This past Sunday, my son and I drove up from Tucson to the Bay Area – about twelve hours of driving. Toward the end of the journey, it was getting late – I wasn’t sure if I could make it. It was around 12:00 am, and I wanted to push through. But the next thing I knew, the 75-mph traffic began getting slower and slower, eventually came to a complete stop before resuming at a barely moving pace.
After nearly an hour we came to the reason – workers were repairing the road. Of course, like all things, the road wears out; the pavement chips, breaks, and becomes dangerous. Like everything, it needs to be repaired.
And so it is with us as well.
It’s inconvenient to the pace that we’re accustomed to; we have deadlines, we have places to go. Oh the places we want to go! Our consciousness becomes accustomed to pointing toward the future; our thoughts and feelings tend to be directed at where we are going. This is natural and necessary to a degree, but if we are always barreling forward at 75 mph, we miss out on the actual nature of our consciousness; we miss out on the depths of who we are, beneath all those directional thoughts and feelings. We may sometimes have a temporary sense of “arrival,” but then it’s back to moving again, back to the next imagined end-point.
One problem with this is that over time, the road breaks down! Meaning, the movement of life leaves us injured and scarred. This too is fine and natural – but we need to slow down regularly, and even come to a complete standstill, so that the “workers” can make the tikun in our souls and bring us back to the Wholeness that we are, beneath all experience.
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם
You stand today, all of you, before Existence, your Divinity…
Atem nitzavim hayom – You stand today – that is, come to a “standstill,” today – meaning, in the present…
Kulkhem – all of you – that is, with your whole being; it’s not about merely sitting and be still physically. “All of you” means bring thought itself to a standstill…
Lifnei Hashem Eloheikhem – before Existence, your Divinity – that is, become aware of the underlying Being-ness before you, and know that it is not separate from the Divine consciousness that you are…
This Rosh Hashanah, may we renew our commitment to our avodah, to being nitzavim and coming to a “standstill” hayom – today and everyday. Let us make space for the Divine healer inherent within our own Being-ness to repair the “pavement” of our nervous systems, so that we can experience and embody the Wholeness that are beneath it all– amein.
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Listen and Reveal – Parshat Nitzavim
9/6/2018 1 Comment
This week’s reading is Parshat Nitzavim, which means “standing.” It begins with Moses telling the Children of Israel about all the blessings that will come from following the right path, as well as the curses that will come from following the wrong path, and that in fact they will follow both right and wrong paths. But eventually, after all these ups and downs, this beautiful line describes what will happen next:
וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹלֹ֔ו
You will return to Existence, which is not separate from your own inner Divinity, and you will begin to listen to Its Voice…
This prediction applies to each one of us; we can ask ourselves right now: Ad matai? How long will I remain preoccupied with the dramas of life with all its ups and downs, before I Return?
Behind all spiritual practices lies this one simple move– return to Reality, return to this moment. If you want to be free, if you want to realize your nature as wholeness, as peace, as joy, then be as the nitzavim – take your stand in your actual experience as it is, right now, being the space of awareness within which life unfolds. Be Present.
But if it’s so simple, why doesn’t everyone realize this right away?
Because the vast and infinitely superior reward that comes from Return to Presence is not always readily apparent. For many people, a whole lot of suffering has to come first before one is really motivated to find another way. Before that, Presence is meaningless.
So the real question is, have you suffered enough yet? How long until you Return?
And that’s where faith comes in. Return now; listen to the Voice of Reality as it speaks in this moment, and you may not feel anything special. Awakening comes when it comes, as an act of Grace. That’s why it says a few verses later:
וּמָ֨ל יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖
And Existence, which is your own inner Divinity, will circumcise your heart…
We don’t “circumcise” our own hearts; the dropping away of all separation and the realization of peace and wholeness as your own nature comes to us by Grace. But we canprepare ourselves for it, we can open ourselves to it. And that’s what Teshuvah, Return to Presence, is all about. But if you need a dramatic experience to convince you, you might give up before your practice bears fruit.
So please, have faith and keep at it!
A disciple of Reb Mordechai of Lekhovitz had a business partner who was a mitnagid, an opponent of the Hassidic way. The disciple kept urging his partner to come see his master, Reb Mordechai, but his partner obstinately refused again and again. One day, when they happened to be in Lekhovitz on business, the partner allowed himself to be persuaded and agreed to go to the rebbe’s house for a Shabbat meal.
During the meal, the disciple saw his partner’s face light up with joy. When he asked him about it later, his partner said, “When the rebbe ate, he looked as holy and radiant as theKohen Gadol – the High Priest – must have looked, making offerings in the ancient Temple!”
Later, the disciple went to his master, troubled in spirit, and asked his rebbe why his friend who hated the hasidim had such a wonderful experience on the first encounter, while he had not.
The master replied, “The mitnagid must see, but the hasid must have faith!
