Last Shabbat, after I taught in our Berkeley synagogue, I walked through town with a rabbi friend of mine. He told me that when he was younger, he used to attend meditation retreats and seek out teachings on spiritual awakening. But over time he moved away from those things because they seemed too abstract. It seemed to him that such teachings aimed at awakening an experience of the transcendent, but they didn’t address his fundamental question: why are we here in this life? If it’s all about transcending the world, what’s the meaning of living in the world?
Recently, I was listening to a talk by the outspoken intellectual Jordan Peterson in which he said that, to any thinking person, it should be obvious that the meaning of existence must be grounded in the fact of unbearable human suffering.
Hassidic teaching says something similar:
There is a story of Reb Levi Yitzhak, that whenever he would celebrate the Passover Seder and come to the passage about the Four Sons, he would stop at the son who doesn’t know how to ask. “That’s me, Levi Yitzhak – I am the son who doesn’t know how to ask! I don’t know how to ask what this is all for, why we are here, what is the purpose of it all. And even if I did, how could I bear the answer? I do not want to know why I suffer as I do; I want to know that my suffering is for You. And just as it says, ‘you shall answer your son, saying…’ so You, my Father, must answer!”
In this Hassidic understanding, suffering is not the meaning of existence, but it is the thing that causes us to ask the meaning of existence. And further: it is not the philosophical question of why that is of ultimate concern, but for Whom. In other words, it is a question not of the mind, but of the heart.
This points to a central truth: the question of meaning is fulfilled only through love. That is the only reason to endure all the suffering, because love is the ultimate joy – shining even at the very depths of suffering.
The mind searches for the question of meaning, but it can never really be satisfied with any conceptual answer, no matter how convincing. Trying to find meaning through the mind is like trying to taste food with your hands; no matter how much food you smear on your hands, you will never be satisfied. Only actual eating can satisfy hunger; only actual love can satisfy the hunger for meaning.
וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ... וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them… and they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.
It is only through the life of the heart that Sanctuary is built – a life in which, since the loving heart desires to give, giving is actually a form of receiving.
And, since everything we receive is taken as an expression of the Divine love for us, receiving is also a form of giving – barukh Hashem!
זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת
gold, silver and copper…
See – there are three levels to experience right now: thought, feeling and sensory experience. The feeling level determines the quality of experience – its mood – attraction and revulsion, adoration and anger, curiosity and boredom. This is the level of the heart from which love arises, and hence from which the meaning of existence is fulfilled. We might think, then, that the heart is the level of “gold” – but it is not.
Notice: your feelings, as primary as they are, are ultimately determined by your thoughts – by how you interpret your experience. Think good, feel good; think bad, feel bad.
Most of us assume the opposite: we start to feel bad, and so we start thinking in a negative way. But wake up out of the seductiveness of your feelings by being present with them and accepting them, and you can realize: you can actually decide which thoughts to nurture and which thoughts to dismiss. That decision is itself a thought, arising from a deep wisdom beyond the gravity of feeling and the seductiveness of thought. That wisdom is awareness itself – hokhmah – beyond both thought and feeling. That is why the mind, though it cannot ultimately bring us real fulfillment, is the "gold" and the heart is the "silver" – because the mind rules the heart.
The third level is sensory experience, corresponding to action. Action is an expression of the heart, which is in turn ruled by the mind. We don’t act unless we are motivated to act; we have to first want on the level of heart, and that determines our action. Thus, action is the level of copper.
Take for Me an offering from every person whose heart moves them…
Without the awareness of what we really are, beneath our thoughts, feelings and sensory experience, our thoughts tend to be ruled by the unconscious impulses of our hearts, leading ultimately to unconscious and reactive actions. But being aware that we are the awareness behind all experience, we can choose our thoughts, and thus open our hearts, and act from the radiant love that shines through that openness.
Then, all of life becomes a sanctuary for the Presence that dwells within us, as us…
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More On Parshat Terumah..
Offering Whatever – Parshat Terumah
Exodus 25:1, 2
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The Divine spoke to Moses, saying:
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart motivates them.
Once a hassid came to the rebbe and asked, "Why is it that the rabbis praise Avraham for being willing to offer his son Yitzhak? For most people this would be a severe test, but how could it be a test for Avraham, who was a great prophet?"
The rebbe answered, "When a person is tested, all their spiritual attainment is taken away from them, and they are face to face with the test. All your depth of realization is out the window, and you must gather all your strength to not be seduced by your ego..."
Living in awakened life, in which every word and action overflows an offering from the heart, can seem easy when you're in the experience of blissful oneness. But these experiences become a complete reality only when you face situations that trigger you and threaten to seduce you back into an egoic state, and you manage to actually pass the test.
But, no matter how many times you may "fail" your tests, don't worry! That's totally natural. If fact, if you can let your heart break in humility when you "fail" your tests, that in itself helps to break the bonds of ego. In this way, both "failing" and "passing" can aide you in becoming true sanctuary of Presence in which your whole life is an "offering."
"Staying Present in Action" Parshat Terumah
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Terumah. Terumah means an offering, or a contribution. It begins with God telling Moses to say to the children of Israel:
“Yik’khu li trumah me’eit kol ish asher yidveinu libo-
"Take for me an offering from every person whose heart is motivated to give…”
The offerings that they’re talking about range from precious metals, to animal skins, to incense spices, to pieces of wood- all things that will be used to build the mishkan- the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them as they travelled through the wilderness. The word mishkancomes from the root which means to dwell or be present, as in the word Shekhinah which means, Divine Presence. So in the opening of this parshah, we’re hearing about all the different ways the Israelites contribute toward the Sanctuary of Presence. But if we look more deeply, this opening verse gives us three hints about how we can be more present in our own actions.
The first and most important hint is in the name of the parshah- Terumah, which means, “offering.” If you want to be present in the busyness of daily life and overcome that tendency to see this moment merely as a means to get to some future moment, then let your actions be offerings. Whenever you do something, and you can do this many times a day, bring to mind that your actions are for the sake of serving something. Since most of what we do is often serving some purpose for others, this isn’t so difficult. But even when you do things for yourself like eating or resting, you can still offer it as a gift, because of course you have to keep yourself healthy in order to be of service to others.
And, the more you think of your actions as offerings, you might even get inspired to change the way you do things for the better, or even take on some new positive actions, or get rid of some not so positive ones. The point here to bring more consciousness into whatever you’re doing by acting with a loving spirit.
The second hint is implied in the words, kol ish- every person. In other words, every person has their own unique path. If you go around wishing you were someone else, or wishing you were in a different situation, you devalue your own path, and create an inner feeling of separation. But if you constantly take to heart that this moment is the moment to offer what only you can offer, regardless of whether it seems impressive in the external sense, then you can really inhabit your body and inhabit your actions. Furthermore, the words kol ish, every person, can also mean “all of the person.” In other words, put all of yourself into whatever you happen to be doing.
And that brings us to the third hint that’s implied in the words, “…asher yidveinu libo- whose heart is motivated to give…” This means, you can learn how to be present from whatever you’re really motivated to do. Notice how it feels when you’re doing things that you love, how you’re fully engaged and doing for its own sake, and bring that degree of presence to all your actions, even when you’re doing things you don’t necessarily want to do. In that way, everything you do becomes a kind of devotion or prayer.
There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov was once smoking his pipe by the window, when he was taken aback by the sight of a man walking by, who glowed with the most beautiful holy Presence and joyful radiance. The Baal Shem asked a disciple who the man was, and his disciple told him that the man was a hose-maker.
So, the Baal Shem sent the man a message to please bring four pairs of hose. Soon after, the hose maker appeared before the Baal Shem, displaying his wares, light shining from his face. The hose were well made of good sheep’s wool.
The Baal Shem asked him, “How do you spend your days?” The man answered, “I ply my trade.”
“And how do you ply it?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I work every day until I have forty or fifty pairs of hose, then I put them into a mold with hot water and press them until they’re as they should be.”
“And do you do any special prayers or meditations?” asked the Baal Shem.
“I just recite the psalms that I know by heart, all day long as I work.”
After the Baal Shem had purchased the hose and the man left, the Baal Shem turned to his disciple and said, “Today you have seen the cornerstone which will uphold the temple until the coming of the Messiah.”
So what does the Baal Shem Tov mean when he says that this hose maker is the cornerstone of the temple until the Messiah? The temple, as we’ve seen, represents intensification of Presence. The Messiah means the end of exile, because the traditional belief is that when Moshiakh comes, all the Jews scattered throughout the world will be gathered in, and everyone will commune with the Divine in the temple once again.
But on a deeper level, exile isn’t only about being separated from your native land. Exile is what happens within when you don’t fully inhabit who you are and what you’re doing in the present moment. When that happens, your consciousness pulls away from itself, creating the experience of incompleteness. And in that inner exile, nothing is all that satisfying. But when you’re gathered in, so to speak, when you connect deeply with your actions, there’s a deep satisfaction even if you’re doing things that aren’t particularly exciting.
So as approach Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Offering, let’s practice making all our actions offerings, gathering ourselves back into the fullness of who we are and opening to the healing and wholeness that flows from that.
The Floor- Parshat Terumah
Let’s face it- people can be annoying.
Once I was in a workshop at a retreat center. I was in a room full of people, listening to the teacher speak to the class. Next to me there was this guy who happened to be standing on an area of floor that emitted a really loud squeak whenever someone stepped on it.
So what did this guy do?
He stood on that spot and rocked his body back and forth, making a terribly annoying and loud squeak, over and over again. He appeared to be totally unconscious of what he was doing. I was amazed that he either couldn’t hear the loud noise he was making or he just didn’t care.
In that moment, as that relatively trivial annoyance provoked such a strong response within me, I appreciated the difficulty of staying present and free when disturbances are not trivial- when they’re deeply offensive or hurtful.
Have you ever been enraged by someone you love? Have you ever deeply offended someone you would die for? Or have you deeply enraged your beloved?
If you have, than perhaps you know the pain of separation it causes- the sour flavor that permeates life in the wake of such mis-steps.
What’s the remedy? How can the sundered fabric of relationship be healed and closeness be restored?
There’s a word in Hebrew for “holy” or “sacred”- kadosh.
Kadosh actually means “separate,” but not in the ordinary sense. In the case of a wounded relationship, the word “separate” connotes distance, disconnectedness, alienation. But the word kadosh actually means the opposite. In a Jewish wedding ceremony we hear these words spoken between the beloveds-
“At mekudeshet li-
“You are holy to me…”
Your partner or spouse becomes “separate” because they’re your most intimate, and therefore separate from all less intimate relationships. So, the separateness of kadosh points not to something that’s distant, but most central. It points not to alienation, but to the deepest connection.
This week’s reading begins the Divine instructions for building the Mishkan- the portable temple for the wandering Israelites:
“V’asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham-
“Make for me a Mikdash- a Sanctuary- and I will dwell within you.”
The word Mikdash has the same root as holy- kadosh. In the Torah, the Mikdash is the place that the Divine Presence manifests and communes with the Israelites. The other word for the Sanctuary, Mishkan, implies the Divine Presence- the Shekhina.
And how did the Israelites commune with the sacred? Did they go into the space to just sit and meditate?
They came into the Mikdash to offer presious gifts- first to build the sanctuary, then to make offerings. They brought things that were most precious- first their gold, silver and copper, then their fruit, their wine, grain and animals.
In giving and burning what was most precious, they burned away their own inner obstacles to intimacy; they burned away the alienation caused by their own “clinging.” The word for a sacrificial offering is “korban,” which means not sacrifice, but nearness, intimacy.
Where was this Mikdash erected? Was it separate from the camp, off at a distance, so that you’d have to hike out to it?
No- it was in the center of the camp!
And within the Mikdash was a special place considered the most holy- the Kadosh Kadoshim- the “Holy of Holies.” This most sacred space was the innermost room in the Mikdash- the center of the center.
This representation of the sacred in space and architecture is not mere ritual magic from the past. It’s a pointer to the true sanctuary of Presence within your own life. There can only be one center of your life, and that center is the one place that life is actually being lived- this moment. You’re never separate from this moment, and yet- are you truly dwelling within it?
“Asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti mitokham…”
There’s a Divine call. It calls to us in pain and in joy, in excitement and in boredom. It says, “Come to the center. Build me a sanctuary.”
How do you build it?
The essence of the sanctuary is not the structure, but the space within the structure. The structure is already there as your body, your mind, your heart. They become a sanctuary the moment you allow there to be a space. The space completes the structure.
Come into that space- come into your body, come into this moment. Bring your korban to the altar. Is there pain? Is there fear? Is there regret? Is there embarrassment? Bring it all. Let the fire on the altar of the present moment burn away the separation. If it hurts, let it hurt- your obstacles are being burned away- and the pain is temporary.
In allowing yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, there’s a transmutation that takes place. The energy of separation and pain burns up and becomes the energy of love. For when the illusion of separation caused by clinging is burned up, every face is a form of the Face; every being is a manifestation of Being.
And when you see every person as nothing less than a Form of God, the Form of God that steps up to you in every encounter, can there be room for negativity? Can there be anything but the fire of love? And in that fire of love, will you hold back your forgiveness, or your asking forgiveness?
A disciple asked Rabbi Shmelke-
“We are taught- ‘Ve’ahavtah lereiakha kamokha- Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ But how can I love my neighbor if he has wronged me?”
“You must understand these words deeply,” replied Rabbi Shmelke. “You must love your neighbor as something that you yourself are, for all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this original soul is expressed in all souls, just as your soul is expressed in all the different organs of your body.
“It may happen that your right hand slips with a knife and cuts your left hand. But would you then take a knife with your left hand and start cutting your right hand to punish it?
“It’s the same when your neighbor wrongs you. If you punish him, you punish yourself.”
The disciple wasn’t satisfied-
“But if I see someone who is truly evil, how can I love that person?”
“Don’t you know,” replied Rabbi Shmelke, “that the original soul emerges from the Divine, and in fact is not separate from the Divine at all. So won’t you have mercy on the Divine when you see that one of Its sparks has become lost in a maze is being stifled by the deeds of that person who thinks he’s separate?”
On this Shabbat Terumah, the Sabbath of Giving, may we guard and remember- Shamor V’Zakhor-to make every word a praise of the One, every deed an offering of love, rooted in the Sanctuary of Presence that is our own human body. Amein, Sela!
