Integral Kabbalah for the Days of Awe
Class #4: Malkhut – Sovereignty
“Hashem Melekh – The Divine Reigns”
When you hear the word, “Nature” – what comes to mind?
Most likely, a beautiful forrest, a beach, a sunset over the mountains. Probably not the smell of rotting food or dog poop. But these are just as much nature too, yes? And yet we don’t think of those things because for most of us, they don’t invoke that sense of awe and spaciousness that we associate with nature.
And yet, if we bring to mind the inner intelligence of the natural cycles and the roles that microorganisms play as we encounter the stinky rotten food, something shifts. The unpleasent smell is still there, but it lives in a greater context; we can still have that element of awe and reverence, if we remember to evoke it.
The same is true of the sacred.
When we think of the sacred, an image of burning candles or holy texts (or, of course, a forrest or a sunset) may come to mind, because those things help evoke a sense of the sacred. But the sacred is simply the dimension of Being-ness that everything participates in; the sacred is ever-present. Just as in the nature example, we can know this for ourselves, if we remember to become present, to being ourselves into connection with present Reality, and hence with the Presence that infuses all things.
There was once a king who decided to test his subjects, so he had all the riches of his palace brought out into a huge field, while he sat on a raised throne in the center. He invited everyone in the kingdom to come and pick one thing in the field to take for themselves. Droves of people came and wandered around anxiously, trying to decide what to choose.
Then, a little old woman made her way through the field and up to the king. “Is it true that we can take anything in the field?” she asked the king.
“Yes,” he replied, “everything is this field is available. You just have to decide which one to choose.”
“In that case,” said the old woman, “I choose you!”
This is our task – to not be distracted by all the seductive things, experiences, thoughts and feelings that are constantly coming and going in this universe, but to see through them all to the underlying Reality – to “choose the King,” so to speak.
This is the message of Malkhut, “The Kingdom,” the tenth and bottom sefirah on the Tree of Life. “Kingdom” may have a masculine sound to it, but it also is associated with Shekhinah, the Divine Presence which is pictured as a queen, as a bride, as a maiden. Malkhut also represents receptivity, as it receives the influx from all the other sefirot.
The message is: all the forms we perceive, all objects, all beings, all perceptions, all feelings, all thoughts – all of it – all are forms of the same One Reality that we call the Divine. The Divine is not remote; it is not somewhere other than Here. All we need do is remember and choose It.
The Torah speaks of this choosing as well:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
And it will be if you listen to these ethical principles and guard them and do them, then the Divine, your Divinity, will guard for you the covenant and the lovingkindness that was sworn to your ancestors.
וַאֲהֵ֣בְךָ֔ וּבֵרַכְךָ֖ וְהִרְבֶּ֑ךָ וּבֵרַ֣ךְ פְּרִֽי־בִטְנְךָ֣ וּפְרִֽי־אַ֠דְמָתֶךָ דְּגָ֨נְךָ֜ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֣ וְיִצְהָרֶ֗ךָ שְׁגַר־אֲלָפֶ֙יךָ֙ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת צֹאנֶ֔ךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ לָ֥תֶת לָֽךְ׃
The Divine will love you and bless you and increase you; blessing the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain and wine and oil, the calves of your herd and the flocks of your sheep, in the land that was sworn to your ancestors to give to you…
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה –And it will be if you listen to these Mishpatim, ethical principles…
Elsewhere in the Torah, the mitzvot are called hukim and mishpatim, which I’ve translated as spiritual practices and ethical principles, but here only mishpatim is mentioned. Why?
If a person has no hukim, meaning they don’t do any spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, observing Shabbat and so on, BUT they do have mishpatim – meaning, they are ethical and they do good actions, that’s still a good thing! Perhaps they can improve themselves by taking on some hukim when they are ready, but good actions are the essential part; they are the means by which Malkhut is revealed in the world.
On the other hand, if a person has lots of hukim, studies a lot of Torah, does a lot of ritual observance and so on, but they DON’T have mishpatim, they don’t have good actions, it’s better that they not have hukim either, because their practices are insincere and hypocritical. Put another way, they may reach the higher sefirot, but they fail to bring the influx of those sefirot down into Malkhut; the purpose of creation remains unfulfilled.
