When I was young, there was something called “television.” I remember those long afternoons: as the sunlight that poured through the living room windows waned minute by minute, the glow of the television grew stronger and stronger – the Brady Bunch, the Flintstones, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, Carol Burnett, Star Trek. Total absorption. As the hours went by, and the nagging feeling that other things had to get done (like my homework) increased, I would cling ever more ferociously to the characters and narratives beaming from the screen. Eventually the spell would be broken only by hunger, or having to go the bathroom, or my mother.
Oh yes, the screen is still just as strong; stronger in fact.
No more need for big pieces of furniture; my daughter can take a screen under a blanket and hide from everyone. Where did she go?
I have strategies for prying my children away from their screens. Usually, there are meltdowns and tears. But occasionally, I am successful. It works best if I am present when the screen time begins, and I can secure an agreement; a “covenant” of sorts: “Do you promise to turn off the screen and give it to me when I ask you to, without any arguments and without any Please Abba Just One More Minute?
Then, when it’s time, the power of the covenant kicks in, and she gives it right back – no resistance at all. This proves: no matter how hypnotized we become by something, we do have the power to let it go, if we are properly prepared.
This is so crucial to understand, if we wish to put down an even more powerful screen –the screen of our own minds, upon which we project the drama of our lives – also known as “ego.”
Most people are glued to the screen of ego almost constantly, looking up only occasionally when the walls of the heart are breached, or when a temporary lapse in the noise of the mind allows the radiant silence to shine through, even if for only a moment.
But we need not be screen addicts; we can put down the ego anytime. Listen: The Voice of the Beloved is calling you to dinner – there’s a banquet prepared just for you! Let go of your judgments about yourself and others. Let go of how you wish things were. Let go of your obsessions, assertions, denials, angers, grudges… there is something so much better than all of that, if you would be willing to set it aside, look up and go.
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go for yourself from your land, from your family, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you…
All those opinions, assertions, cravings, disappointments – they seem so real, so important. But they aren’t the real you. They are imprints from your “land” – your culture, your inherited identity, patterns from your family, your experiences, your traumas – but you need not be imprisoned by them.
Lekh L’kha – go for yourself – el ha’arets asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
We’re being called to the banquet hall and the feast is waiting. The Voice is calling you constantly, and whatever is constant is easily ignored. But you can tune into the Call if you’re willing to wake up from the ego’s hypnosis. The key is to have a covenant– commit to stop at regular times, turn away from the pull of the ego and toward the fullness of this moment…
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה
And there he built an altar and called upon the Name of the Divine…
The essential thing is to build a space in time, and commit to regularly withdraw from the ego’s momentum for long enough to connect with Reality, with the Divine. If you want to hear the Call, then call out – this is the movement of prayer. And then, be the stillness that hears – this is the spaciousness of meditation. Make a covenant to do it every day – even a few minutes goes a long way!
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה
Rise up, walk the Land, it’s length and breadth, because to you I give it…
The ego believes itself to be a separate entity, navigating through the “Land.” But in truth the Land is fully yours. You are the Land, because everything arising in your experience in this moment is truly you; it all arises in the open space of this moment, which is not separate from the awareness that you are...
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"River of Light" – Parshat Lekh L'kha and Morning Sh'ma Blessing 1
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lekh L’kha, begins with God telling Avram: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereisheet 12:1)
If you examine your experience right now, in this moment, you’ll probably see that most of the content of your experience is nothing new. You may be in a place that you’ve been many times, with sights, sounds and feelings that are familiar. And generally speaking, unless you’ve recently moved, or if you’re traveling, or changing careers, or if you’ve just had a child or started or ended a relationship, or endured another kind of loss (and if so, may you have comfort and healing), unless you’re experiencing some big changes like these, then life tends to feel familiar, maybe even old hat. And that’s why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to what’s familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, both happen on the level of the conditioned mind. Meaning, the aspect of your experience that derives from the past. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing brand new places, but you can’t fully appreciate it because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as you’re stuck in the conditioned mind, which really means being stuck in the past.
So, this is the Divine call to Avram: Don’t be stuck in the past! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come “el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I am now showing you.”
So, this is actually not just a story, it’s an instruction. You can keep in mind – Reality as it’s being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that that’s your conditioned mind. The familiarity comes from memory, from the past. And that’s a good thing; you don’t want to get rid of your memories, G-d forbid, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so this moment is also completely fresh and new, when you allow your conditioned mind – meaning, your thinking and your judging – to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha – Divine revelation is always now. That’s the practice of Presence.
But what if you keep getting stuck by your conditioning? How do stay present and deepen your presence, when conditioning can seem so powerful? Again, the main thing is recognizing your conditioning. And to do that, it’s helpful to see that there are three main levels, alluded to by the verse:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha, umimoladt’kha, umibeit avikha – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Mei’artz’kha means, “from your land.” This refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction from Presence; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a sign that your mind works, and that it’s there when you need it, thank G-d. Then, simply recognize – there’s my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.”
The next level is, umimoladt’kha, which means, “from your relatives.” These are your relationships, and this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. The other day I was talking to someone who made a mistake at work, and she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “get a life!”
We are social beings, we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also useful for normal functioning. But again, recognize: There’s my mind and its old conditioning, pulling me into its drama. Just recognizing it frees you from its tyranny, and you can choose to lekh lekha – go for yourself out from your past, and into this moment. Or, it can also be translated, lekh lekha – go to yourself –meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning. Go to your actual experience in this moment.
Which brings us to the last level, “umibeit avikha” which means, “from your father’s house.” This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how you were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that all of that is not the real you; they are parts of your conditioning.
Then, after you recognize all your conditioning for what it is, you can simply choose to shift your attention into your present moment experience, so that you stop empowering the illusory part of the conditioning. Again, the conditioning is still there when you need it, but by shifting into the present, the conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real.
So then, what is real? Meaning, what is the Reality of who you are, beneath your conditioned mind? It’s the light of awareness that perceives the conditioning, as well as the aretz asher arekha, Reality as it is revealed in this moment. In fact, your conditioning is part of haaretz asher arekha; it’s part of the landscape of the present moment, part of the ever-shifting content of your experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant light of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that’s the deepest level of you.
The tefilot, the traditional prayers, are all pointing to this truth. Structurally speaking, all the liturgy points to the Sh’ma, the centerpiece of all the prayers, calling us to awaken. The Sh’ma is decorated by special blessings that come before and after. I the morning, the first of the Sh’m’a concludes with, “Or hadash al tzion tair – Shine a new light on Zion –hinting at this quality of newness inherent in your awareness, because awareness is like light; it’s tair – shining and illuminating whatever is perceived in its field...
Why Aren't You Worried? Parshat Lekh L'kha
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvahceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you mustworry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish practice. It is believed to be so sacred that, traditionally speaking, one should not allow oneself to be interrupted while praying the Amidah. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah prayer for specific reasons. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there’s a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק: אמר רב ששת לא שנו אלא נחש אבל עקרב פוסק
We learned in the mishna that even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not interrupt one’s prayer. In limiting application of this principle, Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this mishna with regard to a snake, as if one does not attack the snake it will not bite him. But if a scorpion approaches an individual while one is praying, one stops, as the scorpion is liable to sting even if it is not disturbed.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors:
The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the holy words of the prayer, and suddenly you’re salivating for a cheeseburger.
In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the cheeseburger isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life.
On the other hand, if a scorpion starts crawling on you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer, do something to awaken your passion, and start over again.
But how do you awaken your passion?
Of course, there are many ways, but here is one that I find helpful: do something to create beauty and order in the world. Paint something. Make some art. Organize your closet. Vacuum the rug. Do the dishes. When you do, you will feel empowered by the force of blessing can comes through you, and you can direct the energy of that blessing into your practice – into your prayer, chanting, or meditation.
The reason this is so powerful is because beauty and order are actually qualities of Presence. When consciousness is cluttered, the radiant beauty Being can get covered up somewhat. But the more you come to this moment with openness, the more your consciousness becomes more and more expansive and free. Then, your inner beauty begins to glow its own brightness.
Sometimes, however, the ambient chaos (and sometimes trauma) of life can keep that beauty stifled on the inside, even when you attempt to become present through meditation or prayer. Then we need an extra boost from the outside; we need to take some physical action. This is the secret of how art becomes ritual – do something on theouter level to create an effect on the inner level.
There’s a hint of the power of beautification in this week’s reading, Parshat Noakh:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם …
May God expand Yaphet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…
This verse is part of a blessing that Noakh gives his son Yafet after the famous flood. The name Yafet means beauty, or expansiveness. The words are: Yaft Elohim l’Yafet –meaning, May the Divine expand Expansiveness, or May the Divine beautify Beauty.
This hints at the secret of how beauty becomes revealed: Consciousness contains the quality of beauty, but this inner beauty is easily obscured from itself. So, consciousness externalizes its beauty through action, and this outer beauty reflects the nature of consciousness back to itself, freeing it from its constraining clutter: The Divine expands Its Expansiveness…
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month. Heshvan is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began a week ago. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to this week’s Torah reading. In Kabbalah, water is often associated with awakening passion and desire, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow.
Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion.
Thus, Heshvan is a time to shift from the inner beauty accessed during Tishrei (through the prayers of the High Holy Days and Sukkot) to outer beauty through action, in order to reveal the inner beauty externally. This in turn further awakens the inner beauty, creating a positive pulsation between the inner and the outer…
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The Ark- Parshat Noakh
The world is a river; you cannot hold a river.
The world is a wave, but we see it as particles.
Forever the mind is building arks to float upon the churning ocean of Truth,
Holding frames of changing being above the morph so as to discern a narrative-
The arks- words!
The tzaddik’s naming of beings saves them from dissolution in God;
The tzaddik gives full attention to the being beheld, while all else drowns (for now) in the One.
Two by two- one being beholds another-
But when the ark is beached on the dry wasteland of things and agendas, the tzaddik cannot function!
S/he must plant a vineyard in the midst of the wreckage and take refuge in the wine of ecstasy-
That is, withdrawal from time into the Place where prayer erupts.
To others s/he looks naked and dysfunctional- useless.
“Let’s cover up this embarrassment!”
People are more comfortable with the building of great towers so they can say,
“Look what we have done!”
Not content with the warmth (Ham) of life, they must make a name (Shem) for themselves, claiming authorship of beauty (Yafet).
Have you forgotten how to let go?
To behold the one who stands before you and let all else drown in the One?
Don’t grasp for the spotlight, you will find everyone speaking gibberish.
But relax and take a walk with God~
God will show you how to construct your words, and illuminate them from above…
The Window- Parshat Noakh
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality.That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said, “Imagine you come to a strange country, where you know neither the language nor the customs. You feel like an alien, disconnected from others around you. But then you meet another traveler from your own country. Under normal circumstances, you may never have been interested in this person; but since you are both strangers, you have something in common in the strange land, and you become great friends…”
Rabbi Barukh’s “strange country” is really all of life, and the “companion” is really the Divine Itself. There is no experience which is not completely Divine; still, we are inclined to never notice this, until we begin to feel the pain of alienation. Motivated by feelings of disconnection or being “out of sync,” we become seekers of wholeness and peace, and it is then that the possibility of finding the Divine appears.
But to do that, our estranged self (ego) must “die” into intimacy. The “me” that seeks can motivate us, but it can never “get there” itself; it must be surrendered into the vast space of awareness that is already not separate from anything you perceive, that is already the Divine in the form of you and everything else that exists.
This past week we completed the Torah reading cycle. In the final parshah, V’Zot HaBrakha, Moses is not allowed to reap the fruits of his years of leadership; he must die just outside the Promised Land. Immediately, we go right back to the very beginning and start the reading cycle anew: Bereisheet bara Elohim – In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth…
Maybe it seems harsh and unfair that Moses couldn’t enter the land. But if we see the inner dimension of the story, there is a pointer to our own experience: the seeker of the “Promised Land” must die if you wish to truly “enter.” Stop seeing the Garden of Eden as something to get to, and connect with your actual experience now, in the present. The “Garden” is all there is, the Divine is all there is; relax the “me” and know: you are the Garden, you are the Divine…
More On Bereisheet...
The Garden- Parshat Bereisheet
“Bereisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim v’Et Ha’aretz-
"In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
What Is My Purpose?
When you awaken from sleep, is it because you’ve decided to awaken?
Or, do you simply wake up when your body is finished sleeping?
In sleep, there’s no deciding.
Once you are awake, you are faced with the question:
What shall I do? What is my purpose?
Waking up itself solves nothing-
There was no problem to begin with.
But once awake, life becomes a problem.
The universe springs into being-
Does creation have a purpose?
But “purpose” is itself something that’s created!
“Purpose” is a thought; “purpose” is a thing.
There cannot be a purpose for creation until after creation.
Before, there is no problem.
The universe comes into being because:
Sometimes, after many months, I clean my car.
My wife asks, “Why did you have to clean it now all of a sudden?”
But the only answer is: Why Not?
Before creation, there is no problem.
After, all the problems.
What is the solution to all the problems?
Go back to before the problems!
“Hinei Tov Me’od-
Behold it was very good!”
That is the Shabbat- the remembering that there were no problems before we got involved;
In fact, there are still no problems.
The “Before” never went anywhere, because it is not a thing.
It is always right here.
The Shabbat, the Garden- they were Here before Anything.
From within the Garden, there is no problem with moving back into problems.
From within Shabbat, there is no problem with moving back into time.
Seeing from within the Garden, even outside the Garden is really still inside the Garden-
For where can the Garden not be?
Seeing from outside the Garden, even inside the Garden is just more of the same:
“How can we manage to get back in?”
“Once we get in, how can we make sure that we stay there?”
But- The Garden is not “there.”
Thought springs into being from No-Thought; in No-Thought, there is no problem.
From No-Thought, why not think?
“Eitz Hada’at Tov v’Ra-
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad…”
Here we are amidst the trees of the Garden-
Why not take a bite of the good and the bad?
Of the This and the That?
Of the Before and the After?
But once you leave the Timeless, the Sword of Fire blocks your way back.
What is the Sword of Fire?
Nothing but thought!
You can't decide to awaken-
You can’t think your way back into the Garden-
The Garden never went anywhere.
But let thought cease, and you will see for yourself:
The “Purpose” is to come back to No-Purpose-
To the Place from which the Universe springs:
“Y’hi Or- Let there be light!”
To return to No-Purpose requires living with Great Purpose-
The Purpose of Being Present.
From There (which is always Here)
We can create something beautiful-
You, Me, and Others.
The world is waiting!
Do you not believe me?
Don’t worry- it’s Friday afternoon!
The Pool- Parshat Bereisheet
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
The realization of your essential nature as simple openness is represented nicely by the sukkah. The sukkah is a structure that has an inside and an outside, and yet the inside really doesn’t feel very different from the outside; it is open and permeable.
Similarly, when you recognize yourself as the open space of awareness, your thoughts and feelings come to reflect that openness, becoming permeable like the leaves and branches atop the sukkah. Normally, we tend to feel ourselves as being “inside” our bodies, with the rest of the world on the “outside.” But as we recognize that both “inside” and “outside” appear within awareness, this duality becomes less pronounced, and we can know ourselves as the simple open space within which all opposites arise.
How do we do that?
There is a beautiful hint in this week’s reading: Parshat Ha’azinu records a song that Moses teaches the children of Israel, so that they may sing it and remember their connection with the Divine. Appearing in the middle of the song are the following words:
יְסֹֽבְבֶ֙נְהוּ֙ יְבֹ֣ונְנֵ֔הוּ יִצְּרֶ֖נְהוּ כְּאִישֹׁ֥ון עֵינֹֽו
It surrounded him, imbued him with understanding and preserved him like the pupil of Its eye… (Deut. 32:10)
Here is the coded instruction for becoming present and awakening to your essential being:
יְסֹֽבְבֶ֙נְהוּ֙ – Y’sovevenhu – It surrounded: Surround the fullness of your experience right now with consciousness; let your awareness connect with everything that arises in your field of perception, without pushing anything away.
יְבֹ֣ונְנֵ֔הו – Y’vonenehu – imbued him with understanding: Understand that everything you perceive – from sensory impressions, to emotional feelings, to thoughts – are all literally different forms of consciousness. Everything you experience happens within consciousness, and is therefore made out of consciousness, at least within your experience.
יִצְּרֶ֖נְהוּ כְּאִישֹׁ֥ון עֵינֹֽו – Yitzrenhu k’ishon eino – and preserved him like the pupil of Its eye:Return yourself repeatedly to knowing that you are consciousness, that you are essentially an open space of awareness, beyond all thoughts and feelings. Just as the pupil of an eye is a simple opening through which light can flow, so too the full spectrum of Reality as you experience it flows through and as the open field of awareness that you are.
In this joyful time of Sukkot, may we become like a sukkah; may we invite in the ushpizin(guests) of everything that arises, that we may discover anew and live our nature as the openness of hospitality...
More On Ha'azinu and Sukkot...
The Salad- Parshat Ha'azinu
Once, my son told me about a show he saw on food waste. He learned that in our country alone, every person wastes a staggering twenty pounds of food per month! And yet, with a little more consciousness and care, much of the wasted food could be put to good use.
To illustrate the point, they assembled a group of folks and served them a gourmet salad. They asked the group to rate the salad, and everyone loved it.
Then, they revealed the truth: the salad was made entirely out of food waste!
A gourmet chef was given food that is normally considered waste- peelings, stems, stalks and other items that are usually discarded. The food scraps were cut, peeled, marinated, pounded and transformed into something the group perceived to be not only edible, but a unique and delicious gourmet dish.
It’s a good thing that the human mind can differentiate between food and garbage, between “wheat and chaff”, between nourishment and poison. But the shadow side to this dualistic thinking is that we tend to develop a rigid narrative about what is good and usable, and what needs to be thrown away.
