Recently someone told me that he was angry at someone. And, not only was he angry, but he likes being angry; he had no desire to “let go” or “get over it.” Then, a few days later, another person told me almost the same thing about someone else, but with the addition: “I will never forgive.”
There’s an idea that the festivals contain certain transformational potentials, and that as we enter their seasons, the barriers that we need to transcend start coming to the surface. And certainly, anger and non-forgiveness are ways that we can get stuck in Mitzrayim, in narrow identification with feelings of woundedness, of being a victim.
But getting free doesn’t have to mean a denial or pushing away of our true feelings; rather, it is precisely our true feelings that are the means to liberation. They are the gravity of unconsciousness that forces us to either wake up or get pulled in. Without them, there can be no liberation; that’s the sacred role of Egypt and Pharaoh.
According to the structure of the Passover seder, this process of liberation has four basic stages, corresponding to the four cups of wine. The Jerusalem Talmud (10a) asks, “Why do we have four cups of wine? Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to the four stages of redemption.”
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Therefore, say to the children of Israel: “I am Reality. I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will rescue you from their work. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through great judgments. I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be for you as a God. And you shall know that it is I, Existence Itself, your own Divinity, Who brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt…” (Exodus 6:6 – 7)
Hotzeiti – I will bring you out: There is a difference between the experience of liberation and the reality of liberation. Experience is always in motion; the degree to which we experience freedom changes from moment to moment. The reality of our freedom, on the other hand, is absolute; it is our task to recognize it and live it, regardless of our experience in the moment. The experience we’re having right now arises within our field of awareness; awareness is not trapped or compelled by it in any way. I am Reality – I will bring you out. The simple recognition of our own being as the vast and formless field of awareness within which this present experience is now unfolding brings us out from the illusion of being stuck, into the reality of our inherent freedom.
Hitzalti – I will rescue you: Once we recognize our freedom in the present, there is always the possibility that we will forget and again get drawn back into the dream of bondage. After all, the illusion is so formidable! The Egyptian army is behind us, the sea is in front of us – what shall we do? Our recognition must become commitment; we must remember to return ourselves to this recognition again and again in the face of the seductive and encroaching tides of experience.
Ga’alti – I will redeem you: When we come to the recognition of and commitment to our absolute freedom in the present, there can be a tendency to deny our past, which only creates a more subtle form of bondage. But when we embrace our past, when we recognize that ALL of our past experience, no matter how discordant or even evil, has brought us to this present moment of wakefulness, there can be redemption. There is no doubt – slavery and oppression are wrong. They are to be opposed. But, they are part of our sacred history, and through the telling, they have a sacred role. Gam zeh l’tovah – this too is for the good. This is not to whitewash or deny our pain; it is to embrace the supreme potential given to us by that pain.
Lakakhti – I will take you: It is true, there is nothing more vital for our own wellbeing then liberation. Anger and resentment can be sweet in a strange way, but they are nothing compared to freedom. And yet, it may take many years of bondage and many plagues to convince us that freedom is preferable. We cling to our bondage as if our life depended on it! And in a way, it does, because the price of freedom is our very identity; freedom changes who we think we are. At this stage, we give up fascination with our own story, with our own process, and meet the Divine at Sinai to answer Its call. Freedom is not merely for ourselves; it is the liberation of Reality Itself, waking up to Itself…
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It is told about Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk that when he chanted the Kiddush, he would repeatedly look at his watch in order to keep himself connected to the world of time, otherwise he might dissolve into the Eternal completely.
In spiritual awakening there is a kind of balance that must be struck between the "world of time" – a.k.a the thinking mind, and the "Eternal World" – a.k.a. the space of awareness within which the thinking mind functions. While all the holy days and Shabbat are designed to help you dip more deeply into the Eternal World, the ritual of kiddush – the sanctification of the holy day with wine – points most strongly to this Eternal dimension of experience.
As it says in the Friday night Kiddush as well as all the festivals, "Zekher L'tziyat Mitzrayim – Remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt." It is a "remembrance" because the condition for freedom is already fulfilled; you just have to remember it. You are already free as Presence, as the open space of awareness within which experience arises.
And yet, even though you always already are freedom as awareness, embodying this truth in life is challenging; it requires constant effort. The Ishbitzer Rebbe pointed out that this is symbolized by the Karpas, the ritual vegetable eaten at the seder, because vegetables have to be planted again and again year after year. Whatever state was achieved yesterday, it is over today; we must constantly apply our awareness to overcome the forces of bondage within, day after day.
Which brings us to Urkhatz, the washing of hands that happens between Kadesh and Karpas. Wash yourself of yesterday's conditioning; today we must start again...
