One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot. So, I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After some time, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized- I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler. All the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for your daily practice. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive. In that case, it is possible that you’ve "left the window open." All your best intentions are “blowing right out the window!”
How do you “roll up the window” and make the most out of the power of your intention without wasting it? This week’s reading begins:
“Ish ki yidor neder laShem- if a person takes a vow to the Divine, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon oneself…
“...k’khol yotzei mipiv ya’aseh- according to everything that comes out of one’s mouth, one shall do…”
Why would someone want to take a vow or swear an oath?
Because verbally saying your intention- and even repeating it often- is a powerful way to “shut the window.” Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against your habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t “fly out the window” as life unfolds in real time. So, if want to transform, put the transformation in your mouth! And then, repeat it often.
What is it that you desire to bring forth from yourself?
When that becomes clear to you, commit to it. Write it down. Repeat it often. Then, when the flow of life tends to confuse and distract, you will be solid as a rock. If your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you.
But, you might ask, isn’t attaching yourself to some goal a function of ego?
It’s true- if you merely say, “I commit to accomplishing such-and-such,” you can and probably will create ego-identification with the goal. The ego seeks control, and when things don’t go your way, that creates suffering.
That’s why intention and commitment have to be balanced with surrender and trust, and this is the basic function of prayer. The purpose of praying for things is not to control God or manifest our desires, but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. When we pray for something, we recognize that we aren’t in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray- there is no “me,” there is only God- unfolding in every form and every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you.
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them:
“Won’t you stay for Shabbos?” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised- why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves?
At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the bread, a tiny crust of bread with mold on it was brought out. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed.
Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste.
For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony. After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer:
“How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??”
The Baal Shem was just silent.
A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood!
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The man whose home we visited last year was fully capable of becoming successful in business, but he was so full of faith, that he chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help himself. Yes, he prayed passionately for livelihood, but refused to take any steps toward it.
“When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep him trapped in his passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that he’d be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what he did, and just look at them now!”
On this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to action and prayer are two sides of the Whole- the passive and the active, as One. May you have abundant success and blessing in all your ways!