Two disciples of the Hassidic Master known as the “Maggid of Mezritch” came to the Maggid with a question: “We are troubled by the teaching of our sages, that one must bless for the evil one experiences as well as the good (Mishna, Berachot, 9:5). How are we to understand this?” The Maggid replied, “Go to the beit midrash (house of study). There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.” So they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him. Zusha just laughed and said, “I think you’ve come to the wrong man. I have never experienced suffering in my life.” But the two knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of need and anguish. They understood.
When we hear a teaching like this, it can sound as though it is advocating that we play act. Suffering happens and we should pretend that it’s “all good”. We should put on a happy face. But the teaching is much deeper than that.
This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude that the Israelites should do when they dwell in the promised Land: “V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah- you shall take from the first fruits of the earth”. It goes on to describe how the celebrant should put the fruit in a basket and bring it to the place where the Divine “chooses” to “make the Holy Name rest”. The celebrant then makes a declaration of having come from slavery to freedom, the gift of the land, and of offering the first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with one’s family as well as the “stranger”.
This moment, right now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before. What is our “first fruit”? It is our primary relationship with this moment. The content of this moment may be complex; it may have both goodness and suffering. Nevertheless, it is our choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude. Without pretending away our problems, it is still our choice to give thanks for the gift of this “fruit”. In giving thanks, we also recognize that we are free, because we are not controlled by the “good” and the “bad”. We can remain open. And here is also the recognition that the Divine “rests” in this moment; in choosing to be present and give thanks for this, we receive this moment as G-d’s choice.
In this month of return, may we re-turn evermore into the space of freedom that is gratitude for this eternal presence of Being. Amein.
The Composer John Cage was a deeply spiritual man who sought to expand the notion of what music is. A friend of mine once saw him in a New York subway. He approached him and said, "excuse me Mr. Cage, is that music too?" referring to the loud noise of the roaring subway trains. John Cage smiled and nodded. John Cage knew that, although we have an intuitive sense of what music is and that our experience of music comes from what is commonly understood to be music, we can also choose to hear any sound as music, if we listen in a particular way.
It is the same for our experience of the Divine. There are certain kinds of experiences which trigger a recognition of a spiritual reality- perhaps a synchronistic coincidence, the beauty of nature, an experience of someone's great compassion or a recognition of blessing and gratitude. But it is also possible, through simply making the decision to open Reality as it appears in this moment, to receive everything as G-d. In making this leap, there is the recognition that there is only one moment, only one Reality, only one experience, and This is It. But to do this you have to connect deeply with the experience of this moment; you have to become present. And to become present means to be connected to your own being, on the inside.
Last week's parshah, Ki Teitze, opens, "Ki teitze lamilkhama al oyevekha... when you go out to battle against your enemies...". To have enemies, to feel yourself as being in opposition to others, is to "go out" from yourself; to leave the connectedness with this moment, with Reality, with G-d, and become lost in the conceptualization of separate beings that oppose one another. What is the remedy? It then says, "Untano Hashem Elohekh b'yadekha, v'shavita shivyo- and the Divine will place them in your hand and you will capture their captivity"- meaning, if you recognize that everything is ultimately HaShem, then your enemies are "in your hand". They cannot control you, because you are not feeding the drama of separateness. Instead of being "captured" by the narrative of having enemies, you "capture the captivity". You stop playing the game of being a victim.
This is not to say that there are not real enemies to be dealt with on a practical level. It is only to say that you don't need to carry that paradigm of having enemies around with you. You can live either in the hell of time or the heaven of this moment; either in the image of reality held in the mind and imagination, or in actual Reality, in and as G-d. It is your choice, now.
May this Elul be a haven of return to the timeless; may we remember that ultimately there is "only one thing" we "ask of Hashem"- to dwell in G-d's "house". May we remember to "kaveh el Hashem"- put our attention on the Beingness of the Ever-Present.