How can I get free from thoughts and painful emotions through Jewish Meditation? Insights from Parshat Ki Tisa and Purim...
Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
Before diving into the wisdom teachings on the right way to practice Jewish meditation to get free from disturbing thoughts and painful emotions, let's look briefly at the parshah on the literal level:
The parshah opens with Moses taking a census of the Children of Israel. Each person who is counted must contribute a makhazit hashekel – a half shekel of silver to the Sanctuary. Instructions are also given regarding the making of the Sanctuary’s water basin, anointing oil and incense. The “wise-hearted” artisans Betzalel and Aholiav are singled out as possessing hokhmat halev – “wisdom of the heart” – and are placed in charge of the Sanctuary’s construction.
Moses does not return when expected from Mount Sinai. The people lose faith, and make themselves a golden calf to worship. Hashem grows angry and proposes to destroy the errant nation, but Moses intercedes on their behalf. Moses descends from the mountain carrying the “tablets of the testimony” engraved with the Ten Commandments. But when he sees the people dancing about their idol, he breaks the tablets, and destroys the golden calf. He then pleads with God for forgiveness on their behalf: “If You will not forgive them, blot me out from the book that You have written.” Hashem forgives them, but says that the effect will be felt for many generations, and as they continue their journey, Hashem will not be with them; only an angel will accompany them. But, Moses again pleads with Hashem to continue to accompanying them on their journey to the promised land.
Moses prepares a new set of tablets himself (as opposed the first set which were inscribed by God). On the mountain, Moses is also granted a vision of the “Thirteen Attributes of Compassion.” When Moses returns, his face is so radiant that he must cover it with a veil, which he removes only to speak with Hashem and to teach Torah to the people…
Torah of Awakening
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃
When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, each shall give an atonement for their soul to the Divine when they are counted, so that there will not be a plague among them when they are counted…
- Shemot (Exodus) 30:12, Parshat Ki Tisa
A young man came to the rabbi of Rizhyn with a question: “What can I do to break all of my distracting impulses that keep me in a state of restless anxiety and sorrow, so that I may have true inner peace?” The rabbi chuckled and his eyes twinkled: “You want to break your impulses? You will break your back and hip, but you will never break your impulses! Nevertheless, if you pray and learn and work in a spirit of service, your distracting impulses will vanish on their own.”
The Master’s response may seem contradictory: on one hand, we cannot get rid of distracting impulses through spiritual practice; but on the other hand, if we practice with the right intention, they will leave of their own accord. Isn’t that the same thing?
But that’s the point: we can get free of inner disturbance, but we cannot do it if our motivation involves trying to get something for ourselves; we must do it in a spirit of love – that is an essential ingredient for success, and is why we begin our practice of Integral Jewish Meditation with the first of the three portals, the portal of the heart: we offer attention to this moment as it is, as opposed to trying to “get something.” (Learn Integral Jewish meditation HERE.)
וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ – each shall give an atonement for their soul… This strange passage describes the necessity for giving a כֹּ֧פֶר kofer – an “atonement” or a “ransom” when being counted in the census. (Kofer is a different form of kippur, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.)
יִתְּנ֗וּ כׇּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל זֶ֣ה – This is what shall be given by all who pass through the counting: a half-shekel… The kofer the people offer is to be a kind of coin, a “half shekel,” which they need to give in order to prevent a plague from breaking out. But why do they have to atone for being counted to prevent a plague, as if being counted is some kind of sin?
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ – When you lift up the head (take a census)… The idiom that describes the census literally means, “When you lift up the head.” What is “lifting up the head?”
It is elevating consciousness – meaning, the disentanglement or dis-identification of consciousness with thought and feeling – all of that inner material that normally makes up the sense of “me,” or ego. The process of ki tisa – of transcending the ego and experiencing the freedom and spaciousness of pure consciousness is, of course, the aim of meditation.
Normally, when we decide to practice Jewish meditation, we are motivated by wanting to experience something like that – maybe we want less stress, maybe we want to stop feeling the burden of our problems, or whatever. And these are all totally valid motivations, but the problem is, they’re all rooted in that experience of “me” wanting to get “something.” But since the thing you’re trying to get is the letting go of the “me,” it doesn’t work! It turns your meditation into a kind of plague, because you’re chasing after something you can never get with that approach. The only way you can get it is by changing your approach – changing your motivation – don’t do it from that drive to get something. This is why the rabbi of Rizhyn instructed his disciple as he did.
The message is: approach practice as an act of giving – an act of love for its own sake – that’s the donation of the “half shekel.” It is only a half shekel because there is, of course, the acknowledgment that meditation is good for you – that’s the other “half of the coin” so to speak – but that which is good for you is also good for others. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children, otherwise you might not be able to help your children. So the donation of the makhazit hashekel, the half shekel, means that you are dedicating the spiritual work that you do on yourself toward the service of others.
Today, the practice of the makhazit hashekel is commemorated by giving three half coins (half dollar coins in the USA) to charity, on the day leading into Purim. The tradition of giving three coins comes from the fact that Parshat Ki Tisa, from which the idea of the makhazit hashekel comes, mentions the word terumah, “donation,” three times. This particular practice of giving to others in need is also reflected in the two of the four other mitzvot of Purim: Matanot La’evyonim – giving gifts to the poor, and Mishloach Manot – giving/sending gifts of food to friends.
The other two mitzvot of Purim are the seuda – the eating of a festive meal, and hearing the megillah, the Scroll of Esther, which tells the Purim story. These last two mitzvot (eating and hearing) are more of a “receiving” then a “giving,” forming a counterpoint to the first two. The festive meal is particularly in this spirit, and there is a tradition to become intoxicated with alcohol.
מִיחַיַּיב אִינִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי
Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until they don’t know how to distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai”…
- B. Talmud, Megillah 7b
And yet, these practices of receiving, like all spiritual practices, should be done in a spirit of giving: eating and drinking for God, so to speak. In this way, loving service is disguised as gluttony; this is the paradox of Purim, pointing to the paradox of spirituality in general, and embodied in the popular practice of wearing masks and costumes for Purim celebrations. In the language of Kabbalah, this points to Hesed, Lovingkindness, being dressed in the garb of Yesod, joy.
It is important to note that there is disagreement in the tradition as to whether the intoxication of Purim should involve alcohol or not.While the Talmudic passage quoted above is a well-known proof text for justifying becoming drunk, the passage that comes immediately after is less known: It says that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira followed Rava’s advice and got drunk on Purim, which resulted in Rabba murdering Rabbi Zeira! When he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba prayed and Rabbi Zeira was resurrected! The next year, Rabba suggested that they get drunk again on Purim, to which Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles do not happen each and every hour!”
Read past teachings on Parshat Ki Tisa HERE.
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