In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it once happened at the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the sky was particularly cloudy. The moon was completely obscured, preventing the Baal Shem from making the blessing on the new moon as is traditionally chanted after Yom Kippur. The Baal Shem sensed that the welfare of his people somehow depended on his making the Kiddush Levana- the sanctification of the moon, that night. Anxiously he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. Sunk in gloom, he eventually gave up and retired to his room.
His disciples, however, knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s sadness and had begun to dance around the house in ecstatic celebration. Eventually their revelry burst through the door into the Baal Shem’s room. In their mad ecstasy they took him by the hand and drew him into the dance. Later the Baal Shem noticed- the sky had cleared and the crescent moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the blessing and averted the danger.
At first glance, you might think that this story is about the power of joy and community- about how the master needed the innocent enthusiasm of his disciples to cheer him up, which then miraculously cleared the clouds from the sky.
A fine and valid interpretation!
But another way of seeing the story reveals a unity between all the different elements- the Baal Shem’s experience of the darkness, the joy of the disciples and the revelation of the moon are all parts of one happening. The point is not the disciples cheering him up; the point is the way in which he relates to the darkness.
If you want true freedom, if you want to leave Egypt for good, you need to have a constant and unconditional commitment to being conscious. Meditation and prayer are only one part of the practice- the rest happens in the flow of life, in real time. Every part of life must be brought into the arena of practicing awareness.
In order to understand how to do this, it can be useful to divide your life experience into three categories.
The first involves moments when challenges come into your life from things you are committed to. For example, you might have challenges with work or children or relationships. In those moments, you must remain conscious that this is the arena of practice. Be committed to not letting the negativity take over your mind, creating pessimistic, complaining or blaming stories. Know that you have the power to completely be with the unpleasantness and that ultimately it can’t hurt you. It will certainly pass. Then, deal with the situation from that place.
The second involves negativity that comes into your life from things you are not committed to. For example, someone cuts you off on the road or someone insults you at work. Or, it could be negativity from your own mind. Regardless of the source, if you are not committed to the relationship, eject it from your mind completely. Don’t waste a second struggling against the annoying co-worker or the bad driver. Be with whatever feelings arise, but let go of any thoughts that keep those feelings alive. Even better- make a blessing for those who bother you. If possible and appropriate, take action. Even a smile can transform some situations.
The third involves the “empty” or “neutral” moments. When you are walking from one place to another, eating, driving and so on, there is no inherent content and the mind often wanders. Those times are such precious gifts because it’s not so difficult to be awake in those moments. Identify those moments- be aware of how they come in your day. When you brush your teeth, make your tea, whatever; use your mind on purpose. And that means either one of two things: either focus your thinking in an intentional way, or let go of your thinking and simply be present with whatever is happening.
Focused thinking can be contemplation on either spiritual or practical things. It can be solving a problem or thinking a prayer of gratitude. Presence means knowing you are not your thinking. It means putting aside your thinking and simply being.
Finally, take some time every day to step out of the flow of life. In order to practice in the three types of life experience, it is vital to separate from them to do your daily avodah- spiritual work. The vital elements of avodah are also three- meditation (quiet presence, just being with Being), prayer (expression of your heart toward Being) and contemplation or learning (like what you are doing right now as you read this).
There is a hint of these three life situations in the avodah that is described in this week’s reading. Parshat Tzav begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform. It says that the “olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker- the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.” In order to be “elevated”, you must remain alert the whole time you are experiencing something challenging or negative. Don’t become unconscious! Keep the flame burning all night long. This corresponds to being awake as you deal with challenges in things you are committed to, such as relationships and work.
In our opening story, this is when the Baal Shem tries his best to disperse the clouds, and then eventually retires to his room to fully be with his sadness.
Then it says the Kohen- the priest- must take the ashes of the offering and remove them to a place outside the camp. In other words, after you have burned through the negativity, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it alive by creating mental stories about it! Get it out of your space. This corresponds to negativity from things you are not committed to. Don’t waste your energy on things that don’t matter!
