What will it take to set your heart free?
To answer that, we must ask- what is it that imprisons your heart?
The other day I was holding some books in my hands and my daughter came up to me and said, “Here Abba, for you!” She was trying to give me a little flower.
“One moment,” I replied, “let me put these down so I can receive your gift.”
The heart is not imprisoned by something external, but by the burden of whatever is being held. Let go of what you are holding and the heart is free. There is a little girl offering you a flower- that flower is this moment. Put down your burden and receive the gift.
A friend once said to me, “I always hear about the teaching that I should ‘just let go’. But what does that mean? How do I do that?”
You might think that if “letting go” sets you free, it should be easy. Just let go! But it’s not always easy.
To answer, we have to look at the reasons for “holding on”. There are two main reasons the mind tends to “hold on” to things.
First, there is holding on to the fear about what might happen. It is true- the future is uncertain. Holding onto your preoccupation with time gives a sense of control. There is often the unconscious belief that if you worry about something enough, you will be able to control it. Of course, that’s absurd, but the mind thinks that because of its deeper fear: experiencing the uncertainty itself.
If you really let go of your worry about what might happen, you must confront the experience of really not knowing, of being uncertain. There may be pain in that, and there is resistance to pain. But, if you allow yourself to experience the pain of uncertainty, it will burn away. On the other side of this pain is liberation- the expansive and simple dwelling with Being in the present.
Second, there can be some negativity about what might have happened in the past. If you let go of the preoccupation with time, if you let go of whatever “happened”, you must confront the fact that the past is truly over. The deeper level of this is confronting your own mortality. Everything, eventually, will be “over”.
But, let go of the past, feel that insecurity of the fact that everything is passing, and you will see- there is a gift being offered right now. It is precious; it is fragile- a flower offered by a little girl, this precious moment.
“v’al yavo b’khol eit el hakodesh- he shall not come at all times into the holy…” This week’s reading, Parshat Akharei, begins with this warning to Aaron the Priest.
We may try to reach holiness by working out the past in our minds, or by figuring out the future, but as it says, “v’al yavo b’khol eit… he shall not come at all times…”
You cannot enter into holiness through time!
To enter the holy, you must enter only at one time- and that time is now. Your grasping after the future must be burned up, and your clinging to the past must be released, as it says-
“v’lakakh et shnei hasirim- he shall take two goats…”
One goat is “for Hashem”- meaning, the future is in the hands of Hashem. This goat is slaughtered and burned- meaning: experience the burning of uncertainty and slaughter your grasping after control.
The other goat is “for Azazel”. The word Azazel is composed of two words- “az” means “strength”, and “azel” means “exhausted, used up”. In other words, the “strength” of the past is “used up”. Let it go, or it will use up all of your strength! This goat is let go to roam free into the wilderness- meaning- the past is gone, over, done.
The past has gone its way, the future is in the hands of the Divine. Those Divine hands are not separate from your hands. Set your hands free to receive the flower of this moment-
-and may all of our actions also be an offering of something holy and precious as well. Good Shabbos!
When it comes to the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer, you might practice for a while without getting any compelling result. But if you continue to practice, you will find something that you can only get through putting in that daily effort.
Some say that what you find comes into you from the outside. It is pictured as a transcendent Light that flows into your being from the Ain Sof- the Infinite. Others say that the Light is your own nature; that it comes from within you.
But these explanations are simply maps which come from the practices themselves: when you pray, it makes sense to think of the Light as given from the outside. When you meditate, it makes sense to think of It as coming from within.
The Hassidic text called the Tanya talks of these two ways of seeing in terms of two kinds of love. The first kind of love happens when you experience the Divine as your very own life force. Since people naturally love their own life, seeing God as your own life force means that you love God just as you love your own life.
The second kind of love happens when you experience God as your parent. The Tanya talks about the example of certain children who love their parents so much, they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their parents.
The first type of love is non-dual; God is not something separate from your own being. The second type is dualistic; God is separate from me, even possibly negating me if I sacrifice my life.
Which one is higher?
You might think the non-dual one is higher, that it is more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise:
When you see the God within, there is a pleasure, a spiritual bliss that comes with being in touch with your own inner Divinity. But if you see God as separate, and you are willing to give up your very life for God, that is far more transcendent and selfless.
Last night I was having a conversation with my sister-in-law, and she was saying that she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, because mothering can be all consuming. Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It is in fact a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, she said, it is a suffering of love, a fire of love.
