How do you come up with the complete works of Shakespeare?
Just take a bunch of hydrogen, and leave it alone for about fourteen billion years!
There seems to be a miraculous potential within the very fabric of reality itself to evolve – to develop into higher and more complex structures, to go from inanimate matter to conscious beings. You start off with hydrogen atoms, and over time, you end up with us. In Judaism, that potential is called Hashem.
This Divine potential to create and to become is inherent within us; just as sure as we exist, so the power of Hashem is at the core of who we are, calling us to evolve, to be willing partners in the process of Creation. It is not something we have to acquire; it is our essential being, behind the mask of our individuality. Our task is only to remember it, to awaken it, and to express it.
וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵנוּ אַשְׁרֵינוּ מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵנוּ,
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafa yerushateinu!
We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!
Our Divine nature is our heritage, our destiny, our task – and when we’re ready, it becomes our commitment:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering. It is the Elevation Offering that is on the flame on the altar all night long until the morning; the fire on the altar should be kept burning on it.
“All night long” – in this dark time of such tremendous suffering and violence on our planet, we are “commanded” – if we can “hear” it – to “keep our fire burning” – to stay present, to be Presence, to elevate by burning up whatever destructive and unconscious patterns we find within ourselves. And as we transform ourselves, so do we transform the world. Because the more conscious we become, the more others will be able to feel that Presence in our presence, and that consciousness will spread – just as one flame ignites another without diminishing itself.
In this way, our Divine potential that is ordinarily hidden becomes more and more revealed.
There’s a story that before Reb Simcha Bunam was a rebbe, he traded in lumber. Once when he was in Dansig on business, the other merchants asked him why he bothered visiting his rebbe. “How can your rebbe teach you anything that you haven't already learned from all those books you read?” They said.
That night, a number of them went to the theater. They invited Reb Simcha Bunam along, but he declined. Later, when they returned, they lamented he had missed such an amazing performance.
“What do I need to see the performance for? I already know all about that show!” said Reb Simcha Bunam.
“What do you mean? How could you know all about it – you haven’t seen it!”
“Yes, but I read the program!”
“You can’t really know a show just by reading the program, you have to experience it for yourself!” they retorted.
“And so it is with my rebbe – what he reveals cannot be learned from books.” The merchants were silenced.
On this week of Shabbat Tzav and Purim, may we keep the flames of Presence burning on the altar of this moment and reveal the Divine potential behind all of our masks. Hag Samayakh, Good Shabbos!
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This is It! Parshat Tzav
3/22/2018 0 Comments
Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was gathered with his hasidim after Yom Kippur. Setting his eyes on one disciple, he turned to him. “I will tell you what you prayed for and what Hashem’s response is," he told him.
“You prayed that you should receive your livelihood for the whole year all at once, so that you would be free to spend the rest of the year praying and and studying,” he explained.
“But then, you realized that if you had all the money at once, you’d probably not be able to resist starting a new business venture with all that capital, and you’d be in the same situation as before. So, you asked that you’d be given half now, and half in six months." The hasid was wide-eyed with amazement as his master miraculously reported his whole thought process.
“But then you realized that still wouldn’t work," Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued, "so you asked that it be given to you in monthly installments. The truth is, however, Hashem doesn’t want your prayers and Torah study; Hashem wants you to labor in your business!”
The central and universal message of Hasidism is to connect with the Divine in every moment, in every action. Without diminishing the importance of the particular spiritual practices, the aim of those practices is to awaken the constant awareness of the Divine Presence by becoming totally present in all of life. In this way, presence realizes The Presence.
But to do that, it is important to make sure you have the two main dimensions of Presence operating. There's a hint of these two dimensions at the beginning of our weekly reading (Leviticus Chapter 6):
א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
1. And the Divine spoke to Moses, saying,
ב צַ֤ו אֶת־אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָֽעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָֽעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֨יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ:
2. "Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the Elevation Offering: it is the the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it.
If you wish to elevate every moment and every situation so that everything becomes a realization of the Divine, you have to have let this moment be an offering, even in moments of darkness: "That is the Elevation Offering which burns on the altar all night..."
And to accomplish that, you have be totally aware: "...and the fire of the altar shall burn upon it." – meaning, your awareness should "burn" on the "altar" of your heart, constantly.
These two dimensions, staying aware of the fulness of this moment, on one hand, and offering yourself to this moment as an act of love, on the other, are the two essential dimensions of Presence. They are not separate, and yet we seem to find ways to separate them! One person has good intention, but bumbles about nervously. Another seems to be very aware, yet they are aloof and un-compassionate. Neither of these is very elevating.
But bring the heart and the mind together, and everything becomes holy, no matter how mundane or even disturbing, barukh Hashem.
Here's an inquiry to bring these two dimensions from potential into actuality: "What is the offering right now? Mah HaOlah?" Try and asking this often to yourself, and see what comes. Sometimes, you might get a great new insight about how to respond to the moment. Other times, there might only be the openness of the question. Either way, the inquiry can help to bring you to the "altar" of your heart and let your awareness burn brightly...