So, the verse is saying: if your actions are in alignment with the Divine, that is the most important thing.
And yet, on a deeper level, the verse is actually including the hukim too, but in a hidden way:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן – V’hayah eikev tishma’un – It will be if you listen…
Eikev means “heel.” Its meaning here is “if” in the sense of one thing “following on the heels” of another thing. V’hayah means “It will be,” but it is also the same letters as the Divine Name, in a different order: יה – וה. The idea here is that in order for us to realize the underlying Divinity of everything, then even our heels, the bottom and most insensitive parts of the body, must become sensitive and infused with consciousness. Thus, we might translate:
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן – V’hayah eikev tishma’un – Realization of the Divinity of Being comes when even the heel listens!
This is hukim, the spiritual practices that help us cultivate presence, especially the bringing of awareness into the body, so as to become sensitive to the Malkhut dimension of the world, knowing all things as vessels for the underlying Presence.
To accomplish this usually takes a certain kind of effort. There are moments when the Presence dawns upon us as Grace, but usually we must actively remember to see through the surface of things to the Divinity at the root. We can see this in the three letters that compose the word Eikev:
עקב – ayin, koof, bet
Ayin means “eye” and indicates seeing. Koof represents kedushah, meaning “the sacred.” Bet is bayit, meaning “house.” Thus, within the word Eikev itself is encoded the practice of “seeing” through to the “sacred” dimension which is “housed” in all things.
The metaphor of “King,” which is the central metaphor of Malkhut and also of Rosh Hashanah, indicates two main kavanot, or “attitude forms” that can help us in our task.
The first is the kavanah of service. Just as a subject would serve their beloved king, so too we can direct our hearts and actions toward the underlying Presence, so that we are not merely experiencing the Divine, but living for the Divine, serving the Divine, in whatever we are doing.
The second is one of trust, which is the most basic middah of Malkhut. Just as we know that, although decomposition and death can be unpleasant, they are nevertheless necessary in the intelligence of nature, so too are all things and all happenings part of the Divine unfolding. This basic trust of How Things Are is crucial for knowing the Divine in all our ways and transforming our relationship with the world so as to bring about the dawning of Malkhut…
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The Preschool Teacher – Parshat Eikev
8/19/2019 2 Comments
The infamous and much hated Rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, once visited his little home town where he grew up. While he was there he made a point of seeing his first, early childhood teacher who had taught him the alef-beis, whom he loved very much.
Before he returned home, he happened to run into another teacher of his. “I see that you visit your preschool teacher, but you don’t visit me? What have I done to offend you?” asked the teacher.
“You taught me things that can be refuted,” replied the Kotzker, “because according to one interpretation they can mean this, and according to another they can mean that. But my first teacher taught me things which cannot be refuted, and so they have remained with me; that is why I owe him special reverence.”
The mind tends to dwell upon that which it does not know for sure.
That’s because it is the job of the mind to figure out, to conjecture, to approximate, to guess; that’s how we are able to navigate life and make decisions. But this useful tendency often becomes a compulsive habit, usurping awareness away from what we actually do know.
Eventually, we can come to give no attention at all to what we do know, and instead invest our guesses, conjectures and approximations with a reality they don’t really possess; this is called “living in one’s head.” Nowadays, people often feel most strongly and defend most passionately (and attack most violently in defense of) things they don’t really know for sure.
What is it that we do know for sure?
Turn your attention from involvement with your thoughts and “see” what is actually happening, right now. That is Presence – simply noticing and therefore knowing what is actually present in your experience.
When you do, there may be a feeling of disorientation or fear.
What if thoughts are just thoughts? What will happen if you let go of all that mind generated drama and attend to what is present, to what you actually know for sure?
The ego is uncomfortable with this, because ego is the sense of identity that’s built out of our thoughts and feelings. Let go of your thoughts and feelings, and the ego can feel threatened.