There’s a story of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Peshischa, that he didn’t have the happiest of marriages. His wife would frequently grow extremely angry at him and scold him at length. Normally, he would say nothing, and simply endure her words in silence, unaffected. But one time, he snapped back at her. Taken aback, she stopped her abuse and left the room.
A disciple witnessed the whole thing asked the rebbe: “Master, you always endure her anger in silence. Why did you snap back this time? Did you lose your balance and become angry?”
“Not at all,” the Rebbe replied, “I could see that she was growing more and more angry that I wasn’t reacting, so I pretended to get angry to help her feel better.”
There are two common images that are often used to describe the state of equanimity – of freedom from one’s own negative emotions, or reactivity.
The first is the image of dwelling in the center of your being. When you are at the center, reactivity may arise – anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, and so on, but you’re are not caught in any of that because the emotions are simply bubbling up around you, while you remain in the “eye of the hurricane” so to speak. In this image, the chaos is external, and you are the calm center that sees the chaos, unaffected by it.
The second is the image of being a vast space within which the reactivity arises. In this image, the chaos is within you, but you are so much more vast and spacious than whatever feelings are bubbling up, that they are insignificant.
Both of these images actually point to two different practices for realizing freedom: being present with your body, on one hand, and knowing yourself as the vast space of awareness both within and infinitely beyond your body, on the other.
These two practices are actually two different stages of the same practice, hinted at in this week’s reading: The Israelites all stand together in rapt awe at Sinai, while the mountain smokes and quakes, engulfed in cloud and fire:
וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע
And the people said, “Everything that the Divine speaks, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear.” (Exodus, 24:7)
The ordering of the words in this verse, na’aseh v’nishma, is strange. You would think that the words should be the opposite – first you would hear, then you would do. But the fact that the words are reversed – “we will do” and then “we will hear,” teaches a key insight:
If you want the freedom of knowing the vastness of your own being as the borderless space of awareness within which experience arises (v’nishma) – you must first bring your awareness deep into your own body (na’aseh). In connecting with your body, with your heart and with your breathing, your consciousness is drawn out from its ordinary activity of incessant thinking, and into its own nature as open space.
There’s another hint of this unity between the center of your being and the vastness of your being earlier in the parshah, where it discusses how an indentured servent must be set free in the seventh year:
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם
And in the seventh (year), he shall go out free, without charge.
וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת – And in the seventh: In the image of the Star of David, the six rays of the star represent the six directions in space and the six days of the week, while seven is represented by the center of the star. This is Shabbat – the “eye of the hurricane” in time. Seven, then, is the inner sanctum, the holy center – the drawing of awareness into the temple of the body.
יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י – he shall go out free: And yet, through connecting with the center, yeitzei – there is a “going out” to freedom. This is the realization that the awareness that dwells within your body is not confined to your body. Rather, it is a vast field that knows everything you perceive; the air around you as well as the stars in the sky are all equally arising within the vast field that you are.
חִנָּֽם – gratis, free of charge, an act of grace – this freedom is not something you have to work for or somehow create; it’s what you already are. Pay close attention to your actual experience in this moment and see – you are the freedom of awareness, right now...
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More On Parshat Mishpatim...
Cutting Through to the Essential Core – Parshat Mishpatim
כִּ֣י תִפְגַּ֞ע שׁ֧וֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ֛ א֥וֹ חֲמֹר֖וֹ תֹּעֶ֑ה הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֶ֖נּוּ לֽוֹ׃
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him.
כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃
When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes...
It is told about Reb Mordechai of Neskhizh that before he became known as a rebbe, he was a businessman. All year long he would put aside some money from his daily earnings so that he would be able to purchase the finest etrog for the holiday of Sukkot. (An etrog is a citron fruit used in a special Sukkot ritual).
One year, as Sukkot approached, he traveled to the city with all his savings to find the finest etrog. On the way, he encountered a distraught water seller whose horse had collapsed on the road, and the water seller stood in confusion and despair. Reb Mordechai immediately stopped and gave all his money to the him so that he might buy a new horse.
"What does it matter?" Reb Mordechai said to himself, "While everyone else says their blessing on an etrog, I'll say mine on this horse!"
There is a great richness to tradition and ritual, but the danger of such richness and complexity is that we can become lost in their agendas and lose touch with essential simplicity of true spirituality: transcendence of ego, knowing the Oneness and expressing this realization in kindness toward all beings we encounter. Hassidic tales such as these cut through the sometimes dense forrest of religion to the core of the spirit...
Before- Parshat Mishpatim
“V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem-
"And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
In order to understand the distinction between your thinking mind and your awareness, it’s helpful to notice that while your thinking mind can’t function without your awareness in the background, your awareness isn’t at all dependent on the movement of your mind.
A nice metaphor for understanding this distinction is the ocean and the waves. The waves are completely dependent on the ocean, because the waves are nothing but the surface movement of the ocean. No more ocean, no more waves. But if the waves cease to be, the vast ocean with its great depths remain. In the same way, your awareness is actually the vast ocean of consciousness within which the waves of your thoughts rise and fall.
Now if you’re living mostly on the level of the waves, that’s the ego- the “me” with its problems, concerns, successes and failures. Of course that’s part of who you are on the surface of your consciousness, but the question is, is that where you want to live? Or, do you want to live in the vast depths of your consciousness, in the fullness of who you are, beneath those little waves of your mind-based identity.
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Mishpatim. Mishpatim means, judgments. It begins with God saying to Moses: “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem- And these are the judgments you will place before them.”
It then goes on to talk about various various civil laws that Moses is to teach the Israelites. But in the first sentence there’s a special hint about how to connect with the vast ocean of consciousness that you are, rather than be trapped by the waves on the surface. It says that the mishpatim, the judgments, should be lifneihem- before them. In other words, don’t get unconsciously absorbed into the judgements of your mind, but rather see your judgments as if they’re “before” you.
That means, don’t try to stop your judgments or get rid of them, simply notice them and let them be. The more your practice noticing your judgments, without judging your judgments, the more you’ll begin to feel yourself as the noticing, rather than the judging. And that simple noticing is the vast ocean of consciousness beneath the waves of thinking. But in order to really keep your judgments lifanekha, before you, so that you don’t get trapped by them, you have to be willing to stay with the truth of whatever you’re perceiving, without imposing your own interpretation.
The Hassidic rebbe, the Seer of Lublin once said, “I prefer sinners who know that they are sinners, rather than righteous people who know they are righteous people.”
Now why would he say that? Because if you know that you’re a sinner, you’re probably seeing yourself truthfully- after all, most of us make at least a few mistakes once in a while. But if you see yourself as perfectly righteous, you’re probably interpreting things in a skewed way to satisfy a certain self-image. And self-image, otherwise known as ego, is on the level of the waves. Of course nowadays, there can be just as much ego in putting yourself down as in puffing yourself up, but the point is to let go of self-image, let go of needing things to be a certain way, and stay with your actual experience, because the part of you that knows your actual experience is that inner vast ocean of consciousness.
So in this week of Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgment, let’s practice seeing whatever judgments arise in the mind, allowing them to come and go in the space of this moment, through the practice of Presence and meditation.
The Girlfriends- Parshat Mishpatim
If you awaken to spiritual freedom, does that mean that you’ll remain free all the time? Is spiritual freedom a permanent state?
This question reminds me of before I was married, when I had different girlfriends. On one hand, they were committed relationships. On the other hand, we always had the choice to spend time together or not. At the end of the day, I was always free to go home to my own house if I wanted to. So, although there was a kind of commitment, it was nothing like being married.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect?
Of course not!
Like all living things, it’s in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people commit to having one life together, to be one family.
Spiritual awakening is just like that.
At first, you may have a spiritual experience. That experience tells you something about reality; it changes your whole outlook. However, like all experiences, it’s temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you might forget all about what you’ve learned. You’re not having the spiritual experience anymore, so you don’t have access to its truth.
You may long for that experience, you may seek it out in different ways, you may even find it. You may find it in sports, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it’s a place you visit, not the place you live. It is your girl/boyfriend, not your life partner.
This week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim, begins with laws regarding a male Hebrew indentured servant. It says that he can work for six years but must be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2):
“Sheish shamim ya’avod-
“Six years he shall work…”
The word for indentured servant is the same as the word for slave- eved. The master of the slave is called an adon- “lord”.
But these two words, eved and adon, also have a completely different connotation: God is sometimes called Adon, and a holy person is called an Eved Hashem- a Servant of God.
Seen metaphorically, then, the Hebrew eved that goes free is like someone who has a spiritual experience, but when the experience is over, s/he goes free from it. It’s only temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved doesn’t want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new wife and children and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever (Ex. 21:6):
“And he shall serve him forever…”
Metaphorically, this is one who becomes an Eved Hashem- a Servant of the Divine. It’s getting “married” to God.
But if spiritual awakening is about freedom, what does that have to do with being a servant or a spouse? Why the contradictory metaphors?
Rashi points out another contradiction in the text that will shed light on this first contradiction: In the above verse, it says:
“He shall serve him forever.”
But this contradicts another verse, which states that all Hebrew slaves are set free on the Jubilee Year, the last year in a fifty-year cycle, no matter what (Lev. 25:10):
“V’ish el mishpakhto t’shuvo-
“And you shall return each person to his family…”
To resolve this contradiction, he says that the word olam- “forever” or “eternal”- is actually another word for the Jubilee Year, because after the Jubilee Year, the status of everything completely changes. The original state of reality is gone, so everything up to the Jubilee Year, the year of freedom, is called “forever.”
So, being a “slave forever” gets you to “freedom!”
Meaning- the point of committing yourself to a life of spiritual practice is to shift out of the time-bound, thought-created sense of self, into connection with That which is Eternal- the present moment, always existing as the space of your own awareness, beyond thought.
How does that work?
Back to our text-
When it says the slave is taken to the doorpost, the word for doorpost is mezuzah- the same as the ritual scroll traditionally fastened to the doorposts of Jewish homes.
And what is the first word of the text written on the mezuzah? “Sh’ma”- “Hear”!
Hearing, unlike seeing and tasting, is the sense that we can't shut down; our ears are always open. We can't shut our ears to escape the sounds around us.
Similarly, we can't escape Reality. There's nothing but Reality, everywhere!
And yet, we create this inner resistance to Reality, and that resistance is the basis of ego- that contracted sense of self which imprisons the spirit.
To relax that resistance means to return to openness- to be an open ear, wholly with what is.
That’s the point- and the mechanism- of spiritual practice: to leave your identification with your inner resistance (ego) and awaken into your true and free nature as awareness, by "hearing" the truth of the present moment.
At some point, when you’re ready, it’s time to “get married”- to let go of your attachment to mind created reality and commit to Actual Reality. Then, this moment becomes your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality becomes your “family”- your home base- the place you live, not the place you merely visit.
Does that mean then the relationship is perfect?
Of course not! There’s risk- failure is possible. But you’ve stepped into commitment with Beloved.
And, just as relationships sometimes need coaches and therapists, so too the spiritual life is helped by spiritual teachers:
Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, once said to his disciple, Reb Zvi of Zhidochov:
“So long as I am alive, I’m not afraid that you’ll slip from your commitment to the Divine. But afterwards- who knows?”
Said Reb Zvi: “I don’t want to live longer than you, rebbe.”
“How can you say such a thing?” protested the Seer. “You are still a young man, and I am old!”
“Rebbe,” replied Reb Zvi, “I will pray that you live forever.”
“But does mortal man live forever?” asked the Seer.
“I meant, rebbe, that you should live one hundred and twenty years, as Moshe Rabeinu (Moses Our Teacher) did,” explained Reb Zvi.
“Come now, Reb Zvi,” said the Seer, “Just a moment ago you said ‘forever,’ and now you’re saying ‘one hundred and twenty years.’ A hundred and twenty years is not forever.”
Replied Reb Zvi: “I came across the idea in some book I read that Moshe Rabeinu lived one hundred twenty years, corresponding to the number of Jubilee Years within our present six thousand year cycle. For in the Talmud it is written-
‘Shita alfei shanei havah alma-
‘Six thousand years the world will be…’
“And, in six thousand years, there are a hundred and twenty Jubilee Years.
“In the Torah, furthermore, the Jubilee is sometimes called olam- meaning, ‘forever,’ as in the passage where the Hebrew slave pierces his ear-
“And he shall serve him forever…’
Meaning, the slave serves until the Jubilee year, which is called ‘forever.’
“The point is, I will pray that your hundred and twenty years on this earth should inspire me commit forever. Like that Hebrew slave, I should make the Eternal Beloved my Lord and my family…”
“And in what book did you see that idea?” the Seer asked.
“Well, actually,” replied Reb Zvi, “It could have been mine…”
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgments, may we open to the one judgment now before us: Commit. Hear. Awaken. May we too write the “books” of our lives, each pointing toward this awakening, and may we support each other on our unique paths. And, may every personal transformation lead us speedily toward the evolution of humanity, to a time of true peace and mutuality.
Years ago, I used to teach piano for a living, mostly to children. When they would make a mistake, most of them would just say “oops” and try again – no big deal. But there were always a few who wouldn’t be able to accept their own mistakes. They would become frustrated and cry and scream out: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Of course I knew they could do it, if only they would relax and try again. I would ask them to please trust me – “Just you wait and see, you will be able to do it. Just try again a little more slowly.”
When you practice something, whether it’s playing piano or being present, you will inevitably get better and better at it. There’s no guarantee you’ll become as great as so-and-so, but you will get better – that’s just the way it works. And so, if your mind interferes by telling you that you’re not getting better fast enough, or even worse it tells you that you’ll never be able to do it, don’t get dragged into that drama. Know that you can and you will – you just need to stick with it.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר׃ אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ
The Divine spoke all these words, saying: I am Existence, your own Divinity, that brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
This famous introduction to the “Ten Commandments” hint at a deeper truth: I am Existence, your own Divinity – your deepest “I” is not something separate from all Existence; it is your own inner Divinity.
Meaning: the dimension of the sacred – which we might call freedom, presence, or oneness – is already who you are at the deepest level. Beneath and beyond your thoughts, beneath and beyond your feelings, beneath and beyond your sensory experience – you are freedom. It may take time for you to know this fully in your experience, but it takes no time at all to be begin practicing – you can always do it now.
לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗י
There shall not be for you other gods before Me.
