days of repentance: 9 & 10 Elul

“G’d would speak to Moshe face to face

just as a person speaks with a close friend”

so we learn in Exodus 33:1. but we learn later in Deuteronomy that no other like Moshe ever rose….who knew G’d face to face (34:10).  and there’s the rub. we ALL of us want to make like Moshe…no, no, that’s not it….we all EXPECT to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, speaking to G’d face to face….even though we also know from Torah, that even Moshe could only see G’d’s back when he asked to see G’d’s Glory (Exodus 33:18).

so, what is it, face to face, or face to back, or even

“you may not see my face. no one shall look upon me and live”

at Exodus 33:20ff, which is where we left off 8 Elul with G’d’s shadowing hand as G’d passed before Moshe, who was hidden in the cleft of the rock.

how many times have i heard someone say, “if only G’d would answer my prayer clearly”, or “if only i had a sign”…..then i would believe. well, of course, if G’d spoke to you directly, unambiguously, and face to face, you wouldn’t need faith, for you would only have observational science.  humans are about observational science much of the time. G’d, and the faithful individual,  is about intuitional science, to coin a phrase.

but the demand for observational data regarding haShem is the quintessential modern indicator of the presence of a belief in pirud (“separation”). so very many find it effortless to believe in pirud, but not in Presence. and it is the belief in separation from G’d that initiates the steps toward absence. it is the space created by belief in separation that gives breathing space to the ruach shtut, the spirit of folly, the temporary insanity that leads us to step away from the path and even accelerate toward aveirah, the crossing of  internal boundaries into actions evincing disbelief. as the cynicism, the negativity builds, the tiniest of separations will seem to become overwhelmingly huge. it will be utterly real to the creating beholder. it is this possibility that leads someone, in bratslaver terms, to believe that you can destroy without believing the you can fix simultaneously.

it all starts with an unintentional error born of our own nature. but the important thing to know is that our true nature is NOT negating and not cynical. we all know that by spending time with children…it is abundantly clear that cynicism is taught/learned. not that you won’t hear a lot of “no”, but this “negativity” is born of human selfishness…….so let’s talk about the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov and that popular modern derivative, the ego. the 2 yetzers are the “negative (hara) inclination” or selfish impulse and the “positive (hatov) inclination” or selfless impulse. the word yetzer itself is from the same root as yatzar, meaning “to form, or build, or construct”. so our “inclination” in jewish terms is an innate will or impulse to form, build, or construct desire, and then to actuate it.

before we go further, let’s make it quite clear that haShem finds both inclinations “very good” parts of Creation (B’reishit 1:31), so we aren’t looking to get rid of the yetzer hara. this is important for t’shuvah (and kabbalah).

so what’s so all-fired good about the selfish impulse? well, without a little lust, people don’t couple and marry, they don’t have babies, they don’t have the same drive to build a home and raise and support a family. the selfish is survival centric, and that is very good.

uncoupled from a counterbalancing selfless impulse, though, it becomes what all of us know these days as egocentric. ego counterbalanced is inclined toward survival, toward strength, toward plenty…all of which are part of the Promise of G’d in the Land and as the natural reaction to right behaviour.  without counterbalance, though, ego becomes central and overwhelming, thinking nothing of the well being of any other, and thinking nothing of the effects likely to stem from any action constructed by greater selfishness.  ego is not evil per se, but it can easily become a tool for evil. and the root of the potential for evil is in the ego’s definition of “the other”.  there is me, and there is you. and i’m for me….the pirud, separation opens up. but

hear….G’d is One

human nature in Creation is to have a “working out” of things between 2 antipodes of inclination. and one can err on the “good” side too, mistaking the denial of desire as a greater good than a holy desire (eg, celibacy instead of kiddushin)….G’d is down with this be fruitful and multiply idea, after all.

but the yetzer hatov, the selfless inclination, gets at the central mitzvah

“love your neighbor as yourself”

the other is to be dear to you….recognize that her ego, his ego, is just like your ego. so we should all form, or build, or construct with others in mind as well as ourselves. it is the humble walk, which is not alone with G’d as we might prefer it. think about it, we are all equally required……the walk is crowded in its universal unity.

the ultimate expression of the worldview of separation is avodah zarah, literally “strange worship”, but usually rendered as idolatry. it is the error of thinking a bit of something is equivalent to the everything that is G’d. chassidut (chassidic theory and practice) sees the root of every evil act or negative construction as stemming from an idolatry. there is a substantial dollop of this sort of idolatry in the expectation that G’d answers to us to the degree that we be able to see his face and get a personal sign….if you want a material G’d, go build one….don’t expect haShem to do it for you.

and it is essential to t’shuvah that we get this idea of counterbalancing yetzers right because to live in the moment is very different from to live for the moment. for the moment is to limit the now to what is happening and what we desire. in the moment is to open yourself to the entirety of time that is in every moment…it is only on that scale, the comprising of past and future in the present, that one comes to dwell in the achdut, the unity of all things. the Presence is about the correspondences interconnecting all things, not their material distinctions.

