections, bringing to mind that we have made many errors and aren’t entitled to anything in particular, then we can paradoxically remain connected to the root, even when our branches falter.
וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת
Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people who were with him… into two camps.
This was Jacob’s quality that won him the name Yisrael. He is very insecure about his brother who wants to kill him, so he “divides the people” – meaning, part of him wants to simply trust the Divine protection that was promised to him, but part of him isn’t sure. His insecurity is actually the deepest nature of existence: all things, all beings, are completely insecure. Nothing is guaranteed. There may be a deep desire to trust, to believe that we have some kind of Divine protection, but this kind of trust is arrogance; if we’re honest, we must admit that insecurity is the Truth.
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of dawn.
These two sides of his being wrestled, until the “arising of the dawn” – until illumination occurred. He had done everything he could – he sent many gifts to his brother, he split up his camp, he prayed for safety – now it was time to surrender, and in that surrender, to conquer.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
He said, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Yisrael, for sarita im Elohim –you have conquered with (your) Divine (nature) and (your) human (nature), and you are able!”
Through his human nature, through his profound insecurity, he reached the true kind of trust – not trust in a particular outcome, but trust in Reality Itself, trust that this moment is as it is, and will be as it will be. Thus, through his human nature, he reached his Divine nature.
And this is our opportunity as well – to do everything we can to secure the outcome we want – pray, send gifts, work hard, all of it. But at the same time, be free. Embrace and relax into the insecurity, into the unknown, and into the true and actual security that isn’t about what we want; it’s about connecting with the truth of this moment, beautiful and fragile and tragic and miraculous. And in doing so, we can truly be one, and reunite with anything disowned or denied from our past:
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו כתיב צוארו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹ֑הֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ
And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…
Good Shabbos and Happy Thanksgiving!
More On Parshat Vayishlakh...
Send! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Vayishlakh Ya'akov malakhim lifanav el eisav-
And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau…”
This week’s reading begins with Ya’akov, with Jacob, sending angels ahead of him to appease his brother Eisav who had been intent on killing Ya’akov.
So who are Ya’akov and Eisav?
They’re twin brothers, but they were also opposite archetypes. Eisav was a hunter, a man of the field. Ya’akov, on the other hand, “dwelled in tents” where, according to the tradition, he would study Torah.
Get it? Eisav represents the body, and Ya’akov the mind.
Eisav wants to kill Ya’akov because Ya’akov used his cunning intelligence first to convince Eisav to sell him his birthright, and later to trick their father Yitzhak into giving Eisav’s blessing of the first born to Ya’akov.
And isn’t this what the mind so often does?
The body has its needs- not very complicated or profound- it needs good food, fresh air, good rest, and so on. But our minds have other more sophisticated and ambitions and plans. And because of all the great things we want to accomplish and experience, we end up polluting our bodies, not getting enough rest and exercise, and pushing ourselves in ways that can make us sick- not to mention the damage we cause to other people and to the earth. Eventually, Eisav will rebel- the body rebels, the oppressed rebel, the earth rebels. And that’s when life can fall apart.
So what’s the solution?
It’s to realize, first of all, that there’s a much more profound dimension to your mind than your thoughts, ideas and ambitions; and that’s your sensitivity- your awareness, your Presence.
Just as Ya’akov sends the malakhim- the angels- to Eisav, so you can send your awareness into your body. That’s how you can give yourself love, because awareness is the carrier wave for love; it’s the whole basis for love. After all, before you do anything loving for anyone, you first have to be present with them, you have to pay attention to them. Sometimes, attentiveness is all that’s needed. And, it’s the same for your own body.
So what does Eisav do when they finally meet? Eisav weeps and kisses Ya’akov.
In the same way, when you bring your mind out of its imaginary worlds of ambition and projection and down into your physical body, then with practice, your body will reflect back to you that quality of love and attention as a feeling of blissful openness, showing you the true nature of your own Being.
So on this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we send our loving attention deeply into our own bodies, and may our appreciation of the body lead us to eradicate all the needless human oppression on this planet. May we also love and protect this earth which is our physical home. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may this loving attention- this Power of Presence- ever increase like the lights of the menorah.
DON'T Let it Go! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Abba, do you want to wrestle?” asked my four-year-old daughter hopefully-
“Sure,” I said, “How do we start?”
“First, you go on that side of the bed, and I go on this side of the bed. We have to make mean faces and put our fists in the air. Then, we fall forward face down… and then… we wrestle!”
When I was in seventh grade, I was on the wrestling team, but we never started a wrestling match quite like that. Hilarious. But that’s what we did: We made our mean wrestling faces, put our fists in the air, fell onto the bed, and then… we wrestled!
Wrestling with a little four-year-old girl is not exactly fair. She thinks we’re wrestling, but I'm calling the shots. I pretend to struggle, then I fall over and say, “Oh no, she’s getting me! She’s getting me!”- but really, it's an illusion.
