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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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.
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan…
Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, actually means “heel.” So, to say that he “dwelt in the land” evokes the image of feet touching the earth, being grounded in connection with the sensory world. The “land” is the place where his “father sojourned.” On the surface, this is referring to the other patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac. But on a deeper level, aviv – his father – is a metaphor for the Divine, or the transcendent dimension Being, the hidden Presence beneath all forms.
The “land” is also called Canaan. Canaan begins with kaf - nun, which spells kein – “yes.”
So, on this level, we can freely this verse:
Dwell in connection with the Divine – say “yes” to this moment.
On the deepest level, it is already the nature of your consciousness to say “yes” to this moment, to simply shine light on what is without judgment. The nature of thought, on the other hand, is discernment – saying both “yes” and “no,” making judgments.
We need both of these levels; we need both discernment and simple openness to what is. Without the openness, we become trapped in a narrow, thought-created identity. But without the discernment, not only wouldn’t we be able to function in life, but we also paradoxically wouldn’t even be able to sustain the openness either, because to realize the deepest “yes” level of our being requires a radical discernment and decision to come fully to your present moment experience as it is and simply dwell with it:
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ
Vayeishev Ya’akov Ba’aretz
The Heel Dwells on the Earth…
Bring the awareness of your mind all the way down to the heels of your feet. Let your awareness be like light, simply shining outward, illuminating whatever arises in your experience. This is the secret of Hanukah, which comes in the darkest time of the year to illuminate the eternal dimension of Being within ordinary day-to-day life, which sometimes feels “dark” when obscured by time and the thinking mind...
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The Evil Shepherd- Parshat Vayeishev
This week’s reading begins with the story of Yosef, or Joseph:
“Yosef hayah ro’eh et achav- Joseph was a shepherd with his brothers… v’hu na’ar et b’nei Vilha v’et b’nei Zilpa- and he was a youth with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa...”
It then says that he brought evil reports about his brothers to their father.
Now the word for “shepherd” is ro’eh, and the word for “evil” is ra’ah-exactly the same letters, just voweled a little differently, hinting at a connection between shepherding and judging others. This is also reflected in the wording. A more straightforward way of saying that he was a shepherd with his brothers would be “hayah ro’eh imachav”- instead of “hayah ro’eh et achav”- which could be read that he’s being a shepherd at his brothers.
This hints at two different levels of what’s going on. On the surface, Joseph and his brothers are out shepherding the sheep. But at the same time, Joseph sees himself as shepherding his brothers. He feels that he’s above them, judging them and tattling on them to their father.
His vision of himself as above the rest of his family is of course prophetic- he eventually becomes an actual ruler with Pharaoh in Egypt. But at this point in the story, his leadership is immature- as it says, “V’hu na’ar- and he was a youth.”
There’s a level of your own being that is above everything. It's the place within you that it sees the fullness of whatever arises in your experience, yet remains free from it, unencumbered by whatever your situation is. That level of inner freedom is simple awareness. Another name for it is Hokhmah or Wisdom, because from that place of awareness, wisdom naturally flows and can guide you in your particular situation. So your awareness is above your situation, on one hand, yet offers its steady guidance at the same time- just like a ro’eh- a shepherd- guides the flock, yet is not itself a sheep.
The thinking mind, however, loves to claim the wisdom of awareness for itself in order to feed the ego. The ego thinks, "This is my wisdom"- and then gets gratification from believing itself to be above others. That’s Joseph as the na’ar- the youth- who brings evil reports. As long as the immature mind coopts the wisdom of awareness, the ro’eh becomes ra’ah- an evil shepherd.
So what’s the remedy? The remedy is hidden within the letters. The words ro’eh and ra’ah are Reish-Ayin-Heh. The middle letter, Ayin, literally means “eye,” hinting at awareness as the deepest identity of the shepherd. The Reish literally means “head,” hinting that as long as the “head” is ruling the “eye”- as long as the thinking mind claims awareness for itself, the shepherd is evil.
But if you change the Ayin to an Alef, the letter of Oneness, then the word becomes Re’eh which means, “see.” When you simply see, not in the literal visual sense but in the sense of simple perception, then you can notice the antics of the mind and ego and not get seduced by them. From this comes mature leadership, where the wisdom that pours into the mind is not coopted or claimed, but is humbly received as a gift.
So on this Parshat Vayeyshev, the Sabbath of Dwelling, may we practice dwelling in the simple Presence and receive the gift of guidance from the Ultimate Shepherd. May we be guided by this inner wisdom on a path of love, renewal and healing.
Being Now, Wanting Now- Parshat Vayeishev
12/2/2015 0 Comments
A few years ago, I was at a Shabbat table where someone was describing the different character traits of Jacob and his brother Esau:
“Jacob could see the big picture. He planed for the future, while Esau only cared about satisfying his immediate desires. Esau lived in the here and now.”
I cringed when I heard that, because “living in the here and now” and “wanting something here and now” couldn’t be more different.
So many people don’t understand this difference!
Back at that Shabbat table, I tried to clarify this point, but I was unsuccessful. I hope to clarify it “now”.
Actually, my desire to clarify this point “now” is a perfect example to use.
When I say that I want to clarify this point “now”, I don’t mean “now” literally. I mean that I hope to clarify it by the end of this d’var. Which really means that I hope to clarify it in the near future. By the time you’re done reading this, I hope that the point will be clear.
In fact, whenever anyone says that they want something “now”, what they really mean is that they want their “now” to change into a different “now”. They may want it really fast… but “fast” is still the future.
This is the exact opposite of “being in the now” or “being present”.
To “be in the now” doesn’t mean that you want a different “now”. It means you’re just being in thisnow. There’s no conflict or tension in that- you’re just present.
In fact, you are the present; there’s not you, on one hand, and the present on the other. When you are present, you and the present are the same thing.
So when that guy talked about Jacob and Esau, he wasn’t talking about long-term planning versus being in the now. He was really talking about long-term planning versus short-term planning. Neither one is about the “now” at all.
And yet, there’s a way in which long-term planning can actually can help you be fully present.
When you know exactly where you’re going, you’re less likely to worry about what you’re going to have for dinner in a few hours. It just doesn’t matter that much. You have a long-term plan, so you can fully enjoy the journey. You can be present.
That’s the way Joseph is in this week’s reading. At the opening of our parsha, it says that Joseph is Israel’s favorite son. This makes Israel’s other sons jealous of Joseph. Then, Joseph does something to further upset them:
Joseph dreamt a dream that he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear, if you please, this dream that I dreamt: Behold! We were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! My sheaf arose and remained standing. Then, behold! Your sheaves gathered around and bowed to my sheaf.”
Then, as if that weren't bad enough, he really ticks them off with a second dream: The sun, moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him, implying that one day he would rule over his eleven brothers, father and mother.
Why was Joseph unconcerned about upsetting his brothers with these dreams? Some say that Joseph was immature and vain. But I don’t think so. People who are immature and vain tend to complain when bad things happen to them.
His brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. When he later rises to be the most trusted and powerful slave in the house of his master, he is framed and thrown in the dungeon. Through all these calamities, he never once complains, never once gets angry, never even defends himself.
Because he trusts his dream and he knows where he is going.
Since he knows where he’s going, he doesn’t have to fuss much about how he gets there. His brothers are mad at him? No big deal, it will work out. Sold into slavery? There’s an interesting turn.
Everything that happens to him is merely a modulation of the present moment. Whatever it is, he’s there with it. He sees the big picture, and therefore he’s fully in the now.
In fact, his name embodies this quality. The Hebrew for Joseph is Yosef, which comes from the root that means “to increase”. No matter how terrible life gets, he pops back and increases toward his goal. He’s like cream- always rising to the top, never growing anxious or complaining. He just rides the story of his life, moving steadily toward his destiny.
There’s a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev saw a man hurrying down the street, bumping into things and knocking people over. The rabbi grabbed him and said, “Why are you rushing so?”
“I’m running to meet my destiny!” replied the man as he tried to break free from the rebbe’s grip.
“But how do you know that your destiny is in front of you?” argued the rebbe, “Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you have to do is slow down and let it catch up with you!”
On this Shabbat Vayieshev, the Shabbos of Dwelling, remember that to truly dwell in the Presence of the One who is only ever in the present, you don’t have to give up your dreams for the future. But, you don’t have to run after them either!
Instead, rest in the knowledge of where your ship is going- take the steps you need to move in that direction, then trust and enjoy the cruise, even when the world seems to be against you! And if you don’t know yet where you want to go, be present with the not knowing. In the silence, your dreams will reveal themselves.
Although we have done our best to raise our children eating healthy food, they have lately become a bit obsessed with candy. The other night, my daughter showed me a little toy electric fan filled with M&Ms that someone had given to her. As she tried to take out the M&Ms, I said, “Honey, let’s read the ingredients on the label.” We did. There were so many chemicals, both artificial flavors and colors, along with preservatives.
She asked what all those things were, and when I got to explaining about the preservatives, she said, “But that’s good, right Abba? The preservatives prevent it from going rotten.”
I suddenly realized she had a point. It’s true, many preservatives aren’t in any way nourishing. But, in certain situations, a little preservative would certainly be better than eating something that had become overrun with dangerous bacteria.
It’s kind of like spirituality. When spiritual practices like prayer and ritual are “fresh” – meaning, they are done with a spirit of openness and humility, they can be deeply nourishing. But there is a danger – when a person thinks of oneself as “spiritual” and therefore special or superior, the same practices can be a source of arrogance. The spirituality becomes “rotten” in a sense. In such a case, we need some kind of “preservative.”
What is the spiritual preservative?
Once, when Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua of Apt came to visit a certain town to teach, two men competed to have the rabbi stay with them. Both homes were equally roomy and comfortable, and in both households, all the halakhot – the rules of conduct aroundkashrut and Shabbat – were observed with meticulous exactness.
The only difference was that one of the men had a bad reputation for his many love affairs and other self-indulgent habits. He knew he was weak, and didn’t think much of himself. The other fellow, on the other hand, was perfect in his conduct, and he knew it. He walked around proudly, thoroughly aware of his spotless purity.
The rabbi chose the house of the man with the bad reputation. When asked the reason for his choice, he answered that in the Talmud (Sotah 5a), it says:
“R. Hisda said… every person in whom there is arrogance of spirit, the Holy Blessed One says, ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.”
“And,” said the rabbi, “if the Holy Blessed One can’t share a room with an arrogant person, then how could I? We read in the Torah, on the other hand, that the Divine “…dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanliness.” (Lev. 16:16) And if Hashem takes lodgings there, why shouldn’t I?”
The Divine can’t dwell with the arrogant person, because his spirituality has become spoiled. And what is the “preservative” that kept the other fellow from being arrogant?
An amazing, radical teaching: Yes, sin is sin. It’s not good, just like a preservative is not in itself healthy. And yet, it can prevent rottenness of spirit, by helping to conquer arrogance.
After all, what is arrogance really? It’s not just thinking good of oneself; it’s about entitled expectation.
Spiritual practice, on the deepest level, is about dropping all expectation.
When we’re successful in that, there can be an experience of freedom, of space, of sacredness. And in that experience, there can be a very subtle form of expectation that creeps in without our even knowing it; this is spiritual arrogance, the expectation perhaps that others should see us as special, and even more importantly, that we are somehow entitled to the spiritual bliss lasting forever. But if we reflect on our own imperfections, bringing to mind that we have made many errors and aren’t entitled to anything in particular, then we can paradoxically remain connected to the root, even when our branches falter.
וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת
Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people who were with him… into two camps.
This was Jacob’s quality that won him the name Yisrael. He is very insecure about his brother who wants to kill him, so he “divides the people” – meaning, part of him wants to simply trust the Divine protection that was promised to him, but part of him isn’t sure. His insecurity is actually the deepest nature of existence: all things, all beings, are completely insecure. Nothing is guaranteed. There may be a deep desire to trust, to believe that we have some kind of Divine protection, but this kind of trust is arrogance; if we’re honest, we must admit that insecurity is the Truth.
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of dawn.
These two sides of his being wrestled, until the “arising of the dawn” – until illumination occurred. He had done everything he could – he sent many gifts to his brother, he split up his camp, he prayed for safety – now it was time to surrender, and in that surrender, to conquer.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
He said, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Yisrael, for sarita im Elohim –you have conquered with (your) Divine (nature) and (your) human (nature), and you are able!”
