For some, spirituality is all about generosity and kindness.
For some, it’s about creativity.
For others, it’s going out into nature. Or going in, deep within yourself…
But while there are many different spiritual entry points for many different personality types, there’s one Thing that all these qualities point to, that's fundamentally different from the others.
In this week’s episode, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) goes out to meet Moses in the wilderness and give him some crucial advice. But first, Moses tells Jethro the whole story of how they escaped from Egypt, to which Jethro replies (Ex. 18:11):
“Atah yadati ki gadol Hashem mikol ha’elohim…”
This is usually translated:
“Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…”
The word for “gods” is “elohim”- a very interesting word, because not only does elohim mean “gods,” it's also a Name of God Itself. In fact, it’s the Name used in the beginning of the Torah when God creates the universe:
“Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
So Elohim the Creator is the source of all the diversity in the universe. This plurality is hinted at by the Name itself, because Elohim is a plural word, which is why it can also mean “gods.”
In this sense, then, Elohim would mean “God of Plurality.”
But what does Hashem mean?
Hashem is the four letter unpronounceable Name YHVH that means “Existence” or “Being.”
So understood this way, it’s saying that Existence is the greatest Divine quality:
“God (Hashem- Beingness) is greater than God (Elohim- plurality of qualities)”
There are many Divine qualities- kindness, creativity, inwardness, connection with nature, and so on. But of all of them, the simple quality of Being is the greatest.
The nice thing about that is you don’t have to achieve Being. Everything is already just Being.
All of the many qualities (or middot) are important for shaping your life as an expression of Being. That’s the ongoing project of spiritual work on yourself and on the world.
But the project of just Being is a cessation from work. It’s an allowing of everything to be exactly as it is- and that’s the weekly project of Shabbat (Ex. 20:9):
“Sheishet yamim ta’avod v’asita kol m’lakhtekha-
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work…”
Working to cultivate the Divine qualities, to create and maintain better forms and structures, is crucial. It’s the majority of what we’re here to do.
But the center of life is Shabbat- the center is Being-
“V’yom hashvi’i Shabbat Ladonai Elohekha-
“And the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Divine…”
But if Being is the greatest quality, how do we come to experience and know this for ourselves?
The answer is in Jethro’s words-
“Atah yadati- NOW I KNOW (that God-Hashem- Beingness is greater than God-Elohim- plurality of qualities…)”
To truly “know” the Greatest Quality, you have to connect with the “Now.” In fact, the word for "know" is da'at, which also means intimacy. So it's not just an intellectual knowing, but a knowing through intimate connection.
This moment has a texture, a flavor, an aliveness, if you would but take a "Shabbat" to taste It, to feel It, to dive into It. Underneath all the doing, the cultivating, the creating, is the Divinity of this moment, always available, yet easily obscured.
Going back to the story- what was Jethro’s advice to Moses?
Precisely this- take a Shabbat!
Jethro saw that Moses would “burn out” as a leader if he didn’t delegate some of his duties and take some rest.
So on this Shabbat Yitro, the Sabbath of Advice, may we too take Jethro’s advice, to balance our doing with Being and taste the Greatness of Existence. May the shining Wholeness of Being reshape all our doing as well, bringing this world swiftly to realize peace, healing and sustenance for all.
This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.
I remember a funny sketch from an old Electric Company episode. A man dressed in what looks like a navel uniform sits in a restaurant and orders from a waitress with puffy red hair and a classic blue waitress uniform:
“I’ll have a cup of coffee and a sweet roll,” says the man.
“We are out of sweet rolls,” says the waitress.
“A glass of milk and a sweet roll.”
“We- are- out- of- sweet- rolls,” the waitress repeats a little bit more slowly.
“Ice tea and a sweet roll.”
“We are out of sweet rolls!” The redness of her hair starts migrating into her face, leaving her hair white.
“Orange juice and a sweet roll?”
She really leans in now- “WE ARE OUT OF SWEET ROLLS!!!”
“Okay, then, I’ll just have a sweet roll.”
“AAAAARRRRRGH!!!!” She screams and runs out the door.
How many times have you gotten some message over and over again in your life, but you didn’t listen? Or perhaps you couldn’t listen?
In this week’s reading, that’s what happens to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron present plague after plague to Pharaoh in order to persuade him-
"Let my people go!"
During each plague Pharaoh relents, but after each one subsides, he contracts into his old position- he just doesn’t get it. What does he think he’s accomplishing?
But that’s exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself over and over again, rather than learning the all-important lesson: Let go!
So why is it often so difficult to let go?
One common reason is the fear that if you were to let go, you’d be ignoring your real problems- that you’d become irresponsible and everything would fall apart.
Actually, the opposite is true.
When you lose your happiness and freedom because you’re struggling with your problems, you now have two problems- both the difficult situation and the inner tension and negativity generated by your struggling and worrying.
