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!
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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 מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם 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.
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The Cow and the Sheep – Parshat Vayikra
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
"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
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
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.
“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…
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The Carver, The Weaver and The Embroiderer- Parshat Pekudei
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!
Some folks are confused by my leading ecstatic, musical Shabbat services on one hand, and teaching quiet meditation on the other. “What are you,” they say, “are you Mr. Ecstatic Guy or are you Mr. Contemplative Guy?” – as if a person really should be just one or the other.
There is a collection of traditional prayers said before going to sleep, called The Bedtime Sh’ma. Near the end, there is a line from Psalm 4:
רִגְז֗וּ וְֽאַל־תֶּ֫חֱטָ֥אוּ אִמְר֣וּ בִ֭לְבַבְכֶם עַֽל־מִשְׁכַּבְכֶ֗ם וְדֹ֣מּוּ סֶֽלָה
Tremble and sin no more, speak within your heart, upon your bed, and be silent, selah!
The idea here is that, before falling asleep, you bring yourself to a state of awe and reverence, resolve to correct any tendencies toward acting wrongly, and become inwardly quiet. This is a simple but very powerful form of meditation – connecting with the silent depths of your being, and reflecting on how to live from this depth in your daily life.
But Psalm 30, from the morning prayers, says something different:
לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ
So that my inner vastness will sing to You and NOT be silent; Hashem, my Divinity, constantly I will thank You.
In this psalm, the idea is to sing out and not be silent. So which is it?
Of course, this is the second half of the equation – living from this depth in your life. Taken together, we have a whole: awaken to your vast silent depths, but then express that silence outwardly as “singing” – in a way that is harmonious, ecstatic, and filled with gratitude.
But how do you do that when your external conditions are burdensome or difficult?
There’s a story of Rabbi Zev Wolf, that once while sitting in his bedroom, he heard a thief break into the house. He cracked the door open slightly and peered out to see the thief filling his sack with valuables. Among the items he stole was a cup which had been used earlier in the evening by a sick man. As the thief was about to leave, Reb Wolf leapt from his hiding spot and cried out:
“Good sir! You can keep all the things you’ve taken, but beware! That last cup you took as the breath of a sick man within in it – I don’t want you to drink from it and become sick yourself!”
When we hear a story like this, we might be inclined to think of Reb Wolf as a super-human tzaddik, embodying an ideal that’s out of reach for most of us.
But I don’t think so.
There’s actually a practical lesson here: Imagine that as Reb Wolf observed the thief from his bedroom, he could have been like any of us – experiencing fear, anger, and so on. But since he was hiding and not confronting the thief immediately, there was a space to be aware of the reactive emotions as they arose. And, from the silent depths of that awareness that transcends all feelings and impulses, he decided to do the opposite of his impulse, and express love rather than negativity.
There’s a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ
Every person came whose heart inspired them…
It is talking about the gifts the Israelites brought to build the Sanctuary, that their hearts were inspired, or elevated, to bring the gifts. But the words used here, נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ nisa’o libo, can also mean tested their hearts; the root for elevated and tested are the same.
Meaning: when our hearts are tested – when we peer from our safety to see the thief coming for our things and our hearts inflame with fear, anger, and so on – it is in precisely those moments that we can become truly elevated by choosing our path consciously rather than be taken over by whatever impulses are arising. In this way, we can move from domu, be silent, to v’lo yidom – I will not be silent – constantly I will give thanks!
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Wanting What You Don't Want – Parshat Vayk'hel
This week's Torah reading interrupts the instructions on building the Sanctuary with the mitzvah of Shabbat:
א וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל משֶׁ֗ה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם
1. Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.
ב שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה כָּל־הָֽעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת
2. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day will be sacred for you, a Shabbat of Shabbats for the Divine; whoever does work on it shall die."
What? Death penalty for breaking Shabbos? How archaic!
But on a deeper level it can be read: "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of work- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, that sense of "me" that is identified with the work that "I" do, is allowed to "die" on Shabbat.
There's a story of Reb Yehiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov. He lived a life of great poverty and hardship, yet he was constantly joyful and filled with gratitude. Once, a disciple saw him praying the morning prayers, and he chanted the blessing, "Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha'olam, She'asah li kol tzarki – Blessed are You, Divine Being, Our Divine Nature, Sovereign of the Universe, for fulfilling my every want."
The disciple asked, "how can you pray that blessing, when you are in such poverty?"
"Poverty," replied the master, "must be what I really want!"
We tend to invest ourselves in our work, in our wants, and in what we think we know. This creates that narrow, limited self-sense known as ego. But ask the question – "What do I really know right now?" – and allow the question to take us beyond our mind-based identifications.
Notice: The mind is a necessary tool, but we don't really know anything for sure except the fact that we are conscious of the experience arising in this moment. Let go of what you think you know, of who you think you are based on what you do, and realize the vast space of consciousness that you really are, right now...
Eye of the Hurricane- Parshat Vayak'hel
"Vayak'hel Moshe et kol adat b'nei Yisrael...
"Moses assembled all the community of the children of Israel..."
The Torah reading Parshat Vayak’heil begins with Moses assembling all of the children of Israel. The word Vayak’hel means, “He assembled.” Moses then tells them about the mitzvah of Shabbat-
"Sheishet yamim ta’aseh melakha- six days you should do work- uvayom hashv’iyi yiyeh lakhem kodesh- but the seventh day will be holy for you- Shabbat shabbaton Ladonai, kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat."
Now these last words may seem disturbing- kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat- literally- all the doers on it of work, will die. This is usually understood to be harsh law, that those who violate Shabbat will be put to death- death penalty for not keeping Shabbos. Oy vey!
But there’s another way to read the verse- "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of word- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, the "me" that is the doer of work, the "me" that’s identified with my thoughts, feelings and actions, will die on Shabbat. Why? Because Shabbat yiyeh kodesh- Shabbat is the sacred space of simply being. This is the deeper meaning of Shabbat- not merely as a particular day in the week, but as the space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
So how do you enter Shabbat consciousness?
Simply allow the presence of everything happening in this moment to be assembled within your field of awareness. This is the hint of the word Vayak’hel- assembled. Rather than be out in the whirlwind of thoughts, judgments, and emotions, come to the eye of the hurricane by simply connecting with your breathing, your sense perceptions, returning your awareness back to the present moment experience of your body, and back again, and back again, training yourself to live from kadosh kedoshim, the center of awareness within which all the elements of your experience are assembled into a Whole, regardless of what’s going on.
So in this week of Shabbat Vayakhel, the Sabbath of Assembly, may the tapestry of Reality be assembled effortlessly though the practice of Presence, of connecting with this moment as it is. And from this place of Wholeness, may our words and actions flow as blessing for everyone that we encounter as well.
The Car Ride- Parshat Vayakhel
I started college in the late summer of 1987, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Although I was brought up without any religious practice at home, a spontaneous experience of spiritual awakening that summer led me to want to explore traditional Judaism just as I was beginning college.
So what did I do?
Of course, I contacted Chabad… on Friday afternoon at about 4 pm! And, I had no way of getting to the rabbi’s house, so I asked if he would pick me up.
Of course, asking an observant Jew to drive across town and pick you up right before Shabbos is not exactly the polite thing to do… but I didn’t know! The rabbi drove out to pick me up, giving me the “hurry up!” look as I walked toward his car from the dorm entrance.