This is when the Baal Shem lets go of the sadness and joins in the dance.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is an “aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.” In other words, after the challenge is over and life has become neutral again, you should still remain conscious. Don’t just try to get conscious when things are challenging! This corresponds to the many neutral moments that comprise much of our lives. It’s easy to be awake in those moments- don’t take them for granted!
This is when the Baal Shem makes his blessing on the moon. The moon, waxing and waning, sometimes visible and sometimes not, represents the up and down flow of the every day. Sanctify the ordinary- as it says, “when you lie down and when you get up”.
On this Shabbat HaGadol- the Great Sabbath preceding our festival of liberation, may we all grow in our constant practice of being conscious and sanctifying every moment of this precious existence. Good Shabbos!
Many of my favorite television memories from the 70’s come from the early Sesame Street shows. I remember one episode where Grover is straining to hold a really big, heavy brick with the word “HELP” carved into it. As he moans and groans trying not to drop the brick, he keeps yelling, “Help! Help!”
The great trickster Ernie walks up and says, “Oh, Grover, you need some help? I’ve got some help for you, hold on just a minute.” He bends down and picks up another big heavy brick, also with the word “HELP” carved into it, and piles it on top of the first brick, increasing his burden.
“Help! Help!” Grover yells louder. “Oh, you want more help??” says Ernie. Ernie then picks up yet another big heavy “HELP” brick and piles it on top of the two that Grover is already holding.
This goes on a few more times- Grover yelling help and Ernie just making it worse and worse by piling on more and more HELP bricks. Finally, Grover just screams and falls backward, all the bricks falling on top of him. Ingenious.
My three-year-old daughter likes to help a lot. She is always asking, “Can I help?” Sometimes she “helps” me cook in the kitchen. The “help” usually entails holding my wrist while I stir something in a hot pan, or holding my arm while I lift something much too heavy and dangerous for her to lift.
Actually, everything we do is just like that. We go through motions, thinking “I am doing such-and-such,” but actually the act is being done by the All and we are only apparently doing it. It’s like when a bunch of guys are lifting some big heavy couch and you put your hands underneath to appear as if you are helping, but you are actually doing nothing. That’s our true situation. When you turn on the car, is it the key that is doing the job? Is it the starter? Is it the spark plug? There is no single thing doing anything; everything is doing everything all the time.
Yet you might think, “I am doing it”. You might take the burden of being the Doer onto yourself. Like my daughter, “you” are doing nothing, because there is no separate “you” as the Doer. But like Grover, you might strain and moan under the burden of life, yelling, “Help! Help!” And as long as you see yourself as the Doer, any help you get is like Ernie’s help. You don’t need that kind of help! You just need to drop the burden.
But you can’t “try” to drop the burden. That’s just more burden! That’s Ernie’s kind of help. The “me” that tries to drop the burden is itself the burden.
To drop the burden, you just need to see that you are straining unnecessarily. If you can see it, you spontaneously stop doing it. Seeing that the trying is itself a kind of straining, you just stop. You just accept everything, and you are free. Don’t “try” to get rid of anything, don’t “try” to change anything; that changes everything!
Rather than trying to escape the experience you are having in this moment, draw close to it. Your willingness to be with What Is becomes your avodah- your Divine service. It becomes your offering on the altar of the present moment.
The word for “offering”, in the sense of ritual sacrifice, is korban- from the root koof-reish-bet which means to “draw close”. This week’s reading says that in bringing a korban offering, one should bring it “el petakh ohel mo’ed- to the opening of the Tent of Meeting- yakriv oto lirtzono- bring it willingly.”
The “Tent of Meeting” is the place we meet Reality. Where is that? It is always only where you are. You can’t “go” to the Tent of Meeting because you are already here! But you can come close to where you already are with willingness- “yakriv oto lirtzono- draw close willingly.” Draw your attention willingly into the fullness of this moment. Don’t hold it as a burden that you need to change or control; offer yourself to it. That is the key.