And with all that inner tension, how are you going to improve things?
But when you bring your awareness to your resistance and see it clearly for what it is, there’s a higher wisdom that can flow into your life. New possibilities can appear that were previously hidden.
That’s because your awareness is much bigger than “you” can see. Your ego/personality is “Pharaoh”- king of Mitzrayim- of narrowness, of limitedness, mindlessly repeating the same old patterns over and over again.
But your awareness is Divine- it’s Reality looking through your eyes- courageous, creative, present and free.
So next time you find yourself struggling, resisting or reacting with negativity, see if you can "catch yourself in the act." Be curious about it- see the pattern that's emerging. If you're feeling too much negativity to see clearly, try prayer. Ask the Divine to help you, to free you from the pattern. Just this simple act creates a new inner space in which your awareness can rise above whatever inner noise you're experiencing. Then, be alert for whatever answer comes, whatever new possibility reveals itself.
The Divine Presence is always with you- It is your own presence, beneath your mind, beneath your personality.
There's a story about a hasid named Mottel of Kashlin, a businessman who had extensive dealings in Warsaw and spoke Polish fluently. One day, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki called for him with a request.
The Polish government had issued a decree to burn all extant copies of the Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat- The Code of Jewish Law that deals with civil and criminal matters. The goal was to force Jews to take their litigation to the Polish courts rather than the rabbinical courts. No books had been burned yet, and Reb Yitzhak wanted Mottel to approach a certain powerful Polish minister and convince him to retract the decree.
“But that minister has a raging temper!” Mottel protested. “He threatens to shoot anyone who comes with requests like that!”
The tzaddik replied, “When Hashem sent Moses to save his people, he didn’t tell him to go to Pharaoh. He said:
'Bo el Paro-
“Come to Pharaoh…'
"Moses was afraid, so Hashem reassured him that the Divine Presence would be going with him."
So Mottel set out to confront the minister, calm and unafraid. When he arrived, he spoke eloquently and convincingly. The powerful man was awestruck by the presence of the brave yet calm and joyful hasid who stood before him, and granted his request.
O Hashem, on this Shabbos Bo, the Sabbath to Come, may Your wisdom and transcendent bliss come into our lives through this gift of awareness with which you imbue us. May this awareness come to touch every manifestation of "Pharaoh" that You've given each of us to elevate and transform. May we not require any more of the plagues of violence and narrowness on our planet in order to evolve- Transformation now! Moshiakh Akhshav!
This week’s reading begins the onslaught of plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. Appropriately, the other day I went into the bathroom to find the toilet teaming with huge ants- darting with lightning speed along the outside and inside of the bowl. A plague of ants!
I flushed the toilet- hundreds were sucked down the pipe in seconds… only to make room for hundreds more which miraculously emerged from under the rim. Ah… the wildlife of Costa Rica!
Not sure what to do, I glanced around the bathroom, when a movement caught my eye outside the window. It looked like a woody stick was caught in some cobwebs behind the window screen, but this stick was moving. I looked closer- it was a “stick bug”- a huge locust-like insect camouflaged like a stick. It had gotten caught in a nest of old webs.
I went out around the house to the window in order to free the entangled stick bug. I used a real stick to twirl the webby strands like spaghetti. The stick bug struggled free and leaped onto an adjacent boulder sticking out of the earth. (That boulder’s new name is Mt. Sinai.)
For me, those old webs were mere feeble threads, easily overcome with minimal effort. But to the stick bug, they formed an unbreakable prison.
So too with those psychological webs that ensnare the soul!
From the outside, it’s easy to see how a person can get free- they just have to stop thinking a certain way, or stop doing a certain habit. But from within the mind of the person who’s caught, it can seem impossible. That’s why it can be so incredibly helpful to have someone else- a teacher, coach or friend- to give you feedback and perspective.
There’s a story in Talmud about this idea:
Rabbi Yohanan was a great miracle-worker and healer. When he visited a sick person, he would ask, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
They would then answer, “Neither they nor their reward.” Then he would take them by hand and they’d be instantly healed.
One day, Rabbi Yohanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Answered Rabbi Yokhanan, “Neither they nor their reward.”
Then, just as Rabbi Yohanan had done for so many others, Rabbi Hanina offered his hand and healed Rabbi Yohanan.
The Talmud then asks, why did Rabbi Yohanan need Rabbi Hanina’s help? Let him heal himself! It then answers its own question:
“Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim-
“A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
Just as a prisoner needs someone else to get free, so too the right person can help liberate you, spiritually speaking.
And yet, if someone gives you the perspective you need to get free from the thought-webs of your own mind, then that means there must be a part of yourself that’s already free. Otherwise, it would be impossible to see beyond your limited perspective and you’d be stuck forever. The part that “sees” was never stuck in the first place.