Through his human nature, through his profound insecurity, he reached the true kind of trust – not trust in a particular outcome, but trust in Reality Itself, trust that this moment is as it is, and will be as it will be. Thus, through his human nature, he reached his Divine nature.
And this is our opportunity as well – to do everything we can to secure the outcome we want – pray, send gifts, work hard, all of it. But at the same time, be free. Embrace and relax into the insecurity, into the unknown, and into the true and actual security that isn’t about what we want; it’s about connecting with the truth of this moment, beautiful and fragile and tragic and miraculous. And in doing so, we can truly be one, and reunite with anything disowned or denied from our past:
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו כתיב צוארו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹ֑הֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ
And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…
Good Shabbos and Happy Thanksgiving!
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Send! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Vayishlakh Ya'akov malakhim lifanav el eisav-
And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau…”
This week’s reading begins with Ya’akov, with Jacob, sending angels ahead of him to appease his brother Eisav who had been intent on killing Ya’akov.
So who are Ya’akov and Eisav?
They’re twin brothers, but they were also opposite archetypes. Eisav was a hunter, a man of the field. Ya’akov, on the other hand, “dwelled in tents” where, according to the tradition, he would study Torah.
Get it? Eisav represents the body, and Ya’akov the mind.
Eisav wants to kill Ya’akov because Ya’akov used his cunning intelligence first to convince Eisav to sell him his birthright, and later to trick their father Yitzhak into giving Eisav’s blessing of the first born to Ya’akov.
And isn’t this what the mind so often does?
The body has its needs- not very complicated or profound- it needs good food, fresh air, good rest, and so on. But our minds have other more sophisticated and ambitions and plans. And because of all the great things we want to accomplish and experience, we end up polluting our bodies, not getting enough rest and exercise, and pushing ourselves in ways that can make us sick- not to mention the damage we cause to other people and to the earth. Eventually, Eisav will rebel- the body rebels, the oppressed rebel, the earth rebels. And that’s when life can fall apart.
So what’s the solution?
It’s to realize, first of all, that there’s a much more profound dimension to your mind than your thoughts, ideas and ambitions; and that’s your sensitivity- your awareness, your Presence.
Just as Ya’akov sends the malakhim- the angels- to Eisav, so you can send your awareness into your body. That’s how you can give yourself love, because awareness is the carrier wave for love; it’s the whole basis for love. After all, before you do anything loving for anyone, you first have to be present with them, you have to pay attention to them. Sometimes, attentiveness is all that’s needed. And, it’s the same for your own body.
So what does Eisav do when they finally meet? Eisav weeps and kisses Ya’akov.
In the same way, when you bring your mind out of its imaginary worlds of ambition and projection and down into your physical body, then with practice, your body will reflect back to you that quality of love and attention as a feeling of blissful openness, showing you the true nature of your own Being.
So on this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Sabbath of Sending, may we send our loving attention deeply into our own bodies, and may our appreciation of the body lead us to eradicate all the needless human oppression on this planet. May we also love and protect this earth which is our physical home. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may this loving attention- this Power of Presence- ever increase like the lights of the menorah.
DON'T Let it Go! Parshat Vayishlakh
“Abba, do you want to wrestle?” asked my four-year-old daughter hopefully-
“Sure,” I said, “How do we start?”
“First, you go on that side of the bed, and I go on this side of the bed. We have to make mean faces and put our fists in the air. Then, we fall forward face down… and then… we wrestle!”
When I was in seventh grade, I was on the wrestling team, but we never started a wrestling match quite like that. Hilarious. But that’s what we did: We made our mean wrestling faces, put our fists in the air, fell onto the bed, and then… we wrestled!
Wrestling with a little four-year-old girl is not exactly fair. She thinks we’re wrestling, but I'm calling the shots. I pretend to struggle, then I fall over and say, “Oh no, she’s getting me! She’s getting me!”- but really, it's an illusion.
Kind of like when we wrestle with Reality. We can groan and moan, complain and blame, and somehow the mind thinks that all this drama will get us somewhere... but of course, it's an illusion too. We can do a lot to change our situation for the future, but we can never do anything to change what has already become.
And yet, in the case of wrestling with my daughter, just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The real value is not in the struggle itself, but the blessing of connection that comes from the struggle.
In this week’s reading, Jacob demands that a blessing comes from his struggle.
Jacob is once again in a dark place. He has received word that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men, and he fears for his life:
“Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people, flocks, cattle and camels into two camps…” (Gen. 32:8)
If Esau attacks half of his camp, at least the other half will survive. He then sends tributes ahead to appease his brother and prays for his life.
Night falls. After sending his family across the river, a strange thing happens-
“He spent the night there… Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn…”
The “night” is his not knowing- his anxiety about the danger that might befall him. So, he “wrestles” with his situation- meaning, he resists the truth of his predicament. Of course, it’s not a fair fight- the “wrestling” is an illusion. You can’t fight with Reality.
But eventually, the “man” says to Jacob,
“Let me go, for the dawn has broken!”
In every experience of fear, anger, frustration or loss, there comes a time to “let it go”. To “let it go” means you stop telling yourself stories about it, that you stop torturing yourself with it.
But- is there a value in not letting it go?
Jacob thinks so:
“I will not let you go until you bless me!”
Jacob knows that the real value is not in the struggle itself, but in the blessing that comes from the struggle. The mysterious man concedes and says:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (Sarita) with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.”
Jacob insists on a blessing, so his opponent gives him the title of one who has mastered his situation.
It’s true- Jacob has done everything he could do with both God and man to take responsibility: He’s split his camp to ensure the survival of at least half of them. He’s sent many gifts to appease his brother. He’s prayed to God for safety and protection.
And now, after an all night struggle with his anxiety and fear, the dawn is breaking. He’s done his best- he has become Yisrael- and now he’s ready to let go, surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
But something is missing. He is not satisfied with the mere title of Yisrael, there’s something he still needs to learn- so he asks a question:
“Vayishal Ya’akov- Jacob asked- ‘Tell me please your name!’”
The word for “asked” is “yishal”- the same letters as his new name, “Yisrael,” except that it’s missing a letter Reish.
The letter Reish means “head”. It implies authority, as in the “head of a school” or the “head of a company” and so on.
As Yisrael, Jacob has used his head wisely- he’s thought through his situation and acted as the responsible “head” of his family. But in asking a question, Yisrael becomes Yishal- he loses the Reish,as if to say, “my head is incomplete- there’s something I don’t yet know.”
What is it that he doesn’t know?
He doesn’t know the identity of the “man” that he’s wrestling with. In other words, even though he might be ready to give up his struggle, he doesn’t yet understand the nature of his struggle.
Jacob’s opponent answers him with yet another question:
“Why do you ask me my name?”
His opponent puts a question back onto Jacob: What’s your motivation in asking?
When we experience the inner pain of resistance, there comes a time when we accept and let go. Little children do this all the time- they’re great a letting go. But that doesn’t help them stay out of trouble in the future. The next moment, they’re upset about something else. There’s no self reflection- no sense of how they create their own suffering.
But if you take the time to really look at your own motivation- ask yourself, “How am I creating my experience?” then there’s the possibility for growth, for actually responding to life with a new wisdom. That kind of wisdom can only be won through the real struggles of your life.
But the struggle itself doesn’t automatically give it to you. You have to hold on to it a little longer and deeply inquire into yourself, before the “dawn” makes you forget all about it. The wisdom you get from that self-inquiry is the true blessing.
When you experience the blessing that only comes through suffering, the suffering takes on a whole new dimension. It’s no longer your enemy. Behind your troubles and problems, there is the Divine Friend, urging you to grow, to evolve.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist says to God: “I am a stranger on the earth- hide not your commandments from me!”
On this verse, the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, taught:
“When a person is driven into exile and comes to a strange and alien land, he has nothing in common with the people there and not a soul he can talk to.
But, if a second stranger appears, even though the new stranger comes from a totally different place, the two can confide in one another, and come to cherish one another. And had they not both been strangers, they never would have known such close companionship.
And that’s what the psalmist means: ‘You, just like me, are a stranger on this earth, for Your Divinity is hidden by my pain and suffering. So please, do not withdraw from me, but reveal to me your ‘commandments’- reveal to me the wisdom that can only be learned through this suffering- and let us be friends…’”
On this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Shabbat of Sending, may our personal pain and all the troubles of the world be sent far away. But before it goes, may we extract the Light that can only come from the darkness- the self-knowledge we need to evolve. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may that Light ever increase as the lights of the menorah, helping our whole species to evolve. May we dedicate ourselves ever more completely to the revelation of this Light!
Imagine you lived in a place where the sky was constantly overcast, so that the sun was hardly ever visible. From your point of view, it would look like the dim light of the overcast sky was coming from the clouds themselves. If you were a small child and had never heard of the sun, that’s what you would probably assume.
Now, imagine you are that child – you have no knowledge of the sun, and your parents take you for a trip on an airplane. As the plane gets higher and higher, you look out the window, and you see nothing but cloud all around. Soon after, the plane bursts through the cloud cover and you see the blazing sun and the blue sky for the first time. Imagine what a revelation that would be!
That’s what spiritual awakening is like.
For most of us, the sky has been covered with clouds our whole lives. Meaning, our minds are constantly moving with the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings. Without ever questioning, we assume that our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings are identical. Because of this, we also don’t tend to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings we have about reality, and actual Reality. All we know are the clouds; we experience the present moment through the lens of our stories, through our sense of past and future.
How to awaken from the seductive dream of our minds and hearts and come to the truth of this moment?
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜ום וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ
He encountered The Place and spent the night there, for the sun had set…
In this week’s reading, Jacob is running from his murderous brother. The sun had set – meaning, he was in a state of inner darkness. He was running and running, until he “encounters The Place” – he sets stones for his head and lays down on the earth. In other words, he connects with the physicality of his present experience.
Then, after a dream in which the Divine appears to him and he sees a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven with angels going up and down, it says:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתֹו֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
Jacob awakened from his sleep and said, “Surely the Divine is in this Place and I didn’t even know it!”
The Divine is not something separate from the truth of this moment – it is the radiant sun of consciousness, ever-present as the perceiving Presence that you are.
But, there are clouds!
The way to “rise of above the clouds,” so to speak, is paradoxically to connect with the earth. That’s because when we become conscious of our physical sensations, the “clouds” of thoughts and feelings can clear up naturally, revealing the radiant awareness beneath them. This is expressed in the next verse:
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this Place – it is none but the House of the Divine, and this is the gate of heaven!”
In fact, the word for “The Place” is HaMakom, which is Itself a Divine Name.
So, if you want to rise above the dark clouds of this world, the way up is actually the way down. Come down from your mind, into your body and into connection with the earth, to HaMakom, because This, Here-Now, is the gateway of heaven…
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More On Parshat Vayeitzei...
Be Still- Parshat Vayeitzei
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob running away from his brother Esau, who wants to murder him. It says,
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran, and he encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange phrase- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God HaMakom, The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where the Divine can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. In other words, between the past and the future. So, where is this special Place between your past and your future in which we can encounter the Divine? That Place, of course, is always where we already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. So, past and future are important, but when they become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment. And when that feeling of being disconnected dominates your life, and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. His origin and his goal became so heavy, that for an instant he was able to pop out of the story and see the moment.
So, before Jacob encounters the Present, he’s just running. But now that Jacob is beginning to despair, he is letting go of his story in time; he is giving up hope. And in this “giving up,” he begins to notice the place he is in. He brings his mind all the way down to the stones, and becomes still.
So on this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we go out from our automatic and unconscious responses to things, may we become still and connect with the Presence of this moment, so that we may say, “Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!” Good Shabbos!
The Flight- Parshat Vayeitzei
This past Monday I boarded the plane for Costa Rica to join my wife and children on our six-month excursion to Central America.
The trouble started the moment I tried to check in.
Due to a new baggage restriction that went into effect that very day, the woman at the ticket counter told me I was only allowed to check two bags. I had three.
After a scramble to repack everything right then and there, another woman came over and started whispering something to the first woman. The new woman nervously informed me that I also wasn’t allowed my two carry-on bags. I could only have one carry-on, plus a small item such as a purse or tiny backpack.