I got in the car and he sped off.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” I said. “How are you?”
“Thank God” he said.
I thought that was an odd response to the question. But as I got to know the Jewish religious community more, this was of course the standard response-
“How are you?”
“How’s your family?”
“How’s work? School? Whatever?”
It can sound funny if you’re not used to it. And, if you are used to it, it might sound formulaic, or dishonest. But it has a profound spiritual basis:
In Hebrew, the most sacred Name of God consists of the letters that form the verb “to be” in all three tenses. So although God is often pictured as a deity, this is metaphor. The Name doesn’t mean a deity, a being among beings- not even the greatest of all beings. It just means Being. I means Reality.
So when you say, “Thank God,” it also means “Thank Everything” and “Thank Everyone,” since nothing is separate from God. It downplays the individual and instead focuses on the Whole. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”?
The Maggid of Zlotchov (1) taught on a verse (2) in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
“Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem-
“I stood between the Divine and you…”
The Maggid interpreted like this-
“The ‘I’ stands between us and God. When you say ‘I,’ a wall stands between you and God. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my Beloved’s, then it’s toward me that my Beloved’s desire turns.”
But if the “I” stands between “me” and the Beloved, between “me” and Reality, than who is “me”?
Of course, the “me” is also Reality! God is also the awareness that looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere.
Remember that everything is God, and you can be instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that God has gone anywhere- there’s nothing but God, only we become so used to It!
It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you’re on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you’re holding hands! To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel (3):
“Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha-
“Six days shall work be done…”
It doesn’t say, “Six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “Six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work (4); there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says-
“… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton-
“… and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you- a Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the six weekdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths!
Meaning, even the weekdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One Doer, and the One includes all the different beings playing their different roles. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elohim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. God is the many in the One.
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat-
“… A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there’s a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die,” but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it’s the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That’s liberation.
Say “Thank God” or “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from beyond the “I.” Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there’s only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that’s you! That’s the paradox- on one hand, you do nothing- it's all Hashem. On the other, only you can decide to open to this awareness.
How do you open to it?
Like Moses, you must assemble the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment-
“Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat-
“And Moses assembled the entire assembly (4)…”
And then, knowing that everything in Existence- every face you greet, every creature you encounter- is the Face of the Divine, acknowledge- “Barukh Hashem!”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me.”
May true peace come now! Kein y’hi ratzon, Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1
There is No "I" in Team- Parshat Vayakhel
Both my father and my father-in-law were so happy a few years ago when my son started getting into playing sports like baseball and soccer. I have no interest in sports (except for when my son is playing, of course), so I think they were relieved that I hadn’t passed on my apathy for the “game”.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” my father-in-law would say. He was pointing out the importance of teamwork for building a spirit of connectedness and an ability to work well with others.
And yet, it’s funny- while team sports are clearly all about people working together, the news media doesn’t seem to emphasize that side of it at all. As an experiment, I googled “sports news” and clicked on ESPN. A huge list of headlines came up for the latest news stories.
Was there even one headline about how a team worked together?
Not one. In fact, EVERY single story was about an individual- Byron Maxwell, Frank Gore, Brandon Flowers, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson- the list went on and on (all people I’ve never heard of).
Despite the fact that the true story in any team sport emerges from the interaction between players, we seem to paint the story in terms of individuals. We love heroes. We love to point to the guy that’s the best, even though that guy would be nothing without the work of teammates.
If you’ve ever given a complement to a religious Jew, or asked, “how are you doing?” you’ve probably heard the response, “thank G-d” or “Barukh Hashem”. This convention in the religious world is meant to downplay the focus on the individual and instead focus on the Whole. When a person says, “thank G-d”, it also means, “thank everything” and “thank everyone”, since nothing is believed to be separate from G-d. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”? The Maggid of Zlotchov1 taught on a verse2 in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Moses says, “Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem- I stood between the Divine and you”.
The Maggid interpreted like this- “The ‘I’ stands between G-d and us. When you say ‘I’, a wall stands between you and G-d. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my beloved’s, then it is toward me that His desire turns.”
The “Beloved” is nothing other than total Reality; everything is G-d. Each time you remember that everything is G-d, you are instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that G-d has gone anywhere- there is nothing but G-d, only you have become used to It. It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you are on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you are holding hands. To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel3: “Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha- six days shall work be done”. It doesn’t say, “six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work4; there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says “… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton- on the seventh day it should be a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths . . .”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the workdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths! Meaning, even the workdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One doer, and the One includes all the different beings doing their different jobs. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elokim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. G-d is the many in the One. G-d is the team!
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat- A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there is a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die”, but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it is the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That is liberation.
Say “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from Beyond. Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there is only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that is you! That’s the paradox- you must be the hero, like Moses, assembling the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment- “Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat- and Moses assembled the entire assembly4…”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we all surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me”. May true peace come now! Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1
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!
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More on Ki Tisa...
The Plague of Separation – Parshat Ki Tisa
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...
Greetings friends! I hope you enjoy these spiritual awakening teachings on this week's Parshat Ki Tisa, and there's more below. You can also:
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
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
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-
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.
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More on Tetzaveh...
Wringing Out the Sponge – Parshat Tetzaveh
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.
Last Shabbat, after I taught in our Berkeley synagogue, I walked through town with a rabbi friend of mine. He told me that when he was younger, he used to attend meditation retreats and seek out teachings on spiritual awakening. But over time he moved away from those things because they seemed too abstract. It seemed to him that such teachings aimed at awakening an experience of the transcendent, but they didn’t address his fundamental question: why are we here in this life? If it’s all about transcending the world, what’s the meaning of living in the world?
Recently, I was listening to a talk by the outspoken intellectual Jordan Peterson in which he said that, to any thinking person, it should be obvious that the meaning of existence must be grounded in the fact of unbearable human suffering.
Hassidic teaching says something similar:
There is a story of Reb Levi Yitzhak, that whenever he would celebrate the Passover Seder and come to the passage about the Four Sons, he would stop at the son who doesn’t know how to ask. “That’s me, Levi Yitzhak – I am the son who doesn’t know how to ask! I don’t know how to ask what this is all for, why we are here, what is the purpose of it all. And even if I did, how could I bear the answer? I do not want to know why I suffer as I do; I want to know that my suffering is for You. And just as it says, ‘you shall answer your son, saying…’ so You, my Father, must answer!”
In this Hassidic understanding, suffering is not the meaning of existence, but it is the thing that causes us to ask the meaning of existence. And further: it is not the philosophical question of why that is of ultimate concern, but for Whom. In other words, it is a question not of the mind, but of the heart.
This points to a central truth: the question of meaning is fulfilled only through love. That is the only reason to endure all the suffering, because love is the ultimate joy – shining even at the very depths of suffering.
The mind searches for the question of meaning, but it can never really be satisfied with any conceptual answer, no matter how convincing. Trying to find meaning through the mind is like trying to taste food with your hands; no matter how much food you smear on your hands, you will never be satisfied. Only actual eating can satisfy hunger; only actual love can satisfy the hunger for meaning.
וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ... וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them… and they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.
It is only through the life of the heart that Sanctuary is built – a life in which, since the loving heart desires to give, giving is actually a form of receiving.
And, since everything we receive is taken as an expression of the Divine love for us, receiving is also a form of giving – barukh Hashem!
זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת
gold, silver and copper…
See – there are three levels to experience right now: thought, feeling and sensory experience. The feeling level determines the quality of experience – its mood – attraction and revulsion, adoration and anger, curiosity and boredom. This is the level of the heart from which love arises, and hence from which the meaning of existence is fulfilled. We might think, then, that the heart is the level of “gold” – but it is not.
Notice: your feelings, as primary as they are, are ultimately determined by your thoughts – by how you interpret your experience. Think good, feel good; think bad, feel bad.
Most of us assume the opposite: we start to feel bad, and so we start thinking in a negative way. But wake up out of the seductiveness of your feelings by being present with them and accepting them, and you can realize: you can actually decide which thoughts to nurture and which thoughts to dismiss. That decision is itself a thought, arising from a deep wisdom beyond the gravity of feeling and the seductiveness of thought. That wisdom is awareness itself – hokhmah – beyond both thought and feeling. That is why the mind, though it cannot ultimately bring us real fulfillment, is the "gold" and the heart is the "silver" – because the mind rules the heart.
The third level is sensory experience, corresponding to action. Action is an expression of the heart, which is in turn ruled by the mind. We don’t act unless we are motivated to act; we have to first want on the level of heart, and that determines our action. Thus, action is the level of copper.
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them…
Without the awareness of what we really are, beneath our thoughts, feelings and sensory experience, our thoughts tend to be ruled by the unconscious impulses of our hearts, leading ultimately to unconscious and reactive actions. But being aware that we are the awareness behind all experience, we can choose our thoughts, and thus open our hearts, and act from the radiant love that shines through that openness.
Then, all of life becomes a sanctuary for the Presence that dwells within us, as us…
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More On Parshat Terumah..
Offering Whatever – Parshat Terumah
Exodus 25:1, 2
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart motivates them.
Once a hassid came to the rebbe and asked, "Why is it that the rabbis praise Avraham for being willing to offer his son Yitzhak? For most people this would be a severe test, but how could it be a test for Avraham, who was a great prophet?"
The rebbe answered, "When a person is tested, all their spiritual attainment is taken away from them, and they are face to face with the test. All your depth of realization is out the window, and you must gather all your strength to not be seduced by your ego..."
Living in awakened life, in which every word and action overflows an offering from the heart, can seem easy when you're in the experience of blissful oneness. But these experiences become a complete reality only when you face situations that trigger you and threaten to seduce you back into an egoic state, and you manage to actually pass the test.
But, no matter how many times you may "fail" your tests, don't worry! That's totally natural. If fact, if you can let your heart break in humility when you "fail" your tests, that in itself helps to break the bonds of ego. In this way, both "failing" and "passing" can aide you in becoming true sanctuary of Presence in which your whole life is an "offering."
"Staying Present in Action" Parshat Terumah
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Terumah. Terumah means an offering, or a contribution. It begins with God telling Moses to say to the children of Israel:
“Yik’khu li trumah me’eit kol ish asher yidveinu libo-
"Take for me an offering from every person whose heart is motivated to give…”
The offerings that they’re talking about range from precious metals, to animal skins, to incense spices, to pieces of wood- all things that will be used to build the mishkan- the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them as they travelled through the wilderness. The word mishkancomes from the root which means to dwell or be present, as in the word Shekhinah which means, Divine Presence. So in the opening of this parshah, we’re hearing about all the different ways the Israelites contribute toward the Sanctuary of Presence. But if we look more deeply, this opening verse gives us three hints about how we can be more present in our own actions.
The first and most important hint is in the name of the parshah- Terumah, which means, “offering.” If you want to be present in the busyness of daily life and overcome that tendency to see this moment merely as a means to get to some future moment, then let your actions be offerings. Whenever you do something, and you can do this many times a day, bring to mind that your actions are for the sake of serving something. Since most of what we do is often serving some purpose for others, this isn’t so difficult. But even when you do things for yourself like eating or resting, you can still offer it as a gift, because of course you have to keep yourself healthy in order to be of service to others.
And, the more you think of your actions as offerings, you might even get inspired to change the way you do things for the better, or even take on some new positive actions, or get rid of some not so positive ones. The point here to bring more consciousness into whatever you’re doing by acting with a loving spirit.
The second hint is implied in the words, kol ish- every person. In other words, every person has their own unique path. If you go around wishing you were someone else, or wishing you were in a different situation, you devalue your own path, and create an inner feeling of separation. But if you constantly take to heart that this moment is the moment to offer what only you can offer, regardless of whether it seems impressive in the external sense, then you can really inhabit your body and inhabit your actions. Furthermore, the words kol ish, every person, can also mean “all of the person.” In other words, put all of yourself into whatever you happen to be doing.
And that brings us to the third hint that’s implied in the words, “…asher yidveinu libo- whose heart is motivated to give…” This means, you can learn how to be present from whatever you’re really motivated to do. Notice how it feels when you’re doing things that you love, how you’re fully engaged and doing for its own sake, and bring that degree of presence to all your actions, even when you’re doing things you don’t necessarily want to do. In that way, everything you do becomes a kind of devotion or prayer.
There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov was once smoking his pipe by the window, when he was taken aback by the sight of a man walking by, who glowed with the most beautiful holy Presence and joyful radiance. The Baal Shem asked a disciple who the man was, and his disciple told him that the man was a hose-maker.
So, the Baal Shem sent the man a message to please bring four pairs of hose. Soon after, the hose maker appeared before the Baal Shem, displaying his wares, light shining from his face. The hose were well made of good sheep’s wool.
The Baal Shem asked him, “How do you spend your days?” The man answered, “I ply my trade.”
“And how do you ply it?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I work every day until I have forty or fifty pairs of hose, then I put them into a mold with hot water and press them until they’re as they should be.”
“And do you do any special prayers or meditations?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I just recite the psalms that I know by heart, all day long as I work.”
After the Baal Shem had purchased the hose and the man left, the Baal Shem turned to his disciple and said, “Today you have seen the cornerstone which will uphold the temple until the coming of the Messiah.”
So what does the Baal Shem Tov mean when he says that this hose maker is the cornerstone of the temple until the Messiah? The temple, as we’ve seen, represents intensification of Presence. The Messiah means the end of exile, because the traditional belief is that when Moshiakh comes, all the Jews scattered throughout the world will be gathered in, and everyone will commune with the Divine in the temple once again.
But on a deeper level, exile isn’t only about being separated from your native land. Exile is what happens within when you don’t fully inhabit who you are and what you’re doing in the present moment. When that happens, your consciousness pulls away from itself, creating the experience of incompleteness. And in that inner exile, nothing is all that satisfying. But when you’re gathered in, so to speak, when you connect deeply with your actions, there’s a deep satisfaction even if you’re doing things that aren’t particularly exciting.
So as approach Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Offering, let’s practice making all our actions offerings, gathering ourselves back into the fullness of who we are and opening to the healing and wholeness that flows from that.
The Floor- Parshat Terumah
Let’s face it- people can be annoying.
Once I was in a workshop at a retreat center. I was in a room full of people, listening to the teacher speak to the class. Next to me there was this guy who happened to be standing on an area of floor that emitted a really loud squeak whenever someone stepped on it.
So what did this guy do?