In order to function, we need our minds to form a mental map of the world so that we can navigate through life. As long as we understand the difference between the map and the territory, thought can be our most useful tool. But when we mistake our thoughts about reality for actual Reality, that’s idolatry on the deepest level. We take our own beliefs to be true, and thereby close ourselves off from intimacy with actual Reality: “I’ll never be able to do it!”
Instead, be open – don’t put reality into a mental box. Don’t insist; don’t impose. Let go of your stream of thinking and let awareness flow into your body, opening to the full potential of what could be. We don’t really know anything – except that we are conscious, right now.
Then you will know on the deepest level – Anokhi Hashem – your “I” – the deepest level of who you are – is not something other than the Divine you seek…
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Four Dimensions of Presence with Others – Parshat Yitro
1/31/2018 5 Comments
This parsha begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, coming out to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. When Moses goes out to greet him, the Torah hints at four dimensions of being present with other people (Exodus 18:7):
“What is the “shalom” – the eternal dimension – of this person standing before me?"
In becoming aware of the eternal dimension of Being in another person, you also bring forth your own eternal dimension, and Being beholds Being…
One of These Things is Not Like the Others- Parshat Yitro
1/27/2016 0 Comments
For some, spirituality is all about generosity and kindness.
For some, it’s about creativity.
For others, it’s going out into nature. Or going in, deep within yourself…
But while there are many different spiritual entry points for many different personality types, there’s one Thing to which all these qualities point, that's fundamentally different from the others.
In this week’s episode, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) goes out to meet Moses in the wilderness and give him some crucial advice. But first, Moses tells Jethro the whole story of how they escaped from Egypt, to which Jethro replies (Ex. 18:11):
“Atah yadati ki gadol Hashem mikol ha’elohim…”
This is usually translated:
“Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods…”
The word for “gods” is “elohim”- a very interesting word, because not only does elohim mean “gods,” it's also a Name of God Itself. In fact, it’s the Name used in the beginning of the Torah when God creates the universe:
“Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
So Elohim the Creator is the source of all the diversity in the universe. This plurality is hinted at by the Name itself, because Elohim is a plural word, which is why it can also mean “gods.”
In this sense, then, Elohim would mean “God of Plurality.”
But what does Hashem mean?
Hashem is the four letter unpronounceable Name YHVH that means “Existence” or “Being.”
So understood this way, it’s saying that Existence is the greatest Divine quality:
“God (Hashem- Beingness) is greater than God (Elohim- plurality of qualities)”
There are many Divine qualities- kindness, creativity, inwardness, connection with nature, and so on. But of all of them, the simple quality of Being is the greatest.
The nice thing about that is you don’t have to achieve Being. Everything is already just Being.
All of the many qualities (or middot) are important for shaping your life as an expression of Being.That’s the ongoing project of spiritual work on yourself and on the world.
But the project of just Being is a cessation from work. It’s an allowing of everything to be exactly as it is- and that’s the weekly project of Shabbat (Ex. 20:9):
“Sheishet yamim ta’avod v’asita kol m’lakhtekha-
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work…”
Working to cultivate the Divine qualities, to create and maintain better forms and structures, is crucial. It’s the majority of what we’re here to do.
But the center of life is Shabbat- the center is Being-
“V’yom hashvi’i Shabbat Ladonai Elohekha-
“And the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Divine…”
But if Being is the greatest quality, how do we come to experience and know this for ourselves?
The answer is in Jethro’s words-
“Atah yadati- NOW I KNOW (that God-Hashem- Beingness is greater than God-Elohim- plurality of qualities…)”
To truly “know” the Greatest Quality, you have to connect with the “Now.” In fact, the word for "know" is da'at, which also means intimacy. So it's not just an intellectual knowing, but a knowing through intimate connection.
This moment has a texture, a flavor, an aliveness, if you would but take a "Shabbat" to taste It, to feel It, to dive into It. Underneath all the doing, the cultivating, the creating, is the Divinity of this moment, always available, yet easily obscured.
Going back to the story- what was Jethro’s advice to Moses?
Precisely this- take a Shabbat!
Jethro saw that Moses would “burn out” as a leader if he didn’t delegate some of his duties and take some rest.
So on this Shabbat Yitro, the Sabbath of Advice, may we too take Jethro’s advice, to balance our doing with Being and taste the Greatness of Existence. May the shining Wholeness of Being reshape all our doing as well, bringing this world swiftly to realize peace, healing and sustenance for all.
Lost and Found- Parshat Yitro
2/5/2015 7 Comments
When I was young, I loved Spiderman. I also loved to dress up. But I didn’t want to dress up as Spiderman, which would be unoriginal, so I invented a new superhero: “Inchiderman”.
“Inchiderman” combined the powers of a spider with the powers of an inchworm. I don’t know why I thought the powers of an inchworm would be helpful, but he was my superhero. I put together the costume with a pair of tights, a red and blue winter coat and a paper mask I had made. I also constructed a web shooter from a syringe, which I filled with a combination of Crazy Glue, Elmer’s Glue and honey.
Back in those days I lived with my family on three acres of mostly woods in Pomona, New York. One day I went out into the woods dressed as Inchiderman with my dog Ophelia. I hiked out to the end of the woods, beyond which were apple orchards. I ventured into the orchards for a while and then came back to the woods. But, I couldn’t find the path that led back to my house. I wandered around for a while and eventually realized that I was lost. I started to panic and cry. I ran this way and that, crying and yelling, “Help!”
Ophelia, however, was happy. She jumped around and played while I freaked out. She wasn’t lost. I got mad and yelled at her- “Ophelia, take us home!” but she just jumped and played.
Eventually I stopped panicking. I was still scared and sad, but I stopped crying and running. Ophelia stopped too. She just looked at me, waiting to see what would happen next, but there was nothing next. I was just lost. Something within me had shifted. I can remember feeling the presence of the forest, the smell of the crisp air, the sound of the wind in the trees. My Inchiderman fantasy was gone, and I was just present with the forest and with Ophelia. Scared and sad, but present.
Then, out of nowhere, a man appeared and showed me the way to a path that led to the back of the swimming pond down the street from my house. Ophelia and I took the path and found the road. I carried my ripped Inchiderman mask and syringe web shooter back home.
In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Yitro, the Israelites too were in the wilderness. They too had been panicking, complaining and crying to go back to Egypt. In this parsha they come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and prepare themselves to receive the Torah. The mountain quakes with fire and thunder. There is a sound of a blasting ram’s horn that begins quietly, then gets louder and louder. The people are terrified and tremble.
And then, from the midst of the cloud and fire, a Voice begins to speak the sayings that became known as the “Ten Commandments”-
“Anokhi Hashem Elohekha asher hotzeitikha etkhem me’eretz Mitrayim, mibeit avadim- I am Hashem your G-d who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…”
What exactly is this first “commandment”?
According to Maimonides (b. 1135- d.1204 CE) in his work Sefer HaMitzvot, the first commandment is just to believe in G-d, to acknowledge that G-d freed our ancestors from slavery. But there is a message here that is not merely about the past or about belief, but rather it directly applies to this moment within which we now find ourselves:
“Anokhi Hashem” means that the “Anokhi,” the “I”, is actually “Hashem”- Divine. Meaning, the inner identity of everything is the ultimate, living Presence of Existence; that’s what the Divine Name actually means. The Israelites are shaken by the terrible awesomeness of the natural world around them, and in that heightened state, the inner identity of nature reveals Itself. It’s not about believing in the idea of a divine entity. It’s not about adding another concept to the mind’s ideas about reality. It’s about recognizing Existence Itself- recognizing That which the mind cannot map.
The next thing the Voice says is that It “brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Why is liberation particularly connected to the self-revelation of Divinity?
The mind is a mapping device. It is a navigation unit, constantly creating an inner context through which we know who and where we are and what we are doing. Very useful! But this creates the side effect of seeing reality through the screen of that map. The mind sees the surface of things- a collection of related but separate parts, and the mind also feels itself to be separate from what it sees.
But there comes a time when the inner map breaks down, and we are lost. Somehow we lose the continuity of the mind-created context and the familiar disappears. We step out of the Mitzrayim of the known, of the conditioned mental patterns of separateness. This "wilderness" can be terrifying. And yet, in the unknown there is the possibility of connecting with Reality in a very direct way, a way that knows Being as a Whole, as a Oneness. This knowing is itself liberation- liberation from the burden of time and conditioned identity.
When the Israelites receive this revelation, the text says “v’khol ha’am ro’im et hakolot- all the people saw the sounds.” Not heard the sounds, but saw! In other words, they perceived everything in a completely new way. It is a kind of awakening.
I think that’s what happened to me that day in the woods when I got lost. After the initial terror and panic, after the “thunder and fire”, there was this stillness, this recognition. There was a new kind of seeing. And then, miraculously, the salvation that appeared.
The other night, my son and I were watching the new version of Cosmos with the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson began by defining our “cosmic address.” First, he showed us, we are on planet Earth. Then, the perspective pulls back to reveal our Solar System. Then, it pulled out even more to the Milky Way Galaxy. Then even further to see the family of galaxies that the Milky Way is part of, called the Local Group. Then, even further, the Local Group was part of a larger cluster of galaxy families, called the Virgo Supercluster. Then it pulled out even further to view the many clusters that make up the Observable Universe.
But what comes after that? We had come to limits of our map, beyond which was simply mystery. He then hypothesized that our whole universe is merely a single bubble in an infinite ocean of bubbles, each one a complete universe. Now, where would that ocean be exactly? The imagination reaches out toward infinity and comes to stillness. Ultimately, we don’t and can’t know where or what or even why any of this is. And yet we do know- Hinei! Here it is!
Try it yourself-
Stretch your imagination out into the universe until you reach its boundaries. You may find that, in the sensation of trying to imagine the unimaginable, there is an emptying of the mind and a simple, blooming awareness of whatever is around you and within you now, in this moment.
When that begins to happen, just let it. Give up trying to "grasp" anything. Simply relax your sense of what is going on, of where you are, of who you are, of what you are doing. Don’t push it away, just let it go. Open yourself to this moment as it is unfolding, the way you would toward an intimate friend. Lose your self, find the One. Let the Anokhi- the inner Presence of Existence- take you into the freedom of this eternal present. And in the Light of that lightness, of that benevolent Presence that is also your own inner identity, may all of our words and actions shine for healing, love and peace. Amein.
We often hear that we should get out of situations, jobs, or relationships that aren’t good for us. But sometimes staying in a situation, even if it feels bad, is the right thing. For example, when a father abandons his family, doesn’t he do it because the responsibility feels bad to him? Doesn’t he just want to be free? In that case, it’s obvious that “freedom” is not the highest value.
But in the spiritual sense, freedom doesn’t necessarily mean leaving behind that which imprisons us; rather, if we really want inner freedom, we must turn toward our bondage. This may feel counterintuitive; if we want freedom from pain, it’s natural to want to get away from whatever is causing the pain. Just as in the Exodus from Egypt – the Israelites cry out because of their suffering, and Moses leads them out of Egypt and to freedom. That’s the ordinary way of thinking – leave Egypt behind. But there’s a hint of something different in this week’s reading:
דַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת
Speak to the children of Israel – they should turn back and encamp before Pi Hakhirot…
When we think of the Exodus story, it’s common to imagine the Israelites fleeing Egypt, then coming to the Sea of Reeds and getting trapped with the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them. But look at the text: they had already past the Sea of Reeds – they were already on their way, when the Divine tells them: vayashuvu – turn back!
They deliberately turned around and back tracked, coming to camp at Pi Hakhirot, in front of the Sea of Reeds. There the Egyptian army caught up with them, and there the miracle of the parting of the sea occurred.
Pi Hakhirot means “Mouth of Freedom.”
The message is: If you want to truly leave bondage behind and go through the “Mouth of Freedom,” you have to first fully turn back toward your “oppressor.” Is there something or someone that “triggers” you, that stresses you out, that makes you angry or uncomfortable? Those feelings are within you; they are only brought to the surface by the external trigger. Until you can be present in the face of those feelings arising and not get caught, not get seduced, you will be in bondage, no matter far you flee from the external trigger.
Instead, וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת – shuv – return to the discomfort, and make friends with it, because that is the “Mouth of Freedom.”
Ordinarily, we keep emotional pain alive by feeding it with our thoughts. Just as the soldiers of Pharaoh rode after the Israelites on their horses, so the mind is the “rider” and the emotion is the “horse,” pursuing us and seeking to drag us back into bondage. But stop feeding the emotion with thought, and instead become present your feelings – bring your awareness to your actual experience without adding extra interpretation – and the “army drowns in the sea.” That’s because all pain, all constriction, are nothing but forms of awareness. Bring your awareness to the constricted form of awareness. It may hurt a bit at first, but the constriction cannot persist in the light of Presence; through being conscious, it will let go. Then you too will be able to sing:
אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם
I will sing to the Divine, Transcendently Exalted, horse and rider are cast into the sea…
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More On Parshat Beshalakh...
Close- Parshat Beshalakh
Metaphorically speaking, Pharaoh sending out the Israelites is like when we are sent out of our inner bondage by the experience of suffering; we don’t like the suffering, so we’re motivated to find spiritual freedom. And if you want spiritual freedom, there’s a really fast, direct way to get it- just come to this moment as it is, without resistance. That’s the practice of Presence.
But then it says:
“V’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu-
"God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer because God said, ‘The people might reconsider when they see battle and return back to Egypt.’”
And this is the obstacle that many people get caught in when doing spiritual work. You start practicing Presence, then all this inner pain comes up- all your psychological issues and resistances, and rather than be motivated by all that suffering you’d rather go back to your old strategies. It’s easier to just drink some wine and watch a movie!
At that point, you need something even deeper to keep you on track, and that’s the power of faith hinted at in the phrase, “ki karov hu.”
In the plain sense, this simply means, “which was close” referring to the road in the land of the Philistines, which would have been the closer path for the Israelites to take. But the word Hu is also a Divine Name. Karov means close, but it can also mean intimate, connected. So on this deeper level, it’s saying that the Divine is present on the road of battle, that is, the experience of deep suffering.
Have faith in that, because at first you won’t experience it. You’ll experience pain. But know ki karov hu- beneath the suffering is the spacious openness and wholeness of this moment, the Divine Presence that is not separate from your own presence, your own consciousness. You can access this Presence by being present- that is, by being karov, coming close to your actual experience in this moment, especially in suffering. Faith, and prayer, can help you do that.