Or, sometimes the opposite happens-
Out of fear that something valuable might be lost, some people become hoarders, surrounding themselves with far more junk than they could ever use.
But what if the human mind could be flexible enough to fully use whatever is present? Not hoard for another day, and not look at a fridge partially filled with odds and ends and decide, “there’s nothing to eat!”
One time, I was away with my son and my wife Lisa was home alone for a few days with our daughter.
Lisa thought, “I wonder if I can avoid going shopping and just live off whatever is in the house?”
Guess what- she did! No shopping that week. They were fine.
When the mind is full of rigid preconceptions, it’s impossible to see the full potential of what is present. But get some space around your thoughts (like send the boys to Arizona!), connect with what is really here in this moment, and new possibilities open up. There are little miracles waiting to happen.
But to open up this space and become present, you need to bring together the two opposite poles of your being- consciousness and flesh.
Ordinarily, human consciousness tends to congeal into a constant stream of thinking, taking the thinker into all kinds of imagined realities, while the body is left to deal with the here and now. The eyes are looking in the fridge, but the mind is thinking about something else!
This week’s reading begins with Moses’ words to the Israelites:
“Ha’azinu hashamyaim va’adabeirah-
Give ear, O Heavens, and I shall speak-
“V’tishma Ha’aretz imrei fi-
And listen, O Earth, to the words of my mouth.”
The “Heavens” and the “Earth” are metaphors for these opposite polls of our being. When mind is extricated from the relentless narratives of thought and brought into intimate connection with the body, then the mind and body can “listen” together as one. When that happens, the “secrets” that are hidden in plain sight can be revealed.
These “secrets” are ever-present, as it goes on to say-
“Let my teaching fall like rain, let my utterance flow like dew, like storm winds on vegetation, like raindrops on blades of grass…”
Torah is everywhere, soaking everything like rain, blowing through everything as the air we breathe. But to see it, to hear it, you have to open to it.
Opening means: there must be an opening in your thoughts, so that your awareness and your body can fully join together.
When that happens, there is no more sense of “me” as the thinker and “my body” that “I” inhabit. That separate “I” drops away.
There is a hint of this in the concluding verses of the parshah:
“Aley el har… ur’eh et eretz… umoot b’har…
Ascend the mountain… see the land… and die on the mountain…”
“Ascend the mountain” means to rise above your thinking mind.
“See the land” means to really see what is right here before you, now.
“Die on the mountain” means that when you rise above your mind and yet connect fully with your body, your ordinary thought-bound self can drop away.
This is the deepest freedom- freedom from the sense of “me” as a separate entity that is living in “my” body.
And when there is no more separate "me", what is left?
This can’t really be described, because language itself is rooted in thought, which is the basis for separateness. But there is a hint in this parshah:
“He is suckled with honey from a stone, and oil from the hardness of a rock…”
In other words, what seemed to be dead is bursting with life. Everything is miraculous, everything is nourishing.
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, told a story in the name of his grandfather:
“Once there was a fiddler who played so sweetly that no one who heard the music could resist dancing. One time, a man walked by a house where the fiddler played and he saw people dancing through the window. He couldn’t hear the music they heard, and so he thought they were madmen, flailing their bodies about tastelessly.”
As we approach the joyful and celebratory days of Sukkot, may we hear the music of Existence that plays all around us and within us. May we be like the sukkah- an open form, a beautiful frame, without much differentiation between “inside” and “outside”.
And as we leave behind the day of fasting, may we take care to fully use and share what we have, nourishing each other and minimizing our food waste. If you haven’t already, make the fast of Yom Kippur real by donating to your local food bank or other relief organization. Take a moment and give tzeddaka now!
The Mouse- Shabbat Sukkot
Once, during the days after Yom Kippur, we suspected that there was a mouse in the house.
First, the strange little pieces of refuse that would show up on the floor when we knew we had already swept. Then, the little mysterious scratchy sounds I would hear when I knew everyone else was asleep. But we knew for sure when we found that a bag of leftover hallah had been chewed through.
Not knowing how the mouse got in and out, we quickly became much more disciplined about putting all our food away! We could tell the mouse was still coming in, but most of the time there was nothing for it to steal.
It wasn’t until Sukkot began, however, that I actually saw it.
We were eating in the sukkah, when I went back into the house to get the main course. As soon as entered the back door of our house, I saw the little mouse scurry across the floor and squeeze right through a little opening below a sliding door that goes into the wall.
I took some plastic bags and pushed them into the opening to block it, then used duct tape to seal it up. A temporary measure, but the mouse seems to have not returned, leaving the sanctuary of our home free from it for now.
But there is another kind of sanctuary- a space in which the heart is free and the mind is clear. That space is a sanctuary from all stress, from all problems, from all tzures.
That space is the present moment.
It is ever available, and always right here. And yet, the ordinary human mind is unaware of this space. Living life almost entirely through the screen of thinking, this sanctuary is overrun with the “rodents” of thought.
Craving some peace, one attempts to put life in order so that the rodents won’t disturb anything too much. Unaware of where the rodents are coming from, all you can do is put the food away so as not to attract them.
By “putting the food away” I mean arranging your life to your liking- organizing things so that stress and chaos are kept at bay. This is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you, our kitchen was never so consistently clean as when that mouse forced us to develop better habits!
But once you see where the mouse is coming from, you can seal up the hole at its source. Meaning- once you see that the source of all chaos and worry is your own mind, you can “close the hole” through which chaos and misery enter.
Then, you can still clean your kitchen if you want to, but you’re not dependant on it. Meaning- you can organize your life to maximum benefit, but even when life is chaotic externally, even when there is loss, failure and uncertainty, the Sanctuary of the Present is not lost. Your mind can be free from those “rodents” of excess thinking, and in that clarity the Sanctuary reveals itself.
And yet, this is still a big secret, even for long-time spiritual practitioners!
Many people enter the Sanctuary in their moments of avodah, of meditation, ritual, chanting and so on, but cannot seem to stay connected in the midst of life.
In this week’s special reading for Shabbat Sukkot, Moses seems to have this very problem. Moses- the one who speaks to Hashem face-to-face, is afraid that the Divine Presence will not accompany him on his journey of leading the people (Exodus 33:12):
“Re’eh Atah omer eilai, ha’al et ha’am hazeh-
"See, You say to me, ‘take this people onward’, but You did not reveal whom You will send with me!”
Moses is afraid that the One who sends him on his mission will abandon him. What is Hashem’s response?
“Panai yelekhu v’hanikhoti lakh-
"My Presence will go and give you rest!”
The Presence “goes” wherever you go!
That’s because the “Presence” is not something separate from your own presence, from your awareness when it is actually present. And when your awareness is present, there is “rest”.
The word here for “I will give rest”, hanikhoti, has the same root as the name Noakh, the fellow who built the ark for the great flood. Whether the metaphor is rodents or destructive floodwaters, the idea is the same- there is an ark that floats above the raging waters in which you can find refuge.
In the case of Moses and the Israelites, they lived in temporary dwellings on their journeys- the sukkot in which Jews everywhere are now dwelling for this holiday that commemorates the ancient dwellings of the Israelites.
The sukkah is a sanctuary, yet it is hardly a solid thing. Open to the sky, vulnerable to the elements, it is really just a frame, not secure at all.
And that’s the paradox- that “sealing the hole” and securing your mind from the “rodents” of thought does not mean something hard or effortful. No plastic and duct tape! It means relaxing the mind, allowing the mind to be open to the fullness of what is already present.
But still, to do this constantly takes a special kind of effort that eludes most people. So much of the language of prayer is longing for the fruit of this effort!
As King David says in Psalm 27:
“Akhat Sha’alti me’eit Hashem-
"Only one thing I ask of You, Hashem, that I should dwell in Your house and meditate in Your sanctuary all the days of my life!”
The Sanctuary of Presence is ever-present, yet it is so easy to block it. Think of this- the sun is 864,938 miles in diameter, yet you can block its view entirely with just your little hand.
And yet, even while you are blocking the Presence, the blocking is itself happening in the present! The only thing blocking God, ultimately, is God- as God tells Moses a few verses later (Exodus 33:22):
“It will be when My Glory passes, I shall place you in a cleft in the rock and shield you with My hand…”
When our fleeting and immaterial thoughts hide the “Glory” of this passing moment, hardening the openness of the present into what feels like a narrow cleft of rock on all sides, remember: Your thoughts themselves are also part of this moment. Accept them with openness and let them pass as well.
In accepting and releasing your thoughts, they can dissolve, revealing the open space once again, as Hashem says next:
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see my ‘back’…”
Meaning, you will see in retrospect that your thoughts blocking the Sanctuary are themselves part of the Sanctuary. They are part of the reality of the present moment.
But the more simple and direct path is simply to bring your attention to literally anything physical that is already present. The more you train yourself to do this, the more you will become aware of the space behind whatever is present- the ineffable openness that is the present moment.