He stood on that spot and rocked his body back and forth, making a terribly annoying and loud squeak, over and over again. He appeared to be totally unconscious of what he was doing. I was amazed that he either couldn’t hear the loud noise he was making or he just didn’t care.
In that moment, as that relatively trivial annoyance provoked such a strong response within me, I appreciated the difficulty of staying present and free when disturbances are not trivial- when they’re deeply offensive or hurtful.
Have you ever been enraged by someone you love? Have you ever deeply offended someone you would die for? Or have you deeply enraged your beloved?
If you have, than perhaps you know the pain of separation it causes- the sour flavor that permeates life in the wake of such mis-steps.
What’s the remedy? How can the sundered fabric of relationship be healed and closeness be restored?
There’s a word in Hebrew for “holy” or “sacred”- kadosh.
Kadosh actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. In the case of a wounded relationship, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, alienation. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Your partner or spouse becomes “separate” because they’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all less intimate relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection.
This week’s reading begins the Divine instructions for building the Mishkan- the portable temple for the wandering Israelites:
“V’asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham-
“Make for me a Mikdash- a Sanctuary- and I will dwell within you.”
The word Mikdash has the same root as holy- kadosh. In the Torah, the Mikdash is the place that the Divine Presence manifests and communes with the Israelites. The other word for the Sanctuary, Mishkan, implies the Divine Presence- the Shekhina.
And how did the Israelites commune with the sacred? Did they go into the space to just sit and meditate?
They came into the Mikdash to offer presious gifts- first to build the sanctuary, then to make offerings. They brought things that were most precious- first their gold, silver and copper, then their fruit, their wine, grain and animals.
In giving and burning what was most precious, they burned away their own inner obstacles to intimacy; they burned away the alienation caused by their own “clinging.” The word for a sacrificial offering is “korban,” which means not sacrifice, but nearness, intimacy.
Where was this Mikdash erected? Was it separate from the camp, off at a distance, so that you’d have to hike out to it?
No- it was in the center of the camp!
And within the Mikdash was a special place considered the most holy- the Kadosh Kadoshim- the “Holy of Holies.” This most sacred space was the innermost room in the Mikdash- the center of the center.
This representation of the sacred in space and architecture is not mere ritual magic from the past. It’s a pointer to the true sanctuary of Presence within your own life. There can only be one center of your life, and that center is the one place that life is actually being lived- this moment. You’re never separate from this moment, and yet- are you truly dwelling within it?
“Asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham…”
There’s a Divine call. It calls to us in pain and in joy, in excitement and in boredom. It says, “Come to the center. Build me a sanctuary.”
How do you build it?
The essence of the sanctuary is not the structure, but the space within the structure. The structure is already there as your body, your mind, your heart. They become a sanctuary the moment you allow there to be a space. The space completes the structure.
Come into that space- come into your body, come into this moment. Bring your korban to the altar. Is there pain? Is there fear? Is there regret? Is there embarrassment? Bring it all. Let the fire on the altar of the present moment burn away the separation. If it hurts, let it hurt- your obstacles are being burned away- and the pain is temporary.
In allowing yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, there’s a transmutation that takes place. The energy of separation and pain burns up and becomes the energy of love. For when the illusion of separation caused by clinging is burned up, every face is a form of the Face; every being is a manifestation of Being.
And when you see every person as nothing less than a Form of God, the Form of God that steps up to you in every encounter, can there be room for negativity? Can there be anything but the fire of love? And in that fire of love, will you hold back your forgiveness, or your asking forgiveness?
A disciple asked Rabbi Shmelke-
“We are taught- ‘Ve’ahavtah lereiakha kamokha- Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ But how can I love my neighbor if he has wronged me?”
“You must understand these words deeply,” replied Rabbi Shmelke. “You must love your neighbor as something that you yourself are, for all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this original soul is expressed in all souls, just as your soul is expressed in all the different organs of your body.
“It may happen that your right hand slips with a knife and cuts your left hand. But would you then take a knife with your left hand and start cutting your right hand to punish it?
“It’s the same when your neighbor wrongs you. If you punish him, you punish yourself.”
The disciple wasn’t satisfied-
“But if I see someone who is truly evil, how can I love that person?”
“Don’t you know,” replied Rabbi Shmelke, “that the original soul emerges from the Divine, and in fact is not separate from the Divine at all. So won’t you have mercy on the Divine when you see that one of Its sparks has become lost in a maze is being stifled by the deeds of that person who thinks he’s separate?”
On this Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Giving, may we guard and remember- Shamor V’Zakhor-to make every word a praise of the One, every deed an offering of love, rooted in the Sanctuary of Presence that is our own human body. Amein, Sela!
There’s a story of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Peshischa, that he didn’t have the happiest of marriages. His wife would frequently grow extremely angry at him and scold him at length. Normally, he would say nothing, and simply endure her words in silence, unaffected. But one time, he snapped back at her. Taken aback, she stopped her abuse and left the room.
A disciple witnessed the whole thing asked the rebbe: “Master, you always endure her anger in silence. Why did you snap back this time? Did you lose your balance and become angry?”
“Not at all,” the Rebbe replied, “I could see that she was growing more and more angry that I wasn’t reacting, so I pretended to get angry to help her feel better.”
There are two common images that are often used to describe the state of equanimity – of freedom from one’s own negative emotions, or reactivity.
The first is the image of dwelling in the center of your being. When you are at the center, reactivity may arise – anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, and so on, but you’re are not caught in any of that because the emotions are simply bubbling up around you, while you remain in the “eye of the hurricane” so to speak. In this image, the chaos is external, and you are the calm center that sees the chaos, unaffected by it.
The second is the image of being a vast space within which the reactivity arises. In this image, the chaos is within you, but you are so much more vast and spacious than whatever feelings are bubbling up, that they are insignificant.
Both of these images actually point to two different practices for realizing freedom: being present with your body, on one hand, and knowing yourself as the vast space of awareness both within and infinitely beyond your body, on the other.
These two practices are actually two different stages of the same practice, hinted at in this week’s reading: The Israelites all stand together in rapt awe at Sinai, while the mountain smokes and quakes, engulfed in cloud and fire:
וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע
And the people said, “Everything that the Divine speaks, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear.” (Exodus, 24:7)
The ordering of the words in this verse, na’aseh v’nishma, is strange. You would think that the words should be the opposite – first you would hear, then you would do. But the fact that the words are reversed – “we will do” and then “we will hear,” teaches a key insight:
If you want the freedom of knowing the vastness of your own being as the borderless space of awareness within which experience arises (v’nishma) – you must first bring your awareness deep into your own body (na’aseh). In connecting with your body, with your heart and with your breathing, your consciousness is drawn out from its ordinary activity of incessant thinking, and into its own nature as open space.
There’s another hint of this unity between the center of your being and the vastness of your being earlier in the parshah, where it discusses how an indentured servent must be set free in the seventh year:
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם
And in the seventh (year), he shall go out free, without charge.
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת – And in the seventh: In the image of the Star of David, the six rays of the star represent the six directions in space and the six days of the week, while seven is represented by the center of the star. This is Shabbat – the “eye of the hurricane” in time. Seven, then, is the inner sanctum, the holy center – the drawing of awareness into the temple of the body.
יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י – he shall go out free: And yet, through connecting with the center, yeitzei – there is a “going out” to freedom. This is the realization that the awareness that dwells within your body is not confined to your body. Rather, it is a vast field that knows everything you perceive; the air around you as well as the stars in the sky are all equally arising within the vast field that you are.