Repack again. Text my friend who dropped me off, run out to curb with a bunch of stuff I expelled from my suitcases, dump it in the trunk. Finish checking bags, get to gate just in time to board. Not in a good mood.
Sitting between two people. One continuously rubs his arm against mine for hours as he types at his tablet device. A thought occurs to me- what if they lose my luggage? Airlines have misplaced my suitcases on multiple occasions, and once, a suitcase of mine was even lost for good. And I don't even like hot humid weather!
Suddenly, as these thoughts are occurring to me, the plane starts lurching violently. The captain asks the flight attendants to have a seat. It feels like the plane keeps hitting huge potholes in the sky. The guy next to me gasps as his tablet device literally flies up into the air. I feel myself thrown upward as well, but I’m held in place by the seatbelt.
After a few minutes of this, another thought occurs to me- I didn’t have time to finish davening that morning! Without hesitation I reach for my siddur and start the morning prayers:
Barukh she’amar v’ahyah ha’olam-
Blessed is the One who speaks the universe into being…
Now I tell you the truth- the turbulence stopped immediately within seconds after I started davening. Did the davening cause the turbulence to stop? Was this testimony to the power of prayer?
The mind loves this kind of question.
Some minds will jump in- “See, the power of prayer at work!” Others will be skeptical- “The turbulence would have stopped anyway, but because you started praying at that time, your mind makes a correlation where there was none…”
That’s the dualistic mind- it’s one or the other.
But there is a third way-
And that’s to see that all events are part of a single Reality, and that This One Reality is what we call God. God is the turbulence, God is the prayer, and God is the ending of the turbulence. It’s not three things- it’s not me stopping the turbulence with prayers; there’s only one continuous event, one Reality- God’s unfolding in time.
Seen that way, the prayers could even be taken right out of the equation. There was turbulence. It stopped. Is that not miracle enough?
I was thrown out of my seat. That reminded me to pray. Is that not miracle enough?
I’ll tell you this:
In the moment that the turbulence subsided as I chanted the prayers, that moment was all there was. The luggage tzures no longer mattered. What had happened at the ticket counter was in the past, and whatever was going to happen later at the San Jose airport was in the future. Only that moment was real.
In this week’s reading, Jacob has a similar experience:
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran. He encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange sentence- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where God can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. Between the past and the future, he encountered God.
Where is this special Place between your past and your future that you encounter God?
That Place, of course, is always where you already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. Past and future are important.
But when past and future become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment.
When disconnectedness dominates one’s life (God forbid), and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. He was running from his brother Esau whom he had tricked and cheated, and now Esau was trying to kill him. Jacob is in a dark place:
“Vayalen sham ki va hashemesh-
And he spent the night there because the sun had set”.
The setting of the sun is a symbol of his inner darkness- Jacob is in despair over his situation.
So what does he do?
“He took from the stones of The Place and put them for his head…”
What are the qualities of stones? They are dense. They are heavy. They don’t blow around, but are still.
A person’s head, on the other hand, is the place where thought happens. Thought is perhaps the least physical thing in our experience. Rather than being still, it constantly bubbles this way and that.
So bringing “stones” to his “head” hints at a radical shift in consciousness. He is bringing his mind all the way down to the stones and becoming still.
And then something startling happens:
“And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, and behold! Angels of God ascended and descended upon it.”
What's the meaning of this vision?
There's a tradition that everything has an angel, or spiritual force, causing it. According to this idea, everything we experience is determined in the “spiritual” realm, and we really have nothing to do with it.
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). In other words, everything that happens is predetermined, except our relationship to it. Other than that, we have no real power. Seen from this point of view, the angels descending the ladder would be the determining forces for what goes on in our world.
However, there’s another opposing idea that every deed a person does actually creates an angel. Do good, create good angels. Do bad, create bad angels. These created angels then go around producing good or bad effects in the world.
So in this view, what happens is not determined by the angels, but by the human beings creating the angels. In other words, everything is in our hands. This view is represented by the angles ascendingthe ladder.
But in Jacob’s vision, there are angels going up the ladder and down the ladder; he sees the paradox of both realities at once. Everything is determined by forces which are created by our actions, yet our actions are themselves determined by forces, which are themselves created by our actions, and so on ad infinitum.
So what's the meaning here?
The answer is in HaMakom- this place we have now come to.
Because in order to access the Divinity of this moment, you have to surrender your preoccupation with the way things “come out”- you have to give up control.
This is the meaning of the angels coming down- everything is in the “hands of heaven”.
At the same time, this supreme surrender actually frees you from your automatic responses to things. You are no longer a victim of your own preferences; you have choice. So next time you get annoyed with a loved one and you feel yourself going into your same old response, stop. Surrender. Access the power of transformation- the power that allows you to choose how to be.
This is the meaning of the angels going up- your choice to be in "awe of heaven"!
Then you will realize like Jacob did:
“Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!”
There is a mishna that sums it up well:
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no choice, so surrender your attempt to control anything.
But, in that surrender, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
Jacob’s newfound freedom is expressed a few verses later:
“Jacob lifted his feet and went…”
It is as if he is now flying, his feet in the air...
At the end of my flight, I had ample opportunity to practice surrender once again, when my two suitcases never arrived at baggage claim.
It took the airline three more days to locate them in Mexico, send them to Costa Rica and deliver them to The Place we’re now staying. And while this particular practice of surrender was powerful for me and apparently necessary, I am happy to be reunited with my sandals and my coffee paraphernalia (along with my beautiful wife and children). Barukh Hashem!
On this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from our stories in time to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. Let’s greet the Timeless One- the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Hei Ha'olamim- Life of the Worlds, uniting Her with Her Source through our own inner return to the Ayin- the Nothing from which everything springs- on this Holy Shabbos Kodesh.
Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,
"Touch the Earth"- Parshat Vayeitzei
Right now, as you read these words, how are you relating to this moment? Do you feel it to be a passage in time, a means to travel from your past toward your future? Do you feel that this moment is merely a stepping-stone from one moment to the next?
Or, instead, do you encounter this moment in and of itself? In other words- are you present, or are you hurrying through the present?
This parshah begins with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau and heading to Haran where he will get married and begin a family. The drama of the story portrays this scene purely as a transitional moment. And yet, at this time of hurrying from one place to another, from one stage of life to another, something remarkable happens: “Vayifga BaMakom- He encountered the place” (Gen. 28:11).
What does that mean?
The word for “encounter” (peh-gimel-ayin) means to “meet” or to “happen upon”, but it can also mean to “hit”, as in “hitting the bulls eye”. In other words, this seemingly insignificant moment becomes the “target”. Jacob has an encounter.
What does he encounter? He encounters the “place”. Not a particular thing or being, but the space in which things and beings appear. The word for “the place”- HaMakom- is also a Divine Name. So, when Jacob shifts his attention toward the space within which this moment unfolds, he encounters the Divine. Meaning, he encounters the Reality of the Space Itself, rather than his mental idea of the space as merely a temporal hallway between memory and anticipation.
How does he do it? He places stones around his head and lies down in the “place”. He brings that which is most ethereal and formless- mind and thought- to the most concrete and solid- stones of the earth. This practice of focusing on something physical brings the mind out of its constant stream of thinking, out of its ideas about what is going on, and into connection with what is really going on, right now. Awareness becomes presence by touching forms that are actually present.
Jacob then dreams of a ladder set on the earth, reaching toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it- “Jacob’s Ladder”. Hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin taught on this verse that the ladder itself is an instruction in presence. It teaches that when one’s feet are firmly rooted in the earth, one’s head can reach the heavens. Being “rooted in the earth” means that awareness is connected with the physical world, as it is. The “head reaching the heavens” means that, paradoxically, when awareness is totally connected to the physical, you can become aware of that which is aware; awareness becomes aware of awareness. As long as awareness is wrapped up in thinking, it dreams that it is the thinking. It dreams up the “me” that is defined by thinking. But when thinking subsides, there can be this realization: I am not this thought-based self. I am just this boundless, free, radiant awareness. The head has reached the heavens!
Jacob then awakens and exclaims: “Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh- The Divine is in this place- v’anokhi lo yadati- and I didn’t even know it!”
Here, the Torah gives us an excellent description of what “awakening” is all about- it gives us a "Torah of Awakening". In the dream state, the mind-generated self imagines the Divine to be elsewhere. It is something to be reached, achieved, hoped for, given up on, disillusioned about. But even within the dream there are clues. Just as Jacob understood the message of the ladder, so it is with everything in our lives: If we look carefully, it is possible to see: That which we seek is That which is Present. But to see this requires becoming present. The present is whole, complete, Divine. To be present is to not be separate from that wholeness.
Then, as you journey in the world of time, you can stay connected to that wholeness. You can draw from the wellspring of renewal, even as you do your work in the world, as it says a few verses later- “vayar v’hinei v’er basadeh- he looked, and behold- a well in the field!”
To be sure, as Jacob’s ensuing twenty years of servitude to his uncle Lavan shows, life can still be replete with challenges. But when you are rooted in the earth and your head reaches the heavens, the challenges are different. There is a lightness- as it says when Jacob leaves the “place” after his vision-“Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelekh- Jacob lifted his feet and went”- it is as if he is flying. Actually, the things and events in time are flying- endlessly coming and going, while the Place remains endlessly the same. What is that Place? It is always where you are and it is also ultimately what you are: Divine Presence, living as this one, ever-changing moment.
Take a moment to connect with the Place through connecting with the Earth- take off your shoes, touch the Earth, bow your head to the ground... enjoy!
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The political climate nowadays is polarized into two opposing and extremely passionate camps. The positive side of this is the high level of engagement. The turnout for the midterm elections of few days ago was greater than ever. With dramatic anticipation, the country watched the news coverage of the election results as they came in.
But there’s another election going on right now as well – can you watch it with the same enthusiasm? It is the race between two different versions of yourself.
Candidate Number One is from the Ego Party. For most of us, this candidate usually wins in landslide victories, over and over. And, rightly so. The Ego candidate has the most experience, with the advantage of being constructed over a lifetime, not to mention having the constant support of the Thinking Mind.
Candidate Number Two is from the Awareness Party. This candidate usually doesn’t win because people don’t even see her on the ballot. They can’t see her because she is the seeing itself; it may never occur to them that she is even running. Furthermore, even though Awareness is far more ancient than the Thinking Mind, she never really ages. She is always seeing this moment anew, so she seems young and naïve. She must, we tend to think, need the Ego and his Thinking Mind to run the show.
The basic approach of the Ego is struggle:
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
The children struggled within her, and she said, “If it be so, why am I like this?”
But there comes a time when a person is ready to give up the struggle. Have you reached this point? Do you want to go beyond Ego? Are you ready to inquire of Reality and find another way?
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה
She went to inquire of the Divine…
If you’re ready, listen: a message vibrates from the Silence:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר
The Divine said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger.”
Two nations are in your womb – there are two of you – the Ego is not all there is!
Two peoples will separate from within you – be aware of the distinction between the ordinary me, the Ego, and the awareness behind and beyond the Ego…
And one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the older will serve the younger – the Ego, the conditioned me, is old; it is based on experience from the past. But, there is a deeper I that never grows old; it is always fresh, alive and new, The Ego likes to be in charge, but it is destined to serve Awareness. Then, there will be a great Silence far more profound than any thought. That Silence is your nakhalah, your birthright, if you would but awaken to it.
How to awaken to It?
וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים
Esau was a man who knew hunting... but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
Give up your "hunting," give up your seeking for control. Come into the “tent” of your heart, into this moment as it is, and dwell here in simplicity…
More On Parshat Toldot...
Timeless- Parshat Toldot
We’re looking at the very rich Parshat Toldot, the Parshah of Generations. It says, “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham – these are the generations or the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham – Avraham holid et Yitzhak – Abraham begot Isaac. So right away, we have a strange construction: it says that Isaac, or Yitzhak, is the son of Abraham, Avraham, then it says, Avraham begot Yitzhak. Well, obviously if Yitzhak is the son of Avraham, then of course Avraham begot Yitzhak. It seems redundant, right? So, we’ll come back to that question.