Re-Membering for Passover
What is spiritual bondage?
When the Torah describes the beginning of the Israelite’s bondage in Egypt, is says, “Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael b’farekh- Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with farekh- with crushing servitude.”
Now within this verse are three hints about the nature of spiritual bondage.
The first hint is in the word farekh, which means crushing labor. Now the root of farekh means to break apart or fracture, hence its usage to describe “crushing” labor. The obvious hint here is that spiritual bondage is unpleasant- it involves suffering. But on a deeper level, it hints that there is some kind of breaking or fracturing happening, and that’s the fracturing of Reality Itself as it appears in your consciousness.
Consider- in this moment, everything is as it is, and your consciousness is meeting whatever is appearing- your sensations, your feelings, your perception of what’s around you, whatever thoughts arise, and so on. As long as consciousness simply meets what is, there’s a wholeness to Everything. But when something unpleasant arises, whether external or internal it doesn’t matter, because all experience arises within the one space of consciousness, there’s a tendency for consciousness to contract into resistance, in the form of thoughts, feelings, or even words and actions- “dang farnet- what the??”- that’s resistance- that’s the farekh- the tearing apart of Reality, because now there’s me over here, resisting that over there, even if the “over there” is on my own mind.
This move from Wholeness to an opposing position implies a kind of contraction, because now rather than simply being the space of awareness within which all experience happens, you become a finite entity, resisting something within your experience. This brings us to the second hint in this verse, the word Mitzrayim. Mitzrayin means Egypt, but it comes from the root tzar which means “narrow,” probably because Egypt was built along the Nile. But metaphorically, it hints that to be in mitzrayim is to be in a narrow state; the native and full spaciousness of your consciousness gets contracted into a fixed point of view- the narrow “me” called “ego.”
And what’s the basic activity of ego? Ego tries to control things. That’s because ego feels disconnected from the fullness of its experience. That’s the basic hallmark of ego- that feeling of incompleteness, and with it, the need to change things in order to be okay. That egoic feeling of incompleteness comes from the contraction into a mitzrayim state that happens spontaneously in reaction to farekh- suffering that breaks apart the wholeness of your experience.
And this brings us to the third hint in the verse, vaya’avidu, which means “enslaved.” The arising of suffering, represented by farekh, which causes the contraction into the ego, represented by Mitzrayim is obviously not something we consciously choose; it seems to just happen to us. Vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et b’nai Yisrael- that contraction just seems to grab you and enslave you against your will.
And yet, on a deeper level, ya’avidu is related to the word Avodah, which means work or service not in the negative sense of slavery, but in the positive sense of prayer, or spiritual practice- which is an act of love and devotion. The hint here is that the experience of suffering and the spiritual bondage that comes from it has a purpose, and that is to be transformed into avodah, into a path of liberation. Because it’s only from experiencing and getting caught in all kinds of spiritual bondage, and then finding your way out of bondage, that you can really mature and evolve. A baby in the womb is already whole and one with all being, but it’s not liberated, because there’s no appreciation of the Wholeness. In order to know liberation, you have to first taste bondage.
The danger, of course, is that the experience of bondage, however that manifests for you, seduces you into a negative attitude and you become resigned to your stuck-ness. That’s why the Torah says, “l’maan tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim kol y’mei khayiekha- that you remember your going out from Egypt all the days of your life.”
This verse, which also appears near the beginning of the seder, urges us to constantly remember that our basic nature is freedom, reminding ourselves every day, and even every night as the words of the seder say, “Kol y’mei khayiekha, l’havi haleilot- all the days of your life means, the nights also.”
And what’s the every day and night practice for remembering the going out of Egypt? It’s the chanting of the Sh’ma, because the Sh’ma reminds us, Hashem Eloheinu- Hashem- All existence- meaning everything that arises in your experience- is Eloheinu- your own inner divinity, meaning your awareness. Then it says, Hashem Ekhad- Existence, or Reality is One. Again and again you may get pulled into farekh- that involuntary suffering in which we contract into the egoic mitzrayim state, but if you remember ekhad- the oneness of Being, you can find your way back into harmony with what is through the verse that follows: ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha- Love Hashem your Divinity, that’s the Hesed- the lovingkindness of offering your awareness as a gift to this moment just as it is, even if it feels like suffering, that’s the first part of meditation, b’khol l’vavkha uvkhol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha- with all your heart and soul and might- that’s the Gevurah, the strength, of grounding and sustaining your awareness in your body- that’s the second part of meditation, and of course, Sh’ma Yisrael- Listen, be aware, and know yourself as the awareness- spacious, free and borderless- that’s the third part of meditation.
