14 Av, 5775
When I was in the fifth grade I went to a summer camp called, “Le Camp”. It was a day camp, so every day I was schlepped back and forth by my parents- except for one day. Once per summer, we had a sleepover. The sleepover evening would begin with a dance in the barn. Later, we slept in our sleeping bags out in a huge field.
I was at the age when girls were first becoming interesting. During the dance part, there was a girl I was dancing with for most of the night. I guess I got it in my head that this girl liked me, and during the sleeping-bags-in-the-field part, I kept trying to sneak out of the “boys area” and into the “girls area” so I could go see that her.
At some point a counselor caught me. “Brian, stop bothering the girls!”
“No you don’t understand,” I pleaded (etkhanan), “they want me to be here!” after which that girl and several of her friends cried out, “NO WE DON’T!”
Sometimes we think we are wanted, but we are not. That’s just the truth. The person who thinks he’s wanted despite all protestations is an egomaniac. Kids can be like egomaniacs sometimes, and at some point, the delusion is toppled: “No, you really are annoying the hell out of me and I want you to STOP!”
But these kinds of hurtful childhood experiences can also create another kind of misperception into adulthood: it can create a self-image that you have nothing to offer, that people don’t need or want you.
Recently I was in a situation where I wanted to help someone, but I wasn’t being asked for help. In my post “LeCamp” psychology, I didn’t offer anything, because I thought that if my help was wanted, I would be asked.
As time went on, however, I could see that I would never be asked- not because my help wasn’t wanted, but because the person wasn’t comfortable asking.
So, I gathered my will against my personality, offered my help directly, and it was promptly accepted! So easy.
In this week’s reading, Moses tells the Israelites about how he pleaded (etkhanan) with God to let him enter the Promised Land.
“Va’etkhanan el Hashem baeit hahi leimor- I pleaded with God at that time, saying… please let me cross and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan!”
But God doesn’t let him.
Moses, the beloved prophet who “knows God face to face” is rejected.
But does Moses develop a bad self-image and stop doing his job? Not at all. A few verses later, Moses says, “V’atah Yisrael sh’ma- and now Israel, listen!” He then goes on teaching them the Torah that he was called upon to transmit.
Sometimes our offers are accepted, and sometimes they are rejected. But if you shut down when you are rejected and stop offering, you may miss your real calling.
And furthermore, what’s wrong with being rejected anyway?
If rejection feels bad, it’s because there is a self-image that is feeding off the desire to be appreciated. That ego, that separate self-sense, is quite natural, but ultimately it is a burden. When the ego is bruised, take that as medicine. Accept the pain- let it burn away the ego’s substance. Ultimately, the pain will be liberating, and in that liberation is real intimacy- intimacy with the plain and radiant present, with the simple bliss of being.
After all, when you are pleading for something, it’s because you desire some kind of completion. But when the pain of rejection burns away the very source of incompleteness, then the rejection itself can actually be the fulfillment!
There is a story that Reb Beirish of Alisk once went to spend Shabbos with his childhood friend-turned-rebbe, Reb Uri of Strelisk.
At the Shabbos table, Reb Uri turned to his hassid: “Rav of Alisk! Could you perhaps honor us with some spontaneous words of Torah, some words that you have not prepared?”
Immediately Reb Beirish answered, “It is written, ‘Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba eit hahi leimor- I pleaded with God at that time, saying.’ You see, in order for me to say something spontaneously at that time- meaning at this time, unprepared, I have to plead with God!
Reb Beirish had nothing to say except his plea that he should have something to say, and that plea itself became his words of Torah!
This Shabbos V’etkhanan is also known as Shabbos Nakhamu- the "Shabbat of Comfort", named from the Haftora reading. On this Shabbat of Comfort, may you be blessed with the confidence to know that you are needed for something quite unique, something no one else can offer. And, when your offerings are rejected, may you be blessed to bring your awareness deep into the present experience of that rejection, so that any trace of the “Wounded Me” gently dissolves into the spacious calm of the Timeless.
8 Av, 5775
Have you ever had the experience of finding yourself in conflict with someone, and then realizing that the same conflict has happened a thousand times before, in different forms? It is as if the conflict is a virus, a replicating pattern. It has no real life of its own; it is just a dead, repetitive, automatic story that lives off your life energy, playing itself out again and again.
I have a friend whose father was a very deep person, very calm, never getting dragged into the dramas of life that so many participate in. My friend said that he would always go off and pray alone in the evenings.
One day, when my friend was a boy, he snuck into the room where his father was praying, to see what he was doing. He heard his father crying and imploring, “Slaughter the one who is dead! Slaughter the one who is dead!”
He didn’t understand it at the time, but later he came to believe that his father was praying that he should be free from those dead, repetitive patterns that are parasites on our souls.
How can you slaughter the dead?