Burn! Parshat Tzav
4/6/2017 1 Comment
The Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, hints at the Passover theme of liberation- going out from the bondage of ego, represented by slavery in Egypt, and into the spacious freedom of the midbar- the wilderness of Reality Itself, beyond the limited maps of Reality generated by the mind. It says the priest should take the Minkha- the “meal offering”- “v’hiktir hamizbeiakh reiakh nikhoakh azkarata Lashem- and burn its remembrance on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Divine.”
Now the image of burning has two main aspects. On one hand, fire creates light and warmth, which are necessary and pleasurable. On the other hand, fire burns and destroys- it can be dangerous and painful. In other words, fire is a metaphor for life itself- beautiful, pleasurable, and also incredibly painful at times. But if you offer your awareness as a gift to this moment as it is- v’hiktir hamizbeiakh-your awareness will burn of the altar of the present, reiakh nikhoakh- your connection to this moment in the face of both pleasure and pain is like a pleasing aroma, azkarata Lashem- bringing the remembrance of the Divine Oneness within which everything appears and disappears.
Of course, this isn’t always easy, because of what I call the “yeah but” principle. One moment you’re relaxed, open and in harmony with Reality, and the next moment something happens that throws you off, and your mind says, “yeah but…” That’s why offering the minkha- the gift of your Presence- azkarata Lashem- it must be a remembrance of the Oneness that you recall to yourself every day, as it says in the seder, Kol y’mei khayiekha- all the days of your life. And when you remember the Oneness, you actually re-member yourself- meaning, your consciousness that’s become fragmented and contracted can relax back into the open field that is your nature.
So on this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Command, of Mitzvah, may we receive this mitzvah of re-membering- practicing daily, nightly and constantly the return to Presence and opening to the love that flows from there. Good Shabbos!!!
Locked in the Bathroom- Parshat Tzav
3/24/2016 5 Comments
Last week, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom.
The doorknob had broken a few days before. I went in to use the bathroom, and when I was finished, I realized I couldn’t get out.
I took the screen out of the window, but soon realized that if I tried to squeeze my body through that tiny opening, I would not only be stuck in the bathroom, but stuck halfway though the window. Not a good plan.
I had no regular tools- only a bunch of various pieces of doorknob lying around the bathroom. So, I grabbed a piece of metal and started bashing the doorknob as hard as I could.
That didn’t work.
Only one thing left to do-
Sitting there and looking carefully, I could see something that looked like a lever inside the door hole in which the knob was recessed. I found a metal thing which fit right inside and carefully pushed the lever thing. The doorknob released and it came right open.
It was a good test, and a perfect reminder of the importance of Presence in the midst of the absurdities and challenges of life.
There are three phases for dealing with absurdities and challenges.
This week’s reading, Parshat Tzav, begins with a description of the Olah- the “elevation” offering that the priests are to perform:
“… olah al mokdah… kol halailah ad haboker-
“…the elevation offering should stay on the flame all night until morning.”
If you want to live an “elevated” life, let the "night" of challenges be reminders to remain alert. Keep the "flame burning all night long." This is the first stage.
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’ve burned through the negativity and come out the other end, completely let go of it. Don’t keep it around by creating mental stories about it; let it out of your space. This is the second stage.
Then it says that the Kohen should kindle wood on the altar in the morning as well. The fire is called:
“… aish tamid- a continual flame- lo tikhbeh- it should never be extinguished.”
In other words, after the challenge is over and you’ve let go of it, you’ve got to still practice being conscious. It doesn’t work very well to get conscious only when things are challenging!
And fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to stay present in the many uneventful moments that comprise much of our lives- don’t take them for granted! That’s the blessing of the many prayers, sacred phrases and Divine Names you can use to come deeply into Oneness of the present moment, all day long.
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 that's 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. Determined, he stood beneath the night sky, concentrating his mind to cause the clouds to disperse, but with no success. He eventually accepted his failure as what needed to be, 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 waxing moon beamed brightly. The Baal Shem made the brakha- the blessing- and averted the danger.
On this Shabbat Tzav, the Sabbath of Connection, may we connect the three phases as the Baal Shem tov did- accepting challenge and even failure when it happens, letting go of negativity and opening to the joy of the Dance, and blessing the holiness of each moment, regardless of whether our fortune is "waxing" or "waning".
Good Shabbos, Hag Purim Samayakh!
Keep Burning! Parshat Tzav
3/27/2015 4 Comments
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!
The Power of Preparation- Passover and Parshat Tzav
3/21/2013 4 Comments
There are moments when our situation dictates our next move, and there is no ambiguity about what we must do. If there were a baby in the middle of the road, for example, it is clear we should rescue the baby. In such a moment, there is no leeway for weighing options, for considering which path to take. The path is clear, and the mind is wholly present in the task at hand. We might call this active presence- being totally present and committed in one’s action.
There is also a situation we might call passive presence, or receiving presence. This could be when you receive something or behold something so satisfying that there is no part of you that is left out of the experience; there is a sense of arrival. The present is not experienced as a stepping-stone to some other moment, but the present is IT. An example of this might be beholding something awesome in nature, or even drinking a glass of water when you are parched.
