There’s a story of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Peshischa, that he didn’t have the happiest of marriages. His wife would frequently grow extremely angry at him and scold him at length. Normally, he would say nothing, and simply endure her words in silence, unaffected. But one time, he snapped back at her. Taken aback, she stopped her abuse and left the room.
A disciple witnessed the whole thing asked the rebbe: “Master, you always endure her anger in silence. Why did you snap back this time? Did you lose your balance and become angry?”
“Not at all,” the Rebbe replied, “I could see that she was growing more and more angry that I wasn’t reacting, so I pretended to get angry to help her feel better.”
There are two common images that are often used to describe the state of equanimity – of freedom from one’s own negative emotions, or reactivity.
The first is the image of dwelling in the center of your being. When you are at the center, reactivity may arise – anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, and so on, but you’re are not caught in any of that because the emotions are simply bubbling up around you, while you remain in the “eye of the hurricane” so to speak. In this image, the chaos is external, and you are the calm center that sees the chaos, unaffected by it.
The second is the image of being a vast space within which the reactivity arises. In this image, the chaos is within you, but you are so much more vast and spacious than whatever feelings are bubbling up, that they are insignificant.
Both of these images actually point to two different practices for realizing freedom: being present with your body, on one hand, and knowing yourself as the vast space of awareness both within and infinitely beyond your body, on the other.
These two practices are actually two different stages of the same practice, hinted at in this week’s reading: The Israelites all stand together in rapt awe at Sinai, while the mountain smokes and quakes, engulfed in cloud and fire:
וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע
And the people said, “Everything that the Divine speaks, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear.” (Exodus, 24:7)
The ordering of the words in this verse, na’aseh v’nishma, is strange. You would think that the words should be the opposite – first you would hear, then you would do. But the fact that the words are reversed – “we will do” and then “we will hear,” teaches a key insight:
If you want the freedom of knowing the vastness of your own being as the borderless space of awareness within which experience arises (v’nishma) – you must first bring your awareness deep into your own body (na’aseh). In connecting with your body, with your heart and with your breathing, your consciousness is drawn out from its ordinary activity of incessant thinking, and into its own nature as open space.
There’s another hint of this unity between the center of your being and the vastness of your being earlier in the parshah, where it discusses how an indentured servent must be set free in the seventh year:
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם
And in the seventh (year), he shall go out free, without charge.
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת – And in the seventh: In the image of the Star of David, the six rays of the star represent the six directions in space and the six days of the week, while seven is represented by the center of the star. This is Shabbat – the “eye of the hurricane” in time. Seven, then, is the inner sanctum, the holy center – the drawing of awareness into the temple of the body.
יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י – he shall go out free: And yet, through connecting with the center, yeitzei – there is a “going out” to freedom. This is the realization that the awareness that dwells within your body is not confined to your body. Rather, it is a vast field that knows everything you perceive; the air around you as well as the stars in the sky are all equally arising within the vast field that you are.
חִנָּֽם – gratis, free of charge, an act of grace – this freedom is not something you have to work for or somehow create; it’s what you already are. Pay close attention to your actual experience in this moment and see – you are the freedom of awareness, right now...
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Cutting Through to the Essential Core – Parshat Mishpatim
כִּ֣י תִפְגַּ֞ע שׁ֧וֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ֛ א֥וֹ חֲמֹר֖וֹ תֹּעֶ֑ה הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֶ֖נּוּ לֽוֹ׃
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him.
כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃
When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes...
It is told about Reb Mordechai of Neskhizh that before he became known as a rebbe, he was a businessman. All year long he would put aside some money from his daily earnings so that he would be able to purchase the finest etrog for the holiday of Sukkot. (An etrog is a citron fruit used in a special Sukkot ritual).
One year, as Sukkot approached, he traveled to the city with all his savings to find the finest etrog. On the way, he encountered a distraught water seller whose horse had collapsed on the road, and the water seller stood in confusion and despair. Reb Mordechai immediately stopped and gave all his money to the him so that he might buy a new horse.
"What does it matter?" Reb Mordechai said to himself, "While everyone else says their blessing on an etrog, I'll say mine on this horse!"
There is a great richness to tradition and ritual, but the danger of such richness and complexity is that we can become lost in their agendas and lose touch with essential simplicity of true spirituality: transcendence of ego, knowing the Oneness and expressing this realization in kindness toward all beings we encounter. Hassidic tales such as these cut through the sometimes dense forrest of religion to the core of the spirit...
Before- Parshat Mishpatim
“V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem-
"And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
In order to understand the distinction between your thinking mind and your awareness, it’s helpful to notice that while your thinking mind can’t function without your awareness in the background, your awareness isn’t at all dependent on the movement of your mind.
A nice metaphor for understanding this distinction is the ocean and the waves. The waves are completely dependent on the ocean, because the waves are nothing but the surface movement of the ocean. No more ocean, no more waves. But if the waves cease to be, the vast ocean with its great depths remain. In the same way, your awareness is actually the vast ocean of consciousness within which the waves of your thoughts rise and fall.
