Imagine you lived in a place where the sky was constantly overcast, so that the sun was hardly ever visible. From your point of view, it would look like the dim light of the overcast sky was coming from the clouds themselves. If you were a small child and had never heard of the sun, that’s what you would probably assume.
Now, imagine you are that child – you have no knowledge of the sun, and your parents take you for a trip on an airplane. As the plane gets higher and higher, you look out the window, and you see nothing but cloud all around. Soon after, the plane bursts through the cloud cover and you see the blazing sun and the blue sky for the first time. Imagine what a revelation that would be!
That’s what spiritual awakening is like.
For most of us, the sky has been covered with clouds our whole lives. Meaning, our minds are constantly moving with the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings. Without ever questioning, we assume that our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings are identical. Because of this, we also don’t tend to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings we have about reality, and actual Reality. All we know are the clouds; we experience the present moment through the lens of our stories, through our sense of past and future.
How to awaken from the seductive dream of our minds and hearts and come to the truth of this moment?
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜ום וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ
He encountered The Place and spent the night there, for the sun had set…
In this week’s reading, Jacob is running from his murderous brother. The sun had set – meaning, he was in a state of inner darkness. He was running and running, until he “encounters The Place” – he sets stones for his head and lays down on the earth. In other words, he connects with the physicality of his present experience.
Then, after a dream in which the Divine appears to him and he sees a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven with angels going up and down, it says:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתֹו֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
Jacob awakened from his sleep and said, “Surely the Divine is in this Place and I didn’t even know it!”
The Divine is not something separate from the truth of this moment – it is the radiant sun of consciousness, ever-present as the perceiving Presence that you are.
But, there are clouds!
The way to “rise of above the clouds,” so to speak, is paradoxically to connect with the earth. That’s because when we become conscious of our physical sensations, the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings can clear up naturally, revealing the radiant awareness beneath them. This is expressed in the next verse:
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this Place – it is none but the House of the Divine, and this is the gate of heaven!”
In fact, the word for “The Place” is HaMakom, which is Itself a Divine Name.
So, if you want to rise above the dark clouds of this world, the way up is actually the way down. Come down from your mind, into your body and into connection with the earth, to HaMakom, because This, Here-Now, is the gateway of heaven…
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More On Parshat Vayeitzei...
Be Still- Parshat Vayeitzei
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob running away from his brother Esau, who wants to murder him. It says,
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran, and he encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange phrase- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God HaMakom, The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where the Divine can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. In other words, between the past and the future. So, where is this special Place between your past and your future in which we can encounter the Divine? That Place, of course, is always where we already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. So, past and future are important, but when they become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment. And when that feeling of being disconnected dominates your life, and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. His origin and his goal became so heavy, that for an instant he was able to pop out of the story and see the moment.
So, before Jacob encounters the Present, he’s just running. But now that Jacob is beginning to despair, he is letting go of his story in time; he is giving up hope. And in this “giving up,” he begins to notice the place he is in. He brings his mind all the way down to the stones, and becomes still.
So on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we go out from our automatic and unconscious responses to things, may we become still and connect with the Presence of this moment, so that we may say, “Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!” Good Shabbos!
The Flight- Parshat Vayeitzei
This past Monday I boarded the plane for Costa Rica to join my wife and children on our six-month excursion to Central America.
The trouble started the moment I tried to check in.
Due to a new baggage restriction that went into effect that very day, the woman at the ticket counter told me I was only allowed to check two bags. I had three.
After a scramble to repack everything right then and there, another woman came over and started whispering something to the first woman. The new woman nervously informed me that I also wasn’t allowed my two carry-on bags. I could only have one carry-on, plus a small item such as a purse or tiny backpack.
Repack again. Text my friend who dropped me off, run out to curb with a bunch of stuff I expelled from my suitcases, dump it in the trunk. Finish checking bags, get to gate just in time to board. Not in a good mood.
Sitting between two people. One continuously rubs his arm against mine for hours as he types at his tablet device. A thought occurs to me- what if they lose my luggage? Airlines have misplaced my suitcases on multiple occasions, and once, a suitcase of mine was even lost for good. And I don't even like hot humid weather!
Suddenly, as these thoughts are occurring to me, the plane starts lurching violently. The captain asks the flight attendants to have a seat. It feels like the plane keeps hitting huge potholes in the sky. The guy next to me gasps as his tablet device literally flies up into the air. I feel myself thrown upward as well, but I’m held in place by the seatbelt.
After a few minutes of this, another thought occurs to me- I didn’t have time to finish davening that morning! Without hesitation I reach for my siddur and start the morning prayers:
Barukh she’amar v’ahyah ha’olam-
Blessed is the One who speaks the universe into being…
Now I tell you the truth- the turbulence stopped immediately within seconds after I started davening. Did the davening cause the turbulence to stop? Was this testimony to the power of prayer?
The mind loves this kind of question.
Some minds will jump in- “See, the power of prayer at work!” Others will be skeptical- “The turbulence would have stopped anyway, but because you started praying at that time, your mind makes a correlation where there was none…”
That’s the dualistic mind- it’s one or the other.
But there is a third way-
And that’s to see that all events are part of a single Reality, and that This One Reality is what we call God. God is the turbulence, God is the prayer, and God is the ending of the turbulence. It’s not three things- it’s not me stopping the turbulence with prayers; there’s only one continuous event, one Reality- God’s unfolding in time.
Seen that way, the prayers could even be taken right out of the equation. There was turbulence. It stopped. Is that not miracle enough?
I was thrown out of my seat. That reminded me to pray. Is that not miracle enough?
I’ll tell you this:
In the moment that the turbulence subsided as I chanted the prayers, that moment was all there was. The luggage tzures no longer mattered. What had happened at the ticket counter was in the past, and whatever was going to happen later at the San Jose airport was in the future. Only that moment was real.
In this week’s reading, Jacob has a similar experience:
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran. He encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange sentence- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where God can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. Between the past and the future, he encountered God.
Where is this special Place between your past and your future that you encounter God?
That Place, of course, is always where you already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. Past and future are important.
But when past and future become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment.
When disconnectedness dominates one’s life (God forbid), and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. He was running from his brother Esau whom he had tricked and cheated, and now Esau was trying to kill him. Jacob is in a dark place:
“Vayalen sham ki va hashemesh-
And he spent the night there because the sun had set”.
The setting of the sun is a symbol of his inner darkness- Jacob is in despair over his situation.
So what does he do?
“He took from the stones of The Place and put them for his head…”
What are the qualities of stones? They are dense. They are heavy. They don’t blow around, but are still.
A person’s head, on the other hand, is the place where thought happens. Thought is perhaps the least physical thing in our experience. Rather than being still, it constantly bubbles this way and that.
So bringing “stones” to his “head” hints at a radical shift in consciousness. He is bringing his mind all the way down to the stones and becoming still.
And then something startling happens:
“And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, and behold! Angels of God ascended and descended upon it.”
What's the meaning of this vision?
There's a tradition that everything has an angel, or spiritual force, causing it. According to this idea, everything we experience is determined in the “spiritual” realm, and we really have nothing to do with it.
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). In other words, everything that happens is predetermined, except our relationship to it. Other than that, we have no real power. Seen from this point of view, the angels descending the ladder would be the determining forces for what goes on in our world.
However, there’s another opposing idea that every deed a person does actually creates an angel. Do good, create good angels. Do bad, create bad angels. These created angels then go around producing good or bad effects in the world.
So in this view, what happens is not determined by the angels, but by the human beings creating the angels. In other words, everything is in our hands. This view is represented by the angles ascendingthe ladder.
But in Jacob’s vision, there are angels going up the ladder and down the ladder; he sees the paradox of both realities at once. Everything is determined by forces which are created by our actions, yet our actions are themselves determined by forces, which are themselves created by our actions, and so on ad infinitum.
So what's the meaning here?
The answer is in HaMakom- this place we have now come to.
Because in order to access the Divinity of this moment, you have to surrender your preoccupation with the way things “come out”- you have to give up control.
This is the meaning of the angels coming down- everything is in the “hands of heaven”.
At the same time, this supreme surrender actually frees you from your automatic responses to things. You are no longer a victim of your own preferences; you have choice. So next time you get annoyed with a loved one and you feel yourself going into your same old response, stop. Surrender. Access the power of transformation- the power that allows you to choose how to be.
This is the meaning of the angels going up- your choice to be in "awe of heaven"!
Then you will realize like Jacob did:
“Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!”
There is a mishna that sums it up well:
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no choice, so surrender your attempt to control anything.
But, in that surrender, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
Jacob’s newfound freedom is expressed a few verses later:
“Jacob lifted his feet and went…”
It is as if he is now flying, his feet in the air...
At the end of my flight, I had ample opportunity to practice surrender once again, when my two suitcases never arrived at baggage claim.
It took the airline three more days to locate them in Mexico, send them to Costa Rica and deliver them to The Place we’re now staying. And while this particular practice of surrender was powerful for me and apparently necessary, I am happy to be reunited with my sandals and my coffee paraphernalia (along with my beautiful wife and children). Barukh Hashem!
On this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from our stories in time to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. Let’s greet the Timeless One- the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Hei Ha'olamim- Life of the Worlds, uniting Her with Her Source through our own inner return to the Ayin- the Nothing from which everything springs- on this Holy Shabbos Kodesh.
Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,
"Touch the Earth"- Parshat Vayeitzei
Right now, as you read these words, how are you relating to this moment? Do you feel it to be a passage in time, a means to travel from your past toward your future? Do you feel that this moment is merely a stepping-stone from one moment to the next?
Or, instead, do you encounter this moment in and of itself? In other words- are you present, or are you hurrying through the present?
This parshah begins with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau and heading to Haran where he will get married and begin a family. The drama of the story portrays this scene purely as a transitional moment. And yet, at this time of hurrying from one place to another, from one stage of life to another, something remarkable happens: “Vayifga BaMakom- He encountered the place” (Gen. 28:11).
What does that mean?
The word for “encounter” (peh-gimel-ayin) means to “meet” or to “happen upon”, but it can also mean to “hit”, as in “hitting the bulls eye”. In other words, this seemingly insignificant moment becomes the “target”. Jacob has an encounter.
What does he encounter? He encounters the “place”. Not a particular thing or being, but the space in which things and beings appear. The word for “the place”- HaMakom- is also a Divine Name. So, when Jacob shifts his attention toward the space within which this moment unfolds, he encounters the Divine. Meaning, he encounters the Reality of the Space Itself, rather than his mental idea of the space as merely a temporal hallway between memory and anticipation.
How does he do it? He places stones around his head and lies down in the “place”. He brings that which is most ethereal and formless- mind and thought- to the most concrete and solid- stones of the earth. This practice of focusing on something physical brings the mind out of its constant stream of thinking, out of its ideas about what is going on, and into connection with what is really going on, right now. Awareness becomes presence by touching forms that are actually present.
Jacob then dreams of a ladder set on the earth, reaching toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it- “Jacob’s Ladder”. Hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin taught on this verse that the ladder itself is an instruction in presence. It teaches that when one’s feet are firmly rooted in the earth, one’s head can reach the heavens. Being “rooted in the earth” means that awareness is connected with the physical world, as it is. The “head reaching the heavens” means that, paradoxically, when awareness is totally connected to the physical, you can become aware of that which is aware; awareness becomes aware of awareness. As long as awareness is wrapped up in thinking, it dreams that it is the thinking. It dreams up the “me” that is defined by thinking. But when thinking subsides, there can be this realization: I am not this thought-based self. I am just this boundless, free, radiant awareness. The head has reached the heavens!
Jacob then awakens and exclaims: “Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh- The Divine is in this place- v’anokhi lo yadati- and I didn’t even know it!”
