Image by Richard L. Floyd
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
A disciple once asked Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt: “It says that the seven years Jacob worked to marry Rachel seemed like a few days to him because of his love for her. How does this make sense? If he loved her so much, the seven years should seem even longer, not shorter! I would think that every minute he had to wait would feel like an eternity!”
The rabbi of Apt responded: “There are two kinds of love: the kind that attaches you to the object of your love, and the kind that is given freely to your beloved. We are most familiar with the first kind – we love someone or something, and the love enslaves us; that’s the kind when every minute away from your beloved seems like an eternity. But Jacob had the second kind of love – his love was given away freely to Rachel, and so he too was free. In that freedom, he wasn’t longing for the future, he was simply being in the moment; so, the entire seven years seemed like only a moment, because throughout that time he had always been in the moment!”
On the physical level, we are absolutely slaves, in constant need of external support to survive. This is reflected in the parshah – the children of Israel are driven to Egypt by the famine and the promise of food, and there they become slaves.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ
Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with crushing labor…
Egypt is Mitzrayim, which comes from the root that means “constriction” and “suffering,” hinting that on the physical level we are ever incomplete, ever in need of external nourishment, without which we suffer and die.
But the physical, form-based dimension of experience is not all there is.
The very fact that we can feel suffering at all means there is awareness that feels. That awareness, that dimension of being without which there cannot be any experience at all, is itself beyond Mitzrayim, beyond constriction. Spacious and free, awareness is the ever-present background against which the constriction of Mitzrayim comes and goes. How do we access this dimension of freedom?
Love this moment!
It is true, we are often acting to bring about results that we need for our survival; even our next breath is toward this end. But our actions need not only be aimed at the narrow and conditional goals of the future; we have the power to also be in this moment lishma, for its own sake, to offer our Presence to the inner goodness of this moment, as it is. This is the second kind of love the Rabbi of Apt speaks about: the love that sets us free.
To bring forth the love that sets us free, we must remember that the inner goodness of this moment is easily hidden by our goals in time, by our Mitzrayim-based aim to secure something for ourselves. There is a hint of this in the passage about Moses’ birth:
וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ
She saw that he was good, so she hid him…
She feared for Moses’ life, because Pharaoh threatened to kill him. Moses represents the pathway to freedom, while Pharaoh represents the encroaching and deadening power of ego that kills the simple joy of being. Moses’ mother is the beginning of desire for freedom, the desire that cries out:
בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ לִּ֑י חָ֝נֵּ֗נִי וּשְׁמַ֥ע תְּפִלָּתִֽי
Batzar Hirkhavta Li, Honeni uSh'ma Tefiltati!
From constriction You expand me – be gracious to Me and hear my prayer!
If the path to freedom were not hidden, there would be no desire for it, no longing in the heart for release from Mitzrayim, and freedom wouldn’t stand a chance. It is only because it is hidden that desire for freedom is born:
דִּרְשׁוּ יְהֹוָה וְעֻזּוֹ בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָיו תָּמִיד
Seek the Divine and Its Power; search for Its Presence constantly…
(I Chronicles 16:11)
And when we seek, we find – because It is not elsewhere; It is hidden within this moment, hidden as the Presence of Being within all being. Give your attention to this Presence and you draw it forth. Just as Pharaoh’s daughter drew forth Moses from the river, so too we draw forth the light of the present from the river of time; it shines like a soft glow at first, then like a fire that blazes forth but heals rather than burns. All we need do is give our attention to It, to love this moment for Its own sake. Then, the path to freedom appears in the present, as Presence…
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה
And Elohim said to Moses, “I Am That I Am”
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Seek the Face – Parshat Shemot
12/28/2018 0 Comments
It is difficult to be present when we face adversity. But it can be just as difficult, if not more so, when we are in easeful situations. That’s because without the motivation to escape suffering, the tendency is to forget all about the constant effort required to present.
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמֹות֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
The children of Israel went down into Egypt because it they needed nourishment; Egypt was a place of satisfaction, and only gradually did it become a place of great suffering. And, it was only because of the suffering that the Israelites were motivated to leave and return home.
Similarly, when our experience is pleasant and easeful, it is easy to sink into “Egypt” without knowing it – meaning, it’s easy to sink into identification with the mind and its thinking. After all –
נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיֹוסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם
Joseph was in Egypt.
“Joseph” represents the power to grow, to be creative, and this is the power of thought. But when thought becomes so constant that we lose connection with the space of awareness within which thought arises, we’ve become stuck in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness.
Then, when adversity comes, the degree to which we’ve become trapped gets revealed with the reactivity that arises, and the suffering that comes along with it.
But, not to worry!
The force of the suffering itself can cause “Pharaoh” to let go. Meaning, consciousness that’s become trapped in identification with thought – called “ego” – is motivated to let go when it feels the suffering that it unconsciously created.
The key is to use suffering in the right way – accept it fully, let it do its thing. In that openness to whatever arises lies the key to liberation. The suffering may persist for some time, but eventually it burns itself out, just as Pharaoh eventually relents after the ten plagues.
But even better is to learn to remain conscious when things are good!
Give thanks for the great and constant blessings of Being, root your awareness in your body, let go of the stream of thinking, and know yourself as the Light of Presence within which this moment arises. This is hinted at in a verse from Chronicles:
בַּקְּשׁ֥וּ פָנָ֖יו תָּמִֽיד
Bakshu Fanav Tamid
Seek Its Face Constantly
Behind every experience is the radiant Light of Being, but you have to "seek it out" in a sense. This is a totally different kind of seeking from the ordinary kind, in which you seek something that isn't present, something that's hidden somewhere else. "Seeking the Face" means remembering that whatever the moment brings is literally the Face of the Divine – a manifestation of Reality, arising in the vast field of consciousness that you are...
"I" Am With "You" – Parshat Shemot
1/3/2018 2 Comments
When Moses confronts the Voice from the Burning Bush calling him to his destiny, he responds, Mi anokhi ki elekh el Paro? – Who am I to come to Pharaoh? To which the Voice responds, Ki Ehyeh imakh – For I will be with you.
On the surface, God is reassuring Moses – “don’t worry, I’ll be there to help you out.” But look at what the words are actually saying: Mi anokhi? – Who am I? The answer is, Ehyeh imakh – I will be with you. In other words, Ehyeh imakh is actually who Moses is.
This is, in fact, who we all are at the very root of our being – an open space of awareness, awake to whatever arises in its field. We might call this level of our being, “Presence With.” This Presence (that is both the Divine Presence and our own presence) has a dual nature: on one hand, it has no other agenda than to simply be. On the other hand, since it is free from all other motivations, it also bubbles with potential. Every idea, inspiration and motivation arises from within it. That’s why the tense of Ehyeh is ambiguous; it can mean I Am, but it can also mean I Will Be.
And to clarify this further: a few verses later, Moses asks the Voice what its Name is. The answer is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I Am That I Am, or I Will Be What I Will Be. Presence and Potential, Being and Becoming, in One.
This Presence and Potential is not something we must develop or create; it is who we are, if we can uncover it – if we can step off the worn path of our habits and behold the firey core of this moment.
And how to do that?
Say: Ehyeh imakh. Open yourself to fully be with this moment as it is. And in that Presence, is your own presence – along with the infinite potential of Whatever Arises Next.
Against the Wall- Parshat Shemot
12/31/2015 5 Comments
One summer when I was about eight years old, I was walking through the playground at my day camp in upstate New York. As I passed by a certain play structure, built as a replica of a covered wagon, a bigger kid with a mean face came out of the wagon and told me to get inside. Hypnotized by his authoritative tone, I immediately acquiesced.
Once inside, I saw what was going on: several scared kids, some of whom were my friends, were all trapped at one end of the room with their backs against the wall.
“Get against the wall with the others!” the big mean kid barked at me. I did.
He then proceeded to lecture us: “You are all now my slaves. You will do exactly as I say, or I will crush your head!”
With that, he took a small thick stick and rammed it against the wall near us. He then continued bashing it and grunting, violently splintering off pieces of wood against the corrugated aluminum.
I became very still and alert. I couldn’t accept being this kid’s prisoner. I watched him very closely for several minutes, waiting intently for a moment when his awareness of me would lapse.
As he threatened us and repeatedly rammed his stick against the wall, he glanced just briefly at the spot where he was pretending to bash someone’s head. That was the moment. Without thinking, I darted for the door, jumped down the steps and escaped.
I hope the other kids were okay that day.
At that time, all I could do was free myself. But in this week’s reading, Moses receives the calling to free his entire people. He had already freed himself, escaping from the wrath of Pharaoh into the dessert. Eventually, he settled down with the Midianites and married Zipporah, daughter of the priest Jethro.
Then, one day while shepherding the flock, a Divine angel appears to him in a blazing fire burning within a thorn bush. He goes to examine the strange sight and notices that the bush is not being consumed by the flame:
“Moses hid his face- afraid to gaze on the Divine…”
Why was he afraid?
In this and every moment, there is nothing but Truth-Reality-Divinity everywhere, fully available and free. And yet, we too tend to “hide our face”- to shrink away in fear.
There are three types of fear gripping Moses at the burning bush, hinting at three types of psychological resistance we often feel toward being fully present with the “burning bush” of this moment.
First, when Moses hides his face, what does Hashem say to him?
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Being present can make you temporarily vulnerable to feelings of pain- both your own and the pain of others. In fact, the increased suffering of the Hebrews on the threshold of their liberation hints at this truth: To become free, you must be willing to fully feel whatever pain comes to you.
But, for us as in the story, there comes a time when the pain of resistance becomes greater than your resistance to pain. When that happens, you can surrender your resistance, feel whatever temporary pain you were resisting, and get free.
Second, when God chooses Moses for the awesome mission of liberating his people, what’s Moses’ response?
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”
If you become free from your limited narratives about yourself, you then must confront your enormous potential. This gives rise to a different fear- what if I fail? Sometimes it’s easier to think of yourself as worthless than to acknowledge your tremendous potential. If you're worthless, then you don’t even have to try; you can stay comfortable with the status quo.
But when the magic of empowerment becomes sweeter than the security of comfort, you too will be able to look unflinchingly into your inner “fire”- your true potential- and get free.
Finally, when Moses asks what God’s Name is, what’s the reply?
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh- I Will Be That Which I Will Be…”
Entering the world of the Eternal- that is, the present moment- means letting go of the world of time. To let go of the world of time means putting aside the world of thought. To put aside your thoughts, you must have trust:
“If I stop worrying about the future and be fully here, will I be okay? Will things work out?”
The Divine is reminding Moses: “You don’t have to worry. I will be with you. Who made your mouth anyway? And even deeper- everything is ultimately Me. I am the Hebrews, I am the Pharaoh. I am everything in this moment, and later on, it will still be Me. I’ll be whatever I’ll be. Let go into this moment, trust that you will have what you’ll need, and embrace your path.”
Letting go into this moment and trusting is like pouring water into a cup:
The water takes the shape of the interior. It doesn’t resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
In the same way, you can “pour” your awareness into the “vessel” of this moment. There’s a hint of this in the beginning of the parsha:
“Uv’nai Yisrael paru… vatimalei ha’aretz otam-
“And the children of Israel were fruitful… and the land became filled with them”
Who are the “Children of Israel?”
“Israel” comes from the Hebrew Yashar El- “straight to God”- so to be Israel means to drop the idea that you are separate from God/Reality. To drop the separateness is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to the vessel of this moment.
But then it says:
“Vayakam melekh hadash al Mitzrayim-
“And a new king arose over Egypt…”
This king, the Pharaoh, is fear.
It’s the fear of pain, the fear of your own potential and the fear of the unknown. Ultimately, it’s the fear of death of the separate “me.” The separate “me,” or ego, is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment.
Pharaoh is the king of Mitzrayim- the land of tzar- of narrowness. He is the King of Contraction.
So how do you let go and fill the vessel of this moment?
You don’t- gravity does.
Just as gravity causes the water to descend and fill the cup, there’s an inner “gravity” that will pull down your awareness into the vessel of this moment, if you surrender to it. This surrender comes not from pushing away your fear or trying to get rid of it, but from fully feeling it and transforming it into the cries of prayer. As it says:
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Meaning: When you fully feel, surrender, and cry out to the One, this revolutionary possibility comes into being: the possibility of realizing that you are the miracle of awareness. You are the Divine who sees, hears and feels all that arises in this moment.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divine potential- to perfectly fill the imperfect manifestation of being as it moves in time. And in your perfect connection with the ever-imperfect manifestation of this moment, it is to bring healing and tikkun to yourself and others through words and acts of love, support, wisdom and understanding.
Living your full potential in the present is simple, but not easy. It takes training and practice, just like mastery of any skill requires.
Once Rabbi Chaim of Krozno, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was walking through town with his disciples on their way to pray. They came upon a boy, dangerously walking along the edge of a towering stone wall. Rabbi Chaim stopped and became completely engrossed in the boy's antics.
“Rabbi,” a disciple queried, “What’s so interesting about that foolish boy that you make us late for prayers?”
“This boy,” replied Reb Chaim, “is risking his life and I have no idea why. But I am quite sure he’s not worrying that he might not keep his balance, because if he did, he certainly wouldn't.”
On this Shabbat Shemot- the “Sabbath of Names”- may we drop all of our "slave names”- the "bricks" in the wall of fear against which "Pharaoh" seeks to keep us confined. Instead, may we courageously practice walking the razor's edge of the present and fearlessly gaze into the “fire” of our own Divine potential. May we actualize that potential not just for ourselves, but for the sale of freeing the entire world.
Amein, Good Shabbos,
Perfectly Imperfect- Parshat Shemot
1/9/2015 2 Comments
Pour water into a vessel. Perfectly, it takes the shape of the interior. It does not resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
Through its fluidity and the pull of gravity. Without fluidity, the water would already have its own form, and therefore could not conform. Without gravity, the water would not pour; it would move like smoke through space.
Now imagine: the water is alive and the vessel is alive. The vessel, once beautiful, has become twisted, contorted, wounded. It longs to be reshaped; it wants to be healed. The water is intelligent- it contains the knowledge of how to heal this twisted vessel. All it needs to do is to push on the walls of the vessel in just the right way to help it back into a wholesome shape, into its potential beauty.
But the water is impatient. In its zeal to fix the vessel, it contracts away from the interior and shapes itself into its idea of the perfected vessel. It pushes on the remaining surface that it touches in attempt to coax the vessel into its own shape, but to no avail. Without complete contact with the entire inside of the vessel, it cannot exert its influence. Now there are two shapes, one distorted and one ideal, with no connection to one another. The water has taken on the imagined ideal of the vessel, but it has lost its perfect connection with the vessel.
Now and always we find ourselves in “This”. By “This” I mean the totality of existence as it meets awareness in this moment. Awareness is like water; it is able to perfectly fill and take the shape of This that Is and is Becoming, Now. But awareness is not passive, inanimate water; it is living water. It is intelligent. It sees and responds. It is not only given shape by the vessel, but exerts force, desires to shape.
And in its desire to shape the reality it meets, it tends to contract away from the surface. This is the power of mind- to imagine the world as different, and to contract awareness into itself in order to form this image. Awareness contracts, and a sense of self as separate from the rest This is born. And, as a result, this self suffers terribly.
There is a hint of this in this week’s reading, Parshat Shemot. It says that the Children of Israel filled the land of Egypt- vatimalei ha’aretz. Who are the Children of Israel? “Israel” means to penetrate the shell of reality to the Divine. To find the Divine is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to Reality as it arises.
But then it says that a new king arose who was afraid of the Children of Israel, afraid that they might become too strong and destroy Egypt. This king, the Pharaoh, is fear. It is the fear of death of the separate “me” that is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment. Pharaoh is the king Mitzrayim- the land of narrowness, the King of Contraction.
What is his strategy for survival? He imposes harsh labor on the Children of Israel and attempts to weaken them that way. This is the suffering that comes not from work, but from the tension we bring to our work- the tension of contracting into separateness. At some point, the suffering becomes too great and the Israelites cry out to the Divine “from their labor”. It says that the Divine “saw the Children of Israel, vayeida Elokim- and the Divine knew.”
This word for “knew”- yeida- means to “join with”. It is the same verb used to describe the intimate union of Adam and Eve. It is telling us- when our suffering becomes the cry of prayer, the awareness that is our Divinity within can again become fluid like water, re-joining in the fullness of presence with the presence of fullness- Reality as it arises, Now.
How do you make this happen? You don’t; gravity does. “Gravity” is the natural movement of awareness to fill this moment with its presence, once it surrenders its separateness. When we express our suffering in the cry of prayer, there can be this profound release. This release doesn’t destroy our vision for the future. It doesn’t deny the pressure we must exert on the walls of the vessel. It simply releases the contraction away from the walls and returns us to our own wholeness, our own perfection.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divinity, right Now: to perfectly fill the ever-imperfect manifestation of being as it moves Now. In this is the release of all inner tension, the release of the whole drama of the “me” in the world. And, it is the birth of the Divine as it expresses Itself through you, as it is needed, Now. It is the inner Moses, whose name means “drawn from the water”…
And this is also the sacred promise of Shabbos- to separate from Pharaoh’s crushing labor for twenty-five hours and become fluid once again, to surrender to the gravity of wholeness, for the Divine to be born within. So it may be, Now, for us all-
When we’re about to sweep and mop the dining room floor in our house, I like to put the dog outside first.
Our dog sheds an uncannily huge amount of hair (a fact of which we were unaware when we took her in). If we didn’t put her outside during cleaning, there would be no point at which the floor would actually be clean, because the dog would be constantly dropping more and more hair on it as we cleaned it.
And yet, what even is the point? As soon as we let the dog back in, the floor will start getting coated with hair again.
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
What gain is there for a person in all their work that they labor under the sun?
The point, of course, is that it’s nice to experience a clean floor, even if just for a short time. If you thought that by cleaning the floor it would somehow stay clean forever, that would be הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ hevel ur’ut ruakh – “vanity and striving after wind.” But if you value the temporary yet regularly recurring experience of a clean floor, it’s perfectly worth it to get out the broom!
And so it is with our spiritual life.
Just like the dining room, our inner world also has a “floor” that gets “dirty.” Meaning, there is root, an essence, a basic level to our beingness, that gets overlaid with thoughts, feelings, emotions, impressions, memories, ideas, opinions, and all kinds of experiences. That basic level is awareness itself – it is the simple miracle of perception, beneath and beyond our person-hood.
Most people never realize that there’s a difference between the “floor” and the “hair” – they never experience their own being in a pure way, and so life is assumed to be nothing but a tapestry of the overlay. But the miracle of meditation is that it “sweeps the floor” and reveals the essence beneath; that essence is spacious, free, creative, benevolent and inherently joyful.
It’s true, when we move from meditation back into the flow of life, awareness is bound to get “dirty” again. But that’s okay – when you know yourself as that pure awareness, you don’t need to be fooled by the “dirt.” You have seen the “clean floor” with your own eyes, and you can sweep it again, any time!
In fact, it is only because our awareness becomes overlaid with all kinds of experience that we are able to fully recognize our deepest nature. When we were infants, our awareness was fresh, pure and innocent, but we had no appreciation for it, no recognition of the beauty within our own being.
Of course, adults could recognize it – that’s why people love babies! But babies don’t recognize their own beauty. Only after we become adults, after our innocence seems to be lost, can we re-discover our essential innocence and appreciate it for the first time. We make think our innocence is long gone, but sweep the floor and see – it has never gone anywhere. At the root of all experience, beneath all the overlay – we are that freshness, that innocence, that open aliveness.
Life is not easy – its trials and tribulations, consisting of both what happens to us and of the misdeeds we commit, accrue over time and become heavy burdens, burdens which we may not even recognize until we experience freedom from them. But when we do, when we finally come to know the freedom that we are beneath all that accumulated past, the curse of the burden is no longer really a curse; it is, in fact, a blessing.
It is a blessing because without it, without the pain that life gives us, there cannot be a full knowing of who we are beneath the pain. Without the pain that life gives us, there can be neither the wisdom nor the experience we need to help others discover their essence as well.
There is a hint of this in the parshah:
כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣ים עָשָׂ֑ר וְ֠זֹאת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר לָהֶ֤ם אֲבִיהֶם֙ וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אוֹתָ֔ם אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כְּבִרְכָת֖וֹ בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֹתָֽם׃
All these were the tribes of Israel – twelve – and this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, each according to their blessing, he blessed them.
He “blessed” them? But to at least half of them he delivered curses:
Shimon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel… Issachar is a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheep… He bent his shoulder to the burden, and became a toiling serf… Gad shall be raided by raiders… Joseph is a wild ass… Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him….
But that’s the point: the “curses” are in fact the blessings, because it is through the pain of life experience that our true path of blessing is revealed. That’s why it says he “blessed them according to their blessings” – each of them had their own pain, their own “curses” that became their ultimate blessings. This is most clearly expressed in the story of Joseph, that through his tremendous suffering, masses of people were saved, as Joseph says to his brothers:
וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃
You intended me harm, but the Divine intended it for good, so as to bring about as it is today – the bring life to many people.
And even deeper – whatever pain and negativity come from the past, עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה – asoh kayom hazeh – to bring about as it is today – meaning, this moment is as it is because of what has come before. And in the embrace of this moment as it is, לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב – the essential life beneath all pain is revealed as the vastness beyond person-hood…
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Spiritual Double Take – Parshat Vayekhi
12/20/2018 1 Comment
The moment you wish to awaken, you have already awoken to a certain degree. That’s because the desire to awaken can’t even arise at all unless there is already a certain amount of objectivity on your thoughts and feelings. Even if you feel like you are failing, even if you feel that your mind is too busy, or you feel emotionally reactive or whatever, your awareness of that is already a movement in the direction of wakefulness.
The key is to use the wakefulness you already have to deepen your wakefulness further, rather than focusing on how not-awake you are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ ... הַמַּעֲבִיר שֵׁנָה מֵעֵינַי
Blessed are You, Hashem… who removes sleep from my eyes…
This morning blessing gives thanks for waking up from sleep, but on a deeper level, it’s appreciating the tremendous grace we’re receiving just for being awake enough to say the prayer at all!
A little later the prayer says:
And attach us to your mitzvot (commandments)…
Traditionally speaking, the mitzvot, commandments, are the actions that the Divine “wants” us to do. So to do a mitzvah, in this traditional view, is to fulfill the meaning of your existence. The deeper desire expressed in this prayer, then, is the longing for meaning: Help me be motivated to fulfill my purpose!
This desire for meaning, for purpose, is core to the spiritual drive. But, it is only half of the equation. A little further on it says:
וְאַל תַּשְׁלֶט בָּנוּ יֵצֶר הָרָע
And don’t let the yetzer hara (personal impulses, literally the “bad desire”) rule within us…
The other half of the equation is the desire for freedom, for transcendence.
These two core desires that drive the spiritual path are, in a sense, the opposite of one another. The first wants to transform the world; the second wants to transcend the world. The first wants fulfill one’s role; the second wants to be liberated from all roles. The first wants to serve the Divine; the second wants to realize that All is Divine.
These two core desires are the opposite of one another, but they are not opposed to one another. In Kabbalah and Hassidic teaching, they must work together. You cannot really serve the Divine if you don’t awaken your own inner Divinity. You cannot really transform anything for the better, if you’re emotionally attached to things being a certain way.
In Kabbalah, this is called ratz v’shuv – running and returning. In meditation, we “run” – we transcend every particular aspect of experience and know ourselves as the ayin, the Nothing, the open space of this moment within which everything arises. In prayer, we “return” – we appreciate particular things and give thanks; we envision transformation and ask the Divine for help in its manifestation. On a broader level, all spiritual practices, including both prayer and meditation, are a kind of “running” and our ordinary work and life with people is “returning.”
In Judaism, both are necessary. This theme manifests at all levels of the tradition: Liberation from Egypt, followed by building the Sanctuary. Or, in the opposite order: six days of working the world, followed by a full day of letting everything be as it is onShabbat.
And, in this last example, we see the emphasis unique to Judaism: Six days of work, one day of rest – both are necessary, but transformation is emphasized. In many traditions, it’s the opposite; the holy person is the one who withdraws from the world. But in Judaism, withdraw and transcendence, while absolutely necessary, are not the goal.