The Perfect Passover
One Passover, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev led the first night seder so perfectly, that every word and every ritual glowed with all the holiness of its mystical significance. In the dawn, after the celebration, Levi Yitzhak sat in his room, joyful and proud that he had performed such an perfect seder.
But all of a sudden, a Voice from above spoke to him: “More pleasing to me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
“Hayim the water-carrier?” wondered Levi Yitzhak, “Who’s that?”
He summoned all his disciples together, and asked if anyone had heard of Hayim the water-carrier. Nobody had. So, at the tzaddik’s bidding, some of the disciples set off in search of him.
They asked around for many hours before they were led to a poor neighborhood outside the city. There, they were shown a little house that was falling apart.
They knocked on the door. A woman came out and asked what they wanted. When they told her, she was amazed.
“Yes,” she said, “Hayim the water carrier is my husband, but he can’t go with you, because he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you wake him, you’ll see he won’t even be able to move.”
“It’s the rabbi’s orders!” answered the disciples.
They barged in and shook him from his sleep. He only blinked at them and couldn’t understand what they wanted. Then he rolled over and tried to go on sleeping.
So they grabbed him, dragged him from his bed, and carried him on their shoulders to the tzaddik'shouse. There they sat him down, bewildered, before Levi Yitzhak. The rabbi leaned toward him and said-
“Reb Hayim, dear heart, what kavanah, what mystic intention was in your mind when you gathered the hameitz- the leavened foods- to burn in preparation for the seder?”
The water carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked into every corner and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued questioning him-
“And what yihudim- what holy unifications did you contemplate when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s all still lying on the shelf.”
When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak heard this, he grew more and more uncertain, but he continued asking- “And tell me Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to quicken in his eyes and limbs, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I shall tell you the truth. You see, I had always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on all eight days of the festival, and so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me eight days. Then I got tired and fell asleep.
“When my wife woke me in the evening, she said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like all the other Jews?’
“I said, ‘What do you want from me? I’m an ignorant man and my father was an ignorant man. I don’t know how to read, and I don’t know what to do, or what not to do.’
“My wife answered, ‘You must know some little song or something!’
“I thought for a moment, and then a melody and words came to me that I had heard as a child. I sang-
“Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot- Why is this night different from all other nights?
“I thought, 'why is this night different?'
“Then, something strange happened. It was as if I awoke from a dream, and everything was suddenly more real, more present. It was as if the night itself woke up all around me…
“Then I looked and saw the table before me, and the cloth gleamed like the sun, and on it were platters of matzot, eggs, and other dishes, with bottles of red wine. So we ate of the matzot and eggs and drank of the wine.
“I was overcome with joy. I lifted my cup to the heavens and said, 'Oh Hashem- I drink to you!'
“Then we sang and rejoiced in the nishtana- the specialness- of that moment… then I got tired and fell asleep.”
So my friends- before you fall asleep! Why is this moment different?
On this Shabbat Pesakh, the Sabbath of Passing, may we awaken to know that everything is passing, savoring the unique specialness of this moment. Let the unfolding of Reality become what it will, letting go of whatever it was, and breathing the intention of peace and love and awareness into every thought, every word, every act. Let’s go forth, again, out of mitzrayim- out of constriction- and into the mystery of the Presence as the present. This moment is truly different from all other moments, and always is…
מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃
Who can dwell on Your holy mountain?
This verse from Psalm 16 is one form of the ultimate spiritual question: The root for “dwell” is the same as Sh’khinah – Divine Presence. The “holy mountain” hints at transcendence – like when you stand on top of a mountain and see civilization down below. Or, when you see the earth from outer space – there’s a sense of freedom from the chaos and turmoil you might sense in the middle of traffic, for example. But the paradox is that even in the midst of the chaos, there can be an experience of transcendence, of “looking down from the mountaintop,” when you learn how to “dwell” – that is, to be present with the fulness of whatever is arising in your field of experience.
But how do you do that? The psalm answers:
הוֹלֵ֣ךְ תָּ֭מִים וּפֹעֵ֥ל צֶ֑דֶק וְדֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃
One who walks with simplicity, who does what is right, and speaks Truth in one’s heart…
Holekh tamim – walks with simplicity – meaning, let your awareness rest in your movements. Rather than the ordinary way, which is to do one thing while thinking about all sorts of other things, be simple – connect with the simplicity of your movement in the present – the flow of your breathing, and whatever you happen to be doing. Then, in that deep Presence with the fullness of the moment, it’s not so difficult to see how to be fo’el tzedek – to do what is right.
