Rabbi Leib, son of Sarah, was one of the disciples of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. Rabbi Leib would wander the countryside teaching, following the flow of the rivers to guide him on in his journeys. When asked what he learned from his teacher, he would reply, “I didn’t go the Maggid to hear Torah from him, but to see how he unlaced his shoes and laced them up again.”
The teaching of simplicity, of Presence-in-Action, is the Twentieth Path of the letter י yod. Spelled out,יד yod means “hand,” and thus represents action. Yod is also the smallest of letters, as well as the starting point of all letters; when a sofer (scribe) begins to draw a letter, the letter always begins as a yod, a simple point without dimension – representing the un-manifest, simple potential, Nothingness.
At the same time, י yod is also the number ten, hinting at the ten sefirot, which represent all of Reality, or Everything-ness. Yod therefore has the paradoxical meaning of being Nothing and Everything at the same time. Together, these two opposite meanings point to simple awareness as it interacts with the complexity of life; in other words, Presence-in-Action. And, since Presence-in-Action involves a letting go of past and future, simply and fully engaging in whatever one is doing, it also implies an attitude of trust.
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם וְשָׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת
שֵׁ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ תִּזְרַ֣ע שָׂדֶ֔ךָ וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְמֹ֣ר כַּרְמֶ֑ךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָֽהּ׃ לַיהוָֽה׃
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
…וְ֠הָיְתָה שַׁבַּ֨ת הָאָ֤רֶץ לָכֶם֙ לְאָכְלָ֔ה
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall rest – a Shabbat for the Divine. Six years you shall sow your fields and six years you shall prune your vineyards and gather in your yields. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a Shabbat of Shabbats, a Shabbat to the Divine; do not sow your field and do not prune your vineyard. And it will be a Shabbat of the land for you to eat…’”
The practice of Shabbat, of refraining from work for one day in the week, takes a certain leap of faith, a willingness to trust and let go of doing for twenty-four hours and simply be. The above passage, however, describes the practice of sh’mita – a Shabbat not for people to rest from working the land one day in the week, but a Shabbat for the land itself that lasts an entire year. The amount of trust required for this would be far greater, as farmers would have to refrain from working the land and simply eat whatever happened to come up – not only for the year of sh’mita itself, but for the following year as well, since nothing would be planted during the sh’mita year.
This parshah is read near the festival of Lag b’Omer. Lag b’Omer comes during the “Omer” period between Pesakh and Shavuot, when it is traditional to ritually count each of the forty-nine days between the two holidays. Each of these days represent a particular permutation of the seven lower sefirot of the Tree of Life.
Lag b’Omer literally means the “thirty-third day of the Omer.” Lag is composed of the letters ל lamed – ג gimel, which together have the numerical value of thirty-three. These two letters, ל lamed – ג gimel, also have special meanings:
Lamed ל means “learn.” To learn means to go from a state of less knowledge to more knowledge; it is forward moving in time, filling a lack, going from incomplete to more complete without end, never reaching completion (since there is always more to learn).
Gimel ג has the opposite connotation, as we have learned. Gamal means to “pay back,” in the sense of being complete and overflowing. A gamal is also a camel, which carries its water in its hump as it traverses the desert; again, a symbol of being already complete-within-oneself.
These two opposite meanings – the never-complete of lamed ל and the already-complete of gimel ג – point to two dimensions of our experience, right now. On the level of form, we are ever-incomplete. Our bodies need constant nourishment and exercise, and our minds must actively learn new things to stay sharp. In terms of spirituality, this is the ongoing practice of studying texts and contemplating meaning with the mind. As the parshah says:
שֵׁ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ תִּזְרַ֣ע שָׂדֶ֔ךָ – Six years you shall sow (tizra) your fields…
Tizra תִּזְרַ֣ע, “sowing” or “seeding,” is the work we must do on the “fields” of our minds. This is lamed ל, “learning.”
But on the level of consciousness, the open space of awareness within which all forms come and go, there is a completeness to this moment; there is a wholeness when we “arrive” into the present. This is gimel ג.
