וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְי אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃
כִּ֚י אִם־לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו
The Divine said to Moses, ‘speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and tell them that they should not make themselves spiritually impure for a (dead) person among their people, except for close relatives…’
In the plain meaning, this is talking about the purity laws for the kohanim (priests), that they shouldn’t touch a corpse and become ritually defiled, except for when close relatives die.
On a deeper level, there is a practical and universal message: on one hand, it is beneficial to be know what makes us tamei, that is, spiritually “dead” inside, and avoid those things. Is it too much news and social media? Is it dealing with particularly difficult people? Is it your job, or certain kinds of entertainment, or some addictive substance?
To be on the spiritual path means we have to take responsibility for what experiences we take in, just as those on a path of physical health must take responsibility for what food they take in. This is lo yitama – don’t defile yourself!
At the same time, we also need to sometimes do the opposite, because if we try to avoid tumah completely, we can never grow spiritually in our ability to stay free and at peace in the midst of disturbance. Furthermore, on a deeper level, the avoidance itself can become a kind of tumah. Guarding ourselves from disturbances is necessary, but it also can become a neurotic attempt to control our experience; life happens and we must meet it, not avoid it.
This is ki im lish’eiro karov eilav – except for a close relative. The key is the word karov, close. In general, we should do what we can to live in a spiritually conducive environment. But when disturbance comes along, we need to know how to be karov – how to come close, meaning be present – with whatever has arisen. In the state of Presence, the disturbance merely comes and goes, we deal with whatever we need to deal with, and we strengthen our connection with inner spaciousness and peace through the practice.
Some of the masters of the past were particularly good at this.
There’s a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was visiting Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg. They had both been students of the great Maggid of Mezritch, but Rabbi Shmelke was older, and Levi Yitzhak considered him to be his teacher as well. On the first morning, Levi Yitzhak came down from the guest room with his tefillin and tallis on, ready to go to daven, when he stopped in the kitchen and starting conversing with the cooks. (Rabbi Shmelke was apparently quite well off and had his own cooks.) He asked them what they were making, and questioned them about their methods as if he were concerned that food wouldn’t be good enough.
When some disciples came by on their way to shul and overheard all this, they frowned in disapproval. At the synagogue, Levi Yitzhak didn’t pray, but spent all his time talking loudly in the back of the sanctuary to a man who was considered to be annoying and unlearned. Eventually, one of the hasidim couldn’t take it anymore. “You must be quiet in here!” Levi Yitzhak simply went on talking loudly and disturbing everyone.
Later, when all the hasidim gathered for lunch, Rabbi Shmelke treated Levi Yitzhak with the utmost honors, giving him food to eat from his own bowl. Later, the hasidim asked their rebbe about this strange man who talked so obnoxiously about such mundane things. Why did the rebbe honor him so?
Rabbi Shmelke replied, “In the Talmud, the rabbi known as Rab (Abba Areka) is praised for never engaging in worldly speech. How could it be that this is what he was praised for? Does this mean that the other rabbis did engage in worldly speech? Rather, it means that when he engaged in worldly speech, he did so with such kavanah that Divine blessings flowed into this world with every word. Other rabbis could accomplish this for a short time, but eventually their worldly speech would drag them down.
“It’s the same with Levi Yitzhak and myself. What I can do for a short time, he can do all day long; with his seemingly mundane conversations, he is bringing heaven down to earth.”
Generally speaking, it is better not to blabber on loudly in synagogue; that is obviously the right and good way to behave. But we also need to know how to leave the box of the obvious good in order to access the hidden good.
The word for spiritual impurity, tamei, hints at this hidden good. Tamei begins with the letter tet, which also begins the word tov, “good.” The letter tet is shaped in such a way that it points into itself: ט – thus symbolizing the “good” that is hidden within. We access this hidden goodness within things we ordinarily think are not good by becoming karov, bringing our awareness into close connection with whatever messiness we are dealing with: Don’t become tamei, except for with close relatives…
This is our paradoxical task: to guard ourselves against things that drag us down spiritually, but also to transform those things into vehicles for the spirit. How do you know when to take which approach? The key is Presence; life itself conveys to us which path to take if we are listening…
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The Passenger – Parshat Emor
5/14/2019 0 Comments
Just before the plane was about to shut its doors and prepare for takeoff, a frazzled woman boarded my flight back to Tucson from the Bay. She made her way past the many occupied seats and indicated she wanted to sit next to me, so I stood up to let her in.
As she proceeded to squeeze herself and her three big bulky bags into the seat, I told her I would be happy to put some of her stuff in the overhead bin. She said no thanks, she preferred to hold them all. She then proceeded to furiously text on her phone. Soon, a flight attendant came by and told her she had to put her bags either all the way under the seat in front of her, or put them up in the overhead bin. The woman said, “No, I prefer to keep them here.”
“I’m sorry,” said the flight attendant, “it’s for your safety.”
“Well my cousin is a pilot and I know this is safe, so I’m just going to keep them here, thank you!” she responded angrily, not looking up from her ferocious texting.
“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s the rules. I’m just doing my job.”
“Well if you want to put them up, go ahead. I’m not moving.”
The flight attendant politely asked me to turn my legs to the side as she pulled up my armrest, reached in, pulled out her bags and put them up in the overhead. I was very impressed with that flight attendant. Not only did she remain polite, but I think she was genuinely not angry at all; just a little amused.
When we landed in Tucson, the woman said to me that she wasn’t paying attention when the flight attendent put her bags up, and asked if I knew where they were. I said that I didn’t. She said, “I should make that lady get them down for me.” Then, a nice woman in front of us reached up and retrieved the bags for her.
I thought that was interesting… just moments before, I was wondering if I should look for her bags and get them down for her or not. On one hand, I thought I shouldn’t, because she would take that as a validation of her absurd behavior, and she would see me as being “on her side.”
On the other hand, I know that indiscriminate gemilut hasadim – acts of kindness – can be transformative, and might spontaneously increase her self awareness. But the decision was no longer mine to make, as the kind woman in front of us reached up and pulled down the bags for her.
We’ve all probably witnessed extreme unconsciousness in others from time to time, and it can be baffling. How can a person be so clueless? And yet, each at our own level, the powers of unconscious reactivity can take temporarily take hold of us if we’re not careful to regularly “replenish our awareness,” in a sense.
When the woman had first sat down next to me, before the bag incident, she had muttered, “What f%&ed up day.” She also smelled somewhat of alcohol. It’s true – a few things going wrong can greatly diminish our self- awareness, and we might even seek solace in alcohol or something else that diminishes awareness even more. We are prone to spiral, one negative thing leading to another.
Here in Arizona, there are many swimming pools, and anyone who takes care of a pool knows that you have to regularly put more water into it, because the water evaporates over time, especially when it’s hot.
That’s what happens to our awareness, especially when our experience “heats up” with emotion-triggering mishaps. But even without anything overtly disturbing, our consciousness tends to sink down unless we are deliberate in “refilling our pool” so to speak. That, of course, is the whole point of meditation and prayer – to “fill up” with consciousness and awaken our spiritual potential.
But sometimes, having a daily practice is not enough, because if our consciousness has sunk to a low enough level, our practice will be from that low level, and then we will only be mechanically going through the motions. In those cases, we have to somehow wake ourselves up first to even begin. There’s a hint of this in the parshah:
דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֜ן וְאֶל־בָּנָ֗יו וְיִנָּֽזְרוּ֙ מִקָּדְשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלֹ֥א יְחַלְּל֖וּ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֑י אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֧ם מַקְדִּשִׁ֛ים לִ֖י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה
Tell Aaron and his sons that they should withdraw from the sacred offerings that the children of Israel sanctify to Me and not desecrate My Holy Name – I am Hashem.
The word for “withdraw” – vayinazru – comes from a root which means to “abstain” or “renounce” on one hand, but also to “sanctify” or “consecrate,” on the other. (An example of this is the Nazir who both renounces wine and also becomes consecrated to the Divine.) The traditional understanding of this verse is that it speaks of priests who become ritually impure – tamei – and so must excuse themselves from dealing with the offerings that people bring, until they become pure – tahor – again.
The word for “desecrate” – y’khal’lu – comes from the root which means “to empty.” The shem kodshi – the “My Holy Name” is the four-letter name which the kabbalists associate with the human body, based on the notion that we are b’tzelem Elohim – the “image of the Divine.” Thus, to “desecrate the Holy Name” means to “empty” our Presence from our bodies, and become disconnected from the wisdom and benevolence that arises from that body-Presence.
When that happens, when we sink to such a low level of awareness. disconnected from our bodies and the present moment, holy prayers and Divine Names become temporarily useless; the “Name” becomes “empty,” and formal prayer and meditation are not enough to pull ourselves up.
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּבַתְּפִלָּה. וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם
Rabbi Shimon said, “Be meticulous in the chanting of the Sh’ma and in prayer. And when you pray, don’t make your prayer rigid and fixed; rather, compassion and supplication before The Place…”
Rabbi Shimon gives advice for this. On one hand, he acknowledges the importance of having a regular, formal practice: Be meticulous in the chanting of the Sh’ma and in prayer. On the other hand, if all you have is a formal practice, that won’t work: Don’t make your prayer rigid and fixed; rather, compassion and supplication before The Place…
In other words, when we have sunk to a low level, we can’t mechanically elevate ourselves; we need humility. We need to acknowledge how low we’ve sunk, and acknowledge that we may have acted from that low level. We have to admit: I’ve been that rude woman on the airplane, but I want to be the flight attendant – I want to “attend” to the elevation of myself and others. Oh Ribono Shel Olam, help me out of this low place. Help me fulfill potential and my purpose!
That’s the rakhamim v’takhanunim – “compassion and supplication before HaMakom.”
It’s interesting that the Divine is here called HaMakom – The Place, hinting that the point is not theology, it’s how you affect those with whom you share space. The point is not what you believe about God, it’s about keeping your inner space Godly; it’s about openness and humility. You are the “priest” of your own inner space. Sometimes your space becomes contaminated, so then it’s time to call out to the Divine, even call out to your own “inner priest” – as the parshah says:
אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים – Speak to the priests!
The person who can reach this openness and humility, the person who accepts what happens and finds peace within their own being, and who also takes responsibility for what they’ve done and for acting to fulfill their reason for being – that person truly serves God, even if they say they are an atheist.
On the other hand, the person who complains about what happens, who harbors grudges and anger, who judges others while refusing to take responsibility for what only they can and must do – that person is the true atheist, even as they profess to “believe.” Beliefs about “God” are not the same as actual God.
People have believed in various gods for a long time; we seem to have an innate capacity for bowing to something greater than ourselves. Much, if not all extraordinary human achievements and crimes come from that capacity, whether it’s bowing to the God of the Bible or the cause of science; whether it’s Democracy or Nazism. Bowing to something greater is empowering, but it’s not necessarily good. That’s the essence of the Jewish prohibition against idolatry – don’t bow to some parasitic ideology, something that is not good.
Rather, the inner message of Judaism is: Hashem Hu HaElohim.
Meaning: Existence, Being, Reality, That is the true Divinity. In other words, take your innate devotionality and aim it at Reality Itself. Reality always Is what it Is, it always Will Be what it Will Be, and yet you can and must bring forth what Could Be – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.
Bow to That – don’t resist what is, find the peace within your own being that is the blissful openness of that acceptance.
At the same time, acknowledge – you are here, aren’t you? Take it seriously. There are things only you can bring into being, and there is something only you can do. Do it. All those religious beliefs about God are secondary. They change over time, because at any moment they are either helpful or not. And sometimes they even interfere. But within your own being is the potential:
וְלֹ֥א יְחַלְּל֖וּ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֑י – Don’t empty the Holy Name – Rather, cry out to HaMakom, the transcendent field of Beingness that is not separate from your own awareness, and bring forth your sacred destiny…
What Do You Say? Parshat Emor
5/3/2018 0 Comments
Once, when Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev had finished leading the davening, he went out into the congregation and greeted everyone: "Shalom aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!" – as if he they had just arrived after a journey.
"Rabbi, why do you greet us as if we just got here? We've been praying with you all morning!"
"Have you?" replied the rebbe, "but in your mind, you were just in the marketplace, you were just wondering what's for lunch, you were just arguing with someone, and when the prayers ended, you all returned, so I greeted you!"
The essence of spiritual work is Presence, and the goal of Presence is freedom. Freedom means: no resistance to whatever happens to arise within your experience. It means: no resentment, no blame, no persisting anger – no resistance at all!
One of the biggest obstacles in our quest for freedom can be the way we talk to ourselves. How do you narrate your experience? How are you framing this moment right now? The way we speak to ourselves has the power to either lead us to more inner clutter, or lead us into the spaciousness of the Present; the power is in our mouths, so to "speak"...
There's a hint in this week's reading, Parshat Emor:
אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו
Speak – Emor – to the priests, the children of Aaron, and say to them, "don't become polluted for a person among your people..."
If you wish to keep yourself open, spacious, uncluttered, then "speak to the priests" – that is, know that you are literally a "priest" – you're not merely a separate entity navigating through life, you are a connecting point between heaven and earth – between the vast space of consciousness, and everything that you perceive – thoughts, feelings, sense perceptions – the whole world around and within. Speak to yourself, remind yourself in this way: "Here is this feeling, here is this thought..." And even more, transform it into a prayer:
"O Hashem, help me to know myself as the vast space of awareness, help me to accept everything that arises and live in simplicity, with love, serving Your highest potential and uplifting the world..."
love and all blessing,
reb brian yosef
"Say"- Parshat Emor
"Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai-
"Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals."
(Inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson- The Rebbe)
The Torah reading Parshat Emor emphasizes the mitzvot of making sacred times- in this case, of setting aside special days in which you put aside all your time-bound agendas so that you can more deeply connect with Eternal dimension of Being. It says, "Mo’adei Hashem asher tikr’u otam mikra’ei kodesh, eleh hem mo’adai- Special Divine times you are to define as holy gatherings- these are My festivals." It then goes on to talk about the various festivals, beginning with Shabbat: "Uvayom hash’vi’i Shabbat Shabbaton- and on the seventh day shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths."
Why does it call Shabbat a Sabbath of Sabbaths?
Because ultimately, the purpose of Shabbat- the purpose of the festivals, as well as any other times you set aside for spiritual practice- is not merely to have a special holy experience during those times alone. Rather, the purpose is to immerse in the Eternal dimension of Being so that you can continue to practice Presence even as you operate in the mundane world of time. In that way, all times become like a Sabbath, and the actual Sabbath is then a Sabbath of Sabbaths. Because as we all know, there are many forces of distraction on many levels that block the sense of life being a Sabbath. But when you regularly put those distractions aside in order to do your spiritual practice, you give yourself that space you need and allow the Eternal dimension of Being to blossom more and more into all your life.
So what does it mean to put aside the things of ordinary time? As it says, "...mikra kodesh- a sacred time- kol melakha lo ta’asu- all melakha, that is all work, don’t do."
Meaning, anything that has goals in time such as earning a livelihood, traveling, planning, working on projects- all those things that define your life in time, as opposed to your actual life- that sense of simply Being, as you are, right now, don’t do that stuff. Make sure you have some special times that are sacred.
So on this Shabbat Emor, the Sabbath of saying, may we say out loud to ourselves our commitment to set aside time to go beyond time, whether in the traditional practices of Shabbat and the mo’adim, the Sabbath and festivals, or even for just a few seconds throughout the day to stop, breath and be present, perhaps even putting away phones and computers. May the whole world be nourished by our commitment to practice, that we might be greater channels of love and healing in the world.
The Zombies- Parshat Emor
5/19/2016 2 Comments
Once I saw my son looking at You Tube, ravenously drinking in the old 1980’s Michael Jackson Thrillervideo.
Oh man, that brought me back!
The way Michael morphs into some kind of wer-cat and then leads a band of zombies in that funky dance of the dead-
And then the really scary part- his girlfriend cowering in the corner of her house while zombies crash through windows, breaking through the walls and floor- it’s the classic zombie scene that both draws and repels.
Why is the “zombies-invading-the-house” thing so compelling?
To me, the home is a sanctuary- a place to be safe, to relax, to sip a cup of tea on the couch- wouldn’t you agree? And let’s face it- nothing messes with our nice, safe, home-sanctuary like a bunch of zombies clawing at your window!
But there is also an inner sanctuary- a place of peace and stillness, a place of vitality, of creativity, of light and benevolence. That place is your own deepest layer of being- the space of awareness itself.
When you dwell in that space, you dwell in the temple of your own being, which is also Divine Being. That space is always here, always open and sacred- the space of consciousness that is eternally this moment.
But, there are zombies!!
Sometimes there are only a few pathetic zombies, wandering around on your lawn. Sometimes they are fast, tricky and vicious, fooling and distracting you into letting them in. Sometimes, they are disguised as something you lust for- they are seductive- more like vampires- making your eyes glaze over as you lurch unconsciously toward the door and turn the knob...
These zombies and vampires are your own thoughts.
There was once a hassid who went to his rebbe for advice on how to empty his mind. He knocked on the door of his rebbe’s house, but no answer. He peered through the window- the rebbe was sitting at a table, reading.
The hassid knocked again, a little louder- no answer. Growing more and more frustrated, his polite greetings and knocks turned into screams and bangs, pounding on the doors and windows. This went on for hours!
Eventually, the rebbe opened the door-
“Just as I can ignore you, no matter now much fuss you make, so you can ignore your own thoughts and not admit them into your mind.”
It’s true, your zombie/vampiric thoughts can trick you, distract you, lure you, entice you. But unless you believe in them, they have absolutely no power. It is your own mind that is creating them; if you let them be and don’t get drawn in, they fade away. The power is completely with you.
This can be learned and practiced, but it is not merely a technique. It is a way of being that reveals your own inner freedom, your own inner divinity.
Free from thought, you dwell in the sanctuary of presence- a space of freedom, of blissful goodness within your own being. This is the space of kadosh- holiness, or sacredness. Kadosh means “separate”, because in it you are separate from the tornados of life. However, it’s not a separateness of alienation, but of the closest intimacy- not far off at a distance from the storm, but at the eye of the storm.
Get seduced by the storm- get absorbed into the drama of time and people, get dragged around and eaten by those flesh-rotten zombies, and you become tamei- spiritually contaminated. Let go of the drama, let the thoughts dissolve and you return to the Presence- to the Kadosh. This is your role, if you choose to accept it, as priest or priestess of your own inner sanctuary.
On that subject, this week’s reading begins with Moses telling the priests,
“L’nefesh lo yitama b’amav-
"You shall not become tamei (spiritually contaminated) to a person among your people.”
In its plain meaning, it’s talking about a priest not becoming tamei from touching a corpse (a regular corps, not the undead!). But metaphorically, it also can refer to the inner tuma we can incur from allowing our thoughts about others to contaminate our minds.
When was the last time you allowed your mind to become tamei because of what some person did or said that you didn’t like, some argument you had, or anything else involving another person? It’s one of the great traps.
And yet, the power is with YOU! Remember- the tzures (suffering) you experience is mostly generated by your own mind. You can stop empowering it NOW and come into the sanctuary.
And yet, the next verse qualifies the first-
“Ki im lish’eiru hakarov-
"EXCEPT for a close relative…”
Here we move from the metaphorical to the actual- from people as thoughts in your mind, to actual living and breathing people.
There are people who are our “close relatives”- not necessarily blood, but those in our tribe, in our community, in our web of interdependence. For them we must become tamei at times, meaning that the relationship sometimes requires the sacrifice of our own needs in order to serve.
Sometimes that sacrifice takes a few minutes, as with a screaming child, and sometimes it can go on for years, as in someone who needs on-going care. Sometimes we must sacrifice the plush-ness of kadosh for love, for the love that binds us together.
But then there are those who are not “close relatives”, who seek to insert themselves into your life for whatever reason. They have their dramas, their pathologies, their fixations, and they are truly zombies and vampires, seeking to drag you down to their level.
As all famous people learn, you can’t let every person into your life who tries to get in. It’s impossible. But, this truth is not just for famous people. The rhythm of reality dictates we work with both sides of the Tree of Life- the Hesed and the Gevurah- the loving-kindness and the setting of boundaries and limits. And life/Hashem will test you on this- you must learn both sides of the Tree!