May we have the strength and faith to keep at our teshuvah, to return more deeply and frequently to Presence, and may this year bring new and unique opportunities to craft the vessels of our lives into conduits for the Divine Grace that yearns to get our attention.Amein, Good Shabbos!
Can't Stand It? Parshat Nitzavim
9/28/2016 6 Comments
What happens when you can't stand something?
Ordinarily, there is a sense of "me" and the thing or person you "can't stand." Reality is split in two, and there is tension, contraction, stress.
How do you rise above this tension?
The Parshah begins:
"Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem...
"You all stand together today... from your hewer of wood to your carrier of water... to pass into the covenant...״
What is a covenant?
A covenant is a special, intentional connection between two beings- a coming together of two, rather than a separation and tension.
How do you connect with the Divine?
Nitzavim Hayom- Stand today- meaning, take your stand in this moment.
When you "stand" your head is raised up- meaning, you can see all that is below- your body, your feelings, your thoughts. Use your head to be aware of yourself in this moment, rather than spinning off into judgments, fantasies, and opinions about what you can't stand! Instead, take your stand in this moment.
From your hewer of wood to your carrier of water-
It doesn't matter what your identity is, what roles you play, what your opinions are. On the level of awareness, we are all the same transcendent presence.
Then it says:
"L'ma'an hakim ot'kha hayom-
"In order to establish you today..."
That is, establish yourself in the present moment! Make Presence a way of living, not merely a technique or occasional practice.
When your presence burns brightly like the sun, far above your opinions and yet intimately aware of them, then the One Being looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere. Then there is no longer "you" connecting with "God," but there is simply Being, shining forth from everything. From that state, the love and wisdom to make peace and "stand with others" becomes available...
Watch Me Ney Ney?? Parshat Nitzavim
9/9/2015 8 Comments
Last week I took my 3-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy out for dinner, along with my son’s nine-year-old friend.
As we sat in the vegan Japanese restaurant waiting for noodle soups and avocado rolls, the friend was singing some popular song, trying to get my daughter to sing along and do the dance moves that apparently went with it.
“Watch me whip! Watch me ney-ney!” he sang, showing her how to wave her arm in a certain way that I assume is from a video he saw.
I had never heard the song before, and something about the way he was doing the arm wave and singing “watch me ney-ney” seemed a little off to me. I don’t want to say it sounded obscene, but not knowing what “ney-ney” meant, I was suspicious. Was this appropriate for a three year old?
I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I told him to please stop.
The next day, I went to pick up my daughter from her Jewish preschool. When I got there, all the kids were being led in a dance by their teacher.
What was the dance?
“Watch me whip! Watch me ney-ney!”
The song blasted from the stereo and all the kids were doing the moves. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently her teacher thought the song was perfect for preschoolers!
Later on, I told my wife the story and we laughed so hard. The next day, she told the whole story to the teacher, who also laughed and said, “Yeah I thought the song was a little strange too, but I learned it from the Rebbetzen- the rabbi’s wife!”
Our narratives about reality are not the same as actual reality. Was the song appropriate or inappropriate? We had different narratives about it, but I still have no idea what "nay nay" means.
Similarly, we have all kinds of narratives about who we are and who other people are, but ultimately they are just stories, mental fabrications. The roles we play, the scripts we run, the functions we fulfill, are not what we actually are.
So what are we?
This week’s reading opens with Moses’ words to the Children of Israel:
“Atem nitzavim hayom-
You are standing today…”
He then goes on to describe all the different identities of the people who are “standing”: the heads of the tribes, the elders, the officers, the men, the women, the children and the stranger, ending with the sweepingly inclusive description-
“…meikhoteiv eitzekha ad sho’eiv meimekha-
From the hewer of your wood to the carrier of your water.”
In other words, all the different identities are standing together.
What does it mean to “stand today”?
It means to take your stand in the present. When you stand in the present- awake, still, and attentive- all of your identities and roles are temporarily suspended. When you stand in the present, you are pure potential, pure aliveness, a field of awareness encompassing a human form.
Why are they standing today?
It goes on to say,
“L’ovrekha bivrit Hashem Elohekha-
To cross over into the covenant of Being, which is your own Divinity…”
All identities, in the end, are just roles, just stories. It doesn’t matter if you are a hewer of wood or a carrier of water. When you simply stand, you stand as Being, as the Divine Being that you are.
I remember one time a visiting rabbi came to our shul and gave a talk for a Shabbat service. When he stood up to talk, he first stood in silence. He looked around the room, making eye contact with everyone. The silence was powerful, and lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.
Finally, he began to talk. His teaching was very good, but the truth is, it was nothing compared to his silence. When he stood in silence and connected with everyone in the room one by one, there was a shift. That ineffable quality of being- the quality that some call “Divine”- was palpable.
The roles we play, on the other hand, have the potential to divide us. Our roles can create competition. Our stories can become arguments over who is right, over who has the “truth”.
The solution? Stand together.