So as we come close to this Shabbat Beshalakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we come close, karov, to the Reality of our actual experience and allow that truth to send us out from Mitzrayim- from the constriction of separation, into the wild mystery of Presence.
"Yo That's Fresh!" Parshat Beshalakh
This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.
Fire and Cloud- Parshat Beshalakh
In this week’s reading, Parshat Beshalakh, the Israelites escape Egypt and are confronted with many challenges.
But what is a “challenge” exactly?
Challenges exist because there arises an emotional resistance to things happening that conflict with what we want. Since it is impossible to act without being motivated by a want, and since it is impossible for the universe to absolutely conform to our wants, the conditions conducive to creating “challenges” are built into the fabric of reality. There is nothing we can do to change this basic fact: Reality is challenging.
The more conscious you are, however, the less you will be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. And the less caught you are by the emotional resistance that arises, the less it arises!
To make effort in consciousness, then, is the only way to remove your resistance, and hence to remove the problematic quality of life. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations.
When you are living in alignment with your deepest values, clear in yourself about what you are dedicated to, you are fully conscious of your intentions and you live life with purpose. When you are conscious of your intentions, it is not such a leap to be conscious of your emotional resistance as well.
However, if you find yourself spending time and energy on things that are not of your full choosing, things that are sapping energy and time away from what truly matter in your life, it is almost impossible to be conscious of your resistance because you are not even conscious about what you are doing. You have allowed things into your life- commitments, relationships, activities, whatever- that have no value to your life mission. Whatever those things are that you unconsciously find yourself stuck in- those are your Mitzrayim- your “Egypt”.
If you want to be conscious and free from the constriction of emotional resistance, you have to first be conscious of your decisions. You have to eject these useless things from your life. You have to say goodbye to the Egypt of purposeless living.
Life will be challenging either way, but why do you need to be challenged by things that are meaningless to you? Is it because of guilt? Because of fear? Because you just never stopped and asked the question, “is this serving my life purpose?” Get rid of it. Let the army of irrelevancy drown in the sea.
Once you free yourself from the Egypt of your unconscious involvements, you’re energy is freed up to apply consciousness in a deeper way. There is a hint of this in the way the Israelites travel after leaving Egypt. It says that Hashem went before them “yomam b’amud anan- by day as a pillar of cloud… v’laila b’amud aysh- and night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” is when challenges happen. Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of fire”- meaning, move your awareness into the burning of the emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going well. There is a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you are receiving. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of cloud”- meaning, be aware of the uncertainty of the next moment. Know that everything that is working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now for you from this unknowable Reality.
So get yourself free, then follow the pillars of fire and cloud that lead you on your way through the wilderness of freedom. It is a raw and uncertain road, but interestingly the word used for Hashem leading the people is nakham, which also means to “comfort”. Reality is rough on the ego that seeks comfort. And yet, to follow the pillars of fire and cloud is to find the ultimate comfort- the comfort of not running the show, of surrendering the “me” that wants to run the show. This Shabbat may we step off the stage and receive the true comfort of the One behind all shows. Good Shabbos!
I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son an electric guitar after he expressed a desire to play. He then surprised me by spending enormous chunks of time learning guitar from YouTube videos – The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen – the rock guitar classics. Some days he’s been sitting and practicing for nearly six hours at a time!
Now what to do you think would happen if I told him that he has to sit for six hours and practice guitar? Obviously, that wouldn’t work, and I might be arrested for child abuse. Maybe Mozart’s father could get away with that kind of thing, but I wouldn’t dare try. That kind of intensity has to come from an inner passion; you don’t sit and practice for six hours unless you really want to.
Passion is totally different from self-discipline, from making and sticking to commitments and obligations. And, passion is something we have as children; it’s not something we have to develop, like the adult qualities of being responsible, following through on plans and so on.
Obviously, adult qualities are also necessary. In fact, it is doubtful he would have been able to sit down and teach himself guitar like that had I not been requiring him to practice piano and drums from a very young age. I imposed an adult-based discipline structure on him, and that gave him a basic foundation of musical skill. That skill is useful for musical greatness, but not sufficient. For greatness you need to become passionately obsessed! And that kind of passion is a child-like quality; it doesn’t have to be developed or created, only uncovered and unleashed.
This is especially true with spirituality.
It is important, perhaps essential, to have a committed practice, to study the teachings regularly, to put spirituality on your to-do list and use your adult mind to make it a priority.
But if that’s all you’ve got, it won’t go deep. You may master texts and rituals and words, but all that will remain on the surface. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for prayer, but once you start praying, you’ve got to become like a child and cry out from the heart. You can use your adult mind to set aside times for meditation, but once you start meditating, you’ve got to be really curious like a child – what is happening in this moment? – rather than merely doing a technique.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ ... כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ
Moses said, “With our children and our elders we will go… for it is a festival of the Divine for us…”
In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh asks Moses who will be leaving Egypt, hoping that only the men will go. That’s what the ego whispers to us: “It’s okay, you can do your spiritual practice – just put it on your agenda. Be adult about it.”
But Moses says, “No, we’re all going – our children and elders both must go celebrate the festival!”
If we want our spiritual life to be true celebration of Being, and not be coopted by ego/Pharaoh, we’ve got to invoke the child within. Certainly, we need the z’keinim – the elders – as well, but once the adult mind has performed its function, once the adult mind has done its organizing and planning, give the adult a break and bring forth the child within. Only then can you really serve b’khol levavkh’a – with all your heart, with all your being…
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The Sweet Roll- Parshat Bo
I remember a funny sketch from an old Electric Company episode. A man dressed in what looks like a navel uniform sits in a restaurant and orders from a waitress with puffy red hair and a classic blue waitress uniform:
“I’ll have a cup of coffee and a sweet roll,” says the man.
“We are out of sweet rolls,” says the waitress.
“A glass of milk and a sweet roll.”
“We- are- out- of- sweet- rolls,” the waitress repeats a little bit more slowly.
“Ice tea and a sweet roll.”
“We are out of sweet rolls!” The redness of her hair starts migrating into her face, leaving her hair white.
“Orange juice and a sweet roll?”
She really leans in now- “WE ARE OUT OF SWEET ROLLS!!!”
“Okay, then, I’ll just have a sweet roll.”
“AAAAARRRRRGH!!!!” She screams and runs out the door.
How many times have you gotten some message over and over again in your life, but you didn’t listen? Or perhaps you couldn’t listen?
In this week’s reading, that’s what happens to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron present plague after plague to Pharaoh in order to persuade him-
"Let my people go!"
During each plague Pharaoh relents, but after each one subsides, he contracts into his old position- he just doesn’t get it. What does he think he’s accomplishing?
But that’s exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself over and over again, rather than learning the all-important lesson: Let go!
So why is it often so difficult to let go?
One common reason is the fear that if you were to let go, you’d be ignoring your real problems- that you’d become irresponsible and everything would fall apart.
Actually, the opposite is true.
When you lose your happiness and freedom because you’re struggling with your problems, you now have two problems- both the difficult situation and the inner tension and negativity generated by your struggling and worrying.
And with all that inner tension, how are you going to improve things?
But when you bring your awareness to your resistance and see it clearly for what it is, there’s a higher wisdom that can flow into your life. New possibilities can appear that were previously hidden.
That’s because your awareness is much bigger than “you” can see. Your ego/personality is “Pharaoh”- king of Mitzrayim- of narrowness, of limitedness, mindlessly repeating the same old patterns over and over again.
But your awareness is Divine- it’s Reality looking through your eyes- courageous, creative, present and free.
So next time you find yourself struggling, resisting or reacting with negativity, see if you can "catch yourself in the act." Be curious about it- see the pattern that's emerging. If you're feeling too much negativity to see clearly, try prayer. Ask the Divine to help you, to free you from the pattern. Just this simple act creates a new inner space in which your awareness can rise above whatever inner noise you're experiencing. Then, be alert for whatever answer comes, whatever new possibility reveals itself.
The Divine Presence is always with you- It is your own presence, beneath your mind, beneath your personality.
There's a story about a hasid named Mottel of Kashlin, a businessman who had extensive dealings in Warsaw and spoke Polish fluently. One day, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki called for him with a request.
The Polish government had issued a decree to burn all extant copies of the Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat- The Code of Jewish Law that deals with civil and criminal matters. The goal was to force Jews to take their litigation to the Polish courts rather than the rabbinical courts. No books had been burned yet, and Reb Yitzhak wanted Mottel to approach a certain powerful Polish minister and convince him to retract the decree.
“But that minister has a raging temper!” Mottel protested. “He threatens to shoot anyone who comes with requests like that!”
The tzaddik replied, “When Hashem sent Moses to save his people, he didn’t tell him to go to Pharaoh. He said:
'Bo el Paro-
“Come to Pharaoh…'
"Moses was afraid, so Hashem reassured him that the Divine Presence would be going with him."
So Mottel set out to confront the minister, calm and unafraid. When he arrived, he spoke eloquently and convincingly. The powerful man was awestruck by the presence of the brave yet calm and joyful hasid who stood before him, and granted his request.
O Hashem, on this Shabbos Bo, the Sabbath to Come, may Your wisdom and transcendent bliss come into our lives through this gift of awareness with which you imbue us. May this awareness come to touch every manifestation of "Pharaoh" that You've given each of us to elevate and transform. May we not require any more of the plagues of violence and narrowness on our planet in order to evolve- Transformation now! Moshiakh Akhshav!
Ignoring Ignorance- Parshat Bo
Sometimes you might be fooled into thinking that spiritual freedom is a delusion, that in order to have it you would need to ignore your real problems. Actually, the opposite is true. When you lose your happiness and freedom because you are thinking about your problems, isn’t that the delusion? Is it not delusion to think that by making yourself miserable you are somehow addressing or improving your situation? In reality, you now have two problems- the difficult situation and the inner tension and negative energy generated by your thoughts.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Bo, Moses has been presenting plague after plague to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that his refusal to let the Israelites go free is bringing plagues upon himself. What does he think he is accomplishing? But that is exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself, rather than allowing liberation to happen.
The remedy is in the opening lines in which G-d says to Moses, “Bo el Paro- come to Pharaoh.” G-d doesn’t say, “go to Pharaoh” but “come to Pharaoh”, indicating that G-d is there with Pharaoh, telling Moses to “come”. In other words, the Divine is found in the suffering itself, not in trying to avoid it.
Bring your awareness into your suffering. Don’t look out into the future from your suffering, imagining that things will be better once you get what you want. The end of suffering and the beginning of liberation is the un-knotting of the Pharaoh, and that begins with bringing your attention into the Pharaoh, becoming conscious of the energetic knot of resistance within. Once that knot is broken, liberation is immediate; it is a leap. Don’t try to be too prepared. When it’s time to go, just go. Unleavened bread and all. There is only one chance, and that chance is now… and yet "now" never ends!
There is a hint of this in the word "bo" which means "come". It is composed of two letters- bet and aleph. The bet has the numerical value of two, and can mean "house". The aleph as the value of one, and among its many meanings are "chief" and "ox". In the movement of consciousness toward any contraction that is arising within your body, the contraction can release and the duality between consciousness and contraction of consciousness can shift into unity. Rather than there being suffering on one hand, and resistance to suffering on the other, there is just presence with Being as it is unfolding. To do this, you have to be like a bayit- a welcoming home for whatever arises within. Then, you can evolve into an aluf- a "chief" of self mastery, unified within, strong and rooted like an ox.
May this Shabbat see the un-knotting of all contracted separateness and may we come close to the Divine Presence in sweet intimacy for healing, peace and wisdom. Amein.
The other day, one of the folks in our community wrote me that he often feels like his mind is a train station and his thoughts are the trains, constantly taking off every few seconds. He wants to just let the “trains” go and stay in the “train station,” but he feels compelled to hop on every “train” that leaves, compulsively journeying into nearly every thought that arises. “When will I learn to relax and just stay in the train station?” he wondered.
He's in good company! At the end of last week’s reading, Moses wonders in a similar way:
וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the Divine and said, “My Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
Moses is on his Divine-given mission to free the Israelites, but he’s feeling like a failure. Similarly, when we commit to getting free from our own minds, we may feel like failures as well. Those trains are so tempting!
Part of the problem is expressed in the metaphor of “staying in the train station.” That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Going on different journeys, on the other hand, that’s enticing! And this is why we get carried away so easily with our thoughts; they promise adventure. They promise understanding. They promise new ideas, new plans, cherished memories and fantasies of possibility. No wonder we get carried away so easily by those trains!
If we want to get free from our own minds, we need to be seduced by something more powerful, more compelling than our own thoughts. This is the hidden message of the Divine response to Moses:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃
Then the Divine said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
Pharaoh, the symbol of ego and enslavement to the mind, will let them go free because of a “greater might” (literally, a “mighty hand”). What could be greater than the enticingly seductive power of thought?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
The Divine spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Existence Itself.”
Meaning: the “I” is not separate from All Existence, because every experience, every perception, every thought, every feeling that arises in our awareness is inseparable from awareness, and we are the awareness. The ani, the “I,” is really the ayin – the open space of perception, vast and borderless, and nothing is separate from that openness.
So, don’t try to control your mind; don’t try to discipline yourself to “stay in the train station” while your mind tempts you with all kinds of things. Know that your awareness is not just a train station, not just the place from which the “trains” of thought arise, but is rather an ocean of bliss, complete and ever-creative, ever-renewing. Consciousness is the true adventure. Let yourself be seduced by That. Let yourself fall in love with That, and don’t worry about the trains. Thoughts can seem powerful, but the awareness that you are is the יָד חֲזָקָה – the mightier hand – if you let yourself be seduced…
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The Gift Beyond Self – Parshat Va'eira
When Moses complains that he can't confront Pharaoh due to his "sealed lips," Hashem responds with the strange words: "N'tatikha Elokim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!"
What does this mean?
There is a dimension of your being that transcends all your problems, all your reactions, all your conditioning. It transcends your thoughts, your opinions, your goals, your hopes, and your fears. Every experience you have arises within It, and disappears back into it. It is a vast, free, wellspring of peace, healing and renewal, regardless of what happens in your experience.
When we are unconscious of this vast dimension of being, we tend to identify with the content of our experience; we feel that our thoughts, our feelings, and our bodies are "me." That's the Pharaoh; it's the "me" that wants to control things, that seeks approval, that judges.