Of course, there is also gray area- folks who lie somewhere in between close and not-so-close.
Then what do you do?
Make a decision, and don’t worry. Each moment is new. The enemy is not the not-knowing, it is the not-deciding.
On this Shabbat Emor, The Sabbath of Saying, may we speak our intentions with decisiveness, balancing openness with boundaries. And, once our decisions are made, may our minds let go and drink in the Divine Words that are being said in this moment, as this moment.
This week’s reading is the double parshah of Akharei Mot and Kedoshim. Both portions begin with instructions that relate to “holiness” or “sacredness,” which in Hebrew is the 3-letter root, KDSh, קדש :
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִיךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכָל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
The Divine said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother that he is not to come at any time into the Holy (Kodesh, shrine) behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he not die; for in the cloud I appear upon the cover.
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם
Holy (Kadosh) you shall be, for holy am I, Hashem, your own Divinity.
In the first passage, the Kodesh is a particular sacred space; it is the innermost sanctum of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem. This verse is a warning that the act of entering into this most holy space must be done by a particular person, at a particular time, in a particular way, in order to avoid accidental death.
The second passage is more of a general instruction – not to merely enter a holy place (kodesh), but to actually be holy (kadosh). The first verse is talking about something external; the second is talking about an inner reality:
Holy you shall be, for holy am I…
In other words, the Divine “I” is the sacred. Furthermore:
Ani Hashem Eloheinu – “I” am your (own inner) Divinity.
The deepest level of our being is not something separate from what we call the Divine; the sacred is already our own deepest nature. On this level, the verse is reminding us of who we really are – Kedoshim tihyu – be what you already are!
But why do we need to be told to be what we already are?
Because our tendency is to become lost in the particulars of our experience – our thoughts, feelings, opinions and so on, and to forget our own deepest reality. That brings us back to the first verse:
Al yavo b’khol eit el hakodesh– Don’t come into the holy space at any time…
The kodesh is not just the ancient Tabernacle; it is the space we take for daily meditation. Meditation doesn’t happen b’khol eit – at any time; it happens at particular times. But through entering the “space” of the sacred by practicing at particular times, we forge a connection with our own being at the deepest level, so that we can be holy all of the time; that’s the point.
But on a deeper level, al yavo b’khol eit – Don’t come in any time – means: there is only one time that you can enter the space of the sacred, and that is Now. This is the trickiest and yet the most simple part: if we want to awaken at the deepest level, if we want to experience and express the truth of our own being, we need to reel ourselves in from the time-creating mind and rest in the spaciousness of the present moment…
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The Bakery – Parshat Kedoshim
5/8/2019 1 Comment
The other day a friend told me a story about when he lived in Israel back in the eighties. He rented a room in a small apartment with only one bathroom and a tiny kitchen from a very poor family. So, he would use the bathroom at the men’s mikveh down the street and eat most of his meals out in order to not be in their way. When he would sometimes come home late at night, he entered from the fire escape so as not to wake them up.
He worked for the newly formed Israeli Ministry of the Environment and day after day he would catch the same bus to work, at the same time every morning. On his way to the bus, he would always stop at the same Arab bakery, and get the same breakfast which was essentially a big flat sesame bagel with an egg baked into the center of it.
One day he stopped in for his usual breakfast, but the Arab baker (who was usually incredibly warm and friendly to him) behaved coldly and completely ignored him. My friend tried to get his attention several times to let him know he was there was ready to order his usual breakfast… but the baker completely ignored him. Frustrated and confused, he left the bakery and headed to the bus.
As he waited for the bus to arrive, he realized that he was really hungry, and that he wouldn’t make it through to lunch time if he didn’t eat something. So, he made a dash for a little food cart to buy a sack of pumpkin seeds. When he got to the food cart, another person rudely cut the line in front of him. He was now doubtful if he could make it back to the bus in time, but he was really hungry, so he waited for the line-cutter to get served, and then ordered his snack as fast as he could.
He paid for the food and made a dash back to the bus stop, but to his dismay, the bus had just left without him. His heart sank as he watched the bus drive away up and over the hill. Suddenly, he was startled by an ear shattering boom. The bus had exploded just after going over the crest – many of those on the front of the bus, where he would have been, were killed.
Days later, when the initial shock had faded a bit, my friend went back to the Arab baker, who was completely friendly again. My friend asked him if he had been upset with him for some reason, looking to find out why he had acted with such rudeness that day... a rudeness that had literally saved his life. The baker said he didn’t know what he was talking about – “You’re my friend! Why would I do that to you?”
This is a true story.
When we hear miraculous stories like this, there can be an impulse to try to make sense of it, to fit it into some belief system, to draw conclusions from it… but if there is something to learn from this kind of experience, it should be: don’t draw conclusions; don’t try to fit things into your belief system.
When someone is rude to us, when people behave in a way that triggers our judgment, that draws us into some mental/emotional drama, don’t judge. Don’t interpret. The rude man in the bakery could be saving your life. The guy who cut in front of you in line could be saving your loved ones. The point is not to make up some story like this, the point is to really know that you don’t know.
The thinking mind wants to know, it wants to understand, and that’s understandable! Of course, we must do our best to understand to make the best decisions we can. But all of our understanding is incomplete and even dangerous unless we also understand that we don’t really know for sure; we are inherently uncertain, and there is always much, much, much more going on that we can ever really know.
This deep knowing of not-knowing brings us into connection with the one thing we really do know – the only thing we actually know – which is that there is consciousness; there is an experience happening, right now.
This experience, right now, is unfolding within this mystery that we call awareness, and the awareness is ultimately what we are, beneath the thoughts, beneath the feelings, beneath whatever situation we find ourselves in. It is our true identity; we are not merely bodies, or personalities, or memories, conditioning, opinions, merits and faults, or personal stories – we are the open space of knowing, the vast field of awareness within which all these things are now living.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
He used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This little aphorism of the famous sage Hillel, which is often understood only on an ethical level, actually contains a formula for discovering our deepest identity:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? – It is up to us to realize who we really are; no one can do it for us. We do it by noticing that there is, in a sense, two of “me” – the “me” that is made out of my body and mind and feelings, and the “I” that perceives all that. Which “me” am “I”?
And if I am for myself, what am I? – “I” am not the self that I perceive – the body, the thoughts, the feelings – rather, “I” am the awareness that perceives all of that.
And if not Now, when? – The way to know this for yourself is to simply come into connection with the Now; to be the awareness that simply receives whatever is present. Then, you will come to know yourself as that awareness, as that Presence. And, paradoxically, everything you perceive is also Presence.
There is a hint at the very beginning of the parshah:
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם
Be holy, for I, the Divine, am holy.
Holy, kadosh, means “separate,” or better, “transcendent.” The true “I” is the awareness that transcends what it perceives, and this “I” is not your “I” but is the “I” of the Divine; it is the “I” of Reality Itself, knowing Itself through you – that’s our spiritual potential! It’s not only that we become free when we realize that we are not the ordinary “I” we thought we were, but rather, God wakes up to Itself; we play our part in Existence awakening to Itself.
A disciple of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, started home after studying with the Maggid for many years. On his way he stopped in Karlin to see his old friend Rabbi Aaron, who had once been his learning companion in the Maggid’s House of Study. It was already midnight by the time he arrived in the city, but he was so excited to see his old friend, he made his way to Rabbi Aaron’s house anyway. When he arrived, he could see light coming from the window, so he looked in and saw his friend learning from books at the table by candlelight. Excited to see his old friend, he knocked on the window enthusiastically.
Rabbi Aaron looked up from his books: “Who is there?”
“It is I!” exclaimed the disciple.
Rabbi Aaron looked back down at his books and continued studying. The student waited a bit, then knocked again, and again, but no reply. “Aaron, why don’t you open the door for me?”
Rabbi Aaron looked up and spoke with grave seriousness: “Who is it that dares to call himself “I” as befits only the Divine?”
When the disciple heard this, he realized that he had not learned nearly enough, so he immediately turned around and headed back toward Mezrich…
Separate- Parshat Akharei Mot, Kedoshim
5/3/2017 1 Comment
"Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem-
"Holy you shall be, because holy am I, Hashem your God.”
There’s something strange about this passage. God is telling the children of Israel that they should be holy without really explaining what that means, and then it says that the reason they should be holy because God is holy- ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem. So the question is, why does one follow from the other? Why should we be holy just because God is holy, and what does holy mean anyway?
The word for holy, Kadosh, actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. Normally, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, or alienation, such as when a relationship goes sour and you lose that connection with another person. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony, for example, we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Meaning, your beloved becomes kadosh or “separate” not because they’re separate from you, but because they’re exclusive to you. They’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all other relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but to something that’s most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection. And just as your beloved is separate from all other relationships, so too when you become present, this moment becomes separate from all other moments, and you’re able to get some distance from the world of time- from your memories about the past and your anticipations of the future. This allows you to experience yourself not as a bundle of thoughts and feelings inhabiting a body, but as the open, radiant space of awareness within which your thoughts and feelings come and go. That’s why your presence, your awareness is by its nature kadosh- separate from the world of thought and feeling within which we tend to get trapped, yet fully and intimately connected with everything that arises in this moment.
So when God says kedoshim tihyu- you should be holy- it’s telling you to do the practice of holiness by becoming present- by separating your mind from the entanglements of thought and time. How is it possible for us to get free from time? Ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheikhem- because the holiness of Being- Hashem- is already your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem. In other words, by practicing presence, you bring forth your own deepest nature, which is holiness.
This is also hinted at in the name of Parshat Akharei Mot, which means “after the death.” In order to know your own deepest nature as shamayim mima’al, the vastness of space, you have to let go of your mind-based identity- all your stories and judgments about yourself, and that can actually feel like a kind of death. But this death has an Akhar- an afterward in which your true life, the awareness that you are, becomes liberated.
So on this Shabbat Akharei Mot and Kedoshim may we come to know more deeply the holiness that is felt after the death of the false self, and may we express that holiness as love and blessing to everyone we encounter.
The Pie- Parshat Kedoshim
5/11/2016 2 Comments
It was Mother’s Day this past week.
I looked for a nice picture to post on Facebook. I found one from my birthday a couple years ago with me and my mother. I was eating some chocolate pecan pie she had made for me. (And always makes for me on my birthday- thanks Mom!)
After I posted it, I was looking at the picture. There was something funny about the expression on my face. Then, it struck me- the particular way I was smiling and looking into the camera looked just like my father.
There’s so much that’s passed on from parent to child- not just genetics, knowledge and language, but also mannerisms and patterns of behavior.
And some of these patterns, alas, are ones we perhaps could do without. Have you ever been critical of some behavior in your parents, and then caught yourself unconsciously acting exactly the same way?
And, its not their fault! Patterns of thought, speech and behavior have been passed down through the generations for ages.
When you become aware of this, there’s a tremendous opportunity for transforming not just your own patterns, but the patterns of those who came before you. As you awaken to your deeper potential, there’s redemption for your ancestors as well.
As it says in this week’s reading:
“Ish imo v’aviv tira’u…
“You shall revere your mother and your father…”
The word here for “revere”- tira’u- has the double meaning of both “revere” or “respect” as well as “fear.” In other words, you should “fear” your potential to perpetuate the negative qualities of your parents, and “revere” them by emulating their positive qualities and transforming the negative ones within yourself!
And this is the call of this week’s parsha- to awaken your potential for holiness- your potential for the expression of integrity, truth, compassion, gratitude, and all the other middot (spiritual qualities):
“Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elohekhem…”
“You shall be holy, for I- Divine Being, your own Divinity- am holy…”
Holiness is intrinsic to who you are- it’s your own inner Divinity. It calls upon you to craft your garments of expression- your thoughts, words and actions- into expressions of the Truth of who you are.
How do you do that?
This parsha contains many beautiful prescriptions for expressing holiness:
“You shall not steal… you shall not lie… You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not favor the poor, nor honor the great... You shall not go around gossiping… you shall not hate others in your heart…you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, this last mitzvah- “Love your neighbor as you love yourself- ve’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha”- is the essence of the whole Torah.
But to really become aware of your unconscious negative patterns, to really get free from them and choose to embody the middot of love and integrity, there needs to be space. The suffering of life is too great for one to remain present and aware without a break from its momentum. Perhaps that’s why the verse about revering one’s parents concludes with the words:
“V’et Shab’totai tishmoru-
“My Sabbaths you shall guard…”
In the stillness, you can recover from the patterns of suffering and reconnect with your inner wellspring of holiness. From that place, you can remain open to whatever suffering arises without losing yourself in it.
There’s a story about Reb Mordechai Dov of Hornisteipl, that once he visited a doctor for a painful sore on his back.
The doctor decided the best thing to do would be to cauterize it. In those days, this would involve heating up three metal rods, each one hotter than the last. If the patient didn’t cry out with the first hot rod, they would apply the second. And in the rare occasion the patient didn’t respond to the second one, a third super hot rod was ready.
The only problem was, this tzaddik was accustomed to accepting pain in silence, not losing his inner connection regardless of how much he suffered.
So, when the doctor applied the first hot rod and got no reaction from Reb Mordechai Dov, he went on to the second rod. Still no reaction. When he applied the third white hot rod and the tzaddik still didn’t respond, the doctor exclaimed- “I don’t know whether this is an angel or a demon!”
Reb Mordechai Dov didn’t understand Russian, so he asked the translator to tell him what the doctor said. When he was told, he answered:
“Please tell the doctor that when someone comes to me and asks that I pray on their behalf, and I see that I won’t be able to relieve their suffering with my prayers, it hurts much much more than these hot rods… and even then, I must not lose myself.”
On this Shabbat Kedoshim, the Sabbath of Holiness, may we become aware of our true potential and practice it in real time. May we reconnect with the Source of that potential, the infinite wellspring of holiness within- the holy awareness that looks though your eyes and hears through your ears, in this moment.
A Psalm of David: The earth and all her fullness is of the Divine – the world and all who dwell within her…Who may ascend the mountain of the Divine? Who may stand in the holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart… This is the generation of those who turn to the Divine, who seek Your presence… Be uplifted, openings to the Eternal, so that the King of Presence may enter! Who is the King of Presence? The Divine, mighty and strong, strong in battle! (Psalm 24 excerpt)
לַֽ֭יי הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ – The earth and all her fullness is of the Divine…
The fullness that we seek, that sense of Peace and Wholeness, is already within the fullness of this moment; ha’aretz um’lo’ah – all the “earth” partakes of this fullness.
מִֽי־יַעֲלֶ֥ה בְהַר־יְהוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ – Who may ascend the mountain of the Divine? Who may stand in the holy place?
Here is the hint: we can transcend the experience of limitedness or constriction by asking the question, Who?
נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב – One who has clean hands and a pure heart…
We are “purified” – meaning, we can clear our inner space through the practice of inquiring, “Who is this Presence that fills this moment?”
מְבַקְשֵׁ֨י פָנֶ֖יךָ – those who seek Your Presence…
This simple question is a path to finding the Wholeness. But then, the psalm seems to offer a contradictory image:
Be uplifted, you Openings into the Eternal, so the King of Presence may enter! Who is the King of Presence? The Divine, mighty and strong, strong in battle!
How can the Presence “enter” if It already fills all Existence? Why does there need to be a “battle?”
Because the unconscious tendency is for the mind to be filled with thoughts, and this is what creates the barrier that hides the Presence. We don’t need to battle against the thoughts, but we do need to battle against our unconscious tendency to get drawn into our thoughts. We do that by simply turning our attention to the underlying Presence; we ask, Who? – and in the asking, a space is cleared; we actually are that space:
וְֽ֭הִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵ֣י עוֹלָ֑ם – Be uplifted, you Openings into the Eternal…
That is, be the open space within which thought arises by being aware of Presence behind your thoughts, and you open to the Eternal dimension of your own being, the Presence that you are. This dimension is your own Divine nature; it is an inner strength available to us when we recognize that it comes from beyond the “me”; it is the Melekh HaKavod, the “King of Presence.”
There is a hint in the parshah:
אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּותָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא
When a woman gives birth to a male, she shall be tamei – separate from the sacred – for seven days; she shall be tamei as in the days of niddah – separate from sexual intimacy.
V’tam’ah shivat yamim – separate from the sacred for seven days…
That is, when Binah, the thinking mind, gives birth to thought, this causes a feeling of separation from the sacred dimension. This is because thought takes us into the world of time, and out of the present; this is “seven days.”
וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ
On the eighth day, the flesh of his skin shall be circumcised.
The orlah, the “skin” that is “circumcised,” is the sense of separateness that arises with the “birth” of thought. After experiencing the separateness inherent in thought and time (the “seven days”) we can remove the barrier and enter the “eighth day” – that is, the Eternal dimension.
How do we do that?
Be like מְבַקְשֵׁ֨י פָנֶ֖יךָ m’vakshei fanekha – those who seek Your Presence. After you engage in a thought process in order to accomplish some purpose, ask: Who? Who is the Presence behind these thoughts? Who is the Presence behind all being?
מִ֥י זֶה֮ מֶ֤לֶךְ הַכָּ֫ב֥וֹד – Who is the King of Presence?
Exactly! The question Who? brings forth our potential to become masters of our own minds, masters of being present…
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The Waiting Room – Parshat Tazria
4/3/2019 0 Comments
רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בַפְּרוֹזְדוֹר כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לַטְּרַקְלִי
Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the waiting room so you may enter the banquet hall!
(Pirkei Avot 4:24)
One of the most basic dualities on the spiritual path is the “before” and “after” of waking up. Both the “banquet hall” and “the World to Come” are metaphors for this aim of the path: the complete “fixing” of our sense of incompleteness and arriving into wholeness. Before that, we may get glimpses of the Wholeness – the door cracks open and for a moment we can see…
Once, a disciple complained to his rebbe that when in the rebbe’s presence, Divine Reality is palpable and he has peace. But as soon as he leaves the rebbe’s presence, it all vanishes and his suffering returns.
“This is like a person who gropes about in the dark forest,” answered the rebbe, “and someone comes along with a lantern and walks with him for a while. For a time, he can see where he is going. But eventually, the guy with the lantern goes his own way, and the person is left alone again in the dark. This is why it’s so important to carry your own lantern!”
When we get that glimpse – either through a rebbe or any other means – it should remind us to work on igniting our own flame. Hat’kein atzm’kha – we have to “fix” ourselves in the “waiting room.”
How do we do that?
Take the time to simply “wait” – be aware of the inner darkness – that is meditation. The awareness is itself the Light – it is your own inner Light. But if you spend all your time in thought and activity, you may not notice…
וְאִם־בַּהֶרֶת֩ לְבָנָ֨ה הִ֜וא בְּע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֗וֹ ... וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
And if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body ... the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days…
This week’s parsha talks about tzara’at – an affliction of the skin that renders a person tamei – ritually unfit to enter the Sanctuary. The affected person has to be quarantined for a period to become purified.
The skin is a metaphor – it is the physical boundary of self, representing that inner sense of oneself as separate, called ego. The “affliction” hints at the ego’s feeling of incompleteness, of being disconnected, of having “not yet arrived.”
The remedy: withdraw from the world of time, into solitude with the feeling. Be the Light, illuminating the darkness in solitude for “seven days” – meaning, until you reach Shabbat! Shabbat is that arriving into the spaciousness that is your deepest essence – the field of awareness itself, within which this moment arises.
So next time you find yourself in a waiting room, or waiting in line, remember the opportunity for illumination that comes as a hidden gift in those moments...
Cage Free – Omer and Tazria – Metzorah
4/18/2018 0 Comments
In the supermarket, you may see eggs and chicken that are labeled “cage free.” This is supposed to make you think that these chickens aren’t confined to tiny little cages as are most commercial chickens, but are instead running around the farm, happy and free.
I used to buy “cage free” eggs, until I was told that actually, “cage-free” doesn’t really mean cage-free at all. It means that for a certain portion of the day, the doors on the cages are opened so that the chickens can escape the cages if they want to.