There is a hint of this also in the next verse- “v’samakh yado el rosh ha’olah- one should lean one’s hand on the head of the burnt offering.” Leaning your hand on the head of something is the exact opposite of carrying a burden. To carry a burden you have to put your hands under the bottom and hold it up. Here it says to lean your hand on its head. In other words, rest upon your offering. Let your awareness simply dwell with Reality as it is appearing now. In this way, it is “burnt up”- meaning, the energy that has become trapped in some burdensome emotion- resentment, anger, anxiety, whatever, gets freed up and reunited with your awareness that is accepting and embracing it. Reality that is One becomes One.
This is in fact the call from everything in every moment: offer up the burden of your separate self by embracing what is. As it says in the first verse of this parshah, “Vayikra el Moshe- Called to Moses”. It doesn’t say who called to Moses, it just says “called”. The last letter of vayikra, “called”, is the letter Alef which has the numerical value of one, and is a symbol of the Divine One. This letter Alef is written smaller than all the other letters, hinting that the “Oneness” is hidden within everything, calling to us from everything, nudging us to see the hidden Oneness. Let go of your burden. Everything is really just the Blessed Holy One!
This Shabbos may we all hear the Divine call ever more deeply. May our hearing evoke the lightness and aliveness from which springs the waters of love and playfulness, and may we play in the Ocean of the Oneness together. Good Shabbos!!!
Both my father and my father-in-law were so happy a few years ago when my son started getting into playing sports like baseball and soccer. I have no interest in sports (except for when my son is playing, of course), so I think they were relieved that I hadn’t passed on my apathy for the “game”.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” my father-in-law would say. He was pointing out the importance of teamwork for building a spirit of connectedness and an ability to work well with others.
And yet, it’s funny- while team sports are clearly all about people working together, the news media doesn’t seem to emphasize that side of it at all. As an experiment, I googled “sports news” and clicked on ESPN. A huge list of headlines came up for the latest news stories.
Was there even one headline about how a team worked together?
Not one. In fact, EVERY single story was about an individual- Byron Maxwell, Frank Gore, Brandon Flowers, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson- the list went on and on (all people I’ve never heard of).
Despite the fact that the true story in any team sport emerges from the interaction between players, we seem to paint the story in terms of individuals. We love heroes. We love to point to the guy that’s the best, even though that guy would be nothing without the work of teammates.
If you’ve ever given a complement to a religious Jew, or asked, “how are you doing?” you’ve probably heard the response, “thank G-d” or “Barukh Hashem”. This convention in the religious world is meant to downplay the focus on the individual and instead focus on the Whole. When a person says, “thank G-d”, it also means, “thank everything” and “thank everyone”, since nothing is believed to be separate from G-d. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”? The Maggid of Zlotchov1 taught on a verse2 in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Moses says, “Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem- I stood between the Divine and you”.
The Maggid interpreted like this- “The ‘I’ stands between G-d and us. When you say ‘I’, a wall stands between you and G-d. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my beloved’s, then it is toward me that His desire turns.”
The “Beloved” is nothing other than total Reality; everything is G-d. Each time you remember that everything is G-d, you are instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that G-d has gone anywhere- there is nothing but G-d, only you have become used to It. It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you are on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you are holding hands. To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel3: “Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha- six days shall work be done”. It doesn’t say, “six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work4; there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says “… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton- on the seventh day it should be a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths . . .”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the workdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths! Meaning, even the workdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One doer, and the One includes all the different beings doing their different jobs. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elokim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. G-d is the many in the One. G-d is the team!
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat- A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there is a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die”, but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it is the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That is liberation.
Say “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from Beyond. Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there is only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that is you! That’s the paradox- you must be the hero, like Moses, assembling the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment- “Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat- and Moses assembled the entire assembly4…”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we all surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me”. May true peace come now! Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1
I have a friend who told me an amazing story about how she used to earn a living. She is a particularly handy person, with a knack for things like plumbing, light carpentry, and so on. Several years ago, she discovered that most people (myself included) don’t have such a knack and often need a handy person, so she started to take little fix-it jobs to earn extra money. For a while the jobs were easy for her. One day, she was asked to do a job that baffled her.
What did she do?
Did she say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” and go on to an easier job? No. She pretended she knew how to do the job, went home and watched You Tube videos on how to fix that particular thing, then went and fixed it. That was just the beginning. Eventually, she was learning and growing by taking on harder and harder jobs. Her work became her school.