But when you remember the awareness within which everything in your experience appears and disappears, then you know your own Divinity – your own absolute freedom from the tyranny of ego. Then, there can be a tremendous sense of gratitude – N'tatikha Elohim L'faro – I give you, a God, to Pharaoh!
Your own Being is not separate from or other than God, and that's the most supreme Gift; though it's an even greater gift to know it! As it says (Pirkei Avot 3:18): "Beloved are human beings, for they are created embodiments of the Divine. But they are extra beloved in that it is made known to them that they are embodiments of the Divine!"
The Plague- Parshat Va'eira
This week’s reading begins the onslaught of plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. Appropriately, the other day I went into the bathroom to find the toilet teaming with huge ants- darting with lightning speed along the outside and inside of the bowl. A plague of ants!
I flushed the toilet- hundreds were sucked down the pipe in seconds… only to make room for hundreds more which miraculously emerged from under the rim. Ah… the wildlife of Costa Rica!
Not sure what to do, I glanced around the bathroom, when a movement caught my eye outside the window. It looked like a woody stick was caught in some cobwebs behind the window screen, but this stick was moving. I looked closer- it was a “stick bug”- a huge locust-like insect camouflaged like a stick. It had gotten caught in a nest of old webs.
I went out around the house to the window in order to free the entangled stick bug. I used a real stick to twirl the webby strands like spaghetti. The stick bug struggled free and leaped onto an adjacent boulder sticking out of the earth. (That boulder’s new name is Mt. Sinai.)
For me, those old webs were mere feeble threads, easily overcome with minimal effort. But to the stick bug, they formed an unbreakable prison.
So too with those psychological webs that ensnare the soul!
From the outside, it’s easy to see how a person can get free- they just have to stop thinking a certain way, or stop doing a certain habit. But from within the mind of the person who’s caught, it can seem impossible. That’s why it can be so incredibly helpful to have someone else- a teacher, coach or friend- to give you feedback and perspective.
There’s a story in Talmud about this idea:
Rabbi Yohanan was a great miracle-worker and healer. When he visited a sick person, he would ask, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
They would then answer, “Neither they nor their reward.” Then he would take them by hand and they’d be instantly healed.
One day, Rabbi Yohanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?”
Answered Rabbi Yokhanan, “Neither they nor their reward.”
Then, just as Rabbi Yohanan had done for so many others, Rabbi Hanina offered his hand and healed Rabbi Yohanan.
The Talmud then asks, why did Rabbi Yohanan need Rabbi Hanina’s help? Let him heal himself! It then answers its own question:
“Ayn havush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim-
“A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
Just as a prisoner needs someone else to get free, so too the right person can help liberate you, spiritually speaking.
And yet, if someone gives you the perspective you need to get free from the thought-webs of your own mind, then that means there must be a part of yourself that’s already free. Otherwise, it would be impossible to see beyond your limited perspective and you’d be stuck forever. The part that “sees” was never stuck in the first place.
As the traditional morning blessing says,
“Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, shelo asani oved-
“Blessed are You, Divine Being, our own Divinity, who has not made me a slave…”
Now matter how stuck you get, your essential identity is free from that web of thoughts and personal stories that the “me” gets caught in. In fact, the “me” and the “web” are the actually the same thing. But your essential identity, beyond the “me,” is always free.
Of course, when you’re stuck, you’re not living in your essential identity; you’re resisting it. In this week’s reading, Moses too resists freedom, complaining that he can’t possibly confront Pharaoh:
“Behold, I have sealed lips- how is Pharaoh going to listen to me?”(Ex. 6:30)
But Hashem reassures Moses in an incredibly surprising way-
“Re’eh- n’tatikha Elokim l’Paro-
“See! I have made you God (Elohim) to Pharaoh...”
Moses is God? What does this mean?
But the key is in the first word- “Re’eh- See!”
That which sees, the awareness that looks through your eyes, is the master over all the other forces within. It is the God within- your essential identity. If you don’t know that, you identify with the other forces- with feelings, with thoughts, with memories, with ideas- all those webs of the personality, of “Pharaoh.”
But as soon as you “hear” the Divine command to see (meaning, "be aware") then the exodus begins, and your essential identity starts to awaken.
But not only is your awareness the master over your personality- it’s even deeper than that. There’s a hint of this at the very beginning of the parsha (Ex. 6:2):
“Elohim said to Moses, ‘I am YHVH.’”
The first divine name, Elohim, means the divine personality. It’s the deity. The second Name, the unpronounceable Y-H-V-H, is far more expansive, meaning Existence Itself, not a divine being merely within existence.
The message here is that your essential identity is not something separate from the rest of Existence. Your essential identity is Existence, waking up as you, yet completely beyond “you.”
The awakening of your essential identity beyond your personality is actually something very simple. And while it may take years of learning and practice for this awakening to stabilize completely (if ever), it takes no time at all to shift into an awakened state, at least temporarily. In fact, lots of learning and practice can sometimes get in the way of it, if your learning and practice become part of your ego- if they become strands in the web of your mind-created identity.
But, crack open your heart and you naturally and effortlessly slip from the webs and step onto the rock of Sinai for yourself.
One year, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak held the Passover Seder so perfectly and devoutly, that every word and ritual glowed with holiness and secret significance. The next morning, while he sat in his room joyful and proud, a Voice came to him:
“More pleasing to Me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
The rabbi asked around about the man whose name he had heard, but no one knew who he was. So, some of his disciples went off to search for him.
At the outskirts of the city in a poor neighborhood, they found the hovel of Hayim the water-carrier. They knocked on the door and a woman answered:
“Yes, my husband is Hayim the water-carrier, but he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you try and wake him you’ll find he won’t even be able to move.”
They went in anyway and shook him. He just blinked and tried to turn over and go back to sleep, but they wouldn’t give up. They pulled him out of bed, carried him on their shoulders to their rebbe’s house, and sat him up in a chair.
Reb Levi Yitzhak leaned toward him and asked, “Reb Hayim dear heart, what kavanos (mystical intentions) were in your heart when you gathered the humitz (leavened foods)?”
The water-carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked around and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued his questioning- “And what kavanah did you have in mind when you burned it?”
The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember- it’s still lying on the shelf.”
“Hmm,” the rabbi puzzled, “And tell me, Reb Hayim, how did you celebrate the seder?”
Then something seemed to light up in the eyes of the man, and he replied in humble tones-
“Rabbi, I’ll tell you the truth. You see, I’ve always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on the eight days of Pesakh, so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me all eight days, and I got tired and fell asleep.
“Then my wife woke me in the evening and said, ‘why don’t you celebrate the seder like other Jews?’
“‘What do you want from me?’ I said, ‘I am an ignorant man, son of an ignorant man, and I don’t know what to do and what not to do.’
“Still, I went and sat down to the table, where she had placed matzos and eggs. Broken hearted, I began to sing a wordless melody. My wife joined me, and we sang together mournfully, pouring out our hearts.
“I cried, ‘Ribono Shel Olam- Master of the World! You brought our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom- will you make us free too?’
“As we sang, something started to change inside me. The burden of my life- my troubles- my fears- none of it seemed to matter anymore. I looked around- everything seemed to glow with the most beautiful light. My wife could see it too. We felt as though we were tasting true freedom- as though we were coming out of Egypt.
“So the two of us sat and sang and drank and rejoiced. Then I got tired, lay down, and fell back asleep.”
On this Shabbos Va’eira, the Sabbath of Appearing, may we learn to not fall back asleep from the Divine when She appears. Instead, may we bring our wakefulness into connection with everyone we meet. May the world be transformed in the image of our Divine potential, bringing an end to all the unnecessary plagues we unconsciously create for ourselves and for the earth, speedily in our day- Moshiakh Akhshav!
It is difficult to be present when we face adversity. But it can be just as difficult, if not more so, when we are in easeful situations. That’s because without the motivation to escape suffering, the tendency is to forget all about the constant effort required to present.
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמֹות֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…
The children of Israel went down into Egypt because it they needed nourishment; Egypt was a place of satisfaction, and only gradually did it become a place of great suffering. And, it was only because of the suffering that the Israelites were motivated to leave and return home.
Similarly, when our experience is pleasant and easeful, it is easy to sink into “Egypt” without knowing it – meaning, it’s easy to sink into identification with the mind and its thinking. After all –
נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיֹוסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם
Joseph was in Egypt.
“Joseph” represents the power to grow, to be creative, and this is the power of thought. But when thought becomes so constant that we lose connection with the space of awareness within which thought arises, we’ve become stuck in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness.
Then, when adversity comes, the degree to which we’ve become trapped gets revealed with the reactivity that arises, and the suffering that comes along with it.
But, not to worry!
The force of the suffering itself can cause “Pharaoh” to let go. Meaning, consciousness that’s become trapped in identification with thought – called “ego” – is motivated to let go when it feels the suffering that it unconsciously created.
The key is to use suffering in the right way – accept it fully, let it do its thing. In that openness to whatever arises lies the key to liberation. The suffering may persist for some time, but eventually it burns itself out, just as Pharaoh eventually relents after the ten plagues.
But even better is to learn to remain conscious when things are good!
Give thanks for the great and constant blessings of Being, root your awareness in your body, let go of the stream of thinking, and know yourself as the Light of Presence within which this moment arises. This is hinted at in a verse from Chronicles:
בַּקְּשׁ֥וּ פָנָ֖יו תָּמִֽיד
Bakshu Fanav Tamid
Seek Its Face Constantly
Behind every experience is the radiant Light of Being, but you have to "seek it out" in a sense. This is a totally different kind of seeking from the ordinary kind, in which you seek something that isn't present, something that's hidden somewhere else. "Seeking the Face" means remembering that whatever the moment brings is literally the Face of the Divine – a manifestation of Reality, arising in the vast field of consciousness that you are...
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"I" Am With "You" – Parshat Shemot
When Moses confronts the Voice from the Burning Bush calling him to his destiny, he responds, Mi anokhi ki elekh el Paro? – Who am I to come to Pharaoh? To which the Voice responds, Ki Ehyeh imakh – For I will be with you.
On the surface, God is reassuring Moses – “don’t worry, I’ll be there to help you out.” But look at what the words are actually saying: Mi anokhi? – Who am I? The answer is, Ehyeh imakh – I will be with you. In other words, Ehyeh imakh is actually who Moses is.
This is, in fact, who we all are at the very root of our being – an open space of awareness, awake to whatever arises in its field. We might call this level of our being, “Presence With.” This Presence (that is both the Divine Presence and our own presence) has a dual nature: on one hand, it has no other agenda than to simply be. On the other hand, since it is free from all other motivations, it also bubbles with potential. Every idea, inspiration and motivation arises from within it. That’s why the tense of Ehyeh is ambiguous; it can mean I Am, but it can also mean I Will Be.
And to clarify this further: a few verses later, Moses asks the Voice what its Name is. The answer is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I Am That I Am, or I Will Be What I Will Be. Presence and Potential, Being and Becoming, in One.
This Presence and Potential is not something we must develop or create; it is who we are, if we can uncover it – if we can step off the worn path of our habits and behold the firey core of this moment.
And how to do that?
Say: Ehyeh imakh. Open yourself to fully be with this moment as it is. And in that Presence, is your own presence – along with the infinite potential of Whatever Arises Next.
Against the Wall- Parshat Shemot
12/31/2015 5 Comments
One summer when I was about eight years old, I was walking through the playground at my day camp in upstate New York. As I passed by a certain play structure, built as a replica of a covered wagon, a bigger kid with a mean face came out of the wagon and told me to get inside. Hypnotized by his authoritative tone, I immediately acquiesced.
Once inside, I saw what was going on: several scared kids, some of whom were my friends, were all trapped at one end of the room with their backs against the wall.
“Get against the wall with the others!” the big mean kid barked at me. I did.
He then proceeded to lecture us: “You are all now my slaves. You will do exactly as I say, or I will crush your head!”
With that, he took a small thick stick and rammed it against the wall near us. He then continued bashing it and grunting, violently splintering off pieces of wood against the corrugated aluminum.
I became very still and alert. I couldn’t accept being this kid’s prisoner. I watched him very closely for several minutes, waiting intently for a moment when his awareness of me would lapse.
As he threatened us and repeatedly rammed his stick against the wall, he glanced just briefly at the spot where he was pretending to bash someone’s head. That was the moment. Without thinking, I darted for the door, jumped down the steps and escaped.
I hope the other kids were okay that day.
At that time, all I could do was free myself. But in this week’s reading, Moses receives the calling to free his entire people. He had already freed himself, escaping from the wrath of Pharaoh into the dessert. Eventually, he settled down with the Midianites and married Zipporah, daughter of the priest Jethro.
Then, one day while shepherding the flock, a Divine angel appears to him in a blazing fire burning within a thorn bush. He goes to examine the strange sight and notices that the bush is not being consumed by the flame:
“Moses hid his face- afraid to gaze on the Divine…”
Why was he afraid?
In this and every moment, there is nothing but Truth-Reality-Divinity everywhere, fully available and free. And yet, we too tend to “hide our face”- to shrink away in fear.
There are three types of fear gripping Moses at the burning bush, hinting at three types of psychological resistance we often feel toward being fully present with the “burning bush” of this moment.
First, when Moses hides his face, what does Hashem say to him?
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Being present can make you temporarily vulnerable to feelings of pain- both your own and the pain of others. In fact, the increased suffering of the Hebrews on the threshold of their liberation hints at this truth: To become free, you must be willing to fully feel whatever pain comes to you.
But, for us as in the story, there comes a time when the pain of resistance becomes greater than your resistance to pain. When that happens, you can surrender your resistance, feel whatever temporary pain you were resisting, and get free.
Second, when God chooses Moses for the awesome mission of liberating his people, what’s Moses’ response?
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”
If you become free from your limited narratives about yourself, you then must confront your enormous potential. This gives rise to a different fear- what if I fail? Sometimes it’s easier to think of yourself as worthless than to acknowledge your tremendous potential. If you're worthless, then you don’t even have to try; you can stay comfortable with the status quo.
But when the magic of empowerment becomes sweeter than the security of comfort, you too will be able to look unflinchingly into your inner “fire”- your true potential- and get free.
Finally, when Moses asks what God’s Name is, what’s the reply?
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh- I Will Be That Which I Will Be…”
Entering the world of the Eternal- that is, the present moment- means letting go of the world of time. To let go of the world of time means putting aside the world of thought. To put aside your thoughts, you must have trust:
“If I stop worrying about the future and be fully here, will I be okay? Will things work out?”
