The infamous and much hated Rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, once visited his little home town where he grew up. While he was there he made a point of seeing his first, early childhood teacher who had taught him the alef-beis, whom he loved very much.
Before he returned home, he happened to run into another teacher of his. “I see that you visit your preschool teacher, but you don’t visit me? What have I done to offend you?” asked the teacher.
“You taught me things that can be refuted,” replied the Kotzker, “because according to one interpretation they can mean this, and according to another they can mean that. But my first teacher taught me things which cannot be refuted, and so they have remained with me; that is why I owe him special reverence.”
The mind tends to dwell upon that which it does not know for sure.
That’s because it is the job of the mind to figure out, to conjecture, to approximate, to guess; that’s how we are able to navigate life and make decisions. But this useful tendency often becomes a compulsive habit, usurping awareness away from what we actually do know.
Eventually, we can come to give no attention at all to what we do know, and instead invest our guesses, conjectures and approximations with a reality they don’t really possess; this is called “living in one’s head.” Nowadays, people often feel most strongly and defend most passionately (and attack most violently in defense of) things they don’t really know for sure.
What is it that we do know for sure?
Turn your attention from involvement with your thoughts and “see” what is actually happening, right now. That is Presence – simply noticing and therefore knowing what is actually present in your experience.
When you do, there may be a feeling of disorientation or fear.
What if thoughts are just thoughts? What will happen if you let go of all that mind generated drama and attend to what is present, to what you actually know for sure?
The ego is uncomfortable with this, because ego is the sense of identity that’s built out of our thoughts and feelings. Let go of your thoughts and feelings, and the ego can feel threatened.
הָלַ֣ךְ חֲשֵׁכִ֗ים וְאֵ֥ין נֹ֙גַהּ֙ ל֔וֹ יִבְטַח֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה וְיִשָּׁעֵ֖ן בֵּאלֹהָֽיו
Though one walks in darkness and has no glow, let them trust in the Name of the Divine, and rely on their Divinity…
The haftora hints that there is an aspect of our consciousness that is forever in a state of not-knowing: ayn nogah lo – has no glow. It doesn’t say that one has no “light” but rather one doesn’t even have any “glow” at all. One absolutely halakh hasheikhim – walks in darkness.
But if we can be totally clear about not being clear, if we can truly understand and know on the deepest level that all of our mind’s judgments are guesses and approximations, then we can transcend the ego; we can transcend our separate self-sense that thrives on belief in our own thoughts and denial of the darkness.
Then, in that surrender to not-knowing, a new way of being emerges: yivtakh b’shem Hashem v’yisha’ein Elohav – trust in the Name of the Divine and rely on Divinity. That is the letting go – the letting of Mystery be Mystery.
Then, we can realize: there is something we can know, if we would only turn toward It: we are consciousness, and we are the consciousness that is conscious of This, Now.
To really get this, to know ourselves as consciousness, and to also acknowledge our basic state of not-knowing on the level of thought, we must discern between three things:
Ordinarily, we confuse 2 with 3; we don’t differentiate between our thoughts and reality. We are generally unconscious that we are thinking at all; we merely think and judge, with no sense of the presence of thought. But when we become aware that 2 is actually within 1, that our thoughts are arising within present experience, then we can easily see the difference between our thoughts and Reality; then we can truly know that we don’t know.
וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה
And it will be if you listen to these judgments…
The parshah begins with the strange construction – v’hayah eikev tishma’un – it will be if you listen...
Eikev means “heel,” as in the English idiom that one thing will “follow on the heels” of another, meaning that one thing is the consequence of another. But according to a Hassidic teaching, the hint is that one should become conscious even in one’s heel – that is, the most insensitive part of the body should become aware. Then, when one is fully present, with awareness permeating the whole body, we can make these subtle mishpatim, subtle judgments concerning our own mental judgments, and we can begin to truly know what we know and what we don’t know, and trust in the Mystery.