Ordinarily, these moments tend to be few. The aim of spiritual work, however, is to totally reorient yourself to become fully present in every moment, to connect deeply with reality as it presents itself now, always now, in this moment. To do this, we have to shift our perspective from mind and thought to the awareness behind mind and thought. Just as both the baby in the road and the satisfying experience automatically bring one to the fullness of the present beyond thought, so we must learn to bring ourselves fully to the present, even and especially in ordinary and mundane moments.
This is the hidden message in this week’s parsha, Tzav. Throughout the Torah, when G-d tells Moses to communicate something to the Israelites, it usually says, “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to the Israelites…’”. In this case, rather than saying, “speak to the Israelites”, it says “command the Israelites”. That’s the meaning of the word Tzav- it is the command form of the word “command”. By saying, “command” rather than “speak”, it implies a sense of intensity, and calls the one commanded to a state of presence. To receive a “commandment” is different from receiving a “suggestion” or a “possibility”; the baby is in the road, and you must act.
However, the Torah then goes on to enumerate tedious details about certain ritual sacrifices. The subject matter is not even new; it is merely a continuation of last week’s parsha, which introduced the subject (see last week’s blog entry). Why is the special word tzav used in this context?
But this is the whole point. Much of our lives are spent with ordinary, repetitive things- the daily grind of keeping things moving. The ritual sacrifices are a metaphor for how to frame the ordinary: By bringing our awareness fully into each moment, the “ordinary” is transformed into something sacred. The word for sacrifice, korban, actually doesn’t mean sacrifice at all; it means “drawing near”. The “daily grind” becomes a way of drawing near to the Ultimate, for everything is part of the Ultimate. Once the mind ceases pulling us away from this moment, we can see this moment as an opportunity to awaken, to be a vessel for consciousness.
This is also the meaning of the instructions to “keep the fire on the altar burning all night” (Lev. 6:2). The “day” represents those special experiences and deeds that bring us to the sacred and the fullness of presence. The “night” represents the ordinary and mundane, when we tend to fall asleep in the spiritual sense. To “keep the fire burning” in the “night” means to transform the ordinary into a korban- into a sacred moment through the power of awareness.
This lesson is a powerful reminder as we move into the preparation time for Pesakh (Passover). Preparing for Pesakh has a very mundane, detail-oriented aspect to it, involving going through your fridge and cabinets to find all the hameitz (foods made with wheat, oats, barley or spelt, except of course matzah) to either eliminate it or sell it. (Click here for info on traditional Pesakh preparations- and don't let it freak you out! Even a little effort at whatever level you are comfortable can be very powerful). Often, this will reveal hidden dirtiness and inspire a deep cleaning of the house. The hameitz is a symbol for ego and separation from the present. The matzah, in its flatness and simplicity, represents full intimacy with the present and freedom from ego.
So what is the lesson? The ego craves something special. It wants to be impressed, and to impress. But preparing for Pesakhis an opportunity to embrace the mundane, to discover the sacred in the cleaning of kitchen muck. In surrendering to these mundane tasks and doing them not as drudgery but as “commandment”, as mitzvah, we open ourselves to receive the true and liberating power of Pesakh.
When you eat the matzah this Pesakh, may you taste the joy, sweetness and purity of real liberation, and may your liberation bring this world a step closer to a global awakening and healing.
Hag Samayakh! Good Shaabbiiiisss!
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן
The Divine called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘when one of you draws close with an offering…’”
– Leviticus 1:1, 2
Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov taught on the verse, Deuteronomy 5:5 –
אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־יְהוָ֤ה וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙
I stood between the Divine and you…
"It is the 'I' that stands between the Divine and us. When a person says 'I' and asserts oneself, a wall is placed between oneself and the Divine. But for one who offers the 'I' – there is no barrier. It is to this person that the words in Shir Hashirim refer:
אֲנִ֣י לְדוֹדִ֔י וְעָלַ֖י תְּשׁוּקָתֽוֹ – I am my beloved’s and His desire is toward me… "
To be a someone – to assemble one’s thoughts, feelings and experiences into a sense of “me” – takes energy. Ordinarily we don’t even realize how much energy is being expended maintaining this ego. But in offering our “I” to the Mystery from which we emerge and to which we will eventually return, there can be a great inner surrendering to that Mystery, a great falling into the Beloved.
But how do we do that?
Rabbi David Lelov taught that there can be no experience of the Divine without first recognizing ourselves. When Joseph’s brothers came to him in Egypt and said, “We are upright men!” Joseph accused them: “You are spies!” But when they admitted they had sinned against their brother, it was then that Joseph wept and revealed himself to them.
Similarly, if we want the Divine to reveal Itself to us, we must first learn to fully be with ourselves. Free of self-assertion and self-justification, just being open and vulnerable with our actual experience, without distractions, can itself be an offering; then the inner barrier of the “I” can relax into the Divine Presence that we are beyond the “I” – and that is meditation.
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The Cow and the Sheep – Parshat Vayikra
Pirkei Avot 3:8 says, "Give to the Divine from the Divine, for you and all you have are nothing but the Divine..."