חִנָּֽם – gratis, free of charge, an act of grace – this freedom is not something you have to work for or somehow create; it’s what you already are. Pay close attention to your actual experience in this moment and see – you are the freedom of awareness, right now...
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More On Parshat Mishpatim...
Cutting Through to the Essential Core – Parshat Mishpatim
כִּ֣י תִפְגַּ֞ע שׁ֧וֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ֛ א֥וֹ חֲמֹר֖וֹ תֹּעֶ֑ה הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֶ֖נּוּ לֽוֹ׃
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him.
כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃
When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes...
It is told about Reb Mordechai of Neskhizh that before he became known as a rebbe, he was a businessman. All year long he would put aside some money from his daily earnings so that he would be able to purchase the finest etrog for the holiday of Sukkot. (An etrog is a citron fruit used in a special Sukkot ritual).
One year, as Sukkot approached, he traveled to the city with all his savings to find the finest etrog. On the way, he encountered a distraught water seller whose horse had collapsed on the road, and the water seller stood in confusion and despair. Reb Mordechai immediately stopped and gave all his money to the him so that he might buy a new horse.
"What does it matter?" Reb Mordechai said to himself, "While everyone else says their blessing on an etrog, I'll say mine on this horse!"
There is a great richness to tradition and ritual, but the danger of such richness and complexity is that we can become lost in their agendas and lose touch with essential simplicity of true spirituality: transcendence of ego, knowing the Oneness and expressing this realization in kindness toward all beings we encounter. Hassidic tales such as these cut through the sometimes dense forrest of religion to the core of the spirit...
Before- Parshat Mishpatim
“V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem-
"And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
In order to understand the distinction between your thinking mind and your awareness, it’s helpful to notice that while your thinking mind can’t function without your awareness in the background, your awareness isn’t at all dependent on the movement of your mind.
A nice metaphor for understanding this distinction is the ocean and the waves. The waves are completely dependent on the ocean, because the waves are nothing but the surface movement of the ocean. No more ocean, no more waves. But if the waves cease to be, the vast ocean with its great depths remain. In the same way, your awareness is actually the vast ocean of consciousness within which the waves of your thoughts rise and fall.
Now if you’re living mostly on the level of the waves, that’s the ego- the “me” with its problems, concerns, successes and failures. Of course that’s part of who you are on the surface of your consciousness, but the question is, is that where you want to live? Or, do you want to live in the vast depths of your consciousness, in the fullness of who you are, beneath those little waves of your mind-based identity.
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Mishpatim. Mishpatim means, judgments. It begins with God saying to Moses: “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem- And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
It then goes on to talk about various various civil laws that Moses is to teach the Israelites. But in the first sentence there’s a special hint about how to connect with the vast ocean of consciousness that you are, rather than be trapped by the waves on the surface. It says that the mishpatim, the judgments, should be lifneihem- before them. In other words, don’t get unconsciously absorbed into the judgements of your mind, but rather see your judgments as if they’re “before” you.
That means, don’t try to stop your judgments or get rid of them, simply notice them and let them be. The more your practice noticing your judgments, without judging your judgments, the more you’ll begin to feel yourself as the noticing, rather than the judging. And that simple noticing is the vast ocean of consciousness beneath the waves of thinking. But in order to really keep your judgments lifanekha, before you, so that you don’t get trapped by them, you have to be willing to stay with the truth of whatever you’re perceiving, without imposing your own interpretation.
The Hassidic rebbe, the Seer of Lublin once said, “I prefer sinners who know that they are sinners, rather than righteous people who know they are righteous people.”
Now why would he say that? Because if you know that you’re a sinner, you’re probably seeing yourself truthfully- after all, most of us make at least a few mistakes once in a while. But if you see yourself as perfectly righteous, you’re probably interpreting things in a skewed way to satisfy a certain self-image. And self-image, otherwise known as ego, is on the level of the waves. Of course nowadays, there can be just as much ego in putting yourself down as in puffing yourself up, but the point is to let go of self-image, let go of needing things to be a certain way, and stay with your actual experience, because the part of you that knows your actual experience is that inner vast ocean of consciousness.
So in this week of Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgment, let’s practice seeing whatever judgments arise in the mind, allowing them to come and go in the space of this moment, through the practice of Presence and meditation.
The Girlfriends- Parshat Mishpatim
If you awaken to spiritual freedom, does that mean that you’ll remain free all the time? Is spiritual freedom a permanent state?
This question reminds me of before I was married, when I had different girlfriends. On one hand, they were committed relationships. On the other hand, we always had the choice to spend time together or not. At the end of the day, I was always free to go home to my own house if I wanted to. So, although there was a kind of commitment, it was nothing like being married.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect?
Of course not!
Like all living things, it’s in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people commit to having one life together, to be one family.
Spiritual awakening is just like that.
At first, you may have a spiritual experience. That experience tells you something about reality; it changes your whole outlook. However, like all experiences, it’s temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you might forget all about what you’ve learned. You’re not having the spiritual experience anymore, so you don’t have access to its truth.
You may long for that experience, you may seek it out in different ways, you may even find it. You may find it in sports, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it’s a place you visit, not the place you live. It is your girl/boyfriend, not your life partner.
This week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim, begins with laws regarding a male Hebrew indentured servant. It says that he can work for six years but must be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2):
“Sheish shamim ya’avod-
“Six years he shall work…”
The word for indentured servant is the same as the word for slave- eved. The master of the slave is called an adon- “lord”.
But these two words, eved and adon, also have a completely different connotation: God is sometimes called Adon, and a holy person is called an Eved Hashem- a Servant of God.
Seen metaphorically, then, the Hebrew eved that goes free is like someone who has a spiritual experience, but when the experience is over, s/he goes free from it. It’s only temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved doesn’t want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new wife and children and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever (Ex. 21:6):
“And he shall serve him forever…”
Metaphorically, this is one who becomes an Eved Hashem- a Servant of the Divine. It’s getting “married” to God.
But if spiritual awakening is about freedom, what does that have to do with being a servant or a spouse? Why the contradictory metaphors?
Rashi points out another contradiction in the text that will shed light on this first contradiction: In the above verse, it says:
“He shall serve him forever.”
But this contradicts another verse, which states that all Hebrew slaves are set free on the Jubilee Year, the last year in a fifty-year cycle, no matter what (Lev. 25:10):
“V’ish el mishpakhto t’shuvo-
“And you shall return each person to his family…”
To resolve this contradiction, he says that the word olam- “forever” or “eternal”- is actually another word for the Jubilee Year, because after the Jubilee Year, the status of everything completely changes. The original state of reality is gone, so everything up to the Jubilee Year, the year of freedom, is called “forever.”
So, being a “slave forever” gets you to “freedom!”
Meaning- the point of committing yourself to a life of spiritual practice is to shift out of the time-bound, thought-created sense of self, into connection with That which is Eternal- the present moment, always existing as the space of your own awareness, beyond thought.
How does that work?
Back to our text-
When it says the slave is taken to the doorpost, the word for doorpost is mezuzah- the same as the ritual scroll traditionally fastened to the doorposts of Jewish homes.
And what is the first word of the text written on the mezuzah? “Sh’ma”- “Hear”!