These two poles are represented by Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim.Menasheh comes from leaving the past behind – transcending the world:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי
And Joseph named the firstborn Menasheh, for "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."
But Ephraim comes from being “fruitful” – that is, successful – in the world:
וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי
And the second one he named Ephraim, for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Menasheh is the first born, hinting at the usual way that spirituality is viewed: transcendence is primary. But when Jacob blesses the two boys, he switches his hands to give the blessing of the first born to Ephraim instead:
וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasheh's head…
This is why the traditional blessing for boys on Friday nights puts Ephraim first, even though Menasheh was first born – Y’simkha Elohim k’Ephraim v’k’Menasheh!
Transformation is the goal (Ephraim), but to achieve that goal, transcendence is also necessary (Menasheh). This is a basic key to living in awakened life: being involved, helping, serving, creating, but also letting go at the same time – accepting everything as it is, not trying to control anything, being the simple, open space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
I call this the Spiritual Double-Take.
The Double-Take is really not double; it is the simple, single move of Presence. But until it becomes integrated into the way we operate, it requires this ratz v’shuv attitude, this oscillation back and forth between effort and letting go. Eventually, this awakens a sense of effortless effort, of acting in the world without any sense of the “me” doing the acting. As Joseph responded to Pharaoh when asked if he could interpret Pharaoh’s dream:
בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַֽעֲנֶ֖ה – Biladi, Elohim ya’aneh! – It is totally beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
There is nothing but the Divine manifesting in all forms, and so from this awakened point of view, there need not be any tension whatsoever – life simply unfolds effortlessly. So may it be for us, amein! Good Shabbos!
Die Before You Die – Parshat Vayekhi
12/28/2017 0 Comments
This week’s reading begins, “Vayekhi Ya’akov b’eretz Mitzrayim – Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…”
The last time we heard about “seventeen years” was back in Parshat Vayeishev, where Joseph is described as a na’ar – a seventeen-year-old youth. Seventeen, then, symbolizes youthfulness. Joseph is the embodiment of youthfulness: he is both beloved and hated, he has BIG and unrealistic seeming dreams, and he has no common sense about how to get along with his brothers.
Egypt, on the other hand, means limitation, suffering, constricted-ness (Egypt is Mitzrayim, from tzar,which means “narrow). The youthful Joseph must first get enslaved in Egypt before his eventual ascent to Egyptian royalty.
Similarly, the youthfulness in each of us gets constricted by the limitations and conditioning of our physical bodies, families and culture. And yet, we need not be burdened by the temporary challenges of life. Like Joseph, we can be like cream – always “rising to the top” – if we can really let go of resistance to all our seeming limitations as they appear.
Ironically, this “letting go” isn’t really a quality of youthfulness, but of old age. As we get older and approach the ultimate Letting Go, it’s natural for attachments to fall away. This is hinted at in the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. Menasheh means “forgetting troubles,” hinting at old age, which is fitting since Menasheh is the elder. Ephraim means “fruitfulness,” which is fitting for the younger brother.
But Jacob deliberately switches his hands, giving the blessing of the elder to the younger, which is why the traditional blessing for boys is that they should be like Ephraim and Menasheh, and not the other way around, as if to say: Let go of your troubles while you are still fruitful! Die before you die!
On this Shabbat Vayekhi, the Sabbath of Life, may we recognize the precious opportunity we have while we’re alive, to die before we die, to get free now, in this life. Good Shabbos!
Getting Real in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot- Parshat Vayekhi
12/24/2015 6 Comments
Last Friday afternoon I went to pick up some kosher wine at Trader Joe’s. (Less than $5 for a cabernet and not too bad!) I pulled into the narrow entrance of the indoor parking lot and saw a woman getting into her car, so I paused to let her pull out so that I could take her spot.
Just then, a niggun (melody) came to me. I thought it would be great to sing in the service I was leading that night, so I pulled out my iPhone to record it and send out to the other service leaders.
Just then, I heard an angry voice yelling at me-
“What the hell are you doing?? Look at you sitting there on your phone- backing up traffic!!”
An older man was tensely yelling and walking toward me. I thought he might burst a blood vessel! I ignored him at first, but he kept walking right up to my car.
I rolled down the window a little and explained, “I’m waiting for this car to pull out so I can pull in.”
“What about that spot??” he yelled and gestured.
There was another open spot behind me, but I couldn’t pull in since there were now several cars blocking the way. Due to the angle of the turn, it wasn’t visible when I had first pulled in.
“Oh okay, I didn’t see that,” I said.
“Aaagghh!” he gestured angrily and stormed away.
Now, as far as I know, pausing and holding up traffic for a few moments in order to allow someone to pull out of their parking spot is kosher. But to this guy, I was clearly in the wrong, and he was letting me have it.
I assume it’s because he thought I was talking on the cell phone while driving, which really triggered him. As happens to folks so often, his mind judged something external (me) and then lost all self-awareness and composure. He became a jerk because he was convinced that I was a jerk.
At such moments of being triggered, people are often swept away by emotion. All the positive middot- wisdom, sensitivity, awareness, compassion and so on- are out the window.
How often do you experience such moments?
Is it possible to take another path? Can triggered emotion actually be put to good use?
Back in 1998, during a radically transformative time of my life, I had such an experience:
I was driving, when a car violently cut me off at an intersection. I gasped, adrenalin pumping. I felt the heat of anger swelling within me, and the urge to retaliate and curse the guy behind the wheel.
Then, the thought occurred to me that this moment of being triggered was the moment to be present.
I brought my awareness deep into the feeling of the anger. It burned within me, and it was extremely painful. Next, I felt it move upward through my body and out the top of my head. It was like a huge cloud of darkness left me.
As the last of it left my body, everything looked totally different. The road glistened with moisture from a recent rain and the sound of a bird’s caw filled the sky. I began to see that driver in a completely different way. He wasn’t against me- he was actually setting me free! It left me feeling raw, simple, innocent and at peace.
The truth is, the human nervous system is a heaven/hell engine.
Of course we want the heaven and not the hell. But, if you really want heaven to be born within you, the key is to not resist the hell. Like physical birth, there is pain in birthing heaven. If you’re willing to open to this pain, it can serve its function- to set you free. As in the birth of a child, it’s ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring him his two grandsons, so that he can bless them before he dies.
Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menasheh at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Ephraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom.
However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. Then he says:
“By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.’”
Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boys on Friday nights with these words. Girls are blessed with the names of the matriarchs.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What’s so special about Ephraim and Menasheh that boys should be blessed with their names, rather than the names of the patriarchs?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says,
“The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”.
He names the second son Ephraim because-
“The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually map out the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner heaven:
First, there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering created by that.
In other words, the “troubles”, are “forgotten.” This is Menasheh.
“Forgetting troubles” opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking. After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner heaven. This is Ephraim.
But, as Joseph said, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them.
But those inner barriers take energy. They block us from feeling our own aliveness and from the life of this moment. They impede the blossoming of heaven on earth.
But open to the blocked pain, and the blockages begin melting away.
When you do, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula-
“Y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe-
“May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe!”
In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
There’s a Hassidic story of the brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz.
They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (Berakhot 9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as for good things.
They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him-
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for suffering?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him.
Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced anything bad!”
The two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they began to realize what Zusha was saying: He didn’t see his suffering as “bad”. Zusha's suffering had transformed him into the ecstatic saint he was.
On this Shabbat Vay’khi, The Shabbat of Life, let’s open to life as it is in its fullness, with its joy and suffering.
And when life brings you suffering, let it be a pointed reminder to once again become present, to allow the pain to break open your heart and reveal the light within. Rather than judge, snap or plot, let that light come through you in a word of kindness or act of service. And if the response you are called to give is harsh, let it be strong and clear- but without anger and malice.
I Have Never Suffered In My Life- Parshat Vayekhi
1/1/2015 2 Comments
There is a Hassidic story of the saintly brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz. They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as good. They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him, “Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for our suffering?
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him. Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced suffering in all my life.” At first, the two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they realized- Zusha had a very different relationship with his “suffering”.
The human nervous system is a Heaven/Hell engine. Which one will your engine produce? The whole purpose of the spiritual path is to produce Heaven, for Heaven to be born within. To do this requires not just conscious choice, but also commitment. The moment you make this commitment, you are on the Path.
You need commitment because there is a common pitfall. If you wish to have Heaven and not Hell, you may think that you can somehow avoid the Hell, avoid the suffering. But, like physical birth, there is pain in birthing Heaven. A person must be willing to endure this pain, to get to the other side- to walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Without commitment, you are likely to give up at this point. But if you persevere, the pain of suffering begins to look entirely different. As in the birth of a child, it is ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring his two sons to him, that he may bless them before he dies. Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menashe at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Efraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom. However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. He then blesses the boys with the words- “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe.’” Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boy children on Shabbat with these words.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What is so special about Efraim and Menashe that they should become the paradigm for blessing boys?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says, “The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”. He names the second son Efraim because “The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually describe the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner Heaven. First there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering that is created by this type of thought. The ordinary worries of the mind, the “troubles”, are “forgotten”. This opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking.
After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner Heaven. But, as the verse says, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them. But those inner barriers take energy. They divide us internally and block us from our own life energy and from life as it is happening in this moment. They block the blossoming of Heaven on Earth.
When you begin to open to this inner suffering, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula- “y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe- may the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe”. In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through Hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the Hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully. This means becoming deeply open to whatever arises in your field of awareness as your consciousness comes to dwell within your body, in your heart, in the present.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
Jacob gives his blessing on the threshold of the Book of Exodus, where his descendents descend into the suffering of slavery, only to be saved and brought into freedom with the Divine Presence. May we all receive this instruction and with it the faith and commitment to walk through the fires of whatever “hell” emerges in service of the Divine Presence that wants to be born through each of us. Amein, Good Shabbos!
Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Apt said, “A person should be like a vessel that willingly receives what its owner pours into it, whether it be wine or vinegar.”
What does this teaching mean?
The other day I went to see a production of the Nutcracker with my family. I loved it – the lead dancers were wonderful, but also there were many little children who danced adorably as well, at their level.
But I was most impressed by the sets.
One moment the entire huge stage looked like the inside of a fancy mansion, and the next moment the mansion set lifted into the air and was replaced by a winter wonderland. This happened several more times; one set flew away and another completely different scene manifested. It was hard to believe that all those different sets could fit somewhere above the stage, out of sight. Each one looked so substantial; the change from one set to another in a few seconds was truly magical seeming.
And so it is with our different experiences as well.
As I am writing this, the sky has been cloudy for most of the day. The dampened sunlight and cold, moist December air creates in me a somewhat muted emotional tone; the outside is reflected on the inside. Then, about an hour ago, the clouds parted and the sunlight broke through. Instantly, my inner world changed as well – light on the outside, light on the inside – magic!
The weather is a great metaphor for experience in general. Qualities of experience persist for some time, then change. Of course, we are not completely passive; there are many ways we can and must regulate our experience. We certainly have the ability to drink the “wine” and reject the “vinegar.”
And yet, in this moment, a certain experience is already manifest. We can steer the experience in certain ways as we move through time, but whatever experience is already manifest now, that is the experience we must be with now. The “wine” or “vinegar” has already been “poured.” If we do not willingly receive this moment as it is, we create resistance, stress, dis-ease.
But if we do open to this moment as it is, even as we may steer it into the future, then there is a deeper magic that can manifest: we can come to know ourselves as the vessel.
After all, what is a vessel? It is just an open space. The point is that on the deepest level of your being, you are simple openness; you are the “stage” upon which an infinite number of different “sets” are assembled and disassembled instantaneously. You are not the clouds or the sunlight penetrating the clouds; you are the openness of this moment, the stage upon which everything is unfolding.
And, as it turns out, when we are open to both the wine and the vinegar, there is a deeper “wine” that can reveal itself; a deeper “sunlight” that shines from within. There is a hint of this in the parshah:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃
Joseph said to his brothers, “Please approach me.” And when they approached, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.”
Up to this point in the story, Joseph had been disguised as a merciless dictator, giving rise to fear and despair in the brothers. But then Joseph reveals himself by saying, g’shu na eilai– please approach me.
To “approach” is the opposite of resisting. And just as Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers when they approach, so too when we “approach” this moment with openness, we can come to see that this experience too is our “brother” – whatever quality is present, be it “vinegar” or “wine,” is arising within the field of consciousness that we are. In fact, every experience is only a form – a “disguise” – of our own consciousness. Come to this moment and see – your “brother” is ready to embrace you; your “sister” is ready to kiss you. All are forms of consciousness, and consciousness is nothing but the Divine, alive and awake within you, as you…
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
Vayigash eilav Yehudah – And Judah approached…
That is, to be a “Jew” is to approach this moment with gratitude!
(Jew, Yehudah, is from odeh et Hashem – “I thank the Divine.”)
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Approaching the Eternal – Parshat Vayigash
12/11/2018 0 Comments
Recently I was teaching my Bat Mitzvah cohort about the Sh’ma. We talked about how the word sh’ma (listen) is really an invitation not merely to do the act of listening, but to be the listening. When you are the listening, you can take a break from the roles you play – roles like daughter, student, friend, sister, and so on – and simply be a knowing presence.
“But why would we want to do that?” one of them said. “I like my identity!”
“Sure, identity can wonderful. But that doesn’t mean we need it all the time. For example, it’s great to live in a house. But would you want to be trapped in your house?”
“Yes, I love my house! I want to be in it all the time!”
They were toying with me. At their age, it’s not common to want to take a break from identity; there is not yet knowledge of the burden of identity, because identity is still new, still forming.
But on some level, the heart knows. Many people go their whole lives without making this knowledge conscious and intentional, but still the seed is there of the realization: There is much more to existence than identity.
Children are usually not interested in going beyond identity, and most adults aren’t either. Some adults may come to realize it would be a good idea to meditate in order to let go of stress or whatever, but still they don’t necessarily do anything about it. Even fewer will get to the point of realizing: the whole drama of life with its ups and downs, with death ever lurking at the end of the story, is not the deepest level. There is an intuition of something deeper – but how to get to It?
The truth is, we don’t have to “get” to It – all we need do is stop and turn toward It. The mind constantly generates this whole noisy drama of life, but there is a Center. The Center is vast silence, and that Center is none other than your own being, which is not separate from the One Being.
But, we shouldn’t think that the noisy drama and the vast, silent Center are two different things!
Rather, all the content and movement of our life drama are nothing but the Vastness, dressed up in different costumes. We need not turn away from life, we need only to turn more completely toward it. Beneath the costume, the Divine is whispering to us, as Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them:
אֲנִ֣י יֹוסֵ֔ף – I am Joseph!
The name Yosef (Joseph) means “increase,” so on the deepest level, this is the Divine message to us: whatever we are relating with in the moment, its deepest identity is the Mystery from which all emerges. Then Yosef says,
גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י – g’shu na eilai – Approach me please!
In other words, don’t be fooled by the masks – come to the heart, come to the vast and silent Center behind all the actors playing out the drama. That Vastness is home, that Vastness is peace, that Vastness is the Divine, and it was Here all along.
But this realization of the Center is not the end of the drama – not at all! Because now that you’ve tasted the Real Thing, you want more – you want to stay there. You want It all the time. But life pulls you back into its chaos again and again! What to do?
Hear the Divine’s message to Jacob, as he prepares to descend in Egypt:
אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵֽרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם – Don’t be afraid of descending into Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there…
Egypt is Mitzrayim – narrowness, constriction. Don’t be afraid to get pulled back into a constricted state, because it is through your descent that your ascent will become more mature and stable. You can only grow spiritually through the learning that comes through failure.
Then it says:
אָֽנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ – I will descend with you into Egypt and I will surely bring you up as well…
Even in the depths of separation there is nothing but the Divine, so the power to return is always inherent within every experience, no matter how far you seem to fall.
גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ – and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes…
The eyes are a symbol for awareness. Joseph’s name, Yosef, means “increase,” and the hand is a symbol of action: It is through your descent and subsequent ascent that you will gain the power to increase your own awareness, to be free from the tremendous pull ofMitzrayim, to awaken completely out of the seduction of life’s noisy dramas. Then you will say as Jacob said:
אָמ֣וּתָה – Amutah – I will die –
The “me” that is dependent on the Mitzrayim of life’s dramas can die, because
רְאוֹתִ֣י אֶת־פָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּ֥י עֽוֹדְךָ֖ חָֽי – r’oti et panekha ki odkha khai! I have seen Your Face, that it lives forever!
Every form we encounter is the Nothing but the Face of the Living, Eternal Presence…
What is Egoless Intention? Parshat Vayigash
12/20/2017 0 Comments
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, that he is the one they nearly killed and sold into slavery, he says, "don't be distressed for having sold me here, ki l'mikhyah sh'lakhani Elokim lifneikhem – for it was to be a provider that the Divine sent me before you!"
Here we have the great paradox that includes yet goes beyond morality. The brothers did him wrong; there's no excusing them. And yet, Joseph says, "Al ta'atzvu – don't be distressed!" Why? Because it needed to happen that way. Their sin leads to their redemption; their evil was all for the sake of Mercy.
And this is our choice now, in every moment – to practice Al ta'atzvu – not being distressed – and instead knowing that this moment is as it should be. This doesn't excuse or justify hurtful and wrong behavior; it just sets it in the widest, infinite context of Reality, and opens the door to redemption, no matter what the situation... if we can remember to approach this moment, as it is.
A Little Bee Says- Parshat Vayigash
12/16/2015 2 Comments
Have you ever misheard the lyrics of a song and gone around singing it completely wrong?
When I was about four years old, the song “I Believe in Music” by Mack Davis was popular. There was some PBS children’s show I used to watch that put the song with some animation, so I heard it all the time.
Only I didn’t really hear it, I misheard it.
The song actually went-
“Oh I… believe in music… Oh I… believe in love!”
But in my mind, the song went like this-
“Oh-ah! A little bee says… Oh-ah! A little bee!”
I have fond memories of my father shaving in the bathroom, singing, “Oh-ah! A little bee says…”
A few years ago there was some animated Disney movie- I think it was Shark Tale. I was watching it with my four year old son, when suddenly that rap about “big butts” comes on. I sat there, incredulous. Oh no! Corruption!
Luckily, he thought the lyrics were, “I like… big… birds in the cats!”
Then, I got to shave in the bathroom and sing, “I like big birds in the cats!”
When a child hears some catchy music but doesn’t understand the meaning of the words, the child’s mind fills in the meaning spontaneously (and cutely). I was reminded of this when I was leading a Shabbat service a few years back, and I saw a man singing his heart out with the Hebrew prayers. After the service, I spoke with him.
“Wow you were so into davening that prayer!” I said. “You know the meaning of those words is interesting…”
“Don’t tell me what the words mean!” he yelled. “I don’t want to know! If I know the real meaning of the Hebrew, it will ruin it for me!”
Just like children who create their own versions of songs, he had created his own meaning for that prayer, and was davening so passionately. He didn’t want to know the “real” meaning because it wasn’t his meaning, and would probably contain off-putting religious ideas besides.
I think this is true for many American spiritual seekers and practitioners- not just in the Jewish scene, but in many traditions.
Americans chant Sanskrit in yoga classes. They chant Turkish and Arabic in Sufi gatherings. They chant Japanese and Tibetan in Buddhist zendos and temples.
For many of these seekers and practitioners, a lack of understanding the language is freedom. The exotic and foreign sounds can easily accommodate the true prayers of the heart, because they are not locked into any precise linguistic meaning.
And yet, for many people, the opposite is true:
For some who know how to say the words but don’t understand them, the prayers can feel rote and meaningless. Others, who neither know nor understand the words, end up feeling alienated, like outsiders.
In response to that type of reaction, the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic Mass from Latin to the local vernacular languages in the early 1960s. For some, this made the Mass more meaningful. But for others, getting rid of the Latin destroyed its mystery and power.
You can’t please them all!
No rabbi, no priest, no guru or shaykh or roshi or lama can ever come up with the formula that will “work” for everyone- it’s impossible.
The real question is not how to make it work for everyone. The real question is: How can you make it work for you?
And the question is even broader. It’s not just a question of how to connect with the external language of a traditional practice, but how to connect with any practice whatsoever.
I remember several years ago when I was teaching a workshop on prayer and meditation. There was a guy in the class who raised his hand at the end and said, “I’m trying to do the practices you’re teaching me, but every time I try, it just feels so fake, so forced.”
Whether traditional practices feel foreign and alienating because they’re so new to you, or whether you know them so well that they’re boring and tedious, it’s really the same question: How can I connect deeply to an external practice? How can it become authentic? How can it be transformative?
This week’s reading begins after last week’s cliffhanger.
Joseph’s brothers stand around him, not knowing his true identity, seeing him only as a foreign ruler from whom they must beg for sustenance due to the famine. Joseph has been toying with them, threatening to take the youngest brother, Benjamin, as a slave.
Judah steps forward to plead with Joseph:
“Vayigash eilav Yehudah-
-And Judah approached him-
“Vayomer, bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…
And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
The Hebrew wording in Judah’s plea with Joseph has a strange idiom:
“… bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…”
The word “bi” is usually left un-translated. Literally, “bi” means “in me” so a literal rendering would be, “In me, my lord, let your servant please speak…”
Or, to say it more clearly, “May my inwardness express itself in speech…”
If Judah represents the expression of inwardness and authenticity, Joseph represents externality, superficiality. Joseph is a political leader. For Judah and his brothers, Joseph is (or seems to be) a foreigner, something alien. And, most importantly, Joseph is hiding his inner identity from them. They can only see the most external part of him.
But Judah, the internal and authentic self, approaches (yigash) the external and foreign form with three special qualities- humility, honesty and sacrifice.
First, he approaches with humility:
“And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
Humility is the opposite of coming in with a lot of judgments and ego. With judgments and ego, you’ve already sabotaged any potential for connection before you even begin the conversation. If you want to connect, leave those at the door.
Second, he approaches with honesty:
“For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”
Judah brings his true concerns and fears- that’s the way to approach prayer. Whatever is really going on inside you, that’s your korban- your offering, your means to draw close. Just like the fellow who didn’t want to know the meaning of the words, fill the sounds of the words with your own sincere cries.
This doesn’t mean you have to be anti-intellectual. If you can understand the words and identify with their meaning, all the better. Then you can take your place in the chain of tradition that brings those words to this moment in history. But whether you understand the words or not, it just means that you fill the words with the energy of your heart.
Lastly, he approaches with sacrifice:
“So now, please let (me) your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.”
On one hand, real prayer has to come from the depths of your own desire. But then, it needs to go beyond that, to be offered for the sake of others. Don’t do it merely for your own experience, but to refine yourself so that you can be of more benefit to others, to bring more light into this world.
Then, the externality of Joseph will break down:
“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ And he wept out loud, and said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph!’”
Bring these three qualities to your daily practice, to your synagogue, to the tradition, and it will open itself to you, revealing itself as your brother, your sister; it isn’t cold or alien underneath.
How do you invoke these three qualities in yourself?
The secret is in the tune. Music opens the door. Don’t just recite, chant. Don’t just speak, sing. The nervous system relaxes, dopamine is released, and even incomprehensible words can become carrier waves for depths of longing and ecstatic expressions of the heart, drawing you back into connection with yourself, with others and with the present moment.
As Psalm 147 says:
“Ki tov zamra leiloheinu navah tehillah-
How good it is to sing praises to our God!”
The 18th century Hassidic sage, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, expounded on this verse like this: “It’s good when a person is able to bring about that God sings within him!”
On this Shabbat Vayigash, the Sabbath of Approaching, may everything we approach that appears foreign and alienating open with warmth and connection, revealing the secret brother/sisterhood between all beings. May our words sprout from the fertile soil of melody and rhythm!
Rabbi Barukh told a parable about one who comes to a strange land; he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know the customs. He feels deep loneliness. Then, he meets another stranger, and the two of them become close friends, because they are both strangers together in this alien land.
That stranger is you, and the other stranger is God…
It sometimes happens that we come to feel alone, alienated, disconnected, and we then seek connection through fulfilment of our cravings. And while it is true that God hides within all forms and all beings, this is especially true of our cravings. We think we need this or that experience, we feel we need some validation, some comfort, or whatever, but in fact what we really need is only God.
Of course, we are never separate from God, for there is nothing in our experience in this moment that is not God; and yet, we can become disconnected – meaning, consciousness becomes disconnected from itself, which really means disconnection from the Divine, from the “Is-ness” of this moment…
וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ׃
For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.
Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery out of jealousy and hatred, but unbeknownst to them, Joseph has risen from slave to the rank of Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Now there is a famine in the land and Joseph’s brothers come before him to plead him for provisions. Joseph recognizes his brothers who had done evil to him, but they don’t recognize him; all they see is a potential savior who has the food they need.
In the same way, we may seek fulfillment in something or someone – we may “descend into Egypt” to find what we think we need, but beneath the surface, the thing we seek is our own “brother” we “sold into slavery.”
Meaning, at some point in our past, we may have disowned some aspect of our experience. We may have done something we’re ashamed of, or suffered some guilt or trauma, and the energy we unconsciously expend keeping this aspect of ourselves in exile creates a deep sense of lack, of un-fulfillment.
What is the solution?
וַיְהִ֕י מִקֵּ֖ץ שְׁנָתַ֣יִם יָמִ֑ים
And it was MiKeitz – at the end – of two years, days…
The word for “year” – shanah – also means “change.” Shanatayim שְׁנָתַ֣יִם – means “two years” or, translated interpretively, “the duality of change.” This is the duality of our present moment experience, on one hand, and what we seek to experience, on the other.
This word מִקֵּ֖ץ mikeitz, is similar to the word used for Pharaoh’s awakening from his dream: וַיִּיקַ֖ץ פַּרְעֹֽה vayikatz Paroh. To transcend the duality of time, the duality of present experience in relation to that which we crave, we must awaken from the dream of separation and reconnect with our own exiled consciousness, and hence with the Divine.
How to do it?
Look beneath the disguise – bring awareness deep into the craving itself, into the feeling of alienation, into the loneliness itself – embrace it – be the Presence with the pain. Stop seeking – the Divine you seek is here with you, hidden within your pain, if you would stop and make friends with the present moment. The pain is only a form of consciousness; be willing to feel it, and the form will relax back into its true nature. Then, consciousness can reunite with consciousness – the Divine within you can reunite with Itself, and in this realization of Divine Oneness there is a Supreme Aloneness, but not loneliness. This Aloneness is fullness, wholeness, connectedness.
There is a hint of this in the miracle of Hanukkah. Just as the single days worth of oil miraculously burns for eight days, so too if we bring the awareness that we have “today” – meaning right now – to whatever feeling of lack we may have, that feeling of lack can miraculously open into the brightness of the Eternal Present; stay with it and see!
More on Parshat Mikeitz...
It's Beyond Me! Parshat Mikeitz
12/6/2018 0 Comments
This past Shabbat I was at a meal where some friends were lamenting the expectation that their kids had to receive presents on Hanukkah. One young woman from Israel said that when she was growing up, there were no presents, but they would play games instead. This seems to be an old custom, because there’s a story of Rabbi Moshe of Sasov, that once during Hanukkah he came into the beit midrash to find some of his student playing checkers.
When they saw their rebbe, they were embarrassed and started putting the game away.
“No, keep on playing!” said Reb Moshe. “You know, you can learn three important things from the game of checkers: first, you can only make one move at once. Second, you can only go forward and not backward. And lastly, when you get to the last row, you can move in any direction you want…”
In order to accomplish anything, you need a plan; you need to envision the end result and imagine all the different steps you must take to get you there. But, in any given moment, you can only do the step you’re on. This is obvious, and yet because we have the power to envision our next steps, the mind tends to dwell in the imagination of the future. The present is often approached merely as a stepping stone toward something else, and this creates a feeling of separation from this moment, a disconnect from Reality. This in turn can produce the unconscious belief that wholeness is somehow not present, that fulfillment lies somewhere in the future.
The remedy is, remember: “You can only make one move at once.”
Bringing attention to the “move” we are now making liberates consciousness from its imprisonment in the world of thought and its imagined future, allowing the realization: thisis Reality, this moment is complete, the Divine is Present.
But what if, when we really connect with the move we are now making, thoughts of regret arise about the past, pulling us into a painful dwelling on what could have been?
Remember: “You can only go forward and not backward.”
Accepting the past and moving on doesn’t mean you have to somehow push away the feelings of regret; that would just be more rejection of the present! Instead, acceptwhatever thoughts and feelings arise, and let them dissolve of their own accord. Everything that arises is part of the complete texture of the present – don’t resist.
And in this act of coming to this moment without resistance, there can be the realization that, in fact, you have arrived – there is nowhere else to go, because you’re always Right Here!
Then, you can “move in any direction you want” – you can think about the future or the past and not get caught by them, because they all arise in the open space of the Present – the Eternal Now has come to the foreground.
This quality of freedom is embodied by Yosef. Pharaoh asks him to interpret his disturbing dream, but Yosef says, Biladai, Elokim Ya’aneh – It is beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
This short phrase contains a code for this teaching:
Biladai – It is beyond me: There is only the task of this moment; whatever will be will be.
Elokim – the Divine: We cannot go back and change the past; whatever has been is the “Divine Will” – meaning, it already is. The only right relationship we can have with the past is total surrender.
Ya’aneh –(the Divine) will answer: In Presence and Surrender, there arises a natural and unforced trust in the way everything is unfolding; all “answers” to the mind’s questions will be revealed in time. At this point, there need not be any strained effort in “trying to be present” or in “letting go of the past” because the movements of the mind are no longer charged, no longer motivated by grabbing after fulfillment. The Divine is ever-present as the fundamental Beingness that underlies all being…
The Dream is Over – Parshat Mikeitz
12/14/2017 0 Comments
When Joseph advised Pharaoh to put someone in charge of amassing grain during the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine, Pharaoh replied:
“Akharei hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot, ayn avon v’hakham kamokha – Since the Divine has revealed to you all of this, there can be no one as understanding and wise as you.”
The words for “understanding and wise” are avon v’hakham, which are forms of the two root attributes of consciousness on the Tree of Life, Hokhmah and Bina – Wisdom and Understanding. Bina, Understanding, refers to the function of thought: the capacity to create images of reality in one’s mind, then manipulate the images so as to comprehend and predict things that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent in one’s immediate, present moment experience.
For example, if my refrigerator is full in my immediate experience, I can nevertheless predict that in the future it will be empty, and that I will starve unless I go out and buy some more food. The empty refrigerator is a thought, a mental image, but it allows me to navigate the objective world. That’s Binah –Understanding.
Hokhmah, on the other hand, is the awareness from which thought arises. Awareness is the space of consciousness within which the perception of what’s happening in the present arises – in this case, the perception of a full refrigerator, along with the arising of the thought that soon it will be empty. Awareness perceives, “there’s the refrigerator, and there’s the thought about the empty refrigerator in the future.” So, awareness is “above” or “transcendent” of thought.
But ordinarily, we tend to perceive the present moment as somewhat in the background, while our thoughts about reality tend to dominate in the foreground. Like the cows in our story, the fullness of awareness is “swallowed up” by the neediness of thought, the need to understand and control things. This reinforces an experience of lack, of incompleteness. But when we allow the present to come into the foreground, seeing our thoughts come and go within the open space of the present, then Hokhmah and Binah can function freely, and there is an experiential sense of wholeness, of completeness. That is meditation, or Presence.
Then – hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot – it is revealed that the fullness of experience in this moment, from sensory awareness of the outer world, to the rising and falling of feelings and thoughts, to the open space of consciousness itself, kol zot – all of this is Elohim – One Divine Reality, and there is nothing but Elohim, always and only. Bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitakhat – In the heavens above and the earth below, ayn od- there is nothing else.
Only a Dream- Parshat Mikeitz
12/28/2016 0 Comments
Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem-
And it was at the end of two years to the day, Pharaoh dreamed…
and Pharaoh awoke…
This week’s reading begins with Pharaoh’s dream:
He is standing by the Nile, when seven beautiful, healthy cows emerge from the water and begin grazing in the marshland. Suddenly, seven more cows emerge, except these ugly and gaunt cows eat up the seven healthy cows. Next, he dreams that seven beautiful, healthy ears of grain get swallowed up by seven thin and scorched ears of grain. Then Pharaoh wakes up, agitated and disturbed.
The name of this parshah is Mikeitz, which means “at the end”- referring to the end of a two-year period after which Pharaoh had the dream. But when Pharaoh awakens from his dream, the same word is used again in a different form- “Vayikatz Paro- Pharaoh awakened.”
Why is the word for “ending” used also for awakening?
For most of us, there’s no awareness of dreaming while we’re dreaming; it’s only in waking up that you realize, “Oh, it was only a dream.” You say, only a dream because it has no external reality; it’s just an experience generated by the mind. Then, when you wake up, you become aware of what’s actually going on around you. Life is real, and unlike the dream, there are real consequences in the world external to your mind.
And yet, there’s an aspect of waking life that’s also like a dream.
Right now, your awareness is perceiving the richness of this moment- the beings around you, the space you’re in, the sense of your body, your feelings and your thoughts. Ordinarily, you perceive some things as external to you, such as these words, and some things as internal to you, such as your thoughts. There are physical things out there, and emotional and mental things in here.
But what many people never notice is that everything in your perception- from the ground under your feet to the clouds in the sky to the feelings in your gut- are all nothing but consciousness, exactly like a dream. Of course there’s also the whole universe out there independent of your consciousness, but your perception of the universe completely arises within your consciousness as part of your consciousness. In other words, everything you perceive is actually you, since ultimately, you are consciousness.
So that means that when you judge people, or complain, or in any way resist the truth of whatever arises in the moment, you’re actually resisting yourself- you’re creating a split within yourself which creates a sense of being not whole, of being incomplete. And that’s the dream- that’s the illusion- you think that you need something out there to change in order to feel whole or complete. Just like the gaunt and hungry cows who eat up the full cows, you’re never satisfied because you’re constantly pulling away from yourself, creating an inner split.
But when you awaken to realize that everything “out there” is always only perceived “in here,” then you can relax and accept everything in your experience as your own being. When you do that, your consciousness that's become split in two can merge back into oneness, bringing that sense of inner duality to an end.
And that’s why the word that’s used here for “awaken” is the word for “ending”- katz- because it’s an end to inner duality. It’s also an end to time, in a sense, because there’s no longer any journey to wholeness or fulfilment; wholeness is simply what you are when you stop pulling yourself apart.
There’s a hint of this in the opening line as well-
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem- And it was at the end of two years, to the day…”
The word for “year” is shana, which also means “change” or “time.” “Two years” hints that in order to have time, you need two-ness; you need duality. That's because time and change are based on the perception of before and after. But when you see that reality is not in any way ever separate from your perception, that your memories of the past and projections of the future are all arising in the now, that's the keitz shana- the end of time, the awakening into the Eternal Present.
So on this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, may everything that arises in your perception be fully embraced as the energy of consciousness, burning ever more brightly within your being and expressing itself in love and healing on all levels.
Mr. Fimmen- Parshat Mikeitz
12/9/2015 6 Comments
Back in the eighties, Mr. Fimmen was the Vice Principal in my High School. He was known as the disciplinarian. If you did something bad, you got sent to him. I was sent to him as a freshman when I screamed in the hallway after finding out that I got the part of Renfield in the school play, “Dracula.”
When I was a senior, my class put on an original musical in which I impersonated Mr. Fimmen.
In the play, the main character was a “nerd” who was searching to find himself. In one scene, the nerd’s journey takes him into the depths of Hell. We had him walk down off the stage and into the orchestra pit, where I was dressed like Satan. When he asked who I was, I said,
“I have been known by many names- The Trickster, Beelzebub, HaSatan… revealed to the West as… Mr. Fimmen!!”
The audience roared.
I wasn’t sure how Mr. Fimmen was going to take it, but it turned out he loved it. Every time I saw him in the hallway after that, he gave me a satanic look and said, “Do you know my name?”
We became good friends after that. One time, we were having a conversation in his office about religion. He said that just as Judaism is the root of Christianity and Islam, and Hinduism is the root of Buddhism and Jainism, there must be a common root between Judaism and Hinduism.
“That’s what I want to find out about!” he said with a smile.
But when I was about to leave his office, he became concerned about other students finding out that he was friendly. He said, “Remember Brian, not a word about this to the other students. To them, I’m just MR. FIMMEN!!”
It’s true- the other students had no idea who Mr. Fimmen really was. They only saw an image created by their own minds- a “Mr. Fimmen the scary mean guy” narrative. And that’s the way he wanted it.
But sometimes, the mind tells negative stories about people that they wouldn’t want. Some bad experience ferments in the memory and sprouts into an inevitably over-simplified story, and that’s the screen through which you then see things. And sometimes, life itself sinks into a negative frame, and you feel that Reality or God is conspiring against you.
What’s the way out?
To get free of this negativity, the story must come to an end. The whole narrative has to collapse. This week’s reading is called Mikeitz, which means, “At the end”. The parsha begins:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim, uparo holeim-
And it happened at the end of two years, to the day, Pharaoh was dreaming…”
The phrase, “Sh’natayim yamim” literally means, “Two years, days”- a strange construction. The first word, “sh’natayim”, is a contraction of two words- “shanah” which means “year” or "change," hinting at the concept of time, and the word “sh’tayim” which means “two”.
“Sh’natayim”, then, could be translated as “the duality of time”. When you add “yamim” which means “days”, the full phrase could be translated:
“The duality of time, the multiplicity of days”.
Time is dependant on duality, on the ability of the mind to compare one thing to another. In the case of time, the mind compares one moment to another. Through the imagination of past and future moments, a sense of time is created.
Once the mind creates a sense of time, we experience life as a “multiplicity of days”. Meaning, we experience life as receding tunnel of yesterdays, and an impending journey of tomorrows.
But this time-based version of life is actually a dream. Just like Pharaoh’s dreams, this version of life is a tapestry of healthy, peaceful moments, alternating with ugly, monstrous moments. And sometimes, the monstrous seem to overtake and swallow up everything that’s good, as happens in Pharaoh’s dream:
“The cows of ugly appearance and gaunt flesh ate up the seven cows of beautiful appearance…”
But, dreams come to an end:
“Vayikatz Paro, v’hinei halom-
And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream!”
The word for “awoke” is “yikatz”- sharing two letters with “mikeitz” which means “at the end”- hinting that “awakening” is the end of something.
What is it the end of?
Let’s look back at the first verse, retranslating it according to the above ideas:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim-
Awakening from the duality of time is the end of the multiplicity days…”
To come to the end of time, to awaken, is actually profoundly simple. It can happen at any moment, and yet it can only happen in this moment. It happens when you let go of your grip on narrative and allow this moment to speak for itself.
Is there any greater beauty than the richness of this moment? Is there any greater gift than your consciousness of this miracle?
And in the consciousness of this miracle, is there any room for negative, judgmental thoughts about others?
When you see how your own mind works and get free from its illusions, it also becomes easy to see how others are trapped by their illusions. Then, you don’t get pulled into their drama, no matter how they treat you. Even the nastiest insults will only evoke compassion from your heart. You don’t take it personally, because you can see that they are trapped- they are hurling their negativity toward some idea of you, not the real you.
There is a story that Reb Yitzhak of Vorki had a friend who would always verbally bash Reb Yitzhak’s rebbe, Reb Simha Bunem. This friend would always say terrible things about Reb Simha right in front of Reb Yitzhak, but Reb Yitzhak never said anything about it or got upset in the slightest.
Reb Yitzhak’s hassidim were astonished by this. They asked him how he could possibly allow his friend to speak so harshly about his rebbe and never say a word of defense or reprimand.
“I’ll tell you about something that happened to me,” Reb Yitzhak replied.
“I was once traveling in a certain city when a stranger approached me, looked at me for a moment and exclaimed, ‘that’s him!’ Then a second man did the same thing, and then a third, though I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Before long, a crowd of noisy men and an upset woman surrounded me, showering me with curses and abuses, the gist of which was: ‘You are the man who deserted this woman and left her as an aguna!’”
(In traditional Jewish law, an aguna is a woman who’s husband runs away without granting a legal divorce, thus leaving her unable to remarry.)
“They were so convinced they knew who I was, that no amount of explanation on my part could persuade them that I was not the man they were looking for. In the end, I had to go along with them to the rabbinical court and grant the woman a bill of divorce.
“Now all that time they were busy abusing me, I wasn’t the slightest bit angry at them, because I knew that it wasn’t at me they were directing their complaints and curses. They thought I was her husband. In truth, they couldn't see me at all- they only saw their own story.
“So, too, with my friend who talks bad of my rebbe. I don’t get excited. I know he talks this way only because he doesn’t really know my rebbe. In truth, he talks about a character that lives only in his mind.”
On this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, and Shabbos Rosh Hodesh (new moon), may our inner light ever increase to bring the negative dreams of life to an end, awakening us to the miraculous gift of the true life, just as it is. And, at the same time, may the function of our dreams be fulfilled: To guide us as we navigate this ever changing moment and help us bring more peace, intelligence and relief to this world that so needs it.
Holes and Stars- Parshat Mikeitz, Shabbat Hannukah
12/17/2014 8 Comments
Here in Oakland, the fleas are like monsters- much bigger than on the east coast. Our cat brings them in, so we have to treat the cat once per month with some anti-flea stuff. To get the flea stuff on him, I have to part the hair on the back of his neck and squirt the stuff as best I can onto his skin. To do that, I first have to pet him, make him feel relaxed, then apply the fluid when he’s not suspecting.
There’s only one problem. When I first got the cat as a kitten, I lived in a bachelor pad with two roommates. The cat got plenty of attention. Since having kids, however, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for taking care of a pet has waned. Two little humans with all their needs, desires and demands are simply enough; I can’t get so excited about taking care of an animal too. Not that I am neglectful or anything- the cat gets fed and taken care of- but I don’t exactly sit around and pet him.
And that’s the problem: Since I only pet him when I am about to put the flea stuff on him, he knows what’s coming! As soon as I start being nice and try to pet him, he runs away. In order for him to relax when I pet him, petting would have to become an every day thing, not a monthly occurrence.
It’s exactly the same with spiritual practice. If you only do it occasionally when you feel like you need it, it’s not going to do what it has the potential to do- transform you completely. For that, it has to become an every day thing.
There is a spectrum of spiritual intelligence along which the human experience dances. At one extreme, a person is like a “black hole”-never satisfied, always needing to grab more for him/herself. At this extreme, a person lives to “get”. The “black hole” is always restless, always seeking the next experience to feel more complete.
At the other extreme, a person can be like a star- radiant, burning with joy and aliveness, giving of him/herself for its own sake, out of love for giving.
Each person lives somewhere on this spectrum. These two poles are not merely potentials of the human personality; they actually exist at different levels of our being. For example, at the level of the body, we truly are like black holes. Every day we have to take in more food and water. Even more desperate is our need for air. The body is not satisfied with a deep breath for more than a few seconds before it has to take another.
At the level of awareness, however, the opposite is true. The job of awareness is to sense what is, not to prefer one thing over another. If awareness were to have preferences, it wouldn’t work. First we have to perceive whatever is there, then our mind can have preferences about it. Awareness itself is just openness- a boundless field of knowing.
As long as things basically go our way, as long as our needs are pretty much taken care of, it is very easy to live in the dream of the “black hole” without even knowing it. The satisfied person may feel no need for spirituality, because the “black hole within” gets its needs met. But sooner or later, the system shatters. Health fails, loss happens, failure happens, and a person goes into crisis. Like the body gasping for air, the ego can desperately seek a way out of its pain.
So what is the solution? How can we awaken from the dream of ego without having to get shattered?
Parshat Mikeitz begins with the Pharaoh having a disturbing dream. He dreams that seven robust, healthy cows emerge from the Nile, grazing in the marshland. Then, seven sickly emaciated cows emerge and swallow up the seven healthy cows. Furthermore, after the skinny cows eat the fat cows, they are just as skinny as before. He then has a similar dream with ears of grain rather than cows. Pharaoh calls on his necromancers and wise people, but no one can interpret the dream. He then gets a tip that an imprisoned Hebrew named Joseph is a great dream interpreter. Joseph is summoned and interprets the dream for Pharaoh: The seven healthy cows and ears of grain represent seven years of plenty. The seven bad cows and grain represent seven years of famine that will follow the seven years of plenty. Pharaoh is impressed. He elevates Joseph to a royal status and places him in charge of gathering and storing grain for the time of famine. In this way, Egypt is saved and becomes a breadbox for surrounding countries during the time of famine.
The essence of Joseph’s message is to not take for granted the abundance you’ve got. Prepare for famine, because famine is sure to come. Spiritually speaking, this means you need to awaken from the dream of entitlement, from the unconscious belief that your ego will continue to be fed. Make a “crisis” for yourself now. This is actually the job of daily spiritual practice: to shatter the callousness of your ego that takes things for granted and open to the living uncertainty of the present.
How do you do it?
During the seven years of abundance, the people gave Joseph their grain to store away for the years of famine. In the metaphorical sense, Joseph represents the Divine. He interprets dreams on behalf of the Divine. His own dream has the stars, sun and moon bow down to him. His very name, Yosef, means “to increase”, indicating the Source from which all things in the universe come into being.
So, in this sense, the people giving Joseph their grain suggests a profound practice in which we intentionally “give back” everything we have to G-d. This is the purifying fire and water of daily prayer and meditation, stripping away the expectations of ego and “me”, accustoming us to being in the naked present. For a person who lives in the naked present, times of “famine” do not lead to crisis, because that person is not relying on the temporary and transitory. That person is like a star, burning with bliss and truth, giving without ulterior motive.
This Hanukah, as we increase the light each night, may the flames burn away the barriers of the heart, that we may feel ever more clearly: That which we seek is the only thing there is. That which we crave is what we already are. Amein, Hag Samayakh!
אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל חֹ֥ק יְֽהוָ֗ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃
I am obligated to proclaim: The Divine says to me, “You are My child, today I give birth to you…”
Rabbi Nahum of Stepinesht once said of his brother, Rabbi David Moshe of Tchortkov:
“When my brother chants from the Book of Psalms, Hashem calls down to him: ‘David Moshe My son, I am putting the whole world into your hands – now do with it whatever you like.’ Oh, if only Hashem gave me the world, I would know very well what to do with it! But David Moshe is so faithful a servant that when he gives the world back, it is exactly as it was when he received it…”
This anecdote of Rabbi Nahum, the son of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, is strange; it seems to say that non-action is a virtue. It seems to say that one who does nothing it improve the world is better than one who tries to improve the world. How can this be?
When Joseph is thrown into the dungeon, two prisoners come to him with their disturbing dreams, hoping that Joseph will interpret the dreams for them. Joseph responds:
הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹהִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים – Don’t interpretations belong to the Divine?
Joseph is saying that his ability to see the meanings of their dreams is a gift that comes from beyond; it’s not really his own doing.
But on a deeper level, “dream” is a metaphor for all experience. After all, what is a dream? It is an experience we have while we’re sleeping, an experience that seems real when it’s happening, but turns out to be some kind of projection of the mind.
Similarly, our waking experiences too are comprehensible only because our minds project narrative onto them. We tend to be “asleep” in relation to most of what is going on, so that the mind can piece together a story that makes sense. And, central to that story is the character of “I.”
From our ordinary state of mind, in which we are mostly asleep, it seems there is this “I” that does things, that acts on the world, that causes things to happen. But what really is this I? Is it really something separate? Isn’t this I part of the flow of Reality, of Existence, of the Divine?
On this level, Joseph is saying: Halo l’Elohim pitronim – isn’t this dream of life we are having correctly interpreted as only the Divine?
From this point of view, Rabbi David Moshe isn’t being lauded by his brother for not doing anything, but rather for not seeing himself as the doer; he “gives the world back exactly as it was when he received it” – meaning, he gives credit back to the Divine for what happens, just as Joseph does: הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹהִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים
This is why Joseph is able to receive such extreme hardship without any complaint; he receives everything from the Hands of the Divine, including his own dreams, from which he knows that he will one day attain greatness. So, when the world seems to hate him, he still regards himself as beloved by the Root of the world. There’s a hint of this in the opening of the parshah:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙
Now Israel loved Joseph…
Israel loved Joseph – “Israel” means “strives for the God” or “straight to the God” – in other words, Joseph’s sees through the surface of things to the Divine love underneath, even though his experience of the world seems to be the opposite:
וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו… וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ
And his brothers saw…and they hated him…
His brothers – “Brothers” represents the things and beings in the horizontal dimension of experience – the forms we encounter in time. But “Israel,” the “Father,” represents the vertical dimension of experience – our encounter with Timeless that abides within and as all things. This is the great skill of the spirit that we are called upon to develop: to know the love that flows from Being, even when hatred seems to flow from the many beings.
