Once there was a rabbi who decided to start a yeshivah, a school for Jewish learning. He wanted it to be refuge from the world where young men could grow spiritually, so he built it away from civilization, on the bank of a beautiful river.
Many people came to learn. But after a few months, he noticed some commotion on the other side of the river. Many cars were coming and going, and people seemed to be partying and having a good time.
When he investigated, he found that that a courtesan had opened a bar and brothel. Lots of rich men came in big cars and carried on all night. He started thinking to himself, “Oy! That’s just what I need! My boys will be tempted away!”
Then he became angry: “Why is she wasting her life like that, and leading so many people to sin? She really shouldn’t be doing that!”
Meanwhile, it happened that the courtesan looked across the river and saw the littleyeshivah. “I don’t know why I’m leading such a dirty life like this. Look at those holy people! They must be so happy and spiritual, so connected to the Divine, I wish I could be like that!”
The two of them contemplated like this for many months, each fixating on the other, when one day they suddenly both died. Angels came to accompany the spirit of the woman to paradise. But a hoard of ugly demonic spirits came for the rav.
“Hey, what going on? You must have gotten your addresses mixed up!”
“No mistake,” replied the demons, “We’ve come to take you to she’ol.”
“But what have I done wrong? I sit and learn and pray and fast and meditate all day, and help these boys to do the same!” he argued.
“Yes,” said the demons, “you do all the right things physically, but in your mind, you’ve been doing nothing but contemplating how ugly, unholy a life that woman is living, and so that’s the future you have created for yourself– we have come to the right place!”
To live an awakened life doesn’t mean to merely do external practices. It means: totally accept what comes to you with love, even and especially when it’s not what you want, but then also you must actively create what you do want, and you do that first of all on the level of thought. In Pirkei Avot 2:1, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says:
אֵיזוֹ הִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
What is the straight path a person should choose for oneself?
Kol shehi tiferet l’oseha – everything that is good to do for oneself, v’tiferet lo min ha’adam – and that will be appreciated by others.”
In other words, take responsibility to create the life you want, and share that goodness with others.
But so often, we unconsciously do just the opposite– we begrudge what comes to us, blaming others or blaming the world for our perceived misfortune, and then we don’t take the steps we can take to create something better. And, we can often do this without even knowing it, if we’re not aware of our own minds. Like the story, we can seem to be doing the right thing externally, but in our minds, we can be creating the opposite. This week’s reading begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
Shoftim v’shotrin titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha –
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…
How do you guard the gates of your own mind, so that negativity doesn’t sprout and create a personal hell?
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְהוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד
Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid
I keep the Divine Name before me constantly…
Keep your mind vibrating with a sacred phrase, such as Atah Hu – You are the Divine,knowing that everything arising in your experience are all forms of the One Reality. Like the woman in the story, see the Divine everywhere, focus on the Divine in everything. Then the Divine will be your refuge from all potential danger that can sprout from your thoughts. As the psalm says:
אַתָּ֤ה ׀ סֵ֥תֶר לִי֮ מִצַּ֪ר תִּ֫צְּרֵ֥נִי רָנֵּ֥י פַלֵּ֑ט תְּסֹ֖ובְבֵ֣נִי סֶֽלָה
Atah seiter li, mitzar tizreini, ranei faleit t’soveveini, selah!
You are a shelter for me, from constriction you rescue me, with glad song of rescue you envelop me, selah!
More On Shoftim...
Two Steps to Actualization: Parshat Shoftim
Parshat Shoftim begins, Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha- judges and officers you shall place in your gates. So, what are shoftim, the judges? They’re the ones who are supposed to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And what are shotrim, the officers? They’re the ones that inforce the decisions of the shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well.
The job of the mind is to help us navigate through time and make decisions. For this reason, the mind is constantly judging everything, preferring this over that, pronouncing things as bad and good and so on. Of course, this is necessary, but the side effect is that you can become entirely focused on the incompleteness of everything, and that creates tension and stress. And, the more you experience the incompleteness of things, the more you experience yourself as incomplete, as never quite adequate, because on the level of form, that’s correct. Nothing is ever complete; everything is in motion, everything is needing other things to get temporary completion. Just like when you eat, you feel full, but sooner or later you have to eat again.
But as a shofet, as a judge on the spiritual level, you have to "judge the judge" in a sense. You have to see clearly how your mind works; how it automatically fixates on the incompleteness through its constant judging and thinking, and how that creates a sense of “me,” a sense of ego that is also incomplete and needy. Then, as the shofet, as the awareness that sees this, don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get seduced by it. Instead, accept this moment as it is, without preferring that were different, without “rathering” something else. As it says, lo takir panim – don’t give preference to someone – v’lo tikakh shokhad – don’t take a bribe. Meaning, don’t get sucked into the judgments of your mind that have an ego-enhancing motive. This stepping back from your own judging creates a kind of space between you and your mind, so that you can feel yourself not as the inadequate “me,” not as the ego, but as the space of awareness within which everything is perceived, including the feelings of the ego. That’s the first step – shoftim – transcending the mind through awareness of the mind.
The next step is the shotrim, the officers. Because no matter how deep your transcendence is, it won’t necessarily make its way into your behavior unless you deliberately choose to turn away from your old negative patterns and create new positive ones. That’s why a few lines later it says, Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhyeh- Fairness, or justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.
It says tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice, because the first tzedek is that you have to be impartial with regard to everything arising in your experience, accepting everything as it is, and then the second tzedek is to look closely at your behavioral patterns and choose actions that embody tzedek, actions that are tzeddaka, that are in the spirit of love, healing, and tikun olam- improving on the world of form, rather than doing things that create or reinforce conflict and suffering.
So, on this Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High and Holy days of up-leveling our relationship with life, may we all refocus our efforts on both of these crucial aspects of the Path – realizing and embodying, realizing and embodying, and may our suffering world please come closer to healing and transformation as well. Good Shabbos!
There Goes the Neighborhood- Parshat Shoftim
One time, I stepped out onto the front porch just before the sun set to daven Minkha- the collection of afternoon prayers. It was such a beautiful evening- rays of pink and orange from the descending sun flickered through dancing leaves in the cool breeze of our Oakland neighborhood.
I began to sing the words with eyes closed-
“Ashrei yoshvei veitekha- Joyful are those who dwell in your house…”
Suddenly, I was startled by a harsh female voice calling to me: “Excuse me, are you meditating and praying?”
“Yes,” I answered politely. I opened my eyes to see a woman standing on the sidewalk right in front of me. She over-smiled mockingly and grotesquely, then dropped the smile, revealing a sinister and angry face.
“You are engaging in r-r-r-repetitive prayers?” she spurted with a theatrically rolled “R.” She thrust her neck at me and circled her head with her fingers, as if to mock the kippa I was wearing.
“Do you live on this street?” I asked her.
“You mean do I live in a house?” she yelled at me, “Because I see you certainly live in a house! You sit there in your house with your nonsensical prayers, asking me where I live??”
She continued up the sidewalk in a rampage- “Look at this guy in his house! Saying his prayers and meditating!” she screamed and yelled as she continued up the street… then she was gone.
When you hear this story, what’s your impression?
I imagine people will hear this story in different ways. Some will be shocked at the woman’s behavior, while others will be moved by the problem of homelessness, and others will wonder what I did next.
The human mind understands what happens in terms of its own narratives. These narratives are not even necessarily conscious; they are mostly in the background and taken for granted as truth.
For example, what if this same scenario unfolded, except that the characters were actors in a play?
Imagine you were an actor. You played the guy on the porch, and your friend played the woman. When the play was over, there would be no emotional residue. After all, the play wasn’t real- you and your friend were just acting, so there would be no lingering emotional charge.
But when someone comes and assaults you verbally for real in the course of your day, what experience might arise then?
For most of us, there would be a sense of being threatened. There may be anger, an urge to retaliate, to defend, and so on. Probably, the first reaction would not be curiosity, openness, or the desire to discover the truth of the situation.
My immediate reaction was certainly not curiosity, even though that woman was probably mentally ill. Even though I am incredibly privileged- not just with a house, not just with friends and family who would help me if I were to lose my house, but with a mind that is, for the most part, sane and capable. She seemed not to be privileged in that way.
But, even if you may not feel concerned with truth in the moment when someone is verbally attacking you, you still can be committed to truth.
And this is the crucial thing: not what you happen to feel in any given moment, not what you happen to think in any given moment, but rather what you choose to be committed to, regardless of the momentary, passing content of your experience. The content of your experience constantly changes, but behind all that change is you- and you can choose.
This week’s reading begins:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein l’kha b’khol sh’arekha-
“Judges and officers you should place in your gates, that your Divine nature, Existence Itself, is giving you, and they will judge the people with fairness.”
The mind has its automatic judgments, but this verse is telling us to intentionally “place the judge in your gate”- meaning, be aware of your preconceptions, your patterns, and don’t be fooled by them. See what’s really happening. Don't over-interpret, and admit what you don’t know.
Your behaviors will have their automatic patterns as well, so you also need to have “officers”- concrete practices to help you remember to be aware of the truth of your experience, and not be seduced into embellishments and assumptions.
Without these two things- a commitment to truth that you can verbalize and practices you can actualize- your highest awareness will be fleeting, blowing about in the winds of whatever happens to happen. And, the threat is not just from the unpleasant things that happen. Just as unpleasant things can derail you from seeing clearly, so also “good” things can cause complacency and laziness. Seeing truth requires vigilance against all of your own biases; that’s being awake.
And when you’re really awake, not to clinging to preconceptions and judgments, the realization can dawn on you- that actually, we don’t know very much. All we really know is what we are witnessing, in this moment. In this freedom from preconception, Reality can be quite surprising:
A hasid by the name of Reb Yosef Moshe once visited his rebbe, Reb Yisrael- the Maggid of Koznitz- to get a blessing before embarking on a journey.
The Maggid blessed his journey, but added: “Tell me- what do you do when your carriage comes upon a poor man who is going in your direction on foot and asks to be given a ride?”
“Why, that happens a lot,” replied Reb Yosef. “My men have instructions to stop for poor wayfarers, and take them to their destination.”
“And suppose you came upon a pauper who seemed to have trouble walking, leaning on a stick- what happens then?” asked the rebbe.
“I would say that it’s even more important to take in such a person,” said the hasid.
“I would say the exact opposite!” retorted the Maggid. “A healthy person depends on their legs. If a carriage comes by, so much the better; if not, one can continue on foot.
“But if a person needs a cane to walk, how can they undertake a long journey and rely on the miracle of a carriage to appear at the right moment and take them where they need to go? I would say that such a person is a fraud, and who knows what their true motives are?”
The hasid was of course surprised to hear these words. Why would the rebbe say that?
He set out the next day on his journey. In the course of the carriage ride, he lay down and fell asleep. While he was asleep, his companions saw a pauper who was limping along on crutches. The pauper waved his arms and begged them to stop and take him with them, so they called to the coachmen to draw the reign and wait until he caught up with them. Reb Yosef, awakened by the sound of their shouting, asked why they had stopped.