הָלַ֣ךְ חֲשֵׁכִ֗ים וְאֵ֥ין נֹ֙גַהּ֙ ל֔וֹ יִבְטַח֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה וְיִשָּׁעֵ֖ן בֵּאלֹהָֽיו
Though one walks in darkness and has no glow, let them trust in the Name of the Divine, and rely on their Divinity…
The haftora hints that there is an aspect of our consciousness that is forever in a state of not-knowing: ayn nogah lo – has no glow. It doesn’t say that one has no “light” but rather one doesn’t even have any “glow” at all. One absolutely halakh hasheikhim – walks in darkness.
But if we can be totally clear about not being clear, if we can truly understand and know on the deepest level that all of our mind’s judgments are guesses and approximations, then we can transcend the ego; we can transcend our separate self-sense that thrives on belief in our own thoughts and denial of the darkness.
Then, in that surrender to not-knowing, a new way of being emerges: yivtakh b’shem Hashem v’yisha’ein Elohav – trust in the Name of the Divine and rely on Divinity. That is the letting go – the letting of Mystery be Mystery.
Then, we can realize: there is something we can know, if we would only turn toward It: we are consciousness, and we are the consciousness that is conscious of This, Now.
To really get this, to know ourselves as consciousness, and to also acknowledge our basic state of not-knowing on the level of thought, we must discern between three things:
Ordinarily, we confuse 2 with 3; we don’t differentiate between our thoughts and reality. We are generally unconscious that we are thinking at all; we merely think and judge, with no sense of the presence of thought. But when we become aware that 2 is actually within 1, that our thoughts are arising within present experience, then we can easily see the difference between our thoughts and Reality; then we can truly know that we don’t know.
וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה
And it will be if you listen to these judgments…
The parshah begins with the strange construction – v’hayah eikev tishma’un – it will be if you listen...
Eikev means “heel,” as in the English idiom that one thing will “follow on the heels” of another, meaning that one thing is the consequence of another. But according to a Hassidic teaching, the hint is that one should become conscious even in one’s heel – that is, the most insensitive part of the body should become aware. Then, when one is fully present, with awareness permeating the whole body, we can make these subtle mishpatim, subtle judgments concerning our own mental judgments, and we can begin to truly know what we know and what we don’t know, and trust in the Mystery.
Then, in connection with the Truth of this moment and in surrender to unknowability of everything beyond this moment, the heart is set free. Gratitude arises naturally, and you will know the vastness of who you really are – the simple, open space of awareness within which the fullness of this moment now arises…
וַאֲהֵ֣בְךָ֔ וּבֵרַכְךָ֖ וְהִרְבֶּ֑ךָ
And (the Divine) will love you, and bless you, and increase you…
The Toothpick – Parshat Eikev
8/3/2018 0 Comments
I heard a story once of a rabbi who, when he was a little boy, would eat ice cream with a toothpick. When my son was little, I told him this story to try to get him to slow down his eating. A few months later, I saw my son eating ice cream with a toothpick too. I was amazed– "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I want to make it last longer!" he said.
Some people want to give their children everything they ask for. But we know that when children get more and more, this often doesn't lead to more satisfaction, but more desire. We call that being "spoiled." If we want to give our children more, we often need to give them less.
It's easy to see this with children, but it's the same with us: we can deliberately restrict our intake, as in the example of eating with a toothpick. It doesn't have to be a restriction of food; it can be a restriction of words. Have you ever felt the intense desire to say something, perhaps because someone else was saying something totally wrong, and you wanted to jump in and correct them?
Or, you might have the impulse to jump in and stop something. Something annoying happens, like a child is whining and interrupting, and the impulse is to rush and stop it.
But if you pause, even when the impulse is to do something totally appropriate (which it often isn't), there's a space for a deeper wisdom to emerge. You can realize: you are not trapped by the impulse. You are, in fact, a vastly deep well of consciousness, and from that consciousness emerges all impulses, all thoughts, all sensations, all experience. And although we tend to reach for satisfaction by fulfilling our impulses, when you discover this vast space, there can be a far deeper satisfaction than the satisfaction that comes from any gratification.
"Not on bread alone does a person live," says this week's reading. In other words, if you want to truly live, you can't only be focussed only on the "bread" – the satisfaction that comes from gratification. Rather, true living means being aware of that vast well of consciousness that perceives the "bread." That awareness is always there, and so it's easy to miss it. You can go your whole life and never notice the one thing that is constant!