There is a story of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, that once he asked his son what he “prays with”. The boy answered that he inspires himself with the verse, “Every form shall prostrate itself before You.”
The boy then asked the rebbe, “What do you pray with, Abba?”
The rebbe answered, “I pray with the bench and the floor.”
On this Shabbat Sukkot, may we commit our attention ever more deeply to the bench on which we sit and the floor on which we stand, that we might open ever more deeply to the Sukkat Shalom- the Space of Peace that is this moment in which we now live.
I spoke to a woman once who had recently lost her husband. In her grief she confided in me that the most painful part was not that her husband had died – he had lived a good life and death is natural, after all – but that she didn’t fully appreciate him while he was alive. In his death, she was finally appreciating him so deeply, but now he was gone.
Why don’t we appreciate what is here now? Why does it take death to open our hearts?
The irony is that the past is always dead, but we hold on to it, and the holding on itself is what creates this separation from the preciousness that’s here now. But, if we bring ourselves to realize that the past is dead, that the only preciousness there is resides now in this moment, we can use the power of death to awaken.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayelekh, begins with Moses telling the Israelites before he dies:
הַיֹּ֔ום לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל עֹ֖וד לָצֵ֣את וְלָבֹ֑וא
Today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come back…
For many, connection with Reality, with the Divine, with the Space of this moment, is something one visits occasionally, perhaps only by accident. But for a few, the Divine becomes the central guiding Reality, the Place one returns frequently every day. For these few practitioners, the drama of “going out” and “coming back” can feel very pronounced, since one really wishes to stay there all the time.
But there is a later stage where the going out and coming back ceases. This is NOT because one simply stays in some static Divine consciousness all the time, which is impossible, but rather because one is no longer so concerned about the “me” that comes and goes. The Divine becomes one’s center of attention, so that even when one’s attention wanders from the Divine and then returns, it is the Divine that matters – not the “me” that wandered and returned. This is similar to death, in that the attachment to one’s self and life drama comes to an end: Today, meaning in the Reality of the Present, it is no longer possible to be concerned about the “me” that “goes out” and “comes back”…
The Maggid of Metzrich taught that this opportunity of these High Holy Days: to consciously let the “me” die, and let the force of this death blast our hearts open like the shofar to receive the fulness that is always present, and also to open to the full potential for the future, unburdened by any clinging to the past. That’s why we have to forgive each other, and even more importantly, forgive ourselves.
In this way, our loss is our gain. Rather than be in regret that we didn’t appreciate something or someone enough in the past, we consciously feel both the pain and the relief of letting go, and come now to arrive in the present. On these Days of Return, may we all be helped to make the Divine our center, so that the going out and coming back starts to pale in comparison…
Live From Your Depths- Parshat Vayelekh
Once, my wife and mother-in-law were giving a bath to our three-year-old daughter. A few minutes after she got in the water, she looked up and said, “Um, could you guys please put some toys in here so I don’t have to play with my feet?”
The mind loves things to play with. As children we call those play objects toys. As adults, we have different names for them, but they are essentially the same. They are stimulation. They are external content that we become fascinated with.
We don’t want to just “play with our feet,” or even worse, have nothing to play with at all. What could be worse for a child than to have to sit still, be quiet and do nothing? The mind craves and needs stimulation. For children, this stimulation is essential for the healthy growth of their brains, and so stimulation must be almost constant.
But at some point, that changes.
At some point, you might notice: all the stimulation, all the thinking, all the experiencing, wonderful and essential as they are, can be like the flaming sword of the keruvim, guarding the entrance to Gan Eden- the entrance to paradise.
At some moment, and maybe that moment is now, you notice:
There is an inner depth so vast, so beautiful, so alive, if you would only put down your toys and open to it.
That vastness is your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem- it is awareness meeting the truth of the present moment- Eloheikhem Emet.
But many people never discover this, and remain identified and entangled in the noise of mental toys, in the mind’s perpetual narratives. This creates an experience of separateness, of craving for the wholeness that is actually there all along, beneath the mind. That craving can lead to great inner disturbance, and ultimately, all of the horrors that still plague humanity.
What is the remedy?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Levi Bar Chama says in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish that when you feel yourself gripped by unwholesome motives, you should study some Torah (Berakhot 5a).
In other words, study some spiritual teaching that puts you in touch with your inner Divinity, just like you are doing right now. For the aim of spiritual teaching is not just to convey information, it’s to awaken your higher potential.
But, if that doesn’t work, he says to chant this verse:
“Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Ekhad-
"Listen Israel, Existence Itself is your own inner Divinity; there is only One Existence.”
In other words, stop and become aware that God is not something “out there” or separate. All you need do is “listen” because this moment is nothing but God, if your thinking mind would relax.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s one more trick: Think of your own death.
The irony of children is that, on one hand, they are such bright little explosions of life, free and unencumbered by the heaviness that so many adults carry around with them.
And, at the same time, they are so utterly obsessed with things that are really trivial, as anyone knows who has had to negotiate “sharing toys” with three-year-olds.
But as adults, despite the years of psychic crust we accumulate in our nervous system, there is this tremendous opportunity for depth when we let go of everything. That is the contemplation of death. We will all die, but we can die before we die, surrendering into the reality of this moment, letting go of the story of “me”.
This week’s reading begins shortly before Moses’ death:
"Moses went and spoke these words...
‘Hayom lo ukhal…’-
‘today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come in…’”
When you live on the surface, in the mind’s narratives, there is this sense of “me” going here and there, doing this and that.
But in hayom- in the “today”- there is no longer a “me” coming and going. In the present, you live from your depths that are far beyond your personal story. This is the death before you die.
It is said that a heavenly voice told the Baal Shem Tov he would be denied life in the World to Come for some small sin he committed. When he heard this news, he jumped for joy and danced.
“Why are you so happy?” said the heavenly voice.
“Because now I can serve God for its own sake, without ulterior motive.”
In these days of teshuvah, leading to Yom Kippur- The Day of At-One-ment, may our commitment to live from our depths become ever more deep, and may that depth be revealed in our thoughts, words and actions. May we speedily see a day when all of humanity lives and loves from its true depth and potential!
Good Shabbos, and g’mar hatimah tovah-
May you be inscribed for all good things!
This week’s reading is Parshat Nitzavim, which means “standing.” It begins with Moses telling the Children of Israel about all the blessings that will come from following the right path, as well as the curses that will come from following the wrong path, and that in fact they will follow both right and wrong paths. But eventually, after all these ups and downs, this beautiful line describes what will happen next:
וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹלֹ֔ו
You will return to Existence, which is not separate from your own inner Divinity, and you will begin to listen to Its Voice…
This prediction applies to each one of us; we can ask ourselves right now: Ad matai? How long will I remain preoccupied with the dramas of life with all its ups and downs, before I Return?
Behind all spiritual practices lies this one simple move– return to Reality, return to this moment. If you want to be free, if you want to realize your nature as wholeness, as peace, as joy, then be as the nitzavim – take your stand in your actual experience as it is, right now, being the space of awareness within which life unfolds. Be Present.
But if it’s so simple, why doesn’t everyone realize this right away?
Because the vast and infinitely superior reward that comes from Return to Presence is not always readily apparent. For many people, a whole lot of suffering has to come first before one is really motivated to find another way. Before that, Presence is meaningless.
So the real question is, have you suffered enough yet? How long until you Return?
And that’s where faith comes in. Return now; listen to the Voice of Reality as it speaks in this moment, and you may not feel anything special. Awakening comes when it comes, as an act of Grace. That’s why it says a few verses later:
וּמָ֨ל יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖
And Existence, which is your own inner Divinity, will circumcise your heart…
We don’t “circumcise” our own hearts; the dropping away of all separation and the realization of peace and wholeness as your own nature comes to us by Grace. But we canprepare ourselves for it, we can open ourselves to it. And that’s what Teshuvah, Return to Presence, is all about. But if you need a dramatic experience to convince you, you might give up before your practice bears fruit.
So please, have faith and keep at it!
A disciple of Reb Mordechai of Lekhovitz had a business partner who was a mitnagid, an opponent of the Hassidic way. The disciple kept urging his partner to come see his master, Reb Mordechai, but his partner obstinately refused again and again. One day, when they happened to be in Lekhovitz on business, the partner allowed himself to be persuaded and agreed to go to the rebbe’s house for a Shabbat meal.
During the meal, the disciple saw his partner’s face light up with joy. When he asked him about it later, his partner said, “When the rebbe ate, he looked as holy and radiant as theKohen Gadol – the High Priest – must have looked, making offerings in the ancient Temple!”
Later, the disciple went to his master, troubled in spirit, and asked his rebbe why his friend who hated the hasidim had such a wonderful experience on the first encounter, while he had not.
The master replied, “The mitnagid must see, but the hasid must have faith!
May we have the strength and faith to keep at our teshuvah, to return more deeply and frequently to Presence, and may this year bring new and unique opportunities to craft the vessels of our lives into conduits for the Divine Grace that yearns to get our attention.Amein, Good Shabbos!