Why? Because, paradoxically, there’s humility in being present. You feel elevated, like being on the mountaintop, but you surrender the idea of “knowing” things, of “being right.” That’s the simplicity – simply knowing what you really know, not what you think you know. That’s dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in your heart. It’s the opposite of judging other people, of making up stories in your head. Like Hillel says in Pirkei Avot:
וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ
Do not judge a person until you reach their place… (2:5)
There’s a story that Reb Zushia was once with his master, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, when a man came into the room and started aggressively nagging the Maggid for a blessing on his business. Now Reb Zushia had special powers, and could perceive all the past deeds of a person simply by looking at them. When he looked at this man begging for a blessing, he could see this guy had done many awful things. In an instant, Reb Zushia lost his temper and snapped at the man: “How dare you ask the great Maggid to help you with your business? You should be asking him how you can atone for the things you’ve done!”
The man turned red with embarrassment and left in a hurry. Reb Zushia suddenly realized what he had done, that he had shamed this man, and he didn’t know what to do. The Maggid placed his hands upon Reb Zushia and gave him a blessing that from that point onward, he should only see the good in other people. But, since the Maggid didn’t have the power to take away Zushia’s ability to perceive one’s past deeds, from that point onward Zushia perceived the sins of others within himself.
When we feel deeply triggered by another person’s perceived faults, it is usually because the same fault exists or used to exist within ourselves. I know that’s true with my children – oy I wish they wouldn’t do what I used to do! But that is dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in your heart. It is recognizing the Whole Truth – that what we perceive “out there” is always also “in here.” There is one Reality, unfolding now.
In Parshat Metzorah, there’s a hint on how to connect with the Whole Truth – that is, the truth of the wholeness of this moment – in the description of how a person becomes whole again (tahor) after being infected with the skin disease tzara’at: (Lev. 14:14)
וְלָקַ֣ח הַכֹּהֵן֮ מִדַּ֣ם הָאָשָׁם֒ וְנָתַן֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן עַל־תְּנ֛וּךְ אֹ֥זֶן הַמִּטַּהֵ֖ר הַיְמָנִ֑ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדוֹ֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְל֖וֹ הַיְמָנִֽית׃
The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Lev. 14:14)
The ozen (ear) represents our mental understanding of what’s going on, since it is through the ear that we hear language. Our thinking is easily taken over by ego, which unconsciously creates narratives of judgment and blame. But when we become conscious of our thoughts, we can recognize: “this is only a thought – it may or may not be true” – then we can stay free from the seductive power of ego.
The bohen (thumb) represents our actions, since the thumb is the tool for manipulating the world that’s unique to humans. Once we become free from the unconscious motivations of ego by observing our own thoughts, we can consciously choose our actions so as to embody this awareness.
The bohen of the foot, the “big toe” represents our sensory awareness, since our feet connect with the earth, “grounding” us in the world of the senses. By putting our attention into our sensory awareness – into our breathing, our sensations, sounds and sights – we can greatly reduce the seductive power of thought and emotion, and thereby stay rooted in dover emet bilvavo – speaking Truth in the heart...
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Something is in the House- Parshat Metzorah
4/13/2016 0 Comments
A couple sits anxiously in the therapist’s office, unsure how to begin talking about their problems at home. “Why don’t you start,” says the therapist to the woman.
“My husband is a jerk!” she blurts.
“Please’” says the therapist, “Only ‘I’ statements. Don’t tell me about him, tell me what’s going on with you. You can start by saying, ‘I feel…’”
“Okay,” says the wife, “I feel like he is a jerk!”
Differentiating between your actual feelings in the present moment and your impulse to accuse, judge, or blame, is no easy matter when your emotions are inflamed.
But making this differentiation is crucial.
There’s a world of difference between “I feel like he is a jerk,” on one hand, and “When he comes home late, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach...” on the other.
The first one is an attack- it’s accusatory. The second one is truthful… and vulnerable, exposing the actual experience of what happens when he comes home late.
And of course, if you’re feeling punched in the stomach, the last thing you want is to be vulnerable. You want to attack back, accuse, blame. But ultimately, it’s a self-defeating impulse. Your negative words create an effect, and the ripples of that effect continue on in time.
There’s a Jewish proverb of unknown origin-
“A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will never return.”
This week’s reading also involves setting a bird free.
It begins describing the ceremonial purification of a person afflicted with tzara’at- a skin disease that afflicted those who had committed negative speech.
“Zot tiyhyeh torat ham’tzora b’yom taharato-
“This is the law of the afflicted one on the day of purification…”
The ceremony uses two birds, a piece of cedar wood, a crimson thread, and some hyssop.
One bird is slaughtered into an earthenware vessel filled with “living waters.” The live bird is then held together with the cedar wood, the crimson thread and hyssop, and dipped into the bloody water. The bloody water is then sprinkled on the afflicted person seven times, and the live bird is set free into an open field.