Hearing, unlike seeing and tasting, is the sense that we can't shut down; our ears are always open. We can't shut our ears to escape the sounds around us.
Similarly, we can't escape Reality. There's nothing but Reality, everywhere!
And yet, we create this inner resistance to Reality, and that resistance is the basis of ego- that contracted sense of self which imprisons the spirit.
To relax that resistance means to return to openness- to be an open ear, wholly with what is.
That’s the point- and the mechanism- of spiritual practice: to leave your identification with your inner resistance (ego) and awaken into your true and free nature as awareness, by "hearing" the truth of the present moment.
At some point, when you’re ready, it’s time to “get married”- to let go of your attachment to mind created reality and commit to Actual Reality. Then, this moment becomes your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality becomes your “family”- your home base- the place you live, not the place you merely visit.
Does that mean then the relationship is perfect?
Of course not! There’s risk- failure is possible. But you’ve stepped into commitment with Beloved.
And, just as relationships sometimes need coaches and therapists, so too the spiritual life is helped by spiritual teachers:
Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, once said to his disciple, Reb Zvi of Zhidochov:
“So long as I am alive, I’m not afraid that you’ll slip from your commitment to the Divine. But afterwards- who knows?”
Said Reb Zvi: “I don’t want to live longer than you, rebbe.”
“How can you say such a thing?” protested the Seer. “You are still a young man, and I am old!”
“Rebbe,” replied Reb Zvi, “I will pray that you live forever.”
“But does mortal man live forever?” asked the Seer.
“I meant, rebbe, that you should live one hundred and twenty years, as Moshe Rabeinu (Moses Our Teacher) did,” explained Reb Zvi.
“Come now, Reb Zvi,” said the Seer, “Just a moment ago you said ‘forever,’ and now you’re saying ‘one hundred and twenty years.’ A hundred and twenty years is not forever.”
Replied Reb Zvi: “I came across the idea in some book I read that Moshe Rabeinu lived one hundred twenty years, corresponding to the number of Jubilee Years within our present six thousand year cycle. For in the Talmud it is written-
‘Shita alfei shanei havah alma-
‘Six thousand years the world will be…’
“And, in six thousand years, there are a hundred and twenty Jubilee Years.
“In the Torah, furthermore, the Jubilee is sometimes called olam- meaning, ‘forever,’ as in the passage where the Hebrew slave pierces his ear-
“And he shall serve him forever…’
Meaning, the slave serves until the Jubilee year, which is called ‘forever.’
“The point is, I will pray that your hundred and twenty years on this earth should inspire me commit forever. Like that Hebrew slave, I should make the Eternal Beloved my Lord and my family…”
“And in what book did you see that idea?” the Seer asked.
“Well, actually,” replied Reb Zvi, “It could have been mine…”
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgments, may we open to the one judgment now before us: Commit. Hear. Awaken. May we too write the “books” of our lives, each pointing toward this awakening, and may we support each other on our unique paths. And, may every personal transformation lead us speedily toward the evolution of humanity, to a time of true peace and mutuality.
Years ago, I used to teach piano for a living, mostly to children. When they would make a mistake, most of them would just say “oops” and try again – no big deal. But there were always a few who wouldn’t be able to accept their own mistakes. They would become frustrated and cry and scream out: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Of course I knew they could do it, if only they would relax and try again. I would ask them to please trust me – “Just you wait and see, you will be able to do it. Just try again a little more slowly.”
When you practice something, whether it’s playing piano or being present, you will inevitably get better and better at it. There’s no guarantee you’ll become as great as so-and-so, but you will get better – that’s just the way it works. And so, if your mind interferes by telling you that you’re not getting better fast enough, or even worse it tells you that you’ll never be able to do it, don’t get dragged into that drama. Know that you can and you will – you just need to stick with it.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר׃ אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ
The Divine spoke all these words, saying: I am Existence, your own Divinity, that brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
This famous introduction to the “Ten Commandments” hint at a deeper truth: I am Existence, your own Divinity – your deepest “I” is not something separate from all Existence; it is your own inner Divinity.
Meaning: the dimension of the sacred – which we might call freedom, presence, or oneness – is already who you are at the deepest level. Beneath and beyond your thoughts, beneath and beyond your feelings, beneath and beyond your sensory experience – you are freedom. It may take time for you to know this fully in your experience, but it takes no time at all to be begin practicing – you can always do it now.
לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗י
There shall not be for you other gods before Me.
In order to function, we need our minds to form a mental map of the world so that we can navigate through life. As long as we understand the difference between the map and the territory, thought can be our most useful tool. But when we mistake our thoughts about reality for actual Reality, that’s idolatry on the deepest level. We take our own beliefs to be true, and thereby close ourselves off from intimacy with actual Reality: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Instead, be open – don’t put reality into a mental box. Don’t insist; don’t impose. Let go of your stream of thinking and let awareness flow into your body, opening to the full potential of what could be. We don’t really know anything – except that we are conscious, right now.
Then you will know on the deepest level – Anokhi Hashem – your “I” – the deepest level of who you are – is not something other than the Divine you seek…
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Four Dimensions of Presence with Others – Parshat Yitro
1/31/2018 5 Comments
This parsha begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, coming out to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. When Moses goes out to greet him, the Torah hints at four dimensions of being present with other people (Exodus 18:7):
“What is the “shalom” – the eternal dimension – of this person standing before me?"
In becoming aware of the eternal dimension of Being in another person, you also bring forth your own eternal dimension, and Being beholds Being…
One of These Things is Not Like the Others- Parshat Yitro
1/27/2016 0 Comments
For some, spirituality is all about generosity and kindness.
For some, it’s about creativity.
For others, it’s going out into nature. Or going in, deep within yourself…
But while there are many different spiritual entry points for many different personality types, there’s one Thing to which all these qualities point, that's fundamentally different from the others.
In this week’s episode, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) goes out to meet Moses in the wilderness and give him some crucial advice. But first, Moses tells Jethro the whole story of how they escaped from Egypt, to which Jethro replies (Ex. 18:11):
“Atah yadati ki gadol Hashem mikol ha’elohim…”
This is usually translated:
“Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…”
The word for “gods” is “elohim”- a very interesting word, because not only does elohim mean “gods,” it's also a Name of God Itself. In fact, it’s the Name used in the beginning of the Torah when God creates the universe:
“Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
So Elohim the Creator is the source of all the diversity in the universe. This plurality is hinted at by the Name itself, because Elohim is a plural word, which is why it can also mean “gods.”
In this sense, then, Elohim would mean “God of Plurality.”
But what does Hashem mean?
Hashem is the four letter unpronounceable Name YHVH that means “Existence” or “Being.”
So understood this way, it’s saying that Existence is the greatest Divine quality:
“God (Hashem- Beingness) is greater than God (Elohim- plurality of qualities)”
There are many Divine qualities- kindness, creativity, inwardness, connection with nature, and so on. But of all of them, the simple quality of Being is the greatest.
The nice thing about that is you don’t have to achieve Being. Everything is already just Being.
All of the many qualities (or middot) are important for shaping your life as an expression of Being.That’s the ongoing project of spiritual work on yourself and on the world.
But the project of just Being is a cessation from work. It’s an allowing of everything to be exactly as it is- and that’s the weekly project of Shabbat (Ex. 20:9):
“Sheishet yamim ta’avod v’asita kol m’lakhtekha-
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work…”
Working to cultivate the Divine qualities, to create and maintain better forms and structures, is crucial. It’s the majority of what we’re here to do.