In Pirkei Avot (6:6), it is said that Torah is acquired through 48 qualities, one of which is:
Kabalat HaYisurin – receiving of painful feelings
Our tendency is to resist that which is painful. But if we are aware that the pain itself is a means toward awakening out of the dream of separateness, then we can receive pain as a gift, even as an expression of Divine love, as it says a few qualities later:
וְאֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ, אָהוּב
Eino makhazik tovah l’atzmo, Ahuv – Not claiming credit for yourself, being Beloved…
Consciousness glistens on the rustling leaves of the present moment; there is a freedom and a beloved-ness that shines forth when we let go of the “I” that acts, and receive this moment from the hands of the Divine. Then we can know directly that we too are nothing but a fleeting form of Divine Reality, a moment of consciousness awakening in this form:
אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל חֹ֥ק יְֽהוָ֗ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃
I am obligated to proclaim: The Divine says to me, “You are My child, today I give birth to you…”
More on Pasrshat Vayeishev...
Just Say Yes! Parshat Vayeishev
11/28/2018 0 Comments
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan…
Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, actually means “heel.” So, to say that he “dwelt in the land” evokes the image of feet touching the earth, being grounded in connection with the sensory world. The “land” is the place where his “father sojourned.” On the surface, this is referring to the other patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac. But on a deeper level, aviv – his father – is a metaphor for the Divine, or the transcendent dimension Being, the hidden Presence beneath all forms.
The “land” is also called Canaan. Canaan begins with kaf - nun, which spells kein – “yes.”
So, on this level, we can freely this verse:
Dwell in connection with the Divine – say “yes” to this moment.
On the deepest level, it is already the nature of your consciousness to say “yes” to this moment, to simply shine light on what is without judgment. The nature of thought, on the other hand, is discernment – saying both “yes” and “no,” making judgments.
We need both of these levels; we need both discernment and simple openness to what is. Without the openness, we become trapped in a narrow, thought-created identity. But without the discernment, not only wouldn’t we be able to function in life, but we also paradoxically wouldn’t even be able to sustain the openness either, because to realize the deepest “yes” level of our being requires a radical discernment and decision to come fully to your present moment experience as it is and simply dwell with it:
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ
Vayeishev Ya’akov Ba’aretz
The Heel Dwells on the Earth…
Bring the awareness of your mind all the way down to the heels of your feet. Let your awareness be like light, simply shining outward, illuminating whatever arises in your experience. This is the secret of Hanukah, which comes in the darkest time of the year to illuminate the eternal dimension of Being within ordinary day-to-day life, which sometimes feels “dark” when obscured by time and the thinking mind...
The Evil Shepherd- Parshat Vayeishev
12/22/2016 2 Comments
This week’s reading begins with the story of Yosef, or Joseph:
“Yosef hayah ro’eh et achav- Joseph was a shepherd with his brothers… v’hu na’ar et b’nei Vilha v’et b’nei Zilpa- and he was a youth with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa...”
It then says that he brought evil reports about his brothers to their father.
Now the word for “shepherd” is ro’eh, and the word for “evil” is ra’ah-exactly the same letters, just voweled a little differently, hinting at a connection between shepherding and judging others. This is also reflected in the wording. A more straightforward way of saying that he was a shepherd with his brothers would be “hayah ro’eh imachav”- instead of “hayah ro’eh et achav”- which could be read that he’s being a shepherd at his brothers.
This hints at two different levels of what’s going on. On the surface, Joseph and his brothers are out shepherding the sheep. But at the same time, Joseph sees himself as shepherding his brothers. He feels that he’s above them, judging them and tattling on them to their father.
His vision of himself as above the rest of his family is of course prophetic- he eventually becomes an actual ruler with Pharaoh in Egypt. But at this point in the story, his leadership is immature- as it says, “V’hu na’ar- and he was a youth.”
There’s a level of your own being that is above everything. It's the place within you that it sees the fullness of whatever arises in your experience, yet remains free from it, unencumbered by whatever your situation is. That level of inner freedom is simple awareness. Another name for it is Hokhmah or Wisdom, because from that place of awareness, wisdom naturally flows and can guide you in your particular situation. So your awareness is above your situation, on one hand, yet offers its steady guidance at the same time- just like a ro’eh- a shepherd- guides the flock, yet is not itself a sheep.
The thinking mind, however, loves to claim the wisdom of awareness for itself in order to feed the ego. The ego thinks, "This is my wisdom"- and then gets gratification from believing itself to be above others. That’s Joseph as the na’ar- the youth- who brings evil reports. As long as the immature mind coopts the wisdom of awareness, the ro’eh becomes ra’ah- an evil shepherd.
So what’s the remedy? The remedy is hidden within the letters. The words ro’eh and ra’ah are Reish-Ayin-Heh. The middle letter, Ayin, literally means “eye,” hinting at awareness as the deepest identity of the shepherd. The Reish literally means “head,” hinting that as long as the “head” is ruling the “eye”- as long as the thinking mind claims awareness for itself, the shepherd is evil.
But if you change the Ayin to an Alef, the letter of Oneness, then the word becomes Re’eh which means, “see.” When you simply see, not in the literal visual sense but in the sense of simple perception, then you can notice the antics of the mind and ego and not get seduced by them. From this comes mature leadership, where the wisdom that pours into the mind is not coopted or claimed, but is humbly received as a gift.
So on this Parshat Vayeyshev, the Sabbath of Dwelling, may we practice dwelling in the simple Presence and receive the gift of guidance from the Ultimate Shepherd. May we be guided by this inner wisdom on a path of love, renewal and healing.
Being Now, Wanting Now- Parshat Vayeishev
12/2/2015 0 Comments
A few years ago, I was at a Shabbat table where someone was describing the different character traits of Jacob and his brother Esau:
“Jacob could see the big picture. He planed for the future, while Esau only cared about satisfying his immediate desires. Esau lived in the here and now.”
I cringed when I heard that, because “living in the here and now” and “wanting something here and now” couldn’t be more different.
So many people don’t understand this difference!
Back at that Shabbat table, I tried to clarify this point, but I was unsuccessful. I hope to clarify it “now”.
Actually, my desire to clarify this point “now” is a perfect example to use.
When I say that I want to clarify this point “now”, I don’t mean “now” literally. I mean that I hope to clarify it by the end of this d’var. Which really means that I hope to clarify it in the near future. By the time you’re done reading this, I hope that the point will be clear.
In fact, whenever anyone says that they want something “now”, what they really mean is that they want their “now” to change into a different “now”. They may want it really fast… but “fast” is still the future.
This is the exact opposite of “being in the now” or “being present”.
To “be in the now” doesn’t mean that you want a different “now”. It means you’re just being in thisnow. There’s no conflict or tension in that- you’re just present.
In fact, you are the present; there’s not you, on one hand, and the present on the other. When you are present, you and the present are the same thing.
So when that guy talked about Jacob and Esau, he wasn’t talking about long-term planning versus being in the now. He was really talking about long-term planning versus short-term planning. Neither one is about the “now” at all.
And yet, there’s a way in which long-term planning can actually can help you be fully present.
When you know exactly where you’re going, you’re less likely to worry about what you’re going to have for dinner in a few hours. It just doesn’t matter that much. You have a long-term plan, so you can fully enjoy the journey. You can be present.
That’s the way Joseph is in this week’s reading. At the opening of our parsha, it says that Joseph is Israel’s favorite son. This makes Israel’s other sons jealous of Joseph. Then, Joseph does something to further upset them:
Joseph dreamt a dream that he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear, if you please, this dream that I dreamt: Behold! We were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! My sheaf arose and remained standing. Then, behold! Your sheaves gathered around and bowed to my sheaf.”
Then, as if that weren't bad enough, he really ticks them off with a second dream: The sun, moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him, implying that one day he would rule over his eleven brothers, father and mother.
Why was Joseph unconcerned about upsetting his brothers with these dreams? Some say that Joseph was immature and vain. But I don’t think so. People who are immature and vain tend to complain when bad things happen to them.
His brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. When he later rises to be the most trusted and powerful slave in the house of his master, he is framed and thrown in the dungeon. Through all these calamities, he never once complains, never once gets angry, never even defends himself.
Because he trusts his dream and he knows where he is going.
Since he knows where he’s going, he doesn’t have to fuss much about how he gets there. His brothers are mad at him? No big deal, it will work out. Sold into slavery? There’s an interesting turn.
Everything that happens to him is merely a modulation of the present moment. Whatever it is, he’s there with it. He sees the big picture, and therefore he’s fully in the now.
In fact, his name embodies this quality. The Hebrew for Joseph is Yosef, which comes from the root that means “to increase”. No matter how terrible life gets, he pops back and increases toward his goal. He’s like cream- always rising to the top, never growing anxious or complaining. He just rides the story of his life, moving steadily toward his destiny.
There’s a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev saw a man hurrying down the street, bumping into things and knocking people over. The rabbi grabbed him and said, “Why are you rushing so?”
“I’m running to meet my destiny!” replied the man as he tried to break free from the rebbe’s grip.
“But how do you know that your destiny is in front of you?” argued the rebbe, “Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you have to do is slow down and let it catch up with you!”
On this Shabbat Vayieshev, the Shabbos of Dwelling, remember that to truly dwell in the Presence of the One who is only ever in the present, you don’t have to give up your dreams for the future. But, you don’t have to run after them either!
Instead, rest in the knowledge of where your ship is going- take the steps you need to move in that direction, then trust and enjoy the cruise, even when the world seems to be against you! And if you don’t know yet where you want to go, be present with the not knowing. In the silence, your dreams will reveal themselves.
What is the nature of pleasure? Is pleasure something to be enjoyed and celebrated, or is pleasure a spiritual obstacle?
There is a teaching recorded in the Talmud that contains a puzzling dialogue between Moses and Hashem:
בקש להודיעו דרכיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן לו שנאמר הודיעני נא את דרכיך אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו אמר לו משה צדיק וטוב לו צדיק בן צדיק צדיק ורע לו צדיק בן רשע רשע וטוב לו רשע בן צדיק רשע ורע לו רשע בן רשע
(Moses) requested that the ways of the Holy Blessed One be revealed to him, and it was granted it to him, as it is stated: “Show me Your ways and I will know You” (Exodus 33:13). He said, “Master of the Universe! Why is it that there are righteous who prosper, righteous who suffer, wicked who prosper, and wicked who suffer?” (The Divine) replied to him: “Moses, the righteous person who prospers is a child of a righteous person. The righteous person who suffers is a child of a wicked person. The wicked person who prospers is a child of a righteous person. The wicked person who suffers is a child of a wicked person.
This teaching (attributed to Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Yosei) attempts to answer that old perennial question: if there is Divine justice in the world, why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there bad people who seem to have all the good things? The answer given here is a little baffling – it’s just because of their parents? Not very satisfying!
However, a novel interpretation of this passage comes from the renown 19th century rabbi known as the Chasam Sofer. He says that the good person who suffers (tzaddik v’ra lo- literally, “righteous and bad for him”) is not one to whom bad things happen. Rather, it is someone who doesn’t know to receive painful experiences. After all, painful experiences will absolutely happen to all people, regardless of how good or bad they are ethically. The issue is not whether pain will come, it is how we deal with the pain when it comes.
That’s why the passage says that the tzaddik v’ra lo is a righteous person with wicked parents. The tzaddik v’ra lo is good intentioned, but because they have wicked parents, they don’t learn how to receive pain and not get caught by it; they are still ruled by their impulses, in the same way a wicked person would be.
Conversely, the rasha v’tov lo – the wicked person who prospers – doesn’t mean a wicked person to whom good things happen; good experiences are constantly happening to all people, regardless of how good or bad they are ethically (like, for example, our next breath.) Rather, this is someone who may be ethically wicked, but because they have good parents, they have learned the skill of receiving pain without resistance, as well as the skill of cultivating gratitude and appreciation for the all the blessings.
The Chasam Sofer is interpreting the Gemara in light of this most fundamental spiritual quality: the simple receiving this moment as it is, also called “equanimity.” The main obstacle to equanimity is the impulse to resist and reject our present moment experience. This resistance, in turn, takes two main forms: rejecting or denying or judging or attacking what we don’t want, and longing for or running after what we do want.
One common approach to cultivating equanimity is to purposely restrict your enjoyment of pleasure and voluntarily take on a certain amount of pain; this is the path of asceticism. From the ascetic point of view, pleasure is seen as suspect, even immoral, because it leads to weakness of character and dependence on external experience. This is the context within which the pleasure-negative point of view arises in Judaism and in many other traditions.
The counterpoint to the ascetic point of view is the Hassidic approach, which came along to counteract the pleasure-negative ideology that became so prevalent in eighteenth century Eastern European Jewry. After all, it is not pleasure itself that is dangerous, but the clinging to and dependence on pleasure that is dangerous. Feeling good is a blessing of life – why should we go against our nature? Put another way, why should we reject the gifts that Hashem gives us?
That’s why Hassidism celebrated eating, drinking, dancing, sexuality, and so on, as a means to realize the sacred; the key was the kavanah – the intention – that one brings to pleasure.
One time, Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn walked into a room where some of his hasidim were drinking together and making merry, and he seemed to look at them with disapproval. “Are you displeased that we are drinking?” one of them asked. “But it is said that one when hasidim sit together over their cups, it is just as if they were studying Torah!”
“There are many words in the Torah that are holy in one passage, and unholy in another,” replied that rabbi of Rizhyn. “For example, it is written:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים – And the Divine said to Moses, 'carve for yourself two tablets of stone…'
“And in another place, it says:
לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ – Do not make for yourself a carved image…
“Why is the same word, fesel (“carved”), holy in the first passage and not holy in the second? It is because in the first passage, “yourself” comes after “carved,” and in the second it comes first. And so it is in all that we do: when the self comes after, all is holy; when it comes first, all is not.”
In other words, the sacred function of pleasure is to help us transcend ourselves; it is to use the pleasure as a means to praise and gratitude, to connection with the Source of blessing, rather than cling to the blessing for the sake of gratification alone. And even deeper, it is to awaken that Presence which is the deepest level of our being, beyond the “self” that craves this and that. After all, there is something essential that we can learn from enjoying pleasure: just as we enjoy pleasure for its own sake, savoring the moment without any future goal, so too we can learn to fully savor the moment as it is, even without any external gratification.
We can do this because there is a deeper goodness, a deeper pleasure, that arises from Presence Itself; when we awaken this deeper pleasure, we can see through the ups and downs of transient experience and pierce through to Oneness of Being, the Divine Ground that knows Itself through our own awareness, through the Living Presence that we are, beneath and beyond the “self” of thoughts, feelings, and changing experiences.
In the parshah, Jacob is pushed into this realization through crisis. He is terrified that his brother is coming to kill him and his family. He sends gifts to appease his brother, he prays for salvation, he divides his camp in the hope that some might survive if they are attacked. But then he spends the whole night wrestling with a mysterious being who attacks and injures him. By the time dawn breaks, Jacob is victorious, and the being gives him the name Yisrael, which means “strives for the Divine.”
Then, it says something interesting:
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
Jacob named the place Peniel, because “I have seen the Divine face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
It is true that it all turns out well for Jacob in the end; his brother forgives him and they hug and weep upon each other’s necks. But this verse comes before he sees his brother; he doesn’t know yet whether his prayers will be answered; he doesn’t know yet whether his brother will forgive him or kill him. And yet he says, וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי – which is usually translated as above: “my life has been preserved.”
But the word for “my life” – nafshi – literally means “my soul,” not “my life.” In other words, his becoming Yisrael means that he has pierced beyond the “good” and “bad” of his personal experience, to his underlying “soul” – his essential being beyond the “self,” beyond ego. He becomes Yisrael because regardless of whether he lives or dies, regardless of whether his prayers are answered or not, he knows now that everything is the Face of the Divine – ra’iti Elohim panim el panim – I see the Divine face to face.
This is our task: not to avoid pleasure, not to pursue pleasure as the goal, but to receive both pleasure and pain with full Presence. Because beneath our transient experience is a deeper pleasure, a pleasure with no opposite, a pleasure that is the nourishment we need now for our deepest being…
וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם – And one shall be like a tree planted by streams of water…
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No Expectations – Parshat Vayiskhlakh
11/21/2018 1 Comment
Although we have done our best to raise our children eating healthy food, they have lately become a bit obsessed with candy. The other night, my daughter showed me a little toy electric fan filled with M&Ms that someone had given to her. As she tried to take out the M&Ms, I said, “Honey, let’s read the ingredients on the label.” We did. There were so many chemicals, both artificial flavors and colors, along with preservatives.
She asked what all those things were, and when I got to explaining about the preservatives, she said, “But that’s good, right Abba? The preservatives prevent it from going rotten.”
I suddenly realized she had a point. It’s true, many preservatives aren’t in any way nourishing. But, in certain situations, a little preservative would certainly be better than eating something that had become overrun with dangerous bacteria.
It’s kind of like spirituality. When spiritual practices like prayer and ritual are “fresh” – meaning, they are done with a spirit of openness and humility, they can be deeply nourishing. But there is a danger – when a person thinks of oneself as “spiritual” and therefore special or superior, the same practices can be a source of arrogance. The spirituality becomes “rotten” in a sense. In such a case, we need some kind of “preservative.”
What is the spiritual preservative?
Once, when Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua of Apt came to visit a certain town to teach, two men competed to have the rabbi stay with them. Both homes were equally roomy and comfortable, and in both households, all the halakhot – the rules of conduct aroundkashrut and Shabbat – were observed with meticulous exactness.
The only difference was that one of the men had a bad reputation for his many love affairs and other self-indulgent habits. He knew he was weak, and didn’t think much of himself. The other fellow, on the other hand, was perfect in his conduct, and he knew it. He walked around proudly, thoroughly aware of his spotless purity.
The rabbi chose the house of the man with the bad reputation. When asked the reason for his choice, he answered that in the Talmud (Sotah 5a), it says:
“R. Hisda said… every person in whom there is arrogance of spirit, the Holy Blessed One says, ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.”
“And,” said the rabbi, “if the Holy Blessed One can’t share a room with an arrogant person, then how could I? We read in the Torah, on the other hand, that the Divine “…dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanliness.” (Lev. 16:16) And if Hashem takes lodgings there, why shouldn’t I?”
The Divine can’t dwell with the arrogant person, because his spirituality has become spoiled. And what is the “preservative” that kept the other fellow from being arrogant?
An amazing, radical teaching: Yes, sin is sin. It’s not good, just like a preservative is not in itself healthy. And yet, it can prevent rottenness of spirit, by helping to conquer arrogance.
After all, what is arrogance really? It’s not just thinking good of oneself; it’s about entitled expectation.
Spiritual practice, on the deepest level, is about dropping all expectation.
When we’re successful in that, there can be an experience of freedom, of space, of sacredness. And in that experience, there can be a very subtle form of expectation that creeps in without our even knowing it; this is spiritual arrogance, the expectation perhaps that others should see us as special, and even more importantly, that we are somehow entitled to the spiritual bliss lasting forever. But if we reflect on our own imperfections, bringing to mind that we have made many errors and aren’t entitled to anything in particular, then we can paradoxically remain connected to the root, even when our branches falter.
וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת
Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people who were with him… into two camps.
This was Jacob’s quality that won him the name Yisrael. He is very insecure about his brother who wants to kill him, so he “divides the people” – meaning, part of him wants to simply trust the Divine protection that was promised to him, but part of him isn’t sure. His insecurity is actually the deepest nature of existence: all things, all beings, are completely insecure. Nothing is guaranteed. There may be a deep desire to trust, to believe that we have some kind of Divine protection, but this kind of trust is arrogance; if we’re honest, we must admit that insecurity is the Truth.
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of dawn.
These two sides of his being wrestled, until the “arising of the dawn” – until illumination occurred. He had done everything he could – he sent many gifts to his brother, he split up his camp, he prayed for safety – now it was time to surrender, and in that surrender, to conquer.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
He said, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Yisrael, for sarita im Elohim –you have conquered with (your) Divine (nature) and (your) human (nature), and you are able!”
Through his human nature, through his profound insecurity, he reached the true kind of trust – not trust in a particular outcome, but trust in Reality Itself, trust that this moment is as it is, and will be as it will be. Thus, through his human nature, he reached his Divine nature.
And this is our opportunity as well – to do everything we can to secure the outcome we want – pray, send gifts, work hard, all of it. But at the same time, be free. Embrace and relax into the insecurity, into the unknown, and into the true and actual security that isn’t about what we want; it’s about connecting with the truth of this moment, beautiful and fragile and tragic and miraculous. And in doing so, we can truly be one, and reunite with anything disowned or denied from our past:
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו כתיב צוארו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹ֑הֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ
And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…
Good Shabbos and Happy Thanksgiving!
Send! Parshat Vayishlakh
12/15/2016 1 Comment
“Vayishlakh Ya'akov malakhim lifanav el eisav-
And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau…”
This week’s reading begins with Ya’akov, with Jacob, sending angels ahead of him to appease his brother Eisav who had been intent on killing Ya’akov.
So who are Ya’akov and Eisav?
They’re twin brothers, but they were also opposite archetypes. Eisav was a hunter, a man of the field. Ya’akov, on the other hand, “dwelled in tents” where, according to the tradition, he would study Torah.
Get it? Eisav represents the body, and Ya’akov the mind.
Eisav wants to kill Ya’akov because Ya’akov used his cunning intelligence first to convince Eisav to sell him his birthright, and later to trick their father Yitzhak into giving Eisav’s blessing of the first born to Ya’akov.
And isn’t this what the mind so often does?
The body has its needs- not very complicated or profound- it needs good food, fresh air, good rest, and so on. But our minds have other more sophisticated and ambitions and plans. And because of all the great things we want to accomplish and experience, we end up polluting our bodies, not getting enough rest and exercise, and pushing ourselves in ways that can make us sick- not to mention the damage we cause to other people and to the earth. Eventually, Eisav will rebel- the body rebels, the oppressed rebel, the earth rebels. And that’s when life can fall apart.
So what’s the solution?
It’s to realize, first of all, that there’s a much more profound dimension to your mind than your thoughts, ideas and ambitions; and that’s your sensitivity- your awareness, your Presence.
Just as Ya’akov sends the malakhim- the angels- to Eisav, so you can send your awareness into your body. That’s how you can give yourself love, because awareness is the carrier wave for love; it’s the whole basis for love. After all, before you do anything loving for anyone, you first have to be present with them, you have to pay attention to them. Sometimes, attentiveness is all that’s needed. And, it’s the same for your own body.
So what does Eisav do when they finally meet? Eisav weeps and kisses Ya’akov.
In the same way, when you bring your mind out of its imaginary worlds of ambition and projection and down into your physical body, then with practice, your body will reflect back to you that quality of love and attention as a feeling of blissful openness, showing you the true nature of your own Being.
So on this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we send our loving attention deeply into our own bodies, and may our appreciation of the body lead us to eradicate all the needless human oppression on this planet. May we also love and protect this earth which is our physical home. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may this loving attention- this Power of Presence- ever increase like the lights of the menorah.
DON'T Let it Go! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Abba, do you want to wrestle?” asked my four-year-old daughter hopefully-
“Sure,” I said, “How do we start?”
“First, you go on that side of the bed, and I go on this side of the bed. We have to make mean faces and put our fists in the air. Then, we fall forward face down… and then… we wrestle!”
When I was in seventh grade, I was on the wrestling team, but we never started a wrestling match quite like that. Hilarious. But that’s what we did: We made our mean wrestling faces, put our fists in the air, fell onto the bed, and then… we wrestled!
Wrestling with a little four-year-old girl is not exactly fair. She thinks we’re wrestling, but I'm calling the shots. I pretend to struggle, then I fall over and say, “Oh no, she’s getting me! She’s getting me!”- but really, it's an illusion.
Kind of like when we wrestle with Reality. We can groan and moan, complain and blame, and somehow the mind thinks that all this drama will get us somewhere... but of course, it's an illusion too. We can do a lot to change our situation for the future, but we can never do anything to change what has already become.
