I started college in the late summer of 1987, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Although I was brought up without any religious practice at home, a spontaneous experience of spiritual awakening that summer led me to want to explore traditional Judaism just as I was beginning college.
So what did I do?
Of course, I contacted Chabad… on Friday afternoon at about 4 pm! And, I had no way of getting to the rabbi’s house, so I asked if he would pick me up.
Of course, asking an observant Jew to drive across town and pick you up right before Shabbos is not exactly the polite thing to do… but I didn’t know! The rabbi drove out to pick me up, giving me the “hurry up!” look as I walked toward his car from the dorm entrance.
I got in the car and he sped off.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” I said. “How are you?”
“Thank God” he said.
I thought that was an odd response to the question. But as I got to know the Jewish religious community more, this was of course the standard response-
“How are you?”
“How’s your family?”
“How’s work? School? Whatever?”
It can sound funny if you’re not used to it. And, if you are used to it, it might sound formulaic, or dishonest. But it has a profound spiritual basis:
In Hebrew, the most sacred Name of God consists of the letters that form the verb “to be” in all three tenses. So although God is often pictured as a deity, this is metaphor. The Name doesn’t mean a deity, a being among beings- not even the greatest of all beings. It just means Being. I means Reality.
So when you say, “Thank God,” it also means “Thank Everything” and “Thank Everyone,” since nothing is separate from God. It downplays the individual and instead focuses on the Whole. The religious person acknowledges: “I am not the cause, I am the effect. I am a tiny phenomenon in an Infinite Ocean of happening. The Infinite is responsible, not me.”
Why so much linguistic effort to downplay the individual “I”?
The Maggid of Zlotchov (1) taught on a verse (2) in which Moses is recounting the giving of the Ten Commandments.
“Anokhi omed bein Hashem uveineikhem-
“I stood between the Divine and you…”
The Maggid interpreted like this-
“The ‘I’ stands between us and God. When you say ‘I,’ a wall stands between you and God. But for one who offers the ‘I’- there is no barrier. And this is what the words in the Song of Songs are referring to- ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s desire is toward me’- when my ‘I’ has become my Beloved’s, then it’s toward me that my Beloved’s desire turns.”
But if the “I” stands between “me” and the Beloved, between “me” and Reality, than who is “me”?
Of course, the “me” is also Reality! God is also the awareness that looks through your eyes, seeing Itself everywhere.
Remember that everything is God, and you can be instantly and effortlessly reunited with the Beloved. It’s not that God has gone anywhere- there’s nothing but God, only we become so used to It!
It’s like walking with a lover, hand in hand. At first, you’re on fire with love. But, if you keep walking, at some point you start to think about something else. Eventually you wouldn’t even notice that you’re holding hands! To be reunited, in such a case, is to become aware of what is already present.
In the opening verses of this week’s reading, Moses instructs the people of Israel (3):
“Sheishet yamim te’aseh melakha-
“Six days shall work be done…”
It doesn’t say, “Six days you shall work (ta’ase),” but rather “Six days work shall be done (te’ase).” The passive form suggests that a person should not identify with the work (4); there should be no sense of “I am doing this work”.
It then says-
“… uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton-
“… and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you- a Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
It doesn’t say there should be a Sabbath among the six weekdays, but a Sabbath among Sabbaths!
Meaning, even the weekdays should be Sabbaths, in a sense. Work is being done, but there should be no sense of a “me ” doing the work. There is only the One Doer, and the One includes all the different beings playing their different roles. That’s why one of the Divine Names is Elohim, which is a plural word, meaning “powers”. God is the many in the One.
This also explains the deeper meaning of a quite disturbing part of the verse:
“…Shabbat Shabbaton Lashem, kol ha’oseh vo melakha yumat-
“… A Shabbat of Shabbats to the Divine- all who work on it shall die!”
On the surface it seems to be saying that if a person does work on Shabbat they will die or be executed. But there’s a different way to read the verse- not “whoever does work on it shall die,” but rather, “whoever does work, on it shall die.”
In other words, the “doer” of work during the week- the “I” that thinks it’s the doer- should “die” on Shabbat. If you can put yourself to death as the “doer” on Shabbat, this opens the possibility to disidentify with the “doer” on weekdays as well. Then all of life is Shabbat. That’s liberation.
Say “Thank God” or “Barukh Hashem” frequently, even just mentally. Every time you do anything, remind yourself- your strength is a gift. Your intelligence is a gift. Even the desire to do anything at all is a gift. It all comes from beyond the “I.” Everything comes into being through an infinite string of efforts from an assembly of countless beings.
And yet, there’s only one person who can command this awareness for you, and that’s you! That’s the paradox- on one hand, you do nothing- it's all Hashem. On the other, only you can decide to open to this awareness.
How do you open to it?
Like Moses, you must assemble the entire assembly of Being before your mind in each moment-
“Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat-
“And Moses assembled the entire assembly (4)…”
And then, knowing that everything in Existence- every face you greet, every creature you encounter- is the Face of the Divine, acknowledge- “Barukh Hashem!”
May this Shabbos be a Shabbat Shabbaton; may we surrender our “I” to the “Beloved” and know the One who is both Doer and Doing, both One and Many. May this realization spill over into all moments and may the world be swiftly healed from the abuses and distortions caused by the endlessly hungry “me.”
May true peace come now! Kein y’hi ratzon, Amein!
1. The Maggid of Zlotchov was the 18th century Hassidic master Rabbi Yekhiel Mikhel
2. Deut. 5:5
3. Ex. 35:2
5. From the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Shneerson
4. Ex. 35:1