Now if you’re living mostly on the level of the waves, that’s the ego- the “me” with its problems, concerns, successes and failures. Of course that’s part of who you are on the surface of your consciousness, but the question is, is that where you want to live? Or, do you want to live in the vast depths of your consciousness, in the fullness of who you are, beneath those little waves of your mind-based identity.
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Mishpatim. Mishpatim means, judgments. It begins with God saying to Moses: “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem- And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
It then goes on to talk about various various civil laws that Moses is to teach the Israelites. But in the first sentence there’s a special hint about how to connect with the vast ocean of consciousness that you are, rather than be trapped by the waves on the surface. It says that the mishpatim, the judgments, should be lifneihem- before them. In other words, don’t get unconsciously absorbed into the judgements of your mind, but rather see your judgments as if they’re “before” you.
That means, don’t try to stop your judgments or get rid of them, simply notice them and let them be. The more your practice noticing your judgments, without judging your judgments, the more you’ll begin to feel yourself as the noticing, rather than the judging. And that simple noticing is the vast ocean of consciousness beneath the waves of thinking. But in order to really keep your judgments lifanekha, before you, so that you don’t get trapped by them, you have to be willing to stay with the truth of whatever you’re perceiving, without imposing your own interpretation.
The Hassidic rebbe, the Seer of Lublin once said, “I prefer sinners who know that they are sinners, rather than righteous people who know they are righteous people.”
Now why would he say that? Because if you know that you’re a sinner, you’re probably seeing yourself truthfully- after all, most of us make at least a few mistakes once in a while. But if you see yourself as perfectly righteous, you’re probably interpreting things in a skewed way to satisfy a certain self-image. And self-image, otherwise known as ego, is on the level of the waves. Of course nowadays, there can be just as much ego in putting yourself down as in puffing yourself up, but the point is to let go of self-image, let go of needing things to be a certain way, and stay with your actual experience, because the part of you that knows your actual experience is that inner vast ocean of consciousness.
So in this week of Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgment, let’s practice seeing whatever judgments arise in the mind, allowing them to come and go in the space of this moment, through the practice of Presence and meditation.
The Girlfriends- Parshat Mishpatim
If you awaken to spiritual freedom, does that mean that you’ll remain free all the time? Is spiritual freedom a permanent state?
This question reminds me of before I was married, when I had different girlfriends. On one hand, they were committed relationships. On the other hand, we always had the choice to spend time together or not. At the end of the day, I was always free to go home to my own house if I wanted to. So, although there was a kind of commitment, it was nothing like being married.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect?
Of course not!
Like all living things, it’s in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people commit to having one life together, to be one family.
Spiritual awakening is just like that.
At first, you may have a spiritual experience. That experience tells you something about reality; it changes your whole outlook. However, like all experiences, it’s temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you might forget all about what you’ve learned. You’re not having the spiritual experience anymore, so you don’t have access to its truth.
You may long for that experience, you may seek it out in different ways, you may even find it. You may find it in sports, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it’s a place you visit, not the place you live. It is your girl/boyfriend, not your life partner.
This week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim, begins with laws regarding a male Hebrew indentured servant. It says that he can work for six years but must be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2):
“Sheish shamim ya’avod-
“Six years he shall work…”
The word for indentured servant is the same as the word for slave- eved. The master of the slave is called an adon- “lord”.
But these two words, eved and adon, also have a completely different connotation: God is sometimes called Adon, and a holy person is called an Eved Hashem- a Servant of God.
Seen metaphorically, then, the Hebrew eved that goes free is like someone who has a spiritual experience, but when the experience is over, s/he goes free from it. It’s only temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved doesn’t want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new wife and children and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever (Ex. 21:6):
“And he shall serve him forever…”
Metaphorically, this is one who becomes an Eved Hashem- a Servant of the Divine. It’s getting “married” to God.
But if spiritual awakening is about freedom, what does that have to do with being a servant or a spouse? Why the contradictory metaphors?
Rashi points out another contradiction in the text that will shed light on this first contradiction: In the above verse, it says:
“He shall serve him forever.”
But this contradicts another verse, which states that all Hebrew slaves are set free on the Jubilee Year, the last year in a fifty-year cycle, no matter what (Lev. 25:10):
“V’ish el mishpakhto t’shuvo-
“And you shall return each person to his family…”
To resolve this contradiction, he says that the word olam- “forever” or “eternal”- is actually another word for the Jubilee Year, because after the Jubilee Year, the status of everything completely changes. The original state of reality is gone, so everything up to the Jubilee Year, the year of freedom, is called “forever.”
So, being a “slave forever” gets you to “freedom!”
Meaning- the point of committing yourself to a life of spiritual practice is to shift out of the time-bound, thought-created sense of self, into connection with That which is Eternal- the present moment, always existing as the space of your own awareness, beyond thought.
How does that work?
Back to our text-
When it says the slave is taken to the doorpost, the word for doorpost is mezuzah- the same as the ritual scroll traditionally fastened to the doorposts of Jewish homes.