“that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory”

which aphorism, attributed to R’ Yechiel Michael of Zlotshov, is very much in line with Zoharic teaching (2:163a) about the very purpose of our existence

all that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him….indeed, the yetzer hara also serves the will of G’d

a practical way to get at this is to stop and ask at as many junctures as you can (you get good at it with time and practice): how does this thing i intend to do serve more than just my ego? then go further: how does this thing i intend to do serve others as much as it does me?  then go further still: how does this thing that i intend to do serve the Holy One, blessed be?  if you can’t answer these questions very well, then your path tends toward the idolatrous, toward constructing for you alone, which is not the way of the humble walk. it aint about the bit of something that is the focus of my desire, but rather about the EVERYTHING all together through my desire. egocentric practice is zarah, strange, in that it is not an expression of full-bodied human soul. generosity, with a healthy greed, is good. just plain greed is strange worship indeed.

you can ask the questions at many junctures every day, but you can also hold a kabbalistic mantra in mind to help you comprehend the reality of the Oneness of G’d which underlies all the rest of soulful practice, and also is the basis of t’shuvah:

ein od me’l’vado

(there is nothing else but haShem alone)



days of repentance: 8 Elul

“all the ways of man are straight in his eyes”

we learn this insight in Proverbs 21:2. but all the ways of humans are not straight in G’d’s eyes. some miss the mark, which is the root of the most common word for sin in Torah, namely, chet….as in the High Holy Day prayer, Al Chet (“for the sin..”). we recite this prayer, with its list of  “sins we have committed before You [G’d]” by doing or being in many different ways out of step in our walk with haShem. we repeat it a minyan of times…10 times during the course of Yom Kippur. each way of sin is a descriptor of a missing the mark, eg, “by foolish talk”, “by improper thoughts”, “by running to do evil”, “by casting off the yoke of heaven, etc. there must be about 50 ways to step away from your G’d. some go beyond “mere” misalignment and describe a deliberate crossing over a boundary, an aveirah, which shares the root not only of avar (the past) but also of “overing” , crossing a boundary with deliberation.

to do a mitzvah is to align and connect with the intention of haShem. when a person in a military force accepts an order, that one aligns herself with a superior officer, but also with the rest of the forces working to achieve a mission. it is all about alignment and connection for more effective results. mitzvot in Torah are not fundamentally different. when we accept them, and understand them, we act in concert with the other doers of tikkun olam (repair of the world).

so in a fundamental sense, every chet, every misstep, is an anti-mitzvah.

chet is being out of step, or out of line…fundamentally to walk Torah crookedly or from a distance. aveirah is to deliberately set out on a wrong route, perhaps not recognizing that the route is wrong, but going off course and out of bounds deliberately.  to disconnect from the corps is to stretch your spiritual supply lines, or to go off the grid entirely, and to get increasingly out of earshot of subsequent mitzvot….eventually, you will simply drop all calls.

the Midrash Rabbah relates that all levels of chet are expressions of a temporary state of heresy. chet is not an absence of G’d , but an internal failing of an assumption about G’d…perhaps that G’d is not intimately concerned with Creation, or that G’d has better, bigger things to do then to pay attention to some small peccadillo, or, more seriously, to believe that G’d does not exist. when these heretical attitudes take root, even temporarily, we are no longer in clear touch with our ultimate soul source….though we think our path is straight and well considered, we are operating with ever diverging gps data. and the way back becomes increasingly difficult to discern, even if we suddenly realize we are off course. eventually we all realize that we are lost. but up until that time, it is easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going. we can all harden our hearts in such a way.

“humans do not commit transgressions unless a ruach shtut (spirit of folly/nonsense) enters”

so teach Chazal in Sotah 3a. think for a second about your last kashrut violation…exactly what made the particular food item so much more important than walking humbly with G’d?  what were you thinking?  probably not about Torah, yes? probably that it wouldn’t matter to G’d, right?  whatever would give a person such an idea?  ruach shtut. the problem is that each bad decision draws others after it. and bad decisions settle into habit, tossing free will into the dustbin, replacing it with a preconditioned way of acting, thinking, and being. once you accept an error as being a precendent, you are trapped in your past and no longer in a free moment.

the aspect of t’shuvah practice that is directed to this is to control what you take in. if you spend hours listening to music about wobbling breasts and booty, well, you are likely to start seeing the world in similar terms. if you restict such shtuyot (foolishness) you are less likely to see the world so. we are touched by what we entertain ourselves with. the very high and difficult ideal is to always have words of Torah in mind, and heart and ear. we learned in the 4th haftarah of comfort just this shabbat past (Isaiah 51:16):

“and I have put My words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of My Hand”