We need not get rid of our roles, but we do need to choose roles that express our basic oneness, our inner Divinity. But to do that, we need to be committed to it. That’s the brit, the covenant.
Commitment to transformation, to truly embody who you want to be, may seem difficult. But, as the Torah reminds us later in the same parshah,
“Ki karov eilekha hadavar me’od-
this matter is very near to you-
b’fikha uvilvavkha la’asoto-
in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
A shopkeeper once complained to Reb Moshe of Kobrin that his neighbor, who sold exactly the same goods as he did, always made a killing, while customers just passed on by his shop.
“I can promise big profits to you, too,” said the tzaddik, “but only on the condition that when you see your neighbor doing well, you must thank Hashem for his success. Something like this- Thank God for the rich livelihood of my neighbor!
"It may be difficult to say this wholeheartedly at the beginning, but as you train your mouth to say the words, in time they will find their way into your heart as well- until in fact you will be saying them with all your heart.
"For, in the verse- ‘in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it’- we first find ‘in your mouth’, and only after is it written ‘in your heart.’”
If you want your life to express your inner Divinity, rather than merely repeat old scripts and narratives, it’s important to consciously construct your narratives- don’t let them construct you!
Choose who you want to be, write it down and repeat it often.
And, to tap into the transformative power that makes this possible, you must go beyond all narrative, and stand in the silence of pure potential. That’s meditation.
As we come into Shabbat Nitzavim, the Sabbath of Standing, and then into the New Year beginning Sunday night, may we renew our connection with the Divinity of Being. May we “crown” Reality as “King” over all our mental narratives. May we know ever more deeply the sweetness and bliss of what we truly are, and the power and potential of what’s possible when we stand together.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu-
May you be inscribed for a good year-
And may you consciously inscribe yourself as an expression of your deepest potential!
Many common experiences are completely ineffable and inexplicable, yet we take their reality for granted because they are so common. Like the flavor of food, for example. Or music – can you explain the experience of listening to music? Can we even know what music is? Of course not – music is a mystery. Flavor is a mystery.
And yet, if someone says, “mmmmm” we understand they’re enjoying food, because we know that experience. If we see someone dancing to the rhythm, we know they are hearing the music. We can’t really explain it, but because we know the experience, we can recognize the outward signs of the experience in someone else.
כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֙שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה־אֶ֔רֶץ וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל לְאֻמִּ֑ים וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה׃
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Divine will shine, And Its Presence be seen over you.
(Isaiah 60:2, Haftora Ki Tavo)
What does this mean – that yizrakh Hashem – the Divine will shine and Its Presence will be seen? It sounds like a contradiction – if “darkness covers the earth,” how can the “Presence” be seen?
But that’s the point – you cannot “see” the Divine any more than you can “see” the flavor of food, or “smell” the sound of music. The dimension of the sacred is, nevertheless, not an uncommon experience; we know the outward signs of it, just like we recognize the savoring of food or dancing to music.
What are the outward signs?
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ – knowing one’s place
(Pirkei Avot, 6:6)
In Pirkei Avot, there is a list of qualities one needs to aquire wisdom, and among them is hamakir et m’komo – knowing one’s place. It may sound like a negative thing, like being passive and not speaking up for yourself. But the word for knowing, makir, also means “friend” – so the “knowing” is like the knowing of a friend; it’s a knowing of love, of relationship. The word for “one’s place” – m’komo – is a form of Makom, which is also a Divine Name. So, to be hamakir et m’komo means to “make friends” with the place you are actually in, right now, and thereby connect to the Divine Presence that shines beneath the surface of this moment.
When someone does this, we can recognize it – we sense an inner light, a friendly aliveness, a peaceful presence. We may not be able to conceptualize it or explain it – darkness shall cover the earth – but nevertheless there is recognition.
From this quality of making friends with the present moment, there naturally arises the next quality mentioned in the mishna:
וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקו – and being happy with one’s portion…
It is good to appreciate what you’ve got. But to be truly samayakh b’helko – happy with one’s portion – we must realize what we are on the deepest level:
וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה
And upon you the Divine will shine, And Its Presence be seen over you.
This Presence, this Light, is what we are – it is the awareness that befriends this moment and expresses Itself as radiance and peacefulness on the one who realizes.
But, even though we are this Light, it is easily concealed; we must make the effort to realize this Light by coming to this moment as a friend, by being hamakir et m’komo even with our own darkeness, with our own negativity. Because it is through presence with the negativity – with the fear, with the anger, with the resentments, with the irritability – that we can reclaim the consciousness that has temporarily taken a negative form and transmute it back into Light. When that happens, it can then be said:
ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּכְב֥וֹד יְהוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח
Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Divine has shone upon you!
(Isaiah 60:1, Haftora Ki Tavo)
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Only One Thing– Parshat Ki Tavo
8/29/2018 1 Comment
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once while he was absorbed in a mystical ecstasy, he heard a knock at the window. A drunken peasant stood outside and asked to be let in and given a bed for the night. For a moment, the tzaddik’s heart raged with anger and he thought to himself, “How can this drunk have the hutzbah to ask to be let into this house!”