And what is the first word of the text written on the mezuzah? “Sh’ma”- “Hear”!
Hearing, unlike seeing and tasting, is the sense that we can't shut down; our ears are always open. We can't shut our ears to escape the sounds around us.
Similarly, we can't escape Reality. There's nothing but Reality, everywhere!
And yet, we create this inner resistance to Reality, and that resistance is the basis of ego- that contracted sense of self which imprisons the spirit.
To relax that resistance means to return to openness- to be an open ear, wholly with what is.
That’s the point- and the mechanism- of spiritual practice: to leave your identification with your inner resistance (ego) and awaken into your true and free nature as awareness, by "hearing" the truth of the present moment.
At some point, when you’re ready, it’s time to “get married”- to let go of your attachment to mind created reality and commit to Actual Reality. Then, this moment becomes your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality becomes your “family”- your home base- the place you live, not the place you merely visit.
Does that mean then the relationship is perfect?
Of course not! There’s risk- failure is possible. But you’ve stepped into commitment with Beloved.
And, just as relationships sometimes need coaches and therapists, so too the spiritual life is helped by spiritual teachers:
Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, once said to his disciple, Reb Zvi of Zhidochov:
“So long as I am alive, I’m not afraid that you’ll slip from your commitment to the Divine. But afterwards- who knows?”
Said Reb Zvi: “I don’t want to live longer than you, rebbe.”
“How can you say such a thing?” protested the Seer. “You are still a young man, and I am old!”
“Rebbe,” replied Reb Zvi, “I will pray that you live forever.”
“But does mortal man live forever?” asked the Seer.
“I meant, rebbe, that you should live one hundred and twenty years, as Moshe Rabeinu (Moses Our Teacher) did,” explained Reb Zvi.
“Come now, Reb Zvi,” said the Seer, “Just a moment ago you said ‘forever,’ and now you’re saying ‘one hundred and twenty years.’ A hundred and twenty years is not forever.”
Replied Reb Zvi: “I came across the idea in some book I read that Moshe Rabeinu lived one hundred twenty years, corresponding to the number of Jubilee Years within our present six thousand year cycle. For in the Talmud it is written-
‘Shita alfei shanei havah alma-
‘Six thousand years the world will be…’
“And, in six thousand years, there are a hundred and twenty Jubilee Years.
“In the Torah, furthermore, the Jubilee is sometimes called olam- meaning, ‘forever,’ as in the passage where the Hebrew slave pierces his ear-
“And he shall serve him forever…’
Meaning, the slave serves until the Jubilee year, which is called ‘forever.’
“The point is, I will pray that your hundred and twenty years on this earth should inspire me commit forever. Like that Hebrew slave, I should make the Eternal Beloved my Lord and my family…”
“And in what book did you see that idea?” the Seer asked.
“Well, actually,” replied Reb Zvi, “It could have been mine…”
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgments, may we open to the one judgment now before us: Commit. Hear. Awaken. May we too write the “books” of our lives, each pointing toward this awakening, and may we support each other on our unique paths. And, may every personal transformation lead us speedily toward the evolution of humanity, to a time of true peace and mutuality.
Years ago, I used to teach piano for a living, mostly to children. When they would make a mistake, most of them would just say “oops” and try again – no big deal. But there were always a few who wouldn’t be able to accept their own mistakes. They would become frustrated and cry and scream out: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Of course I knew they could do it, if only they would relax and try again. I would ask them to please trust me – “Just you wait and see, you will be able to do it. Just try again a little more slowly.”
When you practice something, whether it’s playing piano or being present, you will inevitably get better and better at it. There’s no guarantee you’ll become as great as so-and-so, but you will get better – that’s just the way it works. And so, if your mind interferes by telling you that you’re not getting better fast enough, or even worse it tells you that you’ll never be able to do it, don’t get dragged into that drama. Know that you can and you will – you just need to stick with it.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר׃ אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ
The Divine spoke all these words, saying: I am Existence, your own Divinity, that brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
This famous introduction to the “Ten Commandments” hint at a deeper truth: I am Existence, your own Divinity – your deepest “I” is not something separate from all Existence; it is your own inner Divinity.
Meaning: the dimension of the sacred – which we might call freedom, presence, or oneness – is already who you are at the deepest level. Beneath and beyond your thoughts, beneath and beyond your feelings, beneath and beyond your sensory experience – you are freedom. It may take time for you to know this fully in your experience, but it takes no time at all to be begin practicing – you can always do it now.
לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗י
There shall not be for you other gods before Me.
In order to function, we need our minds to form a mental map of the world so that we can navigate through life. As long as we understand the difference between the map and the territory, thought can be our most useful tool. But when we mistake our thoughts about reality for actual Reality, that’s idolatry on the deepest level. We take our own beliefs to be true, and thereby close ourselves off from intimacy with actual Reality: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Instead, be open – don’t put reality into a mental box. Don’t insist; don’t impose. Let go of your stream of thinking and let awareness flow into your body, opening to the full potential of what could be. We don’t really know anything – except that we are conscious, right now.