“There’s a man with crutches, so we stopped to give him a ride,” they replied.
As soon as he heard this, he remembered his rebbe’s words and cried out to the coachmen- “Quick! Gallop ahead as fast as you can!”
The coachman cracked his whip and off went the carriage at top speed. The “pauper” then lifted both crutches and started running after them! Unable to catch up, he hurled one of his crutches at them in anger. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
On this Shabbat Shoftim- the Sabbath of Judges- may we remember to place our discerning wisdom at the gates of our senses, being careful to note exactly what we perceive, without the bias of our preconceptions, and may our true seeing be in service of everyone equally, as it says-
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof- Justice, justice you shall pursue…”
One time, when my wife's parents were visiting, we went out for a big family dinner. After we ordered, we waited and waited for the food to come, but nothing came. After about a half hour or so, the family started to get restless and irritated. Eventually one of us called the waiter over to ask what's going on.
"Yes, I'm so sorry!" said the waiter, "We're having a hard time in the kitchen, but it's coming soon, I promise!"
This happened over and over – he kept saying it was coming soon, it's about to come out, but it never came out. Finally, he came over again: "I'm so sorry – The chef chopped his finger off by accident, but I promise you the food is coming out in like two minutes – I promise!"
Oh my God! How horrible! But we kept waiting; ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes go by, still nothing. Finally our five-year-old girl says, "Do you think he chopped off his other finger?"
We've all had experiences like this, waiting and waiting for something. There's some expectation that's not getting fulfilled, and a feeling of irritation arises. Then, for most of us, there is a kind of inner separation occurs, a "turning away" from whatever the experience is, a "dis-ease" with the reality of the moment. I might describe it as the opposite of relaxing into a hot tub. It's the opposite of being really tired and lying down and drifting to sleep. It's the opposite of enjoying the moment. There's a dis-ease, a resistance, a sense of judgment that happens almost automatically in the presence of discomfort.
But, it's possible for discomfort to arise and not make the decision to disconnect. But to do that, we have to make another decision: to simply come close to the feeling that we're having – to be karov.
Then, miraculously, the discomfort becomes less significant, and the more significant thing is simply the energy of consciousness that's taking the form of the discomfort;because underneath the discomfort is your own life energy. It's your own consciousness.
Yes, consciousness can take the shape of irritation due to some expectation that's not being met. But when you come close to it – when you say, "Okay, I'm going to be Karov – intimate – with this feeling," then it's just as if you were to relax into a hot tub. That's the that's the profound shift.
To do this, it doesn't take much intellect; you just decide to do it. But there are also ways of thinking that can help us be karov. One way is summed up in the phrase, "Gam zu l'tovah- This is also for the good."
Once there was a king who had a trusted minister, and the minister would be with the king all the time and give him good advice.
One day, when the king was chopping some vegetables, he accidentally cut his finger really deeply with a knife. "Oh, how could I do that? I was paying such close attention!"
He calls his minister: "Can you explain to me how I did this? It seemed like the knife jumped out of my hand!"
"Gam zu l'tovah– this too is for the good!" said the minister.
"What do you mean?" yelled the king. "How could you say gam zu l'tovah? You're out of here! Send this guy to the dungeon!"
So the minister gets thrown in the dungeon. "Gam zu l'tovah," the minister said again.
A little while later, the king went on a hunt with his hunting companions. Suddenly, he catches a glimpse of a deer and starts swiftly chasing after it, going deep into the forest, away from all the other companions. The deer gets away, and the king is left all alone, lost in the forrest. Eventually he gets tired, so he ties up his horse, sits under a tree and dozes off.
A little while later, he hears some kind of weird sound. He wakes up to find a huge lion sniffing him. He doesn't know what to do. He's terrified! The lion's throat is growling as he sniffs. Suddenly, the lion draws back his head, makes a face and runs away.
"I can't believe it!" the king says to himself. He calls out for his companions. Eventually they find him, and they all return to the palace.
"I'll have to call back my minister from the dungeon to ask about this!"
So he calls back the minister and tells the whole story. The minister says, "Yes of course!Gam zu l'tovah! That's why you cut your finger. Just as you are the king, and when we serve you food it should always be unblemished, so too the king of the beasts wants unblemished food. When the lion realized you had this cut on your finger, he thought you were not fit for the king of the beasts, and so he left."
The King was impressed. "Very good!" he replied. "But what's so gam zu l'tovah about you getting thrown in the dungeon?"
"Well," said the minister, "of course you know that I'm always with you no matter what you're doing. So if you hadn't thrown me in the dungeon, I would have been with you hunting, and I would have been there with you under that tree. Since I don't have a cut of my finger, I would have gotten eaten by the lion!"
Can we frame the moment so that we can see the ultimate goodness that will come from unpleasant experiences? Can we relax into whatever the moment brings, so we can be unified with it, so we can be karov? In other words, can we choose happiness over misery?
This week's reading is Parshat Re'eh. Re'eh means "see," which is is a metaphor for understanding, for "getting it" – like in English, when someone says, "Oh I see."
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
Right now, there is this choice: blessing or curse. And what are the conditions for blessing or curse? It says it right there:
Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- The blessing- that you listen!
Very interesting. If you want blessing, then tishma’u – listen! Meaning: be fully present, bekarov, with the fullness of your experience right now...
More On Re'eh
The Holodeck- Parshat Re'eh
Back in the early nineties, there was an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Commander Data was attempting to learn the meaning of humor. Data was an android, so he had trouble understanding certain human characteristics such as humor and other emotions.
To practice his humor, he goes into the “Holodeck”- a place on the ship that creates virtual realities. The “Holodeck” gives him a comedy club scene with an audience, and Data gets on the stage to practice his stand up routine.
At first, Data is pleased because the audience roars with laughter at his jokes. But after some time, Data notices something is fishy. He begins to deliberately say things that are not funny at all, but the audience still laughs. Data realizes that the Holodeck computer is simply making the audience laugh at whatever he says. Disappointed, Data leaves the stage.
Now, why is Data disappointed?
Of course, it’s because his goal is not to simply experience an audience laughing at him. His goal is to get funnier. To do that, he needs a realistic, critical audience to get good feedback.
Spiritually speaking, it’s the same. We need the friction of a world with both blessings and curses in order to master the art of life.
What is your goal in this life?
If your goal is only for the world to give you what you want, you had better get a Holodeck. Then you can program it to do whatever you want it to do.
But if your goal is to master this life, then the world is perfectly calibrated for helping you do that!
And what does it mean to “master this life?”
There was once a farmer named Moishe, who owned many horses. But, after a series of unfortunate incidents, he lost all of his animals except for one old horse. One day, his last horse escaped, leaving Moishe with nothing.
The villagers came to console him: “Oy Moishe, we are so sorry. What great sin could you have committed to bring this curse upon yourself?”
Moishe replied, “Maybe curse, maybe blessing. We don’t know.”
Later that week, just before Shabbos, the horse returned- with an entire herd of wild horses! Moishe’s son was able to move all the wild horses into their fenced field. Instantly, Moishe was a rich man.
The villagers returned: “Oy Moishe! What a blessing! Surely you have done some great mitzvah to deserve such a reward!”
Moishe just said, “Maybe a blessing, maybe a curse! Who knows?”
After Shabbos, Moishe’s son began the task of breaking in the wild horses. While he was working a particularly feisty one, he was thrown and broke his leg.
Again the villagers came: “Oy Moishe, I guess those horses were not such a blessing after all! Now your only son is worthless! How will you get any work done? How could you have brought such a curse upon yourself?”
Moishe simply replied, “Well, we really don’t know… maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a blessing.”
The next day, some Russian soldiers came through the village, drafting all the young Jewish men into the army. But, Moishe’s son was spared on account of his broken leg.
Again the villagers came- “Oy Moishe! Hashem has surely blessed you by causing your son to break his leg!”
Where does it end?
Mastering life means getting free from the impulse to constantly judge everything.
Of course, it’s natural, and to a certain degree necessary, to judge. But if you are constantly blown around by the shifting winds of circumstance, compulsively judging everything that happens as either a blessing or a curse, isn’t that itself a curse?
This week’s reading begins with the words:
“Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah-
"See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
“Today”- meaning now- there is the potential for either blessing or curse.
How to choose the blessing?
It goes on to say,
“Et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot-
"The blessing- that you listen to the commandments.”
There are three levels of meaning here in the word “mitzvot” or “commandments.”
First, this moment in which we find ourselves is itself a “commandment.” Meaning, it is what it is. It has authority. We surrender to this moment or we struggle in vain. This moment has already become what it is!
The second level of meaning is that “mitzvah” is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta” which means not “to command”, but “to connect”.
How do you connect deeply with someone? By listening to them!
So the image of “listening” to the "mitzvah" is a metaphor for connecting. When we “hear” what someone is saying, it means that we deeply connect with the speaker- “I really hear you, man!”
So if you want blessing and not curse, connect with hayom- this moment- be present to what is, regardless of whether it seems like a blessing or a curse to your mind or your heart.
Accept the blessing and the curse- that’s the blessing!
Prefer the blessing and not the curse- that’s the curse!
But in order to do that, you have to be aware of your situation:
“Re’eh- See- I place before you today blessing and curse.”
The sense of “hearing” is a metaphor for connecting, while the sense of “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding. We “see” that something is the case- “Oh, I see now!”
The automatic, unconscious impulse is to be like the villagers, stuck in the curse of judging blessings and curses. It’s only natural!
But to go beyond that, you need to be aware: Simply listen to the fullness of how it is. Let go of the judging mind.
Once you do that, you are free. Like Commander Data, you will be happy if the audience is not laughing at your jokes. That’s how you learn. Like the farmer, you will respond to each situation as it is, without the excess drama.
And that brings us to the third meaning of “mitzvot”- the plain meaning of “God’s commandments.”
When you free yourself from compulsive judgment, seeing the Whole, then you know you are not something separate from the Whole. Your actions flow from that Oneness, in service of the Whole- in service of God. Then, all your actions are truly mitzvot- acts of service to the One.
On this Shabbat Re’eh, the "Sabbath of Seeing," may we all “see” our Divine potential in this moment, to “hear” the Divine Voice as this moment, and to do blessing for each other moment by moment, uniting heaven and earth one step at a time.
See for Yourself! Parshat Re'eh
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words: “Re’eh anokhi notein lifneikhem hayom brakha uklalah… See- I place before you today blessing and curse.” Today, now, in this moment, blessing and curse are both potentials. What is it that determines our choice? It goes on to to say, “et habrakhah asher tishma’u el mitzvot- the blessing, that you listen to the commandment… and the curse if you don’t listen…”.
Right in these first two sentences, two bodily senses are referenced- seeing and hearing. The senses are metaphors for an inner process; we “see” something is the case, meaning that we are aware of the situation. We “hear” what someone is saying, meaning that we understand the intention behind the words. In the case of these two verses, “seeing” and “hearing” refer to two levels of how to relate with this moment, with “today”.