But then he said silently in his heart, “And what business does he have to exist at all, when Existence is nothing but the Divine? But if Hashem gets along with this guy and allows him to exist in this world, who am I to reject him?” He opened the door at once and prepared a bed.
Everything that appears in our awareness is actually nothing but a form of awareness. So, when we resist something or someone who appears, we are really resisting our own being; we are creating an inner split, an experience of exile, of being not at home. But when we welcome whatever comes, whether it be a person, or a situation, or a feeling – it doesn’t matter – the hospitality we express toward that which appears allows us to be at home ourselves, in this moment.
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣וא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
It will be when you come into the land that Hashem, your Divinity gives to you as an inheritance and you take possession of it and dwell within it…
The fullness of this moment, along with these bodies we now inhabit, is like a nakhalah,an inheritance; it comes to us from the boundless past, as an unearned gift. From the infinite possibilities of what could be, here we are, now.
But the ordinary activity of the ego is to resist aspects of this moment, and thereby create a sense of dis-ease, of not being at home in our nakhalah. We’re like the Israelites wandering in the desert. But if we want to truly feel the peace of dwelling within our inheritance, we have to actively take possession of it, and that means actively welcoming whatever appears, while resting awareness within our bodies. In that active welcoming, we can come to the state of simply being (hayah) through “coming in” (ki tavo) to the “land” that is this moment (el ha’aretz).
This is both the goal and the path of awakening: to continuously dwell in the truth of this moment:
אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Akhat she’alti me’eit Hashem, otah avakeish, shivti b’veit Hashem kol y’mei hayay, lakhazot b’no’am Hashem, ul’vakeir b’heikhalo!
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine – this I seek – to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of the Divine and to meditate in Its Sanctuary!
Doing and Being: Parshat Ki Tavo
9/8/2017 1 Comment
Parshat Ki Tavo begins, “V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – It will be when you come into the land that the Divine gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, and to dwell within it…” It then goes on to talk about a special ritual of gratitude that involves putting the first fruit of your harvest into a basket, making a pilgrimage to the Temple, and offering the fruit in gratitude for having come out of slavery in Egypt, and into the the "land flowing with milk and honey."
On a simple level, this is a farmer’s gratitude ritual for the goodness of the land. But on a deeper level, V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – coming into the land means coming into the place you already are, coming into the full Presence of whatever is present. This is hinted at by V’hayah ki tavo – It will BE when you come in – meaning, coming in to the mode of Being. Our lives consist of both Doing and Being, but we tend to identify with the Doing mode. Doing means, constantly going out– constantly reaching toward a goal we imagine in the future. This is how we create and accomplish things, which is wonderful and necessary. But if it’s not balanced by the mode of Being, if there’s total identification with the mind and with Doing, then there’s no peace, there’s no contentment, there’s no coming in.
So, what’s the solution? V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz – come into this place that you are, by connecting your awareness with the Presence of the aretz- the earth on which we live, this body through which we live, and with whatever else happens to be present. The mind tends to lurch toward some imagined fruits in the future. Instead, bring your focus to the fruits that are already here, in the basket of this moment. Then you will be able to say as the ancient farmer said, “Vayotzieinu Hashem mimitzrayim – Hashem brought us out of Egypt – meaning, we are brought out of the contracted bundle of mind-identified ego through simply Being, because the Hebrew Name of God actually means, Being. V’samakhta v’khol hatov – and then you will rejoice with all the goodness that you are given, you and the strangers among you.
So on this Shabbat Ki Tavo – The Sabbath of Coming In, may we reel in our awareness from the tendrils of thought and time, into deeper connection with the earth, with the body, with our senses, with all the fruits that are just now ripe, giving thanks for this moment of Existence as it is –
Chosen to Choose- Parshat Ki Tavo
9/19/2016 2 Comments
As I was making coffee one morning, my almost ten year old son came into the kitchen and sat with me a bit. We started talking about the Sh’ma, the Jewish affirmation of Divine oneness. I asked him if he knew what was the first of the two blessings that come before the Sh’ma.
“Yotzer or uvorei hoshekh- Former of light and Creator of darkness- Oseh shalom uvorei et hakol- Maker of peace, Creator of All.”
I told him that these words actually come from the Bible, from the Book of Isaiah. There, Isaiah describes God with the same words- except for one difference.
At the end of the verse in Isaiah, it doesn’t say-
“… uvorei et haKol- Creator of All."
Rather, it says- “… uvorei et haRa- Creator of evil”!
Of course, “Creator of all” must include “evil” as well, since evil is part of the “all”, but the rabbis who composed this blessing must have thought Isaiah’s words were just a little too provocative, a little too dangerous.
After all, how could a “good God” create evil?
It’s the age-old theological dilemma (for those who go for theological dilemmas).