What does this mean?
Medieval commentator Rabbeinu Ephraim explains the symbolism of this ritual in transformational terms:
The first bird represents negative speech- gossip, slander and so on. This “bird” must be “slaughtered” into an “earthenware vessel.” The vessel represents the “home” of our bodies- fragile, temporary, of the earth. By contemplating the temporary nature your bodily home, you free yourself from arrogance and allow the impulse toward negative speech to be “slaughtered.”
The “living waters” represent Truth, which fills the humble “earthen vessel,” once the arrogance is gone.
The bird that’s set free represents the disease- just as the bird flies away, so should the disease depart. But, just as the bird might return, so too can the affliction return if you allow yourself to fall back into your patterns of negative speech.
Why is it so easy to fall back into negative speech? Why is it so hard to stay present with what you’re actually experiencing, and be nourished by the “living waters” of the vulnerable truth?
Because the truth can be painful and ego crushing.
And yet, if you constantly project blame and judgment, without fully being with the truth of what you’re experiencing, healing cannot happen. You become the disease- a disease of living on the surface, holding back from your own inner depths, out of fear that your depths are too painful. That’s why tza’arat is a skin disease.
It reminds me of the times my family would return to our house after a few weeks of being away. All the windows and doors would have been shut, and there would be a kind of unpleasant smell from the stagnant air, until we opened the windows and doors and let the air flow.
That’s what it’s like- your inner world is like a shut up house, festering.
But open the doors and windows- speak the truth, and healing begins! As it says in Psalm 30:
“Shivati elekha vatirpa’eini-
“I cried out to You and you healed me…”
This is the true potential of prayer and meditation- to give yourself the space to go into your depths every day, feel whatever needs to be felt there in meditation, express what needs to be expressed in prayer, and tap the renewing and healing power of the Presence that is ever-present. The "living waters" will fill the “home” of your body and renew your spirit.
There’s a story of Reb Mordechai of Pintchov, that his poverty was so extreme, he could barely support his household at all. His wife would nag him incessantly to tell their woeful situation to his rebbe, the Seer of Lublin.
Time after time he would travel to Lublin, but never once did he mention his troubles to the rebbe, because on arriving there he would forget them completely.
Being a practical woman, his wife decided to say nothing more, but to make the journey there by a separate wagon immediately after he had left home. When Reb Mordechai arrived at Lublin, he was confronted by the fact of his wife’s presence. There was no way out- and he told the rebbe all about their state of affairs at home.
“Why did you never mention this until now?” asked the Seer.
“Rebbe,” answered the hasid, “I assumed that my situation would be known to you through Ruakh Hakodesh (Divine inspiration), through the holy spirit that rests upon you.”
“Not so,” answered the rebbe. “It’s true, the Torah says- ‘A person whose skin has the plague of tza’arat shall be brought to Aaron the priest, and the priest shall see the plague.’
“That is to say: As soon the ailing person is brought before the priest, the priest will be able to see the the malady for himself, without being told.
“But, in the case of plagues that affect houses, the Torah teaches otherwise: ‘And the house owner shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘Something like a plague seems to be in the house!’
“From this we see that for plagues affecting houses, one should come before the ‘priest’ and tellhim about it!”
On this Shabbat Metzorah- the Sabbath of Affliction- may we fully feel and truthfully express our inner afflictions- not with judgment and blame, but as prayers of healing; may we not shrink from the "bitter herbs!" And just as our ancestors tasted the bitterness of slavery before their liberation from narrowness into the Presence, so may it be for us.
רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בַפְּרוֹזְדוֹר כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לַטְּרַקְלִי
Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the waiting room so you may enter the banquet hall!
(Pirkei Avot 4:24)
One of the most basic dualities on the spiritual path is the “before” and “after” of waking up. Both the “banquet hall” and “the World to Come” are metaphors for this aim of the path: the complete “fixing” of our sense of incompleteness and arriving into wholeness. Before that, we may get glimpses of the Wholeness – the door cracks open and for a moment we can see…
Once, a disciple complained to his rebbe that when in the rebbe’s presence, Divine Reality is palpable and he has peace. But as soon as he leaves the rebbe’s presence, it all vanishes and his suffering returns.
“This is like a person who gropes about in the dark forest,” answered the rebbe, “and someone comes along with a lantern and walks with him for a while. For a time, he can see where he is going. But eventually, the guy with the lantern goes his own way, and the person is left alone again in the dark. This is why it’s so important to carry your own lantern!”