Then, in connection with the Truth of this moment and in surrender to unknowability of everything beyond this moment, the heart is set free. Gratitude arises naturally, and you will know the vastness of who you really are – the simple, open space of awareness within which the fullness of this moment now arises…
וַאֲהֵ֣בְךָ֔ וּבֵרַכְךָ֖ וְהִרְבֶּ֑ךָ
And (the Divine) will love you, and bless you, and increase you…
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The Toothpick – Parshat Eikev
8/3/2018 0 Comments
I heard a story once of a rabbi who, when he was a little boy, would eat ice cream with a toothpick. When my son was little, I told him this story to try to get him to slow down his eating. A few months later, I saw my son eating ice cream with a toothpick too. I was amazed– "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I want to make it last longer!" he said.
Some people want to give their children everything they ask for. But we know that when children get more and more, this often doesn't lead to more satisfaction, but more desire. We call that being "spoiled." If we want to give our children more, we often need to give them less.
It's easy to see this with children, but it's the same with us: we can deliberately restrict our intake, as in the example of eating with a toothpick. It doesn't have to be a restriction of food; it can be a restriction of words. Have you ever felt the intense desire to say something, perhaps because someone else was saying something totally wrong, and you wanted to jump in and correct them?
Or, you might have the impulse to jump in and stop something. Something annoying happens, like a child is whining and interrupting, and the impulse is to rush and stop it.
But if you pause, even when the impulse is to do something totally appropriate (which it often isn't), there's a space for a deeper wisdom to emerge. You can realize: you are not trapped by the impulse. You are, in fact, a vastly deep well of consciousness, and from that consciousness emerges all impulses, all thoughts, all sensations, all experience. And although we tend to reach for satisfaction by fulfilling our impulses, when you discover this vast space, there can be a far deeper satisfaction than the satisfaction that comes from any gratification.
"Not on bread alone does a person live," says this week's reading. In other words, if you want to truly live, you can't only be focussed only on the "bread" – the satisfaction that comes from gratification. Rather, true living means being aware of that vast well of consciousness that perceives the "bread." That awareness is always there, and so it's easy to miss it. You can go your whole life and never notice the one thing that is constant!
And that's why we have this practice of pausing, of restricting– so that we can slow down enough to become aware of this underlying reality, the reality of your own Beingness, the miracle of this present moment.
As it says a little later in the parsha, "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless..."
Don't just eat, ve'akhalta, eat and be satisfied, v'savata. Meaning, don't just be satisfied by the food alone, but feel the satisfaction that comes from simply from Being. Then, uveirakhta– bless – give thanks not just for the bread, but for the gift that is always present – the gift of Presence Itself...
The Shirt- Parshat Eikev
8/23/2016 9 Comments
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzen 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 blowing a conch. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almostexactly the same, except- 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 we would be permitted to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to buy any product with a shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a man having no shirt?” I asked. “Isn’t the human body holy? Are you saying there’s something sinful about the human body?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive. 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 are 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 of” 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 the founder of the Chabad lineage, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi- the "Alter Rebbe." When his grandson Menachem Mendel was a boy, he would teach the boy Torah. Once, they came to this verse-
“Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”
The Alter Rebbe asked the boy to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
Reb Shneur Zalman was ecstatic with his answer and said, “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 in 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 several 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 parshah:
“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. When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later, “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat Eikev, the Sabbath of the Heel, may we become sensitive to the many gifts of sustenance that often get taken for granted. Most of all, may we be sensitive to the one gift that holds all the others- the gift of space, of awareness, within which experience unfolds. Don’t hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- that’s the one you are living, in this moment.
A disciple of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Ger came to the rebbe with a complaint: “I’ve been trying for twenty years, and still I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere! If a craftsman practiced their craft for twenty years, they would either be much better at their craft, or at the very least they would be able to do it much more quickly. But with me, I’ve been praying and praying, and I don’t feel any closer than when I began.”
“It is taught in Elijah’s name,” replied the rebbe, “that a person should take Torah upon themselves as an ox takes the yoke. You see, the ox leaves its stall in the morning, goes to the field, plows, and his led back home. This happens day after day. Nothing changes with regard to the ox, but the ploughed field bears the harvest.”
In the course of our avodah (spiritual practice), there can be times of tremendous transformation, but there can also be times of plateau, times when it seems we are plugging away without much result. At such times, it is good to express any dissatisfaction we may have through prayer, just like Moses pleaded with the Divine:
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
I pleaded with the Divine at that time, speaking…
Moses is pleading with Hashem to let him enter the “land.” Like the hassid who complained to his rebbe, Moses is saying, “I’ve been leading this people toward the land for forty years – please let me at least enter along with them!”
