There's an old episode of All in the Family where Gloria is cooking something in the kitchen. "Ma, can you taste this and let me know if it needs anything?"
"Sure Gloria," says Edith. She takes a bite, contemplates the flavor a bit and says, "I think it needs... a little less salt!"
Salt is absolutely necessary, but you don't want too much. And just like salt, our thinking is something we can't do without, but most of us have way too much of it. Thinking is so compulsive that we have no idea what life would feel like with less thinking and more Presence. But let your mind relax, and you can realize: the present moment is spacious, beautiful and alive with magic. And though there are certainly disturbing a traumatic things that can and do happen, it's mostly the movement of our minds that creates all our tension, fear, and stress.
Of course, we need to think in order to decide, to know how to proceed. But when the thinking has accomplished its goal, then we can let it go and simply be, even as we act. Our beingness can be an offering, an act of love that shines through our actions, once the mind relaxes.
As the old parable goes: once you take the boat across the river, you don't have to drag the boat around with you. Let it go. Use the mind to cross the "river" of your next decision, but then let your thoughts go and move into the present.
Two rabbis were traveling on foot together, a younger and a senior, and they came to a shallow river. They took off their shoes and began to wade across, when a young woman called to them. "I need help getting across please!"
The senior rabbi picked her up and carried her across on his back.
When they reached the other side, the woman thanked them and went her way. As the two rabbis walked together in silence for an hour or so, the younger became withdrawn and tense. Finally, the younger one could no longer restrain himself: "How could you have done that! The halakhah clearly forbids touching a young woman, let alone putting her on your back!"
"Look at you," replied the senior. "I only carried her across the river, but you are still carrying her!"
In this week's reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites as they too are about to cross a river: "Va'etkhanan el Hashem – I implored the Divine... please let me cross this river Jordan and see the good land!"
But Moses was not allowed to cross; he had to die before the Israelites that he had led for forty years could cross over without him.
Have you ever worked hard for something you really wanted, but once you achieved it, you didn't feel the sense of achievement you thought you would because YOU were not the same person anymore?
The mind thinks, figures out, navigates, decides. If you want to cross over into the promised land, if you want the inner freedom that is your nature and birthright, you must decide; you must commit to it. You need your mind for that. But to truly achieve the Goal, you have to then let "Moses" die, so to speak, and discover the deeper "You" beneath your thoughts.
More On V'etkhanan
No More "Rather-ing!" Parshat Va'etkhanan
“Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba’eit hahi- I implored Hashem at that time…”
This parsha opens with Moses imploring God to enter the Promised Land, ba’eit hahi – At that other time, I implored – at that time, and not at this time.
I just got back yesterday from a two-week trip with my family to Italy. I am blessed to have such amazing parents-in-laws who, ba’eit hazeh, at this time, can choose however they want to spend their time, and they chose to take our whole mishpakha on vacation with them for their fiftieth anniversary.
At one point in Rome, we had split up into two different cabs, and I was in a cab alone with Lisa’s father, who we call Poppi Normy. Poppi said to me ba’eit hahi, at that time, “So, Brian – are you enjoying yourself or would you rather be at some ashram in India?”
I replied, “Well, I don’t really put energy into rather-ing things.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “I get that. That’s good. I’m going to eliminate ‘rather’ from my vocabulary.” And then I said, “I’ll use this story in my next drash.”
So, what does it mean to not “rather” something?
It doesn’t mean that you can’t make good judgements. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take yourself out of an undesirable situation, or that you don’t help to make things better for yourself or others, it just means that whatever your experience is, in whatever situation you find yourself in, you don’t put mental and emotional energy into wishing things were different. You first of all accept the moment as it is, and then do whatever you do from this place of openness and surrender.
If you’re familiar with Musar, the Jewish practice of cultivating character traits, you might recognize “not-rather-ing” as Equanimity, known as menukhat hanefesh or shivyon nefesh, but it’s important to understand that this is not merely a character trait; it’s not something that you add on to your personality, but rather it’s a quality of Presence – a quality inherent within your field of awareness that is underneath your personality, underneath your thoughts, underneath your feelings. And while your thoughts and feelings are always flowing and changing, awareness is the background against which your thoughts and feelings are happening.