When we get that glimpse – either through a rebbe or any other means – it should remind us to work on igniting our own flame. Hat’kein atzm’kha – we have to “fix” ourselves in the “waiting room.”
How do we do that?
Take the time to simply “wait” – be aware of the inner darkness – that is meditation. The awareness is itself the Light – it is your own inner Light. But if you spend all your time in thought and activity, you may not notice…
וְאִם־בַּהֶרֶת֩ לְבָנָ֨ה הִ֜וא בְּע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֗וֹ ... וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
And if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body ... the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days…
This week’s parsha talks about tzara’at – an affliction of the skin that renders a person tamei – ritually unfit to enter the Sanctuary. The affected person has to be quarantined for a period to become purified.
The skin is a metaphor – it is the physical boundary of self, representing that inner sense of oneself as separate, called ego. The “affliction” hints at the ego’s feeling of incompleteness, of being disconnected, of having “not yet arrived.”
The remedy: withdraw from the world of time, into solitude with the feeling. Be the Light, illuminating the darkness in solitude for “seven days” – meaning, until you reach Shabbat! Shabbat is that arriving into the spaciousness that is your deepest essence – the field of awareness itself, within which this moment arises.
So next time you find yourself in a waiting room, or waiting in line, remember the opportunity for illumination that comes as a hidden gift in those moments...
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Cage Free – Omer and Tazria – Metzorah
4/18/2018 0 Comments
In the supermarket, you may see eggs and chicken that are labeled “cage free.” This is supposed to make you think that these chickens aren’t confined to tiny little cages as are most commercial chickens, but are instead running around the farm, happy and free.
I used to buy “cage free” eggs, until I was told that actually, “cage-free” doesn’t really mean cage-free at all. It means that for a certain portion of the day, the doors on the cages are opened so that the chickens can escape the cages if they want to.
But, they don’t. The chickens always choose to stay in their cages. If you want chickens that actually walk around the farm, you have to buy “pastured” eggs and chickens.
But why don’t the chickens leave their little cages when the doors are opened?
Because they’re conditioned to be in their cages; they don’t realize they can leave, even when the door is opened. Perhaps, if they had more time, their instinct for freedom would eventually lead them to discover the opening. But, the doors aren’t open long enough for that; they’re only opened long enough for the company to be able to legally label the product as “cage-free.”
And, it’s the same with us.
At the Pesakh seder, we label ourselves as free: Avadim hayinu, v’ata b’nai khorin – we were slaves, but now we are free. The cage door is actually always already open, ready for us to step through. But do we step through? Like the chickens, we only step through if we have the time to discover that open door, if we have the time for that impulse for freedom to grow within. And, after we walk through the door, we need time to discover how to roam the farm, to explore the wild terrain of the uncharted midbar, rather than return to the security of the cage.
Like the Israelites, the tendency is to revert, to backslide: “Hamib’li ayn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kakhtanu lamut bamidbar? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”
So, there is an aspect of awakening that is unbound by time, that takes only an instant to realize: the cage door is open. The cage is made from the patterns of your thoughts and feelings; it’s your identity. But the open space is your own awareness right now. It is the field of consciousness, within which your experience in this moment is now appearing. Everything within your experience arises from and falls back into this open space, including the cage of identity. In truth, it’s not that you must go through the open space, you are the open space. And you can realize this, right now; it takes no time at all to simply recognize – you are already free. Perhaps a moment ago, Avadim hayinu, we were slaves, but now, ata b’nai khorin – now we are free.
So, in a sense, freedom is the easy part. We are already free – free to be you and me. All we have to do is remember – l’ma’an tizkor et yom tzeitkha me’eretz mitzrayim, kol y’mai hayeikha – so that you may remember the day you went out from Egypt all the days of your life.
But, to then go and live that freedom, to not only see the open door, to not only see the unboundedness in the midst of the cage, but to step out and live your freedom, that’s the hard part. That part takes time, it takes constant practice. It’s not instantaneous. It’s not about: get out of Egypt really fast and don’t let the dough rise. The matzah is instant realization. No more separation of dough caused by yeast bubbles that take time to ferment!
But this second, time-bound aspect requires living into this question: how may we translate the freedom that we are into words and deeds, into a way of living?
The Sefirat HaOmer is a prompt to that question. The practice is, count each of the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, count the path from liberation to revelation – from the instantaneous realization of freedom to the long-term project of living that freedom.
The Sefirat HaOmer gives us a map of seven times seven Divine qualities: Hesed –Lovingkindness – are you motivated by love? That sounds really good, but what about when something that doesn’t feel loving happens to you. Can you be warrior of the love motivation, or do you become a victim? Life has plenty of the opposite of love in it. But living freedom means expressing your freedom to choose to live from love, even when external and even internal forces are pushing you in other directions.