More On Nitzavim...
Can't Stand It? Parshat Nitzavim
What happens when you can't stand something?
Ordinarily, there is a sense of "me" and the thing or person you "can't stand." Reality is split in two, and there is tension, contraction, stress.
How do you rise above this tension?
The Parshah begins:
"Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem...
"You all stand together today... from your hewer of wood to your carrier of water... to pass into the covenant...״
What is a covenant?
A covenant is a special, intentional connection between two beings- a coming together of two, rather than a separation and tension.
How do you connect with the Divine?
Nitzavim Hayom- Stand today- meaning, take your stand in this moment.
When you "stand" your head is raised up- meaning, you can see all that is below- your body, your feelings, your thoughts. Use your head to be aware of yourself in this moment, rather than spinning off into judgments, fantasies, and opinions about what you can't stand! Instead, take your stand in this moment.
From your hewer of wood to your carrier of water-
It doesn't matter what your identity is, what roles you play, what your opinions are. On the level of awareness, we are all the same transcendent presence.
Then it says:
"L'ma'an hakim ot'kha hayom-
"In order to establish you today..."
That is, establish yourself in the present moment! Make Presence a way of living, not merely a technique or occasional practice.
When your presence burns brightly like the sun, far above your opinions and yet intimately aware of them, then the One Being looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere. Then there is no longer "you" connecting with "God," but there is simply Being, shining forth from everything. From that state, the love and wisdom to make peace and "stand with others" becomes available...
Watch Me Nae-Nae- Parshat Nitzavim
Once I took my 3-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy out for dinner, along with my son’s nine-year-old friend.
As we sat in the vegan Japanese restaurant waiting for noodle soups and avocado rolls, the friend was singing some popular song, trying to get my daughter to sing along and do the dance moves that apparently went with it.
“Watch me whip! Watch me nae-nae!” he sang, showing her how to wave her arm in a certain way that I assume is from a video he saw.
I had never heard the song before, and something about the way he was doing the arm wave and singing “watch me nae-nae” seemed a little off to me. I don’t want to say it sounded obscene, but not knowing what “nae-nae” meant, I was suspicious. Was this appropriate for a three year old?
I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I told him to please stop.
The next day, I went to pick up my daughter from her Jewish preschool. When I got there, all the kids were being led in a dance by their teacher.
What was the dance?
“Watch me whip! Watch me nae-nae!”
The song blasted from the stereo and all the kids were doing the moves. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently her teacher thought the song was perfect for preschoolers!
Later on, I told my wife the story and we laughed so hard. The next day, she told the whole story to the teacher, who also laughed and said, “Yeah I thought the song was a little strange too, but I learned it from the Rebbetzen- the rabbi’s wife!”
Our narratives about reality are not the same as actual reality. Was the song appropriate or inappropriate? We had different narratives about it, but I still have no idea what "nah nae" means.
Similarly, we have all kinds of narratives about who we are and who other people are, but ultimately they are just stories, mental fabrications. The roles we play, the scripts we run, the functions we fulfill, are not what we actually are.
So what are we?
This week’s reading opens with Moses’ words to the Children of Israel:
“Atem nitzavim hayom-
You are standing today…”
He then goes on to describe all the different identities of the people who are “standing”- the heads of the tribes, the elders, the officers, the men, the women, the children and the stranger, ending with the sweepingly inclusive description-
“…meikhoteiv eitzekha ad sho’eiv meimekha-
From the hewer of your wood to the carrier of your water.”
In other words, all the different identities are standing together.
What does it mean to “stand today?”
It means to "take your stand" in the "today"- in the present. When you stand in the present- awake, still, and attentive- all of your identities and roles are temporarily suspended. When you stand in the present, you are pure potential, pure aliveness, a field of awareness encompassing a human form.
Why are they standing today?
It goes on to say,
“L’ovrekha bivrit Hashem Elohekha-
To cross over into the covenant of Being, which is your own Divinity…”
All identities, in the end, are just roles, just stories. It doesn’t matter if you are a hewer of wood or a carrier of water. When you simply stand, you stand as Being, as the Divine Being that you are.
I remember one time a visiting rabbi came to our shul and gave a talk on Shabbat. When he stood up to talk, he first stood in silence. He looked around the room, making eye contact with everyone. The silence was powerful, and lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.
Finally, he began to talk. His teaching was very good, but the truth is, it was nothing compared to his silence. When he stood in silence and connected with everyone in the room one by one, there was a shift. That ineffable quality of being- the quality that some call “Divine”- was palpable.
The roles we play, on the other hand, have the potential to divide us. Our roles can create competition. Our stories can become arguments over who is right, over who has the “truth.”
The solution? Stand together.
We need not get rid of our roles, but we do need to choose roles that express our basic oneness, our inner Divinity. But to do that, we need to be committed to it. That’s the brit, the covenant.
Commitment to transformation, to truly embody who you want to be, may seem difficult. But, as the Torah reminds us later in the same parshah,
“Ki karov eilekha hadavar me’od-
this matter is very near to you-
b’fikha uvilvavkha la’asoto-
in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
A shopkeeper once complained to Reb Moshe of Kobrin that his neighbor, who sold exactly the same goods as he did, always made a killing, while customers just passed on by his shop.
“I can promise big profits to you, too,” said the tzaddik, “but only on the condition that when you see your neighbor doing well, you must thank Hashem for his success. Something like this- Thank God for the rich livelihood of my neighbor!
"It may be difficult to say this wholeheartedly at the beginning, but as you train your mouth to say the words, in time they will find their way into your heart as well- until in fact you will be saying them with all your heart.
"For, in the verse- ‘in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it’- we first find ‘in your mouth’,and only after is it written ‘in your heart.’”
If you want your life to express your inner Divinity, rather than merely repeat old scripts and narratives, it’s important to consciously construct your narratives- don’t let them construct you!
Choose who you want to be, write it down and repeat it often.
And, to tap into the transformative power that makes this possible, it is tremendously helpful to frequently go beyond all narrative, and stand in the silence of pure potential. That’s meditation- that's standing today.
As we come into Shabbat Nitzavim, the Sabbath of Standing, and then into the New Year beginning Sunday night, may we stand in connection with all Being. May we “crown” Reality as “King” over all our mental narratives. May we know ever more deeply the sweetness and bliss of what we truly are, and the power and potential of what’s possible when we stand together.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu-
May you be inscribed for a good year-
And may you consciously inscribe yourself as an expression of your deepest potential!
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once while he was absorbed in a mystical ecstasy, he heard a knock at the window. A drunken peasant stood outside and asked to be let in and given a bed for the night. For a moment, the tzaddik’s heart raged with anger and he thought to himself, “How can this drunk have the hutzbah to ask to be let into this house!”
But then he said silently in his heart, “And what business does he have to exist at all, when Existence is nothing but the Divine? But if Hashem gets along with this guy and allows him to exist in this world, who am I to reject him?” He opened the door at once and prepared a bed.
Everything that appears in our awareness is actually nothing but a form of awareness. So, when we resist something or someone who appears, we are really resisting our own being; we are creating an inner split, an experience of exile, of being not at home. But when we welcome whatever comes, whether it be a person, or a situation, or a feeling – it doesn’t matter – the hospitality we express toward that which appears allows us to be at home ourselves, in this moment.
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
It will be when you come into the land that Hashem, your Divinity gives to you as an inheritance and you take possession of it and dwell within it…
The fullness of this moment, along with these bodies we now inhabit, is like a nakhalah,an inheritance; it comes to us from the boundless past, as an unearned gift. From the infinite possibilities of what could be, here we are, now.
But the ordinary activity of the ego is to resist aspects of this moment, and thereby create a sense of dis-ease, of not being at home in our nakhalah. We’re like the Israelites wandering in the desert. But if we want to truly feel the peace of dwelling within our inheritance, we have to actively take possession of it, and that means actively welcoming whatever appears, while resting awareness within our bodies. In that active welcoming, we can come to the state of simply being (hayah) through “coming in” (ki tavo) to the “land” that is this moment (el ha’aretz).
This is both the goal and the path of awakening: to continuously dwell in the truth of this moment:
אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Akhat she’alti me’eit Hashem, otah avakeish, shivti b’veit Hashem kol y’mei hayay, lakhazot b’no’am Hashem, ul’vakeir b’heikhalo!
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine – this I seek – to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of the Divine and to meditate in Its Sanctuary!
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Doing and Being: Parshat Ki Tavo
Parshat Ki Tavo begins, “V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land that the Divine gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, and to dwell within it…” It then goes on to talk about a special ritual of gratitude that involves putting the first fruit of your harvest into a basket, making a pilgrimage to the Temple, and offering the fruit in gratitude for having come out of slavery in Egypt, and into the the "land flowing with milk and honey."