A little further down, it says that Yitzhak’s wife, Rivka, or Rebecca, became pregnant, and that “Vayitrotz’tzu habonim b’kirbah – the children were fighting inside her.” The children are the twins Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Now, in many commentaries of the past, Yaakov and Esav represent some form of duality. Sometimes Esav is the body and Yaakov is the soul, sometimes Esav is earthiness and Yaakov is scholarliness, but most of the time, these dualities are framed as some form of bad and good. And just as Esav and Yaakov are fighting within Rivka’s womb, so too there’s the idea of a battle going on in each one of us between the Yetzer HaTov, the drive toward good, and the Yetzer HaRa, the drive toward evil.
This concept, that within us there’s a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, a good urge and a bad urge, is a basic Jewish spiritual concept, but I want frame it a little differently.
Rather than the yetzer hara being the drive toward bad, I want to understand it as the drive toward dividing the world into good and bad. This is also pictured in another form at the beginning of the Torah, as the Eitz Daat Tov V’ra – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. So that’s the Yetzer Hara, dividing the world into good and bad. And then, rather than the yetzer hatov being the drive to do good, I want to understand it as the drive to see the goodness in everything. This, of course, is the Eitz Hayim – the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, because when you’re able to see the goodness in everything, which means the underlying goodness of Being Itself, not pretending that violence is really nice, or that sad is really happy, but just tapping into the underlying goodness of simply Being, then it’s really like eating from the Tree of Life. There’s a simple bliss and spaciousness of this moment.
When we understand it that way, then we can see that we always need both Esav and Yaakov; we need Esav, we need to differentiate between good and bad, between nourishing food and poison, between getting up with the alarm and sleeping late, and so on. That’s why Esav is the hunter- going out and taking what he needs from the world. But, if that’s all we’ve got, then we’re totally identified with the mind, with agendas and judgment, and the Tree of Life is hidden behind the fiery sword of thoughts and feelings. So we also need Yaakov; we need to simply open to this moment, to taste the bliss of Being, which is why we came into being in the first place. If life is just a tragic struggle leading nowhere, then what’s the point, right? The point is, there’s a Garden of Eden within; there’s a Tree of Life with fruit to taste right now, if you’re open. That’s why Yaakov eventually gets renamed Yisrael, Israel, and B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are characterized by freedom, by coming out of Egypt, out of slavery. Because in this moment, there is no agenda, there is no movement, there is no time. There is only the blessed space of Being within which everything is unfolding, and you are that blessed space.
So, on this Shabbat Toldot, the Sabbath of Generations, may we surrender ever more deeply into Reality as it unfolds in this moment, making Presence an ever new habit in this generation, and live from the open heart, responding to whatever is needed. Good Shabbos!!
The Mountains- Parshat Toldot
“The children struggled within her, and she said: ‘Why am I like this?’ So, she went to inquire of the Divine. Hashem said to her, “Two nations are within your womb… and the elder shall serve the younger…”
Here in Tucson, the Catalina mountains rise majestically in the north of the city. When we first moved here, I would look up and think, “I wonder if those mountains will ever seem normal and unimpressive?”
As lovers of travel know, when you visit a new place where you have no history or baggage, there’s a brightness to everything- even dirty things are bright, vivid, and rich.
But after you’ve been somewhere a while, the nervous system tends to clump everything together. You look at the tree you’ve seen a million times in your backyard, and instead of seeing the miracle of the tree, you see your laundry, the bills, the broken sink, the broken relationships. All your past experiences of a place seems to soak into every particular piece of that place. You become conditioned.
Conditioning is not in itself a bad thing; it’s how we learn. But it’s vital to remember that there is always an aspect of your experience that is unconditioned. You can see and feel that unconditioned aliveness in children- their wonder, their innocent excitement about things.
And of course, along with that exquisitely innocent and unconditioned consciousness comes... stupidity!
That’s why we, the old and the conditioned, need to protect them from themselves. The older must serve the younger.
“V’rav ya’avod tza’ir- And the older shall serve the younger...”
And that’s as it should be- the experience of the old and the conditioned must preserve and protect the fragile, the bright, the unconditioned.
But this truth applies not only in the external realm of protecting children, but also in the inner realms of consciousness. For there is a level within your own being that is still completely unconditioned. Like the child, it is bright, alive, and curious.
You may think, “But I am old- my conditioning is too heavy, my trauma is too great, my life has been too difficult, or too easy, or whatever… how can I get rid of all the oldness to discover my inner youthfulness? How can I reach the unconditioned?”
The Good News is: You don’t have to “reach” it, and you don’t have to get rid of your conditioning. That which sees all your conditioning, is itself Unconditioned.
Instead of saying, “I am old”- instead of saying, “my conditioning”- simply notice the feeling of oldness. Notice the impulse to think or judge things in a certain way. Notice the feeling that arises when you see the tree in your backyard.
The seeing itself- That is the Unconditioned.
If you practice staying in the seeing, in the noticing, without getting absorbed into the reaction, you will also begin to notice- there is an inner vastness that is untouched by the old thoughts and old feelings. That vastness is your Presence, your Awareness. You don’t need to find it, you are it- but you need to be with all that conditioning instead of being the conditioning. Then, you will see the mountain anew, every day.
There is a story that the disciples of Rabbi Elimelekh came to him and asked: “In the Torah we read that Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Show a wonder to you.’ How are we to understand this? He should have said, ‘Show a wonder to me.’”
Rabbi Elimelekh explained: “Magicians know what they want to accomplish and how to accomplish it. It is not a wonder for them, but only for their beholders. But for those who are merely a vessel for the miracle that God accomplishes through them, their own wonder arises from their deeds and overwhelms them. And that’s what Pharaoh meant: ‘Don’t show me your conditioned expertise! Show me the wonder that arises out of your Unconditioned innocence…’
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, may we open and see the miraculous eons of conditioning that are creating our experience right now. May we know that the seeing and the opening is Itself Unconditioned- Hadeish yameinu kikedem- may our days be fresh and new as they were at the beginning, before the story began. And as we enter the month of Kislev and of Hanukah, the Holiday of Dedication, may we dedicate ourselves ever more deeply to a path of ever increasing Light of Presence.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov!
Adam- Parshat Toldot
This d'var is dedicated to Adam Schachter- Hanan Yitzhak ben Moshe v'Merka z"l.
d. 25 Heshvan, 5776
Last Saturday, Adam passed away from this world. Adam was my half-brother, the son of my father Michael and Adam’s mother Marlene. He lived in New York.
The life and character of a person is infinitely complex. But there is also something fundamental about how a person moves through life, about what moves them, what makes them get out of bed in the morning.
On this fundamental level, Adam was a deeply compassionate person and an enjoyer of life. He wasn’t a complainer or a worrier. He was also deeply insightful and spiritual. I enjoyed the deep conversations we had over the years. Toward the end, we spent some time meditating together on the phone and Skype.
At the funeral, I saw how many considered Adam to be their best friend. From what they said, he seemed to me to be their counselor, regularly helping them through difficult and confusing times in their lives.
He was twenty-nine when he died from brain cancer.
When someone so young suffers and dies like this, it defies any sense of fairness or justice in the world. And we know, many suffer and die unfairly every day, God forbid.
Awareness of all this needless suffering can chip away at you. There is an urge to harden, to shut down. It can feel like there is a war going on inside- a war between your natural and innocent connection with life, on one hand, and a contracted, angry rejection of it, on the other.
How could this happen??
In this week’s reading, Rebecca experiences an inner war as well. After Isaac prays for a child, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins who literally war inside her body. She cries out:
“Lama zeh anokhi-
Why am I like this?!”
At its core, spirituality is about radical acceptance, not about questioning why things are as they are.
But the truth is that questioning can be a great ally toward acceptance, if you go deep enough with your questioning. If you question into the nature of your own mind, into the nature of your own resistance, the questioning itself can become a path of surrender:
“Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem-
She went and inquired of the Divine...”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”?
The Divine is Nothing but Reality- so to “inquire of the Divine” means to look deeply into what you are experiencing, in this moment. If you are feeling negativity, ask yourself: What is this resistance within me? What is this urge to complain, to judge, or to control things?
The first-born twin, Esau, represents this urge. Esau is called an “Ish Yodea Tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. He is your urge to go out and “trap” the world, to make it conform to your will.
But the other twin, Jacob, is an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim- a simple man, abiding in tents”. He is your deeper urge to return to the “tent” of your heart- the open heart that accepts what is with simplicity.
Accordingly, the word “tam” means not only simplicity, but also “taste”. So to be tam means to not seek control, but rather to simply taste this moment as it is- to drink the nectar that flows from intimacy with this moment- even when this moment is filled with pain.
Understandably, many of us spend most of our lives in the “Esau” state, running around doing things, as if to run away from this life. Perhaps if we run around and stay busy enough, we won’t have to feel the pain.
But in the end, all that running and outward seeking leaves Esau drained:
“Esau came in from the field, exhausted”.
Eventually, Esau gives up his seeking and returns to drink from Jacob’s nectar:
“Pour into me please some of this very red stuff!” he says to Jacob.
The word for “red” is “Adom”- a slight variation on the name of my brother, Adam. “Adam” means “human”, because according to legend, the first human was created from the “Adamah”- the red earth.
This Adom is the nourishment we all need- the life blood that flows within the tent of the heart- the nourishment that my brother Adam was connected to, and helped his fellow humans connect to as well.
How do you connect to it?
In order for Esau to receive the nourishment he lacks, he has to surrender his “birthright”. That is, to fully enter the tent of the heart, you have to surrender your sense of entitlement, your sense that the world owes you something, that things should be a certain way.
That’s the way Adam was. In all of my experience of him, he never complained about his situation. He enjoyed life as he was able, and helped others to do so as well.
After all, the world is not “fair”- at least not according to ordinary understanding. All our running will not make it conform to our sense of what is right. In fact, all that does is reinforce a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy available within the tent of the heart.
But drink of this nectar and you will see- there is blessing everywhere, and bountiful opportunity to love, to spread the blessing. Drink of this nectar, but let the bitterness mix with the sweetness. This mixing produces Rakhamim- compassion for all the suffering of life. According to the Zohar, Rakhamim is the spiritual quality that Jacob embodies.
Then, from the place of Rakhamim, you can start running around again and getting things done. You can’t just stay in the tent forever.
In fact, Jacob is not complete until he gets outside his tent and starts working in the fields for old uncle Laban. Fearing that his brother Esau wants to murder him for taking his birthright and his blessing, he flees to his uncle Laban, where he works as a shepherd for fourteen years.
Only then, after years of being out in the field himself, is he able to finally make peace with his brother. Older and softened by years of suffering, Esau and Jacob reunite. They weep and kiss each other; true compassion is born.
This rhythm of alternating between the World of Doing and the World of Being is, of course, the wisdom of Shabbos, inviting us every week to enter the tent of the heart before going back out into the field.
But it is also the wisdom of the mourning process. We need time to be with pain- the world can wait. Only by fully feeling the pain of loss can we fully appreciate the gift of our present life with full awareness.
There is a story-
In the late 1700s, in Belarus, Reb Shlomo of Karlin joyfully broke the fast with his hassidim at the close of Yom Kippur.
Reb Shlomo was known for his many miraculous talents. One such talent was the ability to know what each of his hassidim had prayed for, and what the Divine response would be to their prayers. At this festive gathering with their master, the hassidim begged him to perform this feat:
“Tell us, what did we pray for?” they implored.
Reb Shlomo turned to the first disciple: “You prayed that Hashem should make you healthy, so that you’ll be able to wholeheartedly serve God and study Torah without your poor health and thoughts of your mortality distracting you.”
“Bravo! You are right! But what is Hashem’s answer?” asked the disciple.
“Hashem doesn’t want your prayer or your Torah study. Hashem wants your broken heart that grieves because you are distracted by your mortality from fully praying and studying.”
As we enter this Shabbat Toldot, The Sabbath of Generations, and as we come to the end of MarHeshvan, the Bitter Month of Heshvan, may we not shrink from our suffering, but open to the bitter-sweet compassion that awakens through the mixing of the Adom- the inner life force of the Eternal Present- with the Adamah- the earth to which the bodies of every Adam will one day return.
Good Shabbos, Hodesh Tov,
Did you ever see one of those fake little plastic pieces of sushi?