Her example made me think of the Tanya’s idea of the dualistic, self sacrificing love, except it was inverted- rather than the rare child that would sacrifice its life for the parent, this was the very common example of the parent who is constantly sacrificing her life for the child.
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria. It opens, “…ki tazria v’yalda zakhar- when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son- v’tamah shivat yamim- she is ritually un-fit for seven days- kimei nidah dotah titma- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit… b’khol kodesh, lo tiga- she shouldn’t touch any holy thing- v’el hamikdash lo tavo- and into the holy she shall not come…”
It is talking about how a woman who gives birth should not touch sacred things or come into the temple for a certain period of time. Let’s look more deeply at what this is talking about:
The word for “holy” is kodesh, which means separate. However, it means a special kind of separate. It doesn’t mean separate as distant or removed, but rather central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It is the very center of the temple, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in a special intimacy with God.
Similarly, the intimacy of marriage is also a “holy of holies”. It is holy in its unique togetherness, holy because of the closeness that happens there. So kodesh doesn’t exactly mean separation, but really means “separation from all separation”. It means the separateness of being the most close.
The menstrual period is considered a time of nidah, which also means “separation”. During this time there is traditionally no sexual intimacy, no kodesh, no “separation-from-all-separation”.
Nidah, therefore, really means “separation-from-the-separation-from all-separation”.
These two states, kodesh and nidah, really parallel the two kinds of love- love of the Divine as your own self (kodesh) and love of the Divine as your own parent- or, as many of us have experienced, as your own child (nidah).
Seen in this way, the opening of the parsha is really describing these two kinds of love and service. The new mother is in a state of nidah because she is not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she is completely at the service of the newborn. This is itself a swing of the pendulum because she just gave birth- and what could be more Godly than giving birth? Her own body just created another living being. She is a Goddess- a Creator. And now she swings from Goddess to servant, burning in the painful love of motherhood.
But this does not- and cannot- go on forever. She is in the higher and selfless nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she must return to connection with the kodesh. She must do that, because to be only in the selfless service of another would be self-destructive, and therefore destructive to the baby as well.
In one way or another, life brings us between these poles- sometimes being an eved Hashem- a servant of God, humbly giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything from it. Other times, we are b’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essence.
May the dual practice of meditation and prayer help us all to more deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being servants of God; may we fall into this Shabbos as a child falls into her mother’s arms. And, may all mothers find the time and support to renew in the bliss if the kodesh, and may we all give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
The other day I was driving and I saw a man asking for money with a sign that read, “I have three toes- please help.” For an instant, my heart twinged with compassion. But that was immediately followed by a disorienting surprise as I reconsidered his sign.
He needs money because he has three toes? I immediately thought of Aimee Mullins. Aimee Mullins had both legs amputated when she was one year old. Rather than adopt the identity of a disabled person, she became a star athlete, a model and an inspirational speaker who empowers her listeners to transcend limited thinking and limited identity.
I don’t mean to be un-compassionate to the man with three toes who needed some money, or to imply that it’s no big deal to lose a part of your body. I want to bless that man that he should have relief from any suffering caused by his body or anything else, and that we all be relieved of the suffering that comes to us from physical or any other limitations.
But the real disability, as Aimee Mullins and countless others have demonstrated, is not in how many toes or legs you have, but how imprisoned you are by your thoughts. If you narrate your life in negative terms, telling yourself sad stories of victimhood, then that will be the lens through which you live, and that is what will seem to manifest. On the other hand, if you refuse to accept limiting labels that others put on you, if you refuse to identify at all with negative stories, is there any fixed limit to what you can accomplish?
In this week’s reading, Parshat Sh’mini, the Torah narrates the climax of the inauguration ceremony for the priests. Moses tells the Israelites that after the various offerings are brought, “Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem- today Hashem will appear to you!”
The offerings are brought, the rites performed, and it happens- “vayeira kh’vod Hashem el ha’am- the glory of the Divine appeared to the entire people!” Then something tragic happens: in the ecstasy of the moment, the high priest Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, break ranks and rush forward to offer their own incense. A fire streams forth from the Divine and kills them. Moses tells Aaron that Hashem is sanctified and honored by their death. Of Aaron it says, “vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent.”
There is a story of the Hassidic master Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe. One day, the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk was visiting him. The Kotsker asked his guest to please tell some Torah from his saintly father-in-law, to which he replied with this teaching: “When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying, ‘vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent,’ because he was able to accept his misfortune with equanimity and not become a victim. But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in the psalm, ‘l’man y’zamerkha khavod v’lo yidom- so that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent’- for even in times of great distress he would still sing God’s praises.”