Then you will know on the deepest level – Anokhi Hashem – your “I” – the deepest level of who you are – is not something other than the Divine you seek…
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Four Dimensions of Presence with Others – Parshat Yitro
1/31/2018 5 Comments
This parsha begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, coming out to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. When Moses goes out to greet him, the Torah hints at four dimensions of being present with other people (Exodus 18:7):
“What is the “shalom” – the eternal dimension – of this person standing before me?"
In becoming aware of the eternal dimension of Being in another person, you also bring forth your own eternal dimension, and Being beholds Being…
One of These Things is Not Like the Others- Parshat Yitro
1/27/2016 0 Comments
For some, spirituality is all about generosity and kindness.
For some, it’s about creativity.
For others, it’s going out into nature. Or going in, deep within yourself…
But while there are many different spiritual entry points for many different personality types, there’s one Thing to which all these qualities point, that's fundamentally different from the others.
In this week’s episode, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) goes out to meet Moses in the wilderness and give him some crucial advice. But first, Moses tells Jethro the whole story of how they escaped from Egypt, to which Jethro replies (Ex. 18:11):
“Atah yadati ki gadol Hashem mikol ha’elohim…”
This is usually translated:
“Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…”
The word for “gods” is “elohim”- a very interesting word, because not only does elohim mean “gods,” it's also a Name of God Itself. In fact, it’s the Name used in the beginning of the Torah when God creates the universe:
“Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
So Elohim the Creator is the source of all the diversity in the universe. This plurality is hinted at by the Name itself, because Elohim is a plural word, which is why it can also mean “gods.”
In this sense, then, Elohim would mean “God of Plurality.”
But what does Hashem mean?
Hashem is the four letter unpronounceable Name YHVH that means “Existence” or “Being.”
So understood this way, it’s saying that Existence is the greatest Divine quality:
“God (Hashem- Beingness) is greater than God (Elohim- plurality of qualities)”
There are many Divine qualities- kindness, creativity, inwardness, connection with nature, and so on. But of all of them, the simple quality of Being is the greatest.
The nice thing about that is you don’t have to achieve Being. Everything is already just Being.
All of the many qualities (or middot) are important for shaping your life as an expression of Being.That’s the ongoing project of spiritual work on yourself and on the world.
But the project of just Being is a cessation from work. It’s an allowing of everything to be exactly as it is- and that’s the weekly project of Shabbat (Ex. 20:9):
“Sheishet yamim ta’avod v’asita kol m’lakhtekha-
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work…”
Working to cultivate the Divine qualities, to create and maintain better forms and structures, is crucial. It’s the majority of what we’re here to do.
But the center of life is Shabbat- the center is Being-
“V’yom hashvi’i Shabbat Ladonai Elohekha-
“And the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Divine…”
But if Being is the greatest quality, how do we come to experience and know this for ourselves?
The answer is in Jethro’s words-
“Atah yadati- NOW I KNOW (that God-Hashem- Beingness is greater than God-Elohim- plurality of qualities…)”
To truly “know” the Greatest Quality, you have to connect with the “Now.” In fact, the word for "know" is da'at, which also means intimacy. So it's not just an intellectual knowing, but a knowing through intimate connection.
This moment has a texture, a flavor, an aliveness, if you would but take a "Shabbat" to taste It, to feel It, to dive into It. Underneath all the doing, the cultivating, the creating, is the Divinity of this moment, always available, yet easily obscured.
Going back to the story- what was Jethro’s advice to Moses?
Precisely this- take a Shabbat!
Jethro saw that Moses would “burn out” as a leader if he didn’t delegate some of his duties and take some rest.
So on this Shabbat Yitro, the Sabbath of Advice, may we too take Jethro’s advice, to balance our doing with Being and taste the Greatness of Existence. May the shining Wholeness of Being reshape all our doing as well, bringing this world swiftly to realize peace, healing and sustenance for all.
Lost and Found- Parshat Yitro
2/5/2015 7 Comments
When I was young, I loved Spiderman. I also loved to dress up. But I didn’t want to dress up as Spiderman, which would be unoriginal, so I invented a new superhero: “Inchiderman”.
“Inchiderman” combined the powers of a spider with the powers of an inchworm. I don’t know why I thought the powers of an inchworm would be helpful, but he was my superhero. I put together the costume with a pair of tights, a red and blue winter coat and a paper mask I had made. I also constructed a web shooter from a syringe, which I filled with a combination of Crazy Glue, Elmer’s Glue and honey.
Back in those days I lived with my family on three acres of mostly woods in Pomona, New York. One day I went out into the woods dressed as Inchiderman with my dog Ophelia. I hiked out to the end of the woods, beyond which were apple orchards. I ventured into the orchards for a while and then came back to the woods. But, I couldn’t find the path that led back to my house. I wandered around for a while and eventually realized that I was lost. I started to panic and cry. I ran this way and that, crying and yelling, “Help!”
Ophelia, however, was happy. She jumped around and played while I freaked out. She wasn’t lost. I got mad and yelled at her- “Ophelia, take us home!” but she just jumped and played.