They look so delicious, but of course, they are not really food. Or, consider those fake, plastic plants they have on the tables in restaurants sometimes. They look nice, so why doesn’t everyone have only plastic plants? What’s the point of having real plants that you have to water?
Plastic plants and plastic sushi have their place. Maybe you need plastic sushi to make an enticing display in order to get people to come into your restaurant. Maybe plastic plants are adequate for adding some decoration to your dining table. But the fake items are meaningless in and of themselves; they’re only useful because they point to the real thing. Once you feel enticed by the plastic sushi and come into the restaurant, you’re not going to order the plastic sushi; you want real food.
Similarly, there are character traits that are fake, and character traits that are genuine.
Fake character traits have their place. When you’re playing a certain role like an employee, or a parent, or a student, or whatever, there are appropriate behaviors that are useful to follow, even if they’re not genuine. Politicians have to especially be masters of fake character traits.
But if you want to find the genuine Divinity of your own being, if you want real peace, real wholeness, real realization, no amount of mimicking behaviors will get you there. For That, you have to go to the root of your own being, and turn fully toward the Root of All Being, which are ultimately the same thing: The Beloved “Being-ness” of this moment.
There is a hint in this week’s reading:
Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, had gone to the city of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. He returns with Rebecca in the late afternoon, riding on a camel. Isaac goes out into the field as they approach:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים
Isaac went out toward the evening to commune in the field. He lifted his eyes, and behold – camels were coming!
Each piece of this wonderful verse instructs us in how to meet the genuine Beloved.
Vayeitzei Yitzhak – Isaac/laughter went out…
Isaac’s name, Yitzhak, actually means laughter. It refers to the laughter of his mother Sarah, who laughed both with humor and joy at the idea of giving birth at her advanced age of ninety. The idea here is that just as Sarah couldn’t imagine being fruitful in her old age, so too we often develop a negative attitude about what is possible. We may think, “How can I possibly experience the Divine? I can’t even control my own thoughts for more than a second!”
But this attitude itself keeps us locked in the perspective of the ego, of the separate “me.” Instead, decide right now to let go of negative thinking. Know that you are, in essence, Divine, and that all you need do is begin shifting your attention to That which you already are. “Go out” to the fulness of this moment, to your experience as it is right now, with an attitude of openness.
Lasuakh basadeh – to commune in the field…
Everything that you are perceiving right now is living within your field of awareness. This field doesn’t itself have any shape or border, but…
Lifnot erev – before the evening/mixture…
The word for evening, erev, also means mixture, since it is the time when day and night mingle. Similarly, there is a rich mixture within our experience right now – sensory perceptions, the space and objects and beings around us, as well and different feelings and thoughts within. Our experience spans a vast spectrum of pleasant and unpleasant, everything intimately mixed in one experience that is the present moment.
Vayisa einav – he lifted his eyes…
Know that the full mixture within your experience right now is not at all separate from the vast space of awareness within which it is arising. Everything is, in fact, literally made out of your consciousness. Furthermore, it isn’t “your” consciousness; you are the consciousness. And so, all things within your experience are literally manifestations of your own being, constantly shifting and moving. “Lift your eyes” – bring your awareness into direct connection with whatever is happening, now.
V’hinei, g’malim ba’im – behold, camels were coming!
The camel is a symbol of self-abundance, as the camel carries around the nourishment it needs in its hump as it traverses the desert. Similarly, as you learn to shift into the oneness of your experience in the present, the sense of peace and completeness, ofshalom/shalem, can begin to blossom. Perhaps you are getting a glimpse now… but if not, don’t give up! The camels are coming!
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More On Hayei Sarah...
For the Love of Pain – Parshat Hayey Sarah
“V’ayavo Avraham – Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her..."
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Hayei Sarah, which means, “The Life of Sarah,” and it begins by declaring that Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty-seven years. Then it says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Vatamat Sarah – Sarah died – Vayavo Avraham – Avraham came – lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah – to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”
So, first Sarah dies, then Avraham comes and eulogizes her, then he weeps. It’s a strange verse. Why does it say that Avraham “comes?” Where is he coming to? And if he’s coming to Sarah after she dies, wouldn’t he weep first, and then eulogize her? And to whom is he eulogizing? Isn’t a eulogy something you deliver to others? But this verse doesn’t mention any other people. It just says that he comes – doesn’t say where he’s coming to – then he eulogizes, then he weeps.
To answer, let’s reflect first on the question, what is death? Death means the end of a continuity; the end of something or someone that came into being, that was born, that had some span of life, and then expires. And when a loved one that plays a major role in your life dies, it’s not just the person that dies, it’s a continuity in your life that dies as well. Our lives contain all kinds of continuities – the place we live, the bed we sleep in, and so on. And part of that tapestry of continuity is composed of our relationships. If one of those relationships comes to an end because the person comes to an end, then something of ourselves as died as well; the tapestry, or the form of our lives gets torn. And of course, the experience of being torn is pain.
So, at this deeper level, we’re talking about pain. And what’s the normal response to pain? AAHH! Crying out. But that’s not what Avraham does. – Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah. First Avraham comes, then he eulogizes, then he cries out. Why?
Normally, we cry out in pain because we don’t like the pain. In fact, that’s the whole reason for pain to exist. Pain is there as a signal for danger, so it has to be unpleasant; you’re supposed to not like it. You feel your hand burning, you’ve got to get it out of the fire fast. If you only noticed intellectually, “oh, my hand is in the fire, that’s dangerous,” you’d already be burned. You need something to force you to get out of the fire immediately, and that’s pain. So, crying out is a venting of that impulse to get away from the thing causing you pain, and get yourself to safety. It’s also a signal for others to help you, just as when a baby cries out, and the parent immediately tries to see what’s wrong and help. That’s the ordinary way we operate.
But there’s another way to relate to pain, and that is instead of trying to get away, to deliberately bring yourself into connection with the pain, to come to the pain. Vayavo Avraham – come to the pain that is arising and be with it on purpose; that’s the practice of Presence, of being conscious with your experience, rather than be taken over by your impulse to escape. Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse. If your hand is burning, you should certainly escape by moving your hand out of the fire. But when we feel emotional pain, the impulse is the same; you want to get away from it, vent, blame and so on. But if instead you become present with your pain, then you use the pain to strengthen your Presence, to dis-identify from your impulses, and to ultimately know yourself ever more deeply as the space of consciousness within which your experience in this moment is arising.
So, on this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember to come ever more deeply into the truth of this moment, both in pain and joy, and through Presence with whatever is, grow in our experiential knowledge of the radiant awareness that we are. Good Shabbiss!
The Telephone- Parshat Hayey Sarah
Once I saw a video of some children being shown an old telephone from the 1970s, complete with a rotary dial.
“What is it?” they wondered.
When they were told it was a phone and how it worked, how you dial numbers by pushing the wheel around, they said, “Wait, you mean all this phone does is call people?”
For many of is, it’s hard to imagine a time when our calendar, internet, email and a million other functions weren’t instantly available on our phones. What a miracle! But recently I noticed that whenever I take out my phone, there’s a slight pain in my stomach, because I don’t want all those functions to distract me from the reason I took out the phone in the first place.
Have you set out to do something, gotten distracted, and completely forgotten what it was you had intended to do?
In the Haftorah for this week’s reading, King David is old and lying on his deathbed. Meanwhile, his son Adonijah has taken power against King David’s will, throwing a big party and inviting all his supporters, while excluding those close to David.
The prophet Nathan and King David’s wife Bathsheba enter King David’s bed chamber and inform him about what’s going on. The king is roused and swears that his son Solomon must succeed him.
Every intention that arises within the mind and heart arises within a particular kind of situation. As time goes on, situations change; in fact, “time” and “change” are not two separate things. Like King David’s desire for Solomon to succeed his kingship, the moments of our original intentions can become old and dim, while new moments and new desires arise. Like the thousands of apps, reminders, alerts, and new emails popping up, we sometimes find ourselves thinking: “Wait, what was I doing?”
But let’s stand back for a moment, back from all the different intentions and priorities of life. Before you had relationships, before you had values, before you had goals- can you go back before any of that and ask,
“What was I doing? Why did I come into this life in the first place?”
Every intention, whether positive or negative, has its root in some thought or feeling- the desire for happiness, the desire to help the world, the desire to create or to destroy. Consciousness is like the smartphone- its functions are infinite, and the mind is infinitely complex!
But is there something simple, something far more deep than any thought or feeling?
Before you wanted anything, before you had an opinion, there was consciousness- this miracle of perception somehow awakened within your body-mind and began meeting the world as it appeared.
The world- sometimes nurturing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes loving, sometimes painful, sometimes horrific.
But whatever the form the world happens to takes in any given moment, behind it all is this simple awareness: the awakening of Reality to Itself. And this awakening is happening, right now, as the Presence that you are.
Can you remember why you came into existence?
On this deepest level, awareness comes into existence simply to be aware. And behind all the complexity of life is this simple truth- you are aware- which is to say, you are awareness.
Know yourself as this Presence- behind your thinking, behind your words, behind your actions- and you become like the air we breathe: ever-present, completely surrounding us from without and nourishing us from within, yet essentially separate from all the drama of our existence- intimate and transcendent in one.
But to do this you have to get back to basics. Like the rotary phone that only did one thing, you have to find the one thing within yourself behind all the many things. A great way to start is, become aware of the air!
Become aware of the ever-present nourishment which is your own constant breath, and you can begin to notice that your noticing is just like the air. The noticing itself is your ever-present consciousness within which all experience arises.
And, paradoxically, it is through the awakening of this transcendence beyond the world that you become a great force of blessing within the world, because it is through the openness of your transcendence that genuine love can flow.
Can you remember your original intention- to be awake?
King David is the symbol of Moshiakh- the awakening of all humanity out of the dream of separation. This dream is so powerful- it creates all the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others.
His rightful heir is Solomon- the symbol of wisdom. We come into this world to awaken as that wisdom- to embody consciousness in form and thereby heal the world. We humans have become so lost in form, so caught within its web. The rogue son has taken over and usurped the throne.
But any moment, and that means this moment, is the potential to rouse David from his slumber and get the world back on track. Awaken!
It is told that in the late 1700s, when Reb Shneur Zalman was incarcerated in a Russian prison, a guard noticed the great presence of the rabbi and went to ask him a question:
“You are a holy man. There is a question that has been bothering me about the scriptures. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden and he ate from the forbidden fruit, it says that God asked him where he was. How is it possible that God didn’t already know where he was?”
Reb Shneur Zalman answered- “It’s like this. At every moment and at every time, God is asking you- where are you? Right now you are twenty-seven years old. Are you fulfilling the purpose of your life?”
At this point the guard almost fell over, because the rabbi had mentioned his actual age, and there was no way he could have known. At that moment, a deep knowing awakened within the guard and he devoted himself to love and service.
On this Shabbat Hayey Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember ever more deeply who we are really- the Presence and Life of Reality Itself. May that Presence be free from the dream of all fear and negativity, and may our words and deeds become sources of blessing on this earth, today.
The Fiancé- Parshat Hayei Sarah
Back in the summer of 1988, I was home from music school after Freshman year.
One night, I went out with some high school friends to a diner. One of them surprised us with the news that he had met the girl of his dreams and they were getting married.
“Really? Are you sure it’s the right thing?” we asked.
We were only nineteen. The idea of getting married was inconceivable to us.
“I know it’s the right thing,” he replied. He then went on to recount all the serendipitous events “proving” to him that she was his perfect life partner.
“I’ve never been so sure about anything in my entire life,” he said.
Having never experienced that kind of certainty myself, I was suspicious, but I didn’t question it further.
The next summer, in 1990, we all went out again, and he told us what horrors had transpired after they were married: She had stolen his car, emptied his bank account and disappeared. So much for serendipity!
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to “trust the universe”, we give away our power to make decisions. Rather than ask ourselves the crucial questions, we instead look for signs and coincidences to confirm that we’re on the right track, that things are beshert.
In this week’s reading, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac. When Eliezer arrives at the city of Nahor, he prays:
“Hashem… let it be that the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please tip over your jug so that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac…”
At first glance, it might seem that Eliezer is making this same kind of mistake, relying on an external sign to tell him what to do, rather than using his own intelligence to find the right wife for Isaac.
Or is he?