Here, the Torah gives us an excellent description of what “awakening” is all about- it gives us a "Torah of Awakening". In the dream state, the mind-generated self imagines the Divine to be elsewhere. It is something to be reached, achieved, hoped for, given up on, disillusioned about. But even within the dream there are clues. Just as Jacob understood the message of the ladder, so it is with everything in our lives: If we look carefully, it is possible to see: That which we seek is That which is Present. But to see this requires becoming present. The present is whole, complete, Divine. To be present is to not be separate from that wholeness.
Then, as you journey in the world of time, you can stay connected to that wholeness. You can draw from the wellspring of renewal, even as you do your work in the world, as it says a few verses later- “vayar v’hinei v’er basadeh- he looked, and behold- a well in the field!”
To be sure, as Jacob’s ensuing twenty years of servitude to his uncle Lavan shows, life can still be replete with challenges. But when you are rooted in the earth and your head reaches the heavens, the challenges are different. There is a lightness- as it says when Jacob leaves the “place” after his vision-“Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelekh- Jacob lifted his feet and went”- it is as if he is flying. Actually, the things and events in time are flying- endlessly coming and going, while the Place remains endlessly the same. What is that Place? It is always where you are and it is also ultimately what you are: Divine Presence, living as this one, ever-changing moment.
Take a moment to connect with the Place through connecting with the Earth- take off your shoes, touch the Earth, bow your head to the ground... enjoy!
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The political climate nowadays is polarized into two opposing and extremely passionate camps. The positive side of this is the high level of engagement. The turnout for the midterm elections of few days ago was greater than ever. With dramatic anticipation, the country watched the news coverage of the election results as they came in.
But there’s another election going on right now as well – can you watch it with the same enthusiasm? It is the race between two different versions of yourself.
Candidate Number One is from the Ego Party. For most of us, this candidate usually wins in landslide victories, over and over. And, rightly so. The Ego candidate has the most experience, with the advantage of being constructed over a lifetime, not to mention having the constant support of the Thinking Mind.
Candidate Number Two is from the Awareness Party. This candidate usually doesn’t win because people don’t even see her on the ballot. They can’t see her because she is the seeing itself; it may never occur to them that she is even running. Furthermore, even though Awareness is far more ancient than the Thinking Mind, she never really ages. She is always seeing this moment anew, so she seems young and naïve. She must, we tend to think, need the Ego and his Thinking Mind to run the show.
The basic approach of the Ego is struggle:
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
The children struggled within her, and she said, “If it be so, why am I like this?”
But there comes a time when a person is ready to give up the struggle. Have you reached this point? Do you want to go beyond Ego? Are you ready to inquire of Reality and find another way?
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
She went to inquire of the Divine…
If you’re ready, listen: a message vibrates from the Silence:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר
The Divine said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger.”
Two nations are in your womb – there are two of you – the Ego is not all there is!
Two peoples will separate from within you – be aware of the distinction between the ordinary me, the Ego, and the awareness behind and beyond the Ego…
And one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger – the Ego, the conditioned me, is old; it is based on experience from the past. But, there is a deeper I that never grows old; it is always fresh, alive and new, The Ego likes to be in charge, but it is destined to serve Awareness. Then, there will be a great Silence far more profound than any thought. That Silence is your nakhalah, your birthright, if you would but awaken to it.
How to awaken to It?
וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים
Esau was a man who knew hunting... but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
Give up your "hunting," give up your seeking for control. Come into the “tent” of your heart, into this moment as it is, and dwell here in simplicity…
More On Parshat Toldot...
Timeless- Parshat Toldot
We’re looking at the very rich Parshat Toldot, the Parshah of Generations. It says, “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham – these are the generations or the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham – Avraham holid et Yitzhak – Abraham begot Isaac. So right away, we have a strange construction: it says that Isaac, or Yitzhak, is the son of Abraham, Avraham, then it says, Avraham begot Yitzhak. Well, obviously if Yitzhak is the son of Avraham, then of course Avraham begot Yitzhak. It seems redundant, right? So, we’ll come back to that question.
A little further down, it says that Yitzhak’s wife, Rivka, or Rebecca, became pregnant, and that “Vayitrotz’tzu habonim b’kirbah – the children were fighting inside her.” The children are the twins Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Now, in many commentaries of the past, Yaakov and Esav represent some form of duality. Sometimes Esav is the body and Yaakov is the soul, sometimes Esav is earthiness and Yaakov is scholarliness, but most of the time, these dualities are framed as some form of bad and good. And just as Esav and Yaakov are fighting within Rivka’s womb, so too there’s the idea of a battle going on in each one of us between the Yetzer HaTov, the drive toward good, and the Yetzer HaRa, the drive toward evil.
This concept, that within us there’s a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, a good urge and a bad urge, is a basic Jewish spiritual concept, but I want frame it a little differently.
Rather than the yetzer hara being the drive toward bad, I want to understand it as the drive toward dividing the world into good and bad. This is also pictured in another form at the beginning of the Torah, as the Eitz Daat Tov V’ra – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. So that’s the Yetzer Hara, dividing the world into good and bad. And then, rather than the yetzer hatov being the drive to do good, I want to understand it as the drive to see the goodness in everything. This, of course, is the Eitz Hayim – the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, because when you’re able to see the goodness in everything, which means the underlying goodness of Being Itself, not pretending that violence is really nice, or that sad is really happy, but just tapping into the underlying goodness of simply Being, then it’s really like eating from the Tree of Life. There’s a simple bliss and spaciousness of this moment.
When we understand it that way, then we can see that we always need both Esav and Yaakov; we need Esav, we need to differentiate between good and bad, between nourishing food and poison, between getting up with the alarm and sleeping late, and so on. That’s why Esav is the hunter- going out and taking what he needs from the world. But, if that’s all we’ve got, then we’re totally identified with the mind, with agendas and judgment, and the Tree of Life is hidden behind the fiery sword of thoughts and feelings. So we also need Yaakov; we need to simply open to this moment, to taste the bliss of Being, which is why we came into being in the first place. If life is just a tragic struggle leading nowhere, then what’s the point, right? The point is, there’s a Garden of Eden within; there’s a Tree of Life with fruit to taste right now, if you’re open. That’s why Yaakov eventually gets renamed Yisrael, Israel, and B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are characterized by freedom, by coming out of Egypt, out of slavery. Because in this moment, there is no agenda, there is no movement, there is no time. There is only the blessed space of Being within which everything is unfolding, and you are that blessed space.
So, on this Shabbat Toldot, the Sabbath of Generations, may we surrender ever more deeply into Reality as it unfolds in this moment, making Presence an ever new habit in this generation, and live from the open heart, responding to whatever is needed. Good Shabbos!!
The Mountains- Parshat Toldot
“The children struggled within her, and she said: ‘Why am I like this?’ So, she went to inquire of the Divine. Hashem said to her, “Two nations are within your womb… and the elder shall serve the younger…”
Here in Tucson, the Catalina mountains rise majestically in the north of the city. When we first moved here, I would look up and think, “I wonder if those mountains will ever seem normal and unimpressive?”
As lovers of travel know, when you visit a new place where you have no history or baggage, there’s a brightness to everything- even dirty things are bright, vivid, and rich.
But after you’ve been somewhere a while, the nervous system tends to clump everything together. You look at the tree you’ve seen a million times in your backyard, and instead of seeing the miracle of the tree, you see your laundry, the bills, the broken sink, the broken relationships. All your past experiences of a place seems to soak into every particular piece of that place. You become conditioned.
Conditioning is not in itself a bad thing; it’s how we learn. But it’s vital to remember that there is always an aspect of your experience that is unconditioned. You can see and feel that unconditioned aliveness in children- their wonder, their innocent excitement about things.
And of course, along with that exquisitely innocent and unconditioned consciousness comes... stupidity!
That’s why we, the old and the conditioned, need to protect them from themselves. The older must serve the younger.
“V’rav ya’avod tza’ir- And the older shall serve the younger...”
And that’s as it should be- the experience of the old and the conditioned must preserve and protect the fragile, the bright, the unconditioned.
But this truth applies not only in the external realm of protecting children, but also in the inner realms of consciousness. For there is a level within your own being that is still completely unconditioned. Like the child, it is bright, alive, and curious.
You may think, “But I am old- my conditioning is too heavy, my trauma is too great, my life has been too difficult, or too easy, or whatever… how can I get rid of all the oldness to discover my inner youthfulness? How can I reach the unconditioned?”
The Good News is: You don’t have to “reach” it, and you don’t have to get rid of your conditioning. That which sees all your conditioning, is itself Unconditioned.
Instead of saying, “I am old”- instead of saying, “my conditioning”- simply notice the feeling of oldness. Notice the impulse to think or judge things in a certain way. Notice the feeling that arises when you see the tree in your backyard.
The seeing itself- That is the Unconditioned.
If you practice staying in the seeing, in the noticing, without getting absorbed into the reaction, you will also begin to notice- there is an inner vastness that is untouched by the old thoughts and old feelings. That vastness is your Presence, your Awareness. You don’t need to find it, you are it- but you need to be with all that conditioning instead of being the conditioning. Then, you will see the mountain anew, every day.
There is a story that the disciples of Rabbi Elimelekh came to him and asked: “In the Torah we read that Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Show a wonder to you.’ How are we to understand this? He should have said, ‘Show a wonder to me.’”
Rabbi Elimelekh explained: “Magicians know what they want to accomplish and how to accomplish it. It is not a wonder for them, but only for their beholders. But for those who are merely a vessel for the miracle that God accomplishes through them, their own wonder arises from their deeds and overwhelms them. And that’s what Pharaoh meant: ‘Don’t show me your conditioned expertise! Show me the wonder that arises out of your Unconditioned innocence…’
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, may we open and see the miraculous eons of conditioning that are creating our experience right now. May we know that the seeing and the opening is Itself Unconditioned- Hadeish yameinu kikedem- may our days be fresh and new as they were at the beginning, before the story began. And as we enter the month of Kislev and of Hanukah, the Holiday of Dedication, may we dedicate ourselves ever more deeply to a path of ever increasing Light of Presence.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov!
Adam- Parshat Toldot
This d'var is dedicated to Adam Schachter- Hanan Yitzhak ben Moshe v'Merka z"l.
d. 25 Heshvan, 5776
Last Saturday, Adam passed away from this world. Adam was my half-brother, the son of my father Michael and Adam’s mother Marlene. He lived in New York.
The life and character of a person is infinitely complex. But there is also something fundamental about how a person moves through life, about what moves them, what makes them get out of bed in the morning.
On this fundamental level, Adam was a deeply compassionate person and an enjoyer of life. He wasn’t a complainer or a worrier. He was also deeply insightful and spiritual. I enjoyed the deep conversations we had over the years. Toward the end, we spent some time meditating together on the phone and Skype.
At the funeral, I saw how many considered Adam to be their best friend. From what they said, he seemed to me to be their counselor, regularly helping them through difficult and confusing times in their lives.
He was twenty-nine when he died from brain cancer.
When someone so young suffers and dies like this, it defies any sense of fairness or justice in the world. And we know, many suffer and die unfairly every day, God forbid.
Awareness of all this needless suffering can chip away at you. There is an urge to harden, to shut down. It can feel like there is a war going on inside- a war between your natural and innocent connection with life, on one hand, and a contracted, angry rejection of it, on the other.
How could this happen??
In this week’s reading, Rebecca experiences an inner war as well. After Isaac prays for a child, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins who literally war inside her body. She cries out:
“Lama zeh anokhi-
Why am I like this?!”
At its core, spirituality is about radical acceptance, not about questioning why things are as they are.
But the truth is that questioning can be a great ally toward acceptance, if you go deep enough with your questioning. If you question into the nature of your own mind, into the nature of your own resistance, the questioning itself can become a path of surrender:
“Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem-
She went and inquired of the Divine...”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”?
The Divine is Nothing but Reality- so to “inquire of the Divine” means to look deeply into what you are experiencing, in this moment. If you are feeling negativity, ask yourself: What is this resistance within me? What is this urge to complain, to judge, or to control things?
The first-born twin, Esau, represents this urge. Esau is called an “Ish Yodea Tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. He is your urge to go out and “trap” the world, to make it conform to your will.