Still, they included this verse right before the Sh’ma to emphasize that God is not one side of a polarity. God is Oneness, and that Oneness includes everything.
I asked my son, “What do you think about Hashem creating evil?”
He said, “There might be evil, but we are not evil, Abba.”
And, I would add, sometimes it takes the experience of evil to realize your own inherent goodness. Sometimes it takes the experience of the “bad” to come to a true and simple humility, to a deep gratitude for the blessings that can otherwise go unnoticed.
This week’s reading, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude and joy that the Israelites are to perform when they come to dwell in the Promised Land:
“Ki tavo el ha’aretz-
"When you enter the 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, of having now received the gift of the land, and of now coming to offer its first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with "family" and “stranger” together.
There is a fruit that you are reaping right now-
That fruit is the fullness of this moment. This, now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
But what is your “First Fruit?"
It is your immediate relationship with this moment. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both joy and suffering. Your mind may comment with stories and judgments.
But before the stories, before the judgments, there is something more immediate. There is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When you descend deeply into yourself, when you return from the journeys of the mind into the reality of the present, it can dawn on you: you have the choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude.
This is not a denial of suffering. In fact, it is often thanks to our suffering that we are awakened to those things that truly matter, to the blessings we are constantly receiving but often take for granted.
And when you have the choice to relate to this moment with gratitude, is that not grace? It is your choice, but the fact you have become aware of that choice is a gift. It is as if God has chosen "rest Its Presence" in the place of your own awareness.
Is there any greater gift than that? Is that not the movement from slavery to freedom?
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 poverty, loss and illness… and they understood.
On this Shabbat Ki Tavo, the Sabbath of Entering, and in this month Elul, the month of Return- may we fully enter this place we are already in. May we re-turn evermore in gratitude for the blessing of this “fruit,” and for the suffering that has brought us to this gratitude. May we too rejoice with all who are strange, knowing everyone as expressions of the One...
The Basket- Parshat Ki Tavo
9/11/2014 3 Comments
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.
Is there a time when failure is actually success?
כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ
When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof, and you won’t bring blood upon your house when one falls from it…
The fact that the Torah talks about preventing a person from falling off the roof by building a protective barrier implies that, indeed, people must have fallen off rooves; it was probably the failure to anticipate this danger that led to the law of making a ma’akeh, or parapet.
Similarly, when we become aware of our own misdeeds in the past, we too can build some kind of ma’akeh, some kind of protective fence to prevent the same thing from happening again.
There are two main types of misdeeds: mistakes and temporary insanity. A mistake would be: you’re up on the roof and you’re goofing around, not paying attention, or maybe you just miscalculated your footsteps and you fall of the roof, God forbid. Temporary insanity would be: you’re up on the roof with someone, you get into a fight and push them off the roof, God forbid. You didn’t intend to hurt them; you just got angry and lost control.
The ma’akeh prevents both types of scenarios. Whether accidental or by temporary insanity, the parapet prevents a person from falling. There’s a hint in the wording of the pasuk: “one who falls” is yipol hanofel – literally, “will fall, the falling.” The repeating of the verb “fall” is an idiom of emphasis, but also hints that the ma’akeh can prevent both the accidental and the impulsive falling crisis.
Similarly, we too can take measures to prevent ourselves from repeating our misdeeds, whether they be accidental or impulsive. To do that, we need to see our lives clearly, contemplate, and create our own “parapets.” This is the transformative part of teshuvah, the main practice in this month of Elul, leading to the Days of Awe.
There is yet a third kind of misdeed, one that is far more difficult to prevent. This is the misdeed of habit, the misdeed that has become part of one’s personality and lifestyle – such as addiction, relationship dysfunction, abuse, and so on. The more emmeshed we become in the negative behavior, the less likely we are to change it. And yet, we absolutely can change it. This is the deepest and most transformative kind of teshuvah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once came upon a wealthy man in the street who was known to be abusive with his money and power. “Oh, I envy you sir!” said Levi Yitzhak. The rasha (evil person) looked proudly at Levi Yitzhak, thinking that the rabbi wished he too could have all that money and power. But then Levi Yitzhak continued, “I envy you, because when you finally return, when you finally do teshuvah, all your sins will be transformed into magnificent lights, and what a brilliant spectacle that will be! Oh sir, I envy you that brilliance!”
These three types of misdeeds – accidental, impulsive and intentional, are three main types of “sins” mentioned in the liturgy: het means “missing the mark,” as in shooting an arrow and missing the target. This is the accident. An aveira is crossing over a boundary impulsively; you accept that there is a boundary, but you become possessed by strong feelings and you violate it. Lastly, an avon is a misdeed that is not a mistake and is not impulsive; it has become part of how you operate. The avon cannot be prevented by any kind of ma’akeh; you can’t “trick yourself” out of this kind of misdeed. For the avon, you actually have to choose differently; you have to fully transform.