Eventually I stopped panicking. I was still scared and sad, but I stopped crying and running. Ophelia stopped too. She just looked at me, waiting to see what would happen next, but there was nothing next. I was just lost. Something within me had shifted. I can remember feeling the presence of the forest, the smell of the crisp air, the sound of the wind in the trees. My Inchiderman fantasy was gone, and I was just present with the forest and with Ophelia. Scared and sad, but present.
Then, out of nowhere, a man appeared and showed me the way to a path that led to the back of the swimming pond down the street from my house. Ophelia and I took the path and found the road. I carried my ripped Inchiderman mask and syringe web shooter back home.
In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Yitro, the Israelites too were in the wilderness. They too had been panicking, complaining and crying to go back to Egypt. In this parsha they come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and prepare themselves to receive the Torah. The mountain quakes with fire and thunder. There is a sound of a blasting ram’s horn that begins quietly, then gets louder and louder. The people are terrified and tremble.
And then, from the midst of the cloud and fire, a Voice begins to speak the sayings that became known as the “Ten Commandments”-
“Anokhi Hashem Elohekha asher hotzeitikha etkhem me’eretz Mitrayim, mibeit avadim- I am Hashem your G-d who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…”
What exactly is this first “commandment”?
According to Maimonides (b. 1135- d.1204 CE) in his work Sefer HaMitzvot, the first commandment is just to believe in G-d, to acknowledge that G-d freed our ancestors from slavery. But there is a message here that is not merely about the past or about belief, but rather it directly applies to this moment within which we now find ourselves:
“Anokhi Hashem” means that the “Anokhi,” the “I”, is actually “Hashem”- Divine. Meaning, the inner identity of everything is the ultimate, living Presence of Existence; that’s what the Divine Name actually means. The Israelites are shaken by the terrible awesomeness of the natural world around them, and in that heightened state, the inner identity of nature reveals Itself. It’s not about believing in the idea of a divine entity. It’s not about adding another concept to the mind’s ideas about reality. It’s about recognizing Existence Itself- recognizing That which the mind cannot map.
The next thing the Voice says is that It “brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Why is liberation particularly connected to the self-revelation of Divinity?
The mind is a mapping device. It is a navigation unit, constantly creating an inner context through which we know who and where we are and what we are doing. Very useful! But this creates the side effect of seeing reality through the screen of that map. The mind sees the surface of things- a collection of related but separate parts, and the mind also feels itself to be separate from what it sees.
But there comes a time when the inner map breaks down, and we are lost. Somehow we lose the continuity of the mind-created context and the familiar disappears. We step out of the Mitzrayim of the known, of the conditioned mental patterns of separateness. This "wilderness" can be terrifying. And yet, in the unknown there is the possibility of connecting with Reality in a very direct way, a way that knows Being as a Whole, as a Oneness. This knowing is itself liberation- liberation from the burden of time and conditioned identity.
When the Israelites receive this revelation, the text says “v’khol ha’am ro’im et hakolot- all the people saw the sounds.” Not heard the sounds, but saw! In other words, they perceived everything in a completely new way. It is a kind of awakening.
I think that’s what happened to me that day in the woods when I got lost. After the initial terror and panic, after the “thunder and fire”, there was this stillness, this recognition. There was a new kind of seeing. And then, miraculously, the salvation that appeared.
The other night, my son and I were watching the new version of Cosmos with the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson began by defining our “cosmic address.” First, he showed us, we are on planet Earth. Then, the perspective pulls back to reveal our Solar System. Then, it pulled out even more to the Milky Way Galaxy. Then even further to see the family of galaxies that the Milky Way is part of, called the Local Group. Then, even further, the Local Group was part of a larger cluster of galaxy families, called the Virgo Supercluster. Then it pulled out even further to view the many clusters that make up the Observable Universe.
But what comes after that? We had come to limits of our map, beyond which was simply mystery. He then hypothesized that our whole universe is merely a single bubble in an infinite ocean of bubbles, each one a complete universe. Now, where would that ocean be exactly? The imagination reaches out toward infinity and comes to stillness. Ultimately, we don’t and can’t know where or what or even why any of this is. And yet we do know- Hinei! Here it is!
Try it yourself-
Stretch your imagination out into the universe until you reach its boundaries. You may find that, in the sensation of trying to imagine the unimaginable, there is an emptying of the mind and a simple, blooming awareness of whatever is around you and within you now, in this moment.
When that begins to happen, just let it. Give up trying to "grasp" anything. Simply relax your sense of what is going on, of where you are, of who you are, of what you are doing. Don’t push it away, just let it go. Open yourself to this moment as it is unfolding, the way you would toward an intimate friend. Lose your self, find the One. Let the Anokhi- the inner Presence of Existence- take you into the freedom of this eternal present. And in the Light of that lightness, of that benevolent Presence that is also your own inner identity, may all of our words and actions shine for healing, love and peace. Amein.
We often hear that we should get out of situations, jobs, or relationships that aren’t good for us. But sometimes staying in a situation, even if it feels bad, is the right thing. For example, when a father abandons his family, doesn’t he do it because the responsibility feels bad to him? Doesn’t he just want to be free? In that case, it’s obvious that “freedom” is not the highest value.