As the traditional morning blessing says,
“Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, shelo asani oved-
“Blessed are You, Divine Being, our own Divinity, who has not made me a slave…”
Now matter how stuck you get, your essential identity is free from that web of thoughts and personal stories that the “me” gets caught in. In fact, the “me” and the “web” are the actually the same thing. But your essential identity, beyond the “me,” is always free.
Of course, when you’re stuck, you’re not living in your essential identity; you’re resisting it. In this week’s reading, Moses too resists freedom, complaining that he can’t possibly confront Pharaoh:
“Behold, I have sealed lips- how is Pharaoh going to listen to me?”(Ex. 6:30)
But Hashem reassures Moses in an incredibly surprising way-
“Re’eh- n’tatikha Elokim l’Paro-
“See! I have made you God (Elohim) to Pharaoh...”
Moses is God? What does this mean?
But the key is in the first word- “Re’eh- See!”
That which sees, the awareness that looks through your eyes, is the master over all the other forces within. It is the God within- your essential identity. If you don’t know that, you identify with the other forces- with feelings, with thoughts, with memories, with ideas- all those webs of the personality, of “Pharaoh.”
But as soon as you “hear” the Divine command to see (meaning, "be aware") then the exodus begins, and your essential identity starts to awaken.
But not only is your awareness the master over your personality- it’s even deeper than that. There’s a hint of this at the very beginning of the parsha (Ex. 6:2):
“Elohim said to Moses, ‘I am YHVH.’”
The first divine name, Elohim, means the divine personality. It’s the deity. The second Name, the unpronounceable Y-H-V-H, is far more expansive, meaning Existence Itself, not a divine being merely within existence.
The message here is that your essential identity is not something separate from the rest of Existence. Your essential identity is Existence, waking up as you, yet completely beyond “you.”
The awakening of your essential identity beyond your personality is actually something very simple. And while it may take years of learning and practice for this awakening to stabilize completely (if ever), it takes no time at all to shift into an awakened state, at least temporarily. In fact, lots of learning and practice can sometimes get in the way of it, if your learning and practice become part of your ego- if they become strands in the web of your mind-created identity.
But, crack open your heart and you naturally and effortlessly slip from the webs and step onto the rock of Sinai for yourself.
One year, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak held the Passover Seder so perfectly and devoutly, that every word and ritual glowed with holiness and secret significance. The next morning, while he sat in his room joyful and proud, a Voice came to him:
“More pleasing to Me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
The rabbi asked around about the man whose name he had heard, but no one knew who he was. So, some of his disciples went off to search for him.
At the outskirts of the city in a poor neighborhood, they found the hovel of Hayim the water-carrier. They knocked on the door and a woman answered:
“Yes, my husband is Hayim the water-carrier, but he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you try and wake him you’ll find he won’t even be able to move.”
They went in anyway and shook him. He just blinked and tried to turn over and go back to sleep, but they wouldn’t give up. They pulled him out of bed, carried him on their shoulders to their rebbe’s house, and sat him up in a chair.
Reb Levi Yitzhak leaned toward him and asked, “Reb Hayim dear heart, what kavanos (mystical intentions) were in your heart when you gathered the humitz (leavened foods)?”
The water-carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked around and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued his questioning- “And what kavanah did you have in mind when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s still lying on the shelf.”
“Hmm,” the rabbi puzzled, “And tell me, Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to light up in the eyes of the man, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I’ll tell you the truth. You see, I’ve always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on the eight days of Pesakh, so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me all eight days, and I got tired and fell asleep.
“Then my wife woke me in the evening and said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like other Jews?’
“‘What do you want from me?’ I said, ‘I am an ignorant man, son of an ignorant man, and I don’t know what to do and what not to do.’
“Still, I went and sat down to the table, where she had placed matzos and eggs. Broken hearted, I began to sing a wordless melody. My wife joined me, and we sang together mournfully, pouring out our hearts.
“I cried, ‘Ribono Shel Olam- Master of the World! You brought our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom- will you make us free too?’
“As we sang, something started to change inside me. The burden of my life- my troubles- my fears- none of it seemed to matter anymore. I looked around- everything seemed to glow with the most beautiful light. My wife could see it too. We felt as though we were tasting true freedom- as though we were coming out of Egypt.
“So the two of us sat and sang and drank and rejoiced. Then I got tired, lay down, and fell back asleep.”
On this Shabbos Va’eira, the Sabbath of Appearing, may we learn to not fall back asleep from the Divine when She appears. Instead, may we bring our wakefulness into connection with everyone we meet. May the world be transformed in the image of our Divine potential, bringing an end to all the unnecessary plagues we unconsciously create for ourselves and for the earth, speedily in our day- Moshiakh Akhshav!