These three kinds of “sin” are different from each other, but for a person who wants to become free from them, a single ingredient is needed.
Whether we are merely setting a boundary to prevent mistakes and impulsivity, or we are seeking to overcome a deeply ingrained behavior, the root of all transformation on any level is the application of awareness. The outer teshuvah of returning to intentional action is rooted in the inner teshuvah of bringing our awareness out from its compulsive preoccupation with thought (which ordinarily reinforces our patterns), and into our actual present experience, into our senses, into our bodies. In doing so, acceptance and forgiveness of the past is natural and spontaneous, as the pain we cause ourselves by holding on to the past becomes blatantly obvious. And not only that, but the more we bring our attention to this moment, the more we can see that we are the awareness of this moment. We are openness, we are free, and we are in no way trapped by the past or by habit. In Presence, the power to choose reveals itself.
Whenever I travel (and I travel a lot), I am always amazed that I can draw together the clothing, toiletries, books, computer equipment, etc., and pack them all into a single suitcase. It actually seems miraculous to me, that all the disparate items can come together into a single whole.
But miraculous as that is, it is nothing compared to the miracle of Presence: that through the simple shift of opening to the immediacy of actual experience, all the disparate chaos comes together in the “suitcase” of the present moment; in Presence, there is no longer “me” and “that” – there is only the fullness of the what is, in all its richness, arising and falling away in the one field of awareness that we are.
בְּרֶ֥גַע קָטֹ֖ן עֲזַבְתִּ֑יךְ וּבְרַחֲמִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים אֲקַבְּצֵֽךְ
For a tiny moment I forsook you, but with a vast compassion I will gather you together…-- Isaiah 54:7
When we “gather together” our awareness into the fullness of the present, there is paradoxically a vastness and a benevolence – a rakhamim gedolim that is our own nature, revealing all past misdeeds for what they really are: tiny moments of forgetfulness arising and disappearing into the vastness of Being…
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The Price for Freedom – Parshat Ki Teitzei
8/21/2018 0 Comments
There’s a story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, that once he travelled through many villages trying to collect funds so that he could liberate the poor Jews who were incarcerated in the Ukrainian debtor’s prison. Day after day, he went from door to door pleading the case of those poor souls rotting away in the dungeon, but no one would contribute anything.
After weeks of failure, feeling dejected and frustrated, he gave up and set out to return home, regretting having wasted all that time he could have spent learning and praying. But just as he approached his house, a woman ran up to him in a panic:
“Rabbi, my husband was caught stealing a piece of clothing and was viciously beaten by the police and thrown in jail!”
Without hesitation, the rabbi turned around and went to intercede with the judge. After much effort, he was able to get the prisoner released. When he went to fetch the prisoner from jail, he sternly warned him: “Remember the beating they gave you and don’t ever do anything like that again!”
“Why not?” replied the thief, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”
Upon hearing his words, the rabbi resolved to return to his task of raising money to ransom prisoners, and eventually was highly successful in liberating many.
There is a debt to be paid for our spiritual freedom as well.
We too must not give up “raising the funds,” moving from one situation to the next, bringing our consciousness fully to each moment, to each feeling, to each reaction, to each thought. Again and again – we might get caught, absorbed and coopted by whatever is arising in our experience, but don’t give up! The real danger is never failure. The real danger is allowing our failures to develop into the belief that freedom is impossible. The phenomena of our experience have a certain gravity; they tend to draw us in, to capture us.
But if you don’t give up, if you keep at it, you will eventually capture their captivating power. After all, you are far more vast than any impulse, than any experience. You are the open space within which the experience unfolds.
But how can you access this truth? This week’s reading begins:
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
When you go to battle your enemies, Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand, and you capture their captivity…
Life is, in a sense, like a battle ground. If you want spiritual freedom, you have to be one pointed and relentless, like a warrior.
And yet, וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ – Hashem your Divinity gives them into your hand – the victory is a gift placed in your hands by the Divine; it is not something you win through effort. So, there’s this paradox – on one hand, you’ve got to have unshakable will, and on the other, total surrender. In fact, there’s no contradiction, because the unconscious impulse is to struggle, to fight with Reality. The impulse to fight is oyevekha– your enemies– and to conquer that kind of enemy requires surrender to the “is-ness” of this moment.
אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אֹותָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲזֹ֥ות בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֹֽו
Only One Thing I ask of the Divine, this I seek: to dwell in the House of the Divine all the days of my life and meditate in Its Sanctuary…
These words from Psalm 27 are an invocation for this Kavanah, this heart direction, for the inner freedom that must be ransomed through the consciousness-funds collected in every moment, every situation, every feeling, every thought: Above every goal, above every desire, there must be Only One Thing.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה
Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v’ya’ameitz libekha, v’kaveh el Hashem –
Hope to the Divine, be strong and your heart will be courageous, hope to the Divine!
In this time of Elul, let us remember and practice ever more deeply this one-pointed surrender… Good Shabbos!