So, when you shift from feeling that “I am this personality, I am these thoughts and feelings,” into knowing yourself as the field of Presence within which your thoughts and feelings are happening, then Equanimity is very natural, because awareness itself is never preferring one thing over another thing; it’s simply open to whatever there is to perceive in the present moment – that’s why it’s called “Presence.”
So when Moshe says, “Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba’eit hahi- I implored Hashem at that time,” it’s saying, “I implored that I should be at some other time, at a time other than this moment. I don’t want to be here, I want to get to the Promised Land.
But God says, no – “Alei rosh hapisgah- ascend to the top of the cliff- v’sa einekha- and raise up your eyes…” Now the expression for “ascend to the top of the cliff” begins, “Alei rosh,” which literally means, “Raise up the head.” Meaning, get out of your head. Don’t be so identified with your own opinions, with your emotional reactions and so on. How do you do that? “v’sa einekha- and raise up your eyes,” meaning, instead of putting energy into judging, into “rather-ing,” simply see what’s happening in this moment. Be the witnessing Presence within which your present experience is unfolding.
On this Shabbat Va’etkhanan, the Sabbath of Imploring, may our prayer lead us to deeper connection with Hashem Who is constantly incarnating as the fullness of this moment,ba’eit hazeh – in this moment!
The Acceptance of Rejection- Parshat Va'etkhanan
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 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!
On this Shabbat V’etkhanan, the Sabbath of Pleading, 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.
A friend once asked me, "I don't understand this stuff about being present. What if the present sucks?"
There's a dimension of our experience that is beyond the particular experience we're having– beyond our feelings, thoughts and sensations. That's our consciousness that's aware of the feelings, thoughts and sensations. That consciousness is similar to the empty physical space that allows us to exist physically. We're often not aware of the physical space, but without it, we couldn't be here. Similarly, without the space of awareness, there can be no experience.
Being present doesn't just mean to be aware of what's going on in our experience, but more importantly, it means to be aware of the space within which it's happening. As you become aware of the space of awareness, you come to know yourself as this space, rather than as the content of the space– your particular thoughts and feelings. And as you come to know yourself as this space more and more deeply, your thoughts and feelings and sensations begin to resonate with the space, and that creates a feeling-sense of freedom, bliss and joy.
But this all requires some trust in the process, because sometimes the experience of the present can be horrible, and you'll want to resist, to run away and hide or fight tooth and nail. But if you treat the present moment as an opportunity to be Presence, then every experience becomes a steppingstone to greater freedom and joy.
This is reflected in Pirkei Avot, 4:21: "Rabbi Yaakov says, 'This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. You should work on yourself in the waiting room, so that you can enter the banquet hall.'"
The common understanding of the "World to Come" is that of the afterlife. But the hint here is that there's an eternal dimension of experience that's available now, though you may not yet be aware of it. If you're not yet aware of it, you have to "work on yourself in the waiting room"– meaning, treat your temporal experience as an opportunity to practice being present, and you will come to enter the "banquet hall"– that eternal dimension of experience that is the space of your own awareness.
In this week's Torah reading, Parshat Devarim, Moses begins recounting the journey of the Israelites. Much of the actual story is simply skipped over, but then Moses emphasizes the incident with the spies:
The spies go to investigate the land. They bring back the report that the land is great, but their are "giants" in the land and they should turn back. Hashem says that because of their cowardice, they will never enter the land, and only their children will enter. Then the Israelites say, "No no! We were just kidding!" They run up the mountain to do battle with the "giants" and are slaughtered.
Talk about being out of sync!
But what a wonderful metaphor for such a common disfunction– the disfunction of not being in alignment with the reality of the moment. One moment calls us to fight, the next calls us to retreat, If we're not in alignment, if we're spending energy wishing that things are other than they are and responding to how we think things should be rather than how they are, we get in trouble.