Freedom means, no more burden, no more worry, no more tension with What Is.
The devotional path of spiritual freedom is a path of offering one's self to the Divine moment by moment, so that your whole life has the quality of openness, of living not for "me" but for Reality Itself. In that total offering is the realization that "I" am also the Divine; "I" am also Reality. In this way, all of life can be realized as an expression of the Divine.
But to practice this moment by moment means embodying a paradoxical confluence of opposing qualities: Strength and Surrender.
This week's Torah reading begins:
א וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר
1. And (the Divine) called to Moses, and the Divine spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם:
2. Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person from [among] you brings an offering to the Divine; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your offering.
In order to make yourself into an offering, you need the "cattle" and the "flock" – meaning, you need to be bold and strong like a bull, but also submissive and passive like a lamb. That's because you need strength to stand up to the forces of resistance within, (that's the "bull,") and once you do that, what's left is open acceptance of Reality as it presents Itself. (That's the "lamb.")
Ordinarily, we may associate resistance with strength. But the impulse to resist is spontaneous and seductive; the real strength is in knowing that your impulses aren't you. Acceptance takes tremendous strength, courage and faith to be present with whatever impulses arise and not be seduced.
Then, from that place of acceptance of whatever is arising now, you can ask the question: How am I been called? Like Moses at the "burning bush," your calling might be to stand up for what is right, to stand against oppression, for example. This kind of political or social "resistance" is not the same as spiritual resistance. Being "called" can stem from an acceptance of what is, and then from embracing your calling to try and change things for the better...
What is Humility? Parshat Vayikra
"Vayikra el Moshe, vay’daber Hashem Eilav-
"Hashem called to Moses, and spoke to him..."
The word Vayikra means, “called.” The 14th century Rabbi, Ya’akov ben Ra’ash, known as the Baal Haturim, pointed out that the letter alef at the end of the word Vayikra is written really tiny. He explains that Moses, in his humility, wanted to write it without the alef all together, so that it would spell Vayikarinstead of Vayikra, implying that God didn’t call to Moses, but simply happened upon Moses by accident. God said no, I am calling to you Moses, you have to put the alef in there, so Moses wrote it small, as an expression of his humility.
So why is a small alef a symbol of humility? Ordinarily, there’s that sense of the separate “me”- that’s the ego- the sense of self that’s made out of our thoughts and feelings. This egoic self-sense tends to get inflated- puffed up like a big alef. But when you become aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than get absorbed and identified with them, that inner “me” seems tiny compared to the vastness of your awareness. And that vastness isn’t ego because it doesn’t have any content- it’s not based on thoughts or judgments about “me” and “my story,” it’s just aware. It’s literally nothing, called ayin in Kabbalah, because it’s not a thing. It’s the space within which everything is perceived.
So on this Shabbat Vayikra, the Sabbath of Calling, may we hear the Divine call to be aware of our thoughts feelings, sensations and everything that arises in this moment, as part of the tapestry of Reality, the Oneness that manifests in all forms. And as we come to know that Oneness more deeply, may we also see that Oneness in each other and be motivated by genuineness and love in all our relations. Good Shabbos!!
Call For Help! Parshat Vayikra
This morning, I had yet another computer and IPhone breakdown- the latest in a string of digital tzuresthat has plagued me for the last few weeks. Thank God for my friend Ben! He figured it out and got me my back on my virtual feet- I'm so grateful for his expertise! I really needed his help.
Some kinds of help, however, are the opposite of help.
Take my friend Josh, for example, who is blind. When he walks around in public, it’s not uncommon for someone to grab his arm aggressively and say, “Here let me help you!” and try to force him in a certain direction.
There are folks who psychologically need to help others. Their kind of help is often not really help- it’s simply food for their self image.
It reminds me of an old Sesame Street episode, where Grover is straining to carry a really heavy brick. The brick has 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 Grover’s 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 backwards, all the bricks falling on top of him.
Have you ever noticed a strong desire in yourself be the helper?
Or, instead of needing to be the helper, have you felt that you needed to achieve something, or experience something, or be right about something?
If you so feel strongly, you’ve got to check in with yourself- are you seeing clearly what’s needed, or are you unconsciously trying to satisfy your own need to be a certain way, achieve a certain goal or have a certain experience?
The root of the problem is not helping or achieving or having. It’s identifying with what you’re doing. It’s seeing your “self” as the “doer.”
When my daughter was three, she liked “helping” me cook in the kitchen. The “help” usually entailed holding my wrist while I stirred something in a hot pan, or holding my arm while I lifted something much too heavy and dangerous for her to lift. She felt like she was helping, but she wasn’t really the doer.
That’s actually our situation.
We go through motions, thinking “I am doing such-and-such,” but actually the act is being done by Everything- we’re only apparently doing it.
When you turn on the car, it may seem like the key is turning it on. But is it the key? Is it the starter? Is it the spark plug? There’s no single thing doing anything; Everything is doing everything all the time.
Yet we tend to think, “I am doing it”.