First, we have to acknowlege the tremendous potential: this moment is pregnant with the potential for both blessing and curse. Without this basic awareness, there can be no conscious living. We are merely victims of our automatic perceptions and reactions. We are powerless. But it says, Re’eh- see for yourself! You and only you have the power to be the universe’ next move! You and only you have the power to actualize the potential of this moment. The power is in your hands.
So how to you actualize it? The blessing is if you “listen”. Listening means becoming inwardly still. It means making a space to notice how you are called to serve in this moment. What are you listening for? The “commandment”. What is the commanment? The “commandment” itself has two levels. On one hand, it is everything that is happening in this moment; reality, as it is, is the Divine voice as it speaks to you now. You first must be aware with openness and acceptance of what is, before you can respond. The second meaning of “commandment” is the Divine call as it is calling upon you. What is G-d asking of you in this moment? How do you become a channel of blessing? Only you can answer that question, but you don’t answer it by inventing it. You answer by opening to it. You answer with your uniqueness, yet your uniqueness is given to you; it is a gift.
May all beings awaken to the Divine potential of this and all moments, to give birth to heaven on earth, speedily in our day.
I heard a story once of a rabbi who, when he was a little boy, would eat ice cream with a toothpick. When my son was little, I told him this story to try to get him to slow down his eating. A few months later, I saw my son eating ice cream with a toothpick too. I was amazed– "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I want to make it last longer!" he said.
Some people want to give their children everything they ask for. But we know that when children get more and more, this often doesn't lead to more satisfaction, but more desire. We call that being "spoiled." If we want to give our children more, we often need to give them less.
It's easy to see this with children, but it's the same with us: we can deliberately restrict our intake, as in the example of eating with a toothpick. It doesn't have to be a restriction of food; it can be a restriction of words. Have you ever felt the intense desire to say something, perhaps because someone else was saying something totally wrong, and you wanted to jump in and correct them?
Or, you might have the impulse to jump in and stop something. Something annoying happens, like a child is whining and interrupting, and the impulse is to rush and stop it.
But if you pause, even when the impulse is to do something totally appropriate (which it often isn't), there's a space for a deeper wisdom to emerge. You can realize: you are not trapped by the impulse. You are, in fact, a vastly deep well of consciousness, and from that consciousness emerges all impulses, all thoughts, all sensations, all experience. And although we tend to reach for satisfaction by fulfilling our impulses, when you discover this vast space, there can be a far deeper satisfaction than the satisfaction that comes from any gratification.
"Not on bread alone does a person live," says this week's reading. In other words, if you want to truly live, you can't only be focussed only on the "bread" – the satisfaction that comes from gratification. Rather, true living means being aware of that vast well of consciousness that perceives the "bread." That awareness is always there, and so it's easy to miss it. You can go your whole life and never notice the one thing that is constant!
And that's why we have this practice of pausing, of restricting– so that we can slow down enough to become aware of this underlying reality, the reality of your own Beingness, the miracle of this present moment.
As it says a little later in the parsha, "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless..."
Don't just eat, ve'akhalta, eat and be satisfied, v'savata. Meaning, don't just be satisfied by the food alone, but feel the satisfaction that comes from simply from Being. Then, uveirakhta– bless – give thanks not just for the bread, but for the gift that is always present – the gift of Presence Itself...
More On Eikev
The Shirt- Parshat Eikev
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzen and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice,” which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man blowing a conch. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almostexactly the same, except- the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt so that we would be permitted to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to buy any product with a shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a man having no shirt?” I asked. “Isn’t the human body holy? Are you saying there’s something sinful about the human body?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive. A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more you get, the less sensitive you are to what you already have… hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
This week’s reading begins with the words-
“V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It shall be the reward when you listen…”
The sentence is strange, because the word “eikev” really means “heel,” but it’s understood here to mean “reward” or “because of” or “consequence.” This meaning is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing. The thing that “follows on the heels” is the consequence.
There’s a “heel” story of the founder of the Chabad lineage, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi- the "Alter Rebbe." When his grandson Menachem Mendel was a boy, he would teach the boy Torah. Once, they came to this verse-
“Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”
The Alter Rebbe asked the boy to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
Reb Shneur Zalman was ecstatic with his answer and said, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev- our heel- should ‘listen,’ meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do you do that?
Be your own parent- restrict yourself.
The most astonishing and incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake in Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water, for several days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Halleluyah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: She was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more.” Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
This idea is expressed a little later in the parshah:
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know- ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth.”
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing)- either the traditional one or something in your own words. When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later, “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat Eikev, the Sabbath of the Heel, may we become sensitive to the many gifts of sustenance that often get taken for granted. Most of all, may we be sensitive to the one gift that holds all the others- the gift of space, of awareness, within which experience unfolds. Don’t hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- that’s the one you are living, in this moment.
There's an old episode of All in the Family where Gloria is cooking something in the kitchen. "Ma, can you taste this and let me know if it needs anything?"
"Sure Gloria," says Edith. She takes a bite, contemplates the flavor a bit and says, "I think it needs... a little less salt!"
Salt is absolutely necessary, but you don't want too much. And just like salt, our thinking is something we can't do without, but most of us have way too much of it. Thinking is so compulsive that we have no idea what life would feel like with less thinking and more Presence. But let your mind relax, and you can realize: the present moment is spacious, beautiful and alive with magic. And though there are certainly disturbing a traumatic things that can and do happen, it's mostly the movement of our minds that creates all our tension, fear, and stress.
Of course, we need to think in order to decide, to know how to proceed. But when the thinking has accomplished its goal, then we can let it go and simply be, even as we act. Our beingness can be an offering, an act of love that shines through our actions, once the mind relaxes.
As the old parable goes: once you take the boat across the river, you don't have to drag the boat around with you. Let it go. Use the mind to cross the "river" of your next decision, but then let your thoughts go and move into the present.
Two rabbis were traveling on foot together, a younger and a senior, and they came to a shallow river. They took off their shoes and began to wade across, when a young woman called to them. "I need help getting across please!"
The senior rabbi picked her up and carried her across on his back.
When they reached the other side, the woman thanked them and went her way. As the two rabbis walked together in silence for an hour or so, the younger became withdrawn and tense. Finally, the younger one could no longer restrain himself: "How could you have done that! The halakhah clearly forbids touching a young woman, let alone putting her on your back!"
"Look at you," replied the senior. "I only carried her across the river, but you are still carrying her!"
In this week's reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites as they too are about to cross a river: "Va'etkhanan el Hashem – I implored the Divine... please let me cross this river Jordan and see the good land!"
But Moses was not allowed to cross; he had to die before the Israelites that he had led for forty years could cross over without him.
Have you ever worked hard for something you really wanted, but once you achieved it, you didn't feel the sense of achievement you thought you would because YOU were not the same person anymore?
The mind thinks, figures out, navigates, decides. If you want to cross over into the promised land, if you want the inner freedom that is your nature and birthright, you must decide; you must commit to it. You need your mind for that. But to truly achieve the Goal, you have to then let "Moses" die, so to speak, and discover the deeper "You" beneath your thoughts.
More On V'etkhanan
No More "Rather-ing!" Parshat Va'etkhanan
“Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba’eit hahi- I implored Hashem at that time…”
This parsha opens with Moses imploring God to enter the Promised Land, ba’eit hahi – At that other time, I implored – at that time, and not at this time.
I just got back yesterday from a two-week trip with my family to Italy. I am blessed to have such amazing parents-in-laws who, ba’eit hazeh, at this time, can choose however they want to spend their time, and they chose to take our whole mishpakha on vacation with them for their fiftieth anniversary.
At one point in Rome, we had split up into two different cabs, and I was in a cab alone with Lisa’s father, who we call Poppi Normy. Poppi said to me ba’eit hahi, at that time, “So, Brian – are you enjoying yourself or would you rather be at some ashram in India?”
I replied, “Well, I don’t really put energy into rather-ing things.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “I get that. That’s good. I’m going to eliminate ‘rather’ from my vocabulary.” And then I said, “I’ll use this story in my next drash.”
So, what does it mean to not “rather” something?
It doesn’t mean that you can’t make good judgements. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take yourself out of an undesirable situation, or that you don’t help to make things better for yourself or others, it just means that whatever your experience is, in whatever situation you find yourself in, you don’t put mental and emotional energy into wishing things were different. You first of all accept the moment as it is, and then do whatever you do from this place of openness and surrender.
If you’re familiar with Musar, the Jewish practice of cultivating character traits, you might recognize “not-rather-ing” as Equanimity, known as menukhat hanefesh or shivyon nefesh, but it’s important to understand that this is not merely a character trait; it’s not something that you add on to your personality, but rather it’s a quality of Presence – a quality inherent within your field of awareness that is underneath your personality, underneath your thoughts, underneath your feelings. And while your thoughts and feelings are always flowing and changing, awareness is the background against which your thoughts and feelings are happening.
So, when you shift from feeling that “I am this personality, I am these thoughts and feelings,” into knowing yourself as the field of Presence within which your thoughts and feelings are happening, then Equanimity is very natural, because awareness itself is never preferring one thing over another thing; it’s simply open to whatever there is to perceive in the present moment – that’s why it’s called “Presence.”
So when Moshe says, “Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba’eit hahi- I implored Hashem at that time,” it’s saying, “I implored that I should be at some other time, at a time other than this moment. I don’t want to be here, I want to get to the Promised Land.
But God says, no – “Alei rosh hapisgah- ascend to the top of the cliff- v’sa einekha- and raise up your eyes…” Now the expression for “ascend to the top of the cliff” begins, “Alei rosh,” which literally means, “Raise up the head.” Meaning, get out of your head. Don’t be so identified with your own opinions, with your emotional reactions and so on. How do you do that? “v’sa einekha- and raise up your eyes,” meaning, instead of putting energy into judging, into “rather-ing,” simply see what’s happening in this moment. Be the witnessing Presence within which your present experience is unfolding.
On this Shabbat Va’etkhanan, the Sabbath of Imploring, may our prayer lead us to deeper connection with Hashem Who is constantly incarnating as the fullness of this moment,ba’eit hazeh – in this moment!
The Acceptance of Rejection- Parshat Va'etkhanan
When I was in the fifth grade I went to a summer camp called, “Le Camp.” It was a day camp, so every day I was schlepped back and forth by my parents- except for one day. Once per summer, we had a sleepover. The sleepover evening would begin with a dance in the barn. Later, we slept in our sleeping bags out in a huge field.
I was at the age when girls were first becoming interesting. During the dance part, there was a girl I was dancing with for most of the night. I guess I got it in my head that this girl liked me, and during the sleeping-bags-in-the-field part, I kept trying to sneak out of the “boys area” and into the “girls area” so I could go see her.
At some point a counselor caught me. “Brian, stop bothering the girls!”
“No you don’t understand,” I pleaded (etkhanan), “they want me to be here!” after which that girl and several of her friends cried out, “NO WE DON’T!”
Sometimes we think we are wanted, but we are not. That’s just the truth. The person who thinks he’s wanted despite all protestations is an egomaniac. Kids can be like egomaniacs sometimes, and at some point, the delusion is toppled: “No, you really are annoying the hell out of me and I want you to STOP!”