But if we know ourselves as the space within which our experience is arising, we can easily align with the needs of the moment and act appropriately, fearlessly going to battle when we must, and surrendering when we must, rather than the other way around.
There's a story of Rabbi Yitzhak Eisik, who had a condition that caused him extreme pain his whole life. His doctor asked, "How can you take all that pain without grumbling or complaining at all?
"You would understand if you knew how I see pain," replied the rebbe. "I regard pain as a scrubbing of the soul, like putting a coin in a strong cleaning solution."
"But how can you take that level of pain for so long? You've had it nearly all your life!"
"It's not a question of how long. Whatever pain I've had in the past is over; it doesn't hurt anymore. Whatever pain is to come is in the future doesn't yet exist, and so I don't have to bother with that. I only need to be aware of the pain that's happening right now, and that's totally doable!"
As we approach Tisha B'Av, the holiday of pain and destruction, may we be cleansed by whatever pain arises, making way for something beautiful and new to emerge from the depths of our souls, healing ourselves and the world...
More on Parshat Devarim–
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The Great River- Parshat Devarim
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.
Once there was a scorpion who was looking for a way to get to the other side of a river. As he searched up and down the banks, he came upon a fox who was about to swim across.
“Please let me swim on your back!” implored the scorpion.
“No way!” replied the fox, “You’ll sting me!”
“Why would I do that?” argued the scorpion, “If I stung you, we would both drown.”
After thinking about it, the fox agreed. The scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim across. But, when they were about half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. As the poison began its work, the fox started to sink.
“Why did you do it?” said the fox, “Now we’ll both drown!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” said the scorpion, “It’s in my nature.”
Is it in your nature to always react in the same old ways, perpetuating the same old conflicts? Or is there a way out?
Of course there is a way out, but it can be difficult because the old patterns are usually motivated by the desire to escape pain, and it’s totally natural to want to escape pain. Something happens, someone does something, and it triggers a painful emotional response. You naturally want to avoid this pain, so you lash out unconsciously or passive aggressively or whatever, in an attempt to vent the pain and punish the one who caused it.
But, it doesn’t work, because it just perpetuates a dynamic that guarantees the cycle will continue… that is, until you wake up.
To wake up means to see the pattern, and to stop feeding it. This usually means feeling the triggered pain on purpose, without doing anything about it... just being with it.
You might think that a lot of meditation can help you “just be with it,” but sometimes the opposite is true. Meditation can give you beautiful and blissful experiences. If you get attached to those experiences, then the pain that life brings can sometimes be even harder to endure. I often hear people lament about having to come down from the lofty mountain of the spirit to deal with the pain of life.
It reminds me of a passage I read 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 the pain of 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 and as everything. The unfolding of life in time is God’s Speech. Open to it, as it is.
This week’s reading- Devarim, the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy- gives some beautiful hints of this truth. “Devarim” means “Words”- the words spoken by Moses to the Israelites. They too stand by a river, preparing to cross, and Moses tells them the story of 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?
He tells them only one piece of Torah-
“Rav lakhem shevet bahar hazeh!
“It’s too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain! Turn and journey for yourselves!”
In other words, don't be the scorpion! Life is change. 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.
Then 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 distortions of 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.
The Baal Shem Tov taught:
“In the Amidah prayer, we say: ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,’ and not: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ because Isaac and Jacob connected to the unique form of God’s speech as they heard it; they didn’t rely on what Abraham heard.”
As we enter Shabbat Devarim, the Sabbath 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, flowing as the Great River, always in this moment.
K’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh –
"As everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do...”
Goof! Parshat Matot (Click for original post)
In Parshat Matot, it says that if a person makes a vow to do something, or takes an oath not to do something, “lo yakhel d’varo- his word shall not be desecrated or emptied – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – as everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do.”