But the other twin, Jacob, is an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim- a simple man, abiding in tents”. He is your deeper urge to return to the “tent” of your heart- the open heart that accepts what is with simplicity.
Accordingly, the word “tam” means not only simplicity, but also “taste”. So to be tam means to not seek control, but rather to simply taste this moment as it is- to drink the nectar that flows from intimacy with this moment- even when this moment is filled with pain.
Understandably, many of us spend most of our lives in the “Esau” state, running around doing things, as if to run away from this life. Perhaps if we run around and stay busy enough, we won’t have to feel the pain.
But in the end, all that running and outward seeking leaves Esau drained:
“Esau came in from the field, exhausted”.
Eventually, Esau gives up his seeking and returns to drink from Jacob’s nectar:
“Pour into me please some of this very red stuff!” he says to Jacob.
The word for “red” is “Adom”- a slight variation on the name of my brother, Adam. “Adam” means “human”, because according to legend, the first human was created from the “Adamah”- the red earth.
This Adom is the nourishment we all need- the life blood that flows within the tent of the heart- the nourishment that my brother Adam was connected to, and helped his fellow humans connect to as well.
How do you connect to it?
In order for Esau to receive the nourishment he lacks, he has to surrender his “birthright”. That is, to fully enter the tent of the heart, you have to surrender your sense of entitlement, your sense that the world owes you something, that things should be a certain way.
That’s the way Adam was. In all of my experience of him, he never complained about his situation. He enjoyed life as he was able, and helped others to do so as well.
After all, the world is not “fair”- at least not according to ordinary understanding. All our running will not make it conform to our sense of what is right. In fact, all that does is reinforce a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy available within the tent of the heart.
But drink of this nectar and you will see- there is blessing everywhere, and bountiful opportunity to love, to spread the blessing. Drink of this nectar, but let the bitterness mix with the sweetness. This mixing produces Rakhamim- compassion for all the suffering of life. According to the Zohar, Rakhamim is the spiritual quality that Jacob embodies.
Then, from the place of Rakhamim, you can start running around again and getting things done. You can’t just stay in the tent forever.
In fact, Jacob is not complete until he gets outside his tent and starts working in the fields for old uncle Laban. Fearing that his brother Esau wants to murder him for taking his birthright and his blessing, he flees to his uncle Laban, where he works as a shepherd for fourteen years.
Only then, after years of being out in the field himself, is he able to finally make peace with his brother. Older and softened by years of suffering, Esau and Jacob reunite. They weep and kiss each other; true compassion is born.
This rhythm of alternating between the World of Doing and the World of Being is, of course, the wisdom of Shabbos, inviting us every week to enter the tent of the heart before going back out into the field.
But it is also the wisdom of the mourning process. We need time to be with pain- the world can wait. Only by fully feeling the pain of loss can we fully appreciate the gift of our present life with full awareness.
There is a story-
In the late 1700s, in Belarus, Reb Shlomo of Karlin joyfully broke the fast with his hassidim at the close of Yom Kippur.
Reb Shlomo was known for his many miraculous talents. One such talent was the ability to know what each of his hassidim had prayed for, and what the Divine response would be to their prayers. At this festive gathering with their master, the hassidim begged him to perform this feat:
“Tell us, what did we pray for?” they implored.
Reb Shlomo turned to the first disciple: “You prayed that Hashem should make you healthy, so that you’ll be able to wholeheartedly serve God and study Torah without your poor health and thoughts of your mortality distracting you.”
“Bravo! You are right! But what is Hashem’s answer?” asked the disciple.
“Hashem doesn’t want your prayer or your Torah study. Hashem wants your broken heart that grieves because you are distracted by your mortality from fully praying and studying.”
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, and as we come to the end of MarHeshvan, the Bitter Month of Heshvan, may we not shrink from our suffering, but open to the bitter-sweet compassion that awakens through the mixing of the Adom- the inner life force of the Eternal Present- with the Adamah- the earth to which the bodies of every Adam will one day return.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov,
Did you ever see one of those fake little plastic pieces of sushi?
They look so delicious, but of course, they are not really food. Or, consider those fake, plastic plants they have on the tables in restaurants sometimes. They look nice, so why doesn’t everyone have only plastic plants? What’s the point of having real plants that you have to water?
Plastic plants and plastic sushi have their place. Maybe you need plastic sushi to make an enticing display in order to get people to come into your restaurant. Maybe plastic plants are adequate for adding some decoration to your dining table. But the fake items are meaningless in and of themselves; they’re only useful because they point to the real thing. Once you feel enticed by the plastic sushi and come into the restaurant, you’re not going to order the plastic sushi; you want real food.
Similarly, there are character traits that are fake, and character traits that are genuine.
Fake character traits have their place. When you’re playing a certain role like an employee, or a parent, or a student, or whatever, there are appropriate behaviors that are useful to follow, even if they’re not genuine. Politicians have to especially be masters of fake character traits.
But if you want to find the genuine Divinity of your own being, if you want real peace, real wholeness, real realization, no amount of mimicking behaviors will get you there. For That, you have to go to the root of your own being, and turn fully toward the Root of All Being, which are ultimately the same thing: The Beloved “Being-ness” of this moment.
There is a hint in this week’s reading:
Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, had gone to the city of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. He returns with Rebecca in the late afternoon, riding on a camel. Isaac goes out into the field as they approach:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים
Isaac went out toward the evening to commune in the field. He lifted his eyes, and behold – camels were coming!
Each piece of this wonderful verse instructs us in how to meet the genuine Beloved.
Vayeitzei Yitzhak – Isaac/laughter went out…
Isaac’s name, Yitzhak, actually means laughter. It refers to the laughter of his mother Sarah, who laughed both with humor and joy at the idea of giving birth at her advanced age of ninety. The idea here is that just as Sarah couldn’t imagine being fruitful in her old age, so too we often develop a negative attitude about what is possible. We may think, “How can I possibly experience the Divine? I can’t even control my own thoughts for more than a second!”
But this attitude itself keeps us locked in the perspective of the ego, of the separate “me.” Instead, decide right now to let go of negative thinking. Know that you are, in essence, Divine, and that all you need do is begin shifting your attention to That which you already are. “Go out” to the fulness of this moment, to your experience as it is right now, with an attitude of openness.
Lasuakh basadeh – to commune in the field…
Everything that you are perceiving right now is living within your field of awareness. This field doesn’t itself have any shape or border, but…
Lifnot erev – before the evening/mixture…
The word for evening, erev, also means mixture, since it is the time when day and night mingle. Similarly, there is a rich mixture within our experience right now – sensory perceptions, the space and objects and beings around us, as well and different feelings and thoughts within. Our experience spans a vast spectrum of pleasant and unpleasant, everything intimately mixed in one experience that is the present moment.
Vayisa einav – he lifted his eyes…
Know that the full mixture within your experience right now is not at all separate from the vast space of awareness within which it is arising. Everything is, in fact, literally made out of your consciousness. Furthermore, it isn’t “your” consciousness; you are the consciousness. And so, all things within your experience are literally manifestations of your own being, constantly shifting and moving. “Lift your eyes” – bring your awareness into direct connection with whatever is happening, now.
V’hinei, g’malim ba’im – behold, camels were coming!
The camel is a symbol of self-abundance, as the camel carries around the nourishment it needs in its hump as it traverses the desert. Similarly, as you learn to shift into the oneness of your experience in the present, the sense of peace and completeness, ofshalom/shalem, can begin to blossom. Perhaps you are getting a glimpse now… but if not, don’t give up! The camels are coming!
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More On Hayei Sarah...
For the Love of Pain – Parshat Hayey Sarah
“V’ayavo Avraham – Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her..."
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Hayei Sarah, which means, “The Life of Sarah,” and it begins by declaring that Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty-seven years. Then it says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Vatamat Sarah – Sarah died – Vayavo Avraham – Avraham came – lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah – to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”
So, first Sarah dies, then Avraham comes and eulogizes her, then he weeps. It’s a strange verse. Why does it say that Avraham “comes?” Where is he coming to? And if he’s coming to Sarah after she dies, wouldn’t he weep first, and then eulogize her? And to whom is he eulogizing? Isn’t a eulogy something you deliver to others? But this verse doesn’t mention any other people. It just says that he comes – doesn’t say where he’s coming to – then he eulogizes, then he weeps.
To answer, let’s reflect first on the question, what is death? Death means the end of a continuity; the end of something or someone that came into being, that was born, that had some span of life, and then expires. And when a loved one that plays a major role in your life dies, it’s not just the person that dies, it’s a continuity in your life that dies as well. Our lives contain all kinds of continuities – the place we live, the bed we sleep in, and so on. And part of that tapestry of continuity is composed of our relationships. If one of those relationships comes to an end because the person comes to an end, then something of ourselves as died as well; the tapestry, or the form of our lives gets torn. And of course, the experience of being torn is pain.
So, at this deeper level, we’re talking about pain. And what’s the normal response to pain? AAHH! Crying out. But that’s not what Avraham does. – Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah. First Avraham comes, then he eulogizes, then he cries out. Why?
Normally, we cry out in pain because we don’t like the pain. In fact, that’s the whole reason for pain to exist. Pain is there as a signal for danger, so it has to be unpleasant; you’re supposed to not like it. You feel your hand burning, you’ve got to get it out of the fire fast. If you only noticed intellectually, “oh, my hand is in the fire, that’s dangerous,” you’d already be burned. You need something to force you to get out of the fire immediately, and that’s pain. So, crying out is a venting of that impulse to get away from the thing causing you pain, and get yourself to safety. It’s also a signal for others to help you, just as when a baby cries out, and the parent immediately tries to see what’s wrong and help. That’s the ordinary way we operate.
But there’s another way to relate to pain, and that is instead of trying to get away, to deliberately bring yourself into connection with the pain, to come to the pain. Vayavo Avraham – come to the pain that is arising and be with it on purpose; that’s the practice of Presence, of being conscious with your experience, rather than be taken over by your impulse to escape. Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse. If your hand is burning, you should certainly escape by moving your hand out of the fire. But when we feel emotional pain, the impulse is the same; you want to get away from it, vent, blame and so on. But if instead you become present with your pain, then you use the pain to strengthen your Presence, to dis-identify from your impulses, and to ultimately know yourself ever more deeply as the space of consciousness within which your experience in this moment is arising.
So, on this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember to come ever more deeply into the truth of this moment, both in pain and joy, and through Presence with whatever is, grow in our experiential knowledge of the radiant awareness that we are. Good Shabbiss!
The Telephone- Parshat Hayey Sarah
Once I saw a video of some children being shown an old telephone from the 1970s, complete with a rotary dial.
“What is it?” they wondered.
When they were told it was a phone and how it worked, how you dial numbers by pushing the wheel around, they said, “Wait, you mean all this phone does is call people?”
For many of is, it’s hard to imagine a time when our calendar, internet, email and a million other functions weren’t instantly available on our phones. What a miracle! But recently I noticed that whenever I take out my phone, there’s a slight pain in my stomach, because I don’t want all those functions to distract me from the reason I took out the phone in the first place.
Have you set out to do something, gotten distracted, and completely forgotten what it was you had intended to do?
In the Haftorah for this week’s reading, King David is old and lying on his deathbed. Meanwhile, his son Adonijah has taken power against King David’s will, throwing a big party and inviting all his supporters, while excluding those close to David.
The prophet Nathan and King David’s wife Bathsheba enter King David’s bed chamber and inform him about what’s going on. The king is roused and swears that his son Solomon must succeed him.
Every intention that arises within the mind and heart arises within a particular kind of situation. As time goes on, situations change; in fact, “time” and “change” are not two separate things. Like King David’s desire for Solomon to succeed his kingship, the moments of our original intentions can become old and dim, while new moments and new desires arise. Like the thousands of apps, reminders, alerts, and new emails popping up, we sometimes find ourselves thinking: “Wait, what was I doing?”