In thinking of ourselves as doers, we take on the most profound burden of all. Like Grover, we strain and moan under the burden of life, yelling, “Help! Help!”
But when it comes to the burden of being the doer, any “help” you get is ultimately 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! The “me” that tries to drop the burden is itself the burden.
So how do you drop the burden?
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayikra, talks about how the various sacrificial offerings were performed. When bringing a sacrifice, it says that one should bring it-
“… el petakh ohel mo’ed… yakriv oto lirtzono-
“… to the opening of the Tent of Meeting… bring it close, willingly.”
The word for “bring it close”- “yakriv”- is the same root as “korban”- the word for the sacrificial offerings. So the meaning of the offerings is not actually “sacrifice,” but “drawing close.”
What is the Tent of Meeting?
The “Tent of Meeting” is the place we meet Reality.
Where is that?
It’s always only where you are!
But, just because you’re here now, doesn’t mean you’re connected to the Here and Now. You need to willingly come to this moment-
“...el petakh ohel mo'ed yakriv oto lirtzono-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Draw your attention willingly into the petakh- the "openness" that is the present. Don’t hold it as a burden that you need to change or control; offer yourself to it. That’s the key.
There’s also a hint of this practice 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” is the exact opposite of "carrying."
To carry a burden, you have to put your hands under it. Here it says to lean on the korban- rest in the "drawing near." There's a quality of surrender, not an effortful quality-
"...draw near willingly and meet the openness of this moment.”
Let your awareness simply dwell with Reality as it’s appearing now. That’s letting go.
As long as you don't let go, the message will continue to come. It will come in the form of whatever situations arise, over and over again. As it says in the first verse of our parshah-
“Vayikra el Moshe-
“Called to Moses.”
It doesn’t say who called to Moses, it just says “called”.
The last letter of the word Vayikra- “Called”- is the letter Alef. Alef has the numerical value of one, and in Kabbalah, it’s also a symbol of the Divine Oneness. On a Torah scroll, this particular Alef is written smaller than all the other letters, hinting that the “Oneness” is hidden within everything, calling to us from everything, nudging you to see- it's not you who acts.
When you can see that it’s not you who acts, but the Divine Oneness that is Everything, you can let go of your burden. Then, the help you offer is also not a burden- it doesn’t demand anything in return, or push anybody around. It becomes a true gift- a Divine gift- with no strings attached…
There’s a story of Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh, that once he was saying the blessing after his meal. When he got to the following passage, he repeated it three times with great fervor-
“V’na al tatzrikheinu, Adonai Eloheinu, lo lidei matnat basar v’dam, v’lo lidei halvatam, ki im l’yadkha hameleiah hap’tukha kak’dosha v’harkhavah…
“Please let us not need the the gifts of flesh and blood, nor their loans, but only your full, open, holy and generous hand…”
When he finished, his daughter asked- “Abba, why did you pray so hard that you should not need the gifts of people? Your only livelihood comes from the gifts people bring you out of gratitude!”
“My daughter,” he replied, “You must know that there are three ways of bringing gifts to the tzaddik. The first way is when a person thinks, ‘I’m a generous person, so I’ll bring a gift.’ This way is referred to by the words, ‘let us not need the gifts of flesh and blood.’
“The second way is when a person thinks, ‘I’ll give something now, and then I’ll get some reward in the future.’ Those people want heaven to pay them interest- that’s the ‘loan.’
“But there are some who know- ‘God has put this money in my hand to give, and I’m just the messenger.’ These are the ‘full, open, holy and generous hand...’”
On this Shabbat Vayikra, The Sabbath of Calling, may we hear message of Oneness that calls from all things, urging us to drop the burden of separateness and be messengers of the Divine compassion and generosity in this world...
Five Windows to This- Parshat Vayikra
This week begins the first parsha of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra- “He called”. It gives instructions about five different kinds of sacrifices which the Israelites were to offer. These five sacrifices can be seen as a paradigm of life, each one a symbol for a particular way of approaching this moment.
The first is the Olah, or “Elevation” offering. This offering was unique in that it was burned completely on the altar, with nothing left over. This hints at giving ourselves entirely to the task of this moment. We tend to see this moment as a mere stepping-stone to another moment, and we are often doing one thing while our minds are somewhere else. The Olah hints that if we wish to live in an “elevated” way- that is, free from mundane stresses and worries, we paradoxically need to completely bring ourselves to the mundane. We need to “burn ourselves” completely in this moment, without leaving over part of our minds to dwell on something else.
The second is the Minkha, or “gift” offering. This was a grain offering, brought by those who were not wealthy enough to bring animal offerings. This hints at the wisdom of humility and the willingness to offer of ourselves what we can, even if we think it is inadequate, or that the work required is “below” us. It is the willingness to serve the needs of this moment, without imposing our own preconceptions.
The third is the Shlamim, or “Peace” offering. This offering was brought out of gratitude and praise. It brought peace partially because the priests and the offerer both enjoyed it as food, and partially because it was supposed to have a peaceful effect on the world in general. This hints at dedicating our actions toward universal benefit for all. When we act, we do so because we have some particular motivation. If we take a moment to dedicate our actions to universal benefit, this will give our actions and even our decision-making process a special quality of openness and generosity.