But these kinds of hurtful childhood experiences can also create another kind of misperception into adulthood: it can create a self-image that you have nothing to offer, that people don’t need or want you.
Recently I was in a situation where I wanted to help someone, but I wasn’t being asked for help. In my post “LeCamp” psychology, I didn’t offer anything, because I thought that if my help was wanted, I would be asked.
As time went on, however, I could see that I would never be asked- not because my help wasn’t wanted, but because the person wasn’t comfortable asking. So, I gathered my will against my personality, offered my help directly, and it was promptly accepted! So easy.
In this week’s reading, Moses tells the Israelites about how he pleaded (etkhanan) with God to let him enter the Promised Land.
“Va’etkhanan el Hashem baeit hahi leimor-
"I pleaded with God at that time, saying… please let me cross and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan!”
But God doesn’t let him.
Moses, the beloved prophet who “knows God face to face” is rejected.
But does Moses develop a bad self-image and stop doing his job? Not at all. A few verses later, Moses says:
“V’atah Yisrael sh’ma-
"And now Israel, listen!”
He then goes on teaching them the Torah that he was called upon to transmit.
Sometimes our offers are accepted, and sometimes they are rejected. But if you shut down when you are rejected and stop offering, you may miss your real calling.
And furthermore, what’s wrong with being rejected anyway?
If rejection feels bad, it’s because there is a self-image that is feeding off the desire to be appreciated. That ego, that separate self-sense, is quite natural, but ultimately it is a burden. When the ego is bruised, take that as medicine. Accept the pain- let it burn away the ego’s substance. Ultimately, the pain will be liberating, and in that liberation is real intimacy- intimacy with the plain and radiant present, with the simple bliss of being.
After all, when you are pleading for something, it’s because you desire some kind of completion. But when the pain of rejection burns away the very source of incompleteness, then the rejection itself can actually be the fulfillment!
There is a story that Reb Beirish of Alisk once went to spend Shabbos with his childhood friend-turned-rebbe, Reb Uri of Strelisk.
At the Shabbos table, Reb Uri turned to his hassid: “Rav of Alisk! Could you perhaps honor us with some spontaneous words of Torah, some words that you have not prepared?”
Immediately Reb Beirish answered, “It is written, ‘Va’etkhanan el Hashem ba eit hahi leimor- I pleaded with God at that time, saying.’ You see, in order for me to say something spontaneously at that time- meaning at this time, unprepared, I have to plead with God!
Reb Beirish had nothing to say except his plea that he should have something to say, and that plea itself became his words of Torah!
On this Shabbat V’etkhanan, the Sabbath of Pleading, may you be blessed with the confidence to know that you are needed for something quite unique, something no one else can offer. And, when your offerings are rejected, may you be blessed to bring your awareness deep into the present experience of that rejection, so that any trace of the “Wounded Me” gently dissolves into the spacious calm of the Timeless.
A friend once asked me, "I don't understand this stuff about being present. What if the present sucks?"
There's a dimension of our experience that is beyond the particular experience we're having– beyond our feelings, thoughts and sensations. That's our consciousness that's aware of the feelings, thoughts and sensations. That consciousness is similar to the empty physical space that allows us to exist physically. We're often not aware of the physical space, but without it, we couldn't be here. Similarly, without the space of awareness, there can be no experience.
Being present doesn't just mean to be aware of what's going on in our experience, but more importantly, it means to be aware of the space within which it's happening. As you become aware of the space of awareness, you come to know yourself as this space, rather than as the content of the space– your particular thoughts and feelings. And as you come to know yourself as this space more and more deeply, your thoughts and feelings and sensations begin to resonate with the space, and that creates a feeling-sense of freedom, bliss and joy.
But this all requires some trust in the process, because sometimes the experience of the present can be horrible, and you'll want to resist, to run away and hide or fight tooth and nail. But if you treat the present moment as an opportunity to be Presence, then every experience becomes a steppingstone to greater freedom and joy.
This is reflected in Pirkei Avot, 4:21: "Rabbi Yaakov says, 'This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. You should work on yourself in the waiting room, so that you can enter the banquet hall.'"
The common understanding of the "World to Come" is that of the afterlife. But the hint here is that there's an eternal dimension of experience that's available now, though you may not yet be aware of it. If you're not yet aware of it, you have to "work on yourself in the waiting room"– meaning, treat your temporal experience as an opportunity to practice being present, and you will come to enter the "banquet hall"– that eternal dimension of experience that is the space of your own awareness.
In this week's Torah reading, Parshat Devarim, Moses begins recounting the journey of the Israelites. Much of the actual story is simply skipped over, but then Moses emphasizes the incident with the spies:
The spies go to investigate the land. They bring back the report that the land is great, but their are "giants" in the land and they should turn back. Hashem says that because of their cowardice, they will never enter the land, and only their children will enter. Then the Israelites say, "No no! We were just kidding!" They run up the mountain to do battle with the "giants" and are slaughtered.
Talk about being out of sync!
But what a wonderful metaphor for such a common disfunction– the disfunction of not being in alignment with the reality of the moment. One moment calls us to fight, the next calls us to retreat, If we're not in alignment, if we're spending energy wishing that things are other than they are and responding to how we think things should be rather than how they are, we get in trouble.
But if we know ourselves as the space within which our experience is arising, we can easily align with the needs of the moment and act appropriately, fearlessly going to battle when we must, and surrendering when we must, rather than the other way around.
There's a story of Rabbi Yitzhak Eisik, who had a condition that caused him extreme pain his whole life. His doctor asked, "How can you take all that pain without grumbling or complaining at all?
"You would understand if you knew how I see pain," replied the rebbe. "I regard pain as a scrubbing of the soul, like putting a coin in a strong cleaning solution."
"But how can you take that level of pain for so long? You've had it nearly all your life!"
"It's not a question of how long. Whatever pain I've had in the past is over; it doesn't hurt anymore. Whatever pain is to come is in the future doesn't yet exist, and so I don't have to bother with that. I only need to be aware of the pain that's happening right now, and that's totally doable!"
As we approach Tisha B'Av, the holiday of pain and destruction, may we be cleansed by whatever pain arises, making way for something beautiful and new to emerge from the depths of our souls, healing ourselves and the world...
More on Parshat Devarim–
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The Great River- Parshat Devarim
Have you ever had the experience of finding yourself in conflict with someone, and then realizing that the same conflict has happened a thousand times before, in different forms? It is as if the conflict is a virus, a replicating pattern. It has no real life of its own; it is just a dead, repetitive, automatic story that lives off your life energy, playing itself out again and again.
Once there was a scorpion who was looking for a way to get to the other side of a river. As he searched up and down the banks, he came upon a fox who was about to swim across.
“Please let me swim on your back!” implored the scorpion.
“No way!” replied the fox, “You’ll sting me!”
“Why would I do that?” argued the scorpion, “If I stung you, we would both drown.”
After thinking about it, the fox agreed. The scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim across. But, when they were about half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. As the poison began its work, the fox started to sink.
“Why did you do it?” said the fox, “Now we’ll both drown!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” said the scorpion, “It’s in my nature.”
Is it in your nature to always react in the same old ways, perpetuating the same old conflicts? Or is there a way out?
Of course there is a way out, but it can be difficult because the old patterns are usually motivated by the desire to escape pain, and it’s totally natural to want to escape pain. Something happens, someone does something, and it triggers a painful emotional response. You naturally want to avoid this pain, so you lash out unconsciously or passive aggressively or whatever, in an attempt to vent the pain and punish the one who caused it.
But, it doesn’t work, because it just perpetuates a dynamic that guarantees the cycle will continue… that is, until you wake up.
To wake up means to see the pattern, and to stop feeding it. This usually means feeling the triggered pain on purpose, without doing anything about it... just being with it.
You might think that a lot of meditation can help you “just be with it,” but sometimes the opposite is true. Meditation can give you beautiful and blissful experiences. If you get attached to those experiences, then the pain that life brings can sometimes be even harder to endure. I often hear people lament about having to come down from the lofty mountain of the spirit to deal with the pain of life.
It reminds me of a passage I read in one of Ram Dass’ books, where he talks about coming down from a spiritual high and literally “seeing” a tidal wave coming toward him- a tidal wave made out of all the broken relationships, tedious responsibilities, unconscious expectations- the whole mess. It’s natural to resist the pain of that tidal wave!
And yet, what are you resisting? What are you holding on to?
There is nothing but the Divine, unfolding in ever-new ways through time. If you cling to the spiritual experience of a moment ago, you lose its most important message: God is speaking in and as everything. The unfolding of life in time is God’s Speech. Open to it, as it is.
This week’s reading- Devarim, the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy- gives some beautiful hints of this truth. “Devarim” means “Words”- the words spoken by Moses to the Israelites. They too stand by a river, preparing to cross, and Moses tells them the story of their journeys. He begins by recounting the highest moment, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak to them.
But does he tell them about all the Torah they learned there?
He tells them only one piece of Torah-
“Rav lakhem shevet bahar hazeh!
“It’s too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain! Turn and journey for yourselves!”
In other words, don't be the scorpion! Life is change. The world is turning; you must turn with it. The journey is “for yourselves”- it is for your own happiness and fulfillment that you have to not cling to your idea of happiness and fulfillment!
Then it says, “Uvo’u har ha’emori- and come to the mountain of the Amorites…”
On the surface, this is talking about a tribe called “Amorites” that live on a mountain in the Promised Land. But the word for “Amorites” has the same letters as the verb “to speak”- aleph-mem-reish. The hint here is that you must leave the “mountain” where you hear God’s “speech” so that you can come to a new mountain, where there will be new “speech.” Don’t cling to the old speech; it’s dead.
Then it goes on to say, “… on the mountain, in the plain, in the lowland, in the desert, and on the seacoast…”
The point is not only the next “mountain” experience you will come to. There is also the “plain- aravah”- the ordinary, daily work of life, a mixture (erev) of many different kinds of experiences.
Then there is the “lowland- sh’felah”- times of sadness, of tragedy, of failure- all part of God’s speech! These times are medicine for the distortions of ego.
Then there is the “desert,” or the “south- negev”- times when your life and work don’t seem to be yielding anything good, but you must persevere through these stretches! These times train us to stay focused and true to our goals.
Then there is the “seacoast- hof hayam”- like when the children of Israel stood at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army behind them. These are times when the outcome is unknown, when we are tempted to fear and despair. This is training for the supreme quality of Trust, to take the leap into the unknown. (Of course, all outcomes are always unknown, but only sometimes does this become obvious!)
Finally, it says you will come all the way to “Hanahar Hagadol- the Great River!”
The Great River is at the end of the journey, because if you can learn to work with life in all of its manifestations, you will see that life is the Great River. God incarnates in the form of your mind and your body, for just a brief time, to take a little journey on the Great River. This moment is the arena within which we are learning to journey.