Kind of like when we wrestle with Reality. We can groan and moan, complain and blame, and somehow the mind thinks that all this drama will get us somewhere... but of course, it's an illusion too. We can do a lot to change our situation for the future, but we can never do anything to change what has already become.
And yet, in the case of wrestling with my daughter, just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The real value is not in the struggle itself, but the blessing of connection that comes from the struggle.
In this week’s reading, Jacob demands that a blessing comes from his struggle.
Jacob is once again in a dark place. He has received word that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men, and he fears for his life:
“Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people, flocks, cattle and camels into two camps…” (Gen. 32:8)
If Esau attacks half of his camp, at least the other half will survive. He then sends tributes ahead to appease his brother and prays for his life.
Night falls. After sending his family across the river, a strange thing happens-
“He spent the night there… Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn…”
The “night” is his not knowing- his anxiety about the danger that might befall him. So, he “wrestles” with his situation- meaning, he resists the truth of his predicament. Of course, it’s not a fair fight- the “wrestling” is an illusion. You can’t fight with Reality.
But eventually, the “man” says to Jacob,
“Let me go, for the dawn has broken!”
In every experience of fear, anger, frustration or loss, there comes a time to “let it go”. To “let it go” means you stop telling yourself stories about it, that you stop torturing yourself with it.
But- is there a value in not letting it go?
Jacob thinks so:
“I will not let you go until you bless me!”
Jacob knows that the real value is not in the struggle itself, but in the blessing that comes from the struggle. The mysterious man concedes and says:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (Sarita) with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.”
Jacob insists on a blessing, so his opponent gives him the title of one who has mastered his situation.
It’s true- Jacob has done everything he could do with both God and man to take responsibility: He’s split his camp to ensure the survival of at least half of them. He’s sent many gifts to appease his brother. He’s prayed to God for safety and protection.
And now, after an all night struggle with his anxiety and fear, the dawn is breaking. He’s done his best- he has become Yisrael- and now he’s ready to let go, surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
But something is missing. He is not satisfied with the mere title of Yisrael, there’s something he still needs to learn- so he asks a question:
“Vayishal Ya’akov- Jacob asked- ‘Tell me please your name!’”
The word for “asked” is “yishal”- the same letters as his new name, “Yisrael,” except that it’s missing a letter Reish.
The letter Reish means “head”. It implies authority, as in the “head of a school” or the “head of a company” and so on.
As Yisrael, Jacob has used his head wisely- he’s thought through his situation and acted as the responsible “head” of his family. But in asking a question, Yisrael becomes Yishal- he loses the Reish,as if to say, “my head is incomplete- there’s something I don’t yet know.”
What is it that he doesn’t know?
He doesn’t know the identity of the “man” that he’s wrestling with. In other words, even though he might be ready to give up his struggle, he doesn’t yet understand the nature of his struggle.
Jacob’s opponent answers him with yet another question:
“Why do you ask me my name?”
His opponent puts a question back onto Jacob: What’s your motivation in asking?
When we experience the inner pain of resistance, there comes a time when we accept and let go. Little children do this all the time- they’re great a letting go. But that doesn’t help them stay out of trouble in the future. The next moment, they’re upset about something else. There’s no self reflection- no sense of how they create their own suffering.
But if you take the time to really look at your own motivation- ask yourself, “How am I creating my experience?” then there’s the possibility for growth, for actually responding to life with a new wisdom. That kind of wisdom can only be won through the real struggles of your life.
But the struggle itself doesn’t automatically give it to you. You have to hold on to it a little longer and deeply inquire into yourself, before the “dawn” makes you forget all about it. The wisdom you get from that self-inquiry is the true blessing.
When you experience the blessing that only comes through suffering, the suffering takes on a whole new dimension. It’s no longer your enemy. Behind your troubles and problems, there is the Divine Friend, urging you to grow, to evolve.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist says to God: “I am a stranger on the earth- hide not your commandments from me!”
On this verse, the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, taught:
“When a person is driven into exile and comes to a strange and alien land, he has nothing in common with the people there and not a soul he can talk to.
But, if a second stranger appears, even though the new stranger comes from a totally different place, the two can confide in one another, and come to cherish one another. And had they not both been strangers, they never would have known such close companionship.
And that’s what the psalmist means: ‘You, just like me, are a stranger on this earth, for Your Divinity is hidden by my pain and suffering. So please, do not withdraw from me, but reveal to me your ‘commandments’- reveal to me the wisdom that can only be learned through this suffering- and let us be friends…’”
On this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Shabbat of Sending, may our personal pain and all the troubles of the world be sent far away. But before it goes, may we extract the Light that can only come from the darkness- the self-knowledge we need to evolve. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may that Light ever increase as the lights of the menorah, helping our whole species to evolve. May we dedicate ourselves ever more completely to the revelation of this Light!