And yet, in the case of wrestling with my daughter, just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The real value is not in the struggle itself, but the blessing of connection that comes from the struggle.
In this week’s reading, Jacob demands that a blessing comes from his struggle.
Jacob is once again in a dark place. He has received word that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men, and he fears for his life:
“Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people, flocks, cattle and camels into two camps…” (Gen. 32:8)
If Esau attacks half of his camp, at least the other half will survive. He then sends tributes ahead to appease his brother and prays for his life.
Night falls. After sending his family across the river, a strange thing happens-
“He spent the night there… Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn…”
The “night” is his not knowing- his anxiety about the danger that might befall him. So, he “wrestles” with his situation- meaning, he resists the truth of his predicament. Of course, it’s not a fair fight- the “wrestling” is an illusion. You can’t fight with Reality.
But eventually, the “man” says to Jacob,
“Let me go, for the dawn has broken!”
In every experience of fear, anger, frustration or loss, there comes a time to “let it go”. To “let it go” means you stop telling yourself stories about it, that you stop torturing yourself with it.
But- is there a value in not letting it go?
Jacob thinks so:
“I will not let you go until you bless me!”
Jacob knows that the real value is not in the struggle itself, but in the blessing that comes from the struggle. The mysterious man concedes and says:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (Sarita) with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.”
Jacob insists on a blessing, so his opponent gives him the title of one who has mastered his situation.
It’s true- Jacob has done everything he could do with both God and man to take responsibility: He’s split his camp to ensure the survival of at least half of them. He’s sent many gifts to appease his brother. He’s prayed to God for safety and protection.
And now, after an all night struggle with his anxiety and fear, the dawn is breaking. He’s done his best- he has become Yisrael- and now he’s ready to let go, surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
But something is missing. He is not satisfied with the mere title of Yisrael, there’s something he still needs to learn- so he asks a question:
“Vayishal Ya’akov- Jacob asked- ‘Tell me please your name!’”
The word for “asked” is “yishal”- the same letters as his new name, “Yisrael,” except that it’s missing a letter Reish.
The letter Reish means “head”. It implies authority, as in the “head of a school” or the “head of a company” and so on.
As Yisrael, Jacob has used his head wisely- he’s thought through his situation and acted as the responsible “head” of his family. But in asking a question, Yisrael becomes Yishal- he loses the Reish,as if to say, “my head is incomplete- there’s something I don’t yet know.”
What is it that he doesn’t know?
He doesn’t know the identity of the “man” that he’s wrestling with. In other words, even though he might be ready to give up his struggle, he doesn’t yet understand the nature of his struggle.
Jacob’s opponent answers him with yet another question:
“Why do you ask me my name?”
His opponent puts a question back onto Jacob: What’s your motivation in asking?
When we experience the inner pain of resistance, there comes a time when we accept and let go. Little children do this all the time- they’re great a letting go. But that doesn’t help them stay out of trouble in the future. The next moment, they’re upset about something else. There’s no self reflection- no sense of how they create their own suffering.
But if you take the time to really look at your own motivation- ask yourself, “How am I creating my experience?” then there’s the possibility for growth, for actually responding to life with a new wisdom. That kind of wisdom can only be won through the real struggles of your life.
But the struggle itself doesn’t automatically give it to you. You have to hold on to it a little longer and deeply inquire into yourself, before the “dawn” makes you forget all about it. The wisdom you get from that self-inquiry is the true blessing.
When you experience the blessing that only comes through suffering, the suffering takes on a whole new dimension. It’s no longer your enemy. Behind your troubles and problems, there is the Divine Friend, urging you to grow, to evolve.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist says to God: “I am a stranger on the earth- hide not your commandments from me!”
On this verse, the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, taught:
“When a person is driven into exile and comes to a strange and alien land, he has nothing in common with the people there and not a soul he can talk to.
But, if a second stranger appears, even though the new stranger comes from a totally different place, the two can confide in one another, and come to cherish one another. And had they not both been strangers, they never would have known such close companionship.
And that’s what the psalmist means: ‘You, just like me, are a stranger on this earth, for Your Divinity is hidden by my pain and suffering. So please, do not withdraw from me, but reveal to me your ‘commandments’- reveal to me the wisdom that can only be learned through this suffering- and let us be friends…’”
On this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Shabbat of Sending, may our personal pain and all the troubles of the world be sent far away. But before it goes, may we extract the Light that can only come from the darkness- the self-knowledge we need to evolve. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may that Light ever increase as the lights of the menorah, helping our whole species to evolve. May we dedicate ourselves ever more completely to the revelation of this Light!
Send Yourself Home- Parshat Vayishlakh
12/4/2014 2 Comments
Where have you been?
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayishlakh, opens: “Vayishlakh Yaakov malakhim lefanav el Eisav akhiv- Jacob sent angels before him to his brother Esau…”
Jacob had been away from Esau for twenty years. After Jacob had tricked their father Isaac and stolen Esau’s blessing and birthright, he fled for his life from his brother. Now, as he prepares to return to Esau, he sends angels to deliver gifts and bring back information.
Esau is an ish sadeh- a man of the field- a hunter and trapper. In other words, Esau represents the physical. Jacob is a yoshev ohalim- one who “dwells tents”. According to tradition, this was the tent of learning, of the mind. Esau and Jacob, then, represent the spectrum of human existence- from the physicality of our bodies to the inner worlds of mind and thought.
Our bodies generally serve our minds, to our detriment. If our minds served our bodies, would we poison ourselves with toxic foods and stress? It is easy to take the body for granted, to make it serve our intentions, as if the mind is the adult and the body is the child. The truth, however, is that the body is older; the body is the “first born”. Only later did the mind develop. And yet, the body is often ignored, except to gratify it. We tend to live in the mind, in the world of time, not in the real world of the body that lives in the eternal present. Our minds have “stolen the birthright” of our bodies.
Like Jacob, we flee the present world of the body into the mind in order to manipulate and control, just as Jacob used his mind to outsmart the trickster Laban. But at some point, we must return home to our bodies or we become stuck in the world of lies, the world of the mind with its calculations and projections. We must return to the eternal present, to the world of truth, to the physical. The irony is that in returning to the physical, we discover the spiritual, for that which is aware of the physical is itself spiritual. But if we stay preoccupied with the mental, awareness becomes stuck in the world of thought and separation.
So what is the solution?
Like Jacob- send the angels of your awareness all the way down into your body. Let your body feel the sun, the air, the rain, the whole natural world. Pour your awareness all the way down to your feet. Take off your shoes, let your heels touch the earth. In fact, Jacob’s name means “heel”. As long as Jacob is stuck in the mind, he is paradoxically a “heel”- a manipulator. But as he prepares to meet and honor the physical, wrestling on the dark earth with his mysterious foe, he receives the name Yisrael- meaning one who “strives for" or "wrestles with the Divine”. His name is not changed; he is still Jacob, but now he is also Israel. Rather than being a "heel" in the negative sense, he becomes like the bodily heel- supporting the higher structures of the mind through full connection with the earth and the present.
G-d is ever-present, but are you present? Send the “present” of your awareness into your body, and receive what your body has to tell you. In this unity of presence with form, of awareness with the body, the Divine reveals Itself: The basic and simple Oneness of Being, manifesting in the gorgeous and awesome miracle of this moment…
There’s a funny thing with the newer cars nowadays. Since I travel a lot, I’ve had the experience of renting fairly new cars, and they all seem to have the strange and irritating characteristic of the radio coming on automatically as soon as you turn the car on. It seems to matter not whether the radio was on or off when the car was turned off; when you turn the car on, the radio comes on blasting. Why would a car be designed that way? Are people that uncomfortable with silence that the default should be noisiness?
Recently I was in such a car with my son. We laughed and yelled at the car every time it happened. But after a while, my son became adept at slapping the button to turn it off instantaneously, as soon as the very first sound wave emitted from the speakers. And thus, the irritating car radio design became the impetus for developing a new level of awareness…
The mind is not so different.
As soon as we wake up in the morning, the “radio” of the mind starts playing things at us. Do we simply get drawn into whatever the mind gives us? Or do we develop the attentiveness to slap the button and turn it off? Or at least change the “station” to the one we choose? Although, with the mind, it’s not like we have buttons we can push. How can we silence the mind or tune in to the station we want?
A disciple came to Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn and said, “Whenever I listen to you teach, a state of deveikus (oneness with the Divine) comes over me. A warm light permeates my whole being and I feel connected to the Divine Presence in all things. But when I go back to ordinary activities, all kinds of thoughts come into my mind and I feel disconnected once again. How can I clear my mind and tune in to the light?”
The Rabbi of Rizhyn answered: “This is like a person who stumbles through the forest in the darkness. Then someone comes along with a lamp, and as they walk together, they are able to see the path. But, when the one with the lamp leaves, again the person is plunged into darkness and can’t tell which way to go. The trick is, you must carry your own lamp!”
The lamp, of course, is a metaphor for awareness. If we want to turn off our thoughts, we can’t simply push a button; we have to be purposefully aware of our thoughts, which means, paradoxically, allowing the thoughts to be there.
Imagine you turn on your car and the radio starts blaring at you, but instead of hitting the button to turn it off, you listen intently to every little sound you’re hearing. And as you listen, the radio becomes softer and softer… until all that’s left is the listening, and the sound of the radio disappears completely.
That’s what it’s like with silencing our mind, because our thoughts and our awareness are coming from the same mind. Put your energy into being present rather than thinking, and the thoughts disappear on their own. It’s like turning over an hourglass – the sand is in one side, and when you turn it over, it simply flows to the other side. Similarly, when our consciousness is taking the form of thinking, if you simply be aware of your thoughts then your consciousness will begin flowing from the “thought side” to the “Presence side.”
A teacher can help you do this. When good teachings come to us externally, it’s not difficult to “tune in” to the “station” that the teacher is “broadcasting.” This is like the person who walks with another who carries a lamp.
Receiving this way from a teacher is a good and helpful thing, but it should ultimately lead to an awareness of one’s own inner light rather than make one dependent upon the light of the teacher. Only our own light isn’t something external to us, like carrying a lamp. In fact, it isn’t even something we “have” at all; it is what we already are.
And yet, it’s easy to be so seduced by our experiences on the levels of thought, feeling, and sensory perception that we can forget the luminescent field of consciousness within which all experience is arising. Our lamp is already shining, but it’s as if it is covered by a dark cloth that conceals its light. We need to take off the covering and reveal the light, so that it can illuminate whatever experience we’re having, and shine even into the darkest moments. This begins to happen as soon as we become conscious of whatever is present in this moment, accepting this moment as it appears, and knowing that we are the consciousness of this moment. Just that little shift – awareness becoming aware of awareness and being simply present – allows that luminescence to be revealed. And that luminescence is not something separate from the Divine; it is the consciousness of Existence Itself, becoming aware through you, right now. This is the deepest dimension of who we are, beyond the personal, beyond our personhood.
This is not to denigrate the personal dimension; our personhood is precious, fragile, flawed, growing, learning, transforming. But all of our personal qualities are possible only because of the impersonal field within which the personal dimension arises; they are inseparable.
In our sacred stories and in our tefilah (prayer), we often imagine the Divine as personal; we give Existence a personality, so that we can relate to It in a personal way. This is the great feat of devotional path: it allows us to personally approach the absolutely most impersonal thing imaginable – Existence Itself. As long as we engage in the personalization of the Completely Impersonal in order to open our hearts in gratitude, awe and surrender to the Mystery (rather than engage in blame, victimhood, entitlement and arrogance toward the “God” that didn’t give us what we want), the devotional path is uniquely precious: it elevates the personal to its highest potential and allows us to see Being Itself as our Father, our Mother, our Lover, our Friend, our Master. This paradox of a personal relationship with the Impersonal is expressed in the haftora:
כִּ֣י אֵ֤ל אָֽנֹכִי֙ וְלֹא־אִ֔ישׁ בְּקִרְבְּךָ֣ קָד֔וֹשׁ
For I am the Divine, not a “person” – I am the Holiness within you!
It is ironic – God is talking like a person, telling us that He is not a person! But “He” can do this because “He” is really b’kirb’kha kadosh – the Holiness within you. Meaning, God is the consciousness beneath our personhood, our deepest self. This is hinted in the first part of the phrase: El Anokhi – I am the Divine. Meaning, the “I” – the awareness beneath the person – is the Divine.
And yet, this Divine “I” at the root of our being is not somehow trapped inside our bodies; it is not “within” as opposed to “without.” It is neither external not internal, because everything we perceive on all levels is perceived within Its light. That’s why the “lamp” is an apt metaphor; the lamp shines its light outward into the forest, just as the light of consciousness shines through all experience, revealing all things to be different forms of the One Thing. This is hinted in Jacob’s dream of the ladder between heaven and earth, when the Divine speaks to him:
וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
And behold, the Divine stood over him and said, “I am All-Existence, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac, the land upon which you are lying; to you I will give it and to your descendants…”
This is usually translated to mean:
I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, and I will give the land to your descendants…
But here I am translating it:
I am the God of Abraham, and I am the God of Isaac, and I am the land upon which you are lying; to you I will give it…
Seen in this way, God is standing over Isaac, showing him that the Divine is above him. But God is telling Isaac that the Divine is the earth below him! In other words, the totality of experience: above, below, and b’kirb’kha kadosh – the Holiness within you.
הוּא הָאֱלהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוד
It is the Divine in the heavens above and upon the earth below, there is nothing else…
Uncover the lamp within – know the light of consciousness that you are. And in that light, see the Divine shining from all things and all beings, especially the person who is before you. And know that when you offer kindness and Presence to that person standing before you, you make an offering to the Divine, and you help reveal the Divine light in that person as well…
More on Pasrshat Vayeitzei...
The Way Up is The Way Down – Parshat Vayeitzei
11/14/2018 0 Comments
Imagine you lived in a place where the sky was constantly overcast, so that the sun was hardly ever visible. From your point of view, it would look like the dim light of the overcast sky was coming from the clouds themselves. If you were a small child and had never heard of the sun, that’s what you would probably assume.
Now, imagine you are that child – you have no knowledge of the sun, and your parents take you for a trip on an airplane. As the plane gets higher and higher, you look out the window, and you see nothing but cloud all around. Soon after, the plane bursts through the cloud cover and you see the blazing sun and the blue sky for the first time. Imagine what a revelation that would be!
That’s what spiritual awakening is like.
For most of us, the sky has been covered with clouds our whole lives. Meaning, our minds are constantly moving with the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings. Without ever questioning, we assume that our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings are identical. Because of this, we also don’t tend to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings we have about reality, and actual Reality. All we know are the clouds; we experience the present moment through the lens of our stories, through our sense of past and future.
How to awaken from the seductive dream of our minds and hearts and come to the truth of this moment?
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜ום וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ
He encountered The Place and spent the night there, for the sun had set…
In this week’s reading, Jacob is running from his murderous brother. The sun had set – meaning, he was in a state of inner darkness. He was running and running, until he “encounters The Place” – he sets stones for his head and lays down on the earth. In other words, he connects with the physicality of his present experience.
Then, after a dream in which the Divine appears to him and he sees a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven with angels going up and down, it says:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתֹו֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
Jacob awakened from his sleep and said, “Surely the Divine is in this Place and I didn’t even know it!”
The Divine is not something separate from the truth of this moment – it is the radiant sun of consciousness, ever-present as the perceiving Presence that you are.
But, there are clouds!
The way to “rise of above the clouds,” so to speak, is paradoxically to connect with the earth. That’s because when we become conscious of our physical sensations, the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings can clear up naturally, revealing the radiant awareness beneath them. This is expressed in the next verse:
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this Place – it is none but the House of the Divine, and this is the gate of heaven!”
In fact, the word for “The Place” is HaMakom, which is Itself a Divine Name.
So, if you want to rise above the dark clouds of this world, the way up is actually the way down. Come down from your mind, into your body and into connection with the earth, to HaMakom, because This, Here-Now, is the gateway of heaven…
Be Still- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/24/2017 2 Comments
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob running away from his brother Esau, who wants to murder him. It says,
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran, and he encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange phrase- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God HaMakom, The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where the Divine can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. In other words, between the past and the future. So, where is this special Place between your past and your future in which we can encounter the Divine? That Place, of course, is always where we already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. So, past and future are important, but when they become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment. And when that feeling of being disconnected dominates your life, and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. His origin and his goal became so heavy, that for an instant he was able to pop out of the story and see the moment.
So, before Jacob encounters the Present, he’s just running. But now that Jacob is beginning to despair, he is letting go of his story in time; he is giving up hope. And in this “giving up,” he begins to notice the place he is in. He brings his mind all the way down to the stones, and becomes still.
So on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we go out from our automatic and unconscious responses to things, may we become still and connect with the Presence of this moment, so that we may say, “Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!” Good Shabbos!
Go Out! Parshat Vayeitzei
12/8/2016 1 Comment
"Vayeitzei Ya'akov- And Ya'akov went out from Be'er Sheva..."
Our reading begins with Jacob fleeing for his life from his brother’s rage.
"Vayifga bamakom- He encountered the Place..."
This word for "The Place"- HaMakom- is unusual because it’s also one of the Names of God.
So why is God called The Place?
Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder set toward the earth, with its top reaching toward the heavens. There are angels going up and down the ladder. Suddenly he has a vision of the Divine and receives a special message of hope and protection.
When he wakes up, he says,
“Akhein, yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
"Surely the Divine is in this Place, and I didn’t even know it!"
The word for knowing- Da’at or Da’as- isn’t the same as the English word for knowing, which implies an intellectual understanding. The Hebrew word is the same word used in the Garden of Eden story-
“V’ha’adam yadata et Khava- and Adam knew Eve...”
This the knowing of intimacy and connection, not the mind and thinking.
So the hint here is that if you want to really "see" the Divine in this Place- the Makom that you’re in right now- then you have to really connect with it fully and consciously. Know- Da- that there is only one experience happening right now, that everything within your experience in this moment is arising within the open space that is your awareness.
If let your awareness open and connect deeply with the fullness of what’s happening, then you’ll know for yourself-
“Akhein- Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh!"
The Divine is not just in this space, the Divine is this space. And all aspects of your experience- your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions- are all one with the space that you are:
The open space of awareness within which this moment arises.
But to know that, to be intimate with the space of this moment, you have to go out- Vayeitzei- from those limited forms of consciousness- the thoughts and feelings we often think of as “me”- and into the vast open space of Presence.
So my friends, on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from ego to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. And, let’s go out to greet the Timeless One as the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Presence of Shabbat.
Good Shabbos good Shabbos!!!
The Flight- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/19/2015 11 Comments
This past Monday I boarded the plane for Costa Rica to join my wife and children on our six-month excursion to Central America.
The trouble started the moment I tried to check in.
Due to a new baggage restriction that went into effect that very day, the woman at the ticket counter told me I was only allowed to check two bags. I had three.
After a scramble to repack everything right then and there, another woman came over and started whispering something to the first woman. The new woman nervously informed me that I also wasn’t allowed my two carry-on bags. I could only have one carry-on, plus a small item such as a purse or tiny backpack.
Repack again. Text my friend who dropped me off, run out to curb with a bunch of stuff I expelled from my suitcases, dump it in the trunk. Finish checking bags, get to gate just in time to board. Not in a good mood.
Sitting between two people. One continuously rubs his arm against mine for hours as he types at his tablet device. A thought occurs to me- what if they lose my luggage? Airlines have misplaced my suitcases on multiple occasions, and once, a suitcase of mine was even lost for good. And I don't even like hot humid weather!
Suddenly, as these thoughts are occurring to me, the plane starts lurching violently. The captain asks the flight attendants to have a seat. It feels like the plane keeps hitting huge potholes in the sky. The guy next to me gasps as his tablet device literally flies up into the air. I feel myself thrown upward as well, but I’m held in place by the seatbelt.
After a few minutes of this, another thought occurs to me- I didn’t have time to finish davening that morning! Without hesitation I reach for my siddur and start the morning prayers:
Barukh she’amar v’ahyah ha’olam-
Blessed is the One who speaks the universe into being…
Now I tell you the truth- the turbulence stopped immediately within seconds after I started davening. Did the davening cause the turbulence to stop? Was this testimony to the power of prayer?
The mind loves this kind of question.
Some minds will jump in- “See, the power of prayer at work!” Others will be skeptical- “The turbulence would have stopped anyway, but because you started praying at that time, your mind makes a correlation where there was none…”
That’s the dualistic mind- it’s one or the other.
But there is a third way-
And that’s to see that all events are part of a single Reality, and that This One Reality is what we call God. God is the turbulence, God is the prayer, and God is the ending of the turbulence. It’s not three things- it’s not me stopping the turbulence with prayers; there’s only one continuous event, one Reality- God’s unfolding in time.
Seen that way, the prayers could even be taken right out of the equation. There was turbulence. It stopped. Is that not miracle enough?
I was thrown out of my seat. That reminded me to pray. Is that not miracle enough?
I’ll tell you this:
In the moment that the turbulence subsided as I chanted the prayers, that moment was all there was. The luggage tzures no longer mattered. What had happened at the ticket counter was in the past, and whatever was going to happen later at the San Jose airport was in the future. Only that moment was real.
In this week’s reading, Jacob has a similar experience:
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran. He encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange sentence- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where God can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. Between the past and the future, he encountered God.
Where is this special Place between your past and your future that you encounter God?
That Place, of course, is always where you already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. Past and future are important.
But when past and future become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment.
When disconnectedness dominates one’s life (God forbid), and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. He was running from his brother Esau whom he had tricked and cheated, and now Esau was trying to kill him. Jacob is in a dark place:
“Vayalen sham ki va hashemesh-
And he spent the night there because the sun had set”.
The setting of the sun is a symbol of his inner darkness- Jacob is in despair over his situation.
So what does he do?
“He took from the stones of The Place and put them for his head…”
What are the qualities of stones? They are dense. They are heavy. They don’t blow around, but are still.
A person’s head, on the other hand, is the place where thought happens. Thought is perhaps the least physical thing in our experience. Rather than being still, it constantly bubbles this way and that.
So bringing “stones” to his “head” hints at a radical shift in consciousness. He is bringing his mind all the way down to the stones and becoming still.
And then something startling happens:
“And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, and behold! Angels of God ascended and descended upon it.”
What's the meaning of this vision?
There's a tradition that everything has an angel, or spiritual force, causing it. According to this idea, everything we experience is determined in the “spiritual” realm, and we really have nothing to do with it.
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). In other words, everything that happens is predetermined, except our relationship to it. Other than that, we have no real power. Seen from this point of view, the angels descending the ladder would be the determining forces for what goes on in our world.
However, there’s another opposing idea that every deed a person does actually creates an angel. Do good, create good angels. Do bad, create bad angels. These created angels then go around producing good or bad effects in the world.
So in this view, what happens is not determined by the angels, but by the human beings creating the angels. In other words, everything is in our hands. This view is represented by the angles ascendingthe ladder.
But in Jacob’s vision, there are angels going up the ladder and down the ladder; he sees the paradox of both realities at once. Everything is determined by forces which are created by our actions, yet our actions are themselves determined by forces, which are themselves created by our actions, and so on ad infinitum.
So what's the meaning here?
The answer is in HaMakom- this place we have now come to.
Because in order to access the Divinity of this moment, you have to surrender your preoccupation with the way things “come out”- you have to give up control.
This is the meaning of the angels coming down- everything is in the “hands of heaven”.
At the same time, this supreme surrender actually frees you from your automatic responses to things. You are no longer a victim of your own preferences; you have choice. So next time you get annoyed with a loved one and you feel yourself going into your same old response, stop. Surrender. Access the power of transformation- the power that allows you to choose how to be.
This is the meaning of the angels going up- your choice to be in "awe of heaven"!
Then you will realize like Jacob did:
“Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!”
There is a mishna that sums it up well:
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no choice, so surrender your attempt to control anything.
But, in that surrender, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
Jacob’s newfound freedom is expressed a few verses later:
“Jacob lifted his feet and went…”
It is as if he is now flying, his feet in the air...
At the end of my flight, I had ample opportunity to practice surrender once again, when my two suitcases never arrived at baggage claim.
It took the airline three more days to locate them in Mexico, send them to Costa Rica and deliver them to The Place we’re now staying. And while this particular practice of surrender was powerful for me and apparently necessary, I am happy to be reunited with my sandals and my coffee paraphernalia (along with my beautiful wife and children). Barukh Hashem!