The Baal Shem Tov taught:
“In the Amidah prayer, we say: ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,’ and not: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ because Isaac and Jacob connected to the unique form of God’s speech as they heard it; they didn’t rely on what Abraham heard.”
As we enter Shabbat Devarim, the Sabbath of Words, may our words be ever fresh and alive, free from old and dead patterns. May we hear the Living Words that are spoken anew, flowing as the Great River, always in this moment.
K’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh –
"As everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do...”
Goof! Parshat Matot (Click for original post)
In Parshat Matot, it says that if a person makes a vow to do something, or takes an oath not to do something, “lo yakhel d’varo- his word shall not be desecrated or emptied – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – as everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do.”
So, on the surface this is talking about keeping your word. You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. But on a deeper level, when we have an intention to do something or not do something, there’s a reason for the intention. The point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you go to work not because you necessarily like your work, but so you can make money. And you make money not because you like the money, but because you want to use the money to benefit your family. But then let’s say you use the money to buy food for your family, and someone in your family has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets really sick, God forbid.
So now there’s a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called making a mistake. So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo- don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example that I just gave, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them. They happen by accident. And while it’s true and good to be as conscious and wise as you can, it’s also true that you’re going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
So then, the next verse says, that if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah- God forgives her, ki heini aviah otah- because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
So, who is this child the Torah talks about? It’s us. We may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening. Who is the parent? It’s Reality Itself – it’s the Truth of what is – as it says, Emet malkeinu efes zulato – Truth is our king and there is nothing else,meaning, there is nothing but the Truth of what is – there is nothing but God.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, yes you should be as conscious and careful as you can with your actions – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – make sure you do your best to bring about the positive result that you intend. But on the other hand, know that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that’s just the ego clinging to a self-image of being successful, or good or whatever. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place, so you must forgive yourself if you want to be free from hameitzar- from the separateness and narrowness of ego, and really experience anani hamerkhav Yah- the infinitely vast expansiveness of the Divine.
But how do you do that? How do you come to forgive yourself so that you can experience Hashem yislakh lah – that you are truly forgiven for all your mistakes? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that you have to forgive everyone else! As it says in Vayikra- Leviticus 10:18, ve’ahavtah l’reiakha k’mokha – love your neighbor as yourself – and if you’re not sure what it means, that you should love others like you love yourself, then right before that it says, lo titur et b’nai amekha- don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people.
So, on this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of the Tribes, may we be vigilant against that unconscious tendency that often happens in community, to judge other members of our tribe. Not just because it’s bad for the community and for relationships, but because when your judge others instead of forgiving others, you won’t be able to forgive yourself. The ego that judges others is the same ego that gets you stuck in self judgment. Give permission for others to be as they are, even when you have to correct them. You can accept someone in your heart even as you reprimand them for something; there’s no contradiction there. And in that acceptance, you will be able to truly accept yourself, even as you try to learn from your mistakes. And through this paradox of acceptance and action, of forgiveness and correction, may the rav tov – the abundant goodness of Being Itself, of Reality Itself, become ever more apparent, healing all who seek it. Good Shabbos!
Don't Blow it Out Your Window- Parshat Mattot
One summer, my son attended a band camp in Danville, California. Since the drive was 45 minutes each way from our home in Oakland, I just stayed out in Danville all day and worked in my car rather than drive back and forth twice.
Danville is quite a bit hotter than Oakland, and there are fewer trees as well, so it was a challenge to find a shady place to park. The first day, I drove around for long while before finding a tiny tree that could at least partially shade my car. I parked there and rolled down the windows.
That was fine for the first couple hours, but then it started getting really hot. So, I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, put on the air conditioner and continued to work. After some time, I was surprised by how ineffective the air conditioner was.
Then, I was startled by a noise coming from the backseat. I twisted around to see what was going on and realized- I had neglected to roll up the back windows! No wonder it wasn’t getting any cooler. All the cold air was blowing into the car and right back out the window.
Spiritual life can be like that too sometimes.
You might be trying to “cool down” your anger or impulsiveness, or maybe you need to “heat up” your enthusiasm for your daily practice. And yet, even with the best intentions, transformation might elusive. In that case, it is possible that you’ve "left the window open." All your best intentions are “blowing right out the window!”
How do you “roll up the window” and make the most out of the power of your intention without wasting it? This week’s reading begins:
“Ish ki yidor neder laShem- if a person takes a vow to the Divine, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon oneself…
“...k’khol yotzei mipiv ya’aseh- according to everything that comes out of one’s mouth, one shall do…”
Why would someone want to take a vow or swear an oath?
Because verbally saying your intention- and even repeating it often- is a powerful way to “shut the window.” Just because you have an intention one moment, that doesn’t mean your brain will constantly be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against your habits. For that, you need to create a new pattern in your nervous system so that the intention doesn’t “fly out the window” as life unfolds in real time. So, if want to transform, put the transformation in your mouth! And then, repeat it often.
What is it that you desire to bring forth from yourself?
When that becomes clear to you, commit to it. Write it down. Repeat it often. Then, when the flow of life tends to confuse and distract, you will be solid as a rock. If your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you.
But, you might ask, isn’t attaching yourself to some goal a function of ego?
It’s true- if you merely say, “I commit to accomplishing such-and-such,” you can and probably will create ego-identification with the goal. The ego seeks control, and when things don’t go your way, that creates suffering.
That’s why intention and commitment have to be balanced with surrender and trust, and this is the basic function of prayer. The purpose of praying for things is not to control God or manifest our desires, but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. When we pray for something, we recognize that we aren’t in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray- there is no “me,” there is only God- unfolding in every form and every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you.
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them:
“Won’t you stay for Shabbos?” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised- why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves?
At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the bread, a tiny crust of bread with mold on it was brought out. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed.
Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste.
For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony. After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer:
“How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??”
The Baal Shem was just silent.
A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood!
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The man whose home we visited last year was fully capable of becoming successful in business, but he was so full of faith, that he chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help himself. Yes, he prayed passionately for livelihood, but refused to take any steps toward it.
“When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep him trapped in his passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that he’d be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what he did, and just look at them now!”
On this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to action and prayer are two sides of the Whole- the passive and the active, as One. May you have abundant success and blessing in all your ways!
There are really two different kinds of discomfort.
The first is like when you stub your toe. It happens suddenly, and once it happens, you're going to feel pain; there's no choice involved. The second is like when someone is talking your ear off, and you want to get away. The discomfort increases moment by moment, and you can get away any time you choose.
If you want to live an awakened life, if you want to be free, these two kinds of discomfort require two different responses. The first requires simple acceptance; there's no way to escape the intense pain once you stub your toe. The second requires conscious choice about when to stay in the discomfort and keep listening to the person talk at you, and when to simply walk away.
Yet for some reason, we often confuse these two situations. We can trick ourselves into thinking we're "trapped" by someone talking to us, and not realize that we have a choice. When we finally escape, we might be angry at the person: "How could they keep talking at me like that! How insensitive!" And yet, we could have left any time; we don't take the power that's ours, and instead blame someone outside ourselves for our experience.
Or, we lament and complain about some discomfort that we can't control, when we should really just accept it; it already happened, we have no control! So why be in conflict with it?
There's a hint of this in Parshat Pinhas:
צַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֶת־קָרְבָּנִ֨י לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י תִּשְׁמְר֕וּ לְהַקְרִ֥יב לִ֖י בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ
Command the children of Israel and say to them, “My offerings, My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, you shall take care to offer Me in its special time…
If you draw your awareness into your pain, it becomes לַחְמִ֜י לְאִשַּׁ֗י – food for My fires –that is, food for awareness, because awareness is strengthened through the practice of fully being present with whatever you feel the impulse to resist. That's the first kind of pain, like stubbing your toe.
That’s why the offering is called קָרְבָּנִ֨י – My korban, because korban means to “draw near.” The magic is that even though you are drawing your awareness into something unpleasant, the attitude of openness can transmute the pain into a connection with the Divine, with Reality, with our own being, which are all ultimately the same thing.
The second type of pain, as in the example of someone talking at you, is the רֵ֚יחַ נִֽיחֹחִ֔י –pleasing aroma. That's because there's a sweetness when you claim your own power to change your situation, and not blame others.
Our response to these different kinds of discomfort must be done בְּמֽוֹעֲדֽוֹ – it its special time – meaning, our response has to be in alignment with the reality of our situation. Is it time to simply accept, or is it time to act? Notice the inner tendency to lean away from your own power, or to lean into resisting what has already happened. Then, simply lean a bit the other way, and come back into balance.
Once, when Reb Yisrael of Rizhyn was sitting casually with his Hassidim and smoking his pipe, one of them asked, "Rebbe, please tell, me– how can I truly serve Hashem?"
"How should I know?" said the rebbe, "But I'll tell you, once there were two friends who broke the law and were brought before the king. The king was fond of them and wanted to acquit them, but he couldn't just let them off the hook completely.
"So, the king had a tight rope extended over a deep pit. He told the friends, 'If you can get to the other side of the pit on the tightrope, you can go free.' The first set his foot on the rope and quickly scampered across. The second called to his friend, 'How did you do it?'
"'How should I know?' said the first, 'But I'll tell you– when I started to fall toward one side, I just leaned a little to the other side...'"
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Piercing the Two Layers of Mind- Parshat Pinkas
"Notein lo et briti shalom –
"I give him my covenant of peace.”
Parshat Pinkhas begins in the aftermath of a plague that God put on the Israelites, because they had been seduced by the Midianites into an idolatrous orgy. At its climax, The Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Kozbi are engaged in sexual union in front of everyone, and the zealot Pinkhas comes along and kills them both by piercing them through with a spear, causing the punishing plague to subside. God then says in the opening of the parsha, that Pinkhas “heishiv et khamati- turned back my wrath from upon the children of Israel- b’kano et kinati- when he avenged my vengeance” or “my jealousy. Therefore, hin’ni, check it out- notein lo et briti shalom- I give him my covenant of peace.”
Woe, what is going on here. This sounds like the vengeful, jealous God that everyone loves to hate. What kind of a God is that, right? A God that’s jealous, a God that kills people and so on. And yet, in a sense, that’s actually perfectly true. From a certain point of view, God is a vengeful, jealous God that kills people. Not literally, of course, but this is scripture. It’s pointing to something spiritual in the language of the time it was written. So what is it pointing to?
There is a basis, or a foundation for everything you’re experiencing right now. Whether we’re talking about things that appear to be outside of you – like the sensory world, what you see, what you hear, or things that appear to be inside you, such as feelings or thoughts, everything is perceived only because of this miracle called consciousness. And in the field of your experience, everything you perceive is, in fact, made out of consciousness. So that thing that I see over there is nothing but consciousness, because seeing is a function of consciousness. And, in fact, the sense of “me” that sees the thing over there, this body/mind that I call me, is also something that I perceive, so it too is just a form of consciousness. So the thing I see and the me that sees are both forms of one consciousness.
