When I was growing up, my mother and sister loved to watch Mr. Ed, the TV show about the talking horse. I have a memory of coming home from school and finding them on the couch in a darkened living room with the theme song playing: “A horse is a horse of course of course…” with my mother singing along. At the end she sang, “you never heard of a talking horse? Well listen to this!” Then she pointed at my sister who belted out, “I AM MR. ED!”
It’s a funny memory but with profound implications! You see, the word for “witness” in Hebrew is “ed”. Ordinarily, we go around thinking that the “I” is the character in the story- the one who comes home from school, the one who sings the song. But the song tells us- the “I” is actually the “ed”- the witness, the conscious presence that is aware of the song, the singing, the living room, and the character who is singing. But to be aware of the awareness takes a special effort. It’s not difficult, but it’s subtle. It’s a kind of effortless effort.
When you look at a painting, you are actually looking at a visual design of paint overlaid on a canvas. But when you look at the painting, how often are you aware of the canvas? You are looking right at it, but the mind doesn’t tend to focus on it. You see the design.
What happens when you remind yourself that you are also looking at the canvas? As your mind holds the awareness of the canvas in addition to the design you may notice that it becomes still. Now, try being aware of your awareness. You might say to yourself, “hineini”- which just means “here I am” or “I am present”. What happens?
We tend to look for G-d or Peace on the level of the painting. We want to change the painting into a better picture. But all along, That Which We Seek is already inherent in the canvas. Become aware of awareness, and the shape of your thoughts and feelings will come to reflect your inner depth, changing the “painting” of your character from the deepest level, rather than merely rearranging things on the surface.
But how do you maintain this constantly? How can your awareness’s awareness of awareness be more than fleeting?
There is a story of Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. When he was a young disciple of his master Reb Shmelke, his rebbe imposed a certain responsibility on him. Reb Shmelke told Reb Yaakov Yitzhak that he should be constantly watchful to make sure that Reb Shmelke never lost is deveikus- his constant bond of spiritual rapture with the One. He should watch his master especially during the activity of Talmudic debate, when his intellectual arguing could distract him from the Divine. If he noticed his master losing it, he should gently touch is gloves to remind him. Reb Yaakov Yitzhak reported that he never had to touch his master’s gloves even once.
Why would that master give his disciple such a task, if in fact he never needed his disciple’s help? Of course, it was to help his disciple remain mindful himself! By watching the deveikus of his rebbe, he was also able to remain in deveikus.
To remain present constantly and live from your own inherent freedom, from the wellspring of wisdom and peace that springs from your own awareness, you have to be tremendously selfish. It takes a heroic effort to constantly arouse deveikus, moment by moment. But if you know that you are not just doing it for yourself, that you in fact must do it in order to serve others, it becomes not just about you. It becomes a duty. Just as a parent generally does not forget to go to work to make money to buy food for the children, so it is far easier to remember to be present when you know that it is your duty to others.
This week’s reading describes various clothing worn by the Kohanim- the priests- the spiritual leadership in the community. The High Priest had to wear a special head piece- a gold platelet which bore the Divine Name. It says, “V’hayah al mitzkho tamid- and it shall be on his forehead always.” The Talmud (Tractate Yoma) comments- “…that he should never divert his attention from it.” In other words, he must remain constantly mindful of the Divine.
It’s very clever that the symbol of the Divine, the engraved name, is on his forehead- so close to his eyes, yet impossible to see! That is exactly what deveikus, or awareness’ awareness of awareness, is like. You can’t see it because it is the seeing itself. The awareness looking through your eyes in this moment is the waking up of Existence through your body/mind. That awareness tends to fall into the dream of thinking, “I am this body-mind. I am so-and-so”. But in becoming aware of awareness, you can drop the sense of “I” as separate. The awareness is not “yours” really- it is G-d’s. It is Existence. Than you can truly know, “I AM MR. ED!”
As it says in the beginning of the parshah, “…Tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael v’yik’hu elekha shemen… Command the children of Israel to take to yourself oil… to kindle a lamp constantly… outside the EDut- the tablets of witness”.
The lamp is your awareness. The oil is the fuel- your consciousness. The “Edut”or “tablets of witness” are your inner witnessing. These are three aspects of the same thing: consciousness becoming aware of itself as the witness- awareness’s awareness of awareness.
How do you do it?
Tetzaveh- command it! Just to have the intention is already to do it.
This Shabbos may we all grow in our awareness of the One Reality, the One Being. May that Light shine from our eyes, our words and our deeds, not just for our own sake but for the sake of serving each other in love.
Let’s face it- people can be annoying. People annoy us and we annoy them.
A few days ago I was in a workshop at a retreat center. I was in a room full of people, listening to the teacher speak to the class. Next to me there was this guy who happened to be standing on an area of floor that emitted a really loud squeak whenever someone stepped on it. So what did this guy do? He stood on that spot and rocked his body back and forth, making a terribly annoying and loud squeak, over and over again. He appeared to be totally unconscious of what he was doing. I was amazed that he either couldn’t hear the loud noise he was making or he just didn’t care.