But let’s stand back for a moment, back from all the different intentions and priorities of life. Before you had relationships, before you had values, before you had goals- can you go back before any of that and ask,
“What was I doing? Why did I come into this life in the first place?”
Every intention, whether positive or negative, has its root in some thought or feeling- the desire for happiness, the desire to help the world, the desire to create or to destroy. Consciousness is like the smartphone- its functions are infinite, and the mind is infinitely complex!
But is there something simple, something far more deep than any thought or feeling?
Before you wanted anything, before you had an opinion, there was consciousness- this miracle of perception somehow awakened within your body-mind and began meeting the world as it appeared.
The world- sometimes nurturing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes loving, sometimes painful, sometimes horrific.
But whatever the form the world happens to takes in any given moment, behind it all is this simple awareness: the awakening of Reality to Itself. And this awakening is happening, right now, as the Presence that you are.
Can you remember why you came into existence?
On this deepest level, awareness comes into existence simply to be aware. And behind all the complexity of life is this simple truth- you are aware- which is to say, you are awareness.
Know yourself as this Presence- behind your thinking, behind your words, behind your actions- and you become like the air we breathe: ever-present, completely surrounding us from without and nourishing us from within, yet essentially separate from all the drama of our existence- intimate and transcendent in one.
But to do this you have to get back to basics. Like the rotary phone that only did one thing, you have to find the one thing within yourself behind all the many things. A great way to start is, become aware of the air!
Become aware of the ever-present nourishment which is your own constant breath, and you can begin to notice that your noticing is just like the air. The noticing itself is your ever-present consciousness within which all experience arises.
And, paradoxically, it is through the awakening of this transcendence beyond the world that you become a great force of blessing within the world, because it is through the openness of your transcendence that genuine love can flow.
Can you remember your original intention- to be awake?
King David is the symbol of Moshiakh- the awakening of all humanity out of the dream of separation. This dream is so powerful- it creates all the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others.
His rightful heir is Solomon- the symbol of wisdom. We come into this world to awaken as that wisdom- to embody consciousness in form and thereby heal the world. We humans have become so lost in form, so caught within its web. The rogue son has taken over and usurped the throne.
But any moment, and that means this moment, is the potential to rouse David from his slumber and get the world back on track. Awaken!
It is told that in the late 1700s, when Reb Shneur Zalman was incarcerated in a Russian prison, a guard noticed the great presence of the rabbi and went to ask him a question:
“You are a holy man. There is a question that has been bothering me about the scriptures. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden and he ate from the forbidden fruit, it says that God asked him where he was. How is it possible that God didn’t already know where he was?”
Reb Shneur Zalman answered- “It’s like this. At every moment and at every time, God is asking you- where are you? Right now you are twenty-seven years old. Are you fulfilling the purpose of your life?”
At this point the guard almost fell over, because the rabbi had mentioned his actual age, and there was no way he could have known. At that moment, a deep knowing awakened within the guard and he devoted himself to love and service.
On this Shabbat Hayey Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember ever more deeply who we are really- the Presence and Life of Reality Itself. May that Presence be free from the dream of all fear and negativity, and may our words and deeds become sources of blessing on this earth, today.
The Fiancé- Parshat Hayei Sarah
Back in the summer of 1988, I was home from music school after Freshman year.
One night, I went out with some high school friends to a diner. One of them surprised us with the news that he had met the girl of his dreams and they were getting married.
“Really? Are you sure it’s the right thing?” we asked.
We were only nineteen. The idea of getting married was inconceivable to us.
“I know it’s the right thing,” he replied. He then went on to recount all the serendipitous events “proving” to him that she was his perfect life partner.
“I’ve never been so sure about anything in my entire life,” he said.
Having never experienced that kind of certainty myself, I was suspicious, but I didn’t question it further.
The next summer, in 1990, we all went out again, and he told us what horrors had transpired after they were married: She had stolen his car, emptied his bank account and disappeared. So much for serendipity!
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to “trust the universe”, we give away our power to make decisions. Rather than ask ourselves the crucial questions, we instead look for signs and coincidences to confirm that we’re on the right track, that things are beshert.
In this week’s reading, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac. When Eliezer arrives at the city of Nahor, he prays:
“Hashem… let it be that the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please tip over your jug so that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac…”
At first glance, it might seem that Eliezer is making this same kind of mistake, relying on an external sign to tell him what to do, rather than using his own intelligence to find the right wife for Isaac.
Or is he?
If Eliezer had prayed that the girl should be wearing a purple dress, or have a really big hat, certainly that would have been arbitrary.
But what does he say?
He says that she should offer water to him and his camels. In other words, she should be a mentch-a kind and generous person.
He’s not giving away his power in favor of superstition; he’s actually specifying the exact criteria by which to make his decision: she should be kind and generous. He doesn’t want Isaac to marry someone who will steal his money and his donkey! If she’s not a mentch, he’s not interested.
If you want to live with clarity and purpose, if you want to truly say “yes” to your life, you’ve got to be able to say a clear “no” as well. The “yes” and the “no” go together.
Saying “no” can be really difficult. So many things can get in the way- stories in your head telling you what you “should” do, feelings of guilt for letting others down, or lack of trust in yourself.
But, there are decisions that only you can make. Take your power in your hand and meet your destiny! Don’t be blown around by the winds of fate!
To be decisive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust. Trust your ability to make your decision!
Then, after you’ve made your decision, trust whatever happens next. Surrender to what happens. Ultimately, we have no control over how things unfold, but we always have the power to choose.
Are there decisions you are avoiding?
Or, after you make decisions, are you easily derailed because you can’t say “no” to other things that come along? Do you ever blame others for your inability to follow through on your own decisions?
Remember- your life is like a boat. The steering wheel is in front of you. Take it and steer; don’t wait for someone else, don’t blame anyone else. The ocean has its own currents, but you are the captain.
And, if you’re not sure yet which decision to make, that’s fine too. Be uncertain. Sometimes it's wonderful to just go with the currents. Sometimes life really can be a magical tapestry of serendipity, effortlessly bringing you to good things.
But sooner or later, that kind of magic ends, and the currents leave you drifting aimlessly, or even worse, headed toward the rocks. When that happens, take the wheel and decide which way to go! Then, a new kind of magic begins.
Each of us has a completely unique path with unique decisions to be made. But there is one decision that is completely universal. It’s the decision that each of us faces at all times: the decision to fully inhabit this moment.
To fully inhabit this moment, the “yes” and the “no” must be one: “yes” to what is, “no” to resisting what is.
And yet, if a feeling of “resisting what is” arises, you must say “yes” to the presence of that feeling- because in that moment, “resistance to what is”- is what is!
In this way, resistance is transformed into non-resistance; the “yes” and the “no” are completely one.
What is this moment like?
Is it peaceful? Is it tense? Is it gentle? Is it harsh? Are you willing to decide, right now, to say “yes” to this moment, as it is?
This is actually the most important decision you will ever make, because it's the foundation of all other decisions. Without this decision, there is unrest; there is struggle.
But with this decision, your potential for real peace can manifest. With this decision, the Messiah is born, little by little.
Martin Buber, in his essay Judaism and the Jews, tells the story that when he was a child, he read an "old Jewish tale" that I later found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met the Prophet Elijah. He said to him, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah answered, “Go ask him! The Messiah sits at the gates of Rome, waiting among the poor, afflicted with disease.”
Buber says that he later came upon an old man and asked him, “What does he wait for?”
The old man answered, “He waits for you.”
On this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember our power to decide for thislife, for this moment. May true and lasting peace be swiftly born in the world for love, wisdom and healing.
Coming Today to the Wellspring of Nothingness – Parshat Hayey Sarah
We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is "El", which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
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Last week I heard a story on NPR, that Coca-Cola had put a sign on vending machines in New Zealand, which said, Ki Ora Mate!
The words Ki Ora are Māori words that mean something like “Hello,” similar to “Shalom” or “Aloha,” and Mate is just the New Zealand English word meaning “friend.” The intention was to mix English and Māori to create a friendly multi-cultural greeting that would mean something like, “Hello, friend!”
The only problem is, the word Mate in Māori means “Death.” So, to a Māori reader, the sign looks like, “Hello Death!”
Probably not what Coca-Cola intended, yet the message is appropriate. Coca-Cola is not a healthy product. Many nutritional authorities cite soft drinks as the absolute worst of all junk foods. And in fact, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in the developed world, with one out of three New Zealanders classified as obese. In addition,fifty percent of Māori adults are obese, as well as eighteen percent of Māori children.
What’s the lesson here? Truth finds a way!
We are a funny species. In many situations, we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, and yet so often we seem to do what is not good for us. It is no secret that Coke and other soft drinks are dangerous; that’s what makes this story so funny. But ultimately, it’s not so funny that we cause ourselves so much misery. Why do we do it?
We do it because we crave experiences. We seem to be wired to seek certain experiences, regardless of the effects, so we are often in denial about what we know to be true. This isn’t to say that we always know what’s best for ourselves; sometimes we have to try things and learn from our mistakes. But often we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, yet we choose the dangerous path because of our cravings. Even when it tells us how bad it is right on the label! We don’t need the irony of “Hello death!” – just read the ingredients. If the thing you focus on is made out of greed, arrogance, or negativity – those are the “corn syrups” ands “artificial colorings” of the ego.
But the real irony is that while we focus on all the little shiny, distracting objects in that appear in our consciousness, we ignore consciousness. If only we would turn around and pay attention to the attention itself…
There was once a king who held a great outdoor festival and invited the whole kingdom. He put all his treasures out in a big field, and anyone could come and take one treasure from the field, whatever they chose. On the day of the festival, thousands came and took whatever special treasure they wanted most.
Then, a little old woman walked right through the field, past all the treasures, and up to the king himself. “Is it true we can take any treasure we want?”
“Yes, anything,” said the king.
“Then I take you!” said the woman.
“Ah, you have chosen wisely!” said the king. “Now you get me and the whole kingdom!”
Everything we wish to experience arises in consciousness. We lust after this and that, but we already have consciousness; we already have the completeness that we seek, as the whole field of awareness within which this moment arises. Experiences span an immense spectrum of pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, love and hate; but the consciousness itself is simple, vast and unbroken. Find that, find that which is behind and beyond all experience, and you’ve found the ultimate treasure.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Vayeira, Sarah gives birth to a son, Yitzhak, which means “laughter.” He is named Yitzhak because Sarah and Avraham were very old, so Sarah said, “The Divine has made laughter (tzekhok) for me.”
One day, the son of Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, was found mocking Yitzhak. So, Sarah told Avraham to send away Hagar and her son into the desert, with nothing but a little bread and a skin of water. Soon after, the water ran out. Fearing that her son would die of thirst, Hagar despaired and wept.
The ego often craves satisfaction by putting another person down. But, the scrap if satisfaction we receive from feeling superior to another is just a drop of water in a dry desert. To break the spell of the ego, the heart often needs to be broken; we need to come face to face with our own delusion. Then, another possibility can reveal itself:
אֶל־הָגָר֙ אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י… וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים
A divine angel called to Hagar, “Don’t be afraid…”
There is more to Reality than the drama of the ego after all:
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
The Divine opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…
The “water” we need to quench our thirst was there all along, if we would but shift our focus from the desert of the ego to the wellspring of the sacred that hides in plain sight. How do we do that?
וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ:
She sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept…
Feel the “distance” – feel the pain of lack, of incompleteness, and let yourself cry out; transform your pain into prayer. The tears are like a cleansing river, washing away the trivial, the egocentric, the immature. And then, be attentive – that’s meditation. Within the depths of the heart from which your prayer pours forth, there is a great light. It might be just a glimmer at first, but make that glimmer the center of your attention, and it will become a great illumination…
More On Vayeira...