I can’t and don’t want to imagine the suffering that Aaron and Kind David went through in their lives. But this extreme teaching is pointing to something that is true for all of us- that your mind has the power to define what kind of reality you live in. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use your mind.
The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, you learn to free your mind from all the thought forms that tend to imprison most people to some degree.
The praise of David indicates prayer. In prayer, the sacred dimension that is revealed in meditation is given expression. These two basic practices- meditation and prayer- tap into the sacred dimension and draw forth Its nourishment into expression.
The name of this parshah, “Sh’mini”, means “eighth”, in reference to the eighth day of the ceremony on which the action takes place. The number eight symbolizes infinity, both in its Arabic shape and in its Hebrew meaning as the number that transcends seven, which is the number of finite creation. One of the names of God in Kabbalah is Ayn sof, which also means Infinite- literally “there is no limitation”. Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites on the day of infinity.
And when is the “day of infinity” as it applies to each of us?
“Hayom Hashem nir’ah aleikhem- today Hashem will appear to you!”
Today, of course, means now. In the subsiding of thought, there is the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there is the blossoming of the only Reality there is- the Reality of this moment, the one and only moment. This moment is not fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn sof, without limit, unbound by past and future.
How will you co-create this moment? Will you be its victim? Or, in the silent depth of your being, will the voice of God emerge through your voice to praise Its own Mystery and Potential?
Which is more important- intention or action?
Once there was a child who was asked by her parents to bring food to some hungry guests beloved to the parents. While she prepared the food, she accidentally cut herself with a knife and was in much pain. When she delivered the food, she was in a bad mood and felt resentful. She put the food before the guests and went away without any nice words.
Another time, her brother was asked to give food to some guests. He was really excited about going outside to play, so he figured he wouldn’t bother making the food, and instead just cheerfully delivered the message- “My parents send their blessings to you! They love you so much!” Then he left to go play outside.
Obviously, the ideal would be for the children to deliver both the food and the message of love. But, if they will only deliver one or the other, which is best?
Obviously, if the guests are really hungry for food, the food is best.
Not only is the food what they really need, but the food actually is the true message of love. It is because the parents love the guests that they want to send the food. The love is embodied in the food. If the children can also be messengers of love, expressing loving words when they deliver the food, all the better. But if not, the food is the true message from the parents. The children don’t have to feel it. They just have to be the messenger.
We are like the children. The most important thing is for us to be “G-d’s messengers” by doing right action- action that serves the moment we are in, regardless of whether we are truly “feeling it”.
On the other hand, the classic Hassidic text called the "Tanya" says that even though right action is the most important thing, our acts of service (mitzvot) are not really alive unless they are done with kavanah- right intention. Kavanah consists of two opposing qualities- fear (yirah) and love (ahavah).
Love is easy to understand. Love sends the food. But fear? Why would we want to be fearful?
When I was in second or third grade, I was in a theater camp. There was a class I really wanted to take with a certain teacher. When I got to class, he said I wasn’t on the list, so he sent me to the front desk to make sure I was signed up.
I went to the front desk and found out that I was signed up. I was so happy that I barged back into the class, totally interrupting the teacher and pissing him off. He snapped at me in a nasty way, and I was in shock, because I loved him and the class so much.
What was the problem? Love without fear!
Fear in the spiritual sense, yirah, doesn’t mean a kind of neurotic terror or worry. It means respect. In means having the awareness to know how to honor the moment; it means to know how you are affecting the situation. This kind of spiritual fear is actually an expression of love. It is love expressed as restraint. In fact, if the girl in the above story had more of this kind of fear, she could have avoided cutting herself with the knife. Then she would have expressed the love too.
The Tanya explains that fear and love are like two wings of a bird. The bird cannot fly with only one wing! It must have both. In fact, fear and love are not really separate at all. They are both expressions of the same quality of wakefulness. As you bring your awareness to fully meet this moment, there is a natural sense of care and respect that arises, as well as a quality of love and bliss. Fear and love are the right and left hands of awareness itself.
This Saturday night we move from this week of Hesed- Loving-Kindness, into the week of Gevurah- Fear, Strength and Restraint. As it says in the traditional formula before counting the Omer, “Bidhilu orhimu- with fear and love- to unify the Divine Name.”
The Divine name is unified through you, in this moment, as you give full attention to this moment of Being unfolding. May we be awake to activate all the middot- love and fear, ambition and humility, envisioning and working toward what could be, while trusting what is.
Moadim L’simkha- good times!