The “land” is a metaphor – in relation to our spiritual path, it represents the fruit of the practice – that sense of coming home into the Oneness, coming home into the present. When we feel the angst of separateness, when we feel like an ox that goes on day after day with the same old routine, don’t hold back – cry out in prayer! Va’etkhanan!
But then listen for the Divine response:
רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
“Too much of you! Do not increase your words to me about this thing!”
That separate self-sense, the “me” that thinks and speaks and acts, is the “ox.” The truth is, the ox will always be an ox. At some point, we need to give up on all this “me” – Rav lakh! Too much of you! – and discover the aspect of our being that is silence – Al tosef daber! Do not increase your words!
In that silence we can discover the other aspect of our being – the deep, vast, boundless “field.”
This is not to deny or devalue the “ox” in any way; we need the ox. We need to organize our lives and set aside time for practice. But just as the ox cannot become the field, just as Moses cannot enter the land but must die outside the land, so too we must let go of this self-ness and recognize the aspect of ourselves that is beyond the ox. The truth is, on the deepest level, we already are the field.
עֲלֵ֣ה רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ
“Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise up your eyes…”
Moses climbs up the cliff and sees the “land” from afar, and there he dies. Similarly, we can understand the goal with our minds, but that is only a “seeing from afar.” To truly enter the “land,” we must discover what is beyond the ox-self. Alei rosh – elevate the head – recognize that beneath all the content, you are simple awareness, totally transcendent of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
How do you do that?
V’sa einekha – raise up your eyes – “see” whatever is arising in your awareness, right now; be the transcendent space within which this moment unfolds. In this way, prayer leads to silence, and you can make that shift from being the “ox” to being the “field” – the vast field of silent Presence, beneath the thoughts, beneath the words.
A rabbi once asked Menachem Mendel of Vorki, “Where did you learn the art of silence?” Menachem Mendel was about to respond, but then he changed his mind and said nothing...
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A Little Less Salt – Parshat Ve'etkhanan
7/26/2018 0 Comments
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.
No More "Rather-ing"! Parshat Va'etkhanan
8/7/2017 6 Comments
“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
8/17/2016 4 Comments
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.
What Prayer is Answered Instantaneously?
8/16/2016 4 Comments
This week’s reading begins:
“Va’etkhanan el Hashem- I implored Hashem at that time saying: You have begun to reveal Your Greatness…”
The word for “I implored” is ethanan- from the word hein, which means “grace.” To “implore” is to beg for grace.
What "grace" is being prayed for? The revelation of God's "Greatness." But this "Greatness" is not something separate from you; it's the revelation of your own being. It is "great" in the sense that it is far more spacious than anything within your experience; it's the space within which all experience arises- the space of awareness itself.
In Pirkei Avot 3:18, Rabbi Akiva says:
“Haviv Adam shenivra v’tzelm- Beloved are human beings, for they are created in the Divine Image…”
The Divine, or Reality, expresses Its Greatness as your own awareness. Rabbi Akiva calls us “beloved” because of this gift- the gift of our Divine Greatness.
Then he says,
“Hibah yeteirah noda’at lo shenivra v’tzelem- It is indicative of an even greater love that our Divine Image is made known to us…”
In other words, though our Divine Greatness is a wonderful gift, it doesn’t do us much good unless it’s made known to us, unless we experience the Infinite directly. To experience your Divine Greatness is the greatest gift, the Supreme Grace, because it’s the revelation of your own being, something that can never be taken away.
But your Divine Greatness is not really hidden; it’s just that your awareness is always looking at everything except Itself, so it can be difficult to notice. But if you ask for grace, if you implore God to reveal your Divine Greatness to you, the prayer itself helps you open to the truth of this moment. Then, your prayer is answered- instantaneously.
Try it- “Oh Hashem, please reveal to me my own Divine Greatness, the place in me that is free, spacious, that allows everything to be as it is...”
Then, notice- this moment is complete- sensation, feeling, thought- all arising in the space of this moment, which is awareness itself, free and open, complete and miraculous, the Divine Greatness...