"Inviting Reality in for Tea" – Parshat Vayeira and Morning Sh'ma Blessing
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeira, begins with Avraham having a vision of the Divine: “Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei mamrei – and the Divine appeared to him in the plains of Mamrei – v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Bereisheet 18:1)
It then goes on to say that three men (who we later come to understand are actually angels) pay Avraham a visit. Avraham runs from his tent to greet them, invites them to stay a while, to wash their feet and eat a meal. The angels then tell Avraham and Sara that Sara will give birth to a son, even though Sara is already ninety years old.
After this, the angels leave and head toward the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God appears again to Avraham and tells him that the cities are about to be destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. Avraham pleads with God not to destroy them, arguing that there might be some good people among the wicked, and that it would be unfair to destroy the innocent along with the guilty.
One interesting thing about this passage is that there seems to be a confounding of the characters. At first it says God appears to Avraham. But then it says, "...and he raised his eyes and saw – three men were standing over him." First it says that God appears, then it says Avraham looked and saw three men. It’s as if God is now appearing as the three men. Then, later in the story, it describes the same men, saying, "the two angels came to Sodom." Now they’re two? Before, they were three. Furthermore, before they were described as anashim – men, and now they're malakhim – angels.
And in between these two bookends, the text moves fluidly back and forth between saying what the men, or angels are saying and doing, and what God is saying and doing, as if the angels and God are interchangeable. You can check out the passage in Genesis, chapter 18 and 19 to see what I mean.
This kind of ambiguity in the text is so gorgeous, because it all comes to highlight the opening phrase: Vayeira eilav Hashem – and the Divine appeared to him. This is, of course, the whole point of the mystical path – to perceive beyond the surface of things, through to Divine Reality. And what is the Divine Reality? Hu Eloheinu, Ayn od – Existence is the Divine, there is nothing else. And, Hashem Ekhad – the Divine is One. Meaning not that there is only one god, but that there is only God as the One Reality.
So, to perceive the Divine doesn’t mean perceiving something in addition to everything else you’re already perceiving, as many folks imagine. When we begin the spiritual journey, it’s common to think that God is something different from what you normally perceive, like some kind of Mount Sinai experience. But, while such experiences do happen, perceiving the Divine for the most part means to uncover the Divine nature of everything that you’re already perceiving. And since the Divine nature is Hashem Ekhad – Divine Oneness, this means you have to learn to relax the natural tendency of the mind to frame things as separate. Not to erase separateness all together – that would render you unable to function as a human being, G-d forbid, but to balance the separateness with the perception that everything arising right now in your field of awareness is part of one experience, One Reality.
And how do you do that?
“V’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
So, what is a tent? It’s a barrier that defines your personal space. There’s a vast world just outside, but you put this flimsy material around you, call it a tent, and you have some sense of separateness from the rest of the world. Just like our egos: there’s a vast Reality, and we are in no way separate from that Reality, but we tend to identify with our bodies, our personalities, our personal stories and so on, and call all of that “me.” That’s the ego; that’s the tent.
But rather than shutting himself up inside the tent, he yosheiv petakh ha’ohel – he sits in the opening of his tent. In other words, there’s still a tent, there’s still a sense of “me,” but he sits in the petakh, in the opening, so there’s also a sense that the space within the tent and the space outside the tent are one thing, one space. Meaning, be aware that everything arising in your experience in this moment, both your perception of things outside your “tent,” meaning outside your body, and things inside your “tent,” such as your emotions and your thoughts, are all arising in the one space that is your awareness. You can still think of this tiny corner of your awareness that encompasses your body and heart and mind as “me,” but the entirety of your experience, even your perception of the stars millions of light years away, are all arising in the one space that is your field of awareness, and that’s actually the deepest you – that formless, borderless, field of awareness.
But to really do that, you have to consciously invite everything within your experience to exist, even if it’s unpleasant. That’s the key. Because when you resist certain aspects of your experience, that’s the equivalent of shutting the flap on your tent, so there’s no more petakh, no more opening. That’s why Avraham is seen as the embodiment of hospitality, just as in the story when he runs to greet his guests and gives them food. He sits in the opening of his tent, and whatever happens to come by, he invites in. That’s why is says, Vayeira eilav Hashem– and the Divine appeared to him, because when you consciously invite everything to be as it is, you sit in the open space between separateness and Oneness, and you can sense that everything is a manifestation of the One Thing; first It appears as three men, then as two angels, it doesn’t matter, because everything are forms of the One Thing.
And this brings us to a kind of paradox, because when it’s revealed to Avraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God; he tries to change the course of what’s happening. So, on one hand, he invites everything to be as it is, but on the other, he’s arguing and trying to change it for the sake of compassion.
And this is really the supreme spiritual teaching. When we talk about acceptance, about inviting everything to be as it is, our minds tend to go in the direction of passivity. But this creates a false duality. If we really invite everything to be as it is, that includes our own desire for things to be different. So, on one hand, we accept Reality as it is, but on the other, Reality includes our own desire to change things; Reality is dynamic, alive, and always in motion. The distinction is that when we are hospitable to Reality as it arises, inviting things to be as they are rather than resisting how things are, we can work for change from a spirit of love and openness, rather than from judgment and anger.
This is hinted at in the opening words: v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. The word for “the day” is hayom, which can also mean, “today” – in other words, the right now. The word for heat, khom, can also mean “warmth.” So, in this sense, khom hayom could mean “the warmth of Presence.” If you want to pierce through the separateness of things to the underlying Divine unity, open your heart to this moment. Warmly invite Reality to be as it is, and then when you act to change things, do it from a place of inviting change, rather than forcing. Even in those rare times when you do have to force something, you can still do it from a place of love rather than resistance and anger. Just like when you abruptly grab a child away from the danger of a precipice or an oncoming car – externally there might be a violent forcing quality, but of course you’re not angry at the child, you just have to act swiftly and effectively. If you have the right kavanah, the right attitude that arises from Presence rather than resistance, then your action toward change will flow from the Oneness, and will be an expression of the Oneness, even when there’s conflict. That’s why Avraham can argue with God, and yet the argument itself is an expression of God, because Avraham is arguing that God should be more compassionate, and yet elsewhere in the Torah, Moses calls God El Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger…
Last week we chanted some words that come from the first blessing before the Sh’ma. The words were, Or Hadash Ta’ir – Shine a New Light, pointing to the quality of fresh aliveness that emerges when you are present. Now let’s look at some words from the second blessing of the Sh’ma: “V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments.”
The two pieces of this phrase express the paradox we explored earlier: V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, meaning, open us to “see” the Oneness in everything, to see everything as an expression of the Divine. This is expressed in the hospitality of Avraham, and hinted at by the words we looked at earlier: Vayisa einav vayar – and he raised his eyes and saw. Avraham sits in the opening of his tent, a master of hospitality, and so he is able to see, vayar, the Divine in everything. This is also the root of the name of this parsha, Vayeira.
But the second part says, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – attach our hearts to Your commandments.What are the commandments? They are actions we take to bring more kindness into the world. Externally, Reality can manifest as chaos and suffering. But as Reality becomes conscious through us, we are “commanded,” in a sense, to manifest compassion, so that the Divine qualities of Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger, reveals Itself through us.
Parshat Vayeira- The Heat is On!
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t understand this ‘present moment’ stuff. What if the present moment is terrible? Why would I want to ‘be in the moment’ when the moment is so painful and awful?”
This week’s reading begins with Abraham sitting in his tent on a scorching hot day. Suddenly, he is visited by a Divine revelation:
"Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
“The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Let’s look at the Hebrew in this opening line carefully. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew says- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day.
Read this way, the verse says that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”- that is, this moment.
In other words, yes- the present moment sometimes appears as discomfort, as ugliness, as pain. But the crucial thing to remember is: everything that arises in your experience is a gateway to the Divine, if you open to it.
As it says,
“…v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel-
“… and he was sitting at opening of the tent…”
The “tent” is your identity- your individual self. The “opening” is the willingness to open to Reality as it presents itself, even when it appears as “heat”- as discomfort. In that willingness, in that openness, is the appearance of the Divine.
Because in the open space of simple Presence with what is, there's no big distinction between the “outside” and the “inside”- between the inner world of thought and feeling, on one hand, and the outer world you take in through your senses, on the other. Everything that happens in your experience- outside as well as inside- is part of one experience. And your one experience is nothing but your one consciousness, constantly taking on different forms.
When you really see this, when you realize that all of your experiences are always only One Experience, and that your One Experience is ultimately made out you- meaning, made out of your consciousness- there can be a relaxing of resistance, a relaxing of the “me” that’s separate, that’s judges, that wants. After all, why would you resist yourself? That just creates inner tension, unnecessary suffering.
Then you can see- there is simply this Reality, everpresent- the Divine appearing as the form of this moment, suffering and ugliness and all.
The famous brothers and Hassidic rebbes- Zusya and Elimelech- were the sons of a village innkeeper who was unusually hospitable.
One day a band of beggars came to the doorstep of his inn. He and his wife received them warmly, served them food and drink, and prepared them a place to sleep. Seeing that their guests wanted to bathe, they went down to the bathhouse and heated water for them.
Among the beggars was a pauper whose entire body was covered with repulsive sores, and none of the other vagrants was willing to help him wash. The innkeeper’s wife had compassion and helped him, whereupon he turned to her and said: “In return for your kindness, let me bestow upon you my blessing- that you bear sons like me.”
Dismay came over her- sons like him?
But within seconds, this man and all his companions along with their wagon vanished before her very eyes. Years later, when her sons grew up, it then dawned on her- she had been put through a test, in order to bestow upon her the gift of such saintly children.
When Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi once recounted this story, one of his listeners asked him: “Who was that leper?”
But the rebbe gave not a word of reply.
There are no words to describe this Reality that is appearing, just now. Sometimes ugly, sometimes repulsive, it is the gateway to the sacred- to the most beautiful essence that you are. Even if ugliness arises as your own thoughts, as your own feelings- when you welcome them, the welcoming Presence is Itself beautiful, and in Its Light, everything has a sacred purpose.
So on this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we embody the supreme art of hospitality- not only external hospitality, but also the inner kind- welcoming the ugliness that arises, until it too vanishes and reveals its secret blessing...
The Move- Parshat Vayeira
This past Tuesday, my family left for Costa Rica. I’ll join them in a few weeks, but first I had to stay behind and get the house ready for our renters who moved in on Thursday.
I had no idea what “getting the house ready” really meant, but I knew I wasn’t so good at making beds. So, I called our friend and space-artist Devorah for help. I thought it would take her about a half an hour at most.
Once we got started, however, every task we finished seemed to reveal a new task that needed to be done. What I thought would be a half hour turned into 11.5 hours! Thank G-d for Devorah- I couldn’t have done it without her.
All the little details- the soaps, the towels, the flowers, the toilet paper- I wanted to arrange everything just right so that the space would be welcoming to our new guests.
Not that any of those little details were so significant in and of themselves; their significance was that all together, they created a welcoming space. For me, a space that’s clear, beautiful and uncluttered says “welcome”. But even more importantly, a beautiful space makes room to notice a different kind of space- your inner space.
What is inner space?
Space- inner or outer- isn’t something we generally hear about very much. People like to talk about the things that occupy space- objects in the outer world or thoughts and ideas in the inner world- but rarely do we hear about the space itself. After all, space is nothing, so there’s nothing much to talk about. You can’t see or touch it.
And yet, your inner space is that which sees and touches. It’s the space of your own awareness. It’s the openness in which these words are appearing, in this moment. In fact, your own inner space is not something different from this moment.
And that’s why a beautiful external space can help you to connect with your inner space-
When you feel welcomed, it’s easy to be welcoming. In that inner opening of welcome, the beauty of this moment can blossom.
But once you are conscious of this, you no longer need anything external to welcome this moment. In fact, you can welcome a moment of pain and ugliness just as you can welcome a moment of beauty and peace.
This week’s reading begins with a story of Avraham’s ability to embody hospitality even in the midst of intense discomfort:
“Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
"The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Rashi comments that Avraham was not merely basking in the Divine bliss, he was experiencing intense discomfort-
“Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and inquired about his welfare.” (Rashi, Bereishis 18:1)
Avraham is recovering from being circumcised, while roasting in the intense heat! And, to make it worse, three strangers suddenly show up.