But in the spiritual sense, freedom doesn’t necessarily mean leaving behind that which imprisons us; rather, if we really want inner freedom, we must turn toward our bondage. This may feel counterintuitive; if we want freedom from pain, it’s natural to want to get away from whatever is causing the pain. Just as in the Exodus from Egypt – the Israelites cry out because of their suffering, and Moses leads them out of Egypt and to freedom. That’s the ordinary way of thinking – leave Egypt behind. But there’s a hint of something different in this week’s reading:
דַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת
Speak to the children of Israel – they should turn back and encamp before Pi Hakhirot…
When we think of the Exodus story, it’s common to imagine the Israelites fleeing Egypt, then coming to the Sea of Reeds and getting trapped with the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them. But look at the text: they had already past the Sea of Reeds – they were already on their way, when the Divine tells them: vayashuvu – turn back!
They deliberately turned around and back tracked, coming to camp at Pi Hakhirot, in front of the Sea of Reeds. There the Egyptian army caught up with them, and there the miracle of the parting of the sea occurred.
Pi Hakhirot means “Mouth of Freedom.”
The message is: If you want to truly leave bondage behind and go through the “Mouth of Freedom,” you have to first fully turn back toward your “oppressor.” Is there something or someone that “triggers” you, that stresses you out, that makes you angry or uncomfortable? Those feelings are within you; they are only brought to the surface by the external trigger. Until you can be present in the face of those feelings arising and not get caught, not get seduced, you will be in bondage, no matter far you flee from the external trigger.
Instead, וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת – shuv – return to the discomfort, and make friends with it, because that is the “Mouth of Freedom.”
Ordinarily, we keep emotional pain alive by feeding it with our thoughts. Just as the soldiers of Pharaoh rode after the Israelites on their horses, so the mind is the “rider” and the emotion is the “horse,” pursuing us and seeking to drag us back into bondage. But stop feeding the emotion with thought, and instead become present your feelings – bring your awareness to your actual experience without adding extra interpretation – and the “army drowns in the sea.” That’s because all pain, all constriction, are nothing but forms of awareness. Bring your awareness to the constricted form of awareness. It may hurt a bit at first, but the constriction cannot persist in the light of Presence; through being conscious, it will let go. Then you too will be able to sing:
אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם
I will sing to the Divine, Transcendently Exalted, horse and rider are cast into the sea…
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Close- Parshat Beshalakh
Metaphorically speaking, Pharaoh sending out the Israelites is like when we are sent out of our inner bondage by the experience of suffering; we don’t like the suffering, so we’re motivated to find spiritual freedom. And if you want spiritual freedom, there’s a really fast, direct way to get it- just come to this moment as it is, without resistance. That’s the practice of Presence.
But then it says:
“V’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu-
"God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer because God said, ‘The people might reconsider when they see battle and return back to Egypt.’”
And this is the obstacle that many people get caught in when doing spiritual work. You start practicing Presence, then all this inner pain comes up- all your psychological issues and resistances, and rather than be motivated by all that suffering you’d rather go back to your old strategies. It’s easier to just drink some wine and watch a movie!
At that point, you need something even deeper to keep you on track, and that’s the power of faith hinted at in the phrase, “ki karov hu.”
In the plain sense, this simply means, “which was close” referring to the road in the land of the Philistines, which would have been the closer path for the Israelites to take. But the word Hu is also a Divine Name. Karov means close, but it can also mean intimate, connected. So on this deeper level, it’s saying that the Divine is present on the road of battle, that is, the experience of deep suffering.
Have faith in that, because at first you won’t experience it. You’ll experience pain. But know ki karov hu- beneath the suffering is the spacious openness and wholeness of this moment, the Divine Presence that is not separate from your own presence, your own consciousness. You can access this Presence by being present- that is, by being karov, coming close to your actual experience in this moment, especially in suffering. Faith, and prayer, can help you do that.
So as we come close to this Shabbat Beshalakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we come close, karov, to the Reality of our actual experience and allow that truth to send us out from Mitzrayim- from the constriction of separation, into the wild mystery of Presence.
"Yo That's Fresh!" Parshat Beshalakh
This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.
Fire and Cloud- Parshat Beshalakh
In this week’s reading, Parshat Beshalakh, the Israelites escape Egypt and are confronted with many challenges.
But what is a “challenge” exactly?
Challenges exist because there arises an emotional resistance to things happening that conflict with what we want. Since it is impossible to act without being motivated by a want, and since it is impossible for the universe to absolutely conform to our wants, the conditions conducive to creating “challenges” are built into the fabric of reality. There is nothing we can do to change this basic fact: Reality is challenging.
The more conscious you are, however, the less you will be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. And the less caught you are by the emotional resistance that arises, the less it arises!
To make effort in consciousness, then, is the only way to remove your resistance, and hence to remove the problematic quality of life. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations.