Effortless Battle: Parshat Ki Teitzei
8/31/2017 2 Comments
On the surface, this parshah begins by talking about laws of battle. But on a deeper level, what are your enemies? They’re the intense experiences that we tend to get caught in. You get angry, and you project the blame on something out there, struggling, maybe yelling, or judging, all of which are all about trying to force reality into conforming to your will, or maybe punishing it for not conforming. Or, you have a wonderful experience, and you get disappointed or even depressed when it’s over, because you’re psychologically clinging to the past.
But this verse is saying, untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – and Hashem puts them in your hands. In other words, you can have victory over your enemies, but it doesn’t come through fighting or struggling. Your victory is put right in your hand, if you open your hand. Meaning, don’t struggle with your experiences. Fully let them be as they are, without clinging to good things or blaming anyone for bad things, and then let them go when they want to go. It’s really effortless, because it’s not about controlling things, but about relaxing the impulse to control things. That’s why it says, shavita shivyo – you capture their captivity. Meaning, our experiences are constantly trying to capture us, to draw us in to their dream and sometimes nightmare, but if you remember: simply be with this moment as it is, and let it go when it goes, then you easily “capture its captivity” – you can control your impulse to control, and be victorious over your own mind.
This is also totally relevant in dealing with other people that may be possessed by collective ego, such as what we are seeing today with neo-nazis and so on. When you see others that are hateful or angry or demeaning, and you get dragged into their drama, judging and hating them back, you only reinforce the context that creates people like that. So even as you stand up for justice, even as you say "no" to ideologies of hate and the people who promote them, remember that you have a tremendous power to make a difference in the world on a very deep level if you can stay conscious and not get dragged into the drama. Because ultimately, it’s only when there’s a profound change in consciousness, only when enough people learn to see through their own egos, only then will the plug get pulled on the destructive forms of collective ego that we see today.
And to help make that change in consciousness, there’s ultimately only one way, and that’s to see through your own ego. You’re never going to get someone else to see through their ego by judging and yelling at them, right? You can only see through your own, and in so doing, create a ripple of awakening that will join with other ripples of awakening, until enough people wake up. It doesn’t have to be everyone, it just has to be enough to tip the balance.
So on this Shabbat Ki Teitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, let’s remember that to engage the enemy of resistance, of ego, don’t “go out” into battle, because that only creates more ego, more resistance. Instead, know that untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Victory is being put right in your hand, if only you open your hand, if you open yourself to the experience of this moment. Then you can "go out" and do battle, but it's not a battle of resistance and struggle, it's a battle of overcoming darkness with light, of overcoming resistance with love. Good Shabbos!
The Security of Anger- Parshat Ki Teitzei
9/12/2016 6 Comments
Once I was in the Oakland Airport with my family. 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 was a wonderful description of Presence.
To “wander outside the heart” means to lose connection with this moment 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 were to miss his flight and his plans would be disrupted, what is really creating his suffering, and hence the suffering of those around him?
Nothing but his mind!
The mind creates 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…”
Of course, the thought of performing those rituals to sanctify his "mitzvah" made him realize his own unconsciousness. Embarrassed, he left the rebbe's presence.
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 to remember, even as life circumstance and reactive forces try to pull us into the battlefield!
שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם׃
Hear, O Israel! You are near, today, to battle against your enemies. Don’t let your heart be distant; don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and don’t be broken before them.
When we bring our awareness into connection with our actual experience in the present moment, there can be a dropping of our ordinary preoccupation with thought and emotion, and the spacious quality of awareness itself appears.
Sh’ma – listen/become aware, Israel!
This verse begins like the other, better known verse – Sh’ma Yisrael – listen – be aware, Israel!
אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם
You are close, today
This word for “close,” k’reivim, can mean “near,” “intimate.” Hayom – “today” – of course means Now. It is saying: become aware – come close to this moment…
To battle against your enemies…
When we experience emotional pain, the tendency is to recoil, to contract, to project blame upon something we imagine to be the source of our pain. The imagined source – a person, a situation, whatever – seems to be our enemy, and we unconsciously oppose it. But here it reminds us, come close to that urge to battle against your enemies. Notice this unconscious impulse; be the awareness behind the impulse.
Don’t let your heart falter…
The word for “falter” – yeirakh – is similar to the word for “hip” – the place where Jacob was struck by the Divine being, after which he limped – hence the connection with “falter.” But the hip is also a euphemism for the reproductive organs, the part of the body that is usually hidden. So, al yeirakh levavkhem can mean, “don’t hide your heart.” Together, it means: don’t cripple your heart by contracting! Don’t split yourself in two –whatever disturbing experience arises is literally made out of your own awareness – be present to it and don’t be ruled by it:
Don’t be afraid, and don’t panic!
Don’t fear your own fear – bring your awareness into the fear. Relax and don’t panic – don’t buy into the drama, simply feel whatever is there to be felt.