The fourth and fifth are the Hatat and the Asham- the “Sin” offering and the “Guilt” offering. Their purpose was to correct and make healing for wrongs committed. It is good to remember that we have not always been perfect. Whenever we do anything, we are not acting from a clean slate, but rather we act against a hidden karmic background. Keeping this in mind will allow us to approach this moment with humility and the intention for healing whatever negativity lingers from the past. It will also help us accept what happens to us moment by moment, cleansing us from the arrogance of resisting things we don’t like- “How could this happen to me?” Instead, let us accept what is, and offer ourselves to this moment as a force of healing.
May these five offerings manifest themselves in our lives toward greater awakening to the spiritual potential of this moment, always.
“When I get the message that it’s time to let go, how do I get myself to listen?”
When we are powerless to change something we don’t like, we can understand intellectually that we need to “let go” because the resistance we feel is painful. And yet, it’s hard to “let go” because the impulse to resist has already taken over. What to do?
יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Yehudah ven Tabai says, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven…
– Pirkei Avot 5:20
הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר – Be bold as a leopard
First, we must realize that we can get out of it; we must reject the belief that we can’t. So first of all, cultivate the awareness that there is no experience that can trap you; you are always bigger than any experience, because you are the field of awareness within which the experience is happening. This takes boldness – holy hutzpah as it’s sometimes called.
וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר – light as an eagle
Being “bold” or “brazen” (az) doesn’t mean being aggressive, controlling or imposing. Simply be bold in knowing that you cannot be controlled by feelings of resistance. This means, don’t resist your resistance! Simply accept its presence, being the open space within which it arises. This is being kal – “light as an eagle.”
וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי – swift as a deer
But, to do any of this, you have to be faster than your impulses. Ordinarily, when an impulse is triggered, it happens very quickly and we tend to get taken over very quickly. Our awareness must be ratz – we must be even faster. This takes practice, and we may fail many times. But the key is to articulate your intention to yourself over and over, so that when the moment comes, you will be ready. This is the point of prayer – to articulate to ourselves our highest kavanah – our highest intention – every day, many times per day.
But then we must also practice carrying out the intention, and that’s meditation:
וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי – strong as a lion
Meditation is a workout for consciousness. Through daily practice, we become gibor – we strengthen our ability to consciously relate with whatever experience arises. Like any strengthening exercise, it can take time to bear fruit; that’s why it’s so important to have faith in the process and practice every day, even if you don’t notice much difference at first. The fruit will ripen!
There is a hint of this in the symbolism of the decorative fruits that were placed on the hems of the priestly robes:
וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ עַל־שׁוּלֵ֣י הַמְּעִ֔יל רִמּוֹנֵ֕י תְּכֵ֥לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֖ן וְתוֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֑י מָשְׁזָֽר
And they made, on the hem of the robe, pomegranates of turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, twisted…
– Exodus 39:24
Turquoise, tekheilet, is the color of the tzitzit – the traditional ritual fringes that are worn to serve as a reminder to be constantly and vigilantly conscious – swift as a deer.
Purple is the color of royalty, representing our sovereignty over experience – bold as a leopard.
Crimson is the color of blood, the strength of the body – strong as a lion.
וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ פַעֲמֹנֵ֖י זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר
And they made bells of pure gold…
The bell is a symbol of awareness itself, as the sound of the bell awakens us into a higher alertness. This is light as an eagle – just as the eagle hovers and soars through the open air, so too when we awaken to the full potential of who we are beyond our thoughts and feelings, we find that we are the open air, we are the miracle of consciousness, the effortless dwelling with just how this moment is unfolding, right now…
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The Carver, The Weaver and The Embroiderer- Parshat Pekudei
This week’s reading recounts the building of the Sanctuary-
“Eleh p’kudei HaMishkan…
“These are the remembrances of the Sanctuary…” (Ex. 38:21)
Remember- right now- make yourself into a sanctuary!
How do you do that? It goes on to say:
“The Sanctuary of Witnessing…”
The moment you become the witness to what’s happening, seeing without judgment or resistance, your inner space becomes a Sanctuary of Presence.
The parsha then goes on to describe the builders and artisans, including one named Oholiav, who is described as a “carver, weaver and embroiderer.”
To become a Mishkan HaEidut, a Sanctuary of Witnessing, first let your inner space be “carved” by the content of this moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Don’t resist, let your inner space take the form of this moment.
Then, let the fullness of everything in this moment be “woven” into a whole within the space of your awareness. Don’t tear the moment apart with judgments and resistance- it’s already one whole tapestry, when you allow it to be.
Let your own thoughts/words/actions “embroider” the sacred. Give your thoughts a form with a Divine Name or sacred phrase, letting it vibrate repeatedly in your mind.
Try this phrase, which means, “The Glory of the Divine Presence Fills”-
Kavod Hashem Malei! Kavod Hashem Malei!