If Eliezer had prayed that the girl should be wearing a purple dress, or have a really big hat, certainly that would have been arbitrary.
But what does he say?
He says that she should offer water to him and his camels. In other words, she should be a mentch-a kind and generous person.
He’s not giving away his power in favor of superstition; he’s actually specifying the exact criteria by which to make his decision: she should be kind and generous. He doesn’t want Isaac to marry someone who will steal his money and his donkey! If she’s not a mentch, he’s not interested.
If you want to live with clarity and purpose, if you want to truly say “yes” to your life, you’ve got to be able to say a clear “no” as well. The “yes” and the “no” go together.
Saying “no” can be really difficult. So many things can get in the way- stories in your head telling you what you “should” do, feelings of guilt for letting others down, or lack of trust in yourself.
But, there are decisions that only you can make. Take your power in your hand and meet your destiny! Don’t be blown around by the winds of fate!
To be decisive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust. Trust your ability to make your decision!
Then, after you’ve made your decision, trust whatever happens next. Surrender to what happens. Ultimately, we have no control over how things unfold, but we always have the power to choose.
Are there decisions you are avoiding?
Or, after you make decisions, are you easily derailed because you can’t say “no” to other things that come along? Do you ever blame others for your inability to follow through on your own decisions?
Remember- your life is like a boat. The steering wheel is in front of you. Take it and steer; don’t wait for someone else, don’t blame anyone else. The ocean has its own currents, but you are the captain.
And, if you’re not sure yet which decision to make, that’s fine too. Be uncertain. Sometimes it's wonderful to just go with the currents. Sometimes life really can be a magical tapestry of serendipity, effortlessly bringing you to good things.
But sooner or later, that kind of magic ends, and the currents leave you drifting aimlessly, or even worse, headed toward the rocks. When that happens, take the wheel and decide which way to go! Then, a new kind of magic begins.
Each of us has a completely unique path with unique decisions to be made. But there is one decision that is completely universal. It’s the decision that each of us faces at all times: the decision to fully inhabit this moment.
To fully inhabit this moment, the “yes” and the “no” must be one: “yes” to what is, “no” to resisting what is.
And yet, if a feeling of “resisting what is” arises, you must say “yes” to the presence of that feeling- because in that moment, “resistance to what is”- is what is!
In this way, resistance is transformed into non-resistance; the “yes” and the “no” are completely one.
What is this moment like?
Is it peaceful? Is it tense? Is it gentle? Is it harsh? Are you willing to decide, right now, to say “yes” to this moment, as it is?
This is actually the most important decision you will ever make, because it's the foundation of all other decisions. Without this decision, there is unrest; there is struggle.
But with this decision, your potential for real peace can manifest. With this decision, the Messiah is born, little by little.
Martin Buber, in his essay Judaism and the Jews, tells the story that when he was a child, he read an "old Jewish tale" that I later found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met the Prophet Elijah. He said to him, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah answered, “Go ask him! The Messiah sits at the gates of Rome, waiting among the poor, afflicted with disease.”
Buber says that he later came upon an old man and asked him, “What does he wait for?”
The old man answered, “He waits for you.”
On this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember our power to decide for thislife, for this moment. May true and lasting peace be swiftly born in the world for love, wisdom and healing.
Coming Today to the Wellspring of Nothingness – Parshat Hayey Sarah
We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is "El", which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
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Last week I heard a story on NPR, that Coca-Cola had put a sign on vending machines in New Zealand, which said, Ki Ora Mate!
The words Ki Ora are Māori words that mean something like “Hello,” similar to “Shalom” or “Aloha,” and Mate is just the New Zealand English word meaning “friend.” The intention was to mix English and Māori to create a friendly multi-cultural greeting that would mean something like, “Hello, friend!”
The only problem is, the word Mate in Māori means “Death.” So, to a Māori reader, the sign looks like, “Hello Death!”
Probably not what Coca-Cola intended, yet the message is appropriate. Coca-Cola is not a healthy product. Many nutritional authorities cite soft drinks as the absolute worst of all junk foods. And in fact, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in the developed world, with one out of three New Zealanders classified as obese. In addition,fifty percent of Māori adults are obese, as well as eighteen percent of Māori children.
What’s the lesson here? Truth finds a way!
We are a funny species. In many situations, we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, and yet so often we seem to do what is not good for us. It is no secret that Coke and other soft drinks are dangerous; that’s what makes this story so funny. But ultimately, it’s not so funny that we cause ourselves so much misery. Why do we do it?
We do it because we crave experiences. We seem to be wired to seek certain experiences, regardless of the effects, so we are often in denial about what we know to be true. This isn’t to say that we always know what’s best for ourselves; sometimes we have to try things and learn from our mistakes. But often we know exactly what’s good for us and what isn’t, yet we choose the dangerous path because of our cravings. Even when it tells us how bad it is right on the label! We don’t need the irony of “Hello death!” – just read the ingredients. If the thing you focus on is made out of greed, arrogance, or negativity – those are the “corn syrups” ands “artificial colorings” of the ego.
But the real irony is that while we focus on all the little shiny, distracting objects in that appear in our consciousness, we ignore consciousness. If only we would turn around and pay attention to the attention itself…
There was once a king who held a great outdoor festival and invited the whole kingdom. He put all his treasures out in a big field, and anyone could come and take one treasure from the field, whatever they chose. On the day of the festival, thousands came and took whatever special treasure they wanted most.
Then, a little old woman walked right through the field, past all the treasures, and up to the king himself. “Is it true we can take any treasure we want?”
“Yes, anything,” said the king.
“Then I take you!” said the woman.
“Ah, you have chosen wisely!” said the king. “Now you get me and the whole kingdom!”
Everything we wish to experience arises in consciousness. We lust after this and that, but we already have consciousness; we already have the completeness that we seek, as the whole field of awareness within which this moment arises. Experiences span an immense spectrum of pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, love and hate; but the consciousness itself is simple, vast and unbroken. Find that, find that which is behind and beyond all experience, and you’ve found the ultimate treasure.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Vayeira, Sarah gives birth to a son, Yitzhak, which means “laughter.” He is named Yitzhak because Sarah and Avraham were very old, so Sarah said, “The Divine has made laughter (tzekhok) for me.”
One day, the son of Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, was found mocking Yitzhak. So, Sarah told Avraham to send away Hagar and her son into the desert, with nothing but a little bread and a skin of water. Soon after, the water ran out. Fearing that her son would die of thirst, Hagar despaired and wept.
The ego often craves satisfaction by putting another person down. But, the scrap if satisfaction we receive from feeling superior to another is just a drop of water in a dry desert. To break the spell of the ego, the heart often needs to be broken; we need to come face to face with our own delusion. Then, another possibility can reveal itself:
אֶל־הָגָר֙ אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י… וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים
A divine angel called to Hagar, “Don’t be afraid…”
There is more to Reality than the drama of the ego after all:
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
The Divine opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…
The “water” we need to quench our thirst was there all along, if we would but shift our focus from the desert of the ego to the wellspring of the sacred that hides in plain sight. How do we do that?
וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ:
She sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept…
Feel the “distance” – feel the pain of lack, of incompleteness, and let yourself cry out; transform your pain into prayer. The tears are like a cleansing river, washing away the trivial, the egocentric, the immature. And then, be attentive – that’s meditation. Within the depths of the heart from which your prayer pours forth, there is a great light. It might be just a glimmer at first, but make that glimmer the center of your attention, and it will become a great illumination…
More On Vayeira...
"Inviting Reality in for Tea" – Parshat Vayeira and Morning Sh'ma Blessing
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeira, begins with Avraham having a vision of the Divine: “Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei mamrei – and the Divine appeared to him in the plains of Mamrei – v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Bereisheet 18:1)
It then goes on to say that three men (who we later come to understand are actually angels) pay Avraham a visit. Avraham runs from his tent to greet them, invites them to stay a while, to wash their feet and eat a meal. The angels then tell Avraham and Sara that Sara will give birth to a son, even though Sara is already ninety years old.
After this, the angels leave and head toward the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God appears again to Avraham and tells him that the cities are about to be destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. Avraham pleads with God not to destroy them, arguing that there might be some good people among the wicked, and that it would be unfair to destroy the innocent along with the guilty.
One interesting thing about this passage is that there seems to be a confounding of the characters. At first it says God appears to Avraham. But then it says, "...and he raised his eyes and saw – three men were standing over him." First it says that God appears, then it says Avraham looked and saw three men. It’s as if God is now appearing as the three men. Then, later in the story, it describes the same men, saying, "the two angels came to Sodom." Now they’re two? Before, they were three. Furthermore, before they were described as anashim – men, and now they're malakhim – angels.
And in between these two bookends, the text moves fluidly back and forth between saying what the men, or angels are saying and doing, and what God is saying and doing, as if the angels and God are interchangeable. You can check out the passage in Genesis, chapter 18 and 19 to see what I mean.
This kind of ambiguity in the text is so gorgeous, because it all comes to highlight the opening phrase: Vayeira eilav Hashem – and the Divine appeared to him. This is, of course, the whole point of the mystical path – to perceive beyond the surface of things, through to Divine Reality. And what is the Divine Reality? Hu Eloheinu, Ayn od – Existence is the Divine, there is nothing else. And, Hashem Ekhad – the Divine is One. Meaning not that there is only one god, but that there is only God as the One Reality.
So, to perceive the Divine doesn’t mean perceiving something in addition to everything else you’re already perceiving, as many folks imagine. When we begin the spiritual journey, it’s common to think that God is something different from what you normally perceive, like some kind of Mount Sinai experience. But, while such experiences do happen, perceiving the Divine for the most part means to uncover the Divine nature of everything that you’re already perceiving. And since the Divine nature is Hashem Ekhad – Divine Oneness, this means you have to learn to relax the natural tendency of the mind to frame things as separate. Not to erase separateness all together – that would render you unable to function as a human being, G-d forbid, but to balance the separateness with the perception that everything arising right now in your field of awareness is part of one experience, One Reality.
And how do you do that?
“V’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
So, what is a tent? It’s a barrier that defines your personal space. There’s a vast world just outside, but you put this flimsy material around you, call it a tent, and you have some sense of separateness from the rest of the world. Just like our egos: there’s a vast Reality, and we are in no way separate from that Reality, but we tend to identify with our bodies, our personalities, our personal stories and so on, and call all of that “me.” That’s the ego; that’s the tent.
But rather than shutting himself up inside the tent, he yosheiv petakh ha’ohel – he sits in the opening of his tent. In other words, there’s still a tent, there’s still a sense of “me,” but he sits in the petakh, in the opening, so there’s also a sense that the space within the tent and the space outside the tent are one thing, one space. Meaning, be aware that everything arising in your experience in this moment, both your perception of things outside your “tent,” meaning outside your body, and things inside your “tent,” such as your emotions and your thoughts, are all arising in the one space that is your awareness. You can still think of this tiny corner of your awareness that encompasses your body and heart and mind as “me,” but the entirety of your experience, even your perception of the stars millions of light years away, are all arising in the one space that is your field of awareness, and that’s actually the deepest you – that formless, borderless, field of awareness.
But to really do that, you have to consciously invite everything within your experience to exist, even if it’s unpleasant. That’s the key. Because when you resist certain aspects of your experience, that’s the equivalent of shutting the flap on your tent, so there’s no more petakh, no more opening. That’s why Avraham is seen as the embodiment of hospitality, just as in the story when he runs to greet his guests and gives them food. He sits in the opening of his tent, and whatever happens to come by, he invites in. That’s why is says, Vayeira eilav Hashem– and the Divine appeared to him, because when you consciously invite everything to be as it is, you sit in the open space between separateness and Oneness, and you can sense that everything is a manifestation of the One Thing; first It appears as three men, then as two angels, it doesn’t matter, because everything are forms of the One Thing.
And this brings us to a kind of paradox, because when it’s revealed to Avraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God; he tries to change the course of what’s happening. So, on one hand, he invites everything to be as it is, but on the other, he’s arguing and trying to change it for the sake of compassion.