And don’t be broken before them!
This sums up the entire teaching: don’t divide yourself by imagining there is something in your experience that is separate from you; everything you perceive arises in your own awareness. Furthermore, this awareness that you are is actually far beyond you – it is the awareness of Reality Itself, incarnating as you; it is the Divine, seeing through your eyes.
This is hinted at by the construction of each of these phrases: al yeirakh, al tir’u, al takh’p’zu, v’al ta’artzu – don’t don’t don’t!
The word for “don’t” – al – also means both “to” (el) and “God” (El). The hint is that when we dissolve our fear by bringing our awareness to (el) the fear, that awareness is actually God’s awareness (El). The Divine Light is ever-present as our own consciousness. When strong emotions threaten to pull us into smallness, into contractedness, our deliberate presence with the emotions actually harnesses their energy for deeper awakening from their drama.
יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א
The Divine is my Light and my Salvation, who shall I fear?
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Across the River – Parshat Shoftim
8/14/2018 0 Comments
Once there was a rabbi who decided to start a yeshivah, a school for Jewish learning. He wanted it to be refuge from the world where young men could grow spiritually, so he built it away from civilization, on the bank of a beautiful river.
Many people came to learn. But after a few months, he noticed some commotion on the other side of the river. Many cars were coming and going, and people seemed to be partying and having a good time.
When he investigated, he found that that a courtesan had opened a bar and brothel. Lots of rich men came in big cars and carried on all night. He started thinking to himself, “Oy! That’s just what I need! My boys will be tempted away!”
Then he became angry: “Why is she wasting her life like that, and leading so many people to sin? She really shouldn’t be doing that!”
Meanwhile, it happened that the courtesan looked across the river and saw the littleyeshivah. “I don’t know why I’m leading such a dirty life like this. Look at those holy people! They must be so happy and spiritual, so connected to the Divine, I wish I could be like that!”
The two of them contemplated like this for many months, each fixating on the other, when one day they suddenly both died. Angels came to accompany the spirit of the woman to paradise. But a hoard of ugly demonic spirits came for the rav.
“Hey, what going on? You must have gotten your addresses mixed up!”
“No mistake,” replied the demons, “We’ve come to take you to she’ol.”
“But what have I done wrong? I sit and learn and pray and fast and meditate all day, and help these boys to do the same!” he argued.
“Yes,” said the demons, “you do all the right things physically, but in your mind, you’ve been doing nothing but contemplating how ugly, unholy a life that woman is living, and so that’s the future you have created for yourself– we have come to the right place!”
To live an awakened life doesn’t mean to merely do external practices. It means: totally accept what comes to you with love, even and especially when it’s not what you want, but then also you must actively create what you do want, and you do that first of all on the level of thought. In Pirkei Avot 2:1, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says:
אֵיזוֹ הִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
What is the straight path a person should choose for oneself?
Kol shehi tiferet l’oseha – everything that is good to do for oneself, v’tiferet lo min ha’adam – and that will be appreciated by others.”
In other words, take responsibility to create the life you want, and share that goodness with others.
But so often, we unconsciously do just the opposite– we begrudge what comes to us, blaming others or blaming the world for our perceived misfortune, and then we don’t take the steps we can take to create something better. And, we can often do this without even knowing it, if we’re not aware of our own minds. Like the story, we can seem to be doing the right thing externally, but in our minds, we can be creating the opposite. This week’s reading begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrin titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha –
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…
How do you guard the gates of your own mind, so that negativity doesn’t sprout and create a personal hell?
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְהוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד
Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid
I keep the Divine Name before me constantly…
Keep your mind vibrating with a sacred phrase, such as Atah Hu – You are the Divine,knowing that everything arising in your experience are all forms of the One Reality. Like the woman in the story, see the Divine everywhere, focus on the Divine in everything. Then the Divine will be your refuge from all potential danger that can sprout from your thoughts. As the psalm says:
אַתָּ֤ה ׀ סֵ֥תֶר לִי֮ מִצַּ֪ר תִּ֫צְּרֵ֥נִי רָנֵּ֥י פַלֵּ֑ט תְּסֹ֖ובְבֵ֣נִי סֶֽלָה
Atah seiter li, mitzar tizreini, ranei faleit t’soveveini, selah!
You are a shelter for me, from constriction you rescue me, with glad song of rescue you envelop me, selah!
Two Steps to Actualization: Parshat Shoftim
8/24/2017 1 Comment
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to "judge the judge" in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.
It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So, on this Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High and Holy days of up-leveling our relationship with life, may we all refocus our efforts on both of these crucial aspects of the Path – realizing and embodying, realizing and embodying, and may our suffering world please come closer to healing and transformation as well. Good Shabbos!
There Goes the Neighborhood- Parshat Shoftim
One time, 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 of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling 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 r-r-r-repetitive 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 were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t 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 your day, 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 curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
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 the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will 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, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness 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 seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”