I spoke to a woman once who had recently lost her husband. In her grief she confided in me that the most painful part was not that her husband had died – he had lived a good life and death is natural, after all – but that she didn’t fully appreciate him while he was alive. In his death, she was finally appreciating him so deeply, but now he was gone.
Why don’t we appreciate what is here now? Why does it take death to open our hearts?
The irony is that the past is always dead, but we hold on to it, and the holding on itself is what creates this separation from the preciousness that’s here now. But, if we bring ourselves to realize that the past is dead, that the only preciousness there is resides now in this moment, we can use the power of death to awaken.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayelekh, begins with Moses telling the Israelites before he dies:
הַיֹּ֔ום לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל עֹ֖וד לָצֵ֣את וְלָבֹ֑וא
Today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come back…
For many, connection with Reality, with the Divine, with the Space of this moment, is something one visits occasionally, perhaps only by accident. But for a few, the Divine becomes the central guiding Reality, the Place one returns frequently every day. For these few practitioners, the drama of “going out” and “coming back” can feel very pronounced, since one really wishes to stay there all the time.
But there is a later stage where the going out and coming back ceases. This is NOT because one simply stays in some static Divine consciousness all the time, which is impossible, but rather because one is no longer so concerned about the “me” that comes and goes. The Divine becomes one’s center of attention, so that even when one’s attention wanders from the Divine and then returns, it is the Divine that matters – not the “me” that wandered and returned. This is similar to death, in that the attachment to one’s self and life drama comes to an end: Today, meaning in the Reality of the Present, it is no longer possible to be concerned about the “me” that “goes out” and “comes back”…
The Maggid of Metzrich taught that this opportunity of these High Holy Days: to consciously let the “me” die, and let the force of this death blast our hearts open like the shofar to receive the fulness that is always present, and also to open to the full potential for the future, unburdened by any clinging to the past. That’s why we have to forgive each other, and even more importantly, forgive ourselves.
In this way, our loss is our gain. Rather than be in regret that we didn’t appreciate something or someone enough in the past, we consciously feel both the pain and the relief of letting go, and come now to arrive in the present. On these Days of Return, may we all be helped to make the Divine our center, so that the going out and coming back starts to pale in comparison…
Live From Your Depths- Parshat Vayelekh
Once, my wife and mother-in-law were giving a bath to our three-year-old daughter. A few minutes after she got in the water, she looked up and said, “Um, could you guys please put some toys in here so I don’t have to play with my feet?”
The mind loves things to play with. As children we call those play objects toys. As adults, we have different names for them, but they are essentially the same. They are stimulation. They are external content that we become fascinated with.
We don’t want to just “play with our feet,” or even worse, have nothing to play with at all. What could be worse for a child than to have to sit still, be quiet and do nothing? The mind craves and needs stimulation. For children, this stimulation is essential for the healthy growth of their brains, and so stimulation must be almost constant.
But at some point, that changes.
At some point, you might notice: all the stimulation, all the thinking, all the experiencing, wonderful and essential as they are, can be like the flaming sword of the keruvim, guarding the entrance to Gan Eden- the entrance to paradise.
At some moment, and maybe that moment is now, you notice:
There is an inner depth so vast, so beautiful, so alive, if you would only put down your toys and open to it.
That vastness is your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem- it is awareness meeting the truth of the present moment- Eloheikhem Emet.
But many people never discover this, and remain identified and entangled in the noise of mental toys, in the mind’s perpetual narratives. This creates an experience of separateness, of craving for the wholeness that is actually there all along, beneath the mind. That craving can lead to great inner disturbance, and ultimately, all of the horrors that still plague humanity.
What is the remedy?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Levi Bar Chama says in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish that when you feel yourself gripped by unwholesome motives, you should study some Torah (Berakhot 5a).
In other words, study some spiritual teaching that puts you in touch with your inner Divinity, just like you are doing right now. For the aim of spiritual teaching is not just to convey information, it’s to awaken your higher potential.
But, if that doesn’t work, he says to chant this verse:
“Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Ekhad-
"Listen Israel, Existence Itself is your own inner Divinity; there is only One Existence.”
In other words, stop and become aware that God is not something “out there” or separate. All you need do is “listen” because this moment is nothing but God, if your thinking mind would relax.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s one more trick: Think of your own death.
The irony of children is that, on one hand, they are such bright little explosions of life, free and unencumbered by the heaviness that so many adults carry around with them.
And, at the same time, they are so utterly obsessed with things that are really trivial, as anyone knows who has had to negotiate “sharing toys” with three-year-olds.
But as adults, despite the years of psychic crust we accumulate in our nervous system, there is this tremendous opportunity for depth when we let go of everything. That is the contemplation of death. We will all die, but we can die before we die, surrendering into the reality of this moment, letting go of the story of “me”.
This week’s reading begins shortly before Moses’ death:
"Moses went and spoke these words...
‘Hayom lo ukhal…’-
‘today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come in…’”
When you live on the surface, in the mind’s narratives, there is this sense of “me” going here and there, doing this and that.
But in hayom- in the “today”- there is no longer a “me” coming and going. In the present, you live from your depths that are far beyond your personal story. This is the death before you die.
It is said that a heavenly voice told the Baal Shem Tov he would be denied life in the World to Come for some small sin he committed. When he heard this news, he jumped for joy and danced.
“Why are you so happy?” said the heavenly voice.
“Because now I can serve God for its own sake, without ulterior motive.”
In these days of teshuvah, leading to Yom Kippur- The Day of At-One-ment, may our commitment to live from our depths become ever more deep, and may that depth be revealed in our thoughts, words and actions. May we speedily see a day when all of humanity lives and loves from its true depth and potential!
Good Shabbos, and g’mar hatimah tovah-
May you be inscribed for all good things!