On this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from our stories in time to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. Let’s greet the Timeless One- the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Hei Ha'olamim- Life of the Worlds, uniting Her with Her Source through our own inner return to the Ayin- the Nothing from which everything springs- on this Holy Shabbos Kodesh.
Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,
"Touch the Earth"- Parshat Vayeitzei
11/25/2014 6 Comments
Right now, as you read these words, how are you relating to this moment? Do you feel it to be a passage in time, a means to travel from your past toward your future? Do you feel that this moment is merely a stepping-stone from one moment to the next?
Or, instead, do you encounter this moment in and of itself? In other words- are you present, or are you hurrying through the present?
This parshah begins with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau and heading to Haran where he will get married and begin a family. The drama of the story portrays this scene purely as a transitional moment. And yet, at this time of hurrying from one place to another, from one stage of life to another, something remarkable happens: “Vayifga BaMakom- He encountered the place” (Gen. 28:11).
What does that mean?
The word for “encounter” (peh-gimel-ayin) means to “meet” or to “happen upon”, but it can also mean to “hit”, as in “hitting the bulls eye”. In other words, this seemingly insignificant moment becomes the “target”. Jacob has an encounter.
What does he encounter? He encounters the “place”. Not a particular thing or being, but the space in which things and beings appear. The word for “the place”- HaMakom- is also a Divine Name. So, when Jacob shifts his attention toward the space within which this moment unfolds, he encounters the Divine. Meaning, he encounters the Reality of the Space Itself, rather than his mental idea of the space as merely a temporal hallway between memory and anticipation.
How does he do it? He places stones around his head and lies down in the “place”. He brings that which is most ethereal and formless- mind and thought- to the most concrete and solid- stones of the earth. This practice of focusing on something physical brings the mind out of its constant stream of thinking, out of its ideas about what is going on, and into connection with what is really going on, right now. Awareness becomes presence by touching forms that are actually present.
Jacob then dreams of a ladder set on the earth, reaching toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it- “Jacob’s Ladder”. Hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin taught on this verse that the ladder itself is an instruction in presence. It teaches that when one’s feet are firmly rooted in the earth, one’s head can reach the heavens. Being “rooted in the earth” means that awareness is connected with the physical world, as it is. The “head reaching the heavens” means that, paradoxically, when awareness is totally connected to the physical, you can become aware of that which is aware; awareness becomes aware of awareness. As long as awareness is wrapped up in thinking, it dreams that it is the thinking. It dreams up the “me” that is defined by thinking. But when thinking subsides, there can be this realization: I am not this thought-based self. I am just this boundless, free, radiant awareness. The head has reached the heavens!
Jacob then awakens and exclaims: “Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh- The Divine is in this place- v’anokhi lo yadati- and I didn’t even know it!”
Here, the Torah gives us an excellent description of what “awakening” is all about- it gives us a "Torah of Awakening". In the dream state, the mind-generated self imagines the Divine to be elsewhere. It is something to be reached, achieved, hoped for, given up on, disillusioned about. But even within the dream there are clues. Just as Jacob understood the message of the ladder, so it is with everything in our lives: If we look carefully, it is possible to see: That which we seek is That which is Present. But to see this requires becoming present. The present is whole, complete, Divine. To be present is to not be separate from that wholeness.
Then, as you journey in the world of time, you can stay connected to that wholeness. You can draw from the wellspring of renewal, even as you do your work in the world, as it says a few verses later- “vayar v’hinei v’er basadeh- he looked, and behold- a well in the field!”
To be sure, as Jacob’s ensuing twenty years of servitude to his uncle Lavan shows, life can still be replete with challenges. But when you are rooted in the earth and your head reaches the heavens, the challenges are different. There is a lightness- as it says when Jacob leaves the “place” after his vision-“Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelekh- Jacob lifted his feet and went”- it is as if he is flying. Actually, the things and events in time are flying- endlessly coming and going, while the Place remains endlessly the same. What is that Place? It is always where you are and it is also ultimately what you are: Divine Presence, living as this one, ever-changing moment.
Take a moment to connect with the Place through connecting with the Earth- take off your shoes, touch the Earth, bow your head to the ground... enjoy!
A friend once brought me to a Baptist church to hear a wonderful preacher. He was amazing – this preacher was a master at moving the congregation. His words had such soulfulness and spontaneity, instigating a lively interplay between himself and the congregation, as people constantly responded to his words with “amen” and “preach it” and “u-huh.” Besides his preaching, the prayers were also largely spontaneous, springing from the hearts and mouths of those who prayed, with very little pre-scripted text.
I reflected how completely opposite this was to most Jewish services, in which prayer consists almost entirely of reading texts from a book, and “preaching” usually looks more like a scholarly lecture. And yet, the early Hassidim seem to have been more like a Yiddish version of the Baptists than today’s typical synagogue. There’s a teaching by Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn on the following verses that implies this was the case:
מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֒ ... בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃
Make for Me an altar of earth … in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.
וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.
(Exodus 20:21, 22)
Rabbi Yisrael expounded, “The altar of earth is the altar of silence, which is most precious to Hashem. But if you do make an altar of words, don’t hew and chisel them, for such artifice would be profanity.”
Rabbi Yisrael seems to be advocating a kind of spontaneous prayer from the heart, rather than the recitation of texts. But he also says something even more remarkable – that silence is the most precious form of service! From this teaching, you might think that if you walked into Reb Yisrael’s House of Prayer, you would see mostly of silent meditation, interrupted only occasionally by spontaneous outbursts of improvised prayer.
But in another teaching of the Rabbi of Rizhyn, he seems to say the exact opposite; he says that our supreme task is “to shape matter into form, to work on matter until the light penetrates the darkness, so that the darkness itself shines and there is no longer any division between the two. As is says, וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד – It was evening and it was morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)
The meaning here is a little mysterious, but to “shape matter into form” sounds like we’re back to “hewing the stones” – meaning working on ourselves, cultivating our words and behaviors, as opposed to being spontaneous.
These two descriptions of spiritual practice, silence and spontaneity on one hand, and cultivated, prescribed words and behaviors on the other, are really two aspects of one process. We can understand this process through the metaphor of digging a well:
…וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up…
In Parshat Toldot, Isaac spends most of his time digging wells, during which he encounters many obstacles. First, he has to re-dig the wells of his father Abraham which were stopped up by the Philistines. Then, as he digs new wells, he is challenged by the herdsman of Gerar who claim that the wells belong to them. He keeps moving and digging more and more new wells, and the herdsman keep bothering him. Finally, he digs a well far enough away so that they leave him alone. He calls this well רְחֹב֔וֹת – r’khovot, which comes from a Hebrew root that means “wide” or “expansive,” because now he finally has ample space.
Digging a well is a wonderful metaphor for spiritual practice for a few reasons. For one, when you begin digging, you don’t see water right away; you have to first get through a lot of earth before you reach the water. This experience of having to continue digging, even though you have no immediate experience of the water, takes some faith and discipline; it takes a willingness to persevere even when the outcome is uncertain.
Similarly, when one begins a spiritual practice, there is usually not enough immediate experience of the benefit to keep you motivated. There should be at least some experience of benefit, but it’s usually not enough to keep you going; you still need plenty of faith and discipline, just as in digging a well.
But, at some point, you hit water.
There is a point in spiritual practice when the “waters” gush forth from within. At that point, there is no need for any faith or discipline at all, because the experience of the “water” is enough to sustain your practice.
What is the water?
Just as there is physical thirst for water, so too there is a psychospiritual thirst for Wholeness, for Completeness. That thirst is behind all our ego-based motivations: our desire to be heard, to be validated, to have status, wealth, love, identity – in short, to arrive. Like physical thirst, our spiritual thirst is only temporarily quenched through achieving things and experiences; every gratification leads back to more thirst, because it’s the nature of ego to be thirsty.
But, our awareness beneath the ordinary, ego-based personality already has that quality of Completeness, only it is hidden by the “dirt” of the ego; we have to spend some time digging before the “waters” our own deepest being become visible to us. And, even when we do find the “water,” there are many inner and outer distractions that can still interfere with our being able to consistently access it. That’s why Isaac has to dig so many wells before his final one. He calls that final well רְחֹב֔וֹת – r’khovot, because when you establish a stable connection with your inner “waters,” life takes on a much more spacious, unbounded quality.
Another reason that digging a well is a wonderful metaphor for spiritual practice is that the two stages of first digging and only later reaching the water corresponds to the two aspects of practice mentioned in Rabbi Yisrael’s teachings earlier: working on and refining ourselves, on one hand, and silence and spontaneity, on the other.
In the “digging” phase, the discipline and commitment we need to persevere has the quality of work, of doing a job. That’s why Isaac, who in Kabbalah represents the quality of Gevurah, of strength and discipline, is the archetypal well-digger. At this stage, texts and rituals are helpful – they are the tools with which we dig. This is tefilah – traditional Jewish Prayer, in which we dig away the “dirt” by focusing our mind and heart on the chanting of pre-scripted words.
(In our practice, we also use tefilot, sacred Hebrew words and Divine Names to do this inner “digging,” such as the Atah Hu chant.)
But then, at some point, all that well digging pays off. And that’s why, after Isaac digs his final well and enjoys rest from his opponents, it says:
וַיֵּרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָה֙ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֔וּא
The Divine appeared to him that night…
The flow of water and the appearance of the Divine are really the same thing. In this next phase, when we reach the inner “water” of the Divine in an experiential way, our task is different; we need to relax and drink, we can’t remain fixated on the work of chanting words. This is the “altar of earth” and the “altar of un-hewn stones” – silence and spontaneous words from the heart:
וַיִּ֧בֶן שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה
He built an altar there and invoked the Name of the Divine…
In this phase, there is a shift from that sense of “me doing the practice” into a sense of the Divine unfolding everywhere, in everything, all arising in the Completeness which is the miracle of this moment, all arising within the consciousness that we are, and our actions and words take on this quality of stillness and gratitude; our bodies become like an “altar of the earth.”
But then, what does Isaac do next?
וַיֶּט־שָׁ֖ם אָהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּכְרוּ־שָׁ֥ם עַבְדֵי־יִצְחָ֖ק בְּאֵֽר
He pitched his tent there and the servants of Isaac dug another well…
This two-part process is not linear, but circular; once we reach the waters of the Divine within and drink in the silence, we must also circle back and start digging again. This is how we access the blessing of a dedicated spiritual practice – through alternating between chanting and silence, between immersing in the Oneness of Being, and expressing that Oneness in ordinary life…
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ
In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you!
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Who Will You Elect? Parshat Toldot
11/8/2018 0 Comments
The political climate nowadays is polarized into two opposing and extremely passionate camps. The positive side of this is the high level of engagement. The turnout for the midterm elections of few days ago was greater than ever. With dramatic anticipation, the country watched the news coverage of the election results as they came in.
But there’s another election going on right now as well – can you watch it with the same enthusiasm? It is the race between two different versions of yourself.
Candidate Number One is from the Ego Party. For most of us, this candidate usually wins in landslide victories, over and over. And, rightly so. The Ego candidate has the most experience, with the advantage of being constructed over a lifetime, not to mention having the constant support of the Thinking Mind.
Candidate Number Two is from the Awareness Party. This candidate usually doesn’t win because people don’t even see her on the ballot. They can’t see her because she is the seeing itself; it may never occur to them that she is even running. Furthermore, even though Awareness is far more ancient than the Thinking Mind, she never really ages. She is always seeing this moment anew, so she seems young and naïve. She must, we tend to think, need the Ego and his Thinking Mind to run the show.
The basic approach of the Ego is struggle:
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
The children struggled within her, and she said, “If it be so, why am I like this?”
But there comes a time when a person is ready to give up the struggle. Have you reached this point? Do you want to go beyond Ego? Are you ready to inquire of Reality and find another way?
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
She went to inquire of the Divine…
If you’re ready, listen: a message vibrates from the Silence:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר
The Divine said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger.”
Two nations are in your womb – there are two of you – the Ego is not all there is!
Two peoples will separate from within you – be aware of the distinction between the ordinary me, the Ego, and the awareness behind and beyond the Ego…
And one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger – the Ego, the conditioned me, is old; it is based on experience from the past. But, there is a deeper I that never grows old; it is always fresh, alive and new, The Ego likes to be in charge, but it is destined to serve Awareness. Then, there will be a great Silence far more profound than any thought. That Silence is your nakhalah, your birthright, if you would but awaken to it.
How to awaken to It?
וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים
Esau was a man who knew hunting... but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
Give up your "hunting," give up your seeking for control. Come into the “tent” of your heart, into this moment as it is, and dwell here in simplicity…
Timeless- Parshat Toldot
11/17/2017 1 Comment
We’re looking at the very rich Parshat Toldot, the Parshah of Generations. It says, “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham – these are the generations or the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham – Avraham holid et Yitzhak – Abraham begot Isaac. So right away, we have a strange construction: it says that Isaac, or Yitzhak, is the son of Abraham, Avraham, then it says, Avraham begot Yitzhak. Well, obviously if Yitzhak is the son of Avraham, then of course Avraham begot Yitzhak. It seems redundant, right? So, we’ll come back to that question.
A little further down, it says that Yitzhak’s wife, Rivka, or Rebecca, became pregnant, and that “Vayitrotz’tzu habonim b’kirbah – the children were fighting inside her.” The children are the twins Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Now, in many commentaries of the past, Yaakov and Esav represent some form of duality. Sometimes Esav is the body and Yaakov is the soul, sometimes Esav is earthiness and Yaakov is scholarliness, but most of the time, these dualities are framed as some form of bad and good. And just as Esav and Yaakov are fighting within Rivka’s womb, so too there’s the idea of a battle going on in each one of us between the Yetzer HaTov, the drive toward good, and the Yetzer HaRa, the drive toward evil.
This concept, that within us there’s a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, a good urge and a bad urge, is a basic Jewish spiritual concept, but I want frame it a little differently.
Rather than the yetzer hara being the drive toward bad, I want to understand it as the drive toward dividing the world into good and bad. This is also pictured in another form at the beginning of the Torah, as the Eitz Daat Tov V’ra – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. So that’s the Yetzer Hara, dividing the world into good and bad. And then, rather than the yetzer hatov being the drive to do good, I want to understand it as the drive to see the goodness in everything. This, of course, is the Eitz Hayim – the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, because when you’re able to see the goodness in everything, which means the underlying goodness of Being Itself, not pretending that violence is really nice, or that sad is really happy, but just tapping into the underlying goodness of simply Being, then it’s really like eating from the Tree of Life. There’s a simple bliss and spaciousness of this moment.
When we understand it that way, then we can see that we always need both Esav and Yaakov; we need Esav, we need to differentiate between good and bad, between nourishing food and poison, between getting up with the alarm and sleeping late, and so on. That’s why Esav is the hunter- going out and taking what he needs from the world. But, if that’s all we’ve got, then we’re totally identified with the mind, with agendas and judgment, and the Tree of Life is hidden behind the fiery sword of thoughts and feelings. So we also need Yaakov; we need to simply open to this moment, to taste the bliss of Being, which is why we came into being in the first place. If life is just a tragic struggle leading nowhere, then what’s the point, right? The point is, there’s a Garden of Eden within; there’s a Tree of Life with fruit to taste right now, if you’re open. That’s why Yaakov eventually gets renamed Yisrael, Israel, and B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are characterized by freedom, by coming out of Egypt, out of slavery. Because in this moment, there is no agenda, there is no movement, there is no time. There is only the blessed space of Being within which everything is unfolding, and you are that blessed space.
So, on this Shabbat Toldot, the Sabbath of Generations, may we surrender ever more deeply into Reality as it unfolds in this moment, making Presence an ever new habit in this generation, and live from the open heart, responding to whatever is needed. Good Shabbos!!
The Mountains- Parshat Toldot
“The children struggled within her, and she said: ‘Why am I like this?’ So, she went to inquire of the Divine. Hashem said to her, “Two nations are within your womb… and the elder shall serve the younger…”
Here in Tucson, the Catalina mountains rise majestically in the north of the city. When we first moved here, I would look up and think, “I wonder if those mountains will ever seem normal and unimpressive?”
As lovers of travel know, when you visit a new place where you have no history or baggage, there’s a brightness to everything- even dirty things are bright, vivid, and rich.
But after you’ve been somewhere a while, the nervous system tends to clump everything together. You look at the tree you’ve seen a million times in your backyard, and instead of seeing the miracle of the tree, you see your laundry, the bills, the broken sink, the broken relationships. All your past experiences of a place seems to soak into every particular piece of that place. You become conditioned.
Conditioning is not in itself a bad thing; it’s how we learn. But it’s vital to remember that there is always an aspect of your experience that is unconditioned. You can see and feel that unconditioned aliveness in children- their wonder, their innocent excitement about things.
And of course, along with that exquisitely innocent and unconditioned consciousness comes... stupidity!
That’s why we, the old and the conditioned, need to protect them from themselves. The older must serve the younger.
“V’rav ya’avod tza’ir- And the older shall serve the younger...”
And that’s as it should be- the experience of the old and the conditioned must preserve and protect the fragile, the bright, the unconditioned.
But this truth applies not only in the external realm of protecting children, but also in the inner realms of consciousness. For there is a level within your own being that is still completely unconditioned. Like the child, it is bright, alive, and curious.
You may think, “But I am old- my conditioning is too heavy, my trauma is too great, my life has been too difficult, or too easy, or whatever… how can I get rid of all the oldness to discover my inner youthfulness? How can I reach the unconditioned?”
The Good News is: You don’t have to “reach” it, and you don’t have to get rid of your conditioning. That which sees all your conditioning, is itself Unconditioned.
Instead of saying, “I am old”- instead of saying, “my conditioning”- simply notice the feeling of oldness. Notice the impulse to think or judge things in a certain way. Notice the feeling that arises when you see the tree in your backyard.
The seeing itself- That is the Unconditioned.
If you practice staying in the seeing, in the noticing, without getting absorbed into the reaction, you will also begin to notice- there is an inner vastness that is untouched by the old thoughts and old feelings. That vastness is your Presence, your Awareness. You don’t need to find it, you are it- but you need to be with all that conditioning instead of being the conditioning. Then, you will see the mountain anew, every day.
There is a story that the disciples of Rabbi Elimelekh came to him and asked: “In the Torah we read that Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Show a wonder to you.’ How are we to understand this? He should have said, ‘Show a wonder to me.’”
Rabbi Elimelekh explained: “Magicians know what they want to accomplish and how to accomplish it. It is not a wonder for them, but only for their beholders. But for those who are merely a vessel for the miracle that God accomplishes through them, their own wonder arises from their deeds and overwhelms them. And that’s what Pharaoh meant: ‘Don’t show me your conditioned expertise! Show me the wonder that arises out of your Unconditioned innocence…’
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, may we open and see the miraculous eons of conditioning that are creating our experience right now. May we know that the seeing and the opening is Itself Unconditioned- Hadeish yameinu kikedem- may our days be fresh and new as they were at the beginning, before the story began. And as we enter the month of Kislev and of Hanukah, the Holiday of Dedication, may we dedicate ourselves ever more deeply to a path of ever increasing Light of Presence.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov!
Adam- Parshat Toldot
11/12/2015 12 Comments
This d'var is dedicated to Adam Schachter- Hanan Yitzhak ben Moshe v'Merka z"l.
d. 25 Heshvan, 5776
Last Saturday, Adam passed away from this world. Adam was my half-brother, the son of my father Michael and Adam’s mother Marlene. He lived in New York.
The life and character of a person is infinitely complex. But there is also something fundamental about how a person moves through life, about what moves them, what makes them get out of bed in the morning.
On this fundamental level, Adam was a deeply compassionate person and an enjoyer of life. He wasn’t a complainer or a worrier. He was also deeply insightful and spiritual. I enjoyed the deep conversations we had over the years. Toward the end, we spent some time meditating together on the phone and Skype.
At the funeral, I saw how many considered Adam to be their best friend. From what they said, he seemed to me to be their counselor, regularly helping them through difficult and confusing times in their lives.
He was twenty-nine when he died from brain cancer.
When someone so young suffers and dies like this, it defies any sense of fairness or justice in the world. And we know, many suffer and die unfairly every day, God forbid.
Awareness of all this needless suffering can chip away at you. There is an urge to harden, to shut down. It can feel like there is a war going on inside- a war between your natural and innocent connection with life, on one hand, and a contracted, angry rejection of it, on the other.
How could this happen??
In this week’s reading, Rebecca experiences an inner war as well. After Isaac prays for a child, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins who literally war inside her body. She cries out:
“Lama zeh anokhi-
Why am I like this?!”
At its core, spirituality is about radical acceptance, not about questioning why things are as they are.
But the truth is that questioning can be a great ally toward acceptance, if you go deep enough with your questioning. If you question into the nature of your own mind, into the nature of your own resistance, the questioning itself can become a path of surrender:
“Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem-
She went and inquired of the Divine...”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”?
The Divine is Nothing but Reality- so to “inquire of the Divine” means to look deeply into what you are experiencing, in this moment. If you are feeling negativity, ask yourself: What is this resistance within me? What is this urge to complain, to judge, or to control things?
The first-born twin, Esau, represents this urge. Esau is called an “Ish Yodea Tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. He is your urge to go out and “trap” the world, to make it conform to your will.
But the other twin, Jacob, is an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim- a simple man, abiding in tents”. He is your deeper urge to return to the “tent” of your heart- the open heart that accepts what is with simplicity.
Accordingly, the word “tam” means not only simplicity, but also “taste”. So to be tam means to not seek control, but rather to simply taste this moment as it is- to drink the nectar that flows from intimacy with this moment- even when this moment is filled with pain.
Understandably, many of us spend most of our lives in the “Esau” state, running around doing things, as if to run away from this life. Perhaps if we run around and stay busy enough, we won’t have to feel the pain.
But in the end, all that running and outward seeking leaves Esau drained:
“Esau came in from the field, exhausted”.
Eventually, Esau gives up his seeking and returns to drink from Jacob’s nectar:
“Pour into me please some of this very red stuff!” he says to Jacob.
The word for “red” is “Adom”- a slight variation on the name of my brother, Adam. “Adam” means “human”, because according to legend, the first human was created from the “Adamah”- the red earth.
This Adom is the nourishment we all need- the life blood that flows within the tent of the heart- the nourishment that my brother Adam was connected to, and helped his fellow humans connect to as well.
How do you connect to it?
In order for Esau to receive the nourishment he lacks, he has to surrender his “birthright”. That is, to fully enter the tent of the heart, you have to surrender your sense of entitlement, your sense that the world owes you something, that things should be a certain way.
That’s the way Adam was. In all of my experience of him, he never complained about his situation. He enjoyed life as he was able, and helped others to do so as well.
After all, the world is not “fair”- at least not according to ordinary understanding. All our running will not make it conform to our sense of what is right. In fact, all that does is reinforce a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy available within the tent of the heart.
But drink of this nectar and you will see- there is blessing everywhere, and bountiful opportunity to love, to spread the blessing. Drink of this nectar, but let the bitterness mix with the sweetness. This mixing produces Rakhamim- compassion for all the suffering of life. According to the Zohar, Rakhamim is the spiritual quality that Jacob embodies.
Then, from the place of Rakhamim, you can start running around again and getting things done. You can’t just stay in the tent forever.
In fact, Jacob is not complete until he gets outside his tent and starts working in the fields for old uncle Laban. Fearing that his brother Esau wants to murder him for taking his birthright and his blessing, he flees to his uncle Laban, where he works as a shepherd for fourteen years.
Only then, after years of being out in the field himself, is he able to finally make peace with his brother. Older and softened by years of suffering, Esau and Jacob reunite. They weep and kiss each other; true compassion is born.
This rhythm of alternating between the World of Doing and the World of Being is, of course, the wisdom of Shabbos, inviting us every week to enter the tent of the heart before going back out into the field.
But it is also the wisdom of the mourning process. We need time to be with pain- the world can wait. Only by fully feeling the pain of loss can we fully appreciate the gift of our present life with full awareness.
There is a story-
In the late 1700s, in Belarus, Reb Shlomo of Karlin joyfully broke the fast with his hassidim at the close of Yom Kippur.