But the center of life is Shabbat- the center is Being-
“V’yom hashvi’i Shabbat Ladonai Elohekha-
“And the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Divine…”
But if Being is the greatest quality, how do we come to experience and know this for ourselves?
The answer is in Jethro’s words-
“Atah yadati- NOW I KNOW (that God-Hashem- Beingness is greater than God-Elohim- plurality of qualities…)”
To truly “know” the Greatest Quality, you have to connect with the “Now.” In fact, the word for "know" is da'at, which also means intimacy. So it's not just an intellectual knowing, but a knowing through intimate connection.
This moment has a texture, a flavor, an aliveness, if you would but take a "Shabbat" to taste It, to feel It, to dive into It. Underneath all the doing, the cultivating, the creating, is the Divinity of this moment, always available, yet easily obscured.
Going back to the story- what was Jethro’s advice to Moses?
Precisely this- take a Shabbat!
Jethro saw that Moses would “burn out” as a leader if he didn’t delegate some of his duties and take some rest.
So on this Shabbat Yitro, the Sabbath of Advice, may we too take Jethro’s advice, to balance our doing with Being and taste the Greatness of Existence. May the shining Wholeness of Being reshape all our doing as well, bringing this world swiftly to realize peace, healing and sustenance for all.
Lost and Found- Parshat Yitro
2/5/2015 7 Comments
When I was young, I loved Spiderman. I also loved to dress up. But I didn’t want to dress up as Spiderman, which would be unoriginal, so I invented a new superhero: “Inchiderman”.
“Inchiderman” combined the powers of a spider with the powers of an inchworm. I don’t know why I thought the powers of an inchworm would be helpful, but he was my superhero. I put together the costume with a pair of tights, a red and blue winter coat and a paper mask I had made. I also constructed a web shooter from a syringe, which I filled with a combination of Crazy Glue, Elmer’s Glue and honey.
Back in those days I lived with my family on three acres of mostly woods in Pomona, New York. One day I went out into the woods dressed as Inchiderman with my dog Ophelia. I hiked out to the end of the woods, beyond which were apple orchards. I ventured into the orchards for a while and then came back to the woods. But, I couldn’t find the path that led back to my house. I wandered around for a while and eventually realized that I was lost. I started to panic and cry. I ran this way and that, crying and yelling, “Help!”
Ophelia, however, was happy. She jumped around and played while I freaked out. She wasn’t lost. I got mad and yelled at her- “Ophelia, take us home!” but she just jumped and played.
Eventually I stopped panicking. I was still scared and sad, but I stopped crying and running. Ophelia stopped too. She just looked at me, waiting to see what would happen next, but there was nothing next. I was just lost. Something within me had shifted. I can remember feeling the presence of the forest, the smell of the crisp air, the sound of the wind in the trees. My Inchiderman fantasy was gone, and I was just present with the forest and with Ophelia. Scared and sad, but present.
Then, out of nowhere, a man appeared and showed me the way to a path that led to the back of the swimming pond down the street from my house. Ophelia and I took the path and found the road. I carried my ripped Inchiderman mask and syringe web shooter back home.
In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Yitro, the Israelites too were in the wilderness. They too had been panicking, complaining and crying to go back to Egypt. In this parsha they come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and prepare themselves to receive the Torah. The mountain quakes with fire and thunder. There is a sound of a blasting ram’s horn that begins quietly, then gets louder and louder. The people are terrified and tremble.
And then, from the midst of the cloud and fire, a Voice begins to speak the sayings that became known as the “Ten Commandments”-
“Anokhi Hashem Elohekha asher hotzeitikha etkhem me’eretz Mitrayim, mibeit avadim- I am Hashem your G-d who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…”
What exactly is this first “commandment”?
According to Maimonides (b. 1135- d.1204 CE) in his work Sefer HaMitzvot, the first commandment is just to believe in G-d, to acknowledge that G-d freed our ancestors from slavery. But there is a message here that is not merely about the past or about belief, but rather it directly applies to this moment within which we now find ourselves:
“Anokhi Hashem” means that the “Anokhi,” the “I”, is actually “Hashem”- Divine. Meaning, the inner identity of everything is the ultimate, living Presence of Existence; that’s what the Divine Name actually means. The Israelites are shaken by the terrible awesomeness of the natural world around them, and in that heightened state, the inner identity of nature reveals Itself. It’s not about believing in the idea of a divine entity. It’s not about adding another concept to the mind’s ideas about reality. It’s about recognizing Existence Itself- recognizing That which the mind cannot map.
The next thing the Voice says is that It “brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Why is liberation particularly connected to the self-revelation of Divinity?
The mind is a mapping device. It is a navigation unit, constantly creating an inner context through which we know who and where we are and what we are doing. Very useful! But this creates the side effect of seeing reality through the screen of that map. The mind sees the surface of things- a collection of related but separate parts, and the mind also feels itself to be separate from what it sees.
But there comes a time when the inner map breaks down, and we are lost. Somehow we lose the continuity of the mind-created context and the familiar disappears. We step out of the Mitzrayim of the known, of the conditioned mental patterns of separateness. This "wilderness" can be terrifying. And yet, in the unknown there is the possibility of connecting with Reality in a very direct way, a way that knows Being as a Whole, as a Oneness. This knowing is itself liberation- liberation from the burden of time and conditioned identity.
When the Israelites receive this revelation, the text says “v’khol ha’am ro’im et hakolot- all the people saw the sounds.” Not heard the sounds, but saw! In other words, they perceived everything in a completely new way. It is a kind of awakening.
I think that’s what happened to me that day in the woods when I got lost. After the initial terror and panic, after the “thunder and fire”, there was this stillness, this recognition. There was a new kind of seeing. And then, miraculously, the salvation that appeared.
The other night, my son and I were watching the new version of Cosmos with the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson began by defining our “cosmic address.” First, he showed us, we are on planet Earth. Then, the perspective pulls back to reveal our Solar System. Then, it pulled out even more to the Milky Way Galaxy. Then even further to see the family of galaxies that the Milky Way is part of, called the Local Group. Then, even further, the Local Group was part of a larger cluster of galaxy families, called the Virgo Supercluster. Then it pulled out even further to view the many clusters that make up the Observable Universe.
But what comes after that? We had come to limits of our map, beyond which was simply mystery. He then hypothesized that our whole universe is merely a single bubble in an infinite ocean of bubbles, each one a complete universe. Now, where would that ocean be exactly? The imagination reaches out toward infinity and comes to stillness. Ultimately, we don’t and can’t know where or what or even why any of this is. And yet we do know- Hinei! Here it is!
Try it yourself-
Stretch your imagination out into the universe until you reach its boundaries. You may find that, in the sensation of trying to imagine the unimaginable, there is an emptying of the mind and a simple, blooming awareness of whatever is around you and within you now, in this moment.
When that begins to happen, just let it. Give up trying to "grasp" anything. Simply relax your sense of what is going on, of where you are, of who you are, of what you are doing. Don’t push it away, just let it go. Open yourself to this moment as it is unfolding, the way you would toward an intimate friend. Lose your self, find the One. Let the Anokhi- the inner Presence of Existence- take you into the freedom of this eternal present. And in the Light of that lightness, of that benevolent Presence that is also your own inner identity, may all of our words and actions shine for healing, love and peace. Amein.