On a simple level, this is a farmer’s gratitude ritual for the goodness of the land. But on a deeper level, V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – coming into the land means coming into the place you already are, coming into the full Presence of whatever is present. This is hinted at by V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in – meaning, coming in to the mode of Being. Our lives consist of both Doing and Being, but we tend to identify with the Doing mode. Doing means, constantly going out– constantly reaching toward a goal we imagine in the future. This is how we create and accomplish things, which is wonderful and necessary. But if it’s not balanced by the mode of Being, if there’s total identification with the mind and with Doing, then there’s no peace, there’s no contentment, there’s no coming in.
So, what’s the solution? V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – come into this place that you are, by connecting your awareness with the Presence of the aretz- the earth on which we live, this body through which we live, and with whatever else happens to be present. The mind tends to lurch toward some imagined fruits in the future. Instead, bring your focus to the fruits that are already here, in the basket of this moment. Then you will be able to say as the ancient farmer said, “Vayotzieinu Hashem mimitzrayim – Hashem brought us out of Egypt – meaning, we are brought out of the contracted bundle of mind-identified ego through simply Being, because the Hebrew Name of God actually means, Being. V’samakhta v’khol hatov – and then you will rejoice with all the goodness that you are given, you and the strangers among you.
So on this Shabbat Ki Tavo – The Sabbath of Coming In, may we reel in our awareness from the tendrils of thought and time, into deeper connection with the earth, with the body, with our senses, with all the fruits that are just now ripe, giving thanks for this moment of Existence as it is –
Chosen to Choose- Parshat Ki Tavo
As I was making coffee one morning, my almost ten year old son came into the kitchen and sat with me a bit. We started talking about the Sh’ma, the Jewish affirmation of Divine oneness. I asked him if he knew what was the first of the two blessings that come before the Sh’ma.
“Yotzer or uvorei hoshekh- Former of light and Creator of darkness- Oseh shalom uvorei et hakol- Maker of peace, Creator of All.”
I told him that these words actually come from the Bible, from the Book of Isaiah. There, Isaiah describes God with the same words- except for one difference.
At the end of the verse in Isaiah, it doesn’t say-
“… uvorei et haKol- Creator of All."
Rather, it says- “… uvorei et haRa- Creator of evil”!
Of course, “Creator of all” must include “evil” as well, since evil is part of the “all”, but the rabbis who composed this blessing must have thought Isaiah’s words were just a little too provocative, a little too dangerous.
After all, how could a “good God” create evil?
It’s the age-old theological dilemma (for those who go for theological dilemmas).
Still, they included this verse right before the Sh’ma to emphasize that God is not one side of a polarity. God is Oneness, and that Oneness includes everything.
I asked my son, “What do you think about Hashem creating evil?”
He said, “There might be evil, but we are not evil, Abba.”
And, I would add, sometimes it takes the experience of evil to realize your own inherent goodness. Sometimes it takes the experience of the “bad” to come to a true and simple humility, to a deep gratitude for the blessings that can otherwise go unnoticed.
This week’s reading, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude and joy that the Israelites are to perform when they come to dwell in the Promised Land:
“Ki tavo el ha’aretz-
"When you enter the land…
"V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah-
"You shall take from the first fruits of the earth…”
It goes on to describe how the celebrant should put the fruit in a basket and bring it to the place where the Divine “chooses” to “make the Holy Name rest”.
The celebrant then makes a declaration of having come from slavery to freedom, of having now received the gift of the land, and of now coming to offer its first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with "family" and “stranger” together.
There is a fruit that you are reaping right now-
That fruit is the fullness of this moment. This, now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
But what is your “First Fruit?"
It is your immediate relationship with this moment. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both joy and suffering. Your mind may comment with stories and judgments.
But before the stories, before the judgments, there is something more immediate. There is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When you descend deeply into yourself, when you return from the journeys of the mind into the reality of the present, it can dawn on you: you have the choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude.
This is not a denial of suffering. In fact, it is often thanks to our suffering that we are awakened to those things that truly matter, to the blessings we are constantly receiving but often take for granted.
And when you have the choice to relate to this moment with gratitude, is that not grace? It is your choice, but the fact you have become aware of that choice is a gift. It is as if God has chosen "rest Its Presence" in the place of your own awareness.
Is there any greater gift than that? Is that not the movement from slavery to freedom?
Two disciples of the Hassidic Master known as the “Maggid of Mezritch” came to the Maggid with a question:
“We are troubled by the teaching of our sages, that one must bless for the evil one experiences as well as the good (Mishna, Berachot, 9:5). How are we to understand this?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the beit midrash (house of study). There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him.
Zusha just laughed and said, “I think you’ve come to the wrong man. I have never experienced suffering in my life.”
But the two knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty, loss and illness… and they understood.
On this Shabbat Ki Tavo, the Sabbath of Entering, and in this month Elul, the month of Return- may we fully enter this place we are already in. May we re-turn evermore in gratitude for the blessing of this “fruit,” and for the suffering that has brought us to this gratitude. May we too rejoice with all who are strange, knowing everyone as expressions of the One...
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once he travelled through many villages trying to collect funds so that he could liberate the poor Jews who were incarcerated in the Ukrainian debtor’s prison. Day after day, he went from door to door pleading the case of those poor souls rotting away in the dungeon, but no one would contribute anything.
After weeks of failure, feeling dejected and frustrated, he gave up and set out to return home, regretting having wasted all that time he could have spent learning and praying. But just as he approached his house, a woman ran up to him in a panic:
“Rabbi, my husband was caught stealing a piece of clothing and was viciously beaten by the police and thrown in jail!”
Without hesitation, the rabbi turned around and went to intercede with the judge. After much effort, he was able to get the prisoner released. When he went to fetch the prisoner from jail, he sternly warned him: “Remember the beating they gave you and don’t ever do anything like that again!”
“Why not?” replied the thief, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”
Upon hearing his words, the rabbi resolved to return to his task of raising money to ransom prisoners, and eventually was highly successful in liberating many.
There is a debt to be paid for our spiritual freedom as well.
We too must not give up “raising the funds,” moving from one situation to the next, bringing our consciousness fully to each moment, to each feeling, to each reaction, to each thought. Again and again – we might get caught, absorbed and coopted by whatever is arising in our experience, but don’t give up! The real danger is never failure. The real danger is allowing our failures to develop into the belief that freedom is impossible. The phenomena of our experience have a certain gravity; they tend to draw us in, to capture us.
But if you don’t give up, if you keep at it, you will eventually capture their captivating power. After all, you are far more vast than any impulse, than any experience. You are the open space within which the experience unfolds.
But how can you access this truth? This week’s reading begins:
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
Life is, in a sense, like a battle ground. If you want spiritual freedom, you have to be one pointed and relentless, like a warrior.
And yet, וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand – the victory is a gift placed in your hands by the Divine; it is not something you win through effort. So, there’s this paradox – on one hand, you’ve got to have unshakable will, and on the other, total surrender. In fact, there’s no contradiction, because the unconscious impulse is to struggle, to fight with Reality. The impulse to fight is oyevekha– your enemies– and to conquer that kind of enemy requires surrender to the “is-ness” of this moment.
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine, this I seek: to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life and meditate in Its Sanctuary…
These words from Psalm 27 are an invocation for this Kavanah, this heart direction, for the inner freedom that must be ransomed through the consciousness-funds collected in every moment, every situation, every feeling, every thought: Above every goal, above every desire, there must be Only One Thing.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה
Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v’ya’ameitz libekha, v’kaveh el Hashem –
Hope to the Divine, be strong and your heart will be courageous, hope to the Divine!
In this time of Elul, let us remember and practice ever more deeply this one-pointed surrender… Good Shabbos!
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Effortless Battle: Parshat Ki Teitzei
On the surface, this parshah begins by talking about laws of battle. But on a deeper level, what are your enemies? They’re the intense experiences that we tend to get caught in. You get angry, and you project the blame on something out there, struggling, maybe yelling, or judging, all of which are all about trying to force reality into conforming to your will, or maybe punishing it for not conforming. Or, you have a wonderful experience, and you get disappointed or even depressed when it’s over, because you’re psychologically clinging to the past.
But this verse is saying, untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – and Hashem puts them in your hands. In other words, you can have victory over your enemies, but it doesn’t come through fighting or struggling. Your victory is put right in your hand, if you open your hand. Meaning, don’t struggle with your experiences. Fully let them be as they are, without clinging to good things or blaming anyone for bad things, and then let them go when they want to go. It’s really effortless, because it’s not about controlling things, but about relaxing the impulse to control things. That’s why it says, shavita shivyo – you capture their captivity. Meaning, our experiences are constantly trying to capture us, to draw us in to their dream and sometimes nightmare, but if you remember: simply be with this moment as it is, and let it go when it goes, then you easily “capture its captivity” – you can control your impulse to control, and be victorious over your own mind.