So, on the surface this is talking about keeping your word. You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. But on a deeper level, when we have an intention to do something or not do something, there’s a reason for the intention. The point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you go to work not because you necessarily like your work, but so you can make money. And you make money not because you like the money, but because you want to use the money to benefit your family. But then let’s say you use the money to buy food for your family, and someone in your family has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets really sick, God forbid.
So now there’s a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called making a mistake. So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo- don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example that I just gave, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them. They happen by accident. And while it’s true and good to be as conscious and wise as you can, it’s also true that you’re going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
So then, the next verse says, that if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah- God forgives her, ki heini aviah otah- because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
So, who is this child the Torah talks about? It’s us. We may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening. Who is the parent? It’s Reality Itself – it’s the Truth of what is – as it says, Emet malkeinu efes zulato – Truth is our king and there is nothing else,meaning, there is nothing but the Truth of what is – there is nothing but God.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, yes you should be as conscious and careful as you can with your actions – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – make sure you do your best to bring about the positive result that you intend. But on the other hand, know that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that’s just the ego clinging to a self-image of being successful, or good or whatever. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place, so you must forgive yourself if you want to be free from hameitzar- from the separateness and narrowness of ego, and really experience anani hamerkhav Yah- the infinitely vast expansiveness of the Divine.
But how do you do that? How do you come to forgive yourself so that you can experience Hashem yislakh lah – that you are truly forgiven for all your mistakes? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that you have to forgive everyone else! As it says in Vayikra- Leviticus 10:18, ve’ahavtah l’reiakha k’mokha – love your neighbor as yourself – and if you’re not sure what it means, that you should love others like you love yourself, then right before that it says, lo titur et b’nai amekha- don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people.
So, on this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of the Tribes, may we be vigilant against that unconscious tendency that often happens in community, to judge other members of our tribe. Not just because it’s bad for the community and for relationships, but because when your judge others instead of forgiving others, you won’t be able to forgive yourself. The ego that judges others is the same ego that gets you stuck in self judgment. Give permission for others to be as they are, even when you have to correct them. You can accept someone in your heart even as you reprimand them for something; there’s no contradiction there. And in that acceptance, you will be able to truly accept yourself, even as you try to learn from your mistakes. And through this paradox of acceptance and action, of forgiveness and correction, may the rav tov – the abundant goodness of Being Itself, of Reality Itself, become ever more apparent, healing all who seek it. Good Shabbos!
Don't Blow it Out Your Window- Parshat Mattot
One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That 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 some time, 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 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, 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 a vow or swear an oath?
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 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.
What is it that you desire to bring forth from yourself?
When that becomes clear to you, commit to it. Write it down. Repeat it often. Then, 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.
But, you might ask, isn’t attaching yourself to some goal a function of ego?
It’s true- if you merely say, “I commit to accomplishing such-and-such,” you can and probably will create ego-identification with the goal. The ego seeks control, and when things don’t go your way, that creates suffering.
That’s why intention and commitment have to be balanced with surrender and trust, and this is the basic function of prayer. The purpose of praying for things is not to control God or manifest our desires, but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. When we pray for something, we recognize that we aren’t in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray- there is no “me,” there is only God- unfolding in every form and every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you.
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them:
“Won’t you stay for Shabbos?” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised- why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves?
At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the bread, a tiny crust of bread with mold on it was brought out. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed.
Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste.
For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony. After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer:
“How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??”
The Baal Shem was just silent.
A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood!
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The man whose home we visited last year was fully capable of becoming successful in business, but he was so full of faith, that he chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help himself. Yes, he prayed passionately for livelihood, but refused to take any steps toward it.
“When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep him trapped in his passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that he’d be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what he did, and just look at them now!”
On this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to action and prayer are two sides of the Whole- the passive and the active, as One. May you have abundant success and blessing in all your ways!
There are really two different kinds of discomfort.
The first is like when you stub your toe. It happens suddenly, and once it happens, you're going to feel pain; there's no choice involved. The second is like when someone is talking your ear off, and you want to get away. The discomfort increases moment by moment, and you can get away any time you choose.