This phrase is from the following verse which describes how the Sanctuary was so full of Presence, Moses could not enter-
“Moses could not enter the Sanctuary… for the Glory of the Divine Presence filled the Sanctuary.” (Ex. 40:35)
When your presence completely fills this moment, there's no more room for the separate “me”- there’s just the Presence, not separate from anything…
On this Shabbat Pekudei, the Sabbath of Remembrance, may we remember this most fundamental sacred task, clearing the way for joy and celebration in this new month of Adar II, the month of Purim...
Good Month to you!
Mishei Nikhnas Adar Marbim Simkha!
When the month of Adar enters, joy increases!
Some folks are confused by my leading ecstatic, musical Shabbat services on one hand, and teaching quiet meditation on the other. “What are you,” they say, “are you Mr. Ecstatic Guy or are you Mr. Contemplative Guy?” – as if a person really should be just one or the other.
There is a collection of traditional prayers said before going to sleep, called The Bedtime Sh’ma. Near the end, there is a line from Psalm 4:
רִגְז֗וּ וְֽאַל־תֶּ֫חֱטָ֥אוּ אִמְר֣וּ בִ֭לְבַבְכֶם עַֽל־מִשְׁכַּבְכֶ֗ם וְדֹ֣מּוּ סֶֽלָה
Tremble and sin no more, speak within your heart, upon your bed, and be silent, selah!
The idea here is that, before falling asleep, you bring yourself to a state of awe and reverence, resolve to correct any tendencies toward acting wrongly, and become inwardly quiet. This is a simple but very powerful form of meditation – connecting with the silent depths of your being, and reflecting on how to live from this depth in your daily life.
But Psalm 30, from the morning prayers, says something different:
לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ
So that my inner vastness will sing to You and NOT be silent; Hashem, my Divinity, constantly I will thank You.
In this psalm, the idea is to sing out and not be silent. So which is it?
Of course, this is the second half of the equation – living from this depth in your life. Taken together, we have a whole: awaken to your vast silent depths, but then express that silence outwardly as “singing” – in a way that is harmonious, ecstatic, and filled with gratitude.
But how do you do that when your external conditions are burdensome or difficult?
There’s a story of Rabbi Zev Wolf, that once while sitting in his bedroom, he heard a thief break into the house. He cracked the door open slightly and peered out to see the thief filling his sack with valuables. Among the items he stole was a cup which had been used earlier in the evening by a sick man. As the thief was about to leave, Reb Wolf leapt from his hiding spot and cried out:
“Good sir! You can keep all the things you’ve taken, but beware! That last cup you took as the breath of a sick man within in it – I don’t want you to drink from it and become sick yourself!”
When we hear a story like this, we might be inclined to think of Reb Wolf as a super-human tzaddik, embodying an ideal that’s out of reach for most of us.
But I don’t think so.
There’s actually a practical lesson here: Imagine that as Reb Wolf observed the thief from his bedroom, he could have been like any of us – experiencing fear, anger, and so on. But since he was hiding and not confronting the thief immediately, there was a space to be aware of the reactive emotions as they arose. And, from the silent depths of that awareness that transcends all feelings and impulses, he decided to do the opposite of his impulse, and express love rather than negativity.
There’s a hint in this week’s reading:
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ
Every person came whose heart inspired them…
It is talking about the gifts the Israelites brought to build the Sanctuary, that their hearts were inspired, or elevated, to bring the gifts. But the words used here, נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ nisa’o libo, can also mean tested their hearts; the root for elevated and tested are the same.
Meaning: when our hearts are tested – when we peer from our safety to see the thief coming for our things and our hearts inflame with fear, anger, and so on – it is in precisely those moments that we can become truly elevated by choosing our path consciously rather than be taken over by whatever impulses are arising. In this way, we can move from domu, be silent, to v’lo yidom – I will not be silent – constantly I will give thanks!
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Wanting What You Don't Want – Parshat Vayk'hel
This week's Torah reading interrupts the instructions on building the Sanctuary with the mitzvah of Shabbat:
א וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל משֶׁ֗ה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם
1. Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.
ב שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה כָּל־הָֽעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת
2. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day will be sacred for you, a Shabbat of Shabbats for the Divine; whoever does work on it shall die."
What? Death penalty for breaking Shabbos? How archaic!
But on a deeper level it can be read: "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of work- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, that sense of "me" that is identified with the work that "I" do, is allowed to "die" on Shabbat.
There's a story of Reb Yehiel Mikhal, the Maggid of Zlotchov. He lived a life of great poverty and hardship, yet he was constantly joyful and filled with gratitude. Once, a disciple saw him praying the morning prayers, and he chanted the blessing, "Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha'olam, She'asah li kol tzarki – Blessed are You, Divine Being, Our Divine Nature, Sovereign of the Universe, for fulfilling my every want."
The disciple asked, "how can you pray that blessing, when you are in such poverty?"
"Poverty," replied the master, "must be what I really want!"
We tend to invest ourselves in our work, in our wants, and in what we think we know. This creates that narrow, limited self-sense known as ego. But ask the question – "What do I really know right now?" – and allow the question to take us beyond our mind-based identifications.