And this is really the supreme spiritual teaching. When we talk about acceptance, about inviting everything to be as it is, our minds tend to go in the direction of passivity. But this creates a false duality. If we really invite everything to be as it is, that includes our own desire for things to be different. So, on one hand, we accept Reality as it is, but on the other, Reality includes our own desire to change things; Reality is dynamic, alive, and always in motion. The distinction is that when we are hospitable to Reality as it arises, inviting things to be as they are rather than resisting how things are, we can work for change from a spirit of love and openness, rather than from judgment and anger.
This is hinted at in the opening words: v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom – and he was sitting in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. The word for “the day” is hayom, which can also mean, “today” – in other words, the right now. The word for heat, khom, can also mean “warmth.” So, in this sense, khom hayom could mean “the warmth of Presence.” If you want to pierce through the separateness of things to the underlying Divine unity, open your heart to this moment. Warmly invite Reality to be as it is, and then when you act to change things, do it from a place of inviting change, rather than forcing. Even in those rare times when you do have to force something, you can still do it from a place of love rather than resistance and anger. Just like when you abruptly grab a child away from the danger of a precipice or an oncoming car – externally there might be a violent forcing quality, but of course you’re not angry at the child, you just have to act swiftly and effectively. If you have the right kavanah, the right attitude that arises from Presence rather than resistance, then your action toward change will flow from the Oneness, and will be an expression of the Oneness, even when there’s conflict. That’s why Avraham can argue with God, and yet the argument itself is an expression of God, because Avraham is arguing that God should be more compassionate, and yet elsewhere in the Torah, Moses calls God El Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious God, slow to anger…
Last week we chanted some words that come from the first blessing before the Sh’ma. The words were, Or Hadash Ta’ir – Shine a New Light, pointing to the quality of fresh aliveness that emerges when you are present. Now let’s look at some words from the second blessing of the Sh’ma: “V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments.”
The two pieces of this phrase express the paradox we explored earlier: V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratekha – Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, meaning, open us to “see” the Oneness in everything, to see everything as an expression of the Divine. This is expressed in the hospitality of Avraham, and hinted at by the words we looked at earlier: Vayisa einav vayar – and he raised his eyes and saw. Avraham sits in the opening of his tent, a master of hospitality, and so he is able to see, vayar, the Divine in everything. This is also the root of the name of this parsha, Vayeira.
But the second part says, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotekha – attach our hearts to Your commandments.What are the commandments? They are actions we take to bring more kindness into the world. Externally, Reality can manifest as chaos and suffering. But as Reality becomes conscious through us, we are “commanded,” in a sense, to manifest compassion, so that the Divine qualities of Rakhum v’Hanun, erekh apayim – Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger, reveals Itself through us.
Parshat Vayeira- The Heat is On!
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t understand this ‘present moment’ stuff. What if the present moment is terrible? Why would I want to ‘be in the moment’ when the moment is so painful and awful?”
This week’s reading begins with Abraham sitting in his tent on a scorching hot day. Suddenly, he is visited by a Divine revelation:
"Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
“The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Let’s look at the Hebrew in this opening line carefully. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew says- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day.
Read this way, the verse says that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”- that is, this moment.
In other words, yes- the present moment sometimes appears as discomfort, as ugliness, as pain. But the crucial thing to remember is: everything that arises in your experience is a gateway to the Divine, if you open to it.
As it says,
“…v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel-
“… and he was sitting at opening of the tent…”
The “tent” is your identity- your individual self. The “opening” is the willingness to open to Reality as it presents itself, even when it appears as “heat”- as discomfort. In that willingness, in that openness, is the appearance of the Divine.
Because in the open space of simple Presence with what is, there's no big distinction between the “outside” and the “inside”- between the inner world of thought and feeling, on one hand, and the outer world you take in through your senses, on the other. Everything that happens in your experience- outside as well as inside- is part of one experience. And your one experience is nothing but your one consciousness, constantly taking on different forms.
When you really see this, when you realize that all of your experiences are always only One Experience, and that your One Experience is ultimately made out you- meaning, made out of your consciousness- there can be a relaxing of resistance, a relaxing of the “me” that’s separate, that’s judges, that wants. After all, why would you resist yourself? That just creates inner tension, unnecessary suffering.
Then you can see- there is simply this Reality, everpresent- the Divine appearing as the form of this moment, suffering and ugliness and all.
The famous brothers and Hassidic rebbes- Zusya and Elimelech- were the sons of a village innkeeper who was unusually hospitable.
One day a band of beggars came to the doorstep of his inn. He and his wife received them warmly, served them food and drink, and prepared them a place to sleep. Seeing that their guests wanted to bathe, they went down to the bathhouse and heated water for them.
Among the beggars was a pauper whose entire body was covered with repulsive sores, and none of the other vagrants was willing to help him wash. The innkeeper’s wife had compassion and helped him, whereupon he turned to her and said: “In return for your kindness, let me bestow upon you my blessing- that you bear sons like me.”
Dismay came over her- sons like him?
But within seconds, this man and all his companions along with their wagon vanished before her very eyes. Years later, when her sons grew up, it then dawned on her- she had been put through a test, in order to bestow upon her the gift of such saintly children.
When Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi once recounted this story, one of his listeners asked him: “Who was that leper?”
But the rebbe gave not a word of reply.
There are no words to describe this Reality that is appearing, just now. Sometimes ugly, sometimes repulsive, it is the gateway to the sacred- to the most beautiful essence that you are. Even if ugliness arises as your own thoughts, as your own feelings- when you welcome them, the welcoming Presence is Itself beautiful, and in Its Light, everything has a sacred purpose.
So on this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we embody the supreme art of hospitality- not only external hospitality, but also the inner kind- welcoming the ugliness that arises, until it too vanishes and reveals its secret blessing...
The Move- Parshat Vayeira
This past Tuesday, my family left for Costa Rica. I’ll join them in a few weeks, but first I had to stay behind and get the house ready for our renters who moved in on Thursday.
I had no idea what “getting the house ready” really meant, but I knew I wasn’t so good at making beds. So, I called our friend and space-artist Devorah for help. I thought it would take her about a half an hour at most.
Once we got started, however, every task we finished seemed to reveal a new task that needed to be done. What I thought would be a half hour turned into 11.5 hours! Thank G-d for Devorah- I couldn’t have done it without her.
All the little details- the soaps, the towels, the flowers, the toilet paper- I wanted to arrange everything just right so that the space would be welcoming to our new guests.
Not that any of those little details were so significant in and of themselves; their significance was that all together, they created a welcoming space. For me, a space that’s clear, beautiful and uncluttered says “welcome”. But even more importantly, a beautiful space makes room to notice a different kind of space- your inner space.
What is inner space?
Space- inner or outer- isn’t something we generally hear about very much. People like to talk about the things that occupy space- objects in the outer world or thoughts and ideas in the inner world- but rarely do we hear about the space itself. After all, space is nothing, so there’s nothing much to talk about. You can’t see or touch it.
And yet, your inner space is that which sees and touches. It’s the space of your own awareness. It’s the openness in which these words are appearing, in this moment. In fact, your own inner space is not something different from this moment.
And that’s why a beautiful external space can help you to connect with your inner space-
When you feel welcomed, it’s easy to be welcoming. In that inner opening of welcome, the beauty of this moment can blossom.
But once you are conscious of this, you no longer need anything external to welcome this moment. In fact, you can welcome a moment of pain and ugliness just as you can welcome a moment of beauty and peace.
This week’s reading begins with a story of Avraham’s ability to embody hospitality even in the midst of intense discomfort:
“Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
"The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Rashi comments that Avraham was not merely basking in the Divine bliss, he was experiencing intense discomfort-
“Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and inquired about his welfare.” (Rashi, Bereishis 18:1)
Avraham is recovering from being circumcised, while roasting in the intense heat! And, to make it worse, three strangers suddenly show up.
What does he do?
“Vayar vayarotz likratam-
“He saw and ran to greet them…”
He runs out to the strangers and begs them to stop and rest. He fetches water to wash their feet. He and Sarah prepare food.
How is he able to be so welcoming in such an unpleasant situation?
Let’s look back at the Hebrew in the opening line. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew is actually- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day!
Read this way, it’s saying that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Discomfort is a form of God.
Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”.
What is “today”? Today is the open space of this moment, in which these words are now appearing.
So Avraham welcomes the painful moment in which he finds himself as his Divine guest. The very next moment, Avraham’s solitude is over, and God appears as three strangers- so he welcomes them as well and feeds them.
Whatever the moment brings, it’s all just different forms of the One Reality. The message?
Welcome this moment! God is visiting!
Take a moment now to see, hear, feel the presence of this moment. Take a breath- welcome it's ever-changing appearance. Let this moment be your friend, your intimate. As the Sabbath hymn says, "Boi Kalah- Come, oh Bride!"
As I write these words on this particularly warm day in the East Bay, I am (thank G-d) not in pain, and I’m recovering nicely from pushing myself to the limit for the sake of hospitality.
And thanks to my friend Janet who has generously taken in this new wayfarer for the next few weeks, I am now the recipient of her wonderful hospitality! Thank you Janet!!
There’s a story that on a particularly cold winter evening in early nineteenth century Poland, a group of learned guests came to visit the father of then five-year-old Simchah Bunem. While they were eating, the father called in his son, and said: “My boy, go and prepare us some novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality.”
When the child returned after a little while, his father asked, “Well, what have you got?”
The boy beckoned the guests to follow him into another room. Curious, they followed him, eagerly anticipating some impressive teaching from the young prodigy. When they entered the room, they were caught pleasantly by surprise: for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place!
On this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we grow ever more deeply in the Torah of Welcome- welcoming those who appear to us in our lives with a generous spirit of hospitality.
And, may we always remember to welcome this moment as the appearance of the One Reality- be it hot or cool, remote or intimate- making room for That which is now appearing…
In The World, Not of the World- Parshat Veyeira
There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!
When I was young, there was something called “television.” I remember those long afternoons: as the sunlight that poured through the living room windows waned minute by minute, the glow of the television grew stronger and stronger – the Brady Bunch, the Flintstones, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, Carol Burnett, Star Trek. Total absorption. As the hours went by, and the nagging feeling that other things had to get done (like my homework) increased, I would cling ever more ferociously to the characters and narratives beaming from the screen. Eventually the spell would be broken only by hunger, or having to go the bathroom, or my mother.
Oh yes, the screen is still just as strong; stronger in fact.
No more need for big pieces of furniture; my daughter can take a screen under a blanket and hide from everyone. Where did she go?
I have strategies for prying my children away from their screens. Usually, there are meltdowns and tears. But occasionally, I am successful. It works best if I am present when the screen time begins, and I can secure an agreement; a “covenant” of sorts: “Do you promise to turn off the screen and give it to me when I ask you to, without any arguments and without any Please Abba Just One More Minute?
Then, when it’s time, the power of the covenant kicks in, and she gives it right back – no resistance at all. This proves: no matter how hypnotized we become by something, we do have the power to let it go, if we are properly prepared.
This is so crucial to understand, if we wish to put down an even more powerful screen –the screen of our own minds, upon which we project the drama of our lives – also known as “ego.”
Most people are glued to the screen of ego almost constantly, looking up only occasionally when the walls of the heart are breached, or when a temporary lapse in the noise of the mind allows the radiant silence to shine through, even if for only a moment.
But we need not be screen addicts; we can put down the ego anytime. Listen: The Voice of the Beloved is calling you to dinner – there’s a banquet prepared just for you! Let go of your judgments about yourself and others. Let go of how you wish things were. Let go of your obsessions, assertions, denials, angers, grudges… there is something so much better than all of that, if you would be willing to set it aside, look up and go.
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go for yourself from your land, from your family, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you…
All those opinions, assertions, cravings, disappointments – they seem so real, so important. But they aren’t the real you. They are imprints from your “land” – your culture, your inherited identity, patterns from your family, your experiences, your traumas – but you need not be imprisoned by them.
Lekh L’kha – go for yourself – el ha’arets asher arekha – to the land that I will show you…
We’re being called to the banquet hall and the feast is waiting. The Voice is calling you constantly, and whatever is constant is easily ignored. But you can tune into the Call if you’re willing to wake up from the ego’s hypnosis. The key is to have a covenant– commit to stop at regular times, turn away from the pull of the ego and toward the fullness of this moment…
וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה
And there he built an altar and called upon the Name of the Divine…
The essential thing is to build a space in time, and commit to regularly withdraw from the ego’s momentum for long enough to connect with Reality, with the Divine. If you want to hear the Call, then call out – this is the movement of prayer. And then, be the stillness that hears – this is the spaciousness of meditation. Make a covenant to do it every day – even a few minutes goes a long way!