Which brings us to Gevurah – Strength. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says, Ezehu gibor? Who is strong? Who has Gevurah? Hakoveish yitzro – one who masters their own motivation. Because then you’re not tossed around by circumstances – then you can radiate gracefulness, equanimity. And that’s the third quality – Tiferet, Grace, Beauty.
And through this equanimity, you can be victorious over the powers of time and change, knowing HaMakom, the Eternal Space within which everything is happening, and knowing yourself as that Space. That’s Netzakh, which means Victory, but also Eternity.
And from that rootedness in the Eternal, arises a gratitude for the ever-present simple blessings, a humble gratitude for the simple privilege just to be. That’s Hod, which means Gratitude and Humility.
And out of the positive vibration of this simple humility and gratitude arises the pleasure of connection – the Eros, the joy, of living, of communing with the Presence as it manifests in this moment. That’s Yesod, which means Foundation, because the enjoyment of life is the foundation of life. If you can’t enjoy, then all the richness of meaning and value will slowly drain away.
But with that joy, there can also arise a deep sense of trust, a trust that transcends all the tragedy and sorrow, and impels us to trust the process, to trust that Reality has its own endgame, in a sense. That’s Malkhut, which means Kingdom, pointing to the idea that all Reality is really a Divine Kingdom/Queendom, but that union of King and Queen, of Kudsha Brikh Hu Ushekhintei, the Holy Transcendent Space with the Imminent Presence, happens through us, through our Pesakh realization and our Shavuot application, through our counting of the qualities and bringing them into being in our own lives, day after day, each day anew, amein.
There’s a story that a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev came to the master and asked: “In the Talmud it says that a tzaddik, a perfect person, can’t stand in the place of the Ba’al T’shuvah, one who was wicked but who has turned to the Divine and transformed. According to this, one who has been blameless from youth is at a lower level than one who has done many misdeeds. How can this be?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak replied, “A person who perceives a new light every day, light that wasn’t perceived the day before, must leave behind the way they lived in the past, and start afresh to embody the new light. The blameless ones who believe they are already perfect, don’t perceive the new light, and so there is no transformation.”
May the counting of the Omer remind us to constantly open ourselves to a new light every day, to find a fresh path for embodying the freedom that we are.
Parshat Tazria – Metzorah
Birth – Tazria
“… ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar-
when a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she’ll be ritually unfit for seven days just as in the days of her menstrual separation, and into the sacred space she may not enter...”
On the plain level, this is talking an ancient ritual purity law.
But on the metaphorical level, what does it mean to give birth? It means to create something new. And whether or not you have children, all of us are constantly creating. On the deepest level, our creation begins with the spontaneous arising of thought that happens almost constantly for most people. Then, as our thoughts become externalized in our decisions and actions, we literally co-create our life situations along with all of our fellow beings. And whenever something new appears on the horizon of our consciousness, whether it’s a blossoming of thought, or sensation, or feeling, or something happens around us like- someone knocks at the door, or you go and knock on someone else’s door, or the kitchen sink breaks, or it starts to rain, or you decide on a new career- whatever new is arising, it doesn’t matter- there’s the tendency to lose your connection with eternal dimension of Being- that open space of the Present which is not separate from your own consciousness- and instead get tangled up in whatever particular experience you are having. And that’s how we lose our freedom- we forget all about the space of this moment and get stuck in whatever is going on. Then, once you’re in that state of being stuck, even if you bring yourself back to a state of presence at that point, you may still feel stuck.
That’s because before you can transform, you first need to simply be present with whatever mind state you’re already in.
The trick is not to become disheartened and give up- just be wherever you’re at. That’s v’tamah shivat yamim- being tamei- or ritually unfit to enter the mikdash- the sacred space- for seven days. “Seven days” means the world of time which is created by the mind that imagines past and future. This is hinted at in the story of the seven days of creation. “…kimei nidat dotah tima”- like the time of niddah, which means “separation.” Because when you get caught by your experience, you lose connection with your inherent wholeness, and you feel separate from how you imagine you’d like to feel.
But if you stay with it, being conscious of any feelings of constriction as they arise in your body and continuously bring your attention back again and again to your sensations and your breathing, the barrier to wholeness will drop away at some point. As it says:
“Uvayom hashmini yimol b’sar orlato- On the eighth day, the male baby’s foreskin will be circumcised.”
The foreskin- the orlah- is a metaphor- a strange metaphor perhaps, but as a barrier, it hints at the feeling of separation that the ego feels. The number eight represents Eternity, as it’s one step beyond seven, plus the number eight on its side is the infinity symbol.