Reb Shlomo was known for his many miraculous talents. One such talent was the ability to know what each of his hassidim had prayed for, and what the Divine response would be to their prayers. At this festive gathering with their master, the hassidim begged him to perform this feat:
“Tell us, what did we pray for?” they implored.
Reb Shlomo turned to the first disciple: “You prayed that Hashem should make you healthy, so that you’ll be able to wholeheartedly serve God and study Torah without your poor health and thoughts of your mortality distracting you.”
“Bravo! You are right! But what is Hashem’s answer?” asked the disciple.
“Hashem doesn’t want your prayer or your Torah study. Hashem wants your broken heart that grieves because you are distracted by your mortality from fully praying and studying.”
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, and as we come to the end of MarHeshvan, the Bitter Month of Heshvan, may we not shrink from our suffering, but open to the bitter-sweet compassion that awakens through the mixing of the Adom- the inner life force of the Eternal Present- with the Adamah- the earth to which the bodies of every Adam will one day return.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov,
The Tent is in the Field- Parshat Toldot
11/20/2014 0 Comments
When psychological pain burns, it can feel like there is a war going on inside. The mind feels stuck and the emotions are seething. As Rivka (Rebecca) says in Parshat Toldot when the twins in her womb fought with one another: “lama zeh anokhi- why am I like this??”
In the throws of psychological suffering it is natural to question why we should have to feel thus, to question why circumstances are such, to complain bitterly against Reality. Ordinarily, such questioning is an expression of resistance and only creates more suffering. But if you go deeper with your questioning- questioning into the nature of your mind, into the nature of your resistance, you can find the path that leads to liberation. As it says of Rivka’s questioning: “Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem- she went and inquired of the Divine.”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”? The Divine is Reality- so we have to look at what is really going on. Notice that there is this urge within to control- to bend the world to “my” will. This is the first-born twin- Esav (Esau) who is called “ish yodea tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. The mind seeks to know how it can “trap” the world into conforming to its will. But the other twin, Yaakov (Jacob), is an “ish tam”. “Tam” means both “simplicity” and “taste”; to be simple means to not seek control, but rather to “taste” this moment.
The Esav seeks externally, running out into the “field” to see what he can “trap”. The Yaakov dwells in the tent of the heart, cultivating the nectar of bliss that flows from intimate connection with the inner level of Being. But not to worry- all that outward seeking leaves the Esav drained, as it says- “Esav came in from the field, exhausted”. Eventually, Esav gives up his seeking and returns to drink of the true nourishment: “Pour into me some of that very red stuff!” he says to Yaakov. The word for “red” is “adom”- a slight variation on “adam” which means “human”. This is the nourishment that every human needs! In other words, we cannot live merely by manipulating the world, because no matter how much we are able to make the world conform to what we think we want, manipulation only reinforces a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy that you can feel and connect with now, the moment that “now” becomes your aim. Not what you want now, but the “now” itself. But for Esav to receive this nourishment, he has to surrender his “birthright”; he has to give up on his self-image, his identity. To fully enter the present is to surrender the “me”- the time-based identity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be effective in the world or that we shouldn’t have the intention to fulfill our will. That would be madness. In fact, Yaakov is not complete until he gets outside his tent and learns to work in the field as well. Only then, after enduring the hardships of working outside for many years, is he able to make peace with his brother. The inner and outer come into harmony, because the inward quality of the “tent” and the outer quality of the “field” are not really separate anyway. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Torah is good together with an occupation because the exertion of both of them makes sin forgotten…”
This means not merely that one should spend some time on Torah and some time on earning a living, but rather that one should remain rooted in the Timeless while doing one’s work in time. Only then can your thoughts, words and actions flow from the Place of the Timeless, bringing true blessing into manifestation. May this Shabbat be a wellspring of nourishment from the Timeless tent of the heart! Good Shabbos!
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Vanity of vanities – says Kohelet – vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
King Solomon’s wisdom book seems aimed at destroying our sense that we can make a difference with our actions; there is no ultimate profit from our efforts:
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
What profit is there for a person in all their effort that they labor under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth stands forever…
The bigger reality – the sun above and the earth below – are unaffected by our little ambitions and dramas:
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth stands forever…
Everything that comes eventually goes, so mah yitron – what’s the point? Why be concerned with future gain, when the cycle of birth and death simply goes on and on?
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת
A time to live, a time to die…
This is in stark contrast to our parshah, in which Abraham goes to great lengths to determine the direction of his lineage:
לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
You will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell –
כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק׃
For to the land of my birth you shall go and take a wife for my son Isaac.
He commands his servant Eliezer to take an oath that he will do his best to find a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s homeland, requiring him to travel far and seek the right woman to bring back. It might seem that Abraham is doing the thing that King Solomon warns against, רַעְי֥וֹן רֽוּחַ – striving after wind.
But when Eliezer goes off to find her, his task is strangely easy – he serendipitously meets the girl right away. When he explains to her family his mission and tells the synchronistic story of how they met, they reply:
מֵיְהוָ֖ה יָצָ֣א הַדָּבָ֑ר לֹ֥א נוּכַ֛ל דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ רַ֥ע אוֹ־טֽוֹב
This matter is from the Divine – it is not possible for us to say to anything bad or good…
In other words, yes – Eliezer made a great effort and traveled to Abraham’s homeland to find Rebecca, but his effort was in alignment with what needed to happen – it was מֵיְהוָ֖ה – the story was unfolding from Reality, from the Divine – it wasn’t mere הֶ֙בֶל֙ וּרְע֣וּת ר֔וּחַ – vanity and striving after wind, because it was in service of the greater Reality.
There is an analogue here with our practice: if our practice is aimed at gaining something for ourselves that we can hold onto, if it is motivated by “getting,” than it too is הֶ֙בֶל֙ וּרְע֣וּת ר֔וּחַ – vanity and striving after wind. All experiences come and go; the point is to enjoy this moment, as King Solomon says a little further on:
אֵֽין־ט֤וֹב בָּאָדָם֙ שֶׁיֹּאכַ֣ל וְשָׁתָ֔ה וְהֶרְאָ֧ה אֶת־נַפְשׁ֛וֹ ט֖וֹב בַּעֲמָל֑וֹ גַּם־זֹה֙ רָאִ֣יתִי אָ֔נִי כִּ֛י מִיַּ֥ד הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽיא׃
There is nothing good for a person but to eat and drink and to enjoy the goodness from his effort; for this, I see, also comes from the Hand of the Divine.
One’s efforts are vanity only if they are aimed at establishing something permanent for yourself in the future, because they are already a gift in the present; they are מִיַּ֥ד הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים – from the Hands of the Divine. This is true of ordinary food and drink, but on the deepest level, it is true of the present in all its fullness: this moment is fleeting, fragile, and impermanent – so enjoy it now! In this way there is still effort, but it is an effort to simply step up to the present with a willingness to be the vessel for the blessing of simply being. The key is to approach this moment without judgment:
מֵיְהוָ֖ה יָצָ֣א הַדָּבָ֑ר לֹ֥א נוּכַ֛ל דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ רַ֥ע אוֹ־טֽוֹב
This matter is from the Divine – it is not impossible for us to say to anything bad or good…
This moment is now emerging from the Divine, from Reality – it is. Come to this is-ness without looking for good or running away from bad, and there is a natural joy that has the power to conquer all fears and doubts. This is why music is such a powerful spiritual tool. Music has the power to embody both happiness and sorrow, while penetrating to the deeper joy of Being that underlies them both.
The Rabbi of Apt once proclaimed a fast for the townspeople during a time of great distress, in order to call down Divine mercy. But when Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn heard about it, he hired some musicians to play the most beautiful music night after night on his balcony. The town was in a state of fear and misery, but when the hasidim would hear the sweet sounds of the fiddles and clarinets floating down from above, they would begin to gather in the garden, until there was a whole crowd of them. The music would soon triumph over their dejection, and they would dance, stomping their feet and clapping their hands.
People who were indignant about this complained to the Rabbi of Apt that the time of fasting he had ordered was turned into a time of rejoicing. The Rabbi responded, “What can I do? I cannot condemn one who takes the commandment in the Torah seriously: ‘When you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets…’” (Numbers 10:9)
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Communing in the Field – Parshat Hayei Sarah
11/1/2018 1 Comment
Did you ever see one of those fake little plastic pieces of sushi?
They look so delicious, but of course, they are not really food. Or, consider those fake, plastic plants they have on the tables in restaurants sometimes. They look nice, so why doesn’t everyone have only plastic plants? What’s the point of having real plants that you have to water?
Plastic plants and plastic sushi have their place. Maybe you need plastic sushi to make an enticing display in order to get people to come into your restaurant. Maybe plastic plants are adequate for adding some decoration to your dining table. But the fake items are meaningless in and of themselves; they’re only useful because they point to the real thing. Once you feel enticed by the plastic sushi and come into the restaurant, you’re not going to order the plastic sushi; you want real food.
Similarly, there are character traits that are fake, and character traits that are genuine.
Fake character traits have their place. When you’re playing a certain role like an employee, or a parent, or a student, or whatever, there are appropriate behaviors that are useful to follow, even if they’re not genuine. Politicians have to especially be masters of fake character traits.
But if you want to find the genuine Divinity of your own being, if you want real peace, real wholeness, real realization, no amount of mimicking behaviors will get you there. For That, you have to go to the root of your own being, and turn fully toward the Root of All Being, which are ultimately the same thing: The Beloved “Being-ness” of this moment.
There is a hint in this week’s reading:
Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, had gone to the city of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. He returns with Rebecca in the late afternoon, riding on a camel. Isaac goes out into the field as they approach:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים
Isaac went out toward the evening to commune in the field. He lifted his eyes, and behold – camels were coming!
Each piece of this wonderful verse instructs us in how to meet the genuine Beloved.
Vayeitzei Yitzhak – Isaac/laughter went out…
Isaac’s name, Yitzhak, actually means laughter. It refers to the laughter of his mother Sarah, who laughed both with humor and joy at the idea of giving birth at her advanced age of ninety. The idea here is that just as Sarah couldn’t imagine being fruitful in her old age, so too we often develop a negative attitude about what is possible. We may think, “How can I possibly experience the Divine? I can’t even control my own thoughts for more than a second!”
But this attitude itself keeps us locked in the perspective of the ego, of the separate “me.” Instead, decide right now to let go of negative thinking. Know that you are, in essence, Divine, and that all you need do is begin shifting your attention to That which you already are. “Go out” to the fulness of this moment, to your experience as it is right now, with an attitude of openness.
Lasuakh basadeh – to commune in the field…
Everything that you are perceiving right now is living within your field of awareness. This field doesn’t itself have any shape or border, but…
Lifnot erev – before the evening/mixture…
The word for evening, erev, also means mixture, since it is the time when day and night mingle. Similarly, there is a rich mixture within our experience right now – sensory perceptions, the space and objects and beings around us, as well and different feelings and thoughts within. Our experience spans a vast spectrum of pleasant and unpleasant, everything intimately mixed in one experience that is the present moment.
Vayisa einav – he lifted his eyes…
Know that the full mixture within your experience right now is not at all separate from the vast space of awareness within which it is arising. Everything is, in fact, literally made out of your consciousness. Furthermore, it isn’t “your” consciousness; you are the consciousness. And so, all things within your experience are literally manifestations of your own being, constantly shifting and moving. “Lift your eyes” – bring your awareness into direct connection with whatever is happening, now.
V’hinei, g’malim ba’im – behold, camels were coming!
The camel is a symbol of self-abundance, as the camel carries around the nourishment it needs in its hump as it traverses the desert. Similarly, as you learn to shift into the oneness of your experience in the present, the sense of peace and completeness, ofshalom/shalem, can begin to blossom. Perhaps you are getting a glimpse now… but if not, don’t give up! The camels are coming!
For the Love of Pain – Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/10/2017 1 Comment
“V’ayavo Avraham – Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her..."
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Hayei Sarah, which means, “The Life of Sarah,” and it begins by declaring that Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty-seven years. Then it says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Vatamat Sarah – Sarah died – Vayavo Avraham – Avraham came – lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah – to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”
So, first Sarah dies, then Avraham comes and eulogizes her, then he weeps. It’s a strange verse. Why does it say that Avraham “comes?” Where is he coming to? And if he’s coming to Sarah after she dies, wouldn’t he weep first, and then eulogize her? And to whom is he eulogizing? Isn’t a eulogy something you deliver to others? But this verse doesn’t mention any other people. It just says that he comes – doesn’t say where he’s coming to – then he eulogizes, then he weeps.
To answer, let’s reflect first on the question, what is death? Death means the end of a continuity; the end of something or someone that came into being, that was born, that had some span of life, and then expires. And when a loved one that plays a major role in your life dies, it’s not just the person that dies, it’s a continuity in your life that dies as well. Our lives contain all kinds of continuities – the place we live, the bed we sleep in, and so on. And part of that tapestry of continuity is composed of our relationships. If one of those relationships comes to an end because the person comes to an end, then something of ourselves as died as well; the tapestry, or the form of our lives gets torn. And of course, the experience of being torn is pain.
So, at this deeper level, we’re talking about pain. And what’s the normal response to pain? AAHH! Crying out. But that’s not what Avraham does. – Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah. First Avraham comes, then he eulogizes, then he cries out. Why?
Normally, we cry out in pain because we don’t like the pain. In fact, that’s the whole reason for pain to exist. Pain is there as a signal for danger, so it has to be unpleasant; you’re supposed to not like it. You feel your hand burning, you’ve got to get it out of the fire fast. If you only noticed intellectually, “oh, my hand is in the fire, that’s dangerous,” you’d already be burned. You need something to force you to get out of the fire immediately, and that’s pain. So, crying out is a venting of that impulse to get away from the thing causing you pain, and get yourself to safety. It’s also a signal for others to help you, just as when a baby cries out, and the parent immediately tries to see what’s wrong and help. That’s the ordinary way we operate.
But there’s another way to relate to pain, and that is instead of trying to get away, to deliberately bring yourself into connection with the pain, to come to the pain. Vayavo Avraham – come to the pain that is arising and be with it on purpose; that’s the practice of Presence, of being conscious with your experience, rather than be taken over by your impulse to escape. Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse. If your hand is burning, you should certainly escape by moving your hand out of the fire. But when we feel emotional pain, the impulse is the same; you want to get away from it, vent, blame and so on. But if instead you become present with your pain, then you use the pain to strengthen your Presence, to dis-identify from your impulses, and to ultimately know yourself ever more deeply as the space of consciousness within which your experience in this moment is arising.
So, on this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember to come ever more deeply into the truth of this moment, both in pain and joy, and through Presence with whatever is, grow in our experiential knowledge of the radiant awareness that we are. Good Shabbiss!
The Telephone- Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/25/2016 1 Comment
Once I saw a video of some children being shown an old telephone from the 1970s, complete with a rotary dial.
“What is it?” they wondered.
When they were told it was a phone and how it worked, how you dial numbers by pushing the wheel around, they said, “Wait, you mean all this phone does is call people?”
For many of is, it’s hard to imagine a time when our calendar, internet, email and a million other functions weren’t instantly available on our phones. What a miracle! But recently I noticed that whenever I take out my phone, there’s a slight pain in my stomach, because I don’t want all those functions to distract me from the reason I took out the phone in the first place.
Have you set out to do something, gotten distracted, and completely forgotten what it was you had intended to do?
In the Haftorah for this week’s reading, King David is old and lying on his deathbed. Meanwhile, his son Adonijah has taken power against King David’s will, throwing a big party and inviting all his supporters, while excluding those close to David.
The prophet Nathan and King David’s wife Bathsheba enter King David’s bed chamber and inform him about what’s going on. The king is roused and swears that his son Solomon must succeed him.
Every intention that arises within the mind and heart arises within a particular kind of situation. As time goes on, situations change; in fact, “time” and “change” are not two separate things. Like King David’s desire for Solomon to succeed his kingship, the moments of our original intentions can become old and dim, while new moments and new desires arise. Like the thousands of apps, reminders, alerts, and new emails popping up, we sometimes find ourselves thinking: “Wait, what was I doing?”
But let’s stand back for a moment, back from all the different intentions and priorities of life. Before you had relationships, before you had values, before you had goals- can you go back before any of that and ask,
“What was I doing? Why did I come into this life in the first place?”
Every intention, whether positive or negative, has its root in some thought or feeling- the desire for happiness, the desire to help the world, the desire to create or to destroy. Consciousness is like the smartphone- its functions are infinite, and the mind is infinitely complex!
But is there something simple, something far more deep than any thought or feeling?
Before you wanted anything, before you had an opinion, there was consciousness- this miracle of perception somehow awakened within your body-mind and began meeting the world as it appeared.
The world- sometimes nurturing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes loving, sometimes painful, sometimes horrific.
But whatever the form the world happens to takes in any given moment, behind it all is this simple awareness: the awakening of Reality to Itself. And this awakening is happening, right now, as the Presence that you are.
Can you remember why you came into existence?
On this deepest level, awareness comes into existence simply to be aware. And behind all the complexity of life is this simple truth- you are aware- which is to say, you are awareness.
Know yourself as this Presence- behind your thinking, behind your words, behind your actions- and you become like the air we breathe: ever-present, completely surrounding us from without and nourishing us from within, yet essentially separate from all the drama of our existence- intimate and transcendent in one.
But to do this you have to get back to basics. Like the rotary phone that only did one thing, you have to find the one thing within yourself behind all the many things. A great way to start is, become aware of the air!
Become aware of the ever-present nourishment which is your own constant breath, and you can begin to notice that your noticing is just like the air. The noticing itself is your ever-present consciousness within which all experience arises.
And, paradoxically, it is through the awakening of this transcendence beyond the world that you become a great force of blessing within the world, because it is through the openness of your transcendence that genuine love can flow.
Can you remember your original intention- to be awake?
King David is the symbol of Moshiakh- the awakening of all humanity out of the dream of separation. This dream is so powerful- it creates all the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others.
His rightful heir is Solomon- the symbol of wisdom. We come into this world to awaken as that wisdom- to embody consciousness in form and thereby heal the world. We humans have become so lost in form, so caught within its web. The rogue son has taken over and usurped the throne.
But any moment, and that means this moment, is the potential to rouse David from his slumber and get the world back on track. Awaken!
It is told that in the late 1700s, when Reb Shneur Zalman was incarcerated in a Russian prison, a guard noticed the great presence of the rabbi and went to ask him a question:
“You are a holy man. There is a question that has been bothering me about the scriptures. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden and he ate from the forbidden fruit, it says that God asked him where he was. How is it possible that God didn’t already know where he was?”
Reb Shneur Zalman answered- “It’s like this. At every moment and at every time, God is asking you- where are you? Right now you are twenty-seven years old. Are you fulfilling the purpose of your life?”
At this point the guard almost fell over, because the rabbi had mentioned his actual age, and there was no way he could have known. At that moment, a deep knowing awakened within the guard and he devoted himself to love and service.
On this Shabbat Hayey Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember ever more deeply who we are really- the Presence and Life of Reality Itself. May that Presence be free from the dream of all fear and negativity, and may our words and deeds become sources of blessing on this earth, today.
The Fiancé- Parshat Hayei Sarah
11/4/2015 2 Comments
Back in the summer of 1988, I was home from music school after Freshman year.
One night, I went out with some high school friends to a diner. One of them surprised us with the news that he had met the girl of his dreams and they were getting married.
“Really? Are you sure it’s the right thing?” we asked.
We were only nineteen. The idea of getting married was inconceivable to us.
“I know it’s the right thing,” he replied. He then went on to recount all the serendipitous events “proving” to him that she was his perfect life partner.
“I’ve never been so sure about anything in my entire life,” he said.
Having never experienced that kind of certainty myself, I was suspicious, but I didn’t question it further.
The next summer, in 1990, we all went out again, and he told us what horrors had transpired after they were married: She had stolen his car, emptied his bank account and disappeared. So much for serendipity!
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to “trust the universe”, we give away our power to make decisions. Rather than ask ourselves the crucial questions, we instead look for signs and coincidences to confirm that we’re on the right track, that things are beshert.
In this week’s reading, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac. When Eliezer arrives at the city of Nahor, he prays:
“Hashem… let it be that the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please tip over your jug so that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac…”
At first glance, it might seem that Eliezer is making this same kind of mistake, relying on an external sign to tell him what to do, rather than using his own intelligence to find the right wife for Isaac.
Or is he?
If Eliezer had prayed that the girl should be wearing a purple dress, or have a really big hat, certainly that would have been arbitrary.
But what does he say?
He says that she should offer water to him and his camels. In other words, she should be a mentch- a kind and generous person.
He’s not giving away his power in favor of superstition; he’s actually specifying the exact criteria by which to make his decision: she should be kind and generous. He doesn’t want Isaac to marry someone who will steal his money and his donkey! If she’s not a mentch, he’s not interested.
If you want to live with clarity and purpose, if you want to truly say “yes” to your life, you’ve got to be able to say a clear “no” as well. The “yes” and the “no” go together.
Saying “no” can be really difficult. So many things can get in the way- stories in your head telling you what you “should” do, feelings of guilt for letting others down, or lack of trust in yourself.
But, there are decisions that only you can make. Take your power in your hand and meet your destiny! Don’t be blown around by the winds of fate!
To be decisive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust. Trust your ability to make your decision!
Then, after you’ve made your decision, trust whatever happens next. Surrender to what happens. Ultimately, we have no control over how things unfold, but we always have the power to choose.
Are there decisions you are avoiding?
Or, after you make decisions, are you easily derailed because you can’t say “no” to other things that come along? Do you ever blame others for your inability to follow through on your own decisions?
Remember- your life is like a boat. The steering wheel is in front of you. Take it and steer; don’t wait for someone else, don’t blame anyone else. The ocean has its own currents, but you are the captain.
And, if you’re not sure yet which decision to make, that’s fine too. Be uncertain. Sometimes it's wonderful to just go with the currents. Sometimes life really can be a magical tapestry of serendipity, effortlessly bringing you to good things.
But sooner or later, that kind of magic ends, and the currents leave you drifting aimlessly, or even worse, headed toward the rocks. When that happens, take the wheel and decide which way to go! Then, a new kind of magic begins.
Each of us has a completely unique path with unique decisions to be made. But there is one decision that is completely universal. It’s the decision that each of us faces at all times: the decision to fully inhabit this moment.
To fully inhabit this moment, the “yes” and the “no” must be one: “yes” to what is, “no” to resisting what is.
And yet, if a feeling of “resisting what is” arises, you must say “yes” to the presence of that feeling- because in that moment, “resistance to what is”- is what is!
In this way, resistance is transformed into non-resistance; the “yes” and the “no” are completely one.
What is this moment like?
Is it peaceful? Is it tense? Is it gentle? Is it harsh? Are you willing to decide, right now, to say “yes” to this moment, as it is?
This is actually the most important decision you will ever make, because it's the foundation of all other decisions. Without this decision, there is unrest; there is struggle.
But with this decision, your potential for real peace can manifest. With this decision, the Messiah is born, little by little.
Martin Buber, in his essay Judaism and the Jews, tells the story that when he was a child, he read an "old Jewish tale" that I later found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met the Prophet Elijah. He said to him, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah answered, “Go ask him! The Messiah sits at the gates of Rome, waiting among the poor, afflicted with disease.”
Buber says that he later came upon an old man and asked him, “What does he wait for?”
The old man answered, “He waits for you.”
On this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember our power to decide for this life, for this moment. May true and lasting peace be swiftly born in the world for love, wisdom and healing.
Coming Today to the Wellspring of Nothingness - Parshat Hayey Sarah
11/13/2014 1 Comment
We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is "El", which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
The foundation of spiritual transformation is Presence, meaning: intentional attentiveness to whatever is present. But, is it possible that Presence can be misused? Is it possible for Presence to be harmful?
There’s a strange story in the Talmud about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: he had a neighbor who would mock him and constantly disrupt his prayers and study. Rabbi Yehoshua was so tormented by this heretic that he resolved to put a curse on him.
So, he took a rooster, tied it to his bedpost and proceeded to stare at it intently. Why a rooster? According to another passage in the Talmud, there is an instant every day – a rega – that God becomes angry, and if you were to curse someone right at that precise moment, your curse would be successful.
But how could you know exactly when that moment happens?
Well, you know it by seeing the crest on a rooster’s head pale from its normal red color while it stands on one foot, during the first three hours of the day. As soon as you see a rooster doing this in the morning, that’s the moment!
