One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in r-r-r-repetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R.” She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage- “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what’s your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t real- you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of your day, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “place the judge in your gate”- meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”