Notice: The mind is a necessary tool, but we don't really know anything for sure except the fact that we are conscious of the experience arising in this moment. Let go of what you think you know, of who you think you are based on what you do, and realize the vast space of consciousness that you really are, right now...
Eye of the Hurricane- Parshat Vayak'hel
"Vayak'hel Moshe et kol adat b'nei Yisrael...
"Moses assembled all the community of the children of Israel..."
The Torah reading Parshat Vayak’heil begins with Moses assembling all of the children of Israel. The word Vayak’hel means, “He assembled.” Moses then tells them about the mitzvah of Shabbat-
"Sheishet yamim ta’aseh melakha- six days you should do work- uvayom hashv’iyi yiyeh lakhem kodesh- but the seventh day will be holy for you- Shabbat shabbaton Ladonai, kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat."
Now these last words may seem disturbing- kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat- literally- all the doers on it of work, will die. This is usually understood to be harsh law, that those who violate Shabbat will be put to death- death penalty for not keeping Shabbos. Oy vey!
But there’s another way to read the verse- "kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of word- vo yumat- on IT will die." In other words, the "me" that is the doer of work, the "me" that’s identified with my thoughts, feelings and actions, will die on Shabbat. Why? Because Shabbat yiyeh kodesh- Shabbat is the sacred space of simply being. This is the deeper meaning of Shabbat- not merely as a particular day in the week, but as the space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
So how do you enter Shabbat consciousness?
Simply allow the presence of everything happening in this moment to be assembled within your field of awareness. This is the hint of the word Vayak’hel- assembled. Rather than be out in the whirlwind of thoughts, judgments, and emotions, come to the eye of the hurricane by simply connecting with your breathing, your sense perceptions, returning your awareness back to the present moment experience of your body, and back again, and back again, training yourself to live from kadosh kedoshim, the center of awareness within which all the elements of your experience are assembled into a Whole, regardless of what’s going on.
So in this week of Shabbat Vayakhel, the Sabbath of Assembly, may the tapestry of Reality be assembled effortlessly though the practice of Presence, of connecting with this moment as it is. And from this place of Wholeness, may our words and actions flow as blessing for everyone that we encounter as well.
The Car Ride- Parshat Vayakhel
I started college in the late summer of 1987, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Although I was brought up without any religious practice at home, a spontaneous experience of spiritual awakening that summer led me to want to explore traditional Judaism just as I was beginning college.
So what did I do?
Of course, I contacted Chabad… on Friday afternoon at about 4 pm! And, I had no way of getting to the rabbi’s house, so I asked if he would pick me up.
Of course, asking an observant Jew to drive across town and pick you up right before Shabbos is not exactly the polite thing to do… but I didn’t know! The rabbi drove out to pick me up, giving me the “hurry up!” look as I walked toward his car from the dorm entrance.
I got in the car and he sped off.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” I said. “How are you?”
“Thank God” he said.
I thought that was an odd response to the question. But as I got to know the Jewish religious community more, this was of course the standard response-
“How are you?”
“How’s your family?”
“How’s work? School? Whatever?”
It can sound funny if you’re not used to it. And, if you are used to it, it might sound formulaic, or dishonest. But it has a profound spiritual basis:
In Hebrew, the most sacred Name of God consists of the letters that form the verb “to be” in all three tenses. So although God is often pictured as a deity, this is metaphor. The Name doesn’t mean a deity, a being among beings- not even the greatest of all beings. It just means Being. I means Reality.
So when you say, “Thank God,” it also means “Thank Everything” and “Thank Everyone,” since nothing is separate from God. It downplays the individual and instead focuses on the Whole. 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 Zlotchov (1) taught on a verse (2) in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
“Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem-
“I stood between the Divine and you…”
The Maggid interpreted like this-
“The ‘I’ stands between us and God. When you say ‘I,’ a wall stands between you and God. 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 my Beloved’s desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my Beloved’s, then it’s toward me that my Beloved’s desire turns.”
But if the “I” stands between “me” and the Beloved, between “me” and Reality, than who is “me”?
Of course, the “me” is also Reality! God is also the awareness that looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere.
Remember that everything is God, and you can be instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that God has gone anywhere- there’s nothing but God, only we become so used to It!
It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you’re 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’re 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 Israel (3):
“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 work (4); there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says-
“… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton-
“… and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you- a Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the six weekdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths!
Meaning, even the weekdays 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 playing their different roles. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elohim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. God is the many in the One.
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’s 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’s 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’s liberation.
Say “Thank God” or “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 the “I.” Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there’s only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that’s you! That’s the paradox- on one hand, you do nothing- it's all Hashem. On the other, only you can decide to open to this awareness.
How do you open to it?
Like Moses, you must assemble the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment-
“Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat-
“And Moses assembled the entire assembly (4)…”
And then, knowing that everything in Existence- every face you greet, every creature you encounter- is the Face of the Divine, acknowledge- “Barukh Hashem!”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we 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! Kein y’hi ratzon, 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
There is No "I" in Team- Parshat Vayakhel
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
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