But, they don’t. The chickens always choose to stay in their cages. If you want chickens that actually walk around the farm, you have to buy “pastured” eggs and chickens.
But why don’t the chickens leave their little cages when the doors are opened?
Because they’re conditioned to be in their cages; they don’t realize they can leave, even when the door is opened. Perhaps, if they had more time, their instinct for freedom would eventually lead them to discover the opening. But, the doors aren’t open long enough for that; they’re only opened long enough for the company to be able to legally label the product as “cage-free.”
And, it’s the same with us.
At the Pesakh seder, we label ourselves as free: Avadim hayinu, v’ata b’nai khorin – we were slaves, but now we are free. The cage door is actually always already open, ready for us to step through. But do we step through? Like the chickens, we only step through if we have the time to discover that open door, if we have the time for that impulse for freedom to grow within. And, after we walk through the door, we need time to discover how to roam the farm, to explore the wild terrain of the uncharted midbar, rather than return to the security of the cage.
Like the Israelites, the tendency is to revert, to backslide: “Hamib’li ayn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kakhtanu lamut bamidbar? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”
So, there is an aspect of awakening that is unbound by time, that takes only an instant to realize: the cage door is open. The cage is made from the patterns of your thoughts and feelings; it’s your identity. But the open space is your own awareness right now. It is the field of consciousness, within which your experience in this moment is now appearing. Everything within your experience arises from and falls back into this open space, including the cage of identity. In truth, it’s not that you must go through the open space, you are the open space. And you can realize this, right now; it takes no time at all to simply recognize – you are already free. Perhaps a moment ago, Avadim hayinu, we were slaves, but now, ata b’nai khorin – now we are free.
So, in a sense, freedom is the easy part. We are already free – free to be you and me. All we have to do is remember – l’ma’an tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim, kol y’mai hayeikha – so that you may remember the day you went out from Egypt all the days of your life.
But, to then go and live that freedom, to not only see the open door, to not only see the unboundedness in the midst of the cage, but to step out and live your freedom, that’s the hard part. That part takes time, it takes constant practice. It’s not instantaneous. It’s not about: get out of Egypt really fast and don’t let the dough rise. The matzah is instant realization. No more separation of dough caused by yeast bubbles that take time to ferment!
But this second, time-bound aspect requires living into this question: how may we translate the freedom that we are into words and deeds, into a way of living?
The Sefirat HaOmer is a prompt to that question. The practice is, count each of the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, count the path from liberation to revelation – from the instantaneous realization of freedom to the long-term project of living that freedom.
The Sefirat HaOmer gives us a map of seven times seven Divine qualities: Hesed –Lovingkindness – are you motivated by love? That sounds really good, but what about when something that doesn’t feel loving happens to you. Can you be warrior of the love motivation, or do you become a victim? Life has plenty of the opposite of love in it. But living freedom means expressing your freedom to choose to live from love, even when external and even internal forces are pushing you in other directions.
Which brings us to Gevurah – Strength. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says, Ezehu gibor? Who is strong? Who has Gevurah? Hakoveish yitzro – one who masters their own motivation. Because then you’re not tossed around by circumstances – then you can radiate gracefulness, equanimity. And that’s the third quality – Tiferet, Grace, Beauty.
And through this equanimity, you can be victorious over the powers of time and change, knowing HaMakom, the Eternal Space within which everything is happening, and knowing yourself as that Space. That’s Netzakh, which means Victory, but also Eternity.
And from that rootedness in the Eternal, arises a gratitude for the ever-present simple blessings, a humble gratitude for the simple privilege just to be. That’s Hod, which means Gratitude and Humility.
And out of the positive vibration of this simple humility and gratitude arises the pleasure of connection – the Eros, the joy, of living, of communing with the Presence as it manifests in this moment. That’s Yesod, which means Foundation, because the enjoyment of life is the foundation of life. If you can’t enjoy, then all the richness of meaning and value will slowly drain away.
But with that joy, there can also arise a deep sense of trust, a trust that transcends all the tragedy and sorrow, and impels us to trust the process, to trust that Reality has its own endgame, in a sense. That’s Malkhut, which means Kingdom, pointing to the idea that all Reality is really a Divine Kingdom/Queendom, but that union of King and Queen, of Kudsha Brikh Hu Ushekhintei, the Holy Transcendent Space with the Imminent Presence, happens through us, through our Pesakh realization and our Shavuot application, through our counting of the qualities and bringing them into being in our own lives, day after day, each day anew, amein.
There’s a story that a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev came to the master and asked: “In the Talmud it says that a tzaddik, a perfect person, can’t stand in the place of the Ba’al T’shuvah, one who was wicked but who has turned to the Divine and transformed. According to this, one who has been blameless from youth is at a lower level than one who has done many misdeeds. How can this be?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak replied, “A person who perceives a new light every day, light that wasn’t perceived the day before, must leave behind the way they lived in the past, and start afresh to embody the new light. The blameless ones who believe they are already perfect, don’t perceive the new light, and so there is no transformation.”
May the counting of the Omer remind us to constantly open ourselves to a new light every day, to find a fresh path for embodying the freedom that we are.
Birth – Tazria
“… ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar-
when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she’ll be ritually unfit for seven days just as in the days of her menstrual separation, and into the sacred space she may not enter...”
On the plain level, this is talking an ancient ritual purity law.
But on the metaphorical level, what does it mean to give birth? It means to create something new. And whether or not you have children, all of us are constantly creating. On the deepest level, our creation begins with the spontaneous arising of thought that happens almost constantly for most people. Then, as our thoughts become externalized in our decisions and actions, we literally co-create our life situations along with all of our fellow beings. And whenever something new appears on the horizon of our consciousness, whether it’s a blossoming of thought, or sensation, or feeling, or something happens around us like- someone knocks at the door, or you go and knock on someone else’s door, or the kitchen sink breaks, or it starts to rain, or you decide on a new career- whatever new is arising, it doesn’t matter- there’s the tendency to lose your connection with eternal dimension of Being- that open space of the Present which is not separate from your own consciousness- and instead get tangled up in whatever particular experience you are having. And that’s how we lose our freedom- we forget all about the space of this moment and get stuck in whatever is going on. Then, once you’re in that state of being stuck, even if you bring yourself back to a state of presence at that point, you may still feel stuck.
That’s because before you can transform, you first need to simply be present with whatever mind state you’re already in.
The trick is not to become disheartened and give up- just be wherever you’re at. That’s v’tamah shivat yamim- being tamei- or ritually unfit to enter the mikdash- the sacred space- for seven days. “Seven days” means the world of time which is created by the mind that imagines past and future. This is hinted at in the story of the seven days of creation. “…kimei nidat dotah tima”- like the time of niddah, which means “separation.” Because when you get caught by your experience, you lose connection with your inherent wholeness, and you feel separate from how you imagine you’d like to feel.
But if you stay with it, being conscious of any feelings of constriction as they arise in your body and continuously bring your attention back again and again to your sensations and your breathing, the barrier to wholeness will drop away at some point. As it says:
“Uvayom hashmini yimol b’sar orlato- On the eighth day, the male baby’s foreskin will be circumcised.”
The foreskin- the orlah- is a metaphor- a strange metaphor perhaps, but as a barrier, it hints at the feeling of separation that the ego feels. The number eight represents Eternity, as it’s one step beyond seven, plus the number eight on its side is the infinity symbol.
So the idea is that when your consciousness gives birth to a new experience, there’s an inherent orlah- a feeling of separation that arises when you get absorbed into the drama of whatever is going on, and that’s okay and natural. When you’re in the “seven days” of disconnection from the mikdash- from the sacredness of Presence- just be there. It’s only temporary. Stick with the practice and draw your awareness into your body with Gevurah- with strength and persistence. If you do, you will come to yom hashmini- this moment of Eternity where all barriers drop away and you return ever more deeply to the openness of Presence.
So on this Shabbat Tazria- The Sabbath of Birth, let’s remember to fully accept and be with whatever states we find ourselves in, and in the freedom of Presence, seek to birth a more kind, loving and conscious world. Good Shabbos!
The Great Mother- Parshat Tazria
4/6/2016 1 Comment
This past Shabbat, my wife Lisa went off to Punta Mona in the jungles of Costa Rica to take some much needed rest from the constant demands of motherhood.
While it was certainly a tiny drop in the bucket of what she really deserves (may she receive it fully and swiftly), I was happy she took the time to drink a little of the nectar of renewal. I am so grateful for her unending motherly devotion, and look forward to supporting more of that! And, I was happy to have some more devoted time with our children for a few days before my trip back to the Bay Area, during which she’ll be left alone with the kids for the next ten days.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with my sister-in-law, in which she said she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot- Jewish practices that happen at particular times, such as morning prayers, for example.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because mothering can be all consuming,” she replied. “Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It’s a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, it’s a suffering of love, a fire of love.”
Her words made me think of the two kinds love as explained in the classic work of Kabbalah and Hassidic philosophy, the Tanya.
According to the Tanya, the first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life. In fact, the two are not separate; you love God as your own beingness.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it’s more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise.
It goes on to explain that when you know the Godliness within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But, if you see God as separate, and you’re willing to give up your very life for God, that’s far more transcendent and selfless.
When my sister-in-law was talking about the all-consuming love of mothering, she was basically talking about the Tanya’s self-sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who’s constantly sacrificing her life for the child!
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria:
“Ki tazria v’yalda zakhar-
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she is ritually un-fit for seven days- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit…she shouldn’t touch any holy thing, and into the holy she shall not come…”
It’s talking about how a woman who gives birth shouldn’t touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate.
However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather as central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It’s not some distant site outside the camp. It’s the very center of the camp, in the very center of the Sanctuary, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”.
It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation.” It means separateness in that it’s the closest, and therefore separate from all other things that are less close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, Kodesh and Nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (Kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (Nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service.
The new mother is in a state of Nidah because she’s not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she’s completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever.
She’s in a Nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she returns to connection with the Kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an Eved Hashem- a servant of God, devotedly (or sometimes drudgingly) giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything out of it.
Other times, we are B’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essential nature.
Even in our Avodah, our daily spiritual practice, these two poles exist. Sometimes there’s a palpable flow of blissful connection with the One- and the One is not other than our own being.
But sometimes, that connection is not felt, and your commitment to your Avodah must come from a deeper motivation- one of service. That’s why the prayer that happen in synagogue is called a “service.” You may not feel like you’re getting much out of it, but you do it because you’re devoted, because you’re committed.
These two poles even manifest in the two main forms of Avodah- meditation and prayer.
In the stillness of meditation, the Completeness of the present moment is not something other than your own being. But in the fire of prayer, the self’s longing for Completeness reaches out for help from That which is infinitely greater than the self.
Yet there comes another point- perhaps that point is now- when these two poles meet, when they’re not separate at all, when the fire of love and service is the very thing that opens the door to your own inner Divinity.
It’s said that once the Baal Shem Tov heard a Bat Kol- a Heavenly Voice- tell him that for some little sin he had committed, he would be denied life in the World to Come. When he heard this news, he began dancing for joy.
The Voice then asked, “Why are you so happy? I just said you will have no life in the World to Come!”
The Baal Shem replied, “I dance because now I am free to serve God for it’s own sake, without ulterior motive.”
On this Shabbat Tazria, the Sabbath of Conception, may we deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being a servant of God, and may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms.
And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the Kodesh, and may we give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
The Higher Separation- Parshat Tazria
4/24/2015 6 Comments
When it comes to the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer, you might practice for a while without getting any compelling result. But if you continue to practice, you will find something that you can only get through putting in that daily effort.
Some say that what you find comes into you from the outside. It is pictured as a transcendent Light that flows into your being from the Ain Sof- the Infinite. Others say that the Light is your own nature; that it comes from within you.
But these explanations are simply maps which come from the practices themselves: when you pray, it makes sense to think of the Light as given from the outside. When you meditate, it makes sense to think of It as coming from within.
The Hassidic text called the Tanya talks of these two ways of seeing in terms of two kinds of love. The first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it is more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise:
When you see the God within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But if you see God as separate, and you are willing to give up your very life for God, that is far more transcendent and selfless.
Last night I was having a conversation with my sister-in-law, and she was saying that she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, because mothering can be all consuming. Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It is in fact a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, she said, it is a suffering of love, a fire of love.
Her example made me think of the Tanya’s idea of the dualistic, self sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who is constantly sacrificing her life for the child.
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria. It opens, “…ki tazria v’yalda zakhar- when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son- v’tamah shivat yamim- she is ritually un-fit for seven days- kimei nidah dotah titma- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit… b’khol kodesh, lo tiga- she shouldn’t touch any holy thing- v’el hamikdash lo tavo- and into the holy she shall not come…”
It is talking about how a woman who gives birth should not touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate. However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It is the very center of the temple, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in a special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”. It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation”. It means the separateness of being the most close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, kodesh and nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service. The new mother is in a state of nidah because she is not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she is completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever. She is in the higher and selfless nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she must return to connection with the kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an eved Hashem- a servant of God, humbly giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything from it. Other times, we are b’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essence.
May the dual practice of meditation and prayer help us all to more deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being servants of God; may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms. And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the kodesh, and may we all give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
Before Rabbi Dov Baer, (the Maggid of Metzrich) was well known, he lived with his wife and baby in deep poverty. They tried their best to keep mom nourished enough so that there would be milk in her breasts for the baby, but the day came that the baby couldn’t get any milk at all. The baby was hungry, but she was so weak that she was even unable to cry. The Maggid could no longer take it, and for a moment he lost his equanimity and cried out in anguish.
Instantly a voice came from heaven and proclaimed that because he had complained, he had now lost his share in the World to Come. The Maggid smiled and said to himself, “Oh good – now that reward has been done away with, I can finally serve Hashem for its own sake!”
Religion often paints a picture of the spirituality as a place of arrival in time; if we are true to the path, we will eventually come to the spiritual fruit, whether we call that fruit Olam Haba – The World to Come, or Enlightenment, or Awakening, Peace, or anything else. But the true Peace, the true arrival into Divine consciousness, is actually the dropping away of projecting ourselves in time and arriving into the present.
הוּא אֱלהֵינוּ אֵין עוד
Hu Eloheinu Ayn Od!
Existence is our own Divinity, there is nothing else!
This verse from the Aleinu prayer is telling us: Hu – that is, Existence as it presents itself in this moment, is Eloheinu – it is the Divine we seek, is it the ever-present fruit and goal, wholly available when we arrive into the abundance and fullness of this moment.
There is a hint in the parsha:
כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם
Because today the Divine will appear to you!
That is, the Divine appears ki hayom – because we open to the today.
How do we do that?
Simply by letting go of the idea that what we seek is in time, and instead (re)turning attention to what is present, to hayom. Let go of the restless movement of the mind, ki hayom Hashem Nir’ah– because That which we seek is already appearing, if we would stop looking elsewhere for It.
In this week of Hesed/Lovingkindness, the time of counting of the seven weeks between Pesakh and Shavuot, the holidays of Liberation and Revelation, may we receive this supreme gift that frees us and reveals the Divine Presence ever shining from the silent depths of awareness…
More on Shmini...
Just a Spoonful of Honey – Parshat Shmini
3/26/2019 0 Comments
We know that we must remember to take time for ourselves; if we go on and on serving others only, we will burn out. But when it comes to meditation, taking time for yourself is also an essential service to others. That’s because no matter what you do, the quality of presence that you bring to your actions will have a deep effect on others around you.
There’s a story of that some of Reb Simcha Bunam’s disciples decided to feast together and engage in Torah learning and spiritual conversation. When Reb Simcha observed them in their feast, he noticed there was a slight air of tightness and over-seriousness among them.
“Let me tell you a story” said the rabbi. “Once there was a businessman who wanted to find a new enterprise that would be lucrative. He researched and discovered that making and selling mead would be very profitable, so he set off to a neighboring city and found a master mead maker to train him.
“The businessman spent months learning the craft, and when he was thoroughly trained, he headed back to his home, brewed up his first batch, and invited many people from the town to come to his mead-tasting party. But, when the guests tried it, they winced in disgust. ‘What, you don’t like it? How could that be?’ said the businessman.
“So, he headed back to the city and demanded a refund from the mead maker. ‘Did you do exactly as I taught you?’ the mead maker asked. ‘Yes of course.’ They went over each step carefully, and confirmed that the businessman had done everything correctly. ‘And of course, you added the honey, right?’ asked the mead maker.
“‘Honey? No – you didn’t tell me that.’
“‘You fool! You mean I have to tell you to add honey??’”
No matter how detailed and precise our service in the world is, it will be bitter if we don’t do it with good heartedness – we have to “add the honey.” This is so obvious, and yet many people feel guilty taking the time they need for meditation, learning, prayer and so on.
אָמַר לָהֶם, צְאוּ וּרְאוּ אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיִּדְבַּק בָּהּ הָאָדָם. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, עַיִן טוֹבָה. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, חָבֵר טוֹב. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, שָׁכֵן טוֹב. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, לֵב טוֹב. אָמַר לָהֶם, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי אֶת דִּבְרֵי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ מִדִּבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁבִּכְלָל דְּבָרָיו דִּבְרֵיכֶם.
He said to them: Go out and see what is the straight path that a person should cling to. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yosi says: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: Seeing the consequences of one’s actions. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart. He said to them: I see the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as better than all of yours, because your words are included in his.
-Pirkei Avot 2:8
Cultivating a “good heart,” that is, a conscious heart, is foundational for being of service in the world. There is a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קְרַ֤ב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־חַטָּֽאתְךָ֙ וְאֶת־עֹ֣לָתֶ֔ךָ וְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וּבְעַ֣ד הָעָ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
Moses said to Aaron: “Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people; and then make the offering for the people and atone for them, as the Divine has commanded…
Strange – it should have said, “atoning for yourself” and then “atone for them,” but instead it says, “atoning for yourself and the people,” and then “atone for them.” The people get “atoned” for twice – because when you work on yourself, you are also serving others by doing so. Then, only after you have worked on yourself, “atone for them” – meaning, go out and serve in the world with a purified heart…
Drinking from the Well - Parshat Shmini
4/11/2018 1 Comment
A disciple of the Seer of Lublin was fasting "from Sabbath to Sabbath." Late Friday afternoon, he came to a well, and became so overcome with thirst that he thought he might die. So, he broke down and was about to draw some water to drink. Suddenly he realized- "Wait! If I drink now, I will have nullified the whole week of fasting! I can wait one more hour until Shabbos!"
So he left the well, despite his intense thirst.
But then he noticed – he was feeling some arrogance for having withstood the test! Better that he drink the water than foster the arrogance, so he went back to the well to drink. But when he got there, he noticed his thirst had vanished. "Never mind!" he thought, and went on his way to the Master's house for Shabbos.
As soon as he entered the house, the Seer looked right at him and said, "wishy washy!"
It's a common practice in the Jewish tradition, as well as nearly all other traditions, to cultivate a sense of transcendence through various forms of asceticism – fasting, celibacy, and so on. The idea is that we tend to be identified with our impulses, cravings, feelings, and opinions, and this creates a sense of narrowness, of being trapped.
So, in order to dis-identify from these seductive aspects of experience, one can take a break from engaging them and practice simply being in the presence of the feeling or craving or whatever, and not feed it. This is the basic idea behind any restriction-based practices, such as kashrut, not working on Shabbat, and so on: you are bigger than your impulses. They can be powerful, but they can never overpower you if you remember what you actually are: a vast field of awareness, within which your impulses come and go.
But there's a potential trap in this and all practices, in that you can identify with the practice itself and get trapped in feelings of pride or inadequacy, depending on how "good" or "bad" you think you're doing.
The remedy is, keep going with your renunciation right to the core of identification: your own thoughts. The guy in the story renounces food and water for six days (just the daytimes actually, these kinds of fasts permit eating at night), but he doesn't renounce his thoughts about food and water. "I've got to drink! No I can't that would ruin everything! Oh no but now I'm feeling pride, better to drink! Oh no but I don't have to because I'm not thirsty anymore!"
It's all overthinking; he's just exchanged one schtick for another.