If you want to live an awakened life, if you want to be free, these two kinds of discomfort require two different responses. The first requires simple acceptance; there's no way to escape the intense pain once you stub your toe. The second requires conscious choice about when to stay in the discomfort and keep listening to the person talk at you, and when to simply walk away.
Yet for some reason, we often confuse these two situations. We can trick ourselves into thinking we're "trapped" by someone talking to us, and not realize that we have a choice. When we finally escape, we might be angry at the person: "How could they keep talking at me like that! How insensitive!" And yet, we could have left any time; we don't take the power that's ours, and instead blame someone outside ourselves for our experience.
Or, we lament and complain about some discomfort that we can't control, when we should really just accept it; it already happened, we have no control! So why be in conflict with it?
There's a hint of this in Parshat Pinhas:
צַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֶת־קָרְבָּנִ֨י לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י תִּשְׁמְר֕וּ לְהַקְרִ֥יב לִ֖י בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ
Command the children of Israel and say to them, “My offerings, My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, you shall take care to offer Me in its special time…
If you draw your awareness into your pain, it becomes לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י – food for My fires –that is, food for awareness, because awareness is strengthened through the practice of fully being present with whatever you feel the impulse to resist. That's the first kind of pain, like stubbing your toe.
That’s why the offering is called קָרְבָּנִ֨י – My korban, because korban means to “draw near.” The magic is that even though you are drawing your awareness into something unpleasant, the attitude of openness can transmute the pain into a connection with the Divine, with Reality, with our own being, which are all ultimately the same thing.
The second type of pain, as in the example of someone talking at you, is the רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י –pleasing aroma. That's because there's a sweetness when you claim your own power to change your situation, and not blame others.
Our response to these different kinds of discomfort must be done בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ – it its special time – meaning, our response has to be in alignment with the reality of our situation. Is it time to simply accept, or is it time to act? Notice the inner tendency to lean away from your own power, or to lean into resisting what has already happened. Then, simply lean a bit the other way, and come back into balance.
Once, when Reb Yisrael of Rizhyn was sitting casually with his Hassidim and smoking his pipe, one of them asked, "Rebbe, please tell, me– how can I truly serve Hashem?"
"How should I know?" said the rebbe, "But I'll tell you, once there were two friends who broke the law and were brought before the king. The king was fond of them and wanted to acquit them, but he couldn't just let them off the hook completely.
"So, the king had a tight rope extended over a deep pit. He told the friends, 'If you can get to the other side of the pit on the tightrope, you can go free.' The first set his foot on the rope and quickly scampered across. The second called to his friend, 'How did you do it?'
"'How should I know?' said the first, 'But I'll tell you– when I started to fall toward one side, I just leaned a little to the other side...'"
More on Parshat Pinhas
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Piercing the Two Layers of Mind- Parshat Pinkas
"Notein lo et briti shalom –
"I give him my covenant of peace.”
Parshat Pinkhas begins in the aftermath of a plague that God put on the Israelites, because they had been seduced by the Midianites into an idolatrous orgy. At its climax, The Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Kozbi are engaged in sexual union in front of everyone, and the zealot Pinkhas comes along and kills them both by piercing them through with a spear, causing the punishing plague to subside. God then says in the opening of the parsha, that Pinkhas “heishiv et khamati- turned back my wrath from upon the children of Israel- b’kano et kinati- when he avenged my vengeance” or “my jealousy. Therefore, hin’ni, check it out- notein lo et briti shalom- I give him my covenant of peace.”
Woe, what is going on here. This sounds like the vengeful, jealous God that everyone loves to hate. What kind of a God is that, right? A God that’s jealous, a God that kills people and so on. And yet, in a sense, that’s actually perfectly true. From a certain point of view, God is a vengeful, jealous God that kills people. Not literally, of course, but this is scripture. It’s pointing to something spiritual in the language of the time it was written. So what is it pointing to?
