This d'var is dedicated to the swift and complete healing of Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Baba Farajaje. Baba- you are the miracle.
You may not know that I was a child rapper.
When the first popular hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, I was blown away. I wanted to do that too. I began composing my own raps and started a “crew” with a couple friends. Eventually, my group The Chilly Crew recorded a single on Sugar Hill Records (Though they changed our name to The Chilly Kids). My rap name was “Master Shack.” Though we were never successful commercially (and really we weren't very good), we were the first rap group with white people in it, before the Beasty Boys.
But back then, white kids weren’t allowed to like black music.
Most of my friends at that time were African American, and the white kids in my school would regularly taunt me. They called me a “white n*****”. They would pelt me with nuts and chips when I would get on the school bus.
One day I responded by throwing my turkey sandwich at the ringleader in the back of the bus. It exploded all over him, getting mustard all over his clothes. The taunts stopped after that.
Since we recorded on Sugar Hill Records, we used to regularly see the performers at the studio- The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and others. Those guys were part of a culture in New York City that defined black slang for the rest of the country, and I used to hear words and phrases from them before they made their way to my little town of Nyack. The most significant slang I of which I had advance knowledge was the expression- “fresh.”
“Yo that’s fresh!” they would say, when they thought something was cool.
When I found out about the word “fresh,” I was excited to go tell my friends at school about it:
“Hey guys, guess what- there’s a new expression that’s going to become the new thing. It’s the word ‘fresh.’ This is how it works- when something is cool, you say, ‘Yo that’s fresh!’”
They thought that was the stupidest thing ever-
“Yo Shack says that we’re gonna be goin around sayin ‘Yo that’s fresh!’ HAHAHAHA!!!” They laughed and didn’t believe me. But within about a month, whenever something was cool, guess what they said?
“Yo that is FRRR-ESH!!!”
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock- something you’re so sure of turns out to be completely wrong.
But when being wrong means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us- we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us- a miracle!
Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water- we’re doomed for sure. But then- we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground- Manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, you don’t need fantastical events. As long as you’re alive, you’re being showered with miracles in each moment.
In fact, you are the miracle- in this moment.
But to realize this takes a constant turning of consciousness toward the present- toward this moment that otherwise gets taken for granted. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary- until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael- seeing straight through (Yishar) to God (El).
There is a second element that obscures the miraculous: emotional resistance.
Emotional resistance awakens us out of our complacency, but in the wrong direction. Things that we resist are the anti-miracles- the unexpected turns of Reality that disappoint us, challenge us, hurt us.
But, the more present you are, the less you’ll be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. Instead, the pain breaks open the heart, uncovering our prayerful core. To make effort in consciousness, then, is the way to remove these two barriers to the miraculous- complacency and resistance.
No complacency, no ordinariness- just the shining miracle of this moment. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations in the miracle of this moment.
In this week’s reading, the Israelites are led by the Divine in their escape from Egypt:
“Yomam b’amud anan, v’laila b’amud aysh-
“By day as a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” means times of difficulty and pain.
Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the Amud Aysh- the Pillar of Fire. Meaning, let your awareness burn brightly- stay present, connected to the truth of this moment. If you feel emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going as usual.
There’s a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you’re receiving. At such times you have to follow the Amud Anan- The Pillar of Cloud. Meaning, know the uncertainty of the next moment.
Know- everything that’s working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble back in the Mystery, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now from this unknowable Reality.
As the Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story- it expresses their unique identity.
Similarly, when you learn to be present- to follow the pillar of cloud and fire in your own life- you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that’s unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song- or your rap, no matter what your color.
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him-
“In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.”
When he came home he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the holy spark his rebbe spoke of. So, one night he decided to hide himself in the beit midrash- the House of Study- because he thought if there were some saintly person in the town, that's where he would find him.
In the dead of night, as he hid crouching in the corner, he heard the door open. In walked an odd youth named Mendel. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot.
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin charity box which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins.
Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises.
The schoolmaster scrambled to his feet, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
The youth lost no time and set out for Lublin.
When mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hassidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him:
“Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded.
Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identities and celebrated their true identities as children of the Divine, first it is written-
“Zeh Eli v’anvehu-
This is my Divinity and I will glorify It”
And only later is it written-
“Elohei avi va’arom’meihu-
“The Divinity of my father, and I will exalt It…”
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood- each person must find their own unique path, not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition.
That youth became the famous rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us on the path of presence, toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are. May we find and sing our unique songs, each an expression of the One in the many.