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה
Rise up, walk the Land, it’s length and breadth, because to you I give it…
The ego believes itself to be a separate entity, navigating through the “Land.” But in truth the Land is fully yours. You are the Land, because everything arising in your experience in this moment is truly you; it all arises in the open space of this moment, which is not separate from the awareness that you are...
More On Lekh L'kha...
"River of Light" – Parshat Lekh L'kha and Morning Sh'ma Blessing 1
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lekh L’kha, begins with God telling Avram: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereisheet 12:1)
If you examine your experience right now, in this moment, you’ll probably see that most of the content of your experience is nothing new. You may be in a place that you’ve been many times, with sights, sounds and feelings that are familiar. And generally speaking, unless you’ve recently moved, or if you’re traveling, or changing careers, or if you’ve just had a child or started or ended a relationship, or endured another kind of loss (and if so, may you have comfort and healing), unless you’re experiencing some big changes like these, then life tends to feel familiar, maybe even old hat. And that’s why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to what’s familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, both happen on the level of the conditioned mind. Meaning, the aspect of your experience that derives from the past. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing brand new places, but you can’t fully appreciate it because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as you’re stuck in the conditioned mind, which really means being stuck in the past.
So, this is the Divine call to Avram: Don’t be stuck in the past! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come “el ha’aretz asher arekha – to the land that I am now showing you.”
So, this is actually not just a story, it’s an instruction. You can keep in mind – Reality as it’s being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that that’s your conditioned mind. The familiarity comes from memory, from the past. And that’s a good thing; you don’t want to get rid of your memories, G-d forbid, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so this moment is also completely fresh and new, when you allow your conditioned mind – meaning, your thinking and your judging – to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha – Divine revelation is always now. That’s the practice of Presence.
But what if you keep getting stuck by your conditioning? How do stay present and deepen your presence, when conditioning can seem so powerful? Again, the main thing is recognizing your conditioning. And to do that, it’s helpful to see that there are three main levels, alluded to by the verse:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha, umimoladt’kha, umibeit avikha – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Mei’artz’kha means, “from your land.” This refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction from Presence; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a sign that your mind works, and that it’s there when you need it, thank G-d. Then, simply recognize – there’s my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.”
The next level is, umimoladt’kha, which means, “from your relatives.” These are your relationships, and this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. The other day I was talking to someone who made a mistake at work, and she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “get a life!”
We are social beings, we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also useful for normal functioning. But again, recognize: There’s my mind and its old conditioning, pulling me into its drama. Just recognizing it frees you from its tyranny, and you can choose to lekh lekha – go for yourself out from your past, and into this moment. Or, it can also be translated, lekh lekha – go to yourself –meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning. Go to your actual experience in this moment.
Which brings us to the last level, “umibeit avikha” which means, “from your father’s house.” This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how you were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that all of that is not the real you; they are parts of your conditioning.
Then, after you recognize all your conditioning for what it is, you can simply choose to shift your attention into your present moment experience, so that you stop empowering the illusory part of the conditioning. Again, the conditioning is still there when you need it, but by shifting into the present, the conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real.
So then, what is real? Meaning, what is the Reality of who you are, beneath your conditioned mind? It’s the light of awareness that perceives the conditioning, as well as the aretz asher arekha, Reality as it is revealed in this moment. In fact, your conditioning is part of haaretz asher arekha; it’s part of the landscape of the present moment, part of the ever-shifting content of your experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant light of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that’s the deepest level of you.
The tefilot, the traditional prayers, are all pointing to this truth. Structurally speaking, all the liturgy points to the Sh’ma, the centerpiece of all the prayers, calling us to awaken. The Sh’ma is decorated by special blessings that come before and after. I the morning, the first of the Sh’m’a concludes with, “Or hadash al tzion tair – Shine a new light on Zion –hinting at this quality of newness inherent in your awareness, because awareness is like light; it’s tair – shining and illuminating whatever is perceived in its field...
Why Aren't You Worried? Parshat Lekh L'kha
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvahceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you mustworry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish practice. It is believed to be so sacred that, traditionally speaking, one should not allow oneself to be interrupted while praying the Amidah. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah prayer for specific reasons. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there’s a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק: אמר רב ששת לא שנו אלא נחש אבל עקרב פוסק
We learned in the mishna that even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not interrupt one’s prayer. In limiting application of this principle, Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this mishna with regard to a snake, as if one does not attack the snake it will not bite him. But if a scorpion approaches an individual while one is praying, one stops, as the scorpion is liable to sting even if it is not disturbed.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors:
The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the holy words of the prayer, and suddenly you’re salivating for a cheeseburger.
In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the cheeseburger isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life.
On the other hand, if a scorpion starts crawling on you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer, do something to awaken your passion, and start over again.
But how do you awaken your passion?
Of course, there are many ways, but here is one that I find helpful: do something to create beauty and order in the world. Paint something. Make some art. Organize your closet. Vacuum the rug. Do the dishes. When you do, you will feel empowered by the force of blessing can comes through you, and you can direct the energy of that blessing into your practice – into your prayer, chanting, or meditation.
The reason this is so powerful is because beauty and order are actually qualities of Presence. When consciousness is cluttered, the radiant beauty Being can get covered up somewhat. But the more you come to this moment with openness, the more your consciousness becomes more and more expansive and free. Then, your inner beauty begins to glow its own brightness.
Sometimes, however, the ambient chaos (and sometimes trauma) of life can keep that beauty stifled on the inside, even when you attempt to become present through meditation or prayer. Then we need an extra boost from the outside; we need to take some physical action. This is the secret of how art becomes ritual – do something on theouter level to create an effect on the inner level.
There’s a hint of the power of beautification in this week’s reading, Parshat Noakh:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם …
May God expand Yaphet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem…
This verse is part of a blessing that Noakh gives his son Yafet after the famous flood. The name Yafet means beauty, or expansiveness. The words are: Yaft Elohim l’Yafet –meaning, May the Divine expand Expansiveness, or May the Divine beautify Beauty.
This hints at the secret of how beauty becomes revealed: Consciousness contains the quality of beauty, but this inner beauty is easily obscured from itself. So, consciousness externalizes its beauty through action, and this outer beauty reflects the nature of consciousness back to itself, freeing it from its constraining clutter: The Divine expands Its Expansiveness…
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month. Heshvan is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began a week ago. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to this week’s Torah reading. In Kabbalah, water is often associated with awakening passion and desire, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow.
Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion.
Thus, Heshvan is a time to shift from the inner beauty accessed during Tishrei (through the prayers of the High Holy Days and Sukkot) to outer beauty through action, in order to reveal the inner beauty externally. This in turn further awakens the inner beauty, creating a positive pulsation between the inner and the outer…
More On Noakh...
The Ark- Parshat Noakh
The world is a river; you cannot hold a river.
The world is a wave, but we see it as particles.
Forever the mind is building arks to float upon the churning ocean of Truth,
Holding frames of changing being above the morph so as to discern a narrative-
The arks- words!
The tzaddik’s naming of beings saves them from dissolution in God;
The tzaddik gives full attention to the being beheld, while all else drowns (for now) in the One.
Two by two- one being beholds another-
But when the ark is beached on the dry wasteland of things and agendas, the tzaddik cannot function!
S/he must plant a vineyard in the midst of the wreckage and take refuge in the wine of ecstasy-
That is, withdrawal from time into the Place where prayer erupts.
To others s/he looks naked and dysfunctional- useless.
“Let’s cover up this embarrassment!”
People are more comfortable with the building of great towers so they can say,
“Look what we have done!”
Not content with the warmth (Ham) of life, they must make a name (Shem) for themselves, claiming authorship of beauty (Yafet).
Have you forgotten how to let go?
To behold the one who stands before you and let all else drown in the One?
Don’t grasp for the spotlight, you will find everyone speaking gibberish.
But relax and take a walk with God~
God will show you how to construct your words, and illuminate them from above…
The Window- Parshat Noakh
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality.That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said, “Imagine you come to a strange country, where you know neither the language nor the customs. You feel like an alien, disconnected from others around you. But then you meet another traveler from your own country. Under normal circumstances, you may never have been interested in this person; but since you are both strangers, you have something in common in the strange land, and you become great friends…”
Rabbi Barukh’s “strange country” is really all of life, and the “companion” is really the Divine Itself. There is no experience which is not completely Divine; still, we are inclined to never notice this, until we begin to feel the pain of alienation. Motivated by feelings of disconnection or being “out of sync,” we become seekers of wholeness and peace, and it is then that the possibility of finding the Divine appears.
But to do that, our estranged self (ego) must “die” into intimacy. The “me” that seeks can motivate us, but it can never “get there” itself; it must be surrendered into the vast space of awareness that is already not separate from anything you perceive, that is already the Divine in the form of you and everything else that exists.
This past week we completed the Torah reading cycle. In the final parshah, V’Zot HaBrakha, Moses is not allowed to reap the fruits of his years of leadership; he must die just outside the Promised Land. Immediately, we go right back to the very beginning and start the reading cycle anew: Bereisheet bara Elohim – In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth…
Maybe it seems harsh and unfair that Moses couldn’t enter the land. But if we see the inner dimension of the story, there is a pointer to our own experience: the seeker of the “Promised Land” must die if you wish to truly “enter.” Stop seeing the Garden of Eden as something to get to, and connect with your actual experience now, in the present. The “Garden” is all there is, the Divine is all there is; relax the “me” and know: you are the Garden, you are the Divine…
More On Bereisheet...
The Garden- Parshat Bereisheet
“Bereisheet Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim v’Et Ha’aretz-
"In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
What Is My Purpose?
When you awaken from sleep, is it because you’ve decided to awaken?
Or, do you simply wake up when your body is finished sleeping?
In sleep, there’s no deciding.
Once you are awake, you are faced with the question:
What shall I do? What is my purpose?
Waking up itself solves nothing-
There was no problem to begin with.
But once awake, life becomes a problem.
The universe springs into being-
Does creation have a purpose?
But “purpose” is itself something that’s created!
“Purpose” is a thought; “purpose” is a thing.
There cannot be a purpose for creation until after creation.
Before, there is no problem.
The universe comes into being because:
Sometimes, after many months, I clean my car.
My wife asks, “Why did you have to clean it now all of a sudden?”
But the only answer is: Why Not?
Before creation, there is no problem.
After, all the problems.
What is the solution to all the problems?
Go back to before the problems!
“Hinei Tov Me’od-
Behold it was very good!”
That is the Shabbat- the remembering that there were no problems before we got involved;
In fact, there are still no problems.
The “Before” never went anywhere, because it is not a thing.
It is always right here.
The Shabbat, the Garden- they were Here before Anything.
From within the Garden, there is no problem with moving back into problems.
From within Shabbat, there is no problem with moving back into time.
Seeing from within the Garden, even outside the Garden is really still inside the Garden-
For where can the Garden not be?
Seeing from outside the Garden, even inside the Garden is just more of the same:
“How can we manage to get back in?”
“Once we get in, how can we make sure that we stay there?”
But- The Garden is not “there.”
Thought springs into being from No-Thought; in No-Thought, there is no problem.
From No-Thought, why not think?
“Eitz Hada’at Tov v’Ra-
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad…”
Here we are amidst the trees of the Garden-
Why not take a bite of the good and the bad?
Of the This and the That?
Of the Before and the After?
But once you leave the Timeless, the Sword of Fire blocks your way back.
What is the Sword of Fire?
Nothing but thought!
You can't decide to awaken-
You can’t think your way back into the Garden-
The Garden never went anywhere.
But let thought cease, and you will see for yourself:
The “Purpose” is to come back to No-Purpose-
To the Place from which the Universe springs:
“Y’hi Or- Let there be light!”
To return to No-Purpose requires living with Great Purpose-
The Purpose of Being Present.
From There (which is always Here)
We can create something beautiful-
You, Me, and Others.
The world is waiting!
Do you not believe me?
Don’t worry- it’s Friday afternoon!
The Pool- Parshat Bereisheet
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
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