We often hear that we should get out of situations, jobs, or relationships that aren’t good for us. But sometimes staying in a situation, even if it feels bad, is the right thing. For example, when a father abandons his family, doesn’t he do it because the responsibility feels bad to him? Doesn’t he just want to be free? In that case, it’s obvious that “freedom” is not the highest value.
But in the spiritual sense, freedom doesn’t necessarily mean leaving behind that which imprisons us; rather, if we really want inner freedom, we must turn toward our bondage. This may feel counterintuitive; if we want freedom from pain, it’s natural to want to get away from whatever is causing the pain. Just as in the Exodus from Egypt – the Israelites cry out because of their suffering, and Moses leads them out of Egypt and to freedom. That’s the ordinary way of thinking – leave Egypt behind. But there’s a hint of something different in this week’s reading:
דַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת
Speak to the children of Israel – they should turn back and encamp before Pi Hakhirot…
When we think of the Exodus story, it’s common to imagine the Israelites fleeing Egypt, then coming to the Sea of Reeds and getting trapped with the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them. But look at the text: they had already past the Sea of Reeds – they were already on their way, when the Divine tells them: vayashuvu – turn back!
They deliberately turned around and back tracked, coming to camp at Pi Hakhirot, in front of the Sea of Reeds. There the Egyptian army caught up with them, and there the miracle of the parting of the sea occurred.
Pi Hakhirot means “Mouth of Freedom.”
The message is: If you want to truly leave bondage behind and go through the “Mouth of Freedom,” you have to first fully turn back toward your “oppressor.” Is there something or someone that “triggers” you, that stresses you out, that makes you angry or uncomfortable? Those feelings are within you; they are only brought to the surface by the external trigger. Until you can be present in the face of those feelings arising and not get caught, not get seduced, you will be in bondage, no matter far you flee from the external trigger.
Instead, וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת – shuv – return to the discomfort, and make friends with it, because that is the “Mouth of Freedom.”
Ordinarily, we keep emotional pain alive by feeding it with our thoughts. Just as the soldiers of Pharaoh rode after the Israelites on their horses, so the mind is the “rider” and the emotion is the “horse,” pursuing us and seeking to drag us back into bondage. But stop feeding the emotion with thought, and instead become present your feelings – bring your awareness to your actual experience without adding extra interpretation – and the “army drowns in the sea.” That’s because all pain, all constriction, are nothing but forms of awareness. Bring your awareness to the constricted form of awareness. It may hurt a bit at first, but the constriction cannot persist in the light of Presence; through being conscious, it will let go. Then you too will be able to sing:
אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם
I will sing to the Divine, Transcendently Exalted, horse and rider are cast into the sea…
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More On Parshat Beshalakh...
Close- Parshat Beshalakh
Metaphorically speaking, Pharaoh sending out the Israelites is like when we are sent out of our inner bondage by the experience of suffering; we don’t like the suffering, so we’re motivated to find spiritual freedom. And if you want spiritual freedom, there’s a really fast, direct way to get it- just come to this moment as it is, without resistance. That’s the practice of Presence.
But then it says:
“V’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu-
"God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer because God said, ‘The people might reconsider when they see battle and return back to Egypt.’”
And this is the obstacle that many people get caught in when doing spiritual work. You start practicing Presence, then all this inner pain comes up- all your psychological issues and resistances, and rather than be motivated by all that suffering you’d rather go back to your old strategies. It’s easier to just drink some wine and watch a movie!
At that point, you need something even deeper to keep you on track, and that’s the power of faith hinted at in the phrase, “ki karov hu.”
In the plain sense, this simply means, “which was close” referring to the road in the land of the Philistines, which would have been the closer path for the Israelites to take. But the word Hu is also a Divine Name. Karov means close, but it can also mean intimate, connected. So on this deeper level, it’s saying that the Divine is present on the road of battle, that is, the experience of deep suffering.
Have faith in that, because at first you won’t experience it. You’ll experience pain. But know ki karov hu- beneath the suffering is the spacious openness and wholeness of this moment, the Divine Presence that is not separate from your own presence, your own consciousness. You can access this Presence by being present- that is, by being karov, coming close to your actual experience in this moment, especially in suffering. Faith, and prayer, can help you do that.
So as we come close to this Shabbat Beshalakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we come close, karov, to the Reality of our actual experience and allow that truth to send us out from Mitzrayim- from the constriction of separation, into the wild mystery of Presence.
"Yo That's Fresh!" Parshat Beshalakh
This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.
Fire and Cloud- Parshat Beshalakh
In this week’s reading, Parshat Beshalakh, the Israelites escape Egypt and are confronted with many challenges.
But what is a “challenge” exactly?
Challenges exist because there arises an emotional resistance to things happening that conflict with what we want. Since it is impossible to act without being motivated by a want, and since it is impossible for the universe to absolutely conform to our wants, the conditions conducive to creating “challenges” are built into the fabric of reality. There is nothing we can do to change this basic fact: Reality is challenging.
The more conscious you are, however, the less you will be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. And the less caught you are by the emotional resistance that arises, the less it arises!
To make effort in consciousness, then, is the only way to remove your resistance, and hence to remove the problematic quality of life. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations.
When you are living in alignment with your deepest values, clear in yourself about what you are dedicated to, you are fully conscious of your intentions and you live life with purpose. When you are conscious of your intentions, it is not such a leap to be conscious of your emotional resistance as well.
However, if you find yourself spending time and energy on things that are not of your full choosing, things that are sapping energy and time away from what truly matter in your life, it is almost impossible to be conscious of your resistance because you are not even conscious about what you are doing. You have allowed things into your life- commitments, relationships, activities, whatever- that have no value to your life mission. Whatever those things are that you unconsciously find yourself stuck in- those are your Mitzrayim- your “Egypt”.
If you want to be conscious and free from the constriction of emotional resistance, you have to first be conscious of your decisions. You have to eject these useless things from your life. You have to say goodbye to the Egypt of purposeless living.
Life will be challenging either way, but why do you need to be challenged by things that are meaningless to you? Is it because of guilt? Because of fear? Because you just never stopped and asked the question, “is this serving my life purpose?” Get rid of it. Let the army of irrelevancy drown in the sea.
Once you free yourself from the Egypt of your unconscious involvements, you’re energy is freed up to apply consciousness in a deeper way. There is a hint of this in the way the Israelites travel after leaving Egypt. It says that Hashem went before them “yomam b’amud anan- by day as a pillar of cloud… v’laila b’amud aysh- and night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” is when challenges happen. Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of fire”- meaning, move your awareness into the burning of the emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going well. There is a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you are receiving. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of cloud”- meaning, be aware of the uncertainty of the next moment. Know that everything that is working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now for you from this unknowable Reality.
So get yourself free, then follow the pillars of fire and cloud that lead you on your way through the wilderness of freedom. It is a raw and uncertain road, but interestingly the word used for Hashem leading the people is nakham, which also means to “comfort”. Reality is rough on the ego that seeks comfort. And yet, to follow the pillars of fire and cloud is to find the ultimate comfort- the comfort of not running the show, of surrendering the “me” that wants to run the show. This Shabbat may we step off the stage and receive the true comfort of the One behind all shows. Good Shabbos!
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