The Divine is reminding Moses: “You don’t have to worry. I will be with you. Who made your mouth anyway? And even deeper- everything is ultimately Me. I am the Hebrews, I am the Pharaoh. I am everything in this moment, and later on, it will still be Me. I’ll be whatever I’ll be. Let go into this moment, trust that you will have what you’ll need, and embrace your path.”
Letting go into this moment and trusting is like pouring water into a cup:
The water takes the shape of the interior. It doesn’t resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
In the same way, you can “pour” your awareness into the “vessel” of this moment. There’s a hint of this in the beginning of the parsha:
“Uv’nai Yisrael paru… vatimalei ha’aretz otam-
“And the children of Israel were fruitful… and the land became filled with them”
Who are the “Children of Israel?”
“Israel” comes from the Hebrew Yashar El- “straight to God”- so to be Israel means to drop the idea that you are separate from God/Reality. To drop the separateness is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to the vessel of this moment.
But then it says:
“Vayakam melekh hadash al Mitzrayim-
“And a new king arose over Egypt…”
This king, the Pharaoh, is fear.
It’s the fear of pain, the fear of your own potential and the fear of the unknown. Ultimately, it’s the fear of death of the separate “me.” The separate “me,” or ego, is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment.
Pharaoh is the king of Mitzrayim- the land of tzar- of narrowness. He is the King of Contraction.
So how do you let go and fill the vessel of this moment?
You don’t- gravity does.
Just as gravity causes the water to descend and fill the cup, there’s an inner “gravity” that will pull down your awareness into the vessel of this moment, if you surrender to it. This surrender comes not from pushing away your fear or trying to get rid of it, but from fully feeling it and transforming it into the cries of prayer. As it says:
“I have seen their afflictions and heard their cries…”
Meaning: When you fully feel, surrender, and cry out to the One, this revolutionary possibility comes into being: the possibility of realizing that you are the miracle of awareness. You are the Divine who sees, hears and feels all that arises in this moment.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divine potential- to perfectly fill the imperfect manifestation of being as it moves in time. And in your perfect connection with the ever-imperfect manifestation of this moment, it is to bring healing and tikkun to yourself and others through words and acts of love, support, wisdom and understanding.
Living your full potential in the present is simple, but not easy. It takes training and practice, just like mastery of any skill requires.
Once Rabbi Chaim of Krozno, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was walking through town with his disciples on their way to pray. They came upon a boy, dangerously walking along the edge of a towering stone wall. Rabbi Chaim stopped and became completely engrossed in the boy's antics.
“Rabbi,” a disciple queried, “What’s so interesting about that foolish boy that you make us late for prayers?”
“This boy,” replied Reb Chaim, “is risking his life and I have no idea why. But I am quite sure he’s not worrying that he might not keep his balance, because if he did, he certainly wouldn't.”
On this Shabbat Shemot- the “Sabbath of Names”- may we drop all of our "slave names”- the "bricks" in the wall of fear against which "Pharaoh" seeks to keep us confined. Instead, may we courageously practice walking the razor's edge of the present and fearlessly gaze into the “fire” of our own Divine potential. May we actualize that potential not just for ourselves, but for the sale of freeing the entire world.
Amein, Good Shabbos,
Perfectly Imperfect- Parshat Shemot
Pour water into a vessel. Perfectly, it takes the shape of the interior. It does not resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
Through its fluidity and the pull of gravity. Without fluidity, the water would already have its own form, and therefore could not conform. Without gravity, the water would not pour; it would move like smoke through space.
Now imagine: the water is alive and the vessel is alive. The vessel, once beautiful, has become twisted, contorted, wounded. It longs to be reshaped; it wants to be healed. The water is intelligent- it contains the knowledge of how to heal this twisted vessel. All it needs to do is to push on the walls of the vessel in just the right way to help it back into a wholesome shape, into its potential beauty.
But the water is impatient. In its zeal to fix the vessel, it contracts away from the interior and shapes itself into its idea of the perfected vessel. It pushes on the remaining surface that it touches in attempt to coax the vessel into its own shape, but to no avail. Without complete contact with the entire inside of the vessel, it cannot exert its influence. Now there are two shapes, one distorted and one ideal, with no connection to one another. The water has taken on the imagined ideal of the vessel, but it has lost its perfect connection with the vessel.
Now and always we find ourselves in “This”. By “This” I mean the totality of existence as it meets awareness in this moment. Awareness is like water; it is able to perfectly fill and take the shape of This that Is and is Becoming, Now. But awareness is not passive, inanimate water; it is living water. It is intelligent. It sees and responds. It is not only given shape by the vessel, but exerts force, desires to shape.
And in its desire to shape the reality it meets, it tends to contract away from the surface. This is the power of mind- to imagine the world as different, and to contract awareness into itself in order to form this image. Awareness contracts, and a sense of self as separate from the rest This is born. And, as a result, this self suffers terribly.
There is a hint of this in this week’s reading, Parshat Shemot. It says that the Children of Israel filled the land of Egypt- vatimalei ha’aretz. Who are the Children of Israel? “Israel” means to penetrate the shell of reality to the Divine. To find the Divine is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to Reality as it arises.
But then it says that a new king arose who was afraid of the Children of Israel, afraid that they might become too strong and destroy Egypt. This king, the Pharaoh, is fear. It is the fear of death of the separate “me” that is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment. Pharaoh is the king Mitzrayim- the land of narrowness, the King of Contraction.
What is his strategy for survival? He imposes harsh labor on the Children of Israel and attempts to weaken them that way. This is the suffering that comes not from work, but from the tension we bring to our work- the tension of contracting into separateness. At some point, the suffering becomes too great and the Israelites cry out to the Divine “from their labor”. It says that the Divine “saw the Children of Israel, vayeida Elokim- and the Divine knew.”
This word for “knew”- yeida- means to “join with”. It is the same verb used to describe the intimate union of Adam and Eve. It is telling us- when our suffering becomes the cry of prayer, the awareness that is our Divinity within can again become fluid like water, re-joining in the fullness of presence with the presence of fullness- Reality as it arises, Now.
How do you make this happen? You don’t; gravity does. “Gravity” is the natural movement of awareness to fill this moment with its presence, once it surrenders its separateness. When we express our suffering in the cry of prayer, there can be this profound release. This release doesn’t destroy our vision for the future. It doesn’t deny the pressure we must exert on the walls of the vessel. It simply releases the contraction away from the walls and returns us to our own wholeness, our own perfection.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divinity, right Now: to perfectly fill the ever-imperfect manifestation of being as it moves Now. In this is the release of all inner tension, the release of the whole drama of the “me” in the world. And, it is the birth of the Divine as it expresses Itself through you, as it is needed, Now. It is the inner Moses, whose name means “drawn from the water”…
And this is also the sacred promise of Shabbos- to separate from Pharaoh’s crushing labor for twenty-five hours and become fluid once again, to surrender to the gravity of wholeness, for the Divine to be born within. So it may be, Now, for us all-
The moment you wish to awaken, you have already awoken to a certain degree. That’s because the desire to awaken can’t even arise at all unless there is already a certain amount of objectivity on your thoughts and feelings. Even if you feel like you are failing, even if you feel that your mind is too busy, or you feel emotionally reactive or whatever, your awareness of that is already a movement in the direction of wakefulness.
The key is to use the wakefulness you already have to deepen your wakefulness further, rather than focusing on how not-awake you are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ ... הַמַּעֲבִיר שֵׁנָה מֵעֵינַי
Blessed are You, Hashem… who removes sleep from my eyes…
This morning blessing gives thanks for waking up from sleep, but on a deeper level, it’s appreciating the tremendous grace we’re receiving just for being awake enough to say the prayer at all!
A little later the prayer says:
And attach us to your mitzvot (commandments)…
Traditionally speaking, the mitzvot, commandments, are the actions that the Divine “wants” us to do. So to do a mitzvah, in this traditional view, is to fulfill the meaning of your existence. The deeper desire expressed in this prayer, then, is the longing for meaning: Help me be motivated to fulfill my purpose!
This desire for meaning, for purpose, is core to the spiritual drive. But, it is only half of the equation. A little further on it says:
וְאַל תַּשְׁלֶט בָּנוּ יֵצֶר הָרָע
And don’t let the yetzer hara (personal impulses, literally the “bad desire”) rule within us…
The other half of the equation is the desire for freedom, for transcendence.
These two core desires that drive the spiritual path are, in a sense, the opposite of one another. The first wants to transform the world; the second wants to transcend the world. The first wants fulfill one’s role; the second wants to be liberated from all roles. The first wants to serve the Divine; the second wants to realize that All is Divine.
These two core desires are the opposite of one another, but they are not opposed to one another. In Kabbalah and Hassidic teaching, they must work together. You cannot really serve the Divine if you don’t awaken your own inner Divinity. You cannot really transform anything for the better, if you’re emotionally attached to things being a certain way.
In Kabbalah, this is called ratz v’shuv – running and returning. In meditation, we “run” – we transcend every particular aspect of experience and know ourselves as the ayin, the Nothing, the open space of this moment within which everything arises. In prayer, we “return” – we appreciate particular things and give thanks; we envision transformation and ask the Divine for help in its manifestation. On a broader level, all spiritual practices, including both prayer and meditation, are a kind of “running” and our ordinary work and life with people is “returning.”
In Judaism, both are necessary. This theme manifests at all levels of the tradition: Liberation from Egypt, followed by building the Sanctuary. Or, in the opposite order: six days of working the world, followed by a full day of letting everything be as it is onShabbat.
And, in this last example, we see the emphasis unique to Judaism: Six days of work, one day of rest – both are necessary, but transformation is emphasized. In many traditions, it’s the opposite; the holy person is the one who withdraws from the world. But in Judaism, withdraw and transcendence, while absolutely necessary, are not the goal.
These two poles are represented by Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim.Menasheh comes from leaving the past behind – transcending the world:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי
And Joseph named the firstborn Menasheh, for "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."
But Ephraim comes from being “fruitful” – that is, successful – in the world:
וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי
And the second one he named Ephraim, for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Menasheh is the first born, hinting at the usual way that spirituality is viewed: transcendence is primary. But when Jacob blesses the two boys, he switches his hands to give the blessing of the first born to Ephraim instead:
וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasheh's head…
This is why the traditional blessing for boys on Friday nights puts Ephraim first, even though Menasheh was first born – Y’simkha Elohim k’Ephraim v’k’Menasheh!
Transformation is the goal (Ephraim), but to achieve that goal, transcendence is also necessary (Menasheh). This is a basic key to living in awakened life: being involved, helping, serving, creating, but also letting go at the same time – accepting everything as it is, not trying to control anything, being the simple, open space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
I call this the Spiritual Double-Take.
The Double-Take is really not double; it is the simple, single move of Presence. But until it becomes integrated into the way we operate, it requires this ratz v’shuv attitude, this oscillation back and forth between effort and letting go. Eventually, this awakens a sense of effortless effort, of acting in the world without any sense of the “me” doing the acting. As Joseph responded to Pharaoh when asked if he could interpret Pharaoh’s dream:
בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַֽעֲנֶ֖ה – Biladi, Elohim ya’aneh! – It is totally beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
There is nothing but the Divine manifesting in all forms, and so from this awakened point of view, there need not be any tension whatsoever – life simply unfolds effortlessly. So may it be for us, amein! Good Shabbos!
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Die Before You Die – Parshat Vayekhi
12/28/2017 0 Comments
This week’s reading begins, “Vayekhi Ya’akov b’eretz Mitzrayim – Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…”
The last time we heard about “seventeen years” was back in Parshat Vayeishev, where Joseph is described as a na’ar – a seventeen-year-old youth. Seventeen, then, symbolizes youthfulness. Joseph is the embodiment of youthfulness: he is both beloved and hated, he has BIG and unrealistic seeming dreams, and he has no common sense about how to get along with his brothers.
Egypt, on the other hand, means limitation, suffering, constricted-ness (Egypt is Mitzrayim, from tzar,which means “narrow). The youthful Joseph must first get enslaved in Egypt before his eventual ascent to Egyptian royalty.
Similarly, the youthfulness in each of us gets constricted by the limitations and conditioning of our physical bodies, families and culture. And yet, we need not be burdened by the temporary challenges of life. Like Joseph, we can be like cream – always “rising to the top” – if we can really let go of resistance to all our seeming limitations as they appear.
Ironically, this “letting go” isn’t really a quality of youthfulness, but of old age. As we get older and approach the ultimate Letting Go, it’s natural for attachments to fall away. This is hinted at in the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. Menasheh means “forgetting troubles,” hinting at old age, which is fitting since Menasheh is the elder. Ephraim means “fruitfulness,” which is fitting for the younger brother.
But Jacob deliberately switches his hands, giving the blessing of the elder to the younger, which is why the traditional blessing for boys is that they should be like Ephraim and Menasheh, and not the other way around, as if to say: Let go of your troubles while you are still fruitful! Die before you die!
On this Shabbat Vayekhi, the Sabbath of Life, may we recognize the precious opportunity we have while we’re alive, to die before we die, to get free now, in this life. Good Shabbos!
Getting Real in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot- Parshat Vayekhi
Last Friday afternoon I went to pick up some kosher wine at Trader Joe’s. (Less than $5 for a cabernet and not too bad!) I pulled into the narrow entrance of the indoor parking lot and saw a woman getting into her car, so I paused to let her pull out so that I could take her spot.
Just then, a niggun (melody) came to me. I thought it would be great to sing in the service I was leading that night, so I pulled out my iPhone to record it and send out to the other service leaders.
Just then, I heard an angry voice yelling at me-
“What the hell are you doing?? Look at you sitting there on your phone- backing up traffic!!”
An older man was tensely yelling and walking toward me. I thought he might burst a blood vessel! I ignored him at first, but he kept walking right up to my car.
I rolled down the window a little and explained, “I’m waiting for this car to pull out so I can pull in.”
“What about that spot??” he yelled and gestured.
There was another open spot behind me, but I couldn’t pull in since there were now several cars blocking the way. Due to the angle of the turn, it wasn’t visible when I had first pulled in.
“Oh okay, I didn’t see that,” I said.
“Aaagghh!” he gestured angrily and stormed away.
Now, as far as I know, pausing and holding up traffic for a few moments in order to allow someone to pull out of their parking spot is kosher. But to this guy, I was clearly in the wrong, and he was letting me have it.