But to experience this fullness, we paradoxically need more emptiness; we need to “prune” away excess thought, so that we can sense the underlying Presence beneath our thoughts:
וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְמֹ֣ר כַּרְמֶ֑ךָ – and six years you shall prune (tizmor) your vinyards…
Tizmor תִּזְמֹ֣ר, “pruning,” is the work we must do on “grapevine tendrils” of thought; this is meditation.
“Sowing” and “pruning,” learning and meditation, thinking and not-thinking, are the substance of daily spiritual practice aimed at bringing about inner transformation.
Six years you shall sow your fields and six years you shall prune your vinyards…
“Six Years” is sheish shanim שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים. Shanim, “years,” also can mean “change.” “Six” also means time and change, as in the “six days of creation.” The Hebrew letter that represents the number six is vav ו which, as a prefix, means “and” – again, implying adding, transforming, doing the dual spiritual work of “sowing” and “pruning.”
But there is also a level at which all work stops.
It stops not because the “sowing” and “pruning” are no longer happening, but because at this deep level, there is the recognition that it is not “me” who does the work; there is the recognition that everything comes from and returns to the same Reality; we can’t “take credit” for any of it.
This level is represented by Lag B’Omer. In terms of the sefirot, Lag B’Omer is Hod Sheb’Hod, or “Humility/Gratitude of Humility/Gratitude.” The essence of humility is not some kind of self-deprecation or belittlement; it is the recognition that the “me” comes from beyond the “me.” Existence is a gift; everything I have and am is a gift. This is also freedom: we have nothing to lose or gain, because ultimately there is only Reality, there is only the Divine.
וְשָׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָֽה – The land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine…
This is not something so abstract or difficult; we can “let the land rest a Shabbat for the Divine” right now – try it – simply recognize that this is Reality, right here and now; let the “me” dissolve and let this moment be as it is. This is the path of י yod.
The Bird and the Lizard
And yet, when the moment is difficult, challenging, or torturous, of course simply trusting can be difficult. In such moments we need to go back to א alef with its two yods – the upper and lower yods – representing the “waters of joy” and the “waters of sorrow,” as we have learned.
A friend of mine once went to let out his dog, when he noticed a cute little baby dove huddled on the ground. Above was the nest that it must have fallen from. He kept his dog in the house while he went out and lifted the baby bird back into its nest. He wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but it seemed the right thing in the moment, and it was a warm and gratifying feeling to save that baby bird.
Not long after, he was moving some furniture in his workplace. As he lifted a desk, be was taken aback by a huge, dead, rotting lizard with maggots crawling in it! It was a disgusting sight, and he winced and cringed as he proceeded to deal with it and clean it up.
He told me this story because it seemed to him almost like a symbolic dream, and he was wondering what it meant. Why such a gratifying, life-affirming, cuddly experience followed by such a disgusting horrific, death centered experience? What was the meaning of it?
Sometimes we are given situations that require immediate action. These are the real-time “commandments” – the mitzvot we don’t learn from books, but that appear to us and demand a response without hesitation. Sometimes the action required is to save a cute little bird, sometimes to clean up a rotting lizard corpse. Sometimes it is to feed a hungry baby, sometimes it is to yank a child out of the street when a car is coming, and sometimes it is to bury a loved one. In other words, when it comes to being present to what is needed in the moment, it may be bitter or it may be sweet. There is a full spectrum of human experience, and if we want to be available to the “commandment” of the moment, we have to be open to both – we can’t avoid any of it.
Of course, most of the time, there isn’t some unexpected urgent thing to deal with, barukh Hashem. Still, when it comes to the path of simplicity, of connecting with the Divine as the Reality of this moment, there is an ever-present urgency. There is only one place and one time to recognize the Oneness of the Divine, and that is here, right now.
As Hillel says, אִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי – If not now, when?
And yet, paradoxically, to simply be present is to fully accept and trust; it is to embrace the Reality of this moment, not resist it. This has almost the opposite quality of urgency. It is more like patience; it is more like planting a seed and simply watching it grow, rather than jumping in and taking some action.
לֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד
…a timid person can’t learn, and an impatient person can’t teach…
Full Presence means the unity of these two seemingly opposite qualities of urgency and patience, or, as we have learned, Netzakh and Hod. On one hand, don’t be timid – jump fully into the present, Now. On the other hand, jumping fully into the Now means allowing it to be as it is, not to be impatient about how you think it should be or how you want it to be.
אֵ֣ת סְפִ֤יחַ קְצִֽירְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִקְצ֔וֹר וְאֶת־עִנְּבֵ֥י נְזִירֶ֖ךָ לֹ֣א תִבְצֹ֑ר שְׁנַ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְ֠הָיְתָה שַׁבַּ֨ת הָאָ֤רֶץ לָכֶם֙ לְאָכְלָ֔ה
You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce…
This description of the shmita is a perfect metaphor for Presence: accept fully what this moment gives you, both the nourishing food and the thistles and thorns. Even as we work externally to bring about certain results, as we must do, on an inner level there can be a Sabbath of the land; we can accept both the “bird” and the “lizard” with that quality of trust, allowing the moment to unfold as it will.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak once saw a man running. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“I am running after my livelihood!” replied the man.
“You think your livelihood is in front of you and you must catch up to it, but how do you know it’s not behind you, and all you have to do is stop and let it catch up to you?”
The Rules of Checkers
There is a story of Rabbi Nahum of Stepinesht, the son of Rabbi Yisrael of Ryzhyn, that once he entered the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, when his students did not expect. When they realized their master had entered they were mortified, because rather than learning, they were sitting around playing checkers. They immediately stopped sand began putting the game away.
“Don’t stop!” said the rabbi. “You know, you can learn a lot from a game like checkers. Do you know the rules of the game?”
Out of shyness and embarrassment his students didn’t answer, but he continued: “I shall tell you the rules. First, you must not make two moves at once. Second, you may move only forward, and not backward. And the third is that when you reach the last row, you may move any way you like.”
Rabbi Nahum’s teaching on the rules of checkers are a wonderful way to walk the path of י yod, the path of simple Presence-in-Action.
You must not make two moves at once. It is an obvious and simple truth that we can only do what we can do in the moment; we cannot also do something else, no matter how important the something else may be. And yet, there can be a tendency of the mind toward restlessness, toward not accepting the moment as it is and being occupied with some imaginary moment, rather than being fully attentive to the one we are in. So, this is the first rule of י yod – to simply be where you are, to simply do what you are doing.
You may move only forward, and not backward. Action is, by its nature, aimed at the future, at bringing about a certain result. The power of an act is only weakened and corrupted if we are “living in the past” – that is, wishing things had been different, regretting how things have been. Of course, we must be aware of the past, learn from the past, build on the foundation of the past – but not be stuck in the past.
When you reach the last row, you may move any way you like. The “last row” is the end of any process of action; everything we do eventually comes to an end. When you finish doing something, recognize that you are free to decide what action to take next. Again, this is obvious – but so often we can lose consciousness of our own freedom and imprison ourselves in our own minds. These three rules help us to be free from all of that, and live with simplicity in the moment. When we do that, when we simply be where we are, let go of the past and claim our own freedom, there is a kind of magic – a miraculous quality of Being that becomes visible, even in things that might seem most mundane and tedious.
A Spoon Full of Sugar
“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find that fun and… snap! The job’s a game!”
With that, Reb Mary Poppins formulated her famous aphorism-
“Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
Meaning – when you’re doing something mundane or tedious, find a way to sweeten it – to change its context so that it becomes a vehicle for delight rather than torturous boredom.
But how do you do that?
In the movie, the children don’t want to clean up the nursery, until Mary Poppins adds some magic and singing animatronic birds to spice things up. When they finish and Poppins tells the children it’s time for their outing, Michael Banks says, “But I want to clean the nursery again!”
What she added is the miraculous.
Something the children expected to be dull and routine became brilliant and delightful. But what is it that makes things dull and routine in the first place?
Nowadays, I see people walking around with water bottles everywhere. At some point, the importance of drinking a lot of water spread throughout our culture, and now hardly anyone is caught without their water bottle. For many, drinking water has become a routine habit, like checking your phone.
