8 Av, 5775
Have you ever had the experience of finding yourself in conflict with someone, and then realizing that the same conflict has happened a thousand times before, in different forms? It is as if the conflict is a virus, a replicating pattern. It has no real life of its own; it is just a dead, repetitive, automatic story that lives off your life energy, playing itself out again and again.
I have a friend whose father was a very deep person, very calm, never getting dragged into the dramas of life that so many participate in. My friend said that he would always go off and pray alone in the evenings.
One day, when my friend was a boy, he snuck into the room where his father was praying, to see what he was doing. He heard his father crying and imploring, “Slaughter the one who is dead! Slaughter the one who is dead!”
He didn’t understand it at the time, but later he came to believe that his father was praying that he should be free from those dead, repetitive patterns that are parasites on our souls.
How can you slaughter the dead?
The first step is to realize that they are already dead. And how do you do that? The moment you notice that you are disturbed by something or someone doing that “same old thing again” that you hate, you yourself are doing that same old thing again that you hate!
Yes, the pattern of being disturbed repeatedly by something is itself the dead thing. That’s not to downplay whatever the external thing is that’s bothering you. It’s only to say that your pattern of response is what leads to conflict. You don’t need that automatic reaction; you can be free from it.
But to be free from the automatic reaction, you have to be willing to feel the pain of whatever is happening. Feel the pain on purpose, and there is no need to create conflict. Then, move on. Leave the pattern behind, and open yourself to the possibility of a new response: a next step in your personal evolution!
Sometimes, the dead thing is not a conflict at all. Sometimes the dead thing is something you love, even a beautiful spiritual experience.
I often hear people lament about having to come down from the lofty mountain of the spirit to deal with the crap of life. It reminds me of a passage I read once in one of Ram Dass’ books, where he talks about coming down from a spiritual high and literally “seeing” a tidal wave coming toward him- a tidal wave made out of all the broken relationships, tedious responsibilities, unconscious expectations- the whole mess.
It’s natural to resist that tidal wave. And yet, what are you resisting? What are you holding on to? There is nothing but the Divine, unfolding in ever-new ways through time. If you cling to the spiritual experience of a moment ago, you lose its most important message: God is speaking in everything. The unfolding of life in time is God’s speech.
There are such beautiful hints in this week’s reading, the beginning of Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy. “Devarim” means “Words”. Moses is speaking the words to all of Israel on the bank of the Jordan.
He is telling them a story about their journeys. He begins by recounting the highest moment, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak to them.
But does he tell them about all the Torah they learned there?
At this point, he tells them about only one piece of Torah they learned back at the mountain- “Rav lakhem shevet bahar hazeh! It’s too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain! Turn and journey for yourselves!”
You can’t keep sitting in any particular place. The world is turning; you must turn with it. The journey is “for yourselves”- it is for your own happiness and fulfillment that you have to not cling to your idea of happiness and fulfillment!
Then it says, “Uvo’u har ha’emori- and come to the mountain of the Amorites…”
On the surface, this is talking about a tribe called “Amorites” that live on a mountain in the Promised Land. But the word for “Amorites” has the same letters as the verb “to speak”- aleph-mem-reish. The hint here is that you must leave the “mountain” where you hear God’s “speech” so that you can come to a new mountain, where there will be new “speech”. Don’t cling to the old speech; it’s dead.
Then it goes on to say, “… on the mountain, in the plain, in the lowland, in the desert, and on the seacoast…”
The point is not only the next “mountain” experience you will come to. There is also the “plain- aravah”- the ordinary, daily work of life, a mixture (erev) of many different kinds of experiences.
There is the “lowland- sh’felah”- times of sadness, of tragedy, of failure- all part of God’s speech! These times are medicine for the ego.
Then there is the “desert”, or the “south- negev”- times when your life and work don’t seem to be yielding anything good, but you must persevere through these stretches! These times train us to stay focused and true to our goals.
Then there is the “seacoast- hof hayam”- like when the children of Israel stood at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army behind them. These are times when the outcome is unknown, when we are tempted to fear and despair. This is training for the supreme quality of Trust, to take the leap into the unknown. (Of course, all outcomes are always unknown, but only sometimes does this become obvious!)
Finally, it says you will come all the way to “Hanahar Hagadol- the Great River!”
The Great River is at the end of the journey, because if you can learn to work with life in all of its manifestations, you will see that life is the Great River. God incarnates in the form of your mind and your body, for just a brief time, to take a little journey on the Great River. This moment is the arena within which we are learning to journey.
As we enter Shabbos Devarim, the Shabbos of words, may our words be ever fresh and alive, free from old and dead patterns. May we hear the Living Words that are spoken anew, always in this moment. And as we come this Saturday night to Tisha B’Av, a time of mourning for past destructions, may we let that which is dead, die. I bless you to make room for the new life that is just now sprouting…