I assume it’s because he thought I was talking on the cell phone while driving, which really triggered him. As happens to folks so often, his mind judged something external (me) and then lost all self-awareness and composure. He became a jerk because he was convinced that I was a jerk.
At such moments of being triggered, people are often swept away by emotion. All the positive middot- wisdom, sensitivity, awareness, compassion and so on- are out the window.
How often do you experience such moments?
Is it possible to take another path? Can triggered emotion actually be put to good use?
Back in 1998, during a radically transformative time of my life, I had such an experience:
I was driving, when a car violently cut me off at an intersection. I gasped, adrenalin pumping. I felt the heat of anger swelling within me, and the urge to retaliate and curse the guy behind the wheel.
Then, the thought occurred to me that this moment of being triggered was the moment to be present.
I brought my awareness deep into the feeling of the anger. It burned within me, and it was extremely painful. Next, I felt it move upward through my body and out the top of my head. It was like a huge cloud of darkness left me.
As the last of it left my body, everything looked totally different. The road glistened with moisture from a recent rain and the sound of a bird’s caw filled the sky. I began to see that driver in a completely different way. He wasn’t against me- he was actually setting me free! It left me feeling raw, simple, innocent and at peace.
The truth is, the human nervous system is a heaven/hell engine.
Of course we want the heaven and not the hell. But, if you really want heaven to be born within you, the key is to not resist the hell. Like physical birth, there is pain in birthing heaven. If you’re willing to open to this pain, it can serve its function- to set you free. As in the birth of a child, it’s ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring him his two grandsons, so that he can bless them before he dies.
Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menasheh at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Ephraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom.
However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. Then he says:
“By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.’”
Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boys on Friday nights with these words. Girls are blessed with the names of the matriarchs.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What’s so special about Ephraim and Menasheh that boys should be blessed with their names, rather than the names of the patriarchs?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says,
“The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”.
He names the second son Ephraim because-
“The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually map out the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner heaven:
First, there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering created by that.
In other words, the “troubles”, are “forgotten.” This is Menasheh.
“Forgetting troubles” opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking. After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner heaven. This is Ephraim.
But, as Joseph said, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them.
But those inner barriers take energy. They block us from feeling our own aliveness and from the life of this moment. They impede the blossoming of heaven on earth.
But open to the blocked pain, and the blockages begin melting away.
When you do, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula-
“Y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe-
“May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe!”
In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
There’s a Hassidic story of the brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz.
They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (Berakhot 9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as for good things.
They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him-
“Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for suffering?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him.
Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced anything bad!”
The two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they began to realize what Zusha was saying: He didn’t see his suffering as “bad”. Zusha's suffering had transformed him into the ecstatic saint he was.
On this Shabbat Vay’khi, The Shabbat of Life, let’s open to life as it is in its fullness, with its joy and suffering.
And when life brings you suffering, let it be a pointed reminder to once again become present, to allow the pain to break open your heart and reveal the light within. Rather than judge, snap or plot, let that light come through you in a word of kindness or act of service. And if the response you are called to give is harsh, let it be strong and clear- but without anger and malice.
Recently I was teaching my Bat Mitzvah cohort about the Sh’ma. We talked about how the word sh’ma (listen) is really an invitation not merely to do the act of listening, but to be the listening. When you are the listening, you can take a break from the roles you play – roles like daughter, student, friend, sister, and so on – and simply be a knowing presence.
“But why would we want to do that?” one of them said. “I like my identity!”
“Sure, identity can wonderful. But that doesn’t mean we need it all the time. For example, it’s great to live in a house. But would you want to be trapped in your house?”
“Yes, I love my house! I want to be in it all the time!”
They were toying with me. At their age, it’s not common to want to take a break from identity; there is not yet knowledge of the burden of identity, because identity is still new, still forming.
But on some level, the heart knows. Many people go their whole lives without making this knowledge conscious and intentional, but still the seed is there of the realization: There is much more to existence than identity.
Children are usually not interested in going beyond identity, and most adults aren’t either. Some adults may come to realize it would be a good idea to meditate in order to let go of stress or whatever, but still they don’t necessarily do anything about it. Even fewer will get to the point of realizing: the whole drama of life with its ups and downs, with death ever lurking at the end of the story, is not the deepest level. There is an intuition of something deeper – but how to get to It?
The truth is, we don’t have to “get” to It – all we need do is stop and turn toward It. The mind constantly generates this whole noisy drama of life, but there is a Center. The Center is vast silence, and that Center is none other than your own being, which is not separate from the One Being.
But, we shouldn’t think that the noisy drama and the vast, silent Center are two different things!
Rather, all the content and movement of our life drama are nothing but the Vastness, dressed up in different costumes. We need not turn away from life, we need only to turn more completely toward it. Beneath the costume, the Divine is whispering to us, as Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them:
אֲנִ֣י יֹוסֵ֔ף – I am Joseph!
The name Yosef (Joseph) means “increase,” so on the deepest level, this is the Divine message to us: whatever we are relating with in the moment, its deepest identity is the Mystery from which all emerges. Then Yosef says,
גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י – g’shu na eilai – Approach me please!
In other words, don’t be fooled by the masks – come to the heart, come to the vast and silent Center behind all the actors playing out the drama. That Vastness is home, that Vastness is peace, that Vastness is the Divine, and it was Here all along.
But this realization of the Center is not the end of the drama – not at all! Because now that you’ve tasted the Real Thing, you want more – you want to stay there. You want It all the time. But life pulls you back into its chaos again and again! What to do?
Hear the Divine’s message to Jacob, as he prepares to descend in Egypt:
אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵֽרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם – Don’t be afraid of descending into Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there…
Egypt is Mitzrayim – narrowness, constriction. Don’t be afraid to get pulled back into a constricted state, because it is through your descent that your ascent will become more mature and stable. You can only grow spiritually through the learning that comes through failure.
Then it says:
אָֽנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ – I will descend with you into Egypt and I will surely bring you up as well…
Even in the depths of separation there is nothing but the Divine, so the power to return is always inherent within every experience, no matter how far you seem to fall.
גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ – and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes…
The eyes are a symbol for awareness. Joseph’s name, Yosef, means “increase,” and the hand is a symbol of action: It is through your descent and subsequent ascent that you will gain the power to increase your own awareness, to be free from the tremendous pull ofMitzrayim, to awaken completely out of the seduction of life’s noisy dramas. Then you will say as Jacob said:
אָמ֣וּתָה – Amutah – I will die –
The “me” that is dependent on the Mitzrayim of life’s dramas can die, because
רְאוֹתִ֣י אֶת־פָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּ֥י עֽוֹדְךָ֖ חָֽי – r’oti et panekha ki odkha khai! I have seen Your Face, that it lives forever!
Every form we encounter is the Nothing but the Face of the Living, Eternal Presence…
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More On Parshat Vayigash...
What is Egoless Intention? Parshat Vayigash
12/20/2017 0 Comments
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, that he is the one they nearly killed and sold into slavery, he says, "don't be distressed for having sold me here, ki l'mikhyah sh'lakhani Elokim lifneikhem – for it was to be a provider that the Divine sent me before you!"
Here we have the great paradox that includes yet goes beyond morality. The brothers did him wrong; there's no excusing them. And yet, Joseph says, "Al ta'atzvu – don't be distressed!" Why? Because it needed to happen that way. Their sin leads to their redemption; their evil was all for the sake of Mercy.
And this is our choice now, in every moment – to practice Al ta'atzvu – not being distressed – and instead knowing that this moment is as it should be. This doesn't excuse or justify hurtful and wrong behavior; it just sets it in the widest, infinite context of Reality, and opens the door to redemption, no matter what the situation... if we can remember to approach this moment, as it is.
A Little Bee Says- Parshat Vayigash
12/16/2015 2 Comments
Have you ever misheard the lyrics of a song and gone around singing it completely wrong?
When I was about four years old, the song “I Believe in Music” by Mack Davis was popular. There was some PBS children’s show I used to watch that put the song with some animation, so I heard it all the time.
Only I didn’t really hear it, I misheard it.
The song actually went-
“Oh I… believe in music… Oh I… believe in love!”
But in my mind, the song went like this-
“Oh-ah! A little bee says… Oh-ah! A little bee!”
I have fond memories of my father shaving in the bathroom, singing, “Oh-ah! A little bee says…”
A few years ago there was some animated Disney movie- I think it was Shark Tale. I was watching it with my four year old son, when suddenly that rap about “big butts” comes on. I sat there, incredulous. Oh no! Corruption!
Luckily, he thought the lyrics were, “I like… big… birds in the cats!”
Then, I got to shave in the bathroom and sing, “I like big birds in the cats!”
When a child hears some catchy music but doesn’t understand the meaning of the words, the child’s mind fills in the meaning spontaneously (and cutely). I was reminded of this when I was leading a Shabbat service a few years back, and I saw a man singing his heart out with the Hebrew prayers. After the service, I spoke with him.
“Wow you were so into davening that prayer!” I said. “You know the meaning of those words is interesting…”
“Don’t tell me what the words mean!” he yelled. “I don’t want to know! If I know the real meaning of the Hebrew, it will ruin it for me!”
Just like children who create their own versions of songs, he had created his own meaning for that prayer, and was davening so passionately. He didn’t want to know the “real” meaning because it wasn’t his meaning, and would probably contain off-putting religious ideas besides.
I think this is true for many American spiritual seekers and practitioners- not just in the Jewish scene, but in many traditions.
Americans chant Sanskrit in yoga classes. They chant Turkish and Arabic in Sufi gatherings. They chant Japanese and Tibetan in Buddhist zendos and temples.
For many of these seekers and practitioners, a lack of understanding the language is freedom. The exotic and foreign sounds can easily accommodate the true prayers of the heart, because they are not locked into any precise linguistic meaning.
And yet, for many people, the opposite is true:
For some who know how to say the words but don’t understand them, the prayers can feel rote and meaningless. Others, who neither know nor understand the words, end up feeling alienated, like outsiders.
In response to that type of reaction, the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic Mass from Latin to the local vernacular languages in the early 1960s. For some, this made the Mass more meaningful. But for others, getting rid of the Latin destroyed its mystery and power.
You can’t please them all!
No rabbi, no priest, no guru or shaykh or roshi or lama can ever come up with the formula that will “work” for everyone- it’s impossible.
The real question is not how to make it work for everyone. The real question is: How can you make it work for you?
And the question is even broader. It’s not just a question of how to connect with the external language of a traditional practice, but how to connect with any practice whatsoever.
I remember several years ago when I was teaching a workshop on prayer and meditation. There was a guy in the class who raised his hand at the end and said, “I’m trying to do the practices you’re teaching me, but every time I try, it just feels so fake, so forced.”
Whether traditional practices feel foreign and alienating because they’re so new to you, or whether you know them so well that they’re boring and tedious, it’s really the same question: How can I connect deeply to an external practice? How can it become authentic? How can it be transformative?
This week’s reading begins after last week’s cliffhanger.
Joseph’s brothers stand around him, not knowing his true identity, seeing him only as a foreign ruler from whom they must beg for sustenance due to the famine. Joseph has been toying with them, threatening to take the youngest brother, Benjamin, as a slave.
Judah steps forward to plead with Joseph:
“Vayigash eilav Yehudah-
-And Judah approached him-
“Vayomer, bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…
And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
The Hebrew wording in Judah’s plea with Joseph has a strange idiom:
“… bi adoni y’daber na avdekha…”
The word “bi” is usually left un-translated. Literally, “bi” means “in me” so a literal rendering would be, “In me, my lord, let your servant please speak…”
Or, to say it more clearly, “May my inwardness express itself in speech…”
If Judah represents the expression of inwardness and authenticity, Joseph represents externality, superficiality. Joseph is a political leader. For Judah and his brothers, Joseph is (or seems to be) a foreigner, something alien. And, most importantly, Joseph is hiding his inner identity from them. They can only see the most external part of him.
But Judah, the internal and authentic self, approaches (yigash) the external and foreign form with three special qualities- humility, honesty and sacrifice.
First, he approaches with humility:
“And he said, ‘Please my lord, let your servant speak…’”
Humility is the opposite of coming in with a lot of judgments and ego. With judgments and ego, you’ve already sabotaged any potential for connection before you even begin the conversation. If you want to connect, leave those at the door.
Second, he approaches with honesty:
“For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”
Judah brings his true concerns and fears- that’s the way to approach prayer. Whatever is really going on inside you, that’s your korban- your offering, your means to draw close. Just like the fellow who didn’t want to know the meaning of the words, fill the sounds of the words with your own sincere cries.
This doesn’t mean you have to be anti-intellectual. If you can understand the words and identify with their meaning, all the better. Then you can take your place in the chain of tradition that brings those words to this moment in history. But whether you understand the words or not, it just means that you fill the words with the energy of your heart.
Lastly, he approaches with sacrifice:
“So now, please let (me) your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.”
On one hand, real prayer has to come from the depths of your own desire. But then, it needs to go beyond that, to be offered for the sake of others. Don’t do it merely for your own experience, but to refine yourself so that you can be of more benefit to others, to bring more light into this world.
Then, the externality of Joseph will break down:
“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ And he wept out loud, and said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph!’”
Bring these three qualities to your daily practice, to your synagogue, to the tradition, and it will open itself to you, revealing itself as your brother, your sister; it isn’t cold or alien underneath.
How do you invoke these three qualities in yourself?
The secret is in the tune. Music opens the door. Don’t just recite, chant. Don’t just speak, sing. The nervous system relaxes, dopamine is released, and even incomprehensible words can become carrier waves for depths of longing and ecstatic expressions of the heart, drawing you back into connection with yourself, with others and with the present moment.
As Psalm 147 says:
“Ki tov zamra leiloheinu navah tehillah-
How good it is to sing praises to our God!”
The 18th century Hassidic sage, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, expounded on this verse like this: “It’s good when a person is able to bring about that God sings within him!”
On this Shabbat Vayigash, the Sabbath of Approaching, may everything we approach that appears foreign and alienating open with warmth and connection, revealing the secret brother/sisterhood between all beings. May our words sprout from the fertile soil of melody and rhythm!