When you are living in alignment with your deepest values, clear in yourself about what you are dedicated to, you are fully conscious of your intentions and you live life with purpose. When you are conscious of your intentions, it is not such a leap to be conscious of your emotional resistance as well.
However, if you find yourself spending time and energy on things that are not of your full choosing, things that are sapping energy and time away from what truly matter in your life, it is almost impossible to be conscious of your resistance because you are not even conscious about what you are doing. You have allowed things into your life- commitments, relationships, activities, whatever- that have no value to your life mission. Whatever those things are that you unconsciously find yourself stuck in- those are your Mitzrayim- your “Egypt”.
If you want to be conscious and free from the constriction of emotional resistance, you have to first be conscious of your decisions. You have to eject these useless things from your life. You have to say goodbye to the Egypt of purposeless living.
Life will be challenging either way, but why do you need to be challenged by things that are meaningless to you? Is it because of guilt? Because of fear? Because you just never stopped and asked the question, “is this serving my life purpose?” Get rid of it. Let the army of irrelevancy drown in the sea.
Once you free yourself from the Egypt of your unconscious involvements, you’re energy is freed up to apply consciousness in a deeper way. There is a hint of this in the way the Israelites travel after leaving Egypt. It says that Hashem went before them “yomam b’amud anan- by day as a pillar of cloud… v’laila b’amud aysh- and night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” is when challenges happen. Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of fire”- meaning, move your awareness into the burning of the emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going well. There is a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you are receiving. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of cloud”- meaning, be aware of the uncertainty of the next moment. Know that everything that is working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now for you from this unknowable Reality.
So get yourself free, then follow the pillars of fire and cloud that lead you on your way through the wilderness of freedom. It is a raw and uncertain road, but interestingly the word used for Hashem leading the people is nakham, which also means to “comfort”. Reality is rough on the ego that seeks comfort. And yet, to follow the pillars of fire and cloud is to find the ultimate comfort- the comfort of not running the show, of surrendering the “me” that wants to run the show. This Shabbat may we step off the stage and receive the true comfort of the One behind all shows. Good Shabbos!
I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son an electric guitar after he expressed a desire to play. He then surprised me by spending enormous chunks of time learning guitar from YouTube videos – The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen – the rock guitar classics. Some days he’s been sitting and practicing for nearly six hours at a time!
Now what to do you think would happen if I told him that he has to sit for six hours and practice guitar? Obviously, that wouldn’t work, and I might be arrested for child abuse. Maybe Mozart’s father could get away with that kind of thing, but I wouldn’t dare try. That kind of intensity has to come from an inner passion; you don’t sit and practice for six hours unless you really want to.
Passion is totally different from self-discipline, from making and sticking to commitments and obligations. And, passion is something we have as children; it’s not something we have to develop, like the adult qualities of being responsible, following through on plans and so on.
Obviously, adult qualities are also necessary. In fact, it is doubtful he would have been able to sit down and teach himself guitar like that had I not been requiring him to practice piano and drums from a very young age. I imposed an adult-based discipline structure on him, and that gave him a basic foundation of musical skill. That skill is useful for musical greatness, but not sufficient. For greatness you need to become passionately obsessed! And that kind of passion is a child-like quality; it doesn’t have to be developed or created, only uncovered and unleashed.
This is especially true with spirituality.
It is important, perhaps essential, to have a committed practice, to study the teachings regularly, to put spirituality on your to-do list and use your adult mind to make it a priority.
But if that’s all you’ve got, it won’t go deep. You may master texts and rituals and words, but all that will remain on the surface. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for prayer, but once you start praying, you’ve got to become like a child and cry out from the heart. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for meditation, but once you start meditating, you’ve got to be really curious like a child – what is happening in this moment? – rather than merely doing a technique.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ ... כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ
Moses said, “With our children and our elders we will go… for it is a festival of the Divine for us…”
In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh asks Moses who will be leaving Egypt, hoping that only the men will go. That’s what the ego whispers to us: “It’s okay, you can do your spiritual practice – just put it on your agenda. Be adult about it.”
But Moses says, “No, we’re all going – our children and elders both must go celebrate the festival!”
If we want our spiritual life to be true celebration of Being, and not be coopted by ego/Pharaoh, we’ve got to invoke the child within. Certainly, we need the z’keinim – the elders – as well, but once the adult mind has performed its function, once the adult mind has done its organizing and planning, give the adult a break and bring forth the child within. Only then can you really serve b’khol levavkh’a – with all your heart, with all your being…
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The Sweet Roll- Parshat Bo
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!
Ignoring Ignorance- Parshat Bo
Sometimes you might be fooled into thinking that spiritual freedom is a delusion, that in order to have it you would need to ignore your real problems. Actually, the opposite is true. When you lose your happiness and freedom because you are thinking about your problems, isn’t that the delusion? Is it not delusion to think that by making yourself miserable you are somehow addressing or improving your situation? In reality, you now have two problems- the difficult situation and the inner tension and negative energy generated by your thoughts.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Bo, Moses has been presenting plague after plague to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that his refusal to let the Israelites go free is bringing plagues upon himself. What does he think he is accomplishing? But that is exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself, rather than allowing liberation to happen.