There is a basis, or a foundation for everything you’re experiencing right now. Whether we’re talking about things that appear to be outside of you – like the sensory world, what you see, what you hear, or things that appear to be inside you, such as feelings or thoughts, everything is perceived only because of this miracle called consciousness. And in the field of your experience, everything you perceive is, in fact, made out of consciousness. So that thing that I see over there is nothing but consciousness, because seeing is a function of consciousness. And, in fact, the sense of “me” that sees the thing over there, this body/mind that I call me, is also something that I perceive, so it too is just a form of consciousness. So the thing I see and the me that sees are both forms of one consciousness.
And yet, as you know, most people have no sense of that at all. There’s just the sense of me over here in this body and that thing over there that I see. Why? Because we’re constantly framing our experience with language that reinforces the belief that things are objective and separate. The language we use refers to “me” and “that thing over there,” and so our thinking which is largely made out of language, is deeply conditioned with this assumption of separateness, even though our experience right now tells us otherwise. But to really see what our experience is telling us, we have to pierce a hole through the lie that’s created with our language.
And to do that takes a special effort because the language lie is two-ply. Just like good toilet paper. If you have only one-ply toilet paper, that doesn’t work too well. Good toilet paper has two layers of paper so that it doesn’t tear when you’re using it.
It’s the same with our minds- there’s two layers. The first layer is simply the fact that our minds are constantly going. Bla bla bla bla. It’s like a song that you get stuck in your head. Once that song is stuck, it just repeats over and over, because it’s created a groove in your nervous system. That’s why music is groovy. Dance music is always talking about “getting into the groove” and “making you move” because it’s playing on this tendency of the mind to get into grooves of thought patterns within which your mind moves. That’s the first layer you have to get through- the movement in the groove of constant thinking.
The other ply is the content of the groove- the nature of how language tends to work. How does language work? Well even right now as I talk about language, the words are creating the impression that language is this thing that “I” am talking about. So there’s the sense that “I” and the subject of this talk, language, are two separate things. This doesn’t get questioned unless we deliberately decide to question it, which is what we’re doing right now by the way, because it’s simply the background assumption of language and thinking- that there’s a me who thinks and talks, and there are things that the “me” thinks and talks about.
And yet we can, if we choose, notice that these words right now, as well as whatever concepts we’re talking about, as well as this body that’s talking, as well as the “you” that’s listening, are all living within and are forms of awareness. And as soon as we point this out, there can be this subtle but profound shift- and this is the shift into knowing that there’s only one thing going on. Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ekhad- All Existence, all Being is not separate from Eloheinu- our own divinity, meaning consciousness, and Hashem Ekhad- All Existence is just this One thing that’s going on- consciousness in form. And how do you know this? Because you are Sh’ma- you are the listening, the perceiving, and nothing you perceive is separate from that.
Isn’t it funny that we tend to look for God, thinking we know the world but we have to find God, when in Reality, God is the only thing we really know? Meaning, we know that there’s Existence. And we know that the knowing and the Existence, are not separate. That’s Hashem Ekhad; that’s the Oneness of God right there. Or should we say, right here.
So if you choose to think in this very different, very counter-intuitive and yet very obvious kind of way, you can pierce through that ply of separateness almost instantly. Because even though it’s counterintuitive, it’s also really obvious. It’s really obvious that there’s only one Reality and this is it. How many Realities could there possibly be? Only one, because Reality just means whatever is. And it’s also totally obvious that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to find Reality, because there’s only ever one place to find it, and that’s always right now in your present moment experience.
So once you do that, and hopefully we just did it, the next step is to connect with the Presence of Being in form. Meaning, let your awareness really connect whatever is present, rather than continue with all that duality producing language. Just let yourself be present. This isn’t complicated- just notice what’s going on… and be conscious of your breathing. And in doing that, your mind effortlessly becomes quiet, and you pierce through the other ply- the layer of the constantly moving mind.
So once you’ve gotten through the two layers, and maybe you just have, Reality can be your friend, and the plague, so to speak, can be lifted. What’s the plague? It’s just the belief that you’re separate. And that’s why God can be thought of as jealous or vengeful. Not literally of course, but if you’re not paying attention to God, meaning you’re not seeing the underlying Being of everything, always focused on the conditional world, then you’re literally in exile from yourself. You’re identified with this tiny piece of who you really are, and you don’t even know it.