So, Rabbi Yehoshua got ready with his rooster, watching it intently for the exact moment to pronounce his curse. But, he dozed off, and the next thing he knew he was waking up in the evening, long after the supposed moment had passed. From this he concluded that it is not proper to curse someone this way; for as it says in Psalm 145:
וְ֝רַחֲמָ֗יו עַל־כָּל־מַעֲשָֽׂיו – Rakhamav al kol ma’asav – Its compassion is upon all of Its creations!
In this bizarre story, Rabbi Yehoshua stares intently at his rooster – he’s being present, in a sense, but he has an ulterior motive. His attentiveness is based on ego – he wants to get revenge on this guy who’s been giving him a hard time.
This isn’t true Presence; it is only half of the equation. Presence includes attentiveness, but the attentiveness has to be given freely, without ulterior motive; Presence is not just a matter of the mind, but also a matter of the heart. That’s why the rooster is “standing on one foot” – Rabbi Yehoshua’s attentiveness “stands” on the mind, but not the heart.
When Presence is firmly rooted in both the mind and the heart, it results in being spiritually awake – meaning, you come to know yourself as the awareness. When there is an ulterior motive, on the other hand, you know yourself (at least partially) as that motive. So, in the example of the above story, Rabbi Yehoshua is being attentive but he is motivated by anger, so he experiences the “dream” of being the anger, rather than the “wakefulness” of being the awareness of the anger. That’s why he “dozes off.”
Furthermore, the rooster is itself a symbol of ego – that’s why we have the idiom of arrogant people being “cocky.” The crest that stands upright on its head is like a crown, and the redness leaving the crest is like blood leaving the brain – another symbol of unconsciousness.
So, Rabbi Yehoshua’s attempt at “knowing the mind of God” fails, because it leads him to unconsciousness. Compare this with our parshah, when the “mind of God” is revealed to Abraham. This revelation comes after Abraham and Sarah give hospitality to three mysterious beings who are alternatingly described as men, as angels and even as God. The idea here is that whatever beings appear to us in the moment, they are manifestations of God, and they are also “angels” in a sense, because our meeting with them fulfills a particular Divine purpose.
As the angels leave, Abraham escorts them away, and then it says:
וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה – And Abraham was continuously standing before the Divine…
Abraham is being present, continuously standing, but unlike Rabbi Yehoshua, there is no ulterior motive. There is simply a spirit of hospitality, of being of service – that’s standing before the Divine.
From this attitude of complete Presence, revelation naturally flows:
וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
Hashem said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Next, the Divine reveals that the sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are very great, and the cities are about it be destroyed. Again, Abraham’s response is one of love:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע׃
Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?
Abraham then argues with God on behalf of the inhabitants of the cities. At the conclusion of the dialogue, and after securing the safety of the cities on the condition that at least ten righteous people are found living there, it says:
וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר כִּלָּ֔ה לְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְאַבְרָהָ֖ם שָׁ֥ב לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
The Divine went after finishing speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The words for “returned to his place” – Avraham shav limkomo – hint at the supreme rhythm of the Divine-conscious life: Begin by being present with the Divine as It appears in the moment:
וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה – And Abraham was continuously standing before the Divine…
When it is necessary, step out of the moment in order to serve the future:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר – Abraham came forward and spoke…
When the task of creating a better future is finished, return to Presence:
וְאַבְרָהָ֖ם שָׁ֥ב לִמְקֹמֽוֹ – and Avraham returned to his place…
The word here for “place” – Makom – is itself a Divine name, hinting at this truth: to return our awareness to where we are, to this Makom, is to return to the Divine.
Of course, when life becomes difficult, it can be extremely challenging to maintain the simplicity of this paradigm. We may feel depleted; we may feel that we don’t have any consciousness left for devoting to service or returning to Presence – we’re just barely getting by.
It is for this reason that we have the gifts given to us by the tradition.
The gifts of the tradition – the texts, teachings, prayers, rituals and holy days – have the power to enliven our consciousness when the weight of life threatens to extinguish it. That is, after all, the purpose of reading these words right now.
In the haftora (II Kings, 4), there’s the story of an impoverished woman with two sons. When her husband dies, she is terrified that a creditor will come and take her sons as slaves, because without her husband she has no means of paying off her debt. So, she brings her case to the prophet Elisha and cries to him about her plight.
Elisha asks her what she has of value, to which she replies that she only has one jug of oil. Elisha then tells her to go out borrow as many empty vessels from her neighbors as she can, and to start filling the vessels with oil from her one jug. She does so, and – a miracle! The one jug of oil fills up many vessels. She sells the oil and becomes so wealthy that she is able to not only pay off her creditor, but she also has enough to live off the remainder.
This is another version of the Hannukah miracle. Oil is a metaphor for consciousness, and consciousness is infinite – meaning, in this moment, the field of consciousness reading these words right now has no boundary, no fixed shape – it is a vast and unlimited field, and you are that field.
But, to know this experientially, we need “vessels” into which the oil is poured. These “vessels” are the sacred texts and practices that come to us from the tradition. In this sense, they are “external” to us. We have to “borrow” them from our “neighbors” – meaning, we have to receive them from our lineage; we can’t invent them ourselves. And, “receiving the vessels” is not something that is ever finished; it is an ongoing and infinite process:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כִּמְלֹ֣את הַכֵּלִ֗ים וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶל־בְּנָהּ֙ הַגִּ֨ישָׁה אֵלַ֥י עוֹד֙ כֶּ֔לִי וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד כֶּ֑לִי וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֖ד הַשָּֽׁמֶן׃
When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” He answered her, “There are no more vessels”; and the oil stopped.
In our culture, we tend to think that learning is something you do while you’re in school. After high school, or after college, or after the end of whatever was your last official schooling, we think “Okay, I’m done with learning, now it’s time for life.” But spiritually speaking, learning and growing must become the way of life itself; there are always “more vessels” to “borrow” from our great tradition. In this way, the oil will continuously find new forms and flow ever stronger…
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Hello Death! Parshat Vayeira
10/24/2018 0 Comments
Last week I heard a story on NPR, that Coca-Cola had put a sign on vending machines in New Zealand, which said, Ki Ora Mate!
The words Ki Ora are Māori words that mean something like “Hello,” similar to “Shalom” or “Aloha,” and Mate is just the New Zealand English word meaning “friend.” The intention was to mix English and Māori to create a friendly multi-cultural greeting that would mean something like, “Hello, friend!”
The only problem is, the word Mate in Māori means “Death.” So, to a Māori reader, the sign looks like, “Hello Death!”
Probably not what Coca-Cola intended, yet the message is appropriate. Coca-Cola is not a healthy product. Many nutritional authorities cite soft drinks as the absolute worst of all junk foods. And in fact, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in the developed world, with one out of three New Zealanders classified as obese. In addition,fifty percent of Māori adults are obese, as well as eighteen percent of Māori children.
What’s the lesson here? Truth finds a way!
We are a funny species. In many situations, we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, and yet so often we seem to do what is not good for us. It is no secret that Coke and other soft drinks are dangerous; that’s what makes this story so funny. But ultimately, it’s not so funny that we cause ourselves so much misery. Why do we do it?
We do it because we crave experiences. We seem to be wired to seek certain experiences, regardless of the effects, so we are often in denial about what we know to be true. This isn’t to say that we always know what’s best for ourselves; sometimes we have to try things and learn from our mistakes. But often we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, yet we choose the dangerous path because of our cravings. Even when it tells us how bad it is right on the label! We don’t need the irony of “Hello death!” – just read the ingredients. If the thing you focus on is made out of greed, arrogance, or negativity – those are the “corn syrups” ands “artificial colorings” of the ego.
But the real irony is that while we focus on all the little shiny, distracting objects in that appear in our consciousness, we ignore consciousness. If only we would turn around and pay attention to the attention itself…
There was once a king who held a great outdoor festival and invited the whole kingdom. He put all his treasures out in a big field, and anyone could come and take one treasure from the field, whatever they chose. On the day of the festival, thousands came and took whatever special treasure they wanted most.
Then, a little old woman walked right through the field, past all the treasures, and up to the king himself. “Is it true we can take any treasure we want?”
“Yes, anything,” said the king.
“Then I take you!” said the woman.
“Ah, you have chosen wisely!” said the king. “Now you get me and the whole kingdom!”
Everything we wish to experience arises in consciousness. We lust after this and that, but we already have consciousness; we already have the completeness that we seek, as the whole field of awareness within which this moment arises. Experiences span an immense spectrum of pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, love and hate; but the consciousness itself is simple, vast and unbroken. Find that, find that which is behind and beyond all experience, and you’ve found the ultimate treasure.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Vayeira, Sarah gives birth to a son, Yitzhak, which means “laughter.” He is named Yitzhak because Sarah and Avraham were very old, so Sarah said, “The Divine has made laughter (tzekhok) for me.”
One day, the son of Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, was found mocking Yitzhak. So, Sarah told Avraham to send away Hagar and her son into the desert, with nothing but a little bread and a skin of water. Soon after, the water ran out. Fearing that her son would die of thirst, Hagar despaired and wept.
The ego often craves satisfaction by putting another person down. But, the scrap if satisfaction we receive from feeling superior to another is just a drop of water in a dry desert. To break the spell of the ego, the heart often needs to be broken; we need to come face to face with our own delusion. Then, another possibility can reveal itself:
אֶל־הָגָר֙ אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י… וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים
A divine angel called to Hagar, “Don’t be afraid…”
There is more to Reality than the drama of the ego after all:
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
The Divine opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…
The “water” we need to quench our thirst was there all along, if we would but shift our focus from the desert of the ego to the wellspring of the sacred that hides in plain sight. How do we do that?
וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ:
She sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept…
Feel the “distance” – feel the pain of lack, of incompleteness, and let yourself cry out; transform your pain into prayer. The tears are like a cleansing river, washing away the trivial, the egocentric, the immature. And then, be attentive – that’s meditation. Within the depths of the heart from which your prayer pours forth, there is a great light. It might be just a glimmer at first, but make that glimmer the center of your attention, and it will become a great illumination…
"Inviting Reality in for Tea" – Parshat Vayeira and Morning Sh'ma Blessing
10/30/2017 0 Comments
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeira, begins with Avraham having a vision of the Divine: “Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei mamrei – and the Divine appeared to him in the plains of Mamrei – v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Bereisheet 18:1)
It then goes on to say that three men (who we later come to understand are actually angels) pay Avraham a visit. Avraham runs from his tent to greet them, invites them to stay a while, to wash their feet and eat a meal. The angels then tell Avraham and Sara that Sara will give birth to a son, even though Sara is already ninety years old.
After this, the angels leave and head toward the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God appears again to Avraham and tells him that the cities are about to be destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. Avraham pleads with God not to destroy them, arguing that there might be some good people among the wicked, and that it would be unfair to destroy the innocent along with the guilty.
One interesting thing about this passage is that there seems to be a confounding of the characters. At first it says God appears to Avraham. But then it says, "...and he raised his eyes and saw – three men were standing over him." First it says that God appears, then it says Avraham looked and saw three men. It’s as if God is now appearing as the three men. Then, later in the story, it describes the same men, saying, "the two angels came to Sodom." Now they’re two? Before, they were three. Furthermore, before they were described as anashim – men, and now they're malakhim – angels.
And in between these two bookends, the text moves fluidly back and forth between saying what the men, or angels are saying and doing, and what God is saying and doing, as if the angels and God are interchangeable. You can check out the passage in Genesis, chapter 18 and 19 to see what I mean.
This kind of ambiguity in the text is so gorgeous, because it all comes to highlight the opening phrase: Vayeira eilav Hashem – and the Divine appeared to him. This is, of course, the whole point of the mystical path – to perceive beyond the surface of things, through to Divine Reality. And what is the Divine Reality? Hu Eloheinu, Ayn od – Existence is the Divine, there is nothing else. And, Hashem Ekhad – the Divine is One. Meaning not that there is only one god, but that there is only God as the One Reality.
So, to perceive the Divine doesn’t mean perceiving something in addition to everything else you’re already perceiving, as many folks imagine. When we begin the spiritual journey, it’s common to think that God is something different from what you normally perceive, like some kind of Mount Sinai experience. But, while such experiences do happen, perceiving the Divine for the most part means to uncover the Divine nature of everything that you’re already perceiving. And since the Divine nature is Hashem Ekhad – Divine Oneness, this means you have to learn to relax the natural tendency of the mind to frame things as separate. Not to erase separateness all together – that would render you unable to function as a human being, G-d forbid, but to balance the separateness with the perception that everything arising right now in your field of awareness is part of one experience, One Reality.
And how do you do that?
“V’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
So, what is a tent? It’s a barrier that defines your personal space. There’s a vast world just outside, but you put this flimsy material around you, call it a tent, and you have some sense of separateness from the rest of the world. Just like our egos: there’s a vast Reality, and we are in no way separate from that Reality, but we tend to identify with our bodies, our personalities, our personal stories and so on, and call all of that “me.” That’s the ego; that’s the tent.
But rather than shutting himself up inside the tent, he yosheiv petakh ha’ohel – he sits in the opening of his tent. In other words, there’s still a tent, there’s still a sense of “me,” but he sits in the petakh, in the opening, so there’s also a sense that the space within the tent and the space outside the tent are one thing, one space. Meaning, be aware that everything arising in your experience in this moment, both your perception of things outside your “tent,” meaning outside your body, and things inside your “tent,” such as your emotions and your thoughts, are all arising in the one space that is your awareness. You can still think of this tiny corner of your awareness that encompasses your body and heart and mind as “me,” but the entirety of your experience, even your perception of the stars millions of light years away, are all arising in the one space that is your field of awareness, and that’s actually the deepest you – that formless, borderless, field of awareness.
But to really do that, you have to consciously invite everything within your experience to exist, even if it’s unpleasant. That’s the key. Because when you resist certain aspects of your experience, that’s the equivalent of shutting the flap on your tent, so there’s no more petakh, no more opening. That’s why Avraham is seen as the embodiment of hospitality, just as in the story when he runs to greet his guests and gives them food. He sits in the opening of his tent, and whatever happens to come by, he invites in. That’s why is says, Vayeira eilav Hashem– and the Divine appeared to him, because when you consciously invite everything to be as it is, you sit in the open space between separateness and Oneness, and you can sense that everything is a manifestation of the One Thing; first It appears as three men, then as two angels, it doesn’t matter, because everything are forms of the One Thing.
And this brings us to a kind of paradox, because when it’s revealed to Avraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God; he tries to change the course of what’s happening. So, on one hand, he invites everything to be as it is, but on the other, he’s arguing and trying to change it for the sake of compassion.
And this is really the supreme spiritual teaching. When we talk about acceptance, about inviting everything to be as it is, our minds tend to go in the direction of passivity. But this creates a false duality. If we really invite everything to be as it is, that includes our own desire for things to be different. So, on one hand, we accept Reality as it is, but on the other, Reality includes our own desire to change things; Reality is dynamic, alive, and always in motion. The distinction is that when we are hospitable to Reality as it arises, inviting things to be as they are rather than resisting how things are, we can work for change from a spirit of love and openness, rather than from judgment and anger.
This is hinted at in the opening words: v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. The word for “the day” is hayom, which can also mean, “today” – in other words, the right now. The word for heat, khom, can also mean “warmth.” So, in this sense, khom hayom could mean “the warmth of Presence.” If you want to pierce through the separateness of things to the underlying Divine unity, open your heart to this moment. Warmly invite Reality to be as it is, and then when you act to change things, do it from a place of inviting change, rather than forcing. Even in those rare times when you do have to force something, you can still do it from a place of love rather than resistance and anger. Just like when you abruptly grab a child away from the danger of a precipice or an oncoming car – externally there might be a violent forcing quality, but of course you’re not angry at the child, you just have to act swiftly and effectively. If you have the right kavanah, the right attitude that arises from Presence rather than resistance, then your action toward change will flow from the Oneness, and will be an expression of the Oneness, even when there’s conflict. That’s why Avraham can argue with God, and yet the argument itself is an expression of God, because Avraham is arguing that God should be more compassionate, and yet elsewhere in the Torah, Moses calls God El Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger…
Last week we chanted some words that come from the first blessing before the Sh’ma. The words were, Or Hadash Ta’ir – Shine a New Light, pointing to the quality of fresh aliveness that emerges when you are present. Now let’s look at some words from the second blessing of the Sh’ma: “V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments.”
The two pieces of this phrase express the paradox we explored earlier: V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, meaning, open us to “see” the Oneness in everything, to see everything as an expression of the Divine. This is expressed in the hospitality of Avraham, and hinted at by the words we looked at earlier: Vayisa einav vayar – and he raised his eyes and saw. Avraham sits in the opening of his tent, a master of hospitality, and so he is able to see, vayar, the Divine in everything. This is also the root of the name of this parsha, Vayeira.
But the second part says, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – attach our hearts to Your commandments.What are the commandments? They are actions we take to bring more kindness into the world. Externally, Reality can manifest as chaos and suffering. But as Reality becomes conscious through us, we are “commanded,” in a sense, to manifest compassion, so that the Divine qualities of Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger, reveals Itself through us.
Parshat Vayeira- The Heat is On!
11/17/2016 1 Comment
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t understand this ‘present moment’ stuff. What if the present moment is terrible? Why would I want to ‘be in the moment’ when the moment is so painful and awful?”
This week’s reading begins with Abraham sitting in his tent on a scorching hot day. Suddenly, he is visited by a Divine revelation:
"Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
“The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Let’s look at the Hebrew in this opening line carefully. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew says- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day.
Read this way, the verse says that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”- that is, this moment.
In other words, yes- the present moment sometimes appears as discomfort, as ugliness, as pain. But the crucial thing to remember is: everything that arises in your experience is a gateway to the Divine, if you open to it.
As it says,
“…v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel-
“… and he was sitting at opening of the tent…”
The “tent” is your identity- your individual self. The “opening” is the willingness to open to Reality as it presents itself, even when it appears as “heat”- as discomfort. In that willingness, in that openness, is the appearance of the Divine.
Because in the open space of simple Presence with what is, there's no big distinction between the “outside” and the “inside”- between the inner world of thought and feeling, on one hand, and the outer world you take in through your senses, on the other. Everything that happens in your experience- outside as well as inside- is part of one experience. And your one experience is nothing but your one consciousness, constantly taking on different forms.
When you really see this, when you realize that all of your experiences are always only One Experience, and that your One Experience is ultimately made out you- meaning, made out of your consciousness- there can be a relaxing of resistance, a relaxing of the “me” that’s separate, that’s judges, that wants. After all, why would you resist yourself? That just creates inner tension, unnecessary suffering.
Then you can see- there is simply this Reality, everpresent- the Divine appearing as the form of this moment, suffering and ugliness and all.
The famous brothers and Hassidic rebbes- Zusya and Elimelech- were the sons of a village innkeeper who was unusually hospitable.
One day a band of beggars came to the doorstep of his inn. He and his wife received them warmly, served them food and drink, and prepared them a place to sleep. Seeing that their guests wanted to bathe, they went down to the bathhouse and heated water for them.
Among the beggars was a pauper whose entire body was covered with repulsive sores, and none of the other vagrants was willing to help him wash. The innkeeper’s wife had compassion and helped him, whereupon he turned to her and said: “In return for your kindness, let me bestow upon you my blessing- that you bear sons like me.”
Dismay came over her- sons like him?
But within seconds, this man and all his companions along with their wagon vanished before her very eyes. Years later, when her sons grew up, it then dawned on her- she had been put through a test, in order to bestow upon her the gift of such saintly children.
When Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi once recounted this story, one of his listeners asked him: “Who was that leper?”
But the rebbe gave not a word of reply.
There are no words to describe this Reality that is appearing, just now. Sometimes ugly, sometimes repulsive, it is the gateway to the sacred- to the most beautiful essence that you are. Even if ugliness arises as your own thoughts, as your own feelings- when you welcome them, the welcoming Presence is Itself beautiful, and in Its Light, everything has a sacred purpose.
So on this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we embody the supreme art of hospitality- not only external hospitality, but also the inner kind- welcoming the ugliness that arises, until it too vanishes and reveals its secret blessing...
The Move- Parshat Vayeira
10/30/2015 3 Comments
This past Tuesday, my family left for Costa Rica. I’ll join them in a few weeks, but first I had to stay behind and get the house ready for our renters who moved in on Thursday.
I had no idea what “getting the house ready” really meant, but I knew I wasn’t so good at making beds. So, I called our friend and space-artist Devorah for help. I thought it would take her about a half an hour at most.
Once we got started, however, every task we finished seemed to reveal a new task that needed to be done. What I thought would be a half hour turned into 11.5 hours! Thank G-d for Devorah- I couldn’t have done it without her.
All the little details- the soaps, the towels, the flowers, the toilet paper- I wanted to arrange everything just right so that the space would be welcoming to our new guests.
Not that any of those little details were so significant in and of themselves; their significance was that all together, they created a welcoming space. For me, a space that’s clear, beautiful and uncluttered says “welcome”. But even more importantly, a beautiful space makes room to notice a different kind of space- your inner space.
What is inner space?
Space- inner or outer- isn’t something we generally hear about very much. People like to talk about the things that occupy space- objects in the outer world or thoughts and ideas in the inner world- but rarely do we hear about the space itself. After all, space is nothing, so there’s nothing much to talk about. You can’t see or touch it.
And yet, your inner space is that which sees and touches. It’s the space of your own awareness. It’s the openness in which these words are appearing, in this moment. In fact, your own inner space is not something different from this moment.
And that’s why a beautiful external space can help you to connect with your inner space-
When you feel welcomed, it’s easy to be welcoming. In that inner opening of welcome, the beauty of this moment can blossom.
But once you are conscious of this, you no longer need anything external to welcome this moment. In fact, you can welcome a moment of pain and ugliness just as you can welcome a moment of beauty and peace.
This week’s reading begins with a story of Avraham’s ability to embody hospitality even in the midst of intense discomfort:
“Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
"The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Rashi comments that Avraham was not merely basking in the Divine bliss, he was experiencing intense discomfort-
“Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and inquired about his welfare.” (Rashi, Bereishis 18:1)
Avraham is recovering from being circumcised, while roasting in the intense heat! And, to make it worse, three strangers suddenly show up.
What does he do?
“Vayar vayarotz likratam-
“He saw and ran to greet them…”
He runs out to the strangers and begs them to stop and rest. He fetches water to wash their feet. He and Sarah prepare food.
How is he able to be so welcoming in such an unpleasant situation?
Let’s look back at the Hebrew in the opening line. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew is actually- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day!
Read this way, it’s saying that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Discomfort is a form of God.
Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”.
What is “today”? Today is the open space of this moment, in which these words are now appearing.
So Avraham welcomes the painful moment in which he finds himself as his Divine guest. The very next moment, Avraham’s solitude is over, and God appears as three strangers- so he welcomes them as well and feeds them.
Whatever the moment brings, it’s all just different forms of the One Reality. The message?
Welcome this moment! God is visiting!
Take a moment now to see, hear, feel the presence of this moment. Take a breath- welcome it's ever-changing appearance. Let this moment be your friend, your intimate. As the Sabbath hymn says, "Boi Kalah- Come, oh Bride!"
As I write these words on this particularly warm day in the East Bay, I am (thank G-d) not in pain, and I’m recovering nicely from pushing myself to the limit for the sake of hospitality.
And thanks to my friend Janet who has generously taken in this new wayfarer for the next few weeks, I am now the recipient of her wonderful hospitality! Thank you Janet!!
There’s a story that on a particularly cold winter evening in early nineteenth century Poland, a group of learned guests came to visit the father of then five-year-old Simchah Bunem. While they were eating, the father called in his son, and said: “My boy, go and prepare us some novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality.”
When the child returned after a little while, his father asked, “Well, what have you got?”
The boy beckoned the guests to follow him into another room. Curious, they followed him, eagerly anticipating some impressive teaching from the young prodigy. When they entered the room, they were caught pleasantly by surprise: for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place!
On this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we grow ever more deeply in the Torah of Welcome- welcoming those who appear to us in our lives with a generous spirit of hospitality.
And, may we always remember to welcome this moment as the appearance of the One Reality- be it hot or cool, remote or intimate- making room for That which is now appearing…
In The World, Not of the World- Parshat Veyeira
There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!