The first step is to realize that they are already dead. And how do you do that? The moment you notice that you are disturbed by something or someone doing that “same old thing again” that you hate, you yourself are doing that same old thing again that you hate!
Yes, the pattern of being disturbed repeatedly by something is itself the dead thing. That’s not to downplay whatever the external thing is that’s bothering you. It’s only to say that your pattern of response is what leads to conflict. You don’t need that automatic reaction; you can be free from it.
But to be free from the automatic reaction, you have to be willing to feel the pain of whatever is happening. Feel the pain on purpose, and there is no need to create conflict. Then, move on. Leave the pattern behind, and open yourself to the possibility of a new response: a next step in your personal evolution!
Sometimes, the dead thing is not a conflict at all. Sometimes the dead thing is something you love, even a beautiful spiritual experience.
I often hear people lament about having to come down from the lofty mountain of the spirit to deal with the crap of life. It reminds me of a passage I read once in one of Ram Dass’ books, where he talks about coming down from a spiritual high and literally “seeing” a tidal wave coming toward him- a tidal wave made out of all the broken relationships, tedious responsibilities, unconscious expectations- the whole mess.
It’s natural to resist that tidal wave. And yet, what are you resisting? What are you holding on to? There is nothing but the Divine, unfolding in ever-new ways through time. If you cling to the spiritual experience of a moment ago, you lose its most important message: God is speaking in everything. The unfolding of life in time is God’s speech.
There are such beautiful hints in this week’s reading, the beginning of Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy. “Devarim” means “Words”. Moses is speaking the words to all of Israel on the bank of the Jordan.
He is telling them a story about their journeys. He begins by recounting the highest moment, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak to them.
But does he tell them about all the Torah they learned there?
At this point, he tells them about only one piece of Torah they learned back at the mountain- “Rav lakhem shevet bahar hazeh! It’s too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain! Turn and journey for yourselves!”
You can’t keep sitting in any particular place. The world is turning; you must turn with it. The journey is “for yourselves”- it is for your own happiness and fulfillment that you have to not cling to your idea of happiness and fulfillment!
Then it says, “Uvo’u har ha’emori- and come to the mountain of the Amorites…”
On the surface, this is talking about a tribe called “Amorites” that live on a mountain in the Promised Land. But the word for “Amorites” has the same letters as the verb “to speak”- aleph-mem-reish. The hint here is that you must leave the “mountain” where you hear God’s “speech” so that you can come to a new mountain, where there will be new “speech”. Don’t cling to the old speech; it’s dead.
Then it goes on to say, “… on the mountain, in the plain, in the lowland, in the desert, and on the seacoast…”
The point is not only the next “mountain” experience you will come to. There is also the “plain- aravah”- the ordinary, daily work of life, a mixture (erev) of many different kinds of experiences.
There is the “lowland- sh’felah”- times of sadness, of tragedy, of failure- all part of God’s speech! These times are medicine for the ego.
Then there is the “desert”, or the “south- negev”- times when your life and work don’t seem to be yielding anything good, but you must persevere through these stretches! These times train us to stay focused and true to our goals.
Then there is the “seacoast- hof hayam”- like when the children of Israel stood at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army behind them. These are times when the outcome is unknown, when we are tempted to fear and despair. This is training for the supreme quality of Trust, to take the leap into the unknown. (Of course, all outcomes are always unknown, but only sometimes does this become obvious!)
Finally, it says you will come all the way to “Hanahar Hagadol- the Great River!”
The Great River is at the end of the journey, because if you can learn to work with life in all of its manifestations, you will see that life is the Great River. God incarnates in the form of your mind and your body, for just a brief time, to take a little journey on the Great River. This moment is the arena within which we are learning to journey.
As we enter Shabbos Devarim, the Shabbos of words, may our words be ever fresh and alive, free from old and dead patterns. May we hear the Living Words that are spoken anew, always in this moment. And as we come this Saturday night to Tisha B’Av, a time of mourning for past destructions, may we let that which is dead, die. I bless you to make room for the new life that is just now sprouting…
28 Tamuz, 5775
This week I’ve been taking my son to a band camp in Danville, a 45-minute drive from home. Since the drive is so long, I’m staying out there rather than driving back and forth, davening and working in my car while the camp happens.
Danville is bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so there aren’t many places to park my car in the shade and stay cool. Today, while driving around a neighborhood looking for shade, I found a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled the windows down.
This is was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot, so I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After a few minutes, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized- I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler. All the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for your daily practice and your passion for moving into connection with the present, or for living and serving with your whole being. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive.
In that case, it is possible that you’ve left the window open. All your best intentions are “blowing right out the window!”
How do you “roll up the window” and make the most out of the power of your intention without wasting it?
This week’s reading begins- “Ish ki yidor neder laShem- if a person takes a vow to the Divine- o hishava sh’vua lesor isar al nafsho- or swears an oath to prohibit something upon oneself… k’khol yotzei mipiv ya’aseh- according to everything that comes out of one’s mouth, one shall do…”
Why would someone want to take an oath or make a vow?