So the idea is that when your consciousness gives birth to a new experience, there’s an inherent orlah- a feeling of separation that arises when you get absorbed into the drama of whatever is going on, and that’s okay and natural. When you’re in the “seven days” of disconnection from the mikdash- from the sacredness of Presence- just be there. It’s only temporary. Stick with the practice and draw your awareness into your body with Gevurah- with strength and persistence. If you do, you will come to yom hashmini- this moment of Eternity where all barriers drop away and you return ever more deeply to the openness of Presence.
So on this Shabbat Tazria- The Sabbath of Birth, let’s remember to fully accept and be with whatever states we find ourselves in, and in the freedom of Presence, seek to birth a more kind, loving and conscious world. Good Shabbos!
The Great Mother- Parshat Tazria
4/6/2016 1 Comment
This past Shabbat, my wife Lisa went off to Punta Mona in the jungles of Costa Rica to take some much needed rest from the constant demands of motherhood.
While it was certainly a tiny drop in the bucket of what she really deserves (may she receive it fully and swiftly), I was happy she took the time to drink a little of the nectar of renewal. I am so grateful for her unending motherly devotion, and look forward to supporting more of that! And, I was happy to have some more devoted time with our children for a few days before my trip back to the Bay Area, during which she’ll be left alone with the kids for the next ten days.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with my sister-in-law, in which she said she understood the traditional Jewish idea that mothers are exempt from time-bound mitzvot- Jewish practices that happen at particular times, such as morning prayers, for example.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because mothering can be all consuming,” she replied. “Being a mother is not necessarily good for you. It’s a fire of suffering- the lack of sleep, the constant neediness of the child. But, it’s a suffering of love, a fire of love.”
Her words made me think of the two kinds love as explained in the classic work of Kabbalah and Hassidic philosophy, the Tanya.
According to the Tanya, 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. In fact, the two are not separate; you love God as your own beingness.
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’re 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’s more authentic to see yourself as not separate from the Divine. However, the Tanya says otherwise.
It goes on to explain that when you know the Godliness 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’re willing to give up your very life for God, that’s far more transcendent and selfless.
When my sister-in-law was talking about the all-consuming love of mothering, she was basically talking about the Tanya’s 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’s constantly sacrificing her life for the child!
Which brings us to this week’s reading, Parshat Tazria:
“Ki tazria v’yalda zakhar-
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son, she is ritually un-fit for seven days- like the days of her menstrual separation, she is ritually un-fit…she shouldn’t touch any holy thing, and into the holy she shall not come…”
It’s talking about how a woman who gives birth shouldn’t 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 as central and exclusive. For example, where is the holiest place? It’s not some distant site outside the camp. It’s the very center of the camp, in the very center of the Sanctuary, in a special room where the priest goes once per year to be in 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 separateness in that it’s the closest, and therefore separate from all other things that are less 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’s not concerned with the experience of Divinity in her own being; she’s 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’s in a Nidah-like state only for a short time. Then she returns 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, devotedly (or sometimes drudgingly) giving of ourselves, not “getting” anything out of it.
Other times, we are B’tzelem Elohim, manifestations of the Divine, enjoying the renewal and bliss of the Divine energy that is our essential nature.
Even in our Avodah, our daily spiritual practice, these two poles exist. Sometimes there’s a palpable flow of blissful connection with the One- and the One is not other than our own being.
But sometimes, that connection is not felt, and your commitment to your Avodah must come from a deeper motivation- one of service. That’s why the prayer that happen in synagogue is called a “service.” You may not feel like you’re getting much out of it, but you do it because you’re devoted, because you’re committed.
These two poles even manifest in the two main forms of Avodah- meditation and prayer.
In the stillness of meditation, the Completeness of the present moment is not something other than your own being. But in the fire of prayer, the self’s longing for Completeness reaches out for help from That which is infinitely greater than the self.
Yet there comes another point- perhaps that point is now- when these two poles meet, when they’re not separate at all, when the fire of love and service is the very thing that opens the door to your own inner Divinity.
It’s said that once the Baal Shem Tov heard a Bat Kol- a Heavenly Voice- tell him that for some little sin he had committed, he would be denied life in the World to Come. When he heard this news, he began dancing for joy.
The Voice then asked, “Why are you so happy? I just said you will have no life in the World to Come!”
The Baal Shem replied, “I dance because now I am free to serve God for it’s own sake, without ulterior motive.”
On this Shabbat Tazria, the Sabbath of Conception, may we deeply realize this paradox of Being God and being a servant of God, and 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 give that support when it is needed! Amein, Selah!
The Higher Separation- Parshat Tazria
4/24/2015 6 Comments
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!
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