This past Sunday I was in the Oakland Airport with my family, preparing to board a plane to visit my mother in Tucson.
After checking our suitcases, we arrived at security to find an incredibly long line, winding around rope dividers and culminating with a tiny funnel into only two security gates. There were several more gates that could have been opened to move things along, but for whatever reason, they were not staffed and were closed.
Right in front of us, a middle-aged man started cursing angrily. “What the %$^$ is going on here? Why don’t they ^%&$*# open the other gates??”
He started verbally abusing the security person looking at IDs and checking tickets. He demanded to speak to a supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, he cursed him out too. The supervisor said, “You just hold that thought, and I’ll go get someone for you to speak to.”
I was sorry my three-year-old girl had to hear that language. I was bracing myself for some police to come and wrestle this guy to the ground.
Strangely, no police showed up. Instead, he just kept on cursing and venting all the way through the line.
When it was time to remove our shoes and put our laptops in separate bins, I didn’t want to aggravate him more with our clumsy family choreography, so I offered to him that he go ahead of us.
“Nah, that’s okay,” he said, “I have plenty of time, I’m just mad about how they’re running this place.”
He had plenty of time!
I saw an interview once with an Indian spiritual teacher who had a novel way of explaining the spiritual path that I had never heard before.
He said that the “self” is like a cow in a pasture.
The cow always wants to wander outside the field and into the town or woods, but when she does, she gets attacked by wild animals, kids throw rocks, people shoot guns. Eventually, she figures out she’s better off to just stay in her own field.
The “field” is the inner heart. When the “self” dwells in the inner heart, according to this teacher, it enjoys union with the Divine. When it gets tempted and wanders outside the heart, it always ends up in suffering.
So, in this teaching, the aim is to learn to keep yourself in the cave of your heart. That’s it.
To me, this is a wonderful description of what it means to be in connection with Reality, with the Present, and with the Divine that is the Presence of the Present.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose this connection by getting lost in the mental narratives that our minds are constantly superimposing on Reality. The mind can dream up something wonderful one moment, but then change to a nightmare in the next.
I thought of this teaching when I saw this guy in the airport. Even if he was going to miss his flight and his plans would be all disrupted, what is it that is really creating all his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Nothing but his mind!
The mind creates all these stories and gets all excited about them. It was even more telling to learn that he wasn’t even going to be late. He was just out to make some enemies, to do some warfare.
As this week’s reading begins-
“Ki teitze la-milkhama al oyvekha-
When you go out to battle against your enemies…”
When you leave the sacred place of the heart, when you leave your connection with the present as it is and travel the labyrinth of the mind and its necessarily self-centered stories, you create your enemies and battles.
But then the rest of the verse says,
“Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha v’shavita shivyo-
and Existence- your Divinity- puts it in your hand, and you capture its captivity.”
It’s a strange construction- “shavita shivyo- capture its captivity.”
But if you understand that it is you who are captured by seeing the world as your enemy “out there”, then you need to “capture your captivity”- meaning, you need to be bigger than those ensnaring mental narratives.
How do you do it?
You can do it by understanding- Untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha - Existence, which is your own Divine nature, is giving this moment to you.
This is both surrender and empowerment:
Surrender to the truth of what is, rather than fighting with your idea of what is, and also empowerment to create a narrative that allows you to dwell in the cave of your heart, that allows you to respond not from ego, but from the Divinity that you are…
It once happened that a large group of hassidim went to visit Reb Yitzhak of Vorki in a village near Warsaw. In their enthusiasm to get to their rebbe more quickly, they cut through a field and damaged the grain crops with their trampling.
One of the employees responsible for the damaged field was himself a hassid by the name of Reb Moshe. Seeing the damage the hassidim caused, Reb Moshe stormed into the rebbe’s room and cried, “Look what these idiots have done! They should be beaten for this! It would be a mitzvah to beat them!”- for this was the custom among wealthy land owners of that time.
Reb Yitzhak gave no answer. Assuming that the rebbe agreed with his view, the angry man strode out to have the hassidim beaten.
But the tzaddik called him back and said, “When you perform a mitzvah, you must articulate your holy intention by first contemplating and pronouncing the evocation that begins ‘l’shem yikhud- for the sake of the Unification’. Since you are a hassid, you should also purify yourself for the holy act by immersing yourself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath). So, after you go to the mikveh, and devoutly chant l’shem yikhud, then you can go ahead and perform your mitzvah…”
My friends, before going out against our “enemies”, may we enter the mikveh of the present and connect with our deepest heart-intention for unity and peace. And, may we have the strength of commitment to remember that when we are pulled unconsciously into the battlefield!
4 Elul, 5775
What are you committed to?
Last night I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze.
As I sang the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
-I heard a harsh female voice call to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in rrrrepetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R”. She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage- “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what’s your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. It wouldn’t be real- you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of life, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be equanimity and compassion.
I know “equanimity and compassion” were not my first impulses!
I admit, I had no feeling of compassion for her whatsoever, even though that woman may have been abused. Even though she may have had mental illness. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me out if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is for the most part sane and capable. She was not privileged in that way.