This past Shabbat I was at a meal where some friends were lamenting the expectation that their kids had to receive presents on Hanukkah. One young woman from Israel said that when she was growing up, there were no presents, but they would play games instead. This seems to be an old custom, because there’s a story of Rabbi Moshe of Sasov, that once during Hanukkah he came into the beit midrash to find some of his student playing checkers.
When they saw their rebbe, they were embarrassed and started putting the game away.
“No, keep on playing!” said Reb Moshe. “You know, you can learn three important things from the game of checkers: first, you can only make one move at once. Second, you can only go forward and not backward. And lastly, when you get to the last row, you can move in any direction you want…”
In order to accomplish anything, you need a plan; you need to envision the end result and imagine all the different steps you must take to get you there. But, in any given moment, you can only do the step you’re on. This is obvious, and yet because we have the power to envision our next steps, the mind tends to dwell in the imagination of the future. The present is often approached merely as a stepping stone toward something else, and this creates a feeling of separation from this moment, a disconnect from Reality. This in turn can produce the unconscious belief that wholeness is somehow not present, that fulfillment lies somewhere in the future.
The remedy is, remember: “You can only make one move at once.”
Bringing attention to the “move” we are now making liberates consciousness from its imprisonment in the world of thought and its imagined future, allowing the realization: thisis Reality, this moment is complete, the Divine is Present.
But what if, when we really connect with the move we are now making, thoughts of regret arise about the past, pulling us into a painful dwelling on what could have been?
Remember: “You can only go forward and not backward.”
Accepting the past and moving on doesn’t mean you have to somehow push away the feelings of regret; that would just be more rejection of the present! Instead, acceptwhatever thoughts and feelings arise, and let them dissolve of their own accord. Everything that arises is part of the complete texture of the present – don’t resist.
And in this act of coming to this moment without resistance, there can be the realization that, in fact, you have arrived – there is nowhere else to go, because you’re always Right Here!
Then, you can “move in any direction you want” – you can think about the future or the past and not get caught by them, because they all arise in the open space of the Present – the Eternal Now has come to the foreground.
This quality of freedom is embodied by Yosef. Pharaoh asks him to interpret his disturbing dream, but Yosef says, Biladai, Elokim Ya’aneh – It is beyond me, but the Divine will answer!
This short phrase contains a code for this teaching:
Biladai – It is beyond me: There is only the task of this moment; whatever will be will be.
Elokim – the Divine: We cannot go back and change the past; whatever has been is the “Divine Will” – meaning, it already is. The only right relationship we can have with the past is total surrender.
Ya’aneh –(the Divine) will answer: In Presence and Surrender, there arises a natural and unforced trust in the way everything is unfolding; all “answers” to the mind’s questions will be revealed in time. At this point, there need not be any strained effort in “trying to be present” or in “letting go of the past” because the movements of the mind are no longer charged, no longer motivated by grabbing after fulfillment. The Divine is ever-present as the fundamental Beingness that underlies all being…
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More On Parshat Mikeitz...
The Dream is Over – Parshat Mikeitz
When Joseph advised Pharaoh to put someone in charge of amassing grain during the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine, Pharaoh replied:
“Akharei hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot, ayn avon v’hakham kamokha – Since the Divine has revealed to you all of this, there can be no one as understanding and wise as you.”
The words for “understanding and wise” are avon v’hakham, which are forms of the two root attributes of consciousness on the Tree of Life, Hokhmah and Bina – Wisdom and Understanding. Bina, Understanding, refers to the function of thought: the capacity to create images of reality in one’s mind, then manipulate the images so as to comprehend and predict things that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent in one’s immediate, present moment experience.
For example, if my refrigerator is full in my immediate experience, I can nevertheless predict that in the future it will be empty, and that I will starve unless I go out and buy some more food. The empty refrigerator is a thought, a mental image, but it allows me to navigate the objective world. That’s Binah –Understanding.
Hokhmah, on the other hand, is the awareness from which thought arises. Awareness is the space of consciousness within which the perception of what’s happening in the present arises – in this case, the perception of a full refrigerator, along with the arising of the thought that soon it will be empty. Awareness perceives, “there’s the refrigerator, and there’s the thought about the empty refrigerator in the future.” So, awareness is “above” or “transcendent” of thought.
But ordinarily, we tend to perceive the present moment as somewhat in the background, while our thoughts about reality tend to dominate in the foreground. Like the cows in our story, the fullness of awareness is “swallowed up” by the neediness of thought, the need to understand and control things. This reinforces an experience of lack, of incompleteness. But when we allow the present to come into the foreground, seeing our thoughts come and go within the open space of the present, then Hokhmah and Binah can function freely, and there is an experiential sense of wholeness, of completeness. That is meditation, or Presence.
Then – hodia Elohim otkha et kol zot – it is revealed that the fullness of experience in this moment, from sensory awareness of the outer world, to the rising and falling of feelings and thoughts, to the open space of consciousness itself, kol zot – all of this is Elohim – One Divine Reality, and there is nothing but Elohim, always and only. Bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitakhat – In the heavens above and the earth below, ayn od- there is nothing else.
Only a Dream- Parshat Mikeitz
Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem-
And it was at the end of two years to the day, Pharaoh dreamed…
and Pharaoh awoke…
This week’s reading begins with Pharaoh’s dream:
He is standing by the Nile, when seven beautiful, healthy cows emerge from the water and begin grazing in the marshland. Suddenly, seven more cows emerge, except these ugly and gaunt cows eat up the seven healthy cows. Next, he dreams that seven beautiful, healthy ears of grain get swallowed up by seven thin and scorched ears of grain. Then Pharaoh wakes up, agitated and disturbed.
The name of this parshah is Mikeitz, which means “at the end”- referring to the end of a two-year period after which Pharaoh had the dream. But when Pharaoh awakens from his dream, the same word is used again in a different form- “Vayikatz Paro- Pharaoh awakened.”
Why is the word for “ending” used also for awakening?
For most of us, there’s no awareness of dreaming while we’re dreaming; it’s only in waking up that you realize, “Oh, it was only a dream.” You say, only a dream because it has no external reality; it’s just an experience generated by the mind. Then, when you wake up, you become aware of what’s actually going on around you. Life is real, and unlike the dream, there are real consequences in the world external to your mind.
And yet, there’s an aspect of waking life that’s also like a dream.
Right now, your awareness is perceiving the richness of this moment- the beings around you, the space you’re in, the sense of your body, your feelings and your thoughts. Ordinarily, you perceive some things as external to you, such as these words, and some things as internal to you, such as your thoughts. There are physical things out there, and emotional and mental things in here.
But what many people never notice is that everything in your perception- from the ground under your feet to the clouds in the sky to the feelings in your gut- are all nothing but consciousness, exactly like a dream. Of course there’s also the whole universe out there independent of your consciousness, but your perception of the universe completely arises within your consciousness as part of your consciousness. In other words, everything you perceive is actually you, since ultimately, you are consciousness.
So that means that when you judge people, or complain, or in any way resist the truth of whatever arises in the moment, you’re actually resisting yourself- you’re creating a split within yourself which creates a sense of being not whole, of being incomplete. And that’s the dream- that’s the illusion- you think that you need something out there to change in order to feel whole or complete. Just like the gaunt and hungry cows who eat up the full cows, you’re never satisfied because you’re constantly pulling away from yourself, creating an inner split.
But when you awaken to realize that everything “out there” is always only perceived “in here,” then you can relax and accept everything in your experience as your own being. When you do that, your consciousness that's become split in two can merge back into oneness, bringing that sense of inner duality to an end.
And that’s why the word that’s used here for “awaken” is the word for “ending”- katz- because it’s an end to inner duality. It’s also an end to time, in a sense, because there’s no longer any journey to wholeness or fulfilment; wholeness is simply what you are when you stop pulling yourself apart.
There’s a hint of this in the opening line as well-
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh'natayim yamim ufaro holem- And it was at the end of two years, to the day…”
The word for “year” is shana, which also means “change” or “time.” “Two years” hints that in order to have time, you need two-ness; you need duality. That's because time and change are based on the perception of before and after. But when you see that reality is not in any way ever separate from your perception, that your memories of the past and projections of the future are all arising in the now, that's the keitz shana- the end of time, the awakening into the Eternal Present.
So on this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, may everything that arises in your perception be fully embraced as the energy of consciousness, burning ever more brightly within your being and expressing itself in love and healing on all levels.
Mr. Fimmen- Parshat Mikeitz
Back in the eighties, Mr. Fimmen was the Vice Principal in my High School. He was known as the disciplinarian. If you did something bad, you got sent to him. I was sent to him as a freshman when I screamed in the hallway after finding out that I got the part of Renfield in the school play, “Dracula.”
When I was a senior, my class put on an original musical in which I impersonated Mr. Fimmen.
In the play, the main character was a “nerd” who was searching to find himself. In one scene, the nerd’s journey takes him into the depths of Hell. We had him walk down off the stage and into the orchestra pit, where I was dressed like Satan. When he asked who I was, I said,
“I have been known by many names- The Trickster, Beelzebub, HaSatan… revealed to the West as… Mr. Fimmen!!”
The audience roared.
I wasn’t sure how Mr. Fimmen was going to take it, but it turned out he loved it. Every time I saw him in the hallway after that, he gave me a satanic look and said, “Do you know my name?”
We became good friends after that. One time, we were having a conversation in his office about religion. He said that just as Judaism is the root of Christianity and Islam, and Hinduism is the root of Buddhism and Jainism, there must be a common root between Judaism and Hinduism.
“That’s what I want to find out about!” he said with a smile.
But when I was about to leave his office, he became concerned about other students finding out that he was friendly. He said, “Remember Brian, not a word about this to the other students. To them, I’m just MR. FIMMEN!!”
It’s true- the other students had no idea who Mr. Fimmen really was. They only saw an image created by their own minds- a “Mr. Fimmen the scary mean guy” narrative. And that’s the way he wanted it.
But sometimes, the mind tells negative stories about people that they wouldn’t want. Some bad experience ferments in the memory and sprouts into an inevitably over-simplified story, and that’s the screen through which you then see things. And sometimes, life itself sinks into a negative frame, and you feel that Reality or God is conspiring against you.
What’s the way out?
To get free of this negativity, the story must come to an end. The whole narrative has to collapse. This week’s reading is called Mikeitz, which means, “At the end”. The parsha begins:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim, uparo holeim-
And it happened at the end of two years, to the day, Pharaoh was dreaming…”
The phrase, “Sh’natayim yamim” literally means, “Two years, days”- a strange construction. The first word, “sh’natayim”, is a contraction of two words- “shanah” which means “year” or "change," hinting at the concept of time, and the word “sh’tayim” which means “two”.
“Sh’natayim”, then, could be translated as “the duality of time”. When you add “yamim” which means “days”, the full phrase could be translated:
“The duality of time, the multiplicity of days”.
Time is dependant on duality, on the ability of the mind to compare one thing to another. In the case of time, the mind compares one moment to another. Through the imagination of past and future moments, a sense of time is created.
Once the mind creates a sense of time, we experience life as a “multiplicity of days”. Meaning, we experience life as receding tunnel of yesterdays, and an impending journey of tomorrows.
But this time-based version of life is actually a dream. Just like Pharaoh’s dreams, this version of life is a tapestry of healthy, peaceful moments, alternating with ugly, monstrous moments. And sometimes, the monstrous seem to overtake and swallow up everything that’s good, as happens in Pharaoh’s dream:
“The cows of ugly appearance and gaunt flesh ate up the seven cows of beautiful appearance…”
But, dreams come to an end:
“Vayikatz Paro, v’hinei halom-
And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream!”
The word for “awoke” is “yikatz”- sharing two letters with “mikeitz” which means “at the end”- hinting that “awakening” is the end of something.
What is it the end of?
Let’s look back at the first verse, retranslating it according to the above ideas:
“Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim-
Awakening from the duality of time is the end of the multiplicity days…”
To come to the end of time, to awaken, is actually profoundly simple. It can happen at any moment, and yet it can only happen in this moment. It happens when you let go of your grip on narrative and allow this moment to speak for itself.
Is there any greater beauty than the richness of this moment? Is there any greater gift than your consciousness of this miracle?
And in the consciousness of this miracle, is there any room for negative, judgmental thoughts about others?
When you see how your own mind works and get free from its illusions, it also becomes easy to see how others are trapped by their illusions. Then, you don’t get pulled into their drama, no matter how they treat you. Even the nastiest insults will only evoke compassion from your heart. You don’t take it personally, because you can see that they are trapped- they are hurling their negativity toward some idea of you, not the real you.
There is a story that Reb Yitzhak of Vorki had a friend who would always verbally bash Reb Yitzhak’s rebbe, Reb Simha Bunem. This friend would always say terrible things about Reb Simha right in front of Reb Yitzhak, but Reb Yitzhak never said anything about it or got upset in the slightest.
Reb Yitzhak’s hassidim were astonished by this. They asked him how he could possibly allow his friend to speak so harshly about his rebbe and never say a word of defense or reprimand.
“I’ll tell you about something that happened to me,” Reb Yitzhak replied.
“I was once traveling in a certain city when a stranger approached me, looked at me for a moment and exclaimed, ‘that’s him!’ Then a second man did the same thing, and then a third, though I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Before long, a crowd of noisy men and an upset woman surrounded me, showering me with curses and abuses, the gist of which was: ‘You are the man who deserted this woman and left her as an aguna!’”
(In traditional Jewish law, an aguna is a woman who’s husband runs away without granting a legal divorce, thus leaving her unable to remarry.)
“They were so convinced they knew who I was, that no amount of explanation on my part could persuade them that I was not the man they were looking for. In the end, I had to go along with them to the rabbinical court and grant the woman a bill of divorce.
“Now all that time they were busy abusing me, I wasn’t the slightest bit angry at them, because I knew that it wasn’t at me they were directing their complaints and curses. They thought I was her husband. In truth, they couldn't see me at all- they only saw their own story.
“So, too, with my friend who talks bad of my rebbe. I don’t get excited. I know he talks this way only because he doesn’t really know my rebbe. In truth, he talks about a character that lives only in his mind.”
On this Shabbat Mikeitz, the “Sabbath of Ending” which is also Shabbos Hanukah, and Shabbos Rosh Hodesh (new moon), may our inner light ever increase to bring the negative dreams of life to an end, awakening us to the miraculous gift of the true life, just as it is. And, at the same time, may the function of our dreams be fulfilled: To guide us as we navigate this ever changing moment and help us bring more peace, intelligence and relief to this world that so needs it.
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