I have a memory of being very young, maybe three or four, and my parents (probably mistakenly) took me to some kind of vacation resort. We were by the pool, and I saw someone running. I had heard that running wasn’t allowed, so I went up to the lifeguard in his tall chair and yelled up to him: “Is it true that there’s no running allowed around the pool?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Okay,” I answered, and proceeded to dart off past him. In an instant, he tossed his whistle up in the air, caught it in his mouth, and emitted a piercing whistle blast that caught me in my tracks. I froze. “Don’t you run,” he said. I had been thinking about the other person I saw running, and my brain hadn’t applied the rule to myself.
How similar it is with remembering not to “run” away with our own thoughts and feelings…
It’s relatively easy to see when someone else is trapped by their thoughts and feelings. We see someone being defensive, angry, or complaining, or blaming, and it’s easy to diagnose. But when we become annoyed with that person for getting caught, how easy it is to get caught ourselves; we resist the resistance of others, and can’t see that we ourselves are resisting.
While it would certainly be desirable for everyone to wake up from the dream of ego, we can only ever wake up ourselves. Yes, there is a synergy between people; awakening begets more awakening, and unconsciousness begets more unconsciousness. But at the end of the day, the choice to awaken – meaning, the choice to receive and accept this moment as it is – is an essentially individual matter; you can only do it for yourself, right now.
So, in the moment that we perceive the ego of someone else and forget to be aware of our own, we must remember: there is only one time to be awake, and that time is always now. This can be difficult because now is constant; we tend to be unconscious of things that are constant, like our breathing, for example.
But how can we constantly remember?
The key is to use that which is not constant to remind us of the constant, to use time and change to stay awake to the Changeless and the Timeless.
וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה
Be careful with a light mitzvah as with a grave one…
-Pirkei Avot, 2:1
There are lesser and greater mitzvot; obviously, the mitzvah to light a Shabbat candle is not as great as the mitzvah of not murdering someone, for example. And, yet, this mishna is saying we should be just as careful with the lesser ones as with the greater ones. How can this be? If we should be just as careful with the lesser ones as with greater ones, doesn’t that destroy the whole idea that are lesser ones and greater ones?
The word for “careful” is zahir, which can also mean “watchful” or “attentive.” Understood this way, it is not saying that it is just as important to observe the lesser mitzvot as the greater ones; it’s saying that no matter what mitzvah you are doing, you should be just as zahir – you should be just as attentive, just as present. And furthermore, it is our awareness of the very fact that not all mitzvot are equal that reminds us: even though the mitzvot are not all equal, we can bring equal presence to them all.
And, as different as the various mitzvot are, even more varied are our moments in life; you cannot compare a moment of childbirth or a moment of death to a moment of putting toothpaste on your toothbrush. And yet, the message is: hevei zahir – be present in all moments, great and small. And, use your awareness of the great and small to remind you: the moment to be zahir is always this moment.
לֹֽא־תַכִּ֨ירוּ פָנִ֜ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט כַּקָּטֹ֤ן כַּגָּדֹל֙ תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן
Don’t show favoritism in judgment; like the lesser as the greater, you shall listen.
In this verse from the Parshat Devarim, Moses is telling the Israelites how the judges should behave: they shouldn’t show favoritism, but they should judge fairly, not giving preference to either the poor and powerless or to the great and powerful.
But on a metaphorical level, kakaton kagadol – regardless of whether the moment is mundane and insignificant or crucially important, tishma’un – listen! Be fully present.
Because in being fully present, you are being what you truly are, beneath and beyond the small, partial self that is constructed of thoughts and feelings, the self that judges lesser and greater, the self that prefers this over that. At the core of your being and beyond the border of all that you perceive, you are presence, vast and unconditionally free. And even more, that presence is truly the One Presence, the One Reality present in all things, awake right now through your own senses, ever creating and perceiving Itself, That from which all arises to Which all will return.
When Rabbi Yitzhak Mer of Ger was a boy, someone said to him: “My boy, I will give you a gulden if you can tell me where God lives.”
The boy replied, “I will give you two gulden if you can tell me where He doesn’t!”
More on Parshat Devarim...
The Waiting Room– Parshat Devarim
7/18/2018 0 Comments
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...
The Great River- Parshat Devarim
8/10/2016 6 Comments
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.
Free Guided Meditation Here.