And yet, as you know, most people have no sense of that at all. There’s just the sense of me over here in this body and that thing over there that I see. Why? Because we’re constantly framing our experience with language that reinforces the belief that things are objective and separate. The language we use refers to “me” and “that thing over there,” and so our thinking which is largely made out of language, is deeply conditioned with this assumption of separateness, even though our experience right now tells us otherwise. But to really see what our experience is telling us, we have to pierce a hole through the lie that’s created with our language.
And to do that takes a special effort because the language lie is two-ply. Just like good toilet paper. If you have only one-ply toilet paper, that doesn’t work too well. Good toilet paper has two layers of paper so that it doesn’t tear when you’re using it.
It’s the same with our minds- there’s two layers. The first layer is simply the fact that our minds are constantly going. Bla bla bla bla. It’s like a song that you get stuck in your head. Once that song is stuck, it just repeats over and over, because it’s created a groove in your nervous system. That’s why music is groovy. Dance music is always talking about “getting into the groove” and “making you move” because it’s playing on this tendency of the mind to get into grooves of thought patterns within which your mind moves. That’s the first layer you have to get through- the movement in the groove of constant thinking.
The other ply is the content of the groove- the nature of how language tends to work. How does language work? Well even right now as I talk about language, the words are creating the impression that language is this thing that “I” am talking about. So there’s the sense that “I” and the subject of this talk, language, are two separate things. This doesn’t get questioned unless we deliberately decide to question it, which is what we’re doing right now by the way, because it’s simply the background assumption of language and thinking- that there’s a me who thinks and talks, and there are things that the “me” thinks and talks about.
And yet we can, if we choose, notice that these words right now, as well as whatever concepts we’re talking about, as well as this body that’s talking, as well as the “you” that’s listening, are all living within and are forms of awareness. And as soon as we point this out, there can be this subtle but profound shift- and this is the shift into knowing that there’s only one thing going on. Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ekhad- All Existence, all Being is not separate from Eloheinu- our own divinity, meaning consciousness, and Hashem Ekhad- All Existence is just this One thing that’s going on- consciousness in form. And how do you know this? Because you are Sh’ma- you are the listening, the perceiving, and nothing you perceive is separate from that.
Isn’t it funny that we tend to look for God, thinking we know the world but we have to find God, when in Reality, God is the only thing we really know? Meaning, we know that there’s Existence. And we know that the knowing and the Existence, are not separate. That’s Hashem Ekhad; that’s the Oneness of God right there. Or should we say, right here.
So if you choose to think in this very different, very counter-intuitive and yet very obvious kind of way, you can pierce through that ply of separateness almost instantly. Because even though it’s counterintuitive, it’s also really obvious. It’s really obvious that there’s only one Reality and this is it. How many Realities could there possibly be? Only one, because Reality just means whatever is. And it’s also totally obvious that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to find Reality, because there’s only ever one place to find it, and that’s always right now in your present moment experience.
So once you do that, and hopefully we just did it, the next step is to connect with the Presence of Being in form. Meaning, let your awareness really connect whatever is present, rather than continue with all that duality producing language. Just let yourself be present. This isn’t complicated- just notice what’s going on… and be conscious of your breathing. And in doing that, your mind effortlessly becomes quiet, and you pierce through the other ply- the layer of the constantly moving mind.
So once you’ve gotten through the two layers, and maybe you just have, Reality can be your friend, and the plague, so to speak, can be lifted. What’s the plague? It’s just the belief that you’re separate. And that’s why God can be thought of as jealous or vengeful. Not literally of course, but if you’re not paying attention to God, meaning you’re not seeing the underlying Being of everything, always focused on the conditional world, then you’re literally in exile from yourself. You’re identified with this tiny piece of who you really are, and you don’t even know it.
So this is why God gives Pinkhas the covenant of shalom – of peace and wholeness – for killing Zimriand Kozbi. Because what is Zimri? It’s like the word zemer- song. So Zimri is “my song”- meaning, the constant movement of the mind; the song that my thoughts are always singing. And what is Kozbi? Kaf-Zayin-Bet means a lie, a falsehood. So Kozbi means “my lie.” And when Zimri and Kozbi unite, that’s the two ply barrier of both constant thinking and the lie of separateness that Pinkhas is able to pierce through.
Now, what is Pinkhas? It’s Pey-Nekhs. Pey is a mouth, and Nekhs is bad, or unsuccessful. So Pinkhas knows the bad side of the mouth, meaning language, how it tends to make us unsuccessful in our quest for Truth. So he pierces through both layers, and receives the Brit Shalom, reminding us that whoever wants real peace and wholeness, must also pierce through the two-ply toilet paper of the mind.
So on this Shabbat Pinkhas, which we might call the Sabbath of Silence, may we pierce more deeply and consistently through the noise and conditioning of the mind, connecting with and also embodying in our actions, words and even thoughts, the Divine Presence of Being that is ever-present...
Put Your Weed in There! Parshat Pinhas
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers and starts showing them some crafty knick-knack import. He says in a stoner voice:
“This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it and says, “Oh, and you can put your weed in there!”- and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a cop comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The cop walks over to them and says, “How you doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then busts out uncontrollably:
“WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The cop says, “Why are you yelling like that?” He then examines the knick-knack he’s holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says (Sukkah 52a), “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death.”
In the sketch, all the stoner guy has to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help it- he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are you given the opportunity for life to go well, to go smoothly, and somehow you find yourself messing the whole thing up? Why do we have this yetzer hara- this “evil urge”- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something unique and compelling: He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our unbelievably enormous potential. We know, on some level, that our potential is enormous, and that creates a kind of psychological pressure. We are terrified of not living up to our potential.
So, to avoid the pain of knowing our great potential and not living up to it, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential, that we are worthless, and all our self-destructive behaviors are aimed at proving our worthlessness to ourselves.
This week’s reading begins with the aftermath of a self-destructive incident as well.
The Israelites had just been dwelling peacefully in their camp. Then the Midianites come along and try to seduce them into an orgy of idolatry and adultery. The Midianites didn’t attack them militarily; all the Israelites had to do is say “No thank you,” and they’d be fine. But what happens? They are easily seduced and the Divine wrath flares up. It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parshah is named, Pinhas, then wields his spear and kills two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the holy “Tent of Meeting.” This week’s parshah then begins with Pinhas getting rewarded for his heroic murder, and he is given a Divine Brit Shalom- a “Covenant of Peace.”
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Murder in the name of religious zealotry? Embarrassing.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message emerges: There is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick you and lure you into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, if you are aware of it, it has no power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the Yetzer harawill be revealed for what it really is. When the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not living for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that is your essence, your divine nature.
At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you do have needs and desires.
While it’s true there are times when our impulses are so destructive that they must be completely halted as represented by Pinhas and his spear, in most cases our thirsts can be quenched in moderation, with balance and wisdom. Our desires, after all, are like the impulses of an animal. Don’t let the animal take over, but don’t torture it either. You have the power, through your awareness, to give the animal enough so that it let’s you have peace, without it taking over and pulling you toward self-sabotage.
There’s a story of a simple man who came to Maggid of Koznitz with his wife, demanding that he be allowed to divorce her.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the Maggid.
“I work very hard all week,” said the man, “and on Shabbos I want to have some pleasure. Now for Shabbat dinner, my wife first serves the fish, then the onions, then some heavy main dish, and by the time she puts the pudding on the table, I have eaten all I want and have no appetite for it. All week I work for this pudding, and when it comes I can’t even taste it- and all my labor was for nothing!
“Time after time I ask my wife to please put the pudding on the table right after Kiddush (the blessing over wine), but no! She says that the way she does it is the proper minhag (custom).”
The Maggid turned to the woman.
“From now on, make a little extra pudding. Take a bit of the pudding and serve it right after Kiddush.Then, serve the rest of it after the main dish, as before.”
The couple agreed to this and went on their way.
From that time on, it became the minhag (custom) in the Maggid’s house to serve some pudding right after Kiddush, and this minhag was passed on to his children and his children’s children. It was called the Shalom Bayit Pudding- the “Peace-in-the-House Pudding!”
On this Shabbat Pinkhas, the Sabbath of Peace, may we be aware of the needs of our hearts an bodies, giving and receiving the pleasures of life without being controlled by them. May we know that we are infinitely more vast than any particular impulse or want. May we see that all impulses come and go, and that we need not identify with them.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!
What is the pupil of an eye? The pupil is actually the opening through which pours the light that creates the images we see. The pupil is essentially a hole.
The third line of the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh, says:
“Please, Divine Strength, those who foster Your Oneness, like the pupil of an eye, guard them.”
This line is unusual. If we’re asking God to guard us, to keep us safe, why are we likening ourselves to a bavat- a pupil of an eye? It seems like it would make more sense to say, please guard us like a baby, or guard us like a city, but guard us like a pupil? It’s a strange idiom.
So let’s go into this a little bit.
What is the pupil of an eye? The pupil is actually the opening through which pours the light that creates the images we see. The pupil is essentially a hole.
And yet, if you make eye contact with a person, it’s really the pupil of the eye that gives you the sense of eye contact being made. That’s why in all those zombie movies, when they want to make a person seem like they’re dead, they somehow take away the pupils from the actors’ eyes. Maybe they do with special contact lenses, maybe they use CGI, but however they do it, the effect of an eye with no pupil is the effect of there being nobody home.
It’s a disturbing image to see a person’s eye with no pupil, because we somehow know intuitively that the pupil indicates consciousness- it indicates that there’s someone there.
Which is interesting, because everyone’s pupils look more or less the same. The color of people’s eyes are different, the shape of people’s eyes are different, the face in which the eyes are set is completely unique for each person. You can’t tell the identity of someone by their pupils; you need to see their face. And yet, it’s the pupil that tells you there’s consciousness, that there’s someone home.
This fact of the pupil indicating consciousness, on one hand, yet also being nothing but an opening, on the other, is also a great symbol for who we really are. Are we our bodies? No. Are we our faces? No. Are we our feelings? Our thoughts? Our personalities? All of these things are part of us, but none of them are essentially us. The only essential ingredient is consciousness; and like the pupil of your eye, your consciousness is simply an opening. It’s not unique, it’s more or less the same for everyone, and yet it’s the most miraculous and precious thing. Without consciousness, everything else is just a shell; just a bundle of patterns.
So this prayer is crying out, in the first line, tatir tzerura- untie the bundle! Meaning, uncover and reveal this essential openness that we are, beneath the bundle of patterns of our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings, so that we can know ourselves as this simple openness, k’vavat- like a pupil.
Now there’s a certain paradox of consciousness which is also reflected in the pupil.
On one hand, the pupil is a simple openness, taking in the whole image of whatever is being seen. Similarly, consciousness is also the simple openness of experience. So in this moment, you may notice, there’s a richness to your experience- there’s your sensations, your senses, the movement of your breathing, any feelings or emotions that may be vibrating in your body, as well as thoughts that arise, persist for some time, and then dissipate. And all this richness is part of one unfolding experience in the present.