Instead, don't just limit your food and drink, limit your mind. Think when necessary or productive, and otherwise accept things and let go. This is the message of this week's S'firat HaOmer, called Gevurah, meaning Strength, Limitation, Boundary. The paradox is that in order to be free and realize yourself as expansiveness, you have to be able to set limits.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Sh'mini. Moses is giving Aaron and the Israelites instructions about certain offerings they must bring, in order that:
כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ – Ki hayom Hashem nir'ah aleikhem
Today the Divine will appear to you.
The first offering is a Hatat – a "sin offering." In other words, if you want to behold the Presence of Being, you have to "let go of your sins" – meaning, stop berating yourself, stop worrying about the past. Come to the present. That's the offering – the limiting of your involvement with your past mistakes.
The second offering is an Olah - an "elevation offering." In other words, after you let go of the past, you must "elevate" your impulses in the present. Whatever your motive, be it desire or negativity, transform it – up level it – into prayer. See the Divine impulse within every particular impulse, and reframe it through your prayer.
Do you want something? Direct your want to the Divinity of Being as it is manifesting right now.
Are you angry or fearful about something? Direct your feelings in prayer toward their transformation.
It is so important to do some of this every day. That's what the Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman called, hitbodedut.
In Pirkei Avot, 4:1, we read, "Ben Zoma said... who is strong? Koveish et yitzro – One who masters one's own yetzer, one's own motivation."
This is the task in each day: to remember our own masterfulness, that we are infinitely more vast than any particular experience, that we can let go of the past and alchemically transform whatever arises in the present...
Give it Up- Parshat Shmini
"And it was on this day of Eternity..."
Let’s look at what happens when you’re craving something, and then you get what you’re craving. Take food for example. You feel the pain of hunger, the desire to eat something, and then you eat it and feel satisfaction. But there’s something else going on of which you might not be aware unless you’re really paying attention, and that is the sense of incompleteness that’s caused not by the hunger, but by the mental and emotional fixation on the object of your desire. It’s not just that you’re hungry, it’s that there’s a basic dis-ease with the present moment, and a psychological “reaching” for a future moment when you imagine that you’ll be satisfied.
Then, when you finally get what you were craving, not only is there a satisfaction with the experience of the food, there’s also hopefully a relaxing into present moment reality while you enjoy the food, and a dropping away of that dis-ease of wanting. And that simple connection and dropping away of dis-ease is itself very pleasurable, and naturally lovable, even more so perhaps than the food. Now everyone experiences this at least to some degree, but rarely to people realize that what’s going on. Instead, people just assume that all the pleasure comes from the food or whatever particular gratification they’re experiencing.
But the truth is, the deeper pleasure comes not from the food, though food is certainly a wonderful thing, but from the letting go of wanting and instead connecting deeply with the present. That’s why we have practices like fasting, for example, or giving up bread on Pesakh. Normally when we feel a craving, the heart tends to run after what we want and we lose connection with the present. But if you let yourself feel the craving on purpose, returning your attention to your heart again and again so that it doesn’t carry you away, then you can learn to open your heart and drop into the wholeness and bliss of the Present without needing to satisfy whatever urge you’re feeling. In that way, you get to experience Ahavat Hashem- love of God- meaning love of Being or Existence or Reality Itself, because your connection to the Reality of the present is by its nature very pleasurable, healing and liberating.
There’s a hint of this in the Torah reading Parshat Sh’mini. It opens, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini kara mosheh- It was on the eighth day that Moses called out."
Moses then gives instructions to the Israelites for the offerings they should bring in order for them to have a vision of the Divine. It then goes on in great detail about the animals and grains and oils they burned as fire offerings. At the end of this litany it says, “… vayeyra kh’vod Hashem el kol ha’am- the Divine Glory appeared to all the people.”
When you experience satisfaction such as eating delicious food, you can elevate that experience through gratitude- through realizing that your food is literally a gift from God, emerging from the field of Being. But if you want to experience ahavat Hashem- the love of God that’s there even when you’re not feeling satisfied, you have to differentiate the pleasure that comes from Presence from the pleasure that comes from gratification, and you can do that through sacrifice- through purposely giving something up.
Then, just as the Divine Glory appeared to the Israelites, so you too will perceive the deep satisfaction and bliss of connecting with Reality as it is, beyond all those temporary and finite pleasures, wonderful as they might be. And when you do that, a much deeper gratitude can emerge- gratitude not only for the particular blessings we experience, but for the constant opportunity we have to practice Presence and connect with the completeness and peace of this moment.
This is also hinted at in the opening verse, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini- It was on the eighth day…” Y’hi is a form of the verb “to be.” Bayom means “on the day” but it can also mean “in today” meaning in the Present, and hashmini means, “the eighth.” The number eight on its side is a symbol for infinity. So the idea here is that you connect with the Eternal, hashmini, through Being, y’hi, in the Present, bayom.
So on this Shabbat Shmini, the Sabbath of the Infinite, let’s absorb the lessons of Pesakh, learning to delay and sometimes surrender gratification, opening our hearts to that deeper connection with the Eternal Present.
The Toes- Parshat Sh'mini
Once when I was driving, I saw a man asking for money with a sign that read, “I have three toes- please help.” For an instant, my heart twinged with compassion. But that was immediately followed by a disorienting surprise as I reconsidered his sign.
He needs money because he has three toes?
I immediately thought of Aimee Mullins. Aimee Mullins had both legs amputated when she was one year old. Rather than adopt the identity of a disabled person, she became a star athlete, a model and an inspirational speaker who empowers her listeners to transcend limited thinking and limited identity.
I don’t mean to be uncompassionate to the man with three toes who needed some money, or to imply that it’s no big deal to lose a part of your body. I want to bless that man that he should have relief from any suffering caused by his body or anything else.
But the real disability, as Aimee Mullins and countless others have demonstrated, is not in how many toes or legs you have, but how imprisoned you are by your thoughts. If you narrate your life in negative terms, telling yourself sad stories of victimhood, then that will be the lens through which you live, and that is what will seem to manifest.
On the other hand, if you refuse to accept limiting labels, if you refuse to identify with negative stories, is there any fixed limit to what you can accomplish?
In this week’s reading, Parshat Sh’mini, the Torah narrates the climax of the inauguration ceremony for the priests. Moses tells the Israelites that after the various offerings are brought-
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem-
“Today Hashem will appear to you!”
The offerings are brought, the rites performed, and then it happens-
“Vayeira kh’vod Hashem el ha’am-
“The glory of the Divine appeared to the people!”
Then something tragic happens: in the ecstasy of the moment, the high priest Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, break ranks and rush forward to offer their own incense. A fire streams forth from the Divine and kills them. Moses tells Aaron that Hashem is sanctified and honored by their death. Of Aaron it says-
“Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent.”
There’s a story of the Hassidic master Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe.
One day, the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk was visiting him. The Kotsker asked his guest to please tell some Torah from his saintly father-in-law, to which he replied with this teaching:
“When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying- ‘Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent’ because he was able to accept his misfortune with equanimity and not become a victim.
But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in the psalm-
‘L’man y’zamerkha khavod v’lo yidom-
‘So that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent’-
-for even in times of great distress he would still sing God’s praises.”
This teaching, though somewhat extreme, points to the power of your mind to define the way you frame reality. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use your mind.
The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, you learn to free your mind from all the thought forms that tend to imprison most people to some degree.
The praise of David indicates prayer. In prayer, the sacred dimension that’s revealed in meditation is given expression.
These two basic practices together- meditation and prayer- tap into the sacred dimension and draw forth Its nourishment into expression.
The name of this parshah is “Sh’mini” which means “Eighth.” This refers to the eighth day of the ceremony on which the action takes place. The number eight symbolizes infinity, both in its Arabic shape and in its Hebrew meaning as the number that transcends seven, which is the number of finite creation. One of the names of God in Kabbalah is Ayn Sof, which also means Infinite- literally “there is no limitation”. Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites on the day of infinity.
And when is the “day of infinity” as it applies to each of us?
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem- today Hashem will appear to you!”
Today, of course, means now.
In the subsiding of thought, there’s the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there’s the blossoming of the only Reality there is- the Reality of this moment, the one and only moment. This moment is not fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn sof, without limit, unbound by past and future.
On this Shabbat Sh’mini, this Sabbath of the Infinite, let us co-create this moment not as victims of the many mishaps and tragedies that unfold in time. But rather, from the silent depths of our being, let the voice of God emerge through our voices to praise Its own Mystery…
Rabbi Raphael of Bershad, the most beloved disciple of Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz, told of an encounter he had with his master: “Once I complained to my rebbe that in times of adversity it is very difficult to keep my faith in the Divine. It seems in such times that God is hiding His Face from us when we are unhappy. I asked him, “What I can do to strengthen my faith?”
My rebbe replied, “If someone is hiding from you, it only works if you are fooled into thinking the person has truly disappeared. But if you know that they are hiding, then the hiding ceases to be a hiding.”
The experience of inner freedom, like all experiences, waxes and wanes like the moon. But it only becomes truly hidden when we imagine that it is somewhere other than we are. This is the essential obstacle: the belief in God as something other than this.
There is a hint in this week’s special Torah reading for Pesakh (Exodus 33:12-23):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה רְ֠אֵה אַתָּ֞ה אֹמֵ֤ר אֵלַי֙ הַ֚עַל אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְאַתָּה֙ לֹ֣א הֽוֹדַעְתַּ֔נִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־תִּשְׁלַ֖ח עִמִּ֑י וְאַתָּ֤ה אָמַ֙רְתָּ֙ יְדַעְתִּ֣יךָֽ בְשֵׁ֔ם וְגַם־מָצָ֥אתָ חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינָֽי׃
Moses said to the Divine, “Look! You said to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Furthermore, You have said, ‘I have known you by name, and also you have found grace in My eyes.’
וְעַתָּ֡ה אִם־נָא֩ מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֜ן בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ וְאֵדָ֣עֲךָ֔ לְמַ֥עַן אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וּרְאֵ֕ה כִּ֥י עַמְּךָ֖ הַגּ֥וֹי הַזֶּֽה׃
“Now, if I have truly found grace in your eyes, please let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue find grace in Your eyes, and see that this nation is Your people.”
Moses is afraid that God won’t be present with them anymore, because of the incident with the golden calf. But God answers:
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃
And (the Divine) said, “My Presence will go (along with you) and be restfulness for you.”
God is reassuring Moses that they should be at peace, because the Presence will always be with them. But Moses still doesn’t believe it:
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ הֹלְכִ֔ים אַֽל־תַּעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה׃
And he said to (the Divine), “If Your Presence doesn’t go (with us), don’t make us leave this place!
וּבַמֶּ֣ה יִוָּדַ֣ע אֵפ֗וֹא כִּֽי־מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמֶּ֔ךָ הֲל֖וֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֣ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְנִפְלֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמְּךָ֔ מִכָּ֨ל־הָעָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
“For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes – I and Your people –unless You go with us, and I and Your people be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth?”
God already told Moses that the Presence is always with them, but Moses seems to be caught in the belief that it can be otherwise; he’s afraid that he and the people he leads won’t be special anymore if God isn’t with them.
This is the psychology of the ego – the ego imagines that God can be present or not, and that if God is present, the ego will have a feeling of being special. We can substitute many other words for “God” – we might say peace, wisdom, ease, wholeness, enlightenment, or any number of things.
The point is, the anxiety of the ego comes from the belief that That which we seek is conditional, that it might leave us. That’s the true Mitzrayim, the true “bondage in Egypt” – the egoic belief that God is “elsewhere.”
But Moses isn’t convinced; he needs proof:
יֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃
He said, “Please show me Your Presence!”
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִ֨י אַעֲבִ֤יר כָּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ וְקָרָ֧אתִֽי בְשֵׁ֛ם יְהוָ֖ה לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וְחַנֹּתִי֙ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָחֹ֔ן וְרִחַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲרַחֵֽם׃
And (the Divine) said, “I will make all My Goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the Divine Name, and the Grace with which I Grace and the Compassion with which I am Compassionate.
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃
And (the Divine) said, “You cannot see My Face, for no person can see My Face and live.”
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה הִנֵּ֥ה מָק֖וֹם אִתִּ֑י וְנִצַּבְתָּ֖ עַל־הַצּֽוּר׃
And the Divine said, “Behold the ‘Place’ with Me, and stand upon the rock.
וְהָיָה֙ בַּעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עָבְרִֽי׃
“And it will be as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.
וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My Face must not be seen.”
In order for Moses to understand this Divine message, he must “stand upon the rock” – meaning, become still – be present. Then, he can see God’s “back” – meaning, he will see everything, all forms of existence, as manifestations of the same Divine Presence.
But why can’t we see “God’s Face” directly?
Because of the Divine is the ever-present Presence in all being, that means we are God’s Face; the eyeball cannot see itself; we cannot look at our own face.
Unless, of course, we look into a mirror; in this sense we can even see God’s Face as well, as when Jacob makes peace with his brother Esau, and says to him:
רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים – “Seeing your face is like seeing the Divine Face!”
When we are truly present with another person, when face meets face, then truly Face meets Face:
אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם
But, when two sit together and there are words of the Torah between them, the Divine Presence dwells within them…
Don’t read it as conditional: “If there are words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells,” but rather, the “Words of Torah” are telling them: “The Divine Presence always dwells!”
פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃
My Presence always goes with you – rest in That
More on Passover...
Four Stages of Liberation – Passover of Awakening
4/15/2019 0 Comments
Recently someone told me that he was angry at someone. And, not only was he angry, but he likes being angry; he had no desire to “let go” or “get over it.” Then, a few days later, another person told me almost the same thing about someone else, but with the addition: “I will never forgive.”
There’s an idea that the festivals contain certain transformational potentials, and that as we enter their seasons, the barriers that we need to transcend start coming to the surface. And certainly, anger and non-forgiveness are ways that we can get stuck in Mitzrayim, in narrow identification with feelings of woundedness, of being a victim.
But getting free doesn’t have to mean a denial or pushing away of our true feelings; rather, it is precisely our true feelings that are the means to liberation. They are the gravity of unconsciousness that forces us to either wake up or get pulled in. Without them, there can be no liberation; that’s the sacred role of Egypt and Pharaoh.
According to the structure of the Passover seder, this process of liberation has four basic stages, corresponding to the four cups of wine. The Jerusalem Talmud (10a) asks, “Why do we have four cups of wine? Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to the four stages of redemption.”
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Therefore, say to the children of Israel: “I am Reality. I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will rescue you from their work. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through great judgments. I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be for you as a God. And you shall know that it is I, Existence Itself, your own Divinity, Who brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt…” (Exodus 6:6 – 7)
Hotzeiti – I will bring you out: There is a difference between the experience of liberation and the reality of liberation. Experience is always in motion; the degree to which we experience freedom changes from moment to moment. The reality of our freedom, on the other hand, is absolute; it is our task to recognize it and live it, regardless of our experience in the moment. The experience we’re having right now arises within our field of awareness; awareness is not trapped or compelled by it in any way. I am Reality – I will bring you out. The simple recognition of our own being as the vast and formless field of awareness within which this present experience is now unfolding brings us out from the illusion of being stuck, into the reality of our inherent freedom.
Hitzalti – I will rescue you: Once we recognize our freedom in the present, there is always the possibility that we will forget and again get drawn back into the dream of bondage. After all, the illusion is so formidable! The Egyptian army is behind us, the sea is in front of us – what shall we do? Our recognition must become commitment; we must remember to return ourselves to this recognition again and again in the face of the seductive and encroaching tides of experience.
Ga’alti – I will redeem you: When we come to the recognition of and commitment to our absolute freedom in the present, there can be a tendency to deny our past, which only creates a more subtle form of bondage. But when we embrace our past, when we recognize that ALL of our past experience, no matter how discordant or even evil, has brought us to this present moment of wakefulness, there can be redemption. There is no doubt – slavery and oppression are wrong. They are to be opposed. But, they are part of our sacred history, and through the telling, they have a sacred role. Gam zeh l’tovah – this too is for the good. This is not to whitewash or deny our pain; it is to embrace the supreme potential given to us by that pain.
Lakakhti – I will take you: It is true, there is nothing more vital for our own wellbeing then liberation. Anger and resentment can be sweet in a strange way, but they are nothing compared to freedom. And yet, it may take many years of bondage and many plagues to convince us that freedom is preferable. We cling to our bondage as if our life depended on it! And in a way, it does, because the price of freedom is our very identity; freedom changes who we think we are. At this stage, we give up fascination with our own story, with our own process, and meet the Divine at Sinai to answer Its call. Freedom is not merely for ourselves; it is the liberation of Reality Itself, waking up to Itself…
It is told about Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk that when he chanted the Kiddush, he would repeatedly look at his watch in order to keep himself connected to the world of time, otherwise he might dissolve into the Eternal completely.
In spiritual awakening there is a kind of balance that must be struck between the "world of time" – a.k.a the thinking mind, and the "Eternal World" – a.k.a. the space of awareness within which the thinking mind functions. While all the holy days and Shabbat are designed to help you dip more deeply into the Eternal World, the ritual of kiddush – the sanctification of the holy day with wine – points most strongly to this Eternal dimension of experience.
As it says in the Friday night Kiddush as well as all the festivals, "Zekher L'tziyat Mitzrayim – Remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt." It is a "remembrance" because the condition for freedom is already fulfilled; you just have to remember it. You are already free as Presence, as the open space of awareness within which experience arises.
And yet, even though you always already are freedom as awareness, embodying this truth in life is challenging; it requires constant effort. The Ishbitzer Rebbe pointed out that this is symbolized by the Karpas, the ritual vegetable eaten at the seder, because vegetables have to be planted again and again year after year. Whatever state was achieved yesterday, it is over today; we must constantly apply our awareness to overcome the forces of bondage within, day after day.
Which brings us to Urkhatz, the washing of hands that happens between Kadesh and Karpas. Wash yourself of yesterday's conditioning; today we must start again...
Re-Membering for Passover
What is spiritual bondage?
When the Torah describes the beginning of the Israelite’s bondage in Egypt, is says, “Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael b’farekh- Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with farekh- with crushing servitude.”
Now within this verse are three hints about the nature of spiritual bondage.
The first hint is in the word farekh, which means crushing labor. Now the root of farekh means to break apart or fracture, hence its usage to describe “crushing” labor. The obvious hint here is that spiritual bondage is unpleasant- it involves suffering. But on a deeper level, it hints that there is some kind of breaking or fracturing happening, and that’s the fracturing of Reality Itself as it appears in your consciousness.
Consider- in this moment, everything is as it is, and your consciousness is meeting whatever is appearing- your sensations, your feelings, your perception of what’s around you, whatever thoughts arise, and so on. As long as consciousness simply meets what is, there’s a wholeness to Everything. But when something unpleasant arises, whether external or internal it doesn’t matter, because all experience arises within the one space of consciousness, there’s a tendency for consciousness to contract into resistance, in the form of thoughts, feelings, or even words and actions- “dang farnet- what the??”- that’s resistance- that’s the farekh- the tearing apart of Reality, because now there’s me over here, resisting that over there, even if the “over there” is on my own mind.
This move from Wholeness to an opposing position implies a kind of contraction, because now rather than simply being the space of awareness within which all experience happens, you become a finite entity, resisting something within your experience. This brings us to the second hint in this verse, the word Mitzrayim. Mitzrayin means Egypt, but it comes from the root tzar which means “narrow,” probably because Egypt was built along the Nile. But metaphorically, it hints that to be in mitzrayim is to be in a narrow state; the native and full spaciousness of your consciousness gets contracted into a fixed point of view- the narrow “me” called “ego.”
And what’s the basic activity of ego? Ego tries to control things. That’s because ego feels disconnected from the fullness of its experience. That’s the basic hallmark of ego- that feeling of incompleteness, and with it, the need to change things in order to be okay. That egoic feeling of incompleteness comes from the contraction into a mitzrayim state that happens spontaneously in reaction to farekh- suffering that breaks apart the wholeness of your experience.
And this brings us to the third hint in the verse, vaya’avidu, which means “enslaved.” The arising of suffering, represented by farekh, which causes the contraction into the ego, represented by Mitzrayim is obviously not something we consciously choose; it seems to just happen to us. Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael- that contraction just seems to grab you and enslave you against your will.