Sometimes people go beyond mere annoyance, doing things that are downright enraging. And sometimes, the offending party is one we love deeply- maybe even our most beloved. Have you ever been enraged by someone you love? Have you ever lashed out in anger against your beloved? If you have, than perhaps you know the pain of separation it causes- the sour flavor that permeates life in the wake of such encounters. What is the remedy? How can the sundered fabric of relationship be healed and closeness be restored?
There is a word in Hebrew for “holy” or “sacred”- kadosh. Kadosh actually means “separate”, but not in the ordinary sense. In the case of a wounded relationship, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, alienation. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony we hear the words- “…at meKUDESHet li- you are holy to me”. Your partner or spouse becomes “separate” because they are your most intimate, and therefore separate from all other less intimate relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that is distant, but most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection.
This week’s reading begins the Divine instructions for building the Mishkan- the portable temple for the wandering Israelites:
“V'asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham- And make for me a Mikdash- a Sanctuary- and I will dwell within you”.
The word Mikdash has the same root as holy- kadosh. In the Torah, the Mikdash is the place that the Divine Presence manifests and communes with the Israelites. The other word for the Sanctuary, Mishkan, implies the Divine Presence- the Shekhina. And what is the main function of this communing with the sacred? The Israelites sought out the Divine to heal their wounds of separation. They brought their fruit, their grain and their animals to be offered on the fiery altar in order to free themselves from the alienation caused by their own transgressions. The word for a sacrificial offering is “korban”, which means not sacrifice, but nearness, intimacy.
Where was this Mikdash erected? Was it separate from the camp, off at a distance, so that you would have to hike out to it? No- it was in the center of the camp! And within the Mikdash was a special place considered the most holy- the kadosh kadoshim- the “holy of holies”. This most sacred space was the innermost room in the Mikdash- the center of the center.
This representation of the sacred in space and architecture is not mere ritual magic from the past. It is a pointer to the true sanctuary of Presence within your own life. There can only be one center of your life, and that center is the one place that life is actually being lived- this moment. You are never separate from this moment, and yet- are you truly dwelling within it?
“...V'asu li Mikdash v’shakhanit mitokham…”
There is a Divine call, in a sense. It calls to us equally in pain and in joy, in excitement and in boredom. It says, “Come to the center. Build me a sanctuary.” How do you build it? The essence of the sanctuary is not the structure, but the space within the structure. The structure is already there as your body, your mind, your heart. They become a sanctuary the moment you allow there to be a space. The space completes the structure.
Come into that space- come into your body, come into this moment. Bring your korban to the altar. Is there pain? Is there fear? Is there regret? Is there embarrassment? Bring it all. Let the fire on the altar of the present moment burn away the separation. Let it hurt- the pain is temporary.
From within the space of allowing yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, there is a transmutation that takes place. The energy of separation and pain becomes the energy of love. And from this love there is the possibility of external healing as well- the healing that happens between people through deeds of love.
The sages taught that it is for the sake of this love that the universe has come into being*, that when we commit acts of Hesed, of loving kindness toward one another, we make the world itself into a sanctuary, into a home for the Divine. As we learn to inhabit the temple of our bodies in the present, may the great love that arises from this Presence find sanctuary in our deeds, and may our deeds be ones of loving kindness and wisdom.
Shabbat Shalom, Hodesh Tov- Happy New Month!
*The Jewish concept that G-d created the world in order to bestow goodness is stated in many places, notably in the works of eighteenth century Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Etz Chaim, Shaar HaKlalim 1; Mesilat Yesharim 1; Derech Hashem 1:2:1).
Sometimes I hear this question:
If you awaken spiritually, does that mean that you will remain awake all the time? Does awakening create a permanent state?
This question reminds me of the time before I was married, when I had a “girlfriend”. On one hand, we were in a committed relationship. 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 the commitment I have now as a married person.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect? Of course not! Like all living things, it is in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people decide to have 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 is temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you can forget all about what you learned. You are 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 meditation, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it is 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.
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. The ultimate spiritual goal is to become an eved Hashem, meaning that your separate egoic self sense becomes subordinate to the Reality of the One. You no longer live for yourself, you live for God. In fact, “you” don’t really live at all; there is no separate “you”; there is just 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 is temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved does not want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new family, and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever.
The metaphors are so rich! To awaken means that you commit to Reality as your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality also becomes like your family- your home base- the place you live, not the place you visit.
Does that mean that you are now a perfect servant? Does it mean that you now have a perfect marriage? Of course not! You can and must get better at it. There is risk- failure is possible. But you have stepped into marriage with the Beloved. All of the rituals of Judaism are really expressions of this basic commitment, this brit, this “covenant” with the Divine.
How do you take this step?
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 cannot shut down; our ears are always open. We cannot shut our ears to escape the sounds around us. Similarly, we cannot escape Reality. There is nothing but Reality, everywhere! To step into Reality, then, is actually the most simple thing. It means dropping the stories and being with what is. It means being an open ear.
The name of this week's reading, Mishpatim, means “judgments”. At the deepest level, there is only one spiritual judgment to ever make: commit or don’t commit. Hear or refuse to hear. Awaken from the dream of the mind-created self or live in the dream.
Are you ready to commit to Reality as It steps up to you in this moment? Are you ready to give up the false dream of freedom from Reality and embrace the true freedom-
-the freedom of your own inner stillness, one with life as it unfolds?
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.