לולא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים
Had I not trusted that I could see the Divine Goodness in the land of the living…
Once, Rabbi Yitzhak Mer of Ger was riding in a carriage with one of his hasidim. As the carriage crested over a steep hill, the horses were spooked by something and took off wildly down the dangerous slope. The hasid was terrified for his life, and as the carriage raced toward certain destruction, he nearly fainted with fear. In the frenzy, he happened to look over at his rebbe, who seemed completely calm and undisturbed in the midst of it all.
Barukh Hashem, as they came to the bottom of the hill, the driver got control of the horses and slowed them back down to a safe speed. After some time had passed and the hasid recovered from his shock, he asked his rebbe: “How is it possible that you seemed to be not the slightest bit scared back there??”
Rabbi Yitzhak replied, “One who is aware of the Constant Danger is not disturbed by the many dangers of the moment…”
What is this “Constant Danger” that renders all other dangers powerless?
It is simply the ordinary condition of mind that makes possible the perception of danger in the first place: the sense of “me” that prefers this over that, that prefers a nice gentle ride in the carriage over getting hurled around by reckless horses. In moments of inner stillness, the ego can relax, leaving only the fullness of Presence without that sense of “me” as something separate from that fullness. This is the טוּב־יְהוָ֗ה Tuv Hashem – Divine Goodness; we can partake of this Goodness right now, in the חַיִּֽים אֶ֣רֶץ eretz hayim – the land of the living – it is not in some afterlife, but available now!
At first, transcendence comes at particular moments, after which you return to a more ego-based state. But with time, the practice will bear fruit, and the “going out” and “coming back” becomes more and more slight. There’s a hint of this in the parshah:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם בֶּן־מֵאָה֩ וְעֶשְׂרִ֨ים שָׁנָ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל ע֖וֹד לָצֵ֣את וְלָב֑וֹא
He said to them: One hundred and twenty years I am today; it is not possible anymore to go out and come back…
Moses is speaking to the people, telling them that he is old; he must step down from leadership and prepare for death. But the deeper hint is the death of the ego after many years of practice – לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל ע֖וֹד לָצֵ֣את וְלָב֑וֹא lo ukhal od latzeit v’lavo – it is no longer possible to go out and come back.
That’s the state of Reb Yitzhak Mer. This may seem like an unattainable goal, but the truth is that if we’re concerned about ourselves reaching that goal, we are only reinforcing that “me” that wants to achieve something. Rather, practice out of love for the teaching and the possibility; practice because it is a privilege to practice. Know: Presence is what you are; practice being with this moment as it is, even if the coming and going seems to have no end in sight:
אָנֹכִי֙ הַיּ֔וֹם – Anokhi Hayom – I am, today!
Don’t be concerned about “getting there” but also don’t give up trying to get there! That’s the paradox: “surrender” and “will” in one. “Surrender” without “will” simply destroys the path, but “will” without “surrender” prevents it from ever beginning. But, when they come together, transformation is not only possibly, it is guaranteed.
This is hinted at in the final line of Psalm 27, by the word kaveh. Kaveh can mean “hope” but it can also mean “wait.” These are, in a sense, the opposite of each other: To hope means to reach after the future, to base your existence in the present on something that you wish will come later – this is “will.” Waiting, on the other hand, has the connotation of patience, of being here with this, content to allow the future to come when it comes – this is “surrender.” When you’ve got them both, you have an aim, but the aim is the dropping of the “me” that has the aim. In this way, ego becomes your ally in transcending yourself…
קַוּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה
Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v’ya’ameitz libekha; kaveh el Hashem!
Wait for the Divine, be strong and your heart will have courage; have hope for the Divine!
More on Parshat Vayelekh...
Our Loss is Our Gain – Parshat Vayelekh
9/13/2018 0 Comments
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
10/6/2016 6 Comments
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!