But have you ever taken a sip of water after going thirsty for hours, like after Yom Kippur perhaps? The glass of water might as well be the splitting of the sea. And yet, the miracle of the splitting of the sea is nothing compared to the miracle of Existence Itself. After all, splitting the sea only involved taking something that existed already – water – and making it behave in an unusual manner. But the real miracle is that water exists in the first place.
How is it that there is anything at all?
And yet, this greatest of all miracles seems completely ordinary, even tedious and boring, because we are used to it. Being “used to it” means that we approach this moment through the lens of what has come before – through the monotony of conditioned memory.
But step fully onto the path of yod – step fully into the present, and the miracle reveals itself: there is nothing ordinary at all about this moment. Step out of your conditioned mind, and it’s as if you step into a different universe. In fact, you do – you step out of the universe of your head, into the universe of the Real.
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
וּבָצִ֖יר יַשִּׂ֣יג אֶת־זָ֑רַע…וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם
“If you walk with My decrees and guard My commandments and do them, I will provide your rains in their time… your vintage will last until the last sowing…”
The word that’s translated “with my decrees” is the name of this reading- Bekhukotai. A khok is a type of commandment that doesn’t necessarily have an obvious rationale. For example, it’s easy to understand laws like “don’t murder” and “don’t steal.” Those laws that “make sense” are called mishpatim. But “rest on the seventh day” and “only eat mammals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves” is not so clear. Those are a khukim.
And yet, the truth is that everything is a khok. Does it “make sense” that anything exists at all?
Existence is a mystery, a miracle, an enigma!
וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru – and My commandments you guard…
The word for “commandment,” מִצוָה mitzvah, is related to the Aramaic צו tzav, which actually means “connection.” So, if we retranslate the sentence with these underlying meanings, we can understand:
“If you walk with My Mysteries and guard My Connection…”
In other words, step into the mystery of the present, where Existence is no longer routine, no longer ordinary. Guard your connection with this Mystery, and then-
“Your vintage will last until the last sowing…”
Meaning, your drunkenness on the miracle of this moment will sweeten all your labors – a spoon full of sugar!
In the late 19th century, there was a hassid by the name of Reb Aharon who lived in the town of Dokshetz.
Every Saturday night in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, Reb Aharon would make a batch of panes – a hot drink made from boiling water, vodka and sugar. There he would serve the drink to crowds of spiritually thirsty folks before teaching hassidus – spiritual teachings. People would come from all over to warm their bones and make merry with the panes as they also drank in his holy teachings.
Once a year, Reb Aharon would travel to see his rebbe in Lubavitch- Reb Shmuel. On the Saturday night following his return from Lubavitch, he would concoct an extra large batch of panes for the crowd and then share the luminescent teachings he had heard from the mouth of his master. Those nights were on fire!
Once, when Reb Aharon was in Lubavitch, his rebbe said to him:
“I hear that in Dokshetz, they learn hassidus with panes. Tell me, what connection is there between Torah and getting drunk?”
Embarrassed, Reb Aharon returned home and put an end to his ritual. From then on, he continued his teaching on Saturday nights, but without the panes. People still came to learn, but each week there were fewer and fewer people than the last week. Before long, the vibrant crowd was reduced to a few devoted die-hards.
The next time Reb Aharon was in Lubavitch, his rebbe asked him-
“What’s doing in Dokshetz?”
Reb Aharon reluctantly reported that his class now attracted only a fraction of the folks that used to come for the “drink-and-learn” format.
“Nu,” said the rebbe, “So bring back the drink – Abi men zol lernen hassidus- so long as they study hassidus!”
Alcohol, as well as many other intoxicants, are powerful because they can bring a person into the miracle of the moment, often by impairing the thinking mind and artificially making a person “simple.” But we don’t need special substances to open to this simplicity; it is our essence and birthright, if we but engage the practice. And, since Presence is not only something we cultivate but something we are at the deepest level, it is ever available, in every moment, to the degree that we decide to step onto the Path of י Yud.
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