But, though I may not be evolved enough to feel compassion for someone verbally attacking me in the moment, I am committed to compassion. I am committed to giving of my resources to help others in need, and to help my fellow beings however I can. That commitment was not changed in any way by the experience, except perhaps to strengthen it through the test.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of your momentary, passing experience. When you know what you’re committed to, you know how to be in the moment, how to be with Reality as it is in the moment, including being with your own thoughts and feelings, without being taken over by them.
What are you committed to?
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
Judges and officers you should place in your gates-
asher Hashem Elokekha notein l’kha-
that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you…
v’shaftu et ha’am mishpat tzedek-
to judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally place the judge in your gate- meaning, you choose the narrative with which to frame your experience. You choose how to use the experience you are having, and to what end. These choices are your basic commitments.
Your behaviors will also have their automatic patterns, so you need to also have officers- concrete practices to establish your commitments in your actions.
Without these two things- commitments you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest intentions will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from love, peace, equanimity, gratitude and other positive midot, so also “good” things can cause complacency, laziness, and so on.
But armed with these two essential ingredients- commitment and practice- every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, becomes a helper. Than you can come to see for yourself the second part of the verse-
“…asher Hashem Elokekha notein l’kha-
that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you...”
We are, in fact, in a play after all!
Behind our roles, behind our characters, there is only One Being giving every experience, and there is only One Being receiving every experience, all for the sake of the One Being awakening to Itself.
But to what end?
“…v’shaftu et ha’am mishpat tzedek-
to judge the people with fairness.”
As long as we see ourselves, and each other, only as the outer roles we play, and not as the Divine manifestations we truly are, how can we live with wisdom and bring heaven down to earth?
But when you can receive everything and everyone in this moment as God, then you know-
this is it! This is the moment in which you bring the potential heaven down to earth or you don't. Your choice!
If you would like to learn more about how you can actualize your potential through the power of commitment and practice, stay tuned for a new learning opportunity I will be writing you about soon. More to come!
On this Shabbos Shoftim- the Shabbat of Judges- may we choose our every word and every action toward the actualization of a just, inspired and beautiful world.
28 Av, 5775
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics such as humor and other emotions.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck”- a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets on the stage to practice his stand up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Now, why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it’s because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him. His goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to get good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it’s the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to master the art of life.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck. Then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do.
But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that!
And what does it mean to “master this life”?
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned- with an entire herd of wild horses! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again the villagers came- “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything.
Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
This week’s reading begins with the words: “Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
“Today”- meaning now- there is the potential for either blessing or curse.
How to choose the blessing?
It goes on to say, “et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- the blessing- that you listen to the commandments.”
There are three levels of meaning here in the word “mitzvot” or “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain. This moment has already become what it is!
The second level of meaning is that “mitzvah” is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta” which means not “to command”, but “to connect”.
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the sense of “listening” is a metaphor for connecting. When we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we deeply connect with the speaker- “I really hear you, man!”
So if you want blessing and not curse, connect with this moment- be present to what is, regardless of whether it seems like a blessing or a curse to your mind or your heart.
Accept the blessing and the curse- that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and not the curse- that’s the curse!
But in order to do that, you have to be aware of your situation: “Re’eh- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
The sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, while the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case- “Oh, I see now!”
The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the curse of judging blessings and curses. It’s only natural!
But to go beyond that, you need to be aware: Simply listen to the fullness of how it is. Let go of the judging mind.
Once you do that, you are free. Like Commander Data, you will be happy if the audience is not laughing at your jokes. That’s how you learn! Like the farmer, you will respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of “mitzvot”- the plain meaning of “God’s commandments.”
When you free yourself from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then you know you are not something separate from the Whole. Your actions flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole- in service of God. Then, all your actions are truly mitzvot- expressions of God in the world.
On this Shabbos Re’eh, the Shabbat of Seeing, may we all “see” our Divine potential in this moment, to “hear” the Divine Voice as this moment, and to do blessing for each other moment by moment, uniting heaven and earth one step at a time.
21 Av, 5775
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzin and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice”, which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man chugging a big glass of noni juice. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almost exactly the same- except that the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt, so that it would be permitted for us to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to by any product with the shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a having no shirt?” I asked.
“The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive," she replied. "A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more you get, the less sensitive you tend to be to what you already have… hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
This week’s reading begins with the words, “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It shall be the reward when you listen…”
The sentence is strange, because the word “eikev” really means “heel”, but it’s understood here to mean “reward” or “because” or “consequence”. This meaning is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing. The thing that “follows on the heels” is the consequence.
There’s a “heel” story of Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (b. 1789):
When he was little boy, his grandfather would teach him Torah. When they came to the verse, “Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”, his grandfather asked him to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
The grandfather, Reb Shneur Zalman, was ecstatic with the boy's answer and responded, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev- our heel- should ‘listen’, meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do you do that?
Be your own parent- restrict yourself.
The most astonishing and incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake hit Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water for many days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Halleluyah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: She was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more”. Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
This idea is expressed a little later in the parsha, Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:3-
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know- ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth”.
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing)- either the traditional one or something in your own words. But don't just rush through the blessing while the food is on its way to your mouth! Acknowledge the Divine mouth. Feel the hunger.
When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later (8:10), “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat of the Heel, let's not hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- and that’s the one we are living. Enjoy it down to your heels on the earth!