What does he do?
“Vayar vayarotz likratam-
“He saw and ran to greet them…”
He runs out to the strangers and begs them to stop and rest. He fetches water to wash their feet. He and Sarah prepare food.
How is he able to be so welcoming in such an unpleasant situation?
Let’s look back at the Hebrew in the opening line. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew is actually- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day!
Read this way, it’s saying that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Discomfort is a form of God.
Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”.
What is “today”? Today is the open space of this moment, in which these words are now appearing.
So Avraham welcomes the painful moment in which he finds himself as his Divine guest. The very next moment, Avraham’s solitude is over, and God appears as three strangers- so he welcomes them as well and feeds them.
Whatever the moment brings, it’s all just different forms of the One Reality. The message?
Welcome this moment! God is visiting!
Take a moment now to see, hear, feel the presence of this moment. Take a breath- welcome it's ever-changing appearance. Let this moment be your friend, your intimate. As the Sabbath hymn says, "Boi Kalah- Come, oh Bride!"
As I write these words on this particularly warm day in the East Bay, I am (thank G-d) not in pain, and I’m recovering nicely from pushing myself to the limit for the sake of hospitality.
And thanks to my friend Janet who has generously taken in this new wayfarer for the next few weeks, I am now the recipient of her wonderful hospitality! Thank you Janet!!
There’s a story that on a particularly cold winter evening in early nineteenth century Poland, a group of learned guests came to visit the father of then five-year-old Simchah Bunem. While they were eating, the father called in his son, and said: “My boy, go and prepare us some novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality.”
When the child returned after a little while, his father asked, “Well, what have you got?”
The boy beckoned the guests to follow him into another room. Curious, they followed him, eagerly anticipating some impressive teaching from the young prodigy. When they entered the room, they were caught pleasantly by surprise: for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place!
On this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we grow ever more deeply in the Torah of Welcome- welcoming those who appear to us in our lives with a generous spirit of hospitality.
And, may we always remember to welcome this moment as the appearance of the One Reality- be it hot or cool, remote or intimate- making room for That which is now appearing…
In The World, Not of the World- Parshat Veyeira
There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!
When I was young, there was something called “television.” I remember those long afternoons: as the sunlight that poured through the living room windows waned minute by minute, the glow of the television grew stronger and stronger – the Brady Bunch, the Flintstones, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, Carol Burnett, Star Trek. Total absorption. As the hours went by, and the nagging feeling that other things had to get done (like my homework) increased, I would cling ever more ferociously to the characters and narratives beaming from the screen. Eventually the spell would be broken only by hunger, or having to go the bathroom, or my mother.
Oh yes, the screen is still just as strong; stronger in fact.
No more need for big pieces of furniture; my daughter can take a screen under a blanket and hide from everyone. Where did she go?
I have strategies for prying my children away from their screens. Usually, there are meltdowns and tears. But occasionally, I am successful. It works best if I am present when the screen time begins, and I can secure an agreement; a “covenant” of sorts: “Do you promise to turn off the screen and give it to me when I ask you to, without any arguments and without any Please Abba Just One More Minute?
Then, when it’s time, the power of the covenant kicks in, and she gives it right back – no resistance at all. This proves: no matter how hypnotized we become by something, we do have the power to let it go, if we are properly prepared.
This is so crucial to understand, if we wish to put down an even more powerful screen –the screen of our own minds, upon which we project the drama of our lives – also known as “ego.”
Most people are glued to the screen of ego almost constantly, looking up only occasionally when the walls of the heart are breached, or when a temporary lapse in the noise of the mind allows the radiant silence to shine through, even if for only a moment.
But we need not be screen addicts; we can put down the ego anytime. Listen: The Voice of the Beloved is calling you to dinner – there’s a banquet prepared just for you! Let go of your judgments about yourself and others. Let go of how you wish things were. Let go of your obsessions, assertions, denials, angers, grudges… there is something so much better than all of that, if you would be willing to set it aside, look up and go.
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go for yourself from your land, from your family, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you…
All those opinions, assertions, cravings, disappointments – they seem so real, so important. But they aren’t the real you. They are imprints from your “land” – your culture, your inherited identity, patterns from your family, your experiences, your traumas – but you need not be imprisoned by them.
Lekh L’kha – go for yourself – el ha’arets asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
We’re being called to the banquet hall and the feast is waiting. The Voice is calling you constantly, and whatever is constant is easily ignored. But you can tune into the Call if you’re willing to wake up from the ego’s hypnosis. The key is to have a covenant– commit to stop at regular times, turn away from the pull of the ego and toward the fullness of this moment…
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה
And there he built an altar and called upon the Name of the Divine…
The essential thing is to build a space in time, and commit to regularly withdraw from the ego’s momentum for long enough to connect with Reality, with the Divine. If you want to hear the Call, then call out – this is the movement of prayer. And then, be the stillness that hears – this is the spaciousness of meditation. Make a covenant to do it every day – even a few minutes goes a long way!
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה
Rise up, walk the Land, it’s length and breadth, because to you I give it…
The ego believes itself to be a separate entity, navigating through the “Land.” But in truth the Land is fully yours. You are the Land, because everything arising in your experience in this moment is truly you; it all arises in the open space of this moment, which is not separate from the awareness that you are...
More On Lekh L'kha...
"River of Light" – Parshat Lekh L'kha and Morning Sh'ma Blessing 1
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lekh L’kha, begins with God telling Avram: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereisheet 12:1)
If you examine your experience right now, in this moment, you’ll probably see that most of the content of your experience is nothing new. You may be in a place that you’ve been many times, with sights, sounds and feelings that are familiar. And generally speaking, unless you’ve recently moved, or if you’re traveling, or changing careers, or if you’ve just had a child or started or ended a relationship, or endured another kind of loss (and if so, may you have comfort and healing), unless you’re experiencing some big changes like these, then life tends to feel familiar, maybe even old hat. And that’s why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to what’s familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, both happen on the level of the conditioned mind. Meaning, the aspect of your experience that derives from the past. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing brand new places, but you can’t fully appreciate it because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as you’re stuck in the conditioned mind, which really means being stuck in the past.
So, this is the Divine call to Avram: Don’t be stuck in the past! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come “el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I am now showing you.”
So, this is actually not just a story, it’s an instruction. You can keep in mind – Reality as it’s being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that that’s your conditioned mind. The familiarity comes from memory, from the past. And that’s a good thing; you don’t want to get rid of your memories, G-d forbid, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so this moment is also completely fresh and new, when you allow your conditioned mind – meaning, your thinking and your judging – to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha – Divine revelation is always now. That’s the practice of Presence.
But what if you keep getting stuck by your conditioning? How do stay present and deepen your presence, when conditioning can seem so powerful? Again, the main thing is recognizing your conditioning. And to do that, it’s helpful to see that there are three main levels, alluded to by the verse:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha, umimoladt’kha, umibeit avikha – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Mei’artz’kha means, “from your land.” This refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction from Presence; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a sign that your mind works, and that it’s there when you need it, thank G-d. Then, simply recognize – there’s my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.”
The next level is, umimoladt’kha, which means, “from your relatives.” These are your relationships, and this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. The other day I was talking to someone who made a mistake at work, and she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “get a life!”
We are social beings, we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also useful for normal functioning. But again, recognize: There’s my mind and its old conditioning, pulling me into its drama. Just recognizing it frees you from its tyranny, and you can choose to lekh lekha – go for yourself out from your past, and into this moment. Or, it can also be translated, lekh lekha – go to yourself –meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning. Go to your actual experience in this moment.
Which brings us to the last level, “umibeit avikha” which means, “from your father’s house.” This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how you were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that all of that is not the real you; they are parts of your conditioning.
Then, after you recognize all your conditioning for what it is, you can simply choose to shift your attention into your present moment experience, so that you stop empowering the illusory part of the conditioning. Again, the conditioning is still there when you need it, but by shifting into the present, the conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real.
So then, what is real? Meaning, what is the Reality of who you are, beneath your conditioned mind? It’s the light of awareness that perceives the conditioning, as well as the aretz asher arekha, Reality as it is revealed in this moment. In fact, your conditioning is part of haaretz asher arekha; it’s part of the landscape of the present moment, part of the ever-shifting content of your experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant light of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that’s the deepest level of you.
The tefilot, the traditional prayers, are all pointing to this truth. Structurally speaking, all the liturgy points to the Sh’ma, the centerpiece of all the prayers, calling us to awaken. The Sh’ma is decorated by special blessings that come before and after. I the morning, the first of the Sh’m’a concludes with, “Or hadash al tzion tair – Shine a new light on Zion –hinting at this quality of newness inherent in your awareness, because awareness is like light; it’s tair – shining and illuminating whatever is perceived in its field...
Why Aren't You Worried? Parshat Lekh L'kha
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvahceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you mustworry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish practice. It is believed to be so sacred that, traditionally speaking, one should not allow oneself to be interrupted while praying the Amidah. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah prayer for specific reasons. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there’s a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק: אמר רב ששת לא שנו אלא נחש אבל עקרב פוסק
We learned in the mishna that even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not interrupt one’s prayer. In limiting application of this principle, Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this mishna with regard to a snake, as if one does not attack the snake it will not bite him. But if a scorpion approaches an individual while one is praying, one stops, as the scorpion is liable to sting even if it is not disturbed.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors:
The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the holy words of the prayer, and suddenly you’re salivating for a cheeseburger.
In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the cheeseburger isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life.
On the other hand, if a scorpion starts crawling on you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer, do something to awaken your passion, and start over again.
But how do you awaken your passion?
Of course, there are many ways, but here is one that I find helpful: do something to create beauty and order in the world. Paint something. Make some art. Organize your closet. Vacuum the rug. Do the dishes. When you do, you will feel empowered by the force of blessing can comes through you, and you can direct the energy of that blessing into your practice – into your prayer, chanting, or meditation.
The reason this is so powerful is because beauty and order are actually qualities of Presence. When consciousness is cluttered, the radiant beauty Being can get covered up somewhat. But the more you come to this moment with openness, the more your consciousness becomes more and more expansive and free. Then, your inner beauty begins to glow its own brightness.
Sometimes, however, the ambient chaos (and sometimes trauma) of life can keep that beauty stifled on the inside, even when you attempt to become present through meditation or prayer. Then we need an extra boost from the outside; we need to take some physical action. This is the secret of how art becomes ritual – do something on theouter level to create an effect on the inner level.
There’s a hint of the power of beautification in this week’s reading, Parshat Noakh:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם …
May God expand Yaphet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…
This verse is part of a blessing that Noakh gives his son Yafet after the famous flood. The name Yafet means beauty, or expansiveness. The words are: Yaft Elohim l’Yafet –meaning, May the Divine expand Expansiveness, or May the Divine beautify Beauty.
This hints at the secret of how beauty becomes revealed: Consciousness contains the quality of beauty, but this inner beauty is easily obscured from itself. So, consciousness externalizes its beauty through action, and this outer beauty reflects the nature of consciousness back to itself, freeing it from its constraining clutter: The Divine expands Its Expansiveness…
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month. Heshvan is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began a week ago. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to this week’s Torah reading. In Kabbalah, water is often associated with awakening passion and desire, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow.
Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion.
Thus, Heshvan is a time to shift from the inner beauty accessed during Tishrei (through the prayers of the High Holy Days and Sukkot) to outer beauty through action, in order to reveal the inner beauty externally. This in turn further awakens the inner beauty, creating a positive pulsation between the inner and the outer…
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The Ark- Parshat Noakh
The world is a river; you cannot hold a river.
The world is a wave, but we see it as particles.
Forever the mind is building arks to float upon the churning ocean of Truth,
Holding frames of changing being above the morph so as to discern a narrative-
The arks- words!
The tzaddik’s naming of beings saves them from dissolution in God;
The tzaddik gives full attention to the being beheld, while all else drowns (for now) in the One.