And yet, on a deeper level, ya’avidu is related to the word Avodah, which means work or service not in the negative sense of slavery, but in the positive sense of prayer, or spiritual practice- which is an act of love and devotion. The hint here is that the experience of suffering and the spiritual bondage that comes from it has a purpose, and that is to be transformed into avodah, into a path of liberation. Because it’s only from experiencing and getting caught in all kinds of spiritual bondage, and then finding your way out of bondage, that you can really mature and evolve. A baby in the womb is already whole and one with all being, but it’s not liberated, because there’s no appreciation of the Wholeness. In order to know liberation, you have to first taste bondage.
The danger, of course, is that the experience of bondage, however that manifests for you, seduces you into a negative attitude and you become resigned to your stuck-ness. That’s why the Torah says, “l’maan tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim kol y’mei khayiekha- that you remember your going out from Egypt all the days of your life.”
This verse, which also appears near the beginning of the seder, urges us to constantly remember that our basic nature is freedom, reminding ourselves every day, and even every night as the words of the seder say, “Kol y’mei khayiekha, l’havi haleilot- all the days of your life means, the nights also.”
And what’s the every day and night practice for remembering the going out of Egypt? It’s the chanting of the Sh’ma, because the Sh’ma reminds us, Hashem Eloheinu- Hashem- All existence- meaning everything that arises in your experience- is Eloheinu- your own inner divinity, meaning your awareness. Then it says, Hashem Ekhad- Existence, or Reality is One. Again and again you may get pulled into farekh- that involuntary suffering in which we contract into the egoic mitzrayim state, but if you remember ekhad- the oneness of Being, you can find your way back into harmony with what is through the verse that follows: ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha- Love Hashem your Divinity, that’s the Hesed- the lovingkindness of offering your awareness as a gift to this moment just as it is, even if it feels like suffering, that’s the first part of meditation, b’khol l’vavkha uvkhol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha- with all your heart and soul and might- that’s the Gevurah, the strength, of grounding and sustaining your awareness in your body- that’s the second part of meditation, and of course, Sh’ma Yisrael- Listen, be aware, and know yourself as the awareness- spacious, free and borderless- that’s the third part of meditation.
The Perfect Passover
4/20/2016 3 Comments
One Passo\ver, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev led the first night seder so perfectly, that every word and every ritual glowed with all the holiness of its mystical significance. In the dawn, after the celebration, Levi Yitzhak sat in his room, joyful and proud that he had performed such an perfect seder.
But all of a sudden, a Voice from above spoke to him: “More pleasing to me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
“Hayim the water-carrier?” wondered Levi Yitzhak, “Who’s that?”
He summoned all his disciples together, and asked if anyone had heard of Hayim the water-carrier. Nobody had. So, at the tzaddik’s bidding, some of the disciples set off in search of him.
They asked around for many hours before they were led to a poor neighborhood outside the city. There, they were shown a little house that was falling apart.
They knocked on the door. A woman came out and asked what they wanted. When they told her, she was amazed.
“Yes,” she said, “Hayim the water carrier is my husband, but he can’t go with you, because he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you wake him, you’ll see he won’t even be able to move.”
“It’s the rabbi’s orders!” answered the disciples.
They barged in and shook him from his sleep. He only blinked at them and couldn’t understand what they wanted. Then he rolled over and tried to go on sleeping.
So they grabbed him, dragged him from his bed, and carried him on their shoulders to the tzaddik'shouse. There they sat him down, bewildered, before Levi Yitzhak. The rabbi leaned toward him and said-
“Reb Hayim, dear heart, what kavanah, what mystic intention was in your mind when you gathered the hameitz- the leavened foods- to burn in preparation for the seder?”
The water carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked into every corner and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued questioning him-
“And what yihudim- what holy unifications did you contemplate when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s all still lying on the shelf.”
When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak heard this, he grew more and more uncertain, but he continued asking- “And tell me Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to quicken in his eyes and limbs, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I shall tell you the truth. You see, I had always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on all eight days of the festival, and so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me eight days. Then I got tired and fell asleep.
“When my wife woke me in the evening, she said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like all the other Jews?’
“I said, ‘What do you want from me? I’m an ignorant man and my father was an ignorant man. I don’t know how to read, and I don’t know what to do, or what not to do.’
“My wife answered, ‘You must know some little song or something!’
“I thought for a moment, and then a melody and words came to me that I had heard as a child. I sang-
“Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot- Why is this night different from all other nights?
“I thought, 'why is this night different?'
“Then, something strange happened. It was as if I awoke from a dream, and everything was suddenly more real, more present. It was as if the night itself woke up all around me…
“Then I looked and saw the table before me, and the cloth gleamed like the sun, and on it were platters of matzot, eggs, and other dishes, with bottles of red wine. So we ate of the matzot and eggs and drank of the wine.
“I was overcome with joy. I lifted my cup to the heavens and said, 'Oh Hashem- I drink to you!'
“Then we sang and rejoiced in the nishtana- the specialness- of that moment… then I got tired and fell asleep.”
So my friends- before you fall asleep! Why is this moment different?
On this Shabbat Pesakh, the Sabbath of Passing, may we awaken to know that everything is passing, savoring the unique specialness of this moment. Let the unfolding of Reality become what it will, letting go of whatever it was, and breathing the intention of peace and love and awareness into every thought, every word, every act. Let’s go forth, again, out of mitzrayim- out of constriction- and into the mystery of the Presence as the present. This moment is truly different from all other moments, and always is…
A disciple asked the Baal Shem Tov, “Why is it that sometimes the experience of Divine Oneness comes so easily, and other times it is so difficult and I feel so distant?”
The Baal Shem answered, “It is like a mother with a toddler – the mother holds the toddler’s hands to help the toddler walk to her, but when the toddler comes close, she backs up and even lets go of the child’s hands, so that the toddler learns to walk on her own…”
That which we seek is already present; it is Presence Itself – the Oneness of the Divine is the Oneness of this moment. Sometimes this truth may dawn on us by grace, but then it disappears so that we may actively choose It; without our power of choice, without actively coming to this moment, we wouldn’t be conscious of it.
Now… be wise… be disciplined!
Atah, Haskilu – Now, be wise – it is crucial to understand that the Goal is not found elsewhere, It is found atah, in the Now. עת eit means “moment,” and the ה hei at the end means to point ourselves toward the moment. The ה hei also implies not just being aware of the moment, but of giving our awareness to the moment, of connecting from the heart.
But merely “being wise” is not enough; we must also be disciplined – hivasru. Like the toddler, when we fall, we must get up again and again. The Mother will help us, for sure! But we must make the effort.
There is a hint in this week’s special haftora reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Pesakh:
שׁ֤וּבוּ אֵלַי֙ וְאָשׁ֣וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם
Return to Me, and I will return to you!
The Divine Grace will come, but we must “first” make the effort. And how do we do that?
הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה
Return us, Hashem, to Yourself, and we will return!
We must pray for the strength to make the effort!
This is the circle of Grace and Effort, because the truth is that the “mother” and the “toddler” are not separate at all; we pray that the Divine should help us return, but the prayer is itself already the Divine answer. We receive the commandment to direct our awareness to the Divine, and our awareness is itself the Divine!
But in order to really know that, we must persist even through times of darkness, times of not knowing that:
זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר
This is the Torah of the Olah – Elevation Offering: It is the Olah upon the flame, upon the altar, all night until morning…
If we wish to “elevate,” to transcend the self that feels separate from the Oneness we seek, we must “burn” our awareness brightly into the darkness of that separateness, all night until morning. This means, when the Divine feels remote and distant, cry out, ask for the strength to return, and know that in doing so, you have already begun:
Hashiveinu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah – Return us, Hashem, to Yourself, and we will return!
More on Parshat Tzav...
The Mask – Parshat Tzav
3/20/2019 0 Comments
How do you come up with the complete works of Shakespeare?
Just take a bunch of hydrogen, and leave it alone for about fourteen billion years!
There seems to be a miraculous potential within the very fabric of reality itself to evolve – to develop into higher and more complex structures, to go from inanimate matter to conscious beings. You start off with hydrogen atoms, and over time, you end up with us. In Judaism, that potential is called Hashem.
This Divine potential to create and to become is inherent within us; just as sure as we exist, so the power of Hashem is at the core of who we are, calling us to evolve, to be willing partners in the process of Creation. It is not something we have to acquire; it is our essential being, behind the mask of our individuality. Our task is only to remember it, to awaken it, and to express it.
וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵנוּ אַשְׁרֵינוּ מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵנוּ,
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafa yerushateinu!
We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!
Our Divine nature is our heritage, our destiny, our task – and when we’re ready, it becomes our commitment:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering. It is the Elevation Offering that is on the flame on the altar all night long until the morning; the fire on the altar should be kept burning on it.
“All night long” – in this dark time of such tremendous suffering and violence on our planet, we are “commanded” – if we can “hear” it – to “keep our fire burning” – to stay present, to be Presence, to elevate by burning up whatever destructive and unconscious patterns we find within ourselves. And as we transform ourselves, so do we transform the world. Because the more conscious we become, the more others will be able to feel that Presence in our presence, and that consciousness will spread – just as one flame ignites another without diminishing itself.
In this way, our Divine potential that is ordinarily hidden becomes more and more revealed.
There’s a story that before Reb Simcha Bunam was a rebbe, he traded in lumber. Once when he was in Dansig on business, the other merchants asked him why he bothered visiting his rebbe. “How can your rebbe teach you anything that you haven't already learned from all those books you read?” They said.
That night, a number of them went to the theater. They invited Reb Simcha Bunam along, but he declined. Later, when they returned, they lamented he had missed such an amazing performance.
“What do I need to see the performance for? I already know all about that show!” said Reb Simcha Bunam.
“What do you mean? How could you know all about it – you haven’t seen it!”
“Yes, but I read the program!”
“You can’t really know a show just by reading the program, you have to experience it for yourself!” they retorted.
“And so it is with my rebbe – what he reveals cannot be learned from books.” The merchants were silenced.
On this week of Shabbat Tzav and Purim, may we keep the flames of Presence burning on the altar of this moment and reveal the Divine potential behind all of our masks. Hag Samayakh, Good Shabbos!
This is It! Parshat Tzav
3/22/2018 0 Comments
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was gathered with his hasidim after Yom Kippur. Setting his eyes on one disciple, he turned to him. “I will tell you what you prayed for and what Hashem’s response is," he told him.
“You prayed that you should receive your livelihood for the whole year all at once, so that you would be free to spend the rest of the year praying and and studying,” he explained.
“But then, you realized that if you had all the money at once, you’d probably not be able to resist starting a new business venture with all that capital, and you’d be in the same situation as before. So, you asked that you’d be given half now, and half in six months." The hasid was wide-eyed with amazement as his master miraculously reported his whole thought process.
“But then you realized that still wouldn’t work," Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued, "so you asked that it be given to you in monthly installments. The truth is, however, Hashem doesn’t want your prayers and Torah study; Hashem wants you to labor in your business!”
The central and universal message of Hasidism is to connect with the Divine in every moment, in every action. Without diminishing the importance of the particular spiritual practices, the aim of those practices is to awaken the constant awareness of the Divine Presence by becoming totally present in all of life. In this way, presence realizes The Presence.
But to do that, it is important to make sure you have the two main dimensions of Presence operating. There's a hint of these two dimensions at the beginning of our weekly reading (Leviticus Chapter 6):
א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
1. And the Divine spoke to Moses, saying,
ב צַ֤ו אֶת־אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָֽעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָֽעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֨יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ:
2. "Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the Elevation Offering: it is the the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it.
If you wish to elevate every moment and every situation so that everything becomes a realization of the Divine, you have to have let this moment be an offering, even in moments of darkness: "That is the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night..."
And to accomplish that, you have be totally aware: "...and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it." – meaning, your awareness should "burn" on the "altar" of your heart, constantly.
These two dimensions, staying aware of the fulness of this moment, on one hand, and offering yourself to this moment as an act of love, on the other, are the two essential dimensions of Presence. They are not separate, and yet we seem to find ways to separate them! One person has good intention, but bumbles about nervously. Another seems to be very aware, yet they are aloof and un-compassionate. Neither of these is very elevating.
But bring the heart and the mind together, and everything becomes holy, no matter how mundane or even disturbing, barukh Hashem.
Here's an inquiry to bring these two dimensions from potential into actuality: "What is the offering right now? Mah HaOlah?" Try and asking this often to yourself, and see what comes. Sometimes, you might get a great new insight about how to respond to the moment. Other times, there might only be the openness of the question. Either way, the inquiry can help to bring you to the "altar" of your heart and let your awareness burn brightly...
Burn! Parshat Tzav
4/6/2017 1 Comment
The Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, hints at the Passover theme of liberation- going out from the bondage of ego, represented by slavery in Egypt, and into the spacious freedom of the midbar- the wilderness of Reality Itself, beyond the limited maps of Reality generated by the mind. It says the priest should take the Minkha- the “meal offering”- “v’hiktir hamizbeiakh reiakh nikhoakh azkarata Lashem- and burn its remembrance on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Divine.”
Now the image of burning has two main aspects. On one hand, fire creates light and warmth, which are necessary and pleasurable. On the other hand, fire burns and destroys- it can be dangerous and painful. In other words, fire is a metaphor for life itself- beautiful, pleasurable, and also incredibly painful at times. But if you offer your awareness as a gift to this moment as it is- v’hiktir hamizbeiakh-your awareness will burn of the altar of the present, reiakh nikhoakh- your connection to this moment in the face of both pleasure and pain is like a pleasing aroma, azkarata Lashem- bringing the remembrance of the Divine Oneness within which everything appears and disappears.
Of course, this isn’t always easy, because of what I call the “yeah but” principle. One moment you’re relaxed, open and in harmony with Reality, and the next moment something happens that throws you off, and your mind says, “yeah but…” That’s why offering the minkha- the gift of your Presence- azkarata Lashem- it must be a remembrance of the Oneness that you recall to yourself every day, as it says in the seder, Kol y’mei khayiekha- all the days of your life. And when you remember the Oneness, you actually re-member yourself- meaning, your consciousness that’s become fragmented and contracted can relax back into the open field that is your nature.
So on this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Command, of Mitzvah, may we receive this mitzvah of re-membering- practicing daily, nightly and constantly the return to Presence and opening to the love that flows from there. Good Shabbos!!!
Locked in the Bathroom- Parshat Tzav
3/24/2016 5 Comments
Last week, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom.
The doorknob had broken a few days before. I went in to use the bathroom, and when I was finished, I realized I couldn’t get out.
I took the screen out of the window, but soon realized that if I tried to squeeze my body through that tiny opening, I would not only be stuck in the bathroom, but stuck halfway though the window. Not a good plan.
I had no regular tools- only a bunch of various pieces of doorknob lying around the bathroom. So, I grabbed a piece of metal and started bashing the doorknob as hard as I could.
That didn’t work.
Only one thing left to do-
Sitting there and looking carefully, I could see something that looked like a lever inside the door hole in which the knob was recessed. I found a metal thing which fit right inside and carefully pushed the lever thing. The doorknob released and it came right open.
It was a good test, and a perfect reminder of the importance of Presence in the midst of the absurdities and challenges of life.
There are three phases for dealing with absurdities and challenges.
This week’s reading, Parshat Tzav, begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform:
“… olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker-
“…the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.”
If you want to live an “elevated” life, let the "night" of challenges be reminders to remain alert. Keep the "flame burning all night long." This is the first stage.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp.
In other words, after you’ve burned through the negativity and come out the other end, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it around by creating mental stories about it; let it out of your space. This is the second stage.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is called:
“… aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.”
In other words, after the challenge is over and you’ve let go of it, you’ve got to still practice being conscious. It doesn’t work very well to get conscious only when things are challenging!
And fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to stay present in the many uneventful moments that comprise much of our lives- don’t take them for granted! That’s the blessing of the many prayers, sacred phrases and Divine Names you can use to come deeply into Oneness of the present moment, all day long.
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon that's traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur.
The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the Sanctification of the Moon- that night. Determined, he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. He eventually accepted his failure as what needed to be, and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance.
Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the waxing moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the brakha- the blessing- and averted the danger.
On this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Connection, may we connect the three phases as the Baal Shem tov did- accepting challenge and even failure when it happens, letting go of negativity and opening to the joy of the Dance, and blessing the holiness of each moment, regardless of whether our fortune is "waxing" or "waning".
Good Shabbos, Hag Purim Samayakh!
Keep Burning! Parshat Tzav
3/27/2015 4 Comments
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon as is traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur. The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the sanctification of the moon, that night. Anxiously he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. Sunk in gloom, he eventually gave up and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance. Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the crescent moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the blessing and averted the danger.
At first glance, you might think that this story is about the power of joy and community- about how the master needed the innocent enthusiasm of his disciples to cheer him up, which then miraculously cleared the clouds from the sky.
A fine and valid interpretation!
But another way of seeing the story reveals a unity between all the different elements- the Baal Shem’s experience of the darkness, the joy of the disciples and the revelation of the moon are all parts of one happening. The point is not the disciples cheering him up; the point is the way in which he relates to the darkness.
If you want true freedom, if you want to leave Egypt for good, you need to have a constant and unconditional commitment to being conscious. Meditation and prayer are only one part of the practice- the rest happens in the flow of life, in real time. Every part of life must be brought into the arena of practicing awareness.
In order to understand how to do this, it can be useful to divide your life experience into three categories.
The first involves moments when challenges come into your life from things you are committed to. For example, you might have challenges with work or children or relationships. In those moments, you must remain conscious that this is the arena of practice. Be committed to not letting the negativity take over your mind, creating pessimistic, complaining or blaming stories. Know that you have the power to completely be with the unpleasantness and that ultimately it can’t hurt you. It will certainly pass. Then, deal with the situation from that place.
The second involves negativity that comes into your life from things you are not committed to. For example, someone cuts you off on the road or someone insults you at work. Or, it could be negativity from your own mind. Regardless of the source, if you are not committed to the relationship, eject it from your mind completely. Don’t waste a second struggling against the annoying co-worker or the bad driver. Be with whatever feelings arise, but let go of any thoughts that keep those feelings alive. Even better- make a blessing for those who bother you. If possible and appropriate, take action. Even a smile can transform some situations.
The third involves the “empty” or “neutral” moments. When you are walking from one place to another, eating, driving and so on, there is no inherent content and the mind often wanders. Those times are such precious gifts because it’s not so difficult to be awake in those moments. Identify those moments- be aware of how they come in your day. When you brush your teeth, make your tea, whatever; use your mind on purpose. And that means either one of two things: either focus your thinking in an intentional way, or let go of your thinking and simply be present with whatever is happening.
Focused thinking can be contemplation on either spiritual or practical things. It can be solving a problem or thinking a prayer of gratitude. Presence means knowing you are not your thinking. It means putting aside your thinking and simply being.
Finally, take some time every day to step out of the flow of life. In order to practice in the three types of life experience, it is vital to separate from them to do your daily avodah- spiritual work. The vital elements of avodah are also three- meditation (quiet presence, just being with Being), prayer (expression of your heart toward Being) and contemplation or learning (like what you are doing right now as you read this).
There is a hint of these three life situations in the avodah that is described in this week’s reading. Parshat Tzav begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform. It says that the “olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker- the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.” In order to be “elevated”, you must remain alert the whole time you are experiencing something challenging or negative. Don’t become unconscious! Keep the flame burning all night long. This corresponds to being awake as you deal with challenges in things you are committed to, such as relationships and work.
In our opening story, this is when the Baal Shem tries his best to disperse the clouds, and then eventually retires to his room to fully be with his sadness.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp. In other words, after you have burned through the negativity, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it alive by creating mental stories about it! Get it out of your space. This corresponds to negativity from things you are not committed to. Don’t waste your energy on things that don’t matter!
This is when the Baal Shem lets go of the sadness and joins in the dance.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is an “aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.” In other words, after the challenge is over and life has become neutral again, you should still remain conscious. Don’t just try to get conscious when things are challenging! This corresponds to the many neutral moments that comprise much of our lives. It’s easy to be awake in those moments- don’t take them for granted!