So this is why God gives Pinkhas the covenant of shalom – of peace and wholeness – for killing Zimriand Kozbi. Because what is Zimri? It’s like the word zemer- song. So Zimri is “my song”- meaning, the constant movement of the mind; the song that my thoughts are always singing. And what is Kozbi? Kaf-Zayin-Bet means a lie, a falsehood. So Kozbi means “my lie.” And when Zimri and Kozbi unite, that’s the two ply barrier of both constant thinking and the lie of separateness that Pinkhas is able to pierce through.
Now, what is Pinkhas? It’s Pey-Nekhs. Pey is a mouth, and Nekhs is bad, or unsuccessful. So Pinkhas knows the bad side of the mouth, meaning language, how it tends to make us unsuccessful in our quest for Truth. So he pierces through both layers, and receives the Brit Shalom, reminding us that whoever wants real peace and wholeness, must also pierce through the two-ply toilet paper of the mind.
So on this Shabbat Pinkhas, which we might call the Sabbath of Silence, may we pierce more deeply and consistently through the noise and conditioning of the mind, connecting with and also embodying in our actions, words and even thoughts, the Divine Presence of Being that is ever-present...
Put Your Weed in There! Parshat Pinhas
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 and starts showing them some crafty knick-knack import. He says in a stoner voice:
“This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it 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 like that?” He then examines the knick-knack he’s 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 has 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? Why do we have this yetzer hara- this “evil urge”- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something unique and 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 knowing our great potential and not living up to it, 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 as well.
The Israelites had just been dwelling peacefully in their camp. Then the Midianites come along and try to seduce them into an orgy of idolatry and adultery. The Midianites didn’t attack them militarily; all the Israelites had to do is say “No thank you,” and they’d be fine. But what happens? They are easily seduced and the Divine wrath flares up. It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parshah is named, Pinhas, then wields his spear and kills two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the holy “Tent of Meeting.” 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. Murder in the name of religious zealotry? Embarrassing.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message emerges: 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 harawill 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 were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not living for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that is your essence, your divine nature.
At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you do have needs and desires.
While it’s true there are times when our impulses are so destructive that they must be completely halted as represented by Pinhas and his spear, in most cases our thirsts can be quenched in moderation, with balance and wisdom. Our desires, after all, are like the impulses of an animal. Don’t let the animal take over, but don’t torture it either. You have the power, through your awareness, to give the animal enough so that it let’s you have peace, without it taking over and pulling you toward self-sabotage.
There’s a story of a simple man who came to Maggid of Koznitz with his wife, demanding that he be allowed to divorce her.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the Maggid.
“I work very hard all week,” said the man, “and on Shabbos I want to have some pleasure. Now for Shabbat dinner, my wife first serves the fish, then the onions, then some heavy main dish, and by the time she puts the pudding on the table, I have eaten all I want and have no appetite for it. All week I work for this pudding, and when it comes I can’t even taste it- and all my labor was for nothing!
“Time after time I ask my wife to please put the pudding on the table right after Kiddush (the blessing over wine), but no! She says that the way she does it is the proper minhag (custom).”
The Maggid turned to the woman.
“From now on, make a little extra pudding. Take a bit of the pudding and serve it right after Kiddush.Then, serve the rest of it after the main dish, as before.”
The couple agreed to this and went on their way.
From that time on, it became the minhag (custom) in the Maggid’s house to serve some pudding right after Kiddush, and this minhag was passed on to his children and his children’s children. It was called the Shalom Bayit Pudding- the “Peace-in-the-House Pudding!”
On this Shabbat Pinkhas, the Sabbath of Peace, may we be aware of the needs of our hearts an bodies, giving and receiving the pleasures of life without being controlled by them. May we know that we are infinitely more vast than any particular impulse or want. May we see that all impulses come and go, and that we need not identify with them.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!