The remedy is in the opening lines in which G-d says to Moses, “Bo el Paro- come to Pharaoh.” G-d doesn’t say, “go to Pharaoh” but “come to Pharaoh”, indicating that G-d is there with Pharaoh, telling Moses to “come”. In other words, the Divine is found in the suffering itself, not in trying to avoid it.
Bring your awareness into your suffering. Don’t look out into the future from your suffering, imagining that things will be better once you get what you want. The end of suffering and the beginning of liberation is the un-knotting of the Pharaoh, and that begins with bringing your attention into the Pharaoh, becoming conscious of the energetic knot of resistance within. Once that knot is broken, liberation is immediate; it is a leap. Don’t try to be too prepared. When it’s time to go, just go. Unleavened bread and all. There is only one chance, and that chance is now… and yet "now" never ends!
There is a hint of this in the word "bo" which means "come". It is composed of two letters- bet and aleph. The bet has the numerical value of two, and can mean "house". The aleph as the value of one, and among its many meanings are "chief" and "ox". In the movement of consciousness toward any contraction that is arising within your body, the contraction can release and the duality between consciousness and contraction of consciousness can shift into unity. Rather than there being suffering on one hand, and resistance to suffering on the other, there is just presence with Being as it is unfolding. To do this, you have to be like a bayit- a welcoming home for whatever arises within. Then, you can evolve into an aluf- a "chief" of self mastery, unified within, strong and rooted like an ox.
May this Shabbat see the un-knotting of all contracted separateness and may we come close to the Divine Presence in sweet intimacy for healing, peace and wisdom. Amein.
The other day, one of the folks in our community wrote me that he often feels like his mind is a train station and his thoughts are the trains, constantly taking off every few seconds. He wants to just let the “trains” go and stay in the “train station,” but he feels compelled to hop on every “train” that leaves, compulsively journeying into nearly every thought that arises. “When will I learn to relax and just stay in the train station?” he wondered.
He's in good company! At the end of last week’s reading, Moses wonders in a similar way:
וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the Divine and said, “My Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
Moses is on his Divine-given mission to free the Israelites, but he’s feeling like a failure. Similarly, when we commit to getting free from our own minds, we may feel like failures as well. Those trains are so tempting!
Part of the problem is expressed in the metaphor of “staying in the train station.” That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Going on different journeys, on the other hand, that’s enticing! And this is why we get carried away so easily with our thoughts; they promise adventure. They promise understanding. They promise new ideas, new plans, cherished memories and fantasies of possibility. No wonder we get carried away so easily by those trains!
If we want to get free from our own minds, we need to be seduced by something more powerful, more compelling than our own thoughts. This is the hidden message of the Divine response to Moses:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃
Then the Divine said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
Pharaoh, the symbol of ego and enslavement to the mind, will let them go free because of a “greater might” (literally, a “mighty hand”). What could be greater than the enticingly seductive power of thought?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Existence Itself.”
Meaning: the “I” is not separate from All Existence, because every experience, every perception, every thought, every feeling that arises in our awareness is inseparable from awareness, and we are the awareness. The ani, the “I,” is really the ayin – the open space of perception, vast and borderless, and nothing is separate from that openness.
So, don’t try to control your mind; don’t try to discipline yourself to “stay in the train station” while your mind tempts you with all kinds of things. Know that your awareness is not just a train station, not just the place from which the “trains” of thought arise, but is rather an ocean of bliss, complete and ever-creative, ever-renewing. Consciousness is the true adventure. Let yourself be seduced by That. Let yourself fall in love with That, and don’t worry about the trains. Thoughts can seem powerful, but the awareness that you are is the יָד חֲזָקָה – the mightier hand – if you let yourself be seduced…
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More On Parshat Va'eira...
The Gift Beyond Self – Parshat Va'eira
When Moses complains that he can't confront Pharaoh due to his "sealed lips," Hashem responds with the strange words: "N'tatikha Elokim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!"
What does this mean?
There is a dimension of your being that transcends all your problems, all your reactions, all your conditioning. It transcends your thoughts, your opinions, your goals, your hopes, and your fears. Every experience you have arises within It, and disappears back into it. It is a vast, free, wellspring of peace, healing and renewal, regardless of what happens in your experience.
When we are unconscious of this vast dimension of being, we tend to identify with the content of our experience; we feel that our thoughts, our feelings, and our bodies are "me." That's the Pharaoh; it's the "me" that wants to control things, that seeks approval, that judges.
But when you remember the awareness within which everything in your experience appears and disappears, then you know your own Divinity – your own absolute freedom from the tyranny of ego. Then, there can be a tremendous sense of gratitude – N'tatikha Elohim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!
Your own Being is not separate from or other than God, and that's the most supreme Gift; though it's an even greater gift to know it! As it says (Pirkei Avot 3:18): "Beloved are human beings, for they are created embodiments of the Divine. But they are extra beloved in that it is made known to them that they are embodiments of the Divine!"
The Plague- Parshat Va'eira
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!