This is when the Baal Shem makes his blessing on the moon. The moon, waxing and waning, sometimes visible and sometimes not, represents the up and down flow of the every day. Sanctify the ordinary- as it says, “when you lie down and when you get up”.
On this Shabbat HaGadol- the Great Sabbath preceding our festival of liberation, may we all grow in our constant practice of being conscious and sanctifying every moment of this precious existence. Good Shabbos!
The Power of Preparation- Passover and Parshat Tzav
3/21/2013 4 Comments
There are moments when our situation dictates our next move, and there is no ambiguity about what we must do. If there were a baby in the middle of the road, for example, it is clear we should rescue the baby. In such a moment, there is no leeway for weighing options, for considering which path to take. The path is clear, and the mind is wholly present in the task at hand. We might call this active presence- being totally present and committed in one’s action.
There is also a situation we might call passive presence, or receiving presence. This could be when you receive something or behold something so satisfying that there is no part of you that is left out of the experience; there is a sense of arrival. The present is not experienced as a stepping-stone to some other moment, but the present is IT. An example of this might be beholding something awesome in nature, or even drinking a glass of water when you are parched.
Ordinarily, these moments tend to be few. The aim of spiritual work, however, is to totally reorient yourself to become fully present in every moment, to connect deeply with reality as it presents itself now, always now, in this moment. To do this, we have to shift our perspective from mind and thought to the awareness behind mind and thought. Just as both the baby in the road and the satisfying experience automatically bring one to the fullness of the present beyond thought, so we must learn to bring ourselves fully to the present, even and especially in ordinary and mundane moments.
This is the hidden message in this week’s parsha, Tzav. Throughout the Torah, when G-d tells Moses to communicate something to the Israelites, it usually says, “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to the Israelites…’”. In this case, rather than saying, “speak to the Israelites”, it says “command the Israelites”. That’s the meaning of the word Tzav- it is the command form of the word “command”. By saying, “command” rather than “speak”, it implies a sense of intensity, and calls the one commanded to a state of presence. To receive a “commandment” is different from receiving a “suggestion” or a “possibility”; the baby is in the road, and you must act.
However, the Torah then goes on to enumerate tedious details about certain ritual sacrifices. The subject matter is not even new; it is merely a continuation of last week’s parsha, which introduced the subject (see last week’s blog entry). Why is the special word tzav used in this context?
But this is the whole point. Much of our lives are spent with ordinary, repetitive things- the daily grind of keeping things moving. The ritual sacrifices are a metaphor for how to frame the ordinary: By bringing our awareness fully into each moment, the “ordinary” is transformed into something sacred. The word for sacrifice, korban, actually doesn’t mean sacrifice at all; it means “drawing near”. The “daily grind” becomes a way of drawing near to the Ultimate, for everything is part of the Ultimate. Once the mind ceases pulling us away from this moment, we can see this moment as an opportunity to awaken, to be a vessel for consciousness.
This is also the meaning of the instructions to “keep the fire on the altar burning all night” (Lev. 6:2). The “day” represents those special experiences and deeds that bring us to the sacred and the fullness of presence. The “night” represents the ordinary and mundane, when we tend to fall asleep in the spiritual sense. To “keep the fire burning” in the “night” means to transform the ordinary into a korban- into a sacred moment through the power of awareness.
This lesson is a powerful reminder as we move into the preparation time for Pesakh (Passover). Preparing for Pesakh has a very mundane, detail-oriented aspect to it, involving going through your fridge and cabinets to find all the hameitz (foods made with wheat, oats, barley or spelt, except of course matzah) to either eliminate it or sell it. (Click here for info on traditional Pesakh preparations- and don't let it freak you out! Even a little effort at whatever level you are comfortable can be very powerful). Often, this will reveal hidden dirtiness and inspire a deep cleaning of the house. The hameitz is a symbol for ego and separation from the present. The matzah, in its flatness and simplicity, represents full intimacy with the present and freedom from ego.
So what is the lesson? The ego craves something special. It wants to be impressed, and to impress. But preparing for Pesakhis an opportunity to embrace the mundane, to discover the sacred in the cleaning of kitchen muck. In surrendering to these mundane tasks and doing them not as drudgery but as “commandment”, as mitzvah, we open ourselves to receive the true and liberating power of Pesakh.
When you eat the matzah this Pesakh, may you taste the joy, sweetness and purity of real liberation, and may your liberation bring this world a step closer to a global awakening and healing.
Hag Samayakh! Good Shaabbiiiisss!
…וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
And called to Moses, and the Divine spoke to him…
Recently I saw a video piece about the daily routine of an old man. I don’t know who the man was or even what I was watching; I must have been in an airport or doctor’s office, somewhere that had a television on. It showed the old man’s daily routine, from the moment he woke up in the morning. He could hardly do anything for himself, but he had an attendant who helped him sit up, helped him use the bathroom, have him a sponge bath, dressed him up in nice clothes, helped him to the kitchen, gave him coffee and breakfast, then took him out into the world.
That’s about all I saw, but it filled me with a feeling of deep joy to watch. I asked myself, why am I so happy seeing this old man that can hardly do anything? Then I realized – it’s because even though he wasn’t able to do much for himself, he didn’t let that stop him. He could have been resigned to just lie in front of the television all day; he could have had his attendant bring him breakfast in bed. But no! He dressed up real nice, real snazzy. He ate at the kitchen table, he went out into the world and did things. He had a routine, a practice, and through that practice he continued to live a life.
There is such a crucial lesson here for our spiritual lives, especially in these times.
It is very common for people to be unintentional and somewhat unconscious about their routines, about how they spend their days. We can spend years having our schedules dictated by a set of responsibilities, and besides those responsibilities, without much intention or decision about how to spend one’s time, aside from those responsibilities.
…וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
And called to Moses, and the Divine spoke to him…
The Divine is calling, but it can be challenging to wake up and truly listen.
There is an unusual phrasing in this first pasuk: Vayikra el Mosheh – And called to Moses. God is calling to Moses, but unlike other times when the Divine speaks, it doesn’t mention a Divine Name; it is as if to say that the deepest level of the Divine that “calls” to us is beyond all names, beyond words, beyond thought.
In other words, it is the call of silence.
It is much easier to hear all the other calls – the call of our mundane responsibilities, the call of the news, the call of entertainment and social media. But if you want to hear the Call of the Divine, you’ve got to get up in the morning with God in mind, even if you can barely move. You’ve got to put on your special clothes – your tallit, your tefillin, or whatever signifies to you that you are going out to meet the Divine, even if nothing is making you do it.
This can be difficult if we are used to having our responsibilities dictated to us. Like the teenager who stays in bed until 2 pm on the weekends or in the summer, the downward unconscious pull of purposelessness will take hold if we don’t intentionally decide, like that old man, to get up and meet the Divine on purpose.
Today, perhaps more than any other time in our lives, this lesson is key.
With our ordinary routines to which we are so accustomed torn from our lives, it is more important than ever to decide; from the formlessness of long days at home, we must take this precious gift of existence seriously and carve out a new routine within which can consciously learn, grow, and contribute. And, at the core of our new conscious routine, there is the most precious opportunity: to show up for our daily date with Hashem, to faithfully and consistently enter that Palace of Silence from which the Divine constantly calls to us…
More on Parshat Vayikra...
Self Recognition – Parshat Vayikra
3/14/2019 0 Comments
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן
The Divine called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘when one of you draws close with an offering…’”
– Leviticus 1:1, 2
Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov taught on the verse, Deuteronomy 5:5 –
אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־יְהוָ֤ה וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙
I stood between the Divine and you…
"It is the 'I' that stands between the Divine and us. When a person says 'I' and asserts oneself, a wall is placed between oneself and the Divine. But for one who offers the 'I' – there is no barrier. It is to this person that the words in Shir Hashirim refer:
אֲנִ֣י לְדוֹדִ֔י וְעָלַ֖י תְּשׁוּקָתֽוֹ – I am my beloved’s and His desire is toward me… "
To be a someone – to assemble one’s thoughts, feelings and experiences into a sense of “me” – takes energy. Ordinarily we don’t even realize how much energy is being expended maintaining this ego. But in offering our “I” to the Mystery from which we emerge and to which we will eventually return, there can be a great inner surrendering to that Mystery, a great falling into the Beloved.
But how do we do that?
Rabbi David Lelov taught that there can be no experience of the Divine without first recognizing ourselves. When Joseph’s brothers came to him in Egypt and said, “We are upright men!” Joseph accused them: “You are spies!” But when they admitted they had sinned against their brother, it was then that Joseph wept and revealed himself to them.
Similarly, if we want the Divine to reveal Itself to us, we must first learn to fully be with ourselves. Free of self-assertion and self-justification, just being open and vulnerable with our actual experience, without distractions, can itself be an offering; then the inner barrier of the “I” can relax into the Divine Presence that we are beyond the “I” – and that is meditation.
The Cow and the Sheep – Parshat Vayikra
3/16/2018 0 Comments
Pirkei Avot 3:8 says, "Give to the Divine from the Divine, for you and all you have are nothing but the Divine..."
Freedom means, no more burden, no more worry, no more tension with What Is.
The devotional path of spiritual freedom is a path of offering one's self to the Divine moment by moment, so that your whole life has the quality of openness, of living not for "me" but for Reality Itself. In that total offering is the realization that "I" am also the Divine; "I" am also Reality. In this way, all of life can be realized as an expression of the Divine.
But to practice this moment by moment means embodying a paradoxical confluence of opposing qualities: Strength and Surrender.
This week's Torah reading begins:
א וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר
1. And (the Divine) called to Moses, and the Divine spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם:
2. Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person from [among] you brings an offering to the Divine; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your offering.
In order to make yourself into an offering, you need the "cattle" and the "flock" – meaning, you need to be bold and strong like a bull, but also submissive and passive like a lamb. That's because you need strength to stand up to the forces of resistance within, (that's the "bull,") and once you do that, what's left is open acceptance of Reality as it presents Itself. (That's the "lamb.")
Ordinarily, we may associate resistance with strength. But the impulse to resist is spontaneous and seductive; the real strength is in knowing that your impulses aren't you. Acceptance takes tremendous strength, courage and faith to be present with whatever impulses arise and not be seduced.
Then, from that place of acceptance of whatever is arising now, you can ask the question: How am I been called? Like Moses at the "burning bush," your calling might be to stand up for what is right, to stand against oppression, for example. This kind of political or social "resistance" is not the same as spiritual resistance. Being "called" can stem from an acceptance of what is, and then from embracing your calling to try and change things for the better...
What is Humility? Parshat Vayikra
3/30/2017 2 Comments
"Vayikra el Moshe, vay’daber Hashem Eilav-
"Hashem called to Moses, and spoke to him..."
The word Vayikra means, “called.” The 14th century Rabbi, Ya’akov ben Ra’ash, known as the Baal Haturim, pointed out that the letter alef at the end of the word Vayikra is written really tiny. He explains that Moses, in his humility, wanted to write it without the alef all together, so that it would spell Vayikarinstead of Vayikra, implying that God didn’t call to Moses, but simply happened upon Moses by accident. God said no, I am calling to you Moses, you have to put the alef in there, so Moses wrote it small, as an expression of his humility.
So why is a small alef a symbol of humility? Ordinarily, there’s that sense of the separate “me”- that’s the ego- the sense of self that’s made out of our thoughts and feelings. This egoic self-sense tends to get inflated- puffed up like a big alef. But when you become aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than get absorbed and identified with them, that inner “me” seems tiny compared to the vastness of your awareness. And that vastness isn’t ego because it doesn’t have any content- it’s not based on thoughts or judgments about “me” and “my story,” it’s just aware. It’s literally nothing, called ayin in Kabbalah, because it’s not a thing. It’s the space within which everything is perceived.
So on this Shabbat Vayikra, the Sabbath of Calling, may we hear the Divine call to be aware of our thoughts feelings, sensations and everything that arises in this moment, as part of the tapestry of Reality, the Oneness that manifests in all forms. And as we come to know that Oneness more deeply, may we also see that Oneness in each other and be motivated by genuineness and love in all our relations. Good Shabbos!!
Call For Help! Parshat Vayikra
3/16/2016 3 Comments
This morning, I had yet another computer and IPhone breakdown- the latest in a string of digital tzuresthat has plagued me for the last few weeks. Thank God for my friend Ben! He figured it out and got me my back on my virtual feet- I'm so grateful for his expertise! I really needed his help.
Some kinds of help, however, are the opposite of help.
Take my friend Josh, for example, who is blind. When he walks around in public, it’s not uncommon for someone to grab his arm aggressively and say, “Here let me help you!” and try to force him in a certain direction.
There are folks who psychologically need to help others. Their kind of help is often not really help- it’s simply food for their self image.
It reminds me of an old Sesame Street episode, where Grover is straining to carry a really heavy brick. The brick has the word “HELP” carved into it. As he moans and groans trying not to drop the brick, he keeps yelling, “Help! Help!”
The great trickster Ernie walks up and says, “Oh, Grover, you need some help? I’ve got some help for you, hold on just a minute.” He bends down and picks up another big heavy brick, also with the word “HELP” carved into it, and piles it on top of the first brick, increasing Grover’s burden.
“HELP! HELP!” Grover yells louder.
“Oh, you want more help??” says Ernie. Ernie then picks up yet another big heavy “HELP” brick and piles it on top of the two that Grover is already holding.
This goes on a few more times- Grover yelling “Help!” and Ernie just making it worse and worse by piling on more and more HELP bricks. Finally, Grover just screams and falls backwards, all the bricks falling on top of him.
Have you ever noticed a strong desire in yourself be the helper?
Or, instead of needing to be the helper, have you felt that you needed to achieve something, or experience something, or be right about something?
If you so feel strongly, you’ve got to check in with yourself- are you seeing clearly what’s needed, or are you unconsciously trying to satisfy your own need to be a certain way, achieve a certain goal or have a certain experience?
The root of the problem is not helping or achieving or having. It’s identifying with what you’re doing. It’s seeing your “self” as the “doer.”
When my daughter was three, she liked “helping” me cook in the kitchen. The “help” usually entailed holding my wrist while I stirred something in a hot pan, or holding my arm while I lifted something much too heavy and dangerous for her to lift. She felt like she was helping, but she wasn’t really the doer.
That’s actually our situation.
We go through motions, thinking “I am doing such-and-such,” but actually the act is being done by Everything- we’re only apparently doing it.
When you turn on the car, it may seem like the key is turning it on. But is it the key? Is it the starter? Is it the spark plug? There’s no single thing doing anything; Everything is doing everything all the time.
Yet we tend to think, “I am doing it”.
In thinking of ourselves as doers, we take on the most profound burden of all. Like Grover, we strain and moan under the burden of life, yelling, “Help! Help!”
But when it comes to the burden of being the doer, any “help” you get is ultimately like Ernie’s help. You don’t need that kind of help! You just need to drop the burden.
But, you can’t “try” to drop the burden. That’s just more burden! The “me” that tries to drop the burden is itself the burden.
So how do you drop the burden?
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayikra, talks about how the various sacrificial offerings were performed. When bringing a sacrifice, it says that one should bring it-
“… el petakh ohel mo’ed… yakriv oto lirtzono-
“… to the opening of the Tent of Meeting… bring it close, willingly.”
The word for “bring it close”- “yakriv”- is the same root as “korban”- the word for the sacrificial offerings. So the meaning of the offerings is not actually “sacrifice,” but “drawing close.”
What is the Tent of Meeting?
The “Tent of Meeting” is the place we meet Reality.
Where is that?
It’s always only where you are!
But, just because you’re here now, doesn’t mean you’re connected to the Here and Now. You need to willingly come to this moment-
“...el petakh ohel mo'ed yakriv oto lirtzono-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Draw your attention willingly into the petakh- the "openness" that is the present. Don’t hold it as a burden that you need to change or control; offer yourself to it. That’s the key.
There’s also a hint of this practice in the next verse-
“V’samakh yado el rosh ha’olah-
“One should lean one’s hand on the head of the burnt offering.”
“Leaning” is the exact opposite of "carrying."
To carry a burden, you have to put your hands under it. Here it says to lean on the korban- rest in the "drawing near." There's a quality of surrender, not an effortful quality-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Let your awareness simply dwell with Reality as it’s appearing now. That’s letting go.
As long as you don't let go, the message will continue to come. It will come in the form of whatever situations arise, over and over again. As it says in the first verse of our parshah-
“Vayikra el Moshe-
“Called to Moses.”
It doesn’t say who called to Moses, it just says “called”.
The last letter of the word Vayikra- “Called”- is the letter Alef. Alef has the numerical value of one, and in Kabbalah, it’s also a symbol of the Divine Oneness. On a Torah scroll, this particular Alef is written smaller than all the other letters, hinting that the “Oneness” is hidden within everything, calling to us from everything, nudging you to see- it's not you who acts.
When you can see that it’s not you who acts, but the Divine Oneness that is Everything, you can let go of your burden. Then, the help you offer is also not a burden- it doesn’t demand anything in return, or push anybody around. It becomes a true gift- a Divine gift- with no strings attached…
There’s a story of Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh, that once he was saying the blessing after his meal. When he got to the following passage, he repeated it three times with great fervor-
“V’na al tatzrikheinu, Adonai Eloheinu, lo lidei matnat basar v’dam, v’lo lidei halvatam, ki im l’yadkha hameleiah hap’tukha kak’dosha v’harkhavah…
“Please let us not need the the gifts of flesh and blood, nor their loans, but only your full, open, holy and generous hand…”
When he finished, his daughter asked- “Abba, why did you pray so hard that you should not need the gifts of people? Your only livelihood comes from the gifts people bring you out of gratitude!”
“My daughter,” he replied, “You must know that there are three ways of bringing gifts to the tzaddik. The first way is when a person thinks, ‘I’m a generous person, so I’ll bring a gift.’ This way is referred to by the words, ‘let us not need the gifts of flesh and blood.’
“The second way is when a person thinks, ‘I’ll give something now, and then I’ll get some reward in the future.’ Those people want heaven to pay them interest- that’s the ‘loan.’
“But there are some who know- ‘God has put this money in my hand to give, and I’m just the messenger.’ These are the ‘full, open, holy and generous hand...’”
On this Shabbat Vayikra, The Sabbath of Calling, may we hear message of Oneness that calls from all things, urging us to drop the burden of separateness and be messengers of the Divine compassion and generosity in this world...
Five Windows to This- Parshat Vayikra
3/14/2013 1 Comment
This week begins the first parsha of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra- “He called”. It gives instructions about five different kinds of sacrifices which the Israelites were to offer. These five sacrifices can be seen as a paradigm of life, each one a symbol for a particular way of approaching this moment.
The first is the Olah, or “Elevation” offering. This offering was unique in that it was burned completely on the altar, with nothing left over. This hints at giving ourselves entirely to the task of this moment. We tend to see this moment as a mere stepping-stone to another moment, and we are often doing one thing while our minds are somewhere else. The Olah hints that if we wish to live in an “elevated” way- that is, free from mundane stresses and worries, we paradoxically need to completely bring ourselves to the mundane. We need to “burn ourselves” completely in this moment, without leaving over part of our minds to dwell on something else.
The second is the Minkha, or “gift” offering. This was a grain offering, brought by those who were not wealthy enough to bring animal offerings. This hints at the wisdom of humility and the willingness to offer of ourselves what we can, even if we think it is inadequate, or that the work required is “below” us. It is the willingness to serve the needs of this moment, without imposing our own preconceptions.
The third is the Shlamim, or “Peace” offering. This offering was brought out of gratitude and praise. It brought peace partially because the priests and the offerer both enjoyed it as food, and partially because it was supposed to have a peaceful effect on the world in general. This hints at dedicating our actions toward universal benefit for all. When we act, we do so because we have some particular motivation. If we take a moment to dedicate our actions to universal benefit, this will give our actions and even our decision-making process a special quality of openness and generosity.