And yet, at the same time, when you’re aware of the full richness of experience that’s arising in this moment, there also arises the choice to entertain some things within your experience and to not to entertain other things. For example, some anger arises, or the impulse to judge or complain – and you can notice that it’s there, but not act on it. So on the deepest level, you’re saying “Yes” to it, you’re recognizing that this negative impulse exists in this moment, and that’s perfectly okay, but on the level of choice you can say “No” to it by choosing not to act on it; you just let it be there and then to let it dissipate.
On the other hand, an impulse may arise to really listen to the person talking to you, or to be generous in some way, and you may choose to say “Yes” to that impulse on both levels; you say “Yes” first to its existence, just as you would to anything that arises when you’re being present, but you might also say “Yes” to act on it. So on the deepest level of awareness, there’s a single “Yes” to everything that arises in the moment. That’s the akhdut- the Oneness, or non-duality of experience. But on the level of choice, there’s a “Yes” to some things and a “No” to other things; that’s the duality of discernment or wisdom.
This truth is also reflected in the metaphor of the pupil, in that we generally have two pupils. So on one hand the pupil is a simple openness to light which creates a single image, a single experience- that’s the akhdut, or Oneness level. And yet, there are two pupils, hinting at the yes and the no, the duality of choice that arises within the akhdut of the present.
There’s also a hint of this in the Torah story of Bilam the sorcerer.
In Parshat Balak, the king of Moav, whose name is Balak, becomes frightened of all these Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley. So, he sends messengers out to the mysterious, reclusive sorcerer Bilam to request that he put a curse on the Israelites. At first, Bilam refuses. But after several requests, he concedes and rides out on his donkey. Next, there’s a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals. (The other one is the talking snake in the Garden of Eden).
In this passage, Bilam rides out on his donkey through a vineyard, when suddenly an angel appears and blocks his path with sword drawn. But, only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’sfoot into a wall. Bilam gets angry and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” says Bilam.
Suddenly, Bilam’s eyes are magically “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, apologizes and offers to turn back. The angel tells him not to turn back, but he should be careful only say the words that the Divine will place in his mouth to say.
So, Bilam goes on his way, and meets up with King Balak, who pleads with Bilam to curse the Israelites. But, every time Bilam opens his mouth, he pronounces blessings instead. King Balak tries again and again to get Bilam to curse, bringing him to different places on a mountain overlooking the Israelite camp, as if that would change something. But every time, it just comes out more blessings. In Bilam’s final blessing, he says,
“N’um Bilam, b’no v’or un’um hagever sh’tum ha’ayin-
“The words of Bilam son of Beor, the words of the man with an open eye…”
“N’um shomea imrei El, asher makhazeh Shaddai, yekhezeh nofel ug’lui einayim-
“The words of the one who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shaddai, while fallen and with uncovered eyes-
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
-and the blessings flow on from there.
So what’s going on here? Why is it that Bilam’s donkey perceives the angel before he does, and why do his eyes become “uncovered” as a result of the donkey speaking to him? And, once his eyes are uncovered, how does that allow him to “hear” the Divine voice, transforming curses into blessings?
So one way to grasp this passage is to understand that the donkey is your own body. There’s a tendency to take the body for granted, as if it’s just a vehicle to achieve your intentions- like a car, or a donkey that you ride on. But the spiritual potential of your body is to be a temple of Presence – a vessel for the light of your awareness.
So at first, Bilam is just hitting his donkey, trying to control it. That’s the ego- selfish, angry, and entitled. But when he starts listening to what the donkey is telling him, then suddenly he can see the angel and hear it speak. Meaning, when you become present with your body, anchoring your awareness in your breathing, then you can clearly see the nature of your impulses that arise, and hear the “angels of your better nature” so to speak. So rather than simply being taken over by yoru impulses, there’s space to really see which which ones are blessings and which are curses. That’s the “uncovering of the eyes” so to speak. There’s an impulse of anger, or an urge to put someone down- you can see that clearly and not be taken over by it. Or, there’s an impulse of love, of supportiveness, of listening- that’s a blessing, and you can choose that. That’s the Yes and the No of being conscious.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, being warm and loving, but see candy with your left eye, not being taken over by that urge to grab at it!”
But to maintain your Presence in your body so as to be aware of your freedom to choose blessing and not curse, you have to be ever-watchful; you have to be on guard constantly. Just as the pupil of an eye- k’vavat- is an open space of perception, so your awareness is also an open space through which you can watchfully guard- shomreim- the movements and sensations of your body with gibor- with strength. And, in so doing, we become dorshei yikhudekha- the ones who foster or tap into the Oneness of Reality, the Oneness of this moment.
So let’s chant these words: K’vavat Shomreim. As you sing k’vavat, “like a pupil,” open your hands palms upward, to express the openness and transcendence of awareness. And when you sing Shomreim, “Guard Them,” bring your hands in, palms together, intensifying presence in your body. So k’vavat, open hands and aware of the open spaciousness of awareness beyond the body, the space around your body, then shomreim, bringing in hands and intensifying awareness within the body...
The Eyes of a Donkey- Parshat Balak
Once, during a monthly commute back to the Bay Area, I took an Uber from the airport to my car which was parked near our old house in Oakland. When I arrived, I got out of the Uber, unloaded my suitcases from the trunk onto the street, unlocked my dirty car that had been sitting for a month, loaded the suitcases into the car, got into the driver’s seat and reached for my cell phone to plug into the car charger.
But… no cell phone! I had left it in the Uber.
Immediately I looked- the Uber was half way down the street! I took off running like my pants were on fire. The car started to slow down- yes! He sees me! But then he went over a speed bump and… started accelerating again!
Adrenaline pumping, I ran even faster. I yelled for him to stop. He approached a second speed bump, slowed down, and… yes! He stopped!
As I reached his car, he handed me the phone out of the driver’s side window. “You’re a fast runner!” he said.
“Not usually,” I replied.
The body has tremendous potential, usually untapped. But in the moment of emergency, that potential can be unleashed. When I was little I remember hearing a story of a woman who lifted a car to save her child who had become trapped.
But there’s another potential of the body besides its physical potential- the potential to save you by lifting the weight of ego, under which you may have become trapped. Have you ever been motivated by negativity or craving to do something that would have terrible consequences, and in that emergency your body gave you the message to stop and turn back?
In this week’s reading, Balak king of Moab becomes frightened of the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley, so he petitions the prophet/sorcerer Bilam to curse the Israelites. As Bilam rides out on his donkey to the Israelite camp, there is a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals (the other one being the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden).
Bilam rides his donkey through a vineyard, when an angel blocks the path with sword drawn. But only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets mad and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you that you hit me?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
Then Bilam’s eyes are “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, prostrates, apologizes, and goes up the mountain to view the Israelite camps.
When Bilam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse, his mouth utters a blessing instead:
“Lo hibit avein b’Ya’akov-
“(The Divine) sees nothing bad in Jacob...
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
The donkey is your body- the beast you live in. You may think you want to say something, but your words will be a curse if you can’t “see the angel.” But the donkey sees it- and the donkey can talk!
What is the blessing that God “wants” you to say?
Your body is the gateway to this awareness, if you become present. Connect with your body, open your mouth and let the blessing come through.
But, the question may arise:
Isn’t the body also a hindrance to consciousness and wisdom? Isn’t your body the source of negativity and cravings?
In Kabbalah, one of the symbols for wisdom is fire- as in the fire that Moses saw at the burning bush. This is the fire of Reality becoming conscious- the fire that looks through your eyes, reading these words, right now.
But fire is also a symbol of destruction- of craving and negativity- as in the plague of hail and fire that rained down on the Egyptians. This is the fire of anger and craving, seducing you to satisfy its every impulse, then leaving you unsatisfied, with a trail of unwanted consequences.
Both of these manifestations of fire, however, are teachers of wisdom- if only you learn to discern whether it’s the fire of “yes” or the fire of “no.”
“Yes” to love, “no” to reaching- to seeing fulfillment outside yourself. “Yes” to blessing, “no” to the impulses that keep you stuck.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, and candy with your left eye!”
On this Shabbat Balak, the Sabbath of Body-Blessing, may we keep our awareness deeply connected to our senses and our breathing, so that the fire of Presence burns brightly with wisdom and with love. May we not identify with the urgencies of craving and negativity, and know that through the power of Presence, we are totally free from their power. And may the warmth and light of that freedom deepen more and more…
Reb Pinkhas taught, "If you wish to guide others, you must not become angry at them, because not only will the anger pollute your own soul, it will infect those you are guiding as well."
And at another time he said, "Since I've learned to tame my anger, I keep it my pocket, and take it out when needed."
In order to occasionally use anger in a directed and effective way, you have to not be taken over by it. Only when you are free from anger, can you use it effectively. Lord knows there is a lot in our world to be angry about!
But in most situations, it's best to be conscious of anger as it arises, feel your anger fully, but not direct it at others.
There's a hint of this in this week's reading, Parshat Hukat. The Israelites complain once again against Moses and Aaron that they are thirsty. Hashem instructs Moses to speak to a rock, and it will give forth water for them to drink. But instead, Moses yells at the people: "You rebels!" and then hits the rock with a stick. Water comes forth, but Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land for his burst of anger.
And so it is: If we want to dwell in the "Promised Land," we must be at home in this moment, in whatever this moment brings. People are complaining? Anger is arising? Be conscious of it. "Speak" to the "rock" of your own heart: "Ah, here is anger arising. This is actually a gift, an opportunity to practice being conscious in real time, not just during meditation."
Let the "water" flow from your heart out of Presence, rather than being demanding, and you will enter the Promised Land from wherever you find yourself...
More on Parshat Hukat –
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The Mystery of Music- Parshat Hukat
V’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah-
And they should take to you a cow that is red, completely...
In Parshat Hukat, it says, Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely.
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah-song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So on this Shabbat Hukat- the Sabbath of the Mystery- I bless you to use your voice in prayer and song. “Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
Ain't Misbehavin'- Parshat Hukat
On the way to the airport, our daughter started shrieking in the back seat. "What's the matter honey??"
"The phone died!!!" she screamed. She was playing a game on my wife's phone and it ran out of juice.
"I see you're really upset," said my wife.
It always amazes me how Lisa is able stay present even with that shrieking sound; a great reminder to me.
It all began a few years ago, when she read about a parenting method called, “Positive Discipline.” Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting.
The catch phrase for this is “Connection Before Correction.” In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did, and only afterward speak to them firmly about what behavior needs to change.
While I have not found this approach to be workable all of the time, especially in extreme situations, I still find the principle incredibly useful. And when it does work, it’s not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent. That’s because when you communicate only through harshness, it’s all too easy to be seduced into anger.
And though it is possible for the parent to correct the child with anger, the parent is then misbehaving too!
After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure- the very thing you want to correct in the child. So while expressing anger may have the desired effect of correcting the child’s behavior, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
Spiritually speaking, impatience and loss of composure have a deeper root- they stem from a loss of presence, and consequently, loss of connection with the Presence. When a child acts out, they have lost their presence; they have been taken over by their impulses. Have you ever seen an adorable and beautiful child suddenly become a monstrous terror?
And in the presence of such lack of presence, it can be very difficult to keep your own presence.