This is also totally relevant in dealing with other people that may be possessed by collective ego, such as what we are seeing today with neo-nazis and so on. When you see others that are hateful or angry or demeaning, and you get dragged into their drama, judging and hating them back, you only reinforce the context that creates people like that. So even as you stand up for justice, even as you say "no" to ideologies of hate and the people who promote them, remember that you have a tremendous power to make a difference in the world on a very deep level if you can stay conscious and not get dragged into the drama. Because ultimately, it’s only when there’s a profound change in consciousness, only when enough people learn to see through their own egos, only then will the plug get pulled on the destructive forms of collective ego that we see today.
And to help make that change in consciousness, there’s ultimately only one way, and that’s to see through your own ego. You’re never going to get someone else to see through their ego by judging and yelling at them, right? You can only see through your own, and in so doing, create a ripple of awakening that will join with other ripples of awakening, until enough people wake up. It doesn’t have to be everyone, it just has to be enough to tip the balance.
So on this Shabbat Ki Teitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, let’s remember that to engage the enemy of resistance, of ego, don’t “go out” into battle, because that only creates more ego, more resistance. Instead, know that untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Victory is being put right in your hand, if only you open your hand, if you open yourself to the experience of this moment. Then you can "go out" and do battle, but it's not a battle of resistance and struggle, it's a battle of overcoming darkness with light, of overcoming resistance with love. Good Shabbos!
The Security of Anger- Parshat Ki Teitzei
Once I was in the Oakland Airport with my family. After checking our suitcases, we arrived at security to find an incredibly long line, winding around rope dividers and culminating with a tiny funnel into only two security gates. There were several more gates that could have been opened to move things along, but for whatever reason, they were not staffed and were closed.
Right in front of us, a middle-aged man started cursing angrily. “What the %$^$ is going on here? Why don’t they ^%&$*# open the other gates??”
He started verbally abusing the security person looking at IDs and checking tickets. He demanded to speak to a supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, he cursed him out too. The supervisor said, “You just hold that thought, and I’ll go get someone for you to speak to.”
I was sorry my three-year-old girl had to hear that language. I was bracing myself for some police to come and wrestle this guy to the ground.
Strangely, no police showed up. Instead, he just kept on cursing and venting all the way through the line.
When it was time to remove our shoes and put our laptops in separate bins, I didn’t want to aggravate him more with our clumsy family choreography, so I offered to him that he go ahead of us.
“Nah, that’s okay,” he said, “I have plenty of time, I’m just mad about how they’re running this place.”
He had plenty of time!
I saw an interview once with an Indian spiritual teacher who had a novel way of explaining the spiritual path that I had never heard before.
He said that the “self” is like a cow in a pasture.
The cow always wants to wander outside the field and into the town or woods, but when she does, she gets attacked by wild animals, kids throw rocks, people shoot guns. Eventually, she figures out she’s better off to just stay in her own field.
The “field” is the inner heart. When the “self” dwells in the inner heart, according to this teacher, it enjoys union with the Divine. When it gets tempted and wanders outside the heart, it always ends up in suffering.
So, in this teaching, the aim is to learn to keep yourself in the cave of your heart. That’s it.
To me, this was a wonderful description of Presence.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose connection with this moment by getting lost in the mental narratives that our minds are constantly superimposing on Reality. The mind can dream up something wonderful one moment, but then change to a nightmare in the next.
I thought of this teaching when I saw this guy in the airport. Even if he were to miss his flight and his plans would be disrupted, what is really creating his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Nothing but his mind!
The mind creates stories and gets all excited about them. It was even more telling to learn that he wasn’t even going to be late. He was just out to make some enemies, to do some warfare.
As this week’s reading begins-
“Ki teitze la-milkhama al oyvekha-
"When you go out to battle against your enemies…”
When you leave the sacred place of the heart, when you leave your connection with the present as it is and travel the labyrinth of the mind and its necessarily self-centered stories, you create your enemies and battles.
But then the rest of the verse says,
“Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha v’shavita shivyo-
"And Existence- your Divinity- puts it in your hand, and you capture its captivity.”
It’s a strange construction- “shavita shivyo- capture its captivity.”
But if you understand that it is you who are captured by seeing the world as your enemy “out there”, then you need to “capture your captivity”- meaning, you need to be bigger than those ensnaring mental narratives.
How do you do it?
You can do it by understanding- Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha - Existence, which is your own Divine nature, is giving this moment to you.
This is both surrender and empowerment:
Surrender to the truth of what is, rather than fighting with your idea of what is, and also empowerment to create a narrative that allows you to dwell in the cave of your heart, that allows you to respond not from ego, but from the Divinity that you are…
It once happened that a large group of hassidim went to visit Reb Yitzhak of Vorki in a village near Warsaw. In their enthusiasm to get to their rebbe more quickly, they cut through a field and damaged the grain crops with their trampling.
One of the employees responsible for the damaged field was himself a hassid by the name of Reb Moshe. Seeing the damage the hassidim caused, Reb Moshe stormed into the rebbe’s room and cried, “Look what these idiots have done! They should be beaten for this! It would be a mitzvah to beat them!”- for this was the custom among wealthy land owners of that time.
Reb Yitzhak gave no answer. Assuming that the rebbe agreed with his view, the angry man strode out to have the hassidim beaten.
But the tzaddik called him back and said, “When you perform a mitzvah, you must articulate your holy intention by first contemplating and pronouncing the evocation that begins, ‘L’shem yikhud- for the sake of the Unification.’ Since you are a hassid, you should also purify yourself for the holy act by immersing yourself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath). So, after you go to the mikveh, and devoutly chant l’shem yikhud, then you can go ahead and perform your mitzvah…”
Of course, the thought of performing those rituals to sanctify his "mitzvah" made him realize his own unconsciousness. Embarrassed, he left the rebbe's presence.
My friends, before going out against our “enemies”, may we enter the mikveh of the present and connect with our deepest heart-intention for unity and peace. And, may we have the strength of commitment to remember to remember, even as life circumstance and reactive forces try to pull us into the battlefield!
Once there was a rabbi who decided to start a yeshivah, a school for Jewish learning. He wanted it to be refuge from the world where young men could grow spiritually, so he built it away from civilization, on the bank of a beautiful river.
Many people came to learn. But after a few months, he noticed some commotion on the other side of the river. Many cars were coming and going, and people seemed to be partying and having a good time.
When he investigated, he found that that a courtesan had opened a bar and brothel. Lots of rich men came in big cars and carried on all night. He started thinking to himself, “Oy! That’s just what I need! My boys will be tempted away!”
Then he became angry: “Why is she wasting her life like that, and leading so many people to sin? She really shouldn’t be doing that!”
Meanwhile, it happened that the courtesan looked across the river and saw the littleyeshivah. “I don’t know why I’m leading such a dirty life like this. Look at those holy people! They must be so happy and spiritual, so connected to the Divine, I wish I could be like that!”
The two of them contemplated like this for many months, each fixating on the other, when one day they suddenly both died. Angels came to accompany the spirit of the woman to paradise. But a hoard of ugly demonic spirits came for the rav.
“Hey, what going on? You must have gotten your addresses mixed up!”
“No mistake,” replied the demons, “We’ve come to take you to she’ol.”
“But what have I done wrong? I sit and learn and pray and fast and meditate all day, and help these boys to do the same!” he argued.
“Yes,” said the demons, “you do all the right things physically, but in your mind, you’ve been doing nothing but contemplating how ugly, unholy a life that woman is living, and so that’s the future you have created for yourself– we have come to the right place!”
To live an awakened life doesn’t mean to merely do external practices. It means: totally accept what comes to you with love, even and especially when it’s not what you want, but then also you must actively create what you do want, and you do that first of all on the level of thought. In Pirkei Avot 2:1, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says:
אֵיזוֹ הִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
What is the straight path a person should choose for oneself?
Kol shehi tiferet l’oseha – everything that is good to do for oneself, v’tiferet lo min ha’adam – and that will be appreciated by others.”
In other words, take responsibility to create the life you want, and share that goodness with others.
But so often, we unconsciously do just the opposite– we begrudge what comes to us, blaming others or blaming the world for our perceived misfortune, and then we don’t take the steps we can take to create something better. And, we can often do this without even knowing it, if we’re not aware of our own minds. Like the story, we can seem to be doing the right thing externally, but in our minds, we can be creating the opposite. This week’s reading begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrin titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha –
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…
How do you guard the gates of your own mind, so that negativity doesn’t sprout and create a personal hell?
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְהוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד
Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid
I keep the Divine Name before me constantly…
Keep your mind vibrating with a sacred phrase, such as Atah Hu – You are the Divine,knowing that everything arising in your experience are all forms of the One Reality. Like the woman in the story, see the Divine everywhere, focus on the Divine in everything. Then the Divine will be your refuge from all potential danger that can sprout from your thoughts. As the psalm says:
אַתָּ֤ה ׀ סֵ֥תֶר לִי֮ מִצַּ֪ר תִּ֫צְּרֵ֥נִי רָנֵּ֥י פַלֵּ֑ט תְּסֹ֖ובְבֵ֣נִי סֶֽלָה
Atah seiter li, mitzar tizreini, ranei faleit t’soveveini, selah!