The fourth and fifth are the Hatat and the Asham- the “Sin” offering and the “Guilt” offering. Their purpose was to correct and make healing for wrongs committed. It is good to remember that we have not always been perfect. Whenever we do anything, we are not acting from a clean slate, but rather we act against a hidden karmic background. Keeping this in mind will allow us to approach this moment with humility and the intention for healing whatever negativity lingers from the past. It will also help us accept what happens to us moment by moment, cleansing us from the arrogance of resisting things we don’t like- “How could this happen to me?” Instead, let us accept what is, and offer ourselves to this moment as a force of healing.
May these five offerings manifest themselves in our lives toward greater awakening to the spiritual potential of this moment, always.
יִשְׂמְחוּ כָל־ח֪וֹסֵי בָךְ
Yism'khu Khol Khosei Vakh – All who take refuge in You will rejoice!
How do we “take refuge” in the Divine?
By seeing that all things are part of the Divine. That’s the paradox – if we want that sense of safety, of being protected, of taking refuge in something greater than whatever we feel threatened by, we need to shift our perspective to acknowledge that everything arising in our field of experience is part of Reality, part of the Divine, even whatever we fear and therefore resist:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:
He used to say: do not be scornful of any person, and do not be disdainful of anything, for there is no person without their hour, and there is no thing without its place.
(Pirkei Avot 4:3)
Our tendency, however, is to see the Divine as something separate, as “these” but not “those.” This was the sin of the golden calf; the Israelites pointed to what they had created from their gold jewelry and said:
אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
These are your gods, Israel!
Eleh – “these” but not “those.”
The Zohar explains that the ultimate identity of everything is Divine, and the Name that points to this ultimate identity is Mi which means, “Who.” The question word “Who” is a technique; it can be used to bring yourself to this realization. Simply ask yourself inwardly, Mi? Who? – and let the question bring you into awareness of the One Mystery behind all being.
This is the remedy for the golden calf, and for our tendency toward "idolatry" in general, that is, our tendency to idolize “these” but not “those” – we must re-join the Eleh with the Mi, the “these” with the “Who,” which combine to form Elohim – the Name of God that describes the plurality of all Existence as a Single Unity.
There is a hint in the parshah:
אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת
These are the records of the Sanctuary, the Sanctuary of Witness…
Mishkan, “Sanctuary,” is written twice – the first one says Eleh pekudei hamishkan – all of these different things, eleh pekudei, are all the place where Mi-Shokhein – where the ultimate “Who” is dwelling.
The second tells us the key for how to have this consciousness: Mishkan Ha’Eidut – the Dwelling of Witness. In other words, we must dwell in the state of witnessing whatever is present. To accomplish this is fairly simple, because we don’t have to change what is present; we simply have to witness it. Just being as the Mishkan Ha’Eidut, dwelling in the witnessing – is enough.
Because That which witnesses, the awareness that perceives what is present, is the Who That is Presence. Recognizing your deepest self as the Divine frees you from fear, frees you from anxiety – and in that freedom we can truly rejoice in the refuge of this knowing:
יִשְׂמְחוּ כָל־ח֪וֹסֵי בָךְ
Yism'khu Khol Khosei Vakh – All who take refuge in You will rejoice!
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Light as an Eagle – Parshat Pekudei
3/7/2019 0 Comments
“When I get the message that it’s time to let go, how do I get myself to listen?”
When we are powerless to change something we don’t like, we can understand intellectually that we need to “let go” because the resistance we feel is painful. And yet, it’s hard to “let go” because the impulse to resist has already taken over. What to do?
יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Yehudah ven Tabai says, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven…
– Pirkei Avot 5:20
הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר – Be bold as a leopard
First, we must realize that we can get out of it; we must reject the belief that we can’t. So first of all, cultivate the awareness that there is no experience that can trap you; you are always bigger than any experience, because you are the field of awareness within which the experience is happening. This takes boldness – holy hutzpah as it’s sometimes called.
וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר – light as an eagle
Being “bold” or “brazen” (az) doesn’t mean being aggressive, controlling or imposing. Simply be bold in knowing that you cannot be controlled by feelings of resistance. This means, don’t resist your resistance! Simply accept its presence, being the open space within which it arises. This is being kal – “light as an eagle.”
וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי – swift as a deer
But, to do any of this, you have to be faster than your impulses. Ordinarily, when an impulse is triggered, it happens very quickly and we tend to get taken over very quickly. Our awareness must be ratz – we must be even faster. This takes practice, and we may fail many times. But the key is to articulate your intention to yourself over and over, so that when the moment comes, you will be ready. This is the point of prayer – to articulate to ourselves our highest kavanah – our highest intention – every day, many times per day.
But then we must also practice carrying out the intention, and that’s meditation:
וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי – strong as a lion
Meditation is a workout for consciousness. Through daily practice, we become gibor – we strengthen our ability to consciously relate with whatever experience arises. Like any strengthening exercise, it can take time to bear fruit; that’s why it’s so important to have faith in the process and practice every day, even if you don’t notice much difference at first. The fruit will ripen!
There is a hint of this in the symbolism of the decorative fruits that were placed on the hems of the priestly robes:
וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ עַל־שׁוּלֵ֣י הַמְּעִ֔יל רִמּוֹנֵ֕י תְּכֵ֥לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֖ן וְתוֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֑י מָשְׁזָֽר
And they made, on the hem of the robe, pomegranates of turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, twisted…
– Exodus 39:24
Turquoise, tekheilet, is the color of the tzitzit – the traditional ritual fringes that are worn to serve as a reminder to be constantly and vigilantly conscious – swift as a deer.
Purple is the color of royalty, representing our sovereignty over experience – bold as a leopard.
Crimson is the color of blood, the strength of the body – strong as a lion.
וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ פַעֲמֹנֵ֖י זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר
And they made bells of pure gold…
The bell is a symbol of awareness itself, as the sound of the bell awakens us into a higher alertness. This is light as an eagle – just as the eagle hovers and soars through the open air, so too when we awaken to the full potential of who we are beyond our thoughts and feelings, we find that we are the open air, we are the miracle of consciousness, the effortless dwelling with just how this moment is unfolding, right now…
The Carver, The Weaver and The Embroiderer- Parshat Pekudei
3/9/2016 0 Comments
This week’s reading recounts the building of the Sanctuary-
“Eleh p’kudei HaMishkan…
“These are the remembrances of the Sanctuary…” (Ex. 38:21)
Remember- right now- make yourself into a sanctuary!
How do you do that? It goes on to say:
“The Sanctuary of Witnessing…”
The moment you become the witness to what’s happening, seeing without judgment or resistance, your inner space becomes a Sanctuary of Presence.
The parsha then goes on to describe the builders and artisans, including one named Oholiav, who is described as a “carver, weaver and embroiderer.”
To become a Mishkan HaEidut, a Sanctuary of Witnessing, first let your inner space be “carved” by the content of this moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Don’t resist, let your inner space take the form of this moment.
Then, let the fullness of everything in this moment be “woven” into a whole within the space of your awareness. Don’t tear the moment apart with judgments and resistance- it’s already one whole tapestry, when you allow it to be.
Let your own thoughts/words/actions “embroider” the sacred. Give your thoughts a form with a Divine Name or sacred phrase, letting it vibrate repeatedly in your mind.
Try this phrase, which means, “The Glory of the Divine Presence Fills”-
Kavod Hashem Malei! Kavod Hashem Malei!
This phrase is from the following verse which describes how the Sanctuary was so full of Presence, Moses could not enter-
“Moses could not enter the Sanctuary… for the Glory of the Divine Presence filled the Sanctuary.” (Ex. 40:35)
When your presence completely fills this moment, there's no more room for the separate “me”- there’s just the Presence, not separate from anything…
On this Shabbat Pekudei, the Sabbath of Remembrance, may we remember this most fundamental sacred task, clearing the way for joy and celebration in this new month of Adar II, the month of Purim...
Good Month to you!
Mishei Nikhnas Adar Marbim Simkha!
When the month of Adar enters, joy increases!
The Maggid of Mezritch taught: “Today the holy spirit comes upon us more easily than when the Temple was standing. Once there was a king of a country that was conquered by a foreign power, and the king was driven into exile. In the course of his wanderings, he came upon the home of some poor people who recognized him as king. They took him in, offered him modest food and shelter, and treated him as honored royalty the best they could. The king deeply appreciated their hospitality and chatted intimately with his hosts, as he had once done in his court with those closest to him.
“Now that the Holy One is in exile from His Holy Temple, He does the same with us.”
The secret of realizing the Presence of the Divine is a spirit of hospitality from the heart. Welcome this moment as it is, in all its fullness, in its beauty and ugliness, in its orderliness and chaos, and you welcome the Divine Essence that is the Presence of all things, that is the Presence within you, reading these words right now. That Presence is a gift – you cannot manufacture It, you cannot generate It, but you can do your part to open to It, to reveal Its Reality through you.
There is a hint in the parshah:
זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל... תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה
This shall be given by all who pass through the counting – a half shekel, an offering to the Divine…
The “half” we bring in the building of the sanctuary of this moment is ourselves; we, meaning our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts, are “half” – the other half is the Divine, the Reality behind all forms. Make yourself hospitable to That Reality, and the Divine appears, barukh Hashem.
How do we do it?
וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת
The Divine passed before his face and called out, “Being! Being! Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in Lovingkindness and Truth!”
These Divine qualities that God reveals to Moses are a practical instruction:
Hashem! Hashem! – Being! Being! The Divine Name that means “Being” is said twice, indicating the realization that whatever is before you is a form of the Divine, and your own consciousness is also the Divine; through the meeting, The Divine becomes One with Itself. This is the fundamental knowledge that brings the felt connection with the Divine Presence.
El Rakhum V’Hanun – Compassionate and Gracious God… that is, make the qualities of compassion and grace “God” over all your other qualities. You may not feel like it, but you can bring forth these qualities if you decide that they are “God” to you.
Erekh apayim v’ravhesed ve’emet – Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Lovingkindness and Truth… You have the ability to not get caught by your anger and to act from the impulse of love. It says Emet –Truth – because it is not about “faking” it; it is about finding these qualities within and bringing them forth.
Then, the prophesy of Purim will be fulfilled:
לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׁוֹן וִיקָר
For the Jews there was Light, Joy, Gladness and Essence…
כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָנוּ – So may it be for us!
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Offering – Parshat Ki Tisa
2/20/2019 0 Comments
My father-in-law once commented that when he attended minyan daily to say kaddish for his father, he would finish putting on his tefillin by Aleinu.
(The tefillin are ritual objects worn on the body, and the Aleinu is one of the very last prayers. He was joking that it took him the time of the entire service to get his tefillin on, which are supposed to be put on before you begin the service.)
It’s true that for many Jews who attend synagogue, the Aleinu is the most familiar prayer, since all the latecomers are present by the time it happens. And it’s appropriate, since Aleinu is the great equalizer:
Aleinu leshabeiakh Ladon Hakol – It is upon us to praise the Master of All.
It doesn’t matter if you’re early or late, if you put on your tefillin quickly or slowly – in the face of the Divine, in the face of the Mystery of Existence, we are all equal. As the Divine name proclaims, Reality unfolds however it unfolds:
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I will be What I Will Be
We all equally have this supreme task: to harmonize ourselves with What Is:
Va’anakhnu korim umishtakhavim umodim lifnei… HaKadosh Barkhu Hu – We kneel and prostrate and surrender before the Holy Blessed One…
A disciple asked Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov: “Why is it that humility is the most important virtue, yet the Torah doesn’t command us to be humble? It only says that Moses was the most humble of men, but it doesn’t ever say that humility is a mitzvah.”
“That’s because,” replied the master, “if humility were a mitzvah, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish it; we would end up having pride in our humility!”
Once there was a rabbi who was davening with great intensity toward the end of Yom Kippur, when he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance. Before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out, “Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan – the cantor – saw him do this, he too became inspired, and suddenly realized the same thing. “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
Suddenly, Shmully the shoemaker also became deeply moved and cried out as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” When the hazzan saw Shmully’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
The essential quality of authentic spirituality involves meeting Reality as it appears – which is to say, meeting the Divine in the fulness of the present. The opposite of this is ego, which instead is concerned with one’s own identity, with the “me.” To accomplish the task of transcending ego and meeting the Divine, religion gives us all kinds of traditions and devices, but the irony is that the ego can co-opt all of that for its own self-bolstering purpose. Thus, according to the maggid, humility must remain free from being a mitzvah; it is a level higher than any particular religious practice.
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם
When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה
This they shall give… a half a shekel … an offering to the Divine.
The ego wants to “count” – there is a self-image to maintain; this is the negef, the root plague of being human. The ego is insatiable, never satisfied for long, because it is by nature incomplete; it is only a “half shekel.” The only way to become complete and avert the “plague” is to make it תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה – an “offering” to the Divine.
How to do that?
Simply notice the impulse to “be” something – to be recognized, to be validated, to be seen in a certain way. Let that impulse be there, but don’t buy into it; don’t give the ego any reality. Recognize that it is just a bundle of thoughts and feelings. Offer it up: “Oh Hashem, I am only here to serve your purpose; only in aligning with You can there be wholeness.”
In that letting go of the incomplete self into the One, there can arise a completeness that is not any particular thing, that is not dependent on anything, but it emerges and blossoms when there is openness to the truth of this moment.
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing!
The Plague of Separation – Parshat Ki Tisa
2/27/2018 0 Comments
This week's Torah reading begins with instructions to Moses on how to take a census of the Israelites. Everyone who is counted has to give a half shekel as an "atonement" to prevent a plague:
יא וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
11 The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
יב כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם:
12 "When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Divine an atonement for their souls when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
יג זֶ֣ה יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַֽחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
13 This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Divine.
But why would there be a plague for being counted in a census?
To be "counted" means to be discerned as a separate entity. This is the "plague" of the ego – the felt sense of being something separate, driving your life through a separate universe. Ordinarily, this is how we think of ourselves; there's "me in here" and "that out there." This is the basic duality of the egoic perspective.
But consider: whatever you perceive to be "out there" is always perceived within your consciousness. So when you think of yourself as being within your body, looking out at something separate, you've actually split yourself in half. You've identified with the half that's in your body, and exiled the part of your own awareness within which "out there" is perceived.
So to heal this rift and escape the "plague" of separateness, the two halves have to rejoin one another. That's the makhatzit hashekel – the half shekel. Give your awareness fully to whatever you perceive in the present moment, and the self-contracting activity of ego can relax and you merge back into Oneness. This is meditation, also called Presence.
But, sometimes there are powerful emotions that can become blocked. In that case, you may not be able to relax into Oneness through meditation alone. That's where prayer comes in. Through prayer, you invite your emotions to be fully felt by putting them into words or chants or even just sounds, crying out from the heart. In this way, previously exiled feelings can be released and an inner alchemy can take place, transforming negativity into love...
reb brian yosef
Is Your Motivation Disrupting Your Meditation? Parshat Ki Tisa
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nei Yisrael lifkudeihem..."
"When you take a census of the children of Israel to count them- every person should give an atonement for their souls to the Divine when you count them- so that there won’t be a plague among them when they’re counted.”
This is a super strange passage. First God is telling Moses to take a census of the Israelites- not so strange- Moses is leading thousands of Israelites through the desert so it makes sense that he would want to keep track of them all. But then it says something strange- that every Israelite should give a kofer- an atonement or a ransom. This word kofer is the same as in Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement. In the next line it explains that the kofer they give should be a half shekel, which is a kind of coin, and they should give this coin to prevent a plague from breaking out.
But why do they have to atone for being counted, as if being counted is some kind of sin that would bring on a plague?
But if we look more deeply at the words, the idiom for “When you take a census” is “Ki tisa et rosh”- which 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 thoughts, feelings, personality- all that stuff that normally makes up the sense of “me” or ego. That process of ki tisa- of transcending the ego and experiencing the freedom and bliss of pure consciousness is, of course, the aim of meditation.
And normally, when we decide to meditate, we’re 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 the experience of “me” wanting to get “something.” But since the thing you’re trying to get is to let 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.
Instead, do it as an act of giving- an act of love for its own sake. And that’s the donation of the half shekel. It’s only a half shekel because there’s of course the acknowledgment that meditation is good for you- that’s the other half of the coin so to speak- but what’s 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 half shekel means that you’re dedicating your spiritual work that you do on yourself toward the service of others.
So this Shabbat Ki Tisa- the Sabbath of Elevation, is a good time to rededicate yourself to your meditation practice, through the intention of love.
The Coconut Oil- Parshat Ki Tisa
2/25/2016 2 Comments
Here in Costa Rica, it’s hot. How hot is it?
Here’s a good way to understand it:
When I was back in Berkeley last week, I was staying with some friends in their warm and cozy home. One morning, while the heat was on in the house due to the cold outside, I took out my jar of coconut oil to make my “bullet-proof” coffee (ask me about this if you don’t know what it is). I was surprised to find that the coconut oil was completely hard and white, even though the house was so warm.
That’s because in Costa Rica, the coconut oil is always clear liquid, even at night when the air seems cool in relation to how hot it was during the day.
And, because it’s so dang hot, it’s pretty common to take not one, but two showers per day.
Before Costa Rica, I would take a shower to go out and do something, or, I would take a shower when I returned home from somewhere.
But in Costa Rica, everything is hot, everything makes you sticky and filthy, so you’ve got to shower before going out and shower when you come in.
It reminds me of the mitzvah to repeatedly cleanse your inner space, chanting the affirmation of the Unity of Being with the Sh’ma, which is to be said-
“… when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”
In other words, there’s a rhythm of inwardness and outwardness, of activity and rest, and staying present applies to all those times.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, has it’s own version of the “two shower” practice:
The parshah describes the construction the Kiyor- a special basin of water for the kohanim (priests) to wash themselves with. Whenever they entered the Sanctuary or burned offerings on the altar outside the Sanctuary, they would use the kiyor:
“V’asita kiyor n’khoshet bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh v’natanta shama mayim-
“You shall make a basin of copper between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar, and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l, taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life. The inner Sanctuary represents your avodah- spiritual practice- that you do separate from mundane life.
The fact that the kiyor- the water basin- was between the inner and the outer indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before doing either one. Without the right intention, both outer and inner life will be expressions of ego, of the energy of self-enhancement rather than self-transcendence.
It makes no difference if you’re praying, earning a living, enjoying some food, helping someone out, whatever. Without right intention, anything you do- holy or mundane- will have an ensnaring quality.
But with right intention, both inner and outer life become the arena of transformation, as the rhythmic movement between the two gently wears away at the substance of ego.
What is right intention?
It’s being in service of the moment.
Whether it’s inner or outer life, being in service of the moment means letting the movement around you and the movement within you be one thing. It means not opposing yourself to what is, but being what is. It means being fully yourself, as you are, here in this moment, as this moment is, without resistance.
What’s the key to right intention?
It’s knowing that your existence right now is fully an expression of Truth, of Reality, of God- just as it is.
Can you accept that ultimate Truth right now?
In the beginning of the reading from which the parsha gets its name, the Israelites are told they must all donate a half-shekel when they’re counted in the census, in order to prevent a plague-
“Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael…
“When you take a census of the children of Israel… they shall give a half-shekel for atonement, so there won’t be a plague…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you forget your essential unity with all that is, if you forget that you’re ultimately here to serve the One, and that your very existence is already a service of the One.
Why a half-shekel?
Because your existence is half the equation- the piece that everyone brings equally. The other half is your unique task, the task that only you can do. But it begins with the “half-shekel”- it begins with knowing your own existence as non-separate from this moment.
Then, in this open embrace of Being, there can be balance between the inner and the outer. No need to run after external experiences, and no need to close yourself off to find internal holiness- though sometimes the moment requires one and sometimes the other.
Night and day, Hasidim of all ages and types knocked on the door of Reb Pinkhas of Korets. Some wanted spiritual guidance, others wanted wisdom, others sought special blessings.This disturbed Reb Pinkhas from his inward devotions so much, that he prayed he should become disliked by people.
“That would solve everything!” he thought. “If people hated me, they would leave me alone to my meditations and I’d be able to enjoy the Divine Oneness in peace.”