In this week’s reading, there’s a metaphorical demonstration of this principle. The name of the parshah- “Hukat”- is a form of the word hok, which means “decree,” or “statute.” The particular hok described here is the ritual for purifying someone who has come in contact with death. Metaphorically, death represents the loss of presence that comes when you are taken over by anger and negativity.
In the ritual, one must take a completely red cow and slaughter it, then burn it up completely. (Both the redness of the cow and the burning represent the fire of anger, which causes one to become spiritually “dead.”)
Then, the ashes are mixed with water and made into a potion to be sprinkled on the impure person. And, while the potion causes the impure person to become pure again, it causes the one who sprinkled the potion to become impure- just as parents who discipline their children with anger may help to “purify” the child’s behavior, but in the process they become impure themselves.
This theme continues to vibrate throughout the parshah-
Shortly after the hok of the red cow, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, Miriam’s death is the loss of connection with the Divine Presence, which Miriam represents. After she dies, we are then told that there is “no water to drink.” Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with the Presence that was lost.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. Hashem instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of his own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hardness- to the lack of connection.
Then it says-
“Hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah-
“You shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…”
The barrier to holiness can be penetrated by gently bringing awareness to it through speech, by using speech to return people to presence. That’s the role of the spiritual teacher- to help others return to Presence, often through speech.
But, as you may know, that’s not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels,” and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink- but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself! How often do you beat yourself up for not living up to your highest intentions?
While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly. You have the power to teach yourself from your “Inner Torah”- to set yourself on the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
But to do this, you have to consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah. Yes, we are flawed humans, but on the deepest level we are also Torah. That level of Torah within is ever available, if you but remember and open to it.
There’s a hint of this in the parshah as well, when it describes the law for a person who dies in a tent:
“Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel-
“This is the torah (teaching) for when a person dies in a tent…”
The beginning of this verse can also be read in a completely different way- “Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!”
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time to sit for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance from him of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe of his presence.”
But as soon as he sat down, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him anyway.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them: “You know, every person is like a holy book- every person is in fact a Torah- as it says, ‘Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!’And just as you wouldn’t pile things on top of a Sefer Torah, so too please don’t push and shove one another.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
On this Shabbat Hukat, the Sabbath of Decree, may we take care to embrace the “decree” of what is, even when confronting the negativity of others, not allowing our resistance to be embodied in self-defeating anger. But rather, let us embody Presence in all three garments- in our actions, words and thoughts.
-reb brian yosef
See original post with video HERE.
Parshat Korakh begins, “Vayikakh Korakh- Korakh separated himself…”
This is referring to how Korakh “separates himself” by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of unfairly wielding their power. Korakh’s argument is pretty convincing. He says:
“This entire assembly is holy and the Divine is among them- why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Divine?”
Now, the word for “he separated” is vayikakh, which literally means “he took”- hinting at the selfish motive behind his challenge to Moses. Just like when you feel desire for something, like a sugary treat for example, and there’s the urge to reach for it and take it, so too Korakh was grabbing at what he wanted. Only his desire object wasn’t food, but status and control. And just as the body can have physical cravings, so the ego has identity cravings: I want control, I want recognition, and so on, and that ego craving can be much more powerful than bodily cravings in some cases.
Next, it says:
Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.
Why did he fall on his face?
There’s a story that once an opponent of the Hassidic movement came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman of Liadi- to attack him with accusations of arrogance:
“You claim to be a holy man- a leader of Hassidim- but look how you sit alone in your study, separate from the people… and with an attendant at your door, only admitting people according to your command- how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are anyway?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanunprayer.
After a few minutes, he lifted his head and spoke-
“The expression the Torah uses for ‘leaders of the people’ is ‘roshei alfei Yisrael- heads of the thousands of Israel,’ from which we learn that our leaders are known as ‘heads.’
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. Nevertheless, they’re clothed separately and differently. Why is this?
“Because the head must be distinct from the body, just as the ‘heads’ of any generation must be distinct from the people.”
The questioner was impressed with the answer and went on his way.
But the Rebbe’s little son (who would eventually be known as Reb Dov Bear of Lubavich), had a different question for his father:
“Abba, in order to give that answer, there was no need to rest your head in your arms. Why didn’t you give him the answer immediately?”
The Alter Rebbe replied-
“In Parshat Korakh, when Korakh and his followers accused Moses and Aaron of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused them with these words-
“‘Umadua titnasu- And why do you exalt yourselves?’
“Then we read, ‘Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
“Only after he fell on his face, did Moses answer Korakh. So we might ask the same question there- why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
“Because Moses suspected that perhaps there was some truth to the accusation- perhaps there was a bit of ego involved in his leadership, so he had to go inside himself and search inwardly to see if there was some truth there.
“Then, after searching within and purifying himself from any ego (as the Torah says, ‘V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- Moses was exceedingly humble’), he was able to respond with clarity.
“A similar thing happened with me here today.”
The Alter Rebbe’s description of the head in relation to the body- intimately connected, yet separate, transcendent- is not just a metaphor for a leader in relation to the people, but also for consciousness in relation to your thoughts and feelings.
So just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, so you too can be the “attendant” of your own mind, keeping yourself free from thoughts and feelings generated by ego.
But, to do this, you don’t really have to “keep out” any of your thoughts or feelings. All you need to do is be conscious of them. By simply acknowledging the presence of selfish or aggressive thoughts and feelings, they’re no longer controling “you.” Then, as you continue to stay present, your thoughts and feelings naturally cool down, revealing themselves as nothing more than fleeting moments of experience.
As it says in Psalm 23, Dishanta vashemen roshi- My head is anointed with oil. When you stay present, your awareness is like aromatic anointing oil poured over your head, cooling and relaxing your mind and heart. And when that happens, you can experience yourself more and more as consciousness, totally beyond and yet inclusive of your mind and heart. And that consciousness is the opposite of ego. Because while ego is needy and is forever restless, trying to fulfill itself, consciousness is full and complete- Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full.
So on this Shabbat Korakh, this Sabbath of Taking, may we fully “take” the only power we truly have- the power to be with what is- to be the space of awareness within which this moment unfolds, and in so doing, become free from the impulses of the mind and heart and realize the inherent peace and wholeness that we are. Good Shabbos!
More on Parshat Korakh:
The Farmer – Parshat Korakh
Once there was a farmer who lived on his farm with his son. The son grew up helping the farmer with all the chores- cleaning the chicken coup, milking the cows, planting, tending, harvesting and so on. As the son grew up, however, he became disdainful of the farm life. He resented his father for raising him in such a sheltered life, and he wanted to experience more.
As he grew more and more restless, he would get into fights with his father, insulting him and calling him a bumpkin and a hick and so on. Eventually he left the farm and set out for a more urban evnvironment. He became a party animal, living for the nights when he would drink himself into oblivion with his newfound crowd of party animals.
One such night, one of his companions who knew about the son’s origins got out of hand and started insulting him and his father. The son suddenly felt protective of his father’s honor, and threatened to beat the guy up. Some other people restrained him, and said “why don’t you settle it with a drinking contest?” They both agreed.
As the son downed shot after shot, there was something different in the way he was drinking. In the past, he drank for his own pleasure. Now, he was drinking for his father. This gave him more drinking strength than ever, and he easily won the contest.
The next night, when he went out drinking, he was reminded of what it was like to drink for his father, and how it somehow gave more strength and depth to his drinking, so he tried it again: Before taking a sip, he would say, “Dad, this is for you”. From then on, every night he went out, he would dedicate his partying to his father. After some time, he felt something like a fire kindle inside his heart. A great love for his father grew inside him. Sometimes he would sit with the glass of wisky for long periods without drinking anything, just savoring this love that was growing within him.
Eventually, he began to realize that the love within him was infinitely more deep and sweet than the scrap of pleasure he got from the alchohol. He knew he had to return home, but he felt so guilty facing his father.
When he arrived and saw his father, he said, “I left here because I had felt like I was just one of your animals, mindlessly doing your farm work. But now that I’ve been out in the world, I feel like I am not even as good as your animals, because your animals at least faithfully serve you, while I just run around after my own pleasure. I am less than an animal. But I love you, and I realize I was wrong, and I want to come back.”
The father was in tears. “My son, these animals don’t serve me on purpose. They follow their instincts, and I know how to work with them so that they serve me and the farm. You, on the other hand, have chosen to some back out of love, and that is the most precious thing to me.”
In the story, the son follows his own desires, satisfying himself through drinking. But when he accidentally imbues his drinking with love for his father, the drinking begins to have a new effect. It becomes a path of transformation.
On Shabbat, as we come together to sing and dance and praise in joy, most of us are drinking in the tavern for God. We’re doing enjoyment, but dedicating it to God, so it becomes a path of transforming the heart, of awakening the power of love. But in order for that power to become a true transformation, we have to take it back to the farm.
But of course there is something in the way; it is easier to drink for the farmer than to clean the chicken coup for the farmer. So the story is really about the very beginning of the son’s spiritual work- the real work begins after the story ends. That’s where the transformation of ego happens- when you clean the chicken coup, when you endure the hardships of life and are able to dedicate it to the One.
The other day, I lost my kippa, and I was afraid- it’s my last one, what am I going to do? Then I realized what a crass materialist I was being. What kind of spirituality is that? Worrying about a hat? So insignificant compared to the real hardships of life, but it affected me. But those to me are the golden spiritual moments- when you get to see your own ego at work- because that is the opportunity to drop it for real. Real transformation happens in the flow of actual life, when we offer the whole of our life on the altar of actuality.
In this parasha, Korakh makes a rebelion against Moses with 250 followers, accusing Moses of exalting himself over everyone else, and calling for something more democratic. The midrash asks why this incident comes right after the mitzvah of tzitzit- the ritual fringes worn the corners of the one's garment to remind one of the Path. The tzitzit are supposed to have a special thread of blue in them. It answers that Korakh came to Moses with a garment made entirely of blue and asked Moses, “Does this need tzitzit?” Metaphorically, Korakh was saying that he was totally aware of God’s presence everywhere, so there was no need for the specific tzitzit as a reminder; Korakh was like the garment that was all blue. There was no need for Moses to lead him, Korakh argued, because whatever happens, God is always in control anyway. It’s a very spiritual argument, and it is actually true from a spiritual point of view. But he was using a spiritual argument to justify being a farm animal rather than being a son of God. The farm animals do what they do, and the farmer manipulates the situation. But the son comes back to serve out of love and awareness of the farmer, and that’s the difference between Moses and Korakh. Korakh’s actions did ultimately serve a holy purpose- the story is in the Torah, and is part of the Teaching, but Korakh was motivated by ego. Moses was trying to do his job.
So the point is not using spiritual ideas as argument; the point is our relationship to the present moment. It is being willing to allow this moment to be what it really is anyway, and serving That. This is what it means to serve in simkha- in joy- but also in yirah- in fearsome awe; because only awe and surrender can the things we resist transform us into hearts that burn with Divine Love. May we merit truly spiritual lives, so that the ecstasy of drinking in the tavern be channeled into cleaning the chicken coup. Shabbat Shalom!
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