Two by two- one being beholds another-
But when the ark is beached on the dry wasteland of things and agendas, the tzaddik cannot function!
S/he must plant a vineyard in the midst of the wreckage and take refuge in the wine of ecstasy-
That is, withdrawal from time into the Place where prayer erupts.
To others s/he looks naked and dysfunctional- useless.
“Let’s cover up this embarrassment!”
People are more comfortable with the building of great towers so they can say,
“Look what we have done!”
Not content with the warmth (Ham) of life, they must make a name (Shem) for themselves, claiming authorship of beauty (Yafet).
Have you forgotten how to let go?
To behold the one who stands before you and let all else drown in the One?
Don’t grasp for the spotlight, you will find everyone speaking gibberish.
But relax and take a walk with God~
God will show you how to construct your words, and illuminate them from above…
The Window- Parshat Noakh
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality.That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said, “Imagine you come to a strange country, where you know neither the language nor the customs. You feel like an alien, disconnected from others around you. But then you meet another traveler from your own country. Under normal circumstances, you may never have been interested in this person; but since you are both strangers, you have something in common in the strange land, and you become great friends…”
Rabbi Barukh’s “strange country” is really all of life, and the “companion” is really the Divine Itself. There is no experience which is not completely Divine; still, we are inclined to never notice this, until we begin to feel the pain of alienation. Motivated by feelings of disconnection or being “out of sync,” we become seekers of wholeness and peace, and it is then that the possibility of finding the Divine appears.
But to do that, our estranged self (ego) must “die” into intimacy. The “me” that seeks can motivate us, but it can never “get there” itself; it must be surrendered into the vast space of awareness that is already not separate from anything you perceive, that is already the Divine in the form of you and everything else that exists.
This past week we completed the Torah reading cycle. In the final parshah, V’Zot HaBrakha, Moses is not allowed to reap the fruits of his years of leadership; he must die just outside the Promised Land. Immediately, we go right back to the very beginning and start the reading cycle anew: Bereisheet bara Elohim – In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth…
Maybe it seems harsh and unfair that Moses couldn’t enter the land. But if we see the inner dimension of the story, there is a pointer to our own experience: the seeker of the “Promised Land” must die if you wish to truly “enter.” Stop seeing the Garden of Eden as something to get to, and connect with your actual experience now, in the present. The “Garden” is all there is, the Divine is all there is; relax the “me” and know: you are the Garden, you are the Divine…
More On Bereisheet...
The Garden- Parshat Bereisheet
“Bereisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim v’Et Ha’aretz-
"In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
What Is My Purpose?
When you awaken from sleep, is it because you’ve decided to awaken?
Or, do you simply wake up when your body is finished sleeping?
In sleep, there’s no deciding.
Once you are awake, you are faced with the question:
What shall I do? What is my purpose?
Waking up itself solves nothing-
There was no problem to begin with.
But once awake, life becomes a problem.
The universe springs into being-
Does creation have a purpose?
But “purpose” is itself something that’s created!
“Purpose” is a thought; “purpose” is a thing.
There cannot be a purpose for creation until after creation.
Before, there is no problem.
The universe comes into being because:
Sometimes, after many months, I clean my car.
My wife asks, “Why did you have to clean it now all of a sudden?”
But the only answer is: Why Not?
Before creation, there is no problem.
After, all the problems.
What is the solution to all the problems?
Go back to before the problems!
“Hinei Tov Me’od-
Behold it was very good!”
That is the Shabbat- the remembering that there were no problems before we got involved;
In fact, there are still no problems.
The “Before” never went anywhere, because it is not a thing.
It is always right here.
The Shabbat, the Garden- they were Here before Anything.
From within the Garden, there is no problem with moving back into problems.
From within Shabbat, there is no problem with moving back into time.
Seeing from within the Garden, even outside the Garden is really still inside the Garden-
For where can the Garden not be?
Seeing from outside the Garden, even inside the Garden is just more of the same:
“How can we manage to get back in?”
“Once we get in, how can we make sure that we stay there?”
But- The Garden is not “there.”
Thought springs into being from No-Thought; in No-Thought, there is no problem.
From No-Thought, why not think?
“Eitz Hada’at Tov v’Ra-
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad…”
Here we are amidst the trees of the Garden-
Why not take a bite of the good and the bad?
Of the This and the That?
Of the Before and the After?
But once you leave the Timeless, the Sword of Fire blocks your way back.
What is the Sword of Fire?
Nothing but thought!
You can't decide to awaken-
You can’t think your way back into the Garden-
The Garden never went anywhere.
But let thought cease, and you will see for yourself:
The “Purpose” is to come back to No-Purpose-
To the Place from which the Universe springs:
“Y’hi Or- Let there be light!”
To return to No-Purpose requires living with Great Purpose-
The Purpose of Being Present.
From There (which is always Here)
We can create something beautiful-
You, Me, and Others.
The world is waiting!
Do you not believe me?
Don’t worry- it’s Friday afternoon!
The Pool- Parshat Bereisheet
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
The realization of your essential nature as simple openness is represented nicely by the sukkah. The sukkah is a structure that has an inside and an outside, and yet the inside really doesn’t feel very different from the outside; it is open and permeable.
Similarly, when you recognize yourself as the open space of awareness, your thoughts and feelings come to reflect that openness, becoming permeable like the leaves and branches atop the sukkah. Normally, we tend to feel ourselves as being “inside” our bodies, with the rest of the world on the “outside.” But as we recognize that both “inside” and “outside” appear within awareness, this duality becomes less pronounced, and we can know ourselves as the simple open space within which all opposites arise.
How do we do that?
There is a beautiful hint in this week’s reading: Parshat Ha’azinu records a song that Moses teaches the children of Israel, so that they may sing it and remember their connection with the Divine. Appearing in the middle of the song are the following words:
יְסֹֽבְבֶ֙נְהוּ֙ יְבֹ֣ונְנֵ֔הוּ יִצְּרֶ֖נְהוּ כְּאִישֹׁ֥ון עֵינֹֽו
It surrounded him, imbued him with understanding and preserved him like the pupil of Its eye… (Deut. 32:10)
Here is the coded instruction for becoming present and awakening to your essential being:
יְסֹֽבְבֶ֙נְהוּ֙ – Y’sovevenhu – It surrounded: Surround the fullness of your experience right now with consciousness; let your awareness connect with everything that arises in your field of perception, without pushing anything away.
יְבֹ֣ונְנֵ֔הו – Y’vonenehu – imbued him with understanding: Understand that everything you perceive – from sensory impressions, to emotional feelings, to thoughts – are all literally different forms of consciousness. Everything you experience happens within consciousness, and is therefore made out of consciousness, at least within your experience.
יִצְּרֶ֖נְהוּ כְּאִישֹׁ֥ון עֵינֹֽו – Yitzrenhu k’ishon eino – and preserved him like the pupil of Its eye:Return yourself repeatedly to knowing that you are consciousness, that you are essentially an open space of awareness, beyond all thoughts and feelings. Just as the pupil of an eye is a simple opening through which light can flow, so too the full spectrum of Reality as you experience it flows through and as the open field of awareness that you are.
In this joyful time of Sukkot, may we become like a sukkah; may we invite in the ushpizin(guests) of everything that arises, that we may discover anew and live our nature as the openness of hospitality...
More On Ha'azinu and Sukkot...
The Salad- Parshat Ha'azinu
Once, my son told me about a show he saw on food waste. He learned that in our country alone, every person wastes a staggering twenty pounds of food per month! And yet, with a little more consciousness and care, much of the wasted food could be put to good use.
To illustrate the point, they assembled a group of folks and served them a gourmet salad. They asked the group to rate the salad, and everyone loved it.
Then, they revealed the truth: the salad was made entirely out of food waste!
A gourmet chef was given food that is normally considered waste- peelings, stems, stalks and other items that are usually discarded. The food scraps were cut, peeled, marinated, pounded and transformed into something the group perceived to be not only edible, but a unique and delicious gourmet dish.
It’s a good thing that the human mind can differentiate between food and garbage, between “wheat and chaff”, between nourishment and poison. But the shadow side to this dualistic thinking is that we tend to develop a rigid narrative about what is good and usable, and what needs to be thrown away.
Or, sometimes the opposite happens-
Out of fear that something valuable might be lost, some people become hoarders, surrounding themselves with far more junk than they could ever use.
But what if the human mind could be flexible enough to fully use whatever is present? Not hoard for another day, and not look at a fridge partially filled with odds and ends and decide, “there’s nothing to eat!”
One time, I was away with my son and my wife Lisa was home alone for a few days with our daughter.
Lisa thought, “I wonder if I can avoid going shopping and just live off whatever is in the house?”
Guess what- she did! No shopping that week. They were fine.
When the mind is full of rigid preconceptions, it’s impossible to see the full potential of what is present. But get some space around your thoughts (like send the boys to Arizona!), connect with what is really here in this moment, and new possibilities open up. There are little miracles waiting to happen.
But to open up this space and become present, you need to bring together the two opposite poles of your being- consciousness and flesh.
Ordinarily, human consciousness tends to congeal into a constant stream of thinking, taking the thinker into all kinds of imagined realities, while the body is left to deal with the here and now. The eyes are looking in the fridge, but the mind is thinking about something else!
This week’s reading begins with Moses’ words to the Israelites:
“Ha’azinu hashamyaim va’adabeirah-
Give ear, O Heavens, and I shall speak-
“V’tishma Ha’aretz imrei fi-
And listen, O Earth, to the words of my mouth.”
The “Heavens” and the “Earth” are metaphors for these opposite polls of our being. When mind is extricated from the relentless narratives of thought and brought into intimate connection with the body, then the mind and body can “listen” together as one. When that happens, the “secrets” that are hidden in plain sight can be revealed.
These “secrets” are ever-present, as it goes on to say-
“Let my teaching fall like rain, let my utterance flow like dew, like storm winds on vegetation, like raindrops on blades of grass…”
Torah is everywhere, soaking everything like rain, blowing through everything as the air we breathe. But to see it, to hear it, you have to open to it.
Opening means: there must be an opening in your thoughts, so that your awareness and your body can fully join together.
When that happens, there is no more sense of “me” as the thinker and “my body” that “I” inhabit. That separate “I” drops away.
There is a hint of this in the concluding verses of the parshah:
“Aley el har… ur’eh et eretz… umoot b’har…
Ascend the mountain… see the land… and die on the mountain…”
“Ascend the mountain” means to rise above your thinking mind.
“See the land” means to really see what is right here before you, now.
“Die on the mountain” means that when you rise above your mind and yet connect fully with your body, your ordinary thought-bound self can drop away.
This is the deepest freedom- freedom from the sense of “me” as a separate entity that is living in “my” body.
And when there is no more separate "me", what is left?
This can’t really be described, because language itself is rooted in thought, which is the basis for separateness. But there is a hint in this parshah:
“He is suckled with honey from a stone, and oil from the hardness of a rock…”
In other words, what seemed to be dead is bursting with life. Everything is miraculous, everything is nourishing.
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, told a story in the name of his grandfather:
“Once there was a fiddler who played so sweetly that no one who heard the music could resist dancing. One time, a man walked by a house where the fiddler played and he saw people dancing through the window. He couldn’t hear the music they heard, and so he thought they were madmen, flailing their bodies about tastelessly.”
As we approach the joyful and celebratory days of Sukkot, may we hear the music of Existence that plays all around us and within us. May we be like the sukkah- an open form, a beautiful frame, without much differentiation between “inside” and “outside”.
And as we leave behind the day of fasting, may we take care to fully use and share what we have, nourishing each other and minimizing our food waste. If you haven’t already, make the fast of Yom Kippur real by donating to your local food bank or other relief organization. Take a moment and give tzeddaka now!
The Mouse- Shabbat Sukkot
Once, during the days after Yom Kippur, we suspected that there was a mouse in the house.