His prayer was answered-
From that day onward, he lived a secluded life in blissful aloneness, and was never seen in the company of others, except at synagogue.
As the festival of Sukkot drew near, he had to build his sukkah all by himself, for nobody would help him (which was fine by him). On the first night of the holiday, the rabbi sat in his sukkah all by himself (which was fine by him), and he began chanting the invocation to Avraham, inviting the spirit of the ancient patriarch into his sukkah.
Reb Pinkhas looked up in wonder- the spirit of Avraham had appeared, and was standing just outside!
At first, Reb Pinkhas fell into an ecstatic wonder at the apparition before him, but soon became anxious because the spirit wouldn’t enter the sukkah, despite Reb Pinkhas’ invitational invocations.
“Master, why do you not enter my sukkah?” cried Reb Pinkhas.
Avraham Avinu replied, “It is not my custom to enter a place where there are no guests.”
Avraham then disappeared.
Sad and regretful, Reb Pinhkas made Kiddush by himself, then took the special water vessel to cleanse his hands before the blessing over bread.
As he washed his hands, he prayed- “Ribono Shel Olam, cleanse me from my reclusiveness- may I accept the holiness of being with people as well as being alone. Please, Ribono Shel Olam, take away the hatred people have for me.”
From that time onward, Reb Pinkhas was restored to his rebbe-hood and Hasidim began visiting him once again.
On this Shabbat Ki Tisa, the Sabbath of Raising Up, may we raise up the Reality that includes others and includes ourselves, for there’s only One Reality, and we're all part of it. Let’s remember the supreme middah of hospitality, honoring whomever we’re with, allowing this moment to be a welcoming home for all we encounter... and may our hearts and minds flow with this moment... like the liquid coconut oil in Costa Rica!
The Plumber- Parshat Ki Tisa
3/6/2015 3 Comments
I have a friend who told me an amazing story about how she used to earn a living. She is a particularly handy person, with a knack for things like plumbing, light carpentry, and so on. Several years ago, she discovered that most people (myself included) don’t have such a knack and often need a handy person, so she started to take little fix-it jobs to earn extra money. For a while the jobs were easy for her. One day, she was asked to do a job that baffled her.
What did she do?
Did she say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” and go on to an easier job? No. She pretended she knew how to do the job, went home and watched You Tube videos on how to fix that particular thing, then went and fixed it. That was just the beginning. Eventually, she was learning and growing by taking on harder and harder jobs. Her work became her school.
There is an analogue here to spirituality. Just as the basic point of work is to receive physical sustenance in the form of money, so the basic point of spirituality is to receive spiritual sustenance- the Inner Light of bliss and oneness that manifests as wisdom, joy, love and many other wonderful qualities.
The most direct way to connect with your spiritual sustenance is to remove outer distractions and do your avodah- spiritual work such as meditation, chanting, and so on. If you really just want that spiritual sustenance, you should involve yourself with as few other things as possible. Do what you need to do to eat and have basic necessities, then devote yourself to spiritual practice. That would be analogous to my friend taking the easy handy jobs she already knew how to do.
But if your intention is not merely to get the sustenance, rather to learn and grow in your ability to stay connected to the Source of that sustenance even in the midst of life, then you can bring your spiritual Light into the chaos and complexity of life. Then, distractions are really not distractions anymore. They are what you need to train. They are your helpers on the path of becoming spiritually masterful.
Many folks tend toward one side or the other. Some get so caught up in the drama of life that it is impossible remain present and bring forth the Inner Light when things get stressful. Others tend toward the other direction, seeing the drama of life as a distraction and withdrawing into solitude. And, there are times in life when it’s good to lean toward one side or the other.
The truth, however, is that these two sides are not really separate or opposed to each other. The Inner Light that flowers within wants to express Itself; it wants to connect with life and bring its power of healing and wisdom. But to balance the rhythm between the Eternal and the temporal, the Silent and the noisy, requires attentiveness and intention. It takes a special effort to create the boundaries you need to have the space in the day for spiritual avodah. And, no matter how complete your realization of the One is in solitude, life will generate challenges for you when you get back in its game. Receiving those challenges as your spiritual training, and not merely distractions, takes a tremendous effort; but it is ultimately an effortless effort.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, contains instructions for constructing a special basin of water that the kohanim (priests) were to wash their hands and feet with whenever they entered the sanctuary space or brought offerings onto the altar that was outside the sanctuary: “v’asita kiyor n’khoshet- you shall make a basin of copper…bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh- between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar…v’natanta shama mayim- and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher rebbe Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life activities. The inner sanctuary represents one’s spiritual practice and connection with Eternal, separate from mundane life. The fact that the kiyor- the basin- was between the two indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before entering into your avodah, on one hand, and before entering into ordinary life activities as well. Having the right intention is the key to unifying the life of Being with the life of Doing.
Having right intention with your avodah means to approach it in the spirit of service. You meditate and davven not just to “get” something from it but also to serve as a conduit- to bring the Spirit into form. Similarly, you don’t enter into mundane life only to derive material benefit from it, but also to receive its lessons, to be a student and become more and more adept at bringing the Spirit into expression.
What is the key to right intention? It’s knowing you are here to serve. We are all constantly receiving, taking so much in so many different ways, but it must be for the sake of giving. That’s why, in the beginning of the reading, the Israelites are told they all must donate a half shekel when they are counted for the census, in order to prevent a plague- “Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael- when you take a census of the children of Israel… v’natnu ish kofer- they shall give for atonement… v’lo yiyeh vahem negef- so there won’t be a plague…makhazit hashekel- a half shekel…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you get stuck in it, if you forget right intention, if you forget that you are ultimately here to serve the One.
How do you serve the One? By being connected to the One and bringing Its Light and Bliss and Love into the mundane, into the chaos. And how do you do that? By taking time to separate from the mundane and doing your daily spiritual practice… not to mention the one full day of the week that is all spiritual practice- Shabbat.
May this Shabbat be a full immersion into the Eternal and may our world drink of Her healing power-
בְּרֹ֣ב חַ֭סְדְּךָ אָב֣וֹא בֵיתֶ֑ךָ
In Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House…
I admit, I am not very good at staying in touch with people. I wish I were, but this deficiency is really the result of another deficiency, which is that I’m no good at multitasking. Unlike some people in my family who seem to effortlessly keep many people and their birthdays and everything else going on in their minds constantly, my mind tends to stay simple.
Still, I am in touch with friends I’ve had since childhood, thanks to a little trick I’ve developed – I rope my friends into projects, and then we are forced to be in touch. The irony is that being “in touch,” that is, being present with one another, is the greater value. Whatever projects we are doing are nowhere near as important as the relationship. Relationships are for their own sake; they are not a goal in time, but they are fulfilled in Presence.
Any yet, having a goal in time is helpful for the maintenance of the relationship, even though it is of lesser value. In this way, the lesser serves the greater, and the greater often needs the lesser in order to have a place in this world of busyness.
In the case of spirituality, we also need something of lesser value to help us “keep in touch” with the Greater Value.
אָב֣וֹא בֵיתֶ֑ךָ – Avo Veitekha – I will enter Your House
The psalm uses the metaphor of “entering” God’s “House” to describe being present with the Divine Presence. We can do this at any moment, since everything that exists partakes of Existence; every moment is always This Eternal Moment. But, in most moments, we have other things taking our attention! Thus, we must make times in our day that are only for God; we have to make a “project” of our spirituality, dress the Divine in the “garb of the world” so to speak, so that it stands a chance. This is our daily spiritual practice, as well as the weekly twenty-five hours of Shabbat.
Before you take the leap in commitment to Shabbat or daily practice, it seems impossible. Many people say to me, “How can you have time for Shabbat every week? How can you have time to meditate every day?” It is miraculous, but it is a miracle you can experience by taking the leap. That’s why “entering” the “House” is called “kindness” –
בְּרֹ֣ב חַ֭סְדְּךָ אָב֣וֹא בֵיתֶ֑ךָ
B’rov Hasdekha Avo Veitekha – In Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House…
We receive our ability to devote our time and energy to practice as a gift, as an expression of Divine Hesed (kindness), not merely as an expression of our own willpower. In this way, the logistics of scheduling too becomes part of the practice, not something separate from it.
You can also reverse-engineer Presence from your goal-oriented relationships. Next time you are checking out at the store, or dealing with any person that you don’t know for the sake of some task or goal, you can bring the dimension of Presence into the relationship. Yes, you are only dealing with this person because of what you need to accomplish, but you can use the opportunity to let the “lesser” serve the “Greater” – open yourself to the miracle of the person before you; appreciate that the Divine comes to you now in the form of this person before you.
Martin Buber had a special way of referring to these two realities: when we relate to someone or something as serving a function, as having a goal in time, we are in an “I-it” relationship. When we relate to someone for their own sake, being present for its own sake, we are in an “I-You” (or “I-Thou”) relationship.
There’s a hint in the parshah:
וְאַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ
And you shall bring Aaron, your brother, close to you…
Moses is receiving instructions about how to transform his brother Aaron and his sons into kohanim, priests. But before going into all the detail about how to create the sacred vestments they must wear, it says, hakareiv eilekha – bring him close to you!
In other words, in order for all the elaborate ritual stuff to work, it has to be grounded in Presence. Presence is the point of the ritual elements – so before Moses gets involved with the ritual functions of his brother, he has to first connect with his brother for his own sake, as a “You,” before talking about his function as an “It.”
A hassid once asked Rabbi Yisakhar Baer of Radoshitz: “The Talmud says that Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai said to his son, ‘My son, you and I are enough for the world.’ How are we to understand this?”
He answered, “In the Tosefta we read, “The underlying meaning of the creation of the world is that the creature says to the Holy One, ‘You are the Divine!’ And the Holy One replies, ‘I am the Divine.’ This ‘You’ and this ‘I’ are enough for the world…”
More on Parshat Tetzaveh...
The Fire of Awareness – Parshat Tetzaveh
2/12/2019 1 Comment
Someone told me recently that she felt so bad about herself, that she hadn’t done anything of worth, that she had messed up so much in her life. I encouraged her to notice that those were thoughts, that she didn’t have to “buy in” to those thoughts.
“But it’s TRUE!” she insisted.
“What is true,” I said, “is that those thoughts are present, the feelings that come with those thoughts are present, the sense of your body breathing right now is present, the sound of my voice is present… that’s TRUE.” She started to relax a little bit… barukh Hashem, because as we know, she could have punched in the mouth instead!
When a person is captivated by thoughts and feelings, it is not always helpful to point that out; a person has to be ready for that kind of pointing. We may or may not be able to help another person get free from the web of ego, but there is one person we can help – and that’s ourselves.
Notice: there is an absolute truth, and that’s the truth of whatever is arising in your experience, right now. The point, however, is not necessarily the content of your experience; the point is being the noticing. When you can see clearly – there is a thought, there is a feeling, there is a sensation – then there is the possibility of knowing: you are the noticing, you are the awareness, you are not trapped by any thought or feeling. You are the openness within which this moment unfolds. That is freedom. And from that freedom, you can see clearly: is this thought helpful? Is this thought destructive?
Spiritual teachings often come in diametrically opposed pairs.
There’s a teaching of the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shikha, that everyone should carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes,” (Genesis 18:27) and on the second, “For me the world was created” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 37b). As one goes through life, one should develop the wisdom to know which slip of paper to take out at which time.
Could there be more diametrically opposed messages?
The point is, our thoughts are not “true” or “not true,” they are either useful or not useful. From a spiritual point of view, they are useful if they move us from ego to freedom, from resistance to acceptance. Sometimes, acceptance means letting go and letting things be (“I am but dust and ashes.”) But that doesn’t mean passivity or weakness; often, it means the acceptance of responsibility (“For me the world was created.”) This moment, this situation, as it is, right now, is. How shall we respond? Shall we turn away, deny and ignore? Or, shall we address this moment as it is and step up to what must be done? This too is acceptance, this too is freedom – not freedom from responsibility, but freedom from resistance to accepting the responsibility that is already yours.
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד
You shall command the Israelites to take for you oil of olives, pure, crushed, for illumination, to kindle continuous flame...
The oil is already burning – it is the ner tamid – the continuous flame of your consciousness, the essence of who you are, within which this moment unfolds. The question is, are you conscious of your consciousness? You are already aware, but are you aware that you are the awareness?
To wake up, to become aware on this deeper level, you have to purify your awareness from its identification with thoughts and feelings; you have to “crush” them from your consciousness. Like the olive, there’s a hard pit at the core; that’s the ego.
Be the loving Presence that surrounds your ego. No need to try to get rid of it – that’s just more ego! Instead, accept the fulness of this moment as it is, resistance and all, feelings and all, thoughts and all, without “adding to the story” – without “buying in.”
In doing that, you illuminate the awareness that is already free from all that; לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד – you kindle the eternal flame – that is the beginning of awakening.
Wringing Out the Sponge – Parshat Tetzaveh
2/23/2018 2 Comments
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall command the Israelites to bring you olive oil, clear, pressed, for illumination, for kindling lamps constantly...
Becoming present is like ringing out a sponge, or pressing the air out of an air pump. On one hand, there's a kind of contraction, as you squeeze the sponge or pump. On the other hand, the water in the sponge or the air in the pump becomes more expansive as it's released.
Similarly, thoughts tend to be absorbed in the "sponge" of thinking. Becoming present requires a "pressing" of consciousness from it's ordinary absorption in thought, into the expansive fullness of your experience in the present.
This is hinted at in the above passage. The olive oil should be zakh – clear, pure – meaning, not mingled with thoughts and attitudes. Simply be the clear space within which this moment arises. To do this, it has to be kateet – pressed. Meaning, "press" yourself into your present moment experience. This "pressing" is the freeing of consciousness from the forms it takes in thought...
Darkness to Light – Parshat Tetzaveh
March 10, 2017
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh means, “And you shall command.” It begins with God telling Moses: “V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael- and you shall command the children of Israel- v’yik’khu eilekha shemen zayit zakh katit lama’or- they should take to you oil from olives, pure, crushed, for illumination- l’ha’alot ner tamid- for kindling the eternal flame.”
So what’s the “eternal flame?” It’s your awareness that’s there all the time- whether you’re asleep or awake, whether you’re angry or openhearted, there’s always this basic awareness there, so you don’t have to create it- it’s already tamid- already constant.
But, the tendency is for your awareness to constantly get drawn in by the dramas of the mind and heart, the image we have of reality, rather than connect with Reality directly. So in order to free your awareness from your mind, you do have to “kindle it” so to speak. Just as when you’re asleep, you’re a little bit aware, otherwise no one would be able to wake you up. But once someone does wake you up, your awareness greatly increases. So too there’s a way l’ha’alot ner tamid- to kindle the eternal flame- meaning, to increase your awareness that’s already there, and wake up even more.
And how do you do that? You need shemen zayit- olive oil.
Now olives have a hard, inedible pit within them. Similarly, there’s ordinarily a hard, seemingly impenetrable pit at the core of who we are. From the moment we wake up in the morning, there’s that sense that “I” have woken up. You feel angry at someone, there’s a sense that “I” am angry. If you let go of the anger and you get all expansive and forgiving and loving, there’s still the sense that “I” am expansive and forgiving and loving. That’s the pit- the pit is the “I.” And just like you can’t eat the pit and transform it into nourishment, so it seems that the “I” is irreducible. No matter what experience you have, it’s always “you” having it.
But just as the olive fruit is crushed along with the pit to make olive oil, as it says, zakh katit- pure and crushed, so too that hard sense of “me” known as the ego can be crushed into oil, and that oil becomes fuel for consciousness- fuel for enlightenment.
So how do you get the oil from the olive pit of the self and burn it in the light of awareness?
The essential thing is not to try and control your mind, or try to not have judgments or think less, but rather it’s simply to notice what is in this moment. You have thoughts and feelings? Just know that there are thoughts and feelings. Let your awareness rest in the actual truth of your experience in this moment- being present with your feelings as they arise and fall, being present with your body and the rise and fall of your breathing, and being the perceiving presence behind your thoughts.
In this way you naturally let go of the mental urge to retreat into your mind, which is what creates the sense of “me,” known as ego, and instead feel yourself as the luminous presence within which the mystery of this moment is unfolding. There’s a wonderful hint of this in the next line:
“B’ohel mo’ed- In the tent of the special time of meeting- that is, the tent of meeting the present- mikhutz laparokhet asher al ha’eidut- on the outside of the concealing curtain that’s over the tabletson which the ten commandments are written, that’s where Aaron will kindle the eternal flame.
Now the word for the tablets, eidut, actually doesn’t mean tablets, that would be lukhot. Rather, eidutmeans testimony or witness. This witness is behind the parokhet- behind the curtain- you can’t see the witness. And this is exactly the nature of consciousness. Consciousness sees everything else, but just like the eyeball, it can’t see itself; it’s a mystery to itself. So what you get in spiritual awakening is not any new piece of information or expanded knowledge, but rather the awareness of the Nothing; the is-ness beyond all understanding that’s forever behind the curtain, so to speak.
And yet, you are the witness- you are behind the curtain. You can’t understand consciousness, but you can simply be conscious- you can simply be present… and that’s awakening out of the dream of the mind.
But to do this in a really deep and transformative way, the olive pits have to be katit- crushed. This means that when suffering comes your way- when things go wrong, when you suffer loss, when you experience anger or worry or fear- bring your awareness into the feelings. Let the feelings be without elaborating on them too much in your mind, without blaming or trying to figure out how to avoid them in the future. Instead, let their energy crush the pit of ego. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s temporary and leads to greater illumination.
To help remember, you can say to yourself repeatedly- “Whatever suffering comes my way is for the purpose of illumination.” So write that down, and say it to yourself over and over. In this way, any ordinary situation that produces suffering can be an opportunity to increase the light of consciousness and ultimately open to greater joy and bliss in simply Being.
So as we approach this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we all receive this mitzvah-this commandment- to ignite the eternal flame of awareness with the oil that’s pressed out of us through whatever suffering happens to come our way. And as our light increases, so too may we transform our actions to crush any stuck patterns of negativity and open to the blessing inherent in this life...
Take Off Your Headphones! Parshat Tetzaveh
Do you ever listen to music in headphones?
Sometimes I’ll want to hear the same song in my headphones over and over again, until I get sick of it. The song takes on a personal theme quality, and I want it to score my whole life.
But imagine going out to see the singer of your favorite song perform live. Would you pull out your headphones and listen to a recording of it, rather than listen to the actual concert?
Of course not!
And yet, that’s often what happens in the spiritual sense, when your mind becomes engrossed in some thought, idea, desire, or memory. Rather than live life as it’s happening, you're absorbed in your own mind.
It’s like listening to a recording in headphones when the real thing is happening live right in front of you!
This week's reading begins:
“V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael...”
“And you shall command the Children of Israel that they should take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually.”
“Oil” represents awareness.
To “take” the “oil” means to take your awareness into your own hands. Your mind need not wander about like a child- you can take “command” of it.
“… pressed, for illumination”
Ordinarily the mind wanders aimlessly, and awareness glows dully in the background. But if you “press” your awareness, which means bringing your mind back again and again to the present, it will begin to glow brightly, illuminating your mind.
“… to kindle a lamp continually.”
With ordinary fire, once you kindle it, it burns on its own. But with consciousness, you must “kindle” it “continually.” This means developing the habit of reeling your mind back, again and again, to the Reality of this moment.
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak began greeting everyone after prayers as if they had just returned from a long journey.
“Shalom Aleikhem! Shalom aleikhem!” exclaimed the rebbe to each and every congregant.
When they gave him strange looks, he responded-
“Why do you look surprised? While the hazan was singing, you weren’t here at all. This one was in the market place, this one was on a cargo ship, this one was relaxing at home. When the singing stopped, you all returned, so I greeted you shalom aleikhem!”
The Greatest Singer of All performs a concert right now. It’s the only concert there is- the magical unfolding of this moment!
On this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we remember to heed the Great Command that sings to us continuously: Be present! And through our mindfulness, may the consciousness of all humanity be elevated, so that awareness and love may reign supreme in the minds and hearts of all.
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