You are a shelter for me, from constriction you rescue me, with glad song of rescue you envelop me, selah!
More On Shoftim...
Two Steps to Actualization: Parshat Shoftim
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to "judge the judge" in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.
It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So, on this Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High and Holy days of up-leveling our relationship with life, may we all refocus our efforts on both of these crucial aspects of the Path – realizing and embodying, realizing and embodying, and may our suffering world please come closer to healing and transformation as well. Good Shabbos!
There Goes the Neighborhood- Parshat Shoftim
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in r-r-r-repetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R.” She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage- “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what’s your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t real- you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of your day, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “place the judge in your gate”- meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”
One time, when my wife's parents were visiting, we went out for a big family dinner. After we ordered, we waited and waited for the food to come, but nothing came. After about a half hour or so, the family started to get restless and irritated. Eventually one of us called the waiter over to ask what's going on.
"Yes, I'm so sorry!" said the waiter, "We're having a hard time in the kitchen, but it's coming soon, I promise!"
This happened over and over – he kept saying it was coming soon, it's about to come out, but it never came out. Finally, he came over again: "I'm so sorry – The chef chopped his finger off by accident, but I promise you the food is coming out in like two minutes – I promise!"
Oh my God! How horrible! But we kept waiting; ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes go by, still nothing. Finally our five-year-old girl says, "Do you think he chopped off his other finger?"
We've all had experiences like this, waiting and waiting for something. There's some expectation that's not getting fulfilled, and a feeling of irritation arises. Then, for most of us, there is a kind of inner separation occurs, a "turning away" from whatever the experience is, a "dis-ease" with the reality of the moment. I might describe it as the opposite of relaxing into a hot tub. It's the opposite of being really tired and lying down and drifting to sleep. It's the opposite of enjoying the moment. There's a dis-ease, a resistance, a sense of judgment that happens almost automatically in the presence of discomfort.
But, it's possible for discomfort to arise and not make the decision to disconnect. But to do that, we have to make another decision: to simply come close to the feeling that we're having – to be karov.
Then, miraculously, the discomfort becomes less significant, and the more significant thing is simply the energy of consciousness that's taking the form of the discomfort;because underneath the discomfort is your own life energy. It's your own consciousness.
Yes, consciousness can take the shape of irritation due to some expectation that's not being met. But when you come close to it – when you say, "Okay, I'm going to be Karov – intimate – with this feeling," then it's just as if you were to relax into a hot tub. That's the that's the profound shift.
To do this, it doesn't take much intellect; you just decide to do it. But there are also ways of thinking that can help us be karov. One way is summed up in the phrase, "Gam zu l'tovah- This is also for the good."
Once there was a king who had a trusted minister, and the minister would be with the king all the time and give him good advice.
One day, when the king was chopping some vegetables, he accidentally cut his finger really deeply with a knife. "Oh, how could I do that? I was paying such close attention!"
He calls his minister: "Can you explain to me how I did this? It seemed like the knife jumped out of my hand!"
"Gam zu l'tovah– this too is for the good!" said the minister.
"What do you mean?" yelled the king. "How could you say gam zu l'tovah? You're out of here! Send this guy to the dungeon!"
So the minister gets thrown in the dungeon. "Gam zu l'tovah," the minister said again.
A little while later, the king went on a hunt with his hunting companions. Suddenly, he catches a glimpse of a deer and starts swiftly chasing after it, going deep into the forest, away from all the other companions. The deer gets away, and the king is left all alone, lost in the forrest. Eventually he gets tired, so he ties up his horse, sits under a tree and dozes off.
A little while later, he hears some kind of weird sound. He wakes up to find a huge lion sniffing him. He doesn't know what to do. He's terrified! The lion's throat is growling as he sniffs. Suddenly, the lion draws back his head, makes a face and runs away.
"I can't believe it!" the king says to himself. He calls out for his companions. Eventually they find him, and they all return to the palace.
"I'll have to call back my minister from the dungeon to ask about this!"
So he calls back the minister and tells the whole story. The minister says, "Yes of course!Gam zu l'tovah! That's why you cut your finger. Just as you are the king, and when we serve you food it should always be unblemished, so too the king of the beasts wants unblemished food. When the lion realized you had this cut on your finger, he thought you were not fit for the king of the beasts, and so he left."
The King was impressed. "Very good!" he replied. "But what's so gam zu l'tovah about you getting thrown in the dungeon?"
"Well," said the minister, "of course you know that I'm always with you no matter what you're doing. So if you hadn't thrown me in the dungeon, I would have been with you hunting, and I would have been there with you under that tree. Since I don't have a cut of my finger, I would have gotten eaten by the lion!"
Can we frame the moment so that we can see the ultimate goodness that will come from unpleasant experiences? Can we relax into whatever the moment brings, so we can be unified with it, so we can be karov? In other words, can we choose happiness over misery?
This week's reading is Parshat Re'eh. Re'eh means "see," which is is a metaphor for understanding, for "getting it" – like in English, when someone says, "Oh I see."
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
Right now, there is this choice: blessing or curse. And what are the conditions for blessing or curse? It says it right there:
Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- The blessing- that you listen!
Very interesting. If you want blessing, then tishma’u – listen! Meaning: be fully present, bekarov, with the fullness of your experience right now...
More On Re'eh
The Holodeck- Parshat Re'eh
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics such as humor and other emotions.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck”- a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets on the stage to practice his stand up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Now, why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it’s because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him. His goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to get good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it’s the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to master the art of life.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck. Then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do.
But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that!
And what does it mean to “master this life?”
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned- with an entire herd of wild horses! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again the villagers came- “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything.
Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
This week’s reading begins with the words:
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
“Today”- meaning now- there is the potential for either blessing or curse.
How to choose the blessing?
It goes on to say,
“Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot-
"The blessing- that you listen to the commandments.”
There are three levels of meaning here in the word “mitzvot” or “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain. This moment has already become what it is!
The second level of meaning is that “mitzvah” is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta” which means not “to command”, but “to connect”.
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the image of “listening” to the "mitzvah" is a metaphor for connecting. When we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we deeply connect with the speaker- “I really hear you, man!”
So if you want blessing and not curse, connect with hayom- this moment- be present to what is, regardless of whether it seems like a blessing or a curse to your mind or your heart.
Accept the blessing and the curse- that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and not the curse- that’s the curse!
But in order to do that, you have to be aware of your situation:
“Re’eh- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
The sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, while the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case- “Oh, I see now!”
The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the curse of judging blessings and curses. It’s only natural!
But to go beyond that, you need to be aware: Simply listen to the fullness of how it is. Let go of the judging mind.
Once you do that, you are free. Like Commander Data, you will be happy if the audience is not laughing at your jokes. That’s how you learn. Like the farmer, you will respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of “mitzvot”- the plain meaning of “God’s commandments.”
When you free yourself from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then you know you are not something separate from the Whole. Your actions flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole- in service of God. Then, all your actions are truly mitzvot- acts of service to the One.
On this Shabbat Re’eh, the "Sabbath of Seeing," may we all “see” our Divine potential in this moment, to “hear” the Divine Voice as this moment, and to do blessing for each other moment by moment, uniting heaven and earth one step at a time.
See for Yourself! Parshat Re'eh
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words: “Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah… See- I place before you today blessing and curse.” Today, now, in this moment, blessing and curse are both potentials. What is it that determines our choice? It goes on to to say, “et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- the blessing, that you listen to the commandment… and the curse if you don’t listen…”.
Right in these first two sentences, two bodily senses are referenced- seeing and hearing. The senses are metaphors for an inner process; we “see” something is the case, meaning that we are aware of the situation. We “hear” what someone is saying, meaning that we understand the intention behind the words. In the case of these two verses, “seeing” and “hearing” refer to two levels of how to relate with this moment, with “today”.
First, we have to acknowlege the tremendous potential: this moment is pregnant with the potential for both blessing and curse. Without this basic awareness, there can be no conscious living. We are merely victims of our automatic perceptions and reactions. We are powerless. But it says, Re’eh- see for yourself! You and only you have the power to be the universe’ next move! You and only you have the power to actualize the potential of this moment. The power is in your hands.
So how to you actualize it? The blessing is if you “listen”. Listening means becoming inwardly still. It means making a space to notice how you are called to serve in this moment. What are you listening for? The “commandment”. What is the commanment? The “commandment” itself has two levels. On one hand, it is everything that is happening in this moment; reality, as it is, is the Divine voice as it speaks to you now. You first must be aware with openness and acceptance of what is, before you can respond. The second meaning of “commandment” is the Divine call as it is calling upon you. What is G-d asking of you in this moment? How do you become a channel of blessing? Only you can answer that question, but you don’t answer it by inventing it. You answer by opening to it. You answer with your uniqueness, yet your uniqueness is given to you; it is a gift.
May all beings awaken to the Divine potential of this and all moments, to give birth to heaven on earth, speedily in our day.
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