There is an analogue here to spirituality. Just as the basic point of work is to receive physical sustenance in the form of money, so the basic point of spirituality is to receive spiritual sustenance- the Inner Light of bliss and oneness that manifests as wisdom, joy, love and many other wonderful qualities.
The most direct way to connect with your spiritual sustenance is to remove outer distractions and do your avodah- spiritual work such as meditation, chanting, and so on. If you really just want that spiritual sustenance, you should involve yourself with as few other things as possible. Do what you need to do to eat and have basic necessities, then devote yourself to spiritual practice. That would be analogous to my friend taking the easy handy jobs she already knew how to do.
But if your intention is not merely to get the sustenance, rather to learn and grow in your ability to stay connected to the Source of that sustenance even in the midst of life, then you can bring your spiritual Light into the chaos and complexity of life. Then, distractions are really not distractions anymore. They are what you need to train. They are your helpers on the path of becoming spiritually masterful.
Many folks tend toward one side or the other. Some get so caught up in the drama of life that it is impossible remain present and bring forth the Inner Light when things get stressful. Others tend toward the other direction, seeing the drama of life as a distraction and withdrawing into solitude. And, there are times in life when it’s good to lean toward one side or the other.
The truth, however, is that these two sides are not really separate or opposed to each other. The Inner Light that flowers within wants to express Itself; it wants to connect with life and bring its power of healing and wisdom. But to balance the rhythm between the Eternal and the temporal, the Silent and the noisy, requires attentiveness and intention. It takes a special effort to create the boundaries you need to have the space in the day for spiritual avodah. And, no matter how complete your realization of the One is in solitude, life will generate challenges for you when you get back in its game. Receiving those challenges as your spiritual training, and not merely distractions, takes a tremendous effort; but it is ultimately an effortless effort.
This week’s reading, Ki Tisa, contains instructions for constructing a special basin of water that the kohanim (priests) were to wash their hands and feet with whenever they entered the sanctuary space or brought offerings onto the altar that was outside the sanctuary: “v’asita kiyor n’khoshet- you shall make a basin of copper…bein ohel mo’ed uvein hamizbe’akh- between the Tent of Meeting and the (outer) altar…v’natanta shama mayim- and you shall put water there.”
The late Lubavitcher rebbe Rabbi Menachem M Shneerson z’l taught that the outer altar represents the sanctification of ordinary life activities. The inner sanctuary represents one’s spiritual practice and connection with Eternal, separate from mundane life. The fact that the kiyor- the basin- was between the two indicates that you need to inwardly “cleanse” your intentions before entering into your avodah, on one hand, and before entering into ordinary life activities as well. Having the right intention is the key to unifying the life of Being with the life of Doing.
Having right intention with your avodah means to approach it in the spirit of service. You meditate and davven not just to “get” something from it but also to serve as a conduit- to bring the Spirit into form. Similarly, you don’t enter into mundane life only to derive material benefit from it, but also to receive its lessons, to be a student and become more and more adept at bringing the Spirit into expression.
What is the key to right intention? It’s knowing you are here to serve. We are all constantly receiving, taking so much in so many different ways, but it must be for the sake of giving. That’s why, in the beginning of the reading, the Israelites are told they all must donate a half shekel when they are counted for the census, in order to prevent a plague- “Ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael- when you take a census of the children of Israel… v’natnu ish kofer- they shall give for atonement… v’lo yiyeh vahem negef- so there won’t be a plague…makhazit hashekel- a half shekel…”
Being “counted” means being part of community life, part of the chaotic push and pull of multiple agendas and intentions. This life becomes a “plague” if you get stuck in it, if you forget right intention, if you forget that you are ultimately here to serve the One.
How do you serve the One? By being connected to the One and bringing Its Light and Bliss and Love into the mundane, into the chaos. And how do you do that? By taking time to separate from the mundane and doing your daily spiritual practice… not to mention the one full day of the week that is all spiritual practice- Shabbat.
May this Shabbat be a full immersion into the Eternal and may our world drink of Her healing power-