Because verbally saying your intention- and even repeating it often- is a powerful way to “shut the window.” Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean that your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against your habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t “fly out the window” as life unfolds in real time.
So, if want to transform, put the transformation in your mouth! And then, repeat it often. That way, when the flow of life tends to confuse and distract, you will be solid as a rock. If your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you.
Stay tuned- soon I will be offering a new course of study to put the power of intention and commitment to work for you.
Until then, Good Shabbos and bless you.
May the Divine that is your deepest self come to more and more obvious expression in all your life!
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers, starts showing them all the crafty knick-knacks and says (stoner voice): “This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”- indicating that a bag of weed could fit in one of the flute holes.
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time, after the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of each item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment and says, “oh, and you can put your weed in there!”- and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a cop comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The cop walks over to them and says, “how you doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then busts out uncontrollably: “WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The cop says, “Why are you yelling that?” He then examines whatever object the stoner is holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says, (Sukkah 52a) “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death.”
In the sketch, all the stoner guy had to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help it- he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are you given the opportunity for life to go well, to go smoothly, and somehow you find yourself messing the whole thing up? As I look back on my life, I can think of plenty of such times. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the most dangerous person to me has been myself!
Why do we have this yetzer hara- (the “bad inclination”)- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something I find very compelling: He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our unbelievably enormous potential. We know, on some level, that our potential is enormous, and that creates a kind of psychological pressure. We are terrified of not living up to our potential.
So, to avoid the pain of not living up to our potential, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential, that we are worthless, and all our self-destructive behaviors are aimed at proving our worthlessness to ourselves.
This week’s reading begins with the aftermath of a self-destructive incident, when the Israelites are on the threshold of entering the Promised Land. All they have to do stay focused and keep on track. But what happens? They are seduced into an orgy of idolatry and adultery! It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parsha is named, Pinhas, has just wielded his spear and killed two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the Ohel Moed, the holy “Tent of Meeting” (where the Divine Presence would manifest and communicate with the people). This week’s parshah then begins with Pinhas getting rewarded for his heroic murder, and he is given a Divine Brit Shalom- a “Covenant of Peace.”
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Most would say that murder in the name of religious zealotry is an unfortunate, evil and embarrassing part of our humanity and religious history.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message appears: There is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick you and lure you into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, if you are aware of it, it has no power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the Yetzer hara will be revealed for what it really is. When the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How is it that we could not overcome such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not trying to serve your ego, you are not trying to live for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that are your essence, your divine nature.
This spirit of holy intention is actually the way to quench the inner thirst that the yetzer hara thrives on. When you live in holy intention, that needy, fragmented self that reaches for wholeness in unwholesome things can ultimately dissolve.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!
When Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber, this question:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should always see another person with your right eye, and candy and toys with your left eye!”
There is one holy fire.
It’s the same fire that Moses saw at the burning bush, the same fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness, the same fire that erupted on Mt. Sinai. It’s the fire that burns in the heart and sets you free- free to live not just for yourself, but for the Mystery that is now awakening within you. Reality becomes conscious- looking now through your eyes, reading these words.
But for this One Consciousness to remain free, it must express itself in two ways- the “yes” and the “no”.
“Yes” to blessing, “No” to reaching- to seeing fulfillment outside yourself. “Yes” to loving people, “No” to the candy and toys that keep you stuck.
How can you discern which eye to look through? Listen to your body!
In this week’s reading, Balak king of Moab becomes frightened of the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley, so he petitions the prophet/sorcerer Bilam to curse the Israelites.
On his way out to the Israelite camps, there is a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in Torah where there are talking animals! Bilam rides his donkey through a vineyard, when a Malakh Hashem- a Divine angel- blocks the path with sword drawn. But only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it.
The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets mad and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks: “Ma asiti l’kha- what have I done to you that you hit me?”
Bilam yells back, “Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey, “Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
Then Bilam’s eyes are “uncovered” and he sees the angel with the sword as well. Bilam bows, prostrates, apologizes, and goes on his way up a mountain to view the Israelite camps.
When Bilam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse, a blessing comes out instead: “Lo hibit aven b’Ya’akov- (The Divine) sees nothing bad in Jacob... Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael- How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel! ...”
The donkey is your body- the mammal-beast you live in. You may think you want to say something, but your words will be a curse if you can’t “see” the “Divine angel”. But the donkey sees it- and the donkey can talk! Meaning- your body has wisdom, and it can talk to you, if you listen.
When you have the urge to speak- listen to your body. Attune to the talking animal. What does God want you to say? Your body is the gateway to that awareness. And from that awareness, open your mouth and let the blessing come!
I bless you that your thoughts and words should take the form of blessing, and from their power the whole world should move swiftly toward consciousness and healing.