And that's why we have this practice of pausing, of restricting– so that we can slow down enough to become aware of this underlying reality, the reality of your own Beingness, the miracle of this present moment.
As it says a little later in the parsha, "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless..."
Don't just eat, ve'akhalta, eat and be satisfied, v'savata. Meaning, don't just be satisfied by the food alone, but feel the satisfaction that comes from simply from Being. Then, uveirakhta– bless – give thanks not just for the bread, but for the gift that is always present – the gift of Presence Itself...
The Shirt- Parshat Eikev
8/23/2016 9 Comments
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzen and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice,” which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man blowing a conch. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almostexactly the same, except- the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt so that we would be permitted to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to buy any product with a shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a man having no shirt?” I asked. “Isn’t the human body holy? Are you saying there’s something sinful about the human body?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive. A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more you get, the less sensitive you are to what you already have… hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
This week’s reading begins with the words-
“V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It shall be the reward when you listen…”
The sentence is strange, because the word “eikev” really means “heel,” but it’s understood here to mean “reward” or “because of” or “consequence.” This meaning is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing. The thing that “follows on the heels” is the consequence.
There’s a “heel” story of the founder of the Chabad lineage, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi- the "Alter Rebbe." When his grandson Menachem Mendel was a boy, he would teach the boy Torah. Once, they came to this verse-
“Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”
The Alter Rebbe asked the boy to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
Reb Shneur Zalman was ecstatic with his answer and said, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev- our heel- should ‘listen,’ meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do you do that?
Be your own parent- restrict yourself.
The most astonishing and incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake in Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water, for several days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Halleluyah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: She was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more.” Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
This idea is expressed a little later in the parshah:
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know- ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth.”
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing)- either the traditional one or something in your own words. When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later, “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat Eikev, the Sabbath of the Heel, may we become sensitive to the many gifts of sustenance that often get taken for granted. Most of all, may we be sensitive to the one gift that holds all the others- the gift of space, of awareness, within which experience unfolds. Don’t hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- that’s the one you are living, in this moment.
The Holodeck- Parshat Re'eh8/31/2016
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics such as humor and other emotions.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck”- a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets on the stage to practice his stand up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Now, why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it’s because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him. His goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to get good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it’s the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to master the art of life.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck. Then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do.
But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that!
And what does it mean to “master this life?”
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned- with an entire herd of wild horses! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again the villagers came- “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything.
Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
This week’s reading begins with the words:
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
“Today”- meaning now- there is the potential for either blessing or curse.
How to choose the blessing?
It goes on to say,
“Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot-
"The blessing- that you listen to the commandments.”
There are three levels of meaning here in the word “mitzvot” or “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain. This moment has already become what it is!
The second level of meaning is that “mitzvah” is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta” which means not “to command”, but “to connect”.
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the image of “listening” to the "mitzvah" is a metaphor for connecting. When we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we deeply connect with the speaker- “I really hear you, man!”
So if you want blessing and not curse, connect with hayom- this moment- be present to what is, regardless of whether it seems like a blessing or a curse to your mind or your heart.
Accept the blessing and the curse- that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and not the curse- that’s the curse!
But in order to do that, you have to be aware of your situation:
“Re’eh- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
The sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, while the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case- “Oh, I see now!”
The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the curse of judging blessings and curses. It’s only natural!
But to go beyond that, you need to be aware: Simply listen to the fullness of how it is. Let go of the judging mind.
Once you do that, you are free. Like Commander Data, you will be happy if the audience is not laughing at your jokes. That’s how you learn. Like the farmer, you will respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of “mitzvot”- the plain meaning of “God’s commandments.”
When you free yourself from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then you know you are not something separate from the Whole. Your actions flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole- in service of God. Then, all your actions are truly mitzvot- acts of service to the One.
On this Shabbat Re’eh, the "Sabbath of Seeing," may we all “see” our Divine potential in this moment, to “hear” the Divine Voice as this moment, and to do blessing for each other moment by moment, uniting heaven and earth one step at a time.
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