First, the strange little pieces of refuse that would show up on the floor when we knew we had already swept. Then, the little mysterious scratchy sounds I would hear when I knew everyone else was asleep. But we knew for sure when we found that a bag of leftover hallah had been chewed through.
Not knowing how the mouse got in and out, we quickly became much more disciplined about putting all our food away! We could tell the mouse was still coming in, but most of the time there was nothing for it to steal.
It wasn’t until Sukkot began, however, that I actually saw it.
We were eating in the sukkah, when I went back into the house to get the main course. As soon as entered the back door of our house, I saw the little mouse scurry across the floor and squeeze right through a little opening below a sliding door that goes into the wall.
I took some plastic bags and pushed them into the opening to block it, then used duct tape to seal it up. A temporary measure, but the mouse seems to have not returned, leaving the sanctuary of our home free from it for now.
But there is another kind of sanctuary- a space in which the heart is free and the mind is clear. That space is a sanctuary from all stress, from all problems, from all tzures.
That space is the present moment.
It is ever available, and always right here. And yet, the ordinary human mind is unaware of this space. Living life almost entirely through the screen of thinking, this sanctuary is overrun with the “rodents” of thought.
Craving some peace, one attempts to put life in order so that the rodents won’t disturb anything too much. Unaware of where the rodents are coming from, all you can do is put the food away so as not to attract them.
By “putting the food away” I mean arranging your life to your liking- organizing things so that stress and chaos are kept at bay. This is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you, our kitchen was never so consistently clean as when that mouse forced us to develop better habits!
But once you see where the mouse is coming from, you can seal up the hole at its source. Meaning- once you see that the source of all chaos and worry is your own mind, you can “close the hole” through which chaos and misery enter.
Then, you can still clean your kitchen if you want to, but you’re not dependant on it. Meaning- you can organize your life to maximum benefit, but even when life is chaotic externally, even when there is loss, failure and uncertainty, the Sanctuary of the Present is not lost. Your mind can be free from those “rodents” of excess thinking, and in that clarity the Sanctuary reveals itself.
And yet, this is still a big secret, even for long-time spiritual practitioners!
Many people enter the Sanctuary in their moments of avodah, of meditation, ritual, chanting and so on, but cannot seem to stay connected in the midst of life.
In this week’s special reading for Shabbat Sukkot, Moses seems to have this very problem. Moses- the one who speaks to Hashem face-to-face, is afraid that the Divine Presence will not accompany him on his journey of leading the people (Exodus 33:12):
“Re’eh Atah omer eilai, ha’al et ha’am hazeh-
"See, You say to me, ‘take this people onward’, but You did not reveal whom You will send with me!”
Moses is afraid that the One who sends him on his mission will abandon him. What is Hashem’s response?
“Panai yelekhu v’hanikhoti lakh-
"My Presence will go and give you rest!”
The Presence “goes” wherever you go!
That’s because the “Presence” is not something separate from your own presence, from your awareness when it is actually present. And when your awareness is present, there is “rest”.
The word here for “I will give rest”, hanikhoti, has the same root as the name Noakh, the fellow who built the ark for the great flood. Whether the metaphor is rodents or destructive floodwaters, the idea is the same- there is an ark that floats above the raging waters in which you can find refuge.
In the case of Moses and the Israelites, they lived in temporary dwellings on their journeys- the sukkot in which Jews everywhere are now dwelling for this holiday that commemorates the ancient dwellings of the Israelites.
The sukkah is a sanctuary, yet it is hardly a solid thing. Open to the sky, vulnerable to the elements, it is really just a frame, not secure at all.
And that’s the paradox- that “sealing the hole” and securing your mind from the “rodents” of thought does not mean something hard or effortful. No plastic and duct tape! It means relaxing the mind, allowing the mind to be open to the fullness of what is already present.
But still, to do this constantly takes a special kind of effort that eludes most people. So much of the language of prayer is longing for the fruit of this effort!
As King David says in Psalm 27:
“Akhat Sha’alti me’eit Hashem-
"Only one thing I ask of You, Hashem, that I should dwell in Your house and meditate in Your sanctuary all the days of my life!”
The Sanctuary of Presence is ever-present, yet it is so easy to block it. Think of this- the sun is 864,938 miles in diameter, yet you can block its view entirely with just your little hand.
And yet, even while you are blocking the Presence, the blocking is itself happening in the present! The only thing blocking God, ultimately, is God- as God tells Moses a few verses later (Exodus 33:22):
“It will be when My Glory passes, I shall place you in a cleft in the rock and shield you with My hand…”
When our fleeting and immaterial thoughts hide the “Glory” of this passing moment, hardening the openness of the present into what feels like a narrow cleft of rock on all sides, remember: Your thoughts themselves are also part of this moment. Accept them with openness and let them pass as well.
In accepting and releasing your thoughts, they can dissolve, revealing the open space once again, as Hashem says next:
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see my ‘back’…”
Meaning, you will see in retrospect that your thoughts blocking the Sanctuary are themselves part of the Sanctuary. They are part of the reality of the present moment.
But the more simple and direct path is simply to bring your attention to literally anything physical that is already present. The more you train yourself to do this, the more you will become aware of the space behind whatever is present- the ineffable openness that is the present moment.
There is a story of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, that once he asked his son what he “prays with”. The boy answered that he inspires himself with the verse, “Every form shall prostrate itself before You.”
The boy then asked the rebbe, “What do you pray with, Abba?”
The rebbe answered, “I pray with the bench and the floor.”
On this Shabbat Sukkot, may we commit our attention ever more deeply to the bench on which we sit and the floor on which we stand, that we might open ever more deeply to the Sukkat Shalom- the Space of Peace that is this moment in which we now live.
I spoke to a woman once who had recently lost her husband. In her grief she confided in me that the most painful part was not that her husband had died – he had lived a good life and death is natural, after all – but that she didn’t fully appreciate him while he was alive. In his death, she was finally appreciating him so deeply, but now he was gone.
Why don’t we appreciate what is here now? Why does it take death to open our hearts?
The irony is that the past is always dead, but we hold on to it, and the holding on itself is what creates this separation from the preciousness that’s here now. But, if we bring ourselves to realize that the past is dead, that the only preciousness there is resides now in this moment, we can use the power of death to awaken.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayelekh, begins with Moses telling the Israelites before he dies:
הַיֹּ֔ום לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל עֹ֖וד לָצֵ֣את וְלָבֹ֑וא
Today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come back…
For many, connection with Reality, with the Divine, with the Space of this moment, is something one visits occasionally, perhaps only by accident. But for a few, the Divine becomes the central guiding Reality, the Place one returns frequently every day. For these few practitioners, the drama of “going out” and “coming back” can feel very pronounced, since one really wishes to stay there all the time.
But there is a later stage where the going out and coming back ceases. This is NOT because one simply stays in some static Divine consciousness all the time, which is impossible, but rather because one is no longer so concerned about the “me” that comes and goes. The Divine becomes one’s center of attention, so that even when one’s attention wanders from the Divine and then returns, it is the Divine that matters – not the “me” that wandered and returned. This is similar to death, in that the attachment to one’s self and life drama comes to an end: Today, meaning in the Reality of the Present, it is no longer possible to be concerned about the “me” that “goes out” and “comes back”…
The Maggid of Metzrich taught that this opportunity of these High Holy Days: to consciously let the “me” die, and let the force of this death blast our hearts open like the shofar to receive the fulness that is always present, and also to open to the full potential for the future, unburdened by any clinging to the past. That’s why we have to forgive each other, and even more importantly, forgive ourselves.
In this way, our loss is our gain. Rather than be in regret that we didn’t appreciate something or someone enough in the past, we consciously feel both the pain and the relief of letting go, and come now to arrive in the present. On these Days of Return, may we all be helped to make the Divine our center, so that the going out and coming back starts to pale in comparison…
Live From Your Depths- Parshat Vayelekh
Once, my wife and mother-in-law were giving a bath to our three-year-old daughter. A few minutes after she got in the water, she looked up and said, “Um, could you guys please put some toys in here so I don’t have to play with my feet?”
The mind loves things to play with. As children we call those play objects toys. As adults, we have different names for them, but they are essentially the same. They are stimulation. They are external content that we become fascinated with.
We don’t want to just “play with our feet,” or even worse, have nothing to play with at all. What could be worse for a child than to have to sit still, be quiet and do nothing? The mind craves and needs stimulation. For children, this stimulation is essential for the healthy growth of their brains, and so stimulation must be almost constant.
But at some point, that changes.
At some point, you might notice: all the stimulation, all the thinking, all the experiencing, wonderful and essential as they are, can be like the flaming sword of the keruvim, guarding the entrance to Gan Eden- the entrance to paradise.
At some moment, and maybe that moment is now, you notice:
There is an inner depth so vast, so beautiful, so alive, if you would only put down your toys and open to it.
That vastness is your own inner Divinity- Eloheikhem- it is awareness meeting the truth of the present moment- Eloheikhem Emet.
But many people never discover this, and remain identified and entangled in the noise of mental toys, in the mind’s perpetual narratives. This creates an experience of separateness, of craving for the wholeness that is actually there all along, beneath the mind. That craving can lead to great inner disturbance, and ultimately, all of the horrors that still plague humanity.
What is the remedy?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Levi Bar Chama says in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish that when you feel yourself gripped by unwholesome motives, you should study some Torah (Berakhot 5a).
In other words, study some spiritual teaching that puts you in touch with your inner Divinity, just like you are doing right now. For the aim of spiritual teaching is not just to convey information, it’s to awaken your higher potential.
But, if that doesn’t work, he says to chant this verse:
“Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Ekhad-
"Listen Israel, Existence Itself is your own inner Divinity; there is only One Existence.”
In other words, stop and become aware that God is not something “out there” or separate. All you need do is “listen” because this moment is nothing but God, if your thinking mind would relax.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s one more trick: Think of your own death.
The irony of children is that, on one hand, they are such bright little explosions of life, free and unencumbered by the heaviness that so many adults carry around with them.
And, at the same time, they are so utterly obsessed with things that are really trivial, as anyone knows who has had to negotiate “sharing toys” with three-year-olds.
But as adults, despite the years of psychic crust we accumulate in our nervous system, there is this tremendous opportunity for depth when we let go of everything. That is the contemplation of death. We will all die, but we can die before we die, surrendering into the reality of this moment, letting go of the story of “me”.
This week’s reading begins shortly before Moses’ death:
"Moses went and spoke these words...
‘Hayom lo ukhal…’-
‘today it is no longer possible for me to go out and come in…’”
When you live on the surface, in the mind’s narratives, there is this sense of “me” going here and there, doing this and that.
But in hayom- in the “today”- there is no longer a “me” coming and going. In the present, you live from your depths that are far beyond your personal story. This is the death before you die.
It is said that a heavenly voice told the Baal Shem Tov he would be denied life in the World to Come for some small sin he committed. When he heard this news, he jumped for joy and danced.
“Why are you so happy?” said the heavenly voice.
“Because now I can serve God for its own sake, without ulterior motive.”
In these days of teshuvah, leading to Yom Kippur- The Day of At-One-ment, may our commitment to live from our depths become ever more deep, and may that depth be revealed in our thoughts, words and actions. May we speedily see a day when all of humanity lives and loves from its true depth and potential!
Good Shabbos, and g’mar hatimah tovah-
May you be inscribed for all good things!
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!
More On Nitzavim...
Can't Stand It? Parshat Nitzavim
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 Nae-Nae- Parshat Nitzavim
Once 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 nae-nae!” 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 nae-nae” seemed a little off to me. I don’t want to say it sounded obscene, but not knowing what “nae-nae” 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 nae-nae!”
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 "nah nae" 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 "today"- 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 on Shabbat. 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, it is tremendously helpful to frequently go beyond all narrative, and stand in the silence of pure potential. That’s meditation- that's standing today.
As we come into Shabbat Nitzavim, the Sabbath of Standing, and then into the New Year beginning Sunday night, may we stand in connection with all 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!
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